Cities grew and cities changed. Ponies grew and ponies changed. Tempest grew. Tempest changed. The bright-eyed foal became a fierce-eyed filly; the fierce-eyed filly, a grim-eyed mare. The grim-eyed mare paid her dues and now stood upon a precipice.
Tempest looked out over the cobbled streets below. Airship deck or highrise penthouse this was not. The balcony in a modest Canterlot townhouse gave enough elevation to see much of the neighborhood, but not so much as to detach her from it. Idle chatter wafted up to her, carrying strands of banal conversation and frivolous gossip, but also fragments of excited discussion and sultry whispers.
She’d long seen herself above them, the common rabble, the simple-minded sycophants, the empty husks of ponies that wandered about with empty minds and emptier hearts. Even with her... disability, she’d proven herself to be ten times the pony as those who called her villain.
Or so she’d thought. Perhaps there were many. But to say they were all like that would be a lie and a travesty. Those few, those very adversaries she’d faced again and again, proved themselves to be worthy, to be the salvation she’d sought for so long.
But with salvation came penance. Surely her past sins could not be erased by even the most heartfelt of confessions? Even the most repentant needed to face the letter of the law, lest every blubbering buffoon or conniving con artist be allowed to roam free for putting on a good show before the judiciary.
Tempest watched the sun set before her. Thus closed another day; another day away from the debacle of her past life, another day closer to whatever oblivion lay beyond the next horizon. She involuntarily licked her lips. Her tongue came back dry. Looking to the cabinet by the balcony entrance, Tempest eyed the cider decanter resting in crushed ice and the glasses idling on the tray next to it.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Reaching out with magic was like reaching out with hooves; hooves that could stretch and bend and mold themselves into new limbs and fingers as needed to move the objects she wished — for any ordinary unicorn. For Tempest, such a hoof was weak and decrepit, less a hoof than a skeletal remnant of an arm from whose grip the object might slip at any moment. So where one might be insufficient, Tempest made two.
Two decrepit arms of aether reached out like morbid tongs, squeezing the sides of the decanter in their feeble grip. She lifted, the half-full decanter feeling more like a loaded barrel of cider. Tempest groaned, each inch of lift straining her ever more until finally she felt she might snap in two. At the edge of her magical strength, she released it, allowing the decanter to settle back into its bed of ice.
Tempest wiped the sweat off her brow with a fetlock and sighed. It was the same as it had been all these years. She could obliterate it, turning the glass to ash and the liquid to vapor in a heartbeat. She could demolish the wall in front of her without so much as batting an eye. She could blow a hole in an airship with an ease that rivaled every cannon in every arsenal in Equestria. But she couldn’t lift a damned pitcher to pour herself a drink.
A sigh of disappointment escaped her lips. Her own infirmity was an ever-present thorn in her side. In spite of all her power and accomplishments, basic use of her horn was beyond her. The defect remained.
Long ago, such a failure would have elicited fear; fear that she would never be whole, never be a mare equal to her peers. Fear would become anger, anger that others could so effortlessly do what she could not. It was that anger, that spite, that eventually spurred her to act. They knew not their own privilege and neither did they deserve it.
For one fleeting moment hatred sparked in her heart. But the spark fell on dead kindling. After all these years she realized just how tired she had become and how little there was left to burn. In exhausted introspection, Tempest poured the drink with her hooves, trotted over to the couch, and lay down to slowly ruminate.
No sooner had she taken her first sip did a rapping from below catch her attention. Her ear twitched and she raised an eyebrow. No guests were expected that day. Tempest left her drink on the coffee table and trotted downstairs to the door. She swung the door open.
Tempest’s surprise was apparent in her gaze and in her voice. “Councilor Twilight. How may I help you?”
“Tempest is fine,” she cut her off.
“As you wish,” Twilight nodded.
“Come in,” Tempest said. She stepped to the side and allowed Twilight to pass. “To what do I owe the honor?”
Twilight stepped inside, taking a quick peek around the lower level. “I just wanted to check in with you, see how you were doing.”
“Not here to interrogate me, Councilor?” Tempest’s question was not without a touch of bitterness.
Twilight shook her head. “That’s neither my purview nor my preference, Tempest. Besides, I brought lo mein from that Manechurian place down the street! Hard to eat when you’re being grilled!”
She looked down and giggled sheepishly. “Pardon the pun!”
Twilight held up a paper bag with her magic. The delicious smell of freshly stir-fried noodles wafted into Tempest’s nostrils, instantly making her mouth water. To think that she would have settled for a mere salad this night.
It took a moment to tear her focus away from food and meet Twilight’s eye. “Come, Councilor. Sit.”
Tempest waved a hoof in welcome. The two trotted up the stairs and into the common room. Tempest returned to her seat and directed Twilight to the couch across the coffee table. The councilor nodded and set her food down upon the coffee table before laying down and getting comfortable.
“Twilight, please.” She smiled. “So. How are you doing?”
“Acclimation has been... difficult.” Tempest glanced at the glass gathering condensation upon the coffee table. “But your accommodations have been more than generous. It still perplexes me why I was put up here instead of a deep dungeon in a deeper rendition center. I know how your kingdom’s intelligence apparatus operates.”
“Some ponies are the victim of circumstance. Duress. I am not one to let such things get in the way of somepony living a healthy and productive life. I don’t believe a rendition center is conducive to that.”
As much as Tempest wished to believe in comforting altruism, her conscience would not allow her the respite. “I find it difficult to believe that you would so casually brush aside my past sins.”
“Why is that?”
“Can you honestly reduce the Storm King incident to merely circumstance? It seems a rather paltry way to dismiss the entire plot against the Royal Council. Surely you must acknowledge that the letter of the law must be preserved even against your desire to offer me... clemency.”
Surely even among the diplomacy-obsessed Equestrians the necessity of rule of law and the pragmatism of realpolitik would be apparent? Especially in the current climate of unrest with the Griffons to the west and the Aquellian colonies overseas. The Storm King’s incursion was disruptive at best and cataclysmically destabilizing at worst. To think that on the eve of war something like this would be brushed off so glibly was perplexing indeed.
“The letter of the law matters not so much as the spirit of the law.” Casually, almost flippantly, Twilight magically unpacked the contents of the bag, laying out the individual containers before them. “Are violators of the law punished because they deserve the punishment? Or so that they become better ponies after their admonishment?”
“I suppose that depends on how cruel your judiciary deigns to be.”
Twilight looked up, cocking her head quizzically. “How cruel would you expect a jury of your peers to be?”
Tempest snorted, a mixture of exasperation and quiet amusement on her breath. “I think you already know the answer, Councilor.”
Twilight looked down and sighed. “Forgive my excessive inquisitiveness, Tempest. I was a scholar before I was a diplomat. I am still genuinely curious, but I will not pry if you have not given consent of it.”
Under any other circumstances, Tempest would dismiss Twilight’s words as more misdirection in a roundabout interrogation. But the councilor’s repeated candor and blatant sincerity continued to astonish her. Perhaps speaking with Twilight was safe. But Tempest still had to be sure.
“Do you pity me, Councilor?” Tempest finally said.
“No..." The pause in Twilight’s speech was accompanied by a pause in setting the table. She seemed uncertain for a moment, but quickly picked up where she had fallen off. “No. Pity is neither what you need nor what I intend to dispense.”
“Then why are you here?”
Twilight finished setting utensils and disposable plates and unfolding the main box of noodles into a makeshift serving plate. Her tasks complete, she looked up to Tempest once again.
“Compassion, Tempest. Common decency. I don’t hold to such principles because I think I’m better than everypony else; I hold to them because I know I’m not.”
Tempest averted her gaze. Her ears drooped. She gritted her teeth. She wanted so much to believe Twilight. Her sincerity tugged at Tempest’s heart. But as much as it hurt to hold on, it hurt more to let go.
“I get the feeling you are unconvinced.” Twilight said flatly.
Twilight turned her focus to the food, lifting a pair of chopsticks to distribute noodles between the two of them. With the aeration of the portions, the aroma washed over Tempest, ticking her nostrils with the scents of spices, fried vegetables, and fresh noodles. Hunger that she didn’t know she had gnawed at Tempest, but she refused to partake just yet.
“Truthfully, no. I want to believe you, Councilor. But it seems circumstances have not yet conspired to support that kind of trust.”
“Lo mein. There’s a bit of szechuan tofu and vegetable stir-fry on the side. I hope you’re okay with a bit of heat!” Twilight’s tone was almost motherly, carrying on as she resumed the conversation post food interruption. She took a quick bite and sighed in satisfaction. After swallowing, she looked to Tempest again.
“If you want me to be strictly pragmatic, I could do that as well. You are more useful to me alive and healthy than rotting in a dungeon. You have intelligence on the late Storm King’s network and his long-term goals. You understand what kind of threat his subordinates and possible splinter groups and affiliates could pose to my kingdom. I would be a fool to lock you up and throw away the key when you could be the one pony who could help me unravel his entire organization.”
“And at the risk of sounding too pleased with myself,” she looked up to meet Tempest’s gaze. “I believe my methods to be far more effective than those of the intelligence services.”
Tempest stared blankly. “You are no spymaster.”
“That much is true,” Twilight said. “I am a diplomat, Tempest. I avoid deception where I can. It’s very difficult to make deals when the one you’re negotiating with doesn’t trust anything you have to say.”
“So how much of your negotiating is compassion and how much is pragmatism?”
The hunger pangs struck again and Tempest found herself drawn toward the delicious food piled on her plate. Pushing a fork into it with a hoof, she began to twirl noodles onto it. It took a moment for Twilight to reply, as she had managed to take a mouthful of noodles while Tempest was asking her question.
“I personally want you to be happy and healthy. I professionally want you to help me protect my country. I don’t believe these goals are mutually exclusive.”
Friend and informant? That was something else indeed. The two had been separated by miles in the former life that Tempest had led. That Twilight would so casually associate them was both shocking and intriguing.
Tempest lifted the fork and lowered her head, meeting it halfway. Her mouth warmed with the heat of spices and the multitude of flavors in the noodles. It was so good that she almost forgot to swallow.
“This is fantastic!” Tempest exclaimed. She blushed lightly at her sudden outburst. “I suppose I can only hope that whatever rendition center I end up in has food this good!”
Gallows humor was more becoming of Tempest and her calm understated demeanor rapidly returned. Still, her momentary lapse was enough to elicit a giggle from Twilight. The two ate in silence for bit, indulging their hunger before continuing.
“So.” Tempest said before washing down her meal with the remainder of her cider. “How did you end up here?”
“I volunteered,” Twilight said, dabbing the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “It was the least I could do after you came forward with the intel needed for the takedown; let alone doing the final takedown yourself.”
“Not quite what I meant,” Tempest shook her head. “Let me rephrase that. How did you end up Royal Councilor instead of university professor or field researcher? Diplomatic services seems an odd field for an arcanologist to end up in.”
“It’s a long story!” Twilight chuckled.
“I suppose you could skip it if you don’t wish to retell it. I won’t pry.” She echoed Twilight’s earlier words.
“No, no.” Twilight waved a hoof to dismiss the thought. “It’s worth retelling at least in part. A long time ago, I thought burying my face in books was the only way to get ahead.”
“I don’t suppose there’s much wrong in that. A scholar of magic should be no stranger to extensive study.”
“Scholarly pursuits are more than just knowing where to look in a book. It’s about knowing whom to ask for help. With no friends or even professional contacts, I was restricting my own scope of knowledge without even knowing it.”
Twilight’s tone told all. Even that briefest glimpse at her history conveyed the loneliness and the anxiety of being lost in a sea of strangers. Tempest closed her eyes and sighed. Perhaps they were not so different after all.
“You had all the chances you could get to make friends on the right side of the law,” Tempest said quietly, “real friends that cared about you rather than what they could get out of you.”
“And I threw it away because I thought it was a waste of time,” Twilight said solemnly.
“You never knew what you had.”
“I didn’t,” she nodded. “And I regret doing so.”
“What a way to live.”
“Do you know what I don’t regret, though?”
“I don’t regret rediscovering that magic that came with making friends later. The pain before was worth it.”
Ah, the magic of friendship. Her old master had mocked Twilight’s friendships and compassion. He’d dismissed them all as weaknesses and liabilities. But here Tempest was, partaking in those same ‘weaknesses and liabilities’ and filling a hole in her heart that she didn’t know she had.
“I never realized.” She finally said. “I also didn’t think you’d answer honestly when I asked.”
“I don’t have to lie to you. I’m not your handler,” Twilight said, looking to Tempest. “I’m your friend.”
“Thank you, Councilor. Few would dare say that after all that’s happened.”
It was still difficult to meet her eyes. But the least Tempest could do was offer thanks. Tempest finished her last bites and glanced out the still-open balcony doors. The sun had finally set, its afterglow illuminating wispy clouds near the horizon in a panoply of twilight colors.
Turning past the doors, Tempest’s eyes fell again upon the cider decanter. For the briefest of moments, the remnants of her horn sparked. She quickly extinguished it when she realized what she was attempting to do. Tempest sighed and turned away. She would have to sate her thirst later it seemed.
“There are procedures we can look into to repair your horn.”
The Storm King had once made her the same offer. But it had been years since she had done more than merely destroy with her magic. Would it even make a difference if Twilight were somehow able to restore it?
Perhaps she was asking the wrong question. The Storm King had offered her restoration in exchange for fealty. Twilight offered it with no such strings attached. By any means, Twilight’s proposal was the much safer bet.
“Your kindness is truly boundless, Twilight.”
But kindness was not the only qualifier for Tempest’s decisions. Twilight wished to be her friend; what she asked was important. But more important was what the offer meant to Tempest.
She’d resented her disability for years, spent her entire time under the Storm King working to undo it. When it became apparent that he could not — would not — help her, Tempest was crushed. But after the takedown, Tempest began to slowly realize that she had adapted.
Her horn did not define her, it did not truly restrict the heights to which she had climbed nor the depths to which she had sunk. Those were the product of her own decisions, horn or no horn. Nowhere was this more apparent than her conversation with Twilight Sparkle.
After a long pause to contemplate, Tempest finally met Twilight’s eyes and spoke.
“Thank you for your offer. But I’m learning to be more comfortable with who I am.”
Twilight’s head cocked ever so slightly to the side. Surely she was mulling over why Tempest chose as she had? After all, a scholar of magic and a royal councilor used magic every day; it would be a terrible handicap to one such as Twilight. But while this life might have been prohibited by a lack of functional horn, a life — one healthy and productive — was not impossible. Twilight’s face reflected this understanding as a smile broke across her face.
“I’m happy that you better understand yourself, Tempest.”
“And I’m happy that you understand my decisions.”
The clang of the bells in the clock tower down the street marked the top of the hour. Twilight slowly stood from her seat and smoothed her coat. “It’s getting late. I should be going.”
“Don’t concern yourself with cleanup. I can handle that.”
Tempest rose, flanking Twilight and escorting her to the door. She gingerly depressed the latch and swung the door open. Twilight stepped outside before turning back around.
“I’ll let you know when you need to report in.” She leaned forward and wrapped her hooves around Tempest’s neck, embracing her.
Tempest froze for a fleeting moment, but the instinctive reaction was quickly thawed by the warmth of Twilight’s hug. Slowly, she raised a hoof to return it. They lingered for a time before Twilight finally withdrew. The smile on her face remained.
“Take care, Tempest.”
“Thank you, Twilight,” Tempest said, a genuine smile finally gracing her face. “For the dinner, for the stories, and for the company. It’s been a lonely couple days.”
“It’s what friends do!” Twilight beamed.
“Good night, Twilight.”
The Councilor turned, waved, and trotted off into the evening. Tempest shut the door behind her, pausing a moment to bask in the strange feeling that lingered. She trotted back up the stairs, turning on lamps as she went to fill the void left by the fading sun.
Thirst tickled her throat once again. He gaze settled upon the decanter once again. She trotted forward, anticipating the need to use her hooves again, but stopped short. A curious notion washed over her. She looked to the decanter and once again focused on her magic. Her horn sparked again, briefly lighting the room in ghostly glow and erratic arcs of aether before extinguishing.
“No.” She said quietly to herself.
Disappointing herself with one deficiency when there were so many other things she could do was no longer necessary. She trotted over and poured herself a drink with her hooves, then trotted to the balcony to enjoy the last of the sunset colors before they faded into night. Tempest may have been in possession of a broken horn, but the broken horn was not her. There was more of her to cultivate, more of Equestria to explore and connect with.
Tempest Shadow was not yet whole. But she now knew how to become so. All it took was someone to remind her that a single defect did not sentence her to a life alone.