• Published 6th Mar 2014
  • 6,215 Views, 152 Comments

The Striped Pony - ts_cogwheel



When a zebra has grown accustomed to being shunned, trying to become a part of a community is not easy.

  • ...
4
 152
 6,215

Slip of Tongue

Perfect.

Zecora, pot-holder in mouth, tipped the pastries from the hot plate onto the grate to cool off. The crust on each piece of honey and cardamom cake was very light brown along the edge, with a soft gradient towards the beige centre where she had carefully placed half a walnut core. The crust was crisp, yet the slightly squishy way it gave when poked assured her that the lemon custard filling had preserved its moistness.

Once again, her cake-baking "just happened to" coincide with Apple Bloom's expected visit that afternoon. It occurred to her that the pastries could be considered a bribe for the filly's heartwarming company, but Apple Bloom had started coming regularly to her hut in the Everfree Forest before Zecora had begun coordinating her baking days with the young one's visits. The filly never showed disappointment if there was no cake, but beamed whenever there was. The smile on Apple Bloom's face had become a much relied-upon source of happiness for the hermit, and between the bouncy filly and Twilight's visits, Zecora's life had changed more than she had ever anticipated.

As if on cue, a rap on the door pulled the zebra out of her thoughts. Quickly, Zecora hoofed the dirty utensils into the mixing bowl. Then she hastily ran a wet dishcloth over the cooking table, cleaning up most of the flour, and threw it into the bowl, which she hid in the broom closet. The filly probably - hopefully - would never know, but whenever Zecora was expecting visitors, she usually spent hours cleaning her hut in order to make it pass for a home. Years of hardly ever having anypony come by, except the occasional customer who preferred not to enter her hut anyway, had led to a rather laissez-faire approach to housekeeping. Her neatly organised herbal ingredients were the only exception to the chaos of odds and ends gathered over the years, and the many rows of bags hanging from the ceiling weren't exactly radiating flank shui. The first time Twilight and her friends had come on an announced visit - both to get to know Zecora and to apologise for the way they had treated her when they first met - the bachelorette zebra had gone on a three day cleaning frenzy, only just managing to get the house presentable before the ponies had arrived. Thankfully, Rarity had declared her hut "authentic" and "charming," deciding that the stains on her copperware were "such an endearing patina."

These days, it took less work to get her home in a non-embarrassing condition, though drapes were still heavily used to hide the mess on her shelves, and she was happy that nopony had to see her bedroom. Checking everything over as she walked by, Zecora went through the hut and opened the door to welcome the bow-wearing visitor.

"Apple Bloom, my filly dear, did your nose tell you to come out here?" she asked as she saw her guest delightedly take in the cardamom scent of the freshly baked goods.

"Hi Zecora!" the little earth pony exclaimed. "Hey, this smells really nice! Have ya been bakin'?" She underlined her excitement with one of her adorable little bounces, smiling from ear to ear.

The zebra let the filly in with a "Your timing is immaculate: the cakes are cooling on the grate."

Apple Bloom let out a squee. "Oh, can Ah help make tea?" Zecora smiled. To the filly, the zebra way of tea infusion might be a fun game, but she still performed it with the reverence of a true shaman. In Zebrabwe, serving pure, unblended tea was reserved for solemn occasions, and regular tea time was surrounded with ceremony and rituals, the foremost being the selection of infusion ingredients. Since her exile, Zecora had rarely had the chance for sharing tea, and doing so with Apple Bloom naturally brought forth a bit of nostalgia.

"I gladly welcome that request. Pick your infusion, honoured guest," she invited with the formality of a tea ceremony. She then laid out her well-cared-for equipment - there was no endearing patina on this silver set of herbal knives, spoons, tea egg, tea egg plate, and ladle. They each rested in their own hollow in a large, ornate, silk-lined box of dark wood, along with a small mortar and pestle in green marble and sand timers for three, five, and seven minutes. Although they had clearly seen much use - they had been Zecora's mother's and her mother's before - they had been kept in fine condition. Apple Bloom had, from the first time she saw the intricately decorated utensils, treated them with respect, and while Zecora had never actually told the filly how much they and the tea ceremony meant to her, the little pony seemed to have gathered it anyway, and recognised the sign of trust she was given.

Apple Bloom took great care in her choices. To Zecora's delight, she blended the loose black leaves with dried apple, cinnamon, ginger, and aniseed. Those were spices that would complement the cardamom of the cakes, and were neither a traditional pony infusion nor as sweet as something a filly would usually pick. In fact, they were very close to what she herself would have blended, had her guest been an adult zebra - though she probably would have held back on the apples. Of course, the young tea master was a bit generous with the honey she added to the pot, but it was still a quite good performance.

While the tea was steeping, Zecora set the table, bringing out her baked goods. Apple Bloom eyed them eagerly, and the zebra hadn't the heart to let her wait until the tea was ready.

"Here, have a bite sour, sweet and crisp - the cake that we call honey lips." The zebra muzzled the cake plate towards her guest, who grabbed one of the treats as fast as she could without being impolite. With the unnecessary nervosity of a hostess, Zecora watched Apple Bloom bite off a corner of the sweet, spicy pastry. As the filly nibbled on the crust, the citric aroma - until then trapped in the hollow of the cake with the still steaming custard - reached her nostrils, and she drew in the unexpected scent in a long, appreciating breath.

"M-hmmm! Thish ish delishioush!" she said through her second bite. Zecora let out a held breath. It was the first time she had served this particular cake to a pony, and while Apple Bloom seemed to like most of her Zebrabwean recipes, there had been exceptions. The less said about the cayenne curry pot, the better.

Apple Bloom was halfway through her cake - slowing down significantly as her tongue touched the hot custard - when the last of the sand ran through the five-minute timer. The filly laid down her treat to remove the tea egg from the snout-less pot and carefully fill the two cups using the ladle.

Zecora sipped her tea. As she had expected, it was on the sweet side, and the spice balance was a bit off, but it was still enjoyable. "This tea you made is very good," she approved. "It truly complements the food."

The filly did another of her little joyous bounces, then looked at Zecora. "Really? Yer not just sayin’ that, are ya? Do you ‘like it’ like it? Could tea-making be mah very special talent? Could Ah be a Cutie Mark Crusader Tea Maker?" she rambled, walking around herself, trying to look at her own flank, which was as blank as always.

Any visit from Apple Bloom had the filly going into cutie mark frenzy at least once. Her friends did the same, so Zecora wondered if every young pony went through such a phase. The filly clearly had a talent for carefully measuring and controlling her hoofwork, and really excelled at crafting, but as long as she was focused on the result rather than the process, she wouldn't find the zenbra mindset of a true craftspony. Zecora wasn't one to tell anypony what to do with her life, but she encouraged the filly in her interests, certain that she would someday understand the importance of being mindful.

"If it is, there's but one way to know: keep doing what you like, and your cutie mark will show."

"What does that even mean?" the filly frowned, cross-eyed, stopping her attempts to orbit herself. "How can Ah find mah cutie mark if Ah only stick to thangs Ah've already tried?"

Zecora opened her mouth and closed it again. Let her find out her own way.

"See? Ya really need to think thangs through, Zecora!" Apple Bloom said triumphantly. Zecora managed to not facehoof.

Returning to the task at hand, the little one eyed her half-eaten pastry and resumed her happy munching. Zecora smiled. The mind was as bouncy as the legs.

After a couple sips of tea, Zecora directed her guest's attention to the reason for her visit.

"So, you wanted me to see your homework for sweet Cheerilee?"

The filly really wanted to do well in school, but while her big sister was loving and sensible, Applejack’s patience for helping with school work paralleled her infatuation with makeovers. Apple Bloom had once asked Twilight for help, but the purple perfectionist had turned a very simple multiplication problem into a four-page differential equation (“We have to consider the growth of the apples still on the trees during the time it takes to pick them. Oh, and how about delays due to rain? Since the weather isn’t noted, we must assume an average of the standard deviations defined by the time of the day. Let me find the pegasus weather schedule...”)

At the notion of her assignment, Apple Bloom’s expression turned glum.

“Yeah. We have to describe ten different kinds of leaves, but Ah don’t know how,” she pouted. “Scootaloo just wrote ‘green an’ leafy’ ten times an’ scooted off to see the pegasus flyball team practice, an’ Sweetie Belle is tryin’ to make a dress out of leaves ’cause she says that’s what Rarity would do. Ah reckon none of them are doin’ it right, an’ I reeeally wanna impress Miss Cheerilee! Earth ponies are s’posed to be good at this stuff!”

The disheartened filly rummaged through her saddlebags, producing a piece of paper crumbled into a ball. She straightened it and revealed a mess of green crayon drawings, crossed over with red.

“Ah tried to draw some leaves, but they all ended up totally alike,” she sighed. “Then I thought ‘Maybe Zecora can help. She’s real good with plants!’” The filly’s glinting, pleading eyes almost filled her entire head, with splashes of red on her cheeks effectively making her irresistible.

Basic leaf lore. Zecora felt a surge in her stomach. She was already in a nostalgic mood, and this innocent request threw her into a well of memories.

A zebra filly, a few years older than Apple Bloom, is standing for the first time in the hut of the Honoured Xephyr, shaking on her long, clumsy growth-spurt legs. The shaman's gaze feels like it is burning its way into the young one's mind, seeing through every lie, every thoughtless or selfish act ever committed in the filly’s short life, weighing them on unseen scales. In the immeasurable eternity it takes for sand to run through a three-minute tea timer, there is silence.

Another eternity passes as the elderly mare fills her cup, brings it to her lips, takes a single sip, sets it down and declares, in the most matter-of-fact way:

"Too much clove, but you’ll do. I agree to tutor you."

The filly's eyes widen, and her smile beams like the spiral sun on her flank - the soul symbol representing her affinity with all that grows. It will be hard work, but it will be worth it. Finally...

"Zecora? Are ya alright?"

Zecora didn’t know how long she had been staring at the filly, but it had been long enough that the big, orange eyes looking back at her hinted concern.

Shaking the daydream out of her head, the shaman answered. “I am fine, but thank you, dear. Come and see what I have here.” She gestured for the slightly confused yellow filly to follow her to one of her bookshelves.

The book was one she hadn’t opened in years, yet she knew exactly where it was, and as she grabbed the thin volume, its large size and light weight were ever so familiar. It was inexpertly bound: little more than four coarse pieces of string held the pages together through a cardboard cover cut from a packaging box, painted with bright colours. The paint was cracked and flaky, and the battered cover spoke of heavy use. It was by far the least assuming book in her library, but also the one closest to her heart.

Apple Bloom stared at the mangled book with confusion, until she got a look at the large drawing of a spiral on the front. She looked from the book to Zecora as the zebra gently flipped the cover. On the first page, there were several colour pencil drawings of leaves, shaky, but still recognisable. The drawings varied widely, but there were some common traits: the slightly asymmetric drop-like shape, the direction and spacing of the veins, and the serrated edges. Zecora pointed out these traits as she guided the filly through the page.

"Commit these shapes to memory, then let us go and find this tree," she told Apple Bloom, who was looking intensely at the drawings, putting her hoof to first one and then another, mumbling to herself.

As they left the hut, Apple Bloom zoomed to the nearest tree, jumping up and grabbing a leaf from a low-hanging branch. She studied it between her hooves and quickly decided that it looked completely wrong. The wild shape of the oak leaf looked nothing like the well-defined ones she had just been studying. She told Zecora as much, and the shaman nodded approvingly.

Encouraged by the zebra's confirmation, the filly bounced to a nearby sapling, giving it a single look before dismissing it as well. The telltale five-pointed shape of the crimson maple leaf was just as wrong as the oak had been. After going through a couple of other unlikely candidates, she stopped at a hazel. She turned the leaf with a scrutinising look on her face, immersed in thought. When she spoke, it was hesitantly.

"Ah don't know. This seems almost right, but there's somethin' wrong with the shape. It isn't as... sharp?... as the drawings? What do ya say, 'Cora?"

A nickname? Zecora mused. She couldn't remember if anyone had ever given her one of those, other than those rather unflattering ones that she would prefer to forget. It was strangely warming. Also, Apple Bloom was exceeding her expectations, and it was with a proud smile she opened her muzzle to reply.

Before she had the chance, however, she noted the look on the filly's face. She was staring at something behind the zebra, a revelation slowly dawning upon her.

"THAT'S IT!" she yelled, jumping two pony heights straight up and changing direction mid-air, leaving behind her a small dust cloud and a whipcrack sound. Faster than Zecora could turn, the yellow lightning bolt was back at her hut, jumping onto the large tree. She ran along one of the solid branches and bounced triumphantly into one of the low-hanging parts of the crown.

Moments later, a bunch of twigs fell onto the ground in front of the zebra, making her take a step backward in surprise. From the mass of leaves, a beaming face emerged, a single green trophy sticking out from the middle of the broad smile.

Taking in the filly's satisfaction, Zecora grabbed a twig from the red mane.

"The correct leaf you do provide." She tickled the little pony with the leafy end of the twig. "An elm is what I live inside."

Drunk with success, the filly danced around, wielding a branch between her teeth. She was so overwhelmed with pride that she even forgot to check her (still blank) flank for a sign of being a Cutie Mark Crusader Tree Identifier (yay!).

Once the victory dance was over, Zecora pointed a hoof to other elm trees a bit further from her hut.

"Now you know the correct tree, let's study its diversity," she suggested, and the two of them started to collect different elm leaves. Apple Bloom soon had a broad spectrum of sizes and shapes on her hooves, and on her own, she realised what the next step was.

"With all them here leaves, Ah can make a page just like the one in yer book! It'll be a super way to do mah homework! Do ya think we can do this for ten types of plants?" She nearly burst with enthusiasm.

Zecora was almost as proud as the little one on her behalf. "That idea is very sage - you have the leaves for your first page."

As the filly sat at the table with a coloured pencil in her mouth, trying to draw the different leaves she had collected, Zecora's excitement over the lesson's success made way for a realisation of her own: the student had become the teacher. When did this happen? She had explained things about zebra culture and recipes before, especially to the ever curious Twilight Sparkle, but this was something different. This was not merely filling the gaps in somepony’s knowledge. It was supplying the framework within which her pupil herself could come to an understanding. It was... teaching. And it felt good.

---

Several hours later, as the afternoon became evening, Apple Bloom had finished her last page, and was comparing it to Zecora’s old notebook. The exhausted but happy teacher had her attention focused on boiling mushroom soup in the kitchen, when something clicked in the back of her mind. Alarmed, she rushed to the living room, but she was too late! Apple Bloom had reached the last page in the notebook, and was looking at them.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! How could she have forgotten the photographs? Excuses and explanations rushed through Zecora’s mind as sweat sprang from her brow. You may laugh at this young mare, but that’s how everyzebra had her hair... Yes, I know th...

Aww, is this you? Ya look so cute!” Apple Bloom pointed to the one. A teenaged Zecora smiled back from the book, proudly holding her first apprentice cauldron. Her long limbs were still awkwardly proportioned, her new, single golden neck ring shining in the sun, her cheeks plastered with too much rouge, her hooves brightly polished red, her amateurishly applied lipstick, her hair... Oh, stars above, her hair! What had been going through her mind to think that long, braided pigtails could ever be excused? And the colours... Rainbow Dash was able to bear them naturally, but this young zebra? Why had she ever allowed Apple Bloom near that book? She would never...

… Wait. Cute?

“You... think?” Zecora was flabbergasted. What? How?...

She started to relax, thinking the crisis averted. Then it hit her. Apple Bloom hadn’t noticed it; she just kept smiling at the photo.

Her tongue had slipped.

Her tongue had slipped, and she found that she didn't care.

Author's Note:

Edited by the awesome Feo Takahari.