“Any advice, Sea Swirl?” said Sassaflash, unusually nervous.
“Yes: always tell the truth, even if you don’t remember what it is.”
Stuff like that was why Sea Swirl had no special somepony. Well, that and her tendency to stare off into space at the slightest provocation, which was why it was best to provoke her thoroughly, not slightly.
For one thing, she hardly ever remembered what was true. Sassaflash tutted and nudged her constantly, just to help, but whatever gossip got into Sea Swirl’s left ear had let itself out via the right ear barely a minute later.
For another thing… Sea Swirl herself was hiding under the surface of that particular fount of wisdom. She always told the truth, provided “always” meant “whenever she wasn’t conspicuously silent about it”.
Which, among other things, was one reason why she remained merely friends with Sassaflash.
Whereas Sassaflash had a very special somepony, and for some reason refused to let this one go in favour of anything else.
“Did you hear what Caramel did today?” she cooed on her bed.
“Hm?” said Sea Swirl, returning to the present. She was standing in the middle of the bedroom with apparently not much else to do.
“Listen, Sea Swirl! You remember me telling you he was one of Shining Armor’s aides-de-camp at his wedding?”
“Tut, tut! Won’t you remember anything? Anyway, well, he told me he still had the smart suit for that wedding. Bought it himself. So of course he’s going to hang onto it like grim death.”
“It’s a nice suit,” agreed Sea Swirl, hoping she was remembering the right one.
“Well… Keep it under your mane, Sea Swirl, but…” Sassaflash leaned closer, as did Sea Swirl. “But he told me he’d wear it tonight… because he’s taking me out to Canterlot for a romantic dinner for two!”
While Sea Swirl’s heart sank at the news, she smiled and said, “That’s so lovely of him.”
“I know! Isn’t he just the dreamiest?”
“I am the luckiest pegasus in all of Cloudsdale. No: in all of Equestria.”
“I’m happy for you.” Part of Sea Swirl was, so she didn’t consider this a lie. For all that, she really did love seeing Sassaflash giggle and roll back and forth like a lovestruck teen.
“You know,” whispered Sassaflash in Sea Swirl’s twitching ear, “I think he might be about to ask me for my wing in marriage!”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Sea Swirl wisely, or in a tone she thought sounded wisely. “Let’s not get carried away just yet. Maybe he’s still biding his time.”
Sassaflash’s sharp sass scattered over the surface like sprinkled spices.
“Don’t talk rot, Sea Swirl. It’s as plain as the redness of his cravat: he can’t bear it any longer, and he’s going to marry me, the sweet, sweet noble pony that he is…”
In self-defence, Sea Swirl tuned her out. Concentrate on her own work: that was the escape hole through which she could wriggle out of this.
Trouble was that there wasn’t a lot of work to concentrate on. Life in Ponyville calmed down this time of year, revelling in only the most minor of summer parties. Not that parties weren’t fun, but she found it extraordinarily hard to concentrate on them, much less to treat them as work. They just became happy blurs.
She just wished Sassaflash would stop going on about Caramel. Had she no heart…?
What a daft question, she thought to herself. Of course Sassaflash had a heart. Look at all the things she’d done for Sea Swirl alone. Stayed by her side, for one. Kept her closer than most.
After all, how could the pegasus be expected to know the truth, when Sea Swirl had spent almost all their time together making sure the truth was never said? If Sassaflash paddled about blissfully in the shallows, it was because Sea Swirl never steered her towards the depths of the rich, colourful, and potentially poisonous messes of coral reef, just a quick, determined swim away…
“Sea Swirl!” yipped Sassaflash.
Sea Swirl’s mind breached the surface in a flurry. “Hm, what?”
“I was asking you what kind of dress I should wear for tonight.”
“Oh. Um. I think you look good in all of them.”
“You’re a font of helpful advice, aren’t you just?”
It took Sea Swirl a while to decipher the strange language of sarcasm. She had a real problem with any language that wasn’t straightforward pony talk, or straightforward dolphin clicks. And she was sure it was “fount”, not “font”…
“Here, I’ll try one on and you tell me if it’s a hit or a miss, OK?”
“Hm, what? Oh, right. OK, Sassaflash.”
“Do pay attention! I want to be perfect for my Caramel.”
Of course Sea Swirl was paying attention: Sassaflash slipped in and out of dresses right in front of her. It was hard not to stare; she was so beautiful.
Sea Swirl watched the swish of dresses eagerly helping Sassaflash’s figure to look more and more… gob-smacking, mind-blowing, heart-stopping, and any other assault on poor Sea Swirl’s body parts. It was no good asking her for an opinion on any of the dresses themselves. There was one big distraction here she just couldn’t shake.
I think you look good in all of them. Had Sea Swirl really said that, just now? More to the point: How in Equestria had Sassaflash missed that one? In some ways, she was just as oblivious as Sea Swirl herself.
Thanks to Caramel. A flicker of jealousy squeezed Sea Swirl’s heart. Her eyes began to burn with laser-like intensity…
“Sea Swirl! Stop staring! For Celestia’s sake, I’m not asking for a total stitch analysis, you dummy. Just say if it overall looks good or not.”
“Oh. Was I staring? Sorry, Sassaflash.”
“Poor, poor Sea Swirl.”
Sea Swirl could see the pegasus mumbling a mantra under her breath, trying it out just as much as she was trying out dresses: “Always tell the truth… even if you don’t remember what it is… Always tell the truth… Are you sure that’s your best advice? It sounds a bit…” Sassaflash blushed. “Well, chancy.”
“Ah, but it’s like the old unicorn knights used to say: Faint heart never won fair lady.”
“Good point.” Sassaflash admired her current dress in the mirror, putting the next dress up against herself and then rapidly taking it away for a quick comparison.
Unusually, Sea Swirl started to feel like the smart one between them.
Still, Sassaflash seemed happy enough. That made Sea Swirl happy too, up to a point. She just wished she could follow her own advice. Tell the truth, not keep her mouth shut.
That had been last month, at Sassaflash’s Ponyville home (she had two: one for the ground and one more traditional pegasus one up in the air). To no one’s surprise but Sassaflash’s, Caramel had not popped the question. Most ponies in Ponyville suspected he’d lost his bottle, and probably the ring he was going to propose with. Caramel lost a lot of things.
It took a week from that unfortunate night in Canterlot for Sassaflash to be even remotely consolable, and Sea Swirl was ready for her in every sense except the one where she herself could pop any question or, indeed, any statements along those lines.
A month seemed a long enough time to heal. Then normality, like the ebbing tide, flowed back into their lives again.
A new week came up to the surface to breathe.
“Gutterball,” said Sea Swirl.
Sassaflash cursed and marched back to the seat in a huff. Around them, the crashes and rumbles of bowlers – succeeding where she had failed – was as taunting laughter.
They were in the Ponyville bowling alley. And in theory were having a good time.
“Ooh, I hate it when it does that!” Sassaflash pouted.
“Chin up. You’re getting better. You managed to last three turns before you got your first gutterball.”
“Getting better!? Don’t be ridiculous! I only knocked down five pins at best! It was going to be a gutterball on all three.”
“But it wasn’t.” Sea Swirl risked jostling her shoulders playfully. “Every day, in every way, we get better and better. Just relax and go with the flow. I told you: you’re too impatient.”
“It’s your turn, by the way. Shouldn’t you be showing me how it’s done, instead of telling me?”
“Oh, is it? All right. Watch this, then, I suppose.”
They were actually bowling as a team of three today, because that was minimum requirements for paying admission, but that was OK because the third member – Allie Way, also known among bowling enthusiasts as Pinny Lane – was a pro, who took to lurking around the bowling alleys in the hopes of swooping down and saving any wannabe bowlers who happened to fall short at admission, in return for testing her skills (i.e. whopping their butts) at the sport. She was sort of a professional make-ponies-feel-inadequate machine, so that if nothing else, they could feel united in their envy of her unfairly high score.
Currently, Allie Way was sitting opposite, pretending to be absorbed in her milkshake for some semblance of privacy. She knew Sea Swirl from way back, and gave her an encouraging wink as she passed.
Sea Swirl pretended not to notice the wink, a safe bet since most ponies assumed she didn’t notice things anyway.
Between her and the pins stood the bowling ball. Waiting. Patiently.
A lifetime association with the sea and its unbelievably sessile life forms meant she could easily stand there all day, concentrating soulfully on the desired outcome of all the pins lying down as though in relaxation, feeling the gentle gravitational push and pull between her body and the bowling ball, drifting towards her goal as though not to startle it into fleeing, and having done all this through subconscious meditation, stopping and standing where she was just so she could soak up the sweet, cool essence of the moment.
“Get on with it!” splashed Sassaflash’s voice through tranquil waters.
Sea Swirl let the disturbed ripples calm down, took the hint, and pushed.
Five seconds later, despite the deceptive slowness of her ball, every single pin lay down as though in relaxation.
“Nice strike!” said Allie Way with effervescent approval. “You still got it, Sea Swirl!”
“Thanks! You too!” Sea Swirl bubbled in turn. They switched places, then Sea Swirl remembered herself and sat next to Sassaflash instead. Allie Way also deliberately took her time, though in truth she could strike faster than a bad-tempered cobra.
Sassaflash was stiff with affronted pride. That was such a pegasus thing to do.
“I just like bowling with my friends,” said Sea Swirl, who was not surprised to find herself feeling 100% honest about that sentiment.
“Don’t try to cheer me up,” snapped Sassaflash.
“But I like cheering you up.”
“And stop being the perfect friend all the time. Gloat a little, OK? All this fair play stuff is creeping me out.”
“I can stop being a perfect friend if that’s what’d cheer you up.”
Sassaflash eyed her up suspiciously. “Are you trying meekness on me?”
“I dunno. Am I?”
“Is it cheering you up?”
“Yes!” burst out Sassaflash, this time into laughter as she did something that was either tackling with her wings or giving Sea Swirl a strangely belligerent hug with them. “Oh Sea Swirl, what planet are you on and how can I get there?”
Sea Swirl wondered if this was a trick question. She ducked it.
“I just thought you might like bowling,” she said defensively. “I like it. And it’s a sport, so you should feel right at home, for a pegasus.”
“It’s a sport I’m no good at. Big difference, to a pegasus.”
Whereupon Allie Way broke them up. “Your turn, Sassaflash.”
“Huh. Took your time.”
“I think I’m having an off day.” Allie Way winked at Sea Swirl when Sassaflash wasn’t looking.
While Sassaflash lined up the shot, Sea Swirl called over to her, “Just try to imagine how you’re going to do it. Don’t think about prizes or celebrating or all that stuff. It fools you into thinking you’ve already done it.”
“All right, all right! I know how to kick a ball!”
Sea Swirl wondered if that was the problem. Kicking was an invitation to violence. Sassaflash was a mare of strength, not precision. Sea Swirl herself would either nudge the ball with her muzzle or roll it with her hooves – she’d use more precise magic, but it wasn’t allowed in the bowling alley ever since that unfortunate incident with the melting pin dispensers and the multiplying bowling balls.
Of course, Sassaflash kicked it. Of course, it veered off course halfway down the lane. Some of Sea Swirl’s advice must have stuck, though, because it bowled down three pins this time.
Sassaflash slumped on her seat and fumed in a folded-up world of her own.
Sea Swirl quickly got her own split out of the way (she wasn’t concentrating properly) and hurried over to hug her close. It was a good sign that Sassaflash didn’t resist; Sea Swirl added a playful shake to dislodge the glumness.
“Next time,” grumbled Sassaflash, “I’m picking the sport.”
“Oh dear. I hope it’s not a flying one…”
Sassaflash raised an eyebrow as though to playfully strike her. “Why in Equestria would I pick a flying sport for a unicorn?”
Too late: Sea Swirl realized she hadn’t thought before walking into that one.
How she wished she was less prone to drifting off whenever some idle thought conked her on the head, though she didn’t think they were idle as in “lazy”, she thought they were interesting, but everyone else called them idle, so perhaps she really was being lazy and she just thought it was interesting.
Like the time she’d spent a whole day standing in the basement just letting the thoughts drift in and out. Most ponies had said she was simply wasting her time, but for some strange reason the miasma of flickering thoughts and half-remembered dreams about mossy pillows and malformed fish and giant world trees and stars trapped in watery skies like bioluminescent shrimps and stranger things besides… that amazing and vaguely disturbing day in her own head had been one of the most enlightening and memorable…
“Sea Swirl! You’re doing it again!”
Sea Swirl’s thoughts, startled, scattered in fright like herring. “Hm, what?”
“You’re so… spacy all the time!”
“Am I? Sorry. What were we talking about?”
“You’re the spaciest unicorn – no, the spaciest pony – no, the spaciest living thing – I have ever met. And that includes Cloudsdale skygrass!”
Sea Swirl frowned as a new thought dropped into her pool of concentration. Skygrass? She’d never seen it. It was said to be the only species of grass capable of surviving in the hyper-humid habitat of Cloudsdale clouds, the cloud city up in the sky, which if she thought about it was technically a water city, because clouds were made of –
“Your turn now,” said Allie Way.
Sassaflash got another gutterball. Happily, she seemed less cross and more amused by this, especially when Sea Swirl staggered to her own hooves shuddering.
Truth was, Sea Swirl wasn’t shuddering because of nerves. At the moment of intense physical contact (with the bowling ball) Sassaflash had curled up and stretched out with the kick in just the right way to ruin Sea Swirl’s normally relaxed state.
Sea Swirl shuddered at some of the thoughts that bobbed to the surface of her own consciousness. Even glimpsing them was enough to put her off. The beauty of Sassaflash could be a curse.
Thrown once more onto the beach of reality, Sea Swirl sighed and took up her bowling position, but the moment was lost. She got another split for her efforts. She’d be off her bowling for a while now: getting repeated splits always ruined her composure.
She sat down next to Sassaflash, who seemed positively radiant with cheeriness.
“Oh, Sea Swirl,” she said, giving her a playful nudge. “You’re absolutely hopeless.”
Yet it was the way she said it that gave Sea Swirl hope.
Tuesday, which meant going into the enemy camp.
“It’s only once a week,” insisted Sassaflash, as if she were a military commander not used to getting any lip. “Grow up, Sea Swirl. I’m busy with storms at work and he’s hopeless without me. Toodle-oo!”
So off to Caramel’s house, then.
Sea Swirl didn’t complain. She wasn’t a complaining sort of pony. But if her existence was one gigantic, placid ocean of calm, then it was because she suppressed and blotted out a lot of the unspeakable things at the very abyss of her soul. And Caramel, unfortunately, was the exact kind of probing submersible of a fool to go down and stir things up.
Concentrating hard on her mollifying mantras so as to centre her chi (or whatever it was), Sea Swirl knocked on his door.
There followed such a crash, cries of alarm, and shouted reassurances that – despite the sound of a lot of piles of things being knocked tumbling into each other – all was well and he’d just be a minute… that Sea Swirl found enough time to try out that new slow-breathing technique. It involved trying to gulp air and blow out through the blowholes in her nose at the same time – nostrils, that was the word! Nostrils.
Caramel didn’t so much open the door as crash into it backwards. He straightened what was left of his mane.
“Sea Swirl what a surprise come in come in did you tell anyone you were coming?” He slammed the door behind her and rushed to the window to check up and down the street.
In the hallway, Sea Swirl was careful where she trod. She might knock over a pile of something. Caramel lived in a warehouse of future chores.
“Sassaflash knows,” she said, in case that helped.
If anything, he nearly jumped out of his mind at this. “What!?”
“Sassaflash knows I come over every Tuesday.”
Caramel jumped back into his mind, though it was clearly not a comfortable fit. “Oh, I see. Good, good. Look, you couldn’t do me a favour, could you?”
“Terrific. You’re a pal, Sea Swirl. Hold on, I’ll be a moment.” He thundered upstairs, yelped as he knocked something else over, and crashed so hard that Sea Swirl wondered if she ought to go up and chaperone him for his own sake.
The fact was that once you got over the fact that, factually taken, Caramel didn’t deserve Sassaflash – a fact that was as rock-hard as an iceberg to Sea Swirl – then he was really all right. Even slightly loveable, in his own way, she felt. He tried his best, bless him.
He came thundering downstairs with his saddle full of what looked at first glance like Royal Guard armour.
“Just do me a quick favour,” he said, “and take these off me for a while. I think Sassaflash is on to me.”
“How do you mean?” Sea Swirl let him dump the lot onto her own saddle with barely a grunt of effort.
“Well, see, we were on one of these dates, see, and we were having such a good time, see, that I thought I’d tell her about that time I was at Captain Shining Armor’s wedding, see.”
“Go on,” said Sea Swirl. Yes, go on, said an echoing hiss in her soul.
“You should have seen her! Ah, the look in her eyes! It was like the moment I mentioned Captain Shining Armor at his wedding… and the smile of hers! Wow…”
Caramel nearly made like his namesake and melted there and then – Sea Swirl caught him just in time, jolting him awake and making him straighten up in embarrassment.
“Well, as I was saying –” he rushed on “– I somehow got it into my head to… well, say things. You know, the way she was looking at me and smiling like there were stars in her teeth…” He caught himself this time and coughed. “Well, I said I was a personal friend of Captain Shining Armor’s… his confidant, in fact… in fact, his aide-de-camp… and probably a few other things, noble battles, rooftop chases, wars, and so on.”
He gulped, a stallion trapped by his own stupidity.
“Well, now she’s got it into her head that I’m an official member of the Royal Guard. An officer! You know what can happen to a stallion who impersonates an officer?”
Sea Swirl didn’t, but part of her guessed it was very, very bad. Hard to tell with Caramel, who could turn a forgotten date into the end of the world.
“Anyway,” continued Caramel, delirious with worry, “well, she started pestering me about the guard thing last week, so I bluffed and said I was retired, or honourably discharged after this and that, only she said she’d never seen my uniform, so I went and got one, you know, a cheap one – all right, a costume from Rarity, wonderful friend she is, she really is a miracle worker with that needle – and I showed it to her on our last date, but then I found out it’d still got the label on and it was only a miracle Sassaflash never saw the thing or I’d have been done for. Well, now she’s at work and I’ve got some time to myself…”
In a hopeless collapse of despair, he stared at her as if she was going to swoop in and tell him he was well and truly doomed.
Now, Sea Swirl knew as well as anyone that it was no good holding a stallion to whatever he says when he’s hooves-over-head – be it from love, joy, gastronomic pleasure, or concussion – except this time she didn’t care. Part of her picked up the sensible, blocking advice and defiantly used its hardness as a battering ram.
After all, one bit of this had stuck: the only bit Sassaflash had felt worth mentioning to Sea Swirl.
“Why did you tell Sassaflash you were Shining Armor’s aide-de-camp at his wedding?” she said.
Sea Swirl didn’t ask the question with any malice or, in fact, anything harsher than childlike curiosity, but in her depths there lurked fangs.
“Well,” said Caramel, blushing already, “that was more a sort of… exaggeration.”
Meaning it was a lie, thought a snappish voice in Sea Swirl’s head. Politely, she nodded instead.
“Look, it really was half-true. I really was one of his groomstallions, I mean, at his wedding. But an aide-de-camp? Well, that means you’re also high-ranked in the military. Well, OK, serving someone high-ranked in the military. Well, in a sense, as his friend, I was serving him, and he is high-ranked, he’s Captain of the Royal Guard! So you see it all works out. Well. You see?” His eyes pleaded with hers.
Goodness, thought the pike-like voice, the things I could do with that tidbit of information.
But Sea Swirl’s waters were overall vast, and cool, and soothing. She simply said, “Your secret is safe with me, Caramel.”
“Well, not that it’s a secret,” he spluttered, blushing so hard she thought his cheeks might pop, “but, you know, thanks anyway, I appreciate it. Well, here we are.”
She wished he’d stop saying “well” all the time.
“So if you could just get rid of the armour for me,” he said. “Not throw it away, in case Sassaflash wants to look at it later, but just sort of… keep hold of it for a while. Maybe cut the labels off, or something. I’ll figure out what to do in the meantime.”
Sea Swirl wondered why he didn’t just cut the labels off himself. Perhaps he worried about botching the job, an understandable worry for someone who was banned from Winter Wrap-Up duty for not only misplacing his own planting seeds, but somehow misplacing everyone else’s.
Still, for all her amiability, part of her wondered, What on earth does Sassaflash see in him?
As if reading her thoughts, Caramel said, “Well, I was only trying to impress. I just got carried away. I couldn’t help it. If you’d seen her smile… Just her smile…”
That was enough. Sea Swirl nodded, ever the dutiful friend.
“I’ll take care of it,” she said. “Perhaps you could say the Royal Guard wanted it back, or something?”
“Why would they do that?”
“Um… bookkeeping error?” It was a pretty standard excuse back in Canterlot.
Caramel thumped her on the shoulder – then perspective shifted and she realized he was just patting her enthusiastically.
“Brilliant!” he said. “That’s blooming brilliant! They’re always doing weird bureaucracy stuff up in Canterlot! And then I can change the subject, and she’ll be none the wiser! Sea Swirl, you are a life-saver!”
“Lifeguard,” said Sea Swirl. In her sea-obsessed life, it was the closest she’d ever gotten to a joke.
It was enough for Caramel, who patted her even more enthusiastically as if trying to beat down the sheer hilarity of it.
“Yeah, I suppose you are!” Eventually, he managed to settle down enough to try being calm and friendly again. “How’s life treating you at the moment, Sea Swirl?”
After a while letting the question sink into the sleepy trenches of her soul, Sea Swirl gave it the due detail, respect, and honesty it deserved.
She shrugged. “S’alright.”
“Been back to Canterlot recently? I wouldn’t mind going, but, well, you know…” His eyebrows did things that suggested they’d suddenly touched a hot stove. “Special plans with Sassaflash tomorrow evening, if you know what I mean. Want to make it stand out in my memory.”
Tomorrow evening. How the end of the world came so soon. For Sea Swirl.
“Well, I wish you a jolly good time,” said Sea Swirl placidly, whilst the monster in her darkest, most abyssal depths wanted to wrap spiked tentacles around him and squeeze.
“Thank you very much! I’m pulling out all the stops to make it a night Sassaflash will treasure forever.”
The thought actually got Sea Swirl to smile more widely. She even wished for a moment that she had a special somepony to make faint, awestruck comments about her smile too.
“Do you miss Canterlot at all?” Caramel blurted out, apparently afraid he’d been tactless.
Sea Swirl’s answer was easy-peasy. “No, not really. I never felt like I fitted in there.”
“Me neither,” said Caramel. “Apart from Shining Armor, I mean. He was a good stallion for a night out.”
“I like it here in Ponyville,” continued Sea Swirl, not easily knocked off her ship’s course. “I don’t feel like the odd unicorn out here.”
“Me too!” Caramel looked up as if checking his words just now. “Apart from the ‘unicorn’ bit, of course,” he added, an earth stallion with a compulsive tic. “But then, once an Apple, always an Apple. Unless you marry an Orange.”
Sea Swirl didn’t answer this, because she didn’t understand it.
“Actually, while you’re here,” said Caramel, “I wouldn’t mind asking your opinion of this cravat I was thinking of wearing for tomorrow… Rarity made it for me. She really is a marvel. Sure, the last one looked good, but I thought to myself, well, couldn’t it be better…?”
While he went off about his silly cravat and how grand Rarity was as a friend and neighbour blah blah blah, almost like a little slice of Canterlot in Ponyville blah blah blah, Sea Swirl found her mind sailing again, though on a much stronger headwind.
Canterlot: it was such a strange connection to have with someone like Caramel, but they were both right about it.
Unlike the rest of his kin, Caramel had felt at odds with his own life. So he sincerely had tried his luck in the Royal Guard – despite protests from the rest of the Apple family, if not outright jeering – and, as most would have predicted, he had failed miserably.
Yet Captain Shining Armor – then just a drill sergeant – had taken a totally unpredictable pity on him, and then steered him to a much better job as a caterer in the mess hall. He’d made a good number of messes indeed, of course, but such were the military-grade rations that no one noticed, and if anything it made him popular as some kind of avant-garde food designer.
He’d gone on to be a civilian waiter, getting by more on his military reputation – however earned or otherwise – and less on his ability to keep orders straight. Eventually, the latter overtook the former: Canterlot was not a forgiving place.
But the bad luck that plagued Caramel – thanks perhaps to his horseshoes cutie mark – oddly reflected good luck unto others. Other soldiers in the Royal Guard went on to have illustrious careers. Caterers and waiters around him got promoted faster. Some, like Shining Armor, said that he was a sort of shield for other ponies, absorbing their bad luck for their protection. Others, like Caramel himself, said that he was just so blatantly incompetent that he made everyone else feel better by comparison.
Either way, he genuinely got on well with Shining Armor, who later went on to become Captain of the Royal Guard. The idea – however ridiculous – that Caramel had been somehow responsible for the captain’s good luck gave Caramel himself a tiny flicker of pride.
And now he had mellowed out, gone to Ponyville to feel closer to his family – on Shining Armor’s advice – and found the girl of his dreams.
Sea Swirl sympathized. Unlike most unicorns she’d met, she’d been too disorganized and haphazard to end up in the more obvious educational establishments of Canterlot – such as Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, or the University of Canterlot – and her tendency to treat the cut-and-thrust of Canterlot political life as just so much distracting trivia made her understandably unpopular, or at least understandably unpopular to everyone else.
In the end, Sea Swirl had gone travelling. Mostly to anywhere with lots of water, and mostly because she wafted through life at her own pace in any case.
And now she had mellowed out, gone to Ponyville to feel closer to the giant squid in its nearby lake – her only friend – encountered pegasus weather teams there, and found the girl of her dreams.
Except she’d failed where Caramel had succeeded.
It was a worrying thought that Caramel believed she – she, spacy little latecomer that she was – was far more capable than him. Perhaps her general air of calm just inspired ponies to believe she was more collected than she really was. At least, she looked more competent than Caramel’s air of constant nervous wreck.
Sea Swirl sighed and – while Caramel tried to get her to tell crimson from cinnamon – wished she were the better pony that he apparently saw.
The blues of Sea Swirl’s soul didn’t sing out every week, but when they eventually broke through the usual weekly schedule and ongoing noise to find her and corner her, they hit her hard enough to wreck a whole day.
Evening. Sea Swirl moped on the lakeshore under stars.
Used to be that, whenever Caramel and Sassaflash went out on a date – or whatever this one was, or whatever it would be from now on – Sea Swirl would sometimes go and spy on them. She’d firmly stopped doing this by now, partly because it was a betrayal of their trust, partly because it was a little bit weird even to her, but mostly because the sight of them both giggling over hay fries just made her even more depressed than she already was.
And yet it had taken a long time to unlearn that habit. Because she just couldn’t stop looking.
So tonight, instead of being miserable watching her dream shatter itself into little hopeless bits, she was being miserable watching the moonlight shatter itself on the water. She still felt like a little hopeless bit herself.
Sea Swirl watched the still waters. Sometimes, she fancied a silhouette flicked past or the fin of a lurking eel slid past, but they seemed to her as real as dreams.
When she had only one love she could count on, she counted on it very hard.
Yet the lake before her was still.
Night wasn’t really a good time to go looking for fishy friends.
Tempting as it was to think so, Sea Swirl was not simply the watery equivalent of – say – someone like Fluttershy. Fluttershy, now Fluttershy had a way with land animals and amphibious animals and animals so weird they barely qualified as animals. A way which meant she moved among the forests and grassy hills like a nymph tending to her domain.
Whereas Sea Swirl could just about chat up a dolphin, if she concentrated on her clicks and whistles. Most other sea creatures were scarcely close enough for her intelligence to notice their mood and thoughts. The really weird ones (like jellyfish) she didn’t understand at all.
As for talking back to them, there was simply too big a divide between land and sea. It had been enough of a shock to her when she’d first dipped her head in a pond and heard not the gulpy silence most other ponies claimed to hear, but a cacophony of voices fighting for attention.
Who knew the common carp, for instance, could be such a chatterbox? Or that minnows had pretty strong opinions about things that landed in their patch of water? Certainly, Sea Swirl found it hard to comprehend what could make a humble crawdad sing all morning like a songbird, whether or not its own tune could be discerned over the din.
At night? Silence. Fish and other water creatures spent most of their time basking in the warmth of day.
Sea Swirl wanted to talk, but she was too easily confused to talk to other ponies, and too easily alienated to talk to strange creatures underwater. Not for the first time in her life, but sharply enough that it might as well have been, she felt trapped.
Sea Swirl watched the moon. It had no mind of its own. The reflection shimmered, lacked even the weight of substance. No pressure there.
She listened to the faintest of lapping waves. Tiny as threads against the bank.
At times like this, advice could be very consoling. Sea Swirl watched the most obvious fish of advice swim up to her mind and curiously nibble it.
She watched the mental nibbling with no enthusiasm.
It had been Sassaflash’s advice. Once. On one of those rare occasions when Sea Swirl had been too down even for a pegasus to miss the signs.
Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re better than you think you are. Just be yourself, OK?
To someone like her, this was the worst advice imaginable. She barely had a firm idea of the “be” part. The great sea was vast and substantial and very strongly existed, and yet it was almost entirely empty. What was “being” to the sea? It just sat there doing sea things. It didn’t even have to think about them first. All she felt towards it was longing and envy.
She definitely had much less confidence in the “yourself” part. She had no idea what her self was. In her ears, the advice basically amounted to: “Be something-something.”
She sat there, being, and presumably being herself. It didn’t cheer her up at all.
She wished Sassaflash was here. It had been here where they’d first met. During a storm set up by the weather team, which Sea Swirl had enjoyed because of all the pattering rain, Sassaflash had nearly fried her with a lightning bolt. Accidentally. Poor Sassaflash had apologised so much. She had always been so emotional.
And from accident, reassurance. From reassurance, meaning. From meaning, friendship.
From there to here. A lake. Alone.
Sea Swirl wondered how she could go about being someone else, and whether or not she got to pick first. Try before she buy, perhaps.
Gradually, this most obvious fish of advice glumly lost interest in her. It swam off to look for more bountiful waters to nibble in.
The moon shone. With the tiny lapping of the waves, its reflection was whole again, though still bulging and brittle here and there. Sea Swirl did what she’d done earlier: threw another stone at it. It sank, shattering the moon.
She’d wanted to skim it, but she’d never got the hang of it.
Sassaflash would have skimmed it. Some time after they’d gotten to know each other as friends, she’d shown her how, but Sea Swirl had long since forgotten what advice she’d given. Too busy worrying about the disturbed fish, herself.
Anything physically challenging, like simple hoof-eye coordination or raw impatient strength, came naturally to Sassaflash. Sea Swirl imagined her sitting nearby, laughing gently at Sea Swirl’s feeble attempt. Then she stopped imagining because it made her chest hurt.
Deep down, she felt she ought to be talking to other ponies.
Ponyville had lots of friends for her. Pinkie Pie, for one, who knew everyone and what their favourite things were and what style of party they liked. Everyone knew her in return, and what her favourite things were, and what style of party she liked, which was the loud streamer-bursting kind that made fireworks look like damp squibs.
And Sea Swirl liked her too, just like everyone else – it was hard to dislike Pinkie Pie – but even normal ponies were so hard for Sea Swirl to focus on and so easily confused her, and Pinkie Pie was a supernormal pony who bounced around a lot and confused her even more than seemed mentally possible. For someone who’d been comfortable in the deep end of any pool from birth onwards, Sea Swirl drowned easily among ponies, regardless of the complete lack of actual water.
Around a hoofful of friends, Sea Swirl managed to stabilize long enough to feel she had four hooves on the ground and her lungs could suck in and out without feeling crushed or blocked. Allie Way had been one such, because she didn’t expect Sea Swirl to do anything except enjoy bowling and occasionally say polite words.
Sassaflash had been another.
And for a lot more than simple bowling games.
Sea Swirl tried to tease the strange shapes out of the swirling fragments of moonlight reassembling themselves on the lake.
At first, Sassaflash had been just like everyone else: befuddled by Sea Swirl’s oddities, a little impatient with her slowpoke style, mildly trying to tug her into getting out more instead of staring at ponds and rivers all day. But where most other ponies just gave up on her saying, “She’s just being Sea Swirl” – as if that explained anything – Sassaflash persisted. Loved persisting. And Sea Swirl loved her for it.
In an odd way, Sea Swirl got the impression that Sassaflash enjoyed being befuddled and impatient and mildly tugging at Sea Swirl herself.
Like a challenge?
That sounded right for the logic of a pegasus.
Or like Sassaflash pitied her?
That sounded much nicer to Sea Swirl and gave her hope.
Or like they’d just been thrown together and one thing had led to another?
That didn’t sound as good, but given how random and capricious the sea could be, and how confusing life in general felt, and what with one puzzle and another she still hadn’t worked out regarding other ponies (such as Caramel, and if she was honest, Sassaflash herself), Sea Swirl was sadly ready to believe it was nothing more than chance. A fluke.
Had even been ready, for how unique Sassaflash seemed in all of Sea Swirl’s life – like an unexpected island refuge when she’d thought she’d been lost at sea – had been foolishly ready to believe it could have been more.
That she could have been loved.
But flukes did not work like that.
Sea Swirl had long since stopped believing in any of this, but nights like this one dragged hard against the scars left behind.
She stayed out all night and stayed out all morning, until finally even the moon gave up on her. Only the soothing stillness of water stayed up with her the whole time.
As the sun tried its luck and Sea Swirl burned up a little bit, she thought it best to be heading back. Staying up overnight was hardly a wise move. Perhaps she ought to get some sleep, or perhaps she could do something useful before snatching a mid-afternoon siesta, or…
…or she could drown in insanity further and go check up on Sassaflash (they must be back by now).
Which she did.
As she approached Sassaflash’s ground-bound home, some muffled sound tickled her ear in a profoundly uncomfortable way.
To her surprise, two voices shouted through the living room window. It vibrated with their hatred.
Sea Swirl pressed her ear up against it, but with the curtains still drawn and what with the thickness of the glass, she couldn’t make out a single word. Barely could she tell Sassaflash’s shrill outrage from Caramel’s.
What on earth…?
If they’d both stayed at Sassaflash’s house overnight, then the date must have gone well enough. Had something happened just this morning? Or had it boiled over from the previous night?
Elated, a horrible part of Sea Swirl swelled at the news. The rest of her wished they’d stop shouting soon.
Something shattered. A thrown plate? A dropped plate? A plate knocked over accidentally? Whatever it was, the shouting intensified.
Sea Swirl stewed in the heat of embarrassment.
Too late, she regained enough presence of mind to turn around and begin hurrying away. Too late, that is, because just then the door burst open and Caramel was either thrown stumbling out of it or had thrown himself stumbling out of it.
“GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT! YOU LOVE HER SO MUCH, WHY DON’T YOU GO AND MARRY HER!?” bellowed Sassaflash from the doorway.
“I TOLD YOU A THOUSAND TIMES! I! DON’T! LOVE! HER!” bellowed Caramel back in defensive anger, rounding on her in turn.
Sea Swirl froze and watched in trapped horror.
“THATS NOT WHAT IT SOUNDED LIKE TO ME, YOU LYING SLEAZE!”
“SHE’S JUST A NEIGHBOURLY FRIEND! YOU’RE THE ONE TALKING CRAZY!”
“YEAH!? IF I EVER SEE YOUR FACE AROUND HERE AGAIN, THEN I’LL SHOW YOU WHAT CRAZY MEANS, YOU STUPID OAF! GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!”
“WELL, THE TARTARUS WITH YOU, THEN! I WAS JUST ON MY WAY OUT ANYWAY!”
“GOOD! SO GET LOST AND DON’T YOU DARE TRY THAT SWEET TALK HORSE APPLES ON ME LATER, BECAUSE I WON’T BE LISTENING!”
“WELL, GOOD RIDDANCE! I DON’T WANT TO WASTE TIME WITH SOME NUTCASE WHO BLOOMING FLIES OFF THE BLOOMING HANDLE AT THE DROP OF A BLOOMING FEATHER!”
At which point, Sassaflash ducked back indoors, jumped back out, threw a plate at him. He dropped down onto his stomach: the plate frisbeed clean over his head and shattered against the wall opposite. He panicked and bolted before she could duck back inside for another.
The sheer shock of the shouting echoed through Sea Swirl’s mind, disturbing so many thoughts, stirring up so many toxic memories, that she lost control. For that split second when the tranquil ocean of her mind had been struck and revealed to be a tiny little pony in a tiny little corner of the world, so much she held onto became fractured and disintegrated, dissolved away, splashed and lost so much of itself on the pitiless ground far away.
She had to take several breaths, as if to gulp back every last stray drop or puddle. She hadn’t suffered like this in days, but even if it had been years, the shock would have felt no fresher, no harsher.
To make it worse, Sassaflash noticed her, glared at her, and hurried back inside.
It took a long time for Sea Swirl to notice she’d left the door open.
She still didn’t feel all there, but she had enough to go on.
Treading sombrely – she might have entered a cathedral mid-service – Sea Swirl guided herself through to the inner sanctum, gently closing all doors behind her. They needed privacy. She was slowly realizing what she would have to do. This had happened before. Not often, but enough times for Sea Swirl to have learned where to check.
Sassaflash was not in the kitchen, where eggs and tofu and baked beans lay totally ignored by whatever drama had lashed out.
Nor was she in the living room, which had a pillow and a duvet on one of the sofas.
She wasn’t in the bathroom, in which she’d occasionally locked herself to have a good cry.
That left only the bedroom.
Sea Swirl heard the heavy breathing before she knocked. There was no real point knocking, because the floorboards creaked distinctively enough to tell a keen listener where she was at any given moment, but she instinctively felt she ought to be respectful.
“Come in,” choked a voice desperate not to crack.
Sea Swirl slipped in, dreading what she might see.
It wasn’t as bad as she’d been expecting. Sassaflash was getting better: she merely sat on the bed glaring at nothing. Under her ragged bird’s nest of a morning mane, she looked like she’d just gotten up and hated the idea of going any further. Sea Swirl had seen her look far worse.
Quietly, Sea Swirl shut the door behind her and took up her post on the bed, next to her.
Whereupon, Sassaflash seemed to be triggered by something red-hot in her throat. She said, using slightly more convincing neutral tones, “He’s such an idiot.”
Anyone unfamiliar with the couple might immediately ask whether or not Caramel had done something. Sea Swirl was not just anyone.
“He tries his best,” said Sea Swirl soothingly.
“You should have listened to him! Going on about his dumb cravat and his dumb suit and his dumb royal armour, on and on and on all night. You’d think I wasn’t there! And then going on about my dress and asking if Rarity –”
Her lips pressed together so hard they went white.
“– had made it.”
“Rarity?” said Sea Swirl, not out of puzzlement but just to keep Sassaflash talking. She knew the pegasus would get angry if she thought Sea Swirl was drifting off again.
“Oh, he had a lot to say about her, all right, and then some! Rarity’s such a good neighbour, Rarity’s so classy, Rarity’s going up in the world, Rarity reminds him of Canterlot! I only let him get on with it because it kept him happy for a while. But oh no, I wake up, I get him breakfast, I get him talking again, and he goes on about his suit because he forgot to take it off before he went to sleep. Oh, deary deary him, Rarity will be so disappointed, Rarity was such a good friend, Rarity this and Rarity that, practically saying the sun shines out of Rarity’s backside, Rarity, Rarity, Rarity!”
Sea Swirl remembered the pillow and the duvet on the sofa downstairs. That didn’t quite fit the story.
“How come he was sleeping on the sofa?” she said, innocently trying to keep up.
“I was tired,” said Sassaflash, as if that was a reasonable excuse.
“Tired of him?”
“Yes! Tired of him!” Sassaflash exploded. “Him and his stupid Canterlot talk! I spent ages picking out that dress just to impress him, and you know what he did? He never said a word about it! It cost me half a month’s salary to get that dress!”
Sea Swirl grimly noticed the mass of dresses bulging out of the open wardrobe. Caramel wasn’t the only one who tried their best.
“What, no word at all?” she said.
Sassaflash’s lips twitched towards a sneer. “Oh, no more than two. Nice dress, he said. Nice dress. He barely cared.”
“I’m sure he was just nervous too.”
“Talking like I was hardly worth anything.”
“You know he talks a lot when he’s nervous.”
“No wonder he never popped the question. Probably too busy thinking about his precious Rarity. And his precious Shining Armor in his precious Royal Guard. Nothing for his precious Sassaflash.”
“I think he does care. He was just trying to impress you as well.”
Sassaflash rounded on her so fast that Sea Swirl – despite never once ever receiving so much as a half-hearted slap on the shoulder from even the most infuriated Sassaflash – flinched.
“Oh, is that all you’ve got to say!? Let’s take his side! He was trying! He was just nervous! What about me!? That was supposed to be the best night of my life, and that… that…”
Her eyes watered trying to express a word vile enough to corrupt her tongue against him. Her lips struggled just to express the sheer enormity of it.
They were helpless in the face of Sea Swirl’s endless patience.
All the fight in Sassaflash ebbed away. She collapsed, but carefully as if she were a fainting actress, so that her head rested on Sea Swirl’s lap and Sea Swirl could begin the gentle process of stroking her mane until it looked sane again.
As if it were nothing more innocent than a surprising little water beetle, Sea Swirl plucked the fragile thought out of her own calming mind.
“You thought he was going to propose,” she said simply.
Sassaflash was tough, so the sob that broke out didn’t last long, despite the power of the single bursting bubble.
“It’s been years,” she whined. “And all the fancy stuff he was preparing for me… Why is he taking so long about it?”
“It’s a very important decision,” Sea Swirl said. “Maybe it’s a good thing he’s taking his time over it. There’s a lot to think about.”
Another sob had to be wrestled back down Sassaflash’s throat. “It’s me! I’m doing something wrong, aren’t I? It really is me, isn’t it?”
“You did throw a plate at him.” Sea Swirl wished she could say something more neutral, but she’d long since figured out that Sassaflash preferred straight talk over workarounds.
Every jolt of every attempted sob rubbed against Sea Swirl’s stomach. She knew she shouldn’t watch this, and burned just realizing how close the two of them were, but nothing short of the most powerful magic would have dislodged her.
“He just wouldn’t stop talking,” breathed Sassaflash through the pain. “I thought he was going to dump me for Rarity. He just wouldn’t stop talking about her.”
Sea Swirl kept stroking her friend’s mane. Patience, patience was time, and time was healing.
“He’s right…” groaned Sassaflash in her own misery. “I’m the crazy nutcase. Just… just leave me alone, Sea Swirl.”
Sea Swirl stopped stroking her friend’s mane. The very idea paralyzed her.
“Leave you alone?” she repeated in shock.
“Yes! Don’t waste your time on me. Go, go do something fun. Go on. Go bowling again, or, or talk to your goldfish.”
“OK… but I’ll only leave if you want me to.”
“Yes! I want you to! Now go!”
Doubtful, Sea Swirl slid away so that she’d disturb Sassaflash’s head as minimally as possible. Then she got halfway to the door before –
Sassaflash’s defeated voice. Sea Swirl’s unwavering obedience.
Sea Swirl stayed.
Sea Swirl got the message and went back to her. She simply picked up where she left off.
“My life,” said Sassaflash in despair, “is such a mess.”
“I know the feeling,” admitted Sea Swirl, without thinking.
Sassaflash blinked and looked up as if Sea Swirl had just materialized out of thin air. “You too?”
“Mm,” said Sea Swirl. She hoped Sassaflash didn’t probe any further.
Yet, as she always did after a session like this, Sassaflash appeared completely stunned by Sea Swirl’s input. Instead of going any deeper into it, she just reached up and patted her friend on the forearm.
“Poor Sea Swirl,” was all she’d say. “I didn’t think about you. I’m such an idiot. What the hay must you think of me?”
If only you knew, sighed Sea Swirl’s heart.
“You were just nervous,” she said. “At least you’re getting better.”
“No, I wish I was.” Sassaflash smiled, damply. “How come you’re still here after all the rubbish I’ve put you through?”
Sea Swirl didn’t know. The idea of not being here was simply unthinkable.
“I just know you,” she said.
Sassaflash didn’t say anything for the longest time. She seemed to be thinking about something that troubled her, judging from the grim set of her mouth, her faraway eyes, her delicate breathing.
“Mm? I’m listening.”
“Do you… have a special somepony in your life?”
Sea Swirl shook her head. Sassaflash widened her eyes in surprise.
“Oh.” Then after another sinking thought, she added, “Sea Swirl?”
Two lives leaned in closer. History seemed to be in the making, however modest and personal that history might be.
Then, Sassaflash said: “What am I going to do?”
The moment passed. Sea Swirl opened her mouth to grab it, but then waited and watched until she felt her senses had come out of hiding again. Most other ponies came to their senses: Sea Swirl just waited for them to come to her.
No need to complicate things even more than they already were. Sassaflash needed her help. Her trust. That was all there was to it.
“Say sorry to him?” she suggested.
“He won’t take me back. Not after this.”
“I’m sure he will.”
“I don’t deserve him!”
“Now, now, no need to talk like that. This was all just a big misunderstanding. I remember someone telling me once that you can’t always stop making mistakes, but you can always learn from them.”
“Really?” A spark of hope in each eye. “Who?”
Sea Swirl paused to think.
Eventually, she said, “I have no idea.”
“Oh, Sea Swirl.” But there it was: the faint note of cheer that said Sassaflash enjoyed her friend’s little oddities. She relaxed again, and Sea Swirl felt the weight soften on her lap. “I feel so complete when you’re around. It’s weird. It’s like I’ve spent most of my life half-done, and then you came into it and it all… fits.”
Another breathless moment of deep history. The river of life could be diverted to brave new lands by a few simple words…
“Yeah?” The sheer calm in that voice. The confidence. The peace.
…and Sea Swirl couldn’t do it. She never could. She patiently let the moment pass.
Sassaflash needed her trust. Nothing would stop that. Nothing.
“Just trying to be a good friend,” was what Sea Swirl said in the end.
Sassaflash sank into the warm bath of inner contentment. Cold and dry as she was by comparison, Sea Swirl couldn’t feel at all bitter about that. There was something precious here she didn’t want to disturb.
They stayed together in silence for several minutes. It was the closest Sassaflash would ever get to living in Sea Swirl’s ethereal world.
Then Sassaflash got restless, got up, and shook her stiff limbs down.
“Well! I’m restless!” she declared a smidgeon too loudly to be natural. “Want some breakfast? No point in it going to waste.”
As always, Sea Swirl had three eggs and a hunk of tofu marinaded in baked beans. She didn’t actually feel hungry, but letting Sassaflash take the reins and help someone else at the same time was what kept her happy.
A happily ever after.
There would be one, for Sassaflash.
Sea Swirl hadn’t enjoyed much of a literary education and remembered even less, but she’d always liked the idea of a fairy-tale damsel princess girl getting a happily ever after. It was the least the poor thing needed, after all that terrible business with the dragon and whatnot.
She knew the knight and/or prince was involved somewhere, but it was the princess who usually got all of Sea Swirl’s attention.
And having given Caramel a day to recover (or to stew in his own terror, if she was honest with herself: she hated seeing Sassaflash upset), she was now heading over to meet him at his home.
She practised her smile on the way. As the famous Trottingham Field Marshal’s old saying went before he threw himself once more unto the breach: Start with a smile, and just get it all over with.
She was going to help Caramel. For Sassaflash.
Although… not just for Sassaflash. Caramel himself had potential, even if Sea Swirl would rather dip her head in a boiling kettle than admit it.
In him, she also saw herself: someone lost in the world, who needed nothing worse than a little guidance and patience of his own.
Although… on her walk or vague meander there, she also felt she would rather not try to tell anyone how to kiss and make up. It would be like telling Sassaflash and Caramel in intimate detail how to express their love for each other – and she really didn’t want to think about that.
Thank goodness her floaty mind wasn’t much good at thinking.
At Caramel’s front door, she waited for her better nature to drift into position, raised a hoof to knock, and immediately met Caramel’s face coming the other way.
Caramel jumped back with a yelp.
“Oh, good grief!” he yapped. Then he saw who it was and wound down. “Whoa, you’re good! I was just coming to find you.”
“Um, you were?”
“I need your help. Come in, come in!”
Surprisingly, Sea Swirl was used to things catching her off-guard. She recovered not so much quickly as inevitably, and followed him inside.
“What do you think?” said Caramel.
She’d barely understood the question before he held up something gold and blue. In some strange respect – possibly due to the sheen of the fabric, possibly due to the little snake thing on top – she thought the thing had an ancient civilizations look about it.
“Um,” she said.
“It’s a Queen Cleopatrot costume. See, this bit’s the headdress – with the uraeus on it, that was the Ancient Somnambulan symbol of royalty – and this bit’s the robe, and… well, OK, I had to look up that much in a glossary. The point is, well, what do you think?”
Sea Swirl thought it best at this point to shut the door behind her. She vaguely remembered Sassaflash talking about Ancient Somnambula, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember where and when, or for that matter why.
“Sassaflash said,” continued Caramel, “she would like one for Nightmare Night. I was thinking… well, what with one thing and another… after what happened yesterday… not that… but… Well, what do you think?”
Inspiration hove into view within Sea Swirl’s head. A Cleopatrot costume? For Sassaflash? Impressive initiative for him. Normally, he struggled to arrange his own Nightmare Night. Come to think of it, she never remembered seeing him at any…
Stung by her lack of response, he dropped the costume and hurried into his kitchen. By the time it occurred to her to maybe follow him, she shot back as he hauled a keg into the hall.
“Or she likes cider. Ciders of all kinds. I’ve got a keg left over from Pinkie Pie’s previous party, but I could always buy a new keg if she wants some other flavour.”
Clueless, Sea Swirl realized. Flailing about, utterly clueless.
Part of her leered at him, but where he couldn’t see it.
“I think –” she began. She would have continued – that you’re thinking along the wrong lines.
“Or maybe I should book that restaurant again!” He leapt on the lifebelt suggestion, grimmer than death. “I don’t care if I have to save up for another month! I’ll do it! I mean it!” he added, more to convince himself than her, or so it seemed from his horrified wide eyes.
This was all spitefully fun to watch, but Sea Swirl had a purpose to honour.
She waved him down until he settled from panic to mere apprehensiveness, and only then did she try speaking again.
“No, no, no,” she murmured. “You’re thinking Canterlot thoughts there. Not Sassaflash.”
She stopped to check the grammar.
“Thoughts,” she threw in. “There,” she added.
“But I am thinking about her! I must make it up to her! How else can I say sorry for all that… stuff I did wrong?” Somehow, failing to understand what precisely he’d done wrong caused him more agony than any specific crime. He probably felt he could have done any number of things wrong. He knew himself too well.
A rare bit of pity: Sea Swirl buoyed herself up on it. After all, they had more in common than she was giving him credit for.
“I mean,” she murmured, “think what you like about Sassaflash. And what you like about her that she likes about herself too. Something that makes her feel special…?”
Caramel screwed up his face as most would screw up a piece of paper after too much brainstorming. He paced up and down, talking as he went.
“You’d think I’d be better at this,” he confessed. “I come from a long line of married ponies, for pity’s sake! We’re experts at getting married! What on earth would they say, if they knew I was the first one to mess up a simple…?”
Once more, Sea Swirl’s mind bounced off a new topic and simply drifted along another eddy. He was talking about the Apple clan.
Caramel was one of many branches in the Apple tree, which itself was more like a thicket. Of course he’d be obsessed with relatives. Apple ponies were obsessed with relatives. It was an earth pony kinship thing. It always bothered him not just that he didn’t have an actual “Apple” in his name, but that he seemed inordinately bad at everything they were supposed to be good at. Merely planting an apple seed was a Rockhoofian task for someone as scatter-brained as him.
On a mad impulse, he rounded on her. “How did your parents end up married?”
Sea Swirl bounced off the sudden obstruction and drifted off course again. “Um…”
“How did mine? Sassaflash’s? Anyone’s? Honestly, I’m willing to try anything at this point!”
And Sea Swirl found herself wondering if Sassaflash had ever seen him like this. Or even if she’d seen in him something of her own jumpy emotions.
Nonetheless, he was getting nowhere and getting there faster and faster by the minute. Sea Swirl swung her muscles and propelled her concentration back on course like a determined giant squid.
“No, no, no,” she said – Caramel stopped pacing and started paying enough attention to put her off a bit before she continued. “Her lightning cutie mark.”
Caramel opened his mouth, then thought better of it and waited for Sea Swirl’s thoughts to turn up. Then decided he couldn’t wait that long.
“You mean… I could hire some weather ponies? Get a lightning show up? That might impress her –”
“Noooooo,” rumbled Sea Swirl.
“Ah, I gotcha. Write her name in the sky with some big lightning clouds, and then light them up!”
“No, Caramel!” A flash of imagination startled her. “Though that’s a really good idea.”
“Then what? How am I supposed to impress her?”
“Not impress her. Help her feel loved.”
“Help her –?” Crestfallen as a chastised child, he fell silent. He clearly hadn’t thought of it like that, and just as clearly wished he had. Pleading, he peered at her very lips. At last, he was learning patience.
So she told him what to do.
When she’d finished, he hung his head.
“All right.” He cleared his throat. “I suppose I ought to tell you. The night before last, when we were at that restaurant, I knew deep in my bones I was doing something wrong.”
Happy to let him summon the words he needed, she inclined herself forwards in what she hoped was an encouraging way and let him take his time.
His voice shook a bit at his own daring. “I was trying to propose, honest I was, but I… I lost my nerve. It just didn’t seem right somehow. I couldn’t get it wrong. Not for something like that. So I just babbled. Endlessly.”
Sea Swirl’s inner critic sneered at him.
“I’m the stupidest stallion in Equestria.”
Her inner critic laughed at him.
“But are you sure this’ll work?”
Her inner critic did a lot of things, but she suddenly flung the horrible little ponunculus aside and from the trenches of her soul, from where the mind imprisoned the ancient abominations of grand, unfathomable intensity, there rose up everything Sea Swirl had spent years defying.
“I AM.” She spoke with the voice of elder gods.
Caramel flung himself backwards. This was a side of Sea Swirl he’d never seen before. But then, she hadn’t been this roused before.
When the words rise up from the deep, they can be greater and more terrible than the mind of ponydom would ever be willing to comprehend.
“And this time,” declared Sea Swirl, her master’s voice, “I’ll help you to make sure it all goes…”
Then she stopped. And she smiled.
For the first and hopefully the last time, Caramel gazed upon the Sea Swirl Ponydom Was Not Meant To Know.
“S-Sea Swirl,” he stammered in awe. “Can-Can you be my best stallion?”
The incomprehensibility of Sea Swirls lay above and beyond him, but only his own stupidity could bring him back to familiar reality.
“Drat, that came out wrong! That is… Is there such a thing as a best mare?”
“Bridesmaid,” corrected Sea Swirl; she’d looked up all the details long ago. “I suppose I could be chief bridesmaid, or the maid of honour.”
“Yes, yes, either one’s fine by me!”
She didn’t have the heart to tell him they were one and the same. Or she did, but she was keeping that particular heart submerged. She had lots of hearts to go around as it was.
So when he started shaking at his own daring, Sea Swirl stepped forwards and smoothed down his shoulder until he at least shook less.
“If it helps,” she said, “we can take our time getting to the wedding itself.”
Gratitude sagged at his knees. “No rush, no rush! Lots of time to prepare for the big day. I want to make it perfect for Sassaflash. Anyway, you like to take your time with things.”
Rage bubbled through Sea Swirl… until she wondered if it had been meant as an insult at all.
“I don’t know how you do it,” he continued, totally oblivious. “You always look so relaxed and calm. You’re like one of those eye things in a hurricane of madness.”
If only you knew, sighed Sea Swirl’s heart.
What? said another thought sharply.
“Th-Thank you,” she stammered, despite the slap of déjà vu over her brain like a fighting swordfish.
“Well,” said Caramel, always running back to his safe word.
Sea Swirl blinked the thoughts down. “It’s nothing. I just take time to understand things. Like… have you ever realized how much life is like an ocean?”
“Like, it looks like nothing much is going on, but really it’s so mind-boggling. And big. Bigger than big. And there’s currents you can’t see, but they’re all over the place pushing you around. And it’s full of all sorts of strange things. Like, really strange things. Like, stranger things than the strangest things you can imagine…”
She looked at his helpless face, and realized for the first time – not merely wondered, but full-bloodedly realized – that she was truly on her own.
“Never mind,” she mumbled.
“Well, that is something to think about, I suppose. Maybe later. Well, well, well. But seriously! Thank you very much for coming, Sea Swirl. This has been an eye-opener for me, it really has…”
Time sank further into the past.
Leaving soon after, only then – with the echoes of his endless thanks ricocheting off the inside of her skull – did Sea Swirl realize one thing: that Caramel had never once tried to justify himself for what had happened.
Even Sea Swirl had to admit, deep down, that she’d rarely seen Sassaflash do better.
Then again, she’d seen both of them do worse, long ago. Every day, in every way, they got better and better.
She would help him further. She would help them both. All the way –
“Whoops! Sorry!” Sea Swirl had to jolt herself awake to keep herself from walking into houses and other ponies.
Perhaps, in her own way, Sassaflash was being patient with Caramel too, though she had a funny way of showing it. She tried her best. Lots of ponies, it seemed to Sea Swirl, were trying their best.
There would be a happily ever after. For Sassaflash. And, she supposed, for Caramel.
She’d spent years helping them find one. Taking her time, perhaps, but she was trying her best too.
Despite her own feelings on the matter, she wouldn’t stop now.
That had all been one week ago, and Sea Swirl now sat at a table in the bar adjoining the bowling alley. She had been there every day since.
Empty plates and drained cups surrounded her. She was miserable. She’d hoped she could eat and drink her troubles away. Now she was miserable and had a tummy-ache.
The crash of pins and the whoop of winners happened a long way off. Then someone stepped up to her and she managed, after some effort, to tear her gaze away from the uninteresting coffee stains on the table top, then to crane her head up and focus on the blobby unicorn before her who, on closer focus, turned out to be Allie Way.
“Hey, Sea Swirl,” said Allie Way, cautious as a diver approaching a sleepy shark.
Sea Swirl groaned in acknowledgement. “Hi,” managed to croak out of her larynx.
“Anything I can do?”
“If you ever want a game, or just a nice lunch break… I mean, at a later date?”
Allie Way turned, hearing someone call over to her. Most likely a couple who found themselves one short and didn’t mind getting a shared drubbing together.
Pressed for time, she threw a pitying grimace at Sea Swirl as a generous soul might toss a couple of bits to a passing beggar. “Sorry it didn’t work out. For what it matters, I was in your corner.”
Sea Swirl’s smile gave up halfway.
Allie Way patted her on the back. Losing or not, she’d back her home team.
“Take care of yourself, girl,” she said, and then higher purposes – or other purposes – called and she left to answer them.
Ache was her only companion. It was certainly the most persistent. Sea Swirl ordered another drink – on the grounds that, if she made herself ill, she probably wouldn’t notice anyway.
Sassaflash and Caramel did not apologize easily. Or in front of Sea Swirl: she herself could only stomach so much embarrassment. She only knew they’d done it at all because they went around with furiously red faces for most of the next day.
Sea Swirl knew how it would likely have gone down anyway. She’d known them for years. Caramel would go over and offer to help Sassaflash clean up the kitchen and the bits of broken plate. Sassaflash would beat him to it, and offer to pay for their next meal together, and he’d be too stumped and self-conscious to say no. And they’d probably dissolve at this point into lovey-dovey talk, and she’d chide him for talking such rot, and then they’d kiss, and frankly Sea Swirl was glad she wasn’t around to see what happened next.
One month passed.
They were going to have dinner together. At a very nice place Sassaflash loved, on Sea Swirl’s recommendation. The Hay Burger in Ponyville town.
Why not? Sassaflash used to go there as a child when her parents took her travelling out of Cloudsdale. She liked going there. Lots of happy memories, lots of friends met, lots of simple food she understood and could pronounce the names of.
They managed to get a table outside, officially because Caramel had reserved them, unofficially because Sea Swirl had. She could be startlingly organized once she had set her big, ponderous mind to it, like the surge of a cruiser that had figured out its navigation charts.
This time, Sea Swirl spied on them from the nearby bushes. She wanted to oversee everything.
Caramel talked, nervously. Sassaflash laughed and said things at the top of her voice like, “Oh, Caramel!” Like the way she talked to Sea Swirl.
Then his face flashed in panic, and Sea Swirl noticed he’d forgotten to go and light the fuse to set off the lightning fireworks, which would set off the cloud message and – if luck was on their side – jolt him into action.
She lit the fuse, remotely.
She set off the lightning fireworks.
They thus set off the cloud message.
And Sea Swirl found that luck was on the couple’s side after all, because Caramel jolted on his seat and leaped into action, nearly knocking Sassaflash off her startled chair.
Then he kneeled down. From under the table – where Sea Swirl had planted it earlier – he took out a small, velvet case.
It was about the right size for a ring.
To Caramel’s credit, he’d met with Sea Swirl well in advance and picked out the ring for himself. She’d been impressed by his choice: a lightning diamond, a ring perfectly matched for Sassaflash’s lightning cutie mark.
Even from the bushes, Sea Swirl heard her gasp.
She heard everything that happened next. Her ears became sharper than the bladed fins of a flying fish, quick and alert and imminently flying right into the waiting mouth of doom.
“Sassaflash,” announced Caramel, and such was the moment that Sea Swirl was impressed he barely sounded rehearsed.
The sparkling ring dazzled Sea Swirl twice over: once from the light of the diamond lightning bolt, and twice from the reflection sparkling in each of Sassaflash’s eyes.
“Sassaflash,” announced Caramel again, having lost his thread. “Will you be my empress, my queen, my…?” He checked his sleeve. “Drat, I can’t read that bit. Well, the point is: S-Sassaflash, well, will you –?”
“YES!” She tackled him so hard that he fell out of his chair.
Sea Swirl heard the birth of destructive fireworks up above, and behind the smile – the tears of joy – part of her wept from fresh, burning wounds.
She had done it. Now she needed time on her own. She needed a lot of it. Time, they said, would heal all wounds eventually.
Like a mighty whale of the ocean – her song of sadness sung, her lungs refreshed, her unfathomable majesty merely tantalizing the surface with her secrets – Sea Swirl curled round upon herself, set a new course in the vast blueness of her life, and slid, once more, out of sight, down, down, down… down into the mysterious, untouchable depths.