There are billions of them, and sometimes they just hit you in the face!
Applejack was still catching up on events. As far as she was aware, she was currently trotting down Chestnut Lane with her sister, Apple Bloom. The young filly was telling her about her day at school and all the things she was looking forward to. The apple trees were in full bloom by the side of the road, and they were not the only things blossoming, if the young filly's enthusiastic and frequent mentions of the new colt in school were any hint. In other words, a perfect spring day where the whole world felt light as a breeze …
… Unlike what her body was doing a bang up job of telling her about. Something very heavy indeed had apparently raced down the hill and crashed in the middle of the road, and judging by the darkness, pain and blinking lights all around her, Applejack was currently stuck beneath it.
Something about the two versions of the present situation did not match up.
The darkness lifted to reveal a lot of dancing colors and the very concerned face of Apple Bloom.
“Are you hurt, sis?” the filly asked as she dug through the debris around Applejack's head. “Don't move. I'll get you free!”
Applejack groaned under the pile of newspapers and shattered wagon. The colors were getting much worse … thankfully most of them seemed to belong to Rainbow Dash, who was speeding down the hill towards the scene.
“I'm so sorry, AJ!” the pegasus burst out, trying to contain a laugh as she saw the scene, and doing a very poor job of it. Bloody sorry indeed, Applejack thought. “A-are you okay?”
“Rainbow Dash!” Applejack glared daggers at her feathered friend. “Just you wait 'til I get ou—ow! By all the—” She gritted her teeth and bit off the curse. If there was one thing she didn't want to do, it was teach her little sis to say bad things like that.
“Don't worry, sis.” Apple Bloom pushed a wheel over and dug through the piles of paper. “We'll get you out and to the hospital.” She shot the pegasus a look. “Won't we?”
“Right, right,” Rainbow Dash snickered and swooped down to help get Applejack free as other ponies came running or flying towards the scene.
* * *
Applejack licked her hoof and flipped over another page. Turned out the cart that hit her had been stocked not just with today's paper, but a whole collection of papers and magazines. Derpy had been terribly sorry for the accident, having lost control of the wagon while dragging it up a hill, but Applejack was quite sure it was Rainbow Dash who ought to be sorry instead.
Apple Bloom had dutifully run back and brought her one of each paper and magazine, some of them slightly muddy and with pages that stuck. This didn't matter too much, since Applejack had plenty of time to kill while she was forced to stay in the hospital.
There was something she needed to see. Sometimes the eyes notice something and it takes a while for the mind to catch up, but then it's not sure whether it actually saw what it saw. This was how Applejack was feeling as she leafed through the magazines and papers one by one. One of them had landed on her face in the crash and she thought she had seen …
Applejack paused and placed a hoof on the page. So she had seen them, then. “Well, I'll be darned,” she muttered and held up the paper, leaning closer to study the picture in detail. It showed a dark-coated stallion posing along with a midnight-blue spectacled mare in front of a large telescope pointed at the night sky. His cutie mark showed a similar telescope, while hers was some kind of sciencey symbol. They looked like a nice couple of ponies, but likely had more to talk about with Twilight than with Applejack.
The reason she had noticed them at all was because of the stars. Both ponies had several stars on their upper bodies, standing out against the dark coat and matching each other perfectly. Applejack imagined that they were technically accurate too, but she would have to pass that by Twilight for confirmation.
She narrowed her eyes a little and held the picture even closer to her face. It didn't look like it was simply dyed fur. That was the strangest part. It looked like the stars had been shaved into the coat and the skin underneath colored with ink. It was clearly elaborate and some kind of fashion, something Applejack had no more experience with than astronomy.
She leaned back and read the description beneath the picture: The latest gallery by Miss Photo Finish, showcasing Manehattan's culture of body art, is sure to provoke and inspire interest in this fascinating new fashion.
There were other pictures in the same style, supposedly to promote this new gallery of body art. There was a beautiful white-and-lilac unicorn standing in a theater, proudly showing off a pair of wings painted along her flanks. Another picture showed a pegasus with a number of small metal rings decorating her youthful face. Applejack scratched her head a bit at that last one, wondering what possessed anypony to do something like that, and returned her attention to the other pictures instead.
With her curiosity piqued and nothing better to do, Applejack began to read.
* * *
There was a gentle knock on the door. Applejack looked up and lowered the paper she had been reading to see Rarity enter the room. The unicorn had long ago perfected the concerned look to an art form and was clearly exhibiting it right now. “Oh Applejack, how dreadful! I heard what happened and I just had to come see you right away.”
“Glad you could drop by,” Applejack said and smiled at her friend. Rainbow Dash of course had been there when she was brought in, and Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy had been there earlier to give her a get-well-soon package they had assembled. She had already tried one of the still-warm corn cakes and found it exactly as delicious as one expected from Sugarcube Corner.
“How could I not?” Rarity said and trotted up next to her bed. “It's simply terrible. They really should be more careful with those wagons; who knows what could have happened.”
“Aye, but don't none of you worry,” Applejack said and put down her paper. “I'll be just fine. Doctor said I'll be out in a few days time and back to work in a couple of weeks, as long as I take it easy. You wouldn't know where Twilight is?” she asked before Rarity could start worrying some more.
Rarity looked a bit lost as the drama around her deflated. “Oh, yes, um, I do believe she's still visiting Zecora and hasn't been told. But she will be here the moment she gets back, I assure you.”
Applejack nodded. She wasn't one to get concerned; Twilight would drop by when she had the time. She turned a bit, digging around among her magazines. “I got somethin' here I was wonderin' if you might know about,” she said and found the one she was looking for.
“Oh?” Rarity scooched over and looked as Applejack found the page. “Ah yes, that would be Photo Finish's new gallery,” she said and studied the pictures. To Applejack's surprise she looked anything but excited. “And that, of course, is Miss Swan Song.” She pointed at the unicorn with the painted wings. “She writes some wonderful tragedies, simply marvelous, but it's such a shame what she's done to her beautiful coat.”
“Really?” Applejack looked at the picture again. Admittedly, she knew nothing about fashion, but the wings looked stunning to her. You could hardly mistake them for real wings, but that didn't seem to be the point in any case. She had never met or even heard of Miss Swan Song, but merely by looking at those wings, Applejack felt like she could already say a lot about the mare. On a piece of paper or some other pony they might have been forgettable, but on this pony they seemed to express something more, something deeper.
“Why of course,” Rarity said, and some of her drama flared back to life. “She had such a lovely coat, and can you imagine what those things will look like when she's as old as your Granny Smith? Simply dreadful, darling. That's what they'll be.”
Applejack looked up at Rarity. “Won't it just wash away and grow back?”
Rarity's eyes widened and her air of drama was back in full bloom. “Heavens no, Applejack! They use magic needles to shock the hairs so that they never grow back, and then they put ink under the skin where it won't wash away. It's really quite barbaric. I can't imagine why anypony would subject themselves to such … such scars! Fashion is supposed to be ever-changing and fluid, not carved in stone or …” She shuddered. “… ugh, skin.”
Applejack stared at the pictures with a strange new sense of wonder. The article had somehow left out that detail. So these things didn't go away, they would stay with these ponies for the rest of their lives, like a second cutie mark. But unlike a cutie mark, this was a personal expression. An expression of a deeper self which would stay with her and never change, for as long as she was remembered. Applejack smiled at the thought.
Sure, it would look a bit different with age, but so did the ponies who wore them, and there was nothing dreadful about that in Applejack's view. Granny Smith didn't look as young as she once was, but she was still the same wonderful pony underneath, and the wrinkles only added to the story.
“I read about these tattoos, as they call them. It says here that it is an ancient earth pony tradition,” she said and tapped the article enthusiastically. “But it was lost, you see, until some artist from Manehattan discovered it in a far-off tribe and took the knowledge back with him. 'Course, I reckon the earth ponies didn't use magic needles.”
“I see. And what is the cause of this sudden interest?” Rarity asked, looking at Applejack very closely. Her eyes widened at Applejack's expression. “Applejack! You're not considering actually getting one, are you?”
“I'm only curious,” she said.
Rarity was not convinced, and to be honest neither was Applejack. She could see the appeal of getting one. “Don't do it, Applejack. As your friend, I say you will only regret it after a time, and I could not bear to think of that.”
“I haven't decided to get one, Rarity,” she said and smiled. It was best to not get her friend carried away just yet, so she left out that this could perhaps change. “I just want to learn more.”
“I suppose.” Rarity rubbed the back of her neck and glanced down at the bed. “There is no harm in learning of the risks and dangers of such a decision.”
“There you go.” Applejack closed the magazine and put it away, before stretching as best she could without hurting. “Hoowee, I'm exhausted. If you have any more pictures of these things, I sure could use somethin' to look at the next couple of days.”
Rarity didn't look too happy, but relented. “I shall see what I can find.”
* * *
Being stuck in hospital really was quite uneventful—Rainbow Dash would say boring—but at least Applejack had something to keep her mind occupied.
Applejack lay on her side, watching the clouds and leaves moving in the wind outside the window. There was a large tree outside the hospital on this side. It wasn't an apple tree, but it did have small blossoms which looked similar. It brought to mind the blooming trees all over the apple orchard, covering the farm in the scent of spring that she had grown up with and always loved.
If she wanted something that expressed a deeper truth about herself, then perhaps it should have something to do with apple trees and blossoms. But not too many, or it would get frilly and girlish. Applejack was many things, but she had never been frilly. Oh, she had tried once, but it soon became obvious that such a life was at complete odds with her true self.
If it was going to stay with her for the rest of her life, it had to be something that would stay true to her. It had to fit her, and it had to express something about her that would never change. That was the beauty of the idea. Just like the pony who wore it, the tattoo would never lie or change its story. It really was like a second cutie mark, except that she would choose every aspect of it and make it truly her own expression.
Maybe she could have her actual cutie mark be a part of the whole. It too expressed something about her which was true and never changed, after all.
Applejack turned over in her bed and grabbed a pencil and some paper that the nurses had brought for her. She sat up slowly and leaned against the back of the bed as she put the pencil against the paper and paused, trying to imagine a design.
Five minutes later she was still sitting with the pencil in her mouth and a blank piece of paper before her. Well, she could always start with the pony. Slowly she turned her eyes down at the paper and sketched the outline of a pony. “Not bad,” she mumbled, with the pencil bopping up and down in her teeth. She quickly added three apples on the pony's flank. “So far so good.”
Trees had leaves and branches, and she couldn't forget blossoms. What about roots, though? She had a good feeling about roots, and her own roots were solidly planted on the family farm. Perhaps something to do with the farm itself, then. Applejack scratched her muzzle and glanced out the window at nothing in particular. What did the farm have aside from trees? There was the barn, of course. Roads and dirt tracks. Lots of fields full of crops, and not just apples.
She shook her head and turned back to her very bare pony. It was funny, she thought, and with a nod to herself she wrote the words Blank Flank next to the pony. “Hah,” she laughed at herself. “Next I'll join my sister and her friends in their club house. I bet they'd laugh at me silly.” But it really did look bare with just those three little apples when there were so many things that could grace a body.
Images and ideas swam across her inner eye, so many possibilities just waiting to materialize into the one, the perfect expression. Yet every design she thought of looked awful on the little pencil pony, and none of them expressed anything coherent or all that deep.
What else defined her? What other stories besides apples and the farm could the picture tell? Applejack gnawed the pencil a bit, then drew a few swirly lines on the paper and tilted her head at them. She was a pretty good rodeo pony with several medals under her belt. Something with ropes, then.
Applejack turned over yet another page of failed scribbles and notes and drew herself yet another bare pony with three apples on the flank. She stared blankly at it.
She had to admit it, she wasn't getting anywhere with this. She didn't know how to express what was in her mind. It drove her to almost gnaw the pencil in half as she stared at the blank pony. Applejack prided herself on being in tune with herself, of being sure of who she was and where she stood, so why couldn't she express that?
Applejack sighed and shook her head. That wasn't all, either. She wasn't any great artist, and she knew nothing about design or fashion. She could draw some squiggly lines, but she had no real feeling for what would look right on a pony.
She needed somepony who did. Somepony who knew everything about what looked good on a pony. Somepony she could trust, too, and somepony who knew her almost as well as she knew herself, perhaps even better when it came to what she wanted. Somepony … somepony who could design a dress for her better than she could have done it herself.
Applejack gnawed on her pencil and stared at the door.
* * *
“I found you a few more magazines,” Rarity said as she walked into the room, carrying a small collection of reading material. “I am afraid it is limited what I have on that, uh, topic.”
Twilight followed behind Rarity and smiled at Applejack. “Hi Applejack. I'm sorry I couldn't be here earlier, but I only heard from Rarity just now. She told me you are interested in tattoos, so I looked around and found you a book on exotic traditions and native art. It was the best I could find.” The purple unicorn levitated a small book over by Applejack's nightstand with a blush on her cheeks. “I'm so glad you're okay.”
“Thank you kindly, gals.” Applejack gave Twilight a reassuring smile.
Rarity trotted up to her and put down the magazines next to Twilight's book. She stopped and fixed her gaze on the scattered drawings on Applejack's bed. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped a few inches. “Applejack! Are you … designing a tattoo? Is that … that is you!”
“Yes, and yes it is,” Applejack said honestly. She had been preparing for this reaction.
“Applejack!” Rarity looked pleadingly at her. “You can't possibly be considering this. Of all the worst possible ideas, Applejack! This is the worst! You agree with me, don't you Twilight?” She turned to look at Twilight for support.
Twilight looked between Applejack and Rarity. “If this is what Applejack wants, I think we should support her,” she said after a moment's thought. “Remember, Rarity, that we have no right to choose for anypony else.”
“Twilight!” Rarity's eyes widened, and she swayed backwards as from a blow.
“Calm down, now,” Applejack interjected before things could escalate to all-out drama. “I haven't decided to get a tattoo yet,” she said. It was true, but she was certainly finding the idea fascinating. “I just thought it was fun to imagine what it would look like, is all.”
Rarity breathed a little easier but remained alert for signs of what to her probably felt like the apocalypse. “Are you not satisfied with how you look? Because you know I have offered you many times to give you the full treatment. You would look fabulous, if you'd just let me take you to the spa for one day.”
Applejack couldn't help but chuckle. “Rarity, this is not about lookin' pretty. I am just fine the way I look. I don't need no prettifyin'. If I were to get a tattoo, and I do say if, then it would be to express somethin' about myself.”
Twilight smiled and picked up a couple of Applejack's sketches. “I think it sounds very fascinating. So what do you want it to look like?”
“Twilight!” Rarity watched both of her friends as if they had just turned into changelings right before her eyes.
“Oh come now, Rarity.” Twilight grinned and raised her head to show her neck. “Maybe I should get a small one too,” she said and pointed at a spot on her neck. “A little star here or something? Nothing too obtrusive.”
Applejack searched among her magazines and pulled out the picture of the two astronomers. “You might like this one, Twilight. I sure thought of you when I saw it.”
“Ooh.” Twilight picked it up and gazed at the stars. “Fancy! But now I'd almost have to pick something different, wouldn't I?” she grinned.
Rarity gaped at them. “You are not really serious, are you?”
“I don't see why not,” Twilight said and turned back to Applejack. “So, Applejack, tell me about your plans. Maybe a branch with some blossoms and an apple?” She glanced at another of Applejack's sketches and lit up. “Ooh, that would look great on your flank. You already have the apples, after all.”
Applejack grinned. “I want it big, so it can be seen.” Things were going just as she had hoped. Asking Rarity to help design it would be an uphill battle, but there was another way … Applejack didn't know much about what looked good, but she knew plenty about awful. “I was thinkin' about how the farm is like my roots—” she spread out some of her worst ideas on the bed “—and the barn is, what's that word now, iconic right?”
Even Twilight looked skeptical. “Well, um …” The unicorn held a hoof up to her mouth as she gazed over Applejack's sketches, thinking hard. “I'm sure that would be … something.”
“I see what you mean,” Applejack continued. “But you have to remember the color, it really matches my coat.” She picked up the pencil and added a few scribbles. “And if we add a few blossoms here and here … in white, of course, and pi—”
“No!” The papers were torn off her bed in a glow of blue magic, startling Twilight who had been quite absorbed in the idea. “Absolutely not!” Rarity collected the papers in a neat little stack. “If you insist upon entertaining these foolish ideas, at least let me help you do it right so you don't ruin yourself!” She glanced at the notes and shuddered. “Ghastly!”
Applejack smiled at Rarity. Just as planned. “I couldn't ask you to—”
“I will hear no protests!” Rarity cut her off again. “I insist! If you will not listen to reason, then I will at least make sure you get something that doesn't make you look like a wandering carnival!”
“That is very kind of you, Rarity. I am mighty thankful.” Applejack almost felt guilty for manipulating Rarity like this, but perhaps designing something would make her friend feel a little better about the idea.
* * *
Applejack stopped to stretch her back, which made a little crack, before pushing the door open and stepping into the spa. “Howdy y'all,” she said as she spotted Rarity chatting with Aloe and Lotus, the two ponies running the place.
“Applejack, what a delight,” Rarity said and beamed at her. “How is the back?”
“Much better since yesterday, thank you kindly.” Applejack gave her neck a good cracking as well. This elicited a flinch from all three ponies. “Doctor said to take it easy for at least a week, maybe two, though. I sure am glad it ain't harvest season, hoowee.”
“Ah yes, I do hope Big Macintosh is not overworking himself,” Rarity said with some concern.
“Nah, Apple Bloom has been itchin' to do more work around the farm, to earn her cutie mark and such, so he's got another pair of hooves in her.”
“His hooves full with her, I imagine,” Rarity corrected with a chuckle.
Applejack laughed. “Aye, that too. So what did you wanna see me for anyway? Sweetie Belle only said to meet you here before she ran off with my sister.” She looked around at the sparkling interior of the spa. “You know I'm not much for all this prettifyin'.”
“Yes, I know, dear.” Rarity smiled. “But I finished your design and wanted to discuss it with you, and then my good friend Aloe here suggested that you might enjoy a massage, since you're fresh out of hospital and still getting back on your hooves.”
There was something Rarity had left out in the middle, but Applejack decided not to notice. “A massage does sound good,” she said. It was one of the few things she came to the spa for, usually when Rarity pressed her about it, and they were certainly worth every bit.
“Excellent!” Rarity chirped and clapped her hooves. Aloe and Lotus looked quite happy too, no doubt celebrating their best customer yet again convincing a friend to give in to luxury. Those two ponies were living royally on Rarity alone. “We'll have two, then. I feel a bit tense in the neck myself.”
Five minutes later they were lying on a pair of beds in the privacy of one of the spa's rooms, waiting as Aloe and Lotus prepared the treatment. Rarity was resting on the bed with her eyes closed in a serene expression. Applejack looked around, then coughed a little. “So … you said you finished my design?”
Rarity was silent for a few seconds, showing no sign that she had heard anything, then the smile twitched ever so slightly. “Ah yes.” She opened her eyes and turned her head. Her horn glowed and a large sketchbook floated out of the saddlebag she had placed nearby. “I have been looking carefully at your, ahem, ideas and thought of the things we discussed while at the hospital. I do believe you will be quite pleased, if I am allowed to say so myself.”
Applejack took the sketchbook out of the air and carefully opened it. The first thing she noticed was that Rarity could draw a lot better than her own crude attempts. The drawings nearly came to life on the paper. The first several pages showed details of the work, little pieces of the whole.
“Hoowee, that's a lot of work,” Applejack said and brushed a hoof through her mane.
Aloe and Lotus had returned and were slowly getting to work. Rarity smiled demurely and almost purred as Lotus stroked her back. “Indeed it was, but tell me what you think of the completed picture.”
Applejack flipped a few pages and stopped. “Whoa Nelly!” The drawing filled the whole page and showed a fairly accurate drawing of Applejack, without her head because there hadn't been room. And besides, she had been clear about not getting any tattoos there. You had to have limits. This had been just fine with Rarity, who had nonetheless endeavored to paint over pretty much the entire rest of her body with an elaborate artwork.
A large apple motif with two cores and seeds graced her back, while branches, leaves and a few artful blossoms grew up one hind leg, over her rump and flank, grasping the three apples in her cutie mark, and disappearing under her body. Lengths of rope wound around the front leg and shoulder on the same side. The next page showed the other side, which was much more bare, with only half the apple motif and a few branches extending out from the other side. Only the cutie mark on one side was decorated.
“It's huge,” Applejack gasped while Aloe softened the muscles of her aching back.
“You did say you wanted it to be seen,” Rarity said. “And I must admit it turned out I had a lot of fun researching and working on this. It is my first design for a tattoo, and I am quite proud of what I have achieved with it. I think it truly speaks of you.” She turned her head and looked at Applejack. “But I want you to be absolutely, one hundred percent satisfied. This is not like a dress that you can simply take off or remake, it has to be perfect. I can scale it down if you think it is too much.”
Applejack flipped between the two pages, lost in the amazing detail of Rarity's work. She had read all the magazines and Twilight's book, studied the pictures and talked with Rarity a lot over the last few days while stuck at the hospital. She had formed a lot of ideas and pictures in her mind, but none of them did this any justice.
Somehow Rarity had taken all her stray ideas, all her loose thoughts, and condensed it all into one beautiful and simple expression of Applejack. She knew herself well, but she could never have expressed it this … elegantly.
“I love it,” she said after several long minutes. “It's perfect!”
Rarity smiled. “Well then, that makes me very pleased to hear. I did have another thing in mind, now that you have seen and approved the design.”
“Oh?” Applejack looked up from the drawing.
“Why yes,” Rarity purred under the skillful care of Lotus. “I must admit I was hoping I could convince you not to go ahead with this,” she said.
“But I think I might have better luck with a mule,” Rarity teased.
Applejack grinned. “Right.”
“And to be honest—” Rarity blushed slightly “—now that I've made the design, I would love to see my creation brought to life. I know, it's selfish and you shouldn't feel pressured because of me. But, well … if you do decide on this, I shall be pleased as well as happy for you. And if not, well, the world is full of ponies and designs waiting to give me the chance to bring them alive.”
Applejack smiled and reached a hoof out to Rarity. “Thanks, Rarity. That means a lot to me.”
“Don't mention it, Applejack.” Rarity returned the smile and patted her hoof. “I only wish to make my friends happy. And as it happens, we were talking about it before you showed up, and Lotus here had a wonderful idea.”
Lotus smiled but continued her work in silence.
“Oh yes,” Rarity beamed. “It is all prepared, in fact. We thought it would be a good idea, if you want to do this, to try it out for a time. Only temporarily you understand. We do not have a tattoo artist here in Ponyville, mind you, but Lotus assures me that she can do a wonderful job with regular shaving and painting. The paint will stay for a week, maybe, and the coat of course will grow out in time too. The whole thing can be redone every one or two weeks, until you are certain that this is something you want for life.”
“That is a mighty good idea,” Applejack said. “Thank you, Rarity. You really are the best friend a pony could have.”
“I do my best.” Rarity smiled and laid her head back down on her pillow.
* * *
She hadn't been certain before. It had always been a just an idea. She could always simply shrug and say it had been fun but ultimately nothing more. Now she was certain, however. As she looked herself in the mirror and turned around to take in every detail, Applejack knew that she wanted to keep it.
Of course, she would wait a few weeks just in case, but this was simply … perfect. And she had Rarity to thank for it. A friend had seen in her what she was trying to express herself, and had found a way to bring that expression to life where Applejack herself had been stuck.
“You look smashing,” Rarity beamed and admired her and Lotus' work. “Simply smashing!” She paused, then added with a grin, “Are you sure I cannot convince you to get a full makeover too? Your mane is simply awful, you really should do something about it.”
“We'll do it for free,” Aloe teased and waved a brush and pair of scissors.
Applejack made a show of pretending to consider for a moment. “Nah, I like my mane just fine this way.” She grabbed her hat off the nearby table and put it on with a satisfied smirk as she turned back to the mirror. The hat even seemed to accentuate the overall look, like it was part of the design all along. She loved it. “I can't wait to show my family and friends.”
“I am sure they too will love it,” Rarity said.
“Hah, they sure will be surprised.” Applejack adjusted the hat a bit in the mirror and admired her painted self. “But this is my choice and I have to stay true to myself. There will be neighsayers, but they'll come around eventually. You did, after all,” she winked at Rarity.
Rarity blushed and shooed her towards the door. “Well, what are you waiting for?” She gave Applejack a little nudge. “Get out there and show the world!”
“Heheh,” Applejack took a deep breath and faced the door. The magic of Pinkie Pie was sure to give her a crowd, but she could deal with that, good and bad. This was the pony she wanted the world to know, and a friend had helped her bring it out. She was proud of it.
Now to make it last, in skin and memory.