A very frightened-looking brown-haired girl was revealed.
Stripes let out his breath in a gesture that was probably received as light-hearted exasperation, because Tifa put her hands on her hips and looked at him as if he had left the toilet seat up and hadn't taken out the garbage. "I thought I could come here to get your help, Stripes."
Stripes couldn't help but laugh, he was so relieved. He slid down the wall and ran his fingers through his hair, which was still blonde at the tips, looking up at Tifa, a grin forming on his face. "You got it...hoo!"
Tifa didn't take well to Stripes laughing about such a serious matter and stamped her foot. "Stripes, Yuffie was raped by Cloud! That's nothing to laugh about!"
Yuffie looked up, as if to speak, a horrified expression on her face. She shook her head and backed away some more.
Stripes' good humor faded as he looked at the sullen former ninja. She hung her head, but looked up as he looked at her, her big, sane green eyes meeting his. They were sane...but dead.
Tifa would have allowed herself a satisfied smirk had this been any other situation. "Now do you understand?"
Stripes blinked. Staring back at Yuffie reminded him of what he saw when he looked in the mirror each day before he died. Dead eyes stared impartially back at him. Eyes...eyes...wait, Yuffie could see his eyes! So could Tifa...
Stripes got up and reached for his sunglasses on the nightstand, putting them on.
Tifa blinked. Had these not been the same eyes the boy on the street with the cloak had had? She shook her head. "Please, Stripes. We need a place to stay. Barrett and Reeve have been taking care of her, and for that they lost their homes."
"Barrett and Reeve?"
Tifa made a hand motion and the hulking coal miner tromped in, followed by his daughter and his lily white friend.
"All five of you? I'm afraid this house isn't big enough, Tifa."
Reeve sat down and pouted. "Oh, I KNEW it!"
Marlene looked up at her father with gigantic teary eyes. "Daddy...?"
Barrett, Mr. Manners himself, stepped forward and picked Stripes up by the collar of his tank top. "Man, where else we gunna stay?!"
"Sir, I'm not trying to complicate matters for you, honestly I'm not...it's just that I don't have enough space and I wouldn't trust your daughter in my supply rooms. Ed's Bar has a hotel attached to the top of it. I'm sure you'll have more than enough room for--"
"Yo, we'll be stayin' here for a WHILE! We ain' got no money fo dat!" Barrett bellowed, watching Stripes start to kick his legs.
"Barrett, put him DOWN!" Tifa demanded.
"Honestly. Barrett, I have enough money in my briefcase for you to stay there until next YEAR," Tifa said.
"Well...okay," Barrett said.
Tifa shoved the briefcase into his hands with a reassuring smile and waved him goodbye.Barrett nodded and he and Reeve stepped out of the room, taking Marlene's hand. Yuffie stayed in her spot, still catatonic. Stripes looked around after they were gone and stepped towards Yuffie. "Should we follow them and put Yuffie to bed at Ed's?"
Yuffie looked as if she wanted to speak, but she remained silent as ever, frightened.
Tifa looked at her, waiting for her to say something, but nothing came. The girl was scared of everything, it seemed.
Tifa clenched her fists. If only I hadn't...
"I understand," Stripes said and backed off.
"I think I'll leave you two alone," Yuffie said, looking at the both of them with a twinge of disgust.
Tifa blushed as Yuffie walked out of the room, leaving the black cloak behind her. Stripes bent down to pick it up. "Where did you get this from?"
"A man on the street smashed into me and dropped it. Why?"
Stripes looked at the tattered robe and gulped. "What did he look like?"
"Actually, he looked more like a kid than a man. Maybe twenty years at most... and he had black hair. It looked rather like yours, actually."
"Do you remember anything else about him?"
"No, no, I can't...except...he had really piercing light blue eyes. Kinda like ice."
Stripes gulped. Damn...Jesus, what now? Good thing I got scared before. I'd be a puddle right now if I wasn't. What do I do? What do I do? I can't ignore this...It won't blow over by itself. Oh, man--
Stripes hadn't known he had started to pace, but he stopped and looked up at his friend. "Yes?"
Tifa stepped forward and hugged him. "Nice to see you again."
It had been a very very very long time since anyone had hugged him. Why was she hugging him? Did she know what he had done to her, recently or otherwise? Directly or indirectly? Of course not. She was hugging a reliable friend, compassionate and trustworthy, whom she had not seen in a long time. She wasn't hugging the man who created Sephiroth, or the man who took her husband's brain and twisted it into what it was now. Stripes smiled and hugged her back. Maybe, he thought, maybe...Hojo really did die...five years ago.
Tifa stood back and wiped her eyes, though still smiling. "You never died your hair, you liar!" she laughed.
"Sorry! I kept losing track of time...besides, I kind of like it, growing back like this, you know?"
Tifa managed a chuckle. "Looks like you've been able to work out more than I have, lately. You're in pretty good shape, Stripes!"
He blinked and came almost to the point of blushing. He hadn't noticed very much, but he was no longer as laughably scrawny as he used to be. "You look well taken care of as well, Tifa."
She laughed and looked down, patting her stomach. "Yeah, I guess I've become a bit flabby myself!"
Stripes gasped and thought back to what Lucrecia had seared his ears before:
~...Ohh, I think I smell a child coming on!~
CHILD coming on!
"Stripes? Are you okay, you've gone all pale..."
Hojo regained his composure a bit and stepped toward her. "Have you been sick in the mornings lately?"
Tifa blinked. "No...why?"
Hojo began to circle her and felt her forehead with an unsteady hand. "Any irregularities in your menstrual cycle? Craving for strange foods?"
Tifa started to back away from him. "No...Stripes, what are you trying to ask me? This isn't like you. Just ask me!"
"Tifa..." Hojo gulped and stood back, ran a hand through his half-bleached hair, "y-you're not pregnant, are you?"
Stripes shook his head and blinked, putting his hand over the newly forming red mark on his face. "What did I say?"
Tifa was beet red. Stripes couldn't tell if it was more from anger or shame. Probably a combination of them both. "Why you...of all the...HOW DARE YOU ASK ME THAT?!"
"You told me to!" Stripes replied, thinking maybe he should not have picked this time to get smart with her.
"And you still haven't told me if you are or not..."
Tifa stepped forward and raised her arm again. She held it back for a moment as Stripes stared at her through his sunglasses, unmoving, somewhat proud, waiting for her answer to his question. Her hand wavered and she all but threw herself onto Stripes' shoulders, bawling. "No!" she sobbed. "Never!
Stripes stood, puzzling at the young woman in his arms. "Never? What...what do you mean? Tifa?"
After a series of intelligable sobs, Tifa finally managed to speak: "H-how do you think I've been able to sexually spoil Cloud so much that he would turn to anything warm...or cold...for ...for...Oh GOD! After five years, w-we still don't have any children? What do you think?! Stripes...I...I'm barren! I-I've never been able to have children...I've always wanted to be a mother, b-but...but..."
As Tifa started to wail again, Stripes let out what he hoped to be percieved as a sigh of sympathy, but was also one of relief. He really did not want to deal with an element of his life like that again. No matter how dirty it got, no matter how much he convinced himself that he hated people, he never truly ever wanted to see his world destroyed. He went along with it because the only thing Hojo ever truly loved, his work, said it had to happen. He never dreamed of questioning. It was all he had...all he thought he had, anyway. He was too stupid, too narrow-minded to think otherwise.
Stripes opened his eyes. "Sorry. I didn't know."
"Why did you ask?"
Images of old Mako tanks, Lucrecia screaming as she gave birth, Number Two's eyes, Sephiroth's dead, blank face staring up at him flashed through his mind and he shuddered. No more..."J-just concerned, is all."
Tifa stepped back, wiped her tears, cocked her head and put her hands on her hips. "If I know you, that's not the bottom line. What are you hiding from me, Stripes?"
"Sorry. I was just thinking of my son...and my wife. I was just concerned. I really don't have the space for you to go popping kids out around here, you know? I thought Cloud would be so happy to see you back that, you know..."
Tifa frowned. "So did I. Say Stripes?"
"Do you believe in ghosts?"
Stripes felt something cold on his back. Just in time, Lucrecia."Yes...why?"
"You're not going to believe this, but...a few weeks ago, I woke up to...Cloud making out... with Aeris...well, her ghost, at least."
Stripes cocked his head. "Air-iss?"
"Don't play dumb," she scolded, but her tone of voice quickly melted into sadness, "...Cloud always liked her better than me anyway. I shouldn't have even tried to think he'd ever change..."
"No...people do change, Tifa...why did you fall in love with him in the first place? He had to do something you liked."
"He joined SOLDIER to impress me...well, he tried to. For me. All for me. But he failed, and when Sephiroth burned Nibelheim, he and his friend Zack got shoved into Mako tanks like some stupid experiment, they escaped and Zack got killed. I guess...Cloud felt that he didn't deserve to live. Zack was a first class SOLDIER, had something going for him, a girlfriend, a reputation. Cloud didn't even make it. His home was burned to the ground, he thought I was dead...everything he'd worked so hard to build up was destroyed by Sephiroth. I guess he just couldn't reconcile the fact that Zack was dead, so he started pretending he WAS Zack just to keep him alive, because he felt Zack deserved to live more than he did. Aeris was Zack's girlfriend...so I guess...that went along with the pretending to be Zack package. It was foolish of me to think I could interfere."
So...she doesn't blame me for that? "No...you acted as any good childhood friend would have. How could you have known? He was the one who chose to remember. That's what messed him up. I think it's best just to let him be now. It's not your fault." Tifa looked up at Stripes and collapsed on his chest, bawling. "You don't have to impress him anymore... he doesn't have to impress you anymore, kid. Nobody has to impress anybody anymore. You are all you'll ever truly have, and if you can't live with yourself because you can't meet someone else's standards, then that's a horrible waste, you know? Live for yourself."
Tifa looked up at him piteously and smiled. "Thank you, Stripes! I don't know what'd have happened if I'd never met you..."
Stripes gulped nervously. Was she blushing because of something he said to her? Ridiculous. ...was he blushing himself? "You're w-welcome!"
Tifa managed a chuckle and reached up to remove Stripes' sunglasses. Surprisingly, Stripes found himself allowing her to. She smiled as she looked up into his eyes and put her hand against the scars on the right side of his face and whispered, "If there was something I could say in reply to 'you're welcome,' I'd say it."
Tifa's face was getting very close to his. Very very close. Why was she doing this? Lucrecia scratched her etherial fingernails down his back as Tifa's brown eyes met his own icy ones and her lips touched his gently, for a split second. Hojo, are you going to let her DO this to you?" No!" he cried, pushing Tifa back. "You don't know what you're about to do, Tifa. Please. Don't...don't t--just don't!"
"I-I'm sorry...Jesus, I slipped up again! I'm always offending you, Stripes! I'm so sorry!"
"No, don't worry about me, Tifa. It's the other way around," Stripes shook his head, "I'm sorry. I should have told you."
"You remember that tattoo Cloud came in for?"
"Did it start...you know...glowing Aeris' name?"
"Yes, it did...but...I thought that was the ghos--STRIPES?!
He hung his head. "I'm sorry. He asked me to do her name in the phosphorescent ink over yours."
"Why you...WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME?!"
"Because..." Stripes said slowly.
Tifa threw her hand back to slap him again...
"Because I didn't want to be the one to upset you like that. I think you didn't fully understand your situation. You needed to go back to Cloud to understand exactly what was happening here.
"Who the Hell do you think you are?! I didn't have to go through all THAT to...to learn what he was up to! God, Stripes! How could you do something so cruel?! I thought you were my friend!"
"I can't protect you from everything! Sometimes you need to go through these things to--"
"You said your wife was unfaithful to you...I wonder why it was that she cheated."
Stripes wasn't going to stand for this. "Now listen here, Tifa, that is NONE of your business! It's got nothing to do with you at all!"
"Oh it doesn't? Here. Here's your stupid sunglasses back!" she threw them at his head and they bounced to the floor, cracking one of the lenses. "Now I know why you hide those icy eyes--they're a reflection of what's truly in your heart!"
Tifa turned and stomped out of his bedroom, crying again. "Tifa! Wait!"
Lucrecia materialized, laughing. ~That was wonderful! HAHAHAHA!!~
Stripes bent down and picked his sunglasses up without a word.
"Payback for what?"
~Letting me die...destroying Vincent...your petty little revenge thing.~
"All right. Consider yourself avenged and go away."
~No. I want to see what you're going to do to him THIS time!~
"I already told you that I don't care about him, whether he lives or dies, I don't care and I'm not going to do anything to him, okay?"
~Sure. Right. Why don't you just tell me your plan alread--~
There was a few consecutive thumps and a Tifa-sounding little shriek from downstairs. Stripes looked up and ran out of his room. Tifa was slumped over at the bottom of the stairs. It looked as if she'd tripped and fallen. Stripes passed through an unfamiliar cold presence as he ran down them to help his friend out. "Tifa, are you all right?"
Tifa groaned and shook her head as she got to her feet. She felt her forehead and found she had a nasty cut from hitting her head. She had flipped once while coming down the stairs. She looked at Stripes grudgingly and shrugged his arm off. "I'm not going to explain this cut to Barrett, you know."
She let Stripes see it and he ran his fingers over it apologetically, wiping off most of the blood with his striped forearm. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
With a now only half-look of hatred, Tifa turned and walked out the door. Stripes turned to walk up the stairs and saw the ghost of Aeris smiling insanely down at him.