Natalie leaned out the window as far as possible in order to catch a glimpse of Shinra Mansion. It had now been two full days since her last visit. She'd been working as fast as possible in order to finish the bulk of the article, planning to visit the Mansion as soon as she considered it more than 75% done. Thankfully, she had put the finishing touches on the rough draft that morning.
Natalie turned to hurry from the room, a silly sense of expectation and anticipation making her heart flutter as she rushed down the stairs. She took the picnic lunch ordered that morning and rushed outdoors. The sun shone, and it must have been the loveliest day in Natalie's memory.
Natalie smiled, pausing long enough to take in a deep breath before turning and briskly walking toward the Mansion. She nodded to the locals on the way and then pushed through the gate to hurry inside. The Mansion had become a part of her daily routine. A place to rest and relax. Natalie smiled wider as she hurried upstairs to the room that held the 'hidden' passage to the spiral stairway. She pushed it open and headed down, rushing as much as possible. When she arrived at the door to Vincent's sanctuary, she pushed it open with a smile. Everything looked blissfully old and decrepit.
Natalie closed the door behind her and set the picnic basket on the floor to her right. "Good afternoon, Vincent. It seems like forever and a day since I made it down here last." Natalie pulled a rolled up blanket from the top of the basket as she spoke, moving to spread it in the middle of the room nearest his coffin. "A couple times I thought I would crawl out of my skin if I didn't get away from the people and the article, but I pushed through. I'm glad I did, too. The rough draft is done now, and I can breathe easier."
Natalie sat, positioning the basket in front of her. "It's the organization of an essay or article that kills me. Tendency to ramble, you know. Once I finish that rough draft, it's smooth sailing." She retrieved her thermos. "Oh, and I think I've decided to buy this Mansion. My article is bound to bring in enough gil to cover the down payment. The thought of this building being torn down brings me near tears. I know it wouldn't take much to fix it up. I would do it myself except I don't know the first thing about construction. I'm more of a destruction type. You know? Understand how something was built by taking it apart? That way it's easier to understand the people that built it."
Natalie smiled as she reached forward to unpack her usual tuna sandwich. "The safest idea for this Mansion would be to hire someone." She took a bite of her sandwich and then pointed at Vincent's coffin with it. "Don't you think the people of Nibelheim will be willing to sell it at a reasonable price? It's becoming a bit of an eyesore, unfortunately. That surprised me, too. I mean," she swallowed, "this building has a lot of potential. It could be a school, or a clinic, or even a research facility."
Silence continued, and it didn't settle very well with Natalie's appetite. She adjusted her hold on her sandwich, staring down at it as she released a deep breath.
"The interview went well," she said after clearing her throat. "Your friends are really easy to talk to, which surprised me. I've never been good at things of that sort." Natalie chuckled. "Oh I know I talk your ear off, but that's different. You're in there. I'm out here. Besides, we have a few things in common. Perhaps that helps."
Natalie put her sandwich away. "And we both knew Lucrecia. I don't think I told you that. I didn't know her that well, but I could tell I would have liked her. We never really had an opportunity to talk. She was usually busy with something for Shinra." Natalie frowned as she picked at the blanket. "Shinra. I am so glad Rufus and his father got burned. They were asses both!" She sighed. "Although I suppose I shouldn't swear."
Natalie looked up with a gasp. Vincent hovered midair above the coffin. "H-Hi." Smooth, Nat. Real smooth.
Vincent watched her for a long and silent moment before gracefully descending to stand opposite her. She offered him her sandwich, but he shook his head. Instead, Vincent sat across from her while Natalie watched in shock and horror. Her fantasy was coming true, and she handled it less than gracefully.
Vincent continued to examine her with his piercing red eyes. "I was under the impression you didn't work for Shinra."
Natalie blinked. He listened? She flushed, lowering her eyes as she set her sandwich on its plate yet again. Breathe, Nat. Breathe and you'll be fine. "They funded the digs I worked. They always did have their fingers in as many pies as possible." Natalie raised her eyes in time to see his expression change.
"Then how did you know Lucrecia?"
Natalie cleared her throat. "She was the best friend of my high-school teacher's sister." She grimaced with a slight and reluctant chuckle. "I know. It sounds quite the adventurous involvement." Natalie shrugged. "My teacher always told us about things Lucrecia was involved in. I think one of the highlights of my day was hearing her latest adventure. Lucrecia had the life I wanted. She was actively involved in research. She could study whatever she wished... That was what I wanted to have as soon as I was out of school." Natalie sighed. "I wish we could have talked."
Vincent remained silent as his eyes examined her face with an intensity that made her uncomfortable.
Natalie gnawed on her lower lip. "That was how I first heard of you."
Vincent's eyebrow twitched.
"The stories my teacher told fascinated me," she confessed, "so I did more research. That's when I found out about Hojo and his experiments with DNA manipulation and alteration, which is what I believe he did to you. I dug out as many articles as I could on Hojo and his experiments, until I discovered the information about this Mansion and the basement..." Something in his expression changed, and Natalie nibbled at her bottom lip with guilt. "I wanted to meet you so badly that I didn't consider whether or not you wanted visitors. I'm sorry. I never meant to invade your privacy."
"Why would you want to meet me?"
Natalie sent him a haphazard smile. "Call me a romantic."
Natalie couldn't help but laugh. "And I thought I asked a lot of questions." He didn't say anything. Natalie continued, still smiling. "You're a mystery, and I've always loved mysteries. That's what I do. Not only that, you're a bit of a tortured soul, you know."
His expression seemed to blacken.
Natalie's smile quivered and died. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to plow over you like a bulldozer. Like I said before, I haven't been around people much. Well, actually I have. It's just been different than socializing. Speaking of that, did you want to come see the new fossils they've discovered? They haven't done any of the equipment set up, that's not due to be done for another couple of days, so it should be rather quiet." Nat! You're rambling--
"How do you understand what Hojo did to me?"
Natalie blinked as she shut off the vocal section of her brain in order to process the question and give an intelligent answer. Then she shrugged and looked away from his face to pour herself another glass of grape juice. "That's kind of hard to say, but only because I don't know how to explain it. Whenever I didn't understand an article, I pulled the reports and articles they researched and read them myself. Then, if they were a matter of record, I would pull the itemized notes that followed their experiments - but that didn't happen very often. Most of the time it just clicked; like a collection of puzzle pieces falling into place."
"Is it reversible?"
Natalie swallowed several mouthfuls of her juice before answering. "I've often asked myself that same question. Only I haven't had enough experience to know one way or the other. Besides, DNA manipulation is still so experimental that I don't dare hazard a guess. My specialty was always historic, not genetic or cellular."
Put aside the fact that I figured out what Hojo did, I would never discover the way to put you back to normal.
"I don't have the expertise, the research ability, or the field experience." Natalie sighed as she twirled the glass in her hands. "I wish I could say 'yes' with any amount of truth or certainty, but I can't. I wouldn't want to lie to you."
"In other words, you've thought of the possibility before."
She nodded. "Yes. Many times. Like I said before, your entire history fascinated me. The minute I found out what Hojo had done, I toyed with the idea of changing you back again. Only problem is, I don't have the facility for experimentation that Hojo did. I doubt I ever will now that Shinra is wiped off the face of the planet. No other place had their type of advanced equipment."
"That isn't true."
Natalie looked up to meet his guarded amber eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Shinra had a laboratory in the basement of this Mansion. Cloud will know where it is."
Natalie blinked. "A laboratory? Here? Really?" She smiled, and her green eyes twinkled. "I've always dreamed of having my own lab." Something akin to amusement flickered across Vincent's face for the briefest instant. Natalie flushed. "I know I'm making a fool of myself, but I've had an idea of something that might work. Can you imagine my frustration when I couldn't try it out? For you to say there's a lab... I can't even begin to describe my excitement!"
Natalie's excitement faded. "Oops. I didn't mean to say that." She waved her hands at him. "It was just a silly notion I had once. One of my crazy romantic imaginings of grandeur and heroic rescue." She slouched and lowered her eyes. "Just great. Now I've raised your hopes."
"Hope? Why would I believe there was hope for me?"
Natalie looked up to try and gauge his expression. It was just as distant as when she'd first seen him. "How-- Never mind. Um.. If you-- Never mind that either." Natalie bit her lower lip, and then she stood. He watched her, but made no move to stand. "Cloud and Tifa are walking around Mt. Nibel today and won't be back until later this evening. Would you help me find the lab? I want to see exactly what I'm looking at in expenses for getting it up and running."
Vincent remained seated a moment more, and then he gracefully stood. "Yes."
"Are you sure you don't mind?"
Natalie smiled. "I appreciate it." She made a move to pack up the picnic, but then shook her head. "Never mind that," she told Vincent with a smile - though he hadn't made a move to pick it up either. "I'll come back later hungrier than anything, more than likely. It's always a mystery that makes me hungry enough to eat a chocobo." Natalie turned for the door and stepped out, moving aside for Vincent to have room to stand beside her. "Which way?"
He gestured to the left. "It isn't far."
Vincent was about to take a step forward when Natalie stopped him with a hand on his left arm. He turned to face her with an expression of surprise. "Sorry," Natalie said as she quickly removed her hand, but she continued with her train of thought. "Are you absolutely certain you don't mind? This might have been where Hojo did his experiments on you and... If it causes a problem for you at all, I will wait until Cloud gets back and ask him. It's not a problem. I've waited this long. A few more hours won't hurt."
It seemed the briefest flash of emotion exploded across Vincent's face. It made Natalie wonder a little more about the past she hadn't been able to discover via the reading of experimentation reports, interviews, and assistants' journal entries. What exactly did you go through, Vincent? What exactly happened to make you the way you are? Why are you this tortured soul? These questions had fascinated Natalie for years. These were the pieces she'd longed to uncover so that she could fix something, anything, about him.
Vincent remained silent, so Natalie smiled. "If I'm going too far in the caution department of our relationship, it's only because I'm concerned for your feelings. I've never been experimented on, Vincent, but I can appreciate the tenderness of it."
Vincent blinked and looked away. "It doesn't matter. It's in the past."
"Sometimes the past is all we have." Vincent looked again toward her, examining her features. Natalie looked down. "Sorry. I did it again." She tucked her hands into the pockets of her jeans. "I have a tendency of being about as subtle as a Midgar Zolom."
"I doubt that's possible."
Natalie peeked at him out of the corner of her eye. "Was that a sense of humor I just heard?" Vincent didn't answer, so Natalie went on. "Hm. Well whether it was or wasn't, why would you say that? I'm just curious. You haven't actually seen one, have you?"
"As a matter of fact--"
Natalie's eyes widened. "Wow. I've heard and read about them, even seen pictures, but... Really? You've seen one?"
"I fought one."
Natalie paled. "I can see you survived, but how in the world did you do it? They're downright vicious."
"No match for the three of us."
"The three of you?"
"Cloud and Aeris. I would not fight one alone."
Why not? You do everything else by yourself. Natalie cleared her throat. "I guess I didn't really think about it. Boy. You had me just a little bit by the neck, didn't you?" The amusement lasted longer this time, and she couldn't help but smile. "You did it on purpose. Don't tell me I'm going to have to examine everything you say. That's going to be exhausting." Not to mention fun, exciting, and absolutely pathetic. "Why in the world did you three go against one of those?"
"We needed its skill."
"It's skill? As in what exactly?"
"The Midgar Zolom has the skill called Beta. It's a powerful elemental attack. We needed the skill for our battles against Sephiroth and Shinra."
"Did you learn it? As in, did you learn to duplicate it?"
"No." Vincent paused, and then he turned to begin down the short corridor. Natalie followed beside him. "Yes. Our Materia stored the ability, allowing us to use it later."
"Really? Interesting. I wonder how it accomplished that," Natalie mumbled absently. "It would need to have some type of sentience in order to retain the knowledge of the ability learned... I wonder. They say that Materia was part of the planet, and this would definitely be proof to that effect."
Natalie snapped her fingers. "I wish Materia wasn't taboo. I'd love to examine some. Although I suppose I should be able to learn all I need from Bugenhagen's research and Shinra's declassified reports. Hm. I should look into it." Natalie noticed Vincent had stopped outside a huge wooden door. She looked up with an arched eyebrow. "Are we here? Already?"
"I didn't want to interrupt."
"Oh." Natalie blushed. "Sorry. I have a tendency of talking out loud, as you can see. Somehow it helps me work things out. Either that or I'm just too lazy to keep my thoughts to myself. It could be both. Who knows?"
Vincent just looked down at her with those intense red eyes without saying a word. Natalie flushed a darker shade and looked away.
She reached out for the door to open it. "Well I guess we find out what's hiding behind door number one." The massive door creaked slowly open. Natalie gasped, "It's huge!" as she stepped inside.
Books by the hundreds were stacked on tables, on bookcases, and on the floor. There were notebooks and tablets filled with handwritten journal notes, video tapes in a far corner, shelves of beakers containing neatly labeled liquids, and two cylindrical holding chambers linked to one of the Shinra Corporation's best computers.
Natalie's eyes widened as she stepped forward, absently fingering a book here and there as she made her way to the computer. It purred, unaffected by the world's sudden turn from the use of Mako. When Natalie did a slight search of the surroundings of the computer, she found it had a link to it's own small Mako generator.
Natalie pulled out a dusty office chair to sit with a slow breath, caressing the keyboard with a slowly growing smile. "Technology..." she whispered. "I've missed it in the few years out in no man's land. But now... Now I have a chance to do all I wanted to do before but couldn't. I know Mako is outlawed, but this computer may be the difference between..."
Natalie peeked over at Vincent. He had gone to stand by some chambers a little way from the desk. His expression hadn't changed, but something about his attitude had. Natalie couldn't quite put her finger on it.
"Vincent?" He didn't answer, so Natalie stood and moved to stand beside him. "Are you all right?"
Vincent blinked but didn't face her. "Cloud spoke of these."
Natalie turned to examine the chambers. They were more than six feet in height and impressively high-tech. They were also filled with a type of greenish embryonic liquid. Natalie reached out a hand to touch the cylinder. It was warm.
"It looks to be an incubator of some sort, and it's still running. As if the experiment should still be here." Natalie discovered a plaque on each cylinder. "Hm. C project. Specimen (A) code Z. And this one is specimen (B) and code C. I wonder what it means." She slowly made her way to the computer again. "Well they must have kept records. I'll just take a peek and see what I can find out."
"Cloud said that he and Zack, a friend from SOLDIER, were held here and injected with Jenova cells and Mako."
"Let me guess: Hojo."
"Yes. He claimed Cloud was a clone. We have no proof he told the truth."
"Why did he have such a fascination with screwing up the lives of others?" Natalie pressed her lips together before typing furiously on the keyboard, searching and crosschecking references in order to find anything regarding the experiments that had taken place in that basement. Shinra. Cloud Strife. SOLDIER. Hojo. Jenova.
"There has to be a connection," she murmured. "Some experiment that Hojo repeated. He was always so sadistically persistent." Then she typed in the name Vincent Valentine.
PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD
Natalie blinked, and her fingers paused over the keyboard. "Hello. What do we have here? You're using a password, Professor? I wonder if you might possibly have a secret."
"What is it?"
Vincent came to stand behind her, and she took in a slow breath to keep her focus on the computer screen. "I typed in your name. Now the computer is asking for a password."
"Have you tried Lucrecia?"
Natalie looked over her right shoulder at him. "He wouldn't use anything so obvious, would he?"
"Perhaps." Vincent motioned to the monitor. "Try it."
Natalie shrugged and typed in the letters.
ACCESS DENIED_PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD
"For what it's worth," Natalie offered with another glance and a smile, "it wasn't a bad idea. I wouldn't have tried it. Any other suggestions?"
Vincent stared down at the monitor, his brows slowly lowering in a frown. "Perhaps." Then he rested a hand on the back of her chair and reached over her shoulder to type three simple letters: G - O - D.
ACCESS GRANTED_WELCOME, PROFESSOR HOJO
"Now that's scary," Natalie said softly. Then she cleared her throat. And I hope to God he doesn't do that again.
"No scarier than what he bred."
Vincent turned away. Natalie's heart fell. "Where are you going?"
"I'm giving you room to work."
"You weren't in the way, Vincent." He didn't respond. He simply continued toward the door. "Will you come back? I haven't had a chance to ask you any questions."
Natalie stared after him. "Vincent." He halted, but didn't turn. "You don't need to leave. I could use your help."
"Perhaps later." And then he headed again toward the exit.
Natalie watched him leave. She released a deep breath after he'd closed the door behind him. Her mind ricocheted from fantasy to real world and back again. Then she shook her head as she turned back to the computer, desperately attempting to refocus her attention. "Okay, Nat. Now's your chance to do some mystery solving and clue hunting. You've been itching for this chance, and now it's been dropped in your lap. Let's get to work."
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