• Published 28th Jan 2014
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Zecora's Pinata - BlackRoseRaven



A zebra spirit meets an unlikely ally after he's sent to right a wrong in Equestria.

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Jumpsuit Sweethearts

Chapter Three: Jumpsuit Sweethearts
~BlackRoseRaven

La Croix scowled horribly as he glared out of the bars of his cell, twitching a little every now and then. There were large bags under his eyes from lack of sleep, and his features were gaunt not just with tiredness, but with hunger: his thinness made the skeletal patterning over his body stand out all the more disturbingly... at least, where it was visible through the dirty orange jumpsuit he was wearing.

“This is wrong! Hey, I know y'all can hear me!” La Croix shouted, his voice surprisingly strong... but it was the only thing left that had any strength now. His legs were wobbling beneath him, and he was keeping himself on his hooves only because most of his weight was on his face, which was pressed painfully into the bars. “I got rights! Y'all can't just throw me aside! Liberté! J'exige liberté!

There was no response from down the hall, where he knew the stupid sheriff and his stupid deputies were working. La Croix swore, then sat backwards on his haunches, glaring balefully out of this little ugly cell at the back of the so-called 'police station,' which wasn't a whole lot more than a renovated house. He began to open his mouth to shout, but it turned into a long, painful yawn that made his head swim.

La Croix shook his head furiously, then looked grumpily over at the cot on one side of the cell. He'd tried to tear it apart to help resist the urge to sleep, but all he'd really managed to do was get his sheets dirty. And then one of the deputies had taken his pillow away so he didn't even anything to sit on now. Well. Apart from the dirty cot and the toilet.

He scowled a little at this, then glared at the food tray sitting on one side of the room. His stomach clenched with pain, but he was making do with just water and a little bit of the dried hay they gave him. Dammit, he was supposed to be a Loa, above all this! And even if he had to eat something, he sure as hell wasn't going to sink so low as to eat the scraps off the table these ponies gave him.

The Loa grumbled to himself... then yawned again and swayed uneasily, but he hurriedly shook his head before cursing and rubbing at his stomach when it cramped again painfully. At least that was helping keep him awake but... sooner or later, he knew he was going to fall asleep...

But if he fell asleep, his fellow Loa were going to grab him and force him into what would definitely be an unpleasant meeting. They had been mad enough at him the first night he'd spent here and been dumb enough to fall asleep: he'd sworn to his brothers he'd escape within a day, two at the most. And he had honestly thought he'd be able to, easily.

Now, it had been five days. All his clothing had been taken away and he kept catching glimpses of one of the deputies wearing his damn hat! And he knew that if he didn't figure out a way to get out of here soon, they were going to figure out there was a lot more to his clothing than it seemed: but he somehow wasn't surprised that these hayseeds hadn't bothered trying to search the pockets of his cape. At least, not yet.

“I got a right to a fair trial! I got... I know my rights!” La Croix half-shouted, half-rasped, raising a hoof to shake it angrily. But that motion alone made him woozy, and he groaned as he half-toppled forwards, catching himself against the bars before he wheezed loudly and mumbled: “Y'all can't do this to me. Je suis... importante.”

La Croix swore under his breath... and then he tipped slowly forwards until his face gently struck the bars, the zebra whimpering weakly before he mumbled nonsense words sleepily, then started to snore quietly.

Then the zebra started backwards, leaping to his hooves... before groaning when he found himself not in reality, but instead in a dream world. He looked back and forth miserably at the purple, smoky walls around him as the floor melted into dark bayou mud, and then he scowled as the bars of the cell simply collapsed outwards, the Loa shouting: “Okay, okay, I get it, enough with the theatrics! I ain't no con!

La Croix huffed a bit, then did his best to swallow his apprehension as he strode out over the fallen bars and into an open forest. He wrinkled up his muzzle as he looked back and forth, then grumbled: “Why don't I get to see the nice side o' Darkwater anymore? Is that too much to ask, a little sunshine, a little color to the bayou? 'Sall mist and muck, that ain't so bon.”

He huffed again, then shook his head quickly before he caught sight of his two brothers seated on the other side of the bog. Immediately, he turned towards them, completely ignoring the gestures they made at him as he shouted: “I still got a little over three weeks, y'all don't need to be rushin' me so damn much. As a matter of fact, I happen to be learnin' all sorts of things 'bout these ponies. I ain't caged up, I'm a renard in the poulailler!”

La Croix grinned widely, then scowled as Cimetaire and Samedi only continued to gesture at him violently before he huffed, saying flatly: “Whatever y'all trying to do, hoof-waving ain't gonna make me think y'all workin' some dark magic on me. I ain't no stupid ouaouaron.”

“No, you're a stupid souris.” growled a voice, and La Croix squealed before bolting across the bayou and leaping behind his brothers. But he wasn't able to cower for long before they both seized him and hurriedly flung him forwards.

“B-Bondye! Bondye! It's... it's so good to see you!” La Croix whimpered, flopping down in the mud before he forced himself to look up, grinning weakly as the massive figure of the deity slowly stalked into the nightmare-bayou. “I... I found the ponies, Bondye, I gonna fix this real quick, I-”

“Shut up.” Bondye said coldly, raising his scaled head: he towered over La Croix, an immense gray-green goliath of a reptile. But he wasn't a dragon: he was a massive alligator, with stony white scales forming a death-mask over his face and bony illustrations all along his broad, spiky back. “Look at you, La Croix. Failing every step of the way. You don't walk, you don't even stumble towards your goal: you trip and fall your way towards whatever your objective happens to be.”

“I... I sure is clumsy, you right about that Bondye, I'm just a big clumsy connard, ain't no one dumber or more clumsy than me!” La Croix gave a weak, forced laugh as he hit himself on the head a few times, cold sweat running down his face as the alligator-god scowled down at him. “B-B-But I'm gonna succeed with this, you wait and see, gonna fix the cycle, help all these ponies, just... j-just like you want me to-”

“I don't care about them or about you. I don't even care about the cycle. What I care about is that you have made me look stupid and incompetent. What I care about is that you have made our pantheon a laughingstock. What I care about, La Croix, is that you dared to go ahead and make these ill-informed decisions on your own, you sniveling little poppet.” Bondye growled, leaning slowly down so that he was almost pressing nose-to-nose with La Croix.

And La Croix could smell death on Bondye's breath, could see teeth bigger than his head jutting from that calloused, scaly muzzle, could feel that malicious anger wafting off the deity. He had to do something, say something, anything... “Boss, I... I swear to you, I ain't never done that! I always been loyal, I always done what I was told!”

Bondye snorted, eldritch-green eyes narrowing as he growled: “Somehow I doubt that, La Croix. Look at you, even now. Your brothers were sent to warn you, and what did you do, right after they cautioned you? Got yourself thrown in this gaol!”

La Croix dropped his head, covering it with a whimper before he blurted: “But boss, I... I got a plan, okay? I got a great plan, and... and I swear, I'm gonna fix the cycle, I'm gonna... I'm gonna prove to you I ain't done nothing wrong, monseigneur Bondye!”

There was silence for a moment, and then the massive alligator snorted steam over La Croix, making him whimper and cower deeper into the mud before the immense reptile rumbled: “For your sake, La Croix, I hope you're telling the truth. And for your brothers' sake as well.

“Still, you need encouragement. You need help.” Bondye sounded almost meditative, and La Croix looked up nervously as the alligator rubbed slowly under his chin, then suddenly smiled coldly before saying calmly: “I know. I hear you're having trouble with finding food suitable for your... pallet, is this correct, La Croix?”

“Well, y-you know, Bondye. Ain't what I'm used to, and all that.” La Croix gave a whimpering laugh, grinning weakly up at the alligator. “I'm... I'm r-right sure that I can get used to it, though!”

Bondye gave a dry, cold chuckle at this, and La Croix shrank back as the alligator-deity asked almost mockingly: “But why should you? You're a superior Loa, aren't you, La Croix? No, no. You deserve a little help, don't you?”

La Croix whimpered, then gave a weak smile, and Bondye chuckled quietly before he leaned down and breathed green-tinged steam over the zebra, La Croix curling up and shivering as the hot mist spread through his nose, tickled along his tongue, made his eyes burn and his mind and body cringe... but it faded, leaving only a... a lingering, cottony feeling on his tongue and a strange, thick feeling around his nostrils.

Hesitantly, La Croix looked up... then he frowned and grabbed at his own face before Bondye said calmly: “There. You shouldn't have any problem eating anything now, La Croix. It'll all taste the same to you. Now, you have twenty-five days to hold up your end of the bargain... don't fail me, La Croix. You won't like the cost if you do.”

La Croix grinned, began to open his mouth... and then he squealed when Bondye stomped on him with one stubby claw, knocking him flopping onto his back in a splash of darkness to-

The zebra's head painfully whacked off the cement floor of his cell, and his eyes opened before he groaned in agony, grabbing at the back of his head and rolling back and forth, giving faint little whimpers as he shivered weakly.

Finally, he sat up before rubbing at his face and grimacing a little. At least he couldn't smell the reek of the cell anymore. And maybe if he'd finally gotten used to that...

La Croix turned his eyes apprehensively towards the food tray one of the deputies had left. It wasn't that he didn't trust Bondye... well, actually, okay, it was. He and the other Loa were very nearly malicious when it came to the deals they made, always twisting it to one way or another, always trying to take that inch and make it a mile. But all great things started small, right?

The zebra nervously rubbed at his face, then he hesitantly slipped towards the tray: there wasn't really anything on it apart from some dried hay. With him as their only prisoner, and all his constant yelling at them, none of them were very eager to be around him. He only saw them when he managed to provoke one of them back here, or they came to change out the food tray.

La Croix carefully picked up some of the hay, then he scowled before nervously putting it in his mouth. At first, he was terrified that Bondye had made it so everything he ate was going to taste like bilge... but to his surprise, he didn't taste anything at all. He could barely even make out the texture of the hay as... as...

La Croix's eyes widened in horror, and then he spat the hay out before shoving his own hoof in his mouth... but he didn't taste that, either, or any of the dirt or sweat or...

The Loa looked back and forth almost wildly, then he suddenly leapt forwards and licked the bar: nothing. He knew it was metal, but he didn't taste metal. He turned around, half-stumbling towards his bed, and leapt onto it to bite the sheets... and again, no taste. No smell, either...

The Loa's head snapped up, sheet still hanging from his mouth, eyes wide with horror. No smell. He couldn't taste anything, and he couldn't smell anything either. Bondye had made everything taste the same by taking away his ability to taste or smell anything at all.

La Croix gave a half-furious, half-terrified wheeze around the sheets in his maw, and then a throat cleared loudly, catching his attention. Slowly, La Croix turned towards the source of this noise, and then he scowled horribly at the sight of Zecora and the sheriff, blushing only slightly around the sheets in his maw before he snapped in a muffled voice: “Quoi?

“Oh, I was just curious how you were doing. I heard from a friend that in a cell you were stewing.” Zecora replied pleasantly enough, before she calmly reached back into one of the large satchels hanging from her side... and La Croix's eyes widened as she pulled out his hat. “I collected your cape too, my friend. So, are you ready for your time in prison to end?”

La Croix spat out the sheets and stepped forwards... and promptly tangled his legs in the thick material, tripping and slamming muzzle-first into the ground. Zecora and the sheriff both winced a bit as La Croix grabbed at his face, whimpering and flopping onto his side, but then he ground his aching teeth together before forcing himself to sit up and simply nod, doing his best to glare balefully through his watery eyes.

Zecora sighed tiredly, and the sheriff cleared his throat before saying grudgingly: “I don't like doing this, but I was told by Zecora here that you're a stranger, and you were payin' your respects to the dearly departed. Although that's a strange custom, breaking into dead ponies' houses and bein' rude to the living and breathing.”

La Croix began to open his mouth, but Zecora glared at him and it hurt just to breathe, so the Loa only grumpily nodded. But the relief he felt was palpable when the sheriff stepped up to the door of the cell and opened the lock, the zebra stallion fighting to stop himself from running forwards.

But just as he began to pass through the door, the sheriff stopped him with one hoof before gesturing at the orange jumpsuit the zebra was wearing, saying mildly: “I'm gonna need that back, son. We got it special-order like, you see. You're the only crook we've had to put in the hoosegow for quite some time, but you never know when it might be needed again.”

The Loa grumbled to himself, then he reached up and unzipped the jumpsuit, flailing his way out of it before kicking it off. The sheriff glared at him, and La Croix glared back before groaning inwardly when Zecora gave him a pointed look, the stallion reaching down and sweeping up the orange suit to thrust it firmly towards the earth pony. “Voilà, mon ami. And merci beaucoup for the fine stay. I'll certainly never forget it.”

“That sure is some fancy language you talk, Mister La Croix.” the sheriff said moodily, and then he sighed a little and asked hesitantly: “You sure you can handle him, Miss Zecora? We were all excited about the idea of having a real live trial right here in Ponyville...”

“Believe me, sheriff, La Croix isn't worth all that time and effort...” Zecora smiled slightly, then she held the hat out to the Loa, who snatched it back and put it on his head with a sigh of relief. “Your skills are much better put to use at this defense fort.”

“Well, I wouldn't call it a fort... but it is pretty impressive, isn't it? And we certainly held him no problem!” the sheriff said proudly, smiling warmly, and La Croix only gave the pony a dry look as Zecora smiled back... although the Loa could swear it was a little bit strained. “Do you guys want the grand tour? It would be a heck of a way to send you off after you spent all that time locked up here!”

Zecora winced a bit, and La Croix shook his head violently before he rubbed at his face, muttering: “Merci, but I think me and Zecora have got to go... uh... do zebra magic stuff. I'm a little late with my uh... daily prayers and all that. Five days late.”

“Was that what you were trying to tell us? You know, if you'd just said something, we would have certainly allowed you to do... whatever you need for... that.” the sheriff said, and he sounded so naïve, so honestly surprised, that La Croix felt just a tiny bit bad for him. But then the sheriff shrugged and said kindly: “Well, no harm done, right? And besides, you know you did something wrong, too.”

La Croix grumbled under his breath, and Zecora sighed before starting down the hallway, the Loa falling in step behind her and the sheriff suddenly much more cheerful than he had been only moments before as he asked: “Say, you want to hear a joke? I know, I got a great one. Do you know what they call the queen of all cells in Canterlot? Cell-estia. Get it? Celestia!”

La Croix ground his teeth together painfully, and Zecora winced ever-so-slightly... but thankfully, they were already in the main 'lobby' of the little station, where the two deputies were pecking away at typewriters. They both jumped to their hooves when the sheriff entered, however, the mustached stallion looking a little disappointed as he called awkwardly: “Well uh... come back any time! You don't have to commit a crime or anything, uh... be... just be nice to have some visitors... no one ever commits any crimes around here...”

Neither zebra looked back, hurrying out the front doors and into the bright sunlight, and La Croix scowled a bit and began to open his mouth to complain about the glare. But instead, he coughed loudly before spitting a stream of blood to the side, and Zecora winced at this as the stallion reached up and rubbed slowly at his jaw, muttering: “Can't even taste my own damn blood.”

He sighed a little, then looked moodily over at Zecora, adding crankily: “And some great damn timing you have. You couldn't have been five minutes earlier, mademoiselle vielle? Would have saved me a whole lot of trouble. And where's my damn cape?”

“Alright, La Croix, let me make this clear. Shut up, or I'll abandon you right here. And this time I won't come back. I've had more than enough of your flack.” Zecora said flatly, and La Croix whined in his throat before the zebra added moodily: “And while you've been... indisposed... I've taken the time to discover where the balance may be opposed.”

La Croix looked sharply towards the mare, then he gestured at her impatiently, asking eagerly: “Well? Where then, spit it out, honeychile! What do you got for me, sweet sainted vielle?

“First of all, I'm going to get you out of town. I promised Ponyville you would stop making them frown. The easiest way to do that for now is to take you away... so, much as I dread it, at my home I invite you to stay.”

Zecora grimaced a bit, shaking her head briefly, and La Croix looked at her with surprise... then he gave a sour smile, saying moodily: “Well, I doubt it can be a whole lot worse than here, anyway. And besides, if you get too unbearable, I can always ramble my way somewhere else.”

“Oh really?” Zecora gave him a mild look, and La Croix fumbled for a reply before the mare smiled slightly. “Exactly. Silly.”

“I ain't silly! Y'all be silly! Damn ol' nag!” La Croix retorted, flailing a hoof angrily at her, and Zecora blinked and reared back slightly in surprise... and then she couldn't help but laugh at the childish petulance of the Loa, making him both blush and glare all the more angrily. “You... you stop that right now, y'hear? I ain't no spirit to be trifled with!”

Zecora only continued to laugh, until La Croix bared his red-stained teeth... and almost abruptly, the mare's laughter died out, more suddenly than it had come. A faint smile lingered, but her green eyes studied him thoughtfully, almost sadly, gauging this bloody-muzzled idiot who didn't even realize how badly he had hurt himself... “We should tend to your mouth, it looks rather unpleasant... do you trust me enough to take a potion at present?”

La Croix scowled a bit, and then he poked slowly at his jaw before wincing in pain and cursing. Then he frowned for a moment before spitting to the side... and a passing filly screamed in disgust and ran away at the sight of his bloody spit, the stallion glowering after her as Zecora sighed and muttered: “Forget about trust. We do what we must.”

“Hey, you ain't forcing nothing down my throat, y'hear?” La Croix reared away from the mare distrustfully, beginning to scowl deeper... and when it felt like something in his jaw shifted painfully and jabbed a burning-hot sword into his jawbone, he flinched a bit before dropping his head forwards into his hooves and mumbling: “Okay. But don't try and drug me. We Loa be immune to that.”

“Sure you are. You're immune by far.” Zecora muttered, reaching back into her satchel and sighing a little as she dug around a bit, before pausing to pull out his cape. La Croix immediately brightened, almost snatching this away... then scowling horribly as the mare added calmly: “I took the liberty of returning that bag of coins, by the way... you should thank me, since Applejack was looking to kick you into yesterday. But I explained it was a silly mistake, and she relented after I bought her a cake.”

“Bought her a cake. You barely bought me a damn apple.” La Croix grumbled as he threw on his cape, then swiftly did up the buttons before quickly running his hooves over the other hidden pockets, adding sourly: “You best not have helped yourself to the rest of my stuff. I'll know if anything's missing, mademoiselle vielle. I ain't fou.”

Zecora only sighed, already back to digging through her satchel as she muttered: “You make it very difficult to want to help you, La Croix. You're not half as sly, nor as swift as the fox.”

“You best shut up now, or I'm gonna... pow.” La Croix said irritably, waving his hoof and shaking it threateningly back and forth. “Right in your face, you... damn disgrace. Yeah, that's what y'are, a damn disgrace! Healers, pah. What's the point of helpin' everyone first and yourself last?”

“I'd try to explain it to you, and how that thinking is the root of all your pain... but all the big words I'd have to use might confuse your poor brain.” Zecora replied dryly as she pulled out a vial, and La Croix looked at her moodily before the mare sighed and asked: “Perhaps we should call a truce for now? We can get back to insulting each other later, I vow.”

“And I'll look forwards to it.” grumbled the Loa, and then he hesitantly took the bottle when Zecora offered it. He began to open his mouth... then looked queasily down when a bit more blood spilled out of his jaw, mumbling: “How much of this stuff do you mortals have? I'm startin' to feel a little lightheaded here. Oh, Bondye. Maybe you did do me a favor after all...”

Zecora sighed a little at this, then gestured at the vial, saying quietly: “You haven't lost that much yet, La Croix... although I'm surprised you talk without flaw. Your tongue looks like it was cut fairly deep... the pain must indeed be very steep. But a drink of the potion will take that away, and it should stop your bleeding, I pray.”

La Croix blinked in surprise at this, and then he gave a dumb laugh before rubbing slowly at his jaw, muttering: “Luck of the diable. Ain't I a... wait, wait. Wait a minute, the hell do you mean by 'pray?' I need a lot more than prayer, mademoiselle vielle!

“Actually, as a Loa, you should know how prayer works better than most. You do claim to be part of the most righteous spiritual host.” retorted Zecora, and La Croix scowled at her before the mare sighed and rubbed at her face. “I'll be honest with you, as much as it pains me to be. I don't know how that potion will affect a Loa like thee.”

“That right there. Cheating. Like rhyming somethin' like... I dunno. Connard and lard.” La Croix muttered. “Y'ain't allowed to do that. I am, but you ain't.”

Zecora looked at him moodily, and La Croix scowled back before he grimaced and spat to the side, shivering a bit and looking down at the potion in his hoof. It felt warm, but... well... she had him at a huge disadvantage. And that scared him: what if she realized he couldn't taste or smell anymore? He wouldn't be able to tell anymore what she was feeding him... and he could see she was already getting suspicious, since apparently Bondye had completely numbed his tongue somehow, even if he could still talk. Which he was glad for, but... it was weird. I guess Bondye knows I need my silver tongue to get this job done... 'sall he left me with now, after all...

“Is something wrong?” Zecora asked quietly, and La Croix scowled at her... but the mare only shook her head, undeterred as she emphasized: “I'll find out anyway; why prolong?”

“'Cause your damn rhyming annoys me. Fou salope.” muttered La Croix almost angrily, and then he yanked the cork out of the bottle before knocking the contents back, drinking it in a few almost-desperate gulps.

Zecora frowned at La Croix, but the stallion only gritted his teeth and clenched his eyes shut, then gasped loudly as he felt a burning heat fill his maw, rolling his jaw back and forth before he spat several times to the side with a grimace. But then he blinked, rubbing his tongue carefully along his teeth before spitting again to the side... and there was only the faintest tinge of pink now, La Croix sighing in relief before he looked grudgingly at Zecora.

She looked back evenly, and there was silence for a few moments before the stallion dropped his head forwards and mumbled: “Merci. I hate you, but I guess I owe you... two, now.”

“Three, La Croix, if you want to keep track. I guided you to Ponyville until you started to talk too much smack.” Zecora replied pleasantly, and La Croix rolled his eyes... but then to her surprise, he nodded grudgingly. “But... good deeds are in themselves their own reward. Now, let's go back to my home, before you get bored.”

“Oh, you and y'all ain't boring at all, believe me. Annoying, frustrating, gullible and a whole lot of other things, certainly, but y'ain't boring in the slightest.” replied La Croix moodily, shaking his head quickly. Zecora only gave him an amused look, however, refusing to be put off by his obnoxiousness as she turned around and gestured for him to follow.

He fell in pace behind her readily enough, sighing a little but knowing it was pointless to argue... and admittedly, a large part of him was very eager to get out of here. Maybe he was even just a little bit anxious to see just where this zebra lived... and more importantly, what kinds of herbs and potions she might have on hoof.

La Croix chuckled to himself as he strode after Zecora; the mare, meanwhile, snuck a brief look over her shoulder at him, sizing him thoughtfully up before she gave her head a quick shake. He was such a strange creature, but every now and then she caught a glimpse of someone who... wasn't entirely bad beneath that obnoxious exterior.

He was a Loa, and as she was learning, the Loa looked at the world in a very cynical light: you were either a puppet, or you were the puppeteer. There was nothing in between, it was always one or the other... and she was starting to wonder just what La Croix thought of her. If she was his mark, or he considered her an uneasy... well, what did puppeteers consider their fellow manipulators? Not friends, she was sure. Rivals, maybe? Necessary evils?

She shook her head briefly as she led him through the town, hesitating only a moment before she glanced over her shoulder and asked softly: “La Croix, there's something I'd like to know. Do you think of me as friend or foe?”

“I think of you as annoying, cher.” La Croix said grumpily, and then he shook his head before saying distastefully, when he caught the mare's pointed look at him: “Look. You got something I want. I got something you apparently need. That be that, understand? You ain't ma amie, don't you be thinking anything stupid like that.”

“Believe me, I didn't expect to hear that from you. I just wanted to know where we stood in true.” the zebra mare replied quietly, giving him a short nod before turning her eyes back ahead.

La Croix grunted, looking almost warily at Zecora, but then he shook his head quickly again before glancing back and forth, noting the ponies shooting him furtive looks as they walked along the dusty road. Then he huffed loudly, blowing a raspberry at one as they passed and making the pony gasp almost in horror. “Now you gotta answer me a question, mademoiselle vielle. Why do all these ponies gotta give me the evil eye?”

“Possibly because you provoke and frustrate them so much. It really wouldn't hurt for you to try and be a little more in touch.” Zecora said after a moment, and La Croix grunted before he strode quickly up beside the mare, firmly bumping into her and making her scowl a little. “I didn't mean touch me, La Croix. You might be clumsy, but at least you can watch where you walk.”

“Ouch. You really know how to talk to the stallions, don't you? Besides, I ain't going to steal either a feel or from your saddlebags, if that's what you be worried about.” La Croix sniffed loudly, raising his head proudly. “I got much better ways to get what I need. I ain't no chaoui like you.”

“Okay, I think we should set a new social standard. First of all, I prefer not to be slandered. Secondly, no name-calling, La Croix. It's not like I point out you act like your head's full of rocks.” grumbled Zecora, and La Croix yawned loudly in her face, making the zebra mare scowl. “Third, stop acting so rude whenever you can. Of that in particular I am not a fan.”

The Loa rolled his eyes at this, then challenged: “Tell you what. You say one damn thing without rhymin' like some fou oiseaux, and I act whatever you like for the entire day.”

“The way I speak is to please the spirits that I serve: the fact you'd asked me to change that of all things shows some nerve.” Zecora said stiffly, shaking her head shortly. “Furthermore, it takes much concentration and thought. It is a mental dance, each sentence a battle well fought.”

“Great job slappin' yourself on the back there, boo. Really goes to show a whole lot about you.” La Croix said ironically, and Zecora gave him a flat look... then suddenly smiled slightly, earning a confused scowl from the stallion.

But the mare only shook her head, looking down the dusty road with entertainment and remarking: “Oh, nothing, just reflecting the effect we have on one-another... I suppose I can't entirely blame the ponies when they call us sister and brother.”

“Oh, don't you start that! You wish you could be my damn sister.” La Croix grumbled, looking sourly at the mare before he said grumpily: “Tell you what. Let's just get back to whatever mudhole you call home. We go from there.”

Zecora sighed at this, shaking her head distastefully, but silently agreeing, and for a little while they walked on in an uneasy truce. Soon, they left the village behind, passing through the outskirts and towards the Everfree Forest... and it was here that La Croix insisted on stopping for a moment, scowling at the trees and the sense of natural, chaotic life that emanated from it.

“We goin' in there? There a weird magic in there.” La Croix complained, then he rubbed moodily at one of his legs and added grumpily: “Well, we should find something decent to eat. Fry up some ouaouarons, maybe. Find us a poulet.”

“Why don't you try grazing, if your hunger is so high raising?” Zecora asked mildly, gesturing out towards the grass, and La Croix looked horrified at this thought, rearing back with a shiver.

“You're kidding me, right?” La Croix asked moodily, glowering over at the zebra... and then he grimaced and reached up to touch his muzzle, mumbling: “Although I guess it don't really matter... but... the thought of eatin' this stuff that animaux have probably gone and peed all over... crawlin' with... bugs and disease and filth and...”

La Croix shivered and hugged himself, and Zecora sighed tiredly before shaking her head and muttering: “It pains me to have to offer you something so treasured... but I can give you a portion of a rare potion, carefully measured. It will restore your strength and wash away your pain... but I cannot stress enough this cannot be wasted in vain.”

The Loa huffed a bit, then asked moodily: “And the hell do you have that's so valuable, healer? I don't imagine no backwater like this has enough materials for you to make something worthwhile outta bayou fever and cocodril scratches... I bet it ain't much more than moonshine, right?”

“If that moon is Yemaya, and the beer is her tears; to brew this, I fear, it takes many years.” Zecora said stiffly, shaking her head shortly.

La Croix flinched back slightly before he scowled horribly, saying uneasily: “No way. You can't be that good. If you was that good, there ain't no reason you wouldn't be back in your own homeland...”

“It's because I'm 'this good' that I'm not: they asked me to travel across both cold and hot. I've seen arctic tundra, desert, and now this pony land... I've traveled for years, missing my home and my band.” Zecora said almost bitterly as she sat down, reaching back and digging in her satchel. “Isn't it funny, my strange Loa friend? We have much in common, in the end.”

The stallion scowled a little at this, and then he shook his head and muttered: “Not really, cher. You left on some weird pilgrimage around the world, while me... I be part of a band that left to form our own petite famille when Bondye saw the ol' ways splintering up.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Zecora pulled out a crystalline vial, looking down at it silently for a moment. It had a large, thick cap, and the contents almost shimmered: just from the sight of it, La Croix knew that the zebra wasn't lying, and it meant he really had underestimated her. Not that it meant he was going to treat her any better, though, of course, she sure as hell wasn't that impressive, but... well...

He shook his head quickly as Zecora calmly screwed off the cap, then carefully poured just a little bit of the glowing substance into this. Then she offered the capful of potion to La Croix, saying finally: “More than enough to heal your body and your aches, to restore your energy and health... for both of our sakes.”

La Croix grumbled, snatching the capful of potion away and quickly knocking it back... then he flinched ever-so-slightly at the feeling of it hitting his stomach like a wrecking ball, cursing under his breath and hugging himself for a moment. But soon enough, the healing effects overrode the pain, and he felt his strength returning, his hungers and tiredness both abating. “Yeah, that be some pretty strong moonshine. Still though... makes me feel... funny.”

Zecora frowned at him, but La Croix only grumbled and tossed the cap back to her, saying moodily: “Ain't nothing, mademoiselle vielle. Just... y'ever go to a family reunion, eat some gumbo, gobble some jambalaya, drink some punch... then you find the biggest, best damn cake y'ever did see, but when you bite into it...”

He rubbed at his face slowly, muttering: “Tastes like ashes. Goes down like a faut carot, still alive and kickin' hard the whole damn way, then hoppin' all 'round your belly when it does. And you realize the last time you tasted this was 'fore that feud your family had, that this is your mamare's special recipe... and you realize...”

La Croix halted, then cleared his throat before brushing quickly at his cape, saying rudely: “You realize your wastin' all your damn time. Come on, I got twenty-five days to figure this out. And at this rate it gonna take us a damn week to get back to wherever you play madame.”

Zecora sighed tiredly, rolling her eyes before she muttered: “It really must be impossible for you to be nice. What a charming compliment to your avarice.”

The Loa only sniffed loudly as Zecora calmly put the vial away, giving him a meditative look. La Croix didn't like it, but he kept himself looking as casual and disdainful as possible: it worked for the rich and famous, after all, so why shouldn't it work for him?

They continued into the Everfree Forest, and as they walked, La Croix looked warily back and forth at the foliage, the flora, the fauna, the... “Freaky. That's what this damn place is. 'Sdark in here, too. I don't like it.”

“You're acting like a pony. I knew your self-assuredness was phony.” Zecora said mildly, and La Croix scowled at her horribly before the mare added with only a slight smile: “It surprises me that you haven't commented on the smell... even to me, the reek here is a little like hell.”

La Croix only huffed at this, but his eyes flicked nervously back and forth as he looked back and forth: he saw old trees, an assortment of strange flowers, and there were thick puddles of mud here and there, but nothing he could imagine really reeked... yet all the same, he commented as naturally as he could: “Ain't nothing I haven't smelled before. You ain't been in the bayou. That reek don't smell nearly as bad compared to this.”

Zecora shrugged a bit, and then she gestured at one of the nearby flowers, saying mildly: “Well, if the stink grows too foul, just smell one of those blooms. Just be careful not to touch any of those mushrooms.”

The Loa grunted, then he hesitantly looked over at the flowers: they were bright, gorgeous colors, standing out clearly along the path. He licked his lips nervously as he felt strangely like Zecora was watching him, judging him, and then he suddenly halted before saying grumpily: “Well, fine. Since you seem so worried 'bout me and my oh-so-sensitive nez, I'll give it a try.”

La Croix reached out and carelessly plucked one of the flowers before shoving it in his face, sniffing loudly, and then he gave a theatrical sigh as he looked over at Zecora, remarking wryly: “There. Y'happy now? Oh, that just smells so much better!”

Zecora only winced and stepped backwards, inhaling sharply before holding her breath, and the Loa scowled at her. He failed to notice the fact that the blossom in his hoof had already wilted and rotted into an ugly brown and black mess, and his lack of taste or smell meant he couldn't sense the horrific reek already making Zecora's eyes water. “What? What are you...”

La Croix glanced down as he felt something wet on his hoof... and then he squealed and tossed the decaying plant away, waving his hoof wildly back and forth before he wiped hurriedly against the ground, cursing under his breath.

He began to glare at Zecora... then blinked in surprise as he saw she had fled a good distance away down the path. For a moment, the Loa considered pretending that the stink was just now getting to him, or trying to just casually pass it off... but then he gave up on both these ideas with a sigh, shaking his head and storming down the trail.

He stopped in front of her, glaring at her angrily... but all the anger in the world couldn't hide his worry, and his strange sense of... humiliation, as he growled: “There. I guess you know now, then. That's right, shaman. I don't got no sense of taste or smell. So from now on, I ain't gonna accept a damn thing from you lessen I see you makin' it with my own eyes, y'understand?”

Zecora only shook her head slowly at this, studying him silently before she said slowly: “When we first met, La Croix, you complained about taste... what has happened to put your senses to waste?”

La Croix huffed at this, figuring he could probably lie his way out of this mess easily enough... and then he stared in surprise when Zecora reached up and touched his shoulder, the healer saying quietly: “Loa of Darkwater, I beg of you... tell the truth. You don't seem to understand that for you, I am not without ruth.”

The Loa glared at her... then his eyes flicked away and he snorted, muttering: “Right. Like I'm gonna reveal all my secrets to you, priestess. Like I'm about to have some grande emotional breakdown or something. Y'ain't nothing to me but an annoying little chaoui, chasin' the shiny. I don't need your damn help, you the one so interested in this whole cycle business.”

“So stubborn, so rude... and so damaged inside. La Croix, in that cell, I might as well have let you bide.” Zecora said softly, and then she shook her head slowly and murmured, a compassion that was almost alien to La Croix filling her voice: “Look at you, La Croix, afraid of me... and yet I have made it clear I mean you nothing but solidarity.

“You're a prisoner of fear, La Croix.” Zecora finished, and then she simply smiled at him before turning and gesturing for him to follow.

La Croix looked after her... then blinked in surprise as he realized she hadn't rhymed, and his insides twisted as he bit his lip, shivering a little as he gazed uneasily after the mare before shaking his head shortly and quickly following her deeper into the forest.