STRIPES: CHAPTER ONE
by K. Trotta



The distant sirens of police cars echoed in one of the more dingy alleyways of the city. An early morning fog was beginning to thicken around the tops of the mismatched street lamps. Awkward intervals of amber and pale green trying to act like it's white illuminated the sides of the buildings across the main road. Two hours ago, some of the older citizens were still sitting on their stoops, watching their kids line up behind the graveyard-shift ice cream truck as it stopped on their corner. The stoop-sitters had since gone to bed, and the murders taking place in the city tonight were on the west side of Junon, so nobody but the nightowls sitting in front of their computers would have taken notice of the black figure stalking the street.

Marching along with a confidence and a jacket that didn't belong to him, the man turned down an alley landmarked by a dull flourescent-white-blue street lamp, which barely illuminated a couple of reflective metal street-signs that read "TOWNHOUSE/STUDIO FOR RENT --->"

The chains on his boots rattled sinisterly through the polluted urban hallway. A bum slid further into his alcove as the lanky, angry silhouette of the man cut off the dusty purple ray of light. The black of the end of the alley was being disturbed by the slow flicker of a dying neon sign. The man continued toward it, streaking his fingers across the dirty glass of a studio window as he went.

Closer inspection of the sign revealed it to be the "LODGING." The pathetic red sign buzzed "ED'S TA ERN ND IN ." The man stood in front of it for a moment, looking at it as if pondering whether to euthanize it or not. After a few moments, he reached a hand out and the missing V flickered back to life. That was good enough for now.

***

Ed's had had another slow night, but that was expected. Ever since ShinRa fell, business had died. Ed sighed. ShinRa. It had been just five years since they had been toppled from their throne and AVALANCHE's idealist regime had replaced them. Idealists. Always thinking they could do nothing but good. They do the worst kind of bad.

With their utter lack of resources, AVALANCHE could not afford to replace ShinRa as a power company and, to survive, had to pick up where ShinRa had left off.

Junon, and many other parts of the world, were still being powered by Mako. The threat of Meteor was gone, and the scar that the gigantic space parasite JENOVA had left was healing, and there was no more weird research going on, but Cloud Strife, as head of AVALANCHE, had outlawed ALL research related to mako, including dismantling and containing it.

It was disgusting the amount of propoganda that was posted up everywhere to let him get away with it. Every time an argument to the contrary came up, Strife and his propoganda police would post another gruesome result of science up on all the television screens, and all the people could do was shake their heads and sigh and go back to duct-taping their air pollution filters to their windows.

The hope that Junon would return to the humble little port town it used to be faded completely once AVALANCHE had recently declared Junon its capital city in July. Small gangs were becoming more and more violent, but Strife had prepared for such an event, and recruited former members of ShinRa's Turks organization into his personal enforcement squad. Now even the revolutionist punks were de-fanged.

Ed sighed.
Something was going have to to give very soon.
Oh, the good old days of ShinRa...

The creak of the door opening stirred Ed from his reverie. The only other customer, a regular, was sound asleep on the counter, with his regular 512 gil tip melting under an empty mug from condensation. He didn't stir, even as the bell rang.

'Good old Farf...' Ed thought, but was caught off-guard by the new customer's appearance. He looked to be in his mid thirties and had short, black hair, cut to a fade in the back, with a set of bangs that were cut long in front of his face, and reminded him of a smaller scale version of the posters of Sephiroth that were always posted up everywhere ten years ago. The man wore a black leather jacket that looked like it was stolen off a drunk teenager. Local band patches were safetypinned to it, and the shoulderpads were reinforced at home and given spikes. It didn't fit him. Underneath the jacket was a white tank top with bloodstains that looked like they didn't quite come out in the wash. The man was wearing a pair of worn out jeans, and black, cuban-heeled boots with chains crossing the heel and the front of the foot. Ed didn't get many punk rock people at his place, but there was something about this man that didn't fit.

His demeanor came off as severely self-conscious. His left hand quickly jerked to his face the moment Ed got a good look at the gigantic four-lined clawmark it sported. His eyes were obscured completely by a very dark pair of sunglasses. When Ed continued to stare, the man seemed to loosen up, and dropped his hand from his face.

"Looks like you've been in a tangle with the head of the Turks," Ed said, turning around quickly and pulling a bottle of liquor with a very long neck and a stout base out from under the counter. The bottom of it was littered with tiny gold filings, and the label on the bottle read 'Nibelheim - XXXX-70.' Ed poured the man a shotglass and offered it to him. "I tip my hat to any man brave or stupid enough to dance with that monster and survive."

The man let out a sigh of relief through his nose and grinned. He stepped forward and took the shot, wincing as the alchohol burned down his throat. "XXXX-70. That was the year I was born," he mused, grinning, knowing in full that Ed didn't believe him. "Best batch of Goldschlager Nibelheim ever made." He sat the shotglass back down on the bar and took a seat, gazing at the bottle rather lustfully. "That was like having a nice dinner with a friend I haven't seen in years. Thank you for the oppurtunity, Edward Thompson."

Ed blinked. "H-how did you know my--"
"Name? I looked you up in the phone book. I'm here to see about buying that studio next door to you," the man said, pulling out a torn page of the Junon Times Want Ad section with a tiny ad at the bottom circled in a vintage mako highlighter.

Ed couldn't help but be entranced by the sound of this man's voice. Ed himself was going on 30, and this man didn't seem much older than he was, but he carried himself like he was something much bigger than he appeared to be. "Er, um, yeah...y-yeah, I remember that ad."

"I'm willing to pay six months rent up front for it."

"You really don't have to pay that much up front, sir."

"Oh, but I want to," the man chided.

Ed was beyond disturbed. "Sounds like you want it pretty badly. All right. Let me find the paperwork for it and I can let you in in ten minutes if you like."

The man smiled genuinely and swiveled himself around in the barstool. "Thank you, young man!"

Ed gave the man a dirty look behind his back and ran off to get the paperwork and keys.

The man sighed and drank in the sights and smells of the cluttered old bar-room. Nothing white. Nothing sterile. Everything looked comfortably, if impoverishedly, lived in. Leaning his head back against the bar, his sunglasses tipped a bit so that he could see the warm, pre-mako styled lighting fixtures. So unfamiliar and new to him, but just as respectable. He loved it. Loved the jerry-rigged piping held up by duct-tape, the newspaper clippings garishly disorganized on a corkboard that hung on an equally garish lime green wall, and the lovely little sign that was doing its best and being more beautiful by just being only half of itself...

He sighed a lover's sigh and awkwardly jumped back up in his seat as Ed returned with the deed to the studio, nearly falling off it. Cautiously, Ed showed him where he thought he was supposed to sign and who to call when anything was wrong with the place. Once all the paperwork was done, Ed folded it up in a yellowed document envelope that was probably older than he was, and handed it and ta set of keys to the man.

"So...you some sort of artist or something?"

"Oh, just about every sort of artist," the man replied, shrugging out of his punk-jacket and revealing not only the part of the claw-scar that travelled below his neck and over his shoulder, but a set of three parallel chevrons at 90 degree angles in heavy black ink travelling in zigzags around both of his arms.

"Wow! Did you do both of those yourself?"

"It was a pain in the ass to get all the angles right. I also have...these," he said, pausing to lift up his wife-beater to show the three black parallel lines that cradled his ribcage and came around on both sides to form another downward chevron on his lower back. "But I needed help with that."

"Jesus. It's still really cool, though!"

"I'm sorry I don't have much else to show you. My...portfolio of work seems to have deteriorated recently."

"Well, with that studio, I'm pretty sure you'll be able to come up with something new and just as impressive." "Thank you very much. I'm going to refer all my customers to this place after they're done," the man said and turned to walk out. "Er...same here! Wait, sir! I didn't get your name."

The man thought for a moment and closed his eyes, remembering just four days ago how he had sat and watched the waves crash on the shore and pull straight overlapping Vs into the sand as the water pulled back, not very much unlike what was emblazoned on his forearms. "I guess you can call me Stripes."


***

Tifa Strife stepped out of the elevator and padded across the plush blue carpet of her husband's office. He was arguing with Cid again.

"I don't care! I said it before and I'll say it again! This company will NOT employ another scientist!"

"God dammit, Strife! Shera's working her ass off trying to find a way to power the new rocket without mako! We need people to help her out!"

Cloud Strife sat back and rubbed his temples. "Cid, I'm sorry, but you're going to -have- to get some outside help on this. The only reason I let this company even have a space exploration program was to get little kids off the street and into the space museum."

Cid snarled and put his hands on the edge of Cloud's desk. "You paranoid little fuck!! We need a science department anyway to find out new ways to generate the power! We're gunna run outta coal pretty soon here, Cloud!"

"Get your hands off my desk, you...you...you foul-mouthed...thing! Or you can kiss your little rockets goodbye and be a ticket salesman for the airline!"

Cid straightened and tugged at his tie. He hated that thing almost as much as he hated wearing that ugly green suit, but he always had to wear it in the presence of his majesty, King Cloud. 'What the hell's going through the little bastard's mind? He always preaches about they could never resemble the fucking ShinRa in any way, but he's kept even the department color schemes the same! MORON!'

Cid had never really been against the God-damned ShinRa in the God-damned first place. It was only when they tampered with his God-damned rocket that got him God-damned pissed off. He didn't think he could God-damned keep this up much God-damned longer.

"Yes, sir," Cid growled through clenched teeth, turning on his heel and exiting.Tifa shrank back into the wall by the elevator. She wished she had the guts to go and tell Cloud how stupid he was acting. But she dared not. Whenever she did, he would always mention -her-. Aeris had been so glowing, kind and warm. Aeris had never said anything to make him angry. Aeris had never been butch or domineering. Those thoughts seemed to keep Tifa in line, even though there was hardly a need. Aeris was dead. Tifa was Cloud's wife. It shouldn't have mattered at all whether or not Tifa was butch or didn't giggle like a schoolgirl all the damn time. Then why did it?

Tifa wondered these things as she looked down at her dress. It was, of all colors, pink. Her blazer was pink. Her shoes were pink. Her lipstick and eyeshadow and rouge were pink. Why was she wearing pink?! She hated pink. Was it for Cloud? Cloud...was Cloud really worth being a cream puff? Tifa steeled herself and emerged from behind the elevator.Cloud had sat himself down at his desk again and started to do what he did just about all day, every day: play with his pencil sharpener. Tifa cleared her throat and Cloud had a slight seizure, nearly falling out of his chair and getting back up rapidly to give the impression that he had been working hard. He scowled down at his legal pad as if he were contemplating some important figures. Which were, in fact several pathetic looking stick figures of himself and Tifa. He looked up and smiled. "Hi, honey! How's work today? I've just been converting these complicated rate figures into--"Tifa picked up the legal pad, looked at it, and put it back down. Such a child.Cloud gave her a neutered look as she put it back down and turned away. "H-hey, Tifa? TIFA?! Where are you going?! Tifa?!"Tifa stepped back into the elevator. She could see Cloud clambering to jump over his desk through the glass. It looked rather sad and pathetic. Cloud had succeeded in toppling his desk on its side. The machinery in the elevator started to whir and Tifa began to sink below the 50th floor level. Cloud got up to the elevator as the top of her head disappeared.

***


Vincent Valentine enjoyed his new job immensely. Probably because it was his old job, but it didn't MATTER. The junior members of the Turks flocked around him as young Bhuddist priests flocked around the Dalhi Llama, brimming with stupid questions they knew the answers to in the first place and free beer. Reno and Rude had dragged him along as their new official drinking buddy. Elena had a monstrous crush on him.

It was as if Tseng had never died. Only, Tseng didn't have a big gold claw where his left arm should have been. He often was never alone, so he never got to brood about Lucrecia anymore. In fact, he had become quite a public figure. They made posters with his picture on it, taped him when he sang at Carafe. It was bliss.Reno and Rude dragged him into Ed's the night after Tifa disappeared. Near midnight, a man with sunglasses came into the bar. He seemed vaguely familiar to Vincent, but he was too wasted to tell who it was. He conversed and joked enormously with Reno and Rude, but when Vincent decided he was brave enough to talk to him, he got up and brushed past him without even a second look. "Who was that guy, guys?" Vincent asked.

Rude picked Reno's head up off the bar by his bangs and the redheaded Turk replied: "Him? Ya mean to tell ush that ya dunt know good ol' Schtripes?"

"Stripes?"

Reno hiccuped."Yeah. He ownsh the tattoo parlor cross the sctreet. Been thar since aut two days ago!"

Rude nodded. "The man does *hic* WICKED designs, man! You should -shee- what he c'n do! Showwem yers, Ed!"

Ed rolled up his sleeve and showed the three Turks the neat, angry little fire-spitting dragon on his shoulder. "It's a beauty, iddnit?"

Vincent brought his nose up to it to see it better. Down near the end of the tail, barely visible, was a little number 15. Vincent knotted his brow. He had once encountered something that had been connected with numbers, but he couldn't seem to remember what it was... "Very noyshe! *hic* Very noyshe indeed! Wonder what kinna art school th' man wentta. Hey...whassat little number for there, Edness?"

Ed paused. He hadn't really noticed. "I hadn't really noticed. It kinna jes' blends in so well that I didn't even see it! Lookit that..."

Numbersh... Vincent thought, where have I sheen numbersh before?


Chapter 2
Index