“One, two, three steps forward, then stop.”
Four polished hooves, each buffered by equally polished silver shoes, clacked across the wood floor.
“One, two, three more, then stop.”
Wood gave way to rug, and the shoes paused their report. Only the rustling of fabric denied silence control over the room.
“Face right, wave.” The voice was cold and featureless, devoid of both tone and emotion. Had Fleur not known its owner so well, she’d have suspected the presence of a ghost.
Just means she hasn’t found anything to criticize yet.
A long, slender foreleg rose. Graceful yet rigid, formal yet coy. Hoof and shoe sparkled like diamonds in the light. Then the leg extended fully, the hoof upturned just enough to ride the line between respect and arrogance.
“Now, wave gently. Remember to turn the hoof.” The hoof rolled in a half-circle, from right to left, then back again. The unnatural motion sent pain shooting through her pastern, but Fleur hid it perfectly behind a mask of complete poise and calm. An outside observer would never be able to sense her discomfort.
“Turn left and repeat.” Hooves shuffled slowly enough to silence even the fabric, leaving only the sound of drawn breath.
“Pivot more on that heel. That’s too little.” Fleur’s muscles twitched at the command to twist further but, like a marionette, the strings directing her simply pulled harder until the heel turned to the required degree. Her balance shifted further than planned, but still her left foreleg rose as it had to, with a grace that belied her efforts to maintain her posture.
Then, just as planned, another wave, this one as practiced and reserved as the first. Another roll of the hoof, another lance of pain denied purchase by a smiling face and bright, doe-like eyes.
“Face forward—” hoof and hip moved in full concert to return her slender body to center “—and curtsey.” Smooth as ice, graceful as a ballerina. Like the hoof, this too had to be perfect.
“Hold that position.”
The strings guiding Fleur pulled taut, freezing her body at the nadir of her curtsey. Only sheer force of will prevented her legs from shaking under the strain as she waited for the final command. Just a little more...
“A commendable performance, Fleur. Now, rise,” her mother commanded. “Let them see the new you.”
She rose to full height then stopped, eyes closed, breathing steady. Count to two and open—
Fleur opened her eyes to an empty room. The stage was gone. So too was the applauding crowd and her mother’s cold, disapproving stare.
Only one pony stood in front of her. All alone, where, before, a crowd had watched with stares as cold and hard as glass.
“But who am I?”
Fleur stared into the oversized mirror, appraising, judging, criticizing every last detail. On the surface, what she saw was impressive. Gleaming hooves supported long, toned legs and a lithe body that, covered in a lustrous white coat, would break hearts and stir fantasies everywhere she went. Vibrant violet eyes and a sleek, two-tone mane framed a face that could stop traffic in an instant. That mare was a paragon of beauty, class, sophistication, and raw sexuality.
“Who are you?” Fleur muttered to her reflection before turning her attention to the bodice of her pearl-white dress, which had dug into her chest again. She shifted beneath it, even using a bit of magic to slide the delicate layers of chiffon and lace just enough to bring her a moment of relief.
Fleur turned slowly and made her way toward one of the large windows that dominated the far wall of her bedroom. She stepped gingerly to minimize the impact on her front hooves which, thanks to thrice-daily practices, had become almost unbearably sore.
“At least I know whom they are here to see.”
Her usual panoramic view over her family’s sprawling estate was broken by multitudes of white tents, along with wagons and carts, each filled to capacity with chairs, banquet tables, flower arrangements, photography equipment. Dozens of ponies scampered around them, barking orders to each other and hefting supplies in every direction. And to think that’s all just for the reception.
Far off to the right of her view, she could see members of the Canterlot Orchestra filing into the main entrance, no doubt headed immediately to the ballroom to set up. Just past them, the tall white hats of the royal chefs and their assistants poked out from behind a hedge line. Like the orchestra, they too had been hired in full to prepare a lavish, exquisite menu, with music to match.
The late afternoon sun glimmered off of the stone fountain in the main courtyard, reminding Fleur that today was originally supposed to be mostly cloudy with a slight drizzle in the morning. Or was, until my parents had the city weather chief over for tea. She had lost track of how many favors had been called in, and how many checks had been written, to arrange such a lavish event.
Under normal circumstances, Fleur might have even agreed with her mother that this would be a wedding for the ages. Yet she would have gladly traded all of it for another season performing with the Canterlot Ballet. Or a semester studying abroad in Prance. Or to go to a regular university, like most other ponies would do. But all these, and so much more, were no longer in her future. Her path forward had been chosen for her the moment she began her senior year at one of Canterlot’s most prestigious private schools.
Etiquette training replaced intramural sports, and ballet was canceled in favor of ballroom dancing. Private tutors were brought in to cover her mandatory lessons while ‘culture experts’ drilled her on the finer points of posture, voice and tone. Nearly every second of Fleur’s day was dictated to her, and only an occasional outburst of pent up frustration awarded her even a brief reprieve from the monotony of afternoon teas, weekend brunches, and formal dinners, with her playing the role of the gorgeous-but-silent centerpiece: a puppet brought out for show, then stuffed back into the corner when it was no longer needed.
Fleur pursed her lips, then turned to look around her room, where few signs of her youth, of the fun and carefree life she loved, were still visible. Romance and fantasy novels were gone, replaced by books from her father’s library. Busts and other artwork from her family’s vast collections supplanted her prized porcelain dolls. Even her favorite day bed was gone, jettisoned in favor of a gaudy chaise lounge that her mother had assured her was more befitting a mare of her age.
She sighed and moved to her vanity to ease her hooves for a moment. Fleur ran the edge of a hoof across the edge of the white and gray marble surface, frowning a bit when she hit the one scratch she never could fully polish out. Brushes, makeup, and all manner of beautification products sat in neat clusters along the upper shelves, and twin drawers to either side held clips, pins, jewelry, and other essentials.
This left the vanity’s main surface relatively bare, save for a few items: a hoof mirror, a mane brush inlaid with Neighponese pearls, and a cobalt blue perfume bottle she had acquired during a visit to Stalliongrad.
Fleur began to sit on her powder bench but stopped as a thought hit her. Her horn flared to life, and a tendril of pink magic leapt down to the long side of the bench. She knew the pattern carved into the white painted wood by heart, and it took her a scant few seconds to find the spot she was looking for. Her magic pressed against the miniscule seam between two carvings before applying a slight downward pressure.
The soft thud told her she had found her mark, and a deft flick of her magic slid the false panel to the side. She muttered a silent thank you to whoever had hollowed out the space inside of the bench. She had discovered it by accident while moving the bench and vanity to a new spot, and it quickly became a safe haven for anything she wished to shield from her parents’ endless snooping.
A small pink and white keepsake box floated out into the light a moment later, and Fleur set it on the vanity top with an almost reverential touch. The panel slid back and snapped in place as Fleur sat down, her magic already pulling the box closer to her.
She flipped the well-worn latch and opened the lid, smiling at the small picture of her grandmother that was taped to the inside of it. Fleur had been quite close with her growing up, often thinking of her as more of a mother-figure than her real mother. So when she inherited this box on her grandmother’s passing, she turned it into a sort of vault, filling it to the brim with memories – little slices of a life that had been ripped from her hooves one day at a time.
Her magic reached in and grabbed a few items at random, and Fleur couldn’t help but smile as the first object, a yellow ticket, floated into view. “Oh, my first gala. What a night that was…” Fleur’s mind drifted off while the ticket spun in the air before her. It all came back to her easily – the red carpet arrival, the exotic foods, the ballroom dancing. She broke into a fit of giggles remembering how speechless she had been when Princess Luna had stopped to autograph the back of her ticket.
Next was a carefully folded cloth napkin, her initials embroidered in a rich purple onto the bright white fabric. “Heh, my cute-ceañera.” She chuckled as an image of her stumbling around blindfolded while playing ‘pin the tail on the pony’ popped into her mind. She folded the napkin and placed it to the side before reaching back into the box.
A wave of nostalgia washed over her as she pulled more memories from the box’s embrace: The playbill from her first performance with the Ballet, a postcard from the Hoofburg Palace, a seashell her grandmother had brought her from the beaches of Maretinique. The pain in her hooves seemed to fade from her consciousness and for a moment, Fleur felt a bit more like the happy filly she once was, dancing through those memories without a care in the world.
She reached blindly into the box, her magic emerging this time with a small canvas mail pouch, carefully folded just enough to fit inside it. Fleur’s heart clenched like a vice the moment she laid eyes on it.
Fleur slowly opened the pouch, and the memories came rushing in like a warm, soothing wave. She had worked, played, and studied alongside him for years. From science lab to debate team, hoofball to spell casting, they seemed to follow each other from one activity to another.
Their home lives were different enough to send them separate ways when the classes and the games were over, but that all changed when the spring social dance came around in their first year of high school. He needed a plus one, and her original date left her hanging at the last minute to pursue another mare.
“Stars, we were so awkward back then.” Fleur couldn’t help but giggle as she glanced at the flyer she had saved from the dance.
The Spring social was followed months later by the Fall formal, which in turn led to a dinner date at Donut Joe’s cafe. The memory of them truly holding hooves for the first time sent a warm shiver up her back.
Fleur smiled wider as a carefully rolled parchment came into view next. “Oh, this is the poem, isn’t it?” She unrolled it and felt her heart melt all over again. He had written it to mark their first Hearts and Hooves Day, apparently spending weeks working through dozens of drafts. At his invitation, she met him in the park, under the shade of a great oak tree, where he read it aloud to her. Her cheeks flushed a deep crimson as she remembered that first soft kiss they shared as soon as the final couplet left his mouth.
A picture of the two of them followed, this one taken out front of his parents’ house in Trottingham, where she was introduced to his family for the first time. The small crease in the middle of the photo did nothing to dull the excited gleam in his eyes or the brilliant smile on her face.
Another picture followed that one, but this time Fleur’s smile faltered, her breath hitched in her throat. Her whole body tensed, every nerve feeling like it was suddenly balancing on a knife’s edge. She took a deep breath and looked again at the picture, she in a sundress and he in his uniform, both beaming with pride as they celebrated his induction into the Royal Guard.
Right before I started Senior year, she thought as she stared at the picture. Before everything changed.
Her magic reached into the pouch once more and retrieved a standard envelope, out of which came a single parchment, folded crisply in thirds. She opened it and began to read. She knew the words by heart, but they made her smile all the same. “My dearest Fleur…”
She continued to read quietly, whispering the words as if she were reading the letter for the first time. It was one of many letters they would exchange once her regimented schedule and her disapproving parents had made seeing each other a near impossibility. At first, many of the letters went missing, or arrived with obviously re-sealed envelopes. So we learned a new language instead.
Fleur’s eyes wandered the page, focusing on specific letters, punctuation marks, even phrases, decoding all of them in her head into the real message the letter was conveying. The tactics he was learning as a guard became a shield against her parents’ prying eyes. “If not for that, we’d have never had Manehattan…”
Her pulse quickened at the mere thought. It was almost two months to the day since she had visited one of Manehattan’s premiere boutiques to fill out her closets with the type of formal attire that she would be expected to wear from then on. A sudden departure from his unit nearly scrambled their plans, but he found a way to take a few days’ leave and was there waiting for her train when it arrived, just as his letter promised.
Fleur cringed, knowing she had barely made it off the train platform before her emotions overwhelmed her, and she laid bare the truth of her arranged betrothal. Yet you stayed…
They attended the dress fitting together, with Fleur blushing constantly under his wandering eyes and endless compliments. She thought he had been up to something, and indeed he was, as Coco Pommel left her with a parting gift of reservations to Le Bermaredin, two tickets to Manespray, and a friendly wink to her co-conspirator. The ticket stubs and a matchbook floated out of the envelope to join the letter, small reminders of the most perfect, most beautiful, most painful night of her life.
Fleur’s heart thundered in her chest as she recalled the entire night; dinner, dancing, the play, then a carriage ride out of the city to a seldom used park, where he surprised her again with a basket of cheese and a bottle of red wine. He nearly dropped the wine and they laughed. She broke down again under the weight of her future and they cried.
They gave themselves to each other and nothing was said. Only the forest heard their whispers of love; only the stars saw them become one in body and soul.
The look on his face as she boarded the train home tore at her heart like a jagged knife. Her blood ran hot for an instant, her mind searching her insides for the knife in order to turn it against its wielder – to rip herself free from the strings that bound her, and the puppeteer that had marched her to the brink of losing everything she held dear. Fleur stared into the mirror, at the perfect, hollow face of the other her, and clenched her teeth. “I could never be you.”
“Good, because I like you just the way you are.”
Fleur’s eyes shot open at the sudden intrusion on her private thoughts, and her magic petered out as she hastily slid the picture and the pouch haphazardly beneath the box. She swung around in her chair, a terse reminder about knocking before entering a mare’s room at the tip of her tongue, until she saw them – green eyes. Green eyes framed by a light blue mane over a smokey gray coat.
Green eyes that could only belong to one pony.
Fleur shot out of her chair and nearly bounded across the room, magic already swinging out past him to shut the bedroom door. She threw herself into his embrace, letting all of her weight fall against his chest. Fleur shuddered with barely restrained joy at the mere touch of his hoof on her withers, and she couldn’t help but smile as a few tears darkened the soft fur on his shoulder.
She leaned in a bit and glanced up toward him. “H-how did you get in here?”
“Through the west service entrance, around the pool, past the rose garden and in through the sun room.”
Fleur started. “Seriously? Were you seen?”
“Sure was!” He chuckled. “Waved to some gardeners and chatted up a couple of the cooks while I passed through the kitchen. I came right on up from there.”
“And nopony questioned you at all? Not even the cooks?”
“Of course not; they were busy anyway. Can’t make soufflés for a thousand ponies in five minutes, you know. Besides—” Cipher stepped back, and turned showing off his crisp servant’s uniform “—who’s going to question a random server when he says the mare of the hour needs water?”
“Water?” Fleur’s eyes followed Cipher’s hoof to a nearby end table, where a silver tray with a carafe of water awaited. She stared back at him, undecided if she should scold him for taking such a risk or compliment him on the way the suit jacket’s tails draped over his flanks. “That’s crazy, and stupid, and—okay, romantic, but still!”
“You do recall that I signed up for the Guard’s intelligence division, right? So, how did I do?” Cipher added with a wink.
“How did you—” Fleur shook her head and smiled through a sigh. “Never mind that.” Fleur stepped closer and touched a hoof to his foreleg, shivering at the familiar spark along her fur. “I—Cipher, I need to apologize.”
Cipher wrapped a hoof around hers, drawing her eyes. “For what? The letters? Fleur, we both knew your family was messing with the letters. Heck, I know a few of the mail ponies were helping them too by conveniently misdirecting a few of them. But we managed alright in the end.”
“Somehow...” Fleur squeezed his hoof, a faint smile teasing the corner of her lips. “Thanks in no small part to some sleight of hoof on your part.”
Cipher snorted back a laugh. “Who knew misplaced dashes and odd similes could say so much?”
“I’m just glad nopony figured out what we were really saying,” Fleur answered quietly. “If not for that, I wonder if any of our letters would have gotten through.”
Cipher nodded his head. “Speaking of which, I think I owe Storm Shield about a dozen ciders by now too.”
“Storm Shield? Your friend from boot camp?” Fleur cringed, thinking of a way to avoid implicating her one mail link outside of her home, but Cipher’s smirk stopped her. “W-wait, you knew he was taking my letters from outside of Donut Joe’s?”
Cipher leaned down and gently kissed her on top of her head before leaning his muzzle close to her ear. Fleur shuddered as his warm breath wafted through her mane. “Who do you think arranged the weekly rotation to always put Storm near the cafe on Thursday mornings?”
Fleur gasped. “Okay, sneaking in here was one thing, but changing the rotation schedule? Even I know that’s asking for it.”
“And it would be, if my commanding officer didn’t owe me one for bailing him out of a Ponyville bar before he started a drunken fight.”
“Iron Hoof?” she asked, eyebrows piqued. “What did he do?”
“Oh, not much.” Cipher shrugged his shoulders. “Just made a bad pass at the one farmer in town who just happens to be an element bearer, then called her a prude for rejecting him.”
“Oh, wow.” Fleur tittered.
“Yeah, let’s just say I managed to salvage his dignity and probably his teeth too.”
They laughed over their mutual friend’s misfortune and, for just a moment, Fleur felt a familiar happiness well within her, a kind of serenity that only his presence could bring. She tried to compact that feeling and store it somewhere deep inside her, a nourishment for her soul to be rationed over the many years to come.
Despite the ray of sun on her heart, dark clouds loomed, and Fleur could no longer deny their existence. She drew a deep breath and looked at Cipher. “You stopped writing though, after Manehattan.”
“I know, and I—” he sagged a bit and sat on his haunches “—I just didn’t know what to say. What could I say, really? Tell you that it’s alright, that I’m okay with it? Or reject it outright and you as well?” Cipher tensed as his lips fell into a deep frown.
“Both would be a lie, and neither would do anything for you but make things harder than I know they already are. We’re lovers, Fleur, but we’ve been friends for far longer. I can’t cheer you on in this, but I won’t just abandon you like that either.
“Then again...” Cipher scuffed a hoof against the floor. “I suppose it makes sense. Ponies like me usually don’t get the dream mare at the end of the day anyway.”
“What do you mean ‘ponies like you’?” Fleur asked, her brows furrowed.
“Regular ponies, average ponies. Like me – I’m just another colt in class, another stallion in the Guard. No riches, no fame, nothing special about me.”
“But that’s exactly why I love you, Cipher. Because you’re you. You don’t pretend to be somepony you’re not. You don’t hide behind pretty masks and vapid platitudes. You don’t dance to the whims of others’ hooves because you don’t have to.” Cipher raised an eyebrow at that, but Fleur continued on.
“I love you because you’re real, Cipher. All of this—” Fleur swept a hoof towards her room “—is for show. None of it is real.” The dam holding back her tears broke and Fleur’s hind legs buckled, leaving Fleur whimpering and cowering on the floor. “And in a few hours, everything about me will be no more than a pretty facade. My face, my demeanor, even—” she sniffled through more tears “—even my marriage.”
She felt his hooves drape over her withers, but Fleur could do little more than lean into him and sob, shudders running up and down her back with each ragged breath. “E-every step dow—” a wrenching sob broke what little voice she had for a moment “—down that aisle will f-feel like another slap in your face.”
Cipher drew a hoof under her mane and flipped it behind her ear, then kneeled on his forelegs in front of her. “What if you didn’t have to walk down the aisle at all?”
Her mind grabbed the words just before they slipped through her consciousness, and she paused mid-breath. “Wh—what do you mean?”
Two train tickets appeared in front of her, suspended in Cipher’s green aura. Fleur wiped the bleariness from her eyes and focused on them, then gasped. “V-Vanhoover? But, h-how—”
“A carriage is waiting for us at the entrance to this neighborhood, and I—” a small orb floated from his coat pocket to join the two tickets “—have a single-use teleportation orb. The spell’s good for up to two ponies without baggage. Just tap it and we’ll be on the evening train before anypony knows what happened.”
Fleur’s heart nearly leapt out of her chest, her mind racing in a thousand directions at once. “But where would we go? Where would we stay? Y-you can’t just leave the Guard, and what about the mon—mmph!”
Cipher silenced her with a slow, gentle kiss. “I’ve already prepared my transfer to the Vanhoover unit. I’ll submit the paperwork when we get there. My family’s not rich, but they have enough to help us out at first. And you—” he kissed her again, sending Fleur’s heart into overdrive “—can do whatever you want to do once we get there.”
She didn’t need to question his seriousness; she could see it in his eyes, along with the reflection of hope and love that was in her own eyes too. The cords that bound her all seemed to fall away from her heart then, and the ember of hope became an inferno in an instant.
Fleur leaned back and touched a hoof to her lips, savoring the heat from his kiss, unable to think. The gate was open in her mind, so close she could almost taste real freedom, real happiness again. Her mind galloped towards it, growing almost giddy with anticipation with each thunderous step. Yet the further she ran from one web, a new one began to form around her, eating away at her momentum bit by bit until it had wrapped her in new, more painful bindings.
Her breathing faltered as a new set of strings sunk their hooks into her and corralled her. “If only it were that easy—”
Cipher snorted, frustrated. “What are they going to do? Subject us to bad tea parties and frilly outfits? Even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t mess with a member of the Guard.”
“You forget who my family is, or what they are capable of,” Fleur deadpanned. “You remember the Hearth’s Warming market last year?”
“Of course I do. How could I forget?” he added, nuzzling her gently. “You ditched that snobby Bluemane character that your parents had set you up with, and we met out at the market that night. We drank hot cider, built snowponies, sang carols—” he sighed wistfully “—made out under that gazebo in the Lunar Gardens...”
“It was Blueblood, as in Prince Blueblood,” Fleur answered pointedly. “And though I’d do it again in a heartbeat, it didn’t come without cost.”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t so bad, right? Okay, I was a bit freaked out when Captain Armor himself showed up at my barracks unannounced, but it was just a slap on the hoof in the end.” Cipher nudged her playfully. “Could’ve been much worse, I suppose.”
“That’s just it, Cipher. It could have been much worse. In fact, it nearly was.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you very nearly lost your career in the Guard before it even got started.”
Cipher choked on his breath. “W-wait, what? Huh?”
“My parents were furious, but my father, well, he was on the war path. He wanted to disown me for ‘shaming’ his good name like that, said I wasn’t worthy to even call myself his daughter for what we did.” Fleur steeled her gaze. “But then he threatened you.”
Cipher flinched as if struck. “What?”
“He was determined to see you run out of the Guard entirely and declared unfit to serve.”
“They wouldn’t dare…” Cipher blanched as the color drained from his face.
“My father plays poker once a month with Captain Armor and his staff, and most of them owe my father for one favor or another. Trust me, you’d have been thrown out on your flank the next day if he had gotten his way.”
Cipher’s ears lowered, as did his gaze. “So what stopped him?”
“I threatened to go public with the whole thing and tell all of Equestria just what they were trying to do to you and us.”
Cipher’s jaw hung open for a moment. “Y-you did?”
“Yes, and I’d do it a thousand times over to protect you, Cipher. Punishing me was one thing; after all, I did skip out on a member of royalty.” Fleur’s eyes glowed with a fiery passion for her love and a righteous anger at the bindings that only she could see around her. “But you? Your only crime was loving me more than I thought a pony could love, and I refuse to let you suffer because of that.”
“Oh, wow… That—” Cipher hesitated, tears welling in his eyes again, “So, what happened?”
“My mother intervened and forced my father to back down. Not for my own sake, of course, or yours, but for hers. If there’s one thing I know about my mother, it’s that she hates negative press more than anything, and ‘Spiteful Canterlot Elites Trample Middle-Class Pony’s Military Dreams’ would be a very damaging headline to read.” Fleur sighed, her voice losing some of its edge.
“Of course, my father still had to get some piece of your hide for what happened—”
“The reprimand…” Cipher blanched again as the pieces clicked together in his mind. “Oh, buck. I-I had no idea…”
“Now you see what lengths they’re willing to go to,” Fleur replied flatly. “And that was just a single date. There'd be no stopping them if we ran now. My father has enough business and political contacts to blackball us overnight, and Mother would make sure our names were as good as dirt before we could find a reporter willing to hear us out. What would we do then?"
“Is that all?” Cipher lifted Fleur to her hooves, grasped her muzzle, and stared at her, deeper than Fleur had ever felt from him. “No work? No money? Fleur, I’ll dig ditches and clean toilets if I have to. We can live like peasants for all I care. I love you, Fleur. Doesn’t that mean something still?”
The strings pulled taut once more, and Fleur could almost hear the other Fleur’s voice cackling in the back of her mind. 'Yes, what can love mean to a mere puppet?'
She felt that jagged knife plunge into her again. “Cipher, I…”
'Or do you want to string him up too? Who knows, he may dance even better than you.'
A knock on the door startled them both.
“Fleur? Fleur, are you in there?”
She turned to Cipher as panic took hold of her. “That’s Mother!” she whispered between clenched teeth.
“Oh, um, yes! I’m just freshening up in the bathroom.”
“Fleur, you need to be in the parlor shortly, and I do not want to be late.”
“I know, mother! Almost done!”
Fleur heard her mother sigh through the closed door. “Alright, but I’m coming back in five minutes, and we’re going downstairs. I suggest you be ready by then.”
Time seemed to stop for both of them, and it wasn’t until she heard her mother’s hoofsteps retreat down the nearby staircase that she allowed herself to even exhale.
“What do we do?” She wheeled on Cipher, her eyes quickly filling with renewed panic. “If she catches you—”
Cipher slipped the tickets back into his pocket and stepped closer until mere inches separated them. The orb floated between them again, hovering just below their tear-stained noses. “She doesn’t have to catch either of us.”
“C-Cipher, I…” Fleur’s mind began to crumble around her. She could feel the fresh strings tying her down once more. “I… Please—”
Cipher’s entire body was shaking now, his eyes nearly overflowing with tears. “Come with me, F-Fleur. Please.”
A bitter scream of grief and anger clawed at her insides, desperate to escape her lungs. Only a hoof against his chest kept her body from collapsing as far as her mind already had. As she fought to remember to breathe, a faint voice rose in the depths of her being in a final cry for salvation, one last desperate struggle against the web that even now was cementing its grip on her.
She raised her head and looked deep into his green eyes one more time. Run and lead us both to ruin... Her eyes shifted to the mirror. Or stay and give at least one of us a chance to live.
But Fleur knew deep down that this choice, like so many before it and so many more to come, was not much of a choice at all.
The last walls around her soul fell down, and she let the other mare in. Like a slow rolling wave, she felt the other Fleur, the young, shallow, perfect trophy wife, begin to change her from the inside out.
Like so many scrambled words...
The icy wave flowed over her barrel, across her shoulders, and up the back of her neck. Fleur held Cipher’s gaze with a fragile but warm smile until she felt the mask of cold, detached, calculated beauty finally slip over her face.
The real me will be hidden from sight.
Fleur’s magic jumped across the room wildly, and Cipher watched with confused eyes as the silver tray floated toward them. The canvas pouch, filled once again with its precious cargo, soon joined the carafe in the center of the tray. Fleur glanced to the tray, then to Cipher, then back again.
Gathering what was left of her true emotions, she lifted a hoof to his cheek and pulled him closer still, their lips a hair’s width apart.
“I love you, Cipher.”
Then Fleur kissed Cipher for the last time.
Her lips moved slowly but with a desperate purpose. Fleur could feel the tears running down her cheeks and his, could taste them running across their lips like shards of bitter, salty cold against the last embers of a dead fire. In that moment she poured everything left of herself into Cipher, hoping against hope that he would somehow feel, somehow capture even a fraction of the love that she held for him.
The love that I will hide from all others.
Their lips parted, and Fleur just held him there and stared at her friend, lover, and soulmate until the last of the light had left her eyes.
Fleur slipped the pouch in his pocket, then tapped the floating orb with a hoof and stepped back. Cipher’s pupils shrunk to pinpricks. “Wh—Fleur, no—”
“Forgive me, Cipher.”
Fleur’s magic cut out, and the tray dropped to the floor, shattering the glass carafe and spilling the water just as the orb triggered and Cipher vanished forever.
Please forgive me.
Seconds later, a loud knock rang out from her door. “Fleur? It’s time.”
A final tear ran down Fleur’s cheek as she stared back at the puddles of water and broken glass that looked so much like her own spilled blood and broken heart.
Now I too am a cipher.
Fleur turned back around, her face calm… composed…
“Come in, Mother.”
The bedroom door opened.
“Fleur?” Her mother looked around at the mess of glass and water. “What happened here? What is the meaning of this?”
“Oh, just an accident,” Fleur said, stepping daintily around the shards of glass on the rug. “One of the servers brought me some water, but he dropped the tray.”
“Probably one of those two-bit buffoons from the castle,” her mother huffed. “I swear, I thought Celestia had better staff than this. Tell me his name, so I can make sure he gets fired for messing up this rug.”
Fleur merely shrugged her shoulders.
“Sorry, but I never did get his name.”