4-5: What That Man Left Behind
“Oh, Red!” came the voice of a woman in her late twenties as she welcomed a crimson-eyed teenage boy with a huge hug where she one-sidedly planted his face onto her chest. “It’s been forever! How have you been?”
The day was January 31. After visiting Shirley’s grave, Red the Crimson General decided to go to this person’s house instead of returning to his base. He and Catherine were currently in front of the doorstep.
“Mffffggghhh-!” With his face completely covered in the tight hug, Red was unable to produce any intelligible sounds. Catherine puffed her cheeks in annoyance at this.
After gauging how much strength he needed to not hurt the woman, Red grabbed her shoulders and pushed himself away, gasping. “Dammit, you’re way too welcoming, Louise,” he proceeded to say.
Louise? Catherine thought. Why does Red know someone from this country?
With a blank, innocent expression on her face, the woman named Louise looked over and saw Catherine. “Oh, so that’s her, huh? The person you’re fighting for?”
Removing his hands from Louise’s shoulders, Red replied, “Yeah, that’s her. Her name’s Catherine.” He then faced his companion and used his hand to point at Louise. “This here’s Louise. She’s Nathan’s fiancée.”
“Nathan...?” Isn’t he the Emerald-
“Now now, come on in, you two,” Louise suddenly said before Catherine could say anymore. The two teenagers could clearly see that she was trying to avoid the issue, so they silently nodded and entered.
As they passed through the door, Red grabbed Catherine’s shoulder and whispered to her in a low voice, “Yes, she’s Emerald’s fiancée. There’s no way she’s okay right now. That smile is definitely fake, but let’s not pry into it just yet, okay?”
Catherine nodded, though in her mind she thought, Then why did we come here in the first place?
The house they were in was a small structure meant only for at most two people to live in. It was a place that was situated far from Nathan’s base and near the border to defeated Ivory Army’s country. Right now, Red and Catherine were sitting beside each other on a couch in the living room while they could see Louise a few yards away on the kitchen preparing beverages.
“If only I knew that you were coming,” she had said while they were entering the living room. “I’d have prepared something for you to eat.”
“We already ate because I knew that this visit would be too sudden,” was Red’s reply. “But if you insist, I’d welcome some tea.”
“Coffee for me, please,” Catherine followed up.
Hence Louise was away for a while.
At the moment, they could hear the distant sound of water being mixed with a spoon and Louise humming.
“Say, Red,” Catherine said, nudging her companion. “How did you become acquaintances with Louise? Did you meet her at the same time you met Nathan?”
“Oh right, you don’t know the story.” Red rolled his eyes up trying to decide on something, but then after a while he decided to shrug off the thought and simply said, “Meh, I don’t feel like it. Louise should be able to tell you about it later.”
“Hmph, fine.” She was ready to cross her arms in annoyance when a thought struck her and she spoke further: “Wait, one more question: Shouldn’t she be grieving right now? She seems really hyper considering, well...”
“That’s why I decided to come here, you idiot,” Red said, making Catherine even more confused. Upon seeing her expression, he continued, “Louise is a really strong woman. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for her to be so far from her fiancée, but she stuck with it, and when they did reunite briefly to visit Shirley’s grave at the same time as me last October, she was able to act completely normal. What’s more, did you know that despite being so far from the base, she’s pretty knowledgeable about the goings-on in her country’s army? And it really bothers me how she stays sane living alone while knowing the reality of war like this.”
Red heaved a sigh. “Dammit, Cath. Okay, allow me to spell it out: Louise is strong, but she’s human. I had a feeling she’d keep her strong front even when there’s no one around, mostly as a defense mechanism. After all, she only got the report that Nathan died, but didn’t see him with her own eyes. Looking at the way she’s behaving right now proves my point, and she’ll keep denying the truth until she breaks down in a dead-end wall of despair, so I figured I’d drag you here to help her shed some tears. After all, we won’t be able to get another chance to see her until after I deal with Gold.”
“I see...” She turned her head to look at Louise, who was now on the way to them with the beverages on the tray, and whispered to Red, “I’ll see what I can do.”
When Louise returned with the beverages and some biscuits, the three people in the living room exchanged information. Catherine talked about how she was taken into direct custody by Red during the Ivory General’s attack that killed her parents, how her being kidnapped sparked a direct Crimson vs. Ivory battle, and how she had been by Red’s side since. Red talked about the details of the battle against Zack, the night raids, and the current military strength of his army. He wanted to talk about his speculations on who the Golden General was, but he avoided the topic in fear of bringing up Nathan in the discussion.
When it was Louise’s turn, she started with telling Catherine about how she met Red, which was during the chance encounter between him and Nathan in front of Shirley’s grave back in October 8. When that topic was done, what she proceeded to talk about surprised the two teenagers. For one who was sheltered so far from the battles between the armies and despite the fact that Red knew that Louise knew the state of her fiancée’s army, she knew more than what was expected: Specific battle plans that both sides executed, the movement of merchants taking advantage of the chaos, and places in danger of being attacked, among other things. These were information that should only be known by high-ranking officials, yet she was aware of all of this.
“I have a lot of free time right now,” she justified. “I’m relatively safe in this place, so the least I can do as a citizen of this country is to get myself involved and inform those who need the knowledge. I have my sources.”
Red averted his gaze. She probably gets consistent intel from Nathan, and when the information stopped coming...
Perhaps Louise noticed what was going on in Red’s head, because she suddenly made a huge grin and changed the topic.
“Say,” she began, facing Catherine. “How is life in the middle of an army? It must have been hard on Red to take you in.”
“What do you mean?” the girl asked. She then faced Red. “Why would it be hard when being near you pretty much guarantees my safety?”
“If that attack on the capital hadn’t happened, this war would have ended without you ever seeing me,” Red said. “That much I can say with certainty.”
“What? But why?”
“Because that way I could direct you as far from the bloodshed as possible.”
Louise nodded. “That’s right,” she said. “Nathan had the same logic. It’s especially relevant because he was constantly fighting skirmishes against the Golden Army. It would be bad for me if they went out of their way to a place with a low population density such as this area, but chances are it won’t happen. Do you know why, Catherine?”
“I...don’t think I follow.”
“It’s because the enemies are also humans.”
Catherine tilted her head. Red rolled his eyes and sighed in response.
Smiling, Louise continued her explanation. “They may be out to kill others, but that’s only because they have people they want to protect. Think of Red as an example. Do you think he would strike at the heart of an enemy army if they could, in turn, send a unit to assassinate you?”
Catherine turned her head towards Red. “Would you?”
“Of course not, you idiot,” Red replied in a bored tone, averting his gaze. “That defeats the purpose of me being in this war.”
Catherine’s eyes briefly widened. “I see...” she said. “Everyone has people they hold dear and want to protect. They want to be in a position where they can defend those loved ones at all times. They are protectors first and killers second.”
Louise nodded. “It’s like ensuring the king’s safety in chess by making sure that there are pieces ready to protect it given the worst-case scenario. And come on, you should know the dangers of being so close to the center of military operations.”
Red took a sip of his tea, trying to avoid the topic, but Catherine knew. Louise was referring to the time when she was kidnapped, forcing a rushed showdown between Red and Zack where, if the teenage boy didn’t have that “deal” with Nathan the Emerald General, victory for them was not guaranteed. Either Catherine got killed, or Red pushed himself too hard and lost his life taking in too many enemies at once. He may be arguably the world’s strongest fighter, but just like any other general, he could very well die if the proper conditions were met. Worst-case scenario, both of them died and the people she grew fond of and spent many good times with would also have their lives put in danger.
“Allow me to go back to the question,” Louise said. “I’ve been pretty much trapped here since the war began, so I have no idea. How does it feel for the VIP of a country to live her days right in the middle of the battlefield?”
“It’s scary,” Catherine replied. “It would have probably been worse if I retained my consciousness while I was being held captive during the battle against the Ivory Army; I’m really lucky that I was completely knocked out for the most part. I’m scared of being targeted because I have no way of personally defending myself, and I can’t stand seeing people I know severely injured. I couldn’t forgive myself when I saw Red battered to near death, and I don’t want to see him like that again.”
Louise turned to look at Red, but the boy was bashfully looking away.
“But,” Catherine continued. “I think I’m lucky, and even despite all the fears, I still prefer being a part of the Crimson Army. I get to understand the reality of war, and seeing people go to extreme lengths for the sake of protecting their loved ones...it allows me to understand the value of life more deeply than if I was sheltered. Besides...” She sneaked a glance at Red. “The safest place in the world is definitely by Red’s side, so I’d say I’m really fortunate right now.”
Louise’s grin was huge and obvious as she held her cheeks. “That is the sweetest thing ever! You have such a great girlfriend, Red! Way to go!”
In response, Red briefly looked at Catherine before shifting his gaze to Louise. “She’s not my girlfriend, you idiot,” he said in an annoyed tone.
Louise turned to Catherine, but the teenage girl gave her an expression subtly suggesting that they avoid the topic. Louise picked up on this instantly and decided to talk about something else.
“Say, I think I need to go to the bathroom,” she said. “You two just make yourselves at home.”
“No problem,” Red flatly replied.
On the other hand, Catherine noticed from Louise’s expression an invite to join her. Smiling to show that she understood, she said, “I think I need to go as well.”
With that, the two girls stood up and walked away. Red blankly took a sip from his tea.
“This isn’t what I came here for,” he told himself. “How long will this woman keep up the act?”
The bathroom was situated just far enough so that Red’s enhanced sense of hearing was unable to pick up any sounds coming from it. This was because Nathan had intended it to be his temporary home with Louise after the war, and he wanted to preserve her privacy at least when she was there. At the moment, Catherine was standing outside while Louise was behind the closed bathroom door.
“All right, Catherine, it’s time for some girl talk,” Louise began. The source of her voice was lower, suggesting that she was sitting down. Despite Catherine thinking it was inappropriate to speak in that position, the older woman did not seem to mind. She continued, “You were reunited with Red in the middle of November, right?”
“Th-that’s right...” This doesn’t feel okay at all.
“As I told you, I met him on October,” Louise proceeded. “At that time, I was really worried about him. Anyone could guess that the reason he went out of his way to visit Shirley’s grave that time was because he still felt guilty over that battle, and it was a pleasant coincidence that Nathan decided on a whim to go there that day. Anyway, I asked the kid if he had anyone to support him during these trying times, using the way I’m pretty much Nathan’s pillar of support as an example. He said he didn’t have one, and you have no idea how happy I am to see you by his side right now. He may be an enemy, but when you look at everyone as individual people, it’s easier to understand: Red is just someone who wants to protect that which he holds dear. He may be someone who holds an incredible amount power, but if you compare that power to the sheer size of the world he has made an enemy of, he is small. He broke down as early as his first major battle, and when I first met him, there was no telling when he would reach his limit. That’s why I wanted him to at least have that one person who understands him and would hold him when he feels like there’s nothing left to live for.”
At this point, Louise could be heard standing up. The tap inside started running; she was washing her hands.
“I’ve been meaning to say this for a while now,” Catherine said. “You’re really sharp, aren’t you? It feels like to you, reading the minds of people and the circumstances surrounding them comes naturally. It’s a really cool skill, I think.”
“Oh come on, how else did you think I was able to catch the eye of the once-in-every-few-generations genius that was chosen to become the Emerald General?”
“But you’re really pretty, as well.”
Louise instantly smiled at this comment and she showed it to Catherine when she opened the door. “Aww, that’s really flattering! You’re so sweet, Catherine. Say, how about the two of us go shopping after the war is over? I can give you a lot of fashion tips.”
Smiling back in eagerness, Catherine replied, “Sure! I’ll be looking forward to it!”
Suddenly, from her carefree smile, Louise switched her expression to that of a serious one. “So, what can you say about my observations on Red?”
Remembering the topic at hand, Catherine appropriately removed her smile and thought for a bit before replying, “What you said was pretty much on the dot. I know how you feel about wanting Red to have someone to be there for him, and I’m trying my best to be that person.”
“Say, I can tell right from the get-go, but feel free to confirm this: Red is pretty suicidal, isn’t he?”
“What makes you think that?”
“He’s completely blinded by the war and all the bloodshed. He’s so focused on becoming a monster in order to protect you that he has no intention of becoming a man that will stand by your side.”
“He will shelter you and take all the pain for himself, and then when all this fighting is over, he will probably self-destruct. But it won’t matter because he’ll make sure that you will be able to return to your normal lifestyle, the life you had before all this ugliness happened.”
“You’ve thought about that, haven’t you?”
Catherine found the words hard to say. “...yes, I have,” she finally replied. “He’s way more than what he thinks he is, but I can’t seem to get him to realize that. He’s intent on calling himself a heartless monster, but all I see when I look at him is a human determined to protect those he holds dear and honor the lives of the ones who have fallen in his hands as much as he can. He’s such an amazing person, but he keeps underestimating his worth. I keep telling him that he’s no monster, but he just won’t listen.”
“Even so, you won’t give up on him, am I right?”
“Never. I promised him that I will always be there when he needs someone by his side, and I will keep that promise no matter what happens.”
“You really love him, don’t you?” Louise asked, crossing her arms and smiling.
At this, Catherine lowered her head and replied, “...yes. Very much.”
“And he also loves you a lot,” the woman continued. “Otherwise, how else could he have come this far? Well, anyway, that’s good. I love Nathan, and I made sure that I wouldn’t cause him any trouble while he fought for the country, but Catherine, you have what I don’t: a chance to be by the side of the one you love. You can talk to him, you can hold him...you can make him feel upfront how much you care about him. I don’t have that privilege...and I never will...Oh dear...”
Tears were starting to form on Louise’s eyes.
“He was crushed and buried alive,” Louise said with an uncontrollable voice as she continuously wiped her tears. She was back in the living room with the two teenagers and could not stop crying. Catherine was beside her, giving her an embrace of consolation.
Red kept his calm expression and he was visibly thinking about something with his arms crossed. “So it wasn’t really the multiple explosions but the insane amount of debris after that got to him? Can you give me the details? How much do you know?”
Taking control of her sadness for a brief period, Louise stopped sobbing and used her index finger to push away a tear in her left eye before responding in as normal a voice as she could, “What I know is limited to what was reported to me by those who survived, so take that into account.”
Taking a deep breath, Louise gave Catherine a single nod to tell the teenage girl that she was fine. Catherine removed her arms from her and Louise continued.
“It appeared to just be one of those usual skirmishes, but then the Golden Army dragged the fight on for longer than expected, and Nathan grew anxious of the situation, so he decided to personally join the fight. In the middle of it all, the soldiers said that the sky went black, and soon they saw buildings that felt like they were forcibly uprooted flying in the sky. At that point, they had no idea about the explosives. There was no time for everyone to evacuate safely, and the confusion that was inevitably rampant among everyone in the Emerald Army at that time didn’t help. Nathan took charge in getting the others to evacuate, and he stood right between his troops and the buildings. Little did he know that those things would detonate and, well...”
“They saw his corpse in the aftermath, didn’t they...?”
Louise nodded, holding back her feelings.
“Why do you try so hard to resist your tears?”
“I guess a guy like you wouldn’t understand,” Louise said, forcing Red to raise an eyebrow. Turning her gaze to Catherine, she then gave a weak smile and followed up, “...but you’re much too young to understand as well, Catherine.”
The two teenagers looked at each other. Catherine shook her hands in the air in a gesture that says “I got nothing,” so Red turned back to Louise.
“Care to explain?” he asked.
Placing her left hand over her belly, Louise replied, “I’m connected to this little one. I have to be strong for his sake and live Nathan’s portion while at it if I want him to grow up happy and strong. Because he and I have this connection, he’ll know if I break down, and I don’t want him to be sad as long I can help it.”
The eyes of the two teenagers widened. Catherine’s face instantly formed a smile and she eagerly placed her head near Louise’s belly, hovering her hand over it, while Red stayed frozen.
“There won’t be any kicking just yet, but you can feel free to touch,” Louise said. “Oh, and I say ‘he,’ but I’m not really sure if it’s a boy or a girl. I’d be happy either way.”
“How long has it been?” Catherine asked, taking up Louise’s offer and stroking her belly that did not have any visible bulge just yet.
“A little over 6 weeks.”
Red’s arm was partly outstretched towards Louise’s direction, his hand awkwardly floating in the air, unable to believe what the woman had just said. “You...you’re p-p-preg-”
Taking Red’s hand, Louise gently pulled him towards her, putting it right over Catherine’s hand that was resting on her belly. “Red, remember: whatever happens, life goes on. Everyone is bound to die at some point, but the will and legacy they have left will live on in those left behind to push towards the future. Do you understand what I’m getting at here, Red?”
“Don’t be so hung up on wondering whether or not what you do is right. You’re searching for answers to your questions in your own way while forging your own path to the future, albeit fairly more forcibly than most others. But still, rest assured: no matter what happens, nothing you do is meaningless. Especially since the path of death that you’ve chosen has probably given you an answer to the meaning of life, though it may be different from what I’ve seen.”
Red nodded. “It’s because we arrived at the answer from different roads, but yeah, I get what you’re saying.”
Catherine had no idea what the two were talking about at this point, so it felt like they were communicating in some kind of incomprehensible code.
However, it was all clear to the boy with blood-red eyes.
You’ve killed many people, Red, but no matter how stained by blood your hands are, there is meaning to that. And humanity will move on no matter what, so don’t dwell too much on how you’ve taken people’s lives in order to spare those of others. The human race will be fine. This was what Louise meant, and Red understood that.
Furthermore, while these two discovered it in strikingly different ways, they both personally understood the value of life: Louise by conceiving someone with life, and Red by seeing with his own eyes how quickly a person’s life could end.
In the end, Red gave up on making Louise let her feelings loose.
She’ll be fine, he thought to himself.
Two hours later.
“Louise is so awesome,” Catherine said as she and Red sat beside each other on a train bound for their country. “She’s insanely smart and perceptive, she’s really kind, plus she’s so beautiful. It’s like she’s the complete package. I really admire her now. And I can’t wait to go shopping with her after the war is over! She’s just so perfect! Don’t you think so, too?”
“Huh? Mm, yeah,” Red said, though it was clear that his mind was faraway.
Catherine’s expression turned to one of concern as she looked at Red deep in thought. She knew what the boy was thinking.
“You’re still concerned about what Louise said, huh?” she asked. “About the Golden General having telekinesis?”
“It’s because I was thinking the exact same thing before I asked about it,” Red replied. “Flying, uprooted buildings...there’s no other power conceivable to the mind that can pull that off. Most people would be misled by how the other generals had powers pertaining to the elements: fire, water, electricity, and wind. But who says that the general serum only gives elements? In the first place, no one even knows the conditions which determine whether a person injected with it would survive or not. Several exceptional people in their prime were all rejected, but when a teenage girl injected herself, she was accepted. In the same way, I wasn’t in the peak of my health when dad injected me with the serum - heck, I was actually dying back then - but I was also accepted. Zack and Nathan were ‘legitimate’ generals in that sense, but the discrepancy of how the serum picks its host should speak volumes on how we can’t assume things about it willy-nilly.”
“So you think it’s telekinesis as well?”
Red nodded. “And I don’t know how to combat a power like that if it comes down to a showdown between me and Gold.”
“Plus, there’s the issue of whether you can even be able to make it to him before he decides to pull out bomb-infested buildings.”
“Louise said the Golden Army dragged the battle out even when they were losing, and it should be clear by the sheer scale of the attack, but it obviously takes time for Gold to assemble his trump card. If I can break through before that happens...” Red let out a slight growl of annoyance. “But aside from that, we’re definitely short on info regarding the details as to how he actually pulls it off.” He heaved a sigh. “It’s a pain, but I’m gonna have to call a meeting to discuss this – plus a bunch of other issues – as soon as we get back to the base.”
“Well, we still have some time,” Catherine said. “We’re still pretty far away, so why don’t you relax for now?”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
“And while you’re resting...” Catherine looked down in embarrassment at what she was about to say next. “Can I...borrow your shoulder?”
Red looked away, blushing. “S-suit yourself.”
Due to the distance from Louise’s country to Red’s, the two teenagers were able to return to the Crimson base on the evening of January 31, two days after they left to visit Shirley’s grave.
Seeing no one at the entrance, Red smiled.
“Good, good,” he told himself. “Nobody dropped their jobs to welcome us.”
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“Nope. It’s good that they don’t bother with such trivial gestures.”
“I think it’s pretty sad, though,” Catherine commented. “Even if we did arrive way later than expected, it’d be great if someone said ‘Welcome home!’ to us.”
“Well, I didn’t tell them exactly when we’d arrive, so never mind that. Let’s go in and grab some food.”
After inputting his fingerprint onto the hidden sensor of the entrance, however, an alarm sounded as the doors opened. Not sure what to make of the situation, Red and Catherine stayed in place.
They could hear several rushed footsteps approaching them, so Red went closer to Catherine and whispered, “Let’s wait here and see if they have some sort of surprise welcome party prepared. We don’t want to ruin whatever plan they’ve come up with.”
The girl nodded and they waited. Soon, the division generals, several scientists, and a few bio-soldiers were lined up right outside the base in front of them. Catherine’s expression showed confusion and her head tilted here and there, but Red decided to withhold any reactions until, assuming this was an elaborate joke, the punchline was delivered.
Soon enough, he received the “punchline.”
From behind the group of familiar faces came a number of people that he knew but did not expect to be there, the most surprising sight being that of a boy his age.
Catherine smiled in delight while Red’s face showed genuine shock.
“J...J...” he tried saying. He was about to utter a name, but then he shook his head after a while and instead decided to simply say, “What the hell?!”