He can't stay at the hostel any longer. Rooms that had once been plain have now taken on the pinnings of heresy, as if alchemy had constructed the foundation, brick by brick, nail by bloody nail. As if the wood had been transmuted from bones; the water is brown not from rust, but from decaying tissue. Sin built this house. Resting here is a heathen's trap.
It's harder to leave than he expected. Complacency snuck up on Scar during his recovery, dulling his instincts for war. It's been days since he's used the dresser to block access to his room, and even longer since he's huddled up at night with senses primed, waiting for thieves to rappel through his window. He's slept in late. He's sat with his back to open doors. He's eaten large bites of his food without concern for poisons. The squashed pillow has even begun to smell like him, a little.
It was good being able to sleep somewhere safe. But now it's time to go.
Scar doesn't have possessions to pack, and any financial debt's been cleared through manual labor. A sense of obligation keeps him in his room an extra hour while he cleans up, stripping the sheets and bunching them in a clumsy pile on one end of the dresser. There's not much more he can do without alerting Mabel to his departure, but he can at least turn the mattress over, and maybe fix the loose blinds.
Voices drift down the hallway as he works. At first he ignores them, assuming that the conversation is between two anonymous renters, but the volume increases until the words run clear. Sentences turn to shouts. Scar grits his jaw, and tries to focus on his work, hefting the broken-spring mattress in his arms as he pulls it across the bedframe.
"Mister Palov!" It's Mabel. She's hoarse. "Three days, and not a penny given for any of them! You pay up or get out! So help me..."
A man's laugh cuts her off there, ripe with mockery and scorn. "You can't do a thing against me, you cheap hag. You're lucky you're getting money at all, since you're too ugly to spread your legs for it. Maybe if I had better service, I might be willing to slip you a coin, but -- "
There's a sharp crack of flesh. When Scar pushes open the door and leans out, he sees Mabel near the stairs, frozen with her palm uplifted. A figure blocks the path between him and her; it's one of the other renters, a tall man who always stole extra during breakfasts and filched other people's toast. His chin is turned to the side. It looks like he's clutching his face.
Familiar with the many dialects of violence, Scar knows that a matron's slap does nothing to deter petty cruelty. If anything, it usually makes it worse.
"Stupid whore!" Palov sneers, straightening up and taking a step towards Mabel. "If you think that's a beating, maybe I should show you one better!"
It's not his problem, Scar tells himself. He closes his eyes, inhales deeply. There is no reason to aid the wife of a future sinner.
He's suddenly behind Palov anyway, muscles moving in confident, automatic twists as his body explodes into action. Palov's arm bends itself up, trapped like a pale snake in Scar's fingers; the man's other wrist is pinned at his side, spasming in pain. Scar applies a small amount of pressure, experimentally, and feels more than hears the fluid pop of dislocation.
Palov's screams alert even the normally reclusive boarders. They pop their heads out of their rooms, one by one like desert rodents, fleeing just as quickly.
"Bastard!" Palov's curses turn quickly from slurs into swearing. Some of the slang, Scar doesn't recognize, but he senses himself being insulted along with Mabel. The words roll off his hearing. He lets them fade, serene in his own brutality and self-denial.
Just as his captive starts to wind down from lack of breath, Scar gives the man a hard shove forward.
"Get out." The words are rough. Scar's voice is unfamiliar twice over, both from disuse and from the oddity of the situation. The Ishbal refugee should not be defending a stranger. He should not be doing this. "Never come back."
When Palov stumbles, Scar kicks him down the stairs.
He doesn't bother packing up the man's things for him neatly, only prying open the room's window and tossing them out to the street below. One suitcase comes open during the fall; it tumbles end over end during its stunted descent. As Scar flings a grimy jacket, watching the canvas balloon through the air, he can hear Palov's complaints from the far side of the house.
"You'll pay for this!" The tinny threat bounces up and down the road. Echoes skitter away, lost in the broken glass of the sidewalks, and Palov spouts another round of angry epithets. "You broke my arm, you white-haired freak! You broke my godda --"
Scar shuts the window.
Mabel is in the kitchen when Scar finds her. Water heats in a jagged plume on the stove; Mabel's gestures are slow, and her fingers tremble when she goes through the cupboards looking for a saucer. Her dignity is running low, pride cowed beneath the weight of fear. The woman's cheeks are as pale as if she'd been shot in the stomach and left to bleed.
"Thank you," she says, turning her head when Scar enters, and then taking down a second cup. The kettle hisses. Mabel digs out one of the dented strainers from a cabinet and fills it with three pinches of dark leaves, trickling hot liquid slowly through to steep. The results look more like sewage water, but Scar drinks anyway when she offers. "Will he... is he coming back?"
Scar's tongue pushes against his teeth, tasting the cheap grass of the leaves, the rancid metal of the teapot. When Mabel looks up expectantly, cued by the silence, he shakes his head. "Shouldn't," is the answer, slow and deliberating. "Wouldn't be a good idea."
That night should have marked his departure. But Scar sits up late in the kitchen with Mabel as she pens cramped letters on registration forms, and the tea-water is boiled again and again. He wraps his knuckles with tape, studying each tiny blemish from countless fights. His brother's hand started off smooth, but even it's picked up nicks over the years. War is hard.
It's surreal what he's done today, what he's helped protect. It makes Scar want to laugh at himself in disbelief. All his Ishbal sensibilities mock this misplaced compassion. These people are his enemies. He can't afford to think of them as human.
The walls of the hostel chitter with sin, and Scar does his best to ignore them.
- - - -
Early the next morning, a brisk knocking rattles the front door.
It's the military. They've sent two soldiers. One of them is yawning, wide gapes of his lips that he does his best to cover behind a gloved hand. The other wears a crass glare of displeasure. They both look tired, and irritable, and -- above all -- dangerous to one Ishbal refugee.
Mabel is the one who answers them, dishtowel in one hand while refusing to invite them inside. They present their questions from the front stoop. Scar can't hear them clearly, but Mabel's words trickle back to where he hides against the stairwell.
"There're a dozen scuffles you never pay attention to," the woman grouses. "Never took an interest in my beds before, not even with that madman seven months ago and all those little girls missing. Where were you then? Hm? When they caught him, it was just two streets over, but we never saw one wink of you."
Scar scoots closer to the edge. His nerves are sharp twists that curl his stomach with nausea. There are three ways he can escape from the second floor without being seen from the main road, but there's always the chance that other soldiers have circled around to wait.
"Mr. Palov's complaint was quite clear, m'am." The last word mutates into a mumble of sound, and the officer smacks his lips while he tries to wake up. "He said he was assaulted by one of your boarders, a violent foreigner with white hair and dark skin. We have had reports of a troublemaker in the city recently, m'am. Figured it'd be best if we came by to check it out."
The second officer's drawl is too bored to be anything but pretense as he cuts in, cold and neat. "It could be that there's an undesireable element that's hiding out here -- without your knowledge of course, m'am. It'd be to your... advantage if you cooperated by sharing information about anyone suspicious."
"The only thing suspicious is that bastard who got tipped out last night," Mabel snaps vengefully. "None of others came in with a bloody axe in their hand or nothing, so you can look elsewhere for folk to fill your jail-cellars."
Laying down flat against the floorboards, Scar pushes himself forward like an inchworm. The lip of the stairwell comes into view; he can see the officers silhouetted in the frame of the doorway. Both of them shift their weight, and then glance at one another. Neither have watch-chains hanging from their hip.
"Then your statement stands, m'am?"
Mabel snorts. "I had a renter here who refused to leave and refused to pay. He was made to go by one of the others. Ain't nothing new or strange about that. Never will be either, not unless you soldiers plan to start helping us folks out."
The door closes. Mabel parts the aging lace of the curtains with a finger and watches the car drive away.
She turns back towards the stairs and takes them two at a time. Scar scrambles to his feet, barely fast enough to stand before she's bearing down on him, hands clenched in tight fists by her side. She doesn't bother to acknowledge his eavesdropping before she launches into a demand.
"I need to know something now, Mister." Mabel's lips are thin and hard. "Are you going to cause any trouble for me?"
Scar has faced down fiery demons before. He's fought alchemists. He's crossed deserts coated in blood and woken with the sounds of gunfire all around him, hot bullets ripping through canvas and flesh alike.
None of these experiences have included a white-knuckled woman in a poor house.
"Swear it." A hint of panic sends tremors through the woman's voice. Mabel cannot throw Scar out by force, any more than she could have ejected Palov; the two officers have already departed, and right now in this hall they are alone. He could do anything to her."If you've any reason to draw the military down on you, I want you gone. I can't have this house blacked by the government. They don't forgive."
Truth is an orphan child in the back room. It whimpers, and Scar tries to pretend it doesn't exist. "I am not the cause of their problems," he vows to her, feeling the sourness of dishonesty in his mouth. The act is close enough to heresy, and for a minute, he appeals to Ishbala's better nature, Ishbala's higher understanding. The military is the source of this conflict, he states carefully in his mind, just in case God is listening. I didn't cause it. I didn't start it. That was not a lie.
Mabel's not convinced. It shows, but they're both at an impasse. "If you've done me wrong," she voices through a scowl, "I don't care how big you think you are, so help me, I will turn you over my knee like a little boy and tan your hide."
The mental image is almost humorous. Almost. But Scar realizes the grave seriousness in the woman's desperation, the way her spine hunches and her breathing is fast. "I promise," he tells her softly, meaning every word, "I will not endanger your life."
They stare at each other as the hostel wakes up slowly around them, toilet flushing and renters shuffling past in hopes of breakfast.
"No," Mabel says at last, relaxing against the wall. "I don't think you would."
- - - -
Because of the renewed suspicions of the military, Scar has to stay another night. That's what he figures is safe. That's what he tells himself, because his actions were rash and he can't afford to move while their eyes are upon him.
His bed welcomes him back without needing an apology. Mabel gets hold of a fresh tomato from the surplus produce markets somehow, and dices it up into morning breakfast. He gets extra.
The renters are skittish all that week, but none of them can afford to quit in search of cheaper rates in a mythical neighborhood with less violence. Palov never shows. There's garbage strewn across the front steps one morning, and Scar frowns as he cleans it up, but there's no further signs of harassment and eventually another man takes up the empty room.
He's doing the dishes one afternoon while Mabel folds sheets in the kitchen, tunelessly humming to herself. She's never asked him about his past; the pair of them have worked for hours in the same room together without speaking a word. If it wasn't so strange, it would be calming.
Scar's finishing up a fresh stack of cups when Mabel clears her throat.
"You won't have to worry 'bout me too much longer, Mister Nothing." As he turns towards her, one brow quizzical at the interruption, she grins widely. "The paperwork's almost done. My Jacob'll be able to fix this whole place up once he's an official alchemist."
Surprised, Scar grunts.
Cloth turns itself into straight lines in the woman's hands. Focused on squaring off the sheets, Mabel continues happily, unaware of the predator's silence across the room. "We won't have to rent out any more beds to strangers. Might fix up the front yard, get some grass instead of just dirt. Maybe even change neighborhoods. Go somewhere safe. Somewhere better."
She turns away to gather up the stack of linens into her arms.
Scar notices he has forgotten how to breathe.
"He'll be part of the military soon. You'll see. And none of these problems will ever have to happen again."
- - - -
That night, Scar leaves his room. The beacon-light of the kitchen is on; all week, Mabel has been staying up through the small hours pre-dawn, cheap tea on the stove and documents under pen. Scar had dismissed her work unconsciously, expecting the mountain of paperwork to never be completed, just as he had expected to leave days ago.
Now it seems that time has run out.
He's quiet descending the stairs. The floorboards are familiar with the man's weight; they accept his passage without a fuss, too docile to even groan. No one else in the hostel is awake. Scar passes closed doorways and dark rooms, navigating as much by touch and smell as he does by dimmed sight; he is an animal hunting, unsure of what he'll find.
When he rounds the corner into the kitchen, Scar comes to a halt.
She was telling the truth. Every time he had visited Mabel before, there were unfinished forms scattered like stray children across the table. Now there are only several thick folders stacked together in a single tower, studded with paperclips, the corners of photographs peeking out between the pages.
Mabel's head is down, pillowed in her arms as she sleeps.
Scar circles her warily, sidling closer to the table until the edge of it nudges against his thigh and Mabel's chair is by his elbow. The pile of folders is several inches high. He can't imagine how long it must have taken to collect all the material; even Mabel's claims of months and years in preparation don't register as truth until he's finally staring at the end result.
He lowers his hand to the papers, and feels the density of another man's life beneath his fingers.
The kitchen air is thick with the smell of cheap tea, punctuated by the lemon of dish soap. One of the water valves had broken earlier last week. Having no other solution and no funds to call a repairman, Mabel had resorted to sticking a bucket underneath the sink to catch the leak and emptying it in the bathtub whenever it was full. She'd laughed every time she did, struggling with the weight until Scar started to ferry it for her.
Money will fix the broken house. Money, or a different location, a different life. Payments from the renters barely keep the hostel in service, and any funds are funneled right back into bills. Scar's seen Mabel haggle for every coin in rent. Looking at her asleep, he can detect the small wrinkles in her face; she is not unlike the women of his hometown, their skin pinched with worry, hopeful and hopeless all at once.
Money can break the cycle of poverty.
But if Mabel's husband is accepted by the military, he will return home as a creature that Scar has vowed to kill. There can be no deviations, no exceptions. No mercy for scorched earth.
The deconstruction takes remarkably little fuss. Scar checks Mabel's face carefully for signs that she'll wake up, but she doesn't move as light whispers inside Scar's flesh, drawing alchemical symbols on the muscles of his arm. She isn't aware of what's going on, and as Scar watches her, he tries to keep himself from thinking too much about his own actions.
No mercy, he tells himself, mouthing the words like a prayer to Ishbala, or maybe a plea for forgiveness. None.
The papers puff into dust.
They are the most delicate things he has ever taken pains to destroy.
Leaning over the table, Scar brushes the debris away, letting the flakes disperse into the air. They catch flight on invisible currents, spreading into small clouds before vanishing into the grey-grimed kitchen. Soon, the only evidence of the documents is a faint powder that settles into the cracks of the table, testament to the photographs and signatures and files that can never be recovered.
Mabel stirs as he straightens up. He touches her shoulder to reassure her. She makes a smacking noise with her mouth, vulnerable and young, and he waits patiently until her breathing turns deep and rhythmic again.
Once the woman has settled back into sleep, Scar backpedals from the kitchen carefully, measuring out each step. He lingers by the doorway. Mabel is slumped alone at the empty table, and Scar's fingers hover over the lightswitch before deciding to leave it on, just in case she'd wake up and be afraid of the darkness.
He closes the front door behind him when he goes.
He doesn't let himself look back.