Fluttershy politely listened to Twilight’s opening song, feeling that she owed her friend far more than that. As Pinkie took the stage, she quietly sulked out of the reception and into the empty sections of the royal gardens. She hated large crowds, even in the best of times, and with the day’s events she didn’t particularly feel like being around a big crowd. Had she not seen fit to see the bride and groom off, she would have slinked right off to her suite and gone to bed.
She hadn’t been paying the greatest attention to where she was going, so she didn’t notice the statue she was walking toward until she was right in front of it. It was Discord, still frozen in stone, his face still stuck in the same horrified expression.
She looked at the statue, shivers running down her spine. She had suffered the least from Discord’s games, she had been brainwashed rather than broken after all, but any amount of time around the draconequus was enough to drive anypony mad. The thought of all that cruelty, that sadism, twisting and corrupting her mind...it still caused her stomach to lurch.
She had lost track of how long she had stared at the statue before a voice called behind her. “Fluttershy?”
The yellow pegasus gave a small cry and whirled around. However, her panic quickly subsided when she saw who it was.
Iron Will stood before her, looking the same as he did when she had last seen her a few months ago. However, at the same time, for reasons Fluttershy couldn’t quite grasp, he looked different. He had the same blue coat, the same horns, and, she assumed, the same muscular build underneath his tuxedo.
Then it hit her: it was his attitude. His shoulders were slumped, bags were now under his eyes, and his face wore the expression of a minotaur with a lot on his mind.
“Iron Will,” she remembered to return the greeting. “Um, it’s nice to see you again.”
“Likewise,” he responded, in a calmer tone than Fluttershy had ever remembered him speaking in. “I’m glad you’re here, I was hoping for a chance to talk to you again.”
She blinked. He was speaking using pronouns. That was just another difference in his demeanor now. It was like an entirely new minotaur was standing in front of her. “Well, okay, but can we talk somewhere else? I really don’t want to be around...him,” she motioned to Discord.
“I can’t blame you for that,” he admitted. “Come on, let’s take a walk.”
Fluttershy followed the suggestion, all too eager to leave the area. The pair walked in silence for a while, until they finally came upon the royal hedge maze. Though this was the location where they had first met Discord in the flesh, it was a better alternative than being in front of Discord himself, so she didn’t complain as they entered.
They didn’t speak at first, opting instead to simply navigate the twists and turns of the labyrinth in silence. Finally, after a few turns Iron Will spoke. “Fluttershy, I wanted to apologize.”
She turned her head, tilting it at a confused angle. “Huh? You mean, for everything that happened a few months ago?”
“Yes,” he said, as softly as his deep voice would allow. “My seminar made you that way...you nearly lost your friends because of me. I...I caused you a lot of grief.”
Fluttershy was stunned. She had seen signs of this new attitude the last time she had spoken with the minotaur. After accepting that she wasn’t satisfied, he had left without a fight, only to return moments later, having thought to inquire why she wasn’t happy. She gave her reasons, gently but firmly, and once again he left without any fuss. This time, he had not come back. During that time, she could see the shock on his face, which seemed to be quickly replaced by worry and concern. She had felt bad, but assumed a creature with as much pride as him would be back to his old self quickly. But seeing him like this, months later, worried her.
“You have nothing to apologize for,” she assured. “You were only trying to help me, I just took it the wrong way. You can’t blame yourself for the things I did.”
“If it were only you, I’d believe that,” he sighed. “But after you refused to pay, I decided to go through my records and check on my other alumni. I wasn’t...pleased with the results.”
His companion couldn’t help but shiver. “Oh my, you mean others were acting the way I was?”
Iron Will didn’t answer in words, but simply hung his head and turned away. It told Fluttershy everything she needed to know.
“Do you know why I started my seminars on being assertive?”
The pegasus shook her head.
“Well, you might not believe this, but as a child I was bullied.”
Her eyes widened in shock. She didn’t believe it. “You? But you’re so big and strong!”
“I am now,” he told her simply, though there was a hint of pride in his voice at the compliment. “But as a child, I was small for my age. Every calf that was bigger than me would grind me into the ground. And if they weren’t doing that, they were calling me names, mocking me...” he trailed off.
Fluttershy lifted herself off the ground, putting a comforting hoof on his shoulder. “Believe me, I know how that feels,” she said. She tried not to think about it, but the cruel chant often sung to her in flight school still hurt to remember.
“Then, I just sprung up overnight. Went from being the smallest calf in my class to the biggest. Now every bully was inviting me to hurt the ones who hadn’t grown yet, but I had a better idea.”
“You decided to protect them instead,” the pegasus said sagely.
“Yes. I remembered how it felt to be treated that way. I did whatever I could to protect the ones that couldn’t protect themselves.”
Fluttershy flew up and patted him on the shoulder. “I have a friend named Rainbow Dash. She protected me from all kinds of bullies back in flight school. I don’t think I would have made it without her. Believe me, you did a lot of good doing that.”
Iron Will smiled, somewhat proudly. For a moment he seemed to regain some of his old attitude. “I eventually started my seminars because I wanted to help others who were in the same situation I was in as a calf. But I didn’t get enough business back home. Minotaur society is heavily based on combat anyway, so there weren’t many who needed my help.”
“So you came to Equestria,” she guessed.
“Exactly. I figured I was more needed in a more...peaceful area.” It was obvious he had to search for a term that was non-offensive. “I immediately set up shop and went to work. Everypony I helped was satisfied. I was beginning to become known. Then I met you.”
Fluttershy nodded to show she understood. He continued. “I found out...I was making ponies into the very thing I was trying to teach them to stand up to. I was only making things worse.” He slumped his back, looking more dejected. “I...think your friend was right to call me a monster.”
“No she wasn’t,” Fluttershy assured. “She was just upset. You’re not a monster.”
“I like your optimism,” Iron Will started, “but...”
“No buts,” she said firmly. “A monster would have been happy to cause all that trouble. A monster would have blamed something or somepony else for their mistake. You’re not doing either of those things. You just made a mistake, and it’s a mistake a lot of ponies make.”
Iron Will arched an eyebrow. “And what’s that?”
“Assuming the worse out of others,” she answered simply. “Ponies expect the worst out of others, and they act their worst in return. It teaches others to expect the worst too. That’s where so many problems come from. Everypony makes that mistake. I made it today.”
At this, her companion gave a surprised look. “You?”
Now Fluttershy was hanging her head in shame. “My friend Twilight saw through the Changeling Queen’s disguise. She tried to warn us. We assumed she was just being jealous that her brother was getting married. We hurt her very badly because of it.”
She was beginning to tear up. Iron Will tried putting a comforting hand on her, but it was awkward. He clearly wasn’t used to more intimate interaction.
She continued. “Then we did it again. When we went to apologize to her, we were all expecting her to be angry with us and to insult us, but she didn’t. She was very understanding, and I felt bad for thinking so little of her.”
“Um...there, there,” Iron Will said nervously, his inexperience showing.
At that point, Fluttershy realized she was bearing her soul to someone who had come to her for comfort. She quickly bit back her tears, trying to concentrate on helping Iron Will. “So you shouldn’t feel so bad. I made the same mistake today that you did. It doesn’t make me a bad pony.”
He scratched his chin a moment, thinking. “Wait, didn’t you make a mistake by not assuming the worst of the fake princess?”
The pegasus bowed her head, looking somewhat embarrassed. “Um, well, I guess I kind of did,” she muttered. Despite her desires, she started crying again. “It may seem strange after what I just said, but Twilight’s my friend, and she’s proven herself several times to be reliable, smart, and kind. I should have expected the best from her before I expected the best in a stranger.”
Iron Will rubbed the back of his head uncertainly, not sure what to say. “So that philosophy isn’t completely perfect.”
She shook her head slowly, trying in vain to keep her tears in. “If there ever was something that could perfectly tell somepony how to live, everypony would be completely happy. No, I tried assuming the best of a stranger, and I ended up hurting a friend because of it. And, you know, trying to see the best in everyone is why I see the worst in myself.”
The minotaur nodded. “You don’t stand up for yourself because you’re afraid to be the bad guy if you do.”
Fluttershy looked at him, tilting her head in mild surprise.
“They may have been flawed, but I did enough of those seminars to know how ponies think.”
She nodded in understanding. “You’re right. I was so worried about hurting others that I let them hurt me. When I used what you taught me, it felt so good...I started using it all the time, whether it was needed or not, and I hurt ponies because of it.” She was sobbing again.
“And that’s my fault,” Iron Will sighed. “I made you like that.”
“No,” Fluttershy said firmly, putting on her best stern expression, despite her tears. “I acted that way. I’m responsible for my own behavior. You cannot hold yourself accountable for my actions.”
“Fluttershy, I drove you to that. I may not be entirely to blame, but it’s still my fault anyway. We both made mistakes.”
Fluttershy widened her eyes in shock. Then she closed them and looked away. “Twilight said something like that,” she said. Her tears were flowing freely now. Pain was in her heart. “She said the way she tried to tell us, we had every right to think she was being jealous.”
Iron Will rubbed the back of his neck. “Well...do you think she has a point?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “But I still feel bad. We all do. I suppose we’re all trying to figure out who was right in all this.”
The minotaur sighed, shaking his head. “I don’t think morality can be figured out just like that. Applying logic to it doesn’t always work. My logic was when someone acts like a jerk, be a jerk right back, and it didn’t do too well. Your logic told you to assume the best from a stranger, and it hurt your friend in the process.”
The pegasus began to cry more, and Iron Will realized he worded his last sentence badly “But you shouldn’t be feeling so bad about it. From the sound of things, the only one to blame is the Changeling Queen.”
“She said something like that too,” Fluttershy sniffed, and Iron Will slapped his forehead in frustration.
“Well, um…” Iron Will racked his brain. Thinking wasn’t his strong suit. “You just made a mistake, like you told me, right? Everypony makes them. You shouldn’t be feeling so bad about making them.”
Fluttershy hung her head, though her tears slowed. “You know, before I met Twilight, I thought I knew everything there was about being kind. That everypony had good in them, and if you were kind long enough you would bring it out. Even Nightmare Moon turned out to be a good pony underneath it all. But I’ve learned a lot since then. I’ve met creatures like Discord who don’t seem to have any good in them at all, and I’ve realized there are ponies that you need to stand up to and be firm with. I realized that I still had growing to do. And today, I saw Princess Celestia make the same mistake I did. She’s lived for more than a thousand years, and she still has something to learn.”
At that point the pair turned a corner, and immediately stopped. The turn led to a dead end, but that wasn’t what caused them to halt.
Octavia and Vinyl Scratch were in one of the corners, still covered in the Apple Family’s cooking, their forelegs around each other, and their muzzles touching.
“Mmm...you’re beautiful when you’re covered in pastry,” the deejay swooned.
“That was stupid, it made no sense and…Sweet Celestia I’m so attracted to you right now!”
They returned to their kiss while, unseen to them, Fluttershy and Iron Will slowly backed away, around the corner. They made an about face and started walking in the opposite direction. After a moment, the minotaur spoke.
“Did you see...”
“Me neither,” he agreed.
The pair walked in silence for a moment. Finally, Fluttershy spoke again.
“Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that maybe there’s a lesson we both need to learn. You’re not a monster any more than I am. You made a bad decision, that’s all. Everypony makes them, from the time they’re in the crib. You’re only bad if you don’t acknowledge them, and grow from them. No matter how old you get, you’ll still have something to learn.”
Iron Will was silent for a moment. Then, he grinned. “I guess you’re right,” he said. “I mean, I did track down every pony I taught and at least tried to reeducate them.”
“There you go, you tried to fix your mistakes. And I’m sure your seminars are better than ever now.”
The minotaur grinned. “They caught the attention of Princess Celestia herself. That’s how I got an invitation to this wedding.”
“Well there you go. You’re not a monster, and you never were. You just had some growing to do. We all do.”
Iron Will smiled. “I guess you’re right. There’s no point in worrying about a mistake you made when you learn from it.”
“And do your best to fix it,” she added.
He nodded. “Still…it’s hard not to dwell on it.”
“It is,” Fluttershy sighed. “I’m going to feel awful for a long time for not believing Twilight, no matter how much she might try to tell me everything’s okay.”
“So, what will you do about it?” he asked.
“The only thing I can do: spend time with her, and let the guilt pass,” she answered sagely.
By now, they were back outside the maze, passing Discord’s statue again. She looked at the draconequus, another shiver running down her side. “We faced Discord together, and I don’t think any of us fully recovered. But we have gotten better, because we stuck together. This has hurt us too, but we will get through it.”
Iron Will smiled. Not a proud smile like he usually gave when congratulating himself, but a warm one, one that seemed so out of place on him. “I don’t doubt that.”
“Please start talking using your name again. You hardly sound like yourself without it.”
The minotaur grinned. “Well, Iron Will is not one to deny a lady a request,” he responded, giving a playful bow. Fluttershy giggled, blushing a little at her companion’s chivalric attitude.
At that point Twilight’s singing started up again. Fluttershy perked up, glancing in the direction of her friend’s voice. Seeing this, Iron Will offered his hand. “Would you like to dance?”
The pegasus faces him, her face turning red. She raised her hoof. “I…I’d like that.”