“AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH” As I stepped into the bar, I was greeted by a high-pitched shriek that could have easily been mistaken for a banshee’s. I figured it meant I was either in the right place, or a very wrong place. The source of the scream was a woman who would have stood out at a circus, much less a bar full of people desperate not to draw attention. She made eye contact with me and began dashing to the bar’s entrance, clumsily knocking into chairs and tables along the way. I tipped my hat over my eyes in an attempt to maintain a low profile and hoped that her screaming when I entered was just a coincidence. It was not.
“Hi! Welcome! I’m Chroma, I’ll be your server today! What can I do for you? Party of one? Or are you meeting someone who’s already here? Or are you saving a seat for someone who’s showing up later? Or do you have an invisible friend? That’d be so cool!” Her barrage of questions didn’t let up until she had to breathe. “Actually, I am meeting someone,” I say, “But this is our first encounter, so I don’t know what they look like. Would you happen to know anything about-” Her eyes answered my question before I could ask it. There was no mistaking that they were the eyes of a homunculus. I couldn’t believe that anyone could create a homunculus this convincingly human, but if anyone could, it’d be person I was looking for: The Master Alchemist. “Do I know anything about what?” Chroma asks, innocently, “The answer’s probably ‘no’ since I don’t really know a lot of things, but that’s OK! My sister is smart, and I have a lot of other things that I’m good at!” I’ve cut short the dying oaths of men who’ve wronged me, but I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt her when she sounded so excited. “What do you know about the Master Alchemist?” “Huh? Who? Me? Uuuuhhhhh, nothing!” she said, staggeringly unconvincingly, “I’ve never heard of them! Er, I mean, them! The singular them. There’s only one of them. Probably! I mean, that’s what you made it sound like, and you’d certainly know better than me.” I can feel the prickling gazes of the other customers. This is attracting too much attention.
“Well, I’m sure I’ll find them,” I said, “In the meantime, could you show me to a table?” “Of course!” She said, “Coming right up! We just had a table open up! Just sit tight while I get it ready!” She bowed and then walked to a table near the back of the room. The customers at the table, still eating, were physically shooed away by Chroma, who then returned hastily. “Follow me!” She said, not seeming to understand that I could see her the whole time. I followed her as she hummed to herself contentedly. “Here!” She patted one of the chairs. “The comfiest seat in the house! Now, what would you like?” She asked. “Actually, I’d like you to sit down and have a little chat,” I said, sitting in the seat opposite the one she indicated. “Really? I’d also like that a lot! But, you’re not sitting in the comfiest chair…” The way she insisted I sit on that specific chair was suspicious. I didn’t detect any suspicious magic from it, but I couldn’t take the chance that it was a trap. “You can sit in it. I insist.” I said. “Really? Wow, you’re so nice! Thank you so much!” She said, as she sat down.
“I’ve cast a concealing spell on the two of us,” I said, “No one can see you, or hear you talk. Or scream, if you want to do this the hard way. So-” “Wait, did you make us invisible?” She asked, cheerfully, “That’s awesome! Does that mean you want to be my invisible friend?” “It doesn’t-” “But wait, can people still see my clothes?” She asked, beginning to take off her jacket, “I’d better-” “You’d better not,” I say, sternly, grabbing her arm, “If you draw attention to yourself, I will make sure it’s the last thing you do. And you’re not invisible. It’s more like we’re difficult to notice. People can still see us, the spell just makes them not want to see us, in a sense.” “So you made us ugly?” She asked, “But you’re still so pretty! I want to look at you forever!” I was baffled. I had quite clearly threatened this girl’s life, but she complimented me like she’d already forgotten. Maybe she never even realized it in the first place. “Did I say something mean?” she asked, sadly, “Er, sorry, I didn’t mean to say you were just pretty, I meant to say you were beautiful! That’s even more pretty than just pretty!” I didn’t know how to respond, so I just sat dumfounded. “Is that still not enough? Then how about stunning? Gorgeous? Um, uuuuhhhhh…. Really really really really really REALLY pretty? I’m real sorry I don’t know enough words to say how pretty you are. But I’m sure you get called pretty all the time, by people who are way smarter than me and use words I’ve never even heard of, so just pretend I’m using those words, OK?” “I actually don’t,” I said, truthfully. This girl had made it quite clear that playing bad cop wasn’t going to get me anywhere, so I decided to try to win her trust. “You’re the first person to call me pretty in, well, a while.” “Shut up,” Chroma said in disbelief, “I don’t believe you. People tell me I’m gullible, but even I’m not going to fall for that.” “It’s true,” I say. “But… how? You’re probably the prettiest person I’ve ever seen! Is it because you keep using spells to make yourself uglier? I mean I guess it makes sense because if you were pretty all the time you’d have to keep dealing with idiots like me falling in love with you, haha,” she rambled. “I don’t think you’re an idiot,” I lied, “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.” “I… wow.” Crimson tears started pooling around her eyes. “That’s really sweet! You’re really nice! Surely people must tell you that all the time!” I laughed bitterly at the irony. “Not really,” I said, “I’m only nice to cute girls like you.” “AAAHHH! YOU THINK I’M CUTE?” She screamed so loud, I feared it’d overcome the concealment spell. Her entire body started blushing, taking on an inhumanly deep shade of red. “Of course. And I think cute girls like you are cutest when they keep their voices down,” I said. “oh sorry,” she whispered, as loudly as possible. “It’s fine. Anyway, why are you so surprised? Surely a young woman as adorable as you must hear that all the time.” “I-I don’t actually. I don’t think it’s because people don’t think I’m cute. I think they probably do think I’m cute because I am very cute. But usually they’re too mad about me messing up to say it. My sister and mom and dad aren’t usually mad at me but I guess it’s kind of weird for them to call me cute.” Mom and dad? Was she maintaining a lie that she was born to human parents, or did she accidentally reveal that there were multiple master alchemists? And who was this sister? Another homunculus? I considered pressing her further, but thought better of it.
“You seem really smart, so I bet you never mess up,” she said. I really didn’t need to be reminded of how untrue that was. “Then why don’t people call you pretty very much?” “Mostly because they’re too afraid of me,” I said. “Huh, I guess that makes sense!” she said, “I think the witch’s hat and the suit make you look really cool and pretty, but I guess I see how they look kind of scary.” “Are you scared of me?” I asked. “Nope!” she said, “I’m actually really strong! Are you really strong too?” “Hmm, I wonder,” I say, coyly. “I bet you are!” She said, excitedly, “But I’m still not scared of you! Because I’m really really strong! I’m so strong that I’m not afraid of anyone! Well, except my mom and dad. And that’s why I can’t fight you right now, because I’m not allowed to fight in the bar anymore.” Her mom and dad forbade her from fighting in the bar? Did they run this establishment? It would explain why someone as ditzy as her would be working as a waitress. And if they were so powerful, they had to be related to The Master Alchemist somehow.
“Your parents must be really really really strong, then,” I said. “Mm-hmm!” She said, “But only sometimes. Most of the time they’re just really strong.” “So you’re stronger than them most of the time?” I asked. “Yep!” She said, proudly. “Wow, that’s very impressive!” I said, “But how do they become really really really strong?” “Oh, they use- wait, I’m not sure I should be telling you.” Damn. I was so close. “It’s OK, sweetie, I don’t want to hurt them,” I said, “I would never do anything to upset my precious new friend.” “I trust you!” she said, “But, still, they’re very secretive about that kind of thing. They told me not to tell you.” They told her that, specifically? Did they know I’d try to interrogate her? I felt uneasy, but I had to press on. “It’s OK, you don’t have to tell me. I think they already know. They use potions, don’t they?” “O-of course not!” She said, clearly lying, “They don’t… they’ve never even heard of potions. What’s a potion, anyway?” “It’s OK, you don’t have to say anything,” I said, “I already know. Your parents are the master alchemists, and you’re a homunculus they created. They’re somewhere I this bar, aren’t they?” “I… no!” Tears started streaming down her face, red at first, then slowly in more and more colors, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, none of that is true! I’m not a honomc- a homnoc- a homoncleus! I’m a real girl!” I gently patted her head as I tried to reassure her. “I never said you weren’t a real girl. Even if you are a homunculus, that doesn’t change the fact that you’re cute, and strong, and nice, and fun. And you’re my friend.” “I… you really mean it?” She asked. “I do.” I said. And maybe I really did.
“There, there, everything’s OK now, Chroma.” I heard two voices speaking in unison, and two hands wiping the tears from her eyes. How? “You did a wonderful job. We’re very proud of you.” There were suddenly two people crouched next to Chroma in matching blue and red suits. They hadn’t teleported there, or I would’ve detected their magic. How the Hell did they get there?! “Are you the master alchemists?” I asked, hesitantly. “We are the ones you seek, if that’s what you’re asking,” they said in unison, as they stood up and turned around in one fluid motion. “Pestle and Mortar, at your service,” they said, before bowing, as perfectly synchronized as everything else they did. One had a blue eyepatch with a silver moon emblem, while the other had a red eyepatch with a golden sun emblem. “Those are your names?” I asked, “Seriously?” “Seriously,” They both said. “Do you always talk like that?” ‘At the same time?’ one said, ‘Not always, but usually,’ the other finished. “So how did you get here? What the Hell is going on?” I asked. ‘Really? Not gonna ask us which is Pestle,’ ‘and which is Mortar?’ “I don’t give a damn!” I said, “What I want to know is how you pierced my concealment spell!” “Oh, didn’t Chroma tell you?” they asked, “We’re really, really, really strong.” “You… you heard that? How?” I asked, “How long were you listening?” ‘The whole time!’ ‘We all were!’ “We all?” I asked, incredulously. “Yep, everyone in the bar. Your spell never worked.” I felt a pit in my stomach. They had heard me threaten their daughter’s life. “I-I’m sorry,” I said, “I was never going to hurt your daughter. That was an empty threat.” ‘Of course you weren’t,’ ‘you couldn’t have if you tried.’ ‘She is really, really strong after all.’ “You threatened me?” Chroma asked, innocently. “I… yeah, I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s OK!” She said, “I forgive you!” I smiled weakly. “So what’s all this about, then?” I asked, “What’s your end game? Who are you working for?” “Oh, we’re self-employed,” they said, “And this is the endgame. The big reveal that we’ve all been listening to you.” “But why?” I asked. “Why listen to me?” ‘Because it’s funny!’ ‘And in your case, a bit heartwarming.’