Happy Halloween! ^_^
She was not scared. Really. She wasn't. The whole atmosphere of the place was a bit on the spooky side, but it was just dust and cobwebs and time and history all conspiring against her. If she didn't have an inkling as to what had gone on here it wouldn't be near so creepy. No way was she gonna chicken out now. She had a job to do and "By Jenova I'm gonna do it!"
Elena hadn't realized she was giving her pep talk out loud until the last bit echoed around the small library. The word 'Jenova' sank into the old stone walls like groundwater, holding it patiently and waiting to see if it would germinate into something.
Like MOLD, Elena thought, to center herself more firmly in reality. "Well," she said, wanting the company of her own voice. "It's a shame about all these lovely books. Perhaps I could salvage some of them?" She went to the first set of shelves and pulled out a few musty old tomes to sort through, cradling them under one arm as she pondered a place to sit down and look at them. And here she found a problem. The rear carrel was no good, though by rights she should have loved it, tucked intimately in the back with a broad desk and a high backed dusty chair. It was just the place to sit and study. Trouble was, from there she couldn't see the door so if someone came to get her or was looking for here they might miss her and the door could swing shut by itself and lock and bolt her in here or anything could slither out of that crypt and ooze silently over the stones or maybe it would just be sounds of...
"It's too dusty back there anyway!" Elena was glad no one could hear how desperate that sounded. But sitting with her back to those experiment tubes was even LESS savory and sitting on the table was out of the question, who knows what had been done on it and she couldn't sit with her back to the door because that was worse than the carrel and-
"I'll just stand!" Her voice broke, and she braced herself against the bookshelf (it was moldy but the most comforting thing to have her back to) and began leafing through the books.
Most of them were not even worth keeping, although she realized that books might become a rare commodity in future days. It hurt to have to put so many aside. But the good ones, the big thick medical books with color plates and metal straps binding the pages, were in pretty good shape. Liver spotted here and there, yes, but legible and clean and above all, useful. She had sorted three shelves and was so absorbed in her task that at first she didn't notice the Sound.
Papers rustling. That's what it was. Not a calm shifting of pages but a frantic searching through leaves as if in search of something. It came from the small adjacent study as much as it came from anywhere, and Elena very carefully closed the Encyclopedia of Summoned Monsters that she held in her hands. Papers. Nothing more ominous than that. Probably rats.
The Sound did not pause, and now there were mutterings, agitated and unintelligible. Mice? Elena thought, rather desperately. Mice did not grumble like madmen. She reached into her breast pocket for the familiar feel of her pistol, and edged along the line of shelves. With every moment the sound grew louder, more urgent.
With a courage she did not feel she swung around to face the hallway, determined to tell off whatever was in there messing up her nicely stacked piles of unsorted books.
The Sound ceased as if it never was. The dust in the small study carrel was undisturbed, the small lamp a warm amber glow. Nothing moved, or indeed, seemed to ever have been moved. The only fingerprints were her own.
Elena swallowed hard. Could something be nesting in the walls, maybe? She knew the odds were much higher in favor of a more sinister explanation, and though Tseng was proud of her for choosing this job and it needed to be done she was wishing very much she'd kept her mouth shut. She could be helping Reno with something mundane like wallpaper.
Elena glanced back over her shoulder, towards the door leading out. Reno. She hadn't thought of the others, playing a trick on her. Hands on hips she scowled at the doorway, imagining the red-haired Turk hunched behind it and sniggering at her.
"This isn't FUNNY, Reno!" She shivered, damn but it was cold down here.
Behind her back, in the carrel, the rustling began again.
"Reno?" No sound came from her lips, no matter how much she might wish it had.
I will turn around and it will be some groundhogs foraging for nests. I will turn around and Reno will be laughing his ass off at me. I will turn around and it will be anything but a gho-
Right in her ear, as if the speaker were standing at her shoulder, close enough to touch-
I will run RIGHT the HELL up these STEPS and get out now now now now now now now--!!
"Elena?" Reeve blinked, his armful of blueprints falling to the flooring and a hyperventilating and dusty Turk clinging to his lapels. "Are you alright?"
"Fine!" Elena squeaked, and then wrestled her voice back down where it belonged. "Fine. I'm fine. Yes. Was there something you wanted, Mr. Reeve?"
"Eerumm, No, but you-"
"Good." Elena tossed her hair. "Well. I'm going to go see how everyone else is doing. Go on about your work." Elena waved a hand at him as she strode down the corridor, her step only the slightest bit wobbly.
"Elena?" Reeve frowned after her, bending to pick up his dropped papers.
"This job SUCKS, man. The place is fulla- oh." Reno stopped mid-sentence, hand on his hip. "Sorry. Thought you were Rude. You seen 'im?"
"No." Reeve brushed at the knees of his pants, lest they'd gotten clean from being on the floor. It wouldn't do to have a tidy spot when he'd worked so hard to at least be uniformly dusty. "But Elena just came streaking up out of the basement-do you know what's wrong with her?"
Reno snorted. "Besides deciding to single-handedly clean out that giant crypt? Hells no. Just know I wouldn't do it if you paid me. In fact, I'm paying HER so I don't hafta. So like I was sayin' have you seen Rude? He was supposed to meet me at the bar and--Tseng!" Reno unconsciously stood up straighter. "Ah, yeah, we were gonna go pick up some supplies."
"I thought you were going to get the rest of the Shinra employees still in town and have them return this place to a livable base of operations? Need I remind you that Rufus is going to be here in two days?" The imposing Turk folded his arms, somehow still tidy amid all the clutter.
Probably because he's not doing anything, Reeve thought, but kept his mouth shut. Tseng may technically still have been Reeve's subordinate, but Reeve wasn't going to be outright rude to anybody that could break his spine in seventeen uniquely painful ways.
"No, sir. But Tseng, there aren't many folks still here with company loyalty. I mean, maybe twenty, but most of 'em found out Hojo bit the bucket and took off. Everybody is starting over."
"Then they can start over as redecorators, Reno. Get on it. Yesterday."
"Yeah, yeah," Reno muttered, shoving his hands in his pockets and grumbling down the stairs. "Fuck."
"How are your efforts progressing, Mr. Secretary?" Tseng turned to Reeve expectantly, dashing Reeve's hopes that he could sneak away unnoticed.
"Yes, well, the west wing is almost completely finished. If nothing else, there's a nice place to sleep, provided you don't mind the smell of wet paint. And I'm working on the piping, but plumbing was never my strongest suit and-"
"You've done wonders, Reeve. I can't thank you enough." Tseng nodded approval. "It won't be the Midgar Regency Hotel, but it'll do for a start."
Reeve swallowed. He couldn't get the hang of Tseng being nice to him. Saving a guy's life must have its advantages. "When did you say Rufus was coming?"
"Two days." Tseng frowned at the open door to the basement, and shoved it closed. "If that is alright with your friends?"
"I'll call and ask." Reeve shifted the weight in his arms. For all the stupid training seminars he'd had to go to, there was nothing on how to handle being an acknowledged traitor. "They really don't care what we do. As long as we don't interfere with their plans to rebuild-"
"On the contrary, Mr. Secretary," Tseng interrupted, "I wish them the very best of luck. I believe that all Rufus wants is some peace and quiet for a little while. Those last months... took their toll on him."
Tell me about it, Reeve's mind echoed. He wasn't the only one. "Well, I'm sure we can get the Mansion back to at least part of its former glory. Hojo used it enough in the past five years-There's not as much neglect as he made it look like. All it needs is a little superficial work. The building's sound."
"Good to hear." Tseng turned to go. "Sometime in the future we can debate what to do with our resources, but until then, you can put your hand to building something that won't be purposefully destroyed. "
"I'd appreciate that." Reeve grinned. "It's been a long time since I've had a chance to work in peace and-"
The hidden basement door swung silently open, blowing chill air into the room. There was a pause as the worn floorboards creaked with footsteps; an invisible presence passed between the two Shinra employees and out onto the landing. The door to the crypt slammed closed.
"Reeve," Tseng said, as he eyed the door thoughtfully, "You might want to redo this room as something other than a bedroom. I don't think anyone would want to sleep in here."
"Yes, sir," Reeve whispered, unaware that he'd crushed his precious blueprints. "I'll do that."
"This was NOT in my job description." Reno bitched, rubbing his shoulder. "Breaking legs, yes. Extortion, Yes. Kidnapping, yes. Home décor, NO."
"Knock it off, Reno. We gotta have a place to live." Rude's side of the room was nearly finished, repainted in a clean pale blue that seemed to magically come off his roller in perfect opaque stripes. Reno's side was more than a little splodgy, and the paint roller would appear to have been tipsy. "Be lucky you still have a job, and Rufus had the sense to put a hard stash of cash away someplace other than Midgar. You'd look really stupid as a Chocobo farmer."
Reno considered this, and picked up his roller again.
"The dump is HAUNTED, Rude." He protested, starting on the other side of his wall to make it look like he'd done more.
"You're imagining things."
From the abandoned attic there was a loud thump.
"Tseng's up there with some of the guys from AVALANCHE, looking for anything they might need for relief supplies. Quit bein' such a chicken."
"Sounds awfully nice of Tseng... he get hit on the head out in the jungle?"
"Gotta barter for helicopter fuel somehow. Unless next time we gotta go to Wutai you wanna walk?"
"Yeah yeah yeah." Reno sighed, scowling at the paint in his hair. "Who picked this sissy color?"
Reno jumped hard at the voice, clutching his paint roller defensively. He was still thinking about ghosts.
"You have a problem with blue, Reno?"
"Uh, no Tseng, blue's fine." Reno managed a grin. "How's it goin?"
"Heeey... Turkish decorators... nice get-up there, Reno." The pile of blankets nest to Tseng shifted, revealing an ominously familiar spike of blond hair. "I especially like the blue warpaint."
"You just stay outta this, Strife." Reno gestured threateningly with his roller and then scowled, realizing he'd smeared more paint on his coveralls than on the wall. "Just coz you won don't mean we gotta like you."
"Nobody WON, Reno." Rude was starting to get that tired little sigh in his voice. "This rock of a planet decided to let twerps like you live. Be grateful."
Reno grumbled something obscene and applied his roller to the wall with a vengeance.
"I guess some things don't change." Cloud grinned. A loud clamor over his shoulder made him turn and look, along with Tseng and Reno and Rude, who abandoned their painting to watch.
"Be careful with it!" Elena ordered, directing the trio of workmen down the stairs. "It may have useful parts that we need! Watch out for the banister, there!"
A large empty tank, visceral hoses slithering behind it like ominous serpents, made its slow way out the front door of the Shinra mansion. The three men carrying it obviously knew nothing of what it was used for, lugging it out as they had any number of plumbing parts or bathtubs or decrepit furniture. The pile of blankets slipped out of Cloud's arms, forgotten, as he watched his past carted out in front of him, borne on the shoulders of strangers.
"Was he really IN one of those things?" Reno whispered to Rude, his eyes on Cloud's back, frowning at the slump to the broad shoulders.
Rude nodded once, instead of telling Reno to keep quiet, and moved across the plastic drop cloth to pick up the fallen blankets. "You dropped these, sir." He held out the pile to Cloud, who shook himself once and managed a smile.
"Thanks, Rude. Just clumsy I guess."
"We could have it all destroyed, if you like." Tseng offered quietly. "We aren't that desperate for parts. There's plenty such salvage to be had."
"Nah." Cloud stared hard as the tank was moved outside, and Elena, blond hair in a kerchief and out of uniform for the sake of practicality, trudged back upstairs with her crew of workers following dutifully. "Better to just move on, eh? Anyway. I'll have Cid drop off the stuff you guys wanted. Anybody needing rides, while I'm here?"
"No thank you," Tseng said, graciously. "From the remains of three helicopters we've gotten one that works and will serve us."
"Right, I'm outta here, then." Cloud stomped towards the door and paused, looking over the tall foyer of the mansion. "By the way, the place looks great." He grinned. "Must be REAL fun at night, huh?"
"No problems, why?" Reno queried, innocently. The stairs creaked with a staccato of running footsteps, even though Elena and her crew were long gone. Reno waved a hand, trying not to look shaken. "Old houses get such a bad reputation."
"Is that why you've been sleeping at the hotel?"
Reno shot his partner in paint a venomous look.
"Yeah, well." Cloud shrugged. "Sweet dreams." He waved fingers at them and jogged out to meet Cid and Vincent, waiting by the Highwind2 to take him back.
"Well." Tseng raised an eyebrow. "You've done very well in here... Rude." He inspected the haphazard paint on Reno's side of the room. "But see if you can get our reluctant redecorator to realize paint goes on the WALLS, would you?" He strode out, following Elena up the stairs, and Reno clenched his paint roller so hard the handle squeaked protest.
"I hate my job, I hate my job..."
"Chocobo farming is still an option, Reno." Rude grinned. Reno made it so fucking easy...
Reno, who had had more than enough that day, calmly upended the bucket of pastel paint over Rude's head, and left the Shinra mansion in search of a shower and a cold beer. Rude could paint the damn room with his head, for all he cared. Maybe one of the Spooks would help him out.
It didn't help. She'd had the scientific equipment hauled out, the tanks and hoses and jars of things that did not invite inspection all carted off and torn up for spare parts, or incinerated. The crypt had been cleaned, bones removed for burial elsewhere far from town, and the whole room sealed up. The only thing that remained in there was Vincent's empty coffin. The library-lab, really-was neat as a pin, the leaks fixed, the ceiling caulked, and the floor smoothed with a new layer of cement to cover up those... stains. The books and papers had all been labeled and wrapped and stored in cool metal filing cabinets in the back room, the operating table replaced by probably the only functioning photocopier on the planet, and the walls painted in sedate pale grey. It could have been one of the better offices in Midgar headquarters, or a storage library on the upper floor of the Shinra building.
Except that it wasn't. It was cold and creepy and worse than before, for all its normalcy. Elena hated it. She wished she'd never moved a single paper, that the whole thing could rot and decay and to hell with it, as long as she never came down and nothing never came UP there would be no problems. Truce.
But she'd meddled, hadn't she, and now she had a nice office room that she'd probably have to go down into three or four times a day to find records or make copies or crank the materia-powered generator.
"Well, it's my own fault, isn't it?" she asked the room. She talked to herself a lot down here; it was really the only way to stand it. She'd tried bringing down music, but NOT knowing if something was making noise was worse than actually hearing it, so she'd let the silence press against her ears. Thank the planet for those few Shinra employees remaining in Nibelheim. If she'd had to work down here alone another hour she would have gone as batty as well, as anyone that stayed down here for a long period of time. "You have to admit the place looks better!" she tried, hoping that nobody would admit anything. It was getting late, and even this far underground she could sense the night seeping through the earth above her.
She really should go to bed. It was late, and the more she waited the worse the climb up those stairs-replaced and polished though they were-was going to be. Rufus had arrived late yesterday evening, still tired. She hadn't seen him since before the world ended, and his eyes hadn't fully recovered from the blinding flash of Weapon fire, even now, so he'd retired early. He would be staying with Tseng, which meant she was rooming with Reeve, which all in all wasn't objectionable. Reeve was a nice guy and she wasn't going to have to break his fingers for anything, and by the planet, nobody thought less of anybody else for not wanting to sleep alone in this place.
Because it was haunted. There, she really admitted that much. Not just spooky, not prone to imaginary stuff, not 'echoes from the past, like radio waves' (she used that one a lot, down here) just haunted. Flat out OCCUPIED.
Maybe they would go away, Elena thought, hopefully. They, it, him, whatever. She used to read ghost stories all the time as a child, a pastime she now wished she'd forsaken for other, more wholesome pursuits. She snorted. Like dissecting the neighborhood pets, maybe. But the fact remained that in a lot of the stories, if the haunted room was remodeled enough, the ghosts would go away.
Well, not before she did. She didn't know what possessed her to stay so long anyway, except maybe the long walk upstairs. It was turning away from the room that was the worst, turning her back on the darkness as she switched off the light. She squared her shoulders and tried to pretend like she wasn't keeping her back to the wall and edging out.
"You probably look really silly," she muttered, and with a burst of willpower that wanted very much to turn into a sprint, she spun on her heel and reached for the light switch.
Odd, she thought, distractedly, how cold it is down here all of a sudden. I should, she rationalized, be able to see the light from the stairwell. It would probably be best if I brought a flashlight with me in the future. She worked these things out in her mind very calmly, despite the fact that the switch had clicked off while her fingers were still an inch away from it. She knew that she should turn around, that she should face the room behind her, but her heart was knocking so hard against her ribcage that she thought it might lunge out of her chest at any sudden movement.
In the darkness behind her something moaned, very softly. It sounded so wounded that her first instinct was to see if someone was hurt, but the cold breathing down her back kept her immobile. There was nothing human about that noise, not even as it rose in pitch, breaking, and soared into a scream. Elena went to her knees in the doorway, pressing her hands over her ears as if such a gesture could stop the horrible sound that tore right through her, choked now as if struggling to breathe, and the darkness heaved around her, giving birth. The scream began to fade, and the cold air was wet with a smell too familiar to her, thin and coppery.
The screams were gone, but the muttering was worse, and the indistinct words of a voice in growling anger, in displeasure, were laid thickly over the small breathy sound of a child weeping. The sobbing grew louder and seemed to age, crescendoing over the muttering until it became the grief-stricken howl of an adult.
Elena's hand was cold against her blouse, inside her jacket, groping for her pistol.
He wasn't grieving anymore, the last bitter cry stuttered and became a laugh, a low amused chortle and then a wild skirling arc of madness, beating against the stone roof as if to break it, as if to break the sky itself. Books tumbled from the shelving that was no longer there, thudding as they hit the ground. The air smelled of fire.
Numb hands knew the feel of the gun, could pull it back and release the safety. She trembled, groping for the wall to haul herself to her feet.
It was quiet again, but the papers she knew to be locked up were rustling, the agitated voice calling again for an assistant that wasn't there, that had died seconds and years ago with his bloodied hands in her womb. Violated. Somewhere in the room far away, so fragile and helpless she could weep, was the tiny, fragile sound of a fingernail scraping glass.
Elena turned around, staring at the roiling black that filled the room. Her arm shook as she held out her pistol, aiming it at the loudest part of the nothing.
~This has to stop this has to stop this has to END, dammit.~
"Professor Hojo." She'd said his name enough in the past, but it still surprised her how level it sounded, talking to a man three months dead. The muttering took no notice of her, the papers continued to move, invisible. "I have a report from President Shinra, Mr. Hojo." Elena lifted her head, her eyes narrowing. "Funding for your projects is no longer available. I'm afraid you've been terminated."
Something flashed in the dark, two small circles of light.
More could have been there, pouring itself out of the room, out of time. A hand, the white lapel of a coat...
Elena found her target, her pistol ceased to waver. "Get the hell off of company property." She fired into the noise, into the moving, pregnant black emptiness, pumping the trigger until her gun clicked impotently.
The silence was absolute, and for a moment Elena was too afraid to move, wondering if this was It, if they would ever find what was left of her. But nothing happened, and then nothing happened some more, and the darkness no longer tried to pry out her eyes.
When the light clicked on, she screamed. Loud and shrill and like any startled girl and Tseng probably would have been dead if Elena had had any bullets left, or if she'd opened her eyes to aim.
"Are you alright?"
"Ts-Tseng! I-I-I..." Elena gulped, wondering how she was going to manage to explain this.
"That was bravely done, Elena." Tseng smiled softly, and now Elena noticed that he seemed a bit pale, that his breath was coming a little too quickly, his suit rumpled in his hurry to get downstairs. "I'm not sure I would have been able to do the same."
"Geez. What did the copier ever do to you?" Reeve eyed the thoroughly bullet-riddled photocopier, trying to keep his voice from shaking. He clutched a heavy black flashlight like a weapon, and his ponytail was mostly undone, making his hair fall in his eyes.
Elena felt herself wobbling. Tseng was wonderful and imposing and her boss but Reeve was in an floppy grey bathrobe over his pajamas and so normal and ordinary that she was going to cry oh god she hated crying it made her feel like a WIMP but heck at least she was being hugged and okay maybe there WAS something to having two big strong protective men with her... or at least one big strong Turk and one Former head of Urban Development...
"Shall I take her?" Tseng offered, holding out his hands.
"No," Reeve grunted, lifting an unconscious but still-sniffling Elena. "I got her."
"She did quite a marvelous thing, just now." Tseng turned out the light in the lab as they left, but the dark behaved this time.
"Did she? I must have missed most of it while I was huddled in the hallway praying for deliverance." Reeve shifted the petite Turk. "Can you get her gun? She's gonna drop it."
Tseng reached down and gently freed Elena's pistol from her grasp, following Reeve up the newly-rebuilt staircase. "Can you see her to bed? I'm afraid I left Rufus in a bit of a rush."
Reeve blinked at Elena, and felt his cheeks sting just a little. "Ah, yeah. Yeah, I can do that. Hey, what about Reno and Rude?"
Tseng shrugged, hand on the door to the bedroom he shared with Rufus. "Reno's probably clinging to Rude and whimpering, if I know him at all. Superstitious, that one. Believes in ghosts and all that rubbish."
"But..." Reeve glanced back the way they had come. "What about..."
"What about what?" Tseng raised an eyebrow. "Mr. Reeve, don't tell me you think the house is haunted?"
"What, don't you?" Reeve exclaimed, "After all-" he was interrupted by a dim sound from the other wing, where they had left the door to the basement open. That slam was unmistakable.
Tseng cleared his throat. "My mother had a saying, Reeve. It was a popular one in Wutai."
Reeve blew up at the strands of loose hair ticking his nose. "What was that?"
Tseng looked a bit apologetic, and said, "'You don't trouble trouble and trouble don't trouble you.' If you get my meaning, Mr. Secretary."
Reeve began to think he did. "Right. Well, I'll just see you in the morning, then?"
"Right. Goodnight." Tseng shut the door behind him, and Reeve backed into his bedroom, carefully lowering Elena on one half of the bed. He took off her shoes but didn't bother doing more, and crawled into bed, still clutching his flashlight.
Spooks or no, he was firmly convinced that the most dangerous thing in the house was out cold next to him, and he sure as hell wasn't going to bed unarmed.