Star trotted after his best friend, keeping rhythm with her despite lagging around her flank. He didn't mind, though.
He was a normal pegasus. His problems were gone. The pegasi were united at last, Nightflame was gone, and Morningleaf was safe.
For a moment, Star took the time to bask in the sun. His worries were gone.
He had made it.
And for one magical second, it felt as if his own mother were here, whispering into his ears and being his peace. He knew she saw what he had accomplished, and he was sure he knew how proud Lightfeather was.
Star was at peace, for the first time since his mother had passed.
And then the moment was gone, but the magic of it lingered on, making feel less peaceful but at ease all the same. He had hardly noticed Brackentail lagging behind, talking to some other pegasi and apologising for his past betrayals.
"Warm sun?" Morningleaf joked, stopping to nose him in the side.
"Huh? Oh, just thinking," Star sighed and buried his muzzle in her mane, smelling the ghost of dried blood.
"If I had my starfire, I'd heal you every day," he whispered, making her ear flick at him.
He pulled away, smiling at his best friend. "The dirt should know not to stick to something so beautiful," he nickered mindlessly, using his wing to brush specks of dirt from her flaxen mane and chestnut coat.
Morningleaf said nothing, a bit taken off guard by the compliment.
"Oh," Star dropped his wing, a bit shocked at his actions. "Sorry."
"Don't be," Morningleaf smiled.
"I guess we're even then, when you called me... what was it? 'Incredible to look at'? that time when you took me to investigate your dirt tunnels?"
Moningleaf laughed, flicking her tail at him.
"What's so funny?" A familiar voice called.
Star spooked then just as quickly calmed. He had completely forgotten about Brackentail.
Star closed his eyes and memories came flooding back.
Brackentail, who also loved Morningleaf.
Brackentail, who was his friend.
Star shook his head, clearing the thoughts away. He was mortal now; he and Brackentail were on equal ground. Either of them were a viable option to Morningleaf.
What am I thinking? Star smiled at his brown-coated friend. "Me and Morningleaf were just reminiscing," he truthfully told his friend.
"Reminiscing, eh? What about that time me, you and Shadepebble went to Jungle and Desert Herd as a decoy?" Brackentail immediately jumped in, staring at Morningleaf.
She cocked an ear. "I remember," she smiled, her tone gentle.
More gentle than when talking to me? Star wondered.
Ancestors, what am I on about?
"I'm still amazed we got to see THE Spiderwing's nest in Jungle Herd's territory. And those pineapples we ate?" Brackentail smiled, though something in Star, maybe a bit of the Ancestors' sight or an ember of his starfire giving him the ability, saw there was something else lurking in the stallion's eyes.
And then Star understood.
Spiderwing's nest. When Brackentail hid Morningleaf and Shadepebble from Frostfire's battalion. When he vowed he wouldn't lose her again.
When Morningleaf told him she wished Star was there.
Star had heard it all from his best friend when she returned that night; she had told him everything there was to tell, as she did.
And now he saw Brackentail's ploy: winning Morningleaf over with memories, all the times Brackentail was there for him, and Star was not. All the times Brackentail appeared a better option than Star. After all... why would a mare chose a stallion that can't protect her and was never there for her?
Star felt sick to his stomach.
It appears the battle wasn't over after all.
No threat of death, maybe, but heartbreak? Inescapable.