Applejack held Ben firmly over the sink with one hoof and kept the bar of soap in his mouth with the other. Ben tried to struggle, but it was futile against the adult earth pony.
“Are ya ready ta apologize?” Applejack asked sternly. Ben glared at her with murder in his eyes. “Don’t give me that look,” she said. “You were the one cussin’ and carryin’ on and now ya gotta take the consequences. Ya shouldn’t ha’ been so rude, neither. Granny was askin’ ya ta tell Twilight thank you fer givin’ ya them books and ya went and held yer nose at her like she was some smelly piece o’ trash!”
Ben’s glare lessened and an unmistakable “hnn?” escaped his mouth.
“Whaddaya mean ‘huh?’”
Ben glared again and gestured to the soap.
“You gonna start cussin’ again if Ah take this out?”
Ben kept glaring but slowly shook his head.
“Alright, but Ah don’t want ya cussin’ anymore, ya hear?”
Ben nodded. Applejack removed the soap and the colt dove his head under the faucet. He ran the water all throughout his mouth, spitting and making disgusted noises in the process. “Now, what’d ya say ‘huh’ fer?” Applejack asked when he was done rinsing.
“Because I wasn’t holding my nose at Twilight,” Ben replied, still angry. “I have a habit of pinching the bridge of my nose whenever I’m mildly frustrated. The habit carried over into this body even though I can’t do it without fingers and this stupid muzzle doesn’t even have a bridge!”
Applejack felt a pit in her stomach. She thought he was being rude when he was just acting under the influence of his delusions. The whole conflict could’ve been easily avoided if she had just kept her temper. Yes, Ben had started cursing, but that was only because she had gotten mad at him first. She felt so ashamed. Some foster parent she was, making one mistake after another.
Oblivious to Applejack’s guilty conscience, Ben started ranting. “I can’t even properly express myself anymore! I’m nowhere close to getting home even though I have magic, which should let me change reality on a whim, but I can’t hardly lift a rock!” Ben’s voice broke and he started rubbing furiously at his eyes. “And if that wasn’t enough, I’m not even in the right body! At least if I was an adult pony, I wouldn’t have to deal with foster care and pitying looks and all that other crap, but no! I’m in the body of some helpless little colt and everyone’s treating me like one even though I’m not and I can’t stop crying and everyone’s holding me back and I hate my life and I just want to go HOME!”
Applejack failed to keep a tear of her own from leaking out as Ben broke down again, knowing that this was her fault. “Oh, Ben,” she sniffled, “Ah’m so sorry.” She reached out and hugged the colt, but he tried to pull away. “Ah’m sorry,” she choked out, holding him closer, “Ah’m sorry.” Ben tried to resist the embrace, but he eventually put his little forelegs around Applejack’s neck. The mare and colt held each other in the library bathroom and cried as one apologized repeatedly.
When the two broke apart, they exited the bathroom and noticed that Granny had left the library. Twilight was likely in her own room. Spike had his snout in a comic book, but waved when he saw them walk by. Ben gave a brief wave in return before they exited the library.
“Ah’m awful sorry,” said Applejack as they walked down the street. “Ah shouldn’t ha’ started yellin’ at ya like that.”
Ben sighed. “Yeah, I was being a bit of a jackass too.” Applejack stiffened, which Ben seemed to notice. He sighed. “Most everyone talks like that where I come from.”
Worry and even more guilt shot through Applejack like an arrow. Yet another reminder of Ben’s terrible life and she had just gone and made things worse. “That don’t sound like a very nice place,” she said carefully.
Ben shrugged. “It’s a cruel world, but it’s home. My home.”
Applejack did not know what to say. How could anypony be attached to a place that was cruel? What made Ben the way he was?
“You know, I’m curious,” Ben commented.
“‘Bout what?” asked Applejack.
“I figured I’d be put with some foster family, but I was kinda wondering why they put me with you specifically. Did you volunteer or something?”
“Ah was asked to.”
“Why’re ya wonderin’?” Was he hoping to be put with somepony else? Had she completely broken her promise to help by doing what she did?
“It’s just a little odd that the first per— uh… local I met here is the same one picked to watch me.”
Applejack recalled Warm Light’s reasons for choosing her. How it was possible that she reminded Ben of his mother, or at least somepony who had shown him kindness. She had failed in that regard. She would have to tell the counselor about the incident and hope they found somepony better to take care of Ben.
The two ponies continued their walk back to Sweet Apple Acres in silence. The mare dreaded the inevitable talk with Warm Light, but it was for the best.
When Applejack and Ben made it to the farm, the mare took the colt upstairs to his new room, which Granny had fixed up in their absence. She helped Ben take off his saddlebags and he took out the books. He tried to get into the bed, but Applejack had to help him up. Once on the comfortable mattress, he opened a book and began reading. His body language made it very clear that he wanted to be left alone. Applejack obliged and headed outside. There was still work to be done, after all. Her brief stint as a foster mother would not change that. She avoided Granny’s gaze on the way out.
Applejack spent the next few hours trying her best to focus on her work and put Ben out of mind. She was going to fess up to Warm Light and Ben would be taken someplace better by the end of the day. Nevertheless, she was still plagued by her guilt. This in turn greatly affected her ability to focus. Big Mac was quick to take notice.
“Somethin’ on yer mind?” he asked.
“What makes ya think that?” asked Applejack, her depression plain as day.
“Ya look like somepony just told ya Winona died.” As if to emphasize Big Mac’s point, Winona walked up and started licking Applejack’s face.
After taking a moment to calm her beloved dog down, Applejack turned to face her brother. “Ah done messed up somethin’ terrible,” she began. She proceeded to explain what had happened. “Ah’m the worst foster parent ever,” she lamented, “Punishin’ a hurt little colt over a stupid misunderstandin’.”
“Ain’t no sense beatin’ yerself up over it,” said Big Mac.
“Ain’t you heard a word Ah just said? Ben’s a right wreck and Ah just made it worse!”
“Everypony messes up.”
“This ain’t some little mistake that can be fixed later, Big Mac! Ah didn’t forget ta kiss ‘im goodnight or anythin’ small like that! Ah hurt ‘im! Ah can’t just take that back!”
“So what’re ya gonna do?”
Applejack sighed, hanging her head. “Ah’m gonna have ta tell Warm Light about it. Tell her the truth so she can find somepony who’ll take care of Ben ten times better than me.”
Big Mac did not reply at first, but he did place a hoof across his sister’s withers. “You oughta tell the counselor ‘bout what happened,” he said, “But Ah don’t think ya should give up.”
“Ah have to. Ah can’t take care of Ben if Ah go messin’ up like this.”
“Taint no reason ta give up. Ah don’t know much about that counselin’ stuff, but Ah figure that Warm Light’ll tell ya the same thang.”
“Ah doubt it.”
“Figured. Now, come on. We still got work ta do.”