Twilight was the reason her friends hadn't accepted Discord? Where did that idea even come from? Twilight reared her head back slightly, shocked. "What? How – that isn't even possible! I'm the Princess of Friendship, why would I – Discord, that doesn't even make sense! Why would I ever prevent anypony from making friends?"
"Now, now, I never said you were doing it on purpose." Discord drifted upwards and away from her, his wings not even moving, like he was a balloon caught in a gentle air current. "But I'd say the evidence is quite strongly in favor of my hypothesis, don't you agree?"
"I – no! How did you even get an idea like that into your head? Why would you think I'd be preventing you from making friends with my friends – even accidentally?"
"Well, to begin with." He was suddenly at a blackboard, drawing pictures of ponies who then proceeded to either walk up to each other and hold hooves, smiling, or walk up to each other, make angry faces and cartoon shouting motions, and stomp away from each other. Twilight was sitting in a chair with a graduation cap and gown on, and the edge of the cap was rubbing against her horn. Annoyed, she levitated the cap off. "You believe I don't know anything about friendship, but I'm far, far more knowledgeable about it in some ways than you are. It's true that I never knew until very recently what it felt like to have a friend, and I'm still working on the details of making them and keeping them, but when you didn't have any friends, you weren't interested in studying friendship at all. Whereas I have studied it, as an outside observer, my whole life. I know a great deal about certain dynamics that I think you've never concerned yourself with, because you're too close to them and they didn't pique your academic interest before you had friends."
"I'm guessing you mean you know a lot about how to ruin friendships and break them apart," Twilight said, standing up and divesting herself of her gown. "That really isn't something I think I need or want to learn."
"Au contraire, ma petite poney." Discord tapped the blackboard with his pointer, causing two ponies who were holding hooves to recoil from each other when the pointer touched down between them, and then start punching each other. "Just as I had to study friendship when I was its enemy, you need to learn more about how disharmony affects friendships, as friendship's protector. They hire reformed thieves as security consultants, you know. I'd think a pony who seeks to become an expert on friendship would be eager to learn from a reformed disharmonist." The blackboard and other props vanished.
After today's stunt, she was fairly sure that while he might be reformed, he was still a disharmonist... but then, he was the Spirit of Disharmony as well as Chaos, so it was unlikely that would ever change. She took a deep breath. Maybe he did have useful information to impart. Though after winding her up by accusing her of ruining his attempts to make friends, she wasn't eager to hear him go off on another tangent.
"I'll admit that you might have knowledge it'd be useful for me to learn from, but what does that have to do with you thinking I'm preventing you from making friends?"
"Patience is a virtue, my dear." He paced on air, wings flapping slightly but with more emotion than purpose. "I know a good bit more than just how to destroy friendships. I also know how to exploit and manipulate them to get the ponies with friendships to do what I wanted them to do – which admittedly was generally nefarious, but that's neither here nor there." Discord's head turned to look her directly in the eyes, though he was still pacing restlessly. Presumably he didn't need to look where he was going in his own home. "The point is, I can see how ponies interrelate with each other. I can see where their connections are strong, where they're weak, and where an entire knot of friendship is tied with one central loop. It may be the tightest, strongest loop, but it's still the center, and without it, all the other friendships drift apart."
Twilight tensed. Discord rarely spoke so frankly of his expertise at doing terrible things. He might cheerfully reminisce over chaotic stunts like making trees race each other or houses engage in opinionated discourse with their owners as to what they thought their own interior décor should look like, but he didn't talk about destroying relationships and spreading disharmony. "Like you tried to do to me."
"Yes. Like I tried to do to the six of you, and it would have worked, too, if not for your meddling little dragon." He grinned, floating stationary in front of her at last. "Not that I'm disappointed; in the long run I think I'm much happier, overall, than I would have been if I'd won. But yes. You are the central link, Twilight. You are the heart of the group, and its leader. Rainbow Dash is actually the one that created the web of destiny that wove you all together, but you are the loop that holds the six of you together, and they take their cues from you." As he spoke, he put his fingers together, and drew them apart with a cat's cradle between them, much smaller and more complex than the ones that fillies made together with their hooves. Tiny representations of their cutie marks were caught in the web. He touched hers, up at the top, and it radiated curved lines downward that made the outside of the cat's cradle a sphere, each cutie mark connected to hers through the glowing lines, that all met at the bottom at Rainbow's mark.
"But that doesn't make sense."
Discord's eyebrows drew together in an exaggerated gesture of skepticism. "What part of it? The part where ponies, who are social, herd animals at their hearts, take cues from their leader? Or are you denying that they see you as a leader?"
Twilight ducked her head slightly. "No, you're right about that – our group came together when they all separately befriended me, they weren't all friends with each other before that." She looked away, remembering. "Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash were, and Pinkie Pie considered herself friends with everypony but barely even knew Fluttershy and Rainbow, and Applejack and Rarity had hardly said ten words to each other as adults that weren't about Rarity buying apples at market." Discord was still floating in front of her, idly toying with the cat's cradle but still looking intently at her, when she turned her head to face him again. "So yes, I agree, I'm what brought the group together – though I like to think that now, our friendships are all strong enough to stand even if I was out of the picture. But if they take cues from me, and I consider you a friend, then how would that prevent them from making friends with you?"
"Don't you think that's obvious, Twilight?"
"If I thought it was obvious, why would I say it doesn't make sense?"
He folded his arms in front of him and drifted to a landing. "I've attempted to figure it out myself, and there's only one conclusion I can draw, sadly." Although his voice hadn't softened any, his ears had folded down slightly and his head hung lower than it usually did when he wasn't using his flexible neck to get in a pony's face. "If you have a different hypothesis, I'd truly love to hear it, because this is rather hurtful, actually."
He was such a drama llama. Twilight wanted to shout at him to get to the point and say what he thought the reason was already, but that would probably make him drag this out even longer. "I can't give you a different hypothesis until you give me the one you already have."
Discord looked away from her. "I don't think you actually think of me as a friend."
Oh, for the love of Celestia – this again? It didn't seem to matter how many times she did something to "prove" their friendship to the draconequus, it always came back to this – he was somehow always convinced, deep down, that she hated him, and nothing she said or did could permanently affect that. "Discord, I thought we were over this. I went to the ends of Equestria to get you your stupid flower to cure the illness you didn't even really have, then—"
"—Because you didn't want to spend your whole day tending to me, and you were afraid I was contagious."
"And then I worked my flank off to find you a cure—"
"Because, again, you thought I was contagious, you thought you and the other Princesses could get it, and you also thought it might kill me." Discord held up one of his talons, ears lifting slightly and eyes brightening. "Don't get me wrong, Twilight; I know you don't want me dead. You are, indeed, a compassionate and heroic pony, willing to risk your life to save pretty much almost anyone else from death or certain fates that might be worse, regardless of how you feel about them." His tone was gentle, not sarcastic – something she'd heard from him very rarely, and only in the time directly after the Tirek incident. But it darkened as he continued. "You see, what I had wrong that time was that I was confusing 'friend' with 'someone who doesn't want me to die horribly'. As ponies who haven't wanted me to die horribly have been almost as rare in my lifetime as friends were, I hope you can see where the confusion set in."
Twilight sighed. "You're going to tell me the reason I saved you from Tirek is that I just didn't want you dead, aren't you."
"Why, how perspicacious of you, Twilight. You got it in one. Yes, you saved me from Tirek and called me a friend in front of him because you didn't want me to suffer as his prisoner, even though you didn't know he was going to kill me. But you wouldn't have wanted anypony to suffer as Tirek's prisoner, and you told me so afterward. And everything else you've done for me boils down to doing your duty for Equestria, or to your favorite princess, or for the sake of your friend Fluttershy who is also my friend, or simply doing what you thought was the moral thing to do." He sat down heavily on a rock that hadn't been in his living room the moment before he sat on it. "Friends hang out with each other. Friends share interests. Friends occasionally make time for each other and don't brush each other off nearly every single time they meet."
"I don't do that," Twilight objected automatically... though the truth was, Discord was so immensely annoying and so disruptive to a productive day, she had to admit to herself that she did, usually, do that. But surely she didn't do it all the time. "Not every single time."
Discord rolled his eyes. "Oh, come now. How am I possibly supposed to interpret 'YAY, my good friend Rainbow, wonderful to see you again! And, oh, it's you, Discord' any other way?" Finger puppets dramatized his rendition, as the finger puppet for Twilight enthusiastically hugged the Rainbow puppet, then recoiled in visible disgust from the Discord puppet.
"That's not what I said and you know it."
The finger puppets vanished, and his voice turned flatter. "It's not about what you say, it's about how you say it. I've heard more enthusiasm for the concept of getting a hoof fungus treatment out of ponies than you showed for meeting up with me in a public place."
Twilight was pretty sure her tone had not been nearly so bad, but then, as a child, she'd had to have a special coach to teach her not to say almost everything in a near-monotone when she wasn't shouting. Maybe she was backsliding a little. Or maybe Discord was way too oversensitive about the subject. "Look, if you want to convince yourself that I'm not your friend, I can't really stop you, but when have I ever done anything to make anypony else not reach out to you? I've never told anypony they shouldn't be your friend—"
"Well, except Fluttershy. On multiple occasions." He wasn't even looking at her anymore; he'd re-summoned the sphere of glowing lines with the cat's cradle within it, and began spinning it on the tip of one talon.
Twilight huffed. "I never said she shouldn't be your friend. I said, you were lying to her, you were taking advantage of her good will, and later that maybe she was putting too much faith in your willingness to do the right thing, but I never told her she shouldn't be your friend. Princess Celestia told her to reform you, her strategy for that was to befriend you and show you how good it feels to have a friend, and it's not like I had any better ideas - not after you ate all my reforming spells."
"Which wouldn't have worked anyway, and you were foolish for considering them." He smiled tightly, looking up at her again. "Sometimes I like to think about how much glorious havoc would have ensued if you'd actually cast 'Be Your Best Self' on me. Since that one dramatically improves a pony's ability to conform to their own moral standards, not a benchmark set by society."
Twilight's voice rose in pitch and speed, her head drawing back slightly with the offense she felt. He was the one who'd eaten the spells so she couldn't have checked to see exactly how they worked. "Well, if I'd had a chance to re-read that one, I probably would have realized it wouldn't have done what I wanted, so I wouldn't have cast it, but it's not as if I had a chance to look at it again. Anyway, why are we talking about stuff that happened when you weren't reformed yet? If I don't get to use the fact that you mind-controlled my friends once against you now because we were enemies when that happened, then you don't get to use the fact that I advised my friend that you were taking advantage of her kindness when you totally were. Since you acknowledged the value of friendship and admitted that you were willing to try to reform rather than lose the first friend you ever had, I've never told Fluttershy she shouldn't be your friend. And I've never said that to anypony else, either."
"You don't need to tell them. They know what you want." He poked his talon into the spinning ball, catching threads at the tip of his claw and pulling them into even more bizarre and complicated designs. As he tugged, the cutie marks that anchored both the sphere and the web of threads inside moved around, shifting so they were closer or further from each other with each poke.
"No, they don't! I mean, that isn't what I want! I always thought it would be great if you got along with all of my friends, Discord – the more friends you have, the happier you'll be, the less obnoxious you'll be and you'll treat ponies better, and they'll treat you better, and everypony will benefit. I'm all about friendship! I would never not want my friends to be friends with someone!"
"The evidence speaks for itself, I think."
Twilight tossed her head and started pacing, which seemed to make Discord stop. She wasn't directly looking at him any more, but when she caught glimpses of him, she could see him standing still, watching her with a slight smirk on his face. "No, that can't be it," she said. "You only have one data point, that doesn't actually prove anything. What's your hypothesis for the mechanism by which I'm somehow, uh, 'friendsblocking' you? I'm not exactly telepathic and I haven't done anything to directly influence them, so if there is any influence it would have to be completely indirect and subconscious... but how would that even work?"
She reared and spun to face Discord. "You know what you guys never told me, the whole time, is how this weekend thing got started. Did you just drop in on them out of nowhere, or were you and Fluttershy together and then the rest showed up, or what?"
"Ah. Thereby hangs a tale," Discord said, who was suddenly hanging from an oversized pony tail that was dangling from his ceiling. Twilight hadn't even seen him teleport, or dispose of his cat's cradle. He jumped off the tail, which vanished. "It all began when Fluttershy asked me to try to make friends with Rainbow Dash, and apparently vice versa." Claymation figurines appeared, floating in air, with the Fluttershy figure tsk-tsking at both the Rainbow and Discord figures. "She was quite upset that two of her best friends couldn't get along with each other, and insisted to me that Rainbow and I had more in common than either of us believed... except, of course, I already knew that. The major factor preventing our dear chromatic friend from warming up to me was never incompatibility – it was loyalty. Her sense of humor is actually similar to mine, and I knew from our flying competitions that we can get along well... but not when her friends were present. She felt the need to maintain her guard in my presence and constantly remind everypony how untrustworthy she considered me, in what I thought was protectiveness toward them. But then I had second thoughts.
He wagged a finger in the universal gesture of "I'm lecturing you"... though obviously the pony version of the gesture involved a whole hoof. Somehow it was much more patronizing with just the one talon. "You see, Rainbow sees herself as the enforcer and protector of your little herd. You're the leader, and she carries out your will. Alone, she's merely herself, but add just one friend to the picture and she's back to being the enforcer. Well. The one friend that was generally being added to the picture was Fluttershy, who makes everypony feel protective. I thought to myself, what if it was Fluttershy, myself, and Pinkie?" The Pinkie figure appeared in a burst of confetti, grabbed all three of the other figures and pulled them into a hug. "Rainbow and Pinkie are pranking buddies, and Pinkie is my second closest friend most of the time, and Rainbow isn't overprotective of Pinkie the way she is of you and Fluttershy—"
"Rainbow isn't overprotective of me!" Rainbow had never treated her as a fragile creature whose honor needed to be defended, like she did Fluttershy, and the very thought of her doing so was upsetting. Twilight was the one with power, the one who had to protect her friends. Her friends were there to help her, support her, and work with her – not protect her. "She has no reason to be – I'm an alicorn, and before I was, I was still one of the most powerful unicorns out there. I mean, I was no Starswirl but I could protect myself just fine."
"That's irrelevant to Loyalty; the drive to protect the leader is too powerful. My point is, I thought, what if I was with a group that consisted of Fluttershy, Pinkie and Rainbow? Might the fact that the first two are close to me help break through and let me befriend her? But I've been in groups that consisted of Fluttershy, you and Rainbow, and you called yourself my friend and saved me from Tirek, and I gave you that key, and surely the fact that you feel strongly toward me should have influenced Rainbow in my direction in the past?..." His eyebrows raised as he asked the question, and then dropped again, furrowing as his eyes narrowed. "Except you don't, do you. You don't hate me, but you certainly don't seem to like me."
She didn't want to point out that that was because he went out of his way to be unlikeable. "You're wrong, but fine, go on with your story. So you got together with Fluttershy, Pinkie and Rainbow..."
"Well, Rainbow, Pinkie and I couldn't exactly engage in prank-pulling with just Fluttershy for an audience, neither with each other nor on anypony else, and Fluttershy's idea of a relaxing afternoon tea... really doesn't suit the other two nearly so well as she might hope." The Fluttershy figure offered out three cups of tea. The Rainbow figure rolled its eyes, the Discord figure shrank, jumped into his, and started swimming, and the Pinkie figure chugged her tea in two gulps. "So Pinkie decided to break the ice by declaring a True Tall Tale competition, where we needed to tell the most ridiculous true story possible, and of course Rainbow complained that this gave me an unfair advantage because nopony would be able to check on the stories I told, so we all decided to go to Applejack's so she could judge the veracity." An Applejack figure appeared. "And as soon as we explained the situation to Applejack, she felt it was necessary to involve Rarity, on the grounds that Rainbow, Pinkie and I were likely to get, in her words, 'a mite rowdy' and she felt she needed someone stronger-willed than Fluttershy to keep us in check." The Applejack figure grabbed a Rarity figure out of nowhere, and all six of the figures sat down at a table that hadn't been there a moment ago, with tiny mugs of cider.
"Applejack would never have said a thing like that in front of Fluttershy."
"Oh, she didn't; I inferred that last part. And by the way, the first time the idea of involving you was brought up, it was Pinkie who rejected it. She said that you'd have more fun sorting books than listening to tall tales, because you would, in her words, 'go coco-loco' trying to figure out how our hyperbolic stories could be possible—" he illustrated this by swirling a talon around his temple, rotating it from front to back in the gesture for "crazy" – "and you'd been looking forward to your book sorting project for weeks. Which by the way is deeply pathetic, Twilight, you should seek help for that."
"When you seek help for the chaos obsession, maybe I'll consider it," Twilight snapped.
"Yes, but you're the Alicorn of Magic, not the Alicorn of Order. What's your excuse?"
"So far, what I'm hearing is that Fluttershy wanted you and Rainbow Dash to try to be friends, you decided to involve Pinkie, Pinkie decided to involve Applejack, and Applejack invited Rarity."
He tilted his head back and put his paw to his chin in a mock-pensive expression. "Involving Applejack was more of a mutual decision, really. And thus we had a tall tale competition, with a bit of cider, and when Applejack tried to call it a night early on the grounds that she had to work in the morning, Pinkie protested that she shouldn't have to work on a weekend and that we would all pitch in to help the next day, and somehow between Fluttershy and Pinkie I got roped into Pinkie Promising that I'd participate in that." The little Discord figure did the Pinkie Promise gestures, ending up with a cupcake sticking out of its eye, which the Pinkie figure grabbed and ate. Then all the figures vanished. "Thus, we all returned to Sweet Apple Acres in the morning, and since Applejack was convinced that chaos magic would in some way contaminate her produce, despite the fact that I'd been altering the trees for everypony's amusement just the previous night, I had to agree to help without magic." He sighed deeply, flinging the back of his paw against his forehead and throwing his head back. "Oh, the things I do for friendship! I would never have imagined myself stooping to such levels."
"I... can't see you bucking trees."
"I didn't. Generally speaking, when a tree is bucked, only the ripe apples come down, leaving the unripened ones still on the branches... but Applejack had been getting reports from Rainbow Dash that the upper levels of the trees were full of apples that had ripened but weren't coming down for some reason. Since earth ponies can't climb trees particularly well, she hadn't been aware of that issue." As he was speaking, Discord was climbing an imaginary tree, or at the very least an invisible one – Twilight didn't care enough to check. He curled up at the "top" as if he were lying on the top of the tree like a pegasus. "I went up to investigate, and picked the ones that were ripe by paw. It looked as if a protective charm that was supposed to block tree fungus was making all of the apples somewhat more clingy, and thus the force of the applebuck wasn't dislodging the ones on the top as well as usual."
Twilight facehoofed. "That was my protective charm. I'm going to have to go apologize."
"Oh, no need. I fixed it." Discord smiled cheerfully, plainly quite proud of himself.
"I thought you said Applejack didn't want chaos magic near the apples," Twilight said, eyes narrowed.
"Near the apples, no." He floated off the imaginary treetop. "Keeping fungus spores out of the air near the apples? She didn't have a problem with that. Essentially I enchanted the entire orchard so that fungus spores would transform from whatever kind of fungus they were ordinarily, into mushroom spores. Her soil isn't good for growing mushrooms – too much light – but she might get a few. It's possible some mushrooms might grow on a tree trunk or two, but they won't be nearly as damaging to the trees or the apples as the tree fungus was."
Twilight scowled up at him. "Where did the whole 'I'm blocking you from making friends' thing come in?"
Discord dangled from the air above her head, upside down. "Well, while we were having a perfectly pleasant evening without you, the thought occurred to me, if Rainbow is driven by loyalty, then being in a group where the leader sees me as antithetical to her personal interests, she will always reject me. But when you're not present, the group tends to draw around Applejack, and listen to her; it's not nearly as strong of an effect as their listening to you, but it's definitely there." He popped back onto the floor, feet down and planted on it for once. "And I thought, Applejack doesn't particularly trust me, but if I can get her to laugh, she might open up. Rarity and I had already found some common ground, and Rainbow will follow her leader – if I could win over Applejack, I could possibly get the whole group. So I cracked a few jokes at the expense of oranges – you know she has a bit of a thing against oranges, right?"
"Kind of. She's got relatives named Orange."
"Yes, and she found living with them to be incredibly tedious. So I did some silly things with a few of the trees to mock oranges, and I actually got her to laugh, after we got past her initial concern that I was ruining said trees. And that was when I realized it."
He leaned forward and levitated again, his face now very close to her own. "Applejack was never as humorless and tightly-strung as she'd seemed every time I encountered her before, because every time I encountered her before, she was with you. And you have no sense of humor, and you require her to function as a deputy, more or less – your second-in-command, in a combat situation. She has to be serious and responsible around you." A talon poked her nose. Twilight backed up with an irritated snort. Discord went on. "When you're not there, she can lighten up and laugh. When you're not there, and other ponies who are laughing at my jokes are, Rainbow Dash enjoys my humor. And when you're not there, Rarity gets to play the role of the straight mare, a role you essentially own when you're present due to your need to explain everything, and Rarity, unlike you, enjoys playing along with the joke for the sake of achieving the punchline.
Discord drew back, no longer looking at her, nose up in the air as he continued in an emphatic, storytelling tone. "So the next day, when it was suggested that you might like to join in with us on helping with the apples, I pointed out that you were terribly occupied sorting books, that we hardly needed the additional ponypower, and that it would be downright rude to go running to you for help when it was the five of us that had promised to help Applejack." He turned his head to look at her again. "And as I thought, even as the day wore on, everyone remained relaxed and slightly... how would I put this? A bit giddy, perhaps. We encountered the snake that wasn't a snake sometime around lunchtime, and while if you'd been there I'm sure you'd have demanded everypony keep calm until we could investigate, Fluttershy panicked, and then Apple Bloom panicked, and that led Applejack to panic, and then all of us were running for our lives—"
"You guys said the first time that Rainbow Dash saw it."
"Yes, but she was in the air, and she shouted down to Fluttershy to ask if it was a hose or a snake, and Fluttershy had one of her moments—"
"But Fluttershy loves strange animals."
Discord sighed in exasperation. "This isn't fiction, Twilight, you don't get to edit it. Sometimes she loves strange animals, and sometimes she has a panic attack. She thought at first it looked like a particularly deadly snake. Later she decided it had really been a hose."
"And why were you running with them rather than teleporting them out of danger or using your powers to stop the snake, and why was it moving if it wasn't a snake?"
"Running and panicking was fun? I so rarely do it, and it looked delightful." He grinned cheerily.
"You made the stick move, didn't you."
"No, as it turned out the culprit was Sweetie Belle, egged on by Scootaloo. They'd been merely trying to prank Apple Bloom; I had the distinct impression they thought us adults were wiser and calmer than that. Probably because they're used to you being part of the group!" His tone grew wistful, and he looked up, paws clasped in front of him like a stallion rhapsodizing about the mare he was crushing on, or like Twilight herself when she thought of Starswirl the Bearded's work. "Oh, those fillies... the sweet chaos they make sometimes. Even now that they have their much-awaited cutie marks. You see, Sweetie panicked when we adults did, and then she couldn't shut off the spell, which for some reason convinced her and Scootaloo that it really was a snake, and... you really had to have been there." Discord's head lowered into her face again. "Except that if you had been, none of it would have happened."
"But you had to have known it was really a stick." Twilight lifted one eyebrow and wrinkled her nose slightly, somewhat skeptical still.
"Of course I knew, but why would I interfere with such delightful chaos? I joined in on the screaming and running away because it looked like great fun, and as it happened, it was. Everypony was so relieved when we escaped the dreaded stick snake hose, we all broke out in hiss-terical laughter." He didn't turn into a snake this time, but he did stick out his forked tongue and waggle it, grinning even more broadly.
He was right, it wouldn't have happened if she'd been there. Twilight deflated slightly. She'd been so sure that everything Discord was claiming would turn out to be wrong, but on this portion of it, at least, he was right. She'd have sensed the flow of magic from Sweetie Belle and would have helped the filly stop it. And it wouldn't even have gone that far because she would have tried to solve the problem as calmly as possible, rather than panicking. Applejack wouldn't normally be one to panic either, but if she'd thought there was a threat to Apple Bloom – oh, yes, she totally would.
It was so odd that the whole thing had resulted in laughter and bonding, though; who would have thought that panicking would lead to closer bonds between friends? Were there aspects of friendship she'd never manage to learn because her presence would prevent them from happening? But then again, the thing that had produced the laughter and the bonding seemed to have been the relief at the end, and if you thought about it, wasn't part of the basis for how her friendships had gotten started their shared terrifying experiences while trying to stop Nightmare Moon? At least Discord had joined in with them rather than remaining aloof to point and laugh; she would have preferred it if he'd intervened to prevent the misunderstanding in the first place, but expecting Discord to stop chaos from occurring was even more outrageous than expecting Pinkie Pie to stop a party.
Twilight drew a deep breath. Maybe they all had a bonding experience that they wouldn't have had if Twilight had been there, but they had had plenty of bonding experiences with Twilight. "And this is your evidence for how I'm preventing you from making friends?"
"I did note that as soon as you expressed your jealousy and your general displeasure with me, all of a sudden jokes they'd been finding hilarious for the past three days were 'old' and 'played out.'" He scowled at her.
"That doesn't prove anything, Discord, you'd more or less just implied that you instigated the whole jealousy thing by deliberately leaving me out, and my friends weren't going to be happy about that. It's one thing to have fun with a new friend; it's another to feel like you've been used to hurt one of your other friends, and that's why your jokes weren't funny anymore. Not because I was 'displeased' with you, but because the others were mad at you for using them to hurt me."
"But that isn't even what I did! And I did say that that isn't what I did. I was very clear on the concept that your jealousy was purely accidental on my part."
"I'm not sure you know what constitutes 'clear'. You did say that, in a tone that made it sound like you were really saying the opposite. And you absolutely did gloat over my being jealous."
"When?" he asked, indignantly.
"You called it a happy accident!"
"I meant that your being confronted with feelings of jealousy and coming to terms with them and admitting them were a good thing."
"No, you didn't. Come on."
Discord deflated. "I can't help enjoying disharmony and negative emotions," he admitted, sighing. "That's... what I am. But I didn't instigate it! I wasn't honestly thinking about your feelings at all, Twilight, I was entirely concerned with seeing if your absence would let me befriend your friends. And it worked. And as delighted as I was to break the ice and make friends with your friends... I think I would have preferred not to, if it had meant that I was wrong about you not really being my friend. You don't trust me, you don't like me, and unlike ponies such as Rainbow Dash before this weekend, you lie and claim you do. That hurts, you know. I'd have preferred honesty to begin with."
His voice and his body language were as melodramatic as one would expect from Discord, exaggerated and mocking, but if he was trying to hide his actual feelings by exaggerating them, Twilight didn't think it was working. There was no laughter in his eyes; the hurt she saw in them was genuine. Guilt and a certain degree of panic welled up in Twilight. This didn't make sense, and unlike most things that concerned Discord that didn't make sense, she didn't think this was under his control. He was still convinced that she didn't consider him a friend, despite the various incidents in the past that should have proved that she did... and he was right that some of the things that had happened on that weekend wouldn't have happened if she hadn't been there, and could it possibly be that he was right? That some subconscious part of herself was influencing her friends not to accept him... somehow? But how would that even work? She wasn't casting magic, it would have to be interpersonal dynamics, and frankly, if she had the ability to influence her friends into disliking someone how did they all fall for Chrysalis impersonating Cadance despite her warnings? And yet what were the odds that the very first time he was hanging out with both Fluttershy and the other four, without her, he'd actually win them over?
But he was wrong. Twilight didn't dislike Discord – he annoyed the heck out of her, sure, generally because she was either trying to get things done or trying to relax when he showed up, and chaos wasn't conducive to either. But he fascinated her, and frustrated her because he fascinated her; all that knowledge, so much of history stored in his memories, such unique and intriguing magic, and all he ever did was show up when she was doing something more important and try to annoy her into paying attention to him. Or show up to events she was trying to coordinate and proceed to do what he did best, cause total chaos – he didn't even have to use magic to do it. Inviting one friend that got slime on everything and ate every jewel and gold item in sight had ruined the Gala before Discord had tried to throw an innocent pony into another dimension for taking Fluttershy's attention away from him. He never gave her anything but cryptic answers to any of her questions, he wouldn't let her study his magic... he had an entire gallery of pony artwork from the era when he'd ruled Equestria, and he wouldn't even let her find it again, let alone share it with ponykind. While he'd behaved relatively well directly after the Tirek incident, this had not turned out to be Discord finally getting a handle on how to balance his need for chaos and pony needs for stability, but a symptom of serious depression that had led him to engineer a convoluted scheme for his own self-destruction. He was incomprehensible, a mystery that nagged at Twilight to solve, and he wouldn't let her even try.
She'd resigned herself to the fact that Pinkie Pie had access to some sort of magic that didn't seem to work like any other form of magic she knew, but Pinkie had cooperated with her tests, allowing her to prove to herself that Pinkie's inexplicable abilities were both real and inexplicable, at least by any framework of magic she understood. Discord's magic seemed sometimes to operate like unicorn magic, and sometimes like Pinkie's, and sometimes like something completely different, and she felt sure that if she could just study his use of chaos magic she could develop a unified theory of magic that could account for Pinkie as well... but when she'd asked, he'd responded with "The Dao that can be explained isn't the Dao" and then turned her notebook into a fish. He hadn't explained what the hay a Dao was, either.
If she could become closer friends with him, if they could somehow find common ground between an avatar of Chaos and an alicorn who loved order, she felt certain it would be a triumph of the magic of friendship and a wonderful thing for herself, Discord, all of Equestria, and probably the science of magic. But he was right that she blew him off when he showed up, most of the time... because most of the time, he was just trying to annoy her. That didn't mean she hated him or that she wanted to stop him from being friends with her other friends!
She shook her head rapidly, almost a shudder of denial. "I know you're allergic, but let's look at this logically anyway – you have only one data point! How can you say you've proven anything if you have only one data point?"
He floated over her and around her head, making her have to swivel her head to follow him. "As opposed to the extensive research you did into Starswirl's time travel spell? Oh, that's right, you only used it once."
"I was going off Starswirl's own research!" Twilight stomped a hoof in indignation. "As far as I can tell the sum total of your research consists of how you feel! Not that how you feel isn't valid, but you can't just use how you feel as a basis for everything and then just have one data point and say it proves anything when it doesn't." She started pacing again, occasionally gesticulating with one hoof. "To start with you're conflating two ideas into your hypothesis. Maybe there might be some merit in the thought that somehow I'm inhibiting my friends from making friends with you, although I can't figure out how that would work and I have no evidence it's ever worked on anypony else even when I wanted them to not be friendly to that pony, but the idea that I hate you and that's why I wouldn't want my friends to befriend you is just absurd. And I don't even think you've proven the first half!"
"Is it not true that when I come to visit, you generally make it clear that I'm about as welcome as a giant horsefly bite on the flank?"
She spun to face him, glaring. "Do you ever come to visit and offer to do something together that I would think is fun? Even when you're not showing up just to taunt me or wreck things or play pranks on me, you have no sense of timing – you just show up whenever you want and you're never inviting me to come do something I'd like."
Discord vanished from midair, and reappeared directly next to her, still floating more or less horizontally but now at her eye level, with his snout so close to her muzzle they were almost touching. Twilight drew back. "Now that is an unmitigated lie," Discord snapped. "You've proven that you enjoy spelunking in alternate dimensions, yet when I offer to take you dimension hopping—"
"I was in the middle of a major research project!"
His head pushed forward, making her back up even more. "You're always in the middle of a major research project! Or making checklists! Or organizing books! Or something!" Discord drew back his head, and then floated to a more or less upright position, arms tightly folded. "You'd rather sit alone and read than spend time with me."
"Bad example, Discord, I'd rather sit alone and read than spend time with anyone, lots of the time. And yes, I'm very busy, and when I'm not busy I'm usually trying to relax, and you don't even try to work around my schedule. Maybe if we made arrangements to meet up at a specific date and time for a specific purpose–"
Discord burst out into hysterical laughter, falling on his back while still levitating, kicking his legs in the air, head bent back in a way she would have thought that even Discord couldn't manage.
"Quit laughing!" Twilight shouted at him. "What's so funny?"
"Oh, Twilight." Discord got control of himself, panting slightly. "What part of 'Spirit of Chaos' makes you think I want to make appointments?" He shook his head. "Schedules. Feh. Are you trying to kill all the spontaneity in life?"
"You have a weekly appointment with Fluttershy."
He smirked. "You're not Fluttershy," he said pointedly.
Twilight rolled her eyes. "There has to be an explanation," she said, pacing again. "Because there's no logical reason why I would even want to prevent our friends from being closer to you—"
"The fact that you don't trust me?"
"No, friendship's the whole reason I can trust you at all. You'd be more trustworthy if you had more friends, so the more I don't trust you, the more I should want you to make friends. Let's take this from the top again. In the beginning you were trying to make friends with Rainbow, and it was Fluttershy's idea, and you invited Pinkie because the kind of stuff you and Rainbow are likely to have in common is more her idea of fun than Fluttershy's, and then Pinkie proposed an activity—"
"I'm the one who told all this to you, Twilight. You hardly need to repeat it back to me."
She shook her head distractedly, still pacing. "No, no, I have to say it out loud because we're investigating, and if I say something that's wrong then I'd need you to correct me. Pinkie proposed an activity that you and Rainbow Dash would be good at, and Rainbow wanted Applejack as a referee, and Applejack invited Rarity, and then Pinkie was the one who didn't invite me..."
That stung a bit, moreso because she knew Pinkie had been right. She wished she was the kind of pony who would have enjoyed an impromptu storytelling session with her friends, but she had to be in the right sort of mood to tolerate tall tales, and after she'd been planning her book sortation vacation for weeks and rearranging her schedule to allow it... there was no way she would have agreed to leave that early, on the first night of her book sorting adventure, with books loose all around the castle, just to listen to Rainbow and Discord try to out-outrageous each other. Unless she'd felt that as the Princess of Friendship she had to do it, and then she'd have been miserable because she wouldn't be sorting books... so Pinkie had been right not to invite her, because even extending the offer would have put Twilight in a no-win situation where she'd be letting down her friends if she didn't go and making herself unhappy if she did.
For that matter, Discord had been right not to invite her the next day, even if his reasons hadn't been good ones. She wouldn't have wanted to quit sorting books so she could help at Sweet Apple Acres. And her friends all doing it would have made her felt like she had to. And then she'd have been unhappy and she really would have been a huge stick-in-the-mud and put a damper on everypony's fun. Which would almost certainly have indirectly interfered with Discord's attempt to make friends, because Discord had obviously been using humor and goofiness to try to win them over and Twilight not being able to see the humor in anything would definitely have–
She stared at Discord as it suddenly clicked into place in her head. Immediately she knew what she had to do – or what she should do, at least – but she hesitated, because it felt manipulative. If a pony did something that would normally aid in resolving friendship problems, but they did it out of logic, because research had taught them it was the right thing to do, rather than out of emotion, then would the pony be manipulating their friends? Shouldn't it come from the heart? But if the pony was too hyped up on an argument they'd been having to want to do it in their heart, then wouldn't it be better to do it because they knew it would make their friend feel better even if they couldn't feel it themselves? Was it really manipulation if they were trying to make others happier and improve friendships?
"Is there something on my chest?" Discord said. "It can't be peanut butter, that was only ever on my hoof."
Twilight flushed as she realized she'd been staring at Discord for far more seconds than was really appropriate. Then she took a deep breath, and flew the short distance between them, putting her forelegs around his neck in a hug.
"I'm sorry," she said.
His bewildered expression was worth the discomfort she'd felt in forcing herself to hug him, she thought, grinning.
"Twilight, I am the one who's supposed to be confusing and unpredictable, not you."
Twilight giggled, and let him go, remaining in the air so she could look into his eyes. "I'm sorry it took me so long to figure it out, because it was obvious, and I'm sorry I accused you of casting a spell on them. And I'm sorry I made you feel like I was rejecting you to the point where you imagined I was somehow keeping my friends from getting closer to you. Because now that I know how you made it work this time, I'm really proud of you and the progress you've made."
Discord was staring at her with an expression of total disbelief and confusion. "You're proud of me?"
As much as the role reversal amused Twilight, she felt more like someone unveiling a Hearth's Warming gift to a surprised friend than someone turning the tables on a prankster. "Yes! You see, there were more variables in your experiment than you accounted for. I was one variable, but you and the progress you've made at understanding friendship is a variable you never even accounted for."
She landed, looking up at him. "Discord, in the past when you've shown up and ostensibly tried to hang out, you've been a jerk. You've gone as far as making Rarity and Applejack sick, and even when you weren't doing something like that, you generally mocked us, or used your chaos to deliberately confuse and annoy us, or you were self-aggrandizing, or at best you weren't paying any attention to whether or not anyone but you thought your jokes were funny."
Discord scowled. "Don't hold back, Princess Twilight," he sneered. "Tell me how you really feel."
"But the point is, that isn't what you did this time! You participated in an activity that another pony suggested. It was a sort-of competitive activity, but you didn't cheat to make yourself look better. You used your magic for jokes that mocked something, not somepony, and you paid attention to what your audience would find funny, and you asked permission, or at the very least, you got permission even if you didn't ask first. You had a drink with the ponies you wanted to befriend, and you agreed to help the hostess with her work in the morning to compensate for her staying up having fun with you – it wasn't your idea, no, but you agreed to do it, and you even agreed to help out without magic. And then you actually did things that were helpful. And when some accidental chaos got set off, instead of just staying on the sidelines and laughing or making things worse, you did the same thing the other ponies were doing, as part of their group."
He still looked stunned. Twilight placed her forehoof on his chest, since she couldn't reach his shoulder without flying. "Don't you see? Your problem was never me. It was that you never before did anything that would make anypony want to hang out with you. Fluttershy's been saying all along that you behave very differently with her than you do with us; this is the first time you've treated all of us, or I guess all of them, as if they were friends with you, and acted like a friend, the way you do with Fluttershy. Maybe you never did this before because you thought I would block you. Maybe you never did it before because it wasn't important enough for you to try until Fluttershy insisted. I don't know, but I do know that this time, for the first time, you behaved like a real friend to everypony, well, everypony who was there at the time."
"I... suppose I did make a considerable effort, yes." Discord started to grin.
"You did! And it helped that Fluttershy and Pinkie were actively working with you to try to help you break the ice, but it would never have worked if you hadn't sincerely wanted it to work and if you hadn't done the things you needed to do to make it work. When you consider that it wasn't that long ago that Fluttershy was your only friend, you've really made amazing progress!"
"Well, of course I have. I can learn anything if I want to, after all." As she'd praised him, his expression had changed from disbelieving to cocky. "It wasn't that great of a challenge for me."
"Not once you made up your mind to actually learn," Twilight said. "I was asking the wrong question this whole time. I kept asking 'why is this funny?' and didn't even consider the question of how the weekend got started and why everypony was getting along with you."
"You should know that 'why is this funny' is always the wrong question," Discord said.
"I actually know that. I used to read joke books and bring them out to my mom and dad, read them a joke and then ask them why it was funny." She shook her head, a slight nostalgic smile on her face. "They could never explain it well enough that I could get the joke."
"Only you, Twilight. Only you."
"So!" She smiled up at him brightly. "Now that we've settled the question of why you were getting along with my friends and how it has nothing to do with me and doesn't in the slightest mean that I was doing anything to stop them from making friends with you and in particular especially doesn't mean that you're not my friend, let's figure out how we can resolve that particular issue without anyone ending up getting attacked by tatzlwurms. I'd... kind of like to spend time with you, but only if you're not going to be a jerk and only if I don't have something more important that I'm trying to do or I'm too tired and I need to relax. Not that friendship isn't important! Friendship is very important, but sometimes when you're in the middle of research you can't quit to go have fun even if you wanted to—"
"Call me," Discord said, shrugging.
"Ah – what?"
"Well, I don't do appointments, and you have an excessively overcrowded schedule, so... call me. You know that summoning spell Celestia taught you, and as long as you're not attempting to amplify it with the Elements of Harmony or somesuch, it doesn't compel me to answer; it just signals me that somepony is trying to get my attention. So if I'm in the tub, I can finish up and dry off before coming to visit." He grinned broadly.
"Uh, yeah, I would definitely prefer that."
"Of course! If I'm coming straight out of the tub, I'm likely to drip water everywhere, and water is terrible for your books. Or so I am informed."
"Right. No water on the books."
"And no tatzlwurms."
"Right. We are in total agreement on that."
He coiled into a semicircle in midair, floating in front of her. "Are you sure you really mean this? You would willingly spend time with me?"
"I'm here right now," Twilight said.
"You came here to chew me out for something I specifically said I didn't do and you didn't believe me."
"That's not what I meant. I... You know, I really liked your art gallery, and I'll bet you have all kinds of interesting things around here that you never get to show anypony. If... I mean, I don't have to go home right away. I cleared my schedule because I didn't know how long this would take. So if you wanted to show me around..."
"Why, Twilight Sparkle! Are you asking me out on a date?" The pupils of Discord's eyes changed to heart-shapes, and he put his paws to his cheeks in an exaggerated expression of fillyish excitement. "Oh dear, and I have nothing to wear!"
Twilight gave him her best "I-am-not-amused" expression. "A date is an appointment for a specific time and place, so according to you, I can't ask you out on a date. Also, I'm asking you to show me your house, not inviting you to go somewhere. Also, we're trying to be better friends, not special someponies, not that I think you don't know that."
"In the far future, when the jokes gather around the campfire to tell scary stories, the most terrifying tale of all will be that of Twilight Sparkle, the savage joke killer."
"I don't know, Discord, that didn't sound like much of a joke to me. Why was that funny?"
At Discord's look of utter horrified disbelief, Twilight couldn't keep the straight face and started laughing. Discord joined in a moment later. "You told a joke, Twilight! You actually have a sense of humor! Who would have thought it?"
"Yeah, well, if you can learn friendship, I suppose I can learn how to tell jokes."
"What's the world coming to? Cats and dogs, living together!" For a moment, Twilight was a large purple cat, and Discord, next to her, was a very large, skinny, shaggy wolfhound. "Eeh, I'm having flashbacks. Not a good look on you." She was a pony again and Discord a shuddering draconequus.
Twilight decided not to ask for an explanation. "I still don't know if you want me to stick around here for a while or not."
"Of course I do, Twilight, of course I do. You never got to see the Moebius waterfall while you were here, did you?"
"No, I didn't."
"Well then. If you'd like a tour, far be it for me to deny my friend a look at my humble abode! I made all the animals you'll see here, you know. Most of them, anyway."
"That's pretty impressive."
"Oh, you haven't seen anything yet." He offered her his lion paw. "Shall we?"
"Sure." Twilight took the proffered paw, and started floating. Discord was also floating, but he seemed to have made Twilight more buoyant than himself, because she settled into place right around the point where her foreleg and his arm were level and her head wasn't nearly as far below his as it usually was.
"This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship," Discord said.
"That sounds like a reference to something."
"It is, but you had to have been there."