Natalie released a slow and deep breath as she adjusted her arms around him. Around Vincent. Real. Alive. Afraid and feeling. She closed her eyes and sighed again. "So what do we do now?" she whispered. "I've never been here before in my dreams, Vincent. I don't know what to do next. I don't know how to act." She finally looked up to meet his amber gaze. She shook her head. "I don't know anything."
Vincent stared down at her in silence, his expression mirroring her own uncertainty and fear.
"I don't know about you," she said quietly as she lowered her head against his chest again, "but these past few days have been glorious. Being with you. Being with your friends. Seeing you together... I don't want it to end. But." She sighed. "But I need to keep trying, don't I? I need to finish what I've started. Because you've asked me to. Because I don't want to be tormented by the 'what if's. I want you to have a chance at the happiness you deserve. The chance to be free from that coffin..."
Silence beckoned the pair until Vincent suddenly said, "You've fallen in love with a monster and fear that when it's changed to a man, you will no longer care for him."
Natalie closed her eyes. "Maybe," she whispered.
Vincent adjusted his arms around her while releasing a slow and deep breath. She remained within the grasp, trusting in the protection of that simple touch.
"With that confession, I'm tempted to stay as I am simply to spite what Hojo believed to be impossible," he confessed. "But the desire to be what I was overpowers everything else. I want to make my own choices." His grip tightened around her. "Do your best, Natalie," he said in a low voice, "and regret nothing. Strange as it may seem coming from me, I have faith in you."
Natalie flinched, and the action caused him to push back.
Vincent's amber eyes searched her face. "What was that?"
Natalie's gaze refused to meet his. Instead, she took his hands in hers. "A confession, I suppose," she told him.
"A confession? Of what?"
Natalie sighed. "Of everything, I suppose." She cleared her throat and gave his hands a squeeze. "Throughout my entire school career I wanted to find someone who would want me for who I was. All my quirks. All my crazy notions of grandeur. All my dreams and fantasies." She peeked up at him. "You see, you need to understand that my life up to that point had been lonely because I hadn't ever been interested in anything outside history. When I heard about you... You were surrounded by history and tragedy and... and you were lonely because you were betrayed by the ones you loved. You were an outcast because someone in power abused his position."
Natalie gave his hands another squeeze as she swallowed the tears. "My heart broke at that. I mean, I had found someone who had no hope at all of finding someone to care about them. So, I decided to learn more. I wanted to... I wanted to fix that tragedy. I wanted to reverse your future." Natalie lowered her head as her heart balked at the confession. "What I didn't admit at the time was that I wanted to learn more so that I would have a reason to care. The fantasy of nurse falling for patient taken to a new and twisted level. I guess I believed it was a safe relationship. I believed it impossible for you to meet me. After all, I knew you'd never be involved in anything that interested me. I knew I was safe."
Natalie's voice choked, and Vincent's hands tightened on hers. Her lips lifted in a slight smile and she raised her head. His amber eyes glowed as they watched her face. "When I became interested in what I studied and not just who, it caught me completely by surprise. When the surprise faded, in came a new fantasy: what if I could cure you and make you feel something akin to the love I fancied I felt? The fantasy filled me with hope, making me do something foolish. I actually began looking for you. Something I had promised I would never do."
Natalies eyes widened. "For the first time in my life I wanted something more," she admitted, voice awed. "I wanted to be happy. I wanted to share my interests with someone. But it was more than that, I wanted to share my life with someone. I wanted the fantasy to become real because I was tired of living in a dream whenever I wanted love or tenderness..." She lowered her gaze. "But when I started dreaming of what our life together could be like, it hurt. Seeing it made me want it even more, and when I wanted it more, it hurt to know that it was impossible to have. After all, you were in love with Lucrecia. You always had been. You always would be in my mind."
Natalie's lips quivered upward in another smile. "Then I... then I realized I didn't care about that. Somewhere along the fancies and the research and the learning I had come to care about you more than my work," she whispered, finally looking up to watch him. "Somehow, while reading your histories and your miseries, I had fallen in love with you. Every bit of it. The blackness. The light. The anger. The laughter... Monster, man, experiment. All of it."
Vincent remained silent, his eyes glowing with a strange expression.
"And if curing one means that it might kill all of you, I don't know if I can do that. I don't want to hurt you. You've had that enough in your life."
Vincent held her gaze in the silence that followed, still standing so close that she could smell everything about him. His musk of mystery. His heady aroma of intensity and depth. His sweet scent of humanness and passion.
"We've been down this path before," he finally said, voice gruff. "For most of your young life you've wanted to change what Hojo did to me. Now is your chance. For all of my existence as this monster I've wished for my previous life. Now is my chance." His hands gripped her upper arms. "I understand the risks, Natalie, and I accept them as worth the end result. Now you must come to a decision as well. Whom do you care for? For me? Or for the monster shell that has trapped me?"
Natalie blinked up at him, tears choking off the voice that would have given him the words she wanted to say. Instead, she kissed his mouth and his cheek and held him close as she desperately tried to fight back the sobs.
Vincent pulled her tighter against him. "There is your answer. You came to love my soul, and my soul will be the same... The same?" he whispered. "I lie. The blackness begins to crumble..." Vincent touched her neck with his lips, causing a shiver. "No. It will never be the same."
Natalie silently cried against him.
* *The quad glared at the latest repaired version of the generator. Late afternoon was quickly approaching and they were hesitant to face another failure before retiring to start again the next morning. Throughout the day, Yuffie and Red had continuously sent Natalie and Vincent sidelong glances. It was as if they could sense something had changed and couldn't put a name to it. Even Natalie had felt the difference between her and Vincent. A distance that wasn't as great. A coldness that wasn't as chilling. An expression that wasn't as guarded.
Vincent crossed his arms. "You mentioned conversion rates," he reminded. "Should we venture back to the Library and search the book stocks before giving it power?"
Yuffie scrubbed at the back of her neck. "Screw that. I'm going to go to Rocket Town and drag Cid's good-for-nothing ass here to do it himself. Come on, Red. Let's go."
Natalie absently waved as Red and Yuffie moved away and out of the clearing toward town. Natalie sighed and tucked an errant curl behind an ear. "I don't know. We're running low on parts..." She looked over at Vincent, meeting his scrutiny. "I suppose we should, to be safe." Natalie smiled. "I did do a bit of a rush on the 'cram job', so it would be a good idea for me to refresh it all."
Vincent smirked. "That you understand enough to do what you have makes me wonder just how much of a 'cram' it was."
Natalie waved it away while wrinkling her nose and looking back to the generator. "If I understood it as well as you think I do, we wouldn't be having our current problem."
"Oh? Then why have we been able to get further than Cid, an engineer?"
"Well, because... I... I mean..." Natalie laughed and looked over to meet Vincent's mildly amused expression. "All right, all right. I conceed. I'm a genius. Happy?"
Vincent's eyebrow twitched the same as his lips. "Hm."
Natalie laughed again and took up his hands, caressing smooth golden surface and slightly calloused skin both. "Uh-oh. He doesn't believe that I believe me. That's liable to cause a problem." And she could have sworn that she heard a chuckle from him. "I'll do better at cutting myself some slack. All right?" Natalie's expression grew serious. "But that means you need to do the same for yourself."
His eyebrow twitched higher.
"Don't play innocent with me, Mr. Valentine," she scolded. "You know exactly what I'm talking about. No more looking back at what you've done or not done. You can't change what has already happened. So the less you look back, the less you trip over your own feet." She smiled. "Or mine."
Vincent's smirk returned. "Yes, Professor."
Natalie's smile blossomed to a laugh, and she moved closer as she released his hands and began absently smoothing and straightening his red cape and black silk shirt. "I'm sorry, Vincent. I seem to slip into my role of Professor a bit too easily, don't I? I suppose I like to lecture." She peeked up at him to notice his continual yet slight smile. "You would tell me if you minded, wouldn't you? Seems to me that you're as tactless and blatantly honest as I am."
"They say honesty is the best policy," he reminded.
"True." She fully lifted her gaze as she wrapped her arms around his neck, stepping still closer. "What about stubbornness?" she asked, expression serious. "I can be stubborn, too. Believe me. It took a lot of determination to track you down and get you to admit I existed."
Vincent's lips twitched as he rested his hands on her hips. "I knew you existed. After all, you returned each day to usher me into another private and well-guarded section of your life. I suppose that was what first intrigued me: your willingness to impart such secrets to someone who ignored you."
"Well it's nice to finally know you actually listened," she told him, a solitary finger coiling a bit of his hair around it. "Though it would have been polite for you to have at least opened the lid to make some comment or other. We lecturers enjoy commentary, you know."
Vincent slightly lowered his head, and his breath tickled her face. "I was hoping you would go away," he said a bit roughly.
Natalie chuckled and then stood on tiptoes to give him a feathery kiss while whispering "I didn't, did I?" against their soft warmth.
Vincent's arms tightened around her--
"What the hell?!"
Natalie gave a startled jump as she sharply turned, stepping backward onto a stone and tripping in the process. Vincent's agility and quickness of flight was the only thing that kept her from toppling into the rushing river below.
Natalie murmured a "Thank you" as she hung suspended in his arms, keeping her gaze carefully averted from the group that had stumbled upon their intimate moment.
Vincent set Natalie down on the ground before moving to stand protectively in front of her. His eyes held a quiet warning.
Cid was about to comment when Cloud cut in. "We heard from Yuffie and Red that you've been working on a generator, Vincent." He looked beyond the couple. "That must be it."
Natalie rested a hand momentarily on Vincent's back before stepping forward with a glance toward her most recent attempt at success. "Yes, that's it. Unfortunately, we're a bit on the hesitant side to test it." Natalie sighed, and then she moved her gaze back to Cloud. "I think the conversion rate is wrong."
"Conversion rate, huh?"
Natalie looked over at Cid Highwind. He had moved to the piles of rubble positioned around the current generator to rummage through the pieces. His attitude was condescending, just like his tone had been, and it tweaked her temper. "Yes, conversion rate. You're the engineer, Mr. Highwind. I wouldn't think that particular detail would need to be explained to you."
Cid snorted and glanced over at her and Vincent with a crooked smile. "You must be the broad who thinks she can cure this one. I thought you were a reporter."
Natalie arched an eyebrow. "I do a multitude of things, Mr. Highwind. One of them seems to be pulling your butt out of the fire by inventing something in two days that you still haven't done in two months." She felt Vincent place a warning hand on her shoulder. She pressed her lips together. I know. I know.
Cloud, Shera, and Tifa watched the altercation with silent amusement.
Cid stood slowly, eyeballing her and Vincent as he took a long drag on his cigarette. He blew it out slowly before gesturing toward her. "You've got an attitude, lady."
"Of course I've got an attitude," she said, voice tight. "I've been working for two days straight trying to learn enough about mechanics and electrical engineering to get this blasted thing to stay running longer than an hour. My expertise is in the sciences, Mr. Highwind, so perhaps you'd care to look over the schematics and take over where I left off? That way I can concentrate on solving Vincent's current problem and not yours."
Cid's expression changed to something close to respect. "Two days? You've learned enough about electrical engineering to design, build, and get this contraption running in just two days?" He tossed his cigarette down to squelch it with the toe of his boot. "You deserve an apology from me, professor. I was an ass."
"Yes, but I've run across several of those in my lifetime. Most are worse than you. Don't give it another thought." She looked over at Vincent. "Can you walk me back to the inn?"
Vincent nodded and took her hand, guiding her along the path away from Mt. Nibel as the others mutely looked on.
"You shocked him," Vincent finally said.
"I shocked myself. Of course, I should have known that was going to happen. I get cranky when I'm tired."
Natalie flushed. "Do you blame me?"
"No. They trod into a delicate situation with the grace of a--"
"A Midgar Zolom," Natalie said, twinkling eyes glancing toward Vincent.
He smiled slightly. "I would say that is aptly put."
She wrapped her arms around his claw and rested her head against his upper arm. Vincent reached over to caress one of her hands as they walked on in silence.
"Shit! That was the spookiest sight I've ever seen," Cid mumbled.
Tifa looked at Cloud with a smile. "You were right," she said.
Shera's face twisted with confusion. "Right? Right about what?"
Cloud smirked. "I knew if we just butt out things would be okay. It's only when I try to help that things get all screwed up."
Cid strode up to them. "You knew about that... that...." He swore a blue streak as he lit another cigarette. "I didn't think he liked women."
Tifa grimaced, sending Cid a dirty look. "Oh shut up, Cid. Just shut up."
Cloud laughed, pulling Tifa away from Cid to send her and Shera back to Nibelheim for the schematics. Then he turned back to Cid. "So, what do you think? Will it work?"
"I don't even know what the hell the damn thing is. How am I supposed to know if it's going to work or not?"
Cloud put a fist on his hip to strike his infamous SOLDIER pose as he stared at the generator. "She said they've had it working for an hour, which is definitely better than nothing."
Cid reluctantly agreed. "Better than I've come up with." He snorted. "Damn. Outwitted by a broad. That's twice."
Cloud chuckled and then gestured toward Nibelheim with a jerk of his head. "Come on. Let's get over to the inn and ask some questions. Be nicer than normal. Okay?"
"I'll be as nice as I damn-well please."
"Okay, if you want Vincent all over you."
Cid grumbled as he followed Cloud toward town. "I won't be able to get used to that sight."
"What are you talking about?"
Cloud sent Cid a confused glance. "Huh?"
Cid took another long drag from his cigarette. "Kissing a woman." He shivered. "That was a bit too much information for me."
Cloud shook his head with a chuckle. "Maybe you're just mad she didn't go for you first."
Cid swore and sent Cloud a dangerous glare. "That ain't funny, spike boy. I don't need no woman messing up my life."
"Fine. Then leave them alone."
"Who said I was going to do anything!?"
Cloud chuckled again. "I didn't say you'd do anything, but I know you're more than willing to say whatever you want."
"If she can't take it, she can leave the room."
"Oh she can take it all right. Or did you forget?" Cloud glanced over at him. "You admitted you were an ass. Remember? You said--"
"I know what I said," Cid snapped after a long phrase of swearing.
Cloud smirked but didn't say anything else.
The door closed after Cid, Shera, and Cloud. Natalie released a deep breath and looked across the table at Vincent. "It's a relief to have them responsible for it."
"Yes, I imagine it is."
Natalie laughed. "Lucky for Cid Red and I did all the hard work. He only needs to find out why it doesn't work."
Vincent watched Natalie's expressions. "What will you do with your new-found freedom?"
Natalie stretched. "Take a nap?"
Vincent smirked. "That sounds to be a wise idea."
She shrugged. "Except now I'm not tired. All I can think about is finally being able to work on my idea."
Vincent nodded. "Understandable."
Natalie held his gaze with a thoughtful one of her own. "Vincent, do you remember anything of the experiments?"
Vincent lowered his eyes to an examination of the claw that rested on the table. "I remember being shot. In this arm, or what may remain of it. There is nothing after that. Only snatches of shadow and light battling against one another."
Natalie stood and moved closer, sitting in the chair beside him. She gently took hold of the claw. "Part of the file in the computer was corrupt, so I couldn't tell if... if this is your arm or a Jenova graft. That will be something I find out soon." She placed his claw back onto the table, but her hands remained on its cool surface. "I know what I want to find," she whispered.
Vincent covered her hands with his, meeting her gaze. "Whatever you find won't matter."
Natalie smiled. "You're right." Her smile faded. "I just don't like the thought of Hojo playing god on you. On anyone. He should have fixed his own problems."
Vincent smiled briefly, giving her hands a squeeze. Then he sat back in the chair and tightly crossed his arms. "Natalie."
She continued to smile at him, enjoying the sound of her name in his voice, and rested her chin in her hand. "Hmm?"
Vincent actually smiled slightly before speaking. "I would like to meet your parents."
Natalie blinked and sharply sat up. "What?"
"I heard what you said; I just can't believe it. Why?"
Vincent raised an eyebrow. "Why do I want to meet your family?"
Natalie nodded. "I know that in conversations past I haven't exactly painted them to be the most endearing people in the world."
"I haven't one of my own, so why wouldn't I want to meet yours?"
"I-I don't know. I just... I never thought you would want to." She motioned toward him. "You've been alone for so long, I suppose I didn't want to push them on you."
Vincent smirked. "Certainly they will want to meet the object of your... search."
Natalie leaned back in her chair and picked at a nail. Vincent regarded her so intensely that she flushed.
"They never knew you searched for me, did they?"
"No." She could feel him examining her expressions.
"And why is that?"
Natalie cleared her throat. "I don't talk to my family much."
Vincent continued to regard her. "You hold their determination against them," he observed. He leaned forward in the chair. "But why? They only wanted what was best for you. That determination is the same as your own to give me a better future."
Natalie raised her eyes to send him a slight frown. "Then they should have been determined to be a family that supported my final decision, instead of the one that turned away from me when what I wanted wasn't what they wanted." She looked away. "If they wanted to talk, they could have sent me a letter, or dropped by a dig site, or submitted a note to one of my publishers. They haven't."
Vincent continued to examine her face. "Natalie, why have you voluntarily kept yourself alone?"
Natalie frowned, tightening her hands into fists as she adjusted her crossed arms. "I told you. As long as they refused to listen to what I wanted, I wasn't going to talk to them."
"I understand that, but why haven't you continued to explain and show why you believed your choices to be the best? Why have you deliberately kept them on the outside?"
Natalie's frown darkened. "Because they didn't care."
"You didn't give them the opportunity."
Natalie's eyes widened as she looked sharply over at him. "I didn't give them the opportunity? You must be joking!"
A golden finger skewered his point into the table-top. "You did not invite their participation. Neither did you invite their understanding."
Natalie's jaw worked.
Vincent reached out to rest a hand on her leg. "Natalie, I understand that rejection is hard for you to take, and I know that you use this distance from your family to protect you from further rejection."
Natalie looked away.
"Natalie, they are your family," he pressed, his grip tightening on her leg. "Don't take them for granted."
She adjusted her crossed arms and sent him a sidelong glance, her frown slowly disappearing. She released a quick breath and slightly nodded. "All right," she sighed. "I'll write them a letter."
Vincent's touch lingered on her leg for a long moment before he pulled back.
Natalie caught it in hers before he completely pulled away. She gave it a squeeze and held his gaze. "But after I cure you."
"Agreed," he said, tone guarded. Then he stood, releasing her hand. "You should rest now. If Cid is successful, tomorrow will be an intense day."
Natalie nodded and slowly stood. "Yes, I suppose I should." She cleared her throat and made her way to the bed to turn down the covers. Vincent watched her in silence. "Where are you going to sleep? Not under a tree, I hope." So what are you asking, Nat? Are you hoping he'll opt to stay up here with you? To celebrate? To say good-bye to what he is now? One last night together before possibly saying good-bye forever? She cleared her throat again and plumped her pillow.
"No, and going to the crypt seems pointless."
Natalie swallowed hard before turning to face him. He still stood near the table, watching her with an almost wary expression. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at her hiking boots a moment before bending forward to untie the laces. "I'm sure Cloud will put you up at his place."
I want you to stay here with me, Vincent. I want you to stay here with me and tell me that I'm doing the right thing. That you're not as scared as I am. I want you to hold me close, so that I can prove it's not a nightmare. She accidentally tied the laces into knots.
Vincent made his way over to her. He knelt down and gently pushed her hands away. "Yes, he would."
Vincent untied first one shoe and then the other, pulling them free and setting them aside with deliberate motions. Then he began to massage her feet. Natalie stared down at him, gnawing her lower lip to keep herself from asking what she shouldn't ask. She clenched the sheet and blankets of the bed. Are you ready for this? Do you realize what you're asking and what it would mean?
"Natalie." Vincent looked up to meet her gaze. "Don't ask me to stay."
"Why not? A lot of things are going to happen tomorrow. I'd sleep better if you were here."
Vincent straightened and sat beside her on the bed. "I wouldn't."
She smiled slightly, turning away to rub her palms on the thighs of her jeans. "Okay, so maybe I wouldn't either, but... But it's the last night before our world gets turned upside down. I guess I thought... Oh, I don't know what I thought."
"Natalie..." Vincent faced her, cupping her chin in his hand. "Natalie, making love to you is something I want more than my own life right now. But... But I want you as I was, not as this creation of Hojo. You deserve nothing less."
Natalie's face flamed as she held his gaze.
Vincent released a slow breath and lowered his hand from her face as he looked away. "I should go now. Before I forget."
When he made a move to stand, Natalie took hold of his hand. "Vincent, wait."
Vincent tensed. "Natalie. Please."
Natalie released his hand and clasped hers in her lap. "I know, I know. I... I just want you here with me. There are a lot of good reasons why you should go, but..." She looked over at him. He still faced away. "Just for me? I just want you to hold me, so that I can sleep. Then you can go. Please?"
Vincent faced her then. "My control will not hold, Natalie." Pain and desire made his amber eyes glow.
Natalie took his arm again. "It will," she said as she held his gaze. "I know you, Vincent. It will. I know it will."
He removed her hand with his claw, giving it a gentle squeeze before releasing it. "I am not so certain..." He clenched his hands into fists and shook his head. "No, I don't trust myself. Good night, Natalie."
Natalie sighed. "Good night, Vincent."
He turned at the doorway to watch her before slowly receding down the hallway after closing the door behind him. She slumped onto the bed with a deep breath. "He has more sense than I do," she whispered.
'Making love to you, Natalie, is something I want more than my own life... But I want you as I was, not as this creation of Hojo. You deserve nothing less.'
She smiled slightly and laid back on the bed, closing her eyes as she remembered again and again the look in his eyes and the soft caress of his words.