Lemon balm, black ceylon, a drop of eucalyptus oil.
It was a simple infusion, fitting for her uncomplicated happiness, Zecora felt. She didn’t want to analyse it, just let it flow through her in the morning sun.
She was basking in its glory on her “lawn” - the moss-filled glade in front of her tree. There was a withered spot from the day before, where Silver Spoon had tipped over her cauldron in surprise when her elixir brought to life an explosion of colours. Zecora’s satisfied smile widened at the thought. She had had hopes for the filly’s abilities from her cutie mark, but the fairy fire explosion surpassed even those. It had been beautiful. The potion may have gone to waste, but she was confident that little Miss Spoon could recreate it without trouble. Was she a friend of Apple Bloom?, Zecora wondered.
She probably was. On this wonderful day, everypony was probably friends. Zecora rolled over to let the sun warm her belly and sighed with delight.
Morning made way for noon, and Zecora started to feel her sunwarm stomach rumble. Perhaps she should treat herself to a bite at Sugarcube Corner? While the day before had truly left her exhausted, those little ones had sparked a hunger for being around ponies that she thought she had long lost. She needed - nay, craved - hearing idle chatter and seeing ponies walk by, and the woods began to feel unusually lonely.
As she exited the forest, Zecora paused to consider. By force of habit, she had donned her travelling cloak before leaving home, but did she really need it? The weather was warm enough, but more importantly, did she need the protection? The cloak was as much a shield from unfriendly stares as from the cool, windy Equestrian climate. Having her hood up provided her with comfort, but Rarity had many times berated her that it made her look unapproachable - often while levitating a pair of scissors dangerously close to the fabric. That wouldn’t do. This day, she was going into town as Zecora, not Zecora, that strange zebra, and while the irony of becoming less strange by revealing her striped body was not lost on her, she loosened the clasp on the cloak and let it slide off her back. She hung it on a conveniently protruding branch and left it behind her, walking into the sunny town, head held high.
On her way to the café, she passed the spa, where Aloe was hanging out towels for drying.
“Good day, mademoiselle Zecora! You look simply magnifique today!”
Zecora smiled back, flattered: “Sweet Aloe, I say likewise: you’re ever pleasing to the eyes.”
“Oh, I can only try, mon chéri. Thank you again for the nettle balm recipe. It has truly done wonders on some of the clients’ manes.”
Further down the road Zecora met the mailmare. The grey pegasus was trying to mash an oblong package into a slightly too small post box.
“Hi Zecora! I’ve got something for you.” She dug into her saddlebags and produced a small stack of letters, which she hoofed the zebra. Then, almost as an afterthought, she topped them with a muffin.
“Have a nice day!” she said as she returned her focus to the problematic parcel.
“Likewise, Miss Hooves, And now with this,” Zecora replied, nibbling happily on the spongy blueberry treat, “my day will sure be utter bliss.”
As delicious as the muffin was, she put in in her saddlebag along with the letters. Lunch first, and then you can partake, her mother’s voice resounded in the back of her head, in cookies, tea, and lovely cake.
Yes, Mother, but cake so very fine, in the end you will be mine, she retorted gleefully as she trotted off to Sugarcube Corner, for once oblivious to the long stares that some ponies sent her.
The door chime’s high-pitched ring announced her entrance, and Mrs. Cake came out from the bakery, face white with flour.
“My... Hello Zecora,” she said, slightly taken aback “Can I help you?”
“Yes, please. A dumpling dish with hay, some apple juice,” she blushed, glancing at a young couple sharing a delicious-looking bowl of ice cream, “and a parfait.”
Cake AND ice cream? Oh my dear! You know it goes right to your rear, her mother’s voice berated her silently. Mrs. Cake, on the other hoof, just wrote it down and looked quickly around in the half-filled café, while her husband walked around, sweeping the floor.
“That’ll be nine bits, please... Ehh. It’s lovely weather - why don’t you take a table outside? I’ll come out with your order as soon as it’s finished.”
With the large windows, the interior of the Sugarcube Corner was well-lit and warm, but it truly was sun-basking weather, so Zecora didn’t think much of the suggestion as she walked back outside to find a seat.
Most of the tables outside were taken, but as Zecora looked around, two mares - one with a wide-brimmed hat and both wearing heavy make-up - stood up hurriedly and left in a trot. Perfect, she smiled, and took a seat at the newly vacated table in the corner.
It was indeed perfect. A spot in the sun, shielded from the breeze by a rose bush with a delightful scent. From here, she could see the ponies walking by and listen in on their chatting without feeling intrusive. The general murmur walled a pleasant acoustic room in which snippets of conversation took their turn in the spotlight.
“...But that’s neither here nor there. So I said to her...”
“... Lyra, by the sound of it.”
“... I thought I would never see him without that yoke. It felt kind of ... embarrassing, really...”
“They were definitely together on Hearts and Hooves Day...”
“Have you seen the Cakes’ adorable little newborns? They are simply... squee!”
“... Blue. It was blue. Right there in my backyard!”
“Here you gho, Mith Thecora.”
Startled, Zecora turned to her left and nearly knocked the tray out of Mrs. Cake’s mouth.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you!” Mrs Cake said once she had put down the tray. “Now enjoy it while it is hot!” She hurried back into the bakery.
Since the ponies had started accepting her into town, Zecora had only been at Sugarcube Corner a few times - always with Twilight and her friends, but she remembered the crispy taste of the café’s excellent hay fries (and the curious looks Pinkie Pie for some reason threw her when she ate them), so as soon as she had nodded her thanks to the baker, she turned her complete attention to her dish.
The dumplings were small, spicy fireworks contrasting the fresh taste of the mashed peas. With the crisp fried hay, the dish spoke to every part of her gustatory system, and she was so completely engulfed in the experience that she didn’t notice that some of the tables around her were quietly vacated. So much greater her surprise when she raised her head at a stiff “Miss Zecora!” and saw that in lieu of the café guests there was now a small gathering in front of her, staring at her with expressions ranging from wariness to utter hostility.
The two mares that had left the table when she arrived were leading the group, and the one with the hat - a slender grey earth pony with a jewel ring cutie mark - had been the one speaking.
“Miss Zecora, I hear from my daughter that you were guest teacher for their class yesterday.” The mare’s smile didn’t reach her eyes, and was contrasted - contorted - by the acidic tone of her voice.
“Yes, I had that pleasant task. May I hear…” Zecora began, but the mare cut her short:
“Is it also true that you let our colts and fillies brew dangerous magical potions from the herbs in the Everfree Forest and drink them?” The mare took a step forward, bringing her uncomfortably far into Zecora’s personal space.
“Well, dangerous they hardly were, I had my eye on them, dear mare.”
“Your eye?!” The mare took another step, and Zecora had to back out of her seat to not be poked in the head with the brim of her hat. “You had our precious youth drinking Celestia-knows-what poisonous concoctions for their amusement? My dear little Silver Spoon came home with a wad of horrible smelling leaves and asked if she could stay at home today to mix them into some foul elixir you had claimed could help her head cold! If she’s too ill to go to school, she should be in her bed, not playing a savage potion maker with suspicious weeds!”
“And Diamond Tiara told me that the others had their bodies transformed in grotesque ways, just for the fun of it!” the second mare added. The more they spoke, the more their entourage got riled up.
“What if something had gone wrong? What if they had stayed deformed, or become poisoned? What gives you the right to play with our children’s lives like that?”
As she wore on, passers-by stopped to see what the commotion was about, filling the scene with more and more ponies. Their staring eyes made Zecora’s spine and legs tremble.
“Listen, please, there was no threat! There’s no need to be upset! I only let your children touch potions that one cannot botch! I swear to you, upon my soul. no harm could come to any foal,” she stated loudly, trying to get through to the mares, who hardly let her get a hoof to the ground before they attacked again.
“No harm? Those potions were clearly unnatural! Who knows what horrible zebra rituals they are part of? Oh, yes, it’s all fun and games now, and when you have their trust, you teach them something more of your perverse culture. And then the hexes and witchcraft begin! I will not have my child subjected to your unpony ways! I have heard about you zebras.” The hat-wearing mare turned to the others. “They detest Princess Celestia! In their dark caves, they hold ceremonies where they curse Her sun and pray for the return of Nightmare Moon!”
What? Zecora was so taken aback that she could hardly stammer “‘T-tis a lie! We never…” but her protest was drowned in another pony, an elderly stallion, stomping in the ground.
“Yes, they pray to the stars - the very stars that aided Nightmare Moon in her escape! I saw one do it once! Didn’t understand a word of his gibberish, but he sat up all night praying to the lights in the sky!”
Zecora’s trembling hooves started to canter in place. These ponies were crazy! She didn’t even know where to start explaining, and she had a feeling that they wouldn’t care anyways. The indecipherable murmur from the ponies in the background no longer seemed comforting, but rather intimidating, threatening. What were they saying that she couldn’t hear? Were they gossiping about the stranger, the alien in their midst? What unkind words of ignorance were they sharing? Was there even one-
A shattering sound brought everypony’s attention to the café entrance, where Mrs. Cake had just exited the door, dropping a tall glass of ice cream to the ground in surprise.
The sudden noise triggered Zecora’s panic, sending her leaping over the rose bushes, away from the café.
She heard the ponies yell angrily, but didn’t halt to see if they were following her. In a gallop, she headed straight to the only safe haven she knew: back into the Everfree Forest. Her hooves thundered beneath her and her mind nearly blanked, the only thought going through her head being that of escape.
She slalomed around the ponies on her way, only barely dodging some and causing others to jump to the side as they cried out in surprise or insult. The sounds they gave off made no sense to the frightened zebra, and she stopped registering them as beings - they were only obstacles on her way to safety. Pastel coloured obstacles with erratic movement and abrupt, nonsensical sounds. They were everywhere. On the ground, in the sky, behind her, ahead of her, everywhere. She leaped over the last one, her heartbeat thundering in her ears, no more than a wild animal fleeing into the protection of the thick underbrush of the forest.
Further and further she ran. The green roof above her, becoming thicker and thicker, would shield her from attacks from above. The tree trunks, bushes, and underbrush would camouflage her from land-bound predators. Her stripes would make her disappear amongst their branches and twigs. Her nostrils flared, leading her towards a great patch of red mint. She threw herself to the ground amongst the leaves, hiding in its sharp scent. Noone could find her here. No roc, griffon, or dragon could drop upon her. No manticore, chimera, or lion would scout her out. No snake, hellhound, or timberwolf would catch her scent. No…
What was she hiding from, again?
Her mind slowly returned, wresting control from her primal instincts, forcing control over her breath, calming her pumping blood. She nearly passed out from the dizziness that overtook her, seeing black spots in her hiding place of greens and reds.
Ponies. She had been fleeing from ponies. Not exactly the day she had hoped for in the morning. It had been her own fault, really. She had been too hasty. A single pleasant day could not turn her into a socialite, nor would it erase the stripes on her skin. Stripes that would forever set her apart from the ponies around her. She still wasn’t ready for facing hatred and ignorance such as today’s. Who could ever be? It was a fool’s errand, after all. To be accepted, would she have to dye her coat and hide her tail? Should she move to another town, always wearing her coat, hiding her legs with socks, and putting on so heavy makeup that nopony would notice her markings or eye shape? It would be impossible. Being among the foals had felt so right, but wanting more had been a vain craving. She should have stuck with the tidbit of happiness, and none of this would have happened. Perhaps she didn’t deserve more. Perhaps…
Her rumbling stomach interrupted her train of thought. She hadn’t even had more than a few bites of her lunch either.
Another source of food occurred to her. The muffin. The muffin from the mailmare. She had anticipated eating it by the lake, enjoying it bite by bite in the afternoon. Now she wolfed it down as a savage.
It did its job, however, and the lingering taste reminded her of the kind smile on the mailmare’s muzzle. Perhaps not everypony was against her.
The thought made her feel guilty. Miss Hooves, Aloe, Twilight Sparkle, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Cheerilee, Apple Bloom. So many ponies who had treated her kindly. So many ponies, and she couldn’t bother to be thankful? Was she greedy?Was she wanting more than was her right? If she had been feeling bad before, this new revelation made her feel downright abysmal. Was she scorning what good had come her way? Ungrateful, egoistic zebra! She threw her saddlebag to the ground in anger with herself.
A hoofful of letters fluttered out.
Oh, yes. The kind mailmare with the unusual eyes had given her more than a muffin. How could she forget? Self-pitying, egocentric zebra! She flipped the first letter.
A birthday party invitation. From Cheerilee. Oh. It was the teacher’s birthday tomorrow? She couldn’t. She couldn’t face ponies again so soon. She grabbed another letter. Apple Bloom’s distinctive mouthwriting was instantly recognisable, though the spelling was much better than usual.
“Dear Zecora,” it read.
“Happy birthday, and thank you so much for all that you have done for me. I hope that you will have an awesome day with lots of cake and presents.
Lots of love,
Zecora blinked. So many emotions raged a war inside her. It was her birthday? She supposed it was, now she thought of it. How had the filly known? How could such a sweet letter make her feel so sad? How could such a zebra be worthy of such a sweet letter? How could she forget Apple Bloom? How could she dare to question whether or not she was liked, when such an adorable little ribboned sweetie existed and brightened her life? She opened another letter. A birthday card from Twilight Sparkle and Spike. Another. A birthday card from Rarity. Pinkie Pie. Applejack. Fluttershy. Rainbow Dash…
She looked up. How long had she been crying? Some of the cards were soggy, and her eyes felt dried up. She wasn’t sure what to feel, couldn’t put names on the emotions running through her. There was some kind of happiness in there, but also guilt and sadness. She packed the cards into her saddlebag and started to wander. With her knowledge of the forest, she soon found her way home. Hesitantly, she walked towards her elm, mind emptied from weariness. She put her hoof on the handle and opened the door…
The yelling voices, the lights flashing on, the popping sound of a blue party cannon engulfing her in confetti. Zecora felt another panic attack coming on, but she was too tired. Too tired to be scared. All she could manage was “startled” and “bewildered.”
“Ohmygosh I am so happy to see you Mrs Cake told me that those nasty nastypants had riled you up and that you had run into the forest and we tried to find you but you were gone and we decided to come to your house and move the party here instead of prepping up Sugarcube Corner but you weren’t here either but then we had time to put up streamers and balloons so it wasn’t all bad but we are still so very sorry and the Cakes banned those two meanies from Sugarcube Corner but this is your birthday so we shouldn’t be talking about sad stuff so how about a cookie instead I think I got them right this time.” Pinkie Pie stuffed a hoofful of cookies into Zecora’s open mouth.
Chocolate, hazel, orange. She hadn’t had Unrhymeables since… since her last birthday at her parents’ house. If she had had any more tears left, she would have cried again.
“Huh? You don’t look too well. Did I do something wrong? Was there too much orange? Not enough orange? I tried to follow the recipe in Stripes and Sugar, but it was reeeally fuzzy on the orange part…”
Zecora pulled the pink blabbermouth into a tight hug.
“They are perfect, Pinkie, dear. They taste as were my mother here.” She planted a kiss on the party pony’s forehead and winked away a single tear.
Soft hooves were laid around her, and Twilight Sparkle, then Apple Bloom, then Applejack, then everypony else joined the hug, turning it into a large multicoloured mass of ponies. So many ponies. Zecora recognised most of them, but there were even a couple she had never talked to as well as a pegasus she hadn’t seen before.
“Happy birthday,” Twilight Sparkle said softly, and was echoed by the many ponies around her.
The group hug broke up into a path to a table where a heap of presents had amassed. Zecora’s eyes widened at the sight and looked back to the assembled ponies, about to protest, but she saw in their eager faces the desire to watch her unwrap, and thus smiled and grabbed the first one.
It was soft, in a shiny double-faced silver and gold paper folded at the edges to create artful bands around the package at an angle. She didn’t have to look at the gold-rimmed card bound to the broad silken tape around the waist of the gift to guess which pearly-white unicorn it was from.
She opened it slowly in fear of damaging the beautiful wrapping. The fabric that emerged was even more dazzling than the paper - a purple shiny silk with inlaid flower patterns in the same colour, but dim, until she tilted it in the light, and the dim parts became shiny and the shiny parts dim. The effect mesmerised her, and she stood for a time merely moving the cloth in her forehoves ever so gently, before realising that she had only seen one side of the folded beauty. Carefully, almost reverently, she let it unfurl to a blanket cape. It had a soft, thick, but lightweight lining - probably wool, she guessed - lined with yet another layer of the smooth, mysterious fabric. This one was dark golden with thin longitudinal stripes. It wrapped around at the neck, but not into a hood as her cloak did. Rather, it was a fold that became broader at the middle and thinned against the chest where it could be closed with a silver hook and eye in a leaf motif.
After staring at it for a while, she turned to Rarity. The fashionista was near bursting with nervosity. Zecora slid on the perfectly-fitting cape and locked it. She smiled her most grateful smile to the unicorn.
“It is so beautiful, my dear. And such a dream it is to wear!”
At that, Rarity actually did burst. Not with excitement, but with glee. She cantered around Zecora, inspecting her hoofwork.
“I am so delighted that you think so, darling! It was rather a chance, using brocade satin against your stripes rather than a plain fabric, I admit; but those marvelous contrasts in your fur demanded that I accent them with something just as stylish and alluring. Your old cloak was much too crude, I must say. It made you look so drab and bulky, but this creation complements (and compliments, if I dare say) your natural beauty. Those long, slender legs of yours should be framed, not hidden!”
Blushing from the compliments, Zecora heard Fluttershy’s meek “It really does suit you fabulously. Perhaps I should just…” She trailed off, stepping away from the table and hiding something under her wing.
“Nonsense, dear!” Rarity interrupted. The unicorn trotted around Fluttershy and pushed her towards Zecora. “It will be splendid!”
With her usual hesitance, Fluttershy pulled out the thing. It was another soft package, this one small and unassuming but gently and carefully wrapped in large leaves and bound with vine. Zecora accepted it, and Fluttershy immediately hid her face with her wings and backstepped.
Loosening the single knot let the leaves unfurl like a flower faced with sudden daylight. In the center of the petals lay a tightly rolled woolen scarf. It was a broad purple cable knit with golden orange edges, slightly brighter in colour than the cape, but clearly coordinated with it. The knitting, Zecora realised, was based off a Zebrabwean Coltic knot pattern, but faded into the less ornate climbing cable style Fluttershy usually worked with. The transition between the two was so gradual that she could hardly tell where one ended and the other started, a gesture not lost on the zebra - no, the striped pony - no, Zecora, who was both the one and the other. She unfurled the long scarf and wrapped the warm, light fabric around her neck. It was soft and felt like love and acceptance. Zecora closed her eyes, enjoying the sensation. She opened them again to pull the pegasus and the unicorn into a hug.
There had been so many gifts, all of them beautiful and thoughtful. Apple Bloom had painted a large picture of Zecora’s hut, some of the leaves of the tree drawn in detail, identifiable as elm leaves. After receiving an almost bone-crushing hug, she found a small flask in her saddlebag and hoofed it over to Zecora with an odd silent pout.
It was a crystal vial with a silvery ribbon. Zecora pulled the cork curiously and smiled. The scent of the well-brewed cold medicine was unmistakable.
“I think that leaves only me,” said the white pegasus Zecora didn’t recognise. She had a faint pink mane and a cutie mark of a sun flanked with two tiny clouds. She didn’t introduce herself, but merely hoofed Zecora a flat, heavy, crudely wrapped gift. The paper tore, and the string was off-angle, as if wrapped by a foal or somepony unaccustomed to the task. Through the holes in the paper, Zecora glimpsed glass, so she unwrapped it carefully.
It was a framed glass mosaic. That was Zecora’s first thought. It was old - ancient, even - and crafted in a style, she didn’t even know the name for, but clearly recognisable as Zebrabwean. It portrayed… It portrayed the sun. Shining down on flowers, trees and frolicking zebras, the sun was made with hundreds of tiny pieces of glass and crystal, reflecting the light in the hut as if it shone itself. Such a piece must be from before Nightmare Moon. At least a thousand years old. She stared at the pegasus, mouth agape.
“Glad you like it,” the mare laughed.
"After all, we sun-buns should stick together."