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.
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.