Well after midnight, when the most dangerous of seithr-corrupted monstrosities roamed the countryside, Tsubaki sat awake and trembling. She hugged her knees as her eyes flicked to each corner of the tent in turn before settling on the flap that any beast could enter through. Every noise brought a jump and a nervous glance in its direction. On the other end of the tent, Ragna lay presumably asleep. Jubei had headed outside hours ago and had yet to return; Tsubaki could only hope he had decided to just sleep outside…
"You alright?" The sudden question made Tsubaki squeak and she whipped around to its source. Ragna blinked at her and yawned. "It's gotta be three in the damn morning. Jubei wakes at six, so you might wanna get some sleep while you can."
"I…see. I-It's nothing." As soon as she looked away from him, the sharp crack of a branch breaking sounded and she gasped, swiveling around. A moment later, she turned to glare at Ragna for daring to laugh at her fright. "What?"
"Nothing." Ragna smirked and sat up. His silhouette moved through the shadowy tent and before Tsubaki knew it, his arm was draped over her shoulders. "Look, Tsubaki. Long as you got me and Jubei around, there ain't a damn thing to be scared of out there. Shit, I don't even need a weapon to kick a seithrdog pack's asses, and Jubei…well, they don't call him the strongest living creature for nothing. Forget all the shit out there, you'll be fine."
"R-right…" Although she felt like snapping at him to get his arm off, Tsubaki instead sunk against him. It certainly did help her anxiety, as did his words. "Sorry…it's just…well, I've never been outside a Hierarchical City in my life, discounting travel. And I'm well familiar with the tales of what kinds of monsters lurk out here…"
"Eh. Worst you really get if you're unlucky is some kinda mutant bear thing. Although if you do see one, run like hell." Ragna pulled his arm back off her and sagged against the back of the tent. "So. You been doing anything besides listening for loud noises? I mean, I know you were reading until night fell, but…"
"And I…kept reading even after you fell asleep." After muttering the incantation for an Ars under her breath, Tsubaki held up a finger. A cone of light streamed from it and illuminated Ragna's face. With a small giggle, she ended the spell. "I've read through about half of that Ars theory book already."
"…Damn. Figured you were a bookworm, but…damn." A loud yawn erupted from him and he shifted a bit more to lie down. "…Pretty useful looking Ars, as well."
"I suppose so. Only use I have for it is…"
The flap opened and Jubei poked his head inside. "Heh. Ya kids are sure up early."
Tsubaki paled and fell silent while Ragna sat up. "Nah, she just never got to sleep. Scared outta her wits by all the shit running around out there."
"Is that so?" Jubei chuckled. After a bit of consideration, he sighed. "I suppose we could delay yer trainin' until about 10. Get ya some shuteye, 'cause yer gonna need it. Don't worry, though, I'll take it easy on ya first day."
Tsubaki nodded. "I see. May I ask what kind of training I'll be in for here?"
"Like I said, nothin' too heavy. A bit of practice with yer weapon of choice just to see where ya are with it, Ars practice 'round lunchtime, physical conditionin' as it starts to cool down, n' probably discussin' what ya've read after dinner. N' of course, some readin' before ya sleep."
It took a moment for Tsubaki to respond. "…That's a light day of training? I mean, I'm not complaining, but…"
"About as light as they come from him." Ragna's voice sounded from underneath a blanket. "In about a week, only breaks you'll get will be meals, tending to injuries and whenever the stupid rabbit decides she feels like harassing us. You'll get used to it."
Panting, Tsubaki sagged to her knees as she completed the last of her sprints. The first week had passed in the blink of an eye for her, although hours of reading had certainly helped that. Of course, the training had become more rigorous by the day, particularly the conditioning; there was no way she'd be ready to do anything for the next half hour after this, except for guzzling water. And lo and behold, Ragna was right there, canteen in hand. He dropped the metal container at her feet and she drained it of its contents in one go. After a moment, she found the strength to nod up at him. "...Thanks."
"No prob." With a smirk, he sat down beside her, breathless but not as dead tired as she was. "…Heh. Guess I was wrong about you."
"About you not lasting a week."
"Oh…right…" That first meeting with Ragna and Jubei now lurked as a memory wrapped in fog, more distant than should be possible. Despite her fatigue, she smirked up at him. "Told you I could handle it…"
"Yep. Good start, I guess." Chuckling, he ruffles her hair. "Still got a ways to go before you're my level, though."
"Hey!" Tsubaki yanked herself away from him and glared, although an unconquerable smile offset it. "...Enjoy being able to do that while you can."
"Ooh, scary." Laying back, Ragna closed his eyes. "But seriously. You're doing rather nicely, kid."
"...Thanks, I suppose." She laid back as well, giving in to her exhaustion. "Doesn't feel like it, though..."
"Ya rested yet, 'Baki?"
The voice made her sit up and a moment later, a wooden blade whirled toward her. She cried out and rolled to the side in lieu of catching it. Not too far away, Jubei shook his head as he approached. "Guess not. Sorry for throwin' it at ya, although ya probably could'a caught it."
"M...master Jubei..." Gasping for air, Tsubaki straightened up and managed to rise to her feet. She gazed down at the fake sword, slightly curved with a single edge and square guard at the hilt. "What's..."
"Bit more trainin' before it gets too late. Yer not bad with that gladius-type sword ya use, but I figure we try a few things. That there's a katana; yer gonna learn how to use it."
"Um, master?" Ragna glared at the beastkin as though he were insane. "Can't you at least wait until she rests a bit?"
"Don't worry, ain't nothin' heavy. Just workin' on form for now." After bending down to grab the sword, Jubei handed it to Tsubaki. "Ya ready?"
"Yes." Tsubaki gave a quick nod, mind sharpening to clear away fatigue. The weapon itself weighed far more than it should have; one of a pair of Ars cast on it gave the wooden blade the weight of its steel counterpart. The second Ars acted to reduce the force of any blows it dealt. She adjusted her grip on the weapon; the stance normally reserved for her short sword proved awkward for the heavier katana. "Um...I'm...holding it wrong, aren't I?"
With a nod, Jubei came to her side. "Hands at the top and the base; ya ain't gonna use this with one hand. N' don't bring yer hand against the guard; fingers'll break first time ya block. Right, that looks good. Now, hilt aligned with the point of yer back hip, blade angled up parallel to yer shin."
"R-right..." Tsubaki shifted her legs further apart and raised the blade as instructed. "Like this?"
After circling her once, Jubei nodded and grinned. "Ya got it, kiddo. Now then. Katana's a cuttin' weapon; stabbin' with it can work, but it ain't the best o' ideas. Ya wanna try to catch with the first half foot or so, n' don't be afraid to step in close. Ya catch 'em like that, ya can cleave 'em in half. Now, why don't ya try a few practice cuts?"
With a moan, Tsubaki winced but made no effort to resist as Ragna wrapped the bruises of her upper arm in a bandage. A month ago, before training had begun, she would have been horrified of the prospect of her upper body fully exposed like this. However, in less than two weeks of spars, she had grown accustomed to the practice; she treated Ragna's wounds, and vice versa, and neither gave a damn what the other saw. After all, dignity paled in importance to health and strength out here...wherever 'here' was. For all their traveling, they had yet to stumble upon civilization since leaving Naobi. Or, to be more accurate, Jubei had made the decision to avoid doing so.
"Hey. Mind turning over? Gotta check your back here." Ragna gave her a quick prod to snap her out of her thoughts. "Stop daydreaming."
"You're certainly in a good mood. Must be from defeating me there." Nevertheless, Tsubaki did as asked and flipped onto her belly. She closed her eyes as his hand moved along her bare skin, an act devoid of its expected intimacy. It was necessity, nothing more. An Ars channeled itself into her injury to heal it, although the purple hue naturally refused to fade so soon. After a few moments, she turned to him. "Finished?"
"Yeah, think I got them all." With a smirk, Ragna again prodded her to flip over. "Quite an asskicking you took there."
Pain lessened, Tsubaki threw on her shirt, sat up and elbowed him for the jab. "Don't remind me."
"Want me to go easy next time?"
"Of course not."
"Good. Because I wouldn't." Ragna drew up beside her and ruffled her hair. "Be an insult to you if I did."
"Will you stop doing that?" Tsubaki's demand came with light grin. It faded a moment as she looked over his chest. No contusions marred it. "Um...do you need anything from me?"
"I dunno. A massage might be nice; I'm kinda tense." Ragna flopped onto his belly and smirked. "What you get for losing."
"Hah." As Tsubaki straddled his hips, she gave his ear a sharp flick with her finger. "Keep this in mind for when I win."
"Ain't happening, Tsu." Ragna fell silent as her soft hands set to work on his shoulders. Several minutes passed without word, although he was deep in thought. Finally, he asked, "Hey, Tsubaki. You're gonna be joining the Library once your training's done, right?"
"Yes, of course." Satisfied with her work, Tsubaki rose and chucked his shirt over to him. "My goal is to serve the Librarium the best I can to preserve justice."
"Right, gotcha." After pulling his shirt back on, he smiled at her, replete of the expression's usual taunt. "At least someone in the Library'll give a shit about the people."
"I heavily doubt I'd be the only one." Tsubaki frowned at him, curious. Somehow, in the span of a month, she had nearly forgotten about his disdain for the Librarium. Not since that first meeting had she asked about it, and now seemed a decent enough time. "...May I ask why you hate the Librarium?"
Something about Ragna's smirk seemed off. "Sure."
"Are you going to answer?"
"Already did. I let you ask me why I hate the Library. Never promised I'd answer."
Tsubaki buried her face in a palm with a resounding smack. "Okay, let's try this. If I ask you why you hate the NOL, will you actually answer?"
"Sure, whatever." Ragna laid back down. "Right then. The short of it is basically assholes stole my family from me and are screwing with the Boundary. Long version, I lived with my brother Jin, sister Saya and guardian Celica in some church years ago..."
Tsubaki blinked as a wooden halberd speared the ground before her. As she stepped forward to grab its handle, utterly bewildered, she glanced up at Jubei. "Um...master Jubei? What's...?"
"Heh. Figure I might as well tell ya what I got in mind for ya." Jubei reached into a bag and produced a vermillion blade, luminescent in the night air. "Yer father gave me Izayoi to keep for ya. N' seein' as it's a shapeshiftin' weapon, I reckon it'd be best for ya to learn as many weapons as ya can. We've been focusin' on swords, but I figure it's high time we tried somethin' different. So, polearms."
"I...see..." Tsubaki jerked the spear out of the ground and tried to settle into a stance. In short order, it proved apparent that holding it similar to a sword would not work. "Um...how do I...?"
"Feet spread shoulder width apart. Yer hands should split the haft into thirds. Point it up at yer enemy's collarbone; ya wanna pierce there or at the throat with a stab. The axeblade is a bit too clumsy to function for actual attacks; ya wanna use it for breakin' long weapons n' shields. N' finally, yer not gonna use the hook unless yer fightin' someone on a mount."
"Um...could you slow down?" Somewhere in the middle of shifting her stance, Tsubaki dropped the halberd's end against the ground and stared at him. "Or, like, write it down or something?"
"Right, sorry. Lemme start from the top here..."
After a good thirty minutes of training, Ragna arrived, a slain deer dragging along behind him. "Hey, master. Help me skin this thing."
"Hold yer horses, Ragna, I'll be right there." Jubei turned to Tsubaki and gestured to her. "Come along, ya might as well watch in case ya gotta do this yerself."
Tsubaki relaxed her grip on the halberd and followed Jubei over to a roaring fire. Her stomach quivered as Ragna sliced open the creature's stomach to gut it, but she did not avert her gaze. After a minute as helping Ragna skin the beast and thus making quick work of it, Jubei glanced at her. "By the way, we're gonna be stoppin' by a village tomorrow."
"We are?" Tsubaki blinked as she tried to process that fact. It had been two months since she had last seen a building, or anybody other than Ragna and Jubei. Two months of living off of hunting, of bathing in a stream not ten feet from Ragna doing the same, of constant travel punctuated by training sessions and reading. Excitement flooded her and a grin broke out on her face. "I...I see. Where are we, anyways?"
"Hell, pretty much." Ragna snorted at her ill-concealed exuberance; she had no idea what kind of danger they were already in. "We're at the very border between Library-controlled land and Ikaruga. We're actually gonna entering Ikaruga. A Duodecim princess is gonna be a prime target, so keep your mouth shut about where you're from, got it?"
As Ragna spoke, Tsubaki blanched and her eyes grew wider. Ikaruga. The home of rebellious savages who would slay her the instant they knew she was with the Librarium. "R-right..."
"Don't worry yer pretty little head, ya got me and Ragna with ya." Jubei reached over to cuff her shoulder. "Long as ya stay with us, you'll be fine. We're just stoppin' in for supplies. N' maybe buyin' a few new textbooks for ya; ya went through the first batch in 'bout half the time I expected."
With a blush, Tsubaki looked away and giggled. "...Sorry?"
"Ain't complainin', 'Baki. Far from it, in fact." Jubei gave a light chuckle. "Now listen. Soon as ya eat, off to sleep. We leave at sunrise tomorrow."
A/N: First off, yes, time is going to be passing very quickly in these early chapters. Second, next chapter things will start to get a bit more plotty. And longer.