"Whew! Sure glad it's Friday.", I say. The sweat on my forehead leaves tiny blue puddles on the white pavement below.
"You're telling me, Flash.", one of my coworkers says as he walks along the employee exit area with me. "Those were some big projects we had going on this week."
"Oh boy, were they big.", I say as I rub a hoof across my forehead, flashing back through these last five days and all of the ever-ambitious projects they entailed. We worked with stormcloud size, lightning bolt shapes, and preparation for the next water tornado to Cloudsdale; all among the most strenuous and complicated projects, according to the ranking team.
Yeah, this week easily ranked #1 for the most busy in my career as part of the Ponyville Weather Team.
"This week has gotten me to consider going ahead and using my vacation time now.", my coworker says.
"I'd love a vacation.", I say, smiling.
"You know, it has been a while since I've taken one of those.", I continue.
And now that I think about it, my mouth is totally watering at the idea of me doing so. Lounging on a hotel balcony overlooking the yellow sunset, or sipping on a cup of pink lemonade at the pool, or, best of all, doing some bonding; I would love a vacation.
"I mean, I don't feel like I need to take a vacation now, but it is summer, and I'd like to go in summer.", I say.
"Me too.", my coworker says. "When I get home, I'll consider going next week. Enjoy your weekend!" He breaks off to the right, whereas I head left. The sticking-out white cloud with the wooden arrow reading "Ponyville" that points downward showing itself in my field of vision; right there marks the start of my post-work time of day. My wings unravel and fluff up for takeoff. Back to my Ponyville home.
Hi there. I'm Sassaflash. Don't know me? Well, I don't blame you. I am only a background pony, after all. But I hope you'll enjoy this instance of background pony spotlight! For as long as this story lasts, you'll primarily be listening to me.
For reference, I'm a mare with a bluish-green, or "aquamarine" coat, pale yellow mane, and two lightning bolts for my cutie mark.
Yes, you read those other parts of the text correctly. I work in Cloudsdale; I'm part of the famous weather team. But I live in Ponyville. That's where my only house is.
You're right; it is quite the commute. I'd say it adds a combined full hour to my work day. But for me, it's worth the joy of residing in that beautiful, sweet town full of love and friendship. The town that I can now see as I fly down, just inviting me to make my routine return.
My hooves land on the soft green grass, and they're going to spend some time walking across it. That's what I like to do on Fridays; rather than heading straight for home, I celebrate the start of my weekend by checking up on what's poppin' in Ponyville, often finding myself at a restaurant for dinner in the process.
On this particular day, while nonchalantly walking around under the yellow glow of the lowering sun, bearing little or no thought to where exactly I'm going, beyond the aisle boundaries of our local (outdoor) grocery store is where I am met with a... a rare sighting, let's put it that way.
There's a closely-bunched-together crowd of ponies leaning in and locking their eyes on a large brown board lined with white papers, and one specific white paper in particular.
"Hi everypony! What's going on?", I chime in with.
A majority of them turn their heads towards me. One mare answers my question: "We're looking at this flyer that's about a human who wants some of us ponies to go on a vacation with him. See for yourself!" The mare takes a few steps backwards, clearing room for me, and I walk up to take a close read at what all the hype is about.
presents to you the
Human's Trial Friendship Trip
I, your local human in Equestria, would proudly like to go on a vacation, or roadtrip, whatever you want to call it, with ponies who are currently strangers to me.
Yes, really. I want to do this as a friendship experiment, of sorts. I want to test out how and if a great, heartfelt friendship can come into being through unconventional paths.
The path I have much interest in, is to jump straight into going on a full-fledged vacation with you. Vacation, as in what you think when you hear that word.
Requirements? Well, not much. I mean, you must be somepony whom I've never met before, because, well, that's the purpose of this trip. You can have heard of me or seen me before, I'm sure everypony in town has by now, but simply knowing about me doesn't mean you know me or are acquainted with me, and that's the criteria I'm using. If I am a stranger to you, you can sign up!
Don't worry, when it comes to things like vacation sites, budgets, and such, we will work that out if you are chosen and I invite you to a pre-takeoff in-person meeting with me.
How to sign up: There are lines at the bottom of this page. Sign your name and home address, so that if you are chosen, I can send a letter to you.
By the way, if you would like to bring another pony along with you, or more than one, I'd love that! I'm actually hoping that I get to do this with more than one pony.
Note that if you are bringing others with you, they do not need to sign up themselves as well. All guests are included as part of your package. If two ponies sign up separately, I will assume that they are not going together. Please keep this in mind.
Maximum of 25 sign-ups. When this list is full, I will collect it and make my final decision.
I look forward to having you tag along with me, in meeting me for the first time, on an awesome vacation!
See you then,
Hmm!, I think internally. Well, I sure haven't met Player 4 before!
Nor have I even seen him, in fact! All that I know about him comes from what other ponies have gathered. So that means I qualify for this trip. And... I like it! It does sound interesting to me! Meeting someone for the first time through going straight on a full-fledged trip with them; yeah! It sounds fun, a new and unique experience! Plus, it's a vacation!
I look at the bottom of the paper and notice that only four of the 25 slots have black ink lining them. Yes. I'm definitely going to sign up.
I grab hold of the black pen hanging from the board by a chain, and write "Sassaflash" in slot #5. I also write down my address, just as P4 requested.
...And done. Hanging up the pen, I could beam with excitement, scenes of me having fun at a tropical hotel while bonding with Player 4 overtaking my head, but instead... I begin to go about my evening as if it was just any other evening.
And I have a reason for that. My thought process goes "Well, think of how many other ponies are going to sign up here. What are the chances he'll pick you?"
So I don't think much of it. I just head home, make some chili, enjoy it while reading a book, and throughout the weekend, I simply do more ordinary Sassaflash things, like practicing my flying and hanging out with some friends.
The next Monday, I make a scheduled return to work (where that coworker from earlier had also decided to stay for this week), then just go about everything else that I normally do at work (usually preparing thunderstorms), and my life in general, with very little thought about the trial friendship trip. It's near-completely absent from my mind field.
It's a sunny late morning on a Saturday, the landscape chirping with birds. I'm spending my day off just chilling out with a good book. The time had come for me to be by myself, immersed into another world.
I reach the end of a chapter, and it pops into my head that I should probably check my mailbox. I heard the mail pony arrive hours ago, but didn't bother at the time, as I wanted to continue reading my book.
This time, I slide in a bookmark, close the pages, hop off the couch, and open my front door to the heat of this July day. I open my dark-blue mailbox, and inside is a row of white envelopes, as well as... one yellow envelope?
Okay, so that's kind of weird. I have an outlier here. My mail doesn't usually feature that; I'm used to seeing entirely white.
Returning inside and back to my couch, I take a quick look at the front sides of each envelope in the random order I scooped them up in. Not opening any of the white ones yet, I eventually get down the stack and uncover the lone yellow envelope.
Which... there's something else about it. In the center, it's stamped with a bold, yellow number 4 encased in a white circle.
I nearly gasp and my heart picks up speed. Could this be from Player 4? I mean, who else would use a stamp like that?
Wanting to savor the moment, after a few seconds I slowly let my eyes look at the the left corner, and... yep, the sticker says it's from Player 4!
My heartbeat pumps up to max speed and I pant like a dog from the anticipation. Could it be?
Now eager to just get into it, I crack the triangle open, lift it up, pull out the white paper inside, and unfold it. Here come the results!
Congratulations! I am very proud to announce that I have selected you as my travel buddy for the Human's Trial Friendship Trip!
Meet me at the lounge chair area of Ponyville Park at 12:00 tomorrow, and we shall make all further discussions!
If you are not available at that time, no worries! Simply let me know through a letter and we will work out a different time!
If you are bringing any friends along, please let them know about this selection as soon as possible! I would also like to have them in the park meeting as well!
Greatly looking forward to spending time with you,
That first sentence... I just couldn't. I couldn't believe my eyes. I had real resistance to believing that I was reading it correctly; that I wasn't about to get excited because of a misread. That out of all the ponies who signed up for this trip, he chose me? He actually chose me? I'm the one he wants?
Yep, I double-checked it more than enough times. He did. What were the chances? I just... like, wow!
I do manage to hold my breath and read the rest of the letter before having an... outburst. Park meeting tomorrow at noon; yeah, I'm available for that! Bringing any friends along...
Oh, shoot! I only just realize now that I hadn't thought of that yet! Well, looks like it's time!
Hmm... I'd love to bring Sea Swirl, but she's already going on a trip of her own.
Parasol, then? She is my second-best friend...
Sure. I'll ask her.
I prepare to head straight over to Parasol's house to share the great news and ask her if she wants to come along... well, after the reality truly hits me and I take some time to run and jump around the house squealing.
Okay, maybe I wasn't bouncing off the walls and almost breaking glass with my squeals anymore. (I checked them all.) But I am outwardly ectastic enough to be borderline stared at by the ponies around me as I skip my way over to Parasol's house.
And I don't care about the stares. I get to go on a vacation! Think of the places we'll go! The activities we'll do! The things we'll eat! The bonding we'll do! Ooh, will Player 4 want to stay at a hotel? Does he like going to restaurants? Does he like waterparks? I'll ask him, for sure!
It feels so, so awesome to know that out of all those choices, he went with me! Why did he? Well, there has to be a reason! I may not know it exactly, but it feels good, let me tell you. Not only is it heartwarming to be selected, but the fact that I'm being invited to go on a trip... Eee!
I hop my final skip and reach the front door of the building at which my friend resides in, and give it the knock of truth. The knock that should open my path to asking Parasol if she will go on this trip. Which will then lead to an answer. What will it be? Will she go or will she not? Only one way to find out!
As if my emotional state wasn't enough, I get hit by another burst of happiness from the other side. Parasol peeks through the crack, then flings it open the rest of the way with a loud, high-pitched "Sassaflash, my friend! What brings you here?!" along with a light jump.
"I am here to ask you about something super fun, Parasol!" I say, leaning my head in.
Unfortunately, I can't let the burst come. I must sigh and release the tension. "It's a lot to explain. That's why it will take a sit-down-and-talk."
I know Parasol thought I was about to explode. Hehe. She says with a giggle, "Okay. I can make tea if you want."
"Be my guest." I say.
So here we are, sitting on Parasol's soft plush chairs with hot mugs of fresh tea at our hooves' reach. Perfect moment to relish in, for sure, but I've got something quite a bit more exciting to go on about.
"Alright, I shall explain." I begin, clamping my front hooves together. "So, somewhere in Ponyville about a week ago, there was a flyer posted on a board. A flyer that I took notice to because tons of other ponies were staring at it. I took a look myself, and Parasol, you won't believe how amazing it is."
I must take a deep breath. There's still a lot to explain; can't squeal it out.
"It's an advertisement from the local human, Player 4, for ponies he has never met before, who are strangers to him, to go on a vacation with him. Like, just jumping straight into something like that, as a test to see if a friendship can develop that way."
Parasol doesn't say a word. Looks like I need to clarify some things.
"Ultimately, it's just like any other vacation, though. Like, think of what comes into your head when you hear that word. Player 4 clarifies this in the document; the only thing different is the bond level of the participants, and the fact that they're using that as a test."
"You're not creeped out, are you?"
"No! I'm stunned in silence because of how cool that sounds! How brilliant of an idea it is! And because I wonder why you're here telling me about it!" she says.
Ah-ha! Now I get to give her the same reaction I had!
"That's great to hear you like it, and I am here because... Player 4 said on the paper that any guests are included as part of the package... and that he would like if I brought a friend."
"Oh, shoot! Did I just say 'if I brought a friend?' Well, I guess now's the time! Out of multiple sign-ups for the trip, I am the one whom Player 4 selected."
Parasol sets down her tea mug and leans in with her forelegs out wide.
"Eee! Congratulations, Flash!" she says, hugging me tight.
My heart warms; I even blush a bit. As if it didn't already feel good to be selected, I now was receiving a congratulations from a dear friend for it. I just love everything right now. This might be my best day ever so far.
"So," - Parasol says as she pulls away - "the point that I feel like you're trying to get at is that you want me to come on this trip with you."
Oh! She connected the dots!
"Yep. With Sea Swirl being away on vacation herself, you're my pick, Parasol."
Here comes another hug; Parasol's body is in the same lean-in as before.
"I'd be honored, Sassaflash." she says, rubbing my back lightly.
Yay for friendship! And for her coming with me! This. is. going. to. be. amazing!
Ponyville Park is our current location now, and a certain seating area in the park is the destination in our sights. An off-path arrangement of three white wooden lawn chairs placed in front of a fire pit and another white chair looking towards it; Parasol and I call that spot out as the perfect place to hold this vacation interview with Player 4.
"I wonder what Player 4 will think of us." Parasol says as she takes the chair on the right side of me.
"I mean, that's part of the purpose of this trip, isn't it?" I say.
Parasol lightly shrugs. "Yeah, you're right. I keep forgetting the trial aspect."
I can't blame her. This isn't like most other vacations.
Soon enough, our ears perk at the sound of rhythmic grass-crunching that characteristically signals human feet. Us ponies, with four legs, have a more "numerous" sound when we walk. Stepping that you could align to a metronome comes from a bipedal creature, and in this case, it's far too loud to be Spike.
Yep, this must be him.
A male human sporting a yellow baseball cap on his head, black sunglasses, an identically-yellow T-shirt, and white shorts emerges into our view from the left, and turns his direction to the chair circle, facing right towards the two of us.
"Hey, ponies!" he says with a bright and cheery tone. Oh yes. "I'm Player 4!"
Parasol and I look at each other. There we have it! Let's do this!
Player 4 sits in the chair across. Looks like he recognized our arrangement; good. "So, this might be awkward. I understand." he assures. "We are strangers going on a vacation, after all, so it was likely to be built-in."
Huh. The way he speaks those sentences. Does he like to emphasize details? That's what I hear. Not to mention that metaphor at the end...
Either way, Parasol and I just nod, so P4 continues the speaking. "Well, to start off, how about we introduce ourselves a bit?"
Being the main selection of this trip, I feel it's my duty to go first. "I'm Sassaflash." I say, smiling.
"And I'm Parasol. A friend of hers." Parasol says as she points to me.
"Yeah, I've heard of you two before!" P4 says, smiling and pointing to the both of us. "It turns out, I have always wanted to meet you. And I do remember being told once that you and Parasol were friends, by somepony else."
Not surprising, if I do say so. This is the capital of friendship we're in, after all. Details on who pairs with who do tend to get spread around town.
But in any case, P4's words only give me another burst of heartwarm. And Parasol does the expression of that for me before I can get to it, me being focused on my internal thoughts.
"Well, it's an honor that you wanted to meet us, Player 4." I can see a bit of blush on Parasol's face.
"Happy to be here." Four responds. "I know this is going to be awesome. So, what should this vacation be, exactly? Like, where do we go?"
Hmm. Player 4 seems to swiftly end a topic when he knows he wants to go to another one.
As for what he's asking, well, he's in luck.
"I do happen to have a suggestion." I quickly note. "There's a place in Equestria called 'Sunray Bay', which is a city, ponies do live there, but it is mostly known as a really good vacation site. They're at the coastline, so there's beaches; they have lots of hotels that have really good things to do inside of them; they have amazing shopping malls, restaurants, like, places we could take you. And it is summer right now."
"Sounds good!" Player 4 says, giving a thumbs-up. "I mean, you're the Equestria native; you must know about this stuff."
"And then, with that in mind", P4 continues, "I was thinking that I could also take you to my homeland. As in, we go back to Earth, to the town that I live in, where... what I wanted to do was have the two of you stay with me at my house. I like having guests over there."
"Like, I felt like it would be cool if we did a swap of who is the 'local.' You two take me to a place in Equestria that you know and love, and thus, you get to be my guide. And then later, we do a second part of the trip where I'm the local. Where I'm the one guiding you around the place and such."
Hmm. I see! So, staying in his house; I... would prefer a hotel, but hey, we can do that on the first segment, where we're at Sunray Bay. I guess it's only fair that he gets to pick the vacation site on his side of the trip.
And the "swap of the locals" thing; yeah! I can get behind that!
"Sure! Why not do that?" Parasol says. "I mean, it would mean more vacation!"
"Sure would." I say. "So, yeah P4, we can do the swap."
"Great!" he excitedly says, pumping up a fist. Aww, that makes me happy too.
"So, I think we should start with your side." he continues. "Like you said, you take me to Sunray Bay. I do want to do that first."
"And then when that's done, we take a trip over to Earth and my house, where then, I'll also take you to a vacation site I really like!"
I find myself shaking in my chair, brewing more excitement at that last part, only to then remember--
"B-but you said you wanted us to stay at your house." Parasol says for me.
"Oh. Oh, yeah; I forgot about something." P4 says. "What I want to do on my side of the trip is start with us staying at my house, but then go to one of my favorite vacation sites. Like, splitting up that segment into sub-segments." He clasps his palms together and spaces them apart.
Hmm. Okay then. Sounds good.
"We can use the time staying at my house to explore my hometown and the various things you can do there, and then use the next part to focus on the vacation site, because it's the type of place where, once you're there, the hotel itself has tons of things to do. Like, you don't ever need to leave the building to have a deep, rich vacation."
Don't ever need to leave the building to have a deep, rich vacation; huh! I wonder what kind of place that could be! A hotel with a big waterpark inside of it, might he be talking about?
"Oh, okay." Parasol says. "Yeah, I like the sound of that!"
"Me too!" I nod.
"Awesome! It will be great!" P4 says.
I really love the way we're on the same page about things here, smiling and getting excited at each other, our plans, and all. This trial is going well already!
"So, would you mind telling us what this desired vacation site of yours is, Player 4?" Parasol asks.
"Oh. Yeah, I'll tell you." Four responds. "It's a place called 'Great Wolf Lodge.' Basically, it's a wilderness-themed hotel with its main attraction being a huge waterpark inside of it. It does have a lot of other activities, like, I know there's a spa there, but the waterpark has always taken up the majority of my time whenever I've gone there, because it's huge, and has so many awesome rides. Like, I almost can't wait to take you two to that waterpark. I really want you to experience it."
Him having said that, believe me when I say that I want to experience it too! I'm now really darn curious about that waterpark. What makes it so fun? What does Great Wolf Lodge look like? What are the other various things can you do there? Ooh, I'm getting excited.
As P4 says, though, that comes later.
"But hold on, that's the second part of the trip. First off, Sunray Bay." he says.
"Yeah! And... do you think we're ready to start packing now?" Parasol asks, leaning in from her chair.
Player 4 shrugs. "There's nothing I can think of that still needs to be said beforehand."
"W-wait." I interject. "What about payment? Who pays for the hotels? How much should we pack; how long is this trip?"
"Oh." both P4 and Parasol say in unison, making us laugh a little. "Yeah, I forgot to discuss length." Four says by himself.
"Well, how long do we want it to be?" he asks. "How much time do you think I should spend in Sunray Bay in order for me to do everything you'd like to see me do?"
I tilt my head back and forth. "I-I would say five to six days if you want to do everything I have in mind. But the thing is, you might not want to leave Sunray Bay. Ponies extending their stays there is quite common, like, over 50% of them do it. So if we want a set date for when we begin part 2, I'd say for Sunray Bay, we book seven days."
"Okay." P4 says. "And then for the other side... I'd be good with four days on the part of you two staying at my house and us exploring the area, but for Great Wolf Lodge, I'd like us to be there longer than that. I'd hope for at least a week. I've never been able to stay there longer than a few days, and it never felt like enough."
Uh, that's weird. Why would a vacation be that short? I've always had mine go for at least a week...
"So, we could estimate the total length of the trip to be about 2 weeks and a half? 18 days?" Parasol says.
"I'd bump that up to 21, given the three days of travel." P4 notes. "You know, the day where we go to Sunray Bay, the day where we go to Earth, and the day we all return home."
"We won't need a full day of travel for Great Wolf Lodge, given that I live really close to it, but yeah, I'd say we'll be making this a three-week vacation. I know, it's long. But that's what happens when we include two different segments of it, and when it's also here for us to get to know each other."
Yeah, he has a point with the travel days. Sunray Bay is about 5 hours away from Ponyville by train. I say P4 is also right about the length of the vacation. 21 days might seem excessive on the surface, but given the unique nature of this vacation, with the trial friendship and two-segment aspects, it makes perfect sense to me.
"I just hope that you two can take 21 days of vacation." P4 says, sounding worried.
"I can." I quickly assure. "That's the maximum I'm allotted, but I'll gladly use all of it on this absolutely wonderful-sounding trip of getting to know a stranger, Player 4."
"Same allotment for me." Parasol says. "In fact, she and I work at the same company, so."
"It's true." I say. "We both work for the Cloudsdale Weather Team. We see each other a lot while we're there."
"Cool!" P4 says. "And Parasol, you haven't used up some of that yearly vacation time already, have you?"
"Nope." Parasol says. "Haven't taken a vacation this year yet."
Player 4 sounds so relieved. "Well, good!"
Not that I'm blaming him, though; like, it's a completely legit worry. He was concerned that we might not be able to have that much vacation time. But rest assured, yes, we can do 21 days. That is the yearly amount given to us by the weather team.
"Is... there anything still left to say?" P4 asks.
I search my mind for any possible lingers. "Nothing I can think of!"
"Same here." Parasol says.
"Great! I guess it's time, then!" Player 4 gets up off his chair. "So, I'll go to my house and start packing; you two do the same. Reminder to pack for 21 days. And if you want, I can make a list for you that should help you not forget anything."
"I would appreciate that." Parasol says.
"Me too." I respond.
"Okay." P4 says. "So, I'll go home and write that list, then how about you both go to Sassaflash's house. Since I know the address, I'll be able to come over and bring the lists to you."
"Sounds good!" I say. "I'll be waiting."
"Yep! See you there!" Parasol says.
This wasn't exactly going to be the most convenient path through this step, with all of Parasol's things being at her house and her having to come to my house first just to wait for the list. I also feel kind of bad for P4, having to travel from house to house that much. But hey, he offered, and we definitely would not want to forget something.
Especially not for a vacation this long. I take a deep breath at that as I walk along the path out of the park. "Sheesh. 21 days. I've never had to pack for that long."
"Well, good thing is, we ponies don't have to wear clothes." Parasol says. "Imagine how much Player 4 will have to pack. How big his suitcase must be."
Whoa. Yeah, I can only imagine. I wouldn't be surprised to see a suitcase almost as big as me. Hehe.
Come to think of it, does Four even have a suitcase? I hope he does, because then he'd have to go to the store to get one, thus leaving and going back to his house again.
Also, won't all three of us need to go to the store anyway, as part of this pre-trip preparation anyway? To get travel food and the like?
Shoot. Now I'm really confused about the timeline of this preparation step. I want to ask P4. But he's already gone.
I guess we'll just wait until he gets to my house.