"All right. That makes sense," Natalie muttered, "but this? No. I must have read wrong. Where was that page?"
Vincent adjusted his position against the tree as he watched her. One of her curls had strayed the fetters of her no-nonsense ponytail to continuously tickle her forehead. This of course encouraged the occasional action of blowing air through her lips to chase it away, or the ever-effective swipe of the back-of-hand or wrist. Apparently Natalie wasn't too worried about preventing grease or oil spots with the action. She already had quite a collection on her forehead and nose, as well as on her jeans and sweatshirt.
Of course, the quad had been working on the project for nearly 10 hours.
Yuffie and Red, who had been found exploring the fossil ruins on the other side of Mt. Nibel, were now enroute to Wutai to procure a waterwheel. Natalie, on the other hand, was double-checking connections and modifications as she readied the contraption for its first test. She hadn't taken a break since the two had emerged from the basement lab of Shinra Mansion.
At times it was a bittersweet duty Vincent had chosen, watching her. She reminded him of Lucrecia in so many ways. Her intelligence. Her tenacity. Her determination. There the similarities ceased. A softer and more humorous side overlaid all of Natalie's aggressiveness. Vincent couldn't remember whether or not Lucrecia had shown the same. It had been too long.
"Ouch!" Natalie dropped whatever tool she had been using and rubbed at an unknown body part with a frown.
"What happened?" he found himself asking.
Natalie absently nodded, and then her head once again disappeared out of his field of vision. One of Vincent's eyebrows twitched. Yes. She is tenacious and persistent.
"Blast!" Natalie exclaimed.
Vincent straightened and made his way toward her. Natalie sat back on her heels with a grease and grime covered hand to her forehead as the other rested on her hip.
Vincent crouched beside her. "Blast what?"
Natalie released an annoyed breath. "Of all the-- It's so simple," she muttered, again wiping away the curl with the back of her hand. "Why am I having such an issue?"
"Perhaps you need a break?" Vincent offered as he watched her face.
Natalie wrinkled her nose and leaned toward the would-be generator again. "What is wrong with you?" she asked the machine. "Quit fighting and just do it. Sheesh." Her head ducked inside.
Vincent smirked. "Professor."
"Not now please," she said in an absent tone, muffled from the innards of the machine. "Busy."
Vincent's smile widened. "Yes, I know. However, dinner calls."
"Tell them I'll be there in a minute," came the muffled response. A hand reached out for a tool, grabbed it, and disappeared inside.
A chuckle fought back the inner cold as he straightened. "Very well."
Vincent stepped toward Nibelheim and the Item Shop to get something for her to eat. How he would get her to step away from the project would be the interesting challenge. He didn't believe she would be completely uncooperative. He would only need to find the best way to attract her attention. Memories of Lucrecia's own type of one-track persistence had him believing such would be hard but not impossible. She would either respond with irritation or with... patience?
Vincent's eyebrow twitched. He didn't know enough about her to expect a reaction either way. In fact, their current relationship was nothing but a... Fascination? Yes. Natalie was lovely, with her shoulder-length auburn curls, sparkling green eyes, and slight build that contained such passion and intensity. But there was something deeper that fascinated him. Her persona.
The green eyes that showed concern and empathy, though her own life couldn't possibly equal his own torture. The lips that spoke encouragement when she remained silent. The simple loveliness of her face that brightened... when he was seen. Yes. She fascinated him. Her acceptance. Her tenacity. All for him. Yet shouldn't I still be a stranger?... A stranger? To the one that understood him better than anyone ever had? A stranger to the one that had studied him and his history for nearly half their life? A stranger? No, Vincent shook his head. No, she has never been that. And that was hard to grasp.
Vincent released a slow breath as he paused on the threshold of the Item Shop. He looked down at his hands: claw and human. Monster and man. Then he looked again toward Mt. Nibel. She didn't flinch. And that was harder to grasp. The understanding or reasoning wouldn't be held or had.
Vincent's gaze returned to his hands. "I don't know."
All he'd come to believe had begun to crumble. I am not a monster to her. I am not a heartless Turk to her. I am not a destroyer of families. I am not a robber of hope. I am... Vincent blinked as he slowly lowered his arms to his side and stepped inside the Item Shop.
Vincent heard a tell-tale sniff, and his brow furrowed. He set the bag of lunch down on the grass near the tree opposite the would-be generator. "What is it?" he asked as he approached.
Vincent found Natalie sitting tailor-style behind the metal box, tools and books splayed out in front of her, grease smudges still coloring her face, and a bit of blood on varying knuckles. She rested her elbows/arms on her knees as she stared into the box, a trail of tears fighting against the grease on her cheeks.
Vincent knelt beside her.
Natalie blinked, turning her face slightly to the left. She gave a tremulous smile. "Oh. Hello."
"What has happened?"
Natalie sighed. Then she stood, brushing the debris from her worn jeans. "I must not have read a section right. I fried a circuit board." And her voice caught on the tears of frustration.
Vincent stood as well, intensely watching her face. The expression of disappointment and near grief grabbed his cold heart and twisted it. "We have more," he reminded.
"I know. I just... I didn't want to waste them on my stupid mistakes."
Vincent raised an eyebrow. "You simply aren't familiar with--"
"I know." Natalie sighed again, raising her gaze to Vincent's face. "I think I need to take a break."
Vincent nodded as he gestured toward the tree some 20 feet away. "I brought dinner."
"You did?" Natalie smiled. "Thank you."
Vincent followed beside her to the tree. "You were distracted, understandably so, and apparently didn't hear what I intended."
"Oh." Natalie flushed, sending him an occasional sidelong glance. "I do that sometimes. Sorry."
Vincent held her hand to steady her as she sat. "I know." He sat down beside her and then handed her the bag. "Tuna sandwich and grape juice. I asked them to make it less sweet than what is normally requested."
Natalie's eyes widened as she took the bag. "How did...?"
"The aroma of tuna and grape juice is hard to confuse with anything else."
"You mean...? The picnics I had down there...? Oh my gosh." Natalie stared down at the bag in her hand.
Vincent examined her face. "What is it?"
"N-Nothing." She reached inside and pulled out the grape juice, unscrewing the plastic lid after giving it a collection of firm shakes. "I hope Red and Yuffie get back soon with that waterwheel."
"You should show me where you will need it to be installed before they arrive."
Natalie looked over at him, lowering the bottle of grape juice with an arched eyebrow. "Why?"
"'Why?' No one else will be able to install it without falling into the river below."
"But... won't the waterwheel be heavy? I don't want you to fall in either."
Vincent gave a slight smile. "I hadn't intended to."
"All the same, I'd feel better if we fixed a rope to it and lowered it down to you. Once you have a firm position, of course."
"While the concern is appreciated, it isn't necessary."
Natalie set aside her grape juice with a deliberate action, her eyes focusing on her fingers that still held the bottle. "Vincent, there will be a rope attached to the waterwheel. It will be lowered to you once you're safely positioned, and you will have a safety harness attached."
Amusement lifted the corners of his lips. "Yes, Professor."
Natalie raised her eyes then to give Vincent a sheepish smile. "Thank you."
Vincent examined her profile, the slight flush of her cheeks, the uncertain smile, the innocence that was so persistent. "No one has cared one way or the other." He looked away, gaze growing distant. "Have they?" But the memories wouldn't come.
"What about your father?" she asked hesitantly.
Vincent shook his head. "I don't remember. It's been too long."
Natalie looked down at the sandwich in her hands. "I'm sorry you don't remember your family," she whispered.
Vincent looked over at her down-turned face, feeling the surprising warmth of comfort from the statement...
"Yo, Vinnie! Nat! Where are ya?"
Vincent stood. "Eat. I will see what Yuffie and Red have brought."
Natalie gave a slight nod.
Vincent stood and made his way to the path leading toward Nibelheim. Yuffie and Red were coming up the way. "Yuffie. Red. Did you find one?"
"As a matter of fact," Red started.
"Damn straight," Yuffie guffawed, "and the thing's huge!"
"Where is it?" Vincent asked as he met them. The trio stopped.
Yuffie jerked over her shoulder. "Back in the buggy. Too heavy. Can you give us a hand?"
"I will see how Natalie is coming on the generator," Red said before moving on.
Vincent and Yuffie made their way back to Nibelheim. "So how is Nat doin' on the thing?" Yuffie asked.
"She seems to have damaged a circuit board."
"So? We've got more."
Vincent nodded. "I know. I told her." He sent Yuffie a sidelong glance. "She demands perfection from herself in everything."
"Hm. Kinda figured." Yuffie motioned back the way she had come. "It's this way. Come on."
Natalie smiled. "Hi, Red. How did it go?"
"Good." Red stretched before lying down in front of Natalie with a deep breath. "It felt good to be on a type of quest. Haven't done so in months."
"Did you find a waterwheel?"
Red nodded and then set about the duty of licking the traildust from his paws and fur. "Yes," he said between licks. "Quite a large one."
"Really? Oh good. Then we shouldn't have to worry about the speed of the water damaging it for a long time." Natalie wiped the tuna-juice from her fingers and set the sandwich aside. Then she stood to her feet and made her way over to the cliff, looking over with her hands on her hips. "There's a little ledge here, so that would probably be the best. That way we can have someone go down on regular intervals to do maintenance and such. Hmm." Natalie examined the other side of the river. "If it's big enough, we might even be able to secure it from both sides. That way it would be even more sturdy and long-lasting. What do you think?"
"A very wise precaution," Red agreed as he sat down beside her. "And I do believe the wheel is large enough to do that very thing."
"Oh good. I was hoping we wouldn't need to install double wheels. Then you have the problem of making them able to run at different intervals, so that you don't have to secure them to run the same." Natalie shivered. "Saves time, that's for sure."
Red nodded, still staring down at the rushing and raging waters below. "How is the generator coming along? Did you need any help?"
Natalie sighed, lowering herself to a sitting position beside Red. "I don't think I can do it by myself. I've already made a mistake that cost a circuit board and the hour or two of time it will take to replace it."
Red looked over at her. "Then don't attempt to do it by yourself," he said, matter-of-fact. "Vincent and I understand the concept almost as much as you do, Natalie. There's no reason for you not to ask for help, or for us not to give it to you."
Natalie flushed as she tucked an imaginary curl behind her ear. "Bad habit."
"One that you will try harder to break?"
Natalie chuckled, finally meeting Red's gaze. "Yes, sir."
Red smiled. Then he licked her face, purring as he rubbed his cheek against hers. "I'm the last one to enjoy scolding, Natalie. Thank you for understanding."
Natalie rubbed him behind the ears before standing to her feet. "Why shouldn't I understand? I deserved that one."
"Yes, but that is generally when we don't want to hear the scolding."
Natalie conceded the point with a nod. "Now that I understand."
Red headed toward the would-be generator. "Shall we do our best to fix what is broken?"
Natalie followed. "Yes. Please. I'm going to start pulling my hair out if something isn't done, and quickly."
Red looked over the pages in the book as Natalie sat beside him and started explaining what she'd done so far.
"It's just so frustrating," Natalie confessed once she'd finished her explanation. "I've got this itch in the back of my head that something isn't right, but I can't put my finger on it."
Red nodded. "Yes, and now the frustration serves only to cloud your mind to the possible solution."
"I know," Natalie agreed with wide eyes and a raised hand. "That's why I was having dinner. Vincent thought I needed a break. I agreed."
Red didn't raise his eyes from the book. "Once he and Yuffie arrive with the wheel, why don't you and he see about plotting the mechanism for the wind tunnel."
Red lifted his eyes. "Pardon?"
"We need to get the cliff ready for the insertion of the wheel," she reminded, pointing toward the ledge.
"Of course," Red said, patient. "Yuffie already has plans to do that."
"No," Red interrupted. "She won't need your help. She won't need Vincent's. We have a rope ladder, which we will fasten tightly to the top of the cliff here and lower below."
Natalie took in a deep breath and released it slowly. "All right. I'm sorry, papa."
Red smiled. "I hardly think that's called for."
Natalie chuckled, and then she gestured to the innards of the box. "Any ideas?"
Red nodded as he looked within. "As a matter of fact, yes, but only due to the past history of watching my grandfather repair his refrigerator."
Red shook his head. "I'll walk you through it."
"Thank you." Natalie picked up her tools. "Let's get busy."
Vincent heard the roar and whistle of the wind tunnel before he and Natalie had even made their way around the back of the reactor.
"Do you hear that?" she asked him, sending his silent form a sidelong glance. "I hope we can find a fan hardy enough to withstand that pull. If we don't..." Natalie shook her head. "Yuffie's going to be swearing a blue streak."
When the pair began to feel the pull of the wind tunnel, they stopped and simply examined the cave-like tunnel and the nearly visible wind current within.
Natalie rested fists on hips. "Hm. Now here's a puzzle. The circumfrence of the tunnel is larger than the height of the opening." She tilted her head, not noticing that Vincent scrutinized her rather than the cave. "We likely won't be able to install a fan as large as the tunnel itself. Too bad. It would be a better utilization of the wind-force."
She crossed her arms and took a step forward to get a better look within, not noticing that the wind began to whip her auburn curls about her face. She only absently brushed them from her face. Vincent kept careful eye on her as he slowly followed her step, gauging the force of the pull of the wind as he did.
"I suppose we could install a tall pole that would be attached to the generator out here, and then affix more than one fan to it. That would give us double or triple utilization. Although... There might be a problem with the timing of the blades, unless we hook up more than one generator."
Natalie took another step toward the tunnel, and Vincent again followed. This time the greater pull of the wind made his body tense as he readied himself for a quick reaction. "Professor," he warned.
Natalie absently nodded as she cupped an elbow in her opposite hand and tapped her lips with a long finger. "I know. That might not be necessary if I can get the timing and circuitry correct in the one. And it would be a waste of hardware that we could use elsewhere." She pointed at the tunnel. "If only I could reason a way of installing larger fans into the tunnel walls, with a metal guide within the rock of course. Then we could have the calibration unit fastened to the rock wall out here that would regulate the input to the generator. Although... Hm."
She again tapped her lips, her auburn brows lowering in a slight frown as she made a move to step forward yet again. This time, however, Vincent grabbed hold of her arm and kept her back.
Natalie blinked up at him. "What's the matter?" she asked, green eyes wide.
Vincent pulled the bit of material from her hair that supposedly kept it back into a ponytail and released it. The bit of blue material was immediately pulled into the tunnel and sucked violently upward. Natalie stared at it with slack jaw. Then she clicked her mouth shut and cleared her throat as she sent him a sidelong glance. Vincent released her arm. "A safe distance would be wise."
Natalie chuckled. "Yes. You have a point." She motioned toward the wind tunnel. "So what do you think? Midgar or Cosmo Canyon have any wind towers powerful or sturdy enough to handle something like that?"
Vincent regarded her a moment before looking to the wind tunnel. "More than likely. Red would be the better one to ask."
"Certainly, but you've seen them in action. From what I understand from Yuffie, the wind towers at Cosmo Canyon don't need to withstand as powerful a gust as what's here. Do you think it would take much to condition them for that?"
Her continued questions on his opinion drew his attention. "I don't know."
"We'll have to go and see," she immediately volunteered, holding his gaze. "How about we go after we have the water-wheel up and running? I'm sure Yuffie and Red will let us borrow the buggy." She smiled. "Of course, I don't think I'll need the power of the wind tower to run the little computer in the lab, so maybe we should put it off until I cure you. What do you think?"
Fascination and intrigue grew, especially at the memory of her spark of temper in the hallway of the Shinra Mansion and her remark of disdain for the risk to the... "What of the planet?"
Natalie wrinkled her nose and waved a hand before taking him by the arm, her hand not flinching away from the cool golden metal as she led him back toward the clearing. "The planet will still be here in a week. I doubt putting off the installation of a wind tower will sabotage anything. First come first served, and you've been waiting for nearly 30 years. I think that's long enough, don't you?"
Vincent caught and held her sidelong smirk. Perhaps.
"I don't like this," Natalie muttered as she secured the rope around the waterwheel.
Vincent helped her while Red made sure Yuffie didn't take unnecessary risks with the fasteners on the cliff's side.
"I have a bad feeling, Vincent."
Vincent double-checked the knot before going to her side. "I've done more dangerous tasks than this and lived to tell the tale."
Natalie bit her lower lip. "Just be doubly careful this time. All right?"
He handed her the harness he was to wear. "I will."
Natalie helped him strap into it. "Promise?"
Vincent stared down at her trembling hands as they worked with the belt of the harness. When she looked up, he could see the uncertainty in her expression. It was the first time he had seen that expression since looking into the face of Lucrecia that evening--
Natalie stepped forward to enfold him in an embrace, and Vincent blinked in surprise. When she stepped back, her expression was stern.
"I'll have a firm hold on this rope, Mr. Valentine," she told him, matter-of-fact. "No heroics. You understand me?" Natalie held his gaze for a fraction of a moment more before stepping back and motioning for the cliff. "Get a position. Then we'll lower the wheel."
Vincent gauged her expression a moment before doing as he was told. He stepped up to the extreme edge, gauging the distance as Yuffie made her way up the rope ladder. "How is it down there?" he asked.
Yuffie pulled herself up and then brushed the dirt from her trousers. "A bit gusty. Nearly toppled twice. Watch it."
Vincent gave a brief nod, again gauged the distance, and then dropped over the side.
"Vincent Valentine!" he heard Natalie yell down after him."
Vincent smirked as his feet touched ground. Yuffie hadn't exaggerated. He tested his footing, noted the ground was a bit slick, and then tested the harness.
"All right!" he called up to them. "Lower the wheel!"
The trio rolled it very carefully over the side, Red doing an admirable job of slowing its progress with a firm jaw-hold on the rope. Vincent rose from the ground, very conscious of the gusts and what they did to his position, and intercepted the wheel partway down. Then he guided it very slowly and deliberately into the restraining holsters that Yuffie had set up on either side. One side clicked into place. The other didn't.
Vincent frowned. "Hold tight up there! We seem to have a problem!" He directed himself over to the other side of the wheel. A stone had become lodged in the harness. "Pull up the far side! I need to dislodge a rock!"
There were the sounds of grunts and grumbles as the appropriate side began to lift. Vincent waited a moment longer... and then he quickly reached in, grabbed the pebbles, and retrieved his hand just as the wheel slipped into place.
"Vincent! We slipped! Are you okay?"
Vincent raised himself up into their view, and then he lowered himself into a sitting position on the opposite bank. "Fine."
Natalie released a deep breath, positioned as she was on all fours looking down into the 'canyon', and lowered her head. "Thank God." She lifted her head again, straightening to sit back on her heels. "And you are in so much trouble, Mr. Valentine," she accused as she pointed at him.
Vincent crossed his arms, his lips giving a slight twitch. "I wore the harness. I never said I would use the ladder."
Fists on hips. "Ooo," she said with a meaningful glare.
Natalie reluctantly laughed. "I believe it's time for this Professor to take a nap. I'm a bit crankier than normal." She rubbed her eyes with the backs of her hands before giving a nice long stretch.
Vincent raised an eyebrow. Her graceful movements reminded him of a cat.
"It's good thing I brought over pillows and blankets earlier." Natalie continued to smile as she pushed to her feet. "And I think I'll go make use of them right now. But." She pointed at him with a sudden expression of seriousness. "You, Mr. Valentine, are still in trouble."
Vincent released a chuckle.
Red and Yuffie laughed.
There was a soft touch to her cheek. Natalie smiled and slowly opened her eyes. "Hello," she murmured.
Vincent lowered his hand, and Natalie noticed an odd glint in his eyes.
"We are about to test it," he told her. "I thought you would want to see."
Natalie nodded her head while she yawned. Then she sat up, still holding the blankets around her as she did. Vincent helped her to her feet. "Thank you," she said sleepily. Natalie wobbled, so Vincent steadied her with an arm to her waist. Ooo. I like that. Then it lowered. Dang.
Natalie focused her attention to the soon-to-be power generator. "I doubt it will work the first time, but we'll at least know where to go from here."
She and Vincent came to stop a few feet away from the metal box. Yuffie and Red gathered expectantly on the other side.
Natalie released a slow breath. "Well, you might as well turn it on."
Yuffie held up a small box that had wires leading to the generator. "We rigged up a long-distance turn-on switch so that we wouldn't get blasted apart." Yuffie motioned back. "You might want to step back a bit."
The trio did as suggested.
Yuffie took in a deep breath, looked down at the 'on' switch in her hand, and then pushed it. Nothing happened. Yuffie glowered. "Damn it to hell!"
She threw the 'on' switch at the machine. It crashed, whirred to life, and then stopped with a tremendous groan and growl followed very closely by smoke billowing out the side.
"Disconnect it from the wheel!" Natalie shouted while hurrying forward. "Quick! Before all the circuits melt!"
Everyone rushed for the box.
"All right. Here we go." Natalie took in a deep breath, closed her eyes, and pushed the button. The generator spluttered to life. She opened first one eye and then the other. The generator still hummed. She slowly released the held breath, sending a hopeful look over her left shoulder toward Vincent. His eyes moved from their focus on the generator to her. She smiled.
"Yes!" Yuffie hollered as she leaped into the air. "The damn thing works!"
Natalie heard a whine begin from the machine. Her smile disappeared as her eyes quickly focused on it. "No," she whispered. "You can do it. Just hold on."
She felt Vincent's hand on her shoulder when the whine became a shudder and moan. Before Natalie could turn it off, there was a spark and a slight internal explosion. Natalie felt the tears gather, but she pushed them aside as she swallowed hard. She clicked off the machine and stepped forward, organizing in her mind where they would start again. And again. And yet again. I will get this thing running. Natalie only wished it wouldn't have taken so much time.
*Yuffie sat up, rapidly blinking her eyes. She stood and dusted herself off. "Damn. I thought that one was going to work for sure."
Vincent helped Natalie to her feet. "Are you all right?"
Natalie smiled up at him with a nod before brushing the debris from her jeans and T-shirt. Their most recent attempt at natural power had failed, again. "Yes, but I agree with Yuffie. I thought we had it right that time."
Red shook the debris from his mane before looking at the rubble of the hopeful power source with disappointment. "I suppose we should start again, but so many failures has me a little depressed."
Yuffie nodded as she put her hands on her hips. "Damn straight."
Vincent watched Natalie's expressions. "What do you propose?"
Natalie turned toward the small crater with a deep sigh. "I don't know. I need some time to think before we try it again."
"Fine. You can think all you want. Red and me are going to go get some sleep." Yuffie pulled at Red's tail.
Natalie waved at them with an absent expression as she stared at her hard work turned to rubble. Tears sprung to her eyes. "I don't want to do this again tonight."
Vincent continued to watch her. "You're close," he told her. "Each one has lasted a little longer. This one for nearly an hour."
"I know." She sighed. "I wanted to focus this time on your cure, Vincent, not the power source." Natalie shook her head. "I can't take it anymore. The expectancy of success followed so closely with the devastation of disappointment... I-I just can't." Natalie turned to follow after Yuffie and Red. She stopped when Vincent didn't follow. "What's the matter?" she asked when she faced him.
He watched her, intensely, for another moment before shaking his head and looking away. "Nothing. Good night."
Natalie absently gnawed her lower lip. Don't badger! "Good night," she said softly.
She turned away, tucking an auburn curl behind her ear as she did so. Natalie didn't blame him for being withdrawn and silent. Witnessing failure after failure, knowing that the next one could be the final hope or the final defeat of that hope? Natalie rubbed at her forehead. Maybe the conversion rate is off... She wished she could have given him a better nightmare to go to that night.
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