5-1: The Third Teenager
January 31, 8pm.
The teenage boy could not believe it. He and his family had rushed to the Crimson Base after hearing the news of the Emerald Army’s crushing defeat. All he knew was that he would soon be meeting the Crimson General who was out at the moment; he did not expect that once the doors opened and he emerged from the group of soldiers, what would stand before him would be the friend he thought had died.
He slowly walked forward with his hand dangling in the air in disbelief.
Meanwhile, Catherine had a big smile plastered on her face as she stared at Red, wondering what the boy’s reaction would be.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but aren’t you going to go say hi to Jason?” she asked. Her smile soon disappeared, however, when she heard Red’s first reaction:
“Oh crap, things are moving way faster than I expected.”
At this mood-ruining comment, Jason’s hand dropped and he wondered what the boy with blood-red eyes meant. They were finally reunited, two best friends who found worthwhile companions in each other when they both considered everyone else as useless nuisances. They were two loners who had found each other and were on their way to forging a long-lasting friendship...that is, until that very friendship was supposedly put to an end with a single bullet.
Red was alive, and the joy in Jason’s heart at finding this out rendered him at a loss for words.
So why wasn’t Red happy?
Why did he not reciprocate that joy of being reunited in the middle of this war?
He soon realized the reason behind Red’s reaction when his father, President William, stepped in and approached the crimson-eyed boy first.
“Oh my, you were actually the Crimson General, boy?” he said. When he was finally standing in front of Red, he took his hand and shook it firmly with both of his hands. “I won’t make any stupid remarks on how someone so young could possibly be the General of Fire that took down two armies, because your achievements are enough to speak for themselves. I came here as per the agreement, Mr. General.”
Red nodded. “I originally wanted to prepare beforehand and personally issue the orders to retrieve you and have you escorted here, but with the sudden turn of events, I guess it can’t be helped. I’m sorry for being absent upon your arrival, Mr. President. I’d like to arrange a meeting as soon as possible, preferably right now if that wouldn’t be an inconvenience on your part.”
Taking his hands off of Red’s, President William smiled. “You really are the same Crimson General that I’ve been holding meetings with. Looking at you like this, I never would have thought of it. Anyway, I agree; let us be on our way.”
Lightly tapping Catherine’s head, Red proceeded to walk towards the base. When he passed by Jason, who was still dumbstruck at the sudden turn of events, he grabbed his shoulder and briefly whispered, “I didn’t want to meet you like this,” before passing through the door and disappearing with the soldiers.
Soon, the only people left were Jason and Catherine.
“Yo, Jason,” Catherine began with a slight wave of her hand. “Don’t worry; he’s like that towards me as well.”
“What’s up with him nowadays? He seems like a completely different person.”
“It’s a pretty long story. Hmm...” Putting her index finger on her chin, it took her a few seconds to continue. “Tell you what: Let me put my stuff back and let’s talk here in the grass. I doubt Red will finish his meeting anytime soon, so let me fill you in on what he’s been up to lately.”
“Cool. I’m in.”
It was 8:30pm outside the Crimson Base, on the grassy riverbank where the inhabitants would every now and then take a stroll for some fresh air. At the moment, two teenagers were talking with each other there as they sat on the grass: Jason, the Crimson General’s best friend and the son of the president, a boy poised to have a leading role in the new age when the Global Unification War is over; and Catherine, the person at the center of everything the Crimson Army does, the girl whose survival is the main driving force that pushes the Crimson General to fight. While both of them held great value just by existing, they were, at the very core, just two normal teenagers who couldn’t do anything as far as the war was concerned. They were unlike their friend, the boy named Red, who had just turned 18 last week. Red, the monster known as the Crimson General, was an active, pivotal existence during these times. He held power, his actions changed the course of history, and right now he was in a meeting with high-ranking adults to talk about yet one more big event: the final battle.
The two teenagers Jason and Catherine had nothing to do with what was going on at the moment, so they were simply outside, talking to each other.
“I see, so you found out...” Jason said as he looked up at the night sky with a sigh. “I assume it wasn’t Red who told you everything, though.”
“It wasn’t,” Catherine replied. “I’m pretty sure he was ready to take that secret with him to his grave. Oh wait...” Yeah, that’s right. Considering how he had no idea he would survive after the events of that night, he really was prepared to take it to his grave.
“...I’ll let that one slide.”
Catherine made a nervous giggle. “Sorry. But anyway, tell me: None of us expected that Red would survive, so why did you still hide the truth from me? You don’t have any feelings for me, and I’m sure you wanted me to realize how much Red cared about me. There’s nothing in it for you, so why didn’t you just tell me?”
“Because Red told me not to.” Jason’s response was flat, with no hesitation in its delivery.
“Red’s word is all I need. I trust him completely, and besides, think about it: If I didn’t honor the last promise I made with him, what kind of friend does that make me?”
Catherine bowed her head. “Yeah, I guess,” she said after a while. “I’m sorry I asked such a stupid question.”
Jason nodded, and what followed was a few seconds of silence, where the two teenagers were each trying to figure out what to talk about next. Red’s meeting was bound to last a lot longer, and there were many more things for them to talk about, but they stayed silent nonetheless. That is, until Jason took the initiative to speak up eventually.
“Judging by how you’ve talked about him and what you two have been up to lately, I assume you’re…in love with him now?” he decided to ask. He had been thinking about that for a while, and thought now was the best time to bring it up.
The question took her aback, but she knew she couldn’t deny it. “...yeah,” Catherine said, bowing down with a weak smile.
In response, Jason looked at Catherine while lightly brushing over his hair. “Then what’s up with that?” he asked, nodding towards Catherine’s hair.
Catherine did the same and picked up a few strands of her own hair, confused. “What’s up with what? My hair? I didn’t dye it or anything...”
“I’m talking about the length.”
“Oh yeah, it’s gotten pretty long, hasn’t it?” Catherine smiled, letting the strands in her hair fall one by one as she continued, “Well, I had no idea what length Red likes the most, so I’ve been letting it grow and trying different hairstyles while checking his reaction.” She blushed, amazed at how she was able to talk about these things in front of the person she used to be head-over-heels in love with. “I know, it sounds silly, right? I haven’t gotten anything favorable, though. Maybe it’s because he’s just too busy with his work...”
“Nope, it’s because he likes it short,” Jason cut her off. “I know it’s pretty bad to bring this up, but look back on June 28.”
June 28. That was the day Red confessed to Catherine via a letter. That was also the night when Red risked his life to protect her, leaving Jason, who had no idea about the plan to turn Red into a general, with a deep sense of grief. It was the day of Red’s “death,” so it was a topic that was generally avoided and not even entertained in their minds.
“The newly-cut, short-haired version? I had no idea.” By the time I was taken in by the Crimson Army, my hair had grown past that length. And then I only let it grow out from there...at the rate it was going, I never would have figured that out.
“I don’t know what he wrote in that letter, but here’s something I do know that you probably don’t: That letter had existed several days before he actually gave it to you.”
“...several days? You mean-”
Jason nodded. “He was so scared of how you would respond that he procrastinated, to the point where even I was frustrated. But then on June 28, you cut your hair, with the exact hairstyle he’s been really crazy about. When he saw you that day, he figured he could gather enough courage to finally go for it.” He let out a brief laugh. “Seriously, you should’ve seen him whenever your hair was like that; he’d freeze up and make this weird squeaking sound before looking away in embarrassment. It’s pretty funny.”
Upon hearing this, Catherine let out a slight giggle. “Wow, that’s pretty cute.” Her smile then faded. “To think that this war has changed him so much in only half a year...it really pains me just thinking about it.”
“Hey, no offense, but have you considered that maybe those feelings...” Jason paused, trying to sound more sensitive. “…might not be legit?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, couldn’t it be just because he’s, you know, the Crimson General? All eyes are on him now like he’s some sort of legendary, chosen hero and all so, you know...”
Catherine fell silent, which made Jason worried.
“Hey,” he said, sounding apologetic. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to question how you felt. It’s just that, so much has been happening, and, well, we all could become vulnerable and get carried away with our feelings.”
Finally, Catherine spoke up. “I know what you mean,” she said, sounding a bit ashamed of herself. “Actually, yes, I have been thinking about that.” Catherine clenched her fists. “I think about it a lot. I mean, how could someone not admire him? I was moved by his selflessness, and I’ve come to admire him for everything he’s done. I’ll admit: I never saw him in that light before. If there’s one good thing this war has done, it’s highlight how amazing Red really is.” She felt really proud of Red, but she couldn’t shake off the idea that Jason may be right. “He shines brightly like a hero from some fantasy story, but once the war ends,” she continued weakly, “there’s no telling what will happen next. The moment the new era begins, he’ll lose the battlefield. He won’t be the world’s strongest fighter anymore, and I doubt he’ll get to return to being just a normal high school student either. I keep wondering if I just feel this way because of the war or because he’s doing all of this for me, and not because I love him for who he is. I mean, he’s changed so much from this war, I’m not even sure who he is without it. There’s no telling what’s in store for him, and I could very well fall out of love as fast as I fell in love with him...and that scares me.”
Scratching his head, Jason probed further: “And it’s not like Red really loves you, either,” he said. “He fell in love with you primarily because of two things: 1) you’re really pretty and hard not to like; and 2) he’s never been close to a girl before, so you approaching him holds a lot of meaning in his mind. Although he knows a lot about you because he tried his best to let you open up to him, in the end it all comes down to those two points. But even then, there’s no denying that he’s pretty crazy about you, whether or not his feelings are for real. You could say he’s misguided, but the fact that you’re still alive and that the Crimson Army is still standing just shows how far he’s willing to go for you - in a weird, hopeless romantic way, I might add - so I can’t really complain. I just hope you’ve realized that.”
Catherine puffed her cheeks in annoyance. “You don’t approve of me, do you?”
Jason chuckled in response. “Hey, I’m just worried,” he said. “Red’s a really caring and selfless guy; for sure you’ve seen firsthand just how much. He has a tendency to forget about himself, so if he’s gonna go out with someone, I want that person to really care about him, too. After all, he’s my best friend. I just want him to be happy.”
“Well then, what if I asked for your help this time around?”
“Just like how I went to Red to know more about you, could you help me get to know more about Red? How about it?”
Jason smiled a bit while shaking his head, picked up a nearby stone, and threw it into the river in front of them. “Heh, screw you.”
“I figured you’d say that,” Catherine replied with a smile as she threw herself backward onto the grass.
Jason’s response was clear to Catherine: If you’re gonna need my help, you’d be automatically disqualified.
“Besides,” the teenage girl continued, “I don’t really want him to reciprocate my feelings, anyway.”
“Yeah. I just...I just wish I could have a chance to redo everything that I screwed up on, even though I know that things will never be the same again. I just can’t forgive myself for everything I’ve put Red through, and so if I could just turn back time and fix things so that he didn’t have to get hurt so much...”
“That’s some really wishful thinking, but who wouldn’t want that? Still...” Jason paused for a while, organizing his thoughts before deciding on what to say next with a smile. “I’m just happy that Red’s alive right now. We may not be able to do anything during the war, but we can be there for him, to walk alongside him in the new era once he beats the Golden Army and puts an end to all the fighting.”
Catherine nodded. “Right.”
“Speaking of being there for Red,” Jason suddenly said, sliding his palms against each other with a sinister smile on his face. “I just thought of a great idea.”
Catherine tilted her head, but Jason refused to say what was on his mind.
9:30pm, outside the Crimson Base. The two teenagers Jason and Catherine had long since left the place, and this time someone else was sitting on the grass.
It was Red.
The meeting he held that involved his five division commanders, President William, the personal guard that arrived at the base with the president, and several other high-ranking officials had just ended. He was sitting outside for some outside air and some space to think. While at it, he was throwing stones at the river, making them bounce multiple times at the surface before sinking.
He heaved a sigh and his chest felt heavy.
“Those bastards, ganging up against me just because they finally have the president on their side...” he told himself, throwing another rock into the river. It bounced five times before sinking down into the water.
Just then, he heard the sound of the entrance to the base opening and he turned his head sideways; he didn’t bother to turn his entire body to see who it was, and the movement of his head was simply a gesture to let that person know that whatever he said was directed at them.
“Can’t sleep, Cath?”
Catherine, giving a start at Red calling her out, ran to where he was and sat on the grass beside him. She was holding a bottle of juice that was about two-thirds full and she handed it over to Red.
“You want some?” she asked. “Oh, and did the meeting end just now?”
In response, Red blankly grabbed the bottle. “Yes and yes,” he replied, taking several sips of the juice before handing the bottle back to Catherine with the contents barely over half now. “Thanks. That meeting exhausted me more than fighting. Sitting still and listening to useless pleasantries, formalities, and an organized but really slow-paced series of dialogue just isn’t my thing. It was way better back when I was in complete control and fewer people were with me; I’d just go like ‘Talk about this for a while’ and then after some time I’d declare my decision and that was that. None of this ‘Our agenda for this meeting is this’ crap. I could have ended that meeting in less than half the time it actually took, and that really gets to me.”
Catherine looked away, rolling his eyes in disbelief. You probably just think and organize ideas in your head too fast. Same goes with those bio-soldiers you’re so used to working with. Then, shaking off that slight thought, she returned her gaze to Red and said, “That’s just how different everyone is. President William’s offering you direct help anyway, so the least you could do to repay his kindness is to put up with him, right?”
“Right, right, fine,” Red said in response as he heaved a sigh.
“So anyway, what were you talking to yourself about? Something like you being ganged up on like you were being bullied...”
“Oh, that...well, you see...” Red scratched his cheek with his index finger and laughed. “You’ll probably be on their side if I tell you.”
“You can’t say that for sure,” Catherine replied. “What is it?”
“Fine. They want me to sit back during the upcoming fight. You know, like how a ‘proper general’ should be.” He used both of his index and middle fingers to indicate the quotation marks in what he said. “Who’s to say what’s proper and not? Shouldn’t the criterion be what works and what doesn’t? I’ve taken on hundreds of soldiers at once in the battlefield with relative ease; why bench me out now when we’re so close to ending this war?”
“...you’re right,” Catherine said, making a thinking gesture.
Red was taken aback at this comment. “Wait, what? I’m...right?” He briefly slapped himself before saying, “You agree with me?!”
“I mean, come on, what point is having a formidable fighter if he doesn’t fight? While I’ve never seen you in a real battle, I’ve at least seen you in practice, and you shine brightly while fighting. This whole time during the war, you’ve done nothing but train hard to become stronger as a fighter. It was all for this moment, right? So I understand your frustration.”
Red picked up a stone and threw it straight at the river, making it sink as soon as it made contact. “But they have a point, I guess...” he began saying. “The fact that me dying means an automatic loss still remains as a point of concern, and being in the frontlines increases the risk of that happening.”
“But you wouldn’t throw your life away just like that, right?” Catherine asked. “You’d be careful not to let that happen. You would do that because you value your life, if only for those who treasure you. People are counting on you, so you can’t afford to lose. You’ve trained hard not only to fight, but to be smart enough in the battlefield to avoid putting yourself in a dangerous position. That should be enough reason for you to go out there, right?”
Why is this girl so intent on making me fight? I expected her to be more protective. “Of course I’d be careful,” Red replied. “But you never know what can happen. I might get cornered in some trap, especially since we still don’t know what the Golden General is capable of. While I think the decision to prohibit me from directly fighting is more on being a ‘proper general’ and less on actually protecting me - well, except for my division commanders who seem to really care about my safety - I can still see the merit behind it.”
“Then how about a compromise?” Catherine asked.
“...crap, did you actually come up with something worth considering?”
A grin crept on the teenage girl’s lips as she put up her index finger. “The fact that you’re the one at the top of military matters still hasn’t changed, Red. Here’s my idea: Let them protect you. Sit back and stay safe. But once you deem it necessary for you to step in - and I mean absolutely necessary, not just you itching to get some action - then you should have the authority to step in.”
“What’ll be the basis for that decision?”
“Your own judgment.”
Red smiled. “Interesting. Thanks for the tip.”
“No problem,” Catherine said before looking at her wristwatch. “Oh, look at the time. I’ll be off to bed. Are you gonna stay here to think about other things?”
“Nah,” Red replied. “I’ll go take you to your room.” He then stood up.
In response, Catherine stretched her arms out to him, with one hand still holding her bottle of juice as she said, “Carry me.”
“Don’t push it, Cath.”
She dropped the arm that held the bottle and stood up. “Hold hands?”
“You’re a persistent one,” Red said. “Look, Jason’s already here, so why the hell would you-”
Before Red could finish his sentence, Catherine quickly grabbed Red’s hand and pulled him towards the base.
“H-hey, Cath, are you even listening to me?”
“I’ll let go if someone’s around,” the teenage girl said as she slowed down her pace. “That should be okay, right?”
“...fine.” Red looked away to avoid having Catherine see his flustered face.
Meanwhile, Catherine’s face tightened as a grin of success found its way on her lips.
It was almost 10pm when Red was finally standing in front of the door to his room. As he held the knob, he heaved a sigh.
Those women, he told himself, referring to Catherine’s roommates. I didn’t think they’d stall me in their room for that long.
He turned the knob and pushed the door.
As he did, he noticed a small light from the side.
The TV is on...?
At that moment, he heard a familiar voice of a boy.
“Oh, you’re finally here, huh? I was just checking out your DVD collection and I kind of wanted to re-watch this show. It’s about to end, but if you have to sleep, I can turn it off right now.”
J-Jason...? Taking a swift scan of his room, he noticed a mattress situated on the floor beside his bed. This was where Jason was watching TV from, and he had tilted the machine slightly in order to see clearly from that angle.
“So uh, do you have to sleep now?” Jason asked. “I’m sure it must’ve been a tiring day what with you on the road until just a while ago, and then getting thrown into a meeting right after that.”
A smile crept on Red’s face as he entered. So that’s how it is, huh? He shook his head. “Let’s watch one more after this,” he then replied.
“Really?” Jason asked. “Don’t you have a busy day ahead of you?”
“Screw them.” As he said that, Red jumped straight into his bed. “I’ll go wash up during the credits and while you set up the next movie.” He recognized the movie playing in front of him as the first that he and Jason had watched when he stayed over at their place. “I didn’t want to meet you again like this, with me still fighting in the war and all, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see you. It’s been forever since we last hung out, so consider this as my own little welcome for you. Pick any movie you want after this.”
Smiling, Jason reached his arm out to Red, his hand curled into a fist. “I’m really glad that you’re still alive,” he said without moving his eyes from the TV. “I know it’s pretty weird to say this, but...welcome back, buddy.”
Letting out a chuckle so brief that he simply let out a breath and his shoulders twitched a bit, Red proceeded to form a fist and responded to the fist bump.