STRIPES: CHAPTER FIFTEEN
by K. Trotta


Stripes was laying down on his bed, staring up at the ceiling. Cheap tiles, most likely made out of styrofoam, divided the ceiling into a grid. A car passed by below, tinting the ever-present amber light from the street lamps closer to white. Many a night Stripes had passed like this as Hojo. Lying awake at night, trying to keep your brain at a flatline so that you wouldn't have to pay attention to all the horrible things you did that day. Things most people would send him to their Hell for that I used to be able to watch over and over again without blinking.]

He had flat-lined himself out of the last half of his life. Spent every moment trying to forget the last. It was hard to remember anything good when one was so busy trying to block out the bad, but slowly, as if coming out of a kind of slumber, his brain suddenly wouldn't flatline anymore.

...tha-thump...
She kissed me...

...

...tha-thump...

He closed his eyes and hers appeared before him.

...no.

...

...tha-thump...

Stripes shut them tighter and braced himself, yet at the same time yearning to see Tifa's eyes again. Instead, his own sneer fuzzed out of the blackness.

...

...flatline.

It kept him safe from anything bad.

...

...Tifa...

...

But it also blocked out anything good.

...

...good?

Stripes recalled Tifa's face after he told her about his involvement with Cloud's tattoo...

...

She has every right to hate me...and she does. But why did she...?

...tha-thump...

Sweet memories occur most inoppurtune.

Stripes shook his head. There is more to my life now than just Tifa.

The laughter of Rude, Elena and Reno echoed in his brain, along with the din of Ed's Bar.

...

Rude knows who you are...and yet he's not out to get you.

...

To be alive and live as a normal person, some are convinced that the world is out to get them, but it's not. Yet they fear that it is, so they guard against an enemy that is not there. But Hojo...you aren't a normal person. The world IS out to get you now, so you have good reason to be defensive about it...don't you?

...

No, that's the most pompous thing I've ever heard. Everyone thinks you're dead. Except those that know better. And half of them are...all right with it. I think. I don't understand, though. It's not logical. Not logical at all. I screw thousands of people's lives up, one of which I shouldn't have screwed with, which in turn effected several thousand -other- people's lives adversely, and yet...she kissed me. And Rude didn't turn me in. You fuck a person's life to Hell and they love you after you drag them through even MORE shit. It doesn't make sense. Negative stimuli piled on negative stimuli should NOT yield a postive response!

Stripes sat up and put his hands on his head. I can understand how Rude would favor me over Cloud, seeing how he's been acting lately, but Tifa...I don't understand. She keeps saying I did something for her. So I helped her out of the cold that I created for her indirectly. One good deed cannot override a lifetime of sin! It just doesn't work that way...but it did...didn't it?

...

...tha-thump...

...I made it so she would like me.

...tha-thump...

Stripes tried to forget the searing sensation he felt not two days ago...

...tha-thump...

...but he couldn't flatline this.

...tha-thump...

One more sin added to my pile...accidently...no. No, there are no "accidents" with you, Hojo. Everything is planned out to the letter and executed with cold precision. You are not doing her any favors by stringing her along like this. Because it'll all end up in a great big pile of shit, just like everything else you plan, Hojo.

...

...but what if you didn't mean to plan this?

He blinked for a moment and saw Vincent in that split second.
Then he blinked again.

I didn't plan it. Nobody planned it. It happened by accident. Because the conditions of the circumstances were right. No malice directly intended at all...none.

Stripes blinked again and put his hand over his mouth. "Ohh my God..."

...tha-thump...

A shiver ran up his spine.

...tha-thump...

"Ohhh my GOD..."

A flash of Cloud with his own sneer zipped through his brain and Stripes choked. It was happening.

Stripes was Vincent, Cloud was Hojo, Tifa was Lucrecia.

He shook his head. "No, no, NO! NO!!" Stripes sat up and began to pace. "NO!" he cried, stomping his feet on the floor. "God dammit all to Hell, it's happening AGAIN!! Oh my GOD!! NO! NO!!"

***

Stripes emptied his stomach of everything he had eaten for the past three days in his bathtub and closed his eyes, turning on the water. "It can't be happening again."

After it was washed down the drain, Stripes emptied another bottle of bleach in the bathtub and scrubbed until the fumes hurt his eyes. "How can I fix this? It's...it's so hard..."

He filled the bathtub up with the hottest water the faucet could draw, stripped and jumped into the tub, curling himself into a little ball and focusing on the water. It was losing its heat already.

=BOIL.=

Stripes gazed at the water, and its rippling reflection of himself. He scowled.

=THE POWER OF JENOVA IS THE POWER OF MATTER MANIPULATION. BOIL, DAMN YOU!=

***

His eyes closed and he drifted into sleep as steam began to rise again, half expecting to encounter the adjucidcator of the world again, but that didn't happen. Instead, Lucrecia appeared, as she had on the night of their senior prom, decked in her shiny purple satin dress.

Purple had always been her favorite color.

She wasn't looking at him, though. As the rest of the scene unfolded in front of him, he could tell it was the place where the senior prom that year was held. Lucrecia was dancing with some faceless boy to some tuneless fast song, and other faceless couples were dancing around them, minding their own business.

Stripes looked down at himself, and as he expected it, he was wearing the all-white suit he had rented for half the night. He walked over to the punchbowl, and looked down to see his reflection. It wasn't looking at him, though. His reflection was dancing with another faceless girl. But it wasn't Stripes. It was Hojo...as he had been on that night, decked in white, all young and angsty and innocent...before JENOVA.

He looked harder to see his own face, until he saw it. Mid-thirties, scars and all, very faintly. He looked at his younger self, who was looking at nothing but Lucrecia. The girl he was dancing with didn't seem to notice. She was having herself a good time. Stripes leaned against the pole that supported the ceiling and watched them for a while. "Don't you know how beautiful you look right now, Hojo? You should have taken a picture to make yourself remember."

The younger Hojo looked at his watch. It was only half an hour until he had to return the stupid suit. He looked at Lucrecia longingly and sighed as the song ended and the crowd dispersed. They both thanked their partners, and the faceless partners walked off. Stripes could remember how his heart began to beat at that moment, standing behind the younger version of himself. Lucrecia Maiers was standing in the middle of the dance floor, turning her head, looking for someone to dance with. Soon her eyes would meet his. Frozen, half out of fright, half out of excitement, Hojo gasped as Lucrecia's face turned so that her eyes met his for a split second, then continued the 180 degree turn she was making.

The spell Hojo had put himself under broke as her eyes moved away from his, and he all but ran towards her, the familiar, yet blank faces of the crowd beginning to bar his way to her. He pushed his way through just as Lucrecia found another dance partner. Stripes remembered his name, and moved his lips with Lucrecia, exclaiming. "Oh! It's Tommy Blickenstaff!"

Young Hojo flushed, and reached his hand out for Lucrecia's shoulder. Tommy Blickenstaff had noticed him, but Lucrecia hadn't. Hojo cleared his throat, and put his hand on her shoulder gently.

"May I cut in?"

Hojo didn't believe he had said that when he said it, and it looked even stranger to Stripes. It sounded too finished. Too sure. Too confident. It was as if another being had said it for him. Either way, it worked. Tommy Blickenstaff curtsied graciously and pranced away, finding another person to dance with who wasn't afraid of the fact that he'd worn a dress to prom.

Stripes couldn't help but sigh as he watched his younger self and the younger Lucrecia dance. He had thought only she had shone in that moment. But they both had. They weren't the only ones on the dance floor during that slow song, or the 5 fast songs that proceeded, but Stripes pondered. I don't look all that terrible when I smile. She thought so, too. She didn't think anything was wrong with me. You're both beautiful, you know that? I didn't start to act like there was anything wrong with me until...then. There was no reason to reach out for something she had no idea was there. Lucrecia...I'm sor--

It was 11 already? "Damn! Lucrecia...I'm sorry, I have to go get this suit back to the rental place before it's too late!"

Lucrecia nodded and followed him as he ran out the door. Stripes remembered what should have happened next. She followed him to the rental place, and they returned, Hojo dressed back in a t-shirt and jeans. The rest of the crowd gave him odd looks, but Lucrecia danced with him. She didn't care. She thought he looked nice with just his hair back. That was what was supposed to happen. Stripes ran with himself towards the door, reliving the moment.

A girl in a loud green dress stopped him halfway to the door. She was dancing with an older guy. "Hey!" she called.

Stripes looked back at Lucrecia. "What's the matter, Hojo? Where are you going?" she asked.

He looked back at the strange person asking him to dance. She was already dancing with someone. Why was she asking him? Stripes looked closer, and found that it was Professor Gast. "Professor Gast?! What are you doing here? You're not supposed to be here!"

Gast's eyes were glazed over eerily. "Come dance with us, Hojo..." he droned.

Stripes stepped back, scared a bit. He shook his head and broke his contact with his younger self. Younger Hojo gulped and looked back at Lucrecia again. "Maybe one more dance?"

Lucrecia nodded and followed him. They danced one slow song with Gast and the girl in the long green dress. Stripes stood there, puzzling at who it could be. The waves of the crowd shifted, and another familiar face was spotted by Stripes. "Valentine?"

The song ended, and Gast stood aside, placing the strange girl to dance with Hojo. Lucrecia was looking a little put out. A spotlight shone on the new couple, and as they danced, everyone else in the room stopped to look at them. Stripes followed the movements of his younger self, trying to recognize the face of the girl.

Lucrecia got fed up halfway through the song and tried to pull Hojo away from the new girl, but it didn't work. He was transfixed. Stripes turned his head as the crowd parted for Vincent, who offered to dance with Lucrecia. She refused and tried to pry Hojo free of his new partner once again. As it got harder and harder to pry him from her, Lucrecia finally broke down and began to dance with Vincent, who looked half the time on her, and half with bared teeth at Hojo.

As Lucrecia started to get more and more comfortable dancing with Vincent, the more Vincent got angry at Hojo for not noticing. Finally getting fed up with it, Vincent walked over and put his hands in front of Hojo's eyes, wrenching him from the girl in the green dress.

Stripes watched the rest of it unfold. Hojo went to dance with Lucrecia again until she stopped looking upset, then went back to dance with the girl in the green dress. Stripes knew what this was now. The girl in the green dress was JENOVA. She looked at Stripes and winked, a wicked grin on her face as she continued to dance with his younger self. The noise of the rest of the crowd faded with time, as did Gast, then Lucrecia and Vincent, into blackness.

It was just Hojo and JENOVA for the longest time. He couldn't see anything beyond their spotlight. The war in Wutai, ShinRa, Sephiroth, everything passed beyond them until a familiar sword cut Hojo down, then JENOVA. It was Cloud. The song ended and the youth kicked those he cut down into a corner, beginning to dance with Tifa. JENOVA got up, limping to the bathroom. She came out a second later, wearing a blaring pink dress, her hair done up like Aeris. She threw a green suit at the still fallen Hojo. "You wanted to change your suit, didn't you? Go, dance with someone else now," Jenova said, tiptoeing up behind Cloud.

Stripes blinked down at himself. He was wearing a green suit. As JENOVA began to dance in her pink dress with Cloud, Tifa stood there, trying to get Cloud's attention. JENOVA looked up at Stripes. "Don't just stand there! Dance with her! Keep her occupied!"

Before he knew it, Stripes had a Tifa latched onto him. "Wait, this isn't supposed to be like that! I don't feel..."

Vincent came up behind him, putting his arm on his shoulder, the coldness of his metal claw making him shiver. "You don't feel that way about her?"

Stripes looked down at Tifa, then back at Vincent. "How did you know?"

Vincent just shook his head. "Don't repeat the same mistake I did. JENOVA pulled you away from Lucrecia. Instead of pulling both of you further apart, I should have helped bring you back together, away from that monster. It's happening again."

Stripes blinked as the entire scene began to fade away. "Wait! Vincent, how do I do that?! Vincent! Vincent!!"

A cold wind ran up his back as Lucrecia's ghost appeared before him once again. ~Hojo...I'm...I am a coward...please forgive me. I could have pulled you away from her, but I didn't. I'm sorry.~

Stripes blinked back tears. "Lucrecia, I...everything's my fault."

~You don't have to take all the blame, Hojo. I've got a part of it, too,~ she told him, moving closer, reaching her hand out to him. ~Can we both forgive each other? Help end this cycle? End this pain? Try and prevent it from happening again?~

Lucrecia's hand glowed with an inviting light blue. Stripes looked up into her eyes. "I wish I could do it all over again. I'd return to you. And...Sephiroth...you never got to hold him...I...I'd let you hold him for as long as you wanted to!" Stripes cried, lunging forward and hugging her. It felt like hugging a dead body, but it was her. "I'm sorry for--"

Lucrecia's arms wrapped themselves around Stripes' back. Her cold hands ached to feel the person she used to love so dearly returned to her. That's all that mattered at the moment. He was hers, and she was his, once again. ~I'm tired of hearing that word. There is no way to change what's been done. There's no way to make amends by hating yourself. You have to go and do something. And I'll help you. You are Arg no more. There is no more reason to hate yourself. There has never been a reason to hate yourself. Everything that you thought you were doing so terribly lead to something even more terrible,~ she told him, looking up into his eyes and brushing back a lock of his hair.

Stripes looked down at her, amazed that she had come around so fast. "I don't understand. All of a sudden, everyone's being so decent to me. It makes no sense. I push people away, and then they cling to me..."

~You're talking about Tifa, aren't you?~

Stripes nodded.

~That was cruel of you. Endearing yourself, and then suddenly require that she stay away from you. Human hearts don't work that way. ~

"Endear myself? What? What have I done to Tifa to endear her to me?"

~First of all, you gave her shelter when she needed it, and food. And something else she wasn't getting from anyone else - you talked to her. You've become her best friend. You mean a lot to her, Stripes,~ Lucrecia replied, running her finger along his scars. ~Makes me...regret what I gave up.~

Stripes shook his head. "No! Lucrecia, I don't..." he felt a lump in his throat, "I don't want history to repeat itself. Cloud can't be that far gone. He can't."

Lucrecia looked up at him. ~This is JENOVA you're talking about.~

Stripes nodded. "Aeris' ghost...that's not really Aeris after all."

Lucrecia shook her head. ~Aeris passed long before, and followed into the light after Zack. I watched her go. That was five years ago. I never ever saw JENOVA go. Not even when you came back to 'life.'"

Stripes closed his eyes. "I knew it. I knew JENOVA wasn't dead. And now she's after Cloud. That makes him me. That makes Tifa you...and that makes me..."

~Vincent?~

Stripes sighed and put a hand on his head. "Never thought I'd be in such a position. What should I do?"

~You don't have to do anything. You can sit here and watch the world decay. You can pull Tifa entirely away from Cloud and try to stop him. Or you can try to piece them back together. It's your call.~

"Well, I can't just sit and do nothing. From experience, I know it's hard to stop a person who's on such a JENOVA-high. Especially if he's beaten me so easliy before. If a patient has a broken arm, you don't chop off the arm. You try to heal it."

~But how do you plan to get Cloud seperated from JENOVA?~

Stripes chanced an old smirk of his, and Lucrecia was slightly charmed by it. "I have a plan!"

Lucrecia's mirth faded as the implications of what that statement could mean swept through her mind. ~No, don't sacrifice yourself again! You can't!~

Stripes shook his head and put his hands on her shoulders. "I will do nothing of the sort. Trust me. Please," he told her, kissing her on the cheek.

Lucrecia gave him an odd look. ~Call that a kiss? Am I not sweet?~

The reformed former scientist took his former wife into his arms for a whole minute. Lucrecia's hands trembled and melted at his touch. She recalled the feeling of blood rushing everywhere as her heart beat faster as it did when she was alive. Vincent had come close to exciting her as much as her husband used to, but there was always one tiny bit about it that was different. Her heart didn't beat as fast. Her soul didn't leap with as much joy with Vincent. Vincent had been her comfort zone. But Hojo...Stripes...whoever he was that she had married, out of her comfort zone, out in the cold hard world, there was an element of being thrilled; being slightly dangerous. Vincent had left her breathless with his beauty and his pained passion. But with Hojo, the passion had been just that - passion. No pain, just passion. No sin, but fun. Careless, fire-like passion, she guessed. There had been nothing like it in all the world. And now it was hers once again. "Sweet as the wind that blows me to you," Stripes whispered in her ear.

~Hojo--~ she whispered back.

Stripes snickered as he nudged closer to her ear, whispering his first name: "Yuto."

Blinking back tears, Lucrecia held onto him as if he were the only thing between her and nothingness. She began to flicker. ~Yuto...my Yuto...~

Stripes blinked. "Lucrecia...?"

Lucrecia stepped back and looked at her hands. She was flickering like a cranky neon lamp. She choked back tears and put her hands to her heart. ~I...have to go soon, Yuto.~

"Why now? What's happened?"

~Ghosts are only around because they want to resolve the unhappiness dealt to them in their lives...JENOVA let go of my body, so now I'm all dead, except for the unhappiness inside my soul,~ Lucrecia said, flickering more. She had flickered dramatically before, but now it was real. She could feel it. The Planet calling her...

Stripes stepped forward to hug her, and tears began streaming down his face. As he touched her, as she flickered, he could almost feel her joy. Had he done this? "Lucrecia?"

~Yuto...you make me so happy! I don't want to leave you!~ Lucrecia cried, latching onto him again.

Stripes stalled for a moment, afraid that if he spoke again, none of it would be coherent. This was something truly of his own invention that was good. He never realized before how happy he used to make Lucrecia when he was around. And all he had ever needed to make her happy was him. No trophies or awards for finding a new element. No scientific breakthroughs or gobs and gobs of money, or worldwide recognition had ever made Lucrecia happier than she was at this moment. And she was happy because he had returned to her after so long. Something beautiful that he had, more or less, caused. Nothing Jenova had ever wrought even compared to Lucrecia right now. "You're beautiful..." he managed to stammer out.

Lucrecia put her hands on the shoulderpads of his goofy green suit and laughed. ~You're beautiful, too, Yuto!~ she giggled, running her hands down his suit, turning it as white as she was flickering.

Stripes looked down at it, and she pointed at another spot of the darkened dance floor, where his younger self shone the same white as they did. The young Hojo waved at Stripes and Lucrecia, and ran out the door of the hall, the younger Lucrecia following him.


Chapter 16
Index