"Starlight!" Twilight pried herself loose from her remora-like niece and waved at her apprentice. "I thought you were in Vanhoover with Trixie."
"You didn't hear? She's performing here in Ponyville! Discord invited her. Well, technically, Pinkie invited her." Trixie and Discord didn't get along, largely because Discord had been overtly resentful of Starlight for the past few years, and Trixie, who had had very few friends in her life, felt honor-bound to be as annoying as she could possibly be toward anyone who didn't like her best friend. The irony was that Discord didn't seem to dislike Trixie; he seemed to greatly enjoy teasing her. Being disliked by Discord generally meant he ignored you or would be ostentatiously huffy and verbally obnoxious, like the time Fluttershy had tried to introduce him to her friend Tree Hugger and he'd been a jerk the whole time; being liked by Discord, if you weren't in the very small category of ponies that he considered his close friends, meant that he'd torment you gleefully. Sometimes even being in that category didn't save you, as Twilight was painfully aware. So Starlight actually had less difficulty with Discord than Trixie did; Discord mostly ignored Starlight.
"No, I hadn't heard." Twilight made a face. "Pinkie and Discord went out of their way to make sure I didn't learn anything about today ahead of time, and they never gave me any information about Trixie."
"Aunt Starry!" Flurry, who'd been occupied by reading a picture book for all of thirty seconds without Twilight's constant attention, got bored, dropped her book, and flew over to Starlight, landing on her back. "Auntie Twi was reading me a story!"
"You can't read them yourself yet?" Starlight made an exaggerated expression of disbelief. "A smart filly like you?"
"I can read a little..."
"Flurry, please pick up your book. You left it on the ground and it can get dirty now."
"Okay." She flew off of Starlight and went to grab the book with her teeth; her horn worked, but she had so little fine control that Twilight had strongly recommended that she should not use her magic to lift books.
"He seems to be relying a lot more on the community, this time," Starlight said. "I haven't seen anything as spectacular as some of the stunts from previous years, but there's a lot of involvement from the local ponies, more than I think I've seen before."
"This is the smallest place he's had host him for Topsy-Turvy," Twilight pointed out. "Ponyville doesn't have any tall mountains or skyscrapers, and the population is smaller. I think there were more vendors in places like Canterlot, but as a percentage of the population they were of course a lot less. Here in Ponyville it seems like a third of the population are involved in selling something."
"Well, I see we've gotten a lot of tourism, so that's good."
Clouds rolled in. Dark, looming, orange clouds. "That's funny, the weather plan for today was supposed to be clear skies."
"Really? Because Pinkie told Trixie to be ready to start her show when the rain starts."
Twilight sighed. The clouds were orange, not a natural color for clouds if it wasn't anywhere near sunset. "This must be something Discord was planning."
The first droplets started to fall. There was a strong smell of citrus. Twilight levitated Flurry's book – it was technically a library book that Twilight had summoned when Flurry had gotten sick of Fluttershy's stories and had wanted Auntie Twilight to read her a story instead – and then tasted the raindrops. "Huh, lemonade."
"Tastes more orangey to me," Starlight commented.
As the citrus rain began to fall a bit harder, Twilight teleported the book back to the castle. Flurry flitted around laughing, her mouth open to catch the drops. "Lemonade! Orangeade! Lemonade! Orangeade!" she yelled.
Pinkie's voice came over a loudspeaker. "Everypony in Ponyville! We are now having a surprise thunderstorm that is totally surprising because no one would have expected weird weather on Topsy Turvy Day! There are tents and stuff and also hidden umbrellas all over the fairgrounds and if you are really scared of thunder go see Fluttershy in the petting zoo pavilion and she can tell you what to do! Or come ask me! But it's a secret so I can't say it on the loudspeaker!"
This was punctuated by a crack of thunder, and a subsequent mini-stampede toward the petting zoo. "I'm going to Trixie's performance," Starlight said. "I think this is her cue to start. Would you like to come?"
"Is it about how awesome and powerful she is?" Twilight said, trying to keep the sour note out of her voice and not quite succeeding.
"Oh, no, no. I mean, she still does the Great and Powerful Trixie thing, but now she tells stories about one of her ancestors, who supposedly lived during the Age of Monsters between the Discordian Era and the rise of Nightmare Moon. I'm pretty sure all of the stories are fictional, because I don't see how anyone would actually keep a family oral tradition for more than a thousand years, but at least it saves her the embarrassment of being challenged on any of her, uh, more fanciful statements." Starlight grinned. "Apparently Tricia Lunamoon was an elite combat mage who was the right-hand mare to Princess Luna, fought numerous starbeasts—"
"Starbeasts? Ursas, you mean?"
"Oh, no, in those days there were star crabs and star scorpions and star goats and star lions and all kinds of constellations, but they all went extinct because of the hard work of Princess Luna and her Night Guard, which of course Trixie's ancestor was the captain of. Until she got promoted to be an independent itinerant agent because she was too skilled to tie her down to a military structure." Starlight grinned as Twilight snorted. "It's actually a really good show, and considering what you've done in your life it's not even as implausible as it sounds. I mean, a combat mage who was personally trained by one of the Princesses and is sent out by that princess on missions to defeat monsters by herself?"
"Hey, I go with my friends, not by myself. Also, Princess Celestia didn't really train me in combat much."
"Right, but you're not living in a halfway lawless land chock full of monsters, either."
"It still sounds kind of silly."
"It's just like Daring Do, but with unicorns and a thousand years ago."
Twilight was not going to point out that one of the things she'd always loved about Daring Do was the incredible dedication to accuracy and the degree to which the actual science of archaeology played a part in the books... or that A. K. Yearling was, in fact, mostly writing actual autobiographical adventures, with only a little bit of punching up for greater drama. Trixie's grandiose self-insert fantasies were unlikely to have any historical accuracy whatsoever. On the other hand, it was raining fairly hard, and Flurry would probably enjoy it, and Cadance hadn't reappeared. "Sure, it sounds like Flurry would like it. Let me gather her up." She caught the zooming filly with her magic. "Flurry! Do you want to go see an exciting show about a unicorn mare using magic to fight monsters?"
"Let's go with Starlight, then!"
The playground was abandoned. There was no school today, and foals had access to much more exciting rides than seesaws, swings and slides not much taller than an adult stallion.
Cadance and her Aunt Sunny sat on the swings. Cadance was just using hers as a place to sit, but Sunny was actually swinging. "Swings? Don't you think this is a little foalish, Auntie?"
Sunny smiled. "If we can't be foalish and swing on the swings on Topsy Turvy Day, then I don't know what the world is coming to. Besides, this is relaxing."
"It's a little dull for my tastes."
"You haven't had enough adventures yet. Once you have, you'll recognize the enjoyment in simple, foalish pleasures. Though to be fair your other aunt isn't much for swingsets either, so maybe it's a pegasus thing."
"Surely you've gotten used to flight by now?"
Sunny laughed. "Careful, Cadance. Do I look like a pegasus?"
"Nopony's around to hear us..."
"You never know where you might find unexpected listeners." She stopped the swing and slid off. "So. You have some news from our friend the friendly love bug?"
Cadance nodded, getting off the swing herself. "He says he can still hear his mother, when she has orders for all of his siblings, even though he doesn't listen to her anymore."
"Interesting. How often does he hear her?"
"Not often. Most orders are fairly targeted; it's not often she calls the whole family, and now that he's a black sheep, she might even be trying to keep him from listening in. So this was notable to him."
"And he thought the information would be notable to us as well?"
Cadance drew a deep breath. "He says that the word is, she wants as much information as possible on Discord. Especially, what are his capabilities when he's in stone."
Sunny raised her eyebrows. "That's a very strange thing to ask. I'm not sure I like what it implies."
"I'm pretty sure I don't like it; that's why I wanted to tell you."
Sunny tilted her head slightly. "Are you familiar with Kevin?"
"It's... not a name I'm familiar with.
"Your little sister sends me letters sometimes, still. Kevin lives here in Ponyville. He's one of our friend's younger brothers, a close friend of a donkey named Matilda."
Cadance blinked. "Wait. So... there's been a ch—a relative of our friend in Ponyville? Did he move here because of what his brother discovered about friendship?"
"Apparently it was a completely independent discovery. He ended up injured at the bottom of the Canterhorn, near the train tracks, so he jumped the train and ended up in Ponyville. Matilda found him and took care of him."
"Kevin doesn't sound like a family name."
"It's a donkey name. My understanding is he didn't have one, previously."
"Ah." Cadance nodded. "Names are for royalty, for those folks."
Sunny's eyes widened. "Our friend is royal? He certainly doesn't look it."
"He challenged his mother once too many times, and she stripped him of his authority, but he's technically a Prince. Well, actually, from what he says, a Princess – he could, in theory, become a Queen someday, but he identifies as male and cha – his family just don't care so much about biology. They don't have a lot of personal identity, so they honor what they do have."
"Cadance? I'm sorry to say, I don't think you'd make a very good spy."
Cadance laughed. "Probably not."
"If our friend is royal... that explains some things. My understanding had always been that the children can't disobey the mother, and so our friend's rebellion surprised me, but perhaps the royals are different. What concerns me is that Kevin is certainly not royal, and he's the only member of the family in Ponyville. Twilight has spells in place to alert her if any others are in town."
"He's living in the place where Discord is imprisoned, most of the time," Cadance said, nodding as the implications sank in. "He'd be in the best position to gather information for his mother. But would he do that, if he has friends here?"
Sunny shrugged. "As I said, my understanding was that the children can't disobey, friends or no. They can choose which queen to follow, but they can't disobey the one they do... and our good friend's mother is the only queen around, so far as I know." She sighed. "Perhaps we should have a conversation with Kevin, and see if he has in fact collected any information on Discord."
"A friendly conversation, right? I wouldn't want to do anything to upset him if he has ponies for friends. Or donkeys, in this case."
"He may well have ponies for friends. Ponies tend to be very friendly to the friends of their friends, and Matilda is well-beloved in Ponyville. And of course, our conversation will be friendly. Kevin cannot help being loyal to his mother, even though she no doubt disapproves of his lifestyle."
"Maybe I could buy him a drink... in a manner of speaking." Cadance grinned wickedly. "Whether they're friendly or not, love bugs love the taste of love magic... and at a certain point, if they get enough of it, it starts to act on them like hard cider on ponies."
"I won't ask how you know that."
"I'll tell you anyway. I made several escape attempts, when I was their guest. That one might have worked, except that queens can hold their liquor really well."
"Does it harm them?"
"Most recently our mutual friend, Shining and I were having a few drinks one evening, and I offered my services as bartender. I confirmed that there's no harm done. They don't even get hangovers in the morning, the luckies."
"Mm. Well, Kevin might have less of a tolerance than a royal sibling, so do keep that in mind. But my plan for getting Kevin to converse with us will work better if he's relaxed and happy, so your talents might help quite a bit."
Some distance away, the orange clouds that had been gathering over the fairgrounds grew darker, solidifying into a thunderhead. There was a jagged gash of light and the boom of thunder.
"I wonder what flavor the rain is this time," Cadance said.
"Shall we go find out?"
In the underground ballroom, Fluttershy waved enthusiastically to Timothy, a rat friend of hers who was now pony-sized, bipedal, and wearing a tuxedo, as he carried a tray of drinks past in his paws. "Oh, Timothy! How are you enjoying the festival?"
Timothy conveyed that it was absolutely wonderful, how much stuff ponies left behind on their plates when they were done eating. Right now he was actually stuffed, but after serving a few more ponies he was hoping to have room to scarf down some abandoned desserts.
"I'm so glad. Everypony tells me you and your friends are doing a great job. Could I possibly have a ginger ale? When you're done, of course, don't go out of your way."
Timothy agreed that the next thing he'd do would be to bring Fluttershy a ginger ale, and scurried off with the drink tray, which somehow did not spill. Magic had to be involved, Fluttershy assumed.
"And how is my favorite pony?"
Fluttershy shrieked at the sudden voice and the feeling of breath on her ear, but not out of fear. She turned her jump of startlement into a pivot, and flung herself at the draconequus behind her. "Discord! You're back!"
"This is technically my front that you've attached yourself to," Discord pointed out.
Fluttershy giggled. "Oh, you!" His arms went around her, supporting her, and she curled up, enjoying the familiar-but-all-too-rare feel of his size and power sheltering her. She had always had a bit of a thing for big guys – a childhood crush on Big Mac, a bit of flirtation with Bulk Biceps, and a friendship with a bear that was rather more intense than with most of her other pets. Not that she'd had any inappropriate feelings for Harry Bearington, just that she'd really appreciated how safe he made her feel. Discord was technically taller than Harry, bigger than any of the ponies she'd ever crushed on, and more powerful than any other one entity in the world aside from the Tree of Harmony. When she was with him, the feelings of anxiety that plagued her almost all the time melted away; she was sometimes anxious for him, or for her friends when he was badly behaved, but she rarely worried for herself when she was with him.
There had been only one exception to that, since they'd become friends, and she'd forgiven him for that a long time ago, though she wasn't sure he'd ever entirely forgiven himself.
"Enjoying the festival?"
"I had a lot of fun running the petting zoo," Fluttershy admitted, "but the rainstorm... well, I knew it was going to happen, but it was still very startling and a little scary. Some of the animals got upset, and a lot of foals started crying when the thunder and lightning came – you know most unicorn and earth pony foals are never caught outside in that, because their parents have them safely indoors before the scheduled weather starts. We didn't really have a problem with pegasus foals, obviously."
"Not obviously, considering who I'm talking to..."
"Oh, well, yes, but I seem to recall a certain draconequus saying that I was a very weird pegasus and that he loved me for it?"
"Who is he? Another draconequus muscling in on my mare? I'll beat him up!" Discord put up his fists in the most unconvincing display of masculine aggression Fluttershy had ever seen.
"A fellow named Discord. He's very handsome."
"Oh, yes, I've heard of him. Very powerful and sexy." Discord drooped his head in fake despair. "I'd never stand a chance."
Fluttershy kissed the top of his head. "You are very silly."
"And you love me for it."
"Yes." She giggled as he moved in to nuzzle her, and his beard tickled her neck.
"My lady," he half-murmured, half-growled against her face, "may I have the pleasure of this dance?"
There were a few scattered ponies on the dance floor, but the fact that nopony had expected to end up in a ballroom underground just because they'd tried to take shelter from the rain meant that only the most gregarious and forward ponies had taken the plunge. Discord set Fluttershy in midair, removing his paws from her but holding her in place with his magic, and took her forehooves in his paws, then spun onto the dance floor, swinging her. Fluttershy flapped her wings against the centrifugal force, so she wasn't flung into a horizontal position, and Discord's control of the laws of physics worked with her to make it easier.
Normally Fluttershy hated to dance in public, unless it was part of a heartsong or a group dance or something like that, where she'd stand out more for not dancing than she would for joining in. But she'd stopped being embarrassed at dancing publicly with Discord some time ago, for the simple reason that no matter who Discord danced with, short of Princess Celestia or Luna, nopony would pay attention to them. Discord couldn't sing and while he knew how to play many musical instruments, the sounds he liked to produce with them could hardly be called music. But his dancing skills were sublime. The mismatched body that could seem awkward and strange when he stood still or when he walked was pure poetry when he moved.
In his arms, Fluttershy wasn't a pony, who could be embarrassed that everypony was seeing her and judging her dancing skills. She was a counterweight, a prop to showcase Discord's artistry with his own body, a thing for him to spin and twirl as he coiled and flexed and whirled in the air, and that was exactly how she wanted it. Ponies were staring, but not at her, and because it wasn't at her she could see the awe and amazement in their eyes, without perceiving judgement that wasn't really there. She liked it when ponies appreciated Discord's magic, but what she loved more than anything was when they appreciated him for his other gifts, when they saw, even for only a short while, the beauty in him that she saw all the time... especially because Discord himself loved having an appreciative audience, and much as he loved to use his magic, she was sure he liked it when ponies saw him as an amazing spectacle to watch enraptured, not just the effects he produced with his magic.
Apple Bloom paced nervously around the temporary wings booth. Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle had gone up into the air a long while ago, while she'd had to help her sister and brother sell cherries, but Applejack had released her to go hang out with her friends. The obvious thing to do was go get some temporary wings and fly up to join them. The only problem was, Apple Bloom was very, very anxious about the thought of flying.
When she'd been just a bit younger, when she and the others had gone crusading all the time, she'd been fearless. She'd have put on temporary wings in a moment if she'd thought they would help her get a cutie mark. But now that she had her mark and knew what she had to do with her life... now that the desperation was gone... there was fear. So many of the stunts she and the other two had pulled could have gotten them killed, and it haunted her sometimes to remember all the times she and her friends might have died.
She hated this. Applejack said it meant she was growing up and getting mature, but as far as she was concerned it meant she was turning into a huge scaredy baby. And yet, she couldn't nerve herself up to actually get into the line to rent wings. Well, she had, twice now, and both times she'd lost her nerve and stepped out of the line, letting the ponies behind her go ahead, because of the fear.
As she paced around, Pinkie Pie bounded up to her. "Apple Bloom! Are you gonna rent some wings? Are you are you are you? Because I saw Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle in the sky and they went thataway—" she pointed – "so if you hurry up and rent some wings you should totally be able to catch up!"
"I don't know, Pinkie," Apple Bloom said. "Wings are such a pegasus thing, you know? Like, I can see why a unicorn would wanna do it, but... I really don't feel comfortable anymore if my hooves aren't on the ground. Having wings just feels wrong. Ish."
"But you used to build all kinds of contraptions for you and your friends to try to get cutie marks with!"
"That's different. That's not wings. A machine that you make with your own hooves... you know, it's not like I don't trust Discord, but these are magic wings, and it just don't feel right to be wearing magic wings. You know?"
"I don't really! I'd totally have wings if I could! I came over here to rent some myself even though I don't really have to because I could ask Discord but that wouldn't be fair because other ponies do have to pay for them so I should too! But I think you're spending too much time with Applejack and you should talk to your big brother more! He likes wings!"
"Yeah, Big Mac's been playing an alicorn in Ogres and Oubliettes for his latest campaign, ever since Discord told him last Nightmare Night that alicorn princes are actually a thing."
"Woo! He leveled up?"
"Shining Armor came here for Hearth's Warming and he always used to GM for Spike and Twilight, I mean, Princess Twilight, so Spike talked him into starting a new campaign and now Mac takes the train to the Crystal Empire every two weeks to go play with him because Spike is in the dragon lands. Which is wild if you think about it. Princess Twilight's a princess but she doesn't rule a country or anything like that, but Shining Armor's actually the kind of prince who actually runs a country and there's my brother playing O&O with him. They've still got the campaign Spike runs and he's still Sir McBiggun there, but they haven't had a chance to play since Spike left."
"Maybe I should go with him sometime! The game sounds fun!"
"Naah, I wanted to go but he says it's a guys' night thing. They got a couple of guys in the Crystal Empire playing, too. I think Sunburst plays with them, and some guard who's a friend of Princess Twilight even though he's in the Crystal Empire."
"That's nice! Big Mac works too hard! He should have some fun things to do! But listen, if you want to go flying with your friends and you don't want to use wings... have you ever heard of a gyrocopter?"
"I read about it one time... it's like a thing that flies because it's got kind of like a fan on top, right?"
"Right, and you pedal it with your hooves! It's great for earth ponies! Well, it's great for me, and I'm an earth pony, and one time I got Maud to fly in it and she liked it, up until the point where she broke it from pedaling too hard, but Maud's really really really really strong so I don't think most earth ponies would break it. Maybe Big Mac, but not you! You could totally do it."
Apple Bloom grinned. "Do you have one? Cause it sounds like fun. I'd like to try it out."
"Yepperoonis! I totally do!"
As she bounced out from under the tent where the wings were being leased out, Pinkie opened her mouth wide to catch as much of the citrusy-sweet rain as she could. Apple Bloom was not the biggest fan of citrus, so all she did was to open her umbrella. She hadn't had an umbrella when she got here, but the fact that there were random umbrellas all over the place had led her to think one might be a good idea, so she'd taken one.
Trixie's show was actually decent, Twilight had to admit, grudgingly, as she trotted out of the stage tent and back into the citrus rain. Flurry Heart had certainly enjoyed it, and was whirling around in the air pretending to zap monsters. Her horn didn't actually work for anything more than basic telekinesis, since they'd cast Fledging's Forbearance on her, but she was very energetic about pretending.
There was going to be a second show, and in honor of it being Topsy-Turvy Day, Starlight had assured Twilight that it would be completely different, but she really did have to walk around the fair and make sure everything was going well. Besides, Flurry kept demanding funnel cake.
As they walked down a street filled with gaming booths, Twilight saw Zecora, standing in front of a booth Caramel was running. "I'll try one more time," Zecora said grimly. "One way or another, that prize will be mine."
"No problem!" Caramel said. "Try as many times as you like! As long as you've got bits, we've got chances for you to win!"
Twilight stopped to watch, although the small princess riding on her back objected. "Auntie! You said we would get funnel cake!"
"We will. I just want to watch my friend win her prize."
Although it did not seem to be happening. The game Zecora was playing involved stepping on pedals when a light shone. There were two lights, and two pedals for two forehooves, and the lights would come on as the left, the right, or both at the same time, and you had to stomp on the correct pedals, and at the exact right time. Zecora didn't seem to have any trouble hitting the right pedals, but she was consistently just a second too slow.
This made Twilight a trifle suspicious. The games needed to be fair, and this looked like it could possibly be rigged. She trotted off to the funnel cake line, but this time, allowed the Ponyville citizens who wanted to show respect to their princess to shove her to the front of the line, because Flurry was restless and Twilight really wanted to inspect that game before Zecora lost any more money.
She returned to the game, sat Flurry down at a nearby table with her funnel cake, and watched. There were no magical issues with the game – it didn't even use magic. The lights were running on electricity. Finally she trotted up to the booth. "Zecora! How are you doing?"
"Princess Twilight! I'm doing quite well, but I fear that this game might be under a spell." She glared at it.
"Which prize are you trying to win?"
Zecora pointed at a large stuffed hippopotamus wearing Zebrican-style jewelry. "That one, will be mine when I'm done. Though far from my birthplace I've chosen to roam, I do indeed love things that remind me of home." She smiled wryly. "Of course, her jewelry is all wrong, but once she is mine that won't be true for long."
"The game's fair," Caramel protested. "There's no magic rigging it, and several ponies have won prizes already."
"Perhaps I am simply too old," Zecora mourned. "Though that's hardly a thing I would like to be told."
"Not every pony's good at games like this. Or zebra, I guess. But if you keep practicing—"
"How many bits have you spent so far?"
"Too many. Thirty at least. I didn't count every penny."
Pennies were a unit of currency from Albion, not used in Equestria, but Twilight didn't point that out; she knew Zecora was stretching for the rhyme. "Caramel, thirty bits is way more than that stuffed hippo is worth. Can't you just give it to her?"
"That wouldn't be fair. Other ponies play for the prize."
"Whatcha doin', Twilight and Zecora?" Pinkie caroled behind them.
Pinkie was in the air, hovering with a pair of translucent, magical pegasus wings that were polka-dotted, plainly rented from the booth. Twilight was really not surprised.
"Attempting to win a stuffed hippo plush. It's proven quite hard, but I'm not in a rush."
"Zecora, you could have bought three hippos this size for this kind of money," Twilight said.
"But I so rarely see goods sold by a pony that attempt the style of my home... even if it's phony. I've seen hippos that are sold as toys, but none dressed as Taifarasi – this one gives me joy. As soon as this booth appeared to my eyes, I saw it and said, I will have that prize."
"You want me to win it for you?" Pinkie asked.
"No, it's a matter of honor. This is difficult, but I will endure."
She played another round of the game, and lost again. Pinkie said, "Your reaction time is off! You're just a tiny fraction too slow!"
Zecora slumped her head. "I know. I grow old. How can I stop being slow?"
"Let me tell you when to step!"
"I do not see how that will help... but I'll try anything that will let me do well." She was obviously stressed enough that her rhymes were getting strained.
To Twilight's non-surprise after all these years, Pinkie yelled out "left", "right", or "both" a split second before the light came on, and she was always right. In a few minutes, Zecora had a giant hippo plushie strapped to her back, along with a large umbrella covering it, and a huge smile on her face. "Thank you Pinkie! I'd planned to persist, so I might have lost much if you couldn't assist."
Twilight said to Caramel, "Recalibrate that game to make it a little bit easier. Today's supposed to be fun." She turned to Pinkie. "Hi! Does this mean Discord's back in Ponyville?"
"Uh-huh! I think he's in the underground ballroom dancing with Fluttershy!"
"There's a foal looking for him, named Small Fry. I don't remember that one's letter, but he said he sent one and he wants to talk to Discord."
"I remember that letter! But I didn't read it because it's rude to read somepony's mail! Do you want me to go get it?"
"Uh, sure, I guess? Maybe we could give Discord a head's up as to what the colt wants."
"I want a giraffe!" Flurry announced, having finished her funnel cake. "Auntie Twi, I want a giraffe!"
"Oh, you don't want Twilight to win you a giraffe, you want me! Auntie Pinkie, party pony par excellence and also awesome at games like this!" Pinkie rubbed her hooves together and then dropped a bit on Caramel's booth counter. "Let's get dangerous."
Twilight turned. One of Ponyville's newer residents, a young stallion named Baker Street who worked with Pinkie, mostly doing deliveries for the Cakes, was standing there. "Yes?"
"Um, I'm running one of the gaming booths and... uh..."
"You're having a problem? What's up?"
Behind her, Flurry crowed ecstatically as she was awarded a giraffe. "Now the leopard! Auntie Pinkie, I want the leopard!"
"Well, only because you're a princess," Pinkie said.
"There's a pony who's won every single round of the game I'm running, and she won't stop playing. I'm running low on prizes."
"Well, tell her there's a limit and it's not her turn anymore."
"I... really don't wanna do that. I think it should come from you."
"Pinkie, I'm going with Baker here to check out what's going on with his game, can you watch Flurry for a few minutes?"
"What kind of game?" Twilight asked as they trotted toward the booth.
"You throw a ball into a hoop."
Twilight's eyes widened. Most ponies were not good at throwing anything. It was a talent far more common in the species that had thumbs, especially centaurs and minotaurs (and Discord, who was great at it even without using his powers.) Griffins were pretty good at it too, and Spike wasn't bad, but aside from the rare few natural athletes who excelled at cloudball (or the landbound version, baseball), or hoops, ponies just didn't have a lot of talent for throwing things with their hooves. Most throwing games were played by unicorns, but all of the booths had a no magic rule to make it fair. "Is it calibrated for easy wins?"
"It was calibrated normally until she won three times, then I put it into a harder mode. Now it's in hardest mode, with the hoop as small and far away as the booth lets me, and she still keeps winning."
As they approached the booth, Twilight saw a small crowd watching a purple earth pony who was standing in front of a mountain of toys, hanging baskets of flowers, jewelry, and odd knick-knacks. She was small enough to almost look like a filly from a distance. As Twilight got closer she could see the pony was a mare, just a short one. Then she saw the mare rear up, take up a ball in her hoof, and bend her foreleg in a way that Twilight had never even seen Pinkie manage, as she hurled the ball expertly overhoof into the hoop.
She looked at the booth manager as they approached. "The pattern is a continuous function... of the buttered bagel in... the house."
Twilight hadn't recognized her at first. Her eyes were focused and intent, far more lucid than she'd ever seen them before, but as soon as she spoke, Twilight looked to the side to check her cutie mark, and nodded slightly. This was Screwball. Twilight had met her once before, during Discord's trial; she was an insane pony who believed Discord was her father – at least, it sounded like maybe that was what she believed, because it was almost impossible to understand her. Screwball suffered from severe Wernicker's aphasia, where the things she said made grammatical sense but the words were nonsensical. She had strange abilities that made Pinkie look positively normal, but she wasn't using magic here. Well, no magic Twilight could detect.
"Screwball!" Twilight said. "I should have guessed you were the big winner. I don't know anypony else who can throw a ball like you." The mare's cutie mark didn't actually signify her insanity, but her incredible skill at baseball. Or cloudball. Which she could play, despite being an earth pony. One of her bizarre talents was the ability to levitate using the propeller beanie on her head. "But don't you think you should let some of the less talented ponies play? Everypony knows you're the best; you don't have to prove yourself."
Screwball hugged her latest prize, a stuffed bat. "Finders boxers," she said.
"I think she means 'Finders keepers'," Pinkie said, having flown up behind Twilight with Flurry.
"Pinkie, do you think you could go get Discord and maybe he could translate?" Twilight said, not quite under her breath.
"Um, I think maybe this pony could help!"
Twilight looked where Pinkie was pointing. There was Cadance, trotting up with the pony she'd walked off to speak to, earlier. "Cadance, you mean?"
The white unicorn with the pink mane came over. "Hello, Screwball."
"Mommy!" Flurry said excitedly, flying at her mother, and then, "Auntie Tia!"
"No, Flurry, that's not Auntie Celestia," Twilight said patiently.
"Huh?" Flurry screwed up her face. "But she's a princess!"
"No, to be a princess, usually you have to have wings and a horn."
Flurry pointed a hoof at Screwball. "But she's a princess."
"I don't think Screwball—"
"That was a different story," Screwball said. "Snake wanted a breakfast, so I did. Was a movie, a long time away. I forgot the arrangements."
"Yes, you did," the white unicorn said. "Screwball, I see you've won a lot of prizes."
"My cutie mark is inevitable."
"It certainly is. What do you think would happen if you tossed all the prizes into the air all over the fair and let anypony catch them who can?"
Screwball smiled, her eyes unfocusing slightly and starting to swirl. "Chaos!"
"And you'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"Daddy? Where is the harbor?"
"He's supervising this event, I'm sure. Perhaps if you gave away all the prizes in a chaotic way he might even notice and come to see you."
Screwball grinned an unsettlingly huge grin. "Chaos is it."
"Go to it, then. Enjoy yourself!"
Impossibly – or, perhaps, only semi-impossibly, because Twilight couldn't rule out Pinkie being able to do the same thing – Screwball picked up the entire disorganized mound of prizes in her forehooves, and trotted off on two legs. "Yay! Pancakes for everyone!" she shouted, lifting her prize mound so rapidly that some of the prizes on top were flung into the air, then dropping it and repeating the motion a short distance away.
"What. Just. Happened." Twilight stared at Cadance and the white unicorn.
"Um. I'm... gonna defer to Aunt Sunny on that one," Cadance said. "Because I have no idea."
Ponyville's resident changeling, Kevin, had been patiently waiting in line behind Screwball. He put down a bit and stepped up to the booth. Baker handed him a ball. "Go for it, little buddy," Baker said.
"But she was a princess," Flurry said. "Everypony is a princess! Except Auntie Pinkie!"
"What a remarkable talent you have, Flurry!" Aunt Sunny said, scooping Flurry off her mother's back with her magic. "You're absolutely right, but it's a secret." She put her hoof to her lips. "We don't want anypony to know."
"Uh-huh! I keep secrets!"
Twilight smiled indulgently. She still didn't know who Aunt Sunny was, but clearly the pony was good with foals, pretending to be a secret princess in order to make Flurry feel better.
"Wow! You're good!" Cadance said appreciatively to Kevin. Twilight was pleased – the first time Cadance had run into Kevin, on one of her visits to Ponyville, she had started shaking, and then had powered up her horn, and Twilight had to drag her off and explain that Kevin was harmless. He had lost contact with his hivemates after Cadance and Shining Armor had blasted them all off Canterlot Mountain, and Matilda had found him wandering around and taken care of him. He fed well just living with Matilda and her husband, apparently able to get all the love he needed just from what spilled over from their relationship, so he wasn't dangerous. It had taken time, and the influence of Thorax, the changeling defector that Spike had befriended in the Crystal Empire, to convince Cadance that she didn't have to panic every time she saw a changeling, but now she seemed quite comfortable.
Kevin was doing the same thing to his foreleg that Screwball had been doing to hers, except for him it made sense because he was a shapeshifter. Apparently, a foreleg in that configuration was how an equine could throw a ball so amazingly well. Kevin won three games in a row and then donated his prizes to Flurry, who hugged him appreciatively. A tiny, clinical part of Twilight's mind wondered if Kevin had done that because foals gave their love so freely, and could decide they loved a pony solely because that pony gave them presents. The rest of her thought that as the Princess of Friendship, that was probably unworthy of her and she shouldn't be impugning Kevin's motives like that.
"That was amazing," Cadance said to Kevin, being surprisingly friendly. Twilight understood how having Thorax living in her palace could have helped her relax around changelings, but this seemed such a reversal from where she'd once been, it was almost a shock. "How did you learn to throw so well?"
Kevin shrugged. "Pony did it," he said. "We copy pony."
That was the other reason Kevin seemed fairly harmless – it was pretty apparent he'd suffered brain damage. He was more understandable than Screwball, but his speech and vocabulary were very basic.
"Well, that particular pony has a cutie mark in throwing balls, but you don't, so I'm very impressed. Can I get you a drink?"
"We don't drink..."
Cadance smiled, and lit her horn in a quick pulse. Kevin's eyes lit up, literally. "I mean this sort of drink. My aunt and I are really curious about changelings. We hardly ever get to talk to one!"
"Well, there's Tho—" Twilight started to say, before finding that a spell had been cast on her and no sound was coming out of her mouth. She turned. Cadance's Aunt Sunny was smiling at her, with an expression Twilight had seen a thousand times, and the fact that that unicorn had just been able to cast a silence spell on her, one she couldn't instantly break, plus the familiar expression, made it finally click in her head.
"Oh my gosh, you're—"
The silence came back, and Twilight's mouth moved noiselessly. "Sunny" smiled more widely. "Twilight, I'm sure somepony must have advised you about loose lips."
"They sink ships," Flurry said importantly.
"Yes, they certainly do."
Pinkie glanced back and forth between Twilight and "Aunt Sunny." "Wait, Twilight, you really didn't know? That this pony is mmmph mmmph?" There was suddenly a zipper on Pinkie's mouth.
Kevin was accepting Cadance's invitation, looking a little dazed, but very eager. "Aunt Sunny!" Cadance called. "Let's take Kevin out to celebrate his skill at winning this game!"
"Why?" Twilight whispered. "What's going on?"
"I'll tell you both as soon as I know," "Aunt Sunny" said. "Cadance and I have a little research to do. Flurry, can you stay with Auntie Twilight for a little bit longer?"
"Uh-huh! I want cotton candy!"
"Pinkie, are the clouds made of cotton candy?"
"Sour cotton candy in citrus flavors. He wanted to do coffee flavor marshmallows but I talked him into doing the cotton candy again but then he wanted to make them grass flavor and I said ick, go with the citrus theme and make them orangey and lemony and limey! But some of them are grapefruity so watch out because grapefruits are disgusting."
"I like them," Twilight said. "Flurry, do you think you could fly up and eat some of that cloud?"
"Uh-huh!" Flurry set off out of the tent and up into the rain, overlarge wings beating rapidly. "Whee!"
Twilight followed, just to be sure. The toddler alicorn with the huge wings was possibly a better flyer than Twilight herself, having been born with wings and never having lost her infant flight surge, but she was still a baby, and needed supervision. If for no other reason than to keep herself from gorging on sour cotton candy until she threw up.
The changeling smiled a big, dopey, drunken grin, leaning up against Cadance. "'Ss nice..." he slurred. "You're nice."
"Why, thank you," Cadance said. "That's very sweet of you."
Sunny sipped at a peach nectar that was never, ever going to get her drunk, despite its high alcohol content. "I was wondering something, Kevin," she said. "And I wonder if you wonder too. Here we are, on Topsy Turvy Day, in the town where Discord lives. Did you ever wonder about him?" She hiccuped artfully. "Because, here's this, fellow, not a pony but a fellow, who's sooo powerful. But he spends most of his time as a stone statue. What do you think of that?"
Kevin plainly struggled to articulate his thoughts on that. "Must be... lonely..." he mumbled. "No hive... no friends... just stone."
"Oh, but he's got friends. The Princess is his friend. And he has other friends. So do you really think he's lonely?"
"Princess Twilight says."
Sunny's eyes widened. "Really! You asked Princess Twilight about Discord?"
He nodded. "Twilight Time. Were... a foal."
Cadance said, with a slightly dangerous note to her voice, "I hope nothing bad happened to that foal."
"Nuh-uh. Out sick. We checked. Why... we picked him. 'Cause out sick. So Princess Twilight wouldn't know it was us."
"That was a good idea!" Sunny said, and giggled. She took another swig of the peach nectar that wasn't actually getting her drunk. "So what did she say?"
"Says he's... stuck. He can hear... and, and feel some magic things, sometimes. But he can't see, and he can't do magic. Unless his friends. They have to let him out. Or he stays stuck in stone." Kevin burped, a feeling of fleeting affection passing from his lips in a green mist. "We said, what if Fluttershy lets him out? She's his love. We can tell."
"Did you tell Twilight you can tell?"
"Didn't have to. Everypony knows. Twilight said, Fluttershy wouldn't, and also, can't. Takes all six. So he's stuck. If anything happens to his friends." Kevin started to shake a little. His wings buzzed. "Like, like not having a hive. Or friends. No queen. No hivemates. No friends. It's awful."
"Don't cry," Cadance said, gathering the changeling in for a hug. His frantically buzzing wings slowed, subsided and relaxed finally. "It's all right. You have friends now, right? And Discord has friends even when he's in stone. They won't leave him stuck. And neither will your friends."
"Matilda and Cranky. Love us. Friend-love," Kevin said. "Never hungry anymore. So much friend-love." He sighed. "We're dumb now. We don't, we can't, no hive anymore. Too dumb. Queen hardly ever sings."
"I'm so sorry, Kevin. But you have friends now, right? And that feels good?"
"Uh-huh," Kevin said. "We're dumb but we remember. You threw us. We squished our head. But it's okay. We have friends now. Feels better than hive. Never hungry. And feel happy. Never happy before in hive." He sighed. "Friends make us happy."
"Oh, I'm so sorry."
"We forgive you. 'S okay."
"What made you think of asking about Discord?" Sunny asked.
"Queen was singing. We heard it. Made us wonder."
"Did you tell the Queen what you found out?"
Kevin seemed to struggle to speak. Finally he managed, "Dunno."
"What was the Queen singing about? Do you remember?"
"Questions. About Discord. Can he get out."
"Do you know why the Queen wanted to know that?"
Kevin shrugged. "Dunno."
The sky was clearing, the impromptu rainstorm over. Over the loudspeaker, Pinkie's voice sounded. "Hear ye, hear ye! Stallions and gentlemares! Colts and fillies! The election for Mayor for a Day is taking place now, at Town Hall! Gather to cast your ballots for the Mayor of Topsy Turvy Ponyville!"
"I know another changeling who discovered how wonderful friendship is," Cadance said. "Have you ever considered coming to the Crystal Empire?"
Kevin shook his head. "My friends are here," he slurred, his head nodding.
Sunny raised an eyebrow. "You can say 'my'?"
The changeling only snored in response. Cadance extricated herself from him, levitating him. "We should take him home to let him sleep it off. Do you know where Cranky and Matilda live?"
"Well enough. They are the only donkeys in Ponyville."
"What do you think it means?" Cadance carried the snoring Kevin in her magic as she trotted, following Sunny.
"I think I need to talk to a pony about guarding a statue. And I think you need to go find your daughter before she drives Twilight insane."
"Sure, after I drop Kevin off. But can you tell me what you're thinking?"
Sunny sighed. "I'm not even sure what I'm thinking yet. Just that I haven't liked most of what I've heard."
"Poor Kevin. The worker changelings can't control themselves, you know."
"Yes. It's not his fault. But we have to assume she knows everything he does, now." She looked down at the ground. "The question is, what is she planning to do with it?"
The air was fresh and clean now, and no longer smelled like citrus rain. Fluttershy breathed deeply as she flew after Discord, who was floating through the carnival, drinking in the sight of ponies enjoying his creations and designs. Before long, they came upon Twilight, who was trotting past the booths with an alicorn filly on her back. "Twilight! How are you enjoying the festival so far?" Discord said cheerily from behind her.
"Discord!" Twilight smiled. "Everything's going really well! Did you ever meet my niece, Flurry Heart?"
Discord bent toward the filly, who shrank back against Twilight's back. "Bonjour, ma petite! I've heard about your debut in the Crystal Empire. Quite a chaotic entrance to the world, I must say!"
Flurry suddenly teleported under Twilight. She must be very afraid, then, Fluttershy thought. She'd been told that since Fledgeling's Forbearance had been cast on Flurry, she wasn't supposed to be able to teleport unless she was very afraid – they hadn't wanted to take self-defense away from a foal whose parents and aunts had so many potential enemies. "She's shy, Discord," Twilight said.
"No, this is Shy." Discord held out Fluttershy. "Wait, but you're Fluttershy. Does that make you—" he craned his head backward and upside down to peer under Twilight at Flurry – "Flurry Shy?"
Fluttershy landed. "Come on out, Flurry," she said softly. "I promise Discord is a big softie. Just like Harry. Remember when you played with Harry?" Flurry nodded. "Discord, come here please."
Discord came down to her, and Fluttershy had him lay on the ground, where she stroked his feathery mane with her hoof. It was about as non-threatening as Discord was capable of appearing. "See, Flurry? He's friendly. Would you like to pet him?"
"I'm not an exotic animal, Fluttershy," Discord said crossly, but wasn't apparently cross enough to get up or otherwise stop her from petting him.
"Yes, you are. You're beautiful and exotic."
Twilight rolled her eyes slightly, but didn't comment. "It's okay, Flurry. Discord is a friend."
"Besides, I have these!" Discord held out a bouquet of flowers, from his position on the ground. He flopped onto his back, still holding out the flowers. "Now who is going to take these flowers? I was expecting a beautiful alicorn princess to give them to, but all I see here is Twilight."
Flurry trotted forward slightly. "I'm a princess."
"So you are! And quite the adorable one, too! I gave your Aunt Tia flowers like these once. Would you like to smell them?"
Uncertaintly, Flurry came forward far enough to give them a sniff. "They smell like candy."
"That's because they are candy!" Discord stuck the flowers in his own mouth and chomped them. "Delicious!" Flurry's eyes twitched, as if she was thinking about crying, until a new batch of flowers sprouted from her ear. She turned around in a circle, obviously trying to figure out what was strange about her ear, since she couldn't properly see it. "Oh, my dear, you have something in your ear!" Discord reached out and removed the bouquet of flowers, and handed it to Flurry. "Ear you go!"
Flurry started to giggle, and then ate the flowers. Discord sat up. "Scrumptious, aren't they? But there certainly aren't any more." This was completely untrue, because where his tail fluff had been he was now growing another bouquet of flowers. "And definitely not anywhere near the tip of my tail."
Flurry giggled again, and then flew and pounced on Discord's tail. "Oh, no fair! You looked at my tail! Curses, how can I fool you? You're too smart!" The filly laughed again. "Well, I am definitely not growing any flowers from my antler." Of course, he was.
Fluttershy's heart hurt, watching him. It was a good pain, but it still hurt. As intimidating and powerful and strange as he was... he was surprisingly good with foals. And she'd started to think... oh, but it wasn't safe, even if it was biologically possible, and how could she possibly deal with it if she had a foal with chaos magic, and how could she bring a child into the world if its father was going to miss the years of its infancy, and what made her think he would even want to? But she wasn't getting younger, and the best years of her life to have a foal were slipping away – oh, she'd be fertile for decades still, but ponies as old as she'd be when Discord was finally out for good had rougher pregnancies than younger mothers, statistically. But would he even want one?
They'd never lived together as lovers, making a household together, long-term. They'd become special someponies to each other the first Hearth's Warming of his imprisonment, when she'd finally gathered the courage to tell him how she felt after the strategically placed mistletoe didn't work (later she'd learned that custom came about centuries after the first time he'd been turned to stone, and he'd simply never learned about it.) With parole periods of only three days at a time, every three months, they lived like honeymooners every time he got out, with normal life suspended. But someday he'd be out all the time, and could his need for chaos ever be compatible with the quiet domestic life she wanted? Could they live together? Could they last, as lovers, or would he get bored with her when he had more to compare her to than stone?
And even if they could... would he even want a foal? He was good with them, but he didn't have to be responsible for them – he could entertain them and make them laugh and then send them back to their parents, or their aunt in this case. She'd never talked to him about it, afraid of what it would mean for their relationship if he said yes, afraid for what it meant for her dreams if he said no.
She wanted one. She wanted his. He would be so happy to be a father, she thought. To have family, by blood, to not be the last draconequus in the world anymore – but could a pony bear a half-draconequus child? And could he ever believe in himself enough to believe that he could be a good father? It had been so hard to convince him there could be more to his life than chaos.
As Flurry giggled louder and louder the more ridiculous the flowers got – the last set was growing out of Discord's big toeclaw on his dragon foot – and even Twilight was reluctantly grinning while trying to hide that she was doing any such thing, Fluttershy felt like crying, because she was so happy now, but she didn't know how she could keep it, or what the future would hold. But none of them would understand that – Discord would, if she explained in private, but they had no privacy right now and they wouldn't for quite some time – so she swallowed it down, let her happiness shine through as a smile on her face, and didn't let the paradoxic tears come forward.