General Caraway is given an opportunity to do the one thing that he believes will assure the future of Galbadia. However, taking it isn't so easy. (Newfic.)
He walked down the corridor to where he thought the stairwell should be, keeping his face carefully expressionless. He had to fight to keep his bad mood hidden from the rest of the world... particularly after his meetings with the President, who talked down to him and called him by his given name constantly, treated him like just another servant to be pushed around. Deling was demanding more and more of his time, and his "requests" were becoming very unreasonable. He and the president had never been the best of friends; they were, at best, comrades, two men who understood each other. But now Deling's head was full of rubbish, foolish notions of world domination. Galbadia's resources were strained enough, keeping Timber and the rest of its troublesome holdings under its control; further expansion could well lead to its destruction. He thought of Timber and its constant rebellions with subdued irritation, remembering that his daughter was there and that she would probably be more than happy to watch Galbadia fall, or even to see reflections of her rebellious nature appearing in other occupied countries....
The fact that Deling's new obsessions were not his own, that they had been give to him by the Sorceress, only angered Caraway further. For all his ruthlessness and occasional poor judgment, President Deling had generally been a sensible man. For him to have allowed that witch to cloud his thoughts, make him into another madman... it was utter humiliation, and Deling was too bedazzled to even realize what a fool he was being.
Already she was making demands of her own, unreasonable ones. Just a few minutes before Deling had ordered Caraway to stop accepting Garden graduates as new recruits - the Sorceress didn't like them, he'd said. Never mind that more and more soldiers were deserting the armed forces, or that the Garden students were the best-trained recruits the Army had; the Sorceress didn't like them, so they had to be weeded out and discharged. It was ridiculous - how did Deling expect them to maintain an army at all under those circumstances?
No, she'd drive Galbadia to ruin, if something wasn't done. Caraway knew that he was the only sensible man left in the chain of command; the burden fell to him to end this madness. So far his secret meetings with Martine had gone unnoticed, thanks to careful planning and perhaps a bit of luck; if anyone had realized that they weren't only discussing the latest results of the Garden Transfer Program, both of them would have been carted off to the D-District Prison, to rot in its underground cells. All of Caraway's service would have meant nothing. Now they were out of time; he and Martine would only have the pretense for one more meeting. They would have to put their plan into action and hope that it would succeed, even though they had not had time to complete certain preparations -
As he mused on his plans he paused, suddenly hearing a strange sound. It sounded like someone... not quite crying, but utterly terrified and on the verge of hysteria. It suddenly reminded him of an argument he'd had with Julia, near the end, when their pride had failed them and left her too afraid to ask him for help. He had left her curled up in a ball on the floor of his study, trying as hard as she could not to cry, and leaving her there had been horribly difficult... He turned around and quickly found the source of the sound: a door that had been left slightly ajar.
A woman, he thought, shaking his head. Surely it was only one of the President's mistresses - he'd had at least three before that he'd heard about, and probably more that had been kept a secret. This was none of his business, and it was best if he just ignored it. He turned away from the door and took a step away - then saw Julia again, curled up as if she were right in front of him, begging him in a horrible voice to go away and let her cry...
He slowly turned back around and approached the door, and then reached out and rapped gently against the wood with his knuckles. "Madam?" he called. "Is something wrong? I can find a servant to attend you."
For a long moment the sound of breathing stopped, and was replaced by a long, deathly silence. Then a half-familiar voice spoke softly to him. "Please come in," she said quietly. "I... I need to talk to someone."
This was dangerous ground; Deling could have Caraway imprisoned for taking such liberties in his Residence. It would be best to turn away, find the stairwell, and maybe tell a servant about the crying woman as he was walking out of the mansion. That would have been the sensible thing, and he was a sensible man. That was why he surprised himself when he slowly pushed the door open - it swung quietly on its hinges - and walked in.
He knew as soon as he entered whose room he had discovered. It wasn't because of the room itself - it was the elaborate headdress on the floor that arrested his attention at once. It was broken and ruined - what had once been a perfect translucent shell was now shattered in a dozen pieces on the carpet, and black feathers had been ripped out and scattered around the room. Caraway tore his eyes away from it only with effort, and saw a woman only slightly less tattered than the crown. Her black dress was torn, and bare of ornamentation. She looked nothing like the woman Caraway had seen at those few meetings; she wore no makeup, except for a few errant streaks on her cheek, and her eyes were swollen from what seemed to be a great many tears. But somehow, despite all that, there was an air of calm and dignity about her...
She looked at him with those strange eyes. "How did you find me?"
"Sorceress...." He wanted to back away, very badly. "It was a mistake. I should not have disturbed you. I'm sorry-"
"Don't go," she said quickly, reaching out to him. Her hands were shaking. "It's... so much more difficult when... I'm alone..." This was not the Edea he knew, the proud and imperious woman who would lead Galbadia to a new and greater glory, according to Deling. All he had to reconcile the two was the broken crown that lay in pieces on the floor. "Do you... distrust me?"
"Good," she interrupted, which was just as well - Caraway had no idea what he would have said had he continued. "It would be very dangerous to trust me. I have been trapped for so long... I cannot even trust my own mind."
"You're a prisoner?" he asked, confused. She wasn't a prisoner, she was the Sorceress - one of the mistresses of the world, if the old fables could be believed. But she looked like a prisoner at that moment, with her face bare and the pale skin of her body gleaming through ripped cloth as she moved.
She nodded slightly. "Her mind is too powerful. I can't... keep fighting forever. She haunts me - even when she leaves me her memories linger." Her voice was flat and calm, the sort that teetered on the very edge of hysteria. "But if I do not fight she will banish me to a death beyond death, where souls wish for annihilation. I cannot rest while she still threatens me." She looked up again. "Please, help me..."
Caraway didn't know what was going on - there was a chance that Deling had engineered this as an elaborate test, but he didn't believe it. Deling wasn't given to subtle actions such as this. And this woman... something about her disarmed him, in a way that no one had in years. "What is it that you want?" he whispered.
She stood up and stared at him with those empty eyes. "Kill me," she said softly, as if she had only asked for a glass of water. "Take your gun and shoot, before she comes back. I've tried, but she knows my mind. But perhaps if someone else..."
Caraway froze as images flashed through his mind. He saw himself standing over this pale, calm woman with his pistol in his hand, and slowly pulling the trigger. He saw himself standing over her body, blood splattered across the rich carpet, as an endless stream of servants and soldiers poured through the door behind him. He didn't know what would happen to him then; a crime like that was unimaginable. The price would be high, but if it freed Galbadia from the Sorceress's grasp any price would be worthwhile.
But when he reached down for his holster, another image entered his mind - Julia's face superimposed over the Sorceress, both of them growing pale as their lives both bled away. He recoiled mentally from the image, and his hand dropped. He couldn't kill her... in the heat of battle he could have done it, perhaps. But not this way. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I can't."
She did not look angry or upset... just resigned. She looked up at him with that same eerie calm. "I had hoped that if this happened I would have the courage to end this myself," she said softly, "before I gave in. I never wanted -" She stopped, and for a moment her face filled with dread. "Hyne, no," she said. "It's too soon..."
Caraway watched helplessly as she pressed her hands to her head, and then dropped to her knees. "I'm falling..." she said weakly. "If you should meet my husband... please tell him that I... forgive him." She trembled and slumped weakly down on the carpet.
The half-forgotten headdress glowed with a bright silver light, and before Caraway's amazed eyes it rose from the floor, floating in midair. It began to draw its broken fragments back into itself, reforming itself before his eyes - the feathers reattached themselves, grew long and silky and black. And then he saw the Sorceress herself floating in midair, the torn dress becoming whole again, the ornaments that she had torn off and tossed away beginning to drift back...
He turned away and began to walk as fast as he could. He fought down his terror as he walked down the stairs, moving as fast as he could. All he could think of was the Sorceress in the room behind him, and what she would do if she woke up and saw him there. The prison would very probably seem like a paradise after what she would do...
It really was astonishing what fear could do for one's memory. Caraway didn't relax until he'd found his way to his private car, and was resting in the back seat as a servant drove in silence. Surely no one was going to come after him... not then. They would have found him in the Presidential Residence if they had wished to capture him.
He could not rightfully say that he understood exactly what had just happened. He was filled with conflicting thoughts and emotions, not the least of which was shame. The enemy, the one who had corrupted his President and filled his head with insane notions, had asked him to kill her. But he had been too sentimental to take her life at that unguarded moment. He had no way of knowing when - or if - another chance would come.
He sighed and closed his eyes, and found himself thinking of Julia. The way she had died, her body torn apart by the impact of flesh against metal, and then the strangely calm expression on her unsmiling face...
No, it was no good bemoaning what had just happened. There was only one way to redeem himself. He had to make sure that there would be an opportunity for another shot at the Sorceress, one that would not fail.
Still, he knew that this day would haunt him for the rest of his life, no matter what plans he made to appease his sense of duty. He would never forget that he had been given the chance to save Galbadia, but had cast it aside for the love of a dead woman.
A/N: Written for 100_leitmotifs on livejournal. I started wondering how things would have gone down if Caraway had met Edea in one of her lucid moments, which I'm sure happened, though they were few and far between. Not much else to say about it, really.