STRIPES: CHAPTER NINE
by K. Trotta


Elena gave Rude a very worried look. "Are you sure we should do this to him? He's our friend, Rude!"

Rude nodded. "Yes, I know...but we aren't exactly hurting him, now are we?"

Elena fidgeted anyway.

Reno opened the door to the tattoo parlor and Elena and Rude followed him in. It was dark...almost scary. Elena took Reno's arm and clung onto it. The shop never looked like this when Stripes was actually around. The only lighting was the faint glow from the black light display in the front window, accenting the mako-infused pipes behind the walls. Junon was now practically mako-free, but Cloud's administration hadn't exactly gone into every house in the city and redone the plumbing.

Elena crept into the kitchen and turned on the florescent light, which buzzed irritably. She checked the refrigerator, the sink and the pantry for Hojo and came up with nothing. "Nothing in here!" she said.

Reno threw her a look and hissed: "Quiet DOWN! He might hear us!"

Elena blinked. "Who? Stripes?"

"No. Hojo!" Rude whispered.

"Ohhh..."

The trio of Turks sneaked their way up the stairs, checking in Stripes' store rooms. Bathroom, bedroom, closet, bathtub, on the roof and under the stairs, looked through all his files, drawers, boxes, CDs, hair care products and found nothing there.

"I told you this was a dumb idea!" Elena huffed, motioning to the collapsed form of their friend on the floor. "What's he gonna do when he finds out his house has been ransacked by us because we didn't trust him? What do we do next? Plant a bug? Tap his phone conversations?"

Rude shook his head. "No, Elena. We leave and act as if this never happened. It was a false alarm."

"Can't we at least put him on his bed? It's getting to be winter pretty soon, and I don't want him sick, ya know?" Reno offered.

"No. I think he'll remember having slumped to the floor. We have to leave everything as it was before he got knocked out. It's better that he doesn't know about this," Rude replied.

"We're still his friends, right, Rude?" Elena squeaked.

"Of -course- we are! That's why it's very important that he not know we did this to him."

Elena nodded, satisfied with Rude's reasoning. "Okay...come on, Reno. Let's go."

"Right."

Elena and Reno stepped out. Rude took one last look under Stripes' bed and stood up. He looked at the unconcious tattoo artist and sighed. "I'm sorry, man." He looked to the left, and the right, started to take his sunglasses off, but stopped. "No...I can't. I'll let you have that, at least," he said. Rude cleared his throat, stood up and walked down the stairs where his fellow Turks waited.

***

The next day, Tifa was walking to Junon Memorial. She was smartly dressed in a blue business suit. Blue. She had always liked blue. Green, too, she supposed. Cloud's eyes were kind of in between green and blue. She wished with a curse that they'd pick one color and stay that way. She also wished he had picked a lot of other things and stayed that way. It didn't matter now. She carried the divorce papers in her briefcase.

Her train of thought chugged along how the sky used to be blue once in this area... around a lot of areas...until ShinRa with their Mako and their reactors and their power plays and--

"OOF!"

A young man with a blue mohawk dressed as a Turk had crashed into her. He looked as if he had stayed out all night. Possibly drunk. Typical Turk. "Excuse me," she said gruffly.

The boy seemed extremely frightened by her attitude and stepped back as he brushed himself off. "I-I'm sorry, ma'am...I wasn't thinking very straight." He pulled out a rumpled photocopied photograph of Professor Hojo and held it up so she could see. "Have you seen this man anywhere?"

Tifa blinked at it and laughed. "Yeah! I was at the bastard's funeral, if that's what you'd call it."

Sunder shook his head in frustration. "No...he's alive! My job is to find him. Please help me, miss! Any information you have will be of--"

Tifa shook her head and patted the young Turk on the shoulder. "Kid, I think you need to see through when your boss sends you out on wild goose chases."

Sunder smacked her hand away and ran off.

Tifa shrugged. "Crazy kid..."

***

Doctor Ihn looked at Yuffie and shook his head. "No response...that's odd..." He held up a picture of Cloud smiling goofily, and Yuffie produced no response. He held up a picture of a volcano, no response. A frozen lake...

Yuffie shivered. A cold spot developed in the room, and she started breathing harder, backing into a corner. She saw a soft pink glow in front of her and screamed.

Reeve ran to her, shaking his head. "Oh, no! No! Yuffie, what did you see? Did Cloud send his spirit out to get you?"

All Dr. Ihn could do was blink. "That's unusual. Her reaction to the frozen lake was more severe than the stupid Cloud picture. You said you found her kicked under the desk and raped, sirs?"

Reeve nodded. "Yes, that's what it looked like."

"And did you have her medically examined to tell if she actually WAS raped?" Dr. Ihn asked.

Reeve nodded. "Yes, we did that, too. That's what it was. Dr. Urodju, the gynacologist said it must have been...especially painful for her. Because there was unusual scarring found. Like frostbite or something... some device he may have used...oh, how awful!"

Barrett threw Reeve to the other side of the room before he could sob again and Yuffie grabbed his arm. Shivering, her eyes panicked, she looked up at Barrett pleadingly. Her breathing contained a faint wheeze in it. It condensed in the air. Barrett shivered. Her hands were cold, and she was boring her little fingers into his arm. It wasn't a pleasent experience. "Damn, Doc, why's it so cold in hyah alla sudden?"

Doctor Ihn blinked. "Cold? Mr. Wallace, we've had the heat on all day. It IS almost winter, you know." The cold subsided and Yuffie's breathing returned to normal. She fainted in Barrett's arms and he picked her up. Dr. Ihn pushed up his glasses and frowned. "Are you sure you can take care of her?"

Barrett thought a while. "She freaks out every time she goes outside. Maybe it's best to keep her warm..."

Tifa just so happened to step into the room at that moment. "Guys?" "Tifa! Where you BEEN?" Barrett asked.

"Barrett! How are you? I couldn't find you or Reeve anywhere these past few weeks."

Barrett stepped aside to reveal Reeve. "Well...looks like yo' doin' bettuh than she is..."

Tifa gasped when she noticed the small girl folded up in Barrett's arms. "Oh my God, Yuffie!"

Barrett shook his head. "She's blacked out. Apparently she freaks out every time she gets near anything cold."

Tifa recalled the water in the bathtub icing over the night she was reunited with Cloud and shuddered. "All this is my fault..." Barrett put a hand on Tifa's shoulder. "Iss not all yo' fault."

"Yes it is...I let Cloud get all powerful. I never lifted a finger to stop his idiotic restrictions, policies, ...appetites... I wanted him to think of me for once instead of Aeris and it...it didn't work."

Dr. Ihn spoke up. "Excuse me, Mrs. Strife...but Yuffie's reactions to Cloud were rather minimal compared to the mere mention of cold. Maybe something other than you think happened happened."

Tifa closed her eyes. She would love to believe that Cloud hadn't done this to Yuffie, but there was no evidence to the contrary. He had been the only one in his office. There was even a recording of him calling her into his office. It was too obvious. Everything pointed to Cloud. Everything.

"This is not a matter to which wishful thinking can be applied, doctor," she replied at length. "At any rate...I'm through with Cloud. I put a request in for divorce this morning. It'll be about a week and a half before it's processed, though."

Reeve put his head down slightly. "I'm sorry, Tifa."

"Sorry for what, Reeve? This is the best thing for me. And Cloud. He doesn't have to pretend he loves me anymore," Tifa said quietly.

Dr. Ihn cleared his throat. "I think it'd be wise to remove myself now. I'd rather not end up being assaulted by tabloid reporters," he said, trying to add a little humor to the situation and failing. He stepped through the door and back to his office, as the former AVALANCHE members stepped outside.

Tifa looked around. The sky was darkening and a cold wind blew threw her hair. "She'll freeze if we keep her out here. Let's get to your house, Reeve," she said, leading them across the street.

"I wish I HAD one."

Tifa spun around. "What?"

"Spiky-ass dun sent some bulldozers on ovah to it yestuhday...Reeve had Marlene. He was babysittin' Yuffie." Barrett answered.

Tifa turned to Barrett. "You still have a house, right?"

"Ah BETTAH!"

"OKay...where is it? We should get back home..."

"Wait, Tifa," Barrett said, pointing to the hospital, "mebbee we could hole up in da hospital, it might be bettah fo' her."

Tifa looked down at Yuffie and nodded. "Then it's back in the hospital we go," Tifa said, marching through the double doors after having Reeve pick up her briefcase.


***

Cloud stood on top of the roof, the cold wind rustling his hair. "Think they can take her away from me again, can they? Limited as they may be, I still have some uses for Tifa..." he told no one in particular.

A girlish laugh danced on the wind. ~Oh, but how you cling to her!~

"Aeris...don't take it that way, please. Don't feel left out."

~I have never felt left out of anything, Cloud. But tell me, Cloud, you did once love Tifa truly, did you not? I'd be glad to hear you say that,~ the ghost of Aeris requested.

Cloud shut his eyes tight against the cold the early winter winds brought about, magnified by the ghost's presence. "I... Why was I summoned to court the other day, Aeris?"

~You're avoiding my question!~ she pouted.

"I'll answer it after you answer me this. Why did you tell me to bring Yuffie into my office that day? Everyone's accusing me of raping her, but they found no evidence of any kind of special device they said was used to do it with. What is going on, Aeris?"

Aeris' ghost glowed slightly green for a moment as lightning crashed. In that split second, she held up her arm, as the light flashed green, her fingers looked, for a moment, longer, jagged and clawlike. But that was only for a moment. ~Now, answer my question, Cloud. I'm losing my patience.~

Cloud blinked. "Aeris...losing your patience?!"

~I was just as human as you were, once, Cloud. I DO have the ability to run out of patience,~ she told him, her voice becoming as cold as she was.

Lucrecia, who had been watching the entire scene from a radio tower, materialized just above their range of sensing. Cloud closed his eyes again and continued. "Yes. I do...did love Tifa...but that was only because I thought you were dead!"

Aeris grinned an un-Aerisly grin. ~Thank you, lover,~ she told him, vanishing.

Lucrecia smiled. ~Just like Vincent and I. I loved Hojo because I didn't know Vincent even existed. Now I know better,~ she said, following Aeris.

Cloud shuddered. Maybe...it wasn't always true love for Vincent and Lucrecia, then. I want to hear it from Hojo now, definately. I hope they find him soo-- his thoughts were cut off as his cell phone rang. "Yes, what is it? ... The bulldozers are ready again? ... Right, go ahead. ... Thank you."

"Reeve...Barrett...if you are not for me, you are against me..."

***

Marlene was sitting up in her room, which was decked to the point one could not see the walls in posters of Vincent Valentine. She was playing with her stuffed Vincent Valentine doll, listening to Vincent Valentine Karaoke-Volume #3. He was doing a cover of "Stand Inside Your Love" by a band Marlene had never heard of and didn't care to remember. It was the best R&B song she had ever heard.

Just outside her window, there was a rumbling. Marlene stood up to see what it was and screamed--a bulldozer was headed for her house!

The girl scrambled helplessly to take her favorite poster off the wall without ripping it, but didn't do a very good job of it. In a frenzy, she managed to escape the house with her doll before the bulldozer crunched into the side of the Wallace house.

"Daddy! Daddy~!" the thirteen-year-old wailed, running into an alley as her house was demolished. "Ohh...! I wish I knew where him and Reeve and Yuffie were! Why didn't I listen?! Wait...they never take Yuffie anywhere except the doctor's..."



***

Barrett was pacing the room they put Yuffie in when Marlene nearly fell into the door.

"PAPA!" she gasped, out of breath from running there.

"Marlene!"

Marlene clutched her Vincent doll and sniffled. The painted smile on it never faded. "Daddy, our house is done! The bulldozers got it!"

Barret blinked and slammed his gun-arm into the wall. "GOD -DAMMIT-!"

Tifa sighed. "I guess that rules out finding sanctuary there."

Reeve wailed. "NOW what do we do?"

Marlene joined him. "My posters! My CDs! My clothes! My makeup!"

Yuffie stirred at the big noise.

Tifa stomped her feet and waved her hands around to get everybody's attention. "People! People, PLEASE! We can't just stand around and wail at a time like this! I think I know someone who can help us."

Marlene sniffed. "Does he know Vincent?"

Tifa rolled her eyes. "I don't think he does, but that's not our biggest concern right now. We need a place to stay, and I think Stripes' house is big enough...I think."

"Stripes?" Barret asked.

Tifa nodded. "He's the guy I stayed with when I ran away."

"But I thought you were just wandering around and they caught you on the street," Reeve said.

"That's what the papers said. The Turks...well, Reno didn't turn him in. They were friends."

"Oh. So he friends wit da Turks, huh? What happens if he turns us in?!" Barrett asked.

"He didn't turn me in," Tifa defended, "And, besides, I think Vincent has all the Turks off on a wild goose chase because Cloud thinks Professor Hojo's come back to life.

At the sound of 'Vincent' being spoken, Marlene's ears piqued. "What about Vincent?"

Reeve sighed. "Never you mind, Marlene."

"Ohhh!" she huffed in disoppointment.

"All right. Let's stick to the alleyways. We're going to Stripes'!" Barrett announced, leading the four of them out the door.

"Wait..." Yuffie whispered after them, sitting up. "Don't leave me...don't leave me alone..."

Tifa was the first out the door. "Once we get there, I think it's best we--OOF!"

Tifa had been bumped into once again. It was a young man in a black cloak. He got up quickly, but his cloak came off. He looked to be about twenty, had black hair and eyes like ice. Tifa stared at him for a moment, but he ran off without so much as an apology. "HEY! Kid, you forgot your...cloak."

But he was gone...

"What a strange boy..."

As the young man ran off, Yuffie pushed herself out of the door and fell to the ground. "Take me...take me with you!" she cried, curling up into a little ball when she was hit with the cold of the outside.

Reeve took a look at the cloak and set Yuffie on her feet. "This looks warm, and it's just about her size," he said, wrapping the young secretary in it.

Tifa blinked. That was the first time she had heard Yuffie speak in a long time. "I was saying, I think maybe I should go talk to Stripes before any of you do. I'll take Yuffie, though. He might get a little intimidated by the likes of you."

"Dassokay wit me," Barrett said.

***

The adjudicator of the entire world appeared before him once again, standing straight and tall: a piece of gothic architecture. "YOU ARE GETTING NOWHERE," he intoned, looking down at his 'charge' with the same eyes he himself possessed.

Stripes was on his knees, any indication that he had been fairly tall gone. He wrapped his arms around his knees and looked at the ground. "why would i want to go anywhere?"

"YOU ARE WASTING YOUR TIME. YOU ARE WASTING YOUR LIFE. YOU ONLY GET ONE LIFE, PROFESSOR HOJO."

"a life that i do not deserve."

The adjudicator circled him. "LOOK AT YOU. PROSTRATED ON THE FLOOR. LIKE A DOG. LIKE A BABY, WHINING FOR HIS MOTHER. IS THAT WHAT STRIPES IS?"

"... maybe now, yeah."

"YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN WHAT IT IS LIKE TO LIVE. YOU HAVE BEEN LET OUT OF HELL FOR A BRIEF MOMENT. ENJOY WHAT LITTLE YOU HAVE LEFT BEFORE RETURNING."

"if i even so much as move, it will condemn me. i have done too much damage. i owe so many so much. nobody really needs me. i'm just your average monster."

The adjudicator slammed his staff to the floor with a deafening boom. "WHERE DID YOU GET THIS WORD, MONSTER? YOU BELIEVE LUCRECIA EVEN AFTER WHAT SHE HAS DONE TO YOU? TOO KIND AND GENTLE TO FIGHT BACK? NOBODY WANTS TO HEAR YOU WHINE, YOU COWARD."

"excuse me?"

"COWARD."

Stripes unballed himself.

"FEELING SORRY FOR YOURSELF ACCOMPLISHES NOTHING. YOU WORRY ABOUT BEING A HYPOCRITE. YOU WORRY ABOUT DOING WORSE THAN YOU HAVE BEFORE. YOU WORRY AND WORRY AND WORRY, CURL UP AND CRY. WHERE HAS THAT GOTTEN YOU?"

Stripes frowned. "i'm only doing that because it's what you told me!"

"WHO AM I?"

"what?"

"WHO AM I? WHO AM I TO YOU?"

"you are the adjudicator of the entire world."

"NO. SUCH. THING."

He blinked and the adjudicator vanished.

***

Someone was shaking him awake.

"--ipes!"

Stripes groaned.

"Stripes!"

He opened his eyes.

"Stripes!" Tifa called. She was dressed in a blue power suit and had tears streaming down her seemingly more haggard face.

"Tifa?"

"Oh, thank God! You're awake!"

"Why are you crying?"

"You were on the ground! It looks like you hit your head! I was so worried!"

Stripes sat up and felt the back of his head. It had a little bump. What was in that drink he had had last night? Or was it last night? Stripes shook his head. It didn't matter now. "What are you doing here, Tifa?"

Tifa stepped back and revealed a sort of sack wrapped in a black cloak. It inched forward. A person was underneath it. Stripes gasped and nearly jumped out of bed. No, I thought they were dead...I thought they were dead!

The sack moved forward again.

Oh my God...it's...IT! I-I-it can't be...not Number Two...not Two, please not Two!

***

Stripes recalled an experiment gone wrong in the cloning of Sephiroth. He had pricked his finger on a needle while extracting a DNA sample. Some of his blood got mixed in with Sephiroth's body fluid, but he hadn't noticed much. The clone that had come out of that sample was Number Two. Stripes recalled flipping up Two's hood for the first time, expecting to see a pair of lovely bright green eyes staring haplessly back at him, but instead being met with a pair of desolate and grey eyes, set in somewhat of a scowl directed at him. Long, stringy, ugly black hair hung in front of the rest of its face. He remembered bundling the child up, rushing to the dumpster and leaving it for dead. Such a creature wouldn't want to live. Half Sephiroth, half Hojo. Never.

***

Stripes shook his head and stepped back until he had plastered himself against the wall.

Tifa scratched her head and gave him a funny look. "Stripes? Something wrong?"

"Wh-what is that?" he whispered, pointing to the figure in the black cloak with a trembling hand.

"I didn't know where else to go to, Stripes. Can you help her?"

"Her?"

The figure in the cloak stood up to its full height, about an inch or two taller than Stripes was. He gulped and thought back on what the adjudicator had said. He was no different from what he was before he died. A sniveling coward when it came to anything at all that could possibly do him harm or had a grudge against him. He held his breath as Tifa unveiled the figure, expecting to see Number Two. An image of himself. His eyes, his hair, Sephiroth's build and a very noble grudge wedged into his soul. Stripes stopped trembling and composed himself, prepared for the worst.


Chapter 10
Index