STRIPES: CHAPTER FOURTEEN
by K. Trotta


Tifa passed by Stripes' on her way to Ed's from the bathrooms of the AVALANCHE building, rushing for the door, but found it dark. She took her hand off the doorknob and walked into Ed's.

He didn't notice her walk in. He was stilll playing cards with the Turks. Elena saw her, though, and waved. Tifa shook her head, and Elena stopped. Tifa walked up the stairs and leaned on the banister, gazing down at Stripes. She saw him at an odd angle, but it was better than nothing. Oh, look. He finally cut the blonde parts of his hair off...Did he do it for me?

"I'll see your blue Skittle, and I'll raise you a green."

Probably not,
she sighed. Should I have stopped to hug him on the street like that? Maybe I scared him.

"Stripes..." she said softly, pausing, then turning around and walking to her room.

***

Another day passed. Rude found himself standing outside Stripes' tattoo parlor and staring at the door. He certainly intended to go in, but he was stalling. He wanted a tattoo. He'd wanted one for some time, now, but he coudn't think of any way to describe it, so he had held off. He put his head down and thought some more on it. It was getting cold. Shit. Might as well just go in...

Stripes heard the bell on the door ring and tripped over himself trying to get out of bed. He looked at his useless alarm clock. It was 2pm. Damn. I don't remember staying up all that late last night...

"Stripes?!"

"Be down in a second!" Stripes yelled back, putting on his sunglasses and a clean pair of pants.

"All right," Rude replied, taking a look around the waiting room. He'd spiffed it up since Rude had been there last. A new red leather couch sat by the display window. He sat down, and he found himself more amused than he thought he'd ever be with a piece of furniture as the cushions slowly deflated with his weight.

"What's up?" Stripes asked him conversationally, waving as he was coming down the stairs.

Rude stood up, re-adjusting his gloves. "I actually came to get a tattoo."

Stripes blinked. "Are you serious?"

Rude nodded. "Yeah. I was kinda feeling left out of the loop."

"What loop? The only people you know with tattoos that I've done are Elena and Ed."

"And you," Rude smiled.

Stripes rolled his eyes. "Yes, and me. O-kay. Here," he said, putting up the guestbook, "sign."

Rude signed his name. He was 23. "I know what I want, but I've been having trouble trying to describe it to other people..."

"That's not a problem," Stripes said, leading him into the parlor and opening up several flash books. "You might be able to find it in one of these."

Rude educated himself in the sample art and shook his head. "No, it's not in here. It's kinda tribal-like, but not in here. See, I want it on my head. I want the front to look like there's these three claw-marks..." he said, putting his hand up around on his forehead and trying to place where they would be. He looked ridiculous. "Or lines, or something. Pointed. Thick. Black. Tribal-like. And then from the top, they continue back to the top of the back of my head," he said, running his fingers along his head. "Does that make any sense?"

Stripes put a hand to his chin, trying to convert the description into design. "I think so...here, let me get some paints and stuff. You wait there in front of the mirror," he said, dashing across the hall for his art supplies.

Rude waited in front of the mirror for a second, putting his head down on the backwards-turned chair and closing his eyes. He looked up as he felt a cold wind at his back. He stood up, but it was gone. He shook his head and waited for Stripes to come back.

Stripes came back into the room with a cheap set of watercolors, a cup of water and a paintbrush clenched in his teeth. "Okay," he said, wetting the paint and standing between Rude and the mirror, "so, basically just three strokes on the top of your head..." he said, painting in the mockup.

Rude squinched his face up as Stripes painted. The paint was really really cold. Why is everything so cold here today? he wondered.

Stripes stood back and let Rude look in the mirror. "Like that?"

Rude pondered it for a bit. He'd gotten the pointiness of the strokes right, but it looked a bit too uniform. "Can you make the one in the middle, like, really really thick?"

Stripes fixed it for him.

"Awesome!"

"All right, then, looks like we're in business!" Stripes chirped, clapping his hands and pointing at Rude before diving into the supply room again for his pen.

***

As Stripes was bandaging his head, a random thought occured to Rude. "Haven't seen Tifa around here lately."

Stripes sighed. "She's busy...I think."

"Divorce stuff?"

"Most likely."

"I noticed that E. White name of hers in your guestbook. Did she ever get a tattoo?"

"No, actually. She signed it by accident. Thought this was the inn," Stripes said, laughing a little.

"Hmm, so no intentions of getting one, either?"

"Don't think so."

Rude nodded. "It's kinda funny. Didn't Cloud get one done by you, too...?"

"Yeah, he did," Stripes said, frowning at the floor.

"Well, Tifa signed, and didn't get one, and Cloud didn't sign, and got one."

"So...?"

Rude shrugged. "Just think that's kinda funny, is all."

Stripes finished the bandages up and briefed him in tattoo-care. Then he led his friend downstairs again. Sunglasses met sunglasses. They stared suspiciously at each other for fifteen minutes. "You know..." Stripes said at length, "...one of us is gunna hafta budge one of these days."

Rude smirked. "It's not gunna be me, that's for sure, pal."

Stripes smirked, putting his sunglasses on his head. "I suppose you got me now..." he said, letting him see his scary-ass, icy-blue eyes, "I'm suprised you remembered what I said to you when Sephiroth died. Memories are funny things, don't you agree?"

Rude's mouth dropped open. "This is a joke," he said, standing back and pointing, a little bit of a smile forming on his astonished face. "You're..."

"Yuto Hojo," Stripes said, putting his sunglasses back on his face.

"Oh my GOD!"

"There. I did my part, now take off those damn sunglasses."

Rude was still running around, agog. "Oh my GOD, Stripes is Hojo!!"

"Yes, we covered that, now--"

"STRIPES IS HOJO!!!"

Stripes covered his mouth. "Not so loud! You're the first one I've told, and Cloud wants me reeled in, in case you haven't noticed."

Rude blinked as Stripes took his hand off. "Does Tifa know?"

Stripes shook his head. "No, but that's the first thing we're gunna talk about if she ever comes over again."

"Don't you know how many people HATE you, want to see you hanged, killed, gutted, roasted on an open spit for what you've done?!"

"Yes, but they're all basically my friends at this point, now aren't they?"

"Except Cloud."

"And Vincent."

"God...how the HELL did you survive?! And how the Hell did you get so...young?"

Stripes looked at his chevronned forearm, thinking of how to explain it. "You remember JENOVA, do you not?"

Rude squinted. "Yes..."

"She brought me back. Spat me out of Junon Harbor around about two months before Tifa showed up on my doorstep. She gave me...considerable power over my form..." Stripes demonstrated this by morphing an arm into a blade. "She told me that someone had to be stopped."

"You have that kind of power...and you're not taking over the world or anything...?"

"No. I don't really want that. I never really wanted that. I just didn't realize what I was doing 90% of my life. It's amazing how five years of Hell can change a person's mind."

"Five years of Hell?"

"It's rather confusing for me, as well. In fact, it might not have been that I was actually dead. Maybe I just got broken down into lifestream bits on the Sister Ray and rematerialized in the harbor...but I remember the last five years. A black field, and a projector, showing me the worst parts of my life, non-stop. Every regret, every mistake, every crime, every misjudgement and act of ignorance and selfishness...over and over. Until I heard her voice. She asked me what I wanted to do, now that I had seen all of this. I told her that I wanted to fix things, to do all that I could to make things right again..."

"Damn..." Rude said.

"I'm doing the best I can. Unfortunately, I really don't think that's enough. I don't know exactly what's up with Cloud, but something is definately wrong, and he has gotten himself into a position that's much too powerful for him to handle."

Rude nodded. "This is weird as hell. I start out with the ShinRa...then I'm with AVALANCHE...now...I'm back on ShinRa's side again?"

Stripes shook his head. "You're on your own side. Just because you agree with me doesn't have to mean anything. ShinRa is dead, and quite honestly, so is Hojo. What's more important is that things get set on the right path."

Rude nodded.

"I digress... Your sunglasses?"

Rude looked at him as if he'd grown three heads. "Oh, come on now..."

Stripes lifted his eyebrows. "I took off mine. And I don't think you've got a story like this to hide behind tinted lenses."

Rude huffed and took off his sunglasses, pale gray eyes revealed. "Happy now?"

Stripes grinned, then nodded. "Impressive."

Rude put his sunglasses back on. "Why did you want me to do that?"

"Just to see."

"Okay...so, you found salvation in hating yourself, is it?"

Stripes blinked at the rapid change of subject. "Well...as much as it's let me see where I went wrong...it's more trouble than it's worth. I've been trying to find a solution to this before I talk to Tifa next...but I can't just forget what I've done. I'm a total monster. You have no idea how much better off the world would have been if I had died young."

"You know that you should love yourself first before trying to love someone else..."

"I know. And I'm trying. I've started over very nicely as Stripes, but if I were never Hojo, I'd have made all the same mistakes and miscommunications over again. I can't forget that."

Rude folded his arms. "I suppose then it's a matter of struggling with yourself. Maybe you should leave Tifa out of it until you figure it all out. It won't do any good for you both to end up more messed up than you already are."

"Are you sure? I mean, I've been brave enough to try and reveal who I was to her, but...I'm not sure how she'll take it."

"Are you counting on her being repulsed by who you were? If you're not, then I suggest you do some more soul-searching. I don't want to see her hurt by you, regardless if you're my friend, regardless of who you were. I think you've changed signifigantly since you've been back. You're doing pretty damn good for yourself. Don't mess it up because you hate yourself. Then all of this would have been for nothing."

Stripes nodded.

"I just have one more question."

"Yes?"

"Why tattoo artist, Hojo?"

"Oh, that. Heh. I've always considered myself an artist. Whether it be on paper, or on flesh, with flesh or clay...it's all the same to me."

"Some of your former designs were really good...but not all of them. I think my favorite were the ShinRa enhanced guard panthers," Rude said conversationally.

Stripes snickered. "I've never been complimented on any of my monsters before. Thank you. I kind of lost my nerve and sense of style near the end there, though."

"Kinda lost EVERYTHING near the end."

"Heh..."

"Well...I think it's about time I go to work. I've got this big case. I hafta go search for some old scientist my boss thinks is back alive. Wish me luck, Stripes?" Rude said, holding out his hand to shake.

Stripes cracked up and smiled at his bald friend. "Of course. Thank you, Rude. I knew I could trust you."

"Of course. You're my friend. And pseudo-honorary Turk," Rude said with a grin and walked out the door.

Oh no, not me, I never lost control. You're face to face with the man who sold the world.

***

Everything was black.
Tifa was running.
Her feet sounded on a hard floor that she couldn't see.
All she could hear besides that was the sound of her heart pounding in her chest and the sound of her lungs pumping air faster than they ever had before.
That was all she heard.
A small light was shed on her and she could see the old polished concrete floor.
Then she heard some dripping of water in the background.
And the sound of someone else breathing up ahead of her.

"Stripes?!" her voice sounded through the void.

She heard Stripes' voice up ahead. He was screaming...then he began to sob.
"STRIPES!!" Tifa gasped, and ran faster, but it seemed the faster she tried to go, the slower she went. Up ahead of her, the background turned red and she saw the silhouette of Stripes doubled over, over something. A body?

"TIFA!!" his voice came from behind her.

She stopped and stared around her, but there was nothing there.
As she turned around, she heard Stripes scream an inhuman, monsterly scream.
His silhouette had turned into something monstrous...but before she could tell what it was, she woke up with a gasp. Cloud's voice rang in her head - "YOU WILL PAY FOR WHAT YOU'VE DONE, JENOVA!!"

Tifa's eyes widened as the nightmare seemed to continue even when she was awake. She put her hands on her face, and then slowly pulled them down to make sure the room was still there. She sighed in relief when her eyes open and saw the other end of the room. She flumped back onto her pillow. It's been three days since I've seen him...

She looked over at her alarm clock...2AM, huh? She was going to see Stripes today even if it killed her. She got dressed in a white turtleneck sweater and jeans, and put on her shoes, walking out the door and turning out the light.

A faint pink light swirled into existence in the air just above her bed.

~Now here it is that everything either falls into place, or falls apart. If Tifa and Stripes don't connect, then my pull over Cloud will weaken,~ the pinkness with the voice of Aeris said, flickering neon green, laughing with her childish voice at first, but fading into a mature cackle.

***

Stripes had gone back to bed after Rude left. It felt good telling somebody who he was. He guessed it could have been slightly more special if he'd told Tifa first, but for some reason, it had been much easier to tell it to someone who was genuinely his friend. He still hadn't sorted out his feelings about Tifa.

Said Tifa found him sleeping, though thrashing around in his bed a bit, shivering. His hair was wet from being in the shower, and all but frozen by the November wind blowing through the open window. Tifa shivered and closed the window, pulling Stripes' blanket over him, trying not to blush as she noticed that more than just his forearms were tattooed. He had three stripes just under his pectorals, and three more that started just above his hips, continuing down into his boxers--

Tifa pulled it over him quickly and stood there for a moment, blushing. After a while, she knelt by his bedside, watching his face as he slept. More peacefully now, that the window was closed and he was covered up. She sat there for a period of time. It seemed rather quick to her, but it was probably rather long, she guessed. "Stripes..."

Stripes stirred, as if in response.

"Who are you, Stripes? Tell me."

Stripes stirred again, opening his eyes, and almost hiccuping as he found Tifa's face not inches away from his. "TIFA!"

"I've decided. I want to know who you are, Stripes."

Stripes blushed, reaching to pull up the blanket that had already been pulled up for him. Mortified beyond belief, he put his head down and pointed his finger towards the door. "Just...give me a moment, please, Tifa..."

Tifa pouted and turned around. "Whatever you used to be isn't all that important to me, Stripes."

At length, after getting dressed, Stripes reached out to put his hand on her shoulder, but staved off the urge. He didn't feel he had the right to touch her, but that didn't change his feelings, sorted or not, for her. He sighed and shook his head. "No, you don't know what you're saying, Tifa..."

"Don't tell me how to feel. I know what you're doing, Stripes. Every action you've taken with me was for my benefit! You cared enough to try and help make my life a lot better! You're my friend, and I love you as a friend...add a little lust and...oh, Hell, it doesn't even have to be completely romantic...but I do love you, Stripes."

Stripes looked at the ground. "You don't need my love. That thing's certain."

Tifa stayed where she was. "Stripes, why don't you just tell me what exactly is so terrible about you?"

Stripes paused a moment, trying to get up the gall to speak. Suddenly, he had no urge to tell her anymore. But it had to be done. He had to tell her. "I-I am responsible for Sephiroth...and Cloud's present messed-up condition. I am responsible for the death of your father. I am responsible for the mass-suffering Mako energy has produced. I am responsible for ShinRa's rise to power. I am responsible for that whole stupid thing with JENOVA. I am responsible for something that almost brought about the end of the world, and also the condition this city is presently in."

Tifa blinked. "You sound like you're confessing to being--"

Stripes looked at her shamefully, reciting slowly, with bitter, red-eyed disgust: "Professor Yuto Hojo. ShinRa Science Division. Employee ID #00512, Class A."

Tifa shifted her weight to take a step back, but she didn't. "You're telling the truth, aren't you?"

Stripes nodded and turned to the side, putting his hand over his face to try and stop himself from crying. He couldn't talk. He was bracing himself for Tifa's next remark and possible attempt to beat him up. He was also choking on his shame. He'd escaped actually dealing with her at all in his previous life. Just one step ahead, like a person dangling a string in front of a cat just out of reach to tease it.

Tifa was thinking the same thing. She liked to think that she hadn't had all that much to deal with Hojo, but his son burnt down her hometown and killed her father. He shoved Cloud and Zack into Mako tanks, had Zack shot when they escaped, let JENOVA play with his mind like a squeeze toy. She hadn't thought much on this in a long time, but it was all coming back to her now. Hojo had had the gall to stay completely out of her way. She hadn't had any idea what was really going on! And he sat back in his fucking beach chair and let it happen! You couldn't hit him, you couldn't hurt him, you couldn't even SEE him! She hadn't even BEEN there when he died! She attended his funeral out of respect for the dead! RESPECT FOR THE DEAD!! Her entire life, he had been sucker-punching her in the head and she wasn't even aware enough to turn around and see who was doing it!

"BASTARD!" She shoved him back.

"Is that the best you can d--" he asked monotonely, but was interrupted by her uppercut.

"BASTARD!! BASTARD! YOU MOTHERFUCKING STRINGPULLING BASTARD! You've been laughing at me even when I had no idea you EXISTED!!" she punched him into his endtable, shattering the body of the lamp that had been set on it.

Stripes repressed the urge to smile. She deserved and needed this chance, and was finally getting it. "My mother hit me harder than that," he coughed.

Tifa bashed his head back against the window until she saw blood. "Bastard!!"

"That's... better..." he coughed.

She beat him until her shirt was so stained with blood that one could never have thought it had been white. Then she bashed him around some more. Stripes strained to stay concious through all of it, not missing the pain of a single blow, but not healing himself enough for Tifa to notice. He was doing it for her. As she beat him into a bloody pulp, he thought to himself, Why did I choose her to be enlightened? To heal? Probably because she was emotionally the worst of them when I started...because she ended up in my house...because I wanted to help anyone who came to me. Does this mean it could have been anyone, not just Tifa? Would anyone cry out like that to a complete stranger like she did? Why won't I let her love me back? Is that fair at all...? How can I get rid of this Arg thing if I don't let anyone in?

The louder he screamed in pain,
the happier she was,
the happier he was.

***

Two hours passed and he was still concious. Tifa was becoming suspicious. "Why aren't you unconcious yet? Are you healing yourself?!"

"I have to. Any normal human...would have been dead by now, and s-seeing as things tend to get numb after you hit them long enough..., pain...dies down. I want to feel...every blow you give me, Tifa," Stripes panted.

"Why are you doing this?"

"Because...it's what you want the most, and deserve. You deserve to see me in pain as much as anyone else does. And you know it," he said, smiling. Neither of them were particularly attractive at the moment, covered with blood from head to toe.

There was something in that "And you know it," that made Tifa cringe. The way his voice rasped aggressively, the way it sounded like an order. An order to hate. Fringed with the slightest bit of...innuendo? Tifa stepped back. "Stop it, Stripes, you're scaring me! This isn't you."

Stripes stood there for a moment, panting. "Oh it's not, is it?"

Tifa stepped toward him again, shaking her head. "You would have helped anyone who came through your door. If I were special, then you would have treated me like I belonged on a glass pedistal. You made me feel human. That's all I've ever wanted to be treated as. I'm not special. I'm not destined to be anything but myself. Cloud used to treat me like that until...he started suddenly remembering Aeris. And I know you aren't Hojo anymore. He used to plan everything out. Anything he couldn't control, he threw a fit over. I suppose it's a fitting punishment for you to be flung out into the real world with the rest of us human beings. How you must hate yourself by now. I'm almost sorry for you. I never knew I could be such good friends with someone I hated so much."

Stripes blinked.

Tifa stepped forward again. "But...this is still so complicated. I... I... Dammit, Stripes, why do you have to be Hojo?!" she cried, latching onto his abdomen.

"Because that's who I am," Stripes replied.

"Were you counting on me being repulsed by you? You shouldn't do things like that. Because you know what?" Tifa asked, looking up at him.

Stripes gulped. "What?"

"Because sometimes things don't go the way you want them to," she said, taking his face in her hands and kissing him almost as passionately as she had ever kissed Cloud. She still had that little bit of loyalty left for him.

Stripes blinked. That's all he could do. When the kiss was over, she stomped out of his room, taking one backward glance, then running out. Stripes sunk to his knees. "... ...That wasn't how it was supposed to go. THAT WAS SO COMPLETELY NOT THE WAY IT WAS SUPPOSED TO GO!" he cried, bending over and putting his head down, scratching at the hard wooden floor with his fingernails.

***

Timothy was tied to a chair in the basement of the AVALANCHE building. Sunder stood triumphantly in front of him, gushing with pride, waiting for Reno to return with Cloud and Vincent. Rude and Elena sat in their chairs, not facing the boy Sunder brought in. Rude was almost gnawing off his finger trying to keep down the fact that this was definately not Hojo.

He was too young. His hair was too full. He looked to have too nice of a disposition. He could have been a stand-in for Sephiroth easily, but Hojo? No. Plus, he already knew where Hojo was...

Elena was beginning to get annoyed. "Rude..." she whispered, keeping her voice down so Sunder couldn't hear them.

Rude almost leapt out of his chair. "What?"

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph, man, what's eating you?"

Rude looked down. "I just have a feeling that this kid's not Hojo."

Elena scratched her head. "Well, they DID say he was younger, didn't they?"

"Not THIS young. This kid looks like he was born in a trainwreck and raised in a dumpster."

"Didn't Hojo look the same way?"

Rude looked again at Timothy. "A relative, maybe. A kid, possibly. But this guy definately isn't Hojo."

Elena folded her hands behind her head. "Male intuition?"

Rude rolled his eyes, then snapped to attention as Reno clopped sideways down the stairs, Vincent and Cloud following him. "Thank you for taking time out of your busy trial schedule to come, Mr. Strife. By the way...how is that going?" Reno asked.

Cloud didn't look at Reno, but had the courtesy to answer his question, at least. "It's going well. Seeing as I didn't do anything to Yuffie in the first place, and there's no evidence that I've ever had any kind of device that would scar her like she was scarred."

Vincent kept his mouth shut and looked sideways at Timothy. He looks...a little bit like Lucrecia. Is that supposed to be funny or something?

Cloud wasted no time with formalities. He dismissed all the Turks from the room, including Sunder and Vincent. He made sure the door was locked, and the room sealed air-tight. "You aren't how I pictured you would be by now."

Timothy glittered to life. "And how would you have pictured me?"

Cloud sneered and pulled him up by the collar of his jacket. "Don't toy with me, old man! I'm the one who killed your son and your precious JENOVA, remember?"

Timothy had never recalled being killed by anyone, had never recalled JENOVA dying either, but he kept his mouth shut. They think I'm Father. Play with them a bit. It's more fun that way. Timothy smirked. "Aren't you a bit too close for comfort, little one?" he asked, making a kissy face at him.

"Gaah!" Cloud shoved him away as quickly as possible, and the youth tumbled to the ground after tripping over the back of his chair. Bastard's reminding me of Sephiroth with each passing second...wait a minute...wasn't Sephiroth Vincent's...? That's what Aeris told me... "Okay, I'll move on--" Cloud continued, shaking the shivers from his spine.

~It is unneccesary,~ came a voice.

Cloud hardly recognized it, but it was who he thought it was. "Aeris?"

~That is not Hojo,~ she said, her voice almost monotone.

"It's not?!" Cloud gasped.

Timothy tilted his head at the apparition appearing in the corner of the ceiling and pouted. "I'm not?"

Aeris all but hissed at Timothy and came down at him. ~You! You're the son of that...stuuupid woman!~

Cloud blinked. "Aeris, you're not going insane again, are you?"

~SHUT UP!~

Cloud's eyes would have shot out of his head if they weren't attached. Timothy was still grinning like the Cheshire Cat, even with the ghost in front of him. "Thought you got rid of me, eh, you old witch?"

Aeris bared her teeth, but Timothy shook his finger at her. "Naughty-naughty. Blowing your cover with Cloud in the room's not good for business, you know?"

Aeris blinked and began to laugh insanely. Cloud sighed, relieved. "Whew. That's what I thought. Another episode of insanity."

Timothy blinked at Cloud as he watched his 'Aeris''s fit of insanity subside. Something's seriously wrong with this guy. He reminds me of how Father was when JENOVA occupied his every thought. That's kinna sad. Having yet another victim, even when you're dead? Who's obsessed now? I remember the girl you're posing as, and she was about eighty times as pretty as you are. You suck at being Aeris, JENOVA.

'Aeris' came around out of a giggle fit. ~I'm sorry, Cloud! Hoo...you know how it is, right?~

Cloud's eyes were all but glazed over. "Yes, darling."

~This is not Hojo, Cloud.~

"Should I have whoever brought him in put down, darling?"

~No...because now we have a useful bargaining chip. His son.~

"But Sephiroth's..."

~Sephiroth was never Hojo's, this much is true, but he and Lucrecia did concieve a child. A child that was aborted in a moment of anger...~

As Aeris went about explaining who Timothy was, and how he got to where he was now, Timothy drifted off. Misplaced DNA, clone project in the lab...garbage shute...That part bored him. Poor Father. Does he even know I'm back yet? Mother, if I believed in luck, I'd be wishing you all of it in the world...


Chapter 15
Index