After a a bit more frantic galloping around town, Pinkie Pie and Rarity had gathered the rest of the Elements of Harmony. Soon, the six heroic mares stood at the head of the path leading into the dreaded Everfree Forest, where nature was unnaturally independent of any pony's guiding hoof.
Fluttershy's gentle voice sounded from the back of the group, its source hidden behind Applejack with only a trailing pink curl of tail visible. "Oh... Poor Button Stitch. She must be so lost and afraid."
Rainbow Dash dusted off from the path and hovered above her friends, soothing her nerves in natural pegasus fashion by getting some air under her hooves. "Well I can't think of a better place for a freak pony than this freaky forest."
Applejack peered into the darkened woods, her nervousness apparent in the faint cracking of her voice. "Fer all we know she might like it in there just fine. Sure as sugar no sane pony would wanna go into th' Everfree at night."
Twilight Sparkle gave the blonde mare a reassuring smile. "Well, it's a good thing for Button Stitch that all the ponies in Ponyville are crazy, and the six of us are a little bit crazier than most. Lets go." She lit up her horn, casting a beam of illumination from its tip that cut through the gloom between the ominous trees that flanked the path ahead of them.
Rarity followed suit in lighting up her horn, but rather than a searching beam it spread a cool, soothing glow in a radius that enveloped the little group of mares, pushing back the encroaching shadows as they set out. She turned with an expectant look on her face to the pink mare bouncing along beside her. "Pinkie dear, are you able to track her?"
The bubbly party pony pursed her lips. "I lost the trail when she pulled that Jones-Maltese spatial-perceptual inversion. I guess we just have to wait 'til I start twitch-a twitch twitchin' again."
Twilight silently filed away yet another Pinkieism to the long list of confusing things the party pony said. She gave a curt nod, causing her beam to bob a little as she swept it back and forth. "I suppose the best we can do in the meantime is keep our eyes and ears open for anything unusual."
Applejack lashed her tail as she cast a fearful gaze about and swiveled her ears. "This whole durn place is unusual. It's like lookin' fer a needle in a haystack."
Pinkie Pie chimed in in agreement in her usual chipper voice. "Or looking for an unpredictable weirdo in a big scary forest. Maybe... Ooh!" She came to an abrupt stop, her eyes rolling up to stare at the top of her head as her ears began to flap. "My ears! My ears are floppy!"
Her companions stopped and turned their attention toward her, causing the pink mare to grimace and cover her eyes as Twilight accidentally flashed the beam from her horn in her face. The lavender unicorn gave an apologetic chuckle as she dimmed her search light. "Heh heh, sorry." She laid her hooves on the Pinkie's shoulders. "Is it Button Stitch? Is your Pinkie sense Pinkie sensing her?"
After a moment of staring at the pretty dancing spots in front of her eyes, the party pony shook her head as best she could against her ears' counter-oscillations. "Nope. This isn't a combo. Floppy ears all by themselves means that somepony's gonna need a bath soon. "
Rarity let out a frightened squeal and began nervously jogging in place, her glance darting in all directions. "No no NO! Please don't let it be me! PLEASE don't let it be me!"
The cotton candy colored mare squinted down the path ahead of them and pointed a hoof. "It's... it's her!"
Twilight intensified her beam and sent it in the direction Pinkie had indicated, where it illuminated a shadowy figure staggering toward them. The vague silhouette resolved into the familiar black and white patterns of a zebra they all knew quite well, but something seemed off. She took a few more shaky steps and collapsed.
The band of mares galloped over to help her as Applejack shouted out in alarm. "Zecora! Sweet cinnamon swirls, are you okay?"
Fluttershy was first to reach her, and crouched down to support her head with gentle hooves. The soft spoken pegasus let out a gasp. "She... she's all squishy with... p-paint?" She brought her butter colored hoof away to reveal a smear of grey across the bottom.
The zebra herbalist stirred and groggily raised her head with Fluttershy's assistance. A dazed smile stole across her face. "Ah, my Ponyville friends, what a sight for eyes quite sore." Her expression became haunted. "All I can say is: The horror! The HORROR!"
Twilight deactivated her light and leaned in to question the stricken zebra. "What happened?"
Zecora shuddered as she sat up. "Some sort of strange pony attacked in the night." She looked ruefully down at her sticky, dripping coat. "It... it made my white stripes black and my black stripes white."
Pinkie Pie reached out and swept a hoof along the zebra's side, smearing the inverted stripes in a streak of grey. She raised it to her mouth, took an experimental taste, and grimaced. "Eeugh. Technicolor..." Twilight and Applejack exchanged confused glances as the pink pony spat disgustedly to get the flavor out of her mouth.
A moment later she drew herself up, her eyes and ears fluttering and flapping in tandem once more. "Ah HAH! Got her!"
Rarity stood next to her, staring at the looming trees outside her circle of illumination. "Where? Where is she?"
The ponies and zebra's ears all perked up as a long, mournful, booming, and somehow incongruously effeminate bellow echoed through the darkness. Rainbow Dash jabbed a hoof in the general direction of the wailing. "That way!"
With that she darted out of the range of Rarity's glow before anypony could stop her. Twilight reared up, throwing out her beam after the brash pegasus' vanishing rainbow contrail. "Come on, everypony! We can't let her get lost too!"
Fluttershy called out, her soft voice raised in concern. "What about Zecora?"
The zebra climbed shakily to her feet with the gentle yellow pegasus' help. "The attack made me dizzy, but I'll be all right. It's best we get busy, and keep Rainbow in sight." She arched her back uncomfortably and shook away some loose drops of paint with a wan smile. "I'll deal with getting cleaned up later, you need my help, to track this invader."
Twilight took up the herbalist's fore hoof and gave it a grateful shake. "Thanks, Zecora, you're a friend indeed. Lets go!"
The lavender unicorn stuck out her tongue in disgust as she released her hoofshake, a smear of grey goo sticking to the bottom of her hoof. She paused to wipe it away on a patch of grass while her friends thundered out of the clearing. Her eyes widened in alarm as she realized she was being left behind, and she galloped away after their trailing tails. "Hey! Wait up!"
As the mares got closer, the tumultuous lament echoing over the treetops became more intelligible. "Bloo hoo hoo hoo hoooo! Why? WHY? Why does this always happen to meeee? What did my poor mou-stache ever do to anybody? I ASK you?" The sound of thrashing, boiling water became audible as the ponies cleared the tree line.
Ahead of them in the glimmer of the summer moonlight, a towering, sinuous form reared up out of the river with its back to the mares. Twilight's search light played across the giant water serpent's glittering purple scales as she and her companions skidded to a stop at the river's bank. Rainbow Dash was nowhere to be seen.
The lavender mare called out to him in a clear, polite voice. "Hello? Mister Serpent?"
Zecora nudged the bookish unicorn, leaving a dab of grey on her coat. "I've met this creature, and from what I perceive, he greatly prefers that you just call him Steve."
Twilight cast the zebra a bemused glance and called out to the river's massive denizen once more. "Um... Steve? What happened? Are you all right?"
The giant serpent reared back and threw his arms wide as he lamented to the sky above. "Of COURSE I'm not all right, you silly GOOSE! Oh it's all too horrible! What is this world coming to? Is it ME? Am I some kind of magnet for this sort of thing?"
Pinkie Pie gave an impatient little hop, her wide eyed gaze following his trailing orange pompadour as he wove back and forth in the throes of colossal melodrama. "What happened to your mustache this time?"
The vast and sinuous lord of the river rounded on them, tears welling in his huge staring eyes. "Some simply GHASTLY creature floated by and painted a mou-stache on it!" The assembled ponies stared up at him as he gestured at the flowing orange locks that streamed from his reptilian upper lip. A pair of thick black strokes had indeed been painted on one side in the shape of a mustache, making it look sort of like a huge carrot with raised eyebrows.
Applejack was the first to collect her thoughts. She shouted up to him. "Can't y'all just wash it off?"
The towering serpent bunched his shoulders and wrung his long, clawed hands. His lower lip trembled as his eyes glistened pathetically. "But... but I just spent three hours WAXING it..."
Twilight exchanged puzzled glances with Rarity, Fluttershy, and Zecora, before she stepped forward and cleared her throat. "Well, uh... Steve... We don't want to seem insensitive to your... your um... your problem, but we were wondering if you could tell us what direction the pony that... attacked your mustache might have gone? It's kind of important that we catch her."
Steve the serpent drew himself up and arched an eyebrow, throwing a thunderous finger snap toward the deeper forest on the ponies' side of the river before huffily crossing his arms with his mustachioed snout in the air. "I'll say it is! If I ever got my hands on that TACKY little rapscallion, I would give her SUCH a PINCH!" He gave a petulant jerk of his dragon-like head in the direction he'd snapped. "She went that-a-way."
The lavender unicorn nodded and smiled, humoring him as no pony had ever humored a three hundred hoof long river serpent before. "Thank you, Steve. We'll make sure to bring your grievances to her attention." She gave him a nervous grin and bobbed her horn. "Now if you'll excuse us, we also need to find a friend of ours, a pegasus pony with a rainbow colored mane and tail. Would she have passed this way as well?"
Steve formed a pensive S, planting a hand on a curve as he laid a finger on his cheek in thought. "Mmmm. Can't say... Sounds positively FABulous, though. I hope she doesn't get a mou-stache painted on her."
Before any of the ponies could respond, a sandy voiced scream echoed from the depths of the forest. Their heads whipped around in alarm, as Twilight cried out. "Rainbow Dash!"
They galloped away, as Steve let out a high pitched shriek of his own. "Oooo! Mercy me! The mou-stache marauder strikes again!" With that, he swooned into the river with a tremendous splash.
The band of ponies crashed headlong into a clearing and skidded to a stop with a collective gasp. Before their disbelieving eyes, they saw Rainbow Dash lying flat on her back with her wings and limbs splayed in a puddle of bright, sour green paint. She was coated from ears to tail tip in the stuff, and she gave a feeble groan as her maroon eyes fluttered open. Her fellow Elements of Harmony and their zebra companion rushed to her side.
Fluttershy crouched down and spoke urgently in her ear as the thoroughly painted pony stared up into space. "Rainbow Dash! Are you all right?"
Her fellow pegasus spoke in a dazed voice to nopony in particular. "Ughh. I feel so funky..."
She shook her head, snapping out of her reverie and flinging small globules of lime green paint in all directions. With a grunt she surged up to a seated position, leaving a perfect, Rainbow Dash shaped outline of bare dirt beneath her. She looked at her friends with wide, shellshocked eyes as she told her tale. "She... she jumped me! The giant snake thing was back there throwing a big hissy fit about his mustache or something, so I decided to grab some altitude and do a wide angle search pass. I spotted her drifting along the riverbank and she ducked into the tree line. I didn't wanna let her get away, so I dove in after her thinking I could maybe catch her and, well... I guess she caught me instead. It all happened so fast, I felt like I was inside a cyclone."
She climbed shakily to her hooves and grimaced, her wings hanging down limply over her paint drenched sides. "This is really gross."
Zecora gave a snort and nodded in weary agreement, her coat, tail, and mane forming ragged spikes as the globbed on black and white paint began to dry and crack over her shivering frame. "Tell me about it, I surely don't doubt it..."
Pinkie Pie looked around with a grave expression on her face, thrown a bit off kilter by her fluttering eyes and ears. "I'm beginning to think our job isn't to save Screwball from the Everfree Forest so much as it is to save the Everfree Forest from Screwball."
Almost on cue, a harsh, bestial roar shook the trees around them.
Applejack let out an exasperated sigh. "I'm gettin' mighty tired o' playin' scream tag with this ornery critter."
Zecora hunched her shoulders nervously. "That sounded like a wyvern, my knees are a shiverin'."
At this, all the ponies turned and gave her a flat stare. The zebra herbalist huffed and scowled back at them. "I've been mugged, run around, and am covered in slime. YOU go through that then try to make a good rhyme!"
Before anypony could reply, another roar sounded out, answered in turn by a sound reminiscent of a train whistle blowing at full steam and punctuated by a noise like a grand piano dropping into a swimming pool full of ducks.
Without another word the search party charged toward the commotion.
The seven mares came to a stop at the edge of a wide creek bed, aghast at the confrontation that unfolded before them. Their bizarre quarry, the roiling pink and purple manifestation of chaos in pony form, was faced off against one of the savage denizens of the wild forest, circling one another in tense anticipation of a fight.
The monster that the equinoid thing faced was nearly the size of one of the smaller houses in Ponyville, a nightmarish mass of thorny scales and gnarled armor plates resembling a cross between a dragon and an angry cockerel, with two scaly, wickedly clawed feet, a pair of huge, bat like wings, a lashing, bladed tail, and a gaping serrated beak. Its natural coloration was a mottled mix of rust and dark brown, except for its head and neck which had been painted a bright yellow with black and white checkered stripes in the fashion of a taxicab.
By the venomous glare in its baleful red eyes, it wasn't at all happy about it either, and quite prepared to take its anger out on the pink and purple interloper that now stared back with a wildly spinning gaze and yellow paint dripping off the tip of its swirling tail. The wyvern drew in a breath, and let out another roar, the hot wind from its gaping beak causing the little propeller on the pony thing's beanie to twirl.
Pinkie Pie took in the scene with wide, horrified eyes and raised her hooves to her mouth. "Oh no! It's going to gobble her up like a blintz!"
In reply to the wyvern's challenge, the floating ponyoid tucked a hoof under its armpit and squeezed out a strangely aggressive sounding rendition of "Shave and a Mane Cut, Two Bits".
Before the onlooking ponies or its scaly foe could even blink, the pink equimonculous opened its mouth impossibly wide and swallowed the monster in a single gulp, instantly stretching into a huge, rubbery, wyvern shaped bag with boneless seeming pony legs and a tail dangling down around its circumference. A bulge in the lumpy shape's side bearing the vague outline of the engulfed creature's wicked beak stirred and let out a muffled, thoroughly confused chirp.
Applejack stared at the battle's unlikely victor, her right eye twitching slightly. "I did NOT see that one comin'... at ALL."
Fluttershy let out an outraged gasp and launched into the air with a powerful flap of her wings. She glided around the big, writhing, pink lump, leveling a steely, aquamarine gaze into the swirling eyes of the distorted pony face that stretched across the opposite side. "You spit that right out! Do you hear me? Spit it out!"
The stretched out ponyform flailed its limbs, attempting to escape the stern faced pegasus' legendary Stare. The gigantic creature fitfully struggling inside kept its captor quite firmly anchored in place, and after a few feeble attempts to rise off the ground and float away, the fugitive equimorph sounded a mournful harmonica sound.
Fluttershy reared back and planted her hooves on her hips. "This nonsense ends right now. Don't make me count to three!"
With that, her Stare became more intense, so much so that her friends standing on the edge of the creek bed could barely look in her direction without feeling an overpowering urge to apologize for everything they'd ever done wrong and promise to do better.
A shuddering vibration shook the distorted pink shape, and twin bulges popped out on its face at the corners of its mouth as its swirling eyes crossed and went wide. A split second later, with a resounding FLAP, the rubbery pink mass turned itself inside out and snapped into the unconscious form of Button Stitch, releasing the captive monster out onto the creek bed with a thud. The beige mare hung in the air facing the watching ponies for a moment with glazed, uncomprehending eyes before falling limply to the muddy ground and laying still.
The disgorged wyvern sat blinking in stunned disbelief, as Fluttershy hovered in and laid a gentle hoof on one of its spine studded shoulders, speaking to it in a soothing tone of voice as if she were comforting a tiny bunny or baby chipmunk. "There there, it's all right. You're safe and sound."
The primordial monster was having none of it, however, and it scrambled to its feet and bolted, frantically flapping its leathery wings and crying "Yipe yipe yipe yipe." as it blundered through the dark forests leaving a trail of snapped trees and trampled undergrowth in its wake.
The six mares and their zebra companion stood in a circle around the insensate form of the errant earth pony, looking wanly at one another and down at the object of their frantic, and now successful, search. She let out a barely audible mumble as a tear pooled at the corner of her eye. "D-daven... port..."
A smell somewhere between the pungent contents of a spice cabinet and the musty, heavy scent of earth and dead leaves drew Button Stitch's consciousness up from the dreamless abyss. This was not good. Those sorts of smells meant she wasn't at home in bed, but somewhere where she probably shouldn't be. Someplace not quite up to her usual standard of cleanliness.
It felt like she was lying on something like a bed, but what she was lying on felt like fur. This was also not good. Either she was on top of some impossibly huge, oddly flat animal, or she was laid out on an animal hide, the kind that came off of a dead animal. The very idea of the latter tugged hard on the panic levers in some deep part of her herbivore's psyche and would have sent her immediately into hysterics were she not a cautious and methodical pony in an unfamiliar, possibly dangerous situation.
Being cautious and methodical, she decided to perk up her ears and listen before filling the air with screams. She could hear an unfamiliar voice chanting softly in an unknown language. She could hear crackling flames, and the faint sound of water or some other sort of liquid bubbling. At the edge of hearing, she could hear low voices in serious conversation. Some of them sounded familiar, which was probably a good thing.
But why would familiar ponies be in this unfamiliar place? And why did her mouth taste like wyvern, she wondered, smacking her lips quietly. And also, how in Equestria did she know what that would taste like?
Button took the next methodical step and opened her eyes a crack. This gave her an orange blur and no shapes she could easily recognize, so she decided to go for broke and opened them all the way. A leering wooden mask stared down at her, its nightmarish curves and angles outlined in flickering firelight. Her caution, hanging on by the tip of a single metaphorical hoof, barely kept her panic from letting loose the very non-metaphorical scream that it was working on, instead opting for her to just let out a strangled little squeak and turn her head to get a slightly better look at her surroundings. The fur rubbed on her cheek, and in her peripheral vision she could see ruddy gold with black spots.
Her wide amber eyes took in a cave like chamber with a chaotic jumble of bottles, gourds, and bundles of dried herbs hanging from the ceiling in a scene right out of the scary part of a fairy tale, the part where the evil witch would be about to cook up some hapless colt or filly for not listening to their mother and taking the long way to grandma's house. Of course, in the stories, some ridiculous contrivance, or odd bit of luck, or a friendly woodcutter would drag the foals out of danger. Being a practical, adult pony, Button knew these old stories weren't completely true. Although here was the scary witch's den part right before her eyes, so perhaps the colt or filly getting away was the part that wasn't accurate. This was very, very much not good.
Sure enough, there was a pony sitting in a cauldron over a bed of red hot coals right there in front of her. Deep in her psyche, her caution turned to her panic, shrugged its metaphorical shoulders, and said. "All right. Go ahead. Give it everything you've got."
The resulting full throated shriek galvanized all of the ponies that lingered in Zecora's hut. Fluttershy let out a startled squeak and dove under the low table where she, Twilight, Pinkie Pie, and Applejack were enjoying cups of fragrant tea and sharing a plate of edible mushrooms, walnuts, and wild raspberries. (With the majority of the latter going down the pink mare's ravenous maw and staining her snout a faint purple.) Rarity gasped and lost her magical grasp on a mahogany curry comb that she was running across Zecora's still drying coat, now restored to its proper distribution of black and white with homespun towels wrapped around her striped mane and tail.
Rainbow Dash gave a cry of alarm and started to thrash, flap, and kick in her greenish tinged bath, rocking the cauldron full of warm, soapy water. Only their hostess' timely intervention, leaping up from her rattan bath mat and bracing the tottering cauldron with her hooves, prevented it from toppling over and spilling its contents, both liquid and pony, onto the hard packed earth floor.
Rarity, Twilight, Pinkie, and Applejack raced to the side of Zecora's leopard skin festooned bed, where Button Stitch lay curled into a twitching, hyperventilating little ball with wide, glazed, staring eyes. The fashion designer reached out to her with a tentative, alabaster colored hoof. "B-button dear..."
The beige mare's voice came as a ragged edged squeal. "DON'T TOUCH ME! STAY BACK!"
Rarity waved her companions back and knelt down by the bed, keeping her sapphire eyes fixed on the frantic earth pony. "It's all right, darling. Everything is all right. You're safe."
Button pulled her legs in tight, her whole body trembling violently. "I have no idea where I am, what has happened to me, or even what time it is. I'm lying on a dead animal skin in a filthy witch's hut and there is a pony cooking in a pot right over there. IN NO POSSIBLE SENSE OF THE TERM IS EVERYTHING ALL RIGHT!"
The unicorn heaved a careful sigh and sat studiously still, speaking in a low, soothing tone. "Button. Look at me. Do you know who I am?"
The stricken earth pony bit her lower lip and stared back at her a while before responding. "You... you look like my... you're my f-friend and best customer Rarity."
The fashion designer nodded slowly. "That's right." She inclined her horn toward her three companions. "And do you recognize my friends here?"
Button's eyes darted across the other mare's earnest faces. "Um... I... I see Twi... Twilight Sparkle from... from the library, and... and Miss Applejack with the grandmother who crochets, and..." The faint ghost of a smile flitted across her lips. "P-pinkie Pie. With the parties."
Pinkie Pie gave a few short hops into the air. "Good job! You guessed every one right!"
The beige mare's face took on a dreamy quality. "I... I liked those parites." She let out a halting sob. "Es-especially the one where... where I m-m-met hi-hi-hi-him..."
The four solicitous ponies' ears levered back as she let out a wail and broke down, gathering the leopard skin in her front hooves and weeping a torrent of tears into the tawny, spotted fur.
A moment later Twilight and Applejack were shoved aside by a determined looking yellow pegasus, who climbed up onto the bed and settled in next to Button, throwing a wing over her trembling shoulders and pulling her into a hug. Fluttershy was generally the first pony under cover when the screaming started, but she was always the first on hoof to give comfort when the screaming turned to weeping. She cooed softly to the stricken pony in her gentle voice. "There there. You're among friends, and we're not going to let anypony hurt you."
Meanwhile, Applejack's brow furrowed in confusion and she leaned in toward Rarity, speaking in a whisper. "Who's "him"? Him who?"
The alabaster unicorn flipped her mane and hissed back. "Davenport. She was supposed to be on a date with him tonight."
Twilight arched an eyebrow. "Davenport? As in Davenport my writing quill supplier?"
Pinkie nodded as she gave a little hop. "Yeah! I always thought those two made a super cute couple! I've got a standing bet with Gummy that they'll be married by the next Summer Sun Celebration."
Rarity threw a glare at the pink pony and drew a hoof across her lips in the universal gesture for "zip it!", and then turned to the weeping mare once more as Fluttershy nuzzled her cheek. "Button, what happened? Did he do or say something to upset you? Did he behave inappropriately?"
A stony expression settled on Applejack's face. "Do ya need me t'send my brother 'round t' learn him some manners?"
Button sniveled bitterly into the leopard skin. "N-no. He was a p-perfect gentlecolt. It was me who ruined everything. I messed the whole date up, so I ran away."
The alabaster unicorn's eyes went wide. "You ran away? AGAIN?" She brought a hoof to her face and muttered under her breath. "I knew I should have hoofcuffed the pair of you together."
She reared up and placed her front hooves on the bed, leaning in toward her distraught friend with a pained expression. "Button, darling, why DO you keep running away? You're clearly quite taken with him, and he with you, from what I could see. What are you so afraid of?"
Applejack spoke up before Button could answer, a grave expression settling on her freckled face. "She's afraid of herself. Ain't ya, sugarcube? Yer so scared o' doin' th' wrong thing that y'all balk at doin' anything unless it's all lined up like beans in a bean field. And when it's somethin' as big as bein' courted by a stallion that ya fancy, it's sure t' cause ya a whole heap o' consternation."
Fluttershy's gentle voice filled the pensive stillness, as she shifted a bit and spread her wing a little wider over the beige mare's shoulders. "I... I know what that's like. Being afraid that I'll say or do the wrong thing, I mean. That's why I get... well... I get nervous around other ponies. Well, that and sometimes they talk too loud, or move too suddenly, or are wearing a larger hat than I expected. Sometimes I want to just run away and hide, and that can make me feel sad, like I'm missing something special."
Twilight Sparkle took a step forward, a solemn expression on her face. "I think I understand now why you had another manifestation of your chaotic self."
Button looked at her with red rimmed eyes. "But... but I've been trying so hard to be spontaneous and do new things."
The lavender unicorn nodded. "Yes, but like Applejack said, deep down, doing that terrifies you. You clearly had a lot invested in things going well with Mister Davenport, and it threw you into such turmoil that chaos overwhelmed you when it didn't go as you'd hoped."
She settled down next to Rarity and laid her hooves on the bed as well, meeting Button's troubled gaze with earnestness. "I'm no stranger to that sort of feeling myself. Try living up to to the example set by Equestria's immortal ruler as her personal pupil. I've pushed myself past the edge more times than I care to mention because I try so hard to please her that I keep forgetting one all important fact."
She went silent for a moment, her eyes gleaming, before she continued with a slight crack in her voice. "And the thing I keep needing to be reminded of is that Princess Celestia is a wonderful, patient teacher, and that she's been my mentor since I was a little filly. In... in a lot of ways she's like a second mother to me, and she... she loves me, like she loves all ponies, for everything they are. And our flaws and mistakes are as much a part of what we are as the good qualities."
Rainbow Dash stepped up to join the others, rubbing down her sodden rainbow mane with a towel. "Yeah, and that counts for your friends too. I never leave my friends hangin', even when they screw up. Especially not then, 'cos that's when they need me the most. And on the extremely rare occasions where I might be a tiny bit off my game..."
At this, Applejack cleared her throat and fixed her with a dubious glare. The multicolored pegasus gave an embarrassed chuckle and fidgeted under her earth pony friend's stern gaze. "... I mean, when I screw up too, I know they're not gonna leave ME hangin'."
Pinkie Pie's face was uncharacteristically solemn as she chimed in. "That's right! And ya gotta trust in that. One of the worstest days I ever had was my last birthday, when I fooled myself into thinking my friends didn't like me anymore 'cos they were sneaking around and telling me fibs about what they were up to 'cos they were trying to keep my surprise party a secret."
She tapped her berry stained chin with a hoof as she shifted into a reminisce. "Looking back on it now, I think I had it all figured out, I mean after all I'm the prime poobah of pony parties and I also get this tingle in my pancreas when there's a party afoot, or a hoof, or a whole bunch of ponies each with four hooves apiece, but then I ignored all the signs and forgot about it 'cos a surprise party isn't a surprise party if you've figured out you're gonna have a surprise party."
Her limpid blue eyes snapped back into focus and she gave Button a wide grin. "The main thing is that I didn't trust my friends to be my friends and it tended to send me around the bend but in the end a friend is a friend upon whom you can depend and soon everything was on the mend."
As the pink party pony nodded sagely to herself, Applejack raised an eyebrow and leaned in to speak to Button in a lowered voice. "Didja get any o' that?"
The beige mare blinked and cocked her head, a fair bit of uncertainty in her voice. "I... I think so."
Rarity edged forward and stretched out a hoof, laying it atop one of Button's. "The point is, darling, that unless my instincts are wrong, which I very highly doubt, Davenport would very much like to give you his heart, but he can't do that if you refuse to accept it because you've convinced yourself that you don't deserve it." Her sapphire eyes sparkled as she gave the beige mare a fond smile. "It's up to the giver to decide who deserves what they're giving, you can't make that decision for them. All you can do is decide whether you want it, and if you would like to give your heart in return."
Button gave her a fragile smile. "I w-would. I really, really would."
The hopeful expression fled from her face as she looked at the row of ponies standing in front of her. "But... but how can I even THINK about that now? Y-you all look like you've been run through a wringer. What did I do tonight while I wasn't myself?" Her voice became frantic. "What did I do?"
Rainbow Dash finished drying her mane and draped the towel across her wings and withers with a nonchalant shrug. "Nothin' a bath couldn't fix. We're cool."
Applejack gave the pegasus a wry, sidelong smile as she spoke to Button. "Ya taught her a valuable lesson 'bout chargin' on ahead of the rest of the group too." She looked away innocently as Dash scowled at her.
Zecora stepped up between them with a mildly reproachful look on her face. "An apology would be a very good start, for turning me into a bad piece of art. I'll blame it on stress, and gladly forgive, the things you just said about the place where I live."
Button recoiled a bit under Fluttershy's wings. "Did... did I paint all those stripes on you? Oh, that's terrible. I'm so sorry!"
A brief look of indignation flickered across the zebra's face, before she hung her head with a sigh and muttered something to herself in weary Zebraic. She gave the earth pony a strained smile. "All right, all right, that's close enough, for a pony who's had a night so rough. And now, if you will pardon me, I'm going to put on a fresh pot of tea." She turned and walked away, lashing her towel wrapped tail in mild irritation.
The beige mare looked uncertainly at the other ponies. "Did... Did I say something else to offend her? I... I didn't mean to..."
Rarity gave her a reassuring smile. "You'll just have to forgive her, darling. Surprise visitors can put even the most gracious hostess a bit on edge." She stood with a flick of her rumpled violet mane. "And on that note, if you're feeling strong enough to walk back to Ponyville, we should probably all take our leave and stop imposing on Zecora's hospitality."
Button hunched her shoulders and hung her head, huddling miserably against Fluttershy. "Are... are you sure it's a good idea to take me back to Ponyville? If I'm going to keep turning into... into a w-wierdo, maybe it... maybe it would be better if... if... if you just left me out in the Everfree Forest."
The butter colored pegasus ruffled her wings, looking at the beige mare at her side with horror. "Oh NO! Don't even talk about that! We'd never abandon a pony out here! That would be terrible!"
Zecora rattled her tea cup as she set it down on her low table, and gave out an irritable snort. "I'm quite in agreement, that simply won't do, dear, it's crazy enough in these woods without you here."
Rainbow Dash looked thoughtful, eyeing the crestfallen earth pony. "What if we got out the Elements and gave her a big ol' shot of harmony?"
Twilight pursed her lips as a pensive expression settled on her face. "I don't know, Dash. We have no idea what that would do to a normal, mortal pony. We've only used the Elements of Harmony on powerful immortals. One was reduced to a weakened shell of her former self and had to spend a whole year recuperating before she could even leave the palace, and the other was turned to stone." She gave the beige mare a comforting smile. "I don't want either of those to happen to Button here."
Pinkie Pie nodded in agreement. "Yeah. If the frosting on a cake is uneven, you don't fix it with a sledgehammer! Unless you wanted a pancake, which would probably be really good with frosting now that I think about it. Ooh! Waffles would be good with frosting too, 'cos you'd get little pockets of frosting in all the waffle's nooks and crannies. But you definitely wouldn't want to use a hammer on a waffle either 'cos then you'd be right back to pancakes, and you'd get frosting all over the place, which isn't a bad thing, as far as I'm concerned, but it's kind of rough on the table settings, and I've already taken enough grief from Mrs. Cake over that last time, thank you very much."
She drew herself up, blinking her limpid blue eyes and licking her lips as the possibly metaphorical merry-go-round in her head kicked into high gear. "Wow, now I can't wait 'til breakfast. Do you girls wanna come over to Sugarcube Corner for breakfast tomorrow? I'll see if I can dig up a waffle iron." She turned and called over to their zebra hostess, who'd settled down by her table with her tea and was listening to the conversation with a mixture of interest and impatience. "Zecora have you ever had waffles before? Do they even have waffles in Zebrabwe? You're more than welcome to come by tomorrow, now that nopony runs away or locks their doors when you come into town, or maybe I could bring you some waffles after we..."
Applejack let out a weary sigh and held up a hoof to Pinkie's snout to quiet her. "Gettin' back to th' point, as far as I see it, I think we all have t' take a slow n' steady approach to helpin' Button out with her problem. The Elements o' Harmony ain't just a bunch o' fancy rainbow shootin' doodads. They're us." She gave her friends a smile. "I reckon it'd be better if we gave her honesty, kindness, generosity, loyalty, laughter, and magic in small doses, rather than in a big ol' whallop. Better t' eat one apple at a time than have a whole tree full of 'em fall on yer head."
Rarity smiled and gave the farm pony a wink. "Well, I for one am simply ecstatic that you're learning to take a subtle approach for a change, Applejack dear." As the blonde farm mare rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue at her, the alabaster unicorn turned to Button and extended a hoof. "What do you say, darling? Shall we call you a work in progress?"
Button got shakily to her feet with Fluttershy's help, fresh tears falling over a fragile smile, and stepped down off of the bed into the embrace of her benefactors. "I... I don't think anything as ever felt so... so perfect."
She let out a sigh as she surrendered to the group hug. "But there may be an awful lot to fix."
The characters depicted in this fiction are copyright and trademarks of Hasbro, Inc. This is a work of fan fiction, and the author makes no claim on Hasbro's copyright or trademarks.