A Rose By Any Other Name Chapter 3
Natalie leaned against the door of his hideaway and crossed her arms as she examined the black box that he called home. "I can't believe I'm having a romantic interlude with a coffin," she muttered.
She shook her head and couldn't help but smile, silently laughing at herself. Who would have thought that down-to-earth Natalie Long would be having picnics with a box? She shrugged. She'd always been accused of being a little on the odd side, which was fine with her. Being normal was overrated. Not only that, it was boring. 'But a coffin?' This time she did laugh. To be truthful, it had happened to her a couple times before. The story was actually kind of funny.
"Good morning, Vincent," she said in a soft tone. "I know, I know. It's early. Way too early to be down here. If I was normal, that is." She stepped forward hesitantly, clenching her hands behind her back as she stared at the toes of her hiking boots. "I just like it down here. It's quiet. Like I said before, it reminds me of some of the places I've excavated. Places where I felt comfortable. Where I truly felt safe enough to be myself." She smiled. "I guess it's the coffin. You know dead men tell no tales. I guess that's why it's so easy to talk to you."
Natalie sat down at the foot of the coffin and tucked her knees to her chin. "I just needed some quiet time before the people started arriving for the interviews. It's going to help that they're your friends, but it'll still involve conversations with live people. Not my favorite thing " She examined the coffin. "Sorry about this, Vincent. I don't want to bother you. Really, I don't."
Silence settled over the room, but it wasn't an uncomfortable stillness. It was simple and innocent. It settled Natalie's nervousness about the oncoming interviews.
Natalie dropped her gaze and began to rock back and forth. "I used to do this all the time when I was a regular at archeological digs that were top secret. Shinra had classified them that way because they had to do with the Cetra." She released a slow breath as her memories resurfaced. "The burial rooms were so simple and lovely. A person could tell that great care had gone to the arrangement and design of every facet of the tomb. The crypts were so full of detail that it was impossible not to know that these people were gifted in every way. That they knew where they would go when they passed out of this existence and they chose to celebrate the going."
She took in a calming breath. Talking about archaeology, her passion, always brought an excitement to her spirit. To be sharing this with Vincent Valentine was a step she had never thought she would take. It was scary and yet exciting in and of itself.
"I would find myself at the tomb several times a day. Just gazing at the creativity inspired me to stretch out from my comfort zone and delve deeper into that which interested me. I suppose that's why I've come to be so widely recognized. Their impact. Their passion for what they did influenced those in direct contact with them." Natalie looked up at the coffin. "They were such an interesting people. You could tell by the work they left behind. It was gorgeous. Not only that, it was so calming. I felt safe in those tombs and would talk for hours about whatever was bothering me that day. Those times with them really helped me make decisions that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to make. They helped me simply by being there. I guess that's why I'm here now."
'Yeah. I want to spend as much time as possible with you because I'm afraid I'll never get you interested enough in me to actually come out of that box.'
Natalie cleared her throat. "I really miss those days of being able to talk about whatever. Lately, I've been so busy researching Hojo's experiments that I've been kind of keeping things inside. It's been a little stressful. Thanks for being here for me to talk to. I know that you haven't exactly had a choice in the matter, but I wanted to thank you anyway." She looked down and sighed. "Well, I better get going. Some of them are going to be coming any second and I don't want them to wonder where I am."
She stood and made her way to the door, giving another glance over to the coffin before closing the door with a slow, deep breath. "I'll see you later," she whispered.
Natalie made her way out of the mansion and slowly meandered toward the inn on the far side of Nibelheim.
"Excuse me? Are you Natalie Long?"
Natalie looked up from her intense scrutiny of her hiking boots and nodded. "I sure am." She examined the slender girl with the long, brunette hair and buxom figure. 'Man alive. It's a good thing Vincent stays in the box. He'd go for her in a second.' Natalie produced a hand and gripped the girl's, surprised when the returned grip wasn't sloppy or mushy. It was firm and almost hurt. "What can I do for you?"
"My name is Tifa Lockhart. I got a message that you wanted to do some sort of interview?"
Natalie's face brightened. "Oh! Yes. Come with me. I have a room at the inn where we can get comfortable and get all this stuff out of the way. Have you eaten?"
"Yes. Thanks." Tifa fell into step beside Natalie and easily matched her long stride. "What kind of interview are we talking?"
"It's about the planet, basically. You and the others have done some incredible work and I wanted to start marking the progress." 'Maybe she'll talk about Vincent?'
"I don't know about the progress. That would be more Red or Barret's department than mine. Have you gotten an interview set up with them?"
"Barret, yes, but Red?" Natalie frowned. "I don't know. The name doesn't sound familiar."
"He's a um Well, he looks a lot like a um His grandfather was one of the Elders in Cosmo Canyon. Bugenhagen."
"Oh! Nanaki." Natalie nodded her head as she opened the door of the inn and ushered Tifa inside. "Yes. He's supposed to be coming later this afternoon. So are Barret and Cid."
"Man. You have the whole gang coming."
"Not really. I couldn't get a hold of Yuffie or Reeve. I haven't heard anything from Cloud either."
Tifa flushed. "Cloud's coming to Nibelheim later this week, if you don't mind waiting. He just had to pack up some of his stuff that was at Aeris'. I don't know where Yuffie went. I suppose you already checked Wutai?"
Natalie ushered Tifa upstairs to her room. "Yes. No one seemed to know where she was. That's all right. I figured I'd have enough information from all the others." Natalie gestured to the table set up in the middle of the room. "Make yourself comfortable." She pulled out a pen and paper (computers were banned until an environmentally safe power source could be found) and made a few notes to herself on the page. "I really appreciate this, Ms. Lockhart."
"Please," Tifa said with a smile. "Call me Tifa."
Natalie smiled back at her, amazingly comfortable talking with a total stranger, and tapped her pen on the paper. Her thoughts kept drifting to Vincent and the possibility of being able to find out more about him from the interview. 'Nat, you better focus or the interview's going to be a flop. "All right. Now, you say you don't know any of the details on progress, but could you maybe outline exactly what you and the others have planned to bring the planet back to normal."
"Like I said before, Red's the big planner. We just do what he and Barret tell us to."
Natalie smiled. 'Ask about Vincent. Ask about Vincent ' Natalie pushed the thoughts away. "Could you give me some examples?"
"Examples? Of what they tell us to do?"
Natalie pressed her lips together as she grappled with her focus. "Exactly."
"Well, they told us to gather all the Materia we'd been using and put it in the Lifestream."
'Vincent was raised around Materia. He probably hated to see it go ' Natalie frowned a little as she nodded her head and jotted some stuff on the paper. "Go on."
"Then we gathered a bunch of seedlings from the church where Aeris lived and began planting them in the most fertile areas around Midgar."
'I wonder if Vincent helped with any of the flowers? Probably not. He doesn't seem the gardener type 'Natalie sighed and set down her pen to rub her forehead. 'This isn't going to work, Nat, and you know it. Why fake it?'
Natalie shook her head and leaned back in the chair, focusing her eyes on Tifa's concerned expression. "Nothing. I just can't do this right now."
"I can come back with the others. It is kind of early."
Tifa made a move to stand, but Natalie stopped her. "Wait. Can I ask you a question about someone?"
"It's about Vincent."
Tifa looked surprised. "Vincent? What about him?"
"You know he's in the basement of the Shinra mansion. Right?"
"I wondered where he'd gotten to, but I figured that's where he'd go. After all, that's where we found him." Natalie didn't say anything and Tifa tilted her head. "He's all right, isn't he?"
"I guess I wanted you to tell me." Natalie paused. "Has he always been in there like that? Does he ever come out?"
"None of us knows. He felt responsible for a lot of things and him sleeping in the coffin was his way of punishing himself. When we asked for his help, he only did it because it was another way to make things right. I don't understand why he still feels like he has to punish himself for something. But, of course, we never did understand who he was. He was always so quiet about his personal life."
Natalie dropped her eyes. "Yeah. I kind of figured that."
Tifa paused and then stood, smoothing some imaginary wrinkles from her tight jeans. "I'm kind of tired and it looks like you need some rest yourself. Why don't we do this tomorrow when Red and Cid get here?"
Natalie raised her eyes and sent Tifa an appreciative smile. "Thanks. I don't know what's the matter with me."
Tifa left the room and Natalie stood, making her way to the window that looked out on the well in the center of Nibelheim. 'Snap out of it, Nat. This isn't like you at all. Come on! Pull yourself together!' She took in a slow breath and released it slower, then again, and again. 'That's better. Now, why don't you clear your mind by doing some research?' Natalie pulled a book off the shelf from the bookcase beside the window and made her way to her bed.
"DNA alteration and the Jenova Project by Professor Hojo." Natalie sighed deeply. "I don't know how this is supposed to clear your mind, Nat. You read this so that you can learn more about Vincent and you know it. Give it a rest, will ya?"
But she couldn't. Vincent had become an area of excitement in her life that she had never before granted herself. Her imagination was enough on those cold nights when her loneliness hit her the hardest. She'd dig out one of his old pictures taken when he had still dressed in the Turks' snazzy suit and tie and then absently smile as she played out an entire rendezvous with him. Everything had been so crystal clear. His reaction to each thing she'd say. The expression in his eyes when she'd tell one of her infamous bad jokes. His smirk when she did something embarrassingly funny.
Natalie sighed and slammed the book closed, bringing her arm up to cover her eyes. Now, of all tortures, she was going to be in the same room with the people who had known him better than any other on the planet. The people who had battled to save the planet and the ungrateful people who called it home. 'How am I going to do this?' Questions would bubble to the surface that had nothing to do with the planet's surprising recovery, she knew, and she would have to fight with her usual straightforwardness. Beating around the bush and holding back questions just wasn't her. It never had been.
She turned over on her side and wrapped her arms around herself. 'Forget it, Nat. Take a nap. You're just tired.' But her dreams would take her where she did and did not want to go. To Vincent
Natalie unlocked the door and took in a deep breath before opening it. She didn't look at his coffin as she entered the room. 'I can't. I know what he'll say. If he does How am I going to say no?' Instead, she kept her back toward the room as she closed the door; both palms resting on the cold wood once it had clicked shut. She stood there for several moments, wanting him to come closer wanting him to stay in the coffin 'Why couldn't this have been easier? Why did it have to happen like this?'
"You seem upset. What is it?" Vincent asked.
She heard the rustle of his cape as he moved from where he leaned against his crypt. 'Oh God. He's coming closer. I can't. Don't, Vincent. Please---' He gently took hold of her arms and turned her to face him, lifting her chin with a finger. She held his eyes and he smiled. Her insides went numb and her knees weakened.
"You're looking lovely today."
"Th-thank you." She continued to look up into his glowing red eyes, her firm resolution to stick by what she had decided to do quickly fading. "Vincent, we need to talk."
"Ah. Us." He caressed her cheek and her throat tightened. "And what is it that needs to be said that has such fear glowing in those lovely green eyes?"
"I can't see you anymore."
"Oh." His eyes twinkled with amusement as his lips tilted in the caress of a smile. "You've said that before and yet you always come. Why are you so afraid of me?" Vincent paused, examining her expression with those seductive amber eyes that seemed to see everything. "I see. You're afraid of yourself."
Natalie pulled away and walked toward the coffin, her arms wrapping themselves around her in an attempt to give herself strength. "It just wouldn't work, Vincent. I care about you, yes, but "
"I don't know. I'm just so afraid."
Vincent caressed her neck with his finger and brought his lips to her ear. "It's all right to be afraid."
She shook her head and attempted to turn away again, but he held her in a firm yet tender grasp. When he turned her toward him, his expression was painfully clear in meaning. He leaned toward her and caressed her lips with his, brushing them back and forth until she could barely think straight.
"I've been waiting for someone to love," he whispered. "Don't leave me."
Natalie closed her eyes with a soft whimper and wrapped her arms around his neck as the kiss deepened---
Natalie jerked to a sitting position with a choked sob as she brought her hands up to cover her face. She'd had the dream before, but it had never been so clear. His eyes had never been so real. His face had never been so defined and expressive. 'Oh,' she groaned, 'why did you have to find him? The fantasies and dreams would have faded if you hadn't done that. Nat, why did you have to be so stubborn?' Her determination had become her torturer.
Natalie sniffed and wiped the tears from her face before pushing herself off the bed and going to stand by the window. She crossed her arms and stared off in the direction of the Shinra mansion. 'I know it's impossible. I know it's foolish. I know it's pathetic and God knows what else, but it's happened. I've let myself get emotionally involved with a research project Project,' she questioned herself. 'Project, Nat? Don't start distancing yourself from him now. It won't change the fact that you care for him so much. That's foolishness and you know it. Besides, it's pointless. You're gone for him. All he would have to do is smile at you and you'd rip your clothes off and offer to have his baby.'
Natalie dropped her head with a reluctant smile. She doubted that she'd ever be that ridiculous, but it felt better to laugh at herself then ball her head off.
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