by TheAndyMac

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.