He had seen where Tirek had thrown the princesses, but they weren't there. Tirek himself was, being dragged away to a cage, screaming curses in his weak, elderly voice. Despite everything, Discord felt bad for him - he knew what it was like to be imprisoned indefinitely, he knew what it was like to be returned to that prison after tasting freedom. Tirek deserved it but chaos had never been overly concerned with justice; as angry as he was with Tirek for betraying him and threatening his life, as much as he'd like to torment Tirek personally, the torment of eternal imprisonment was one that hit too close to home for Discord to ever feel good about any other creature being doomed to it.
But he wasn't there to torment Tirek. He teleported over to Cerberus, patting one of the giant dog's shaggy heads. "Kerby, old boy! Been a long time since I've seen you!" Cerberus licked Discord's paw. "Now, now, what did I tell you? That's ticklish! Don't do that. Can you show me to where Celly and Luna ended up? I'm here to get them out!"
"You're a little late," Celestia's voice said, behind him.
Discord whipped around. The three princesses stood behind him, powerful, free and unhurt... and most decidedly not in need of him to rescue them. "Oh. Well, I came as soon as I got my magic back!"
Luna's eyes narrowed. "Are you trying to claim your ally there took your magic as well? After you laughed your foolish head to bits when my sister suggested he could do such a thing?"
"Um... I wouldn't have phrased it quite that way..."
"Because what I see is a creature whose ally was defeated, running to curry favor and pretend he had changed sides, again. Traitor, why would you come to rescue us when you let Tirek banish us to Tartarus in the first place?!" Her voice did not quite reach Royal Canterlot decibels, but all Tartarus echoed with her anger.
Discord's cheer at getting his powers back deflated. In a sense she was right. Maybe Twilight had called him a friend, maybe he'd given her the key that had allowed the six to defeat Tirek and restore Equestria's magic, but it didn't change the fact that he'd betrayed them all in the first place. "Look, I don't expect you to believe me, but you can ask Twilight. I helped them to defeat Tirek. I - you're not wrong, I let Tirek banish you to Tartarus in the first place, that... I know that was a terrible thing to do, and I don't expect..." Neither Luna's expression of rage nor Celestia's expressionless mask had changed even slightly. And Cadance was doing a great job of mimicking her aunt; after an initial expression of surprise and anger, now she was doing the expressionless thing too. Discord slumped. "I came here to free you as soon as I got my power back because I knew it was wrong to let him send you to Tartarus, even when he did it," he said. "I was always going to come back and get you, after we'd won... I didn't expect Tirek to be able to take my magic. But it happened, and I told myself if I survived it, if the girls managed to beat Tirek and restore the magic, I would come get you, because I'm the only one besides Tirek who knows you're here."
"A likely story," Luna scoffed. "Sister, you cannot believe this snake, can you?"
"Why did you turn on us, Discord?" Celestia asked, sounding for all the world as if she was asking him whether he preferred lemon in his tea.
Her calm undid him. He knew how to handle Celestia's anger, Celestia's grief. It was when she went blank and emotionless that she drove him mad. Under most circumstances he'd taunt her until that blank shell cracked, but he couldn't do that now. He desperately wanted to know what she felt toward him - was she enraged? Was she pushed beyond rage, to the point where she'd coldly execute him? Was she griefstricken? Was she prepared to forgive him? She was giving him no hints at all as to what it was.
"I- I know it was wrong..."
"I did not ask if you knew it was wrong. I asked why you did it," Celestia said, still in an utterly calm and reasonable voice.
"I... wanted freedom," he mumbled. "I wanted... chaos... and I didn't want to be alone... I thought I wouldn't be alone, but he... I'm sorry, Celestia, I'm so sorry..." He crumpled under the weight of his emotions, literally, falling to his knees on the hard volcanic rock of Tartarus. Sweat matted his fur, not entirely from the heat. "I wanted to prove myself and instead I screwed everything up, I was so stupid... I'm sorry, I... look, if you want to just leave me here, because of what I've done, go ahead. I deserve it. I know that."
"That hardly seems like it would be effective," Celestia said. "Since you teleported here on your own power, and since Cerberus is friendly to you." As if to illustrate the point, one of the three giant doggy heads started licking the top of Discord's head, as if Cerberus sensed his distress and, without any better understanding of the reasons for it than any dog could have, was trying to comfort him. Not that hellhound slobber was all that comforting, but it was the thought that counted.
"You're a good boy, Cerberus," Discord said shakily, getting up enough that he could give the licking head a hug and a rough noogie. "Good boy." All three heads panted as Cerberus' tail wagged happily.
"Yes, Cerberus is a good boy," Luna said, reaching a hoof to pet one of her dog's other heads. "He took good care of us while he was here. Did you not, boy? Yes, you did!" The head Luna was petting licked her as well.
"We ought to talk to Twilight," Cadance said. "She can confirm Discord's story or not, don't you think?"
"Yes. Tartarus is hardly the place to be having this discussion." Celestia's expression cracked very very slightly, shifting from pure expressionlessness to cold, making Discord want to shiver despite the heat of Tartarus. "Discord. If you truly feel remorse, if you feel you deserve punishment, accompany us, and do not leave until I have had the opportunity to talk to the Bearers, and make a judgement. But expect no leniency at all if you leave us before I have told you my decision."
He swallowed. "That's... that's fair."
Possibly because they didn't want to risk that he would simply fail to teleport with them and then claim it wasn't his fault, they flew out of Tartarus instead of teleporting. It was tedious, but a big improvement over having to walk, he supposed.
As they gained altitude over the Everfree Forest, Discord was able to see that the sky was full of strange rainbow lights, like an aurora. He felt the flow of magic in the world rebalancing itself, falling back into the configuration it belonged in. "Every pony has their magic back now," he said. "I - I thought you'd like to know."
"I do," Celestia said. "Thank you."
And then the ground below them exploded, right where the Tree of Harmony would be, some distance to the north within the Forest. What was quite obviously the box shot up on a rainbow arc and slammed into the ground in Ponyville. A truly atrocious sparkling purple monstrosity that looked like it belonged in Canterlot grew out of the ground. The three alicorns and Discord hesitated up in the air, staring at the thing.
"What in the name of the sun and the moon is that?" Celestia asked.
"Well, while I'm hardly an expert on matters of Harmony... I think the Tree just built a castle," Discord said. "Probably for Twilight, given that she's the local princess, and all."
"Oh!" Cadance said. "You know, there's an ancient legend that the Crystal Heart actually built the Crystal Palace, to be the Palace of Love! I always thought it was a story, but... maybe it's true."
"Is there truly a connection between the Crystal Heart and the Tree of Harmony?" Luna asked.
"Oh, trust me, Luna, they are very closely related," Discord said. "I would know."
"Perhaps then the Tree is creating a Palace of Friendship," Celestia said. "Since Friendship is Twilight's domain, as Love is yours, Cadance."
"Did the tree build your palace, Celestia? Because this thing looks just as ridiculous as yours, only it's purple instead of white."
Celestia turned with a deceptively mild look. "Discord, do you really think now is an appropriate time for insults?"
He sighed. "No... sorry."
"There is Spike," Luna said, pointing a hoof below. "He can tell us what we need to know about the events we missed, most likely."
"Oh yes, Spike was there for all of it," Discord said, but inside his heart was sinking. Spike was a lot less likely to be sympathetic to him than Twilight.
The four of them landed. Spike came running up to them. "Princess Celestia! Princess Luna! Princess Cadance!"
"Hello, Spike." The contrast between the warmth in her voice as she addressed Spike and the utter lack of any emotion when she spoke to Discord was painful. "Since we were unfortunately unable to see most of the recent events, perhaps you can help us. Discord claims that Tirek took his magic and that he helped you to defeat Tirek afterward. Is that true?"
"Um, yeah, actually, it is," Spike said. "First he betrayed all of us and put us in a cage-"
"I was afraid that if Tirek and Twilight fought, Twilight might be killed, or Ponyville destroyed. I came up with the plan to take you hostage so that Twilight would just surrender without a fight," Discord said. "That way no one would get hurt. But it turned out Tirek wanted a fight."
Spike glared at him. "I think the Princess asked me, not you."
"Yes, but you don't know my motives."
"Don't care either, if you hadn't sold us out to Tirek in the first place we wouldn't have been in that position." Spike sighed. "So anyway, Tirek took his magic. Then he made some kind of bet with Tirek so Tirek would let us go if Twilight was winning and he had to use us as hostages, but he'd kill all of us if he beat Twilight."
"I tried to bet my own life," Discord said. "But I made the mistake of telling Tirek that my magic would rebuild itself in the presence of Chaos, when we were allies, so he believed he had to kill me. Our wager had to be about the lives of the others because that was the only way I could get him to agree not to kill them all right then."
"You told us Tirek was going to put you in a dungeon!"
"I lied. I didn't want to upset Fluttershy. Tirek was going to kill me either way."
Spike stared at him. "But when Fluttershy told you you should escape... you wouldn't do it. If you were going to die then why..."
Discord sighed. "I never wanted ponies to die, not during any of this," he said. "But most especially I couldn't bear it if Fluttershy died. Even after I betrayed her, I wanted to keep her safe... Tirek wanted her magic, but I thought I could at least protect her life. When... when he took my magic, and I realized I couldn't protect her, or any of you... I'm afraid I got a little bit single minded."
"So he did help to defeat Tirek?" Luna asked skeptically.
"Yeah, actually, he gave Twilight the last key. A gift from a friend who learned a lesson, to unlock the box. So they all turned into all weird rainbow colors and they fought Tirek and beat him. And I guess if Discord hadn't given Twilight an amulet, it wouldn't have happened."
"Did you mention the part where I was the one who made the six of them aware about the role of the keys in the first place, before I went off and stupidly listened to Tirek instead of dragging him off to Tartarus right away?"
"I think the princesses probably know about that already," Spike said. "'Cause I sent them a report about it after they summoned Twilight."
"And what lesson did you learn?" Celestia asked, still mildly.
"I..." He hung his head miserably. "I was wrong from the beginning. I thought, I have only one friend, and none of the others can stand me, and Tirek's offering to be my ally and let me have my freedom, so do I keep my good friend and lose chaos and I still only have one so I'm not getting much, and I'm playing errand boy and ponies hate and fear me when I don't want them to, or do I take a friend who's not nearly as good but I get chaos, and ponies will hate and fear me for good reasons? But I was wrong. I tested Twilight to see if she was really my friend, and she passed, and I still didn't believe her because she was never nice like Fluttershy, but I knew Twilight would do anything for her friends... I didn't realize she considered me one. Really. She told Tirek - he'd released the others, and he was going to kill me but she didn't know that, she didn't know I'd been helping to try to pry the bars of the cage apart, she didn't even know how sorry I was - but she told Tirek to let me go, because she'd bargained her magic for the freedom of her friends, and I was one of her friends. So it was never an even trade. I had at least two real friends and I didn't even know."
"But nothing about not betraying your friends?"
He rolled his eyes. "Celestia, I'm not stupid. I knew that was wrong when I did it. I just..." He sat down heavily. "I wanted freedom, but I didn't want to be alone. I thought Tirek was offering a way out of that. I was stupid, and I'm so sorry."
"You weren't merely stupid, Discord. Your betrayal was an evil act."
He looked down at the grass below his coils, not at Celestia's face. "The girls' Rainbow Power thingy could probably turn me back to stone," he said dully. "Maybe right now they'd even do it. I know Fluttershy promised me, but... she cried, Celestia. She cried because I betrayed her. If she doesn't want to keep her promise I'd understand."
"Um... I think he was sincere about the whole being sorry thing, though," Spike said. "Because before all this started, he put me in a soap bubble and made me float and if Rainbow hadn't been there to catch me-"
"I knew she was there, Spike, did you seriously think I meant you harm?"
"Maybe," Spike said. "But the point is, when the girls were all powered up and were gonna go fight Tirek... Discord carried me up to the top of the canyon that the Tree's in so I could see. He didn't have to do that. I could have climbed it myself, but I wouldn't have gotten to the top fast enough to see anything. So... uh, I mean, of course it's up to you, Princesses, but... Discord's never done anything that was just nice for no reason for anyone but Fluttershy before..."
"Why did you help Spike?" Celestia asked, still in the same neutral tone.
Discord looked down again. "I don't really know," he said. "It - we were working together to try to open the cage... the one I put him and the Bearers in, and... it just seemed... natural. After we'd been trying to achieve the same goal, together."
"I think you may finally be starting to grasp the point to Harmony," Celestia said.
Discord looked up at her, shocked. Her expression was now a wan smile. "I regret that you are so stubborn, it takes something like this to begin to teach you. I never intended any of this either... I sent you because you could detect Tirek and I didn't think he could take your magic either. And I never thought you would betray us. But I see now... I placed too heavy a burden on you. I should have sent you with Twilight, regardless of your objections. I should have recognized that Tirek could find your weakness and play on it to destroy your resolve, and that you should have been accompanied by a friend. You told me, in so many words, that the lack of chaos in your life was causing you mental harm, and I put it down to your usual dramatics." She closed her eyes. "I asked too much of you, too soon. When Fluttershy befriended you... I was hoping to get the Discord of our youth back. I should have realized that two thousand years of you being lost to your chaos can't be undone within a year, and possibly never at all, but my hopes blinded me to the reality."
"Sister... don't you realize that was never a realistic hope to begin with?" Luna said. "He's not..."
"I had no realistic hope of getting you back, Luna," Celestia said. "I do not function on realistic hopes all the time, I'm afraid."
Cadance put a hoof on the back of Discord's head, gently. "If it helps with your decision, Auntie... I can sense love within him. His feelings are too -well, you know- for me to be able to tell the kind of love precisely, or who it's for, but whether it's the love of friends or family or feelings for a special pony, love is love, and right now, it's strong. Perhaps that will change in time; chaos isn't known for constancy. But right now, he loves, and his regret is genuine."
"Someday I'm going to figure out how you keep doing that and work out how to stop you," Discord said, sighing. He looked up at her. "Why are you vouching for me? I stood there when Tirek ate your husband's magic, I stood there when he threw you in Tartarus. I didn't do anything to help you."
"You weren't the only one your punishment harmed," Cadance said. "I destroyed King Sombra, with Spike's help, and my husband, and our friends. I blasted Chrysalis, and if I didn't kill her, it wasn't because I was trying to show mercy. If you were remorseless, if I believed you were irredeemable, I'd find a way to destroy you before you could cause any more harm to the ponies I care about. But you have a heart, and you follow it. I think you only need to learn to listen to it more carefully, rather than to what chaos wants of you. And harming you will also cause harm to ponies I care about. So I'd rather see you redeemed than punished."
"It is time to meet with the Bearers," Celestia said. "Discord, stay with us, you have not been released."
He got up onto four feet, and saw the girls up ahead, in front of the castle, without their bizarre extra colors any longer. Spike and the three Princesses walked over to where the six mares were standing stupefied, looking up at the purple monstrosity. Discord followed behind them on four legs. He had his powers back, he had no reason why he couldn't stand up all the way, but the shame he felt dragged at him, making him feel strangely weary.
As they approached, he heard Twilight's voice, asking, "But... whose is it?"
"I believe it is yours, Princess Twilight," Celestia said warmly.
Suddenly Discord felt a rush of a strange happiness, bizarre in contrast to the weary regret that had been dragging him down. Twilight and the rest of them were all right. They had their powers back, but they hadn't been permanently transformed into entities barely recognizable as themselves. Everything was working out, despite what he'd done. He popped up to two legs and waved at the girls.
"Let's go inside," Luna said. "I was not there when Canterlot Palace was built, so this will be my first opportunity to see a newly built castle. I am very curious to see what's inside."
"Me too!" Pinkie said. "Because what kind of a castle would it be if it didn't have a kitchen? Do you think maybe the Tree made us a cake or something?"
Everyone laughed, and the group walked into the castle. Discord hesitated.
His powers were back, and the castle was a source of concentrated harmonics. It wasn't as bad as being near the Tree; he wasn't turning numb. But he could feel it interfering with his power. If he went in there, he wouldn't be powerless, but he would be weakened enough that Celestia and Luna could do anything they wanted to him, and there would be very little he could do to stop them.
He sighed, and followed the group. If he was going to be punished, maybe it would be better to get it over with quickly... and if he went in the palace and let his powers be choked down to a small trickle, if he made himself vulnerable to Celestia and Luna, then they wouldn't ask Fluttershy to break her promise, and he wouldn't have to learn if she would do so now or not. They'd be able to do whatever they were going to do to him directly, without involving Fluttershy. Or Twilight. Also, Celestia had told him to stay with the group if he hoped for any leniency at all, and he didn't think they'd accept "but the harmonics make my head hurt and interfere with my powers" as an excuse for him to stay outside.
"You've been wondering what you are meant to do as a princess," Celestia was saying. She and Twilight were in the lead, with the other princesses behind them, and the mares and Spike behind them. "Do you know now?"
"As princess, I believe I have the power to spread the magic of friendship across Equestria," Twilight pronounced. "That is the role I am meant to have in our world. The role I choose to have!" She certainly had the grandiose pronouncements part of being a princess down, Discord noted. There was a flash of light, and suddenly Twilight was behind the other princesses, directly within the group of her friends. "But I didn't defeat Tirek on my own – it took all of us to unlock the chest!" The others gathered around her in a spontaneous group hug.
"Then it is unlikely you are meant to take on this task alone," Celestia said, and used her magic to open a gigantic set of doors in front of her.
It was a throne room, with seven thrones, six of them marked with the Bearers' cutie marks and surrounding a round table with an inlaid six-pointed star similar to Twilight's cutie mark. The seventh throne was small and unmarked, and sat beside Twilight's. The girls oohed and aahed, and most of them, as well as Spike, promptly planted themselves in their new seats. "You are now Twilight Sparkle, the princess of friendship," Celestia said. "But what is the princess of friendship without her friends?"
The five mares and Spike quit testing their seats and surrounded Twilight. Another group hug coming, bleah, how droll. And yet he didn't feel bored, or overwhelmed with sap, or impatient, the way he would normally feel at watching soppy displays of affection and friendship.
He felt... left out.
He felt lonely.
His head drooped. He had no reason to feel sad, he told himself. It wasn't like the group had ever gone out of its way to include him, whyever would that change now after he'd betrayed them? It couldn't matter to them that his feelings were so raw, that for the first time since this friendship nonsense had started he felt an overwhelming desire to be with them, to protect them, to be liked by them... something he'd felt occasionally with Fluttershy, something he remembered years and years ago with Celestia and Luna, something that he'd spent most of his life never feeling at all. The desire to belong. The actual feeling of caring about others, not as an abstract but as something visceral, overwhelming him. They didn't know. They had no reason to believe he was any different than he'd always been.
None of them - not the Bearers and Spike, not the group of princesses - were looking at him. He could slink away, go pretend he was exploring the palace while they were having their friendship moment. Or pretend to have been bored to sleep and sprawl out here in the hallway to take a nap, or feign it anyway.
He started to turn away - and to his great startlement, found magic gripping and lifting him. For a moment of panic he thought to snap away, but his powers were suppressed here, too weak for teleportation... and Twilight was smiling at him. It wasn't a malicious smile or a giddy smile or a crafty smile, just a happy smile. This didn't look like a prank or an attack.
She lowered him into the group, and he was overwhelmed. She had known how he was feeling. And, more importantly, she'd cared. Swiftly he stretched his arms out - he had enough magic for that - so he could encompass all six of the ponies, and hugged them. And against all reason, they smiled at him.
The moment passed, the flood of happiness and tenderness receding enough to let him realize he was on the verge of tears, and he was behaving in a ludicrously sappy way, and he couldn't allow this. All well and good to have friendship, to truly feel it, but he was still Discord. He looked around him and feigned sudden outrage. "Wait a minute, where's my throne?!"
He regretted it the moment he said it. It was supposed to be funny, but after all that had happened today, for a split second he was afraid that they were going to take him seriously. He should have picked some other joke to make.
But Fluttershy flew up to him, smiling broadly, obviously aware it was a joke, and delivered the world's cutest smackdown. "I don't think you're quite there yet," she said, teasingly.
Discord chuckled, slightly embarrassed. It wasn't often that he ever felt a joke to be inappropriate for the moment, but it was embarrassing on the rare occasions when it happened. "Yes, well, I suppose not," he said, covering for himself with a grin.
As Pinkie made arrangements for what she was declaring to be "the most stupenderrific welcome-to-Twilight's-new-castle party Ponyville has ever SEEN", and drafted the others, including the mare of the hour, to help her with the preparations, Celestia called Discord aside, into a private chamber she had found. "I've talked with the Bearers, and you know that I have also consulted Spike, Cadance and Luna."
His heart pounded. At least Luna wasn't here. If she was, he'd be fairly certain this was about to go very badly for him. Of course, the fact that she wasn't here didn't mean things were about to go well. "If you're going to turn me to stone or something, at least let me go to Pinkie's party. Please. She's asked me to help out..." He was trying to manage a light, humorous tone, but he wasn't so sure it was working.
"Nopony is going to turn you to stone," Celestia said. "Today."
"So in other words, make my spa appointment today so I'll look good for my petrification tomorrow?" he said dryly.
"No. In other words, you are getting one more chance. One. The Bearers agree that they believe you have sincerely learned a lesson, and since Spike and Cadance also concur, I am placing you on official probation. You are not to leave Ponyville unless you're accompanied by one of the Bearers, or a princess."
Discord blinked. "You do know I don't live in Ponyville, right?"
"You do now," Celestia said. "Pocket dimensions of chaos are not Ponyville; therefore, you're not to live there. You are to live among ponies, the same ponies you've harmed, and learn to get along with them."
He sighed. Well, this was basically a slap on the wrist, very much less than he deserved, so he should probably be happy about it, but he didn't actually have anywhere to live in Ponyville... he didn't even want to ask Fluttershy if he could crash at her place, not after today, and Celestia would probably not let him get away with declaring the Everfree to be essentially part of Ponyville. He supposed he'd sleep in Applejack's orchard or something; it would hardly be the first time he'd slept outdoors.
"Just out of curiosity, what happens if I screw this up again?"
Her eyes went very cold. "I'd strongly suggest that you don't do that," Celestia said. "As I said... one more chance."
So. If he messed this up again... petrification, death, or something else really unpleasant. Well. At least he knew. "All right," he said. "Under the circumstances, I suppose... I suppose that's more than fair." He lowered his head. "Thank you, Celestia."
She blinked at him. "For what?"
"For giving me one more chance. I... wasn't sure you would. I'm not... I'm not even sure you should." He looked at the floor. "I'll... I'll try to live up to it."
Without warning he felt her hooves wrap around him suddenly. Discord stared down at the rainbow-colored mane floating just below his head, and the alicorn inexplicably hugging him around the neck. "Celestia? What are you doing?"
She lifted her head and looked up at him. "You've never apologized. You've never acknowledged you ever did anything wrong. This is the first-" Her voice broke, and she leaned her head in against his neck again. "Please don't disappoint me again," she said softly. "I couldn't bear it."
"I... I'll try."
Celestia released him. "Well. You told Pinkie you would help her with the party preparations, and it's never a good idea to break a promise to Pinkie," she said. "Why don't you go do that. Luna and I will return to Canterlot, but we will be back to attend the party; we need to let the guard know all that's happened. Let Twilight know, please."
Celestia vanished, and Discord wandered from the room, down the dim hallway, following the sounds of Pinkie mustering up a party. She'd never asked him to help out before. Maybe they were sincere. Maybe they did want him as part of them... as a friend.
The kitchen was full of bright lights, warmth, delicious smells, and busy mares (as well as a busy small dragon.) When he stood in the doorway, Pinkie, too busy using her mouth to hold baking utensils to actually say anything, waved at him wildly with a spatula in her hand. Twilight apparently saw the moving spatula, followed the line of sight to find Discord in the doorway, and smiled at him. "Come on in! We could use the help!"
He grinned at her, and stepped through the doorway, into the warm light.
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