A month passed since Tifa returned to Cloud...

She stirred in her sleep...

Not thirty centimeters away from her, Cloud and Aeris were doing as best a job of private display of affection as they could. Aeris' arm was wrapped around Cloud's tattooed shoulder, making the phosphorescent ink glow brightly.

Tifa grumbled. What was Cloud making the bed move around for? He tossed and turned too much. Tifa grudgingly opened her eyes and looked over at her husband...getting a face full of his glowing tattoo.

Tifa screamed as if she had just been shot and half-jumped, half-fell out of bed. It took Cloud a minute or so to catch on to what was going on, which gave Tifa time to glare at him and the mark on his shoulder.


It was always AERIS.

Tifa sneered.

Cloud snapped out of it finally.

Aeris disappeared.

Cloud gave her a tired look and rubbed his head. "What is it, sugar cakes?"

Livid, a murderous look on her face, Tifa screamed again and started looking around the room. "WHAT HAVE I DONE TO YOU, AERIS?! TELL ME! JUST WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?! SHOW YOURSELF!"

A winter breeze wafted through the closed window.


Aeris materialized, and an apologetic expression on her face. ~I didn't mean it. He came to me.~

Tifa screamed in frustration.

~I was only trying to help since you--~

"WHAT THE HELL HAVE I DONE WRONG?! YOU THINK I CAN'T PLEASURE MY HUSBAND?! IS THAT IT, YOU LITTLE WHORE?!" Tifa grabbed for the bed. Cloud ducked away needlessly; Tifa had been reaching for a pillow to throw violently at her rival. "HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN GOING ON LIKE THIS?!"



Cloud squeaked.

Tifa's face was red. "HOW LONG?!"

"Four years..." Cloud managed.

Tifa threw the pillow violently at Aeris, but it had little effect on the ghost. Aeris rematerialized and put on an even more piteous expression. ~You're so violent...~

"VIOLENT?! Of COURSE I'm violent! How do you think I FEEL?!!"

~Violence never solves anything.~

"I suppose not, since it didn't rid me of YOU!"

Cloud was desperately trying to regain his leverage over Tifa. "What are you doing this for? C-can't we all just get along?"

Tifa turned around, scaring Cloud out of the bed as she was staring at him with her eyes as wide as they could go. "SHUT! THE FUCK! UP!!"

Cloud squeaked as if he was hurt.


Tifa turned back to Aeris with a feral sneer.

~You're being very unladylike about this, Tifa.~

"You want ladylike? I'LL GIVE YOU LADYLIKE!" Tifa bellowed, closing her eyes, taking a deep breath and putting on her best morning person voice. "Hello, my name is Tifa Strife. You're fucking my husband. I'm going to bring you back to life to pull out your liver and feed it to him so he can taste the bile that's about to come up from my throat." Tifa gave her a bright-eyed, winning smile and blinked stupidly.

~You don't have to parody it so rudely,~ Aeris stated, getting slightly miffed.

"Excuse me. I am afraid that I am not in the best of moods right now. Hmm! Wonder why?"

Aeris began to laugh as Tifa let go of her refined-young-lady facade.

"What's so funny?" she growled.

~Hee hee poor girl...poor poor poor...Seems like Cloud is yours no more...was he yourn even befourn?~

"What in the--?"

Cloud came up behind her and put his arms around her waist. "She's plagued by constant bouts of insanity. Have pity, Tifa! Aeris died so horribly for us!"

Tifa shoved him to the floor. Her voice came as an acidic whisper to Cloud's ears. "Don't you touch me, you..."

"B-but Tifa, I--"

"How can you PRETEND something like that?!"

~Lonely soul...lonely soul, wants someone to fill the hole. Could be a model or a mole, Cloud needs someone to fill the hole!~

Tifa folded her arms and looked at Cloud, still on the floor. "You POOR baby."

"Tifa, what's happened to you? Have you no beating heart? Aren't you going to cry?"

"I'm not going to give you the satisfaction of letting you see me cry, you...ARGH! WHY DID YOU LIE TO ME?! Can't you just be content with her and her ethereal necking?!"

Cloud shivered involuntarily. "She's...cold."

~Ice, ice, ice, ice! Touching ice don't feel so nice!~

Tifa thought for a moment. " did you...when I was gone?"

Cloud blinked. "I..."

Tifa gasped.


Reeve and Barrett waited outside the therapist's door. They hadn't been coming in to work since they had found Yuffie under the desk. They had taken her to the hospital, helped her back home and made appointments for her to see the therapist. Barrett was flipping through an issue of Cosmopolitan and Reeve was trying to find the hidden pictures in a Highlights backissue when the psychiatrist opened the door.


Barrett stood up worriedly and Reeve spazzed, the magazine flipping out of his hands as he fumbled to stand at attention as his hulking colleague had done. "Sup?"

"Miss Kisaragi seems to be suffering from some kind of traumatic shock of some kind. I can't even get her to speak to me..."

"I-i-is there anything we can do for her, doctor? Anything at all? Anything?! ANYTHING?!?" Reeve pleaded.

The doctor looked at the floor and twiddled his foot around. He shook his head. "She's going to have to work this out for herself, sirs. Recovering from this kind of thing takes a lot of time. There is no overnight cure for Miss Kisaragi."

Barrett slammed his fist into the nearest wall and cursed.

"I'm sorry...maybe we could afford to give her some medicine, but I'm afraid since Mr. Strife banned all kinds of scientific research and production aside from solar power, the manufacturers haven't been able to restock our supplies."

Reeve gave the doctor a big-puppy-eyed stare. "We'll take ANYTHING, doctor!"

"Yo, man, shut the hell up! We ain't desperate housewives..."

"Bar~rett! What other choice do we have?"

Barrett sighed and nodded. "Doc...we'll take what all's you got."

The doctor nodded and left the room.

"Yuffie?" Reeve called from the waiting room.

Yuffie silently came out of her balled up position and crept into the waiting room, seemingly wary of every particle of dust in the room. Reeve offered his hand to her politely, but she didn't even notice it.

The doctor returned with half a bottle of medicine and a piece of paper with his signature on it. "I'm sorry this isn't incredibly formal...but it's the best we can do under these horrid conditions. That'll be 3000 gil, please."


Tifa phoned the Turks and asked for any recent information regarding Yuffie Kisaragi, and was put on hold.

I should have noticed her gone these four weeks I've been back. Why didn't I? I'm so stupid...

Tifa thought about confronting Cloud again, but somehow, she cared more about knowing how Yuffie was doing than yelling at Cloud at the moment. Once she was done apologizing to her, she was going to file for divorce. She didn't care if Cloud kept everything she owned. All she wanted was to get out now. That's all that mattered.

An elevator music version of "I Am A Rock, I Am An Island" came on the radio over the phone. Tifa steeled herself to keep from crying.

Rock...that's right. Heart for a rock. Rockheart. Tifa Rockheart. I can't be blubbering at a time like this. I have to find a way to undo the damage I've caused and get rid of this stupid power web Cloud has worked up for himself. The city is suffering because I was trying to please him...I didn't have the guts to stop him.

"H'lo?" came Reno's voice over the phone, derailing Tifa's train of thought.

"OH! Hi, you have anything on Yuffie?"

Reno was heard flipping through some papers. "Ahhm, last I heard, she had been checked in and out of Junon Memorial Hospital. She had an appointment to see a Dr. Ramada Ihn yesterday at 4pm. Her next appointment was scheduled for tomorrow at 5pm."

Tifa stood up. "Where can I find this Dr. Ihn?"

"His office is down by the pier."

"Thank you, Reno, thank you!" Tifa spouted and hung up.

Reno blinked at the dial tone and hung up his end.


Cloud sat on his bed, all alone. Aeris had gone. He sat there, thinking of nothing. A cold mist flowed around him again and he perked up, hoping it to be Aeris, but she had gone. It was Lucrecia. "Lucrecia?"

~I only have so much time to say this...~ she said, flickering in and out dramatically, ~Hojo is back!~

Cloud stood up. "HOJO?!"

~I tried...tried to tell Vincent, but...~ He hadn't gotten it, was the truth of it. ~...but JENOVA...JENOVA has given him powers...~

"Oh my god!"

~The planet is in peril!~ she gasped, flickering again. It was all an act, but Cloud didn't need to know that. All he needed to know was that he was back. Then he would tell Vincent. Then Hojo would be brought to justice. ~Hurry!~


Vincent came into the room with a tight-lipped expression. Reno absently saluted. "What's up, sir?"

"This just came down to me from some weird circumstance...that Professor Hojo has been brought back to life. We have orders to find him and capture him before he can do any kind of damage to us or the city."

"Back from the dead?" Reno asked, speculative.

Vincent looked suspiciously left and right. "Look, I know it sounds stupid, but I have a feeling Cloud is onto something here. You never know. We never made sure Jenova was actually dead after the big battle five years ago, did we?"

Reno shook his head. "But, sir...I don't think we should waste much-needed manpower on what could turn out to be a wild goose chase."

Vincent scowled at Reno. He hadn't scowled since...he couldn't remember.

"Listen...what could one crotchety old man by himself who's probably entirely disoriented POSSIBLY do to an entire city, sir?"

Vincent huffed and slammed the order down on Reno's desk. "I'm assigning you, Elena, a rookie and Rude to do the job. I'm expecting results by the end of three months!"

Reno shook his head in disgust as his boss stomped out of the room.


"And, so he just STOMPS out of the room like an old woman in a huff!" Reno relayed to Rude, Elena, Stripes and the pimply rookie Turk sitting around him at the poker table.

Stripes put down his hand and looked around. " doesn't sound too farfetched..."

Elena choked on the potato chip she was munching on. "You have GOT to be kidding, Stripes."

"Well, haven't weirder things happened?" Stripes turned to the young Turk.

"Uhh...I can't remember, Mr. Stripes. I've lived in the city all my life..." the rookie replied.

Stripes cocked an eyebrow. "Rude?"

"I've seen some strange things happen. Only half of them were natural...but since Jenova got put down, there hasn't been too many weird things going on," Rude said.

Stripes shrugged. "Well, isn't this the right time for something TO happen, in that case?"

Rude looked at Stripes. Neither of them took their sunglasses off. The veteran Turk had found himself doing that often lately. There had to be a reason. There was just...something about Stripes. He shook his head and smiled. "Heh. Maybe, Stripes. May be. Anyway, it's a job we've got. Hunt the geezer down and bring him to the scaffolds to be stoned by Cloud and Vincent or something or other.

Stripes polished off his drink and held the glass up for a moment. "Bugger deserves everything he gets."

"You gunna blame your recent lack of customers on him, Stripes?" Elena asked.

Stripes winked and put up his hand. "Hey. Whatever works, ya know."

He had had only one customer since Elena. Number 22 had been a fidgetty young businessman who wanted a ten-gallon hat on his armpit. It was a small gig and not worth much money. Stripes should have been starving by now if it wasn't for the Turks. Or so they thought. Money was really no object to Stripes. Never had been.

"Hmm..." Rude pondered.

"So, how did the higher-ups get this information?" Stripes asked.

Reno shook his head. "I have NO idea. I think Vincent just pulled it right out of his ass."

"And he's got no description, no what-to-look-for?"

"Not a one."

Stripes blinked and took another swig out of his empty glass. "Moron."

"You seem to call people morons a lot, sir" the rookie squeaked.

Stripes looked at him as if he were an insect. "What did you way your name was, young man?"

The young Turk ran his hand through his dubious and limp mowhawk and sputtered. "M-my name's Sunder. You're the first person who's asked me that since I got to the recruiting station," he continued, throwing a sour look at Reno and Rude, trying to ignore Elena's obvious indifference to him.

"Sunder? That can't possibly be your real name."

"It can and it is!" Sunder thundered.

Rude threw a red Skittle gigantic pile in the middle of the table. "Shut up, rookie."

Sunder pointed at Rude, eyes wide with indignancy. Rude gave him no heed.

Stripes put down his glass and threw another red Skittle into the pile. "I see your red, and raise you a purple."

Elena put down her cards. "Too sweet for my blood."

Reno folded as well. "Dammit, lost again!"

Stripes and Rude stared their battle-of-the-sunglasses stare and Sunder exploded. "Hey, we're supposed to be looking for Professor Hojo here!"

"Professor Yuto Hojo is dead and gone," Stripes stated bluntly, not taking his eyes off Rude.

Reno blinked. "Hey,'d you know Hojo's first name?"

Rude flicked a yellow Skittle into the pile. "Yeah..."

Elena blinked, but did not move.

Stripes stacked three red Skittles, two green, one yellow, one grape and an orange between his fingers and added them to the bet pile. "...It was in the papers when he died."

Sunder stood up, disgusted. "So, what? You're just going to give up because the guy died? The orders from the boss state here that Hojo is alive!"

Rude met Stripes' bet and added an orange of his own. "And if we asked him two plus two, he'd tell you it was five."

Sunder stood up "Argh! What's wrong with you? You afraid of new ideas?"

Stripes added a green. "It's never happened before."

Rude looked at him suspiciously. "Yes, it has. Don't you remember the lil scare three years ago with Scarlet and Heidegger?"

Stripes blinked and cleared his throat. "Oh, yes...I forgot."

Rude added a final red. "Heidegger and Scarlet came back from the dead, fused as some kind of monster with two heads three years ago. Looked like something Hojo'd cooked up."

Reno blinked. "Wait, I don't remember that at all, Rude."

"It was only around for a day. That's why."

"Then how could Stripes have heard of it if even I hadn't?"

"You were on vacation. I don't think you got that copy of the Junon Times. It was only a little two-paragraph article."

"Then why should I have known of it?" Stripes asked.

Rude blinked stolidly. "You seem to like to read newspapers thoroughly, Stripes."

Stripes flicked a red Skittle into the pile. Rude matched it. The tattoo artist and the Turk continued to raise the stakes until Stripes was down to his last red. He rolled it around with his finger and finally placed it in the pile. Rude matched it. Stripes broke his stolid facade and put down his cards--a royal flush, spade suit. "I guess you've got me beat, Turk."

Rude blinked, gulped, and put down his cards--a royal flush, heart suit.

Elena blinked. "So...who wins the Skittles?"

"You can havvem," Stripes and Rude said at the same time.

"Guyyys, you're freakin' me out here!" Reno wailed.

Sunder wasn't impressed. "We have a job to do here!"

Elena gave the rookie a cold look. "Buzz off if you're gunna be like that, Sunder."

Sunder opened his mouth, but no words came out. He pushed in his chair with an indignant look on his face, keeping his eyes on Elena and stomped out of the bar. "Boss is gunna hear about this!"

"Your boss can stick it up his fine little Playgirl ass." Stripes jibed, but was silenced by a prim-ish look from Elena. He winked at her. "And I mean that in the most respectful way possible, of course."

Elena giggled. Reno rubbed the back of his head and chuckled. Rude smiled. Stripes crossed his striped arms and sighed. "Now, what are we gunna do with all these Skittles?"

Behind his sunglasses, Stripes detected a glint of playful glee in Rude's eyes. The Turk bent down so his head was close to the table, as did the other remaining Turks. "Survival of the fittest!"

"What?" Stripes blinked as the Turks began gobbling up the Skittles as fast as they could. Stripes thought for a while, then joined them.


After that sugary mayhem, Stripes bid the Turks farewell and walked back to his house as they made for Ed's. Elena sat down with a laugh and licked her fingers. "That was FUN!"

Reno stopped laughing for a moment and made a hand gesture at Rude. "So! Tell me more about Scarldegger!"

Rude rubbed the sweat off his head. "There WAS no Scarldegger."

"What?" the red-headed Turk asked.

Elena nodded. "I knew what Rude was trying to do, so I didn't say anything."

Reno looked at his two comrades in bewilderment. "So...what does that mean?"

"Stripes is withholding information from us."

"Like he did about Tifa? But that was for her own good, Rude. Stripes couldn't possibly be harboring Hojo too, could he?"

Rude stood up and walked around to where Stripes had sat and picked up his empty glass. "We'll soon find out."


Stripes barely got his boots off before he flopped down on his bed. How was it that he had gotten so tired all of a sudden? He had had only one thing to dr--

Stripes slumped to the floor, unconscious.

Chapter 9