The Turks' Way

Turks Complete Missions No Matter What

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... well.

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 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 manoeuvre 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 stylish flare that makes him thoughtful.

Genesis is somewhat of a Thespian – his love of theatre 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 (Vincent knows the importance of leaving his target hanging and wanting) and come to rescue the First from a likely trap – or at least, to investigate.

"Ops," 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 coloured 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' loud 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 grumblings 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' annoyed mutterings 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 now 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 in 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).

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 him 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 get confused 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 to do, 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 the five of them immediately start plotting the demise of their employer once back, that's no skin off Vincent's nose).

With AVALANCHE effectively crippled and Sephiroth's emotional supports firmly 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.

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