In Tempest, Storm, and Wind
Final Fantasy VII
It was only late afternoon by the time the car rolled up the deserted streets of Nibelheim, but the sky hanging low over the needle-tip mountains was as black as midnight. Icy rain slashed across the rutted gravel road in unwavering sheets, and the car's wipers fought a losing battle to keep the windshield clear. By the time Reno saw the rusty iron gate emerge from the gloom, he had to slam both feet on the brake to keep from hitting it. It was a maneuver that did not endear him to the other passengers in the car.
"Tell me again," Elena said, shoving herself out of the back of Rude's seat, "why we let you drive?"
Reno didn't answer, wiping his sleeve on the inside of the windshield to try and get a clearer view. It didn't help. The house in front of them was only a deeper black on the night sky, with sunken-in windows and a gaping, toothless door. A brief flare of lightning painted a stark white structure on their dazzled vision, but while it remained in their blinking afterimages, the building itself subsided into quiet, gray repose among the leafless trees. The silence in the car was thick with all the things no one was willing to say.
"Welp!" Reno announced, with a suddenness that made Elena jump (and made Rude slightly adjust his sunglasses), "I'm staying in the car."
Elena made a noise of disgust and annoyance, more with Reno's habit of ruining perfectly good dramatic timing than with anything he might have said. "The hell you are. We've got orders. Don't tell me after everything, this is gonna make you back down."
"No," Reno slewed around in the seat to look at her, "I'm telling you that this is probably the worst idea anyone's ever had, and that's speaking as a veteran employee of a company noted for a complete dedication to bad ideas." He reached down to put the car in reverse. "Forget this, we're staying in the hotel."
He was arrested in mid-gear shift by Rude's heavy hand over his, and a slow shake of his partner's head. "Reno. Our orders..."
"Our orders were to secure the property, I know, I know. But we can secure it in daylight, can't we?"
"Sure," Elena said. "Provided you've got money to pay for the inn."
"Pay? Since when do we have to--" Reno began, in some surprise, then wilted a little as realization hit.
"This isn't the old days," Rude reminded him, in a low rumble not unlike the thunder settling down in the mountain peaks. "Folks around here won't be too happy to see us. This isn't a company town anymore."
"No," Reno said, and pointed at the decrepit hulk of the Shinra Mansion, "but that is a haunted house that would put the one in the Saucer out of business."
"Ugh," Elena said, rolling her eyes as she opened the car door, letting in a blast of chilly air and rain. "Enough with the faerie tales, Reno. I'm getting the gate."
"Hey, you should have a little respect for--!" Reno got no further as Elena slammed the car door and ran up to the imposing gate, a slim, blonde figure against the rusting wrought iron, hunched up in her suit jacket against the downpour. Reno was left with nothing to do but grumble unhappily into the steering wheel.
"You know nothing's gonna keep her from this," Rude said, his tone conciliatory. "She's been excited about it from the start."
Reno beat his forehead gently against the wheel. "If she knew half--a quarter--of the things we know about this place, she'd be screaming for the hills right now, not bustling in talking about how it's got good bones and just needs some curtains."
"It has got good bones," Rude said, and just paused long enough for Reno's incredulous stare before adding, "Mostly in the basement."
Reno hunched over the dash of the car, making a noise somewhere between a laugh and a whine of pain.
"Besides," Rude continued, downright chatty now that they were the only ones in the car, "Elena's not the running for the hills type."
Reno's laugh subsided into a pitiful wheeze. "Oh good so we can all die together--"
"Got it!" Elena popped back into the car, drippy but triumphant, with a streak of color across her nose and a wet, rusty smear on the front of her jacket. "Let's go, Reno."
Reno thought about suggesting they sleep in the car, possibly right after driving another couple hundred miles to Rocket Town, but he knew it would be no use. Reluctantly, he put the car in gear and it slid forward though the crumbling, ivied pillars of the Shinra Mansion's front gate.
They had to wait another moment, because Elena insisted on locking the gate behind them. ("Gotta make sure nothing gets ... out," Rude commented, which made Reno punch him--ineffectually--in the arm.) But then they pulled up what had once been a fine gravel drive and Reno parked the car. A small portico kept the front steps drier than the overgrown yard, but they were ankle-deep in leaves and other detritus of neglect. A pair of marble angels had once topped the pillars at the bottom of the steps; one was headless, the other was missing a wing. Reno shuddered as he turned off the engine.
Elena took the steps two at a time, but she was still standing by the door, thumbing through the massive ring of keys, when Reno and Rude caught up with her. "I'm excited, aren't you?" She tried a likely-looking key, then shook her head happily even when it didn't work. "So much history here."
"I think That Guy was right to burn it down," Reno muttered. "Too bad it didn't stay that way."
Elena ignored him, and whatever Rude might have said in response (including his agreement that Certain Names were better off not said aloud in that place) was lost as Elena got the right key at last. The front door opened with a faint moan of its hinges. A smell of damp and disuse floated out of the house towards them, and even Elena seemed daunted for a moment. All empty houses have a certain smell, the absence of humanity rather than the presence of it, but there was something darker and wetter to that odor that none of them liked, something that made Elena's hand linger briefly inside her jacket, feeling for the comforting heft of her pistol.
"Monsters," she said, in the same way she might comment on a bit of dry-rot. "Nesting in some of the old rooms, maybe. We should stick together."
"Yes," Reno answered. "Ideally, in some other house." But he loosened the weight of his e-rod in his hand, and peered through the gloom with something like curiosity. it had been a long time since he'd last darkened the door of Rufus' ancestral home.
"Better turn on the power first." Rude suggested.
Elena nodded, her shoulders squaring slightly. "Yes. Don't want to do too much exploring without light-- floors could be rotten, things like that."
"Yes," Reno agreed, acidly. "Things. C'mon. Let's see if there's somewhere defensible."
Standing in the yawning foyer of the mansion, even Elena couldn't manage her usual bravado. She slipped a flashlight from her pocket and it burst to life like a tiny star, shooting a thin streamer of white light around the room. it bounced off of moth-eaten rugs and the grand sweep of a central staircase, flashed on grimy windowpanes. Blurred paintings looked down at the guests through curtains of cobwebs, their faint eyes startled by the intrusion. Occasionally a mouse whisked out of sight just head of the beam. Twice Elena flicked the beam up to the landing, once at the movement of a shadow (surely caused by the flashlight itself) and once at the sudden creaking of a floorboard. There was nothing there.
Elena let out a tiny breath she had been holding. "Right, so. You've both been here before. Where should we start?"
"Power box is in the kitchen," Rude said, striding across the main entrance without so much as a wince for the way his footsteps echoed in the empty halls. "This way."
Nobody was particularly keen on being last, so Reno and Elena followed him two abreast, through the far door and down the hall to a room that smelled even more damp than the rest of the house. Elena's flashlight picked out hanging pots, an old stove hunched in the corner like a forgotten beggar, and a curving blank wall of mortared fieldstone. A set table sat patiently to the side, as though waiting for a dinner that was years in coming. Mice had nibbled at the checkered tablecloth until all that remained were inscrutable blue glyphs between the dusty flatware.
"Here," Rude said, and flipped open a breaker box by the stove. There was a low, echoing thud through the house as he switched it on, a sound that seemed to echo much more than the established dimensions of the house should contain. Suddenly, the entire mansion was ablaze with light. They all looked at each other in surprise, or at least Reno and Elena did; Rude was as impassive as ever. Reno wasn't entirely sure why the lights being on made him feel worse, except for a troubling notion that now, they had made their presence known.
"That's better," Elena said, switching off her flashlight. "Come on, let's look around."
There was nothing Reno wanted to do less than look around, except for being shown up by Elena's five-foot-five feet of blonde, pantsuited enthusiasm. So they went. Reluctantly. The darkness in the house had been forced into a retreat, but not beaten; it hissed outside the borders of light, it lurked in every shadowy corner. And though its presence gnawed at every one of them, it never did more than watch. The rooms they found were dilapidated, but banal. Nothing sprang at their throats, no forgotten horrors awaited their discovery. Only a bedroom, with mildewy plaid blankets. Dead plants in a neglected conservatory, whose uncurtained windows offered a broad view of utter blackness. The sound of freezing rain plinked unpleasantly on the dirty glass. A gaping, empty safe was the most threatening thing they encountered. Nothing but a place designed to look abandoned and then actually abandoned.
"There, now," Elena said, as they retreated back out onto the landing. "Was that anything to be frightened about?"
Before Reno could answer, the house answered for him, in a long, pained groan as the wind hit it full force. Everything creaked at the onslaught of the storm, and over the foyer the dusty chandelier swayed faintly, crystals tinkling like ice. With a fizzle and a pop the bulbs in it dimmed and then, with a boom from the breaker box in the kitchen, went out. They were plunged into utter darkness, the wind howling around them.
"Yes," Reno said, from somewhere in the dark, "Yes, it was, and I am."
"Well that's fine, but you don't have to grab onto me like that."
The pause that followed was so pregnant it nearly had triplets before anyone spoke.
"I'm not," Reno said, finally. "I'm grabbing onto Rude. I think."
"Then what--" Elena began.
But at the same time Rude said, from entirely the other side of the landing, "I'm over here."
Comprehension set it, and there was nothing to do but to run for it. Which they did, Elena and Reno making small panicked noises as they tore down the front stairs, Rude breathing entirely too hard for the effort it took to follow them. They made it to the center of the main foyer before they were forced to stop by another terror.
Someone was knocking on the front door of the house.
"Oh god," Reno hissed, close enough to Elena for her to be sure this time that they actually had a hold on each other, and not some other nameless thing. "Somebody's out there."
"Shut up, Rude."
"We should let them in," Elena said weakly, in spite of the fact that she would really rather run very fast in any other direction. "It could be someone lost, someone in trouble--"
"Something that crawled down out of the reactor to come fukkin eat us. Who the hell would come down here instead of going into town?"
As if eager to answer Reno's question, the knocking increased, in urgency and force. In their dimly returning night vision, they could see the old door shuddering at the onslaught.
"I'm going to open it," Rude said, shouldering past the other two, and adding, at their protests and profanity, "Monsters don't knock."
"Elena," Reno said, in low tones. "I just want you to know that I'm very sorry about everything."
"That's sweet, but you aren't."
"Well, no, but it seemed the thing to say. Come on, I'm not letting Rude go up there and die alone."
They made it just as Rude was opening the door, and then stepped back as he let in a cold blast of air, along with a sparkling dusting of snow that fell into the empty house like starlight. The air was fresh and clean, even in its fierce cold, and it seemed to blow all the cobwebs from their minds as well as the house.
"What the hell took you so long?" Cloud Strife said, standing on the doorstep with his clothing crusted with snow and monster blood. "Waiting for a commercial break?"
"The power went out," Rude said, with remarkable calmness. "It took us a moment to-- Mr. Valentine!"
Elena let out a little gasp of surprise that covered Reno's own. What they had thought only a red ragged cloak on Strife's shoulder was actually a person, a person wounded and hanging limply from Cloud's arm.
"I saw the car out front," Cloud said, shouldering his way in the door without asking for an invitation, dragging Vincent with him. "We were--"
"You're hurt, both of you," Elena said, stepping up. "Rude. Get Mr. Valentine over to that couch. Reno, get some logs from the kitchen and get a fire going. I'll bring some blankets from upstairs."
In spite of the fact that she outranked exactly none of them, everyone hurried to do as they were told. Elena flicked on her flashlight and hurried up the stairs, any existential fears abandoned in the face of more pressing urgencies. By the time she came downstairs, trailing duvets, the front room was bathed in the ruddy glow of fire, and Rude was taking Vincent's pulse, timing the beats on his watch. Cloud's massive sword rested in the chimney corner, Vincent's drippy cloak and boots spread out by the fire to dry.
"Behemoth," Cloud said, peeling off his gloves and wincing as he held his cold-cramped hands out to the fire. "They come down off the mountain in bad weather sometimes. Got us by surprise. Didn't think we'd make it to the inn when I saw your car out front."
"Good," Rude said, though in response to Cloud's words or Vincent's vitals, it was hard to say. He laid Vincent's hand down like it was an injured bird, and gestured to Elena to bring over the blankets. "Here." Rude said, pulling a flask from his jacket. "Have some."
"What were you doing up on the mountain?" Reno asked, as Cloud took one long drink from the flask and coughed.
Cloud gave him a sidelong look, his mako-bright eyes gleaming in the firelight. "What are you doing in this house?"
Rude made an amused grunt. "We're not your enemy, Strife. And Mr. Valentine is one of us."
Cloud's brows drew together. "I owe you. I'm never sure how much Vincent can take. He just goes until he falls over."
"Good thing he fell over here," Elena said, drawing the blankets up to Vincent's chin. They were musty, but thick and dry. "It's funny how different this house feels now. Like it--" She looked at Cloud's face, at Vincent's, and decided not to finish the thought. "Come on, Reno. Let's go find something to eat in the kitchen." She dragged a protesting Reno after her, and Rude leaned down to add another log onto the fire.
"I didn't take them downstairs," he said, in a low voice. "I thought it would be better in daylight."
"It might be less worse," Cloud said, with a wry twist of his mouth that was not a smile. "But I think we both know that better is asking too much." He handed Rude his flask back. "Thanks. Mist Dragon?"
"Molotov," Rude said, and had a drink of the vodka himself. "Rufus wants to set up a new base here. Sent us to check it out."
Cloud nodded. "Reeve wants some supplies for a solar energy device he's planning. We were out after some raw materia. The storm had settled in by the time we got away from the monsters, and Vincent was hurt."
"Stay as long as you need," Rude said. "We might be stuck a few days ourselves, but you know the weather around here better than us."
Cloud's smile was in his eyes, if reluctant to show elsewhere. "You got enough vodka for that?"
Rude laughed, a short bark. "I keep a bottle in the car, Strife."