A Rose By Any Other Name Chapter 4

By Mintbaby

Natalie set out extra chairs, made sure she had plenty of pens and paper, tracked down her list of questions for the different people scheduled to be there that day, and then sat back with a science magazine as she waited for them to arrive. She hoped they were all as easy to talk to as Tifa had been. She'd heard some bad things about Barret, and everyone on the planet knew that he'd been the leader of the anti-Shinra group AVALANCHE, but she wasn't one to make harsh judgments. Natalie always tried to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. It was easier. Her thoughts drifted to Vincent. 'In some ways more than others.'

She heard a crash and looked up with a start, her magazine dropping to the floor as she stood. A man with spiky blonde hair was kneeling over the broken vase and quickly picking up the pieces. "You nearly scared me to death," she told him.

He looked over at her with a guilty expression. "I'm really sorry about that. I caught it with my scabbard." He finished picking up the glass shards and then slowly straightened, offering her his hand when he stepped forward. "The name's Cloud. Cloud Strife. I heard you were looking for me."

She shook his hand with a look of surprise. "Tifa said you wouldn't be here for a couple more days."

He grinned. "She doesn't know I'm here yet. I wanted it to be a surprise."

"Oh. Okay." Natalie gestured to one of the many chairs situated around her small table. "Well, if you want to have a seat, we can start now."

"Let's wait. If you don't mind."

Natalie waved a hand at him. "That's fine. It doesn't matter to me." 'I'm still stuck up here when I really want to be down in a musty old basement. What does it matter if we wait or not?'

Cloud sat in one of the chairs and then kicked it back to prop his feet on the table. "So, do you like doing these kind of things?"

"Interviews?" Natalie grimaced and sat in the chair opposite him. "Not likely. I'd much rather be at the fossil discovery on the other side of Mt. Nibel. They found another one like Bone Village, you know."

"No. I didn't. Sounds interesting." Cloud watched her face. "So, if you don't like them, why do them?"

Natalie shrugged. "Science sometimes demands that we do what we don't want to. Besides, I'm hoping the article will sell well. I need the gil." 'I'm only using you. Using you to find out things Vincent won't ever tell me.'

Cloud smiled. "I was there once myself. That's how I got involved with Barret in the first place. Gil. He had it. I needed it. He needed help. Bam! Volunteered for a job blowing up a reactor."

"It certainly sounds exciting, if a little dangerous." 'Vincent would have loved it.'

Cloud shrugged. "I didn't really care about the danger. I've got to say that I'm glad it's all over now, though. The most dangerous thing I have to worry about these days is a paper cut." He smiled. "And pissing Tifa off."

Natalie's mind groaned to a halt. "You two are together, then?"

"For now."

The answer surprised her. "What do you mean?"

"I don't want to sound possessive or anything by saying a firm 'yes', even though that's the only way I want to answer. So, I just say 'for now'. I want to give her a choice, you know. She's still her own person. I mean, don't get me wrong. I'm committed. I don't have any plans to go cruising the countryside with some other girl. I just don't want her to think that I'm making her choose me over her own freedom. We've both gone through a lot together. It's just natural that we end up here, I guess." He grinned. "Not that I hadn't hoped we would."

Natalie looked down at her paper with an absent nod. "That's wonderful." 'I wish it was natural for me and Vincent.'

"So, who else are we expecting?"

"Nanaki. Barret. Tifa, obviously. Cid." Natalie looked at her list. 'Vincent…'

"What about Vincent? I sure hope he's going to be here. I haven't heard from him since we won against Sephiroth."

Natalie's grip tightened on her pen. "I don't know about him or Yuffie. I couldn't get in contact with her."

"What about Vincent? You know he's right here in the Shinra mansion, don't you?"

Natalie nodded and she could feel the blood drain from her face. "Yes. Yes, I knew that." 'He doesn't acknowledge that I exist, but yes, I knew.'

"Did you send him the invite? Did you want me to do it for you? He doesn't talk much, but we got along pretty good together."

'I'm sure you thought so, but did he?' Natalie gave him a reluctant smile. "No, no. It's all right. I think I have enough to handle with the five of you. I haven't done many interviews in my line of work. I'm usually stuck behind a book. The experience will be good for me." 'I need the time away from him. You wouldn't understand, but that's okay.'

"Just wondering."

"Hello, Cloud. It's nice to see you after such a long time."

Natalie and Cloud looked toward the door.

"Hey there, Red. How've you been?"

Nanaki came to sit beside Cloud and tucked his tail around his forepaws. "Quite well, thank you. Yourself?"

"Keeping busy." Cloud gestured to Natalie. "This is Natalie Long. Natalie, this is Red… err… Nanaki."

"Hello," Natalie said with a big smile toward the beautiful creature. "It's very nice to finally meet you. I've read all your articles, as well as those of your grandfather. Brilliant. Fascinating."

Red nodded his head and almost seemed to smile at her. "Thank you very much."

"Sorry I'm late."

Cloud stood and sent Tifa a grin. "Surprise."

"Cloud!" She rushed forward and threw herself forward to envelope him in a hug, which quite nearly made them both topple backward. "I thought you weren't going to be here until the end of the week."

Natalie dropped her eyes as her throat constricted. 'Would I have the courage to greet Vincent like that if we were ever that close? Would I have the courage to take our relationship to that level?'

"I packed faster." Cloud pulled back and then urged her to take his seat, which she did. "I guess it's just Barret and Cid now."

"No, it's just Barret."

They all looked to the entrance of the quickly filling room and sent the ruggedly handsome engineer a smile. He took a puff of his cigarette and strode into the room to throw himself into the nearest chair, which happened to be beside Natalie.

She offered a hand. "Hello, Mr. Highwind. My name's Natalie Long. I'm doing the interview."

"Well, I didn't think any of these @#$%& numbskulls would be doing it," he said abruptly as he shook her hand.

Natalie blinked in surprise at the foul language, but the others just laughed. She smiled and released his hand, somehow at ease among these strangers that were close friends. If she felt this way, how much more had Vincent felt who had spent so many weeks and months with them in order to save the planet? "I really appreciate your time. All of you."

"It's no problem," Cid said gruffly.

The others repeated much the same sentiment.

Natalie looked to her questions and tapped her lips with her pen. "All right. Well, we might as well begin. There's no point making you all wait. Besides, I'm sure Mr. Barret will be here as soon as he can." 'And Vincent?'

Cloud sat in the chair next to Tifa and kicked back, putting one of his hands behind his head while he draped the other along the back of her chair. "Don't bet on it. He's been awfully busy getting everybody situated with enough seedlings and starter plants. He may have forgotten about the whole thing."

Tifa laughed. "Cloud, come on. Barret forget a responsibility? That would be like Yuffie forgetting where a stash of Materia was in the old days."

"Hey. There's a first time for everything."

They all conceded that was true and then talked amongst themselves, reliving a myriad of past adventures. Natalie watched them as they interacted with one another. She was going to be hard-pressed to remember the focus of her article yet again. 'How did Vincent react to all these different types of people? Did he feel lost? Did he feel overwhelmed? Did he feel accepted?' There were so many questions she wanted to ask them about the lonely soul hidden in a distant basement.

"So, what exactly is the plan?" Natalie finally asked.

They all looked at her. "Plan?"

"For rescuing the planet," she added. "What's the plan? Anyone?"

They all exchanged glances as if to ask, 'who first', and then Red cleared his throat with a husky purr sound. "It's not necessarily a plan, per say, but the only course of action we see as available to us."

"Well, then how did you know what to do?"

"It was kind of simple," Tifa spoke up timidly. "We had found out that Mako and Materia were actually the planet's life. Once we knew that, it seemed obvious that we needed to give it back. That's why we put it in the Lifestream."

"And the machinery," Natalie asked Cid.

"Machinery before used Mako. It's my job to find out how to make them use either solar energy, or something else. Just as long as it doesn't detract from the planet's energy. Or poison the atmosphere." He grumbled under his breath a moment or two. "I tell ya, I don't have many #%&$*# options open to me at the moment."

Natalie restrained a smile at the outburst. 'I wonder what Vincent's reaction was to you, Mr. Highwind. You more than likely gave him no end of amusement.' "Have any of you noticed any changes in the ecosystem?"

"I've noticed a lot of things," Cloud said. "The sky's different. The grass is greener. There seem to be more animals around then before."

"The kids look healthier too," Tifa volunteered.

Natalie nodded. "Yes. I've noticed that too. The people have a healthier, more positive attitude." 'Maybe Vincent just needs time.'

"Of course," said a loud voice. "They've got damn good air to breathe!"

All of them turned and gave Barret an enthusiastic greeting as he stomped into the room with his adopted daughter, Marlene, on his shoulders.

"I'm so glad you could make it Mr.---"

"None of that," Barret interrupted. "The name's Barret. Plain and simple." Natalie nodded and offered him her seat. He declined and, instead, leaned against the bookcase after depositing Marlene on the bed. "So, let's get this interview under way. I've got a lot of work to do and there's no stopping this train we're on."

They all laughed at him and Natalie surrendered to another smile.


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