"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.
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.