Vincent stared at the door. He could hear the rhythmic tapping of her fingers on the keyboard even through the solid wood. Occasionally the tapping would pause. Then it would resume at an even faster pace. '... An idea I've been toying with...' The hope that longed to bloom within fought at the restraints of his long practiced self-control, and his expression hardened as he clenched his jaw. He had told her he didn't entertain hope, but do even I believe this? He and the others had battled against impossibilities too long for him not to consider this a reasonable hope.
Vincent's red eyes narrowed as he examined the door, again seeing Natalie Long's seemingly innocent face. She knew Lucrecia... He turned and strode away. Vincent had fought long and hard against Sephiroth and Hojo in order to put the guilt of Lucrecia's death behind him. It was odd to be faced with another remembrance of her. Someone who had admired her courage and intelligence. Someone who had been enthralled with what she herself had found intriguing. And yet...
And yet, there was a fascinating difference about this stranger that had pulled him from his fitful slumber. She had plunged forward even though he had sensed her fear. The hold he had on her seemed to overpower her normal sense of self-preservation. To have such a grip over a person he'd never previously met captured his attention.
Vincent approached the door of the room that housed his coffin and halted, staring at it with a cold and hard gaze. After another brief hesitation, Vincent passed to ascend the stairs leading to the main floor of Shinra Mansion. The nightmares that had tortured him for so long had passed at the defeat of Sephiroth, and the memories he had of Lucrecia began to fade. Most hours found him staring at the cover of his self-appointed tomb while wondering what to do in order to fill the unknown remaining years of his life. Then he had heard a voice exclaim, 'Thank God! I found you! I finally found you...'
The remembrance of the unhidden joy heard in the hushed words twisted his insides again with an unexpected agony. For someone to be so pleased to find his crypt was beyond the scope of his withered heart and imagination. Hojo had made fear the only emotion ever witnessed by him. And yet...
Vincent clenched his jaw before stepping out into the late afternoon sunshine. He looked up at the sky to take in a deep breath. Yes. The effect of Sephiroth's evil dwindles. He could sense it. Jenova's power over their planet was a mere memory, easily and eagerly forgotten.
Her voice was no longer clearly spoken in his mind.
Vincent changed his focus to the well Cloud had often mentioned in his pleasant memories of home. It yet stood, almost a beacon of hope for all who gazed at it. A continued statement that pleasant dreams were possible for them as well. He could even sense his own soul's attempt at belief. '...An idea I've been toying with...' and that was his hope.
Vincent knew he didn't deserve it, but it was there for him to take just the same. Why shouldn't I take it? But his soul remained distant, testing the newfound idea with an air of feigned disdain. Hope had never before partnered itself with him. Why should it? But no excuses against the idea surfaced.
Vincent clenched his jaw, almost turning back for the Mansion. The sound of familiar laughter stopped him. Cloud and Tifa approached from the path leading to Mt. Nibel. When they saw him standing at the gate, they hesitated for the briefest possible moment before hurrying to his side.
"Well would you look what the cat dragged in?" Cloud said, smiling as he clapped Vincent on the shoulder. "It's great to see you, Vincent. What brings you out?"
Vincent examined Cloud's expression with a slightly raised eyebrow. Such an emotion of happiness and laughter hadn't been seen on the young man's face very often. Mostly he'd shown a tortured expression of guilt, rage, and confusion. To see him eagerly smiling with a twinkle of nauseating delight in his Mako glowing eyes nearly sabotaged Vincent's carefully constructed calm. So he chose not to speak any kind of answer to Cloud's questions. Instead, he continued to examine Cloud and Tifa's expressions. They exchanged a guarded glance, and Vincent crossed his arms.
Tifa spoke next. "Vincent, you haven't seen a woman with curly auburn hair have you? Her name's Natalie Long, and she's a scientist doing an article on the progress the planet's made since... well, since Sephiroth was beaten."
Vincent remained quiet.
Tifa absently pulled at the hem of her short black skirt. "I was just wondering if you'd seen her. She did such a good job on the interview... I... I hoped we could get together... some time... maybe."
Cloud shook his head, smirking as he draped an arm protectively around Tifa's shoulders. "Come on, Vincent. Give us a break. Have you seen her or not? It's not like we're asking you for your personal feelings on the matter."
Vincent's eyebrow twitched before he said, "She's in the basement lab."
Cloud straightened, his arm dropping from Tifa's shoulders. "What? Why in the hell did you let her go down there? It's dangerous!" He turned sharply to charge into the Mansion. The door slammed closed behind him.
Tifa stared after him with an amazed expression. The she turned back toward Vincent. "Now why in the world would he say it's dangerous?"
"Perhaps due to the fact Hojo left an experiment running?"
"Those cylinders? They can't be all that dangerous."
"One never knows when it comes to Hojo."
Tifa turned back toward the Mansion, leaning her hands against the gate without opening it. She released a deep breath. "Vincent, I know you don't usually talk about the stuff that's happened to you, but... But when you did, didn't it make you feel better?"
Vincent leaned his back against the gatepost as he crossed his arms. "It did," he reluctantly admitted.
Tifa examined his expression. "I don't get it. Why have you been hiding in the basement for so long? Didn't you want to be involved in everything that's been going on out here? Didn't you want to be around your friends for the celebration of a new beginning?"
"Yes, Vincent. Friends. I'd like to think that's what we are. After all, we've put up with your gloomy attitude with patience... for the most part. We helped you find Lucrecia's tomb, or whatever it was, so that you could put some of the guilt away. We asked you to become a part of our team... no, our family because we knew we could help each other." She turned to lean her back against the gate, tapping her heel on the dusty ground. "Come on, Vincent. We don't ask for a lot in return. We just want you to open up a little. We're all worried about you."
"I'm out. Isn't that enough?" Vincent asked impatiently.
"But for how long?" Tifa looked over at him. "We liked having you around, Vincent. You were always interesting company. On those long nights when none of us could sleep, you told some of the best stories of Shinra and the Turks. Sure, you almost never talked about yourself, but that was okay. Why is it so hard to do that now? Just because the world isn't in mortal danger?"
Vincent clenched his jaw and straightened, tossing his red cape over his shoulder as he turned for the gate. Tifa moved out of the way. "I'm doing my best." Vincent could sense her surprise at his response but didn't turn to gauge her expression. She hurried to walk beside him. "That coffin was what I knew," he continued. "The nightmares were my entertainment. To give that up so quickly... It isn't so easy for a stubborn soul bent on his own destruction."
"So why are you out now? Can I ask?"
It was a question that even Vincent hadn't had the courage to voice. "Perhaps... perhaps I'm searching for something."
Tifa thoughtfully nodded. "I can understand that. I was once there myself. I think I still am." Tifa stopped him with a hand on his arm, holding his expression when he looked down at her. "Just be patient with yourself. Okay? Not all questions can be answered at once. Some take time. Some hurt. Some will make you angrier than you've ever been. Give yourself a break, though. It's not easy to do this."
"Do whatever it is you're doing. Trying to find whatever you've lost. Be patient. That's the best advice anyone could give you."
Vincent examined her, and then he turned away. "Yes. I believe it is."
SUBJECT: VINCENT VALENTINE
Natalie blinked when the file access suddenly opened onto the blue screen of the computer. "What's this?" She clicked the file and began reading. Her face paled and her eyes glimmered, but she forced herself to take those notes of information important for her to know. "Oh my God. Why did he do this to you? Why?" But why had Hojo done any of his experiments? She shook her head and backed out of the file, perusing the other links to see if there was something more.
PERSONAL INFORMATION: VINCENT VALENTINE
Natalie clicked on the link, hoping for something more pleasant inside. "No family?" A tear escaped, and she wiped it away. "Oh Vincent--"
The door slammed open.
Natalie startled, nearly falling out of her chair in the process. Cloud strode further into the room, blue eyes flashing and face firmly set. He dragged her chair from the computer before reaching down to yank the cord from its power supply. Natalie stood, stretching out an arm with a cry of "Stop!" but it was too late. The monitor blackened as the progress made was lost. All that remained were the shorthand notes scribbled onto a faded desk pad. Before she had a chance to react, Cloud waved the cord at her with a dangerous scowl. Natalie found herself taking an involuntary step backward.
"This is against the law," he snapped. He threw the cord roughly to the ground before grabbing her arm and dragging her none too gently to the door. He ignored all protests and explanations. "I don't care if you're a scientist. I don't care if you knew what you were doing. That experiment is none of your business!"
"I don't care about that blasted experiment anyway," Natalie told him in a voice just as angry. "I was only trying to find information about--"
"It doesn't matter. That computer runs on Mako, and you could be in big trouble for using it. Just be glad I found you. I'm willing to forget it even happened, but Barret more than likely'd make you an example."
Natalie twisted her arm from Cloud's grasp with a wince. Then she halted and glared up at him, fists on hips. "It doesn't matter if Sephiroth himself had found me. You had no right to go bursting in and ruin all the hard-earned progress I'd made. You have no idea what I was in the process of doing, and now it's ruined! Perhaps gone forever if you corrupted the hard drive!"
Cloud attempted to grab her arm again, but she avoided his grasp. "Like I said, professor or doctor or whatever you are, I don't care. Everything about Hojo, Gast, and Shinra needs to stay were it is. Do you have any idea what could happen if it fell into the wrong hands?"
"I'm willing to take that risk," Natalie snapped. "I didn't have plans on telling anyone about it! Vincent was the one who--"
"Vincent?" Cloud's eyes darkened. "Vincent told you about that place?"
Natalie turned her face away, tilting her chin up in mute defiance as she crossed her arms. Vincent and Tifa approached.
"What's going on?" Tifa asked calmly.
"What the hell were you thinking?" Cloud snarled as he jammed a finger in Vincent's chest. "You had no business showing her that place."
Vincent only calmly looked down at Cloud's finger. Natalie, on the other hand, stepped menacingly toward the ex-SOLDIER. Vincent stopped her with a hand enfolding her upper arm. Natalie clicked her mouth shut. Vincent finally raised his amber gaze to meet Cloud's blue one.
"She needed a lab," Vincent said.
"She needed a lab? She needed a lab?" Cloud gestured back at the door to the laboratory. "So you just take her there?"
Tifa put a hand on Cloud's arm. "Cloud, calm down."
"There was no harm planned," Vincent countered, his hand still holding Natalie's arm. Her green eyes flashed with fire and rage, but she kept silent.
"No harm-- How do you know what the hell she planned?" Cloud asked harshly, an arm gesturing toward Natalie for effect. "You don't know her from Jenova and you think you have-"
"Cloud," Tifa interrupted with a push at his arm. "Cloud, I think you better walk this off before you say anything you regret."
He glared down at her.
Natalie clenched her jaw, pulling her arm from Vincent's hold. "For your information, Mr. Strife, my research on reversing Hojo's alteration of Vincent has nothing to do with you! Now if there's harm to the planet by doing said research, then so be it! I have no intention of turning my back on him when there's a possibility I could help." She stepped toe-to-toe with Cloud and did her own finger-jab to his chest. "I care about him a whole hell of a lot more than this planet!"
With that, she turned on her heel, pushed past both Tifa and Vincent, and strode from the basement without a single look backward. Tifa stared after her, and then she looked back to Vincent and Cloud with crossed arms. Cloud swore and turned to punch the wall with a fist. Vincent looked a little paler than normal.
"You always did have a flare for picking a fight." Tifa shook her head. "I thought you'd grown out of it."
Cloud ignored her. Instead, he leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. He looked to Vincent. "Sorry, Vincent. I didn't know."
"Yeah? Well you didn't ask either," Tifa pressed.
Cloud met her gaze. "Okay, Tifa. I get your point. Back off."
Tifa smirked. "I'll go talk to Natalie, then." She turned and moved away.
Cloud watched her, and then he faced Vincent again. "So is she right? Is there a cure for whatever Hojo did?"
Vincent moved his gaze from the wall in front of him to the corridor leading to the spiral staircase. "I don't know."
"What about what she said? About trying to find a way of undoing it."
"I know what she said."
"Didn't she tell you anything about it?"
"She said she had an idea." Vincent's voice sounded more and more strained.
"An idea, huh?" Cloud ran a hand through his spiked blonde hair before looking back to the lab. "I never wanted to see that place again, and now I'm going to end up fixing it so she can use a Shinra invention without screwing up the planet." He shrugged suddenly. "Oh hell. Why not." Cloud pushed from the wall to disappear inside the lab.
Vincent stared down the corridor after Natalie. Then he moved his gaze to the door of the room that housed his coffin. He stepped inside, blankly staring at the large black box. '...an idea I've been toying with... I care--' He disappeared within, closing the cover tightly after him. He closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep, grateful for the ever-familiar oppressive blackness that submerged his mind into nothingness...
...and the nightmares...
Natalie stiffened, quickly wiping the tears from her face before moving again toward the exit of Shinra Mansion. You made a total and complete ass of yourself, Nat. Not only did you confess how much you care for Vincent in front of his friends - thereby embarrassing him beyond measure - but you lost your cool and told off the savior of this planet! She pressed her lips together, stumbling from the Manson and down the walkway as she wiped another volley of tears from her cheeks.
How am I going to face him ever again? But she had to. Why? Because she couldn't walk away now that she had found him and a lab. All her life she had felt something waited for her. Something out of her grasp. Now that she had this chance, the feeling didn't lurk in the back of her soul. She had found her purpose: saving Vincent from whatever hell he went to each time he submerged into that coffin. And now he knows how I feel... She choked on a sob, furiously wiping more and more tears from her reddened cheeks as her steps slowed. Natalie finally stumbled to a stop and leaned against the base of the well.
Tifa came to stand beside her, resting a hand on her back. "Natalie?"
"What?" Natalie choked out.
"Does it look like I'm okay?" Natalie burst out as she turned to face Tifa. "I've just humiliated myself in front of the only man I've ever wanted to impress and you think I might be okay?" Natalie covered her face with her hands and shook her head. "Just kill me now and be done with it. My research is ruined, so I'll probably never be able to find a way to reverse what Hojo did to him. My one chance and this had to happen! It's not fair..."
Tifa absently rubbed her shoe on the back of her leg as she gnawed her lower lip. "Natalie--"
"What do you want?" Natalie cried as she dropped her hands from her face. "Haven't I humiliated myself enough? Must you come and see me like this? Leave me alone..." She pushed away from the well and stumbled over to and into the inn.
Tifa stared after her with a pained expression. Then she slowly shook her head as she made her way back to Shinra Mansion. When she came to the doorway of the lab, she hesitated for a long moment before entering. Cloud stood in front of the two cylinders with crossed arms and a scowl.
"Cloud, can I ask you something?"
"Does Vincent seem different to you?"
Cloud looked over at her in confusion. "Different? What do you mean?"
"I'm not really sure. I guess the fact he's out after so many months is difference enough, but there was something in his face when she left. Something I've never seen before. Did he say anything to you before going back in his box?"
"Nope. Just as tightlipped as ever. Couldn't even get him to talk about her idea." Cloud looked down at his feet. "I didn't piss her off too bad, did I?"
"Surprisingly, no. She was upset, though."
"Damn." Cloud looked toward her with outstretched arms. "Tif, why do I do this to people? Why do I find the quickest way to piss them off and then go that little bit extra?"
"Cloud, she wasn't angry. She was crying. All she could think about was the fact she may have humiliated Vincent." Tifa looked quickly over her shoulder before moving closer to Cloud. "I... I think she's in love with him."
Cloud blinked. "What?"
Tifa nodded. "Really. I'm serious."
"How... When would she've had a chance? He's been in that box forever, and the only time he's been out was when he helped us."
Tifa shrugged. "I don't know the details, but I'd recognize that expression of misery anywhere. You heard what she said, didn't you? About caring for him more than the planet?"
"Well I'll be a--" Cloud broke off and strode to the computer, glaring down at it with an intensity reminiscent of the days when they desperately attempted to defeat Sephiroth and the Turks. "Okay, Tifa. This is what we're going to do. I need you to go to Rocket Town and get Cid and Shera. Tell them we need to get this computer up and running without using Mako. Who knows? Maybe this will help them come up with a new power source."
"Okay. What are you going to be doing?"
"I'm going to go around to the different towns to see if any of them have come up with any ideas. Maybe I'll run into Yuffie somewhere. Seems to me she was spouting some weird stories about power sources in Wutai and Gongaga that didn't have anything to do with Mako."
"Yuffie? Go figure."
Cloud smiled. "Yeah. No kidding."
"What about Natalie and Vincent?"
The smile faded. Cloud rubbed at his scalp. "I don't know one way or the other to tell you the truth. At this point, I just want to stay the hell out of the way. They'll deal with whatever's going on a whole lot better if we just butt out."
"I guess you're right."
Cloud shook his head. "Don't bet on it."
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