4-1: Visiting Shirley
January 29, 12:30am.
Several bio-soldiers were gathered around the cafeteria as Victor was playing another one of Red’s games over at his laptop. This one was a platformer centering on the completion of a wide variety of side quests as well as capturing magical pigs that have brought ruin to the land. During the past few days, the soldiers have taken a liking to Red’s hobbies and began exchanging shows and games amongst each other.
They were gathered there late at night because of a certain girl.
Sitting on an adjacent table fast asleep was Catherine, a female teenager with brown hair that flowed smoothly to her back, just right below her shoulder blades.
“Red’s out there on a mission again, isn’t he?” she had told the soldiers a few hours ago. “I’m gonna wait for him until he returns!”
“There’s no need to,” Victor tried saying. “Just go to sleep. He’ll be back by sunrise like he always does.”
It was past midnight, and Catherine had given in to her sleepiness while the bio-soldiers stayed by her side.
They soon heard multiple footsteps. It was Red and his team. The Crimson General was wearing a black cloak, but unlike how he looked after raids, this time his face was spotless. Furthermore, while they had weapons with them, there were no signs of having used them.
“Thanks for staying with her,” the red-eyed boy said as he approached Catherine. He caught a glimpse of Victor playing. “You’re pretty far in the game, aren’t you? Have you seen the Million-Year-Old Man?”
“Not yet,” Victor replied. “I’m stuck in the maze, but I guess I’ll get back to it tomorrow. You need help with the girl?”
“Nah.” He took Catherine in his arms and lifted her up gently. “Good luck with the maze, then. I’ll go bring her to her room. You guys go to sleep, too.”
Catherine slowly opened her eyes. She was lying down, and remembering that she originally fell asleep sitting down at the cafeteria, she frantically looked around.
Right beside her was a crimson-eyed boy around her age putting a blanket over her.
“Oh, did I wake you?” he said. “Sorry. Go back to sleep.”
Still groggy, Catherine slowly reached her hand out to Red’s cheek. “Huh? You look fine. But I thought you-”
“It wasn’t a raid, you idiot,” Red said with a slight chuckle as he grabbed Catherine’s wrist and put her hand back down. “Seriously, you should’ve taken note of who I brought with me. Hint: It wasn’t the Raid Unit.”
Catherine snuggled into her bed as Red finished putting the blanket over her shoulders. “I see. Will you tell me about it tomorrow?”
Red gently put his hand on Catherine’s head and ran it over her hair for a while. “No problem. I’ll tell you over breakfast.”
“All right. That’s a promise, okay?” the girl said. “Good night, Red.”
“Sweet dreams, Cath.” The red-eyed boy then stood up and walked out of the room.
Upon exiting, he yawned and his eyes started showing fatigue.
“Seriously, if only that place wasn’t so damn far from here,” he told himself as his hands started glowing a bright orange. “I really need to go to sleep soon.”
Jumping up, he pointed his palms behind him and he started flying through the corridors toward his room.
January 29, 7am.
Red and Catherine were sitting across of each other in the cafeteria eating breakfast. Red was telling his companion what had happened that night.
“I had a little secret meeting with President William,” he began. “You know, Jason’s dad. By the way, Jason’s fine somewhere out there.”
“Then why the cloak?”
“Knowledge of the generals is a very sensitive topic,” Red said. “It has no bearing in all-out attacks like when I fought Shirley and Zack, but for the most part it’s best to hide my identity, especially to the people of this country.” He took a sip of hot chocolate. “Remember what it took for me to get the trust of my 1000 bio-soldiers? I had to fight them. And even after that, I had to rely on them having control over the regular soldiers because those guys had doubts about me until I was able to defeat two generals. How the hell do you think I’d be able to control an entire country if they found out that I’ve just barely turned 18 years old?”
“So how did you talk to the president, then?” Catherine’s beverage was coffee and she decided to take a sip while she waited for Red’s response. “You had a cloak, sure, but if he heard your voice, it would’ve been game over.”
“I’d whisper stuff to Allen and he’d say it out loud. I tell you, it’s less troublesome than having Uncle William find out about me, because I’m pretty sure he would ask me a shit ton of questions before we could even get to the matter at hand if that happened.”
At that point, Catherine was chewing. “So what was so important that you had to meet up?” she barely managed to ask as her mouth was nearly filled with food.
Red was the same - he was chewing when he decided to reply - and he did not bother that his talking would get sloppy with his own food. “Uncle William was offering his private army to me. You know how I’ve already beaten two generals, right? Because of that, 1) he really believes in me; and 2) I’ve lost nearly half of my bio-soldiers. His private army has a number of really skilled specialists that would probably stand between a regular human and a bio-soldier, so he wanted to utilize that.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Everyone was against it, including me.”
“What do you mean why?” Red glared at the girl in front of her. “Right now the three of us generals are at a stalemate. Removing protection of the president is pretty much asking Nathan and whoever Gold is to attack us. Uncle William currently hides within the highest security that our technology has to offer, coupled with specialists trained their whole lives to surpass the regular human. Should anyone attack them, the opponent would be exposing themselves to an attack by us, and this is why we are separate from them. If these specialists were to join the Crimson Army, Uncle William and his family would be sitting ducks unless we take them in with us, Jason and all. But that would give the enemy a single target without the risk of being flanked. Plus, we have a certain separation is responsibilities that’s easier to pull off if we’re not under the same roof. You see, everything in the military aside from the president’s private army is under my direct control. I’m in charge of the military affairs, and the president is there to try keeping the people’s morale as stable as possible and providing a representative face while the generals rampage the hell out of the world. We can’t afford a merge in those two powers right now.”
“So you spent all that time just bickering over a merge in forces?”
“No, that was the easy part,” Red replied. “Various intel was exchanged, but it’d be too much of a pain to tell you the details. The main highlight is still Uncle William’s offer, and while we did end up rejecting it, I offered a condition for the whole thing: If one of the other enemy generals somehow dies, putting me against either Nathan or Gold, we’re gonna have to pull out all the stops. If he has the courage to do so, he will have to get out of his shell and fight with me. Of course, that’s only if something big happens.” He groaned. “Right now I really don’t know how we’ll resolve this whole thing with all armies unable to do anything, and I’m not sure whether to feel relieved, pressured, nervous, or what.”
“That’s some pretty complicated talk.” Catherine took a glimpse at Red eating with his cheeks puffed. “I can’t believe you’re the same Red from before...”
“I’m not. I’m the Blazing Monster now, remember?”
“But you still puff your cheeks the way you always have,” the teenage girl said, pointing her fork at him. “You still have the memories of the games you loved before you turned into a general, you still don’t like adults who don’t see you as an equal to them, and you still refuse to fold your blanket, instead opting to spread it over your bed because it’s easier.”
Red laughed. “Good job noticing all those little things. Anyway, I have a busy day ahead of me. I’ll be locking myself up in Chuck’s room discussing stuff until lunchtime.”
“Hm? You don’t usually do that. What’s up?”
“There’s this girl I wanna visit,” was Red’s simple reply as he finished his food and tidied up. “I’m leaving tonight, but I have to train in the afternoon, so I can’t play with you today. Anyway, see ya.”
Catherine narrowed her eyes in jealousy as she slowly took a spoonful of food. “A girl...?”
“A girl, huh? It’s probably Shirley.”
Anabelle was with Catherine and several other women doing laundry. While the clothes spun inside the washing machine, Catherine had asked Anabelle about what Red had said.
“Shirley?” Catherine repeated. “The Cerulean General? Who’s he going with?”
“Let’s see,” the older woman replied. “He doesn’t like talking about her, and this is just a guess on my part. You know how Red met the Emerald General because they both happened to be at Shirley’s grave at the same time, and that’s how he got additional reinforcements in the battle against the Ivory Army? If I recall, it happened during early October, and that time the kid sneaked out on his own. I assume he visited that place again when you appeared in front of us during late November, but that time he was with Allen.”
“So that was the ‘something personal’ that he didn’t want to talk about,” Catherine muttered. “He still can’t forgive himself for that?”
“He always turns into a mess when it comes to Shirley, and there’s nothing we adults can do about it.” The washing machine’s sounds stopped. Anabelle and Catherine opened the lids of the machines in front of them and started taking out the clothes inside. “Say, how about you go with him?”
“Huh? Well, I guess that’s a good idea, but wouldn’t he have already arranged a group to join him?”
“He would never do that,” Anabelle replied. “He’s a general and he knows military priorities. Visiting Shirley’s grave is something personal to him, so he would never dare to take others with him, or at most he would only bring one person.”
“What reason could I give in order to force him to take me along, though?”
Anabelle started squeezing the water out of a T-shirt and smiled. “Who would you rather be with: 500 bio-soldiers or a kid who was able to defeat 1000 of them?”
11:45am, inside Charles’ room.
The old man was sitting in front of a small table that was situated at the corner of his room. Behind him, sitting on the floor and facing the opposite direction, was a teenager with crimson eyes. Both of them were looking at several papers that were scattered in front of them.
“I can’t say this enough,” the old man said. “I am really impressed. Raids are very risky because small units have to infiltrate a country with a general living in it. By volunteering yourself at the forefront, you’ve alleviated the risks of forming a Raid Unit, and your last mission ended well. With the deaths of the politicians in that area, communications have become significantly unstable as of late.”
The red-eyed general groaned. To his right were several papers with his signature on all of them, and scattered in front and to his left were several charts and reports that he had gone through in great detail. “I can see that,” he replied. “But why can’t I find anything in these papers related to ‘that’?”
Charles, from having his hands move wildly over the papers on his table, suddenly stopped. He heaved a sigh as he said, “It’s only because there is not enough evidence to suggest that. Even a circulating rumor would have been enough to spur some form of discussion, but so far only you believe in ‘that’ theory.”
Red groaned louder this time. “It’s just way too stupid!” he blurted out, pushing away several papers in front of him and scratching his head. “Seriously, think about it: At some point in this war, the presidents, in some way or another, were able to confirm their own safety and assure that they’re doing their best to protect the people. Everyone except Graham.” He put his hands forward and shook them when he said his last sentence to bring emphasis to that point, though Charles could not see it. “We even had stupid press conferences for that. But the bastard only speaks hidden in a screen, and even now the people are wondering if he’s actually alive. And then there’s the other end of the spectrum: the Golden General hasn’t shown up. Ever. Even at the expense of losing bio-soldiers at Nathan’s hand, he is adamant at not showing himself. Graham is the Golden General, I swear.”
“As you’ve said that same thing over and over again, allow me to repeat myself as well.” Pushing the table to give himself more space, he sunk into his seat and held his head. “Even now I’m trying, but try as I might, I cannot think of any motive for Graham to do what he’s doing if we assume that he’s the Golden General. Volitionally hiding his 2-in-1 identity brings nothing but instability; there is no trade-off for something worth losing the trust of your people over. It’s just plain old illogical. A better theory would be that the president is not on good terms with his general, and so he is trying to conceal that weakness.”
“Grrr...” Red could not stop his growl. “No, I’m not buying that. He’s supposed to be a genius, or so Uncle William told me because when he went to study in their country, he was one of his professors. Something as weird as this situation is probably some form of grand plan that only he can possibly comprehend. He can’t show himself because he’d either have to expose his eyes or introduce who the general is. When the war began, all the other presidents did this whole “introduce the general” thing, although most of us were cloaked.” He clenched his fists. “But Graham didn’t. He disappeared and went into hiding immediately, with Gold never showing up. Graham is Gold, and he has something up his sleeve that he plans on showing at the last possible moment: when he finally reveals who he is.”
“But like I was saying, what is it?”
Red’s hands were on top of his head, pulling his hair in irritation. “I swear I’ll figure it out!” He soon calmed down and collected the papers he had pushed away. “So, are we done here? I’m pretty sure I’ve sent you enough papers and discussed enough stuff to last me a few days.”
“Indeed you have.” Charles got back up on his chair and turned around to face the teenage general. “You spending the entire morning with me...you’re gonna disappear again tonight, aren’t you?”
Red turned his head towards Charles and grinned. “Yep.”
The old man heaved a sigh. “Is it that girl again?”
Red started standing up. “Again, yep. I’ll be back the day after tomorrow, but I took care of my other work in case I get delayed. Since we’re in a temporary period of ‘peace,’ I figured I’d give Shirley a visit before something big happens.” Leaving the papers on the floor, he made his way to the door. “Anyway, see ya, Chuck.”
“Wishing you the best as always, Sir Red.”
The teenage general opened the door out of the room, and as he exited he saw a girl sitting on the floor right across him, her back leaning on the wall as she read a book.
The girl noticed Red’s presence and raised her head. “Oh, hi Red. Take me with you to Shirley’s grave tonight.”
Red took five full seconds to stare at Catherine, who was answering his look with an innocent expression decorated with a smile. He then made a sharp turn to the left and headed for the cafeteria.
“Hey, Red! Wait!” Catherine instantly tried standing up, but she fell on her knees midway. “Ouch! Red, help! I got cramps from sitting here for too long! Also, I swear I didn’t hear anything that you talked about inside that room!”
Red abruptly stopped. He turned around, walked back until he was in front of Catherine, and sat on one knee with his back facing her. She was still sprawled on the floor.
“What’s that?” the girl asked.
“Can’t you tell? I’m gonna give you a lift.”
“Piggyback,” the boy repeated.
“Can you turn around for a bit?”
Red did as he was told. What awaited him was Catherine making a pout as she stretched her hands out.
“Carry me like a princess.”
Red’s eyes narrowed.
“...” Her hands were still extended towards Red.
The boy rolled his eyes, eventually putting his arm around the girl in front of him. “Fine, fine. Do I have to call you ‘Your Majesty’ or something while at it?”
Catherine giggled and wrapped her hands around Red’s neck as the boy lifted her from the ground.
“Nah,” she said. “I’m happy enough just like this.”
As Red walked to the cafeteria with Catherine lying down in his arms, he felt a tug on his shirt.
“What is it, Cath?”
“I was just wondering,” Catherine said. “Would you have been able to carry me like this before you became a general?”
“I’m pretty sure I could,” Red replied. “Although it wouldn’t have been as easy as it is now.” Heck, come to think of it, I actually gave you a piggyback ride while a bullet was inside my body.
12pm, Crimson Base cafeteria. Red, Catherine, and the other soldiers have gathered to have lunch. The two teenagers were sitting across from each other. The red-eyed boy was giving a rough summary of what he had done and was planning on doing before leaving that night.
“So yeah,” he said, concluding his story. “Basically, to summarize: In the morning, give Chuck my reports, sign some stuff, and discuss the overall state of affairs of things. In the afternoon I’m gonna train with the guys, have dinner at night, and then leave by 7pm.”
“And you’re taking me with you,” Catherine insisted. “Stop evading the issue at hand.”
“Why should I bring you with me?”
At this, the teenage girl grinned. “I was just thinking, you see. Where would I be safer: In a base with 500 bio-soldiers, or outside with someone who was able to defeat 1000 of them? I think it’s a no-brainer.”
Red bit his lip in annoyance. “You’re good,” was all he managed to say before he continued eating.
“I can pack your stuff while you’re off training in the afternoon,” Catherine said. “It’s the least I can do. What should I bring?”
“Just some extra clothes should be enough,” Red replied. “You can bring some snacks if you want. Oh, and we’ll be spending the nights in trains the entire time, since staying in one place for too long is pretty risky. So yeah, if you don’t like that, you can still back out.”
Catherine shook her head. The two of them were finished with their meals. “I’ll go prepare my stuff. You can take a short nap and I’ll wake you up when it’s time for your training.”
Red stood up. “Damn,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but having you around is actually turning out to be really convenient.”
The teenage girl in front of him smiled and replied, “Why thank you. I assumed you got drained by all those hours talking about formal things with Charles, so yeah, you better get some rest. Your things will be ready by the time you’ve finished your training.”
“I guess I’ll take you up on that offer, then. Thanks.”
7pm, right outside the Crimson Base. Red and Catherine were holding onto the straps of their backpacks as they were seen off by a few bio-soldiers and women, including Victor and Anabelle. Rose was also there, asleep in her mother’s arms.
“Bye bye, Rose,” Catherine said, bending her knees a bit to put her face closer to Rose as she waved a hand to her. “I’m gonna miss you, even if it’s only for a couple of days.”
“Take care of yourself out there, okay?” Sharon said in turn, after which she placed her index finger on her chin and raised her head. “Then again, Red’s with her, so I guess safety shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I have a better send-off message,” Anabelle said, turning Catherine’s attention to her. She continued, “Give us girls some good gossip once you return, okay?” She winked, and the other women giggled. Catherine laughed with them, but her face started showing signs of blushing.
Meanwhile, Red was talking to his division commanders.
“I’m counting on you, guys,” he said.
Victor, remembering how he had betrayed his comrades the last time Red went to Shirley’s grave, found himself unable to respond. Seeing this, Allen stepped up. Pounding his chest with his fist, he confidently declared, “You can leave the base to us! We’ll be ready to welcome you back any day!”
The boy with red eyes laughed. “I wasn’t talking about that,” he said, much to the surprise of the men around him. Maintaining his grin, he clarified, “I’m talking about the games. I’m expecting you guys to finish them by the time I get back.”
The division commanders looked amongst themselves and laughed nervously.
“Well, it’s pretty hard, actually...” Felix said, scratching his head.
“I haven’t even done half the quests...” came Roger’s voice that was coupled with a chuckle.
At this, Red heaved a sigh. “You guys are useless.” Moving a few steps forward, he reached out his hand and tapped Catherine’s backpack, saying, “Let’s go.”
Catherine, who was lightly running her hand over Rose when this happened, let go of the baby and turned around.
“Okay,” she replied.
With everyone waving their hands at each other, the two teenagers headed off.
Red and Catherine were sitting beside each other inside a train. The teenage general was wearing a sleep mask over his eyes as he dozed off in peace, while Catherine was still wide awake, facing the window next to her to the right, looking at the darkened scenery that swept by her. With her sleep mask resting on her forehead, she turned to the left to look at her sleeping companion.
She frowned at what she saw. “How can he sleep like that without having his head fall off?” she began saying, confident that Red would be unable to hear her. “I wonder if I can adjust him a bit...?”
Red was sleeping quietly, his body stiff straight as he embraced his backpack. Catherine extended her right arm and placed it gently on Red’s left shoulder, putting the tips of her left fingers on his right temple. Keeping her breathing as slow as possible, she pulled Red by the shoulder towards her, and made sure that his head tilted as softly as possible to the right. With a sparkle of success in her eyes, she leaned her head on his shoulder and the teenage boy’s cheek proceeded to rest on her hair.
I can’t be too happy about this, though...she told herself. It seems that no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to share in his pain. In the end, he’s just too far away, like he’s in a different world now...
She snuggled closer to Red as her head slowly slid a bit on the boy’s shoulder. She then began remembering a story that the women in the base had told her a few days ago.
The story of Red and Shirley.
The battle between Crimson and Cerulean.