by TheAndyMac

First published

When the Hive speaks with one voice, what do you do when your voice speaks out of synch? For two changelings, there is only one answer; run.

The Changeling Hive is rigid, its ranks and rules unbending. There is one law that stands above all others; the Hive speaks with one voice.

But two changelings dare to speak with their own voices. They dare to defy the Hive in the most incredible way possible.

They crave freedom. Whatever comes next, live or die, they will do it as free changelings.

Escape I

They had barely made it out of the hive proper before the alarms rang. As is customary in most other parts of the world, the call to arms was sounded by massive bells, ringing to no rhythm and crying out without end.

The bells themselves, however were nothing like those found among the more 'civilised' nations. They were colossal tubular things, formed from thrice-hardened resin and polished until they looked as though they were made of some strange, greenish-black metal. Their tolling was as bizarre as their construction. A short, sharp shriek that quickly sank to a low, almost subsonic hum as the bells shivered in their supports.

Within seconds, the guards at the hive's walls were on alert, blank blue eyes swivelling this way and that, watching the gloom for some sign of whatever had roused the hive. It was a useless endeavour; though they didn't know it, they were hunting for black bodies on a black background. But it gave them a purpose, and let them feel as though they were useful.

Mere minutes after the bells began to ring, a phalanx was drawn up at the main gate, standing to attention in perfect rank and file. Clad in the same resin as their bells, their horns ground and sharpened, they were the Queen's Guard; the ultimate warriors, sworn to defend the hive to their last breath and beyond, never to venture beyond its borders or risk abandoning the hive to invasion. But their quarry was still within the limits of their boundaries, for the time being. So, with an almost casual gesture, their captain set them loose. The formation lurched into movement, clearing the gate and fanning out into an extended double line.

Above their heads, less heavily clad outriders flitted into the dark. Their purpose was twofold; sweep the skies and the ground from above, and once they reached the border line, they would double back, aiming to drive their prey towards the waiting maw of the ground-based formation.

From the walls, the guards on duty watched the show, knowing that their part was done, at least for the moment. The younger, more rebellious ones talked amongst themselves in quiet whispers, wondering what the elite were hunting. The traditionalist simply watched with detached interest, content to play the part that their queen had set aside for them without question. It could have been many things; foreign infiltrators, an animal attack, maybe even a rival hive. It was not their place to know.

And with good reason. For if they had known what their drone-brothers were hunting, the consequences for the hive would have been beyond disastrous. It would have shaken the beliefs of the traditionalists to the very core. It would have spurred a few of the most rebellious into action. It had the potential to destroy the hive.

For the unthinkable had happened.

A pair of changelings had committed the ultimate act of betrayal.

They had fled the hive.


They didn't have names. Names were a distinction. They promoted individuality. You were only an individual if you performed with exceptional distinction, and even then only if it was in the hive's best interests. If you did not, or it was not, then you were nothing more than another drone. One of a thousand expendable units. Individuality was not expected of the rank-and-file. It was not encouraged.

An average changeling was expected to do its allotted duty without question, without standing out in any way except in the quality of its work. After all, what use was individuality in a society where every member was either functionally identical, or could literally be anyone? It was easier to simply be a drone, in almost every sense of the word. The hive spoke with one voice. This was what they had been taught. This was what they believed. This was why they were not named.

It is not important, however, that these two didn't have names. What is important is that they wanted them.

They ran through the darkness, ducking every so often behind a tangled shrub or in a dusty hollow. Both were exhausted. Streaks of dust dulled their chitin hides and filled their mouths. Saddlebags that had seemed distressingly light before they'd left now felt as though they'd been weighed down with lead. The Badlands stretched away for countless miles ahead of them, while home was but a few miles behind.

But neither of them could turn back now.

They dropped into a shallow dip, paused for a moment, then dashed forward and dropped again. There was precious little cover out here, but the night hid them well enough for the time being. They didn't have much further to go before the immediate threat was gone. Just a mile or two, and then they would be at the border of the hive's land.

One renegade, darker than his comrade and obviously the leader, rose. The second, clearly a follower through and through, mimicked him after a moment's hesitation. They moved ahead, trusting the scant light of a pale moon peeking out from behind a shred of cloud to guide their path. From there, her seat on high above the world, the Queen of the Moon Hive watched dispassionately. The follower spared it a moment's glance, praying that she would show them some favour.

They ducked behind a shrub at the sound of a flutter overhead. Nothing came of it. Just a bird passing by. They rose, and started their dash to the next piece of cover.

"Hold, guardslings!"

The pair pulled up short. One of the outriders touched down in front of them.

Three pairs of blank blue eyes peered at each other from the gloom. The lead renegade pawed at the dust, his wings gently twitching. His companion shifted his gaze from one to the other. The outrider simply stood, calm and solid.

"It's over," he said. "Stop this idiocy and surrender."

The lead narrowed his eyes.

"It won't be over until we're free or dead. We're not going back there. Not ever."

"Guardsling, this is foolish! If you run now, they will kill you. Come back with me, and this can be fixed."

"'Fixed'?" The renegade laughed. It was a harsh, dry, buzzing cackle. "You think this can be fixed? We're a stain on the very idea of the hive. There's only one way to remove that stain. Or do you think the queen would welcome us back with open hooves?"

"The idea can be repaired. Noling has to know what happened. And the word of the Queen's Guard is a powerful force. You know the rule of the hive; where one speaks, all speak with one voice. Come back now, and you have my word in your defence. The word of the Queen's Guard."

"Even if that were enough, it wouldn't do anything to bring us back. We're leaving. If you were to stop blinding yourself with her lies, you'd come with us too."

"Enough!" the outrider cried, wings flaring. "Lies and blindness? What about the hive? It's our duty to serve it! Our purpose!"

"Serve it as what?" said the lighter renegade, the follower, quietly. "Slaves? Less than that?"

"Slaves? What are you talking about? You're changelings! We stand as one!"

"'Voice of one, voice of the hive'. I know," the leader nodded. "But don't you see? That's the biggest lie of all! And it won't be enough to save us."

He stepped forward. "We're leaving."

"And just where in the world do you think you'll go?"

"Anywhere that isn't here. That sounds good to me."

"You'll starve before you even leave the Badlands."

"Then at least we'll die free."

The outrider's mouth hung open. His face twisted in confusion, and in sorrow. Then his expression hardened. He lowered his head, wings buzzing, horn flaring to life. "Fine. I gave you your chance, but you throw it back in my face. If you're so desperate to die in 'freedom', I'll oblige."

There was a space, barely the span of a heartbeat, as the outrider and the renegade stood head to head, neither moving. That moment stretched out longer than seemed possible. The two seemed trapped in it, as if they were caught in a binding spell, or stuck in a photograph. A moment preserved forever on a piece filmy paper.

Then the spell ended, the photo springing to life.

The renegade moved first, shifting from flight to fight in less than an instant. He stormed forward, carried along by the beat of his hooves and the whirring buzz of his wings. The outrider stood his ground, taking the charge head-on. There was a strange, almost hollow clack of chitin on chitin as the pair tumbled over into the dust.

They landed, the renegade on top. He threw a short punch. It hit dirt. He lashed out with his horn, not daring to let the flare of a spell give himself away to the others, but the outrider shifted under him. The strike went wide, leaving him unsteady and off balance. The outrider kicked upwards. The force of the blow lifted the renegade and sent him sprawling back a good yard. The follower cried out something, but did little more than watch from the side. He was young, too young to have done anything as a guardsling but stand on walls and watch for wild animals. He'd never seen a real fight.

Rising to his hooves, the outrider spat a wad of greenish phlegm and ignited his horn. A pulse of acid green light flashed above their heads. An unmissable beacon, sent to bring the rest of the search swarm down on top of them.

The renegade tried to rise, but the outrider was there, pushing down on his chest with a hoof.

"Now it's over," he snarled. His horn ignited again. The light cast long shadows across the dusty ground. A stray gust of wind kicked a few grains into the air, where they hovered for a moment in the glow of the outrider's horn, tiny points of light against the dark ground that looked for all the world like stars.

The passage of the follower sent them spiralling away out of the light's reach. He barrelled into the outrider, an uncontrolled blur of chitin and bone. The outrider went down, but sprung back onto his hooves with a practised flick of his wings. The follower had less skill, but more luck. He stumbled, but kept his balance.

The renegade hauled himself up. His mouth opened, an order on his tongue, when the follower charged again.

"Hold!" he cried. The follower didn't listen. Too eager to press an advantage he'd already lost, the follower thundered ahead. The outrider simply stepped to one side and let his opponent's headlong dash carry him by. A flash of his horn, and the follower's legs tangled. He went down, head first into the dust. The outrider lowered his head, lining up a shot. No time to waste making taunts now. His horn flashed again, and he fired a simple, needle thin lance of glowing green.

The shot went wide, just clipping the follower's head. The renegade had fired his own blast. A less precise piece of work, it was nothing more than a crude kinetic blast. But it did the job of hurling the outrider once again off of his hooves.

"Guardsling, on your hooves!" the renegade yelled, as loudly as he dared. "Flank him!"

The follower nodded, rising shakily. The outrider was already back into it, hovering a few inches off the ground now. He glanced between his opponents as they circled, placing themselves on either side of him. Poor positioning. They couldn't catch him in crossfire without risking themselves to each others magic. But then, they weren't going to use magic. The flash and thunder of a magical discharge was as much a beacon as the glowing ball he'd launched less than a minute ago. Between that and the spells that had already been used, they couldn't risk another, lest they bring the search swarm down on them even faster.

The outrider had no such reservations. His mouth twisted into a smirk, fangs gleaming as he prepared another spell. His foes saw what he was doing. The renegade's eyes narrowed.

"Take him!"

The follower moved, buzzing wings adding more speed to his charge. The outrider reacted without thinking, turning, ready to impale the follower on a needle-thin beam. His smirk became a snarl.

The renegade's horn met his side. Chitin cracked beneath the point, and the whole curved structure sank deep into the the outrider.

The force of that last rush carried them both through the air. As they landed, the outrider shuddered as he slid off the renegade's horn. Dark green blood fell onto the dust beneath him. Hissing in pain, he tried to rise, tried to summon the focus to launch one last desperate attack. But pain defeated him. It was all he could do to make his horn splutter weakly.

Stupid. So stupid. He should have seen the feint for what it was. The renegade was better than he'd thought. Or was he just that much worse?

The renegade was there. The outrider tried again to attack. This time, desperation lent him the strength he needed. One last strike. It would delay his death, even if just for a moment, and give the swarm one last signal to home in on. Even if he died here, these two traitors would be found. The thought gave him cause, one last time, to smile. It was a thin, pained, bitter thing, but a smile nonetheless.

It didn't last.

The renegade covered the ground between them faster than seemed possible. One hoof struck the outrider's horn, breaking his focus and dispelling the gathering light. He set himself down so that he was sitting on the other changeling's chest. His other foreleg was placed, crosswise, across the outrider's throat.

A moment's hesitation, and the renegade pressed down.

Chitin buckled. The outrider's eyes opened wide in panic. All four of his legs scrabbled in the dust. His wings, pressed against the ground, buzzed desperately. He tried to beat at his attacker, to summon a spell, any spell, but he could do nothing. His blows were too weak to shift the renegade, and his mind too addled by pain and suffocation. He could do nothing but put up a futile, token fight and watch his vision darken.

Eventually, his struggles ebbed, and he gave one last choking gasp for air that would not come. The renegade waited, even after the outrider's last twitches had faded, before finally standing and shaking drying blood from his horn.

The fight was over. All in all, it had taken less than two minutes. Most of that time had been waiting for the outrider to finally stop moving.

To the follower, watching the loyal changeling die had taken a lifetime. Desperate not to see, but unable to look away, he had watched the outrider's struggles grow ever more desperate, even as they grew ever weaker. As he watched the renegade finish and stand, he felt the world shift around him and realised he was seconds away from passing out. He would have vomited, but he was a changeling; food was a luxury, and one not normally afforded to him.

He swayed one way, almost losing his balance entirely. The renegade was there in front of him, steadying him with a hoof.

"Are you all right?" His eyes widened a touch. "You're hurt."

"I am?" the follower said faintly.

He was. The outrider's attack, that had so nearly drilled a hole through his head, had instead drawn a thin but deep line down the right side of the follower's muzzle.

"Don't worry, it's not too bad. We can look at it when we're out of this mess."

Renegade stepped away, but as an afterthought stooped next to the outrider's body and, with quick methodical movements, stripped it of anything small that might be of value.

Follower watched, still wavering on his hooves. "This wasn't supposed to happen..."

He moved, jerked into motion like a puppet yanked about by an over-rough puppeteer, his breath coming in short, quick gasps. "It wasn't supposed to be like this! We were just supposed to run! Noling was supposed to die!"

Renegade turned, grabbing his companion.

"Hey. Hey! Look at me! Breathe! Come on, you have to calm down. Nice, easy breaths."

With a few choking sobs, Follower's breathing slowed, and he rested his head against Renegade's shoulder.

"That's it," Renegade said. "That's good. Now listen. You're right, it wasn't supposed to turn out like this. But it did."

He sighed, turning away. "We knew this wouldn't be easy. But we both agreed it was worth it."

"He wouldn't agree." Follower's voice had shrunk from an almost manic yell to a soft whisper.

"I know. But we don't have time to grieve. The swarm..." He paused, head cocked.

There was a high, keening cry on the wind, caught somewhere between a shriek and a hiss. Then, like avenging locusts, the outriders of the swarm appeared, bearing down on the pair from on high.

Renegade swore. "Come on, Guardsling, let's move!"

Spurred into action by the voice of authority, Follower did what he did best. He followed Renegade into the night, every limb pushing him onwards as fast as his body would allow. The outriders were still a ways behind them, but the first could see the body of their comrade, and between cries of grief and fury they let off graceless, concussive blasts of magic.

Even firing blind, the sheer volume of fire they put out was enough to scatter stones and dust in the path of the fleeing pair, or set alight patches of scrub and thorn. One blast went off a few scant yards to their right. The shockwave almost toppled Follower, but a quick blurt of Renegade's magic kept him on his hooves and on the move.

But even that tiny glow was enough to draw the attention of at least one outrider. More blasts were coming at them. Most of them went wide. One or two were dangerously close. And the ground formation was coming after them now, drawn by the firestorm let off by their comrades.

Renegade was flagging. Dashing between points of cover was one thing. One long sustained sprint? That was another thing entirely. His legs felt like they were made of lead. His breath rattled in his throat. A string of sticky spittle hung from his mouth. He couldn't keep going. He couldn't...

Then Follower gasped out something unintelligible. Renegade looked around, and he saw it. A marker stone, jutting out from the dust like a broken fang. One hundred yards from there to the edge of the hive-land.

A wave of new strength flowed into his limbs. His pace redoubled. Follower matched him stride for stride, buoyed up on the same desperate energy. The outriders had stopped firing, and were following close, but the light of their salvoes had blinded them in the dark. The ground troops were too far away to see anything. Renegade let a loose smile spread across his muzzles. They were home free.

One last bolt impacted somewhere to their right, then they crossed the border. Even though they saw nothing to mark the passage, they could feel it. Like an electric shock in the backs of their minds that, when it stopped tingling, left them feeling hollow. A part of them was missing. A constant murmur at the edge of consciousness that they had never truly noticed before. They knew what it was, and they knew that the other felt the same absence, even without looking at each other.

For another hundred yards they kept up a reasonable pace, then toppled down behind another broken marker stone, serving the same purpose as its twin on the other side of the line. A warning that the hive lay just beyond. For now, it was shelter. The pair sank to the ground, sides heaving and limbs burning.

There was no danger, and there wouldn't be for a while now. They were beyond the border. The Queen's Guard might have been formidable, but they could not cross. Their oath, taken before the queen herself, left no room for doubt. To cross the border, even in pursuit of a pair of traitors, would be to abandon the hive, and there were few greater crimes. The drones of the regular guard could, and they were already leaving the hive to do so, but they were slow. By the time they could arrive, the pair would be long gone.

They rested for a moment, then rose. As if marking their passage, a spear of green burst into the sky behind them. Another beacon, meant to light the way for the swarms, and to warn other hives that something terrible had happened. Follower paused, ears drooping, framed by the green glow, to cast on final glance back. He could see the hive proper, a great mound higher than it was wide and ringed by a wall of resin, rising from the horizon. That place that had been his home for as long as he could remember. He lingered for a moment longer. Then, at a touch from Renegade, he moved.

The journey ahead of them was long, and they had precious few supplies. Only what little they had the time to gather before making their move, and the precious little of value that the outrider had been carrying; a flask of water, a few coins made of some strange precious metal, and a length of wire to add to their own meagre belongings.

The outrider had been right. They were most likely going to starve before they reached the edge of the Badlands. There was so little life out here that could offer them sustenance. Birds, insects, nothing with any real capacity for true, life-sustaining love. And even if they did reach civilisation, there was no guarantee that they would be in any position to harvest it.

But that didn't matter. Live or die, none of it mattered. All that mattered was that they had done the unthinkable. They had fled the hive, and lived.

From that moment on, whether they lived or died, they were free.

Author's Notes:

New story time! I'm still alive and posting!

So, this grew out of some ideas I had regarding discussions on changelings I'd seen around the internet. Mostly, they focussed on whether or not changelings had a hive mind, individual personalities, and the like. I had a moment of inspiration, and decided I'd try something new that I hadn't seen before.

But I'll get into that in the next author's note.

Escape II

Day 1 outside the hive

The magical onslaught laid down the night before by the elite outriders had set more than one patch of dry shrub ablaze. Baked vegetation had burned long into the night, shooting up emerald green tongues of flame. As smoke and cloud cover built up above them, the night itself was lit up in a sickly fashion. The beacon, which lingered for hours over the hive, did nothing to dispel the effect. It was as if the world itself had become ill, and was now showing a deathly pallor.

The fires had died down a little before dawn, but the smoke still hung in the air. When the sun finally lifted her face above the eastern horizon, she was pale and weak.

Her green-tinged, washed out light gently touched the carapaces of the changeling pair as they dozed in the cover of a thorny, half dead patch of brush. Their chitin, once dark and glossy, was rendered a dull, matt brown by their night in the dust. That dust had gathered between plates, around eyes, and at the edges of their mouths. Every movement was accompanied by an uncomfortable, grinding sensation.

Renegade stirred first, lifting his head through the brush and scrubbing the dust from his bleary eyes. He coughed, spitting a gritty wad of saliva. It was his first morning as a free changeling, and he wasn't enjoying it one bit.

Briefly, he considered putting his new-found freedom to use by lying down and going back to sleep, but the idea was pushed aside almost as soon as it appeared. There was too much ground to cover, and not enough time to cover it in. So, with a crack of popping cartilage, he stretched, and poked his companion a few times.

The lighter changeling took to the morning even worse than Renegade had. He jerked back into wakefulness in the manner of someling who had been almost, but not quite, asleep, put his head up, and promptly began coughing on the mouthful of dust that he had accumulated.

As Follower hacked, Renegade took in their surroundings. Southwards lay the hive, still visible just beyond the horizon. It was a massive structure, easily the tallest thing in this part of the Badlands. The touch of the rising sun gave the walls of ancient, secreted resin an odd, shiny look and a green cast that was completely out of place in the orange-red dust that surrounded it.

East and west were empty expanses of space, only broken by the ubiquitous shrubs and hollows. A rocky mountain or the odd plateau could be seen in the distance, but they were as barren as the land around them. There was little of any interest in either direction, except perhaps a rival hive. But they would have seen the beacon. Even if the drones had no idea what it meant, the monarchs would. So there would be no welcome to the east or the west.

But north... North was the prize. Beyond the edge of the Badlands, lay civilisation. A land so full of love that it overflowed and flooded the lands around it. They said a changeling could feed for days and not make a dent.

There was a catch, though. Legend said that this land was defended by a being of unimaginable power. So powerful, that no hive had ever even attempted to conquer it, or even the lands that lay before or beyond it. This god amongst mortals was the reason that the changelings had been forced to huddle together in a dry, dusty desert with barely enough love to go around, and what little there was hoarded jealously by the monarchy.

And where better to hide, than in the home of the only thing that the queen feared?

Follower sat upright as he finally cleared his mouth and throat of dust.

"Maybe we'd have been better staying in the hive," he said, his buzzing voice even rougher than was normal for a changeling. One hoof rubbed at the side of his muzzle; the thin slice was still bleeding, even as dust coated the blood oozing out of it, turning it into a thick, sticky mess.

Renegade's only reaction was a twitch of his right ear. A comment like that didn't deserve to be dignified with a proper response.

Follower waited for a moment, but when it was obvious nothing more was forthcoming, he sighed. Idly, he scuffed at the dust.

"So... What now?"

"We keep moving," said Renegade shortly. "Northwards, and we don't stop until we reach something worth stopping for."

"Right. Sounds fun."

Neither one moved.

"You all right, young one?"

Starting guiltily, Follower nodded, giving a grin that was a touch too wide to be genuine.

"Yeah. Fine."

Renegade huffed out a quiet sigh.

"I know things don't look very hopeful right now. The first night hasn't exactly been what you hoped it might be. But we knew what we were getting into. Noling ever said this would be easy. We've just got to put our heads down and push on."

"And what if that's not enough?"

"Then we die free," he said simply.

Though it was hard to tell so, Follower rolled his eyes at that. If Renegade noticed, he didn't say anything. Instead, he just rolled his shoulder, calling Follower to do what it seemed he did best.

Silently, beneath a green sky, the pair moved north.

It was only a few minutes later, as Renegade was trying to rid himself of a mouthful of dust without wasting water, that Follower asked a question that no changeling would have dared before.

"Should we have...names?"

Renegade burst into a coughing fit, but the coughs quickly became laughter. An odd sound, pitched low and messy with buzzing reverb. He carried on for a while, not really sure why he was laughing. Finally, the laughter subsided, and his face turned serious.

"I suppose we could. It might be easier if I something to call you, besides 'young one' or 'guardsling'."

"I thought so, too. So what do you think my name would be?"

Renegade chuckled. "Young one, I'm not picking your name for you. We're free, now. We don't need someling telling us what to do."

He smiled. "You pick a name. Make a choice for yourself."

Follower looked almost mortified. He glanced around, as if he were afraid something were watching, and leaned in close.

"B-but that's not how it works, is it?" he hissed. "I mean, maybe it does in the hive, but I've heard about places where everyling has names, and they say that your parents are supposed to name you."

That nearly set Renegade off again. "That's only helpful if you know who your parents were," he chuckled. "Closest we have - had - was the queen."

"Yeah, and I doubt she'd have picked a very flattering one if she were here."

"So go on. Pick something."

"It's not exactly an easy choice!" Follower snorted. "Why don't you pick something for yourself? Give me some time to think."


His eyes wandered around the desert, picking out crags and boulders, scrubs and dust-devils. Finally, he turned his gaze eastwards, where the sun, still green and washed out, sat a little ways above the horizon. Somewhere inside of him, something seemed to come together.

"Rising Sun."


"That's my name. Rising Sun." He smiled. It sounded good on his tongue, and felt good in his mouth. "See? Easy enough."

"Oh, yeah, really easy if you just pick the first thing you happen to look at."

"You don't think it suits me?"

"No, it suits you fine. Goes with your sunny personality."

"You know, I never asked; is that mouth of yours what got you sent to me?" chuckled the newly named Rising Sun.

Follower frowned, looking almost surprised at himself. "No. I'm not sure where that came from." He shielded his eyes as a stray gust blew a handful of grit in his face. "They sent me to you because I had ideas. About where I fit into things. You know the drill. Queenie doesn't want anyling acting special unless she tells you to. And even then, it had better be the sort of special she wants, or else."

Rising Sun nodded but said nothing. Inside, he was thinking about Follower's choice of nickname. Queenie? It didn't seem quite right to stick a label like that on her.

"So what about this name, then?"

Follower didn't want to admit it, but there was a name he had thought of. He'd thought of it before Rising Sun, in fact, as he thought about long nights spent watching from the hive walls, with only the night's wind to keep him focussed. It had been the impetus behind his question in the first place. But he was reluctant to actually say it. In part because of the stigma that he couldn't shake; drones were not meant to have names, and any that did were considered dangerous at best. It was an idea that had been programmed, hard-wired even, into his mind.

But the real reason was simply that he was embarrassed. It had seemed like such a good idea when he'd first thought of it, but now at the moment of truth he was almost scared to speak the words.

The expectant stare of Rising Sun was on him. There was nothing for it; either say it, and risk embarrassment, or don't say it and look like and idiot. He swallowed, looking westward to the last resting place of last night's setting moon.

"Evening Breeze."

He squeezed his eyes shut, bracing himself for the laughter, but it didn't come. Instead, Rising Sun, pursed his lips thoughtfully, his tongue playing across the curves of his fangs.

"'Evening Breeze'. Not bad. It suits you."

He paused and pulled a canteen from his bags, taking a swig and tossing it to Evening Breeze. "Here. Just a mouthful, mind you. It has to last."

The other took it, nodding his thanks. One mouthful wasn't nearly enough to clear his mouth or soothe his throat, but it was better than nothing. He hoofed it back to Rising Sun, who took his own ration and slid the canteen back into place.

"Come on then, Evening Breeze. We've got a lot of ground to cover."

Many Hours Earlier


The changeling who would be Evening Breeze sighed. After a long day on the hive wall, when any changeling was simply looking forward to climbing into their cocoon and getting some rest, that was the worst word to hear. It was a word that promised bad things on the immediate horizon. After all, there were only two reasons why a changeling would be singled out. Either your abilities had marked you as a candidate for promotion, or your behaviour had marked you as a renegade, and you were due for re-education.

Breeze was fairly sure he didn't measure up as General, or even Drone-Adept, material. Not that he would have wanted to, given the absurd amount of responsibility placed on the backs of Generals of the Hive. No, give him a quiet, follower's post as one of a thousand unremarkable drones, where noling expected anything of you but quiet devotion and silent service.

Besides, even if he did measure up, not every candidate made it beyond training, and noling ever saw the failures and the drop-outs. Breeze had no intention of gaining first-hoof knowledge of the horrors that awaited failures, no matter how much mystery there was behind them. There were rumours, of course, but they were never spoken at anything above a whisper, and never in the uncanny hearing of a superior officer. Such things marked you out as an aberration.

The alternative was not particularly promising either, though re-education was surprisingly hard to fail. But it wasn't the danger of failure that made re-education a less than desirable prospect. It was the stigma. Even if he came out a model changeling in every way, Breeze would still have been the renegade, the changeling who didn't fit into the hive. That was a mark he would carry to his grave.

There was nothing he could do to stop it. The Generals were, for reasons beyond his ken, extremely adept at spotting the differences between otherwise indistinguishable drones. And it was no use pretending he didn't know that it was him they wanted. Generals were able to somehow catch the attention of the drone they wanted, even though the only thing they said to catch it was "you". There was some strange timbre in their voice that either told you to put your head down and keep walking, or stop and make yourself known.

So he looked back over his shoulder at the General who had called him, dipping his head but taking care never to point his horn at the General.

"General, is there a problem?"

Of course there was a problem. If there hadn't been, then the General wouldn't have been here. But one had to be respectful, obedient, and utterly generic.

The General paused, his face looking like it had been carved from onyx. There was no hint of emotion there, no clue as to the nature of his summons. All he said was, "Come with me."

Breeze suppressed a sudden urge to scowl. It wouldn't do to show irritation. Not here. Just be a good little drone, and follow. He let himself roll his eyes, though, once the General's back was turned. It wasn't as though anyling could tell. With a changeling's eyes, you had to look closely to even see where he was looking.

His hooves made a funny, hollow 'click-clack' sound on the resin floor as he walked. If the hive had had traditional clocks, it might have reminded him of the steady tick-tock of a clock counting down to some unenviable fate. But they didn't, so it only made him think of the countless times he'd walked down a tunnel in the hive, listening to his own hoofbeats echoing away and then drifting back to him.

Presently, they reached a small chamber set off to one side of the tunnel. The General beckoned him in, and sealed the doorway shut behind them. The chamber was spartan, like most parts of the hive, furnished with two chairs and a lump of resin that had been moulded into a desk. The General sat behind the desk, gesturing for Breeze to take the other chair. He didn't bother. Instead, he remained standing, trying to focus on keeping perfectly still.

"There have been some problems, guardsling," the General said, tapping his hoof against the desk. "Put bluntly, your attitude is not as it should be."

"I don't see a problem with my attitude, sir," Breeze replied before he could stop himself.

"That's exactly the problem. You shouldn't have an attitude."


The General sighed. "What's your name?"

"I... Sir?"

"Your name. Tell me what it is."

"I-I don't have a name, sir."

"You don't have a name. You don't have an attitude. You are a drone, guardsling. The hive speaks with one voice; how can that voice mean anything if the hive is not united?

"This attitude of yours sets you apart from your fellows, where no division should exist. It compromises efficiency and performance. If you are to function as a hive, you must think as one. A single discordant voice can ruin us all."

He stood, pacing around the desk. "My predecessor would probably just have had you recycled, and saved us a lot of trouble. Count yourself lucky that I'm the one dealing with you, and not him. I don't like to see resources wasted. So I'll take a chance with you. You're to report to re-education in two hours. Once I feel you've been made properly aware of your place within this hive, you will return to your post. We will not have this conversation again. Am I understood?"

A slow sense of unease built in Breeze's gut, but he nodded, said the right words, and walked away once he was dismissed.

As he trod the resin halls back to his barracks, he felt as though someling had slung an iron weight around his neck. It was as he'd feared; he was a renegade. An aberration. He was wrong. And at the same time, he was sure he wasn't. He saw the others. The only difference between him and them was that they were better actors than he was. But they either didn't notice, or they didn't care about that.

So this was Evening Breeze, or the nameless changeling who would become Evening Breeze. He was either broken, or the only one to realise that everyling was broken. Either way, he was alone.

As soon as he was sure noling was watching, he ducked into a smaller side passage, found himself a comfortable hole, and curled himself up inside, like a grub cuddling itself inside a cocoon.

"Welcome to re-education, guardsling."

The Re-educator stared at Breeze down a chunky, angular muzzle, blinking slowly. He looked as if he were sizing the young changeling up for something. It made Breeze uncomfortable.

It was almost funny; it would have been extremely difficult to find two changelings as utterly different as the two currently sitting in the re-education chamber. The Re-educator was big, bulky, with narrow eyes and a fairly average coloured chitin. Breeze was slender, slight, with a normal changeling's short, round muzzle and chitin that was a shade or two lighter than was normal.

The difference wasn't astounding. Had the pair been standing together in the middle of a crowd, you might not even have noticed it. But here, sitting alone in this chamber built for a small gathering, they seemed to represent the two very extremes of changeling physiology.

"The General tells me you have, as he put it, an 'attitude issue'. He clarifies that this means you have an attitude, and it has become an issue."

The Re-educator said everything in that same dead, buzzing tone, with the same precise intonation that every other drone possessed when not in disguise, but Breeze thought for a moment he detected something else in that voice.

"Your record," he continued, "details borderline seditious mutterings, a tendency to answer back to senior members of the hive, and an inability to mesh with other guardslings. All in all, young one, your performance is not satisfactory. There is an obvious issue with you, one that needs addressing as soon as possible."

"Yes sir," Breeze replied. It was the first thing he'd said since he'd entered the room.

"It's clear to me that you are dissatisfied with life as part of the hive. This, as well as a tendency towards unwanted independent thought, breeds discontent and ultimately sedition.

"So, tell me just what your problem is with the hive."

"...I'm not sure that's wise, sir."

"You're afraid that you might say something that could be seen as seditious?"

He hummed to himself as Breeze nodded. "That's understandable. In that case, I want you to know I won't report a word of what I hear in this room. Nothing you say will get past me. But if I'm going to fix you, I need to know what's broken. So don't be afraid. Just tell me why you feel like you need to be different."

Breeze said nothing, still trying to process what he'd just been told to do.

The Re-educator sighed. "I know this must be intimidating for you. But I'm not the enemy here." He smiled. The show of emotion did not go unnoticed, but Breeze tried not to let surprise show on his face. "Listen, I'm not so different from you. Most of the time, I'm a guardsling as well. We speak with one voice; you, me and the rest of our caste. And we're more alike than that; I went through re-education myself, a few years ago. So let me assure you; anything you say, I've probably felt myself at some point in my life. I won't judge you."

"You went through this? So why are you still here?"

"The General thought I might have enough of an attitude left that it might be worth putting it to a positive use, helping those who are like I was. You know how he hates waste."

"So do you still have an attitude?"

His smile widened a touch. "I'm still here, aren't I? Now, I think it's your turn to tell a story."

Breeze shivered. That last reply was very un-changeling. It left a sour taste in his mouth, while at the same time giving him a strange thrill of excitement. "Well, I... I just don't think it's fair. To be treated as if we're identical, I mean."

"Why not? We're all drones, aren't we?"

"No. I mean, yes, we're all drones, but that doesn't make us identical at all. If we were, I wouldn't be here."

"Aberrations are bound to pop up from time to time."

"And what if I'm not an aberration? I've seen the others; sure, they act identically, but I know they're only doing it because they've been told that's how they're supposed to act. We all have! But I've seen half of my division making jokes! Jokes! And one of them didn't even get it! How can we all be of one mind, but not all have the same sense of humour!?"

By now Breeze was almost manic, animated by the release of years of bottled-up resentment. He only paused, his chest heaving, when he saw the raised brow-plate on the Re-educator's face.

"And just how is it," the Re-educator said carefully, "that you all came to know about jokes in the first place?"

Breeze blinked, the wind taken right out of his sails. He took a few deep, calming breaths, and settled himself before speaking again.

"Infiltrators," came his simple reply.

"Ah, of course..." muttered the Re-educator, closing his eyes.

That one word seemed to be the single source of so many problems within the hive. Particularly re-education problems.

The infiltrators were, in the eyes of the Royalty, a necessary evil. But they were also an inconvenient one. Charged, as their title might suggest, with the infiltration of the varying layers of a target society, a single infiltrator could spend weeks, sometimes even months at a time working from within the enemy, trusted to play their role so perfectly that no one and nothing knew who or what they really were. Sometimes they simply worked to collect love, stockpile it, and ship it back to the hive. Sometimes they laid the groundwork for larger operations.

Because of the unique nature of their duties, infiltrators themselves were unique. Not to mention unusual. Within their ranks, individuality was promoted, not suppressed, and each infiltrator had their own name, regardless of their station. Such unconventional allowances were deemed acceptable if they helped improve an infiltrator's ability to fall effortlessly into a role, to understand the enemy and their quirks so that they might better blend in. Generals had even started relying on particular infiltrators to take on particular types of tasks, matching the quirks and eccentricities of the infiltrator to those of a certain target. It was efficient. But it was also dangerous to the mental and spiritual well-being of the hive.

"Do you like jokes?"

Breeze hesitated, so the Re-educator went on. "Remember, nothing gets past me. Nothing leaves this room that you don't want to."

"Y-yes," Breeze said, his voice soft, eyes fixed on the floor. That sudden fire had died down to the embers, leaving him feeling vaguely ashamed. "I mean, I haven't really heard many, but there was one that I think was good. It made me feel happy. I like that. And the infiltrator who told it to me. He was...strange. But in a good way. I liked him, too."

Normally, the infiltrators were kept sequestered away from the rest of the general drones, shut away in private quarters on forbidden levels. But every so often either one of them, or one of their little quirks, escaped, leaking out and infecting the general populous. Sometimes it was music or art, often of a particular style. Once, an epidemic of Canterlot Bleu style cuisine had swept through the hive before it could be brought under control. This time, it seemed, the infection had taken the form of jokes.

Though such leaks were swiftly and efficiently dealt with, they were also, to some extent, tolerated. The only real way to control an escape of knowledge would be to immediately execute a mass purge of all drones who had come into contact with said knowledge. No General wanted to unleash that within the ranks of the drones, each for their own varying reasons. Some though it was needlessly cruel, morally unacceptable even. Others simply found the concept to be inefficient.

So the use of said knowledge was gently discouraged, and allowed to simply die in its own time.

The Re-educator nodded to himself, and the subject decided its time in this particular room was short indeed. Breeze pushed the question out of his head, and with another gentle nod from the Re-educator, he pushed forward.

"It's not just that, though. I can see it, sometimes. I can see that they're feeling what I am. They all know that they're different, they probably just think they're the only one. And I think I might be the only changeling who can see that."

"Is that why you act out? Because you feel alone?"

"I suppose. I just wish they could see it too. I wish everyling could see it. Why shouldn't we be allowed to like different things? Have a sense of humour?"

And just like that, with the memory of the joke and the strange infiltrator in his mind, Breeze found the fire flaring to life again. "I mean, I was destined to be a guardsling from the day I was hatched. I like it, and I'm glad I'm not a worker, but what if I wasn't? What if I'd wanted to do something else? Why shouldn't I be allowed to choose?"

"You don't think the Queen knows what's best for the hive?"

"Well, sometimes it doesn't feel like it."

Almost as soon as he'd spoken the words, he wished he could inhale them. His eyes flitted about the room, as if there might be some secret listening spot where a more loyal, normal changeling could have heard his words.

The other frowned. "That's dangerous talk, guardsling. Say that to anyling else, and you could be terminated on the spot."

He paced around behind Breeze, and with a flash of his horn he sealed the door, soundproofing the chamber. Breeze turned to watch him, confused.

"Luckily for you, I know exactly where you're coming from."

"Excuse me?"

"Tell me, guardsling, how far are you willing to go to make things change?"

"I... I don't really know."

"If I told you I could get you out of the hive, would you follow me?"

"What are you saying, sir?"

Breeze's mind whirled. He knew he couldn't be hearing the words his mind kept telling him were there, it was impossible for a changeling to even suggest such a thing. There had to be something he wasn't seeing. The Re-educator surely couldn't have meant what he was saying. It was a test, a trick to determine his loyalty.


"I'm asking you if you want to start taking control of your own life. There's a reason I took this post, guardsling, and that's so I could find others that think the same as you do. So far, though, you're the only one. And I doubt any more are coming soon. The others are all to rigid, too scared of the hive to take real action. But you? You've got a spark in you. You want freedom, even if the only thing you do with that freedom is make a statement."

Every word was spoken as though it were a simple fact. The Re-educator spoke as calmly and precisely as though he announcing division sleep cycles, rather than shattering Breeze's little world brick by metaphorical brick.

"This isn't a test, is it?" Breeze said. "You really mean it."

The door unsealed itself.

"I do. If you want to turn me in, go ahead. I won't stop you." His tone was soft, reassuring. It was how Breeze had imagined a father's voice might be. "It might even prove to the General that you've learned your lesson already. But you'll be losing a chance to get what you've always wanted. Could you live with that?"

"But I... I thought you said you'd been through re-education!"

"I have. And it didn't change a thing. It just taught me how to smile and act as if everything were fine. Just as every other changeling in the hive does. Like you said, young one, we're all thinking the same thing. But only a few are brave enough to do anything about it."

Breeze hesitated, one hoof hanging in the air as he looked through the open door at the green, glistening wall beyond. The Re-educator was right; it would be so easy to just walk out of that door, down the corridor to the General, and tell him. He'd be welcomed back into the hive without a second thought. All his troubles would be gone.

So long as he remembered to forget everything he'd ever thought, go along with a regime he hated, knowing that he had this one chance to do something with his life, and he had refused.

A certainty of life, or a chance at death. In the end, there was never any real choice.

He set his hoof back on the ground, and swung the door closed again.

"Do you have a plan?"

Author's Notes:

So, here's my take on the changeling hive. A little thought into the matter always made me think they couldn't really have a hivemind, and that the 'drones' had to be more than just that. After all, if your purpose in life is to pretend to be someone else, then lacking individuality and free will isn't exactly the best way to go about it. Besides, we all remember the example of Doomie. If ever there was a drone with a personality, s/he's the closest we've ever come.

But, I thought to myself, what if the changelings were made to believe that they really were nothing but drones? What would that world be like?

More importantly, what would happen when someling realised the lie?

Evasion I

"What are you thinking of doing with the guards?" Breeze asked, looking up from the crude map spread across his desk. "I mean, are you going to..."

The Re-educator, whom Breeze was now thinking of as the Renegade, paused in the study of his own map, but didn't bother looking up.

"I don't plan to kill them, young one. I've already thought about getting past them. With a little luck, we won't even have to deal with any guards. The idea is to be out of the hive before anyling realised we've gone."

"Right, fine. But what if things don't go to plan?"

Renegade motioned to his horn. "Simple kinetic blast. No offence, but the average guardsling isn't actually very good at their job."

"None taken," Breeze said. "You're insulting yourself, as well. So, your plan for dealing with them is to knock them over?"

"The cistern should only be lightly defended, with maybe two guards at the most. Knock them into a wall, get through the grate and under the wall, and keep another blast ready in case they come in after us. Simple plan..."

"...less to go wrong. I know."

He'd been through just shy of a week in 're-education' now, which meant he was seeing Renegade every day. In that time, Renegade had drilled a few constant mantras into Breeze's head with such dedication, he found himself finishing the mantras on reflex.

Most of the remaining time was spent planning the escape. How to get out of the hive quickly and quietly. How to get out undetected if it was possible, and what to do if it wasn't. Renegade had spent years running options through his mind, and had done most of the real thinking, but he wasn't about to leave without a partner, and if he didn't intend to leave, there was no point planning around the finer details, not when there was that much scope for them to change. But now, with a time scale in mind, the pair had finally been able to get down to the specifics. Where to go, when to do it, what route to take at any given time to avoid guards. It was all mind-numbing, but it all had to be known by heart. There wasn't room for mistakes. 'One mistake, and the plan falls apart', as another of Renegade's mantras went.

What little time they had left was used to cover their tracks. The General had been expecting a re-education, and a lack of progress would have arose suspicion. So, for a few minutes, at the end of each allotted period, Renegade had talked Breeze through the expectations of his commanders, and the rules he had to follow if he wanted to act like an acceptable guard drone. They were simple enough; don't answer back, don't speak unless spoken to, don't let too much emotion into your voice...

Simple enough to understand, at least; in reality, they were harder to actually follow. But, knowing now that he only had to pretend for a short while, with a real goal in sight, Breeze found it easier to pretend. Renegade was always careful to rein him in a little, though; show too much progress, and he'd be taken back out of re-education, and out of Renegade's easy reach.

He glanced back down at the map. "Right, so that's the route, and I suppose we know what we're doing if there are any guards at the cistern. What next? Where do we go from there?"

Renegade pushed himself to his hooves.

"From there, we find our way out of the Badlands, and find somewhere we can blend in. Somewhere with plenty of love, where the hive won't be able to find us."

"Sounds like a nice place. Anywhere in mind?" Breeze asked, before catching himself and shaking his head, as if to dislodge something that had taken root in his chitin.

"Yes." Thankfully, Renegade seemed to be taking the snarky comment at face value. He tapped the upper edge of Breeze's map. "North."

"There are a lot of places to the north. One place in particular I'd rather not see. You're not thinking of taking us there, are you?"

"It's the only place they won't come looking for us."


Breeze stood, backing up to the door. "No, there is no way we'll survive more than a day there. You know what they say about the Princess. It'd be better to just turn ourselves into the Queen here and now."

"Listen, young one, there's nowhere else we can go. The Queen has her best out there, and they're everywhere but Equestria. It's the one place she won't dare to go, not unless she has no choice, or something to take away their advantage."

"That's exactly why we shouldn't go! Don't you think it's a bit stupid to go rushing in where the Queen fears to tread? She won't even send the Infiltrators there! How are we supposed to make it more than a day?"

"We'll stick to the outskirts. Steer clear of the capital, find a nice, quiet town near one of the borders and lay low there. Then, we can do what we want, so long as we're careful."

"She'll still know we're there. You have to have heard the stories; she's practically a god!"

At that, Renegade chuckled. "Young one, I've heard far more stories that you have. And if Princess Celestia is half as powerful as they say she is, then by rights we shouldn't even be here. She'd have rained fire on us years ago."

Reluctantly, Breeze felt himself starting to come around. "Are you sure?"

"Sure as I can be. She's powerful, that's true, but she's not omnipotent."

Breeze took a breath, held it, then let out a long, drawn out sigh. "If she catches us, it's your fault."

Renegade smiled. "I can live with that." He held out a hoof. "Equestria?"

With only a little hesitation, Breeze reached out with his own hoof. "When do we go?"

"As soon as possible."

As soon as he heard the shout, Breeze knew everything had gone wrong.

It was a short yelp of surprise that gave way to a louder cry of panic, which was in turn brought to an abrupt end. The emerald flash and heavy thud left no illusions as to how it had been ended.

A few seconds later, Renegade came tearing around the corner, halfway into a set of saddlebags and trying to carry another in his mouth.

"What happened?" Breeze cried, matching his pace.

Renegade tossed the bags in his mouth over Breeze's back before replying.

"There's a canteen in each, a compass in yours, and a first aid kit in my bag. I'm sorry I couldn't pick up more, but we haven't got the time."

"Why? What happened?" repeated Breeze.

"Someling came wandering in. Not sure if they heard something, or if they were just picking something up for a patrol. Doesn't matter. We've been made."

"You just knocked them out, right?"

"Of course. But we only had a short window. Next guardsling to come through here will find him. Due in maybe five minutes."

Breeze swallowed, but his throat was dry and rough. "We'll never even make it out of the hive."

"We'll make it! Just need to go a little faster!"

His wings buzzed, and he skipped, launching himself about a foot into the air. After a moment, Breeze followed suit. Together, they sped through tight hallways, far faster than was safe or sane, but neither cared much for safety or sanity. Though it was forbidden to fly in the lower halls of the hive, they were already breaking all the rules that mattered. Who would really care if they broke one more?

They hurtled round a tight corner, skipping against the far wall for a moment before pushing themselves off and back into relatively open air. The cistern was only a few more halls away now. Another bend, then another, and it was in sight, at the end of one last, long corridor. Breeze pushed aching wings to their limit, tasting freedom.

Then, with a heart stopping lurch, they seized up and froze. Breeze felt himself drop as he -

Day 2 outside the hive

- slowly blinked his eyes open to see smudgy clouds behind a tangle of thorns.

Evening Breeze lay still for a moment, still too sleepy to think clearly. He blinked again, trying to clear his eyes, not only of the usual gritty feeling of sleep, but the actual grit and dust that filled them.

Then he remembered. He had been dreaming.

As awareness started to set in, so to did the pain. Every muscle ached, every joint lined with dust. His throat grated every time he took a breath, and the pain only spiked when he tried to swallow. Despite the hours of sleep, he felt just as tired as he had when he and Rising Sun had finally stopped their trek for the night, and huddled down under the thorns.

At least exhaustion had granted him a few hours of real sleep this time, rather than the fitful waking doze of the night before. Of course, every silver lining had a cloud. And sleep came with dreams.

It had been so real. Real enough that Breeze wasn't sure where the memory ended and the dream began. He hadn't crashed on the night, obviously, but other than that the dream had been as clear and correct as if he'd gone back in time to live through the moment again.

Beside him, Rising Sun was already waking as well, rolling his neck to a symphony of clicks and cracks. The pair nodded to each other, but said nothing. Instead, Sun just pulled out his canteen, taking a mouthful and passing it to Breeze.

It had become a sort of ritual; a simple swig-pass-swig motion between the two, but they'd done it enough times over the day before that Breeze could follow the motions with his eyes closed, holding his hoof out at exactly the right moment to take the canteen, savouring the all-too-brief feeling as he took his share, and hoofing it back. That moment, when the water hit his tongue, was always the hardest part. The temptation to just say "buck it all!" and take another mouthful, then another, then another... It was almost too strong to bear. But he didn't give in. That canteen, and the one he carried, was all that they had to sustain them through the baked-bone dust of the Badlands.

They were rationing it well, but water could only get them so far. Breeze was already starting to feel the pangs of hunger. It was early days yet, but before long the pain would become less and less bearable, until he either went mad and drained the next love-giving creature he found, or died.

Not that there was a single such creature here. No ponies, no griffons, no zebra... Heck, he would have settled for a fish, and eaten it raw. Or even some grass. It might be just a temporary measure, but physical food would at least stave off the hunger pangs for another few days.

But there was nothing. Just sand, dust, thorns and rocks. At least the rocks here were interesting to look at. Blasted by the wind, ground into all sorts of odd, top-heavy shapes by sand.

"How far until we're out of this place?" Breeze rasped as they pulled themselves from the thorns. Absently, he reached up to rub at his muzzle. Sun had spared a little water to clean out the gash, but it was already clogged with dust, and starting to itch.

"Another few day's travel. We'll come to a pass through the mountains. There's a town a little north of the pass, called Dodge. That's where we're headed."

"A few days..."

It seemed like an eternity. A few days to the pass, and probably a few more days until they hit this 'Dodge'. Maybe a week, all told. Could he last a week? In these conditions, it was doubtful.

But what else could he do? Lie down and die?

No. No, buck that. He put his head down, and took an unsteady step.

"A few days is nice, but not good enough. Got an appointment with not starving. Can't miss it."

Sun smiled, though Breeze couldn't see it.

"No, can't miss that. Really should pick up the pace."

With that in mind, he followed on behind Breeze, wings fluttering in the stirring air.

"Something's bothering me."


"Did we ever - argh, hold on..." Breeze broke off, falling back on his haunches to scratch at his muzzle with a hoof. Sun slowed his pace, but didn't stop, and didn't look back.

"Something wrong?" the older changeling asked, kicking up dust as he shuffled.

"No, I'm fine," replied Breeze. It might have hurt, scratching around the edge of a wound that was still scabbing over, but it was worth it just to get rid of that damned itch. Sighing as it faded, he trotted to catch up. "It's just, did we ever think how we'd get by in Equestria? It's not as if we can walk around looking like this." He gestured at his own chitin.

"Honestly, young one," Sun said in a long-suffering voice, "I'd concentrated more on how we'd get there. Better than distracting ourselves when we should be thinking about here and now."

"That's just my point! We've spent so much time thinking about 'here and now', but we've no idea if it's even possible for us to survive then and there. I mean, going into Equestria without a plan? We'd be as well just handing ourselves in. Besides..."

He kicked a loose pebble, watching it skitter out ahead of him. "Here and now is boring."

They walked on in silence, the minutes only broken by the occasional gritty surges of wind that lifted the dust and twisted it into delicate spirals that lingered, hanging in the air for a few brief seconds before the wind died down again and let the spirals break up, the dust drifting back to the ground.

"I always supposed," Sun said, brow plates furrowing, "we'd do what changelings are supposed to do. Take a pony's place, and gather love. That was the plan, wasn't it? Only we'd be saving it for ourselves, not taking it back to the hive."

"That's all very well, but do you plan on impersonating a single pony for the rest of our lives? Or maybe we'd just keep moving, constantly taking new forms every time we came to a new settlement, leaving a trail of confused, amnesiac ponies in our wake? I know you said we'd stick near the borders, but even out there, you really think they won't notice us sooner or later?"

Sun shrugged, so Breeze went on. "Besides, I don't know about you, but spending my life being forced to pretend I'm someling I'm not is exactly what I wanted to avoid. If..." He blinked, wrinkling his nose. It felt like his sinuses were starting to block up. The thrice-accursed dust must have been getting to him more than he knew.

"...if I'm going to spend the rest of my life harvesting somepony for love, I'd rather do it as myself. Or at least, with an identity I made, not one I stole from somepony else."

"So, you're saying you'd want somepony to fall in love with a pony version of you?"

He knew he wasn't making his point very clear, but hearing it put like that made Breeze feel more than a little silly.

"Well, I guess that's it. More or less."

"Of course, while you're trying to make this mysterious pony fall in love with you, you'll have to find something to eat from somewhere. Which means one of us is going to have to gather love the old fashioned way."

He smiled. "It's a nice idea. But nice ideas have to give way to smart ideas."

With a hollow clack, the tip of Sun's hoof met the black dome that was Breeze's head.

"And you have to think, young one! I don't intend to leave a trail of evidence, and I didn't trade one life of slavery just to risk my life trying to get into another one. But it'll give us time to make a better plan, if nothing else."

Breeze didn't have anything to say to that, so he rubbed his head, snorted to try and clear his sinuses, and kept walking in silence. In the meantime, the Badlands rolled by around them. Under them. Even over them. Bare, craggy horizons. Rough dust and sand. Blasts of gritty wind.

"Just...just suppose, though," Sun said, a thoughtful look on his face. "Just suppose you could do whatever you wanted out there. Be whatever you wanted to be. What would you do?"

After a while spent pursing his lips in though, Breeze replied:

"You mean, as in a job? You want me to choose a job?"

"If you like."

More silence, and more pursed lips. Breeze gave several false starts, then frowned, mouth tight.

"I don't know," he said finally. "I think you'd fit nicely in with the Royal Guard. Or whatever the pony version of the Royal Guard is."

"Do you know, I think they call it the Royal Guard."

"...I take it back. You should be one of those ponies that tells jokes for a living. A... What's the word, a commentator?"

"You mean a comedian?"

"Maybe. Pointless job either way, isn't it? What do they even do for the community?"

"Make ponies laugh?" Sun suggested.

"Hmm. Is that important?" Breeze said, eyes rolling.

Sun glanced up at the sky, brow plates tight with thought. "It might be. For ponies, at least. You know, if it makes them happy. Honestly, I'm not the changeling to ask."

Breeze sighed. "Why couldn't we have gotten one of the Infiltrators to come with us?"

More silence. More horizon. More dust, and more wind.

"You know," Sun said with a smile, "if you're still looking for a job, you could consider joining the Guard with me."

Breeze snorted. "Yeah, because I'd be so useful as a guardspony. And of course, I'd want to do exactly the same thing I did back at the hive."

"I wouldn't mind having you by my side. You did well that night."

"You consider almost getting myself killed to be 'doing well'?"

"Young one - Evening Breeze - that was the first time you'd ever fought. Really fought, I mean." There was a strange sincerity in Sun's eyes, the sort that was rare to find in the eyes of a changeling, where a strange blend of mistrust and conformity usually brewed. "You could have frozen up entirely, or turned tail and run, but you didn't. You stood and fought. Even if you didn't win, it still says a lot about you.

"Besides, he was Queen's Guard. The best we have to offer. Well, the best the hive has to offer."

"Had," said Breeze, his gaze dropping to the dust devils the wind had set swirling before his hooves. "He's not offering anything any more. Besides," he went on before Sun could interrupt, "it's all just talk anyway. We're not exactly Royal Guard material. I don't want to have anything to do with them. I'd rather be something other than a soldier."

"Listen, Evening Breeze, we may never wear a uniform again - at least, not rightfully - and you might not want to wear one. But courage like that is good for more than being a soldier. It's what's going to keep us alive."

Day 4 outside the hive

The first canteen was empty, and the pair had already moved onto Breeze's. That one was running out far quicker than it should have. Breeze found himself taking drinks more and more often as his throat began to rub itself raw. Of course, whenever he drank it was an automatic action to offer the canteen to Sun, for whom accepting it was just as automatic. It kept them both hydrated, at least, but the downside was obvious.

To add to his worries, Breeze had woken up that morning feeling stiffer than usual, his joints aching and his head cloudy. By midday, he was starting to lag behind Sun, head down, tongue out, chitin crawling. All he had to keep him going was the promise of civilisation beyond the waste, and a rapidly emptying canteen to ease his throat.

A few hours after midday, when Breeze was starting to think he might just drop where he stood, Sun called a rest. The pair trudged into the shade of an old tree with a bleached-white trunk. It was the largest piece of plant life they'd seen since leaving the hive, and it stood a scant few feet taller they they did.

As Breeze let his legs give way under him, collapsing under the meagre shade, Sun sat beside him and looked him over.

"Are you alright, young one?"

Breeze nodded, not trusting his voice or his throat. In truth, he felt anything but alright. His head ached worse than his legs, he was shivering despite the burning heat, and the side of his muzzle felt like it was on fire. But he nodded anyway. Time was of the essence, and with the hive no doubt still out there on their tails, they couldn't afford to slow, not even for him.

"If you say so. We'll get going in a few minutes. Just... Take some time to catch your breath."

Now that he wasn't focussed on getting his ever-weakening legs moving, Breeze caught his thoughts drifting. Had this been what he'd expected? Any changeling not in the infiltrators had to have wondered, even if they would never admit so, what life was life outside the hive, both literally and figuratively.

He'd had his expectations. They'd been shattered.

Through the fog descending on his mind, Breeze supposed he should have been disappointed. But for the moment, all he wanted was for the world to stop spinning and his chitin to stop prickling, and he would have been perfectly happy.

On second thoughts, he'd rather simply have more time to rest. Each morning for the past four days he'd woken feeling as tired as he had the night before, no matter how long or how deeply he'd slept. The idea of getting a chance, even for hour, to catch up on sleep was beyond enticing. He could feel his eyes starting to slip closed already, and not even the wild tilting of the world around him or the burning pain in his muzzle could keep him from laying his head down and...

"We should move on."

Rising Sun's voice cut through the dark haze and brought Breeze back to wakefulness with a jerk.

"We're not far from the border. Cross this last stretch, then get over the mountains, and we're there. If we keep up a good pace, we can be across by noon tomorrow. Hopefully before the hive manages to catch up with us."

Breeze nodded. "Alright, I'm moving," he said. Or at least, he tried to say. But his mouth and tongue both felt thick and clumsy, and what came out was more of an inarticulate mumble. He tried to push himself to his hooves, but his strength seemed to have left him. He half rose, legs trembling, then he fell back to the ground, stirring up a light cloud of dust.

"Are you alright?"

It was odd. Sun's voice seemed muted somehow. Everything was spinning, and Breeze felt something rise in the back of his throat.

He felt like he was going to be sick, he realised. A far off part of his mind wondered at the sensation, something he had heard about but never experienced first-hoof. The rest of him wished he never had to experience it again.

"Breeze? Evening Breeze? Can you move?"

He felt something touch the side of his muzzle. He hissed, flinching back, then retched as the movement set the world spinning even faster.

"Damn... Why didn't you say anything?"

He was rising from the dust, a hard force pushing beneath him. It settled around his belly. Whatever held him up was unsteady, swaying one way and then the other before it found some stability.

Breeze blinked as he began to sway again, more gently this time. A rush of clarity came to him, and he looked around with bleary eyes.

Somehow, Sun had managed to lift the smaller changeling onto his back, and was marching resolutely northwards. They'd already come a decent distance from the shade of the tree.

"R-rising..." he croaked. "Let me down. Rising Sun? Let me down."

"You can't walk, young one," Sun said.

"'Nd you can't carry me... 'M too heavy. Never make it too the border...in time..."

"We'll make it, young one." Even with the haze reclaiming his mind, Breeze could hear the uncertainty in Sun's voice. "We'll make it."

* * * * *

They weren't going to make it. Rising Sun knew that, academically and emotionally. He had tried keeping optimistic, if only for the sake of the barely conscious bundle slumped over his back, but with each passing moment, as his legs burned more and more with every step, his spirit dropped that little bit lower. Now, he couldn't muster up even a half-hearted smile. He just put his head down, buzzing his wings every so often to try and relieve the weight on his legs.

It was long since dark. With his pace cut down so dramatically, he found himself pushing on into the night in order to make up even a little distance.

But that wasn't enough. Sun was going to stop soon, be it by or choice or from sheer exhaustion, and by his reckoning he hadn't come close to where he needed to be. They might make it out of the Badlands, but there was no way they were going to outrun the hive. Already he found himself glancing back over his shoulder every other minute, expecting to hear the hellish buzzing of changeling wings.

All right. It was time to stop. Long past time to stop, in fact. Sun dragged himself a few paces off his imaginary path, before kneeling and gently rolling Breeze into the cover of a scrubby bush. There was one good thing, at least; the vegetation was becoming thicker, and a little more varied. Fewer thorns and more leaves. Sun plucked one from the tangle, chewing thoughtfully. He came to a quick conclusion; it was awful.

That being said, it was still food. And, in the absence of any love to speak of, it was the only thing that might keep him going long enough to get through this waking nightmare.

Beside him, Breeze murmured something and curled himself into a tight ball, shivering in the desert night. He'd fallen asleep, or gone unconscious, around sunset. There had been some poultices in one of the saddlebags, and if luck turned out to be on their side, that and some rest would at least get him back on his hooves until they could find some proper treatment. But this far, luck didn't seem to have been with them at all.

Sun let himself fall to the ground and reach out a hoof to inspect Breeze's muzzle. The gash had gone a nasty shade of yellow, and the chitin around it was hot to the touch.

Infected. No doubt about it. And the damn fool had let it go practically uncleaned and untreated after that first night. Sun just wished Breeze had said something.

No, that was a lie. The young guardsling had probably never been outside of the hive structure in his life, let alone in the Badlands outside the boundary. Breeze hadn't known the danger, and he hadn't wanted to cause trouble. No, in truth, Sun just wished he'd noticed what Breeze had been unwilling to say.

He pulled the canteen free from Breeze's saddlebag and took a short swallow. For Breeze, he poured a small measure into the cap, and helped the younger one drink it down.

Then, after turning the pros and cons of the choice over a few times, he plucked a few more leaves, forcing himself to chew and swallow despite the taste. He desperately wanted Breeze to eat something, but the younger one was in no fit state, and Sun wasn't about to force-feed him, if for no other reason than to avoid accidentally choking his friend.

Instead, he used his teeth to strip a few branches, and packed a saddlebag with leaves, and at long last, with Breeze given a last drink and the canteen back in a saddlebag, Sun curled up next to Breeze's huddled form, and let himself fall into a restless sleep.

He came back to consciousness to the gentle sound of buzzing somewhere in the distance. At first, he contemplated lying down and trying to fall back to sleep. The dead chill of a desert night had well and truly fallen now, but the ground where he'd been lying was still warm, and he wasn't inclined to leave it any time soon. Besides, his head was still thick and woolly, and the implications of the far-away buzz weren't getting through to him as they should have.

As it persisted, though, he sat up, stretching to poke his head through half-stripped branches and get a decent look around.

Against the dark line of the horizon, there was a darker mass moving towards them.

The ground seemed to drop out from beneath Sun.

He crouched beneath the leaves as a distant green pinprick of light illuminated the horizon, praying to the moon that they'd offer enough cover. That he hadn't eaten too many of them.

Because the hive had caught up with them at last.

Evasion II

Rising Sun glanced from the stars overhead, to Evening Breeze, and back again. No chance of waking the other changeling; he looked half dead as it was, and trying to wake him would probably be like trying to wake a stone. There was no cover besides the bush they were already hiding under, and though it was expansive, its leaves were sparse. And even if there had been cover nearby, there was no way Sun could have made it, carrying Breeze, without being spotted before he made it.

Perhaps on his own he could have dashed a short way without being seen, but that was academic; there was no cover, and even if there had been, he wouldn't leave Breeze here to face the hive alone.

So this was it. He closed his eyes, bowing his head. Four days of hell, just to get caught this close to the finish. The buzz of a hundred pairs of gossamer wings grew until it was almost overpowering. They'd surely see him now.

Only they didn't. The buzzing horde arrived, passing overhead without pause. Sun peered up past leaves in confusion. He could barely see the guardslings in the dark. The only real signs they were there at all, besides the sound, were the stars that vanished and reappeared as a changeling blotted it out.

That was when it made sense. Of course they wouldn't see him in this darkness. Black chitin against dark ground? Practically impossible to see, especially when hidden under a bush or a shrub.

They weren't looking for the pair. The contingent passing above were trying to cut them off. A desperate dash for the border, hoping to get there before the renegades and prevent them from ever leaving the Badlands. Sun watched as the last of the dark shapes passed by, and disappeared over the northern horizon.

In a way, it was fortunate Sun had made such terrible time. If Breeze hadn't fallen ill, and the pair had made the time they were supposed to, their pursuit might have come across them sometime the next morning, with the sun betraying them and little cover to shield them.

Not that it made much difference. This oddly delivered stroke of good fortune was only delaying things. Sun still had to get across the border, and far enough into Equestrian territory that the hive wouldn't dare to follow. Hard enough to do on his own, or with an able-bodied partner. With Breeze in the state he was? Damn near impossible.

But there was still a chance. Slimmer than a new moon, perhaps, but it was better than no chance at all. All he needed was a miracle, or in lieu of that, a very good plan. Sun rolled over onto his back, gazing up at the stars again and going through lists in his mind. A list of their opposition (considerable), their assets (minimal), and any points of interest between here and the border. The last gave him some trouble. He'd memorised the best map of the area he could find, and set Breeze the task of memorising it too. But now, tired, thirsty and starved, he found he could barely recall a thing about it, save the ridge line of mountains that served as the final obstacle. He half closed his eyes, picturing the map in his head, letting let the memories come back naturally rather than forcing them to appear.

The stars glittered overhead. Soft lights, winking in and out of existence, blanketing all the sky save for the moon's corona, where they were overpowered by the greater light. Sun found his eyes tracing the dark spots dotting the moon's face. Mares, they were called. An old word, that meant 'seas' in some long-forgotten tongue. Odd, then, that they formed a near perfect profile of a pony. Or, perhaps a changeling; they called her the Queen of the Moon Hive for a reason, of course. But he couldn't help thinking of her as a female pony. A mare.

Sun had often wondered about the strange coincidence. Though it might not have meant so much if he had known how to pronounce it. Mah-ray, not mare. Not that he could have known; it was a word he'd only ever seen written down, half-glimpsed in captured texts. So he stared at the moon, thinking about mares and mares.

His eyelids slipped ever lower. It was quiet out here. Calm. And he'd been walking for so long, with such a heavy burden. Surely by now he'd deserved a rest? He let his head fall back. The night was cool, and he'd done enough thinking for one day. His breathing slowed as his eyes narrowed to slits, and the world around him darkened even further.

Yes, he'd take a moment to rest. The hive would wait for them.

Day 5 outside the hive

Spanning the northern border of the Badlands, the curtain of rock known as the Boundary Mountains was an impressive and imposing sight at the best of times. As red as the dust of the desert it guarded, the range rose from a carpet of parched shrub looking for all the world like the ruined remains of some fortress wall. There was only one traversable valley, the gateway in the wall, and even that was dangerous enough, littered as it was with jagged, fallen rocks and near-invisible pitfalls.

Everywhere else it was little more than almost sheer red rock. There were a few passes, ragged paths hewn from the rock by sheer force of will, and smoothed by the passage of a thousand years worth of hooves, but they were more than treacherous. Only winged creatures would dare try and cross over the mountains like that, and wings were no guarantee of safety if you were caught in a landslide, and too late to take to the sky. Anything that could make that crossing, if they had half a brain left, would simply fly over, preferring to risk the dangers of a slow flight at high altitude.

Flight was not an option for Rising Sun. He wouldn't have risked it even with a healthy partner, nor one who hadn't suffered days without love and with little food or water. The hive was there, and they were watching. To take to the skies would be to give himself away as surely as if he'd fired a beacon.

As it was, Evening Breeze was neither healthy nor well fed. He was improving, that much was true, but the younger changeling was still slung, unconscious, over Sun's back.

So to Sun, the Boundary Mountains looked more intimidating than they would to anyone else. They couldn't pass through the valley; the hive would have cut it off as soon as they'd arrived. Nor could they take flight. That left one option; climb.

But first he had to get there. At the moment he was standing a mile or more from the base of the rock, in one of the few dark patches of scrub that pockmarked the wide plains. He had to get there, and he had to wake Breeze.

A rattling cough from somewhere over his left shoulder let him know that the second challenge, at least, had resolved itself. Sun lowered himself, letting Breeze slip gently from his back and into the dust.

Breeze lifted his head a little looking around with eyes tinged green at the edges.

"Rising Sun?" he said, his voice almost to quiet to be heard.

"I'm here. How do you feel?"

"Like 'm 'bout to throw up."

Sun couldn't help but wonder how Breeze knew what that felt like, but he did his best to push that thought out of his mind and focus.

"Do you feel up to walking a bit?"

"Yeah, think so. Feelin' better than before."

"Good, I'd be annoyed if you didn't. I gave you a poultice last night. Very risky, lighting a fire to heat it up. I'd hate for that to be for nothing." He stuck his snout into his saddlebag, pulling out a few leaves. "Here. I grabbed a few of these from a bush a few miles back. I don't trust these." He motioned to the bushes surrounding them. The few leaves that he'd tried from them in passing had been even more bitter than the ones in his bag.

"Told you, shoulda left me," Breeze said. He plucked a leaf from Sun's mouth, chewed, and almost gagged, giving Sun a good idea of what it might have looked like for a changeling to vomit. "Glad you didn't, though," he continued once he'd choked down the leaf.

"And I told you we'd make it, Young One. If I had to carry you or not. We're just a mile or so from the mountains, you know. One last push, and we'll have made it."

Breeze stood, legs trembling, but they held his weight, and after a moment he raised his head, squinting in the mid-morning sun.

"Like to make it clear, this was a terrible idea," he said.

"Noted," replied Sun, feeling himself smile, in defiance of everything.

They'd climbed a hundred metres before the first scare. The walk was easy; flat ground, a stiff breeze, and a band of clouds sweeping down off the mountains from the controlled Equestrian weather beyond. They kept the heat at bay, and filled the pair with the fire they needed to keep putting one hoof before the other.

Equestria was just beyond that ridge. They could see its clouds, even taste its air. So close now that even the idea of failure was beyond comprehension. And though their water continued to dwindle, there was enough to see them to the mountain and beyond.

Swig, pass, and swig.

But climbing was a different matter entirely.

The paths were there, but even the able-bodied found them hard passage. In some places, they were more like ladders than paths, and in others they had worn away so far that there was little more than a narrow lip hanging over the edge of the abyss.

It was on one of those paths that Breeze lost his balance, shimmying along with one flank scraping the rock face. His hooves, weak with fever and shaking from overuse, missed their marks, and his left forehoof plunged past the narrow ledge and went down past it.

His body nearly followed. Instinct alone saved him, forcing him to scrabble madly against the rock in an attempt to fall the other way. Buzzing wings lent him a little extra support.

Sun paused at the sound, already on safer ground. He saw Breeze leaning heavily against the rock face, one hoof still poised out in the empty space. As he watched, he felt the slow, familiar churn of panic beginning again.


The other changeling didn't stir. His body was solid, his eyes fixed on the ledge a metre or so ahead of him.

"Breeze, look at me. I need you to look at me."

Slowly, agonisingly so, he looked up. His mouth opened, but he said nothing.

"It's all right. Just stay there. I'm coming back for you. Okay?"

Breeze gave the smallest nod he could, as though he were afraid that even that much movement would destroy his balance.

Swallowing, Sun stepped from wide path to narrow ledge, and inched his way back. "I'm going to walk with you." He stretched one arm out. "Give me your hoof."

Breeze's left forehoof twitched, still hanging over the empty drop, then ever so slowly came back round and touched Sun's own.

"That's good. Just keep your eyes on me, and your hooves against the wall. That's it, you're doing fine." Just a few steps more. He swallowed again. Shuffling backwards was hard at the best of times. Here and now?

Hard didn't even describe it.

"Not far now." He glanced back. "Not far..."

His hooves moved from the ledge to more stable footing, and he gave a mighty heave. Breeze stumbled forward, and collapsed onto the path, gasping.

Sun let him lie there a while. Though the clouds were still sheltering them, the noon-time heat still beat down like a furnace flame. Better to stop and catch their breaths now, than risk pressing on in this state.

He pulled his canteen, took a swig, and placed it down in front of Breeze's muzzle. The younger changeling blinked at it dumbly, then lifted his head and gulped down a few mouthfuls.

"Ready to move?" Sun asked as he retrieved the canteen and stowed it.

Breeze just shook his head. "No. 'm not. Not gonna be."

Sun sighed. "Do you know how close we are, Young One? We're just about to hit the hardest stretch."

"That s'posed to make me feel better?"

"It should. Because once you get past that, it's all easy going. Cross the plateau, come down the northern slopes, and that's it. Equestria. Don't tell me you've come this far to give up here."

Breeze chuckled. Or coughed. It was hard to tell.

"Fine. Old bugger."

He pulled himself to his hooves, but didn't raise his head.

"When we get there, what will you do?"

Sun glanced over, but Breeze didn't reply. He sat, slumping against the rock face, gazing southward over the ledge they rested on, back towards the Hive. One eye was half closed, and his head nodded. It was clear, even to a blind changeling, that there wasn't much of him left.

"Evening Breeze, talk to me. Come on, tell me what you want to do when we get to Equestria."

"Well...for starters...I'm having a..." The words devolved into coughs as Breeze hacked greenish phlegm onto the red rocks. "...'m having a lie down..."

Despite himself, Sun laughed. Sort of. It was actually little more than a weak chuckle, but it felt good.

"I'd support that idea." He pulled himself up onto a narrow ledge and edged over to help Breeze. "But what about after that? If you could do anything you wanted, what would it be? I know you know what they do over there. You've read the book, when it was going around. They wouldn't have sent you to me if you hadn't been the type."


He blinked, slowly and deliberately, then took a long, deep breath. "Maybe be a baker. Or a blacksmith. Try making things. For a change."

He paused for a moment, letting his breath catch up with him. "You?"

All Sun could do was answer with a shrug. "Only thing I'm good for is guarding things. And I doubt they'd let a changeling into the Guard."

Breeze shook his head. "No, you can do more. Lots more."

"Like what?"

"Saving lives."

Rising Sun looked back with a frown at Evening Breeze, who shrugged back. "Saved mine."

Sun didn't say anything back. What could he say? Instead, he let himself stare out at the world behind them. They were near the top, now, perching on an out thrust ridge of rock. The Boundary Mountains formed a plateau along their summits, making them feel even more like a castle wall, and their northern faces were shallow, easy to climb. When he thought about it, Sun wondered if they had been purposefully made to keep the changelings in the badlands.

"I suppose we could get married. Find ourselves a wife each, or a husband. Pick one form, and settle down. Live as ponies." It was a pipe dream, he knew, but talking about it was...nice.

"Hmm," Breeze grunted. "So, what would you be?"

Sun pursed his lips, considering the first and most important question.

"Stallion," he decided. "Maybe a pegasus, or an earth pony. Something colourful; I've see enough shades of black and green for a lifetime."

"Not sure what I'd be. Something interesting. Might keep the black. Kind of like it."

Sun opened his mouth to reply, when a shower of small stones came clattering from above.

In a flash, he was pressing himself up against the rock face, motioning Breeze to do the same. The other changeling could only shuffle his hindquarters a little closer in. His forelegs looks as though they were about to give out entirely.

In the rocks above their heads, more stones skipped over the edge. There was the distinctive sound of hooves shuffling on rock. Then nothing. Sun risked a glance upwards, saw nothing, and was about to let out a breath of relief when a dark head emerged from the ledge and locked its blank blue eyes with his.

The changeling flier hissed, buzzed its wings, and raised its horn to the sky. The beginnings of a beacon spell started to take shape. Sun screwed up his eyes, dug deeper than he had before, and let one last kinetic blast burst from his own horn.

It struck the flier square on the jaw, knocking its head askew just as the beacon sprang to life. It spun into the air, arcing higher and higher, until finally it hovered a hundred metres up and a few hundred to the east.

The flier glanced up at it, hissed, and sprang into the air. Sun ducked to the side, trying to shelter Breeze, as the flier came streaking past them like a rocket and banked out into the void. It came back around, coming in to perch on the edge of the ridge.

"Surrender!" it snarled. Sun just spat dust from his mouth, locked a snarl on his own muzzle, and charged.

The flier backwinged furiously as Sun skidded to a halt at the edge. It fired off a pair of hasty kinetic blasts that passed within a hair's breadth of Sun, and impacted against the rock face, jagged craters and kicking shards and pebbles into the sky. Sun dropped beneath a third, trying to call up enough strength to answer with a spell of his own. But that last blast of his had taken the last of what he had.

In desperation, he snatched a stone up from the ground and hurled it at the flier, but it did nothing except make it dodge back a few metres. Sun reached down for another, ducking beneath another blast from the flier, who ducked in close to make the shot and wheeled back out again. Again, the blast struck the rock face. The side of the mountain seemed to shake as rock cracked, and from the ledge where the flier had peered out, a rough, melon-sized lump of stone came free and tumbled towards Sun. Breeze spotted it, tried to call out, but his voice was all but gone.

The falling rock struck Rising Sun on the back, just at the base of his right wing. Though not quite strong enough to break the chitin, it still carried enough weight to knock Sun off balance. He wavered on the shelf's edge, caught between safety and the drop. He tried to flare his wings, but his right was shocked and numb from the impact. As the flier banked around again, coming in for a straight charge, he did the only thing he could.

He leapt.

The two collided in mid-air. One foreleg wrapped around the flier's neck. The sudden weight dragged it off course. Sun's other hoof clipped the tip of the other's horn, then as the flier cried out, losing all bearing whatsoever, Sun punched hard into its wing. The flier, one wing crippled, half blinded by the sudden pain in his head, dropped like a stone. Sun kicked off with both legs, pushing himself back towards the ledge with his left wing buzzing. He passed within a hoof span, reaching out to catch the rock.

And dropped past, his hooves flailing uselessly upward.

The world seemed to slow to a desperate crawl. Fractions of seconds flowed by like treacle. Sun could make out every detail on the rock face in front of him, every crook and ridge of the rock, worn smooth by countless years blasted by the sand and the dust. He felt no fear as he dropped, watching the rock slip by with agonising slowness. Just a sense of vague, almost petulant indignation. It wasn't fair, he realised. To have come this far, just to die within sight of his goal, and all because of one damn falling rock. Nor was it fair that Evening Breeze should be left to die, slow and alone, on an shelf a thousand feet in the sky.

And yet...

For all that, he has always suspected that it would end like this. Angry as he was, now that it came to it he wasn't in the least surprised. More tired than anything else, really. It was as if he'd come to the end of a singularly long day. Or as if he were passing through a checklist, and had at last come to the entry labelled: "Die".

It was...unfortunate, that he had to reach that part so soon. And that it would happen so slowly. Less than a second had passed, and he'd only dropped a metre, maybe less, below the edge of the shelf. He closed his eyes, hoping the rest of the fall would be over a little more quickly.

A sudden jerk nearly tore his right foreleg from its socket.

Rising Sun found himself looking up in disbelief at the face of Evening Breeze, eyes wide and wild, mouth locked in a desperate snarl. The younger changeling's hoof stretched down, hooked through one of the holes in Sun's own.

For one last endless moment they stayed like that, hanging over the edge of eternity, supported by the merest thread. Their eyes locked, and Sun could see his friend burning up what little he had left of himself, all to give himself the strength to reach out and do this one last great thing, and it left him feeling smaller than he ever had in his life. Then the moment ended, and time slipped back into its usual pace, bringing with it the fiery pain of muscle tearing at his shoulder.

"Climb!" Breeze snarled. "I...I can't hold...for long! Climb!"

And Sun did. He dug his hooves into the rock, pushing himself from the bottom as Breeze pulled from the top. With one titanic heave, he slip up over the edge, and flopped down onto solid ground once again. He lay still, trying to catch his breath, trying to ignore the paradoxical numb pain in his wing, and the very real pain in his shoulder. Each outward breath turned itself into a gasp of laughter in his throat. His every vein was singing with adrenaline, his stomach filled with the bubbling joy of simply being alive, of having seen death's face and escaped. He turned his head to face Breeze, not sure what he wanted to say but knowing that he wanted to say something.

Evening Breeze lay still.

Sun almost laughed. He didn't dare to believe it was real. Even as he prodded Breeze with a hoof, his mind still refused to process what his eyes were telling him. The small corner that did swiftly filed it away as being simply impossible.

It was only as the prodding gave way to rough shaking that the cold stab of reality began to pierce through a chink in the veil of his denial. And it hit him as surely as if he'd been stabbed in reality.


He couldn't feel the rock beneath him. He couldn't feel the heat of the sun, nor the chill of the wind. All he could see was the dark shape curled up on the stone, black chitin a stark contrast to the vibrant red rock. All he cared about was making that shape move. Making it sit up and answer.

He couldn't even hear himself screaming the name until his throat burn, or feel the pain as his hooves beat against the rock in a fury that was entirely detached from the cold, near-emotionless reality singing through his mind.

You failed him.

Every time that thought repeated, it stole a little more of him away. Behind it, it left nothing but a widening void, filled with self-loathing. There was so much more he could have done. Should have done. It had been his plan. His responsibility. He was supposed to lead the two of them to a new life, and instead had led a young dreamer to his death. And in spite of all he'd said, the fact that it was a death in freedom did little to comfort him.

Because, in the end, Rising Sun was alone again. He had no strength, no sustenance, precious little water, and a legion of warriors closing in on him.

Maybe, whispered the void, it would be better to simply step over the edge, and let the story end here. He was so tired, after all. And really, the rest would be more than he deserved. It would be so easy...


The void seemed to recoil, confused by the shift from denial to defiance. Sun was barely aware that he'd spoken the word. His hooves had stilled, and a stubbornness, fuelled by the same notion of unfairness that he'd felt while falling, started to beat the void back.

"Not like this."

With every word he stole a little more of himself back from the void. He'd come too far now to give up and die like that. Too far to let his friend slip away without a fight. He reached out with one shaking hoof, placed it on Breeze's chest

After a moment of nothing, a moment when the void seemed to open up again and swallow his heart, he felt a faint stir of life.

And the void was gone.

This time he did laugh. At the cruel hoof of fate that he scorned, at the void that thought it might claim him, and most of all at his own foolishness. If Breeze was alive, then Sun would do whatever it took to make sure he stayed that way.

He looked up. The last shreds of the beacon still hung in the air, a few hundred metres to the east, calling the rest of the swarm back to them.

Calling them back, away from the border.

To the wrong place.

Slowly, an idea began to form in his mind. The beacon was the key. It was, in a brutally ironic twist, their ticket to freedom.

If the swarm thought the renegades were captured, or even sighted, they'd send guardslings back to make sure. It meant more drones to contend with between here and the border, true, but it also meant fewer drones would be covering the border itself. A gap would open up in their line. Maybe just a small one, but it might be big enough for two drones to slip through. All they had to do was avoid the drones coming to them.

It was no small task. But Sun looked down at the dust sticking between his plates, and the layer that filled the hollows in the stone even at this altitude. Changelings, even simply guardslings, were masters of disguise. It was instinctive, even when deprived of their most prized ability.

He bent down, scooping up what dust he could with the hollow of his hoof. Adding a few precious drops of water made something like a paste. Or a paint.

With quick, bold strokes he painted broad lines of red on his black chitin, making sure the pattern was irregular, never symmetrical and never following the lines of his own body. Then, when he was satisfied, he did the same to Breeze, before finally heaving him up and onto his back once again.

"Come on, Young One. You're not dying here. Not yet. That's Equestria, just over these mountains. Just one last push. We're going to make it."

He smiled, the sunlight glinting from his fangs.

"We're going to make it!" he repeated.

And this time, he believed it.

Author's Notes:

As you might have guessed from the presence of the Mare in the Moon (or the Queen of the Moon Hive, as the changelings call her), this story takes place before season 1. The exact date is irrelevent at this point, but the Mane Six have been born by this point. Not that it really matters, since (spoiler warning) they don't figure into this story.

Escape and Evasion: Final Report






Queen Chrysalis was many things. She was charming, when she needed to be. It was a skill that had served her well, every time she deigned to take personal control of an infiltration, insert herself into the top of her target's hierarchy, and topple it from within. Some tasks were meant for more stable minds than an infiltrator's, and if it weren't for her charm, then there would be noling with the skill and the dependability to undertake them in her place.

Where she wasn't charming, she was powerful. Especially with the love of a dedicated 'suitor' or two behind her. When mere...mundane charms failed, the only way to bring a target under her spell was to do so literally. Most changelings could dominate a subject, given the opportunity, but Chrysalis had turned it into an art.

She was regal, too. Tall, long-limbed, she wore the role of warrior queen like a well-fitting shoe. It helped in the rule her hive, lent her the presence she needed to convince her subordinates that her way was the best. That her laws were not worth questioning.

And where that regal presence failed, she was harsh, and brutal. When talk would not keep the generals in line, she resorted to swift, direct action. No mercy, not where it served no purpose. If an example had to be made, she would make it.

Not to say that she didn't love her children. For that's what they were; each and every changeling was her child, be they the rare few that she had personally carried, or the vast majority who had been grown, created using her seed but none of her own effort. And yet she loved them, each and every one, unconditionally. Their successes brought her joy, while their failures cut her deeply.

And it was those cuts that lent her this ruthlessness. For even the most loving parent knows that a misbehaving child has to be punished, and for all her love Chrysalis knew that her children existed to bring her power. Perhaps that was why she loved them; not out of maternal affection, but because of the gifts they brought. Or perhaps that was simply the cynic's view.

No matter, because the one thing above all else that Chrysalis was not, was patient. She had patience in the mission, true; when infiltrating, there was no other way. She played a game that would stretch over weeks if not months. But she had no patience for fools.

General Stead swallowed a lump as he stood before his queen, her face as still and grim as if it were a piece of rugged granite. He knew the price of failure; like all generals, captains and drone adepts, he had clawed his way up from the ranks of the lowly drones and up the ladder of success one rung at a time. He had earned and picked his name, Stead Ley Weaver Fall, one precious syllable at a time, carved his own armour one damned piece at a time. And at every step, every sound and every plate, he had seen countless others who had failed, and been...recycled.

It was his own life on the line now, and for every hour that his queen sat motionless, his fear grew tenfold. By the sixth hour he was almost ready to dive into a tank himself, and get it over with. By the seventh, he was seriously considering finding a sword or a spear to fall on, when she stirred. He forced his aching legs to something like attention, and waited for her words.

"Call off the search."

Her words were slow, and tired. The product of long hours spent simply thinking; no motion, no food, no water, no rest. Just endless though, that left her more exhausted than any battle could.

Stead nodded, despite his own desire to keep up the chase. The irrational wish to run the two traitors down and teach the world a lesson about rebellion was almost too tempting to ignore, but in truth her words were not unexpected. The pair had fled into Equestria, where the hive would dare not follow, and where the rebels could blend in and disappear. If they lasted that long, at least. In truth it was likely that Equestria would do the hive's job for it, and lead the two into an early grave.

"Of course, Your Majesty. Shall I recall the guard?"

"Only if you can ensure they say nothing of what happened here. Or else they might split the hive apart."

Stead swallowed again, already sure of what was coming. "It will be difficult to ensure their silence, Your Majesty. I... I know how you might want to proceed, of course, but I think it would be best if we found-"

"You will execute one in ten," she said, her face growing grimmer yet. "Find the ones who would be most likely to talk. Aberrations may breed loose tongues. The example should ensure that the rest remain quiet."

Stead ducked his head, eager to be gone. "As you wish, Your Majesty."

He turned to go, but a shout from Chrysalis stopped him short.


"Yes, Your Majesty?"

"If I hear a word of this being so much as breathed around the hive, I will personally feed you to a Tatzlwurm. Am I understood?"

"P-perfectly, Your Majesty."

Chrysalis did not have the patience to suffer fools. Nor the patience to go chasing after drones who were long gone. Simple pragmatism told her that they were no longer a threat; only the spread of their legacy posed any danger to her rule, and killing them now would do nothing to stop any spread.

And, though the deaths of a hundred loyal drones cut her to the bone, she knew that the death toll would be even higher should she force them to enter that place. No, far better that she save the time, effort and casualties, and simply let Equestria deal with them. There was a reason no changeling went there, after all, and she wondered idly if they'd even last a week.

Author's Notes:

A side note about changeling names; every time a (former) drone passes up the ranks, they are permitted to add one syllable of their chooseing to their name. This does tend to bring about names, especially among higher ranking changelings, that are odd to say the least, being little more than a collection of interesting sounds.

Contact - I

Evening Breeze stirred, feeling roughly sanded wood beneath him. Everything felt fuzzy. He tried to lift his head, but the world spun out of control. He wondered if he was any better. He certainly didn't feel better. His throat still had the texture of sandpaper, his head ached beyond belief, and opening his eyes did little more than let the soft light drive into his eyes like daggers. Daggers that felt like they had been coated in acid. But his face no longer felt like it was on fire; in fact, it didn't feel much at all, just a feeling of pressure wrapping around one side of his muzzle. And though they were weak, his joints were mercifully ache-free.

Scrabbling about he felt one hoof collide with a shallow bowl just beside his head, and heard the splash of water. Slowly, and with utmost care not to upset his aching head too much, he shifted onto his belly and shuffled around until he could get his muzzle over the rim of the bowl, and lap up a little, just enough to wet his mouth and soothe his throat.

Then he let himself roll back onto his side, let his head rest against the hard floor, and drifted back into a restless sleep.

When he woke again, it was to the sound of hoofbeats in the distance. They were dull, coming from a good way away and on the other side of a wall, but he heard them nonetheless. Part of it might have been due to the fact that one ear was pressed up against a wooden floor, though. As Breeze tried again to lift his head, succeeding this time, he found a puddle of drool where his open mouth had rested. Strings of it came away, sticking to his muzzle. With one shaking hoof, he wiped them away, grinding the hoof against the floor to try and remove the offending strands.

He did feel better, though. His head no longer felt like it wanted to burst; instead, it simply throbbed in the background of his thoughts, just enough to annoy. His throat was still raw, and his mouth felt and tasted of warmed-up yesterday, but there was that bowl of water somewhere nearby. He looked around, and realised with a terrible thrill that, at some point as he had slept, he'd knocked the thing over. A stain on the floorboards was all that remained of the water itself.

He pulled himself to a sitting position, ignoring the protests from his head and the way his limbs trembled as they took his weight. Instead, he busied himself glancing about in a quick search for a fresh source of water. He was sitting in a small room, lit by a single candle that sat on a simple table. There were windows on both walls that he could see, made almost entirely out of scrubbed wooden planks. A few pieces of furniture were scattered about one side, but everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, save for the floor, which was marred by scuff marks and tracks. A one-room cabin, Breeze thought to himself. Run down, no doubt, not used in a long while. He continued his search, shuffling himself around on his haunches to face the other walls.

His search stopped short as he came face-to-face with an upside down pony.

To his credit, Breeze didn't flinch, or scream. He simply blinked a few times as his mind, still slow from sleep, tried to catch up. After a few seconds, he cocked his head over and said:


The pony didn't answer. It was deeply asleep. Or unconscious. There was little difference. Either way, its head hung limp, and its mouth lolled open.

Breeze shuffled back a few paces, catching the sound of hoofbeats making a cautious circle around the cabin. He knew he should have been scared, but he couldn't bring himself to be. Whatever was out there was either friend or foe. If it was friend, there was nothing to be scared about. If it was foe, then there was nothing he could do to defend himself, and therefore no point in worrying. The only thing to do was wait and see what came through the door.

In the meantime, he leant in to examine the pony a little more closely. It was an earth pony, pale grey with a dark blue mane. He had been attached to the cabin's ceiling by a cocoon, but it was clearly a half-done job. The cocoon itself was more like a web than anything else, and the resin was thin and patchy.

"Sun..." Breeze muttered to himself. He gave the cocoon a gentle push, and watched it swing back and forth.

The cabin's door burst open. The stallion hanging from the ceiling stood in the doorway, saddlebags slung over his back.

"Breeze?" he called, his voice unfamiliar but his tone relieved.

"...Rising Sun?" Breeze asked cautiously.

There was a flash of green, and Rising Sun stood there, haggard and worn out, and yet still looking better than he had in days.

"You're up."

Breeze couldn't keep a chuckle from rising. "What was your first clue?" The words felt like razors in his raw throat, but he pushed through the pain. It was enough that he was able to speak at all.

Sun ignored the sarcasm. Instead, he took a few uneasy paces forward, looking for all the world as if he wanted to simply run forward and throw his hooves around his friend, but dared not to.

"How are you feeling, young one?"

Though he managed to restrain the laugh this time, Breeze still felt a smile spread across his face. Even after little more than a week, he already knew that Rising Sun would be Rising Sun, and no power in the world would stop that.

"Better. Could do with a drink." He swallowed, wincing. "Had a little trouble. With the bowl."

Sun's eyes found it, and he nodded, reaching into his saddlebags. They weren't the cheap, canvas things he'd taken from the hive. They were older, rougher, but more carefully crafted, obviously made to last. Taken from the pony hanging from the ceiling, no doubt. He drew out a small water bottled, uncapped it, and took one short swig for himself. "Here," he said, passing it over.

It burned his throat as it went down, but the water washed the bitter taste of sleep from Breeze's tongue, and gave his parched mouth some relief.

"So," he said, setting the bottle on the floor, "we got out, then? This is..."

"...Equestria," finished Sun. "Yes, this is it. We're about a mile or so from Dodge Junction."

That was enough to nearly knock Breeze back onto his belly. "We made it..." he muttered, his eyes growing distant.

"Mmm." Sun turned to follow his gaze, his tone less enthusiastic. "We made it, all right."

Breeze's ear twitched, but he said nothing about it. "So, where did you pick him up?" he rasped instead, nodding his head towards the bound figure. The stallion stirred, almost as if he had heard Breeze's question, but didn't wake. His gentle motions set the makeshift cocoon swaying.

Hunkered down as he was in the shadows beneath an overturned cart, the dark, almost black shade of Rising Sun's chitin was all but invisible to the casual glance. It would have taken a very thorough inspection from anypony more than a few feet away to spot anything. And yet, he hadn't felt this exposed in a long time. More exposed, even, than that first night, dodging magical lances in the gloom.

Peering between the dried, crumbling planks he watched as ponies, most of them earth, walked, trotted and in some cases cantered along the dusty track that passed for Dodge Junction's main street. His stomach growled, the sensation only amplified by a strangely similar feeling at the base of his skull. He had managed to snatch a few scraps of love upon arriving in town the night before, sneaking in through windows open to the heat to pick shreds and cast-off ends from ponies dreaming of lovers, but all they seemed to have done was remind him how hungry he really was. He needed a meal.

So he watched, waiting until he spotted the right pony.

And there he was. A dull grey earth stallion with a midnight mane and a smiling gold bit for a cutie mark, trotting along with a small saddlebag on his flanks. Sun had seen him many times before, watched him ramble beyond the borders of the town, and seen his little family. Matter of fact, this same stallion had unwittingly led Sun to the town from the canyon where he'd left Breeze.

As the stallion turned off the main street and started to bear for the canyon, Sun made his first move. He flattened himself as much as he could, rolling out from under the cart and into the cover behind one of a dozen nondescript buildings. A few seconds later he was up on all fours and moving. He ignored the sudden ache the burst of motion had set in his gut. He had no time to complain, no time worry about pain, else it would only get worse.

It was odd. Even as he dashed across the open plain between the town and the canyon, desperately hoping nopony would notice him in the twilit gloom, he still didn't feel as vulnerable as he had in the cart. Sunset was coming up on the town, and a scattering of cloud cover set by the weather patrol to offer the town some shade had also helped darken the skies. That helped. It was nice, sometimes, to be a dark shape against a dark background.

Finally, after a good few minutes running and with burning legs, he reached the canyon mouth. Sun scampered up the rock, skipping between boulders and praying his legs wouldn't give out now. The stallion was only a minute or so behind him. And he needed all the time he could get to pull this next trick off.

He crouched, halfway up the canyon wall on a small shelf of rock, and gathered together all the energy he had left. And he waited, sitting almost perfectly still beside from the gentle shiver running along his limbs.

The image of his subject was clear in his mind, and he knew the technique. But he needed energy to make the transformation work. He needed to not feel hunger gnawing him away from the inside out. Trying to change now was like trying to crush a stone in his mouth, or catch an eel with one hoof.

He took a deep breath, relaxed his taut muscles, tried to clear his mind of the knowledge that his prey was almost upon him. Instead, he let himself think about Breeze and his duty to his friend. About the freedom he was within touching distance of. About that fact that, no matter what happened now, they had won. The rock shattered, the eel froze into a lump of wood, and the transformation came like flowing water.

Sun skipped down from his shelf, and stepped out in front of his prey just as the stallion entered the canyon proper.

"Lacy?" the stallion said, pulling up short and cocking his head with a frown. "What are you doing here?"

It felt strange, being a mare. The sensations - the differences, even - were uncomfortable to say the least.

"I thought I'd surprise you, Rainy," Sun said, his voice pitched a few octaves higher than he would have thought possible. He put on his best impression of Lacy's 'come hither' face.

"Oh?" Rainy came forward, a smile spreading across his muzzle. His steps faltered as Sun, almost involuntarily, took a deep draught of the love flowing from him, but his eyes had started to glaze, and he didn't seem to notice the sensation. "D-did you have something special planned?"

"Yes," replied Sun. Then, buoyed up the feeling of fresh, pure love inside him, he dropped his disguise and flared his gossamer wings. "This."

"He's one of the settlers," Sun replied. "Goes by the name of Rainy Days. I got the drop on him while he was walking in the canyon. He has a small shop on the edge of town, selling supplies and things."

"Huh. Didn't figure you for the shopkeeping kind."

"I'm not. But his wife is, when she's not too busy looking after the new foal. She thinks I'm letting the stress of life on the frontier get to me, so she's given me a few days bed rest."

He fixed his gaze on the floor. "That's how I collected enough love to bring some back here, and help you get over that infection."

At that, Breeze brought a hoof up to his muzzle, probing the wound for the first time. It was hidden behind a bandage, which explained the pressure there.

"It's not completely healed yet," Sun explained. "But it's nearly there. The bandage is just to make sure you don't pick something else up. We're going to have to have a talk about proper care, by the way. Both of us came up lacking."

"Hmm. I've learned my lesson. Not something I want to go through again. Trust me. Anyl- anypony missing you?"

"It's the middle of the night. Nopony knows where I am. Safer to travel this way, fewer questions. Remember, I'm supposed to be taking a few days off."

"Clever. You decided what to do with our friend, though? Can't leave him here forever." Breeze glanced around the hut. "Or did you...?"

He tailed off, not sure he really wanted to say the words, even if they were both thinking them.

But Sun just smiled and shook his head. "Don't worry. Seems Mr Rainy Days here enjoys taking walks through the gorge. It's how I was able to get him alone in the first place. Tomorrow night, he'll go for another, have a nasty fall, and stagger back home with a sore head and no memory of the last few days."

Bringing himself fully to his hooves, Breeze chuckled, then winced. Even to his own ears, that had sounded terrible.

"Sounds like you've got everything worked out."

At that, Sun's smile faltered.

"Not everything. I, uh, I'm not sure what to do next."

He broke off, scuffing the rough planks with a hoof. "Actually, I have no idea what to do next. We're here, we made it, but..." He gave a short, bitter laugh. "I got us this far, and now I'm stuck! We're stuck!"


Rising Sun abruptly stood. With a flash of emerald fire, a grey earth stallion occupied the space where the changeling had been.

"I should get back, before somepony notices I'm not there," he said in that unfamiliar voice. "Rainy Days might start dreaming about his family. If he does, you can take a little love to see you through, but be careful not to take to much."

He strode to the door, throwing it open and letting the warm night time breeze drift through. "I'll be back tomorrow. We'll move then."

And then he was gone, and the door clattered shut behind him.

I was wrong, Breeze thought as he sat, stunned, in the wake of Sun's departure. There are some things that can stop Sun from being Sun.

Rainy Days moaned gently, twitching as he went through the throes of a particularly vivid dream. Below him, stretched out on his back and toying with a rusting fork, Evening Breeze sighed and glanced up at the entangled shape, his brow-plates creasing.

"Bet you think you've got something worth complaining about," he muttered. "Not sure, myself. At least when this is all over, you get to go back to a family that gives a damn about you. Better than you might have got.

"Besides," he said, rolling over, "you get three solid days of sleep. Aren't you ponies always complaining about never getting enough?" Another titbit picked up from an overly-mouthy infiltrator.

He stopped as he came belly down, dropping the fork and pushing himself to his hooves. His eyes slid shut, and he let the image of the pony in front of him wash over his mind.

The changing itself was easy enough; just a quick pulse of power to a nerve only a changeling could know, and that was it. The difficult part was summoning up enough power to make the pulse. Breeze was still weak with lingering infection, still hungry despite the love he'd already been given. His eyes screwed up as he dug down deep to find the strength he knew he had, and he bared his fangs.

At last, when he thought he might give up, he felt it all come together. There was a flash, muted by his own eyelids, and suddenly everything felt different.

He spent a few minutes getting to know this new body. Losing both wings and horn was an odd, almost helpless feeling. His legs felt stronger, and he could feel the dust and rock beneath the floorboards, but not being able to fly or cast magic...

Of course, that wasn't the only odd thing. There was the mane, the hole-less hooves...and the other parts.

Changelings, with the exception of the Queen, are technically asexual. No gender and no reproductive organs, unless they choose to create them. And yet, though he'd never really considered it before, Breeze thought of himself male. At least, more male than female. It seemed that most changelings did. At least, most of those that Breeze himself knew.

But, even with that self-identification, it was always strange to take the form of another, and be able to feel the parts themselves. If he was actually feeling them at all. Breeze was never sure if he actually changed his physical form, or if he just made it look and feel as though he had. In fact, he wasn't sure if there was even any real difference between those two thoughts. Such was the nature of changeling magic; it was wild, and it was ever-changing.

He trotted around the cabin, getting used to the feel of his new legs and his new balance, before letting the disguise fall away. Even maintaining it took energy, and he didn't have a lot to spare.

With little else to do, he glanced around the cabin for what must have been the hundredth time. The features were beyond familiar by now. It was easy to memorise them, thanks to the flickering flame of an oil lantern Breeze had managed to set up beside the now burnt out candle, with the help of a flint and steel stashed away in a desk drawer. He already knew that there was nothing there worth looking at, even if all he was looking for was something, anything, to alleviate his boredom.

Buck it. Nothing worth staying here for. He trotted to the door, threw it open with a hoof, and stepped out into the cool night air.

If he had to guess, he would have said it wasn't long after midnight. It was warmer here than in the badlands, at least at night. Some patchy clouds kept a little of the day's heat trapped, though there weren't nearly enough to mask the full moon still high above his head.

He'd always liked the moon. If had known what a pearl was, he might have said it was like a giant one, floating up above himself. But he didn't. All he knew that it was beautiful, and he wanted it, despite the fact that it was so far out of reach. Or maybe because of it.

And then there was Her. The Queen of the Moon Hive. His own queen's enforcers went to great lengths to stamp out rumours in all their forms, but they couldn't halt their spread entirely. And in a world that was meant to have no concept of beauty beyond that of its queen, nothing captured the imagination of a changeling quite like the moon.

There were many stories. Some said she was the Queen of Queens, watching all the hives from on high. Others claimed she was a pony, dwelling in the moon with a hive of her own demonic pony kin. Dozens of variations had spread, whispered in dark corners by drones who never thought to question why these rumours spread so easily, and with so many personal touches to the tale.

But Breeze always remembered one story, even if he had long forgotten the changeling that had told it to him. That the Queen of the Moon Hive had once been a pony, and ruled over a kingdom. But one day, she turned on her subjects. They fought her, and after a long and gruelling battle banished her to the moon. After a thousand years, the sorrow and loneliness had made her regret her actions, and so she sought to atone for her sins by watching over all those who prayed to her, and her moon.

Breeze had prayed. For protection, for strength, for a way to get rid of the strange feeling in his chest when he thought about how different he was. He told noling - he would never tell anyone - but every night that the moon was full, he looked up to its lonely queen, and whispered a short prayer.

This night was no exception. Whether full or all-but full, the difference didn't seem worth the while. He looked up at dark figure, haloed in silver, and asked for her help. Help for him and Rising Sun to survive here, in the manticore's den.

He waited a while after the last words of the prayer had left his lips. If he was waiting for a sign that his prayer had been heard, it never came. But that was all right; it never did. He was sure she heard him, but she never let it show.

Soon enough, he tired of waiting. The air was cooling, but there was still enough warmth in it to be comfortable, and the cool night's breeze was flicking at his frill. He curled up, enjoying the feel of the wind that was his namesake, and wondered what Sun might be doing.

"Any better this morning, Rainy?"

By now, the concern in Lacy's delicate soprano was more than a little coloured by exasperation. It showed in her movements as well; her ears were downturned, her stance tense and hunching, and more than anything else, she looked tired. More tired even than her husband, who was meant to be the one suffering from exhaustion and stress.

Of course, the pony lying in their bed wasn't her husband, not really. And though exhaustion was one of the many things lying heavy on his mind, the physical side of it was all but gone now. The stress, however, remained, but stress born of a different worry.

Rising Sun nodded, hearing the smooth sound of his mane rubbing the pillows piled up behind his head. Bed rest had done wonders for him, and three square meals a day did even more. So it wasn't really a lie for him, when he replied.

"Yeah, a little. I think I might be back on my hooves soon, actually."

That broke through the tired mask, and brought the smallest touch of a smile to Lacy's muzzle. She bent down, and kissed Sun's forehead before resting her mouth next to his ear.

"I hope so, because if you're not, I'll have a lot of work for you to do to help make this up to me."

Sun answered her with a grin of his own, but behind his own mask it was strained and brittle. The scent of her love, mixed in with other emotions that were close enough to it to be detected, was driving him mad. It took every ounce of self control he had not to start drinking now. But he had to resist. Just for a moment longer.

She turned away, looking to the staircase that lead down to the shop itself. "I should get things sorted out for the day, while Melody's still asleep. You'll be fine here for a while?"

Before she could leave, he caught her foreleg. She turned back, eyes wide and lips pursed.

Sun glanced down at the bed, letting go of her leg, then looked back up at her.

"Look, Lacy, I know I haven't really been the best husband these last few days. It's hard enough out here at the best of times, without you having to play nurse for me. But for putting up with me like this... You're amazing, you know that?"

For the longest moment, it looked like she wasn't going to say anything. Like the wind had been taken out of her, and all she could do was look at him with a strange look in her eyes that made Sun almost believe he'd gone too far, that he'd said the wrong thing and ruined everything.

Then she leaned in, and kissed him hard.

The rush of love that flowed into Rising Sun was enough to nearly knock him back against the headboard. He closed his eyes and savoured the taste, even as he held himself in check, and let himself take only the smallest amount. It seemed an odd thing to do, but the kiss had never been about taking love. Only about lowering dear Lacy's defences.

Sun broke the kiss, leaning back, and let a pulse of magic flow into Lacy's mind. It was the one spell that a changeling could cast in any form, the one spell they always had to have access to, tied into their very nature.

"<Come to bed, Lacy,>" he said, his voice thrumming with power. She complied, her irises shot through with eerie green speckles. And as she settled herself onto the hard mattress, curling herself up around him, Sun sighed. "<You won't remember any of this. You won't remember anything I said that Rainy Days wouldn't normally say.>"

She nodded, her eyes crossing, her muzzle twisted into a mad, blissfully content smile.

"<How long do we have before somepony might interrupt us?>"

"An hour, maybe more, before the store opens," she said, her voice far away. "But if Melody wakes up..."

"<Don't worry about the foal,>" said Sun. He placed one hoof under her chin and lifted her eyes to meet his as they flashed blue-green. "<Do you love me?>"

"Of course," she breathed.

Rising Sun smiled, leant in close to her, and drank deeply.

Lacy lifted her head, blinking. Everything seemed odd. Fuzzy. It was like she was just waking from a short, unsatisfying nap, yet she didn't remember falling asleep. And there was something niggling, picking at the back of her mind. But she couldn't make her thoughts work. She felt like she just wanted to sit there, and not think.


She looked up into the grey eyes of Rainy Days, looking down at her with a strange, almost detached expression. Those eyes were like magnets, drawing her own eyes and her thoughts into them. For a moment, she thought she saw them glimmer with a green light, but then the memory was lost in the fuzz and fluff that was her mind.

"Thank you. That was...even better than the last."

She had no idea what he meant by that, but she felt like she was supposed to agree. With a silly smile, she nodded slowly as her eyes crossed and uncrossed. She wasn't really sure if she felt good or not; in fact, she felt weak and somehow diminished. But she didn't want to move, didn't want things to change at all.

But something was piercing through the haze. An insistent sound, like a demand for attention. A frown crossed Rainy's face, and he glanced up then back to her.

"The foal is crying." For a moment, he looked nothing like the Rainy she remembered; his face was colder, exasperated. None of the warmth that had made her fall in love with him, or the joy he'd always shown for his daughter. "You should take care of that."

But she didn't care. All she heard was his voice, and all she cared was that she should do what it told her. There was nothing else for her; just his voice, and now the foal. She rolled off of the bed, and trotted over to the crib.

"And don't forget to open the shop," Rainy called after her.

She nodded absently. Of course, she couldn't leave that out. It was obviously important, or else he wouldn't have mentioned it.

And as she shushed the foal and busied herself setting things out and restocking shelves, her mind slowly began to clear. But the memories of Rainy's strange voice and the things he'd said and done faded as everything else became more distinct. By the time the fuzz and haze was gone completely, all she knew was that her daughter had started crying, so she had gone to settle her down.

Rising Sun, for his part, sat back in Rainy's bed and worked his mouth. A part of him felt strange after doing that. The rush of power, the thrill of being able to bend a mind like that, it felt good. And the love... Something was lost in the storage and transport. Something big, and important. Taking love straight from the source was something he'd never experienced before, and as good as it had been the first time, it was getting better every time he did it.

But then, when he thought about it after the fact, he almost felt a little ashamed. This, taking love by force or deception, it was in his blood. He was, quite literally, born to do it. There should be no hesitation, no second thoughts. And yet...

There was a part of him, the same part that had sent him running in the first place, that saw an eerie parallel between this magical domination, and something else. Chrysalis' domination of the minds of the hive may not have been magical in nature, but it was no less insidious.

Contact - II

Evening Breeze woke with a gasping cry, his whole body shuddering. For a moment he wasn't entirely sure where he was; the memories of the dream lingered in his mind, casting shadows where none existed. But the dream faded, with no trace, and he found himself looking around the cabin, lit by a sun that had to be nearing noon.

He sat up, stretching. Lying on the hard, wooden boards did little to help his tired joints, or do any good for his back. And, since it was going to be until near sundown before Sun returned, he'd have to find something to do to keep himself occupied, and limber enough to move as soon as possible.

Of course, the fact that there was little to amuse himself with hadn't changed any since he'd gone to sleep. He considered running laps in the canyon around the cabin, but there was only one pony fresh enough in his mind to use as a disguise, and he was supposed to be at home, sick. A second Rainy Days running around the canyon would be more than enough to raise unwanted suspicion.

So he sat back, wings buzzing and fangs bared. If there was one thing he hadn't expected, it was that life outside the hive would suddenly become even more boring than life within it. But the threat of re-education - or worse, recycling - was no longer looming above his head. Discovery, maybe, but somehow that seemed like less of a danger here and now.

A thought ran through his mind. There were exercises he'd learnt, meant to keep the body and mind sharp. Exercises that could be done with nothing more than enough free space, and maybe something to stand on. Both of those he had, even in this small cabin. If nothing else, they'd keep him active, and help pass the time.

He stood, rolling his neck. If he dragged the table this way a bit, and shifted that chest of drawers...

The sun was low in the sky as Breeze glanced at a dusty window, sipping a little water from a canteen. The cabin was sweltering in the afternoon's heat, and the thick air, along with the hours of exercise he'd put in, had left him feeling drowsy again. Not just that, but a little dizzy, too. Enough that he had taken to lying on his side, in the shadiest spot he could find. Exercise so soon after recovering from infection was a bad idea, but it had sent the hours flying by, so he counted it a fair trade.

But as his head drooped lower to the floor, and his eyes drifted shut, he began to wonder if sending himself to sleep was really such a good idea after all. A moment's thought told him that he didn't actually care. It was too hot to be caring about anything, and the steady creaking of Rainy's swaying cocoon blocked out any other thoughts, until his head was resting in his hooves and his eyes were just too heavy to be worth keeping open...

He jumped up with a yelp as the door slammed open. The sickly green light of his horn sprang up, ready to defend himself, but it was Rising Sun who stormed into the cabin, wearing Rainy's saddlebags, but undisguised and very obviously unhappy.

Breeze let his guard drop, but he was still wary, especially when Sun shot a glare over at Rainy Days. He stomped over, and stood in front of the hanging pony for a moment before turning away and casting his gaze about the cabin. Finally, just as the younger changeling was ready to dive into a corner to escape his wrath, his eyes settled on Breeze.

"Let's pack up what we can. We're leaving."

A dozen horrible thoughts went through Breeze's head. Reasons for leaving so soon, with Sun looking like this. It was the most obvious concern that he chose to voice first.

"Did you slip up? Are they after us?"

Sun sighed, shaking his head. "No, we're sticking to the plan. But we're moving now."

"Why? What happened?"

"Nothing," Sun replied, more than a little short. His brow plates were twisted into a scowl, and his lips kept twitching, as if to bear his fangs. "I'm just done with this town."

There was more that he wanted to ask, but Breeze kept his mouth shut and simply nodded. As Sun stood in the middle of the cabin, still scowling, he turned away and started rifling through the old cupboards. He'd been through them plenty of times before, of course; being stuck alone in a cabin with little else to do tended to encourage a little investigation. But he felt the need to look like he was being useful. Besides, there was a chance, however slight, that he'd missed something important the first dozen times.

So he clattered around, nosing through the dust and pulling out the bits and pieces he'd marked as useful. In the meantime, Sun pulled the saddlebags from his back, letting them fall to the floorboards in front of Rainy with a clatter. He looked the resin-clad form up and down. Too many thoughts and emotions were warring in his mind, creating a whirling maelstrom of which he couldn't even begin to make a lick of sense.

He was a changeling. He took love through trickery and deceit. It gave him power, on top of the power he already wielded over these ponies. They couldn't change their form, they couldn't use magic and fly, they couldn't use the strength of others to feed their own. And yet, when he looked at this pitiful creature, he felt a pang of jealousy. And more than that. Thinking back to his realisation after feeding on Lacy for the last time, he realised that he felt something almost like kinship. Just as the Queen had placed him in bondage, so too had this pony been bound against his will, his image made to serve a darker purpose.

The only difference, of course, was that it was Rising Sun who had put Rainy in his resin chains.

With a twisting snap of his head and jaws, he severed a few of the cocoon's strands. Rainy dropped with a sudden jerk, but did little more than moan softly. Sun snapped again, and again, until the pony fell the last short foot or so, landing heavily on the rough wooden floor. As he fell, Sun pulled the anchor string down, leaving only a few green scraps hanging from the ceiling beams. He chewed on the lumpy, cloying mass, softening it with his saliva until it was easy enough to swallow. No sense in letting valuable material go to waste, after all.

Breeze watched with one eye as he pulled their old, poorly-stitched canvas bags from under a chest of drawers. The other changeling looked as though he wanted to say something to the stricken form; he bent down, as if to whisper something into the pony's ear, but stood again without a word. He looked over at Breeze, who ducked his head and started stowing a few essentials in the cheap bags.

"So," he said as he gently set a spare lamp in one, "where to now?"

Sun shrugged, lifting a forehoof an inch or less from the floor. "North again. North-east, I think. We'll head to the coast, keep as far from Canterlot as we can." He pulled Rainy's bags open and started rummaging around inside, returning with a map, a coil of rope, a purse, and a few other small essentials, which he tossed towards Breeze.

"Seems smart." With Sun's extras, there was only room for a few more things in the bags. Breeze paused for a moment, caught between extra matches, and a short survival knife. Then he shrugged, sliding the knife into the bag and tossing the matches away. He slid one set of saddlebags towards the other changeling. "So, where did you get them?"

"Swiped them from the storeroom," Sun replied. "I told you he owned a shop, didn't I?"

Breeze shrugged. "If you're sure nopony's going to miss them?"

"I was careful." There was something about Breeze's face that pulled Sun's attention. "You don't have a problem with this, do you?"

"What, stealing?" Breeze frowned at Sun's nodding, but then shook his head. "It might draw attention to us, but we don't really have much of a choice, do we?"

"Not unless you want to go out there as unprepared as we were leaving the hive."

Shuddering, Breeze shook his head with more force. "Never again."

He flashed a nervous grin. "So it's good to see you're back with a plan, Sun. What's inspired you?"

"Desperation," Sun replied, taking the set of bags and slinging it over his back.

As they stood at the door, watching the sun sinking behind the mountains, Sun reached over, gently pulling the bandage away from Breeze's muzzle. He made a small, thoughtful chittering sound to himself as he inspected the wound, then nodded and tucked the soiled gauze away in his bag.

"Well, you'll have a lovely scar there, young one, but otherwise I think it's healed up nicely."

Breeze rolled his jaw, stretching stiff muscles that hadn't be put to proper use in days, and held tight by the damnable bandage.

"That's not really a problem, is it? Not for us, I mean."

"It might be..." Sun replied, frowning as he turned back to watch the darkening sky. "Changeling magic's funny. You should know that as well as I do. A wound like that, changeling to changeling... We don't know if it might have done something we didn't expect."

"Like what?"

The other changeling kept his eyes fixed on the western horizon.

"It might never fade, no matter how often you change shape. It could stay there, whatever form you happen to take."

He glanced back at Breeze. "Might, is all I'm saying though. It might be nothing at all."

"And 'might' leaves a lot of room for things to go bad." The younger changeling scowled. "Come on, a scar? That's an identifying feature! If they get wind of changelings wandering around Equestria, then they're going to be looking for any way they can to find us. And if they find out that one of us has a scar he can't get rid of, guess what happens then!"

A sudden moan set Breeze starting in shock. Between them, the crumpled shape that was Rainy Days shifting in his sleep, shying away from some phantom fear. Sun clicked his tongue, glancing at the horizon again. It was blazing orange, and the last of the daylight was fading fast. Almost time. With a grunt, he bent down and shifted the pony onto his back.

"It's just a 'might', young one."

Breeze's scowl didn't let up. "I think I've made my feelings clear. I'd much rather know for sure than be stuck with 'might'."

Sun shrugged. "Well, there's only one way to be sure." He leant forward, looking down into the canyon below. "Now, excuse me for a moment, please."

As the last of the sun's bright circle dipped beneath the craggy peaks, Sun dropped from the ridge, dumping Rainy unceremoniously on the hard ground. A burst of power forced his eyes open, and Sun reached down to capture his gaze, horn sending crazed shadows all around the pony and the changeling.

"<You never saw any changelings. You can't remember the last three days. The last thing you can remember is leaving for your walk three days ago, and bumping your head. Understand?>"

Rainy gave a mute nod, his mouth lolling open. Sun gave his own nod, eyes narrowing and horn flaring once again. "<Then sleep. Don't wake up for another hour.>"

Just like that, the pony was out, his head on the ground and his breath coming shallow, but regular. The light from Sun's horn faded, then vanished. A few seconds passed, then he lifted Rainy's head in his hooves, and slammed it against the floor. He turned back to Breeze, his face hard, and beckoned for him to follow.

The other changeling just stood, watching with shock and a rising sense of horror. Sun turned back, catching the look on his face.

"He's supposed to have taken a bad turn. It has to look real."

With that he started off again, showing no signs this time of waiting. As he took his first steps, further into the canyon, Breeze dropped down, fluttering his wings, and landed easily on the rocks, trotting to catch up.

"I don't think you needed to be quite so brutal about it, though."

"Can you think of any better way to make it convincing?"

Breeze's stride paused, then moved on. "Mm, fine. I'd rather not think about it anyway. And you're right, Sun. About...this." He stroked a hoof down the bright green line that now marked him. "Only one way to be sure. So why bother delaying? Let's just get this over with."

They paused and stepped apart, nodding. A moment of stillness. Then twin flashes banished the darkening night, if only in the canyon and only for a few seconds. When the flames had died down, the changelings were gone. Instead of Evening Breeze, Rainy Days stood. And in the place of Rising Sun, a rusty-red earth stallion who owned a street side stall in Dodge Junction.

They glanced each other up and down, admiring the transformations, when Sun froze. It was only for a moment, but Breeze caught the sudden tension and frowned. He put a hoof up to his new face, patting along the side of his muzzle. His hoof felt nothing but short fur, and he felt cool relief washing like a wave through his mind.

Then he met bare skin. Not much; just a single, thin line that ran down beyond the corner of his mouth. But it was enough. Enough to give him away. Enough to make him swallow the thick lump that seemed to be rising in his throat. He coughed, turning his head away.


Sun pawed at the dust with a strange expression on his face, as though unsure what to do or say.

"It's fine. I'll deal with it."

Breeze put enough force into those words that Sun could fool himself into believing them. Enough, at least, to be able to force his worries to back of his mind. So to, in fact, could Breeze. Almost.

But in the deepening darkness, as the pair turned towards the North Star, he found he couldn't force away the hammering of his heart, or the swell of fear in his belly.

Author's Notes:

Big thanks to Zekrom and Copper-Cap for pre-reading for me.

Contact - III

In the wilderness north-east of Dodge Junction, there sprawled one of the many forests that ponies were proving to be so fond of.

Well, to call it wilderness was a little generous. There was only one piece of truly wild land this deep into the land between the Crystal Mountains and the MacIntosh Hills, and that was yet another forest, albeit one that the ponies were rather less fond of.

Compared with the Everfree, this forest was like a park. Kept in check by the many magics of Equestria, its weather was tightly controlled and its inhabitants, for the most part, kept docile and friendly. But to changelings that had never seen a real forest before, it certainly felt wild. And oppressive. Treetops bent over them, like giants bending to reach down and snatch something, and every scurrying creature in the undergrowth felt like some stalking predator.

Breeze shivered, pulling himself a little closer to Sun. It was coming into late evening, and the sky, as much as it could be seen through the canopy, was growing ever darker.

Sun, for his part, spared Breeze a glare that sat at odds with his disguise's usual relaxed, content expression.

"Breeze. Enough."

The younger changeling pulled back, blushing, his head down and ears low. Even with Rainy Days' skin, he looked almost like he were a nymph again, still clutching to what was left of his hatching pod.

"Sorry, sorry..."

There was no use explaining his fear; he'd done so enough times in this one day alone. And they'd already spent two days wandering through forest of one kind or another. It was enough time that the sight of the trees was becoming more than just familiar, and yet for all that, he still felt trapped by them. That he even felt claustrophobic was unnerving in and of itself, since it came from a creature that had grown up in close, tight tunnels.

Nor was there any use in Sun explaining why that very fear was irrational and ill-founded, but he looked set to, taking a breath and opening his mouth when the faint sound of singing came drifting through the trees from the path ahead of them.

He pulled up short, Breeze alongside him, and his mouth closed with an audible click.

The tune was bouncy, set to a marching pace, and though the words were still indistinct at this distance the voice was obviously male. It drifted away, and a light, more melodic female voice sounded, weaving back and forth along the path.

Breeze shot a nervous glance in Sun's direction, but the other didn't react, simply standing his ground and widening his stance a little. For a moment, the voice continued, growing steadily louder. Then the words became clear, and a pair of ponies emerged from between the trees, hauling a heavy laden cart behind them. A unicorn stallion, and an earth mare, singing a duet between them. The mare was partway through a verse:

"...I never did intend to gae tae foreign lands,
And I never will marry a soldier-o!"

At that moment the stallion took over.

"Now up jumped the colonel, March, boys, march!
Tarry, cried oor captain, oh tarry-o!
O tarry yet a while, just another day or twa
Til I see if this bonnie lass will marry-o"

He paused for breath, ready to launch into the next verse, when he looked ahead, catching sight of the pair as they stood agape. His face split into a broad smile, as the mare beside him did the same.

"Good evenin', lads! Nice tae see new faces on the road. Whaur are ye headed tae?"

"F-fillydelphia..." mumbled Sun. Something was odd about these new ponies, and it wasn't just their cheerfulness. Their voices were strange. Or rather, their words were.

The mare didn't seem bothered by their shock, though, or the thoughts and suspicions that had to have been clear across their faces. She just inclined her head to them, still smiling. "Ah, we've just come fae there. Whit are ye goin' there for, if I might ask?"

"We were just going to pass though," Sun said, his voice slow and eyes starting to narrow. "We might look for some work while we're there, but we don't plan to stay too long."

At this, Breeze swallowed, stepping forward and nodding.

"That's right, and we should be moving."

The stallion, however, simply laughed at that, sharing a glance with the mare.

"Now, dinnae be sae quick to run off! It'll be dark, soon, and I doobt ye lads have tents packed away in thae saddlebags, eh?" He looked between the two, and chuckled again. "We were soon tae mak' camp oorsel's; why no share oor fire? Ah can gie ye a good at oor ware afore ye go in the morning, too."

He motioned towards the cart. It was an old, ramshackle thing, but the many repairs that covered it were of decent quality, and Breeze might have thought it had a good few years left in it. If he had been the type to notice such things. He did, however, notice the boxes filling it, and glimpsed all manner of things, both practical and useless.

But he didn't say anything right away. Instead, there was a moment's silence, punctuated only by the rustling of the trees, as he and Sun tried to sort the stallion's words into plain Equestrian. Breeze just stood, oddly taken by it, while it took longer than either of them would have liked before Sun finally spoke up.

"That's...very kind of you. You're a travelling merchant?"

The stallion shook his head. "Naw, lad, we're Ceardannan. Craftsponies. Name's Fair Trade, and this is Melody. Just ca' her Mel, though."

Breeze just stared back at him, searching through what little he knew of pony society. Beside him, he knew Sun would be doing the same. In the meantime, Trade frowned at the pair of blank faces before him.

"Summer Walkers?" he tried. "Tinkers? No?"

Breeze shook his head. "Nope, sorry."

Trade looked, for a moment, as though he couldn't understand what was happening in front of him. But then he shrugged, waving it off. "Ach, it ain't a problem. We're travelling folk, true enough, but no' for trading. At least, not really. We carry things around to trade with, but we walk the roads because we want to. All use folk live on the roads. But it'd be a sight more comfortable telling ye all this with camp set up. So, lads, will ye help us get unpacked, and sit a while?"

They shared a glance. Breeze felt a desperate urge to refuse them; not just for the obvious reasons, but for another, unknown feeling deep in his gut that told him there would be trouble. One hoof crept up to the side of his muzzle to trace the scar still lying there, bold against his pale coat.

But Sun seemed unsure, as opposed to worried. Even then, it was obvious what his answer was going to be, when he finally got around to deciding, and it was just as obvious that he'd have a decent enough reason for it. So Breeze just sat back, letting the older changeling speak for him.

"If you're sure you don't mind... We'd be happy to."

The fire's orange glow was like a beacon in the deep darkness of the forest. Beyond the bright, flickering circle the black was absolute, the canopy and the close trunks blocking out any light from the moon or the stars, save for the occasional break in the leaves where the cold pinpricks of the stars could be seen.

Within that circle, however, the world was warm, soft, and safe.

Breeze rested on his side, basking in the firelight like a lizard sunbathing on a seaside rock. With the camp set up, the impromptu company had fallen into a rough circle around the fire, as Trade passed steaming bowls of stew around. It wasn't fantastic, Breeze mused as he chewed on a spoonful, even by his own limited experience. But it was pleasant enough, and it was hot. Better than eating grass from the side of the road, at least.

"So then, lads," Trade said, swallowing his own mouthful. "Whaur exactly are ye comin' frae?"

"Dodge," replied Sun. He glanced up at the stallion, eyes drooping, drowsy from the heat of the fire. "Got bored of frontier life, and thought we might try making a life for ourselves somewhere a little more populated. More interesting."

"Ah. You two a couple, then?"

If the forest had been populated by crickets, there might have been the sound of their chirping to fill the void that followed. That at least might have made things less awkward. As it was, there were only the sounds of the fire as both of the changelings' heads snapped towards each other, eyes wider than plates.

Breeze let out a long, droning "Nooooooooo..." at the same time as Sun shook his head, simply repeating the word a few times before he waved the younger changeling down.

"No, we're just friends. Close friends, I'll grant you, but that's just because we've been through a lot together. We're not a couple."

Chuckling, Trade waved his hooves at them, making a 'calm down' gesture. "Nae offence meant, lads, just makin' assumptions." He turned to face Breeze. "So, how is it that ye let Mr Sun o'er there dae all the talkin' for ye? Shy one?"

Breeze just nodded, his cheeks gone red and not going back.

"Ach, I wouldnae force ye tae talk, lad, but ye've nought tae fear frae us, just so's ye ken."

Again, that odd accent rang in Breeze's ears, drawing him in. It was rough, yet somehow melodious, the sort of accent that would be easy to put to song. The obvious question built on his lips - had been building all evening, in fact - and finally burst free before he could stop it.

"Where are you from?"

At that, Mel let out a less-than-ladylike burst of laughter.

"How, does the accent no' gie it awa'?"

When Breeze replied with a blank stare and little else, she blinked, very obviously at a loss. "...really?"

"Never was very good with accents," Sun said, rushing to fill the silence. "Neither of us were. Comes with living on the frontier."

Trade raised an eyebrow. "You're no' kiddin'." As Sun looked away, kicking at the dirt and grass, he smiled, waving it off. "Well, we're frae a wee place up in the north o' Trottingham County. Grew up on an oat farm, a wee ways in from the coast, an' Mel here in a fishing village nearby. Nice enough place, if a bit bleak. Awfy weather, an' a'."

"...'awfy' in what way?"

"Rain," said Mel, her face bleak and her glare flat. "Naught but. Oh, you might hae some sun, maybe even a whole day or twa at a time. But it doesnae last. North Trottingham is the pegasus dumpin' groond for their used-up storms. Near the coast, see; they punt it o'er oor way, an' let it drift oot o'er the ocean."

Breeze hummed to himself, nodding. "Sounds nasty."

"Aye, it is. Spend your childhood in the rain, ye tend tae get a tad bitter..."

"Hold on, back up a minute," he said suddenly, looking between the couple. "You," he pointed at Trade, "grew up on an oat farm? And you," - Mel - "grew up in a fishing village?"

Both nodded, and Breeze sat back, shoulder muscles twitching and tensing as he tried to buzz wings he didn't actually have any more. "So what was all that about 'Ceardannan'?" He spoke the strange word perfectly, without even a second thought. "You know, all your folk 'living on the road', and all that?"

Flickering sparks drifted up from the fire as a log crackled and spat, sap pockets bursting in the flames. Mel and Trade shared a glance, eyes glinting in the firelight, and chuckled together.

"What?" demanded Breeze, frowning. The rush of spotting the inconsistency, as obvious as it was, had sent a rush of confidence through him, and it was still lingering, even as confusion started to set in. "What's funny?"

"Ach, it isnae much, lad. Just that... Well, tell the truth, the Ceardannan havenae been daein' much wandering for a hundred years or more. Mel an' I, we're gone back the auld ways, but we werenae born tae them." He sat back, setting his bowl aside and resting in a very un-pony-like position. "Aye, auld ways in Equestria're dyin' oot, these days. Folk mak new tradition, an' only a few edjits like us keep the auld ways movin'."

The fire had all but burned out. A few embers still glowed a dull red amongst the white, ashen remains, but there was little heat, and their light didn't reach out more than a foot or two. Though the night was mild, the small group had wrapped themselves up snug and tight to keep the chill away. Almost like a nymph in a cocoon, Evening Breeze mused as he shifted inside his blankets, trying to eke a little comfort out of the lumps and grassy knots beneath him.

The sounds of soft breathing came from all around him, soothing and calm, but somehow infuriating as well. They were a constant reminder that everypony else was asleep, restful, even carefree. But not him.

Truth be told, he hadn't slept well in days, not since leaving the cabin. With the dull fear of the escape now behind him, and the reality of the long slog ahead of him, he found himself noticing the things about the Hive that, quite frankly, he missed. As much as he'd been dissatisfied, and eager to run once he knew that it was possible, he couldn't deny that there was a strange comfort to the routine of his old life. At this moment, it was the routine of sleep; lights out when the captain said so, bunking with something like fifty other drones so that their presence was constant, even at rest. There was a sense of belonging, on those nights, that he never felt anywhere else, and of security as well. The Hive was safe, at least from outward threats. There was no such security here. Even if he knew academically that there was no danger, he still felt vulnerable.

Worse, perhaps, the time awake gave him a chance to reflect. Reflect on the differences, and even the strange similarities. He was free now, able to do what he wanted, when he wanted. At least, within reason. But though food was theoretically more plentiful here than in the Hive, he was going to have to work so much harder for it. There was a certainty in his old life, that you would be fed and watered and sheltered so long as you did your job and did it well. But out here, he had no such guarantees. Heck, he had no job.

And yet he found the world around him to be as trusting as the Hive had been. For different reasons, perhaps; in the Hive you trusted your fellows because they were meant to be just like you, working towards a common cause with the same thoughts and feelings behind their chitinous skulls. In Equestria, the ponies seemed to trust each other, like Trade and Mel had trusted Sun and him, out of a quiet confidence that they were better. The dangers of the world outside their borders wouldn't touch them, because they had risen above that. They controlled the skies and the trees and the creatures that scurried between them. How could they not think that way? How could any danger touch this realm, where their queen moved the sun and moon themselves?

Or at least, that was how it seemed to him, in the long, hidden hours of the night. His opinion was of limited value, all things considered, but he was on the right track. Equestria was trusting, to a degree. Maybe not for the reasons he suspected, but then again, maybe so. Either way, the night was dragging on. With a little effort, he rolled over, and realised that the bundle of blankets beside him was empty.

He sat up. No trick of the darkness there, the blankets were lying flat on the ground. He looked around the campsite, spotting Sun and Trade, both still and peaceful. Mel, then. But where had she gone, and when? He hadn't noticed any movement. Then again, since wrapping himself in his cloth cocoon, there had been periods when he was so lost in thought he might as well have been sleeping.

So she was missing. Had she gone far? In any case, what did it matter? What was he going to do about it? Simple pragmatism said to just lie down and try sleeping, ignore the problem and pretend that he knew nothing about it when someone else found out. He felt the urge to listen to pragmatism's advice, to not concern himself with these ponies. After all, the forest was dark, and he still felt a thrill of fear every time he looked into the deepest darkness between the trees, imagining eyes staring back at him.

The problem was, another part of him wondered if it might not be a good idea to go and find her. He was scared, that much was true, but this mare had taken the pair in, and along with her husband had given them food and shelter. And it wasn't as if he was going to be sleeping any time soon.

He tugged the blankets away with his teeth, kicking the last clingy folds off and rolling to his hooves. There were faint prints in the grass, marking a trail from the blanket pile to somewhere between the trees. Breeze gulped, even less sure that this was a good idea, but he began to trot, very cautiously, along the trail.

As he reached the trees he started dragging his hooves, but it wasn't out of fear, or his reluctance to go between the trunks and into the true darkness. In there, with the eyes of a pony, he'd be blind, unable to follow his own tracks back to camp. So he dragged his hooves, making bold, broad scrapes through the undergrowth, leaf-litter and dirt. Even if he couldn't see, he could always feel his way back.

He moved in, leaving his trail behind him, hoping the noise might attract Mel's attention, and hers alone. Calling angry forest dwellers down on him while trying to find a missing pony? Not a fantastic way to meet his end. Not that he wanted to meet it at all, of course. But he couldn't help imagining every half-glimpsed shape in the deep darkness as some crouching beast, or a nameless horror. There was movement to his right, the rustle of leaf litter that might have been the wind, or something more sinister.

He thought about giving up the facade. Of shedding this disguise and reclaiming his chitinous self. He probably wouldn't last much longer. But at least he'd have real weapons. More than just those ridiculous hooves.

He kept shuffling, the thought of running into Mel without his disguise providing all the motivation he needed to avoid temptation, and press on. The soft suggestion of sound stayed with him, but it was indistinct now. The huffing of some monstrous creature, the soft sound of the wind, or maybe even just his imagination.

It could have been any of these things, but he would never know which, because as he watched the trees to his side, he stepped out into a hidden clearing, and stumbled into Mel herself.


She called his name in a harsh whisper, wanting to shout but not daring to disturb the peace of the forest. As he fell back onto his rump, startled by the impact and the sound of his name, she glared down at him, looking far more severe by moonlight than she did in the day, or by the warm light of the fire.

"M-mel?" he stuttered, staring back with wide eyes. The clearing was more or less barren of trees, letting through the hard, white light of the moon and the soft twinkle of the stars overhead.

"Whit are ye daein' here, ye daft bampot? It's the middle o' the nicht! Ye should be in bed, no' chasin' after me!"

He pulled himself back to his feet, frowning.

"W-well I wouldn't be chasing you, if you were in bed as well. So what are you d-doing here?" With some effort, he stilled his shaking limbs and glared at her, though the effect was somewhat diminished by his nervous stutter.

She threw a scowl at him, but it was softened by amusement. She turned away, sitting down, looking up.

"Just looking at the stars, is all. I ken these forests, and there are aye a few goods spots fer stargazin'..." With a backward glance, she erased her scowl and matched his frown, raising an eyebrow for good measure. "An' I get tae be oot here, because I ken this forest, an' I ken whit lies in it. You dinnae, so you shouldnae been sneakin' around after dark!"

"I'm sorry," he muttered, his angry expression gone, replaced by something a little more contrite that hid a slow-burning wick in his belly. He looked up through the gap in the trees, not wanting to meet her eyes. "I wondered where you'd gone, or why. Didn't want anypony to wake up to you missing."

At that, she let out a little sigh, and her expression softened, the frown giving way to a rueful smile. "Ach, you're a daft thing." She made a gentle shooing motion at him. "Go on, I'll be back afore long."

But Breeze wasn't listening. His wandering eyes had found the shining moon, and he stared up at it as the dark silhouette of its stoic queen glared down upon him. He was about to whisper a quiet prayer, caught up in the sight, when Mel's hoof crossed back and forth in his field of vision.

He looked over at her, catching the glint of her white teeth in the moonlight as she grinned. "A little moonstruck there, lad?" she asked, her eyes glittering.

He nodded, almost ashamed at being caught like that, struck by the moon, and about to whisper useless things to it. This creature, this pony, had shown him up in the dark already, a place where a changeling soldier like him was supposed to thrive. His pride could only take so much, so he bit back an enthusiastic reply and set his face.

"I suppose. Is this what you're out here for?"

She rolled her eyes, not seeing his mask dropping into place, and prodded his side. "Did ye no' hear me say so? Aye, I'm a stargazer. Here for the view. There's no better place fer it than the middle o' nowhere. Well, maybe the forest's no' the best place, but it maks ye focus on one patch of sky. Ye see mair in that one place than ye would if it was the whole sky ye were watchin'."

"Aye...?" Breeze said, almost without thought. He had barely heard a word of what she'd been saying, too focused on her voice, and the way she spoke the words rather than their meaning. As she turned to give him an odd look, though, he realised what he'd said, the way he'd picked up her odd word as an afterthought, and closed his mouth, eyes very deliberately fixed on the stars.

Thankfully, she turned back, choosing either to ignore it, or perhaps having never really heard him in the first place. As he let out a sigh of relief, she giggled to herself. "You're really enjoyin' the view, aren't you? Well, I suppose I could let you stay a while. We'll head back to camp together. Does that sound all right?"

He nodded, and something clicked in his mind. Alone, in the middle of the forest, where the trees would muffle any noise and of the only two ponies able to reach them, one wasn't even a pony at all. A smile started to spread across his face as an idea started to grow.

This, he thought, could turn out to be a very productive night.

Author's Notes:

Okay, this took FAR too long to finish than it had any right to. Things have been a bit busy, and for some reason the words just weren't flowing. But I have a chapter up now. I might revise it later, it's still rough and probably has errors all around, but it's here.

Contact - IV

Despite his smile, Evening Breeze could feel a steady tingle in his gut, where that anger had burned just a few moments before. Their surroundings were almost perfect; isolated, far enough from the campsite that Trade wouldn't hear anything, with nopony else around to bother them. Not only that, but Mel was already transfixed by the stars, her mouth moving without sound as she tracked them across the sky. His job was half done for him. It was the perfect place to feed; all he had to do was get her to give her love to him.

But that was the problem. To the best of his - admittedly limited - knowledge, there was only one pony to whom Melody's heart truly belonged, and that pony certainly wasn't Breeze, nor the disguise that he wore. In the interests of collecting love, it was more or less useless. Not, however, that he could steal Fair Trade's form, nor any other for that matter, not without either knocking Mel out, or dulling her mind to the point that she didn't question the change. It was doable, certainly, but this form came without a horn. No horn meant he had no access to unicorn magic, that could have backed up his effort, and he simply didn't feel confident trying something like that with changeling magic alone.

But now that he'd had the idea, it was sticking. The smartest thing to do might have been to simply accept that it was an impossible task, and slink back to the campsite. But hunger that had previously gone unnoticed was starting to gnaw at him, and if he turned down a meal now, he knew that it would only get worse. So he leant towards her, taking long, deep, but ultimately quiet, breaths, hoping that there might have been enough stirring emotion within her to at least give him a taste, even as he used the steady inhalations to try and clear his mind and muddle through to a solution. Because there was a way through this. He knew it. Whether that certainty came from a simple gut feeling, or some half-remembered lesson from his younger days, he couldn't say. But the answer was there. Just out of reach, outwith the usual mode of thought, and a changeling's usual modus operandi.

Love was the key, of course. Clear, crisp, sweet and filling... And the irony was that he didn't even know what exactly it was. Oh, an emotion, certainly. He knew that much. Felt between two creatures, perhaps more, who shared a special closeness. But surely there was more to it that that. After all, a changeling could no more feed on fear, joy, or anger than any pony could. So what was it that made these emotions less than love? What was it that made love itself so tangible?

They were important questions, but as they ran through his mind he dismissed them. He didn't have any answers, and even if he had known how important they were, without answers they were useless anyway. Instead, he sat back, rethinking his options, when a thought came to him.

Though ideally he needed her to give her love to him, he was in fact perfectly capable of taking love that wasn't directed at him specifically. It was like stealing the scraps dropped from a feast; hardly capable of actually sating his hunger, but it could take the edge from it. And perhaps even lend him a little strength. Perhaps it wasn't the best plan in the world, and on its own it really wasn't even worth the otherwise perfect position, but it was better than nothing. And Breeze was more than happy to chance it taking a smaller meal, if it meant that there was the possibility of it leading to something bigger.

With an easy, casual twist of his neck and shoulders he shifted a little, moving closer to her. The proximity wasn't required, but it was desirable.

"You and Trade," he said carefully. "You've known each other for a while, I take it?"

As he spoke, he stretched out his senses. If he'd had a horn, it would have glowed dull green as he probed the air with...something. It was a sense that was hard to describe to a being without the same capability. A unicorn might have understood, to an extent, but it wasn't something that could be put into words. Still, he felt a little rush of affection from her at the mention of Trade, and managed to pull a little shred of that little rush to himself. It was so small that he barely even noticed it, but it was success.

"Aye, since we were weans," Mel said, her eyes and mind still largely focused on the stars.

"Did you know you'd end up together? When you were young, I mean."

She shrugged. "No' really. Too young tae ken what love was, back then. Took us a while tae realise what it was we were feelin' for each other."

"He seems...friendly," Breeze hazarded. "And funny, too. Was he always like that?"

Mel snorted, tearing her eyes away from the stars for a moment to look at Breeze with a funny little half frown, half smile.

"His mooth was aye gettin' him intae trouble, if that's what you mean. He's an awfy one for that. Drives me half mad sometimes. But..." The frown bowed out under the weight of the growing smile, and she looked back to the stars. "You get used tae it..."

Another little surge, larger than the last. Breeze took what he could, a rush of confidence carrying him along, and he knew how he was going to make this night end.

"You must love him very much," he murmured. And as he fed on that third and greatest spike, his mounting confidence took him over, and the rush of confusion that followed her affection went unnoticed as he prepared a spark of confusion behind his eyes.

Changeling magic was something special. It was almost like unicorn magic in its effects, but it required neither a horn nor wings to channel. A horn helped matters, certainly; it acted as a focusing point, and channelling unicorn magic into a changeling spell could strengthen it. But at its most basic, it required only the body, to change forms, and the eyes. It was through the eyes that a changeling could dominate properly prepared prey, just as Rising Sun had bent Lacy's will to match his own.

Breeze had a simple plan. All he had to do was send his spark into her mind while it wandered between the stars. A focused mind could repel the attack, and shake off the confusion, but just as Sun had lowered Lacy's defences with a kiss, Mel's mind was open to him while she was dreaming. And once his spark had done its work, he'd take Trade's form, and all of her love would flow straight into him. She wouldn't notice the change, or the fact that the mind beneath the skin wasn't Trade's. All she'd see would be her love, and that would be all she'd need. The spark would blind her to all else.

All in all, it was a good plan. At least, until the moment Melody turned to him with a strange expression.

"Where exactly are you going with this, Breeze?"

He panicked. His spark burst forth, half-formed and poorly aimed. It wasn't a spark in truth, of course; he just visualised it as one. The only real evidence of it was the momentary flash of green that lit up his eyes, echoed by Mel's own eyes a half second later as it burrowed into her mind. The job was done, but it wasn't the same spark that Breeze had visualised. Mel's eyes went blank, then she blinked, focusing them on the changeling, and there was no doubting the lack of confusion behind them. Instead, there was something more animal, and far less controllable.

"I, uh... What?" he stammered.

The subtle frown melted away, replaced by a gentle, almost knowing smile that spread beneath half-lidded eyes. Her tongue poked out, wetting her lips as she slowly ground her hoof against the undergrowth.

"I asked where you were going with this, Breeze..." she purred, leaning into him. "It sounded interesting."

He gulped, leaning away on reflex. His mind tried to process the sudden change in circumstance, but he could find no good answer, and that worried him.

But wait, said another part is his mind, a deeper and darker part. Is this really such a bad thing? You wanted her love, and now she's giving it to you, without even being tricked.

"Mel," he said, his voice soft. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"

She giggled, her smile only widening. "It shouldnae be that hard tae figure out."

The sudden urge to ask about Trade ran through him, but he forced it away. Trade didn't matter right now; he was just another of a million ponies in this land, and as good as he might have been to Breeze, the changeling wasn't about to give up on a free meal. Besides, how was this any worse than taking the pony's form? So he nodded, licking his own lips and turning to face her.

"You're right. It isn't."

She grinned, and moved for a kiss.

As she leant in, so close now that her scent filled his nose, Breeze began to feed proper, taking a draught of her love. Only it wasn't love. Similar, certainly, but different.

It was an inherently broken comparison to try and assign qualities like taste or smell to emotions. There were certain synesthetic responses that a changeling might undergo, but in the end the experience of consuming love was one that was so bizarre and so far removed from any of the more mundane senses that it lacked any real way to convey the feeling. In that regard, it was just like using magic to detect the emotion, but stronger and perhaps more abstract. Not even a unicorn could have understood just what it was like.

That being said, assigning mundane approximations to incredible things made it easier to understand how they might work, even if it was a poor representation of the thing in question. So, if one likened love to a full and healthy meal, with all the right food groups in all the right proportions, then that analogy could be stretched to include this new emotion. And that analogy would place it firmly into the role of junk food.

It was a pleasant experience, of course. And a quick one; already his body was converting it into energy he could use, and it came to him easily, all but broadcasted from her. But the buzz was short-lived; even as she lingered, her muzzle a hair's breadth from his, he could feel the initial surge of energy dying away, and there was something about it, some satisfaction, that was missing.

To stretch the metaphor to its furthest, this was the hay-burger to love's hay and oat salad, and though he took strength from it Breeze doubted it would keep him sustained - truly sustained, at least - for very long at all.

But those thoughts passed by in an instant, the space of a heartbeat, and they were wiped away as the mare's lips met his, and she leaned heavily against him, her coat rough against his own. And he pushed back, moulding his body around hers, his hooves clutching her tightly against him. He forced his mind to think up another spell, the proper one this time, ready to turn her head and remove any risk of doubt coming to her mind.

Then he squeaked as she pushed back at him, even harder, forcing him onto his back as her movements became almost aggressive. Again, his spell went awry, simply dissipating behind his eyes this time. The sound of Mel's desperate, panting breaths all but drowned out the rustling of leaves, and she finally pulled back, smiling at Breeze through half-lidded eyes.

"M-Mel..." he stammered, reaching up to try and hold her off for a moment. "Are you sure this is such a good... Mmph!"

He was cut off by her lips, pressing up against his once again. She made a low, hungry noise, and the pit of his stomach dropped away at the thought that he might not be in control-


The kiss broke as Breeze and Mel both snapped their heads to one side, looking in wide-eyed horror at the source of the shout.

Fair Trade stood at the edge of the clearing, his face dark with rage under the silver moonlight, Rising Sun standing at his side with a look of abject disappointment.

Author's Notes:

Okay, so it's been a while, and I haven't got much to show for that time... This chapter fought me to the end, and by the time I reached that end, I figured I wasn't getting much more out of it, so here we are. A little heavy on the exposition, so I apologise for that as well :p

Contact - V

"Well?" Trade hissed, moonlight flashing from his eyes, and glinting from his gritted teeth. The night, already so still, seemed to have lost all other sound, so that Breeze's heartbeat rang in his own ears. His eyes twitched over to Sun, but there was no comfort there, just a well of disappointment that was only half faked. As he watched, the older changeling gave a shake of his head, so slight it might have been imaginary, but Breeze's face fell, and he turned his gaze to the silver-lit grass a few metres from their hooves.

Mel, however, showed no real signs of fear at being caught. The shock melted from her face, and she sat back, pulling away from Breeze to rest on her haunches as half-lidded eyes swung to her husband.

"Trade..." she purred, wiggling her hips against the grassy ground. "Why don't ye come an' join wis?" She winked, and Breeze took the opportunity to squirm out from under her and rise to his hooves, standing a healthy distance from the mare.

Some of the anger on Trade's face turned to confusion at her words, and he threw a dagger-sharp look at Breeze, catching the shock and apprehension still written into his features.

"What in the name o' Princess Celestia is gaein' on here?" he said, each word ground out like the slow march of an arctic glacier. He turned to Sun, his face set in a thunderous frown. "What did yer colt dae tae her?" he demanded.

"Nothing!" Breeze's swift answer cut off any reply Sun might have been about to make, the lie coming easily to him and bursting out of his mouth almost before he was even aware of speaking. "I was just talking to her! I woke up, saw that she was missing, and went looking for her, and we got talking, and she just leapt on me! That's all that happened, I swear!"

Trade glowered, missing the sultry smile Mel flashed at him. "Mah wife widdnae 'just leap' ontae any other stallion! Ye've done summit!"

He lowered his stance. For a moment, Breeze was sure he would charge forward, but then Sun was there, holding a hoof out. Mel looked between the two of them, her face knotted in confusion, but even she seemed to know when to hang back, though her eyes were gleaming with desperate desire.

"What could he possibly have done?" Sun asked quietly. With a discrete flick of the hoof he motioned towards Breeze, who had ducked his head, forelegs slightly bent, unconsciously adopting a drone's posture of submission.

"The lad can't do magic, and I don't see anywhere for him to have hidden any kind of potion." His voice was calm, reasonable, almost soothingly deep. "What else could a pony have done to her, eh?"


Sun cut the stallion off with a heavy sigh, and a slow, almost reluctant nod. "I know, there's something not right with her. But as I understand it, the woods are full of all manner of strange things." His eyes sparkled, backing up his reassuring words with the slightest of suggestion, the power far more subtly weaved through his voice than Breeze's wave of compulsion. "You should take her back to camp, see if you can put her to bed, and try to forget about this. Or better yet, make it a story to tell other travellers."

Trade's eyes drooped, going dull as he nodded, then he blinked, slow and heavy. But he perked himself up after a moment, and shook himself with a heavy frown, his eyes clearing again as the power spent itself against his will.

"There's summit gey queer gaein' on here..." he mumbled, and Breeze cringed, wondering whether he meant Mel's new attitude, or the suggestion he'd just managed to throw off. He didn't like either answer overly much. But whatever the stallion had been thinking, he just sighed and shook that off as well. "Mel?" he said softly, moving closer to the mare. "Come wi' me, lass. I've summit special for ye..."

She stood, ears perking right up and her tail swinging in wide arcs behind her. "Oh? Is that right, love?" She moved closer to him, snuffling at his face, but he pulled back, putting on a smile and turning back towards the camp.

"It is, but ye've got tae come back tae camp with me first..." he said, starting to walk away.

Sun nodded to him, releasing the tension he thought no one could see, but that Breeze could spy as plain as the sun in his limbs.

"You go ahead, Trade. I'll see to Breeze, and see you back there in a bit."

There was only a terse grunt in reply, as Trade slunk back between the trees, Mel following behind with a swishing tail and swaying hips, her eyes locked on his behind.

Sun waited, an ear cocked, until the sound of their hooves brushing through the leaf litter had faded, and then turned to face Breeze, that look of disappointment clear on his face again.

"So, what was that?" he said softly, but with precious little sympathy to his tone.

"I-I don't know..." Breeze stammered. His hooves twisted in the grass, and he glanced up, but his head was still bowed, and he dipped his gaze again, not daring to look Sun in the eye. Far back, in a dim and distant corner of his mind, he still saw Rising Sun as he had that first day, as a superior, and his shoulders hunched as he pulled his neck in, making himself seem as small as possible.

"You don't know?" Sun said. "Somehow I don't believe that. I'm sure you know what you were trying to do. And I'm also sure you know what happened." He sighed, his head shaking slowly. "You screwed up..."

Those three words, spoken in hushed tones but carrying the weight of a week's worth of hell, stabbed into Breeze like shards of ice.

"I'm sorry..."

His voice was low, buzzing even through his disguise. It was oddly flat, the two words enunciated with mechanical precision. "I'm sorry," he repeated, his voice a little firmer, but completely monotone. "I was just trying to feed." It felt so natural to just fall back into an air of dispassionate serenity, sounding out his justifications in even, emotionless tones. "I wanted to bring back a proper meal." His muzzle turned completely downward, pointing straight to the floor, and his eyes followed it as his forelegs bent a little more. "It will not happen again, I swe-"

A hoof pressed against the top of his nose, and he fell silent, vaguely aware of a new sound. Harsh, heavy breathing, rushing through a flared nose.

He glanced up. Sun stood before him, hoof outstretched, his pony eyes wide and shimmering, his chest heaving.

Very, very slowly, he shook his head and pulled his hoof back.

"Don't do that."

Breeze remained silent, simply staring at him with his head still turned down, not seeing the free changeling but a drone-adept, perhaps even a captain, standing before him.

"Evening Breeze. Please. For the sake of all we've done..." The voice was husky, on the edge of quavering. "You're not one of them anymore."

"One of..." His voice trailed off, and a horrible icy feeling spread through his belly, and up from the flats of his hooves. He blinked, three times, trying to shake off the phantom vision of resinous armour, of a cold, superior sneer, and of his own lowly fate. For a moment, it was as though all the years of hard-drilled, hard-learned instinct might not break. Might never break. But then, like a swimmer with burning lungs breaking the surface of the pool, he came up, and awareness sparked behind his eyes.

"S-Sun?" he whimpered, somehow huddling up further, falling back onto his rump. "I didn't... I didn't mean to... I thought you were angry. B-because I tried to feed out of turn..."

Then hooves were encircling him, tentatively pulling him close to a soft, furred chest. He blinked one last time, and found himself staring over Sun's shoulder as the older changeling held him close.

He wasn't sure what to think. It was awkward, almost painfully so. Sun clearly wasn't sure what he was doing; he kept adjusting his hold and shifting uneasily. By the same token, Breeze had no idea what to do besides sit there, motionless, and let it happen. After all he'd never been held before. And he was sure Sun had never given a hug in his life, either.

And yet... It was nice. There was no mistaking the heart behind it, and as he got over the initial awkwardness Sun stilled, until his only motion was the steady rhythm of his chest and he breathed. Breeze let himself relaxing, blowing out a long, shuddering breath, as his cheeks dampened with the narrow tracks of falling tears.

Eventually, he leant back, and Sun took the unspoken message, letting him go. Breeze nodded to him, a little smile on his face despite the moisture on his cheeks.


Sun shrugged.

"I heard ponies do it to each other when they get upset." He sighed, nodding to himself. "Are you going to be okay?"

"Yeah. Thanks. Um...again."

"Good." He cleared his throat with a gentle cough. "Look, Breeze, I'm not angry that you tried to feed, and we certainly don't have 'turns'. I'm...disappointed. Disappointed that you went about it so shoddily, and that you messed up like that. But you don't have to treat me like that. I know I tend to take charge, and you're more than inclined to follow my lead, but... We're not in the hive anymore. And you're not a drone. It's hard for you to remember that, I know, but you don't have to follow blindly. And I may have been disappointed, but in the end, you don't have to answer to me for that. Just yourself."

Breeze nodded slowly. "Yeah... But it's nice answering to someling else. They get to take responsibility for making all the tough choices. And the blame when things go wrong." He managed a weak smile, but there was more warmth behind it than the strength of the smile implied, and genuine affection behind the words, as strange as it was for him to realise it.

"I guess that would be true. Not so nice for the changeling at the top, though."

There was warmth in the smile that Sun returned, as well as a hint of something a little more bitter. Was it remorse? Maybe. Breeze couldn't be sure, but there was something behind the upturned lips that he didn't care to see there.

Whatever it was, it was gone quickly enough. Sun sat back, his head tilted to one side, as he turned something over in his mind.

"Now, how about you tell me exactly what you do know about what just happened?"

The campsite was quiet when they returned, perhaps an hour later. Somehow, Trade had coaxed Mel to sleep, and the couple were lying next to each other, near the remains of the fire, both dead to the world. Breeze couldn't be sure how the tinker had done it, but he had enough suspicions that be decided he didn't really want to know. It was a miracle no matter how it had been done. But there was a tenseness in Trade's form, even in sleep, as if he hadn't been comfortable lying down beside his own wife.

As he crawled into his own bedding, Breeze found himself watching them, remembering their closeness the day before. The way they sang their strange song and shared those glances, as if each knew what the other had been thinking. And he found himself idly wondering if that was what true love looked like.

After all, there was no doubt that they loved - or maybe had loved - one another. But although Breeze knew what love was to him - put bluntly, food - he'd never actually seen it practised in person. He couldn't say where the difference lay between a short-lived flame and real, true love. The kind that would bind ponies together for a lifetime, and keep a changeling fed for almost as long.

And yet... He was sure it had been. Even without knowing why, his instincts told him that, for the first time, he was seeing it. It was a fascinating thing. He might have said beautiful, but the word didn't really seem to fit. Not for him.

With all that still in mind, as he rolled over he idly wondered if he had just destroyed such a fascinating thing. Or if maybe their love really was strong enough to see them through it. Not that it really mattered, in the end. In the morning he and Sun would move on, and all things being equal they would never meet the tinkers again.

Not that the thought could entirely smother the little niggle of guilt in the back of his mind. Or the shame at having botched his compulsion to such devastating effect.

Lust. That's what Sun seemed to think it all came down to. Whatever had happened to Breeze's spell, it had triggered something inside Mel to bring lust to the surface. And perhaps that was what he'd been feeding on. After all, there were many types of love, not all of them the same. Lust was a large part of romantic love, so it made sense that it alone could make up something almost like a decent meal.

In a way, he supposed he shouldn't feel too bad about it all. At the very least, he'd managed to discover, entirely by accident of course, a new way of feeding, that took out the need to perfect an imitation, and play the old game with a target. It wasn't perfect, of course, but it was a start. A start to making their new life.

That was enough to help him close his eyes, and soon enough only the sounds of soft snores broke the nighttime quiet.

It wasn't too helpful come morning, when he woke to find Mel gone, and Trade sitting in front of the ashes of the campfire. It wasn't too surprising, really, assuming she was back to her normal self. If she remembered what had happened the night before... Most victims of changeling charms would have hazy memories, but it was by no means a certain thing, especially with a botched spell.

Still, even having expected it Breeze found the absence brought back that feeling of having taken apart something that perhaps should have remained whole. It made him pick idly at his breakfast, not wanting to go through the charade of eating like a pony, and left him staring into the bowl of thick oatmeal for what felt like an age before Sun brought him out of it with a sharp jab to the side.

But it wouldn't do to dwell on it. Breeze knew that much, so he forced the feeling to the back of his mind and tried to carry on as best he could.

Trade was willing to do the same, at least. He put on an air of civility that all three of them knew was only a thin façade meant to hide the lurking suspicions of what Breeze had done, despite Sun's reassurances. Knowing that didn't make it any easier to bear the suspicious glances the unicorn threw his way while they were packing up the camp, when he thought Breeze couldn't see. And knowing that Trade was right to be suspicious somehow made it worse. Breeze couldn't just shake them off with the knowledge that they were unfounded; instead, there was the fear that he'd slip up somehow, and give Trade something like hard evidence.

If he did that... Breeze didn't doubt that he and Sun could take one unicorn, and possibly one earth pony, in the middle of the woods, but there was no telling how far they'd have to go to keep themselves protected. It wasn't something that the younger changeling wanted to consider too deeply.

So he kept his head down, pretending that he didn't see the glances and glares, trusting that Sun's hoof would keep him in check.

And it would have, had he needed it. Thankfully, he managed to keep his head, and hold his tongue, and all that Sun had to throw his way was a glance of his own, when Breeze twitched in response to the feel of Trade's eyes on the back of his neck.

Finally, Trade heaved out a sigh, and moved around to the back of the cart, pulling back a pair of bolts and letting the back gunwale fall flat, making something like a table for him to rest a book and a bag of bits on. Breeze ignored those, however, more interested in the piled sacks and boxes now laid bare, filled with more curiosities and pointless things than he thought could exist in one place. Compasses, spades, typewriters, and things he didn't even have a name for.

"So then," Trade said, cutting through his awe. "You wanted tae hae a look at the wares I've got on offer?"

To the surprise of the other two, Sun shook his head with a slight smile. "Actually, I thought you might be a little more interested in what we have to offer."

Trade's eyebrows shot up at that. "Ye think ye've got summit tae offer?" he said, eyeing them both. "Didn't think ye had much on ye, tae tell the truth..."

"Is that right?" Sun replied, his tone even. Another pony might have mistaken it for a warning, but Breeze could practically taste the amusement behind it. Trade was right, after all, they didn't have much on them. But it was obvious that Sun was enjoying the game, playing his part like he'd been born to be an infiltrator.

Trade put a hoof up, leaning back a little. "Now, I mean nae offence, an' I'm not objectin' tae the idea. That's how I pick up half the stuff in the cart, is by tradin'." He gave them another look up and down, gesturing to their bags. "An' ye've no' got any heavy baggage, so ye'd forgive me if I said I hadn't thought ye were carryin; much of interest?"

Despite his earlier tone, a little smile lit up Sun's face, and he shrugged in a more good-natured fashion. "I suppose so, since you're right enough." He reached into his bag. "We're a little short of good Equestrian bits, but we're not exactly destitute."

He pulled out a little purse, and set it clinking on the wooden boards, the mouth pulled wide so that a few strangely shaped coins could tumble out. Breeze took a sudden breath; he'd forgotten all about those... The coins pulled from the outrider, in the breathless moments between fight and flight. But seeing them now brought those nightmarish moments back to the forefront of his mind.

The soft sound brought Sun's eyes to him, and a gentle frown creases the older changeling's face, but thankfully Trade didn't seem to hear, or notice the flat, glazed look in Breeze's eyes. His own went wide, and he leaned down to take a closer look, pushing a squared-off, gold piece around with a hoof.

"Well now..." he breathed. "Awfy fine lookin' work..." He picked the coin up with his magic, setting it on an upturned hoof and weighing it. "Heavy, too. It's pure?"

Sun gave another shrug, nudging the purse to scatter the last of the coins. "I wouldn't know. I'm afraid I'm no expert in these things; they're just some curiosities I picked up along the road. But I imagine you might have a better idea than I do?"

"Aye... I might, at that, and a better idea of their worth, tae. That is why ye brought them oot, aye?" He tapped the coin against the wood a few times, ears perked.

"Well, they seem tae be worth summit, at least. I cannae say too much, though; I'd have tae see some friends before I could say fer sure. I can gie ye a low guess, but..."

Sun nodded. "I understand. I wouldn't ask you to take too big of a risk on them, but I figured you'd give me a more honest price than some of the dealers in Fillydelphia. At least, the ones willing to deal with a couple of stallions who just came in off the road."

By now Breeze was starting to tune them out, the talk turning to that of prices, bits and bridles. It was boring, too boring to distract him from the gathering memories. He cast his eyes around the clearing, scuffing his hooves against the trampled grass and dirt, then blinked as a pair of eyes peered back at him from between thickening trees.

For the briefest of moments, they met with his, and the two gazes locked together. He blinked, and they did the same, then they were gone, leaving a last glimpse of fearful tears brimming and threatening to spill over onto soft fur.

Breeze didn't move. His gaze was still fixed on the now empty space, his own eyes as blank as if he'd been in his true form. There was no question who those eyes had belonged to, and no mistaking the terrible whirlwind of emotion that had to have been swirling behind them. That sense of destruction was returning, but instead of true love, he found himself wondering if he had gone even further, and destroyed whatever it was that had once lain behind those eyes.

He pushed that thought away as soon as it came to him, buried it deep in a dark corner of his mind and refused to acknowledge it. Instead, he squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to look away, to listen to Sun and Trade again, however boring their talk might be.

Or however boring it might not be, because things seemed to be wrapping up; Sun pushed the sack further towards Trade, while the unicorn levitated a larger sack across the makeshift table. Sun hefted it in a hoof, nodded, and held out his other as he slid the sack into his bag. Trade eyed the hoof for a moment, then shook it.

"Thank you," Sun said, smiling. "You've saved us a lot of trouble."

"Aye, I'm sure," the other grumbled, then he heaved the slats back into place. "I hope you both hae a good journey, an' the best o' luck in Fillydelphia, but it's past time I was on the go. If yer no' wantin' tae see what else I've got, I'll bid you farewell now."

And that was that. Breeze made his own quiet farewell, as Trade hitched himself back into the cart's harness, and spared the pair a final nod before he started walking. After a moment, Breeze caught side of a figure moving through the trees, only emerging onto the path as it curved out of view.

Sun made a quiet noise, and at that signal the pair moved off as well. The sound of the cart's wheels faded into the distance behind them, and Breeze chest felt like it had left something sitting in the piles of junk and tat. Despite everything, there was an odd little emptiness inside him that he couldn't describe, because it was altogether too familiar to describe. It would be like trying to describe warmth, or wetness; all he could do was think on how it had felt to have that empty space filled, like a shivering filly might think on the comfort of a hot bath.

He blinked. Empty space...

Thinking on it put him in mind of another emptiness. The emptiness at the back of his skull, where the thousands of murmurs had been, and were now silent. It was a feeling that he'd grown used to, even forgotten, in the last week or so. Now that he thought about it, though, the absence was...similar. Given the implications, it was a thought that sat uneasily in his mind.

Silence stretched between the two changelings, and the road to Fillydelphia stretched on ahead. Breeze shifted, ill at ease, until a notion came to him, and with eyes narrowed in concentration he started to whistle.

It was a thin, reedy sound. Faltering at first, but then merely halting, before it finally found its strength. Not much strength, granted, but enough for the tune to become clear. The words of the song sounded just as clearly in Breeze's head, carried along by the tune, in a strange imitation of Fair Trade's voice.

"Now up jumped the colonel, March, boys, march..."

Contact: Final Report



"I woke up just here. I remember those rock formations."

Rainy Days pointed, resisting the urge to rub at the bandages still wrapped around his head. Though the doctor had said they were just a precaution, Lacy had been oddly protective of him, and had insisted they stayed on. Well, not so odd, when he thought about it. Two tumbles in the canyon in less than a week would make any pony worry about their spouse. "Don't remember much else. I figured I'd been gone a few hours at most, so I hurried home in case Lacy was worried."

The investigator hummed. She was nondescript, in a sort of distinctive way that didn't seem to make any sense. Her features weren't particularly plain; in fact, her coat was a positively garish shade of green, and she stood at an impressive height, even discounting her oversized horn, but for some reason she was the sort of pony who could vanish in a crowd without any effort.

She tapped a hoof against her chin, before smoothing down the dark grey vest that marked her as a special investigator of the Equestrian Domestic Security Office. It was difficult for Rainy to get a read on the mare, but then again he was never very good at reading ponies. Still, he couldn't shake the feeling she only ever gave away those thoughts and emotions that she wanted you to notice.

Her gaze wandered around the canyon's red rock, jumping from crag to hollow before settling on the ridge line near the top of the eastern cliff face. A shattered fence post could be seen, poking over the edge like an old bone.

"What's up there?"

Rainy frowned. "Just an old cabin. Not been used in years. I think it was somepony's holiday home." He shifted from hoof to hoof, glancing at the floor. "Look, miss, I know things look..."

He tailed off. The mare had already moved ahead, scaling the narrow path that lead up to the broken fence post. He scrambled to follow her.

"Uh, miss?"

Nothing. She didn't even deign to look at him as the crested the ridge and the cabin came into view, and he couldn't help feeling he might have somehow insulted her. But it was hard to tell, since she seemed cold to everypony in town. So, swallowing, he tried again.


Again, that got no reply, but he threw caution to the wind and pressed on, even though she seemed more engrossed in the cabin, and the rocky, dusty ground surrounding it.

"I know this must seem fishy to you. But I really don't think this is called for. I fell. That's all. Twice in three days is a little odd, yeah, but I can't have been in good form the second time. Not really surprising."

She just peered down at the dust, holding her hoof in front of her face and switching her gaze from that, to the ground, and back again.

"Look, all I'm trying to say is that I think you're wasting your time, looking for some conspiracy that doesn't exist."

At least, she acted as though she might actually have heard him. She sat back on her haunches and turned her head to look back at him.

"Mr Days, very little is ever as simple as it first appears. Granted, ponies in my trade can often see conspiracy where there is none, so I see your point. But sometimes, you have but to scratch the surface..."

She stepped up to the door and gave it a hard push, revealing the dust-covered interior. "...and conspiracy reveals itself, as plain as day."

Rainy put his head through the doorway, looking at the scuff marks and irregular shapes carved into the thick coat that had lain itself on the floorboards. Something had been in here. Recently. The investigator stepped past him, gaze caught by something in the rafters. With a cat's light tread, she crept up underneath it, stooped to examine the floorboards, and hummed to herself as she traced a circle in the dust with a hoof. Then, with a cautious movement, she beckoned Rainy over.

He moved with far less grace to her side, peering down at the spot she hard marked. Most of the dust had been wiped away by something, leaving her mark hard to see, and it had been done before they had arrived. But that wasn't the interesting part. No, the interesting part was that clump of hair snagged against a splinter.

With a tug from her magic, the mare pulled it free and held it up to the light. It was a tangle of thick, dark blue hairs that had to have come from a pony's mane. A very distinctive shade of blue, in fact. As the investigator glanced at him, asking, "Does this look familiar?" he was already touching the crown of his head. There was a patch that felt thinner than the rest, where hairs had been roughly pulled away.

If she felt anything from the revelation, the investigator revealed nothing. Rainy, on the other hoof, felt as though he had gone weightless. A cold sweat broke out on his brow, and his stomach started rolling.

The mare looked up again, motioning for Rainy to follow. Despite a sudden screaming in his mind to stop, his head turned upward without even any conscious thought.

A few strands of something dark green and sticky hung from a beam. A few pieces clicked together in Rainy's mind, and though he couldn't say exactly what had happened here, he had a much better idea than he wanted to.

The mare, on the other hand, did know. That much was plain from the look on her face, and it was obvious that she didn't care who saw it.

"Rainy Days, rest assured, we have something very big on our hooves."





Integration - I

It was strange, really, to see how very similar, and yet utterly different Fillydelphia was from the hive. It was self evident, of course, that ponies would have done things differently, but there was no way Evening Breeze could have been prepared for the sheer chaos of the cities.

There were lives everywhere. In that regard, it was like the hive; so long as the sun was up, drones would be bustling through the corridors and halls, always doing something or going somewhere to help the hive. Likewise, ponies - and the handful of other beings that lived amongst them - were bustling to and fro on paved and cobbled streets, but there was a sense of chaos amongst them. Not just because of the utterly alien riot of shape and colour, but because there was none of the simple changeling streamlining at work. The sky was open, the streets all set at the same level, with no way to cross over or under a stream of beings, save by one's own wings. The wings that Breeze had to remember he didn't have as an earth pony. Though in fairness, he hardly missed the overly fragile, unreliable gossamer.

There were other alien concepts at work here. Conversation, for example; ponies might step to one side, or sit at parasol-protected tables and simply talk to one another, even in the middle of the working day, surrounded by their fellows. Out in the open, in public, instead of chittering secretly amongst themselves when the lights were dimmed and the officers weren't watching. And they argued! If he was being less generous, Breeze might even have said that some of them fought! Different ponies had different opinions, and they flaunted those differences as plainly as they flaunted their kaleidoscope of mane and coat colours, of height and weight and wings and horns and hooves. It was all too much for the changeling to take in, and as they watched the world go by below from the hotel room window, he swallowed, an anxious shiver running through his whole body.

"Are you okay?"

Sun's voice made him turn, made him fight to still his trembling limbs and nod slowly. "Aye, I'm all right," he replied, dragging his hooves away from the window, and towards one of the twin beds.

Sun gave a little twitch of irritation, and glanced to the floor. Not at Breeze's fear, not this time. The older changeling felt it just as keenly, even if he was hard enough not to let it show. No, it was at the accent. Breeze's voice held more than a touch of Fair Trade's distinct lilt, though it was softer, tempered a little by the neutral Equestrian accent both changelings had learned to speak with. Had circumstances been different, Sun might have thought it was a good voice for his friend, but as it was, in this place, and feeling that ever present fear... Breeze could see the irritation, even as Sun tried to hide it.

"So... What are we doing now?" he asked, partially to distract himself.

That was, as the ponies would say, the million-bit question. As he watched Sun struggling to come up with an answer Breeze realised that he almost felt disappointed.

Was this it? Was this what they'd come all this way for? What they'd walked, crawled, climbed, fought, killed and almost died for? To be sitting in a cheap hotel, in this place that they'd spent so long thinking about, with no idea what to do with themselves? All that time, from the moment he'd realised that getting out of the hive was actually doable to the days crawling through the desert, he'd been keeping himself going with the dream of freedom. Not of food, not of safety, not even of a better life. Just something as simple as freedom.

Now? Now he was wondering if it was all worth it. His disguise had been worn for so long it seemed to itch, ill fitting and uncomfortable. A product of his mind, of an existence where he'd never had to hold a disguise for nearly as long, but that didn't make it feel any less real to him. The world outside was more terrifying than he could remember his old life being. He craved the comfort of the familiar, of the devil he knew. The thought of the unknown and uncertain was making him yearn for something that, in his right mind, he never would have wanted.

He wanted, in a mad and stupid way, to go home.

So caught up was he in his own thoughts, it was almost a surprise when Sun finally spoke, leaning forward to place a hoof on the purse lying in the centre of his bedside table.

"We get money."

Breeze glanced up, blinking, caught off guard by the response, a response that seemed far too simple for the thought that had gone into it.


"It's what I said," Sun replied with a roll of his eyes. "This is Equestria, not the Hive. The Queen won't pass down a task, a place to sleep and a few scraps of love. Not here. We have to pay for it. With these." He lifted the bag, letting a few bits fall carefully onto the wooden tabletop.

"I know," muttered Breeze, his own eyes, downcast. "I know this, all right? I just..." He sighed. "I didn't think this far ahead..."

When he looked up, the other changeling was standing before him, his expression softening. Sun sat down on the bed beside him, close enough that they could feel the warmth from each other. With slow movements he turned to Breeze's table and picked up a canteen. The same canteen that he had taken from the storeroom in the Hive. There had been a glass there, when they'd first arrived, but neither of them had trusted it. By some insane logic, they'd felt so much more at ease drinking from the old, battered metal. He did that now, taking a long swig, and passed it along. Breeze drank instinctively, passing the canteen back to his friend, and felt a rueful smile forming.

"Did you think we'd get this far?" he asked softly.

Sun didn't reply for a moment, but when he did speak his voice was firm. "Of course."

Then he smiled, looking down at the canteen, cradling it in both hooves. "I know I said that we weren't in the Hive anymore, but... I think we might be the start of a new one. You and I. I mean, I still don't want you to act like I'm a general. We're a hive of two, there's not much point trying to act like one of us is better than the other. But we can get through this, if we work as a hive." His smile broadened. "We made it out of the Badlands, after all. We can survive here."

And despite himself, Breeze felt his own smile widen in sympathy. "All right. But this hive isn't getting any bigger than two, y'understand?" he joked, feeling his new accent roll from his tongue.

There was an awkward laugh from Sun, but he quickly shrugged it off. "Heh, sure. But we should talk about money." His eyes wandered to the purse. "We don't have much. Not enough, by half. If we'd had something like a good cover, I'd have said we should go looking for work, earn some the normal pony way, but..."

He didn't need to continue. They'd passed a few extra bits to the hotel clerk not to question their names, but there was no ignoring the fact that, according to anything official, Rising Sun and Evening Breeze didn't exist. Or perhaps that they did, just not here. Not in these forms. And neither of them were sure which idea was worse.

Breeze lifted a hoof, rubbing at his foreleg. There was also the fact that, however unlikely it may be, somepony might just recognise these disguises, and try to engage what they thought was an old acquaintance. Oh, it could be passed off as simply looking similar, if they kept their stolen cutie marks hidden, but even then it would set the seeds of suspicion. And suspicion was the last thing a changeling wanted, in any situation.

That was just another reason to discard this disguise, this ill-fitting skin that itched and constricted and was starting to make him feel like he was trapped in a little box, a little box that was getting smaller and smaller with each passing day. With each passing hour.

But he took a hold of himself. Never mind that, there was a more pressing problem than his own comfort here. They needed money. Or rather, a way to get money.

"Well..." He glanced up. "We could... We could always ask?"

The next day, at some time around midday, a pony with a tailored jacket which sat at odds with hard, green eyes glanced up as the door to her office opened with the gentle chime of a silver bell. It was a small thing, set just off of the main street, close to the financial district, on the ground floor of a block full of similar offices and lobbies and other such dens of greed. This one was perhaps better fitted out than most might have expected, and the pale mare who 'owned' it liked the feeling she got when she looked around it first thing in the morning, taking in the rich mahogany furniture and the gleaming brass plaque that sat proud on her desk.


That filled her with pride too, and it was positioned to be the first thing a prospective mark saw when they stepped through her door. Something to add a little legitimacy to the proceedings, to make her 'customers' more comfortable, more open to doing business with her.

She regarded the two stallions walking through her door with the detached curiosity of an entomologist, muzzle tipped down as though watching from over the top of a pair of spectacles. They looked nervous, but that was no strange thing. All ponies who stepped into her den were nervous, either of her or of the trouble that had chased them in here in the first place. The first, a pegasus as pale as her own coat, was clearly the leader, while the dun earth pony who stepped up to his side had the look of the subordinate. Almost certainly younger, and less worldly wise. Preferable to be doing business with, perhaps, but unlikely to contribute in any meaningful way to the proceedings.

Not, of course, that she expected the pale pony to be very much wiser, given where he was standing. Still, if he was the leader of the pair then at the very least he was the one to needed to be spoken to. She cleared her through with a dry cough, and leant forward, both forehooves resting on the desktop.

"Gentlecolts." Her eyes slid left, then right, letting silence drag out as she watched them. The pale one shifted, but otherwise managed to return her gaze with little reaction. The dun stallion was more obviously uncomfortable, but she wasn't entirely sure if that was because of the silence, or something else. One of his forehooves traced gently up and down the other foreleg, and his flanks twitched.

Interesting enough. She filed that away for later and returned her focus to the present business. "Can I help you?" she said, voice pitched low, curt and professional.

The leader nodded. "Yes, please. I'm R-Rainy Days, and we were told this was a place to come if we were needing money?"

A false name. Very clear. That hesitation wasn't born of nerves, but of overriding habit. Not that she had a problem with it, of course; a great many of her customers used false names, or new names, or names they'd wished they could forget. There were some things a pony could afford not to be honest about in this office, and so long as she knew she could find them again the mare was wont to simply let such things slide.

"Hmm. You were well informed, Rainy. But I don't think I have you in my diary." She did not, of course, glance down at the open book sitting at one corner of her desk. Instead she sat back, luxuriating in the soft cushions piled under herself, and pressed her hooves together in her lap. "Did you make an appointment?"

At once, she saw the dun stallion's face falling, his eyes flicking over to 'Rainy Days' as resignation started to show in them. Rainy's reaction was more subtle, but no less obvious. At least, to her. The droop of his ears, the tightening of his lips...

"No," he said softly. "I wasn't told we had to."

She let a smile flicker onto her muzzle. This part was always fun. Like...making puppets move on her strings. A tug here, a nudge there, and soon enough she could have them doing whatever she wanted. Or, she corrected herself with a rueful thought, whatever her own puppet masters wanted. "Well you are lucky. I'm in the middle of an empty spot, and I suppose I could rush you through, if you don't mind skipping the formalities?"

Ah, and there is was. Hope, shining through both of their faces as clearly as if somepony had lit a beacon behind their eyes. "I thought not," she purred, leaning forward once more. "So then, gentlecolts, let's talk money. How much do you need?"

They walked out with three thousand bits. Or rather, the promissory note for three thousand bits. She couldn't keep that sort of coin on the premises, of course, or else not even her substantial connections could keep her safe from the more desperate scum of the streets. There were other premises, in more secure parts of town, that could guarantee their own safety, and keep those poor fools safe as they walked home as well. Sending them there served double duty; keeping the money and marks safe, and making sure that the Family could get a good look at the marks in case they tried to skip town. After all, a mark who was mugged and murdered in an alley was just as useless as the few who actually managed to run, and to stay gone.

Naturally the money had come with an exorbitant interest rate, as well as dire warnings as to the consequences of a failure to make payments. Even disguised as the perfectly reasonable concerns of a working mare taking a chance on a pair of trustworthy-looking stallions, those little conditions made the pair share more than one telling glance with each other. But they'd taken the deal, shown just how desperate they were, and now that they were on the way out it was time to take care of a little pressing business.

The moment the door slammed shut behind them, she knocked three times at her desk. The door at the back of the room swung open on silent, well-oiled hinges, and a pair of earth ponies strutted into view. A stallion and a mare, neither were the type to stand out particularly in a crowd, and their coats were different enough that they seemed like strangers to the casual eye, but there was a certain similarity that the practised eye could see. Something about the way they carried themselves, and the coiled energy in their limbs. The mare smirked while the stallion glowered, but both looking as though they were straining to jump to action. Any action, be it a race or a battle or something else entirely.

A neophyte might think that they were called "the Twins" out of a sense of irony, but anypony with the connections to know otherwise would appreciate the moniker.

"You know the drill," Silver said in a soft voice. "But I want you to keep a closer eye on these two than normal. I don't care how small you think it is, if you see a single thing out of place then you tell me. Understand?"

The mare nodded, her smirk widening as her brother's sullen gaze shifted to a look of indifferent acceptance. "Yes, ma'am," she replied with a dipped head.

No more words were wasted. Time for a single breath, and then they were gone, sliding through the door like shadows. The Twins were good, but even they had to be sure not to let their prey get enough of a head start.

Straight Silver leant back, letting her chair tip back onto two legs. She wasn't sure what exactly, but she had a feeling the Twins were going to bring her something interesting about those two. And if it was juicy enough, then that was that. Buck waiting for them to skip a payment, with the right tidbit to hold over their heads she could tighten her strings, and start puppeteering in earnest.

Her eyes drifted down to the chairs sitting vacant in front of her desk. "What's your secret, then?" she asked, in a voice a little softer than a whisper.

In the bright sunshine and the swarming crowds, Rising Sun and Evening Breeze stood in the middle of a tide of ponies that parted and flowed around them like a river flowing around a rock. In a way, they felt like there was a current washing over them, threatening to pull them off their hooves and bear them away to somewhere they knew even less than this place. Sun stood as if he were carrying the full weight of three thousand bits, rather than the far lighter burden of the promissory note, but as much as it seemed to weigh him down it seemed to be his anchor, keeping him stable in the stream.

Not that Breeze was carrying himself with any more grace. His head was down, ears flattened back against his neck, seeming to almost shrink into himself in an attempt to hide from the cacophony of the city. Or perhaps from something else entirely.

He could feel it. The throbbing under 'his' skin, the crazy phantom itch that wound its way up and down his limbs, the subtle suggestion of heat, like the green inferno of his magic was threatening to rise up, with or without his command, and shred this disguise.

A little longer... Just last a little longer...The command echoed inside his skull. It wasn't his own voice, but an imagining of Rising Sun that urged him on, even as the real Sun frowned down at the second scrap of paper hoofed to him by the moneylender. An address, and some rudimentary directions, to the place where the real money was kept.

"All right..." Sun murmured, more to himself than Breeze. "We're supposed to go...this way?" He looked up, frowning, then back down at the paper. Another moment passed, and he nodded. "All right, I think. Come on, I don't want to hang around too long in the open."

He turned to go, and Breeze moved to follow. He wanted to follow. He tried, hard as he might, to lift a hoof, put it ahead of him, to do something so simple as walking. But as soon as one hoof left the ground the other three legs shook, and he stumbled, bumping into Sun. The other changeling looked back, his expression slipping into something like frustration, but it melted away before it had even had a chance to do more than crease his brow.

"Breeze? What is it? What's wrong?"

"I-I can't hold on..." A sheen of sweat was breaking out over his face, ears plastered against his neck as he hissed the words under his breath, trusting that the ponies around them were too busy to bother listening. "I have to... To change. I c-can't hold this disguise any longer!"

"Okay." That was almost a surprise. He'd half expected Sun to resist, to urge him to keep moving, but a simple nod and acceptance? "Across the road. There's a dark spot, between the buildings. It goes back a long way. Do you think you can make it?"

"M-maybe?" Breeze croaked. He lifted his head but he couldn't see it.

"Come on. I'll help you along." A warm body pressed against his side, as Sun eased his shoulder under Breeze's chest, taking some of his weight. "Just lean on me, okay?"

"Aye, o-okay. I think I can," muttered Breeze. A slow step, letting the extra support take the strain from his legs, and he started walking. It was easier to keep going, now that he'd started, and as they pushed through the stream of furred bodies he found he could see the alleyway, dark and cool in the shade of the buildings. A few more steps, and he could make out the shape of a wooden trash skip.

The shade was as cool as it had seemed, when they stepped into it, and even that was a relief, but after a moment he could feel the heat rising again, and as he slumped against the wall behind the skip he let out a gasping sigh. Shedding the disguise felt... Well, it wasn't something he could express very well. It was like shedding an uncomfortable shoe, like an actor dropping character, but ultimately it felt like he was right again.

"I'm sorry, I just had to. It was too much. Too many of them, always going everywhere, and this stupid pony body felt like it was just about to fall apart..." He took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and blew it out between his fangs. He felt light, and yet somehow more grounded. Solid and sure for the first time in days. It couldn't last, of course, but he knew he had to savour the sensation while he could.

Eventually, Sun tapped him on the side, casting nervous eyes back to the mouth of the alleyway. "Can you move? I want to get to that money and back to the hotel as soon as possible. And it would be a little awkward if someone walked in on us here..."

"Aye, I can move. Just needed a little break there." He stood, winced, and with a flash the drone vanished, replaced with the haggard-looking pony. A little less haggard than he had before, though. "I think... I think we might want to move on a little earlier than planned. Maybe just because I need a new disguise."

"No, I think you're right. After everything that lender was saying, I'd like to put as much distance between us and this city as quickly as possible. Maybe be on the other side of the country before they figure out we're not coming back."

"Heh, that sounds like a plan. Then you can go and be a colourful royal guardspony, and I'll be a blacksmith."

Despite himself, Sun chuckled. "You know, I'm surprised you even remember that conversation. I was sure most of it was you talking through a fever dream."

A shadow passed over Breeze's face for a moment. "There's a lot that I don't think I'll forget about that. Come on, let's not put this off any longer than we have to."

His pace a little lighter than before, he strode out into the crowd, Sun at his side. Both changelings had eyes only for the path ahead of them, the winding road between gaps in the crush of bodies.

So it was that they both missed the Twins, leaning up against a wall just next to the alleyway itself, speaking between themselves in harsh, frantic whispers.

12 hours later

There was a small building, a few blocks from the main street, nestled in amongst the warehouses and handling stations that made up the edge of Fillydelphia's industrial district. A carriage, pulled by two burly stallions, stood in front of a loading gate, leaving a scant few feet between the open gate and the carriage's door. A pair of dark figures were handled bodily from it, covered in heavy blankets, and hurried through the door by a pony with a sour face and gold teeth that showed with every snarl and snap he gave the covered ponies.

They passed deeper in, through at least one more set of doors, and then the blankets were pulled away. Evening Breeze hissed, even in the dim light to be found, glancing around to see storage shelves guarded by ponies of all types. He turned to try and say something to Rising Sun, blinking his own eyes clear of the tears that stung at them, when a hoof on his back forced him forward, robbing him of any words he might have said.

The gold-toothed stallion pushed them both towards the middle of the room, where the warm glow of a candle illuminated a stallion, sitting at a table set for what promised to be a lavish dinner. Three sets of cutlery, two different types of wine glass... It meant little to either of them, save that even the changelings could tell it was an expensive and luxurious setup.

"Take a seat," Tooth hissed. An order, of course. They did so, pulling out chairs with a hesitance born of nerves, and the critical eye of not just the enforcer behind them, but the sole occupant of the table before them.

He was a unicorn, of slight build and an almost sickly, off-white coat that was painted a dusky yello in the candlelight, and seemed stretched too tight over his frame. His skull, ribs and spine stood out clearly under thin fur and paper-like skin, and Breeze was sure that if it weren't for the table and cloth hiding him from the barrel down, his hips would have stood out most grotesquely. At the top of an overly large head a dark mane was slicked close to his skull, and his horn stabbed out from the sable, gleaming waves to end in a needle-sharp point.

"You two, you're the ones they're telling me about?" he asked in husky tones, peering across the table at them with watery, colourless eyes. "The ones that tried to cheat my gal?"

There was a long, drawn out pause. Too many sets of eyes were focused on the pair, enforcers and bodyguards and this stallion himself. There was a tangible tang of tension in the air, so strong Breeze could practically taste it, like the coppery taste of blood and violence at the back of his throat, hanging like a promise over the room. At last, the pair nodded, almost as one.

"Eh." The stallion waved a hoof at them, dismissive. "Most ponies will tell you, this is a bad thing. It brings some nasty consequences. It has to. If they all thought they could get away with it, they'd all try it. Then where would I be?" That hoof rapped on the table gently. "Y'see, I run things here. Because ponies think I have power. But if they all went against me, what could I do? I don't have the muscle to take on a tenth of the city. But they all think I do. It's not about power, y'see, it's the illusion of power." He smirked at the pair. "I think you two know this already, eh?"

When they gave no reply, he shrugged, glancing back over his shoulder. "Eh. This is all relevant, of course. Most ponies would tell you this is a bad thing, but I think for you two? It could be a blessing in disguise."

He sat back as a pegasus mare arrived, balancing a plate on her wing. With surprising grace, she slipped it off, onto the table, without even jostling the contents. Breeze craned his neck to look. Stalks of asparagus, lined in neat rows, steaming gently even in the warm air. A small pot of melted butter sat next to them, filling the air with the rich scent of it.

"I want my money back. Plus interest. And damages. You two spent my money, so now you have to earn it and then give it to me. That's how the world works. You borrow my money, you spend it, then you go out and earn more with what you bought and then I get my money back, plus interest and damages. We all go home happy. But that's not what's happening here. You want to skip town, leave me out of pocket, while you two go off like the pair of thieves you are. That makes me unhappy. So, what do we do about that?"

His gaze shifted back and forth between the two, waiting. When no answer was forthcoming, he cleared his throat. The sound was harsh against the quiet background, and Breeze jumped in his seat. He glanced around, helpless, and shrugged.

At that the unicorn snorted and leaned back, picking up the butter with his magic, drizzling it all over the asparagus. "Figures. They never think long term. If they did, they might see how much of a terrible idea this all is..." He set the pot down and, without even glancing at the array of cutlery spread out before him, levitated a stalk from the plate and severed the head from the stalk in one clean bite, chewing thoughtfully on it. "But I figure, since you're here you'll have to earn my money back, so why not skip the middlepony?"

He leaned forward again, eyes narrowed to slits, peering intently at Sun. "What are you two, anyway, some sort of...mutants? Crossbreeds?"

"Something like that," replied Sun, his voice arctic.

"Don't go thinking that you have any power here," warned the stallion, his voice just as cold, if not more so. "Forget what I said about illusions; this here is one place where my power's 100%. Watch your manners. And don't think you'll go forever without giving me a clear answer, neither."

And as if nothing had passed between Sun and himself he sat back, biting the head from another asparagus stalk. "Whatever you are, you've got some interesting talents. I'm always on the lookout for interesting talent. And, unlike my dear family, I don't discriminate."

Breeze couldn't help turning, looking around the room, picking out pegasi, unicorns, earth ponies, all three races in something close to equal measure. "Doesn't look like anypony discriminates around here."

A hoof on the back of his neck forced his head around with uncanny strength. The boss's eyes glittered, reflecting the candle's dancing flame.

"Let me tell you, if you were to go to my home right now, do you know what you'd see? A lot of old earth ponies, sitting about with nothing to do but get fat on the fruits of their legacies. Relics, from the old days. Before me.

"The family was always earth ponies, except for one mare, a few generations back, who married into it. My great-granddamme. And thanks to her, I was the first unicorn born into an all-earth family for decades."

His brow creased with a scowl. "My parents were told 'give him up. Magic's a sin, he's a runt, and he doesn't have the stomach to do an earth pony's job'. But they didn't. They kept me on. And look at where we are," he said, sweeping a hoof around the dim room. Sun and Breeze shared a glance. The point was hard to convey from inside, in such a small place. "The family is stronger than ever, with so many more prospects! So you see, I'm not the sort to turn down an opportunity just because it looks different."

It was Sun who caught on first, tilting his head. "You're...offering us a job?"

The stallion shook his head. "No, I'm collecting a debt. If this were an offer you'd have a choice. You're my thieves now, which means instead of stealing from me, you'll steal for me. Understood?"

The gold toothed pony, unsurprisingly named Gold Tooth, had dropped them back off at the hotel, promising to return for them in the morning. The lamplights were already burning, and the sky had taken on the colours of fire and night, stretched out above the city, as the sun inched below the horizon.

Breeze lay on his bed, wearing Rainy Days once more. By some quirk of fortune, the form no longer felt like it itched; it was a small mercy, but one which he clung to, almost as tightly as he'd clung to Sun's hoof when the fool had been dangling from the edge of that mountain.

"So... We're really going for this," he said, his tone dull. It could have been a question, if he'd bothered to put any inflection in his voice. Then again, it probably wouldn't have been.

Sun glanced over, lying on his belly, forehooves crossed on a lumpy pillow.

"As the stallion said, it's not as if we have a choice. Besides, even if we did I think I'd take it. It's a job, a way to, uh..." He hesitated, struggling for a moment with the phrase. "To 'pay the bills'. Doing something that we'll actually be good at."

"Aye, and what about the fact that this business is supposed to get ponies arrested? I know I don't know all that much about Equestria, but I did manage to piece together that breaking the law is something they tend to look down on. Not so different from us, y'know."

"You heard what he said. The guard won't mess with their sort. They bought their safety."

Breezed sighed. There was something bothering him, something that made him want to pick holes in this whole daft idea. But there was logic he couldn't deny, even to himself.

"And we're valuable," he continued in a dead drone that almost buzzed, despite his disguise. "They won't sell us out because we're worth more to them than any bounty they could get, and they'll do what they can to keep the guard from finding out what we are. I know. I still don't like it."

"Because it's 'wrong'?" Sun said archly.

That made Breeze sit up, metaphorically speaking, and pay attention. Unconsciously, his thoughts had been turning to Mel and Trade, of the accent he'd appropriated and the marriage he might have destroyed. There was that pang again, that sense of somehow having made the world lesser than it had been, and a whisper in the back of his skull.

"These ponies aren't our friends," continued the other changeling, without seeming to see what was happening in Breeze's mind. He waved a hoof to the window. "All of them, out there? They wouldn't even dream of giving us the love we need. Not freely, at any rate. And do you think Celestia would welcome us with open forelegs, or show us anything except the inside of a dungeon?You know what we are. And what they are. They're not our friends, they're our enemies. Our food.

"That's why we came here. Not for friendship, because we knew the Hive wouldn't follow us to this place. So no, I don't really care if breaking their laws is 'wrong'. And I won't follow those damned laws if it means we starve because of it."

By now he was breathing hard, his face set and determined. After a moment, he seemed to shrink, settling himself deeper into the mattress. "Don't get me wrong, those mobsters aren't our friends either. If I can use them without risking ourselves, I will. And I don't plan on hurting anypony. Not permanently."

And there it was, all laid out in front of him in simple terms. He couldn't deny any of what Sun had said, but...

"I think I'm getting in too deep..." he muttered, on the edge of his own hearing.

"What was that?" Sun said, perking his own ears.

"Nothing, nothing, just... Never mind. You're right. We don't owe them anything, do we?" He forced a smile onto his face, reassuring and confident in ways he didn't at all feel. "Don't worry, Sun, I'm not going soft."

Author's Notes:

Well, it's been a while since I posted last >.> I am and will probably remain to be rather sorry about that. And I do wonder how many folks have stuck around, and are still willing to return to this. Hopefully a few of you, at least :twilightsheepish:

'Straight Silver' comes from the Gaunt's Ghosts series, where it's the name given to the regiment's trademark bayonets. I thought it might serve a double meaning as something both beautiful and valuable, and deadly.

Integration - II

It was well into the wee small hours of the morning, and a square of dusky light was the only illumination in the otherwise dark room. It was a strange mix of orange and pale silver, from the dim streetlamps and the faraway Moon. Evening Breeze sat up in his bed, scrubbing at one eye and glancing about. Something had woken him from a dead and dreamless sleep, but his brain was still sluggish as it tried to claw its way to alertness, and the room was full of shapeless shadows half-imagined phantoms.


Sun's voice, sounding about as confused as Breeze felt. It was surprising that he'd be awake as well, and Breeze was opening his mouth to reply when another voice beat him to it.

"No, us. Get yourselves up, you're needed."

Both changelings sat bolt upright, the fug of sleep banished from their minds at the sound. They scanned the room. There! Two figures, looming out of the shade, beside the shape of the closed door that became clearer to them as their eyes started to make sense of the darkness. But how were they there? That same door had been locked, the front desk guarded... If these two had found a way in, how much easier would it be for one of their own to sneak by, if the Hive were desperate enough to follow?

The heavy sound of a hoof stamping against carpet started Breeze from his thoughts, and he blinked, as the stallion who had spoken glowered.

"I said get yourselves shifted," he growled. There was a pause, his mouth hanging open as if he were intending to say something else, but then he simply clenched his jaw, satisfied to glare. Breeze nodded, rolling out from under the sheets a fraction ahead of Sun. As his hooves touched the floor he found himself glad they'd taken the precaution of sleeping in disguise, if for no other reason than to avoid showing his true shape in front of these ponies. It was...somehow revealing. Made him feel vulnerable. And he was already feeling vulnerable enough.

Without another word the two stallions turned, pulling the door open to reveal the dark hallway beyond. The meaning, though unspoken, was clear enough; follow. There was perhaps a moment's hesitation, perhaps even less, then the changelings obeyed. Sun tugged the door shut behind them as they stepped into the hallway, and the fireflies stirred in their glass cases at the movement, casting a warm, friendly light.

The silence was only broken by the muted sound of hoof on carpet as they walked the halls and stairs of the hotel, even as they passed a sleepy, confused desk clerk. Breeze had questions, protests, nervous non-sequiters all bursting at the back of his throat, but something made him loathe to make a sound.

The mute company filed out onto the dark streets and, at a gesture, made their way along the sidewalk, heading towards the far edge of town. At this hour the buildings were dark and lifeless, and the only real light came from the mix of oil lanterns and firefly lamps, a light that cast long shadows which warped and spun about them.

For all that these streets had been unsettling when thronged with bodies, filled with the sounds and sights and the feel and smell of all those ponies all around, they took on a different cast now. Different, but just as unsettling. Dark and empty, and overwhelmingly quiet. It sent a shiver of unease through Breeze, and set tension gnawing at his insides.

It was wrong, plain and simple. To walk in the quiet should have been comforting, but it wasn't how the city was meant to feel. And the occasional night time walker, dim figures seen shrinking to the edge of the sidewalk, only seemed to reinforce that. Like some strange, phantasmic echoes of the daylight world.

It was after perhaps half an hour of walking, and the buildings were beginning to shrink around them, when the stallion in front drew to a halt, and the rest came up close behind him. Coat colours were harder to pick apart in the washed out, orange light, but Breeze thought it was the darker of the two escorts who broke away, towards the drab townhouse at their left. He tapped the door twice, shattering the silence, then paused as his companion cast a gleaming eye at Sun and Breeze.

After a moment there was another sound, of bolts drawing back, and the door swung inwards. A spear of light sprang from within, seeming painfully bright to the changelings, even if it was only a shade brighter than the firefly lamps above them.

"Go on in, head down the hall, take the door on the left," said the stallion watching them. As they hesitated, he gave a short flick of the head and narrowed his eyes. "Get!" he barked. "Nopony wants to be kept waiting."

Breeze nodded, turning towards the house. He kept his gaze on the doorway. Somehow, he felt like he would rather not know who had stepped off first, Sun or himself. Either way, it was him who made it to the narrow portal first, glancing over as he stepped across the threshold to see a musclebound mare standing inside, to one side of the door. Her eyes met his and she shuddered, setting her jaw.

A second doorway stood just inside the front hall, and beyond that a long corridor that lead back into the bowels of the house. There were two doors on the left side, but the first had been crudely plastered with wallpaper and the handle torn off. He took tight paces, hearing his hoofbeats muffled by the thin carpet beneath him, until the door lay ahead of him, ajar. He lifted a hoof and pushed it open, stepping through.

Wood panelling covered the walls, dark brown but lit orange by the dancing light of a cheery fire that burned in a black iron grate, and a candelabra sat in the middle of a long, polished table. Scrolls and sheets of paper covered it, and in a padded seat drawn up against the head of it slouched a familiar stallion, grinning a familiarly glistening grin at the pair.

"Why boys," drawled Gold Tooth, sitting up a little straight and setting his forehooves on the tabletop. "There's no need to be so dolled up, just for little ol' me! Lose the disguises, why dontcha? Make yourself comfortable!"

Very little in the world could have made Breeze less comfortable than to drop his disguise in front of this stallion, but in this place and at this hour the 'request' felt like nothing of the sort. He obliged, taking an unconscious step towards the heat of the fire, and the flash of green at his side told him Sun had taken his true form as well.

"I...take it you've got a job for us?" he asked, voice low and hesitant. He could feel his carapace starting to harden around him, as if in preparation for a fight. That wouldn't do... He knew well enough that there was no reason for these mobsters to go back on their deal. Certainly not after bringing them out here, putting them in a room with Gold, a pony who must have been high up enough to be valuable. He forced himself to be calm, to relax and let his chitin soften

Gold arched an eyebrow. "What, no small talk? No friendly conversation? You boys are dull, aren't you?" he huffed, polishing his hoof on the fur on his flank. "Let me take a wild guess... You're not happy about being blackmailed? Sour about being caught by a bunch of lowly ponies who can't even change shape? I get that."

His muzzle dipped, and he glared at them over the top of his nose. "But you did get caught. You got caught trying to screw us, and now you owe us. I dunno how they do things where you come from, but are you really gonna try and tell me that ain't fair?"

And he wanted to. Breeze was desperate to throw those smug words back in Gold's face, wipe that smirk from his muzzle, because the stallion was right; he was angry. For all the talk of blessings in disguise, of being kept safe, he hated the idea of being controlled again. But he couldn't. There was nothing in those words that he could refute, and even if there were, speaking up would only make things worse. At least now he had a name that he could keep. He had at least a measure of freedom. Snap now, and he risked losing those things. Better to wait. Better to take the smugness, bide his time, until they could move on to better things. Besides, biting his tongue and holding back the urge for backtalk was second nature to him, a skill he'd learned well at the Hive.

Sun had clearly taken the same lessons to heart, for though Breeze could feel the larger changeling shifting beside him there were no words from him, just a deep breath and a long, almost silent sigh.

"In that case," Gold said, "take a seat and we'll get down to business."

They obliged, both taking chairs on one long face of the table and shifting so that they sat closer together, their sides almost touching. Gold smiled at them, his namesake bright in his mouth, and spread a map across the table, spilling a few scrolls off and onto the floor.

"So boys, you ever been to Dragon Town?" At the mute shaking of head that followed, he shrugged. "Well you're going there soon. Know anything about the place?"

"I hear there are dragons there," deadpanned Breeze. In truth, all he had heard of it were a few namedrops that left him wondering if there actually were any dragons, or if the name came from a source more cryptic.

Gold stared for a moment, then shrugged. "Well, you're not wrong... It's a neighbourhood, out on the edge of town, where a bunch of them stay. Small ones, none of the big cavedwellers. Only permanent place they have in the land. Not sure if they're just immigrants or refugees, they won't say either way, but it don't matter. Boss wants to keep on friendly terms with them. You probably guessed, he has sympathy with, uh... Outcasts? That's a good word. Anyways, he has us sneak some stuff in for their big shots. Stuff that's hard to find anywhere else, some rare delicacies, and some things the Pinheads wouldn't want them to have."

"You could call it smuggling and be done with it," Sun said, leaning forward, both forehooves on the table. "Neither of us are going to object."

Gold made a short snorting sound as he leant back. "I'm just making sure you understand what we're doing, and why we do it..." He paused, squinting at Sun. "Uh, which are you again?"

"Rising Sun," came the stony reply.

Gold nodded, eyes flicking between the two of them, as if scanning them. Breeze had more than a sneaking suspicion he was burning their differences into his memory.

"Nice name. More like a pony than we'd have guessed. You pick it yourself?"

"Yes," replied Sun without elaboration. He locked eyes with Gold, brow plates furrowed, but the stallion didn't seem interested in a staring match or a power struggle. Instead he simply made a vague sound of interesting, and tapped a hoof on the map.

"Fair enough. We smuggle goods into Dragon Town, and that keeps the scalies happy enough to do business with us. Now for a normal package we wouldn't bother with you two, but we got a special delivery to make. Not the sort of thing we can get in through our usual channels. Instead, we need to get it past the Pinheads on the main road in."

"And if you tried to run something past them, chances are whoever is doing it would get caught, right?" muttered Breeze, sitting up. "So I take it you'd rather we do it than your own ponies?"

"Don't worry yourself, it's not because we think you're expendable. We can disguise the package, but anything that goes in through that road gets searched, unless they think they already know what's inside."

Gold spun the map around, letting them see an aerial view of the Town itself, and a slice of Fillydelphia running along one edge. The neighbourhood seemed to bulge out from the rest of the city, both a part of it, and apart from it. Once upon a time, maybe, it had been little more than a suburb, but now it had clearly grown into its own community.

"There's a company in the city that runs regular shipments in along the road. All above board, nice and legal, and always carried by the same two ponies. The shipment's always the same, about the same size as ours, maybe a little bigger, and the Pinheads don't mess with it, since they know the ponies who run it in."

Breeze scowled. "'Pinheads'?" It was the third time Gold had used the term, and no explanation seemed forthcoming.

"The police. 'Cause they're all unicorns." The earth pony mimed a horn at his forehead. "Pinheads, y'see? Now, if we can get back on track... We know the two delivery ponies won't willingly take our stuff through. If we tried to force it, they'd just rat us out to the Pinheads as soon as they hit the checkpoint. So we have you two take it through. You can make yourselves look like them, get past the checkpoint, deliver the package and get your flanks out of the as quick as. Nice and easy, eh?"

"Seems so," agreed Sun. "But if you want us to act well enough to bluff our way past a checkpoint, then we're going to have to watch them for at least a couple of days. Without being spotted."

"Pah, don't worry about that." Gold dismissed the notion with a short wave and a shaking head. "You only need to fool a couple of Pinheads at the boundary, and there ain't anyone on the inside who's gonna bother checking you. We'll give you a couple of things to say for that. Although..." He chewed at the inside of his cheek, eyes hooded in thought. "How long d'you boys need to get the shape down?"

The changelings shared a look and a shrug. "Ten seconds at most?" Sun guessed. "We'd have to be close to them, though. Close enough to see all the small details, scars, that sort of thing."

A slick smile spread across Gold's muzzle, and the threat of a chuckle made his shoulders twitch. "Well then, that's perfect, Sun! Ah, but we'll get to all that in a minute. First I gotta show you where to drop the goods."

He tapped the map once more, drawing their attention to the one main road running into Dragon Town. "Here's the way in. This is the checkpoint, but you'll see it from a mile away, so don't worry about that. You wanna come right up the main street, through the archway here, and come around the back of this building. I'll getcha a picture of it later. Now, once you're there you'll see the guy you're supposed to make the drop to. He's big and blue, pretty easy to spot, but we'll sort out a password before you go. Make sure he's the right guy, and not some Pinhead plant. Easy, no?"

Sun nodded, shared another look with Breeze, and nodded again. He traced a hoof along the route, then slid the map towards Breeze. The younger changeling did the same, stroking up and down the road, and gave another slow nod. It seemed simple enough.

"I'll walk you through it a couple of times, make sure it sticks, but you've got a couple of days to get it down. Meanwhile, there's a more important thing to get done."

With a flourish, Gold turned in his seat and stood, pacing over to the door. He pulled it open, stuck his head out, looking out towards somepony standing in the hall. "We're ready for them."

There was the metal thud of a heavy door unlocking, then the rattle of chains and muffled stamp of hooves against carpet and raw floorboard. Gold withdrew, practically splitting his cheeks in a grin, as after him came two ponies, both musclebound pegasi with dour faces.

Behind them, gagged and chained, came two slight mares, squinting in the flickering firelight.

Breeze blinked. The room around him seemed to have descended into utter silence. The chained ponies wilted before him, their heads low and their legs bowed and trembling, but they stared at him with upturned eyes. He stared back, unable to bring himself to move. His own legs felt like they had been stuffed with lead, and his belly felt worse. It was almost as if he weren't really there. Distant, apart from it, little more than an observer unable to interact.

The logs in the fire cracked, and the sound was like the sudden thundercrack of lightning striking just overheard. Loud enough to shock him back into reality. He was there again, Evening Breeze the changeling drone. Locking eyes with a bound mare whose future was somehow less certain than his. He broke the link and shifted his eyes up half a fraction to focus on a nondescript spot in the centre of her forehead.

Keeping the roiling storm of emotion from his face was easier than perhaps he'd expected. Looking at the situation through the lens of a drone, the sort of faceless, emotionless shell those mares perhaps expected him to be, made it easier. Made the situation resolve itself into a sort of sense.

It was efficient, of course, to have the subject close at hoof, under tight guard, and available for close study. It was easy for the infiltrator to capture the shape, and meant that there was no chance of running into 'yourself' during the mission.

Once, in a faraway memory, he'd been in a place like this before. When the captain had been testing his drones. He'd brought in prisoners from a small pony colony somewhere south of Equestria, bound and gagged of course, and told his soldiers to practice taking their forms. Even if one was not an infiltrator, he'd said, a changeling was still a changeling, and deception and misdirection were a changeling's most important weapons. And the day might come when they would be part of an invading force, when they would have to sneak past borders in a pony skin.

And when the fighting was done, they would be let loose to glut themselves in the city. Steal a pony's form, find their lovers and parents and children, and devour that flash of love that would flare into life when they arrived to 'rescue' those loved ones...

This younger Breeze had listened to his captain and looked upon the cowering prisoners with a sort of detached interest. His fear of the Hive had yet to grow, and this was the first pony he'd seen up close. There was no kinship there, nor any longing for the sort of lives they must have lead before they'd been dragged into this hellish place. It had almost been like looking down at insects.

It was this self that Breeze pulled up from that distant memory, and forced out as a facade to cover his shock. Or perhaps as a shield to cower behind.

"Well, I can't say this is exactly what I expected," he heard himself saying as he held his eyes on that blank patch of fur for a moment longer. Then he flicked them back towards Gold. "But I suppose it saves a lot of time. And hassle."

Gold met his gaze, and held it. Still not interested in a power struggle, but his grin faded to something of a subtle smirk and there was a glint in his eyes, the piercing light of a stallion trying to read his mark. And this stallion's pride was the uncanny gift of drilling past the masks of deception, and scanning the truths written in a pony's eyes as if they were the pages of a book.

But Breeze was no pony. His eyes were still the windows to his soul, as the saying went, but if they were windows then they were paned with frosted glass. Opaque, clouded, showing nothing of the gnawing uncertainty and the fragility of the old ghost he was shielding it with. Gold might have been able to pierce a veil of deception, but Breeze was a changeling. He was deception.

A voice from beside them broke the deadlock.

"So, Breeze, which one will you take?"

He turned his head away from Gold and glanced back at Sun, who was aiming a hoof between the bound mares. The words had been cool. Almost emotionless. And while Breeze was good enough to block Gold Tooth, Sun by comparison was a master or more. Long years hiding himself in the Hive as he'd waited for the perfect partner, even under all the suspicion and scrutiny of a Reeducation case, had taught him lessons no living instructor could.

Wordlessly, Breeze lifted a hoof and pointed at the smaller of the two, a unicorn with a pink coat and pale blue-and-white mane. He stared at her, magic creeping through his eyes and seeing what his plain sight couldn't. That magic reported back, feeding the information straight into his brain, bypassing sight or conscious thought.

He let the knowledge flow back out into his magic, an invisible maelstrom seeping not from his horn, nor his eyes, but from every atom of himself. Then he let it loose, and he disappeared inside it as it became visible, tangible, a green fire that scoured away his true form and layered this mare on top of what was left. When it had passed, a scant second later, Breeze was gone. A perfect copy of the little unicorn stood in his place.

The real mare gave a sound of abject terror, muffled by the gag and echoed after a moment by her companion. She shrank away from the sudden doppelganger, falling to her side and flailing her chained limbs against the carpet in a mad attempt to scrabble away. Even the stallions guarding her took a backwards step, eyes wide and nostrils flared.

Breeze stared back down at her with a sculpted indifferent ill at ease with the soft features that held it. Beside him, a stark contrast to his guards, Gold leaned in closer.

"Well now... That was fast." He turned his head, peering as if looking for some imperfection. "Gotta say, Breeze, I'm honestly impressed. How long can you hold that shape? If you drop it, how long can you remember it? Do you need her in the room to do it again?"

"I can hold it a while," he replied with the mare's voice, though his accent still clung on beneath it. "Depends on mood, how well fed I am. And I don't need to keep going back to her, not unless I try to remember too many ponies. Then I start forgetting the older ones." Or so they had told him, at any rate.

Another green flash and a second bleat of fear heralded Sun's transformation, and the mirror image of the bound pegasus flared 'her' wings and inspected them.

"There is something we should discuss, actually," Sun said, folding the wings up again. "It's relevant enough, but..." He glanced over at the guards. "...we should probably talk in private."

"Why?" replied Gold. His eyes narrowed a little.

"You don't trust us? If you're giving us a job like this, I'd have thought there was some trust at least implied there..."

The stallion blinked, then chuckled. "I guess so... All right, a little privacy's no big deal." He turned to the guards. "Go on, boys, get rid of those two and then get yourselves a drink."

"What'll you do with them?" Breeze couldn't help asking, as the mares were hauled to their hooves and all but dragged out of the room.

"Whatever the Boss says we should do," was the bland reply.

Breeze arched a brow, while inside 'she' winced, wondering just what the Boss might ask of his goons. "And what do you think he's going to say?"

"Does it matter?" Gold turned his eyes to Breeze, that cocky smirk gone, replaced with an expression of ice. "What's it to you?"

"Just curious," Breeze replied, as nonchalant as she could make it. "If they turn up at the bottom of the habour, the Pinheads might catch on that something's up."

"And if they get let go, and start shouting about being kidnapped by us and present to some fiery demons, then the Pinheads'll know for sure that something's up." He glanced between the transformed changelings, and piece by piece his smirk came back. "What if I told you we shipped them off to another city, and warned them that if they opened their mouths we wouldn't be so generous next time? Would you believe that?"

"Not really," said Sun.

"That's your problem."

He ran his tongue across his teeth, then shrugged and pulled himself back into his seat. "Best not to dwell on it, right lads?" His expression had thawed once again and an easy smile graced his muzzle. "That side of the business is none of yours, so don't you worry yourselves. Just keep your minds on your own business. Now unless there's anything else we need to discuss, I think we ought to be getting you back to your room. I'd hate to deprive you of any more sleep."

"There's one thing," Sun said, holding up a hoof. "We need food."

Gold cocked a brow, one ear falling in sympathy. "There's plenty of shops in the city, boys. Restaurants too, if you're not used to cooking."

"Do we really look like we eat pony food?" snapped Breeze, letting his disguise disintegrate with an acid flash. That smug, slimy attitude was more than just under his skin, it was grinding against the bone, and his temper was finally flaring. "Do you look at us and think, 'Oh sure, they'll do fine on hay and oats!'?" His fangs were glistening in the firelight, the flickering orange making his already gaunt frame look even more famished, and he found himself rising, unconsciously making himself look bigger, ready for Gold to shoot back.

But the stallion just raised his hooves, making a soft tutting. "Hey there, no need to get upset, I'm just a little confused, is all. If you've got some kind of special dietary requirements, you really should have said so before now. It could take time to get together, though you boys don't look like you're starving. Not any more than you did the other day, at least."

"Maybe," replied Sun. He shot a significant look towards Breeze, but the younger changeling rolled his eyes and pulled out one of the chairs. "We don't need physical food. We...feed on emotion. One particular emotion in particular. L-lust."

Gold blinked, looking more than a little taken aback. "Lust? You eat lust?" He recovered, chuckling to himself. "Well, boys, I think we might just have the perfect solution for you. Remind me tomorrow to introduce you to the White Ribbon District~"

Author's Notes:

In the immortal words of Megatron, I still function! Just more slowly than I used to, is all >.> I still have great plans for these two, so I intend to keep pushing onward!

Integration - III


"I know, Breeze."

"They're going to kill them, Sun."

"I know, Breeze."

The first grey light of dawn was already showing through the hotel window, and yet both changelings were sitting on top of their bedsheets, in the same position they'd taken the moment those goons had dropped them off at the hotel again, their old disguises firmly in place. Gold Tooth had left them with the promise of collecting them that evening, to go over the plan in more detail and then, in the greasy pony's own words, to "show them the joys of a white ribbon".

But in the meantime... There was a lot of time to kill, and neither of them had much, if any, idea what to do. Free time was not a luxury they had much experience with, and on the occasions where their lives had included it, such a thing had consistent mostly of sleep. So, for the time being they were left alone with little else but each other, and their thoughts.

And Breeze's thoughts were turning over and over, always coming back to the same point.

The ice-cold, emotionless shell of a drone had cracked and fallen away, exposing the vulnerable creature sheltering beneath it, trying to come to terms with this wide world he'd thrown himself into.

"And you're okay with that?"

There was a hint of accusation in his voice, but only a hint. Pure, honest curiosity was the most prominent, and something else. Something a little like...hope?

"Maybe? What does it matter? They're just..." Sun replied, but there was no force in his voice, no conviction. His eyes slid shut and he turned his head away as the sentence trailed off into silence.

"Just what?" asked Breeze. "Just ponies?" There was a slow nod. "Aye, I know what you're probably going to say. That they'd do the same to us. But..." He turned, looking at Sun, brow furled. "You said you didn't plan on doing any harm to anyone, and I don't know what you think 'no harm' means, but it doesn't cover dead, not by a long shot!"

"You're right, and I'm not the one doing it." That was little more than an excuse. But an excuse that Sun seemed to take some strength from, for his voice picked up, and he turned, his brows twisted into a scowl. "You want to blame somebody, blame those goons!"

"Ah, I see. You just want to close your eyes and ignore it?"

Sun let out a lungful of air in a sound that was somewhere between a sigh and a growl. "Breeze... I know what you're feeling. Believe me. But... Damnit, what can we do? Start throwing orders around? Or maybe we should mount a rescue effort?" His forehooves ground themselves together, making a tooth-gritting sound of keratin on keratin. "We do that, and I don't doubt they'll do to us whatever they plan to do with those two. And then what? We've got four bodies instead of just two. And what's the use getting ourselves killed for a pair of ponies who wouldn't even hesitate to have us run out of town?"

And there it was. There was the root of it all. A philosophy that stretched back to the hive, made up of two ideas. First, that the Hive stood together; anyone who was judged to be unwilling to stand with the Hive was not worth the dirt upon which they stood, and was most definitely not worth the effort to feed, shelter and protect. The second was that the ponies would always fear and hate the changelings for the power they held, and the food they needed. This second idea was faltering under the exception created by Gold Tooth and his unnamed Boss, but it was easy to justify them away, to claim that their need for those same powers was stronger than their fear, and aided by the realisation that they were less dissimilar than they seemed. After all, this Family took what they wanted and needed by force and duplicity. But those mares? It was a stretch to remember to fearful expressions and see them doing the sorts of things that a changeling had to do.

Thus it was quite the obvious conclusion to come to, that with exceptions born of convenience the ponies of Equestria would never be willing to stand with the Hive, nor indeed with this hive of two. And if they weren't willing to stand, they weren't worth protecting. These were philosophies that had been drummed into the two changelings from the moment of their hatching, and in the great halls where the drones of the Queen's armies were trained. And while they may have been willing to question the other 'truths' they'd been told, those 'truths' had been eroded by the facts before their eyes. This philosophy, however, was standing up to the rigours of a free-thinking life, and it was harder to shake. After all, the ponies did fear them. And even the exception that was Gold Tooth only went so far, for it was apparent that while he didn't fear the changelings, he was most certainly viewing them as little more than tools.

"Yeah... Yeah, I said I know that part..." Breeze muttered, more to himself than to the other changeling.

"Doesn't make it any less true," was the soft response.

And yet... The seeds of doubt were being sown. Little cracks in the foundations of belief, enough to remove the sense of self-certainty. But not enough to drive either of them to act. For even if they were wrong, they were wrong in the minority.

"So what are we supposed to do, then?"

Another sigh. Carrying the sound of the burden of command. Breeze could understand why his friend was feeling so, of course; this wasn't what either of them had expected. Not that he was really sure of what he'd expected, but...

"We keep going. We do the job they want us to do. We do it quick, clean, whatever. And when we get a chance to break out of this mess we take it. Leave the whole stupid affair behind."

Breeze thought for a moment, a long and slow moment. Why not just make a break for it now? They could be anypony they chose to be, they could slip into a crowd and slide out of town and run for the next big city, run and never look back.

And then what? Try to slip neatly into pony society? They'd spoken about getting jobs, settling down, but that sort of thing required you to have had a life, a history, papers and certificates. None of which they had. But even if they did, what then? Was Breeze really content to spend the rest of his life doing exactly what he'd been doing back at the Hive? Pretending to be something that he wasn't. At least here, they had ponies who would look out for them, one way or another. Was a more or less comfortable life as a tool really so much worse than a hard life as a lie? They had a way to feed, a place to stay, ponies who already knew their secret.

Ponies who weren't going to let them out of the city in the first place. They almost certainly had guards on the door, guards who wouldn't let them out of their sight. How many times would they have to change disguises before their captors lost track of them? Did they have the energy for it? Couldn't they just track Breeze by his scar?

No, they were stuck here for the time being. Maybe their time would come, but it wasn't now. Breeze nodded. "Fine. But first we've got to see what this 'white ribbon' thing is all about..."

* * * * *

"Prostitutes," Breeze said, deadpan.

They were standing in what had to be the shadiest street in Fillydelphia, and that was both a literal and figurative term. Despite the late-evening sky that darkened further with each passing moment, shades and stalls of wood and canvas blanketed the street, making an odd avenue of sorts. Beneath most of the thin coverings of fabric and hanging from a few windows were mares and stallions of varying sorts; some gaudily made up, others preened in subtler ways, and a were trying desperately to mask signs of age and wear. There were long-limbed, lithe specimens; curvy, or muscular, all of them showing some level of attractiveness, and all shared one feature, no matter how made up or oiled up they were. Each had a long, white ribbon woven into their tails and wrapped around the bases, so that each one stood perky and raised.

"Mm, where better to find you boys a nice, steady supply of lusty souls? It's almost like a banquet, no?"

Gold's voice was far too upbeat, for Breeze's taste; it sounded like the stallion was having the time of his life, though whether it was from leering at the mass of ponies who were, in effect, up for sale or from the thought of the two changelings navigating their way through them, he couldn't say for sure. Perhaps a combination of both.

Prostitution wasn't exactly a foreign concept to either changeling. More than one infiltrator had, on those forbidden trips into the sleeping chambers of a guard battalion, told stories about their experiences posing as whores and streetwalkers in the seediest back alleys of Equestria's most...loosely moraled towns. Taking advantage of the precious, post-coital moments, when affection took over but before the sudden rush of shame that inevitably followed. In moments of idle thought, when he listen to the midnight winds atop the Hive's walls and stared out into the darkness, Breeze had found himself wondering if he would ever find himself holding some exhausted pony close as he fed. He'd never imagined that he'd be on this side.

And in this idle moment, taking in the sight of the street in front of him, he found himself reflected on how odd it was that none of those infiltrators had ever even though to try the same trick with lust, so much more bountiful, than love. Or perhaps they had, and found it wanting? That was a fear, that they were wrong about even the minimal value lust seemed to have. That it wouldn't be enough and that they'd slowly starve, as surely as if they'd never found anything to feed on at all.

He shook his head. There was no sense worrying about it. No chance of finding any love around here, so lust would have to suffice, and if it didn't then he was no worse off than before, was he?

Gold was talking again, a vague drone in the background of his thoughts.

"So there's a nice selection here, all told. Mares, stallions, whatever you'd prefer. Not that I think you boys are all that picky, eh?"

There was something in his voice and now his leering smile that made Breeze bristle and narrow his eyes at the stallion. Not because he was wrong, they couldn't afford to be picky with things like that, but still... Gold saw the subtle motions, and his smile faded, staring back with a brow just slightly perked.

It was Sun who broke the short silence that followed, clearing his throat. "Just as long as they enjoy themselves. Lust for money doesn't exactly fill the same hole, you understand?"

"Oh Sunny, please," laughed Gold. "Fillydelphia is one of the most welcoming cities in Equestria! All our fillies and colts are here because they love to share the love! Or lust, if you prefer. So get out there, pick wisely, and tell whoever asks you for coin that Gold Tooth would consider it a personal favour that you be accommodated. To your heart's desire."

He turned to go, but stopped mid-stride and glanced back over his shoulder, his grin widening. "And most importantly, have fun~" he purred with a wink.

Breeze watched the stallion go, and when he was sure they were out of earshot he made a face and turned back to Sun.

"You know something? I'm tempted not to, just to spite that slimy..." He almost spat, but managed to hold himself back. "He reminds me of one drone-adept in our battalion. Smug, self-important, oily enough that I swear you could have set him alight with an open flame."

To his surprise, Sun chuckled and nodded. "I think I remember him... Don't remember a name, though. But the description is familiar. I think... He went missing a few years ago?"

"Heh, you don't know?" Breeze said, stifling a laugh of his own. "As slimy as he was, the poor soul never deserved... He tripped while overseeing a recycling session and fell into one of the vats."

Both changelings winced, and the amusement melted from their faces. "You know... I don't remember his name either. And it was only a single sound. But I can't think what sound it was."

A gentle hoof pressed down on his shoulder, and Breeze let out a last little chortle, tinged with bitterness.

"Maybe it's best to forget," said Sun, giving him a soft squeeze. "Anyway, we'll be away from Mister Gold Tooth sooner or later, and all the other goons."

"Mm, I know, patience and all that... Let's just get this over with." Eyes flicked from face to face, some so gaudily made up it was hard to tell if they were mare or stallion. "You see anyone here who looks like they actually enjoy their job? Or should we just, you know, mess around a little and make them enjoy it?"

Sun replied with a shake of the head. "Best not to, I think. I don't want us to be making too many waves around here, and messing with heads is the perfect way to get noticed. Besides, we might be needing to set ourselves up as repeat customers. If you can find somepony to feed on without scrambling their brain, so much the better."

* * * * *

It had taken the better part of an hour's wandering, looking over ponies who pouted and thrust their hips up into the air or simply gave him a sly wink, before Breeze found himself in the small bedroom, red and orange sheets hanging down from the ceiling. Only a few flickering candles provided any illumination, barely enough to see with when the curtains were drawn. Breeze had the impression somepony or other had thought it was romantic lighting. Or mysterious, or perhaps even alluring. As it was, all it did was make Breeze's eyes water.

He found himself blinking the tears away, hoping that the same dimness that brought them on would also hide them. No reason to make things even more awkward by having it look as though he were crying...

His own awkwardness aside, he had to admit that the stallion lying on the bed before him was certainly attractive enough, at least according to what he understood of pony standards. His chestnut mane and tail, both woven through with those telltale white bands, were long, well-groomed, hanging down and spreading across the sheets like shimmering silk. His face was well enough structured, his smile perhaps the most genuine of all the ponies on this street of negotiable affection, but despite all of these features it was his eyes that had drawn Breeze in.

Not because they were particularly attractive; they were that, of course, deep dark pools of brown that all but sparkled in the candlelight. But it was the way they stood out in contrast to the eyes of many others, dead eyes that peered out from tired faces caked with too much powder. These eyes, though, spoke of honest joy and simple pleasures. The eyes of a stallion who did what he did not for the money, or because some crueller soul owned him and had set him to the task, but because he loved it. If Breeze could feed on the love of an occupation, he might never have had to see another pony.

At this moment, he was inspecting Breeze's form in turn, lying on one side of his hips with his chest against the sheets, forelegs hooked over the side of the bed, hindlegs sprawled out and tangling themselves in layers of silk and cotton. Those wonderful eyes were running along the curves, or lack thereof, beneath the pale fur that the changeling was treating as a second form. Breeze was aware that, even like this, he wasn't the most attractive of ponies, but he hoped it was enough.

"What did you say your name was again?"

He found himself starting, unaware that he'd even drifted away from the moment when he was pulled from thought by the melodious voice. He realised his new 'companion' was gazing at his face now, one foreleg pulled up to pat the sheets beside himself.

"Evening Breeze," was the reply. He took the few short steps over from the doorway to the bed with no great hurry, swallowing down on a rush of nerves that seemed suddenly foolish and yet no less potent, settling himself down beside the stallion. A gentle heat radiated form him, warming Breeze's borrowed skin, and he could hear the soft breathing and the rustle of fabric as they both shifted on the bed.

"That's a beautiful name," the stallion said, a simple honesty in his voice and a soft smile on his face. Then it fell into a look of softer amusement. "You're nervous."

Breeze nodded. It wasn't a question, nor was it something he could deny. He may not have been shaking, or stammering, but his movements had that strange, overly cautious bent to them, as if he were afraid his limbs might somehow betray him.

"Is it your first time?"

Oh, he could already taste the lust coming from this stallion, now that he was so close. It was rolling from him like the heat from an open flame. The question itself came without judgement, just a strange eagerness that astounded the changeling even as he shook his head. As if the stallion wanted it to be, as if he yearned to guide his client through some delving into the unknown.

"Not exactly..."

There had been training. Of course there had, a changeling's one best weapon is deception and misdirection, and few things are as deceiving as sex. Even a soldier, not expected to spend the long days and weeks or even months undercover that an infiltrator might, has to know certain things. Not to feed, but to gain confidence and to earn favours. To distract and beguile. To inspire hesitation if things turned violent; what pony could attack someone they'd shared a bed with like that? He knew the mechanics, and he was more than familiar with the sensations.

But not quite like this.

"It's all right, if it is," the stallion purred, shifting closer, tracing a hoof down along one of Breeze's forelegs. The hoof wall was smooth, the keratin kept filed and polished, and Breeze could hear the stallion's heartbeat, a little above resting pace, just another little signal of eagerness. It was tempting, oh so tempting, to just open those hidden senses right now and start feeding, so tempting that his mouth was watering in defiance of the nerves that sought to leave it thick and dry. But no, not yet, no need to spoil the mood now. There were things that were expected of him, as a client, and it was easier to hide the feeding in the midst of passion.

"Do you...enjoy this?" he asked dumbly, his breathing getting harder, more anxious as he tried to distract himself, to keep from supping before the right moment.

The stallion leaned in, putting his muzzle close enough that Breeze could feel the soft exhalations against his fur. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't," he whispered, each word hot against the changeling's nose, and then he leaned in, a hoof stroking along Breeze's thigh, and their lips met...

* * * * *

From the day they had arrived to the morning after that...'encounter', the days and nights had been warm, perhaps a touch too humid, but otherwise calm, comfortable compared to the baking heat of the Badlands. Over the next few days, however, somepony in the local weather office had evidently decided that the warm spell had run on for too long. And so the winds had turned north-easterly, blowing cool damp air in from over the Celestial Sea. Conditions were perfect for cloud formation, and in the warm days the farmlands around the city had found themselves long overdue for a good watering.

And so it was that Breeze and Sun found themselves soaked to the bone in a rainstorm that made the air seem more water than anything else, standing in front of a ramshackle warehouse in the industrial district. With an empty one-pony cart, and no package.

Naturally, neither they nor the ponies who had briefed them and brought them here had thought to bring raincoats, umbrellas, or even hats. The cool air was growing cooler, and inside the warehouse, outside of their ken, something was causing a delay. And thus, was making them stand out here, in the wet.

It was something like half an hour after they were supposed to have already left, when Breeze finally moved. He was miserable in the shape of Posey, the pink-coated unicorn from the safehouse, and sick and tired of wiping those long bangs away from his - or 'her' - eyes, and so he stamped a hoof into the puddles that had long since formed around them, kicking up droplets that he watched vanish among the droplets pouring down from above.

"They're doing this on purpose," he growled. By now the night was cold enough that he could see his own breath misting in front of a feminine muzzle, and the damp chill of his soaked coat made his sides shiver and twitch.

"And why would they be doing that?" sighed Sun, shielding his head as best he could with the wings of his disguise, the mare called Lavender. Posey and Lavender, both blossoms of one sort or another. It made Breeze wonder what exactly they'd done before Gold Tooth had thrust his way into their lives and torn them down. Neither of them had been told what the mares had delivered every week before, just given them a few primers as to how they were supposed to act. Meek, thankful, friendly with the guards who they saw each week.

He pushed the thought away with a snort. "I don't know... But we're almost at the deadline! Much longer, and the pinheads are gonna be suspecting something's up whenever we do finally arrive." He shook his head. "If there's some kind of problem then why don't they just call it off and try for another night? Better to not show up at all than show up late..."

"Maybe they can't do it another night? Could be this night, or not at all. You really think they're going to give up on this run just because it's a little late? You know how important this has to be. They wouldn't put us up to deliver..." He broke off, probably wondering what exactly ponies usually had to deliver. There was a vague idea of... "...newspapers? Milk? That's not the point."

"You really think so?" Breeze couldn't help but wave that explanation off. "You know they're not sure if they can trust us. If I were them, I wouldn't trust us. I'd bet this is a test, and if I'm right, then they wouldn't give us a package that's anything like that import-"

Bursting doors cut him off. An orange glow from the oil lamps that lit the interior of the warehouse leaked out onto the street, bouncing from the pools and shattering in each ripple. A pair of stallions stormed out into the rain with a wooden crate carried between them, stamped with a dragon's clawmark, its hinged lid held down with a simple latch. Gold followed behind them, but lingered at the doorway just out of the reach of the storm. It was the first time either changeling had seen them since the night at the White Ribbon District.

"Well now, boys - sorry, girls - time's a-wastin'!" he cried, clapping his forehooves together. "Gotta rush if we want to his that deadline! Now, you both know where you're going?"

"Along the main road, down the alley on the right just after the apothecary. Meet the blue dragon, tell him 'Dragontown's cosy, isn't it?', the counterphrase is 'all year round'. If nobody's there, turn around and come home. If they give the wrong counterphrase, apologise for bothering them and come home with the package. And pray that the guards at the checkpoint don't take issue with that." Sun recited the orders, well drilled into both of their heads, at a dull drone, his eyes swivelling to watch the stallions hefting the crate into the cart.

It was almost down on the cart's bed when one of them lost his grip on the wood that the driving storm had soaked and left slick. One corner fell onto the planks with a heavy clatter, and Gold's head snapped to it. Fury flashed in his eyes and his lips drew back from his teeth, but a swift inspection seemed to calm him, even as the clumsy stallion cringed, and with a visible effort he stepped back, jaw clenching and unclenching.

"Let's...be more careful please, gentlecolts," he grated out before his gaze swung back to the changelings. "Well, fillies? Get going!"

Breeze shared a look with 'Lavender', hitched himself to the cart with a few tugs of his magic and a little more haste than might have been necessary, and the pair trotted off into the sheeting rain.

Integration - IV

"Did you see his face?" hissed Breeze, once they were well enough away from the warehouse district, clipping down streets left mostly abandoned by the chill rain and the late hour. Doubtless there were ponies keeping tabs on them, but the downpour dampened sound, and Breeze could barely even hear Sun's hoofbeats. What chance was there that a tail could hear him whispering? "What in the name of the Moon are we carrying? Fine china? Potion bottles?" He was already starting to think his earlier assessment of their cargo's importance was perhaps a trifle hasty.

"That's knowledge I can live without burdening myself with." Sun's voice came from somewhere behind and to the right as he kept an eye on not only the cargo, but the clipboard stowed in the cart, that the guards at the checkpoint would need to sign - just to be sure that everything seemed legitimate - and that their contact needed to countersign, so that Gold could be sure the package was in the right claws.

They walked on in relative silence for a short while, listening to the sound of the cart, and the sounds of the storm around them; the rustling of water striking already sodden cobblestones, and the wind hissing through the buildings above them. It was driving the rain down along the street, hitting them from behind, which was just one small mercy on this miserable night. "And you're not going to tell me you told me so?" Breeze said at last, glancing back.

Sun just shook his head, bangs peeling from the soaked fur of his face to flick in front of his eyes, scattering more droplets into air that was already beyond inundated. "Eyes forward. Checkpoint's coming up."

Breeze could see it. In fact, as Gold had indicated, he'd been able to see it for a while know, or at least some evidence of its existence. A few pinpricks of light that shone even through the deluge and the darkness that blocked out all but the haziest of images, until they drew closer.

The boundary of Dragontown was marked by a low dyke that must have done little to deter those who were wont to sneak in or out, but at least made it prohibitively difficult to get large items into the district without passing through the checkpoint itself. This checkpoint, on the only road into Dragontown itself from the city, was an open archway carved of stone, with a small canvas canopy on the city side, with long and serpentine dragons carved into the stone itself and painted onto the canvas. Torches burned in their brackets despite the downpour, and a pair of guardsponies huddled under the meagre shelter of the canopy, their armour and cloaks pulled as tight as they would go. It was obvious that they couldn't hide from the rain, though; their armour was already glistening, streams running down across the steel to cascade over edges and curves.

"All right," Breeze muttered to himself, his eye twitching at the higher pitch of his voice. Of Posey's voice. "No worries, this'll be easy..."

The first guard stepped up, peering through the rain at the pair. His eyes narrowed under his helmet, and as a forehoof lifted itself from the gleaming cobbles Breeze was sure that he was about to hold up that hoof like a warding statue, assemble himself into a dramatic pose and cry out "HALT!" Perhaps with a following of "IN THE NAME OF THE LAW!"

Instead he gave the bedraggled 'mares' a once over, tucked that forehoof up against his barrel, and sighed. "Oh, c'mon gals! It's pouring out here!" His voice was raised to carry over the noise of the weather. "Don't tell me you didn't even bring a Celestia-blessed hat with you?"

"I..." Breeze glanced over to Sun, expecting the other changeling to have something, some kind of response. But he was clearly just as surprised as Breeze, for he stood blinking, not saying a thing. "We...left in such a hurry!" Breeze said, turning his eyes back to the scowling guard. "You see how late it is? Didn't even have time to throw on a coat."

"Really? It's been like this all day! Don't expect me to believe you didn't wear a coat to work! What, did you not have five seconds to grab it on your way out?"

By now the second guard was stepping up. What little of his brows as could be seen were even more deeply furrowed that the first's. "It is pretty late, at least for you two. You should have been along an hour or so ago. Is everything all right, Pose?"

Oh, it was such an innocent little question, and yet Breeze's heart leapt up into his throat. Was it really as innocent as it seemed? A true gesture of concern and nothing more? His racing mind wasn't so sure. It threw up a myriad of ulterior motives behind the question. Maybe he suspected something was wrong. Maybe that the mares before him were being forced to do something they didn't want. Or...

Or did he suspect the truth? Did he know the truth, that the real Posey and Lavender were gone, that imposters stood before him? Was he trying to catch them out somehow? His hoof rose on instinct, heading to the side of his muzzle, where the faint outline of that damned scar marred Posey's features. It was practically invisible, he'd made sure of that, brushing the fur in just the right way, but 'practically invisible' wasn't quite the same as completely so...

No, it was a stupid, paranoid thought. Panic talking, and though he couldn't help but turn his head away from the guards just a fraction, he was mentally cursing himself even as Sun stepped forward to draw the attention away from Breeze.

"What do you mean? Things have just been a little hectic lately. We've been rushing around all day, and I swear I would have left my own hooves at the door if I weren't walking on them!" He leaned a little closer to the first guard, pitching his voice down to a stage whisper. "And this delay isn't going to help us at all, is it?" A wing stretched out, a hoof reaching beneath it to slide the clipboard out from the cart, the feathers doing their best to shield it from the worst of the rain, and he thrust it towards the guard.

He, in turn, stepped up as he reached out for it, as if to shield it with his body, glancing back at his companion. "Are you serious, Stomper? It's the Flower Fillies, for Celestia's sake! We see them every week! Even you're not heartless enough to leave them waiting in this sort of weather, are you?"

But the other shook his head, stepping up as well. "Just give me a minute. You're right, we see them every week, and when have we ever seen them this late? Wearing nothing in rain like this? Something isn't right."

"Sure, how about the fact that now we're going to be waiting in this rain?" grumbled Breeze. He regretted it almost immediately, but by then the words were already out of his mouth, and though he'd kept his voice low they'd carried to the guards. Both of whom turned to face him, their mouths hanging as confusion showed in their eyes.

"Mmm... And we can get you moving in just a second, Pose," said 'Stomper', the second guard. "Just let me ask, did anypony give either of you something to bring in with you, besides the crate?"

"No..." Breeze groaned, and that was true enough. Not including the crate - and the cart, which was coming out again anyway - the only things they were bringing were themselves. But he couldn't help feeling that wouldn't cut it. The next question was almost certainly going to be "then you won't mind if we have a look around?" and then they'd open the crate and see whatever it was that was inside.

Then... Maybe cooperation was the best course of action? An idea came to him, like a bolt of lightning in the storm. It was a stupid idea, but he had nothing better. Besides, surely they wouldn't expect a stupid idea from him?

"Look, would it make it easier if one of you just escorted us along and back?" He felt Sun tense the barest of fractions, but the other changeling held his tongue.

The guards shared a look, and the first said in a tentative voice, "Stomper, you could hold the fort without me for a half-hour or so, right?"

"I really, really, want to get this delivery done," Breeze added for good measure, his voice softening, hoping it would wipe away the memory of his grumbling. "Once this is done we can get home, and get dry..."

"All right, sure," sighed Stomper. "Weather like this, I'd be surprised if we had another visitor along the road before shift change. Go on, I'll check you through." He held a hoof out for the clipboard, levitating a quill from a pouch.

As the first guard - as yet still unnamed - led the way Breeze had to fight a wide grin down to a more restrained, grateful smile, mumbling his thanks as he and Sun stepped forward, the cart trundling along behind him. It wasn't the perfect outcome; he'd been hoping that the offering would be taken up as a show of good faith, and that they'd be waved through without escort. Having the guard along with them complicated matters a little, but at least they were through the checkpoint and moving again, and he thought that was better than being turned away or arrested at the archway itself. Even if he could feel Sun's uncertain glare on the back of his neck.

He shrugged it off, like just another cold rivulet of water running down his back, and took his first real look at Dragontown.

Even now, in the dark and the storm, lit up with hazy orange lamps that scattered their light through the rain like some strange orange fog, it could never have been done justice by the calculated, emotionless world of a street map. The buildings lining the cobbled street reminded Breeze of the Hive itself, the way that they were hewn from single outcroppings and pillars of rock, formed into strange and sometimes amorphous structures that were a far, far cry from the houses and city blocks of Fillydelphia proper. No seams or brickwork, just solid stone. And all about the place were tribal patterns and symbols, daubed and carved onto the walls, the streets, the banners that hung, limp and dripping, from lampposts and houses.

The only thing that Dragontown seemed to lack was the presence of dragons. There were a few bulky shapes making themselves scarce up ahead but their forms were made vague and phantasmal in the orange haze. Something small and scaled skittered across the street in front of the small party, but otherwise the district seemed utterly devoid of life, draconic or otherwise. Doubtless they had the good sense to be inside, where it was dry and warm.

"Sorry about all that," the guard said when he was sure that they were far enough from the checkpoint for the hammering rain to cover the sound of their voices. "You know how he can be some days..."


Sun nodded, his eyes fixed on the guard, narrowing to pale slits for a moment before he turned his head forward. "He means well, though." That was all the older changeling seemed willing to commit to, and Breeze didn't feel particularly inclined to raise his own voice. Instead he let his eyes drift to the right, watching the strange buildings for something that resembled the apothecary. A few houses, no two alike, a lower building adorned with banners, and... Ah! The next building after it was also adorned, and the banners were red, decorated with a bold black image of two serpentine dragons coiling a staff, clear even in the rain. That was the one.

"Yup. And he's right, if it'd been anypony beside you two I probably would've called it in and turned you around. Even just to grab a hat or something. I know you can spare the thirty seconds it takes to put on a raincoat or someth... Hey! Where are you going?"

He let out the last words at a louder town, for he was looking back to where he thought the two 'mares' would be, only to see that they'd already pulled away from him and were making a beeline for the alleyway beyond the apothecary's building. The guard broke into a trot to follow, his steel-shod shoes clattering against the ground, and as he was starting to pull up behind them Breeze was already putting his head around the corner with Sun ahead of him.

They saw, in the orange glow of a lamp hanging over a side door, the bulky, blue-scaled form they had been expecting, a reptilian creature easily three times Sun's height. Yellow eyes that glowed slightly in the dim swivelled in their sockets to focus on the pair and he started for them, stepping out of the pool of light with steps that were surprisingly soft. But he pulled up short; the guard was pulling around the corner, too focused on his charges to see the dragon in the darkness and trying to position himself in front of them.

"Come on, what do you think you're playing at?!" he barked. "You're really starting to...worry..."

He blinked. Neither changeling was looking at him, instead staring down the alley to see what the dragon would do. The guard turned to see what they were looking at, and so he saw the dragon. The dragon glared back at him. For a fraction of an instant their eyes met before the colder, yellow gaze shifted back to Breeze. The question was obvious in them, and so was the distrust.

'Posey's' spiralled horn flashed as his head gestured towards the guard with a vicious jerk, praying to the shrouded Moon Queen that his message was clear enough. A haze of magic gathered behind the stallion and shoved him forward even as a blue glow was gathering in his own horn. His concentration was broken as he slid and stumbled forward, and so was the spell, his horn fizzling out. And the dragon was already hurtled forward, feet no longer soft against the hard wet ground. He came with a pounding of scales on stone, with all the raw power of an avalanche, and as the guard looked up with wide eyes and tried to gather the focus for another spell, the dragon swung.

A massive blue fist met the gleaming steel helmet. The moment of impact stretched out as though there were some contest of strength between scales and metal, but time came rushing back as the scales won. There was a sound of crumple metal, a sharp but short-lived ring, the guard's head snapping to the side. He went down with a shocking speed. It was as if time were making up for the pause moments beforehand, and in the space of a blink the guard was on the floor, a heavy spray of water splattering against Sun. The dragon straightened, not even breathing hard, staring down at the fallen stallion. A rumble of faraway thunder sounded before he looked to Breeze once more.

Oh, Moon Queen... The passcode fumbled on his lips. He stammered, the sudden moment of brutal action leaving him shaking and panting, throat forming useless sounds instead of coherent words. What was it again? What was he supposed to say? The dragon was growling, a meaty fist clenching again as lips peeled up, a snarl baring sword-like teeth.

"Dragontown's cosy, isn't it?"

It was Sun's voice, breaking through the rushing rain like the sound of an angel. Breeze let out a choked gasp that even his own ears struggled to hear, and he fought to control the quivering in his legs.

"All year round," replied the dragon with a nod, his limbs relaxing. The counterphrase was almost enough to make Breeze want to whoop out with joy. "You had trouble at the checkpoint, I take it?"

"There was a delay getting the package ready," Sun explained. "They got suspicious. We were worried they might search the cart if we couldn't...mollify them."

"It is their job to be suspicious," mumbled the dragon, but his tone made it clear he wasn't happy about that either. "Don't worry, we'll deal with this little one." A single clawed finger pointed to the fallen guard, whose chest was still mercifully rising and falling, legs shifting as he fought his way back towards consciousness.

"No!" Sun barked in a voice so harsh it made Breeze take a step back, the cart's wheels rattling. The older changeling took a half-step towards the prone stallion, but cringed and stepped back. "We need him. If we go back to the checkpoint without him, the other guy gets suspicious."

That was true, and it was as good a reason as any to keep him alive. A better reason than any, perhaps. It wasn't the reason Sun had stepped up, though. Breeze knew what the real reason was. "We can...fix it," Sun was continuing. "Make it so that he won't remember this."

The dragon's eyes narrowed once more. "I doubt it, pony. If you're squeamish, don't worry. We'll handle it. No need to get anything besides water on those hooves of yours."

Sun's eyes narrowed in turn. A swallow, a flash of his eyes and horn, and a green blaze surrounded him, making the rain hiss into steam, as he flashed back to his drone self. "Do I look squeamish to you, dragon?"

"Hrm." Recognition was showing in the yellow eyes. Not a pleasant recognition. "Well. I was wondering... Fine. Wait here. You can do your work. I need to let the mistress know that the shipment is here. I will not mention the guard."

He turned on a heel and strode back to the lamp's dusky light, vanishing through the side door. The instant the door slammed shut Sun was striding over to the cart, rearing back and planting his hooves on either side of the box.

"What are you doing?" Breeze quavered.

"'Information I don't want to burden myself with'... Well they can go straight down to Tartarus if they think I don't want to know what in the name of Chrysalis is worth so much death for..."

Sun was muttering, his voice barely loud enough for Breeze to hear. The younger changeling unhitched himself from the cart and turned, his stomach tensing up into a tight knot that squirmed around inside of him. He reared up as well, hooves pressing against the cart to steady himself just as Sun lifted the lid a crack to expose the contents. He blinked down at what he saw, shook his head slowly then stepped back, letting the lid fall back with a clatter. In the short moment that it had been open Breeze had caught a glimpse of six round shapes, nestled in sawdust and scraps of newspaper. Eggs. He was sure they were. Eggs of red and orange, so vibrant it was as it they'd been formed of solid fire.

"You bastards," Sun breathed, staring unblinkingly at the crate. "You stupid, stupid bastards.

"We're carrying phoenix eggs."

A short groan from the guardspony, still lying on the cobbles, broke a silence that had lasted for about a minute. Sun had said nothing else, and Breeze had been little more than confused, not sure if he should have said something else.

"That's what they are?" he hissed at last, glancing around. What little of the street that he could see through the mouth of the alley was as dead as it had ever been, and the far end of it was walled off. "Moon above, they must be worth a fortune. No wonder Gold was so... What the hells do dragons want with phoenix eggs?"

Sun's reply was grim. "To eat them."

"Really? That seems like a waste. I thought phoenixes were supposed to be...endangered?" His voice dropped as realisation set it. "Every...every egg is a rare and precious as a fireruby."

"Because phoenixes rarely lay, and they need every egg they can hatch to keep the population. Because so many races think they're a delicacy, and it's very hard to resurrect yourself when your head's been taken off. Or they want a pretty pet." These were things Breeze didn't know, and Sun was spitting the words with such venom that he felt the knot of nerves rising again. "If these ponies have even the slightest bit of sense in their laws then this sort of thing is going to be like eating a damn pony. It's going to be murder!"

Breeze could only blink at the outburst and try to settle his twisting gut. Something was off in Sun's voice, a sense of brittleness, of fragile tension stretched tight and about to shatter. Was this it? Was this his breaking point, the line he couldn't cross? He wouldn't - couldn't? - stand up to save these 'Flower Fillies', and yet here he was spitting hot fury about avian lives as yet unrealised. It was insane, irrational.. And yet he had stepped up to save the guard. So that couldn't be it, could it?

Something popped into his mind. There were rumours of the Sun Queen, that she had a captive phoenix, a slave to her amusement, in her palace. Sun's words, of a pony's 'pretty pet' had come from a place deep within him, and here were ponies letting eggs slip through their hooves. Never mind that, there were ponies actively pushing them... So was it some strange sense of fellowship? Fuck that. Fuck it, it was irrational!

"Great," Breeze snarled, pushing the thought aside, and the nervous tension along with it. "Didn't you say you didn't care about breaking their laws? So long as no one got hurt, you said, and no one is! They're just eggs! Would you apologise to a damned hen for taking hers?" He shook his head. "You know what happens if we mess this up. Besides, there's something good we can be doing right now." His hoof gestured towards the guard. "The dragon'll be back soon. Let's just get this one sorted, get that signature, and get out of here."

When no response came he turned to glare back at Sun. but the other changeling seemed shrunken somehow, and the glare died before it had a chance to start. Leaning back, moth slightly agape, already looking somehow vulnerable in his natural state, but Sun now looked even moreso. What had thrown him off? The forcefulness of the sudden words? Or was it having his own words turned back against him? Breeze had the sudden urge to have never spoken them at all, and was considering an apology when Sun closed his mouth and nodded. Droplets were flung from his horn, his chin, his glistening fangs, and the rain on his chitin gave him a brilliant sheen.

"Right. Right... I'll take care of him."

Since that first groan the stallion had been shifting and moaning softly and constantly, coming backup to wakefulness under the care of the chill downpour. His eyes snapped to the dark face of Rising Sun as it filled his unfocused vision, blank blue eyes looming out from black chitin. He stammered, trying to pull away, but the changeling lifted him with a hoof under the neck, eyes and horn sparking in tandem.

"I'm not going to hurt you," Sun said, his voice reverberating with leaking power. "I just want you do listen. Do you understand?"

At once the stallion relaxed, his eyes drooping. "Y-yes."

"Good." Sun's words were thick and warm, like melting chocolate. Even to Breeze, who had no idea yet what chocolate was. All he could have said was that they were soothing, making your neck tingle. "What's you're name, guardspony?"

"Stalwart. But Lavender calls me Art." He blinked up at Sun. "You're not Lavender?"

"Yes I am. I've always been Lavender, and I will be until the end of the night. We were never in this alley. You never saw the blue dragon. You won't remember being here, or seeing him. Do you understand?"

A nod. Stalwart - Art - was silent this time.

"Good. We were jumped by a red dragon, just after we dropped the crate off wherever we were supposed to. You got hit. But you drove him away and saved Posey and I. You're a hero."

A slower nod. "Mmm. A hero?"

"That's right. Now sit quiet."

Breathing slow and steady, the stallion let himself go slack, leaning back against a wall. There was a short cough from the door. The dragon had returned and was standing, a quill in one claw, puffing smoke out through his nostrils as he watch the pair. His eyes were practically just lines of yellow in the blue of his face.

"Changelings. Never could abide them," he snorted, spitting a gob of saliva onto the cobbles, where it sizzled and steamed in the rain. "Both of you?"

He was answered with a nod and gave another snort. "Hrm. Maybe this explains why the Family is doing so well. Whatever. Give me the clipboard and I'll get that crate out of your hooves."

Breeze passed it over, paper facing down to keep it shielded. Neither of them were very much inclined to correct the dragon, to tell him that this was their first job, and neither of them were happy at the thought of staying for a moment longer than was necessary.

"There," the dragon rumbled as he scribbled something on the and passed it back. "Your boss will be happy, and the guard at the border shouldn't bother you. So long as your 'friend' remains cooperative."

He flashed a glance towards Art, who stared blankly through the dragon as he pulled his dented helmet off and cast it aside to rub a hoof against a throbbing temple. Every so often he blinked rain out of his eyes and wiped his mane away from them.

"He'll cooperate," Sun promised, then flashed back into Lavender's skin and held a hoof point to point to the crate. "Do you need some help with that?"

The dragon merely raised a brow before stooping to take the crate in both hands. "I ought to be fine. You two - three - best be trotting along."

The rain was easing by the time they reached the checkpoint once more, though the late hour made sure the streets were still clear. It was good for Stalwart, since he had been too unsteady on his hooves to walk back, and was instead riding in the cart with his helmet still doffed.

"What the... What in the name of Tartarus happened? Is he all right?" Stomper was cantering over, practically skidding over the slick cobblestone.

"I'm fine, Stomper," replied Art. "Got smacked upside the head, but the other guy got it worse, believe me!" As Breeze pulled to a halt and Stomper drew up beside the cart he was leaning over, helmet clutched in both forehooves, showing off the dent. "Some scaled scumbag tried to jump these two. Damned good job I happened to be there, let me tell you."

"He was amazing," breathed Breeze. He let something of a quaver into 'Posey's' voice, looking up at the guard, who had the good grace to look a little sheepish at what seemed to be adoring praise. "This huge red dragon leapt out of the shadows and started growling at us! He jumped between us and it, and that beast hit him so hard I thought he'd be knocked out for sure, but he drove it off with a blast of magic!"

Art was chuckling by now. "She's exaggerating. I'll make a full incident report when we get back to the station, but for now I'll just say thank Celestia that Posey suggested I walk them down there. Will you gals be all right walking back from here?"

A nod from Sun, his wings pinned flat to his sides in a show of lingering fear. "I think so. Are you going to need us to come in to report anything?"

Art shook his head, then winced and put a hoof to his temple. "No, it should be fine, I think. Unless you'd rather bring them in, Stomper?"

That made Breeze a touch nervous; if anypony here was going to demand that a witness statement it would be the frowning guard, but he shook his head as well. "I doubt we'll ever even see that dragon again, let alone arrest him. Besides, if the guard started marching into Dragontown demanding to see every red dragon in the district we'd have a riot on our hooves. I think it's best that you two just get yourselves home."

"Take a long bath, a hot meal, maybe something to drink, and try to forget about it," added the first guard. "And try to get some sleep, you're going to need it."

"We will," Breeze said, moving to help Stomper pull Art down onto the cobbles. "And...thank you. Again."

"Just doing my job," he replied with a little smile, before leaning against Stomper.

As they pulled away from the checkpoint, disappearing into the light rain that was almost more of a mist by now, Breeze couldn't deny a strange sense of guilt, just as he had that night with Melody. And yet, perhaps even more strange, it was being overwhelmed by a sense of gleeful satisfaction. Because they'd gotten away with it. Despite of all the setbacks they'd played the guard - played Art and Stomper - for fools, snuck in, dealt with the dragon, and now they were walking away, free.

He might have found it something of a source of shame, if he had thought of it, to find that he wasn't even considering the phoenix eggs...

"I have to be honest with ya, the boss ain't happy that the dragon know about you two. You've probably guessed that we're in competition in certain markets, and he was hoping to keep your particular talents under wrap for a while. Not to mention letting an officer of the law get hurt near you. The Pinheads are starting to squeeze, boys, and the less cause for suspicion we can give them, the better."

Though the weather outside was still calming, Breeze was more than relieved that, with the cart stowed and the clipboard retrieved, they had been bustled into the warehouse and up to a small office that overlooked the main floor. Both he and Sun had reverted back to their drone selves in the relative privacy of the office itself, the transformation removing the water from their coats even if it couldn't shake the bone deep chill, before Gold had shown up, demanding a full account of the night.

Now he was pacing in front of them, face set as he delivered what Breeze could only assume was his version of a debriefing. He paused in the middle of one length of the room, a journey of perhaps seven paces, and turned to look the changelings over. His eyes were narrowed, but after a moment his head hung down and he gave what looked to Breeze to be a rather reluctant shrug.

"That being said, I can't think of anything else you guys could have been expected to do, and I'm pretty sure the Boss isn't gonna be able to, neither. Now I'm not saying that there weren't better ways things could've been handled, make no mistake about that! But all things considered, you did the best we could expect. Goods delivered, deflecting the Pinhead's attention to the dragons themselves, keeping the big guy from making more problems by offing him..." Then, after a short, sharp intake of breath, he nodded. "Well done."

Breeze had to admit, he was surprised, for this was the first time he could think of that the sleazy stallion had been utterly genuine with them. It was almost surprising to think that Gold had even that much respect for them.

His head dipped down, and in unintentional synchronism, he and Sun both said "Thank you," as one.

Gold shivered at that, his head shaking. "Urgh... No offence, boys, but you give even me the creeps sometimes." He motioned them up onto their hooves. "Forget that, though. I'd say you've earned yourselves a little something to make our gratitude clear! Get yourselves dressed up, and come with me."

He led them, their old familiar disguises in place, deeper into warehouse, through half-filled halls of crates and boxes, over loading bays holding waiting carts, to a small, well lit but smoky room. Around a small table a handful of ponies - and a single snowy, female griffon - sat, one dealing cards to the others, stacks of bits of various sizes piled in front of each of them.

"Goldy?" said one mare, her eyes flicking up from her cards. The rest of the group turned as well, sizing up the newcomers. "You bring new meat into our den?"

A shudder ran around the table. The other mare sitting at it flicked a peanut, astray from the bowl sitting between her and a stallion, while making a face. "You really gotta be so foul?" she whined.

"Ladies," Gold said, holding up a hoof. "And gents as well... These are the boss's new sneaks. The ones you've heard so much about. Evening Breeze and Rising Sun." He pointed each out in turn, and a chorus of nods followed, accompanied by a few mumbled, indistinct sounds that Breeze assumed were meant to be a greeting. "Boys, this is the VIP lounge, and these are some of our top players. I'm sure they'll introduce themselves, so that'll save me the trouble."

The stallion waved around the room, gesturing airily at points of interest. "Couches over there, nice to relax, there's a bar in the corner there - self service, of course. Usually we keep any eye on the tab, but you boys can drink what you like tonight, no charge. Consider it a reward for the successful job. And feel free to snack. Just..."

He pulled them in a little closer, his eyes shifty and his voice dropping to a whisper. "Now, these fine fillies and colts know a modicum of your true selves, but only that and no more. You can show off a little, put on some party tricks, or even just turn the disguises off altogether. Just make sure nopony lower down on the chain sees that. Oh, and no feeding on the pones, neither. You get an offer for a good time you have all the fun you want, but only insofar as you consider it a roll in the hay and forget about the meal. All right?"

Both changelings nodded. It all sounded fancy, but Breeze couldn't help feeling a pang of anxiety, for he knew Gold would be leaving them with these ponies. And even as much as he disliked the stallion having the familiar face around was reassuring. If he had known the phrase, he might have thought something about the devils you know compared to the devils you don't.

Gold didn't seem to notice any of this. He returned the nod with a grin. "Good boys." Then he gave a final wink, and left, closing the door behind him.

"Well then, gentlecolts, I guess that means you're in the club," grinned one pegasus stallion, the one who'd been dealing the cards. He was shuffling them with fluid motions of his hooves, wings curling around as if to keep stray cards in check. "And that means you're in the game, too. First timers are required to play a good few hands. Don't worry, though, we'll lend you a few bits to get you started. I'm Velvet Glove, but I'd be grateful if you called me Val."

"Sure thing, Val," Sun replied, joining the table. "What's the game?"

"Poker. Five card stud. You know how to play, uh..." Eyes were focused on Breeze now, and Val's lips quirked at the corner as he recalled the name. "...Breezie, was it~?"

There were sniggers around the table, not that Breeze had much of an idea why. "I'm aware of the rules," he allowed, as five cards were tossed his way, another five dealt to Sun. Along with the cards came a little glass, full of something mostly clear that smelt vaguely of paintstripper, an acrid scent that rose up to Breeze's nose even with his head held high.

"That's just another part of the welcoming ceremony," purred the griffon - griffoness? - who sat to his right, leaning in a little. She was the one who had called him 'meat', and there was something predatory about her, the way she looked at him. "Boss told me you were shapeshifters? Said that you weren't exactly easy on the eyes. Would I be wrong if I guessed this wasn't the form he was talking about?"

"I, uh... No, no. Just one that I use by default around ponies," he said, glancing across the table at Sun.

"Ah. So I don't suppose you'd be willing to drop the act, show us what you really look like?"

A swallow, a shift of the eyes back to her, and he couldn't help but lean away.

"Another time, maybe? Not exactly the most comfortable, showing it off to strangers. No offense."

Val let out a laugh. "I'm sure there's none taken. You'll have to excuse Nat, though, she likes to hang around Dragontown, since griffons and dragons seem to have so much in common. The formel's probably the closest thing there is to an expert on the scaled bastards."

Nat just leaned back, smirking. "Natalya, if you please, or you can do what these brutes all do and call me whatever you like." Long talons drummed at the table, leaving little scratches in the varnish. "I wouldn't even go so far as to call my self close to an expert, though. They don't tell me a thing, which is still more than they've told any pony, far as I can tell. The only thing I know for sure about them is that most of them are a different breed from the big ones you see in the less civilised parts of the world."

"You mean literally a different breed, or figuratively?" asked Sun, leaning over the table.

"No idea."

That seemed to be the only reply Nat was willing to give. Or perhaps the only insight she was capable of offering. In either case, the other ponies were lifting their own glasses, and she and the changelings picked up their own.

"In one, lads?" said one stallion with a heavy Trottingham accent. Breeze hesitated for just a moment to see the others knock their drinks back without reaction before he tipped the pale liquid into his mouth.

Drinking it was a mistake, upon reflection, but he had an idea of the sorts of ponies he was dealing with, and spitting it out would be an even bigger mistake. That meant there was only one way for the burning liquid to go. He swallowed with some effort, and despite his attempts to keep a straight face at least a little of that effort must have shown, given the fresh round of chuckling.

"Well then, why don't we start with the first sneak on my left?" said Val. "That means bet's to you, Breezie."

Breeze nodded, eyes still watering as he glanced down at his cards. What he'd said before was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but; he was aware of the rules of poker. Aware, but not familiar. Not even passingly. An infiltrator had explained card games once, which was the breadth of his knowledge, and Breeze struggled to remember what it was she had said.

Confidence was the key. He knew this, it was a commonality in so many dealings where you were forced to bluff, or to make a stake on what an opponent thinks you have in your hand. So he had to at least look like he knew what he was doing. And so it was that, with the utmost confidence, he locked eyes with the pony across the table from him, reached out with a single hoof, and tapped it on the table.


Author's Notes:

Terminology note, a fomel is a falconry term for a female bird of prey. The corresponding male term is 'tiercel'. I found they work quite well as griffon-specific gender terms.

Integration: Final Report




"So, what would you say was the first thing that made you suspicious?"

"Well, if'n I had tae guess, it'd be that they didnae recognise the accent."

Fair Trade shrugged across the table at the mare, who simply looked back, expressionless, eyes never leaving him. Somehow, though, she didn't seem like she was staring, simply broadcasting an impression of complete and utter attention.

She was an odd sort; horribly distinctive for an EDSO Special Investigator, with a bright green coat, bold blue mane, and a horn that looked fit to skewer a griffon. And that didn't even count her size, even towering over the hardly-insubstantial Trade.

And yet she seemed somehow...nondescript. Trade had the uncomfortable impression that he might never notice her in a crowd again. And she seemed so cool and distant, so utterly in control, that he was sure the only time her impassive mask might slip would be when she wanted it to. That any show of emotion would only serve her own purpose. Indeed, the mild absurdity of Trade's words didn't even register on her face, much to his gratitude.

"The wee ane, Breeze, he asked me whaur I was from, which got me thinkin' somethin' wasnae richt. But I just let it go, tried not tae think tae much of it."

She nodded, digesting the information without even hinting what value it might have.

"What made you decide to change your mind?" she said.

He glowered. He didn't want to. He hated that he was even doing it. But he couldn't help himself. His face twisted every time her thought of his Melody...entangled with that stallion!

Even so, he had to push through it if he wanted to get to the bottom of it all. Or at least, to help this mare get to the bottom. From her impossibly stoic demeanour he was already starting to figure out how likely he really was to finding out exactly what had happened that night. But if there was something big going on, as the presence of the EDSO implied, and he could help the Princess and her agents take care of it, then that was good enough for him.

"My wife... Something happened tae her."

The mare nodded again, motioning him onward.

"What sort of 'something'?"

And there was the glower again. And the grimace. His was was an ugly mask as he tried to keep the emotions under control.

"She was alane, wi' the young ane. In the night. She likes stargazin', ye ken? Aye was a dreamer..." He blinked and shook himself. "Anyways, I dinnae ken what he did, but... Me an' the ither went lookin' fer them. An' by the time we got tae them..."

He shook himself again, breathing deep.

"She was all over him. Muzzle tae muzzle. My Melody... She widdnae dae summit like that. Never. It was thon colt, must've done it."

For the first time since he'd met her, the mare's mask-like visage cracked, and a brief twang of sympathy sparked behind her eyes, coloured by obvious concern.

"Where is she now?"

"Stayin'... Stayin' at hame, wi' her ma."

"Things aren't good between you two?"

"No. I had tae dae things, tae bring her back... We've not been the same since."

Her head tilted down, and she closed her eyes, drawing a deep breath through her nose.

"You said there was something else you wanted to show me?" she said after a moment.

He paused, like a stallion trying ot remember something from long ago. Then he started, nodding and turning to the saddlebags sitting beside his chair. "Aye. This was what made me figure I ought tae speak tae somepony."

By now, his hoof was rooting around inside the bag, trying to hook the strap of a smaller pouch. "I didnae think much of them at first, but I got tae thinkin', an' that got me tae worryin'..."

"Worrying about what?" A flash of impatience made a second crack in the mask.

Trade opened the pouch, and dumped the contents onto the table. "These."

A number of oddly shaped, oddly made and oddly coloured coins rattled and clanked onto the table as they settled in a heap. Some of them bore strange markings, unfamiliar stamps and writing in unreadable scripts. The mare's eyes flashed at the sight, and she slowly extended a hoof to slide one of them back to her.

"...where did you get these?"

Trade's own eyes narrowed.

"The aulder yin selt them tae me. Why? What are they?"

She sat back in satisfaction, a disquieting smile spreading across her muzzle. It was a hunter's smile, the grin of a predator closing in on her prey after the long stalk. It was not the sort of smile that had any place on a pony's face.

"These are old coins from the South. Far, far to the south, over the McIntosh Hills and beyond the Badlands. Coins that very few ponies will ever see in their lives. Coins that are unlikely to just show up in the hooves of a pair like you described."

She took a deep breath, and the smile was gone. Hidden away under the mask of professionalism.

"Tell me, Fair Trade, where were these two going again?"






Author's Notes:

The end of another arc. I'm more than thankful to whatever second (or third) wind and motivation it was that took me to this point, and hopefully beyond. The next update may be a little more delayed, I want to hold off from posting until the next arc is at least all roughed out.

Thanks to everyone who's been sticking with me so far!

Interlude - The Running of the Leaves

Trees were something of a rare sight in the centre of Fillydelphia proper. Even on the main thoroughfares, where other towns and cities might have set saplings between the lampposts or divided the road itself with a meridian of grass and trunk, the grey and brown wash of stone dominated. Fillydelphia was not an earth pony town, despite its position by the coast and the line of docks and yards that bordered the eastern side of the city. Unicorns had built it, and built it to suit the straight-line precision that set them apart from the rustic ways of the earth pony, and the graceful swoops and columns of pegasi.

Rising Sun might have been forgiven his confusion, when he watched the mass of runners stampede past the tiny balcony of a tight, cramped apartment on the fourth floor of one of a hundred ugly stone and mortar buildings. They flowed like a living river, their arrival heralded by a few professional athletes scattered at the very front, separated by tens of yards, before the pack thickened, looking more like the 5pm crowds set to double-speed, and then a mass of ponies with barely an inch between each other. It was a hell of a sight to behold. And the noise...

Thousands of hooves clattered on cobbles and flagstones, some shoed and some bare, raising a racket like Sun had heard only once before. In this street it sounded even louder as the rising buildings bounced it back into itself, a resonating channel of magnificent size and scope. It set the fur on the back of his neck to bristling, set his face to stone, ears trying to fold down against his neck. He bit down against the urge. Breeze didn't need to see that.

The rush of fur beneath them didn't seem to be ebbing. He glanced back over his shoulder, into the apartment's single main room where Breeze sat on his bed, Natalya the griffoness - formel, as she insisted he call her - beside him, offering a cup of something that steamed.

Gods, but he looked so...so young. Hind legs drawn up, forehooves pressed together, making himself small and tight. Even his ever-present scar worked against him. It might have made another stallion look older, perhaps more worldly wise. Breeze just looked like someling with too much pushed on him too soon. Queens of old knew that he bore it up well enough, most days, but there was only so much the younger changeling could take before the walls keeping him together had to fail, even if only for long enough that the pain and pressure could flow out for a while.

As Breeze took the cup into his hooves and Sun stepped past the threshold into the relative warmth of the apartment, he felt his thoughts drifting down along an inevitable path, questions rising in his mind that he had no desire to answer.

For all that he seemed fully matured, physically at least, it was hard to say just how old Breeze actually was. Changelings grew faster than ponies, griffons, and any other species Sun had seen or heard of in his days. He was a young adult, as far as their kind went, but that meant little; Breeze could have been in his early twenties, or he could have been ten years old. Sun had never asked, and he never meant to. Physical maturation was one thing. Mental...

It might not have mattered. He had no good comparisons to make between species, and even if he did Breeze was good enough at acting mature - a skill all changelings were forced to learn - that there was no real way to tell. But a thought pulled at the back of his mind every so often, uncomfortable as a thorn.

In the here and now, though, he watched Breeze take a sip from the cup, pause, and then take a longer pull before looking down into the dark liquid that filled it. For a moment he seemed even younger, but in a different way. A way that was hard to describe, but somehow happy.

Natalya gave him a pat on the shoulder and dropped down from the bed, making her way over towards Sun. Her eyes and head flicked towards the balcony and the crowd of runners beyond. Sun let the slightest sigh flare his nostrils, but he stepped back out into the cooler air.

The crowd was starting to thin once more, but there were enough still to come that he couldn't see the end of it. A stiff wind had blown up from the sea; it blew down along the street, driving manes into ponies' eyes and sending tails whipping and snapping behind them.

"I'm still not sure I understand all of this," Sun said, waving a hoof down to the street. "Ignoring the fact that there aren't any trees around here anyway, don't the leaves just fall from them in their own time?"

Natalya shrugged with her wings, feathers rustling against one another. "They do, but ponies like to get it all over and done with as soon as possible. Makes it easier for them to roll on winter. They're very big on schedules, if you hadn't noticed."

"And if we stop ignoring the lack of trees?"

"Tradition. Fun. It's an excuse for half the city to get out and run, and then drink themselves into a stupor afterwards. Besides, some of them even enjoy the exercise."

Sun nodded, glanced momentarily at Breeze, and turned back to the runners. Natalya leaned in a little closer, the question written all across her face even if she didn't speak it. It was plain enough that the changeling sighed and spoke again, his softer voice masked by the clattering hooves.

"The crowds get to him. They get to me, too, if I'm honest, I just leaned to deal with it better."

At first the formel nodded, as if satisfied with that, but her own sigh caught the air and she gave a short shake of her head.

"No, it's more than that." She paused, looked down at the runners and said, "What happened to you two?"

Sun couldn't hold back a bitter little chuckle. "And here I thought we were good at hiding things. Is it really so obvious?"

"Aside from the fact that you're unlike anything I've ever seen around here? Sweetheart, that would be enough to tip anyone off, but he has a look. I've seen something like it before, if a little worse, in old soldiers. And then there's that scar..."

Perceptive. Then again, griffons were known to be. A raptor's eyes and a hunter's mind made for cunning creatures, the sort that changelings knew to avoid. 'The damned feathercats' had spoiled more than one infiltrator's day, as the stories went.

"I'd rather not get into it. It's enough to say that, the last time we heard this many hooves running at once, we were running away from them. And things happened while we were running. It brings back more than a few bad memories."

By now the pack had more or less passed, and the gasping stragglers were trailing after them. Hoofbeats faded away into a distant racket and the sound of Breeze's slurping seemed louder without them.

"Anyway," Sun said, turning back from the rails, "I think I'd better step inside. It's getting cold out."

One of Natalya's feathered brows twitched, the very edges of her beak quirking into a smile. "Really? I thought it was pretty cosy. I could sit out here until it got dark."

Nonetheless, she followed him in, pulling the doors shut as Breeze shifted along the bed. "You boys prefer heat, then? Where is it you came from, down south? Zebrica way?"

"Somewhere like that," said Breeze. He glanced down into his mug, let out a soft hum and offered it to Sun, who took it with a sniff. A few emaciated wisps of steam were still rising from the warm ceramic, and it tickled his nose, the scent strong and sweet and grating in his sinuses.

"What is it?"

"Just a little hot chocolate," Nat replied. "Thought it might help. You should give it a try."

He pushed his tongue between teeth and lip, narrowing his eyes into the mug. Should he, shouldn't he... The smell was still thick in his nose, but Breeze was watching, and he flashed a smile and took the smallest sip he thought he might get away with.

Nat was already laughing, even before he pulled his head back with a sound that he'd never made before, face twisted into a rictus of disgust.

"Urgh, in the name of... It's so sweet!"

"Not your thing, then?" Breeze said with a wink, and a hoof extended to retrieve the mug. Sun didn't resist, leaning back away from the foul brew.

"Not for all the love in the world... Is that what ponies drink?"

"Sometimes." Natalya's beak was still twisted into that odd, griffonish smile, but she was pulling over a glass of water, so Sun was inclined to ignore the smirk as she held out the glass, and he levered it between his hooves. "They say it's good for warming the soul."

"I disagree," grumbled Sun, taking great gulps of water, swishing it around inside his mouth so that his cheeks bulged with it. Breeze was draining the last of his hot chocolate with relish, but there was something in the way his hooves shifted, something that made Sun realise his skin was starting to feel a little odd. Tight and loose at the same time, like those clothes the more well-off ponies seemed to take so much pleasure in wearing.

"Nat, could you lock the balcony doors? And get the curtains." He pushed himself down from the bed, setting his glass on the floor, and padded across the rug to the door out into the hall. The deadbolt made a hollow click as he slid it over and sat back. Nat, to her credit, didn't question the request, though he could see the confusion in her eyes. Light from the orange autumn sun seemed to dim with the soft hiss of fabric and the metal sound of the rings sliding along the bar.

Rolling his neck, arching out his back in an almost feline stretch, Sun looked over to Breeze and gave wry smile. "Don't know about you, but I think I need to drop the disguise for a bit."

When the green flames had stopped swirling, Natalya's eyes cleared of tears from the sudden brightness, and the click of chitin from Breeze's own stretches had died down, there was silence. Not quite awkward, nor entirely comfortable. Sun found himself caught between the desire to fill it and the feeling that breaking the silence would make things uncomfortable in earnest.

It was after a few minutes, while the changeling was pondering which course of action would ultimately be the least productive, that Nat spoke.

"So you two... You're sticking around?"

Sun sat up, train of thought frozen by an abrupt and very uncomfortable sensation, like the feeling of eyes watching him. Nat's eyes, or else the eyes of someone watching through her, second hand.

"I guess," he allowed. "Not as though we have anywhere else to go, after all."

"Does that mean you'd jump ship if you thought you'd be able to make it out there?" The ruffling of Nat's feathers would almost certainly have been meaningful to someone more versed in griffon culture, but to Sun they were nothing more than opaque.

And he was angry at himself for the slip. There was a decent answer to her, but it wouldn't come. So he kept quiet, eyes on the formel, knowing that to look away or to babble on would only make things worse.

But she laughed instead of pushing him, and reached out to touch him on the shoulder.

"Relax. I'm poking fun. And I wouldn't blame you, either. You two, you seem... Well, I don't think I'd call you good, no offence, but you're not too different from the average pony. You're just trying to get by, right? And a job like ours, it isn't exactly red meat." A rueful smirk, when both changelings tilted their heads and frowned. "Sorry, griffon turn of phrase. I guess it means 'not good'? You have to have a certain stomach for it. But that's what I want to talk to you about. 'Cause most ponies, they call this sort of group scum. And they're not exactly wrong."

She leaned in, head twitching as if resisting the urge to glance over her shoulder. It was as if she felt the same as Sun, wondering if he could feel eyes burning holes in the back of his neck. "So you two have your doubts, that's fair. But we're not the worst out there, not by a hair nor feather. There's scum out on the streets that would make the Family look as saintly as Celestia herself if they were let free. We have at least a few standards, they have none, and it's us that keeps a paw on them, keeps them down and quiet. Pinheads couldn't do it on their own, believe me."

"So you're trying to say we're the 'good guys'?" said Breeze. His brows were quirked so that he seemed to be mocking her, and there was a taste of venom tainting his voice, though Nat seemed to miss it.

"No, I'm saying we're better than the worst," was her simple reply. A clawed hand smoothed out her crest and her tongue pressed itself against the sharp edge of her beak. Nervous tics? "You take Goldy. He's an asshole, sure, but since he has to follow the Boss's rules the worst he can do most of the time is talk down to you. He usually doesn't do any real damage."

Oh, but now the look in Breeze's eyes could have melted stone. Though hard to see under his carapace his muscles were tensing. Sun shifted a hoof to press down hard on his partner's leg, forestalling any blistering words sitting on his tongue; the older changeling felt a little heat swelling in his gut as well, but he was beginning to see where this was going. Natalya either didn't notice, or she didn't care, for she went on regardless.

"If he weren't where he is now, though, he'd be a nightmare. Take a good look in his eyes some day, and you'll see it. Bastard has something in there that makes even a griffon back off in fear."

"You're just going through a very long-winded way of saying we should stay, right?" Sun said.

"For a while. Maybe something better'll come up, some day. Maybe not. But there's no point worrying about maybes when you two have a chance for a pretty decent life here and now. And it's not nearly as terrible a thing to be doing as you seem to think."

And now she was looking right at Breeze, meeting the fire from his eyes with... Well, it might have been poetic for her to have been meeting fire with ice, but the truth of it was she wasn't cold. Cool at the worst. Stable and solid as a mountain, filled with the sort of patience that Sun had seen in the eyes of an infiltrator, many moons before. The patient eyes of a predator.

Breeze might have seen it, but when his eyes flickered away they came to rest, for the briefest moment, on the empty mug, the last dredges of hot chocolate clinging to the bottom of it.

"Aye, well... You might be right."

Author's Notes:

All right, that break took a little longer than I was expecting, but we're back in business! Updates will follow, not too fast but hopefully not too long, neither.

For now, let's take a moment to breathe, and enjoy a little casual socialisation.

Charlie - I

Winter was making itself known in the city of Fillydelphia. As the months had drawn themselves further from summertime, the sun had dipped down in the sky, lengthening the midday shadows and making the days themselves were grow shorter, the nights colder. Already the first dustings of snow had fallen, though they lingered only for a night, and were already melting away under the pale sale that rose the next morning.

It was something of a strange new experience to the two stallions who stood, that following night, cloaked and shivering in a stiff breeze. The bulk of an old manor house stood at their backs, at the end of a rough dirt track that lead from the limits of the city itself, out into the hills and the farmland that made up its breadbasket.

Their discomfort might have surprised an onlooker, for both stallions were known natives of Fillydelphia, having never left the city for longer than a few weeks at a time, and they'd endured many of the city's winters. Even the rampant snowfall three years prior, when clouds had blown in all the way from the Everfree Forest, and most the the cityfolk had shut themselves in their homes. Regardless, the pair stamped and suffered in the darkness, the hills around them painted dark grey by the shining light of a full moon hanging high above them. The Mare in the Moon peered down, stern and silent, seeing all.

The stallions were both earth ponies, both musclebound; impressively so, in fact, though their cloaks and saddlebags tried to distort the fact. It was apparent that they were supposed to be on guard duty, but their attitude to this duty was rather lax.

The first, a dark blue mane on a pale coat, shifted and pulled his cloak a little tighter around himself with a hoof. His ears lay flat against his neck, and he seemed to have been spending most of his time watching his breath as it misted the air in front of his nose, catching the light of the Moon. After a short while, though, he turned to his companion and spoke.

"So you're really serious about the rings?"

This companion, brown mane a on simple white coat, nodded as he stamped again, trying to work a bone-deep chill out of his legs and into the packed dirt road that had been made all the more hard by the night's air.

"They all agreed, they need some kind of way to tell us apart at a glance," he replied, pausing to sniff at a nose that was set to running at the season. "And we both know you're not likely to do anything to help that end, are you?"

The first stallion let out a heavy sigh that blew from his lips in a long stream of fog. "Only because they ought to be able to do that already..."

A matching sigh from the white pony. "I know, I know... But you know as well as me that they don't look at the same little details. All they have to look for is coat colour, mane colour, that sort of thing... Besides, I kinda like them. They give me something of an air of mystery, don't you think~?"

There was a strange sort of disconnect between the words being spoken, and the ponies who were speaking them. Most apparent was the fact that the whole discussion of rings seemed somewhat mooted by the fact that the white stallion didn't seem, on any part of his visible anatomy at least, to be wearing a single ring, of any kind.

"Are you really asking me?" snorted the blue pony. "Because I'd say they make you look more like you're trying to make yourself look like one of those pirates from that book you were so engrossed in last month." He lifted his cloak with a grimace to check the bulky watch that had been strapped to his left hoof. Whatever it said clearly didn't match with his hopes, and he let the hoof fall back to the floor, brows creased.

"Don't tell me, still got time to burn?" White groaned. "Damn, I wish time could burn... I don't think I've ever been this cold before..."

"Half an hour or so. Not that long. We'll be inside soon enough."

"No, y'see, that's where you're wrong. It's not nearly soon enough, because soon enough would be right now. I don't care what Goldy said, a half-hour isn't going to make a bit of difference."

"It might," said Blue, shrugging, though the motion was lost under the shapeless folds of his cloak. "What if he decides to check up on it one last time before bed? Or maybe he can't sleep, so he decides to get a, uh...a nighthat. A little longer is only going to help."

"Won't help if my damn hooves've frozen off," hissed White, but he kept to his spot, even as a fresh bought of shivers played across his flank.

The wind picked up, blowing through the hills, whistling as it weaved amongst the smoking chimneys and the weathervanes sitting atop the manor. "So you really don't like the rings?" he said after a few minutes.

Blue shrugged. "Can't say that I do, sorry."


Another silence. By now the wind was plucking at their cloaks, whipping already short manes away from fur to stab its icy daggers right into their necks. White stamped his hooves once more, making a visible effort to keep his teeth from chattering even as he tried to shrink his neck down into his shoulders.

"I'm still keeping them."

"I expected nothing else."

White tapped a hoof. "H-how much l-longer?"

There was a brief ruffling of cloth, then the sound of cold air being sucked through flat teeth.

"Fifteen minutes. G-give or take."

"Mm... We going n-now?"

"Yes, we're going now."

Nothing else needed to be said; White simply nodded. The pair turned as a single unit and pulled the heavy twin doors open. Cloaks trailed behind them as they entered, and then the doors swung shut behind them with barely a click of the latch.

On one of the hills that overlooked the house, and the beaten-earth track that lead up to it from the city proper, another pair of ponies stood, shivering in the biting nighttime air. They too were swaddled in heavy cloaks, and as the doors closed they shared a glance.

For they were onlookers who knew the two stallions, with perhaps more familiarity that one might have assumed. They knew the way that the pair stood, the way they talked, the way they used to withstand the weather like rocks.

And so they knew, deep in their guts, that the stallions who had entered the house were not who they appeared to be. That there was something at play here that was a level above their ken. But they stood, braving the wind that cut at them like knives. Unlike the two imposters they were in this for the long haul, and even now that there was little to watch and even less to make note of, they hunkered down with eyes fixed on the sprawling manor.

* * * * *

"Moon, it's nice to be in out of the cold," Evening Breeze muttered, mostly to himself, as the white, meaty hooves of his disguise tingled in the sudden warmth. "All right... They said left side of the house, right?"

Rising Sun nodded, his cheeks flushing with the blood that was flowing back into them, though he took a glance left and right down the long hall that ran crossways in front of them. Floor plans of the manor had been hard to dig up, but they'd done their best with what they had. As far as they could tell, the main hall ran along the front of the building, rooms all along, with two wings on the left and right. Centre, left and right wings, the three parts of the house made up three sides of the courtyard in the centre of it all, which was completed by a simple brick wall on the final side.

From what they could see, their speculative plans were still accurate; the hallway ran along to either side of them, windows on one wall and doors on the other. The cellar was supposed to be under the left wing, but there was a chance the original cellar had been filled in and a new one dug under another part of the house. It was the sort of thing a paranoid pony might do, and their target was supposed to be quite so, but was he paranoid enough for the effort? Hard to know.

"You go ahead," the older changeling said, his cheeks returning to their pale blue shade. "I'll watch your tail."

"So long as that's all of mine that you're watching," said Breeze with a chuckle. The groan from Sun only encouraged him, but he wiped the smile from his face as they moved onto the thick, plush carpet of the hallway. There was a place for jokes, a time for laughter, but there was also a time for silence and hard thoughts. Right now, with a mission begun, he was a stone. They both were. Laughter would be their reward when they got back to the city, to the warehouse, and into the Lounge.

Breeze all but glided forward, making practically no sound with the carpet underhoof, but his eyes flicked right every time he passed a door, and he paused to listen to the sounds, or lack thereof, from within. He might have been wearing the shape of a guard, a pony known around here, and that might buy him a little time should there be a confrontation, but only a little. That same guard wasn't known for being the kind of stallion to desert his post. Get spotted indoors, and it could end up making the mission a little more complicated.

On the other hoof, coming across somepony on the way was not a terrible thing; it meant a fresh disguise, one that would seem more natural moving around indoors. Provided, of course that he could take them down. And take them down with speed and stealth.

No audible activity from behind any of the doors. There was a temptation to open them and make certain each room was clear, but that would take far, far too long. Besides, the noise of a door opening could wake somepony sleeping within, and if a room was occupied by more than two then the changelings were, to put it bluntly screwed.

So he kept walking, and restricted himself to listening. The lack of activity was something of a mixed blessing. In objective terms it was good, it meant that the likelihood of somepony emerging behind them was low, but it also meant that so far, none of the manor's occupants were accounted for. It left Breeze tense, fighting to keep his muscles relaxed as he walked. He knew it was foolish, that tactically speaking they were in the better situation, but his gut told him that he'd rather have enemies behind, just so long as he knew where they were.

No use griping, though, not over things that he couldn't control. There was a slight creak below him as a floorboard shifted, but no other sound. None that would carry, at least. There was always the sound of his heart hammering in his ears, the liquid noises of his throat as he swallowed a mouthful of sticky saliva. His jaw cracked open, relieving some pressure, reducing the distracting thud-thump. They were nearing the end of the main house; up ahead, the corridor took a near ninety-degree bend as it entered the left wing. There were stairs up, that much was certain, even if the cellar wasn't where it ought to be, and that meant there would be guards. He paused, a foot or so from the sharp bend, and pressed his bulk up against the wall.

Sun came up close behind him, copying the motion. The plan was simple, and unspoken, leaving little room for error. Walk around the corner with head held high and a confident stride, drawing in the guards with familiar faces. If there were more than two, retreat and rethink. Two or less, once in range strike first and strike hard. Throat, temple or jaw, or a solid blow to the gut. Easy.

A moment for a slow and silent breath. Breeze's jaw was already closing again as nerves ate at him but he very consciously unclenched his teeth, reaching out by reflex to feel his magic. But it didn't answer him; no horn, of course, nor wings, just an earth pony's legs, and that was where it would be already. He glanced back at Sun, and the other changeling gave a single, deliberate nod.

At that moment another shape rounded the corner ahead of them.

It managed to avoid running into Breeze by a hair's breadth, looking up with eyes that widened as the head pulled back an inch or so. A unicorn mare, slight and lithe, her mane cropped short in an almost coltish fashion. She blinked, her mouth already opening to speak.

Some other ponies might have claimed that they moved without thought; Breeze did not. His mind raced with possibilities. Were there more guards down the hall? Maybe. Maybe not. No way to tell. If there were, would they be paying attention? Standing at the stairs? Or might they be following her? The carpet that had muted Breeze and Sun's steps had muffled hers just as nicely, and it could well be muffling the hoofbeats of a whole train of ponies.

Immaterial. The issue was straight ahead. A problem that had to be dealt with now, regardless of what would come after. He could deal with them when - if - they came.

That train of thought passed through his head in less than a second. Not as coherent imagining but rather as a lightning fast series of realisations, near-reactive impulses. He stepped back, eyes flicking over the mare, visualising weak spots with the sort of hard-edged speed and clarity that only an adrenaline spike could bring.

Without hesitation Breeze slammed his forehoof up and into the mare's chin. Whatever she'd been about to say died in a muffled grunt of shock and pain before the second strike took her in the horn, making it spark. Her eyes rolled back, body stiffening.

Breeze pressed his advantage, leaning in to hook a foreleg around her neck and pull her all the way out of the view of anypony who might have been watching from the left wing. Sun moved without word or gesture, catching the mare with a short but heavy blow to the side of her jaw. She went down with only a faint exhalation, a rush of air from shocked lungs.

Definitely unconscious, but not for long. Breeze took the leaden weight across his shoulders, counting the seconds, already starting back for the nearest door even as he listened for cries of alarm or sounds of running hooves, sounds that would carry even on this carpet. But there was only silence from the blind corner.

Sun stepped in to take some of the weight, and together they heaved the mare through the first door and into the room with as much stealth as they could manage. It was dark inside, and didn't seem to be the sort of room one would sleep in; a quick scan made out nothing that resembled the shape of a bed or a sleeping form, just a dark mass in the centre of the room. Sun pulled a tinderbox from his saddlebag while Breeze lowered the mare down onto the floor, lit an oil lamp hanging near the door frame, and blinked as the flame cast a dim orange glow around the room.

Bookcases lined the walls. The shape in the middle was revealed to be a chair and desk, positioned to give whoever sat at it a view of both the door and the windows set along the far wall. A study; not the main one, that was almost certainly upstairs near the master bedroom, but one set aside for guests or other members of the household. A good place to hide, save on that rare night when someone needed a good book or a letter written at midnight. Both changelings shucked their cloaks and started to tear strips from them.

"Stupid, that was stupid," hissed Breeze through a mouthful of heavy wool. He pulled the mare's hindlegs together with rough, almost hasty motions, and wound the stripe of cloak around them. "Should've guessed somepony would be making rounds. Should've listened harder..."

Sun was already binding her forelegs, one strip tied just above her hooves and the other at her elbows. The mare was coming back up to consciousness, but slowly, twitching and moaning.

"You say that," Sun muttered, "I didn't hear her coming either, and I'd say my ears are better than yours." He spat a little wool from between his teeth. "We're still positive; that's one guard down, and a fresh disguise. I think this was the best time and place for it."

"Mm, maybe... Still, I should have been ready." Tearing another strip and ripping it in two, Breeze lifted the mare's head as her eyelids fluttered, and he stuffed one half in her mouth, balled up to press down on her tongue. She jerked, trying to spit the fabric out, but Breeze held it in place with a hoof and used the rest of the strip to tie around her head as a makeshift gag. "Easy there, miss, no need to hurt yourself..."

Sun glanced down, chewing his lip.

"You'd better take this one, I think. You've always been better at spells. Now then..." He leaned down, putting himself at eye level with her. "Listen. You're safe, so long as you don't try to kick up a fuss, all right? Nod if you understand."

She gave one, slow and confused, tears welling in the corners of her eyes. Breeze could see her brain ticking as she focused on Sun; no doubt she knew the stallion he was pretending to be, was wondering what had happened to make him turn on her.

"Good. Now, there's no sense in struggling," he said, his voice soft, almost fatherly. "We don't intend to hurt you, or anyone else, any more than we have already. Just so long as nopony gives us trouble. All we want to do is take something that by rights your boss isn't even supposed to have, and then we'll be on our way. Once we're gone you'll be picked up, safe and sound. And when they ask you what happened, I want you to tell them that you didn't see anything. You just remember waking up in here, in the darkness. You do that for me, and I promise you won't have anything to worry about. Can you do that for me?"

Another nod, this one more jerky, the tears already leaving streaks in her fur. It might have been wiser to simply force the memories into her head, but that took effort, and even if she told her rescuers everything that she'd seen, it would only point to the stallions whose forms the changelings wore.

"Very good. That's a very good girl," Sun crooned, smiling. "Now just breathe nice and slow. Try not to cry, otherwise you'll just block your nose, all right?"

They left, taking care to extinguish the lamp before they went, and in the cover of darkness Breeze flashed into the mare's mint-green form. She likely saw the emerald flash lighting the room but little else, and it was precious little to tell to anyone.

By now Breeze was starting to feel more confident with the progression of things, but he frowned when they rounded the corner into the left wing. There was a stairway at the end of the hall, as expected, a grand set leading upwards while a more modest set lead down. But there were no ponies. Either someone was shirking their duties, or the master of the house felt comfortable enough with roaming guards. And Breeze had to admit that it wasn't an unwarranted comfort; the house was remote enough to deter burglars and trespassers, and those who dared to try their luck had to face the challenge of getting into the house without raising suspicion first.

Nonetheless it made him uneasy as he descended down into the dimly lit cellar, watching the shadows with care. Months of experience outside the Hive - and a few choice experiences within it - had taught him that the time-honoured lesson of 'too good to be true' was a prudent one to learn.

Yet sometimes the die of fate chanced to roll a 20. Besides, they'd come in here with a simple plan, and the recollection brought a bitter smile to Breeze's face. Simple plan, less to go wrong. Sun's watchwords seemed to hold as much truth, for now they were coming up to their first goal, smooth as one could wish for.

The door was guarded by a surly-looking pegasus, who stood as resolute and immovable as a statue, peering at the pair with stony, suspicious eyes.

"Ginger?" he grunted to Breeze, then slipped his watchful gaze to Sun. "What's 'e doin' inside? Summit up?"

Breeze glanced back at Sun, who nodded.

"Aye... Do me a favour, will you? And tell me the truth here, do my eyes look puffy to you?"

"What?" The pegasus scowled and lean forward, locking eyes with Breeze, putting their muzzles within an inch of each other's. "I dunno what you're playin' at, Ginge, but you'd better dro-"


The command was laced with as much power as the changed dared spare, and the mind of the pegasus, though wary, wasn't wary of the right sorts of things. He went down hard, snoring before he'd hit the floor, though his snores gave way to a grunt of half-felt pain. Breeze just smirked, stepped around him and swung the door open with a little bow and a gesture to Sun.

"After you."

Sun lifted a brow and flicked an ear.

"Isn't it usually 'fillies first'?"

"Ah, very nice. Glad to see the old sense of humour coming back." His voice was deadpan as Breeze stepped through into a smaller room, barely more than an oversized cupboard and just as barely lit. The light of a single candle illuminated the boxy shape of the room's single occupant; a small safe, lying on the floor, its sides dented and scored but still holding strong.

"Still can't believe the idiot stole the whole thing..." he muttered, giving it a gentle kick, just to feel the impossibly sturdy metal underhoof. "As if he could've forced it open before Goldy got somepony out to it."

He stepped aside; Sun was the only one of them trusted with the combination. The older changeling had argued that it was better for both of them to have it, just for redundancy's sake, but Gold hadn't budged on that, even when Sun had pointed out that he could easily tell Breeze the combination himself and be done with it.

"What you do is your business," Gold had replied, "but believe me, if anypony were to find out about that sort of business it wouldn't be good for you. Do the smart thing, keep it to yourself."

So it was Sun leaning down, filling the still air with the soft clicking of spinning dials, and the soft murmurs as he recited the combination under his breath. Then a heavy clunk and the squeaking of hinges as the little door swung open, revealing the contents to the flickering light; a manilla envelope, bulging with papers and sealed with wax.

"Got to wonder just what's in there," said Breeze in a soft voice, as Sun tucked it away into his saddlebags, "that's worth enough to make these ponies risk pissing off the Boss like that. Hell, that's worth enough for Gold to send us after it!"

Sun didn't answer, and Breeze didn't push the question; they'd come the a silent agreement some time ago that there really was some knowledge that wasn't worth burdening themselves with. Especially when somepony else's choice to burden himself led Gold to the dramatic ends of sending a pair of changelings out and into the 'safe haven' that this manor had been set up to be.

They didn't ask questions, they didn't poke their noses into anything. They just did the jobs they were given as well as they could, and they went home feeling more or less secure in themselves. After all, if they made a slip and learned something they shouldn't, who or what might Gold have in reserve to send after them?

And it was that thought that brought Breeze's attention back to the phantom sensation of a metal band around his foreleg. Whenever he was in disguise and thinking about what might happen if they made a break for it, the feeling would make itself known, serving as a timely reminder that Gold could indeed send someone after them. Despite their considerable talents, with the right means that stallion could find them practically anywhere.

The bands were plain things, made of hammered and unpolished steel and each set with a single gem. Gold had called them in one evening, not long after the Dragontown job, and presented them like some kind of bizarre present. Each one affixed to one of the changeling's forelegs, Breeze's left and Sun's right, woven through one of the holes and sealed shut. A measure so that neither of them could slip the things off with out serious harm, but it also had a convenient side-effect.

Since the bands couldn't remain in place when either changeling transformed, else he'd have it literally embedded in his leg, the bands would... Well, not exactly disappear, since Breeze could still feel it from time to time pressing against his skin almost as one might feel pain in a missing leg. But they were unseen, couldn't be felt by anyone else. Both there and yet not there, invisible and intangible to those who weren't wearing them, but reappearing when either of them reverted to their natural forms.

Their most important feature, though, and the very reason they'd been installed at all, was the signal transmitted by the gems. Some kind of moonstone, that harmonised with the background magical, whose signal a unicorn, changeling, anything with the right sort of magic could 'listen' to. Just so long as they knew the right frequency. And they could follow that signal all the way to the origin point.

It was Gold's way of keeping track of them, of cancelling their one most precious gifts. And Breeze had been working on a way to find the frequency, of listening to it, and perhaps even changing or blocking it altogether. Just as Sun was trying to work out a means to simply get them off. Not just because of the restrictions and the dangers it imposed upon them, but because of what it represented. Just one more sign that, however comfortable they might have been growing with this arrangement, the time would one day come to move on.

And because, in a strange and visceral sense, they reminded Breeze of the Hive. The sense of stifling control those above him felt the need to impress. It felt like exactly the sort of measure the Queen would have put in place, had she the means to do so.

It hadn't quite crossed Breeze's mind that the very fact he and Sun had been planning to run even before the bands were affixed to them might have gone some way towards justifying their presence in the first place. It had occurred to Sun, but he soothed his conscience with the thought that Gold would never had trusted them either way.

* * * * *

Barely a guard stood between them and their next target, and all it took was a distraction from Breeze and a carefully measured blow from Sun to clear the path. Concussion would haunt at least two of the manor's guards, but some other operators might not have been quite as kind. Not when one took into consideration the sort of message that the two were meant to deliver.

And here they were, staring down through the darkness at the slumbering form of a stallion who shifted in the midst of some deep dream. For the loss of his prize, the sheath of papers he had yet to read, wasn't a strong enough message for the Boss.

Breeze reached out, shaking the stallion with a hoof. He seemed almost resentful in the way he rose to alertness, coming out of sleep with groans and twitches, rolling first one way and then the other before he rubbed at his eyes and blinked up at the dark ceiling.

"Mmf... What?" he grumbled, paying little attention to the forms standing beside his bed; they were just dark shapes against the slightly paler background. "Something wrong? 's still dark, what...what time is it?"

"The Boss would send his regards," said Sun in a low voice, "but he's a little too upset to say anything cordial right now. So he sent a different message."

Bleary eyes became clear in an instant, fear throwing off the confusion of an abrupt awakening. The stallion sat up, shedding it, his eyes seeking out the dark shapes and resolving them into something he could process. Faces, names...

"Bull? What are you talking about? What are you doing inside? And...Ginger? You too?!" He turned to clamber out of bed but Breeze held up a hoof, and he froze, his face dropping as realisation mounted. "You... You're not... W-who are you?"

"We have what you stole. You can rest assured that you won't be seeing it again, nor will you have the chance to get your hooves on it, or anything that even comes close to it in value." Sun pulled the very top of the envelope from his bag, just to show that he wasn't bluffing. "Now, our Boss has been extremely generous, and at the urging of our mutual friend Gold Tooth he's been convinced that you should be allowed to continue in your services, but he also wishes it to be known that your position has sunk. All the way to the bottom of the ladder." Then he stood back, and Breeze stepped in front of him, face arranged into an impassive mask.

"That's the first part of his message, though my companion removed the obscenities. There is one other thing that we need to make clear." Clear, that was the signal. A rehearsed moment. Sun stepped around to the other side of the bed, and the pair transformed. The shapes of their disguises vanished in flashes that must have been blinding in the night, and once he'd blinked the afterimages away, the stallion shrunk back from the dark, fanged forms of the drones in their true shapes.

"If you ever - and I mean ever - try to screw the Family over like that again," Breeze hissed, "then we will pay you another midnight visit, and we will take something far, FAR more precious from you. Are we understood?"

The stallion opened his mouth to speak but no words made it past his flapping lips. So he simply nodded, a mute and pale spectre in the darkness.

"Good. We'll see ourselves out. And we'll convey your deepest apologies and most sincere well wishes to the Boss, shall we?"

Twin flashes of green illuminated the room once more, casting hard-edged shadows that died moments later. When when his night vision had recovered from the second assault, the stallion saw that the changelings were already gone, the door shut behind them.

They strode out with the shapes of the two earth stallions in place, unchallenged and unhindered. The simple plan had proven its worth, and the odds had favoured them. It was an operation that, if not textbook, was damned close, and Breeze's head was full of the near-giddy rush of satisfaction and the hot, sharp-edged afterglow of an adrenaline spike. The thrill of a dangerous job well done.

And as they stepped out into the cold night air, their own triumph warming them better than their cloaks ever had, they utterly failed to see the distant figures observing them from the frozen hills.

* * * * *

"Bet's to you, Breezie," Val said, glancing over at the changeling. There was a hint of a smirk playing on the corners of the stallion's mouth, but Breeze was fairly sure, even as he suppressed a groan at that damned nickname, that it was put on. He'd seen the pegasus in far more stressful places and the stoicism with which he'd faced them had been more than impressive. A crack under the pressure of a simple poker game? Unlikely. It had the changeling suspicious, wondering if the hand in Val's hoof wasn't quite as good as appearances would have him believe, and he was hoping that the 'slip' in his poker face would intimidate the table.

Unless he was playing a more complex game. It was doubtful, but by no means definite; despite a disastrous first game both Breeze and Sun were developing reputations, not only for their own poker faces, but their uncanny way of seeing through other players'. At least, when they put their minds to it.

Having eyes without discernible pupils helped, of course, as did faces with fewer moving parts than the average pony. Oh, they could be expressive when they wanted, but they lacked the little ticks and twitches that other faces so often couldn't suppress. This all meant that their opponents at the card table were being forced to develop new and interesting tactics to try and counter.

Breeze glanced down at his own card. He'd shucked his disguise more or less the moment that they'd arrived in the 'VIP' lounge, and on the grey frill sticking up from his neck stood four silver rings, each pierced through the membrane. Much like the steel band that now showed on his leg, they tended to vanish along with his frill, but when he was relaxing as his natural self they helped the less observant ponies distinguish between Sun and himself at a casual glance.

Despite his own pride in his poker face it was something of a struggle to keep a smile from his own muzzle. A full house peered back up at him, queens over twos, and if his guess about Val was right then he'd beaten the pegasus without contest. Sun, however... The other changeling was as impassive and unreadable as a boulder.

Still, actions spoke loader than words or expressions. "I'll see twenty," he said, pushing the bits forward with a hoof. To his left, Natalya huffed a sigh through a barely parted beak and flung her own cards down.

"Fold..." she muttered, before pushing back her chair with a little too much force and standing, headed for the bar.

That was something of a blow. The game was young, though the night itself certainly wasn't, but Nat had been doing poorly from the start, and her expression had only grown more and more sullen as bad hand after bad hand had been dealt her way. So the fold and retreat towards alcohol wasn't unexpected, but the four of them in the game were the only four in the lounge at all. If the formel was calling it a night, as far as poker was concerned, it was a matter of two changelings and a single pony. Val was brave, but there was little chance of him risking the two of them ganging up on him.

As a matter of fact it seemed to be a quiet night in general. Barely a pony was in the building, just the night staff who took care of the legitimate activities going on around the warehouse. Even Gold had neglected to meet them, having called it an early night and left one of his goons to collect the manilla envelope in his stead.

Breeze was almost too distracted by thoughts of what to do if poker was off the table to notice Sun raising the stakes to 25 bits. He blinked over at Val as he called, and with an absent mind he pushed another 30 into the table. It almost wiped out his pile but he had a hunch this was going to be a win for him. Besides, even if Sun won, the older changeling was unlikely to hoard the winnings all to himself. Outside of the lounge, and away from the other players who might have felt inclined to cry foul, they tended to split what they won between them.

As Nat poured herself out a tumbler of something strong the bet went back around the table. Sun and Val both called, and the pot was looking very fine indeed.

"Well then, gentlecolts, I think that's showdown," said Val. "Sun, would you be a dear and lead us off?" The pegasus' eyes slid, left then right, watching their expressions for a clue, a sign, anything that indicated he had the better of them.

Sun's face was as stoic as ever, even as he laid down his cards and spread them with a hoof. Two pair, threes of hearts and diamonds, with fours of hearts and clubs, and a lonely ace of spades to complete the hand.

Breeze let the ghost of a smile cross his face, eyes flicking from the cards to Val, and he could see that although the pegasus was trying to keep his face in check he couldn't suppress the little twinkle in his eye. A twinkle of triumph, no doubt. Had he misread the pegasus earlier? Perhaps so, for as Val laid his own cards down the triumph spread from his eyes to his mouth.

Oh, it was a good hand. It had Sun beat, and any other night it would have beaten Breeze, too. Another full house. Knaves over tens; diamonds, hearts and spades over diamonds and clubs.

Good, but his own was better. A sly grin spread over the changeling's muzzle as he tossed his hand down with a casual flick.

"Queens beat knaves, I think?"

Val stared down at the cards for a moment, then he threw his hooves up, leaning back in his chair with a cry of mock despair.

"Well, that's it! I'm done for the night, 'less I want to clean myself out and fill your pockets! Would that be enough for you, Breezie?" he asked, but there was a gleam of laughter in his eyes. "Or would you rather win my house from me, too? How about I sign my body over to you?"

His own grin only widening, Breeze reached out to scoop the pile of bits towards himself.

"Oh, I think I'm more than happy with the bits, thank you very much~"

"Yeah, you can go and jump at a flyswatter, you smug bastard."

In the background Natalya downed her drink and stretched, letting out an exaggerated, theatrical yawn.

"Well, if you colts are all finished up I think I'm going to call it a night here."

She set her tumbler down on the side and strode over to the door, but froze and cast a significant glare at Sun and Breeze.

"Don't tell me... Nopony's even out there," groaned Breeze, midway through pouring bits into his saddlebag.

"Almost nopony," Nat replied, tapping a leonine paw against the ground. "Cleaners and security are still hanging around, and I don't want to have to deal with Goldy because some poor night worker happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now get them on, before I come over there."

He let out another grumble but a flash in the corner of his vision told him Sun was already obeying, and so he shrugged. It was only a small effort, after all, and Nat was right; even without considering the amount of trouble it could cause in the long run, the immediate threat of dealing with an angry Gold Tooth was deterrent enough.

That was why both changelings were in disguise when, seconds later, the door exploded inwards, and why none of the members of the Fillydelphia guard who came storming through the empty door frame saw them in their true forms.

Author's Notes:

And here we get into the next act. I didn't want to keep you waiting too long (the six month wait at the end of the last arc does make me feel a little guilty!), though the next chapter probably won't come quite as quickly; while it's ready to post, I plan to get the following arc up to a better standard of completion before it goes up. The chances of me finding a regular schedule and sticking to it are slim, but I want to try and cut down on the multi-month waits.

It's worth noting, of course that I said try :rainbowwild:

Thanks as ever for reading!

Charlie - II

The first that Breeze knew of the explosion - truly, consciously knew - were the splinters that flew past his nose, almost in slow motion. His other senses were already aware of it, and the instinctual levels of his brain were already pumping adrenaline into his system in a vain attempt to get him reacting. But it took precious moments for his conscious mind to catch up with the information that was flooding them.

There was no fireball, no smoke, just a simple concussive blast that shattered the door into fragments and blew them inward. A wave of overpressure threw Natalya backwards in the cloud of splinters and knocked the other three out of their seats and onto the floor. For a second or so as he lay there, surrounded by the remains of the door and hearing nothing but the sound of high bells, Breeze was vaguely aware of a sharp pain at the base of his left ear. But it faded almost as soon as he noticed it, submerged in a wave of dizzy nausea.

Everything seemed confused. Surreal. Colours overly bright, motions choppy. He felt almost the same as he had when he watched Sun straddling that Queen's Guard outrider months before, as though the world he were looking at wasn't entirely real. There were ponies all around him, ponies clad in simple steel armour, filling the room, their mouths flapping. As though they were talking, but all he could hear was that high whine, like the sound of a bell, humming after it had been rung. Like the long aftersound of the warning bells of the Hive.

He became aware of a whisper, that sounded like it was coming at him from a long way away, echoing through the length of some great tube. Sun's voice. Hissing words at him. He tried to piece them together in his mind...

"Keep your head down. Don't fight them."

It was a funny thing to say. As if Breeze were in any condition to fight. None of them were. Val was spitting curses up at the armoured ponies but he lay still. Natalya was spitting blood from her beak, her face cut in half a dozen places and splinters sticking out from her feathers. Breeze put a hoof to his numb ear, hissed softly at a sudden hot pain and drew the hoof back with a jerk. It came back with a red smear on the keratin wall and he blinked down at it as a pony, a unicorn like all of the armoured souls, rolled him onto his back and beckoned across the room to another.

"Corporal! Check him!" she barked. Another guard picked his way through the wreck of the room and narrowed his eyes down at Breeze.

As he peered up at the face beneath that steel helm the changeling sucked a breath in, eyes widening a fraction.

Stalwart glared back. There was something in his eyes, some fire and fury that Breeze had only ever seen twice before. Once in the eyes of Fair Trade, and once in the eyes of the outrider. It was the heat of betrayal. Those eyes narrowed further, and Breeze knew that Art had seen the flash of recognition in his own eyes. It was as if the stallion knew. Knew who he was, what he was, and he seemed about to say something.

But he stayed silent with a clenched jaw. His horn took on a silvery glow and for an instant Breeze was aware of a phantom heat in his left foreleg. The same hoof that was stained red with blood. He glanced down at it with a rush of thought when Stalwart's voice cut through those thoughts.

"That's one of them."

Breeze and Sun came to the same realisation at the same moment. The elder changeling pushed himself up from the floor with a hiss, eyes fixed on the guard in front of Breeze. The movement was as explosive as the blast to the door had been, powered by fear, but a steel-shod hoof slammed down on his withers and smacked him back to the floor, forcing the air from his lungs. Woodchippings and little motes of dust swirled up around his muzzle.

Breeze made no such gesture or struggle. He just stared dumbly down at his bloodstained hoof, not glancing up when Stalwart's horn flashed again, and he raised a hoof to point at Rising Sun. Nor did his look up when the four of them were pulled up standing and cuffed, at their forelegs and hindlegs and wings. And then dragged bodily through the warehouse, pulled down stairs, and bundled through the cold air towards a armoured cart, its sides banded with iron strips.

Even as Stalwart made a very considerable effort not to look at him, as they were lifted one by one into the back of the cart and locked in, or when it lurched into motion, did he spend more than a second looking at anything else. His eyes always drifted back to his left foreleg. Not for the blood on it, though that would have been reason enough on its own. Rather, his eyes were fixed on that which he couldn't see, but that he could feel.

The locator band.

They were wearing old disguises; both earth ponies, Breeze the dark grey stallion he had been when they visited Straight Silver months before, Sun a sky blue coat and a straw-coloured mane. Both unremarkable, and never disguises that they wore on a job. If there was any way for them to be singled out then it was this.

The Pinheads knew about the bands. He didn't know how, though he suspected. He didn't know how much else they knew, either, but that was immaterial now. There was only one thing that really broke through the haze of shock weighing down over his mind.

Art knew. The fiery look could mean nothing else. He knew that it had been they who walked with him that night. His fury blazed like a beacon in the dark and sent a shiver of fear running down Breeze's spine.

"Breezie... Your ear."

There was that damned nickname again. It jolted him from the pit of his thoughts, made him look up and over at Natalya, the feathers of her face streaked with the red and brown of drying blood.

"My ear?" he repeated dumbly, his mouth dry and his tongue feeling thick and swollen.

"It... It's off. They blew your ear off."

Her voice was calm. Almost strangely so. But her eyes were wide, the irises shrunken. Breeze reached up again, winced as his hoof met raw, ragged skin. Sure enough, the point of his left ear was gone. More than just the point. At least half of it, as far as his searching hoof could tell.

The pain started to throb at the side of his head. He could feel a few trails of warm blood trickling down and he realised he was starting to feel faint. Sick to his stomach. Almost against his will his thoughts were drawn back to the first time he'd felt so, and in a tucked-away corner of his mind he reflected that the sensation hadn't improved with time. Nor was the rough and passage of the cart helping. Each jerk just intensified the lurching feeling in his belly and made him even more sure that whatever little was in his stomach would soon be sloshing around on the iron floor.

It was only only the gentle touch of Sun's hoof against his other foreleg that kept him together, held back the rising vomit and the rising urge to panic. He took deep breaths, sucking down frigid air, letting it cool his throat and lungs.

In the dim orange darkness outside the rattling cart, in defiance of the prior day's short-lived dusting, the pegasi of Fillydelphia Weather Patrol's third shift were working, wrangling clouds and directing the chilled winds that blew still from the Celestial Sea, where the weather was wilder, less predictable. Soon the sky above was filled with dark cloud, and fresh, fat snowflakes were drifting down. They lay on the cold flagstones and stone roofs, fluttered in through the barred, paneless windows of the cart, and melted on the floor, seats and bodies within.

By the time the cart drew to an abrupt halt outside a squat stone building and the prisoners had been drawn from their carriage by scowling guards, the snow was falling as a deluge. As thick as fog and already forming the first layers of what promised to be a thick blanket. Flakes were settling on the small procession too fast to melt away, leaving Breeze and Val looking as pale as the other two.

The mare leading the guards, her armour marked with three chevrons, narrowed her eyes at the procession before her and jerked her head towards the building.

"Prisoners! You follow the pony in front of you into the station! You obey all orders given to you, you do not speak to an officer unless spoken to, and you do not speak to each other until you've been processed!"

She cast her steely gaze over each of them, lips curling up and her teeth bared. "You're being held in custody, pending interrogation and formal charges. You do not have to say anything when questioned, but it may harm your defence if you should fail to mention anything that you might rely on at trial. You will be presented with further information should you be charged with any crime under the the laws and ordinances of the Realm of Equestria and the City of Fillydelphia. Is that understood?!"

The words had all but flown a mile over Breeze's head, and the few that had sunk in found themselves jumbled about in a brain that was refusing to function, that couldn't make sense of everything that was happening around it. But Nat and Val were both muttering short acknowledgements so he joined in, his voice soft and hollow.

The mare took a breath, but her face soften and she hesitated for a moment, pointing out Breeze and Natalya. "You two."

His head pulled back, ear-and-a-half flattening. The cool air in his lungs seemed to have turned to ice and frozen his blood along with it. They two? They two what? What had they done, or not done? He could feel his heartbeat rising in anticipation of a struggle, but the mare was still talking.

"I'll have the station's surgeon have a look at you before you're confined. If either of you need further treatment I'll have you transferred to a secure wing at the Amoré Memorial Hospital. Now let's move!"

'Processing' took an hour or so, though Breeze couldn't be sure exactly how long it was before they found themselves together once more. It was in the station's lock-up, a long room of undecorated stone with a number of caged cells set against the outside wall. Thick stone, cold to the touch just like the rest of the place, with high windows that were little more than arrowslits with a single bar across them. All four prisoners were huddled together under thin blankets in a single cell, Velvet nestled in beside Natalya, who had a wing draped over him.

The lock-up was empty save for them, and a single warden who stood by the heavy oaken door that lead into the rest of the station. Aside from the crackling of the wood-fired stove he warmed himself at, the only sounds were the hissing of snow falling outside and the gentle murmurs of their own breathing. A few lanterns hung along the far wall, out of reach of any hooves that might have reached for the through the bars, but their light was faint and did little to cast any useful illumination, instead only casting long and twisted shadows against the wall and along the stone floor.

Breeze was still trying to make sense of everything. The processing procedure had been a blur of words and questions, questions that he'd given monosyllabic and vague answers to without really listening. When they asked for his name he told them it was Apple Orchard, a name one of the enforcers who hung around the lounge had suggested, and the clerk nodded, before casting a knowing glance over to the mare who had hovered over them the entire time. Then they'd stamped his hoof, shuffled their papers and sent him down a corridor to sit under guard with Natalya in a sterile white infirmary.

A very surly looking stallion with a greying mane had squinted at them both, gave them a quick look over and declared in tones of obvious irritation that both patients would live before roughly bandaging Breeze's ear and washing the blood from Nat's feathers.

And finally, he was shown into this frozen room, locked in what amounted to an oversized cage, and found himself huddled under a blanket, awaiting the morning's sun and the coming interrogation, feeling as though it had been only moments ago that he'd sat at the poker table exulting in the day's triumphs.

Inexorably, though, his thoughts were leaning less on the past and further towards the coming future. Who exactly was going to be 'interrogating' them? The mare, the sergeant from before, or somepony with a higher ranking? How much would they know? What would they ask? What could he even say to them?

Damn it, when the Pinheads found out what he and Sun really were - for it was a certainty that they would, if they hadn't already - just how would they react? Not nearly as well as Gold, that was for sure, let alone as well as the pony and griffon locked in here with them. Val had already pulled them down, reassured them that someone would be along from the Family. Told them not to say a thing in the interrogation room until they had a lawyer in there beside them, except to demand said lawyer's presence. Breeze wasn't at all sure it would be that easy. Maybe only because this was his first jig with an Equestrian lockup, or...

Breeze looked over at the pegasus; without enough blankets to go around he was curled up and shivering beneath one of Nat's wings, either asleep or pretending to be. The formel herself had her back to the thick stone wall, eyes almost but not quite shut. It was odd; for the longest time, he'd been told that anything that wasn't a changeling was either food, or a mortal enemy. Ponies most of all, the great danger ruled over by the sun goddess. Walking among them made them seem more like the drones still trapped in the Hive, but somehow no less dangerous. There was always still the sense that, at any moment, they might turn on him.

He had never thought that they might have looked so frail and helpless as his friends and cellmates did now.

"Sun?" he hissed, looking over to the other changeling. He got barely a grunt in reply but it was an acknowledgement at least, so he went on, haltingly, barely even sure of what he might say next until the words were already in his mouth.

"It's...a stupid question, I know, but... Back at home, I guess you could call it, did you ever have any- anyone you might've called a friend?"

Sun stirred, his hooves shifting against the stone beneath them, and his head turned to glance over towards the lonely warden. The stallion was either asleep or close to, his head down and his eyes closed.

"Why do you want to know?" he replied in a whisper that was low and hoarse.

Breeze pulled his own blanket tighter around his shoulders.

"Just curious, I guess. Hard to call anyone from back there a friend. I was just thinking, back then is when I could've used a friend the most."

"Mmm, I understand. I think." The older changeling shifted a little closer, close enough that Breeze could feel the heat of him. "I know I had one, he ran away with me," he said with a soft chuckle. "But I don't think you meant that... You never had anyling, did you?"

"No. There were a few drones who I think I might have gotten along with, if things had been different, but..."

No need to say any more. Things had not been different. Things had been as they were, as they always had been and as they always would be, he supposed.

Sun nodded, looking over at one of the lanterns as the fog of his breath caught the light from it.

"There were two drones. No names, of course; I don't think any of us ever even spoke about them, though I know we all wanted them. They'd known each other for a long while before I ended up on watch with one of them. He introduced me to the other, in secret. They had a code, a way to talk without being noticed. I never asked, but it seemed like they'd been friends for years. Decades, maybe.

"Anyway, they took me into their confidence, showed me the same things that you'd seen for yourself, even talked about running a few times. They'd never really been serious about it before, but with three of us working together I think we might have done it. Never got the chance, though."

"What happened?" asked Breeze, watching close, though he found himself fearing the answer, for he felt as though he already knew what it would be.

"The younger of them went out on a mission, escorting an infiltrator into Saddle Arabia. Never came back. The Arabians caught them both, and that was the last any of us ever heard of them.

"The elder took it badly. Started to get less subtle about everything, and it was only a matter of time before the wrong ears caught wind. Naturally, he ended up in the recycling tanks. Almost went there myself, but I was the youngest. 'Less contaminated', so they called me. My captain put me into re-education to see if it might 'save' me. I suppose it did, in the end. Saved my life."

"And mine too," breathed Breeze. "That's how y-"

A beam of light speared out into the lockup as the oaken door was flung open, slamming against the hard stone wall. All five occupants jumped where they stood or sat, five sets of eyes snapping over to the open doorway and squinting at the armoured figure silhouetted against it.

"Constable, take a break," said Stalwart, in a tone that brooked no delay. "I'll watch them for you. Why not get yourself something to drink? Coffee, maybe?"

The warden blinked as he narrowed his eyes in the half light. "All right... But you better not be leaving any marks on 'em, y'hear? 's not worth my job, y'can practice on dummies like the rest of 'em..."

Stalwart said nothing, but he jerked his head towards the open door with a grunt. Once then were alone again he pushed it to, stepped back, and took in a breath that even Breeze could hear.

The changeling ducked his head down, turned his eyes to the floor. Not just because he knew what was coming, but because it implied something far, far worse. Even as the clattering of steel shoes on a stone floor grew louder he kept his eyes turned downwards. The sounds drew closer, taking an age to cross the short stretch from the door to the first cell, but at least they drew up before the door and paused there.

Heavy breathing filtered between the bars. Breeze could see the shapes of forehooves just at the top of his field of vision, and at the far edge he could see Sun beside him. The elder changeling chose to look up, to meet what must have been a razor-edged glare without challenging it.

For the longest time Stalwart stood there, barely moving, simply breathing hard enough to send little wisps of fog into the cell. Natalya put a claw around Val's shoulders in addition to the wing as they watched, silent and uncertain. And then at last, the stallion spoke.

"What happened to them?"

He spoke with a quiet voice that sounded like rocks grinding together, like gravel crunching beneath hooves. Breeze squeezed his eyes shut, feeling at once cold and warm, wishing that he were dreaming.

"I asked you a question. You could at least have the decency to answer. Don't pretend you don't know who I'm talking about. Posey and Lavender. The Flower Fillies, is what we called them. You could at least tell me where you dumped whatever was left."

Breeze held his tongue; more than just held, he bit down on it, hard. Sun seemed content to stare back at the stallion, just as silent as the younger changeling. The other two stayed huddled together to the side, unwilling or unable to comment, but Stalwart seemed content enough to leave them be. For now.

Instead he shifted his jaw as if chewing; though he couldn't see it, Breeze could hear the muscles working, the slick sound of a tongue moving within the mouth.

"All right... You remember Stomper, I assume? You might be interested to know, I'm not sure if he's ever going to be able to come back to work. That's how hard it hit him, when they told us the truth."

That broke his self control. Breeze's head jerked up, eyes burning straight into the stallion's, about to shout. Shout out that they hadn't done anything to the mares, that they didn't know what had happened to them, that they had only done what they'd been told to do. But he saw the tears in those steely eyes, tracks running down along furred cheeks, even though the rest of Stalwart's face refused to even acknowledge them, and the sight struck him dumb for a moment.

Good sense took advantage of that moment to catch up with him. Saying anything would be an admission of guilt, the first bars of a more permanent cell, and they would have been forged by Breeze himself.

Stalwart's eyes narrowed. He waited a few moments long for Breeze to speak, but when it became apparent that the changeling had nothing to say he snorted.

"Fine. You think you're being smart by keeping quiet? Then think about this; we have a sworn testimony. We know that you crossed into Dragontown one rainy night, and we know what you were carrying. We know that you set up the dragon attack, too. And soon we'll know just what spell it is you use to play masters of disguise. If you want to play dumb then you're just earning yourselves a longer sentence." He chuckled, a thin and bitter, grating laugh. "So I suppose I don't know why I'm even trying to get you to talk. Get used to rooms like these. I doubt you'll see anything better for a long time."

There was nothing else from the unicorn, though he did linger for another few seconds. But as the silence filled the long room once more he wiped at his eyes with a foreleg and strode away, the sounds of his departure ringing through the lock-up. He took a position next to the stove and waited there until the warden returned with a steaming mug, and then he was gone.

Whatever was in the mug didn't seem to do a particularly good job at keeping the warden alert, for he was slumping on his hooves after only a quarter of an hour or less, his drink sitting forgotten on the floor. As soon as he was sure it was safe, Breeze pressed a hoof to the stone and ground down on it, his jaw clenched.


"The guardspony? I know he was gloating there, but he seemed like a decent enough sort to me," sniffed Val in a soft voice. "Can't say I blame him for it either. Since he's got the misfortune to be on the other side of the wall from us."

"No, not him," said Sun, butting in before Breeze could snap back at the pegasus. "Gold."

Now Natalya looked confused. She leant forward, speaking in a soft voice.

"Really? All right, he's a bastard, I'll never argue that, but I'm not sure what that has to do with anything..."

Breeze found that he could barely speak over the fire and ice that still lingered inside him, both of them flaring in intensity as they slid through his veins. When he did speak, his voice was drawn so tight it was utterly flat.

"He set this up. Had to have. Either it was his idea all along, or it was the Boss's, and he executed it. Either way, the bastard hung us out to dry."

Val was already opening his mouth to speak before Breeze had even finished, doubtless to ask why they'd make so drastic an accusation, but Sun beat him to the punch.

"Think about it. The guards knew the frequency to our bands. They knew that it was Breeze and I who made the run into Dragontown, and they know what the cargo was." He glanced towards the guard, double-checking his alertness; still dozing, it seemed. "Only Gold, the Boss, and a couple of unicorns know how to follow those gems. So that narrows down the list of informants already. And who do you think gave that 'sworn testimony' he was talking about? Maybe not Gold himself, but you can bet that he authorised it. Maybe even wrote whoever gave it a damned script."

"He wasn't in the warehouse. Probably got scared at the idea of even being near there when the raid went down," Breeze growled "Left a goon to pick up the package. We should've smelled something there and then, but we didn't." He turned his gaze to Sun, the muscles in his neck visibly straining.

Natalya's wings flared there, throwing off her blanket and exposing Val to the cold air in the process.

"Hold on a second, they have all this dirt on you, but what about us? Goldy knows that we spend most of our nights in the lounge, he'd have known that we'd be there!"

At that, Sun could only nod with a grim face.

"Almost certainly. But maybe he needed someone around to keep us there. Maybe he thought you might sweeten the pot. Doesn't matter. The point is, he figured you were expendable enough, so he set you up to take the fall along with us."

Foxtrot - I

The lock-up had been silent, aside from the gentle snoring of the constable, for a some time. Even the snow outside had stopped falling, and the heavy blanket that now covered the roads and roofs seemed to muffle the occasional sounds from outside. Even when there was no sound for it to dampen, it was as if the layers of snow projected a sense of silence that could make the quiet even more so.

"Got to admit, though," Val said into the depths of the silence, "there are better ways to get rid of somepony. No offence, but assuming that's even what's going on, I'd have expected you two to be at the bottom of the harbour by now. I'm guessing you think he's doing this because he's afraid of you two? So why go to all this bother, writing up fake testimonies?"

It was Natalya who spoke up in reply, her wing pulling the pegasus tighter to her side.

"More than that, probably. I'd wager these boys, any other time, would have been too useful to throw away like that, scary or not. Could be something else pushed them over the edge?"

"You think they made a bargain?" said Sun. He quirked his brow, wry amusement showing on his face. "Let me guess, something along the lines of 'here are a couple of big prizes, now please get your muzzles out of our business'?"

Natalya nodded.

"We all know Goldy's been talking about how the Pinheads keep squeezing tighter. I hate to say it, but it could be that the Boss figured you were more useful as a bribe than a thief. As for us two, well..." Her voice turned bitter, a sour smile tugging at the very edges of her beak. "Why would he be upset about losing one of fifty enforcers, and a lowly money jockey?"

"Doubt it was even a hard decision," Breeze growled. "Bastards don't see us as anything more than monsters, after all. Tamed, maybe, but he couldn't stand to keep us around a second longer than we were useful for."

"There is one thing he had the good sense not to tell them, though," murmured Sun, his face thoughtful, a stark contrast to the anger boiling beneath the surface of Breeze's almost stoic face. "He gave us one advantage, whether he meant to or not. You all heard what Stalwart said, about finding out what spells we've been using, all that about 'masters of disguise'?"

He smiled, and though it was a grim, tight little thing it was a smile nonetheless. "They don't know what we are."

The smile spread to the formel, and she gave a slow nod, her eyes already sparkling.

"Well then. That makes you our secret weapon, doesn't it?"

Breeze, his eyes still narrowed, gave a heavy shrug.

"Maybe. But we're not going to be as useful as you think, better understand that now." He'd been turning his own plans over in his head, and coming to unpleasant conclusions. "And let's not give Goldy too much credit, he didn't leave that piece of information out for our benefit, he did it because he doesn't want the stupid Pinheads to know that he knew about us. That would sour the deal right away, and I dare any of you to tell me I'm wrong!"

"All right, perhaps we should move away from that topic..." Nat said in a soft voice. "Why don't you tell me what you can do to help us out? Can't you do something about the guard there?"

"Him? Sure. He's one pony. Easy enough to get him doing what I want, so long as his guard is down. Could make him unlock the cell, leave us the keys, and then curl up in the corner to nap. But then we'd have to get past all the guards out there. Too many to fight, too many to dominate..."

"Well what if you two pretended to be guards?" said Val. He was hunched, and his voice came quieter and hoarser than it had been. "Say that you're transferring us to another cell, and once we're away we run?"

"Without proper orders or paperwork?" Sun shook his head. "They'd be on us before we even reached the door.

There wasn't much of a response from Val, just a slow nod and a grunt. He didn't seem surprised that his thought had been skewered so, and he didn't offer any protest. Nor did he offer any other idea, seeming content enough to snuggle deeper into Natalya's plumage and let silence reign once more.

It reigned until Breeze stood, breaking the stillness with a hard shuffle of hoof on stone. The blanket fell away to land in a rustling heap around his legs and he stepped over it, putting himself against the cold wall. A hoof raised, tapped against it, feeling the rough hewn face, the seams between the great blocks, the gritty mortar holding it all together.

"How thick would you say these walls are?" he said aloud, thoughts tumbling over inside his skull. A fruitless plan, of course, he'd already considered it many a time before, but after everything, with the throbbing in the ruins of his left ear and the frigid air that kept sleep at bay and the iron bars closing around him, Breeze felt the need to break something. To defy the helplessness surrounding them and, he knew, to keep from breaking someone.

"Too thick," replied Sun, but he did so with caution, a slow and measured voice. "You might be able to blast out the bars in the window, if the seating's bad, but you know the noise would have them in here before we'd made it outside. And they'd be hunting us from the very start." His left forehoof rose, tapped his right, and Breeze couldn't help but glance down at his own left foreleg.

"And they'd find us. However we tried to hide," he finished for Sun. The rage drained from him, and for a moment the helplessness seemed set to overtake him, to drown him under a wave of despair and resignation. Enough to tempt him to lie down, to just let whatever was destined to happen pass without resistance. It was better then raging, surely, as impotent as that rage might be. Surely by now he deserved a rest?

But at the same time he recognised the danger of that urge. The way it seemed up through his hooves like the chill of the flagstones beneath.

A rush of new fury flared in his chest, without warning or bidding The head of it was enough to drive the cold touch of apathy back into the floor, and then it was gone again, leaving him with something new. Not blind anger, but no desire to be a passive host to the wills of the world. Because he deserved a rest, that much was true, but not here. Not curled up in defeat, in a frozen cell waiting upon the mercies of the lackeys of a Sun Goddess.

"So we need time," he said, voicing thoughts out loud as they entered his mind, "time to get these things off of us. Or at least to mess them up enough that these Pinheads can't use them to follow us. We need to get away without them knowing that we've gotten away."

There, now. A shape was forming in his mind, pieces clicking together and blurred edges coming into sharp focus. "We need to wait," he said, voice low, knowing what that meant and hating it even as he realised it was the only way.

"'Wait'?" hissed Val. "Wait for what? A miracle?"

"No. An opportunity."

Sun's face was cast down, as if staring at his hoof, but his eyes were shut. "To slip away and get a head start."

The pegasus dipped his own head, wings tucked tight against his sides, swiping a hoof in front of his face.

"We don't even know how long that might be. If we'll ever even have that kind of chance."

By now Breeze had turned away from the wall and was pulling his blanket back around himself, but he paused to look over at Val.

"They can't keep us here forever. I know, I've read things; they have bigger prisons where they'll take us sooner or later."

"There'll be interrogations first, though. Then formal charges, they'll take us to the courthouse, have a pointless hearing... Could take days. Longer, maybe." Val's voice said all that his words didn't. They might have days. Maybe a week or more. But as far as time went, they were on a budget.

"Then it'll take days," Sun said. "In the meantime, we ought to rest."

"Too bloody cold to sleep in this place," grumbled Breeze, then he let out a yelp as a clawed hand hooked around his waist, and he was pulled up against Natalya's side, a great feathered wing wrapping around him. On her other side, Sun was being pressed against Val as that wing flared and curled to surround them both with feathers.

"No complaints, boys," she clucked. "Not much sense wasting all this body head. Besides, I'm sure you've both wanted to get so close to me."

Certainly it was warmer in the huddle, even if Breeze's nose was now full of the heavy, earthy scent of preening oils. Perhaps Sun might make a complaint, but Breeze weighed up the consequences of doing so, and came to conclusion that, regardless of the mild discomfort of the smell, heat was better than cold. Besides, he wasn't entirely sure he had the energy. After everything, with the warmth of the formel surrounding him, his eyes started to droop, and he began to wonder if he might just be able to sleep after all...

"It occurs you me that we might have gotten off on the wrong hoof," said the three-striped pony - the sergeant, this time a stallion - sitting across the metal table from Breeze. "I think we should make a fresh start. I'm Sergeant Beckon. Would you state your name, for the record and all that?"

With his forelegs shackled, the chain passing through a ring welded to the table itself, Breeze was reasonably confident that his first impressions were more or less accurate, and no amount of too-wide smiles or feigned affection could change that. But he was willing to play along, if for no other reason than because one armoured constable stood behind him, and another on the other side of the interrogation room's door, watching the corridor. Civilised as the Pinheads might be in public, he couldn't help wondering how civil they were behind closed doors, and nor did he want to provoke any anger so early on in the 'interview', as the stallion was insisting on calling it.

"Apple Orchard," he said, blinking over at the sergeant. During the long night he'd managed to catch some sleep but it had been fitful, little more than a sort of doze where he drifted just beneath wakefulness. The place where the whole world became a half-formed paradox, where he could never be sure if he really was asleep, or just dreaming that he was.

He supposed that ought to have made him snappish, irritable, but enough time had passed from a rude awakening, watching Sun pulled from the cell for his own interrogation, to now. By Breeze's reckoning it was almost noon, and the heavy weight of exhaustion seemed to have drained the last dregs of anger from him, which on the one hoof was a blessing, but on the other it left him wishing for nothing more than a warm place to recover. "I told them that last night."

Oh, doubtless this stallion knew that it was a false name, but anonymity was a shield, and Breeze would be damned before giving up his true name. And as he watched the sergeant's face he saw the gears behind it turning. Trying to tell if that had been a touch of petulance he'd heard, perhaps.

"Yes, that's what we have on file," Beckon replied, looking down at his notes. "So do you attend the famous family reunions? Or are you not one of those Apples?"

Breeze gave a shrug, making a vague, non-committal noise.

"I think it's just a coincidence? It's just the name they gave me. I'm pretty sure I'm not related." It hadn't escaped even his notice that the Apple family was the largest in Equestria, and it was common knowledge that they had a web of ponies who all seemed to know each other somehow, even those who had never met another Apple in their lives. It was also common knowledge that the name had spread, parents taking to naming their foals with apple-related names, for whatever reason, and that tendency spread to less savoury circles. Though the Pinheads knew it was simply an alias, they'd have a hard time proving it.

"Mm, I see."

Beckon craned his neck up and to the side, peering down along Breeze's flank and to his rump. "A personal question, but I'm curious, were your parents disappointed when your true calling turned out to have less to do with apples, and more to do with calculation?"

What? He had to restrain himself from look down along his own dun flank to try and see what Beckon was pointing out. Instead he met the stallion's eyes with a frown, biting his own tongue and trying to force his brain into order. Flanks, rump, what was... Oh! The cutie mark!

They were parts of a disguise that Breeze had to admit he'd never really thought much about. Unless he showed them any special attention, they were just like any other fur pattern to him. And since he could slide between a dozen different disguises, each with their own mark, he'd never put the same emphasis - or obsession - into them that the ponies around him had. For them, he supposed now, they must be like faces. With far more importance to them, perhaps, but they could be read and recognised just as easily, if not more so.

"I don't really see how that's any of your business," he said, injecting a touch of offence into his tone and his expression. Along with a good amount of discomfort, and a hint of embarrassment. "Shouldn't I have a lawyer? I don't think I want to answer any more questions until I have one."

With a smooth motion, eyes not straying towards it as if he weren't even aware of the movement, he lifted a hoof and touched it to the bandaged ear that still gaze a dull throb into the side of his skull. Beckon's own eyes danced towards it for a moment before they snapped back to the changeling's face. For a split second, something like surprise sparked behind them, as if he hadn't gotten the reaction he'd expected, and then something else. Sympathy, perhaps.

It didn't last. Maybe he was remembering just what sort of criminal he was supposed to be dealing with, and the sympathy was washed away in a wave of exasperation. Petulance and ignorance, it seemed, were weapons more common than Breeze had supposed.

"We can see about getting you a lawyer, Orchard, but first I have a few more questions, all right?"

Breeze shook his head, his voice rising in pitch and volume.

"The sergeant last night said I didn't have to answer any questions! You all kept me in that freezing cell, you blew of my ear!" Tears were brimming in his eyes now. "I'm not saying anything else until you get me my lawyer!"

With that he sat back, crossing his hindlegs as best he could with the shackles and chains getting in the way. His eyes stayed on the sergeant, though, watching his face for a twitch, a sigh, any sign that he was wearing out the stallion.

Or was he about to be forced to sit through the while round of questions in silence, endure mounting anger that might lead to something more?

Perhaps something else entirely. For the sergeant, his muzzle split in a smile that spoke of quiet danger, set his forehooves on the tabletop and leant forward.

Only to be interrupted by a sharp rapping at the door, that dispelled whatever tension Beckon was trying to build up and scattered it. All three pairs of eyes turned to face the door that, without word to say otherwise, creeped open. A mare's head appeared around it, trepidation clear on her face.

"Sergeant? Captain needs to see you. There's been a, uh... A development." She glanced at Breeze, hesitating for a moment. Wandering, perhaps, just how much his ears were allowed to hear? There was something else bubbling up behind her lips, it was clear in her eyes and the way she hovered.

After a moment she seemed to have made up her mind. "Something about Etso." The last word was all but hissed out, soft enough that Breeze wasn't entirely sure what he heard, and he frowned.

Beckon, meanwhile, nodded. But as he replied, his voice was tight and confused.

"All right. Thank you, corporal, tell her I'll be right out."

As the door closed, latching with a muted click, Beckon stood and let out a sigh. "Keep an eye on him, constable. I'll send a runner to let you know if I'm going to be kept long."

With him gone, Breeze was just settling himself down for what could have been a very long wait, feeling the eyes of the silent watcher on his back, when the sound of raised voices filtered back through the closed door. Muffled though they were, Beckon's at least was obvious enough, not that he could make out any of the words. Leaving the sounds to sit at the back of his mind he turned the words of the corporal over in his mind. Etso... Was that a name? If so, who were they? And why did they seem to get such a reaction from the sergeant?

He only had a few minutes to think, before Beckon stormed back in with dark, scowling eyes and colour rising in his cheeks. He didn't sit, instead taking a station beside the constable.

"Well, Orchard, as much as I hate to disappoint you, I'm afraid there will be no lawyers for the time being. Nor will there be any more questions from me. You and your fellows will be remanded in custody, pending the resolution of an unfortunate bureaucratic matter."

He spat those last two words with enough cold venom that Breeze could only blink. Any words of his own died before they reached his lips, and he found himself giving a very simple nod, just to confirm that he'd heard and more or less understood what he was being told. The chains were removed, he was pulled from his seat, and in moments he was being marched down the corridor between the two guards, wondering just how the hell he was supposed to take this news.

He was back in his cell just in time for a paltry lunch; bowls of some sort of vegetable soup that had had most of the flavoured boiled out of it, served with hunks of tough bread. There was onion in it, along with cabbage and what he assumed was carrot, but any other ingredients seemed to have dissolved into the lumpy broth.

As they ate he spoke about the curtailed interview, saying as much as he could, but there wasn't a lot to work with and while he might have had the time, he certainly didn't have the energy to pad it out or elaborate on any small details. Despite that, it generated more interest than Sun's own reports.

"Etso, Etso..." Val was saying, turning the name over on his tongue as his hoof dunked bread into what was left of his soup. "You're sure that's what she said?"

Breeze nodded, his own bowl long since empty. For all its flaws the soup was palatable, certainly more so than the bitter leaves of the Badlands, and he'd made short work of it while sustenance of any kind was available.

"I'm pretty sure. Etso, or maybe Edso? It was hard to tell, honestly." In his affected accent the difference was clear enough, but the smoother speech of the mainland blurred the t and d sounds.

"Doesn't ring a bell, then," said Val. "Doesn't really sound like a pony name. Or an Equestrian one, at least."

"And I guess it's too much to hope that they mentioned anyone like that to you?" Breeze asked, turning to Sun. The older changeling had returned some time after Breeze had left, and already told his story to the other two, leaving Breeze to catch up in bits and pieces.

"No names mentioned at all," Sun replied, holding a bowl in his lap. "Except when they asked mine. It was all just questions. Where I came from, why I was at the warehouse... Like I said, they stopped asking when I made it clear I wasn't answering. Then they just sat and stared at me for a while before they brought me back here."

"And something's gotten them buzzing," Breeze sighed, rubbing at his eyes. "I don't know if I want to find out what it is, or what it has to do with us. I'm more worried about getting out before we starve. Or before we give the Pinheads something to talk about," he said with a ghost of a smile.

Without even thinking about it, he reached up to brush a hoof along the torn and bandaged ear, that smile vanishing like a shadow under a moonless night. The exhaustion went beyond just the sleepless night, beyond even the injury and the strain of capture and captivity. For some four months or so he'd felt... Well, he wasn't entirely sure what he felt like, just that losing that feeling ached. Things had been stable, and while he'd never really forgotten that he was still an outcast, he could pretend otherwise.

The world didn't seem to like that, though. It was happier to see them afraid, on the run. Maybe they'd been stable for too long. Maybe this was the world enforcing that state on them.

Natalya, her feathered face lined with concern, reached out to him, clawed fingers raking through a mane that was tangled and knotted.

"It that...permanent?" she said under her breath, mindful of a daytime warden less inclined to nap on duty. "I mean, in every form from now on?"

Breeze started and followed her eyes up to his own ear. Had she misunderstood the gesture that he only now realised he was making? His hoof snapped back to the floor and he shook his head.

"No. Well, sort of. My ear's gone. My real ear, I mean." Despite the topic, the explanation was somehow soothing. "But as soon as it's healed, my disguises will have two ears again. This," he said with a gesture to the faint presence of the scar on his muzzle, "was another changeling's work. So it's permanent."

"Not as bad as it could have been, but... Doesn't it bother you?"

He shrugged. When he'd first realised, maybe. The shock alone carried enough weight to hit him like a runaway cart, but now?

"I guess... It's not that important? I don't know, there are bigger things to worry about right now. Besides," he smiled, "you were looking for a way to tell us apart."

The day dragged on. Frail sunlight filtered in through the barred window, showing a powder-blue sky above all that seemed to make the snow beneath glow. But it left the air feeling somehow brittle. It wasn't helped by the fact that there was precious little to do now but sit, and think.

Afternoon turned to evening, the sky from pale blue to a blazing orange, and by now Breeze's thoughts were starting to turn back to starvation. He tried to avoid it, tried to occupy himself with plans of escape, but inevitably he'd come back around to it, when he found himself considering where they might break out, how long it would take them to find a safe place, and when they could feed again. Besides, without knowing when and where they'd be going next, it was hard to make plans.

He and Sun had fed before the manor house raid, and physical sustenance was plentiful enough, but that was a stopgap at best. And Breeze wasn't convinced that their captors would be willing to let the changelings feed, even if their true natures were revealed.

With that warden on alert, he couldn't discuss it out loud. All he could really do was shiver and listen to the idle conversation between Val and Natalya. Not to the words, rather treating it as background noise to occupy his ears.

At least until the creak of the door cut the stream of sound off mid-sentence, and pulled the changeling's attention over to it. Three figures were stepping through; two armoured constables first, one of whom Breeze was sure had been guarding his interview, and a mare in shirtsleeves who came with almost dainty steps. Her hard eyes, though, dispelled any notion of fragility about her.

"So then," she said from the brazier, then motioned to the constables and stepped forward, alone. She only paused a few feet from the bars of the cell itself, peering in, and snorted.

"So then..." repeated the mare with a sneering curl of her lip. "You're causing quite the stir. Drew a lot of attention. Enough that I have a Canterlot agent strutting around my city, making a scene in my offices. She wants you four turned over to her. And I'm not sure I appreciate that.

"I can guess I'm wasting my time here, but... You make a confession now, and it makes things easier for all of us. I have a case for keeping you here, and out of their hooves. You know they won't be nearly so generous."

In the wake of her words, the mare tapped an idle hoof against the floor, eyes tightening. "At the very least, you could tell us why they're so interested in you. This sort of cooperation is a lot more than you deserve."

Another few moments waiting, the sound of her breathing getting steadily louder with each second of silence that followed.

"All right," she said at last in a voice pitched to carry. "Since you have nothing to say in your defence, you'll be transferred to Canterlot in the morning. Maybe you'll find it in yourselves to be a little more cooperative there."

She turned tail and stormed out with a clatter of hooves, her escort sharp on her heels. She didn't bother to look back. Why would she?

But if she had, she might have seen the prisoners share glances, may just have caught the faintest glimpse of a smile on their lips. Thin, uncertain things that they were, and yet filled with nothing more than hope.

Foxtrot - II

Stalwart knew this was a mistake. All of it. He could feel it, in his gut and at the very base of his horn; a niggling sensation that left him on edge and snappish. Once upon a time he might have done his best to ignore it, push the feeling back until its voice was so quiet that it lost all power, at least for a time. He'd have done it, in spite of his more experienced comrades who advised that he trust what his instincts told him, despite the way the voice would rise at odd moments when his concentration slipped, because he was rational.

Unicorn he might have been, but he knew that magic wasn't some vague, mysterious thing. It was, for the most part, consistent, and it obeyed certain laws. He scoffed at the notion that there was some kind of ineffable consciousness that would throw out warnings in such vague, inexpressible manners. The best way to stay ahead of the game was to trust in the senses that you knew you could rely on.

And then... That night had come. The night when Stomper had listened to his gut instinct and Stalwart hadn't. Because Stalwart had 'known better'. Because it was cold and wet and he didn't want to deal with the trouble, or believe that anything bad could have happened to the fillies.

Nopony could really be sure of what exactly had happened to Posey and Lavender in the end. But they could be sure that, whatever it was, it couldn't be good. Their apartment had been ransacked, and they themselves were nowhere to be found. No real clues left to say where they'd gone. But Stalwart knew. He didn't know how, but his instincts spoke to him, and this time he listened, because he'd be damned if he ever ignored them again.

They were dead. He couldn't say when or how it had happened, though he could guess, but he could be sure that they were gone. And regardless of whether or not the prisoners they'd brought in the other night had actually been the ones to push the knives in, they were at the very least murderers by association.

According to standard procedure he should have been kept as far away from them as possible. The Force really didn't need officers with that sort of personal or emotional connection on a case; emotion clouded judgement, begot slip-ups and avoidable mistakes, and perhaps worst of all, it could lead an officer to pursue vengeance, rather than justice. If he were still in Fillydelphia, he reflected, by now he'd seriously be considering a request to make an appointment with the station councillor.

But he wasn't in Fillydelphia. He was standing in snow that came up past his shoes, sheltering from a chill breeze behind a box wagon made of hardwood planks and thick black iron banding. A wagon that held the two bastards who'd slipped past him that fateful night, and their two miserable accomplices.

He'd told himself that it was all right, that he wasn't going to let anger push him into anything rash. That he only had to see this through to the logical end, just as far as Canterlot itself. And the Brass hadn't objected, when by all rights they should have done. Maybe because they agreed with him. Or maybe because, in some very small and very stupid corner of their collective consciousnesses, they'd hoped that he would do something rash, and take the problem out of their hooves.

Maybe that was just wishful thinking on his part. Regardless. It was a mistake.

In the Equestria of older days, the journey from Fillydelphia to Canterlot was no small trek; a four-day hike even in the best of conditions, though the roads were usually well maintained, and a chain of modest wooden huts lay strung out along the roadside. Simple and sturdy things, with straw beds and a mound of firewood, offering more shelter and comfort than a tent or a patch of dry ground. For those with a little extra coin to spend, or a Royal Warrant to flash, two good-sized villages straddled on the road, at the halfway and three-quarter mark as one walked from Fillydelphia itself.

Of course, the travel time could be slashed to a day or less if one travels by air, but that had its own disadvantages; hot air balloons are cramped, pegasus-drawn chariots cost a small fortune, and only the most important or influential ponies could manage to get an airship to carry them.

And then the Trans-Equestrian Railway Line was laid, just a year or so prior, with tracks running from Fillydelphia to Canterlot to Vanhoover, with talk of extending the line south to Dodge. And with the number of ponies that a single train could carry, the average citizen could travel the same distance in a day or less, for a very reasonable price and in relative comfort. It was revolutionary, and that was no mere political hyperbole.

That being said the system was not, by any means, perfect. The steam engines were finicky, even temperamental, the point where trains were making it a habit to carry teams of puller ponies to help maintain speed when the boilers were burning at sub-optimal levels. And the tracks themselves were vulnerable to anything that could cause obstruction. Obstinate sheep, autumn leaves... And of course, snow and ice.

Close to the cities and towns, where pegasi patrolled the skies, that wasn't a problem. A nudge here, a bumped cloud there, and the worst of the weather could be kept away from roads and railways and all the niceties of civilisation. But in the space between, only a scant few kept watch on the weather systems that spilled out from the big cities, and for the most part they were let loose to do blow themselves out or spill what little moisture remained in their clouds.

Things weren't very much wilder, but the snow fell on field and forest and railway alike, and so the trains were waiting for the first scheduled break in the weather to start running again.

And it left Stalwart hoofing through the loose packed snow, escorting a wood and iron box with only four criminals and three constables for company. A mare named Moonstone on the far side of the wagon, and two stallions; Vision keeping watch at the back of the cart and Brisk sweating at the yoke.

He bit back a curse as the wind snatched at his cloak. Rough fabric snapped through the air, catching snowflakes from the gentle fall and sending them spinning in all directions as he trotted ahead, up to Brisk.

"How much further to the next stop?" he called, over a gust that threatened to pluck his words away.

Brisk shrugged, exaggerating the gesture through his own cloak, and the heavy yoke fastened about his shoulders.

"Three, maybe four miles? It'll feel like a hell of a lot longer in this mess, though. What I wouldn't give for a couple of pegasi on the force... If we lost the wind, I'd say we could skip this stop and leapfrog up to the next along."

Ah, now there Stalwart sympathised. The snowfall itself had been easing off all day, and the roads were clear of major drifts, but a headwind made every distance seem like twice itself, and when the gusts really got up they were scattering a stinging spray of ice at exposed fur. Making as much ground as possible was more than tempting, but with it ran the risk of getting caught out on the road after dark. And wouldn't that be a perfect ending to this misery? Have some unwary traveller stumble upon his frozen body come morning.

"Call it a night at this one, Constable," he called back, and fell into formation once, taking care to keep his head from turning into to peer at the wall of wood and banded iron to his side.

After the windswept road, sheltered by low fields on the south side and woods on the north, the hut was a gift, so welcome it was as though Celestia herself had stepped down from her throne and lead them towards it. Thick walls, made to keep heat trapped inside and wind trapped out, straw mattresses on rope-sprung frames and a firepit stocked nearly to the ceiling with dry timber.

The prisoners were not so fortunate in their accommodations, of course. They wouldn't leave the cart, though they at least had shelter from the wind, blankets, and whatever warmth leached in from the fire set for the guards on watch. It took no small amount of effort to banish the thought that it was more than they deserved. That even sleeping out in the snow was more than they deserved. And there was the uncomfortable notion that it would save a lot of trouble.

It wasn't why he'd joined the guard, though. Not to punish, but to uphold the law. The same law that dictated courts and trials, due process and assumption of innocence. Ignore that side of the law, and what was he then but a paid thug? No, he had to believe in the law, and that the law would lead to justice.

Not that the belief gave him any cause to sleep easy.

It was fortunate, then, that he had the second shift that night. Four guards, each taking two hours to cover a full eight hour night, left him with only that first two hours to lie restless on the rough sheets.

It was all but soundless inside the hut. Light breathing from the other two sleeping guards, the crackle of logs on the slow-burning fire, and the eerie moaning of the wind against the standing timbers. All sounds that, far from keeping him up, should have been like a gentle lullaby. Not that he should even have needed that, with bone-deep exhaustion weighing him down, making his joints throb with not quite pain.

But his eyes wouldn't stay closed. It was as if the tiredness was there, around him, but wouldn't actually touch him, and it was all he could to do stay in one position, head turned to the side, staring into the fire. Bright sparks, miniature points of light wreathed in smoke, drifted up to the chimney flue, the orange glow casting dancing shadows all around the rough wood that made up everything inside the hut. It was almost hypnotic. Almost.

When, at long last, two chimes sounded from the bell outside he sat up, pushing hooves into his eyes. It should have been a simple matter to step into his shoes and buckle his barding on, but his concentration wandered, grip fumbling, making the steel clatter against the table. He cursed, giving it a second try with more than the necessary force, and wrapped his cloak tight around himself before scooping up a mug of cider, taking a breath and stepping out into the nighttime chill.

There was still a stiff wind blowing, but it came easterly out of Fillydelphia and though sliced at exposed skin it carried something of a memory of home. Moonstone nodded to him as she surrendered her seat by the wagon to him, but neither of them said anything. Nothing to report meant quiet prisoners. Normally a mercy. So Stalwart settled himself down as comfortably as he could, prodding the fire with a stick and lifting his mug with a magical grip, holding it above the flames until he saw steam rising from within.

Presently, as he was sipping at hot, sweet cider cradled in his hooves and breathing in the rising fumes, he dared to glance over at the bulk of the cart. Its squat sides were orange in firelight, standing harsh and stark against the ink-blue of the midnight sky and the pale silver glow of a near-full moon. He started at it, blinking away the afterimage of the fire itself, for longer perhaps than he'd intended, until he realised what he was doing and dragged his gaze back to the fire. But treacherous eyes slid sideways, back to the heavy, blocky shape.

He tried to turn them on further, to the moon rising high above and the eerie shape of the Mare, but something pulled him back. An urge, from nowhere, to stand and to see inside. Or more than that, a need. Why? He had no idea, just knew that it was an itch through his horn and behind his eyes, plucking at him until he set the mug down beside the fire, snatched up a spear from the pile beside him and stood.

The wagon had three windows, all of them unpaned and barred. One on the door at the back, and one on either side, set high up. Too high up for him to see anything from beside the fire. Spear held easy at his side Stalwart stepped up to it. Snow crunched underhoof. The phantom itch in his skull was...getting stronger? Or was it diminishing? He swallowed hard, pushing it away, and lifted his head to peer between thick bars.

At first he saw nothing. After the light of the fire it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he huffed out a sigh that turned to mist inside the wagon. The shapes within, patches of even deeper darkness in the gloom, were clustered close enough together to seem as one. Details resolved themselves as he looked. The big griffoness was the base of the pile, and her great wings were wrapped around the others as best as she could manage. All four were sleeping, or at least seemed to be.

Another few seconds after, and that was all he dared look for. Regret welled up, replacing the urge and the itch. Not for having looked, necessarily; it was his duty to check on the prisoners, after all. But for what he'd seen. It made him feel empty somehow. Dissatisfied.

The spear returned to the pile, the contents of the mug were tossed back in a single burning swallow, and Art passed the rest of his shift in stillness and silence. The exhaustion that before had almost hovered around him now seemed to settle and seep into him. When he ended his shift and slunk back into the hut it was a struggle to keep from collapsing on the bed and sleeping in his armour. But he peeled it off, and spent the last four hours of the night in a deep, black sleep.

The next morning came as the start of a new routine. Three sleeping guards woke as one with the clanging of the bell, taking a moment to yawn or rub at sleepy eyes, before they pulled their barding on and set a pot of heavy oatmeal porridge to bubble over the fire. Rough as it was, the straw bed sang a sweet siren's song to Art, sliding temptation under his skin. The call to let himself fall back upon it and bury himself under the blanket was almost a physical pull.

A shake of his head and a snort were all it took to break that pull, though; he wouldn't be here today if he were so easily swayed by the call of a warm bed, even one so sweet as this. Self-discipline was just one of the things that was more than essential to a guard's life. One might say it was cultivated it. And it was something that he needed to remember.

The four of them ate outside; Brisk, fresh from the last watch, clutched his bowl as though it were a blessing handed down by Celestia. A few more bowls were pushed into the wagon for the prisoners, the pot washed out with snow, and then it was time to move once more.

Art had made a few calculations as he ate; at yesterday's pace, they had another four days minimum to go before reaching Canterlot. Add one or two if they ran into a stray snowstorm on the road. This wasn't a routine to be savoured by any means, not least because it was giving him an inordinate amount of time with little to do but walk or think, but if the weather improved the escort might be able to shave a day off that estimate. That, at least, was something to look forward to.

Indeed, early signs were promising; the weather held clear and crisp through the morning, and the easterly wind lent a little haste to their pace, in a welcome contrast to the headwind of the day before. They made good progress under a pale sun, good enough that Art found himself almost enjoying the brisk march, even while he was taking his turn hitched up to the heavy yoke, dragging the wagon behind himself.

At least until he heard a voice calling from within the wagon, beckoning the guard trailing behind.

A female voice; the griffoness, then, Natasha or such. Her words were muted into incoherence by the wood between them but he could hear the constable's reply clearly enough.

"No, we're making fine progress. Hut's not too far off, and if things get that bad we can try to make it as far as Foalston from there. Should be less than a day out, if we manage to hunker down for the night first."

Oh, hells... He shook his mane out and glanced back over his shoulder; he couldn't see behind himself, not with the dark mass of the wagon there, but he could imagine the griffoness's beak poking out from between the bars.

"Constable Vision?"

The stallion's head appeared from behind the wood.


"Can I have a word?" he said, jerking his head forward. Vision trotted up beside him, silent as he waited for Art to speak, while Moonstone dropped back from the left-hand flanking position to cover the door.

"I don't think it's a good idea to be holding conversations with the prisoners, constable. It's unprofessional, and we all should know how these mobster types like to try and sneak useful intel out of us. Remember, they're neither our guests nor our friends. They're criminals. Or... potentially criminals," he said, catching himself. Their guilt might not have been in doubt, but they were still await their day in court. And he had standards he had to hold himself to. "Keep your lips sealed around them."

Vision dipped his head, keeping lips pressed tight together in what might have been a very literal interpretation of the command. There were responses bubbling up behind his tongue, responses Stalwart fancied he could already hear in his mind. Some of them sensible rebuttals to his point, some of them bordering on insubordination. All of them unnecessary. He'd given an order. His subordinate knew to follow it, and so the constable dropped back into position as Stalwart pushed his own second-guessing aside. And did his level best not to feel the sullen eyes he knew were boring into the back of his neck.

To the hells with that, he knew he was right. Beyond just the technical, letter-of-the-law interpretations. Let Vision be surly if he so chose, the constable hadn't seen what Stalwart had. He didn't know.

Pushing his shoulders harder against the yoke and straps, Stalwart spat into the snow, and pushed on.

In the urge to make as much ground as possible, breaks came few and far between. In the morning this was barely an issue, but by midday the weather was changing for the worse, the wind turning about to blast back in the escort's faces. To make matters worse the snowfall had been heavier further inland, and the road went from a few inches deep at the worst, to half a foot in spots where the drifts had spilled themselves out across the stones.

It turned what had been a fairly pleasant hike into slow, dragging nightmare. A series of hellish moments that repeated themselves in series ad infinitum. Thick, piled pack snow would clutch at steel shoes and fall in clumps between metal and fur to melt down into a soaking, freezing slurry that gathered up under the frog. That wasn't even taking into account the wind that grew into the same bluster of the day before, throwing powder up into the air like a frigid sandstorm. And it was worse for Stalwart.

Without a place to stop for a midday break he found himself stuck on the wagon until they reached something approaching proper shelter. That meant he had to deal with the thick, iron-rimmed wheels that bit down into the piled snow, spun uselessly on their axles and left the thing as little more than an oversized sled to be dragged by brute force. Of course, wheels are not skids, and as the wagon slid along it made little piles of snow that built themselves up into chocks, bringing the whole thing to irregular, shuddering stops that made harness straps bite deep into his shoulders.

It meant that even progress of a few hundred yards let Stalwart with angry red lines on his shoulders and a sheen of sweat all across his body, sweat that the bitter wind would chill down so that, whenever he paused for a breath or to get the wagon clear and moving again, the wet cold would sink down into deep muscle and bone before the next stretch would leave him gasping and covered in yet more frothy perspiration.

By the time they reached the next rest stop he'd been pulling the damn thing for the better part of the day, and all four legs were set to just fall from his body. He took first watch knowing that, as soon as he laid his head down, no power in Equestria would wake him before his six hours were done.

Those two hours sitting in front of the fire were fragile; Stalwart was barely aware of the flames before him, let alone the prisoners, save in rare moments when awareness would return and ever so carefully remind him that he was in no fit state to watch even a foal. But he wasn't troubled by thoughts from the night before, and when he did retire his sleep was once again deep and dark, tainted only by the exhausted hope for an easier day tomorrow.

Alas, the snow was coming down in flurries. It wasn't a blizzard, not by any means, but for a few seconds at a time it would fall thick and fast before ebbing away for a minute or five. The breeze was gentle, thankfully, though when the flurries came they came at random and without warning, and once or twice they blew heavy flakes into Stalwart's eyes, leaving him scrubbing at them with a hoof while the layers piled up around them.

"Mmph, Celestia damn those pegasi!" he snapped at last, a little before midday, shaking a few errant flakes from his muzzle. "Why, in all the circles of Tartarus, are the damned weather patrols dumping this sort of mess out into the countryside?"

"I don't think they are," Moonstone replied, holding a hoof up. A stream of gathered snow fell away from it, released into the breeze that sent the powder swirling away back and to the right of them. "Wind's maybe west-south-westerly? Means this muck might have blown in from the Everfree."

Almost before that last word was spoken Stalwart drew in a sharp breath. Oh yes, because that was all he needed... He put his tongue out as if he were a colt trying to catch a flake or two, narrowing his eyes. Could he taste hot metal on the air, or was that just his imagination? What about the sudden, warning tingle at the base of his horn, or the crawling feeling beneath his fur?

"Damnit all... Right, we're picking up the pace here. I want you and Brisk to stay tight behind the wagon, eyes on the door. If we can skip the next stop, we're doing it. I want to burn straight through Foalston and hit Saddleside tonight."

He turned his eyes to the left, to the vague direction of the cursed forest itself. If he squinted, he almost fancied he could see the tips of the trees, a dirty black smear on the very horizon. A bad idea. He knew it.

When the wind picked up once more to throw more snow into their faces, he found himself wanting to throw a hoof up to the sky and scream. In the wake of this new thought the little things, small annoyances, were becoming something more. A leather strap digging into his barrel. The edge of his barding biting into his flank. His cloak bunching up in odd places, made damp through by the snow, until he wished through the strange infuriating mix of cold and heat that he could tear everything off and bury himself in the snow.

Instead he tucked himself closer to the guard at the yoke. There was no chance of gaining any extra shelter, standing on Moonstone's left side and facing the wind, but it made him imagine shelter for a few precious seconds.

Behind him, inside the wood and steel box, there was the gentle clatter of hooves and the lighter clicking of talons. Stalwart glanced back over his shoulder. Movement was hardly prohibited, so long as it was inside the wagon, but his nerves were already singing with tension. He dropped back, lifting a hoof to bang on the side when he caught a glimpse of green light through the side window, illuminating the inside. He opened his mouth to call a halt, and the wagon exploded.

He didn't realise what had happened until he was already face down in the snow, and if there was a memory of watching the timbers expand and split, seeing metal splinter until the whole thing burst apart in flames and a wave of overpressure, he never recalled it. All he knew was a blinding burst of green, then blackness, then coming to in a heap in a snowdrift with flakes dusted across his body. He felt nothing. Not the chill of the snow or the weight of his barding or even the merest sensation from his limbs. A cold, clear part of his consciousness recoiled in terror, fearing the worst. Everything seemed detached from reality, dreamlike, serenaded by the high ringing of tiny bells.

Then he was aware again. Dull pain spread through his body, through limbs that moved at his command and he let out a desperate sob, a choking sound of pressure relieved. Moonstone lay not far from him, groaning senselessly, her body still trapped in the tangled remains of the yoke. He couldn't see Brisk or Vision, the wagon blocking...

Oh, Celestia...

The wagon was a wreck. Though the wheels and most of the chassis still stood, there was little else that wasn't debris. The right hand wall was just...gone. Reduced to a spray of wicked splinters spread out across the snowfall on the far side of the road. The front and back walls were twisted ruins hanging from a few steel straps, scorched on their inside faces, and the final wall was bowed open. Flames, yellow and emerald green, danced across the wood, blackening the surface of it.

And there... Figures were moving. Dark behind the fire, clambering down from the ruin to dash into the snow. One large, feathered and beaked, the other equine, but two of them were nothing like. They surely had been caught in the explosion, blackened and warped. How were they still moving?

He didn't care. He didn't want to know. His constables were down, the world was spinning, and the Everfree wind was getting stronger. He pushed himself up, tried to stand and fell back. Legs too weak to hold him. So he crawled towards Moonstone, calling for her. Yelling for a status report in a cracked and threadbare voice. No point looking for the other two, not yet. Triage procedure, save the ones that can be saved and need it, don't waste time with the others. Moon was down. Did she need help? Could she be helped?

There was a crunch of snow behind him, audible even over the sound of bells.

Stalwart turned and whimpered. One of the burnt and blackened things was walking towards him, from the back of the wreck where he knew Brisk and Vision had to have fallen.

He scrambled back. It drew closer. At this distance he could see more clearly. Its skin wasn't burned, it was smooth and slick, like an insect's carapace. He could see fangs jutting down from a quirked maw and the glint of metal rings on a grey frill. Stalwart...

...stood as it drew closer, reaching for a spear that lay on the ground beside him. He stood over Moonstone, brandishing his weapon, lips curled in a snarl. He didn't know what this thing was but there was no way it had left Vision and Brisk untouched, and now it wanted him, and Moon. The monster snarled at him, gathering its holed legs and flaring its gossamer-thin wings before leaping. His spearpoint thrust out to meet it and the monster impaled itself on his strike, the cold steel sliding through its shrivelled heart as Stalwart...

...shrank away from it. There was no spear at hoof, and if there was his limbs were too weak to use it. And he was terrified. It was all he could do to put himself between the monster and Moon, forelegs held up against his chest like a shield. This close, he could see the thin scar on one side of its face, and the torn ear on the other side, a ragged flap of skin less than half the length of the right ear, looking almost like it had been blown...off...

"You... You're..." And there, wrapped around one leg, was a steel band set with a gem that he could feel in his horn.

The creature drew its head back. Its eyes...

...widened as a silver spearpoint burst through its throat from behind. Black ichor spewed out of the wound and from its fanged jaws. Boneless, it feel to one side to reveal Brisk and Vision, bloodied but defiant, fresh spears held firm. Vision held out a hoof, his eyes full of determination and understanding; Stalwart had been right all along, the constable could see that now, and as Moonstone pulled herself to her hooves a new purpose spread through the four of them; hunt those bastards down, bring them in dead or alive-

...narrowed then softened. It - he? - drew up short and pawed at the snow.

"I'm sorry," he said. The voice was a harsh buzz, two-toned and shot through with a curious Griffish Isles accent. "I know you hate us. But we didn't do it. We still don't know what they did to them in the end. I'd tell you if I knew, I swear, but..."

"What are you talking about?" Stalwart gasped in a high, almost shrill voice.

"Lavender and Posey. We didn't do anything to them. We were just supposed to pretend to be..."


That was the other thing, calling from the other side of the road. Breeze - if it was him - flinched and looked over.

"Right, right." He paused before leaving, pressing his tongue to one curved fang. "The other two are alive. Stunned, but they should be all right. Take care of them, Art. It's not worth coming after us, you know that. We didn't mean to hurt anyone. We... We just want to be left alone."

For a second he hesitated again, so that Art was almost sure there was something else to be said, but the Breeze-thing turned away fully and bounded across the road to join the others. Art watched them, standing out against the white snow, until they dipped behind a bluff and were gone.

Charlie Foxtrot: Final Report



Three days later

Major Sharp, CO of the Fillydelphia Guard Division and chief of the city's policing matters, sat in silence, staring at the Equestrian Domestic Security agent who sat across the desk from him. Every so often he expected her to speak, but she kept scribbling across a piece of thick, EDSO-headed parchment. She'd been writing since before he'd even been shown into the cramped, cluttered office, packed tightly into a private carriage on a private train, and aside from a perfunctory glance upwards as the door had opened and closed for him, she'd barely seemed to acknowledge his presence. A pale glow surrounded her veritable lance of a horn, and the quill made little scratches as it left its black, shining tracks across the smooth page.

Sharp was a distinguished looking unicorn of just over 50, his black mane fighting running retreat against the grey that spread a little further along it with each passing year, his dark and plain coat a perfect match to his plain and uncomplicated stance on life and the force under his command. He was a veteran of a guard formation where skill and integrity actually meant something, where he could be expected to provide a meaningful service to the society he was charged to protect. Unlike the ceremonial and utterly ineffective - or, as some less charitable minds might think, incompetent - toy soldiers of the capital. And yet he sat there, his ceremonial helmet resting on his lap, like some misbehaving schoolcolt waiting for the inevitable attentions of a schoolmistress.

The mare was at least a decade his junior, and technically a civilian who lay outside the Guard's chain of command, but she carried the tokens and badges that allowed her to demand his presence, and that of his Guardsponies. She had no influence beyond that, but it was enough to put his hackles up.

At last she set the pen aside, leant down to purse her lips and cast a gentle stream of air across the drying ink, and looked up at Sharp.

"This is a mess," she said. Her voice was flat,words tainted only a hint of dryness that spoke of the emotions running under the mask of civility.

"I find myself forced to agree," replied Sharp, and he meant every word; he would have liked nothing more than to deny any wrongdoing, to claim that the escaped prisoners had been small pickings not worth the bother, that losing them was little more than an inconvenience. But the facts were facts, and so he acknowledged the lies in those desires. Even ignoring the EDSO's involvement, the prisoners had been supremely talented - and dangerous - individuals, and there was no telling just what mayhem they could cause. Mayhem both subtle and gross.

It was a mercy that the four guards who had escorted the wagon were even still alive. Two counts of concussion, a fractured rib and the corporal in charge on traumatic leave, but alive nonetheless.

"I take it you've gathered all the information you intend?" he asked into the silence.

"I've interviewed your officers and I've come to the conclusion that two of the individuals formerly in your custody are central to our ongoing investigations. The ponies operating under the aliases of Apple Orchard and Open Skies. The testimony of one Corporal Stalwart proved particularly enlightening." She glanced down at her notes but Sharp was more than certain that it was a charade, that she could already recite the inked words verbatim. The Office tended to recruit those with that sort of brain. "We were perhaps a week or two from making the connection ourselves, of course. I admit that I wish you hadn't gone in and messed up the operation with your arrests, but..."

There was a brief exhalation. It was obvious that the following words came with no small measure of reluctance. "I can't fault you for moving on the information you were given. Even if I disagree with the lenience you offered in return."

Sharp blinked and sat up a little straighter, but the mare was still speaking.

"Don't bother protesting, Major, we knew about your deal. Just as we know that you didn't personally authorise it, though I suspect you would have made the same deal had you been present. And as much as I disagree with it I can understand why you might feel yourself forced to compromise. But my concern is not with the way your unit deals with criminal organisations, my concern is with the prisoners that were in your custody, and that you nevertheless allowed to escape. With no trace."

She was looking at him, unblinking and stoic. Even her voice, as much as the words conveyed her irritation, was even and matter-of-fact.

And yet they infuriated the Major. Hooves clenched tight around his helmet and he had to force himself to relax his jaw enough to speak without his voice trembling.

"I appreciate your understanding, but I don't appreciate the implications. My guards acted as best as they could with the information they had. If you're looking to pass responsibility onto me and mine then I can advise you to forget it."

He'd spoken with too much heat and he knew it, but the idea of being judged by this mare for things that hadn't been his fault was enough to make even the most level-headed commander defensive. He forced himself not to follow through, to raise his voice and start throwing veiled accusations at her, but nor did he apologise or retract his words. He was committed now, and he was braced for the replying salvo.

But the mare merely raised an eyebrow at him. Her hooves clicked together with gentle, hollow sounds and a single ear gave a minute twitch.

"Implications? There are no implications here, Major, merely inferences on your part, I fear. I'm just stating facts. The prisoners escaped from your custody en route to Canterlot, and unless my reports are out of date you currently have no leads as to their whereabouts. Is this incorrect?"

That eyebrow remained arched as she cast a questioning look at him, clearly waiting for some kind of response, so he shook his head. Satisfied, she continued. "Now, I can overlook your refusal of my initial request for a transfer of custody, but would you tell me why you felt it necessary to continue to insist that your division to escort them to Canterlot in the face of a rogue snowstorm, when we could have held them in the secure carriage of this very train until such a time as the rail line was reopened?"

Sharp drew himself up, finding this the most legitimate avenue for defence that he could foresee.

"The Fillydelphia Guard prefers to see things through to the end. Yes, you convinced me that a transfer to the capital was the best course of action, but considering the number and nature of crimes they'd committed within my city I felt it best that Fillydelphians should ensure they were safely in custody.

"You're saying that you didn't trust the EDSO to do so?"

He smirked at that.

"I made no such implication." It was a small victory, that gained him nothing more than the petty satisfaction of catching her little hypocrisy, but it made him feel better. Even if she showed no sign of displeasure or contrition. "Regardless, we took all the necessary precautions. If you had made it clearer that we were dealing with more than just a griffon, an earth pony and two pegasi..."

"You'll forgive me, Major, if I feel that we gave you ample warning. The true nature of the two ponies that hold our interest is not something that the EDSO feels comfortable becoming common knowledge, but we were sure to alert you that these were not the average pony. It was recommended that you double the usual escort and take counter-magic precautions. You chose to send a four-pony escort in a standard armoured cart, with no air cover. I understand that the FGD is a unicorn-only division, but would it really have hurt your pride so to request a pegasus or two from another unit? We would have obliged."

She finished with another questioning look, one eyebrow raised a fraction of an inch. Sharp, on the other hoof, found himself scrabbling for something to say. For she was entirely right, he had ignored the warnings, thinking them little more than scaremongering and fearful exaggeration. And because of that decision four prisoners, four members of the organisation that was the bane of every guardspony's existence in Fillydelphia, were missing.

So he found himself unable to speak in his defence, for all that he had been willing to say was already said. Oh, he could repeat his platitude about 'necessary precautions', but it obvious that such a course would do nothing to improve his standing in the eyes of the mare.

Not that he needed her approval! He shook himself, from within the comfort and privacy of his own mind, and scowled. She was his junior, his subordinate, and while she might make veiled threats and insinuations he was under no obligation to accept them.

"Well that would have been generous of you, I'm sure. Now, is there any purpose to this meeting? Because I do have work to be getting on with."

"Yes, as a matter of fact, there is," she said with a nod. "Firstly, I mean to inform you that I'll be registering an official complaint on my return to Canterlot, what all the good it's likely to do. Secondly, I am obliged to make you aware of the dispatch I received earlier today."

She pulled a scroll from the pile to her side and held it out to the scowling unicorn with her magic. "Orders from Commander Brazen Brass of the Royal Guard, approved and countersigned by Celestia herself."

That would have been enough to make him sit up even more sharply, if he hadn't already been as straight as he could be. Despite his low opinion of the Royal Guard, Sharp was technically obliged to follow the orders of their CO, as was every independent Guard division in Equestria. That the Princess herself had even personally approved the orders, much less signed them...

"The Fillydelphia Guard is officially removed from any investigations and subsequent actions involving Open Skies and Apple Orchard, also known by the aliases Rising Sun and Evening Breeze. On the occasion that you should come into any information regarding them, you are to pass it onto the EDSO and watch from the sidelines."

There were no words. Sharp could say nothing, could only slump down in his seat and stare across the table with a blank expression. The mare glared back, and for the first time he saw real emotion on her face, a cold disappointment.

"You can take some comfort, I hope, in the knowledge that the EDSO is following its own leads, without your assistance. Therefore the incompetence of your unit has not irrevocably ruined things. Now, I need not detain you any longer, Major. By all means, return to your work."







Author's Notes:

Phew, we're coming up on the endgame now; two arcs left, one of which I imagine is going to be undersized. I won't lie, there was a point where I thought I might never even get this one done, but after almost four years I can actually see the end in sight. Makes me wonder how some folk manage to get doorstops out over the course of a single year.

Tune in next time, when we catch up with our budding... Well, I don't know if I'd call them heroes at this point. Catch up with our main characters!

Collapse - I

3 Days Earlier

The snow was falling in a rush by the time Foalston came into view from behind the near-constant stream of hissing flakes. Though not yet a blizzard, it was enough to keep all but the most hardy souls indoors. But that didn't quite explain the dead quiet of the village itself. Other than the snow itself and the shop signs swinging back and forth in the wind, there was nobody and nothing moving in the streets.

Velvet was twitchy as they came into the village via main street, pushing through rising drifts with makeshift cloaks flapping behind them. Perhaps it wasn't quite fair to single him out; all of them were twitchy, truth be told, and even if one discounted the eerie setting, they could be forgiven for it. But he was the most so, and by far.

Not that Breeze had any difficulty imagining why. Stalwart's cursing of the Everfree Forest had carried into the wagon, and Breeze was hardly unaware of the superstitions surrounding that place. Indeed, it would have been more surprising for him to have spent so much time in Equestria and been unaware of it, such was the presence it held, and whenever it was spoken of, the name was spoken with no small amount of venom. No doubt, then, that the taste of the westerly wind was contributing plenty to the state of the village.

For the time being this feral weather was a mixed blessing. Keeping Foalston clear suited them down to the ground, but on the other hoof its effects could be problematic. A village full of spooked ponies was no safe place for a changeling; paranoia bred suspicion. And resuming their old disguises had pushed them both towards a hard limit. The urge to feed was already tugging at Breeze's thoughts.

Not that they were planning to stay long. It was a unanimous opinion that lingering in the nearest settlement to their point of escape would be tantamount to handing themselves back over to the Guard, and so there was little option but to keep moving. It was only a delay, of course. The next village, Saddleside, would be their place of rest whether its occupants were as superstitious as Foalston's or not. And, of course, this was a road that drew them ever closer to Canterlot.

The long road between the city itself, and Fillydelphia behind them, made up the village's main street. A few smaller roads and alleys branched off of it, but this place couldn't have been home to more than a hundred ponies or so. A few dozen families, doubtless mostly farmers, and the scant local businesses that completed the community.

As they passed by houses and shops Breeze could feel eyes on him. Ponies were peering through cracks in blinds and from behind half-parted curtains. The half-glimpsed looks in those eyes...it as enough to make him glance down at his own legs, just to be sure that they weren't chitin clad and holed.

"This whole Everfree mess," he hissed to Val. "Why do you all take it so seriously? It's not as if it's the only place in the world where you don't push the clouds around."

Val spat.

"Breeze, you come from a wild place, I get that, but... You really don't understand. Sure, the clouds move on their own, the trees grow without our help. That makes most of us feel funny, but that's not the half of it. They say it can't be controlled. At all."

"Right, and we all know how much you ponies like to be controlling everything," Breeze muttered.

"That's not it. Or, it might be some of it, but not nearly the whole. Think about this; if a storm blows up from that place, there's not a pegasus in the sky can even push the clouds away. Not even earth ponies can tame those trees. If it decides to push its borders out..."

The changeling nodded, dropping back a few paces. He was hardly satisfied by the answer, but with a little reflection he had to admit it made some sense. Even if he felt like pointing out that the idea of pegasi controlling the weather according to some schedule was about as foreign a concept to him as wild storms were to Val. Still, it had him thinking.

"Hey, Sun," he said, falling back further to join the elder changeling, trailing behind Natalya. "Do you think maybe the Everfree is where She got the Throne from?"

Sun gave him a momentarily blank look before creasing his brows with thought.

"The Queen?" Naturally, who else? "Maybe. Maybe it was always in the Badlands, though. I always thought the Hive had been built around it."

"And they used to say to me that the Hive had always been there, and we just moved into it," Breeze said with a chuckle.

"'Since Time Immemorial', right?" said Nat over her shoulder. Breeze started, unaware that they'd been speaking so loud. "Didn't realise you had a queen, or a funny throne. She what you're running from?"

"Is this really the place for that sort of talk?" snapped Val, before Breeze could brush off the question. The changeling scowled at the interruption, but a the same time Val had a point, and it was a convenient enough excuse to wriggle out of answering.

"He's right. Let's not do this here." Or ever, he though to himself. There were some things he had little desire to relive, and some he had even less desire to share.

Shouldn't have said anything to begin with, really. Any other time, he doubted he would have. But the prison blanket turned cloak did a poor job at keeping the wind from stabbing at his sides, and when he wasn't occupying his mind with other things his thoughts turned to the gnawing hunger and his hooves started trembling with it.

Little else around to distract him, too. Just the houses, low and rough in their construction, to contrast Filly's lofty, squared-off streets and concrete walls. He tried to use them, but he didn't have much inclination to spare them any further glances. for they did little to take his mind off things. Quite the contrary; seeing ponies looking back at him made him feel as though he were a starving stallion gazing through the windows at a well-stocked patisserie.

Well, that wasn't the exact thought that came to him, but it expressed the sentiment well enough. A sentiment that made him shiver when he caught it circling around inside his skull. No, less of that, please.

It was an odd sort of relief, then, to be leaving the village of Foalston behind them. Yes, they were embarking on a long march with no supplies to speak of, in season and weather hardly conducive to travel. But the lack of fearful eyes - eyes made so fearful, no doubt, by thoughts of those they held dear - on his back left Breeze feeling just a little freer.

Freedom, of course, tempered with doubt. Saddleside was near enough a day away, by wagon. They could travel faster by hoof, with fewer breaks, but there was still a chance they might find themselves walking on into the night. Especially given how short the winter days were.

No doubt about it, to press on now was to take a hefty risk, but it was a calculated one, at least. The eerie Everfree weather, superstitious locals and vengeful guards waiting eastward were all good reasons to keep moving. Of course, that same weather provided a compelling reason to stay put, all on its own. So it came down to the risk of capture, versus the risk of death. An old, familiar equation.

Old, familiar, and even nostalgic, Breeze came to realise, an hour or so out of Foalston.

By now the weather had started to ease back again, from a heavy fall to a light dusting of very fine flakes, and the wind had all but blown itself out. The going ought to have been easier, and would have been if not for that damned hunger. Every step became a stumble, limbs quivering whenever his weight settled on them. Both Nat and Val had offered to try taking wing and carrying him, but neither of them looked to be in fit shape to carry even themselves very far.

Val had suggested, then, that they all keep shy of the road and stick to walking though the open country itself. A patrol or a chasing squad, keeping to the road for mobility's sake, would come charging straight into them, he said. Nat, however, almost immediately shot him down.

"Snow's deep enough that we wouldn't be able to help leaving tracks. Would be just as easy for them to catch us, and we'd be making slower going. Not worth the trouble."

That was much to Breeze's relief, for he was sure the slow going over rough ground would make their chances far worse than they were already. It was hard enough as it was, pushing through snow that had risen above their hooves, without any kind of shoe to speak of. The cold would do for them, just as well as heat would.

And that's when the nostalgia struck. The flight from the Hive, so similar despite the differences. A slog through miserable conditions after a violent breakout, facing a choice between capture and death. Only in heat, not snow, and knowing that capture meant death regardless. Then again, it might just mean death for them here too, mightn't it?

This time around, though, he felt as if he were simply being carried on by momentum, inexorable as a river's pull. In months long past he'd had something else driving him. A dream of a better life, a determination to taste freedom, both of these concepts new and fresh and fed by urgency. He thought of that feeling, the first rush from the Hive and the realisation that they had done the unthinkable. The hike before the fever set in. Even after, when only stubbornness and Rising Sun at his side had kept him walking until he'd dropped. As grim as the immediate future had been, the unknown had had a lustre, or so it seemed now.

His insides squirmed when he thought of it. The memory tasted bitter, and this time he felt only helplessness, and the warmth of tears threatening to spill from his eyes.

To have gone through all of that, and all for this. To have pushed on, survived, reached fabled Equestria, only to be back in the same damned situation, facing the same equation with no way of knowing which side outbalanced the other. Stay and face capture, run and risk exposure. Maybe this was fate.

Maybe that was just what life would always be, outside of the Hive. Always running, until he could run no more.

Another hour, and the world around them was darker. It was hard to notice, surrounded above by cloud and below by crisp snow, but Breeze could tell. Somewhere up ahead of them the Sun was sinking into the west. Darkness, dropping temperatures... How long would they blunder on for, unseeing, before they froze? The one cold comfort was that behind them, the Moon would soon be rising to replace its larger sibling. Or was it really a comfort?

For months Breeze had thought she'd been shielding them, the Queen in her lonely hive. For years he'd said prayers to her, looking fondly at the profile etched into the silver disc. Now he wondered if he'd been wrong all along. If she was changeling, kin to them as some legends did claim, why would she watch over two renegades? Was it not more likely that she would punish them? Maybe this life of flight was that punishment. Recompense, for breaking the Hive.

Yet more time passed. Not measured in hours, minutes or seconds, but by endless stumbling steps. The snowscape around them had turned blue, the deep dark shade of the mighty ocean on a clear day. The cold grew until their limbs rebelled, and at last the four of them flung themselves down in the shelter of a piled drift.

There they lay, curled together, for a short time before Natalya stood and shook the snow from her feathers.

"I'm going up to take a look around. Maybe we're close, or there's somebody around who can lend us a little help."

"You sure you can manage it up there?" Val asked, his breath misting. "I could come up with, in case you need a hoof." He shook out his wings as well, but the feathers drooped, and he seemed unable to keep them stretched out for more than a few seconds.

Nat shook her head, stroking a claw through the feathers, closing them against his side.

"I'll be fine. Won't be gone long. Count ten minutes, and if I'm not back by then push on. I'll meet you at Saddleside."

And then she went, leaping up, to vanish with the rush of flapping wings before any of them had a chance to object. Val watched, as if he could see her dark shape among the dark clouds, then turned away with a sigh, pushing a hoof into the snow.

Breeze, meanwhile, shifted. He wanted to ask Sun about the Moon, about life, all the dark thoughts gathering behind his own eyes, wanted it so bad he took a breath to speak words already gathering on his tongue, as if speaking them aloud might make them fly away into the darkness as well. But all that came out was a long sigh; Val was already looking over in anticipation. The changeling told himself it was not something for the pony to hear and yet that felt like a coward's excuse.

Instead he closed his eyes, resting his head back against piled snow, and did his best to relax. Even though his body screamed in protest at any thought of activity, and standing up seemed to be the hardest thing in the world, it made him uneasy to be sitting still. The phantom weight of Goldy's damned band seemed to get heavier with each moment he sat until it felt like a ball-and-chain clamped to his leg. Weighing him down while it summoned soldiers to him. Would keep summoning them, no matter how long they ran for.

"They'll find us," he said out loud without meaning. "They'll get to us before we managed to do a damn thing." The tears that had threatened to well up before now trickled down across his cheeks, hot and bitter then cooling as they rolled over his jaw. "None of it meant anything at all, did it?"

There was Sun's hood on his shoulder, trying to pull him in to lean against the other changeling. To lean on his friend.

He resisted. If Sun had been able to give him any comfort - real comfort, something to ease his fears instead of sharing in them - he would have spoken. But he said nothing.

Instead it was Val who spoke.

"We'll be fine," he murmured, weariness weighing down every syllable. He'd piled snow into a small bowl, pulled from the wreck of the wagon, and was grinding it down to liquid beneath his hoof. "Sure, things are looking a bit bleak, I'll admit, but it'll take them days to get back to the city and report in." He passed the slushy mix of water and snow to Breeze, who took it on instinct and slurped up a mouthful of icy water before passing it on to Sun. "And just as many days for them to even get back to the wagon, let along figure out where we've gone, since..."

"They can follow these," Breeze cut in, lifting his left foreleg. "The bands. Goldy gets the last laugh, the bastard."

The last of the light seemed to be draining from the world, as the Sun sank deeper below the horizon, when three things happened in swift succession.

First, as he turned away from Val to take the waterbowl back from Sun, the pegasus chuckled, though the sound seemed to be as much as a surprise to him as it did to Breeze.

"Right now, sure, but there's gotta be a way to block them, right? They're just moonstones." At the confused looks from both changelings he took the bowl from Breeze and all but tossed it aside, more animated than he'd been in a long while.

"Really? You two have horns, and you don't know how moonstones work? All they do is send out a signal. Any signal can be blocked. I'll bet with lead or silver or something like that, but all we need to do is find a mage. Or hell, a book on moonstones! We've got a few days yet, there's time enough to rig up something temporary."

As Breeze was gaping at this, and Val looking self-satisfied in a way that seemed perverse in the dark snow, the second something descended upon them with a ghostly ruffling of feathers. Natalya, dropping easily from the sky to land amid the crunch of snow.

"Very sorry, boys, but we're going to have to cut this break a little short. Saddleside's two miles out at most. We make a good pace we can be there in an hour, at most!"

Finally, far off in the east, there was a break in the cloud. Through it, like parting gates of pure shining silver, the Moon gazed down upon them, cold and stern.

There was no time to enjoy the moment; the breaking cloud meant that the night would be getting even colder, and none of them wanted to linger in the countryside a moment longer. But Breeze, the last one to leave the shelter of the drift, made a point to bow low to the Queen above him and whisper one more prayer into the snow.

The temptation, upon staggering into Saddleside with the rising Moon at their backs, was to find the nearest sheltered spot, fall down, and sleep until the world seemed just a little bit brighter. The earlier rush of their imminent arrival had been tempered by the final hour of walking, in dropping temperatures, and it seemed like every part of Breeze's body aside from his barrel was burning and numb. But there were still things to be done, assets to be taken stock of, and as cold as it was already, it was getting even colder with every star that was made visible above their heads.

It was early in the evening, though the darkness made it feel far later. By the hoofprints scattered across the snow-dusted cobbles the working day had ended, and the four of them were lucky enough to have missed the first rush from homes, farms and shops to the village's local establishments; the public house, for the average pony, and the village inn for the better off. That left the courtyard in front of the village hall empty, affording the quartet a semblance of privacy as they huddled together on a picnic table piled with snow.

"First things first, need to think about money," Sun declared, sitting in a hunch that made him seem alarmingly small in Breeze's eyes. "We need somewhere to stay, you two need food, and we need to get our hooves on enough lead, silver or what have you to block these moonstones. Going to need bits for all of those."

The other three nodded, in varying stages of alertness. Val, sitting between the exhausted Breeze and Natalya and who now seemed ruffled at worst, spoke up.

"So, I'm gonna go out on a limb here, and guess that you're not planning to do that the same way as you did back in Filly?"

"Not exactly," replied Sun, nostrils flaring. He looked half like he wanted to snap back at the pegasus, and half as if he'd rather have found a quiet spot to curl up and let the world spin on without him. "But we're going to steal it. Successfully, this time. I hope."

Ah, Breeze had know it was coming. He'd already gone over all the options he could think of in his head on the way into the village, and found that this was the only practical solution to their particular set of problems. It was either that, or they would starve, freeze or find themselves back in chains. Hells, once upon a time death had been a preferable alternative to capture. Dying free and all that. By comparison, theft seemed a trivial thing. Even so, he had to bite back a protest and let it escape instead as a low, strangled snort. And of course, even if Sun wouldn't say as much in front of the other two, they did need to feed. How easy would it be to lift a purse, while its owner lay insensate at their hooves?

"That'll be our job," he rasped, wincing at the sound of his own voice. "No offence to either of you, but you'd only get in our way on this one, and we really, really can't afford any screwups." He looked, and was thankful enough to find no signs of mortal offence in either of their faces. "Best that you find a quiet spot, stay out of sight. We can meet back here in an hour or so. Should have enough money for a room tonight, and if need be we...we can hit one of the houses later tonight or tomorrow."

He hoped that neither of them noticed the hitch in his voice. Seemed that he was in the clear, though; griffon and pegasus shared a short look then nodded.

"Agreed," said Val. "We meet here in an hour from now."

All eyes side across to the town hall itself; an imposing, cut-stone spire rose above the square, a wide clock set into it. The heavy iron hands read a quarter to seven, or close enough to it.

"An hour from now," Sun affirmed with a nod. "Try not to draw attention."

"Likewise," replied Nat, giving one of her subtle griffonic smiles. Then she stood, stretched, and wandered off with Val under her wing, strolling almost like a pair of carefree lovers enjoying the moonlight, if one ignored the way Val was leaning on the formel for support, rather than out of affection.

There was little activity at the bench for a few minutes after they were gone. Only when the 'casual' pair were out of sight did Breeze let himself slump and sigh. Both body and breath were heavy, leaden and slow.

"All right," he grumbled after a few seconds of resting his cheek against the packed snow atop the table. "Let's just...go and get this over with. There were a couple of...couples back at the pub, weren't there?"

"What are you thinking, separate and impersonate?" asked Sun. When Breeze nodded, the elder changeling glanced away. "It's a risky play. I can't say that I like it. Given the choice, I'd rather play for lust with someone unattached. That feels safer right now."


Breeze shrugged and forced himself to sit up straight again, brushing snow from his cheek. His hoof wandered over the fine, near-invisible line of his scar. "If things go bad they don't go quite so bad. But I figure there's less chance of success, small town like this. Not like Filly, where you can pick up some pony in half the bars. Besides, it's not like we have money for a drink as it is." There was something else that niggled at him, but he didn't give voice to it. "We'll do it quick. Get what we need and figure things out from there." Oh, how dirty those words felt in his mouth, but he was up and moving, for what choice did he really have? Sun fell into step with him, nodding.

They headed eastward, back towards the hotel that stood near the edge of the village, that they'd passed on the way in. Just as Breeze had thought, there was a mare and a stallion sitting together at one of the parasoled tables set up on one side of the hotel doors. Their drinks were empty, heads close, but neither seemed to be speaking, instead enjoying the simple presence of the other. More importantly, they were wearing the sorts of small saddlebags that might hold a hefty purse, and they were alone.

The hotel itself sat with its back to the countryside, maybe one or two other buildings between it and the village's limits proper. Its front opened out onto a square much like the one in front of the village hall, only smaller, with houses on the other three sides and narrow streets radiating from it. The happy couple aside, the only evidence Breeze could see of anyone else hanging around outdoors, was a few half-seen shapes moving in the darkness between bright lampposts.

Sun nudged him, and together they moved from the edge of the square, deep into darkness of an alleyway to the left of the hotel itself. There were thatched-roof cottages on either side, but their windows were dark and vacant.

"You're sure you can manage the change?" Sun asked as they paused there, watching. Tension seemed to flavour the crisp air; at any moment, the doors of the hotel might open, or some congregation of ponies might come herding from across town.

"Not as if I have a choice," Breeze murmured. It wasn't really an answer, but it was enough to satisfy.

"Right. Let me go first, anyway. I'll pick up the stallion and lead him this way, let you get a look at him. Just remember to be casual, okay? I know you're hungry, but if we get sloppy now..."

His eyes slid down to the ground, where snow was already turning a dirty grey-brown, packed hard underhoof and refreezing into a smooth, glassy surface. Breeze put on a half-smile that tugged at one corner of his mouth and gave the elder changeling a firm prod on the shoulder.

"I know what I'm doing, remember? Besides, it'd be a shame to get this far and... You know..."

As he trailed off he couldn't help feeling that he'd done more harm. Certainly wasn't feeling any better himself. With some effort he widened the smile. "Go on, won't get any easier if we spend all night standing around."

Sun nodded, took one deep breath, and stepped out into the pooling orange light of the gas-burning lamps.

Breeze couldn't hear what his friend was saying to the stallion at this distance, but he felt sure he could mouth along regardless. It wasn't hard to guess the sort of thing Sun would be coming up with; Excuse me, could you lend me a hoof? I think I dropped my coinpurse, but with my bad eyes, I can't see in the dark. Something like that. In any case, Sun made an airy gesture towards the alley that had them both standing before the stallion waved his... Girlfriend? Wife, even? Before he waved her back down with an easy smile and gave her a short kiss on the muzzle in parting.

Step one, working nicely. As Sun lead the stallion across the square Breeze stepped back a few paces and slumped against the rough wall, tilting his head down to gaze at a patch of icy snow a few ahead of him. Any other pony would have seemed suspicious, like a stallion of ill-will waiting in ambush. Any other pony might have ruined the night and spooked their mark, sent him back to his mare with a decidedly bad feeling about the situation.

Not Breeze. While he might not have been invisible, not even in this darkness with his sable coat, but something about his posture made him seem beneath notice. As much a part of the scenery as the houses, the sort of thing one's eyes passed over without really registering.

They passed him without a second glance. Sun was sure to ask some question, and the stallion was obliging enough to reply in the heavy drawl of a farmer. The words weren't important; Breeze disregarded them and kept his attention tightly focused on the way they were said. As they drew up beside him he could pick out a few details in the gloom; a windblown mane, scruffy fetlocks with long hairs growing over the hooves. The visual was good, but his magic did the lion's share of the work. It reached out, invisible and intangible, to wrap the stallion in an aura of sense that fed everything into the unconscious centres of Breeze's mind. Then they passed behind him, out of his field of view. He could hear their hoofbeats continue on for a short way before disappearing off to his right.

Ten seconds or so passed before he pushed himself away form the wall and took a few backward paces to put himself well out of view. A glance behind himself showed where the alley ran into another house and split at a T-junction. Sun had headed left, as Breeze looked out into the squared. Walking down the alley it was the right-hand path. Not vital knowledge but the sort of thing he felt better knowing.

Now came the tricky part. Breeze turned his mind inward and pushed deep to find the last little dredges of power buried within. His eyes, screwed up tight, saw sparks dance against the backs of his eyelids and lips twitched and peeled back to expose a flash of white teeth. And then it was like a dam breaking. The change came on in a rush, surrounding him in the comfortable old flames that died away to reveal the scruffy farmer in his place.

Taking the change with so little of himself to spare left him trembling all over again, and brought beads of sweat to his brow. The exertion passed within moments, and soon he could stand with relative stability once more. He could walk, without fearing that he'd trip over his borrowed hooves. All right, then. Time to be a proper changeling.

The mare lifted her head with surprise showing in her eyes as he approached, the sort of surprise that melted into a quiet delight as she realised who it was she thought was returning to her. Breeze flashed what he hoped was an appropriately rueful smile as she shifted on the bench, making a show of moving along for him to join her again.

"That was quick. You found it already?"

Her voice was softer than her stallion's. There was none of the rustic charm or the drawn-out drawl here. Instead, her words were precise, carrying the Canterlot accent that always sounded oddly brittle to Breeze. Like a delicate statue made of some fine crystal. Had she come down from the Capital, for this simple farmer?

"Heh, well, t'tell ya the truth," he started, rubbing one sheepish forehoof against the other, "it looks like we might just be needin' your eyes out there, after all." It was damn hard not to overdo the country twang. Just another reason to get this done fast, cut down on his opportunities to screw it up. "Wouldya?"

She gave him a quirked brow, but no suspicion gleamed behind her eyes, and a soft smirk pulled at her mouth. With a little chuckle she shuffled out from the table and stood, her gaze intimate and teasing, in equal measure.

"All right, darling, if it helps you learn to ask for help now and then~"

There was a swell of affection from her and oh, Queen he could taste it on the air. Sweet but not cloying, in a way that reminded him of the clear, fresh taste of autumn raspberries. He was glad, just then, that his hunger wasn't more physical, else his stomach would have growled with ferocity to impress a dragon, he was sure.

They started to walk, but it was all Breeze could do to keep from urging her into a trot; there was activity in his peripheral vision, doors spilling warm light out onto the square, ponies emerging into the darkness. The hotel was just starting to empty, and though figures clustered around it, with the exception of a few shapes lingering in deeper shadows, he figured it wouldn't be long before the village was swarming with ponies heading for home or for the cheaper drinks of the public house.

Then they were across the square and moving into the cloaking darkness of the alley. Breeze cast a glance back over his shoulder, saw nothing near enough to be a threat, and moved in. He knew he couldn't restrain himself now, whether or not he wanted to; real, sweet love was here in front of him. It was innocent, begging to be taken, and he could no more resist its call than he could resist the urge to breathe.

The first draught took the mare by surprise. Waves of weakness and dizziness spread through her, pushing her off balance. She half turned and met Breeze's glowing eyes, eyes that took a hold of her as the strength that had been sapped from her surged into the changeling. His limbs were hot in defiance of the winter's air and his mind sparkled, as though he'd swallowed bottled lightning!

She swooned forward; he reared onto his hindlegs and stretched out his fores to accept her as she fell. The changeling cradled her, almost as a lover, could have been mistaken for one if it weren't for the thin line of pallid green haze that linked them. Deeper, more...His jaw fell open, bumping his chest, wider than any pony's mouth had a right to be. All the while he marvelled; had it always been this good? Had he forgotten, in the months of subsiding on pale lust, or had they made this better? The mare was weakening beneath him but he wanted more. A meal couldn't be enough, he needed a banquet! A feast, the memory of which he might savour for years unnumb-

"What the...hell?!"

Instinct took hold. His mouth closed, eyes darkened, and the flow of love cut off in an instant. He stood with his back to the alley's entrance, not daring to look back. Not just because he'd been spotted, but because the voice that had blurted out the stunned curse was Natalya's.

Author's Notes:

So I thought I'd be getting chapters up a lot sooner than I actually am, but it turns out making promises like that apparently kills all sense of motivation and creativity. Personal matters don't help much, either, but I have a good few things that I can post in short order now, so that's a plus!

Collapse - II

Seconds slid past in silence. Breeze stood, still on his hindlegs, his breath coming in short pants. The mare in his grip gave a weak moan and turned her head towards the square. Towards Natalya. Was she looking for help, or just disoriented by the feeding? She wouldn't stay so placid for long. Trying very deliberately to slow his breathing, Breeze turned his gaze down to meet her eyes again, and she glanced up at him in an instinctive response to the motion. A spark connected them for the second or so it took for him to order her to sleep in a shaking voice, then he lowered her down to the frozen ground, taking care to prop her back against one of the stone walls.

Even that dribble of power, to do something so simple as make an addled mare sleep, came easier than he could remember it being for a long, long while.

"All right, which of you is it?" Nay demanded, when he'd stepped back from the mare. Her voice was trembling with something. Fear, or anger. It was hard to say which, and harder to say which would have been worse. "Sun? Breeze?"

He didn't turn to face her. Couldn't. The farmer disguise burned away, and his familiar old grey earth pony self replaced it. With his brown mane clipped short against his scalp and neck, he figured he must have been almost invisible in the darkness.

"It's me," he croaked, then added, "Breeze," almost as an afterthought. "I thought we'd agreed, you should stay out of sight?" he asked. Even to himself, the question sounded petulant.

"We were hanging around near the hotel. I saw you two skulking in here, then figured one of you had to be pretending to be the stallion after Sun dragged him away, and so I thought you might need some help jumping her and this IS out of sight and what the hell was that?!"

At last he turned to face her. Silhouetted as she was against the streetlamps, all he could see of her expression was the glimmering reflection in her wide eyes. He could hear her breath, though. It shook, like her voice.

"You weren't supposed to see..." he started, then halted. Petulant again. He shook his head like he was trying to dislodge something, or shake off a biting fly. "That was feeding. I was hungry, needed strength."

"Feeding?" The dumb repetition begged explanation.

"We don't eat, Nat," he said. "Or we don't need to eat. If we want to survive changelings have to feed on other things." No, no, that wasn't enough, was it? Didn't he owe her the truth, now? "Love. I didn't want you to see this, but we feed on... We eat love."


The formel took a stumbling forward step that made her claws scuff against the ice and snow. "You mean you've been doing this, the whole time?"

Again, he shook his head.

"No, not this. I usually don't lose control like that." Less petulant, but it was starting to sound like an excuse. "It's just, we've been making do on lust. It's close, but it's like... It's not enough. And I tasted real love for the first time in months and just lost... " Oh. "No."

"No? What's no? Is she even going to be all right?"

Her words slid from him like rain against his carapace. There was a chill in his guts that had nothing to do with the season. If the only thing that had stopped him from draining this mare of all she could give and more had been Nat's interruption...

"Stay here!" he barked. "Moon's love, just stay here! Keep her safe!"

'From what' was the obvious question. He was already spinning on a hoof before Nat could respond, though, and he made for the far end of the alley quick enough that his hooves were barely touching the ground. The ice almost had him skidding into the house at the far end, where the narrow passage became the t-junction, but he came to an unsteady halt a scant few inches from the brickwork and glanced left and right.

Which way had Sun gone? The memory had been clear in his mind only minutes before, but now found he couldn't summon it, no matter how much he bent his brain to the task. Left led back into the village, right seemed to go past two houses before opening up into the dark countryside. He knew which way he would have gone, and that was enough to get him moving. If only the ice beneath had been soft enough to leave hoofprints...

As he stormed towards the silver, moonlit snowscape he prayed. Prayed that he wasn't too late, even though he knew there was no way in all the planes of the worlds that he had to be. And all the while, he dreaded what he was running towards.

Please, if you are up there, watching for us...

He tore past the end of the passage, houses on either side giving way to gardens blanketed in white. A low stone dyke walled them off, marking the boundary between village and countryside, a simple metal gate set into it, at the end of the path. Gentle hills and sleeping fields stretched out ahead of him. Nothing he could see on the left save for the wall, but a dim shape poked above the level of the dyke on his right. His hooves pushed down against the hard ground and he cleared the gate in a single leap, landing on all fours at once on the far side. Wide eyes were already dancing about, picking out details in the darkness.

Sun, out of disguise, sat with his back pressed to the rough stones of the dyke. His eyes were squeezed shut and he looked for all the world as though he were about to throw up. The farmer was slumped beside him; clearly unconscious, enervated, but not drained to the husk Breeze had feared. The snow around them told the story of a short struggle in the scuffed hoofprints scattered around them.

Breeze panted, swallowed breathlessly, and felt himself start to slump ."You... You too, aye?"


Though the elder changeling didn't open his eyes, there was a subtle shift, a minute turn towards the out-of-breath voice. "I'm sorry. I should've tried to get to you, but..."

All the frantic urgency of yester-minute was gone, and without it Breeze felt a paradoxical mix of restless energy and bone-deep exhaustion. His legs ached and the frozen air burned his throat, so he let himself tip over and lean his shoulder up against the dyke before dropping to sit beside Sun. After a moment's thought he burned his own disguise and let the night touch his dark carapace.

"It's okay."

The lies came easily to his lips, fuelled by relief. Nobody was dead or drained to soul-death, which was about the best he could have hoped for. And it felt good to feel with his own skin, see with his own eyes. "Could've gone worse, anyway."

Sun breathed deep, swallowing a mouthful of something thick. His voice was hoarse when he replied, and brittle enough to give Breeze momentary pause.

"There's one, maybe two levels of worse above this, and I'd very much prefer not to be thinking about them right now."

"Aye, I hear that. But..." But what? But maybe they should start thinking about it? For all the good that would do right now. Breeze swallowed whatever it was he'd been thinking and looked past Sun, to the farmer. He stood, shuffled over and sat once more before pulling the stallion out of the snow and into his lap.

Sun, meanwhile, opened his eyes at last and peered at Breeze. He looked almost feverish in the moonlight, insomuch as a changeling could.

"But what?"

"Nothing. Not worth worrying about now. Got enough to worry over as it is." He took a second to steel himself. "Nat saw me. Saw me feeding, I mean."

And there it was. The slow exhale, release of a held breath when there's no use in holding it any more. Perhaps they weren't yet at rock bottom, but it didn't seem to be very far beneath their keel. Now it was a question of letting themselves sink, or doing a little damage control to arrest their fall. It was obvious, at least to Breeze, that the choice was clear to both of them.

"Okay," Sun said in a voice softer than a whisper. Then he straightened, the sharp lines of his dark face hardening once more. "Okay, fine. Then let's wrap this up before somebody freezes out here. Is the mare all right? Is Nat with her?"

Breeze nodded.

"Aye, they're back in the alley. She seemed fine, Nat got there before I... Before I could do any real damage." He tested the words as he spoke them, and found to his surprise that saying them aloud was almost cleansing. "I suppose we ought to move him in there too," he said, gesturing down at the stallion in his lap.

"Seems like the best idea. Get them together, then one of us can pick a new disguise, go for help and slip away when that help arrives. First, though..." The elder changeling reached over and plucked a purse from the stallion's bag. "Ought to cover a cheap room, I think."

"Should do," Breeze said. "Right, I'll go with Nat, pick up Velvet and find us a room. You go for help when we're out of the way."


Sun stood with a grunt, re-assuming his disguise. Breeze did the same, then bent and heaved the unconscious stallion onto his back.

"Let's get it over with."

He had expected the look on Natalya's face when the returned to the alley; at once blazing hot and colder than a midnight sky. Nor was he surprised to see Velvet there, mirroring the expression. Doubtless the pegasus had come to find Natalya, and been told the tale of what she'd seen.

He had expected the cold shoulder, too, as they slunk away. Leaving Sun to his task they took a roundabout path to back to the hotel, hoofed over a few precious bits and accepted a heavy iron key. It wasn't the time for questions, or answers.

He hasn't expected the silence to continue, though.

Even after they put a false name down on the hotel ledger, the room paid for two days in advance with a few extra coins lost in exchange for no questions asked, after Sun had been secreted away from the concerned crowd now gathered in the alley, to burn an unfamiliar disguise away like a scrap of paper. Breeze was preparing his answer to the questions he was sure the pegasus and griffon had been preparing in kind. His muscles were tense enough that he almost wondered if, subconsciously, he was expecting some sort of physical confrontation.

By the time they were filing into the two-bed room he felt fit to burst with anticipation. He hovered near the window and waited for the questions to come.

They didn't.

Natalya regarded him with a carefully blank face and distant eyes, then nudged Velvet and led him into the room's tiny en suite. The lock made a sharp click as it slid into place.

There was a hollow silence. The emptiness was like a vacuum that Breeze could feel in his own chest, that left him cold and somehow unsatisfied. He turned to Sun but he was already climbing onto one of the twin beds and pulling the sheets back. From the en suite came the stutter and patter of the shower turning on and that just reminded Breeze of how filthy he felt, even after all the transformations. He'd almost expected the green flames to burn filth away but all the sweat and grime of all the days prior seemed to linger on him. Or, he thought, maybe it was something under the skin that was so unclean.

He wanted to want to scream. To cry, to break something, to lash out in whatever way he knew how. He wanted to want to. But he didn't. More than that, he wanted to lie down and sleep. It was easier to surrender what little agency he had left, if only for a short while, and let the tides of life carry him along instead of trying to swim against them.

Well, it wouldn't really hurt to let himself sleep for now. Would do the opposite. Sun had the right of it; maybe after a night of real, proper sleep they could salvage something from this mess.

He considered crawling in beside his friend but the bed was small, even for a twin room, and the thought was somehow unappealing. Not to sleep beside Sun specifically, but to be that close to anyone right now felt stifling, even claustrophobic. And the worst thing he could do would be to take the other bed for himself. But there was a couch up against the exterior wall, beneath a little sash window that let a slim blade of cold air come wafting through.

Breeze found a spare blanket in the chest of drawers set between the beds, pushed the couch cushions up against one legrest, and wrapped himself up in something between a nest and a cocoon. There, now he was insulated against the cold, and for the time being he could pretend to be insulated from the rest of the world.

He was almost asleep when the bathroom door opened, letting heavy steam billow out. Through eyes opened just enough to be able to see, he watched the stallion and formel slink out, glancing about the room. Natalya made to lie down, with slow care, onto the empty bed as Velvet turned out the lights and took a seat on the floor by the footboard. Without stirring, Breeze let his eyes slide shut again, and he descended silently into an ink-dark sleep. He only woke once again, in the wee small hours of the morning, when the formel climbed out of bed to keep watch as the stallion took his turn to sleep.

Author's Notes:

Small update this time, but there's a lot more to come...

Collapse - III

In the slow, silent hours at the tail end of the night, the hours that rendered even a hub of culture like Canterlot devoid of life, Breeze slept. With the first light of the sun dusting the eastern horizon with a blue-green glow, in the long minutes before it raised its head above the curve of the world, he dreamed. Despite all wishes to the contrary.

He dreamed of the cold. Of a world where the walls were blue and grey and black, and his hoofsteps sounded as though he were listening to them from beneath the surface of a still, clear pool. He dreamed that he was wandering through the streets of some massive silent city, looking for signs of life and finding none. No ponies under the empty grey sky. No seats nor tables nor anything but plain walls in the sterile buildings on either side of him. The world was dead, devoid of love, and he was alone.


There was something else in this world, little more than the sense of a presence, but it was malicious. Like a shadow lying over his soul, or a splinter in his mind's eye. And it was familiar. He couldn't see it, but he knew just what it was.

Canterlot Castle. Clinging to the side of Foal Mountain like a parasite latched onto the rocky flesh of the world. When he was awake he could feel it weighing down on him, no matter where in the city he stood. Out on the streets or beneath a sheltering roof. And now it seemed like it was intruding into his sleeping self.

All right, I'm done with this, he though. I'm waking up. And he did.

As much as he would have liked to be able to say awareness came instantly to him, in truth he swam up through drowsiness for a few seconds before his eyes opened. For those short moments the real world blurred into the constructs of his subconscious and he wondered if he really had found himself somewhere warm and populated, or if it was just another layer of the dream. But, with what was becoming old habit, he shed the last lingering shreds of the dream with a shake of his head and sat up, squinting in the half light.

A single lantern was burning somewhere over on the left. The candle within must have been burnt down almost to the base, for the flame was weak and flickering, but it gave off just enough light for him to see see Natalya slumped on her own bed, just across the narrow room from his. Her eyes were open and her pupils flashed green with reflected light as she tracked Breeze's waking movements.

Emotions, ones that were becoming all too familiar, bulged in the empty space behind his throat. He wanted to snap at her about how little he needed a watchdog, let out at least a little of the stress that was buzzing through him, but he kept his mouth shut. He had a nasty suspicion that would only reinforce the thoughts he was sure were already starting seep into her head.

The next urge was softer; if he could just explain how important it was that they go back to trusting one another, then maybe... But Sun had said as much already, in better words than Breeze could muster, and nevertheless here she was, still watching.

So rather than speak, he just met her gaze. Let her look him in the eye for once. Then he rolled out of bed and onto his feet, pacing over to the window with the soft sound of pawpads on rough floorboards. The curtains were drawn back from the ill-fitted panes, letting him look out into the rising dawn.

Canterlot stared back at him, dull in the twilight. They hadn't been here for more than a few days, but he was already getting a good feel for the capital, and all the ways it differed from Fillydelphia, great and small. More important, he was getting to know the same about the city's ponies.

First and foremost were the nobles. He hadn't had the chance to see any up close, being that they chose to either dwell on the higher slopes or, in a few cases in the Castle itself. But there was a common opinion among the commoner folk that was easy enough to read. In the politest of terms, the nobility were by and large regarded as being little more than self-entitled attention horses with nothing better to do with their wealth than squabble for prestige and peer down their prodigious muzzles at anyone they regarded as being 'beneath' them. Not that there seemed to be much political prestige worth squabbling over in the Equestrian court.

The irony, then, was that the ponies of what might be considered Canterlot's middle class seemed little better than those they belittled. Oh, they were less overt in their bigotry and arrogance, but anyone Breeze spoke to left him unable to shake the impression that they felt the simple act of living in Canterlot made them better than other ponies. That, while their lives might not be perfect, they were a damn sight better than anything else on offer. If you were in Canterlot then you had, as they said, made it.

Glancing back over his shoulder he couldn't help but wonder what they would have made of this side of the city.

The four of them were packed into a single room that was all scrubbed wood and cheap bleached cloth. Four narrow beds filled the far half, two against each wall with the draughty window looking down into the little 'corridor' between them, while the inward end was occupied by table and a blackened, wood-burning stove. It had been empty when they'd first arrived in the city, recently vacated for one reason or another, and no one else had gotten around to claiming it. In the absence of any official landlord keeping an eye on tenants, it served as their home. For now.

There were a dozen or so other rooms like this one filling the cheap timber building, and more than a dozen other similar buildings crowding the streets of this 'unfashionable' part of the city. Almost certainly made as quick and cheap as possible; the winter snow might have been a study in meteorological perfection and aesthetic wonder, but its chill seeped through the cracks and seems with as much ferocity as it would have if the weather were wild. This was where those without money of family in the city came. It was where some of them would spend most of their lives, raising foals of their own and waiting patiently for their big break. Because despite all misconceptions to the contrary, not every pony who came to Canterlot had made it.

Breeze turned his gaze down to his left foreleg. The weight of the band was there and not-there, simultaneously absent and squeezing his tendons as he made a fist of taloned fingers. Not everyone who came to Canterlot was a pony, for that matter.

Being a griffon, after spending so long as a pony, was an interesting experience. He could deal with the oversized wings threatening to knock over everything at shoulder height whenever he turned, and with the inflexible beak that made as simple a thing as drinking into a challenge, but having digits... The sensation was throwing him through a loop. And it didn't help that Sun was holding a similar disguise, confusing him every time he cast an eye around the room.

They were old shapes, worn for a job that they'd pulled down at the Fillydelphia docks and then packed away in the dusty corners of their minds, where the memories of old faces decayed until they were useless. Thankfully, these ones hadn't been secreted away for long enough to be forgotten, and when a rank of ponies in armour had pulled into Saddleside just hours before Sun would have given the go-ahead to clear out of town, the pony disguises were retired by unanimous agreement. Changing species wasn't a foolproof plan, but even if their pursuers had a better idea of what they were chasing, a non-pony disguise could be enough to buy them a few precious hours.

That was the hope, at least, but Breeze would be the first to admit that things weren't necessarily turning out as hoped. He looked out across rooftops capped with melting snow and knew, as the sun peeked over the horizon, that there would be no more sleep for him this morning. For the best, perhaps; it was a day that required an early start. Sun and Velvet were still sleeping, he could tell by the sound of their breath, but soon enough they'd need to wake. He could at least conspire to make it a gentle awakening.

"I'm going to put some coffee on," he said as he turned back, walking past Natalya on his way to the stove. "Should I fix you a cup?"

She shrugged, with both wings and shoulders.

"If you're making some, I'll have some."

"All right."

And there was a microcosm of their conversational habits from these last few days. Such was the way of things, he reflected as he poured a bottle of meltwater into a saucepan.

It was about twenty minutes later when the warm and rich scent of coffee spread through the little room, rousing Sun from what could otherwise have been called the sleep of the dead. Velvet followed a few moments later, his nose twitching in time with the flicking of a fallen ear. Bustling about with pots and pans and gritty black powder might have been a chore, but Breeze was learning to relish the easy ritual. There was something almost ceremonial about it, the peaceful moments accompanied by the gentle clatter of his busywork and the crackle of the burning stove.

"Now there's a welcome smell on a cold morning," Sun declared with more than the usual amount of enthusiasm. As everyone around him grew ever more taciturn, an equal measure of false cheer would creep into Sun's voice. "Pass a cup, Breeze, I think we could all do with a little kick."

More than he knew, Breeze found himself thinking, though he kept his beak shut. There were steaming mugs all around soon enough, even one clutched in Breeze's taloned fingers, despite the lack of sugar or milk. He could barely stand to drink the stuff 'untainted', but again, the ritual meant more than the taste of the drink. Besides, it was hot and caffeinated, and the morning in need of a little warmth and energy.

He was barely a quarter of the way through his when Sun reached over to pour himself a careful second mug and spoke.

"So, we never got around to deciding who does what this morning." He paused to manoeuvre his beak around the mug before pressing on. "We're still in favour of going in pairs, yes?"

Indeed, today was a special day; contacts in the city, ostensible friends of Velvet, were in a position to supply the lead and silver they needed to try and block the locator bands. At a price, of course, but considering the importance of the matter there had been a concerted effort to scrape up enough petty cash to cover what was being asked for. More expensive than going through more legal means, but also far faster.

"Seems smart enough to me," Val said with a shrug. "I still say you want me at the meeting. Just to smooth things over in case they get rough. Not that they ought to."

No objections were raised, as Breeze had expected. There had never been any doubt about Velvet's intent, but Natalya...

"What about you?" Breeze said to the formel, in as mild a voice as he could manage. "Did the good night's sleep make your decision any easier?"

Sun was more diplomatic, but there was the same pressure in both changelings' voices.

"You really do need to pick, Nat. One or the other-"

The change was visible before she opened her beak to talk over Sun. Narrowed eyes, feathers moving just a fraction of an inch out of place, wingtips ever so slightly flared.

"I'll hit the streets. You know I've got the best eyes out of the four of us, and the quickest claws. So you two figure out who comes picking pockets with me, and who gets to chat with Val's mates."

Her piece said, she leaned back and cradled her empty mug so casually Breeze almost wondered if he was just projected the defiant air he saw around her, the sense that she was daring them to challenge her on it.

He didn't intend to play that particular game. Before Sun could reply he leaned in with what he thought was the griffon equivalent of an easy smile and nodded.

"Fine by me. I'll go along with you, then, if Sun doesn't mind sticking with Val?"

The arched brow he got back from the changeling-turned-gryphon told him most everything that the spoken reply didn't.

"I suppose I don't. Just so long as you two are careful out there, of course. Val, what about you?"

The pegasus gave a non-committal shrug. Though he and Natalya had become equally silent, where she was standing out as a sullen presence Velvet seemed in danger of just fading into the background. Like the changelings there was a sense that he was well out of his depth, and found himself reduced to clinging to the more experienced formel.

"That about settles it, then, "Sun said. He drank down the last of his coffee, tipped the dregs into the bin and stood with as wide of a stretch as he could manage in the cramped space. "Val, you and I should get moving soon. I want to have a look at the meeting place before they show up. Breeze, Nat, I won't tell you how to do your job out there but I want you back here in good time. All right?"

All three nodded. Just one more day, and they'd be free.

"This would go a lot smoother if you actually contributed," Breeze shot across the little table, tapping the plate glass surface with a talon. The steady tick-tick-tick was supposed to bother Natalya but by now it was starting to get to him instead, like he was counting down the second of safety they still had.

It was well into the afternoon now, leaving behind a fruitless morning of scoping out potential marks and dismissing them. The pair sat across from each other outside a small, cheap café on the very edge of Canterlot's upmarket districts. Cold cups of tea rested in saucers between them, half-drunk and then forgotten, while a gentle parade of ponies streamed past them on the thoroughfare, enjoying the crisp winter's day.

"I'll contribute when there's something to contribute. Nobody good's gone by. I can't help it if pickings are slim."

The formel showed almost no sign of irritation at either Breeze's snippish tones, or his tapping. Just the slightest ruffle of feathers, that might have been little more than an errant draught.

Reading a griffon could be both harder and easier than reading a pony, depending on how skilled one. For the novice, their subtle emotional tics were often that much more subtle than a pony's, but an expert would notice how much trouble them seemed to have at suppressing them.

Spending so long in a griffon's shape was giving Breeze all new perspectives on the matter, and recognising his own tics gave his already sharp eyes a new keenness, where other griffons were concerned. He was also appreciating how much the feathers of his face were doing to disguise his scar, in comparison to a pony's fur.

"You'll just keep shooting down my suggestions until then, I guess?" he sighed.

There was less urgent desperation behind them, without the threat of imminent capture, and that meant they could afford to be a little more selective in their targets; minimise harm by picking someone wealthy enough to carry a good amount of cash that they could afford to lose, but not so rich as to cause or attract undue fuss. Accidentally picking Celestia's nephew, for example, would bring the guard down on them faster than if Breeze dropped his disguise in the middle of the street.

But time was wearing on. They had the cash to buy silver and lead, but they needed just a little more to be able to afford at least some supplies for the journey Westward. Though Breeze was loath to abandon the principles they'd all agreed on, that old urgency was starting to creep back up on him, nipping at the end of his tail.

"Sure, until you pick a good mark," Natalya said, glancing back out at the crowd.

Was she baiting him? Breeze leaned back in his seat, beak clicking. This return to her more flippant attitude was confusing, and oddly unwelcome. At least when she was closed off, he knew what he was dealing with. But this...

Not to say he liked having her close herself off like that. It was easier to deal with but no less infuriating. After all, though he'd always known that ponies - and indeed any non-changeling - would see his feeding habits as wrong or unnatural, but by his own standards he'd done far worse than feeding while in Natalya's company. Organised crime, after all, hardly seemed a place for the squeam-

He crashed out of that train of thought when one of Natalya's paws bumped his under the table. She flicked her eyes out to the road and said in a whisper that he could barely hear: "Stallion in the grey polo shirt and black scarf. Red mane, moneybag in his barrel pocket."

He looked without looking; eyes drifted to one side as he took a swig of cold tea, head still pointed at Natalya but seeking out the shock of red in the multicoloured river of fur. Nothing at first. His head turned just slightly to bring the stallion into view, but he doubted anyone would notice unless they were expecting to see it. He smiled. The stallion - a unicorn, of course - looked well off, wearing what seemed to be expensive clothes, but not up to the stand of a noble's tailoring. And he seemed to be alone.

Even so Breeze was half tempted to turn him down out of nothing more than spite for the formel across from him. But hells, could they really afford to miss this?

Did he even need to ask?

He gave Natalya a slight nod, while the stallion passed them, before turning to gaze across the street at one of the ornate clocks that clung to half the towers around the city.

"Really though, we should be going," he said, speaking casually. Natalya lifted a finger and drained the last of her tea before replying.

"I suppose it is that time, isn't it?" she said as she pushed her chair back and stood.

By now the stallion was a good distance ahead of them, in sight but in danger of disappearing into the sparse crowd. This was a dangerous phase, hanging back enough that they weren't obviously tailing their mark, without losing sight of him. All while waiting for any one of a dozen potential opportunities and praying he didn't step inside a shop or meet with a friend.

Both possibilities, of course, would become increasingly likely the longer they followed. After a few minutes Breeze was getting shifty, but the formel beside him showed no interest in making a move. Just staring ahead, moving through the crowd as if it weren't there.

Unease began twisting his stomach in icy claws, colder than the air that misted in front of his beak. This was taking too long. The stallion was seconds away from slipping past their grip.

"Bump him," he whispered, prodding Natalya with a wing. She half-turned her head, her expression blank, so he jerked his head forward with a scowl. "Bump into him! Distract him, or something!"

Now understanding crept across her face, and she nodded before slipping ahead. Her movements, slipping and weaving through loosely spaced bodies, were almost sharklike, a feat Breeze even found himself hard pressed to match as he shifted to the side and advanced.

There was maybe a second between them as they reached the stallion; Natalya from the right, Breeze from the left. As she drew up alongside him, the formel turned her head as if hearing something away to her left, and strode right into the stallion. He stumbled, steadied himself, then turned with a sharp expression, that softened as she made a stammering apology.

In that same moment Breeze stepped past. His wing brushed a few filaments as his right foreleg came up, fingers ever so gently grazing the fabric of the grey shirt and plucking the moneybag from its pocket.

It took less than a second for him to brush by, and by then the bag was already out of sight under his wing. For another few seconds he let himself enjoy the rush of success, hot under his feathers, before it was shattered by the sound of a voice rising, puzzled and then angry, a few paces behind.

"Hey... Hey you! Griffon!"


He kept walking, nonchalant as he could make himself appear. Breaking into a run would be as good as an admission of guilt. The stallion could have been calling to Natalya, or some other griffon out of Breeze's sight. Another few steps, and he risked a backwards glance. There was the stallion, patting at his barrel pocket as he strode awkwardly forward on three legs, his eyes fixed on Breeze.

That tore it. Still walking - but increasing his pace - he bore left, eye flicking along the buildings in search of somewhere to duck out of sight. There were plenty of alleys, some connected and some running like long corridors under the pale sky. Not so different from the Hive, only more static.

As soon as he reached the edge of a crowd growing ever more confused he broke into an awkward canter, dashing into one of the narrow, arched passageways. There was another shout, a call for him to stop, accompanied by the harsh clatter of hooves at a gallop. Now granted a little concealment from the crowd Breeze picked up the pace, his tufted tail streaming behind him. A third shout, breathless but determined. A slightly wider passage opened up on his right, and with wings flared to help him turn he took the sharp corner at a skid. Only one set of hooves audible behind him, thank the Moon.

Up ahead the passage opened up, brightening. Doors streaked past on either side. Breeze sped up but came to a scrambling halt a few seconds later, in a small courtyard lined with more doors, all of them closed, and no obvious way out save what was behind him. And the hooves were still bearing down on him.

Breeze spun on a padded paw, watching the red-maned stallion pull up, his scarf fluttering. Options were running out, and time was running down. The changeling ducked, pushing one foreleg forward. The heel of his 'hand' drove into the stallion's chest and he went down, winded and gasping.

The blow left Breeze shaking out his leg, flexing the fingers. Moon, but that stung worse than a hoof's blow. He had a few seconds to take stop, as his victim writhed on the ground, trying to suck down air with strained wheezes. No question that he'd gotten a good look at Breeze's form, and a good chance that he'd seen enough of Natalya to recognise her again. If he put two and two together and saw the bump for what it had been...

There was nothing for it. Breeze could change his shape, but the formel couldn't. He shook his head, advancing on the stallion, who rolled onto his back, staring up with wide eyes. A simple fiddle inside his head, one more little crime to let them be free at last. Breeze narrowed his own eyes, feeling the spark of power flash in them, when Natalya's claws landed, a heavy grip on his shoulder.

Of course he didn't hear her coming; leonine paws made little sound, even on cobblestones, compared to the rattle of a pony. Even so he should have noticed her before those talons pricked him. Hell, they almost pierced skin as she pulled him away with strength that seemed to surprise them both.

"That's enough!" she snapped, her voice a bare feather's breadth from a shout. The stallion scrambled backwards until his head bumped up against a faux-marble wall.

"Back off, Natalya," Breeze growled back as he shrugged for formel's grip off with more force than he'd intended. There was something hot burning under his feathers. Stupid, ungrateful, interfering... He mustered up as much power as he dared, shooting a withering glare at her before turning it back to the cowering stallion.

His beak was already open when the talons stabbed into the meat of his shoulder, his body wrenched around so that Natalya's face filled his vision, eyes blazing even brighter than his. Distantly he realised he could feel blood trickling down his foreleg.


The shout stopped a second attempt to break loose before it was more than a tightening of his muscles. Silent smouldering had broken, but it didn't feel real to hear her voice raised so. To see her so enraged at him. To feel a matching blaze in his own chest. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the stallion roll to his hooves and make a mad gallop back along the passageway but that hardly seemed important any more.

"What in the name of Chrysalis do you think you're doing?" he heard his false voice say, as his false feathers started to rise in a real threat response. There was a disconnect that he'd never felt before, between himself and his disguise. He was a puppeteer, directing this hollow body from within like it was made of wood and paper and pulled with wires, and his control was no longer absolute. It was as if, at any moment, he could slip, fumble, and the body would make some strange motion of its own design.

Natalya seemed to see none of that in Breeze's false eyes. She saw only another griffon, puffing himself up for a fight, and her own crest and neck feathers rose in kind.

"You are not feeding on anyone else while I'm around, do you hear me?" she snarled. "You try that love sucking thing again, you'll be on the ground before you can think!"

If it had been Sun who'd snapped at him so, he might have backed down, bent under the weight of years of conditioning. Might have. Natalya was not above him, though. This was a challenge he could answer, and he did, his voice speaking out without conscious thought.

"Are you bloody mad?" he shot back in a voice only a few decibels below hers. "I was just going to make him forget, I wasn't going to feed! I was trying to protect us! And even if I was, who in the hells are you to stop me? You really think you could? That you have any right?!" The words were coming from somewhere deep with such force that he'd have had an easier time holding back a storm than stopping them.

"Why?" Natalya's voice dropped, but her tone was acidic, barbed. "You think you have the right to do what you do, Evening?"

"A right? A right to eat? Are you telling me I should starve?!"

His wings were flared. One foreleg was raised above his chest, the fingers hooked and talons bared, while the other was barely touching the floor with fingertips. His forequarters were raised up, and while he was aware of all of that, he didn't realise that his mask had cracked.

A flare of wild, electric blue lit up his irises, subtle shades of green glimmering in the depths of his pupils.

He held his position for a few seconds, glaring at the formel but frozen for a reason that he couldn't quite fathom. Then he realised. She had flinched away, chest lowering, eyes wide with something other than anger.

His own anger didn't drain. It simply ceased, at full strength in one instant and utterly gone in the next. There was nothing in its place. An empty gulf stretching out where emotion was supposed to be.

"Nat..." he began. His feathers drooped as his posture sank. "You really are, aren't you? You're afraid. Of...me."

He watched the naked fear recede back into the subtler cues he'd refused to process. He wasn't asking, he was confirming, and it was like seeing a hidden wound for the first time, feeling it in its entirety.

The next blow rent him down to the bone. A soft, humourless laugh sounded from the formel, a bitter expression of escaping stress rather than anything like amusement.

"Shouldn't I be?" she said, taking a deliberate backwards pace. "I mean, there is a reason Goldy kept you at wing's length while you two were playing as his pet monsters. There's a reason he thought it was worthwhile to throw Val and I to the hounds just so he could be rid of you. The worst thing is, I'm not sure his math was wrong. Considering what it is you do.

"Where does the shapeshifting come into it, anyway?" Another backwards step, into the very centre of the courtyard. "What do you do, pretend to be husbands and sons? Anything to make it easier to get a meal, I bet. I mean it isn't too hard to figure out, when you have all the pieces lined up. You could be anyone. Family, or a lover, or...or a friend. Right? Does a friend's love work too?"

Now it felt like Breeze wasn't there at all. Not as the griffon, nor the puppetmaster making the griffon-suit dance. It was as a dream, when the focus pulled back and everything that was happening became a story, written in a book or played out on a stage. And it was a story that he felt sure, horribly sure, he knew the ending to.

"Nat, where are you going with this?"

He forced the words across the vast space between his mind and his disguise's beak. It was all play-acting. He knew already. He just couldn't believe it. Wouldn't.

"Is that what this was all about?" she said in a voice so small it made her whole self seem to shrink. "You two were just hooking up with a fresh supply, right?"


"Just...tell me the truth. Please. Have you been feeding on us?"

Reality came back as swift as shattering glass, with flawless crystalline clarity. He was there again, standing on the ground with his own four feet, but though he was present once more he was still not in control. He knew where the story was going, and there was no way in Tartarus' depths for him to alter that course.

"Of course not," he said after a second. He tried regardless, speaking his next words without considering them.

"Gold wouldn't let us, said we..."

Shutting his beak and stopping the flow did nothing to take back what he had already said, and the thousand explanations and retractions running through his head sounded hollow without needing to be spoken. Natalya's eyes went stony, her face taking on an expression he'd seen worn by captains and drone-adepts. When a drone had failed so badly that a trip to the recyclers was being considered. There was cold anger and, always worse, disappointment.

"I see. Glad we cleared that up."

"Nat, wait!"

"That's not my name," she cut in, spreading her wings and kicking up into the sky. "My name's Natalya to you, Evening Breeze. Find your own damn way home."

Final Collapse

For almost two hours, Breeze wandered through the streets. Without thinking about where his feet were taking him he skirted down along the city wall, on the far side of town, then followed a blind path back up to the marble streets and enamelled towers that marked the domain of the wealthy. Every few minutes or so he turned his head back towards the slums, but every time his stomach rolled and his legs carried him further on, in any direction that wasn't towards the small room. Nobleponies and the wealthy from a dozen towns and cities parted before him, cautious at the sight of a griffon with his wings so tight against his body and his eyes blank and hard.

Was he angry or ashamed? From where he stood, hypocrisy laced Natalya's words; all the things that she was willing to be a part of, and this was where the line was drawn? Yet he couldn't say she was wrong, hypocrisy aside. They had to feed, there was no getting around that, but when he tried to picture it from the outside he could see how it looked. And she'd speared a changeling's normal method of hunting with uncanny precision. Maybe she wouldn't have cared so if she'd known from the start, but...

Speculation. Questions without answers. They did little to help, and that much was to keep his mind occupied. Perhaps too much so, for it wasn't until the sun was starting to sink and the shadows of long spires falling down onto the streets below that fresh fear began to muscle the existing dread aside. Sun's errand was surely long finished, lead and silver waiting for them, and every second that he dawdled in his self pity was a second that some guardspony could use to close their hard-won lead.

Faced with the choice between Natalya and the Royal Guard, he knew which he'd pick, even if the margin was narrow. One, at least, was less likely to be fatal, and made his insides a little less tight.

A little. Not really enough to make his return journey any easier. His hackles were up and his feathers drew tighter the closer he came. Pace by pace his head drooped, and the buildings around him degenerated. Gleaming stone facades gave way to bare brick, and brick gave way to wooden slats.

At the very last moment he froze, standing in the hall outside their commandeered room with his fingers around the handle and his breath just barely visible in air only a few degrees warmer than the outside. What would she say? How scathing would her expression be? No doubt she'd have told her tale to Velvet, so where would he stand? He could see her rounding on Sun as well, throwing accusations at him. Or maybe she'd spin stories and try to drive a wedge between the changelings.

As he stood there he tried to picture it; Sun turning on him with anger. He couldn't. He could see so many things, exaggerated almost to the point of parody, playing out in the theatre of his mind, but not that. Not for this. Whatever was said and done in the next few minutes they would be united, of that he was sure. A soft warmth spread up through his limbs, so unlike the raw heat that had burned his chest, and he pushed the door open.

All his dread fell away when he saw the inside of the narrow room.

Sun was alone, halfway through a short, worried stride that had been curtailed so he could turn to the door. Talon marks were dug into the floorboards, making a trail of splinters where he must have spent the last hour or so pacing. Velvet and Natalya's beds were a mess of tangled sheets but the other two were neatly made and the lit stove cast bars of orange light through its grate.

The older changeling's eyes flashed at the sight of Breeze and he fell back onto his feline haunches with a deep sigh.

"Oh, thank heavens... Where were you? What happened?"

Breeze shrugged as he stepped into the warmth, closing the door behind him.

"Walking," he said simply.


Sun was stepping over, concern writ plain on his beaked face, but Breeze brushed past him to the window and drew the threadbare curtains closed.

"Breeze, what happened out there? Was there an argument? Nat came storming in about an hour ago, grabbed Val and dragged him off without saying a word to me." He hesitated a moment, drawing a short breath. "Did someone get hurt out there?"

Breeze didn't turn, but he shook his head, curling his fingers up into thick fists and digging furrows in the soft wooden boards..

"We fought," he said. "She must've thought I was going to feed on this pony we tangled with, and she just lost it. Started talking about how she wasn't going to let me hurt anyone or something... And she accused me of feeding on her and Velvet the whole time. Accused us. I said no, but... Sun, I don't know if she's coming back."

Logs crackled in the stove, popping as little pockets of sap met the heat of the fire and burst, but it wasn't enough noise to cover the whoosh of breath from behind him. It almost sounded like Sun had been punched in the gut. The seconds drew themselves out painfully as he waited for a reply.

"All right..." Sun breathed at last. He was probably nodding. "It'll be all right, Breeze. Give her some time, she'll cool off. She won't give us away, anyway. Give her time."

A momentary shadow made it clear he was gesturing towards something. "Anyway, we have everything we need. No trouble there. A day, maybe less, and they won't be able to follow us. We can get that fresh start."

"And how many more 'fresh starts' is it going to take?"

Another pause, this one heavy and awkward.


"She was scared of me."

Breeze turned back to face Sun. "I got angry as well. Must've looked like I was about to make a move because she flinched back like I'd thrown a blasting spell at her. Sun, she thought our whole friendship had been a lie, just so we could feed on her! Nat! I thought she understood us, even if none of the ponies did."

His disguise fell away in fire that seemed so hot he fancied he could see curls of fur and feathers fall blazing to the floorboards. "They're afraid of us, Sun, and they ought to be! Look at us! I don't know why we ever thought we could live with them!"

He was shouting now and he didn't care. There was just too much inside. Too much anger, too much regret. Not anger for the ponies, who did what anyone would have done. Not for Natalya, who must have been living in a horror story for the last few days. Not even for Chrysalis, and to hell with her title, even though she was the one who'd pushed them here, stamped them down and denied them something so simple as a name. And certainly not for Rising Sun, though he was the one who bore the heat of Breeze's fury now.

"She thinks I'm a monster, and she's right. They'd all call us monsters if they knew a thing about us. We don't belong here, do we? Maybe we should've just stayed in the Badlands, scratching at the damn rocks."

He hated the one who kept bending. Who kept redrawing the line of what was acceptable. Who didn't have the backbone to stand up and say that things had gone too far. He hated the one who broke beautiful things, shattered even the simple honest love between two ponies, who stood back and said nothing when lives depended on his word. The one who, just days before, had almost drained a pony of all that made them wonderful. Who had only stopped, not because he saw what he was doing, but because of blind luck.

"Have we done a single good thing since we got here? I can't think of one. Just everything that we've ruined. If we're not monsters then what the hell else could we be?"

He didn't realise tears were leaving dark streaks on his cheeks. Not even when his vision started to blur.

"Why do we have to be monsters? Why can't we just do things right?"

His breath came in short, sobbing gasps. He could barely see the tiny room now. There was just a swirling haze of light and shade, of colours mingling together. Brown and orange and green and black.

"I don't w-want to be a monster anymore..." he sobbed into Sun's chest. He couldn't say quite when the older changeling had crossed the short space between them, when he'd dropped his disguise or when those dark forelegs had wrapped themselves around Breeze and pulled him close, but he didn't care. He just pushed his head into the smooth, softened chitin and let the tears loose. "But I don't know how to stop..."

Sun said nothing. It made things worse and better both at once. There was nothing he could say to soothe or refute any of what Breeze had laid bare, but he was wise enough not to waste words trying. Instead, he held Breeze a little closer, resting his chin on the youth's head as he wept.

It only took a short while for the tears to stop choking him, but when Breeze lifted his head again the last of the day's light was gone and the curtains were dark. He sniffed, scrubbing at his eyes with the back of a hoof then pulled away from Sun. There was the odd urge to apologise, as though he'd done something shameful, but before he could speak Sun sighed and looked down.

"I know. I'm sick of it too. Sick and tired of running, of always telling myself 'one more day'. This isn't what I'd hoped. I suppose I don't really know what I'd expected things would be like, but... I never thought we'd do most of the things we've had to do."

In that moment Breeze felt something click into place. He'd spent weeks, since first meeting Sun, thinking ahead to freedom, and before that moment it had never been so much as a possibility in his mind. Already, the memories of his own optimism were turning to poison in his mind, and the realities of a world that fell so far short of his hopes was breaking him. On the back of only a few weeks of hope.

Sun had been dreaming of this for years.

Something dark swelled up inside of his chest, but it was snuffed out by a tide of shame that somehow felt clean. Breeze reached out with a shaking hoof, and something else fell into place as he searched for any visible sign of the pain that had to be burning inside Sun, a hundred times hotter than his own. But Sun stood and bore it, as stoic as he'd ever been. Save for that one day, in an old cabin just outside of a town called Dodge.

"I've never thought of myself as one for giving up," Sun was saying, very gently bumping the underside of that hoof with his nose and fangs. "But I don't see how we can keep this up for much longer."

Breeze nodded. His eyes were sticky with drying tears, lines of salt crusting on his cheeks, but there was that sense of clarity again.

"I think," he said slowly, haltingly. "I think maybe... Maybe it's about time we stopped."

His eyes alighted on a bag at the far side of the room. Just a small thing of rough cloth that he knew hadn't been there in the morning. A bag of lead and silver. The way to keep running, and in the end he'd never even see it. That felt right, in an odd sort of way.

Sun turned, saw what Breeze was looking at, and nodded.

"Maybe. They said a lot of terrible things about Celestia, but they said a lot about drones as well. I don't think she'll be quite what we thought. It's not like a pony would throw you into a recycler, and I doubt they'd let a prisoner starve."

They spoke about it so casually, Breeze scuffing the floor beneath him in thought before he spoke again, smoothing out a few splinters with the edge of his hoof.

"We should leave a message. I guess... I'd like to think Nat and Val would come after us, if they got back and found an empty room. Better if we let them know, and tell them to get out of the city while they can."

"A good thought. I think I know a place where we can wait, too. Where Val and I met his friends. It's out of the way. Gives them more time to get out."

"I doubt anyone's going to look too hard for them anyway. It was always us everyone was after in the end, wasn't it?"

With some effort, Breeze tried to smile as he spoke. But the expression felt too much like a lie. It wouldn't stay put, and so he turned to the side, eyes closed. "I'll miss them, though. Even if we couldn't part on decent terms. But maybe..."

"Maybe what?" Sun said, cocking his head over.

"Maybe this'll mean something. Something good. Show them we aren't really... You know."

Sun clapped him on the shoulder.

"I know."

They left the room as clean as they could manage; the stove extinguished and the ashes swept out, all four beds made, and what few possessions they had left arranged on the table. Bits and pieces of salvaged cutlery, a few gold bits, and the unopened bag of lead and silver with their short note pinned to it. All while they'd worked, there had been the fear that the griffon and pegasus would return, forced a confrontation, but now Breeze paused to regard the meagre remains. For the first time in a long while he wished they still had the canteen they'd taken on a warm summer's night. Like as not it was rotting somewhere in Fillydelphia. A shame. He'd have liked something to call his own.

Dawn was already creeping over the eastern horizon when they stepped out onto the street. Both of them held onto their griffon disguises, though they wouldn't be of much use for long. Sun took the lead, heading for what had once been a warehouse near the city wall, that was now little more than a shed. Four walls, a roof and a window. As good a place as any to wait.

On the route between it and their room stood a single guardhouse, and Breeze paused there as Sun made a brief entry to drop something with the desk sergeant. Just a few moments later they were there, sitting side by side with their backs against a cold stone wall, the window above and behind them, the door a few yards to their right. It would have been nice, Breeze thought then, to have something to drink. If only to help pass the time.

Presently, he realised Sun was staring at a square of amber light that struck the far wall in front of them. As the sun itself rose, the square sank, sliding diagonally across the whitewash until the shadow of a tower began to intrude on one side.

In moments it would eclipse the light entirely and the warm square would be gone, but for now it lingered. Irregularities in the cheap glass panes were magnified into translucent swirls and dips, graceful things born of carelessness that shifted as the sun rose and the square diminished, until at last it was gone.

"I suppose we had a good run," Sun said offhand.

Breeze turned to face him, blinking in incredulity until a wild urge overtook him, and he snorted with quiet laughter.

"Y-you're joking, right?" he giggled. "We made it all of six months, if that! If they knew what happened out here, they'd probably use us as a cautionary tale back in the Hive!"

The smile that spread across Sun's muzzle was both warm, and sad.

"Heh, I suppose they would. Still, we tried. I'm glad we did. And I'm glad we made it this far."

The laughter stopped. Not just because of Sun's sombre tone, but because there was a clatter of steel on stone outside. How long had it been since Sun had dropped off the note? A few hours? It was faster than he'd expected, and slower than he'd hoped.

"I'm glad. Glad I had a friend," Breeze replied, looking down at his own hooves. His hooves. Black-clad in chitin, punched through with holes as if something had taken bites out of him. A few shades lighter than Sun, slimmer and shorter. This was Evening Breeze. This was who he wanted to be. "Six months with you? Better than a whole lifetime in the Hive."

Sun smiled again, wider this time. Watching, Breeze realised he felt good. For the first time since he could remember, there was nothing gnawing at him. Nothing left to worry about. Maybe this was freedom. Maybe it was something you only had when you knew you were about to lose it. It seemed a silly thing, but in the end, the world itself didn't make much sense, did it?

As more steel-shod hooves gathered outside the door, Evening Breeze leaned back against the wall, smiling to himself, and savoured the taste of freedom.

Author's Notes:

Just in case anyone gets that idea, this is not the last chapter. You'll know when it is.

Collapse: Final Report



The Investigator stared down at the piece of paper and felt her scalp crawling under her mane. Her horn felt hollow, the interior stuffed with ants or hooked up to a Van der Graff, and as she read through the note for the third time she would have sworn she could taste hot metal on the air.

When she was done she let her eyes rise to the stallion standing on the far side of her commandeered desk, his gilded armour gleaming, and fumbled with the controls of the dictaphone sitting between them.

"One more time please, Sergeant. For the official record."

The sergeant dipped his head once, took a short breath, and said the same useless words all over again.

"A griffon came to the front desk about an hour ago - oh-seven hundred or close to - and placed a note on the counter. He said he had a tip, but that he wasn't willing to take any questions. Didn't have much choice but to accept, since he was out of the door before I could read it. When I did, I alerted the station lieutenant, she called it in to the Commander, and by then it was all out of my hooves, Ma'am."

It was fascinating, the back of her mind mused, how he treated her as if she were one of them. A military mare. She could see the restrained urge to salute when they came face-to-face. And yet she was, by rote of technicality at least, a civilian. A bureaucrat first and a field agent second. She could fight like Tirek himself when she had to but she'd never stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the sergeant or his type in a spear wall.

Command Stone at least treated her with a little more respect than that. Commander by rank, Captain of the Royal Guard by title, he was a severe stallion with a hard neck and a love for rules and regulations that, even by her exacting standards, bordered on fetishistic. As such he knew exactly who and what she was in relation to him, and rarely if ever did he do her the disservice of treating her like a soldier.

The respect was easy to share; for all that the public face of the Guard was one of well-meaning incompetence, especially in a time of peace, he was in truth a stellar commander of ponies. She knew all too well that there were layers to the Guard that no normal Canterlot resident would see, and that Stone had a close knit corps of qualified soldiers to act as a backbone of steel to hold that public face steady if it ever had to face a real crisis.

She turned to regard him next, standing impassive beside her in enamelled armour that was spotless but kept at a dull matt finish. He said nothing, just lifted an eyebrow by the slightest amount, so she directed her gaze back to the sergeant.

"Did he give you a name, or tell you anything about the note?"

"No'm," the sergeant replied with haste. "Just said that he had a tip to deliver, and that he wouldn't take questions. I can give you a description, though."

"Thank you, but that won't be necessary. As you were, sergeant."

He came to attention as if to salute, but at the last moment checked himself and delivered it to the Commander instead, before turning and marching smartly out of the office. The Lieutenant's domain, surrendered to Stone and his guest.

Could this really be it? Her team had been preparing to move for days, nailing down the telltale locator signals, ever aware that their quarry might yet slip out from under their gaze, and this would be how it ended? Her own efforts had brought them this close, months of work, missing them once by the narrowest of margins thanks to the pig-headed Fillydelphians but now so close...

All to see them delivering themselves on a silver platter. Her efforts amounting to nothing when the bastards seemed more than willing to catch themselves.

'The changelings you've been looking for are tired of running. You can find them at the old grain warehouse on Stoker Street. Check for moonstone signals if you distrust this message.

R.S. & E.B.'

She let the note fall back to the desk and blew a ragged breath out through her nose.

"We can't delay any longer," came the rough, crushed-gravel voice of Stone from beside her. "Move now, take them in, and sort things out when we don't have to worry about changelings on the streets of Canterlot. I can have five ponies ready for armed apprehension in half an hour. We can have with finished inside of an hour and half. Maximum."

She said nothing. Her breath rushed in and out, like the swell of a hurricane, with thoughts swirling around her head with the same ferocity. Stone gave her a minute then went on.

"You and your agents can be with me when I go, but I will go without you if I have to. If you really want me to have the arrest."

For another few seconds even she thought she'd frozen. It was the sound of her own teeth grinding across each other that shocked her out of the moment.

"Get your ponies together," she said. "We're moving in twenty minutes. With or without you."

She let the guardsponies take point for the breach itself. A unicorn to blast the door open, not that it needed it, and the other four to come charging through with spears held ready. There was no resistance from within, which despite everything managed to be a surprise. The Investigator, along with her team, was waved through moments later to see all five of the guards formed in a loose semicircle, spears pointed inwards at two figures sat with with their backs against the wall.

Figures of black chitin, with blank blue eyes that she somehow knew were staring right at her.

"We have a warrant for the arrest of two changelings known to be residing in this city, believed to be you. Are you surrendering yourselves to the Equestrian Domestic Security Office?" she asked in a steely tone. It really was them, so close to her that she could see the highlights reflected in their smooth, curved horns. They nodded, so she went on. "Do you have any intent to resist our lawful arrest?" Their heads shook.

She turned to her team and nodded. "Cuff them and cover them. I want this wrapped up quick,and those two at the Castle for interrogation in two hours."

It could be said, she reflected as she watched the prisoners loaded into a wagon, that things had gone perfectly. Both primary targets in custody, no collateral damage. And yet the moment tasted bitter, and sat heavy and uneasy in the pit of her stomach.




After-Action - I

The cells of Canterlot Castle's dungeon were warmer than those of the Fillydelphia lockup, though that was not by design or any sense of soft-heartedness. Rather it was a simple quirk of the Castle's engineering. Huge boilers sat in the old mining caves that rested amid the foundations, sending hot water up through reinforced pipes to heat the multitude of marble rooms and provide for the luxuriously appointed bathrooms and en suites. For convenience's sake more than a few of these pipes ran up through the vaulted cells, providing warmth for the prisoners buried under so much rock.

Of course the lack of fresh air was enough to make up for this comfort. So far beneath the castle, where no windows could reach them, the cells were the most secure in all of Equestria, but they were close and dark and airless.

Breeze, wondering idly at the small world he found himself in now, felt it was lucky that neither he nor Sun had ever shown any tendencies towards claustrophobia. Fewer than one in ten thousand changelings did, else their kind would never have been able to survive long in the Hive, where there were no windows to speak of. Just high halls and narrow passageways that had a tendency to shift when no one was looking. Some drones whispered to each other that the Hive reshaped itself with the moods of Chrysalis, while others maintained it was her will that allowed changelings to navigate the ever-changing maze. In its own way, this place reminded Breeze of his old home, if one were to imagine blue and green bioluminescent spots in place of orange candles.

No doubt, he thought, they were here because the guard stations weren't deemed secure enough to hold them. It was almost flattering that ponies would assume changelings capable of blasting through stone, just because they managed to burst open a wooden wagon. Not that he could find much fault in an inclination towards caution.

And with caution in mind, the security of this place was formidable indeed; his cell was bare rock on one side and heavy stone bricks on two others, fronted by iron bars that were about half as thick as his leg and spaced at similarly wide intervals. Further along, to his right as he stood facing the bars, there were fully enclosed cells with reinforced iron doors, either for holding interrogations or particularly troublesome prisoners. No chances were being taken with their magic, either; both of them had thick rings slid down onto their horns, with warnings of dire consequences should they try to remove them.

Should they manage to breach their cells somehow there were at least three guards with spears and full armour in sight at all times, and more surely lay in wait up the long stairs that lead to the surface levels. At the end of that narrow, winding road stood a whole castle of ponies through which one would have to fight.

Once these obstacles were overcome it would be possible, as soon as the open air was in sight, to fly off the mountain without ever having to step hoof into the city below. Freedom beckoned, on the assumption that one was confident in their ability to outfly pegasus guardsponies. Changelings were not the fastest of fliers. Nimble and agile, maybe, but without the pace to match feathered wings. Even if Breeze could take the form of a champion speedster that wouldn't let him fly like one, any more than taking Celestia's form would let him raise the sun.

All that aside, he felt no inclination to try. He and Sun were in separate cells, with at least one empty room between them to ensure there could be no easy communication that their guards couldn't also detect.

With little better to do he lay back on the bench that served as his bed and let himself doze. Even after his sleepless night he stayed just above a true sleep, keeping his good ear perked for signs of change around him, but it was astonishing how relaxed he found himself, in this place.

A little over an hour after their cells had been sealed he found himself sitting up, shaking off half-formed and unremembered dreams. A strange sound came from the entrance to this wing of the dungeon, rattling over the walls. It took a moment for him to recognise it as the click of hoof on stone, made strange by the narrow stairway and the recursive echoes. It grew louder and more distinct, though the echoes now made it sound like it came from all around him, until the approaching pony stepped into the dungeon proper. There was a murmured exchange of words between a stallion guard and the newcomer - sounded like a mare, though he couldn't be sure - that was just too soft for him to make out.

He had a good idea of what they were saying regardless. A suspicion that was soon confirmed by the clatter of keys and the squeak of old metal hinges. Some stern words came from the guard, carrying the weight of commands, then more hooves. At the corner of his eye Breeze caught sight of a small train of bodies passing his cell; first came a guard, then the tall mare from the warehouse with the black waistcoat and long horn. Behind her came Sun and at the tail was another guard. Only this pony spared Breeze as much as a glance as he went by. The mare carried an air of what seemed to be studied disinterest, and Sun made a conscious effort not to notice him. Breeze didn't mind. It made things somehow less awkward.

As the sound of a heavy steel door's abrupt slam filled the long hallway he found himself wondering just how long Sun's interrogation was going to take. How long his would take, when it came. Doubtless it would be more thorough that his 'grilling' at the hooves of the FGD, though that was a low bar to pass. Its tone, too, would speak volumes, and he was glad that the tall mare seemed to be the one in charge of it. Her attitude during the arrest had seemed professional to him, in the best of ways.

Not that her absence would have given him any real cause for dread. He was able to relax here for a reason. Even at the worse, he doubted anyone was going to push him into a dark corner and put a spear through his chest, or subject him to all the delights of real torture. With only a few notable exceptions, Equestrians seemed to hold a rather dim view of such a level of...visceral brutality.

With a chuckle Breeze started to ponder just how much favour one particular exception to that rule was losing with the Pinheads, given how spectacularly their deal with him had fallen through.

The thought was brief, and a shuffle of metal shoes outside his cell brought Breeze back to the here. About the worst he could foresee in his immediate future was anger. Some shouting, maybe, a few threats and perhaps even a little physical violence. But nothing he wasn't prepared for. So he rolled over, closed his eyes, and made himself as comfortable as he could on the hard bench and let himself drift away.

For a time he ran through a dark forest, following a beaten track in pursuit of some dark and shadowy shape that flitted through the trees ahead of him. Strange things gathered between the thick trunks on either side but he was not afraid; the Moon lit the path before him, bathing him in a beam of pure silver. There was a thrill in his limbs and chest as he drew closer to the shape, on the very of overtaking it, when a heavy slam woke him from the dream and he found himself staring up at the dark ceiling.

He sat up, blinking and turning his head to the hallway. Sun was being walked back to his cell, looking about as unmolested as he had on the way in. How long had it been? Hours, or mere minutes? Breeze felt no sense of time's passage, only the vague sense of frustration at having been woken at just the wrong moment. He lay back and tried to sink back into the dream but sleep eluded him, dancing just beyond his reach. By the time he heard keys rattling in the lock on his cell, he was sitting up with his head resting in his hooves.

"Prisoner, get up. Stand in the corner and keep facing us," a guard said in tones more civil than Breeze was expecting. The mare stood beside him.

Without a word the changeling complied, standing on stiff legs and shuffling backwards until his rump brushed against the stone. The mare leaned forward, and for a moment it seemed as though she were about to step into the cell with him, but instead she lifted her nose and turned away.

The guard glanced to her and nodded. "Follow the agent. I'll be behind you all the way, so I suggest you keep any funny ideas in your own head."

Breeze's immediate thought was to reply that he was no comedian, but he held his tongue. Not because it was a bad idea, though it was very much so, but because he'd forgotten the word 'comedian' itself.

Similar orders came when they reached the first of the enclosed cells.

"Step inside. Sit in the chair on the far side of the table."

The one with the manacles, no doubt. He obeyed, still not speaking but watching the ponies as they took up their own positions. The guard made no move to bind him, instead standing by the door that he closed and locked behind the mare, who took a seat across the table from Breeze. She spread a parchment scroll out, dipped a pen in ink with her magic, then reached over to touch a large device sitting to one side of the wooden surface. The spools of tape atop it started to spin.

"Interview begins, same day," she said to the device, before turning placid eyes to the changeling. "Good afternoon. I'm Special Agent Silver Lining, Equestrian Domestic Security Office.

"And you're Evening Breeze?"

She spoke without emotion, save perhaps the slightest hint of curiosity, scribbling a few notes onto the parchment.

Breeze nodded, slow and cautious.

"You've heard of me."

"Yes. I heard the name from a stallion named Fair Trade. He came to me after a pair of travellers bewitched his wife and sold him strange coins from the far south. I don't suppose this sounds familiar to you?"

It as around this moment that Breeze became uncomfortably aware of the accent he'd spent the last six months imitating. The roll and lilt of Fair Trade's voice, copied and refined by a changeling's natural talent for mimicry. He found himself unwilling to say anything in that accent, his mind scrambling for the way he'd spoken before leaving the Hive but failing. Instead he nodded again, mute, his gaze turned down to stare at the parchement.

"You're the same Evening Breeze he spoke about?" Silver Lining asked in what seemed an offhand sort of manner, a few more lines of black marring the scroll. "Answer out loud, please, for the recorder."

"Aye. Uh, yes. Yes, I am."

One of her thin eyebrows raised itself into an arch, but she didn't comment on the accent.

"And you and your companion are the same pair of changelings who abducted Rainy Days from Dodge Junction this summer past, after emerging from the Badlands?"

He started with wide eyes that lifted from the parchment to stare right at her impassive face.

"Who... You know? You knew? I... For how long?"

The slightest hint of smugness fell over her face. It was the suggestion of an expression, rather than the thing itself, but it was enough.

"Almost from the start. I was in Dodge only a few days after you left. A week, if I have my figures correct. If I may, I'd like to confirm a few details, now that you're here."

Her eyes flicked downwards as if reading from a sheet that she didn't have. "You arrived in Equestria after a particularly arduous journey through the Badlands, in immediate need of sustenance. One of you abducted Rainy and impersonated him, claiming to have bumped your - or his - head on a walk. The other of you fed on him directly, keeping him confined to a cocoon under some sort of sedation. When the time came for you to move on, three days later, another convenient bump on the head accounted for the loss of memory. Am I missing anything?"

Breeze narrowed his eyes.

"Sun told you that," he guessed in a gentle growl.

"Quite the contrary. We didn't discuss any of the details I mentioned. I'm sure you can ask him yourself, when we're finished, assuming the guards don't mind you raising your voice a little."

"You're lying," he said, though he couldn't detect any hint of dissimulation on her face. "We didn't... We thought we were in the clear."

His gaze dropped again, back to the creamy parchment and the spidery black shapes of her hornwriting. "I thought we'd made it. That it wasn't until Gold sold us out that anyone got onto our trail. You can't have been onto us the whole time."

"No? Why would it be such a surprise?"

"I just... I thought we were better than that."

Silver Lining coughed, very softly, into her hoof.

"Let me assure you, there's a similar feeling on our part. That I've been following you so closely since so early, and yet only now have caught up with you... There are more than a few who would see that as our failure, rather than your success."

Breeze clicked his tongue.

"Mm. I'm sure that can't have made you look good."

"Our reputation was hardly the first thing on our minds," she shot back, a slightly stronger hint of snappishness in her voice. "Until your note was brought to our attention our primary concern was the possibility that you were the the only visible part of a larger infiltration."

"Well you needn't have bothered worrying," he said, glaring at her over his muzzle. This wasn't how he'd expected things to go. Maybe that was foolish of him. But the thought didn't stop him from speaking the next sullen words. "We were never here to hurt anyone. We just wanted to be left alone."

And she laughed. Quietly, just a gentle chuckle from behind closed lips and beneath incredulous eyes, but a laugh all the same.

"Excuse me, I really shouldn't find that amusing, considering, but..."

She looked down again, giving that same impression of reading something that didn't exist. "Case ID 479, two suspected changeling suspects, identified primarily as Evening Breeze and Rising Sun. Aforementioned suspects are implicated in numerous criminal acts, including but not limited to; multiple cases of assault, kidnap and a combination thereof; mental manipulation, including memory modification; theft; impersonation; association with suspected organised crime; assaulting officers of the law; escaping legal arrest; and accomplice in conspiracy to murder."

Her mirth was gone by the time she reached the end of the list. "Let me put it more bluntly; in your first days here you assaulted and kidnapped one pony, and did unspeakable things inside the mind of another. You then decided it would be wise to join one of the largest organised crime families still operating in Equestria. There's something of a trail of criminality behind you, Evening Breeze, and I doubt it's escaped your notice - because it certainly hasn't escaped ours - that ponies have died because of you."

Breeze sat back. His head felt almost as though it were vibrating, as if his brain was literally humming beneath his skull. He said nothing to refute her. There was nothing that could refute her. After all, wasn't this why he was here?

"I didn't mean for that to happen..." he found himself mumbling.

"And yet it happened nonetheless."

"And I'm sorry."

The scratching of quill on parchment, which had been in the background even when Silver Lining had quoted his transgressions back to him, stopped. The nib pressed down, stationary, so that a dark circle of ink seeped into the paper and expanded around it. The mare showed no sign of noticing. Her eyes, suddenly intense, were fixed on Breeze.

"Excuse me?"

The changeling sat up a little straighter.

"I said I'm sorry." His voice became firm and steady once more. "I know that doesn't undo everything that was done, but I mean it. For what it's worth."

Silence descended. The guard at the door shifted, his hooves scraping on the floor, and the pipes around them rumbled as hot water rushed upward, but nothing else broke the stillness until Silver Lining's quill moved once more, scratching a few short words down before it was set aside.

"This interview is concluded," she said, reaching over to stop the spinning reels. "You'll be returned to your cell for the time being. Be prepared for another interview before the day is done."

Not long after he made the short walk back to his cell Breeze was pulled out of the first swirlings of deep thought by the sound of a bowl being pushed through the bars. Thick gruel slopped within, and he fell upon it, cleaning the bowl out in less than a minute before settling back on his bench, wiping away a few splatters from his muzzle and returning to his thoughts.

This investigator, this Silver Lining, had known so much about him, and yet his apology had knocked her off balance. Or at the very least, she acted as if it had. Breeze found himself wondering what had been said in Sun's interrogation, and turned his head to gaze at the wall across from him. As if he could force the stones and mortar to give way and let him see his friend. Let him talk to him.

At least now the rush of emotions that had followed Silver's tirade were subsiding. Breeze could acknowledge the truth to them without sting. Well, without any more than he had felt the night before. Huffing, he ran a hoof over his frill and felt the rings bump and jangle.

How silly it seemed now to have had them put in, given how often he'd ever had the chance to see them. How often he'd looked into a mirror to see a face other than his own. Another stroke, another soft jangle. Then, with a hesitant touch, he put his hoof to what remained of his left ear.

Another thing he hadn't had the chance to see. At all, in this case. How bad did it really look? He tried to picture it; the image came easily to his mind, of the almost rogueish bent it might lend him, and that at least made him smile.

That smile lingered, up to the moment when the guards came back to his cell. Sun was with them, this time, but Silver Lining was nowhere to be seen. As he was beckoned out to stand beside Sun and between the guards Breeze almost felt that he could have dashed over and hugged the older changeling there and then. He restrained himself, with only a little difficulty. Sun, meanwhile, just smiled. He looked dark and tired under the candlelight.

Neither of them said a word as they walked, or as they were pushed into two chairs in the second enclosed cell and their hooves were clasped in the manacles. Only when the guards retreated, leaving them alone in the box of a room, did Breeze turn to Sun with a long sigh.

Sun managed to speak first, by a fraction of a second.

"How are you holding up?"

Breeze inhaled through his nose.

"I'm all right. But Sun, she knew. This Silver mare who took us in, she knew almost everything since Dodge. Since we first arrived. She didn't get that from you, did she?" His tone was resigned rather than interrogatory.

"Not from me," Sun confirmed, shaking his head. "Most of my time in there was spent staring at her, and she at me. She only ever asked things about Filly."

"Well... Then I guess we were always going to end up here sooner or later," huffed Breeze. He lifted a hoof to rattle the chains hanging between manacle and chair. "Still, I feel like these are overkill. All things considered."

It was at that moment, just as Sun was taking air to reply, that the deadbolts on the door slammed back and it swung open with a gentle squeak. The two of them moved as one to look, expecting to see Silver Lining in her waistcoat with a fresh roll of parchment.

Instead, snowy white fur filled the doorframe, so bright it seemed to illuminate the small room, covering a body that was taller than either of them by far. A massive mane, the same welcome shades as a crisp, clear sunrise, fluttered around a slim horned head, ethereal and drifting in a wind that didn't seem to exist for anything else. Nestled between pointed ears, rising above violet eyes that seemed far older than the face they inhabited and half obscured by the glorious mane, sat a tall tiara of delicate shining gold.

Breeze's lungs ceased, for the longest moment of his life, to draw breath.

Celestia had come for them.

After-Action - II

Three guards stood behind the Princess of the Sun; two rank-and-file ponies and a stallion in armour that bore more ornate decoration and an officer's badge. All three of them were hidden behind the graceful form that was Celestia, and her impossibly fluttering mane. Breeze didn't even notice them until the alicorn stepped through the door, dipping her head to keep from brushing her horn against the lintel, and said in a clear, warm voice:

"Thank you, Lieutenant. I should like to be alone with them."

He pursed lips that were only a few shades darker than hers.

"With respect, your Highness, I don't think it's such a good idea to-"

"I'm grateful for your concern, Lieutenant, but I'm sure I can defend myself from two restrained prisoners." Was that a hint of amusement dancing around her voice?

The lieutenant clicked his heels and nodded, stepping back with his two soldiers and closing the heavy door. Celestia stepped up to the table, pushing aside a seat that was obviously too small to accommodate her, and gazed at the changelings. Though his chitin was incapable of perspiration, Breeze was expecting to feel the trickle of a cold sweat running down the back of his neck.

As those violet eyes – eyes that looked far older than the face that held them – drifted over each of them in turn, Breeze found himself breaking the thick silence, as much to his own surprise as anyone else's.

"He's new, isn't he?"

The alicorn almost smiled. Almost. Just as her lips threatened to twitch, though, she let out a soft hum and fixed him with a gentle stare.

"My Captain thinks you're the forerunners of some grand changeling invasion. Here on some mission of mayhem, to spread chaos and disinformation though the country. I've been given quite a number of gloomy scenarios, some of them ending with Chrysalis herself marching up to dethrone me."

Her eyes moved, just slightly, to better meet Breeze's.

"Is that what you're doing here?"

His throat seemed to lock up. Any trace of amusement at the idea of Chrysalis challenging Celestia vanished, along with a dozen pithy and sarcastic responses about the likelihood of such a thing. He could feel his eyes trying to slip sideways, to look to Sun for support, and the Princess followed the urge, turning to Sun.

"So, you're the leader?"

The older changeling looked uncomfortable, to say the least, but he nodded and spoke with a voice that might have been calm, if not for its brittleness.

"I suppose so."

"Then I'd ask you the same question."

"No," he said more firmly. More firmly than Breeze could imagine himself speaking. "We're not here on anyling's orders. We're on our own. In more ways than the obvious."

Celestia's eyes closed and she inclined her head.

"So I'd suspected. Quite apart from the fact that you turned yourselves in, I wouldn't have thought that the advanced guard of a changeling invasion would have been so sloppy. No offence meant."

"None taken," Breeze croaked before he knew he was speaking. "I think 'sloppy' is a pretty apt description of our time here."

This time there was no mistaking the gentle laughter in her voice nor the way her lips quirked up into a smile.

"Noted. Then why don't you tell me the real reason that you're here?"

And Breeze found, for some reason that he couldn't quite articulate, that he wanted to talk to her, in a way that he hadn't with Silver Lining. It went beyond the simple desire to be compliant. Maybe it was the way she looked at them, scrutinising but never superior, neither afraid nor disgusted. It could have been the soothing sense of calm she extruded in every measured glance and careful movement. Or maybe just the sheer awe that he felt being in the presence of the being who moved the sun. Whatever it was, Breeze realised he wanted to tell her everything. He wanted, without any rational reason, to trust her.

He didn't like it. It didn't feel right. There was a sudden fear that if he opened his mouth to answer as she wanted, he might lay bare everything he had to her, good and ill and all in between. He wasn't ready for that. So, with some effort, he forced himself to change the words that wanted to come.

"Why? What does it matter to you? Isn't it enough if we say we're not here for any invasion? You said yourself that you don't believe we are."

The Princess's gaze met his once more, but this time it seemed to have cooled by a few degrees, and was somehow detached from the slight smile still gracing her muzzle.

"I think you know why I can't simply accept that. I’m Princess of this land, and as such my subjects are everything to me. All that I do is done to keep them happy and safe. But now, across from me, sit two changelings. I don't need to tell you what that would mean, under any other circumstances. Indeed, harm has already been done. You can, I hope, understand why I'd be interested in your motives."

Before Breeze could answer he heard and felt Sun lean forward, felt the thrill of anxiety pass through the air between them as if it were his own.

"And what do we get? You have to know how much you're asking of us. Nobody here believes that you'll stop without asking about the Hive, asking us to betray our kind." He swallowed before going on. "We want to cooperate, but not if we're just going to be thrown back into a cell to rot once you've gotten what you want out of us. So what do we get?"

The younger changeling couldn't help himself. He jerked his head to the side as Sun started talking, and stared throughout. He could see the sense in the question, might even have been the one to pose it in another time and place. But sense or no, Sun was sitting there in front of the closest thing Breeze knew to a living goddess, and he was trying to bargain?!

But Celestia's smile regained its warmth, and there was something like satisfaction in her eyes. Not smug, nor self-assured, but merely pleased. It took the menace from her next words that might have been present had they come from someone like Silver Lining.

"That depends on your answer."

Sun stiffened, his eyes narrowing by the slightest fraction. The air between the two of them seemed to come alive as they stared at each other. Sun's eyes seemed to probe and prod, while Celestia's weathered the assault, turning Sun aside as easily as stone sloughed water. The silent debate lasted little more than a second and it ended when Rising Sun broke and turned his gaze to the table.

"Of course," he said in a small voice. "You already know anyway."

"I suspect," she confirmed. "But knowing would be preferable."

Sun glanced over to Breeze as if seeking permission. His expression made it seem as though he were folding in on himself in Breeze's eyes, becoming as small as his voice. But the younger of them pushed back the ache that rose in his throat and nodded.

Together, one picking up when the other's voice faltered, they answered her. They spoke of the Hive and of the way of things within, though they gave only what details they couldn't avoid. No solid locations, no suggestion of numbers, expounding on the rules that held them. They spoke of the choice they made to run, of the hard march into Equestria, and how the fear of Celestia herself had brought them north where no changeling would follow. And, through halting words and sticking tongues, they spoke of the things that they'd done upon entering her land.

By the time they were done, Celestia seemed a little less bright. She sat digesting their words for a while, her head tilted down, while both changelings waited with tight chests and tense limbs for her response.

"I think," she said at last, "that I've learned a great deal more about your queen than I ever wished to know." Her voice was soft in a way that Breeze had heard only a few times before, when drones spoke with the oldest of their broodfellows as they started to wither.

"She's not our queen," he snapped, aware of an unpleasant crawling sensation against the back of his neck. "Not now, and never again."

And despite everything he could have expected, she backed down.

"Of course. I apologise. But you have to understand, the few subjects of mine who know anything of changelings as more than legend are just as confused as I am. There hasn't been proof of a changeling willingly betraying their monarch since... Well, not for a very long time. And even then, they still showed at least some loyalty to their rulers."

Sun stayed silent, a brow-plate quirked in disbelief, while Breeze clicked his tongue against his fangs.

"Well you can rest easy as far as that's concerned. If the Queen of the Moon Hive herself came down from the heavens, I'd be more likely to swear loyalty to her than Chrysalis."

At that moment Celestia's head gave the slightest of jerks, and she turned towards Breeze with a strange look in her eyes.

"Queen of the Moon Hive? You mean the Mare in the Moon?"

"I've heard some ponies call her that," the changeling allowed. "But we always called her Queen. Drones all have their own stories about her. Usually something to do with watching changelings down here."

"Do they say that she protects you while she watches?"

He nodded, and Celestia was silent again, turning away so that, for the first time since entering the cell, she couldn't see them.

"I can't say that I fault your motive, and I sympathise with your plight,” she said, as if the subject of the Moon had never come up. “But... However understandable your position was at first, you have since done terrible things. You've hurt my ponies, far more than you've helped them. Any subject of mine who sat where you sit now would be facing trial, and doubtless a long prison sentence.

"In your case, though, the circumstances are...different. And there is an opportunity here that I'd be a fool to squander."

"What opportunity?" Sun said, leaning forward. There was a sense of trepidation about him.

Celestia didn't seem to heed the question.

"This land isn't kept safe by kind thoughts and soft words alone, as many of my ponies seem to believe. My reputation with your kind perhaps runs closer to the truth. For Equestria has enemies, both external and internal, mighty and cunning. A time is coming when the image of strength alone won't be enough to protect us, and we will have to rely on other defences. Some might suggest military might, but war is a last resort. Diplomacy and subterfuge will always be preferable to conflict. Diplomacy is something I have much experience with, but subterfuge... Well, here I have two shapeshifters, creatures who thrive on duplicity thrown into my castle seeking sanctuary. And, I think, seeking to make amends."

Her head held high and proud, so that her horn almost stroked the ceiling, she turned back to them. "Let's be honest with each other. A prison sentence for you might be as good as a death sentence. But I can offer you another way to repay your debts. One that was extended to prisoners in years long past, when Equestria still had an army. I can house you, find out how best to feed you, and in return for this you'll help to protect the ponies that you hurt."

"You... You aren't..." breathed Breeze.

"You'd take disguises and join my Guard. Stand on my borders. On our borders."

"You can't be serious," Sun said. Not as a refusal of the offer, nor with any mockery in his voice, but as a simple statement of obvious fact. "Not even if you were just asking for guards. But you wanted us to be honest, so let's be. You're looking for spies."

She nodded, a brow arched.

"Of course. I thought that much was clear, given what I said about subterfuge. But I need spies and guards both."

"But think about what you're asking. No, think about who you're asking. How in the world can you trust us with that sort of duty?"

"If you run, where would you go? You still have those moonstones around your legs, in case you slip out of reach of the handler who'll keep a watch on you."

"We can block the signal."

"How quickly can you gather what you need? You won't have much free time during the training you'll have to go through first. A hard time, closely watched."

"Well... How would you keep us fed? You wouldn't let us loose to suck love out of your subjects."

"I'm given to understand that you were making regular visits to certain disreputable parts of Fillydelphia during your time there. Apparently learning to subside on lesser emotions? Besides, as changelings are often slow to realise, there are more forms of love than one might first assume."

Sun was visibly running out of steam. He said a few words, faltered, then sat back as Celestia spoke again.

"You're showing me that I'm making the right choice even now by trying to tell me I'm making a mistake, believe it or not. I'd rather trust someone reluctant to take this sort of offer than one who jumps at the chance. In any case, this is rather the point of trust, isn't it? Taking a chance because you believe, rather than because you know."

This time it was Breeze who shook his head, scowling.

"That's not what... Different sort of trust. Something isn't right. Either this is some kind of game, or something has you scared."

To this, she offered a shrug of her wings.

"I said as much, that times were changing. Though it's taken much work, the last millennium has held the longest period of extended peace in Equestria's history. But it cannot last forever. Already, things are starting to stir, and they will only get worse. In a few years the storm that's building on our horizon will break." She lifted her eyes to the ceiling, blinking slowly. "Equestria needs - I need - every ally and asset. I can only hope that you'll choose to be both."

Then she stepped back. "Or you could choose trial. However you wish to pay the debt, the choice is ultimately yours." Her horn glowed, the delicate beams of a spring evening swirling around it, and the door swung open. "Talk it over. When you make up your minds, tell the guard that you're ready to speak to me again."

This time, under Celestia's orders, when they were returned to the regular cells they found themselves sharing Sun's cell, with fresh meals awaiting them. The guards stood far enough away that any hushed conversation would be an unintelligible hum but, for the longest time, there was no conversation. Sun sat on the bench, his back against the wall, while Breeze lay on the floor and let the heated stone warm his belly.

As the exchange in the room played itself over and over in his mind he sketched some meaningless pattern on the floor with a hooftip. Every loop made the encounter seem less real, but gave him more thoughts to fill his head until he felt that one of them would have to spill out, else he'd burst.

"Can we actually decline?" he said at last, not looking up from the floor. "Obviously it's possible, but really..."

Sun shrugged; Breeze could hear the scrape of chitin on the bricks.

"She said herself, it's a death sentence. And not just for us. You know what happens to a changeling who starves, before the end. Even if they threw us in a hole it would only take one guard with a little sympathy, and..."

There was a dull smack as he punched one hoof into the other. "If she's knows even half as much about us as she implied, she wouldn't expect us to decline. She can't."

"Unless it's just a test. Almost makes me want to say no, just to see what she does," buzzed Breeze, his scar twisting as he smiled. "Almost. But it feels like there's a nest of trouble there that I wouldn't want to kick up. Maybe she'd send us back to the Hive instead."

"If she told us that was the other choice, I'd put on a gold helmet there and then," Sun replied, his grimace clear in his voice.

That made Breeze chuckle out loud, and he turned his head back to face Sun.

"I did say, though, that you'd make a good fit with their guard. Remember, the second day out?"

Sun nodded, slowly at first but then faster as recollection hit him, and he smiled.

"I remember. And I think I remember you saying something about not wanting to be a soldier again. What was it, you didn't want to do the same job that you did before escaping?"

The younger changeling's smile shifted towards sheepish, his shoulders giving a careless shrug.

"Well, I've never actually been a spy before. Isn't that everyling's dream, when they're nymphs? To be an Infiltrator?"

"Maybe it was yours. I always wanted to be in the Queen's Guard. The younger me never had much ambition that went beyond guarding things. Guarding an entire country, though... That sounds interesting."

Feeling a little knot of uncertainty settle and loosen inside of him, Breeze sighed.

"We're going to say yes, aren't we? Just as soon as we work up the courage."

"It sounds a lot better than spending the rest of our days in some prison, even if they do manage to keep up fed," said Sun, pushing off from his bench and stretching with a short grunt. "You said you wanted to stop being a monster and start doing some good. Seems as though this might be a good place to start."

With a thoughtful nod Breeze stood, stretching in a catlike fashion.

"You're not wrong..."

Hoofsteps echoed through the cavernous halls of Canterlot Castle as the small party followed Silver Lining. Here and there the hollow clacks were deadened by lengths of rich purple carpet, but otherwise the stone floors rang with their passing.

The late evening air was dim and orange, and flickering flames burned in recessed sconces to guard against the coming night, but that was the only similarity between the Castle proper and the dungeons below. Where there had been dark walls and close, claustrophobic spaces there was now white marble, tall windows and a fresh, airy feeling.

Behind Silver came the changelings, still undisguised and feeling vulnerable, though their route had been cleared of prying eyes, and flanking them were a pair of sergeants. They walked in silence, the light waning, until the EDSO mare drew them to a halt in front of a pair of ornate glass doors. Beyond them Celestia stood on a small balcony, her wings unfolded and her mane sparkling in the dying light of the sun. Stepping to one side, Silver motioned for the changelings to step through and join the Princess.

Standing beside her was somehow more breathtaking than sitting before her, and it took Breeze a moment to tear his eyes away from the alicorn and admire the view. The balcony faced south; the city of Canterlot stood on their left to the east, open farmland occupying their right, while the great dark blanket of the Everfree spread itself before them in the far distance.

"So, you've reached a decision?" Celestia said, her voice soft but clear. She was gazing down into the city, though her body faced south, towards the faraway trees.

"Yes," Breeze murmured, turning his eyes briefly towards the setting sun far to the west, then to the city, beyond which the first silvery glow of the moon could be seen. "I doubt it'll come as any great shock. Not to you, anyway." He wondered if she understood the barbs behind the words, but she showed no reaction either way.

"We accept your offer," Sun continued without ceremony. "Consider us at your disposal." As one being they dipped heads, bending their forelegs a few degrees.

Celestia said nothing at first. There was the slightest exhalation, a suggestion of an exasperated sigh, then her horned flared to life as she closed her eyes. Her mane and tail shone brighter and fluttered more rapidly, as if the phantom wind that stirred them had started to gust. The sun dipped below the western horizon, its very last rays rising high, the sky above darkened, and the pale moon rose above the gleaming marble city.

"I'm glad," she said, her monumental task done with no more apparent effort than it took Breeze to lift a cup in his own magic. "I hope you won't object if I place Silver Lining in charge of you? Of all the ponies in the EDSO, she’s the most knowledgeable of changelings, as slight as that knowledge may seem. And the one who best knows you in particular, I think." When they shrugged she smiled and went on. "She'll accommodate you. Arrange for lodging, and see to it that all the proper paperwork you'll need is in place once you pick your disguises. I assume you'll both want to keep your own names?"

Both nodded. Breeze gave a firm "Of course," to make the point as clear as possible.

"You'll be given a room in the Castle for tonight," she continued. "I'd advise you to sleep in disguise, though, since I doubt I can guarantee your privacy to the same degree as I could this evening. Before that, though, there are a few more things that need to be taken care of. First, I wanted to ask... Is this your 'Queen of the Moon Hive'?" She swept a hoof towards the rising moon, its mares dark smudges against the white surface, the image of a mare's profile standing strong and proud.

"That's her," Breeze confirmed. As Sun stepped back, he stepped forward, up to Celestia's shoulder. "I suppose you wanted to know about her, from a changeling's point of view?"

"I do. Very much so."

He hesitated. His prayers seemed like a very silly habit, now that he was on the cusp of actually speaking about them, and too a goddess no less.

"Well," he started slowly, "there are a lot of stories about her. We were never supposed to talk about such superstitions, but... Some of the drones would pray to her, when they didn't think anyling else was watching. As if she were some kind of Queen above Queens. I admit, I've said a few myself, in hard times. And times haven't exactly been easy lately."

Those gentle eyes blinked without hurry. The Princess's next words were just as slow, and oddly measured.

"Why pray to her, in particular?"

Shrugging, Breeze stared up at the bright circle, crisp and beautiful on the cold night.

"If she's the Queen of Queens, she must watch over all changelings. Even runaways. There's one reason. But I always preferred the other story. About how she used to be a pony."

"Tell me, please..."

And he called the old, whispered words up from the dredges of his memory.

"She was a pony once, as mighty as Celestia. In old days, before the Hive, she ruled over a great kingdom, and commanded more subjects than there are stars in the night sky. At first she was wise and just, but something made her grow cold and turn on them. There was a great war, when the stars themselves fell from the darkness, until after one last deadly battle her subjects defeated her and drove her away to the Moon itself."

The air around him was growing even colder as the warmth of the sun was leached away into the ink-blue sky, but he didn't seem to feel it.

"She stayed there, trapped, until the years made her see what a terrible thing she'd done, and she wept. From that day she devoted herself to atonement for her sins, watching over all those who pray to her and her Moon."

When he looked back up at Celestia he thought, for a moment, that he could see the glimmer of tears in her eyes. But she blinked, and when he looked closer there was nothing.

"A very fine story," she said, turning to walk back indoors with slow and graceful steps. "I can see why it would resonate with you. Though, terrible as it is to admit, it isn't the sort of story I would have expected from a changeling."

"There's a great deal even learned folk don't know about changelings," replied Sun as they fell into a loose formation behind her, the doors shutting out the night and the guards taking up their positions once more. "And a lot even we don't know about ourselves."

Celestia turned back, her smile in pace again, and she started walking with more purpose. The small party followed close behind.

"You've told me one of your stories, and I'd like to return the favour. Long before our time, much like your tale, when Equestria was still young and growing, there were specially trained guardsponies who scouted the frontiers for potential friends and enemies. In times of war they moved ahead of armies, tracking our foes and watching their strongholds, and in times of peace they watched their cities. They called themselves 'exploring officers' to mask their true calling as the spies of Equestria.

"This order was disbanded many centuries ago, but the time has come for them to be reborn. This is what you'll be. The first members of a new corps."

She halted in front of a large slab, made of some black glossy stone, resting against the wall of a small chamber deeper within the castle. Writing of some sort was carved into the smooth face in two columns; the left ran the full height of the slab, the right a little less than a third.

"As I said before, it will not be an easy life. Training itself will be hard enough, but you will have to prove yourself to everyone. To your instructors, your handlers, and even me." She came face to face with them and her smile now was small and tight. "There are plenty of ponies who would say I'm making a terrible mistake tonight. But I think all things deserve a second chance. Some even deserve a third. It falls to them to prove themselves worth or unworthy of it."

"We understand," Sun said, his head bowed. "Truly."

"I hope so. Silver will arrange your enlistment, and she will watch you. Once you've passed your first tests in training, you'll receive more specialised instruction. But you'll spend time as members of the regular Guard until she tells me that you're ready to take on greater responsibilities.

"For your first task, though, I want you to study this list. Commit as much of it to memory as you can."

"Why?" Breeze said as he peered past her at the slab. "What's on it?"

She met his eyes her tight smile fading.

"Names. The names of every mare and stallion who gave their lives in the protection of Equestria, since the day this castle was built."

Without another word she strode between them and out into another room, her hooves barely making a sound even on the unadorned tiles.

Renegades: Final Report

3 Days Later

Evening Breeze stood in front of the full-length mirror, inspecting himself one last time. His new self. A form that had been a challenge to put together, a patchwork of real and imagined ponies with a little of himself poured into the mix.

Light grey fur covered his body, his mane a darker shade of the same, and the eyes that stared back at him with almost the same vivid blue as his real ones. His scar stood proud and clear on his muzzle, left ear curtailed, just as his true muzzle and ear were. Plain to look at, aside from the obvious damage, but that was right. If he were to be a pony, this would be him. The spiralling horn atop his brow completed that self-image.

It hadn't been a hard choice, committing himself to the shape of a unicorn over the other options. Magic had always been his first instinct, just as Sun preferred to trust in his wings. His pegasus form, then, had been no great surprise. Neither had the white coat or the grey mane that was clipped close to his skull and neck.

Silver Lining had furnished them with the small apartment, a stone's throw from the castle itself, no doubt at some expense. It was a shame that they hadn't stayed long; the enlistment process had been hurried on from a months-long selection process to a matter of mere days, and it was already time for them to report to the city barracks. Silver had promised, somewhat grudgingly, that the place would be waiting for them once they were through Basic. And that a portion of their pay would be going towards its rent. Celestia hadn't been seen as anything more than a distant white figure since that last moonlit conversation, and it was hard to say that she had been anything more than a dream.

The whole world was changing so fast he could say for sure that he wasn't still dreaming it all, in that strange half-sleep in the dungeons. Maybe he'd wake soon, or maybe not. Maybe he was still asleep in the one-room apartment with Nat and Val beside him. If they could see him now... He closed his eyes for a second or so, hoping that they were out of the city and safe. There had been no word from the Guard, at least, according to Silver.

Glancing over to make sure that the curtains were still drawn he let his disguise burn away, and regarded his true shape for what was likely to be the last time in a good while. Aside from supervised trips away to feed under the watchful eye of Silver, there would be no time away from the scrutiny of camp instructors and fellow recruits. All good practice, so Sun said.

In his mind's eye he tried to see the gilded armour of a Guardspony over his black-shelled form. Bright helmet atop his head crested with blue or grey hair. Saddle strapped around his middle, his holed hooves clad in gleaming shoes.

The imagined sight made him snort with laughter, just as he heard Sun's voice calling him. With a start he shifted back, letting the green flames die down before he seized a small duffel bag in his magic and joined his friend. They bumped snouts briefly then stepped off together, into something strange and new.

Evening Breeze

and Rising Sun

will return

Author's Notes:

So it ends! At least for now. It's been a far longer ride than I expected it to be, but I'm glad to have this much out, and one story completed. My sincerest thanks to everyone who's stuck with it for these four years and more.

And now a short note, the clarify that future stories will carry the AU tag. Mostly because of the events of the season 6 finale, which are honestly incompatible with the story as I imagined it. I tried to stick as close to canon as possible, if with a few embellishments, but there comes a point with most fanfics, I think, when you have to admit that the tag belongs.

Again, though, I need to say thank you. From the bottom of my heart.

EDIT: Fun fact, originally I was planning to have a sequel or side story subtitled 'Changeling of the Guard' before I discovered there was already a (somewhat more popular) fic of the same name!

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