• 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.

  • ...

The Conspirators

"Nuts and shoes! That was mah last manticore! How do ya DO it, Rainbow?"

The pegasus picked up the small figurine from the map and flipped it into the air. She caught it on her nose and set it down on her prison board among the other conquered game pieces, which she had arranged so that they were mockingly facing the players who had lost them.

"Face it, Applejack!" she gloated. "You just can’t compete with my skills!"

Her pincer attack had come as a surprise for the orange pony, but Applejack had never been much of a tactician. Twilight, on the other hoof, proved to be much more of a challenge. Right now, the unicorn was building up forces behind her barricades, and Rainbow Dash's attempts to lure her into stretching her front line had failed. Rarity's forces were spread too evenly to be dangerous, though she had to be wary in case the pearly white hooves were holding a Rally card. Pinkie Pie was as usual employing silly and unpredictable tactics, but her successes were infrequent at best, so unless she pulled off something brilliant like that time with the alpine elephant skiers, Dash was good. Fluttershy she was going to spare for last, if only to give her oldest friend a sliver of a chance. If Applejack was bad, the gentle pegasus was downright abysmal. Whenever she defeated a unit, she apologised to it profusely, and put it into a tea party with dollshouse furniture in her prison. It wasn’t a very large tea party.

Applejack thought she was in trouble now, but she would be surprised in three turns, when her Capital fell, and there was nothing she could do at this point. Rainbow's deployment was simply too perfect, and even if Twilight should choose to take advantage of her thinned forces, she still had an ace in her hooves: she had spent days analysing what had made Pinkie's alpine attack so effective, replaying the scene countless times until she had all the factors down. Unless Twilight had done the same, she wouldn't recognise the trap the pegasus had laid. She almost wished that the bookworm would try. The counterattack would make her squirm like a worm... Like a bookworm! HA, Rainbow applauded her own wits quietly.

While most ponies would consider Rainbow Dash to be too hot-headed for tabletop games, they would revise their opinion once they had felt crushing defeat at the pegasus's hooves. Twilight might be Ponyville’s undefeated chess champion, but Armies and Alicorns was her game. It had been the thunderstorm pastime of choice back at Junior Speedsters, and ever since, Dash had perfected her skills with fervor. So much that the girls' game nights had a stupid and completely unfair limit as to how often she was allowed to bring along her limited edition deluxe size waterproof set.

She fortified her position and passed the turn to Fluttershy, who, as usual, hadn't planned ahead, and looked her options over anxiously. As the yellow hostess uselessly moved a single unit from one of her territories to another, there was a knock on the door.

Fluttershy immediately disappeared under the table, but as nothing more happened, her pink mane slowly reemerged.

"Oh!" she whispered. "I think there’s somepony at the door. Maybe I should go check? I-if you don't mind, that is."

"It's prolly Zecora comin' in with Apple Bloom," Applejack guessed, seemingly happy to take her mind off the game.

Fluttershy opened the door to her cottage and proved her friend right. The zebra was wearing her gray cloak (which Rainbow Dash still silently considered pretty creepy), and the filly had her saddlebags full of something. Both of them were smiling, and there was something unfamiliar about the hermit’s appearance. Something Dash couldn’t quite put her hoof on.

"Hi sis," Applejack called. "Did ya get the help ya wanted?"

The filly nodded energetically. "Oh yeah! Zecora was totally super duper awesome!" she beamed, pointing to her companion, who was trying not to make eye contact with anypony, embarrassed by the praise.

Rainbow consulted her internal awesomeometer. Totally Super Duper Awesome. That was high, closing in on Wonderbolt-class awesome. Certainly not a tier she had ever placed Zecora in before, nor heard her described. Mentally preparing to add some awesome points to the zebra, she still had to subtract some coolness for her being so bashful about it. Maybe minus pie point twelve coolness points? The loss in radicalness didn't matter much, on the other hoof: Zecora was almost at Twilight-level in that category. There just weren't numbers low enough for that.

Of course, as always with non-approved sources, there was the risk that the little pony was using the word “awesome” wrongly, so Dash withheld the points until she could confirm their justification. She flapped over to the pair and inspected them. Zecora had lowered her hood, and up close the pegasus realised: she was looking relaxed. Not just her usual calm, but honest-to-Celestia "life-is-good" relaxed.

Good for her, Rainbow mused. That was clearly worth some coolness points. But what about the awesome? As the filly produced a stack of papers with green drawings, and proudly showed them - along with jars of leaves - to her sister, Dash put her hoof to her face. They’d been fussing over plant leaves. Plant leaves! How less awesome could you get? The pegasus promptly punished the pair of eggheads by subtracting one thundercloud of awesome points from them both, along with some radicalness points for good measure. She was about to say something sarcastic, but Applejack preempted her.

“Those look mighty fine there, sis. Ah hope she wasn’t too much of a problem, Zecora.” They shook hooves.

“Not at all. T’was quite fun, really, to teach this knowledge-hungry filly.” Zecora smiled warmly.

"Bah! Boring!" Rainbow returned to her pillow at the table, forehooves crossed. And here she'd thought something cool had happened.

“Oh my! Of course. Sorry!" Fluttershy apologised. "Would you like a cup of tea, Zecora? Let me get you something to sit on...” She flew to her top cupboard and pulled out a green plush pillow with an orange rim. Putting it down by the table, she looked at her guest nervously.

"I hope this pillow isn't too soft for you, Zecora. Rarity did a very nice job making them perfect for ponies to sit on, but you are larger than a pony, so... Eep!" She halted with widened eyes, realising how what she said could be taken.

"Oh no! I'm sorry! I didn't mean it like that, I only wanted to say that..." she spluttered, face crimson.

"I know what you were getting at," Zecora said in her usual calm tone. "You meant to say my flank is fat," she concluded with a sad pout, turning to look at her spiral-adorned behind.

"What?!" Rainbow Dash’s gaze flashed angrily from the thunderstruck pegasus to the large striped hermit. "Come on! You know that Fluttershy would never..." Then she noticed the grin on Zecora's muzzle. She was pulling their legs.

"Waitaminute... are you?" Rainbow's brain broke. Zecora making a joke?

Pinkie Pie bounced to Fluttershy and stood beside the still-shocked pegasus, looking Zecora over with a mock stern expression.

"Yeppo! You really need to hold back on those sweets, Zecora! You are the fattest fatty in all of Equestria! Why, just the other day, I asked myself: 'Myself,' I asked, 'do you know who's really fat?' And I answered 'Why, yes, myself! Of course I know: Zecora is really, really fat! She's so fat that when she steps onto her bathroom scales, they say one at a time, please!'"

"I am so fat, I haven't seen my hooves since I was just a teen," the zebra quickly countered.

"You're so fat that every photo of you is a group shot!"

"By mistake, sometimes you'll see Princess Luna raising me."

The two broke into a giggling fit, and Fluttershy's frightened expression mellowed.

Applejack looked at Apple Bloom, who mirrored her confusion.

"What just happened?"

"Dear Fluttershy, please have no fear," Zecora intoned as she walked over to the pegasus. "This pillow’s fine for my big rear." She wiggled her rump at the last words, but before the pegasus flustered further, Zecora produced a jar from beneath her cloak. In what Rainbow assumed was an apology for her teasing, she offered Fluttershy the first of the sweet-scented goods.

Recognising the gesture, Fluttershy gently took the pastry. "Thank you, Zecora.”

Zecora let the jar pass among the other ponies. Pinkie Pie held hers up, and while Fluttershy filled a cup of tea for the newcomers, the apprentice confectioner sniffed at the cake approvingly.

"And here we find the source of our striped friend's fatness!" she declared. "A sneakily delicious pastry with a fine scent of cardamom and honey. It is a traditional Zebrabwean cake with an expertly sealed-away mushy treasure. A whiff of lemon reveals that it is the variant known as honey lips in some parts, which is rumoured to be..."

She stuck the entire cake into her mouth and munched loudly. "...Hoof-licking good!" she concluded, and did just that.

Zecora had been listening intently to Pinkie's lecture. "Pinkie Pie, you always amaze. How do you know my homeland's ways?" she asked, pleasantly surprised.

"I’vebeen studying," Pinkie said proudly, putting a clean-licked hoof around Twilight, who eyed it with suspicion. "Somezebra has a birthday coming up in a week, and what kind of friend would I be if I didn't know the right cake to bake?" she concluded with her usual straightforwardness.

Zecora sat stunned, as if her brain was trying to process a large and unusually complex heap of information. Slowly she opened her mouth, then closed it again, cheeks turning red.

"I simply don't know what to say. Where did you find out my birthday?" she rhymed haltingly.

"It was on the Certificate of Equestrian Citizenship you have framed on your wall next to that diploma that is really hard to read!"

Rainbow Dash had known Pinkie for years, and her bubbly friend's keen powers of observation could not surprise her anymore. Twilight was starting to get the hang of it as well, but Zecora was still unfamiliar enough with the group of friends that such displays of brilliance took her by surprise.

Still, she grinned and recomposed herself.

"It's true: my date of birth draws near. I haven't thought of that in years."

Pinkie Pie's face contorted into a look of utter horror. "What?" she shrieked, jumped into the air. "You haven't had a birthday party in years? This is horrible! I was thinking about throwing you a party, but that won't do. Nonononono. I need to prepare a par-TAY to make up for this! Gummy, take a note, please!"

She picked up the baby alligator from the carpet, where he had been fruitlessly attempting to devour Tank's shell. Sticking a pencil into his toothless maw, she started dictating a "Pinkielicious birthday party preparation list." Gummy gnawed on the pencil twice and let it drop to the floor.

Zecora laughed and interjected, "there is no need for all this stuff. You being there will be enough. I hadn't thought you'd even say you'd want to celebrate my day."

"But of course, darling!" Rarity said, floating a measuring tape around the birthday mare to-be while scribbling on a notepad. "And I have just the perfect idea for a gift!... Oh, my." She looked at her pad. "What wouldn't I give to have these ratios. I must disagree with you and Pinkie concerning your fatness."

Zecora looked flattered, but not too comfortable with being the center of attention. She seemed relieved when Applejack spoke up.

"Aw, ponyfeathers! Look at the time! Ah better get Apple Bloom back home, or she'll be a pain to wake up tomorrow!"

"Ah'm not -ahh- sleepy yet, sis!" the filly yawned, drawing a laugh from everypony.

Rainbow Dash sent a longing stare to the game board. Just three more turns...

Applejack followed her eyes. "Aw, shucks, Rainbow. You'll get your chance to beat me next time. Thank ya again for takin’ Apple Bloom off mah hooves, Zecora.” She brought a forehoof to the rim of her hat in gesture.

“The pleasure’s mine, dear Applejack. Now I, too, must be getting back.”

The group got up to say their goodnights, and sent the Apple girls and Zecora on their way. As Zecora disappeared into the distance, Rainbow was certain she heard her hum a merry tune.

She turned to the remaining ponies as Fluttershy closed the door.

"Wow, she sure was in a good mood today."

"Good?" Rarity protested. "She was positively radiant. I've never seen her like this before. Twilight, you know her the best. What do you think has happened?"

Twilight pondered. "Well, she has been seeing more and more of Apple Bloom, and she always seem to enjoy sharing her knowledge. Maybe she really likes teaching? She did a wonderful job on Nightmare Night."

"Well, whatever it was, she should do it more. I for one would welcome her opening up a bit."

"Yeah," Rainbow quizzed Pinkie. "What were all those fat jokes about?"

"Oh, don't you see? She was showing that she felt safe!"

Rainbow, Twilight, and Fluttershy stared at her, nonplussed.

"Pinkie is right," Rarity elaborated. "By setting herself up for a joke, she was opening her defenses as well as allowing us to laugh with her. A bit coarsely, I admit, but who knows how long it has been since she's been this familiar with anypony?"

Fluttershy looked reassured. "So she wasn't angry with me?"

"Oh no, dear! Not at all. She just found it humorous that you would even think that she would take what you said as an insult. Quite the contrary: she was showing confidence that you would never attack her."

The shy pegasus nodded pleased at this, though she still looked a tad confused. Rainbow didn't blame her. Baring herself in confidence... This was a bit like when you went for an allied victory in Armies and Alicorns, and thinned your front towards your ally to show that you were sincere. But in the game, attacking the other players was the norm. In real life, nopony should assume that other ponies would be hostile by default. Not for the first time, she felt guilt for when they had barged into the zebra's hut and accused her of having cursed them. She hadn't had an easy time in Ponyville until recently. If anyone deserved...

Pinkie spoke what Rainbow was thinking, "So, what can we do to get more happy-Zecora?" She knocked thrice on her forehead. "Let's use our noggins, girls!"

Author's Note:

Edited by the patient Feo Takahari.

Still working on the recipe for Honey Lips.