Fluttershy didn't see Discord in the morning. She knew he'd planned to hold his pool party until dawn, and he was... not bad at telling time, precisely, but very bad at caring about time, so it was entirely possible he was still there. It took a few hours to finish her rounds of feeding the animals and treating the sick and injured ones, though, and in all that time, she still didn't see him.
This wasn't necessarily good. Discord disappearing for most of the day usually meant he was doing something that pushed the boundaries of what he could get away with. Last week it had been jellybean snow in Fillydelphia – not snow that tasted like jellybeans, but jellybeans that drifted to the ground as lightly and delicately as snowflakes would have, so nopony had been injured, but only because the city's mayor had been smart enough after the jellybeans had stopped falling to declare that only trained snow-clearing earth ponies should be out on the roads and that pegasi and unicorns with levitation spells should stay in the air until the roads were clear, because somepony could easily slip on jellybeans.
When she'd lectured Discord about that, he'd been genuinely embarrassed; he'd made the jellybeans fall slowly and lightly and had thought that was all he needed to do to prevent injury. For a being as smart as he was, sometimes Discord was remarkably dumb. She worried about him. If he did something that caused any serious damage to anypony, Princess Celestia would punish him, Fluttershy feared. She wasn't actually sure what the Princess would do, given that Fluttershy herself was an essential component of Equestria's best weapon against Discord and she wasn't going to use her Element on him, but she knew the Princess had something.
After Discord had tricked Twilight into living through the Tale of the Terrible Doctor Twilight, Princess Celestia had come to Fluttershy's to talk to him, and she'd looked angry. Fluttershy had begged the Princess not to order her to use her Element against him; she'd been furious with Discord herself, but it had been self-defense, and he'd been genuinely frightened when Twilight had threatened him with the reforming spell. Given what Discord was capable of, given that she'd seen him be truly afraid, Fluttershy's anger had been tempered with understanding, and she'd been terrified that the Princess would order her to use her Element to turn him to stone and she would have to refuse her sovereign, with all the terrifying possibilities that that implied. Princess Celestia had smiled at her with that gentle, wise smile that made nearly every Equestrian look at her as a loving mother figure, and reassured her that she would never ask Fluttershy to choose between her friend and her Princess, and that she had means of dealing with Discord beyond the Elements. That had actually been reassuring, until it had sunk in that that meant Princess Celestia could, possibly, do something awful to him to punish him and Fluttershy couldn't prevent it.
So she spent the day worrying, wondering if she should go over Twilight's to have Twilight scry for him just to check up on him, but if he was actually up to something mischievous she didn't want to listen to Twilight telling her how terrible he was and how much he deserved to be a statue again, but then maybe she needed to know about it if he was doing something naughty so she could do damage control, and also give him a good talking-to, but what if he wasn't doing anything of the sort? He might be out annoying spiders again, or something. For some reason Discord had a thing about spiders. He wasn't afraid of them, but he'd declared them to be his sworn nemeses because spiders tie things down in webs of order, or something like that. It had sounded a lot like a joke, but he had, in fact, gone out of his way to annoy spiders on multiple occasions, so maybe there was some truth to the silliness.
Fluttershy made a trek into the Everfree Forest to gather supplies, go see Zecora to restock on some herbs, and check for any injured animals. It was entirely uneventful, as were most of her trips into the Everfree, and she'd had Grayscale the snake and Matilda the wild turkey along as bodyguards and assistants of a sort... not that a snake and a wild turkey could hold off many of the threats in the Everfree, but Grayscale was venomous and Matilda had a much better sense for when there might be something big and threatening in the area than Fluttershy did, so they'd been happy to accompany her. They were Everfree creatures themselves, not Fluttershy's pets, though Matilda came by the house frequently for handouts and she'd first met Grayscale when she'd treated his tail for an injury, so she considered them neighbors and friends. The fact that other ponies couldn't even figure out how she could converse with them, let alone persuade them to help her, had never particularly bothered Fluttershy.
Then there was noon meal for the animals who ate then, and collecting the eggs, and a trip out to the dairy farm to talk with Bessie about her issues with the ponies who milked her and sold the milk for her, and to check on her sore udder, and pick up milk, cheese and butter. Then there was a negotiation with a colony of rats living in an abandoned house that was suddenly no longer abandoned now that the previous owner's son had come back to Ponyville to renovate his mother's old place and sell it, and of course he wanted the rats gone and was even talking about hiring an exterminator, so Fluttershy had to convince them to move, and find a good place for them to move to. By mid-afternoon, she was feeling a bit tired out from all the trotting, and was looking forward to having a nice shower, eating her own lunch, and relaxing a while, at least until Discord showed up.
These plans were put on hold as soon as she got home and found a large draconequus sprawled out on the ground in front of her house, limbs and tail stretched out as if he was deliberately trying to take up the most possible space, looking up at the sun. "Discord! Don't you know you need to wear sunglasses to look directly at the sun? You'll hurt your eyes!" Fluttershy said, relieved to find him back and all right, although rather annoyed at the fact that she would have to fly over him to get to her own cottage door.
Discord started laughing hysterically, as if what she'd just said was the funniest thing ever, but when she asked him to share the joke, he just started laughing harder. Sighing, Fluttershy did fly over him, heading for her cottage door, only to find herself fluttering in the air on the side of him she'd started from again. She landed. "Discord! I am trying to go in the door; do you mind?"
"I do, actually," he said. "Stay outside with me a few minutes? I invited your friends over."
"You what? Oh, no! I haven't been home all day, I know I'm going to have to clean the place up..."
"No, you're not. I made Angel Bunny do it."
Fluttershy looked down at him skeptically. "Exactly how did you make Angel Bunny clean my house?"
"Simple. I turned him into a tall, coatless monkey with a flat muzzle and a mane and told him to use his new opposable thumbs to make your house spotless or I'd leave him that way. He thinks I don't know he used said opposable thumbs to open the door to my bedroom and pee all over everything, of course, but what he doesn't know is I've stored up a little raincloud in a box and the next time he goes out of his way to annoy me, well, let's say he'll get his present back in full measure." Discord was smirking. "That little monster relies entirely on being small and cute to get his way. Opinions of every other brony you hear from to the contrary, I'm quite certain that pony reactions to his new species would mostly consist of running away, or pointing and laughing, or pointing and running away. Or possibly pitchforks. And he knows it. So your house is positively sparkling now."
Fluttershy sighed. "Discord, you're not doing me a favor if you're mean to other creatures to get them to do me a favor, because then it hurts me that you were mean to them." She ignored the parts of his statement that made no sense; it was safest that way when dealing with Discord.
"Yes, but he peed in my room."
"Because you turned him into a weird monkey creature! You started it, Discord!"
"But now he's cleaned your entire house and learned an important lesson about pulling his own weight around here. You, my dear, are entirely too forgiving. That rabbit takes shameless advantage of your kindness."
"Some ponies say you do the same thing, but that doesn't mean I'd like it if they made you do something you didn't want to do by threatening you."
"I do take shameless advantage of your kindness," Discord said, closing his eyes. "Your friends are quite correct. But I am trying to learn how to be a proper friend, whereas that insufferable lapine thinks he already is one."
She sighed, again. "Did you turn him back yet?"
"Oh, absolutely. I also persuaded your chickens to clean up their own coop. Really those creatures are quite filthy, I don't know how you stand it."
Fluttershy was almost afraid to ask. "How did you get them to clean up their own coop, Discord?"
"Fingers!" he chortled. "Two plus a thumb on each wingtip. Though I'll have to undo it later, it would be a horror if that musician came by here, saw fingers on the chickens and started pestering me about hands. Again."
"What? She's annoying."
"I'm not worried about Lyra, I'm worried about my chickens."
"Oh! They loved it, Flutters. Chickens are so industrious and detail-oriented. It just never occurred to them before to particularly care about... well, their own detritus. Once I made them see the value to you in cleaning up after themselves, they were more than willing. Why, the little red one was even fired up about the idea of baking you a loaf of bread using her new fingers, but she tried to recruit help from the other animals and sad to say, none of them would help her mill the wheat."
"I do have flour already..."
"Chickens are not very bright, Fluttershy."
She never knew if she was supposed to take his stories seriously or not. He probably really had given fingers to the chickens and told them to clean up their coop; Discord could apparently communicate fluently with any animal in Equestria, which sadly didn't translate to any more concern for their well-being or happiness than he'd had for ponies before she'd reformed him. She was trying to get him to care about other living creatures, but it was hard. As nearly as she could tell, Discord divided all living creatures into two categories: beings he had personal affection for, and toys for him to play with. And the category of beings he had personal affection for was much, much smaller than the category of toys, and had occasional unfortunate overlaps with that category.
Well. At least he had a category of beings that weren't toys, now. That was a vast improvement over how he used to be. "If everypony's coming over I'm going to have to make dinner..."
"Already taken care of. I made surprise rolls! I am also fairly certain Applejack's bringing stew because she doesn't trust my surprise rolls."
"Um, I'm not sure anyone would really want to eat a roll when they have no idea what's in it..."
"But that's the fun of it, Fluttershy! The unexpectedness! The mystery! Are you going to get savory mushrooms and carrots? Sweet cream? Mustard and olives? Sweet cream and olives? I promise you, not one single substance that ponies find inedible or generally unpleasant-tasting was used in the creation of my rolls." He didn't get up, but his neck was long enough that when he raised it off the ground and craned it in her direction, his face was at eye level with her. "Come on! Live a little!"
"Where were you today?"
He lost his grin. "Not causing chaos. And I don't want to talk about it."
"Were you doing something that would make ponies mad?" she asked sternly.
"What part of 'not causing chaos' did you not hear? I was trying to find some things, or confirm that they don't exist. And I still don't want to talk about it. So I invited your friends over to play tag!"
"To play tag? Isn't that kind of... well, silly? I mean, I'm sure it'll be fun, but it's a little foalish for Rarity or Applejack..."
"Ah, but you haven't heard about the wonderful prizes."
Fluttershy was liking this less and less. "You're giving my friends prizes?"
"Only if they actually tag me." Discord got to his feet, grinning. "Did Twilight ever tell you about our invigorating little game of 'try to hit the draconequus' a couple of weeks ago?"
"Twilight attacked you?" Fluttershy gasped.
"No, no, no. It was a game. I told her to try to hit me, and eventually, after draining nearly all her magic and engaging in the basest of trickery and deceit, she did." He grinned. "She pretended she was having a heart attack or something, and zapped me when my guard was down. It was the most hilarious thing. So I thought, why not get all of you in on the fun? It's true, Rarity was going to be a giant spoilsport because the idea of running around your yard trying to tag me is so uncouth, dear me, she might even get a tangle in her mane! So I offered her some truly unique fabrics if she manages to tag me, and now I'm certain she'll get into the spirit of it."
"I'm... I guess I'm not quite getting exactly what you're doing here. Doesn't tag usually mean there's one pony running around trying to catch the others?"
"Yes, but it would hardly be a challenge for me to chase you six down, after all, and as amusing as I might find it to watch you chase each other, you all positively refuse to compete with each other around me, as if I'm trying to use a friendly game to turn you all against each other again or something. So I reversed it."
Fluttershy nodded. That was actually something they'd all agreed on; Discord loved games and seemed to have an endless supply of new and interesting ones to suggest, but Twilight had suggested that Discord might try to use their natural competitive desires to drive a wedge into their friendships if they played against each other in his presence, unless it was something really sedate like a board game. Fluttershy didn't think Discord would consciously do a thing like that, not anymore, but she had to admit to herself, he wasn't called the Spirit of Disharmony for nothing; even when he was trying to be friendly and well-behaved, he couldn't seem to resist making some attempt to stir up trouble. "Okay, so instead of one pony tagging everypony else, it's we all try to tag you? What happens when we catch you?"
"What do you mean 'when'?" Discord laughed. "If one of you manages to tag me, you get a prize and the game ends, unless the losers want to go another round, but I honestly expect one round will take quite some time and probably wear you all out. Oh, here's Spike now!"
"That's Rainbow Dash, Discord."
"Silly me, always confusing the two of them."
Rainbow came in for an abrupt landing. "Fluttershy! Did this jerk have your permission to invite us all over to your house? ‘Cause if he didn't I can totally go tell the others that we should leave you alone if you wanna be left alone!"
"Um, no, Rainbow, it's fine. I, uh, I always like seeing my friends, even if I wasn't expecting you to come over today."
"But he didn't have permission?"
"Now, now, Rainbow Crash, you heard her. She likes seeing her friends. She's perfectly happy with me inviting you all over! Isn't that right, Flutters?" He was suddenly sitting next to her, his lion paw wrapped around her middle, squeezing her close in a sideways hug.
Fluttershy sighed. "I like seeing my friends, so this is a nice surprise," she said. "But if I was really tired or I'd had a bad day or something then I might not like to see all of them at the same time, and maybe I might have wanted to take a nap or something, so, um, please ask next time?"
Twilight trotted up to them. "Hi, Fluttershy, hi, Rainbow. Discord, what exactly were you thinking, inviting everypony to Fluttershy's house without even asking her first? You know she's shy."
"It's okay, Twilight--"
"It's not okay for him to take advantage of your kindness to just do whatever he wants."
"Dear me," Discord said, fake-sniffling. "And here I thought I was doing my dear friend a favor by inviting her friends over to see her! I even made dinner and cleaned her house for her!"
"Now this I gotta see," Rainbow Dash said skeptically.
Twilight's eyes narrowed. "What's the catch, Discord?"
"I believe the catch of the day is tuna," Discord said, and tossed a very large fish at Twilight, who grabbed it with her magic, startled. "Or perhaps swordfish?" He tossed another one.
"Discord, put those fish back where you found them right now," Fluttershy said sternly.
"But I found them on the back of a griffin fishing boat! Surely you don't want me to put them back there?"
"Put them back in the ocean. Or wherever they live."
"Fine, fine." Rolling his eyes (not literally), he snapped his talon, and the fish vanished.
"I don't believe it!" Rainbow Dash said, coming out of the house. "It really is clean!" She lunged at Discord and grabbed his beard, pulling him into her face. "You're a changeling, aren't you! You're impersonating the real Discord!"
Discord snickered. "Oh, how delightful! I'm finally the lesser of two evils!"
"He made Angel clean the house," Fluttershy said, and looked at Discord. "Which, um, wasn't very nice to Angel, even though I do understand wanting the house to be clean for my guests, and at least you did think of that."
"Oh my!" Rarity came into view. "Did I just hear that Discord was showing some consideration, and arranged for Fluttershy's house to be cleaned? I must say I am pleasantly impressed! I'd never have imagined him capable of thinking of such a thing."
"I'm right here," Discord said, sounding slightly irritated. "And what do you mean I'm not capable of thinking of such a thing? I'm capable of thinking of anything, Rarity; that's part of the definition of chaos, isn't it?"
"Well, darling, you may have a point, but one must agree that ‘chaos' and ‘cleanliness' are not concepts that normally go well together."
"Why does everypony find it so hard to comprehend that I might like to do something nice for Fluttershy from time to time?"
"'Cause of the part where the word ‘nice' is describing something you're doing," Rainbow said.
"Oh, you're so very harsh, Rainbow!" Discord stood, pressing his paws to his chest. "You've wounded me! I'm truly hurt! Rarity, may I borrow your fainting couch?"
"I don't believe I can stop you," Rarity said.
Discord snapped his talon, causing the fainting couch to appear behind him, whereupon he collapsed into it, his lion arm thrown over his eyes in a histrionic gesture. "Oh, cruel world, full of such barbs and slings of misfortune!"
"Discord, is there a reason you're pretendin' to faint on Rarity's couch, or are ya just being a big old drama llama again?" Applejack asked as she strolled up.
"Rainbow Dash doesn't believe I'm capable of doing something nice for Fluttershy!" Discord cried out dramatically. "My one, true, dear friend in all the universe, and Rainbow thinks I can't even clean her house for her!"
"Um, you had Angel do it, remember?"
"It's the thought that counts, though, isn't that what you ponies always say?" Discord sat up, apparently bored with his own dramatics. "So! Now that everypony's here, we're just about ready to begin!"
"So just so we're all on the same page," Twilight said. "You've invited everypony over to Fluttershy's house because you want us to play tag with you."
"After that marvelous game you and I played together, how could I possibly resist inviting all our friends to join the fun?" He was suddenly on his feet, holding a microphone. "Discord! Tell our contestants about the wonderful prizes we have for them today!"
A second version of him, with a pencil mustache and a business suit, spoke up from behind the group. "That's right, Discord, we have some amazing prizes for our contestants today," he said. "For Rarity, this wondrous mood responsive fabric!" A light shone on a plinth, on which a glass case stood, and inside the glass case was a pile of shimmering cloth. The Discord with the mustache reached his hand into the case and drew out some of the pieces of cloth. "The color changes in response to the pony's mood. Note the color of exasperation!" He tossed the cloth onto Rainbow Dash, where it changed to a dark grayish blue. "Timidity!" He dropped a piece on Fluttershy. She craned her head back to watch the fabric change to a light yellow. "Annoyance!" A bolt of cloth dropped on Twilight's head, turning dull red.
"It looks quite lovely," Rarity said, "but I must insist that you stop annoying my friends."
"But how else am I expected to demonstrate the properties of this fabric?" the original Discord, who was no longer holding his microphone, said.
"Maybe if you tried actually makin' ponies happy instead of annoyed, you could demonstrate the thing you wanted t' demonstrate without annoyin' anypony," Applejack said, snorting.
"Well, then your prize should make you happy, Applejack!" Discord held out a multicolored apple, which was almost the same colors as a zap apple, except that all of them looked yellower, somehow. "This beauty is a hybrid of a Golden Delicious and a Zap Apple. The hybrids aren't quite as zappy as a true zap apple, but they grow on ordinary Golden Delicious trees, without any special care required to give them that zap. What's more, the trees that come from these hybrids produce about a fourth of their crop as true zap apples... but they still require no more specialized care than a Golden Delicious would."
Applejack stared. "You gotta be kiddin' me."
"No joke," Discord said. "Manage to catch me and this beauty's all yours, with all the seeds inside it just longing to be planted in your orchard."
"There ain't no way you can make a zap apple grow on an ordinary apple tree!"
"Excuse me, did you just claim there's something I can't do? Discord, Lord of Chaos, master of impossibilities? I thought you liked making sense, Applejack. Really, shouldn't you know better?"
"And all we have to do to win prizes is tag you?" Rainbow Dash asked.
"Absolutely! Land any part of your body or any object propelled by magic on me, and you win! For you, Rainbow Dash, I have an astonishing prize." He was in the air above her, dangling down to look into her eyes upside down. "How would you like to meet the real Daring Do?"
Rainbow Dash stared at him. "But... isn't Daring Do a made up character?"
"Maybe she is and maybe she isn't, but either way it's no object to me. Wouldn't you like to find out?"
Rainbow looked over at Twilight. "Uh... Twilight, you're the bookworm! Is there any chance Daring Do's real?"
"I... never thought about it," Twilight admitted. "My mom worked with A. K. Yearling on the first few books in the series, so I'd have thought it would be entirely fictional, but... I mean, Discord does illusions a lot so I'd assume that no, she's not real..."
"It'd still be awesome to meet her, though," Rainbow said. "Even if she's not real. But wait, you read the books?" She glared at Discord.
He grinned. "Oh seriously Rainbow, they're written for the age level of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Do you think I'd have any trouble reading them if I wanted to?" He turned toward Pinkie Pie. "For you, my dear, the prize is--" he dramatically pulled a black tarp off a large, unwieldy sculpture-like thing that hadn't been sitting on Fluttershy's lawn a minute ago "--a DRINKING FOUNTAIN!"
Unlike the sort of fountains sodas came out of, this was a sculpted fountain, a marble-lined pool with a statue of Pinkie Pie dancing, hooves thrown up in the air, in the center. On the top of the marble ring around the fountain there were multiple colored levers. Discord pulled the pink one, and chocolate milk shot out of the forehooves of the Pinkie statue, up into the air, to splash down into the center of the pool. "I was considering giving you a much more attractive statue in the center, but statues of myself give me the willies for some reason." He shuddered graphically, as if he'd turned to jello.
Pinkie glared at him. "And where is the whipped cream, mister?"
"Right here!" Discord pulled an orange lever, and one of the two Pinkie-statue hooves in the air began spraying whipped cream instead of chocolate milk. "Other levers produce cola, tomato cola, orange soda, grape soda, raspberry soda, boysenberry soda, mango pineapple cherry juice, chocolate apple juice, daffodil juice, cactus juice, tree juice, soy milk, coconut milk, peanut milk, goat milk, monkey milk, turkey milk, screwdrivers, hammers, apple cider, orange cider, garlic cider, maple syrup, chocolate syrup, banana syrup, coffee syrup, and snow syrup. Also purple honey, marshmallow fluff, cotton candy fluff and Celestia mane fluff." He demonstrated by rapidly flicking the various levers, causing different liquids to shoot out of the hooves and produce an incredibly bizarre smelling concoction in the pool.
Pinkie dove into the pool and came back up, smacking her lips with a weird expression on her face. "That's... definitely different! I think I'd rather just do one or two at a time most of the time though!"
"You can use as few or as many of the flavor varieties as you like, if you can tag me first," Discord said in his best carnival barker voice.
"Okay!" Pinkie leaped unexpectedly, wrapping her hooves around Discord's neck. "Tag!"
Discord pulled her free and put her down with an exasperated expression. "After the game actually starts, Pinkie."
"Um... isn't this essentially having us compete against each other though?" Fluttershy asked. "Shouldn't the prizes be one team prize, not individual prizes?"
Discord rolled his eyes. "There's nothing stopping you from using teamwork," he said. "If two of you tag me at the same time, you'd both win your prizes."
"Okay," Fluttershy said, "but I do still feel like maybe it's a bit too rough for me. So, um, I'll stay out of it." At Discord's crestfallen expression, she quickly added, "But I can be the referee!"
"Oh, must you?" The genuine expression had been replaced with an exaggerated pout of disappointment. "Are you sure, Flutters? And here I had such a wonderful prize lined up for you!"
"But you do nice things for me all the time because you're my friend." She hugged him, so he wouldn't think her objection was to him -- she just didn't see the point in even trying to compete in a physical contest against the fastest pegasus, strongest earth mare, most agile pony of any kind, most dextrous unicorn and most powerful unicorn she'd ever met. There was no way Fluttershy could possibly win such a competition unless one of her competing friends, or Discord himself, threw the contest for her, and that was a terrible way to win anything. "You even got my house cleaned for me, even though I do wish you'd been nicer to Angel when you did it. So I don't need any prizes from you, just your friendship." She rubbed her cheek against his side, above his goat leg. Discord facepalmed.
"Fluttershy, do you really mean for all of us to get stuck in sap like the Cutie Mark Crusaders? Because that has to be some of the gooiest, thickest sap I've ever heard."
She grinned up at him. "But it's true-ue," she said in a singsong voice, teasing him. "I like your gifts, but I'd like you just as well if you didn't give me anything. Because we're friends."
"Fine! You can be the referee! Just stop destroying my pancreas!" He made a one-handed gesture of pushing away or holding something off, similar to the two-handed one he'd been frozen in when they'd turned him back to stone, with his other hand flung over his eyes, his expression a perfect cariacture of a colt refusing his spinach, or maybe more accurately, refusing the presence of fillies on account of cooties. "Here lies Discord, spirit of Chaos. What Pinkie Pie's pastries couldn't do, Fluttershy accomplished with just her voice!"
Rainbow Dash, who wasn't about to turn down an opportunity to rib Discord, laughed. "Oh, yeah, you hate it sooo much! It's not like you ever covered Equestria in sugar yourself -- oh, wait, you did!"
Discord scowled at her. "You want to play this game and win prizes, or do you want to go back home and take yet another nap?"
"Bring it, oldster!"
He turned to Twilight. "Well, since we can't begin without revealing the prizes for all the contestants, let's move on! For you, Twilight, the prize is knowledge. Any three questions you want to ask, truthful and complete answers, to the limits of your comprehension."
Twilight's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean, to the limit of my comprehension?"
"Would you have any idea what I was talking about if I started comparing the pros and cons of electronic, ionic, or positronic intelligence? Or the effect of quantum uncertainty on the multiversal nature of the cosmos? Or heliocentric stellar dynamics for binary star systems where one of the partners is a blue-white giant?"
"Um," Twilight said. "I'm guessing that heliocentric stellar dynamics means the motion of stars around a sun, rather than motion around a planet as in a geocentric system like ours?"
Discord laughed. "Good guess, but no. There are things it would take you years to learn, Sparky, and there are things you'd never be able to comprehend however hard you try. Your prize includes the guarantee that the information I give to you will be something you can comprehend, for your three questions." He smirked at her. "This is a one-time offer. All rights reserved. Void in the Crystal Empire and Griffonia. Contents packed by weight, not by volume. Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear."
Twilight didn't even seem to notice the sudden spout of nonsense. Her eyes were wide. "Any three questions?"
"But only if you can tag me." He wagged a finger of his lion paw in her face. "And don't expect to catch me with that ‘feigning a heart attack' trick again, my dear. This time, you'll have to work for it."
"This time, I have my friends with me," Twilight retorted. "Trust me, Discord, one way or another you're going down."
"Promises, promises." He grinned toothily. "Well then!" He snapped his talon, and Fluttershy found a tilted table, like a lectern or display plinth, boxing her in on three sides. Each side had a display window, but instead of showing something inside the table, they showed the very scene in front of her, from different angles. The one right in front of her showed her straight down, as if she were peering over the edge of a cloud. The one on the left showed the group from the back left, and the one on the right showed them from the right side, from her perspective. "Can't be a referee without being able to see the whole field, hmm?" He winked at Fluttershy.
"Um, I guess so," she said. "So what are the rules I'm referring, if, um, you don't mind me asking?"
"Rules? There are no rules!" Discord said, throwing his arms wide. "You five may attempt to tag me by striking me with magic, your body parts, objects you have thrown, or objects you are directing with magic. Air currents do not count but rain or lightning would. I will remain in this general vicinity, within possible line of sight of at least one of you, the whole time. The game ends when one of you tags me or when one of you forfeits from exhaustion. I win if any of you quit."
"What if you're the one who gets too tired?" Pinkie demanded. "Then what?"
Discord rolled his eyes. "Then the sun blows up, because that's just as likely. I don't do ‘tired', Pinkie, I'd have thought you'd have noticed."
"Let's make things more interesting," Twilight said. "If we have a forfeit condition, so do you. When you wanted me to hit you, you promised not to do anything to defend yourself except dodge. I want the same rule in place here; you don't do anything to anypony to stop them from hitting you."
"But I can do things to the things they're trying to hit me with?"
"Yes, you can redirect magic but not back at the one who fired it, and you can redirect or block any objects you want. But if anypony gets hurt, you forfeit."
"Now that hardly seems fair. What if Pinkie stubs her toe? What if Rainbow deliberately bonks herself on the head to fulfill the ‘anypony gets hurt' condition and force me to forfeit?"
"Like I'd do anything like that," Rainbow said derisively. "I don't need to cheat to beat you, Dipcord!"
"Um, that would be my job because I'm the referee," Fluttershy said. "If somepony gets hurt and it's deliberate and their own fault, then I call it for Discord winning. If somepony gets hurt for any other reason, Discord loses and has to hand out all the prizes, and also heal whoever got hurt."
"Fluttershy, that's totally unfair--"
"No, it's fair." She looked up at him, directly into his eyes. "You want to play a game that's kind of dangerous, more dangerous than most games ponies play. It has no rules and it involves throwing things around. That's chaos, and you're the master of chaos, so I think you should be able to keep anypony from getting hurt. But if the game you wanted to play, that you invented and didn't give any rules to, ends up hurting somepony, even by accident, then I think that's your fault and you'll have to pay a forfeit."
"You're making this much more challenging for me, Flutters," he grumbled, and then brightened. "But I do love a challenge. Very well, Umpire, I accept your terms!" He didn't snap, but Fluttershy was suddenly dressed in a black and white striped shirt and a black baseball cap, with a whistle around her neck.
Fluttershy brightened. She wasn't personally athletic at all, but it was probably entirely impossible to be raised as a pegasus and not have enthusiasm for sports, at least as a spectator. "Oh my, this looks nice," she said, grinning. "Is that all of the rules?"
"Most certainly, I'm hardly thrilled we have to have any," Discord said.
"That's all I have," Twilight said.
"Ah'm okay with what Twilight and you added, Fluttershy," Applejack said. "Ah got nothin' to add."
"I'm cool, let's go!" Rainbow said.
"I agree, these sound acceptable." Rarity was busy tying her mane into a kerchief. "But do please wait until I've secured my mane, I don't want to ruin it."
"LET'S DO THIS!" Pinkie was bouncing up and down rapidly.
"Okay," Fluttershy said. "Um, if everypony could go out some distance, maybe in a circle, and Discord in the middle? A little farther, Rainbow... Pinkie, you shouldn't be straight across from Rarity because if you do a running leap you might actually run into her if she's also coming forward... okay, I think that's good... three, two, one, go!"
The ponies had arranged themselves in a staggered circle, where no pony was directly opposite any other pony, leaving them all a fairly clear shot at Discord. Rainbow was the first to charge in, flying in so fast she was practically a blur, and pulling up short as Discord vanished. Pinkie spun and threw a number of bouncy balls. Discord materialized directly above the balls, grinned cheekily at Pinkie, and vanished again, to appear directly above Applejack, who flung a lasso at him. He dodged that without teleporting, and then eeled sideways with a look of surprise on his face. "Why, Rarity, that is quite a lot of sewing needles!"
"Yes, it is, isn't it?" Rarity replied sweetly, with a broad smile on her face. Fluttershy couldn't even see her needles except as occasional glints of light in the air, but Discord plainly could. The glints in the air blinked and reappeared as large iridescent dragonflies, which flew off as Rarity gaped in startlement. "Oh, very clever, Discord, but now it is on."
Rainbow came in for another divebomb, slower this time because she was carrying Pinkie on her back. As Discord vanished, Pinkie shouted and pointed. "Twitchy thataway!" Rainbow changed course before Discord had even reappeared, and came within inches of him as he reappeared, before he vanished again with an undignified yelp. Again Pinkie pointed and again Rainbow changed course. This time he appeared on the ground some distance away from all of them, but closer to Applejack than anyone else. Applejack charged, and Rainbow and Pinkie circled around to approach him from another direction. He disappeared again, and appeared on top of a tree stump, pulling his legs up off the stump and out of the way just as Rarity flung the bouncy balls Pinkie had released earlier toward him. A twist in midair, and he narrowly avoided one of the bouncy balls hitting him in the outstretched wing.
He was grinning so widely it looked as if his face might split. "Good start, girls, but you'll all have to step up your game if you want to win!"
Fluttershy felt strangely proud of all of them. He was so fast, so agile and flexible, traits that every pegasus was taught to value. And her friends were so smart and quick on the uptake, and worked together so well, taking advantage of openings as Discord dodged one of them to move in on him. Rarity had so many small objects in the air, dancing around intricately and separately, controlling them all. Pinkie's leaps and bounces were amazing, as if she were made of rubber. Applejack did things like sweeping her lasso toward him in a direction that, if he didn't teleport, he'd be forced to dodge directly into Rainbow's charge or Rarity's sewing supplies and bouncy balls or one of Pinkie's impossible bounds. Rainbow was making hairpin turns and pulling aerial stunts that Fluttershy knew were very dangerous, this close to the ground, and her heart was in her mouth but Rainbow seemed to be in total control of her own trajectory.
But why wasn't Twilight playing?
She looked over at where Twilight was standing, removed from the rest of the group. Twilight's horn was glowing and her face held a slight frown of concentration, but she didn't appear to be doing anything. Fluttershy knew better, though. Twilight wouldn't back down from a challenge any more than any of her friends would. She was planning something, doing something, but what?
The first thing Twilight had done as the game had begun was to cast Accelerando on herself. This was one of Starswirl's more advanced spells, and potentially quite dangerous if overused; it sped up a unicorn's mind and reflexes tremendously, to the point where even Rainbow looked as if she was moving leisurely to Twilight, and everypony else seemed to be in slow motion. She couldn't hold the spell for more than five minutes, and it wouldn't actually make her body or her magic any faster, so it would have been of limited value in a direct attack on Discord, given how unbelievably fast she already knew he was... but that was all right, because that wasn't what she was after.
She was watching Discord's magic.
Everything magical in Equestria generally did one of two things to use magic, or else they did both. They drew from a pool of internal mana, or they drew on the available energy of the world. Dragons drew internal mana, which meant they needed to eat substances containing magic -- gems, which held some amount of static magic frozen within them -- to keep their supplies up. Earth ponies and pegasi used a relatively small pool of internal magic to draw in more magic from the environment and manipulate it, guiding it. Pinkie was an exception to this; she had a relatively large pool of internal magic, close to unicorn-sized, and the magic of the environment she manipulated wasn't the energies earth ponies worked with. Twilight had little idea what Pinkie was doing, but she knew what she wasn't.
Unicorns had a large pool of internal mana, and reserves that they could draw the energy of the world around them into for a temporary increase in power, but for the most part they didn't manipulate the magic of the environment, they manipulated their own. Diamond Dogs drew energy from gems and channeled them into a few specific talents, one of which was digging. Zebras could see the magic of the world all around them but couldn't directly manipulate it in any way, which meant that zebra shamans learned an incredible amount of lore around plants and animals and crystals so that they could gather and mix magic from all sorts of natural substances to create any number of effects. Gryphons had small internal reserves that they used to manipulate air currents just enough to allow them to fly the way pegasi did.
Discord didn't do any of those things. He had an enormous pool of internal mana that he almost never used, but Twilight had never been able to see him pulling energy from anywhere else, either, so she had never been able to figure out how his powers worked. Now, with Accelerando cast so she could perceive the world in slow motion, and her senses fully opened to the flow of magic so it looked like pegasus contrails floating in the air everywhere, she was finally able to see what he was doing. It raised as many more questions as it answered, but it gave her some ideas.
Immediately before any of his effects, Discord would send out a very, very quick pulse of mana to... somewhere. Twilight couldn't see where it was going; it appeared to vanish into nowhere. The pulse was almost certainly a fraction of a second long -- even with Accelerando cast on her, Twilight was barely able to see him do it. And then, almost instantaneously after the pulse, a flood of energy would appear out of nowhere and Discord would manipulate it the same way unicorns manipulated their own magic. He wasn't drawing on his internal mana and he wasn't drawing on the environment because he was literally summoning magic from nowhere. This violated so many laws of physics and magic that Twilight was tempted to try to put hoofcuffs on him, but what had she expected from the god of Chaos, after all?
The important thing was that, for a creature of chaos, Discord was following a repetitive pattern. He was always summoning energy out of nowhere and using it to perform his effects. And he was always doing it the same way. The microsecond pulse, and then the energy suddenly became available. More importantly, the pulse was always within a certain frequency range. It appeared to be coming from his head, but not his horns, more like a field effect that appeared around his head for the microsecond before the energy of the pulse vanished and the surge of new energy appeared.
Alicorns drew energy from specific external sources, not necessarily the energy of the environment itself. Celestia drew from the sun, Luna from the moon, Cadance from emotional auras of love that radiated from ponies. Changelings drew on that love energy much more directly, depleting the life force and emotional capacity of the victim. Chaos was everywhere -- was Discord summoning energy from everywhere in the world at once, so there was no visible draw on the local environment? Was he pulling energy through the side dimension that ponies, and presumably Discord himself, used to teleport? Twilight didn't know, and couldn't think of an experiment that could tell her, but what she did know was that Discord seemed to need that energy -- unlike alicorns, who did most of their general magic from their large internal mana pools and only drew on their element when they needed very high levels of magic, Discord was drawing from this invisible pool every single time. So he could theoretically perform magic forever without exhausting himself -- given how much internal mana he had and how little he was using in his micro-pulses, it might be centuries or millennia before he could run out even if he had no way to replenish, and of course simply being alive replenished the mana pools of most creatures who had them.
But it gave him a vulnerability that ponies didn't have. Maybe. Assuming he couldn't quickly switch to using his internal energy, or assuming his internal energy could be bound the way a unicorn horn could be.
She hadn't talked her friends into participating in this game of Discord's so that they could win prizes -- though admittedly the prize he'd offered her was awfully tempting. She'd done it so she could see Discord using his magic a lot, at near combat capacity, in an environment where she could step back and watch him and the others would keep him distracted while he was doing it. He'd flashed her a grin when she'd first cast Accelerando on herself, obviously aware of what she'd just done, but since then he'd been too busy to actually look at her. He didn't need his eyes to see with -- she'd seen that he could view what was happening behind him without turning his head -- so he might well be watching her, but if he was she couldn't tell.
Twilight took a deep breath. Something to disrupt the pulse -- a stronger pulse of harmonized energy set to an inverse frequency so it would cancel his pulse, turn it into noise. Ironically, disharmonize it. Then the spell that was embedded in unicorn horn rings, the one that disrupted the flow of magic, cast around his head. Without an anchor like a horn ring, it couldn't last -- at her full power she estimated she could hold it between two and ten minutes. Bu that might be long enough to knock him unconscious, in a real combat situation, and Discord used his magic for everything. He might not have a strategy for what would happen if it suddenly wasn't available.
The disadvantage of testing it in mock combat was that it would alert Discord that that trick existed, making it much harder to use if it was actually needed. But she couldn't possibly rely on it working in a life or death situation if she'd never tested it, and given that Discord's biggest weakness was his carelessness, she could see numerous ways she could trick him into thinking she was incapable of casting the spell when she was in fact able. She took another deep breath, prepared the spell in her head -- and froze.
Discord was almost exclusively in the air, or teleporting, or using his magic to deflect things that might actually hurt him if they hit him when he had no magic. If she cast it now, he could actually get hurt. She didn't know if he could literally get hurt, but she strongly suspected that disrupting his magic would make him essentially just another creature for a few minutes, which meant he could be hurt if he didn't have access to his magic -- and whether it was his doing or just her friends being really careful, so far nopony had gotten hurt despite the total chaos of airborne objects and charging ponies all over the place. He was keeping his end of the bargain. She couldn't use this spell at a moment when it might hurt him, not during a friendly game, not when he might well be using his powers to keep her friends from hurting each other accidentally. That would be cruel, and rude, and just wrong to do to anypony, especially somepony who claimed to want to be friends with you.
Twilight sighed. She couldn't use the trick to win the game. The game had to end before she could test it. It wasn't safe otherwise. She'd promised the others, aside from Fluttershy, that if they distracted Discord for her during his game, she would do her best to figure out a way to temporarily suppress his powers, and then all of them would pin him down and give him a makeover for a prank. Rainbow Dash wasn't much for makeovers, but the thought of playing a prank on Discord had been irresistable to her, and the others had been on board from the moment she'd suggested it. But a prank wasn't funny if it ran the risk of getting somepony, or somedraconequus, hurt. All of them would just have to wait.
She'd gotten what she'd come for, but now that she knew what the prize was, she was going to try to win this. She let go of Accelerando, but kept up the spell that let her see magic trails. As Discord dodged the various missiles and ponies flying his way, laughing giddily, Twilight took aim and fired a simple bolt of telekinesis. Discord melted into a puddle, sank into the ground, and came back up right behind her. "Aha! Twilight Sparkle enters the fray! Now the serious entertainment starts!"
Twilight fired at him again. He laughed as he vanished, reappearing in the midst of the other ponies, who rushed him and came very close to banging into each other. Rarity sent a shower of small pebbles at Discord, and when he dodged up, they split apart, so she was controlling multiple pebbles independently, forcing Discord to duck and weave and finally teleport. Twilight whipped her head sideways and managed to catch the glow of Discord's magic appearing before he did. She fired, but somehow, despite being mid-teleport, Discord must have been able to tell, because when he materialized he was bent backward, doing the limbo, and her bolt went over him. She fired again at his feet, but he flipped himself into the air, so his head was floating but down and his legs and tail were flying upward, and then teleported again as she fired again. This time Applejack was waiting for him where he reappeared, behind Twilight. As Twilight spun to watch, she saw the lasso almost catch Discord's horn -- it was actually closing around the deer antler when Discord shrank, turning small enough that he slid out of from under where the lasso was contracting before it had actually finished closing around him.
Rarity's pebbles swooped down at him. Laughing, Discord teleported up, going back to full size, and twisted his body to barely avoid Rainbow Dash's charge. Twilight fired at him as soon as Rainbow was past, but his torso split in half, making a giant donut hole that her bolt went right through. Applejack tried to fling her lasso through the hole, but Discord was gone again, teleporting to the middle of the meadow.
And then Pinkie landed on his head. "Gotcha!"
Fluttershy blew her whistle. In the sudden quiet afterward she was barely audible. "Um... Pinkie wins?"
"So she does," Discord said, extricating Pinkie from his horns with his magic. He set her down on the ground and bowed to her. "Excellent match, most honorable opponent!"
Pinkie bowed back as Twilight tried not to let her eyes bug out of her head. How had Pinkie gotten into the air in the first place? She'd barely even noticed Pinkie while she'd been trying to hit Discord herself. Pinkie could jump pretty high, but Discord had been standing at full size, floating a head off the ground, and Pinkie's trajectory had looked like it was coming from way up in the air, not a mere jump from the ground. It's Pinkie. Don't question it, she repeated to herself, remembering what had happened the last time she'd tried to figure Pinkie out.
"Ready for your grand prize, my dear?" Discord asked.
"Nope!" Pinkie jumped onto Discord's tail, and as he pivoted with a puzzled expression on his face, she used it as a platform to bounce up to his shoulders again, planting herself piggyback-style. "I couldn't have done it without my friends! So I want you to give them their prizes!"
He turned his head to look at her, which was only possible because of his extremely long neck and still looked like a rather painful contortion to perform. "But don't you want your drinking fountain?"
"It's a great drinking fountain! But I could make any of those crazy drinks myself if I wanted to! Well, except for the turkey milk, I don't even know how you'd milk a turkey! But the prizes you were gonna give my friends are things they can't make for themselves, and besides, we had a stratagery!"
"One of those too! I told Dashie and Applejack and Rarity to leave the middle open and just keep chasing you and sooner or later you'd teleport into the middle and then I could catch you! I was gonna tell Twilight too but she looked all concentraty and I didn't want to mess her up and anyway I knew Twilight was smart enough not to ruin my stratagery, so the only reason I won was my friends cooperated with me! And if that one hadn't worked then we'd have all left something open with some of Rarity's stuff in it so she could get you as soon as you teleported there, and we'd have done the same kinds of things with Dashie and Applejack and Twilight so sooner or later one of us would have won, but only because of teamwork because you are very slippery, mister! So because we won because of teamwork I want you to give the rest of the team their prizes!"
Discord removed Pinkie again, but kept her hovering in air so she was still at approximate eye level to him. "One friend's prize."
"Okay, two! But you have to pick which two because I can't pick between my friends!"
"Well, obviously, Rarity and Applejack." He smirked. "After all, Twilight wasn't even privy to your strategy."
"But Dashie was!"
"And by not giving her a prize today, I give her an incentive to play me again! I'm so very curious to see if the supposed World's Fastest Pegasus can actually tag me, ever."
"I'll tag you right now in the face," Rainbow threatened.
"That wouldn't be very sporting, now would it, Dashie? Pinkie just won, game over. You'll have to wait until next time." He snapped his paw, and Fluttershy's referee table disappeared, while a bucket of not-quite-zap-apples and an open box of neatly packed iridescent fabric appeared in front of Applejack and Rarity, respectively. Pinkie drifted gently to the ground, giggling.
Applejack tasted one of the apples. "Ah gotta say, you weren't jokin' about these. Ain't got nearly so much zap as a real zap apple, but I can still taste it in there."
"Well,"´Rarity said, inspecting the fabric. "I must admit, I'd never expected to receive a gift from you of all creatures, Discord. This is a pleasant surprise!"
"Now how can you be so cold, Rarity? I gave you a gift the first day we met? Don't you remember when I introduced you to Tom?"
Rarity glared at him. "I still have some sewing needles. If you'd like to keep them out of your ear, I'd suggest you be careful what you talk about."
"He's just joking, Rarity," Fluttershy said quietly. "But Discord, it's not very nice to joke about a thing like that. You were really mean to all of us that day, and if you're trying to be friendly it's not nice to bring up those memories."
Discord sighed. "You're all so oversensitive."
"And you're not sensitive at all," Twilight said. He was standing still, performing no direct acts with his magic. "Maybe we should fix that."
She fired the spell. Disruption wave to keep him from pulling power from wherever he was getting it, and the unicorn horn suppression spell around his head. Discord hadn't even been looking at her, at least not as far as she could tell. Now his eyes went wide and his head, which as usual had been bent over to bring it closer to the ponies' heads, shot up, his neck straightening. Twilight grinned broadly -- and then lost the grin immediately.
"What -- no!" Discord sounded completely panicked. "You can't do this -- not now! Not without warning! This is -- you were supposed to give me a choice! You can't do this now, I'm not ready, please! Aren't I supposed to come home and face you first? You can't just sentence me, without -- I have rights! You can't do this!"
Everypony was staring at him in shock. He wasn't looking at Twilight -- he was looking up at the sky, a pleading, desperate note in his voice that Twilight had never heard from him. He dropped to his knees, still looking up, as the ponies watched in increasing discomfort, and in Twilight's case some slight amount of horror. "Please, you have to at least tell me -- let me say something for myself! Don't just -- if this is termination, please, don't do this in front of them..." He fell to all fours, ears pinned back, still looking up at the sky.
Twilight found her voice. "Discord, calm down! This isn't what you think! I cast that spell!"
Discord blinked, and turned toward her. "...What?"
"I'm sorry, it was just supposed to be a prank! I -- I just wanted to see if I could do it! I never meant to really hurt you or scare you like that! I'm so sorry, it was -- you keep trying to get me to use my magic in creative ways to beat you, and I thought -- I thought I'd figured out something I could do, and it would be temporary and we were just going to give you a silly makeover if I got it to work because it's only going to last like five or ten minutes and it was a prank and I thought you'd know it was me and I never meant to actually hurt you! I'm sorry, I'm really, really sorry..." She was on the verge of tears. Not because she was afraid of Discord retaliating for this after he got his powers back, although part of her thought maybe she should be, but the truth was, she was horrified with herself and with the reaction Discord had had to her prank. And now she was berating herself because he had warned her there was a possibility of his powers weakening... of course he'd thought that was what this was. But she hadn't expected anything like this. She'd gotten the impression Discord was worried about some sort of cosmic event or prophecy that he feared might weaken him or strip his power, not... not something he'd break down and start pleading with frantically. This had been supposed to be funny and instead she'd terrified him.
"...You did this?"
She nodded, tears welling up. "I'm so sorry, Discord, I never thought -- I never expected I could really scare you, or hurt you, or whatever just happened, it was just supposed to be a joke..."
His lips twitched. "Heh. Heh." He started to chuckle... and then something broke, and he started laughing hysterically, like he had the day she'd thrown him across the rock quarry. "Hahahahaha! Good one, Sparky! Oh, you got me. You got me good!" He grabbed her -- even without his magic, he moved fast -- and pulled her close. "This one -- hahahaha -- if you think about it, this one's even better than the piano! Hahahahaha hehe that was a zinger all right!" Discord booped Twilight's nose with one of the fingers of his lion paw. "Oh by the time I'm done with you you'll be a master prankster in your own right, Sparkle. I'm so proud of you!"
Discord squeezed her in a sideways hug. "You're -- squishing me--" Twilight panted, before realizing that with his magic temporarily disabled, she could just push him off herself.
"Oh, I apologize, without access to my power I don't know my own strength," Discord said, a malicious note in his voice. "But I suppose now's the time to find out!"
Without warning he pounced on Twilight, before she could summon up the magic to push him off again, and raised his lion paw, claws retracted, above her head, wiggling his fingers. "Because of course you know, Twilight, that this means war!" Before she had time to actually be afraid, he plunged his paw down to her exposed belly and started tickling her. Twilight shrieked, laughing, trying to bat his arm away with her forehooves because she couldn't concentrate enough to use magic like this.
"Big mistake, Dissy," Pinkie said behind Discord. "Big mistake."
Discord turned his head to look at Pinkie. "I'm not hurting her! I'm just tickling her!"
"Yes. Yes, you are tickling her," Pinkie said ominously. "Just remember, Discord... you're the one that brought the tickling in."
Applejack and Rainbow Dash both landed on his back, causing Discord to oof and twist his body, trying to free himself. This left Twilight free to scramble loose. Discord managed to twist himself onto his back, knocking the two ponies off him -- but it was a short-lived victory as Pinkie jumped onto his chest where it met his neck, pinning his arms down with her back hooves, and stretched herself out to tickle him under the chin with her forehoof. "Pinkie, what are you -- nehehe -- what makes you think I'm even tickli-hi-hish stop that!"
"I warned you," Pinkie said. "Everypony knows you're a tickling champ with your powers. But you started a tickle war without them, and you forgot, you mess with one of us, you mess with all six!"
"Five," Fluttershy said. "I'll still be the referee if that's okay with everypony."
Applejack and Rainbow Dash climbed back onto Discord. Applejack sat on the upper part of his tail, though enough below his hips to still be perfectly decent, and grabbed the frantically twitching end of it, bending it back to use Discord's own tail to tickle his belly with, while Rainbow sat on his chest, facing the opposite direction from Pinkie, and used her wing against his side. Rarity removed a small, soft styling brush, maybe for eyebrows or something, from her bag, and used her magic to run it over the palm of Discord's lion paw, holding his fingers open magically as well. "You wanted a war, you got a war!" Rainbow chortled triumphantly, as Discord twisted under her, laughing helplessly.
"Let go! I'm not even hahahaha heeheehee okay I admit it yes I'm -- not the tail! Applejack, what are you dohahahahahing stop hahahaha I'll get you all back for hahahahaha no feheheheheathers that's not faiheheheher hahahaha no not the paw HAHAHAHAHA stohahahahap it Pihinkie no not there dohahahahaha!" Pinkie shifted herself slightly so she could grab Discord's eagle talon, pin it to the ground up by his head, and then use her back hoof to tickle him under the arm, while she tilted her head with a huge evil grin and used her large fluffy mane to continue tickling his neck.
Twilight smiled wanly. After blocking his powers and terrifying him, she didn't think she should participate in the tickling, but this was just as entertaining a prank as giving him a makeover would have been, and, well, he'd started it. He didn't look angry or genuinely upset; you could usually tell when tickling somepony when you'd crossed the line and they'd started finding the experience sincerely unpleasant, because even though they might be laughing throughout, the eyes usually made it clear whether there was a genuine element to the laughter or not. Discord was struggling and demanding that they stop between bouts of laughter, but he was grinning even in the moments when he wasn't laughing.
His legs weren't designed well to be able to kick inward, toward his body. He tried to kick Applejack off his tail anyway, but missed completely, leading her to grab his goat leg, pull it up, and use his tail to tickle behind his knee. Rarity had a packet of small feathers in her bag, probably something she'd brought for the makeover, and in addition to brushing the fur of Discord's lion palm with the small brush, she started running a pair of feathers over his ears, ducking the feathers into them and wiggling a bit, then bringing them up to lightly brush against the topside of the ears. Discord was flicking his ears frantically, twisting his head, but Rarity was easily able to follow his movements. By now he wasn't even demanding they stop, just laughing hysterically and squirming desperately.
Fluttershy blew her whistle again. "All right, girls, that's enough," she said.
"Aw, come on, Fluttershy! He started it!" Rainbow said. "And hay, he likes laughing a lot, doesn't he? I bet he doesn't want us to stop."
"Wrohahahahang," Discord gasped out, still laughing so hard he could barely talk. "Fluhahahahahattershy hahahah hehelp!"
"I said enough, Rainbow," Fluttershy said. "You can't expect Discord to respect us when we tell him to stop if we don't listen to him when he says it."
"Oh, all right," Rainbow grumbled, and climbed off Discord. Applejack and Rarity had already released him.
Pinkie gave Discord a big grin. "Now see, I hope you learned your lesson, mister." She bounced to her feet, leaving Discord panting on the ground.
"Oh, I certainly have," he said, and got to a sitting position, still breathing hard. A big malicious grin spread across his face. "I learned I haven't made any of you nearly afraid enough of my retribution... yet."
Twilight backed up as Discord snapped his talon, his powers clearly back with him. Four small churning clouds of feathers, the size of a foal's head, appeared. "Twilight may have blocked my power for a bit, but she refrained from taking advantage of it, and Fluttershy rescued me from the four of you. I'll spare them my wrath. For the rest of you... no mercy."
What followed was a cacophony of shrieks and laughter as the feather balls chased the four ponies all over the meadow and surrounded them with a merciless cloud of tickling when they caught them. Rarity tried to hold her cloud off telekinetically, but there were too many separate feathers even for her to manage. Rainbow successfully flew out of her cloud and outran it four times, but the fifth time it caught her it stayed with her whatever she did, until she had to land, laughing and squirming too hard to fly. Applejack tried to stoically pretend she wasn't ticklish, and lasted about twenty seconds. Pinkie never seemed to make any attempt to escape or fight after her tickle ball had caught her, and seemed to be quite content to be tickled mercilessly.
Fluttershy blew her whistle again after a minute or two. "Okay, Discord, enough."
"That was not nearly as long as they were tickling me! And they were attacking me four to one! I should have four times as long as they had."
"No, Discord," Fluttershy said patiently, "ponies need to breathe. Also, um, ponies sometimes pee themselves if they're tickled too much..."
The feather balls promptly vanished. "Spoilsport," Discord grumbled.
Various ponies were lying sprawled all over the meadow, panting. Discord snapped his talon, and Twilight found herself suddenly lying down, leaning back against something warm and velvety, like a pony's coat. She turned her head to find that Discord was now lying sprawled on the ground with herself and all of her friends lying next to him or on him. Fluttershy was leaning against his middle where he could drape his wing over her, Pinkie was curled up in the crook of his tail, Rarity and Applejack were propped up against his back, and Rainbow Dash was sprawled over his side, her hooves next to Fluttershy's head. Twilight herself was lying against his neck where it met his shoulders, right above his talon.
She sighed. She probably wasn't nearly as tired as the others, but after the emotional whiplash of the game, and her prank, and Discord's awful reaction to it, and then the tickle war he'd plainly started because he didn't want anyone to dwell on his humiliating display... yes, actually, she was tired. Probably she shouldn't be lying against Discord like they were best buddies at a slumber party or something, but on the other hand, he'd initiated a group activity for all of them, played by the rules, and hadn't actually tormented any of them -- well, aside from the tickling, but she supposed they'd all had it coming after the prank she pulled on him. Between this and the pool party, it looked as if he was actually starting to learn something about friendship, trying to make emotional connections to ponies that didn't rely on him taunting or pranking them first. Maybe the fact that he'd piled ponies all over himself meant he really was reaching out to all of them, and she wasn't going to step on his gesture if that was the case.
"That was a good game," Rainbow said. "I'm not saying I trust you or anything, Discord, but you can play a mean game of Tag."
"Oh, be still my beating heart," Discord said, grinning. "Did Rainbow Dash just say something nice about me?"
"Yeah," Rainbow said. "It's not likely to happen too often so enjoy it while you got it."
Pinkie sighed contentedly and snuggled back against Discord's tail. "That was fun. I might need a nap."
"But I made surprise rolls."
"Well, if I fall asleep, be sure to wake me up for dinner, because I don't wanna miss surprise rolls! But if I find any with mustard inside they're going on your antler."
"Fluttershy, would I be able to trouble you to use your bathroom to wash up before dinner?" Rarity asked. "My poor mane is an absolute wreck now."
"Of course you can," Fluttershy said.
"Guess Ah'd best get to heatin' up mah stew," Applejack said. "In case of anypony not likin' to be surprised by their food, so much. Fluttershy, can Ah use your stove?"
As Applejack and Rarity trotted into Fluttershy's cottage, Twilight looked around. Rainbow, for all her declarations that she still didn't trust Discord, had fallen asleep on top of him; Pinkie was napping as well. Discord claimed that he didn't sleep, but his eyes were closed and his breathing even, so possibly he was faking it, fairly well. Or maybe the temporary loss of his power had actually exhausted him.
"Is he okay, Fluttershy?" Twilight asked softly. "I really didn't mean to scare him like that..."
She felt the muscles behind her back tighten. Discord wasn't actually asleep, then.
"I'm sure he knows that, Twilight," Fluttershy said. "And, um, if he didn't know it before then he probably does now, because he's not asleep, you know."
"Oh, thanks for blowing my cover, Flutters," Discord mumbled. "And here I was hoping Twilight might say all sorts of nice things about me when she thinks I can't hear her."
"In your dreams," Twilight retorted, and then softened. "But... seriously... you know I didn't mean to scare you, right?"
"Scare me? Ha, as if you could. It was a nice try, I admit, but you merely startled me."
"No, I didn't," Twilight said, puzzled. "You were really upset."
"Startled!" Discord got to his feet, unceremoniously removing Twilight's support so she fell back against the ground, along with Rainbow Dash, though he seemed to put more effort into cushioning Fluttershy so she didn't fall over. Pinkie, already curled up, didn't stir, and Rainbow simply glared, flew up to a cloud overhead, and flung herself onto it to continue her nap. "Merely startled. And now I believe I have some surprise rolls to bring out?"
He vanished. "He won't admit it," Fluttershy said softly. "Please don't push him."
"Do you know what he's afraid of?" Twilight asked.
"Not... really. But I know he's afraid. I mean I knew it before today." Fluttershy got up. "We can talk about this later when the others aren't around. Let's go set the table."
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