STRIPES: CHAPTER THREE
THE DEFANGED TURKS

August 30, XXXX+5

10:26:56 PM

"Drinks all around! It's on me, boys! We've had a tough night, and we deserve to forget about it," Vincent said as he pushed open the door of the posh little bar the rookies seemed to favor. Both of them seemed pretty riled up after having to deal with Cid, and he didn't blame them. Reno and Rude remained at the entrance.

"What's the matter?" he asked the two veteran Turks.

"Ahh...this place...just isn't us, sir," Reno lied. The chic little bar with its neo-industrial decorating had been the place where he and Rude were recruited into the Turks seven years ago when they were just clubhopping college dropouts, but the rookies had since turned it in to nothing but their little pissing ground. They didn't appreciate it, and they appreciated being responsible for it even less. Of course, Vincent was none the wiser about it, what with being buried underground for 20-odd years. Vincent could pretend to take Tseng's place all he liked, but he was still a poser, and none the wiser when Reno lied through his teeth.

"All right. I'll call you if I need you, then!" Vincent said cheerily, swiping someone else's beer off a waitress's tray. He knew image was important to these guys, and respected them for being cool enough to brush him off.

Vincent Valentine enjoyed his new job immensely. Probably because it was his old job, but it didn't MATTER. The junior members of the Turks flocked around him as young Bhuddist priests flocked around the Dalhi Llama...or...whoever it was that followed around the Dalhi Llama. Well, whoever they were, they always brimmed with stupid questions they knew the answers to in the first place and free beer. And the free beer was worth pandering their high-school calibur insecurities for. Reno and Rude had dragged him along as their new official drinking buddy. Elena had a monstrous crush on him. They told him stories about their old leader, Tseng. Vincent thought of himself as sort of a substitute Tseng. Hopefully ONE day they'd stop using him as a crutch. Poor sentimental Reno, Rude and Elena. Vincent was a LOT different than Tseng. Tseng didn't have a big gold claw for his left arm, and, by all reports, wasn't as smooth with the ladies . Girls loved his brooding, dangerous hair and sad backstory. They flocked in droves to get a glimpse of him on stage as he sang Karaoke. He'd even been convinced to cut an album of Adam Ant covers. He did this all reluctantly, of course. People just couldn't get enough of him.

He was so cool.

+++

Rude slammed his mug down on the counter. "What a fucking poser."

"Tell me about it," Elena said, swirling her Shirley Temple with her index finger and rolling her eyes. "It took me all week to find a place without him following me like a wounded puppy. You know, it was kinda cute five years ago when all he did was follow us around because he used to be a Turk, too, but this is just monstrous."

"You know who we locked up today? Cid Highwind. Cid FUCKING Highwind. And all he did was put on his '...' face. Oh my GOD! You're a total narcissistic prick and a complete moral poser, but come ON! These guys fought side by side for, like, a YEAR! If I ever do that to one of you guys...I would NEVER do that to one of you guys." Rude was livid.

Reno, who had managed to get smashed within 3 seconds of entering the place, mooshed his hair up against Rude's shoulder. "I looooove you. You're so soft."

Rude militantly put an arm around his inebreated partner. "I love you, too, man. I love you, too."

Elena leaned forward to address the bartender. "Hey, barkeep, what did you GIVE him?"

The bartender took his rag out of the glass he was cleaning and pointed to the mostly empty long-necked bottle of clear liquid with gold filings at the bottom. "Cinnamon Schnapps. I opened it last night, so I figured, hell, might as well see if anyone else would want some in the next few weeks. Nobody likes it because it tastes like a christmas chemical peel. Then your friends come in and this guy has eight shots of it in a row."

Rude moved to the side a bit and Reno ended up face-down on the counter, as if on cue.

Ed gave him a sidelong look. "Special bus."

"He's always been like that," Elena said. "Sorry about that XXXX-70 stuff. Is there enough left there to try some out?"

With a skeptical look at her Shirley Temple, Ed cautiously poured her some of the last un-golded goldschlager. As he poured, Elena got a good long look at his wrist, which had a puffy bandage over it. "What happened there?"

"What, this? It's not what you think. See?" Ed replied, prying off the bandage and revealing a tribal-styled dragon. The style reminded Elena of the native american fire magic from Disney's Pocahontas.

Elena was, like, "OOOOoooh!!111" And then Rude was, like, "Let me see!"

Ed was happy to oblige. Rude picked Reno's head back up off the counter to show him. He giggled immaturely and made some tiny fire-spitting sounds before squinting at something small near its tail with his reddened eyes. "Hey, wossat?"

Rude took a closer look at it. "It looks like a little XV." "XV?" Elena wondered. "Issa roman numeral for fifteen," drawled a voice that may have once had class from one of the tables. The figure was a man in his 30's in a leather jacket, a wifebeater, sunglasses and a punk hairdo. He was slumped back against the chair, one arm dangling from the side and the other massaging his temple.

Ed was startled. "Jesus, Stripes, how long have you been sitting there?!" "Sinssabout 4 this affernooon," Stripes replied. "Shouldn't you be watching your studio?" "Mmmprobably."

"Who's that?" Rude whispered. "I don't know," Elena replied.

Ed motioned to the tattoo. "He made this. Waltzed in here yesterday and bought the studio across the alleyway from me. He's a genius artist, and he's also pretty good with household repair. The place was leaking mako all over the kitchen and he had it all clean by the time I came over at around noon to get my tattoo," Ed said, running over and attempting to lift Stripes from the chair - a futile effort - continuing, "but if he keeps spending all his time and money in here, he won't be worth much of nothing at all!"

"Oh, b'quiet. Youuere my fifteenth cussomer sinssIgothere."

"Some advertising campaign..." Elena blinked.

"Sothissusm'day OFF. You have no idea how difficult it is to deal wittha public, young man," Stripes slurred, pointing a figure paternally at the bartender, who looked not only his age, but possibly was his senior. "N'plus, thissussa good place t'take inna city atmosphere. REAL city atmosphere. Makes me wish I hadda stoop."

"What are you DRUNK on? I don't remember serving you alchohol." Stripes pointed (barely) to a very dirty bottle sitting in the middle of his table. The label was all in Wutai-ish, or at least, it looked like it through all the bloodstains. It was empty, but it smelled strongly of seawater. Ed passed the bottle around.

"What was this?" Elena asked, pinching her nose at the smell of fermented Junon Harbor water.

"That was the last vestige of a past life," Stripes said, sighing a bit.

"Past life?" Rude asked.

"Five...no, it's ten years now, isn't it? Ten years ago, I lost...my son, rather needlessly, after the war. Among other things, I started to drink, but like those other things, it didn't bring him back. I lost myself for a little while, then. What do you do with yourself after something that's supposed to outlive you dies?

"I used to spend hours awake in bed, staring at the ceiling, and in front of the television, turned to the station with nothing but snow. I didn't want to work. I didn't want to live. I didn't want to talk to anyone or get up to improve myself. Everything was just a haze. And then I died. When I came to, all that washed up with me in the harbor was this bottle and one of my old journals. Sitting on the shore reading it, I began to realize that I had trapped myself in a needless rut. I used to think strict, bleached-clean order was the way to go about doing things, but looking up at the graffiti on the grates leading up to the reactor from the beach, the little girl playing with the dolphin further down the shore, and even my own notes, unconsciously, I realized that imperfection is a work of art. The world is teeming with life. And I missed it the last time around. Now I have to make up for it."

"So...wait, you died?" Rude asked.

"Metaphorically speaking."

"Did you, like, jump off one of the buildings into the harbor or something?"

"No, I--" Stripes stopped and backtracked. "I just waded into the water and hoped that the current would take me out."

"He's lying," Rude concluded, unimpressed.

"Ru-ude!" Elena glared.

"Okay, so all of that's a big fat lie. But I'm here, and I do tattoos, and that's all that matters right now. Waddaya want from me?"

"You could cough up some ID or a medical certification," Rude offered.

"Dude, man, leaveth'guyyuhlone," Reno mumbled. "We're not on duty right now."

Stripes placed the requested documents on the table, along with enough gil to cover all three of their tabs. "I'm not looking to cause trouble. I'm just some punk, honest."

"Heeeey, I finally found you!"

"Oh, SHIT," Rude cursed under his breath as Vincent barged in the door with a pair of giggling girls on his arms. Well, one was trying to avoid his claw altogether, but you get the idea. Stripes turned around just in time for Rude to notice the scar running down his face.

"Oh, hey! That's the guy who did my tattoo, Mr. Valentine!" one of the girls gasped. The back of her scalp was shaved just so the barcode on the back of her head showed through. (The middle numbers in the code read XIIII). Stripes turned on his cuban heels, ready to face a confrontation, but Vincent was seriously intoxicated and hardly noticed.

"Reno, Rude, Elena, I jus' got summbad news fromma top. Tifa has run off. Guess who's job it is to find her?"

"Ours," the three replied rather deadpan and filed out of the bar.

"I better be getting back to the shop," Stripes said to himself and followed the turks out. As he was passing Vincent, he reached out for his scarred shoulder with his claw.

"Heyyou..." he said, keeping Stripes stopped, but unharmed. Looking him up and down and looking back at the girl's tattoo, he grinned. "Nice job. You got talent."

Stripes dropped his stiff look of horror and grinned victoriously. "Thanks. The name's Stripes," he said, shaking his claw. He knew just where to reach so that he wouldn't get cut, too. Grinning like the Cheshire Cat, he walked out into the alleyway and disappeared.

Vincent's brain was set on off today, but something stirred in the back of his mind. In the part that he didn't want to think about. "Huh. Oh, well. Let's go."

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