.: XVI -- A Final Farewell :.

Natalie stared down at the tombstone in numbed grief.

'Here rests Vincent Valentine. Comrade. Fellow Savior. Lover of Life. Searcher of Peace. Rest well.'

It wasn't supposed to end this way...

The thought drifted through her fogged mind as she set the flower on the top of the tombstone. No, it wasn't supposed to have ended that way. He was supposed to have been cured. He was supposed to have taken her in his arms and made her feel whole. A part of him. Forever bonded in a way that would never be shared with another soul... Her heart writhed in agony, and she lowered her gaze to the freshly turned soil that hid her one and only love from view.

Natalie dropped to her knees and clutched at the earth with a soul felt sob. "You weren't supposed to die, Vincent," she screeched through her tears. But her voice was only a choked moan.

"Natalie? Why are you here?"

Natalie hunched over, digging her fingers deeper into the cool soil. The temptation to dig out his body nearly overwhelmed her. "I can't leave him alone. Not here. Not anywhere. He needed to be loved. I needed to love him... Oh God, why didn't I just leave him alone? Why did I have to find him?" Her throat closed over the words, and her shoulders racked with tears.

"You gave him new life," the voice whispered in her ear. "You released his soul from torment and gave him peaceful rest. You gave him what no one else could offer. Love and serenity. Would you take it back?"

"Yes," Natalie rasped in desperation. "If it meant he'd still be alive, I would!"

"Then what of me?" Hands from the mysterious voice took hold of her arms and gently made her look up. "Dearest Natalie, don't you love me?"

Natalie gasped, her gaze swallowed by the dark and rich brown depths of Vincent--

--Natalie sat up with a groan, sliding from the bed as she covered her face with her hands. "A dream. It was a dream. It was only a dream," she mumbled over and over.

A dream that had, again, seemed so real. Too real. It spoke volumes, revealing what she believed to be the truth. She killed one so the other could live. She put one to rest so she could live the remainder of her days in happiness with the one she loved more than anything. Natalie turned to look over her shoulder at Vincent's still form. Her body followed. There you are. Her eyes clouded with tears as she slowly stepped forward, leaning her hands against the bed and letting her head fall forward as the tears dripped to the sheet.

Waiting had never been such hell.

...The darkness pushed in at Vincent with suffocating clarity. Beasts' howls and inhuman groans of anger, misery, and uncontrolled fury and vengeance. Leering at him. Accusing him of forgetting their power in his life and taking what they gave him for granted. He pushed away from them, scrambling backward.

"I never wanted you! I never wanted your power or your presence!" Vincent raged. A claw took hold of his arm and ripped at his sleeve. He jerked free, flinching as the talons tore into his flesh. "Your strength wanes, dark spirits. Your life force drains. Your power ebbs. Could it be that her lovely hands have bound you?"

They howled, and the red eyes that glowed in the darkness faded to mere shadows. Whispers of inhumanity and callousness.

Vincent stood to his feet, pulling a sleek gun from a holster on his hip. "I bid thee farewell, Hojo. All your creations will vanish. All your power ceases to exist in this world I've chosen. In this life I share with a pure woman. Do you feel it? Do you taste the bitterness of defeat on your lips."

He shot into the darkness and heard a wail of death. "You creatures of the night will receive no more shadows. No more feeding from the despair long harbored in my soul. I am free of you." Vincent laughed, firing into the night again and again and again.

A figure leaped from the gloom and tackled him, burying its teeth and claws into his flesh. Vincent pushed and beat at the thing with his gun and fists, but still it dug in. Vincent bit back a growl of pain and shoved the barrel of his gun under the thing's chin. Their eyes locked. Red and Brown. Vincent and Vincent.

"She wants me," it hissed. "You are weak. You are not enough to satisfy her hunger."

Vincent's eyes blackened with rage. "She wants me, for she is the one who designed the cure from you."

The two grappled, dodging blows and causing bruises to form and blood to fall. Minutes faded to hours but still they fought, hurling insults and fists. Vincent detected a deterioration of strength in his hated alter ego and seized the opportunity, kicking him back and scrambling to his feet. Red Vincent glared up at him and the barrel of his gun.

"You cannot kill what you know yourself to be," it said harshly.

"I can kill what I detest, creation of Hojo. You."

Red Vincent's eyes widened in fear.

He fired...

blackness swallowed

pasts exploded outward

...Vincent looked around him. He was in Nibelheim outside the Shinra mansion, ages before Sephiroth had become twisted with his evil desire for godhood.

He focused his attention on the solitary figure standing outside the gate of the Shinra Mansion and blinked with surprise. "Lucrecia."

Lucrecia faced him, expression sorrowful. "Vincent." She looked down, removing her glasses to self-consciously tuck them into the breast pocket of her white lab coat. "You've been gone a long time."

"I know."

Lucrecia looked up. "Why?"

Vincent heard a whisper on the breeze and looked behind him. "I have a chance for a different life now," he told her absently. No one approached. He focused again on Lucrecia's pained expression. "A chance at a better one. With a woman who loves what I am, what I was, and what I could be."

Her eyes darkened. "Do you love her?"

Vincent nodded, something within making him keep his distance from the shade of his past. "I do." Another whisper was heard, and he again turned to look behind him, eyes searching the horizon and the town.

"You once said you loved me," she accused softly.

Vincent turned. "I did. But that was another life. Another Vincent."

Lucrecia frowned. "Another Vincent? There is no other Vincent. There is you, and you said you loved me. What right does she have to take you away?"

Vincent watched her face for a long moment, waiting for any hint of the tenderness he'd once felt. It didn't come. "As you made your decision to be with Hojo, I've made my decision to be with her."

"Because she gave you what you wanted," she retorted. "She's manipulating you!"

"No," Vincent pressed, "because I love her."

Lucrecia's face twisted with misery.

"I love her, Lucrecia," he said again. "I want to dream of her. I want her to bear my children. I want to grow old with her." He shook his head, and the whisper caressed his brain. "You cannot stay here. There is no longer any place for you in my dreams."

Her chin tilted upward. "I don't believe you."

"Lucrecia." Vincent stepped forward to rest a hand on her shoulder. He met her gaze. "Lucy, rest. Sleep. Remember the good times, as I will, and let yourself fade to a pleasant memory."

"Vincent... Vincent, please..."

Vincent dropped his hand from her shoulder, and he turned to move toward the voice.

He heard a sigh behind him and the whisper of a kiss on his cheek. "Good-bye, Vincent. My Turk."

"Good-bye, Lucrecia."...

...Vincent opened his eyes and sat up. "Natalie!"

Natalie vaulted to her feet from the cot at his side, pausing a mere instant before throwing herself into his arms. "Vincent - thank you God - I thought you were dying. Vincent. Vincent..." She continued to sob his name as she kissed his mouth and face.

Vincent pulled her tight against him, relishing the luscious warmth of her body against him, the sweet taste of her lips on his, the heavenly sparks of her hands in his hair, and the blessed freedom of silence in his mind.

The End