It was well into the wee small hours of the morning, and a square of dusky light was the only illumination in the otherwise dark room. It was a strange mix of orange and pale silver, from the dim streetlamps and the faraway Moon. Evening Breeze sat up in his bed, scrubbing at one eye and glancing about. Something had woken him from a dead and dreamless sleep, but his brain was still sluggish as it tried to claw its way to alertness, and the room was full of shapeless shadows half-imagined phantoms.
Sun's voice, sounding about as confused as Breeze felt. It was surprising that he'd be awake as well, and Breeze was opening his mouth to reply when another voice beat him to it.
"No, us. Get yourselves up, you're needed."
Both changelings sat bolt upright, the fug of sleep banished from their minds at the sound. They scanned the room. There! Two figures, looming out of the shade, beside the shape of the closed door that became clearer to them as their eyes started to make sense of the darkness. But how were they there? That same door had been locked, the front desk guarded... If these two had found a way in, how much easier would it be for one of their own to sneak by, if the Hive were desperate enough to follow?
The heavy sound of a hoof stamping against carpet started Breeze from his thoughts, and he blinked, as the stallion who had spoken glowered.
"I said get yourselves shifted," he growled. There was a pause, his mouth hanging open as if he were intending to say something else, but then he simply clenched his jaw, satisfied to glare. Breeze nodded, rolling out from under the sheets a fraction ahead of Sun. As his hooves touched the floor he found himself glad they'd taken the precaution of sleeping in disguise, if for no other reason than to avoid showing his true shape in front of these ponies. It was...somehow revealing. Made him feel vulnerable. And he was already feeling vulnerable enough.
Without another word the two stallions turned, pulling the door open to reveal the dark hallway beyond. The meaning, though unspoken, was clear enough; follow. There was perhaps a moment's hesitation, perhaps even less, then the changelings obeyed. Sun tugged the door shut behind them as they stepped into the hallway, and the fireflies stirred in their glass cases at the movement, casting a warm, friendly light.
The silence was only broken by the muted sound of hoof on carpet as they walked the halls and stairs of the hotel, even as they passed a sleepy, confused desk clerk. Breeze had questions, protests, nervous non-sequiters all bursting at the back of his throat, but something made him loathe to make a sound.
The mute company filed out onto the dark streets and, at a gesture, made their way along the sidewalk, heading towards the far edge of town. At this hour the buildings were dark and lifeless, and the only real light came from the mix of oil lanterns and firefly lamps, a light that cast long shadows which warped and spun about them.
For all that these streets had been unsettling when thronged with bodies, filled with the sounds and sights and the feel and smell of all those ponies all around, they took on a different cast now. Different, but just as unsettling. Dark and empty, and overwhelmingly quiet. It sent a shiver of unease through Breeze, and set tension gnawing at his insides.
It was wrong, plain and simple. To walk in the quiet should have been comforting, but it wasn't how the city was meant to feel. And the occasional night time walker, dim figures seen shrinking to the edge of the sidewalk, only seemed to reinforce that. Like some strange, phantasmic echoes of the daylight world.
It was after perhaps half an hour of walking, and the buildings were beginning to shrink around them, when the stallion in front drew to a halt, and the rest came up close behind him. Coat colours were harder to pick apart in the washed out, orange light, but Breeze thought it was the darker of the two escorts who broke away, towards the drab townhouse at their left. He tapped the door twice, shattering the silence, then paused as his companion cast a gleaming eye at Sun and Breeze.
After a moment there was another sound, of bolts drawing back, and the door swung inwards. A spear of light sprang from within, seeming painfully bright to the changelings, even if it was only a shade brighter than the firefly lamps above them.
"Go on in, head down the hall, take the door on the left," said the stallion watching them. As they hesitated, he gave a short flick of the head and narrowed his eyes. "Get!" he barked. "Nopony wants to be kept waiting."
Breeze nodded, turning towards the house. He kept his gaze on the doorway. Somehow, he felt like he would rather not know who had stepped off first, Sun or himself. Either way, it was him who made it to the narrow portal first, glancing over as he stepped across the threshold to see a musclebound mare standing inside, to one side of the door. Her eyes met his and she shuddered, setting her jaw.
A second doorway stood just inside the front hall, and beyond that a long corridor that lead back into the bowels of the house. There were two doors on the left side, but the first had been crudely plastered with wallpaper and the handle torn off. He took tight paces, hearing his hoofbeats muffled by the thin carpet beneath him, until the door lay ahead of him, ajar. He lifted a hoof and pushed it open, stepping through.
Wood panelling covered the walls, dark brown but lit orange by the dancing light of a cheery fire that burned in a black iron grate, and a candelabra sat in the middle of a long, polished table. Scrolls and sheets of paper covered it, and in a padded seat drawn up against the head of it slouched a familiar stallion, grinning a familiarly glistening grin at the pair.
"Why boys," drawled Gold Tooth, sitting up a little straight and setting his forehooves on the tabletop. "There's no need to be so dolled up, just for little ol' me! Lose the disguises, why dontcha? Make yourself comfortable!"
Very little in the world could have made Breeze less comfortable than to drop his disguise in front of this stallion, but in this place and at this hour the 'request' felt like nothing of the sort. He obliged, taking an unconscious step towards the heat of the fire, and the flash of green at his side told him Sun had taken his true form as well.
"I...take it you've got a job for us?" he asked, voice low and hesitant. He could feel his carapace starting to harden around him, as if in preparation for a fight. That wouldn't do... He knew well enough that there was no reason for these mobsters to go back on their deal. Certainly not after bringing them out here, putting them in a room with Gold, a pony who must have been high up enough to be valuable. He forced himself to be calm, to relax and let his chitin soften
Gold arched an eyebrow. "What, no small talk? No friendly conversation? You boys are dull, aren't you?" he huffed, polishing his hoof on the fur on his flank. "Let me take a wild guess... You're not happy about being blackmailed? Sour about being caught by a bunch of lowly ponies who can't even change shape? I get that."
His muzzle dipped, and he glared at them over the top of his nose. "But you did get caught. You got caught trying to screw us, and now you owe us. I dunno how they do things where you come from, but are you really gonna try and tell me that ain't fair?"
And he wanted to. Breeze was desperate to throw those smug words back in Gold's face, wipe that smirk from his muzzle, because the stallion was right; he was angry. For all the talk of blessings in disguise, of being kept safe, he hated the idea of being controlled again. But he couldn't. There was nothing in those words that he could refute, and even if there were, speaking up would only make things worse. At least now he had a name that he could keep. He had at least a measure of freedom. Snap now, and he risked losing those things. Better to wait. Better to take the smugness, bide his time, until they could move on to better things. Besides, biting his tongue and holding back the urge for backtalk was second nature to him, a skill he'd learned well at the Hive.
Sun had clearly taken the same lessons to heart, for though Breeze could feel the larger changeling shifting beside him there were no words from him, just a deep breath and a long, almost silent sigh.
"In that case," Gold said, "take a seat and we'll get down to business."
They obliged, both taking chairs on one long face of the table and shifting so that they sat closer together, their sides almost touching. Gold smiled at them, his namesake bright in his mouth, and spread a map across the table, spilling a few scrolls off and onto the floor.
"So boys, you ever been to Dragon Town?" At the mute shaking of head that followed, he shrugged. "Well you're going there soon. Know anything about the place?"
"I hear there are dragons there," deadpanned Breeze. In truth, all he had heard of it were a few namedrops that left him wondering if there actually were any dragons, or if the name came from a source more cryptic.
Gold stared for a moment, then shrugged. "Well, you're not wrong... It's a neighbourhood, out on the edge of town, where a bunch of them stay. Small ones, none of the big cavedwellers. Only permanent place they have in the land. Not sure if they're just immigrants or refugees, they won't say either way, but it don't matter. Boss wants to keep on friendly terms with them. You probably guessed, he has sympathy with, uh... Outcasts? That's a good word. Anyways, he has us sneak some stuff in for their big shots. Stuff that's hard to find anywhere else, some rare delicacies, and some things the Pinheads wouldn't want them to have."
"You could call it smuggling and be done with it," Sun said, leaning forward, both forehooves on the table. "Neither of us are going to object."
Gold made a short snorting sound as he leant back. "I'm just making sure you understand what we're doing, and why we do it..." He paused, squinting at Sun. "Uh, which are you again?"
"Rising Sun," came the stony reply.
Gold nodded, eyes flicking between the two of them, as if scanning them. Breeze had more than a sneaking suspicion he was burning their differences into his memory.
"Nice name. More like a pony than we'd have guessed. You pick it yourself?"
"Yes," replied Sun without elaboration. He locked eyes with Gold, brow plates furrowed, but the stallion didn't seem interested in a staring match or a power struggle. Instead he simply made a vague sound of interesting, and tapped a hoof on the map.
"Fair enough. We smuggle goods into Dragon Town, and that keeps the scalies happy enough to do business with us. Now for a normal package we wouldn't bother with you two, but we got a special delivery to make. Not the sort of thing we can get in through our usual channels. Instead, we need to get it past the Pinheads on the main road in."
"And if you tried to run something past them, chances are whoever is doing it would get caught, right?" muttered Breeze, sitting up. "So I take it you'd rather we do it than your own ponies?"
"Don't worry yourself, it's not because we think you're expendable. We can disguise the package, but anything that goes in through that road gets searched, unless they think they already know what's inside."
Gold spun the map around, letting them see an aerial view of the Town itself, and a slice of Fillydelphia running along one edge. The neighbourhood seemed to bulge out from the rest of the city, both a part of it, and apart from it. Once upon a time, maybe, it had been little more than a suburb, but now it had clearly grown into its own community.
"There's a company in the city that runs regular shipments in along the road. All above board, nice and legal, and always carried by the same two ponies. The shipment's always the same, about the same size as ours, maybe a little bigger, and the Pinheads don't mess with it, since they know the ponies who run it in."
Breeze scowled. "'Pinheads'?" It was the third time Gold had used the term, and no explanation seemed forthcoming.
"The police. 'Cause they're all unicorns." The earth pony mimed a horn at his forehead. "Pinheads, y'see? Now, if we can get back on track... We know the two delivery ponies won't willingly take our stuff through. If we tried to force it, they'd just rat us out to the Pinheads as soon as they hit the checkpoint. So we have you two take it through. You can make yourselves look like them, get past the checkpoint, deliver the package and get your flanks out of the as quick as. Nice and easy, eh?"
"Seems so," agreed Sun. "But if you want us to act well enough to bluff our way past a checkpoint, then we're going to have to watch them for at least a couple of days. Without being spotted."
"Pah, don't worry about that." Gold dismissed the notion with a short wave and a shaking head. "You only need to fool a couple of Pinheads at the boundary, and there ain't anyone on the inside who's gonna bother checking you. We'll give you a couple of things to say for that. Although..." He chewed at the inside of his cheek, eyes hooded in thought. "How long d'you boys need to get the shape down?"
The changelings shared a look and a shrug. "Ten seconds at most?" Sun guessed. "We'd have to be close to them, though. Close enough to see all the small details, scars, that sort of thing."
A slick smile spread across Gold's muzzle, and the threat of a chuckle made his shoulders twitch. "Well then, that's perfect, Sun! Ah, but we'll get to all that in a minute. First I gotta show you where to drop the goods."
He tapped the map once more, drawing their attention to the one main road running into Dragon Town. "Here's the way in. This is the checkpoint, but you'll see it from a mile away, so don't worry about that. You wanna come right up the main street, through the archway here, and come around the back of this building. I'll getcha a picture of it later. Now, once you're there you'll see the guy you're supposed to make the drop to. He's big and blue, pretty easy to spot, but we'll sort out a password before you go. Make sure he's the right guy, and not some Pinhead plant. Easy, no?"
Sun nodded, shared another look with Breeze, and nodded again. He traced a hoof along the route, then slid the map towards Breeze. The younger changeling did the same, stroking up and down the road, and gave another slow nod. It seemed simple enough.
"I'll walk you through it a couple of times, make sure it sticks, but you've got a couple of days to get it down. Meanwhile, there's a more important thing to get done."
With a flourish, Gold turned in his seat and stood, pacing over to the door. He pulled it open, stuck his head out, looking out towards somepony standing in the hall. "We're ready for them."
There was the metal thud of a heavy door unlocking, then the rattle of chains and muffled stamp of hooves against carpet and raw floorboard. Gold withdrew, practically splitting his cheeks in a grin, as after him came two ponies, both musclebound pegasi with dour faces.
Behind them, gagged and chained, came two slight mares, squinting in the flickering firelight.
Breeze blinked. The room around him seemed to have descended into utter silence. The chained ponies wilted before him, their heads low and their legs bowed and trembling, but they stared at him with upturned eyes. He stared back, unable to bring himself to move. His own legs felt like they had been stuffed with lead, and his belly felt worse. It was almost as if he weren't really there. Distant, apart from it, little more than an observer unable to interact.
The logs in the fire cracked, and the sound was like the sudden thundercrack of lightning striking just overheard. Loud enough to shock him back into reality. He was there again, Evening Breeze the changeling drone. Locking eyes with a bound mare whose future was somehow less certain than his. He broke the link and shifted his eyes up half a fraction to focus on a nondescript spot in the centre of her forehead.
Keeping the roiling storm of emotion from his face was easier than perhaps he'd expected. Looking at the situation through the lens of a drone, the sort of faceless, emotionless shell those mares perhaps expected him to be, made it easier. Made the situation resolve itself into a sort of sense.
It was efficient, of course, to have the subject close at hoof, under tight guard, and available for close study. It was easy for the infiltrator to capture the shape, and meant that there was no chance of running into 'yourself' during the mission.
Once, in a faraway memory, he'd been in a place like this before. When the captain had been testing his drones. He'd brought in prisoners from a small pony colony somewhere south of Equestria, bound and gagged of course, and told his soldiers to practice taking their forms. Even if one was not an infiltrator, he'd said, a changeling was still a changeling, and deception and misdirection were a changeling's most important weapons. And the day might come when they would be part of an invading force, when they would have to sneak past borders in a pony skin.
And when the fighting was done, they would be let loose to glut themselves in the city. Steal a pony's form, find their lovers and parents and children, and devour that flash of love that would flare into life when they arrived to 'rescue' those loved ones...
This younger Breeze had listened to his captain and looked upon the cowering prisoners with a sort of detached interest. His fear of the Hive had yet to grow, and this was the first pony he'd seen up close. There was no kinship there, nor any longing for the sort of lives they must have lead before they'd been dragged into this hellish place. It had almost been like looking down at insects.
It was this self that Breeze pulled up from that distant memory, and forced out as a facade to cover his shock. Or perhaps as a shield to cower behind.
"Well, I can't say this is exactly what I expected," he heard himself saying as he held his eyes on that blank patch of fur for a moment longer. Then he flicked them back towards Gold. "But I suppose it saves a lot of time. And hassle."
Gold met his gaze, and held it. Still not interested in a power struggle, but his grin faded to something of a subtle smirk and there was a glint in his eyes, the piercing light of a stallion trying to read his mark. And this stallion's pride was the uncanny gift of drilling past the masks of deception, and scanning the truths written in a pony's eyes as if they were the pages of a book.
But Breeze was no pony. His eyes were still the windows to his soul, as the saying went, but if they were windows then they were paned with frosted glass. Opaque, clouded, showing nothing of the gnawing uncertainty and the fragility of the old ghost he was shielding it with. Gold might have been able to pierce a veil of deception, but Breeze was a changeling. He was deception.
A voice from beside them broke the deadlock.
"So, Breeze, which one will you take?"
He turned his head away from Gold and glanced back at Sun, who was aiming a hoof between the bound mares. The words had been cool. Almost emotionless. And while Breeze was good enough to block Gold Tooth, Sun by comparison was a master or more. Long years hiding himself in the Hive as he'd waited for the perfect partner, even under all the suspicion and scrutiny of a Reeducation case, had taught him lessons no living instructor could.
Wordlessly, Breeze lifted a hoof and pointed at the smaller of the two, a unicorn with a pink coat and pale blue-and-white mane. He stared at her, magic creeping through his eyes and seeing what his plain sight couldn't. That magic reported back, feeding the information straight into his brain, bypassing sight or conscious thought.
He let the knowledge flow back out into his magic, an invisible maelstrom seeping not from his horn, nor his eyes, but from every atom of himself. Then he let it loose, and he disappeared inside it as it became visible, tangible, a green fire that scoured away his true form and layered this mare on top of what was left. When it had passed, a scant second later, Breeze was gone. A perfect copy of the little unicorn stood in his place.
The real mare gave a sound of abject terror, muffled by the gag and echoed after a moment by her companion. She shrank away from the sudden doppelganger, falling to her side and flailing her chained limbs against the carpet in a mad attempt to scrabble away. Even the stallions guarding her took a backwards step, eyes wide and nostrils flared.
Breeze stared back down at her with a sculpted indifferent ill at ease with the soft features that held it. Beside him, a stark contrast to his guards, Gold leaned in closer.
"Well now... That was fast." He turned his head, peering as if looking for some imperfection. "Gotta say, Breeze, I'm honestly impressed. How long can you hold that shape? If you drop it, how long can you remember it? Do you need her in the room to do it again?"
"I can hold it a while," he replied with the mare's voice, though his accent still clung on beneath it. "Depends on mood, how well fed I am. And I don't need to keep going back to her, not unless I try to remember too many ponies. Then I start forgetting the older ones." Or so they had told him, at any rate.
Another green flash and a second bleat of fear heralded Sun's transformation, and the mirror image of the bound pegasus flared 'her' wings and inspected them.
"There is something we should discuss, actually," Sun said, folding the wings up again. "It's relevant enough, but..." He glanced over at the guards. "...we should probably talk in private."
"Why?" replied Gold. His eyes narrowed a little.
"You don't trust us? If you're giving us a job like this, I'd have thought there was some trust at least implied there..."
The stallion blinked, then chuckled. "I guess so... All right, a little privacy's no big deal." He turned to the guards. "Go on, boys, get rid of those two and then get yourselves a drink."
"What'll you do with them?" Breeze couldn't help asking, as the mares were hauled to their hooves and all but dragged out of the room.
"Whatever the Boss says we should do," was the bland reply.
Breeze arched a brow, while inside 'she' winced, wondering just what the Boss might ask of his goons. "And what do you think he's going to say?"
"Does it matter?" Gold turned his eyes to Breeze, that cocky smirk gone, replaced with an expression of ice. "What's it to you?"
"Just curious," Breeze replied, as nonchalant as she could make it. "If they turn up at the bottom of the habour, the Pinheads might catch on that something's up."
"And if they get let go, and start shouting about being kidnapped by us and present to some fiery demons, then the Pinheads'll know for sure that something's up." He glanced between the transformed changelings, and piece by piece his smirk came back. "What if I told you we shipped them off to another city, and warned them that if they opened their mouths we wouldn't be so generous next time? Would you believe that?"
"Not really," said Sun.
"That's your problem."
He ran his tongue across his teeth, then shrugged and pulled himself back into his seat. "Best not to dwell on it, right lads?" His expression had thawed once again and an easy smile graced his muzzle. "That side of the business is none of yours, so don't you worry yourselves. Just keep your minds on your own business. Now unless there's anything else we need to discuss, I think we ought to be getting you back to your room. I'd hate to deprive you of any more sleep."
"There's one thing," Sun said, holding up a hoof. "We need food."
Gold cocked a brow, one ear falling in sympathy. "There's plenty of shops in the city, boys. Restaurants too, if you're not used to cooking."
"Do we really look like we eat pony food?" snapped Breeze, letting his disguise disintegrate with an acid flash. That smug, slimy attitude was more than just under his skin, it was grinding against the bone, and his temper was finally flaring. "Do you look at us and think, 'Oh sure, they'll do fine on hay and oats!'?" His fangs were glistening in the firelight, the flickering orange making his already gaunt frame look even more famished, and he found himself rising, unconsciously making himself look bigger, ready for Gold to shoot back.
But the stallion just raised his hooves, making a soft tutting. "Hey there, no need to get upset, I'm just a little confused, is all. If you've got some kind of special dietary requirements, you really should have said so before now. It could take time to get together, though you boys don't look like you're starving. Not any more than you did the other day, at least."
"Maybe," replied Sun. He shot a significant look towards Breeze, but the younger changeling rolled his eyes and pulled out one of the chairs. "We don't need physical food. We...feed on emotion. One particular emotion in particular. L-lust."
Gold blinked, looking more than a little taken aback. "Lust? You eat lust?" He recovered, chuckling to himself. "Well, boys, I think we might just have the perfect solution for you. Remind me tomorrow to introduce you to the White Ribbon District~"