Kotarou tapped the diagram on the blackboard one more time. "No, wrong! Setsuna-san, what would you do if an enemy started putting you down?"
Setsuna winced, slightly flustered. Rakan was off somewhere doing gods knew what, but he'd asked Kotarou to fill in for him when teaching Negi, saying, 'it's something he'll need to learn'. What mystified her was why Konoka-sama had asked her to sit in on the class. She was better now that Konoka-sama helped resolve her issues. Wasn't she?
She and Negi-sensei were both sat at school desks that had been placed in the courtyard of Rakan's villa. The sound of the lake lapping at the shore provided a gentle background to their teacher's rough speech. Rakan's blackboard had been brought out for Kotarou-san to scrawl on and to gesture towards.
"Um, I would wonder what I had done for her to make such a comment in the middle of a battle."
Kotarou sighed, his ears drooping slightly. "Wrong again. Look, most of the time, they're just trying to put ya off. Other times, they're twisted enough ta think everyone should become like them. Either way, it's plain 'ol bullying. And like the super-smart idiots you are, ya fall for it and it starts spinning round and round and round 'til you're completely lost in your mind.".
Negi put his hand up. "So what do we do?"
"Talk back to them! Don't let them!" Kotarou replied.
Negi put his hand up again. "What do we say to them?"
"Take on their tactic. Think of something that'll throw them off. If you can't think of anythin' to say, don't say anything nice. Insults are always good..." Kotarou paused. "Setsuna! Insult me!"
Setsuna jerked upright. "Uh, er, ah - Dog... Worthless dog boy!"
"Hmm, alright. But sometimes you need something stronger. Like, say ******* ****-***** ********!"
Setsuna flushed, stood up fast enough to knock her chair over. Her hand automatically went to her artefact card.
Kotarou put his hands up. "Whoa, whoa, it's just an example, an example. But it worked, didn't it? You got mad, you instantly went for your weapon an' tactics went right out the window."
"That is true..." She retrieved her chair and sat slowly down.
Negi, fidgeting, put his hand up once more. "But what do we say if they made a valid point?"
Kotarou put his face in his hand. "Arrgh... Negi, look. This is the main thing Rakan asked me to fix. Combat is all about weak points. This thing you both do is one very big, easy-to-hit weak point." Straightening up, he continued, "The only difference between yourselves is where yer overthinking stems from. Negi can't switch off his analysing, planning and wondering, while Setsuna - well, Konoka told me what you worry about, an' I can relate to the why, believe me!"
Setsuna wondered how much he'd been told. Did he, too, once have someone to protect? What was in his past? How- "You're doing it again."
Setsuna started, then stared at Kotarou. "Your eyes look at the floor an' you get this frown." He grinned. "Konoka-san was really detailed."
"'Course, I don't have anyone like that to protect. I can't blame you for wanting to, either."
Setsuna could feel her face start to glow, compunding her embarrassment.
"She's like one of those 'ideal' women - yamato nadeshiko, isn't it? Help me out here."
Her blush was rapidly approaching Defcon Tomato.
"Wha- No- it's not-"
"Ahh, it's okay. She's your reason - that's enough. Mine's simple enough, I just wanna defeat Negi someday. Negi's reasons, well... you could write a manga about them."
"Aaanyway, here's the thing. Like I said to Negi a while ago, the key thing you're both lacking is idiocy. Or stupidity. It's not limiting your brainpower or supressing your feelings, it's the courage to make mistakes and be taught by them, to be a fool and not care what the mean ol' monster said about your mother. You feel your responsibilities way too keenly. You think that if you let up even in the slightest, or show weakness, someone'll die. Am I right?"
Negi looked down at his desk, solemn. He looked all of ten years old - which, despite all his acheivements, he still was. "Well... yes. But how do you know they won't? How can you be sure they'll be OK?"
Ignoring their worried faces, he continued, "What you can do is have a bit of faith in them. Take Nodoka-neechan - she discovered Fate's name all by herself. She might have had help from yours truly, an' she might have come close to goin' out of the game-" Negi flinched as he remembered "-but she wanted to do what she could to help you. It's her faith in you that drives her (among other things), so a bit of faith in her from you would give her even more strength. Same goes for all yer classmates."
Setsuna's and Negi's voices rose in unison. "But-"
Kotarou nearly barked in aggravation. "No buts! You're great at thinkin' of things to go wrong, but try thinkin' of ways ta make it go right! Ya can't always be there for them, so try relyin' on them - THEY'LL MANAGE!"
Negi said, hesitantly, "I... could teach them some self-defence? Or train them in barrier magic?"
"Better. Heh, they're already your 'angels', might as well go all the way", Kotarou said. "Konoka especially - I got the feeling she'd be a monster at shield magic." Setsuna smiled slightly.
"Now..." Kotarou gestured to the second figure drawn on the board. A crudely-drawn Negi and a beskirted stick figure brandishing what was probably a sword were facing a "MASIVE DEAMON". "Battling stronger opponents!"
Negi and Setsuna exchanged a look. It said, 'Where did he forget all the times we bailed him out for forgetting exactly this?'
"I saw that. Don't forget how many times I've helped you out. Anyway, I don't do it that often..."
Negi spotted an opportunity to score a point on his rival. "Then why did Rakan choose you for this, Kotarou-kun?"
"Ergh... 'Cos... Because! I got way more experience than you facin' stronger opponents anyway. Point is, I fight every battle like it's my last. All you've got! Nothin' held back!", said Kotarou, pounding his chest with his fist for emphasis.
"But you save stuff up all the time. Remember when we were fighting Graf? You said, quote "I've been saving that force bullet" unquote", said Negi.
"That was TACTICS; I'm talking about attitude here. An' I'm not gonna get into an argument about what I may or may not have said."
"Because you'd lose?"
Negi smirked. "Caught you. Even you avoid unwinnable fights sometimes."
Kotarou ground his teeth briefly. "Okay, okay, I admit it. Holding something back, or running away when you know you're outmatched is necessary... sometimes. Fact remains that you're the ones who've got a bad attitude. Can't avoid it, can't get round it - you're afraid. In battle, most of what I saw you two do was out of fear - not so much the case now, but it's still there. Fear of getting hurt, fear of hurting the one fighting, fear that others'll get hurt - you're just afraid."
Negi looked pensive, whilst Setsuna had returned to staring at the floor as if she'd been dressed-down by the principal.
"Hit a nerve, did I? Relax. Everyone feels it - well, everyone who isn't as crazy-powerful as someone like the Thousand Master. The degree of it comes from how you judge 'unwinnable' or 'too powerful', an' part o' what made Nagi and Rakan-san so effective was how they DIDN'T judge, didn't worry, just went for it. 'Course another part was possessing enough power to level a mountain!"
"You left a bit out. What's the last part, Kotarou-kun?"
"Experience! Battle experience most of all. The more varied the situations you're placed under, the better you'll manage."
"I see!", said Negi. "That's why Rakan is so confident. I suppose having my father as his rival would have contributed - developing defences and tricks to deal with such overwhelming power. I must read some accounts of his bouts - didn't someone mention he was a gladiator once... uh, sorry, Kotarou-kun."
"Don't be. Hey, if studying prepares ya and makes you stronger, no problem. Just don't get caught up in 'which technique do I use?', 'cause soon as your mind gets caught up in directing the body, there go your reflexes. Gotta be relaxed, trust in your strength and let your body learn under pressure. An' don't get hung up on your mistakes - they didn't."
"Master said much the same thing. You're sounding like a proper teacher, Kotarou-kun!"
Kotarou puffed up with pride. "Hmph, 'bout time you recognised my smarts, Negi!"
Setsuna raised her hand hesitantly. Adjusting invisible glasses, he said mock-pompously, "Hhyeess, Setsuna-san?"
Lowering it, she said, "Ah, er, I wondered what I could do when I was... unsuccessful. I confess that it weighs on my mind despite your words, as I had been training near-constantly before my battle with that swordswoman Tsukuyomi, yet I still-"
"-held her off? Was on par before she dishonourably stripped you with that charm?", Negi cut in. "You still fought admirably, and were prepared to fight on despite your situation. We cannot always predict what will happen in battle, as Kotarou-kun has been saying. Right?"
Temporary 'schoolteacher' had been schooled by temporary pupil. "Uh, right, Negi."
"But she could have defeated me easily if she hadn't been toying with me!", exclaimed Setsuna.
"Hold it, hold it. Konoka-neesan said you've received a 'next time I kill you' from someone who goes easy on you and is obsessed with you? Run it through your head. It's not all bad.", said Kotarou.
"She is evil and perverted and wants to 'have' me, Kotaru-san", said Setsuna, shuddering. "How is that good?"
"You can take advantage of her focus on you. With my special technique, y' can always strike first. Put enough power inta it and you could take her out in one blow."
Setsuna was interested despite herself. Was this some secret move of the dog tribe? "What is it?"
"I'll need ta demonstrate it. Negi?" Negi got up and walked to where Kotarou was standing in front of the board. Kotarou whispered in his ear and Negi smiled mischievously and whispered back. Setsuna hadn't seen such an expression on his face for... was it only a couple of months since the Mahora Fest? She pulled herself back to the present as they both picked up - 1-metre rulers? - and faced each other, holding them like swords.
"Right, this is a normal swordfight", said Kotarou, assuming a rough approximation of a kendo stance, as did Negi. "Okay, Negi-kun."
Negi, speaking in an absurdly high falsetto, said, "OHOHOHOHO, I, Tsukuyomi, have you now! I could eat you both right up, but I have to carve first!"
Then Kotarou responded in a strident voice that was obviously hers, "I, Setsuna Sakurazaki shall not let you sleaze the Oujo-sama! Have at you!"
"HIIIYA!" "HAAAAH!" Both of them leaped at each other with a *clack* as their ruler-swords locked, both trying to push each other to the floor but neither succeeding.
Negi caught sight of Kotarou's mock-furious face. Kotarou caught sight of Negi's mock-gleeful face.
Both collapsed on the floor laughing.
Setsuna was too surprised to be annoyed. At first. "My voice does not sound like that!", she said stridently. More giggles. "And you shouldn't be laughing!" This just made them laugh harder.
"I- I- " Something long-buried rose up in her. "How DARE you! R-right! Let me see if you find it funny when someone makes fun of YOU!"
"Well", she started, her voice lowering an octave, "I'm so wonderful, because I'm a perfect teacher who drinks tea and, and wears suits that'd fit a five-year-old and everyone thinks I'm so pretty I should be a girl!" Negi heard this tirade and sobered up quickly, with Kotarou taking longer to recover. Setsuna swivelled her head towards him, bringing anger to the petty sarcasm party. "And what's so great about me is that I've got an adopted family who treat me as a human and don't even have to hide who I am!" Both boys had stopped laughing and were now staring at her.
Setsuna realised she was standing up with her fists clenched. "F- Forgive me! I have said too much..."
"It is fine, Sakurazaki-san." Negi got up and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "The fault is ours - mine, really; I suggested it." He bowed. "Gomen nasai."
Kotarou picked himself up. "...sorry, Setsuna-neechan. I didn't know you felt like that." A grin came to his face. "You're getting better with the insults. Can we continue?"
She nodded briefly, then sat back down.
"So... that last fight was showing what normally happens when two swordfighters of roughly equal skill fight. Now I'll use my technique. Watch closely."
Negi and Kotarou faced off again, ruler-swords at the ready.
As before, Negi stated (in his own voice this time), "I, Tsukuyomi-" On the '-ku', Kotarou charged forward so fast he was a blur, disarming Negi (rather sloppily in her opinion) and putting his 'sword' to his throat before he could react.
"See? If you're talking, you're thinking about what you're going to say and not the enemy. In your enemy's case, she'd be even more distracted with all her fantasies swirling round. That gives ya the chance to strike first. I call it, "Talk to the Fist"."
"But that's cheating", cried Setsuna. "It's an affront to honour!"
"More of an affront to honour than being stripped, held down and having yer sarashi cut off? I think she demonstrated her honour right then.", Kotarou pointed out as he helped Negi up. "It's up to you."
It went against everything she'd been taught. It betrayed her own principles. It... could work - Tsukuyomi did seem to grandstand when it came to her. Kendo was a sport, yes, but Shinmeiryuu wasn't always sporting. Hadn't she gone for Negi-sensei's ''privates'' to disable him once? She'd have to think about it.
As Negi went back to his seat, Kotarou called after him, "Negi-kun, what I've said applies equally to you. Remember it the next time Fate's giving one of those little speeches."
"Ahh, what else, what else", Kotarou muttered. "Back-talk, taking advantage... speeches? Nah, I just advised against it... it didn't work for that blonde kid anyway..."
"Kotarou-kun?", asked Negi.
"Uhh..." Kotarou clapped for attention, like he'd seen in an anime. "Alright, that's it for today, class! I advise you to review today's, uh, kata and practice what you have learned."
"Yes, Kotarou-sensei!", they chorused.
"Excellent work!", boomed a voice.
The man himself stepped round from behind a pillar on the shore and walked towards them, stopping in front of Kotarou.
"You told me you went shopping!", exclaimed Kotarou.
"What, that? Already did it. Though I was held up by the people in town complaining 'bout my sonic booms. Who would have thought they'd get so upset over a few houses?"
He gave him a clap on the shoulder that nearly buckled his knees. "Great advice there, Kotarou-bozu! Loved the swordfight."
"Uhh, thanks, Rakan-san..."
Rakan grinned. "Now, I do believe 'practice' was mentioned? If you're needing a strong opponent, I'm your man!" He paced one or two yards away from them, making sure he had a clear line between the Negi-tachi and himself.
"Stand up, everyone, you don't want to lose before you start!"
Negi and Setsuna, guessing what was coming, stood quickly.
"HNGH!" A faint glow, brightening quickly to 100-watt light bulb, appeared around him.
The desks and chairs suddenly rolled and clattered away into the lake, as if fleeing.
The blackboard blew over and scrrrraaaaped across the ground to the edge of the courtyard.
Rakan's shirt didn't know whether to shred or incinerate, so it compromised by doing both.
"Right! First one to land a hit on me or to make me mad wins!"
The three of them looked at the grinning, glowing mountain of muscle, then each other, as they struggled to keep their footing in the midst of a sudden gale.
Kotarou felt a chill of fear. Even if it was just training, they might get hurt merely by touching such a massive ki. They wouldn't have a hope-
"Incendium Gehennah! Complexio!"
What was he worrying about? They'd do their best. Then he remembered.
"Rakan-san!", he shouted over the wind.
"Do the speech!"
"WAHAHAHA! Of course, kid! 'I, Jack Rakan, of the Thou-'"
Negi and Setsuna leaped.
Well, that was fun. I'd like to thank the TV Tropes Negima forum, especially Radical Taoist for volunteering to edit this, and MarqFJA for cheering me on.
I'd also like to thank Ken Akamatsu for such a troperiffic series.