Chapter 10: Assuming the Best
Later that week, Sweetie was wrapping up another lesson with Fluttershy. The yellow pegasus hadn't seemed shocked at all by Sweetie's new paw. In fact, Fluttershy had taken a close interest in it, amazed to see the joints and everything else in action, and even pointing out where several of the middle pieces didn't quite match those of a real canine foot.
After saying her goodbyes, Sweetie Belle was singing a simple tune, happy as could be with the glorious spring weather as she trotted back to town after the time she'd spent with the kind pegasus and her animals. Then they happened.
Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon were walking up the road toward her, and moved to block her from passing.
"Hey, gimpy!' Diamond said in her usual mocking tone. "You gonna be a pirate next talent show?"
"Yeah, pegleg!" Silver chimed in. "Or are ya turnin' into a dog?"
"Oh, maybe she's a scurvy sea dog?"
Sweetie felt time slow down. Or maybe her thoughts just sped up. She still wasn't sure quite how that ability worked. The result, at least from her perspective, was the same though. She had all the time in the world. The question was, what to do with it.
These two troublemakers had been harassing her and her friends—as well as the rest of the foals at school—for years. In her previous encounters with the duo, before she'd discovered the extent of her abilities, she'd always been shy. The mocking the two delivered just made her want to tuck her tail and run, avoiding any undue attention. Now though, there was something different.
For one, she was now possibly the most powerful unicorn—or unicorn-like golem—in the world. With the power in her magic, she could slice them in two faster than she had the wolf. That'd be messy, though. She could vaporize them, of course, letting them evaporate into whiffs of hydrogen, ozone, and carbon monoxide. She could flay them, boil their blood, or crush them like they'd been hit by a train. Scaling down from there, she could snap a few bones, or set their tails on fire, causing only some temporary pain. She could even just fuse their hooves together, turn them plaid, and hang them from the weathervane on top of the schoolhouse to be mocked. Skipping magic entirely, she could simply scratch them with her new claws, or push them into the muddy ditch beside the road. She could do anything, and for her, "anything" was a much larger set of options than for most any other pony in existence.
But there was a second, much more important thing which was different now as well. Sweetie had come to know herself. She knew who she truly was. That's where real power came from, and what bullies exploited when they found it lacking. They dug at insecurities they could sense in others, mocking them and teasing even the slightest of differences, no matter how trivial. But Sweetie Belle realized now, in this clear moment, that power was lost forever to these two, at least over her.
What she knew about herself was that it wasn't in her to be mean or vindictive. Because of that, she knew she never would do any of those awful things, even though she could. When she'd killed the timberwolf, it had been a last resort—the only way to save her friends. Even then, she'd taken care to make sure the creature suffered as little as possible. That creature, vicious though it may have been, actually deserved more respect than the two fillies before her in a way. It was a beast, operating on instinct, and likely diseased. It may have had no idea what it was doing.
These two however, did things with actual intent to cause direct harm, albeit on a small and reversible scale. As such, it was strangely harder to sympathize with them than the monstrous creature that had ripped her own leg off. Still though, she felt bad for them. She wondered what must've happened in their lives to make them so miserable. What must it be like to live a life where lashing out and mocking others is the only way you've found to interact with other ponies? Sweetie found that, despite their flaws, she could only feel sorry for the two. She had the best friends in the world, a loving family, and everything else that mattered. She had to assume that, as much as they seemed cold and heartless on the outside, these two must have it so much worse than anypony imagined to always lash out like they do, and they really just needed a friend. So, she did the only thing she could.
She hugged them.
"You did what?" Apple Bloom said, after meeting up with Sweetie and Scootaloo in the treehouse for another sleepover.
"I hugged them both, and invited them to come see our new headquarters!"
"Those two? Seriously?" Scootaloo said, sounding a bit miffed herself.
"Well, you invited them to your cutecenera."
"That was different. I wanted them to see how awesome I was."
"Well, I'm being sincere about it. I really hope they come visit sometime."
"But... Why?" Apple Bloom said. "Ya know those two are always just makin' trouble and bein' mean."
"I don't know, I think maybe they just need friends."
"But we tried bein' their friends," Apple Bloom said. "It didn't work!"
"Did you really try, though?"
"Yeah," Scootaloo said. "Like AB said, it didn't work with those two!"
"So you tried being friends the same way you tried to fly?"
Scootaloo looked at Sweetie Belle while trying to think of a retort, but Sweetie just continued.
"When you couldn't fly, you kept trying. You kept trying longer and harder than any pegasus I've ever heard of. You didn't give up. And Apple Bloom," Sweetie said, turning to the earth pony. "How hard did you try? Did you try as hard as you did to save your sister?"
"Sweetie," Apple Bloom said. "That ain't the same thing..."
"It is!" Sweetie Belle said, more determined than ever now to get her point across. "It is the same thing! You can't give up on something just because it's hard; not if it's the right thing to do."
Scootaloo and Apple Bloom both laid their ears flat at the chastisement. Sweetie took a deep breath, letting it out slowly before she continued.
"Look, I know it's hard. Diamond and Silver are mean. They've teased us all for years. But when they got in my way yesterday, something just clicked. What if, instead of seeing them only as the mean bullies they always act like, we try to assume the best? I really think that, underneath it all, they're just lonely and sad. We should be the bigger ponies, and reach out to help them, even if it means we have to keep trying over and over."
"Assume the best?" Scootaloo said. "What if what's underneath is even worse?"
"How much worse could it be?" Sweetie said jokingly. "I mean, what're they going to do, call you chicken and attack you with a giant timberwolf?"
Scootaloo laughed, and Apple Bloom chuckled as well.
"That's my point," Sweetie said. "I don't think they can hurt us anymore. After what we've seen and done, a few insults from a couple of spoiled brats is just a joke. But it's not a joke if we can actually help two fillies become better ponies, right?"
"Yeah," Apple Bloom said, nodding sincerely now. "If it were any other ponies, I wouldn't have questioned ya wanting to make friends. But yer right, we need to assume the best in everypony, even those two. Maybe we'll end up helpin' some other foals too, if we can get those bullies to quit teasin' everypony."
The two then looked at Scootaloo.
"Okay," she said. "I'm in. Trying to be friends with them can't be any harder than rocket science."
"What's a 'rocket'?" Apple Bloom asked.
"Tell you later. I think you'll love it!"
"Okay!" Sweetie said, putting her hoof out. "On three?"
The other fillies put their hooves in as well, and on three shouted, "Cutie Mark Crusaders: Friendship Initiators!"
Later that night, long after the moon had reached its zenith, the Crusaders were awoken by the sounds of howling.
"What was that?" Apple Bloom said, the first to fully wake up. Looking at the windows, she could see the sky bright with a nearly full moon, shining on nearby branches, but not even a hint of dawn. She was about to roll over and go back to sleep when she heard another howl. "You girls hear that?"
Rubbing her eyes, Sweetie looked up from her sleeping bag. "What's going on, Bloom?"
Another howl served as an answer.
Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom both got up and went to look out the windows as the howling continued. While the moon lit the orchard and the forest in the distance, it did little to reveal details on the ground from the altitude of the treehouse. Sweetie opened the door and walked onto the back porch.
The chill night air whipped into the headquarters, causing the still sleeping Scootaloo to roll over and pull her sleeping bag tight around her head. "Come on, Scootaloo, get up," Apple Bloom said, nudging the pegasus with a hoof. The gesture was ignored like the wind though, and Apple Bloom went to the porch to join Sweetie.
The next howls sounded much louder without glass and doors in the way, and combined with a well timed gust of wind. Scootaloo leapt out of bed with a shriek.
"What the hay was that?" she said a moment later, hovering near the ceiling in the far corner.
Apple Bloom turned to look inside from the porch, and explained what they were hearing. Joining them on the porch as the howls continued, Scootaloo leaned over the railing. "Sounds like they're coming from right below us."
"Yeah, I was thinkin' the same thing," Apple Bloom said.
"You think it's more timberwolves?"
"I'd say that's a fair bet."
The howls, which had been singular and intermittent, now sang together, multiple voices joined in a chorus.
"Ugh..." Scootaloo said, shivering. "That's creepy sounding!"
"Yeah," Apple Bloom said. "It's eerie. Gives me goosebumps."
"I think it's beautiful," Sweetie Belle said. "They sound so incredibly sad, yet they're still singing."
The other two looked over at the unicorn. She was sitting on her haunches, nose up, eyes closed, letting the moonlight wash over her as she listened. The sounds struck a chord deep inside her, bringing back the guilt she felt for killing the timberwolf. She was glad she'd saved her friends, of course, but in the time since, her mind kept returning to that moment, thinking there must've been some other way. Even though it had been trying... no... that's not right, she thought. The timberwolf was a living creature, not a thing. "She" was the pronoun. Even thoughshe had been trying to kill Sweetie too, the timberwolf still deserved better. She was probably only protecting herself, or maybe these others howling below. It probably wasn't her fault that she'd gotten in a fight with Applejack and Winona. But at the end, there was no other option. It was her or Scootaloo.
Tears began to form in Sweetie's eyes as the other two watched. "I think they knew the one I killed," Sweetie said, when a lull in the howling came a moment later. Opening her eyes, she turned to her friends. "I think they're here for her."
Not sure what to do, Apple Bloom responded with a shrug. "I'm not sure that's how they even think, Sweetie."
"Yeah, Sweetie," Scootaloo added. "I'm sure they're just howling because the moon's out and stuff."
The unicorn stood, walking back inside the clubhouse. "I don't think so," she said, retrieving the splinter she'd found in her hoof during the previous sleepover. "They're mourning. I have to let them say goodbye. I have to go apologize."
"Whadaya mean?" Apple Bloom said. "You're not going down there, are you?"
"That's crazy!" Scootaloo said, moving to block the front door.
"It's okay, Scootaloo," Sweetie said. "Don't worry, I don't think they mean to hurt anypony." And with that, she disappeared in a flash of light.
Facehooving, Scootaloo turned and flew out the door, as Apple Bloom made for the long staircase behind her.
Sweetie Belle wasn't stupid. She'd teleported to the lower part of the staircase, rather than all the way down, giving her the chance to survey things and descend the last dozen yards on hoof. She saw three timberwolves a small ways out from the trunk. They were small—for timberwolves—each standing maybe just a bit larger than Celestia. They were sitting in a rough circle, facing one another, snouts held high to the moon and branches. As she descended, the howling stopped and they turned to watch her. With each step, they appeared to get more nervous, green eyes glowing brighter, lips curling to reveal sharp fangs. She could feel their tension, their nervousness at this unknown intruder. It was only natural that they'd respond this way.
The thump of hooves on wood sounded behind Sweetie Belle, and the wolves began to growl. Sweetie turned and saw Scootaloo had landed a little ways above her on the spiral staircase. As the pegasus got sight of the wolves, her eyes widened, but she started to descend anyway. The wolves growled as she did, and Sweetie quickly held up a hoof, telling her to stop. As she did so though, louder hoofsteps sounded from above, and Scootaloo was quickly joined by Apple Bloom.
"Girls, please. Stop," Sweetie said, pleading quietly with her friends.
Looking at the glowing eyes and growling jaws behind their friend, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo were reluctant to agree.
"Please," Sweetie continued. "I have to do this. Trust me."
Trust. The two knew they couldn't afford to lose trust in their friend. Even if she was acting a bit crazy, well...
Apple Bloom thought back to when she'd first brought a knife to their clubhouse, relying on her friends not to desert her after she told them her weird story, hoping they'd trust her, and not think she was crazy. She had to do the same for Sweetie now. "Okay, Sweetie," she said.
Scootaloo thought along similar lines, remembering the trust her friends put in her nearly every time she came up with some convoluted stunt to earn their marks. Then there were all the times they'd blindly hopped into the wagon and let her drag them throughout town at insane speeds. Sweetie had earned her trust, and so Scootaloo stopped her descent, nodding in acquiescence.
Smiling, Sweetie turned to face the timberwolves. The trio was still growling lowly, and were stalking slowly toward the base of the stairs. Sweetie took a few hesitant steps down the stairs to meet them. With each step she made, the wolves would growl or otherwise show their nervousness. Using what she'd learned working with Fluttershy, Sweetie knew to take it slow, let the creatures get used to each movement. The important thing was not to surprise them. This let her slowly descend without provoking an attack. When she got to within a dozen steps of the bottom, the wolves had reached the base of the stairs themselves. Each time she tried to take a further step though, the wolves would react much more aggressively than before, appearing ready to attack if she descended any lower, and she'd bring her leg back to the same step.
At an impasse, Sweetie knew she could use her magic at any point to restrain or block the wolves. She could hold them down, force them to the side, drive them off, or pretty much anything else... even kill them. But she wasn't here to attack or to fight. She had to assume they weren't either. There'd been enough of that already. She was here to apologize. So, she did the only thing she could.
She closed her eyes and began to sing.
The song was low—quiet at first, but building. It came out of the darkness, long, steady notes sweeping gently up and down in pitch. There were no words—at least none ever known to ponies—but it evoked a melancholic loneliness in all who heard it. As it grew louder, the notes of sadness and regret built slowly into a core melody, lilting and weaving through each other into higher, brighter ideals. Friendship, family, and camaraderie spun around each other, adding strength and purpose. Those grew, aiding, complementing one another, leading to a crescendo of pure, unassailable, and absolute determination. Three howls gradually joined in, speaking of love, of loss, and of hope. Sweetie's voice danced between them all, harmonizing, caressing, accepting each in fullness before moving to the next. A four-part harmony arose, waves of shared pain crashing and battering in an endless storm of fear before softer notes eventually washed onto a quiet shore. There, gentle notes rose and fell, lapping against the now sunny tones, healing wounded limbs and hearts. The opening melody then reapproached, coruscating notes a reminder of earlier sadness, but tempered now by higher peaks, hinting at a better path. Cooler moods arrived, drawing down the last residual heat from the crescendo. Fading, the melody wandered back into the darkness, melancholy voice still there, but no longer alone among the lingering howls.
Scootaloo and Apple Bloom had stood transfixed, mouths agape, eyes locked on the scene below them as Sweetie Belle had begun to sing in not-quite-words. The song was amazing in itself, like nothing they'd ever heard, but what was more amazing was the effect it had on the timberwolves below. The creatures had immediately stopped their menacing behavior, and by the time the melody had become apparent, all three wolves had sat down near the base of the stairs, leaving enough room for Sweetie to descend. And she had. That was what had really surprised the two. Sweetie had walked right off the stairs and stepped between them. As she sang, she moved from one to the next, touching them gently with her paw or a hoof. When the song finished, and the last howl faded, she was standing between all three of them. The spell appeared to be broken, and the two fillies were readying themselves to rush in if the worst happened.
Sweetie Belle opened her eyes and, smiling, looked at the three wolves around her. "Thank you," she said, tears running down her cheeks. The wolves stared down at her, their glowing eyes blinking slowly. "I'm sorry, but this is all I have." She extended her paw, the splinter from the wolf she'd killed held in the middle of it.
Sniffing, the first wolf came closer. It looked at the splinter, nosing it in her paw, before stepping back. Sweetie felt as if it was saying a sort of goodbye. The next one did the same, but whimpered slightly as it did so. The third also looked at it, but didn't step back. Instead, it pulled the splinter from her paw, setting it aside. Then, licking the tears off her cheek, it pulled the guilt from her heart as well.
Giggling at the wet surprise, Sweetie reached to pet the wolf. The wood felt curiously warm beneath her metal paw, its life, like her own, undeniably evident within what would otherwise be inanimate detritus. The wolf seemed to sense this as well, and leaned into the contact. At this, the other wolves came in closer, and she petted each in turn. Before long, all three were nuzzling and shoving each other, playfully vying for her attention.
"I don't believe it," Scootaloo said, looking over the railing from up on the stairs. "Are the timberwolves actually..."
"Yep... All waggin' their tails!" Apple Bloom said, smiling. "Actually," she said, looking closer before bursting into laughter. "I think Sweetie is too!"
Scootaloo saw it, and laughed herself. Then, small at their distance, but unmistakable still, they saw a flash on Sweetie Belle's hindquarters. Their eyes went wide at the realization. Sweetie had just found her cutie mark.
"I thought your song at the talent show was amazing," Scootaloo said, as the three returned to their clubhouse after the wolves had departed. "But that... There aren't words for whatever that was!" She looked toward Sweetie's flank yet again, still surprised by the newly manifested emblem. "No wonder you didn't get your mark at the talent show, if that's what you can do when you really sing!"
"That's a weird cutie mark ya got though," Apple Bloom said.
Sweetie craned her neck to look at her new cutie mark, and the other two stared as well. It was the paw print of a wolf—or perhaps her own metal limb—blue in color like her magic and blood. In front of it were three overlapping music notes, two purple, one pink, matching the colors of her mane. Above it all, two small stars.
"The notes make sense, considerin' the way ya just serenaded them wolves."
"Yeah, that was the most awesome thing I've ever heard!" Scootaloo said.
"What kinda song was that anyway, Sweetie?" Apple Bloom asked. "I ain't never heard that kinda language before."
Looking at her friend, Sweetie Belle smiled. "I don't know. I just opened up my heart and sang. It seemed like all I could do."
"Well, whatever it was, sure seemed to work. I'd never thought I'd see somepony pettin' and playin' with timberwolves like they was family pets."
"I think they accepted my apology, that's what matters."
"What was up with that?" Scootaloo asked. "I mean, timberwolves fight each other all the time."
"I'm not quite sure on the details, but I'm certain they knew the one I killed. Those might have been her cubs, or maybe just members of her pack, but they came here, seeking her."
"And you think they knew ya killed her?" Apple Bloom said.
"I'm sure of that. That's what the song was for. I was trying to let them know I had no choice, that I'd had to protect my own friends. They seemed to understand."
"I'm glad you got through to them and all," Scootaloo said. "But why would they be okay with the fact that you killed their mom or packmate or whatever?"
"I think... I think something was wrong with her. Timberwolves are vicious, sure, but not anymore than a lot of wild animals. The way that big one wouldn't give up, wouldn't stop coming after AJ, then us, even though we weren't really a threat was strange. On top of that, I don't think they're supposed to be that big either. I think it must've been sick. Maybe there's a timberwolf version of rabies that makes them big as well, or maybe it got into some poison joke. Either way, the wolves that came tonight seemed to understand that I'd had no choice. They were sad, but they were singing goodbye, not seeking revenge. I could just feel it."
With that, Apple Bloom finally understood. She finally got it. They'd had a scare a few years ago on the farm, when Winona had been bitten by a skunk which looked like it might be rabid, and Applejack had explained what the disease might do. The thought of having a loving friend lose control and attack everypony around them was unbearable. Having to kill your own friend to stop them would be even worse. Remembering how she'd felt about Winona, Apple Bloom now understood now why Sweetie Belle could feel so bad about what she'd done in killing the timberwolf. Even after it had injured Applejack, even after it attacked them all, even after it had ripped her own leg off, even then, seeing the creature at its worst, Sweetie would still always have been assuming the best.
Apple Bloom wrapped her friend in a massive and unexpected hug. "Don't ever change, Sweetie!" she said, crying. "Don't ever change!"
Sweetie Belle returned the hug, despite being unsure what had caused Apple Bloom's outburst. The earth pony let go after a moment, and stepped back.
"What was that for?" Scootaloo said, having watched from the sidelines.
"Sorry," Apple Bloom said, wiping tears from her eyes, but smiling. "It just, well, it finally made sense. I think I know what your cutie mark is for, Sweetie. Or at least part of it?"
"Yeah?" Sweetie said, curious.
"You got it for always assuming the best in everypony. Even Diamond Tiara. Even Silver Spoon. Even giant timberwolves tryin' to kill ya! You always assume the best, and because of that, ya end up makin' friends out of yer enemies."
The unicorn couldn't help but smile at the compliment. "I think that's a great way to put it."
"But what's the rest mean?" Scootaloo asked, gesturing toward the mark.
Sweetie thought for a minute before replying. "To start with, I think there's a literal aspect. I love singing of course, and the notes go with that. Likewise, I have an actual paw myself, a constant reminder of my underlying nature. Figuratively, I think it represents that idea I mentioned before. 'To thine own self be true.' For me, that means two things. The paw print in the back is blue, like my magic. That's what I am. It represents my golem nature, and the incredible power I have with that. Like the claws it shows, that power can be dangerous, even fatal. My own metal paw then, is a reminder of that feral power, as well as the fact that I used it to to kill a living creature. The notes in front though, that's the other part of me. That's who I choose to be. Like AB said, it's the part of me that tries to always assume the best in others. It's music, it's kindness, it's harmony, it's friendship. It's all the things that hold back that raw, feral power I have. The notes are in front because that's how I choose to approach the world."
"Like you were saying, how you could have hurt Diamond and Silver, but you hugged them instead?"
"Yeah.. I could've done anything to them, right? I mean, anything. Tied them up, covered them in mud, hurt them, even killed them... or worse. Much worse. My abilities are pretty powerful and with great power..."
"Comes great responsibility?" Scootaloo finished, impatient.
"No. With great power, there's a lot of temptation to use it. See, you two both got your cutie marks for using your magic in amazingly powerful ways. I think I got my mark for not using mine. I could have done anything to Diamond and Silver. I could have done anything to those three wolves. But I didn't. Instead, like AB said, I chose to make friends instead."
Scootaloo laughed. "If you look at it another way though, it's almost like you got your cutie mark for not killing Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon!"
"I wouldn't quite put it that way," Sweetie said, but laughed all the same. "Seriously though, I still expect both of you to try to be friends with them!"
"What about the stars?" Scootaloo asked. "They look a lot like the ones on my mark, and, now that I think about it, the ones over the tree on AB's as well."
The three ponies looked at their various marks, comparing with those of their friends. Each mark had two small stars in various places above the main body of the emblem. Apple Bloom made the connection first. "What if it's like Twilight's mark?" she said. "Ya know, she's got those five stars, representin' the other Elements."
"You mean the stars on each of our marks are the other two of us?"
"Yeah, why not?"
The three pondered this for a moment, and in unison shouted, "Cutie Mark Crusaders: Stellar Sisters Forever!"
They say "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." I still tried my best with that bit though, and I hope it worked.