Time seemed to stop once again on the roof of the AVALANCHE Building.

Stripes shrugged Vincent off of his arm. Vincent opened his eyes wide and made it quite clear that he was ready to start another fight. Stripes glared at him and shoved him to the side.

He walked toward Cloud and bent down so that he was eye-level with him. "It's over now..." he said, looking down at Tifa's serene face and blinking back his tears. "It's going to take a while for the pain to subside, but I can help you take the first steps to--"

"You did this to me..." Cloud interjected. Stripes blinked and stood back as Cloud set Tifa's body down and grabbed up his gun. His hand was still shaking as he pointed it at him, and cocked it.

" said you were done meddling..." Stripes said, looking around in the air for some sign of her, but finding none.

Cloud's lips broke into an unbecoming smile, and he cackled, staggering forward, mocking him: "'Jenova~! You said you wouldn't meddle anymore!' HAHAHAHAHA! A-HAHAHAHAAHAA! You're...sooo...stupid!"

Stripes glared at Cloud incredulously. "Jenova said she made--"

"It's nice to have someone to blame everything on, isn't it, Professor?" Cloud grinned, picking Tifa's dead body up. "That's right. Give me the snotty 'I never!' I can take it. Especially from YOU!"

"Strife, what the--"

"Jenova bent over and let you give it to her one more time, didn't she? She's so good at that!"

Vincent looked from Cloud to Stripes. "What the fuck is he on about?"

"Jenova confessed to controlling everything that's been happening. She said that she pushed Cloud into doing everything awful he's done...for me."

"For you?!" Vincent looked appalled.

Stripes closed his eyes and looked down.

"Ah, but you were wrong! She lied! The world does not revolve around Professor Hojo. Jenova's world revolved around Professor Hojo. Mine," he said, cocking his gun, "does not. And never did. You came here looking for a villain. And because she liked me, she took the rap. Just like she took it for you. You just don't like to admit it. Blame everything on Jenova, she gets fucking scared and confesses even though she didn't do jack shit, and you're a clean man! She thinks she's just like Jesus, but what she really is is a codependant little ho who only wants to LOOK bad," Cloud cackled, laughing hysterically, shooting at Vincent.

Stripes jumped in front of him and took the bullet in the arm Vincent had had his claw in. Stripes slumped to the concrete.

Vincent stepped over him without a second thought. "So, you're saying you're a REAL sick fuck instead of just being puppeted into being a sick fuck?"

"Got it in two," Cloud said, grinning, looking down at Tifa. "Your little minions are so fucking smart, babydoll. You must be proud of them! I'm proud of them, too! How'd you make them so smart, eh?" he asked her, licking the side of her face. Her right hand came loose and dangled as he held her at mid-back. "And you know that also means Hojo is the same way. He CHOSE to devote his life to her. He CHOSE to perform all of those horrible experiments. Each and every last one. He's just come down with a bad case of guilt. Jenova must have made him SO happy when he found out he wasn't responsible for his own actions!"

Vincent's eyes flicked back at Stripes for a second.

He hadn't moved.

"You really are a disoppointing person," Vincent said, "I really had my hopes up that Stripes was right about you, but no. You're just like Hojo, after all."

"Why wouldn't I be just like him? There's no proof that I even existed in the first place anymore!" he said, giving Tifa a squeeze. "You must be glad to know that there are freaks like me around to make boring fucks like you look like heroes," he grinned, licking his teeth.

"You're trying to get to me angry," Vincent mused emotionlessly, holding his own gun up. "It won't work."

Stripes found himself unable to do anything but stare at the ground. His arm was bleeding in two places, but he didn't bother to heal himself. So it was all me, after all...

Cloud motioned his head upward and laughed again. "You can't shoot me. You've an obligation to justice. If you shoot me, the people of the city never get to reap their glorious revenge on me...justice will never be served!"

Vincent put away his gun. "You're right. But the only reason you said that was so that I'd shoot you anyway. Nope. I've got a much better punishment for you, Cloud Strife. It's called reality."

Cloud edged closer to the roof.

"Something that both you and Hojo have always been trying to escape."

Cloud pulled the trigger again, but his gun was empty.

"The childhood teasing. The comparisons to other people. Gast. Zack. The girls that left you after the altar. Lucrecia. Tifa. The emnity for the little boys that inspired the little girls to leave. Me. Stripes. It went on and on, in your heads, like a prayer. Like a God. You worship your own self-loathing. You're not happy unless it's your fault. If someone means for something to not be taken personally, you do so anyway. The world revolves around you. The world would be so much emptier without you. Those people down in the city. These people behind that door. They're stupid and don't deserve any sympathy because they don't appreciate all the little intricacies in your brain, and they do it on purpose. They deserve to die."

Cloud was still. Vincent continued.

"For fuck's sake, the world does not revolve around you two little princes! You're not going to make the world a better place by trying to make the world a better place. You're not going to make the world a better place by hating yourself, either. The only way to really get what you want is to want what you have. Everything has to be bigger, better, faster, more expensive, deadlier, everything has to move you to tears and everything has to be sexy. And if it doesn't, it doesn't deserve your attention. Grow up! It's not personal! It's NEVER been personal! You think too much! Cloud, just because the fucks in the army didn't think you were good enough for SOLDIER doesn't mean you weren't good enough period. You didn't have to pretend to be Zack, and you didn't have to save the world. You were surrounded by people who were hard on you in jest because you kept opening yourself up to being criticized. You could have come back to Nibelheim after you failed and they would have accepted you just the same!"

Cloud narrowed his eyes.

Vincent turned to Stripes. "Hojo, I'm not interested in how you grew up, or who teased you, but people only say those things because they are moved to care, and not just to be malicious. And if it is malicious, then that's THAT kid's problem and not yours! You are not under attack until you make a move to attack, and then you've created something out of nothing. That's when you REALLY make enemies. And you have done absolutely nothing for so long that your enemies have become dependant on you being there to hate them in return. Get over it."

Stripes sat up.

Cloud edged closer to the edge of the roof.

"Stripes, make yourself useful."

Stripes got up and took Vincent's gun. The boy took the bait. "You shoot me, you shoot you, you know?" he chided, stepping closer to Stripes. "And I don't think Tifa'd be too happy about that, you know?" Cloud's hand slid into Tifa's pants. Vincent circled out of Cloud's visual range as Stripes' hand began to shake. A loud falsetto cracked through the air. "Ohh! Oh, that feels sooo good, Cloud! Give it! Give it! HARDER! Yeahh..."

Rude kicked at the door. A few more, and the hinges would give way.

Stripes clenched his teeth.

One swift movement of the trigger...
And it would be over.

He blinked.
It didn't matter.
What mattered was that Cloud would be brought to justice.

Stripes held the gun steady.

Vincent came from behind and knocked Cloud out, just as the crowd came with its pitchforks and torches.

Reno led the group. "What the hell went on? Where's Cloud?!"

"It's over." Vincent announced, hoisting Cloud's body onto his shoulders.

"Oh my God!" Elena gasped. "Is he dead?"

Vincent shook his head. "Worse. He's alive."

Rude took one of the yokels' pitchforks and stopped Vincent cold. "Sir, don't make me use this."

"Cloud is to stand trial for his crimes against Miss Kisaragi, and Miss Lockheart. No amount of vigilante bratishness is going to make anything any better. Make me the villain. Call me the killjoy. But if Cloud is killed, a momentary hunger for vengence might be fulfilled, but it'll be as pointless as an ad for dish soap, and won't benefit anyone in the long run."

Rude threw the pitchfork down. "You and me. Right here. I'm tired of your righteous--did you say Miss Lockheart? What did he do to--"

Vincent walked through the crowd with Cloud unobstructed as Stripes stood up, Tifa's body in his arms. The crowd rushed for him, and there was sobbing, shouts of "what happened?!" and "oh my God!"

He followed Vincent down the stairs, and the crowd followed him.


Vincent was leading the way down the street to the Detention Center, but everybody seemed to be following Stripes. They were halfway down Junon's Main Street. Stripes seemed like he wasn't fully aware of where he was going, until he stopped suddenly.

He looked at Tifa's face. It seemed wrong for her to be this way. Untold pages of wrong. Years and lives of wrong.

She was so young...
Too young.

He remembered what he had said to Rude about how children shouldn't die before their parents. Granted, Tifa's father was killed by Sephiroth, but she was still in her prime. Not even as old as Sephiroth was when he died...

He set her down on the cold asphalt.

He could hear the crowd murmur behind him.
"What's going on?"
"The crowd's stopped..."
"That means HE's stopped!"

Vincent looked up and turned around. The crowd began to form around him and Tifa, and began pushing him back. He closed his eyes as the Junonites passed him. "I give up..." he said to no one. He repressed a shameful, childish pang of wanting to cry. "He doesn't even need a name for them to love him more than me, does he? Lucrecia, Junon, the world..."

The crowd wondered at Stripes and Tifa again...
"What's he doing?"
"I don't know!"
"Why's he glowing?"

Something in Vincent's head snapped. He dropped Cloud on the street and got out his gun. "NO," he told Stripes.

Stripes didn't move his head to acknowledge the Turk, despite the fact that his word was laced with deadly implications. He answered his rival sadly: "I've played the destroyer for too long...I want the chance to fix things."

"If you do this, it'll mess things even more, Hojo!" Vincent snarled, cocking the gun. "Revive her, and you'll completely destroy everything she tried to work for!"


The silence that followed was deadly.

Reno had taken it upon himself to scoop Cloud's unconscious body off the asphalt. He looked at his superior questionably. "Sir, you're being unreasonable..." Rude, Elena, and everyone for a square mile were quick to follow.

The crowd began to mutter questions that were the seeds of accusation.
Was Vincent on Cloud's side?
Hojo? Who was that? They didn't remember HIM.
It didn't MATTER if he was dangerous in the past.
He was helping them NOW, right?
Vincent was getting in the way of their glorious revenge!

Vincent had had enough. "That's it!!"


The gunshot rang in the sky,
and the crowd was silent again.

"God dammit, I'm not on his side!" he looked to Reno, Rude and Elena, the other Turks who had served under him, the patrons at the bar who used to look up to him with stars in their eyes... was no one on his side? Would no one listen to reason?

"Are you so eager to believe that I'm an enemy? Are you so THIRSTY for something to happen to make everything a happy ending? Look at you! You're like CHILDREN! Calling ME unreasonable! This is NOT a fairy tale! This is real life! In real life, people don't all like each other! In real life, people steal from each other and rip out other people's hearts! In real life, the mad scientist who tried to kill everybody before DOESN'T get better in five days and suddenly wants to help save the world! And in real life, people DIE!! AND THEY DON'T COME BACK TO LIFE AFTER THEY DIE!!!"

The crowd consciously took a step back from him.
Vincent was shaking.
No outburst had ever left him shaking before...
What's wrong with me?

Lucrecia was watching from one of the taller buildings. ~Constant grinding can wear an iron rod into a needle...~ she said. From his spot in the crowd, Tim looked up at her.

Vincent's breathing was heavy, and he suddenly felt rusted and used.
Rusted and used....
They have a better machine, now... he thought. He sank to his knees and his eyes unfocused. Blinking heavily, he found it harder and harder to open them. that's not broken like I am...but that's all right...because I need to rest..., he thought as he let his face sink to the pavement,

And in real life, the people all liked each other.
In real life, nobody stole anything or ripped out each other's hearts.
In real life, the mad scientist who tried to kill everybody saved everybody instead.
And in real life, people came back to life after they died.
At least this time.
At least for now.
At least this once.

Chapter 23