• Published 22nd May 2014
  • 5,687 Views, 292 Comments

Renegades - TheAndyMac

When the Hive speaks with one voice, what do you do when your voice speaks out of synch? For two changelings, there is only one answer; run.

  • ...

Interlude - The Running of the Leaves

Trees were something of a rare sight in the centre of Fillydelphia proper. Even on the main thoroughfares, where other towns and cities might have set saplings between the lampposts or divided the road itself with a meridian of grass and trunk, the grey and brown wash of stone dominated. Fillydelphia was not an earth pony town, despite its position by the coast and the line of docks and yards that bordered the eastern side of the city. Unicorns had built it, and built it to suit the straight-line precision that set them apart from the rustic ways of the earth pony, and the graceful swoops and columns of pegasi.

Rising Sun might have been forgiven his confusion, when he watched the mass of runners stampede past the tiny balcony of a tight, cramped apartment on the fourth floor of one of a hundred ugly stone and mortar buildings. They flowed like a living river, their arrival heralded by a few professional athletes scattered at the very front, separated by tens of yards, before the pack thickened, looking more like the 5pm crowds set to double-speed, and then a mass of ponies with barely an inch between each other. It was a hell of a sight to behold. And the noise...

Thousands of hooves clattered on cobbles and flagstones, some shoed and some bare, raising a racket like Sun had heard only once before. In this street it sounded even louder as the rising buildings bounced it back into itself, a resonating channel of magnificent size and scope. It set the fur on the back of his neck to bristling, set his face to stone, ears trying to fold down against his neck. He bit down against the urge. Breeze didn't need to see that.

The rush of fur beneath them didn't seem to be ebbing. He glanced back over his shoulder, into the apartment's single main room where Breeze sat on his bed, Natalya the griffoness - formel, as she insisted he call her - beside him, offering a cup of something that steamed.

Gods, but he looked so...so young. Hind legs drawn up, forehooves pressed together, making himself small and tight. Even his ever-present scar worked against him. It might have made another stallion look older, perhaps more worldly wise. Breeze just looked like someling with too much pushed on him too soon. Queens of old knew that he bore it up well enough, most days, but there was only so much the younger changeling could take before the walls keeping him together had to fail, even if only for long enough that the pain and pressure could flow out for a while.

As Breeze took the cup into his hooves and Sun stepped past the threshold into the relative warmth of the apartment, he felt his thoughts drifting down along an inevitable path, questions rising in his mind that he had no desire to answer.

For all that he seemed fully matured, physically at least, it was hard to say just how old Breeze actually was. Changelings grew faster than ponies, griffons, and any other species Sun had seen or heard of in his days. He was a young adult, as far as their kind went, but that meant little; Breeze could have been in his early twenties, or he could have been ten years old. Sun had never asked, and he never meant to. Physical maturation was one thing. Mental...

It might not have mattered. He had no good comparisons to make between species, and even if he did Breeze was good enough at acting mature - a skill all changelings were forced to learn - that there was no real way to tell. But a thought pulled at the back of his mind every so often, uncomfortable as a thorn.

In the here and now, though, he watched Breeze take a sip from the cup, pause, and then take a longer pull before looking down into the dark liquid that filled it. For a moment he seemed even younger, but in a different way. A way that was hard to describe, but somehow happy.

Natalya gave him a pat on the shoulder and dropped down from the bed, making her way over towards Sun. Her eyes and head flicked towards the balcony and the crowd of runners beyond. Sun let the slightest sigh flare his nostrils, but he stepped back out into the cooler air.

The crowd was starting to thin once more, but there were enough still to come that he couldn't see the end of it. A stiff wind had blown up from the sea; it blew down along the street, driving manes into ponies' eyes and sending tails whipping and snapping behind them.

"I'm still not sure I understand all of this," Sun said, waving a hoof down to the street. "Ignoring the fact that there aren't any trees around here anyway, don't the leaves just fall from them in their own time?"

Natalya shrugged with her wings, feathers rustling against one another. "They do, but ponies like to get it all over and done with as soon as possible. Makes it easier for them to roll on winter. They're very big on schedules, if you hadn't noticed."

"And if we stop ignoring the lack of trees?"

"Tradition. Fun. It's an excuse for half the city to get out and run, and then drink themselves into a stupor afterwards. Besides, some of them even enjoy the exercise."

Sun nodded, glanced momentarily at Breeze, and turned back to the runners. Natalya leaned in a little closer, the question written all across her face even if she didn't speak it. It was plain enough that the changeling sighed and spoke again, his softer voice masked by the clattering hooves.

"The crowds get to him. They get to me, too, if I'm honest, I just leaned to deal with it better."

At first the formel nodded, as if satisfied with that, but her own sigh caught the air and she gave a short shake of her head.

"No, it's more than that." She paused, looked down at the runners and said, "What happened to you two?"

Sun couldn't hold back a bitter little chuckle. "And here I thought we were good at hiding things. Is it really so obvious?"

"Aside from the fact that you're unlike anything I've ever seen around here? Sweetheart, that would be enough to tip anyone off, but he has a look. I've seen something like it before, if a little worse, in old soldiers. And then there's that scar..."

Perceptive. Then again, griffons were known to be. A raptor's eyes and a hunter's mind made for cunning creatures, the sort that changelings knew to avoid. 'The damned feathercats' had spoiled more than one infiltrator's day, as the stories went.

"I'd rather not get into it. It's enough to say that, the last time we heard this many hooves running at once, we were running away from them. And things happened while we were running. It brings back more than a few bad memories."

By now the pack had more or less passed, and the gasping stragglers were trailing after them. Hoofbeats faded away into a distant racket and the sound of Breeze's slurping seemed louder without them.

"Anyway," Sun said, turning back from the rails, "I think I'd better step inside. It's getting cold out."

One of Natalya's feathered brows twitched, the very edges of her beak quirking into a smile. "Really? I thought it was pretty cosy. I could sit out here until it got dark."

Nonetheless, she followed him in, pulling the doors shut as Breeze shifted along the bed. "You boys prefer heat, then? Where is it you came from, down south? Zebrica way?"

"Somewhere like that," said Breeze. He glanced down into his mug, let out a soft hum and offered it to Sun, who took it with a sniff. A few emaciated wisps of steam were still rising from the warm ceramic, and it tickled his nose, the scent strong and sweet and grating in his sinuses.

"What is it?"

"Just a little hot chocolate," Nat replied. "Thought it might help. You should give it a try."

He pushed his tongue between teeth and lip, narrowing his eyes into the mug. Should he, shouldn't he... The smell was still thick in his nose, but Breeze was watching, and he flashed a smile and took the smallest sip he thought he might get away with.

Nat was already laughing, even before he pulled his head back with a sound that he'd never made before, face twisted into a rictus of disgust.

"Urgh, in the name of... It's so sweet!"

"Not your thing, then?" Breeze said with a wink, and a hoof extended to retrieve the mug. Sun didn't resist, leaning back away from the foul brew.

"Not for all the love in the world... Is that what ponies drink?"

"Sometimes." Natalya's beak was still twisted into that odd, griffonish smile, but she was pulling over a glass of water, so Sun was inclined to ignore the smirk as she held out the glass, and he levered it between his hooves. "They say it's good for warming the soul."

"I disagree," grumbled Sun, taking great gulps of water, swishing it around inside his mouth so that his cheeks bulged with it. Breeze was draining the last of his hot chocolate with relish, but there was something in the way his hooves shifted, something that made Sun realise his skin was starting to feel a little odd. Tight and loose at the same time, like those clothes the more well-off ponies seemed to take so much pleasure in wearing.

"Nat, could you lock the balcony doors? And get the curtains." He pushed himself down from the bed, setting his glass on the floor, and padded across the rug to the door out into the hall. The deadbolt made a hollow click as he slid it over and sat back. Nat, to her credit, didn't question the request, though he could see the confusion in her eyes. Light from the orange autumn sun seemed to dim with the soft hiss of fabric and the metal sound of the rings sliding along the bar.

Rolling his neck, arching out his back in an almost feline stretch, Sun looked over to Breeze and gave wry smile. "Don't know about you, but I think I need to drop the disguise for a bit."

When the green flames had stopped swirling, Natalya's eyes cleared of tears from the sudden brightness, and the click of chitin from Breeze's own stretches had died down, there was silence. Not quite awkward, nor entirely comfortable. Sun found himself caught between the desire to fill it and the feeling that breaking the silence would make things uncomfortable in earnest.

It was after a few minutes, while the changeling was pondering which course of action would ultimately be the least productive, that Nat spoke.

"So you two... You're sticking around?"

Sun sat up, train of thought frozen by an abrupt and very uncomfortable sensation, like the feeling of eyes watching him. Nat's eyes, or else the eyes of someone watching through her, second hand.

"I guess," he allowed. "Not as though we have anywhere else to go, after all."

"Does that mean you'd jump ship if you thought you'd be able to make it out there?" The ruffling of Nat's feathers would almost certainly have been meaningful to someone more versed in griffon culture, but to Sun they were nothing more than opaque.

And he was angry at himself for the slip. There was a decent answer to her, but it wouldn't come. So he kept quiet, eyes on the formel, knowing that to look away or to babble on would only make things worse.

But she laughed instead of pushing him, and reached out to touch him on the shoulder.

"Relax. I'm poking fun. And I wouldn't blame you, either. You two, you seem... Well, I don't think I'd call you good, no offence, but you're not too different from the average pony. You're just trying to get by, right? And a job like ours, it isn't exactly red meat." A rueful smirk, when both changelings tilted their heads and frowned. "Sorry, griffon turn of phrase. I guess it means 'not good'? You have to have a certain stomach for it. But that's what I want to talk to you about. 'Cause most ponies, they call this sort of group scum. And they're not exactly wrong."

She leaned in, head twitching as if resisting the urge to glance over her shoulder. It was as if she felt the same as Sun, wondering if he could feel eyes burning holes in the back of his neck. "So you two have your doubts, that's fair. But we're not the worst out there, not by a hair nor feather. There's scum out on the streets that would make the Family look as saintly as Celestia herself if they were let free. We have at least a few standards, they have none, and it's us that keeps a paw on them, keeps them down and quiet. Pinheads couldn't do it on their own, believe me."

"So you're trying to say we're the 'good guys'?" said Breeze. His brows were quirked so that he seemed to be mocking her, and there was a taste of venom tainting his voice, though Nat seemed to miss it.

"No, I'm saying we're better than the worst," was her simple reply. A clawed hand smoothed out her crest and her tongue pressed itself against the sharp edge of her beak. Nervous tics? "You take Goldy. He's an asshole, sure, but since he has to follow the Boss's rules the worst he can do most of the time is talk down to you. He usually doesn't do any real damage."

Oh, but now the look in Breeze's eyes could have melted stone. Though hard to see under his carapace his muscles were tensing. Sun shifted a hoof to press down hard on his partner's leg, forestalling any blistering words sitting on his tongue; the older changeling felt a little heat swelling in his gut as well, but he was beginning to see where this was going. Natalya either didn't notice, or she didn't care, for she went on regardless.

"If he weren't where he is now, though, he'd be a nightmare. Take a good look in his eyes some day, and you'll see it. Bastard has something in there that makes even a griffon back off in fear."

"You're just going through a very long-winded way of saying we should stay, right?" Sun said.

"For a while. Maybe something better'll come up, some day. Maybe not. But there's no point worrying about maybes when you two have a chance for a pretty decent life here and now. And it's not nearly as terrible a thing to be doing as you seem to think."

And now she was looking right at Breeze, meeting the fire from his eyes with... Well, it might have been poetic for her to have been meeting fire with ice, but the truth of it was she wasn't cold. Cool at the worst. Stable and solid as a mountain, filled with the sort of patience that Sun had seen in the eyes of an infiltrator, many moons before. The patient eyes of a predator.

Breeze might have seen it, but when his eyes flickered away they came to rest, for the briefest moment, on the empty mug, the last dredges of hot chocolate clinging to the bottom of it.

"Aye, well... You might be right."

Author's Note:

All right, that break took a little longer than I was expecting, but we're back in business! Updates will follow, not too fast but hopefully not too long, neither.

For now, let's take a moment to breathe, and enjoy a little casual socialisation.

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