Not Quite Back to Business as Usual
Before the meeting, everyone had been muttering to each other. When Genesis and Angeal arrived, tones hushed even more, but still it continued. They knew that Genesis and Angeal were Sephiroth’s only two friends, but apparently that relationship still didn’t make them as much of a threat as the silver general himself.
“I’m going to see what they’re saying,” Genesis said.
“Do be discreet.” Angeal was usually against eavesdropping. It was hardly honorable. However, in this situation, their friend’s reputation was at stake, and perhaps it was wise to scope out the damage. He decided to label it “spying”, for the noble cause of helping their friend, of course. The boardroom was buzzing with information, for those willing to gather it.
Genesis wafted naturally through the room, staying just out of earshot for a normal human, which, of course, was well within range of a SOLDIER’s hearing. Angeal had to hand it to him; he could be very subtle when he had to be. With so many people and so much gossip to focus on, it was easy for them to forget the enhanced hearing of ShinRa’s elite.
Genesis was a flawless actor. His face betrayed nothing of what he heard. He always wore his slightly smug, disinterested expression as he moved to get a cup of water from a dispenser in the far corner of the room, sip casually as he walked to the corner nearest to the door to throw it away, and then around the rest of the perimeter to take his seat at the table. In doing so he had at least passed by nearly everyone in attendance, and from where he now sat, he could hear the offensively blunt, loud-mouthed goldmine of all gossip in the company: Scarlet.
Angeal took his seat next to Angeal. Like most of the men in ShinRa, Scarlet made his skin crawl. And even more unfortunately, all he got to hear was a shrill “Kya ha ha!” laugh before the President arrived and people began to take their seats.
All the heads of departments were in attendance, much to Angeal and Genesis’s surprise. This was not a briefing, and both wondered if they had come to the wrong place. Lazard, director of SOLDIER, assured them that they hadn’t as he took his seat.
“We may be more glorified, but we’re rank and file, not executives,” Angeal said.
“Sephiroth specifically requested your presence,” Lazard said. “Relax. It may prove to be quite entertaining.” This made Angeal uneasy. Genesis raised his eyebrows and muttered something that Angeal couldn’t catch.
Tseng, head of the Turks, was next to Heidegger, who was the head of the formally named Public Safety Department, which everyone knew was just a euphemism for the military. Turks, SOLDIER, and the army were all technically under him, a fact that no one liked to be reminded of. And then Scarlet, who was head of Weapons Development, a department that need not be explained.
Professor Hojo, head of the Science Department, seemed particularly happy today, and that made everyone’s stomach turn. The man was a sadist of the highest level, and if he was happy, it meant something truly diabolical had either happened or was about to happen. Palmer, head of the Space Exploration Program, was unfortunate enough to be next to him. The fat man was also looking slightly green today. Perhaps he had put too much lard in his tea again.
Looking across the table at all the executives, the only one whom Angeal had a truly favorable impression of was Reeve, head of Urban Development. It always struck him as odd that only one department was dedicated to the citizens and everyday living. Reeve must have his hands incredibly full, managing a city as big as Midgar.
Only when the General himself came into the room, two minutes before the beginning of the meeting, did all chatter cease. As Angeal had expected, no one would dare to speak of it in the same room that he occupied.
He was also later than usual. Angeal also believed that he had calculated his arrival to be that way, because as soon as he entered, all eyes, with varying degrees of directness, were straight on him.
He was the last one to take his seat, holding himself as if nothing had happened. Silent, as usual, tall and proud. Straight to business, he immediately opened the folder set before him on the table and began leafing through. He didn’t look at all evasive, keeping the papers flat on the table and only his eyes cast down to read. He looked entirely like he had nothing to hide, like nothing had happened.
“Congratulations, General,” Scarlet said, giving him a round of applause by herself. “I think I speak for all of us when I say that we never expected such a thing from you. Please do elaborate!”
Sephiroth raised one eyebrow, and held up a paper from the day’s packet, looking Scarlet squarely in the eyes. “I do not see my private life on today’s agenda. I suggest we begin by discussing more pertinent matters, such as number one, which is the financial toll of the Wutai War.”
If it had come from anyone else, there might have been laughter at his dryly delivered retort. But it came from Sephiroth, and so it was terrifying. What might have been translated as a snarky comeback came out more like a door slammed in the face. Scarlet, for reasons not entirely known, brought out the worst in the man, and she knew that all too well. Furthermore, her sense of fun was truly twisted.
“And I thought your honeymooning days were sure to have softened you. You’re still as cold as ice, Sephiroth.”
“That’s enough, Scarlet,” Angeal said.
“I agree,” Reeve, the head of Urban Development chipped in. “This is a wholly inappropriate place for such discussion.” Sephiroth sent a quick glance his way in gratitude.
“And I thought we could have a little fun today,” Scarlet said with a pout, crossing her legs and sighing.
“I have time-sensitive experiments that I must return to; could we get on with it?” Hojo sneered impatiently.
“To finance, then,” Reeve began. “As you will see on page 3 of my report, the Wutai War is depleting our resources far faster than we can recover them. Even setting aside the lives lost, this war is proving to be far more costly than anticipated. Provided that no end to the war is in sight, cuts are going to have to be made.”
“Surely not to my space program!” Palmer squeaked, pale as death.
“Where else?” Heidegger boomed, his lips invisible but his beard and mustache bobbing as he spoke. “I need more funds to put my troops on the field.”
“And I need more funds to develop the weapons for the troops,” Scarlet purred.
“S-S-Science then!” Palmer was scrambling now, palms sweating. “I need more funds for the rocket set to launch---“
“I second the notion,” Sephiroth said.
“What about your foolish rocket? Why are we even bedazzled with the sky when so much needs to be done on the ground?” Hojo retorted acidly to Palmer, and then gave the evil eye to Sephiroth, who did not so much as flinch. “My research is the backbone of the SOLDIER program, General. Without mako, your entire division grinds to a halt. You are just being defiant, boy.”
Sephiroth blinked nonchalantly and did not even bother with a reply. Lazard answered for him. “New SOLDIER recruitment has ceased because of budget restraints. To cut any more from SOLDIER means we will have to discharge men or go without on supplies and equipment.”
“The Turks are in a similar situation,” Tseng said. “And as we have been charged with intelligence duty, a budget cut would mean that our tactics will suffer.”
“Someone’s going to have to take the cut!”
“We’re stretched to our limits!”
“We need more funding to win this war!”
And then the room erupted into chaos.
Angeal watched as Sephiroth put his head in his hands, gently massaging his temples with his fingertips. The man sat through these meetings at least weekly. He had more patience than anyone in the building but even he was stretched to his limits. Genesis’s lips were pursed, brows drawn together and down. He had no such patience to speak of.
“Are all the meetings like this?” Genesis asked Sephiroth, barely audible over the din.
“Most of them,” Sephiroth said. “Unfortunately.”
It was when Heidegger started to look like he was about to clobber Palmer that the President intervened. “Why make more cuts when we can just increase revenue? Electricity rates, up, say…twenty percent?”
Reeve immediately attempted at intervention. “President, poverty and homelessness rates are through the roof—“
The President waved his hand. “Desperate times call for desperate measures. Put up more propaganda posters to mitigate the effects. Scare tactics. Something like,” he took a big puff on his cigar, thinking. “Ah. Something like ‘Every gil to ShinRa keeps our homes warm and safe”. Add some pictures of scary Wutai ninjas attacking little children. That should keep them quiet.”
“The common man can no longer afford rates as it is and to keep homes warm this winter…” but no one listened to Reeve. No one except Angeal.
The man rose to his feet in very rare, righteous anger. Thankfully, Scarlet also did so at the same time, and so attention was diverted away from his outburst.
Sephiroth’s reflexes were just as quick. He seized his friend’s forearm and squeezed hard enough for the pain to keep Angeal from speaking. “Keep quiet,” Sephiroth hissed.
Slowly, before attention could be drawn back to him, Angeal took his seat, subdued but not cooled. The war was being funded on the backs of the strained populace. As a child raised in desperate poverty, the idea hit far too close to home. Genesis looked sideways at him, understanding the situation but not empathizing. As the child of wealthy parents, he had never known any want. His class would hardly be affected by the rate hike.
“Excellent idea, President,” Scarlet said. “Higher mako rates will bring in more money for better weapons, more intelligence, and better outfitted troops.”
“The war is as good as won,” Heidegger said with a gruff, horse-like laugh. “Those Wutai cowards won’t know what hit them!”
“With extra funding, I can refine the biological weapons we were discussing last time,” Hojo said.
“This…” But Sephiroth squeezed Angeal’s arm again before he could say anything. Reeve gave Angeal a despairing look.
“Well then, all financial problems have been settled, what’s next on the agenda?”
“How about we forget the agenda,” Scarlet said, sultry and sly. “I have a splendid idea for that propaganda.”
“We should stick with the agenda and let the advertising department do their job.” Angeal could have told Sephiroth not to fall for her bait. She had on her scheming look, and from the looks of things, she had a fight to pick with Sephiroth. And now that he had sunk down to her level, the battle of wills had begun.
“Why use scare tactics when we can win their hearts?” Scarlet crossed her hands delicately over her heart, pretending to swoon. “Why not capitalize on this little…romance that already has the world positively entranced?”
Sephiroth’s eyes went flat. She was playing a very, very deadly game indeed. They all knew Scarlet had a twisted sense of fun, but they’d never seen her go so directly for Sephiroth.
“This sounds interesting! I want to hear her out!” Palmer said, but Reeve made a face of disgust, as if he knew what was coming.
The President also seemed interested, let out a puff of smoke and gestured for her to continue.
“Dear Sephiroth is already our poster boy. Why not put that to good use?”
“Because he and his wife are humans with a right to privacy,” Angeal said.
“You could put yourself on the poster,” Genesis suggested to Scarlet. “Go for sleazy sex appeal. Pretty sure we haven’t tried that yet.” This made Heidegger cough, which he suspected was a cover-up for a laugh. Palmer was sniggering as well. Even Tseng and Reeve were trying to hide a smile.
Scarlet went on, unperturbed. “Your poor, dear Wutaian wife. She comes from a world without the wonders we have today. She can’t heat her home or turn on the lights without fire. She’s probably never even seen a motion picture! And so Sephiroth’s heart went out to this dear little child, and he brought her to a proper, modern home where she can forget her heathen ways and live a real life. That’s all we’re trying to do…to save Wutai from its old-fashioned, pig-headed ignorance and bring the warm glow of mako power into their homes to transform their lives!
“You see? Even the great war hero doesn’t want to ravage their homeland, really. All he wants, deep down, is save them from themselves. And look at his beautiful bride to prove it!”
Angeal wanted to be sick. Sephiroth’s face was dangerously, deadly level. Even Genesis’s lips were turning into a snarl at the corners. Reeve and Lazard were noticeably disgusted as well.
“This is a ploy,” Sephiroth said, “to get me to say more about my private life.”
“And a low blow at that, Scarlet,” Reeve added. “You’ve gone far beyond what common decency mandates.”
“If the war ends, less of her people get slaughtered,” Scarlet said. “Surely she wants that. And you, Sephiroth, can you continue to fight in the war, knowing you are killing your wife’s people and destroying her motherland?”
Has she gone mad? Angeal wondered. Some of the other executives thought so as well, and were staring at her with open mouths. To take Sephiroth out of the war? Unthinkable. What would she gain, anyway?
“I remain loyal to SOLDIER,”
Sephiroth said. “And Hana has known this from the beginning.”
“Hana?!” Scarlet exploded, showing all of her teeth in her widest smile. “Her name means flower! How adorable! The god of war and a beautiful, tender little blossom, it’s simply charming!”
Sephiroth would probably kick himself for letting that slip, but he would do it later. To everyone else, it was a signal of just how angry he was. For someone so deliberate with his words, that tiny slip said so much.
“Unless she is unwilling to end the war,” Scarlet drawled on. “Perhaps because she is a spy? Inside our headquarters, even!”
“Hana is a civilian who lived as far away from the war as it is possible to be.”
“A simple villager? She could be easily manipulated by someone in the shadows.”
“Enough!” Reeve surprised everyone by rising to his feet and slamming a fist to the table. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, Scarlet, but I’ve had enough of this game.”
“Sephiroth is the hero of this war,” Heidegger said. “To remove him from his position is suicide for our cause and I won’t stand for it.”
“As Heidegger said,” Lazard agreed. “He is the heart of SOLDIER in many ways. You will cease these unfounded accusations against him and his wife.”
“You sleep on the same floor as the President, correct?” Tseng said. “Then you sleep under Sephiroth’s protection. And on multiple occasions, he has defended the executive residences from direct attack.”
Palmer choked, pulling at the collar of his shirt. “Yes, I would rather like to keep it that way as well.”
“And I didn’t engineer the perfect soldier to sit on the sidelines of the war that will make his career,” Hojo said.
“Then we are all agreed, Scarlet,” the President said, “that you will cease this slander. Sephiroth, forgive this intrusion. If we are all agreed, let’s continue.”
“I’m not finished,” Sephiroth said. “I have something more to say.
“I did what I did for personal reasons, without intent to help or harm the company. However, I realize that by ‘wedding the enemy’, as it may be, my position will be called into question, as Scarlet has just so poignantly done. I have brought with me my fellow Firsts, who will take my place as executives at this table. I hereby formally resign from this portion of my post and delegate the power thereof to my comrades.”
Genesis and Angeal looked at their friend in utter bewilderment. The rest of the table joined them.
“I have approved this division of responsibility,” said Lazard, pushing his glasses further up his nose. “While he will remain the figurehead and still hold many responsibilities within SOLDIER and as an operative, some of his powers will be stripped to keep him at some distance from the central powers in the company. It is hoped that this separation will protect him and his wife from accusations of treachery.”
And, Angeal realized, to keep him further out of their influence as well. What’s he really scheming?
“Angeal and Genesis will take my place at this table.”
Scarlet cooed and shot a wink at Genesis, who visibly grimaced in return.
It was Reeve who, once again, bailed Sephiroth out from any potential backlash. “If Lazard has approved it, it is done. That is well within the rights as Director of SOLDIER. I guess Sephiroth should be dismissed.”
“Thank you,” Sephiroth said formally, sliding his folder to his friends next to him. “I will take my leave.”
And he did. Just like that. Behind him, he left only a still-stunned audience of ShinRa’s most powerful.
It was only when the door closed behind Sephiroth that Angeal realized that their friend had just dumped the responsibility of attending all these executive meetings squarely in their laps and then made a run for it. He, himself, had openly admitted they were often as awful as this one.
The realization seemed to hit Genesis at near the same time, as the redhead was snarling particularly unsavory curses beneath his breath.
“Next, we will discuss the custodial staff’s complaints about the SOLDIER floor locker rooms…”
Angeal had to resist the urge to let his head fall forward and slam on the table. Genesis abandoned protocol and did not resist that urge.