(Or 'Why Nobody Lives in Nibelheim Mansion Even Though it's Been Empty for Years')
Yes, the title is a pun, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
This totally started out as a horror or something. My inability to take anything seriously is a real pain in the ass.
Disclaimer – I own nothing. Especially Hojo. Rachel the Estate Agent is mine, though.
Warnings – Implied violence and estate agents. (Don't trust a word they say!)
Professor Hojo huffed impatiently as he pushed his spectacles further up his nose, the lenses glinting eerily in the murky light filtering through the grimy windows of Nibelheim mansion. A scuffed ring of footprints had formed in the thick dust carpeting the bare wooden floorboards as the scientist paced back and forth. Somewhere else in the vast mansion something creaked ominously, but Hojo barely noticed, far too engrossed in his muttering to concern himself with things of such inconsequence.
"Where is that foolish woman? I'm far too busy for thi –" as if it had been waiting for the moment when the bespectacled man had almost reached the end of his tether, the bell at the front door clanged, breaking the unnaturally still atmosphere of the gloomy building. Hojo reached the doors before the last echoes had even begun to fade, his lab coat and greasy pony-tail flapping behind him as he flung them open to reveal a pleasantly smiling young woman wearing a tailored pinstripe jacket and what smelled suspiciously like cheap cologne mixed with air freshener. In her arms she clutched a blue clipboard, to which various bunches of official-looking papers were attached.
"Why hello there! I'm Rachel Collins." she chirped, revealing a set of professionally whitened teeth as she beamed widely. "I, uh… talked to president Shinra on the phone yesterday. You're here on his behalf, yes? I'm here to evaluate the property." Her smile became somewhat fixed as Hojo glared at her over the rims of his glasses, ignoring her proffered hand.
"You're late." He snapped, before turning on his heel and retreating back into the gloom. The real estate agent grimaced apologetically and followed him into the entrance hall, stepping neatly out of the way as the doors swung closed behind her of their own accord, the lock clicking neatly into place.
"Yes, my colleagues and I had a little trouble with wolves on the way here." She remarked brightly. Hojo glanced back over his shoulder at her, but as it turned out, her 'colleagues' were nowhere to be seen. "Do your doors always move on their own like that?"
"It that important?" Hojo was beginning to dislike this woman and endlessly perky demeanour. Although she did have rather nice legs, he noted. Perfect for testing the direct effects of concentrated Mako on a 'regular' person's lean muscle tissue – oh yes, a very fine specimen indeed.
"Oh, not particularly. It's just possible that this mansion may be haunted." She carried on in that faux-businesslike tone women liked to use to pretend they were in charge. "With such an old building, this just might work to your advantage. There's quite a demand for genuine haunted mansions these days, you know."
"Indeed." The scientist poured as much sarcasm he could muster into that single word, but if the agent had heard it, she had apparently resolved to ignore it.
"I'll just have to fill out this checklist to make sure – ooh!" Rachel's continuous monologue was cut off abruptly as one of her pointed heels went straight through the floorboards with a resounding splintery 'crack'. "Hm… squeaky and/or rotten floorboards. Check!" She ticked off the first item on her list, and twisted her foot free with the nonchalance of someone who was quite accustomed to such events. "Gloomy, depressing atmosphere… check! Morbidly peculiar previous owner or tenant..." she muttered under her breath and gave a rather patronizing, lipstick-y smile as she ticked off this last one. "Check."
"Now see here–!" the brunette woman continued working her way down the list, unperturbed by the much older man's outburst.
"Portraits on the walls with eyes that seem to stare at you wherever you stand... no… empty suits of armour that seem to move around but stay still when you look at them…. None of them either… um, sir, do you have any secret passageways, particularly the kind that are accessed only by moving the correct book on a shelf full of similar-looking books?"
"No." Hojo briefly wondered to himself whether President Shinra would give him the funding to build such a device in his next laboratory.
"Chandeliers that light up by themselves?" the woman continued, quite unaware of the other man's current train of thought.
"No! Are you done yet?" Hojo pinched the bridge of his nose impatiently. He'd heard many horrible, bloodcurdling tales about real estate agents – particularly of the female variety – from his fellow students at his (brief) stint at medical school before he had been expelled for 'unethical behaviour', but this woman, no, this… smiling creature, was surely the single most irritating person he had ever come to do business with in his life. Besides Heidegger, of course. He turned back towards her with the intention of barking at her to hurry up, but found himself sternly 'shushed', much to his distaste, as the woman cocked her head to the side, as if listening for something only she could hear.
"Hmmm… eerie ambient music, despite no apparent CD or record player, musical instruments, radio, or…" she eyed the darkened rooms of the mansion. "…electricity." Hojo narrowed his eyes at her suspiciously.
"I don't hear anything."
"Oh, but that's because you've become accustomed to it. Most people no longer notice the noises their home makes after they've lived in it for a while." He spluttered indignantly and drew himself up to his full height – which was not very formidable, especially to the high-heeled agent before him. The younger woman just sniffed, having abandoned her professional demeanour after deciding her customer was obviously a creep. Besides, the thick dust that pervaded the air was aggravating her hay fever.
The only noise for the next half-hour was the clack-clack-clacking of stiletto heels on wood as she inspected the second floor, and the sound of Hojo grinding his teeth as he followed her closely, occasionally catching a glimpse over her shoulder at her checklist, which appeared to have more blue ticks on it than checklist by this time.
"Right then." She announced finally, tapping her pen against her clipboard before tucking it securely behind her ear. "Would you please show me to your basement?"
A shiver suddenly ran down the ageing scientist's temple as a cold chill gripped him.
'What on the planet does she need to go snooping around down there for?!' his inner voice screeched, as he struggled to maintain the condescending sneer he had adopted since the estate agent's arrival.
"The basement." He said instead, his voice completely flat. Meanwhile, his mind was thrown into turmoil, as a hundred and one possible outcomes that could result from granting the blasted woman her request winging their way into his head, each one scrabbling for attention over the others. He grimaced uncomfortably. The nastier ones had claws.
"Yes, the basement, cellar, dungeon, vault, crypt. Mausoleum, if you really want to go to town. Whichever you prefer." The infernal woman was saying boredly, tapping her foot impatiently against the floorboards, the sound suddenly seeming rather loud in the stillness of the empty building. "What's the matter? There some skeletons in your coffin or something?" Rachel actually snorted with laughter at her own joke, completely unaware of the effect of her words on her host.
Hojo, on the other hand, felt a distinct twinge in his pulse, and he nearly cut off the circulation to his fingers from clutching his hands behind his back so tightly. A single bead of sweat trickled over his temple.
"The phrase, I believe," he forced out between gritted teeth as he led her in the direction of the long spiral stone staircase leading to the basement, "is 'skeletons in your closet'."
A puff of clammy, stale air wafted over Hojo and his unwanted companion when he heaved the basement door open. Even so, his brow prickled uncomfortably with perspiration… and yet…
It was alright, he decided stubbornly. He was a clever man, after all. He could dismiss, or simply ignore any awkward questions about the room so stuffed with books that it rivalled a small library. Or the rows upon rows of dormant experiments in their various jars, test tubes and distillers, some even still fizzing and bubbling idly. Or the endless echoes of hundreds of tortured souls that filled the hallways and may or may not be only a figment of his imagination. And of course he would have to keep her away from… that place.
Or he could… dispose of her once this was over. Nya ha ha, oh yes, she would be a fine specimen indeed.
"Ladies first." He leered as he propped the door open with his elbow in a brazen display of faux-courtesy. Unsurprisingly, Rachel held back, clutching her clipboard to her chest as though she were afraid something might leap out from the inky-black shadows beyond the door to snatch it from her.
"Oh, it's quite alright, sir. I'll be right behind you." That sickening, simpering smile was back, Hojo noted with aversion.
"No, no. I insist." He bared his teeth in what looked more like an involuntary muscle spasm than a smile, but there was no mistaking the venom in his voice. Rachel hesitated once more before eventually appearing to shake herself and stepped through the door, carefully watching her feet to ensure she did not trip on the narrow, steep staircase.
The stairs themselves were rough and even slippery in some places, and after a single glance to try and determine why this was so, Rachel quickly decided she was better off not knowing.
"You really kept this place in good nick, didn't you." she quipped, with her back pressed against the wall. There came no reply from the older man, only a cold silence, but she couldn't quite bring herself to turn her head and see if he was still there. The air became steadily chillier and damper as they slowly neared the bottom – Hojo gritted his teeth as the younger woman in front of him paused every few steps in her descent in order to catch her balance. He managed to restrain himself from barking at her to hurry up, however, and settled for glaring at the back of her head until they finally reached the bottom.
The corridor itself looked like it had been chiselled straight out of rock, and Rachel had to watch her feet closely so as not to trip over the many loose stones that littered the ground while Hojo strode on ahead, apparently accustomed to the gloom. Something suddenly rustled in the darkness, and she clutched her arms closer and hurried after the temperamental scientist. Somewhere in the distance was a greenish yellow glow that cast very faint, but eerie shadows on the walls. For a split second, a patch of darkness shifted and broadened – Rachel yelped and nearly fell over as she stumbled backwards. Her foot caught on a stone, and it went skittering over the cold ground before bouncing off Hojo's foot, then against the wall with an odd, metallic 'clang', and finally coming to rest once more, several feet away from where it started. When the frightened woman glanced around, the shadows were still and lifeless once more – just how they should be, she thought shakily.
"Distinct feeling of being watched…" she muttered, reaching for her pen once more. "…check."
"What on the planet do you think you're doing?!" Hojo hissed, having stomped his way over to her, eyes obscured by the lenses of his spectacles. "When you're quite finished blundering around like a snivelling child," he continued, tilting his head backwards in order to stare down his nose at her. "You can kindly get on with it and finish your job. I'm a very busy man." Rachel huffed indignantly, but dusted off her suit jacket and went over to where she had heard the odd noise. Sure enough, there was an inconspicuous metal door that she would never have noticed otherwise, since it was mostly obscured in the murky shadows. She twisted the handle, but soon let it go again as it grated uncooperatively. It was locked.
"Is this a room?" she enquired, rapping on the door for good measure.
"Stop that, you little fool!" Hojo shot forwards and slapped her hand away from the door, and there was an uncomfortable pause as they stared at each other for a moment. "There's nothing important in there." He finally forced out through gritted teeth.
"Sir." Her voice was hard and stern now, with the tone someone might use to berate a sulky child as she pressed her free hand to her hip and, to his astonishment, turned on him, her expression ferocious. "In order to properly evaluate this property, I need to check every room. Now, we can do this the easy way – you unlock the door and let me do my job – or the hard way – I leave now and come back in a few days with a note from your superiors giving me permission to continue." Her voice rose as she spoke, and Hojo fought the urge to clamp a hand over her mouth as his inner voice spluttered indignantly.
'If she wakes him up, you could always just shove her in there and lock the door behind her.' It suddenly smirked, chuckling in a way even Hojo found quite sinister.
"Fine! But don't you dare make a sound."
Quite startled by the sudden shift in authority (since when did he, Professor Hojo, take orders from glorified secretaries?), but alarmed by the prospect of having to spend another day with the insolent creature, he groaned under his breath and fumbled in the pockets of his white coat for the key. He found it, after a few moments of muttering rudely under his breath and sifting through lint, broken pencils, and old, balled-up chewing gum with something furry growing on it. He shut his eyes and wiped the key off on the cuff of his sleeve, making a silent resolution to himself to find a better place to hide it in the future.
As he took a faltering step towards the door, the key seemed to become heavier in his hand, and he had to stop and blink the perspiration from his eyes while the impatient estate agent scribbled something on her clipboard. They key grated harshly as he turned it, and he winced inwardly, his pulse racing, every beat making his head pound. Sweat trickled down his neck, but if the woman had noticed despite the dim light, which he doubted, she said nothing. He continued, more slowly this time, and let out the breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding as the lock finally clicked open, and the door slowly swung inwards.
The coffin was there in the centre of the room, just as he'd expected. Yet when his eyes became adjusted to the practically pitch-blackness of the windowless room, his eyes bulged in horror. The coffin was empty, the lid askew on the ground, and the room was seemingly as lifeless as the rest of the mansion.
"A crypt? Is that what you're so afraid of?" Rachel shrugged and continued scribbling onto her clipboard, although she sounded more than a little revolted. Hojo's eye twitched slightly as he stepped further into the room.
'Where is he?!' he demanded silently, but his inner voice just gave a noncommittal grunt that sounded suspiciously like 'I dunno' and the mental equivalent of a shrug.
"Uh, sir? Is something wro – EEEIK!" Rachel suddenly shrieked as a shadow fell across the doorway, obstructing what little amount of light there was coming through it in the first place and casting the room into darkness. Hojo stumbled backwards, taken by surprise, until his legs hit something hard and sent him sprawling backwards, landing heavily on his back. Winded, he finally pushed himself upright only to realise with revulsion that he had landed right in the coffin he had been staring at only moments before. Meanwhile, Rachel was occupied with a fright of her own.
"Who are you?" the newcomer growled softly as he stepped into the light. One glance at his pale, practically luminescent skin and ember-like eyes was all she needed.
"Don't hurt me!" papers flew in all directions as the terrified agent dropped her clipboard, but she was far too busy backing away to notice, her hands held out in front of her in what she hoped was a gesture of surrender. "I'm just here for an evaluation!" she wailed. For a moment, she could have sworn she saw a look of confusion cross the stranger's face, but a second later it was gone.
"You should leave." He replied flatly, frowning down at her with a sullen expression.
"You're telling me!" she squawked, gathering up the remains of her papers into a crumpled mess and stumbling back down the corridor towards the steps. A moment later, Hojo heard her swear loudly and kick off her shoes. Neither he nor the caped silhouette in the doorway moved until the last echoes of her flight had died away, leaving the basement in silence once more.
Vincent Valentine's eyes glinted dangerously as he turned back to the scientist, cape trailing irregular patterns in the dust by his feet. Hojo grimaced sardonically and groped around with a shaking, sweat-slick hand in the hopes that he might find something to help him back to his feet, but in a split second he found himself pressed back down against the worn velvet of the inside of the coffin, staring apprehensively down the barrels of Vincent's (rather intimidating) gun.
Wordlessly, he held up his hands in a similar gesture of peace Rachel had only moments before, but somehow suspected that it would not have quite the same effect on the vengeful gunman.
"You know, that's what you get when you leave someone in a crypt for years …with their gun." His inner voice snickered, apparently quite unconcerned over the idea that it, along with the head it resided in, was about to be blasted into oblivion.
"Exactly whose side are you on?!" Hojo snapped in reply. "And this is partly your fault! How am I going to get out of THIS mess?" the voice just chuckled sinisterly to itself, the noise seeming to reverberate inside his skull. Hojo barely even felt the cold, metallic barrels of Valentine's gun pressed against his temple, but the voice managed to sober itself up for just long enough to utter;
"Karma's a bitch, isn't it?"
The click of the safety being removed sounded unnervingly loud in the darkness.
And the moral of this story is – if you're going to sell your house, be sure to inform the tenants in the basement.
Didja like it? Why not review? Recommend it to a friend? Pimp it shamelessly; use it, abuse it. I'll get back to writing Valenwind like a good little fangirl now.
PS – To any Hojo fans out there… don't worry, he's still alive. He'll HAVE to escape somehow for his appearance in FF7, after all.