STRIPES: CHAPTER FIVE


The next day, Elena met up with the rest of her fellow Turks in the Turk Lounge. Vincent was sober, for once, so she rushed up to him and hugged him. "Vinnie! Howya feelin' today, hon?"

Vincent gave her a plastic smile. "Same as always!" he said, then shrugged her off, almost into the wall.

Elena blinked as she slumped down into a chair.

Rude's blank expression remained unchanged.

Reno looked at her apologetically for a moment, then turned to his mentor. "So, boss, have you found any leads as to where Tifa might be?"

Vincent shook his head. "We've been mucking around in Ed's for the past week. I think it's time we dug ourselves out of that rut for once. Does anybody have ANY idea where she might be?"

Rude remained silent.
Elena shook her head dumbly.
Reno cowered.

Vincent thought a while. "Just how many Turks do we have spread out over the city?"
Rude held up four fingers.

"And how many Turks ARE there?"

"One hundred," Rude said glumly.

Reno gasped. "He SPEAKS!"

Vincent gave a belittling look to the both of them. "Then why aren't there a hundred Turks on patrol?!"

Reno jumped.

Elena scrambled for the Turk P.A. System and Rude followed her. A look from Vincent and Reno was gone, as well.

So there was Vincent Valentine, alone in a room for the first time in a year. It was a creepy feeling for him. There hadn't been a moment alone for him since he had started posing for magazine pictures. And why shouldn't he be posing? He was the sexiest guy in all the world. And he knew it.

He wondered where his adoring fans were. Probably all asleep at this hour. 7AM on a weekend was too early for a fangirl to be up, he figured.

Vincent stared at the walls of the Turk Lounge, waiting for them to burst with young teenage girls. He smiled seductively at that thought and adjusted his tie for the occassion.

The walls didn't burst, though.
The room got cold.
Very cold.
He felt an ice cold needle touch his back and froze.
An ethereal voice spoke in his ear. ~Viiiiiinceeeeeeeent...~

He turned around with his gun aimed at the air and there was girlish laughter flitting through the air. "W-who's there?!"

The cold wind seemed to penetrate Vincent's body and the faint shape of a girl in a pink dress only just reaching maturity flickered before him. Vincent squinted. "Aeris?"

~Viiiiincennnt...~ she called in her childlike voice.

Another ethereal voice penetrated the air. This one was more mature and tired-sounding. ~My love...~

The unseen one's voice bounced off the walls of the Turk Lounge, and cold swirled in his ears for a few seconds. The second spectre showed herself, her purple scrub contrasting highly with her stark white lab coat.

Vincent blinked. "Lucrecia...?"

Aeris giggled girlishly as Lucrecia raised her arms and embraced her old flame. ~My love...~

Vincent stood back and gulped. Had she seen what he had done last night?

Aeris' giggling raised to a shrill cackle and he broke out in a cold sweat. The misty Lucrecia stepped gracefully forward. ~Do not be afraid, my love. We have come to warn you...~

"Warn me?!" He hadn't expected her to come back. His whole basis of being alive now was that he was over Lucrecia.

Lucrecia threw her ghastly form up against the squirming Valentine. ~He has come back...~

"W-w-who?"

Aeris giggled and sang, ~He who wronged you seeks the right, to come and take his soul one night...~

Vincent was completely confused. "What?!"

Lucrecia threw a dirty look at Aeris. ~Ignore the sprout. She's lost her head.~

~I ain't lost my head! It's what happens when you're dead...in the head, Fred! Heehehehehehaaahaa!~

Vincent was sweating bullets by now.

Lucrecia pushed her translucent face into Vincent's eyes. She caressed his face seductively. ~My only love...who delivered me from a life of stagnation...be careful whom you cross paths with...you must not let him distract you...~

"I have no idea what you're talking about, Lu. I havva job to d--"

Vincent had never been romanced by a ghost before. They could be pretty forceful when they wanted to be. Lucrecia had him on the floor in less than a minute. Aeris floated up to the ceiling and cackled dementedly the entire time, tweeting away.

~I disconnect the dots...
While you make little tots,
You little sots...
There's an apple sauce of Mott's
That likes to sing and spot
On the dot
Of the sot...sot sotty sop sot...you snots!
With mommy's love she has forgot...
Daddy comes back, his soul a-rot
And will not
Rest.~

Lucrecia threw her ghostly shoe at the younger ghost. ~You little strumpet, have you no respect for grace?!~

Aeris cackled dementedly and disappeared into the ceiling. ~They come! They come!~

Vincent looked at Lucrecia like a frightened emu.

~I must leave you now...I can only see you when you are alone.~

"Who are you trying to warn me about?!"

Lucrecia put a finger to her lips and dissolved as she shushed him.

Reno came running into the room. "Hey, boss, we got all the Turks roaming the city now! Boss?"

Vincent was still on the floor.

Elena came into the room, followed by Rude. "...Sir?" she asked.

Vincent sat up, very spooked. He looked at his comrades.

Reno gave a pathetic little "Heh," and rubbed his head.

Rude's eyebrows knotted.

Elena gasped and gave him a disgusted look.

Vincent looked at the three of them. "What's with you guys?"

"Umm...sir...there's some..." Reno pointed at his face.

Elena stormed off in a huff.

Rude's expression didn't change.

Vincent stepped a little closer to Rude and used the reflection in his sunglasses as a mirror.

He had lipstick all over his face.

~Curtains ruffle.
Curtains ruffle in the.
Curtains ruffle in the spring wind.~

***

Number 20 was an old woman. She got a tattoo of Dio on her left mammary gland. It was one of the more...interesting customers Stripes had to deal with. Tifa stayed to watch the whole thing, though. The old woman was hysterical. She and Stripes had a conversation about Les Miserables. Stripes' favorite character was Javert. The old woman was completely infatuated with the actor that played Enjrolas. She couldn't even remember his name, but she liked him just the same. She considered getting a tattoo of him on her other gland, but shortage of money kept her from that.

It definately unnerved Stripes, this old hag talking about tackling Dio and making love to him in the Gondola, but Tifa found it quite amusing. It was better than that fat old man gushing over Scarlet.

Once the old woman was gone, Tifa laughed her head off while Stripes marched into his bathtub fully clothed and yanked the shower curtain closed.

"I have NEVER felt so unclean in my entire LIFE!"

Tifa was still cackling.

"Shut up! Hey, under the sink is a bottle of bleach, could you chuck it in here?"

Tifa fished out the bottle of bleach and handed it to Stripes. "You shower with your clothes on?"

"TODAY I do!" he shrieked. Tifa heard him open the bottle and dump the entire thing on his head.

"Stripes, that's not very wise. You wanna melt those sunglasses?"

Stripes' wet forearm poked out and pointed to his sunglasses, magically balanced on the edge of the tub.

Tifa was about to walk out, when he screamed.

"Gaaaaaaaah! Owww...stupid scars!!"

She heard the water turn on and stepped out. Stripes had a mysterious set of parallel scars on the right side of his face that looked like some sort of beast had attacked him. They started at his cheekbone on an angle running toward his ear, but stopped just behind his jawline. The three parallel scars continued not as severely onto his shoulder. They didn't seem much more than four years old at the most. He said that he had gotten caught under a beam when Meteor landed on Midgar, but Tifa didn't think any sort of beam could do damage like that. He was probably attacked by some monster and didn't want to admit it. Maybe he had gotten into a fight with one of ShinRa's hybrid panthers or something like that.

She made a point to ask him once he got out of the shower.

After about an hour of scrubbing and screaming, Stripes emerged from the shower a blonde man. Tifa almost didn't recognize him if it weren't for his sunglasses.

"Well...that's ONE way to get your hair bleached, I guess," she said.

"There's another way to do it?" Stripes asked.

"Yeah. S' called getting your hair lightened."

"Bleach is bleach, whether it's in a dinky little tube or you dunk it on your head."

"That's not how that works though! People need to be careful with chemical burns and...you know, what? Forget it." Tifa looked at Stripes for a while. It looked kind of wrong with him having blonde hair. "Are you gunna dye it back?"

"Nope. I like it like this, actually," Stripes the fashion expert said, turning to look at his face in the mirror.

"Ugh...fine."

"Why? What color would YOU want it to be?"

"Not blonde. You're too old for that."

"It'll grow out by the time we go see Cloud."

"Sounds like you're up for seeing him much more than I am," she said, looking down.

"That's because you're a total wuss --"

Tifa was about to reply to his banter, but the door rang open. A familiar voice called up.

"Hello?"

It was Cloud!

Tifa panicked and dove into Stripes' bedroom, while Stripes himself stuffed himself into a tight black turtleneck before bounding down the stairs.

"Ah, sorry, sir!" Stripes said uncharacteristiaclly apologetic. "I forgot to turn the sign off, we're not open just yet."

Cloud looked balefully up at him. "That's kind of a bad business policy, isn't it? You live here? You have a permit?"

Way to scare me shitless, you little punk, Stripes thought. "P-permit's on the wall, clear as day. You a customer?"

"Do you have any idea who I am, sir?"

"Blonde hair, suit, uh...you're President ShinRa, right?"

"AVALANCHE! It's AVALANCHE, not ShinRa."

Stripes nodded curtly. "Hmm. AVALANCHE, ShinRa, are they really that different?"

Cloud gave Stripes a baleful look and continued. "I'll have your permit vetted later. I hear this is the only place in town that does work with phosphorescent ink. I'm willing to pay quite a lot, but if you're going to sass me, I can go elsewhere."

"My papers are legit, and money talks, so I'll seat you. Let me get the artist. She'll be down in just a bit." Stripes showed him upstairs and sat him in his tatooing room, forbidding him to move. There was no other artist, but he could transform himself with his powers. He shut the door behind him so Cloud couldn't hear.

"Tifa, where did you go?" he called in a whispered rasp.

"Under the bed!" she rasped back.

"Cloud's getting a tattoo. Stay in this room, and whatever you do, don't make a sound! I'm going to be doing something...strange. You might be able to hear me throw my voice."

"Right."

Stripes slipped out of his room, making sure to lock the door behind him. He skipped audibly into the bathroom and put the towel around his shoulders, putting his sunglasses back on and rummaging through the little pile of makeup Tifa had been collecting. With a sigh, he took off his sunglasses and looked in the mirror, his face forming into a horrible grimace. Stripes turned away from the mirror as quickly as he could and put a hand over his eyes.

No time like the present.

He turned back around and stretched himself taller, grew his hair out (blonde) and softened his cheekbones. He hid all of his marks and scars, grew his nails out and tried to see if he could change his odor a bit, but he wasn't sure if it would work. After that was done, he tried to do some rudamentary makeup, but it didn't look correct. But that was the point. No one would be able to find his 'intern' even if they tried.

Cloud was getting a little uneasy in his seat. "Um...person, could you hurry up, please?"

"Just a mo~ment!" Stripes sang. "I'm Veronica, I work for Mr. Stripes. Sorry I took so long, sweetness! I just COULDN'T find the phosphorescent stuff, until I did!" Stripes tried to affect a youngerish inflection, but it was falling apart.

"Yeah...okay...I'd like to get just a classic heart-and-ribbon thing on my shoulder."

Tifa was wedged up against the door, trying to hear every word Cloud said.

"Any particular name on it or anything?"

"Yes...'Tifa'...please..."

Tifa's jaw dropped. So...he really DOES love me?

Stripes lowered his voice thereafter. He knew she was listening in. "And what d'you want in the phosphorescent stuff?"

Cloud lowered his voice, too. He could sense that SOMEBODY was listening to him, just not sure who. "Aeris...in capital letters, across the whole thing, double the heighth of the ribbon."

Veronica sighed and smiled sadly, glad that Tifa couldn't have heard that. "Okay, hon. If you'll just bare your shoulder for me, I can start."

***

"Fini~shed!" Veronica sang, holding a black light and a mirror up for Cloud to see his shoulder. Stripes put a bandage over the new tattoo, which was starting to bleed a little. Veronica babbled about aftercare and the importance of showering until Cloud looked visibly annoyed, slammed his money down, and left.

Stripes exhaled a sigh of relief and put his physical appearance back to as normal as it could get without being able to wash the makeup off. He attempted to make a beeline for the bathroom to retrieve his sunglasses but he was blocked by Tifa.

"What was THAT about?"

"What? The disguise? Well...I couldn't pass myself off as a very good woman, now could I?"

"I'll kill you if you've mutilated my eyeliner, Veronica," she said with a banterous hand-flip.

Stripes went into the bathroom, washed his face off and put his sunglasses back on. "I've changed my mind, Miss Lockheart. I'm not going to go with you to see Cloud."

"Strife."

"Pardon?"

Tifa smiled. "My name is Tifa Strife."

Stripes looked at her, but didn't say anything.

He gave her a smile, pained at first, but then happy, his fist clenched a little bit.


Chapter 6
Index