• Published 19th May 2018
  • 967 Views, 39 Comments

When We Break - CommissarAJ

Tempest vowed she would never again be left to the mercies of a cold, uncaring world. And then she met Twilight Sparkle...

  • ...

Chapter 7

“I know I’m just your physiotherapist, but promise me that you’ll keep working at this, even after we finish. I know things can seem bad now, that they’ll never improve. But if you just keep pressing forward, one step after the next, one day you’ll be able to look back… and you’ll be glad you survived.”

It was just after lunch by the time that Twilight and Tempest returned to Canterlot High, which at the very least meant they were able to avoid any crowds or drawing too much attention. To the casual observer, Tempest’s stride conveyed her usual sense of confidence and poise, but internally she was still feeling anything but that. However, every time she felt her willpower start to waiver, she looked over to her friend beside her, and Twilight’s optimistic smile was enough to reassure her.

Just a few steps ahead of them was Principal Celestia, with whom the girls had spent the past several minutes explaining the extenuating circumstances surrounding what happened that morning. Twilight handled most of the actual explaining, if only because Tempest had little idea of how to handle things diplomatically beyond falling to one’s knees and groveling for mercy.

“I still can’t believe you’re willing to be so… accommodating,” Tempest said as the trio walked through the school hallways. “Principal Cinch would’ve tossed my as—I mean, butt to the curb in a heartbeat.”

“The former Principal Cinch and I have somewhat different views on troubled students. Where she might see somebody deserving of an expulsion, I prefer to see a student who needs help the most,” Celestia explained with a compassion and sincerity in her tone that Tempest knew she never would’ve seen at her old school. “And while I don’t wish to sound disrespectful, it is… refreshing to be able to help with something that doesn’t involve otherworldly magic trying to take over my school.”

The casualness with which the principal spoke caught Tempest by surprise. “How often has that happened?”

“O-only three times… so far,” a suddenly self-conscious Twilight insisted. Only when she said it out loud did she realize that it probably sounded a lot worse to an outsider.

Celestia gave a casual smirk. “Four, if you count Camp Everfree.”

“She wasn’t trying to take over the school, though.”

“It was still a school event,” the Principal insisted. “And that’s not even taking into account other incidents like what happened at the mall.”

“How’d you find out about that?”

“Because the next day Rainbow Dash said she couldn’t hand in her math homework as she had lost it when she got ‘sucked into an extra-dimensional space.’”

“We were in there for, like, twenty minutes!”

As the discussion continued on about what was a valid magical threat to the world, Tempest couldn’t help but think that she might’ve been safer with the sociopathic drug dealer instead. Perhaps Canterlot High wasn’t the ideal place for a ‘normal’ high school life, especially when she thought she heard something about exploding cupcakes. However, if Twilight could survive these magical mishaps, then Tempest should be tough enough to handle it.

Plus, exploding cupcakes did sound pretty cool. Before she could consider the possible applications for such baked goods, the trio arrived at their destination: the school’s art room. Tempest and Twilight waited off to the side while their principal knocked on the door and conversed briefly with the teacher. A few moments later, after the teacher disappeared back into the classroom, a new but familiar face arrived in the form of Sunset Shimmer.

“Hello Principal Celestia, Twilight,” she greeted, although she paused for a brief moment when she noticed who else was present. “...Tempest.”

With some gentle encouragement, and a firm shove when that didn’t work, Tempest was ushered forward to speak. Despite knowing full well what she needed to say, it didn’t make swallowing her pride any easier.

“I’m sorry about this morning, Sunset,” Tempest said after a pronounced pause. “I know that feels a little paltry considering what happened, and there’s way too much to explain in a few minutes. When you found the drugs, I panicked, and I just lashed out because that’s all I really know.” She let out a heavy sigh as the weight of her shame made the words tumble out. “You were right, though; my life is just a broken mess, and so am I. While I can’t promise I can change overnight, I want you know that I don’t want to be that kind of person anymore… but I can’t do that on my own.”

“Tempest is going to be joining your art class,” Twilight chimed in, lending her own support to her troubled friend. “Since I won’t be there, I was hoping that you could help look after her.”

As Sunset’s gaze bounced between the two smiling girls before her, one hopeful and the other awkward but apologetic, she didn’t need more than a moment to reach her decision.

“Of course I’ll help.”

Having clearly never heard of the expression about staring at gift horses in the mouth, Tempest just blurted out, “Does everyone in this school just forgive people without a second thought?”

Sunset let out a knowing chuckle, but reassured her classmate, “It’s something we’ve had a lot of experience with here.”

“So… that’s really it?” Tempest asked, though her voice was still tinted by doubt. “You and I… we’re cool? Just like that?”

“Yeah, we’re cool,” Sunset said before looking to her other friend. “I trust Twilight, and maybe if I had trusted her as much as I should’ve, I wouldn’t have been so hasty to jump to conclusions.”

“The important part is you’ve both learned from your mistakes,” Twilight replied. “Now you two have fun, and I’ll see you both next period.”

After everyone exchanged good-byes, Sunset and Tempest headed into the classroom. Inside, the students were all working on their own projects, many of which involved paints, clays, or pencils. No sooner did the pair enter did every head turn in their direction, and a tense silence flash-froze the entire class.

“It’s okay,” Sunset called out to them. “Everything’s cool: we’re all friends now!” She emphasized the last part by throwing an arm around Tempest’s shoulder, which appeared to placate the concerns of their classmates, who all promptly returned to their work.

“You people are almost nauseatingly nice, you know that?”

Sunset just laughed off the remark as she patted her newly-minted friend on the shoulder. “And now you’re one of us.”

She led Tempest over to where she had been working, which was at an easel positioned near a window that overlooked the schoolyard out back. Along the way, she grabbed an unused chair and set it down for her new classmate.

“So… how exactly does this class work?” Tempest asked, having noticed that the teacher seemed to be simply watching over the students.

“Right now, we’ve just started on a new independent study module,” Sunset explained while she grabbed a nearby paint-speckled apron and put it on. “Everybody’s to pick a particular art style or medium, write a short essay about it, and create a piece using it. There’s a few books on the shelves if you want to start looking for ideas, and there’s plenty of supplies in the cabinets for you to get started.”

Rather than heed the suggestion, Tempest took a seat and looked to the easel, upon which was Sunset’s project-in-progress. It was clearly still early on, but she could make out what looked to be a young woman standing before the sunrise, arms outstretched, and enveloped in fiery orange glow. She watched in silence as Sunset resumed her work with gentle but precise brushstrokes.

“So what’s your project on? It’s… really nice.”

“Eighteenth century Romanticism,” Sunset answered. “And thanks. I’ve still got a lot of work ahead of me, but I’m liking how it’s coming out so far.”

“What’s it about?”

“If you’ll recall, I mentioned I used to be a pretty bad place, too. I thought ambition and power was all I needed to get by in life, and I didn’t care who I had to trample over to get what I wanted.” Despite the gravity of the subject, Sunset didn’t stop her work; if anything, recalling the worst moments of her life seemed to hasten her pace, as if clarifying her vision and imagination. “I had built myself a fortress, but it wasn’t until I had lost it all that I realized it was all made of glass. It was painful to deal with for a while, but in the end, it was probably the best thing to happen to me.”

“And so it feels like a new day has risen in your life,” Tempest finished off the train of thought.

Sunset giggled quietly under her breath before she started to dab some orange onto the canvas. “I guess I’m not very good at being subtle with my symbolism, am I?”

“It doesn’t need to be subtle, just so long as it feels authentic.”

Glancing back to her classmate, Sunset noticed that Tempest had done nothing but sit and watch. “Is everything okay?”

“Sorry, I’m just…” Tempest fell silent for a second as she looked about the classroom. “I guess I’m just a little lost. For me, this had always been just therapy, and I would draw or paint or sketch whatever I could see at the time: the view from my bedroom window, the hospital from the bus stop across the street, the market while I ate lunch.” She fidgeted in her seat the entire time she spoke, as though the discomfort in her words became a literal pebble in her shoe. “I thought this class would be a bit more ‘paint this bowl of fruit’.”

“You could paint a bowl of fruit, if you’d like.”

“Heh, I think that’d be a bit too plain, honestly.” She smiled and chortled for a moment, but then her expression faded. “Hard to paint what you feel when you’re not sure what you’re feeling either.”

It didn’t take long for an idea to pop into Sunset’s head. “We just need to find you some inspiration,” she announced before setting her paintbrush down. She gestured for her friend to follow as she led her over to a display case that ran along the back wall of the classroom. Inside were a plethora of paintings, sculptures, and other pieces of artwork, all of which had tags with names and dates.

“The teacher likes to keep the best pieces from each year,” Sunset explained as her eyes scanned back and forth across the display. “Now where is it? It’s around here somewh—aha!” Nestled between a metal sculpture of a bird and a painting of a soup can, was a small ceramic cup, not much larger than Sunset’s palm. “This little piece helped me out when I had to turn my life around.”

“I never really worked with ceramics before,” Tempest replied.

“Take a closer look,” Sunset suggested, handing the cup over.

Though it seemed like a foolish idea, Tempest nonetheless put the item under a closer scrutiny, peering at it closely as it balanced upon her fingertips. The humble ashen gray cup would’ve been considered rather plain if not for the web-like pattern of gold streaks that covered its surface. There didn’t seem to be any pattern or reason behind it, but the stark contrast between the dull ceramics and gold accents captured her attention.

“Okay, it’s a very nice-looking cup, but I don’t get it,” Tempest finally acquiesced to her ignorance.

“That cup used to belong to a previous art teacher: it was his favourite, too. Every day he’d be sipping his morning tea from it, until one day a student accidentally knocked it from his desk and it broke. The teacher was saddened by the loss, but just as he was about to throw the pieces away, the student offered to fix it for him. This was the end result, and the teacher continued using it until he retired, after which he left the cup behind for the display.”

“So… it’s a broken cup?”

Sunset couldn’t help but smile and stifle a laugh at her friend’s rather blunt assessment. “It’s a technique called kintsugi; it means to ‘repair with gold.’ It helps teach us to accept life and all of its imperfections; that time and life invariably damages us all. But those scars are a part of our story, and if we choose to embrace them rather than hide, we can become more beautiful because we were broken.”

Her first instinct was to toss such remarks into the proverbial trash: that such childish nonsense had no bearing on a the real world. However, that was her old way of thinking, and the reality check from that morning made it obvious that she needed to change. Maybe things could be that simple. The things she had scoffed at as being only suitable for fairy tail movies and cartoon posters—friendship, compassion, second chances—they appeared to have worked wonders for the students at Canterlot High. If they made it work, why couldn’t she?

After staring at the cup for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, Tempest finally looked back to Sunset, whose expression was caught between hope and anxiety. The scarred girl’s stoic and scrutinizing gaze was almost impossible to read, as if she were just as liable to punch Sunset right then and there.

“Just to be clear: I’m the teacup in this metaphor, right?”

Relief washed over Sunset, though she hid it behind a restrained giggle. “I told you, I’m not very good at being subtle.”

“Yeah,” Tempest nodded in agreement, though her voice carried with it a sense of solace, “but it still feels real.”

“Kintsugi, huh? It’s not like I’ve got anything to lose by trying…”

“Good afternoon, Ms. Shadow.”

Principal Celestia’s voice caught the student by surprise, and the resultant flinch almost caused her to drop the sketch pad that had been balancing on her stump. It was the end of another day of classes at Canterlot High, and while students took the opportunity to hurry home or meet up with friends, Tempest instead sat on the front steps of the school with her sketch pad on one arm and a charcoal pencil in the other.

“Ah, Principal Celestia… I, uh… didn’t see you there,” Tempest apologized. “Is there something you need to talk to me about?”

“I just wanted to check and see how you were doing,” Celestia said. Rather than continue hovering over the student, the principal took a seat on the steps next to her. “You’ve been here for almost two weeks now, after all. I’ve heard you’ve made a lot of progress in that time, and I don’t mean just your clothing.”

It was hard for Tempest to hide the slight hint of embarrassment, particularly from one as perceptive as Celestia. Still, she tried her best to hide herself in her sketchbook. “Y-yeah, once Twilight introduced me to Rarity, I was apparently in ‘dire need’ of a wardrobe update.”

As much as her old self loathed the concept of charity, when the time came that Rarity heaped upon her new clothing that she just ‘had to try on,’ Tempest had found herself powerless to resist. At the very least, she argued internally, it would’ve been rude to her new friends to turn down such generosity. She also had to admit, her new slacks fit much better and were far more comfortable than the tattered old jeans she practically lived in twenty-four hours a day. It was odd how something as simple as a new set of pants and blouse could make one feel refreshed.

“Now Pinkie Pie wants to throw me a ‘two week-iversary’ party,” Tempest continued on. “Plus, I’ve been invited to a trip to the spa with Fluttershy, Rarity, and Applejack, and Rainbow Dash is offering to loan me one of her old bikes to go cycling with her—apparently that’ll be easier on my knees.”

A less astute observer might’ve misinterpreted her words as a complaint, but Celestia could see that the girl was smiling all the while. These were the kinds of problems a person her age was supposed to have.

“I can’t help but notice you seem to have a hand sticking out of your schoolbag,” Celestia observed with an amused smirk.

“Oh, that?” Tempest replied. She glanced over her shoulder to the bag that sat just behind her and, as expected, small plastic fingers could be seen poking out from a gap in the zipper. “That’s what I get for mentioning in passing that I was considering using a prosthetic again. Everyone started telling me to go for it and wouldn’t relent until I agreed to pull it outta the closet. Plus, Twilight’s insisted that she’ll do some research and build me an even better one. Said she would make me into her first cyborg.”

She laughed to herself as she recalled the look of excitement on her friend’s face when she relented to the insane request. It had been enough to make her wonder who was actually getting more out of that deal. It all sounded so silly, almost surreal. A part of her was still half-convinced she’d wake up in her bed and find her life back in the hole it used to be.

Before Tempest’s mind could wander down a shadowed, uncertain road, Celestia reached over and placed her hand upon the girl’s shoulder. “Your mother would be very proud of what you’ve accomplished here,” the principal whispered to her. “What you’ve done is no small feat.”

“Thank you, Principal Celestia. That really means a lot.”

“When we first spoke, I asked you what you hoped to find here at Canterlot High. Have you found what you were looking for?”

Before she could answer, she heard another voice call out her name, but this time it was Twilight. She saw her friend, burdened with an assortment of textbooks, hurrying towards her.

“Yeah, I think I’ve found it,” Tempest said. “If you’ll excuse me, Principal, I’ve got plans for the afternoon.”

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow, Ms. Shadow.”

As Principal Celestia bid her farewell, Tempest packed up her supplies, and rose to her feet just as her friend arrived.

“Sorry I’m a little late,” Twilight said before offering an apologetic grin. “Are you ready to go?”

“Lead the way,” Tempest replied as she gestured forward.

For her, it felt surreal to be excited and looking forward to an afternoon of homework and studying for an upcoming test, but this was the kind of simplicity she wanted in her life right now. No violence, no drama, no run-ins with the law: just her and her friends. Plus any time spent away from her sty of an apartment was well-spent as far as she was concerned.

“I take it Sunset will be joining us later?”

“After her shift at the Sushi Wagon,” Twilight explained as the pair walked further into town. “But she said she’d bring some leftovers for us.”

“Not sure if I’m up for that—raw fish just sounds… weird.”

“Trust me, it’s not as bad as it sounds.” Twilight’s reassurance didn’t have much impact if her friend’s eye-rolling was any indication, but the focus of her attention soon shifted to another matter. “Hey, you’re not wearing your arm.”

“It felt too distracting when I was working on my art project,” Tempest insisted.

“You’re not going to get used to it if you keep stuffing it into your bag.”

Being able to clearly see where the conversation was about to head, Tempest decided it would be easier in the long run just to relent to her friend’s request before she got bludgeoned by logic. Her friend was right and she was just letting her stubbornness get in the way. Before she could start to reconsider, she took the arm out of her backpack and fitted it into place.

“I swear, I feel like an oversized doll with this thing on,” she remarked.

“It looks good on you,” Twilight complimented. “And once I’ve built a new prosthetic for you, you’ll never want to take it off.”

Once again, Tempest was left wondering who was getting the better deal here. She couldn’t deny her friend’s confidence, and the idea of a cyborg arm sounded cool, but could Twilight pull off that kind of a project? It was almost hard to believe that this was the same girl that kept her head down when walking through the halls of Crystal Prep Academy.

The two friends continued on their journey, passing the time with idle conversation about their day at school. Twilight, in particular, wanted to hear more about what her friend was doing in art class, but Tempest kept insisting that it was ‘a surprise for later.’ It was one of the few things that all of the pleading in the world couldn’t get Tempest to budge on. After a while, though, all the easy conversation subjects had dried out, and a prolonged silence lingered between them. There had been one subject left on her mind, though it was something she had been reluctant to broach.

“Have you thought about what you’re going to do about King yet?” she asked with a hint of caution.

“Not really,” Tempest admitted with a grimace. “I’ve been ducking his messages for a few days now. I wish I had more insurance in case he doesn’t take the idea of me quitting very well.”

“Couldn’t you go to the police?”

“Need I remind you that my hands aren’t clean either,” Tempest gave voice to her concern. “I don’t trust the cops to play fair if they can get two criminals off the streets at the same time.”

It came as no surprise that Twilight didn’t accept such a fatalistic outlook: she and her friends had handled far worse than one thuggish misanthrope. It was unfortunate that she couldn’t solve this problem by blasting the source with a magic-infused friendship-laser. This was a ‘normal’ problem as opposed to a ‘magic’ one, and it needed a more mundane solution.

“Couldn’t you make an anonymous tip?” Twilight suggested in her usual persistent fashion. “Find a lawyer and make a deal? Gather incriminating evidence and leave it in an envelope at the police station?”

“Okay, okay… I’ll think it over,” Tempest quickly surrendered to her friend’s continuing demands. “You really are damn stubborn, you know that? Like an old woman.”

“I like to think of it as being precocious.”

Tempest just rolled her eyes as they both shared a quiet laugh. She had to admit that her friend had a point: her options were few and far between, and if she wanted to distance herself from her old life, then she had stay on the right side of the law. If she got caught in the middle of it, perhaps it would be worth it. Keeping her friend safe had to be her top priority.

“Listen, Twilight, say that I do go to the police,” a wary Tempest began, “and things don’t go exactly as we hoped they would. Like say I have to go to jail and stuff…”

Before she could finish, though, her friend had already deduced the question. “If you have to go away for a little while, I’ll be sure to visit you as much as I can, and I’ll be waiting at the gate for you when you get out.”

Hearing such a full-throated vouch of support shouldn’t have caught Tempest off-guard, and yet she still found herself looking away as to hide looking too embarrassed. “Geeze, if you keep talking like that, people might get the wrong idea about us.”

With her gaze averted so her friend couldn’t see the dopey grin she wore, Tempest’s attention was drawn to something else up ahead. Before her friend could make a retort about wrong ideas, she grabbed Twilight by the wrist and pulled her into the shelter of a nearby doorway.

“Tempest, what are you—”

“I think I just saw King!”

“What? Where?”

With her back pressed against the inside wall, Tempest leaned out just enough to peek around the corner. Soon, her fears were confirmed as she spotted the tall, leather-clad, scruffy misanthrope that she had spent the past several days avoiding. He was in an alley about half a block ahead of the girls and on the opposite side of the street: just far enough for the pair to be inconspicuous to the casual eye.

“Has he seen us?” Twilight asked as she peered around her friend’s shoulder.

“I don’t think so. It doesn’t look like he’s here for me,” Tempest murmured to herself. Judging by how King’s attention appeared to be fixated on something just out of sight within the alley, this run-in was entirely a coincidence. “If we double back, we can slip away before we’re seen.”

Twilight nodded in agreement, and the two were just about to leave when something else caught Tempest’s attention. Dragged into view by one of King’s henchmen was a familiar rotund, little man.

“Hey, isn’t that—”

“Shit,” Tempest cursed under her breath. “What does King want with Grubber?”

Judging by how he squirmed against the restraining arms of the much larger henchman, this was not a social visit. It wasn’t like Grubber to get on anybody’s bad side: the only way he’d ever have an aggressive bone in his body is if he ate it. Unfortunately, they were too far away for her to make out what was being said, but if she had to guess, King was upset about something and Grubber was trying to talk his way out of it.

And judging by how a second henchman suddenly clocked him in the face, he wasn’t making much headway with that strategy.

“What do you think is going on?” Twilight whispered.

“I… I don’t know,” Tempest replied. Whatever the reason, she felt torn about leaving. She couldn’t just leave Grubber to fend for himself, could she? Her curiosity didn’t last long, as she caught sight of King waving something in the other man’s face: a bag of drugs, by the looks of it. Though she couldn’t know for certain, there was little other explanation besides it being the drugs she gave to Grubber.

“What should we do? S-should we call the police?”

“By the time they get here, Grubber might already be face-down in the gutter.” She glanced to the friend beside her, and then to her friend trapped in the alleyway. In her heart, she knew what she had to do, but would it work? It was a long shot, but there was no other choice: she had to protect her friends. “Twilight, call the police. No matter what happens, you stay here. Understood?”

“Of cour—wait, stay here? What are you going to do?”

“I have to help him: it’s my fault he’s in that mess,” Tempest said before she headed off towards the alley. The rational part of her was screaming at her to just walk away, that this didn’t need her to get involved. It made every step more difficult than the last, but when was doing the right thing ever easy?

As she drew closer, she could make out King’s words, and they were just as she feared. “Listen you little garbage disposal on legs, you were caught selling this stuff—my stuff—red-handed,” he said as he waved the small bag of pills in Grubber’s face. “So you’re going to start explaining to me how you got your greedy little mitts on it, or my friends here are going to make sure that you’ll be enjoying your meals through a straw.”

“Come on, King, you know I wouldn’t do nothing like that,” Grubber replied. Naturally, it fell on deaf ears just as it did the past dozen times he proclaimed innocence. His words had ‘stalling’ and ‘desperation’ written all over them, but it was all that was left.

“I gave them to him!” Tempest shouted, announcing her presence as she stood at the mouth of the alleyway. “So if you got a problem with that, you can take it up with me.”

Silence enveloped the alley as the two sides stared one another down, though Tempest used the opportunity to assess how big of a mess she had just stepped into. It was more than just King, after all: he had three more of his goons with him, two of which had been just out of sight until she had stepped into view. That made it a potential four-on-one, which was about as fair to her as a crowbar was to a person’s kneecaps. Still, she had a few things going for her, not least of which was the reputation she commanded.

For his part, King just sneered back. “You know, I had a feeling it was you, Tempest, but I guess I just didn’t want to admit it,” he said with a hint of feigned disappointment. “Look at you now with your fancy clothes, and an adorable little schoolbag. You’ve even gone back to wearing an arm.”

“Let him go,” Tempest ordered.

“Always straight to the chase with you. Why can’t you just hang out for a little bit? We can make cookies and talk about boys. That’s what you do these days now, right?” Seeing his attempt at levity sail over the girl’s head like a fly-ball, King frowned with an audible growl. “What gives, Tempest? This isn’t like you, sticking your neck out for other people.”

“I’m not pushing your drugs onto my friends. I sold them to Grubber so I could give you the money before I tell you that I’m quitting.”

To her surprise, King just started laughing, a rich, throaty chuckle that reeked of malice. “You think I give a flying toss about these? I got a hundred people who’ll push these for me,” he said as he unceremoniously tossed the bag over his shoulder. “It’s about teaching you your place, but it looks like you were too busy studying arts and crafts.”

In hindsight, she should’ve expected that. She was rarely the person he sent to sell merchandise, she was the one whose job it was to make sure other people sold what they were supposed to. He was never going to let her just walk away: it wasn’t about the money, it was the message that it would send.

“It’s not too late for you to come back, Tempest,” King offered as he casually gestured to Grubber. “Just tell me he stole them from you, and then show him what we do to thieves, and I’ll overlook your… misguidedness.”

Tempest glanced for a moment to her captive friend, whose pleading eyes reminded her of the weakness that once disgusted her. She could remember all the times people given her that exact look: silently begging for mercy, but only to be met with a cold, uncaring boot.

“I’m giving you ten seconds to let him go, or somebody’s going home with a bloody nose.”

“Can you even see yourself right now?” an incredulous King asked. “Here you are, trying to act like a Girl Scout, but when the cards are down, you’re still just an animal.” When his words were met with only a silent and rigid glare, he let out a defeated sigh at long last. “Okay, enough of this farce. If this is where you want to play Custer, then so be it.” He snapped his fingers and signaled his compatriots towards Tempest. “Get rid of her.”

Knowing that King wouldn’t get his hands dirty so early, and that one thug was busy keeping Grubber contained, what could have been an insurmountable four-on-one was a manageable two-on-one instead. A heavier-set fellow, whose head reminded Tempest more of a brick than a person, was the first to step forward. A man of his stature would be expected to look confidant in such a situation, and yet there was the slightest flicker of apprehension in his eyes.

That flicker was all the assurance that Tempest needed, as she unslung her bag, and then suddenly tossed it towards the man. He caught it, purely by instinct, which left him open just long enough for his opponent to close in and drive her size eleven leather boot right into his Elements of Harmony. As he doubled over, his agonized cries now an octave higher, Tempest grabbed him by the collar and threw all her weight into a headbutt. There was a wet, sickening crunch of bone before the man fell backwards, his nose gushing out a fountain of blood.

As red droplets trickled down her brow, Tempest just grinned and raised her fists up. “Anyone else want a piece of me?”

The remaining two henchmen displayed some measure of intelligence as one released Grubber, allowing them to approach in tandem. On top of the numbers advantage, they both took out a switchblade. While dangerous, they also may as well have held up signs that stated ‘I’m going to lead with this hand.’ When the first assailant stepped in, leading with his knife as expected, Tempest side-stepped the strike with ease and then repaid the gesture with a quick elbow strike and a staggering haymaker to the face.

The second thug moved in, lunging with his own knife in an all-too-predictable fashion. Tempest rolled to his outside, seizing hold of the knife-wielding arm with a tight lock. She pulled him down and forward, keeping him off-balance, while at the same time warding off a fresh attempt from the previous goon by giving him a swift kick to the face. King could only watch in growing dismay as his underlings were knocked about like schoolyard tykes.

“Come on, this ain’t Rocky! Stop blocking with your face!” he shouted at them, but to little effect.

Tempest continued to dance in circles around the two men, a firm grip maintained on the second of them, and kept both of them on the back foot with repeated kicks and elbows to the head. Neither blocking or dodging appeared to be their strong suits; it was becoming apparent that they had always relied on brute force and intimidation to get ahead rather than any measure of skill.

Not content with just simply embarrassing her opponents, the spirited teenager proceeded to wrench the man’s arm inwards, driving his own knife into his opposite shoulder. Even Twilight was able to hear the pained scream that arose, which only worsened when Tempest twisted the man’s arm further, opening the wound even more. Now more concerned about the knife jammed into his arm, the thug offered no resistance when Tempest grabbed him by the head and slammed it with all of her might into the side of a nearby dumpster.

There was little time to revel in her victory, however, as she caught a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye. Instinctively, she spun around and raised her arm up to defend, which proved to be just in the nick of time as the other goon had lunged at her again with the knife. The blade caught the back of her prosthetic hand, driven in with enough force that it pierced through it and stopped just inches short of her face.

“Asshole!” Tempest snarled.

With the knife stuck in place, though, it was easy for her to wrench it out of his grasp, and then she repaid his insolence with another stunning hook to the face. He was then knocked to the ground by a sweeping kick, and as he stumbled to try and get back up, Tempest followed up with a football-inspired punt to the jaw, knocking him out of the fight.

The alleyway should’ve fallen silent as the last of the underlings lay defeated on the ground, but Tempest was treated to a slow clap from King, who looked more amused than anything else. If he had been surprised by the results, he did a masterful job of hiding that fact.

“Bravo, Tempest, bravo! I tip the metaphorical hat to you,” he said. “See, this is why you shouldn’t leave: you’re a natural at this! When you want something, there’s just nothing that gets in your way.”

“Awfully bold words considering you’re the only one left standing,” Tempest warned, facing her former employer with a steely glare. “I wonder just how tough you are.”

King just held onto his smarmy grin, undaunted by the menacing teenager. “Well, you know me: I’m just a regular Boy Scout.” In a swift, smooth motion, he reached into his coat and drew out a pistol. “Always be prepared.”

Staring down seemingly insurmountable odds, Tempest could only growl inwards. She mentally kicked herself for not realizing that King wouldn’t let himself be caught unprotected. She might’ve been good in a brawl, but a gun just stacked the deck against her beyond anything she could manage.

Tempest held her ground and quickly raised her eyes. “A gun? Really? Are you really going to jump to murder just because I want to quit?”

Keeping the gun trained on target, King took a few steps closer. “You of all people should know the importance of one’s reputation. This isn’t about money or drugs or you wanting to run off and play pretend with your new girlfriend—” Once he was close enough, he suddenly drove his fist straight into Tempest’s gut. The blow struck with such ferocity that the teenager fell straight to her knees, clutching and gasping to catch her breath. “—it’s about precedence.”

Tempest was still down on all four as she struggled to get her lungs working again. Even despite having worked for him for so many months, the sheer brute force of his punch still left her mind reeling with, ‘what the hell just happened?’

King grabbed her by the hair and wrenched her head upwards, just enough so that she could see his still-grinning visage. “I took you in when nobody else would. I made you stronger than you’ve been. I make the call when you are finished, not you!”

“If you’re going to kill me, could you just hurry up already? All this grandstanding is giving me a headache.”

“Ha! I’m going to miss that sassy mouth of yours,” King said as he gave Tempest a smack on the back of the head, if only to rub his dominance in further. “You know, for all the trouble your stupid little girlfriend has caused me, I think when I’m done here I’ll go pay her a visit.”

Tempest had just about resigned herself to her fate when those words sparked a growing ire in her. “She has nothing to do with this,” she growled through gritted teeth.

“On the contrary: she just cost me one of my best employees. It’s only fair that I’m entitled to some form of compensation, don’t you think? It’s nothing personal; just business.”

It was a threat as thinly-veiled as a wet t-shirt, which only stoked Tempest’s anger further. Losing to King was degrading, but it was her mistake and the consequences were hers alone. She couldn’t let Twilight suffer for her mistakes. She wouldn’t allow it! Clenching her fist so tight that her knuckles turned white, Tempest carefully scanned her surroundings for something—anything—that could tip the scales in her favour. For a moment, it looked like she’d have to resort to her bare hands again, but then she noticed that a knife was still lodged through her prosthesis. It was probably stuck, but the tip of the blade protruded out of her palm. It wasn’t much, but this close and with King busy self-aggrandizing, it might be just enough.

What other choice did she have?

“You leave her alone!” Tempest snarled as she swung the knife-impaled hand right into the side of King’s leg, just above the knee. A howl of pain rang out as she raked the blade across the joint before she sprang back to her feet and rushed headlong into him.

Gunshots echoed from the alley as Tempest slammed into King. She tucked herself just under his armpit and wrapped her arms around his upper body. With a furious cry and every ounce of strength left in her, she heaved the man off-balance and drove him hard into the ground. Another gunshot cracked through the air as she scrambled to get atop of King, wrestling the gun away from him with an elbow strike to the jaw.

Once she had the gun in her possession, she gripped it by the barrel and lifted it high over her head. “Don’t you ever threaten my friends again!” she bellowed, striking hard with the butt of the pistol to punctuate every word. “Never! Ever! Again!”

Her rage became a flurry of incoherent shouting as all of her hatred and anger cascaded into blow after blow. She didn’t stop until the man’s face was reduced to a bloodied, swollen mess and had fallen silent, save for raspy breaths through broken teeth. Strength began to fade from her arms as the adrenaline subsided, which soon left her with little more than a dull ache in hand, and a heaviness spreading through her whole body. A part of her could still scarcely believe it: she had done it.

She had beaten him.

Off in the distance, she could hear sirens approaching: the police would soon be here. Between the drugs, the gun, and the eyewitness testimony, she wouldn’t have to worry about King walking the streets for a long time.

He won’t ever be able to hurt Twilight now.

“Tempest!” Twilight’s voice called out from behind. There was a sudden gasp as she skidded to a halt, wide-eyed at the scene laid out before her. “My goodness. A-are you okay?”

Poking out from behind a dumpster, Grubber gave a quick nod. “I-I’m fine.”

“I’m sorry it came to this,” Tempest said, her breaths growing dull and listless. With a groan, she forced herself back to her feet. “I didn’t want it to end like this.”

Twilight stepped closer in order to help her friend, whom she presumed to be winded after the intense fight. “You don’t have to apologize. You protected your friend, and that’s what matters.”

“No, I’m sorry, Twilight,” Tempest turned and tried to take a step, only to stumble forward and collapse onto her friend, who managed to catch her with a slight grunt. “This is the best I could do…”

“What do you mean? I don’t—” Twilight’s words cut-off abruptly when she realized her hands, which were bracing her friend’s weight, were wet now. She pushed Tempest’s coat to the side, and that’s when she saw two hideous red stains on her friend’s shirt. “Oh my god…”

“I’m… sorry…” The last of Tempest’s strength left her, and she collapsed to the ground, her fall slowed and guided until she was resting on her back.

“Ohgodohgodohgod! W-what do I do? What do I do?!” Nothing in any of her years or any of her readings could’ve prepared Twilight for something like this. She tried pressing her palm down hard atop of the entry wounds, but the blood just kept oozing out. “J-just hold on!” She looked to Grubber. “Quick, call an ambulance!”

“Twilight.” A faint voice called her attention back to Tempest. “Inside my bag.”

Uncertain of the significance, but nonetheless willing to grasp to any hope, Twilight grabbed the nearby backpack and sifted through its contents. She found nothing until she reached the bottom, and found a small box. It wasn’t much bigger than her palm, and had been wrapped in old newspaper and topped with a small ribbon.

“Wh—I don’t understand.”

“It’s for you,” Tempest said, her breaths growing shorter and sharper with every passing moment. “Wanted… to give it to… after studying.”

Twilight just stared in disbelief for a second, as if her brain just refused to acknowledge it at first. “No! I can’t take this! I-it’s not too late! Y-you c-can give it to me later—next time that we study. There’ll be another time. There has to be! P-please, don’t leave me, Tempest. You can’t!”

“Twilight, that’s not my name,” Tempest said through a slow, straining breath. “Could you… say my name… just once?”

“It’s… it’s…” Twilight had to stop as tears threatened to overwhelm her. After wiping her eyes, she saw her friend somehow smiling back up at her, waiting and hoping. “You are… Fizzlepop Berrytwist.”

Tempest’s smile brightened as her eyes drifted shut. “Thank you…”