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The Turks' Way

Chapter Text

Vincent breathes deeply in the freezing air of this Nibelheim of the past.

It looks nothing like the faked sterile copy of ShinRa's cover up. No, this is the real deal: the wood of the buildings smells of the dampness of countless snowfalls and of the smoke of countless hearth fires; the few people milling about have the weathered, sturdy look of mountain folk; the colours are dingier and truer.

It isn't the bustling village of the time when the researchers of ShinRa Electric Power Company were based here, either, when the denizens stared with wide and suspicious eyes at all the wondrous modernities dragged up the mountain paths for the scientists' comfort and went about their lives skirting around the company's areas with muttered grumblings... when beautiful, sweet Lucrecia was here and he with her – bodyguard and supervisor and lover all in one.

It is too late for that, unfortunately: the labs are already abandoned, the reactor workers nowhere to be seen.

But it is most certainly the remote, peaceful village of hunters and hikers that had gone on unassumingly after ShinRa had come and (mostly) gone: the Nibelheim of Cloud's childhood.

It worked then.

A feral smirk twists Vincent's aristocratic features. Decades of suffering, of struggles... of heart-wrenching sorrow, of pain beyond imagining, of dealing with inner demons more literally then any person should... of feeling his own humanity slipping further from him with every breath... decades of vicious tug-of-wars for control...

But in the end, he'd not only gained the upper hand over his demons but also managed to get some use out of them.

Chaos' power as harbinger of death, allowing the rest of the Planet's Lifestream to be gathered to a new destination to continue the cycle of life, has surprising side-effects if employed properly. Or rather, improperly, because time travel with the aim of reworking the future to Vincent's own specifications is, most likely, not what the Planet had envisioned for her WEAPONS.

Vincent doesn't particularly care.

The years in Cloud's and the rest of AVALANCHE's company have given him a taste for saving the Planet, but living through cosmic crisis after cosmic crisis has taught him the wisdom of going about it in unconventional ways. Such as travelling to the past.

Sadly, with the part-WEAPON fighting him every step of the way, Vincent hasn't been able to go as far as he wanted to: too much energy was wasted in the struggle for control and the technique ended up running out too soon. Or too late, depending on how he looks at things.

His will has still prevailed though and that is all that matters: now he walks in a winter long past, Chaos' presence no longer in him, exhausted out of their previously shared body by the way Vincent has ruthlessly drained the demon to power his own purpose. The enhancements to his senses, speed and strength have lingered, though, which is nice, as nice as the silence in his mind which he had, at one point, despaired to ever be blessed with again.

Indifferent to the cold, Vincent stalks purposely over the snow-covered ground. Out of habit more than conscious thought, he sticks to the shadows, passing through unnoticed. His step is confident though: his goal clear.

The ShinRa Mansion.

The opulent, abandoned house on the outskirts of Nibelheim where Sephiroth learned – will learn, now, that is if Vincent's plan falls through – the truth of his origins and declared his vendetta against the Planet. The mansion where, he knows, his younger self is still trapped in his thrice-damned coffin and even more in his own hang-ups about sins and desperation.

He's not going to do anything about it, though. Not yet, at least. He firmly believes that the mistake of locking himself away was, in the long run, something he truly needed to experience and that he would never have become the man he is, a man he is rather at peace with - at long last - without it. His sufferings have been a steep price, but worth it, in the end. He won't take that from his younger self.

No, the Mansion is his goal for a different, very simple reason: he's going to change things.

If Sephiroth can be manipulated by the stuff in the ShinRa Mansion library, he'll make sure that he's manipulated in the right direction. He isn't a Turk for nothing.

Careful not to let his presence be detected by anything inside or outside the house, he goes through the wealth of information stored there and carefully checks his plan for potential loose ends.

Then he proceeds to selectively destroy, modify, forge, change and rearrange books and journals and documents and files until everything is set to his grim satisfaction.

When he's done setting the stage, the artfully hidden and twisted 'truth' of Hojo's making is easily perceived as an almost shabby cover-up, which to a careful examination cannot hide the 'real' truth – a truth of Vincent's own creation, but so skillfully arranged as to be utterly believable.

Now when Sephiroth will come, he will find Hojo's answers and, being the genius he is, quickly realize they are artfully faked to manipulate him, and seek the truth underneath them... finding instead the one that Vincent is fabricating to suit his own purposes. And to fulfill a few of his wishes, why not? His version is better than the actual one, anyway – or so Vincent thinks, and since no one else will ever know it's mere fabrication, his opinion is the only one that matters.

Finding his once beloved Lucrecia's personal journal half-torn in a room, he is able to use it as template to create a fake one that describes their secretly growing love... Pure, unadulterated, sappy romance: the Scientist and the Turk – the angst of their respective positions, a romantically discreet wedding (indulging in fantasies he'd always dreamed of), Lucrecia finding herself unexpectedly (but not unpleasantly) pregnant, plans to run off together in the sunset – the hell with ShinRa... a bittersweet symphony that he nevertheless enjoys.

Whatever guilt he might feel at using Lucretia this way is rather swept away in the memory of what she did to him – the multiple betrayals and her forcing him into the existence of a monster.

Besides, Turks don't do guilt. He really should have remembered this sooner...

Medical records are faked next, of Lucretia being forcefully infected with the J.E.N.O.V.A. Virus – all the mentions of Jenova as an Ancient are skilfully transformed into visible forgeries, as further insurance against Sephiroth falling for her lies; the scientist's faked diary turns then to talking about her fear for the unborn child, of her submitting to Hojo's blackmail to ensure the baby got the medical care he needed.

A clinically recorded confession of Hojo's about shooting Vincent to prevent him from taking off with his wife and child is rather easy – and bitterly satisfying – to make up, especially since he doesn't even have to change the truth much this time; the same goes for Lucrecia's real recordings about the Chaos project, which Vincent accompanies with a bunch of misleading notes and speculations about partial memory loss that will, hopefully, cover any inconsistencies in his younger self's eventual awakening.

He decides to include Lucretia's documented death – no point in risking any intervention from her. He'll take care of monitoring the cave she's trapped in, without involving others. It is also a chance to orient Sephiroth's inevitable anger towards some suitable targets – Hojo, who now appears to have declared her 'a specimen to be tested to destruction', and Old Man Shinra, who appears to have given his blessing. The President out of the way could only be a good thing after all, seeing as Vincent's ultimate goal includes an overhaul of ShinRa... or overturn, depending on Shinra Junior's choices – Vincent doesn't really care which.

He admits to himself that he's having way too much fun with the whole thing when he gets to heavily doctor Hojo's delirious notes, including quite a lot of rambling delusions about creating a god in Sephiroth. Several key-points are touched: the mind-manipulative application of the J.E.N.O.V.A virus (which, considering Jenova's hold on the minds of her 'children', aren't as completely a fabrication as one might hope), verbose nonsense about 'recreating the Ancients', diagrams of 'possibilities for breeding Project S', a detailed plan to make the SOLDIER more susceptible to the mind altering features of the virus by convincing him that 'Jenova' was his mother... even hints of Hojo planning to take him over in the end, get the 'perfect body' for himself and ascend to godhood himself.

Nobody would imagine it if they saw him, but Vincent is cackling madly on the inside.

The task of piecing together a completely fake reality, however it suits him, and make it believable is challenging for his intelligence and cunning and makes him feel more and more like the man he'd been before Lucrecia. Cover ups are the Turks' specialty after all.

When he's ready to leave the mansion, he has satisfyingly created a reality in which Sephiroth is his and Lucretia's son and Hojo is the root of all evils. A masterpiece, if he says so himself.

Then he goes looking for child Cloud.

Chapter Text

Vincent reckons that little Cloud should be about eight at this point. A good age to start training the boy who might well end up having to save the Planet again anyway. Fate has a way of working like that.

Besides, Vincent has grown to think of Cloud as a comrade, a valued one – their affine natures (they're both prone to loneliness and brooding more than your average bloke) and the similar experiences haunting their memories (and almost no-one else's, for which Vincent is at once bitter and grateful) made it so that they grew closer to each other than to most of their other companions.

He isn't really sure of when it happened, but somewhere in his subconscious, the blond hero has been labeled his 'partner' and that is that.

For a Turk, almost no other bond is more important. Future or past, Vincent will do anything short of endangering the Planet to protect Cloud.

That's the Turk Directive after all: ShinRa, Turks, Self, Anyone Else. Always in that priority order. In Vincent's mind, that's changed to Planet, Comrades, Self, Anyone Else, but that hardly matters.

The bond between him and the Cloud of the future has been built on shared history, shared pain and shared blood – the blond has proven himself a better partner, in the long run, than Veld had been – and Vincent will honor that even now that he no longer is 'his' Cloud, in what ways he can. So he's going to train the child Cloud once was.

Of course, the first step towards this is changing his own look.

As unpleasant as the perspective to lose his distinctive outfit is, there is no alternative. Not if he wants to walk openly in this past and effect things, rather than pass through like a wraith, unseen and untouched – but also mostly unavailing.

The red band holding his unruly fringe in check and the tattered red cape he's wrapped himself in for the past few decades are so much a part of him that it's almost a physical ache to shed them; but by the same reckoning, they are too tied to his earlier identity – an identity he is willingly abandoning to his younger self – to be a safe choice. This past already has a Vincent Valentine – one whose disposition and mind frame are peculiarly suited to the outfit – and he, being the intruder (albeit willingly so), is the one who has to sacrifice what he needs to, in order to blend in and avoid headache-inducing complications.

Underneath his cape however Vincent's attire is just a black shirt and practical black pants with several straps and buckles. Nothing too distinctive – and thus, excellent for someone who's hoping never to be identified. The fact that he still looks like a man in his late twenties will help disguise him, but it's still better that he avoids any feature that would tie him to the Vincent Valentine of the current time at a glance.

Of course, this doesn't mean he will renounce his guns. The thought doesn't even cross his mind, in fact. Altering his outlook for infiltration purposes is one thing. Cutting off a piece of his own soul – and that's what the Death Penalty sure feels like – is just... unthinkable.

No, the wicked, menacing one-hand rifle, with its unraveling barrels forming a cross motif, stays exactly where it belongs – in Vincent's hand.

Then again, the mighty gun was a gift from Lucrecia, in a way, and if his younger counterpart doesn't visit the cave holding her prisoner – which he will have no reason to do – he won't find it; he'll stick to his trusted Cerberus instead, and the familiar, triple-barreled revolver, with its scrollwork patterns and its silver chain in the shape of a three-headed dog with a wing dangling from the grip, is more than sufficiently different from the powerful Death Penalty and its sharp and sleeked design, all dark black beauty and metallic gray adornments. He fears no recognition on that basis.

Vivid blue contact lenses will disguise his crimson eyes – it is a simple matter to order them by phone and the choice of color is a must if he wants to go through with his idea of posing as a relative of Cloud's.

Keeping his hair braided and combed back (no more shaggy bangs framing his face: he's going back to Turk-like neatness) makes it look suitably different from 'Vincent Valentine's typical outlook'.

A thin black glove pulled over his claw – a lot more discreet that his former gauntlet – completes his transformation. Few will pay much attention to a slightly misshapen hand, especially if he doesn't go waving it in their faces.

Actually, it is more likely that they will be too busy staring at the pink ribbon he still ties to his arm – and always will. All of them do, those who have been touched by Aerith's grace. In memoriam. He cares absolutely nothing what anyone might think of such an ornament – so odd against his dark, lithe elegance.

The worst thing, and the one that takes him the most to go through with, is the decision to bare his face, but he steels himself – he's more mature now and more confident and no longer needing to hide from the world he has helped save more times than he would ever have imagined. He can treat this like the infiltration assignment it is without breaking down.

Faking an identity to go with the new look – one that he can use freely in this past – is a child's game for one with his training, especially since he now has decades of experience with more complex computer mainframes than the current ones to draw from. It is more a matter of imagination than anything else: cleverly stitching together a few verifiable facts with a lot of creative interpretation of reality.

Luckily enough, as he finds out with barely any effort, Cloud's father wasn't native of Nibelheim: rather, he arrived in the mountain village as one of the reactor workers that ShinRa brought there, dragging along his extremely young wife, who was then left alone to raise a toddler by herself when he died of accidental mako poisoning two years later.

For whatever reasons, Mrs. Strife had chosen to remain in Nibelheim; remembering the less than welcoming attitude of the mountainfolk towards 'outsiders' – especially if somehow affiliated to ShinRa – that he himself had experienced, Vincent feels it a reasonable guess that the woman knows nothing of her husband's family. After all, she would have tried to contact them if she'd known a few cousins still lived in Rocket Town, wouldn't she? Ask for help or something?

So, presumably she is unaware of her husband's family composition. That is convenient, because he can quite easily forge himself a place in Cloud's family tree, which will give him ground to enter his life – and his handiness in building guns will help cement his tale of hailing from the town that is the undisputed heart of mechanical engineering on the Planet.

Thus it is that an elegant man, roughly six feet tall, dressed in the fashion of the Rocket Town area (except for the gossip-inducing pink ribbon around his left bicep) shows up at Nibelheim a little while later – with no-one the wiser about the fact that he's been there for months rather than just arrived from the other side of the mountains – and politely asks about the Strife family. To the shock of the entire, usually sleepy village.

Shock that only worsen when he affably introduces himself as Lance Strife: allegedly little Cloud Strife's 'uncle'. Vincent has always wanted a brother anyway. As a child, at least. He might as well get an imaginary one in his adulthood...

He is almost amused at the confused mix of suspicion and amazement his unexpected arrival is generating in the villagers. His documents are all in place, though – he isn't a Turk for nothing – and he is banking on the two Strifes, mother and child, being glad enough of his appearance to smooth things over.

Cloud's mother turns out to be a female version of the Cloud of the future, which is convenient because it explains to the world at large why the child looks nothing like his alleged 'uncle' – he clearly takes after his mother. The only differences are the ponytail she wears her hair in, and the smiling vibrancy of her personality, so far from Cloud's quiet coldness.

That, and the fact that she is a good cook – her specialty stew has Vincent eating, for the first time in years, for more reasons than just keeping up appearances – unlike her son, who could (and had) burn water if Tifa wasn't quick enough to ban him from the kitchen.

As Vincent hoped, Mrs. Strife is surprised, but relieved enough not to question too closely his appearance in their life. She is very young – younger than he'd ever imagined, even after seeing her age on records – and she's clearly having trouble making ends meet. She welcomes his support and trusts him more easily than she should. She also has little enough sense to be pleased when he wants to take her child around the world.

Vincent supposes that raising the boy as a single parent is hard and maybe justifies, in part at least, the quickness with which she gives some of Cloud's time up, but he wouldn't have expected her to just let him take such a prominent role in her child's life so soon. Apparently, the older women told her repeatedly that the boy needed a male role model, 'like a father' – their not-so-subtle way to tell her she should marry, because in the backwater Nibelheim, a woman staying single is 'wrong' – and seems to decide with astonishing rapidity that 'Lance Strife' is just the thing.

He won't complain, but he cannot help but think this explains a lot about Cloud's life and disposition – about the absolute irresponsibility of letting a fourteen-year-old child moving to Midgar on his own, about his desperation to be strong, to stand on his own, to be recognized; more still, about his utter dependance on Zack Fair, of whom Vincent has heard a lot, though never from Cloud himself, and who apparently was the first steadfastly trustworthy figure in the kid's life. And about the blond's constant feeling of inadequacy, too.

He shrugs away the faint sadness that watching the blond child's loneliness inspires and sets out instead to provide him with an adult to rely on, at long last.

At least he knows what he's doing. It might not be his preferred role in life, but he's got used to being the mature and sensible one in the group, hanging around with (babysitting, in his own words) the likes of Yuffie. (And Caith Sith, who seems to channel all of Reeve's immaturity. And Cid, who has his moments of utter childishness.... and the orphans who for inexplicable reasosn kept flocking to him, much to his consternation...)

It takes very little to settle in the life he's fabricated for himself.

Despite Cloud's mother's easy acceptance, the gunslinger is the talk of every gossipmonger in Nibelheim, for a while at least. Vincent ignores it all with practiced ease. He's had his share of stares and comments muttered in his wake, both as one of the 'Saviours of the Planet' and, long before, as Turk: admiration and wariness, he's had plenty of both. Nibelheim is no different.

A little more disconcerting to bear is Cloud's alarmingly growing hero-worship. Vincent is reminded constantly of how young Denzel, the orphan Tifa and Cloud took in at Seventh Heaven, idolized Cloud – his 'rescuer'. Little Cloud is acting the same towards his new, 'cool Uncle Lance'.

On the one hand, it means anything Vincent asks him to do or learn, Cloud does – with enthusiasm. On the other... Vincent has been uncomfortable with any kind of gratefulness and admiration since he locked himself in that coffin and that is one thing that hasn't changed. Might never do.

He focuses on the upside, however, and teaches the eager kid a bit of this, a bit of that.

Guns, of course (even if the child has no natural talent, he can still gain proficiency over the years and in the usually locked away sentimental part of his heart, Vincent considers marksmanship the best gift he has to offer his 'apprentice').

Then hand-to-hand, and the basics of what little he knows of swordplay (definitely not much) and the natural complement of first aid and basic field medicine (which leads to a more grueling description of human anatomy than is probably appropriate for a child, but that's the way Turks learn to look at bodies) and a lot of theory about materia use, compounded by some limited use (because Cloud doesn't have the necessary control yet, but he'll get there).

But also politics (what a child can grasp of it, though he is often surprised at the insights Cloud comes up with during their impromptu debates), geography, a bit of economics, some history (which ends up including quite a lot about ethics – when they touch upon ShinRa and especially its Science Department – ecology – when Vincent finds himself talking freely about the Lifestream and the Blood of the Planet, forgetting that it isn't common knowledge yet – and mythology – when what he almost hasn't realized he's gained from Chaos' long memory slips through).

And because he supposedly comes from Rocket Town, some physics, some mechanics and even a little bit of engineering thrown in, courtesy of Cid and older Cloud.

None of that is in-depth knowledge and none of that is formalized and most of all, there is no rhyme and reason to little Cloud's studies – basically, Vincent just teaches him a little bit of whatever crosses his mind during their travels.

Because they travel a lot.

Only a day or two at a time at first, to get Cloud's mother used to the idea – not that she opposes him half as much as Vincent believes she should – then longer and longer, until Vincent can take Cloud everywhere (except Midgar, for obvious reasons).

And incidentally make friends with a few key people.

Like Cid Highwind, still faithfully working for ShinRa's Space Program at this point, who curses up a storm at their 'getting in his bloody way' but – to Vincent's trained eye at least – looks rather impressed by the child's natural understanding of engines.

Or Nanaki, who gets a suitably cryptic piece of advice that will hopefully keep him well away from ShinRa's mad scientist, and who turns into the occasion for an extremely important lesson for Cloud – that a flaming tail and fire-red fur are no signs of his being a monster and don't change the fact that his intelligence well surpasses that of any human's.

Or even Dio, who is disgustingly annoying in Vincent's opinion, but still a total genius when it comes to the entertainment business – and really, what's wrong with investing in a sure hit like the Gold Saucer? You never know when you'll need to found a terrorist group or two.

Just like you never know when a little bit of calculated networking will mean the difference between failure and success. Saving the world in more than a one-man job, after all. Better that Cloud has some strategical contacts to fall back to when the time comes...

Thus they travel, and only apparently by chance meet a tiny Yuffie - who is as irritating at seven as she will be at sixteen or twenty (and who, when Vincent ropes her into showing the two of them around the Wutaian capital, ends up with a sweet crush on Cloud, much to the kid's dismay and Vincent's snickering amusement).

Then a young Shalua and a toddler Shelke, who, though already visibly smarter than any girls their age, are at this point just two sweet sisters living quite happily in North Corel – and if Vincent stresses to their parents what a bad idea it would be to catch ShinRa's attention through exceptional performances, he makes sure to do it out of hearing range of any of the children.

And finally an exuberant dark-haired kid, with a winning grin and dreams too big for the little town of Gongaga where he is born, who manages to break through all of the cold-and-tough barriers little Cloud has erected against the world over time as if they aren't even there and lodges himself in the younger boy's heart without effort.

“I'm going to be a hero!” Zack Fair declares confidently, striking a pose in the stifling, hot humidity that would have anyone else too lethargic for any kind of action, and Vincent can tell that in Cloud's eyes, he already is.

Zack, unlike everyone else, is a fascinating surprise for Vincent, who has heard a lot about him, but only through the filter of Cloud's not-entirely-reliable perceptions: the real deal is at once brighter, livelier and more endearingly exasperating than he'd come to imagine.

The time-traveler has absolutely no compunctions giving the teen the money to reach Midgar (disregarding Zack's mother's outrage entirely). He'd have gotten there eventually anyway – and he's a much better reason for his 'nephew' to dream of being in SOLDIER than hero-worship of a potential lunatic. (Even if it's troublesome to listen to Cloud's endless complaints about being too young, and the even longer rants about how wonderful Zack is. At least the blond kid can still be distracted by chocobo races and surfing at Costa del Sol...)

The constant travels also have the very nice side-effect of allowing Vincent to keep a discreet eye on ShinRa with minimum risks, by cracking the Company intranet from a number of generic terminals scattered around the world.

The first time he tries to, he finds a pleasant surprise: his old Truk ID, GAI012, was, it seems, never disabled. Evidently nobody bothered to update his status from 'MIA' to 'KIA'. All of his codes are still accepted.

Between this little stroke of luck and the fact that he has years of Shelke's tutoring in his past now, cracking any ShinRa database (up to and including the Science Department records) is a piece of cake.

The ShinRa intranet hosts more than just company related information: many employees also have personal pages and non-work related discussion boards and most Departments uploads at least a portion of their archives for back-up purposes, not to mention, between idiotic fanclubs and speculating chats, it is the undisputed kingdom of Company gossip – a good portion of which goes unmonitored by the administration, because there is just too much of it to do otherwise.

The resultant data warehouse is a wealth of information without equal, to someone who knows how to use it.

Vincent does.

He learned long ago how to recognize and interpret the peculiar ebb and flow that bureaucracy confers to information. In a company the size of ShinRa, everything gets written down; everything gets put into reports. Everything. Classified things are still written, they're just hidden and locked away and shared only with people who need to know. (Or people whose hacking skills are sufficient to break the protection covering them).

One way of another, the intranet is like a doorway through which, with enough patience and practice, one can access any document ever filed in the Company – and therefore, discover anything that is or was being done.

Vincent doesn't read all of the information (no man could), but he skims most of it – enough to have a very good general idea of how the bahamut that is ShinRa is moving – where it's heading at the moment, what inertial consequences will result of such and such decision, who is rising to a position of influence and what policy will come into being because of it...

So he is ready to 'casually' intercept one of the most dangerous figures of the future to come (at least potentially), before he can start influencing events towards the spiraling madness Vincent has witnessed: Genesis Rhapsodos.

Chapter Text

Genesis is a strange element in the patterns of the world's comings and goings.

Vincent likes a good story as much as anyone else and his analytical mind has long ago dissected all the ways a tale can be put together. All the role a character can play – good or bad, relevant or marginal.

Genesis defies his analysis without apparent effort.

Actual contact between them has been limited to few, far between occasions – after Vincent handled the Deepground mess, Genesis disappeared somewhere with his 'brother' and was only seen again when he popped unexpectedly on them, usually with grandiose plans of 'being the hero' and some sort of crucial piece of information he couldn't possibly have known yet did.

And a lot of convoluted, ever-new interpretations for his constant quoting of the damn poem he was obsessed with. Vincent has managed to learn most of it by heart just by listening to the former SOLDIER – and they haven't been together much more than a few hours overall!

Not that he doesn't recognize the intrinsic literary value of LOVELESS – he likes the verses, honest – but the former SOLDIER is just ridiculous about it.

Nevertheless, Vincent was intrigued by the flamboyant character and slowly pieced together much of his story.

Thus finding out that Genesis Rhapsodos, despite being, for all appearances, a marginal character in every big event of the Planet's tale during his lifespan, has all the same been crucial to quite a number of said key events – and that, without considering his role (as subject, but still) in the use (abuse) of mako and the resultant threat to the Lifestream.

For instance, the turmoil that discovering the secrets of his birth generated was the driving force behind not only his desertion of ShinRa and the subsequent War of the Copies (of which Vincent knows admittedly little), but also in Sephiroth being, essentially, abandoned by his only friends – hardly an experience conductive to sanity in one who hadn't trusted before, and wouldn't dare trust again.

He was the spark for the Nibelheim Incident too: Genesis admitted it himself, one strange night when Vincent's customary silence had drawn out of the man answers to questions Vincent hadn't posed – it was his words, his hate-filled, cruel description of the origins of Jenova and her hand in their creation (the creation of Genesis, and Angeal, and Sephiroth himself, ShinRa's 'perfect monsters') that tipped the scales. While Vincent suspects that Sephiroth would have broken anyway, it was Genesis' intervention that was the last push towards dark madness.

Furthermore, Genesis was the reason a simple medical facility for injured SOLDIER troops could evolve into a laboratory for madmen content on ignoring all laws of man and nature – to the point of stunting the growth of an amazing girl through mako treatments and implanting her with the memories of a dead woman...

Vincent determinedly pushes away the memory of Shelke in the thrall of Nero's dark power and his own inability to save her in time. That's not the point right now – the point is that without Genesis, there would have been no Deepground.

Coincidences? Maybe. But in a Turk's worldview, the plural form of 'anecdote' is 'data'.

A lesser man would seriously consider cutting the SOLDIER First's throat and be done with it. Vincent plans on using him instead. (Besides, he has imbued enough of Chaos' mysticism to believe that certain people have too much of an impact on fate to be so easily brushed aside... but that, he won't admit out loud.)

Genesis Rhapsodos, in his vision, is like a natural occurring dam, whose position in an area determines which part of the wetlands gets drained and which part gets inundated, in what channels the water level increases and in what ones it is lowered.

Changing the position of the dam alters the map of the wetlands extensively, because of the scouring and erosion that occurs in the channels that were once dammed, because of the changed ability to withstand weather forces, because of the impact on the vegetative cover. And the process amplifies itself, so that in the grand scheme of things, the effect of the dam appears marginal, but instead it is the ultimate reason why the ecosystem comes to a certain equilibrium rather than a different one.

Vincent isn't one hundred percent sure that the changes he wishes to make to Genesis' position in the murky wetlands that are the new future will bring the outcome he hopes. The thought, however, doesn't stop him.

There are contingency plans in place if worst comes to worst, but the whole reason he's walking in this already so different past is to prevent mistakes from occurring again. It is merely rational to attempt to achieve his objective with minimum effort – and he firmly believes that pointing Genesis down a different path will close off a lot of unwanted possibilities for many, many others, first of all Sephiroth. The new dam will cause channels that were well-trodden roads in the future behind his back to now be overflown and force the characters of this new play to take different paths – better paths. Hopefully.

Genesis, of course, doesn't know any of this when he first meets 'Lance Strife'.

He is merely on a spy-hunting mission in an abandoned building at the edge of Junon (deployed there thanks to a little tweaking of Vincent's, though the SOLDIER First is none the wiser of course) and happens to run into a tall, lean man sitting at an outdated computer, with an aura of power about him and wearing the easily recognizable suit of the Turks.

Vincent remembers the regulation outfit very well – down to the unobtrusive modifications for better movement and sewed in break-away snaps – and has found it disgracefully easy to rope a tailor with a penchant for gambling into making him a set (even if he has had to pay good money for it). The illusion, he knows, is perfect and it is no wonder that the Crimson Commander doesn't doubt it for an instant.

“Turk,” the SOLDIER First sneers, haughty and irritated – and then blinks in vague shock at spying a pink ribbon on one of the man's arms. Then again, the Turks' sanity has always been as questionable as their morals in the eyes of most and Vincent can almost see the moment when Genesis dismisses the oddity as irrelevant.

“Commander Rhapsodos,” he nods politely back and affects distraction as he nonchalantly closes the files he was perusing and not-as-casually-as-it-looks allows the red-haired man to spot his own name and a few eye-catching (Vincent put them in bold himself) key-words – experiment, Project G, failure, Banora, degradation – before vanishing the document with a click.

The glowing eyes narrow and the SOLDIER goes unnaturally still.

Vincent knows that the degradation of Genesis' flawed genetic structure hasn't been triggered yet – he's monitored the Commander quite closely – but he also knows that the conflicted SOLDIER has already started looking for answers, his discovery that he was adopted having caused him to feel betrayed by both his true and false parents and making him determined to uncover uncomfortable truths.

The hook is baited. Hopefully, Rhapsodos will swallow it – so that Vincent can then lead him where he needs to. So that the trigger to the scenario of violence that started with Sephiroth burning down Cloud's hometown in a fit of madness and culminated with a psychotic incarnation of the Silver General trying to knock the planet out of orbit with a huge Meteor, thus leaving the entire world vulnerable to further calamities like Geostigma, is removed.

He gets up casually and throws out a few obligatory insulting and goading comments – as he has observed to be the norm between Turks and SOLDIERs – pretending he was there on a top-secret mission and mocking the other about his ignorance, while also allowing Genesis to maneuver the meeting with his angling for information.

Through his well-concealed satisfaction, he is rather surprised by how the conversation goes. The Commander is both more cautious and more immature than he remembers from later on. Quick to anger but careful not to give up advantages in a fit of temper. Mostly, though, it is the way Genesis dances around the matter with flare that makes him thoughtful.

Genesis is somewhat of a thespian – his love of theater has taught him how to recognize liars with such uncanny skill that even a former Turk is challenged, as well as pushing him to become a bit of an actor himself: he is amazingly apt at concealing his sharp intelligence and information gathering skills under his histrionics. Vincent... is even better – but he has seldom found anyone so evenly matched with him in this area.

Their verbal spar is as beautiful as a match between two swordmasters, or a duet of great singers.

Vincent is amused to realize that if it wasn't his goal to let Genesis have enough information to be hooked, if he was really supposed to hide stuff from the SOLDIER First, he'd be losing. (Of course, he wouldn't have used this rather confrontational tactic were that the case, but it's a testimony to the Crimson Commander's skill nonetheless).

Genesis manages to 'extract' from 'Lance Strife' everything Vincent wanted him to know before the cavalry shows up, in the form of a ShinRa helicopter making the windows of the abandoned building rattle and the whole street outside echo. The Turks must have found the little deliberate glitch in the false mission assignment (he knows the importance of leaving his target wanting) and come to rescue the First from a likely trap – or at least, to investigate.

“Oops,” Vincent says casually. “Terribly sorry to cut this short...”

“What?” yells Rhapsodos, outraged. He's stopped short in the middle of his dramatic pacing and glowers at Vincent, who ignores his indignation blithely and goes on: “...but I must make myself scarce before the real Turks show up!”

The Commander's glowing eyes almost bulge out of their sockets: “Real Turks?”

Vincent gives him a winning smile that is both eerie and terrifying: “You don't actually think ShinRa is willing to disclose this information, do you? No, I am... shall we say a freelancer?”

Genesis scoffs, showing openly nothing but contempt though somewhere in his eyes Vincent can read reluctant admiration for someone who has the guts to impersonate a Turk. “So this ruse was a set up to get me interested in the information?”

“Yes,” Vincent says simply.

Genesis' eyes narrow and he hums a little in what the former Turk recognize as a stalling tactic. “My friend, do you fly away now?” he says, and Vincent almost groans. “All that awaits you is a somber morrow...”

The sounds of the Turks scoping the building are coming closer. Vincent gives Genesis a flat look and turns away.

“How do I even know it's genuine?” the First says abruptly.

Vincent straightens: “Information is what I sell,” he tosses over his shoulder, gritting his teeth, and his offended countenance comes off as perfectly genuine, to the point that Genesis falters minutely and catches himself barely before apologizing: “I always guarantee the quality of my deliveries,” he reiterates chillingly.

The SOLDIER First nods, trying to cover his own uncertainty: “Infinite in mystery is the Gift of the Goddess; we seek it thus... So... money?” he sneers contemptuously. “How much?”

Vincent's small smirk is just this side of mocking: “Whoever said anything about money?”

Then he throws a cheap PHS at the auburn-haired man and vanishes into the shadows, a heartbeat before the tall frame of Rude enters the room, gun at the ready. He winches at how close he's cutting it, but sometimes, risks are simply necessary if you want some gain. Besides, he's confident in his ability to get away – under any circumstances.

It takes longer than he expects for the Crimson Commander to contact the number he'd programmed into the PHS, but when he finally does, Vincent is ready. He comes prepared and most of the files he shares with Genesis are even real. The few he's faked – flawlessly enough that the SOLDIER First doesn't suspect a thing – are mostly true anyway, things he's found out in his future and simply hasn't had the time or chance to acquire or confirm in this past.

A manila colored folder that holds the whole truth about Genesis' condition – including everything Hollander and ShinRa in general would much prefer to keep from him. Information that will let the Crimson Commander know what to expect and who's to thank for it – and some hints about Angeal Hewley's and Sephiroth's situations too, so that the Crimson Commander might feel less isolated, less alone.

It's all data that he would likely have acquired sooner or later... but here, they're all gathered and laid out for an... opportune interpretation.

The whole operation is a matter of fine timing most of all: Vincent is condensing years of research and false leads (most of which resulted in rather awful consequences for the Planet and its people) into one slim bundle of papers. This will no doubt speed things up, but also – if he hasn't miscalculated – in predictable, controllable directions.

It is a risk, but a calculated one.

Before he gives the folder up, however, there is the little matter of his payment.

“You want me to do what?” yells Rhapsodos, beside himself.

Vincent regards him placidly: “I want you to sponsor my nephew's admittance to the SOLDIER program.”

“You're insane!”

“Is it so wrong that I wish to further my nephew's dream?”

“That's... that's favoritism!”

“Perhaps so,” agrees Vincent indifferently. “He does have skills, though.”

“Aren't you anti-ShinRa?” tries the Commander. “Shouldn't you be keeping your brat as far away from us as you could?”

“Maybe,” says Vincent mildly, not budging.

“I don't have time to waste mentoring a cadet that might well be a bumbling fool!”

“Nevertheless.”

Genesis glares balefully at him and hands out an impatient hand imperiously: “Give me the files.”

Vincent surrenders the folder quietly and watches as Genesis skims through it, then returns to read some parts in more details. The Commander is troubled, and grim, and furious (Vincent thanks his experience with Cid's explosive moods for his ability to remain an oasis of perfect calm in the face of Genesis' raging) but for all his arrogance and childishness, it is clear that he won't throw himself rashly into action. No, he will think things through first, carefully consider the matters; then he will throw himself into some rash action and by then, every piece should be properly positioned on the chessboard.

Vincent's gamble seems so far to be working.

Genesis clutches the folder so tightly it crumples in his gloved fist. “My friend, the fates are cruel,” he recites gloomily. “There are no dreams, no honor remains. The arrow has left, the bow of the goddess.”

But his dangerously glowing eyes speak to Vincent of the determination to get to the bottom of things before making any decision – and of the resoluteness to break free and make his own destiny. That is good. With a bit of luck, when the Commander reaches the point of no return and his simmering fury erupts like a volcano, everything will fall into place neatly according to Vincent's wishes.

He says nothing while the other paces and mutters and slashes angrily the air. He merely waits, serenely patient. When the SOLDIER regains a little of his composure, he turns to Vincent haughtily: “So where is this nephew of yours?” he sneers.

Vincent smiles grimly.

By the time all three of them are back to Midgar, the Crimson Commander has managed to thoroughly awe and terrify young Cloud and at the same time, to awaken his implacable stubbornness.

Vincent stifles a smug grin at the steely glint in the blue eyes that tell to anyone who knows how to look that Cloud Strife will show them all. It's the kind of rare look his friend reserved for Sephiroth-related battles in the future.

For his part, the SOLDIER First is obviously less unfavorably impressed than he expected. The blond's thorough understanding of materia, in particular, has clearly caught his notice: Cloud's attitude towards the use of magic is admittedly a lot more knowledgeable and a lot more mature than most average adults in this time, thanks to Vincent's decision to discuss the Lifestream and other similar matters openly with the child.

It's winning him more points with the mercurial Commander than Vincent had hoped; he has even overhead a faint, muttered: “Might not be so bad after all,” from the man, along with a lot of mutterings about what a shame it is that no-one's bothered to train the brat as a swordmage yet.

Hiding a smile, Vincent trails them to the gates and then squeezes Cloud's shoulder affectionately before disappearing into the slums, Genesis' grumblings following him. He trusts the Crimson Commander to keep his word. Cloud will be safe in SOLDIER and hopefully happy; he will, if nothing else, have a supportive friend there: Zack's successes are such that he's already hailed as a prodigy, according to Vincent's sources, and has gained himself a mentorship with Commander Angeal Hewley, who just so happens to be Rhapsodos' best friend.

Meanwhile, Vincent has a lot to do.

Confronting and manipulating Genesis so openly was necessary for the primary objective of avoiding Sephiroth's psychotic breakdown, but now he has a myriad other little things to put into place for his self-appointed mission – things that will bring about secondary but important goals, such as reducing the loss of life in case Meteor or WEAPON attacks come to pass anyway, preserving the Lifestream, slowly but surely demolishing ShinRa's mako-based dominance...

It is the kind of thing he's best at: throwing small pebbles into the water at just the right angle to make the widest, prettiest ripples – and hiding his hand before anyone can figure out it's him who's disturbing their comfortable little pond.

The first order of business is to carve himself a place in the slums, one that will not involve him in any of the many, many gang wars and 'business' arrangements and forever shifting hierarchies that make up the complex, though simplistic, society of Below, but at the same time will not mark him as a threat to said power structure.

He will not bow to anyone, he will not work except for himself; but he does not wish to be seen as a new power establishing himself down there – he wants none of the struggles that defining the limits of his influence would take, nor the responsibility towards those who would no doubt flock to him for gain or for protection. So he needs a little niche where he can show off his strength and the deadly skills he no longer bothers hiding while at the same time, make it clear he's a loner and completely uninterested in any kind of 'alliance'.

That is how and why a cheerful girl with kind green eyes finds herself with one Lance Strife acting as bodyguard in exchange for room and board at the Gainsborough's residence.

That this 'Strife's' skills are peculiarly suited to him being a bodyguard doesn't surprise anyone and is actually rather reassuring to those who are in charge of this or that criminal ring – a bodyguard is not a rival after all. That he chooses as principal that odd girl who spends her time growing flowers (in Midgar!) marks him as eccentric, but whatever – it's his choice.

The slums rearrange easily around his presence and it's a matter of days before 'the Flower Girl's Strife' has been there forever in most local's minds.

Only the Turks are wary around this weird stranger for longer, but Vincent is familiar with their modus operandi and simply keeps himself firmly in his role of eccentric and dangerous but not particularly threatening oddball and does absolutely nothing except protect his charge, slay a few monsters 'for practice' and enjoy Mrs. Gainsborough's pies: until they rather grudgingly accept that he's there to stay and rearrange their watches around his presence, slowly but surely growing used to him. He knows – he can tell – that they're stretched thin (too many things to take care of, too little manpower) and the last Ancient being protected without much input from them is taken as a partial blessing. In the end, they let him be – and Aerith with him.

While waiting patiently for the Turks to lower their guards, Vincent enjoys the bonus perk of the job he's chosen, that being, rather sentimentally, that he gets to spend time with Aerith. He's missed her, maybe not as much as Cloud and Tifa have, or Nanaki even, but still. It's good to have her cheerful, ageless smile around again.

Aerith at fifteen is a lot younger and more innocent and far less powerful than he's used to, but she's still the same upbeat and savvy girl, stubborn and sweet, independent and generous. Just being around her is good for him, and Vincent likes to think that he's good for her, too.

After all, he is well aware of what she is and also of how reluctant to accept her Cetra heritage she is growing up – confidences she shared shyly during their long hunt for the maddened Sephiroth, compounded by his own insightful observations, let him be there for her when she's upset because she 'hears the wind calling her' or when the Planet's voice becomes too strong for her as she is tending her flowers. As her ease with her own powers grows, so does her perceptiveness and Vincent is proud to be part of her growth this time.

Cloud keeps him appraised of his progress among the SOLDIER Cadets and Vincent is glad that he seems to be doing well; soon 'Lance Strife' is settled as comfortably in the slums as his 'nephew' is Above and once the Turks back off a little, he moves to the second stage of his plan.

There are a lot of underestimated resources in the slums and the first Vincent taps into is perfect for his need to build an efficient information gathering net.

He's still keeping track of things in ShinRa through various (completely illegal) reverse engineered terminals that can be found under the Plate by those who know how to look; but now that he's at the heart of the Electrical Company empire, he needs more than that.

If Midgar was a coin, the slums would be its flip side – forever darkened to those who watch its up side. He refuses to be so blinded.

So he turns to the street urchins.

For once, the odd way children seem to be fascinated by him and tend to hover around him proves to be useful – especially because, sadly enough, there are so many on the streets, abandoned to their own devices. Things like catching a gifted pickpocket in the act but not beating him up, or showing a bunch of wide-eyed kids how he cleans and maintains his guns, are enough to earn him respect and admiration from the brightest brats, which, he knows, the others will more or less follow.

It isn't long before he can start asking them to 'keep their eyes open' for him; of course, they prove true the old saying - street rats, street smarts - and demand payment. Money wouldn't be a problem, but since, somehow, somewhere along the way, Tifa's outlook on life Below has stayed with him, he chooses to do it properly – that is, unconventionally to the point of shock – and sets up a deal with Missus Maisie, who owns the eating place nearest the playground in Sector Seven (a hotchair hole of a place, where she stands barearmed behind a rather dirty counter and dishes out from a cauldron in which uncertain things bubble in greyish soup): he'll pay for one square meal a day for each of the children who work for him – two if they attend Old Ma'am Marge's lessons for at least two hours and actually try and learn how to read and write and do their maths.

It is a surprisingly effective way of doing things. Regular meals are too good to pass up and when Vincent puts attending school in the light of getting better at the 'job' he's given them, most stop complaining and become cautiously interested in what Old Ma'am Marge has to tell. They all look up to Vincent after all and compete ferociously to get his attention, to satisfy him - to make him proud.

Aerith helps a lot too. She is delighted by what he's doing and throws herself enthusiastically into healing scraps and bruises and giving out hugs as needed and offering support for the ever hated homework. Naturally, they adore her.

She even sweet-talks Missus Maisie until somehow, her place is slowly but surely turned into a good one, cleaner (Aerith gets everybody to help with painting it, even Vincent, who spends the time wondering how she's managed to put that brush in his hand) and with healthy foods – or as healthy as it is possible to get in the slums. The grumpy woman stops resenting them when adults start showing up too a lot more regularly and her business thrives like never before, despite the 'horrid little rats' she had at first wished to just throw out (but didn't dare, not with 'that Strife's' guns so pointedly visible on his person).

Vincent can only shake his head at the snowball effect his doing something right – something so small, something so simple – is having. Yet more damning proof of just how artificial the poverty ShinRa keeps the slums in is.

Word spreads, as it is wont to do, and he ends up striking the same deal with a couple other places because there are now kids from all of the slum Sectors trickling into Aerith's church in the hope of being 'hired' by him.

The return is more than worth the effort: he quickly gets to the point where he knows practically everything that goes on under the Plate, because the children will go to any length to bring him back something that will make him offer some reserved praise or perhaps one of his rare smiles along with the tag for the meal, or even a small, huge treasure like a folding knife or an actual cloak – for keeping warm and blending in the shadows – which he reserves for the really special pieces of information.

He blesses AVALANCHE's timing for how busy they're keeping the Turks with all those terrorist attacks, because there is no way they wouldn't notice – and worry about – his expanding net; but as things are, they'll return to paying attention to him too late to disrupt what he's building.

Because of course, it isn't just children for long.

First some older kids are attracted, then teenage girls who're hoping for an alternative to prostitution, finally the grown-ups who are jacks of all trades – Vincent falls back into the patterns of a Turk instructor, though he tones it down, and trains the quickest of the bunch to handle the influx of information to his specifications.

And because there is a lot more manpower now, he can start asking for other things – like recyclable materials.

They look at him strangely at first: information they can understand, but this? That he's an oddball is common knowledge however and money is money so what the hell. He wants garbage? They'll give him garbage.

Vincent just keeps his knowing smile hidden behind his usual impassivity. The recycling business might not look like much on the surface – but it is revolutionary. There are a lot of things that can be found among ShinRa's waste, things that are thrown out as useless but that could still be repaired, recycled, employed to provide a few comforts or even the barest of luxuries to the people of Below. Or at the very least, exploited to produce some energy.

Granted, it is nowhere near the best way to get it – wind and solar energy are what's needed and even those don't really compare to the efficiency of mako, unfortunately – but it is energy that doesn't come from ShinRa.

It is at once a step towards reducing Midgar's dependence on the Company and the first brick to building a connection to Reeve Tuesti, who is his best bet for avoiding the nightmare that the fall of ShinRa will be if there are no ready alternatives to mako available.

Already he's spotted the dark-haired young man that would, in a different future, grow to lead the WRO, coming to investigate his idea. He's left it to Aerith to welcome him and take him on a tour of sorts, while he's remained hidden, observing. It was fascinating to watch the play of emotions in the intelligent man's eyes – captivation with the general concept, excited interest in front of a few clever solutions some smart guys have come up with, regret that he hasn't thought of it himself, wonder at how much can be done with so little, wishful desire to have a part in it all...

Sadness, too, and bitterness, and perhaps a seed of shame: “It's unbelievable. We all take it for granted that the mess the slums are is unavoidable and here, look! It takes so little to change so much...”

Aerith regards him seriously for a long moment. Then she regales him with one of her brilliant smiles: “Anyone can do a little, Mister!”

Reeve starts, surprised, then the meaning strikes him: “...Even me, huh?” he smiles faintly. He takes a deep breath: “Right.”

Before Vincent can truly figure out what he's up to, Reeve has smuggled a bunch of textbooks to create the first scientific library under the Plate and is devoting three of his evenings every week to hold lectures to whoever is willing to listen. None of the teens who show up will get a degree any time soon, but it's amazing how far a few key explanations can take them when it comes to inventing and implementing new ideas.

The whole business grows to the point that it's attracting unwanted attention – but there aren't any laws against it and Vincent has the clear impression that ShinRa is rather at a loss as to how to handle him. The idea is unexpectedly rewarding.

Meanwhile, his efforts towards freedom from mako have earned him an in with AVALANCHE, whose scouts suddenly decide that their goals are alike and he would make a good addition to their ranks. (He won't, since he plans to destroy them before they can start messing with WEAPON, but they don't need to know this: not as long as it is convenient for him to let the Turks and the terrorists chase each other around instead of troubling him.)

That makes it much easier to handle the Turks, because he has access to a lot of information on AVALANCHE's plans that he can leak whenever he needs them busy – and no other Department in ShinRa has any hope of truly bothering him, especially with meek, overlooked but astoundingly adroit Tuesti on his side. Plus, AVALANCHE has ties to Cosmo Canyon, even if it's growing further and further apart from the original goals and philosophy of its founders, so it's suddenly easy to exchange letters with Bugenhagen – letters in which he praises Reeve and subtly points out the lack of general information on alternative sources of energy.

When a couple enthusiastic youngsters from Cosmo Canyon arrive with a recommendation letter for him and barely pay him any mind before they ensnare Reeve in talks of wind turbines and solar panels and how to safely convert reactors, Vincent just has to grin.

There are, of course, some hitches in how it all works. The information that he continues to gather comes at times with a lot of risks attached – crime lords tend to take exception on being spied upon.

Vincent finds himself covertly carrying into effect 'side-plans' such as a campaign against Don Corneo's mako-laced drugs (by the simple expedient of paying, for the purpose of spreading health-preserving propaganda to their numerous clients, a bunch of HoneyBees girls, who all hate the fat bastard and launch into the task with a vengeance), which has most of the pervert's energies focused into recovering from his losses rather than threatening 'Vincent's' kids; or stealthily blowing up a couple warehouses where the Syndicate's stolen goods are notoriously stashed and leaving enough clues to blame an up-and-rising violent gang (on the age-old principle that if they're busy gutting each other, they'll leave him alone).

But mostly the unexpected directions that the changes he's given a nudge to are taken are all for the best, thanks to the general resourcefulness of the slum-dwellers, who waste no time taking advantage of the ripples he's creating (from complex bartering deals to ambitious delivery services, heretofore unheard-of Below, from improvised artisans working with scraps to not-entirely-legitimate charities conning well-meaning fools from Above out of thousands of gils for supposedly supporting 'educational programs', until it's simply impossible to keep track of every change he's causing, directly or indirectly).

But there are also unexpected turns that are fully positive.

For instance, he is extremely happy for Aerith when Cloud comes down to visit him in celebration of his success at the SOLDIER exam (Vincent spares a smile for his old friend who's finally fulfilled his dream, even if he isn't really him) and drags along his best friend: it takes Zack exactly three sentences to get Aerith to giggle and blush; and it takes Aerith exactly three minutes after that to light a smitten look in Zack's eyes. They've agreed on a date before the visit is up.

By this time, 'Lance Strife' has had a huge impact on the slums, definitely wider-spread than what he'd set out to do; his reputation as a deadly but trustworthy man is so well-established and his influence such, that none of those he chooses as helpers for his latest project even bat an eye when he demands secrecy. Thus, discreetly but surely, they arrange a number of safe houses and come up with evacuation procedures that will hopefully never be needed (but with the possibility of Meteor still out there, not to mention a President who might drop a section of the Plate any time for no good reason...) and when everything is in place to save as many as possible in the event of another apocalyptic mess, Vincent takes a relieved breath.

Meanwhile, of course, he hasn't lost sight of his primary objective. He's monitored Genesis closely and knows that the SOLDIER First has dug and dug until he's verified every single bit of information Vincent has given him. The former Turk has made sure to help him here and there, easing the Commander's hacking of various databases and then covering the tracks, just in case.

He has a very good idea of the progress curve that project is following. It is still a surprise, however, when degradation kicks in and Genesis' and Angeal's simultaneous defection comes with a side dish of dramatic havoc, which includes both Lazard's and Hollander's very messy deaths and an attempted assassination of the President (which is thwarted by the Turks, but still manages to take out Heidegger as a collateral damage. Vincent certainly isn't complaining).

It is a shock, furthermore, when the missing Commanders unexpectedly join AVALANCHE.

That, Vincent hadn't expected. Every projection of Genesis' behavior based on his observations of the mercurial SOLDIER First indicated him as too proud and far too independent to work with anyone, especially after the betrayal he perceives to be a victim of. Yet here he goes, joining forces with perfect strangers, to whom he is united only by a shared hatred of ShinRa.

Then again, Vincent reflects, he's given the man an apprentice this time, as well as helped keeping his ties to the other Firsts strong; he might have imagined that the reduced isolation might bring about a change in his behavioral patterns.

For a while, Vincent teeters on the edge of interfering. AVALANCHE needs to be stopped sooner or later – before they involve WEAPON; with two SOLDIER Firsts on their side, it will be more difficult. Then again, he might do more harm than good if he isn't careful. Prompt reaction in the face of mutated circumstances is often an invaluable asset, but sometimes, you just have to keep your impatience in check and refrain from acting, trusting that your plan will unfold as it should anyway.

And in the end, he trusts that Cloud has maneuvered himself in the perfect position to influence the top ranks of SOLDIER for the better – which is exactly what happens, when Sephiroth refuses to give chase to his friends and it's two apprentices who hunt down the Firsts gone AWOL.

One of whom firmly believes that Dreams and Honor are the defining characteristics of a hero (nothing else - his mentor has told him so countless times, after all!) and the other has been raised in the firm conviction that genetics has very little to do with being or not a 'person' (something his 'uncle Lance' has always been very adamant about).

Vincent shadows the mission, just in case; very discreet, effectively unheard and unseen – just to know, just to be sure that everything goes smoothly.

It does.

“Monster is as monster does!” shouts a furious Cloud to a doleful Angeal and hidden from view among the scaffolding of the incomplete reactor in Corel, Vincent nods approvingly.

“Right!” Zack is quick to pounce on the concept. “You're only a monster if you act like one!”

“Like Hojo,” supplies Cloud helpfully, who has heard a lot of horror stories from 'Uncle Lance' – and that earns a wince from both deserters.

The black-haired SOLDIER First is startled and uncertain, ashamed – though Vincent can't tell if it's his actions or the wings he's sprouted that cause the feeling.

“Dreams of the morrow hath the shattered soul,” intervenes Genesis in a tragic tone. “Pride is lost. Wings stripped away, the end-”

Cloud rounds on him, accusingly: “You told me every hero must face trials. The greater the trial he overcomes, the greater the hero, that's what you said. And now you're faced with a trial, you run away?”

His voice is full of the pleading betrayal of a child on the verge of adulthood, who discovers that grown-ups don't hold the secret of existence after all – they hurt and make mistakes just like kids.

“My soul, corrupted by vengeance, Hath endured torment...”

“Are. You. Running. Away?” demands Cloud furiously. “After all your talks about staying strong in the face of obstacles?”

“I was talking about fighting...” says Genesis feebly – and Vincent hears the undertone he is not speaking – heroics, glory, admiration. Not the weariness and dirtiness and general hopelessness that is all too often the path of true heroes (as memories of the long, tiring days of the hunt for Sephiroth, with no showers or beds or decent food or even hope, remind him).

“What would be the trial in that?” asks Cloud innocently, and he looks almost offended. “You're a SOLDIER. Fighting's not hard, it's what you do. What you are.”

Genesis stares at him.

Cloud elaborates: “In the stories you had me read, where the trial was a fight, it was always a farmer who was the hero. Or, you know, a fisherman. Someone who wasn't supposed to fight, often didn't want it, but was forced to because, like, it was the right thing, or no-one else would... facing the task despite the overwhelming odds... overcoming an obstacle – but fighting is not an obstacle for you!”

Genesis stares at him some more.

Vincent has to exercise all of his hard-won control not to burst out laughing at the dumbfounded Crimson Commander.

Zack is glowering at Angeal Hewley just as balefully as Cloud is eying Genesis and the two SOLDIER Firsts are starting to get cowed by their own apprentices. Vincent can see the conviction in Angeal's eyes waver, the seed of doubt grow in Genesis', and decides he can afford to let the two youngsters handle things while they wait for their mentors to catch up with their common sense.

A very timely mistake of Fuhito seals the deal.

The cold, treacherous terrorist is possibly too used to viewing everyone as tools and not as equals: he has clearly miscalculated when it comes to the SOLDIER Firsts, however, because releasing his enhanced, maddened Ravens on them is an idiotic move. It gives Genesis proof that ShinRa doesn't have a monopoly on the deranged view of science that results in genetically engineered loss of humanity and it offers Angeal a chance to make his apprentice's words true and regain his honor by fighting against monsters one more.

That is, very conveniently, the end of Fuhito and all his 'purging the planet' plans – and Vincent will spare no pity for the idiot who hero-worships Hojo of all things.

The almost incidental rescuing of one blond, traitorous Vice President, by good fortune witnessed by the Turks, gives a rather frightened President the perfect excuse to pretend their desertion never happened and parade them as heroes for the adoring masses when Zack's undeterred determination that they can 'change things in ShinRa for the better themselves' cajoles the two Firsts back to their position in SOLDIER (a cover up made necessary by Sephiroth's matter-of-fact declaration that he would desert as well and dedicate the rest of his life to destroying ShinRa, starting with running the President himself through with Masamune right there and then, if his best friends weren't forgiven. And if they immediately start plotting the demise of their employer once back, that's not skin off Vincent's nose).

With AVALANCHE effectively crippled and Sephiroth's emotional supports back in place, Vincent can relax a bit. He must be careful, of course, of the last big hurdle left – his prep work in Nibelheim hasn't yet been tested – but the situation in SOLDIER is satisfactorily under control, most of his other plans are coming along nicely and he sees no immediate threats to himself or the Planet.

Too bad he's rather underestimated Tseng.

Chapter Text

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.

Like him.

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.”

“Quite so.”

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!”

“Sephiroth, think...!”

“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.

“What...?”

“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...”

“Strife. Out.”

“But sir...!”

“OUT!”

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 bolts.

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?”