Episode 1: Kill the Hesitation
"Keep it close to you," the voice of the village leader echoed within Tatsumi's mind, "and God will help you in your time of need."
Lying utterly still in the arms of a sleeping Esdeath, Tatsumi turned the little statue over and over again in his hands. Tracing a thumb along the indent in its chest, he remembered with a certain fondness the way he and Akame had first met.
And he gulped when he remembered what his fate could have been if he had not been given the wooden lifesaver. No Night Raid, no training with Bulat, nothing. He'd be another one of the corpses in the ground, like the many that had been put there by the woman currently using him as her bodypillow.
Esdeath. What could she be thinking? Was it really possible that she had already developed feelings for him in such a short amount of time?
"It's unreal," Tatsumi muttered quietly, turning the idol over in his hands again. Sunlight streaming through the window finally reached his eyes, and Tatsumi winced. He thought back to the events of the previous night and remembered with frightening clarity the way she had advanced upon him.
That sultry look in her eyes, the fullness of her lips as she moved closer and closer…
Tatsumi gulped, clenching his eyes shut and trying desperately to both push those thoughts out of his mind and ignore the mounting excitement in his gut. He didn't have time for this, he couldn't let himself be roped in.
"She's my enemy," he thought. He repeated it in his mind again and again and again, desperately trying to create a mantra of hatred in order to maintain his focus. "Enemy, enemy, enemy, enemy…"
"If I didn't like you," her voice suddenly surfaced, "I wouldn't be doing this."
Without thinking Tatsumi shook his head to clear those thoughts once again, turning slightly pale in fear as Esdeath murmured in her sleep and tightened her hold on him.
"She sleeps like a baby...and I haven't gotten any at all! Damn it!"
Honestly, it was his own fault. He'd tried valiantly to relax and focus on joining her in dreamland, but the delicacy of his situation combined with the intimacy of their position kept his anxiety alive and sleep at bay. There could be no staying calm when his mind was pulled in so many different directions.
Also, he was cuddling with a ruthless killer and high-ranking general whose peerless strength was matched only by her cruelty. That certainly didn't help. Thankfully, deliverance was granted in the form of more sleepy movements, particularly once her arms fell away from his form. After one of the longest nights he could remember, Tatsumi finally had a chance at salvation.
Not one to waste time, he quickly and quietly rolled over the edge of the bed and tiptoed over to the door. His fingers barely grazed the doorknob before he realized he'd left the idol behind, and he turned around…
"Fufufu...forget something, Tatsumi?"
With his skin pale as snow and his face locked in a comical expression of fear, Esdeath chuckled tiredly before tossing the precious wooden sculpture to him. Even surprised, his reflexes still managed to impress the general as he deftly plucked the item from the air as it soared. The fear and shock in his gaze all but vanished as Esdeath yawned, rubbing one eye sleepily as she looked back at him.
"How did you sleep?"
"I didn't," Tatsumi mumbled bitterly, holding back the yawn that her own had inspired.
"Did I...keep you awake?"
"Yeah. Yeah, you did. I couldn't sleep at all. I've never felt so anxious or threatened in my entire life," Tatsumi grumbled. He could've done backflips when he saw her face fall, saw that smile crumble into a hard frown and those eyes look away from him. It was her fault that so many innocent people had died.
Bulat died because of her. She deserved to feel a little pain, for once.
Despite everything, though, there was the slightest presence of guilt. She had stayed true to her word and no harm had come to him in any form during his stay, but that didn't absolve Esdeath of her crimes. Nor did it change anything about their situation. The two of them were on opposite ends of the chessboard, there could be no peace between them. Certainly not love.
"If that's true, then…"
And she looked up at him once again, the smile returning. Forced back into the light despite the hurt he had tried to cause her.
"If that's true," Tatsumi thought, "then why can she smile like that? And why should I feel any guilt? She needs to hurt, to know how others have been hurt! By her own actions!"
"Tatsumi," Esdeath rose from the bed, bare feet tapping as she crossed the room over to him. "You shouldn't have to feel any discomfort around me. I'd prefer it if you saw my side as the safest place in the world for you to be…"
And she quickly wrapped him in her arms before he could protest, and all thoughts of vengeance were briefly gone from his mind.
"...because it's true. You will never have to suffer again. In fact, today, you and I are going to spend some quality time together."
"Q-quality time?!" Tatsumi stammered, sweating nervously.
"That's right," Esdeath widened her smile, releasing him from their embrace. "Today you will hunt by my side, and we can finally begin your training. I will mold you into the perfect soldier, the perfect general. We can talk more about the day's events shortly, so for now, go ahead of me and wait in the dining hall. I will dress accordingly and meet you there."
"Okay…" Tatsumi took a tentative step towards the door, not at all liking that gentle expression on her face or the twinkle in those blue eyes. As he turned the handle and opened the door, he reminded himself that he definitely hated the shape of her body and didn't like the way it felt pressed against his own. He pulled the door closed again and tried to forget the taste of her lips, and the way she had whispered so softly into his ear when she first held him.
"I couldn't say this back at the palace," Wave offered as the two of them ventured onward, "but you sure have it rough. I can't imagine that it's easy being the apple of the Commander's eye, ehe."
Tatsumi continued to lead the way as the two of them ventured deeper into the mountains, eyes open for any danger beasts. In accordance with Esdeath's orders, he was paired with Wave for the better half of the day, while she was paired with Kurome. Come nightfall, he would switch with Kurome, and be under Esdeath's watchful eye until they returned.
If ever there would be a time for him to escape, it would be now, within this careless youth's presence. It was hard to find the right time, however, and Tatsumi soon found himself getting wrapped up in the other boy's conversations.
The two of them were extraordinarily similar. Maybe in another world, their roles would have been switched.
"If you ever want to talk about something, I'll be here to listen," Wave continued cheerfully. Tatsumi stopped mid-stride at that and looked back at his partner, caught off-guard. He hadn't expected such openness from someone who willingly served Esdeath, and that thought suddenly brought him back to thinking about the general herself.
Come to think of it, all of the Jaegers seemed relatively kind. Those he had spoken with, in any case. It wasn't the same hollow kindness as the rich family that had planned to murder him, either. He could see it.
In their eyes, feeling it through their words, the truth could be discerned. These people truly believed in the cause for which they fought.
Like Night Raid.
Were they really so different? Could it yet be possible that he and they, that the Jaegers and Night Raid, could be allies?
Tatsumi visibly shook his head, much to Wave's confusion, and looked forward again. No, it was impossible. They were enemies. He was a member of Night Raid, and Wave, a member of the Jaegers. They could not be allies, they could not be friends. One day soon, they may even have to face each other on the battlefield.
But not today. Today, he had to focus on escaping Esdeath's grasp.
And so he continued to wear his mask of compliance.
"Thanks, but...I should be okay. I may not seem like it, but I'm actually used to this kind of treatment. Taking orders all the time, occasionally being tormented by my superiors…"
Wave chuckled nervously and scratched the back of his neck, sweating a bit. "I kind of know what you mean...honestly, we're actually pretty similar! Eh...how should I put this? It's like we have the same kind of problems…"
And Wave then bowed his head, no doubt thinking of the troublesome individuals in particular. Suppressing a laugh, Tatsumi shook his head and bowed it in kind, his thoughts returning to the domineering and (at times) overly affectionate females back at Night Raid HQ.
"Eh…yeah, I understand. Say no more, I get it. Actually, I've probably got it rougher."
"No way!" Wave countered, looking almost offended. "I've got it way worse!"
Tatsumi laughed, and then Wave joined in. Together, they seemed to forget their alliances and laughed as friends and equals, wrapped up in the silence of the wilderness.
And that's when Tatsumi halted, turned back to face Wave, and began to draw Incursio from its sheathe.
Wave's laughter died off and he adopted a confused expression, watching as his compatriot began to draw the blade. "Eh, Tatsumi? What's-?"
He reacted purely on instinct, out of a desire to protect. Without hesitation, Tatsumi quickly cut down the danger beast behind Wave and exposed the presence of its kin.
"Thanks, I owe you one!" Wave called out gratefully.
"Don't worry about it," Tatsumi waved off, smiling.
"Eh? Why am I…?"
"So, you're finally showing your faces? You're not sea beasts, so that means you aren't edible. What a shame!" Wave laughed and drew his own sword, one that seemed eerily similar to Tatsumi's in shape.
He worked with Wave to cut them down in a flurry, a flash of precision and power. Back-to-back, the two of them sliced through living trees, danger beasts of the lowest caliber that hunted in groups. The quiet din of mountain air was soon filled with the sounds of rending steel and splintered wood. And they screamed.
Oh, how the danger beasts wailed and cried out as they fell, one by one.
"We'll handle these guys in no time!" Wave called out cheerfully.
Tatsumi couldn't bring himself to respond. Torn between feelings of betrayal and camaraderie, he slaughtered the beasts without hesitation and saw his chance. While Wave was occupied, Tatsumi silently invoked the power of his Teigu and wrapped himself in impenetrable armor, leaping away from the battle.
He had to put as much distance between himself and Wave as possible. He didn't have time to think on their possible friendship, all he could focus on was Night Raid.
He had to make it home.
"Looks like we're all done!" Wave cheered, looking back to find...nothing. He wasn't there.
Wave looked all around, behind boulders and over the edge of the cliff, unable to see the boy who had just been fighting alongside him.
The truth dawned. His eyes went wide with fear as he imagined the terror of confessing his mistake to the Commander. Tatsumi had fled. He had gotten away, he ran away, out of the hands of the Commander who loved him! Under Wave's own nose! Oh, the consequences! The torture!
"Don't tell me he ran away! Aw, come on!" Wave wailed, hands on his head. "This is bad, oh man, this is bad! Really bad! I get how you feel," he continued to yell, "but I can't just let you do that! Come on! It's not like I wanna be her plaything either, y'know?! I won't even get the same perks as you do, I'll get all the bad and heavy crap!"
Sighing, Wave glanced at his blade and considered his options. In truth, he had only one.
"Guess I've got no choice...GRAND CHARIOT!"
Driving the blade into the ground, he unleashed the full potential of his Teigu...and rose in a new armored form, prepared to hunt his quarry down.
It wasn't long before the meteor that was Wave crashed into Tatsumi and drove him deep into the earth, transferring an incredible force into Incursio's armor and making it tremble so much that he felt it would burst.
Of course, the other boy had no way of knowing that it was Tatsumi within that armor.
"Oh-ho, what a prize catch. You're wearing the Demon Armor: Incursio, which means you must be a member of that despicable Night Raid. Aren't you a fish out of water?"
Tatsumi sweatdropped within the suit. "Fish puns at a time like this? Really?"
"Jeez, what bad timing. Now I don't know whether to kill you, or hunt down Tatsumi..."
He visibly relaxed at that, actually heaving a sigh of relief as Wave prattled on. At least the guy was clueless.
Wave pointed a finger at him accusingly. "Unless...you ARE Tatsumi!"
"N-no! No, I'm not!" He waved his hands in a panic, trying to seem non-threatening.
Smirking within his own suit of armor, Wave faked a sigh and brought a hand to his forehead dramatically. "No, I guess you couldn't be...after all, only someone with a decent amount of muscle could possibly handle that Incursio…"
Wave's grin widened. "A puny little shrimp like him probably wouldn't even fit inside of that thing. Clearly, I was mistaken."
Tatsumi's eye twitched as the scheming boy turned his back, letting out another long sigh. "I only hope he hasn't gotten himself in any sort of trouble. There've been rumors of rabbits in the area, and such enemies would surely prove to be too much…"
Tatsumi was already in the air, swinging his fist down with blinding speed.
"Who are you calling a shrimp?!"
Wave spun around on his heels and caught the blow, deftly flipping Tatsumi onto his back and giving the helmet a friendly boop with his free hand.
"Gotcha. Now, take that armor off so we can continue hunting. I'll have to be taking that Teigu off of your hands, too. Can't have you running away again, because there is no way in hell that I am ending up in the Commander's torture chamber."
Silence between them. Tatsumi was still as a statue, sweating and nearly trembling with panic as he tried to formulate a plan. Wave tutted.
"Oi, what's the matter? I'm getting impatient, so hurry up and take it off or-"
Tatsumi immediately leapt to his feet and jumped, but Wave's plated fingers were wrapped around his ankle in an instant. The crushing grip tightened, and Tatsumi's eyes went wide as he was promptly swung back into the ground and Wave's armored foot immediately found its way to his chest.
With its master winded and beaten after only a couple of blows, Incursio could maintain its presence no longer and vanished. Wave dismissed his Grand Chariot and rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly, sighing for real this time.
"Even though I got all cocky and took a shot in the dark, it's still somethin' else to see that it really was him in there. Wonder what the Commander will say about this?"
With that, he scooped the dazed boy up and threw him over one shoulder.
"A member of Night Raid, huh? It explains a lot, really…"
When Tatsumi came to, his stomach was grumbling profusely and his nose nearly trembled against the sweet smell that invaded it. Blinking his eyes open and quickly remembering what had happened, he quietly scanned his surroundings. Wave was sitting up ahead, tending to a fire with some unidentifiable shapes roasting on a spit over the flames. All around them were trees and darkness, which sent a wave of panic through him. Just how long had he been out of it?!
Tatsumi then attempted to move away from the tree he was leaning on, but he could hardly move an inch. Hearing the scuffling noises, Wave looked back at him with a fairly irritated face.
"Oi, that's good rope! I brought it from way back home, so don't go and rip it all to shreds!"
Tatsumi got an indignant look and spat back some fire of his own. "I wouldn't have to if you hadn't tied me to a tree in the first place!"
Wave threw a fish head at him and Tatsumi responded with a hail of obscenities. "I wouldn't have tied you to a tree if I wasn't afraid you'd run off!"
Tatsumi huffed and looked away, stubborn to the end. "I wouldn't have to run away if I wasn't being held captive by a gang of psychopaths."
Wave rolled his eyes and continued to stoke the flame, slowly but surely cooking their meal. A couple of very large fish were cooking over the flame, and the smell was intoxicating. Tatsumi remembered with longing the meager breakfast he had had earlier that day, and this was the closest thing to lunch or dinner that he was probably going to have.
"And you're going to tell me that Night Raid is any better?"
"Tons better," Tatsumi smirked.
"You kill innocent people," Wave spat.
Tatsumi narrowed his eyes. "Night Raid kills people who hurt the innocent. Sick people, corrupt, awful people. The targets are never innocent of anything, otherwise they wouldn't be targets in the first place! Why can you criticize us when you're serving the Empire that's killed more innocent people than any other faction in history?"
Wave didn't respond, and so Tatsumi continued, emboldened by the other boy's silence.
"You're not like them, I can see that! So why don't you come with me? Cut me loose and come back with me as a member of Night Raid! We can change this country and the whole Empire if-"
"That's never going to work."
Wave approached him, then, with a cooked fish in one hand. Without any hesitation he untied the ropes and stuffed the meat into the boy's arms, moving back to the fire.
"We're on different sides fighting for the same thing. That's why I can't just go and join your Night Raid, and that's why you'll never be a member of the Jaegers. Let's say I believe what you're telling me…"
Wave stuffed his mouth with fish and tilted his head back to look at Tatsumi, unblinking as he continued to chew and swallow. He looked like he was lost in thought, as if he were carefully selecting his next words for the best effect.
"...even if it were true and you were some force of justice, what right have you to say that there aren't people inside the capital trying to carry out justice in a different way, or under different superiors? You and I joined forces with people whom we believed in to fight for something that was worth fighting for."
Wave laughed, taking another big chomp out of his meal.
"On top of that, we've got similar troubles with our own groups of friends and even our Teigu are twins. We're so alike that we can't help but be different, y'know? Almost like it would upset the natural order of things if I suddenly went over to your side, or if you actually fixed your brain and decided to stay with us."
"Not that I'd complain," Wave thought. This he would keep to himself, though.
"Your brain needs fixing, not mine," Tatsumi grumbled, shuffling over to sit by his captor and continue eating. Looking towards the sky, he noticed that the light of day was quickly fading. He must've been out for only an hour or so, since the afternoon was only just ending.
"You know, your Incursio was actually the foundation for my Grand Chariot. Both of them were created with the flesh of the same Tyrant."
"Seriously?" Tatsumi leaned forward, suddenly interested. "I was wondering why it looked so similar."
"Obviously, it's an upgrade," Wave said haughtily, paying no mind to Tatsumi's irritated expression. "My Grand Chariot is leagues above your nightgown, hehe."
"That's a load of crap!" Tatsumi argued, taking a huge chunk out of his fish with a rather indignant chomp. "If you hadn't gotten the jump on me earlier and we had a fair fight, well…"
"Getting fired up won't keep you alive!" Bulat's words came back to him, and Tatsumi blinked. He lowered his head humbly, and chewed more slowly.
"Well," he continued with a lower tone, "there's no telling what would have happened. Who knows."
Wave tilted his head a little in apparent confusion, but Tatsumi just stuffed his face some more. Nothing more was said between them, and the two foes finished their meal in silence. With that out of the way, Wave stomped out the flames and showed Tatsumi the way out of the forest.
"Lower to the ground, beneath the higher ridges and out of sight," Tatsumi thought, scanning the area around them. "He's not letting me get behind him anymore, and now he knows about Incursio…"
Tatsumi's eyes went wide.
"He doesn't know about the invisibility! I can still-!"
Tatsumi's hand instinctively went to the sheathe at his back, and a chill went through his entire body as the palm merely touched the back of his cloak.
He turned back to Wave and let out an exclamation of disbelief as the other boy tauntingly waved the dormant Incursio in his face.
"Yep! It's been confiscated!"
"You bastard!" Tatsumi yelled, and the two youths promptly got into a scuffle over it. After a fair bit of rolling around and a (as he would insist, anyway) glancing blow to the head, Wave reluctantly handed the Teigu over.
"It's not like I can't chase you down and kick your ass a second time," he laughed louder than usual, rubbing the back of his throbbing head whenever Tatsumi wasn't looking.
"Pfft, just try it," Tatsumi jeered. "The second you get distracted by a flounder leaping out of the river, I'll be back home and laughing at your expense."
Wave delivered a kick to the back of his foot with precision, and Tatsumi nearly tripped over himself mid-stride as a result. More banter and obscenities filled the air as the two of them continued their climb, heading for some unknown destination.
"It's almost nighttime," Tatsumi interjected, looking over the edge of the mountain and out to the horizon so very far away. The last rays of the sun were being pulled beneath the surface, and a deep blue had overtaken the sky. Soon, the most dangerous of the Danger Beasts would be out to play.
After that, he and Wave wouldn't be the hunters anymore.
"Yeah, almost time for us to switch." Wave wrapped the other boy in a headlock and suddenly attacked Tatsumi's scalp with a single knuckle, sneering. "Time to trade the biggest pain in my ass for a gluttonous snack-eater!"
Tatsumi broke free from the hold and prepared another insult when the realization struck home. "Switch…?"
Wave blinked. "Eh? Did you already forget? We're heading to the arranged meeting spot, the one the Commander mentioned this morning. Come nightfall, you're going to continue hunting with Esdeath, and I'm going to be with Kurome."
Tatsumi cursed inwardly and looked back to the fading lights on the horizon. How could he have forgotten?! His one and only chance to escape, and he had failed in the attempt. Who knew when his next opportunity would arrive, if it ever came at all? The two of them continued to walk, until at last Wave led him to the meeting area and they finally caught a breather.
"Looks like we're early," Wave sighed, looking around. Together, they finally stood at the summit of Fake Mountain, a large and flattened area with jagged stone rising up all around them. With its craterlike shape and high edges, only the light of the sky above could reach them.
"It's getting hard to see," Tatsumi offered, forcing himself to sound tired. Weakened. "Maybe we should go somewhere with more light, and see if we can-"
Wave tackled him to the ground before Tatsumi could say another word, and a dark shape suddenly crashed against the stone he had been leaning on. Wave quickly pulled him to his feet and drew Grand Chariot from its sheathe, pointing it at the darkened foe with shaky hands.
"Phew, almost missed him," Wave muttered, staring with wide eyes at the shape. "I guess we're even, now. Another second and you'd have been lunch."
Tatsumi scratched the back of his neck, looking away. "Well, I guess it would be more like 'dinner...'"
Wave whirled on him with a comedic expression, eyes and mouth wide open in disbelief. "You're going to nitpick at a time like this?!"
The shape leaped, and Wave turned back to the enemy he had shamefully ignored for the shortest moment.
A blue pillar of light soared through the air and pinned the creature to the wall of stone behind it, followed swiftly by more and more as the hidden enemy was skewered into oblivion. Not once did it howl or screech, and after a fair bit of twitching, the shadow moved no more.
"Chamele, an 'Alpha class' Danger Beast. It only appears in the unique twilight where both the sun and the moon are absent, and hunts in complete darkness where even the shape of its body can hardly be seen."
Approaching the dead creature with caution, Tatsumi could see that the 'pillars' were actually large chunks of ice. His eyes went wide and he whirled around, watching quietly as Esdeath and Kurome stepped from the shadows.
"You and I will be hunting creatures of this caliber tonight, Tatsumi. We may encounter even stronger foes, but you need not worry. You'll be safe with me."
Though her expression was still one of faint amusement, Tatsumi could see a coldness in her eyes as Esdeath turned her attention to her other subordinate.
"Ma'am!" Wave immediately yelled and saluted, bowing his head and sweating nervously.
"Your reflexes were impressive as always, and you carried Tatsumi out of harm's way almost immediately. However…"
"Do not allow yourself to be distracted, not even by your allies. Had I not been here, that Danger Beast would probably have had its fill. Such gross oversights on the field of battle are not easily forgiven."
Esdeath swiftly clonked him on the head and Wave howled. "That huuuuuuuurts!"
"Train your mind, not just your body," Esdeath sighed, motioning for Kurome to approach. "Now, Tatsumi, the time has come for you to watch a true hunter in action! Come here."
With a nervous gulp Tatsumi did as he was told, and Esdeath briefly daydreamed as he walked.
"Tonight, I'll win your heart for certain...I will show you the true meaning of strength, and I will earn the right to see that glorious smile once again…"
"Eh...ehh?!" Tatsumi howled in surprise as Esdeath embraced him almost immediately, lifting him in her arms and turning her gaze to the sky. With a sudden rush he felt the two of them fly away from the ground, and Esdeath merely laughed as she leaped away from the summit and into the dangers of the night.
Wave smiled, turning to look at Kurome. "Well, I guess we better stick togeth-"
She was already walking away, munching idly on her bag of treats. Howling with panic, he ran after her and nearly drowned in his own nervous sweat as the monsters of the night emerged all around them.
"Hey, don't just leave me like that! There's Danger Beasts everywhere! Kurome, help! HELP ME! WAAAAH!"
Wave ran as fast as his legs would carry him, over to the girl who ignored his every cry. Behind him, an obscured group of creatures gave chase, and his tears flew into the air as he continued to run.
Note: Reading in 1/2 width fixes alignment issues