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the unexpected ones

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Roses.

They wilt, unfurl from drooping, thorny stems, but before you’ve even fully grasped the soft beautiful sadness of this image, the dark petals are turning brighter, vivid, scarlet, as they float away, fly from right in front of your eyes, to rearrange themselves elsewhere.

The flowers in this high, vaulted hall don’t bloom.

They don’t grow – not in the way living things tend to do, not in that inevitable upward scale that eventually ends with a full stop.

No, these roses, these perfect, elegantly dangerous flowers do something more fundamentally impossible – they cheat time.

You watch the cycle, fascinated and a little afraid, watch the flowers age, gorgeous haughty beauty curling up like something tragic and forgotten, and then there’s a tiny flurry, a blur of movement like hummingbird wings and somewhere in that confusion everything is young and red and fresh again and the scent under your nose has changed from that old melancholic aroma of pressed petals between pages to something fresh-cut and belonging in the sun-bathed gardens outside and between one blink and the next, the roses decorating the vase right in front of you are several feet down the hall, full and healthy and almost pulsing with life in a crystalline bowl that was, moments ago, empty.

Time.

The cycle of life.

It should be impossible, you think.

But there is a word for the impossible.

Magic.


 

Eijun’s impatience precedes him – Ryousuke can hear the clatter of frantic footfalls, banging doors in the distance, long before the individual kicking up that ruckus all but bursts through his office door.

He’s sporting a huge, almost manic grin.

‘Did you see it?’ he demands, bustling into the room without any ceremony, a hand pushing through his hair to yank his unruly bangs out of his eyes, only for the mess to fall back across his forehead with little to no improvement. He’s excitable, but Ryousuke can see that hand is shaking.

‘See what?’ he inquires smoothly, but he’s fairly sure he knows what.

Eijun evidently doesn’t have time for his coyness – he rushes closer, and at this distance the glint in his eye, flashing golden-brown, is unmistakeable.

‘The exhibit!’ the syllables are emphasised with almost wild gesticulations, before Eijun bodily throws himself into a chair opposite Ryousuke, separated by his disturbingly tidy desk, ‘He replied!’

Ryousuke’s eyebrow hitches. There are many points of note in Eijun’s words, but he starts with ‘He?’

For the first time since his unapologetic disturbance of Ryousuke’s work (Eijun will insist that by now Onii-san should be used to it, while Ryousuke will lament his inability to teach Eijun any manners no matter how long they’ve known each other), the younger falters.

‘Wait, is it not a – I thought it was a he? Is it a girl?’ he tips his head, quizzical, reminding Ryousuke as he often does of a confused but earnest puppy.

There’s the briefest pause before Ryousuke responds. ‘You don’t need to know the gender.’

Eijun scoffs. ‘There you go again!’ He’s on his feet in a jiffy, but Ryousuke remains unfazed – Eijun is nothing if not chronically restless. Even his frustration isn’t at the heights of heat and aggression they used to be, when they initially discussed these matters – now it’s something tempered down with resignation, and a slight resentment Ryousuke cannot help but be conscious of. ‘Why won’t you tell me these things? How the hell am I supposed to compete with this guy if I don’t even know who he is?’

It’s a debate they’ve had countless times already, the impasse a stubborn knot that’s been yanked too tight to come loose now. Ryousuke instead chooses to observe, ‘You still think it’s a male?’

Eijun tosses him an unhappy glare. The fight has clearly drained from him just as soon as it set in, clearly anticipating that it will get him nowhere. ‘It’s just a feeling,’ he mumbles, not making an effort to hide the mutinous edge.

‘Rather than the gender of your opponent,’ Ryousuke steeples his fingers together and rests his chin on them, regarding the boy just a few years younger than him, ‘should you not be focusing on the exhibit? You said he…replied?’

Ryousuke lets his amusement at Eijun’s choice of word seep through – as though instead of issuing a challenge, Eijun had made a blog post that had finally received a response.

For a brief second, Eijun seems to dither between badgering Ryousuke more about his elusive opponent and spilling his guts about the thing that had clearly had him so excited; probably realising the futility of the former, he dumps his body into the chair again, still scowling to make sure Ryousuke is not under any illusion of how Eijun feels about all this.

‘There’s a new exhibit – it wasn’t there last night and none of the guards know who it belongs to…there aren’t any placards or signs, anything,’ Eijun is already breathless, his words already speeding up, fuelled by something akin to…glee. ‘It’s this glass case, in the Nature & Wildlife section, and – Onii-san you have to see it for yourself. There are these eggs, and they hatch, and there’re these little baby birds, but then they grow in, like, seconds, and then they fly! They fly around the cage and I stood there watching the exhibit like three hundred times but I still don’t know how in just a second they’re back in the eggs and the shells are all fixed and there’s no birds anywhere!’

The excitement is fully visible on Eijun’s face now, manifesting in child-like mirth, that glint in his eye he’d come into the room bearing glowing strong and bright, and Ryousuke is, against his will, endeared.

And gravely troubled.

‘Live birds?’ he poses the question, masking his voice of any inflection.

Eijun doesn’t appear to notice anything off; he looks mildly put-out at Ryousuke’s lack of reaction, if anything.

‘No,’ he says impatiently, ‘from what I could tell they were like animatronics but – ‘

Ryousuke cuts him off. ‘That was…a strong counter-move.’

‘It’s brilliant!’ Eijun trills, the grin back in place. If he weren’t gripping the sides of his armchair he might almost clap his hands. ‘Way better than my butterflies!’

Eijun’s butterflies…also in the Nature & Wildlife section. Ryousuke remembers the almost fierce pride he’d felt, walking through that exhibit for the first time. Butterflies, suspended in the air, in various stages of flight but with a catch. Delicate wings translucent, shimmery under the soft, muted spotlights Eijun had requested of him to showcase his first move – butterflies with all their intricate details intact, but made of water.

‘You’re selling yourself short,’ is what Ryousuke says, demurely; it would be unfair to call himself objective, at this point, at least not before he gets a look at this bird-cage himself. ‘And you also sound much too impressed over an opponent’s counter-move. You’re supposed to out-stage him, remember?’

‘Yes, yes,’ Eijun brushes him away with a dismissive hand, before belting out an aggrieved sigh and pouting, ‘You’re no fun.’

We’re not here to have fun, Ryousuke almost tells him. Perhaps it would be kinder if he did.

But he looks at the smile on Eijun’s face, the thrumming vitality of this boy, and he doesn’t have the heart to.

***

It’s not without an undue amount of reluctance that Kazuya admits to himself that this is favourite exhibit.

It might be masochistic of him, to come back here after agonising for weeks after seeing it in all its glory, tense from the worry that he may have lost before he had even started, that there is no way he could ever be capable of coming up with something better than this – but if there is one thing Kazuya considers an asset, it is his cool, practical head, and he thinks that it does not matter, right now. He has already made his move, and it wouldn’t hurt to study his opponent’s techniques as he waits for them to counter.

But it is difficult to be truly discerning when his feelings get swept up in awe whenever he is here – they’re passing this off as a fine crystal exhibit to museum guests (Kuramochi is fond of calling them Muggles) and while something like this would be worthy of admiration at face value, Kazuya has the privilege of knowing that it is so much more.

Like he has done countless times, he brings up his hand and gently swipes through the butterfly frozen with its wings curved up, right in front of his nose.

There is the unmistakeable feel of moisture, soaking his skin as his fingers travel through the tiny thing, barely big enough to fit his palm…followed immediately afterwards by that strange, almost suctioning sensation of the dampness retreating from his skin, as though pulled off like dried PVC glue. His hand emerges on the other side dry, and the butterfly is whole again, twinkling lightly in the overhead lights, but transparent and so exquisitely beautiful it shakes something fundamental inside of Kazuya apart.

He should be wary, if not rightfully apprehensive of his faceless competitor – he turns a wide arc in the middle of the room, pulling his arm through the butterflies in his wake, and watches as they return to their pristine forms seamlessly, and can’t help but wonder for the nth time how much magic there is in this hall. How much skill someone would have to possess in order to craft something as intrinsically shapeless as water to hold itself up, in so many fragments, in such perfect detail, even without the conjurer themselves present. How much skill someone would have to possess to separate their magic from themselves entirely, and leave it to exist by itself as its own entity, holding nearly a hundred little winged creatures, sculpted from unmoving water, none like its companions.

It isn’t that it’s impossible – Kazuya is aware that on principle, this is similar to his magic as well. But where his work lies with gears and axles and tiny bits of machinery, of manipulating man-made machines and supplementing them with a little help to achieve something no man-made machine can, this exhibit feels much more…

Pure.

Much more organic.

And

(Kazuya smiles wryly at the triteness of the thought even as it occurs - )

Much more magical.

Do not get intimidated by your rival’s skill, Ochiai-sensei’s voice, unbidden, travels his synapses, this is not merely a test of your ability but also your mental hardiness, your endurance. If your foil dazzles you, you must blind them.

It is like this, lost in thought, fingers just barely tracing the fragile wings of a butterfly, that Kuramochi finds him.

‘You’ll wanna see this,’ is all he offers, cryptic, but there’s something entirely too pleased in the smirk he’s poorly repressing.

Suddenly, Kazuya is on high alert, heart in his throat. ‘Has there been a counter-move?’ Already? His exhibit only went live this morning, just before the museum doors opened, how

Kuramochi’s grin broadens. ‘Come and see for yourself.’

***

At first glance, Kazuya doesn’t notice anything off.

But then he looks closer.

There’s

He leans closer, eyes wide behind his glasses –

There’s something written on the display case of his exhibit.

No, that is incorrect –

There’s something written inside his exhibit.

Eggshells litter the thatched ground of the case, and there are two largish, exotically coloured parrots spreading their wings and swooping within its confines, but Kazuya doesn’t spare his usual moment to admire his handiwork, preen at how realistic his birds look, their feathers and movements hiding the miniscule mechanisms hidden in their bodies – if anything he’s glad when, between the space of a heartbeat, they’re inexplicably gone, and the eggs in their makeshift nest are intact again, because now he has a clear view of the translucent text swabbed in careless handwriting on the inner surface of the case –

And it reads, ‘This is crazy! They look so real! I wish I could ask you how you did that but the powers that be won’t let me’

Kazuya doesn’t even realise his jaw is hanging open until Kuramochi snorts and taps him under the chin twice.

‘Quite something, huh,’ he comments, so casually he may as well be complimenting Kazuya’s shoes, ‘Your rival’s got personality.’

Instead of replying, Kazuya takes a step back. The text, a faint lilac almost luminous against the glass, disappears right before his eyes.

Definitely magic.

Kuramochi is still chortling, ‘You should see your face right now.’

‘This is – isn’t this careless? The guests – ‘

‘This exhibit’s not publicly open yet dumbass. Sensei wanted your opponent to see it first, so I’m guessing they know that and decided to use the opportunity and pass on a message to you.’

Dumbfounded still, Kazuya steps forward again, running his eyes over the newly-visible letters – confused doesn’t even begin to sum it up, and then his eyes catch on something else, just below the text.

‘Who,’ he speaks into the hall at large, ‘the hell is S.E?