• Published 23rd Apr 2021
  • 1,576 Views, 54 Comments

Who Needs Enemies -- Part I - Lets Do This



Twilight and her AP team face Discord. And he may have met his match. Yet the Lord of Chaos has an ace to play: he knows Twilight's new friends better than they realize. And how to get rid of them... by showing her it's for the best, really...

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A Deal With Discord

"Did the Princess say why she wanted us in such a hurry?" asked Starlight Glimmer. The lavender unicorn exchanged a worried glance with Trixie as the entire Advanced Projects group, including Spike, Grubber, and Cheese Sandwich, trotted quickly through the grounds of the Canterlot Royal Sculpture Garden. "Is it about, you know... earlier?"

"You know what we know," said Commander Tempest Shadow. The tall, black-armored pony glanced back from her usual place, at the head of the group next to Twilight Sparkle. "Celestia only said it was important. And that she wanted all of us present."

"And she wanted us to bring the focus gems," said Spike, around the protective case he held tight in his claws, "for the Field of Harmony! I wonder what we need these for?"

"Oh!" Twilight fretted. "I hope she doesn't think we're not responsible enough to have them. She might want to lock them away, for safety's sake."

"Relax, Twilight," said Sunset Shimmer. As usual, the flame-maned pony was trying to project more confidence than she felt. "It's... probably just a command performance, to impress some visiting dignitary." She waved a hoof dramatically. "The Heroes of Equestria! On display, for your amusement!"

"One performance, today only," Trixie added, hunched inside her magician's hat and cloak. "Tickets on sale, while supply lasts..."

"Come on, Trixie," said Moondancer, putting a companionable hoof on Trixie's shoulder. "It can't be that bad. Nopony was hurt, and we cleaned up all the damage."

"Yeah, but..." Trixie winced. "The Princess might have been letting us think about it first..."

"Celestia did accept it was an accident, right?" Starlight went on. "That Trixie's attempt at failsafeing Tempest's petrification spell... well, kinda-sorta backfired on us?"

"It wouldn't have happened, Starlight," the showpony hissed, "if you hadn't secretly been trying to help me behind my back!"

"Trixie, I told you! I only meant to project a little extra power! Just enough to help you complete the spell. But then you grabbed my entire reserve before I could stop you."

"Huh!" Trixie pouted, snout in the air. "Just goes to show. You didn't think the Great and Powerful Trixie could pull it off by herself, did you? You didn't trust Trixie's skill! Well! Trixie proved you wrong, didn't she?"

Starlight groaned. "Every statue and sculpture in the School and its grounds pulverized? Next time, Trixie? Let's just burn the Palace down. It'll save power and jail time."

Despite her fears, Trixie managed a smirk and a giggle. "No promises, bestie!" She nudged Starlight with an elbow. "But hey, you have to admit, we sure put the demo in demonstration, don't we?"

"No question about that," Sunset agreed. "But look, if this isn't about the Starlight-and-Trixie Iconoclasm Service, then what the hay is it about?"

The ponies glanced at each other, in varying degrees of concern and anxiety. And then a voice spoke up.

"There's only one way to find out," Twilight said. She came to a halt, before the entrance to the hedge-walled central exhibit space of the Garden. "We go in there. And we ask her."

Startled out of their own fears, the other ponies stared at Twilight. And then quietly gathered a little closer around her. Twilight didn't actually sound any more confident than the rest of them, yet there was something in her voice: a kind of calm, reasoned, almost fatalistic determination. It said there was a way through... somehow... maybe. If they could only just find it.

It was deeply reassuring, in the circumstances.

"You heard the young lady," Commander Tempest said, as she gazed loftily and authoritatively at the pair of Royal Guard ponies stationed at the entrance. The guards quickly saluted and stepped aside, and the Advanced Projects group trotted past them and onward, into the clearing beyond.

Happily, the overloading failsafe spell didn't seem to have reached this far. The numerous statues -- some representational, some abstract -- were all standing on their pedestals, apparently unharmed.

Thank Celestia for small mercies, Starlight thought.

The Princess was waiting for them in the middle of the clearing, standing next to one statue in particular. "Thank you all for coming so quickly," the tall, ivory-white alicorn said. "I've summoned you on a matter of great importance."

"Is it about the broken statues?" Twilight blurted. "We're so sorry, Princess! If there's anything we can do to replace them, or make up for our mistake, we..."

But Celestia held up a gold-armored hoof. "Calmly, Twilight. Most of the artworks were merely decorative, of little intrinsic value. I'm quite content to regard it as an... unusual form of cultural renewal, perhaps? However, when I received your note, I was reminded of one statue in particular, of rather greater significance..."

She gestured at the statue beside her. "This one."

Twilight wrinkled her snout, looking at it. It was a particularly ugly piece of work, whatever creature it depicted. It had a horse-like head, a snake-like body, and a thoroughly mismatched collection of horns, limbs, legs, and wings. It looked as if all the leftover asymmetry in the Universe had been swept together in a heap, then shaped into a being of utter divisiveness.

On top of which, it looked like it was screaming or something.

"I was relieved to find it undamaged," Celestia said. "For it is more than merely a statue. It is in fact a prison, for an age-old foe of mine. One I defeated many centuries ago...

"... Discord!"

And for the space of that one name, Celestia's mask of calm, regal patience slipped a bit, revealing long-simmering anger and betrayal.

"Wow..." Twilight breathed. "Seriously? I thought Discord was a myth! But then, we thought the same about Nightmare Moon, too..."

"And Discord is, I am afraid, just as real," the Princess said.

"Who's... Discord?" Starlight asked. "Sorry, but I'm better at magic than history."

Celestia was about to reply, but Moondancer spoke up first. "Discord is a draconequus," she said, as if reciting. "He's an embodiment of chaos and disharmony. He's mischievous and extremely powerful. Over a thousand years ago, while Celestia and Luna were distracted defending other lands, Discord took advantage of their absence and seized the throne of Equestria. He ruled it in a timeless state of unrest and unhappiness, which has since come to be known as the Confused Era, and..."

Suddenly, she winced, looking up at Celestia. "Sorry... I'm stealing your thunder aren't I, Princess?"

"Don't apologize." Celestia smiled. "You're summarizing far better and more dispassionately than I ever could. Please, go on."

"Well..." Moondancer said, a little self-consciously now that everyone was looking at her, "according to legend, in order to defeat Discord, the Two Sisters learned how to unlock and use the Elements of Harmony. They combined their powers and confronted him, imprisoning him in stone for all eternity..."

She blinked, startled by her own words, and stared at the statue. "You mean it wasn't just legend? It actually happened?"

"Indeed." Celestia nodded. "And if Discord had been set free, we might all now be at great risk. The last time Discord was on the loose, he was only defeated by the combined powers of Luna and myself, with the aid of the Elements of Harmony."

Starlight and Trixie glanced at each other worriedly. Burning down the Palace suddenly felt like small potatoes.

"But," Celestia went on, "when I was later forced to use the Elements to imprison Luna in the Moon, the sisterly bond connecting us to them was broken. With the result that now neither of us can wield the Elements any longer."

Twilight gasped. "And that's why you wanted us to bring the Field gems!"

"Yes, Twilight. I fear I must once again call upon you and your friends to wield the Field of Harmony and protect Equestria."

Twilight glanced at the others, who nodded back at her. "You can count on us, Princess," she said. "If Discord does break free, we'll be ready. We'll put him right back on his pedestal, safe and sound!"

"Actually, Twilight," the Princess said with an amused smile, "I asked you here to do the exact opposite. I would like you to employ the Field's power... to release Discord."

"Huh?" The ponies all stared at her in shock.

"B-b-but," Spike asked, "why would we do that? If he's as dangerous as Moondancer says... isn't it best just to leave him where he is?"

Celestia nodded. "I understand your concern. And I don't make this request lightly. Yet the incident with the statues reminded me just how old and fragile the spell containing Discord has become. Better we release Discord at a time of our own choosing, when we have the resources to manage him, than have him break free unexpectedly and run amok."

"Okay..." Twilight said uneasily. "If you can describe the spell you used to imprison him, we should be able to recreate it using the Field. And come up with a counter-spell to free him. Right?" She looked at Starlight, who blinked in surprise.

"I suppose," Starlight hazarded. "I mean, if it's just a variant of the petrifying spell, we might already have that in our kit." She gestured to the small satchel of reference scrolls that Grubber was holding. "But... assuming we do manage to set him free, then what do we do with him?"

Celestia gazed up at the statue thoughtfully.

"I have a use for Discord's unusual variety of magic, assuming he can be persuaded to wield it for good this time, rather than for evil." She looked at Twilight and her friends. "You were able to use the Field of Harmony to heal the breach in the timeline, reform Nightmare Moon, and in so doing, return my sister to me. I am hopeful that something similar might be accomplished with Discord. It will not be an easy task, I am sure. He can be a challenge to deal with, even when he's feeling cooperative. You will have to be more than patient with him."

She turned to look Twilight right in the eye.

"Yet it is important enough, Twilight, to make it worth the effort. And I can think of no group of ponies better suited for this than you and your friends."

"Thank you, Your Highness," Twilight said, seriously. "We'll do our best." She glanced around at her friends. "Well, no time like the present, I suppose..."

In a surprisingly short time they were ready. In consultation with the Princess, Starlight had constructed the releasing and binding spells they would need. Spike trotted around with the gem-case, and each of the six gem-bearing unicorns donned a necklace containing one of the focus gems -- apart from Trixie, who as usual wore hers on the collar of her magician's cape as an accent.

Then Spike, Grubber, and Cheese Sandwich moved back out of the way as the six gem-bearers stepped together into the hexagonal formation, facing the statue.

Starlight muttered under her breath, making sure she had the spell clear in her mind. Then she nodded to Twilight.

"Power it up, everypony!" Twilight called.

The ponies remote-cast, linking their magic reserves together. Starlight cast the stabilizing spell on Tempest's broken horn, and Tempest launched the priming blast at Trixie's focus gem. Rays of spectral energy interconnected their gems. In seconds, the ponies were lifted off the grass, the full prismatic power of the Field of Harmony's storage loop blazing away around them. Their eyes gleamed brilliantly, their manes and tails flowed on invisible currents.

Seeing the Field was stable, Starlight switched spells and began threading the releasing spell into the storage loop, charging it up to a level that even she would have found intimidating were she not fully occupied with balancing the Field's power and keeping it from getting away from them.

And then Twilight, feeling as always as if she was somehow a hundred lengths tall, with enough power at her disposal to snap the world in half, reached out cautiously with a huge, invisible hoof...

And cast the spell...

A torrent of prismatic energy arched out from the ring. It fell upon the statue, enshrouding it in a whirlwind of raging magic forces. Slowly... ever so slowly... the petrification spell weakened, the stone splintering, cracking...

And then the statue simply shattered. It crumbled to fragments and powder, leaving nothing behind.

"OH MY GOSH!" Twilight gasped. "STAND DOWN!" Her amplified Voice echoed back from the distant hills like thunder.

Quickly, the ponies wound down the spell. Their hooves settled back to the ground, their eyes and manes returned to normal. And then they gathered around the splintered, crumbled remains, staring in horror.

"We're... we're sorry, Princess," Twilight offered miserably. "I was using as little power as I could, but..."

Princess Celestia scuffed uneasily at the gravelly ruin with an armored forehoof. "Well..." she finally said, with an air of weary, ancient remorse. "It was an awfully long time. And perhaps, not even Discord..."

"Did somepony mention my name?" said an amused voice behind them.

The ponies all turned, startled. And found the draconequus, very much alive, peering over their shoulders in innocent concern.

"What are we looking at?" he asked. "Lost something, have we? Tch, tch, tch, what a mess!" He trotted around to stand facing them amidst the fragments of the statue, his forelimbs crossed and an amused leer on his face. "Somepony's been rather careless, haven't they?"

"Discord!" Celestia thundered, glaring at him.

"Celestia! You still remember me after all this time. I can't help but be touched!" Then he stared sourly down at Twilight and the others. "But what's this supposed to be? A filly tour-group?" He dismissively clapped claw and paw. "Run along back to class, dears! The outing's over! Chop, chop!"

"These, Discord," Celestia replied curtly, "are the new bearers of the Elements of Harmony."

"Really? Well!" Discord peered down at them, a puzzled look on his face. "I did recognize Twilight... erm, from all the pictures in the papers lately." He pointed to a blurred photo of the back of Twilight's head, on the cover of a tabloid that had appeared in his paw. "But who are the rest of you supposed to be?"

"We're her friends, Discord," Sunset shot back. "And if you know what's good for you, you won't mess with us." The other ponies nodded firmly, scowling up at him.

Discord sniggered. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me! No really, let's talk seriously. If you've got the real Element Bearers hidden around here somewhere, then trot them out."

He leered down at them threateningly. "And if not..."

"Formation!" Twilight snapped. The ponies quickly stepped back into the hexagonal formation, readying themselves. "And don't try anything, Discord," Twilight added. "We're ready for you this time."

Discord stared down at them all, baffled.

"But those aren't the Elements!" he demanded. "I know for a fact the real Elements of Harmony are moldering away unused, in a gallery over in the Canterlot Archives."

"That's right," Twilight replied proudly. "We fashioned and powered these ourselves. Say hello to the new-and-improved Field of Harmony, Discord."

Discord goggled. Then snorted. Then he was suddenly turning somersaults in midair, hooting uncontrollably with laughter. "Oh, this is priceless! No, no really, this is too much!" Finally managing to settle back on his mismatched hind limbs, he wiped tears from his eyes. "This is all you have, Celestia, to stand against me after a thousand years? A home handicrafts group? With costume jewelry, and paste gems?"

"What!" Trixie shouted. "I'll have you know these are hoof-carved gemstone! I've got the blisters on my fetlocks to prove it!"

"Really." Discord slow-clapped. "How resourceful. Oh, please, Celestia. You couldn't do any better than this?"

The Princess said nothing. She just gazed back at him, poker-faced.

Discord sighed, as if tremendously put upon. "Ah, well! I guess it's up to me to show you what the merest hint of chaos magic is capable of..."

Lifting his eagle claw, he snapped it.

Nothing happened.

Discord stared at the claw worriedly. He shook it, then snapped again.

Nothing continued happening.

The ponies looked at each other. "Is that supposed to be doing anything?" Sunset asked. "Maybe there's something about chaos magic I just don't get."

Trixie smirked. "Like it doesn't work if there are skeptics present? Spoon-bending's like that."

"I don't understand!" Discord tried snapping his claw again and again with no result. "It was working just fine a few moments ago..."

And then he looked up, at Tempest Shadow. In particular, at the double-lightning-bolt mark on her battlemage armor, which was glowing with intercepted magic energy.

"Ha!" Discord clapped his lion's paw to his forehead. "I don't believe it!" Abandoning what little decorum he had, he rushed over, grabbed up Tempest's forehoof and began pumping it enthusiastically.

"Sacanas! My old partner in chaos! Haven't seen you in simply ages! How did you survive Storm Island? Well, I must say! You're looking extremely fit these days! Shame about the horn really, but the rest... hmm, quite the looker now, aren't we?" He waggled his eyebrows saucily at her. "You finally got that anti-aging spell working, I see. And just in time, too! They were measuring you for the mausoleum the last time we palled around together. But really, how are you, Sacanas?"

Tempest scowled at him, and yanked away her hoof.

"The name is Tempest Shadow," she growled. "Commander Tempest, if you want to be properly formal."

"Yeah! You tell him, boss!" Grubber snarled from the sidelines.

"And Sacanas... the sorceror?" Tempest went on, coldly and pitilessly. "Died centuries ago, and good riddance."

Discord looked momentarily startled... and heartbroken.

And then his gaze turned subtly sinister. "Oh, really?" He tapped his single fang thoughtfully. "Well then, Commander Eye-Shadow, or whatever it is you call yourself, a word to the wise? I'd be really careful playing about with that armor. After all, you don't so much wear it... as reach an accommodation with it..." He chuckled darkly and derisively.

Tempest smiled back at him, languidly, unruffled...

And then suddenly fixed Discord with a cold, intense stare.

Discord choked, his eyes wide. A poisonous green glow had fastened around his neck like a shackle. The double-bolt mark on Tempest's armor was blazing, an intense thrumming filling the air all around her. Discord struggled, scrabbling desperately at his throat, as he was hauled bodily into the air...

Then all at once he was slung round like a living nunchuck, and slammed down on the turf -- hard. He lay there, helpless, pinned to the ground like a bug. Tempest stepped forward and bent her head down, to put her snout close to his.

"Oh, I'm not worried," she said softly. "I think I'm doing just fine..."

She grinned at him, her eyes glaring intensely.

"And I can quit any time I like!"

Discord's eyes bulged, staring up at her in near-asphyxiated shock.

"Uh, Tempest...?" Twilight said, worriedly.

The Commander glanced at her, then looked back at the suffocating draconequus. She snorted, shrugged indifferently, then abruptly turned away, trotting back into the formation.

Discord gasped for breath raggedly as the glow around his throat slowly dissipated. He staggered unsteadily upright, eyeing Tempest with wary respect.

Starlight leaned towards her. "How the hay did you manage that?" she whispered.

Tempest looked thoughtful. "Not entirely sure. He was right about one thing, though... the armor doesn't like him any more than I do."

Twilight, just as shocked as the rest, somehow managed to pull herself together. "We set Discord free," she said. "And if he's not going to listen to reason, it's time to put him back again. Power it up, girls!"

The group did. In seconds the ponies were hovering in the air once more, the full prismatic power of the Field of Harmony's storage loop blazing around them.

Discord stared up at them, clearly worried. "Uh, Celestia..."

"Don't look to me for help, Discord," the Princess replied. "You brought this on yourself."

"But, but..."

"Twilight is an acting Princess of Equestria, by my order." Celestia's voice was suddenly cold and stern, speaking as much to Twilight and her friends as to the cowering draconequus. "And no one," she declared, "tells a Princess of Equestria her business."

Discord looked up at the six ponies, their eyes blazing, their manes and tails flowing on invisible currents of power. In particular, he looked at Twilight Sparkle... who alone of the six of them showed the slightest hint of hesitation.

The draconequus's shoulders suddenly slumped. His voice turned piteous, his expression meek and miserable. "Um... Twilight?" he said. "A word first, if I may?"

Twilight looked down at him -- cautiously, dubiously. And then nodded.

"STAND DOWN, EVERYPONY."

In disbelief, the ponies de-powered the Field, settling back onto their hooves. "You're not serious, Twilight?" Sunset demanded. "You heard Moondancer. This is Discord! We can't trust him. I say we put him back in the Sculpture Garden for safe-keeping. And then have second thoughts!"

"But... that's not who we are, is it?" Twilight asked, uneasily. "The Field of Harmony is powered by friendship, Sunset. And when Celestia used the Elements on Luna... well, that didn't go so well, did it? So maybe this time, we should try listening first?"

Sunset stared at her, mouth open. And then shut it and nodded.

"You know, Twilight, it's really annoying when you remind me just how right you are like that?" She looked around at the other ponies. "Friendship is our thing now, no question. So, all right, we'll listen."

Twilight looked to Discord. "Well?"

Discord nervously tapped his fingertips together. "I... was only going to suggest we might have gotten off on the wrong hoof here. You know how it is, being frozen in stone for a thousand years and then suddenly released. Well, maybe you don't, but it's rather like getting up on the wrong side of the bed! You're bound to be a little out of sorts at first. And clearly I've misjudged you all. If this is the new version of the Elements, and you ponies the new defenders of Equestria... then perhaps a rethink is in order. I may need to mend my ways just a tiny bit..."

"Huh!" Trixie scoffed. "You're just scared we can put the genie back in the bottle."

"And," Starlight added, "thanks to Tempest, there's nothing you can do to stop us."

"Yes, well..." Discord looked sour for a moment, then quickly brightened up. "I have an alternative to suggest. You ponies have been asked to try to reform me, have you not?"

"How do you know that?" Twilight demanded.

Discord looked offended. "Being turned to stone doesn't prevent me from hearing every word Celestia says. But leaving that aside, she's tasked you with reforming me, hasn't she? And I'm open to the idea!"

"Discord...?" Celestia asked, staring at him in worried puzzlement.

"Well, why not, Celestia?" he replied, shrugging. "I've had a thousand years of cooling-off time, so to speak, to come to my senses. And if you ponies are determined to put the past behind us, who am I to object?" He beamed cheerfully. "I'll even make you a bargain, as a sign of good will: if you'll be so kind as to not turn me back to stone, I'll agree to avoid egregious misuse of my magic in future." He shrugged. "Not saying I won't make the odd slice of toast fall butter-side down. It's only to be expected. I am the Lord of Chaos, I do have a reputation to consider. But large-scale pranks? Off the table... on one condition."

Twilight eyed him. "We're listening. What?"

"Oh, merely that you allow me to sit in, observe, provide helpful advice now and again... that sort of thing."

"Seriously?" Sunset retorted. "What do we need your help for?"

"Think about it!" Discord spread his arms grandly. "You ponies are just starting out as defenders of all Equestria. With all I've seen, all I know, I can be a valuable member of the team. Willing and able, ready to serve!"

The ponies looked at each other, uncertainly.

"I wouldn't trust him, Twilight," Moondancer whispered. "Everything in the multiple histories of the Confused Era says Discord can't be relied on. It's not that he's evil so much, just that he has a habit of being easily distracted and conveniently forgetting stuff..."

"Oh, really?" Discord said grumpily. "And just what is your Element supposed to be, Moondancer? Logorrhea?"

"Ah... that would be compulsive talking," Moondancer retorted primly. "Which seems to be more your line, Discord. I'm more into hyperlexia -- compulsive reading? I mean, if you're gonna insult me, get your terms right." She grinned and exchanged a quick hoof-bump with Twilight.

Discord frowned at them both.

"Well, isn't that just my whole point, right there?" he went on. "I mean, look at this group! We have Commander Teapot over here --" He gestured to Tempest, who was scowling darkly at him. "She's clearly the Element of Loyalty. But what are the rest of you supposed to be?"

"Well..." Twilight said uneasily. "I'm not sure we have a strict assignment of Elements. But I'd say Moondancer is Generosity, given how she slaves away on research for us. She makes me feel I need to read more!"

"Hmph..." Discord muttered to himself. "At least she's not primping her hair all the time, not like some ponies I know..."

"And," Twilight went on, "I don't think anyone doubts that Starlight here is our Element of Magic."

"Really?" Discord smirked. "Can she hold a candle to this?" With a wave of his claw, he conjured a bevy of dancing candles in midair, complete with a capering gravy boat and a fish-shaped tea-pot.

Starlight looked tolerantly amused. "Not bad, Discord... but can you do this one?"

She fired up her horn, thought for a few moments, and then cast. And the group of ponies was suddenly encircled by a marching phalanx of straw brooms, each broom carrying a pair of oak buckets sloshing with water.

"Nice!" Twilight nodded. "Teleportation, duplication, animation, and directed compulsion. All on the fly too, I'll bet."

Starlight casually puffed at her striped forelock. "Just a little something I threw together. Structured magic makes it almost too easy. The real trick," she added behind a hoof, "is not forgetting the banishment check on the recursive call... because then you'd be in deep water!"

She gestured grandly with both forehooves. Brooms, buckets, and water all disappeared without trace.

Amazement and jealousy warred on Trixie's face. "You have got to teach me that one, Starlight!"

"When you're ready, Trix," Starlight said. "We need to get you solid on bounded iteration first. Remember what happened with all those marshmallows? Oh, and Trixie here," she quickly went on, putting a hoof around her, "apart from being a Great and Powerful showpony... is our Element of Honesty!"

Discord stared down at Trixie. Who glared right back at him.

"If she's Honesty," Discord sneered, "I'm Princess Celestia."

"Takes one to know one," Trixie shot back.

"Oh, please! Great and Powerful? I doubt that." Discord sniffed. "I'm the Lord of Chaos! I can shred the very fabric of reality to suit myself. Whilst you're nothing but a self-absorbed, below-average illusionist!"

"Self-absorbed? Why, you...!"

"Take it easy, Trix," Starlight advised. "He's just trying to get under your skin."

"I know that, Starlight," Trixie replied. "And if you hadn't interrupted, I was about to see how far around the bend I could drive him." She shoved her magician's hat back on her mane. "Because if this walking, menagerie-flavored candy-cane actually thinks he can out-ego the incomparable showmare that is the Grrreat... and Powerful... Trrrixie..."

She flung her hooves wide, sending bursts of fireworks into the air. And then shrugged.

"Well... he's got another think coming, huh?"

Discord pointedly ignored her. "And who else do we have here?" He looked at Sunset. "Who are you supposed to be? Apart from Celestia's original, failed attempt at training up another pony just like herself to wield the Elements?"

"Ha, ha," Sunset replied. "Sunset Shimmer. And I guess, what with my empathy talent and all, I'd have to be the Element of Kindness, right?"

For a moment, Discord looked stricken. Then he harrumphed, pulling himself together. "You don't look like the tree-hugging, guitar-playing, back-to-nature type to me."

"Eh, I'm working on it." Sunset shrugged. "I do play guitar though..."

With a flash of her horn, Sunset materialized a night-black axe in midair above her head. She belted out several bars of screaming hot rhythm on it without even touching the strings. Then she made the dangerous-looking instrument disappear again. Huffing on a hoof nonchalantly, she grinned at the astonished looks from her friends.

"Just another little skill I picked up, while I was on the other side."

"Gnarly, dude. Break on through." Discord peered at her over a pair of dark glasses, then flicked them away. "All very entertaining, I'm sure. But speaking of entertainment, so far you've left out my personal favorite -- Laughter!"

"Oh! Right here! Present!" Cheese waved eagerly. Then he was suddenly standing beside Discord, holding his accordion. "Cheese Sandwich, party-pony extraordinaire, at your service! Any requests?" He merrily riffed a few bars of a sprightly polka.

Discord gazed down at him, non-plussed.

"I miss Pinkie Pie," he murmured. "I think I understood her..."

Then he gestured with his claw. "And what of poor Twilight, here? You've managed to leave her out entirely!"

"No, we didn't." Sunset put a hoof proudly around Twilight's shoulders. "Because Twilight's Element is the most important of all, the one that holds all the rest together... Friendship!"

Discord shook his head in disbelief. "Okay, somepony's not playing by the rules here. And usually it's me, so I'd know. You can't just split an Element down the middle like that. Friendship is Magic, isn't that how it goes?" He gestured at Cheese. "You can't have ponies who don't even wield an Element gem! Who are just here for comedy relief!"

"Says the Lord of Chaos," Trixie sneered, "who wants in on the team?"

Discord scowled. "Remind me to turn you into a frog later."

"Meh. Been there, done that." Trixie waved a forehoof disparagingly. "Can I show you something nice in a disappearing drake-and-eggnog? Or whatever it is you're supposed to be?"

Discord grumbled under his breath, then got control of himself. "Let's get back to the point here. I'm just not convinced that any of you are the right ponies for the job, as bearers of the Elements of Harmony."

"Oh, really?" Starlight objected. "And who asked your opinion?"

"Uhh, Starlight..." Twilight said, "... we did?"

"Yeah, don't remind me."

Encouraged, Discord went on. "Correct me if I'm wrong here, but in that other timeline, the one Nightmare Moon showed you, it wasn't you six ponies who wielded the Elements -- apart from you, Twilight. It was that other group, the ones from Ponyville."

"Wait!" Twilight said. "You know about that, too?"

"What else was on?" Discord shrugged. "I mean, I'm all for bingeing, purely as a distraction, though taken as a whole reality can be so dull. But this was fascinating! I couldn't help but listen in. An entire alternate timeline... one in which Twilight Sparkle here ends up as an alicorn Princess of Equestria!"

He pointed at Twilight. And with a flash, a crown appeared atop her mane, a golden crown bearing a lavender star-shaped gemstone.

Sunset frowned. "She still might. Nothing stopping her."

"Are you sure of that?" Discord retorted. "You know, being locked in stone doesn't just prevent me from employing a little creative anarchy to spice up your tedious little lives, it also stops me from stepping in when I hear ponies about to make a dreadful mistake."

"Mistake!" Twilight shouted. "Now just a minute --"

"Ah," Discord held up an apologetic paw, "perhaps I should have said misjudgement? Seriously!" He gestured with his arms, taking in the world around them. "You really think this is the way things ought to be? This timeline? You think because the six of you --"

"Seven!" Spike piped up.

"Eight!" Cheese added quickly.

"Uh... eight and a half, boss?" Grubber asked, looking at Tempest.

"Whatever!" Discord thundered. "Just because all of you came together and managed to whip up a home-game edition of the Elements of Harmony, you think that somehow makes you the Elements? You said it yourself, Twilight, the Elements are based on friendship... true, solid, lasting friendship. Yet looking at this crowd, it seems to me your friends here need you a lot more that you need them, or they need each other. Are you sure you're all really friends? And not just allies in adversity?"

"Is there a difference?" Sunset challenged. "Sure, we're not exactly old home-town buddies or something. But that doesn't change the fact that when the chips are down, we're a team!"

The others nodded in agreement at that. But Discord shook his head.

"Nope, still not convinced. And though it may not be my place to say it -- but I'll say it anyway -- I think it's important enough that you should put it to a test. So here's what I propose: you ponies allow me to show you that under different circumstances each of you might have had a better, more fulfilling life. And thus would not have ended up as part of Twilight's little fan-club here. As a bonus, if I manage to convince you of that, I'll gift you with that better life as your own. Free of charge!"

"Wait... he can do that?" Moondancer asked.

"Lord of Chaos!" Discord reminded her, grandly. "I can do anything I want." He frowned at Tempest. "Well, almost anything."

"Oh, sure," Starlight said. "And, assuming you manage to sweet-talk even one of us into going along with that, you'll be undermining the Field of Harmony so we can't use it against you."

"Not my intent, Starlight! Not at all!" Discord looked affronted. "I'm here to help, remember?"

"Hmph, likely story," Trixie grumbled. "Next thing you'll say is you have some ringers from out of town, ready to stand in for us."

"Oooh, what a splendidly devious idea!" Discord marvelled at her. "Are you sure we're not related?" Then he waved his paw dismissively. "Oh, right, you're the one who was Nightmare Moon's personal student. That explains everything. But still, it's the perfect solution, Trixie Moony Lune!"

"Uhh... what is?" Trixie asked warily.

"Why, finding substitutes for you all!" He clapped his hands eagerly. "Here's what we'll do. For any of you I do manage to convince, I'll temporarily swap in your counterpart from Ponyville as a pinch-hitter. You can trust them, after all, and that way the group will always be at full strength. I mean, so long as you have enough friendship magic, or whatever it is, you can still make this Field thing work, right?"

"Starlight?" Twilight looked at her.

"I guess..." Starlight replied. "Assuming we have enough unicorn power to trigger the spell, but..."

"And!" Discord quickly went on, "To keep things scrupulously fair, we'll let Twilight here be the judge. She'll decide whether each pony is truly satisfied."

"But... that's not going to work," Sunset objected. "Nopony's going to decide one way, if they see the entire group going the other way..."

"Absolutely right, Sunset!" Discord grinned. "And I have a solution for that, too. So there's no pressure on anypony to choose, one way or the other, only Twilight here will be aware of what each pony ultimately decides. To the rest, the group will always seem normal, no matter who's in it."

The ponies looked at each other, uncertainly.

"Still not enough?" Discord persisted. "Remember, I have to convince all of you! If I fail to convince even a single pony -- that includes you, Twilight, as the arbiter here -- that the alternate version of your life leaves everypony better off, then I'll admit I was wrong, put everything back the way it was, and not trouble you about it again."

"But can we trust him?" Moondancer asked. "To keep his side of the bargain?"

Discord put up his paw. "As Celestia is my witness!" He grinned at the Princess. "Aren't you, my dear?"

"And..." Twilight asked cautiously, "if you did manage to convince all of us?"

"Well, if you still doubt me, Twilight, it's not very likely, is it? But even so, you'd still have a team of friends to serve as the Elements of Harmony. A proper team in my view, but that's only my opinion. So Equestria will never be at any risk. As I said, this is merely a test, to be certain we've got the right crew on board, so to speak."

Conjuring a sailor suit for himself, Discord danced a brief hornpipe. Then he smiled innocently at them.

"So? What do you say?"

Trixie wrinkled her snout. "I know a shell-game when I smell one."

"Au contraire, meek and doubtful Trixie! I'm being reformed, remember?" Discord tugged her hat down over her eyes. "Why, I feel practically reformed already!" He wriggled happily.

"I'm with Trixie," Moondancer said. "It sounds exactly the kind of dodge Discord would come up with, as a way of distracting us from whatever he's really up to."

"Right," Starlight said. "And just on a practical level, even with the different solutions we've come up with for the Field spell, I'm not sure we can just substitute earth-pony and pegasus magic, not without some serious adjustment. Although... to be fair..." She tilted her head, considering it. "I could always run some tests of the spell with my friends from Sire's Hollow..."

"Sunset?" Twilight asked.

The flame-maned pony looked pensive. "I agree with you, Twilight," she said carefully, "that Friendship is our thing now. Which means, even though I'd personally feel safer with Discord as a lawn ornament, well... if I'm gonna be honest? I'd feel even better knowing we're all sure we're the right ponies to defend Equestria. I wouldn't want there to be any doubt. And if you're gonna be the judge, I know you'll make the right call. So... I say yeah, let's give it a shot. After all, we're a team. And I doubt anything Discord can show us would change that."

"Tempest?"

The maroon pony was silent for a while, her expression darkly somber.

"I probably shouldn't even vote," she said at last. "I don't trust Discord. He makes Trixie look reliable."

"Hey!" Trixie snapped, forehooves crossed in annoyance. Then she shrugged. "Yeah, well... I suppose, considering..."

"But... just as long as you're safe, Twilight," Tempest went on. "And, well... assuming everypony else was okay with this, then..."

She came to attention.

"Whatever you think is best, Twilight, I'll support it."

"Cheese?" Twilight asked.

"Me?" The party pony asked, surprised. "Sure, count me in! What have I got to lose?" He shrugged happily. "Could be fun!"

"Three for three, Twilight," Discord said, grinning. "More or less. Which makes you the deciding vote. So... what do you say?"

"Discord..." Princess Celestia said, warningly.

"Ah-ah-ah, Celestia!" Discord interrupted. "You've had your turn at bat. And I'm sorry to say, you whiffed miserably. Time to give 'Acting Princess' Twilight and her friends their chance to play." He gave her a smug look. "Unless you don't really think they're up to it."

Celestia eyed him narrowly, considering it. And then nodded curtly.

"What?" Spike yelled. "You're going along with this, Your Highness?"

"As I said," Celestia replied evenly, "no one tells a Princess of Equestria her business. Let's just say that I'm leaving the decision in your capable hooves, Twilight."

"Yes, Princess." Twilight replied, her face pensively serious. Then she looked at Discord.

"All right. We'll do it."

"Wonderful!" Discord crowed.

"But," Twilight added, "at the first sign of any funny business, the deal's off and you go right back in the Sculpture Garden. You got that, Discord?"

"Absolutely!" He clapped claw and paw together. "Well! Shall we adjourn to... where is it the gang hangs out nowadays?"

"We'll show you," Twilight said. "Come with us." Turning, she led the way and the group headed off, with the draconequus trotting along readily beside them.

Princess Celestia watched them all go, her expression cold and stern.

"You so much as lay a claw on Luna," she muttered, "or anypony else... and I'll personally turn Twilight and her friends loose on you, Discord."

"Well!" Discord said, in an affronted tone. He was suddenly hovering in the air right beside Celestia, even as the other version of himself trotted away with Twilight and her friends. "If that's the way you feel about it, then fine! We'll keep this strictly between Twilight's little band of happy adventurers... and moi!"

Then he pouted, looking heartbroken. "But... I'm hurt. Really. You don't miss me at all, do you?"

With a flash of chaos magic, he disappeared.

And Celestia shook her head. Sadly, a tear in her eye...