In hindsight, Vincent should perhaps have realized that it couldn't be that easy.
It takes a Turk to beat a Turk... but by the same token, it is no surprise that a Turk can, if not beat him, at least keep up with him.
And Tseng, who has stepped up as Director after Veld's desertion, has always been an undeniably good Turk.
Being busy elsewhere (and Vincent really should have taken this into consideration) has not prevented the Department of Administrative Research from gathering information about him, merely from acting upon it promptly; now, with Fuhito dead and AVALANCHE in disarray, the Turks can take a breath, regroup, and are suddenly ready to pounce on the preys they've so far left alone.
Vincent is confronted, at last, right after his routine check into the SOLDIER Mission Log has finally confirmed the long-awaited Nibelheim Mission – in a display of timeliness that is nothing short of annoying.
It would almost be suspicious, if Vincent didn't realize that it is truly a coincidence this time.
It is still terribly inconvenient.
This is certainly not the time or manner he would have chosen for this particular confrontation. He's rather distracted by his worry over the potential outcomes of this last hurdle in his plans – apparently it'll be Sephiroth, Genesis and Cloud this time, as Zack is somewhere in the Mideel area, being supervised by Angeal in his last mission as Second Class before he gets promoted, and Vincent is busy weighing the goods and bads of this change.
He does not expect to run into a very ready Tseng: he's out of sorts – one of the major changes he's wrought is about to bear fruit and so much is at stake – and caught rather off guard, while his opponent is ready, prepared, perfectly possessed and a damn good Turk.
Tseng is clearly at an advantage here.
"Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Strife," the Turk says coolly, with a polite nod. "I'm Tseng, from the Turks. You might have heard of us."
Outwardly, Vincent stops still and becomes the perfect statue of inscrutable impassivity. Inwardly he curses.
The silence grows heavy as they both stall.
Vincent's senses are stretched to pinpoint Tseng's back-up, that he knows can't be far (he and Veld were the ones who came up with the protocol for this kind of situations after all, so he knows very well what Tseng is likely to do. It doesn't help as much as he would like to.) He can find none and it makes Vincent more uneasy than if he were openly under gun threat.
The comings and goings on the dimly lit alley continue, even though the slum dwellers hurrying about their business quickly start giving the two a wide berth and nervous glances; Tseng and Vincent just stand there, still and ready, waiting for the other to make a move.
Vincent weighs his options quickly. Tseng, he's rather sure, will do his best to outlast him and while it would be fun to match stubbornness with stubbornness, he really can't afford to waste the time it would take, not if he wants to shadow the Nibelheim Mission – which he does, very much. He has no choice but to speed things along: another advantage his opponent has over him.
“I have heard of you,” he allows in a measured tone, and lets Tseng wonder if he's talking about the Turks in general, or Tseng himself.
Small thing, unlikely to upset a trained Turk, but every little push can help him keep the other off balance eventually.
Tseng seems to expect more, but Vincent has never been talkative, even at the best of times.
Eventually, the Turk Director offers: "As I said, you've earned quite a reputation already, Mr. Strife. There's a bar nearby where we can talk in privacy over dinner, if you can spare me some of your time. My treat.”
Moving the battlefield on home ground, translates Vincent. There is probably someone, or a lot of someones, laying in wait for him there.
Causing a scene here, however, is a very bad idea. He can spy a few of 'his' kids observing the face-off tensely from a little further away and chances are they would feel compelled to pitch in to defend him if it came to a fight. The last thing he needs is for a battle between Turks and slums dwellers to break out – it would end up in a massacre (especially because, while he has taken to load his guns with tranquillizers unless he's on an actual monster hunt, to avoid too many deaths if he has to... discipline... his subordinates, he doubts the Turks follow the same philosophy).
And then the situation would escalate because of the predictable retaliation from ShinRa's Army. Not something he wishes to be responsible for.
He barely inclines his head and follows the other.
As they move, he finally picks out the Turk hidden over a structure beam two ramshackle buildings up the alley, likely with a gun trained on him. Whoever it is, they're good at stealth: Vincent only spots them because they have to move to follow him and Tseng to Wall Market.
They soon reach a dimly lit restaurant room full of worn out wooden tables and benches, surprisingly empty for the time of day. Vincent wonders briefly if his companion has arranged for it to be so.
A large television screen is located on the wall behind the bar, its up-to-date look at odds with the peeling paint and many stains; the corpulent man behind the bar, after glancing briefly their way, feigns being wholly taken with the faded beauty dramatically swearing her love for the gelled villain of whatever boring soap opera they're broadcasting.
A young server, with blonde hair and brown eyes, skips up to them and chirps a fake welcome, showing them to an out-of-the-way table already set. Vincent has a hard time not laughing when he recognizes her as a very young, very clumsy Elena. She's a far cry from the toughened Turk he occasionally had a drink or two with in Edge: this schoolgirl is... cute. He makes a mental note to remember this, just in case he gets a chance to tease her in half a dozen years or so.
As they follow her, he nonchalantly tracks their shadow – a woman, he notices, with longish red hair – and picks up what is presumably her partner, already positioned up a rickety wooden stair concealed in darkness, in the best place to give Tseng cover (and where he would have gone completely undetected, if Vincent didn't know of the stairs because of the permanent poker game in the side room upstairs he's joined a few times, for a little extra gil).
He mentally nods to himself.
As they get to the table, he moves just a little faster, just enough that he's the first there and can choose his own seat – one with perfect sight-lines on the entire room and all the entrances and exits, which is also very conveniently a stone's throw from cover behind the bar should it become necessary.
Tseng doesn't remark upon it, though Vincent knows he's noticed, just like he's noticing the way the Turk's eyes scan the room quickly and efficiently – the practiced evaluation of someone who's used to being on guard even on home ground.
They are one of a kind, and they both pretend to be oblivious to the fact.
Tseng orders a full course dinner - soup, salad, meat and dessert. Vincent recognizes the tactic - eating slowly, talking between mouthfuls, pausing here and there to savor a few bites: dragging out his meal to force people to stay and talk to him longer.
He counters it almost absently – only ordering tea and cold sandwiches, a light supper perfect to avoid the awkwardness of not having anything to do as Tseng eats, yet still have the freedom to pace his meal as he pleases, wrapping it up quickly if he wants to, pausing and lingering as needed without risk of spoiling it...
He barely even register the myriad calculations that are shooting through his brain in these mere minutes. It's second nature to him.
Tseng's eyebrows lift a fraction of a millimeter, however, and it is enough for Vincent to count a point as his. The Turk Director is growing wary; the field is leveling out.
The food arrives and Vincent notices with slight amusement that this young Elena is as unnerved by heavy silences as she will be in the future. She's twitching as she unloads the tray.
Tseng, on the other hand, is perfectly impassive and against his better judgment, Vincent is impressed. The only other one who ever could ride out his silences so well is the Cloud of the future and he finds himself wishing he'd had a chance to know Tseng better then.
They start their meal; the Turk Director with an ease that aims to convince an onlooker that he has never felt awkward and out-of-place once in his life; Vincent sips his tea with calm elegance, matching the other's poise.
And they get down to business.
“Mr. Strife, as you can well imagine, your recent actions within our capital have caught the attention of many within the walls of ShinRa. Attention that is garnering both positive and negative reactions among the executives.”
Tseng doesn't bother with standard pleasantries; Vincent answers as laconically as he can, tone brisk and direct, measured: “An unavoidable consequence of instigating changes.”
There is a brief silence. Tseng scrutinizes his face and doesn't show the frustration he must be feeling at getting nothing from it: "You seem like an intelligent individual, Mr. Strife. So I'm sure you understand that ShinRa is concerned about what agenda a man of your talents might pursue.”
He can understand, yes. What he cannot do, is guess whether they want him dead for it or not. How much do they know of his real agenda, anyway? His blank face doesn't betray anything however.
“There are some who see your actions in the slums as a form of protest against ShiRa management,” prods the Turk Director carefully. “If so, we'd like the opportunity to give more space to your contributions. Feedback from the community allows ShinRa to grow in positive directions."
A flawless quotation of the Company line, delivered in a bland tone. It's a tone laden with an undercurrent of I am reserving judgment, designed to maintain neutrality between him and his interlocutors.
Vincent can read between lines like that easily enough. It takes him very little to realize that while ShinRa is clearly worried about the influence he's gained, they want him under control rather than just gone. Apparently the way he's been improving life in the slums is something they can appreciate – provided he doesn't dare to tread on their chubby, greedy toes.
They also don't seem bothered with anything beyond his activities in the slums. Chances are, his meddling with certain SOLDIERs has gone unnoticed. Or maybe they're choosing to ignore it, since it turned out in the Company's favor, sort of. He can live with both options.
Vincent relaxes a fraction and waits for the offer Tseng is bound to extend soon. As he well knows, ShinRa has neutered many a threat with nothing more than a good paycheck and a few... comforts.
Sure enough... “The Urban Development Department in particular is most impressed with your work, Mr. Strife. Your actions are effectively improving the quality of life of slum dwellers by making provisions for basic services in such a comprehensive manner. Are you by chance familiar with ShinRa's Committee for the Development of Underplate Areas?”
Vincent doesn't show his amused smile. The 'program' in question has appeared in many of the Company forums in the last three days and gained quite a lot of publicity. He'd thought it was some well-to-do charity lady's latest fancy. Apparently not.
He wonders if they've hastily put the whole thing together just to draw him in. Not a bad tactic, if he was what he portrays to be. Englobe what you can't destroy... or what would be too expensive to destroy...
“I have not heard of it,” he says, just as bland as Tseng.
“I have some leaflets here if you're interested. It endeavors to improve life conditions for slum dwellers through the betterment of education and sanitation and the empowerment of small enterprises. A man of your talents would be a true asset to the program.”
“Hmm,” he says noncommittally.
Tseng remains perfectly professional, observing him carefully as he leafs through some pretty-coloured pamphlets full of high words like 'healthy and enabling environment' and 'brighter future' he's pretending to read to give himself the time to think.
“I see no interest in working for ShinRa,” he finally says, his choice of words careful: he won't give the Turks reason to think he's against the Company, if he can help it; better to let them think he can be bought and they just haven't found the price.
Tseng seizes his opening instantly: “Possibly you're not aware of the full scope of benefits ShinRa can offer its employees. Should you take our offer, you would work closely with our Director of the Urban Development Department, Mr. Tuesti, whom I believe you're already acquainted with?”
Vincent nods, seeing no point in denying the acquaintance.
“He has a very high opinion of you and has strongly enthused your involvement with the project,” Tseng goes on, wiping his mouth with a napkin daintily. “As you see, it is in our interest that you come to work for us. Our offer will be generous, and any terms negotiable.”
Vincent takes a sip of his cooling tea.
The offer is generous. Under different circumstances, he might actually consider it. But he isn't a philanthropist in disguise and more importantly, the Nibelheim Mission is just too crucial. Too much hangs on it. And if he accepts now, there is no way they'll let him out of their sight before his non-existent loyalty to ShinRa has been proven... his hands will be tied.
He cannot afford it.
His posture shifts, just slightly, to allow him quicker access to his gun. His clawed arm slides discreetly under the table, seeking leverage.
“It is an interesting proposal,” he says blandly and then he explodes into action.
He overthrows the table in a powerful move and thrusts it at Tseng – shield for him and blunt weapon at once – and he's already shooting, the tranquillizer he's taken to adding to his ammo taking out first the female Turk, that has barely recovered from her surprise, then almost instantly her partner too, Vincent's aim infallible even with the wooden stairs rail in the way.
Someone else is shooting at him – Elena, he guesses; the table is thrust back at him – Tseng is a professional and the advantage of surprise doesn't last longer than a second – and Vincent thanks his enhancements (for the first time without bitterness, because the price is paid in full at last and no other pain will have to be endured for this strength and speed) which allow him to sidestep the furniture, twist through the blonde's bullets with unnatural grace and lunge at the Turk Director.
Quicker than the eye can follow, Vincent incapacitates Tseng and is upon the screaming blonde schoolgirl in an instant. The gaping barman goes out like a light a mere moment later, struck true in the chest by one of his bullets.
Drawing a deep breath, Vincent winces as pain he's blocked out during the brief fight (as he's been trained to do since day one in the Turks) suddenly registers. The sniper upstairs has nailed him twice in those short seconds, though neither are threatening wounds, and Elena has managed to lodge a bullet in his leg as well.
Distractedly, he muses that it's good to see the new generation of Turks is worthy of the legacy they'll receive – then he scowls because the thought makes him feel too damn old.
A hasty Cure and an even hastier Mini, and he can walk through Wall Market as nonchalantly as ever.
He leaves them all bound and unconscious in Aerith's care, confident that the girl's cheerfulness will be able to deal with their inevitable grumpiness (grateful that he doesn't have to keep her out of sight anymore – she's so beloved by now, the entire slums would be up in arms if ShinRa ever went after her) and he's off to Nibelheim.
It takes a few days to make the journey, since he doesn't have access to a ShinRa helicopter like the three SOLDIERs; Vincent silently berates himself. He should have left Midgar earlier – forget his side projects – and waited for them in Nibelheim, been ready to monitor the situation. But what's done is done.
Nibelheim has, predictably, not changed since his last visit and it takes no effort to slip through the familiar streets unnoticed.
A quick, discreet trip to the inn (to take care of some needed preparations, like installing very discreet listening devices to monitor Sephiroth's room); a bit of recon to confirm that the reports of monsters around the Mt. Nibel Reactor have already been checked out; and he's ready to seek the three SOLDIERs out. He knows exactly where they'll be.
To his surprise, he runs into Cloud outside the ShinRa Mansion.
The boy is practically glowing with pride at returning home in his distinctive light blue uniform – Vincent spies Tifa, unmistakable even under a silly cowgirl hat, hanging coyly around in the hope of catching his eye – but he's also upset and nearly out of his mind with worry: he doesn't seem to register the oddity of Vincent's presence, as he cries out in utter relief: “Uncle Lance!”
He jogs up to him and he's already talking before Vincent can so much as offer a greeting: “Uncle Lance, I don't know what to do! They won't come out! They aren't even eating, just reading those damn books, and arguing about their authenticity, and it's starting to freak me out worse than the Reactor mess!”
He's looking at him imploringly, but Vincent needs more than that: “Reactor mess?” he asks, narrowing his eyes.
Cloud nods his head nervously: “We've been to the Reactor to see about the monsters and there were these... horror thingies... like, tanks full of mako with all these... these mutated thingies inside...” he waves his hands about haphazardly, as if helpless to convey his disgust. “...and the General was so angry, he attacked the tanks and destroyed everything and there was mako flowing everywhere and Genesis was cursing at him and then the General stormed back to town and he's locked himself in the library of the Mansion!”
He barely draws a breath before ranting on: “He says he wants the truth and he doesn't care who he has to kill to get it! Only I think he might kill himself if he doesn't at least eat and anyway, what if he doesn't like what he finds out and decides to do something crazy? It was hard enough to knock some sense into Genesis and Commander Angeal when they went AWOL and the General is so totally out of our league, I don't think any of us could stop him, and he's bound to do something crazy because he hasn't been eating or sleeping and that's never good for your sanity!”
“Has he found out anything... upsetting, yet?” Vincent asks sharply, trying to gauge how far along his plan is (and whether it's going through or unraveling in spite of his efforts).
Cloud winches. “I-I'm not sure... it's confusing, it's like there's some stuff that's true and a lot more that's just bullshit used to cover up something but it doesn't make sense! And Genesis found references to 'Jenova', which is supposedly the General's mother if you listen to Hojo, and an Ancient according to some, and an alien according to others, if you believe it, only now it turns out not only she might not be human at all, but not even alive for that matter! But then if this Jenova thing isn't the General's mom, than what is she? 'Cause I've seen what's up in the Reactor under a plate labeled 'Jenova', you know, there's this doll-like statue, and then what's behind it, well, it isn't anyone's mother, let me tell you, it's more like... like a cross between a skinny blue malborough and a mutated tonberry! And radioactive to boot!”
Vincent blinks. A... mutated tonberry? Seriously?
But Cloud is so lost in his ranting he doesn't notice: “And it looks like that creeper Hojo is so twisted he pretty much erased the existence of the General's real parents from his life and set it all up to look like that gooey malborough-tonberry thingie is his mom, which is idiotic because if my mom turned out to be a gooey tentacled alien, I'd need some serious therapy and the last thing we need is for someone as unstoppable as the General to have a psychotic breakdown!”
Lack of air stops him at last and Vincent is all but gaping at him. He hasn't seen much of Cloud after he's pawned him off to Rhapsodos, just a few visits here and there, and he's somewhat shocked at how different he's grown. Different from how he used to be, and different from the Cloud of the future too. Very different.
“You're spending too much time with Zack Fair,” he comments very seriously, ignoring Cloud's scowl. “And his disjointed thought processes seem to be contagious. You might want to be careful around him.”
Cloud gapes at him disbelievingly: “Uncle Lance, have you heard a word of what I'm saying? Forget Zack! That bastard scientist is trying to convince the General that his mom is a radioactive, probably-dead alien monster trapped into a Reactor core! Can you even believe it?”
“It's well within Hojo's lack of moral boundaries."
“And Genesis is feeding his own obsession about that illness of his with those books and they don't even know if they're real or forged! They're going spare and they're not eating and they'll snap and set stuff on fire any minute now and I don't know how to help!” Cloud's voice is rising in his distress.
Vincent frowns minutely. He hadn't thought of how Genesis might be impacted by the information they're discovering; he'd rather hoped that particular problem was behind them.
“Go talk your mother into making them some of her stew,” he replies calmly. “No-one turns down her stew. Some food in their stomachs will go a long way towards keeping their sanity intact.”
That should give Cloud something to do and stave off his breakdown, at least. As well as give Vincent the time to check things out for himself.
The blond SOLDIER Third brightens up: “Knew you'd know what to do!” he cries and he's off at top SOLDIER speed, leaving Vincent to shake his head in wonderment. Definitely too much time with Zack Fair.
Silent as a wraith, Vincent slips into the manor he knows better than the back of his hand and slides to the library, hiding where he can keep an eye on the two Firsts cooped up in it.
He carefully times his own breath to the slow, rhythmic buzz of the lazily whirring ceiling fan, just to be sure neither man would pick up his presence thanks to their heightened hearing. Maybe it's an unnecessary precaution, though: when, after giving himself a moment to settle, he tunes into their conversation, they seem to be in the middle of a brutal argument.
Genesis is pacing furiously and making his cloak flourish at every sharp turn he takes while ranting.
Vincent is struck by how degraded he looks already. His hair is almost white and his complexion grayed; even his clothes seem to have lost most of their intense hues, or maybe he's decided to turn to lighter shades for some reason. There is no sign of his black wing, but Vincent knows he has it anyway.
Sephiroth is standing stock still in the middle of the room, retorting to the Commander's flung lines with cold rage. He's almost immobile and his voice is a flat monotone. It's disturbingly reminding Vincent of the times he's found himself face to face with the Calamity's Son - in the Temple of the Ancient, or in the North Crater.
The only vaguely positive sign is that he's using none of the overly dramatic turns of sentence the crazy version of him had favored. There might still be hope.
Less than five minutes are enough to give Vincent more information than Cloud could. Genesis is torn between mad hope that something in those writings will save him and desperate horror at the nightmarish truths they're uncovering. Sephiroth, for his part, has figured out Hojo's 'deceit' and is struggling to break free of what he perceives as a web of lies.
Now to see if Vincent's fabrication holds under this trial by fire. And hope the metaphor doesn't become literal.
Case in point...
“I'm going to burn every last page of this library to ashes.” Sephiroth's gravely voice is almost a rumble.
“Burn the books!” Genesis swirls around in horror and stares. “You can't be serious!”
The General's expression is utterly serious.
“I thought you wanted to figure out the truth! No matter the cost, didn't you say?”
“I changed my mind. Not one word should be left that comes from that lying bastard!”
“We should burn him as well!”
Vincent can certainly relate to that feeling. Empathy however does nothing to quieten his mounting worry.
Genesis swats air with an impatient move: “I hate Hojo as much as you do...”
“I rather doubt that,” deadpans Sephiroth, his expression blank yet grimmer than Vincent is comfortable with, all the same.
Genesis snarls, rage dancing in his eyes like fire: “And what if the key to curing me is buried somewhere in there? What then, Sephiroth?” He stalks forward until he's right in front of the General. “Will you deny me the chance to live?”
“These are nothing but hideous lies!”
“How can you be sure?”
“How can you be not?”
Genesis lets out a wordless scream, turning away from the taller man and resuming his pacing, his body a mass of taut lines. “All I say is that I want a chance to unravel what grains of truth might be hidden under these lies!” he forces out through clenched teeth.
“Grains of truth...” echoes Sephiroth, still disturbingly immobile.
Genesis' leather coat flaps loudly against the bookshelves he's gotten too close to: “Truth, yes...” he hisses. “We seek it thus, and take to the sky...”
Sephiroth isn't listening: “Am I... a human being?”
The question hangs in a moment of silence.
“What are you on about now?” dithers Genesis warily.
“I knew ever since I was a child I was not like the others. I knew mine was a special existence. But this... this was not what I meant.”
“Stop!” hisses Genesis, slashing air with his arm. “You're being ridiculous. You said it yourself, there's nothing but lies here!”
“And you said there might be a grain of truth!”
Another frustrated scream escapes Genesis, who then proceeds to walking savagely from one book-covered wall to the opposite and back, like a caged beast.
“Those tanks in the Reactor...” Sephiroth's voice lowers to a perturbed whisper. He's no longer following Genesis' pacing with his eyes, but rather looking at something internal that no-one else can see. “Could it be... that I... was created the same way? Am I the same of those monsters?”
Genesis stops abruptly and regards him, expression torn between empathy and fury. It is a while before he resolves to snap out: “As my annoying student would say, it doesn't matter. Monster is as monster does, you know. So unless you plan to make your future living preying on unsuspecting travelers like a Midgar Zolom...”
“But is my life as a SOLDIER all that different?"
The Commander looks away, evidently not having an answer. He intones: “My friends, the fates are cruel...”
And finally, Sephiroth moves: “Don't give me that, Genesis!” he snaps, taking half a step forward with an aborted jerk.
Genesis whirls around, hurt and anger in his raised voice: “You're worried about your lack of humanity! Who the hell cares! You'll still be the darling hero of adoring masses, don't worry!”
“But if I...”
“At least you're healthy! What should I say?”
“Genesis...” Sephiroth hesitates, uncertain.
The other's voice sounds broken as he lowers his gaze: “My soul, corrupted by vengeance, Hath endured torment...”
“Genesis!” Sephiroth says a bit more forcefully.
The Commander snaps his head up to meet a worried green gaze. Even from his hiding spot, Vincent can see the desperation lurking in Genesis' eyes.
Sephiroth reacts to it going completely rigid again: “You're not going to die,” he states in a monotone.
Vincent observes him grimly. It isn't confidence that shows in his clipped words. It's the distress of someone who's felt fear too rarely in his life to learn how to cope with it.
No reassuring answer is forthcoming.
“Genesis, you won't die,” the General insists – as if by just saying it loud enough he could force it to be true. “Angeal will find something in the Banora undergrounds. We've worked hard to set Zack's mission up so that he will have time to go through Hollander's secrets. He will find a solution.”
“And if he doesn't? What then?” snarls the Crimson Commander in fury. “What then!” he shouts and in a fit of anger lunges at the book-covered table behind Sephiroth.
In the blink of an eye, he grabs it – books and all – and flings it with a wordless cry, torn pages fluttering everywhere as volumes fall to the floor with dull thuds and the wooden table hurtles through air and smashes against yet more books.
Genesis screams again.
Sephiroth grabs him from behind, holding his shoulders tight, drawing him close, Genesis' back to his front, and rests his head on his friend's shoulder. “Genesis...”
“I don't care for your false promises!” he rages, struggling against the arms restraining him. “I will not willingly accept this fate! Do you hear me?”
“Genesis, I know you want-”
“I want more life!” he shouts, besides himself. “And if I am not to have it... I'll take the world with me!”
He struggles again, but Sephiroth just tightens his hold, closing his eyes, keeping his friend close, and after a moment, Genesis collapses in his arms, anger gone as abruptly as it had exploded only to be replaced by raw depression.
“I am no longer in control of myself, Sephiroth,” he murmurs, his voice broken. “My body fails me, my soul is overcome by irrational anger. I don't know who I am anymore...”
“You are our friend,” the monotonous, yet deep voice intones, “mine and Angeal's. You are Strife's mentor. You are one of the best SOLDIERs ever. Do not doubt yourself,” he says, and Vincent is surprised, yet not, by his pleading tone.
Genesis smiles sadly. “My friend, the Fates are cruel...”
“No!” cuts him off Sephiroth with sudden fury. “No! There is still honor. And the three friends will not break their promise. Not this time.”
There is a long silence. Neither moves, seeking comfort in the other's closeness and not really finding it.
Vincent just concentrates on keeping his breathing light and undetectable. It isn't the first time he's witnessed – spied on, really – something that wasn't meant for his eyes and ears. It's part of the job, for a Turk. Even an ex-one. Of course, keeping secrets is also part of the job. This time, he's particularly glad of the certainty that this private scene will, despite his presence, remain private.
At long last, Genesis lifts a leather-bound volume Vincent recognizes instantly, not looking at either it or Sephiroth: “You should read this,” he says in a dead voice.
“Your mother's diary.”
Sephiroth gasps loudly and unconsciously releases his friend, taking the book reverently.
Genesis smiles brokenly and disappears out of the door.
Vincent lets him go.
Time elapses as Sephiroth, after sinking slowly to sit on the floor amidst the scattered books and torn pages, starts reading what he believes are his mother's words, oblivious to the world. He turns the pages gently, reverently. Now and then, he runs a gloved finger over a written sentence, lightly, caressingly.
Nothing disturbs the silence except the soft whirling of the ceiling fan, Vincent's breathing still lost in it and Sephiroth's own barely audible.
At one point Cloud peeks in, a steaming pot in his hands and a worried frown on his face. “I brought you some stew, sir,” he says nervously.
Sephiroth starts, taking a moment to locate the source of the unexpected voice. “What?” he asks blearily. He's looking at the Third Class as if he can't really reconcile any sense with his presence.
“Stew, sir. Hum. From my ma', you see. She makes the best stew and I thought since you haven't eaten anything in days you must need something good and ma' was happy to make some and...”
Cloud hesitates, hovering on the doorstep for a long moment, then goes. He leaves the pot of stew just inside the room. The tantalizing aroma meanders through the air. It goes ignored.
Vincent doesn't move. Patience is something he has in abundance. He draws on his unending supply of it to wait, immobile, silent.
A long time goes by in quiet stillness. Sephiroth just sits there, either reading, or with his head lowered in his hands, looking broken.
Vincent knows when the General gets to the part that mentions... well, him... being alive, because Sephiroth goes utterly still. He turns back a couple pages and re-reads it all carefully, a shocked expression on his usually impassive face. Then he jumps up and he's a blur through the rooms, too fast for even Vincent to see.
He follows unhurriedly. He knows where the SOLDIER First is headed and isn't altogether too happy to return there.
The cold room is exactly as he remembers it, the coffins lined along the walls, the smell of mildew and closed spaces and death overwhelming. He's glad to linger outside instead of entering it.
Sephiroth is an incongruous sight there, so tall and strong and imposing, so healthy and powerful and deceptively successful. He stands next to a very familiar coffin and Vincent halts in a dark corner, shrouded in shadows, knowing what's about to happen but needing to see anyway.
Sephiroth barely touches the lid before it is blown off its hinges. Vincent wishes he could see the man's face, get an idea of what he's thinking.
“...To wake me from the nightmare. Who is it?”
It's strange, to hear his own voice, his own words, almost more odd than to see the familiar face outside a mirror. But then he's grown used to a different look: the tattered red cape feels just a tad nostalgic, is all. He has changed – grown, he likes to think – from the younger version of himself that sits up inside his own coffin and shows hardly any interest in the tall, silver-haired warrior at his side.
“...Never seen you before. You must leave.”
An eye of the General's twitches minutely with annoyance. “My name is Sephiroth,” he says coldly and bluntly, “and I am your son.”
Hidden in the shadows, Vincent is unprepared for the wave of raw emotion slamming into him at those words, so casually tossed around, and he goes weak in the knees.
It doesn't matter that the General isn't talking to him. It doesn't matter that it's all a deftly spun lie of his own making. Those words... they hit him hard and fast and and he has to lean on the wall because he's feeling lightheaded. Oh, what he would have given for it to be all true – true for him, true then...
He gulps and tastes the knowledge of the future he's opened to his younger self on his tongue.
Bittersweet. The taste he's most familiar with ever since Cloud dragged him into the light again.
He feels like crying, or screaming, or maybe locking himself away and sleeping again. He doesn't want to do any of that and is irritated at himself for this irrational reaction. He consoles himself with the fact that he's completely hidden in the shadows and no-one can see him lose all of his composure and coolness.
His younger counterpart is not so lucky, but then, the man is about to gain a son and will never know the truth. Vincent can't bring himself to feel sympathetic.
A part of his brain idly wonders if it's healthy to envy his younger self so much.
Disbelieving mutters reach him through the open door: “My... son...? ...Lucrecia...”
He suddenly realizes that he cannot bear this any more. He's checked on things. He knows his plan worked. There is no need to torture himself further.
He leaves them there – father and son, at least in their hearts – and doesn't look back. It's hard, but it's also freeing. Like a tough mission accomplished.
He wanders upstairs, absently careful to remain unseen. These rooms have lost a lot of their horror, the memories dulled once he made his peace with them. Nothing catches his attention.
He's outside before he realizes it, and then he's running.
Running up the slope behind the Mansion, running under the vivid mix of orange and dark pink that is a sunset in Nibelheim, running into the darkening forest, among the trees that are dark purple shades against a still-bright sky; running for the hell of it. He's not even running from something, he just needs to move. To feel the exhilarating rush of pure speed. Maybe this is why the Cloud of the future liked motorcycles so much. The simple pleasure of speeding through the landscape.
Vincent had always reacted to onslaughts of emotions by going still, making himself as immovable as a rock, literally and metaphorically, but this... this works too.
Night has fallen when he returns to the village at last, feeling better. Cold stars shine in the glossy black sky, clear as they could never be in Midgar.
He swings by the inn to check on the listening devices he's installed and then he thanks the Planet that he thought to do so. Reception is a bit rocky, but the voices come through clear enough to guess that they're all still up – Sephiroth, Genesis, Cloud and even his younger self, all gathered in the General's room – and they're debating the course of action they need to follow.
Somewhat to his relief, they seem to have unanimously agreed to the goal of killing Jenova; the hows of it, however, are apparently giving them troubles.
“By the Goddess!” an exasperated shout – Genesis, quite clearly. “The thing has an external biological system! Its heart is exposed to eye – and therefore, to swords and magic. It can't be that hard to kill!”
“Yeah, but. What if it's already dead? But still living? Undead, like?” That's Cloud, and he sounds worried. “How are we to kill it if it doesn't die?”
A sound of static interference drowns out Genesis scoffing reply, but the voice of the younger Vincent comes through clearly: “A valid concern,” he points out coolly. “Considering the length of its cryogenic imprisonment and the relative good state it was found in, standard parameters might not be enough to determine its death. Full destruction of every connected bio-hazard might be the only solution.”
“Err... what he says,” agrees Cloud a bit uncertainly.
Someone – probably Genesis – grumbles: “So we burn it to ashes. Then we use chemicals to dispose of waste. Simple.”
“There is nothing simple when it comes to Hojo,” is the younger Vincent's gloomy comment.
“It is simple,” retorts Cloud stubbornly. “It's just not easy.”
“Genesis is right, however,” interjects Sephiroth's deep voice. “There are protocols to dispose of chemical hazardous waste...”
The rest of it is lost in a crackling noise and Vincent is busy fiddling with the reception when an unexpected voice almost makes him start: “Well, well, well, lookit here! 'Tis our charming runaway, yo.”
Vincent stands slowly and turns calmly to face the outlines of a lanky, disheveled man, with a menacing baton over his left shoulder, and a tall, impassive mass of muscles with sunglasses, blocking the entry of the alley.
Reno and Rude.
“Spying on ShinRa employees, sunshine? Whatcha think ya'r doin', yo?”
Vincent raises an elegant eyebrow at them. Then, without the slightest forewarning, he jumps up and vaults over a wooden windowsill, twisting in midair to ricochet off the very close opposite wall and up again. He's on the roof before Reno's startled yell is over.
Imprecations rise from both Turks in the narrow alley below – Vincent mentally congratulates himself for getting such a reaction from the ever-silent Rude – but his attention is already on scanning the landscape of tiled roofs and dusty, winding roads, forcing his eyes to pierce the darkness... he hasn't heard the helicopter, they must have landed a way afar... his gaze sweeps the mountain range, indistinct in the night even to his enhanced sight... then he quickly scans the area between the slopes and the village proper... a noise behind him tells him that Reno is climbing up in pursuit – and there!
He spots the helicopter and is off, quick as a thought, jumping from the rooftops as if he was running on a free highway.
He doesn't bother worrying about the Turk hot on his heels. Reno's good – he must be used to the creative obstacles of a chase in the slums – but he isn't as enhanced as Vincent and what advantage his skill and experience would give him over others, Vincent matches through his own training.
He spares a moment to locate Rude, who's moving on the ground to cover that angle and doesn't seem to need communication to coordinate perfectly with his partner – their teamwork has always impressed Vincent – but the pincer maneuver they're so skillfully executing will be wasted: they seem to believe he'll go for the Mansion.
Almost as an afterthought, he twists off a weatherwane in the shape of a Nibel dragon and throws it between Reno's legs – eliciting more loud cursing – before launching himself off the last roof, tucking his limbs in and spinning to control his momentum, landing perfectly in a ready position.
He barely touches the ground and he's running again, the terrain too familiar to give him pause, an almost invisible smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
He's always loved the thrill of aerial maneuvers. He was the only shooter who insisted on learning how to aim during a catleap or a vault jump, even when Veld called him an idiot for it. And to have challenging opponents upon his back...
Reno and Rude have already adapted to his unexpected direction. They're good. Planet, does he like this...!
There are two very nervous infantrymen guarding the helicopter. They shoot at him but Vincent almost scoffs out loud. They aren't even trying to hit him. Or else they're so bad at it they shouldn't have been given rifles at all.
He knocks them out with barely the effort it would take to extirpate a razorweed and slips easily in the pilot seat. The controls aren't entirely familiar, but enough that he can get by. He sends a mental thank you to Cid as he fires up the engines and the rotor blades start their noisy rotation.
As the helicopter rises in the air under his sure command, he can see the indistinct shapes of Rude and Reno running and shooting at him, rapid gunfire flashing in the night. The roar of the blades drowns out their shouts but he can easily guess the fury on their faces and the kind of insults they must be yelling.
He allows himself an amused smile. It's not like anyone will see him up here.
Hovering out of their reach, he muses briefly over his options.
The Turks will bear down on him with all their skill now: they have no choice but to consider him an enemy, after all. He knows he can't outrun them for long.
On the other hand, he doesn't need to. What he came to the past to do is done – he is just nervous enough about the Jenova mess that he wishes to see it through before he lets them catch him. He certainly has the skill to keep them hanging for a while...
He will have to give up any idea of keeping in contact with Cloud or Aerith – that would require encrypting his PHS messages and routing them through remote locations to prevent tracing, a wasted effort since he isn't planning on being on the run for long. It's a tad disappointing, but as older Cloud would often say, the price of freedom is steep.
He will also have to plan for a new means of transport soon – the fuel of the helicopter won't last long.
And he will have to remain in the West continent, to be sure that the news of Sephiroth's and the others' actions will reach him...
...All things that he can easily do – but to what end? Besides avoiding the Turks?
How to pass the time?
Well, he supposes that there are a couple of things he could fix before letting ShinRa catch up with him...
It doesn't take long to get to the old coal mines and once close enough, Vincent points the helicopter at a slab of rock on the nearby Mount Corel and sets the autopilot on. Then he parachutes down.
He takes the time to admire the distant explosion – nothing wrong in taking pride in a job well done – and then sets to hiking up to the Reactor, where he finds that, quite predictably, security is reduced to a minimum. Let it not be said that ShinRa wastes resources on anything outside the Science Department (or the executives' luxuries)...
The Huge Materia is held in a container similar to the one they'd found on Shinra No. 26 a few years from now; it is a matter of minutes to depressurize it and reveal the huge hunk of crystallized mako in all its glory.
Vincent wastes no time in taking accurate pictures and sending them to a certain Treasure Princess... along with a bunch of riddles about railways, rockets, submarines and condors that should give her all the clues to get the whole set of four.
He knows Yuffie won't be able to resist the lure of such wonderful 'prizes' and he knows, too, that she'll enjoy the 'treasure hunt' immensely. And it will both keep her occupied and get the Huge Materia out of ShinRa's control, all without Vincent having to lug the bulky things around when he has neither an aircraft to store them in nor the chance to leave them in Cosmo Canyon as they did back in the other future.
He casually makes his way through the hidden facilities to nonchalantly short-circuit most of the Weapons Departments projects secreted here – really, it would be irresponsible to leave such dangerous toys within reach of the likes of Scarlet – and steals a truck to leave easily before the Turks catch up with him.
He spots Rude and Reno from a distance anyway, by the looks of it gathering information on the downed helicopter: they're already on his trail. They're damn good – and Planet, does their chasing him bring back memories...
The truck, to his delight, turns out to be one of Scarlet's pet projects, propelled by what he guesses are jet plane engines and able to run half a mile in mere seconds. It's exhilarating – he is definitely acquiring a taste for speed.
He reaches Rocket Town the following evening and just about has a heart attack at the news on everyone's lips: Nibelheim burned to the ground!
His shock and fright quickly settle, thankfully, because all everybody's talking about is how miraculously the villagers have been saved by the 'SOLDIER heroes'.
Videos of Sephiroth, Genesis and even Cloud are being circulated by the ShinRa PR machine, all haloed by aggrandizing tales of their 'bravery and selflessness in rescuing the townsfolk from the effects of the terrible accident'.
The official version, he gathers easily, is that the Mako Reactor was 'sabotaged' by 'unknown terrorists' and exploded, destroying the nearby town in a blazing inferno.
Vincent has a very good idea of just who these 'unknown terrorists' were. They're posing for pictures in their best uniforms and looking awfully smug.
He wonders how things went really down when they confronted Jenova, but it doesn't truly matter. The self-satisfaction radiating from them is indication enough that everything went to plan. Neither does the destruction of Nibelheim matter much. Sure he'd hoped to avoid it... but at least the death toll was minimal this time.
And who knows? Perhaps it was simply destined to be. (And maybe this is just more of Chaos' leftover mysticism but at the point things have come to, who cares?). Perhaps the Great Nibelheim Fire (as it's already being called) is just one of those events that no amount of tinkering with timelines could avoid. Perhaps, he thinks amused, if he'd put all his efforts into preventing any chance of anyone setting the town on fire, a Nibel dragon would have plunged on it and burned it to ashes anyway!
What matters is that Jenova is confirmed dead; Sephiroth and Genesis are both still sane; the Planet is faced with no immediate threats; Cloud is having a chance at the life he's always dreamed of; Reeve is well on his way to revolutionarily marginalize the impact of mako on world economy; Yuffie will give ShinRa hell in very cute, inventive ways; Shelke's still clear of Deepground's radar; the Midgar slums are rattling some of the chains that hold them down; and Aerith is safe.
This calls for a celebration.
Fortunately a certain tough talking, warm-hearted old pilot happens to live in this very town, who is an excellent companion for such an occasion.
Cid only remembers him vaguely (as the savvy blond brat's weird uncle, who can't say anything that isn't bloody cryptic, much to his amusement), but Vincent knows exactly which buttons to push to get him to do what he wants. A bit of mocking of Cid's love for tea, a taunting, scoffing dare and the two are soon embroiled in a drinking contest – and from there, the night is set.
It's nice to let the pilot's constant swearing and very familiar chain-smoking wash over him, taking him back to a number of other nights like this – even if Cid isn't the friend Vincent shared so much with, he's close enough – and he finds himself relaxing like he seldom does.
Long into the night, he enjoys the rare chance at companionship – riling the pilot up by cracking dry jokes with a perfectly straight face, bantering friendly insults and trading anecdotes, not particularly bothered, for once, by the fact that the alcohol is lowering his guard and he's mixing up his two lives and identities a little more than is advisable. (Besides, Cid is taking it all in stride, sometime around the twelfth shot deciding that between 'Vincent' and 'Lance', his name must clearly be 'Lawrence' and all-around more interested in bragging about the rocket launch he's preparing for the next spring than worrying about whether his companion did or didn't truly storm the Junon Underwater Reactor, since after all, a good tale's a good tale and even better if washed down with good rum).
Even though he's letting the drinks and the friendly company affect him more than usual, Vincent's far from drunk however and some trained sense inside him perks up and takes notice when he catches the silhouettes of two familiar Turks closing in on him.
Cid is detailing the inner pieces of the Highwind's customized 16-s Ge engine with the loving tones of a doting parent and though Vincent isn't entirely sure if it's been built yet or is still just a design, he knows his old friend will go on enthusiastically about his 'baby' whether or not 'Lawrence' is there to listen. So he has no compulsion leaving him there with an almost full bottle and enough gil to cover the tab.
He casually gets up and steps out to get himself captured.
Dawn is still a couple hours away and the air smells of frost, despite it being only October.
When a figure drops down from the eaves it's amazed at the way Vincent spins and rushes it bodily against the wall. Vincent catches the barest impression of red hair before he feels the faintest prick of a knife blade on his stomach, even as his own gauntlet poses threateningly over Reno's guts. Stalemate.
Of course, Reno has a partner (and if Vincent had wanted to get away, he'd have simply thrown the red-head to the wall and run for it; but if he did that, his only option would be to run forever, hunted and aimless at once, and really, a lifetime alone is not appealing to him in the least, not after everything he's gone through).
Rude's massive arm sneaks agilely around Vincent's throat and the gunman is dragged back and away from Reno, another arm quickly circling and restraining him.
He doesn't free himself in any of the dozen grip strip moves he's internalized.
Reno, being Reno, just has to be irritating: “Damn it all, man. You lead us on a merry chase and then we find you here? Getting hammered in a fucking bar? 'Tis not even funny, ya know. Just lookin' at you is makin' me sober." He grumbles when he doesn't get any reaction from Vincent. “And anyway, Rocket Town? Never thought you'd be so stupid as to come back to your hometown, yo!”
Vincent blinks and it's a long moment before he manages to remember that 'Lance Strife' supposedly hails from Rocket Town.
The hesitation is enough for Reno's bright intelligence and the teal-coloured eyes narrow as he works it out: “You ain't... it's a cover, innit?”
Before he can be interrogated on the spot, Vincent decides to take action and breaks Rude's grip by the simple expedient of putting pressure on the vulnerable nerves of the man's hand. The move is guaranteed to leave him with pained and numb fingers and the predictable reaction is, that Rude knocks him out before risking losing him, despite Reno's startled protests.
He comes to and finds himself secured to a chair by his wrists, Tseng once again regarding him blankly from across a table.
This time it isn't a bar. This time it's a holding cell, complete with see-through mirror glass and shackles around his wrists. SOLDIER standard, he notices. They aren't taking any chances, it seems.
Rude is looming imposingly behind his boss and Reno, slouched against the wall with a leg nonchalantly bent, is scowling viciously at him, evidently having taken his evasion skills as a personal offense.
“Mr. Strife,” greets him Tseng coldly. “It seems we were remiss in determining what level of threat you pose to the Company.”
Vincent works out a kink in his neck, utterly unconcerned with either Tseng's coldness, or Reno's mutterings about shooting him 'where the sun don't shine'.
“It seems, too,” continues Tseng sharply, “as if the range of your skills set is wider than we thought at first.”
He makes a show of consulting a file that Vincent knows for a fact is just a prop (no Turk would come to a meeting of this kind without having memorized everything there is to know about the target). “Hacking.... smuggling... gambling... assuming a false identity,” he shoots a sharp look at him at this, but Vincent just gazes blandly back, “... spreading false information... forgery...” a slight pause, and a pointed look, “...impersonating a Turk.”
Vincent quirks his lips in the barest hint of a smile.
There is a long silence.
If he was a SOLDIER, this would be the moment for Vincent to own up to everything, relishing recounting his meddling successes, and get himself proclaimed a hero. But he's a Turk, and Turks know the importance of secrets.
Sometimes, lies are better than truths. Sometimes, disclosure can do more harm than good. Sometimes, secrets must stay just that – secrets.
So he smiles unnervingly and relaxes his pose and mocks his captors: “What'll it be first?” he asks affably. “Blackmail? Threats?”
He's been trained not to cave under such duress.
“Holding my nephew hostage?”
That would hurt, but Cloud's a SOLDIER now and he can look after himself and to cave would do him no favors anyway.
“Straight to torture?”
He smiles bitterly at that one. It's not like they can come up with something that'll really disturb him. He's been in Hojo's 'care' after all.
Underneath his mocking questions, the message is clear: they will get nothing from him.
In their eyes, he can read openly the same realization. Reno might be spitting with rage and frustration and Rude's jaw might be more clenched than usual and no doubt, whoever's behind the mirror is probably scowling and muttering as they figure out that any conventional method will result in failure with this particular man.
Even the new Director of the Turks knows without a doubt, that any of their efforts would be futile: in Tseng's obsidian eyes, Vincent can read respect – the same he himself would feel for a tough opponent – warring with frustration.
He sets down the manila folder that supposedly holds Vincent's file and sits back in his chair, not breaking eye contact.
And then he proceeds to prove to Vincent beyond any doubt why he is Veld's heir, and the Turks' Director.
“Lance Strife,” he says very calmly. “Have you ever considered joining the Department of Administrative Research?”