Vincent heaved, settling down. As his sense and own form returned, he looked around, puzzling at the small crater he and Hojo had made in the road. His hands...his hand and claw were still lodged pretty deep into his rival's back, almost as if making two little holes for wings to come out of if wing seeds were planted in 'em.
Vincent blinked. His brain was really falling apart now. Wing seeds, mechanical claws, fangs, a twitching hand setting itself on the ground to push its dead master up...


Stripes coughed up some blood before he spoke. "Did that..." he heaved, "make you feel any better...young man?"

Vincent all but threw himself off Hojo, stumbling backwards into the alley a bit. "You're...dead, aren't you?! You're supposed to be DEAD! You've got two big gaping holes in your back...your ribs are supposed to be crushed...your skull! HOW?!"

The Turk flinched as Stripes stood back up, brushing off his jacket and adjusting it, cracking his hands, shoulders and neck back into place. Wiping the blood off his face, he took a step in Vincent's direction, with a small smirk. "Trying not to look scared. Very noble of you. I thought you were tired of effectlessness, though, Valentine."

The fury Vincent thought he had expended returned once more, his pulse quickened, his breathing became erratic again and he growled, flaring his nostrils. "You have no right to talk to me like have no right to talk to ANYONE like that. You have no right to talk to anyone at all! What the HELL do you think you're doing?! Trying to worm your way back into our lives so you can twist it and destroy everything again?"

Stripes had decided that the next time he saw Vincent, he would try to reason with him, understand him, maybe even go so far as to become friends with him. But it was fucking impossible to do that in the middle of all his righteous babble. Stripes balled his hands into fists. "Vincent..."

"Who do you experiment on now? Your tattoo patrons? People who trust you? Just like before? Or are you just wandering around like a pathetic loser because JENOVA's gone and you don't know how to do anything else? Marking the bartender to be your next Sephiroth?"

"Shut up, Vincent."

"No! I want to know! Who are you fucking over in the name of science?!"

Name of science? Huh? Oh, that's right. He was a scientist. Not really, though. He liked to call himself a scientist, but everything he did ended up being for JENOVA. Who are you fucking over in the name of JENOVA should have been the question. "No one."

"Lies! I know you! I'm not going to let history repeat itself! There will never be another me, do you understand?! Nobody needs to have everything they knew ripped from them! Nobody needs to wake up and find everything they knew is different or gone! Nothing can give back what you took from me, you fucking bastard!"

"And the only way to bring some solace is to kill me? So you can start forgetting it ever happened? Again? Watching everything change isn't as painful as having it ripped out like a band-aid. All you've got is culture-shock. It'll be gone in a little while. Hell, you seemed to have gotten over it when I saw you in Ed's before. What happened?"

"Lucrecia...I would have continued to forget...and live in ignorance if it weren't for her showing up again," Vincent growled, glowering at Hojo with a revelation. "You...YOU must have sicced her on me! To tear me out of my happy little rut and make me remember how much I don't fit in anywhere anymore. I am fifty-fucking-seven years old, Hojo. I don't belong anywhere anymore, thanks to you, and thanks to Lu for making me remember."

"Weyl, whoop-dee-doo. Let's get you to a retirement home, old man. Get over it. I know you did before. I'm sixty-fucking-five years old, and I'm just FINE," Stripes replied.

Lucrecia materialized on the roof where Stripes had been standing, looking down at the two of them. There was a time when she loved each of them, but to see them fight made her sick of both of them. Each was forgetting why they were there, not giving regard for how the other felt. She didn't want to give herself away, but she wanted to give both of them a smack in the head to get back on track. Stripes looked up and saw a flicker of white, remembering what it was he wanted to do with Vincent.

The Turk was fit to lunge at him again. "You're just fine because you've had about thirty-fucking-five years to adjust!"

Stripes folded his arms. Vincent didn't want to talk. All he wanted was to smash something right now. Fine, loser, I'll give you something to smash. "You've had five, and you seemed to be doing nicely. You're only messing yourself up, idiot."

Vincent snarled. "You WANT to die, don't you?"

"No. I want to talk. But you want to smash," Stripes said, cooly, shucking off his jacket and holding his arms out. "So SMASH!"

You didn't have to tell Vincent twice. He lunged and cracked the tattoo artist into the nearest wall, backing up to see his beady little eyes roll back into his head as he flumped to the ground from the pain. Stripes looked a bit different than Hojo did, but still had the general look of him, and it was still the same person. Vincent wished it could have been as satisfying as he made it out to be, but the louder Hojo screamed, the better he felt.

I'm probably going to become some sort of masochist freak if I let everyone I meet get pleasure from beating me black and blue, Stripes thought, straining to see high up on the roof again. Was she still there?

Vincent kicked him where it hurt the most - he was surprised he hadn't earlier, since it was one of the first things Tifa had done when she was beating him up - and curled under. Yes, he knew Lu was there, and she was watching with distaste at the display, but he didn't care. Vincent needed to get everything out.

And everything out Vincent did. And he didn't stop until he thought Stripes would never be able to walk, speak, have kids, write, see, or talk again. He took a break, walked a little ways down the alley, but ran back. Beating Hojo up was satisfying, but he still had a whole lifetime of things he wanted to say to the bastard, and now that he was pretty confident that he had a silent, captive audience, he started talking.

"Having everything ripped out from you at once may not be as painful at first, but then you realize that you've been given the chance to watch everything new get old and rot away, just like any normal person would. You're not sparing anyone pain in that little justification, you freak. You've never really been any kind of expert on reducing pain -- you're too used to dosing it out! Was there ever a time when you didn't pervert things that were supposed to be good into things that were horrible? If there was, when did you decide it was more fun that way? You had a choice. Would you rather go through life restoring things, or tearing them down? What horribly wretched thing must have been done to you to make you believe that destroying things would be better for the people who lived around you? I know it wasn't just all just me and Lucrecia that made you insane. Maybe we were the thing that pushed you over the edge, but there must have been this massive ball of pent-up something inside you that drove you to make you as sick as you are..."

Stripes, although his jawbone was broken in more than two places, and his throat was raw from the horrible taste of his own blood running down it, spoke up in a rasp. "jen...ova..."

Vincent grimaced. So maybe this audience wasn't as silent as he'd have liked, but at least it was interactive. "Heh. I knew you'd try to pin it on JENOVA. But there must have been something of a ball of hate inside you for her to feed off of first. Otherwise, she would not have bothered with you."

Stripes strained his throat to speak again, but only managed a weak "Y...yyou..." before he gave up on it.

Lucrecia, up on the roof, was about to intervene. She hated to break her cover, but someone needed to reply. However, Stripes thought too quick for Lucrecia to give herself away: Fuck. Shouldn't heal myself in front of him, but I need to respond to this little nugget of ignorance. Makes me wish I spent more time learning how to talk through minds. Oh, well, here goes...

For a second, everything around the Turk seemed to invert like a photo negative, and Vincent heard a voice boom in his head: =You're no expert on JENOVA, pretty one. You really don't know what you're talking about here.=

Vincent jumped back against the wall, scared shitless at the voice that didn't belong in his head.

=Don't panic, idiot. I'm only talking to you. I won't do anything fancy, like read your mind or make you punch yourself,= Stripes said, waiting for Vincent to calm down. Once properly calmed, the former scientist resumed: =Hatred can be found in the heart of any man, if one looks for it. And believe me, JENOVA has enough of it stored up inside her to last her another 2000 years.=

"Seems to me that you weren't just an innocent victim, though. It wouldn't be too farfetched a thing to assume, I think. Lucrecia said you were waiting for her to heal a part of you you'd never really shown anyone before. Maybe you didn't want to believe it, but part of you wanted Jenova to take your hatred and smear it around for the next forty years."

Stripes gave this some thought. =Your point is valid. But if there's a part of me that wanted JENOVA there, there was also a part of me that wanted none of it. A part that feels guilty for what the other part did willingly...=

"Is this repentance I'm hearing from you, Hojo?"

=Probably. I don't think I could lie using my mind to talk to you like this. Call it what you will. I guess it could be translated loosely into 'I've been really really sorry for what I've done, and I've probably got enough hatred of myself right now to make me another target for JENOVA, but I know sorry is the farthest thing from making anyone feel better, and I'm tired of saying it to people, but I'm sorry anyway.=

"You're right. Being sorry only opens up more room for doing it again if you don't do anything about it. If what you say is true, do you intend to do anything about it?"

=Hell yes. And I refuse to die until I do it. It's entirely too important to be ignored, especially by someone like me, who's lived through it.=

"Then, what is it?"

=Have you been watching the way your President Strife has been behaving lately?=

"I think he's gone insane, but he pays me for what I do, and going after you, wild goose chase or not, has never been against my principles."

=Has he said anything to you regarding Aeris?=

Vincent nodded. "He says she talks to him all the time, and that they're in love or something. It seemed a lot stranger for him to say before Tifa left a couple months ago. They seemed to be so into each other when they got married. But for the past four years, Cloud's been on about Aeris. I don't really say I can blame Tifa for leaving like that..."

=Heh. I figured you wouldn't blame her for that. Now I think I finally understand. The tighter you try to hold onto a pretty bird that wants to fly, the more it will try to free itself. I wish I could have understood that back when Lu flew away.=

Vincent blinked. "What are you implicating, Hojo? You didn't strangle Lucrecia. You neglected her, but you know that as much as I do. This is a tie-in to Cloud and Tifa. ...How?"

=Have Cloud's descriptions of Aeris as a ghost been consistant with Aeris' actions while she was alive?=

"What? No comment on me being so observant after five years of wine, women and song?"

=I'd think that'd be rather superfluous in such a dire conversation. I thought we were done kicking each other in the pants. At this point, I think it'd be much better off if we weren't annoying the hell out of each other, wasting our time taking minor insults personally while something very dangerous is going on under everyone's noses!=

Vincent was puzzled. This was too weird for him. Another thing being ripped out - Hojo's hatred of him. He wasn't sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, it was good to know the man was finally awake. But on the other hand, it was another thing that had changed suddenly on him. He shook his head. No time to ponder that now, since this was important. Now, what was it that was important? "Anyway, back to your important thing."

=Thank you. Anyway, has ghost-Aeris' behavior fit in with non-ghost Aeris' behavior?=

Vincent thought on this for a moment. The only times he'd seen Aeris' ghost had been when Lucrecia's ghost was around, and not for very long, but she did seem a little out of sorts for Aeris. Not malignant or anything when he'd seen her, but...a little off. "She did seem a bit insane when I saw her, and Cloud told me that she told him you were alive again. Seemed to fit, seeing as maybe Aeris had it in for you for locking her up in a glass tube and trying to mate her with Red XIII."

=I'd see that...but Aeris never really struck me as being big on revenge.=

"I didn't really get to know her that well while she was alive, but she seemed a bit bubbly for that, yes. I'd think maybe she'd forgotten all about you and the whole ShinRa thing when something momentarily more important came up, like Sephiroth and Meteor and all. After Cloud killed Sephiroth, I'd say there really wouldn't be any reason for her to stick around at all. And ghosts are only supposed to stick around because something bothers them, or something's unfinished, right?"

Stripes laughed at himself. =If we had been having this conversation six years ago, I'd have called you a stupid barbarian for even mentioning the belief in anything paranormal, and collapsed from laughing so hard. Funny how outlooks change when you are the ghost.=

"And that has anything to do with the conversation because...?"

=Never mind. I forgot your sense of humor hadn't gotten done traveling through your mother's umbilical cord before they cut it off. Anyway, would it be safe to say that maybe this ghost of Aeris really isn't Aeris at all?=

A sigh of relief came to the Turk. Whew. Maybe he -does- still hate me. Maybe that's nothing to cheer at, but at least it's something that's still there. Stripes lay there, slightly puzzled, awaiting his reply: "I wouldn't put any money on it, but it's not far-fetched. So this being seems intent on prying Cloud and Tifa apart. I'm thinking maybe you're trying to make some allusion to JENOVA trying to pry you and Lucrecia apart all those years ago? It would work, except for one little thing."

=And what's that?=

"JENOVA's dead, ya junkie!"

=Is not.=

"Is too."

=Is not.=

"Is too."

=Is not is not is not.=

"Prove it. You seem to have inherited a good deal of JENOVA's powers. The only reason I can think of that you would have them is that JENOVA gave them to you so she could preserve at least a fraction of herself when she died. Which now technically makes you JENOVA. And if you're JENOVA, in your equasion of yourself and Cloud to Tifa and Lucrecia, then it would be you posing as Aeris trying to make a rift between Cloud and Tifa. And that's just fucking sick, so it fits in with something you'd do."

=JENOVA isn't dead. I might have a talent or two or three given to me, but I'm not head-honcho. I thought I was, for a little while, until I found out about Aeris. And give me one good reason why I'd want to split the Strifes up and make Cloud insane.=

"Maybe so he could find the Black Materia again or some sort of other doomsday device for you so you could put all of us 'out of our misery?' Sounds good to me. Your trick won't work, prick."

Lucrecia had had enough. Stripes was being too roundabout and Vincent was misunderstanding to the point of non-cooperation. ~Vincent, listen to him. Aeris' ghost is Jenova. Or, at the very least, JENOVA's ghost. And now that Hojo's awake again, he's not going to repeat that whole fiasco with Sephiroth. It's just not in him. He's spent about five years in his own little pocket of Hell, and he's been let out, and if he's good, he doesn't have to go back. I don't think he'd take the chance, and I don't think you'd think he would, either, because you know what personal Hell is like, Vincent. If Stripes were JENOVA's pawn, he wouldn't be taking care of his body like he has. In fact, I think he'd just be some irate blob of glowing green stuff. He has his free will, and has actually turned his powers into something helpful. Nobody could have ever guessed that JENOVA's powers could be used to heal physical pain. The only thing we observed was that it was good at causing physical pain. Stripes' powers are the same as JENOVA's. The only difference is in the attitude they're used in. And it's true what Stripes said. JENOVA's just one big ball of hate, that likes to amplify and feed off of other people's hate to cause pain. The more possibility for hatred to exist in a person - in response to a situation involving, but not limited to fear, jealousy, sadness, guilt, ignorance, aggression or arrogance - the more JENOVA becomes attracted to it. But the possiblility of hatred could be found in any person, so basically, it's normally the person who's in a position to do as much good in the world as they possibly could that gets targeted.~

Vincent reeled from the staggering scientific explaination, and the sudden appearance of an awake Lucrecia, but got the idea. "So, that's why it's Cloud now, I'm guessing."

Stripes had taken the oppurtunity during Lucrecia's soliloquy to heal himself to the point he could at least sit up again and speak normally. "Yes. And that's why it's important that I have your cooperation in this. Cloud could be - despite differences in occupation, position, age and circumstance - the next me. And that's really really really really bad. This planet has been through enough that it will never need another person to put JENOVA in a position of power. I did it from behind the scenes, created the Sephiroth puppet for JENOVA, and it almost worked. I suppose now she's going for a much more direct approach."

The Turk paced the alley for a while, trying to absorb all the information at once. It was staggering. "So...if Cloud is the next Hojo," he mused, looking up at Lucrecia on the roof,"Tifa would be the next Lucrecia..." Vincent folded his arms, thinking back on the tragedy that seemed a whole lot more shallow thirty years ago. Thirty? No, it was thirty-five now. Almost thirty-six. So, he wasn't the cause of anything in that. He was only part of the reaction. There wasn't a sin committed by him at all. It was all them...mostly. Something in that brought him a little peace, and he couldn't help but smile at Hojo and Lucrecia. "You two are so good at screwing each other over. Maybe you were a match made in Heaven. Guess I had nothing really to do with the most important part of the problem back then."

Stripes slid himself up the wall, almost holding his right arm on with his left. He'd never really been much of a believer of any kind of religion, much less the public understandings of what Heaven and Hell were, but in retrospect, if where he had been for the past five years was barely alive, but in his own personal Hell, then he guessed the feeling he'd experienced with Lucrecia in his dream, and their marriage forty years ago, could be counted as personal Heaven. But he shook his head. Now was not the time to be profound in response to the use of a cliche'. He was puzzled, though, at Vincent's lack of pointing out his relationship with Tifa. He probably didn't know...or want to know...about it, but the fact that he didn't place much importance on it in the grand scheme of things put his heart at ease a little bit. Hojo looked up at Lucrecia with a slightly guilty look, but was met with a wink, and a knowing smile. ~'M dead, babe. Don't torture her...or you.~

Vincent scratched his head. "Scuse me?"

~Err...wasn't talking to you, dear.~

Stripes slid down the wall again, healing the rest of himself. No more need for pain right now. With a happy sigh, he looked over at the puzzled Turk. "So, you'll help us?"

Vincent knotted his brow and looked up at Lucrecia, then down at Stripes. "I think I need some time just to absorb all of this better. I'd like to see this ghost of JENOVA for myself before I do anything. And just what is it that you wanted me to do, anyway?"

~Get JENOVA to show herself to Cloud, if you can. Maybe try to wake him up. And get my son out of that basement!~

Stripes blinked. "Basement? Son? Wha...?"

Vincent would have loved to spend another hour explaining Timothy to the obviously clueless Stripes, but there were things to be done. "Yes ma'am." With a small bow, the Turk bade Lucrecia farewell and started on his way back to the AVALANCHE Building.

Stripes grumbled and got off the wall, running after him. "Wait a second, Vincent!"

Vincent turned around, realizing for a moment that he was incredibly drained from beating the shit out of the man running after him. Who should not have been able to stand up again. "No fair, Hojo, you cheated."

"Can't fight JENOVA if you can't even move your jaw to talk to her, boy," the tattoo artist said, putting a hand on the Turk's shoulder.

Vincent felt slightly disconcerted being revitalized by someone he considered his arch-enemy not too long ago. It was weird. Backwards. It was a good thing, but it was upside-down. "I thought you'd written thirty books on how there was no such thing as magic."

Stripes shrugged. "It's different when you can do it and not even need materia. I was a complete windbag back then, anyway. Any true scientist would have accepted the fact that he could be wrong in such a matter, instead of looking for enough evidence to patch together some semblance of being right. And I was wrong."

Vincent sighed. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph...even you are different now. Everything is gone."

A smirk came to the scientist's lips. "Don't worry. I'd still beat the living shit out of you for sport."

Vincent shrugged Stripes' hand off his shoulder and shook his head. "You don't have to say that to make me feel better, Stripes. And you don't have to let people beat you up to make them feel better, either. I'll be fine. I think. Just a little...culture-shocked, is all."

Stripes let Vincent on his way and put his hands on his hips. "If you ever get verklempt, though, there's always the Junon Retirement Castle!"

"...shut up."

Chapter 18