• Published 22nd May 2014
  • 5,654 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.

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In the slow, silent hours at the tail end of the night, the hours that rendered even a hub of culture like Canterlot devoid of life, Breeze slept. With the first light of the sun dusting the eastern horizon with a blue-green glow, in the long minutes before it raised its head above the curve of the world, he dreamed. Despite all wishes to the contrary.

He dreamed of the cold. Of a world where the walls were blue and grey and black, and his hoofsteps sounded as though he were listening to them from beneath the surface of a still, clear pool. He dreamed that he was wandering through the streets of some massive silent city, looking for signs of life and finding none. No ponies under the empty grey sky. No seats nor tables nor anything but plain walls in the sterile buildings on either side of him. The world was dead, devoid of love, and he was alone.

Almost.

There was something else in this world, little more than the sense of a presence, but it was malicious. Like a shadow lying over his soul, or a splinter in his mind's eye. And it was familiar. He couldn't see it, but he knew just what it was.

Canterlot Castle. Clinging to the side of Foal Mountain like a parasite latched onto the rocky flesh of the world. When he was awake he could feel it weighing down on him, no matter where in the city he stood. Out on the streets or beneath a sheltering roof. And now it seemed like it was intruding into his sleeping self.

All right, I'm done with this, he though. I'm waking up. And he did.

As much as he would have liked to be able to say awareness came instantly to him, in truth he swam up through drowsiness for a few seconds before his eyes opened. For those short moments the real world blurred into the constructs of his subconscious and he wondered if he really had found himself somewhere warm and populated, or if it was just another layer of the dream. But, with what was becoming old habit, he shed the last lingering shreds of the dream with a shake of his head and sat up, squinting in the half light.

A single lantern was burning somewhere over on the left. The candle within must have been burnt down almost to the base, for the flame was weak and flickering, but it gave off just enough light for him to see see Natalya slumped on her own bed, just across the narrow room from his. Her eyes were open and her pupils flashed green with reflected light as she tracked Breeze's waking movements.

Emotions, ones that were becoming all too familiar, bulged in the empty space behind his throat. He wanted to snap at her about how little he needed a watchdog, let out at least a little of the stress that was buzzing through him, but he kept his mouth shut. He had a nasty suspicion that would only reinforce the thoughts he was sure were already starting seep into her head.

The next urge was softer; if he could just explain how important it was that they go back to trusting one another, then maybe... But Sun had said as much already, in better words than Breeze could muster, and nevertheless here she was, still watching.

So rather than speak, he just met her gaze. Let her look him in the eye for once. Then he rolled out of bed and onto his feet, pacing over to the window with the soft sound of pawpads on rough floorboards. The curtains were drawn back from the ill-fitted panes, letting him look out into the rising dawn.

Canterlot stared back at him, dull in the twilight. They hadn't been here for more than a few days, but he was already getting a good feel for the capital, and all the ways it differed from Fillydelphia, great and small. More important, he was getting to know the same about the city's ponies.

First and foremost were the nobles. He hadn't had the chance to see any up close, being that they chose to either dwell on the higher slopes or, in a few cases in the Castle itself. But there was a common opinion among the commoner folk that was easy enough to read. In the politest of terms, the nobility were by and large regarded as being little more than self-entitled attention horses with nothing better to do with their wealth than squabble for prestige and peer down their prodigious muzzles at anyone they regarded as being 'beneath' them. Not that there seemed to be much political prestige worth squabbling over in the Equestrian court.

The irony, then, was that the ponies of what might be considered Canterlot's middle class seemed little better than those they belittled. Oh, they were less overt in their bigotry and arrogance, but anyone Breeze spoke to left him unable to shake the impression that they felt the simple act of living in Canterlot made them better than other ponies. That, while their lives might not be perfect, they were a damn sight better than anything else on offer. If you were in Canterlot then you had, as they said, made it.

Glancing back over his shoulder he couldn't help but wonder what they would have made of this side of the city.

The four of them were packed into a single room that was all scrubbed wood and cheap bleached cloth. Four narrow beds filled the far half, two against each wall with the draughty window looking down into the little 'corridor' between them, while the inward end was occupied by table and a blackened, wood-burning stove. It had been empty when they'd first arrived in the city, recently vacated for one reason or another, and no one else had gotten around to claiming it. In the absence of any official landlord keeping an eye on tenants, it served as their home. For now.

There were a dozen or so other rooms like this one filling the cheap timber building, and more than a dozen other similar buildings crowding the streets of this 'unfashionable' part of the city. Almost certainly made as quick and cheap as possible; the winter snow might have been a study in meteorological perfection and aesthetic wonder, but its chill seeped through the cracks and seems with as much ferocity as it would have if the weather were wild. This was where those without money of family in the city came. It was where some of them would spend most of their lives, raising foals of their own and waiting patiently for their big break. Because despite all misconceptions to the contrary, not every pony who came to Canterlot had made it.

Breeze turned his gaze down to his left foreleg. The weight of the band was there and not-there, simultaneously absent and squeezing his tendons as he made a fist of taloned fingers. Not everyone who came to Canterlot was a pony, for that matter.

Being a griffon, after spending so long as a pony, was an interesting experience. He could deal with the oversized wings threatening to knock over everything at shoulder height whenever he turned, and with the inflexible beak that made as simple a thing as drinking into a challenge, but having digits... The sensation was throwing him through a loop. And it didn't help that Sun was holding a similar disguise, confusing him every time he cast an eye around the room.

They were old shapes, worn for a job that they'd pulled down at the Fillydelphia docks and then packed away in the dusty corners of their minds, where the memories of old faces decayed until they were useless. Thankfully, these ones hadn't been secreted away for long enough to be forgotten, and when a rank of ponies in armour had pulled into Saddleside just hours before Sun would have given the go-ahead to clear out of town, the pony disguises were retired by unanimous agreement. Changing species wasn't a foolproof plan, but even if their pursuers had a better idea of what they were chasing, a non-pony disguise could be enough to buy them a few precious hours.

That was the hope, at least, but Breeze would be the first to admit that things weren't necessarily turning out as hoped. He looked out across rooftops capped with melting snow and knew, as the sun peeked over the horizon, that there would be no more sleep for him this morning. For the best, perhaps; it was a day that required an early start. Sun and Velvet were still sleeping, he could tell by the sound of their breath, but soon enough they'd need to wake. He could at least conspire to make it a gentle awakening.

"I'm going to put some coffee on," he said as he turned back, walking past Natalya on his way to the stove. "Should I fix you a cup?"

She shrugged, with both wings and shoulders.

"If you're making some, I'll have some."

"All right."

And there was a microcosm of their conversational habits from these last few days. Such was the way of things, he reflected as he poured a bottle of meltwater into a saucepan.

It was about twenty minutes later when the warm and rich scent of coffee spread through the little room, rousing Sun from what could otherwise have been called the sleep of the dead. Velvet followed a few moments later, his nose twitching in time with the flicking of a fallen ear. Bustling about with pots and pans and gritty black powder might have been a chore, but Breeze was learning to relish the easy ritual. There was something almost ceremonial about it, the peaceful moments accompanied by the gentle clatter of his busywork and the crackle of the burning stove.

"Now there's a welcome smell on a cold morning," Sun declared with more than the usual amount of enthusiasm. As everyone around him grew ever more taciturn, an equal measure of false cheer would creep into Sun's voice. "Pass a cup, Breeze, I think we could all do with a little kick."

More than he knew, Breeze found himself thinking, though he kept his beak shut. There were steaming mugs all around soon enough, even one clutched in Breeze's taloned fingers, despite the lack of sugar or milk. He could barely stand to drink the stuff 'untainted', but again, the ritual meant more than the taste of the drink. Besides, it was hot and caffeinated, and the morning in need of a little warmth and energy.

He was barely a quarter of the way through his when Sun reached over to pour himself a careful second mug and spoke.

"So, we never got around to deciding who does what this morning." He paused to manoeuvre his beak around the mug before pressing on. "We're still in favour of going in pairs, yes?"

Indeed, today was a special day; contacts in the city, ostensible friends of Velvet, were in a position to supply the lead and silver they needed to try and block the locator bands. At a price, of course, but considering the importance of the matter there had been a concerted effort to scrape up enough petty cash to cover what was being asked for. More expensive than going through more legal means, but also far faster.

"Seems smart enough to me," Val said with a shrug. "I still say you want me at the meeting. Just to smooth things over in case they get rough. Not that they ought to."

No objections were raised, as Breeze had expected. There had never been any doubt about Velvet's intent, but Natalya...

"What about you?" Breeze said to the formel, in as mild a voice as he could manage. "Did the good night's sleep make your decision any easier?"

Sun was more diplomatic, but there was the same pressure in both changelings' voices.

"You really do need to pick, Nat. One or the other-"

The change was visible before she opened her beak to talk over Sun. Narrowed eyes, feathers moving just a fraction of an inch out of place, wingtips ever so slightly flared.

"I'll hit the streets. You know I've got the best eyes out of the four of us, and the quickest claws. So you two figure out who comes picking pockets with me, and who gets to chat with Val's mates."

Her piece said, she leaned back and cradled her empty mug so casually Breeze almost wondered if he was just projected the defiant air he saw around her, the sense that she was daring them to challenge her on it.

He didn't intend to play that particular game. Before Sun could reply he leaned in with what he thought was the griffon equivalent of an easy smile and nodded.

"Fine by me. I'll go along with you, then, if Sun doesn't mind sticking with Val?"

The arched brow he got back from the changeling-turned-gryphon told him most everything that the spoken reply didn't.

"I suppose I don't. Just so long as you two are careful out there, of course. Val, what about you?"

The pegasus gave a non-committal shrug. Though he and Natalya had become equally silent, where she was standing out as a sullen presence Velvet seemed in danger of just fading into the background. Like the changelings there was a sense that he was well out of his depth, and found himself reduced to clinging to the more experienced formel.

"That about settles it, then, "Sun said. He drank down the last of his coffee, tipped the dregs into the bin and stood with as wide of a stretch as he could manage in the cramped space. "Val, you and I should get moving soon. I want to have a look at the meeting place before they show up. Breeze, Nat, I won't tell you how to do your job out there but I want you back here in good time. All right?"

All three nodded. Just one more day, and they'd be free.


"This would go a lot smoother if you actually contributed," Breeze shot across the little table, tapping the plate glass surface with a talon. The steady tick-tick-tick was supposed to bother Natalya but by now it was starting to get to him instead, like he was counting down the second of safety they still had.

It was well into the afternoon now, leaving behind a fruitless morning of scoping out potential marks and dismissing them. The pair sat across from each other outside a small, cheap café on the very edge of Canterlot's upmarket districts. Cold cups of tea rested in saucers between them, half-drunk and then forgotten, while a gentle parade of ponies streamed past them on the thoroughfare, enjoying the crisp winter's day.

"I'll contribute when there's something to contribute. Nobody good's gone by. I can't help it if pickings are slim."

The formel showed almost no sign of irritation at either Breeze's snippish tones, or his tapping. Just the slightest ruffle of feathers, that might have been little more than an errant draught.

Reading a griffon could be both harder and easier than reading a pony, depending on how skilled one. For the novice, their subtle emotional tics were often that much more subtle than a pony's, but an expert would notice how much trouble them seemed to have at suppressing them.

Spending so long in a griffon's shape was giving Breeze all new perspectives on the matter, and recognising his own tics gave his already sharp eyes a new keenness, where other griffons were concerned. He was also appreciating how much the feathers of his face were doing to disguise his scar, in comparison to a pony's fur.

"You'll just keep shooting down my suggestions until then, I guess?" he sighed.

There was less urgent desperation behind them, without the threat of imminent capture, and that meant they could afford to be a little more selective in their targets; minimise harm by picking someone wealthy enough to carry a good amount of cash that they could afford to lose, but not so rich as to cause or attract undue fuss. Accidentally picking Celestia's nephew, for example, would bring the guard down on them faster than if Breeze dropped his disguise in the middle of the street.

But time was wearing on. They had the cash to buy silver and lead, but they needed just a little more to be able to afford at least some supplies for the journey Westward. Though Breeze was loath to abandon the principles they'd all agreed on, that old urgency was starting to creep back up on him, nipping at the end of his tail.

"Sure, until you pick a good mark," Natalya said, glancing back out at the crowd.

Was she baiting him? Breeze leaned back in his seat, beak clicking. This return to her more flippant attitude was confusing, and oddly unwelcome. At least when she was closed off, he knew what he was dealing with. But this...

Not to say he liked having her close herself off like that. It was easier to deal with but no less infuriating. After all, though he'd always known that ponies - and indeed any non-changeling - would see his feeding habits as wrong or unnatural, but by his own standards he'd done far worse than feeding while in Natalya's company. Organised crime, after all, hardly seemed a place for the squeam-

He crashed out of that train of thought when one of Natalya's paws bumped his under the table. She flicked her eyes out to the road and said in a whisper that he could barely hear: "Stallion in the grey polo shirt and black scarf. Red mane, moneybag in his barrel pocket."

He looked without looking; eyes drifted to one side as he took a swig of cold tea, head still pointed at Natalya but seeking out the shock of red in the multicoloured river of fur. Nothing at first. His head turned just slightly to bring the stallion into view, but he doubted anyone would notice unless they were expecting to see it. He smiled. The stallion - a unicorn, of course - looked well off, wearing what seemed to be expensive clothes, but not up to the stand of a noble's tailoring. And he seemed to be alone.

Even so Breeze was half tempted to turn him down out of nothing more than spite for the formel across from him. But hells, could they really afford to miss this?

Did he even need to ask?

He gave Natalya a slight nod, while the stallion passed them, before turning to gaze across the street at one of the ornate clocks that clung to half the towers around the city.

"Really though, we should be going," he said, speaking casually. Natalya lifted a finger and drained the last of her tea before replying.

"I suppose it is that time, isn't it?" she said as she pushed her chair back and stood.

By now the stallion was a good distance ahead of them, in sight but in danger of disappearing into the sparse crowd. This was a dangerous phase, hanging back enough that they weren't obviously tailing their mark, without losing sight of him. All while waiting for any one of a dozen potential opportunities and praying he didn't step inside a shop or meet with a friend.

Both possibilities, of course, would become increasingly likely the longer they followed. After a few minutes Breeze was getting shifty, but the formel beside him showed no interest in making a move. Just staring ahead, moving through the crowd as if it weren't there.

Unease began twisting his stomach in icy claws, colder than the air that misted in front of his beak. This was taking too long. The stallion was seconds away from slipping past their grip.

"Bump him," he whispered, prodding Natalya with a wing. She half-turned her head, her expression blank, so he jerked his head forward with a scowl. "Bump into him! Distract him, or something!"

Now understanding crept across her face, and she nodded before slipping ahead. Her movements, slipping and weaving through loosely spaced bodies, were almost sharklike, a feat Breeze even found himself hard pressed to match as he shifted to the side and advanced.

There was maybe a second between them as they reached the stallion; Natalya from the right, Breeze from the left. As she drew up alongside him, the formel turned her head as if hearing something away to her left, and strode right into the stallion. He stumbled, steadied himself, then turned with a sharp expression, that softened as she made a stammering apology.

In that same moment Breeze stepped past. His wing brushed a few filaments as his right foreleg came up, fingers ever so gently grazing the fabric of the grey shirt and plucking the moneybag from its pocket.

It took less than a second for him to brush by, and by then the bag was already out of sight under his wing. For another few seconds he let himself enjoy the rush of success, hot under his feathers, before it was shattered by the sound of a voice rising, puzzled and then angry, a few paces behind.

"Hey... Hey you! Griffon!"

Damn.

He kept walking, nonchalant as he could make himself appear. Breaking into a run would be as good as an admission of guilt. The stallion could have been calling to Natalya, or some other griffon out of Breeze's sight. Another few steps, and he risked a backwards glance. There was the stallion, patting at his barrel pocket as he strode awkwardly forward on three legs, his eyes fixed on Breeze.

That tore it. Still walking - but increasing his pace - he bore left, eye flicking along the buildings in search of somewhere to duck out of sight. There were plenty of alleys, some connected and some running like long corridors under the pale sky. Not so different from the Hive, only more static.

As soon as he reached the edge of a crowd growing ever more confused he broke into an awkward canter, dashing into one of the narrow, arched passageways. There was another shout, a call for him to stop, accompanied by the harsh clatter of hooves at a gallop. Now granted a little concealment from the crowd Breeze picked up the pace, his tufted tail streaming behind him. A third shout, breathless but determined. A slightly wider passage opened up on his right, and with wings flared to help him turn he took the sharp corner at a skid. Only one set of hooves audible behind him, thank the Moon.

Up ahead the passage opened up, brightening. Doors streaked past on either side. Breeze sped up but came to a scrambling halt a few seconds later, in a small courtyard lined with more doors, all of them closed, and no obvious way out save what was behind him. And the hooves were still bearing down on him.

Breeze spun on a padded paw, watching the red-maned stallion pull up, his scarf fluttering. Options were running out, and time was running down. The changeling ducked, pushing one foreleg forward. The heel of his 'hand' drove into the stallion's chest and he went down, winded and gasping.

The blow left Breeze shaking out his leg, flexing the fingers. Moon, but that stung worse than a hoof's blow. He had a few seconds to take stop, as his victim writhed on the ground, trying to suck down air with strained wheezes. No question that he'd gotten a good look at Breeze's form, and a good chance that he'd seen enough of Natalya to recognise her again. If he put two and two together and saw the bump for what it had been...

There was nothing for it. Breeze could change his shape, but the formel couldn't. He shook his head, advancing on the stallion, who rolled onto his back, staring up with wide eyes. A simple fiddle inside his head, one more little crime to let them be free at last. Breeze narrowed his own eyes, feeling the spark of power flash in them, when Natalya's claws landed, a heavy grip on his shoulder.

Of course he didn't hear her coming; leonine paws made little sound, even on cobblestones, compared to the rattle of a pony. Even so he should have noticed her before those talons pricked him. Hell, they almost pierced skin as she pulled him away with strength that seemed to surprise them both.

"That's enough!" she snapped, her voice a bare feather's breadth from a shout. The stallion scrambled backwards until his head bumped up against a faux-marble wall.

"Back off, Natalya," Breeze growled back as he shrugged for formel's grip off with more force than he'd intended. There was something hot burning under his feathers. Stupid, ungrateful, interfering... He mustered up as much power as he dared, shooting a withering glare at her before turning it back to the cowering stallion.

His beak was already open when the talons stabbed into the meat of his shoulder, his body wrenched around so that Natalya's face filled his vision, eyes blazing even brighter than his. Distantly he realised he could feel blood trickling down his foreleg.

"ENOUGH!"

The shout stopped a second attempt to break loose before it was more than a tightening of his muscles. Silent smouldering had broken, but it didn't feel real to hear her voice raised so. To see her so enraged at him. To feel a matching blaze in his own chest. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the stallion roll to his hooves and make a mad gallop back along the passageway but that hardly seemed important any more.

"What in the name of Chrysalis do you think you're doing?" he heard his false voice say, as his false feathers started to rise in a real threat response. There was a disconnect that he'd never felt before, between himself and his disguise. He was a puppeteer, directing this hollow body from within like it was made of wood and paper and pulled with wires, and his control was no longer absolute. It was as if, at any moment, he could slip, fumble, and the body would make some strange motion of its own design.

Natalya seemed to see none of that in Breeze's false eyes. She saw only another griffon, puffing himself up for a fight, and her own crest and neck feathers rose in kind.

"You are not feeding on anyone else while I'm around, do you hear me?" she snarled. "You try that love sucking thing again, you'll be on the ground before you can think!"

If it had been Sun who'd snapped at him so, he might have backed down, bent under the weight of years of conditioning. Might have. Natalya was not above him, though. This was a challenge he could answer, and he did, his voice speaking out without conscious thought.

"Are you bloody mad?" he shot back in a voice only a few decibels below hers. "I was just going to make him forget, I wasn't going to feed! I was trying to protect us! And even if I was, who in the hells are you to stop me? You really think you could? That you have any right?!" The words were coming from somewhere deep with such force that he'd have had an easier time holding back a storm than stopping them.

"Why?" Natalya's voice dropped, but her tone was acidic, barbed. "You think you have the right to do what you do, Evening?"

"A right? A right to eat? Are you telling me I should starve?!"

His wings were flared. One foreleg was raised above his chest, the fingers hooked and talons bared, while the other was barely touching the floor with fingertips. His forequarters were raised up, and while he was aware of all of that, he didn't realise that his mask had cracked.

A flare of wild, electric blue lit up his irises, subtle shades of green glimmering in the depths of his pupils.

He held his position for a few seconds, glaring at the formel but frozen for a reason that he couldn't quite fathom. Then he realised. She had flinched away, chest lowering, eyes wide with something other than anger.

His own anger didn't drain. It simply ceased, at full strength in one instant and utterly gone in the next. There was nothing in its place. An empty gulf stretching out where emotion was supposed to be.

"Nat..." he began. His feathers drooped as his posture sank. "You really are, aren't you? You're afraid. Of...me."

He watched the naked fear recede back into the subtler cues he'd refused to process. He wasn't asking, he was confirming, and it was like seeing a hidden wound for the first time, feeling it in its entirety.

The next blow rent him down to the bone. A soft, humourless laugh sounded from the formel, a bitter expression of escaping stress rather than anything like amusement.

"Shouldn't I be?" she said, taking a deliberate backwards pace. "I mean, there is a reason Goldy kept you at wing's length while you two were playing as his pet monsters. There's a reason he thought it was worthwhile to throw Val and I to the hounds just so he could be rid of you. The worst thing is, I'm not sure his math was wrong. Considering what it is you do.

"Where does the shapeshifting come into it, anyway?" Another backwards step, into the very centre of the courtyard. "What do you do, pretend to be husbands and sons? Anything to make it easier to get a meal, I bet. I mean it isn't too hard to figure out, when you have all the pieces lined up. You could be anyone. Family, or a lover, or...or a friend. Right? Does a friend's love work too?"

Now it felt like Breeze wasn't there at all. Not as the griffon, nor the puppetmaster making the griffon-suit dance. It was as a dream, when the focus pulled back and everything that was happening became a story, written in a book or played out on a stage. And it was a story that he felt sure, horribly sure, he knew the ending to.

"Nat, where are you going with this?"

He forced the words across the vast space between his mind and his disguise's beak. It was all play-acting. He knew already. He just couldn't believe it. Wouldn't.

"Is that what this was all about?" she said in a voice so small it made her whole self seem to shrink. "You two were just hooking up with a fresh supply, right?"

"Nat..."

"Just...tell me the truth. Please. Have you been feeding on us?"

Reality came back as swift as shattering glass, with flawless crystalline clarity. He was there again, standing on the ground with his own four feet, but though he was present once more he was still not in control. He knew where the story was going, and there was no way in Tartarus' depths for him to alter that course.

"Of course not," he said after a second. He tried regardless, speaking his next words without considering them.

"Gold wouldn't let us, said we..."

Shutting his beak and stopping the flow did nothing to take back what he had already said, and the thousand explanations and retractions running through his head sounded hollow without needing to be spoken. Natalya's eyes went stony, her face taking on an expression he'd seen worn by captains and drone-adepts. When a drone had failed so badly that a trip to the recyclers was being considered. There was cold anger and, always worse, disappointment.

"I see. Glad we cleared that up."

"Nat, wait!"

"That's not my name," she cut in, spreading her wings and kicking up into the sky. "My name's Natalya to you, Evening Breeze. Find your own damn way home."

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