Genis was almost five years old when he realized - maybe not so finely worded, but he definitely felt it - that he didn't belong. He and his sister travelled constantly, scraping money and food together to survive and not do much else. They stayed in cheap, cramped inns and Houses of Salvation more for a brief protection against the elements than a place of residence.
Raine never really explained why they had to move so often, but when she tried it only left Genis asking more.
“The work’s too inconsistent.”
“It’s too close to the ranch.”
And sometimes, when she got frustrated by his constant questioning she would say, in a voice quiet yet so sharp Genis would stop pushing the subject, “I have a bad feeling about that town.”
It was honest, at least. But for awhile Genis had only assumed she was being too picky about everything and was making excuses for her fussiness and indecision. Work would be hard no matter where they went, and any large town would have a Desian ranch next to it. That's just how things were.
Eventually, though, despite his sister's attempts to protect him from the truth, he learned it was other people who kept them from settling anywhere. He and Raine were different, and to humans that was simply unacceptable. He saw how people glanced at them from the corners of their eyes, sometimes whispering to their companions of assumptions and rumours about those people. So they were given the jobs no one else wanted to do, if they were fortunate, usually labor in the fields, and they drifted with the seasons and as the work dried up with the land.
No matter how hard things got, neither considered selling the old books Raine always carried with her. Those were the only superfluous things they had to enjoy, and it was silently agreed that no one would ever take that away from them.
Genis did his best to forget their previous vagabond life, especially the times he'd cried that only embarrassed him years later, but there were a few events that stayed stubborn and vivid in his memory.
Bandits became more and more common on the road, and people rallied together into temporary caravans before going anywhere. There was safety in numbers and nobody cared to ask too many questions if you joined up.
As the adults prepared for the trek to the mountains, Genis milled around, not sure what to do until he glimpsed something small and brown ahead of him.
“Raine, look, look! It's a dog!” he cried, pointing to the mongrel resting beneath a wagon a few yards away. “Can I pet it?”
A woman loading up the wagon overheard him. “He'll be your new best friend if you do that, kid. Come over here, he doesn't bite.”
After he scratched the dog behind the ears, it refused to leave his side the entire time everyone else was occupied with securing supplies. The two wandered away, and Genis found a stick to throw and play fetch. The dog bounded after it, but when Genis tried to take the stick back the animal tightened its jaws and jumped away from him. Just when he was about to give up, the dog bumped its nose against his hands and ran in a tight circle.
Okay, if it wanted to play its own game, he could do that. He grabbed towards the dog's mouth and gave chase when it leapt away. He'd almost caught up to it when it turned sharply to the right. His feet tangled up underneath him trying to follow and he slammed into the dirt.
Immediately Raine was kneeling beside him. “Let me see,” she said, pulling him gently to his feet. She inspected the scrape on his calf and, seeing blood begin to pool, reflexively healed the wound.
“Do you know magic?” came from behind them. The siblings whipped around to see a middle-aged man staring at them. They knew him as a farmer who hoped to start anew somewhere else, and he was pleasant in the forthright, overly familiar way most in his trade seemed to always be.
Raine stood, placing a hand on her brother's shoulder, before she replied, “Yes, I do.” Her voice was calm as her fingernails dug anxiously into Genis’ skin.
The man looked the two up and down. The dog nudged at Genis’ hands again, oblivious to how frozen its new companion was.
The man's face lit up. “You must be elves! Oh, that’s amazing, I've never met one before.” He yelled to the rest of the group in the distance. “Hey, guess what? You'll never believe who we picked up!” Within a quarter of an hour, everyone was talking about what a pleasant surprise this was, and asking what the siblings could possibly do for spells.
“It isn't exactly a lie,” Raine whispered late that night. “We are elven, just not quite in the way they think.”
It wasn't as if she needed to justify anything to him. Besides, saying they'd simply never corrected assumptions fell to pieces the very moment they first introduced themselves as if they were full-blooded elves. He wasn't going to feel guilty about trying live just a tiny bit easier.
Once they did meet an elf, passing quickly through town the same as them. Elves were rarely seen, preferring to only interact with other people when absolutely necessary. It was often said that one would have trouble deciding which race kept more to themselves - dwarves or elves.
It wasn't the man’s clothes cut in a style so different to everyone else's, or how his hair was tied back to so openly display pointed ears that let Genis know he was an elf. The stranger could have been as nondescript as possible, and he still would have known. Years later, to Lloyd's and Colette’s inquiries, he tried to explain that sensing mana was kind of like how even if you closed your eyes you could still feel the size of the room around you. It was something he just kind of knew, even when mana affected individual people.
Clearly the elf could sense it too, because as he came near the siblings, he stopped and stared at them, as if it was so absurd that people like them could be in his presence.
Genis could have ignored it and potentially forgotten about it. But that expression made something hot flash up in him and he snapped, “What's your problem?”
“Genis!” Raine smacked him lightly on the back of the head.
The elf regained his composure, muttered “It's nothing” and continued down the street as if those few seconds had never happened.
Later, huddled in a room built for one that Raine was able to bargain, she reprimanded him for being rude.
“He was rude first!”
“He didn't even say anything.”
Genis’ emotions flared defensively again, and it took a moment to form words.
“He looked at us like we were dirt.”
Raine inhaled in that methodical way that let Genis know advice was going to be imparted to him, whether he wanted it or not.
“I know it's unfair,” she said, a brief pause making it clear she knew the words were inadequate. “People shouldn't blame us for our parents’ decisions. But lashing out never helped anyone, so we have to try and be better than that, and prove their assumptions wrong.”
It didn't make Genis feel any better, but he murmured “I guess” to stop talking about it. What Raine said made sense right up until you brought other living people into it. Tolerance didn't feel that nice if it came with caveats of a certain politeness level first.
Though the intensity lessened over time, the memory always made Genis a little mad when he recalled it.
They were with another travelling party, but Genis would have rather taken his chances against brigands and highwaymen than deal with that group of people ever again. The adults were condescending, they talked to him in the high voices usually reserved for placating toddlers. A man had actually said to his face, after a few had exchanged news of the world, “Oh, to be young and carefree again.” Like somehow this complete stranger could know his life and thoughts based on nothing but youth.
It was much easier to avoid conversation altogether, but it wasn't like he could fake shyness and attach to his sister. Raine spent most of her time with a young man close to her age, and Genis was absolutely, unspeakably bored.
She'd told him to study once the group stopped for the evening, but he knew when he was being distracted so she could get some alone time. He was fairly certain he'd spent the better part of an hour staring at the trees, others voices faint background until a woman spoke directly to him.
“And where are you and your big sister headed?”
Genis was so eager for anything that wasn't physics he ignored the tone. “Nowhere in particular right now,” he answered. “We're just travelling.”
“And how long has she been a teacher?”
“Um… she's only made me do what's in her old books. She's not a teacher.”
“Really? She's old enough to do it, and so smart!”
Another woman spoke up. “I heard Iselia was looking for a new schoolteacher, no harm in asking for a job if you've got nothing else to do.”
He shared the information with Raine once she came back from wherever she and the man had gone. She gave it a few minutes thought before agreeing it was worth trying. It couldn't possibly be worse than pulling weeds and wilted crops from sour, cracked fields, after all.
“What are you going to tell him?” Genis asked.
Her voice was brusque. “We both knew this was only temporary and we'd part ways soon enough.”
It's all she said of the young man, but Genis knew she kept a memento from him carefully in her bag and, like the books, would never be parted with.
The first thing Lloyd said to Genis was “I've never seen you before, did you just get here?”
Genis turned to see a boy, a few years older than him, dressed in bright red clothing and carrying a paper bag from the Halo shop within his arms, standing in the road.
“I've lived here for a week now,” he said dryly. He had no clue why this stranger was talking to him and there was no guarantee he was going to be here a month from now, so he saw no point in communicating beyond basic replies.
The boy walked up to Genis, undeterred. “I live outside Iselia, and with school out I haven't been here in a while.” He stuck a free hand out in front of him. “My name's Lloyd. Nice to meet you.”
The handshake was hesitantly returned. “I'm Genis. My sister Raine is going to teach here soon.” There was a brief pause as Lloyd practically wilted at the thought of having to study again, then Genis asked, “I heard the area around here was dangerous, how do you get here every day for school?”
“Oh, that's easy! I have a dog that comes with me.”
Lloyd had then taken Genis to the village entrance to show him a green-and-white-furred monstrosity. Even the guardsmen noticeably cowered from it, though it only panted in the sun.
“What is that?”
Lloyd patted the creature’s shoulder, beaming. “This is Noishe! He's my dog!”
This guy is so weird, Genis thought. He said, “I've seen a lot of dogs - a lot - and I have never seen one that looks like that.” Definitely there had never been a pet big enough to possibly carry the two children, no problem.
“Oh.” Lloyd looked at Noishe, processing this for a moment before he smiled again. “Well, that's cool, right? It makes him unique.”
Yeah, he's super weird.
“You should tell Colette about what kind of dogs you've met, she loves animals.”
Talk to the Chosen One, saviour to the entire world, about a few puppies he'd seen once? This had to be a joke, right? But the human boy still looked so simple and earnest, maybe he'd really meant it. Genis felt like he had no choice but to say “Sure.”
He hadn't planned to make a best friend, but Lloyd was never much for plans anyway.
Even as a child, Colette was almost preternaturally kind. Genis heard rumours around town that as the Chosen she was the daughter of an angel, which made a small amount of sense. But the more time they spent together, and the more he saw her stumble and be so careful to say just the right thing that's expected of her, the more he realized her goodwill had nothing to do with what was in her blood and everything to do with how she'd made herself.
Everyone heard how the Journey of Regeneration was dangerous, and the trials Martel put her chosen through, but Lloyd and Genis still made plans for all things the three of them would do once it was over. Colette would have a chance to be normal as anyone else in the village, the two boys could finally teach her to swim and they could do all sorts of things that had once been considered too dangerous for her. Somehow they'd childishly assumed sacrifice wouldn't happen to someone they knew.
Genis became easily bored and distracted during class, and though he did try to be quiet and still, Raine still managed to pick up on his moods. She consulted Phaidra for advice, on a day Genis spent outside with Lloyd and Colette. The three were so completely encompassed in their play of running around town that Genis forgot his nervous energy until he returned home. Almost immediately after stepping through the door, Raine steered him towards his bed and motioned him to sit. She wasted no time in telling him.
“There's a school in Palmacosta that would be more academically stimulating for you. Arrangements could be made if you want to go.”
He didn't even attempt to hide the displeasure on his face from her. “I'd rather stay here.”
“You don't have to decide right away.”
Genis shrugged. “It'd be easier, though. Plus, I'm pretty sure I've done enough travelling for five lifetimes by now.”
“Alright then,” Raine conceded. She moved to her desk to work, now that a decision had been made. “I didn't think you'd leave your friends behind, anyway.”
Truthfully, it wasn't even close to the first thing on his mind. He really hated the idea of moving to another city, especially away from his sister who'd always been by him, but…
“Yeah,” Genis said softly, smiling to himself, “I guess there's that too.”
Colette and Genis were with the other village children one afternoon when somehow they started talking about the town's non-aggression treaty. Lloyd had already gone home for the day, so missed the entire debate.
It really started when someone asked, “So Desians are half-elves, right?”
One little girl piped up, “My mom says it would be better if they'd all just died off during that ancient war.”
Another boy asked, “If they're so bad, how do they even exist in the first place?”
Well, when a man and a woman love each other, sometimes… Genis thought. Outwardly, he said, “There's humans in Desian ranks anyway, so it's not like it matters.” At the inquisitive stares he muttered, “It's in a book Raine gave me.”
The other children clearly didn't believe him or thought this fact much less interesting.
“I think Genis is right.” Colette at least came to his defence.
“But you and the professor are elves, right?”
“Yeah, yeah! You guys are okay!”
He stayed silent and waited for the conversation to finally drift onto something else. It was an overcast day when he learned not belonging went beyond being a physical obstacle.
While Genis enjoyed visiting Lloyd's house, the boy and his father were very nice, he hated getting there. It wasn't the feral creatures that roamed the woods, those were easily avoidable and tended to run away if you hit them hard enough. No, what got to him was the proximity to the human ranch. Even after years, he still wasn't used to it. Disgust rose in his throat at the general cruelty of it, and how Iselia tried to pretend it didn't exist, but there was also something that he couldn't quite grasp, though it felt a lot like shame. Like somehow people could look at him and Raine and say “You're cut from the same cloth as them, we've decided as such.”
Everyone was supposed to avoid the place, but because a giant wasp’s nest and several wild cats blocked his regular route, Genis had gotten lost and suddenly found himself approaching the ranch’s west side.
Looking up at its high walls, he already had one foot held back to turn and leave as quickly as possible. But then a small bit of movement shifted his gaze from the roof to the ground. An old woman sat with her back to the fence and woods, temporarily out of anyone's sight.
Genis froze. The sensible thing to do was go back the way he'd come and leave her alone. Obviously she was able to sneak away from the work, maybe she'd be fine, considering the circumstances. But she was old, and looked so tired, and Genis knew he had extra food no one else would miss.
The sensible thing to do would be to pretend he hadn't seen anything. He looked behind him then back to the fence.
Then again, the sensible thing wasn't always the right thing.
He ran towards the woman, and changed everything.
Joining Colette on her journey was almost like the old days, though the dream of “Things will be better once we get there” felt much more tangible.
When everyone escaped to Tethe’alla, the mana in the other world was so strong, it seemed like he should have been able to taste it. Standing atop that mountain, it fully struck him how completely drained Sylvarant truly was. The colours in the second world seemed so much brighter, and the towns were larger than he thought possible. He'd almost considered it beautiful in its own way, until they spent more time there and saw just how entrenched the lines of demarcation really were.
They'd gotten definitive proof the Goddess Martel did not exist, but Genis felt there had to be something pulling the strings of the universe, likely with a warped sense of humour. Otherwise it seemed a bit absurd that he could just happen to keep meeting people he could oh-so-coincidentally connect to with their individual plights.
Sheena took awhile to warm up to, especially with Raine constantly wondering if the turn to their side was a grand con. Soon, though, it's like the woman had always been with them. Genis asked her constantly about magitechnology and what was different in Tethe’alla, anything books or Raine didn't already know. She laughed at his enthusiasm, but she never talked down to him when she answered as best she could. She could laugh so often it was hard to imagine she'd carried her past actions throughout the journey together without anyone suspecting.
After the pact with Volt, Genis felt he had to say something. He took care to talk privately because he knew there was a chance he'd screw up his intentions, and sure enough, he fumbled and started multiple sentences while Sheena stared at him.
Finally he managed to spit out, “I don't really know how you and Corrine were connected, but I know what it's like to lose a friend, so…”
Her chuckle, broken and soft, interrupted his condolences. “Did you want to ask how we met?”
His tombstone was going to read Death By Awkwardness, he was sure of it. “I'm sorry. I'm not very good at this.”
Sheena assured him it was fine and, while the two sat beneath the shade of a tree, shared how Corrine became her first summon spirit. Things between them felt closer to normal following that. Genis recounted the conversation to himself many times, trying to figure out how that had somehow worked.
Well, he'd helped someone and it hadn't ended horribly, so life was looking up, apparently.
Zelos was… honestly, he still thought Zelos was a bit of an ass, but the man had moments where his persona fell and Genis got a glimpse of a different person.
Once, during a battle, Genis had been busy with casting when suddenly Zelos yelled to watch out and yanked Genis behind him. Before he could snap about his concentration being broken, Zelos’ sword clanged against an eggbear’s claws right where Genis’ head was a moment before. Zelos shrugged it off as nothing special, and Genis joked about the guy being good for something after all, but it was hard to forget actions like that.
Tethe’alla’s Chosen was a pervert, and abrasive to deal with, but he was also frank about how he'd learned wrongful stereotypes all his life and was willing to change now that he'd met two half-elves. It counted for something, at least.
He desperately wanted to know more about Presea, but she was so quiet, it was hard to tell if any progress was ever made. Often she was passive and withdrawn, and then without warning she could do something like ask him to hold still and adjust his rumpled clothing in the morning. When that had happened, his emotions were equal parts freaking out because she was standing so close to him , and annoyed; he wanted to say he already had one sister, he didn't need another. After only a moment she realized what she'd done and looked away in embarrassment, so he let her be. She'd only technically come back to herself after years of experimentation, to her it probably felt like only yesterday she'd done similarly with Alicia. It was the least he could do to put up with her fretting if it helped her adjust.
There had been one evening the both of them were in an inn’s lobby that he tried to get closer to her. He’d been on a bench studying the work Raine still assigned her former students, and Presea sat by the fire, focused entirely on carving a round owl figure from pine.
What he'd wanted to say was “How'd you learn to do that?” because he thought it would be neat to learn and possibly make her a gift like the bear she'd given him, but words didn't always come out right around her so somehow from his brain to his tongue it transformed into “What was growing up like?”
Presea stopped what she was doing and stared at the fire briefly. “I don't really want to think about the past right now,” she admitted. She turned to him and asked, “Does that make sense?”
“I think it does,” he replied, and left it at that. He wasn't so self-centered that he was willing to take her words and twist them around to be being about himself.
She nodded and returned her concentration to whittling. He'd understood, in his own way, what she'd meant. That was enough.
Regal was a soft-spoken and unobtrusive person despite his size. Genis ended up learning a lot of recipes from him when they'd set up camp. It would have been all too easy to say the man had killed someone, therefore was untrustworthy, but Genis would have been a massive hypocrite if he'd tried to do so. Regal was also kind, and he took full responsibility for the blood on his hands.
They never talked about it, but it did sit between them, silent and unquantifiable. It was oddly comforting to know someone else had also experienced the world being harsh and complicated.
Though most of their secrets were known by then, Genis still liked to have moments where only he and Raine talked about things, like they'd done years before. Somehow it never went the way he thought it would.
He only wanted to say it seemed like the longer they went on, the worse things showed themselves to be, yet Raine would talk of the improvements she saw, small as they were, as if she'd miraculously forgotten how it felt to be shackled at the wrist just for being born.
He knew it wasn't her fault, he liked seeing her happy, but he stopped initiating the conversations anyway. They usually left him more jumbled and confused than before.
When had this gap even formed? At what point did it stop being the two of them against the rest of the world? They'd lived the same lives, experienced the same hardships. So how had she learned to hope in something while he found it harder and harder to do so?
It felt like things had been a lot less confusing when he was younger, and he had no idea how to talk to her about it anymore.
Meeting Mithos was like a breath of fresh air, and yet another reminder of what he'd been missing. For once he had someone who understood every petty and spiteful thought he'd never admit to having.
The relief was short lived. The more time he spent with Mithos the more he squirmed and fidgeted, thinking he didn't want to talk about this anymore.
In a way, the other boy’s passion was understandable. Mithos was older and experienced hatred longer, he'd lost his family (once Genis contemplated what it would be like if he lost Raine and stopped after only one terrifying minute), and, based on Presea’s stories, Ozette was a terrible town to be on the fringes of.
But Mithos’ tirades began to feel a lot less like mutual understanding and more like speeches.
Humans were selfish and occasionally cruel, he knew that. It was part of the things he didn't want to remember. Yet there were times as Mithos spoke Genis remembered little things of people he'd encountered, and he thought of the ones he'd journeyed across countries and two worlds with, and considered, right but perhaps individual humans could be okay.
Only once had Genis interrupted.
“Do you think… maybe, that you could like everyone here?” He asked as gently as he could without cowardly avoiding the subject entirely.
Mithos stared at him, expression firm. “No” was all that needed to be said for Genis to know something within his friend would never change.
He sat by the river, lost in thought. He didn't want to look at Heimdall, lovely as it seemed, and be reminded he wasn't welcome there either. Human towns didn't want him around because he was different, and the one place he'd ever found of elves was even harsher. Was it any wonder Mithos had turned out the way he did if even his birthplace rejected him? Genis, for better or worse, had never felt that kind of betrayal.
Reflections off the water caught the exsphere on Genis’ hand, and he stared at it for a moment. He almost literally held Marble’s life in his hands, the legacy of everything she'd told him she'd done (and the thousands of things she'd never gotten the chance to share) all leading to protecting the boy who'd helped kill her. He hoped if some awareness of hers was still in there that she appreciated what everyone was fighting towards. Maybe she'd say she was proud of him, she'd seemed kind enough to do something like that despite his mistakes.
While he was going down this path of thought, he fished around his pockets and pulled out the crystal he'd stolen away. He held it out to the setting sun’s light as well, turning it slowly in the tips of his fingers. Marble had died in confusion and agony, which had been Mithos’ doing. He was angry, of course, at knowing all the suffering his friend had caused - how someone could not only stand by while that happens for so long, but also conceive such plans for some attempts at peace was unfathomable. Yet there was also a cold pity beneath the disgust, for how Mithos never saw a chance to change his goals and perhaps better uphold Martel’s wishes.
It’s sad, Genis thought. All those decades and centuries of living, and it just becomes a sliver of energy in a stone smaller than my palm. And now I've got more blood on my hands.
Suddenly the sun felt too bright and burned his eyes. He shoved the Cruxis crystal back in his pocket and wrapped his arms around his knees. He knew the worst thing of this whole situation was that people had died, that their deaths should be tragic and awful regardless of his connection to them, but right now he only wanted to admit these losses hurt. What was the point in dropping his guard and getting attached to people if he was just going to ruin all of it later? He didn't want to do it anymore, it would probably only end with him feeling naive and stupid again.
He dropped his head onto his knees and concentrated on breathing past the lump in his throat, so that he wouldn't think about anything else.
Eventually Lloyd came by to talk and Genis was able to vent a bit to him. It didn't absolve him of his problems, but having Lloyd listen did help at least get some of his thoughts in order. Colette also sat by the river to a while. She didn't say anything but she placed her hand over Genis’ for a moment. He couldn't guess why she'd done it, maybe it was another way of saying sorry, maybe it was something more positive, but when she stood up to leave he still smiled and thanked her.
At dusk Raine came to get him. It was going to be a long day tomorrow and everyone needed to be well rested in preparation, she said. He sighed at being treated like a little kid who needed a bedtime, but still accepted the hand she held out to help him stand. As they walked to the house, he caught sight of the others on various paths making their way to the same place, and he couldn't stop the tension he'd held in for hours from melting away.
If today was about being honest with himself, he could admit one more thing: He didn't think he could willingly start a relationship with anyone again, certainly not in the near future, the vulnerability required was too difficult. But he'd already forged bonds and made comrades in arms, it would be a lot of wasteful work to break away now. They'd all proven themselves horribly tenacious, anyway, chances of them leaving him alone were slim. He could learn to keep faith in them, at the very least.
Saving the world was strangely anticlimactic. The days kept going as they'd always done, which was the point, but still a bit hard to process.
In bits and pieces, usually by candlelight flickering off the walls of their home, Raine and Genis started making plans. They couldn't just sit back and wait for others to magically change, there was still a lot of work to be done.
One night, Genis confessed, “I think everyone has the capacity to do terrible things, regardless of how they're born. But… I don't want to just give into hate. I really, really don’t.” He chewed at his lip, trying to word this properly. Raine waited patiently. He continued, “I think if I didn't even try to help change things for the better, I wouldn't have the right to complain about anything. So I want to do what I can, for as long as I can.”
Raine sighed, and looked around the room.
“We'll have to pack our things,” she said.
In a way, it was like nothing changed from when they'd first arrived in Sylvarant. They still had bags weighed down with meager belongings and only hope to sustain themselves. But they send out letters to those who can help, and note on maps where lands and towns may now intersect to someplace familiar.
They had a home they could return to, and friends they could trust, and that made a wonderful amount of difference.