To those who knew no better, this was just another bar. One of hundreds within the bustling metropolis of Manehattan. And for the most part, such an assumption would be right. But among all the earth ponies, unicorns and pegasi that filled the seats in that place, there was one who, if they knew him, would stand out like a sore thumb. Those there who looked at him would see little more than another earth pony. A pale brown coat and dark brown mane. nothing really special about him. But then, that was the point. For this was an image he chose to avoid being noticed. A face and form that helped him blend in. For this was no mere pony that stood there among the crowd.
This was a Changeling.
All ponies knew the name of that race. Beings that had come out of nowhere and, with an audacity that shocked even the most stone-faced of their people, had attacked the capital city of Canterlot itself. Thankfully, for the ponies anyway, that invasion had been repelled, and the creatures had not been seen again, at least not in the same massive numbers they'd used before. Those ponies had no idea that that was what they wanted. As far as the ponies of Equestria knew, all Changelings were of one mind, one leadership, and had been vanquished on that fateful day.
The truth however was far different. The Chrysalis hive, so named because of the Queen who ruled it, was but one of several. Far more aggressive and territorial than many others, they were, perhaps, the only such hive who had ever been as direct as they had been. And it would most likely be the last time the Changeling race would reveal themselves on such a scale, as the massive failure and losses that hive had suffered had encouraged Queens of others hives to kept things smaller-scale.
And so, that was why this particular drone was here. For this was not some big undercover mission to find weak-points in this society to make way for invasion. This was simply one drone on a hunt for the love of ponies, like many of his brethren. This city, Manehattan, was a popular choice for disguised drones to hunt, given the sheer number of ponies who came here. Every once in a while, drones would see each other in the streets, as not even their disguises could keep them from recognising each other. In some cases they might have even encountered drones from other hives. But there was no competition between them, as that would put them all at risk of exposure.
The drone that now stood alone in this bar, late at night, had no problem with this arrangement. As far as he was concerned, he was perfectly fine with stalking his prey by himself, rather than the en masse incursion the Chrysalis hive had attempted. Or, at least, he would be fine if the pickings weren't so slim here. One would think a city this densely populated would have been a practical buffet of love-filled ponies. But, sadly for this drone, that was not the case. In his brief time here, he'd learned one simple truth about most of the ponies who lived here: The only real love they had was for themselves. And even the most inexperienced of drones would have seen the folly in becoming a mirror image of those they sought to deceive.
The voice snapped him out of his thoughtful state and he looked to his right. Standing there was a waitress, a pegasus mare, who was staring at him with an expectant look.
"You've been standing around for a while now. You gonna order a drink?"
Not wanting to arouse anypony's suspicions, he nodded.
"Er, yes. I'll have a water".
The waitress nodded before getting back to work, with the drone making sure she was gone before leaning back against the nearby wall. In truth, he did not require fluids or food to survive. Like the rest of his kind, he feasted on love. But as he already knew by now, there was precious little of it in this city. Looking around the bar, he gazed at all of the mares and stallions gathered here. True, some would be here with those who stood beside them, but he could tell it was not love. As with so many other things in Manehatten, such unions were often for one's own appearances, or advancement. He would have to look elsewhere at this rate.
It was then that something caught his eye. Looking at the bar itself, he noticed a rather large, brown-coated earth pony stallion. The guy was standing on his hind legs and leaning against the bar for support. But it was who he was speaking to that caught the drone's attention. The earth pony stallion was chatting up what appeared to be a unicorn mare, pink in her coat and purple in her mane, wearing an appealing red burlesque-style dress. The drone smirked to himself. If that stallion truly knew who it was he was getting close to, he'd have run away screaming. For that was none other than another changeling. A Queen in fact, from the drone's own hive. He always admired watching the Queen at work. She was a master at this compared to the drones under her command. That stallion didn't have a chance. The way he looked at her, how he smiled when she put on a false giggle at his corny pickup lines, how he truly felt that he was the one in control here, yeah, he was a goner.
But, as he watched his Queen's successful hunt take place, something new came into view for him. There was another mare walking behind the stallion, a real one this time. It was another earth pony, with a cream-coloured coat and a light-blue short-cut mane. The moment he laid his eyes on her, he knew there was something different about her. Something that set her apart from the other ponies in the bar. With others, there was an arrogance about them, a sense of self-importance so strong that the drone could practically smell it in the air. But this new mare had no such air about her, and that got the drone's full attention.
He watched her carefully as she made her way past several other ponies and found a seat at a nearby table. The drone could see that she was all by herself, save for the waiter who came along and asked for what drink she'd like. He knew he'd had little luck with any other pony today, so he figured he'd test this newcomer a little. So, having retrieved his own glass of water from the bar once it was ready, made his way over to the mare's table. Once he came close enough, she lifted her head from her own drink, finally seeing him approach.
"Is it alright if I sit here? Everywhere else is taken," he asked.
The mare looked a little taken aback by that, clearly not expecting some random stallion to approach her like this. She looked around for a bit, perhaps to see if there was somewhere else he could sit, but sighed with a degree of defeat when she saw that he'd been telling the truth.
"Um...sure, go ahead."
The drone smiled with false lips back at her and took his seat. Looking at her, he could tell immediately that she was unsure about sharing a drink with anypony, let alone a complete stranger. If he was going to see if she was suitable, he'd have to break the ice.
"So...I don't remember seeing you here before. You new in town?"
The mare nervously shook her head.
"Er, no. My name is Coco Pommel and I've been in Manehattan a while now. I've just been busy with my work. Today's the first time I've had off in a while."
He raised an eyebrow. So, this Coco had a time-consuming job. Best to concentrate his line of questioning there then.
"Well, Coco, my name is Stout Heart. So, you have a difficult job eh? May I ask what it is?"
It was here that she finally looked him in the eye, a smile forming on her face.
"Well, I recently took on a job making dresses and costumes for a local musical, Hinny of the Hills. It's great work and I'm really enjoying it".
The drone had to stifle the urge to mock that statement. Being from a race that never wore clothing, it boggled his mind that so many of the ponies in this city could be so obsessed with something like fashion. But that wasn't what was important right now. What mattered to him were Coco's eyes. For he had seen it. What he and his kind called "the spark". That tiny flicker in a pony's eyes that gave away that they held a great passion in their hearts. A love and enthusiasm for something, be it a person or a way of life. And that was what drones like him looked for, that marker to show that this pony had the capacity for great love. True, such passion was not directed towards a person, but towards this life she led. But he knew such love could easily be directed elsewhere, with the right push.
For now though, he had to keep it up. He'd found her passion, so now he had to integrate himself.
"That's fascinating! I saw that show myself once. The costumes were great. You should be proud to be a part of it."
Coco blushed a little at that, clearly happy to be praised. That one look was all the information the drone needed. This mare's life was an open book to him now. A young mare, come into the city with dreams and hopes, only to be walked over by those more aggressive than herself. But now, perhaps recently, good fortune had smiled on her, giving her the chance to live out this dream and fulfill her passions. On that count, he was genuinely thankful. After all, if she'd been denied such a chance, then she would have most likely had such passions beaten out of her by city life, much like had happened with so many of the ponies here, thus denying him yet one more meal.
"I am happy. It's the best work I could have hoped for. And thank you for showing an interest. Most ponies wouldn't give a newcomer to the city the time of day".
The drone put on a false smile for her benefit and nodded at her words, causing her to look away with more than a little embarrassment. He was in, he knew that. It was only a matter of time now before he and his chosen prey were close enough for him to take what he truly needed from her. When all was said and done, she would be little more than a drained husk, suitable for little more than working back at the hive in a mindless state. As he considered that, another thought came into his mind. A shame too, he thought to himself, that she should have a fate such as that. After all, she is rather pretty, for a pony.
It was not something he would ever dare say aloud, least of all to his fellow drones. But, after having spent so much time around ponies and becoming integrated with their society, both he and several others of his kind had, on occasion, developed an attraction for the ponies they hunted, albeit a purely physical one. Some even going so far as to use them to satisfy more than just their hunger for love, himself included. Looking at Coco now, at her young face and small frame, he couldn't help but feel that same lust that he'd felt for other such choice morsels. Hive Queens, including his own, had often discouraged such practises, often wishing their drones would simply drain the love and be done with it. However, though no drone would ever say it to their faces, he knew that even the Queens had succumbed to such dark desires at times.
That thought suddenly put him on alert, as he felt the uncomfortably familiar feeling of being watched. His eyes widened with realisation as he turned, looking towards the bar. Sure enough, his Queen, still disguised, was looking at him. Her own prey was busy making a fool of himself, having had more than his fair share of drinks at this point, as was laughing his head off in his state of inebriation. The Queen was staring intently at her disguised drone, able to tell just from looking not only that he was hunting this young mare, but also what else he had planned for her. The drone felt more than a little worried at the sight of her staring at him like this, thinking that perhaps he might be punished later for considering such an act with a pony. Fortunately for him, she seemed to be in a good mood right now, and her face broke into a devious-looking smile as she gave him a small nod.
That was all the permission he needed, and he nodded back before he turned once more to face Coco, who had been busying herself with her own drink.
"You know, I've passed quite a few costume places during my time here in the city. If you like, we could go there. Maybe get you some inspiration?"
Coco looked up from her drink and smiled at that, the spark from earlier still very clear in her eyes.
"I would like that. The Director says my work is good enough, but I could always use a little help".
The drone nodded at that before leaning in closer.
"And if that works, we could always talk about it further. Perhaps somewhere more...private?"
Upon hearing that, Coco suddenly looked a little nervous, fumbling her words afterwards. Perhaps she was simply unused to stallions discussing such things to her. Or maybe it was simply a thousand childhood-taught lessons of not going anywhere with complete strangers. But regardless, she seemed far more hesitant to this now. In time though, she finally got her words together.
"Oh...well...I'm not sure. I mean, I'm sure you're great and all, but...I don't really know you that well."
The drone simply gave a warm smile at that. Just from looking, he could tell that there was some small part of her that wanted to come with him in spite of all the warnings her mind must have been conjuring up right now. So, getting up from his chair, he walked around the table and stood next to where she was sitting, and all the while she kept her gaze locked onto him, waiting to see what he'd do next. What he did was not what she expected, as he reached down and took her hoof into his own. Then, like some shining knight from a fairy tale, raised it to his face and planted a small kiss upon it. He took a moment to enjoy the way she blushed fiercely at this before giving her the assurance she needed.
"Don't worry, Miss Coco. I'm sure you'll just...love me".