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Disclaimer: I don't own anything except possibly the particularly vicious plot bunny that sank its teeth into my calf until I wrote this out.

Alright, so as stated in the disclaimer, super vicious plot bunny. I don't usually write fanfiction, I just read it and occasionally plot bunnies spawn scenes in my head that don't fully qualify as stories but have storylike potential. This one was better formed than most and refused to leave me alone so you get to read it. I highly doubt there will be anymore to the story, but if anyone wants to expand on the idea, or if someone wants to write the tournament out (I didn't because I know just about nothing about fighting) I'd love to read it.

The dripping faucet in Asuna's modest apartment was the only soundtrack to the tension that filled the air. Ayaka shifted and broke Asuna's disbelieving stare to watch the wood floor.

"What are you saying?" Asuna asked in disbelief "you're not seriously going to go along with this are you?"

After an uncomfortable moment that seemed to last an hour, Ayaka looked up to reply.

"I have no choice. As a Yukihiro I knew I might have to endure an arranged marriage to seal a business deal or merger. I had hoped…" Ayaka trailed off, eyes wandering before coming back to Asuna more firmly "I have a duty to my family. I'm sorry…"

"You're sorry?!" Asuna burst out, incredulous. Ayaka cringed and her gaze returned to the floor.

"That's all you have to say?! After everything we've shared, that's it? Your father says jump and that's that? You're just going to spend the rest of your life with some stranger, without even fighting it?" Asuna's gathering volume faded here, into a terse whisper. "I thought this meant more to you than that… I thought I meant more to you than that."

"I- I just can't…" Ayaka's voice cracked and she tried to gather herself "I'll always care for you Asuna, I just can't go against my father in this. It's too important for the Yukihiro Group."

Asuna watched a few silent tears trail down Ayaka's face, made a few attempts to speak, then abruptly turned and left, slamming the door behind her. Ayaka stood stunned for a moment before crumpling to the floor, shaking with silent sobs.

A hand on her shoulder jerked Ayaka out of her unpleasant memories and she followed it up a tan arm to meet Mana's cool gaze. A glance at the ring showed the final match of the tournament about to start. On one side stood a petite samurai wearing a nodachi and an ornamental facemask designed to look like a bird's head. The altogether white samurai, even down to the silver hair, was facing off against a stocky looking knight decked out head to toe in crimson armor, wielding a sword almost as long as he was tall. Mana's voice pulled Ayaka's attention back to the mercenary.

"Third place. My apologies for being unable to complete the full terms of the contract."

"It's alright Mana, I knew it was a long shot…" Ayaka trailed off, turning her attention back to the fighters on stage, missing the mercenary's raised eyebrow.

"Not that long a shot" Mana said in a disgruntled mutter.

Ayaka had done some research into magical mercenaries and found, to her surprise, the former classmate; by all accounts one of the best. She had quickly hired Mana to compete in the tournament on her behalf. Unfortunately the mercenary was narrowly beaten by the apparently bulletproof white samurai in the last match. Third place would win Ayaka a handful of shares in the Yukihiro Group but not the freedom she had hoped for. That would go to whoever won this last fight. The whole thing, Ayaka reflected bitterly, was rather barbaric.

The business world, well really the whole world, was in an upheaval after the semi-recent revelation of a whole society and world of magical beings and people with extraordinary powers. The Yukihiro Group decided they needed some magical muscle to give them a solid foothold in this new era of confusion. The tournament was their solution. Trade some shares in their Organization to people with powerful magical ties in exchange for their resources, and for the grand prize, a partnership and merger, sealed by a pactio to Ayaka herself.

Ayaka knew the next to nothing about magic, only that apparently she had enough magical potential to form a permanent bond, called a pactio, with someone else. She rather wished she didn't have whatever bit of magic or genetics made the pactio possible; she might have avoided this whole distasteful situation.

"Yukihiro-sama, thank you for meeting with me"

Asuna's voice, while respectful, had a tightness that matched her posture as she bowed briefly before Ayaka's father.

"I suspect you're here to discuss my daughter, but I have nothing to say to you. The matter is closed." Mr. Yukihiro said dismissively.

Visibly restraining her notorious temper, Asuna replied evenly, "Yukihiro-sama, I'm sure you're aware that Ayaka and I have been in a relationship for the last 3 months, so I don't really see how you could just order her to enter into a contract that's basically a marriage with some complete stranger!" despite her best efforts, Asuna nearly shouted the last several words, fists clenched tightly at her sides.

"This has nothing to do with you personally-" Mr Yukihiro began, only to be interrupted

"Nothing to do with me! You forced the woman I love to break up with me, how is that not personal?!" Asuna shouted, hands waving for emphasis.

"As a member of the Yukihiro family, Ayaka has certain needs that her partner must meet, and I highly doubt a little girl like you could meet them." Mr. Yukihiro replied with a glare and no little bit of venom.

"And how do you know I can't?" Asuna challenged.

"Ayaka needs someone who can protect her and provide the support she needs, and I hardly think you'd know the first thing about running a business or managing this kind of money" Mr. Yukihiro said with a frown

"I can to protect Ayaka-" Mr. Yukihiro scoffed, "-and she can handle the business side of things just fine herself. She doesn't need you deciding who she should spend the rest of her life with." Asuna said hotly.

"Ayaka and the Yukihiro Group need someone with magical resources, who can help her integrate our businesses with magical counterparts and branch out into the magic community."

After a pause, where Mr Yukihiro glared at Asuna and she worked through his last statement, Asuna responded slowly, "and you think whoever wins this tournament thing will be able to help her do that?"

Mr Yukihiro, taken aback by the suddenly thoughtful demeanor, huffed out a brief "Yes."

After another moment's contemplative silence, he elaborated. "Anyone who can demonstrate the powerful magic and skill necessary to win the tournament, or has the means to employ such a skilled person would have great influence and notoriety in the magical community."

After another pause, Asuna looked straight into Mr. Yukihiro's eyes and asked, "so you're going to make her form a pactio with whoever wins, no matter who that is?"

Shifting uneasily under the stare, Mr. Yukihiro looked away quickly before answering with a solid "Yes."

Asuna studied him for a few seconds with a grim expression, gave a sharp nod, turned and left without another word.

The cheering crowd jolted Ayaka out of her depression again and she turned her attention to the fateful match. It was truly a spectacle, throughout the tournament the heir had witnessed amazing and superhuman abilities, but it was difficult to properly appreciate them under the circumstances. After watching the combatants exchange a series of shockingly fast blows and separate, she did a minor double take and squinted at the samurai. Glancing at her father's profile, she wondered if he realized the petite nodachi wielder was a female. When the set of her father's jaw revealed nothing, she idly wondered if she'd still be expected to perform a pactio if the samurai won.

"If they adhere to the letter of their terms, yes" Mana said quietly.

After a startled look, Ayaka realized she must have said that last question aloud and blushed, causing Mana's lips to quirk up slightly.

"I don't think you have to worry about the samurai though," the mercenary continued, "if it's who I suspect, she already has a partner."

Ayaka's brow furrowed slightly as she studied the speed blurred samurai before turning back to the mercenary. "Why would she enter if she's not interested in the prize?"

Mana snorted softly, "The softie probably let Asuna talk her into it."

Blinking in surprise, Ayaka, opened her mouth to reply but was cut off by an eruption from the crowd. Turning to the ring, she was just in time to see the samurai, sword sheathed, bow to the crimson knight and leave the arena.

Ayaka knew the crowd was going nuts but she couldn't hear anything over her suddenly pounding heart. The crimson knight had won. This was her new partner.

The knowledge settled in her stomach like a lead weight. Ayaka had always known she might be married of for political or business reasons, but suddenly the whole thing seemed unbearable. She was going to be magically bound, for the rest of her life, to this brutish swordsman or whoever hired him. Thoughts of Asuna flickered through her panicky mind before she stomped them down. The fiery redhead was probably never going to speak to her again after the way they parted. Ayaka could feel tears forming and forced them back with several deep breaths. It's too late now, no going back. You're jut going to have to make the best of it.

When Ayaka had gathered herself she realized the top three contestants had been gathered in the sponsors box with the heads of the Yukihiro Group and herself, it provided slightly more privacy for handing out the awards. Ayaka tried to swallow the bitter taste that thought left in her mouth. Turning her attention to the three champions, she studied her would be prince up close. The armored figure looked a little scuffed but uninjured. It really was an impressive fight, Ayaka thought distantly, but is it too much to ask that my champion at least be as tall as me… and what's up with the sword; compensating for something?

Ayaka's rather caustic thoughts were interrupted by Mana presenting her with the contract for the third prize shares. After accepting them she watched the samurai, still masked, accept the second prize contract before also turning and presenting them to Ayaka. Stunned Ayaka froze, before remembering Mana's words about Asuna sending the samurai to fight, and recovering enough to accept them. Glancing around at the muttering businessmen, the heir noticed several annoyed and perplexed looks sent her way as the samurai skillfully slipped away.

Finally the last fighter stepped up, attracting the attention once more. The knight surveyed the businessmen briefly before turning to Ayaka and pausing. And then there he was, dropping to one knee in front of her throne-like chair, fist over heart. Ayaka thought briefly of a knight of old swearing fealty to a queen, and then the moment passed and the crimson figure was standing and pulling off that obfuscating helmet and oh…

Ayaka's heart faltered as a cascade of fiery hair fell loose.

And then she forgot to breath as she looked into grinning mismatched eyes.

"A-asuna?" the heir stuttered.

"Ayaka." Was the knight's calm response.

In her peripheral vision, Ayaka was vaguely aware of steam coming out of her fathers ears, and much murmuring from the organization heads, but as she flung her arms around her knight and felt the embrace returned she couldn't find it in her to care.