Ciphers

by Grand_Moff_Pony


Epilogue: In Plain Sight

Attention passengers: Train 402, with non-stop service from Canterlot, will arrive in approximately five minutes. Please remember to leave room on the platform for arriving passengers. Thank you.

The portions of the recorded announcement that weren't garbled by the rain were drowned out by the incoming train's horn, which heralded its imminent arrival with three short blasts. To Cipher, it felt more like six or seven blasts, as each one reverberated around the empty platform.

He had pulled many a late shift here when he was still a fresh-faced rookie in the Royal Guard, but he still couldn’t recall Manehattan Central ever being as empty as it was right then. He had arrived at the station over an hour early, and had already done everything he could think of to pass the time – read a newspaper found on a bench, nursed a double latte from the little coffee stand around the corner from the ticketing windows, talked to the lone janitor sweeping the floors… he even re-traced his old patrol route around the station grounds. Twice.

Now the coffee stand had closed for the night, the two other ponies who were waiting to pick somepony up had gone outside, and the janitor had moved to the far side of the station, leaving Cipher alone inside the cavernous arrivals hall. Not for the first time that evening, Cipher felt well and truly nervous. He had been preparing for this moment for the better part of a week, yet with mere minutes left to go, he felt like a new recruit on his first day of bootcamp, or a young colt standing outside his date’s house, afraid to even knock on the door. He may have risen to the top ranks of the Royal Guard’s intelligence division, but in that moment, Cipher had almost no idea how any of this would go.

Then again, he thought, I didn’t know how it would go when I asked her to that Spring dance…

Cipher’s mind offered no resistance to the tidal wave of memories that followed: that awkward first dance, lunches and dinners at Donut Joe’s, late night coffee runs while studying for final exams, poems, love letters, holding hooves and entwining tails, kisses underneath shady trees, and more than a few makeouts in the shadows of the Lunar Gardens.

In those fond moments they became friends, then something more. Even now, Cipher’s heart swelled with joy.

But those happy memories turned to dust when his thoughts reached their senior year. Their relationship, and their entire world, were turned upside down overnight. She was forced to withdraw; first from school, and then from the outside world. Her family turned on him as well, wielding money and politics to slowly tear them apart.

And they would have succeeded too, had he not resorted to teaching her some of his craft, encoding their correspondence in ways normally used for espionage. Their otherwise simple letters became like puzzles, each one hiding far more words than were visible to her parents' prying eyes. They even enlisted their friends to pass the messages back-and-forth, like a covert postal system.

Yet for every letter they managed to get through to each other, their relationship only frayed that much more. As her family’s grip on her every move tightened, Fleur became less a pony and more like a ponyquin in an upscale boutique—always on display, always expected to look perfect. And no matter what he tried, Cipher could only watch from the outside, unable to break the glass wall of wealth and influence that had been placed between them.

Even now, Cipher’s heart clenched in a near rage over the treatment they each endured at her family’s hooves.

Then came Manehattan: the beautiful, wonderful, painful fruit of months of scheming and plotting disguised as nigh unreadable poetry; fancy dresses and an even fancier dinner; balcony seats on Bridleway; then a secluded park bench, a bottle of wine, and a basket of cheese.

A river of tears became a fountain of love; a fountain of love, a tidal wave of unrestrained passion.

In those fleeting moments under Luna’s night sky, they became soulmates. Even now, Cipher’s heart burned as it had on that night.

Damn it all, I shouldn’t have let her go back.

Cipher remembered that morning all too well. They had come to this same train station and stood together in this same hall, holding hooves and fighting back their emotions as they counted the seconds until reality came to rip them asunder once more. Every fiber of his being had screamed at him to put his hoof down and stop her, knowing that if he let her board that train, he'd lose her forever.

"The one time I ignore my gut, and look what happened..." Cipher grumbled as he began pacing in circles around a pair of benches. A burst of thunder rolled through the air, and Cipher couldn't help but chuckle. "Even the weather thinks I got it wrong!"

Attention passengers: Train 402, with non-stop service from Canterlot, is now arriving at platform seven. Please allow space on the platform for disembarking passengers. Thank you.

A long blast from the train's horn punctuated the end of the monotone announcement. Cipher turned to look outside just in time to see the locomotive's huge headlight round the final curve toward the platform. Screeching brakes and billowing steam filled the air as the train slowly came to a full stop.

Now the question is, Cipher thought as he moved outside to the platform and stopped just outside the glow of a nearby lamp post, can I still make it right?

The conductor rang the train's bell twice, signaling the all-clear, and passengers began to disembark. As expected for such a late hour, the train was far from full. Including a squad of uniformed Lunar Guard thestrals and a gaggle of well-dressed ponies — the latter likely returning from a concert or gala — Cipher counted barely two dozen passengers alighting onto the platform. The rain and the slightly chill air quickly drove the new arrivals inside the station proper, leaving the platform empty once again.

Okay, I know I have the right train. Coco said she was coming... Cipher took a few steps this way and that, to try and get a better view through the falling rain and clouds of steam still wafting from beneath the train. He was about to trot back inside and double check the arrivals board when he heard another train car door opening.

Cipher moved towards the far wall of the platform to get a better view. Through a break in the fog, he saw a single unicorn emerge from the second-to-last car. His breath caught in his throat.

Fleur exited the train car and halted at the top of the stairs just outside the door. Staring at the threshold, she felt a sense of poetic irony at her situation. I had to cross a threshold when this all began, Fleur thought as she gazed out into the wall of rain and steam that awaited her, and now I have to cross another one to end it.

She took another look at the steady rain falling mere feet in front of her. “Whatever happens, I can’t go back anyway.” Fleur sighed, then took a deep breath and squared her shoulders a bit. Her horn flared to life, and two large suitcases began to hover just behind her. She closed her eyes in concentration as she channeled more magic into her horn. Her pink aura brightened for a moment as the extra spell took hold, and a pink shield bubble cascaded down around her.

Luggage and arcane umbrella secure, Fleur steeled herself and slipped on the all-too-familiar mask of prim, detached beauty, if only to maintain just the appearance of composure. At least until I get to Coco’s place, anyway.

Fleur crossed the threshold, and stepped out into the weather. The muffled pitter-patter of the rain against her shield might have been soothing to her, if she wasn't focused on keeping her balance on the slick stairs. Short, careful steps saw her down onto the platform, and Fleur let out a relieved sigh. She looked around, but between the rain and the rolling clouds of steam, she couldn't see much of anything. I doubt Coco's out here in this rain. I’ll head inside and look for her there.

Course set, Fleur re-checked her luggage and stepped through the nearest cloud of steam, and after spotting part of a sign for the arrivals hall, veered left towards it. She was so focused on her destination, however, that she didn’t think to look at what was directly in front of her.

Nor did she notice the moderately sized lip in the pavement that marked the end of the ‘passenger loading zone’ and the rest of the platform.

“Wha– Ah!” Fleur squealed in panic while her hooves found nothing but air and she toppled over like a house of cards. Her magic sputtered and then flickered out as she collapsed, and her suitcases soon joined her on the soaked pavement.

The rough impact brought a fresh shock to her system that blew up into an even bigger panic when her senses caught up to the deluge of water that both she and her bags was now exposed to. “Oh nonono! My bags!”

Fleur scrambled back to her hooves while her magic lashed out wildly in an attempt to grab her luggage. In her haste to cast the spell, one of the bags slipped out of her grasp and fell onto its top side, cracking the clasp and sending the bag’s contents spilling out into the open. Curses continued to fly as she shoved the various articles of clothing and knickknacks into the bag and slammed it shut, but when she tried to lift it again, the clasp fully broke off, and her items were once again lying about her hooves.

Fleur just stood there for a moment, staring at the mess of ruined clothes with equal parts disbelief and anger. She couldn’t decide if she wanted to scream or cry. So she did both.

Fleur's temper ran white hot for an instant as she raged at the offending luggage, stomping all over them in an effort to beat them out of existence. “To Tartarus with you gaudy pieces of trash!” Totally oblivious to the rain, she turned and stomped to the far edge of the platform and stared back down the tracks that had brought her here, as if she could see straight through to Canterlot. “I can’t ever be what you wanted!” she screamed into the night. “I can’t, and I won’t! Do you hear me?!”

"Yes, I hear you loud and clear…”

The hair on the back of her neck bristled as the sound echoed in her mind. Even through the rain, she knew that voice. She couldn’t deny it, yet she couldn’t believe it either. It can’t be.

She caught a burst of light to her left, and turned just in time to see a wave of light green magic roll past her and sweep away some of the steam. A shield bubble sprang up around her in its wake, sparing Fleur from the downpour. Fleur’s mouth hung slightly open as she searched for a sign of the magic’s source.

“But really, I always liked you just the way you were.”

The voice came again, this time from behind Fleur, and she whirled around to face it.

What Fleur saw stole the breath from her lungs.

Mon amour…

She blinked once, twice, three times, as if what she was seeing was only a mirage. She wanted to run forward, but her legs wouldn’t move, to say a name, but her tongue wouldn’t speak. It was all she could do to just stand and stare, with a drenched mane plastered to a matted coat, her eyes as wide as saucers, her heart as full of doubt as it was hope. It wasn’t until she felt a hoof touch her cheek, and she looked up into a pair of vivid green eyes, that she accepted what—and who—she was seeing.

“H-how?”

"I work event security when I’m off duty, to make some extra bits. All of a sudden, your name disappears from the guest list at all of the big galas—and the charity drives too. Then Swift Wing tells me that your husband was in attendance at no less than three debutante parties as recently as last month. Didn't need to be an intel officer to know something was up."

Fleur's mind reeled with possibilities, each more gut wrenching than the last. She fought the urge to scream again, but just barely. "Still," she finally managed, "h-how'd you know to be here?"

“Coco.”

"Oh..." Fleur’s ears drooped, along with her shoulders. The rest of her soon followed, and she plopped down onto her haunches. That urge to scream quickly became an urge to run and hide instead. “What... did she tell you?”

"That the, um..." Cipher paused for a moment to consider his words. "Well, that you had been living separately for months now, but you were still making scheduled events together to keep up appearances. At least until the last few weeks, anyway."

Fleur flinched as if struck when she heard those words. The memories of those last few weeks—and what she had endured from inside her opulent prison—threatened to rip open her wounds all over again. Cipher's eyes widened with concern and he began to reach toward her. "Fleur?"

She didn't look back up at him. "Just... go on. What else?"

Cipher nodded. "What else? Right." His hoof just hung in the air for a moment, but finally, he let it slowly drop back to the ground. Instead, he gently lit his horn and went to work wringing some of the water out of her sopping mane. "Coco said the whole thing was being kept quiet, so nothing would appear in any of the celebrity rags. Which probably also explains why she was making space for you in the loft above her shop." Fleur didn't move an inch as he worked.

"Pretty smart move on her part, too," Cipher added as he drew more water from her hair. "May I?" Fleur only nodded her head in response. With deliberate movements, Cipher moved his magic down to the ground; first to sweep a puddle away, then to fan out Fleur's tail, so it too could be wrung out.

"Paparazzi’s unlikely to check her boutique, which gives you both some more space." Cipher quietly stepped to her opposite side and went to work on the rest of her tail. "Knowing them, they'll get distracted by the next shiny object quickly, and then leave you alone." He let his magic sift through the strands of Fleur's tail one more time and gave it a soft fluff before placing it back down. "Better?" Again, a quiet nod was the only response he received.

Cipher thought about taking her inside for a cup of coffee, only to remember that everything in the terminal was closed for the night. But on further thought, he did know of one place in Manehattan that was sure to be open at such an hour.

“Let me get you out of this rain, Fleur,” he said as he tried to brush her coat with a bit of magic. “And get you something warm to drink. That okay?”

Fleur looked up at him and gave a slight smile. “Y-Yes, please.”

Cipher sent another tendril of magic out and quickly collected the scattered remnants of her luggage. A quick flick of his horn turned the shield into a floating bubble that was able to move with them. “Shall we?”

“Alright, here’s those drinks,” the waiter, a tall, lanky Earth pony, announced as he approached. “One dark roast with cream and two sugars, and one triple latte.” He set the drinks down on the table, along with a few napkins. “Enjoy.” The waiter smiled at them before quietly disappearing back into the kitchen, leaving Cipher and Fleur alone in the cafe’s small dining area.

Cipher slowly stirred his coffee while a hundred different thoughts swirled in his mind. As he mulled his next words, his eyes couldn't help but look at Fleur, and what he saw both lightened and burdened his heart in equal measure.

To his eyes, she looked as beautiful, as elegant, as alluring as ever. The wet coat, the disheveled mane, the streaked makeup... Cipher saw none of it. All he could see was the same mare that captured first his attention, then his heart, and then his soul. The same mare he fell completely in love with, and for whom he would have gladly thrown his life's work away.

Yet at the same time, Cipher saw a mare who was utterly distraught, and entirely drained of energy. His mind wandered back to that fateful day in her bedroom, where they had stood face-to-face with each other, with their love on the line and escape a mere spellcast away. Yet even then—even as he had watched Fleur surrender to her fate and break both their hearts—not even then did Fleur look as fragile as she did now.

"So, Coco told me a lot about what’s going on. But..." Cipher took a small sip of his coffee. "That's not really all, is it?" He reached across the table with a hoof and gently brushed the curtain of damp hair away from her face. "What didn't Coco tell me?"

Fleur sat quietly for what seemed like an eternity. If not for the small rise and fall of her sides, Cipher could have mistaken her for a statue. "Coco told you everything that I told her," she finally admitted.

"Then what didn't you tell Coco?"

"What she didn't need to know, Cipher." Fleur looked him in the eyes for but a moment, yet the pain in her eyes was palpable. "And what I'm not sure even you need to know either."

Her words felt like a slap across the nose to Cipher. "Fleur, I..." he sighed a bit. "Look, whatever I may be to you right now, I have been and always will be your friend. Nothing can change that. And right now, you need a friend more than ever." He cupped her chin with a hoof and drew her gaze upwards. "Maybe I don't need to know, but I want to know. Tell me what happened, Fleur. Please!"

"It's not what did happen, Cipher.” Fleur's eyes drooped again, along with her voice. “It's what didn't happen."

Cipher’s brow furrowed. “What didn’t happen?”

“I...” Fleur stopped for a deep, slow breath, as if she had to fight to get the words out. “Promises were made, and I didn’t—or rather, couldn’t—deliver.” Her eyes briefly followed a few drops of water as they rolled down the outside of the window. “I couldn’t give him what he wanted from me.”

“Wha–” Cipher nearly choked on his coffee. He sputtered for a moment before forcing the hot liquid down his throat. “Not give him what he wanted? Fleur, what could you have possibly not done for that plothole? You gave up ballet, university, starting a career of your own…” He slapped his mug down on the table with a loud thunk. “You gave up the life you really wanted, for pony’s sake!”

Cipher’s eyes softened. “What more could he possibly want from you?”

The sound of rolling thunder in the distance made Fleur shiver. She tried to take another sip of her coffee to calm her nerves, but found it tasted bitter now, as if it had gone cold too quickly. She forced herself to swallow before peering back toward Cipher.

“The same thing nearly every pony wants at some point.”  Her gaze fell to the table. “A legacy.”

Cipher’s brow furrowed. “Legacy? He comes from one of the richest families in Equestria! He got half his wealth handed to him on a platter by his folks, who got it from theirs, and on and on. And when the time comes he’ll just pass it all to his—” Cipher paused as the meaning of her words began to sink in. “foals…” His eyes shrunk to pinpricks as the full reality of what Fleur had really said ripped into his psyche like a buzzsaw.

“Oh no. Fleur, I—”

Fleur’s eyes met Cipher’s. Her instincts screamed at her to look away in shame, but Fleur willed herself to hold his gaze. She hoped against hope that if she stared long enough, he’d see the full, ugly core of her pain. And maybe, just maybe, she’d find a glimmer of hope for herself somewhere in his own eyes.

Without a word, Cipher scooted out of his seat and slid over to Fleur’s side of the booth. He opened his hooves to her, and she all but collapsed into his embrace. They didn’t say anything again for a while. Cipher just held onto Fleur as she cried out more pent up anguish and frustration than he ever thought a pony could possibly contain. And in between the tears, Fleur laid bare the full scope of a constant fight against her own body that broke her physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Initial struggles were shrugged off as bad luck, or bad timing, or a thousand other excuses. Then came the aphrodisiacs, the supplements, and even ‘sex therapists.’ And finally, more doctors and alchemists than she could count, each one pushing treatment plans or ‘miracle cures’ that only provided false hopes.

Cipher’s blood boiled in his veins as she spoke of days spent under constant watch by nurses and maids who watched her core temperatures as much as her eating habits. He bristled at her recounting of countless nights spent ‘trying again’, or forcing herself to drink yet another ‘fertility elixir’ that tasted like bad wine, or when she was able to do it unseen, simply crying into her pillow.

Part of him wanted to jump on the train back to Manehattan and beat the snot out of her ex-husband and every other pony who had inflicted so much pain on one of their own. Yet through it all, he held his love close, if only to calm her shudders, and whisper in her ear—even just to remind her to breathe.

Finally, when Fleur’s eyes had run dry, and every last bit of herself had been laid bare for them both to see, Cipher gently kissed her forehead, and leaned back to brush her mane over her neck. “Fleur, I… I wish I’d have known. I could have—”

“T–There was nothing you could have done,” she whispered. “At least this way, it’s quiet. Nopony else has to know. Though I guess a hefty investment check from my father’s business did most of the work there. Ironic, isn’t it?” Fleur sniffled. “My family’s wealth trapped me in that marriage, yet that same money helped set me free.”

Cipher nodded. “Indeed. And shame on them for thinking that love is something to be bought and sold like some kind of trinket.” He let a tiny smile from creep into his lips. “If they really knew you, they’d have known your love can’t ever be bought. Not for any price,” he added with a small chuckle.

Now it was Fleur who couldn’t stop the ghost of a smile from reaching her lips. “So, what’s next?” she asked. “For me, I mean?”

Cipher tapped a hoof on the table in thought. “First, you rest. Coco’s got a room ready for you, and between her and I, we can get you whatever you need. And when you’re ready, we can talk about what you want to do next.”

“What about you?” Fleur asked. “I guess I always assumed you had gone to Vanhoover anyway…”

“I did, for a while,” Cipher replied. “I needed something new to help me sort my own feelings out. Try to make peace with it all, if nothing else. But I came back as soon as spots opened up here again. Closer to my hometown, at least. And you.”

“But what about your career?” she asked. “Even I know guards make more bonus pay on long distance assignments.”

Cipher let his head rest against Fleur’s. “Let me worry about the bits. You worry about you. And as for that,” Cipher placed a hoof onto her side and looked deep into her eyes. “It doesn’t change a thing for me. You’re still my best friend, and the mare that I love. The mare that I never stopped loving. Foals or not, I want to spend my life with you. Maybe we find a way after all. Maybe we adopt, or foster, or both. Point is, whether we’re a party of two, or three, or more, it’s us that I want more than anything in the world.”

Fleur nodded. “Believe me, I do too, Cipher. But I also know that things have changed. We’ve changed.” She placed a hoof on her chest. “I’ve changed.

Cipher opened his mouth. “But—”

She raised her hoof to cut off his reply. “I know you love me, Cipher. And I still love you. Truly, I do. But as much as I want to just pick up right where we left off, we both know it’s not that simple.”

Fleur took Cipher’s hoof in her own. “It may have been a loveless marriage, but I was still married, and being married changes a mare no matter what. I wish that I could just flip a switch and go back to the pony I was when you appeared in my room that day, but to be honest, I need time to recover, to find me again. To be honest, Cipher—” She blinked away fresh tears. “I need to learn how to love again.”

Cipher wiped a stray tear from Fleur’s muzzle before wrapping his hoof around hers. His mind scrambled to find the right words to say. But an old memory came to him unbidden, and as his eyes wandered the still-empty cafe, he couldn’t help but grin.

“Where was our first date?”

“Our first date?” Fleur started for a second but quickly recovered. “Donut Joe’s, of course.” She smiled through a few more tears. “You let me have the last chocolate frosted cake too, even though it was your favorite.”

Cipher waved a hoof out toward the room. “What better place for us to start over, than at another donut shop?”

Fleur’s eyes followed his hoof, and slowly swept over the cafe. Then she laughed. It was a halting, timid laugh, but to Fleur it felt like the first ray of sunshine breaking through a grey sky. For the first time in what like eons, she felt a tiny spark of real hope stirring inside of her.

She closed her eyes and leaned back into Cipher’s chest. “I’d like that,” she sighed. “And maybe another chocolate frosted cake.” She kept up a playful smirk for a few seconds before laughter overtook them both.

They were still laughing when the waiter emerged from the kitchen, his dark coat stained white with fresh flour. Cipher flagged him down, and soon two fresh drinks joined two chocolate frosted cake donuts on the table in front of them.

As she stirred in some extra sugar, something rough grated against the spoon. She gently lifted the cup in her magic to look closer, and noticed a small chip in the well worn ceramic.

“Broken cup?” Cipher asked while pouring cream into his cup. “I can ask him for a new one.”

“No need,” Fleur answered. She smiled, and gently set the cup back down. “It’s not perfect, but it’ll survive.”

“So,” Fleur said before biting into her donut. “Tell me about Vanhoover...”

They talked, and ate, and talked some more. Tears flowed, but so too did laughter. And as the evening wore on, and the rain came down, Fleur felt the last remnants of the mask begin to crumble into dust. The strings that had bound and controlled her for so long began to unravel, and for the first time in a long time, Fleur truly felt in control of her own fate.

She wasn’t sure what the future would bring for either of them, but as she looked over at Cipher, she was confident in one thing.

This time, their love—and their story—would be in plain sight.