Chapter Thirty-One - Unfortunate Meetings
New York, New York, United North American States, Earth
April 17, 2183
The sound of air cars rushing through the air between the towering skyscrapers made Twilight flick her ears in agitation, though it was more of an unconscious gesture than any real annoyance. Sitting on her haunches, her purple striped tail flicked behind her as she stared up at the Ritz Carlton building looming over her.
She wasn't exactly sure what she was staring at, and she was only vaguely aware of the fact that whatever it was she had been staring at it for the past few minutes or so. Deep in the pit of her stomach, a roiling ball of nervousness and anxiety threatened to make her sick. It was a feeling she had only experienced once before in her short life, when she was trying and failing the final entrance test for Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. That had been just moments before she had done the impossible, and caught the attention of Princess Celestia herself.
Was something similar going to happen here, Twilight wondered.
Beside her, Spike waited as patiently as he could for being a baby dragon. He kicked his left foot against the ground, sighing every few moments in an attempt to break Twilight from her nervous stupor. He had had no such luck so far, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
A few feet behind them at a respectful distance, Gilda, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and Sweetie Belle waited with varying degrees of patience. Gilda had long grown used to Twilight's strange moods, and she had learned how to be eternally patient from her time with the Batarians. Rarity was likewise patient, though it had taken her far longer to learn the art, and it was only because of her experience with fickle customers that she had done so. That, and the fact that patience was a lady's virtue.
Unlike Gilda and Rarity, Pinkie and Sweetie Belle were unable to keep themselves still. For Pinkie, it was because she had consumed more sugar than most races would consider wise in an attempt to drown out her sadness. For Sweetie Belle, it was simply because she was a little filly just on the cusp of marehood, and as such, she was filled with vast amounts of energy that was better suited for running and playing than it was sitting and waiting for something to happen.
Sighing, Spike finally decided that he'd had enough of waiting. He poked Twilight with one of his claws, his annoyance getting the better of him. She squeaked in surprise, startled, looking down at him.
"Can we go in now?" Spike asked at her questioning look. "Or are you just going to look at it all day?"
"What?" Twilight was obviously trying to catch up to what Spike was saying. She blinked, trying to catch up to what her little brother was saying.
Spike sighed, but repeated his question for Twilight. "Are we going in, or do you just want to wait out here all day?"
"Oh." Twilight blushed and stood, prancing nervously on her hooves. "Yes, of course."
She blushed a little harder at the audible sighs of relief from the group behind her. Obviously she had been standing there for a little too long. Doing what she did best, Twilight ignored the embarrassment that was quickly replacing the nervousness and anxiety and headed inside, the others following after her.
The interior of the hotel was even more ostentatious than its exterior. Everything was big and hand-made, all of it designed to give off a none too subtle feeling of wealth and power. Twilight didn't react at all to it, having spent a large portion of her life in the Royal Castle, but the others behind her acted in the manner that the designers most likely had in mind, suitably both awe and admiration.
Before any of them had a chance to wonder what they needed to do next, the manager came up to greet them, obviously recognizing them. He was dressed in a simple black suit with a grey silk tie, designed to impress, but not overshadow the potential customers of the hotel.
"Emissary Sparkle, welcome to the Ritz Carlton," he greeted them in smooth, dulcet tones, cultured, with just the hint of an accent.
Twilight smiled distantly at him in response, but it was clear that she wasn't really paying any attention to him. Seeing Twilight's wandering attention, Rarity gracefully stepped in and took over for the unicorn.
"Thank you very much, kind sir," Rarity said in just as smooth of tones as the manager. "If you could please take us to the Apple's room."
"Of course," the manager said, taking no offense to Twilight's slight. "Please, follow me."
There was very little that made Applebloom feel as safe as she did when she was cuddled close to her big brother. Whenever he moved, she could feel his quite considerable muscles moving with restrained power, all of which she knew he would use to protect her. Having him hold her close, while she was wrapped up tight in her mother's blanket, snacking on the fritters her big sister had been baking in the kitchen made her feel better than she had in years, or at least the past few days.
They could hear Applejack pacing back and forth in the kitchen, stopping every so often to look at the door in worry. Applebloom and Big Mac didn't even have to look at their sister to know that she was worried about the upcoming visit from Twilight Sparkle.
Apple Bloom could just imagine Applejack worrying her hat in her hooves, chewing on her lip in that adorable way she did when she got too nervous. She'd do that for precisely fifteen seconds before returning to her pacing. Her family could be predictable in the strangest of ways.
The filly was drawn out of her thoughts when Big Mac started rubbing her back with his big hoof, she shivered, feeling even just that much safer and more secure in her place in the world. Her heart swelled, and Applebloom couldn't find the end of the depths she was thankful to her family for. When her family was close by, she felt like nothing could hurt her.
A knock at the door made everyone in the hotel room freeze. This was it, and no one could say just what was going to happen.
It only took a moment before Applejack broke from her state of frozen terror and galloped to the door. Taking a second to adjust her hat and take a deep breath, Applejack opened the door. Applebloom and Big Mac looked from their place on the couch to watch Celestial Emissary Twilight Sparkle and an assortment of ponies, what appeared to be a baby dragon, a griffin, and a human dressed in a suit.
"Ms. Applejack," the human said, giving a short bow of his head. "Celestial Emissary Twilight Sparkle here to see you."
Applejack stepped out of the doorway, gesturing for them to enter with a wave of her hoof. "Please, come in."
Twilight Sparkle hesitated for a moment, her eyes darting from Applejack to Big Mac and Applebloom on the couch, and finally to the heavily scarred griffon standing next to her. Taking a breath of her own, Twilight gave Applejack a terse smile before stepping inside. The two mares, the white filly, the dragon,, and the griffon stepped inside.
The door shut firmly behind them, leaving them all in the room alone together. Applejack was quick to lock it, glancing at Applebloom as if she might have disappeared. That little scare had made the three of them extremely skittish. None of the Apples were going to let their little fritter be in anymore danger.
Reassured that her sister was safe, Applejack turned her attention to Twilight and her group. "Howdy there, Emissary." Applejack held out a forehoof, and Twilight only hesitated a moment before shaking it.
"Hello," she responded in a quiet, tentative voice. Twilight stared at Applejack for an uncomfortable amount of time, tilting her head to the side as she studied the farm mare.
"Uh…" Applejack shifted uncomfortably under Twilight's attention. She glanced at Big Mac and then looked back at Twilight. "Is everything alright, Emissary?"
"Yeah…" Twilight blinked, chewing on her lip. "Yes! I mean, yes." Twilight blushed, glancing away. "Sorry, I'm not trying to be rude," Twilight explained, trying to ignore the brilliant blush that had crawled across her face.
"You're fine, sugarcube," Applejack said, neatly side-stepping the etiquette gaffe. She wasn't quite sure what she was supposed to do with herself in front of somepony who was for all intents and purposes the fourth most important pony in all of Equestria, with the power to speak with the authority of Celestia herself.
"Thank you," Twilight nodded gratefully. She tapped her left forehoof on the floor, not noticing as Applejack's eyes wandered over her bandaged wounds. There was a little bit of blood that had managed to soak through, and they obviously weren't completely fresh. If she had to guess, Applejack would say that the wounds were a couple days old.
Twilight snorted in annoyance, drawing everyone's attention. She shook her head, not explaining what it was that was drawing her ire. She stomped a hoof, making a satisfying clack against the floor. "I don't get it."
"Get what?" Applejack asked, lifting an eyebrow in confusion.
"This is too easy!" Twilight paced back and forth in front of Applejack. The ponies she was with didn't seem at all fazed by her strange statement Applejack noted, and she wondered just how eccentric the unicorn really was.
The griffon didn't seem at all restrained like the ponies she was with, and her snort and rolling eyes made Applejack wonder just how familiar she was with the Emissary.
"Too easy?" The griffon asked, looking pointedly at the bandages covering the multitude of wounds on Twilight's body. "Aren't you forgetting something, Twi?"
"What?" Twilight looked at the griffon in confusion for a moment. "What are you talking about, Gilda?" When she realized what the griffon was saying, she shook her head. "No. No, I mean… this is too easy. Everywhere we've gone, everypony we've been looking for has just shown up."
"That doesn't really seem like it's a problem," the white unicorn with the overly styled mane said. Applejack was willing to bet that she'd never worked an honest day in her life.
"It's not." The way Twilight said it certainly didn't convince Applejack of what she was saying, though Applejack wasn't sure of just what exactly they were talking about. "It's just… It's too easy. It feels weird."
Turning so she could face everyone in the room, Twilight pointed her hoof at the stylish, white coated unicorn. "You were there in Blueblood's office, the very first place we stopped on the Citadel." She turned and pointed her hoof at the pink earth pony. "And you, Pinkie, you were right under our noses and showed up when I'd given up."
Twilight turned back to look at Applejack, her muzzle scrunched up in contemplation. "And while we were searching high and low for any sign of you, two of the crew-members of my ship ended up stumbling across your little sister and saved her from being filly-napped."
On the couch, Applebloom ducked deeper into her mother's blanket, and Big Mac pulled her closer.
Looking at Applejack, Twilight realized that there was absolutely no understanding of what she was saying on her face at all. It was at that moment that Twilight realized that she was rambling.
"Right... " Twilight smiled apologetically at Applejack. "I'm sorry. I can explain."
"It sounds like you've got a lot on your chest." Applejack nodded to the arrangement of couches around the coffee table. "Why don't we all take a seat."
Twilight practically jumped to follow the suggestion. "Yes, of course! That's a great idea." She darted over to the nearest couch and plopped herself down, while the others followed her at a much more sedate place. Applejack took a seat on the other side of Applebloom.
"It's a long story." Twilight said apologetically.
"Just start at the beginning," Applejack said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, which Twilight supposed that it was.
"Right… The beginning." Twilight tried to gather her thoughts.
There was nothing quite as fine as a glass of Serrice Ice Brandy from the Armali Shores Distillery and a handmade cigarette. Enjoying the pairing was a daily ritual for the Illusive Man, and he always took them while appreciating the sight of the dying sun in front of him. His office held the better view, but the one from his private room was almost as good.
It was also better considering what he had just finished doing. Or who, really. In the bed behind him, the Asari whore was snoring softly, naked under silk covers. She was the centerfold of last month's Fornax magazine, or so he believed. He couldn't quite remember, and it didn't really matter. One azure was just like any other, or so he'd found, and the fact that he'd never met an ugly Asari, much less one who was overweight or unsightly meant that he was spoiled for choice.
A soft knock at the door drew him from his thoughts.
"Enter," the Illusive Man said as he took a deep draw from his cigarette.
The door opened and his secretary stepped inside, her heels clicking softly on the polished glass floor. She waited just inside the room, dressed in a sleek pencil skirt and a fitted white blouse with the Cerberus logo embroidered above her left breast. Her hair was done up in a tight bun, not a single strand of hair free. It was a severe beauty, and it was one he knew she prided herself on. The Illusive Man couldn't care less. She was punctual and just as responsible for keeping Cerberus running smoothly as he was. She was indispensable, and they both knew it.
"What is it?" The Illusive Man asked.
"Operative Leng is on the QEC to speak with you, sir." His secretary said, her voice calm and even as she stared down her nose at the slumbering Asari.
"Thank you." The Illusive Man finished off his glass of brandy with a final gulp. "I'll be out in a minute."
The secretary nodded her head in understanding, sparing another glance at the Asari before leaving the room.
As the door clicked shut behind her, the Illusive Man took a final drag of his cigarette before letting it drop to the floor. Even as he dropped his robe and walked naked to his closet to get dressed, the automatic vacuum was already removing every trace of the smoke from the room. The Illusive Man paid the entire matter no mind. He had a dog to bring to heel.
Walking into his office, the Illusive Man enjoyed the click of his shoes against the floor. It sounded powerful, and he had designed the entire room to have that effect. Being theatrical was just as important to running an effective organization as being a good leader.
As he walked up to the QEC receiver, he activated it subtly with a push of a button on his jacket's cuff. All of his suits were tailored with those discrete control buttons. They allowed him complete command of his office by simply adjusting a sleeve or straightening his jacket.
The QEC activated, and a holographic representation of Kai Leng appeared. The Illusive Man had spent a fortune, multiple fortunes actually, developing Quantum Communication. It was an item that was available to anyone with enough credits, through several of Cerberus' shell companies. He had already recouped the development cost ten times over from the checks he'd gotten from militaries, governments, and corporations from across the galaxy.
He did keep the best, most advanced of the technology for himself. As such, when Kai Leng appeared, his hologram was perfectly clear. It was almost like he was there in the room with the Illusive Man, though he was lucky that he wasn't. That wouldn't have been good for Leng.
The Illusive Man only took a moment to look Leng over. The man was dressed in a silver grey suit with a black silk shirt and scarf, his hair done up in a tight, traditional top-knot. It wasn't a look that the Illusive Man particularly admired. He ignored it, moving right onto important matters.
"I've been seeing some rather interesting reports out of Thessia," the Illusive Man drawled, staring at Leng, unblinking.
Kai Leng didn't so much as twitch a muscle, though he clearly knew the Illusive Man's anger. He was at peace with who and what he'd done with his life. The Illusive Man waited for a moment to see if that was going to change, but Leng was steadfast.
"When I asked you to gather information on what Twilight Sparkle is doing leaving the Empresses' protection, did you really think I was asking you to torture her?" If the Illusive Man could have reached through the hologram and strangled Leng, he would have. This could set them back years.
"It was the quickest way to learn what we needed to know," Kai Leng explained, absolutely unrepentant. His lack of any quantifiable emotion was frustrating to the extreme.
"And did you?" The Illusive Man asked, completely unimpressed by Leng's attempt at projecting a cool demeanor.
"She proved… stronger… than I originally believed." Kai Leng didn't break eye contact with the Illusive Man.
"So…" Shifting his weight back onto his right leg, the Illusive Man glared at him, putting his hands in his pockets. "You kidnapped the third highest ranking Equestrian in the galaxy, tortured her to within an inch of her life, and you're telling me that you didn't even learn anything?"
It was telling that Kai Leng didn't answer right away. When he did answer, it was just a curt, "Yes."
"Did it at all occur to you that the mare you tortured is considered all but a daughter to the Empress?" The Illusive Man shook his head, anger burning in his eyes. "We don't need to piss off the Equestrians anymore than we already have."
"Of course," Kai Leng still didn't change his stance.
They both fell silent for a long moment, staring at each other. It was a silent game, and the Illusive Man would not lose. He was Kai Leng's superior in everyway, and the man would know his place. Narrowing his eyes, the Illusive Man crossed his arms.
"I don't want to hear any more reports about Cerberus taking actions against Equestria in the news. Do you understand me?" He asked, his voice as cold as a Noverian winter storm.
"Don't worry," Kai Leng had the gall to say. "I already have it taken care of."
Kai Leng ended the transmission, and the Illusive Man just stared at the spot his hologram used to be. He clenched his fists so hard that his knuckles popped and turned white. Chewing on the inside of his cheek, he thought things over as he released the tension in his body with a calming breath. Once. Twice. Three deep inhales.
Pressing another button on his cuff link, he contacted his secretary.
"Sir?" She asked through the intercom.
"I want you to get me Salitorian." The Illusive Man had hoped that he was done with Ethan, but circumstances were proving him wrong. We need to talk."
"Of course, sir."
Twilight had been speaking for the past thirty minutes or so as she had explained in detail everything to Applejack about the Elements of Harmony, the Element Bearers, and the journal they found under the floor of the Castle of the Two Sisters.
Pinkie Pie had stopped paying attention only five minutes in, and her attention had been wandering ever since. She had first tried to unravel the patterns in the carpet, but had quickly confused herself and took to staring out the windows. She had watched the aircars whizzing back and forth in patterns that wrapped her mind into knots.
Pinkie had then turned her attention to Applebloom. The little filly was still sitting between Big Mac and Applejack, and while her siblings were listening to Twilight's tale, Applebloom was drawn into herself, shivering every so often and pulling her blanket tighter around herself. By the time that Twilight was nearly done with her tale, only Apple Bloom's muzzle was poking out of the little hole in the blanket around her face.
"Hey there," Pinkie Pie said, whispering to the filly so as not to interrupt Twilight.
Applebloom turned to look at Pinkie Pie. The filly's eyes were barely even visible, hidden in the shadows of her blanket. "Hi." She murmured back in a little voice.
They stared at each other for a little while, neither of them quite sure what to say to each other. Pinkie's mind raced as she tried to think of something to say, but her normally active and racing mind was drawing a blank.
After a period of way too much thought, Pinkie finally stumbled across the right thing to say. "You've had a rough day, haven't you?"
Applebloom didn't answer, but she also didn't look away from Pinkie.
"I know how that feels." Pinkie said, nodding sadly. Applebloom didn't look like she believed her, but that was alright. Pinkie was strong enough to shrug off a child's disbelief. "At least you have your family. They really love you."
At that, Apple Bloom looked up at Big Mac and leaned a little closer to him. He patted her back comfortingly, but he didn't draw his attention away from Twilight's speech. It was certainly an interesting tale, and now it was even more so now that the story apparently involved one of his little sisters.
Applebloom turned back to look at Pinkie.
"I'm Pinkie Pie," she introduced herself.
"Applebloom," the filly returned politely, murmuring.
"That's a pretty name."
"Thank you," Applebloom responded, even as she drew herself even deeper into her blanket. Though Pinkie Pie couldn't actually see her, she could tell that Applebloom was looking at her.
Pinkie Pie smiled at her, and she could feel Apple Bloom smile back. They were both hurting, but at least there was still good in the galaxy.
Across from them, having missed the entire exchange between her little sister and Pinkie Pie, Applejack mulled over everything that Twilight had said. It was certainly a lot to lay on a mare with no warning, but she had a feeling that she needed to understand it as quickly as possible. She was a part of a story that seemed to be spiralling out of control at the same time it was being expertly orchestrated by an unseen conductor.
Glancing over at Big Mac, the two siblings shared a long look, an entire silent conversation passing between the two of them in the blink of an eye. They had always been particularly close, and they knew each other very well.
Applejack turned back to look at Twilight, who was fidgeting in her seat. Sensing her gaze, Twilight froze and straightened up. "What's your plan?" Applejack asked.
"What?" Twilight leaned back, not sure what it was she was supposed to say. She glanced at Gilda, who just shrugged in response.
"What's your plan, Emissary?" Applejack elaborated, watching the unicorn carefully. "You've told me that you need to find these Elements, but other than this map that you've found, you've got nothing planned."
"I don't… I…" Twilight shut her mouth with a clack, her muzzle scrunching up in confusion. "What?"
"Let's say that you find all of us. You're goin' to, even I can see that. I'm here, you know where this Rainbow Dash is, and by the process of elimination, you know you're going to find Fluttershy on Tuchanka." Applejack bit her lip, thinking carefully on what she wanted to say next. "What happens after? We're all useless without these elements. Where are they? How're ya' goin' to find them? You're almost at the end, but you have no path forward. It seems to me like you're about to hit a dead end, and you don't even have a single one of these Elements." Pointing a hoof at the Friendship Journal between them on the coffee table, Applejack looked distinctly unimpressed.
"Whatever the other 'us' wrote in that journal, it wasn't actually us doin' it. We've all led drastically different lives, and we aren't the same ponies. Who's to say if you even find the Elements that they'll even work for us?" Applejack sighed, wondering for a moment whether or not she even wanted to say what she had to next, but there was no other choice. "And even if we all do come with you… what happens when whoever did that to you comes back again? How're we supposed to keep ourselves and our families safe?"
Twilight looked pale and nervous, her eyes glued firmly to the floor. She knew that Applejack had a point, but she didn't want to think about it at all.
"Do you have any plans for after Tuchanka, Emissary?" Applejack asked, watching Twilight carefully.
Twilight struggled with her thoughts. Her mind was racing, but not a single idea was making its way up through the slush. It felt like a storm was raging, blowing every hint of a good idea away from her almost as quickly as they came.
Gilda and Rarity shared a look. They both knew what the other was thinking, but neither of them wanted to say it. Twilight was not up for this, not right now. None of them were. They were all so far out of their depths that none of them could rightly say what was normal anymore.
Much had changed since Kai Leng had first left Beijing and joined the Systems Alliance. For one, he wasn't part of the Alliance anymore, having been dishonorably discharged. The second was that his unique skill set afforded him the chance to explore the finer things in life that his upbringing never allowed. He always enjoyed savoring the expensive and rare, which is why he was sipping at coffee imported directly from Brazil, scientifically proven to be the best in the galaxy. For how much they charged for it, they were lucky to be right, otherwise Leng might have been tempted to introduce them to his sword.
Kai Leng stood at the window of his hotel room, taking another sip of his coffee as he stared across the street at the far nicer Ritz Carlton, directly into the hotel room being rented by the Apple family. It was pathetic how easy it had been to set everything up, and a large oversight from both hotels, though they could be forgiven for not expecting a highly trained special forces operator to take up residence.
From where he was standing, he could see Twilight Sparkle and her griffin girlfriend sitting next to each other. Across from them, it seemed that she had brought along her entire little growing menagerie. Seeing the little baby dragon, Leng made a mental note to try and capture him at some point. He could think of more than a few beings out there who would pay vast amounts of money for him.
Finishing his coffee, he let the thought drift from his mind. He had work to do. If it happened to come up at another point, he would act on it.
Setting his cup down on the little table next to the window, Leng crossed his arms, listening to the speakers playing the conversation being recorded in the Apple's hotel room. He had had more than enough time to break inside and install the bugs while the Apples were out at their little festival. They hadn't even searched their rooms when they had returned. Amateurs.
"I... I don't know what to say." Twilight's voice rang out from the speakers. It was an extremely accurate reproduction, and Leng could hear every nuance of her voice. That was made all the more sweet knowing that she didn't have a clue that he was listening in on her.
"And that's the problem, Emissary. I don't know what the Princess was thinking, but this isn't just a simple task. You've got no protection, aside from your magic, and from the fact that you weren't able to protect yourself, that's not enough." The eldest female of the Apple clan spoke next, and Leng felt himself scowling at her twanging accent. It lacked all signs of culture, and spoke to the lower class that she must have inhabited.
"I know," Twilight finally managed to whisper back.
"How touching," Leng murmured to himself before straightening his suit. Activating his omni-tool, he made a call. It only took a moment to connect, and it was answered immediately.
"Yes?" Hope asked from the other end of the call.
"Execute," was all that Leng said. She knew what he meant.
Leng was vaguely aware of her responding, "Copy that," but he was already ending the call. Stepping backwards, he entered the hologram array that he had set up earlier. He had purposefully made it so that he could have a clear view of the window, and the room beyond. He let a calm wash over him, waiting for the signal.