STRIPES: CHAPTER THIRTEEN
by K. Trotta


Early in the morning about a week later, Tifa walked into the alleyway, passing Stripes' place on the way. She looked up to see if he was in his window, watching her. He wasn't.

He was on the roof watching her.

Stripes sighed to himself, his boot propped up on the roof, gazing down at her through his sunglasses. He waved to her, but he knew she couldn't see him. She didn't need to deal with him right now. There was a divorce settlement to take care of...and a little bit of re-management to be done at AVALANCHE Headquarters.

Do I like her? Stripes thought to himself. She's all business when she puts her mind to it, not very feminine except for in form, and not too bright. Heh. The other one was a little too bright for me, I suppose... I guess...maybe I like her because I like her. No...what kind of reason is that? But people have supposedly fallen in love for less-backed reasons. ...and have had their relationships go up in flames... He sighed and shook his head. I don't ever want to go through that again. Do I like Tifa because I think she'll never screw me over like Lucrecia did? Or is it...I like playing the part that Turk was playing? Stealing her away from Cloud like Vincent stole Lucrecia away from me? I don't know. Well...she probably won't get a chance to show me why...or if...I'll love her when she starts to hate me when I tell her who I was...

Stripes sighed again and pushed his stupid stringgy bangs back from his forehead. Something he never dared do before he died, as his forehead used to be twice the size that it was presently. When Tifa rounded the corner, he put his hands over his head and laughed to himself. "Set your goals a little too high this time, eh? Hah...forget it. She's out of your league..."

He paused, putting his hand to his chin. Yes, but wasn't that the same thing you thought about every woman you've had an interest in? she almost kissed you last week, remember?

The wind whistled through the city, blowing Stripes' hair to the side and making the maroon silk shirt he was wearing over his wifebeater ripple semi-majestically.

It was a cold wind.

Lucrecia was perched on her radio antenna, about 30 feet above the city. She could see everything from there. ~It feels as if I'm finally able to see everything now. I understand. Hojo... Is it too late for you...is it to late for me? Is it too late for us?~ she thought, following the little maroon dot who sat through high school admiring her from a distance, finally getting up the courage to ask for a dance at their senior Prom night...

Stripes jumped onto the roof of the next building and walked parallel to Tifa. He knew she was beginning to sense him around her. He followed her down to Junon's main street and jumped off the roof into an alleyway, landing squarely on his feet. Shiny JENOVA powers, indeed. He shoved himself out into the street behind her with a grunt. "Ugh...watch where you're going, asshole!"

Lucrecia watched Stripes match Tifa's pace with increasing despair. She flew closer to them, just out of the range she thought he could sense her.

Tifa blinked and turned around to Stripes rubbing his shoulder and glaring at the imaginary assailant. "Stripes! W-what are you doing here?"

"Stalking you," he said bashfully, looking at the ground. They hadn't spoken for a week, but it felt like an eternity.

Tifa managed a sideways grin and folded her briefcase up against her chest. "I'm...sorry I yelled at you last week, Stripes."

"It's all right. I'm sort of used to it by now," he said, tight-rope walking along the curb. A car whizzed by, nearly removing him of his left arm. The driver honked his horn at him and Stripes smiled, skipping along the sidewalk, chuckling to himself. Heh...Scarlet's boyfriend...number seventeen, he recalled.

Lucrecia watched calmly.

Tifa held her suitcase tighter. "You really shouldn't have to get used to things like that, you know. I truly am sorry for last week, Stripes."

"I believe you," Stripes said innocently, doing a cartwheel and rubbing the grime off his hands.

Tifa turned around and walked backwards. "My, you're spry today..."

Stripes gave her a wink, accompanied with a grin the Wolf gave Little Red Riding Hood. "Think it might have been something I ate for breakfast. Maybe just enjoying being a young man agai--just kind of..." he shook his head. "I had a cup of tea this morning. It's got more caffeine in it than coffee."

Tifa smiled, then all pretense of genial demeanor left her. "Stripes, what happened to me that night? I fell down the stairs and...I got cut...didn't I?"

Stripes' grin faded as well. "I'm sorry you did. It doesn't look so bad today, though."

"Probably because it stopped existing between the time I left and the time I got to my room at Ed's," she said, giving him a suspicious look.

Stripes folded his arms over his waist and cocked an eyebrow. "Are you accusing me of healing you, Miss Lockheart?"

"Accusing you of--" she stopped. "Wait a second, what am I thinking? Who in the world BLAMES another person for relieving their pain? Well...did you do that?" Tifa faltered.

"Do what?"

Tifa shoved him back a little with a grin. "Did you heal me?"

"...Yeah. I'm sorry."

Tifa smiled. "D...don't be sorry, Stripes. I'm the one who should be sorry. I yelled at you..."

Stripes shook his head. "Hey. You had a good reason to. I should have told you about that stupid scribble on Cloud's arm. I really should have. But I didn't. I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't want to talk to me ever again."

Tifa shook her head. "No. I realized that...that everything you've done, you've done to help me. I'm sorry I was too thick-headed to realize it at first."

The couple stopped at a corner. Heavy traffic flooded the street, despite it being seven o' clock in the morning. Tifa put down her briefcase and put her arms around Stripes' slender waist. "WOAH!"

Lucrecia hung her head.

"I'm sorry if I'm offending you, but I--"

Stripes pushed her gently away and kissed her hand. "Listen. You don't know what you're getting yourself into, Tifa. You don't know who I am, or where I come from, or even my real name. And I don't think you want to know. I don't even have the right to stand in your presence from what I've done to you in the past."

Tifa blinked. "In the past?"

"I...don't think we should discuss this in public. But, I will tell you this. I died five years ago. If you want to know anything more, I beseech you, PLEASE think it over before you see me again. You know where my house is."

"Stripes, you didn't have to tell me anything about who you WERE. It's who you ARE, right here, right now, that I'm in lo--"

Stripes put his hand over her mouth, a hurt expression on his face. "You would never say that if you knew who I really was, Tifa. And I think I need to tell you about what I was...because a...a relationship is built on trust. I want you to know the truth about me. After I tell you, you can hate me all you want. You can deny that I am not who I say I am for a thousand years, and it won't make a difference. You can turn me in to the Turks, or Cloud, or anyone."

"Why? Why do you trust me with something like that?"

"Because I l...no. No, I'm...I...I-I can't say that until you know who I am. I trust you, I respect you. I like you, Tifa Lockheart. A lot. You are...ten times all the friends I ever thought I had before I died. You're a good person. And I'm sorry that I'm the one that got you into the mess you're in now."

Tifa blinked as Stripes turned around and ran back to his house. The light grey sky rumbled, and the wind blew through her hair. "Stripes...why does it matter so much?"

Lucrecia stood in the same place she had been, not caring that it had started to rain. Not caring that Stripes ran right past her, saw her, and didn't stop.

She began to follow him back to his house, and as he crossed the street, the early morning bus shot past behind him. Lucrecia's image flickered faintly through half a dozen commuters, but only one person noticed her. ~Hojo! Hojo, come back! Come back! I'm here! Hojo! Tell me everything! Tell me! I'll listen! I promise!~

A young man with black hair and icy eyes on the bus pulled his black shroud closer to him for warmth, smiling at her.

***

Stripes paced the bar as Rude, Reno and Elena looked at him with odd expressions. "What if she comes tonight and I'm in here? Is my hair straight...are my sunglasses dark enough?" were among several of his nervous mutterings.

Elena giggled and Reno cocked an eyebrow. "What's with him?" the red-haired Turk asked.

Rude sat up from his beer and replied to Reno's inquiry with severe solemnity. "That's not exactly the question. The proper thing to ask is: 'What's not with him?'"

Reno blinked, dumbfounded. "Huh?"

"Stripes likes Tifa and he's going to tell her tonight or whenever," Rude said gloomily, sipping his beer through a festive pink curly straw.

"OH!" Reno said, perking up. "Aww...poor Rude. You still like Tifa, don't you?" he continued, buffing his colleague's head with his sleeve sympathetically.

Rude slurped morosely and groaned. "No...no, not really. It was only really a half-assed crush. That's all it was."

"Then how come you're so down in the mouth, Rude?" Elena asked.

"I'm venting," the bald Turk said, taking a nice, long slurp and directing it at Stripes, obviously oblivious.

Reno blinked anxiously. "Maybe you should vent somewhere else, like, maybe possibly out of visual range of the person you're mad at?"

"NO."

Reno gulped, and Rude went back to slurping at his pink straw.

***

Tifa gazed at her divorce papers and grinned mischeviously. She stuffed them in her briefcase and waked briskly to the AVALANCHE Building.

She posted several notices in all the women's bathrooms, each reading somewhere along the lines of this:

ATTENTION FEMALE EMPLOYEES OF AVALANCHE:
Please evacuate the area around Cloud Strife.
His ex-wife has foolishly turned him into a crazed
nymphomaniac.
Monsieur Le Presidente has brutally beaten, raped, and
mentally scarred his secretary, Miss Yuffie Kisaragi.
It is advised that you stay more than 200 feet away from
Mr. Strife at all times.
This notice is being posted for your personal safety,
and even though it may look like a prank, it is most definately
not one.
Thank you for your time,

Tifa Lockheart
Former Wife of AVALANCE Inc.'s Chief Executive Officer.

***

Stripes had calmed down, and was once again pulled into a card game with the Turks. Rude was winning. And quite proud of that fact, since they were playing for real money this time. Stripes had lost his last Heidegger Series 5000 gil bill to him. He resented that. Those were rare. But not as rare as the Gast Series 2 gil coin. Or the Hojo Series 2000 gil bill, which he had stashed away in the bottom of his wallet, poised to be the first element in Tifa's history lesson, if she was to come by this evening or the next.

After cleaning out his three companions, Rude shoved his drunken self over to the pinball machines and spent half his loot. After losing 100 consecutive games, Rude gave up on the pinball machines and sloshed his way back to his comrades and Stripes' table, losing all the money he won back to them. Stripes was a gracious winner, though. He let Rude keep the Heidegger Series 5000.

Rude had finished venting for the night, but he most certainly wasn't done drinking. Halfway into the night, he shook hands with Stripes. "Yer mah friend, Stripes," he slurred.

Stripes cleared his throat and nodded. "You've been more than helpful on more than one occasion, Rude. Thank you."

"An' I dun mind you takin' careo Tifa. Iz jes fine with me. Cos I trusts ya, Schtripes...::hic::..."

Stripes sunk till his head was on the table, mortified despite his blood alchohol level. "Rude...Tifa and I aren't..."

"Hell, Stripes, iss obvious the way you feel about her. The way you look at her when she's not looking...and the way she looks at you when you're not looking. She really likesh you. You guyshe have wunnerful kemischtry. It'sch like, God took His Leggos and built the two o' ya for each other, ya know?" Reno interjected. Stripes was purple with mortification by now.

Reno continued: "But I guess He went a lil overboard on the...you know...heh heh."

"Hey, He's God, I dun keshtion His motives...even if it DOES end up with her bein' kinna dishperperperortionate," Rude said.

"Poor chick. Thass gotta be painful for her back. She'sh an anotomikakkal mishap," Reno drawled, raising his glass, "Here's to God. He's a Cool Guy."

Rude raised his glass, and he and Reno interlocked their elbows, quaffing the :P Beer down.

Reno wiped his mouth off on his sleeve and giggled. "You be sure to tell me if they're real or not, okay, Schtripes?"

Stripes closed his eyes and shook his head. All he saw was Lucrecia. He mooshed his face with his hand and shot an unimpressed look at the Turk. "Cut it out, Reno. It's not like that," he lied. He'd come to love Tifa's spirit, but it was hard to ignore her physically.

Elena had been looming over them for most of their conversation and whapped both of their heads with a rolled-up newspaper. "LISTEN to you! Jesus, you BOYS sometimes!"

"What? We're complementing Tifa!" Reno said with a smile, holding up his glass, "Cos she's a cool guy, am I right, Stripes?"

Stripes wasn't in the mood to drink anymore. "Leave me out of it."

"Yeah! Hey, I think we should form a little group here. How about we all Turks here form an alliance, side with Tifa? In case she tries to take over AVALANCHE? Pertect her from Clod? Help 'er build a perdy future? Eh? Sound good?" Rude suggested.

Reno nodded and held up his glass.

Elena folded her arms. "Isn't stuff like that that starts Trojan Wars?"

"Not th' kind I'm thinkin' of," Reno giggled.

Elena punched him in the head and swirled her :P with her finger. Rude came to his best friend's rescue. "Nono, Elena-dear. The Trojan war started cozza a buncha Greek guys pledged their loyalty to Helen, and they would stan' by whoever one ovvem got her hand in marriage an' pertect her from schtuff. Then da Trojan dude stole 'er an' everybody went ta war."

Elena folded her arms. "Doesn't sound too different from what you're proposing."

Rude patted his head. "Damn, yer a surly drunk, Elena."

"Haha...hey, Stripes, wanna be one of us, too?" Reno asked.

Stripes blinked. His friends in blue uniforms were smiling, waiting for an answer. Blue uniforms. How long ago was it that I brainwashed myself into hating people in that uniform? It doesn't matter anymore that they're Turks. They're not just some Turks. They're Rude, Elena and Reno. And they're my friends. He smiled. "Here's to starting the Iliad all over again."

And the merriment and drunkenness continued throughout the night...

***

Sunder woke to the view of a balding, grey-haired, plump little man in an accountants' visor. He blinked.

The man grinned. "There we are, son...whassyer name, kiddo?"

"S-s-sunder, sir. My name's Sunder Marigasco. Rookie Turk. C Block, Junon."

"You've been out cold all day," the old man said.

"Who...are you? Where am I?" Sunder asked

The man held out his hand. "Kingsley. You're here at the headquarters of Junon Times. Timothy found you on the stairs last night, passed out."

"Timothy?" Sunder blinked. Kingsley pointed upwards and Sunder tilted his head back. Clinging like a spider to the roof was a young man, just a little older than Sunder himself, with longish, black hair, drawn back into a ponytail. Sunder could have sworn that if the color of his eyes were any paler, they'd be white. He gulped. The young man made no sound, nor twitched a muscle. If Kingsley hadn't pointed him out, Sunder could have gone days without even noticing him. "Timothy, why don't you say hi to Sunder?"

"Hi to Sunder," Timothy replied, deadpan.

Sunder blinked. This was the man that saved him, but he had a very bad feeling about him. "Will you see to it that Sunder gets something to eat, Timothy?"

Timothy nodded.

"Good. I have some work to do, Sunder. The bathroom's on the right. Once you think you're strong enough, go wash up, put these clothes on and Timothy will show you to dinner," Kingsley said, pointing to a neatly folded stack of clothes on the end table as he left.

Sunder laid back and stared up at Timothy. Timothy stared back with his icy eyes. Icy eyes... Sunder thought, recalling his mission for the Turks. Recalling the picture of Hojo Sargent Valentine had posted up for Mr. Strife. Icy eyes! Sunder opened his eyes wide, half out of fright, half out of anticipation. "IT'S YOU!!"

Timothy gasped as Sunder fumbled for his gun and pointed it at him. He pursed his lips and his heart beat faster. "Kingsley...come back!" he whispered, so softly that not even Sunder heard him.

BANG!

There was a loud crash, and Kingsley waddled as fast as he could back into the room he had left Sunder in and looked around. Both Sunder, Timothy, and the dry clothes were gone. "What was that? Sunder? Timothy?!"

The window was broken.


Chapter 14
Index