STRIPES: CHAPTER SIX
by K. Trotta


It didn't take Tifa two days more to get ready to go back home. Stripes went on the roof as it began to rain, practicing his 'rusted old passion,' martial arts.

Tifa couldn't help but feel sorry for him. After all, she thought he had a little bit of a crush on her. She grabbed an umbrella and watched him kick at the air for about ten minutes.

"Stripes?" she yelled through the rain.

Stripes didn't hear her. He punched at the air. He would have rather be punching himself, though.

Why won't you tell her, you heartless bastard? he thought to himself.

Because she needs to learn this. It's better someone she knows teach her this than somebody else, he thought in reply.

Teach her what? To turn her heart to stone? Or are you hoping she'll come crying back into your arms, you vile, pretentious, twisted little man?!

Stripes became angrier and angrier with each kick to the air.

But was it anger?

He was also starting to cry.

"Stripes!" Tifa called again.

"YES?" Stripes yelled back, louder than he thought he sounded.

"I'm ready now!"

"Go, then!"

"In the rain?"

"Well, you just said you were going to go, weren't you?"

"Yes I did, but--"

"Go!"

Tifa walked toward him and he stopped kicking the air. He looked at her with a guilty expression and sighed.

"Be careful. You could catch pneumonia...and..." he trailed off.

"Die?"

"Don't," Stripes said softly.

"Huh?"

Stripes kicked the air again. "Don't you dare die. If you die, I'll kill you!"

Tifa laughed uneasily.

Silence ensued, except for the sound of the rain.

Tifa broke it with, "If I ever come back, you had better dye your hair some other color..."

Stripes laughed.

"Promise me!"

He stopped kicking the air again and turned to look at her. "I promise."

Tifa walked her umbrella up to shield Stripes. It was a rather big umbrella. Had a diameter of 6 feet, it did. "Don't you die on me either."

Stripes sighed and smiled. He shook his head.

"When you get married, invite us to your wedding, okay? And I want to see your kids, too," Tifa said.

"I've...been married...and back. And I had a son...but not anymore," he replied.

Tifa gasped. "Ohh! Man, I did it again...I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to pry!"

Stripes shook his head and raised his hand. "No, no...don't be sorry. It's all right."

"How did you and your wife...?"

Stripes sighed. "She passed when she gave birth to my son. She was another teacher, much too much like myself. She wasn't the sturdiest of women...in either respect."

Tifa decided not to inquire further about his wife. "And your son...?"

"He was...he was the brightest boy. The greatest kid in the world. He had everyone he knew in his hands, begging for him to recognize them as someone worthy of his friendship or esteem...everyone."

"Everyone?"

"Except for me, of course. But what could I do? His popularity went to his head. He wouldn't be seen with his nerdy excuse of a father. All I ever told him was what and what not to do...I never told him I loved him...I never gave him any encouragement, or told him I was proud of everything he ever did, everything he had ever become. I was never able to. I-I wasn't even in the area when he died."

"How did he--?"

"He and another kid were...playing in a Mako Reactor. They got into a fight and the other kid shoved him in."

Tifa's heart skipped a beat.

I hate ShinRa...
I hate Mako Reactors...
I HATE THEM ALL!!

Tifa shook her head.

"My...father was killed in a Mako Reactor..." she said.

Stripes gasped as if he had been stabbed. So it had been her at Nibelheim. He hadn't even noticed... Dark-haired girl, silly hat...unfit for testing with Jenova, so she was set to the side.

SEDUCER!! SWINDLER!! How DARE you even feel you have the right to speak to this girl?!

"Stripes?"

"I'm sorry!"

"Sorry?"

Sorry? You're sorry? Oh, look. Pooor little Professor Hojo is sorry for the death of Tifa's father, WHICH HE CAUSED! Stripes gasped and stumbled forward, closing his eyes.

"Stripes, Stripes, are you okay? You're shaking!"

Snivelling parasite, what gives you the right to live while her father lies dead ten years and counting? What would she say if you told her that? She wouldn't be trying to help you now, you hypocritanical sack of bones!!

Tifa slapped him. "STRIPES! Snap out of it!"

Pain! Yes, pain is what you deserve, Hojo, PAIN!! Agony, writhing, eternal, burning PAIN!

"STRIPES!"

Stripes regained some of his composure and mumbled, "Hate me..."

"What did you say?"

"Hit me again, Tifa."

"What?"

The tattoo artist stepped out of the protective circle of the umbrella.

"I said HIT ME!!"
"HIT ME!!"
"IT ME!!"
"T ME!!"
"ME!!"
"E!!"
"!!"

The sound rebounded off the walls of the taller buildings. People turned on their lights and looked out their windows to see who it was that was yelling. Stripes fell to his knees, choking back tears. You fiend...you monster...alligator tears, all of them! You know you are not sorry for what you did...what gives you the right to cry? What?!

I HATE THEM ALL!

***

Reno thought he heard something.

He couldn't tell Vincent. He was too busy with his female friends.

Rude and Elena were sitting quite close to him, though.

The oldest of the Turks was sipping his can of ":P Brand" Beer through a ridiculously long curly straw. The most feminine of the Turks was spinning a quarter around with her finger, waiting for the man perpetually on the pinball machine to finish his game.

Reno got up from his brown-nosing-begotten seat next to Vincent and put his head down next to Rude's. "I think I heard some yelling outside," he whispered.

"I'm sorry, Reno. I don't feel the same way about you," Rude answered quite audibly and went back to sipping his :P beer.

Elena giggled a stinging and whole-hearted giggle.

"Rude, don't do this to me now, man. This is important! I think I heard someone scream."

"Why don't you ask your new boyfriend? I'm sure he's up for it," Rude grumbled. Reno didn't seem to realize the importance of this.

"Ruu~de!"

Rude turned his way and frowned at him. "You've given up your dignity to impress Sir Saint Valentine there. This is your chance to regain it, I think. Go do it yourself."

Reno turned desperately towards Elena, who snubbed her nose at him. "I'm with Rude."

The Turk slapped his head exaspiratedly and stumbled out the door of the bar, where he heard more screaming from above.

"Calm DOWN, Stripes! I have no idea what you're talking about!" he heard from the roof. It was a woman's voice.

"Stripes?" Reno asked himself. "Who's he talking t--"

"WHY WON'T YOU HIT ME?!"

"Shit, that IS Stripes!" Reno cursed and ran for his shop.

***

"Because you're my friend and you're obviously in some kind of pain right now. Was it something I said?" Tifa tried.

"Hit me or leave me ALONE! D'you hear?!"

"Stripes, you took me in when I probably would have starved and died on the str--"

"I regret ever doing that!"

Tifa was stunned. "What?!"

"Y-you heard me, Tifa Lockheart! I wish I never took you in!"

"Stripes, you can't mean tha--"

"FREEZE!" Reno snapped, pointing his gun at Tifa.

Tifa froze and put her hands up.

"Don't hurt her, Reno. She's guilty of no crime except for loving the loveless."

Neither of the slightly younger people understood Stripes, but Reno put his gun down. "Why didn't you tell us Tifa was here, Stripes?"

"Because she doesn't deserve to be thrown back to someone as corrupt as Strife...but I'm no better than he is, so take her out of my sight! I don't ever want to see her again!"

"Stripes?!" Tifa yipped.

Reno hand-cuffed her and picked up her umbrella. "Stripes...I can't arrest you."

Stripes looked up at him so Reno could plainly see his piercing light-grey eyes. "Then you are as corrupt as he whom you serve...but who am I to talk of corruption?! Never mind...go, Reno."

"But..."

"I SAID GO!"

Reno went, dragging Tifa with him.

Tifa looked back at Stripes, who stared after her in the rain, his eyes like two hailstones. Everything he had told her, he didn't mean. His face betrayed him. His expression screamed 'I WANT YOU TO STAY!' all over it. Tifa felt sorry for him.

Reno tugged on her arm. "C'mon, Tifa," he said, looking worriedly at Stripes, "let's go."

***

After they'd gone, Stripes stood up and watched Tifa and Reno enter Ed's, and come out accompanied by Vincent, Rude and Elena. Stripes scowled down at the leader of the Turks. He was doing it again...removing him of the person he cared about most.

Tifa struggled.

At least this time, it wasn't voluntary.

Tifa looked up and saw him on the roof. She gave him a piteous look. It screamed 'WHAT DO YOU MEAN!?'

He wanted to cry.

He put his hand over his mouth and continued to look down at her. Tifa opened her mouth and shouted: "STRIPES!...--" and nothing else came.

***

Cloud was almost glad to see Tifa returned to him, but not glad enough not to scold her.

He hardly got the chance, though. She ran up and hugged him before he could say a thing.

"Oh, Cloud! I've missed you so much!"

"What? WHY?! You were the one who ran away!"

"And with good reason, too. I'm sick and tired of you bossing me around, Cloud! From now on, I'm going to be the boss of me. Not you!"

"What kind of @#$%ed up self-help clinic did you stumble into?"

Tifa smirked. "The best kind."

Reno, Rude and Elena cringed, fearing that she'd give Stripes away, but she didn't. "Good LORD, you stink! INTO THE BATHTUB!"

Tifa dragged Cloud's sorry hide away by the arm and the three Turks let out breaths they hadn't known they were holding.

Rude smiled at Reno and shook his hand. "You going to be less of an ass now?"

Reno nodded confidently. "Vincent has LOST a brown-noser!"

The two drinking companions were reunited at last, and walked off into the Turk's Lounge, leaving Elena alone in Cloud's office.

~Hee hee hee hee...~

The room got cold and Elena hugged herself. Junonian weather was rather unpredictable: a blizzard could spring up in the middle of the summer and it'd be normal. Elena decided to follow her compatriots to the lounge, but as she neared the double doors to the office, they seemed to look as if they were closing on her.

Strange...

She ran back to Cloud's desk, at the far end of the office and looked at the doors.

They were wide open.

Elena closed her eyes and stepped ten paces toward the doors.

The doors were 1/5 closed.

Elena walked forward until she was no more than half a foot away from the doors.

There was less than an inch of space between them.

And something else...
Something cold...
Something glowing blue.

Elena held up her right index finger and poked it through the space between the doors.

It feels like ice!

She attempted to pull her finger back, but it was stuck.

Not between the doors, but on the glowing blue thing.

Elena was starting to get scared. She yanked at it, but it wouldn't come off.

The doors creaked open, revealing the form of an ethereal lady, garbed in something translucent and white, with long blonde curly hair parted severely in the middle. She was holding onto Elena's forefinger with her own bony thumb and forefinger.

Not only bony...
MADE of bone...
Bone hand...
Bone wrist...
Bone arm...
Bone shoulders and ribs...
Bone neck...
Bone head!!
The ethereal blue color melted away...

The woman's hair changed from blonde to brown...

The white tissue paper she wore melted into a bloodstained labcoat...

And Elena stared like a deer in traffic into the eyeless skull of Lucrecia's ghost.

Lucrecia squeezed Elena's finger harder until she yelped in pain.

"Let me GO!"

Lucrecia's ghost let out a shrill cry that sounded more like a crow than a woman and squeezed harder. Elena was on the verge of tears.

"AAAAAAI! PLEASE! Let me go! W-w-what have I done to you?!"

Lucrecia's ghost melted into a fuzzy blue, wide-mouthed head as she laughed. ~You think you can take him from me?! He belongs to me!~

"I-I-I don't understand!" Elena shreiked, finally getting her finger back.

~VINCENT BELONGS TO ME!~

Another ghostly laugh was heard behind Elena.

At Cloud's desk, there formed a pinkish cloud. ~Hehehehe...comrade, it seems you got to little tiny-head too late! Vincent she would rather be one to berate than mate!~

Lucrecia's ghost made an inhuman gutteral sound similar to that of a large bear vomitting up a meal. ~Curse ye who live! Thou art never alone!!!~

Elena had balled herself up on the floor, not understanding a thing being said by the two ghosts for fright.

~What soft, as thou oft, you have turned the brain of fair Elena off!~

~Go to your business, brainless child-wench! I have some of my own now. I am have done here!~

With that, Lucrecia's ghost disappeared.

Aeris' ghost floated about Elena's balled form sympathetically, then floated erratically through the door Tifa and Cloud had gone through.

***

Tifa had never thought she would enjoy taking a bath with Cloud so much. Their tub was big enough to not get impaled or prodded by faucets and such. And the shower curtains were fireproof so that if one of the candles blew the wrong way, it wouldn't catch on fire and suffocate them both to death in the tub.

Cloud was giving her a backrub in the nice, tranquil, warm water, when she suddenly felt something like a cold hand reach up from under her stomach. She panicked and sat up in the water. "Cloud, did you just get real cold?"

Cloud blinked, oblivious.

Until he saw a faint blue glow behind Tifa.

Sitting on a ledge adjacent to the wall, lack-of-dressed proper for a bath, sat Aeris' ghost.

Cloud knew only he could see her. She and he had had multiple conversations while Tifa was standing right in front of them, mostly made comical to him by her poking and pulling her hair and sticking her ethereal hand through Tifa's ears. Cloud smiled as she sat down in the water in the exact space Tifa occupied. The water at the edge of the tub began to form small ice crystals and Tifa began to shiver.

"Cloud, it's getting really COLD in here!"

Cloud Strife wrapped his arms around his wife and his lover at the same time and said to her, "Don't worry, baby. I'll keep you warm."

"Wait, Cloud, wait! We shouldn't do this in here, Cloud, I'm scared. Cloud! CLOUD!!"

***

"What have I done?" Stripes asked himself as the sun rose. He had spent the rainy night on the roof. "All of this...being alive again, JENOVA, it was a waste..." he whispered to himself, his eyes closing under the heavy weight of sleep. "...a waste..."

Through the black, an image of a haggard old Wutaian man showed on a gigantic screen in front of his eyes, filling his field of vision. The man's mouth was drawn back in a horrible sneer. His eyes blazed with hatred.

"P R O F E S S O R . . ." a voice from the void intoned, "YOUR CRIMES ARE UNFORGIVABLE. YET YOU LIVE, TRYING TO PROVE US WRONG. GIVE UP YOUR FUTILE CAUSE AND ACCEPT HELL LIKE YOU SHOULD. YOU HAVE ONLY COMPOUNDED YOUR GUILT WITH HYPOCRASY."

Stripes stood up, black-haired, in glasses and a lab coat, glad to tear his eyes away from the horrid image of himself they kept showing him. That voice was more than his conscience. That voice had come from everyone on the planet he had wronged. It was the adjudicator of the entire world. He was Hojo inverted. White hair, dark skin, hair neatly groomed with a goatee. He wore the black garb of a priest proudly, and faced Stripes upside down.

Stripes remembered the time when he thought himself the adjudicator of the entire world: all his life up until the point he died. Then he had been taught something--the adjudicator of the entire world was everyone but himself.

"SPEAK!"

"i never said i was going to prove anyone wrong. i set out to try and correct some of the catastrophic mistakes i've made!"

"JEAN VALJEAN IS NOTHING NOW! ANOTHER STORY HAS BEGUN!"

"that's not true! i have not shed my past self and started anew! i have--"

"YOU HAVE BECOME INFATUATED WITH A WOMAN YOU KNOW IS SOMEONE ELSE'S WIFE. YOU HAVE ENDEARED YOURSELF TO PEOPLE. THEY WOULD CRY IF YOU DIED. THEY WOULD COME TO YOUR FUNERAL! THEY WOULD VISIT YOUR GRAVE!"

"that was not my intent!"

"STRIPES IS NOT HOJO. ALL YOU HAVE NOW IS A DIFFERENT LIFE IN WHICH TO DO THE SAME THINGS DIFFERENTLY. TO DO THINGS WORSE.

HOJO: USE A GIRL. STRIPES: SPOIL A GIRL.
HOJO: CREATE A BELOVED PUBLIC ICON - SEPHIROTH. STRIPES: RUIN A BELOVED PUBLIC ICON - CLOUD.
HOJO: BUILD A LIFE-SUPPORTING CORPORATION. STRIPES: TOPPLE A LIFE-SUPPORTING CORPORATION."

"i have tried to give Tifa advice on how to actually live her life. it is not enough for a person to just be alive like that."

"YOU HAVE TURNED HER INTO A WILLFUL INDIVIDUAL!"

"better willful than meek and abused!"

"HOW DARE YOU TRY TO JUDGE?! IT IS MY JOB TO JUDGE SUCH THINGS!"

"i would have given the useful truths i have learned in death to anyone."

"YOU HAVE SEEN YOURSELF IN DEATH AND YOU HAVE RELISHED IN EVERY MINUTE OF IT."

"and two plus two equals five! i get it!"

"DO NOT QUESTION THE WILL OF THE ADJUDICATOR OF THE ENTIRE WORLD!"

"there IS no such animal!"

The adjudicator of the entire world grabbed Stripes by the head and set him in front of the picture of himself sneering. "WHO IS THIS?"

"that is me."

"THIS IS YOU."

"WHEN DID YOU SNEER LIKE THIS?"

"when i shot Vincent."

"WHEN YOU SHOT VINCENT."

"HOW OLD ARE YOU IN THIS?"

"this picture shows me at age fifty-nine."

"THIS PICTURE SHOWS YOU AT AGE FIFTY-NINE."

"HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU SHOT VINCENT?"

"i was twenty-six."

"YOU WERE TWENTY-SIX."

"IF YOU MADE THIS SNEER WHEN YOU WERE TWENTY-SIX AND IT SHOWS YOU AT FIFTY-NINE, WHAT DOES IT MEAN?"

"it is a manifestation of a picture of my life: all hatred. all vengence. no redeeming qualities whatsoever."

"IT IS A MANIFESTATION OF A PICTURE OF YOUR LIFE: ALL HATRED. ALL VENGENCE. NO REDEEMING QUALITIES WHATSOEVER."

"WHY DO YOU DENY YOURSELF?"

"what?"

Stripes was pulled up by his bangs.

"WHY DO YOU DENY YOURSELF?!"

"agh!"

"WHY DO YOU DENY YOURSELF?!"

"i hate myself!"

"WHY?!"

"because hate for others blinded me against anything i may have done right in the world. now that i am no longer blind, i hate myself for what i have done!"

"REPENTANCE?"

"you may call it that."

"YOU ARE NOT HOJO."

"i have the ability to change with time! i am a human being! perspectives change, opinions change! people change!"

"HOJO IS NO HUMAN BEING. HE IS A MONSTER, DRIVEN BY HATE, DRIVEN BY SUFFERING. HIS HEART FROZEN BEYOND THAW BEYOND THE SNOWFIELDS, TAKING ADVANTAGE OF HAVING SPENT TOO MUCH TIME IN THE SUN TO SCRAWL HIS OWN PETTY POETRY IN BLOOD ON THE WALL, HOPING IN HOPELESS HOPES THAT SOME OTHER TWISTED SOUL MAY SPEAK HIS LANGUAGE WRITTEN IN THE RED AND REALIZE THAT MAYBE HIS BLOOD REALLY IS THICKER THAN WATER."

"i have changed!"

"THEN YOU ARE NOT HOJO. HOJO IS THE DEFINITION OF ULTIMATE SUFFERING GIVEN AND TAKEN IN EQUAL MEASURES. A MACHINE BUILT AND RUN ON HATE. MACHINES DO NOT CHANGE."

"enough."

"SPINELESS ANTIPATHY OF VILLIANY."

"enough!"

"YOU DON'T HAVE THE BALLS TO STAND UP AND BE HATED."

"i have gone to Hell for this!"

"THERE IS NO HEAVEN. THERE IS NO HELL. THERE IS ONLY WHAT YOU MAKE OF IT."

"then i AM hojo. this is my Hell. it seems no worse than what i experienced when i was alive. it is all in my head. i lived in my pain, and died in it. or did i die at all? maybe i was just in a coma these past five years, my brain so used to self-hatred that it created this place...and you...all by itself..."

"YES..."

 


Chapter 7
Index