He hated Vayne Aurelius. So very perfect. Mister Popular, Professor Zeppel’s pet, always willing to lend a helping hand and always perfectly blameless when anything happened. Things like equipment from their workshop ending up in Flay’s.
Flay had recognized them, (and being able to identify someone else’s equipment from the scratches was all sorts of creepy: how much was he spying on them, anyway?) assumed they were rigged to fail and confronted Tony. Well, had burst in, brandished them at him, and said, “Muahahaha, I didn’t know you had it in you to do something so diabolically clever, but I have foiled your evil plot!” Flay had demanded they return his equipment and Tony had no idea what he was talking about.
The resulting argument had drawn over the pink-haired one and the beastgirl, and the latter had said, “Well, we didn’t take them either, right Jess? It had to be you guys!”
‘Jess’ had laughed nervously and looked away in a way that didn’t fool anyone. Especially not Flay, who had just been humiliated, and Tony, who was grinning like it was his birthday and wasn’t going to let this drop.
So they’d dragged it out of her, Renee had told him later, and surprise surprise, Vayne had helped her with the theft. Oh, they all said he was utterly blameless, of course. As though he was some puppet who had only lifted up other people’s property and taken it away because Jess had been pulling his strings.
He didn’t even seem ashamed about it at all. Did he just assume Roxis didn’t know?
Poor little orphan who had grown up in a mansion. He’d been raised by a mana, had one practically from the cradle according to Zeppel, who had gossiped about the strange boy he’d found to everyone. How ignorant and savage the peasants were, driving a child out of town for showing signs of alchemy!
For theft, more likely.
But it had been, well, theoretically possible that he was simultaneously an alchemy genius and just that stupid. That he didn’t know right from wrong.
Acting so reluctant and saintly, Vayne said, “You don’t have to do this.”
An order was an order, and “I want to see the extent of your power as well.”
As Roxis readied himself to attack his enemy let the mask drop, and it became clear that Vayne wasn’t the only one people had been gossiping about. The strength of their mana would decide this? Not Vayne’s own skill, and not Roxis’?
That didn’t matter, Vayne was saying. What mattered was having a mana. Vayne had one. Roxis didn’t. And that bit about his allegiance being his undoing? His allegiance to what? To alchemy?
When Roxis lost he realized that he would never hate anyone as much as he hated that smug, conniving snake. He would get him for this, he would humiliate him as Roxis had been humiliated. After they left his facade collapsed and he had to punch his fury into the ground. “What a difference, just having a mana!” Because Vayne hadn’t won on his own merits, calling on Sulpher’s power slowly to rub it in. “Damn this!”
Was this why Tony hated Flay, the delinquent who wasted the teacher’s time and the priceless opportunities Roxis had fought for? Roxis had thought he hated people like that, but Flay was nothing next to Vayne. No, now he knew what it was to truly despise someone. He wondered if Flay was like this under the foolish exterior and what Flay had done to Tony to make him abandon all good sense when it came to him.
When he finally managed to compose himself he made his way to the tree, only to find that Tony had burned it down.
The huffin tree was nearly extinct. It was said that it could not thrive without the presence of mana, which was very likely why the one that had once grown on the Rosenkrantz estate had died decades before he was born. No one had taken it down: mushrooms were useful alchemic materials, after all.
This one had been healthy, flowering. And then Tony had killed it to spite Flay. Roxis had thought he was just going to pick all the blossoms so everyone but Flay’s workshop would have access to the best materials. But no.
Roxis had been planning to come back later in the year and get a seed for the collection he was gathering. The estate’s gardens and greenhouse had once had every plant an alchemist could want, but it had been long enough since they had been used that his uncle hadn’t known what many of them were, let alone how to take care of them.
At first he’d thought Renee and Tony had been standing in front of the tree to protect it, but, “You did this?”
Tony had, and why had he? “Look at their faces! Haha, man, I feel so much better.” Didn’t Roxis?
He hated Vayne, yes, he understood that desire, but, “This is…” Wrong. He had never felt so ashamed in his life.
The beastgirl was honestly outraged, the thief was saying how horrible it was. The tree hadn’t done anything wrong (unlike her and Vayne), and that was true.
It was vile, and there was nothing left to say, so he left, defeated. He could just have used the Wings of Icarus but decided to walk instead. He needed to calm down before he had to face Tony again.
He shouldn’t be regretting this partly because it made him look bad. First Vayne had proven that he was stronger, and now Vayne had proof that Roxis was an accessory to a crime far worse than stealing lab equipment.
He’d wanted to score high on the final on his own merits, not because of a crime like this. That would practically be cheating, and his father had taught him better than that.
He should at least try to revive the tree. The last of the Megaheals from home might not work on trees at all, but wasting them would be a fitting penance.
When he got back to the tree he was glad Tony had taken the blossoms with him instead of handing them to Roxis then and there to spite Flay’s workshop with what they couldn’t have. Because, if he’d had them, he would have felt compelled to surrender them to Vayne. Why hadn’t he left with the other two? He didn’t want Vayne to watch him try to revive the tree. Didn’t want Vayne to see him fail again.
So he kept out of sight as Vayne talked to his mana. Vayne asked if it was really dead and seemed genuinely sad and regretful. Well, people could be nice to animals and cruel to people. Roxis couldn’t hear the mana’s answer: The Mana of Sulfur only spoke to Vayne.
But Vayne sighed and seemed to be agreeing. “Yeah, if only someone knew how to save it.” They stayed there awhile longer, a moment of silence probably. Roxis chafed at the delay: if there was some thread of life still in there every second counted. He took out the last of the bottles: had he really wasted that many trying to survive against Vayne?
He heard a voice beside him and growled, “What?” before glancing back, then down.
“Oo…” More indistinguishable muttering, ending in, “ave tree?” It seemed he’d intimidated it. The Mana of Wood had appeared before him and he’d snapped at it? Wonderful.
Well, a horrible first impression wasn’t going to matter. The tree’s fate was bad enough. There was no way this Mana would pact with him after that. “I don’t know if I can, but here.” He held out the bottles.
It floated towards the tree, wanting him to follow, so he did. It was penance, after all.
“Roxis?” Vayne seemed honestly surprised instead of hostile, wondering why Roxis was here instead of assuming he was here to gloat. That was strange: the type of person Vayne was would be gloating in Roxis’ shoes, and normally people without any principals assumed everyone was just as bad as them.
Roxis ignored him as he knelt and poured the first one. “These were synthesized by my great-great grandmother and they’re still potent, but I don’t know what good they’ll do.” Best not to get the Mana’s hopes up.
“Do you think you can save the tree?” Really, Vayne should become an actor, not an alchemist.
The Mana of Wood was saying something again. He tried to puzzle it out but it didn’t make any sense. “I’m sorry?”
“Will oo… wif me?” The mana pointed to himself and then Roxis.
He wanted to demand that it speak up, since he must have misheard that and raising his hopes was cruel. “Do you mean…”
The mana nodded.
“I would be honored.” There was no response he could give other than that. “But I haven’t done anything to deserve it.” Maybe if he saved the tree he would.
“Well, you’re trying, right? We just gave up.”
Trying? Trying didn’t count for anything. The real world didn’t grade on effort, or else Vayne wouldn’t be here and Roxis’ father would have passed the entrance exams. He didn’t want to snort at Vayne in case the shy Wood Mana assumed it was directed at him, but he dared a glare as he poured the second bottle.
He tried and tried again, until he was down to the last bottle, and none of them had any effect. Yet another sign his legacy was worth nothing at all. “Damn this,” he said quietly, not wanting the mana to hear, pushing his fist into the ground far harder than was necessary for balance. He threw the last bottle at the tree before standing and turning to face the mana. “I’m sorry. The other students most likely told the teachers by now, and if they could save it they would be here already. I shouldn’t have gotten your hopes up.”
It shook its head, clearly telling that it didn’t mind, but he did. “I wish I knew a potion that could save it, but…” Before he could finish Sulpher leaped up into Vayne’s arms and the ‘golden boy’ began to glow. Silver, not the gold of his name.
Roxis couldn’t help scowling. He should be happy the tree would be alright, but wasn’t it just like Vayne to watch Roxis struggle fruitlessly? Why hadn’t he done this before? He was probably doing it now only to show Roxis up.
A book appeared in front of Roxis, open a fourth of the way through. What was a recipe for a plant stimulant doing in a book called Theory on Crystals?
An elixir that regrew plants from their roots after the rest had been damaged in the process of harvesting? Yes, the part s above ground had been charred, but something might remain deep down, where his potions hadn’t reached yet.
“Sulpher says that should be what you need.” As though Roxis hadn’t already figured that out.
The mana of wood perked up. “’Ank oo,” clearly meant ‘Thank you!’ “Are oo the ana… ecipe?”
Vayne seemed to have no trouble understanding, of course. “I don’t know, Sulpher’s always been Sulpher.”
“No, oo.” It was actually comfortable enough to disagree with Vayne?
“Me?” Vayne pointed at himself, clearly not understanding what the mana was talking about.
Roxis interrupted. “You take this. I can’t create it without a mana, after all.” Not at the necessary strength, not in time.
The Mana of Wood floated over to him again. “I’d… Help?”
“I can’t accept your offer when I have done nothing to deserve it.” Roxis turned away.
“I won’t take charity from you.” Of all people. “If anyone deserves to pact with him it’s you.” Not me.
“You were the one who made the recipe appear. I didn’t even try. Sulpher’s never done that before.” So Vayne hadn’t known he could.
Perhaps that was true. And the shy little mana was looking at him pleadingly.
Roxis sighed and let principle slide. “If you’re certain, I would be honored.”
It smiled and he felt the mana’s power fill him, but this wasn’t the time to experiment. Now he used the Wings of Icarus. He couldn’t bear to be too late now, not when he had already made the pact. He wouldn’t let the Mana of Wood regret his decision.
Even so, it took time to run past the monsters back to the hilltop. “Why are you still here?”
“Nikki and Jess don’t care about the exam after what happened.”
“And what about you? Have you decided to follow in Flay’s footsteps and blow off all your exams?” He worked while he was talking, looking for places where roots came near the surface.
“The Vice Principal wouldn’t want that. She was worried that he’d be a bad example. Jess and Nikki don’t want to be like him, but if our grades fell or we got detention she might take back her permission to use the workshop.” Vayne seemed honestly afraid of that.
“Stop pretending. It’s only the two of us here.” Well, four, but no one counted Mana unless they made a point of appearing. Alchemists preferred not to think about the fact there was always someone looking over their shoulder.
“That you don’t know what I’m talking about.” That you actually do just want to help. “I have my own mana now.” Probably weaker than Vayne’s, otherwise Vayne wouldn’t have been so willing to let him have it, but still, a mana. “I am grateful for your help, Sulpher, but Vayne? I want you to know that I hate you. I will challenge you again, and this time,” he told him as the new sapling shot up behind him, petals blown loose by the sudden movement, “I will win.”