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."