The Music Box

by Ceres Sky

Chapter 6: Rebirth

Reno peered out from behind the platform walls and smirked slightly. There was Cloud, heading straight for the gunmen, his sword drawn, and looking very angry. Reno settled into a comfortable leaning position against the wall and prepared to watch a good show.

"Reno, this is no time to rest." Even with Rude's sunglasses hiding his eyes, Reno knew that his friend was puzzled. Rude leaned against the wall beside him, eyeing the different attractions around them, planning out an attack.

Reno shrugged. "The great Cloud Strife is coming over here to take care of them. You don't think he can take out five gunmen by himself?"

Rude adjusted his sunglasses. "Hmm..."

Reno punched Rude in the arm lightly. "Come on, admit it, man. Cloud can take care of it, and we don't have to do any work." Reno shrugged again. "Besides, Cloud somehow knew what was going to happen."

Rude frowned. "They weren't very good at their job. They didn't even aim at the President; they just fired their guns into the air." Reno grinned at Rude's use of the past tense for the gunmen.

"A distraction?" Reno asked. When Rude nodded, Reno said, "But a distraction from what?"

"Who knows?" Rude replied. "You say Cloud knew what was going to happen? We should talk to him after he's finished."

"No, he didn't know what was going to happen, just that something was going to happen."

Rude looked over at him, shaking his head. "Reno, sometimes you don't make a lot of sense."

Reno grinned back at his friend and then looked back out into the now empty gathering place around the platform. He heard various cries of pain and quite a few thuds from behind the quiet carnival rides. "Oooh, boy, Cloud's really mad. Guess he wasn't happy that the kids had to hear all that gunfire."

Rude sighed. "Let's go, Reno. Maybe Cloud's left at least one guy for us to take down."

"Aw, did you want to get in on the action too, buddy?" Reno put a hand on Rude's shoulder. When Rude glared at him, Reno laughed. "All right, Rude, lead the way." With that, the two Turks walked behind the rides and found themselves facing the back of one of the gunmen. He was too busy watching for Cloud to notice Reno and Rude. Rude stepped forward and nonchalantly knocked the man out with his nightstick. Rude shook his head as the man slid to the ground in an unconscious heap.

Reno knelt down to check the man's pockets and found nothing. He hefted the gun away from the man's hands and gave it a once-over. Then, he looked up at Rude. "Well, that was easy."

Cloud leaped down behind the two Turks before they even realized he was there. It took him a moment to verify that the two men were Reno and Rude. He slid his sword away and noticed the man on the ground. Reno and Rude were not surprised to see him.

"He's just knocked out." Reno pointed to the gunman, nightstick tapping against his shoulder in a silent rhythm.

"So are the others," Cloud said. "Where is Rufus?"

"Tseng and Elena removed him from the area as soon as the shooting started." Rude put an arm under the unconscious man's shoulders and heaved him to a semi-standing position. "We'll take this one for questioning. The police can have the rest." They all heard the trill of approaching sirens in the air and knew it was time to leave the area.

"Cloud, you knew something was going to happen, didn't you," Reno said, studying Cloud carefully.

Cloud almost looked embarrassed. "Not exactly. I just had a feeling." He had, in fact, heard Sephiroth's voice again, but he was not going to tell the Turks that, especially Reno.

Reno and Rude glanced at each other. Reno turned to help Rude and then looked back at Cloud, jerking his chin in the direction they were going. "Come on, we'll take you to Rufus."

Cloud found himself once again back at Shinra headquarters. The receptionist was surprised to see him following Reno and Rude into the building. She was even more surprised to see the unconscious man they were hauling between them.

"Hey, Sandy." Reno winked at the receptionist, who blushed and avoided his gaze. "This guy," Reno pointed to Cloud, "needs to see the President. Can you call him? We'll take Cloud up there."

"Uh... certainly." The receptionist reached for the phone, while the foursome headed for the elevator.

"Rude and I gotta take this guy over to questioning. The Boss is on the 25th floor," Reno said, letting go of their burden, who slid to a sitting position on the floor. Rude punched the buttons for the floors they needed. "Just barge on in, he won't mind. OW!" Reno glared at Rude, who had elbowed him hard in the ribs.

"Thanks for the help," Cloud said, trying to sound gracious but not entirely succeeding.

The elevator ringed up Reno and Rude's floor and they stepped off with the gunmen between them again. Reno turned to give Cloud a jaunty wave. "Have fun!" Cloud saw Rude frown slightly before the elevator doors closed again.

Cloud indeed planned on barging in to Rufus' office, but somehow he imagined even that would not surprise the powerful Shinra President.

When Cloud entered Rufus' office five minutes later, he found that he was correct. The President was sitting in his wheelchair, entirely relaxed. He actually seemed to be expecting him. Tseng and Elena stood near him. They spared Cloud one glance and then turned to look out the window that spanned one wall of the room, ignoring him.

"Cloud Strife." Rufus wheeled from behind his desk to situate himself beside it. "For once, are you coming to ask me for help instead of the other way around?" He motioned to a chair, inviting Cloud to sit down, but the swordsman remained standing a few feet in front of the door.

"Rufus, I've been to Nibelheim," Cloud said. "I need to know..." He stopped when someone entered the room behind him.

"Ah, Zangan," Rufus said. "You're just in time to meet Cloud Strife."

Zangan glanced at Cloud in surprise and came up beside him. "What are you doing here, boy?" He whispered before speaking to Rufus. "We've met, President Shinra."

"In Nibelheim, I assume?" When they both nodded in reply, he motioned to Tseng. "Zangan, you may go with Tseng and Elena for your debriefing." Wordlessly, Tseng and Elena turned from the window and walked out of the room, Zangan following them after telling Cloud to be careful. Cloud wondered why Zangan would tell him this.

"Now, Cloud, we can talk without worrying about any ears listening. Although I do trust Tseng and Elena, I am sure you do not." Rufus leaned forward. "And Zangan worries you even more I see."

"I need to know why a rogue group of SOLDIER is based in Nibelheim," Cloud said, wanting to get through this interview as quickly as possible. He felt the weight of the cellphone in his pocket and guiltily realized that he should have called Tifa so she would not worry.

Rufus tilted his head, looking almost puzzled. "A rogue group, you say?"

"Yes, a rogue group, Rufus." Cloud could feel himself losing patience. "That is what Zangan said they were."

Rufus raised a hand. "Correction, he did not say they were a rogue group, only that we were keeping an eye on them. We know very little about them, Cloud." He shook his head. "Although I am uncertain why we were attacked at the carnival. They did not seem intent on causing any lasting harm."

So the incompetent group at the carnival was part of SOLDIER? Cloud had not been impressed. "Zangan did say that Sephiroth was involved in the formation of SOLDIER in Nibelheim."

Rufus seemed nonplussed. "Did he now?" Rufus said almost to himself. He quickly recovered though and with a wave of his hand, dismissed Zangan's statement. "Zangan is an old fool. He is useful only in training now. You've met Shan?"

Cloud nodded.

"Shan has learned not to take Zangan's ramblings seriously. I would suggest the same to you, Cloud." Rufus wheeled his chair behind his desk and reached for his phone. "Yes, please send Tseng and Elena back in when they are finished." He looked up at Cloud as he replaced the receiver. "I would love to chat with you all day, Cloud, but I am a very busy man. I'm sure you will understand."

Cloud realized that he would not be getting any more information from Rufus today, but he also realized that Rufus knew very little about SOLDIER and that it worried him. Cloud left the office, wishing he had learned more but glad that he could finally go home. The words Sephiroth's voice had whispered right before the incident at the carnival still haunted him though.

And so it begins... Cloud...

Tifa swept the floor worriedly, wondering where Cloud was. For some reason, she felt edgy. She was sure that it was the abrupt ending of their carnival outing that was making her feel so, but something about it had felt wrong. She had the tiny television in one corner of the bar turned to the news and no one had been killed or even injured when the gunmen had broken up the crowd with their shooting. The police had arrived at the scene only to find four men unconscious behind the teacup ride, their guns beside them, the barrels sliced off. Obviously Cloud's doing, but where was Cloud?

She could hear the kids upstairs, talking to each other in their room. They had wanted to help Tifa clean up downstairs, but she had told them to go on up to their room and relax. The incident had rattled them as much as it had her. They probably needed to talk it out anyway.

When the door to the Seventh Heaven opened, Tifa looked up, expecting to see Cloud, but finding ten unfamiliar men dressed in civilian clothes walking into her bar.

"I'm sorry, the bar is closed today," Tifa said politely, instantly disliking the man in front of the group, who was eyeing her with a little smile. With a start, she studied him more closely and realized that he looked very much like Denzel. His expression told of an unstable personality though and he had a long sword strapped to his back.

"Tifa, is that Cloud?" Tifa heard Marlene ask from upstairs.

Tifa did not want the kids to come downstairs to see, so she shouted back, "No, just some confused customers."

"We're not here for drinks, Miss Lockheart." The man, obviously the one in charge, said. He motioned to one of the men on his right, a dark-haired man with a lithe build and green eyes. The man headed for the stairs.

"Wait!" Tifa leaned her broom against the bar counter and stepped toward him, but someone grabbed her arm to stop her. "Please, leave the kids..."

She turned and knocked away the man who had grabbed her, and he fell to the ground, rubbing his head. Tifa stared at him in shock. That punch would have knocked even Rude out of commission for a few minutes, but this man only sat there and looked at her as if she had hit him with a feather. She tried to defend against the next attacker, but four of the men jumped her. One hit her in the back with a stun baton and she was on the floor, immobile and helpless. She cursed to herself.

"Oh, we're not here for the kids. Just a little wooden music box and..." The leader replied nonchalantly as if she had not even put up a fight..

Tifa found herself hauled to her feet and pushed against a wall, facing five guns, their barrels pointed straight at her. Two men pinned her against the wall by her arms. With a sinking feeling, Tifa stared into the leader's brown eyes.


"Why are you doing this?" Tifa asked, wishing she had her gloves on, but knowing that even with them on, there was nothing she could do.

"Tifa!" Denzel said, ready to plunge into the group of intruders.

"No! Stay back!" Tifa said, desperation coloring her voice. The boy would not stand a chance against those weapons. Marlene hid behind Denzel, her frightened eyes boring into Tifa's.

"Shan! Keep those kids on those stairs." The leader nodded to the stairs and one man left his post to get the music box from Shan and hand it to the leader. Tifa looked at Shan, who seemed almost sorry this was happening. She wondered if there were any way she could appeal to him, but he was trying to calm the children and restrain them at the same time.

"Ah yes, do you know, Miss Lockheart, who this music box belonged to?" The leader waved it in front of her face, smiling.

"It's mine."

The leader laughed. "No, no, before you owned it, it belonged to a young scientist named Lucrecia Crescent."

Tifa was startled to hear that name. Vincent's one and only love. It reminded her what a different world Vincent had come from and just how long he had lived.

"That intrigues you," The leader said. He stepped close to her; Tifa glared at him, struggling as much as she could to get free. He suddenly raised the hand with the music box in it and smashed the box against the wall beside her head. She felt wooden splinters fall to her shoulder and then onto the floor. He stepped back and then held out the music box to her, pulling off the shattered top.

"Miss Crescent was a very intelligent woman. She stored these in this music box. We are not sure why, but now we have found a use for them."

Tifa saw that a syringe full of a black liquid and a materia nestled in a hollow space lined with a silver material in the box. It had been in there for years and she had not known it.

The leader pulled out the syringe and attached a silver-bright needle to it. Then, he handed it to one of his men.

"Have you ever heard that in order for us to experience rebirth, we must die?" The leader smiled at her as if they were having a discussion about the weather. He took his sword from the scabbard on his back. It made a slight ringing sound as it left the sheath. "I'm afraid, Miss Lockheart, that it is time for you to die."

Tifa felt tears rising up in her eyes as she looked over at her children. Look away, look away! She wanted to say, but she knew that they would not listen. She struggled vainly one more time to free herself.

The leader sprang forward, malice in his eyes, and Tifa stared at him in shock as the sword slid into her chest. She clutched at the sword, feeling the edge dig into her fingers as she gripped it, vaguely heard the children scream, experienced pain that she had felt only once before, felt her heartbeat accelerate and then thump erratically as her lifeblood trickled down the sword, heard a sound as of rushing wind, and then heard a voice. A familiar voice that she had never wanted to hear again. Sephiroth.

Hello, Tifa, you will make a perfect gift.

And then she felt and heard nothing. "Cloud...," she whispered as the leader pulled the sword from her chest in a spatter of red and she collapsed to the floor, unseeing.

"TIFA!" Marlene and Denzel strained against Shan's arm, but he held them back effortlessly though their rage made them strong. When Tifa fell from the sword, they burst into tears, hugging each other and sobbing. "Tifa! Tifa!" They kept saying. Feeling his job was done, he left them and moved into the room.

Abel was already tapping the syringe and looking down at the fallen woman, as if waiting for the right moment. He bent down to peer into the lifeless ruby eyes and then injected the black liquid into her neck. He put out his hand and one of the men handed him the gray materia that had been in the box. Abel plunged it into the wound in Tifa's chest and stood up.

"Take her to the van. The Jenova cells will help only marginally right now. We need to keep her alive until we can get her into a regenerative tube. It is the only way she will be of use to us." Two of the men moved forward to pick her up, seemingly oblivious to the blood on the ground and on the wall, while another quickly wrapped her chest wound with gauze.

"What about the kids?" Shan asked.

Abel turned to look at them as if seeing them for the first time. He shook his head. "Leave them," he said.

Shan glanced back at the two huddled children, who still sobbed pathetically. Shan followed the rest of the men out of the bar and wondered what in the world SOLDIER had become and why he had to be a part of it.

Cloud stopped Fenrir outside the front door of Seventh Heaven, wondering why no energetic children came bounding out of the bar, anxious to see him. He stepped off his motorcycle, suddenly feeling uneasy. His hand brushed his sword as he walked to the door. It was swinging open in a light breeze from the street. He listened carefully and thought he heard whimpering inside.

He burst into the bar, sword raised and was accosted by Marlene and Denzel, both sobbing into his shirt. Cloud looked around the bar and saw the blood spattered on the floor and the wall by the counter. His chest constricted with that awful fear.

"Tifa! She's dead! They killed her!" Marlene wailed.

She's dead. Dead. Dead. The word echoed through Cloud's mind and he stared at the scene, sword falling from his hand to land with a clang on the floor. He felt his legs weaken as he imagined Tifa pinned against that wall by a sword, dying. He slid to the floor and the children sobbed into his shoulders as he held them.

"Who did this? Where is she?" Cloud whispered. He put Denzel away from him and shook him by the shoulders. "Denzel? Answer me!"

"Ten men. They came in. Tifa told us they were just confused, but then someone came up the stairs. He took Tifa's music box."

"And then that man killed her with a sword, Cloud!" Marlene said. "He looked like Denzel!"

Denzel started at Marlene's statement. "He... looked like me." At that, Denzel stood to his feet, anger filling his eyes and he ran upstairs, feet pounding on each step.

Cloud knew who had done this, but he had much to explain to Denzel. The incident at the carnival made sense now. It had only been a distraction. He looked down at Marlene and tried to speak gently. "Marlene, then what happened?"

"The man did something to her, with a needle and a materia, and then they took her away," Marlene said, wiping at her eyes. She hugged Cloud desperately. "He said they needed to keep her alive. But I saw her die, Cloud, I saw her! Why would they kill her only to keep her alive?"

Cloud hugged her back. Marlene had given him hope. Tifa might still be alive. "I don't know, Marlene." His eyes narrowed as that voice came to mock him again.

Shall I give you despair?

What is it that you most cherish?

Tell me, so that I may have the pleasure of taking it away.

"Tifa," Cloud whispered.


Author's Note: Whew! That was quite a chapter to write... I was going to write a teaser scene for the next story here, but I'm worn out. Thanks for reading, everyone, and I hope to start on the sequel soon. :)