For a man who was in charge of a city that had just been tossed into an uproar, President Shinra was in a pretty good mood.
He chuckled as he pressed a button at his desk, allowing the small video screen that he'd installed there to retract. He'd just watched the tape again, the one that he'd made of the collapse of Sector 7... hell, it had a name, but he didn't care. He only remembered the old names once in a while so that he could keep the whining plate-dwellers happy. They thought that the obvious privilege of living among the elite of Shinra wasn't enough, that they needed even more bowing to their superior status to remind themselves of it.
Still, they did pay taxes, and much of Midgar was built on what they'd been able to divert from their pockets. Reeve had stubbornly fought against plans to overtax the people in the slums for years - a strange attitude, especially when one considered that they made little or no other contributions to Shinra and rewarded the company's attempts at generosity with rebellion and hostility. But the director knew more about the construction and maintenance of his city than the president did; besides, he was young and relatively uncorrupted. The president was confident that once he'd had a few more years under his belt, he'd start learning that the company had to make those little sacrifices, so that they could avoid resorting to larger ones.
Until then - or until they could find an equally skilled and more malleable replacement for the Chief of Urban Development - nothing would change, and the rich would carry the greater part of their burdens. And because the taxes were hidden from them - taken directly from their incomes and investments, which Shinra of course controlled - there would be no rebellion. The plan was perfect, he thought contentedly.
To an outsider, the enraged memos and phone messages would have suggested otherwise. Many of the highest class of citizens had what they believed to be a direct line to the President's desk, and lower classes had access to lower levels of government. Most of the complaints had been sent to him; presumably they were full of fright, anger, and perhaps the rare bit of deliberate malice.
Of course, he couldn't possibly know for sure; he had neither read nor listened to any of them. He hardly needed to; he knew that once he'd finished his masterstroke - once he'd given the people someone to blame - they'd all be replaced by grateful cheers and cries of joy. He wondered if any of them knew how easily they were to manipulate, and if they'd care if they were to find out, as long as they were allowed to stay above the plate. Why would they risk losing their comfortable existences by being skeptical?
Shinra wouldn't even need "evidence" to convict AVALANCHE of the destruction of the support pillar; the fact that they'd already struck two of their reactors would be proof enough in the people's mind. Oh, he'd find something, if only to keep any doubters quiet - the old man knew better than to think that all of his citizens were complete morons - but that was an afterthought. They wouldn't want to listen to their predictions of doom and gloom, not with the good life in their hands.
The people in the slums could all die and no one would care. It was the people who lived above them that were important, as they were the source of three quarters of Shinra's Midgar revenue. They were the ones who were allowed to leave at will, if they so chose, and the ones that had to be kept happy. Keeping the status quo required a very tricky balancing act - spending just enough on the people to keep them happy enough to give him more money. So far it had been a masterpiece. It took more than a few zealots with more technical sense than intelligence to interrupt his vision. What kind of fools went around attacking the technology that was responsible for their very way of life, anyway? And even if they were right about Mako being the planet's lifeblood, why would they think that would matter to him? Why should he have to suffer for the sakes of imbecilic future generations? He owed them nothing.
Or, in the case of his son, less than nothing. The idiot had somehow gotten it into his head that he could rule by making the people afraid of the Shinra. Maybe that would work for a little while - dogs could be controlled by beating them into submission, after all. But even a dog would bite back after a while; he'd have the city in an uproar within the month with his heavy-handed ways. It was almost a pity, the president mused, that he'd be dead before Rufus took power. He'd enjoy watching the little bastard screw everything over just to prove his old man wrong.
The boy was no businessman; he had none of the tact that the role required. That was what made him such a failure, at least in his father's eyes.
Fortunately, he was Vice-President in name only. He didn't have any power that couldn't be taken away. It was foolish for any father to expect his son to carry out his dreams; they always twisted it to suit their own purposes. Trusting them - trusting anyone who couldn't be bought or manipulated, really - was suicidal.
No, he'd make his own dreams come true. He'd build Neo-Midgar with his own hands, if he had to. They had the Ancient, and any other difficulties that the professor imagined would soon be taken care of, or else. He was a man used to getting his way.
Yes... soon the world would see the triumphant rise of Neo-Midgar. Paradise. He'd already drawn up plans for the city, kept them in his quarters; he would spend hours at a time pouring over them, memorizing every detail. It would be absolutely beautiful, a colossus of gleaming metal, lit with the soft green glow of Mako. The entire world would come to him, beg him for a share of the wealth and glory of the city. He would be the fountain of blessings, the most powerful man in the world. And there wouldn't be any more rebel groups that would dare to stand against him, not with so much power at his disposal. Why, if he had even a fraction of what surely rested in the Promised Land, those groups like AVALANCHE would have never been born. They would have been killed by uncertainty and greed before they'd even dared to begin.
Which reminded him - it was time to destroy the rebels. He pressed a button, one of many on his console, sending a phone message to his public. He'd prerecorded it some time ago, of course. "AVALANCHE has been captured," said the tinny echo of his own voice. "Prepare for the hearing and execution tomorrow morning. We must make an example of these traitors."
Yet again, he praised himself for a job well done. The people would love it; they always loved it when there was someone to blame, no matter who it was. They'd all flock to television sets to watch the dirty rebels die; they would curse the names of the people who slaughtered their friends and family in Sector 7, and the terrorists' mad notion of martyrdom for the Planet would be completely destroyed. Everyone would hate them.
Like any good businessman, President Shinra loved to recap his own victories. He pressed another button, this one hidden in the grain of the wood. A small cabinet opened in his desk, revealing a pair of plain glasses - at least they seemed plain at first, but there was a bit of gold decorating the rims - and a bottle of expensive champagne. As a general rule he preferred harder drinks, but this was one of those moments where champagne seemed more appropriate. He didn't really need to hide the alcohol these days, since anyone who dared to steal it from him would be punished severely, but old habits died hard.
He poured himself a glass, leaned back and closed his eyes, imagining the cheers - a thousand businessmen, all of them rich by his designs, of course, and all of them half-sincere in their shouts of congratulation. That was fine by him, really. Sincerity wasn't nearly as important as most people would think; it was too easy to sell. "My colleagues, gentlemen, ladies," he said grandly, imagining himself in the Neo-Midgar banquet hall, richly decorated and as large as that entire damned floor, "I propose a toast. To the new face of Shinra Incorporated!"
All he heard was the toast echoing through the empty room, but his mind magnified it a thousand times - a thousand screams, thirsty for new profits. His eyes still closed, he raised the glass above his head before bringing it to his lips, sipping the dry champagne. Wonderful stuff, really.
He pulled the glass a fraction of an inch away from his lips. It froze there, as its holder suddenly sensed something odd. He didn't know what it was, or why he was able to feel something like that; he'd always thought he was too damn good for instincts. He just had this uncanny feeling that something was there, that it had somehow gotten there without making a sound - the kind of feeling that someone would get just before the assassin made his move. He slowly lowered the glass; only after it had settled on the table did he open his eyes.
"So Hojo was right," he whispered, the iron still somehow audible in his voice. "You are alive." His face hurt with the effort it took to keep his surprise completely hidden. He'd taken the professor's ravings as a sign that he finally going mad, and coming very close to outliving his usefulness - but this was proof. This was beyond proof. No one else could have possibly stood like that, could've had that bearing of complete certainty.
The man didn't even acknowledge his greeting, such as it was. He stood erect, a breathing statue without as much as a trace of emotion on his face.
"You've come at an opportune time," he continued. "Would you care to join me? I don't usually invite non-executives to drink with me, but I think that on a day like today I can make an exception." He smiled magnanimously as he pulled the other glass out of its cavity and poured fresh champagne into both of them.
It seemed like a damn bizarre thing to do, but the President was absolutely determined not to show any fear. If nothing else, it would put him off guard, since he was surely used to terror-stricken victims. That would buy him some time until the company guards could come. They'd all die, of course, but that would be enough of a distraction for him to escape to the balcony and catch one of the company helicopters, which was surely circling around the tower at that very moment. His private bodyguards would have seen the suspicious character confronting him in the security cameras by now.
An onlooker might've thought him fearless, which would've been incredibly stupid of him. Yes, he was afraid - it would take someone a lot sturdier than he was to not fear the sudden reappearance of the greatest SOLDIER of his private army. But there are various degrees of fear, ranging anywhere from a minor concern that an unimportant business deal fall through to the jarring terror of one's own impending death. This kind of encounter would have inspired the latter in most people; to President Shinra, it was somewhat more subdued. There was concern, but there was also the certainty that most wealthy and powerful people have: the certainty that he somehow had this situation, along with every other possibility, under control.
At any rate, the silent man seemed uninterested in sharing a drink with the President. He frowned slightly, as though he was about to scold him for his lack of manners, then shrugged. "Suit yourself. This is a fine vintage, however. I do wish you'd join me."
"Most champagne," he continued, refusing to be intimidated - he couldn't be intimidated, he was this man's superior and always would be, no matter what, "is that cheap kind you can buy over at the Turtle's Paradise. Not this, though. This is the real deal. Secluded little winery over near Bone Village, hand-picked grapes, that sort of thing. Damn good stuff." He lifted the glass to his lips again, sipping with his eyes open this time, staring at the other's face and searching for a reaction. There was none, absolutely none. He pursed his lips as he lowered the glass, then shrugged again. "Ah, well," he said philosophically, "I suppose that you didn't come here to discuss alcohol."
That at least got a reaction out of the other. He smiled, but although it was not a patently unfriendly smile, it certainly didn't inspire any sort of comfort. "No," he said, a single sonorous note that seemed to fill the entire room by itself and made the President scramble to try to remember his old voice. It had changed, he was certain of that, but it wasn't anything he could put his finger on.
"Well, then." He was speaking a bit too loudly, but he couldn't be expected to be perfect. The fear was starting to creep towards the immediate-death end of the spectrum, and it took quite a lot out of him to control it. "I must admit that I'm confused, then. After all, if you've been alive all these years, even you would be subject to punishment for deserting my army. And I would think that a man wanted by the Shinra would avoid showing up on my doorstep."
Yes, they were bold words, very bold. He'd hoped that if the man was there as an assassin, he would be put off guard by boldness. But catching him off his guard for a couple of seconds wouldn't do him much good if the damned guards didn't hurry up and start sacrificing themselves for the greater good, would they? They should've been up there seconds after the stranger showed up on the cameras. You just couldn't get proper guards anymore.
Besides, that tactic didn't seem to be working. The tall man just stood there, smiling. His black cape hung about him, dead in the artificial stillness of the tower. He held his sword in his hand, hidden in his own long shadow. All he could see of his face was those mad green glowing eyes - and he could tell that there was no sanity in them, absolutely none at all. If he was going to survive, he thought grimly, those guards would have to hurry...
"You're waiting for someone, President?"
The President started. He hadn't expected his visitor to speak - and his voice was truly bizarre, now that he'd heard a bit more of it. It was somehow long and stretched-out, as if he had to clip it short to say what he wanted to say. "Perhaps," he hedged. "What business is it of yours?"
It had been too long. The guards weren't coming. Why the hell weren't they coming?
"They won't be coming." The tall man smiled widely as the president almost jumped in his shock. "They tried to interfere with me - a particularly foolish idea, I think." And he held up his sword, where the blade should've caught the light with a bright flash. But instead of polished metal.... President Shinra had to force himself not to scream. The sword was covered with blood - no, dripping with it, for most of it was still quite fresh. And as he stared, the warrior took a step to the side, and he could see the trail that he'd left behind him.
It was horrible, just horrible. The old man felt his gorge starting to rise; he fought it down with sheer force of will. And he no longer had any doubt about what was going to happen to him. This man had taken no chances. "I just have one question," he rasped. "Why? Why kill the people who made you what you-"
The man in black laughed, long and hard. The President wasn't even trying to hide his fear anymore, now that death was imminent; every moment of his laughter set off a fresh tremor. But at long last the laughter stopped, and his eyes hardened. "You fools. You think that you know what the Promised Land is, don't you? You think you know everything about it. But you know nothing. And I intend to make sure that you never learn."
He never got the chance to speak again. He never even felt the bloody sword that was driven into his back, never felt the pulse of energy that burnt his spinal cord and his brain to nothing. He'd slumped forward into his chair, eyes wide and unseeing. The champagne glass slipped out of his hand and shattered on the floor, unheeded, like so many broken dreams.
The assassin smiled. I did it, Master. I've killed him, just as you ordered.
There was a long moment of utter silence - blankness, really - as he felt his master entering his mind, taking control of his body and his senses. He would want to see the carnage with his own eyes, he knew. His master had hated the man - he'd hated all of Shinra, once he'd found out what they'd done. They'd created him, and even though he'd turned out to be more powerful than any of them could have ever imagined, he still hated them for trying to force him to do anything for them.
He felt a warm glow of approval in his mind as the world blinked slowly back into reality. So you have, the thought-voice murmured. You have done well, my puppet. Very well indeed....
The clone smiled with simple glee. None of them were very smart, and this one was particularly malleable; his scornful words to the president had only been what his master had told him to say before. And he was very, very happy that he'd done it right, that he'd been able to serve him well. Thank you, Master Sephiroth. What am I to do now?
Master Sephiroth, imprisoned as he was within a crystal of pure Materia, could not smile. Only his mind was capable of reaching out past it, to influence clones such as this one. But if he'd been able to, the clone thought, he would have smiled at his faithful servant. Leave this place, my puppet. Leave your sword as a warning to the fools that follow you, and go for now. Then I shall tell you what you must do....
Yes, Master. Another order from his great, powerful master... he was sure that he must have been truly blessed. Why, he'd even allowed him to assume his form for a time. He glanced down at his wrist, at the number 1 tattooed there - it looked a little funny, since it had always been a different number before, but there was no reason to complain. Before his master had found him and saved him, he'd been trapped in his own little world of pain, screams and bright, harsh lights. He was eternally grateful for being allowed to serve him.
He walked away, making his body fade out of that plane and into the Other Place that Master Sephiroth had taught him how to enter. They'd never be able to catch him, not with the power that his master had given him. He left there, never looking back to see the prisoners that he'd set free arrive to find President Shinra dead.
His master had told him to leave, after all. He couldn't keep him waiting.