Winter was making itself known in the city of Fillydelphia. As the months had drawn themselves further from summertime, the sun had dipped down in the sky, lengthening the midday shadows and making the days themselves were grow shorter, the nights colder. Already the first dustings of snow had fallen, though they lingered only for a night, and were already melting away under the pale sale that rose the next morning.
It was something of a strange new experience to the two stallions who stood, that following night, cloaked and shivering in a stiff breeze. The bulk of an old manor house stood at their backs, at the end of a rough dirt track that lead from the limits of the city itself, out into the hills and the farmland that made up its breadbasket.
Their discomfort might have surprised an onlooker, for both stallions were known natives of Fillydelphia, having never left the city for longer than a few weeks at a time, and they'd endured many of the city's winters. Even the rampant snowfall three years prior, when clouds had blown in all the way from the Everfree Forest, and most the the cityfolk had shut themselves in their homes. Regardless, the pair stamped and suffered in the darkness, the hills around them painted dark grey by the shining light of a full moon hanging high above them. The Mare in the Moon peered down, stern and silent, seeing all.
The stallions were both earth ponies, both musclebound; impressively so, in fact, though their cloaks and saddlebags tried to distort the fact. It was apparent that they were supposed to be on guard duty, but their attitude to this duty was rather lax.
The first, a dark blue mane on a pale coat, shifted and pulled his cloak a little tighter around himself with a hoof. His ears lay flat against his neck, and he seemed to have been spending most of his time watching his breath as it misted the air in front of his nose, catching the light of the Moon. After a short while, though, he turned to his companion and spoke.
"So you're really serious about the rings?"
This companion, brown mane a on simple white coat, nodded as he stamped again, trying to work a bone-deep chill out of his legs and into the packed dirt road that had been made all the more hard by the night's air.
"They all agreed, they need some kind of way to tell us apart at a glance," he replied, pausing to sniff at a nose that was set to running at the season. "And we both know you're not likely to do anything to help that end, are you?"
The first stallion let out a heavy sigh that blew from his lips in a long stream of fog. "Only because they ought to be able to do that already..."
A matching sigh from the white pony. "I know, I know... But you know as well as me that they don't look at the same little details. All they have to look for is coat colour, mane colour, that sort of thing... Besides, I kinda like them. They give me something of an air of mystery, don't you think~?"
There was a strange sort of disconnect between the words being spoken, and the ponies who were speaking them. Most apparent was the fact that the whole discussion of rings seemed somewhat mooted by the fact that the white stallion didn't seem, on any part of his visible anatomy at least, to be wearing a single ring, of any kind.
"Are you really asking me?" snorted the blue pony. "Because I'd say they make you look more like you're trying to make yourself look like one of those pirates from that book you were so engrossed in last month." He lifted his cloak with a grimace to check the bulky watch that had been strapped to his left hoof. Whatever it said clearly didn't match with his hopes, and he let the hoof fall back to the floor, brows creased.
"Don't tell me, still got time to burn?" White groaned. "Damn, I wish time could burn... I don't think I've ever been this cold before..."
"Half an hour or so. Not that long. We'll be inside soon enough."
"No, y'see, that's where you're wrong. It's not nearly soon enough, because soon enough would be right now. I don't care what Goldy said, a half-hour isn't going to make a bit of difference."
"It might," said Blue, shrugging, though the motion was lost under the shapeless folds of his cloak. "What if he decides to check up on it one last time before bed? Or maybe he can't sleep, so he decides to get a, uh...a nighthat. A little longer is only going to help."
"Won't help if my damn hooves've frozen off," hissed White, but he kept to his spot, even as a fresh bought of shivers played across his flank.
The wind picked up, blowing through the hills, whistling as it weaved amongst the smoking chimneys and the weathervanes sitting atop the manor. "So you really don't like the rings?" he said after a few minutes.
Blue shrugged. "Can't say that I do, sorry."
Another silence. By now the wind was plucking at their cloaks, whipping already short manes away from fur to stab its icy daggers right into their necks. White stamped his hooves once more, making a visible effort to keep his teeth from chattering even as he tried to shrink his neck down into his shoulders.
"I'm still keeping them."
"I expected nothing else."
White tapped a hoof. "H-how much l-longer?"
There was a brief ruffling of cloth, then the sound of cold air being sucked through flat teeth.
"Fifteen minutes. G-give or take."
"Mm... We going n-now?"
"Yes, we're going now."
Nothing else needed to be said; White simply nodded. The pair turned as a single unit and pulled the heavy twin doors open. Cloaks trailed behind them as they entered, and then the doors swung shut behind them with barely a click of the latch.
On one of the hills that overlooked the house, and the beaten-earth track that lead up to it from the city proper, another pair of ponies stood, shivering in the biting nighttime air. They too were swaddled in heavy cloaks, and as the doors closed they shared a glance.
For they were onlookers who knew the two stallions, with perhaps more familiarity that one might have assumed. They knew the way that the pair stood, the way they talked, the way they used to withstand the weather like rocks.
And so they knew, deep in their guts, that the stallions who had entered the house were not who they appeared to be. That there was something at play here that was a level above their ken. But they stood, braving the wind that cut at them like knives. Unlike the two imposters they were in this for the long haul, and even now that there was little to watch and even less to make note of, they hunkered down with eyes fixed on the sprawling manor.
* * * * *
"Moon, it's nice to be in out of the cold," Evening Breeze muttered, mostly to himself, as the white, meaty hooves of his disguise tingled in the sudden warmth. "All right... They said left side of the house, right?"
Rising Sun nodded, his cheeks flushing with the blood that was flowing back into them, though he took a glance left and right down the long hall that ran crossways in front of them. Floor plans of the manor had been hard to dig up, but they'd done their best with what they had. As far as they could tell, the main hall ran along the front of the building, rooms all along, with two wings on the left and right. Centre, left and right wings, the three parts of the house made up three sides of the courtyard in the centre of it all, which was completed by a simple brick wall on the final side.
From what they could see, their speculative plans were still accurate; the hallway ran along to either side of them, windows on one wall and doors on the other. The cellar was supposed to be under the left wing, but there was a chance the original cellar had been filled in and a new one dug under another part of the house. It was the sort of thing a paranoid pony might do, and their target was supposed to be quite so, but was he paranoid enough for the effort? Hard to know.
"You go ahead," the older changeling said, his cheeks returning to their pale blue shade. "I'll watch your tail."
"So long as that's all of mine that you're watching," said Breeze with a chuckle. The groan from Sun only encouraged him, but he wiped the smile from his face as they moved onto the thick, plush carpet of the hallway. There was a place for jokes, a time for laughter, but there was also a time for silence and hard thoughts. Right now, with a mission begun, he was a stone. They both were. Laughter would be their reward when they got back to the city, to the warehouse, and into the Lounge.
Breeze all but glided forward, making practically no sound with the carpet underhoof, but his eyes flicked right every time he passed a door, and he paused to listen to the sounds, or lack thereof, from within. He might have been wearing the shape of a guard, a pony known around here, and that might buy him a little time should there be a confrontation, but only a little. That same guard wasn't known for being the kind of stallion to desert his post. Get spotted indoors, and it could end up making the mission a little more complicated.
On the other hoof, coming across somepony on the way was not a terrible thing; it meant a fresh disguise, one that would seem more natural moving around indoors. Provided, of course that he could take them down. And take them down with speed and stealth.
No audible activity from behind any of the doors. There was a temptation to open them and make certain each room was clear, but that would take far, far too long. Besides, the noise of a door opening could wake somepony sleeping within, and if a room was occupied by more than two then the changelings were, to put it bluntly screwed.
So he kept walking, and restricted himself to listening. The lack of activity was something of a mixed blessing. In objective terms it was good, it meant that the likelihood of somepony emerging behind them was low, but it also meant that so far, none of the manor's occupants were accounted for. It left Breeze tense, fighting to keep his muscles relaxed as he walked. He knew it was foolish, that tactically speaking they were in the better situation, but his gut told him that he'd rather have enemies behind, just so long as he knew where they were.
No use griping, though, not over things that he couldn't control. There was a slight creak below him as a floorboard shifted, but no other sound. None that would carry, at least. There was always the sound of his heart hammering in his ears, the liquid noises of his throat as he swallowed a mouthful of sticky saliva. His jaw cracked open, relieving some pressure, reducing the distracting thud-thump. They were nearing the end of the main house; up ahead, the corridor took a near ninety-degree bend as it entered the left wing. There were stairs up, that much was certain, even if the cellar wasn't where it ought to be, and that meant there would be guards. He paused, a foot or so from the sharp bend, and pressed his bulk up against the wall.
Sun came up close behind him, copying the motion. The plan was simple, and unspoken, leaving little room for error. Walk around the corner with head held high and a confident stride, drawing in the guards with familiar faces. If there were more than two, retreat and rethink. Two or less, once in range strike first and strike hard. Throat, temple or jaw, or a solid blow to the gut. Easy.
A moment for a slow and silent breath. Breeze's jaw was already closing again as nerves ate at him but he very consciously unclenched his teeth, reaching out by reflex to feel his magic. But it didn't answer him; no horn, of course, nor wings, just an earth pony's legs, and that was where it would be already. He glanced back at Sun, and the other changeling gave a single, deliberate nod.
At that moment another shape rounded the corner ahead of them.
It managed to avoid running into Breeze by a hair's breadth, looking up with eyes that widened as the head pulled back an inch or so. A unicorn mare, slight and lithe, her mane cropped short in an almost coltish fashion. She blinked, her mouth already opening to speak.
Some other ponies might have claimed that they moved without thought; Breeze did not. His mind raced with possibilities. Were there more guards down the hall? Maybe. Maybe not. No way to tell. If there were, would they be paying attention? Standing at the stairs? Or might they be following her? The carpet that had muted Breeze and Sun's steps had muffled hers just as nicely, and it could well be muffling the hoofbeats of a whole train of ponies.
Immaterial. The issue was straight ahead. A problem that had to be dealt with now, regardless of what would come after. He could deal with them when - if - they came.
That train of thought passed through his head in less than a second. Not as coherent imagining but rather as a lightning fast series of realisations, near-reactive impulses. He stepped back, eyes flicking over the mare, visualising weak spots with the sort of hard-edged speed and clarity that only an adrenaline spike could bring.
Without hesitation Breeze slammed his forehoof up and into the mare's chin. Whatever she'd been about to say died in a muffled grunt of shock and pain before the second strike took her in the horn, making it spark. Her eyes rolled back, body stiffening.
Breeze pressed his advantage, leaning in to hook a foreleg around her neck and pull her all the way out of the view of anypony who might have been watching from the left wing. Sun moved without word or gesture, catching the mare with a short but heavy blow to the side of her jaw. She went down with only a faint exhalation, a rush of air from shocked lungs.
Definitely unconscious, but not for long. Breeze took the leaden weight across his shoulders, counting the seconds, already starting back for the nearest door even as he listened for cries of alarm or sounds of running hooves, sounds that would carry even on this carpet. But there was only silence from the blind corner.
Sun stepped in to take some of the weight, and together they heaved the mare through the first door and into the room with as much stealth as they could manage. It was dark inside, and didn't seem to be the sort of room one would sleep in; a quick scan made out nothing that resembled the shape of a bed or a sleeping form, just a dark mass in the centre of the room. Sun pulled a tinderbox from his saddlebag while Breeze lowered the mare down onto the floor, lit an oil lamp hanging near the door frame, and blinked as the flame cast a dim orange glow around the room.
Bookcases lined the walls. The shape in the middle was revealed to be a chair and desk, positioned to give whoever sat at it a view of both the door and the windows set along the far wall. A study; not the main one, that was almost certainly upstairs near the master bedroom, but one set aside for guests or other members of the household. A good place to hide, save on that rare night when someone needed a good book or a letter written at midnight. Both changelings shucked their cloaks and started to tear strips from them.
"Stupid, that was stupid," hissed Breeze through a mouthful of heavy wool. He pulled the mare's hindlegs together with rough, almost hasty motions, and wound the stripe of cloak around them. "Should've guessed somepony would be making rounds. Should've listened harder..."
Sun was already binding her forelegs, one strip tied just above her hooves and the other at her elbows. The mare was coming back up to consciousness, but slowly, twitching and moaning.
"You say that," Sun muttered, "I didn't hear her coming either, and I'd say my ears are better than yours." He spat a little wool from between his teeth. "We're still positive; that's one guard down, and a fresh disguise. I think this was the best time and place for it."
"Mm, maybe... Still, I should have been ready." Tearing another strip and ripping it in two, Breeze lifted the mare's head as her eyelids fluttered, and he stuffed one half in her mouth, balled up to press down on her tongue. She jerked, trying to spit the fabric out, but Breeze held it in place with a hoof and used the rest of the strip to tie around her head as a makeshift gag. "Easy there, miss, no need to hurt yourself..."
Sun glanced down, chewing his lip.
"You'd better take this one, I think. You've always been better at spells. Now then..." He leaned down, putting himself at eye level with her. "Listen. You're safe, so long as you don't try to kick up a fuss, all right? Nod if you understand."
She gave one, slow and confused, tears welling in the corners of her eyes. Breeze could see her brain ticking as she focused on Sun; no doubt she knew the stallion he was pretending to be, was wondering what had happened to make him turn on her.
"Good. Now, there's no sense in struggling," he said, his voice soft, almost fatherly. "We don't intend to hurt you, or anyone else, any more than we have already. Just so long as nopony gives us trouble. All we want to do is take something that by rights your boss isn't even supposed to have, and then we'll be on our way. Once we're gone you'll be picked up, safe and sound. And when they ask you what happened, I want you to tell them that you didn't see anything. You just remember waking up in here, in the darkness. You do that for me, and I promise you won't have anything to worry about. Can you do that for me?"
Another nod, this one more jerky, the tears already leaving streaks in her fur. It might have been wiser to simply force the memories into her head, but that took effort, and even if she told her rescuers everything that she'd seen, it would only point to the stallions whose forms the changelings wore.
"Very good. That's a very good girl," Sun crooned, smiling. "Now just breathe nice and slow. Try not to cry, otherwise you'll just block your nose, all right?"
They left, taking care to extinguish the lamp before they went, and in the cover of darkness Breeze flashed into the mare's mint-green form. She likely saw the emerald flash lighting the room but little else, and it was precious little to tell to anyone.
By now Breeze was starting to feel more confident with the progression of things, but he frowned when they rounded the corner into the left wing. There was a stairway at the end of the hall, as expected, a grand set leading upwards while a more modest set lead down. But there were no ponies. Either someone was shirking their duties, or the master of the house felt comfortable enough with roaming guards. And Breeze had to admit that it wasn't an unwarranted comfort; the house was remote enough to deter burglars and trespassers, and those who dared to try their luck had to face the challenge of getting into the house without raising suspicion first.
Nonetheless it made him uneasy as he descended down into the dimly lit cellar, watching the shadows with care. Months of experience outside the Hive - and a few choice experiences within it - had taught him that the time-honoured lesson of 'too good to be true' was a prudent one to learn.
Yet sometimes the die of fate chanced to roll a 20. Besides, they'd come in here with a simple plan, and the recollection brought a bitter smile to Breeze's face. Simple plan, less to go wrong. Sun's watchwords seemed to hold as much truth, for now they were coming up to their first goal, smooth as one could wish for.
The door was guarded by a surly-looking pegasus, who stood as resolute and immovable as a statue, peering at the pair with stony, suspicious eyes.
"Ginger?" he grunted to Breeze, then slipped his watchful gaze to Sun. "What's 'e doin' inside? Summit up?"
Breeze glanced back at Sun, who nodded.
"Aye... Do me a favour, will you? And tell me the truth here, do my eyes look puffy to you?"
"What?" The pegasus scowled and lean forward, locking eyes with Breeze, putting their muzzles within an inch of each other's. "I dunno what you're playin' at, Ginge, but you'd better dro-"
The command was laced with as much power as the changed dared spare, and the mind of the pegasus, though wary, wasn't wary of the right sorts of things. He went down hard, snoring before he'd hit the floor, though his snores gave way to a grunt of half-felt pain. Breeze just smirked, stepped around him and swung the door open with a little bow and a gesture to Sun.
Sun lifted a brow and flicked an ear.
"Isn't it usually 'fillies first'?"
"Ah, very nice. Glad to see the old sense of humour coming back." His voice was deadpan as Breeze stepped through into a smaller room, barely more than an oversized cupboard and just as barely lit. The light of a single candle illuminated the boxy shape of the room's single occupant; a small safe, lying on the floor, its sides dented and scored but still holding strong.
"Still can't believe the idiot stole the whole thing..." he muttered, giving it a gentle kick, just to feel the impossibly sturdy metal underhoof. "As if he could've forced it open before Goldy got somepony out to it."
He stepped aside; Sun was the only one of them trusted with the combination. The older changeling had argued that it was better for both of them to have it, just for redundancy's sake, but Gold hadn't budged on that, even when Sun had pointed out that he could easily tell Breeze the combination himself and be done with it.
"What you do is your business," Gold had replied, "but believe me, if anypony were to find out about that sort of business it wouldn't be good for you. Do the smart thing, keep it to yourself."
So it was Sun leaning down, filling the still air with the soft clicking of spinning dials, and the soft murmurs as he recited the combination under his breath. Then a heavy clunk and the squeaking of hinges as the little door swung open, revealing the contents to the flickering light; a manilla envelope, bulging with papers and sealed with wax.
"Got to wonder just what's in there," said Breeze in a soft voice, as Sun tucked it away into his saddlebags, "that's worth enough to make these ponies risk pissing off the Boss like that. Hell, that's worth enough for Gold to send us after it!"
Sun didn't answer, and Breeze didn't push the question; they'd come the a silent agreement some time ago that there really was some knowledge that wasn't worth burdening themselves with. Especially when somepony else's choice to burden himself led Gold to the dramatic ends of sending a pair of changelings out and into the 'safe haven' that this manor had been set up to be.
They didn't ask questions, they didn't poke their noses into anything. They just did the jobs they were given as well as they could, and they went home feeling more or less secure in themselves. After all, if they made a slip and learned something they shouldn't, who or what might Gold have in reserve to send after them?
And it was that thought that brought Breeze's attention back to the phantom sensation of a metal band around his foreleg. Whenever he was in disguise and thinking about what might happen if they made a break for it, the feeling would make itself known, serving as a timely reminder that Gold could indeed send someone after them. Despite their considerable talents, with the right means that stallion could find them practically anywhere.
The bands were plain things, made of hammered and unpolished steel and each set with a single gem. Gold had called them in one evening, not long after the Dragontown job, and presented them like some kind of bizarre present. Each one affixed to one of the changeling's forelegs, Breeze's left and Sun's right, woven through one of the holes and sealed shut. A measure so that neither of them could slip the things off with out serious harm, but it also had a convenient side-effect.
Since the bands couldn't remain in place when either changeling transformed, else he'd have it literally embedded in his leg, the bands would... Well, not exactly disappear, since Breeze could still feel it from time to time pressing against his skin almost as one might feel pain in a missing leg. But they were unseen, couldn't be felt by anyone else. Both there and yet not there, invisible and intangible to those who weren't wearing them, but reappearing when either of them reverted to their natural forms.
Their most important feature, though, and the very reason they'd been installed at all, was the signal transmitted by the gems. Some kind of moonstone, that harmonised with the background magical, whose signal a unicorn, changeling, anything with the right sort of magic could 'listen' to. Just so long as they knew the right frequency. And they could follow that signal all the way to the origin point.
It was Gold's way of keeping track of them, of cancelling their one most precious gifts. And Breeze had been working on a way to find the frequency, of listening to it, and perhaps even changing or blocking it altogether. Just as Sun was trying to work out a means to simply get them off. Not just because of the restrictions and the dangers it imposed upon them, but because of what it represented. Just one more sign that, however comfortable they might have been growing with this arrangement, the time would one day come to move on.
And because, in a strange and visceral sense, they reminded Breeze of the Hive. The sense of stifling control those above him felt the need to impress. It felt like exactly the sort of measure the Queen would have put in place, had she the means to do so.
It hadn't quite crossed Breeze's mind that the very fact he and Sun had been planning to run even before the bands were affixed to them might have gone some way towards justifying their presence in the first place. It had occurred to Sun, but he soothed his conscience with the thought that Gold would never had trusted them either way.
* * * * *
Barely a guard stood between them and their next target, and all it took was a distraction from Breeze and a carefully measured blow from Sun to clear the path. Concussion would haunt at least two of the manor's guards, but some other operators might not have been quite as kind. Not when one took into consideration the sort of message that the two were meant to deliver.
And here they were, staring down through the darkness at the slumbering form of a stallion who shifted in the midst of some deep dream. For the loss of his prize, the sheath of papers he had yet to read, wasn't a strong enough message for the Boss.
Breeze reached out, shaking the stallion with a hoof. He seemed almost resentful in the way he rose to alertness, coming out of sleep with groans and twitches, rolling first one way and then the other before he rubbed at his eyes and blinked up at the dark ceiling.
"Mmf... What?" he grumbled, paying little attention to the forms standing beside his bed; they were just dark shapes against the slightly paler background. "Something wrong? 's still dark, what...what time is it?"
"The Boss would send his regards," said Sun in a low voice, "but he's a little too upset to say anything cordial right now. So he sent a different message."
Bleary eyes became clear in an instant, fear throwing off the confusion of an abrupt awakening. The stallion sat up, shedding it, his eyes seeking out the dark shapes and resolving them into something he could process. Faces, names...
"Bull? What are you talking about? What are you doing inside? And...Ginger? You too?!" He turned to clamber out of bed but Breeze held up a hoof, and he froze, his face dropping as realisation mounted. "You... You're not... W-who are you?"
"We have what you stole. You can rest assured that you won't be seeing it again, nor will you have the chance to get your hooves on it, or anything that even comes close to it in value." Sun pulled the very top of the envelope from his bag, just to show that he wasn't bluffing. "Now, our Boss has been extremely generous, and at the urging of our mutual friend Gold Tooth he's been convinced that you should be allowed to continue in your services, but he also wishes it to be known that your position has sunk. All the way to the bottom of the ladder." Then he stood back, and Breeze stepped in front of him, face arranged into an impassive mask.
"That's the first part of his message, though my companion removed the obscenities. There is one other thing that we need to make clear." Clear, that was the signal. A rehearsed moment. Sun stepped around to the other side of the bed, and the pair transformed. The shapes of their disguises vanished in flashes that must have been blinding in the night, and once he'd blinked the afterimages away, the stallion shrunk back from the dark, fanged forms of the drones in their true shapes.
"If you ever - and I mean ever - try to screw the Family over like that again," Breeze hissed, "then we will pay you another midnight visit, and we will take something far, FAR more precious from you. Are we understood?"
The stallion opened his mouth to speak but no words made it past his flapping lips. So he simply nodded, a mute and pale spectre in the darkness.
"Good. We'll see ourselves out. And we'll convey your deepest apologies and most sincere well wishes to the Boss, shall we?"
Twin flashes of green illuminated the room once more, casting hard-edged shadows that died moments later. When when his night vision had recovered from the second assault, the stallion saw that the changelings were already gone, the door shut behind them.
They strode out with the shapes of the two earth stallions in place, unchallenged and unhindered. The simple plan had proven its worth, and the odds had favoured them. It was an operation that, if not textbook, was damned close, and Breeze's head was full of the near-giddy rush of satisfaction and the hot, sharp-edged afterglow of an adrenaline spike. The thrill of a dangerous job well done.
And as they stepped out into the cold night air, their own triumph warming them better than their cloaks ever had, they utterly failed to see the distant figures observing them from the frozen hills.
* * * * *
"Bet's to you, Breezie," Val said, glancing over at the changeling. There was a hint of a smirk playing on the corners of the stallion's mouth, but Breeze was fairly sure, even as he suppressed a groan at that damned nickname, that it was put on. He'd seen the pegasus in far more stressful places and the stoicism with which he'd faced them had been more than impressive. A crack under the pressure of a simple poker game? Unlikely. It had the changeling suspicious, wondering if the hand in Val's hoof wasn't quite as good as appearances would have him believe, and he was hoping that the 'slip' in his poker face would intimidate the table.
Unless he was playing a more complex game. It was doubtful, but by no means definite; despite a disastrous first game both Breeze and Sun were developing reputations, not only for their own poker faces, but their uncanny way of seeing through other players'. At least, when they put their minds to it.
Having eyes without discernible pupils helped, of course, as did faces with fewer moving parts than the average pony. Oh, they could be expressive when they wanted, but they lacked the little ticks and twitches that other faces so often couldn't suppress. This all meant that their opponents at the card table were being forced to develop new and interesting tactics to try and counter.
Breeze glanced down at his own card. He'd shucked his disguise more or less the moment that they'd arrived in the 'VIP' lounge, and on the grey frill sticking up from his neck stood four silver rings, each pierced through the membrane. Much like the steel band that now showed on his leg, they tended to vanish along with his frill, but when he was relaxing as his natural self they helped the less observant ponies distinguish between Sun and himself at a casual glance.
Despite his own pride in his poker face it was something of a struggle to keep a smile from his own muzzle. A full house peered back up at him, queens over twos, and if his guess about Val was right then he'd beaten the pegasus without contest. Sun, however... The other changeling was as impassive and unreadable as a boulder.
Still, actions spoke loader than words or expressions. "I'll see twenty," he said, pushing the bits forward with a hoof. To his left, Natalya huffed a sigh through a barely parted beak and flung her own cards down.
"Fold..." she muttered, before pushing back her chair with a little too much force and standing, headed for the bar.
That was something of a blow. The game was young, though the night itself certainly wasn't, but Nat had been doing poorly from the start, and her expression had only grown more and more sullen as bad hand after bad hand had been dealt her way. So the fold and retreat towards alcohol wasn't unexpected, but the four of them in the game were the only four in the lounge at all. If the formel was calling it a night, as far as poker was concerned, it was a matter of two changelings and a single pony. Val was brave, but there was little chance of him risking the two of them ganging up on him.
As a matter of fact it seemed to be a quiet night in general. Barely a pony was in the building, just the night staff who took care of the legitimate activities going on around the warehouse. Even Gold had neglected to meet them, having called it an early night and left one of his goons to collect the manilla envelope in his stead.
Breeze was almost too distracted by thoughts of what to do if poker was off the table to notice Sun raising the stakes to 25 bits. He blinked over at Val as he called, and with an absent mind he pushed another 30 into the table. It almost wiped out his pile but he had a hunch this was going to be a win for him. Besides, even if Sun won, the older changeling was unlikely to hoard the winnings all to himself. Outside of the lounge, and away from the other players who might have felt inclined to cry foul, they tended to split what they won between them.
As Nat poured herself out a tumbler of something strong the bet went back around the table. Sun and Val both called, and the pot was looking very fine indeed.
"Well then, gentlecolts, I think that's showdown," said Val. "Sun, would you be a dear and lead us off?" The pegasus' eyes slid, left then right, watching their expressions for a clue, a sign, anything that indicated he had the better of them.
Sun's face was as stoic as ever, even as he laid down his cards and spread them with a hoof. Two pair, threes of hearts and diamonds, with fours of hearts and clubs, and a lonely ace of spades to complete the hand.
Breeze let the ghost of a smile cross his face, eyes flicking from the cards to Val, and he could see that although the pegasus was trying to keep his face in check he couldn't suppress the little twinkle in his eye. A twinkle of triumph, no doubt. Had he misread the pegasus earlier? Perhaps so, for as Val laid his own cards down the triumph spread from his eyes to his mouth.
Oh, it was a good hand. It had Sun beat, and any other night it would have beaten Breeze, too. Another full house. Knaves over tens; diamonds, hearts and spades over diamonds and clubs.
Good, but his own was better. A sly grin spread over the changeling's muzzle as he tossed his hand down with a casual flick.
"Queens beat knaves, I think?"
Val stared down at the cards for a moment, then he threw his hooves up, leaning back in his chair with a cry of mock despair.
"Well, that's it! I'm done for the night, 'less I want to clean myself out and fill your pockets! Would that be enough for you, Breezie?" he asked, but there was a gleam of laughter in his eyes. "Or would you rather win my house from me, too? How about I sign my body over to you?"
His own grin only widening, Breeze reached out to scoop the pile of bits towards himself.
"Oh, I think I'm more than happy with the bits, thank you very much~"
"Yeah, you can go and jump at a flyswatter, you smug bastard."
In the background Natalya downed her drink and stretched, letting out an exaggerated, theatrical yawn.
"Well, if you colts are all finished up I think I'm going to call it a night here."
She set her tumbler down on the side and strode over to the door, but froze and cast a significant glare at Sun and Breeze.
"Don't tell me... Nopony's even out there," groaned Breeze, midway through pouring bits into his saddlebag.
"Almost nopony," Nat replied, tapping a leonine paw against the ground. "Cleaners and security are still hanging around, and I don't want to have to deal with Goldy because some poor night worker happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now get them on, before I come over there."
He let out another grumble but a flash in the corner of his vision told him Sun was already obeying, and so he shrugged. It was only a small effort, after all, and Nat was right; even without considering the amount of trouble it could cause in the long run, the immediate threat of dealing with an angry Gold Tooth was deterrent enough.
That was why both changelings were in disguise when, seconds later, the door exploded inwards, and why none of the members of the Fillydelphia guard who came storming through the empty door frame saw them in their true forms.