STRIPES: CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
by K. Trotta


Tifa found them sitting in chairs across from each other, tossing a Koosh Ball dismally back and forth at each other. Tim looked elated. Stripes looked bored. She tilted her head. "And this is...?"
"Taking the kid out to the ball game," Stripes replied.
"Two hundred and thirty-seven!" Tim whooped, standing up on the chair, doing a dance. Tifa whipped her head around. His black cloak hung on the coathanger.
Tifa gasped. "You're the boy from the street with the cloak!"
Tim nodded energetically. "Sephiroth Clone Nummer TWOOOO!~" He held up two fingers.
Stripes slid both his hands down his face. "His body, anyway."
Tifa looked confused. "Huh?"
"It's a long story."

It took about a half an hour to explain in great detail how and why Tim came to be to Tifa, but her mind wrapped around it pretty quickly. "Aww...so even after he threw you down the garbage shute and left you to die, you still want to give him a hug! That's so cute!"
"Just what I needed. The only reason I came back at ALL was to give the people of this planet a chance to put me to justice for my crimes against humanity. And what do I get? A gorgeous chick who thinks I'm great, and the son that I lost given back to me," Stripes moaned.
Tim looked up from chewing on his sleeve. "Dat sucks."
Stripes glared at Tim. "You know, you could have left after the whole big Crusade Hug-Monster rip-off and let your message permiate my soul."
Tim shrugged. "Ehh..."
"Not like Tifa forgiving me was an affirmation enough that I don't suck as much as I think I do."
"You could have been under that 'Oh, I have a soul until I experience one true moment of happiness' deal. Cos it'd suck if, you know, you got all evil and didn't help us kill Cloud and JENOVA and stuff," Tim said, letting the sleeve of his sweatshirt dangle off the edge of his arm. The sweatshirt was at least three sizes too big for him.
Tifa was enthralled. "You mean, like, on Buffy?"
Stripes made a panicked "Huh?" noise.
"Yeah, when Angel lost his soul..."
Tim began. "And did all this mean stuff to everybody..." Tifa continued.
"And poor Giles! Oh, I cried!" Tim wailed, hiding himself in his sleeves.
"So did -I-!" Tifa gaped, putting a hand to her chest.
"Stripes, don't kill Giles's girlfriend, please!" Tim begged, taking Stripes' hands.
Stripes looked to Timothy, then to Tifa. Then to Timothy. Then Tifa again. "All right. Here's the plan. I vote that we NEVER ever ever have that sort of conversation between the three of us again."
"But it was just the two of us," Tifa said, mussing Stripes' hair.
Stripes gave them both a tried look. "Exactly."
"Anyway, we go kill JENOVA, yes?" Tim asked cutely, hiding his nose in his sleeves.
Stripes bristled and rolled up Tim's sleeves to the elbows. "No son of mine is going to go around town dressed as a homie mental patient. Anyway, yes. We go kill JENOVA now. The Turks should be here any minute with the lynch mob to overthrow Cloud, too." Stripes turned around thoughtfully and mused about what he had just said, Tim, of course, fixing his sleeves back the way he liked them again. Stripes then said: "You know...this is SO totally not what I pictured the whole AVALANCHE, save the Planet, kill the Sephiroth thing to turn into after I died. Are you SURE this isn't just some weird marijuana nightmare I'm having after you guys knocked me out on the Sister Ray scaffolds?"

A minute passed, and the Turks arrived with the angry lynch mob in-hand.
Reno all but tackled Stripes when he opened the door. "Yo, wassap, H-dawg? We got ALL da boyees from da east side, west side, north side an' south side of Junon comin' up smak in yo HOOD!"
Stripes blinked.
Elena gave Tifa a hug and giggled. "We could only find half the citizens. Hope it's good enough. And...oh! Damn, this would have been a lot more effective if it were at night!"
So, eight hours passed, Stripes got his tattoos up to number 25 with a small butterfly on some guy's chest, and a teddy bear on the back of a very tough-looking man's neck, where no one would ever see. And the sun set, and the stars came out.

Barrett tapped his foot impatiently on the sidelines.
Rude handed Stripes a microphone. "PA system?"
Stripes was about to test to see if it worked when Reno snatched it out of his hand. "Can I get a HEY, HO outta dis crowd?!"
He got silence...
"Ah SAY-YUHD--"
...and then a face full of Barrett Wallace gun-arm...
...there was a FLUMP...
...and then the "HEY, HO!" came.

Stripes blinked.
And Barrett handed the mike to him.
Stripes cleared his throat, and looked around him. The faces of those wronged by the AVALANCHE Corporation in the past half-decade burned brightly by the light of their torches, pitchforks, guns, swords, bows, arrows, artillery and stuffed animals, fervently awaiting words to stir them to action. Stripes decided Tifa had them.
Tifa glared at him and spoke legendary words into the microphone: "HEY! HO! Let's go!"

The mob took to the streets to find the AVALANCHE building, and began climbing and picking at it from the ground. Stripes, Tim, Tifa, Rude, Reno and Elena formed up before the doors and posed dramatically as light shone on them from underneath. And then they went "Ehh..." and broke the poses. Anyway!
Elena thought for a moment. "Has anyone seen Vincent?"
"He probably tore off in a fit of rage last night and is probably being tortured by JENOVA right now," Stripes surmised.
Reno nodded up at the Junonites climbing the windows and thought he spotted a greenish glow coming from the top of the building, accompanied by shrieks of pain and ominous laughter. "We should save him."
"Yeah..." Reno agreed.
"We should," Elena added.
The gang entered the AVALANCHE Building by the well-lit double doors, Tifa in the lead, Tim in the rear, flailing the sleeves of his white hooded sweatshirt with red triangle trim as he walked. Until Stripes spazzed and rolled them up again and told him to pick up his feet when he walked, otherwise he'd trip.
And then, the citizens stopped trying to climb the outside of the building and followed the leaders in.

***

Vincent was splayed on the ground, but all in one piece. Doing pretty good for eight hours of torture. He found himself on the roof of the AVALANCHE Building, now. It had been a good while since JENOVA had let up on him. Everything was green, and it was hard to breathe. But in that green, came a light blue light. Vincent put his head back on the ground. "Oh, no. Not you, too. Look, I believe in myself and in the power of love, but not a lot of that is doing me very much good at the moment, Lucrecia, so--"
The blue light faded away. It had forgotten what it was it was going to do.
~AHA! So, even your stolen goods have turned against you now! What do you have to say for that?!~ JENOVA whooped.
Vincent shrugged. "I dunno. I just don't fucking care anymore, anyway. Doesn't matter. You're going to, like, take over the world and kill everybody anyway. Doesn't matter that I digged some guy's chick. You started it, anyway."
~Matters not. You're not the one I want.~
"You know, there's a thin line between love and hate, they say," Vincent said as Stripes stomped through the roof's door, fatigued from the fifty flights of ascending stairs.
Cloud stepped on Vincent's chest in an effort to get at the mob coming for him from the stairwell, but before he could do anything, JENOVA melted the door shut the second Tifa stumbled out of it after Stripes. ~Peace, Strife.~
Cloud stood down.
Tifa growled. "Look at you, you idiot! Look at what you got yourself into because you couldn't look real love in the face!"
Cloud stared at her soullessly, and JENOVA raised a hand. ~Stop,~ she intoned.
Everything but Stripes and JENOVA stopped.
"Why are you doing this?" Stripes asked.
~Come to me...~ JENOVA sang softly, spreading her arms to embrace him, ~I'll take care of you...~
Stripes felt himself being dragged toward the green aparition. She looked as she had back in the Nibelheim reactor, helmet attached to her head, cables flowing this way and that, just a torso with wires sprawling out of it, like a cyberpunk naga. The only difference now was that she had arms, slender and strong, with long fingers. They reached out for him, and he struggled. "Stop it! Stop...why did you do this to Cloud and Tifa? They didn't deserve it!"
JENOVA continued as if she didn't hear him, folding her arms around him, ~...protect you...~
Stripes could feel the old, safe sensation he had felt under her influence when he was alive before. Just curl up in JENOVA and everything would be all right. Back in his comfort zone, so he wouldn't have to feel any of the pain he had caused, detached and unaware of the world around him. He had had enough of that. "No more! I won't hide in you anymore!"
~Calm, calm down...~ JENOVA had him, now, immobile, in her arms. She stared into his eyes as if his sunglasses weren't there, saw them red from crying with Timothy on the floor of his house, and closed them with a breath. ~You're exhausted...~
Stripes fought to open his eyes again, but JENOVA was too strong. Why was he always so helpless against her? "JENOVA, stop..."
And he was asleep.

***

Curled up, in his dreams. Where she wanted him to be. Where she could talk to him better. "Hojo...listen to what I have to say."
Stripes opened his eyes, and he found himself in the reactor at Nibelheim. JENOVA's skin was blue, and the wires were silver, exactly as in the reactor, a spotlight on her in the blackness showed only her head and torso. The mask she wore was gone, though, and she no longer had arms. And she stared at him, with her blue face shadowed by the helmet that connected her to everything else. Stripes uncurled himself from his place on the floor and looked up at her. "Do I have a choice?"

"Please. I want to apologize."

"For screwing up two perfectly nice kids' lives? Why are you apologizing to me for, then? Fix them and be done with it!"

"I cannot."

"Why not?!"

"I can only push things one way or another. If they move my way, they may do it because of my influence, but only because they wanted to do it after I gave them the idea. Seeds can die, Hojo."

"Then why plant them in the first place?!"

"There can be no judging whether a tree is good or bad for something when you plant the seed for it. Most people just like to watch things grow and sprawl out of things of their own free will."

"You're still controlling Cloud, the way you were controlling me," Stripes said defensively. "We aren't toys, you know."

"Yes, I know."

"And?"

"That is why I want to apologize."

Stripes folded his arms. "Well...I'm listening, whether I want to or not."

"I removed you of your life the first time. I made things so interesting for you at first, and then spoiled you out of anything afterwards. I wanted to protect you from anything that could harm you. But that was doing a greater disservice to you than anything else in the world. I cannot protect you from your life. I wish I had realized this sooner, but I was so caught up in trying to make things better for you in the literal sense. I didn't want Lucrecia to die, so I kept her alive, but you never asked me. You never asked me. And you got stuck, and there was nothing I could do until now. I present you Cloud as a depiction of yourself, and you awakened beautifully to it. But how you will run with this is up to you. I'm sorry it seems as if I play with you as children play with toys...but when it comes right down to it, I probably am a child, after all. A child who is beginning to learn how to grow up. And that someone else's toys aren't so important anymore. I just wanted to glue them back together before I gave them back to the person I stole them from. To make it right. I only want to make things right."

Stripes looked up at her, trying to look behind the shadow the helmet had placed over her eyes. "If you are anything like us at all, you know that it's impossible to do nothing but good in the world."

"But I can try to fix things that I mess up, can't I?" JENOVA asked. She sounded more frightened. Stripes narrowed his eyes, noticing some sort of shift in her.

Stripes walked towards her and put his hands on some of the bigger multitude of wires. "Some things just can't be fixed."

"I can't just stand there and watch, though. Lucrecia was just standing there and watching you deteriorate! I had to do something. I had the power. I was only trying to make things all right. I was only trying to make it a happy ending. And I...made it worse. I made it worse!" she choked, struggling to free her shoulders from the wires so she could cry into her hands.

Stripes thought of all the conversations he had had with Tifa, trying to convince her that life really was better than it seemed, trying to repair her faith in Cloud...all of that had ultimately led her back into his own arms. Stripes blinked back his own tears, but stayed silent.

JENOVA tried to free herself again. "I try to give people what they want," she glowered, lowly, "that is my function. That is all I am capable of. But why do people really want to destroy themselves? Why do they ultimately not want to live? Don't they understand how miniscule and delicate the odds of their existance are in the first place? How wonderful it can be to feel both hot and cold? How miraculous tears are, and how wonderful laughter is? Why do people want to trap themselves in ruts instead of doing what they dream? Where did this trend of cynicism start? Each person is presented with ways to improve the quality of their life every day...but very few of them can even recognize them. They'd rather hide in their illnesses, or shield themselves with their insecurities and let themselves just sink in their sadness. Why?"

"Probably because it's human nature to take the roughest track and try to beat it uphill. If it's easy, it's probably not as worthwhile. There is value in hardship. Even if the only value is the hardship. It's not your fault if things can't turn out into fairy tales. That's why we have fairy tales. That's why we have art. So we can look at something beautiful in the midst of all this hardship. Some people get caught up in fairy tales, though. And they get mad that life can't be perfect. And the more they try to change it to be perfect, the less everyone else wants to listen to them. And the more cynical they get. Personally, I've learned it's a little easier to accept things as they are, because they're so hard to fix. But it's probably not true with everything, because the world is a huge-ass place, and there are so many variables."

"Either way...I messed up your life at first, and this is your second chance. You may have to hide for a while for people to forget about what you did to them before, but I'm through fixing things."

"Through playing?"

"You have no idea how late I am waking up to reality. There's no time for me to play anymore. I have other things to do now. There are others...many others like me. Some are still children, playing with toys, and others...aren't. We have wars and hardships and divorces and brawls and friends and joy and love, just as you do. I think I'm through playing, though. It's time for me to truly leave. It's time for me to truly give you your power back."

"My power?"

"My power comes from the people I drain it from. You may not know how to use it. Most of it's on automatic for your brain, and I can modify it to my liking, but it's essentially your own power over your own life. Now, wake up. You've things to do."

***

Stripes snapped back awake. Tifa, Vincent and Cloud were still under the influence of the Stop spell, but it wore off in a moment. Clouds had gathered during the day, making it grey before the sun had set, and lightning now bristled in the sky. Cloud grinned evilly, pointing his gun at Stripes first, and then Vincent, and finally Tifa. "Shoot. I dare you," Tifa said.

"Don't tempt me, bar wench," Cloud growled, stepping toward her.

"I'd rather be a bar wench than a statue left to rot on a pedestal of glass. Rather be something real than just an ideal floating around inside someone's skull."

It was moments like this that made Stripes realize just how much he loved Tifa. And want to strangle Cloud for being blinded by an ideal, just as he used to be. Cloud said nothing, but moved within a foot of his wife. She didn't flinch. "If this is what it takes to wake you up," she said, grabbing the barrel of the gun and holding it to her abdomen, "then shoot. Feel your hands, feel your skin, feel the blood, feel your heart and your head and everything else that's numb to you," she said dangerously, then contorting her face into a bitter frown, "just make sure you wake up. I couldn't stand it if you stayed like this."

Stripes took off his sunglasses wiped his eyes with his forearm. Part of him wanted to save her, but it was more important that he let this happen. It wasn't his fight.

Vincent gasped and moved to get up to rescue her, but Stripes stepped on his chest before he could do anything. "You do anything to fuck with them, Valentine, and I really WILL kill you," he growled.

"Then I guess you'd like to add Tifa's blood to the collection of half the population of the planet on your hands," Vincent bellowed, shoving Stripes' foot off of his chest, getting up and digging his claw into Stripes' forearm.

He took it without a flinch, and turned his back to the Turk, still watching Tifa and Cloud.

The soddered door was beginning to come loose. He could hear Reno's hollering over most of the others' voices. "IF YOU'RE GOING TO SHOOT HER, JUST GET ON WITH IT!"

BANG.

"TIFA!" Cloud's voice rang out into the darkness.

The door came loose just as Tifa's body hit the concrete.

Cloud's hands were shaking, and he was breathing heavily. The shaking got so bad that he dropped the gun, and it went off again and shot into the sky. Cloud jumped and covered himself, still shaking. He looked down at Tifa. She looked up at him with a smile, and raised her hand to stroke his cheek. "Rise and shine," she whispered.

"Tifa!" Cloud sputtered, taking her hand as it fell away from his face and holding it there. Hyperventillating and nauseous, nearly blinded by his tears, he kept sputtering: "Tifa! Tifa, I love you! I love you! Oh, God, I love you! I..." he took several deep breaths before he was able to speak again, "I...didn't tell you enough. I didn't tell you enough. ::gasp:: Thank you..." the rest of it was lost to the public ear as Cloud bent his head to her abdomen and cried.


Chapter 22
Index