Final Fantasy VII

Unstable Ground

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! It takes place in Twilight and Dawn verse, so they're on Earth post-Dirge of Cerberus and Sephiroth is sane again. Many thanks to Kaze and Lisa for plot help, and to Kaze again for the title!

Chapter One

Sephiroth was not particularly pleased at the need to journey to Idaho--or as Zack called it, the land of the potato--for a business conference. But it was an important series of meetings, so there was really not another option. He had always tried to see that anything useful or necessary was taken care of in whatever his current field of employment happened to be. They would be going.

Tifa had not been pleased, either. The conference spanned five days. And she did not want Cloud to be gone that long right now. Then Aerith had suggested that they all go on the trip. When the men were at the conference, the others could explore the local attractions. And when they were all together after the meetings, perhaps they could make a full vacation out of the occasion.

Cloud had not had any serious objection to the concept; he was glad to have them come. Zack was practically ecstatic. Sephiroth only hoped that some of them would not try to drag him into something he did not want to do. And Angeal did not mind.

And so they were now en route to the potato state.

One surprise was that Barret was coming as well. He needed to speak with someone there from the mining company he worked at--or that was what he said, anyway. Sephiroth suspected that Barret was not sure he wanted Marlene to go on vacation with Sephiroth around. If Marlene had not already been living with Cloud and Tifa, Barret likely would not have let her stay there at all.

Sephiroth was not certain whether Barret did not trust him or merely did not like him--or both. He would not blame Barret for either reaction, but he did wish that Marlene's adopted father would simply speak about his problem instead of letting the uneasy tension continue. Normally Barret would have exploded with his concerns some time ago. Sephiroth could only determine that Barret had forced himself to stay quiet in order to monitor the situation. Knowing that Sephiroth was different, and especially that Cloud trusted him, may have prompted Barret to try to control his feelings.

The former member of AVALANCHE was probably also not happy about Marlene's adoration of Sephiroth. It would be impossible for him to not know about it. Marlene had often spoken enthusiastically about everyone in the household, including Sephiroth. And Cloud and Tifa had likely needed to tell Barret of Marlene's feelings during their reports on how she was faring.

Today, Barret had greeted Sephiroth with a civil but cool Hello as they had met at the airport. Sephiroth had responded civilly as well. And that had been the extent of their interaction.

He would not likely be interacting much with Barret, if at all, on this excursion. That was fine with him, yet he wondered if he should instigate a conversation to discuss their problems. It really was going to be awkward, if there was this thick tension between them the entire time. Surely Sephiroth was not the only one who could feel it.

The problem was, when it was Barret an attempt at talking about the conflict could result in disaster. Especially if it was the person he had ill feelings towards who was trying to get him to speak.

Sephiroth's gaze traveled over the other passengers on Jenova Corp's private jet. In the row ahead, Marlene had a window seat on the far left. Barret was next to her, just listening to her chatter and responding when needed. Denzel and Tifa were across the aisle. Denzel had been playing a handheld video game for the last while, and had thankfully opted for headphones. The sounds of video games usually drove Sephiroth mad, and sometimes Cloud was annoyed by them too. Tifa was quietly reading a book.

Aerith was on the far left on the next row, seeming fascinated by the view out the window. Zack was next to her, alternately looking out the window too, talking with her, or leaning into the aisle to chat with Sephiroth and Cloud. Sephiroth had been looking over the information for the conference, while Cloud had been doing likewise, with the occasional glance out the window.

Angeal was sitting behind Cloud. He had a row all to himself, which he did not seem to mind. He had mostly been quiet, probably contemplating nature as they flew over it. He had a book on his lap, but he had not looked in it that much.

Sephiroth leaned back, crossing his arms as Zack rambled on wondering what Idaho was like--and insisting that they stock up on potatoes. Zack and his potatoes. They were arguably Zack's favorite food, and had been ever since he had been on Gaia. He had always delighted in finding new ways to eat them--and in getting Sephiroth and Aerith to cook them. A faint smirk passed over Sephiroth's features before it vanished again.

"We're almost there now!"

Sephiroth started back to the present at Zack's voice. The brunet was leaning over to look out Aerith's window. She had moved over as far as she could to the wall, finding that Zack was unwittingly invading her personal space.

"I can see the airport tower thingie!" Zack announced.

"Then you should probably sit down and put your seatbelt on," Sephiroth grunted.

Zack shrugged, plopping into his seat and grabbing for the belt. "Aww, come on, Seph, aren't you glad to be here?" he asked, snapping the belt shut.

"I'm glad that the flight is ending," Sephiroth said.

"It'll be fun!" Zack reassured. "Angeal can take pictures, and we can go tour the attractions, maybe a potato plant . . ."

Angeal looked over, shaking his head. "You have a one-track mind," he said.

"Hey, potatoes are great!" Zack protested. "Maybe we'd get free samples!"

Denzel took off his headphones. "Do they have an arcade?" he asked.

Cloud shrugged. "Probably somewhere," he said.

"Playing too many video games aren't good for your eyes," Aerith said lightly, as they approached the runway.

"They're fun now and then!" Zack replied. "Especially those tournament ones."

Aerith gave him a look. "Now, we don't need to be corrupting Denzel and Marlene with fighting games," she said, her tone only half in jest.

"They're cool," Denzel said. "I'm going to be a really good fighter someday, just like Cloud."

Tifa glanced over at Cloud, as if to ask whether he had encouraged such ideas. But she was certain he had not; Cloud never wanted Denzel to do anything dangerous. That did not stop Denzel from trying to emulate him, however. Sometimes they had seen him practicing in the yard with a wooden sword from the dojo Tifa had started running before regaining her memories. One of his biggest fears was that something would happen to someone he cared about and he would be helpless to do anything. After all that had happened on Gaia, and being powerless to save his own parents, he had vowed to be ready for anything.

Cloud looked back at Tifa, giving a helpless shrug. He had not encouraged Denzel's determination to fight, but now and then he had relented and shown Denzel a few basic principles of his sword-fighting technique. Zack had done the same, instructing Denzel to not use such strategies unless there was no other choice.

Now the plane was coming to a smooth halt on the runway. The seatbelt light faded and went out. Marlene undid her safety belt and hopped up in delight.

"We're here, Papa!" she chirped. "Maybe after we put things in the hotel rooms we can go explore."

"Yeah, maybe," Barret agreed. It was not lost on him how excited Marlene was to be here with him. And he was enjoying it, too. They had not been able to spend much time together since he had taken the job at the mine. He was pleased that this meeting had coincided with the Jenova Corp business trip--for more reasons than one.

As he stood up, he threw a glance at Sephiroth. The guy was listening to Zack talk about potatoes. It was hard to believe that this was the same nutcase who had tried to blow up their first planetary home. Well . . . no, he really knew Sephiroth was not the same anymore. Even Cloud had forgiven him. It had taken a long time, but he finally had, and now they were close friends. Barret never would have believed it if he had not witnessed it himself. Sometimes he still found it hard to believe.

Did he still hate Sephiroth? He had not really thought that he did. That would be unfair, when Sephiroth had been out of his mind.

But even so, that did not mean Barret had to like him. He did not. Maybe it was because of the past. Maybe he was still bitter, in spite of what he told himself. Or maybe he was just uneasy, wondering if Sephiroth could snap again at any given time. There was probably always that danger, unless somehow being physically restored on this new planet meant that Sephiroth's mental instability was gone.

Still, his dislike felt like more than just simple unease.

Maybe he did not like that Marlene was crazy about Sephiroth. How could he ever really show her kindness, after what he had done? How could he be someone she should look up to and idolize?

. . . On the other hand, Barret felt the same way about himself. His own hands were certainly stained with blood, too. Marlene's biological father, his best friend, had completely lost his mind because of the lives he had ended. That was why Barret had started looking after Marlene. And then Dyne had gone and jumped over that cliff, bringing his own life to a close. . . . Barret had never told that to his adopted daughter.

Maybe he was just a big hypocrite. He tried to tell himself that Sephiroth was one of the good guys again, and that if even Cloud and Marlene could trust him, there was no problem. Neither of them openly trusted that much.

But he still hated the guy's guts.

It might just be one of those things. Sometimes relatively good people just could not see eye to eye. And Sephiroth's general personality did bug him. To Barret, the silver-haired man was aloof, arrogant, and still tended to believe he was in charge, as he had been in SOLDIER. To Marlene, he was kind, gentle, and sad. Maybe he was even all of the above, with Barret focusing on the negative and Marlene on the positive.

He just did not know that he could ever see Sephiroth as Marlene saw him. Even to just acknowledge that Sephiroth had the good traits Marlene saw as well as the less-desirable traits that were apparent to Barret did not seem forthcoming. So for now he just tried to be civil when they met, though it was also obvious that he was often quite frosty. Sephiroth behaved likewise. Neither wanted to start an argument, nor did they want to speak at all.

Still, Barret supposed that at some point on this trip he would need to talk to Sephiroth about Marlene's adoration of him. Barret was not the kind of person who could just let something like that slide without knowing more.

He looked to Sephiroth again as they collected their bags and headed for the door. His normally stoic behavior had parted in favor of smirking in amusement at Zack. Judging from the spiky-haired guy's expression, he was pretending to be astonished by something Sephiroth had said.

"Seph!" he exclaimed. "You made a joke!"

Sephiroth continued to smirk before turning away to open the door.

Barret shook his head. That former nutcase was a real puzzle.

Cloud shielded his eyes as everyone descended the stairs onto the airport runway. He was looking ahead to the edge of the asphalt, seeking for something that should be there. And then a glint of black paint greeted him. He turned to look to the right.

"Over there," he announced. Two limousines were ready and waiting for them.

Zack grinned. "We're really gonna make a statement in this little town," he said, ambling in that direction with his suitcase in tow.

"Other business people have already arrived," Sephiroth grunted. "The residents are probably used to seeing limousines by now."

"True," Zack said in mock lament. "Ah well . . . we can still wave Hello!" he smirked.

"I'll pass," Cloud retorted.

Zack blinked mock woebegone eyes at him. "Come on, pal! Where's your sense of the unity of mankind?"

"I guess it must be buried somewhere, along with any enthusiasm for touring," Cloud replied. That being said, if there happened to be some exhibit on Earth motorcycles, he might have a casual interest in going to see it. But overall, there was not much in this small town that caught his attention.

Marlene looked up at him as they walked. "You'll come with us to the park, won't you, Cloud?" she asked, her eyes pleading.

He looked at her. "Yeah, sure," he agreed. He was not interested in touring, but he did want to spend time with Marlene and the others. He had been planning it since learning that the girls and the kids would be coming.

Marlene beamed.

Zack set his suitcase down as they arrived at the limousines. "We can probably all fit in one of them," he said, "but our stuff'll have to come in the other one."

"Works for me," Cloud shrugged. Opening the door of the second one, he shoved his suitcase inside. The others began to follow his example.

"Did we get everything off the plane?" Denzel suddenly asked.

Tifa looked to him. "We should have," she said. "I remember you opened the compartment above you to get your things there."

Zack nodded. "And all the suitcases are here, aren't they?" he asked, plopping his own valise on the floor and quickly counting the others.

"Yeah," Barret said, adding his own to the bunch.

Marlene had opened her carry-on bag and was going through the contents just to make certain all was present. "I have everything," she announced, a colorful pony in one hand and a brush in the other. Placing the treasured items back with the rest, she zipped the bag closed.

"Good deal," Zack grinned, shutting the door of the limousine. "Just follow us to the hotel!" he called to the driver as he walked past.

The others were already beginning to climb into the first vehicle and get settled. Zack hurried after them, scrambling inside and hopping onto the nearest available seat.

Sephiroth regarded him in amusement from across the aisle. "We wouldn't have left without you," he said.

"Wouldn't wanna make everyone wait, either," Zack said.

Cloud shook his head, pulling the seatbelt down and snapping it shut.

Soon they were on their way into the town that the airport bordered.

Zack stretched his arms in front of him as the limousine traveled down the ramp leading out of the airport. "Looks like there's a lot of nice buildings for a smaller place," he chirped. "Maybe it's really more like Domino--a good-sized city, just not New York or something."

"Probably," Cloud said. "It'd be crazy to have a business conference in Hicksville."

"'Hicksville' wouldn't have a good-sized airport anyway," Sephiroth grunted.

Marlene was staring out the window, watching the scenery pass by. "Why are those birds flying away from the city?" she wondered, looking up at a small flock overhead. The avians were flapping their wings faster than what seemed normal.

Tifa frowned, peering out as well. "That's strange," she said.

Aerith nodded. "It's summertime," she commented. "They shouldn't be flying south already."

"They act like they really want to get away," Marlene said.

"Yep." Zack blinked. "Huh."

But his attention was swiftly diverted by the sight of a large building up ahead. "That's our hotel!" he chirped, pointing ahead.

Barret gawked at the skyscraper. "That's some place," he said.

Zack placed his hands behind his head. "Only the best," he grinned.

The hotel they had selected was indeed one of the most high-class in town. Being from Jenova Corp, they could afford it. But still, wanting to be as frugal as possible, Sephiroth had chosen three suites instead of individual rooms for each adult. The women and Marlene would have one, Sephiroth, Cloud, and Zack would have another, and Angeal, Barret, and Denzel would have the third. It was an arrangement that all had agreed to before arriving.

As they arrived in the parking lot several moments later, Marlene threw the door open and leaped out into the pavement. Denzel followed her out, but stood looking up, seeming to not know what to think of the edifice. He shifted, a fist clenching.

Marlene blinked at him. "What's wrong?" she asked.

He shook his head. "It's nothing," he said, looking back to her. "Come on, let's go." With that he ran forward, heading for the front doors.

"Wait for me!" Marlene called, hurrying after him.

The adults began to get out of the car as well, moving more normally--except for Zack, who hopped outside. "The evening breeze feels great!" he announced, as said breeze tousled his spikes.

"The heat certainly cools off by this time," Aerith said, brushing the bangs out of her eyes.

Sephiroth walked past them, his hair gently blowing behind him as he headed for the entrance. After a moment he could hear the others hurrying behind him--though some walked faster than others.

Soon he was through the doors, making his way to the front desk. The lobby was crowded, much to his annoyance. He weaved through the throng--which most likely consisted of other tycoons and their families--until the desk clerk came into view. The man looked overwhelmed, mopping his forehead as he typed into the computer. He did not look over when Sephiroth approached the desk.

"I have a reservation," Sephiroth announced in a matter-of-fact tone.

The clerk started and looked up. "O-of course, sir," he said. "Under what name?"

"Jenova Corp," was the answer. "I'm the company president, Sephiroth."

The harried man turned back to the keyboard, tapping in the information. "Your suites are on the third floor, Mr. Sephiroth," he reported, reaching into the drawer for the card keys. After double-checking to make certain they were for the correct rooms, he deposited them on the desk. "I hope you and your party will enjoy your stay."

Sephiroth nodded, picking up the cards. By now the others were threading their way over to him. Without a word he handed one card to Aerith and one to Angeal, keeping the third for himself.

"We're on the third floor," he said. "Let's go."

But before anyone could move, the floor began to tremble. Overhead, the chandelier swung back and forth as the bulbs within it began to flicker. The guests cried out in shock and alarm, grabbing for anything sturdy. Marlene screamed, clutching Barret's hand. He shielded her, his eyes narrowed.

Then all was still. The light bulbs ceased to flicker, returning to their normal luminescence. Slowly everyone began to straighten up, looking around to inspect possible damage to themselves, other people, and the building. Everything seemed intact. It had only lasted several seconds, and yet it felt like so much longer.

"What was up with that?!" Zack exclaimed.

The clerk peered up from where he had dived behind the desk. "We have small earthquakes like that with some frequency, sir," he said. "It's nothing to be overly alarmed about."

"Maybe not," Zack returned, "but I think we'll take the stairs anyway." He glanced back to the others for confirmation. No one protested. The possibility of getting stranded in an elevator if a second earthquake occurred was not something any of them were willing to chance. Despite being exhausted, going up three flights of stairs was a small price to pay.

The clerk nodded. "It's not likely there would be a second earthquake so soon, but it's a good precaution," he said.

Zack gave an offhand wave to him as he hurried to the stairs. Sephiroth and the others followed.

"Man, I hope that doesn't happen much while we're here," Zack commented. "That really can jar you up!"

"No kidding," Cloud muttered.

He frowned as he noticed Denzel's attitude and stance. The boy had paused near the bottom steps, gripping the banister as he stared upward. Cloud turned fully back to face him.

"Denzel?" he asked. "What's wrong?"

Denzel ran his tongue over his lips. ". . . If we're up there, and there's another earthquake that's worse, will the building fall down?" he wondered.

Cloud's expression softened in understanding. Denzel was worried because of his parents' deaths and the plate falling in Midgar. That was probably also why he had stood gazing up at the building outside. It had looked so big and tall, and that had reminded him of where he had once lived on Gaia.

"No," Cloud said. "I don't think so. The building's supposed to be built so earthquakes can't do that much damage."

"But it could happen, couldn't it?" Denzel persisted.

Cloud sighed. That would be the absolute worst case scenario, and it did not seem that likely in a building outfitted for earthquake safety. Still, he supposed there was always that slim chance. "Yeah," he said. "I guess it could happen. But it would have to be a really bad earthquake. I don't think there's any that strong here."

Marlene, who was standing nearby, chimed in, "It'd probably have to be like when the Lifestream burst out of the earth to fight Meteor." She looked at Denzel with worry. It bothered her to see him so disturbed, especially when he did not really want to talk about it. He was really far too much like Cloud in that aspect of his personality.

Denzel gave a silent nod. With that he began to proceed up the stairs.

The others advanced as well. To everyone's relief, on the way up nothing more out of the ordinary began to shake or rumble.

Until Zack's stomach decided to make it perfectly clear that it was time to eat.

All eyes turned to the spiky-haired brunet, who blinked and sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck.

"Hey," he protested, "it's been a long day. And I'm a growing boy!"

Cloud shook his head, hiding the faint smirk.