Despite his smile, Evening Breeze could feel a steady tingle in his gut, where that anger had burned just a few moments before. Their surroundings were almost perfect; isolated, far enough from the campsite that Trade wouldn't hear anything, with nopony else around to bother them. Not only that, but Mel was already transfixed by the stars, her mouth moving without sound as she tracked them across the sky. His job was half done for him. It was the perfect place to feed; all he had to do was get her to give her love to him.
But that was the problem. To the best of his - admittedly limited - knowledge, there was only one pony to whom Melody's heart truly belonged, and that pony certainly wasn't Breeze, nor the disguise that he wore. In the interests of collecting love, it was more or less useless. Not, however, that he could steal Fair Trade's form, nor any other for that matter, not without either knocking Mel out, or dulling her mind to the point that she didn't question the change. It was doable, certainly, but this form came without a horn. No horn meant he had no access to unicorn magic, that could have backed up his effort, and he simply didn't feel confident trying something like that with changeling magic alone.
But now that he'd had the idea, it was sticking. The smartest thing to do might have been to simply accept that it was an impossible task, and slink back to the campsite. But hunger that had previously gone unnoticed was starting to gnaw at him, and if he turned down a meal now, he knew that it would only get worse. So he leant towards her, taking long, deep, but ultimately quiet, breaths, hoping that there might have been enough stirring emotion within her to at least give him a taste, even as he used the steady inhalations to try and clear his mind and muddle through to a solution. Because there was a way through this. He knew it. Whether that certainty came from a simple gut feeling, or some half-remembered lesson from his younger days, he couldn't say. But the answer was there. Just out of reach, outwith the usual mode of thought, and a changeling's usual modus operandi.
Love was the key, of course. Clear, crisp, sweet and filling... And the irony was that he didn't even know what exactly it was. Oh, an emotion, certainly. He knew that much. Felt between two creatures, perhaps more, who shared a special closeness. But surely there was more to it that that. After all, a changeling could no more feed on fear, joy, or anger than any pony could. So what was it that made these emotions less than love? What was it that made love itself so tangible?
They were important questions, but as they ran through his mind he dismissed them. He didn't have any answers, and even if he had known how important they were, without answers they were useless anyway. Instead, he sat back, rethinking his options, when a thought came to him.
Though ideally he needed her to give her love to him, he was in fact perfectly capable of taking love that wasn't directed at him specifically. It was like stealing the scraps dropped from a feast; hardly capable of actually sating his hunger, but it could take the edge from it. And perhaps even lend him a little strength. Perhaps it wasn't the best plan in the world, and on its own it really wasn't even worth the otherwise perfect position, but it was better than nothing. And Breeze was more than happy to chance it taking a smaller meal, if it meant that there was the possibility of it leading to something bigger.
With an easy, casual twist of his neck and shoulders he shifted a little, moving closer to her. The proximity wasn't required, but it was desirable.
"You and Trade," he said carefully. "You've known each other for a while, I take it?"
As he spoke, he stretched out his senses. If he'd had a horn, it would have glowed dull green as he probed the air with...something. It was a sense that was hard to describe to a being without the same capability. A unicorn might have understood, to an extent, but it wasn't something that could be put into words. Still, he felt a little rush of affection from her at the mention of Trade, and managed to pull a little shred of that little rush to himself. It was so small that he barely even noticed it, but it was success.
"Aye, since we were weans," Mel said, her eyes and mind still largely focused on the stars.
"Did you know you'd end up together? When you were young, I mean."
She shrugged. "No' really. Too young tae ken what love was, back then. Took us a while tae realise what it was we were feelin' for each other."
"He seems...friendly," Breeze hazarded. "And funny, too. Was he always like that?"
Mel snorted, tearing her eyes away from the stars for a moment to look at Breeze with a funny little half frown, half smile.
"His mooth was aye gettin' him intae trouble, if that's what you mean. He's an awfy one for that. Drives me half mad sometimes. But..." The frown bowed out under the weight of the growing smile, and she looked back to the stars. "You get used tae it..."
Another little surge, larger than the last. Breeze took what he could, a rush of confidence carrying him along, and he knew how he was going to make this night end.
"You must love him very much," he murmured. And as he fed on that third and greatest spike, his mounting confidence took him over, and the rush of confusion that followed her affection went unnoticed as he prepared a spark of confusion behind his eyes.
Changeling magic was something special. It was almost like unicorn magic in its effects, but it required neither a horn nor wings to channel. A horn helped matters, certainly; it acted as a focusing point, and channelling unicorn magic into a changeling spell could strengthen it. But at its most basic, it required only the body, to change forms, and the eyes. It was through the eyes that a changeling could dominate properly prepared prey, just as Rising Sun had bent Lacy's will to match his own.
Breeze had a simple plan. All he had to do was send his spark into her mind while it wandered between the stars. A focused mind could repel the attack, and shake off the confusion, but just as Sun had lowered Lacy's defences with a kiss, Mel's mind was open to him while she was dreaming. And once his spark had done its work, he'd take Trade's form, and all of her love would flow straight into him. She wouldn't notice the change, or the fact that the mind beneath the skin wasn't Trade's. All she'd see would be her love, and that would be all she'd need. The spark would blind her to all else.
All in all, it was a good plan. At least, until the moment Melody turned to him with a strange expression.
"Where exactly are you going with this, Breeze?"
He panicked. His spark burst forth, half-formed and poorly aimed. It wasn't a spark in truth, of course; he just visualised it as one. The only real evidence of it was the momentary flash of green that lit up his eyes, echoed by Mel's own eyes a half second later as it burrowed into her mind. The job was done, but it wasn't the same spark that Breeze had visualised. Mel's eyes went blank, then she blinked, focusing them on the changeling, and there was no doubting the lack of confusion behind them. Instead, there was something more animal, and far less controllable.
"I, uh... What?" he stammered.
The subtle frown melted away, replaced by a gentle, almost knowing smile that spread beneath half-lidded eyes. Her tongue poked out, wetting her lips as she slowly ground her hoof against the undergrowth.
"I asked where you were going with this, Breeze..." she purred, leaning into him. "It sounded interesting."
He gulped, leaning away on reflex. His mind tried to process the sudden change in circumstance, but he could find no good answer, and that worried him.
But wait, said another part is his mind, a deeper and darker part. Is this really such a bad thing? You wanted her love, and now she's giving it to you, without even being tricked.
"Mel," he said, his voice soft. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
She giggled, her smile only widening. "It shouldnae be that hard tae figure out."
The sudden urge to ask about Trade ran through him, but he forced it away. Trade didn't matter right now; he was just another of a million ponies in this land, and as good as he might have been to Breeze, the changeling wasn't about to give up on a free meal. Besides, how was this any worse than taking the pony's form? So he nodded, licking his own lips and turning to face her.
"You're right. It isn't."
She grinned, and moved for a kiss.
As she leant in, so close now that her scent filled his nose, Breeze began to feed proper, taking a draught of her love. Only it wasn't love. Similar, certainly, but different.
It was an inherently broken comparison to try and assign qualities like taste or smell to emotions. There were certain synesthetic responses that a changeling might undergo, but in the end the experience of consuming love was one that was so bizarre and so far removed from any of the more mundane senses that it lacked any real way to convey the feeling. In that regard, it was just like using magic to detect the emotion, but stronger and perhaps more abstract. Not even a unicorn could have understood just what it was like.
That being said, assigning mundane approximations to incredible things made it easier to understand how they might work, even if it was a poor representation of the thing in question. So, if one likened love to a full and healthy meal, with all the right food groups in all the right proportions, then that analogy could be stretched to include this new emotion. And that analogy would place it firmly into the role of junk food.
It was a pleasant experience, of course. And a quick one; already his body was converting it into energy he could use, and it came to him easily, all but broadcasted from her. But the buzz was short-lived; even as she lingered, her muzzle a hair's breadth from his, he could feel the initial surge of energy dying away, and there was something about it, some satisfaction, that was missing.
To stretch the metaphor to its furthest, this was the hay-burger to love's hay and oat salad, and though he took strength from it Breeze doubted it would keep him sustained - truly sustained, at least - for very long at all.
But those thoughts passed by in an instant, the space of a heartbeat, and they were wiped away as the mare's lips met his, and she leaned heavily against him, her coat rough against his own. And he pushed back, moulding his body around hers, his hooves clutching her tightly against him. He forced his mind to think up another spell, the proper one this time, ready to turn her head and remove any risk of doubt coming to her mind.
Then he squeaked as she pushed back at him, even harder, forcing him onto his back as her movements became almost aggressive. Again, his spell went awry, simply dissipating behind his eyes this time. The sound of Mel's desperate, panting breaths all but drowned out the rustling of leaves, and she finally pulled back, smiling at Breeze through half-lidded eyes.
"M-Mel..." he stammered, reaching up to try and hold her off for a moment. "Are you sure this is such a good... Mmph!"
He was cut off by her lips, pressing up against his once again. She made a low, hungry noise, and the pit of his stomach dropped away at the thought that he might not be in control-
The kiss broke as Breeze and Mel both snapped their heads to one side, looking in wide-eyed horror at the source of the shout.
Fair Trade stood at the edge of the clearing, his face dark with rage under the silver moonlight, Rising Sun standing at his side with a look of abject disappointment.