Turks Take Care of Their Own
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 Midgarian 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 having 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 speciality 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 she 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 dependence on Zack Fair, of whom Vincent has heard a lot, though seldom 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 Tuesti's immaturity. And Cid, who has his moments of utter childishness... and the orphans who for inexplicable reasons 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 practised 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 gruelling 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, after all.
Just like you never know when a little bit of calculated networking will mean the difference between failure and success.
Saving the world is more than a one-man job. Better that Cloud has some strategical contacts to fall back to should the time come... just in case.
Thus they travel, and only apparently by chance they meet a tiny Yuffie - who is as irritating at seven as she will be at sixteen or twenty even if she is still at the stage where she steals sweets rather than materia (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, taking the younger boy under his wing with the naturalness of someone who was born to be a big brother.
"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 mostly 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 upload 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.
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 at any point.
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 decisions, who is rising to a position of influence and what policy will come into being because of it... and where and how the main players can be found at any given time.
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 spiralling madness Vincent has witnessed: Genesis Rhapsodos.