A Rose By Any Other Name Chapter 5
Natalie leaned out the window as far as possible in order to catch a glimpse of Shinra mansion. It had been three days since her last visit. The interview had gone well and she had been working as fast as possible in order to finish the bulk of the article. She'd put the finishing touches on the rough draft that morning and had planned to visit the mansion as soon as she considered it more than 75% done. Natalie turned and hurried from her room, a silly sense of expectation and anticipation making her heart flutter as she rushed down the stairs. She took the picnic lunch she'd ordered that morning from the counter where they'd set it out for her, and then rushed outdoors.
The sun was shining.
She smiled, pausing long enough to take in a deep breath before turning and walking at a brisk pace for the mansion. She nodded to the locals as she made her way and pushed through the gate, slowing her pace as she entered the front door. Natalie looked around her. She'd really come to like the old mansion. 'I think I'll buy it and then hire someone to start fixing it up,' she decided. Her article was bound to bring in enough money to pay for it and she was sure that there were no other interested parties. The people of Nibelheim would more than likely be thankful to rid themselves of the responsibility of fixing up what was quickly becoming an eyesore. She nodded and hurried up stairs to the room that held the hidden passage to the spiral stairway. She pushed it open and headed down.
When she arrived at the door to the room where Vincent's coffin was kept, she pulled the key from her pocket and unlocked the door, pushing it open slowly. There was no one inside and Vincent's coffin was closed, just as it always was. She closed the door behind her and set the picnic basket at her feet. She pulled a blanket from on top and spread it out, then sat down and pulled out her regular tuna sandwich and grape juice. Natalie looked at the coffin and sighed. She didn't know what to say. 'Then don't say anything, Nat. You only come down here for your own personal fantasy. Use your imagination. It's always been good enough for you anyway.'
Natalie sighed again.
"The interview went quite well," she finally said. "Your friends are really easy to talk to. It kind of surprised me. I've never been a good talker. Oh, I know I talk your ear off, but that's different. You're in there. I'm out here. Besides, we've got a little in common. We both used to work for Shinra, one way or the other. We're both loners " Natalie's voice faded and she put her sandwich away. She wasn't hungry. "I I don't think I told you that I knew Lucrecia. Well, I didn't really know her all that well. She was my college roommate's sister's best friend. She visited sometimes. I liked her, but we never really had a chance to talk much. She was usually busy with something for Shinra." Natalie scowled. "Shinra. Man! I am so glad Rufus and his father got what they did. They were both never mind. I shouldn't swear."
Natalie gasped and looked up, a hand going to her throat when she saw Vincent hovering midair above the coffin. She hadn't heard the lid open. Obviously. "H-hi." 'Smooth, Nat. Real smooth.'
He watched her for a long, silent moment and then gracefully dropped and came to stand opposite her. She offered him her sandwich but he shook his head. 'Okay, Nat. Now what?' Natalie swallowed hard and dropped her eyes, desperately trying to think of something to say as she put the sandwich neatly on its plate. Vincent sat and she watched him in shock and horror. Her fantasy was coming true and she was handling it less than gracefully.
Vincent continued to examine her with his piercing red eyes. "You used to work for Shinra?"
"In a round-a-bout way," she said slowly. 'Breathe, Nat. Breathe and you'll be fine.' "They basically funded the digs I worked at. They always did have their fingers in as many pies as possible."
Natalie saw the expression in his eyes change. "You knew Lucrecia?"
She hesitated. "Like I said, I didn't know her very well, but she seemed really nice. Well, when she had a spare minute to breathe, anyway. My roommate was always telling me about things Lucrecia was involved in. I think that was one of the highlights of my day. When I got to hear about her latest adventure. Lucrecia had the life that I wanted. She was actively involved in science. She had position and could research whatever she wanted. That thought intrigued me. That was what I wanted to have as soon as I was out of school. I just wish we could have talked."
Vincent remained silent, his eyes examining her face with an intensity that was going to drive her nuts.
Natalie gnawed on her lower lip. "I must confess that's how I found out about you." Vincent almost raised an eyebrow. "My roommate was always talking about the stories she heard from her sister about you and Lucrecia. I was fascinated, so I did more research. That's when I found out about Hojo and his experiments with DNA manipulation and alteration, which is what I believe he did to you. I dug out as many articles as I could find on Hojo and his experiments until I discovered the information about this mansion and the basement " Something in his expression changed and she dropped her gaze. "I suppose I wanted to meet you so badly that I didn't consider whether or not you wanted any visitors. Sorry about that."
"Why would you want to meet me?"
'Be yourself, Nat.' Natalie shrugged and looked up with a haphazard smile. "Call me a romantic."
Natalie couldn't help but laugh. "And I thought I asked a lot of questions." He didn't say anything and Natalie continued, the smile still on her face. "You're a mystery and I've always loved mysteries. That's why I do what I do. Not only that, you're a bit of a tortured soul, you know," she added gently. His expression seemed to blacken and Natalie's smiled quivered and died. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to Well, I didn't mean to do whatever I did."
"You did nothing."
"All right, then why do you look about ready to murder?" 'Hold on there, Nat. Bluntness was always your forte, but now's not the time for it. Keep it gentle.' "Forget I asked that, Vincent. I didn't mean to plow over you like a bulldozer. Like I said before, I haven't been around people much. Well, actually, I have. It's just been different than socializing." 'That's better.' "Speaking of that, did you want to come see the new fossils they've discovered? They haven't done any of the equipment set up, that's not due to be done for another couple of days, so it should be really quiet."
"How do you understand what Hojo did to me?"
The question caught her off-guard and she had to yank her brain back from the possibility of taking a walk with him in order to answer. "I'm a scientist, not just an archeologist." She examined his expression. "That's not what you meant, was it? How do I understand?" Natalie shrugged and looked away from his face in order to pour herself another glass of grape juice. "That's kind of hard to say, but only because I don't know how to explain it. Whenever I didn't understand an article, I'd pull the reports and articles that they had researched and read them myself. Then, if it was a matter of record, I'd try and pull the itemized lists of their experimentations. As to how did I understand what he said, it just clicked. Like a bunch of puzzle pieces falling into place without a lick of hassle. After reading what they had read and seeing what they had done, it just made sense."
"Is there a way to reverse it?"
Natalie swallowed hard. She'd often asked herself that same question, but hadn't had enough experience to know one way or the other. Besides, DNA manipulation was still so experimental that she didn't dare hazard a guess. Her fantasy had, of course, taken the question and run with it many times. Reversing Vincent's change would have been the best way of endearing him to her, after all. However, she was afraid that the hope was more fantasy than any of her other romantic dreams. Her specialty had always been historic, not genetic or cellular. 'Put aside the fact that you figured out what Hojo did, you'd never discover the way to put Vincent back to normal. You simply don't have the expertise, or the research ability, or the field experience.'
Natalie sighed. "I don't know. Believe me when I say I wish I could say 'yes' with any amount of truth or certainty. But I can't. I wouldn't want to lie to you."
"In other words, you've thought about the possibility before."
She nodded. "Yes. Many times. Like I said before, your entire history fascinated me. The minute I found out what Hojo had done, I toyed with the idea of changing you back again. Only problem was I didn't have the facility for experimentation that Hojo did. I doubt if I ever will now that Shinra's wiped off the face of the planet. Nowhere else had their type of advanced equipment."
"That isn't true."
Natalie looked up. "What do you mean?"
"Shinra had a laboratory in the basement of this mansion. Cloud will know where it is."
Natalie blinked in surprise. She hadn't explored any further than this door. After all, she hadn't cared about anything but finding Vincent's coffin. "A laboratory? Here? Really?" She smiled and her eyes twinkled. "I've always dreamed of having my own lab." Something akin to amusement flickered across Vincent's face for the briefest instant and Natalie flushed. "Sorry for making a fool of myself. I've had an idea of something that might work and have been frustrated to no end because I haven't been able to try it out. For you to say that there's a lab I can't even begin to describe my excitement!"
Natalie's excitement faded. "Oops. I didn't mean to say that." She waved her hands at him. "It was just a silly notion I had once. One of my crazy, romantic imaginings of grandeur and heroic rescue." She slouched and dropped her eyes. "Just great. Now I've gotten your hopes up."
"Hope? Why would I believe there was hope for me?"
Natalie looked up and tried to gauge his expression, but it was just as distant as when she had first seen him. "How " 'Careful, Nat.' "Never mind. Okay. Well, if you Never mind that either." Natalie bit her lower lip and then stood. He watched her, but made no move to stand. "Cloud and Tifa are walking around Mt. Nibel today and won't be back until later this evening. Could you help me find the lab? I'd like to check it out to see exactly what I'm looking at in expenses for getting it up and running."
He remained seated for a moment more and then gracefully stood. "Yes."
"Are you sure you don't mind?"
Natalie smiled. "I appreciate it." She made a move to pack up the picnic, but decided against it. "Never mind that," she told Vincent with a smile (he hadn't made a move to pick it up either). "I'll come back later hungrier than anything, more than likely. It's always a mystery that makes me hungry enough to eat a chocobo." She turned for the door and stepped out, moving aside for him to have room to stand beside her. "So, which way do we go?"
He gestured to the left with another amused expression. "It isn't far."
Vincent was about to take a step forward when Natalie suddenly stopped him with a hand on his arm. He turned to face her with an expression akin to surprise. Natalie quickly removed her hand, but continued with her train of thought. "Are you absolutely certain that you don't mind? I know I've asked this before, but I just realized that this might have been where Hojo did his experiments on you. Believe me, if it causes a problem for you at all, I will wait until Cloud gets back and ask him. It's no big deal."
Natalie wasn't sure, but it seemed the briefest flash of emotion exploded across his face. It made her wonder a little more about the past she hadn't been able to discover via the reading of experimentation reports, interviews, and assistants' journal entries. 'What exactly did you go through, Vincent? What exactly happened to make you the way you are now? Why are you this tortured soul?' These questions had fascinated Natalie for years. These were the pieces she had longed to uncover so that she could fix something, anything, about him.
He still hadn't answered and she offered another gently humorous, yet probing statement. "If I'm going too far in the caution department of our relationship, I'm only concerned for your feelings. I've never been experimented on, Vincent, but I can appreciate the tenderness of it."
"It doesn't matter. It's in the past."
"Sometimes the past is all we have." He examined her features for the briefest of a pause. Natalie looked down "Sorry. I did it again." She tucked her hands into the pockets of her jeans. "I have a tendency of being about as subtle as a Midgar Zolom."
"I doubt anyone is."
Natalie peeked at him out of the corner of her eye. 'A sense of humor? Or just ultra-literal? There's no telling.' "Why would you say that? Just curious. You haven't actually seen one, have you?"
"As a matter of fact "
"Wow. I've heard and read about them, even seen pictures, but Really? You've seen one?"
"I fought one."
Natalie paled. "You're kidding. I can see you survived, but how in the world did you do it? They're downright vicious."
"No match for the three of us."
"The three of you?"
"Cloud and Aeris. You didn't think I would do it alone, did you?"
'Why not? You do everything else by yourself.' Natalie cleared her throat. "I guess I didn't really think about it. Boy. You had me just a little bit by the neck, didn't you?" He actually looked amused and she couldn't help but smile. "You did it on purpose. Don't tell me I'm going to have to examine everything you say. That's going to be exhausting." 'Not to mention fun, exciting, and absolutely pathetic.' "Why in the world did you three go against one of those?"
"We needed its skill."
"It's skill? As in what exactly."
"The Midgar Zolom has the skill called Beta. It's an elemental attack that is quite powerful. We needed the skill for our battles against Sephiroth and others."
"Did you learn it? As in, did you learn to duplicate it?"
"No." He paused and then turned to begin down the short corridor. "Yes. Our Materia stored the ability and then allowed us to use it later."
"Really? Hmm. Interesting. I wonder how it was able to do that," Natalie mumbled absently. "It would need to have some type of sentience in order to be able to retain the knowledge of the ability learned I wonder. They say that Materia was part of the planet, and this would definitely be proof to that effect. Man. I wish Materia wasn't taboo anymore. I'd love to examine some. Although, I should be able to learn all I need to from Bugenhagen's research and from Shinra's declassified reports. Hmm. I should look into it." Natalie noticed that Vincent had stopped outside a huge wooden door and looked up with a raised eyebrow. "Are we here? Already?"
"I didn't want to interrupt."
"Oh." Natalie blushed. "Sorry. I have a tendency of talking out loud, as you can see. Somehow it helps me work things out. Either that or I'm just too lazy to keep my thoughts to myself. It could be both. Who knows?" Vincent just looked down at her with those calm and distant red eyes without saying a word. Natalie flushed a darker shade and looked away, her hand reaching out for the door to open it. "Well, I guess we find out what's hiding behind door number one."
The massive door creaked open slowly and Natalie brought a hand up to her mouth. It was huge. There were books by the hundreds stacked on tables, on the bookcases, and on the floor. There were notebooks and tablets filled with handwritten journal notes, video tapes in afar corner, shelves of beakers containing neatly labeled liquids, and a couple of cylindrical holding chambers linked to one of the Shinra Corporation's best computers. Natalie's eyes widened in awe as she stepped forward, fingering through a book here and there before making her way to the computer. It was on and running, apparently not affected by the world's sudden turn from the use of Mako. It had a link to it's own small Mako generator.
Natalie pulled out a dusty office chair and sat with a slow breath, caressing the keyboard with a slowly growing smile. Technology. How she had missed it in the few years that she'd been out in no-man's land. 'But now I have a chance. I have a chance to do all I wanted to do before, but couldn't. I know Mako is outlawed, but this computer may be the difference between my discovery of a cure and not. Surely it can't use that much.' Natalie peeked up at Vincent. He had come to stand by the chambers. His expression hadn't changed, but something about his attitude had. Natalie couldn't quite put her finger on it, but knew it was there.
She watched him for a moment and then stood, hesitantly moving to stand beside him. "You all right?"
"Cloud spoke of these."
"Cloud did? Really?" Natalie turned to examine the chambers. More than six feet in height, they were impressive. Impressively high-tech. They were filled with a type of greenish liquid that looked almost embryonic. Natalie reached out a hand and touched the cylinder. It was warm. "It looks to be an incubator of some sort and it's still running. As if the experiment should still be here." Natalie looked around for any clue as to what the experiment could be and discovered a plaque on each cylinder. "Hmm. C project. Specimen (A) code Z. And this one is specimen (B) and code C. I wonder what it means?" She slowly made her way to the computer again. "Well, they had to have kept records. I'll just take a peek and see what I can find out."
"Cloud said that he and Zack, a friend from SOLDIER, were held here and injected with Jenova cells and Mako."
"Let me guess. Hojo."
"Yes. He claimed that Cloud was a clone from the original. We have no proof that he was telling the truth."
"Why did he have such a fascination for screwing up the lives of others?" Natalie pressed her lips together and typed furiously on the keyboard, searching and crosschecking references in order to find anything regarding the experiments that had taken place in that basement. Shinra. Cloud Strife. SOLDIER. Hojo. Jenova. Everything that she could think of. Then, she typed in the name of Vincent Valentine, one-time Turk for Shinra Corporation. 'There has to be a connection. Some experiment that Hojo kept doing over and over. He was always so sadistically persistent.'
PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD
Natalie blinked in surprise, her fingers pausing over the keyboard. "Hello. What do we have here? A password, Professor? I wonder if you might possibly have a secret."
"What is it?"
He came to stand behind her and she took in a slow breath to keep her focus on the computer screen. "I typed in your name and now the computer's asking for a password." 'Please, Vincent. Don't stand so close. My mind doesn't work so well when you do.'
"Have you tried Lucrecia?"
"He wouldn't really do anything that obvious, would he?"
Natalie shrugged and typed in the letters. ACCESS DENIED. PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD. "For what it's worth, it was a good idea. I wouldn't have tried it. Any other suggestions?"
Vincent reached over her shoulder and typed three simple letters: G-O-D.
ACCESS GRANTED. WELCOME, PROFESSOR HOJO
"Now that's scary," Natalie said softly after clearing her throat. 'I hope to God he doesn't do that again.'
"No scarier than that which he bred."
Vincent turned away and Natalie's heart fell. "Where are you going?"
"I'm giving you room to work."
'You weren't in the way, Vincent. You never would be. Don't you know that?' "Will you come back?"
'I'm telling you, Vincent. You don't need to leave. I want you here to help me.' "All right. I'll see you later."
Natalie watched him go, releasing a deep breath after he'd closed the door behind him. Her mind was ricocheting from fantasy to real world and back again. 'Vincent Valentine. I just walked around the basement with Vincent Valentine. He stood beside me. He stood behind me. He talked to me. I actually amused him.' She shook her head and then turned back to the computer, desperately attempting to refocus her attention. 'Okay, Nat. Now's your chance to do some mystery solving and clue-hunting. You've been itching for this and now it's been dropped in your lap. Let's get to work.'
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