"How bad can I be?" Rachel read the article title aloud and smirked to herself. "Mmm, how bad indeed, Mr. President." Her eyes lingered on his image and she practically squealed, clutching the magazine to her chest like a schoolgirl, before regaining her composure and setting it aside.
Rachel lay draped over a fainting couch of light blue cashmere. It was nearly impossible to sit in her gown, so she was forced to recline. At least all those lessons in sitting sidesaddle were paying off. Not that she could imagine riding a chocobo in this attire, but it took that level of balance to manage ordinary chairs.
Of course, she'd been the one to insist on this dress, hoop skirt, corset and all. A bit old fashioned, sure, but it projected an air of elegance as well as innocence. She was wearing white, after all. Not all white, of course, not for this. She didn't want to look too bridal. She'd honestly been temped to wear red. A deep crimson gown had caught her eye, bustled satin with jewels at every tier and around the bust; it spoke of opulence, darkness and desire. She'd been drawn to that red, but in the end had chosen white.
She needed something to contrast the image in the magazine. Classic to balance the scandalous, and what she'd done had indeed been scandalous. On her eighteenth birthday she'd arranged a photo shoot at a resort in Icicle Inn. Amidst the backdrop of a winter wonderland they'd done the shoot. The snow had sparkled in the winter sun and so had she, princess of the ice. She'd worn white then as well, but had seemed anything but innocent then.
Rachel picked up a magazine from the floor. Her photo graced the cover. Her long blonde hair was wild, her blue eyes piercing as she stared from the cover of the magazine. In the picture she lay in the snow wrapped in a luxurious floor length coat of Jumping fur, and from what the photo implied, not much else. Of course, she'd had a great deal of clothing on under the coat, it had been freezing the day of the shoot, but they didn't know that. The ones who looked, jaws dropped at the splendor and scandal that was Rachel.
Barely eighteen, she had yet to even be presented to society and she was posing for magazines. Society was all astir, but that was exactly what Rachel wanted. Tonight was her debutante ball, where she'd officially come out as a lady. Traditionally such events marked a woman as eligible for marriage, and the ball was an excuse to parade her in front of eligible bachelors like a chocobo at auction.
Today, the party was little more than a game for the wealthy to show off how much they could spend on their daughters. The age of nobility and kingdoms had passed almost a century ago, but still the families from old power and old money played at being society. Rachel didn't really care much for old-fashioned people or values, and she knew real power lay with the budding class of new money. Fortunately, many of that class were fascinated by the old elites, which would make her more attractive to them.
She very much wanted to move in whatever circle seemed most exciting or glamorous. If she'd been born in an earlier time, a place in high society would have been a birthright. Today, that was not so much guaranteed. Daddy had money, but not nearly enough for her taste, and her family name no longer held as much importance as it once had. If she wanted to be the center of attention at the peak of society, she'd have to put herself in the spotlight.
Rachel smiled at her picture in the magazine. She was beautiful, and she was cunning. The magazine had hit the stands a few months ago, close enough to the date of her début to create quite a buzz. Debutante balls hardly caused a stir nowadays, but thanks to the sensation she had created with this magazine cover all eyes would be on her tonight. Society and the media, old rich and new, she would be the center of attention.
She would be an object of curiosity and fascination. Who was Rachel, really? Innocent and proper lady, or sexually charged rebel? No matter what people thought, the important thing was people would think of her. She would have their attention, and hopefully his attention.
The invitations had gone out months ago, and he had RSVPed with a promise to attend. President Robert Shinra, man of the year, and she, Rachel Radcliff, declared most beautiful woman in the world by some. Oh, what a pair they would make.
The ballroom was packed with guests, all waiting for the woman of the hour to make her grand entrance. Two Turks, Vincent and Veld, patrolled the perimeter of the room.
They met again in the middle. "Everything's clear," said Vincent.
"We just have to keep an eye on him." Veld turned his gaze to the President, who was hobnobbing with a group of well-to-do gentlemen across the room.
"That would be easier if he let us stay closer," said Vincent.
The President had insisted that the Turks not 'cramp his style'. He thought that being flanked by bodyguards at the party wouldn't be fashionable with these sort of people. Ordinarily, the President liked to flaunt his entourage like a rock star, let the world know that Robert Shinra was important and untouchable.
"He's trying to blend in," said Veld. Those of Old Money didn't flaunt it, not in the say way, "meet some ladies."
"So you think he and Chrissie are done?" he asked.
"Wouldn't say done-"
"Damn it Veld, now you've got me gossiping. Jackie's right, we are a bunch of girls. Anyway, my point is we're body guards not fashion accessories. We need to be able to do our jobs."
"I don't think there's that much danger," said Veld. "They have their own security here. Besides, if someone wanted to make a statement they'd do it at a political event. A reactor opening or the ground breaking at Midgar."
"Don't remind me," said Vincent. He was not looking forward to that event. It would be a security nightmare. This was a cakewalk compared the circus ShinRa had in store for next spring. All the same, Vincent didn't like crowds. They put him on edge, too many people to watch at once, so many unknown scenarios. "Why are we even here?"
"Come on," said Veld, "I'm not saying there isn't any risk. I know we need to be here, but I understand where the President's coming from. Guy deserves to have a little fun."
"At a time like this?" asked Vincent. Tensions were rising. ShinRa's competitors were less than thrilled with the company's meteoric rise; everyone from environmentalists to old land barons were uneasy with the changes ShinRa promised, and then Wutai had informed them they would not allow imports of ShinRa products. ShinRa planned to retaliate. "If the President manages to have his way, we're going to-"
"If?" asked Veld. "The ban is almost certain. It'll be in the papers by this time next week. No need to whisper. If Wutai doesn't want to allow imports, why should we allow them to export? It'll be good for ShinRa. Without Wutain materia the only materia on the market will be ShinRa made."
"You do realize it's going to make our jobs harder?" asked Vincent. Before expanding into energy ShinRa had been in the weapons manufacturing business and the weapons department still thrived. However, for every market there was sub-market, a black market. Wutai had banned imports and that meant illegal weapons traffic into Wutai was thriving. ShinRa itself was funneling some of the weapons; a sale was a sale, but it meant cutting a share of the profit with thieves and gangsters. The problem was if they didn't supply the weapons, the criminals just cut ShinRa out and got the goods illegally.
The Turks were supposed to stamp out unauthorized export of ShinRa tech, be it weapons, materia, or anything else. Now, they'd also have to deal with black market materia getting smuggled in from Wutai.
"Let's worry about one thing at a time," said Veld. "Jackie's still on the mission, and I'd be willing to bet she'll have a break in the case for us when we get back."
"I'd rather have her assignment," he said. In Vincent's opinion, body guarding was by far the worst part of the job, especially when it involved being around so many people. Still, he had a gun at his side and was poised to strike if required.
"A woman in a suit wouldn't blend in as well," said Veld. He gestured to the sea of ladies in elaborate ball gowns. Although the Turks' suits weren't nearly as expensive they didn't stand out among the mass of men in black tie attire. "Personally, I'd rather be here than following a paper trail."
"But why does the President want to be here?" asked Vincent.
"Networking is part of his job," said Veld. "This is the old guard, all of the Old Elites who still see President Shinra as some nouveau riche celebrity. He wants to get in with these people. Having old power on his side wouldn't be a bad thing, right."
Vincent made no reply. Veld seemed relaxed, easy going even as he scanned the crowd for any sign of danger. In Vincent's opinion, allowing the Turks to do their jobs instead of dragging them away from the work and into a crowded party wouldn't have been a bad thing either.
A hush fell over the crowd as Rachel Radcliff made her appearance, and all eyes fixed on her. All eyes except Veld and Vincent's: a distraction would be the perfect time to strike. They kept their eyes fixed on the President and any who might threaten him.
When the moment arrived for her grand entrance, Rachel practically glided down the stairs in her white gown. She knew how to walk in heels and get by without breathing deeply. Her gown complimented her features exquisitely. It was a strapless sweetheart cut at the top, bust trimmed in dark green which cascaded down the bodice. Beneath the bodice was a white tulle skirt spread out from her hips, resting on the hoops of her petticoat. Towards the bottom of the dress emerald embroidery circled the gown like a swirl of falling leaves.
As she made her descent, she caught his eye at once. He was dressed in green, just as she'd hoped. They were a perfect match; she wondered if he'd noticed. Originally, this dress design had only come with pink or baby blue trimming, but she'd insisted on green. It was the color of life, or perhaps the color of greed, but tonight was her night so it was fair to be a bit greedy.
She debated crossing straight to him so that he'd have no choice but to invite to dance. But no, she mustn't seem too hasty or eager. Besides, she had other guests to entertain. She tore her gaze from Mr. Shinra and focused elsewhere. Her parents and brother were beaming at her and she smiled graciously at their approval.
Rachel made a point of not so much as glancing Robert Shinra's way. It was later in the evening, after her music recital where she had sailed through a complicated classical piece to much applause, that he finally approached.
"Well, it's about time," she said, as he took her hand to kiss it.
"Have you been waiting all night for me to ask you for a dance?" asked Mr. Shinra.
"Of course not, silly," she said, "but you've been waiting all night to ask me. Don't think I didn't notice. Besides, it would be poor manners if you didn't ask."
"You're being very forward for someone concerned about manners," he replied, chuckling to himself.
"Forgive my candor, sir," she said. "That is, if you don't appreciate it. It's my night after all, shouldn't I get to say exactly what I want?"
He cocked his head to the side and smiled. "So then, miss, if you're saying exactly what you want? What is it you want from me, a girl your age?"
Rachel's stood straighter, chin raised as she ran a hand through her hair. "If you're going to be patronizing then I won't waste my time," she said, turning to go. "There are plenty of other men interested in the pleasure of my company."
He put a hand on her shoulder to stop her from leaving. His hands were so big compared to her tiny frame. "I didn't say I wanted you to leave. Don't mistake me. I was just surprised you'd want to waste time with an old man like me."
She giggled, bringing a gloved hand to cover her face as she did so. "Oh you really are silly," she said. "A handsome thing like you, old? The very idea."
"I'll be thirty before the year is out," he told her.
"Oh, I know," she said, "I read it in an article somewhere I'm sure."
" Don't tell me you pour over magazines just to read about me?" he asked. "Is that why I was invited?"
"You've gone from silly to delusional, or perhaps just egotistical," she said, "although it could be that, for a man of your stature, a bit of ego is well deserved, but let's not jump to wild conclusions. My brother is an officer in the ShinRa military, and besides, my family made it a point of inviting everyone who was anyone."
"Oh, now I'm hurt," he said, bring a hand to his chest in mock contrition. "Here I'd thought you'd invited me especially."
"Well, what if I said I am glad to have you here?" she asked. "Would that be consolation enough?"
"How 'bout a dance?" he asked, taking her by the hand and leading her out onto the floor before she had time to reply. He was actually, a fairly decent dancer. As they twirled through the ballroom they continued their light conversation.
"How about a date?" she countered. "There's a polo match next Saturday. If you like we could be seen there together. Give the magazines something new to write about."
"I was never really a polo man," he said. "Croquet on chocobos, isn't it?"
"I like chocobos," she pouted, "and besides, you won't be watching the match, you'll have all your attention on me."
"You'd like that wouldn't you, my honest dear," he said. "That photo shoot you did in Icicle Inn got you quite a bit of attention."
"Don't tell me you pour over magazines just to read about me," she smirked, "is that why you accepted my invitation?"
"You're a clever one, aren't you?" he asked.
"Well I like to think so," she said, "and really, you're not going to even bother denying it? Dirty old man looking at pictures of younger girls in magazines."
"Do you always tease?" he asked.
"You like to see how much you can get away with, don't you?" he said, "And I'll have you know that I actually have read about you in magazines, not just looked."
"I didn't think someone as busy as you would have much time for reading," she said idly. All this dancing was making her slightly dizzy.
"I make time for things that interest me," he said, "I'm a fan of charity. You've done a lot of good work. Your scholarship program has helped a lot of young women."
"The economic boom you almost single handedly created is what's helping them," she said. "They have opportunities now. Oh I must tell you about Scarlet. She's this brilliant little thing, still a schoolgirl, but let me tell you once she's grown up I bet she'll make history. You should come to a scholarship benefit and meet her, you might hire her for your company one day; she wants to be an engineer of some sort."
"Are you very fond of the girls you help?" he asked.
"Fond? Why no, fondness has nothing to do with it. I don't think it would be easy for anyone to be fond of Scarlet; she's a right bitch. What? Are you shocked, a lady like me swearing?"
"A bit surprised," he said, "to be honest."
"Well, thank you for being honest, and please forgive me for likewise being honest, very honest, but I don't see why I shouldn't say what I think. For instance, you're very attractive. I shouldn't just say that, but there, I said it."
Mr. Shinra chuckled and reached up tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear. "I think I can manage to forgive you," he said, "but tell me, if she's such a bitch why are you speaking so highly of her."
"Because it's the truth," she said, "and the program I'm trying to build will reward excellence. Please do come sometime, you'd be an honored guest and all it would take would be a relatively small contribution."
"Oh so now you're after my money," he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I have money of my own, Mr. Shinra," she said, "I'm after your heart. I want you to fall in love with the potential of these girls, their futures. As a business man, I'm sure you appreciate being advised of a good investment."
"Indeed," he said, "you know, you aren't what I expected from seeing those photos. I thought you'd be…I don't know…different."
"Do you want to know why I did that shoot?" she asked, "It's because I'm eighteen now, a woman, and society expected me to presented to the world in the old fashioned way, but I like doing things on my own terms. It's better that way, wouldn't you agree?"
"It's certainly more exciting," he said.
Once they tired of dancing he escorted her to the bar to get her something to drink. As they moved, Rachel noticed two others moving in the crowd, men in dark suits, the same men who had flanked the President earlier.
"Are those your security?" she asked.
He followed her gaze and nodding. "Clever and observant," he said, "I hope you don't mind. There have been…threats that made it necessary."
" Threats, how dreadful," she said, "do you have many enemies, Mr. Shinra?"
"Don't look so worried," he said, "I'll be fine, and you'll be perfectly safe with me when we go for dinner."
"Dinner?" she asked. "You never asked about—"
"Am I wrong in assuming you'll say yes?" He gave another smirk as he handed her a drink.
"And why would you assume that?" she asked, putting her hands on her hips. "Just because I've been talking with you?"
"Flirting with me," he corrected.
"How do you know I don't flirt with everyone," she asked. To prove her point she bounced right up to one of his security personnel. The pretty dark haired one with the piercing gaze, "well hello there handsome." She crooned. The man froze mid step, but his expression remained serious.
"Oh come now, Rachel, there's no need to tease poor Vincent," said Mr. Shinra. "Is it really so bad that I think you might like me?"
She gave him a side ways look. "Well, I would hate to be obvious, how dull. You don't seem to be the sort of man who can tolerate boredom for long."
"I doubt you'd ever be boring," he said, shaking his head.
Rachel broke into a hit of giggles as she returned to the President's side, leaving Vincent looking the slightest bit confused, while the brown haired Turk who stood beside him tried not to laugh.
"No, I should like to think I'm exciting, and you, you're exciting too, and life is exciting! Let's drink to that!" So they raised their glasses in a toast to life. To Rachel, at that moment, life itself seemed just like a drink, something to tasted, relished and then taken in eagerly. She was very thirsty.