STRIPES: CHAPTER NINE
LIE LIKE THIS.

September 3, XXXX+5
10:45:07 AM

Tifa was roused by the smell of bacon from downstairs. She got up and went down into the front lobby, trying to figure out where the kitchen was located. There was a doorway to the right of the desk, and a dull grey light filtered through and reflected off the pale green kitchen tiles. Stripes was munching rather gleefully on a prepackaged TV breakfast. He looked up with his fork in his mouth and finished chewing before he spoke. "Oh, good! You're finally up! Here, help yourself to something in the freezer, kid," he said, getting up from the table and opening his refridgerator.

"Thanks," Tifa said, pondering the boxes upon boxes of prepackaged meals and choosing one.

"Microwave's over there. Don't bother reading the boxes. Just set it for five minutes and if it's still cold in the middle, give it another two or something," he told her, sitting back down.

The kitchen was silent as Tifa ruffed open the box and set the ancient microwave's dial to 5. There were no other chairs at the small wooden table, but there was a matching one set up against the wall, piled with phonebooks. Above the chair was the light switch and the porceline white phone, which barely looked evolved beyond the rotary. "Can I...use this chair?"

"Sure. Um, just stick the phonebooks n' stuff in the basket."

There was a large, dark, vine basket piled with newspapers next to the chair. Next to that was an empty dog food and water dish. "All that musta been from whoever lived here before. I don't really care what you do with it," he continued.

Tifa piled the phonebooks and freed the chair, pushing it to the table and sitting down. She looked over at the window on the side. It was dusty and unwashed, and had spiderwebs all over it. The ledge was encrusted with dead insects. She just sort of stared at it as Stripes ate, trying to avoid being the one to start conversation. "Sorry I kicked you to the couch. It's been a while since I've slept in a bed, so I get a little picky," he said.

"That's no problem. I can sleep anywhere," she said, pulling a tendril of hair behind her ear.

Stripes snarfed down the rest of his food and pushed the plastic tray to the side. "So," he said, raising his head sideways to look her straight on,"what are we going to tell the Turks?"

The dull white noise of the microwave was stopped with a
DING!

"Uhm..."

"I hate to say it, but we obviously can't risk telling them the truth. And it would look pre-arranged if I brought you in, like, today. If I were posing as a Turk instead of a tattoo artist, MAYBE I could pull it off, but I'm no detective."

It seemed as if Stripes had been thinking about this a lot more than Tifa had.

"I could go back to Barret's," Tifa pondered, "but I don't want to get him in trouble. Especially with Marlene to take care of and all--"

The bell in the door jingled as a customer stepped in. "Hello? Is anyone in?"

Stripes clenched his teeth and gripped the sides of the table. "Shit. I'll be right back. Don't move," he whispered. Tifa nodded and Stripes jogged to the front desk, pitching his voice high in a pseudo-friendly customer sales sort of tone.

"Welcome, sir! How are you doing today?"

The man's voice was low, and he sounded broad. "This here's a tattoo place, right?"

"Yes sir."

Tifa could smell her bacon and eggs from the microwave, and tried to resist the urge to make a quick grab for them. She'd slept in the clothes Stripes had loaned her the first day she came here, and was feeling rather grimy. She could feel the knots in her hair and went to pick at them with her fingernails. Crossing her feet as she did so, and pulling a rather stubborn knot in front of her face, she continued to listen to Stripes and his customer talk.

"I was wondering, I got dis big spread on my back back in XXXX-7, during the big war in Wutai. The guy who started it, though, was one of my buddies, and 'e got shot before 'e could get it all done. You think you could flesh it out a bit? Finding a good tattoo artist is a bitch these days. Nobody wants to create art anymore. I was lucky I stopped in at Ed's, otherwise I wouldn't have known you were here. You need to put a sign up or something," the big man said.

"Good idea, sir, thanks. Uhhh...any particular time you'd like me to start on this?"

"You free right now?"

"Ahhh...., sure, why not? Just go up those stairs and enter the second room on your left. I'll be right up."

"Thank you, sir."

"No problem," Stripes said, and ran back into the kitchen. "Hoo, boy. This might take a while, Tifa. Ummm...okay, here's the deal. Either you hide in the kitchen all morning, or you could pose as my assistant. Are you all right with wearing a mask?"

Jeez, he was uppity today.

Tifa was still waking up. "Um...yeah, I'm fine with masks."

"Okay. I'll be back, in, like, five seconds," he said and darted upstairs. Tifa got her food out of the microwave and started eating in the meantime. Stripes returned a few minutes later.

"Okay. Your gym bag's in my bathroom. Take a shower, change your clothes, do your hair different and put this on when you want to hide your face. I think I'm gonna need all day on this one, so you can just snoop around the house if you're bored. I've got flash books in the closet if you wanna set them up by the window. You okay?"

Tifa nodded roughly through scarfing down her processed eggs.

"Okay, good," he said, and tore off upstairs.

She could faintly hear him apologize to the man in his sales-falsetto from the second floor, and she grinned.

Tifa had heard him place the mask on the table, but she didn't look up from her food until she was done, so she didn't see what it looked like. When she finished, she threw the plastic tray away and put the fork in the sink and turned around to look at the mask. It was a Christpoher's Mask. Slightly brain-boggled at how Stripes had gotten ahold of one of the prank-loving goblin creatures from the Northern Crater in the first place, she picked up the teardrop-shaped half black, half white mask and put it to her face.

She got a flash of something. A memory. Of being surrounded by the tainted little blonde-haired terrors in the warm yellow glow of the Northern Cave's paradise lake, cackling gleefully in chipmunk-like, castrato voices as they closed in for an easy prey...

Tifa snapped her head back from the mask. She stared at it like she was holding a little green alien. A moment passed, and she rubbed her thumb along one of the smooth edges, testing it to see if it would do anything weird. Nothing happened, and she put it to her face again.

Still nothing. Huh. Wonder if it was just me flashing back or something, she thought. She, Cloud and Cid had spent hours honing their skills against the monsters by that lake before taking on Sephiroth. She narrowed her eyes and looked at it again with suspicion. Stripes was definately more than he seemed.

+++

Stripes was still in the other room working on the tattoo when she came out of the bathroom. She'd put her hair up into a high ponytail and put on a tank top and jeans to better match him, and the mask.

She peered in to see what the man had on his back. It was one of those old Wutai-style dragons.

He looked up and smiled through the excruciating pain. "Hello, miss."

"Ah, I see you've met my lovely assistant. Mr. Bakersfield, this is Miss White," he leaned in to talk more discreetly to the customer, but Tifa could still hear him. "If she doesn't talk much, don't worry. Her face got burned pretty badly five years ago when she was trying to escape Midgar. Poor thing," he raised his voice again, "What would you like, m'dear?"

Tifa walked over and whispered in Stripes' ear: "I just wanted to see what he had on his back. I'll be in your room until you need me, okay?"

"All right, kid. You go do that," he said to her and patted her on the shoulder.

Tifa sauntered out and closed the door, hearing Mr. Bakersfield try to keep quiet about how pretty he thought she was. She smiled and took off the mask as she entered Stripes' room and turned her attention to the stack of books in the corner. She closed the blinds to keep the depressing cloud-sodden natural light out and turned the lamp on, grabbed the books and started flipping through them.

The first one just seemed like the normal photocopies of standard designs, tribal scrollwork and obligatory Wutain characters. The second one was photographs of original tattoos his previous customers had wanted combined with his own designs of dragons and local monsters. He had a very unique and minimalistic drawing style. It reminded her of the ink paintings she'd seen in Wutai combined with a motion picture storyboard artist, and if she had no qualms with putting something on her skin forever, she wouldn't have minded getting something from him.

The book under that seemed to be mixed in the pile by accident, and seemed to be a scrapbook of nearly every play and movie ticket they'd shown in Midgar for the last 20 years. Sector 2 had had the most upscale theatres she had ever seen in her life, and it looked as if Stripes had gone there twice a week at least.

The next book was a small, slightly burnt journal instead of a binder with scrapbook pages, and it looked quite out of place and a lot older than the others. When she opened the cover, she covered her mouth as she folded the first page back to reveal some damn accurate observational sketches of Nanaki. Or was it some other member of his tribe? She couldn't tell, since the creature lacked the telltale XIII on its leg that would definately peg him as Red XIII.

The pages that followed looked like more observational sketches of Nanaki's tribe, and the pages after that were taped up with candid photographs of the catlike beings in the wild. The pages after that were full of sketches and pictures of Shin-Ra's guard hounds. Even though they were sketchy, she could tell exactly what they were because she had once been up against nearly every one of them. As she flipped through the book, she found pictures and sketches of nearly every creature she had ever fought en route to Sephiroth's demise, and a whole bunch of other monsters that she'd never even seen before. All of them were at peace, but it's hard to observe something when they jump on you from behind. Still, it was eerie to see all of these creatures at rest. Was Stripes some sort of monster-tamer? She flipped through every page, looking for any kind of clue, but the book was all just drawings. Not a word in it at all.

The doorknob turned and she gasped as Stripes strode back in nonchalantly. "Woah. Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you, Tifa."

Her eyes widened as he called her by her real name. "Isn't your customer still--"

"Here? No, he just left."

"But I've only been in here for about twenty minutes or so."

"I KNOW, right? It went much faster because of this, though," he said, pulling a small green marble from his pocket, which Tifa immediately recognized as a master Cure materia.

"WOAH!"

"That's what I'm talkin' about. You know half of being a tattoo artist is medical science, right? All the ink is put into the skin using needles, and they have to be sterile, and stored properly and blah blah BLAH, and when you're done, you have to wrap everything up in gauze and padding so it doesn't get infected or gross, but NOW, I don't have to worry about that anymore!" Stripes was ecstatic.

Tifa blinked. "And he just gave you that?"

Stripes put the materia back in his pocket. "Yeah. Poor guy didn't have any cash. AVALANCHE doesn't give a shit about Wutai Veterans' pensions. But man, I just stick that tiny little money maker in that airbrush and it's like my customer's on E. This is better than cash!"

Tifa smiled and put a hand on her head. She didn't get it.

Stripes nodded and stuck his hands in his pockets, looking down at the floor. "Sorry. I've been in this business for a while, and I've never even thought about using magic before. I was always bitter because I never really got my hands on any decent materia up until now."

"Really? I would think you'd have to be pretty damn well equipped to get this close to a Behemoth," Tifa said, slightly snarky, holding up a two-page spread of the 30-foot monster that had gotten itself wedged between some damaged buildings in Sector 4.

Stripes looked shocked for a second and put on an apologetic smile. "Oh, you found that old thing, did you?" This was too awkward for his taste. He hoped he wouldn't have to blow his cover this early.

"Guess it's all in finding the right place to hide, isn't it? You don't look like the average monster-enthusiast to me."

"Artists usually don't look like the other things they are besides artists, either," he said. The relief was apparent in his voice. If Tifa could remain clueless on this note, everything would turn out fine. He wondered if he'd accidentally put something in that book to make her stupid.

"Anyway, these are really gorgeous, Stripes. But what were you saying earlier about what to do about the Turks?"

Stripes could smell something different in the air. Something was DEFINATELY protecting his identity. "Now that I've had a little more time to think, I figured that I'd help the Turks a little bit with their search myself. Lay low here for a few days, then start walking around, and we'll come and find ya. Zat sound okay?"

"How would I be able to get around not acting like I know you right off?"

Stripes frowned. "Well, you could always just give yourself up. Once you're locked up, you can talk to the other people Cloud's put in jail, right?"

"I guess so. But still, I...I should have just come out when Rude was talking to you yesterday. I hate having to lie like this."

"So do I," Stripes agreed. More than you know.

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