STRIPES: CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
by K. Trotta


By the time Vincent returned to the AVALANCHE Building and proceeded into the basement, he had planned everything he was going to say to Tim out. He'd try to be polite, and get as much information out of him about Cloud and JENOVA as he could. Everything would work out fine, then Cloud's problem would be fixed and Vincent could have a normal job again. Vincent unlocked the door, fully confident in his fellow Turks' abilities to resist Tim's goading.

Until he opened it.

Rude was sprawled out on the floor, reading a crumpled issue of some dramatic comic book and sobbing. Reno was dancing on the table in the middle of the room to a radio blasting some song Vincent had seen Christopher Walken dance to. Tim himself was sitting on the edge of the table, making paper airplanes out of what remained of Vincent's case file and legal pad. And Elena, with her hair in Sailor Moon buns, was sitting behind him, doing his hair up in pigtails.

He wanted to cry. "I thought I told you guys to give him the Hannibal treatment!"

Elena perked up, slightly fearful. "Well...we did! Until...um..."

Rude looked up from his comic book and spouted, "Until Elena opened the door and untied him because he promised her he'd do her hair up in those cute little buns all the young girls have started to wear!"

Elena bit her lip in a guilty fashion. "S-sorry, Vincent. But Tim seems quite friendly. I didn't think he'd harm anyone. He only seems to bear a grudge against JENOVA. And you. But that didn't matter, because you were gone, and well...now you're not. Um...sorry?"

Between the fight with Hojo, and Lucrecia's ghost talking, learning the situation, and now this, Vincent wanted to explode, just then and there. Into tiny bits.

Tim looked up from making another paper airplane and blinked. "You know what to do now, right, Valentine?" he asked, chucking the paper aircraft into Vincent's hair.

Dead silence filled the room...except for Reno and his boom-box.

"You can go with this, or you can go with that...a-you can go wit dis, or you can go wit da..." Reno stopped in the middle of his dance routine, got off the table, and unplugged the radio. "Sorry," he apologized, sitting down in his chair like a bad little boy.

Dead silence filled the room again, this time for real. Vincent glared at Tim, who met his stare with a wide, playful grin. "Let me guess. You had this all planned out, didn't you? Got me pissed off, allowing me to find out who Hojo was, just at the right time. How convenient it must have been for you. I know what I have to do now, but don't rub it in, all right?"

Rude sat up and went to rest his head on Elena's shoulder. "'Lena," he whispered, "whas goin' on?"

"I have no idea," was Elena's hushed reply.

"Apparently, Cloud thinks he sees dead people," Vincent replied to the room. Reno giggled at the notion of Cloud as a little boy talking to Bruce Willis, but was silenced by a rapier-serious look from Vincent, who continued: "More specifically, Cloud thinks he sees the ghost of Aeris Gainsborough. This is what's been causing this big tear between him and Tifa. The notion that, if given the chance, Cloud really would have favored Aeris over her simply crushed our lady Lockheart. Only, the tragic thing is that this 'ghost of Aeris' Cloud thinks he sees really isn't Aeris at all. It's JENOVA."

Elena gasped dramatically. "JENOVA? Why does JENOVA want Cloud and Tifa to break up? This sounds like a soap opera! Nothing like what happened before with her."

Vincent looked at the floor. "Not...entirely. JENOVA caused another couple to split before making her madmen."

Rude blinked. "Another one?"

Elena blinked, too. "Who?"

Rude blinked, three. "I don't get it."

"I don't know if all of you know this, but Professor Hojo and the woman who bore Sephiroth, Lucrecia Maiers, were married. HAD been married for about nine years, and were expecting a child around the time the Jenova Project started underway," Vincent said darkly, glancing up at Timothy, who had a similarly sobered look on his face.

Elena gasped. "Oh, no! I know what happened next! JENOVA distracted Hojo, Lucrecia felt abandoned and found comfort in consorting with you! As things grew worse, Lucrecia aborted the kid she was going to have with Hojo, and amazingly, you got her pregnant with Sephiroth! In jealousy, Hojo went nuts and threw your lovechild into the arms of his new mistress, JENOVA!" she illustrated brightly.

Vincent put his claw on his forehead. "...who told you that?"

Tim raised his hand.

Rude tilted his headl. "I still don't get it."

Elena continued on her spiel, eyes a-glitter: "JENOVA created fear in Hojo's heart about Lucrecia...fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred, and hatred...leads to suffering!" Elena turned on the waterworks. "JENOVA promised Hojo something stable, as opposed to the 'risk' in staying with a 'fickle' Lucrecia Hojo created on his own...so through isolation and lilimation, JENOVA inflicted a powerful mind with madness, to do her bidding and stuff to destroy the world, and now she's back again with a vengence!"

Rude jumped into Elena's pastel-backgrounded, sparkly dramatization with, "But this time, it's not a powerful mind she corrupts, but a powerful body! Someone who could actually physically, one-handedly really do some damage! Someone stronger than Sephiroth by far and away! But why? Why does JENOVA want to destroy this world? And is she still alive, even though Hojo said she was dead? Why?"

"How?" Elena responded.

"Where?" Rude asked.

"When?" Elena gasped.

"...whut?" Reno asked.

"WAIT!" Vincent growled, knocking off Rude's sunglasses and pulling him over the table by the collar, "How do you know that Hojo thought JENOVA was dead?"

Elena and Reno gasped at the drama.

Rude gulped, and the comic book dropped from his hand, spakking on the table dully. "I-I thought that's what you said?"

Vincent narrowed his eyes. "You KNEW about him before today, didn't you, Rude? You KNEW Stripes was Hojo and you didn't TELL me! Even when your orders were to find him and bring him back here! You deliberately disobeyed orders!"

Rude had heard reports of some sort of fire glowing behind Vincent Valentine's eyes by doting fangirls and impressed onlookers, but as he hung there by his collar staring up at Vincent's angry, narrowed, red eyes, a chill ran up his spine. He'd never been so scared in his life. Vincent was at least half as physically strong as Cloud was...possibly even more. He could crush him with his bare hands if he wanted to. Rude was frozen with fear. He couldn't speak.

"I could have expected something like this from anyone but you, Rude! One of the rookies, maybe, but you! You're the oldest Turk around here, next to me, and you've been with the company for years! Have you no loyalty?" Looking down into the veteran Turk's scared eyes, Vincent saw nothing new. Ever since he had woken up, fear had been people's first response to him. Because of that claw. Because of the monsters he could turn into. He thought a bit. Everyone he'd ever interacted with before, their first reaction was fear...except if they were drunk, then it was lust. Fear and lust. Is that all he was good for anymore?

"No..."

Vincent shook his head and let go of Rude's collar. It was no big deal. Stripes hung out with the Turks a lot, and they had gained his trust. The Turks gaining Hojo's trust. Oh yeah. The world was still on its side. He just kept forgetting.

Vincent looked up, re-steeling himself. His character was developed enough for now. "I suppose it doesn't matter anymore now. What's done is done. It doesn't matter anymore. So...a-are you all up for helping me and Hojo find a way to get JENOVA out of Cloud?" Vincent asked, taking a moment to let what he just said sink in. Funny. This was really funny!

The Turks cowered, still recovering from Vincent's outburst, but Tim hopped off the table with renewed, almost childlike, vigor. "It has always been my duty to break Father of JENOVA. C'mon, Rude, 'Lena, Reno. Stick with this guy! You can't go wrong!"

The Turks got up, still shivering a bit, but Vincent grunted. "I've had enough dramatization. I'm not saying we'll do everything right. We might fail and Cloud might become something similar to Sephiroth, but I won't lie to you and say there's no way we can lose. Life doesn't work that way. We'll do our best. I'll do my best, at the very least. Whether you come to help Stripes is up to you."

"Stripes?" Elena blinked, slow on the uptake.

Reno grabbed his head. "Oh, the pain! The PAIN! Stripes is Hojo? Hojo is Stripes?! What the HELL, man?! I'm so confused!"

Tim grinned slyly. "Of course he is. Old news, guys. They're like Clark Kent and Superman. Jesus, a man loses a few wrinkles and gains a few hairs and you can't recognize him at all! C'mon, let's go see Daddy!"

Timothy went to run up the stairs, but was stopped by a claw on his shoulder. "You know he doesn't know you're here, 'Number Two.'"

Tim pushed up his glasses with his middle finger. "He will soon," was the boy's reply.

Vincent and the other Turks watched as their prisoner bounded playfully up the basement stairs, then frantically galloped after him to catch up.

***

The commotion in the alley by Ed's Bar had drawn a crowd, and all stood around in a circle, looking at the bloody tattoo artist, staring up at apparently nothing.

Reeve and Barrett were there, as well, scratching their heads. Ed even came out himself. "Stripes! What's the matter? Are you hurt? There's glass in the street, a-and your window's broken! Stripes? Talk to us!"

"I'm sorry, Lucrecia," Stripes whispered.

~You BETTER be sorry! You're always so rude to him, even when he doesn't provoke you!~ Lucrecia sniffed punitively, hovering directly above him, arms folded.

"I don't know what it is about him. He's just so...something. I just wanna pick on him. And he makes it so easy, Lucrecia. 'Tweren't nothin' mean. Honest."

~Just don't complain to me if he gets a complex and comes after you to pay his psychiatrist bills, Yuto Hojo!~

Stripes grinned wolfishly. "I can see up your skirt, you know."

Lucrecia yelped and floated oblique to his position, giggling.

Up in her room, Yuffie, wrapped up in Tim's cloak, pressed her head to the side of the window and smiled as she watched Stripes play with Lucrecia's ghost. She put her fingertips to the window and giggled. Tifa, apparently being the only person in Ed's Bar not in the street watching Stripes aside from Yuffie, looked up from reading the case files on the Jenova Project and Lockheart vs Strife at the sign of the girl showing some mirth. "Yuffie?"

Yuffie whipped her head quickly around and smiled, pointing to Lucrecia's ghost through the window, giggling again.

Tifa got up from her bed and crawled over to the window, spying out into the space Yuffie saw Lucrecia in. "What is it, Yuffie?"

A ghost can sense when she is sensed, so she turned to the window, smiling at Yuffie and Tifa sadly, then decending to the ground. Yuffie's gaze followed her, and Tifa followed Yuffie, into the sidestreet where Stripes stood in the middle of the crowd.

~Yuto, stop for a second. The saying goes...if you love someone, let them go...~ Lucrecia started, looking up at Tifa and back at Stripes, ~And...I do love you. More than I can say. That is why...~ Lucrecia's gaze bent skyward, to a window in the hotel section of Ed's.

Tifa opened the window to get a better look at who was down there and gasped. "STRIPES!"

Stripes took a step back. "Lucrecia...I'm sorry. It just...happened."

Lucrecia smiled. ~I remember when I said that to you. Come full circle, have you now?~ she asked, stepping forward and taking his jaw in her hand, flickering white. ~I shouldn't expend myself like this. I'll appear again, as needed. All right?~ The last query faltered a bit, as if hiding tears.

Stripes closed his eyes as Lucrecia flickered again, shaking his head. "I'm sorry."

~No, don't be. Please, don't be. A sorry person doesn't help anything. You've helped a person a great deal. I just never thought I'd ever be in your position,~ Lucrecia said, looking up at him, pity in her eyes, flickering completely out.

Stripes shifted his feet uncomfortably in the street. Pity. That's what came of being sorry. Pity. The last thing he wanted from anyone. Lucrecia...was she all about pity? He hated to think that.

"STRIPES!"

Stripes looked up at Tifa stoicly, searching for any trace of the pity Lu had shown him just now. There was concern in her eyes, definately. Fear, yes. Behind that, suspicion, and respect.

All that from over 40 feet away.

A car swerved into the street, and the patrons of Ed's Bar scattered, some squealing, to avoid getting run over. Tifa lost sight of the former scientist in the confusion and cursed her eyes for not being fast enough. She sat there, bemused. He was looking for something in me...did he find it? she thought, looking up at the stars. The same stars she and Cloud had promised under in their youth...and those same stars that saw another promise broken just recently. "God help me," she muttered, "I love Professor Hojo."

Yuffie tilted her head and stood up, unwrapping herself from the ragged black cloak and placing it around Tifa's shoulders. "You love what he is now. Not what he was. What he was would have not cared at all for you. Now you see what he's like when he's awake. It's beautiful, isn't it? Everybody is beautiful when they're awake."

Tifa looked up at Yuffie. The world was upside down. Yuffie just said something profound. "Oh my GAWD."

The repetition of that old phrase brought an even bigger smile to Yuffie's lips, and she laughed whole-heartedly from the very bottom of her heart. When Yuffie laughed, Tifa began to laugh, and when Tifa began to laugh, Stripes began to laugh.

Wait...

Tifa turned around to see Stripes leaning on the door frame and her heart jumped. "S-stripes..."

Yuffie took Tim's cloak and skuttled out the door, shoving Stripes in before closing it and putting the cloak over the doorknob. "Heeeeeeee..."

Stripes rubbed the back of his neck and laughed uncomfortably. "Sorry I was a jerk the other day."

Tifa stayed at the window and turned to look out. "Who'd you let know who you were today? Judging from the claw marks in the street I'd say it was Vincent."

"Yup. That was him, all right. Listen, Tifa..."

"I can't change the way you feel, I know."

Stripes' heart fell, and he crouched down beside her. "Tifa...I didn't realize how much it hurt you when I lied and said I didn't feel that way about you..."

Tifa turned to face him and looked into his beautiful glacier eyes. Something burned in them, now. Funny thing, that. "What were you looking for in me when you looked up at the window just now?"

No pity. Calm. Curiosity. Respect. A lot of respect. Respect he could have killed to have if it came from Lucrecia, or Gast, or even Vincent. It had been there since Tifa started staying with him, he just didn't notice it until now. Why was that? He smiled a sad smile and hugged her. "Something that was there all the time. Something warm, and alive...something I would have killed for when I was Hojo. A friend who respected me, and trusted me. Someone who looked up to me, never really suspected me of anything. Someone I could learn something from and teach something to...and talk to like a human being. Someone who saw me as something other than some scientist who wasted his life with his head pressed up against a cold glass tank studying something that was supposed to have been dead for two thousand years."

Tifa hugged him back as she blinked back tears. "So, you're over this 'noo, you can't love me cos I was evil' bit?"

Stripes sat up and looked her in the eyes again. "The reason I was like that in the first place was that I couldn't allow myself to love. I'll never make a mistake like that again, I swear. I'll be here for you, as a friend, teacher, student, bodyguard, tattoo artist, healer of scrapes and bruises...anything you want. Because I love you in every way I can think of. And if that's not enough, I'll find some way to make it enough."

Tifa shook her head, and put a finger to his lips. "Shh."

Stripes grinned sheepishly and brushed his face against hers with a sigh. "I love you."

As Tifa bent her head to engage in a gentle kiss, the window slowly began to close on its own. Lucrecia floated outside, making sure not to let herself be seen.

~The more we change, the more we stay the same...~ A tear ran down her cheek and she choked out a short, bitter laugh. ~Be beautiful to each other,~ she whispered, soaring upward into the sky to get a good look at the city, and her next destination.


Chapter 19
Index