STRIPES: CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
by K. Trotta


Tifa's very first memory
was of her father carrying her around outside in Nibelheim on the first snow of the year. She remembered the way his shirt felt, the way he smelled, and the warmth he radiated against the chill air. That feeling of one side of warmth against the background of cold would always trigger that memory for her. All she could sense was this sensation as Stripes held her close in his arms. She started to open her eyes, and everything was a blur, then she started to feel the rain on the street. She was lying on her back, and he was kneeling by her. She blinked and everything was still fuzzy. The only way she could tell that Stripes was holding her was that she recognized the smell of his cologne. "...Stripes...what happened?"

Stripes brushed a hand over her cheek and waited until Tifa's eyes focused before speaking. "I..."

Elena, Rude and Reno had gathered around them. "You got shot..." Elena told her.

Tifa looked down at herself. Her suit was drenched in blood. But she felt no pain. She looked up at Stripes and he helped her sit up. She sat there for a moment to regain herself. "I died, didn't I?"

Stripes nodded.

Tifa looked at the ground. Cloud had done it. Cloud had killed her. But Stripes brought her back. Why? "Where's Cloud?"

Stripes turned to look at Reno, who pointed at Cloud's unconscious body. He was lying a few feet away from them, unconscious on the street. Tifa got up and ran over to him. Stripes, Rude, Reno and Elena followed her. "He didn't want to listen to reason," Reno said.

"After he shot you, he went kind of insane. He confessed to doing all of the horrible things he'd been doing. I thought he was being controlled by Jenova, but I felt her let go, and he still kept on acting the same after she stopped..." Stripes said.

Tifa stood over Cloud's body for a minute. The rain had soaked her quite thoroughly, and she looked down at him from her tunnel of long, wet hair. His clothing was dissheveled, he hadn't shaved in days, and from the circles under his eyes, she could tell that he probably hadn't slept in days, either. She felt the sticky spot on her torso where the blood from the gunshot wound still caked her shirt.

"We really should get out of the rain..." Reno said. The crowd had begun to disperse, not wanting to stay out in the cold, wet weather. A good number of them stayed, however. They wanted to know where Cloud would end up.

Tifa blinked back her tears and pulled her hair behind her ear on one side, bending down and taking one of Cloud's hands. "So, you're telling me that I died...for nothing?"

Stripes stood next to where Tifa was kneeling. "...Yeah."

Reno took a few steps back and tried to act distracted. Best not to get into other people's personal problems... He looked around for something else that was important. The boss had collapsed a little bit behind the crowd. He and Rude shooed some people out of the way and picked him up.

Tifa looked at Stripes' feet. She wanted to say, 'Then why did you bring me back to life? Why did you bring me back to face this? I could have gone back. I could have returned to the Planet...' But she knew that she would have been able to tell what had happened when she did return. She would have only been able to watch from then on... "Thank you..."

Marlene, Barrett and Yuffie emerged from the crowd. Tifa stood up and lost herself in one of Barrett's bear hugs. "C'mon," Barrett told her, sending a relieved look Stripes' way, "let's go home."

As they turned back to the bar, Reeve surfaced from the crowd, followed by Tim. Stripes noticed that the remainder of the crowd had formed a rough circle around them. "Where were we taking Cloud?" Reeve asked Reno.

"Turks HQ, I think. I'm not sure what would happen if we threw him in the detention center," Reno said, getting tired of carrying Vincent very fast. "Half the people in there were arrested for going against his policies."

Reeve shook his head. "I'm not so sure that Turks HQ is secure. We're dealing with a violent criminal who needs to be contained and watched over constantly. And, no offense to you guys, but you all look like you need to rest. I'm quite sure that the detention center has solitary confinement cells, and night-guards."

Rude and Reno looked at each other, then they both looked at Reeve. This was a really different approach. Vincent always cracked down on his suspects personally and immediately. But the rain was really starting to pour, now, and they were both tired as all hell. "Sounds like a plan," Reno said.

"C'mon, Elena," Rude told her, trying to get her attention as she watched Tim and Stripes scrape Cloud off the street.

"We're not locking up Vincent, are we?" she asked.

"Naaah, but I think we all might end up at the detention center for the night. I know I'm drained," Reno said.

***

Cloud regained consciousness in his cell. It was dismal and grey. He could smell rust all around him. The only things soft were the measly blanket, mattress and pillow on his bed, and they were slightly damp from being in contact with his clothes, which were still damp from the rain. He couldn't hear any sounds from outside his walls. Nothing to interact with, nothing to listen to, no one to talk to...

Just like always.

Only this time, with no carpeted floor.

"...what they want...I want to give people what they want..."
Cloud's own words echoed in his mind. Words Jenova had inspired him to say. Or was Jenova just a figment of his imagination? Just his imagination trying to create an antagonist to fight against?

He recalled the way Tifa had thrown herself in front of his gun. She had wanted to die, but he wasn't sure he had given her what she truly wanted...

"...Just make sure you wake up..."

...she had wanted to die for an ideal...to sacrifice herself so that he could be free of his own twisted ideals. But he liked his ideals. He wanted them. He needed them. So...he hadn't given her what she wanted, and though this technically went against his ideals, it had been Tifa's ultimatum to choose between what he needed to believe and what Tifa thought he wanted.

Cloud curled himself into a ball. He'd effectively confused himself. He sat there for a good fifteen minutes, trying to clear his head, expecting some ghostly form or another to intrude upon his privacy. He put trying to clear his head aside when he realised that nothing seemed to be talking to him.

He narrowed his eyes. ...hadn't Hojo said something about Jenova stopping her meddling?

If he sent her away... Cloud thought, ...I'm going to kill him.

If someone had told him five years ago that he would come to want those white flashes of light telling him what to do, he would have laughed in their face. But now...after toppling ShinRa...after raising AVALANCHE...after losing Tifa... He no longer knew what to do. Not that he could do anything from where he was now. I guess that's one thing I no longer have to worry about, he thought.

Running AVALANCHE, keeping Mako Energy away from the people, trying to make sure that the Planet would heal...

Cloud scoffed at himself. As if that could happen in my lifetime... he thought, running his eyes up the corner of the walls of his cell to where they met the ceiling.

Trying to start a family with Tifa, trying to honor Aeris' memory...

Cloud had forgotten the point at which Tifa and Aeris had become mutually exclusive to each other. He didn't start actually hearing Aeris' voice until he'd moved to Junon. It was only a few months before Tifa walked out on him. It was probably Jenova all along...

He could feel Aeris' presence after she'd died in several places. Mostly after he'd defeated Sephiroth at the Northern Crater, but when he visited other places that were close to the source of the Lifestream, he could sense her. It was more like a physical sensation than verbal communication. It had been bubbly and warm, fresh, and tossed in with the feelings of thousands of other people who had returned to the Planet.

Cloud put his head on his knees and closed his eyes. How could he have gotten that mixed up with Jenova? She'd used Aeris' voice, always, and no violent white flashes, but it lacked that familiar presence despite the fact that the voice was the same. Had he just been that eager to speak with Aeris again? ...just as Tifa had been so eager to be free of him?

Cloud seriously wanted something outside of his head to make some noise.

And finally, something did. Cloud sprang off the bed and jumped against the wall as he heard the lock to his cell being undone.

It was Reeve, flanked by two Turks that he didn't recognize, and a few prison assistants with a cart with some food on it and some dry clothes.

Cloud relaxed a little bit and stepped forward. The second he did so, Reeve made a hand signal for the Turks to move. "Put your hands up!" the one on the left told him, pointing his gun. Cloud put his hands up. The prison attendants took this moment to fit the bed with new blankets.

"Have Mr. Strife searched for anything dangerous," Reeve said in an icy tone. The Turk on the right began to frisk him. Nothing turned up. Cloud thought they were going to strip-search him. The cold look in Reeve's eyes spoke volumes. "Farson," Reeve told the one on the left, "Vines," on the right, "give me a moment with him." Farson and Vines walked out, and the prison attendants left the tray of food and the dry clothes on his bed. The door slammed shut behind him and Reeve walked forward. It was the ShinRa walk. Cloud had seen Heidegger do it, President Shinra do it, Rufus do it... Cloud had never seen Reeve act this formally and businesslike before. But the personally angered look on his face betrayed his formality. "Just to let you know...AVALANCHE wasn't your baby."

Cloud glared at him.

"You weren't the one to start it, and you won't be the one to destroy it."

"Whatever."

Reeve turned his back on him and opened the door. Farson and Vines flanked him, both glaring at Cloud behind their sunglasses. Before the door shut completely, he could hear Reeve say, "Let's go see the warden about getting Mr. Highwind released."

The lock latched again with the same hollow sound, and Cloud was alone once more. He wished he knew what to do. He wished he didn't have to face anything anymore. He changed his clothes and ate, piling the dark blue suit in the corner with the empty tray. It didn't seem that anybody was going to take them away anytime soon. Even from the corner, their smell permeated the cell. Cloud closed his eyes, wishing that someone or something could take him away. Fuck the Planet. He wanted another white flash.


Epilogue
Index