DISCLAIMER: Mahou Sensei Negima, and especially Konoka and Setsuna (who are so very, very married and no one can tell me otherwise) belong to Ken Akamatsu and not yours truly.

WARNING: Okay, so after some reader input in previous chapters, I still feel the need to put this here. This fic is the product of Cloverfield's somewhat-addled mind, and may include the following: traces of OoC (because I like to find character flaws and turn them up to eleven, and will indeed distort any characterisation for my own twisted purposes); crack (because more often than not this was written late at night, or when drugged up on sugar); elements of porn (because I have a dirty, dirty mind and like seeing two girls grope each other); and bizarre plotlines (there's really no excuse for this one, just bear with me). Most significantly, this fic should be treated as AU, because that's how it was written; I started writing this fic shortly after reading the Budokai arc of the early chapters of the manga, and though I have followed the scanlations as they were released, this fic does not. As such, please consider all canon events that take place after Chao's return to the future and the summer break chapters of the manga to not have taken place for the purposes of EB, including but not limited to Asuna being a pretty, pretty princess who may or may not be related to Negi, the whole journey to the magic world and any subsequent pactios, and the sheer awesomeness that is Jack Rakan. Also, please be aware I tend to write really, really long chapters at sporadic intervals, so it is very unlikely this fic will be updated on a regular basis, but it will be updated. (Considering one of my friends / sounding boards actually knows where I live and is not afraid to threaten me with leading you all to my doorstep with pitchforks and torches should I fail to update, you should have no fears on that regard). I think that's all I need to warn you about, and if you spot anything else you think should be in here, please let me know.

PREFACE: I just want to say that this is not the chapter I wanted to post, and I am sorry about that, and sorry it took me so long for something I'm not wholly satisfied with. (Detailed Author's Note at end of chapter.) Thanks to Toratchi888, Elgin, all of my dear friends; my muse and the love of my life, and as always, all of you for sticking with me this far.

Egg Belly

Part Twelve

To say that dinner was subdued event would have been a gross understatement.

Ever since Setsuna had starting dating Konoka -although Asuna supposed that dating wasn't really the word for it, dating being something that stupid high school students giggled about while reading stupid articles in stupid girly magazines and the whole concept was entirely unrelated to magic and pactios and the sudden, shocking incidence of a child or the prospect of challenging the father of the one you loved for the right to keep your head let alone to just stay with your lover- it had been common for the other girl to join them in the room they shared with Negi for dinner, the four of them chattering away at the table over the evening meal, and she'd gotten used to the way Setsuna would smile quietly and softly at Konoka and Konoka's eyes would glow warm and sweet whenever they drifted across her partner's face.

But no one was smiling tonight. It wasn't anything to do with the food, which tasted just fine like it always did, even if Asuna wasn't really tasting it at the moment- it was the way there was this grim determination in the line of Setsuna's shoulders, a subtle kind of tension which strung all the way through her posture and right down to her hands where they clutched too tightly at her cutlery, leaving her fingers white-knuckled and tight; it was the way Konoka was quiet and withdrawn, brown eyes dull and weary with that hollowness that comes when fear has been and gone and only emptiness remains.

It was so different from how it normally was that even Negi, Negi, mister-sunshine-and-good-will, 'keep your chin up chaps and it'll all work out if you just believe' Negi Springfield was silent, head bowed over his plate as he ate, barely daring a glance up at his companions.

But Asuna couldn't do that. She couldn't just sit there and be quiet and pretend she wasn't upset about it, about Konoka's dad, about everything. This whole situation was so damn wrong.

It had made Asuna feel happy, to see them like that; happy to know that her friend was happy, that the aching sadness that had shadowed Konoka's features for those first years of their friendship had finally melted away in the face of Setsuna's determination to keep her safe and whole, no matter the cost, no matter what it took. Asuna had never seen anyone love the way Setsuna loved Konoka, and to think that something so bright and beautiful might be thrown away, just tossed aside and forgotten, to think that something could happen that would make sure Konoka never smiled again…

It made her feel sick. And angry. So angry, like bees buzzing in her skull and making the world filter red around the edges, and that Setsuna wasn't just taking the injustice that had been handed to her, was actually standing up for herself and fighting for what she wanted and would probably (no she shouldn't think that but still) die tomorrow because of it just made everything worse and worse.

So when the swordswoman, her coolly calm and impassive façade firmly in place, asked politely if someone would please pass the soy sauce, Asuna finally lost it, grabbing the bottle and slamming it down hard enough against the tabletop that the glass cracked and sticky dark liquid oozed over the tablecloth.

But before she could speak, before she could let the sick, hot anger at the whole situation spill out of her mouth in a roar of sound and obscenities, Setsuna had merely lifted her head and smiled -actually smiled! How could she smile at a time like this?- and shaking her head, leant forward to prise the bottle from her trembling hand.

"It's going to be okay. I'm not going to die, Asuna; it's not like I don't know what I'm doing."

That's a lie, a stinking lie, because you're fighting Eishun and he's the fucking master of the shinmeiryuu and you're just his student and you're sleeping with his daughter and he probably hates you so it's not like he's going to hold back and you don't stand a chance and tomorrow you're gonna- you're gonna-!

You're my friend too, and you're going to DIE and I can't stand it-!

"It's going to be okay," repeated Setsuna softly, and it was all Asuna could do to blink back tears and swallow down something like a sob as cool fingers closed over her hand, callused and strong but still so dainty, easing the tight clench of her fist and flattening her hand against the table.

"Aren't you scared?" That choked, tight voice couldn't be hers, surely. Because she didn't sound like that, of course she didn't; everyone knew Asuna was brassy and ballsy and not afraid of anything, and she certainly didn't sound like a frightened little girl.

"Yes. I'd be stupid if I wasn't." Setsuna smiled again, and this time she was looking at Konoka, whose eyes were dark and shiny with tears, pressing her hand to her mouth and whispering Set-chan between trembling fingers. "But just because I'm scared doesn't mean I'm going to give up. Some things… some things you have to do; before you can be happy, before you can move on with your life and go forward. And I'm not going to let people tell me what I can and can't do anymore."

"Oh, Set-chan…" Konoka sniffled, tears threatening to spill over- but she blinked them back, scrubbed at her eyes for a moment, and when the brunette finally lifted her gaze to her lover, hope glimmered in soft brown.

There was gentle clink of metal against china as Negi laid down his fork, and the young teacher's face was pale and pinched but somehow resolute, a spark in his eyes that Asuna only saw when he was angry at something and determined to make it better. "I am not happy with this situation, Setsuna-san; as your teacher, I disapprove of this decision to enter into something akin to mortal combat in an attempt to defy the rules that have been laid upon you by your elders- but as your friend, I say go for it," and here Negi's face changed, a fierce kind of grin tugging at his mouth, brown eyes glittering with enthusiasm.

"I believe in you and I know you're going to win!" Smacking a small fist into his palm, the boy teacher leant forward, glasses crooked on the bridge of his nose and wobbling unsteadily as he nodded energetically. "You've changed since you joined my class, Setsuna-san, changed and for the better; Eishun has no idea of the brave, brilliant young woman you've become, and, and if he doesn't like it- well, then I say he can go and stick it up his jumper!"

Those were strong words from the boy teacher, and even Asuna felt something like laughter twitch at her mouth at the determination on his face; there was something blackly comical about the whole situation, after all, and a threat to stick his opinion up his jumper probably wasn't going to make much of a difference to a master swordsman. But Setsuna was taking him seriously nonetheless, inclining her head in a short bow. "Thank you, Negi-sensei. Your support means a lot to me."

Setsuna laid down her chopsticks and leant back a bit in her seat, turning to face the clock that ticked away in the corner of the kitchen. "It's getting late," she murmured. "I need to be in bed soon. I have to be awake early tomorrow, because… well." Even seated her shoulders were stiff, posture tight, and something in the cast of her features made Asuna think of a soldier going to war.

That's not too far off the mark. Gods, Setsuna, you better not die tomorrow.

Not that she thought Eishun would be going out of his way to actually kill his once-student; Konoka's father wasn't that kind of man, he just couldn't be… but then, she'd heard what had happened from Konoka herself, tearful and trembling when she and her bodyguard had made it back to their dorm room, and she'd never seen the brunette so scared before.

And it wasn't like Konoka didn't have reason to be. As talented as Setsuna was -and she was, terrifyingly so; the girl was dangerous once she got her hands on a blade- she was not the captain of the shinmeiryuu. There was no question that, between the two of them, the swordswoman's abilities were the lesser- and even if by the grace of some god Eishun wouldn't be fighting to kill tomorrow, he would be fighting with every skill he possessed, and a considerable amount of force.

And that wasn't even touching on the whole issue that the man Setsuna was due to fight tomorrow was Konoka's father; gods, it was no wonder the girl was upset.

But while the redhead was caught between that thought and the next, Setsuna had obviously made her decision that it was time to leave, because she pushed her seat back with a sqreek of wood across linoleum and stood in one smooth motion. "Thank you for dinner. I should get going."

"Oh, Set-chan, you don't have to go- you could stay here tonight." Konoka's voice was soft and quietly desperate; she reached out a hand and made to stand up as Setsuna walked past.

"No, Kono-chan. I don't think I can." Taking the offered hand, the swordswoman looked down at their twined fingers. "I need to be alone for a little while. But I won't leave for the dojo without saying… good morning," she finished lamely, everyone in the room hearing the unsaid 'goodbye'.


"I'm sorry. Goodnight, Kono-chan." Gently, sweetly, Setsuna leant forward and brushed a kiss against Konoka's cheek, and the sadness in the gesture made something knot in Asuna's chest. Slipping her hand free from Konoka's grasp, the young woman straightened and headed for the door, head high and posture stiff… and no one noticed how badly her hands were shaking.

The slow slide of whetstone against steel filled the room with a soft rasp of sound, rhythmic and sibilant, echoing the pattern of the sole occupant's steady breathing with each stroke across the blade. Setting down the stone, placing it upon a mat set aside for that purpose, Eishun lifted his blade with calloused, scarred hands, his long fingers brushing across the mirrored pattern that rippled through steel, and inspected the clean lines of his sword for any damage sustained in the brief skirmish against his errant student earlier that day with a practiced eye.

Finding no flaws along the blade's edge, the captain of the shinmeiryuu and acting elder of the Kansai Magic Association laid his sword to rest before him, sharp edge of the blade curving inwards towards him as he knelt seiza upon the living room rug. The small apartment attached to the main teaching building was no dojo to be sure, but it suited his purposes while he was visiting Mahora, and he was never on campus long enough for the bare walls and Spartan decorations to bother him.

Taking a moment to centre his breathing, Eishun closed his eyes and cleared his mind, the steady throb of his own pulse a calming rhythm that echoed in the hollow of his chest. Intent on the meter of his heartbeat, the swordsman let himself drift as all external influence faded from his thoughts: the repetitive drip drip drip of water from the ensuite tap, the gentle scrape of branches against the wooden shutters as the evening breeze swept the trees that shadowed his window, the slow sqreek of floorboards as slippered feet moved all but silently across the creaking timbers of the entrance alcove…

I didn't hear the door open.

"If you wanted to speak with me you had every chance to do so at dinner."

"It is very difficult to speak with a man when he will not maintain eye contact with you, Eishun." Konoemon's steps stilled as they reached the edge of the rug, and it was the sound of his robes shifting with a rustle of cloth as the elder shook his head, earrings jangling, that spoke of his displeasure more than the measured tone of his voice. "I dare say I have sat through a more uncomfortable evening meal than the one just passed in all the years of my long and eventful life… but I'm finding it very hard to think of an example right at this moment."

"I was never much of a conversationalist." Eishun opened his eyes slowly as his father in law circled the rug, coming to stand before him within the space of one heartbeat and the next; advanced in years as he was, Konoemon could move with considerable speed when the mood took him. "But you knew that when I married your daughter."

"There were many things I thought I knew about you."

Ah. I didn't think you'd let this go so easily, and I was right.

Ignoring the steady burn of the elder's gaze upon him, the swordsman reached for his scabbard and laid it across his knees, taking his sword up and sliding it home into wood and lacquer in the next moment. "If you have something to say, then speak." Straightening himself, Eishun stood in one fluid movement, sheathed sword in hand. "I would not keep you from your rest any longer than necessary, Father- you'll need to be up early tomorrow to witness the duel."

Konoemon's face, marked by time and hardship, tightened with disapproval. "If you go through with this-"

Eishun cut him off with a swift shake of his head. "She challenged me. Under the constraints of Shinmeiryuu law I cannot refuse."

"This is murder!" The elder's voice lashed out, each word as sharp and shocking as the crack of a whip. "Murder! As sure as you struck the child's head from her shoulders yourself-! I know you are, are upset with the situation-"

"Upset? Hah!" spat Eishun, unable to stop the sudden flash of bitterness in his voice, hands tightening reflexively upon the hilt of his sword. "Upset is not the word for how I find myself, Father!"

"-but you cannot think that this is the way to answer it!" Determined even in the face of the fury that flashed in the swordsman's eyes, more so because of it, Konoemon gestured with one wrinkled hand, brow creased and worn with anger. "I simply cannot stand by and watch you use your wounded honour as an excuse to slaughter your student in cold blood; so help me, son-in-law, but if you raise your blade against that girl on the morrow, I will-"

"-do nothing, Konoemon, just as you did nothing to prevent the circumstances that lead to my daughter falling pregnant!" Breathing harshly, all of his hard-fought calm shattered, Konoe Eishun took one heavy step forward, the sudden thump of his footfall on carpet loud enough to startle the headmaster into stillness. "Konoka is eighteen! Eighteen! She should be thinking about her exams, about university, about her future and her dreams and what's she's going to cook for dinner tomorrow night and that new TV show she saw last week and all of the millions of stupid things girls her age should be worrying about, not about the child that Setsuna got on her!"

Slicing his hand through the air sharply, voice still ringing in the sudden silence, Eishun spun on the spot and crossed to the dining table to lay his sword upon the rack standing on the polished surface. Slowly, shoulders strung taut with anxiety, he lifted a shaking hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. "I, I was calm before you came in," he whispered. "It was all so clear in my mind, what I had to do." The dim light from the living room lamp flashed over his glasses as the swordsman turned. "Don't you see? This isn't what I planned for her, isn't what her life should be. I never wanted her involved in magic, even if it is in her blood, and for something like this… she's my daughter," and with that last word a choked, bitten-off plea hidden in his voice, "and I just want her to be safe."

Lowering his head a little, Eishun let some of the fear and pain he'd been battling since his world had rocked on its axis earlier that day bleed through his words. "Setsuna… was supposed to protect her, supposed to be where I could not and help to guard Konoka from the dangers just being born to our world brings her. She swore to me, swore as my vassal, taking the most sacred oath that a swordsman of the shinmeiryuu can, that she would do everything in her power to keep and protect my daughter- and she has failed."

"Eishun," began Konoemon, the tension in his stooped shoulders melting away, "I don't think-"

"No. I will not have you make excuses for her actions, Father," said the swordsman softly, lowering his hand to trace his fingertips over the polished surface of the table. "Setsuna has put Konoka in danger, so many times and in so many ways, just by being with her- by being more than the guard she was sworn to be. If she had just kept her distance, remained as detached as she was supposed to, then I do not think that they would have formed a pactio contract- and would not have become… well," came the mumble, Eishun unable to stop the catch in his voice at the thought of his daughter -his little girl!- involved like that with someone. "And if she had not forgotten herself, she would not have taken Konoka into such danger."

Voice rising again, Eishun spun on the spot, snapping one arm out to the side in a vicious, cutting gesture. "There is something coming, Konoemon; there are forces moving against us, as they have been for years, and of late they have only begun to move faster! That demon incursion a few months back, when the wards were down and for all of a minute Mahora was vulnerable- you can't tell me that was a coincidence! And my daughter was in the thick of it," hissed the swordsman, the glare of the lamplight splintering across the lenses of his glasses. "On a date. A date! My daughter was attacked by monsters, surrounded, outnumbered and chased into the woods by a horde of them, and all because Setsuna broke the seal that held back her demon and took her out to dinner on the night the wards fell!"

"Her seal was splintering of its own accord, Eishun," said Konoemon mildly, steepling his long fingers to peer over the top of them at his enraged son-in-law. "She is a half-demon and a particularly powerful one at that; even the strongest seals that the shinmeiryuu could bring to bear wouldn't last forever. Especially not once she hit puberty- you can't bottle lightning, Eishun, and a hanyou whose mating cycle has been triggered is much the same thing."

"I don't care!" snapped the swordsman. "Because she could not control herself, because she let her feelings get the better of her, Konoka almost died!"

"But she did not," said Konoemon, voice ringing in the sudden silence that echoed from Eishun's shout. "Setsuna faced overwhelming odds and made an incredible sacrifice to keep the one she loved safe that night, Eishun. If anyone almost died, it was her. She was not responsible for the attack against Mahora, nor for the hordes that spilled over the barriers; she is not to blame for the demons that were summoned and sent to slip in past the broken wards. She is, however, responsible for laying her life on the line to keep Konoka safe."

Harsh voice softening again, Konoemon shook his head slowly. "I admit that my faith in her as Konoka's pactio partner meant that I allowed them both to be placed in a situation that could have ended badly, but I took that risk for the sake of proving something, and I am sorry for that. I know what it is like to fear that one's only child will die before one is ready to let them go," and Eishun could do nothing but flinch at the old, worn pain that leaked into the elder's words. "Tatsumiya-san was standing by to lend her assistance should it have been required, and both myself and Evangeline watched over the battle that night- and none of us were needed. You did not see it, Eishun; you did not see what that young woman became under the influence of Konoka's magic- I have never seen anything so terrible and so beautiful."

Eishun was silent for a long while, and when he finally spoke there was something a little like sadness in his tone. "No. I will not let you sway me on this. She must accept the consequences for her actions, and I will hold her to the vows she broke. She was supposed to uphold them to guard my daughter, and nothing else-"

"And instead she fell in love."

Eishun stiffened as Konoemon spoke, each word dropping softly into the roaring silence that rang in his ears.

"Setsuna is many things, Eishun; she is kind and she is brave and she is strong and honourable- and she is very, very in love with your daughter. And because she is human," and here Konoemon lifted his hand with surprising swiftness, forestalling the obligatory protest as his son-in-law opened his mouth to speak, "among other things, yes, but demons love like humans do when they are given the chance, as well you know it- she is as prone to error as all of us were when we were young and in love."

Konoemon smiled then, his expression terribly kind. "As you were when you were young and in love. And guarding my daughter."

"That was different," said Eishun weakly. "I was a contender for marriage from the very start, as well you know; in fact, as I recall, that was the reason you accepted my oath in the first place- because you knew that if I was given the chance to protect her, to come to know her for the person she was, that what had started as friendship and duty could very well become something more-" Eishun cut himself off with a snap, clenching his jaw at the expectant look on the elder's face; Konoemon just smiled, eyes twinkling with mischief.

"There's a reason I ensured that Konoka's bodyguard was female, Father," protested the swordsman.

"I'd say that backfired rather spectacularly, wouldn't you?" Konoemon chuckled even as a dull flush snaked up Eishun's neck. "From what I hear, Konoka's been a lady-killer since she was a toddler, if all that hubbub with her flipping the maid's skirts back at the Kyoto compound was anything to go by."

"They were miko, and she used to pull on the ties to their hakama," mumbled Eishun, face red with embarrassment. "And she grew out of that phase!"

"Around about the time you took in one orphaned hanyou, I should think." Konoemon winked. "You can't honestly tell me you were surprised when she told you she loved women, Eishun, surely- the signs have been there for years."

"And yet you were trying to marry her off from the time she was fourteen!"

Konoemon waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, please. As I recall, you were the one who insisted she needed a partner at such a young age- I only planned those o-miai because you asked for them."

"And it would have worked if you had been more insistent!"

"Unlikely. You have to accept that Konoka's heart belongs to Setsuna and has done so for a very long time, possibly before either girl even knew what it meant to love someone." The warm glow in Konoemon's eyes faded, something sombre coming to rest in the line of his mouth. "I am not one to throw words like 'destiny' around lightly, Eishun, but you know as well as I do there was a reason your young apprentice was born a white crow."

A shadow passed over the swordsman's face, sorrow darkening his features. "That doesn't matter. When I defeat Setsuna tomorrow, she will have no choice but to leave Mahora."

"And what if the girl wins?" asked the elder softly.

"She won't. As Captain of the Shinmeiryuu and acting Elder of the Kansai Magic Association, I won't let her." Closing his eyes, the swordsman turned his face away. "I can't let her." A moment of silence passed, hanging heavy on the swordsman's shoulders, strain threading lean through arms as his hands clenched and unclenched in something like grief. "Leave me, Father. I have to prepare for tomorrow."

"As you wish." Konoemon nodded as the Eishun bowed, the gesture smooth and polished by repetition, and departed the room with the same sudden stealth he had used to enter it.

I hope for Konoka's sake -and the sake of my unborn great-grandchild- you're wrong, Eishun. I truly do.

The small apartment was dark and still, a soft circle of warmth from the kitchen light the only illumination. Hair still wet from the shower, the young woman walked calmly across her kitchenette floor towards the wooden table, heedless of the soft patter of water droplets that echoed her quiet footsteps. Fetching herself a pen, an envelope and a piece of paper -blank, unmarked and utterly ordinary in every way- from the small stationary organiser on her bench, she pulled out a chair, sat down, and began to write.

Time passed; the clock set high on the wall above her small refrigerator ticked softly into the near-silence, the gentle scritch of pen across paper the only other sound, and a moist circle spread slowly across her simple cotton shirt from where her hair curled in damp locks across her shoulders. Occasionally the girl paused, if considering something, the tip of her pen stilled mere millimetres from the blank surface; but after a few moments it would press down firmly once more and lines of neat, pristine characters began to fill the page.

Once or twice a bead of water dropped softly onto paper.

When the final sentence was written -with a firm and heavy hand, pressing dark lines into the white page as though to score those last few words into the table beneath- she signed her name carefully in the bottom left corner and laid down her pen, reaching for the envelope, fully aware of the soft click-click-sqreek of her locked door being picked and opened with professional care in the darkness behind her.

"I'm sure Mana could have leant you her key." Setsuna sighed, her back still to her uninvited guest, and folded the paper sheet in her hands with careful precision. "Besides, I thought you were on patrol near the shrine tonight, Kaede."

The ninja chuckled, her smoky voice curling from the shadows of the lounge room. "This one has found the shrine well-protected tonight, de gozaru. What use is a humble shinobi from the mountains to the collected forces of the Shinmeiryuu?" A long shadow pooling against the wall flowed southwards and Kaede faded into view as she stepped into the light that edged along the seam where carpet met linoleum. She smiled, but dark eyes were glittering and cool, and her amused tone had a sharp edge. "That is assuming that our dear commander does not send them fleeing once their new wards are settled, of course. This one has seen cats caught in rainstorms that were more agreeable than Mana-dono with a shrine full of strangers."

In spite of herself, Setsuna choked back a laugh, but the quick flash of amusement died out as quickly as it came; when it passed the young woman's face was as sombre as ever, and as she eased the folded paper into its waiting envelope and smoothed down the flap to seal it shut the kunoichi's sly smile faded into an concerned expression. "Setsuna-dono… it is not this one's place to pass comment on your actions, but… writing your last will and testament the night before battle is not a sign to inspire confidence in even your most staunch supporters." Heavy-lidded eyes lost their lazy gleam and turned gentle and worried, but the weight of that gaze was still a pressure between the half-demon's shoulder-blades.

"It's not my will, Kaede," said Setsuna softly, her pen skating quickly across the front of the envelope, sketching out the characters of the most important name she knew with fluid familiarity. "I have very few possessions, and if I die tomorrow, everything that matters will go to Konoka anyway." She didn't ask how the ninja knew. Rumour of her challenge was probably making the rounds of the magic association members by now, and preparations for the duelling grounds had already been in progress when she'd left to take Konoka home; it was no stretch to imagine the news reaching the ears of Mahora's Security Patrol. No doubt the gossip was already starting, and it was only a matter of time before the whole school knew that Konoka's girlfriend had challenged her father to a duel, even if they didn't know the reason why-

"This letter… is for Konoka-dono also?" The ninja's delicate query snapped her from her thoughts, and Setsuna sighed and capped her pen, tossing it carelessly on the table.

"If… if I should die tomorrow," began Setsuna and then stopped, words catching in her throat. She didn't know what to say next. The swordswoman wanted to stand, wanted to push back her chair and face the young woman behind her, face her fears- because she was afraid, and as soon as she thought it, the cold reality of this whole situation started to sink in with a stunning swiftness that all but took her breath away.

Oh, Konoka. What have I done? What am I doing?

Swallowing heavily, Setsuna managed to push down the dread coiling like some icy serpent in her belly, and turned to the shadowy figure in her kitchen- but as soon as she faced Kaede she felt herself start to crumple, and forced it back even as the taller woman drew closer.

She couldn't doubt herself. Not even a little. Because at the back of her mind, she was terrified, and it was taking everything she had to keep that part of her taking her over. It was one thing to be brave when you stared down the blade of an enemy with the woman you loved behind you, knowing that you had no choice but to be brave and brilliant and keep her safe -so you were, without even stopping to think about it- but it was something else entirely to face those same fears alone in a darkened room with someone you knew watching your calm façade crack.

No. I won't break. I can't break. Not now, not like this-


Setsuna knew her hands were shaking, but she couldn't steady them, and as though that small gesture was the first, gentle snowfall before an avalanche, cold and fear crashed down on her in a bone-chilling rush. Her stomach knotted, tight and hurting as uncertainty cramped in her belly and doubt flashed through her in a bitter tide; beneath the thin layer of chi that held her human form she felt her wings rustle urgently, pushing, pushing, the need to flee almost irresistible, and her hands, her hands, she couldn't stop them shaking-


Kaede's voice, merciful and soft but no less affecting, cracked across her thoughts like the lash of a whip, like the crash of ice-water in her face; the shock of it made her blink and gasp, air rushing into her lungs for the first time since panic had threatened to overtake her.

"Setsuna-dono… what faces you tomorrow is not something one that this one can understand." Dragging her gaze upwards from her still-trembling hands, Setsuna forced herself to look her classmate and fellow security patrol member in the eye, and what she saw nearly stunned the breath out of her once more. "This one is not the best at reassurance," continued Kaede hesitantly, standing awkwardly at the boundary of her kitchen flooring, "and this one- and I am not entirely sure what I can do to help. This battle is between you and Konoka-dono's father, and though I do not know why the two of you are to fight at dawn, I know that the battle lines are drawn and cannot be undone. Setsuna-dono… I have always considered you a companion and a comrade, but I also think of you as a friend. And to know that a friend, to know that someone I care for is due to meet her destiny in a way that I cannot aide her… it is a bitter truth to swallow."

Kaede, kind eyes miserable, shook her head fiercely- and before Setsuna could open her mouth to say anything, the ninja straightened, her bowed shoulders drawing straight, the cloak of shadows that clung to her slender form fading away to leave her tall and proud in the dim glow that came from the kitchen light. Her eyes, dark slits in her young face, glittered with determination, the sadness gripping her melting into a kind of faith that left the swordswoman speechless.

"But I believe in you, Setsuna-dono. I know that though the trial that you face is a difficult one, you will overcome it. I know this, and Konoka-dono knows this- and all of us here who keep Mahora's borders safe know it too." Taking a few steps forward, Kaede reached out a hand and laid it warm and solid on Setsuna's slender shoulder. "I know that this fear that holds you will pass, and that tomorrow, you will succeed. But if you do not… know that Konoka-dono will not be alone and unprotected." Long fingers, calloused and worn and as strong as her own, pressed firmly into the curve of her shoulder, and the swordswoman jerked bodily, lifting her head to stare upwards in shock.


"We will watch over her," said Kaede softly, before she could protest, and though her tone was gentle it brooked no argument. "Protecting Konoka-dono is and always will be one of the duties of the security patrol, and if tomorrow you should fall, then we will be there to keep her safe."

Konoka. She won't… if I die, she won't be alone.

A warm smile worked its way across the kunoichi's features then, softening the hardness from her clenched jaw and bringing her expression back to the cheeky ninja Setsuna was familiar with. "Of course, this one does not think that such reassurance is necessary. After all, Setsuna-dono will not lose tomorrow." Kaede let her hands fall from the swordswoman's shoulders, and cocked her head gently to the side. "Of that this one is certain."

And just as quick as panic had nearly overtaken her, confidence bloomed in its place, a warm glow in her belly that chased the lingering chill from her bones. Because she could do this, there was no questioning it -not now, not with the faith everyone had in her and surely all she needed was some of that faith in herself- but if she couldn't, then Konoka would be safe, and her failure would only be upon herself.

Yes. If I die tomorrow, it'll only be the end for me. Kono-chan will be okay- our child will be okay, and that's enough for me.

Turning away, the ninja raked her eyes over the clock ticking gently on the kitchen wall. "It is very late, Setsuna-dono. This one should leave you to your rest." There was still something worried in dark eyes, but when Setsuna managed to smile at her -a small, sad little smile, but a smile none the less- Kaede let herself grin back. "Sleep well, Setsuna-dono, and this one hopes you dream of victory, de gozaru yo."

When Kaede left she took some of her warmth with her, and though Setsuna had lived in this room for years, slept and ate and studied here -and other things, her Kono-chan asleep in her bed, curled in her blankets, dark hair spilling over her pillow, the memory sending a pleasant shiver through her- it felt suddenly empty, and for a moment she felt something like loneliness…

"No," said Setsuna suddenly, shaking her head to banish her fears. "No. No. I will not go back there. I will fight tomorrow and I, I will win."

Her soft voice didn't echo off the walls, or ring with the sound of clashing steel; there was nothing particularly amazing about the words themselves, nothing extraordinary about the way she said them. But the meaning in them, the quiet, trembling resolve in that one, simple statement matched the sharp gleam of determination in the swordswoman's eyes.

"I will win," repeated Setsuna to the empty room, to the handwritten letter resting on the table, eyes closed and her delicate hands clenched into fists. "I must."

I have no choice.

Dawn light blushed the floorboards with a rosy glow, chasing the last shadows of blue twilight from the dojo. It was too early for birdsong; the air was still and terribly calm, the temperature cool for the moment but with the promise of heat building in the sunlight that oozed over the mountain panorama in the distance.

The low buildings of the martial arts complex seemed tranquil this time of morning; no students lapped the wooden walls, no kiai pierced the long halls and no clatter of shinai or bokken rang through the still air. In the distance, the dull sshhh-klonk! of a bamboo water fountain could be heard, echoing shockingly loud across the quiet grounds. The dojo and the slow, early-morning hush surrounding it was, in a word, peaceful.

But for Asuna, the air might as well have rung with the sombre tones of the funeral march.

Teeth gritted, she let her head tip back against the wood of the door she was leaning against, the brass handle digging into her spine as she rested against the closed and bolted entrance of Mahora Academy's private Shinmeiruu dojo. Beside her, Negi was a shorter albeit no less stern figure, his youthful face creased into a determined expression as he stood with arms folded, his suit jacket pulled tight across his narrow shoulders from the gesture.

Except they weren't so narrow, these days, her brat of a teacher not quite as short as she remembered; maybe Negi was finally catching up to his growth spurt…? Abruptly, the redhead shook herself in disgust, the heavy fall of her twin ponytails tumbling over her shoulders. Her friend was fighting for her life behind the door she was leaning against, and here she was musing about whether the shrimp had finally hit puberty! What the hell was wrong with her?

…except it didn't sound like anyone was fighting yet, not really; she'd been to enough practice sessions with Setsuna, fought in enough battles by her side to know the sounds the swordswoman made when she was going into combat- and the low, muted murmuring and the muffled footsteps of tabi-clad feet across polished floorboards didn't sound like a fight. No, most likely they were still going through the preliminary ceremonies, whatever they were, the traditional, pre-duel rituals that the headmaster had forbidden them both from attending in his soft and solemn voice, something like apology in his eyes-

Fat lot of good him feeling sorry is going to do for Konoka if her girlfriend dies today.

Snorting bitterly, Asuna shook her head again, bells jangling. Negi turned to look up at her, and his mouth was set in a thin line. "I don't like this any more than you do, Asuna, but I'm afraid to say that the headmaster is well within his rights to bar us from the dojo. When all is said and done, this is a… family matter, and you and I are not family." Negi swallowed, attempting to clear his throat and the sound was almost angry, a kind of bitterness creeping into his young voice even as he spoke. "You are their classmate, and I merely their teacher, and we are not, not important enough to- oh, bugger it, this is ridiculous!" A small fist smacked into an equally small palm, but the force behind it wasn't small by any means, and there was fire in Negi's eyes as her teacher turned to her.

"Asuna, you and I are not going to wait out here for this battle to be over without us! We have as much right as anyone to be in that dojo, supporting Setsuna-san and Konoka-san both! In fact," added Negi determinedly, gesturing wildly with arms outspread, "we're going to bust open these doors, march right in there and give them all a piece of our minds! Setsuna-san may have to fight, but by god she isn't going to fight alone!" Spinning on the spot, the boy mage grabbed onto the large brass handles adoring the thick wooden doors, a fierce look on his face. "These doors are magically sealed, but if we hit them hard enough we should be able to break them down!"

Before Asuna could open her mouth to respond, a cold shadow fell upon the dojo gate, bringing goosebumps to her skin and blocking out the early morning sunshine. A low, silky voice suddenly spoke, seeming to come from everywhere at once, and sent a chill rippling down her spine. "In that case, boya, get out of my way."

"Negi," gasped the schoolgirl, her breath fogging from her mouth in clouds of white steam as the temperature around them dropped shockingly fast, frost crackling beneath her feet and spreading in glittering patterns across the doors and wall of the dojo behind them, "get down!"


The redhead dove for her young teacher, knocking him off his feet and him to the ground in a leaping tackle as the ice crusting the wood-and-metal frame of the doorway and the stone wall of the dojo exploded into a shower of frozen, glacial pillars; a glittering fall of snow and frost rained down on them both as Asuna rolled, Negi's smaller frame tucked into her body as she tumbled across the ground, and the grating sound of splintering cedar and screaming brass followed them across the floor.

Her ears were ringing, her chest burning as the air turned cold and cut into her lungs with every breath, and she was fairly sure there was blood dripping down her face from a cut on her forehead, but Asuna raised her head all the same -slowly, painfully, shoulders protesting as she did so- and stared at the slender figure walking delicately through wreathing clouds of frost and fog, long blonde hair whipping about her body in frenzied skeins as the chill wind rising from her glacial magic set it to billowing out behind her.


Pale, bare feet marched inches past her head, the diminutive vamp stalking imperiously past without a single downward glance at the schoolgirl crouched over her young teacher, and lifted one slim arm to flick delicate fingers almost lazily in the direction of the steaming doors; thin fingers snapped once, and the last few shreds of the ruined gates blew outwards with an almighty fwoooshh and a sudden gust of freezing wind, scattering a storm of splinters across the ground in the rush of it and gusting great clouds of dust and frost into the air.

From inside the dojo, the schoolgirl could hear voices, raised and shouting and incredulous- but if Evangeline heard them she didn't care, her face as cold and inhuman as Asuna had ever seen it. Beneath her, Negi wriggled urgently, trying to get free of her grip, and as she rolled aside to let him up, the boy teacher scrambled to his feet. "Master! Master, what on earth is going on?"

"Shut up," snapped the vampire, finally condescending to look their way. "I'm busy," she continued, green eyes flashing and her voice tinkling with frost, "and I don't have the time to deal with your stupidity today." Before Asuna could even open her mouth to shoot back a retort, the undead mage strode forth into the billowing fog and disappeared through the hole she'd blown in the dojo walls.

The boy teacher, still stunned and gaping, abruptly shook his head, and snapped himself out of his dazed stupor. "Oh no, here, Asuna- let me help you," said Negi, grabbing onto her hand and helping to haul her upright as she struggled to her feet. "Ah, you're bleeding…"

"Don't worry about it," she mumbled, wiping away the bloody streak from her forehead with one hand and smearing it on her jeans. "'s just a cut. I'm more worried about what Eva-chan's gonna do to the people inside- did you see the look on her face? I don't think I've seen her so pissed."

"Please forgive my master for her rudeness, Asuna-san. Once she heard what was happening at the dojo this morning, she felt speed was of the essence," said a soft voice behind them, and Asuna flinched and whipped about on the spot, slapping Negi in the face with one of her ponytails as she spun, her jaw dropping open. Walking down the path to the dojo, the sunlight shining warm on the long fall of her sea-green hair as it spilt down her back, was Chachamaru- unmarked and unharmed and utterly whole once more. As the gynoid drew closer to them, stepping daintily over the slick icy patches scattered over the pavement, the twin-tailed schoolgirl couldn't hide her shock.

"Chacha-? You're- you're alright!" the last time Asuna had seen the robot, she'd been all but falling apart, leaking oil like a busted tanker and scorched all over from the backlash of Evangeline's magic, and yet here she was, good as new, shiny and bright in the morning sunlight and the stray, glittering wisps of icy fog.

"Master commissioned a new body for me once it was established that my previous one had suffered irreparable damage to its casing and core systems," said Chachamaru, her voice as coolly synthetic as always. "The upgrade and subsequent transferral of systems, files and programs took longer than expected, due to the presence of glitches. Happily, these problems have been restored and I am once more functioning at full capability." The echoes of her A. I. program flickered in her bright eyes, a shimmering haze that was difficult to look at. "However, while we are standing exchanging pleasantries, I fear that Master has taken it upon herself to interrupt the duel between Sakurazaki-san and Konoe-san." A sudden, rippling scream broke the crackling silence, and Chachamaru turned, looking straight through the shattered dojo walls. "Ah. Master has entered the dojo proper. Perhaps we should hurry, before she hurts someone." The gynoid paused. "Again."

Asuna gaped. "She knows about the duel? But, but you and Eva have been all locked up in that resort of hers- no one's seen either of you for weeks! And we only found out last night! How the hell-?"

Chachamaru titled her head gently to the side as she drew closer to the dojo wall, pleasant features mildly puzzled. "But of course Master knew about the duel, Asuna-san. She is Sakurazaki-san's second, after all." The gynoid took one step through the mist-choked opening, her hair blowing gently in the rush of magic-laced air that still swirled around broken stone and cracked wood, and her voice was mildly disapproving as she stepped through it. "She was very disappointed that you didn't inform her that it would be happening so immediately, and when Master is disappointed… I am sure you understand." Soft green hair whipped about her shoulders as she strode briskly through, disappearing from sight.

Asuna frowned. "I think… I think robot girl is angry with us," she mumbled, and wasn't at all surprised when Negi agreed with her.

"Come on, Asuna," he said, tugging on her arm. His young face was serious and worried. "We should follow," he finished, and together they stepped gingerly through the cracked hole in the wall, slippery with ice and broken rubble.

Apparently, Evangeline being disappointed meant in a murderous rage, judging by the sight that met Asuna as she and Negi entered the dojo. Rubble crumbled beneath their feet as they slipped through the broken wall and onto the cracked and splintered floorboards, and Asuna coughed as a cloud of dust and icy fog swirled across the dojo floor and into her face. Someone in the background was moaning in pain- she could hear the shifting sounds and low murmur of voices as people went to help the injured, and when she ventured a "Hello…?" a familiar voice answered.

"Asuna?" Konoka's voice was thin and strained, and when the drifting fog cleared to show her face, her soft brown eyes and kind face were drawn tight with worry. "Asuna, what's going on? There was a noise and then Evangeline-" Konoka coughed, the rest of her sentence lost to the sound, and when she stumbled forward from the cloud of freezing dust, she almost tripped into Asuna's arms. "I want to find Set-chan," mumbled the young mage, smearing away what could have been tears from her eyes. "I can't- I can't see her."

"Hey," said the redhead softly. "I've got you." Pulling her friend into a protective one-armed hug, she waved Negi over, the three of them venturing across trembling floorboards, Konoka calling out her partner's name as they edged forward.

"Set-chan? Set-chan? Please, if you can hear me…" Her words trembled, something unhappy flitting briefly over her face- but then Konoka dragged in a staggering breath, wresting control of herself once more, and determination creased her brow. "Set-chan," she said again, and this time her voice was loud and strong. "Set-chan!"

"Kono-chan-! I," and the sound of Setsuna's voice was sudden and ringing in the dust-blown silence, the swordswoman still distant. "I… I'm here, Kono-chan."

Negi frowned. "This is ridiculous," he snapped. "I can't see a bloody thing!" Muttering under his breath, the young teacher raised one hand, and the sudden glow at his fingertips was barely a warning as a sharp gust of wind exploded into the clouded room, chasing away dust and fog and ice in a cool ripple of clean air- and exposed the occupants of the ruined dojo to the thin sunlight that streamed through the hole-riddled walls, among them one dark-haired and slight swordswoman.


Only Asuna's arm around Konoka's shoulder stopped the young woman from racing towards her beloved- and with good reason too, Setsuna standing still and solemn with a shinmeiryuu blade held to her throat, flanked on either side by unsmiling swordsmen. The hanyou swallowed, the motion careful and hesitant against the razor-edged steel pressed beneath her chin. "Kono-chan. Stay where you are," she murmured, but even as she did so the blade at her throat dropped, the shinmeiryuu man holding her hostage jerking away in shock at the sight of the other spectacle unveiled as the clouded air was whisked clean.

"The hell-? Eishun-sama!"

Asuna knew that Konoka's father, in spite of what was happening right now, was still a good man, a kind one, and someone who loved his daughter very much. She also knew that he would do anything to protect his daughter and while she couldn't understand what would make him so angry as to try and separate Konoka and the girl she loved because of something so stupid as a bunch of old traditions and laws, she did get that a little of what was behind his actions would have been fear. However, none of this understanding stopped her from feeling almost vindictively satisfied at the sight of him sprawled flat on his back against the cracked and splintered floorboards with a vampire standing on his chest.

"You coward," hissed Evangeline, the words poison on her lips; small, dainty toes edged with scarlet nail polish pressed firmly against Eishun's throat, cartilage creaking and the swordsman sweating as he wrapped both hands about a slender ankle and tried to prise her off him but with no success. His katana lay unsheathed and discarded nearby, a curved arc of silvery steel against the wooden floorboards, out of reach and useless in the face of the vampire's attack. Evangeline's other foot, planted firmly on his chest, thumped against his breastbone as she shifted her weight backwards and dug her heel in.

"This is not how you duel honourably, Eishun." Green eyes spat sparks as dark pupils slitted dangerously and the floorboards below him creaked in protest as she forced him down. "I never thought I'd see the day when the captain of the shinmeiryuu resorted to bullying to get his point across. How very… human of you," Evangeline whispered, voice dripping with disgust.

The room was still, breathless, the scattered swordsmen and women of the shinmeiryuu watching the scene unfold with hard eyes and hands twitching towards their blades- but not a one made a move to help their leader, and none tried to confront the vampire in their midst. Asuna swallowed heavily, opening her mouth to say something, anything to break the tension- and nearly bit off her own tongue when Evangeline suddenly whipped around, those cutting eyes slashing across the room as though the vampire were searching for-


The swordswoman didn't flinch, even as one delicate hand rose to point a slender finger squarely at her chest, scarlet fingernail curving like a talon beyond the tip of her dainty finger. "And you," said the diminutive mage kindly, and the deceptive pleasantness of her voice sent chills ripping down Asuna's spine.

"This isn't good," whispered Negi. "Master only uses her nice voice when she's plotting how to hurt you."

Ignoring the hushed chatter from the edge of the room, Evangeline smiled sweetly, the gentle curve of her mouth more terrifying than her cruellest sneer. "I am hurt, Setsuna. Hurt. And after you promised me I could be your second, too." Shaking her head, the vampire cast her gaze over the room's occupants, her eyes as cold and dark as her smile was warm. "You really think I didn't know this would happen? Oh, children. I predicted this right from the start." A brief frown creased her brow. "Okay, so I didn't think it would be you that challenged him," she admitted after a moment of silence, pinning Setsuna beneath her gaze. "I'm… mildly impressed you actually had the balls do to that."

Beneath her, Eishun made a painful kind of sound, struggling where her toes pressed into the soft hollow of his chin, and Evangeline tutted, pressing her weight forward again and holding him down. "Uh-uh, Eishun. You're in quite a lot of trouble with me, right now. You're just lucky that I think it'll be more satisfying to watch the birdbrain cut you into ribbons than to do it myself." Her eyes narrowed. "After all, at least with your young apprentice you have a fighting chance. Me? I'd tear your head from your shoulders-"

"That's enough, Evangeline." Konoemon, pushing his way through the stunned ranks of shinmei warriors, sounded tired, his voice creaking with age in a way it normally wasn't. "While I do not approve of this situation, Setsuna did challenge and Eishun did accept. We cannot interfere in their duel."

"Hmph. I suppose that's why you're just watching from the sidelines, old man? Don't want to get your hands dirty?" Evangeline sneered, eyes flashing and lips peeling back from sharp teeth. Asuna swallowed nervously, and when Konoka grabbed her hand for support -the young woman still with her eyes fixed on her lover, standing still in a nest of blades across the other side of the room- she just squeezed back in what she hoped was a comforting manner. "Cowards, all of you," hissed the vampire, and darkness pooled in green eyes, bleeding black with power as her voice rose in temper. "I see no challenge here-"

"Master," cut in Chachamaru suddenly, her face impassive; her words startled them all and making Asuna jump. "I have received confirmation from the arena that preparations are complete." The gynoid had been lingering in the shadows of the dojo throughout the whole confrontation, and it seemed everyone had even forgotten she was there.

Evangeline blinked, taken off guard; the malice burning in her gaze faded as her servant's statement sunk in. "Already? That was fast," she mumbled, stepping off Eishun and onto the floorboards as though stepping over a puddle, completely ignoring the swordsman as she did so. "Well, I see no point dragging this on then…"

Drawing herself up to her diminutive height, the magus nosferatu seemed to draw the shadows of the room about herself like a cape, until her lacy dress fairly writhed with flickering, insubstantial wisps of dark magic. "Sakurazaki Setsuna," she snapped, and Setsuna nodded, stepping forward from the guarding ranks of the swordsmen around her. No one moved to stop her.

"As your duly nominated second, I hereby interrupt this farce. If you are going to duel today -and you will- you are at least going to do it properly." She sniffed imperiously, casting a disdainful gaze across the ruined dojo, the stony-faced shinmeiryuu and Eishun himself, the swordsman staggering to his feet, and then finally across Setsuna herself. "This is not how you duel."

She raised one small hand, and snapped her dainty fingers with a delicate little click-

-and before Asuna could open her mouth to gasp or speak or even breathe, shadows boiled up beneath her feet -beneath all their feet, the occupants of the dojo all drawn into this same spell- and the air filled with a rushing, shuddering screech of bats. Beside her, Konoka screamed out, lunging forward even as the floorboards beneath her feet rippled, exploding into darkness- but Asuna grabbed tight at her wrist, pulling her back even as her friend called for her partner, struggling towards her in the syrupy blackness that washed about their small group. "Set-chan!"

"Stay with us, Konoka-san!" Negi, barely visible beneath the writhing shadows that poured over them all, grabbed for Asuna's other hand, and his fingers curled tightly about her own as the three of them were swallowed up in Evangeline's magic. "It's dangerous- a spell like this, you can't fight it!"

And they couldn't, not when the air turned dark and cold and crushing and there was only the high-pitched screeching of a thousand, million bats; everything Asuna could see was filled with darkness, and her heartbeat pounded in her ears as the ground dropped away beneath her feet, and dread filled her.

Oh god. Oh god Eva. What are you even doing? I don't- I can't- what is happening-

-and just like that, there was hard ground beneath her feet once more. Asuna staggered as the roaring darkness lifted and flickered out in one last rippling rush of shadow, leaving her gasping for air; she swayed, almost falling to her knees but for the hands gripping tight against her own. Dragging in a deep breath, she forced her steps to steady and looked up at the roof of the dojo-

-except there was no roof, and they weren't in the dojo any more.

"And there you have it, ladies and gents- a spectacular entry brought to you by the Mahora Special FX Club and sponsored by McDowell-san of Class 6A! Look at that stunning display of CG, folks! It almost looks like it was real magic that whisked our challengers and their followers here into the middle of the tournament grounds!"

Asakura's voice, loud and distorted over a speaker system that would rival any international-level sport stadium, rang out over the audience, over the arena itself making Asuna stop and stare as her whereabouts finally sank in. And she wasn't the only one, either; every single person caught in the web of Evangeline's spell -a transportation spell, she saw that now, the vampire's magic dragging them all from the ruined dojo grounds and into the sunlight, dropping them all into Mahora's tournament stadium, right in the middle of the stone-tiled battlegrounds- looked around in shock at the crowded stands, filled with shouting, cheering students waving banners and calling out in excitement.

"The bloody hell is going on…" whispered Negi, standing beside her; his pince-nez were crooked, his eyes wide behind the tiny lenses. "Master, what did you do?"

"Now that everyone is here, there's nothing for it but for me to start the proceedings!"

Asakura's voice boomed over them once more, and Asuna whipped around to see her classmate, larger than life on a jumbo projection screen, microphone in hand. "Konoka, look," she hissed, "that's newsgirl! I think this is being televised!"

But Konoka wasn't looking where she was pointing. The young woman's gaze was firmly fixed on Setsuna, her face turned towards the girl she loved and her dark eyes determined. Setsuna, too, was focused only on her ojou-sama, regardless of the shinmeiryuu warriors swarming the stage and Eishun standing stunned near Evangeline, still shocked by the sudden change of scenery.

"I told you," said the vamp softly, her blonde hair whipping in the breeze and her words carrying far further than they ought to. "That wasn't right."

"Ladies and gentlemen, students and teachers, and all of our watchers on the live online broadcast- welcome to the duel of a century! I am Asakura Kazumi, your announcer, and I am here to bring you a showdown of the highest order- a fight for love!"

The crowd roared.

"Master versus apprentice! Age against youth, blade against blade! Konoe Eishun, master of the shinmeiryuu and father of our own Konoe Konoka, versus Sakurazaki Setsuna, student and beloved of Konoka herself, here today to duke it out for the right to be with the woman she loves! This is a matter of honour, to be settled only on the battlefield in a one on one fight! Who will win? The father seeking to defend his daughter's virtue, or her lover, trying to prove for once and for all her worth as a suitor! As soon as the spectators clear the stage, and our combatants take to their quarters to prepare, we'll get this show started!"

"This," said Evangeline, spreading her arms wide, green eyes bright with satisfaction and no small amount of magic, "this is how you duel!"

End Part Twelve

ENDNOTE: This chapter was supposed to include the epic showdown, and I'm sorry that it doesn't and I'm sorry that it'll have to wait for the next chapter. Rest assured it is coming, and I have been trying my hardest to make it worth the really, really, really long build-up.

This chapter is not edited, not really, so if you spot any mistakes please let me know; I'll try to fix them. I just haven't really been able to write anything for EB in such a long time, for a lot of reasons, some of them sad, and I wanted to give you all something to read even if it wasn't very much at all and, in my personal opinion, not the best thing I have even written. Real life has been… hectic, these past months. I'm not at university anymore; I've graduated now and I work full time, and I've just been told I have to vacate my apartment. Luckily, we have a new rental property lined up, but I do have to move, and things are going to get busy. Busier. And to the fact that I am actually trying to write my first original novel, and I find myself rapidly running out of free time.

So please don't hold your breath for an update soon. (Well, I wouldn't think anyone who reads anything I write would considering how long it takes me, but still.) I'll do my best, and things should get easier now that I've finally gotten the chapter that I found the hardest to write out of the way, but it might take me quite a while.

As for Negima coming to an end recently… the end kind of broke my heart a little, and not just because it ended so soon- it hurt to see even the vaguest implication that Konoka and Setsuna might not have ended up together, even though personally consider they did; I know Akamatsu does what Akamatsu wants, and ultimately it is his story, but would it have killed him to say they married each other and confirm it for us once and all? Still. No matter what anyone says, that's what I believe, and that's why KonoSetsu will always be my OTP. No matter how many other pairings I ship, I still love this one, and even if I takes me years, I will finish this story.

(Maybe then I can get started on all those other AU ideas I've had rattling around in my brain…)

I've heard there was something of a crack-down on more adult fics recently, as well. To this end, I do have a AO3 account (a kind friend invited me) and if, for whatever reason, Egg Belly is removed from this site, I'll repost there, so please don't worry about that happening.

Thank you all for your love, support, reviews and most of all, your patience. I'm sorry that I have disappointed you, but I'll try harder with the next chapter. It's the one I've been looking forward to since I first started this fic so long ago now, and it's something I've been planning for a very long time. I hope I can do my ideas justice with my words.

Reviews and faves are, as always, gratefully received- and feel free to PM me about any questions you might have; I aim to answer every single review or PM I get. (Please don't threaten me or send me creepy messages, though- I've had enough of those this year just gone, and it doesn't… make me feel very good. I'm least likely to write more when you do that, and I know most of you wouldn't, but I've been hurt a couple of times by a few messages like that and it makes me feel very small.)

Once again, thank you for reading, and for staying with this story for so long- it means so much to me that I have people who would want to read what I have written.