A Break in the Clouds

by Rambling Writer

Chapter 1: Sunshower

Tempest glared at her cup of coffee. That cluster of bubbles there was from spit. She was positive.

Those who care don’t matter, and those who matter don’t care. A lovely sentiment, and utterly, utterly false. Twilight cared, and she mattered. In fact, she mattered because she cared. Tempest would’ve loved it if other ponies cared as much as she did. But when she’d told the griffons about the Storm King’s defeat, they were all like, “Who?”, before getting into some petty argument over Tempest didn’t know what. They didn’t care, so supposedly that meant they mattered. Hoo-frickin-ray. Now she was cutting across the Frozen North, forcing her way through drifts that threatened to swallow her whole and watching her spit freeze halfway between her mouth and the ground, to get through to the yaks to tell them the same thing. But from what she’d heard of yaks (which could easily be tribalist, but Tempest wasn’t in a caring sort of mood), their response would be the same, only with “smashing houses for no reason” replacing “arguing over bits for no reason”.

And then there were the crystal ponies here in the Crystal Empire who, upon recognizing her, cared just enough to do things like possibly spit in her coffee and give her cups meant for unicorns in spite of her broken horn and take any open seat that wasn’t at her table in a crowded cafe, yet not enough to do anything besides those. It was hard to just ignore that.

But unleashing your wrath upon fools who wronged you wasn’t exactly smiled upon outside the Storm Army, so Tempest redirected her anger at her coffee, giving it a metaphorical roasting. Was drinking it even worth it, at this point? She’d spilled about a quarter of it trying to carry the cup to a table with a hoof even before she’d noticed the possible spit and the chairs were a little too small for her. Should she fix the barista with a knowing stare and drink the coffee anyway, to show she didn’t care? No, it was too busy; the barista couldn’t look at her even if she wanted to. Toss the drink out? No, she didn’t want to give the barista the pleasure of knowing she’d gotten to her. Guilt-trip them into making her another cup by reminding them she was handicapped? No, she was trying to move past her horn being broken-

“Um. Hey. Is, is this seat taken?”

Tempest looked up. An orangey-yellow unicorn with a grandiose robe, glasses, and a dorky goatee who looked like he styled his mane and tail with a broken weed whacker was standing next to the table. His saddlebag was stuffed with books and he was levitating a teacup in front of him. Tempest wasn’t sure she wanted to stew in silence or with a stranger staring at her, but honesty was the best policy (at least according to whatsherface, Applejack). She grinned crookedly. “Gee, I dunno,” she said in a light voice utterly void of mirth. “Every other table in this place is filled while I’m sitting here, alone and sullen, with everypony either giving me the stinkeye or avoiding looking anywhere near me.”

The unicorn cocked his head. “So… is that a yes or a no?”

Tempest sighed. One of those ponies. “No.”

“Oh.” The unicorn pushed his glasses up his muzzle and took a step back. “Sorry, I… thought- Is, is that a ‘no, this seat isn’t taken’ or a ‘no, this seat is taken’?”

“The first one,” grunted Tempest, looking back down at her coffee. “Not taken.” Assuming she wanted company, would company be worth listening to somepony like him?

“Oh. Um, good. Sorry.” The unicorn pulled out a chair and sat opposite her. “But, uh, it’s… kinda crowded, and this, this looked free, so…” He grinned nervously and shrugged. “Sorry.”


“I, I’m Sunburst, by the way.” Sunburst extricated a book from his bags and plopped it open. “Just, you know, FYI.”

And since it’d come out eventually- “Tempest Shadow.” And Tempest braced herself. She knew what was coming. Shock, followed by either disgust and a speedy departure or forced cheer and an attempt to claim nothing was wrong and a slightly-less-speedy departure. She’d long resigned herself-


No shock. No disgust or forced cheer. No departure, speedy or otherwise. Not so much as an inflection in his voice. Tempest looked up; Sunburst’s gaze hadn’t strayed from his book an inch. She might as well have just told him she collected fancy doilies.

But the reaction was coming. It had to. Maybe he was just slow on the uptake.

Sunburst turned a page. The reaction continued to not come.

Really slow.

Sunburst glanced up at her for a second, then hunched over his book a little bit more. Tempest remembered to blink.

She ought to accept this, Tempest knew. One pony talking to her civilly was infinitely more than there had been yesterday. But somehow, she felt like she was lying. There just wasn’t a way he could’ve heard her name and not had a reaction if he knew who she was. Right? She cleared her throat. “You do know who I am, right?”

“Oh, sure,” said Sunburst, looking up from his book. “It was all over the papers. Tempest Shadow, ex-Storm Commander. And, actually, do you prefer ‘Tempest’ or, uh, or ‘Fizzlepop’?”

Tempest blinked. That hadn’t been in the papers. “U-um- Well- Tempest.” She wasn’t sure she wanted to use her old name again just yet, not around strangers. “How did you know that?”

“Princess Twilight, she’s a friend of a friend. Heard about you through said friend. The connecting one, I mean,” Sunburst added quickly, “not, uh, not Twilight directly.”

Tempest blinked again. What were the odds? One would expect the Princess of Friendship to be well-connected — it was in the name — but sheesh. She examined Sunburst’s face, looking for… She wasn’t sure what. A twitch of the mouth, a quick glance away, something that said he was only here because it was one of the only open spaces in the cafe. But she didn’t see any of that. “And you’re… okay with me trying to take over Equestria?”

Sunburst shrugged. “Said friend once destroyed Equestria seven times over through, through time travel. It happens.”

All ponies remotely associated with Twilight, Tempest decided, had some level of crazy about them. Not low-key crazy, either; midlevel crazy, at least. “…No, that does not-” Her air quotes were quite emphatic. “-‘happen’.”

“W-well, okay, no. But, it’s, Twilight usually has a good ear for this sort of thing. I trust her and she trusts you, sooo…”

“Funny,” grunted Tempest. “You’d think that everypony else in here-” She glared around at nopony in particular. “-would get that, too.”

“M-maybe, but, it’s just, I, I’ve never really been able to hold grudges,” Sunburst said quickly. “I mean, like, the past is the past, and it’s done, so why care about it?”

For a moment, Tempest considered slugging Sunburst in the face, then telling him to not care about it, it was in the past. But that wasn’t cool, so instead she said, “Because what happened yesterday affects what’s happening now. I still…” She swallowed and unconsciously lowered her voice. “I still invaded Canterlot. It’s not like that didn’t happen.”

“But you won’t now, so why care?”

Sunburst was either very mature or very naïve, Tempest decided, to say something like that so earnestly. “Most ponies…” Tempest mumbled “don’t… really… get that.”

“Well, I do,” Sunburst said solidly. “So there. They’ll come around sooner or later.”

“Later. Definitely later. Much later.”

“…B-better late than never?”

Sunburst’s grin was so nervously dorky that Tempest chuckled in spite of herself. “I guess.”

She looked down at her coffee again. It was still steaming, but only technically. Most of the bubbles had popped. What the heck. She was thirsty. Regardless of its content, Tempest awkwardly clamped the smooth mug between her front hooves and sipped. At the very least, waiting for this long had cooled it from “scalding”. Why did coffee shops always insist on making their coffee that hot? You could never drink it once you got it without burning yourself.

“What’s it feel like?” Sunburst was staring at her stump. Not with the pity Tempest had long since trained herself to stop noticing, but with… interest? He seemed to catch his faux pas at the last second; he looked away and dropped his voice. “I’ve- wondered- about the magic-”

Tempest shrugged as she put the mug down. He was so brazen about asking her, she figured she might as well indulge him. “Once you get past the knives being driven into your forehead, not too bad. Besides, they’re small knives. But really, it’s kind of a… stabbing. Like a broken bone, but not quite as bad. And it only happens when I try to cast magic. Other than that, I can barely feel it.” She was only exaggerating a little. In the early days, trying to cast magic with it had been painful. Now, she’d grown used to it. Ish. It caused her heartbeat to migrate to her temples for the duration of whatever spell she was trying and failing to cast, but at least it wasn’t anywhere near migraine level.

Still looking away, Sunburst nodded as he chewed his lip. “Uh-huh,” he mumbled, probably to himself. “Phantom limb pain, maybe. I mean…” His gaze strayed back to the horn. “Mana channels don’t really… have… nociceptors, so-” He twitched and looked away again.

“Why’re you asking?”

“Just…” Sunburst muttered guiltily, “kinda… curious…” He swallowed and said, “If, if you don’t mind, do you think you could…” He tapped the mug. “Try levitating this? For science?”

Tempest raised an eyebrow. “You know it won’t work, right?”

Sunburst coughed. “That, uh, depends on your definition of ‘work’. I’ve got a theory.”

Tempest guessed that, if pressed, Sunburst would want to keep his theory a surprise and insist on her doing as aggressively as one like him could. She stopped herself from rolling her eyes and pulled in her magic. She felt it humming pleasantly as it gathered in the base of her horn, only to snap painfully at the stump as tiny sparks flew. One bounced off the table and rolled along the floor about a foot before Tempest stamped it out. “Like that?”

But Sunburst was barely paying attention to her. Somewhere along the line, he’d conjured up a quill — metaphorically or literally, Tempest wasn’t sure — and was scribbling stuff down on a napkin, muttering to himself. Tempest bit her lip and waited.

Sunburst finished up after about a minute, during which he’d unfolded the napkin several times. “Okay, um, good. Maybe,” he said. “Now, do, do you think you could, uh, just try some magelight?”

For a second, Tempest considered asking how long this would go on for. But this was the most conversation she’d had in a week, and it’d be rude to ask this soon. Besides, it was better than the condescending pity she usually got. More painful magic, more sparks. Tempest couldn’t see any difference, aside from the way the sparks twirled (maybe), but Sunburst seemed to have been energized by the sight and had soon filled out two more napkins and was working on a fourth, scribbling feverishly.

“So what’s up?” asked Tempest.

Sunburst held a hoof up and said nothing.

“You’re really answering me like that?”

Sunburst nodded without glancing away from his writing.

Tempest snorted. He reminded her of-

No. She couldn’t think of them. They weren’t her friends anymore. She hadn’t seen them in over a decade. They probably didn’t even remember her.


Eventually, Sunburst coughed. “H-hey, um, last question. Can you do me a favor and-” He pushed the napkin at her. “-and try casting this? It… might help with levitation. For you.”

Tempest looked at the circled spell and was immediately lost. It was a confusing muddle of thaumatic energies in strange amounts that normally would amount to not much. And that was in normal unicorns, not just her. “What’s this supposed to do?”

“It has to do with your broken horn,” said Sunburst. “The horn of a unicorn, it cont-”

“It has the biological structures needed to cast magic,” Tempest said with a sigh. “I know. So how will this help if my ley lines are-”

NO!” yelled Sunburst, banging his hooves on the table and making everypony, including Tempest, jump. “They are not ley lines, ley lines have nothing to do with this! The currents of magic running through your body and collecting in your horn are called mana channels and they’re closely related to the limbic system! Ley lines are in the planet and they follow straight courses that form natural landmarks like mountains! The term was reappropriated by New Age idiots who think crystals themselves are magical rather than their structure simply providing a natural reservoir for magic!” He glared at Tempest for a moment, his face screwed up in anger and his jaw clenched tight, before he blinked twice and sheepishly pulled himself into his seat.

“Uh, whoa,” said Tempest, not willing to admit she’d pushed her seat back a little. Only a little, she told herself. “Did ley lines kill your family or something?”

“Sorry,” mumbled Sunburst, trying and failing to straighten out his mane. “It’s, just- I nearly failed a test in Ce- in magic school because my professor didn’t get that.” He snorted and his voice dropped even further. “Which really should’ve been a warning sign.”

Tempest opened her mouth, decided not to pry, and changed subjects. “So my mana channels are broken. I know. How does this help me?”

“They’re more defocused,” said Sunburst. “It’s like…” He scratched the base of his horn. “It’s like, uh, a bad set of glasses. Their focal length is too long or too short, so you need, uh, something to be in the wrong position to see it. Short version, the short length and bluntness of, of your horn means your magic isn’t properly aimed, so when you cast a spell, the sparks, they’re discharge, like water spraying from a leaky pipe.

“But this?” Sunburst tapped the napkin. “If, if I’m right, this accounts for that. It wouldn’t work for a regular unicorn, but, but the ‘bad’ focusing from your mana channels counteracts the ‘bad’ design of the spell, and it all just, uh, sorts itself out in the end.”

“Ah.” Tempest looked at the napkin again. It wasn’t a hard spell, just mind-bogglingly weird, like a sentence composed of random words while still being technically grammatically correct: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. If her magic was working properly, she had no idea of what it would do. But her magic wasn’t working properly, so…

Eh. Worth a shot. Tempest took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She gathered the required energies, enveloped the cup in them, and pushed. Her skull felt like it was getting stabbed as her horn fragment sparked, so nothing unusual there.

The aura that appeared around the cup was perhaps a bit more sparkly than the norm, but otherwise ordinary. The way the cup rose into the air was perhaps a bit more unsteady than the norm, but otherwise ordinary. Yet the spell responsible was anything but. As the mug bobbed in the air before her, Tempest managed to keep her heart from racing. She hadn’t been able to do this in ages. And it was so easy, if a little roundabout. It felt like she could completely relearn levitation in less than an hour. So, if doing this brought the mug up, maybe-

Tempest tweaked the flow of magic a little, trying to get the mug to rotate, but it spun too fast and whipped its contents at Sunburst’s face. Yet by the time she realized what had happened, before she could even react, Sunburst had caught the coffee in a shield without spilling a drop even as he ducked beneath the table.

Tempest dropped the mug in shock. “Sorry!” she yelped. (Yelped? She didn’t yelp.) “I didn’t know- I thought-”

Sunburst poked his head up above the tabletop. “That’s alright,” he half-squeaked. His ears were still twitching as he climbed back into his chair. “New spell, new context, it, it happens.” He pushed his glasses up his muzzle.

At that, Tempest released a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. “Sorry, I- Nice reflexes.”

Sunburst chuckled and adjusted the shield to let the coffee trickle back down into the mug. “Yeah.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “You, you get them when you need to take care of a baby alicorn.”

Tempest blinked cluelessly at him. There was a story in there, somewhere, but not one she was particularly interested in except in the “Huh?” factor.

Sunburst yanked the napkin back, looked over his equations again, and started muttering to himself. “Gotta… get all… degrees… of freedom…” After making a few notes, he glanced up. “Forward-backward, up-down, left-right, pitch, yaw, and roll, by the way. Just making sure you know how to move it.”

Tempest leaned over the table to peer at the napkins. The work Sunburst was doing looked maddeningly complex, the sort scientists lost sleep over trying to figure out. And here he was, scribbling it all from scratch. He didn’t even look like he was thinking that hard. “How are you doing this so quickly?”

“Well, it’s, it’s not that hard.” Sunburst pushed his glasses up his muzzle and kept scribbling. “You just- find the proportions of energies that cause your effects in normal unicorns, find what you were trying to do, turn that into a series of equations, and solve. Like, if x + y = 3 and x + 2y = 5, you can, you know, find x and y. Easy.”

“You just recreated an entire spell to be used by a broken horn in less than five minutes, and you call that easy?”

“It was for me. And I- just figured, I kinda felt sorry for you, and-”

Against her will, Tempest’s bile rose. She swallowed it back down. It wasn’t the usual “sympathy”, she told herself. Not the kind where ponies cooed and went “aw, that’s too bad” and felt good about themselves because they felt bad about her, she told herself. This was actual compassion, the kind that actually motivated ponies to do something. Yet habit made her associate it with the first type.

“-really a shame that we don’t do more work into this sort of thing,” Sunburst was cluelessly saying. “Yeah, it doesn’t happen all that, all that often, but still.” He snorted. “It’s, they just expect unicorns to have magic, and they, they’re clueless if we don’t.”

“It really sucks,” Tempest said flatly. At least she could let some of her bitterness out at somepony besides Sunburst.

“Yeah. It does.” Sunburst continued writing for another second, then had a spastic full-body twitch, hunched over his paper, and started scribbling faster.

Even after spending many of her formative years in less-than-ideal places, Tempest could recognize some reactions in ponies. That was the “oh crap I’ve said too much” one. But what was he saying too much about? Himself? His voice didn’t sound sympathetic then. Morose, maybe? Tempest gave him a few seconds to write. “So what’s up?” she asked.

“Hmm?” It didn’t sound remotely convincing.

“I know that voice. You’ve got a secret, right? Something about your magic.”

“I…” Sunburst pushed his glasses up his muzzle. “Short version, I, I flunked out of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns,” Sunburst mumbled. “I, just, I just wasn’t good at practical magic. And, and it’s a good school, but washing out of there and going into a career that isn’t magic is… it’s a bit of a mess. Just… couldn’t really do much.”

Tempest nodded. “I can imagine.” She was going to leave it there, but then she found herself saying, “What do you do now? I heard something about a baby alicorn?”

“It’s complicated,” Sunburst said. He kept right on writing. “Kind of like, like a secondary guardian. Eventual magic tutor when she’s old enough. Why?”

“Because once I’m done spreading the word of the Storm King’s defeat, I don’t know what in Tartarus I’m going to do. I’m a unicorn who can barely do magic and the closest thing I’ve ever had to a job was leading an invading army into Canterlot.”

Sunburst froze in his writing and looked up.

“I was in the Storm King’s army for so long,” said Tempest, the words spilling out, “I don’t know how to do anything else. And I didn’t realize it before, but even if I got my horn, what then? Should I leave him and prance around a conquered Equestria for a few days before getting recaptured and taken as a slave? Run to some land I didn’t know the name of that he’d eventually conquer anyway? Do exactly the same thing I was doing before, making getting my horn back pointless? Overthrow him and get stuck with a job ruling that I don’t even want?” She groaned and glared at her two-thirds-empty coffee cup. “I spent so long trying to get my horn back, only to learn that’s impossible, so now what? I’m… I’m pointless.”

“And, uh… you were hoping… I had ideas.”

Tempest grunted in affirmation. “Kind of, yeah. But I don’t know magic like you. I never learned anything beyond ‘blow stuff up’. So, no offense, that was a waste.” She lifted her cup to her lips.

“…You’ve… got… great management and organizational skills?”

It was only pure luck that prevented Tempest from spraying Sunburst with coffee. She choked down her drink and gasped out, “That’s… one way to put it.”

Sunburst clicked his tongue a few times, looked away, and pushed the napkin back to Tempest. “New directions,” he muttered. “Try them.”

Again, the equations were weird but not difficult. Daring to hope, Tempest picked up the mug again. Following Sunburst’s instructions, she tried rotating the mug. It rotated, just as fast as she’d expected. She drained the last drops and twirled the mug. Again, just like she’d expected. She dimly remembered levitation back when she had her horn. It was almost instinctual, then, as easy and thoughtless as walking. Now, she had to consciously push the energies the way she wanted them, think about every little thing she was doing. But still. She could levitate. “Wow. This…” She swallowed. “This is great. Thanks.” She felt like she ought to say something else, that these words were a poor showing of gratitude, that somepony who casually reinvented a spell for her deserved more, but she didn’t really know what to say. What was there?

“Yeah. Sure.” Sunburst worked up the courage to look back at her. “Um, you know,” he said, “if you… get done with your travels and, and you still don’t know what to do, you could… stop by here, and maybe we could study magic together?” He grinned with a sort of hopefulness while being resigned to getting a “no”.

Tempest cocked her head and connected the dots. “You think my magic’s a unique opportunity? That we can, I don’t know, see how it acts when not controlled by a unicorn?” She tried to make it sound like she was just confirming what he meant, not questioning the phrasing. He was being about as tactful as could be expected.

“Well, maybe! Truly free magic like that is, it’s actually rarer than you think. And- I really really don’t mean any offense,” Sunburst said quickly, “but you’re, you know, an easy source of it. So… if, if you don’t mind?”

“I’ll think about it.” And Tempest surprised herself by meaning it.

A clock somewhere in the cafe chimed. One o’clock. “Hey, listen, I should probably get going.” Tempest climbed out of her chair. “Thanks for just… you know, talking.”

“Sure,” Sunburst said with a nod. “Anytime.”

Tempest pushed her chair in. “Thanks for caring.”

Sunburst pushed his glasses up. “That’s a, a weirdly specific way of putting it, but sure.”

“And get yourself some glasses that fit better. You’ll save hours not adjusting them.”

Sunburst chuckled. “Yeah.”

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