A Rose By Any Other Name Chapter 14

By Mintbaby

Natalie stared at the dimly lit room that would soon take on the daunting task of curing the man she loved. Each book. Each medical note. Each piece of technology and each previously taken sample of blood and tissue would be put to work to do that which she now wasn't sure she wanted to do.

She released a deep breath and stepped further into the laboratory. It began today. The submerging within her genius (previously modestly denied) to find the key to his freedom. The key that could kill him. The key that could make him hers for the rest of their lives. The key that could do nothing but unlock the humanness that hid within him, while his outer shell remained so dark and twisted... Natalie repressed a sob and wiped the tears from her cheeks as she came to sit at the computer desk. The computer was on and running. Mako free. Pollution free. Hard drive intact. Ready to work. Ready to cure. Ready to finally offer Vincent a realization of his last remaining hope.

"Can I do this?" she whispered as she touched the keyboard.

The answer wasn't there. She knew the answer was in her heart. She would do it, but only because she could sense his growing torment at being so different from her. So not human. He got strength and comfort from the fact that she accepted him as he was. He began to feel whole because of her unconditional love, but he still wanted to be what he had been.

A man.

"Isn't that what I've always wanted to give him? Think back, Nat," she pressed as another tear wet her cheek. "Remember? You read all those reports on him and knew this is what you felt you were supposed to do. This was what it was all for. To save him."

Natalie leaned back in the chair and crossed her arms as she looked away from the computer screen, gnawing her lower lip to keep from sobbing. 'Remember the picture, Nat? The Turk? You fell in love with him first. Remember? Now you've met his darker side. The part that people can usually hide. You've met him and fallen in love with him too. There are no surprises in who or what he is. You know it all. You've seen it all. You love it all. Remember?'

She nodded and closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath. 'You're scared. Okay. So is he. You don't want to make him hurt worse. Okay. He can't feel any worse. The fact that you're trying is going to make him feel better. Isn't that what you want to do? Make him feel better? Okay. You have. All he wants is for you to try.’ Her inner voice paused. ‘Try. That's it. You've done that your entire life. Remember? And remember how most of your 'trying' has actually worked out? This can too. And if it doesn't? Then, it doesn't.’

“And if he dies...?”

Natalie lowered her head and pinched the bridge of her nose to prevent the coming onslaught of tears. That was the one aspect of her treatment of him that she couldn't get past. No matter from which angle she attacked the possibility, she always balked and choked right there. It mattered. It mattered a lot and if she thought, for even one moment, that there was a likelihood that it could happen… that he could die, she'd stop. No matter how mad he got. No matter how much he pressed her to try. She wasn't willing to gamble with his life. She wasn't like Hojo and she never would be.

"I thought I'd find you here." Red came to sit beside her, carefully tucking his tail around his forepaws as he sat and examined her face. "Today is the day."

She nodded, afraid to do anything else.

"I regret that we haven't had a really good opportunity to sit down and talk about things as I had hoped we could," Red continued in a soft voice. "I do hope that you'll allow me to spend some time with you at the dig past Mt. Nibel after everything with Vincent works out. I believe I'll find it fascinating and would love to help you any way I can."

“That would be great, Red. Thank you,” she whispered. She continued to stare at the computer monitor as the little figures and forms from its hibernation cycle floated about the screen. “Is there something I can do for you?”

Red was quiet for a long moment before coming to rub his head and shoulders against her hand as it rest on the arm of the office chair. He purred in an attempt to console her. “I thought I could do something for you.”

More tears spilled over onto her cheeks and she covered her eyes with one hand as she stroked Red’s soft fur with the other. The warmth and velvety softness acted as a balm to her aching soul, but encouraged the tears that began to drip onto her pale yellow T-shirt. “It’s all happening.”

“Yes. Yes, it is.” He sat as close as possible and rest his chin on her leg, still purring. “It’s a little frightening, isn’t it?”

Natalie could barely nod her head. “I nearly fainted dead away when I found the coffin, and again when he actually came out of the box. It wasn’t quite so bad when he led me to this laboratory, but that was only because I was still in shock from actually talking to him. Now… Now…” She choked on a quick inhalation of breath as she attempted to calm the sobs. “I don’t know whether to be happy or terrified! I mean, I might finally have the chance to put it all right!”

“You don’t want to fail.” His statement was gentle and probing.

“No. No, I don’t. I’ve always been like this. In everything. I never allowed myself failure. Never allowed myself mistakes.” Natalie dropped her hand to her side and looked down at Red as he gazed up at her with an understanding expression. “He doesn’t deserve anything but a miracle, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to do that. How do I know that I really do understand what Hojo did? I don’t have the right to use Vincent as an experiment subject. That would make me no better than… than…” She lowered her eyes and covered her face with her hands.

“Than Hojo.”

Natalie dropped her hands suddenly and looked down at Red with a pleading expression. “I’m going to do this because I love him so much and I know how much this means to him. I guess I’m just letting myself vent one last time before the moment of truth comes. To give myself that one last chance at mourning… You know?”

Red seemed to smile and lifted his head from her knee. “I understand. So does he.” He paused, examining her tear stained face. “You two have an amazing relationship. One that I haven’t seen before. You finish one another, in a way. When he needs strength, you are there to offer it to him. When he needs gentleness and compassion or understanding, again, you are there. It is much the same for you. He offers you strength, tenderness, and a myriad of other emotions I hadn’t thought possible from him, all when you need them. Your instincts about the other are uncanny.”

Natalie flushed and absently tucked a curl behind her ear, saying nothing.

“What do your instincts tell you now?”

Natalie took in a long, deep, and slow breath as she looked up at the rafters of the basement laboratory. Cobwebs decorated the drafty chamber in each remote corner, occasionally tickled by a draft from an unseen hole. “They’re saying a lot of things.”

Red nudged at her leg with his wet nose. “Go on.”

“They’re saying that he’s just as frightened as I am. They’re saying that he wants to do this because it’s been a dream of his as well as mine. They’re saying that he’s pushing me to do this because he doesn’t want me to have regrets.” She sighed again and changed her gaze to Red’s. “They’re saying that I can do this.”

His beautiful eyes twinkled at her. “Then there is your answer. You know what you can do and it is this: free a trapped soul.”

Natalie smiled, tears brimming anew to spill over onto her flushed cheeks. After a moment’s pause, she slid from the chair to her knees and wrapped her arms around Red to give him a fond embrace.

When she pulled back, he pressed his head against hers and caught her gaze. “Never, ever doubt your purpose. That’s when the fear comes. You are a brave woman, Natalie. Face down the fear and do what you want to do. Save him.”

* * *

When Yuffie came into the upstairs room at the inn expecting to find Natalie, she found Vincent staring at his claw with a dark and dangerous expression on his face. She hesitated, not really wanting to get involved with what she was sure was a very deep subject (and not focused around her), and then gave a shrug and stepped forward. Vincent, for some reason, was her friend. Maybe not how Red was, but a friend just the same.

Besides, he was cool.

Yuffie pulled up a chair and straddled it. “What’s up.”

He lowered his claw and crossed his arms to glower out the window. “Time.”

Yuffie frowned in confusion, and then remembered that Cid had announced the completion of the generator in the laboratory basement the previous night. “Oh. Nat’s going to start today, huh?” Vincent didn’t reply and Yuffie nodded. “Yeah. Thought so. I knew there had to be a reason she wasn’t up here. She’s at the Mansion, isn’t she?”

“Yes. She left early this morning.”

Yuffie decided not to ask how he knew how early Nat had left (or why he was in her room when only 1 bed was slept in) and tried to keep her focus on figuring out what his problem was. “So, if today’s the day, what’s the problem? I thought you wanted this to happen.”

“I do.”

“You afraid it won’t work.”

Vincent shook his head, his gaze going to the well outside. “I have a bad feeling.”

“Bad feelings aren’t cool, Vinnie.”

“I know.”

“You think it’s about the experiment?”


“So, you’re pretty sure it’s going to work.”


Yuffie frowned down at the back of the chair as she tapped her fingers on her arm that was resting upon it. “Hmm. Creepy.”


Yuffie looked up. “You don’t think Nat’s going to change her mind about you when you’re back to normal, do you?” Vincent was silent and the tension in the room caused Yuffie an instant headache. “Ookaay. So, we found the problem.” She stood and came to stand beside him. “Dude, Vincent, there is no way in hell that’s going to happen. She’s crazy for you in a major way. Worse than Tifa and Cloud, if that’s possible. C’mon. Don’t worry about that.”

He still said nothing.

Yuffie grimaced, remembered something Natalie had shown her, and made her way over to the dresser beside her bed. “Here it is.” She turned back to Vincent. “Here. Look.”

He changed his view to the picture in her hand and took it from her. “Where did you get this?”

“Nat showed it to me once. When we were talking about you, of course. She got it from her teacher, who got it from his sister, who got it from her best friend…” Yuffie grimaced again. “I can’t remember the details. It gets confusing.”

“Yes. I remember.”

Yuffie gestured to the small picture. “This is you. Right?”

“Yes. When I was a Turk.”

“That’s when she first heard about you. I think. No, wait. She first heard about you when she read about Hojo’s experiment. But I know that’s the first time she saw you. That picture. She loves that picture, Vinnie. I’ve seen the way she looks at it.” Yuffie wrinkled her nose. “It makes me wanna hurl, but I’ve still seen how she looks at it.”

Vincent pushed the photo back at her.

“I know what you’re thinking, Vinnie, but it does mean something. Don’t be dense.”


“Save it.” Yuffie glowered. “I can see that you just want to feel sorry for yourself or something. Well, I don’t have to stay here and listen to it, or watch it for that matter. Deal with it. Okay? I’ve never seen no one so wild for you then Nat. I’ve never seen no one so wild for anyone. If you start second guessing everything about you two…” She snorted and took the picture from him with a rough motion. “Hell! Why do I even bother? You’ll do what you want anyway.”

She stormed from the room, slamming the door behind her. Vincent stared at it for a long moment and then looked away.

Vincent knew the picture meant a lot to Natalie. It reminded her what had been taken from him. It reminded her what she wished to give him. His life. He also knew that Natalie’s feelings for him would not change if her idea worked. They had become too close in such a short amount of time for that to be a danger. What bothered him was his sudden reluctance to go where she waited. His intense regret at the opportunity lost the previous night.

He knew that he had done the right thing in walking away. He cared too much about her feelings to have allowed her to give all of who she was to that which he had never felt was his true reflection. When he felt her against him, he wanted to know that he was making love to her as a man and not a monster. When she called his name in the heat of a passionate embrace and pulled herself ever closer, he wanted to caress her with his hands and not a cold and lifeless claw that held no feeling and no tenderness.

He wanted to experience her.

Vincent scowled down at his claw once more as a trace of her heady aroma filled his nostrils. He took in a deep breath; his eyes glowing slightly as he again heard her voice.

‘I just want you here with me… Just for me? I just want you to hold me, so that I can sleep…’

Of all the things she could have asked of him, that one request had been impossible. Impossible because he had wanted it so badly. The power of his desire had terrified him more than the original discovery of his growing fondness. To have her look at him like that and say his name— Vincent pushed it away roughly, balling his fists as he turned and moved for the door. Dwelling and remembering such a fiercely consuming moment would serve no purpose.

She was waiting for him.


Red waited by the gate. Vincent regarded him with a wary gaze. “Red.”

“Hello, Vincent. Might I have a word with you before you make your way into the Mansion? It’ll only take a moment.”

Vincent was leery of waiting much longer to join Natalie. He had such an overwhelming need to feel and hear her next to him. He also had a peculiar tightness in his gut about what Red could possibly want to talk to him about.

“She has been waiting for me,” he said vaguely as he made a move to pass him. “Perhaps later.”

Red didn’t take the subtle hint. In fact, he pointedly ignored it as he moved into Vincent’s path. The scruff of hair on the nape of his neck bristled a bit as he looked up at Vincent. “I need to speak with you. It’s important.”


“Now,” Red intoned with a slight growl.

Vincent’s temper sparked. “No,” he said in a just as firm and dangerous tone. “Not now. I need to go to her. She’s been waiting. Again.”

Vincent made another move to pass and Red snarled, giving a warning snap of his jaws that caused Vincent to step backward.

“She will wait. She has done so her entire life. I need to speak with you.” Red took a step forward, causing Vincent to back away. “I don’t have any warnings or chastisements, or anything that will cause you humiliation. I need to confide something in you that I believe you will wish to hear.”

Vincent’s glower deepened. “Fine. Speak.”

The hair on Red’s back settled and his angry expression faded after a moment. He looked almost apologetic as he cleared his throat and sat on his haunches. “I’m sorry, Vincent. I didn’t mean to lose my temper.”

“It’s all right.”

“No, it isn’t, but thank you for accepting my apology.” He examined Vincent’s face and then stepped forward. “Can we go for a walk?” Vincent’s impatience must have showed clearly on his face. Red nodded. “I know. You want to hurry to her, but it will be just a moment. Besides, she’s just now setting up. She’s not ready for you yet.”

Vincent acquiesced, albeit reluctantly, and fell into step beside Red as he made his way toward Mt. Nibel. “What did you wish to confide?” Red seemed to hesitate a moment, as if he was unsure where to begin. Vincent examined him and then refocused his attention to the path ahead of him. “I know that she yet doubts the wisdom of this procedure.”

“That isn’t what I was going to tell you.” Red passed him a look. “You are a bright fellow, Vincent. I knew that you had probably already figured out that she would be overcome with the not-so-pleasant possibilities as to what might or might not happen.”

“Then what is it?”

“I wasn’t sure if she had told you that she feels as if she is playing at the role of ‘Hojo’ by experimenting her idea of a cure on you.”

Vincent sent Red a sharp glance and halted his progress forward. “Hojo? Why would she think that?”

Red sat on his haunches, curling his tail around his forepaws as he gave himself time to think of a reply. “Much as I hate to admit it, I see reason behind her fear. You must also admit, Vincent, that she is taking your life into her hands. Isn’t that what Hojo did?”

“But this is my choice,” Vincent insisted through his quickly wavering calm. “Hojo never gave me such a luxury. She did.”

Was it a choice?”

“What are you saying? Of course it was a choice.”

“Vincent, hear me out.” Red paused, gathering his thoughts. “Her mind continues to reason that, on the grounds that she simply offered the possibility of something you already wanted, there was no choice given. She knew you wanted freedom from that which Hojo made you, and that is what took away your choice.”

Vincent clenched his jaw, his muscles twitching wildly. “What could I do to convince her that if I had not wanted to do—“

“That is the problem,” Red interrupted. “She knew that you wanted this. That is why she feels there was no option of a choice for you. You do not care about the danger, therefore, there is no choice.”

“I do care about the danger!” Vincent snapped with a surprising force of emotion. His amber eyes sparked. “Do you truly believe I am oblivious to the possibility that I may be forever without her? Or she without me? Do you believe I wish for her to always lay awake at night wondering if there could have been something different done in order to save my life? Do you believe I want her to be tortured with the fact that she was the cause of my death?”

“No. I do not.”

“Then tell me,” Vincent raged. “Tell me what I could possibly do to get that which I want! Tell me what other option is open to me to rid myself of this mutation! This disease! This… this cancer that twists my insides with hate and grotesque wickedness. I shall never accept it as who I am. I have told her this!”

“I know.”

Vincent continued as if Red hadn’t spoken. “She must try because it might work. She must try because it is my only option. The other is remaining as I am and never knowing if there was a way to win. Never knowing if there was a way to sneer in Hojo’s face and say ‘I have won against your insanity. Your life is not mine.’ That was my choice before. Now I have chosen the possibility of life instead of complacency. I have explained that to her as well.”

Red nodded and released a quick breath. “She knows all this, Vincent. I just thought you should be told that it still bothers her. Natalie wishes to protect you so violently that, at times, she doesn’t see that her desire defeats all reason. She will go on with her idea because she wishes you to be free as much as you yourself. She goes on because she cares for you, deeply, as I know you care for her.”

Vincent gathered his control, frayed at the edges as it was, and spoke after a long pause. “Red, what can I do? She shouldn’t be tortured with accusations comparing her with a madman. What can I say that will put it out of her mind, once and for all?”

Red shook his head. “I don’t know. I have already told her that she should never doubt that which her heart tells her is her purpose, but I don’t believe that is the same as believing she is following in the footsteps of someone like Hojo. That may be a battle she must fight alone, within herself.”

“I will not let her fight alone.”

Red smiled. “No. I suppose you wouldn’t. Perhaps that is what she needs. Just you.”

“I don’t know how that could be enough for anyone, but she seems content.”

“It’s because she loves you. You may not understand why, but love is never understood by those who experience it.”

Vincent looked over toward the Mansion. “So I have noticed.”

Red examined his face and then nudged at his leg. “I have kept you long enough, Vincent. I am sorry. Go.”

Vincent released a slow breath and then turned for the Mansion without a word. Red’s confession of Natalie’s fear bothered him. Was he truly helpless? Was there nothing he could do to assure her that she was no Hojo? He knew that he had already tried to set her mind at rest regarding the experiment, but was there something else he could do? Was it truly up to her whether or not she accepted what he and Red had told her? Vincent clenched his jaw. He had never much cared for the feelings of helplessness.

That hadn’t changed.

He pushed through the gate and made his way inside the Mansion, his mind strangely silent as he navigated the rooms that would lead him to the not-so-secret stairs to the basement laboratory. The silence seemed to leer at him. Ridiculing his attempt at humanity. Sneering at his endeavors to be tender and understanding. Why do you not hide again? If things are so difficult, run away. As you did before, the silence seemed to say. But what would that prove? Nothing. Things would be the same. Dead. Lifeless. Empty. Alone. After having Natalie a part of his dreams and his reality, there was no way he would relinquish it.

He wanted it all.

Vincent paused outside the laboratory door. It was ajar and he could hear Natalie’s voice as she walked herself through a procedure. Guiding herself through it with occasional words of praise and encouragement. Then, she moved to a different project and was heard telling herself different possibilities and the reasons why one would be more plausible than the other. Listening to her caused his expression to soften as he reached out to push the door open. She was intently examining a slide under a microscope while her free hand held a book.

“See?” Natalie told herself with a hushed voice. “There isn’t much difference from this one and the original DNA, yet this is after Hojo determined the experiment to be a success. Let’s see… what was the date on this sample?”

She moved her gaze from the microscope to the notes carefully arranged on the desk and began searching for the information she needed, not noticing Vincent as he stepped further into the room. A slight breeze carrying the fragrance of her wafted toward him and he halted, closing his eyes and taking in a deep breath. His pulse quickened and his blood roared in his ears. He grappled with the rising ache to possess her and slowly opened his eyes. She’d found the paper she had been searching for and nibbled on the end of her fingernail as she read over it. He swallowed hard and closed his eyes again, snatching at his dissipating restraint.

“That can’t be right. Hmm. Where was that other paper… Ah-hah!”

She leaned far over the desk, reaching for the other side, just as Vincent opened his eyes. His gaze promptly focused on her shapely behind and he bit back a groan. Had anyone looked so delicious in worn jeans? Vincent shook his head in an attempt to clear it and wiped a hand down his face before clearing his throat.

Natalie gave a little start and straightened sharply as she turned toward him. She smiled and leaned back against the desk, closing the book to hug it against her chest. “Good morning, Vincent.” Her tone seemed a caress. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes.” His tone was surprisingly even and she didn’t seem to notice his struggle to keep his distance. “You?”

She lowered her eyes with a one-shouldered shrug, kicking at the carpet with the toe of her sneaker. “I dreamt of you, you know. It was nice.”

Vincent’s throat tightened and he balled a fist behind his back, still keeping his distance. He had dreamt of her as well. Every inch of her… “I am glad. You needed your rest.”

She took in a deep breath and released it slow, catching his gaze after she set the book carefully aside. “You ready?”

“Yes. You?” Her lips were caressed with a smile and Vincent felt the heat rise to his ears.

“I’ve been ready for this for years, Vincent.”

“As have I.”

She turned away and Vincent relaxed his stance, taking in a deep and silent breath as he hurriedly captured the remains of his self-control.

“All right, then. I guess we should start.” She pulled out a chair and then turned to give him another smile. “Could you sit here? I’m going to take a blood sample.”

He clenched his jaw and stepped closer. She was wearing a new fragrance this morning. Something akin to the flowers Aeris had grown in the slums. As he sat in the chair, her hip continued to brush his shoulder as she reached for the syringe, alcohol, and other miscellaneous paraphernalia that was needed. Vincent was hard-pressed to keep his eyes from rolling back in his head. He gripped the arms of the chair and concentrated on his breathing.

“Okay. Now, I don’t think this will hurt too much.” Natalie set aside the syringe and leaned forward to roll up the sleeve of his black shirt (he’d left his red cape in his room at Cloud’s).

Vincent wisely decided to hold his breath, the warmth of her breath on his arm doing enough to cause distraction and torrential waves of irrational desires to take her there on the laboratory floor.

“There will be a little pinch…”

All he could feel was the tender kiss of her fingers on his skin. He clenched his jaw harder.

“All right. All done.” She was rolling down his sleeve and fastening the button at the cuff. “You okay?”

Vincent opened his eyes and caught her gaze. They registered concern. “Yes.” His voice was calmness itself.

Her fingers lingered on the top of his hand for the barest hint of a moment and then she gestured toward a machine in the far corner of the laboratory. “I’d like to take an X-ray of your arm.”

Vincent stood and followed her, desperately trying to keep his eyes from the soft sway of her behind as she walked. She stood to one side of the table and pat it with a reassuring smile. Vincent stared at it for the briefest moment before swallowing hard and turning to pull himself up onto it. Wide enough for one, but it would have done nicely…

“Okay. Now, lay back.” Natalie rest a hand on his back and gently guided him to lean back against the cold surface. She rubbed at his arm with another reassuring smile as she brought a machine over to the table. “I’m just going to X-ray your claw. It’ll only take a moment. Lay still.”

She set some dials on the machine and then stepped away. A few moments later, she was back and pushing the machine to the side, her hand again going to his back to help him sit up. Their gazes locked and she smiled. Vincent’s eyes lingered on her lips and then he looked away, sliding off the table and walking toward the far side of the room under the pretense of examining the pages of research notes she’d been perusing when he’d come in.

Much as he knew she would, she came to stand beside him.

“Notes. Mostly Hojo’s and Gast’s, but some of them are mine accumulated over the past several years.”

Her breath smelled of honey and fruit. Vincent clutched a hand behind his back as he turned to face her. “What next?”

Her lips parted with a chuckle and she shook her head, her curls (drawn up in a ponytail) bobbed around her ears and made his throat tighten.

“You’re done. I’m going to do the boring stuff the next few days. Outline a strategy and rule out possibilities. That way we can get more done. The longer days won’t be until next week or after.”

A stray eyelash was on her cheek and he reached out to touch it away before he could stop himself. They stared down at it and then she held his hand, closed her eyes, and then blew it away. She looked up at him with a smile, her eyes twinkling as she continued to hold his hand.

“What did you do?” This time, his voice wasn’t so calm. It wavered, ever so slightly deeper than normal.

“I made a wish.” She cleared her throat and lowered her eyes, dropping her hand from his. “It’s a silly custom, but it’s fun.”

Natalie made a move to turn away, but he stopped her with a gentle grip on her arm. “No.”

She looked up, her eyes slightly wide. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” His eyes raked her face for a long, silent moment before he spoke again. “Just wait. Let me see you.”

Natalie flushed, but didn’t turn away. Nor did she lower her gaze. “I’m not going anywhere, Vincent. I’ll still be here tomorrow.”

“I know.” He removed the glove from his human hand and reached up to stroke her cheek and jaw before he lovingly caressed her lower lip with a single finger. “Just wait.”

“Vincent…” Her eyes closed and she leaned in closer. “Vincent, I… I need to work.”

“I know,” he repeated as he moved in closer. His breath tickled her cheek and he closed his eyes as he lightly touched it with his lips, breathing in the delicate fragrance of blossoms from her hair and skin. She whimpered a feeble protest as he pulled her into his arms, his lips wandering to the sensitive area beneath her ear. “I need to say thank you. Thank you for offering me a choice other than acceptance of isolation.”

Her arms encircled him and pulled him closer as she released a deep breath. “You’re welcome,” she whispered.

Her sweet breath feathered a cascade of flaming tongues down his spine and he tensed. He wanted so much more… “I need to go now, Natalie.”

Her arms tightened around him for the briefest moment before she nodded and loosened her grip. “All right.”

Vincent steeled himself against the warmth of her body, the quick rise and fall of her breasts, her honey-sweet breath in his hair, and pushed gently back. She hadn’t opened her eyes and her lips were slightly parted. To kiss her… To kiss her would lead to so much more.

“Natalie,” he said in a tight voice. “Please. Turn away.” He forcibly released his grip on her arms and she turned away, staggering forward to rest her hands on the arms of the chair to steady herself. Vincent watched her in silence for a long moment, then, when it looked as if she would turn, he stopped her. “No. Don’t. Wait until I leave, Natalie. Please.”

She nodded and he saw a telltale drip of a tear color the seat of the chair. His insides twisted, but he kept himself from stepping forward.

“I’ll come out for lunch, Vincent,” she whispered. “Will you meet me by the gate?”

“Yes. I will.”

He made a move to turn away, but something stopped him. “Natalie, please remember what I said in your room last night. To be with you… I still do. That is why…” He couldn’t go on.

“I… I know. It’s all right. Really.”

He could hear the smile in her tone and felt the relief loosen the tension in his back. “I shall see you for lunch, then.”

She nodded and he turned away, leaving the door as he had found it. Ajar. He paused there for a moment until he heard her take in a deep breath. Then he heard the creak of the chair as she sat and a deep exhalation of breath.

“He smells so good.”

Vincent smiled and moved away from the door.

* * *

Lunch came and went, but Natalie didn’t emerge from the Mansion.

Vincent waited by the gate until dusk had fully settled upon the town, then he gave the Mansion one last look before turning away to head toward Cloud’s house. He was inside sharpening one of his many blades.

Cloud looked up at Vincent’s entrance. “Hey. How was lunch?” He looked at the time on the wall and smirked. “How was dinner, for that matter.”

“She didn’t come.”

Cloud lowered the blade with an incredulous expression. “She stood you up? Are you serious?”

Vincent stiffly sat at the kitchen table. “No. She didn’t come. I’m sure that it wasn’t intentional. She is a scientist. Her work distracted her.”

“Did you go in and let her know you’d been waiting?”


“Why not?” Vincent sent Cloud a look and he smiled with a knowing expression on his face. “I see. Just a little too close and personal down there, huh?” Vincent looked away. Cloud chuckled and carefully slid his sword back into its scabbard before setting it aside. “You know, she’s got to eat. You should take something down there. If you’re not so sure going down alone is a good idea, I’ll go with you.”

“It’s not necessary. When she’s hungry, she’ll come out.”

Cloud smirked. “Just be ready to wait. It may take a couple days. The tension may kill you.”

Vincent had already suspected much the same. In fact, he’d nearly done himself in that morning.

“You curious about what’s got her so distracted?”

“Yes. She took a blood sample and an X-ray this morning.”

“Of your claw?”

Vincent nodded and lifted up the golden atrocity to view it. “I wonder what she’s found beneath its cold loveliness.”

“Why don’t you go down there and ask her? I’m sure she’d be more than willing to show you.”

Vincent stared at it a moment longer and then lowered it to his side as he stood. “Perhaps tomorrow.”

“You going to bed?”


“You know you probably won’t sleep much.”

Vincent’s lips twisted in a smirk as he made his way to the back bedroom. He’d sleep. He’d sleep and dream as he always did. She’d be waiting there for him, as she always was.


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