A/N: This story is the result of something quite unusual. Normally, I don't do prompts or challenges at all. I'm not good at being creative 'on demand', and either I have a very distinct idea straight away, or I won't have one at all. And I hate 'forced writing'.
Most prompts I came across so far just failed to create such an instant image on my mind, until I stumbled across a challenge by a DA community that was – for some inexplicable reason – different. What was the prompt, you ask? Well... 'scarf'.
Oh, I can see what most people would instantly come up with here. But as you all know, I'm not that kind of writer. Not usually, at least. So my instant idea had nothing to do with kinky stuff. Not even with romance. It was much more... innocent.
The result is this. A simple story. The plot could be summed up in one or two sentences. Consequently, it's mainly a 'mood story', which is why it took me an insanely long time to get it halfway right, although I tried everything I could possibly think of to help me. I kid you not: I got up at five in the morning and went outside into the snow, just to see what it was like (I didn't last long though...).
In addition, it has something in common with my last one-shot "The Smallest Things". Both stories play with a very subtle and 'personal' variety of symbolism by revolving around things and actions that are not symbolic by default, but gain such a deeper meaning to the characters involved due to personal associations. Too complicated? Well, it's actually very simple... You'll see.
Additional notes for reading: As I mentioned already in the summary, this is set during the Infantry days, shortly after the two protagonists joined the Shinra Army. This would make them about 14 (Cloud's age when he first appears in Crisis Core). I firmly believe that every member of SOLDIER started his career in the 'normal' Army first of all. Just like in real life, you (usually) don't join a special unit right away.
As for the eye colours mentioned here (brown and green respectively): No, I didn't get them wrong. In my writing, there is a 'colour-change-theory', meaning - in a nutshell - that it's the influence of Mako that changes the eye colour into a shade of blue (with Sephiroth being the obvious exception from that rule). More explanation can be found in some other stories (like "Fragile Bonds").
Oh, and the opening quote is from "Forever and Always" by Bullet for My Valentine. Don't ask, it was just too fitting. (However, it's not the 'soundtrack' for this story. That would rather be "Dante's Prayer" by Loreena McKennitt – although parts of the lyrics sound more like CC timeline.)
Warning: Symbolism! And emotions. That's all :)
Dedication: Actually, this story could be dedicated to a lot of people. I'll say a bit more about that at the very end. However, first and foremost it goes to a very dear and special friend of mine, who is currently struggling with lots of difficulties on all levels of life. Without her demand, this story would have never been written.
Chibipinkbunny, this is for you. I know life can be hard and unfair and devastating, and the temptation to simply give up on things that cause you nothing but trouble and pain is often irresistibly strong. However, I know that you are stronger than that.
Hang in there!
The time is here again,
Prepare to be apart;
And it drives you crazy…
The sky had the deep blue colour of a velvet curtain, not yet lined with a promising glow from the east. Outside, the light from a single lamp post fought a constant battle against the darkness, dimmed by the masses of snowflakes seemingly drawn to it like bugs in a clear summer night. Summer... that seemed an eternity away, not just a few months.
Angeal sighed. It was one of those nights that had been far too short, but still seemed endless. And he longed for it to be over, despite somehow dreading what would follow. There was a strange, almost nauseous feeling in his stomach, most likely caused by anxiety, not by anticipation.
What lay ahead of him in those dark hours of the early morning was nothing less than his first major challenge since passing the entrance exams for the Shinra Infantry. More precisely, the very first assignment he would ever take part in. Older soldiers never got tired of pointing out that it wasn't such a big deal, jokingly referring such tasks as 'PG-rated' or 'kiddy missions', but Angeal had heard enough stories and rumours to know better. Even though Shinra policies explicitly stated that every member of the forces under the age of sixteen had to be kept away from frontline duty as far as possible, it was never a guarantee that things couldn't turn ugly or dangerous in a matter of seconds. This was the army, after all, not a holiday camp. And any first assignment, no matter how minor and unimportant it seemed, was a necessary requirement for being promoted to Infantryman. Therefore, most recruits of the Shinra Army actually looked forward to it. Even tiny steps will eventually take you somewhere, and the path to becoming a hero was paved with small duties.
He could see his reflection in the hallway window. A boy, on the very verge of becoming a young man, in a standard light blue Infantry uniform. His eyes appeared black instead of the actual deep brown, the same dark colour as the strands of hair that framed his face. Angeal couldn't remember ever wearing his hair that long, and just a few days ago, he had – in passing – pointed out that he really needed to get it cut. His best friend had looked at him for a moment, with the same kind of evaluating glance he would cast something – or someone – he was trying to draw, and then stated with the determination of an expert: 'I wouldn't worry about that too much. It suits you, you know...'
Despite knowing that he needed to move on, that it was neither smart nor helpful to drag out the unavoidable, he could not resist stepping closer to the window and putting his hand on the smooth glass surface. The window pane was partially covered in a delicate frost pattern, forming tiny complex lines of ice. So cold. So frail.
"Genesis, this is childish."
The glance he got in return was the equivalent of getting caught in a blizzard. It stung, just like tiny particles of ice hitting your face with merciless force. "I am childish? Well, if it seems like that to you, then maybe you should stop being so damned parental."
"You know that's not what I meant. I was just trying to say - "
"There. You are doing it again. Do you honestly think I can't even figure out the meaning of a few simple words without you giving me a lecture about it?"
His breath was fogging up the glass, but not enough to block out the sight of the endless dark blue sky and the vague shapes of the ground below it. The landscape looked like something out of a dream, unreal, just like this whole situation. He kept trying to tell himself that this annoying light-headedness was just the normal result of lacking sleep, but neither that nor a cold shower had made it any better. He felt feverish, irritated, uncertain and worried, all at the same time. A mixture that was sickening, like eating too many sweets.
"I really don't think this has anything to do with performance. You are not less capable than any of the recruits assigned to that mission. Someone simply has to stay here and guard our back. That's a responsible and important task, too." He took a deep breath. "Besides, it's about time we get used to it. After all, we want to make it into SOLDIER, and that implies being sent on missions a lot, and most likely not together."
Genesis didn't reply. He stared straight ahead, and if Angeal hadn't known him better, he would have accused him of not even listening.
He had never understood how a person so full of fire could be that cold at times. So oddly out of character, even if the icy silence seemed to require some sort of passion as well. Still, it was a trait that didn't seem natural, something Genesis had developed at some point for some reason, and just recently perfected.
He tried it one last time, in more direct words: "Those are orders, Gen. Whether you like them or not, you can't argue with them." Stepping closer, he carefully tried to put his hand on his best friend's shoulder.
To his surprise, Genesis backed off almost violently. With a glance that was burning, but eradiated nothing but cold, he spat: "For Gaia's sake, how can a person as intelligent as you be so awfully dense?"
And without another word, he had stormed out of the door and left Angeal standing.
The memory caused a dull pain in his chest, like a barely healed wound. Being friends for almost nine years, they had of course argued before, and Genesis had been slamming the door shut more than once. However, this time, Angeal could see no reason for his behaviour. He understood very well that Genesis was upset about not being part of that mission – hell, he would have felt the same if it was the other way around – but that did not explain why Genesis had to take it out on him. It was as if he blamed him, as if it was his fault, when sheer logic as well as Angeal's own conviction insisted that he had done nothing wrong. So why this completely unjustified anger? Why this jealousy? For the love of the Goddess, it was not like he appreciated this decision...
"Gen, I don't like it either. Even if I said those are orders, and orders need to be obeyed, it doesn't change that fact that I hate leaving you."
"Do you think I'm so incapable? That I can't survive one minute without you? Newsflash: you can stop worrying about me right now, and start worrying about yourself instead. After all, I know more about being alone than you do."
Genesis hadn't really spoken to him after their big argument, apart from this statement last night before he had turned around and pretended to sleep. If the tossing and turning had been any indication though, he hadn't slept any more or better than Angeal himself.
He resisted the urge to sigh again. So many things had been on his mind this night. Even though he couldn't help feeling annoyed by this undeserved treatment, he also knew it was just not like Genesis to be so unfair, so inconsolable, and so unforgiving towards his best friend. Maybe he was coming down with something, a cold maybe, hopefully nothing worse... Stop it, he silently scolded himself. You really sound like his mother, not like his friend.
Now it was morning, or at least close to it, and things hadn't gotten much better. Thoughts were still tumbling in his head, and trying to concentrate only on the next step, the next task, was not making things easier. Ever since he had woken up, Angeal had pondered over the question whether or not he should wake Genesis to say goodbye. Given the lack of sleep his best friend had most likely suffered, it would be almost cruel to do so, yet if he didn't, Genesis would interpret this as a huge breach of trust, or as a sign that Angeal was really mad at him. Not a good option either... Besides, this might be the last chance to make up and settle their stupid argument, but it was also a risk for making everything worse. He had no idea what to do, what to decide. Mercifully though, fate took at least this decision out of his hands.
Genesis sat on Angeal's bed when he returned, weary, a bit too pale, but already fully dressed and very determined. For a moment, Angeal expected his eyes to reflect the dim light seeping into the dark room from the hallway, in the same way the eyes of a cat would. There was a small glimmer indeed, but it remained cold and dull, a reproachful expression that gave away he knew what Angeal had been pondering about, and that he silently accused him of choosing the latter option, of planning to leave without a word. Under this silent scrutiny, Angeal picked up the greenish-grey piece of cloth from the end of his bed, and put it around his neck with the brief movement of someone fulfilling a necessary task without paying too much attention to it. It was cold outside, after all. While he reached for his bag and his rifle, Genesis got up from the bed with a single, fluent movement. They exchanged a brief glance, brown eyes silently inquiring what was wrong, green eyes denying the answer.
Angeal could have accepted his best friend's silence as necessary, since neither of them wanted to risk the amount of abuse that waking up any of their eight comrades sleeping in the same room would have caused, but he knew for sure there was yet another reason for it, an even more unpleasant one. No word, no whisper and not even a tiny smile in his direction indicated that Genesis was still in a bad mood. In addition, he had started to walk along the hallway with brisk steps, not even caring whether his friend would follow or not.
Although he wasn't too fond of reaching the end of the hallway anytime soon, Angeal forced himself to walk faster in order to catch up to him. Stealing a side-glance, he suddenly realized just how much Genesis had grown in the last months. He was still nowhere near as tall as Angeal – and most likely never would be - but he no longer looked like he was drowning in his uniform.
"Gen-" In the very last moment, he managed to swallow the intended additional syllable.
"Listen, Gennie - "
"I told you not to call me that ever again! I'm not a little boy anymore, Angeal."
When they left the barracks and walked unto the forecourt, the world seemed to hold its breath around them. Everything was slowed down, softer, calmer. The snow covering the ground reflected the harsh light from the lamp posts, transforming it into a more subtle, almost surreal glow, turning the dark blue of the sky into a deep grey with a soft pinkish hue. There was only silence around them, except the low sound of their footsteps in the snow.
The snowflakes were no longer creating a dense veil, but drifting down lazily like feathers. For a moment, they looked surprisingly much like apple tree petals in early spring. Hadn't it been only yesterday that they had walked through the orchards of Banora together? Angeal painfully realized how much he missed those innocent times, but he also knew with a sudden clarity that they were gone inevitably. Remembering Genesis' harsh words, he realized the truth in them. Maybe they were still children in the eyes of the world, but they both knew better. However, they were still walking beside each other. Deep in his heart, he hoped that at least this fact would never change.
Crossing the courtyard was like passing through a fairytale world, but the ever-present chill didn't quite fit the peaceful, surreal image. The cold of this early winter morning was biting with merciless, blunt teeth like an old but furious hunting dog. Genesis stared down at his feet. Brown army boots, sinking deeper into the snow with every step. Moving forward seemed to get more and more difficult, and he had no idea whether this impression was real or just a trick of his mind to explain something that was actually inexplicable. No, not 'inexplicable'... Unnecessary. Stupid. Childish.
One step after the other, consistent, concentrated. A mantra composed of low sounds and repetitive movements. Normally, he loved snow, and the sheer sight of a perfect white cover or weightless snowflakes never failed to fill him with an irrational, innocent happiness. On this very morning, however, his eyes were blind to the miracle of it. Or maybe his heart was.
It took Angeal a while to realize that there were other members of the army around, too. They were more like shadows than human beings, clinging close to the main building in order to avoid the cold and the snow as long as possible. It surely was the most sensible thing to do, but on this morning, Angeal didn't really feel like being sensible.
Looking behind, he could see the traces they had left in the otherwise immaculate snow cover. Two sets of footsteps, parallel, right next to each other.
Looking ahead, he realized that every path, even the main road leading away from the barracks had been swallowed up by the soft yet merciless white masses, and even though the snowfall was much lighter than before, it still affected his sight.
His throat suddenly felt blocked. And it didn't help one bit that Genesis was still strangely and untypically quiet. As far as Angeal knew, Genesis had never been one for the early mornings, but this time, he didn't look just tired or pensive, he seemed downright paralyzed. Frozen.
"Why do even unimportant missions always have to start at unearthly hours? An advanced form of torture, if you ask me..." It was merely a try to lighten the mood, an unsuccessful one, of course.
Genesis didn't reply. Trying to steal another glance at his face, Angeal discovered a strange, almost feverish gleam, and wondered yet again if the only thing keeping Genesis from being sick was his sheer will. He had crossed his arms in front of his chest, and although it could have been an expression of distance and indifference, it seemed more like a try to stay warm. His eyes were somehow watery, but Angeal blamed that on the biting cold as well.
"I appreciate your company, I really do. But you don't have to stay out here just because of me."
Again, Genesis didn't say a single word. Was the wetness in his eyes really just caused by the unpleasant chill?
By now, Angeal would have preferred another argument to this haunting silence, a biting remark, an unfair accusation, anything. With each moment that passed, taking another step forward seemed more and more impossible. Being separated from Genesis for the first time since they joined the Shinra Army together would be bad enough, but leaving an unsolved argument in addition was even worse. Angeal felt the weight of responsibility lasting on him, so heavily that he almost expected the snow to turn into quick sand and swallow him at any given minute. But he couldn't show any of that despair he felt. He just couldn't...
"Fair enough. But given the weather, you really should have dressed a bit warmer... Where's your scarf?"
Although this trademark part of a Shinra Infantry uniform had an official name, something serious-sounding and complicated, everyone referred to the grey-green piece of cloth worn around the collar simply as 'scarf'.
A haughty turn of the head was all the reply he got, and Angeal sighed soundlessly. They were standing close now, although neither of them could remember consciously stepping towards each other. Like rabbits in a cage on market day, trying to share the warmth, to savour the company, while waiting for an unknown fate.
"I hate it," Genesis suddenly proclaimed, full of passion.
"Hate what?" Relief, carefully hidden behind honest interest.
"The cold, of course," Genesis returned, defiantly. His eyes, however, said something different.
"Well, in that case, you should better go back inside."
"I guess so." But despite those words, he showed no intention to move.
A few more minutes passed in silence, until a truck appeared out of the snow. Seeing that the other soldiers were starting to move towards it, Angeal resisted the temptation to sigh once again. "Looks like I have to go." And Gaia knows I don't want to...
In this very moment, Angeal's heart tensed so painfully that he wasn't able to move at all. I need to do something. I can't just leave him like this. His first thought was to wrap his arms around Genesis, to pull him closer and to tell him everything would be ok, just like he had done so many times in the past. The desire was so strong, but the rational part of his mind insisted it was not an option.
I can't do that. Trying to hug him in front of all these other soldiers or telling him everything is going to be alright when I'm in no position to judge that would only damage his pride. I can't do that. I can't.
"Goodbye, Genesis." He didn't know what hurt more, not being able to do anything, or seeing that he didn't even get a reaction to his final words.
Are you really that stubborn? That unforgiving? Even now?
Genesis said nothing. He looked past Angeal in deep concentration. His glance was blank and hard, like the ice layer on a lake in early winter. At the same time, however, this cold was transparent, still thin and barely covering the surface. Below, one could clearly see the waves of dark water pressing against it. Too much pressure, and the fragile layer would give in.
Having decided that a short goodbye might be for the best, Angeal turned around and started walking. One step. Another one. Each movement increased the distance between them, as well as the dull, dragging pain in his chest. He tried his best to concentrate on what was ahead of him, not on what he was leaving behind.
Genesis hardly managed to avoid shaking his head violently. No, he would not show any sign of this weakness he felt. He wouldn't. He was stronger than this. Giving in to that emotion was so stupid, so childish. But resisting was... so not him. So not worth it.
Angeal handed his bag to one of the soldiers helping to load the truck, and -
He turned around, surprised, to see Genesis running towards him. Instinctively, he opened his arms, and felt the smaller boy clinging close to him right in the next second. A desperate racing heartbeat next to his own.
Even though none of the other soldiers was really paying attention, and even though they would have gotten away with such an obvious display of emotions due to their age, Angeal knew that this was in no way to be taken for granted. It was so much more than just a sudden outburst of helpless affection. Genesis had decided to bury his pride, at least temporally, for the one person he deemed more important than the increasingly defiant attempts to save his face. For him.
And then Angeal understood. All of a sudden, it was crystal clear, and he had no idea how he could have possibly missed it before. This is what it was all along... You were never really angry or jealous. It was just a mask, a cover-up. All this time, you were frightened, but determined not to show it.
'After all, I know more about being alone than you do.' Knowing that you are such genius when it comes to words, I should have noticed. That sentence was not meant as an attack, it was a very well hidden expression of your deepest fear. You were worried about me, knowing deep in your heart that I need you as much as vice versa. And you were scared of being left behind, of being alone once again. It is so obvious. I really should have noticed...
For a few more heartbeats, they just held on to each other. This moment needed no justification, no explanation. It had all been said between them in a language that required no words at all. And even when Genesis' arms let go of him, his eyes refused to.
"It's only five days," Angeal finally said, still feeling guilty for not being able to offer more comfort.
"I know, I know..." Genesis' voice suddenly trailed off. There was this gleaming in his eyes again, the water finding a crack in the ice surface and surging through mercilessly. "But five days equal 120 hours or 7200 minutes."
"And believe me, I'll be counting every single one of them, too. However, I know that we can do this. We both can. After all, we are future SOLDIERs."
The ghost of a smile appeared on Genesis' lips, and he wiped away the first treacherous signs of tears with a determined gesture. Looking up at his friend, the hardened expression in his eyes suggested that everything was ok now. He would have fooled everyone else, but Angeal could now see right through that facade of strength, and even though it lasted only for a second, he caught a glimpse at what was behind it.
Almost gentle, he reached out for his friend's hand. Despite the low temperature, Genesis was not wearing gloves, and Angeal could feel the cold of his hand even through the fabric covering his own. "I will come back."
Another brave smile, a slight nod, but still a shadow of doubt. This was the kind of promise that had to be sealed, to be validated. And a shouted order in the background told Angeal that he didn't have much time left to do so. Without really thinking about it, he took off his scarf, and held it out to his friend.
Genesis backed off immediately and shook his head, as if Angeal had offered him something far too valuable to accept.
"Don't worry, I have another one in my bag. You know me, always prepared for the worst case." For a second, he expected that Genesis would continue to refuse, but then he actually lowered his head, so Angeal could gently place the scarf around his neck.
Their eyes met again, and Angeal realized that the harsh cold had been replaced by a calm determination. The face of a child, but the knowing expression of a grown-up.
"You know what that means, don't you?"
"That I don't want you to freeze to death?"
"No, silly." Genesis looked at him, all serious. "It's a deal with fate. A bargain. Now you have to return, so I can give you your scarf back."
"Don't you think that's a petty reason?" He waited for that badly hidden trace of hurt to appear in Genesis' eyes, before he added: "Did you really think I would leave you alone deliberately? Well, newsflash: Not a change in hell for that ever happening. I might not constantly be by your side, but I will always be there for you. I promised, remember? Therefore, I will return. And after all, you are a bit more important than that scarf."
"Maybe. But just a little bit." Finally, there was this beautiful, warm smile again that Angeal had missed for the last few days. And to his own surprise, he suddenly didn't feel the cold anymore.
When the truck pulled off, Genesis just stood there, one hand pressed on the scarf around his neck like a silent promise, until he could no longer see the tail lights of the vehicle.
A/N the second – actually a second dedication:
"Love is missing someone whenever you're apart, but somehow feeling warm inside because you're close in heart."
This story goes to all the people out there who have been amazing and loyal friends in the past.
I have been desperate many times, I've felt lost, depressed and scared. Even though I often don't show those dark emotions, I have them, far too frequent for my own liking.
But whenever I felt like giving up, you were there for me. You gave me so much strength by just caring, just listening, just being there. In more metaphorical words: you put that scarf around my shoulders many, many times.
And I can't even begin to thank you enough.