AN: I have no idea how this got written. At all. It just kind of forced itself into existence.
Just to be safe, SPOILERS for recent manga chapters. I'm not too sure about how spoilery this actually is, but the idea showed up after reading 353. Also, while this is not a romance fic, there are some implications about KonoSetsu. However, there is nothing that can not be read as platonic.
He'd known what would happen. He'd known for months. Part of the cost of saving everyone—everyone else—was… this.
Living in a world without Asuna-san.
At the moment, it was hard to think that anything could be worth that.
Tears fell down his cheeks.
He should have figured out some way to prevent it. If he was a real hero, he would have. Maybe if he had spent less time on his other plans—but those had to be completed—
Negi pressed his palms against his eyes.
He missed her so much. It hadn't even been one day yet, and he already couldn't imagine how he was supposed to wait a hundred years.
He didn't know if he could go back to their room when night fell. Konoka would be there—maybe Setsuna too if he was lucky, but… it wouldn't be the same.
He should have done something to stop this. If he had just thought of something else they could do—anything—then maybe…
Everyone ended up apart after Asuna left. Negi wandered off somewhere. Konoka walked back to her room with tears streaming down her face. And Setsuna… just couldn't follow her. She sat against the door instead, resting her forehead on her knees, and listened to her partner cry.
She didn't really know why. All she could think of was how much easier it had been when she guarded Konoka from the shadows. Then, she didn't have to worry about anything but keeping her charge safe. Even Konoka's happiness hadn't been too much of a concern.
After all, Konoka had Asuna.
Tears burned in Setsuna's eyes as she tried in vain to blink them away.
Her friend was gone. Their friend was gone.
Without Asuna, she never would have been able to…
The sobs on the other side of the door grew louder.
Asuna had called her wings cool.
They'd trained together every day.
…Asuna had yelled at Evangeline for bringing up bad memories.
And even in the beginning, before they knew each other, Asuna had been her friend. Because she cared for Konoka.
Guilt burned its way onto Setsuna's face. She looked back at the door.
She didn't think Konoka was going to stop crying any time soon.
In a hundred years, how mad would Asuna be, if she left it like this?
She stood up on oddly shaky legs and turned around.
Konoka couldn't seem to stop crying. She kept trying, but the tears just wouldn't stop. Every time she raised her head, all she could see was their room.
It felt so empty.
It reminded her of her first lonely hour at Mahora, where the only person she knew was her grandfather, and it just hadn't felt right at all—
Until she came across two bickering girls outside her grandfather's office. They looked a few moments away from throwing punches before her grandfather had cleared his throat pointedly. Both girls stopped, but they kept glaring at each other until he gestured to Konoka and introduced her.
They smiled at her, not a trace of their argument left in their faces.
She'd spent the rest of the day running around the campus with the energetic redhead. It set the stage for the rest of their very happy days at Mahora.
She cried harder despite the horrible burning sensation taking over her throat.
Something brushed against her shoulder. A hand.
"Kono-chan?" a voice whispered.
Konoka spun around mid-sob.
Her partner was looking down at her awkwardly. Her eyes were wide and wet and very clearly terrified, and Konoka had never been gladder to see anyone in her life.
Set-chan shrugged her free shoulder as a tear leaked out of her eye.
Konoka didn't let her finish. She sprang up and grabbed Set-chan as tightly as she could manage. She buried her face in her partner's shirt and continued to sniffle helplessly, feeling as weak and powerless as she had since hearing Asuna's farewell, but safe.
She felt a drop of something fall on her head and pressed herself closer.
"Don't leave," she whispered.
And to her surprise and utter relief, Set-chan returned her embrace and muttered hoarsely into her hair,
The damned robot was the one who pointed it out to her. Chisame didn't know why she hadn't noticed herself. She'd been paying attention. Their so-called teacher was hopeless, and with Kagurazaka gone… She wasn't going to leave him to his own devices with a situation like this.
Only she'd missed it. She and Yukihiro and whoever else in their old class cared enough to pay attention had kept an eye out, and they'd all missed it.
Except for Chachamaru.
"I don't think Negi-sensei's eating properly."
And then, somehow, it turned into Chisame's job to fix the problem.
How the hell did a robot look pointedly at someone to begin with?
She scowled at their teacher—former teacher—from her spot just outside the cafeteria. If Yukihiro were here, she'd get an earful about skulking in the shadows instead of being helpful, but Yukihiro wasn't here because the damned robot had decided that fixing up Kagurazaka's mess was Chisame's job.
If the other girl had just stuck around—
Chisame's thoughts had taken a very bitter turn in regards to their teacher's departed partner lately. Yes, it was unfair, and probably incredibly unreasonable, and if she got caught voicing them, Yukihiro and Konoe—hell, Sakurazaki too at that point—would probably make her life even more miserable than it was now.
She didn't care. They were all buddy-buddy with Kagurazaka and unbelievably distraught that she was gone. They were wrapped up in their own grief.
She, on the other hand, had spent the last couple of weeks watching their teacher's expressions grow progressively bleaker. And apparently he'd stopped eating well somewhere in there.
Fixing this sort of thing was Kagurazaka's job. She wasn't supposed to be the cause of it.
Chisame watched as Negi stopped pretending to pick at his food and just stared off into space.
…This was Kagurazaka's job.
She marched over to the idiot's table and let her tray clatter down on it. Negi jumped, but when he saw who it was he plastered a welcoming smile on his face. It was painfully strained.
What kind of ten-year-old looked like that?
What kind of person let a ten-year-old look like that?
She was going to kill Chachamaru for making this her problem.
"You can't keep moping like this."
The kid had the nerve to widen his eyes innocently, like he didn't know exactly what she meant.
"If you don't eat, you're going to run yourself into the ground faster than you were already. All of your planning isn't going to do much good if you can barely function."
He looked like a kicked puppy.
Chisame took a deep breath and tried not to yell at him.
"You'll see her again, right? What's she going to say if she comes back and finds out you weren't taking proper care of yourself?"
His eyes widened. He looked at her and for a second she swore he was going to start crying and death was suddenly far too good for that robot. But then he took a deep, shuddering breath and smiled weakly at her.
"I'm sorry, Chisame-san. I didn't mean to neglect my health."
She didn't have to be a mindreader to see what he meant by that. The weight of responsibility hung off his shoulders like a damn mantle lately—even before this mess with Kagurazaka.
But he started putting his food in his mouth instead of poking at it forlornly.
Chisame sighed to herself.
It was a start.
Nodoka wished she could stop thinking about everything.
That would probably be easier if she couldn't see her thoughts.
Of course she felt horrible for Negi-sensei—and Konoka, and Setsuna-san, and Iincho.
And she wished with all her heart that Asuna hadn't been put to sleep.
But part of her—a horrible, horrible part that couldn't help but point out every little thing about the situation—couldn't help but notice that there was an empty space at Negi-sensei's side now. And that horrible little part wasn't entirely saddened by that.
Nodoka slammed her artifact shut in horror.
She sat very still and tried to convince herself that it was wrong. Even if she wanted to be by Negi-sensei's side… Nothing was worth putting him through the pain he was in right now. She hated herself for thinking something like that for even a second.
Sometimes she really didn't like her artifact.
The next day, she found Negi-sensei and finally remembered to give him a list of books she'd come up with.
Each and every one of them never failed to make her smile.
Yue wasn't sure how appreciated any help from her would be. Half of their old class was eying their teacher—and not, she hastened to note, in the usual way. She thought the cheerleaders and the twins had mentioned throwing a party, and as always for what remained of their old class, there were a million other inane ideas floating about.
Somehow, trusting one of those inane ideas instead of her own felt a lot safer. Who knew, maybe they would help Sensei more than her words ever could.
But she couldn't let it go.
And so it was, on a bright, cheerful day that had most of the people she knew running around and laughing their heads off, she found herself telling Negi about her grandfather.
Haruna made the Library Expedition Club + Not-so Random Kendo Club Member group meet up at least once a week for a month and a half. Nodoka and Yue thought it was for Konoka. Konoka didn't seem to care what the reason was. Sakurazaki probably barely realized it was a planned event, what with her constant hovering over Konoka.
The meetings were for all of them. Minus Konoka and her tagalong, the library group had not been especially close to Asuna. But Nodoka and Yue had spent weeks watching their cute teacher's decline. He was better now, but still not quite up to snuff.
In short, everyone needed a break. And while Nodoka and Yue thought they were supposed to be helping Konoka, they'd forget about Negi-kun for a bit and fall into familiar patterns of discussing favorite books, and that would take some of the strain off all involved. Even Sakurazaki didn't look so gloomy when Konoka started smiling.
Just a tiny smile at the moment. They'd get around to fixing that.
As for Negi-kun… She would trust Chisame and Chachamaru.
Ayaka was not depressed. She was not overworking herself, she was not in denial, and she was not hiding her pain from the world. She was still hurting, yes, and possibly a little lonely, but that was the extent of it.
So while she appreciated Konoka, Negi (how could she not?) and Sakurazaki-san coming to visit her so often, the unspoken, "Are you alright?" that hid behind every other word was growing tiresome.
She was coping. She was coping just as well as Negi-sensei, which, thankfully, was very well. Of course there was still grief, but they were both working through it.
Besides that… they both knew they would see Asuna again. So what if it took a hundred years?
Then came the visit where Konoka and Sakurazaki-san left without Negi.
She looked expectantly at him, but she made sure to keep a smile on her face. It wouldn't do to have him think he was unwelcome!
He was fidgeting. Ayaka enjoyed a moment of calm silence while he organized his thoughts.
"Yue-san shared something with me," he started quietly. "And so I thought… I thought it might be nice to share our memories of the happiness Asuna-san gave us."
And out of everything, that was what brought Ayaka to tears.
Occasionally, Ayaka would make a remark that had half of the former 3A reaching for yen to bet before they remembered there would be no more fights.
Konoka woke up way too early to get a start on making breakfast, and whenever she came across someone on their paper route, she looked the other way.
Negi didn't mean to, but he got into the habit of never looking at his pactio cards.
Whenever the three of them actually had the opportunity to sleep in the same room at the same time, Setsuna, Konoka, and Negi always wound up sprawled across the floor together instead of letting anyone sleep in a bunk.
The next school festival came around, and everyone suddenly forgot the serious, important tasks Negi had scheduled and dragged him off to enjoy the festivities.
Makie managed to get a laugh out of him.
He probably would have laughed more if the sound hadn't made all of his friends and former students turn around and stare at him.
When Asakura spotted Konoka and Setsuna holding hands, she stayed quiet about it.
For an hour.
Ayaka was less than pleased about catching a cold that kept her from assisting Negi during an important stage of their project.
Konoka came over with a photo album documenting their early years at Mahora to keep her entertained.
Within minutes, they were giggling over the pictures of a certain tiny blonde and redhead wrestling.
It was Konoka's idea to have a picnic under the World Tree. Negi tried to tell her that he didn't have time for lunch today, but Chisame had pushed him out the door before he had time to complete his sentence. Setsuna always had lunch with Konoka, so she didn't mind. Ayaka had overheard and decided it was a wonderful idea and volunteered to bring more food than they really needed, which ended up attracting quite a few of their former classmates—who departed as quickly as they appeared when the realized that if they were going to share the food, the would be expected to help with cleanup.
They were just finishing their meal when Negi happened to look up at the tree. Specifically, a small collection of leaves on one of the lower branches.
They were glowing.
And—was he imagining things, or was the tree brighter than usual? Was that its normal shade of green?
Negi watched curiously for a moment or two to see if the glow from the leaves spread, but nothing happened. In fact, a second later, the glow vanished. He turned away and resolved to ask the headmaster about that later.
He looked back at his friends, expecting to enjoy the ongoing discussion on who should clean up what. But somewhere in the last minute, they had stopped talking. In fact, the whole area around the World Tree was eerily silent. Everyone seemed to be gaping at something over his shoulder.
He heard bells.
His heart thumped loudly in his chest.
Slowly, not daring to trust the warm feeling spreading from head to toe, he turned around.
His breath caught in his throat, and a familiar burning stung at his eyes.
There, standing in some very odd looking clothes, was Asuna.
Carrying a very familiar watch.
For a moment, everyone simply stared. She stared back. When her gaze found Negi's, a smile slowly worked its way across her face. Negi barely noticed through the blurry haze marring his vision, but he could see something wet speeding across her cheek.
She waved at them and laughed. "Hey, long time no see!"
No one knew who moved first, but suddenly, the world was a confusing jumble of laughter, shouting, and tears, and tackling someone to the ground close to stairs probably wasn't the best idea but who cared—
She was back, and everything in the world was right again.