Celestia had sent her guards away, and made sure Luna was asleep, before sending the magical summons. She'd told them that she would be in close, private negotiations with a powerful emissary of another realm, all of which was strictly speaking true, and that they were not to disturb her for any reason, regardless of what they might hear or think they heard. If this went wrong, if her miscalculation brought disaster, let it be brought on her head only, let none of her innocent and loyal subjects suffer. The chamber was locked, nothing within it but the table of tea and cakes near the wall, and the scroll. Not that that would help, if things went wrong, but fewer distractions seemed safer somehow.
She didn't have long to wait.
"You rang?" Discord appeared in a top coat and tails, speaking in an exaggeratedly posh accent and adjusting a monocle.
Celestia levitated the scroll and waved it at him. "What exactly is this?"
"Oh no no no, that's not how we do things, ma belle reinette. You don't call me on the carpet like a misbehaving schoolcolt."
Celestia took a deep breath. "Or a misbehaving subject?"
Discord's voice was unusually cold and serious. "I'm not one of your subjects. I promised not to be the bad guy anymore, not to obey you." He smirked. "I might take requests... but only if you ask nicely." The cold seriousness was back.
"Odd, I thought that you agreed not to make mischief with your powers."
"That is odd, because that isn't what I said at all. I said I'd use my powers for good instead of evil. Most of the time."
"And so this is the rest of the time?" Celestia asked coolly.
"Mmm, fairly sure I haven't done anything evil lately. I think I'd have noticed."
"Do you seriously consider turning my coat orange an act of 'good'?" Celestia snapped, stalking forward and glaring up at him.
Discord stroked his beard, making a show of thinking about it. "Hmm. Well, admittedly it's a hideous color on you, but I'm not sure anyone but Rarity would consider a fashion faux pas to be evil."
"Bathtub full of peeled lemons?"
"I told you, that was to wash the grape juice out of your mane."
"Which was there because?"
"The weather is unpredictable?"
"In my bedroom. Raining grape juice. I am fairly sure that clouds in my bedroom that rain grape juice don't actually constitute 'weather', Discord."
"Well, the rainbow mane really clashed with the orange coat, so I thought purple would go better. See, I was trying to do you a favor."
Celestia took another deep breath. "And the fact that there were fifteen foals marching around the castle singing 'The Song That Doesn't End' at the top of their lungs for six hours before I put a stop to it?"
"Oh, come now, that was just a little contest. Harmless fun for the kiddies!"
"Because you bribed them by promising them that whichever foal kept it up the longest would get to have all their spinach taste like candy canes for a year."
"And four of them made it to the point where you put a premature stop to it, so in fairness, they're all winners! I'd keep an eye on those four if I were you, Celestia. Definitely expect cutie marks related to endurance, or music, in the future." He considered. "Or maybe a capacity for being really, really annoying, but how would you make a cutie mark out of that?"
Celestia sighed deeply. "Turn my coat and mane back to normal, Discord. Please."
"Oh! You said the magic word!" He snapped his claw, and the hideous orange color faded rapidly back into white, and the sticky feeling in her mane disappeared. "See how much nicer things can be when you ask in a friendly way?"
She pulled the scroll back to herself and tapped it with a forehoof. "Discord, what is this about?"
"I dislike being blackmailed."
"And if anyone had been blackmailing you, I could possibly understand your response, but being asked to write a friendship report is hardly blackmail. It wasn't even an order. Twilight thought it might help you, and I was curious as to what you'd say."
"Well, now you know. Curiosity satisfied! I can certainly sympathize. I was curious as to what would happen if all the other statues in your garden got up and started dancing, but I fear you'll be much less obliging about satisfying my curiosity than I was about yours."
"Did you really believe I was going to force you to write a friendship report, Discord? What made you think such a thing?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe Sparky's thinly veiled insinuations that I needed to prove to you that I understand the concept of friendship or something, or else I might find myself facing the Six Part Rainbow Cannon of Doom again? Not that I'm particularly afraid of that, considering that the only reason either you or they ever hit me was that I was standing still and I'm not planning to do that again, but if I'd actually wanted a war with you ponies you'd already be drowning in lemonade."
"Twilight is eager, but I have a hard time picturing her actually telling you that we would reject your claim of reformation and turn you back to stone unless you write me a friendship report. Are you sure you didn't misunderstand?"
"Oh, of course, it's always my fault. Billions of years of overseeing strife and conflict but I can't tell the difference between overenthusiasm and a passive-aggressive threat." His head snaked forward, lowering directly into her face. "I didn't agree to this to be treated like a naughty colt who needs a time-out. I don't take orders from you, Celestia, and I'm not afraid of your little pets."
"Of course you're not," Celestia said mildly. "You're not the slightest bit concerned about being turned to stone again, because you were most certainly not on the edge of going mad the last time it happened, and of course you can handle forced immobility and boredom with great ease. You aren't afraid at all."
Discord frowned. "I don't like being turned to stone, no," he said. "But I'm not afraid of it, because it's not going to happen again. I gave you and Luna one free shot, and then I made the mistake of giving another one to these new players. If you seriously think I intend to stand still and let that spell hit me, ever again for the rest of eternity, you're much dumber than I thought you were."
"I'm quite certain that if you prove to be lying about your desire to reform, your overweening arrogance and poor attention to detail will provide us some means of defeating you, whether it's the Elements or another way," Celestia said coolly, levitating the scroll over to the tea table and dropping it there without taking her attention from Discord. "Do you think I don't know that the entire reason you're here today instead of somewhere else in the universe causing havoc is that you walked right into a spell Luna cast on your body, and it bound you back into your prison after you'd been in truth free for centuries?"
He scowled at her. "How was I supposed to know you ponies had figured out I wasn't home anymore?"
"'We ponies' didn't. Luna did. Her affinity with the world of minds and spirits is far greater than mine. And she became Nightmare Moon shortly after laying that trap for you, and after she returned to me and was freed by the Elements, we had more important things to talk about than you. I didn't know until recently."
"Loony finally got around to telling you?"
"No, actually I had a conversation with a dragon. Called Glory, the Spirit of Righteous Warfare. Who had some interesting things to tell me about you. Is it actually true that you angered your fellow spirits to the point where they threw you out of their realm, and if it is, how can you avoid choking to death on the hypocrisy when you call ponies stupid?"
Discord laughed. "I do love these little conversations with you, Celestia. I missed them. You're so self-righteous." He vanished and reappeared right next to her and chucked her under the chin as if she were a tiny filly. "Who's an adorable wittle immortal ruler of Equestria? You are!"
Snorting, Celestia reared, jerking her head away from his touch. "I'm not nearly so enamored of the way you change the subject when you're losing an argument."
"I was losing an argument? I don't even think I heard an argument. Maybe some whining about waah waah Dissy so mean calling me a dumb pony because pot, kettle, chartreuse. Yes, I told an entire pantheon of overbearing, busy-body stuffed shirt would-be do-gooders that they were idiots, with predictable results." There was a bright flash, and he was holding... a cardboard box, with a plush toy version of himself inside the box. "See what it says there on the bottom? Discord, Spirit of Chaos and Disharmony. If I tell entities the hard cruel truth about themselves and they don't like it and throw a hissyfit, because they wanted us all to join paws and sing Friendship Songs and pretend that the elephant in the room is just there to borrow a cup of sugar and will be heading back home any moment now, and I couldn’t tolerate the blind idiocy one moment longer... that doesn't make me stupid. It makes me true to myself. Something a certain alicorn could possibly have done well to emulate, o Celestia the Rising Sun of Freedom."
Celestia walked over to the table where her servants had laid out tea and cakes, and poured herself a cup. She sighed. "It's been a long time since I heard that particular title."
"Yeah, and you know why? Because you stand for freedom the way a house of playing cards stands for stability and shelter."
"I'd thought it was because ponies who have been free for the past thousand years find other needs to focus their attention on. Mareslow's Hierarchy of Needs, after all. Tea, Discord?"
That threw him. He blinked at her. "Well, that's new. My enemies don't usually offer me tea. Yes, please, I take mine with two lumps of arsenic."
"I haven't got any arsenic. You'll have to settle for sugar."
"I'm sure you could come up with some if you were motivated."
"Perhaps, but the fact that firstly, you cannot be poisoned, and secondly, I'd have no desire to poison you if you could be, leaves me lacking in motivation." She put two lumps of sugar in his tea instead and floated it over to him, where he began delicately sipping the tea cup, pulling its substance away bit by bit from the hot liquid within, which in total contravention of the laws of physics was holding its shape. "Even if you do destroy my tea cups."
"I'm not destroying it, I'm savoring it." He took another sip of the tea cup.
"And whether or not I have arsenic for your tea... I thought we weren't enemies anymore."
"Oh, of course not. We're great pals now, Celestia. The kind of pals who patronize each other and make passive aggressive threats. And speaking of passive aggressive threats, had you heard about the recent infestation of jewelry-eating magic-cancelling dragon-rats supposedly found in Ponyville and in your very own castle? Why, I hear no piece of jewelry is safe, even if it's supposedly been locked away by very powerful spells that are supposed to keep the God of Chaos from touching it. Terrifying story, really."
"Interesting. Almost certainly a complete fabrication, because if you had a plot like that ahoof you wouldn't tell me about it, but I'm pleased to see that your sense of imaginative whimsy's as strong as it ever was." She set down her tea. "Are we enemies, Discord? Because that isn't what I wanted, when I sent you to Fluttershy."
"To be reformed by the power of friendship," Discord said, sneering. "As if I'm some kind of common criminal and not chaos incarnate."
"And you claimed that it had worked," Celestia said mildly. "If you're really as unafraid of the Elements as you claim to be I can't imagine why you'd lie about a thing like that. The humiliation, in pretending you might actually care about mere ponies. The Discord I knew wouldn't have been willing to say something like 'friendship is magic' to demonstrate his bona fides to mortals as part of some elaborate plot, because no elaborate plot could possibly amuse you enough to make up for the embarrassment. Was I wrong?"
"You tell me. You were the one who had the brilliant idea to set the most easily terrified, soft-hearted pony on the planet on me. Oh, and by the way, while we're on that topic... why?" He finished his tea cup and tossed the tea over his shoulder to the floor, where it bounced, mewling pitifully like a kitten.
"Why reform me?" He paced around her, circling, forcing her to turn her head to track him. "I could hear inside that statue, you know. I could hear everything. So when you said you wanted to reform me because you have a use for my magic... I've been thinking. Exactly what sort of use did you have in mind?"
She sighed. "I'm sure you have your own theories."
"Oh, yessss." He drew out the syllable as if his snake tongue suddenly governed his speech. "Do you remember when we terrorized the dragons, Celestia? I certainly do."
"We terrorized the dragons, Discord? You turned their most powerful mage into rubber and bounced her, you made one of their warlords a sea serpent, you flipped a mountain upside down and shook all the gems out of it, you hid twelve dozen of their eggs—"
"That was a friendship quest!" Discord said, grinning. He scooted over to her side and grabbed her midsection in a sideways hug. "Don't you remember? I made those three teenage dragons team up with three ponies to go find the eggs? Really I thought you would have appreciated that. You're all about harmony, after all." As Celestia pulled free, Discord's head dipped down to her level again, murmuring in her ear. "But Celestia. Let's not forget high noon. For three weeks."
Celestia shuddered slightly. She hadn't forgotten. "We were at war, Discord."
"And I wasn't?"
"It wasn't your war."
"You were happy to use me as an excuse to explain to your ponies why it was 5 pm in Equestria for three weeks. And tell me. If the battle with the dragons wasn't my war... then what about the Alicorn Masters? Was that not my war? Should I have stayed out of that one?" His talon caught in her mane, pulled her head back to point up at his. "What do you think would have happened to you if I had, hmm?"
No one but Discord could shift so quickly between cheer and menace and seem entirely natural while doing it. The talon in her mane sent entirely non-magical shocks through her spine, and Celestia damned herself. Why did she feel so alive when she was facing off against him? He was so very dangerous. She didn't want him for an enemy, she never had. And yet she'd never felt as focused, as sharp and alert and electric, as when she was up against him. She couldn't let him turn this into a battle; she'd lose, even if she won. "I've always been grateful to you for your help back then."
"Well, then, you have a very interesting and unusual method of showing your gratitude."
"The method of forbearing to take you down for centuries after I knew how to do it and I knew I should do it, but instead I tried to reason with you? That may be an interesting and unusual method of showing gratitude, but only because most aren't in a position to have to demonstrate their gratitude by not destroying an enemy they're grateful to." With a crackle of power, she dislodged his talon, tossing her head. "There are no great battles I want you to fight, Discord. This is a peaceful era."
"I can tell. That changeling invasion. Incredibly peaceful." He vanished and reappeared on her other side. "Is that what this is about, Celestia? The changelings took you down so easily. Did you think you could turn me into an ace in the hole? A bit of extra firepower to pull out when you need it?"
"Do you think I'd dare try to use you as a weapon, and trust you wouldn't turn in my hoof? Discord, you're a magic-resistant blade with no hilt. None could ever wield you without cutting themselves as deeply as they cut the opponent."
"Then why," he hissed, "did you insist on reforming me?"
"I'll answer that if you'll tell me why it worked."
He blinked. "Why it worked?"
"What makes you so sure it did?"
"I'm not drowning in lemonade. Or grapefruit snow."
"Well, now, that still remains to be seen." He snapped a talon and the table with the tea and cakes vanished suddenly, appearing at the other end of the room, allowing him to circle around her again without having to phase through it or teleport around it. "I'd certainly prefer to avoid upsetting poor little Fluttershy... but I foresee a catch-22 in my future, I'm afraid. My skillset doesn't exactly lend itself to spreading peace and love and understanding. So I have to imagine, the use you could have for me and my magic... well, it's not very likely to be something she'd approve of, would it?"
"You and I both know you can do anything you want."
"And you and I both know the operative words there are 'anything I want.' I have standards. And there are very, very few forces that can make me do something I don't agree with, and you don't hold any of them at your horntip."
"But you do care about Fluttershy's opinion."
He shrugged. "You're the one who sent me to her. Didn't you know how she works?"
"I know exactly how she works," Celestia said. "But I want you to tell me. In your own words, with as little of the ridiculous posturing as you can bring yourself to bear. What does this friendship with her mean to you? That's what I wanted, when Twilight suggested getting you to write a report. So, you have a question for me? I have one for you. Let us trade."
Discord shook his head. "No, no, no. We're not marketponies here, there's no quid pro quo. You're going to answer my question because your answer will determine the answer to the question you really need to ask, which is not 'why did it work' but 'did it work', period."
"Are we stooping to threats now, Discord? I can go in that direction, if that's what you insist on. If you refuse an exchange of information in fairness and balance, and threaten instead to unleash chaos on Equestria again if you don't like my answers, then I suppose I already have the answer to the question 'did it work'. Is that where you want to go? Do you want that answer to be no?" She stood on her hind legs and flew, three wingbeats until she was up at the level of his head when his neck was straight, glaring into his eyes. "Shall I tell your only friend you've turned your back on her offer?"
"That. Depends." He enunciated each word as if she were a child or didn't speak his language. "Will you force me to?"
Celestia landed. "You're a fool, Discord. A complete and utter fool. You want to know why I let you go? Why I asked Fluttershy to reform you with the power of friendship?"
"And again. You cannot reform me. I am not some grifter or petty criminal. I am Chaos, and I will always be. You can make it worth my while to use my powers in ways you consider beneficial, or you can make me prefer to turn the world inside out and sideways. That's what we're discussing here, you understand. Not my reformation. My terms for ceasing to use my powers for what you call 'evil'."
"Very well, then. You want to know why I wanted Fluttershy to move your heart, so you would consider any such terms?"
"I am positively dying of curiosity." His tone was too dark, too cold and flat, to be sarcasm.
She turned away from him, walking down the long hall. "I thought you'd died, the first time. The day after Silver Eyes took her own life. You weren't in the stone anymore. I thought for certain you'd found some way to follow her."
"And there was much rejoicing, and celebrations for weeks."
Celestia spun around, letting him see the fury in her eyes. "I wept, Discord. For you. I wept every time I thought of you, for hundreds of years. I banished my own sister to the moon, and I was alone, and your empty statue was still there haunting me, just as her face on the moon haunted me, and I thought again and again of destroying the statue so I'd no longer have the reminder, but I didn't deserve not to have the reminder. I didn't deserve to forget what I'd condemned my oldest friend, my childhood savior, to, because I failed, because I never found the right words to convince you, to stop you, and you just grew worse and worse and I know I did the right thing, I know you needed to be stopped, just as I knew Nightmare Moon needed to be stopped. For the sake of all Equestria, for the sake of all life on this world. And just as with Nightmare Moon... the memory never stopped breaking my heart."
"That's a very touching story," Discord said, eyes wide, fake-sniffling, his paws clasped above his own heart. "Why, I feel so deeply for your terribly tragic pain. It almost makes me forget," and suddenly his face was in hers and he was snarling and his maw was full of teeth and his head was much more dragonlike than anything similar to a pony, "how you turned me into stone and left me that way, with full knowledge of what you were doing to me..." And just like that, he was back to himself again, standing up straight, voice normal again. "...and then when I got free, you had your little trained minions do it to me again. I can see how terribly broken up about it you were, really."
"And that is why I let you go."
He stared at her, mismatched pupils widening. "...What?"
"I told the Bearers of the Elements that I had a use for your magic. Because what would I say otherwise? 'I want you to reform him and make it safe to release him because I have nightmares about the suffering I've condemned him to?' 'I want you to embrace the being who mind-controlled you into being the opposite of who you are, because I no longer want to live with the guilt I suffer from imprisoning him?' 'I want you to teach him the value of friendship, again, because somewhere along the way he forgot and I want my friend back?' How could I justify such selfishness to them?"
"If you were so broken up about what you were putting me through why did it take you nearly two years to let me out?"
"The Spirit of Righteous Warfare."
He drew in a slow breath. "What, did she come and beg you for mercy on my behalf?"
"She told me she didn't care if we killed you or we didn't. It was obvious to me that she was lying, but no, she did not beg me for mercy on your behalf. She'd just come to tell me... that you were alone. That you'd not merely burned, but vaporized, your bridges with your fellow spirits, that you were exiled." Celestia shook her head. "No matter how many times I wanted to release you from your prison, I never had the slightest reason to believe things might ever go differently from the way they did the last time. A thousand years, I tried to swa y you with friendship, and never, never in that time did you consider 'using your powers in ways I consider beneficial', never in that time did you restrain yourself in any way—"
"That's a lie, Celestia." His voice was dangerously calm. "Do you remember that that's a lie, or have you retroactively rewritten the past to match what you believe me to be?"
Her breath was almost a sob. "If you restrained yourself... it wasn't enough. It was never enough. I begged, I pleaded, I offered you my love and you shattered my heart as cruelly as you could manage—"
"Was that your love you were offering? Is that what they're calling it now?" he smirked.
"You're trying to get me to slap you, but I'm better than that. If you didn't know what it was I was offering, if you thought I'd stoop to merely offering to satisfy lust with no emotions involved, then you were a fool, but then, I already knew that. What Glory told me you did with your own kind only made it more certain." She took another deep breath. "I never had reason to believe anything might ever be any different than it was before. Until she told me that you weren't alone before. And that now, you are. And I know I'm a fool for considering it, I know I may well have betrayed my people by offering you the chance to have friendship, now that you've lost family; I know what idiocy it is to believe the Spirit of Disharmony could possibly choose to restrain himself out of feelings for ordinary ponies when in a thousand years you never did. But I know..." She would not cry. She would not let him see her break. "I know you're capable of friendship. Of caring. I've seen it. I've seen you be loyal. I've even seen you be loving."
"Oh, when?" Two words, imbued with a whole world of mocking sarcasm.
That quieted him, the exaggerated expression of mockery relaxing off his face, leaving an impression of... almost shock.
"So you wanted to know what I wanted to use you for? I don't want to use you. At all. I have no need of your chaos magic. I never did. I wanted you to be free. And I hoped... I hoped that now, now that you've lost everypony else, no, everyone else you might ever have had... I hoped that now, we could offer you friendship, and you would be willing to take it. And you would restrain yourself, by your own choice, to coexist with ponies without harming them. So you would not be free to plunge Equestria into total chaos, to disrupt our existences for centuries, as you did last time... but you would be free to live, and move, and use your power as you see fit provided you do no harm, and... perhaps be happy. Or as happy as you can ever be, anyway." She sighed. "It was selfish. It was manipulative, to use Fluttershy to relieve my own guilt. It was foolish, it was dangerous, it was hardly the act of a good ruler. But I was a good ruler for a thousand years, with my sister caged on the moon and my oldest friend in stone. I'm tired of being nothing but a good ruler, Discord. I want to be a good pony. Sometimes can I not be a good pony? Must I always do what is wise and right for Equestria? Can't I sometimes follow my heart instead?"
He could, if he chose to, read minds, so she let her guilt boil to the surface, the things she'd wanted for so many years, the things she hadn't dared to dream of anymore, to suppress what she couldn't afford to let him know. Glory hadn't merely told her that Discord was alone now. She'd also said that if he'd been left in the stone, eventually he would go mad and destroy the planet trying to get free. Eventually, Celestia hoped, she could tell him that... it was dangerous to keep secrets from him. But right now, she felt she couldn't share with him her unselfish reasons, the ways in which she felt releasing him was protecting Equestria, not when he was so obviously troubled by the notion that she was using him. Right now she wanted Discord to know her selfish, purely emotional, purely foolish reasons why she'd wanted to release him rather than killing him, without letting him know she'd even considered the latter.
"So now you know. Are you satisfied?" She glared up at him. "You didn't need to pull malicious pranks, send me a passive-aggressive letter full of veiled threats, and scream in my face to find out. You could have asked, anytime."
It was not often she saw Discord at a loss for words. In fact, now that she thought about it, it was almost never. He recovered, but slowly enough that she actually saw through the posturing for a moment. She'd stunned him.
For a moment, anyway. "And let me guess," he drawled, "I'm expected to believe every word you say because we're friends now."
"No, you're expected to believe every word I say because the only thing I could possibly imagine more humiliating and unpleasant than admitting such a weakness as I have admitted, to you, is having such a weakness and losing you anyway because I was too proud to tell you so. Feel free to mock me now and try to crush my spirit for being such a fool as to think you might ever care again, or perhaps that you honestly ever did in the first place. I won't mind, it's exactly what I expect from you."
"Reverse psychology now, Celestia? Really? Tell me I'm being predictable so I deliberately do something else? I won't be manipulated by you so easily."
"Do you think all this is a manipulation?"
They faced off against each other, glare matching hard cold stare. Finally he said, "Fluttershy isn't."
Celestia took a deep breath. "No, you're right. She's not. But you're certain I am, aren't you."
"You've been princess for two and a half millennia. You don't know how to not be manipulative. I can see the little gears turning in that pretty white head of yours, Celestia. Though thank you for admitting to me that you were blatantly using Fluttershy for selfish personal reasons. I knew all along you were capable of such self-interested behavior, of course, but it's nice to see you willing to admit to it."
"You do genuinely care about her, don't you."
Discord snapped his talon, manufacturing an extremely plush armchair, which he sat back in. Her teapot poured itself into another cup, which grew tiny wings and flew over to Discord. This time it was the tea he drank, not the cup. The tiny moans of ecstasy coming from the tea as he sipped it were every bit as irritating as he obviously intended them to be, though. "No lemonade storms on the horizon, so I suppose I must."
"Not chocolate milk this time?"
He shrugged. "You know I hate to repeat myself. Two years ago it was chocolate milk. Maybe tomorrow it'll be pina coladas. Or willowbark tea. Or hummingbirds."
She winced, remembering that. It had been very little consolation to realize that none of the hummingbirds had existed before Discord had made them rain from the sky, and none of them had had any magical energies or anywhere near the intelligence of a real hummingbird. "That would be repeating yourself."
"It doesn't count if it was a thousand years ago and you and Luna are the only ponies who remember it." He sighed. "Probably not going to happen, though. Maybe when this all turns out the way it's probably going to, but for now... no."
"When this all turns out the way it's probably going to? What do you mean by that?"
Discord laughed bitterly. "I told Fluttershy I'd never had a friend before because it's true. And sometime within her lifespan I fully expect to find out I don't really have a friend now, either. Because that's how it works. But..." he shrugged. "I prefer to live in the moment. So right now, I have a friend."
"Wait, are you saying that if someone ceases to be your friend, they never were? Didn't you accuse me of retroactively rewriting my own memories?"
"Yes, that's exactly how it works. Because friendship is a complete sham. A lie, a con game, that sentient beings use to try to make other beings let down their guard. No matter how many times I fall for it, no matter how many times I want to believe... that's always how it turns out in the end. Because friends don't turn you to stone. Friends don't throw you out of the universe. Friends don't try to kill you, or order you to kill other friends. Friends don't turn their back on you when you try to liven things up a bit, try to change things around, bring in some new blood, and it's against the rules so now you're persona non grata forever and suddenly you don't have any friends anymore, which proves you never did."
Most of his references were to things she didn't understand, but that made sense; Discord had existed long before Equestria had, and she knew that during most of his thousand year imprisonment he hadn't actually been imprisoned at all, just blocked from returning to Equestria. "So why did it work?" she asked softly. "Why care now, if that's how you feel?"
"You're persistent." He came to his feet suddenly, the tea cup turning to dust in his claw and blowing away into nothing. "Do you really want to know, Celestia? Your burning curiosity won't be satisfied until I bare my soul to you? I don't owe you any explanations. And you're quite arrogant to think you could possibly understand the spirit of Chaos' motivations for anything, anyhow. But if you must, if you won't stop hounding me until I tell you..."
"I've always wanted to understand you," she said. "I've always tried. Frequently I've failed, but it's not as if you make it easy."
"To learn about you is frankly provocative, but you're next of kin to Chaos," Discord murmured, his eyes no longer focused on her, his attention seeming far away. He smiled a twisted smile. "Oh, where have I heard that before?"
Discord shook his head. "You remind me of someone else," he said. "And you, at least, have the courage to follow through. So fine. You want to know why it worked? You want to know what's different this time?"
He laughed, and gestured at the air. There was no talon snap, but she heard her own voice, "But I have use for Discord's magic if it can be reformed to serve good instead of evil. This is why I've brought Discord here, because I believe that you are the ponies who can help him do just that."
"I could hear everything, Celestia," Discord said. "Everything."
"Now where is Fluttershy? I believe she may know best how to begin reforming Discord," her own voice said.
"I was there, Discord," Celestia. "I don't need the recap."
He smirked. Her own voice rang out again, "I realize that this is a tall order, but I wouldn't ask if I weren't confident you could get him to use magic obediently of his own free will."
"And you wonder why I thought this was all a manipulation?" Discord asked. "You spelled it out."
Fluttershy's voice came then. "I know it's not gonna be easy, but Princess Celestia's counting on me. And... I think I actually know what to do. I think the key is to befriend him. Being kind to him and letting him be my house guest is probably the best way to do that."
"So the stage is set, check," Discord said. "The game's afoot. Your game, reform me, make me into something you can use and control, using Fluttershy as your pawn. My question, does Fluttershy actually believe this claptrap? She proved to be surprisingly strong-willed the last time I dealt with her. I absolutely must know, is she really naïve enough to imagine this could possibly work? That all she needs to do is pretend to be my friend and give me a place to stay and the magic of friendship will transform me into your obedient servant? Or is she playing a deeper game?" Images formed in the air, Fluttershy from Discord's perspective, attempting to demand that he free the animals he'd just distorted, her use of the Stare. "So! I decide I'll play along. Now that I'm free, there's nothing stopping me from teleporting away and doing whatever I want; Sparky's charming naivete, and for that matter yours, in the belief that you could just use the Elements again to contain me anytime you want is laughable, but the truth is, I've played the game that way before. This is a change-up, this is new. I want to see where it goes."
The images changed. Fluttershy's house rotating on the inside, objects randomly falling from wall to wall or sometimes falling upside down, sometimes floating in air. Discord's voice from the image saying, "Are you sure this isn't overdoing it? You said to make myself at home while you were gone, but I wouldn't want to overstep my bounds." And Fluttershy's voice responding, "Nngh... I did say that, so... if this makes you more comfortable... by all means, please feel free."
"At this point I understand the parameters of the game," Discord said in the present. "She'll let me get away with almost anything, in order to sucker me into thinking she's my friend. I push her boundaries, over and over, and it seems she hasn't got any. Element of Kindness, meet Element of Ultimate Density; I torment her pets, practically in front of her, when I know she understands them almost as if they were as fully sentient as you ponies, and she just tells them to be more understanding and accepting. Oh, she's hardcore, this one. She takes this 'kindness' thing to an extreme. But I still don't know. Is she as cynical a manipulator as you are? When she says the solution to reforming me is befriending me, does she actually understand she's offering me a sham, an illusion of friendship, and hoping I'll bite on it? Or does the ridiculous little butter pat actually believe her own nonsense?"
Celestia held her tongue. Discord's worldview was so very dark. Was this his nature? As the spirit of Chaos and Disharmony, she imagined perhaps it was; perhaps he literally could not comprehend friendship and compassion. But she didn't think so, and she had more experience with him than probably any being that wasn't one of his fellow spirits. She wanted to interject, to tell him that everything he was saying was wrong, but if she did that, she might never hear the rest of it. She had asked Discord why it had worked, and so far all he'd done was explain why it couldn't have. There had to be more.
Fluttershy's voice again. "He's already really considering being reformed! He said so." And Twilight's disbelieving look. "And you believed him?"
"Such ignorance. Such naivete. Or... perhaps, such tenacity, such cynicism. I have to know which," Discord said, as Fluttershy's voice continued. "If I'm going to be his friend, I have to start by giving him the benefit of the doubt!" "Because now, I've figured out how I'm going to use this. Either she's using her Element like a weapon, a tool of mind control... and with that Stare of hers, I certainly can't rule it out. Her projective empathy doesn't work on me, but perhaps she's trying to manipulate me in the classic, entirely non-magical sense. In which case, she has total faith in her Element and its efficacy, because she's letting me go much, much too far for someone who has any belief in her heart that she might fail. She's gambling everything, and she's such a timid little pony, there's no way she'd really stake it all on a random roll of the dice. She is certain it will all work out exactly as she wants. And it will be hilarious to see her face when she realizes she failed."
The dinner party that they'd all sent her reports about appeared in front of her, Discord animating various objects to run about the table doing obnoxious things and then disclaiming any responsibility. Applejack's voice rang out, saying, "That tureen's only doin' what you're makin' it do!"... and then Fluttershy, "Now let's not jump to any conclusions." As if there were any alternate conclusions that could possibly be drawn.
"Or," Discord said, "she's a true believer. She thinks she really is making friends with me. Her overtures are genuine, her ignorance really is as stunning as it looks. In which case... crushing her is almost too pathetic to bother with, like taking candy from a foal, really. But when have I ever turned down candy?"
In the images, Rainbow Dash was enraged. "What's gotten into you?! Why do you keep cutting him so much slack?"
"And if that's the case," Discord said, "if she's a true believer, then I can use this. Break the Elements' harmony with each other, damage their friendship, turn them against each other or at the very least make all of them think Fluttershy is a total moron, and they won't work, or they won't work well. After all, I don't plan on standing still the next time, but I'd rather not sleep with one eye open, either... so to speak. Paralyze the Elements and I don't even need to watch out for them."
As he spoke, the Fluttershy in the image said, "Because that's what friends do." Past Discord wasn't actually in the image, it appeared to be his memories, but his voice sounded genuinely startled. "We're friends?"
"Either way," Discord said, "I'll win."
In the image, Fluttershy said, "Why, of course! I can't remember my house ever being this lively before you came along." And Discord's voice, sounding genuinely discombobulated, at odds with what he was telling her now, said, "Oh... Well, I've... never really had a friend before." Fluttershy's voice, full of cheer, responded, "Well, now you do!"
"Candy from a foal, I'm telling you," Discord in the present said. He put his paws together and scrunched his shoulders, parodying a gesture of coyness. "Oh, Fluttershy, I've never really had a friend before... please be gentle with me!" Discord tossed his head in an expression of disgust, breaking the pose. "Idiot. Billions of years old and she thinks she's the first one to try to use friendship to manipulate me? She thinks I'm going to fall for this? Or... better yet, even funnier, she's falling for it? She's actually saying something positive about my presence in her home. As if she actually does care. Wonderful! She's fooling herself! Or she's a fantastic actress. I hope it's the latter, I really do, because when I crush her hopes and dreams I want them to be intelligent, reasonable hopes and dreams like that she could really succeed in manipulating me into servitude with this false offer of friendship, not something utterly pathetic like that she actually thinks we're friends. I've waited so long for a decent opponent. Not that it won't be utterly hilarious to watch her little face crumple when she realizes I was never her friend and I never fell for it, but even I have standards."
He began to pace. "So now I have the endgame in sight. Crush her, one way or another. If she's a clever manipulator, either she won't fall for my next ploy at all... or she'll gamble, and she'll lose. And when she loses, she'll lose confidence in her Element. If she weren't so certain of winning... but she's obviously certain, she's letting me damage her friendships with the others, even to hurt her pets. She's confident, and it'll break her when she loses. Or... she's not a clever manipulator. She genuinely believes this. And in that case, I'll shake her faith in friendship itself, I'll disrupt her belief in what kindness can accomplish. And still, I win."
In the image, Applejack's orchards were flooded. Rainbow Dash snapped, "You see Discord's behind all this, right?" Fluttershy replied, "Oh, of course I do! Do you all think I'm a silly, gullible fool? I've just been trying to gain his friendship any way I can, so he'd come to trust and listen to me!"
"And there we go," Discord said. "She gives away her game. Clever manipulator Fluttershy, but hardly clever enough. I can hear her. I hear everything."
Sternly, the Fluttershy in the image said, "This is Applejack's home, and it's being destroyed by innocent creatures who would never be acting this way if it weren't for your reckless behavior. You need to fix this."
The past Discord responded, "Oh, yes, very well, I will fix it. I only ask one thing in return. I ask that you never use your element of harmony against me. As a sign of our friendship."
"Game, set and match," present Discord said. "If she doesn't make the deal, she proves she's merely manipulating me. I confront her with what I just heard her say, she and her pals get into position to zap me, and oh, the chaos that'll ensue then. Because they all think, just because I gave them a free shot last time, it'll be easy to nail me this time. Oh no. I can't touch the Elements themselves without doing far more work than I feel like doing – and by the way, Celestia, I can break that spell, I just don't feel like working that hard – but nothing stops me from touching their Bearers. There'll be so much fun."
Past Fluttershy said, "I will never use my Element of Harmony against you."
"Oh ho! She takes the deal!" Discord said, chortling. "So now it goes down one of three ways. She's still manipulating me, still clinging to the belief that she can win. I'll break her of that tout suite, and once she realizes she's lost, then the Elements come out to play. But her confidence will be shaken, her faith in her own Element, and once I demonstrate how easily I can dodge, it'll take another beating. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but Fluttershy will break, and as she goes, so goes the only serious threat to me on this entire world. Or, she actually thinks we're friends. Her manipulation goes so deep she believes it. I show her she's wrong, I break her heart and her faith in friendship, she breaks her promise and brings out her Element, and I use that to demonstrate she was never my friend in the first place. If she believed in it herself, then she's lying to herself and throwing that in her face will break her even faster."
He leaned forward, rubbing his paws together. "Or the third way! I offer her the chance to remain my 'friend', to stay by my side, to let me do whatever I want, and she does it! Connections to the other elements of Harmony snap immediately, I'm free forever, and... if she does it that way, then she's sincere. If she gives it all up for me... no one would do that as a manipulation. It'd be utterly idiotic, but... I wasn't lying, before. I have no friends. I never have. Because every single being I ever called friend has either betrayed me, rejected me, turned their back on me, or all three... or I've done the same to them. Being the spirit of Disharmony has never won me a whole lot of friends in the first place, and none of them could stand me in the long run, and... you have a point, Celestia, it's gotten a little lonely... maybe if the idiot throws away her other friends for me, I could tolerate her, for a while. Maybe it would be fun to pretend I really do have a friend. If she really believes it... if she really sacrifices for it... I get my freedom, I win the game, and maybe... it's not as if I really need a friend, it's not as if I really believe she'll do it this way anyway, but maybe... I might like it. I did like having friends when I thought I had some, after all. Not enough to make up for the inevitable pain of betrayal in the end, but... I won't take this seriously. Just a game."
He turned back to the images. Twilight Sparkle was saying, "He fixes this or he goes back to being stone! Princess Celestia will understand!"
Fluttershy responded, "I made a promise not to use my element against him, and I'm going to keep it."
In the real world, Discord laughed. "Endgame! I win, and I win in the way I least expected! She's sincere, and she's going to stay with me! I get freedom from the Elements, I get to make the rest of them suffer knowing how helpless they are now that I've corrupted their friend, and I'm not using magical mind control. This is entirely real. This is me winning, forever. I get everything I wanted, and... I get a friend. Because if she won't turn her back on her promise when I've just demonstrated that I have no interest in being compliant, then she's not doing this to control me. Then she means it. And... in the long run, probably it will turn out that this wasn't true either, but... live for the moment!"
Past Discord gloated as obnoxiously as the present one was doing. "Hahah! You see? She wants to have fun with me because we're friends. She can't use the elements against me because we're friends. I'm free forever!" He laughed almost maniacally.
Fluttershy faced off against him, rage on her face. She growled at him, "Not. Your. Friend!" Under the growl, Celestia could hear her voice almost breaking.
"So. This was unexpected," present Discord said. "She'll keep her promise, but she won't be my friend? Why? How does this even make sense? If this was all a manipulation, she'd never keep her promise to me now that she knows she's lost. If she truly believed we were friends, and I hurt her by refusing to do as she asked, why wouldn't she turn on me like every other being I've called friend has? If she has to control me to be my friend, and I won't let her do it so she won't be my friend, then what motivation does she have to keep her promise?"
The voice of past Discord shouted, still laughing, "Who cares? I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I'm Discord, the master of chaos! You think you can boss Discord around? You think I'm just going to turn all this back because you say so? Because if I don't, I'll lose the one friend I ever had?"
The image went still. Present Discord said, quietly, "There's the option I didn't think of, the thing I never foresaw. Her refusal to break her promise proves her sincerity. She really does think she's my friend. She's not befriending me to control me, not entirely, regardless of what she just said she's doing, because if that's her only reason she wouldn't keep her promise. What if... she's really my friend? What if I'm betraying her first? What if she'll keep her promise to me because she was sincerely my friend... but I'm pushing that friendship to the breaking point? I'm an expert on breaking up genuine friendships. I know what buttons to press to make real friends turn on each other. I was trying to press them here, I was trying to break her apart from her other friends."
The image resumed, focused still on Fluttershy through Discord's eyes. In the same quiet tone he was speaking in now, past Discord said, "Oh. Oh, well played, Fluttershy. Well played."
"What if this is real... and I'm destroying it?" present Discord said, still in the same soft tone. "I'm so very good at destroying friendships. But I was so certain this couldn't be real. But it can't be a tactic, because then she wouldn't keep her promise... so it has to be real. And I know full well what I'm doing could destroy an actual friendship. What if... what if this was something I could have, and because I couldn't see it in time, I destroyed it? Never to have a chance at having it again?"
He sat down heavily in the armchair he'd made again, except it turned into a simple stool under him, and the images faded. Paws clasped in his lap, head hung and tail curled around the base of the stool, he said, "So. There you have it. The whole pathetic story. How I, Discord, Spirit of Disharmony, fell to corruption and control because I was defeated by a little yellow pony offering me a genuine opportunity for friendship, and I couldn't... I couldn't make myself believe it was something I don't want, anymore. Not once I entertained the possibility that I could have it. Because why want what you can't have? There's very little I can't have, why would I waste my time pining over what little there is that I can't? But if... but if I can have it..." He looked up at her. "I want it, Celestia. I want it more than chaos. I want it more than almost anything. And I have no idea why. And I'm a bigger fool than you, because I know in the long run it won't work out, she'll turn on me, they always do... except, except I was doing my best to irritate her, I was trying to make her turn on me and she wouldn't do it. She's not immortal. What if she doesn't get sick of me, what if she doesn't turn on me? What if she lives out her entire life as my friend?"
"Friends don't control each other, Discord," Celestia said. Her voice felt slightly hoarse after she'd been silent so long. "But friends compromise with each other. If you want something, and your friend wants something else... you try to find a happy medium. You try to balance your desires against theirs. Not because they're controlling you. Not even because they won't be your friend if you don't... eventually that might happen, but that's not why you compromise. You compromise because when you have a friend, you suffer their pain and feel their joy. You can't truly enjoy the thing you wanted if you know it's bringing your friend pain."
"Why?" Discord hissed, looking at the ground again. "Why do I have to care? I have plenty of pain of my own, why do I need to take on anypony else's? I'm not... I'm not supposed to suffer, when they suffer. They're targets. It's my job." He looked up at her. "Except... I got fired. Is that why? Because none of you are just targets anymore? Because the only reason I'm here on this world is personal?"
She walked over to him. "Was I a target, Discord?" she asked softly.
Discord looked away from her. "I wasn't supposed to care," he said hoarsely. "I... they tore me up one side and down the other, after I broke down and begged and they got me out of here, because I lost my objectivity. I was never supposed to care." He closed his eyes. "It was so hard," he whispered. "But I managed it, in the end. I made myself stop caring. And then you turned me to stone, and I thought there was nothing left after that but rage. There... there wasn't ever supposed to be anything else."
She nuzzled the side of his head. He didn't stop her. "You have it exactly backwards," Celestia said gently. "I don't know why we were 'targets' or what you were sent here to do, exactly, and I doubt you'll tell me any time soon. But if you were fired... if you're not here on whatever mission you were sent on in the first place... why can't you do what you want? If what you want is to care... don't look down on yourself for that. You're not less, for caring. You're more."
"You wanted to use me for my magic," he said dully. "I knew, whatever you were going to want from me, either it would conflict with my raison d'etre or it would conflict with what Fluttershy would want from me. When Twilight said I had to write you that stupid report... I hadn't even been thinking about what you'd said, about what you might want from me, but I knew then, it was all going to fall apart because of you. That I wouldn't be able to keep her, because either I'd disobey you and you'd tell her in some way that makes it all my fault and she'd get angry and leave, or I'd obey you and what you'd want would turn out to be much, much too dark for Fluttershy, and she'd find out about it and she'd hate me. I thought it was all doomed and you were going to destroy it for me."
"No. No." She wished he'd made a second stool, so she could sit next to him. The best she could do was to put her foreleg up around his back and nuzzle him. "You never had to fear that from me. I may be manipulative, it's true. But all I ever wanted to manipulate you into was into being happy. And not hurting anypony else."
After a moment, he put his lion's paw around her. Not in one of his ridiculous sideways hugs that were more about parodying affection than anything else, but a genuine return of her embrace. It was hesitant, but it was there.
"Don't tell me what to do," he said softly. "Ask me. I'll... I'll use my powers for my own purposes, for my own amusement, but I don't have to be the bad guy. I don't... really want to be, anymore. I... if you ask me to do something, and I don't disagree... there are things I can do that I won't, not for you or anyone, but there are a lot of things I'd be willing to do. If you asked."
"I won't ask you to do anything that will hurt Fluttershy if she learned you'd done it," Celestia said. "And I won't ask you to do anything particularly orderly." She smiled. "I know you better than that." She dropped her hoof and stepped back. "I don't have to ask you to do anything, you know. You can just live your life as you please, if you want, as long as you don't cause so much chaos it disrupts the lives of my subjects."
Discord shook his head. "Not a good idea. I get bored very easily... and I'm dangerous when I'm bored. I can't spend all my time drinking tea with Fluttershy... I want to spend time with her, but even if I wanted to spend every moment I have, I couldn't. She sleeps, I don't. I could... use some advice, honestly, about where to direct my attention."
"Teach Twilight." She didn't even have to think about it.
Discord was taken aback. "Seriously? I thought she was your student."
"A student can have more than one teacher. I can challenge Twilight's mind; she's a splendid researcher. But she has to be more than that. She's the leader of the Elements of Harmony, for all intents and purposes; she has to be able to think on her feet."
He shrugged. "She thought fast enough to defeat me. Not just anypony can do that, you know. Though admittedly I did give myself an enormous handicap in that particular fight."
"I think she needs someone who she doesn't feel will go easy on her to push her to the next level. As frightened as she's always been of displeasing me... it leads her to become slower and more analytical, not faster and more tactical. She needs more of that."
"And what if she tells you that I am obviously ultimate evil because blah blah blah and can she please turn me to stone?"
"I thought you weren't afraid of that," Celestia said teasingly.
"I'm not." He stood up. "I'm... concerned for what it turns into, though. If Fluttershy's not going to use her Element on me, then I don't want the Elements broken. But if Twilight turns all the others on me, and Fluttershy's all that's left... it's not about turning to stone. That's not going to happen ever again. It's about what it means if Fluttershy chooses to try it."
"I will never pass judgement on you without hearing from you your side of the matter first," Celestia said. "And if I tell the Elements to stand down, they will. Fluttershy will give you the benefit of the doubt, she's proven that. But it would help you to try to make some ties with the others." She smiled. "Pinkie Pie was very impressed with your chocolate rain. And she can be very... chaotic, in her own way. Perhaps you could reach out to her. After all, if you can have one friend, why not have two? Or six?"
He laughed. "Six isn't going to happen."
"But two could. And if you behave yourself, if you prove that you are reformed... or, as you put it, putting your powers to use for good instead of evil, at least most of the time... I think the others will come around eventually."
Discord smiled slyly. "Does the invitation to train Twilight apply to others as well? Can I give them mild threats to test themselves against, as long as I make sure nopony gets hurt?"
"Well, you know. How much training do they get in unexpected weather conditions? Your pegasus weather teams think they have everything perfectly under control... but I'm not the only source of chaos in this world."
Celestia sighed. "Nopony gets hurt at all and no serious property damage. And damage to any living thing would probably upset Fluttershy. Even a tree."
He nodded, grinning. "I can work with those parameters."
"And no more turning my coat orange. It really was quite hideous."
Discord laughed. "It really was." He gestured, and one of her tea cakes flew to his talon. "So. We're done here, Celestia? All our cards on the table, all on the same page now?" he said around a mouthful of tea cake.
"I think so, yes."
"Well, then. Say hi to Woona for me. It's my night to make dinner and I certainly wouldn't want to leave Fluttershy hungry."
With that he vanished, leaving Celestia both amused and bemused. Discord, concerned about a schedule. Who would ever have imagined?
She used her magic to open the doors. Guards came in at once, assessing her health and safety, and knelt to her the moment they determined there was no danger. "Rise, my knights," Celestia said. "All is well."
Outside it was late afternoon, time soon to put the sun away (she still thought of it that way, even though she knew perfectly well it was the planet she was pulling on.) She went to a window to bask in its rays. Her Element, her special affinity. Its light always invigorated her.
Her legs were shaking slightly, the stress of the last hour or two was catching up with her and she sorely needed a drink. But she'd cleared the air with Discord, and determined that he was sincere, and convinced him of her sincerity as well. After this, she felt, she could do almost anything.Comments? Go here!
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