AN: Just a simple fic. Tsuruko and Motoko are Shinmei swordsmen from Love Hina, and they come up in Negima a few times (never by name).
It starts innocently.
She's Konoka's age. He finds the idea of letting someone the same age as his daughter starve or bleed to death distasteful. So he helps her. He takes her inside and hands her off to Tsuruko, trusting her to take care of the child.
He doesn't consider it important; over the years, he has helped find a place for many orphaned children. This is just the most recent one.
And right now, all he cares about is seeing his little girl again.
"I believe you were charged with guarding a toddler at one stage in your career, Eishun."
"That was a temporary assignment. You are suggesting placing her under one of your students' care permanently. The youngest one is twice her age!"
"It wouldn't be right away, of course. But I think it would be a good idea for you to start looking. These walls won't always be enough to keep her safe."
Mostly against his will, Eishun starts attending Tsuruko's lessons. He doesn't expect anything he sees to warm him up to the idea of assigning a teenager to keep a constant eye on his daughter, and he's not surprised. Motoko is the only one he would even consider letting look after Konoka, but Tsuruko had refused to let her heir abuse her potential with "extended babysitting."
Eishun sighs and leans more heavily against the doorframe. He wishes now that he had made one of the many caustic remarks that came to mind when his dear cousin said that. Maybe then she would have banned him from the dojo and he'd be spending this very limited time with Konoka.
He's about to give up on the whole thing when a small movement from across the room coupled with a shock of white catches his eye.
It takes a moment before he places the tiny figure. Reluctant curiosity brings a slight smile to his face, and he slips into the room, unnoticed by the training students. Tsuruko gives him a quick, pointed glance but makes no move to stop him.
He walks lightly across the floor, barely making a sound. Still, the instant he starts moving, the half-demon's eyes are glued on him.
"Hello," he says as lightly as he can manage. It still makes the girl flinch. She gives him a hesitant bow in return, but her mouth stays clamped shut.
He nods towards the supposed bodyguards in the room. "Are you watching them?"
Strangely, his question makes a dash of red scurry across her cheeks. She meets his eyes uncomfortably.
Rather than finishing the sentence, she gestures at the instructor and looks at him imploringly.
The helplessness practically radiating off of her makes a real smile come to his face. He kneels next to her (which makes her jump half a meter into the air) and holds out his hand. "My name is Konoe Eishun. Aoyama-san is my cousin."
She stares at his hand for a very long time before she reaches out her own to grab it. She lets go almost immediately. She mumbles something that sounds like a name and her eyes snap to the floor.
He sits next to her for a few minutes before her eyes wander back to him. He expects her to looks away the second she realizes that he's watching her, but instead, she dons a very serious expression and looks him straight in the eye. It reminds him very strongly of Kurt.
"You saved me."
He shifts uncomfortably. "I found you."
She's quiet for a little longer. Then she drops her eyes to the floor and kneels in front of him.
"Thank you, sir."
Somehow, he keeps running into the young half-demon when he comes to visit his cousin. Considering her recent and very unappreciated attachment to Motoko, he's not entirely surprised, but he seems to have a knack for coming across her when he's wandering the halls.
She's almost always alone.
It's that, not her age, that reminds him of Konoka.
He talks to her once in a while, but usually he just sends a friendly smile her way and hopes for the best. He's never been very good at small talk, and listening to himself try to make conversation with the girl is more embarrassing than he ever would have guessed. He appreciates Konoka's gift for lively chatter more than ever.
They both seem most at ease when they're watching the students train. Tsuruko's constant stream of instructions relaxes him, and the half-demon is willing to stop worrying about what she thinks she's doing wrong during the lessons, even if she's not participating. Her eyes stay glued to the movements of the swords from beginning to end.
It's strangely peaceful, even if he has yet to see anyone besides Motoko with genuine talent.
That worries him a little. Tsuruko wasn't wrong when she said it was time to start looking for someone.
"What's her name?"
"…She's been here for a month, Eishun. You haven't bothered to find out her name after all that time?"
"She told me once, but—I just don't want to cause her any embarrassment by asking again."
"Sakurazaki Setsuna. Do what you can to remember it."
Tsuruko, perhaps out of some misguided attempt at helpfulness, created files for each one of her students. She informed him that even if it wasn't much help, he could at least say that he did more than observe before deciding that no one was suitable.
He takes over Tsuruko's room so he can have a private space to go over them, even if they don't tell him anything new. After an hour the quiet emptiness of the bedroom drives him out into the halls to look for Setsuna.
She's very willing to follow him around the dojo. She's less willing to step a foot into Tsuruko's private quarters. After several minutes of quietly staring at the floor just inside the room, she dashes inside and practically glues herself to Eishun's side, vibrating with tension.
Knowing better than trusting himself to say something that will fix her current bout of panic, he goes to open the next folder. Oddly enough, the company does little to make the reading go any easier. If anything, it's worse. The presence of a tiny body that relies on him only strengthens his desire to find the right person, and the more he looks…
They're all very competent. Motoko's natural talent will outstrip them all in the end, but they know how to handle themselves.
He doesn't trust any of them with his daughter.
It's his fifth day rereading the files before Setsuna dares to say a word.
"Kanzaki-san's too slow."
Eishun looks up in surprise. "Pardon?"
The girl's face is a dull pink. She points at the picture on top of the folder he was planning on opening next. "Kanzaki-san," she repeats in a rush. "He's too slow. Motoko-san always beats him even though he's bigger."
She looks up at him, biting her lip. "Motoko-san is very good."
He grimaces. "Yes, but she's also unavailable."
She frowns. "But you need her."
"Tsuru—Aoyama-san needs her more," he says lightly. "If it were for only a few weeks, I could use Motoko, but I need someone to look after Konoka for an extended period of time."
She mouths the name to herself, looking confused.
"My daughter," he clarifies.
Her eyes widen, and suddenly she looks incredibly alarmed. "Someone's going to hurt your daughter?"
It shouldn't, but the innocent shock in her voice makes him laugh. Setsuna shrinks away from him.
"No. But people will try. Many already have. That," he picks up a new folder, "is why I need to find the right person to look after her. For now our family's protection keeps her safe, but in a few years… In a few years she will need someone loyal to her, personally."
He doesn't know how much of his family politics Setsuna understands, but the child seems to grasp the core problem easily enough. She looks anxiously at the folders. She reaches out a hand, but pulls it back just as quickly. She looks back up at Eishun.
"But your daughter's safe right now?"
He thinks of his little girl, and the way her bright smiles dim whenever she hears that her parents both have work that will take them away from home. He thinks of her bouncing her favorite toy ball all on her own.
"Yes," he hears himself saying, "she's very safe."
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were getting worried."
"Not quite worried, just a little concerned."
"She is still a young child, Eishun. There will be time."
Throughout their strange little companionship, Eishun has always been the one to seek out Setsuna. Setsuna never came to find him, and when they did cross paths, she rarely said or did anything without him inviting her to.
So when he finds Setsuna waiting for him just inside the doors of the dojo, he is understandably surprised—then he sees the bruises covering her skin and is more concerned than anything. He can think of several ways a young half-demon could come to harm in this school, and the possibilities alone fill him with dread.
Before he has a chance to ask, she kneels down in front of him. She stares up at him nervously for a moment or two before taking a deep breath.
"Motoko-senpai's teaching me kendo," she blurts out. "And I want—I want to be a Shinmei swordsman. I can—I mean, if it's okay—I can help keep your daughter safe. U-until you find the right person to do it. Sir."
Being stunned into silence by a small child is not something Eishun has had many opportunities to experience. The closest he can recall is when Kurt had demanded to be his student with such insistence that it took several moments to will himself to say no.
But Setsuna is not Kurt, and while he doesn't have much faith in his people skills, he knows that telling her no is the worst way to deal with this. He kneels down next to her.
"Setsuna-kun," he says gently, "do you know what you're offering?"
Her response is perhaps the most confident he's ever heard from her.
They sit there, staring at each other, for several minutes while Eishun tries to work out the correct way to tell her that she's too young, too inexperienced, too young—
He can't say it.
"You'd be spending all of your time with her. And all of your time with Motoko would be for training," he points out weakly.
Setsuna fidgets with her sleeve. "I like training."
"What if you don't like Konoka?" It's not a realistic question; he doesn't think anyone who's spent five minutes with Konoka has felt anything but affection for his little girl, but Setsuna doesn't know that.
But he gets a surprisingly serious-sounding answer.
"She's your daughter," Setsuna states baldly. Then her mind catches up with her words and she looks away hurriedly, her face bright red. "If she's Eishun-sama's daughter," she mumbles, "then… I'll definitely like her."
Earnestness is practically bursting from her tiny frame, even as she dissolves into concerned ramblings about Konoka perhaps not liking her. Another time, the sight of so many words coming out of Setsuna's mouth might have made him laugh. Instead, his mind is thoroughly occupied with examining her.
She's not what he would consider fighter material. Time could change that. He's not sure it will, but it could. And she's not saying she wants to be Konoka's permanent guard. It will only be temporary.
With her eyes shining with sincerity and nerves, he can't find a trace of loneliness.
He's not going to be responsible for bringing that back.
"She'll definitely like you. She's my daughter after all."
"Would you care to tell me why Setsuna is so convinced that she has to protect Konoka?"
"Setsuna-kun has offered to be Konoka's temporary guard."
"And you accepted that offer?"
"Not quite. But I do think it's a good opportunity for both of them to make a friend."
"And I suppose you think letting Konoka befriend a half-demon is the best way to keep magic hidden from her?"
He likes to think that Konoka's blossoming friendship with Setsuna isn't just about loneliness. On Setsuna's side, at least, he doubts anything other than genuine affection could convince her to drop the formal address that Motoko had drilled into her head.
He makes a point of checking up on them whenever he can. They both seem thrilled at the extra bit of attention, though it takes Setsuna some extra pushing from Konoka before she realizes that she's allowed to be thrilled by it.
For a time, he lets his daughter's joy wash away whatever concerns he has over her future. Everything seems much more manageable when Konoka is bursting with happiness.
But certain things are harder to ignore. The amount of attention Setsuna's presence receives from everyone is extremely unwelcome.
Old servants start making remarks about how "she's just like the young master was." Eishun doesn't give the comments much though until new servants, who don't know better, hear the remarks and start looking at them both with an embarrassing degree of curiosity. His wife finds it all very amusing, but he sees the looks and he hears the increasingly suspicious whispers—
Nagi always accused him of caring too much about propriety. About his station.
Nagi, as it turns out, was right.
Despite the embarrassed hope he sees in Setsuna's eyes whenever she overhears the servants' latest gossip, he forces himself to draw a line. He pulls away from Setsuna. He regards her with all the affection he might have for any of his daughter's friends, and doesn't let anything extra slip into his gaze when he looks at her.
To his eternal disgust, Setsuna catches on very quickly. She stops looking for him when she first enters the compound for the day. She's a little slower to join Konoka in running over to greet him when he spots them playing. She is painfully respectful.
Eventually, the gossip dies down, and as far as he can tell, his changed relationship with Setsuna doesn't catch more unwelcome attention.
Konoka is still happy. He clings to that.
He doesn't remember who pulls them from the river. All he remembers is the horror and tinges of pride when he hears that Setsuna managed to keep Konoka's head above water. And then he's running towards them as fast as he can, needing to see with his own eyes that they're alright.
He's by his daughter's side in an instant, holding her and checking her over for any stray scrapes that need treating. Konoka is shivering, but she smiles brightly enough at him, telling her that she's okay, that Set-chan and everyone else saved her.
Eishun doesn't let himself look at Setsuna when he hears that. It's much later, when he's walking the halls and thinking of how much worse it could have been that he sees her.
She's sitting outside Konoka's room with a miserable look on her face. His first instinct is to comfort her, to say anything that will let her believe that this isn't her fault, but he stays standing, looking down at her stoically.
"I'm sorry," she says, tears crawling down her face. "I'll be better. I'll get stronger. Next time—next time I'll save her."
It's not believable, coming from a child her age, but Eishun can't find it in him to doubt her for a second. He nods, feeling more helpless than Setsuna looks.
"You should get to bed," he says quietly. "It's not healthy to be up this late."
It was his decision to visit the dojo when he heard that Tsuruko would be teaching Setsuna about a certain sword. He trusts his cousin, but that particular weapon never failed to cause chaos and destruction in the past. Letting her expose Setsuna to it without another person watching over them struck him as needlessly risky.
So he watches from the doorway. He watches Tsuruko lose control and blow up half the room.
He forgets himself in that moment. When he sees the bloody mess Tsuruko has left Setsuna in, he forgets that he's only supposed to be her benefactor. He forgets that she's not his child. He reacts like an enraged father protecting his daughter.
It nearly gets Tsuruko killed.
He visits Setsuna in the infirmary after… after. He doesn't act like he just nearly killed a relative because she hurt her. He acts as the leader she has come to expect. She thanks him genuinely for saving her life, and he wishes her a speedy recovery. The words spill out of his mouth as easily as they might to a random handmaiden.
Inside, he frets so much that he doesn't think he'll ever stop. It's not just about the physical damage—that, while severe, will be dealt with in time. It's the look—the horrified shame—in Setsuna's eyes when she glances up at him. It's the same look she gave him after the incident in the river.
He doesn't try to fix it. He's done more than enough damage.
Regardless of what the rest of his organization thinks, sending Konoka to Mahora is one of the best decisions he's ever made. She makes friends quickly, and seems happier than he could have imagined at his father-in-law's school.
And just being there is the safest introduction to magic that he can think of.
Not that he's willing to leave things to chance. His trust in Konoemon will last a few years, but then he's going to make sure that someone is looking after his daughter.
He's not worried about finding someone. The right person threw herself into the role years ago.
Even knowing what her answer will be, he can't help being a little apprehensive when he finally asks Setsuna if she's willing to go to Mahora and watch over Konoka. He makes it as clear as he can that this is a personal favor, and she's under no obligation to go if she doesn't want to.
She doesn't smile, but her eyes brighten and she stands up even straighter than he's used to.
"I'll protect her, Eishun-sama. I promise."
Tsuruko refuses to speak to him for a while after that. Eishun can't say he'd take one of his students disappearing in the middle of the night any better.
Konoka comes back for vacation, and though he tries to stop himself, he can't help asking about his most diligent servant.
His daughter goes still, and something fragile enters her smile. She tells him, very lightly, that Setsuna doesn't have time to play with her anymore.
It doesn't surprise him.
The guilt does.
He wants to apologize to Konoka—to both of them, but he's not sure how he would even explain it.
He's never liked school trips. Letting his daughter wander outside the safety of Mahora doesn't tend to sit well with him, not even now that he has Setsuna to rely on. He trusts Setsuna. He even trusts his father-in-law.
But he has never gotten over how pitiful the security of a random hotel room is next to a highly magical school.
The troubles this particular school trip brought to his doorstep didn't do much to improve his opinion of them.
He sighs and looks around at the celebrating students. His eyes wander until they land on the group he's most interested in. Nagi's son, Asuna, his daughter, and Setsuna are all sitting together. The deliriously happy expressions on their faces makes him smile slightly and forget for a moment that they've just attracted the attention of an incredibly dangerous individual.
He walks over to add his specific congratulations to their festivities, taking special care to rest one of his hands on Setsuna's shoulder. Her look of shock quickly turns into an embarrassed smile that she can't seem to force off her face.
Next to her, Eishun catches his daughter's face glowing at the sight.
He squeezes Setsuna's shoulder, silently thanking her as he listens to the happy jubilation Konoka is doing her best to drag him into.
The instant they all get a quiet moment together after the chaos, Konoka proudly informs him that Setsuna is her partner now. She says it while she has Setsuna's hand trapped in hers, and Eishun can only imagine the many different ways his daughter means "partner."
If the raging blush on Setsuna's face is anything to go by, she's having similar thoughts. He bites back a laugh and hugs his daughter, sharing a sympathetic smile with Setsuna over Konoka's head.
Later, after diplomatically dodging an interesting conversation with Kurt, he finds himself running straight into Setsuna. Her serious expression automatically makes him search the room for Konoka, and he relaxes a second later when he finds her laughing with Asuna.
He turns back to Setsuna with what he hopes is a welcoming smile.
"Is there anything you need, Setsuna-kun?"
She opens her mouth hesitantly, hands wringing themselves behind her back. Eishun waits patiently for her to collect herself.
"I'm… Kono-chan's my master now," she blurts out. She almost sounds surprised when she says it. She looks at him, waiting for him to help her with the awkward thought, but he doesn't even know where to begin with that. "But you're—you're still my—I mean, I'll always…"
She trails off and drops her hands limply to her side, looking up at him helplessly. Eishun imagines that he has a very similar expression on his face. He is reminded, very suddenly, of the day he introduced himself to her.
And something else, too: This is the second time she's found him instead of the other way around.
They share a moment of staring before Setsuna's shoulders fall. She clicks her feet together and bows stiffly to him.
"Thank you for everything, Eishun-sama."
He hesitates for a moment.
Just one more before moving.
It only takes a step, and then his arms are wrapped lightly around his most loyal guard.
"I assure you, Setsuna-kun," he says softly, "the feeling is mutual."