As usual, Scootaloo was the first one to make it to the clubhouse that morning. Which was kind of annoying, because Apple Bloom was bringing breakfast, but Apple Bloom always had a few chores to do in the morning. And Sweetie Belle slept as late as she could get away with.
She pulled out the homework she hadn't done last night because nothing was less cool than homework, figuring she'd get the living dictionary to help her with it, as usual. Sweetie Belle was a unicorn with money. That meant fancy tutors and lots and lots of books that she personally owned and had read, so she generally did better in school than Apple Bloom or Scootaloo did. Every so often her sister made noises about sending her away to some fancy-schmancy unicorn academy, but so far Sweetie Belle had always shut down any such discussion by tearing up and starting to cry at the thought of being sent away from her friends, and Rarity was apparently secretly a marshmallow. (Or not so secretly, given how much she looked like a marshmallow.) Scootaloo thought that crying was approximately the least cool thing to do in the universe – even less cool than homework – but she had to admit, Sweetie got results.
"Homework?" a voice behind her said dismissively. "How very tedious. Surely you can think of something better to do with your time than that!"
Scootaloo jumped, almost achieving flight in the tiny space of the clubhouse before crashing back to the floor and faceplanting. She turned around. "Don't do that!"
"Do what?" Discord asked, an expression of mock, exaggerated innocence on his face. "Don't laugh hysterically at you? Oh, see how good I'm being? I'm actually pulling that one off! Amazing, isn't it!"
"Don't sneak up on me like that!" Scootaloo said indignantly.
"Oh? How would you prefer I sneak up on you then?"
Before Scootaloo could formulate a proper answer to that ridiculous question, Apple Bloom arrived with a pack strapped to her back, the sweet smell of warm food wafting along with her. "Hi, Scootaloo, hope you didn't have to wait too long! Hay, Discord, what're you doing here?"
"What, I'm not allowed to drop in on my dear little friends?"
Apple Bloom's eyes narrowed. "You sure you ain't up to any trouble?"
"Who, me?" A halo appeared above his head. "I'm as pure and innocent as the driven snow."
"You know, once you drive a cart through it, snow gets real dirty," Apple Bloom said.
"Forget him. I'm hungry," Scootaloo said. "What's for breakfast?"
Apple Bloom knelt down, unbuckled her pack, and slid it carefully off her body. She then unlatched the sides of it and lifted the lid. "Waffles!"
"Oh, how uninspired," Discord sniffed. "Apple waffles with apple syrup."
"Not maple syrup?" Scootaloo asked, somewhat disappointed. She liked apples well enough, but apple waffles with apple syrup did sound kinda... overly apple-y.
"Granny was tryin' something new," Apple Bloom said. "We used extra tart apples in the syrup and sweet ones in the waffles. See if you can taste it."
Scootaloo piled some waffles onto one of the plates Apple Bloom had brought. "Don't I get to taste test any?" Discord asked.
"Sure, but you're gonna have to make your own plate," Apple Bloom said. "I didn't know you were gonna be here, so I didn't bring an extra plate for you. What're you doing here anyway?"
"Annoying us," Scootaloo said.
Apple Bloom shrugged. "He ain't too annoying so far."
"You do have an extra plate."
"That's Sweetie Belle's plate, Discord, and unlike you, she doesn't have enough magic that she can just magic up her own plate."
He made a terribly put-upon sigh. "If you insist." A swirling vortex of nothingness interspersed with glittering spots appeared in his paw. "Load me up."
"That's a mite rude. How're you supposed to ask?"
Discord rolled his eyes so hard they rotated backward into his eye sockets, causing a side of his eyeballs to appear that had little pictures of Discord rolling his eyes. "Pretty please with sugar and coconut on top and also exploding tree sap, could I have some waffles, Miss Apple Bloom, ma'am, if I could be so bold as to ask?"
"You surely can." Apple Bloom loaded three waffles onto his plate.
"I thought you said you don't need to eat that one time," Scootaloo said.
"I don't. I just like it when my friends feed me." He smirked.
Sweetie Belle arrived, somewhat out of breath. "Hi everypony! And Discord! Ooh, do I smell waffles?"
"You sure do." Apple Bloom plopped several on a plate for Sweetie Belle. "Sweetie, don't Rarity feed you none? You're always eatin' the breakfast I bring like you're starvin'. I mean if you just love my Granny's food that much, then that's all right by me, but—"
"Rarity always says ladies don't eat quickly, and if I wanted to get more breakfast than I have time to eat without eating quick, then I need to get up earlier," Sweetie said, in between stuffing her face.
"As charming as all this domesticity is, now that Sweetie Belle is here, I can finally talk to you girls about the entire reason I'm here today," Discord said. "How would you like to go on an adventure?"
"It's a school day," Scootaloo said.
"As if that ought to matter to you! Do you think Rainbow Dash would care that it's a school day if she had a chance to go on an adventure instead?"
"Rainbow Dash doesn't have to deal with my folks."
Discord tilted his head and gazed at Scootaloo cockeyed. "I thought you were an orphan living in a cardboard box in an alley somewhere. Or in an orphanage."
"Why would you think that?" Apple Bloom asked, dumbfounded.
"Because he doesn't think that, he's just trying to be annoying," Scootaloo said. "For your information, Mr. Draconequus, I live with my aunt, and there isn't even any such thing as an orphanage in Ponyville. Maybe in a big city or something, but in Ponyville, if your parents died or something, there's always going to be somepony who will take you in."
"And yet she lets you run completely wild?"
"It's a pegasus thing. If our folks are all crazy overprotective like Rarity and Applejack are – no offense, guys—"
"None taken," Apple Bloom said.
Sweetie Belle frowned. "Rarity's not that bad."
"—anyway, how are we supposed to learn to be awesome if our folks are too overprotective? So there's that."
Discord lifted an eyebrow. "Hmm. Perhaps I should consider being a pegasus, then."
"As if you'd ever wanna go without your magic."
"But if your aunt isn't 'crazy overprotective', then why would she stop you from going on an adventure?"
"Look, there are some things you just don't argue with my aunt about, and school is one of them. Why do you think I don't ditch to practice flying every day? Well, that and I get to hang with my friends."
"If you go on an adventure with me you get to hang with your friends."
"Discord, she's right," Apple Bloom said. "It's a school day. You have any idea how much trouble I got in the last time I ran off on a school day to go on an 'adventure'?"
"Yeah," Sweetie Belle said. "Besides, there's always after school!"
"Don't encourage him," Scootaloo said.
"Oh, Scootaloo. As if you weren't the first one champing at the bit to go visit the dragon lands."
"Yeah, and we almost got toasted."
"But you didn't! Because I was there to protect you!"
"Mr. Discord," Sweetie Belle said, "I think Scootaloo does like going on adventures, but you're... a little pushy. You offer to take us somewhere, but you don't let us pick where and you don't give us any control over what happens. We don't just want adventures, we want our cutie marks, and that's not going to happen if we just let somepony take us someplace. We have to be involved in doing the things and deciding what we do if we're going to get our cutie marks from it!"
Discord flopped on the floor, on his back, with one arm over his eyes. "Fine," he said sulkily. "I still don't understand why you three are so obsessed with your cutie marks, though."
"How can you plan for your future if you don't know what kind of pony you are yet and what it's your destiny to be?" Apple Bloom asked.
"Plus, Diamond Tiara won't shut up about it," Scootaloo grumbled.
"Diamond Tiara. Please." Discord sat up. "Do you realize, that much vaunted cutie mark she's obtained is as much a constraint as it is a benefit?"
"How do you mean?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"The sum total of her destiny is that she wears a tiara really well." Discord snickered. "Imagine having that for your future! 'My destiny is to look really good when I wear jewelry.' Yes, but what about your interests? Your skills? Your talents outside of being an attractive decoration? 'No, no, what's really important is that I look really good in a tiara!'"
Okay, that was funny. Scootaloo chuckled, and Apple Bloom giggled. Sweetie Belle frowned. "I dunno if it's that simple..."
"Or her friend, Silver Spoon. Whose cutie mark is, by great coincidence... a silver spoon."
"Her name was Silver Shine before she got her cutie mark," Apple Bloom pointed out. "And Diamond Tiara was Diamond Rich. She changed from her family name to her mark name when she got her mark."
"Whatever." Discord waved a dismissive paw. "The point is, Silver Spoon's entire talent is being born wealthy. That's all that means. A silver spoon means you were born to wealth. Which everypony already knew about her, so how is that even a talent? Or a destiny? Or anything that couldn't have been guessed from the brand name of the glasses she's wearing? How much do they cost again?"
"Like we'd know how much super expensive glasses cost," Scootaloo said.
"I do!" Sweetie Belle volunteered. "They're from Diamond Clarity's line – no relation to Diamond Tiara, of course! She makes the lenses out of diamonds so they can't crack. They're incredibly expensive. You could rent a boutique in Canterlot for three months for what those glasses cost." Scootaloo, Apple Bloom and Discord all looked at her. "What? Rarity teaches me these things! She sells lens diamonds to Clarity – not many, because the diamonds you can use for lenses are really rare, they have to be just the right shape to start with or Clarity's spell won't work to grind them right, and they have to be completely clear inside."
"Right. So my point is... what does her cutie mark even say about her that everypony didn't already know? At least Diamond Tiara now knows that wearing a diamond tiara is her special talent, but what did Silver Spoon learn about herself? 'I was born wealthy.' Yes, my dear, we know."
"I don't think it's that simple," Apple Bloom said. "When I talked to her about it at her cuteceñera, a few years back, she said it symbolized handling wealth with grace. Like, not being a brat just 'cause you're rich or shoving it in everypony's faces. Diamond does that a lot, but Silver Spoon just goes along with her... she doesn't brag about her own wealth."
"How does being friends with the only other rich pony in class sound like handling it with grace or whatever?" Scootaloo said, not entirely willing to let one of their enemies be granted a benefit of the doubt even if it meant letting Discord score a point in this... what even was this? It wasn't an argument, was it? Because if Discord was going to argue that Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon had stupid cutie marks and were jerks, he'd have 100% of Scootaloo's support, at least for his argument.
It wasn't that Scootaloo didn't like Discord. The adventures he'd taken them on to "reward" them for being so chaotic were honestly fun. And the personal apology he'd given them for the way he'd behaved toward them during his transformation of Ponyville into the Chaos Capital of Equestria, when he'd offered to do them a favor to repay them for letting him out of stone by fighting in front of him, and that "favor" had turned out to be putting a possessed beanie on Diamond Tiara's head and turning her into a completely different pony for a few hours, suggested that he really was trying to reform. More or less. Even if Fluttershy had been standing behind him, prompting him the whole time, he'd sounded kind of sincere about the apology. Anyway, she didn't hate him or anything. She just didn't trust him. She'd gotten in trouble with her aunt for missing school by going on one of Discord's adventures, and her aunt's response to things like getting covered in tree sap, nearly turned to stone by a cockatrice, or almost burning down Ponyville, had generally been on the level of "That's nice, Scooty honey, I'm glad to see you're getting exercise." It was seriously hard to end up in the doghouse with her aunt, but somehow Discord had gotten her there.
"That's not true," Apple Bloom said. "Sweetie's rich."
"I am not! My mom and dad are just middle class average unicorns."
Apple Bloom snorted. "Yeah, but you live with Rarity."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Those glasses you said that don't break? If you needed glasses, Rarity would get you those. If I needed glasses, or Scootaloo did, we'd never get ones made out of diamonds."
"Hay, I wouldn't even want any. Those sound heavy. Pegasus goggles are magically reinforced so they don't break either." Scootaloo briefly imagined herself needing glasses, and therefore having an excuse to go everywhere wearing flight goggles. Really awesome ones, in purple with yellow lightning bolts on the straps.
"You would too get that kind of glasses if you really needed them," Sweetie retorted. "Because Rarity is best friends with Applejack, so she'd buy you some. And because she sells gems for lenses to Diamond Clarity, she'd just work real hard to find a lot of gems so she could get several to sell and then she'd trade them for glasses for you instead of selling them and she'd get a really good discount. It's not because she's rich."
"She can go dig gems any time she wants with her special spell to find them, so how is she not rich?"
"Anyway Silver Spoon used to play with me when we were really little, but you know how ponies get when they get their cutie mark! Then they don't play with anypony who doesn't have one, and she was one of the first to get hers in our class."
"None of this is making me think cutie marks are nearly as special as you girls think they are," Discord said.
"But how do you know who you even are until you know who you're destined to be?" Apple Bloom asked, which sounded a whole lot like the same thing she said a few minutes ago.
"How do you know what you're destined to be is going to be any good for you?" Discord retorted.
"Don't be silly," Sweetie Belle said. "Getting your cutie mark is always good because now you know what your special talent is!"
"And what if your special talent is something that ponykind despises?"
"That couldn't happen," Apple Bloom said decisively. "Ponies don't get cutie marks in things like being bad ponies."
"Really? In the history of all of Equestria, no pony has ever gotten a cutie mark for theft, or arson?"
"If you had a cutie mark for stealing things, then maybe you could become a police officer and steal things back from thieves!" Sweetie Belle said. "And if you had a cutie mark for burning things down, maybe you could be a firefighter and set fire breaks so that forest fires can't burn down towns! There's something good you could do with any kind of cutie mark. You'd just have to think of it."
"Suppose you had a cutie mark for overthrowing governments," Discord said dryly. "Here in Celestia's eternal utopian tyranny, how would you ever use that in a way that ponies would approve of?"
"Um... get rid of corrupt mayors?" Sweetie Belle suggested.
Suddenly Scootaloo realized exactly what she thought Discord was talking about, because it was something she thought a lot about herself. "No, no, wait, I get it! Like what if you got a cutie mark in being a totally awesome soldier... except there isn't any war anymore in Equestria? What would you do with that?"
"Exactly!" Discord said triumphantly. "Scootaloo gets it." He then ruffled her mane. She glared up at him.
"Um... you could join the Royal Guard," Sweetie Belle said.
"Or a militia," Apple Bloom pointed out. "My brother does militia once a month. He says the farmer stallions have to keep in form in case something bad happens and nopony from Canterlot can get to us in time."
"Yeah, yeah, and you could join the Wonderbolts. They're a standby militia too. But none of that's, like, fighting a war. We still get a lot of weird animals coming out of the Everfree sometimes and some major league bad guys that Rainbow Dash and your sisters and the others have to put the smackdown on. No offense," she said to Discord.
"None taken. I fully understand."
He was such a drama prince. Scootaloo didn't even know if he was being sarcastic or not, but she went on. "But suppose the thing you're really good at is the war part? You're good at finding enemies and cutting them up with swords or shooting them with arrows or whatever. But we don't have wars anymore. The closest thing we ever got was the Changelings and if you were fighting Changelings then they could look like your best friends and then even the best soldier ever would have problems. You can fight magical monsters or whatever but it's not the same thing. So you never get to use your special talent, because there's peace."
"I get it," Sweetie Belle said. "And peace is good, so it's not like you can say 'Oh, I wish there was a war so I could use my talent!' That would be wrong."
"But you'd feel that way anyway," Discord said. "Even if it was wrong. Your desire to do what you love, what you're good at, what you're destined to do, will eventually be stronger than your desire to do what's considered moral and correct by society. And what is worse, everypony who saw your cutie mark would think, at best, that you're useless, because there aren't any wars; at worst, that you're a monster who doesn't belong in pony society, because what you're good at is being a murderer."
"Soldiers aren't murderers," Scootaloo objected.
"They kill sapient beings in war. Killing sapient beings is murder. Justifiable murder, to be certain, if the war is in defense and not a war of conquest, but it's still murder. Do you think ponies would really be comfortable with somepony whose special talent is for killing other ponies?"
"But... does that even happen?" Apple Bloom asked. "Or do ponies get a destiny they can actually fulfill? I mean if you had a special talent for growin' moon plants on the moon, but you can't go to the moon because that's science fiction unless you're Princess Luna, you'd be pretty miserable. But I've never met a pony with a destiny they can't fulfill."
"And you've met all the ponies," Discord said.
"Well, I do try to ask every grownup I ever meet about their cutie mark, so no, I haven't met them all, but I've met a lot."
"It can happen," Discord said. "You're unlikely to discover a cutie mark you can't fulfill – you'll channel it in some other way. But if your cutie mark made sense and was appropriate when you were young, and then the world changed and it wasn't appropriate anymore... Well, imagine that Scootaloo's soldier got their mark during the last war Equestria had, in their childhood, and they were a distinguished and skilled veteran by the time they were an adult. And then peace came, and another war never came in the soldier's lifetime. How would you feel knowing your talent was one that was no longer needed? Or that you were sure was still needed, but no one in all of Equestria agreed with you, and they would rather you go quietly disappear than remind them that once upon a time they thought they needed soldiers? What then?"
"Um... I guess that would be pretty awful," Sweetie Belle said.
"You children are more fortunate than you know. You don't know why you exist, what you were made for, what your special talent is. It could be anything. It could be everything. You still exist in a state of plenipotentiality, when you can dream of being virtually anything at all, and nothing stands in the way of those dreams. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon know what their talents are, and what their talents are is something limited, pathetic and useless. They can't dream of being something great, something unique; they can't imagine that someday they could change the world, because they are, respectively, a filly who's good at wearing a tiara and a filly who's good at spending her mommy's money wisely. You three could be anything."
"If that's how you feel," Apple Bloom said, "why do you keep wanting to take us on adventures where we might get our cutie marks?"
"Because I know you probably won't get your cutie marks from the things I show you... but knowledge is power, and there's other important things to learn besides what cutie mark you have. What good would Twilight's talent for magic have been if she'd never learned to read, so she couldn't read spellbooks? If Rarity hadn't known how to sew, would she be a dressmaker now, or would her mark have made her become a jeweler or a miner?"
"I guess that's true..." Sweetie said uncertainly.
"But Rainbow Dash would still have been awesome," Scootaloo said.
"Yes, but if she'd never learned to manage weather she'd be awesomely broke. You don't make a living from being awesome, Scootaloo."
"The Wonderbolts do."
"Is Rainbow Dash a member of the Wonderbolts?"
"Then if she hadn't known how to manage weather – which is a skill the Wonderbolts also need to know, if I'm not mistaken – how would she ever be a Wonderbolt?"
"It sounds like you're saying we should go to school and study because you never know what you'll need to know to make your destiny happen once you get your cutie mark," Apple Bloom said.
Discord made a face. "I'm fairly sure that that is the last thing I want to be saying."
"Look." Apple Bloom faced him, looking up into his eyes. "An adventure would be cool and all, even if it doesn't get us our cutie marks, and I guess you're right that it's better to not have a cutie mark than to have a bad one."
"That wasn't honestly what I was saying—"
"But the thing is, we have school. And Sweetie Belle was gonna tutor us on our homework and instead we had you in here jawing away and now Scootaloo and I don't have our homework done. Which means we're gonna have to do it after school. Which means no adventures, not before school, not till after homework. You wanna come around then, sure, I bet we can all do something fun. But right now, we've got to get to school."
Discord sighed heavily. "I could take you back to the moment you left once we were done."
"And then we'd be all tired out after having an adventure and we wouldn't be ready for school anymore."
"We've got to go," Sweetie Belle said. "Thanks for the offer, Discord, come ask once we're done with our homework! We might be ready then!"
"As if I don't have a schedule of my own? You assume I have no pressing engagements that would interfere this evening," Discord sniffed.
"You told us once that chaos means never having to have a schedule," Scootaloo pointed out.
"I said that, did I?" He rolled his eyes. "Oh, fine. I'll drop by this evening if I'm still interested and haven't completely forgotten what I was going to do."
And then he vanished. Scootaloo grabbed her saddlebags and maneuvered them onto her back. If she didn't hurry she was going to be late.
Fluttershy was just finishing up with feeding all the animals breakfast when Discord appeared. "Fluttershy! Go somewhere with me today?"
She smiled at him. "Maybe. How did things go with Luna last night?"
"Splendidly. We even buried a hatchet. Under space ice cream no less."
"Space... ice cream?"
"Well, she's the alicorn of the Moon, did you expect her to eat regular ice cream? And what do you mean 'maybe'?"
"Let's have some tea, first. And I haven't had breakfast yet; do you want some?"
He grinned at her. "Always." Discord didn't need to eat, but he seemed to greatly enjoy doing so, and even more, he enjoyed getting ponies to make him food.
Fluttershy made tea, eggs – the girls had been prolific lately – and strawberry muffins. Sometimes she tried to make something particularly chaotic and weird for Discord, but most of the time she just made the kind of food she liked, because Discord was perfectly capable of altering it if he didn't like it. Also, because she hadn't yet made something he'd decided he didn't like.
Once she was sitting down securely, sipping her tea and watching Discord sip his (he was actually sipping the actual tea this time and leaving the cup alone), she said, "Where did you want to go?"
"I don't know. Somewhere. Anywhere. Somewhere fun. How would you like to go flying in a part of the world that ponies have never been to?"
"Um... I'm not a very strong flyer, though, you know that."
"Easily solved." He snapped his talon, and Fluttershy felt strangely buoyant. Not actually light enough to float without trying to fly, but light enough that she felt that a single wing flap would have her in the air. "I've reduced the pull of gravity on you, so you should, for a while, be able to fly with as much endurance as Rainbow. Not as fast, obviously, but right now it should be more comfortable and easy to fly than to walk."
"Okay. Well, maybe going flying somewhere with you would be nice. Where did you have in mind?"
"Haven't decided yet, but someplace where there are a lot of animals, I'm sure."
"Oh, that does sound fun."
His paws twisted themselves together. "Do you know I think you're maybe the first mortal being ever who's responded to my saying 'I want to take you somewhere and show you something interesting' with, 'Oh, that sounds like fun'?"
"That's very sad." Fluttershy flitted over to him, which was in some respects actually harder than usual, because her instinct when flying was to flap her wings really hard, and as light as she felt right now, she was fairly sure that that would plaster her on the ceiling. She hugged him briefly and let him go. "I'm so glad that you have somepony now. The Cutie Mark Crusaders enjoy going places with you, right?"
He rolled his eyes. "They don't want to go anywhere until after school."
"Well, school is important. But they'd be happy to go afterwards, I'm sure. And Pinkie goes places with you."
"I suppose. But Celestia wouldn't."
"Princess Celestia must be very busy, so that shouldn't be surprising." His paws were still clasped and twisting around each other nervously. "Discord, is there something wrong?"
"No, of course not. What would be wrong? Everything's perfectly fine."
"Is this about... the thing that happened yesterday?"
"I have a question for you, Fluttershy," he announced, and then suddenly both of them were in the middle of the room and he was coiled around her, gazing directly into her eyes. "I'm going to present a hypothetical situation, and you need to tell me what the right answer to be a good friend is."
"Um... all right..."
"Let's say that someone is after you. You don't necessarily know who. It could be anypony. All you know is that they could strike at any moment."
Fluttershy's eyes went wide. "That sounds like a very scary scenario."
"What's more, your friends – the other Bearers – can't help you. They're out of the picture."
"Why?" Fluttershy asked. "Did something happen to them? Wouldn't I be focusing on rescuing them rather than trying to protect myself from whoever is after me, if they're gone?"
He sighed, uncoiling, and teleported back to his feet. "It's a hypothetical, Fluttershy. Maybe this is happening before you ever met them."
"Well, I've known Rainbow Dash for a long time—" His expression was impatient. "—but all right, I accept the hypothetical."
He paced. "So, you do have your animal friends. You know they'll fight to protect you. They might even succeed – you're friends with a bear, after all. But most of them are so much weaker than you and not nearly as intelligent. The odds that they could fight off something that thinks it can attack you are low. And whoever is coming after you might even target your animal friends, to make you suffer before they attack you." Discord stopped pacing and faced Fluttershy directly. "As a friend. Is it better to stay with your animal friends, who want to protect you even if they can't, and risk all their lives? Or is it better to go away by yourself and try to survive on your own, even if it means you'll never see your animal friends again, because it will keep them safe?"
Fluttershy considered. "Why wouldn't I ask other ponies to help protect me?"
"Because you don't know any other ponies? Or because they aren't your friends?"
"But there are ponies whose job it is to protect anypony. Such as police officers, or the Royal Guard. And there are ponies who would protect other ponies out of the goodness of their hearts. Even if I wasn't friends with Applejack... well, everypony in town knows how strong and gentle Big Mac is. Even if I wasn't friends with his sister, I might go to him and ask him if he could protect me."
"What if he didn't like you?"
Fluttershy looked down. "There was once a time when I first came to Ponyville when I thought nopony liked me. Or ever would, aside from Rainbow. My parents helped me get a place to live down here and then left me alone, and all the ponies in Ponyville were strangers, and I thought they wouldn't like me because I was new and I was a pegasus and I couldn't fly very well so the pegasi wouldn't like me either and I was useless because my only talent was for making friends with animals. But it turned out not to be true. They didn't know me, but they liked me just fine when they did know me."
"Okay, so stepping out of the realm of the hypothetical 'you', what if this happened to a pony who was a jerk?"
"Yeah, okay, like Trixie."
"Someone who is arrogant and has spent a lot of time acting as if she's better than other ponies, and stronger, and good at everything, so it will be embarrassing to her to even have to ask for help, and most ponies who've met her don't like her."
"Yes, yes. All that."
Fluttershy looked directly up at him. "Even Trixie could find ponies who are good-hearted enough to protect her, if she's willing to ask. If she's going to pretend that she doesn't need anypony, then either she stays with her pets and they get hurt, or she leaves her pets alone and they miss her and they don't know what happened to her, and either way she probably gets attacked. But if she'd just own up to the fact that she's not as great and powerful as she says she is, and that sometimes even she can need help... a good pony would probably still protect her."
Discord looked at her for several seconds without moving. Then he said, "That's very interesting," in the low-pitched, almost growly voice he sometimes used when he was being very, very serious, like some of the things he'd said during the incident where he'd trapped Twilight in a book.
"What's interesting about it?"
"Never mind that!" She should have known; Discord never let himself show his vulnerable side, even to her, for too long. "Are you done with your breakfast? Let's go!"
There was still egg on her plate, and half a muffin, but to be honest she didn't have a lot of appetite. Discord's behavior was worrying her. She wished he'd just open up to her and tell her something. The hypothetical he'd just described was obviously not hypothetical. In bits and pieces, she'd been putting things together; his family had thrown him out. He was afraid of something, but wouldn't tell her what. When Twilight had played a prank on him by blocking his powers, he'd reacted as if he was facing execution. Chrysalis had told him yesterday that his ex, the one it seemed to cause him physical pain to talk about, had tried to have him killed during the Changeling invasion, and while he'd claimed it wouldn't have worked... he wasn't always truthful.
She couldn't quite see how the pieces all fit. But she could guess, from his "hypothetical situation", that he thought someone was gunning for him, or might be, and he was afraid that whoever it was might attack his friends. In fact Chrysalis had more or less warned him that exactly that might happen. She hoped that the answer she'd given him would convince him to go to Princess Celestia, swallow his pride, and ask for the help he needed. Surely he knew she was a good pony and would do whatever it took to help him, even though they'd been enemies for years. And if Princess Celestia knew what the threat actually was, she could certainly protect him from it. She'd only fallen to the Changelings on the day of the wedding because she hadn't known they were coming; she'd thought Shining Armor would be sufficient protection for the city, without knowing that he was under Changeling control.
Well. If he wanted to distract himself from whatever it was for a little while by going flying, she could go along with that. And maybe later she could remind him that Princess Celestia was the kind of pony who would help someone in need no matter what, and that she had the resources to deal with any sort of threat if she knew it was coming. "Okay, we can go," she said.
They popped into existence high in the air above an ocean. Normally Fluttershy would have panicked, appearing in mid-air with no time to prepare herself for flight, but she felt so light and floaty; a couple of flaps and she was in control of her flight, her bearings solid under her wings. Discord was next to her, his wings much larger than normal, closer to the proportion of dragon wings to body, though he was still much smaller and snakier than any dragon she'd seen. Well, bigger than Spike, but still more serpent-like. He was flapping them, something he rarely did except to stabilize himself when he levitated vertically. The oversized wings moved in slow steady beats, more rhythmic than most things he did.
"Where are we?" Fluttershy asked.
"The ocean," Discord said, somewhat unhelpfully.
"Okay... but which ocean?"
"Near Zebrica. We're going to see some amazing creatures you've never seen except in zoos, Fluttershy."
"That sounds very nice."
It was surprisingly peaceful up here. Surprisingly, because this was Discord, and he was usually so manic and full of energy. It was fun to spend time with him, but it was very rarely peaceful. The ocean was beautiful; she could occasionally see dolphins cresting above the waves. As they headed inland, they passed over rocky beaches empty of any sapient life, but she knew from her books that if she dipped low she might see crabs, or starfish, or any number of other interesting tidal pool creatures.
"Where are the zebras?"
"The continent is a large place; these particular beaches aren't anywhere convenient to creatures who can't fly. There are plenty of frolicking zebras on beaches to the north and south where the mountain ranges are lower and they can more easily get through."
"Are there no intelligent flying creatures in Zebrica?"
"Oh, there's plenty. There's the gray parrots, the flying monkeys, the gargoyles, the sphinxes... but none of them live around here. You might actually be the first intelligent native of this world to see this beach." He shrugged. "Probably not. It's not like zebras don't sail ships. But it's possible."
They headed into the mountains. She saw gorillas, various birds, and creatures that looked a lot like the buffalo back home. "Are those buffalo?"
"Indeed they are, but the ones in Equestria technically are not. Those folks down there are the original buffalo; ponies named the Equestrian buffalo as such because they didn't know better, and there is a resemblance. Equestrian buffalo—"
"—are actually bison, yes, I know. Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. That was rude of me."
Discord snorted. "Fluttershy, if that was rude, I'm a potato chip." He did not then turn into a potato chip.
For a few hours, they flew. Fluttershy had never been able to stay airborne so high, so long, but with the gravity on her body lessened, it was easy. She felt like she could fly forever, as if it was easier to do this than to trot. And they saw so many creatures, some she'd seen in zoos, some she'd seen in books, some she'd never seen before in her life. When they passed over groups of intelligent creatures, like a zebra village or a group of ibexes on an expedition to find a nice place to graze, Discord made them invisible – the sight of a pony probably wouldn't startle them too much, ponies could be found in many places and were known to travel, but a draconequus was another story.
Then Discord wanted to go to the top of the mountains, to go skiing. Fluttershy balked. "It seems so dangerous," she whimpered, looking at the steep decline below her as she stood near the mountaintop.
Discord sighed. "Fluttershy. There are no trees. There's nothing for you to crash into. And you can fly. If you fell off the side of the mountain, you could just flap your wings. Plus you're with me. I kept you safe in space; do you really think you're in danger anywhere on the ground, if you're with me?"
Fluttershy trembled. "Yes, but..."
He scowled. "I see. You still don't trust me."
"That's not it at all!" Fluttershy burst out. "Discord... do you even know what fear feels like? Stupid fear? Fear of something that you know you shouldn't be that afraid of but just thinking about it makes your heart pound and your sides start to sweat? And all you want to do is whinny, rear up, and run for your life, or flatten down and hide under something, and you know it's stupid, and you know you shouldn't feel that way but you can't help yourself and every minute that it's happening all you can think about is how much you're disappointing everypony and what a coward you are and what a failure and it makes you want to just sink into the ground and not exist?"
Discord stared at her. Then he sat down on the snow-covered ground. "Fluttershy. Flutters, come here," he said gently. "Come here, dear."
Still trembling, Fluttershy walked over to him, slowly. As soon as she was almost within his reach, she found herself teleported into his arms, lying on his warm furry coils. He held her and gently stroked her mane. "Fluttershy, isn't it true that one of the things you fear is interacting with other ponies? Strangers?"
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak, trying to keep back the tears.
"You do that every day. You are so much braver than any pony I know. Than any intelligent being I know. Because you're terrified of almost everything. But you face that fear. Your pal Rainbow Dash is afraid of hardly anything – but the things she does fear? She'll never face them unless somepony's going to die otherwise. Most of your friends are like that. It takes the threat of a friend dying or Equestria being plunged into eternal night or something to make them face their fear. You have to face your fear to go get carrots."
"It—it's not that bad, anymore," she whispered. "I know Golden Harvest. She's not a stranger."
"But when new ponies move into Ponyville, then they are strangers. And sometimes they're there on market day. And sometimes you go out to rescue some ducklings and a nasty griffon yells at you. And sometimes you might run into a random pegasus you don't know, and then you start thinking about all the ways in which they might be judging you. Don't you."
"What else can I do?" She was almost whimpering. "I have to get food for the animals. I can't just have it all delivered. Nopony wants to come out to the edge of the Everfree every day. But that's where the animals are so that's where I have to be."
"And you spent years being terrified of that, too, even though you lived on its edge. Now you go in there routinely to treat injured animals."
"I – but they need me, so I have to..."
"That's my point." His talon laid under her chin, longways, and he brought it up like a lever to point her face at his. "Fluttershy, you're the bravest pony I know. You face impossible levels of fear, all the time, just to do ordinary things you have to do to survive. Or even to do favors for others, things you don't have to do. And you do it. You face it." He swallowed. "I – I've never had much reason to fear anything in my life. A few things. I've had... a number of incidents. But they're not things that happen every day, or even every aeon. I'm nearly omnipotent. It takes work to find something that can harm me."
"But... there's something you're scared of now?" She looked up into his eyes. "You can talk to me, you know."
"I don't want to talk about it." He laughed, harshly. "I'm too afraid of it. I don't want to look at it in my mind long enough to talk about it. I want to pretend it's not real. But you don't do that. Your reality is, terrifying things happen all the time, and it takes so much strength for you to face them, but you do it. I am far more of a coward than you."
"You're not a coward." She reached up to stroke his neck. "You could have hurt Twilight really badly, or even killed her, to make sure she couldn't use that reforming spell, but you didn't."
"I had other ways to stop her. And she saw reason, in the end. But... I'm not..." He lowered his head. "Fluttershy... the only way I've ever learned anything about mortals is to test them. To put them in a situation and see how they face it. Usually while pretending to be an evil bad guy at the time."
"Wait." She blinked. "You – is that why you brought chaos to Ponyville? Were you testing us?"
He chuckled bitterly. "No, no. I wish I could say yes, but no. I wanted revenge. When I first came to Equestria – no. When I first brought rampant chaos to Equestria, when I set out to destroy every rule and drive ponies to the brink of insanity, yes. That was supposed to be a test. But... I liked it, and I got sucked in, and eventually I was doing it because it was fun, and that's why they turned me to stone. And I was so angry about that that I tried to do it again, for revenge, and that's why you turned me to stone again. But that's not the point." He lifted his head again. "Fluttershy, I don't want to hurt you. I never want to hurt you. But... but I don't know how to face my fear. I never had to learn. Anything I was afraid of, I could just run away from, or destroy, or something like that. And this time I can't. And maybe nothing bad will happen, but if it does... I have to know how to endure fear. And I want to learn from you, because you're the expert. You do it all the time. But to learn from you... I have to see you do something you're afraid of. I have to see you make yourself overcome your fear."
She glanced down at the slope, her heart starting to pound again, her mouth going dry. "I don't know how to ski. I'll trip and get hurt."
"What if instead of skiing, we were sliding, and I held you?"
"On a slide?" Slides weren't so scary. Foals went down slides.
"An ice slide. That goes all the way down the mountain. But I'd be holding you, and you know my power would never let you come to harm."
She swallowed against the dryness of her mouth, and then looked up at his face. It was very, very rare for him to look so serious... or so needy. "If – if I can't? If I say no because I can't?"
His head sagged. "If you can't, then you can't," he said. "It'd be pointless to try to force the issue. I'd just scare you for no good reason."
Fluttershy took a deep breath. "Okay, then," she said. "We can do it. Okay."
Discord frowned at her. "I thought you said you couldn't."
"I just wanted to know what you would do if I did say I couldn't."
He grinned, chortling. "Oh ho, so you were testing me? Little minx."
With a snap of a talon the entire mountain was covered with an extremely twisty ice slide. Fluttershy swallowed again. "Does... does it have to be so twisty?" she whispered. "And... and maybe... maybe just a little bit less steep..."
"Nope. This is the one." Discord floated over to the top of the slide and then settled himself on the ground again. "Coming, Flutters?"
She swallowed again. And again. And made herself pick up her hooves and walk forward. It's Discord. He won't let anything hurt me. It'll be scary but I can live through it. He needs me to show him how to handle being scared. She told herself those things, over and over, to keep her legs moving.
And then she was there, and Discord was nestling her on his lap, both of them dressed in snow gear. Her wings stiffened at her side with fear as she saw what looked like a sheer drop just a short distance down the slide. "Um... what if you made the slide... just a little less steep? That looks... um... well, it really looks like an edge..."
"Oh, don't fret, Fluttershy, we're not going to go sailing over the edge of anything. And even if we did, I've got you. Are you ready?"
"Eep!" She wanted to cover her face with her wing, except she couldn't move her wings. "n-no, I'm not..."
Her voice was very, very tiny, barely audible even to her. Discord, of course, ignored her completely. "Splendid! Let's goooooo!"
And they were falling. Well, sliding. Very very fast, on a very steep incline, with twists, all the way down a mountain. Fluttershy shrieked. Discord simply yelled. "Woo-hooo!" His paws were thrown up in the air, though his legs were tightly around Fluttershy's middle, with her sitting on his tail. I'm safe I'm safe he won't let me get hurt I'm safe Fluttershy tried to chant to herself, but she couldn't even hear her own mantra over the sound of her screams. Certainly she couldn't concentrate on it. She wanted to turn around, to cling to Discord with all four hooves, but if she turned around then her back was to the incline and she wouldn't be able to see where they were falling to or be able to prepare when it went especially steep. Blindly she reached backward, over her head in a way that really wasn't comfortable for ponies, and grabbed onto his neck, her hooves touching each other and connecting on the other side of him.
"Make it stop!" she wailed. "Please!"
"But this is the best part!"
Gravity inverted as the slide looped. Fluttershy started shrieking again as she was briefly upside down. Discord's forelegs went around her, so he was now clasping her with all four of his legs. "Don't worry," he said. "I've got you."
There were two more loops, and twists and turns, and places where they slid uphill for a bit before a dramatic plunge. By the time they landed in a giant pile of pillows at the bottom, Fluttershy's voice was hoarse from screaming, and her whole body was shaking, and she felt sick.
Discord nuzzled against her cheek. "You were very brave," he whispered in her ear. "I'm so proud of you. Thank you."
"I – I wasn't brave. I was so scared."
"You only asked me to stop once. And I could hear you trying to calm yourself. And you didn't faint, or vomit, or cry. You just screamed a lot. That's how you deal with fear, isn't it? You let it out. You're not ashamed of it, so you don't try to hold it inside where it burns."
"I am ashamed of it. I shouldn't have been so scared." She leaned back against his warm, furry bulk for a moment, then turned her body to face him and buried her face in his fur, clinging to him. "I knew you wouldn't let me get hurt, but I was still so scared."
"But you did it anyway." His paw went around her while his talon gently combed through her mane. "Because a friend needed you to. And if you were on the top of that mountain and Applejack was at the bottom with a broken leg and a wild boar menacing her, you'd take that slide again in a moment if you thought it was the fastest way to get to the bottom."
"I suppose so," she whispered. She took a deep breath. "Did you get what you needed?"
"I think so. I'm... hoping I won't need it. But if worst comes to worst... well." He stood up, helping her to her feet. "Shall we go home?"
"Don't you think you should get rid of the ice slide first?"
He shrugged. "It's made of ice. It'll melt eventually."
"Oh no, but that just makes it worse. Because up at the top it's cold, so it won't melt. And down at the bottom it will. And we can't predict where it will break, only someplace in the middle, but anypony – well, any zebra or ibex or whoever lives around here who's up near the top won't be able to see the break, and what if it's in the middle of a loop? Or at an angle that sends them flying off the mountain?"
Discord sighed deeply. "As always, you have a point," he said, and snapped his talon. The ice slide vanished. "Now shall we go home?"
"Yes, please." And they were already on her lawn. It was warm here, after the chill of the mountain, and her familiar little friends were all over the place. Her ragged breathing stabilized, and her heart rate finally felt as if it was coming back to normal. "Hello, everyone. I hope you didn't miss me too much while I was gone!"
"We were only gone for a few hours, Fluttershy."
"Yes, I know." It had been early morning when they'd left, but somehow afternoon in Zebrica, approaching sunset as they'd done the ice slide. Now it was about noon. "Why is it a different time in Zebrica?"
"Because the planet is round. When the sun goes around it, it's shining directly on different parts of it. Have you never noticed that the clocks in Manehattan are all an hour earlier than yours?"
"Oh! Yes, I always wondered about that, but the Manehattan ponies are so... well, they're very independent and opinionated."
Discord laughed. "That's certainly a politic way to phrase it," he said.
"Shall I make us some lunch?"
"Dear me, you're always feeding me, Fluttershy. What if I get fat?"
Fluttershy started laughing. Discord made an expression of mock distress. "You laugh, but this is serious!" He waggled his tail around. "All of this rich food is going to go straight to my tail and then where will I be?"
"Maybe you'll have to exercise," Fluttershy said. "You could walk places instead of teleporting."
"But then my feet will hurt."
"Well, I'm hungry, and I'm sure so are the animals, so I'm going to make lunch. I'll make some for you too, but if you insist that you can't eat it, I suppose I can always feed it to Harry... he's always willing to eat an extra helping."
"Now, I never said I wouldn't eat it..."
As Fluttershy started toward her cottage, her ears pricked up at an unusual sound. It sounded like... like the buzzing of a million locusts, like the roaring of a crowd far away. She turned toward Discord, meaning to ask him if he knew – and saw him looking up at the sky with his ears flat against his head and a look of dread on his face. "Discord?" Fluttershy asked, and then had to shout to be heard over the sound, which was getting steadily louder. "Discord?! What's happening?"
"It's time," Discord said, the fear in his voice far less melodramatic than usual – he was almost toneless, only the slight shake to the voice clearly showing his distress. "Fluttershy, I... I have to go now..."
She galloped two steps and nearly crashed into him, her forelegs wrapping around his middle, clinging to him. "Where? Where are you going? Discord—"
"It's the Continuum. The other spirits are summoning me to judgement. I have to go." He swallowed. "They told me within a year. They never said within a week—"
"That's not fair! They should have given you more warning!"
"Should've, would've, could've, only mortals think life is fair. I thought something like this might be coming within a few days – they blocked me from sensing them but there was still a feeling I got – but I didn't - it's not—" His voice broke. Discord gathered Fluttershy up in his arms and held her tightly to his chest. "Fluttershy. Thank you for everything. Because of your friendship, I was – for a short while, for the first time I can remember in millions of years, I was... happy. Even if it was only a short time... you were the best thing to happen to me in more time than you can possibly imagine."
"Are you – what are they going to do to you? You're talking like—"
"Like I'm never coming back?" He chuckled bitterly. "I'm probably not. The two most likely possibilities... I told you this, the night we went to the moon. Maybe they'll let me go with a warning, or just imprison me for a few years, though their idea of a 'few' might be most of your lifetime. But most likely. They'll either execute me or make me mortal."
"But... at least... if they make you mortal, couldn't you come back here and be a pony? I know you're afraid of the Changelings, but how would they know who you are if you were a pony? And you could go to Princess Celestia for protection! I know she would keep you safe, even if – even if you're not friends..."
He clutched her even tighter for a moment. "You have such optimism, Fluttershy," he murmured. "But no. I can't. I have friends here. I can't bear to take the risk that an old enemy would come at me by hurting you. And Celestia's not far enough away. Nowhere on this planet is." Discord took a deep, shaking breath. "I have to go to the next best thing, because no one out there in the universe thinks I could possibly have friends, because I never have. The closest thing I have to a friend out there is beings who think they're my enemies but are compassionate enough to protect me anyway, and no one's going to go after them for being my friends because they aren't."
"That's not true! We can protect ourselves! Please, Discord – I hate the idea of you being out there all alone, without your powers or even any friends! You can't – don't do that to yourself for our sakes, please!"
Discord set her down. "Tell Twilight and Pinkie and the others – thank you. Thank them all for pretending to be my friends even if they weren't really feeling it, for a little while. I enjoyed the illusion, at least. And thank you for being the only one who was ever sincere."
"Pinkie is sincere," Fluttershy said desperately. "Discord, what if Twilight spoke to them on your behalf? Or the princesses? I know they wouldn't listen to me, but—"
"All of you count as mortals to them. Including the princesses. It won't work but thanks for offering, at least." She could barely hear him anymore, lip-reading him over the sound of the roaring. "Goodbye, Fluttershy."
And before she was able to say anything more, he vanished in a flash of light that started dimmer than usual, and grew, and seemed almost to dissolve him into it, leaving only the afterimage of his sad attempt at smiling.
"NO!" Fluttershy screamed, lunging at the place where he had been, a moment too late. She landed, hard, and looked up at the sky, tears streaming from her eyes, but she had hardened them into the Stare, glaring into the sky with the full force of her will. "Give him back to us! He's changed! He's reforming! You don't need to punish him anymore – he was already punished when we turned him to stone! He doesn't deserve this! Please!"
Nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. Even if any of them were looking down at her – they were like Discord. He was immune to the Stare, why wouldn't they be? And if what Discord had said about how lowly they considered ponykind was true, then why would they even look at her?
She drew a deep shuddering breath. "Twilight," she said. "I need to get Twilight. She'll know what to do."
And then she was off, a streak of wings flapping as hard as she possibly could, racing for the library.