STRIPES: CHAPTER NINTEEN
by K. Trotta


Cloud returned to the AVALANCHE building rather late. His lawyers were chewing up too much time, and he needed to know where the Turks could find Hojo. It was almost a madness pounding in his brain, screaming to get out.

I need to see Hojo.

It had started to rain a few moments back. Cloud was soaking when he all but pushed down the glass doors to the building, startling Sunder, sitting at the secretary's desk while the temp was out on break.

The look on the Turk's face told Cloud that something went wrong.

Aeris seemed upset, as well, following close behind him and breathing oddly.
...did ghosts need to breathe, or was it habit?

Sunder stood up pensively, expecting Cloud to interrogate him, or throw him into the wall, or so something terrible to him. His heart raced. The senior Turks were gone. They didn't notice him as they all stampeded out the door with Timothy leading them. It was his fault.

He winced, closing his eyes, feeling his heart leap in his chest.

When he opened them, though, Cloud was gone, and the slam of the door to the basement cracked in his ears.

Safe for now, the rookie turk slumped down in his chair, fainting.

***

Cloud stood in the doorway of the basement interrogation room, seething, eyes fixated on the rumpled comic book in the middle of the table.

The pink of Aeris' apparition swirled around him, materializing just above the table. ~This is what happens when you leave things to people you can't trust.~

Cloud grabbed his head. "HOW THE HELL ARE WE GOING TO FIND HIM NOW?!"

~Why do you want to talk to Hojo?~

"I...just want to talk to him."

Aeris cocked her head to the side. ~About what?~

"A-about...lots of things."

~About why people say you're doing things you know you didn't do again? Like raping Yuffie, and giving the Black Materia to Sephiroth? You want someone to relate to about how you're feeling...puppeted again?~

Cloud's eyes flashed with confusion, then a realization. "He...he's making me do those things?!"

'Aeris' grinned, biting her finger. ~He's so stupid... So stupid, it's beautiful! BEAUTIFUL!~

~JENOVA's gone, isn't she? He's the one who gave her access to your brain. He knows exactly how it works. HE is JENOVA now.~

Cloud gasped. "He raped Yuffie...made me rape Yuffie. But...I don't understand. The courts say...the courts said a cold device was used to...and nobody found any kind of device around..."

JENOVA frowned Aeris' face. She was getting tired of this. ~You're dense, boy.~

Cloud looked up. Aeris was scowling impatiently, at him. "Aeris? Is this another one of your crazy spells?" She grinned, narrowing her eyes.

"Aeris?!"

JENOVA grinned wider...wider than humanly normal, and laughed gently. ~You don't see it, do you? You're not the good guy anymore, Cloud Strife.~

Cloud staggered backward. "W-what? Who are you?! You're not Aeris! GOD, where's my sword when I need it?!"

Aeris glowed green. The room turned cold, and she chuckled. ~Hmmmm...what does a business executive need with a sword, Cloud? You've really let yourself go. I just helped you along.~

Cloud scowled at her. "STOP IT! You're not Aeris! WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?!"

The ghost of JENOVA swirled one of her arms into a pike of ice, and began to reveal her true face to Cloud. ~A cold, metallic device...they almost got it, didn't they?~

The hero left in Cloud ignited, and his eyes sparkled with valiance. "JENOVA! YOU did this! You...pretended to be Aeris, you lured me into thinking she was there for me again, so Tifa would leave! You spoiled me...and YOU RAPED YUFFIE!"

The fringes of a Limit Break began to form around Cloud, and the paper airplane mess Tim had made began to swirl in the artificial wind. JENOVA turned her shoulder to him, then looked back. ~You really want to believe that, don't you? That I did everything. That I am the cause of all evil here...~

Cloud burned with anger. "I understand now! You were using me like you used...like you used Hojo! Was he supposed to be something positive, just like me? What could he have been, if you hadn't come along?!"

~DON'T interrupt me, BOY. I am not 'using' anyone, as you would like to think. All I have ever done for anyone is given them what they REALLY wanted.~

"I REALLY wanted Tifa to divorce me and rape Yuffie. Yeah, that's it."

JENOVA grinned rather becomingly and laughed lightly. ~Exactly. I let you have what you always really wanted -- Aeris. You never let go of the notion that things may have been different between you and Tifa if SHE were still alive. You made yourself, and Miss Lockheart, believe that she was not second in your heart...for a time. But that yearning, that curiosity burned in your mind. So I let you realize it. So yes, you really DID want Tifa gone. And after Tifa left, you were lonely, weren't you? And I was cold to the touch, wasn't I? You wanted something warm, so I let you have it! You enjoyed it! People enjoy such weird thing when they're drunk. Hmm. You know, when you're drunk, it's really your true self coming out, right?~

Strife blinked and backed into the hallway stairs, breathing hard. "That's...not true. I didn't want to hurt anyone...I didn't mean it! I NEVER want to hurt anyone again!"

JENOVA followed him out into the hallway, still grinning. ~Oh, now you can't seriously believe everything you do is for the good of everybody else, now is it? A human being is incapable of living a life in which he hurts no one. To hurt no one, no one must feel for him, no one must love him, and he must love nothing. You humans like categorizing every action you take as 'good' or 'bad'. The more 'good' things you do, the more white and pure you are. The more 'bad' things you do, the more stained and corrupt you are. But, dear Patch of Airborne Water Vapor, what one man lables 'good', another lables 'bad', so nobody can be purely good, or purely evil. Therefore, you will never be purely good, just as Hojo never was. You can never really make up for pretending to be Zack, or letting Aeris be killed, or giving Sephiroth the Black Materia. There is no one thing you can do now that would make you a hero to everyone in the world.~

Cloud lunged through JENOVA's ghost, stumbling back into the interrogation room. "SHUT UP! JUST SHUT UP! I can make up for it! I can! I tried! If you try hard enough at something, you can do it, and by GOD, I try! And I WILL try! I will clear my name, and Hojo's! I'll make everything right! I have the power!"

~Do you have the power to stop Tifa from crying because you think she's inferior now? Do you have the power to un-rape Yuffie? Do you have the power to give all the coal miners stable jobs, or to run the entire world on solar power? Your ideas shine like the sun, Rain-Cloud, but everything is not up to you. Your refusal to accept the help of brilliant scientists like Shera, and competent businessmen like Barret and Cid so you can make sure nothing goes wrong makes everything go wrong. The tighter you squeeze yourself to be pure, and good, the less good you appear. Why not...just let yourself go?~

Cloud sighed, exhausted. "Because then I'd be worse off than I am now."

~How can things get worse for you? Timothy has entranced your soldiers with his cult of personality, none of your friends will even look at you. The only people loyal to you now are people you pay out of pocket to protect you. If you go into court, do you expect the judges to accept your 'JENOVA made me do it! And I was drunk!' excuse for raping Yuffie?~ JENOVA drew herself up to look down on Cloud, who began to curl himself into a ball on the floor below the table. ~You are not the good guy anymore. You do not want to be famous anymore. You do not want to join SOLDIER and protect Tifa when you come back from war, because you do not want to. You do not want any of that. I know what you want, and I can give it to you.~

Cloud was beginning to crack. "W-what do you mean?"

JENOVA squeezed in closer to Cloud in his human ball, smiling amiably. ~Do you remember how HAPPY I made Hojo? The joy in his face as he worked. I gave him that. He loved work. Always. Humans come and go, but work...work was always there. Work would never leave him. Work would never cheat on him. Work would never get tired of him. He felt Lucrecia was a burden to his work. She was meddling in something that wasn't hers to begin with. So, I distracted her...I gave Lucrecia what SHE wanted. I gave her Vincent. Full of life, and love, and all that expendable freewinded crap that made Hojo ill, but Lucrecia came to yearn for being locked up in a lab. Oblivious to Vincent, of course. With Lucrecia distracted, I let Hojo do what he always wanted to do. You can never put a 'good' or a 'bad' label on something you really want to do. What you really want cannot really be 'good' or 'bad'. If it's bad, you normally keep on doing it anyway, and if it's good, you don't really care. All there really is about what you want to do is that you like...and love to do it. It's a passion. It's the thing that makes your heart beat. It's what you are. And it's the only real way you can be pure.~

Cloud looked up, not holding back his tears anymore. "Pure?"

~It's true, since everything is relative, nobody can be outwardly pure. But you CAN be inwardly pure, by being true to yourself in what you want to do. Then it's all you. 'You' is a term that cannot be disputed, unlike 'right' or 'wrong', 'bad' and 'good', 'hero' or 'villian'. Therefore, it is possible to be purely yourself. Tell me, how many times did you just want to explode and say 'Dammit, Tifa, you're second!'? How many times did you have to lie to yourself to make this other person happy? And now, what have you sacrificed that little slice of yourself for? A woman who runs out to consort with tattoo artists. It's keeping things in like that that makes them fester and decay. I've freed you of that obligation. And somehere in there, you appreciate it. Am I right?~

Cloud shivered. JENOVA's words had the taste of truth on them. "N-no. You're not right."

JENOVA smiled, waiting for him to continue...

"...you're telling the truth."

The ghost of JENOVA's shoulders shook in laughter. ~I knew you'd see things sooner or later.~

Cloud stood up, wiping tears he now thought were selfish of him off his cheeks. "I will make things right for people...the right way."

~So...what do you want to do now?~

"I want to give people...what they want."

***

Sunder was reveling in his luck.
Cloud had forgotten him!
He was scott-free!
He had survived!

The rookie Turk had once reviled the fact that he went unnoticed, but now, he enjoyed it. He closed his eyes to doze off and daydream about Elena, and when he opened them, the first thing he saw were Cloud's cold, mako-veridian eyes.

Sunder gasped and tried to jump out of his chair and run for it, but Cloud grabbed him by the wrist. "Exciting, isn't it?"

"B-boss, I dunno what you mean!" the frightened Turk stammered.

Cloud narrowed his eyes and grinned, slowly, dangerously. "All your life, you wanted to be part of something exciting. You're getting a thrill out of it even now, even though you know it can't be good. That's why you didn't run after I went downstairs. This is what you always wanted."

Sunder broke into tears. "Mr. Strife, I don't know what you mean! I'm just an ordinary punk! Please let me go!"

"I would, if that's what you wanted. But it's not. You want danger. You want excitement. You want to make a mark. That's why you joined the Turks in the first place -- because it was dangerous," Cloud told him softly, letting go of Sunder's wrist and placing both hands on his face.

Sunder squirmed, breaking into tears. "MOTHER!!"

"Well, I'm giving you what you want, Sunder Marigasco," Cloud intoned, lifting the boy out of his chair and pressing his head up against the pillar behind the desk. "You want to leave a mark," he said, brushing the boy's skull upward, into the concrete pillar, and drawing a cross in blood with his bleeding head.

Cloud threw his dead body to the floor. "You've left it now," he grinned, looking down into the boy's terrified, dead eyes. "Look, JENOVA. This boy wanted to be a crayon all his life. I think I'll draw on the walls with him, just as he wanted, as a testament to him."

Behind him, a patch of air glowed green, and laughed.

***

Vincent had no idea where he was.
Had no idea whether if there was light or dark surrounding him.
Had no idea if it was cold, or hot.
All he knew was that he was scared.
And that he had wings.
When transformed, he could feel himself going numb.
The beast took over as soon as his limits broke.
But this time, he was still in control.
That was all he knew.

The sound of faint footsteps touched his ears...
And then a voice, an all too familiar voice, singing half-heartedly, getting louder, along with the footsteps...

"Little bird, little bird,"
"In the cinnamon tree..."

Fear gripped his heart, and backed away, but there was no ground to provide him traction. He could see no ground. Clumsily, he worked his wings into pulling him backward, until he hit a wall, and his feet gladly felt the bottom of a ledge, although it was cold.

The familiar voice and footsteps came closer, and closer...a foot stepped into a circle of light on the floor below the ledge. Then another, along with the body, clad in a lab coat, that belonged to the voice.
Hojo.
Of course.
Anticlimactic.
He hadn't expected anyone else, but Vincent gasped, despite himself. His fear squeezed his throat tight and it became hard to breathe. He didn't know WHY. Just the sight of the man made him want to curl up into a little ball and make himself disappear. And all he saw was the top of his head.

Hojo stood there, singing lowly, for a while.
It was as if he didn't even notice Vincent at all.
The little bird's heart pound in his chest.
And then, died down...
Hojo didn't see him.

Vincent looked down at his half-transformed body, at his hands, to find claws.

Hojo didn't see him.

All the fear in him melted away, transforming itself into firey, sticky, black anger.

Hojo didn't see him!

Vincent looked down at the scientist. At last, HOJO was the prey. He eyed his head, thinking it an ideal place to strike. The greying slate black hair, pulled back in an exacting, cruel ponytail...the shoulders jutting out not enough. The rest of him, stunted from Vincent's aerial angle. Looked so frail, so breakable.

All the while, Hojo still mumbled his happy little song.
Vincent couldn't make out any of the words, except for that he was singing about a little bird.

A little bird?
Vincent looked at his gigantic batwings, which had folded themselves on his shoulders. He narrowed his eyes. 'Is he singing about me?' he thought, maliciously. 'He's taunting me. Even though he doesn't think I'm here!'

Sticky black anger boiled into white hot rage, backed by justice.
Sure to win.
Against a monster who used to be a man once.
But no more. He had CHOSEN to become a monster, and thought it was a joke to physically change Vincent into one via Limit Break.
"I am not the monster," Vincent remembered, giggling slightly, "I-I am not the monster. Ha ha...YOU ARE!"
Vincent pushed with his feet to pounce his rival, and rip his innards to pieces, take his head on a pike and stick it in front of Gongaga, to let the monsters he created there peck at it until the bones turned to dust...
Time seemed to slow as Vincent reached for Hojo with his claws...

And the scientist looked up.

Vincent's eyes flew wide, and he stumbled for dear life back onto his ledge.
He knew he was there, all along...
Always knew...

Vincent backed himself to the wall, wishing there was a window there to escape from.
Hojo still stood there, looking at the curious monster analytically.
Vincent's heart beat heavily in his chest, wishing fervently that he'd go away.
Hojo narrowed his eyes, a faint "hmph" escaping as he cracked a grin.

Vincent knew he knew he was scared.
He heaved air in and out of his lungs from fright.
"Hojo..." he growled, after regaining his composure a bit, "what do you want?"
Hojo hmphed again, putting his hands out in a little shrug and laughing out right.
"What the HELL?!" Vincent snapped. "What kind of answer is that?! Give me a straight answer!"

Hojo didn't stop laughing.
The little hairs on the back of Vincent's neck stood up, and he bared his teeth.
"TELL ME!"

Laughter.
Sardonic, cold, hurtful laughter.
And a stare to match.

Blank, grey eyes, full of...nothing.
Inhuman and unnatural, unrelatable and unrelenting...

Easy to want to kill.

Vincent felt his rage building up inside him again.
Yes, it was easy to kill something that didn't let you know that it was human.
He narrowed his eyes, poised to pounce again.
Very...very easy.

Vincent tuned out the sound and the sight of his enemy, jumping on him and ripping him to shreds. A scream from him would have been an upset. Only humans and animals scream. Not monsters. Real monsters, anyway. Because they don't feel pain, mentally or physically. And it's all right to hurt them, because they hurt you, and they didn't even intend or maybe even try to. And that was the worst part about them, the not intending to part. The inconsideration part.

It felt good to be right for once in a world of grey.
"Right for once..." he said aloud, kneeling into the puddle of blood and gore he had made out of his enemy and smiling.
It was over...

"Sir?"
The voice was female, and it echoed from above.
Light flooded his eyes...
"Elena?"
"Sir, wake up."

Vincent stared at the ceiling that was above his head. It looked almost exactly like his...was he home? The Turk sat up. His eyes flew wide. No, this wasn't. Absolutely not! It looked kinda like his apartment, but it wasn't his. Elena was standing to the side of the bed, along with Timothy, who still had his hair in pigtails from the previous night. He was wearing a curious hooded white sweatshirt with white triangles that looked...familiar. Vincent shook his head. "Where are we?"

Rude came in the doorway. "We are in Stripes' apartment, waiting for him. He must've gone out somewh..."

Rude's words faded from Vincent's ears. He felt sick. The fact that he was sleeping in the same bed as that monster...the fact that that monster actually slept, made him sick. He tried to pull himself together, back into the real world. The upside-down world, where Hojo was good and Cloud was bad and...

"...didn't have permission to search the hotel rooms, but it's not that urgent. He'll be back, sir. Sir? Are you listening, s--"

"SHUT UP! Just shut the FUCK up and let me out of here!" Vincent exploded, all but flying out of the room.

Rude blinked.
Reno came down the stairs from the roof and stood next to his fellow Turk.
"Hey...what's going on?" he whispered.

Rude frowned. "I have no idea. Damn moody, he is. He probably forgot that he broke through this place before last night. It's not like he hasn't been here before. Thinks he knows everything, gets upset when he finds out he won't get his way. Brat."

"That's an unfounded accusation," Timothy piped up, slightly indignant. "The symbolism was just too much for him. There was a time when I would have reacted the same way as he did if presented with the same situation."

The sound of a door slamming shut downstairs echoed up the staircase.
"But the symbols have changed! Vincent knows that Stripes has changed since he's been Hojo. Clinging to old ways like that will only lead to more pain, and we don't need that, Tim!" Rude replied.

Timothy stepped into the hallway and looked down the stairs, after Vincent. "Just...give him time. He's only human."

***

Vincent stormed out into the alleyway and pounded his fist into the wall exactly opposite Stripes' door. The NERVE of them...the INCONSIDERATION for how he felt stung him like a dagger in the diaphragm. Didn't they know who they were talking about? What, was it some sort of sick joke to them? Hahaha, let's play a sick joke on Vincent and have him wake up in the stronghold of this monster who fucked up his life! He'll get over it, because Stripes is different from Hojo! Whee!

Vincent got so angry that he punched the wall with his claw. Assholes. You think you know people, and they go around and step on your feelings without even a second tho--

His claw had punched a hole straight through the wall of the building. A sob escaped from inside. Nobody was really living in it...what could be making that noise? The building wasn't alive...was it?

Vincent removed his claw and ducked down to see what was making the noise, and he caught a glimpse of a little girl, dressed in rags, sobbing in a corner. He'd scared her.

With a guilty gulp, Vincent looked around and found a conveniently placed 2x4 in the alley and placed it in front of the hole he'd made.

Inconsideration breeds inconsideration. The rest of the world began to open up around him. It was early in the morning...7am-ish. Cars honked in the roads, and the sounds of people walking about touched his ears a little.

The door to Ed's opened up louder than it should've. Vincent was getting a headache from the light. He hadn't been focused enough when he stormed out to let his eyes adjust to the light.

A giggling couple pranced out of the door. Gazing into each other's eyes, totally overome with each other, at peace. Not just lustful innuendos did they spout. They both glowed with genuine interest and want for the well-being of each other. Vincent could hear it in the tone of their voices, even though he blocked out what they were saying. He didn't need to hear it to understand it.

Vincent missed that. He used to have that with Lucrecia. He could have had some sort of rapport with any other person he'd met, if he would have let it happen, but he never did. He didn't know why. Maybe after this whole Stripes thing was over, he'd go out and try it. Maybe it wouldn't work the first time he tried, but he had lots of time. Lots and lots of time.

Vincent's heart crooned at the thought of settling down and being happy again, growing old and having kids...
He looked at the fuzzy couple and smiled. He wished everything he wished for himself for them, too.

Were they real? Vincent rubbed his eyes. He could be just seeing something out of the past...the man had short, dark hair, like he used to. And the girl had long brown hair, like Lucrecia did. They were wearing different clothes, though. And the girl's hair was slightly darker and longer. No, it wasn't a vision. These people were real. Vincent never remembered Lucrecia ever wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, and Vincent never remembered ever wearing a white tank top or having...black...stripes...on his...fore...arms...

Tifa put her arm around Stripes' shoulders as he got out the keys to his house. She muttered something Vincent couldn't hear and kissed his lips playfully.

Vincent's eyes couldn't get any wider if they had used a crowbar to pry them open. He didn't know whether to feel sick again and beat himself up for wishing the best for someone who used to be a monster and had the possibility of becoming a monster again, or be happy that at least some people could find happiness, take it as a sign to get off his ass and be happy, too, or to be raging, insanely, jealous.

Thanking every god he'd ever heard of, Vincent made it out of the alleyway without Stripes and Tifa spotting him. Not getting three steps to the left out of the alley, Vincent slid down the wall and pressed his good hand down on his forehead, which was pulsating like mad. Some emotion of several thousand colors boiled up inside of him. It made him feel nauseous. He was angry, happy, sad...he felt like he was everything at once. One part of him wanted to tackle them both and spin them around in a joyous group hug. The other part whined, wondering why he couldn't have anything like that. And another part of him, filled up with white-hot rage again, to want to destroy them both in the name of justice, poetic or not.

Another bit wondered how Cloud would feel if he found out. Yet another swelled with what Vincent thought Cloud should have felt if he saw.... Raw, black, hot, dangerous envy. Envy that made him want to destroy not only Stripes and Tifa, but the rest of the world, as well.
...Stripes and Tifa...?
Vincent shifted counterparts.
He and Lucrecia?

Realization slamming him in the face, Vincent made a mad dash for the AVALANCHE building.

***

Stripes grimaced.
That's right.
Vincent had broken down the door last night after him.

"What did that? An irate customer?" Tifa asked, marvelling at the door.

Stripes couldn't help but laugh. It was too funny. "Vincent."

Tifa sighed, chuckling a bit herself. "I wish you two would get along a little better. It won't do to have ourselves tear each other apart once we confront Cloud and JENOVA."

"That's what Lu said...kinda," Stripes said, opening what was left of his door and tromping up the stairs to his room to get changed. He stopped halfway up and turned around. "I'm gunna take a shower, all right? You can stick around here or go back to your room at Ed's if you like..." he hesitated. He wanted to add a little term of endearment to the end of his sentence, but he couldn't think of one that didn't sound as if they married or corny.

"OKay, sweetheart! I'll be back in a few," Tifa replied, returning to Ed's.

Stripes heart leapt and he sighed, continuing up the steep flight of steps to his room. He chuckled and began to mutter a few bars of a goofy, happy song from a musical he didn't remember the title of: "I'm as corny as Kansas in August, high as a kite on the Forth of July. If you'll excuse the expression I use, I'm in love with a wonderful g--"

***

"Fa-aather..."

***

Stripes choked on the note and swallowed it, backing away, but not down a stair, from a hunched figure in a black cloak in the middle of the hallway at the top of the stairs, right arm extended. On his hand, the roman numeral 2.


Chapter 20
Index