STRIPES: CHAPTER FOUR
September 2nd, XXXX+5
Tifa walked through the streets of Junon wearing her old clothes. She was cold, despite it still technically being summer. Once the sun dipped below the dilapidated helicopter platforms, the wind dropped its mask of friendliness. A tank top, a miniskirt and suspenders weren't the warmest things in the world to wear, point being.
She had run away three days ago. The first place she stopped was Barret's Gym, where the Turks came by and did a half-hearted search of the premises and turned up with nothing. Half of them were too drunk to notice her hiding between some punching bags. She thought she was going to get caught again, but she was lucky. Obnoxiously lucky.
Barret had packed her up some of his cleaner spare clothes in a bowling bag as she put on her old ones. She remembered the hooded sweatshirt he'd packed for her and set the bag down to get it as the clock in the middle of town started to toll the hour. It was blue grey, and well-worn, but it smelled like Barret-wearing-too-much-aftershave rather than Barret-working-too-hard-teaching-kids-how-to-box, of which she was thankful. The bottom of it reached below her skirt, so it looked like she was just wearing the sweatshirt.
Some wino across the street whistled at her. It was at this juncture that she thought she might be mistaken for a hooker. Dammit. I'd better find some place to duck into.
Tifa was exposed to poverty, but she had never really experienced being homeless in its fullest sense. Zangan had taken her to Midgar after the fire in Nibelheim, where Barret had taken her in. When Sector 7 was destroyed, travelling around the world became her M.O., and any place with a bed looked like home. But now, anywhere she went, she would definately be recognized. If not as Cloud's wife, as one of the heroes who saved the planet from Meteor, and now as a traitor. She'd seen the ads for her arrest Cloud had put on TV. Unflattering paparazzi shots of her getting off helicopters in sunglasses were faded behind statements like: "Tifa Lockhart - once proud member of AVALANCHE, seeks now to destroy it." They accused her of a number of crimes, ranging from petty theft on old ShinRa carriers to trying to hire scientists to rebuild the mako reactors to cheating on Cloud with whatever stock photos of Junon residents the press could scare up. Asshole. She was going to get him. But first, she needed a secure place to stay. It didn't need to be glitzy, or even comfortable. Just a clean space somewhere that was situated away from Junon's main roads.
Then she would REALLY start planning AVALANCHE's fall.
She wasn't about to turn Cloud into an outright liar.
Although he had always been one.
A dark alley presented itself to her, presumably uninhabited aside from a red neon sign.
Pretend to be Zack, pretend to help Barret, pretend to love me...Is there anything of yours that belongs just to you, Cloud?
The sign turned out to be for an inn, and through the window, she saw Elena, Reno and Rude sitting with their heads together at one of the tables. They reminded her of a coven of witches...a drunken, surly and candy-coated coven, but the comradery between them was unbreakable. She hoped sincerely that nothing happened to them because of what she'd done. If it did, she'd be the first to break faces. Even if it meant going up against Vincent. When he lost control, he was easy to bring down.
Oh, yeah. Maybe she should be hiding from them.
Looking up and down the alleyway, she found no other place to hide, except for an open door behind her. None of the lights were on. So why was the door open?
A sudden bolt of lightning pierced the sky, illuminating the area. During the flash, she could see mako leaking through a pipe behind the front desk of the shop. Tifa had her head turned to the sky as it started to rain.
Stepping in and closing the door behind her, Tifa put down her bag and fumbled around for a light switch. "Hell-LO?" Her fingers found the switch and two table lamps set on shelves flickered to life. Their red lampshades gave the room a warm, orange look. Upon more lookings around, the place looked much like an inn. It had a front desk with a bell, and an open guestbook. A couple comfy looking chairs dotted the lobby. She decided that this place was decorated for company. "HELLO?!"
Nobody answered, and she picked her bag up and shuffled to the desk, ringing the bell. Still no answer. Well...may as well sign the guestbook, Tifa thought to herself, taking the pen in her hand and looked at the peculiar little guestbook.
The numbers started at 14.
There had been no other pages before.
#14: Betsy Kinneas.
#15: Edward Thomson.
Tifa wrote a T in the #16 slot, but stopped.
If I sign my own name, the Turks will DEFINATELY know I've been here.
What could she turn a T into?
Tifa recalled a song her father used to sing to her when she was a child.
Ev'ry morning you greet me
Small and white
Clean and bright
You seem happy to meet me
Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow for-ever
Bless my homeland forever.
Edelweiss were little white flowers that occasionally dotted the Nibelheim landscape. They meant "precious white" in Nibelheim's archaic native language. Tifa's father had given her that nickname as a child for her preference for white clothing. She changed the T she had written down to a believable E.
#16 E. White.
The only people that could possibly track her down from that name were her father, Johnny, Kraeder, Lilke and Cloud, but she knew Cloud and his paranoia well enough to know that he wouldn't try wasting his time looking for her personally. Johnny lived in Costa Del Sol with his girlfriend, and Kraeder had died in the war, following Cloud's footsteps and actually getting into SOLDIER. As far as she knew, Lilke died in the fire. And her father...
She didn't want to think about that.
Anything but that.
"In my veins...flows the blood of the Ancients."
The weight of the Masamune as it resisted her grip.
The futility of trying to use it against its master...
The sickening sound of metal slicing through one's own flesh...
Metal is one of those things that should never come in contact with the human body. The only thing that tastes worse than metal is lipstick. And your own blood.
She remembered Cloud's face as he set her aside and went to face Sephiroth with Zack's sword. His eyes were brimming with tears of loss, shame and anger. She didn't understand the shame then, but she did now. He'd failed to pass SOLDIER's tests, didn't deserve to protect her, or Zack, or his mother. She remembered how he changed as he picked up Zack's sword. All of the failures and losses and embarassments seemed to well up in him and turn into white hot rage. He became a creature of revenge, and stormed out of the door after Sephiroth, and her life, for a very long time.
She may have remembered it wrong. Maybe it was Zack who picked her up and put her aside. But she thought it was Cloud. And that was all that mattered to her at the time. She wanted to think it was Cloud. Tifa wondered if Aeris wanted to think Cloud was Zack. Or if Zack wanted to think Cloud was Aeris.
Tifa snokked. There. A little humor to bring me out of that melodrama, she thought.
Tifa put down the guestbook pen again and started to look upstairs for the innkeeper. It became apparent that this hadn't been an inn for very long. The paint was fresh, and the carpet was clean. It wasn't easy to keep anything clean in Junon these days.
On the second floor was a sitting room, a bathroom and a room full of art supplies...and another set of stairs. The innkeeper was definately an artist. The third floor had another room full of art supplies, a laundry room and a small bedroom with a single bed. What kind of an inn was this?
She stepped into the room with the bed and looked at the floor. Slightly messy, with a few hundred pens strewn around on the ground, half of them chewed off at the ends. There was a phone with a green neon light around it on the end table by a lamp that hadn't been turned off. The bed was half-made. The room smelled like Old Spice. Okay, so this isn't an inn.
She wondered why a person would leave their residence unlocked. Especially in Junon. That was just plain stupid. Maybe he came from a much safer place and was just getting used to things here.
The stairs acended to the door onto the roof. Outside, it was raining as if the angels were mourning the death of their god. She looked around, through the rain...
...and saw the figure of a man in a white tank top near the edge of the roof. The wall was about waist-high, and he was leaning over it pretty forward looking down. After about a minute, the man leaped onto the wall's edge and put his arms out, turning his face to the sky.
"Ohmygod! Don't jump!!" she cried. It was so cheezy, but it was still her first impulse.
"Wha? Woah!" the man turned to look at her and fell backwards onto the roof. He pushed himself up and turned around to face her. He was wearing a red leather jacket, a wife-beater and jeans, and cuban-heeled boots. His black hair was rain-slicked back, and a few loose strands of bangs were plastered to the front of his face. He took off his sunglasses to wipe his face off and put them back on as soon as he was done. "Young lady, I was only enjoying the rain."
Tifa blinked. That voice sounded a little bit familiar. She couldn't place it, though. "I'm sorry, sir. It...well...just seemed the thing to assume."
"I'm done with suicide," he mumbled to himself. "Though you've just proven a good way to stand and fall backwards instead of forwards. Thank you," he said, jumping back up onto the wall again.
"Sir, you shouldn't be doing that!"
"God, shut up. You're ruining the downpour. It only lasts a few minutes, and I'm trying to enjoy it, dammit."
"What the hell? You act like you've never seen rain before!"
Stripes put his head back again, and put his hands up. He started to sway from foot to foot as the rain seemed to sheet down harder. It reminded Tifa of the time Barret took her to what remained of the Corel Baptist Church. Minus the "SHOUT HOLY GHOST!!!!1"
He didn't look like he was going to respond to her, so she unzipped her bag and fished around for the umbrella Barret had packed her. She found it, put it up, and waited for the rain to cede the creep stood there until the rain reduced itself to a piddly drizzle. She could only guess that he was doing.
Stripes let himself fall backwards onto the concrete roof and stared up at the drizzle for a while, contented with himself. He'd finally done it. He'd stayed outside in the rain and enjoyed it. He was proud of himself. Rolling onto his side like a child rolling under the covers, he got up and brushed his jacket off. Tifa came up to him and held her umbrella, rather futilely at this point, over his head. "You stay out in the rain like that, you're gonna catch pneumonia and die."
Stripes gave her a blank look, and then grinned. "Young lady, there are a lot of things more horrible than pneumonia and death. And I'm pretty sure you can make yourself one with pneunmonia and death if you try hard enough," he finished, patting her on the shoulder and taking the umbrella. "You don't look dressed for the weather, either."
Tifa made a futile attempt to cover her thighs and flushed.
"Come on inside, now. Let's dry you off."
The man motioned for her to step back in the door to go downstairs, and she did. He followed behind her, locking the door behind him. He stripped off his jacket and threw it into his bathtub on the way down the stairs, grabbing a dry wifebeater off the doorknob after discarding his old one. "I'm afraid all I can offer you are some t-shirts. I've only been in town for, like, five days, so I don't have that much with me. Here. I think this'll fit you," he said, grabbing a black t-shirt and motioning her toward the bathroom. Finding another dilapidated pair of jeans, he put them over her arm. "Those, too. Pants are important, you know."
Tifa closed the bathroom door and put on the t-shirt and the jeans. The place smelled like aftershave and cologne and chlorine. It was fairly pleasent.
"You can throw your wet clothes in the dryer in the next room if you want," Stripes called, changing his clothes himself from the bedroom. Tifa did so and waited for her host outside his door, who came out in new jeans, but the new tank top was still slung over his shoulder. She couldn't help but marvel at the markings on his back as she followed him down the stairs. He wasn't built, but his ribcage wasn't showing, either. The markings on his hands made him look like a street sign, though. "O-kay, miss...White. What sort of tattoo were you looking to get today?"
Tifa started. "T-tattoo?! No, no...I thought this was an inn! I don't want a tattoo!"
"Oh, Jesus! I'm sorry! Uhh...I don't really have much room here. You might wanna try Ed's next door," he said.
"Uhhh...I...would, but, uh...I'm kinda...um...I don't want any run-ins with the Turks, see," Tifa said.
Stripes put his sunglasses on his head and got a decent look at her. His eyes were icy blue. She...recognized them for some reason. He choked back a laugh. "Tifa Lockhart," he said, matter-of-factly. Oh MY god. This is rich.
Tifa gave up. "Dammit, if you turn me in, you're gonna have to bust me up before you do. I need a place to stay. I'd like to collect my thoughts before organizing the big, full-scale revolt thing."
"You're not organizing a revolt," Stripes said, unmoved. "You can't even keep yourself under cover. I should turn you in just because you're that inept."
"If it's a fight you want, mister..."
"Please. Call me Stripes."
"You're not locking me up. I don't wanna fight you, or Reno and Rude and Elena. I don't wanna fight with Cloud, and I don't wanna hafta fight Vincent to break Cid outta jail, but if you push me, god dammit, you're gonna be hurtin'," Tifa threatened, putting her fists up. She was unarmed, but that was what she was best at.
Stripes stood there, as if waiting for something. "I never said I was going to turn you in. You can relax. I don't give a shit about what Strife wants for the city. The place is falling apart because he's afraid of mechanics, and I think it's pretty damn sad. I didn't come here to fix your damn city, but it looks like I'm going to have to help you if I want anything to improve for myself. Besides, it would be really ungentlemanly of me to throw a nice young lady like you back onto the streets of Junon."
"Who are you?"
"Me? I'm just a monster trying to escape my past and live a normal life," Stripes said, holding his hand up. His fingers turned into elongated claws. Tifa was reminded unerringly of Vincent Valentine. "but it looks like I'm not gonna get what I want. I am very dangerous. If you really knew what I was, you'd probably want to kill me. But you don't have to deal with that tonight. Just dry yourself off and rest up for now."
Tifa put her arms down. "I'm sorry...I..."
"Don't be sorry. It's all right. There's a couch in one of the rooms upstairs. Just don't touch my room," Stripes said, grabbing a jacket from the kitchen and walking to the door.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm just going to return something to a friend. I'll be back in a couple of hours," Stripes said. No bothering to stick around for her rebuttal, he put on the tank top and the jacket and stalked out into the damp, Junonite landscape. All the residents had migrated indoors, and the streets steamed a bit from the difference of temperature the rain brought. He sighed, making for lower Junon. Dude, if one more thing drops into my lap, I'm gonna fuckin' scream.
Lightning crashed again, and Stripes' eyes glowed green behind his sunglasses.
As his bangs flopped in front of his face again from being dry, he liked to think he looked a bit like his son at the moment.