Disclaimer: I own nothing.
A/N: this is the first part of a three chaptered fic, each chapter focusing on one character - Quercus Alba, Manfred von Karma and Damon Gant respectively. Out of all interesting characters I've met in the games I've played so far, these three got a fair share of my attention. Guess I have a thing for old evil men since it's so much fun trying to come up with a backstory for them.
A little warning for this one chapter: there is some violence in it, namely the result of the stuff that happens in a battlefield. It's not very descriptive, but it's not pretty either.
"Corruptio Optimi Pessima" (the corruption of the best is the worst of all) - Gregorius Magnus.
The vase, containing several beautiful passionflowers just about to fully bloom, was placed carefully beneath the window in the only spot in the cell where sunlight could pour directly onto for several hours each day. In the previous cell Alba had been into barely a few sunrays managed to get inside for no more than half an hour a day – too little for flowers to survive.
Quercus Alba had been a powerful man, first a general and war hero and then an ambassador; he had been the all-powerful, untouchable mind behind a smuggling ring that had lasted for decades and brought more than one country's economy to its knees. Fist on the battlefield and then in the rooms of power, his influence had reduced many men into nothing but puppets with him as the puppet master. Now he was just an old, finished man who felt all the weight of his years for the first time and could only wait for his death sentence to be carried out – still, he had managed to retain at least some scraps of his old authority, just enough to obtain a different cell… one with enough sunlight for him to nurture his flowers.
Or at least that was what he wanted to think. After all, it was more than likely that it had actually been Colias Palaeno to press for him to have that cell, like it had been him to have his flowers delivered to him from the embassy. But the thought of owing anything to that pathetic fool never failed to make him grimace, so he would simply ignore that possibility and focus on taking care of his flowers for the last days he had left.
A wrinkled hand touched the petals lightly, almost tentatively, and its owner frowned as he noticed how it was shaking. His hands had never shaken, never, not even with old age; but those days it looked like all his years had caught up with him in the end, much like his deeds. He wasn't used to helplessness, not anymore, and it bothered him more than he was willing to admit. He supposed that was why the thought everything was about to end felt like such a relief.
No one had come to visit him in his last few hours, and he was fine with that: there was no one he would have liked to see in any case. A priest had tried to talk him into confessing – what was there left for him to confess? – but he had left almost immediately once Alba had made it clear he was only wasting his time. Palaeno had sent a message to let him know he would have the flowers looked after, but much to Alba's relief he hadn't been foolish enough to show up himself. Alba had also been asked what he wished for his last meal, and he had asked for no meal at all. He wanted to be alone in his last hour. Just him and his thought, his memories.
And the flowers.
Southern Cohdopia, May 1967.
The battle was supposed to be brief: they were going to catch the enemy by surprise, they had been told. They would attack them quickly on their most vulnerable side and force them to retreat in the attempt to rearrange themselves for a counter attack only to be attacked from behind by another unit. It had seemed such a perfect plan, so simple, so easy. Too easy.
They had lied to them; the whole unit had been used as a bait, a distraction so that the other unit – the one made and led by people who actually counted – would attack the enemy from behind while they were busy decimating them: soldiers with no golden stars or medals to decorate their uniform, people who hadn't even been properly armed for a fight of a such magnitude, people who were nothing more than pigs raised for slaughter. People like him. Expendable.
When he and his comrades had realized what was truly going on it had been too late, and then there had been no time for seconds thoughts or retreats: there had only been blood and death and screams, the heavy smell of gunpowder and the frightening realization that none of them would live to see the sunset.
And yet, private Quercus Alba had lived at least enough to be granted that last sight: he could see the sun slowly disappearing behind the very same hill above the battlefield. But he did not enjoy the sight; too red, just like the blood – his own and his comrades' – soaking the ground their had fought for. He had had enough of blood for the rest of is life, which was going to be cut short very soon in any case. The wound on his side wasn't bleeding much now, but he knew that his end was just delayed. He had lost too much blood, he was dehydrated, the wound was serious and no one was coming to help him. He was going to die, he was certain of that, but he wasn't hurting anymore, something he supposed he should have been grateful for.
He was not, however – he felt nothing at all. No pain, no anger, no sadness and certainly not gratitude. Maybe it was better that way.
Quercus shut his eyes and rested his head back on the ground, the red circle of the sun still visible as though it had been imprinted in his retina. He couldn't tell whether he was the lone survivor of his unit or not; he simply didn't have enough strength to even try calling out for other survivors. Then again, there was probably none. He envied them: no man should lay severely wounded in a blood-soaked battlefield among hundreds of dead bodies – bodies of men who had been his family for months, from his recruitment up to now – while feeling his life slipping away with each laboured breath and then live to tell it. No one.
But then again he wouldn't live for much longer, would he?
At least we won the battle.
A bitter chuckle escaped him as the thought crossed his mind. Who cared about the battle? He hadn't won anything. They had won; the ones who had sent him and his comrades to their death without a second thought. The glory of victory would be theirs. People of Cohdopia would remember their names. His own name, along with hundreds of others, would be lost as if he never even existed. The only ones who'd remember then for a short time were their friends and family, people as expendable and worthless and themselves… and maybe not even that. Quercus wondered if he were the only one in that battalion who had no family who'd want his body back for mourning, and how many of them would be simply buried together in a mass grave whose location would soon be forgotten.
The feeble voice that reached his ears was barely a raspy whisper, and for a moment he thought he had been hearing things; but he did open his eyes and, with what felt like a supreme effort, turned to see the source of the sound. What he saw at first was only a mess of blood and ripped flesh and shattered bones; then the form moved, and Quercus recognized a body at first – bent in an unnatural position, legs missing, bones sticking out – and then a face, and eyes looking at him. That face had been handsome, but now a large bleeding gash made it almost unrecognisable; the hair had been blond, but now they were matted with red and their colour was impossible to see. What Quercus recognized where the blue eyes, so blue and so widened with horror.
"Papilio," he heard himself rasping.
The other man gave no sign of hearing him. "They… sent us… to die," he chocked out.
Quercus supposed he should have felt at least something now. Horror, pain, sorrow, pity, rage, anything. But he still did not. "So they did," he just said.
"No. They did not."
This time it was clear Papilio had heard him, for he trailed off and gave a gurgling noise that sounded like a question. Or maybe he was simply trying not to choke in his own blood, but Quercus took it as a question.
"They did what… was necessary. To win the battle," he shut his eyes and swallowed, and he finally did feel something, something akin to regret; not regret for not foreseeing what was coming for him and his comrades, but for not being one of those who counted, one of the ones in the rooms of powers moving people around the battlefield like pawns on a chessboard.
Had he been one of them, had he had the time to climb ranks in the army… he wouldn't have found himself in that situation. He wouldn't have been about to die as he was now. He would have been one of those whose names would be remembered, and not just some nobody dying in the middle of a battlefield because of a wound a good doctor could have treated easily enough. If only he was given enough time…!
A soft, sobbing sound snapped him from his thoughts. Quercus opened his eyes again and turned to see Papilio sobbing like a child despite the pain the slightest movement had to cause him, tears streaming down in ruined face and washing away some of the blood. He was a truly pathetic sight, and in a moment terror gripped Quercus' throat – terror that if Papilio kept crying like that it would be too much for him to bear, terror that he would break down like him and turn into a pathetic, whimpering mess as well.
No, God, no. Let me meet a dignified death. At least this.
It shouldn't have even mattered how he died, for no one who had the slightest chance to live would see and no one would know – even if someone knew, who would remember him and his death for long anyway? – but the thought he could lose all restraint like that repulsed him.
"Stop," he rasped "stop that."
The sobs didn't stop, they only grew weaker and even more insufferable. Quercus felt as though that soft whimpering was now coming from his own head rather than from the outside, and he suddenly couldn't hear anything else, and he couldn't stop it, and he knew he'd go insane if it didn't stop now.
"Stop. Stop!" he tried to yell, but his whole chest burned and he could only gasp.
The weeping didn't cease.
Stop it, stop it, oh God make it stop please make it STOP!
What happened next would forever stay fuzzy in Alba's memory, but he would remember reaching to his left, where yet another fallen comrade lay, and taking the pistol still in his cold, dead hand. He aimed blindly and pulled the trigger, the bang deafening and the smell of gunpowder overpowering even the smell of blood, and Papilio's wailing abruptly ceased.
It took him a few minutes to open his eyes again, the abrupt movement having reopened the wound on his side. The pain had awakened, and it was quickly getting unbearable – but at least he now he had the means to make it stop quickly, didn't he? Quercus smirked to himself, held the pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. The rounds were empty. No easy way out for him.
Quercus gave a groaning noise of dismay and let the pistol fall on the ground before turning to look at Papilio's corpse. His face was no more, but at least his agony was over and no one who mattered anything would actually mourn him. What about him now?
Quercus grimaced and turned away from Papilio, his head still resting on the blood-soaked ground, his eyes searching for something – anything – that wasn't a dead, broken body. He couldn't manage to move, but if there were a weapon within his reach, any weapon-
What he saw just next to his face, however, was not a weapon, nor it was a corpse or a disembodied limb. It was something he surely hadn't expected to see in a battlefield after a battle such as that one, after all the blood and death and screams – a flower. A passionflower, he realized with an odd sense of awe. How could something as fragile as a flower have possibly survived in the midst of a battle such as that one?
And yet, there it was. Quercus shut his eyes and then opened them again, but the flower was still there, beautiful and untouched. Not even a petal had been tarnished; it was in full bloom and stood there, in the middle of a small patch of grass stained by blood. Quercus could remember seeing his mother pouring some cow's blood in her garden years earlier – before the previous war, before the garden was destroyed along with his house and family – while saying that it was good for the plants once in a while, and he confusedly wondered if his own blood and his comrades' was what that flower was feeding onto right now. Maybe their blood would help other flowers to grow. He hoped it would. It would be the one proof they had ever existed in the first place.
That flower. It was so beautiful. It was perfect. Fragile and still able to survive where so many men couldn't. Much like him – but he wasn't going to live for much longer, was he? Then again, a flower's life is short as well. He almost reached to touch it, but he refrained himself – he didn't want to stain it with his blood. He just stayed there, his eyes fixed on that small wonder in the middle of death, and he suddenly had no rush to die. He could as well rest back and simply enjoy the sight as he waited for his death. And so he stared, and waited for death to come.
But someone else got there before death could. After what felt like hours but was actually barely minutes Quercus was snapped from his trance by footstep and voices, confused at first, but quickly approaching and soon becoming clearer, until he clearly heard a voice only feet from where he was.
"Hey! Can anyone hear me? Is there someone still alive?"
Unable to even lift his head, Quercus had no way to know whether those were friends or enemies, but he didn't care. He opened his mouth to cry out, but only a gurgling noise left him – too low for anyone to hear him. But if they walked by him without realizing he was alive, if he didn't get help now…!
"We're Cohdopians! Is there anyone left? Anyone…?"
Quercus acted out without thinking: he reached to take the now useless pistol he had dropped on the ground by his side and used up all strength he had left to throw it towards the voice. If even that failed, if they didn't find him…!
"What…? Hey, there must be someone still alive here. I'm going to take a look. You keep looking over there…"
Something awfully close to a sob escaped him as he let his hand fall back on the ground, any strength he had left having finally leaving him, and only seconds later a man appeared in his field vision and knelt next to him. "Over here! This one is still alive!" he called out before turning his full attention back to him "what's your name, soldier?"
But Quercus wasn't listening. "The flower," he gasped.
"Move… move!" he chocked out, his fingers uselessly trying to push away the man's right knee from the spot on the ground it was resting onto – the spot where the flower was. "You're killing it, you…!"
The other man put a hand on his shoulder. "You have fever. You must be delirious," he muttered, but he did shift so that he wouldn't be kneeling on that spot anymore "don't worry, you'll be alright. We'll fix you up, son, you'll be fine…"
Whatever he was babbling had no meaning for Quercus, not anymore. He reached out again and this time his fingers found the flower, trampled and flattened, but it was still there. He grasped it, and smiled, his saviour's words getting harder and harder to make sense of as he finally began slipping out of consciousness, his voice reaching his ears as if from miles away.
"Hang on, boy, help is almost here. You're going to make it, you hear me? You'll be fine. It's not time for to go yet, it's not…!"
"It's time to go, Alba."
The old man's hand stopped touching the petals, a small smile curling his lips. "Yes, it is. After all this time, it is," he said quietly, so quietly that he wasn't even heard over the sound of the cell's door opening. He reached to take on of the flowers in the vase and stood up, straightening himself before turning to the guards. "Are you going to use those?" he asked, his gaze falling on the cuffs one of them was holding.
"Not if you don't give us any reason to," was the reply. That was not the usual procedure; his hands should have been cuffed behind his back as he stood in front of the firing squad – the kind of death a military man could request for himself there in Cohdopia, and he has chosen to die as a soldier – but those men seemed to be willing to spare him that, perhaps because his reputation as an invincible general and war hero still gained him some respect. It wasn't like he could escape with or without cuffs in any case.
"Very well. I will not," Alba finally said. "I'm ready."
No words were spoken as the guards escorted him to the yard where his execution would take place. No one but the coroner and the firing squad was there, which didn't surprise Alba very much; it was unlikely that anyone else would have been admitted to assist to his execution after he expressly said he didn't want outsiders to attend. He had been a very important man in his country after all; one of those who counted, no longer one of the expendable ones. In the end he had been the one to use people as pawn to move on a chessboard, in more ways than one. The thought made him smirk.
He walked in front of the firing squad and stood there, looking at everyone in the eyes, and none of the men held his gaze for more than a few instants. One of the guards walked up to him with the blindfold in his hand, but Alba shook his head.
"I won't need it," he said, his voice firm. It was yet another infraction of the normal procedure, but as he had expected the guard didn't insist and just stepped back. It was entertaining how not even being stripped of his title and being sentenced to death not all rules that counted for other people could count for him as well. He smirked again.
"Do you have any last words?"
Alba shook his head. "None," he said. He didn't need something as cliché as some last word to be remembered by. Not anymore.
The order rang clearly through the yard, and the men in the firing squad raised their guns. Alba straightened himself, his chin held high, his gaze fixed ahead.
Alba's hand tightened its grip around something small and fragile he hadn't let go of for an instant since the moment he had stepped out of his cell.
The noise as the guns fired was deafening, and the smell of gunpowder would have brought back so many memories from his years on the battlefield – but there was no time for memories now. No more time.
Quercus Alba fell on the ground like a tree struck by lighting and didn't move anymore.
"This young man was lucky," the surgeon commented, wiping his forehead with a satisfied smile on his face as he glanced down at the unconscious form of his last patient. Working as an army surgeon was rarely a very rewarding thing – not many of those who needed him made it without at least a crippling injury they'd have to live with for the rest of their lives – but he was positive that this one soldier would make it through without any other consequence but a scar on his side.
He had been very lucky indeed: only a few inches more on the left and some internal organ could have been compromised, sentencing him to death. "He'll be perfectly fine soon. Though of course, this one war is over for him. He needs at least a few months to recover, and I'm pretty sure Borginia won't last that long against us after today's defeat. They'll have to retreat soon."
"I hope so. We all have had enough of this war," the nurse sighed "we should arrange for him to be brought back home," she added, reaching to take a look at the metal tag around the young man's neck. "Quercus Alba. I'll get the papers right away and- what's this?"
"What?" the doctor asked.
"He has something in his hand," the nurse told him, prying his fingers open. "A… flower?"
"A flower, really?" the doctor chuckled a little "I wonder where he found one. I've never seen a patch of land as desolated as that one battlefield."
"Who knows," she said with a shrug, letting go of Quercus' hand.
His fingers instinctively closed around the flower – or what was left of it – once more, as if clinging to it for dear life.
"No pulse. It's over," the coroner said, letting go of Alba's wrist and looking up at the guard standing next to him. "Tell the squad they can go home, and have the body delivered to the morgue."
"Of course," the guard nodded and turned to gesture for the firing squad to leave. "He'll be brought at the morgue right away."
"Good. I'd like to be home before- what is it?" the coroner frowned a little, still crouched next to Alba's body.
"He has something in his hand," he said. He took the hand again and tried to pry his fingers open, but his fist was balled too tightly for him to do so without putting some effort in it, as if rigor mortis had set in… which wasn't possible, of course.
"Oh, that. Must be the flower."
"Yes. He had passionflowers with him in his cell, and he took one before we brought him here."
"Ah. I see," the coroner got up and brushed away some dust from his trousers, not really feeling like struggling to snatch a flower from a dead body's hand "I suppose it won't hurt leaving it there, then."
"Guess not. They can deal with it later," the guard agreed, not even thinking that with rigor mortis setting in it was later impossible for anyone to pry Alba's fingers open without having to break them, and that the flower would have to be left there. He glanced down at the fallen man; he had died with his eyes open, but the coroner had closed them right before checking for his pulse and now he could have looked like he was sleeping hadn't it been for the bullet wounds on his chest. "The fixation with flowers was the least surprising part. I'll never get what this guy was out to get," he said to no one in particular, taking off his cap to scratch his head. "He was a war hero, he was our ambassador, he had plenty of money and power. Why should he get through the trouble of even starting a smuggling ring? It sounds like more trouble than it was worth."
"To amuse himself, perhaps. If I read the trial's accounts correctly, it was nothing but a game to him. I suppose all the power he had was enough for him to decide he would have some fun by using it."
The other man frowned as he watched some men walking into the yard to take Alba's body to the morgue. "That explanation is worse than the doubt. A game? Economies were destroyed and people died because of his little game. How could he come to value human life so little?"
"No idea. Maybe he was just an old man who thought of anyone but himself as expendable," the coroner gave him a light pat on the shoulder. "Don't think too much about him. He's not worth it."
The guard sighed. "Guess you have a point," he said before finally turning his back to Alba's body and walking inside. He had promised ambassador Palaeno he'd have Alba's plants delivered to the national botanic garden at once, and he couldn't wait for those damned flowers to be out of his sight.