The children on the block knew the man because of the dirt beneath his nails, the mixed chemicals that stood in place of a father's cologne. He was a kinder uncle than many had, on that row of homes at Fourth and Willow Crossing. Presence sporadic between his assignments, yes, but this was hardly new to any of the piecemeal families dwelling in that block. Older brothers enlisted early; elder sisters, gone before you knew it, shipped away to some post further East or North.
Siblings left behind kept fading memories along with periodic letters from the field. Parents retained rank notifications. Sometimes, they even received medals to hang up behind glass frames, one last signature-stamp from a child who would never come home.
Central standards stated that a bachelor could live alone until the dust of his own house swallowed him.
In pastures of Fourth and Willow, families encompassed one another by default.
The neighbors to the Crystal Alchemist passed on the gossip. There'd been rumor of a divorce in the past. An amiable one -- she to a town near Lior, he wherever the military put him next. The pair of them had been unable to remain together against the dictates of traveling required of him as a State Alchemist. Years had been involved. Possibly, a child.
Tradition long-lingering kept the two meeting come the winter, regular as clockwork, stolid observation of seasons performed by stiffly smiling lips before the unanimous agreement to terminate even that.
They understood the military well at Fourth and Willow, just as they remembered to send dinner down to the man in thanks for his help around the neighborhood. Houses in a two-block radius around the Crystal Alchemist were always in good repair. Marco had time for them all. No one waited at his address to receive the letters when he was away, to wait for the carefully packed box of last remains, but it was a silent agreement among the straggle-grouped parents that they all watch for the postman's step.
So when the blaze came that destroyed the alchemist's house in less than an hour's blink, none of the patchwork families quite knew what to do.
The numerous children on the block viewed the destruction with dismay. Fond memories surrounded that house. They had watched him dig in his gardens every Tuesday, collecting stones from the soil in jagged handfuls that he would deposit in a burlap sack to take inside later. Packs congregated after school, filtering together for the long walk back from the public institutions that their parents could barely afford. Marco always kept his domain open when he was in residence, leaving the windows ajar to leak the stench of strange materials, lifting his hand in heavy greeting when the children catcalled by.
Marco kept his gardens as only an alchemist could, mixing natural preference with processed stone. Chalk lines strayed across the rocks cunningly shaped to fit in dovetailed perfection, smooth and flat, requiring no mortar to fill in nonexistent cracks. The paths wound down the lawns of Marco's home; despite the number of times grade-schoolers would dare one another to race, slipping and trampling the well-trimmed grass, the Alchemist never lifted his voice except to bid them be careful.
Where the alchemist had little difficulty with stone, he had notably less of a green thumb. The bushes had to be swapped every few years--sooner, if the rainfall had been poor, or if Marco had been swept out to an outlying post with no chance to leave preparations behind. Sometimes the roses would bloom in albino colors. Marco, frowning at the chemicals he'd mixed for fertilizer, only cough a dry laugh and crossed ingredients off on his recipe sheet.
But it was the animals which the children loved best. The miracle of crystal granted them all tolerance of the ever-changing flora. Stone beasts shaped through alchemy, dreams given life -- all these glimmered in the loam of Marco's gardens, tiny chips of fantasy placed innocuous in the midst of the military block.
One day Marco would line the creatures up on the walk, as if they had been caught gamboling. Another, he would tuck them beneath the low-hanging branches of his under watered azaleas. Ruby tigers, sun-colored giraffes. Cats that slunk and prowled in frozen display, reshaped at need with only a stick of chalk and a man's patient smile.
Money from selling the creations of the Crystal Alchemist might have fed three-quarters of the families of Fourth and Willow. Once, Marco handed out the intricate trinkets with a carefree generosity. But visits from the blue-coated officials had stopped that; now, the man only shook his head when a stone animal was clutched tight in a child's sticky palm, the mute wish for ownership communicated with already-sinking eyes.
"They have to stay here," he would explain, weary-smiled. "It's the place they're kept, you see? It's where they're required to be."
And the children, who had learned about cousins and aunts and brothers gone shuffled off to task, nodded. Understood.
It didn't stop their questions. Only diverted the flood, changed want of possession to a want of answers.
"Why won't you make them bigger?"
"Why don't you make more?"
"Why," asked one boy, scrunching up his nose as he looked between one withered bush and a blue-stone bird, "don't you make all the plants here like that too?"
Marco, with his hands wrist-deep in the roots of a shrub, only answered with an even-tempered simplicity.
"If everything were stone, it'd be harder to appreciate both what's artificial and what's naturally made. And then," the alchemist paused, grunting while he wrestled a particularly tough tendril out of where it'd nested, "you'd forget why they both have a place."
Leftovers, he called them. Not art. Not beauty either, the miniature menagerie, but only scraps of what his real research pertained to.
On the weekends, Marco shuttled the crystal zoo across the lawns in bloodless war games as the children watched. Casualties were counted down by flicks of his hand to fold them neatly over, bedding them in the grass to lie where they had fallen. The animals would all be restored at the end, magically brought back to life by a pair of fingers picking them back up and setting them in position.
Then one day, soldiers came to the man's house.
Sarah, whose mother baked breakfast muffins for sale in the bakery that fed half the block, saw them bustle the man into the sleek black car parked at his door. They escorted him, flank-to-flank. Faces closed. Guns heavy at their side, and then Sarah's mother was asking where had the sugar gone and the girl had turned away.
At first, the families of Fourth and Willow had thought Marco's spontaneous vanishing act -- as clean as one of his chemical reactions -- to be routine at first. Months passed. Dust layered thick on the windows, weeds overgrowing the gardens. A few children swore they had glimpsed the long-rotted remains of dinner through the kitchen windows, the bread become a grassy hillock all its own through virtue of mold. Flies buzzed inside, died on the interiors of the windowpanes, unable to find a crevice out to freedom.
Afterwards, the house stood dark and empty. The children eventually forgot to come peeping at the windows, drawing faces in the dust while they played games in countdown, wondering when the Crystal Alchemist would return.
Time moved on. Letters trickled in from the posts. Cousins vanished, transforming into lines of regretful text. Transfers from one line to another; eventually they all gravitated in a flood towards Ishbal, sucked into the next conflict that Central saw fit to observe.
No one wondered about the mystery of the Crystal Alchemist. He was a military man. They were all families fated to the same; Ishbal, the same gossips nodded to one another, as they passed his abandoned home. He must have been sent to Ishbal, just like the rest of the troops. Unfortunate. But impossible to avoid in that day and age of ongoing civil unrest.
No one thought twice, steeped in the same numbed practicality that kept them waking to see the next morn and turn down ever-empty beds. Set places at tables that would not be filled, shake moths out of clothes long outgrown. Raise their children. Take the mail.
Until the fire came, exploding in the middle of the night and leaving no trace of the Crystal Alchemist's home behind.
One of the Miller's boys, Jacob, claimed that he saw a demon out his window the night of the blaze. "It held up a claw," the boy elaborated, crooking his fingers and lifting them into the air, "and then bang! The house went up just like that!"
Jacob's story was accepted in grumbling degrees by the other children.
"Demons don't exist."
"It must have been an alchemist."
"Alchemists wouldn't do that to each other," another child countered stiffly, into the muffler of their sleeve. "Jacob's right."
Sarah, aged to the wise old year of twelve and already forgetting the summers spent in storybook gardens, found that she was above the fears of those younger. She wanted to see for herself. Curiosity coaxed her to investigate the scene. Curiosity and Jacob's story; if there had been a demon, she reasoned, or if it had been an alchemist, she could look for footprints. Maybe count the toes.
It was dusk when she managed to slip out of her home, claiming to her mother that she'd left her schoolwork at a friend's. Cautionary calls followed her down the road, warning her to be back before it was too late; Sarah ducked into the nearest alley shortcut she could find, dodging behind the houses until she scuttled nearer to the memory of an alchemist's home
The lines of hazard tape that had been hung around the Crystal Alchemist's home gleamed warily pale in the glow of the street lamps. Rubble loomed beyond their boundary. Sarah remembered Marco's home as having three floors, an impossible tower to consider when she was younger; now the entire structure had been crumbled into ash, a tomb's height tall that lurked as hungrily as animal bones. Ghosts attached.
Steeling herself, Sarah twisted herself beneath the plastic ribbons, and headed for the ruin.
Soot mashed underfoot. Stonework too chill to take the flame entire lay cracked beneath Sarah's shoes, finally splitting from its perfect junctions. In the growing darkness, the spiderweb slices ran dark as rivered blood.
Sarah, looking down at the reality of her past gone equally broken, was taken by surprise when she wound past a skeleton-charred tree and discovered the monster before her.
Automatically, she froze to a halt.
Darkness lumped in a blur before her, rolling its shoulders, shuffling its feet while it turned. Spotted claws stabbed into the earth. The creature muttered to itself. Then it twisted its fingers and lifted one tiny, smudged jewel out of the ash, holding it up to the frail light of the streetlamps.
When the crystal figurine gleamed in its hand, Sarah realized just who she was staring at.
At her voice, the beast whirled. It was surprised, she was surprised; her step backwards broke the shadow she had cast, freeing the yellowed lamps to spread their illumination across the figure. Revealed, the man blinked, lowered the hand he had lifted automatically to shield himself from possible attack. Ash dusted him everywhere. It darkened his fingers where he'd dug.
The stone animal glittered.
Sarah took a step forward. "What are you doing here, mister Marco?"
"Ah..." Relief tinged the alchemist's voice, cleansing it until the noise was human again. "I had thought... never mind. It's dangerous to be here. And at this hour, no less." Laughter slipped from the man's mouth. Then the noise died, banked against the layers of ash, and he shook his head. Silent.
Not knowing what else to do, Sarah took another careful measure towards the alchemist. "Are you... in trouble?"
"Someone certainly will be." Reference twisted through Marco's words again, steeping them wry as cranberry tea. "If he isn't denying everything yet, that is. I knew he'd get everything. He always was... enthusiastic."
Down his face turned to the ruined ground, gone black and crisped in its baptism of flame.
"It's all gone," the man said, tenderly to the ashes. "Except for this one. That's the last."
Turning, Marco beckoned the girl over. She came hesitant, fingers winding themselves in her shirt and leaving smudges behind. Soot smeared them both as they stood in the bloodless abattoir; black flecks coated Sarah's shoes as she slowed to a halt before the alchemist, staring at the man as he knelt. Her mute acquiescence continued as he reached out towards her, cupping her hand in his own stained grip.
Fire hummed in the crystal pressed into Sarah's fingers. The stone was warmer than her own skin, carrying the lingering taste of the blaze inside it still.
"There'll be trees here in time," Marco was saying, running his hands over the ash while the girl stared at the smoked-white griffin in her palm. "Or maybe another house. Well," the man sighed, hefting himself to his feet and dusting his tweed suit off at the knees. "That's it for the gardens."
The girl squinted up at him. Memory of military rules clashed in her instincts; despite the prize of the Crystal Alchemist's creations, very few children had managed to retain even a single piece of the mythical zoo.
"Aren't you going to keep one for yourself?"
Another easy, unworried motion of Marco's head. Negation. "Don't worry. I have the only stone I'll need from now on."
The resignation by which the alchemist viewed his home spurred the girl; frowning more seriously this time, Sarah thrust her hand towards the crumbled ruins. The griffin, clenched tightly in its prison of flesh-fingers, glistened. "But... they took it all apart. What are you going to do about it?"
Fervor hit its mark. Marco directed his gaze away from what had once been the square feet of his kitchen, and back towards the girl. His eyes were dark in the heavy lines of his face, etched deep as the shatterings of his pathstones.
"Deconstruction is inevitable sometimes. We can miss what's gone, but even stone won't last forever. I want you to remember that," he said. Reaching out, the man rested soot-marked fingers carefully upon Sarah's head. "And make gardens of your own."