STRIPES: CHAPTER TWENTY
by K. Trotta


Stripes' heart beat in his throat.

His breath rasped up as his hands shook.

Every instinct told him to back up, but the stairs loomed deep below him.
Trapped.
He was trapped with this monster that he made.
The monster that was part of him.

Sephiroth Clone Number Two stood there, hunched in his form, shaking with the effort of holding his arm out for an extended period.

It spoke again: "Father..."

"What...wh-what do you want?"

The spidery fingers of the clone's hand - much like the ex-scientist's own - reached out for him.

I-it...wants ME. Wants revenge. Wants to see me scream...

Number Two took a shaky step forward, raising its other arm. "Fatherrrr..."

Should I just let it take me? he coughed from breathing so heavily, and shifted his feet backwards a bit, laying a shaky hand on the banister. I should run. I should run for my life and never look back. But...it would be the right thing to do, to let it hear me scream. It has a right to it. And that's what I'm here for, right? To make it right. I have to make it right.

Number Two was no more than a foot away. Stripes shakily got to his knees, putting his hands on the floor and his head down shamefully. "Do what you want," he said, shaking his head and frowning the frown one frowns to keep back tears. "I deserve it."

Two leaped forward, all but knocking both of them down the stairs.

Stripes flinched, gearing himself up to feel righteous, white-hot pain again, like he did for Vincent and Tifa.


Sephiroth Clone Number Two sat there, with its arms around its creator.

It could have squeezed him till his head burst with the pressure.
It could have strangled him as he sat there, waiting, and asking for pain to be given.

Stripes had his eyes closed tight - bracing himself for at least a minute.

Then, Stripes realized...

The clone was just as shaking and scared of him as he was of it.

Not it...he.
And he was sobbing...
The clone, he was also hugging him.

Stripes blinked, astonished, looking down at the person in the black cloak.

Number Two - the artificial life form, concieved in a tube of DNA - continued to sob, sounding more human than anyone Hojo had ever worked for, or known. "Father..."

"What have I done to deserve this?" Stripes whispered, barely getting it out between his tears.
"Father, I..."
"It's not fair. This is a crime against anyone who ever suffered at my hands. A crime against yourself. Why are you -doing- this? Why are you being nice to me? I don't understand!"
Two hugged tighter. "My father..."
Stripes was breaking down. Almost reflexively reaching to hug back. "It's not what I deserve," he shook his head, closing his arms around his creation, "not what I deserve."

Tim had lost his words. He squeaked softly, trying incredibly hard not to gush. He hugged his father tighter. He knew if he opened his mouth to try and say anything more, he would lose it. But if he didn't speak, he would continue to hear his father berate himself again.
And that was unacceptable.

"I'm sorry for what I did to you," Stripes sniffed, his voice scratching in his throat as he kept back tears of his own. "Sorry for what I did to your mother, and her friend. Sorry for what I did to my boss. Sorry what I did to everyone I touched, cut, injected...I-I'm just sorry."


"I forgive you."


Stripes' eyes widened for a second, and he looked up as they filled with tears, clenching his teeth. Then he threw his head down on his creations' shoulder, bawling hysterically.

Tim bit his lip till it bled trying to keep silent as his father cried. He had done his job. He needn't do anymore. To stop the hate his father had for himself. That was his crusade.

Tifa had been a great help to him.
Without her, it would have been impossible for Stripes to get this far.
But all along, he knew that all he had to say was four words for him.

Imagine, Professor Hojo: all he ever needed was a hug.

Riiiiiiiiight.

***

Snow can wait -I forgot my mittens.
Wipe my nose, get my new boots on.
I get a little warm in my heart
When I think of Winter;
I put my hand in my father's glove.

I run off where the drifts get deeper.
Sleeping Beauty
Trips me with a frown.
I hear a voice -
"You must learn to stand up,"
"For yourself,"
"'cause I can't always be around."

He says:
"When you gonna make up your mind?"
"When you gonna love you as much as I do?"
"When you gonna make up your mind?"
"Cause things are gonna change so fast,"
"All the white horses are still in bed."
"I tell you that I'll always want you near,"
"You say that things change, my dear."

Boys get discovered
As winter melts -
Flowers competing for the sun.
Years go by and I'm here,
Still waiting, withering
Where some snowman was.

Mirror, mirror, where's the
Crystal Palace?
But I only can see myself
Skating around the truth who I am...
But I know, Dad. The ice is getting thin.

"When you gonna make up your mind?"
"When you gonna love you as much as I do?"
"When you gonna make up your mind?"
"Cause things are gonna change so fast,"
"All the white horses are still in bed."
"I tell you that I'll always want you near,"
"You say that things change, my dear."

Hair is grey and the fires are burning -
So many dreams on the shelf.
You say "I wanted you to be proud of me."

I always wanted that myself...

"When you gonna make up your mind?"
"When you gonna love you as much as I do?"
"When you gonna make up your mind?"
"Cause things are gonna change so fast,"
"All the white horses have gone ahead."
"I tell you that I'll always want you near,"
"You say that things change, my dear."

Never change.
All the white horses...
Winter: Tori Amos

***

Vincent Valentine's footsteps resounded hard and beautifully off the walls of the AVALANCHE Building.
But that sound was not nearly as beautiful as the masterpieces Cloud had made out of Sunder Marigasco.

A sick grin spread across Strife's face at Vincent's disgusted expression.
"Beautyful, isn't it?" Cloud all but sang, putting a hand up proudly, showing off his work.

Vincent drew his gun in a flash, baring his teeth.
That mannerism...
That gleeful lust for destruction...
He narrowed his eyes, thinking back at Hojo's attitude toward Lucrecia's death.
He knew what all this shit was about, and he was sick of it.

"I have no words for you, SIR," he growled, firing at Cloud until he ran out of bullets.

Cloud giggled maliciously, doubling over his punctured stomach and coughing up blood.
His eyes flashed insanely as he laughed.

"MISSED!"

Vincent's spine shivered and he threw the gun at Cloud's head.

Cloud flumped to the foor.

He didn't move.

Vincent put his head to his throbbing forehead.
He did not need this headache.

~THERE.~

"JENOVA!"

~You got your little poetic justice for a second time. Are you satisfied?~

Vincent whirled around, looking for the source of JENOVA's voice and wishing he hadn't thrown the gun at Cloud.
"Where are you?!"

~You humans are always looking for the physical source of everything. How BASE.~

"JENOVA, you have no RIGHT to do this! No one deserves it! What kind of sick justice are you trying to pull, bitch?"

~Justice is dead...~

Vincent snorted indignantly. "You..."

~...no one EVER gets what they deserve...~

"SHUT UP!"

~...and your rights only assert themselves when you when you allow them to.~ Vincent REALLY wished he hadn't thrown his gun at Cloud's head.

~That's what I hate about people like you...
There's always a "noble" cause.
There's always a "black" and "white" with you.
There's always a "right" and a "wrong" and a "good" and a "bad", and there is nothing allowed to be in between.
And if anything thinks different from you, then they're the enemy.~

"You ARE the enemy!" Vincent growled, highly vexed at JENOVA's notion.

~Justice.
Honor.
Duty.
Right.
Wrong.
These things do not exist in a world as big as this. They are dead, except to serve the self. But when people like you think that their OWN justice is backed by something greater than they are...and call it a holy crusade when they go after people who are otherwise innocent... It makes me sick.~

"What does that have to do with..."

~All of this would be fine if it was all you. But other people get involved if you go about something so passionately. And they like to follow your way without fully understanding why it IS your way. It's easier to follow someone else's program for living than your own. You don't have to think as much. It's because of people like you that people who follow make others miserable, stating that YOUR way is the ONLY way. Confining them in your little fences of right and wrong. Protecting people from themselves. Providing a simple template for people so they don't have to think for themselves...~

"What are you talking about?"

~ICONS!~

"Icons?"

~I am talking about icons.
And you, sir, are an icon.
More than you will ever know.
And I find it disgusting that people should put aside whatever else better they could be doing than just moping around admiring you for who you are not.~

"You're talking about those people who buy my karaoke tapes? They're morons!"
Vincent thought a second.
That wasn't really fair.
"Well, most of them..."

~It does not matter what you THINK of them. All that matters is that you are an icon - an excuse for people to hate each other over. A symbol that stands for and reminds people that they HAVE to do this, or they HAVE to do that, and they CAN'T think that, because it is impure, and if you say that which you are not allowed to think, you are ousted from society.~

"Let me get this straight. You hate me because a few screaming twelve-year-olds eject people from their little cliques just because they don't like me?"

~The scale of your atrocity matters not. Those ousted from their little cliques become dangerous. That's how you set a Columbine fire. Like Cloud, for example.~

"You're reading too much into this."

~Art...architecture...love...music...dance...literature...tell me what you think of these things, Vincent Valentine.~

"I believe they're what make life worth living. And I have sworn to protect it from those who would destroy it!"

~To protect is to destroy. Think of it. Those who are unwanted by those who admire heroes too much want much more to destroy what is being protected if they are not accepted. Kids are cruel. And yet, childhood is that most critical time. The Joker destroys a child's complacancy. That child becomes Batman to destroy the Joker's complacancy. And on the cycle of destruction continues.~

"All right, all right. FIRST of all, Batman always ALWAYS made sure that he DIDN'T destroy. Second of all, if icons cause all this without even knowing it, what can they do about it? They can't just stop being icons. Especially after they're dead. Positive OR negative."

~THERE -IS- NO POSITIVE OR NEGATIVE!~

"Shut up, already! I'm trying to tell you that what you hate me for is not in my control!"

~In other words, it's not your fault.~

"You twist my words."

~It's still as unforgivable.~

"What about you?"

~What ABOUT me?~

"You. You were an icon to Hojo and Gast. Well, mostly Hojo. You weren't there. You weren't human. You just symbolized something. And thousands of people got hurt by him in YOUR name. You are JUST as much of an icon as I am, and I don't think anyone's DYING in MY name. So if you're going to hate me, don't do it for a part of yourself you see in me. It fucks things up."

JENOVA materialized above Cloud, a blue female figure with a metal helmet and wires connected to her head, fading out in transparency. ~Very good.~

"Very good, what?"

~You passed my little test. At least I know you're awake. But you're still a worm.~

"And what's the REAL reason, then?"

~You came between a mother and father.~

"You arranged for that to happen! What ARE you? Some sick little healer who causes accidents just so she can go back and soothe whoever she deems worthy to heal? A LOT more people than Hojo were hurt by that whole stupid soap opera thing that YOU caused! I was hurt! Gast was hurt! Lucrecia and Sephiroth and anyone who ever knew us was hurt! And you think you can make up for it by 'pampering' HOJO?!"

~Believe me, there are many who disregard Hojo's existance entirely. As I said, they're all much more interested in you.~

"Then how come I don't feel any better for it? Huh? Where's MY inner peace? Where's MY money and kooshie lifestyle, blocking out what other people feel as they're laying on the fucking operating table DYING?!"

~You never wanted it.~

"Ah. So, you're the drug, and I don't need you. That's why you hate me?"

JENOVA shrugged. ~Ehh.~

"Why do you hate me?!"

~Why do you want to know so much? So you can debunk it and make me like you? I have a million different reasons for everything I do, same as you. I can't just boil down the reasons that I hate you into one. Same as I can't boil down the reasons I love Hojo into one.~

"So, you love him?"

~More than he could ever know.~

"You were the one who turned him into the monster he was before, and you loved him then?"

~Yes.~

"And you love him now, as he's trying frantically to undo all that you ever did to him, rejecting everything that you are to get back to the way he was before you fucked with him, and you love him now?"

~Yes.~

"That sounds like complete and total hypocrasy to me."

~Everyone is a hypocrite once in their lives. Or, at least, they should be. I believe that people should try everything. That's what they're given life for, at least, in my opinion.~

"And yet you caged what you say you loved."

~And yet again, I freed what I said I loved, in turn.~

"Tifa would never have done this if not for you."

~If not for me, Tifa would be somewhere else entirely. And so would Cloud. And you. And Hojo. And everyone else. And yet, I never interfere directly. I just push the domino over and it goes its own way. I don't go around 'bewitching' people. That is not the power of JENOVA.~

Vincent shook his head in exhasperation and walked over to get his gun. "We lost track of something here. Why do you hate me, now?"

JENOVA grinned insidiously and Cloud suddenly sprang to life again, tackling the unsuspecting Vincent and holding him to the floor with his hands wrapped around his neck.

~Because it's FUN!~


Chapter 21
Index