Three Layers with Strawberry Frosting
Spoilers for the Philosopher's Stone, Marco. Related to Little Stone Gardens. Written for L.
When he pulls the pot out from underneath the tap, the coffee keeps pouring out.
It began earlier than that, as all good recipes did.
Components must be mixed so that all parts were well-blended. Sufficient time must be given to settle, allowing the ingredients negotiate the thinning borders of their purity. If the sections were too dissimilar, the whole would be unappetizing, various flavors clashing rather than working together in a harmonious conclusion.
"Cooking is... a very domestic pursuit."
The late summer air in Central buzzed with insects, a locust's cacophony. Humidity dragged the dying sun, spreading it in thick clouds of color that were wiped across the sky like too much butter. Cars rolled along the cobblestone roads, delivering late passengers to their homes in time to catch the tail-ends of dinner. The slap of jump-ropes hit rhythmically against driveways while children devised games to whittle away the evening.
In a kitchen on Fourth and Willow, an oven timer clicked off.
Tapping his teaspoon against the brass bowl, Tim Marco shook the flour off his measuring scoop. "There's nothing wrong with that." The older man's defense was amused. "Aren't we, as alchemists, doing exactly the same thing, Tucker?"
The subject of his query wrinkled his nose, pushing up his glasses in perplexed afterthought. He swapped his feet around the rungs of the kitchen stool before reaching out to fumble with a cup of coffee. "I just don't understand your interest in it, Tim," he protested wearily. The pen drooped in his hand, leaking a blue, zig-zagging line across his notes. "It's not research."
Drawing a sigh between his teeth, Marco broke into a patient lecture. "Baking," he began carefully, "at its very heart, is a science. Here, let me show you."
With that, Marco gave a final flick of the scoop, hanging it back on its place among its plastic brethren, arranged in increasing sizes from the one-eighth teaspoon to the bulkier half-cup. Sturdy fingers whisked away the nearest kitchen towel and deposited it over an empty metal rack. Revealed, the tray underneath the cooling cloth was a deep glass pan, squared off and balanced by wide, flat handles. The spongy cake inside was fresh, still showing steam from the oven. Marco hadn't had time to frost it; the pores of the cake yawned vanilla craters in the baking pan.
Dipping a thumb into a cup of water, the alchemist drew quick circles around the tray before he scooped a mound of flour out of its wooden jar. Funneling streams out between his fingers, Marco painted a trail of white dust carefully upon the dampened counter, the grains clumping together where they encountered moisture.
Once the pattern was complete, the alchemist splayed his fingers and touched them to the very edges of the array.
A flash of light later, and puffs of flour settled in a ring inside the empty pan. Water and milk puddled in the corners, oozing together with the tablespoons of oil tracing the perimeter in yellow streaks. Separated from their discarded shells, the three egg yolks sat forlornly in the center, nudging each other while they waited.
"There," the Crystal Alchemist grunted, eyeing the neatly stacked ingredients with satisfaction. "That's how I passed my exam. Though I'm not so sure they'll let you off as easily as they did me," he continued in Tucker's direction, turning towards the sink and rinsing off his hands. "The military these days is more interested with large-scale combinations rather than precise deconstructions. It's a shame." A heavy shake of the man's head, and Marco began the laborious process of pouring the raw ingredients back into the mixing bowl. "So much flashiness."
Tucker observed the transfer of the unmade cake with a perpetual frown. His lips were thick bridges, curving over his chin "Can't you turn it back into dessert again?"
A frustrated cough from Tucker's throat, disapproval and condescension all in one. "Then why do you bake at all?"
Marco set the mixing bowl down, daubing his hands with the kitchen towel. He offered a weary smile. "How are your lessons going, Shou?" he asked instead.
"Ten more points this time." Paper rustled in the kitchen as Tucker was diverted back to his homework, test answers pitched in a waterfall across the table. One page reached the edge and threatened to spill off before Tucker pawed the stack back together. "But I'm worried that the mock exams from five years ago are too far out of date. I've studied them--I can get over seventy percent. Usually. But that's not enough to pass the State."
Batting cream deftly with a whisk, Marco craned his head to steal a look at the crib sheets. The diagrams resembled antpiles, scribbled together without heed for horizontal guidelines lines. He fished for the first clear sentence. "And your... oxide concentrations, Tucker?"
"Failures." Finishing another gulp from his mug, Tucker pushed himself up from his stool to amble for the counter. The coffeepot was three-quarters full, and gurgled as he poured himself a refill. The smell was strong. Whenever he visited Marco's home, Tucker insisted on brewing the first pot, but he never added enough water to balance the proportion of the grounds. Always, he sought to repair the error by masking the taste with too much sugar, so much that the sweetener was running low, and Marco had had to stock extra bags, dense yellow-paper blocks in his cupboards.
Tucker's fingers brought chaos into Marco's kitchen. He slid a drawer open and fumbled for a spoon, noisily reshuffling the flatware. Finding the teaspoon slot empty, Tucker reached next for the butter knives and dunked one in his cup.
"I was reading in the library, and one of the books mentioned something about a powerful stone that could transmute anything. Maybe," he wet his lips with a tongue, nervous, "I could use it to help pass the exams."
"I hope you're not talking about the Philosopher's Stone," Marco warned, picking up a fresh egg and tapping it twice against the side of the bowl. At the sound of the shell-crack, he thrust his thumb inside the fracture and neatly split the egg open. "Even if we found the Stone, it's a construct meant to enhance alchemy, Tucker, not create it. Think of it as a weapon. You can give a rifle to a child, and they can point it, and even if they're lucky, kill someone. But it's intended for the hands of a trained soldier. Accidents can happen even to the experts--"
Tucker's mouth opened. He huffed out his first response against his teeth, and then gathered his breath to try again. "I'm not some little boy, Tim."
The words were peevish, pinched.
Marco softened. "No. I didn't mean to imply that. But the Stone, whatever it is, is no substitute for the education needed to properly use it. You should forget about it and focus on your studies."
Tucker's hand jostled against his cup as he stirred his drink too hard, clanging metal on ceramic and almost splashing coffee all over his shirt. He directed his disappointment at the stove. "So you won't help me."
"All things take time, Shou." A pass of his hand, a quickly sketched pattern in the flour on the counter, and the egg in Marco's hand unshelled itself in a diffusion of powder. The yolk sat like a dulcet sun in his palm, dripping translucent fluid in ropes from his fingers. "You can use a shortcut if you want, but the results won't be as satisfying. And sometimes," he demonstrated pointedly, tipping his wrist to pour the raw egg into the sink, "the end product is even worse than before."
"The cookies should be done soon, Tucker. I'll send them home with you for your wife. Now, what was the answer to the seventh problem?
A steady stream of liquid runs down from the filter and hisses on the burner plate. Marco stares at it, dumbfounded. The brewing cycle should have already been completed. The burbles of the percolator had died out several minutes ago, and he'd even waited the extra time to make certain the coffee had finished brewing. It is impossible for there to be a mistake. It shouldn't be happening.
Eventually the pool of thin, mahogany liquid rises to cover the entire burner and Marco acts, thrusting the coffee pot back into place so that more would not be spilt.
In the finely balanced equations of the Crystal Alchemist's mind, reality refuses to add up.
The sound of the fluid trapped beneath the pot is angry, boiling like a thousand bees under glass while Marco stands there, fingers still extended, uncertain of if he is supposed to wait longer or if the damage has already been done.
The Crystal Alchemist was never meant to be used on a battlefield. Marco's specialty was not flashy enough to impress enemy troops, and the amount of time required for his calculations restricted his applications under fire. Thankfully, the military was canny enough to understand the virtue of research; Marco earned a stable desk job, refining compounds and researching alchemy's theoretical limits.
Rendering one's enemy into gobbets of flesh was not Marco's forte. What he was good at was crystallization, mixing base components and reforming them into solid frames of matter. With materials stored in liquid or solid formations, Marco could package required elements in a variety of jewels, stacking them together in neatly-labeled multicolored drawers. Minerals, green. Explosives in red. He timed each mixture with his State-regulation pocketwatch, tapping a foot in metronome to the seconds.
And that was how he'd started one day, chasing the Philosopher's Stone. What if there was a way to condense all the basic elements of the world into a single crystal, one which could automatically regenerate its own reagents? Its center could contain a passive transmutation, daily running, manipulating its surroundings to recover the materials it had expended upon command. The depletion during use would be negligible. The Stone, recharged like a battery.
But the only objects that could transmute, it had long been discussed, were humans. Not rocks. Nor animals, they'd discovered, using judicious chimera upon occasion. An indefinable spark was required for alchemy, or so the theory went.
What that spark was could only be called a soul, but such speculations entered the fields of theology, and many alchemists shied away from what could not be accounted for with the flask and the dropper.
A soul could not be measured, dissembled, recreated with judicious chemicals carefully metered out upon the scales. If it were not for the fact that a soul was also required for transmutations, Marco suspected that the military would have dismissed its existence entirely.
Work with chimera was expected to come up with the solution to that, spearhead the research into the root nature of alchemy itself, but so far, there had been no particular specialist for such creatures. None that had found success, at least, and hence in the eye of the military, none at all.
The second thing Marco ruins is the sugar.
Operating half-awake would have excused the error. In the numbing murk of weariness, anyone could have made an error. It takes so little to upset a standard routine. One variable out of place. Coffee spilling. The impossible made true, despite all his careful calculations.
But Marco is fully conscious by the time he mixes the second pot to replace the first. When the cycle of the percolator completes itself, hotplate hissing and bubbling as the previous coating of liquid burns away and fills his tiny office with coffee-stink, Marco uses the last of the cream. It gutters out as he upends the container, releasing an ivory trail to swirl with the darker brew. He puts down the empty carton and, automatically, begins to close and return it to the refrigeration unit before he catches himself. Wrong destination. Over to the trash can, instead.
Two teaspoons later, and, as if to compensate, Marco turns and starts to put the sugar away in place of the cream. He stops only when his hand has left the ceramic dish, caught guilty as a criminal in the space between storing the sugar behind an old sandwich, and closing the fridge door.
When he retrieves it from the shelf, knuckles trembling, his grip is too weak. The sugar bowl tumbles free to shatter in thick chunks on the stonework floor.
Marco's work was never glamorous. The root theories based themselves upon the process of distilling one element into another successfully. He was excellent at purifying complex mixtures into base components, measuring; Tim's research in quantifying materials was in use with half the alchemists stationed at East. He was published in an annual.
Sometimes the post brought him letters, dropping off blocks of paper bound together with twine, commentaries from other alchemists crowing triumph over one particular application of his work, or detailing variations. There was one alchemist stationed north, who believed himself superior to Marco's own talents because he resorted to liquid phials; Tim skimmed each snobbish lecture from the Tincture Alchemist without taking umbrage, recycling the letters into his fireplace kindling come winter.
Too old already for rivals. Let the wars of ego and pride remain to those with the taste for them. Marco had his tidy house on Fourth and Willow Crossing. He had his kitchen, which was full of the smell of the oven, and his notes. His stone garden of animals was bloodless, and none of them ever had to die.
Marco kneels, slow, following the autopilot of his mind. He patiently plucks the remains of the dish from its hasty grave, cobbling the pieces together in a clumsy mound. The array, he draws in sugar.
One transmutation later, and the destruction is undone.
Marco sees clearly the specks of dirt mixing with the pure crystals as he shovels the ruined sweetener back into the restored dish. Black tainted white. Chunks of grit as big as a pinhead are methodically scooped into the sugar bowl, and Marco pretends he doesn't notice.
He's getting good at that.
Tucker was the most unbearable around exam time. Day after day, the man would show up at Marco's house, decrying all alchemy even as he pawed through the textbook. Nothing would help his nerves. Tucker brewed pot after foul-smelling pot of coffee, drinking it all down until his fingers jittered and shook his pen off the table.
"You could sponsor me," he tried again one afternoon, hands gumming over his notes like a frog's prayer. "You're a State Alchemist."
Unrelenting, the younger alchemist continued to wheedle. "I hear you're in good with Basque Gran. Do you think, just maybe...?"
The question trailed off. Marco, nettled, lifted a skeptical brow to the other man. "The kind of work that the Iron Blood Alchemist favors is not what I would personally emulate," he announced, turning back to the cooking column of his magazine.
"But you help him, don't you?"
Marco overrode the plea of Tucker's voice as easily as he would a clumsy reaction in reagents. "I work with him upon occasion, as are my orders. That gives no automatic sign of personal approval."
Tucker fumbled with his reply, and did not succeed in forming one.
Later that evening, when the sunset had drawn a cloak of grey over the sky, Tucker watched as Marco aerated the failing azaleas in the yard.
"Have you ever researched the Philosopher's Stone personally, Tim?"
Accustomed by now to Tucker's obsession with the myth, Marco took his time in answering. "At one point in their lives, I suspect every alchemist has." Turning over the dirt with a spade, Marco inched himself over on his knees, breaking up the clumps of soil as delicately as possible so that he would not accidentally sever any roots. "I always thought that if the rumors were true, and if it was a stone, I would be able to find it. But I've only had limited luck. Now I don't think I'll be the one to discover the secret, and I don't mind that."
Tucker leaned forward. The shadow of his shoulders crawled across the patio stones, and intersected the upheaved dirt. "But you have had some discovery, haven't you?" he pried.
"I've found some materials, yes." Sitting back on his heels, Marco blew a sigh out of his mouth as he considered how much work remained on the gardens. Rubbing the back of one hand against his forehead brought a moist sensation, and Marco lowered his fingers to bemusedly discover that he had smeared dirt across his face. "Why do you need to become State-certified so badly, Tucker? Alchemists can find work wherever they have supplies. And you're married--"
"That's why I need it."
The interjection came blurted, tumbling out with wan honesty. Marco blinked.
"For my wife. We've... we've been having problems," Tucker stammered. "Mostly about finances, but also about where we're going to live. My family doesn't think highly of alchemy and I can't borrow money from them, and I can't let her family know about that either, and our apartments are going to raise the rent next year."
Marco listened as the words bubbled out of the other alchemist's mouth. He tapped the spade against his knee. "They're right, you know. When they say that State Alchemists are dogs of the military. Being one will be just as hard on your wife. You can be reassigned whenever they need you to move. Are you sure that it's what you want?"
"Yes. I don't want to lose the things I have, Tim. I've just..." Tucker bit his lip visibly. "It took so long to even get a chance to speak with her. I couldn't bear to watch her leave, not now. Please. Even just a hint might help me."
Inhaling a deep breath that brought the smell of fresh topsoil to his lungs, Marco studied the pristine bushes still waiting to be torn up. "Will you promise me not to do anything rash with the information, Shou?"
One morning, Marco woke up to find his body unfamiliar, as if he were a beast himself. His hands seemed disconnected, his feet clumsy, and Marco sat on the edge of his bed folding and unfolding his fingers like a newborn. Staring. Speech eluded him, the words slipping away in to a thick-tongued silence.
There were medical terms for this, but the first feeling the alchemist had was relief. If he couldn't use his hands, didn't remember what he was doing, then there was no way Basque Gran could expect progress.
The detachment faded by noon, just in time for the next shipment of ingredients.
Ever since then, Marco has tried to keep his hands busy, staving off the chance that hope will come again in the form of physical crippling. When he has time, he makes small animals out of the scraps of his notes. They invariably come out deformed.
As he works, the candles burn down. Sometimes he gets distracted by peeling off the warm strings of wax, shaping them in his fingers. The oilness of the skimming limes his fingers glistening after he has rolled small balls of candle-form together.
Marco has assembled a miniature army this way. They bear little resemblance to the jeweled menagerie that once decorated his lawn paths, waxen limbs swollen and lumpy. He lines them up on the windows of his cramped rooms, two flights above the cell blocks and still close enough to hear the noises of the test subjects at night.
The animals he makes are not alive.
Marco can pretend for short periods that he does not know the true forms of the red-stone jewelry that he creates. He is not the first, either. There have been other Alchemists who have experimented with these very formulas. Each has struck the wall of the human soul, and each, like Tim, sought to work around this limitation.
Marco writes his notes down in recipe format, envisioning the sweet smells of rising bread dough in order to mask the dank mildew of his cell. His construction of lies goes so far. He can pretend that there are a certain amount of eggs required for any omelette. Beyond that and his mind blanks, swerving away from a horror that Tim suspects will destroy him if he perceives it head-on.
And anyway, he has been told that the materials came from the terminally ill animals, those whose cases could not be saved.
Marco can deconstruct the lies down to their assembled components if he so desires. He is an Alchemist, after all, and before one recreated, they had to uncreate first. If he wants, Marco can undo every single statement Basque Gran has claimed, and see the truth beneath.
But Marco needs so many bodies. Too many. His requisition for ten more dogs is filled the next day, rather unexpectedly; the pounds should have been empty, but the thick chunks of butcher-flesh are dropped in frosted blocks on his flat-bed surgical table, left to defrost in slowly rotting clumps. The thick smell of the abattoir coats Marco's clothes until he swims in a miasma of butchery and deception from waking to sleep.
And then one day, the transmutations for the Philosopher's Stone start working.
All of them.
The next time Tucker visited, Marco was frowning at the newspaper in his lap. The teacup twiddled in the Crystal Alchemist's fingers as he glossed over the reports of Ishbal, analyzing the reporters' tales and deconstructing them for the truth.
"I've found a sponsor, Tim. He says he can help me advance until I pass the exams."
Marco, caught up in studying a territory count that might have been exaggerated by 250 percent, only grunted.
"Later, please, Shou." Waving his cup in the air, Marco set it down to turn a page, creasing the thin print and pausing to smooth it flat. The war was still young, but many officials were already teetering towards premonitions that it could last for years to come.
"A sponsor, Tim." Newspaper crackled as Tucker crunched the entire reports of three journalists in his grip. Marco blinked as the information before his eyes was suddenly replaced by the other researcher's fist; Tucker leaned down, sticking his face in front of Tim's in an eager search for approval. "Didn't you hear me?"
"That's good news, Shou," Marco ventured hesitantly. He experimented with a tug on pages A13 to A14.
Relieved, Tucker continued. "He also said he was very interested in your theories about the Philosopher's Stone. I've been telling him all about them, Tim--"
"What?" Shocked, Marco forgot the news report and yanked his eyes back up to Tucker. His guts felt plunged into ice water, slowly twisting against the invading cold.
"Gran said that if I knew chimera, they might let me in. He said," Tucker repeated, a nervous laugh bubbling out of his throat, "that if I could help them with the Philosopher's Stone--and you're so good at materials, aren't you, Tim?" Pale brown brows rose, Tucker desperate now in his justifications. "It's exactly the kind of work you'd enjoy. So I'm doing you a favor."
Marco, stunned, watched as the world fell out of his careful, patient grasp.
"They said they would send someone to get you right away. Really, you should thank me for this chance, Tim. You should thank me."
Reality shattered when it hit bottom. As the black-beetle military car wheeled to a halt outside his window and the Iron Blood Alchemist stepped out, Marco found himself thinking of his kitchen, and the dozen raisin cookies he'd promised the family down the street. His mind reviewed itself backwards like a recipe book, flipping pages; Tucker's test papers flavoring the kitchen, Tucker's coffee harsh on the air. Tucker's obsessions.
It took time for all recipes to bake. Some of them happened to simmer longer than others, cooked in an oven bigger than Marco ever expected.