Chapter 2 – 24 hours later

Another chapter, since I felt the need to torture Hojo a little more.

And also because CNome gave me the idea. Hey, they're both good excuses.

***

It was a fine, peaceful morning in the mountain town of Nibelheim. The sun had just begun to peek over the surrounding mountain ranges, spilling soft light into the town even though dawn had broken hours ago. Nibelheim Mansion, however, was still cloaked in shadow like a chilling spectre in the distance. Rufus Shinra took one glance at the foreboding building, groaned, and folded his arms around himself. His white leather trench coat, while stylish, did nothing to alleviate the chill of the nippy mountain air. Overhead, the helicopter he and Tseng had arrived in circled like a buzzard as the other TURKs went to find a more suitable place to land.

Rufus was so preoccupied by the distraction that he failed to notice the pinstripe-suited woman limping towards him until he collided with her, sending her sprawling onto the paved street on her backside. Tseng immediately bent over to haul her back to her feet, as was his gentlemanly habit, while Rufus huffed impatiently.

"Got to get away, get away from Nibelheim, gotta get back to Junon…" she was muttering, as she dusted herself off and limped away without so much as a nod to indicate she had even noticed the two men. It was only after she had passed them by that they saw she was not wearing any shoes – rather, she was carrying a pair of stilettos in one hand, and her stockings were snagged and torn as she padded gingerly down the street. Tseng blinked at her retreating back in bewilderment as Rufus snorted derisively.

"When you next see Elena, you will inform her that from now on, I expressively forbid her to wear such ridiculous shoes." He remarked. Tseng nodded solemnly.

"Yes sir."

***

The mansion was just as foreboding as Rufus remembered it, although the memory of his last visit was hazy at best. He wrinkled his nose as his gaze ran over the cobwebs that adorned the grimy windows, and the rampant ivy grappling with the crumbling brickwork. The bell at the front doors was rusty, and the frayed rope dangling from it looked as though it was in danger of disintegrating at any given moment. Nonetheless, he grasped it tightly and rang the bell in what he hoped was a demanding, authoritative manner. There came no reply to the resounding clang that followed, save for a flock of small birds that flapped away, chirping in alarm. A loose tile dropped from the rooftop and shattered on the ground nearby.

"Where is that idiot Hojo?" he groused, seizing the door handle and twisting it abruptly. The door was locked. "Oh, fantastic." He muttered, before clearing his throat and turning to Tseng. "We'll have to break in." he announced. "More specifically, you will break in, and unlock the door from the inside." Tseng's shoulders slumped faintly in dismay

"Er, if I may make a suggestion, sir?" he began delicately. Rufus turned to him sternly. "If I could just get hold of him, Reno might be able to pick the lock without uhm… damaging anything." The president seemed to consider this for a moment. "After all, you wouldn't want to lower the property value." He added hastily.

"Very well, call Reno and have him come and take a look." Tseng sighed quietly in relief as he flipped open his cell phone. Reno answered on the third ring, as was his habit, and the Wutaian man wasted no time in explaining their predicament. Barely a moment later, a familiar drawl crackled through the receiver.

"Ah, you want my expertise, am I right?" Reno sounded rather too pleased that his superiors needed his assistance, Tseng thought with a frown. "Alright, gimme five minutes – I gotta land the chopper. Over and out!" Tseng opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by a rather loud 'beep', signalling the end of the conversation.

Just as he had asserted, Reno came strolling down the wide, empty street only a few minutes after the distant noise of the helicopter engines had faded from the air. This did not stop the president from glancing at his watch and tapping his foot impatiently as he approached, however.

"Can you get us inside?" he repeated, as Reno gazed thoughtfully at the door.

"Yep, I see what your problem is, yo." He announced, after much squinting and pondering. "It's locked." There was a brief moment of silence as the two other men looked at each other.

"Reno, when we return to headquarters, would you kindly explain to me why I pay you?" Rufus snapped eventually. Reno swallowed nervously. "Get us inside. NOW." Tseng raised an eyebrow as the redhead shot him an aggrieved stare, before hopping down from the crumbling steps and disappearing around the side of the building. A moment later, a muffled 'crash', a string of curses, and the sound of glass shattering and splintering wood broke the awkward silence that had descended on the two remaining men. Before either of them could react, the doors were flung open to reveal Reno standing there panting, his cheeks flushed and with grey dust marks all over his already sloppy uniform.

Rufus nodded approvingly as he stepped over the threshold. "Hm… not very original, but certainly effective. Good job, Reno." Reno gave a half-hearted salute and a 'thanks, boss' and retreated back into the mansion to recover. Rufus turned back to Tseng with a sardonic smile. "Would you clear up that broken glass later, if you don't mind?" Tseng nodded stiffly, but only just managed to wait until the President had turned his back before his shoulders slumped once more in defeat.

***

The mansion appeared to be just how it had been left by the oddly absent scientist. The only sign that the building had been occupied recently was a complex web of footprints that had been left in the thick dust that coated the floor. Reno wasted no time in taking off in the direction the of the prints, but upon the third time he found himself back where he started in the entrance hall, decided to follow his superiors down into the basement instead.

"I expect he's just shut himself away in his laboratory, engrossed in some inane and undoubtedly questionable experiment." Rufus grumbled as they began to descend the crumbling spiral staircase. Tseng placed his hand on the wall to steady himself, then abruptly withdrew it, an expression of pure disgust on his face. After a quick glance to ensure the President was looking in the opposite direction, he proceeded to wipe his fingers on the back of Reno's uniform jacket.

"Hey, yeah! Maybe he's kidnapped the agent-lady, or something." Reno agreed, oblivious to the basement-slime now smeared across his back.

However, this proved to be untrue when they reached the bottom – the laboratory was still and empty, aside from a few quietly fizzing test tubes and phials of viscous, insalubrious-looking liquids. Actually, there was no sign of the bespectacled man everywhere.

"It looks like he already left." Tseng remarked, eyeing a particularly gruesome sketch of what looked like a human eyeball with legs that had drifted from the untidy desk onto the stone floor. Rufus nodded reluctantly.

"It certainly seems so. Well, we don't have time to be standing around waiting for him. Let's go." With that, the President and his bodyguards returned to the dimly lit stone corridor they had come through on their way in, each glad to be out of the laboratory, with its eerie green light, mildewy bookcases and the dusty dampness that made everything they touched feel as though it had been recently unearthed from some kind of tomb. Even so, none of them particularly felt like voicing their relief to the others.

"Hey, I didn't see that when we came in, yo." Reno suddenly piped up from behind. When the others turned curiously, they found the redhead peering at what looked like an oversized metal door. "Hey, I bet Hojo's got a secret lab in here, or a strip joint, or something." He wondered aloud, having apparently forgotten that his employer was still staring at him.

"If you can break that open, I'll give you a pay rise." Rufus commented dryly, as he and Tseng shared a knowing smirk. They sobered up barely a moment later as Reno stuck what looked like an oversized, rusty key into the lock and gave it a rough twist. The door swung open with a grating squeak that set their teeth on edge. With a visible shudder, Rufus narrowed his eyes at the now cheerfully grinning TURK. "Where did you get that key?"

"It was right there on the ground." He shrugged. The President groaned and swept past him into the dark room, his white coat snapping the air behind him like a whip as he turned the corner.

"It's just an empty room, sir." Tseng remarked, unnecessarily. "An empty room full of…" he trailed off as he beheld the various coffins and sarcophagi scattered about the room like carelessly placed bowling pins. Behind him, Reno wrinkled his nose – he chose to remain on the other side of the door, Tseng noted.

"Ugh, I knew Hojo was disturbed, but I never would have guessed he'd be into that stuff, yo."

"I've had enough of this nonsense." Rufus turned on his heel and retreated to the corridor. "Let's get out of here." Reno shrugged and followed his boss, eagerly rubbing his hands in anticipation of his promised pay rise. He jumped as Tseng suddenly caught his arm.

"Wait, did you hear something?" the Wutaian man hissed in his ear. The sound of Rufus' footsteps began to fade as he continued down the corridor, unaware that his bodyguards had fallen behind. Soon, only his white coat was just barely visible.

"Like what?" Reno whispered back, not entirely sure why they were talking with hushed voices but willing to play along. Tseng gripped his arm a little harder.

"Sounded like someone calling for help…" They blinked at each other for a moment in the dim light, then turned as one back to the doorway of the room they'd just discovered. "You don't think Hojo might have… locked himself in one of those coffins, do you?" he finished this last sentence in a voice so soft, Reno had to lean in closer in order to understand. In the near silence something creaked, and the hair on the back of his neck prickled. For a split second, he could have sworn he heard a familiar, slightly-hysterical sounding voice that conjured up distinct images of greasy hair, lab coats and cheaply made, wire-framed spectacles.

"Hey, I hear it too…" Reno's brow furrowed slightly. Tseng shifted uncomfortably.

"We should take another look." He stated, but for once in his life his authoritative tone wavered. Reno stuck his tongue out slightly at the unpleasant prospect of having to sift through grimy, dusty old coffins. Tseng twiddled his thumbs as he glanced around, trying to look anywhere but the door. Then an odd smile ghosted its way onto their faces.

"Nahhh." They said in unison, as they turned back in the direction of the basement stairs.

***

It was only after they had returned to the helicopter Tseng realised the timeless phrase 'kick me' had somehow formed in basement-slime on the back of his otherwise immaculate suit jacket. To the bewilderment of Rude and Elena, he simply scowled at the manically cackling redhead (who had the telltale evidence under his fingernails, to Elena's disgust) and told him to grow the hell up.

However, when they asked him about it, Reno only tapped his nose and winked, leaving them to wonder …what exactly had happened in the basement of Nibelheim Mansion?

***

Poor Tseng…

Isn't 'insalubrious' the most awesome word ever?!