STRIPES: CHAPTER FIVE
by K. Trotta


The next day, Elena met up with the rest of her fellow Turks in the Turk Lounge. Vincent was sober, for once, so she rushed up to him and hugged him. "Vinnie! Howya feelin' today, hon?"

Vincent gave her a plastic smile. "Same as always!" he said, then shrugged her off, almost into the wall.

Elena blinked as she slumped down into a chair.

Rude's blank expression remained unchanged.

Reno looked at her apologetically for a moment, then turned to his mentor. "So, boss, have you found any leads as to where Tifa might be?"

Vincent shook his head. "We've been mucking around in Ed's for the past week. I think it's time we dug ourselves out of that rut for once. Does anybody have ANY idea where she might be?"

Rude remained silent.
Elena shook her head dumbly.
Reno cowered.

Vincent thought a while. "Just how many Turks do we have spread out over the city?"
Rude held up four fingers.

"And how many Turks ARE there?"

"One hundred," Rude said glumly.

Reno gasped. "He SPEAKS!"

Vincent gave a belittling look to the both of them. "Then why aren't there a hundred Turks on patrol?!"

Reno jumped.

Elena scrambled for the Turk P.A. System and Rude followed her. A look from Vincent and Reno was gone, as well.

So there was Vincent Valentine, alone in a room for the first time in a year. It was a creepy feeling for him. There hadn't been a moment alone for him since he had started posing for magazine pictures. And why shouldn't he be posing? He was the sexiest guy in all the world. And he knew it.

He wondered where his adoring fans were. Probably all asleep at this hour. 7AM on a weekend was too early for a fangirl to be up, he figured.

Vincent stared at the walls of the Turk Lounge, waiting for them to burst with young teenage girls. He smiled seductively at that thought and adjusted his tie for the occassion.

The walls didn't burst, though.
The room got cold.
Very cold.
He felt an ice cold needle touch his back and froze.
An ethereal voice spoke in his ear. ~Viiiiiinceeeeeeeent...~

He turned around with his gun aimed at the air and there was girlish laughter flitting through the air. "W-who's there?!"

The cold wind seemed to penetrate Vincent's body and the faint shape of a girl in a pink dress only just reaching maturity flickered before him. Vincent squinted. "Aeris?"

~Viiiiincennnt...~ she called in her childlike voice.

Another ethereal voice penetrated the air. This one was more mature and tired-sounding. ~My love...~

The unseen one's voice bounced off the walls of the Turk Lounge, and cold swirled in his ears for a few seconds. The second spectre showed herself, her purple scrub contrasting highly with her stark white lab coat.

Vincent blinked. "Lucrecia...?"

Aeris giggled girlishly as Lucrecia raised her arms and embraced her old flame. ~My love...~

Vincent stood back and gulped. Had she seen what he had done last night?

Aeris' giggling raised to a shrill cackle and he broke out in a cold sweat. The misty Lucrecia stepped gracefully forward. ~Do not be afraid, my love. We have come to warn you...~

"Warn me?!" He hadn't expected her to come back. His whole basis of being alive now was that he was over Lucrecia.

Lucrecia threw her ghastly form up against the squirming Valentine. ~He has come back...~

"W-w-who?"

Aeris giggled and sang, ~He who wronged you seeks the right, to come and take his soul one night...~

Vincent was completely confused. "What?!"

Lucrecia threw a dirty look at Aeris. ~Ignore the sprout. She's lost her head.~

~I ain't lost my head! It's what happens when you're dead...in the head, Fred! Heehehehehehaaahaa!~

Vincent was sweating bullets by now.

Lucrecia pushed her translucent face into Vincent's eyes. She caressed his face seductively. ~My only love...who delivered me from a life of stagnation...be careful whom you cross paths with...you must not let him distract you...~

"I have no idea what you're talking about, Lu. I havva job to d--"

Vincent had never been romanced by a ghost before. They could be pretty forceful when they wanted to be. Lucrecia had him on the floor in less than a minute. Aeris floated up to the ceiling and cackled dementedly the entire time, tweeting away.

~I disconnect the dots...
While you make little tots,
You little sots...
There's an apple sauce of Mott's
That likes to sing and spot
On the dot
Of the sot...sot sotty sop sot...you snots!
With mommy's love she has forgot...
Daddy comes back, his soul a-rot
And will not
Rest.~

Lucrecia threw her ghostly shoe at the younger ghost. ~You little strumpet, have you no respect for grace?!~

Aeris cackled dementedly and disappeared into the ceiling. ~They come! They come!~

Vincent looked at Lucrecia like a frightened emu.

~I must leave you now...I can only see you when you are alone.~

"Who are you trying to warn me about?!"

Lucrecia put a finger to her lips and dissolved as she shushed him.

Reno came running into the room. "Hey, boss, we got all the Turks roaming the city now! Boss?"

Vincent was still on the floor.

Elena came into the room, followed by Rude. "...Sir?" she asked.

Vincent sat up, very spooked. He looked at his comrades.

Reno gave a pathetic little "Heh," and rubbed his head.

Rude's eyebrows knotted.

Elena gasped and gave him a disgusted look.

Vincent looked at the three of them. "What's with you guys?"

"Umm...sir...there's some..." Reno pointed at his face.

Elena stormed off in a huff.

Rude's expression didn't change.

Vincent stepped a little closer to Rude and used the reflection in his sunglasses as a mirror.

He had lipstick all over his face.

~Curtains ruffle.
Curtains ruffle in the.
Curtains ruffle in the spring wind.~

***

Number 20 was an old woman. She got a tattoo of Dio on her left mammary gland. It was one of the more...interesting customers Stripes had to deal with. Tifa stayed to watch the whole thing, though. The old woman was hysterical. She and Stripes had a conversation about Les Miserables. Stripes' favorite character was Javert. The old woman was completely infatuated with the actor that played Enjrolas. She couldn't even remember his name, but she liked him just the same. She considered getting a tattoo of him on her other gland, but shortage of money kept her from that.

It definately unnerved Stripes, this old hag talking about tackling Dio and making love to him in the Gondola, but Tifa found it quite amusing. It was better than that fat old man gushing over Scarlet.

Once the old woman was gone, Tifa laughed her head off while Stripes marched into his bathtub fully clothed and yanked the shower curtain closed.

"I have NEVER felt so unclean in my entire LIFE!"

Tifa was still cackling.

"Shut up! Hey, under the sink is a bottle of bleach, could you chuck it in here?"

Tifa fished out the bottle of bleach and handed it to Stripes. "You shower with your clothes on?"

"TODAY I do!" he shrieked. Tifa heard him open the bottle and dump the entire thing on his head.

"Stripes, that's not very wise. You wanna melt those sunglasses?"

Stripes' wet forearm poked out and pointed to his sunglasses, magically balanced on the edge of the tub.

Tifa was about to walk out, when he screamed.

"Gaaaaaaaah! Owww...stupid scars!!"

She heard the water turn on and stepped out. Stripes had a mysterious set of parallel scars on the right side of his face that looked like some sort of beast had attacked him. They started at his cheekbone on an angle running toward his ear, but stopped just behind his jawline. The three parallel scars continued not as severely onto his shoulder. They didn't seem much more than four years old at the most. He said that he had gotten caught under a beam when Meteor landed on Midgar, but Tifa didn't think any sort of beam could do damage like that. He was probably attacked by some monster and didn't want to admit it. Maybe he had gotten into a fight with one of ShinRa's hybrid panthers or something like that.

She made a point to ask him once he got out of the shower.

After about an hour of scrubbing and screaming, Stripes emerged from the shower a blonde man. Tifa almost didn't recognize him if it weren't for his sunglasses.

"Well...that's ONE way to get your hair bleached, I guess," she said.

"There's another way to do it?" Stripes asked.

"Yeah. S' called getting your hair lightened."

"Bleach is bleach, whether it's in a dinky little tube or you dunk it on your head."

Tifa looked at Stripes for a while. It looked kind of wrong with him having blonde hair. "Are you gunna dye it back?"

"Nope. I like it like this, actually," Stripes the fashion expert said, turning to look at his face in the mirror.

"Ugh...fine."

"Why? What color would YOU want it to be?"

"Not blonde. You're too old for that."

"It'll grow out by the time we go see Cloud."

"Sounds like you're up for seeing him much more than I am," she said, looking down.

"That's because you're a total wussy girl --"

Tifa was about to reply to his banter, but the door rang open. A familiar voice called up.

"Hello?"

It was Cloud!

Tifa panicked and dove into Stripes' bedroom, while Stripes himself stuffed himself into a tight black turtleneck, put a towel on his head, put a gigantic band-aid over his scar, took off his sunglasses and ran downstairs as effeminately as he possibly could.

"Thorry, thir," Stripes said with a comical lisp, "I was JUTHT jumping out of the shower! Hope you don't mind! Hee hee..." he giggled, putting his slender hand to his face and biting his index finger, winking in Cloud's general direction.

Cloud looked startled and took a step back. He'd never met a flitty tattoo artist before. Much less one that smelled like Clorox. "Uh...miss...SIR! I mean, sir, sir, you're the tattoo guy, right?"

Good. I've scared him shitless, Stripes thought.

"Hmm? OH! You're a cuthtomer? Wait...there'th...thomething familiar about you," Thtripeth thaid, getting back from behind the dethk and thircling Cloud, looking him over. "Wait...I know who you ARE! YOU'RE that guy! You're Prethident of the ShinRa corporation, aren't you?"

"AVALANCHE! It's AVALANCHE, not ShinRa."

Stripes cocked his head. "Tsk. AVALANCHE, ShinRa, thame thing. Only thing different ith the people running the sho-- OH, I'm THORRY, Mithter Thtrife, I shouldn't have thaid that in front of you!" he said, fanning himself with his hands. "Ohh...I'm so embarrathed! Is my fathe all red?"

Cloud gave Stripes a scared look and shook his head. "N-nno, no sir. Sir...I uh...anyway...does that phosphorescent ink you have in some of your designs show up in plain light?"

"Huh? Oh! No, thir, not unleth the thun'th going down, no. Why, you wanna get a tattoo people can only thee in a black light?"

"OKay...then I want one of those," he said in a low voice, "on top of a real-color one."

Stripes blinked. "OKay, thir...thith way."

Stripes showed him upstairs and sat him in his tatooing room, forbidding him to move. He hoped that the decor and messiness of it didn't lead Cloud to suspect anything of the tattoo artist except that he was quite fruity. Stripes went into his bedroom and closed the door.

"Tifa!" he called in a whispered rasp.

"Under the bed!" she rasped back.

"Cloud's getting a tattoo. Stay in this room, and whatever you do, don't make a sound!"

"Right."

Stripes slipped out of his room, making sure to lock the door behind him. He skipped audibly into the bathroom and put the towell around his shoulders, putting his sunglasses back on and rummaging through the little pile of makeup Tifa had been collecting. With a sigh, he took off his sunglasses and looked in the mirror, his face forming into a horrible grimace. Stripes turned away from the mirror as quickly as he could and put a hand over his eyes.

No. There's no time to worry about that now. There's no time.

He turned back around and tried to remember what he had learned in his childhood in Wutai about Kabuki makeup, but he didn't have time, so he just exaggerated his eyelashes with the first black thing he could find and dove into his other supply room for some glitter.

Cloud was getting a little uneasy in his seat.

"Um...person, could you hurry up, please?"

"Jutht a mo~ment!" Stripes sang.

Another minute passed, and Stripes came into the room all but dripping in blue glitter.

"Thorry I took tho long, thweetneth! I just COULDN'T find that thtupid phothphorethent thuff!" he said with a hand flip.

"Yeah...okay...I'd like to get just a classic heart-and-ribbon thing on my shoulder."

Tifa was wedged up against the door, trying to hear every word Cloud said.

"Any particular name on it or anything?"

"Yes...'Tifa'...please, sir..."

Tifa's jaw dropped. So...he really DOES love me?

Stripes lowered his voice thereafter. He knew she was listening in. "And what d'you want in the phosphorescent thtuff?"

Cloud lowered his voice, too. He could sense that SOMEBODY was listening to him, just not sure who. "Aeris...in capital letters, across the whole thing, double the heighth of the ribbon."

Stripes sighed and smiled sadly, glad that Tifa couldn't have heard that. "Okay, hon. If you'll jutht bare your shoulder for me, I can thtart."

Cloud tried futilely to roll up the sleeve of his blazer.

"Honey, you gotta take the blather off..."

Cloud gave him a panicked look. "Y-you're not gunna try anything, are you?"

Stripes formed his mouth into an O and put his fingertips on his heart. "Who, ME? Never, Prethident Thtrife!"

"O-oh-kay," Cloud said shakily, shrugging off his blazer and throwing it on the floor.

Stripes pretended to sneeze, and half of the glitter found its way into Cloud's hair as he was getting rid of his filthy buttoned shirt. It had been almost two weeks since he had washed himself and he smelled awful. Stripes frowned silently at him in disgust when his back was turned. "Just the heart with the ribbon and Tifa on it, I don't wanna be charged extra for doodles, understand?" he said forcefully.

"Perfectly, thir," Stripes said with a plastic smile and began to rub away the filth on Cloud's shoulder with a rubbing-alchohol cottonball.

***

"Fini~shed!" Stripes sang, holding a black light and a mirror up for Cloud to see his shoulder. Stripes put a bandage over the new tattoo, which was starting to bleed a little. "Now, don't take the bandage off for a week or tho. And try to take a shower or THOMETHING. Tsk."

Cloud nodded as he put his shirt and blazer on gingerly and followed Stripes downstairs. He looked at the guestbook and picked up the pen to sign in slot number 21. Stripes nearly closed the thing on his hand and shook his head. "Ah-ah ahh! That'th for paying cuthtomerth only!"

"Really? I thought you'd want the publicity of having my name in your guestbook."

"Oh, I have other platheth for autographth!" Stripes said, getting out a pack of yellow stickies. "Sign the thtikie!"

"You sure I shouldn't pay?"

"Oh, it'th no bother."

Cloud signed it, thanked him for not charging him and left, trailing bits of glitter out the door.

Stripes sighed and ran back upstairs, grabbing for his sunglasses in the bathroom, but he was blocked by Tifa. "What was THAT about?"

"What? The disguise? Well...I couldn't pass myself off as a very good woman, now could I?"

"I'll kill you if you've mutilated my eyeliner, Thtripeth," she said with a banterous hand-flip.

Stripes went into the bathroom, washed his face off and put his sunglasses back on. "I've changed my mind, Miss Lockheart. I'm not going to go with you to see Cloud."

"Strife."

"Pardon?"

Tifa smiled. "My name is Tifa Strife."

Stripes looked at her, but didn't say anything.

He gave her a smile, pained at first, but then happy, his fist crushing the yellow stickie with Cloud's autograph on it.


Chapter 6
Index