Ciphers

by Grand_Moff_Pony

First published

A life of wealth and luxury await Fleur, but at what cost? Can she forsake who she is to become the mare she has to be? Or, can she be both?

Untold luxury and wealth. A place in high society. A life full of the finer things. All this and more await Fleur, but at what cost?

Now, Fleur must decide: Is love worth nothing, or is it a secret worthy of sacrifice? Can she be the mare she is and the mare she has to be?

A cipher, after all, can be anything— Or nothing at all.


Edited/Preread by Xepher, Winston, Noble Thought, and Jade Ring
Featured by The Royal Canterlot Library, EQD, The Royal Guard, & The Pleasant Commentator-Review Group
Cover art commissioned from Raikoh-illust

With a live reading by ABagOVicodin!
Also read by CrunchyMonkey!

Encryption

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“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.

“Mon amour…”

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.

“C-Cipher?”

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.'

“I…”

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.

“F-Fleur?”

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…

Unreadable.

“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.”

Epilogue: In Plain Sight

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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.