Final Fantasy VII

Just a Simple Mission

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: Sephiroth and Zack are not mine, and the other characters plus the story is! Many thanks to both Lisa and Stacey, who have been an immense help and encouragement with characterization and plot points! And a warning to those who like action: this story will, of course, have it, but don't expect things to move fast right away. It's deliberately done, as is everything that happens. There's a reason for each scene. (And "brunet" can refer to someone with black hair as well as brown.)

This entire piece was inspired by noticing a scar Sephiroth has in Advent Children, on the left side of his collarbone. I started wondering how it might have been gained, and this was born. I had originally wanted them to visit Corel, and wrote it as such, but I realized that there would be a timeline conflict. I still wanted to keep the setting, so I've only changed the name. (Perhaps we can say that the way Dismal was handled was the inspiration for what happened to Corel later?)

Chapter One

The world was passing by swiftly through the window of the train car. The spiky-haired brunet yawned, leaning sleepily on the narrow sill as he watched scraggly trees and tumbleweeds, mysterious and eerie rock formations, and the other elements of the wilderness zip through. Of course, those things were not actually moving (well, save a tumbleweed or two), but it seemed that they were, in his worn out state.

Let's see, he thought to himself, this past week we've been staying up late 'cause of the extra training, and then last night, we had that problem with the SOLDIER going AWOL. Didn't find him till it was going on for two. I don't think I've slept more than three hours, if that. Before they had gotten on this train, they had taken a private airplane to the Western continent. And it had not even been light outside at the time. Even so, he had not slept much during the flight, and now that they were closer to the location, he doubted that he would be able to return to slumber.

Blearily he watched the lone piece of hair vibrate and jump around his face as the vehicle under him jerked. Even after being in SOLDIER long enough to attain his First Class position, he had not gotten used to the many sleepless hours necessary to complete the missions. But that was not a problem that his confederate seemed to be having. Not that he could ever recall a time when it had been an issue for the other. Actually, the older man reminded him of some certain commercials he had seen for batteries on television. He kept going and going and going. . . . Not that he would appreciate being compared to a small pink rabbit. The brunet had to grin in amusement.

He slumped back, looking across the cleared table to where his comrade had spread out a map. The other seemed occupied with its contents, oblivious to the long bangs falling into his face and over his reading glasses. At last he propped himself up on an elbow, boredom manifesting itself in his features. His companion was further amused.

"I thought maybe you'd dropped off sitting up, Seph," he remarked, crossing his arms. "And I dunno how you can even look at that thing with the ground moving underneath you. Gives me a headache every time."

"Seph" shrugged noncommittally. "That's why they give the maps to me," he answered. "You getting motion sickness wouldn't help anyone."

"Too true." The brunet stretched lazily. "So . . . have you ever been to this Dismal place we're going to?"

The other grunted, finally brushing his silver hair away from his eyes with the fingers of one hand. "It was a mining town, largely modern as far as technology was concerned. But some of the occupants still clung to the old traditions of the area," he reported. "They probably still do. Right now it's little more than a desert prison, with an amusement park built on a plate above it. I'm sure you've heard of what happened to the village?"

"Yeah . . . something about eco-terrorists blowing up the mako reactor?" He frowned, crossing his arms as he leaned forward on the table.

"That's correct, Zack." The one called "Seph"---Sephiroth---removed his glasses, setting them on the table as he rubbed wearily at his green eyes. "It's ironic, that even though they insist they're fighting Shinra for the planet's best good, they never stop to think about the damage that their own behavior will cause. Many people were killed upon the reactor's detonation." He had very little respect for such people, who brought about such chaos in the name of the planet. All they were succeeding in doing, in the long run, was making their views seem fanatical and downright mad. Anyone who had any sense, he felt, would be able to clearly see that such actions were not having the desired effect.

Zack narrowed his eyes. "So then Shinra had to go in and clean up from it," he mused.

Sephiroth nodded. "The rebel faction AVALANCHE was believed to have been stationed within the village. Shinra did what it could to quell the outbreak and uncover all those involved, but they either had quickly made their escape, or else the villagers were protecting them." He looked irritated. "It's also possible that every one of them took part in AVALANCHE."

Zack shook his head. "The prison that's there . . . Shinra built it, didn't they?"

"Yes, but they don't run it." He pushed the map away from him. "Two days ago, Shinra received news that the residents of North Dismal, as well as the prison staff, still aren't happy with Shinra's methods. Supposedly, they've been threatening to attack Midgar."

"Oh . . . so it's just an average 'put down the rebellion' mission," said Zack. "If there's one in the first place."

"Possibly." The older man leaned back against the plush seat. "The prison warden denied the rumors and said that we would be more than welcome to come and look around." He frowned. "But something doesn't seem right. It's all much too simple, as if it's been planned this way." And in his years of experience, he had come to realize that this was a warning sign. Most would dismiss Dismal as insignificant and not a threat. After all, what remained now was one prison, and the survivors from both the reactor's explosion and Shinra's retaliation. But even a few, if driven by hatred and vengeance, could prove disastrous if ignored.

"Well, you're the war hero." And the brunet was perfectly content to follow the other's lead. He was still not certain what he thought about this latest assignment, but he imagined that he would form an opinion once they arrived.

Now he frowned, a new thought occuring to him. "Hey, if there is something going on there, it'll probably take more than the two of us to fix it," he exclaimed. "There's a plan for that, right?" Both he and Sephiroth were strong, and among the favored SOLDIERs, but still, two men against a possible army were not fair odds. They would never be able to manage if all of the people there were against them, or even if a large portion of them were. After all, even SOLDIERs were only human.

Sephiroth nodded. "If we find anything suspicious, we're to call the headquarters stationed on this continent. There's a unit waiting to assist us, if we need it." He glanced down at the map again. They would most likely reach Dismal within the hour, and once they did, Sephiroth wanted to immediately get started with the investigation. He was not tired, and the sooner they could discover the truth behind the rumors, the sooner they would be able to do whatever needed to be done. Normally there would be various formalities first, but he doubted that they would apply in such an uncivilized territory. He would honestly be surprised if he found that anyone would bother with them.

Zack was silent for a moment. "So . . . what do you think's going on there, Seph?" he asked finally.

The other had expected that query. "I don't know. After the prison was built, Shinra mostly ignored Dismal. The few survivors weren't worth bothering about. I haven't heard anything in ages about what's left of that village." Sephiroth paused. "And, if they're planning a rebellion, being left alone was probably exactly what they wanted. Who knows what they might have gathered by now. The rumors may have leaked out because they're truly prepared for a battle."

"And that means, we could be walking into a trap," Zack surmised.

"In a word, Yes." Sephiroth studied the other's bloodshot eyes. "And you should try to get some more sleep before we arrive," he said in a flat tone. "Once we get there, you'll need to be as alert as possible."

Zack placed his hands behind his head as he settled against the softness of the backrest. "Sorry, Seph, I'm afraid I won't get any more alert than this," he answered. He was definitely worn out, but the conversation had awakened him enough that now he was even more certain that he would not be able to slumber until that night. And, depending on what happened, maybe not even then.

His comrade was thinking similar things. "You know how these missions tend to go," he said. "Oftentimes, they're anything but routine. Sleep while you have the opportunity."

Zack grinned. "Point taken. And that means you should sleep too, my friend." He stretched again, then swung his legs onto the seat as he moved to lay down on it.

"I've slept enough." Sephiroth reached for his glasses again.

"Hypocrite." Zack raised up, playfully swiping them out of his grasp. Then he held them level with his own eyes as he looked through them. He blinked, studying Sephiroth, the map, and the rest of the passengers in the train car. Then he turned his gaze to the window, as more tumbleweeds rolled past.

Sephiroth watched him, unfazed. "Well?" he asked.

Zack shook his head, setting the glasses back on the table. "They don't do anything for me," he reported.

"They're only for reading." Sephiroth took them up himself, applying them to his face as he pulled the map towards him again. It was true that there was not all that much to look at where they were going, but it was wisest to memorize the layout of all that there was. If it turned out that there was trouble, such information would be very useful.

"Yeah, well, they didn't help me read, either," Zack smiled.

Sephiroth ignored him. "There's also quicksand in the area," he said now. "It's around all of the prison walls. The only way to get inside is by activating a drawbridge at the front gate. And it can only be turned on from the security room inside the building."

Zack raised an eyebrow. "So did they deliberately put it up around the quicksand, or did that come later?" he wondered. "Either way, man, it sounds like anyone who wants to escape has it rough." He leaned over the table, propping himself up on an elbow. "I guess we'll be in for a party and a half."

Sephiroth glanced up at him over the top of the frames. "That's an interesting way to put it."

Zack smirked. "Why, thank you."

Even in spite of how his friend had described the area, Zack was still surprised and a bit stunned when he saw North Dismal, which they came to first. The wilderness continued all around and right on through, with the tents being the only immediate sign of civilization. The plate overhead cast a large shadow across the campgrounds, as if it was a constant raincloud hovering over the modest living quarters. From between the tents' flaps, he could see many cold, suspicious eyes peering out at both him and Sephiroth in the picture window of the train car. Involuntarily he shivered.

"Hey, Seph," he said, glancing over at the other out of the corner of his eye, "do you think they realize we're the guys sent from Shinra? There's lots of people on board this thing."

Sephiroth barely looked up, not seeming to care as the miners stared. "It's possible that they could be aware of it," he answered, eyeing Zack's shoulder armor. The vehicle had slowed down immensely by this point, and the tracks were quite close to some of the tents. Details of the passengers nearest the windows could conceivably be viewed.

"They don't look too cheery," Zack frowned. Not that he blamed them. Whether they were associated with AVALANCHE or not, they were no doubt furious at Shinra for its attack on the village. And naturally they would not like the idea of more SOLDIERs coming, especially after all this time. Maybe they wondered if the meager rest that they had left would be razed. Or maybe they were planning that these SOLDIERs would not leave alive.

He leaned back, looking to the silver-haired man again. "Hey, Seph, who does run the prison, anyway?" he asked uneasily. "And what kind of people end up there as inmates?" Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a stone structure ahead. That, he assumed, must be their destination. It looked cold and unwelcoming, much as the residents' glares.

Sephiroth grunted. "It's run by some of the survivors of the attacks," he said. "Dismal has descended into the hands of vigilantes, so it's hard to say what kind of prisoners it has." But the disdain in his voice was obvious. When people took the law into their own hands, they often brought absurd sentences upon others for the most insignificant crimes, as well as not being able to keep track of those who were true threats. Not that official organizations did not do such things, as well. Sephiroth felt, however, that the latter were far more qualified to enact laws and punishments then ordinary laymen.

He glanced up as the train slowed further. The small station was quite close to the prison, which had been a source of concern for the railroad, as they feared that escaped convicts would try to board the trains. The warden had denied it as a possibility, saying that criminals would not be able to escape from the penitentiary, and that if they did, they would not get far enough to make it to the train station.

His eyes narrowed suddenly. With the current rate that they were slowing, compared with how close the station was approaching, it looked like they were not going to stop in time. The only way that they might make it would be if there was a sudden, abrupt halt. And that would probably create quite a bit of chaos. . . .

He barely had time to grab onto the table as the vehicle gave a violent jerk. Passengers around him yelped in surprise, and as the train strained to come to a stop at the station, some of them flew forward, into the aisles, or even onto the tables. Even Zack nearly suffered from this problem, but he gripped the sides of their table and struggled to hold on. As the motion finally ceased, and the pressure eased, Zack was thrown back violently against the seat, while Sephiroth pitched forward, half onto the wooden square.

Silence reigned for a moment, as everyone on board collected their bearings. At last Zack started to get up, shaking his head. "Man, whoever's up front isn't watching at all what he's doing!" he declared, a bit of irritation slipping into his voice. While he was generally an easy-going person, anything that could potentially put people's lives at risk made him annoyed. And carelessness was very high on that list.

Sephiroth looked vexed as well, as he pushed himself off the table and gathered his belongings. He did have a mind to report the incident to the railroad. But first, he was going to speak to the conductor, he determined, as he slid out of the booth and into a standing position. He wanted to know exactly why this had happened. He doubted the probability, but part of him still wondered if the train had been hijacked. There were reportedly many bandits roaming the area, and sometimes the vehicles were commandeered without warning. But he was certain he would have noticed if something such as that were taking place.

He cast his gaze around the car. The other people were also recovering from the experience, talking amongst themselves as they pondered over what the reason could be. Some of them still seemed dazed or overwhelmed, but no one seemed hurt, Sephiroth noted with approval. Of course, it could be a different story in the other cars.

"Go ahead and get off," he said to Zack, as he walked to the front. "I'll be along in a minute."

"I'll just go ahead and come with you," Zack shrugged, following him to the door leading into the next car. He had an idea of what Sephiroth was thinking. Apparently he was going to walk to the engine room, while checking on the people in the other cars along the way. Zack was also concerned on if the other passengers were alright, and he had to admit that he was curious to see how it would go when Sephiroth spoke to the conductor. And even if no one had been harmed, he was simply irritated himself at the sloppy halt. Perhaps he would even say something about it as well.

"Wow, everyone's staring at us," he smirked now. "I guess we're the only guys getting off at this stop. They probably think we're nuts or something."

"We probably are," Sephiroth responded.

"Touché," Zack commented, still smirking.

Sephiroth was not impressed as he pushed open the door of the engine room several moments later. The conductor was slumped over the main control panel, singing drunkenly as he turned switches and pulled levers in an almost random sort of way. To his side, on top of the console, was a half-empty liquor bottle. On his other side, the engineer stood looking helpless.

Zack gave a low whistle as he peered inside, gripping the doorframe. "Well, that explains a few things," he said.

The silver-haired man frowned, walking in purposely and grabbing the intoxicated man's shoulder. "As charming as your concert is, it could have resulted in some of your passengers being seriously injured, or worse," he declared, with more than a little sarcasm dripping from each word. He and Zack had discovered a few minor bumps and bruises in the other cars, and one woman with a small cut on her forehead. They had certainly gotten off easily, but he did not intend that this man should as well. This was quite outrageous.

The conductor started under his grip. "Oh, hullo, sir!" he greeted, turning to blink glassy eyes at Sephiroth, who was looking at his most imposing. "It was pretty fun, wasn't it? Just like one of those 'musement park rides!"

Sephiroth gave him a look of disgust and glanced to the engineer. "Does this happen often?" he demanded.

The engineer shrugged helplessly. "This man isn't the usual conductor, sir. He's sick, so this one got sent to us to fill in. I swear, I had no idea that anything was amiss, until we nearly passed by the station! I came in to see what the problem was, and well, he was like this. . . ." He swallowed hard, the guilt obvious in his eyes. "I tried hard to get the train to stop, but I'm afraid it did cause an uproar. Is anyone hurt?"

"Not badly," Zack chimed in. "Mostly just shaken up."

Sephiroth nodded in agreement. "Do you know how to take over his job for the time being?" he said to the engineer. He knew that trains ran on strict schedules, and that for several reasons, it would not likely be possible for them to remain at this station while another conductor was found. And obviously, the current conductor could not do his job.

The other man blinked in surprise, but nodded. "I was a conductor for several years," he admitted.

"Good. Then don't let this train pull out with this man at the controls." Sephiroth turned abruptly, heading for the door again as his long hair swished out behind him. "See that his behavior is reported to the railroad."

"Y-yes, sir, I certainly will!" the engineer said, and immediately began to attempt to remove the conductor from his seat.

Unfortunately, the other did not want to go. "I have a train to run!" he yelped indignantly, his words slurred.

Sephiroth turned back in irritation, watching as Zack went over to assist.

"Sorry, man, you blew that one," declared the brunet, grabbing the obstinate drunk under his arm. Together, he and the engineer managed to extricate him, depositing him on the floor near the wall.

"And have that bottle confiscated," Sephiroth directed. He walked back through the door, not bothering to wait for Zack. In a moment, he heard the other's footsteps behind him.

Zack was surprised by the amount of smoke in the air as he and Sephiroth finally stepped down from the platform at the station. It was coming from the prison, he supposed, when he glanced in that direction and saw the tall smokestacks protruding from the building. Overall, the entire area had a very rundown, melancholy feeling, and the haze and smog only added to it. The name "Dismal" seemed all the more appropriate now. He glanced to Sephiroth, idly wondering what his friend thought of it.

The older man's attention was focused, instead of on the sky and the air, toward a black automobile that was parked just ahead. A figure, seeing them approaching, had alighted from the back of the car and now was walking toward them.

Zack blinked curiously. "The warden?" he asked in a low tone.

Sephiroth nodded vaguely, moving forward more quickly to meet the other.

Zack hurried to keep up, trying to discreetly study the man. He was two or three inches shorter than Sephiroth, who was over six feet in height. His grey business suit's jacket stretched over his broad shoulders and muscles, and his brown hair was parted to the left and pulled into a ponytail at the back. As he came closer, Zack could see that his blue eyes seemed friendly enough, as did his smile. But still, something seemed wrong, something that he could not quite determine.

"Welcome to Dismal," he greeted in a pleasant voice, reaching to shake Sephiroth's hand. "We don't get many visitors here who aren't in prison . . . or who don't need to be," he added with a smirk, as the silver-haired man accepted.

Zack could not help the sarcastic thought of Gee, I wonder why that passed through his mind.

"I'm Dalton, the prison warden," he continued, moving to shake Zack's hand now. "You're both most welcome to stay at my house during your inspection." He tilted his head thoughtfully. "I don't remember catching your names. . . ."

"Well, we didn't throw them," Zack smiled in reply. "Zack Fair," he announced grandly.

Dalton nodded, pleased. "Ah yes, Zack." He looked to the other. "And you must be the warrior Sephiroth . . . ?"

"Just Sephiroth," he said in a flat tone.

Quickly he changed the subject. "As for your invitation, thank you, but we don't plan that we'll be here very long. This is just a routine investigation."

"Ah, but it's late," Dalton smiled, "and Midgar is such a far piece away. Do at least plan to stay the night. You'll be able to conduct your investigation much better on a good sleep and a scrumptious meal. My maids have already been preparing it."

Zack crossed his arms. "Well, you've convinced me," he grinned, and looked to Sephiroth. Of course, the other would have the final say, but Zack had a feeling that his fellow SOLDIER would, indeed, wish to remain. There was something too polished in Dalton's tones. His friendliness seemed forced, fake. It seemed to Zack that it would be wisest to linger and try to determine the cause of it. If something truly was happening here, Dalton was probably involved. But they would need to appear completely oblivious to it.

Sephiroth caught Zack's eye and gave a barely imperceptible nod. Then he looked back to Dalton. "Alright," he agreed. "We'll stay through the night."

Dalton was extremely pleased. "Wonderful," he declared, and turned to lead them to the car. They followed slowly, each wondering exactly what they were getting into this time.