It wasn't as if he'd tracked down Tirek with the intention of betraying the ponies.

In fact, he'd been looking forward to it as a chance to prove himself, to do something useful that would remind Celestia, and inform the former Bearers, that he was an ally, that he could be called on to help. Since Celestia had asked Fluttershy to reform him, he'd spent most of the year bored out of his mind. Celestia had sent him on several long and tedious missions to seal the dimensional borders to prevent leakage to and from other realms - which was all well and good, it was a job only he could do and to be brutally frank a lot of the leakage might possibly be his fault, from portals he'd created in days long gone, but sweet madness it was mind-numbingly boring. And when he hadn't been on boring missions to spend dull eons knitting the threads of reality back together and sealing them off, he'd had nothing much to do. Fluttershy wasn't actually available to spend a hundred percent of his free time with him, Twilight had conniptions every time he dropped in for a friendly visit, Pinkie was a workaholic - seriously, how could a mare who was otherwise so much fun spend so much of her time doing things she insisted she had to do? Surely the world wouldn't come to end if a batch of cupcakes failed to be baked on occasion, and couldn't party supplies be purchased later when he wasn't around and in need of entertainment?

So when Celestia had a fun mission for him to go on, he jumped at the opportunity.

"Celestia! Long time no see! How's it going, girl? Your mane looks fabulous!" He teleported into her audience chamber wearing one of Rarity's more trendy creations (it was the actual dress, not a replica he'd made, which meant it didn't fit him even slightly, but if he'd made a replica he would have missed the opportunity to get his fur all over one of Rarity's dresses and annoy her), hugged her, and pretend-kissed the air by her cheek the way the annoying Canterlot and Manehatten fashion set did when they greeted each other.

Celestia did not even blink at him. "Discord, you were here yesterday morning, pretending to be starving to death and begging for cake."

"Really?" Discord frowned, teleporting the dress back onto Rarity's kitchen floor with a note thanking her for letting him borrow it. Since he hadn't even asked her, that was bound to rile her up some. The fact that he dropped it on her cat, more or less guaranteeing scratch damage before the day was through, just made it funnier. "Only yesterday? Oh my, time does drag on when you're bored out of your mind." He manufactured a comfy beanbag chair and flopped down onto it, soda ice cream in hand (this was a glass made of ice cream, full of soda.) "So! What is it this time? And I must warn you, if this is more of that hideously boring 'Discord, please go make sure eldritch extradimensional abominations stop coming over to borrow a cup of pony' kind of work-"

"It's not," Celestia said. "Tirek has returned."

Discord turned into an owl. "Whooo?"

Celestia made that exasperated face he loved to see her make. "Tirek. A centaur, with the power to steal magic. He came to Equestria with his brother Scorpan merely about twenty years after we had to seal you in stone, while we were still rebuilding. They attacked many unicorns, and eventually Tirek grew in power to the point where he could take magic from pegasi as well. But Starswirl had made friends with Scorpan-"

Discord was genuinely startled. "Starswirl? I'd thought he'd died centuries previously. Since when do unicorns live that long?"

Celestia's tone grew softer. "Oh. I'd forgotten, you couldn't have known. He never died, Discord. Well, he never died during your reign, in any case. He thought - correctly, as it turns out - that your chaos would devastate Equestrian knowledge and knock us back to the dark ages before the Founding." She glared at him. Discord smirked. "So he used phoenix feather and ouroborous scale in a potion-"

"-to turn himself back into a child? How was that supposed to help, exactly?"

"How did you know it turned him back into a child? It wasn't supposed to do that, it was supposed to make him young again."

Discord rolled his eyes. "Old fool must have gone senile by then. It's obvious what phoenix feather and ouroborous scale would do to a mortal."

"Well, his plan had been to remain in time lock until the chaos ended, then regenerate into a young stallion so he could help us rebuild, but yes, it turned him into an infant, so he was still quite young when Tirek came. So he befriended Scorpan-"

"We are talking about the same Starswirl, right? Mr. Grumpypants? Lord High Magister of Stop Bothering Me I'm Trying To Do Some Work Here? Commander of the I Don't Have Time For Friends army?" As he spoke, Discord turned himself into a replica of Starswirl, except with his own eyes, and imitated the unicorn mage's voice when he quoted Starswirl's frequent cranky antisocial pronouncements.

"Yes. Seeing what happened to you devastated him, you know. He felt that if he'd been better at making friends, he could have helped you learn how to do it, and then you would have had someone to turn to when Luna and I were gone." She sighed. "I didn't bring you here to hash over old history. Yes, in Starswirl's second life he put a priority on friendship, so he made friends with Scorpan and persuaded him to help us, and together the four of us defeated Tirek, returned his stolen magic and banished him to Tartarus. He's back."

"Immortal then, I take it."

"In his homeland, he was a great mage, a master of the powers of darkness. He made himself and his brother into immortals, but they were exiled. Probably for stealing magic, I'd imagine." She sighed. "Have you sensed anything lately?"

"I've sensed many things. I've sensed that you do not have nearly enough boysenberry pie in this castle. I've sensed that the pigeons in the garden are still up to their old tricks, and someone really ought to build them a Port-a-Potty. I've sensed that Twilight is going to continue to have a hissy about being the most useless princess until you give her something-"

"Discord. Enough."

Was that just the tiniest bit of anger in Tia's voice? Discord grinned. Oh, she tried so hard to pretend to perfect calm and serenity, all the time, but he knew better. "Oh! Do you mean have I sensed magic shifting?"

"Yes. It would be very helpful to know if you can sense Tirek's magic thefts."

"I had noticed some wobbly behavior in the thaumic field lately," he said, wiggling himself like a bowl of gelatin. "I might have gone to investigate it, but I was entirely too depressed from my recent levels of mind-crushing boredom." He sat himself on a replica of his statue plinth, hunched over, chin supported on his paw with his elbow leaning on the knee of his dragon leg. "All I do lately is sit around and think about chaos," he complained dramatically. "I never get to make any, I never even get to see any. Sometimes I feel like I was better off when I was a statue. At least then it wasn't something I was doing to myself."

Celestia cast her eyes skyward in a "give me strength" expression. "You know as well as I do what the consequences of extradimensional leakage could be."

"Yes, we could have an endless number of young male humans materializing unexpectedly in the Everfree Forest and coming to Ponyville to seduce young mares."

"That seems highly unlikely unless you caused it. I was more concerned with other entities. Don't you want to keep Fluttershy safe?"

"Obviously, but that doesn't mean I want to be so bored my brains fall out of my ears." He tilted his head sideways so that the brain falling out of his ear could have clearance to do so, then picked it up off the floor, brushed it off, removed the top of his skull and put it back in.

"Well, if you would stop constantly interrupting me, I'd have the opportunity to give you a less dull assignment," Celestia snapped.

"Oh yes! Please, Your Royal Highness, I live to serve the crown of Equestria! Please give your obedient slave an assignment!" He prostrated himself in front of Celestia in a costume appropriate to the occasion.

Celestia stared at him. "...Discord, please do not wear a saddle and a bridle in my presence ever again."

Discord smirked at her. "Gets you hot, does it?"

Now her voice was very tight, as if she was barely holding in her anger. "You and I have not been a couple in two thousand years. We are not likely to be a couple ever again. Therefore I will ask you to refrain from wearing suggestive outfits while you are here on official Court business."

Discord laughed out loud. "Oh, I still get you going, don't I? Two thousand years and you still blush like a schoolfilly when you think about me. Any particular raunchy fantasies you'd like to share?" He snapped up a psychiatrist costume, with Celestia lying on a couch in front of him and himself seated in a chair. "Tell me, Celestia, exactly how often do you have these perverse thoughts about Discord?" he asked in a parody of a stereotypical psychiatrist accent. "It's all right to share, I'm a doctor."

Celestia got off the couch and shoved it away with her magic, hard. "Discord! Behave appropriately!"

"Okay, okay." He snapped away the psychiatrist outfit and the couch... then turned himself small and teleported over to Celestia's ear, floating aside it. "But you know... even if you've decided for whatever silly reason that you don't want to touch anymore, I'm certainly not offended if you look."

She swatted him away with her magic, slamming him into the nearest wall, which would have possibly hurt if he hadn't shifted back to full size before he hit. He laughed uproariously. He'd gotten under Celestia's skin, provoked her to finally completely lose her composure and hit him, and confirmed that part of her still found him attractive. What a great day! He hadn't had this much fun in weeks.

"Are you quite done?" Celestia asked coldly.

"Hmmm... maybe."

"I summoned you here to have you go after Tirek. Since you can sense shifts in the thaumic field when magic transfers from one entity to another, I believe you would be the best choice to track him down."

"Ooh. That does sound like fun." He grinned. "Shall I drag him back here for trial or transport him directly to Tartarus?"

"Back here; we will have to purge the stolen magic from him first." She took a deep breath. "I believe you should take Twilight with you."

"That little stick in the mud? Why, exactly, would that be a good idea?"

"Twilight has a great deal of experience in defeating the enemies of Equestria. Whereas it has been millennia since you did anything constructive with your power."

He scowled at her. "It's hard to do anything constructive with your power in stone, Celestia. I haven't forgotten how to fight."

"I'm sure you haven't. But Twilight could use the experience-"

"-You just said she has a great deal of experience."

"She does, but she has little experience working with you. It would be best for both of you if-"

"Horsefeathers. You just want her to go along as my babysitter, don't you?" He glared at her, and then spoke in a high-pitched imitation of her voice. "Oh, how will I ever make sure that Discord doesn't get distracted by something shiny? I know! I'll do what I do every single time I have any sort of problem nowadays! I'll send Twilight to do it! She'll bore him so thoroughly, he'll be sure to get the job done quickly so he can get away from her!"

"That isn't-"

"Has it ever occurred to you what a terrible idea it is to send the most inexperienced alicorn, the Element of Magic, up against a dark mage who steals magic?" Discord asked.

Celestia blinked. Apparently it hadn't occurred to her. "Tirek cannot yet possibly be strong enough to steal an alicorn's power."

"Do you know that? For certain? Would you bet Equestria on it?" He teleported over Celestia's head and leaned his neck down to speak in her ear. "Would you bet Twilight's life?"

"I must send someone. If it's dangerous for Twilight to go for fear of Tirek taking her magic, it's even more dangerous to send you. The devastation Tirek could wreak with your - stop laughing, Discord!"

He was lying on his back in midair, laughing hysterically and kicking his legs. "Celestia! Celestia, when did you get such a sense of humor? Oh, the comic timing! The straight face! This is incredible! You must tell me where you picked up this skill; the last I saw you had no sense of humor whatsoever anymore! Did you grow it back?"

"Discord, I'm serious. What if Tirek took your power? Shouldn't you have backup with you to make sure that if Tirek attacks one of you, the other can stop him?"

Discord sat up, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. "Wait, you're serious?" He goggled at her for a moment. "Let me laugh even harder, then!" He rolled over onto his stomach and pounded his fists against the completely nonexistent surface he was lying on in midair, curled into a ball and spun around several times, and finally came to a stop, still giggling. The expression on Celestia's face set him off again.

It wasn't really that funny, of course. He knew what Celestia was up to. She didn't trust him. She thought he'd fail, or that he'd get distracted and quit or lose track of what he was doing. So he had to make absolutely sure that Celestia knew what a remarkably stupid idea her plan was. "You - you think Tirek could possibly drain my power?" He made himself stop snickering, finally. "Seriously?"

The look on Celestia's face was priceless. "If he could take Twilight's, why not yours?"

"Because nopony who wants to take over the world and rule as an evil overlord could possibly control chaos!"

"I seem to recall a certain draconequus taking over Equestria," Celestia snapped.

"Yes, but I ruled as an overlord of fun. You ponies just have no sense of humor."

"If having their lives and livelihoods disrupted constantly by endless chaos is fun, I would hate to see what you would consider an evil overlord."

Discord sighed. "Celestia. My power comes from elemental chaos, magic in its rawest form. I'm bound to chaos in ways you can't imagine, more deeply even than your and Loonie's bonds with the sun and moon... I'm not just a master of chaos, I'm the avatar of chaos. I'm one of the entities that keeps magic itself functioning in the world. Tirek couldn't possibly disrupt that. And he couldn't use my power, either; I know, I make it look like simplicity itself, but that's because I'm just that good. It's much, much harder to use chaos magic than it is to use ordinary harmonic magic, unless you're me. Tirek would get less out of me than he'd get out of a particularly powerful unicorn, and my connection to chaos gives me meta-magical abilities I can use to counter his." He landed, feet back on the ground again. "Dear little Twilight is connected to Magic itself, the way you're bound to the Sun... but Tirek eats magic. Everything she could use to counter him would simply feed him."

"I believe you greatly underestimate Twilight," Celestia said coldly.

"Perhaps I do. It wouldn't be the first time. I wouldn't even be surprised to learn that I'm wrong, and she's more than a match for him. But can you really afford to take the risk? With Twilight?"

Celestia looked at the floor. He was getting through to her, oh yes. "I... recognize that you may have a point," she said. "But that's why I would want her to accompany you, not to go on her own."

"Celestia." He took her chin in his paw and lifted her face up toward his, his own expression completely serious for once. "'Friendly chaos isn't.' Don't you remember the dragon war?"

"I... do, yes. Of course I do."

"I went alone into battle then because chaos doesn't work well in groups. If I lose control of the situation with Tirek - not that I expect to, but chaos is all about the unexpected, so I do need to consider the possibility - and Twilight is with me... well. You recall what happened the last time ponies tried to fight at my side, right?"

"You were barely out of childhood then. Are you telling me that in two thousand years you've learned nothing about how to protect your allies from your chaos?"

He'd actually learned quite a bit, and was fully confident of his control over his own power, but that would undermine the point he was making. "How many allies have I had in that time, Celestia? And it's a thousand years, anyway; the only thing I was able to learn during the next millennium is how to stay relatively sane in the face of mind destroying boredom."

She sighed. "You have a point, I suppose... Very well. You will go alone. But if you run into trouble I expect you to contact me and let me know, do you understand?"

"You're so bossy, Tia. Doesn't it ever get tiresome, pushing everyone around and telling them all what to do?"

"Not nearly as tiresome as dealing with you. You need to be off; there are ponies suffering, ponies who may face the loss of their magic every moment that Tirek is still free."

"Oh, of course, my dear Celestia," he said with complete insincerity. "I'll attend to the matter right away!"

So of course he made sure to take a few minutes ahead of time to stop in on his favorite little ponies, and also Applejack, Rarity and Rainbow Dash, to give them some advice, because he was absolutely certain Tirek was no match for him but chaos meant nothing in the world was ever completely certain, and he'd survived two millennia by throwing lots and lots of potential backup plans into play. Discord wasn't a Machiavellian long-term planner - he couldn't be, doing that would destroy his ability to be spontaneous - but he occasionally played one on stage by setting into motion multiple potential plans, all of which had the possibility of ricocheting off each other to cause some interesting chaos. He and the Tree of Harmony had agreed to a sort of détente, at least for the moment, based on their mutual interest in protecting these particular ponies, and he had some idea what would happen once Twilight got her key to the box.

It was no fun to flat out tell her, of course, or for that matter to tell her how to get the key; he dropped some amusing hints, and then took off before the stiffness in his muscles from being too close to the Harmony Tree started to turn into a more permanent form of stiffness. Discord and the Tree might be in a state of détente, but there was only so much it could do to hold back the effects of so much concentrated Harmony on the body of Chaos, and only so much he could do to protect himself. Still, it would probably take an hour of proximity to the Tree before anything happened that he couldn't reverse, and he didn't want the girls to know that the Tree was still a weakness of his, so he made sure to walk straight up to it and even hang off a branch while clowning around. His paw was numb for the next half hour after that, but it was worth it.

After that, it was off on the hunt. This was fun. Playing a role, pretending to be a unicorn, moving in on his target while allowing Tirek to believe the opposite was happening. Being intimidating and dangerous again. He hadn't felt this way in... well, a year, basically. Oh, there were no shortage of ponies running from him in terror - even if he'd managed to find a few who were willing to give him the time of day, like the restauranteur in Baltimare or the crippled stallion who sold copies of the lamp he'd made for Fluttershy, the majority of ponies were more likely to abandon their store and run from him in terror rather than let him buy something from them, and even the ones in Ponyville who'd gotten used enough to him that they didn't spook every time he appeared were plainly rigid with fear and barely able to stammer every time he approached them - like the Cakes, for instance. Really, "is Pinkie in?" was hardly synonymous with "can I eviscerate you and feed you to your foals?"

But it wasn't fun, intimidating ponies when he didn't mean to or want to. He was trying to be good and they were still terrified of him. Whereas frightening someone deliberately... that felt good. He'd missed that feeling. So when he felt Tirek sneaking up on him, it was with great delight that he spun his head around, dropping the unicorn guise (for his head only) and practically purred, "Tirek, I prrresume?"

Unfortunately, Tirek didn't cooperate. He wasn't intimidated. After an initial double-take - not even a horrified intake of breath, let alone the girly scream Discord had been hoping for - he peered at Discord carefully and then said, in a shaky, old-fellow voice, "Discord. You're free?"

Discord turned into a giant toucan. "As a bird."

"I commend you on your escape," Tirek said, bowing.

Oh, now this was going to be fun. "I'm afraid the feeling isn't mutual," Discord said, in a hard voice, and snapped his talons. Chains manifested around Tirek's wrists, and Discord was dressed in the costume of a police officer from one of the parallels infested with mostly-hairless bipedal monkeys.

Tirek drew back his bound arms, an expression of fury on his face, and fired a bolt of magic at Discord's head. Discord simply divided his head in half, splitting down the center to avoid the bolt. He could probably have harmlessly absorbed it, he could have redirected it, but those were stunts a unicorn could pull. Discord had found that the quickest way to pacify his enemies and make them surrender was generally to warp his physical body, in a way they'd find horrifying and that most other magic users on the planet couldn't possibly do, in order to very quickly make them believe he was invincible.

Tirek wasn't horrified... but at least he was pacified. He backed down, saying bitterly, "Oh, I should have known you would want to have Equestria all to yourself."

Discord decided to rub it in. Tirek would understand Discord taking out a rival, but Discord willingly helping the ponies would utterly break his tiny little brain. "Oh, I'm not doing this for me," he said. "I'm doing it for my friends." Losing the police costume, he leaned forward and said in a half-whisper, "Just between the two of us, it's mostly for Fluttershy." He grinned, and couldn't quite stop himself from squeaking a bit in excitement at the thought of what she would think when he came home in triumph, dragging the dread terror of ponykind, Lord Tirek, behind him as his prisoner.

"Fluttershy? You're not saying you're friends with ponies?"

And here came the brain breakage. Discord leapt out of a cake that hadn't been there a second ago. "Surprise!"

"I am surprised that someone with your intellect does not see this 'friendship' is but a new form of imprisonment," Tirek said, entirely too calmly to be a centaur whose brain was breaking. "Clearly you've had to abandon your true nature to stay in their good graces."

Discord left off his show of innocent harp playing. "I have done nothing of the sort!" he said indignantly.

"Oh, please, I've seen this before," Tirek said in a world-weary tone, sounding like he was an elderly grandfather advising a foolish young colt, and nothing at all like he was a helpless prisoner chained by the Spirit of Chaos. "But he was always weak minded." Tirek stepped forward into Discord's personal space. "You are Discord, you are legend, you cannot fall into the same trap that claimed my brother!" He actually sounded as if he cared, as if it was personally important to him that the legendary Spirit of Chaos not fall for the same trick his brother had. "Help me to grow strong, and be rewarded with something far greater than friendship. Freedom!"

He shouldn't be listening to this. Tirek was obviously trying to talk him out of doing his job (job? The Spirit of Chaos had a job?), into failing the mission Celestia had sent him here to do (the mission she hadn't believed he could do, that she'd tried to send Twilight along on like he needed a chaperone?) But... freedom. It was the essence of Chaos. Losing his freedom meant losing an essential part of himself. He'd known, when he was trapped in stone, that he was in a prison. Was Tirek right? Was friendship another prison? Had he willingly imprisoned himself?

"Once I've stripped these ponies of their magic, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see their world turned upside down," Tirek said. "Who better to do so than the master of chaos himself?" He bowed to Discord again. No one had done that since the first time he'd been turned to stone, over a millennium ago. "Join me, Discord, and reclaim your greatness." Tirek sneered suddenly, leaning into Discord's face. "Unless, of course, 'pony errand boy' is the role you've always wanted to play in this world."

That hit home. A year free, and this was the first fun assignment he'd been given. He thought of the endless tedium, of Celestia's veiled threats as to how disappointed Fluttershy would be in him if he couldn't do what he'd been asked to do to protect Equestria. And really, he'd known all along that his friendship with Fluttershy was being used to manipulate him. Celestia had out and out admitted it when she'd asked Fluttershy to reform him; he'd just accepted it as the price to pay for not being completely alone.

Tirek's disdain for the ponies, and for him so long as he played errand foal for the princesses, was palpable, and Discord didn't care what anyone thought of him but he wanted to be respected. In particular he wanted Tirek to respect him. Here the centaur was in chains, weak, defeated, utterly outclassed, his most powerful attack as meaningful to Discord as a knife was to a river... and instead of pleading or cursing or trying to escape, he was making it very, very clear that he considered anyone who willingly served the ponies out of friendship despicable. But the bowing, and "You are legend," and the offer he'd made... he was showing that he could respect Discord, that he had respected the spirit of chaos up until the moment that Discord revealed his friendship with ponies... and Discord wanted that. Respect. He got plenty of terror from ponies, most of it totally unwarranted, and he got attitude from Celestia and Luna and most of Fluttershy's friends, and he got hugs and snuggles and tea parties from Fluttershy, which were sweet but hardly an indication of respect.

Nopony had respected him since he reformed. Even when they assumed he was up to no good, they still had no respect for him... unless they were terrified, but when he was trying to be friendly, their terror hurt. It sang with the drumbeat of the voice in the back of his brain, the one that said "ponies will never be your friends, ponies will never like you, ponies will never love you, ponies will never care about you..." the voice that had quieted since Fluttershy had befriended him, but had never truly gone silent.

Why was he trying to curry favor with princesses who disrespected him and ponies who hated and feared him when they had no good reason to? Just for Fluttershy? Could one friend possibly be worth all this?

He thought of - and manifested, because he wasn't concentrating on not manifesting his thoughts - the dresser in Fluttershy's bedroom, with the lamp he'd made her and a photograph of the two of them together, as if she truly did care about him so much she put her sentimental mementos of their friendship right next to her bed (or the more likely reason, he thought bitterly, that putting them in her bedroom kept her friends from seeing them and complaining about them, while still reassuring him of his importance to her.) She wasn't his friend just to manipulate him. He was sure of that. He'd taken her by surprise too many times, and even walked in her dreams just to be sure. But... she was manipulating him, regardless. It was her job, the assignment Celestia had given her.

Was it worth it? To be friends with someone who had made friends with him largely in order to be able to control him? Even if the friendship was sincere... Tirek was right, really, friendship was a kind of prison, and he'd put himself in it because it felt so much better than being free but alone.

Tirek offered him alliance. Respect. Mutuality. Friendship, by any other name, though neither of them were sappy enough to call it that. He could have that, with Tirek, and Tirek would appreciate his chaos, Tirek would be open to his more revolutionary ideas, Tirek wouldn't constantly be tsk-tsking at him that what he was doing wasn't nice. Tirek would revel in disharmony and conflict. Or he could have Fluttershy, and with her, have Celestia treating him like an annoying prankster, an irritating ex-boyfriend, or an errand boy, and he could have Rainbow Dash insulting him to his face while all of them pretended to be his friend and yet treated him like dirt, and he could have ponies running from him in fear...

No. The thought of giving up Fluttershy hurt; she was his first real friend, well, unless you counted Celestia, which he didn't. But she wasn't worth it. Not if there was another choice. Tirek's friendship could give him so much more of what he needed.

It wasn't truly about freedom. Ever since the Tree had taken back its Elements, nothing had been stopping him but the fear of losing Fluttershy's friendship. And even before that... he hadn't reformed out of fear of the Elements, and he had plenty of strategies in mind he could have used to take them out of commission. He could have had his freedom any time he wanted to be totally alone in the world again. Now, with Tirek, he didn't have to be alone, and that enabled him to free himself, and let Chaos run rampant.

"Oh, all right, you've sold me," he said, snapping his talon with a grin and making Tirek's chains disappear. "Where do we get started?"

Where they got started was, of course, with Chaos.

Though really, the work he was doing to help Tirek, it wasn't full-on rampant chaos. He wasn't doing whatever he wanted; he was doing things he wanted to do, but with the purpose of helping Tirek, rounding up ponies and delivering them to Tirek to have their magic drained en masse. It reminded him of fighting the dragons, a thought that struck him with simultaneous nostalgia and unease. He really didn't want to think about fighting on behalf of the ponies, and all he'd lost as a result. Better to just live in the moment, doing what he did best. He told himself it was better this way, better for the ponies even. Eventually Tirek would have built up enough power to go after ponies in large groups like this, but Tirek was a blunt instrument; eventually his magic would settle enough into him that he could do complex things with it, but right now, with it newly drained into him, he was able to do fireballs and telekinesis and largely that was it. Ponies would have ended up hurt or dead if Tirek had gone after them on his own. Discord could make sure that none of the ponies got hurt, beyond getting their magic drained anyway. It looked somewhat painful, or at least shocking, but they were all going to survive it, he'd make sure of that. Tirek was cavalier with the lives of his victims, but Discord was not. Dead ponies weren't any fun, after all.

Besides, in a sense Tirek had been right when he'd said that of course Discord would want Equestria for himself. Equestria had always been Discord's. He'd been born on some island or other, he wasn't really sure where, but he'd come to Equestria when he'd been too little to remember anything else, and his species was native here. The entire southern portion of Equestria from Canterlot on down had been built on top of the bones of draconequui; the ones who'd been physically here on this continent had died when the windigos came, which was why Discord had been born on an island, but it had been his kind's land before the cold. Centaurs, on the other hand, came from the other side of the world. Tirek was an interloper, Discord was native.

And while he had never precisely taken the throne - he'd refused to call himself a king, kings weren't chaotic at all, preferring ridiculous titles like Grand High Poobah, Ham Sandwich, Big Banana, or the Dauphin du Pantalones - he had ruled Equestria, or unruled it anyway, for nearly a millennium. The ponies of Equestria were his. His toys, maybe, but still his, and he had never tolerated any outsider tormenting them. They were for him to torment, and no one else.

He would let Tirek rule Equestria because personally he had no interest in actually ruling anything. What he wanted was to be able to do anything he wanted, when he wanted, with no one to stop him from making his every whim a reality. Let Tirek do all the boring work of actually ruling; all he needed to do was stay out of Discord's way when Discord wanted to do something. It bothered him, to let someone else play with his toys, to let Tirek torment the ponies that belonged to him... but he'd never had a friend to share the joys of tormenting ponies with before, either. Sharing was something you did with friends, wasn't it? You let your friends play with your toys. Tiny foals knew that.

He'd help Tirek take the ponies' magic, but he wouldn't let Tirek do them any harm. They were his, after all. When the Wonderbolts attacked, Discord held them motionless in the air for Tirek to take their magic, and then cushioned them, slightly, so that when they fell to the earth they didn't break any bones.

"You're too soft," Tirek said, looking down at the tiny drained bodies. "These ones were not helpless civilians, as you said of the last group. These were warriors, and they challenged us. They should die."

Discord pulled out a guitar and started strumming it, singing. "Dead ponies aren't very much fun," he sang. "They don't scream when they fall, they don't run away at all, dead ponies aren't very much fun..."

"Be serious for once! You think every creature around you is a toy to play with, but these are enemy soldiers! If they live-"

"If they die," Discord interrupted, "then quite aside from them being no fun, it tells all the ones who come after them that we thought they were SCARY! Dangerousssss. THREATENING!" On each word he adopted a different form - a manticore, a sea serpent, and finally a full-size Western dragon, towering over Tirek. He quickly reverted to form before his point could be lost in Tirek actually possibly being intimidated, though really, Tirek still didn't look all that impressed. This time he wore a grandmotherly costume and spoke as if he were a trembling old mare. "Oooh, we had to kill them! They were enemy soldiers who could fly into us really hard! Some of them might have even had swords!"

"What. Is. Your. Point." It was probably a question, but Tirek's tone of voice was flat and exasperated.

"My point, my good centaur, is this. Kill them to keep them from being a threat in the future, or as a deterrent to others, and it tells others that they are a threat. That we are frightened. Whereas if we let them live, it sends the message that they're no threat at all! Which they're not. It doesn't matter how many flying wings of pegasus soldiers come for us; all they'll ever do is serve you magic meals on the wing. They're no threat at all, and it's best if we let them know it." He grinned. "Besides, I've always wanted to know how pegasi react to gravity games when they can't fly."

Tirek chuckled and patted him on the shoulder. "Well, you do have a point, my friend. Very well then, I grant you free reign. Do with these ponies what you will."

He left to vent some of the magic - when he drew in a lot of it at a time, he often had to use a bit of it in destructive ways, blowing holes in sidewalks or target practice on squirrels (which bothered Discord, because squirrels were also no fun when they were dead, but he had his paws full protecting the ponies). Discord grinned to himself before the implications of what Tirek had just said hit him, and soured his mood a bit. "As if I need your permission," he muttered at Tirek's departing back.

But the now flightless pegasi were stirring awake, so there were more fun things to do than be resentful of what was now his only friend. "Oh goody, you're waking up! I've been so looking forward to this!"

He played with the pegasi for a bit, tossing them in the air, flipping gravity on them, making them spin helplessly in air, but the terrified shrieks from the mailmare bothered him more than he wanted to admit. The Wonderbolts themselves were being absurdly defiant to his face, even as he flung them up and down; they reminded him of Rainbow Dash. He could play with them forever. But the blonde pegasus with the gray mane and the crossed eyes would scream in fear and frantically beat her wings, uselessly, and it reminded him much too much of Fluttershy being afraid, and he lost his stomach for the game.

Anyway, he and Tirek had more ponies to catch. He left the drained pegasi back on the ground, and teleported over to Tirek.

For updates and notes about my work, visit my Livejournal at alara-r dot livejournal dot com. (Fanfiction dot net strips links, so I have to write it out like that.)

Support my writing and see sneak previews, incompletes, outlines and working notes! Maybe even vote on what I write next, or get me to write you a fic. See my account at www dot dot com slash alarajrogers.