STRIPES: CHAPTER SIX
September 3, XXXX+7
Tifa had situated herself in one of the two comfy velour chairs Stripes had in the front sitting room and nodded off by the time he returned. "Jesus...do you want to get caught, little girl?" The chairs were right in the window, and all Elena, Reno or Rude had to do to see her was turn around. He didn't have the heart to wake her, though. Shutting off his front lights so nobody in Ed's could see him, he picked Tifa up off the chair and carried her upstairs into his bedroom. "Clever thing. Looks like you get the bed anyway."
Tifa awoke to familiar voices talking downstairs and sat up quickly, realizing that she wasn't in the same place she'd been when she'd fallen asleep. All the lights were out, and the only thing she could see was the hall light from under the closed door and the red digital display of Stripes' alarm clock. She climbed forward in the bed, realizing that he must have taken her boots off for her and gave her clean socks. Running her hand along the bed's side, she felt for them, just to make sure they were up here with her and not still downstairs. They were there. A loud guffaw pierced the murmur downstairs.
Tifa creaked off the metal-spring mattress as soundlessly as she could, and had a heart attack as she tried to sneak toward the door. Every old wooden beam gave off a moan worse than an electrical alarm. The door wasn't much better.
She poked her head out and looked downstairs. Beyond the swirly, dingy, mustard carpet and masked by the white of the sloping roof of the ceiling above the stairs was a fire-engine red rattail sticking out from a rumpled navy-blue blazer. Another pair of legs stood next to the figure.
Tifa felt a cold sweat begin to form on her forehead. Reno and Rude...
Reno had this habit of speaking very loudly when he was drunk. "...and he says, 'Sure! I do this all the time!' and drinks it like he knows what he's doing, and the LOOK on his FACE, man, you shoulda been there."
There was a roar of laughter from below, and a high female titter indicated Elena's presence as well. The laughter died and she started a new thread of conversation. "So, where were you tonight, Stripes?"
"Me? I was out on the roof enjoying the rain. And another client came in. Sorry I didn't stop by."
"That's all right. I thought the lights were turned on for a weird amount of time today," Rude commented, reaching into his pocket. "Oh yeah. Almost forgot," he continued, sighing and reciting in monotone: "Have you seen this girl?"
"What a disgusting pink suit. Are you going to use your metal crowbar arm to smash through the back window of her disgusting pink car to turn her in?" Stripes quipped.
"Very funny, tattoo man," Rude replied.
"Better watch out. I've got some liquid nitrogen in my closet," Stripes continued.
"Cut it out. Rude would just melt back together once he thawwed out," Reno giggled.
Stripes snorted. "Anyway, who is she?"
The Turks looked at each other rather skeptically.
"WHAT? I don't have a TV, and I just got here 3 days ago. What do you want from me?"
"She's President Strife's wife, Tifa Lockhart. She dressed like that to get Cloud to associate his old flame with her. Did you ever hear about Aeris Gainsborough?" Rude offered.
"I heard about her on the news after the whole Meteor thing started getting people panicked. She was a sweet, young dumb thing Strife broke out of some research lab, wasn't she?" Stripes guessed.
"Right. President ShinRa had Hojo strap her to a table cos she was related to the Cetra or whatever. Those two were nuts, always trying to find this weird utopia thing. Anyway, Sephiroth skewered Gainsborough right in front of Strife, and whether he liked her that way before or not, Cloud got up this God Complex revenge thing and slaughtered the crap out of Sephiroth for her."
"So, like, why did he marry Miss Lockhart there?" Stripes asked.
"I dunno. Need for companionship, I guess. And they were good friends growing up. At least, that's what I heard," Elena explained.
"But since he killed Sephiroth, Cloud's been getting more and more crazy. He insists that JENOVA's still around because of that scare 3 years ago, and a lot of monsters still schmoz around the mako reactors, so he thinks it's his job to kill each and every last one of them. The new turks get hired based on how brash, brave and loyal they are. Anything but his little 'cause' takes a backseat, and Strife goes insane. That's why he's slammed Cid Highwind in jail for trying to get him to be more of a responsible leader of the people instead of just some monster death squad leader. We weren't there when he tried to lock up Tifa, but I hear he got angry at her because she, out of actually being in love with him and concern for his sanity, suggested that he should settle down with her somewhere and give up his stupid-ass cause. I actually feel really bad for her. I don't think I'd turn her back in to him even if I found her," Rude explained.
"Noble, Rude," Stripes said with a grin.
Reno and Elena commenced with the immature giggling.
"God, shut UP! Anyway, if you ever happen to walk by a TV in a store somewhere on the street and you see one of Cloud's propoganda bounty ads, don't believe a word of it. They're shit. She was always too busy pandying Cloud's mood swings to try and rub up a rebellion or talk to scientists. For fuck's sake, this is Junon. The closest thing you can find to a scientist here is a mechanic. Anyway, if you run into Miss Lockhart, ur, just don't show her around, okay? At least not until I talk to all the residents before the rookie-turks and television ads brainwash 'em," Rude finished. "Stupid little guinea pig. If I had any guts, I'd lock myself up and organize a jailbreak or something, but as much as I hate Cloud and Vincent, I'm too chicken to go up against 'em alone. This is the punk who killed Sephiroth. Twice. And Valentine, I don't even wanna know how much scarier he's gotten under that candy coating of his."
"We'd go with you, Rude," Elena piped up.
"Yeah, man. Three against two, at the worst," Reno added.
"How about four?" Stripes offered, gleefully punching his fist.
Apparently, this was the wrong thing to say. "Why? What do you have against them, aside from just in general?"
Because this is my city,
They are my fault,
And I should have a hand in making it right.
This would be so much easier if he didn't have to keep himself in the dark about who he was. He wished he was more than three days old to them.
Reno to the rescue again. "C'mon, Rude, you're not gonna refuse his help when there's only three of us right now, are you?"
"No. You need a better reason than just tagging along for fun to risk your life like this. When I've known you longer than three days, and when I've seen you fight, and when I trust you, then you can join Reno and Elena when they pledge their lives," Rude seethed, and shook his head, putting a hand on Stripes' shoulder. He continued: "It's not that I don't like you or anything. It's just that you haven't proven yourself. And I'm pretty sure you can prove yourself, but don't be too forward, all right? This is a very personal matter for me, and a hypothetical one, at that."
Reno rolled his eyes. "What he MEANS is, the only reason he's upset about this is because he's always had a thing for Miss Lockhart, and you're not close enough to butt in on it yet."
"Shit, man, if that wasn't the way it was, you wouldn't give a shit about what was behind it. I'd be the one talkin'. You didn't need all them words before, Rude. I miss cool, silent Rude, who never used to speak except to thank the bartender," Reno said, backing off from the punch Rude was about to throw in his direction.
"I miss cool, silent Rude, too, Reno, but he can't function like this. I can't go back until something changes," Rude told him, looking at the floor and shaking his head.
"Look, dude, it's okay. You're still kinna drunk, and I know what it's like to feel trapped. I'll keep an eye out for the girl, and I'll call you if I find her. You go home and get some rest. I won't bring this up again, either. And you can always go back, Rude. If you think you're stuck one way, you won't change until you do it on your own," Stripes said, rubbing Rude's back and encouraging him to stand up straight.
Rude stood back up and nodded. Elena gave him a hug, and Reno followed suit.
There were outward saunters and minces and stomps, and the Turks were gone for the night.
Stripes let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding. "Oh, man..."
Tromping upstairs, he knocked lightly on his bedroom door to find it already ajar. "Tifa?"
He looked down to see her curled up behind the door. Her knees were to her chin and she was staring at the corner of the door across the hall. That was a lot of blunt crap she wasn't supposed to have heard in full force. "I can leave you alone if you want."
"I'd never really looked at it that way. It never occured to me that Cloud had a god complex, or that I could stir up such an emotional row in someone who's virtually a stranger to me..."
Stripes squatted down to talk to her face to face. "People can only call things as they see them from their perspectives. I imagine it may have looked a lot different to you from where you were."
Tifa looked up at him for a moment, but returned her gaze to the hallway. "No, actually. It...makes a lot of sense, now that I'm out of the thick of it. I wouldn't use the same words Rude did, but it's the same idea. Cloud is crazy..."
"But you still love him, don't you?"
Tifa's face got red, and she pushed her nose below her knees. A muffled and rather pathetic"yes," leaked out.
Stripes put his sunglasses on his head and reached his hand out for her forehead as she began to cry. Her eyebrows were knotted tight, and her eyes closed as the liquid became too much for them to hold. His fingers touched her scalp, and he could feel the veins that were beginning to show just under the skin as her heart beat faster. An idle and almost innocent thought brought his composure crashing down on him as he pushed her bangs out of her eyes. I wonder if ...she... felt anything like this...
"My husband is crazy. He's not going to stop. But I still love him. And I don't know what I'm going to DO!" Tifa bobbed her head up to breathe for a moment and just happened to catch his eyes. She hadn't seen them before in decent lighting, so she took a longer look than she'd intended to. Her eyes were red and glassy, and she sniffed uselessly. What am I going to DO?!
His question was answered. Yes. This was exactly how Lucrecia felt.
Stripes frowned apologetically and cocked his head to the side as he failed to hold back his own tears. He didn't know which was worse - being sane now that it was much too late, or being responsible for this well-meaning young woman's pain. He clumsily tried to get Tifa to put her head up again with his hand, and the words he spoke now were for both of them: "I'm sorry."
Tifa was moved by Stripes' sudden sincerety. The way he clenched his teeth at the end of his "I'm sorry" alluded to something more, but she was just glad to have a sympathetic soul around her right now. She unfolded herself and edged out of the door to give him a hug.
Stripes nestled his head on a shoulder and started getting worse. No, don't hug me. You don't know where I've been. You don't know what I've done. But he put his arms around her, anyway, holding her as tightly as she was holding on to him. He eked out another "I'm sorry" between chokes.
After a while, Tifa began to calm down and sat back. "Hey...it's okay, I think, for now. Don't get so worked up. It's not your fault." She rubbed his shoulder in a best-pal manner, but Stripes still looked dismal.
He shook his head. "No, no. I-I'm sorry. You just...for a second there, you reminded me of my ex-wife."
Ex-wife? Tifa didn't know what to say. "Oh..."
"No, it's okay," he said, sniffing, "I was a real dick, and she left me for another man. I never even got to thinking what it might have been like for her. I was too blinded by my own anger to turn around and look at her, then. I never got to see her crying about me. I didn't want to, because I had THINGS to do, and I thought it would have tripped me up. So I never got to see the human side of her again. Until you looked up, it was just an analytical thing, but you're just as scared and confused and lonely as she was." He stopped and reached for his sunglasses, turning his face to the side. "But I can tell you one thing. She was right to leave. And so are you. Marriage is about trust. And when it's gone, it's time to get gone. For your own good."
Tifa still didn't know what to say. Weird how people can use thousands of words when they disagree with someone, but be so vapid and empty when they DO agree. She sighed and nodded, looking at the carpet.
Stripes wiped his eyes off and smiled at her before he put his sunglasses back on. "You'll be fine. Just don't look back, know what you want, and keep in the same direction."
"No, thank you, Tifa."
Lyrics: Fiona Apple - Get Gone