Argembarger - Set and Match -
On the far outskirts of Ponyville, a tan stallion ground his hoof on rough, hot clay. He squinted through the bright afternoon sunlight at his erratically bouncing opponent. A yellow-green ball balanced on the taut strings of the racket clutched in the pony’s teeth.
He flung his head back, and the ball flew towards the sky in a smooth, predictable arc. The face of the racket struck the ball with a sharp plonk as he twisted his head in a refined, efficient serving motion.
The ball whizzed across the court, barely clearing the top of the dividing net. The pink receiver flailed her racket wildly, meeting only air as the ball struck the clay just before the white baseline at the opposite end of the court. The fuzzy sphere bounced hard, embedding itself in the chain-link fence that divided the world of tennis from the world of the mundane, and the stallion reared back with glee.
His opponent giggled, “Wow Ace, you're so amazingly great at this. That's your fourth ace today! I mean, your name is Ace, but still! When you asked me to play tennis with you, I knew you were gonna be good because you have tennis balls on your flank, but I thought I'd at least be good enough to rally with you a little bit. Did I tell you I used to play tennis with my sisters? It was always really hard. But maybe that's because we played with rocks instead of tennis balls, and..." Pinkie bounded around the perimeter of the court, wearing a big, goofy grin.
A smile sneaked across Ace’s mouth as he tuned out Pinkie Pie’s ramblings. That pink pony would talk his ears right off if he let her, though she did make a fine tennis partner. Despite his unstoppable dominance score-wise, she had been rallying most of his serves. Pinkie had even managed to surprise him a few times with some impressively random returns. They were so random, in fact, that he wasn’t entirely sure how she was doing it. The mare was certainly just as good--if not better!--than his usual partners.
And more importantly to him, she stayed bubbly and cheerful the whole time. Ace played hard; he liked winning, but upsetting other ponies was a different matter. Unfortunately, they got upset an awful lot. Either he played his best and they got upset because they lost, or he gave them a chance and they got upset because he was "patronizing" them. It did not make any difference; it was all just stress that he didn't want to deal with.
Ace wiped some sweat from his brown sideburns. A pleasant breeze rushed past his face, and as he lowered his hoof, he spotted a rose-tinged cluster of clouds on the horizon and grinned. The wind would be blowing them overhead to provide some relief from the harsh sun before too long.
"...and we broke sooo many rackets, but you know what they say: 'when you hit a rock with a tennis racket, it will probably break your racket!'” The mare broke into another fit of giggles, recapturing Ace’s attention. “But yeah, Daddy made us stop playing rock-tennis after the fourth time we broke the window. Maybe we should have played outside, instead?" Pinkie Pie hopped over to the trapped ball, carefully pinched her hooves around its felt-covered shell, and began tugging it from the fence.
Ace set aside the spare ball he had already dug out of his bag, shaking his head a bit. This mare never ceased to amuse.
Pinkie pulled and yanked on the tennis ball, to no effect. "Gee, this one's really stuck!" she said. She planted her hooves against the fence and leaned backwards until she was looking at Ace upside-down. "Look at how hard I'm pull--WHOA," she shouted as the ball suddenly popped out. The fence rattled as Pinkie Pie flopped backwards, head-over-hooves, and landed with a squeak.
Ace, concerned, rushed over to her. "Are you alright?" he asked.
Pinkie looked up at him and giggled. "Yeah, I'm fine. I’m always tumbling around and falling. It’s why my hair’s so cushiony and soft!"
The stallion chuckled a bit and helped her up. "Well, that's good. It's your serve again, unless you want to call it a day." He considered the clouds. "Looks like rain, soon."
Pinkie looked back at the sky. "Oh boy! I was just starting to get thirsty, too!"
Ace tilted his head at her. "...You drink rainwater?"
"Not rainwater, silly!" the party pony proclaimed.
Just then, the voice of an unfamiliar mare rang out. "Pinkie! Pinkie Pie!"
Pinkie stopped bouncing. "Over here, Twilight!" she yelled back.
A purple unicorn winked onto the tennis court with a flash of light and an icy twinkle.
"Hey, Twilight!" Pinkie greeted happily, "Have you met Ace? He's a tennis whiz!"
Twilight Sparkle gave Ace a quick and polite nod before turning her attention to Pinkie Pie. "Where the hay have you... ugh. Were you seriously playing tennis?"
Pinkie gasped. "Wow, Twilight, you're great at guessing!"
Twilight massaged her face with a hoof. "It is a gift, I suppose. Now tell me, why were you playing te... actually, forget about it. I've been looking everywhere for you. We finally have the Elements, remember? We have to go confront Discord and save Equestria from eternal chaos? Ringing any bells, here?"
Ace glanced nervously at Twilight. "Discord? Eternal chaos? Oh sheesh, sorry about that; I asked her to play with me. I needed a partner, and when I saw her walking by I didn't think she was bu--"
"Alright, alright, don't worry about it. I know how she can get, though I don't know what she was doing all the way out here when we should be in Ponyville," Twilight said, trying to compose herself. She turned back to Pinkie. "Now, please, get your Element and let's go."
Pinkie nodded and retrieved her golden gem-studded necklace from the spectators’ bench where it had been tossed. "Sorry about our game, Ace," she said as she trudged back to Twilight.
Ace shuffled his hooves nervously. "Oh... you know... don't worry about it. Saving the world and whatnot, I know how that goes."
"You do!?" Pinkie looked at him with a mix of surprise, admiration, and camaraderie.
"Uh... no, not really, heh..." Ace admitted.
"Oh. Well, you should try it sometime, it's really neat!" Pinkie smiled at him.
"Alright, off we go," Twilight said impatiently, "and... Ace, was it? I recommend finding some shelter, as soon as possible."
They teleported away, interrupting Ace's somewhat confused and stammered goodbye.
* * *
Ace trotted over to his tennis bag and started packing up his equipment. A large shadow passed over the court, and a cool breeze rushed over his brow. Ah, he thought, finally, some rain.
Funny. The stallion took a deep breath. Smells like... cocoa?
He only removed his duffel bag from his head when he realized that the sudden brown downpour that followed was, in fact, chocolate.
This unforeseen development distracted his mind from all things tennis, and he zipped up his bag and took some time to really consider his surroundings.
The hills that his private tennis court were tucked into appeared to be just the wrong shade of orange for his liking, and freakishly thin, slender shadows danced macabre dances far off in the distance. A low rumbling echoed up in the strange pink clouds, like a pony doing a bad vocal impression of thunder. The chocolate downpour picked up in intensity, and he decided it would be a good idea to return to his house before things got even more unexplainable than Pinkie’s tennis skills were.
He broke into a full gallop towards the court exit, but a firm tap on the withers stopped him. He looked back and saw what he regarded as the least sensical creature that ever burned its visage into his mind.
"Ace, my lad, it's so nice to meet you!" the thing exclaimed.
The stallion shrunk away from the giant, serpent-like creature comprised of various mismatched body parts that loomed over him. It grinned a friendly-looking and snaggletoothed grin, then extended a lion’s paw in greeting. Not wanting to offend this strange, imposing creature, Ace hesitantly reached out a hoof and allowed it to be shook.
"Uh, I don’t mean to be rude, but who--what are you, and how do you know my name?" Ace inquired.
"Oh, now, I make it a point to know all sorts of things. But where are my manners? My name is Discord, and I am a draconequus," Discord bowed low, and met Ace's gaze. "And you, my friend, are named Ace, and I hear you're a bit of a tennis player," the draconequus grinned.
"I suppose you could say that, yes," Ace replied. “Would... would you be the one causing all of this rain?"
"Oh, my, yes. Isn't it lovely? So refreshing, and delicious to boot!" Discord reached behind his ear and pulled a fluffy pink cloud. He held it over his open mouth and wrung it dry of its contents. "Chocolatey!"
"And what do you want with me, then?" Ace said, building up some courage in the face of the beast's goofy demeanor.
"Ah, nothing much, really. I've just had my hands full messing with these silly ‘Elements of Harmony’--real laugh riots all of them, by the way--and I thought I'd take a break and play a bit of tennis," Discord said, suddenly twirling a tennis racket around in his talons. "It's been so long since I've played, but I have always had a fondness for the sport. When I heard you were the best around, well, I just knew I had to drop by for a visit."
Discord swung his twisted, impossible-looking tennis racket around like a baseball bat and assumed a dramatic sports pose, grinning wildly. "Whaddya say, Acey? Care for a match?"
Ace stared at Discord suspiciously. "What if I refuse?"
"I don't know,” Discord shrugged, “I wasn't expecting you to, but I guess that would mean I'd have to just go deal with those obnoxious Elements of Harmony right now, instead!" He smirked. "I bet Pinkie Pie will be good for a laugh or two, at least." The beast snapped his fingers and pointed at the sky, at which point a forking streak of lightning cut its way through the clouds. “Or, you know. We could just play a bit of tennis, instead.”
The pony cast his mind back to the summer that Nightmare Moon threatened Equestria with eternal night, and remembered how the Elements of Harmony had risked their lives to stop her. He also recalled his tennis partner’s unbreakable good cheer, and considered Discord’s threat with no small amount of dread. “...Fine,” he said reluctantly, “if it’ll keep you away from them, we’ll play tennis.”
Discord chuckled, “Good show! I hope you don't mind playing for an audience," Discord clapped his hands together twice, and a horde of freakishly distorted rabbits with stilt legs surrounded the fence of the tennis court. "So cute! Hey there, little fellas! Say hi for Daddy Discord!"
The rabbits rattled the fence with an unearthly shriek.
Somewhat shaken, Ace retrieved his equipment from his bag. Discord stood on the opposite end of the court, patiently waiting for him beneath the chocolate rain. Ace bit into his trusty racket, stood behind his baseline, and stared at Discord.
"Are you ready, then?"
"Good!" Discord produced a tennis ball from thin air, and began tossing and catching it idly. "Here's how we'll do this: We're only going to play one three-game set. I am quite a busy individual, as I'm sure you can guess, and I have lots of other havoc to wreak. I will serve first. Any questions?" He leaned on his racket, which cast strange flickering shadows on the court surface.
"Just one," Ace said, spitting out the racket. “What happens if I win?"
There was a twinkle in Discord's eye. "Aw, really, Ace? I had been hoping this would stay casual," he grinned, "but I don't know. What did you have in mind?"
Ace stared him down. "How about you leave Equestria?"
Discord laughed. "Sure thing! Whatever you say, Ace. If you win, I will banish myself from Equestria. Forever! Can we get started now?"
"And what if you win?"
Discord furrowed his brow. "I haven't thought about it. Nothing? What could I possibly want, besides the joy of playing a match against you? Don't be getting all self-important on me here, Acey! Ego doesn't suit you well."
Discord snapped his fingers, and a large neon scoreboard appeared in the air, high above the court.
* * *
The two rivals stared each other down in the chocolate rainstorm as the monstrous bunnies raucously judged Ace's mettle. Discord bounced a tennis ball on the court a few times, testing its springiness. Satisfied, he tossed the ball into the air, and lobbed it high over the net. Ace got himself underneath the slow-moving projectile and volleyed it as fast and as far away from Discord as he could. Discord drifted towards the ball, which hit the court on the far right side, only a few feet from the net, and bounced out of play. The scoreboard in the sky awarded 15 points to Ace.
Ace raised a confused eyebrow. His opponent gave him a sly wink in response, then telekinetically recovered the ball before sending over another slow, high-arcing serve. Ace twisted his head and spiked it directly over the net and into the ground, sending it sailing high over Discord's head and out of the court. The scoreboard showed 30 - love.
"I'm glad to see that the rumors about you were true!"
Ace laughed. "You're a lot worse than I expected you to be, Discord!"
The embodiment of Chaos contorted his lip and winked at him again.
Without warning, he jerked his upper body, and lashed out with his spatially tangled racket, sending the tennis ball screaming through the air at Ace's hooves. Ace barely had time to react, diving forward and scooping underneath the ball to tap it back over the net. Discord sauntered over to intercept it and nudged the ball to the edge of the court, bringing the score to 30-15.
Discord gave a hearty laugh, and the horde of nightmarish rabbits squealed in glee. What in Equestria was that? he thought. As he shook away his rattled nerves, Ace pushed himself off of the ground and readied himself for the next serve.
The draconequus wasted no time, drilling the ball with unearthly force to the edge of the court. Ace was ready for it, and returned the ball with a wild topspin that sent it into a tight arc over the net. Discord flew forward and smacked the ball with all of his considerable strength.
Back and forth the ball flew, a yellow-green blur streaking across the court in wild zigs and zags. On one side of the net, the light tan pony leaped and sprinted erratically, trying to match the unnatural speed of the ball. On the other side, Discord seemed to be everywhere at once, exploiting pockets of space-time, his headache-inducing abomination of a tennis racket carving gashes in reality as he rallied.
The two of them went through nearly a dozen balls, as they kept bursting into flame or exploding. Despite giving Ace an early advantage, Discord managed to claim victory in the first game, but Ace came back to live up to his name in the second game, outsmarting Discord with a series of inspired serves. He quickly secured a score of 40-15, which was double game point. Ace felt some confidence welling up; he'd beat this fiend with his all-time favorite past-time, and save Equestria simultaneously. He'd be a hero!
Just as he tossed the ball up for his serve, the hideous rabbit army began screaming in horrible, demonic voices. Ace's concentration broke, and he flubbed the serve straight into his opponent’s racket. Discord slammed it back for a very easy point.
"Discord!" Ace growled.
Discord shrugged innocently, but couldn't totally suppress his smile. "Wasn't me!"
Because a player's body counts as part of the tennis court, Ace spiked the ball into Discord's smug face to win the game.
Discord rubbed his snout gingerly as the scoreboard reset itself for the last game of the set. "Oh, Ace," Discord said, sounding disappointed, "I never took you for that kind of a player. So spiteful! Well, if this is the kind of game you wish to play, I'm more than happy to oblige."
"Shut up and serve."
"Have it your way!"
Discord slapped the ball, which traveled in random loops and corkscrews. Ace stared it down and smacked it out of the air like an errant insect. Discord returned it in even crazier twists and whorls, causing Ace to scamper all over the court. The spirit of chaos kept this up for several minutes, lazily drifting around and letting Ace's stamina drain away. The tennis-playing stallion finally second-guessed himself, and lunged to the left as the ball sailed to the right.
"Need a break there, Acey? You seem tired!"
"No... breaks... in tennis... Keep going..." Ace wheezed.
"Haha, true enough. Good on ya, mate!"
Ace's hooves began to ache. The relentless downpour of chocolate had soaked him to the bone, and his cocoa-filled hair impeded his vision. Puddles began making the clay court slippery and treacherous, a hazard that Discord conveniently avoided by flying and teleporting.
The stallion's neck was on fire as he twisted and jerked, trying to match the sporadic flight of Discord's hits. His teeth ground into the rubber grip of the racket until he could taste the aluminum frame.
Ace changed direction to return another hit when his hooves slipped in a puddle. He toppled into the liquid as the ball flew by. The rabbits crawled over each other in a grotesque pile, and their high-pitched, keening laughter resonated in Ace’s ears until he felt ready to scream.
"Aw, now I feel bad," Discord cooed. “Here, let me put a little spring in your step!"
The sports stallion felt himself being magically lifted up and placed on his hooves. The court felt different, somehow. Softer; more pliable.
"Should make things a bit more interesting, don't you think?"
Testing the bounce of the new court, Discord’s ever-present grin widened when the court violently propelled the ball high above his head. He smacked it as it came back down. It soared over the net and into the ground, rocketing up and out of sight.
"That'd be 40-love, haha! Looks like I've still got my skills, even after all this time!"
"What's the point of this? Why challenge me if you aren't going to play by the rules?"
The creature-conglomerate threw up his hands. "Where would be the fun in that!?" he interrobanged.
Though weak from fatigue, Ace found himself with renewed resolve. He thought about his friends and family, his home, Pinkie Pie and the other Elements of Harmony, and all of the other ponies and places that this monster had presumably ruined and corrupted while he was out playing tennis. Anger percolated through his brain. This... this thing was making a mockery of his favorite sport in life, through flagrant and shameless cheating! He threatened Pinkie Pie, and all of Equestria! He disfigured innocent rabbits!
His anger became a righteous fury. Ace found renewed strength flowing through his body. He would overcome this draconequus, and exile him from Equestria! More importantly, he would show him how to play tennis with honor!
Channelling the spirit of his new-found tennis-playing friend, Ace began bouncing on the rubber court, gaining some altitude. He clenched his jaw on the racket handle and stared Discord down.
Discord served, and the ball zoomed in a straight line over the net. Ace timed his bounces so that he would be in perfect position to deflect it. Discord started sending the ball all over the place, but Ace was a tennis-playing machine. No matter where or how Discord tried to hit the ball, Ace was already in its path. Soon, neither of them were allowing the ball to bounce on the ground at all. They started volleying skyward, upwards of twenty feet in the air. Ace stonewalled every shot, and soon, Discord was on the defensive.
"This is getting dull," Discord sighed.
Ace fell from 25 feet in the air, to discover that the rubber court had become clay once more. He rolled his body with the impact, but his fore-hooves got caught in the maneuver. Yelling out, he dropped to the clay, gingerly holding out his sprained limbs.
Discord tapped the ball over the net. It bounced and rolled into Ace's flank. The bunnies contorted their freakish paws together in a macabre parody of applauding.
"I win! Good game, sir,” Discord said, reaching over and grabbing the pony’s twisted fore-hoof for a quick shake. “Your reputation is certainly well-deserved. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have six meddlesome ponies to deal with.” The mischievous spirit donned a purple and red bowler hat with a flourish, then unceremoniously tossed his tennis racket over his shoulder and into a hole in the universe. ”They should be getting close to my throne by now, the misguided buggers. Toodles!"
Discord disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Ace groaned as he clambered onto his sprained hooves. He shambled over to his tennis bag, put away his equipment, and began limping home.
I want a rematch.