Few, if any, of the fillies and colts invited to the Welcome to Ponyville party knew what to make of the new colt. Most whispered among themselves as they watched Ben eat alone. Some wondered why he was with the Apple Family. Others wanted to know how he got such a strange name. A few decided he was probably no fun because he was by himself. To three particular fillies, however, Ben was their mission.
The trio that was the Cutie Mark Crusaders made Ben their mission for two simple reasons. The first and most obvious was that, like them, he had no cutie mark. Having friends with the same predicament would be perfect for him. The second was that they knew he needed friends. Applebloom had been there the morning Ben ranted about having no family and told her fellow Crusaders such. While empathy was not their strong point, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo took pity on Ben and agreed with Applebloom to make him a Crusader. Furthermore, Scootaloo pointed out that if they succeeded in helping Ben, they might get cutie marks in cheering up ponies, just like those counselors Doctor Graymane told them about. Thus, their mission was clear.
“CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS COUNSELORS YAY!”
Determined to spread friendship and get their marks, the three fillies approached Ben with smiles on their faces. Such smiles were well-known and feared by the denizens of Ponyville, for they were a perfect indication that Crusader shenanigans were about to occur. The fillies bore no malice behind their grins, but the ponies around them usually took warning at the sight. One could never be too careful.
The Crusaders moved to sit at sit at the table as Ben was finishing up his piece of cake. To the observant eye, Ben was in a hurry. The Crusaders were not known for being observant, however.
“Hi!” said Scootaloo.
“Hello,” said Sweetie Belle.
“Howdy,” said Applebloom.
Ben’s eyes darted to each of the three fillies. “Hey,” he greeted, looking like he wanted to be somewhere else. The fillies collectively concluded that he was shy. Nothing a little cheering up couldn’t fix.
“Remember me?” asked Applebloom.
“Face? Yes. Name? No. Something apple-related, right?”
“Ah’m Applebloom,” declared the earth pony.
“I’m Sweetie Belle,” said the unicorn.
“And I’m Scootaloo,” said the pegasus.
“AND WE’RE THE CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS!” they chorused.
Ben winced and instinctively covered his ears. “Ow.”
“Just like you, we don’t have our cutie marks yet,” Scootaloo explained.
“Our cutie marks.”
“What the heck’s a cutie mark?”
The three friends felt their collective jaws drop and eyes widen in complete incredulity. “You don’t know what a cutie mark is?” Sweetie Belle asked, not quite believing her ears.
“No, and I don’t care.”
“You should care!” Scootaloo exclaimed with great passion. “Your cutie mark shows what your special talent is! Don’t you want to be talented at anything?”
Ben looked confused, but then his eyebrows raised in a way that reminded Sweetie Belle of Rarity whenever she remembered something important. “Wait a sec, you mean to tell me that everyone gets a tattoo on their a— butts just to tell everyone else what their job is?”
“What’s a tattoo?”
“A picture you get painted onto your body, which is exactly what the rest of you have on your butts!”
“Ya can’t paint on a cutie mark!” Applebloom protested, “It’ll appear when ya figure out yer talent!” This colt wasn’t making any sense at all.
“What do you mean it’ll appear? You just wake up one morning with some magic tattoo on your ass?” Sweetie gasped at such blatantly filthy language. The other two flinched. Ben was no longer paying attention to them, however, and was now ranting at nopony in particular. “What kind of BULL[$#@] is that? How the  are you supposed to know what you’re good at based on a  picture? Like, say your picture was a water droplet; does that mean you’re a swimmer, a plumber, or a f&%’$ fireman? NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY [g#&)&*] [f@$;’f] SENSE! WHY DOES THIS ENTIRE UNIVERSE RUN ON BULL[S*&$]?
Applejack had arrived with her friends and one other mare that none of the Crusaders recognized. All eyes were now on the seven adults and Ben as Applejack looked conflicted. She clearly wanted to scold, as she would do whenever she caught her sister saying bad words, but she was also holding herself back for reasons Applebloom couldn’t fathom.
Ben groaned. “Oh, it’s you.” He pointed to Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy. “Don’t even get me started on whatever the heck you can do. I mean, seriously, how do you move clouds? They’re not supposed to be solid objects! They’re GASEOUS! HOW? THIS IS BULLS@#($!”
The mare Applebloom didn’t recognize stepped forward. “Ben, you shouldn’t say things like that,” she admonished patiently.
“F&+@ you!” Everypony gasped. “F&+@ magic! F&+@ this universe and whatever magical bull$+&# got me here in the first place!”
Most of the adults clearly wanted to scold Ben for being so rude. The mare, likely Ben’s counselor, kept calm. “I think you should go to your room,” she declared.
Ben threw his front hooves in the air, briefly balancing on his hind legs. “Fine by me! I didn’t want to be out here anyway!” Ben turned and headed back to the house with the counselor following close behind. He found himself struggling to get inside. “Great!” he yelled, slamming a hoof into the ground. “Can’t even open a damn DOOR!” The counselor opened it for him and he stormed in with a growl. The mare followed and closed the door behind them, leaving the stunned adults and children to ponder what they had just heard as more shouting came from inside the house.
Applejack let out a deep sigh and started toward the door. Feeling a hoof on her shoulder, she turned to see Twilight. The unicorn said nothing, but the question was plainly written on her face: “Do you want us to go in with you?” Applejack shook her head. She hated to admit it, but there was little, if anything, her friends could do to help.
Applejack entered the house as Doctor Light was trying to talk to Ben. “You need to calm down,” the counselor admonished.
“Calm down? CALM DOWN? You try and be in my shoes, why don’t you? Put yourself in my exact situation and we’ll see just how [@#/*& calm you are then!”
“I can’t know your situation if you don’t tell me,” Warm Light said evenly. “I know it hurts, but we need you to tell us what happened to you, even if somepony else told you to keep it a secret.”
“Told me to-? What?”
“It’s okay, Ben. Nopony’s going to hurt you again.”
“What the f&*/# are you talking about? Hurt me again? The f&*# is that supposed to-?” Ben stopped and his eyes widened, so much so they almost seemed to pop out of his head. “Wait, wait, wait, wait. Just hold the phone for a sec. You think I’ve been abused? Is that what that hurt me again spiel was?” He glared. “Well, I’ve got news for you, Sherlock, Mom and Dad never did anything like that! Not to me or any of my siblings!”
Applejack was confused. Was Ben being defensive, or was this all a big misunderstanding? She hoped it was the latter, but even if his parents weren’t abusive, that confirmed he had been foalnapped. Unless, of course, these were those false memories created by the alter ego Warm Light mentioned. Too many questions.
“I’m not accusing your mom or your dad,” said Warm Light.
“None of my other relatives, either!” Ben snapped. “They never beat me or touched me or anything you’re thinking about, got it?”
Warm Light raised one hoof placatingly. “I believe you,” she said gently, “But what happened to you?”
“I’m stuck here, that’s what’s happened!”
“You were taken from your family?”
“My family and everything else that mattered to me!”
Applejack tensed. Ben had all but confirmed that somepony had foalnapped him. Warm Light obviously recognized this, because she pressed. “Can you tell me who took you?”
Ben was silent for a moment, then he slammed a hoof against his face. Hard. Applejack and Warm Light were at his side in a second. “Please don’t hurt yerself,” Applejack pleaded as Warm Light pulled his hoof away from his face.
Ben growled, half in pain and half in anger. “No one took me,” he declared, “I don’t know how I got here. I can’t remember.”
“You’re sure?” asked Warm Light, neither she nor Applejack fully believing the colt.
“Yes, I’m sure!”
“What’s the last thing you remember before you got here?”
Ben groaned in exasperation. “I blacked out, okay?”
“Whaddaya mean?” Applejack asked. Had he been slipped a sleeping pill and taken in his sleep? Did somepony hit him in the head?
Ben put his hoof over his nose. “I was celebrating with my friends and I passed out. Next thing I know, I’m stuck in a forest, looking like *this,* and having the mother of all hangovers! That’s all I can remember! I have no clue how I got here or why everything looks like an acid trip! And as if that wasn’t bad enough, I’m being treated like a child by TALKING PONIES!”
He started toward the stairs. Applejack moved to intercept, but Warm Light stopped her and the two mares watched as Ben slowly made his way upstairs to his room. “Either his friends were a bad influence, or his parents were neglectful,” said Warm Light as soon as they heard the door close, “Possibly both.”
Applejack shook her head. “Drinkin’ at his age. Who’d be dumb enough ta give alcohol ta foals?”
“I’m not sure stupidity is the issue,” Warm Light said sadly. “It’s possible that an adult deliberately gave Ben and his friends illicit things to build up trust. They may have also pressured the foals, telling them they wouldn’t be cool if they didn’t participate. They got them drunk, then took them away.”
“But how did Ben wind up in tha Everfree?”
“I don’t know. Whether he actually doesn’t remember or is too afraid to talk about it is unclear. I can only guess how he could’ve escaped.”
Applejack gazed over to the top of the stairs. “Ya want me ta check on him?”
“No, he wants to be alone right now. I know leaving him in his room may not be the best idea, but at the same time, we don’t want to smother him.”
“Should Ah let ‘im work on his magic?”
“Yes. Right now, that’s the only thing keeping him going. We can’t take that away from him. He hasn’t made any friends yet or grown to trust anypony fully. Until that happens, he will be completely focused on his goal.”
“If he’s like that, how’s he supposed ta make friends?”
“He needs a few gentle nudges in the right direction. As you can see, he’s going to resist at first. He’s put up barriers and it’s going to be hard for him to trust anypony, but he needs to be around ponies so he can learn to trust again. I’d like to put him school as soon as possible, but I’m worried that some of the other foals will laugh at him because of his ignorance.”
Applejack nodded, knowing a thing or two about bullies. “Any word about his parents?”
“No. Even if they’re found, an investigation would have to be conducted.”
“None o’ this make much sense ta me. Ben’s been hurt, but Ah can’t figure out who done it. His parents? Foalnappers? Both?”
Warm Light sighed. “Honestly, this is confusing to me too. Nevertheless, I’m going to continue to help Ben to the best of my ability.”
“So’m Ah, counselor, so’m Ah.”