The days passed slowly for the pair, Rarity deep in slumber for most of them, only awakening to groggily ask where she was and why she was in so much pain before Glow Star gave her a sleeping drought. If nothing else, her recovery was progressing steadily—each day she was a little stronger than the last.
Outside the walls of Star's hut, the war raged on, though with the combined might of the Shetlands, Trixie's forces, and the natural magic they had on their side, added to the fact that Rarity and Applejack had completely undercut the griffin leadership, it was obvious that the ponies were going to win the day, at least according to the occasional status reports Blink gave them.
All the same, there were losses—several of the Shetlands and a few of Trixie's citizens had been struck down by the brutal griffons, and despite the evidence of their impending loss staring them in the face, the monsters refused to back off. In fact, they only seemed to get more vicious the closer they got to defeat, as though trying to kill as many ponies as possible before they hit the ground. The ponies didn't want to subject the griffons to complete annihilation, but it seemed they would have to.
On several days, Glow Star would leave Applejack to care for Rarity alone so that she could make trips around the village to heal her people. The earth pony took these opportunities to apologize to Rarity for letting her get hurt, apologize for the scar she was going to have—the flesh was knitting back together, but there was still going to be an angry, furless red line in Rarity's side for the rest of her life.
Every now and again, when the wound had closed up, Applejack would trace her hoof along it—it ran from the curve of Rarity's left back leg all the way across her ribs and finally stopped beneath her left foreleg. Just seeing it, a blemish on an otherwise perfect-looking mare, made Applejack's stomach turn.
Of course, when she felt things like that, Applejack wasn't as quick to dismiss them as she had been before. Yes, she and Rarity were friends, for the moment, but it was becoming clear to Applejack that there was something deeper there. It didn't really matter when she'd started feeling that way, and it wasn't until now that she'd even considered that burning in her belly could have been romantic.
All the same, Applejack wasn't about to tell Rarity that—after all, even Applejack didn't know whether her feelings were fleeting, grounded in Rarity's injury, or the real thing. Considering the circumstances, there probably wasn't room for stuff like that anyway.
One day, as the war was coming to a close, Applejack found herself alone with Rarity once more—Glow Star was trying to organize the Shetlands to perform a pincer attack on the remaining griffons was Trixie's forces.
As she sat alone, Applejack never took her eyes off Rarity—the wound, at this point, had completely healed and scarred over. Unsure of what she was doing, Applejack began to speak.
"Rarity," she said, leaning over. "I'm sorry this happened. I know I shoulda made sure you didn't get hurt out there, but now you're gonna have a scar." She bit her lip, her face getting ever closer to Rarity's. "I ain't too good at stuff like this, but I was gettin' really worried about you out there. I didn't know whether you were gonna make it." Her cheeks burned.
"So I'm glad you're alright." She paused. "Really glad." She put a hoof on Rarity's scar. "I ain't gonna let anything like that happen to you again, Rarity." She leaned over and kissed the unicorn's forehead. "I promise."
Applejack stood and sighed, going to look out the front door for the seventh time that day—nothing special was going on that she could see, just one or two Shetlands walking around.
Applejack whirled around to face Rarity, who had propped herself up on her elbow and was staring at her. "Rarity!" Applejack exclaimed. "Thank Celestia; I thought you were never gonna wake up!"
Rarity raised an eyebrow. "Why was I sleeping?" she asked. "I only remember defeating Seth and getting on our way home."
Applejack took a few minutes to explain everything to Rarity, who listened patiently, trying to fix her disheveled hair. When it came time to break the news about her scar to her, however, Applejack faltered. It was only after much coaxing that she spit it out.
"A scar?" Rarity asked, seemingly unfazed. "A scar where? I hope it's small…"
Applejack showed her.
Almost instantly, Rarity's slow, steady breathing changed to frenzied panting as she scrabbled at the floor, trying to stand up and examine the ugly mark.
"Oh no," she said upon spotting it. "Oh no, no no no no!" She was practically hyperventilating. "No, I…no!" Rarity dropped to her knees, her mouth flapping uselessly as tears began to form in her eyes. "How can I be a fashionista with a terrible scar like this!?" Rarity rolled onto her stomach and began to beat the ground with her hooves, shaking her head back and forth.
Applejack had known it was going to be bad, but she hadn't quite expected this. "Rarity, come on," she said. "Maybe scars are in this year, or whatever you like to say?"
Rarity looked at Applejack with fury in her teary eyes. "Scars are never in, Applejack!" She stood and swept Glow Star's papers from her table with her magic. "Scars are hideous!" She buried her face in her forelegs. "My career is ruined! Nopony will want to buy dresses and suits from a mare who couldn't even take good enough care of herself to avoid getting scarred!" She threw her head back in a long bawl—the sound cut Applejack deep.
"Rarity," she said, trying to keep her voice even. "Can't you just cover it up with clothes or somethin'?" She bit her lip. "Or makeup?"
Rarity snorted. "What do you want me to do, Applejack, wear clothes all the time?!" She slammed the table. "Clothes are only for social occasions! As for makeup, do you want me to smear it all over my side every morning?" She shook her head. "It's hideous, Applejack, and no fashion-minded pony worth their salt is going to take me seriously now."
"Rarity!" Applejack said, grabbing hold of the unicorn's forelegs. "You're as pretty as you've ever been, alright?" She paused, the proximity causing her to blush. "And that's a sight prettier'n most ponies."
Rarity stared back at Applejack in shock, her bottom lip quivering. "Applejack…?" she trailed off.
Applejack sighed and shook her head. "One scar ain't gonna matter if you keep makin' good dresses and stuff, is it? You never talked about modeling or anything like that before, and I ain't got the mind for fashion like you, but I'm pretty sure it don't take lookin' perfect to make dresses." She chuckled. "'Specially when you work so hard—I seen your hair get outta place all the time and you still look pretty to me."
Rarity blushed bright crimson, turning away from Applejack. "I apologize," she said. "I've just always prided myself on looking the best I could, and, well, this certainly doesn't lend itself to that."
Applejack rolled her eyes. "You're still pretty, Rarity. Just not perfect." The earth pony let go of Rarity, holding out a foreleg to display several hairless patches. "I sure as shoot ain't perfect-looking, but I clean up okay."
Rarity's mouth hung open for a few moments as she looked at her friend's arm. "I didn't know you'd been hurt so many times…" she said.
Applejack laughed heartily. "Sure have," she said, craning her neck to show off a few more marks. "Working on a farm's what I love doing, but it sure ain't safe, I can tell you that. " She turned to show off a fair-sized circular scar on her back. "Got that one from backing into a pitchfork while I was wrasslin' with Big Mac."
To her own surprise, Rarity's lips curled back into a smile. "Applejack," she said, then paused. "You really don't think it looks hideous?"
Applejack shook her head. "It ain't pretty, but it's not like it messes up the rest of you." Applejack bit her lip. "Ain't messin' up your eyes, that's for sure."
Rarity blinked at the compliment before smiling warmly and embracing Applejack. "Thank you so much," she said. "And for what it's worth, I find you quite beautiful as well, in your own way." As Rarity broke the hug, they found themselves awkwardly trying to follow up on the conversation. "So you find my eyes attractive?" Rarity asked after some time.
Applejack nodded. "You think I'm, uh, beautiful?"
Rarity pursed her lips. "I do," she said. "You have very nice eyes as well, and if you'd comb your hair, I imagine it would be like silk."
Applejack snorted. "I ain't combing my hair, so I guess we'll never find out."
Rarity giggled casually, though inside her heart was pounding. She and Applejack had never said things like this to each other before. She couldn't even seem to recall how long she'd thought these things—she just knew that she did.
Applejack wasn't doing much better—sweat was accumulating on the back of her neck and her muscles felt like jelly. She'd been waiting to tell Rarity how she was feeling ever since the trip to the river, before all of this madness.
The earth pony was the first to notice the uncomfortable silence, and broke it. "So Rarity," she said—the unicorn's ears perked and she looked at her quizzically. "Back at the river, when we decided to take a bath, uh…" Her tongue felt fat.
Rarity had a feeling she knew what Applejack was going to say, and she wasn't sure she was ready to talk about it yet. She breathed a sigh of relief as a knock came on the door.
Applejack cursed mentally at the sound of hoof hitting wood—all the same, she answered promptly, smiling as Glow Star walked in. The unicorn looked between the two ponies, then nodded at Rarity.
"Thought today," she said. "Okay?"
Rarity was silent for a few moments, still a bit caught up in the moment. "Yes," she said. "I'm quite alright now, Glow Star, and I wanted to thank you deeply for taking the time to see my recovery through."
Star waved a hoof dismissively. "Owed you," she said, turning around toward the door. "Helped much."
Applejack spoke up. "If it's all the same, Star, we still wanna thank you for keeping a roof over our heads these past couple of weeks, feeding us, taking care of Rarity and all."
Star nodded. "Had to," she said. "But…" The unicorn turned around—her eyes seemed full of sadness. "Must say goodbye. Today, tomorrow. No other day."
"We understand," Rarity said. "We will be very, very sad to see the Shetlands go, Glow Star."
"Ah, well, you don't have to say goodbye to all of us!" came a voice from beyond the door—Blink bounded in smiling. "Glow Star has to tend to the injured and relations with the remaining griffons—not to mention a few prisoners we took. However, she's instructed me to help you two on your way—there's a secret route that should get you back to Ponyville lickety-split, but only I can access it."
Applejack raised an eyebrow. "You ain't staying here?" she asked. "You sure Earthfruit can get along okay without you?"
Blink rolled his eyes. "You're acting like I plan on going away forever. I'm just going to get you two on your way and then I'll be right back to the village—they need their head scout, after all."
"Well then, thanks to you too," Applejack said. "Hopefully we get to see our home again soon."
Blink winked. "Oh, you'll get to see it again—trust me, the route I'm taking you through is highly reliable."
"Blink right. Seen path. Will get you home." Star rolled her neck. "Not easy."
Blink nodded. "She's right, I can't promise it'll be especially easy to get through—unfortunately, the ponies in the area are a tad xenophobic, but with me around they should be more than willing to get you two to Ponyville."
The pair looked at each other, then back to Blink. "Pardon me for questioning your very generous offer, Blink," Rarity said, "but when you say these ponies are xenophobic—why is that?"
The stallion shook his head. "It's best if I don't explain here—the sun's starting to set and it would take far too long." He smiled. "But rest assured, I'll let you two in on everything while we're traveling there." He turned and walked to the door. "Trixie and her group are getting ready to leave—they want to get back to their village by the morning, so that we don't have to further stress our limited resources taking care of their people—so I would suggest talking to her and Faust before they go." He trotted out.
Star chuckled. "Trixie good," she said. "Better than expected." She looked through her dense hair at Rarity and Applejack. "You two too. Worked out." She raised a hoof to point at the door. "Know you tired. Tired too. Get rest, leave tomorrow."
Rarity and Applejack were a bit taken aback by how fast everything was moving. It was likely that the Shetlands simply had many injuries to attend to, not including the destruction of their crops and property—who knew how long it was going to take them to recover from the war, and even two extra ponies could stress their resources. The pair trotted out into the cooling air to find Trixie.
They found her after a half-hour's worth of looking, at the edge of the village. She was discussing travel plans with her, trying not to yawn. Seeing the pair, Trixie smiled.
"Applejack, Rarity!" she cried. "Good to know you two survived." She bowed to them. "I have to admit, I wasn't entirely confident that we could win this war, even when I accepted the offer you both gave me." The unicorn shook her head, eyes half-lidded. "Unfortunately, there were a few losses. We'll have to properly honor them when we get back."
Applejack smiled in return. "Well I'm glad to see you and Faust are doing alright, Trixie." She chuckled. "Funny how we ended up together after all the stuff that happened to us in Ponyville, huh?"
Trixie gave the pair a confident smirk. "A good leader can always put aside grudges and other such things," she said. "I realized that after you two left—that was why I decided to help the Shetlands."
Faust cleared his throat. "Madame Trixie," he said, "if we wait much longer, we're not going to have any light in the swamps. As much as I hate to cut this short—I had wanted to say a few words to Rarity and Applejack myself—we really must be going."
Trixie sighed and brushed a hoof through her hair. "Fair enough," she said, turning back to the pair. "I apologize for giving either of you trouble. I must return to attending to my village, but I'll have to take a little time off one of these days to travel to Ponyville once more." She posed. "After all, what village is complete without the occasional presence of The Great and Powerful Trixie?" Her horn lit up, imitating the sound of her horns and bells.
Rarity giggled. "I suppose it is no village at all," she said. "And really Trixie, thank you. Applejack and I were quite worried—it's good to know you were here for the Shetlands while we dealt with Seth."
Trixie snorted. "Seth was a monster," she said. "A strong monster, but still a monster. I would have spent my days regretting it if I had chosen to support him." Faust tapped her on the shoulder and Trixie turned, cocking her head back. "If you see Twilight Sparkle," she said, "let her know that Trixie is still awaiting a magical duel with her—only on friendly terms." She trotted off, pointing her hoof at ponies and corralling her citizens.
Exhausted, Rarity and Applejack made their way back to their hut, lying down to try and get some sleep for the journey tomorrow. Before either of them had even closed their eyes, however, Rarity rolled over to tap Applejack's shoulder.
"Applejack," she whispered. "Back at the hut, when you were talking about the river. What were you trying to tell me?"
Applejack stared back at Rarity, only her bright eyes visible in the darkness. She wanted to tell Rarity—every fiber of her being was screaming to tell her, to dispose of the burning truth that seared the walls of her heart, which was thumping erratically. She didn't just want to tell Rarity—she needed to. She needed to let Rarity know that looking into her eyes was like watching the lake to the west of Ponyville—something that always relaxed her, always made her feel safe. She needed to tell Rarity that fighting alongside her, Applejack had known nothing bad could possibly happen to her. She needed to tell Rarity that she loved her.
"Nothing," Applejack said. "I got mixed up from the shock of seeing you awake."
Rarity paused, knowing that that wasn't all there was to it, but nodded all the same—if Applejack wasn't comfortable talking about it yet, she wouldn't push it. "Alright," she said, rolling over to go to sleep. They'd have to talk about it some other time.
High above, a star shot through the sky, as though lighting their path—it arced through the cloud cover, its trajectory curving down, down, down.
It finally crashed into a wide, dark sea.