How We All Got There (Was a Mystery)
In his role as project director, Gast directed the Project's initial establishment, setting the tasks and outlining the outcomes. The mansion's dining room table would become the official site of full debriefing, a room Vincent referred to, if only within the bounds of his own skull, as HQ. In HQ, then, with Gast at the table's head, two scientists and one assistant arrayed in a configuration which pleased them, Vincent chose to arrange himself at the door. There, he intended to lend his assistance through the Project's course with an unobtrusive presence, delivering the meals brought up by a curious young kitchenhand from the local tavern, returning to his station to listen to the team talk uninhibited of the day's efforts.
It was Vincent's hope that he could at last complete a mission of which he could be proud.
Too long accustomed to his own necessary invisibility, Vincent had decided his presence on this Project must remain unnoticed by the scientists for his mission to be a success. This was contradictory to Vincent's role as outlined by his superior, for he was to report all aspects of the scientists' progress, and he could not perform from his customary distance. He struggled with the contradiction between his role on past operations and this one, and could find no clear guide as to his mode of conduct. A revelation came to him in the form of a thickly blown glass brimful of an Nibelheim scotch that very morning, a partial depressant against the pills which allowed him operation at night: the barmaid had delivered Vincent's request with such skill he had barely noticed, considering only her presence in the very absence of it.
Vincent would be as a servant. He could offer nothing of value to the Project except in his assurance of the scientists' safety, and subsequently the Project's continuity. He was truly invested in such, having spent so much of his adult life compromising the safety of those who compromised Midgar's very safety. Imagine the scope of a Project whose deliverance would be life, and without the precursor of a governmentally necessary death.
Their first night in Nibelheim he had spent on the rooftops, in the first floor bedrooms of surrounding residences, and after a brisk hike, in the high pines surrounding the village itself; correspondingly, he had blacked out the windows of Lucrecia's ensuite, Hojo's bedroom, and HQ itself, while the team were breakfasting. The latter window was a shame, as the sunset through the dining room windows would have cast that room as a glowing alpine splendour; accustomed to windowless laboratories, the scientists did not comment on the relative gloom of their supper.
The prime comment, Vincent discovered with some surprise, came from Gast and was on himself, and the discomfort his arrangement at the door was causing.
'You're not our butler,' Gast declared at the last, 'you'll sit with us, Vincent, and eat with us.'
Ifalna, now so firmly placed in her supporting role that Vincent could not help but be suspicious of her diligence, supplemented gaily, 'Science has no servants!'
Left without logical recourse to deflect the invitation, and much in the habit of obedience even to a superior with respect yet wanting, Vincent sat. The free chair proved to be on Hojo's side of the table, and so Vincent discovered himself opposite Lucrecia. She looked at her plate as though counting her beans.
In her youth, the grandeur of her family's history would surely have guaranteed her a butler. Vincent broke the tavern's fresh-baked bread in two. The crockery mismatched, his plate was too small and insufficient to its purpose, crisp crumbs showering the scarred tabletop on which it sat.
Supper was a silent affair.
Within a few weeks of association, the conversation no longer remained oppressed. Hearing various complaints in a casual setting, such as Hojo's remark on the quality of test tubes — 'such uniform cracking under heat, one might think they were deliberately designed with the flaw!' — Vincent could correct the deficiency with a priorised delivery from Corel's geotechnical laboratory, or even appropriated technology from the school at Cosmo Canyon, and do it all without seeming direct instruction.
In such a way did he make himself indispensable.
He set up an office, complete with large plastic phone and terminal, his umbilical to Midgar. The appellation of Administrative Research to the commonly known Turks was not the mockery it had originally seemed. The quantity of paperwork, organisation, funding necessary to maintain government was phenomenal, and Vincent had often considered himself glad to have a near-permanent field status, until the day he no longer had. Nevertheless, the tasks were not beyond him, and the three scientists all took for granted his capacity to type reports handwritten in fragments. This proved a strange assumption on their part, if not for his skills but rather for the knowledge: it was inconceivable to him that they should so blithely trust. He was a Turk.
Ifalna could do her own, she insisted, off-hand, in the direct manner she only affected when no other was around. 'There's hierarchy to this, you know.'
Her results were subsequently recorded by the scientists, and forwarded to Vincent for collation. He felt no need for sporadic searches of her room or desk for journals and notes.
Vincent reviewed in tranquility this passing of time without subterfuge or risk of death, and wondered if before he had only ever known the worst. Even Hojo's occasional reference to his secretarial capacity — 'I suppose it's a step up from Shinra janitor, eh, Vincent?' — failed to impact. Vincent found himself developing a fondness for their weaknessness, a pity which was ever his dominant human emotion, be it self-turned or externalised. Gast's insecurities, Hojo's leaping attentions, Lucrecia's absorption. It was Vincent who made possible Gast's weaknesses with his own strength, who screened Hojo's calls and cleared his desk of distractions, he who brought Lucrecia food and water, who pulled loosened, lank hair back into a tail away from her work, leading her to bed when all others had failed.
Vincent was not to be deprived his ration of sentiment, and as if the years of deprivation were now to be amended with glut, impulse led him to lead Lucrecia by the hand.
They paused outside her door. The grand clock in the unused games room, beside the safe containing all hardcopies of the scientists' findings, heralded the onset of the wrong side of dawn.
'Do you never sleep?' Lucrecia asked him. 'I've never seen you in bed before me.'
'If I did, then who would remind you to go to yours?'
'Such dedication,' she said, without inflection.
He let go of her hand. She clasped them before herself, meek hands. Eyes downcast, she formed an image of midnight supplication which he found very pleasing: it would have startled Vincent had he known the image of himslef in her mind's eye, the child-man she pictured him, the holding of hands an uneventful The slight smile was
Vincent had assumed the conversation over dinner would be about the Project. His own make-shift family had, over their scarred staff-room plastic, always discussed work, Shinra, or Midgar; further back in his memory, all the conversations he had shared with his father over food had also centered around that man's singular focus. Vincent had no marker against which to measure if Ifalna's sulk of her aching feet (Vincent appropriated for her a a backless stool with wheels for use at her samples table) was a usual conversational tactic over supper, or whether the woman deliberately spoke of trivialities to deflect him from his purpose.
It did not occur to Vincent that the four scientists, in such close proximity to each other on a daily basis, would wish to talk of something other than their work.
The conversation across the dinner table, if it did dance near Jenova's spectrum, shaded towards legends more than facts.
Vincent, having reached the age of discontent and beyond despising mythology, sometimes wondered if all his life would be led in a gloom-filled room, listening to nothing more than a wandering old man's speculation as to the origin of these creatures of legend, for it was invariably Gast that would spin those stories of winged angels and the critical event of 'salvation' from the sky. Lucrecia likely had tales of her own to offer, considering her scientific specialty, but for those first few weeks Vincent's presence seemed to command her silence in the same way her presence confounded all his intentions to charms. Ifalna oohed and ahhed at all the appropriate times, while Hojo prodded with questions that appeared to irritate Gast, who would have far preferred his tangents to Hojo's directness.
It was Ifalna who drew to Vincent's attention his lapse; she asked if his silence was disdain. Startled by her directness, Vincent apologized. He had rarely kept the company of women, his acquaintances with such fleeting, direct, and involving the exchange of funds; he could pretend according to social convention where his role required it, and had successfully spent himself in the kitchenhand's bed twice now to assure her his selfish intentions were nothing more than that. What Vincent lacked was a set of rules of conduct through which to interact with people continuously; he could not regard these four as family, howsoever often Gast would use the term, nor could he regard them as superiors when so many of their quirks and small obsessions earned only his disdain. (From Lucrecia's fits of temper to Hojo's too-easy distraction, they were so undisciplined!) They were clearly not his equals, no brothers-in-arms as were the Young Turks; nor were they strands of Vincent's information web - he could not assure Ifalna of his selfish intentions in the manner he had externally to the mansion.
They were, Vincent realised, his subjects, his specimens: he studied them in precisely the way they studied Jenova. He used precisely the same set of skills he did when studying a mark, a target; but his intentions here were not to kill, only to know. He was a scientist.
A mood descended. Perhaps the tendency to study from a distance was genetic; it seemed so many things were these days.
In atonement, Vincent played cards with Hojo at the inn until the early hours of the morning, mirroring the scientist's insults in a way that seemed to delight the man; he responded to Ifalna's flirtation sufficiently to earn her contempt; he turned his fear of Lucrecia into overt concern for her silences, which responded with an unexpected return of what was a very biting sense of humour; and he accepted Gast's continual invitations to lunch.
Over lunch, Gast divulged all his personal frustrations unto Vincent's attentive (and atoning) ears, until Vincent thought he could not bear it any longer.
One word which Gast continually referenced, unnoticed, was salvation, until the very phrase rattled around all the vast spaces inside Vincent's skull.
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