I stood facing the plinth that no longer supported a statue of a rearing horse. Behind me feminine voices chattered happily; beyond the speakers lay the early-morning bustle of an ordinary, if rather sprawling and well-appointed, high school. In one hand I hefted a high-end bookbag, which clashed oddly with my expensive tailored suit; a patent-leather briefcase was a more fitting accoutrement for my profession and current assignment.
“Cook? Are you okay?” one of the voices asked.
I turned toward the bevy of girls who’d interrupted their conversation to await an answer with expressions mirroring the question. That alone made it easy to give them a small smile. “A diplomat isn’t supposed to admit it, but maybe I am just a bit nervous,” I replied honestly.
Relieved chuckles and giggles greeted this announcement. Princess Twilight Sparkle—who actually looked quite a bit different from her counterpart standing with their friends—laid a hand on my forearm. “Well, let’s see: It’s your first time as a chargé d’affaires, at an unusually young age, about to meet with a head of state, instead of a foreign minister, to open formal relations with a nation that isn’t even in the same dimension.” She ticked off points on her fingers, demonstrating an ease with the simian appendages I’d been told she lacked during her first visits. “Oh, and to get there you have to step through a weird magical portal that throws you around like a toboggan ride and turns you into a talking pony. Did I miss anything?”
“Gee, thanks,” I told her dryly. “You’re so helpful.”
She laughed and squeezed my shoulder. “You’ll do fine, Cook.”
The others gathered round to slap my back, shake my free hand, or offer other gestures of support. For a moment the buffeting made me feel as if I were already flying through that portal, but I endured it willingly. Every one of them, even the timid Fluttershy, was vivacious and lovable, each in her own way. As a case officer assigned to liaison duties—primarily with Sunset Shimmer, a foreign national of unusual (in every sense) importance, but extending to the rest of them as well—I should maintain a cool professional detachment, but I’d come to feel, well, an avuncular attachment to them, one and all.
As they finished their assurances, I glanced up at the imposing building before which we stood, then around at the grounds that still swarmed with students. By now they treated the otherworldly portal as part of their environment, giving the group clustered around it no more than a few curious looks or friendly waves.
The looks directed at me, rather than my companions, were more intent, ranging from bemused to protective. The whole student body, along with the faculty, did remarkably well at staying quiet about the strange doings at their school. Obviously it was impossible to keep the shenanigans completely secret, of course, but everyone clearly had decided tacitly not to blab about them more than absolutely necessary. More than once, I’d heard, people had deleted videos or other evidence when they could.
I shook my head and returned my attention to the girls—no, young women—before me. “Thanks, all of you. I shouldn’t be too long, since this is just an initial contact.”
“Sure wish we all could go with you,” Applejack observed wistfully.
Princess Twilight smiled. “That’s exactly what the other Applejack keeps saying, but today’s going to be all business, and I think you’d be bored stiff with nothing more to do than watching—what’s that television expression, Sunset?”
Sunset Shimmer, who also was a little more formally dressed than her usual jacket, short dress, and leggings, cocked her head. “What exp—oh, ‘talking heads’?”
“That’s the one. The meeting isn’t exactly secret, but just like here, we’re not making a big deal about it either, so you wouldn’t be able to wander around. Besides, we moved the portal mechanism to Canterlot Palace temporarily.”
Judging from the reactions, this came as a surprise to everyone else, even Sunset, who suddenly turned a little pale. “Twi! It woulda been nice to get a little warning!”
“Sorry, Sunset.” The princess bit her lip and shrugged uncomfortably. “My advice was to hold it in my castle, for several reasons. Celestia and Luna had some pretty good counterpoints, though, and they’re the ones who make the final decisions.”
I couldn’t blame Sunset. Facing the mentor from whom she’d parted under the worst circumstances had to be a daunting prospect, even if they’d made up since via correspondence. It looked for a moment like she would change her mind and stay, rather than accompany the princess and me, but murmurs of encouragement from her friends stiffened her resolve, and Princess Twilight went so far as to give her a gentle hug, which she returned, albeit with a taut face.
When Twilight stepped back with a last squeeze of Sunset’s hand, Rarity cleared her throat. “I simply must ask, Cook: Much as I admire your sartorial splendor, why did you bother with it if the portal simply whisks it away?”
I opened my mouth, but the princess beat me to it. “The portal seems to, well, interpret things like clothing and baggage. Cook’s and Sunset’s suits are formal wear, so the portal should treat their appearance accordingly on the other side.” Her brow furrowed. “At least, that’s what we think will happen, anyway.”
It sounded plausible to me, based on what they’d told me about the portal and how it apparently operated, so I just shrugged in acquiescence. It wasn’t like I had a lot of choice, after all. In any case, time, as they say, was wasting, so we finished our goodbyes and turned back to the unassuming polished-stone face that concealed a gateway to wonder.
“Ready?” Princess Twilight asked quietly.
I nodded as I slipped the pack’s straps over my shoulders.
Tremulously, Sunset said, “Not really,” but she stepped forward nonetheless. I gave her a bracing smile and wink when she eyed me sidelong. Then, one by one, we stooped to disappear into another world.