Disclaimer: First I promised myself I wouldn't do this, then I promised myself if I did it'd be a one-shot, then I threw it all out the window and just started writing. Laryna6, I blame you.

This is really just the prelude to the larger story, and that larger story will itself probably wander off-topic quite a bit, but as the game itself is prone to that I think we'll all survive.

Firmer Ground


You can only have your support shot out from under you so many times before you look for firmer ground to stand on.

He couldn't have been the only one to realise. Even as obsessive as he tended to be, even taking into consideration how much more he was given to thinking of all angles of a situation than the others of his workshop, he simply couldn't have been the only one to put all the facts together. His workshopmates might be an odd, mismatched lot but they weren't (usually) completely dense.

Roxis believed in distilling things down to their simplest elements and studying how they fit together to create a more complicated whole. It was that ability that had made him skilled at alchemical research before ever attracting a Mana of his own, that had made it possible for himto earn his place at Al-Revis amongst those who did have Mana.

If Sulpher was dying, and Mana didn't age or die, then the obvious conclusion was that Sulpher wasn't a Mana. But Vayne clearly could, and did, draw on Mana power during synthesis and in battle. The only other person in Vayne and Sulpher's contract- because even if Sulpher was no Mana, there was still a contract between them, their bond was so obviously a real one that Roxis couldn't refute it no matter how he wanted to- was Vayne.

All that kept Roxis from voicing his thoughts aloud was the utter impossibilityof the conclusion that logically followed. It may have logically followed, but it wasn't logically possible. Obsessive as he was, determined to make it into the Academy as he was, Roxis had read reams of books and scrolls on Mana, all kinds of Mana, every kind of Mana imaginable and a few he'd never have imagined existed. With access to the school library, as much as he disliked the Resource Center, he studied even more and confirmed what he already knew.

There was no mention, anywhere, of anything like Vayne. There had been very, very few humanoid Mana, and none of them had ever been anything like Vayne.

Yet it was clear there was something not right about this situation. It was clear, too, that Isolde knew something, but Roxis was not sure he trusted her enough to ask- he was sure he didn't dare trust her answer if he did.

For now, at least, he did the only thing he could. He studied Vayne himself, discreetly, when no one else was paying attention.

Or at least, he'd planned for it to be when no one else was paying attention. To his surprise, it was stunningly difficult to find a time when at least one person in the workshop wasn't paying a great deal of attention, and doubly difficult to find a time when one of them wasn't paying an inordinate amount of attention to Vayne.

Roxis was clearly going to have to rethink his opinion of just how Flay's workshop had formed.

It was nothing like being in Isolde's workshop. Tony and Renee had never truly worked with him; it was trying enough to convince them to work with each other. Flay's workshop was so far at the other end of the spectrum that its members were very nearly lacking any concept of privacy.

Flay, Anna, and Nikki all protected Vayne, and Pamela tried in her own way to protect all the members of the workshop, and Anna had joined them in it inside of just one week. Even Muppy joined in, though to a far lesser extent. It was so subtly and skillfully done that Roxis doubted Vayne had ever noticed- after all, he protected them in turn whenever he could, and it was likely that he and Jess and Nikki at least thought that all the workshops were like this.

Roxis knew they weren't.

Flay and his workshop were different. All workshops worked together, although not always well; after all, the entire reason for their existence was that alchemists left to their own devices tended to be a standoffish lot, and they had far fewer homicidal tendencies crop up in alchemists who'd learned to play nice with others.

Flay's workshop worked together, lived together, played together. Every trip for supplies was an excuse for an adventure and for camping out under the stars. Roxis hardly remembered what the inside of his dorm room looked like anymore. Every time one member went haring off on some kind of hastily-planned adventure (it was usually Flay), every other member followed them. They bickered and fought, but it never lasted very long.

Isolde's workshop had been an alliance, where Flay's workshop was a team.

Roxis was a part of that team now- whether or not he wanted to be, clearly.

At the very least, it made it easier to study Vayne than being outside the workshop would have. Flay and Anna could be especially vicious to anyone they suspected of endangering their teammates, but Roxis they trusted by virtue of his being a part of their group, unwilling member or not.

Now, for example, they were camped deep in the Dragon Graveyard for the night after a long day of gathering materials and battling enemies. Even Roxis had to admit there was a feeling of glorious rightness in battle with the others that he'd never felt before- they anticipated each other's skills and needs, wove in and out of the fight as easily as breathing, and all on a level of wordless communication he'd never seen before outside of a human-Mana pact.

Roxis looked around the campsite. Muppy had taken first watch and was finding himself a comfortable spot near where the path narrowed into their campsite. Jess was rustling around inside her bag, gradually accumulating materials that Anna and Pamela were using to build a lean-to against the log that Nikki and Vayne were both perched on, helping Sulpher to catch fish as Flay, ankle-deep in the stream, yelled unhelpful advice and scared away all but the smallest fish. Sulpher's slowly lashing tail was the only sign that the unhelpful advice was also unwelcome advice, but even he didn't seem too put out, and Nikki and Vayne were clearly having fun.

Even if Vayne flinched a little every time Flay shouted, or whenever Nikki darted past him too abruptly. Even though, now he was looking for it, Roxis saw the way that the girls set up camp swiftly while Flay distracted Vayne and the way they made sure Vayne's sleeping roll was in the middle. It was clear enough Vayne hadn't invented his story about growing up in the woods and being chased out of human settlements- he still showed every sign of it. He was wary around new people, and Roxis had seen him wince away from blows that could never happen- Jess and Nikki would rather tear their own hearts out than hurt Vayne, he was sure of it. Even Flay, though he was a lot more physical than the others were with Vayne, would never seriously hurt him.

It was clear enough that Vayne knew this- but he still startled easily.

It made it all the more confusing that Vayne was such a damnably trusting person.

Now that he was paying attention, Roxis was realising that Flay's workshop was actually Vayne's workshop, and everyone knew it but Vayne.

And, even though he didn't want to acknowledge it, Roxis could see why. It was hard to remember that Vayne was as old as the rest of them, because he didn't act like it. He acted- well, like he'd never seen another friendly human being before coming to Al-Revis, to put it bluntly.

Which, as was more obvious when Roxis really thought about it, he hadn't. He'd as good as said so on more than one occassion.

Without the friends he'd made so quickly, Vayne would have been eaten alive by the rest of the Academy. Vayne did anything anyone asked of him, often without it ever even occurring to him to ask questions- that was a terrible trait in an alchemist. It was asking to be exploited. Vayne was asking to be exploited.

The worst thing was that Vayne so clearly didn't understand.

He only wanted to help people. Now, that was a good trait in an alchemist, but not when that alchemist was someone who didn't know how to distinguish which people genuinely needed help, which people merely wanted help, and which people might have darker reasons for requesting help.

Roxis made up his mind to be the one to teach Vayne how to tell the difference.

Guardian: I had the song Forbidden Friendship from the How To Train Your Dragon soundtrack playing incessantly while I wrote this. That movie's gonna eat me.