STRIPES: CHAPTER ELEVEN
by K. Trotta


What are you doing on my property? Stripes thought at her, narrowing his eyes at Aeris' ghost. She had stopped laughing, but now fixed him with a creepy sort of leer. I highly doubt that you are who you pretend to be.

~You were always a smart one, weren't you, Yuto?~

And you must be pretty special to know my old first name like that.

~Old first name. How cute. Looks like you really are trying to step beyond Hojo. She would be proud of you.~

She, eh? I take it you mean Jenova?

Aeris' smile widened. ~Sure, whatever you say.~

Before Stripes could protest, she was gone. "Dammit..." He looked back down the steps. The first floor was black, except for the faint green glow of the mako-polluted pipes. Too much had just happened at once. He needed a break. And he needed to talk to someone honestly for a change. Someone who wasn't connected with any of this drama. He only knew of one person that could do this.

***

Tifa found the rooms Barrett, Marlene and Reeve had holed up in and made a grand entrance, making sure they could see her cut. Barrett looked up indifferently and waved. "Hey, how's mah baby there? Talkin' to yo' friend?"

Tifa blinked. It wasn't like Barrett to not notice personal injuries. Once she got a paper cut while visiting Johnny and the next day, the poor lad had been put in traction. "Oh...nothing happened. I just fell down the stairs afterward, is all." An excuse he'd never believe.

Barrett nodded his head and looked her over. "Glad you ain' scratched up. That Stripes seems like a nice guy. Takes care o' you bettah dan Cloud, come to thinkka it. You was right. I ovahreacted."

Tifa blinked again. She found the bathroom in the room and looked at her forehead in the mirror. There was nothing there, except for a tiny smudge of dried blood. No scar, no nothing. She looked at her hand. There was no blood on it except underneath her fingernails. What was going on here?

*** ***

Lingering by the sea, Stripes watched the waves roll back and forth along the shore. He closed his eyes, and sat down on the sand. It was just beginning to get warm when he crawled out of the sea, barely human again. He closed his eyes, reaching out with his mind for the warm presence he had been in the company of before emerging from the sea. He had convinced himself that it had been JENOVA, but after that last bout with Aeris' Ghost, he wasn't so sure anymore. He had known JENOVA to absorb and combine herself with host DNA, but never to heal. He'd discovered that he had the power a while back, and that maybe it had developed as a result of him needing it as a tattoo artist, but there was something a little too suspicious now.

Hey...HEY...are you still out there?

Stripes must have sat there for fifteen minutes before reaching out again. He was freezing now. I shouldn't have sat down...

HELLOOO?

~AHA! So you LIED to me about JENOVA being out of the picture!~

Stripes jumped up and frowned with his jowels. "Jesus Christ, Lucrecia, don't you have anything better to do?"

Lucrecia adjusted her ghostly self indignantly. ~I knew you were going to put the planet in jeopardy again!~

"Great, look, why don't you tell that to 'Aeris' and she'll push Cloud out into the open and we can have a battle to the death and everything will be okay?" Stripes retorted, making sure to use lots of flamboyant hand gestures.

~Listen, I know when you're plotting, Hojo! Don't think I'm going to turn my back on this!~

Stripes threw his arms down in frustration. "Lucrecia, can you stop acting like a cartoon character for just ONE second?"

Please...

Stripes and Lucrecia stopped in mid-bicker as a blue circle of light formed on the water. Lucrecia found herself unable to move, and Stripes' was miraculously dry again. That was the voice they had both come to know as JENOVA's.

This is all just a big, terrible misunderstanding!

Stripes walked toward the circle of light. It was pretty far out, but he stopped as he saw the ghostly blue form of JENOVA appear on the water above the circle. "You're not JENOVA..."

Lucrecia floated back down to the ground and let her feet, as they were, touch the sand. Stripes looked back at her. "I KNOW you can feel this, too, Lu."

Lucrecia blinked and folded her arms across her chest, frowning, but not protesting.

'JENOVA' began to flicker out, and Stripes plunged into the water towards her. "Wait!"

But it was too late...

Stripes turned to look back at Lucrecia, but she was gone, too.

"Fuck."

Stripes sloshed back to the shore, the cold air stinging him once again. He squinted at something shiny and black on the shoreline. Once he was out of the water, he discovered that it was a pair of sunglasses. He picked them up, shook the sand off of them, and put them on. He sighed and walked back home.

***

Stripes studied his new pair of sunglasses in his bathroom. They were just about the same pair that had just gotten broken. He frowned. I know that's not JENOVA. I wanted to believe that it was...but... Musing before about it, he had never known JENOVA to heal. Stripes had never tried to heal anything more than the bleeding and scarring caused by tattoos, but he knew that he could do quite a bit if he tried. Stripes felt his face and rubbed his hand across the scars Vincent had given him in that battle five years ago. He contemplated getting rid of them. He could do it without much conscious thought, but he wanted to keep them for some reason. As a reminder that he had been wrong. Also as a reminder that Vincent had forgiven him. He didn't understand why, but he remembered, as he lay dying on the cold plates of the Sister Ray platform, someone who considered him his arch-enemy say "Rest in peace, Hojo."

He wondered what had gone on these past five years that turned Vincent into such a pompous popular figure...Not that it particularly mattered to him. Stripes was one of those people who didn't particularly care to be well liked...except, of course, to the people he cared about.

Tifa...

Something dawned on him then... Stripes took off his glasses and looked at himself in the mirror. He sneered automatically, as he always did.

She just bared her soul to me... he agonized, raising his left hand and punching the mirror with all the strength he could muster.

ARG!

His fist connected with the hated slab of polished glass, the plastic shell that was supposedly a medicine cabinet and halfway into the wall behind it. Was it JENOVA's strength also powered his bleeding hand back out of the wall? Blood began to trickle its way down past his wrist and he opened his hand.

...And all I could think of was myself. Again! Why does it always come down to that? Me versus the good of human civilization...things shouldn't be so black and white like that. There has to be some kind of middle ground between selfish and selfless...

~Is that something your father taught you?~

"Ah," Stripes said, picking glass out of his bleeding hand, "she shrieks."

~Don't be snide with me, Arg. I was just wondering why you were so cruel to that poor girl when she needed your affection instead of your analyzation. So much for being reformed.~

"What did you call me?"

~I said, don't be snide with me, Hojo!~

"You didn't call me Hojo just then. You called me Arg."

~Of course I called you Hojo. I don't know what else to call you. Even when I was your wife, you refused to let me know your first name!~

Stripes knotted his brow and thought for a moment. "A, R, G. Arg."

Lucrecia's ghost raised an ethereal eyebrow. ~A, R, G, Hojo?~

Stripes scratched his head and tried again. "You called me ARGH."

~I called you Argh?~

"You called me Arg."

It was Lucrecia's turn to scratch her head. ~Say it again...I could have sworn your mouth only moved once.~

"Arg," he said dully.

Lucrecia squinted and floated closer. ~Say it like you mean it.~

"Arg?"

Lucrecia frowned at him.

"You told me to say it like I meant it. And I mean to say that I am completely confused as to why you called me Arg!"

~That's it! Louder!~

"I'm not in pain. I don't want anyone to come running and save me from anything I don't need saving from."

~You said that about religion, too,~ she mused.

"Your point?"

~You ARE in pain.~

"I am not."

~Your bloody hand is making stains on the floor.~

"It doesn't hurt."

~God damn it, man! Why do you refuse to let anyone know that you hurt? Scream!~

"What's with this sudden interest in my spiritual well-being?"

~I'm curious.~

"I always liked that about you..."

~Scream.~

"I ALWAYS LIKED THAT ABOUT YOU!"

~I'm not trying to play with you, Arg, now say it again or I'll induce it.~

"You can't hurt me."

Lucrecia squeezed the fresh wounds in his hands.

"Come on. You can do better than that, Lucrecia."

~I ordered Aeris to trip Tifa on the stairs.~

"So I could prove my sincerity by healing her."

~Sephiroth is Vincent's. Always was, always will be.~

Stripes narrowed his eyes and contorted his face into a nasty frown. "I won't scream for you now, whore."

~Shit. Sorry.~

Stripes blinked, unimpressed. "So you've dropped the graceful act, have you?"

~You gave Cloud that tattoo.~

Stripes' frown turned soft and apologetic. "Stop reminding me."

~She can't have children probably because of that Nibelheim reactor...your pet project.~

Stripes stopped and looked up at her, floating up by the ceiling. "How did you--?"

~Sephiroth was yours in soul. He was the thing that occupied you. Gave your life meaning. He was funny. He was popular. He was famous. You taught him how to get there.~

Stripes turned his head level, blinked back tears, sighed and walked across the hallway into his bedroom. Lucrecia followed him.

She floated around his CD player, observed his CD tower and zapped the track she wanted onto the remaining space of the CD in the machine. Being one of the vengeful dead was fun in her case. She had lots of powers to play with. The Les Miserables CD whirred around in the player, skipping to its newfound last track: O Holy Night, as sung by the Midgar Neutered Boys' Choir.

Lucrecia flew around the room until she faced Hojo, standing at the foot of his bed, staring at the backboard with dead eyes. She smiled an awful grin as the voices of the honey-throated young geldings of the Midgar Boys' Choir began to stroke their audience's ears.

O holy night,
The stars were brightly shining,
It was the night of our dear Savior's birth.

~Sephiroth died young,~ Lucrecia intoned, keeping in time with the breaks in the music.

Stripes bit his lip and began to stare at the backboard with military ferocity.

Long lay the world
In sin and anger, pining,
Till he appeared and the soul found its worth...

~And it was your fault.~

Lucrecia was grinning at him, taking every bit of pleasure she could from his pain. Everything she said was true. Sephiroth had gotten himself impaled on the sword he himself had commissioned for him. Sephiroth had gone crazy from reading things he himself had written in the library and not had the sense to lock away. Even though he knew the boy was to be stationed in Nibelheim. Sephiroth had drowned in the reactor Daddy had designed. Stripes shut his eyes and put his hand over his mouth as he frowned, holding back a wail.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,

Lucrecia smiled. ~I knew you knew it.~

No. I can't let her see she can hurt me like this. I've got to be strong, Stripes told himself.

~Why do you hide it from yourself when everyone else sees?~

It was too much.

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

~Everyone knows, Arg.~

Stripes felt as if he were going to explode.

~Let it out to me.~

He let out a small squeak...

Fall on your knees

Stripes fell to his knees

Oh, hear

And wailed as God Himself

the angel voices

Had torn the skies apart

O night

When His great angel fell

Divine

Into the pits of Hell

O night

Never for them to speak

O night divine...

Again.

As Lucrecia watched him bawl, a tinge of guilt sprinkled her thoughts. Maybe he did deserve this, but one still winced when the hero gutted the villain. It was still gruesome to her. Everything about Hojo had started to seem gruesome to her once she had gotten to know Vincent. She could have pried his soul open and tried to fix his broken heart, for it was still broken by childhood, self-criticism, deep-seated cynicism, or possibly simple mental illness she may not have been able to fix.

Whatever it was, it was something she did not know. She had grown up normally, no broken family, no abusive parents, no one teased her, no mentors she didn't break her back running around trying to please, nobody in her family had been mentally ill, so she had no idea what it was like.

And she did not want to know what any of it was like. Vincent had shown her that the world was a beautiful place if you believed in it. He had lifted her out of her work rut because he respected and adored her sincerely. She wasn't about to dive into someone else's problem and try to drag them out of it. The world was too beautiful a place for her to be doing that.

Try to untie the knot that choked her husband's soul? Someone she had planned to spend the rest of her life with? Bah. She didn't have time for that then. There was the Project. There was Gast. There was Jenova. And, of course, there was Vincent.

Of course she wanted him to get better. She just didn't want to be the one to do it. What would he think? Would he suspect? Would he take it the wrong way? Would he charge at her like a madman?

Never. Hojo had been waiting for nearly a year for her to try and unravel him. He waited for her. Waited. And waited. The Project came up, and he took Lucrecia with him in the hopes she would at least ask him a question. He would have told her everything. Everything! All he was waiting for was for her to even hint at it.

He waited.

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.


Waited.

Long live His truth, and may it last forever,
For in His name all discordant noise shall cease.

He got tired of waiting. This project was getting incredibly interesting.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.

Vincent had distracted her! That meddling bastard! Now his chance was blown to bare his soul to the only person he had ever thought of baring it to. It hurt him more deeply than he ever thought it did.

And he buried himself deeper and deeper to dull the pain. She became more and more hopeless about her ability to help him. They became all but dead to each other. And then turning Vincent into whatever he was after he had tried to break him out of his comfort zone, Lucrecia did become dead to him. And after Sephiroth, dead for real.

Fall

It's said that every soul

on your knees

Has its own unique name

Oh, hear

Each driving frequency

The angel voices

Expressing joy or pain

O night

When people find their own

Divine

is quite extremely rare

O night

But tis even rarer still

O night divine

When people share.


Hojo knew the sound his soul made. He had spent years trying to bury it in study and research, experiments and other such distractions. He had built a career on avoiding his pain. It built up after sixty five years of containment. It permeated the walls of Hell while the adjudicator toyed with him during the past five years. Yes, he knew the sound his soul made quite well.

That sound was Arg.

Three little letters contained the sheer power of understatement. Arg was eternal. Never-ending. Could be muffled with distraction and denial, but never extinguished. Lucrecia had held the power to extinguish it, but she had never used it. She had deserted him. She had added to the pain. Deliberately. But he had kept its true sound from her. Now fifty years too late, he belted it out for her, and the entire block to hear.

"ARG!"

Lucrecia was hit by the sheer force of it. He only gave her ten seconds of his pain, but it was enough. She blinked after he was done. ~He hears that all the time...~ she thought, observing him containing muffled sobs from his position, collapsed on the floor, fists in his eyes.

~He has heard that since he was a child...~ she thought, making note of his body being practically in the fetal position. ~...heard it before he even deserved to hear it.~

Stripes began to come out of it. Funny. After years of containing it, letting out his pain made him feel better than anything he had done as Hojo.

Would it be a good idea to say anything? Ohh, fifty years and you don't learn a thing, Lucrecia!

"I'm sorry. I should have told you myself. I really wanted to. I was waiting for you to make a move you had no idea how to do, no idea you had to do. It was wrong of me to expect anything like that," he said.

~I was too afraid to ask. I really wanted to, but I thought you would push me away.~

"I would never--"

~But you did! Whenever I would ask you your first name, you would start distracting me with jokes or something and if I persisted, you would get all tight-lipped. You gave me no room to work in.~

"My first name isn't important, Lucrecia. Wasn't, isn't, never will be."

~Then what was I supposed to call you that nobody else was allowed to?~

"Anything you wanted...but my first name."

~Why?~

"Because it's what my parents called me. They hated me, they never wanted me, and they made sure I knew about it. The kids I went to school with before I left Wutai knew it, too. They hated me. They thought I thought I was better than them, just because my family was rich. Gast knew it at first when he rescued me from that awful place, but I asked him not to call me anything but Hojo."

~And he never asked why?~

"Never. He was either a very trusting man or a very busy man who never really had the time to care about little things like that."

~What did you think he was?~

"I think he was both."

~So, Gast knows your name and I still don't? I'm your wife, God dammit!~

"Actually, I was hoping you would eventually call me by my frequency."

~Frequency?~

"I don't like to call it a soul name, because it can change...but for lack of a better term, I was hoping you could call me by it...or better yet, change it."

~I can call you Arg now if you want.~

"No, that's all right. I don't want you to call me that, actually."

~Make up your mind!~

"Look who's talking! No, I really don't like having my soul scream in constant agony. The only reason I wanted you to know it so badly was so hopefully we could work together to change it."

~To what? Squee?~

Hojo threw her a tried look. "No. Don't be immature. When it changes, I'm not sure what it's going to change to. Then I can finally rest. It'll be Stripes' soul name. Arg and Hojo are dying. You could have killed Arg once."

~Why not now?~

"I don't need anyone's help. I am really truly the only person who can change the way I think about me. And besides, you're dead."

~That's right. Vengeful dead! And when you strike at him with your petty little crying heart, I'll kill you for real so you stay dead and don't get any more second chances you don't deserve!~

"Hiding behind that big cloud of one-sidedness again."

~Oh, yeah? Who's going to kill off Arg for you, then? Your little adolescent girlfriend?~

Stripes stopped and glared at her. "...She's not my girlfriend."

Lucrecia turned her head. ~Hmph. You're pathetic. That's what makes you so different from Vincent. At least he had the guts to admit he loved a girl,~ she jeered, departing through the wall.

Stripes blinked and stared at the spot in the ceiling she had disappeared into, her last words ringing in his ears like feedback. He started to fume, biting his lip to hold back another bout of tears. "I do have the guts to admit I love a girl. I just haven't admitted it to Tifa because I don't..." Stripes shut his eyes tightly, trying to block out the image of his former wife. "...I don't love anyone like that...except for you, Lucrecia."


Chapter 12
Index