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."
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.