Disclaimer: I no own. Please to not be suing now.
Warnings: Spoilers for Scar's backstory, but nothing for the rest of the series. Themes of impurity -- rape, violence, revenge, incest, the guilt of the victim, the lesser of two evils.
Author's Note: "Five shades of white" was the original challenge prompt I stole for this one. It suggested a sense of unsure purity to me -- a contrast between true purity and "understood" purity, I suppose. The purity of the victim, which can be no kind of purity at all. It's easy to forgive Scar's brother by allowing oneself to think that he did what he did out of love, but it isn't that simple, is it? And no matter what arguments you make, Scar's brother is anything but pure. The Stone that is his body, that is Scar's arm, is incomplete -- impure. So I played around with that a lot, as well as the idea that Scar's zealotry is impure, that he may not believe every word he says about God's will, because I find it hard to believe that with all he's been through, he hasn't been struck by a crisis of faith at least once.
So. Anyway. Themes of impurity.
Also, a note on the names: I did a lot of research beforehand, and as far as I can tell, Scar's brother's name is Mattias in canon. Everyone else, however, has names made up for this story. Mostly I went with a Hebrew theme, not strictly Biblical as Christianity doesn't exist in the FMA world, but close. Hiram means "exalted brother" or "high born." Baruch "blessed"; Abidan "my father is judge." Gurney is just Gurney, but Sol could be suggestive of Solomon (if you want to think of him as a perversion of a Christian character). And so on.
And the title is from the
Mark Twain story of the same name, which is extremely short and can
be found with a quick Google search. I highly recommend it, and I can
assure you that it will take far less time to read than this monster
sucker of a fanfic.
Chapter One: Gurney
"Look there. The camp's up ahead!"
A surge of murmured prayer and silent gestures rose around Hiram, digging into his skin like the flying grains in a sandstorm. He closed his eyes in gratefulness, but gave no prayer to his God. After all, he wasn't much better than an exile... like his brother.
Ishbala would never listen to one who had touched such unclean skin.
Under Hiram's supporting arm, Mattias trembled a little at the sound of the worship all around them. A woman nearby fell to her knees, weak with thirst and relief, and raised her clasped hands to the heavens. Mattias's face turned to her, blank eyes staring.
"Come, brother," Hiram whispered. His own throat was raw with thirst and dust, but he wouldn't abandon Mattias to wait at the back of the water line alone. They would find an empty space at the back of the little encampment first, where maybe one or two outcasts would already be hiding from the other refugees under an overhang of the cliff that towered over them all, and Hiram would make his brother wait while he got water for them both. And then, blessed rest.
The encampment was maybe a hundred yards away. It looked older than the last one the people of Hiram's village had passed through -- shoddier, more run-down. Lives had been born and reborn here, if only for the little while they'd been allowed to stay in one place. New lives created, new families coalesced, thrown together out of desperation. Refugees were normal humans forced to live mayfly lives, born, married and dead in the blink of an eye.
And there had been death here. Hiram could feel that, too, not only in his mind and his bones but in the electric heat that sheened the visible edges of his brother's skin like so much lamp oil, burning with the forbidden light.
Hiram shifted his grip on his brother and reached over with his free hand to pull up Mattias' hood, tugging it down so it covered his face.
"I can't see," Mattias protested weakly, reaching up as if to push the hood back.
Hiram gabbed his wrist. "No," he rasped. "I'll lead you. And pull your sleeves down."
Mattias' resistance was fragile and fleeting. He relented, head and shoulders sagging at another small defeat, and covered his marked wrists with his sleeves. The symbols of his exile vanished. Hiram breathed easier.
The refugee camp was still and silent. No scout came to meet them and take count of their number or tend their wounded. As they approached the refugee camp, an old man broke away from the head of the group and ran for the first tent, crying out with all that was left of his being -- and in the next moment, he was silent, and a cloud of red was dispersing into the dry air, feeding moisture into the hungry ground.
The report of the shot that had taken the old man down echoed against the cliff-face. Everyone froze, but there was no outburst of shock, no weeping and wailing. A blankness descended on some faces, a look of resignation on others. Mattias shivered again against Hiram, but made no move to look up, nor even to ask what was happening. He couldn't have seen the old man die.
Seeing didn't matter anymore, to any of them. Death wasn't something you believed in, it was just something you knew.
Hiram glanced up -- no visible snipers on the cliff. The exit wound from the shot had been horizontal. He started to scan the tents --
"There," whispered a man a few feet ahead of them. Hiram followed his pointing finger and saw dark figures moving in the shadow of the cliff, emerging from behind and inside the tents on the edge of the camp. As they passed out from under the line of shadow and into the late afternoon sun, Hiram could see that they were not military -- they were dressed in an ill-informed assortment of Ishbalan clothes, most worn wrong or hanging loose or layered on top of something foreign, mismatched styles of the western and northern countries. The Ishbalan clothes were all of finest quality, while the foreign clothes beneath looked old and worn.
Bandits. Freeloaders. Highway entrepreneurs. Hiram had heard stories but had hoped to reach one of the secret camps in the hills unhindered. But Ishbala must have stopped listening to Hiram's prayers long ago, because here they were, and a man was already dead.
Mattias feebly tugged his sleeves further down over his hands, trying to hide the glow that wanted to escape. His markings did that sometimes when there was death nearby. Hiram's fingers tingled unpleasantly at the touch.
One of the bandits came closer to the huddling group of refugees, clearly the leader -- he wore mostly Amestrian clothes, with only a red wrap (tied in as neat and correct a knot under the arm as the most respectable Ishbalan could hope for) as a concession to all the loot he'd gathered. Hiram recognized his pants and boots as Amestrian military issue, but they were ill-fitting, most likely stolen off the body of a fallen soldier. His skin was the typical Ishbalan golden brown, but his dark eyes betrayed some border-mixed ancestry, maybe from the Lior or Faradn regions. A couple of the men behind him were Drachman-dark, skin as black as the cave networks they lived in, suggesting a northern taint to all of the banditsí blood.
"Sorry about that," said the leader. He had a deceptively amiable face and average build. "Sol gets a little jumpy when people run at him these days. Name's Gurney. Treat us right and me and my men will be your protectors in this little sanctuary. Just, uh... don't give us any reason to get jumpy."
The man called Sol grinned, something like glee brightening his face.
Gurney smiled, showing teeth, and it was the normalcy of the expression that scared Hiram more than anything. Hiram glanced at the body of the old man sprawled undignified in the sand, a twisted twig of a thing -- barely human. Hiram remembered his face now. He had been a fruit vendor. His wife had died a month before the war broke out, quietly, in her sleep.
Hiram had once or twice overheard the old man thanking Ishbala for the mercy He had shown her.
Gurney was meandering through the crowd of statue-still Ishbalans, dozens of pairs of red eyes following his every move. He stopped abruptly and turned to speak to another old man, not quite as ancient as the one now bleeding out into the sand, but with enough wrinkles to look respectable. "What might make a good pledge of our newfound partnership, huh, Gramps?"
So Gurney understood enough to know that the elders were the leaders. That wasn't good.
The old man -- Daoud, Hiram recalled from the haze of memory that was the time before the war -- met Gurney's eyes with all the dignity that was left to him, and said nothing.
Gurney grinned again. "You want me to kill you now, that's fine," he said. "I'm accommodating, don't think I'm not. But that's not what I asked. So, anyone got any ideas?" He looked around, met hard gazes everywhere, and laughed. It sounded real.
"We don't have anything, sir," said a woman finally. Her eyes were closed tight, her head down. "We left everything behind. Please."
Hiram held his breath. She shouldn't have spoken. Shouldn't have begged.
Gurney's smile softened and he walked over to the woman, putting a hand under her chin and lifting her face to his. Setting her jaw, she opened her eyes.
He looked on her with such fondness, such... not quite compassion. It was something else, indefinable. Possession...? "I love that color," he muttered, lightly touching the corner of her eye with one finger. The finger twisted up and he lifted his hand away, turning to the crowd, that wide grin back, a little feral this time, and Hiram could see that he wasn't such a good guy after all, could see beneath the mask of sanity to --
"This good woman has offered herself," Gurney said, loud enough to be heard by all, jovial as anything. He put his arm around her and pulled her towards him.
A man next to her, probably her husband, cried out wordlessly and reached out to grab his wife, to punch Gurney, something, anything, but a single shot rang out (Sol, or one of the others?) and the stillness devolved into chaos in a second. Everyone shouted at once, everyone swung out, ran, fell, tripped, was trampled. Hiram pulled Mattias close and did the only thing he knew to do, which was to fall to his knees and curl over his brother like a protective stone, while Mattias shook under him and wept and cursed God. Hiram felt blows on his back and arms and head, felt blood trickle down his neck, but there was no pain -- someone else's blood, maybe. He let the fight roll over him, let the bandits' tanrum run its course. When he tried to glance up he saw others like himself, curled on the ground with their hands over their heads, only trying to live.
Gunshots echoed -- one, two, five. With the fifth shot there was a scream, and then, silence. The struggle had lasted less than ten seconds.
Hiram dared to look up.
The woman who had spoken first was dead, the light of life still fading from her wide-open eyes, a small hole in her forehead. She lay face-up and Hiram was only grateful that he couldnít see the exit wound. Sol stood over her.
Sol straightened, blew on his gun, wiped some blood off the barrel with his sleeve. He turned to Gurney, who glared at him, and shrugged. "She made me jumpy," he rasped.
"Just don't do it again," said Gurney.
The woman's husband broke from the crowd and ran to her, a sound erupting slow and high from his throat, a sound that had no name except a living death of the spirit. It was the sound of being buried alive, or being destroyed from the soul down. He fell over her and kept making the sound, only slowing once to draw breath. A few people made signs to Ishbala, but most only looked on, too deadened with their own horror to empathize with his.
Gurney winced and gestured to Sol, and in less than a moment the husband was out of his misery and joining his wife.
"They're probably the lucky ones," Gurney said reflectively.
He picked out others. Five women, four of them married, one the eldest but unmarried daughter of a widowed mother, who knew better than to scream when the bandits pulled her child out of the crowd. One of the men passed near Hiram without looking down at him, followed a minute later by Sol, who paused. Hiram watched the gunman's booted feet, back tensing against whatever might come -- he could handle being kicked, being spat on, anything, as long as Mattias was...
But Mattias had seen Sol's boots stop in front of them. He let out a quiet moan. Hiram tried to silence him, but it was too late.
"That a girl begging for attention down there?" Sol asked, almost snickering. He kicked Mattias' shin, not too hard. "Get up. Both of you."
Hiram hesitated, but as Sol drew his foot back for a harder kick, Gurney's voice interrupted. "I've got it," said the leader.
Gurney knelt, bringing his face into Hiram's field of view. "Hey," said Gurney. "Who is it? Wife? Mother? It's honorable to protect her, no fault against you there. But I think standing up would be a good idea, all right?"
Hiram didn't think he could feel any more nauseous; he couldn't meet anyone's eyes as he drew himself to his feet, not Gurney's and certainly not his brother's. He helped Mattias up and realized too late that the hood was not pulled entirely down over his face.
Gurney made a small tutting sound in his throat. "Ah hah, a rare find, gentlemen," he said, that slow, toothy smile returning. Hiram bit his tongue. Gurney brushed Mattias' hood back and cupped his chin in one fluid motion, forcing the Ishbalan to meet his darker eyes. "Hello, exile," he said softly.
He understood the markings. Hiram went cold.
"Say something," Gurney commanded.
"He can't speak," Hiram interjected quickly. He didn't care what happened to him anymore.
"Nice try," Gurney replied, unfazed. At the slightest nod from Gurney, Sol gave Mattias one swift, sharp kick to the shin -- the same shin he'd hit before. Mattias cried out and staggered forward -- Hiram barely managed to catch him.
"Pretty high for a young man like yourself," Gurney noted as if nothing untoward had happened. His eyes flickered down. "Missing something?"
"Leave him alone," Hiram gasped, struggling to hold Mattias up. His brother's knees were buckling, from pain or exhaustion or starvation or some combination, Hiram didn't know. "Leave him alone, he's done nothing to you."
Gurney shrugged. "It doesn't matter, I'm already intrigued. What's your name?" This he directed at Hiram.
In answer, Hiram spat in his face.
Sol jerked forward, but Gurney put one hand flat on his henchman's chest and wiped his cheek with the other. Sol stood down reluctantly. Gurney wiped his hand on his faded blue pants. "Nice," he said. "I like these two. The exile especially. I can only assume you two are close, if you'd risk your eternal soul to take care of a sinner like this." Gurney smiled at Hiram, genuine respect mixed with something... else in his face. "Lovers? No... I see a little resemblance, here..." He touched Hiram and Mattiasí cheeks at the same time, tracing the high bone there, but while Hiram jerked his head back, Mattias could only suffer the touch, shivering.
"Brothers, I think," Gurney said knowingly. "No one else left? Parents gone to Ishbala and left you boys alone? But you're old enough to take care of yourselves. No kids, then, no wives?"
Mattias jerked at that, despite Hiram's attempt to hold him still.
"She..." Mattias whispered, "she... was..."
Gurney leaned down, close to Mattias face, looking earnestly into the broken man's glazed eyes. "She's why you're here now? Hm?"
"It wasn't her fault," Mattias breathed, a tear leaking unnoticed from the corner of one eye.
"I'm sure it wasn't," Gurney murmured comfortingly. "I'm sure it was yours."
Mattias closed his eyes and made a sound somewhere between a keen and a groan, too close to the sound the grieving man had made minutes ago -- too close. Hiram had been lulled by Gurney's gentle tone, but he took a violent step backwards at the bandit's cruel words, dragging his brother with him. "Be quiet," he hissed at Mattias, shaking him as gently as he could, trying to snap him out of whatever demon of madness had seized him. "Quiet, brother, do you understand?"
"Personally, I don't think he understands much," Gurney said, amusement evident in his tone.
"He understands more than you," Hiram snapped without thinking.
Something twisted beneath Gurney's facade of nonchalance. Hiram felt the chill of horror slicing all the way to his bones this time, knowing that he'd overstepped some boundary, crossed some invisible line that could never be uncrossed for as long as both he and Gurney lived. He'd forfeited his immunity; Gurney was no longer interested in keeping him whole.
And he'd forfeited any chance he might have had of staying with his brother through whatever was about to happen. Hiram could see it in Gurney's eyes, the sudden burning need to separate the two loving brothers, to destroy anything honorable that could exist between a castrated exile and his stoic, long-suffering caretaker. He could see the need to break anything that wasn't already shattered in Mattias, and to break the bones if not the mind of Hiram himself.
Hiram didn't see the signal, but there must have been one, because the next thing he knew was world-shattering pain and an explosion of light, and he was falling. When he could open his eyes again he realized that Sol had gotten behind him and snapped his left arm like a twig. He was on his knees, Sol still behind him, holding his arm. He also thought he might have vomited, judging by the taste in his mouth. When he managed to look up he saw that two other bandits had already dragged Mattias away from him and were holding him upright before Gurney, who was touching his face so possessively, so hungrily...
"Leave him alone," Hiram gasped again. His voice broke, but he didn't care. "He hasn't done anything."
The devil's grin flashed across Gurney's face quick as lightning and he yanked on the front of Mattias' robe just as fast, tearing one seam and revealing a sunlight-starved chest riddled with the brands of guilt. "These are telling me he's done plenty," said Gurney, running a hand over the flat planes of skin and symbols. He tugged the ragged opening down further to reveal the edge of the scar tissue that started around Mattias' navel and continued down to his knees in some places. Everything between had been torn away, inside and out, ruthlessly, by some invisible force -- some power of evil so great that even Mattias could not describe it when Hiram dared to ask, except to say that it had the bluest eyes, and the face of a child...
Hiram knew he was sobbing, but it was a distant knowledge, like the pain that flared through his broken arm every time he tried to twist away from his captor. Just as he got enough leverage with one leg to push himself to his feet, Sol's knee jerked up and met his lower back with a resounding crack, knocking him down face-first towards the ground. He barely caught himself on his one good hand, just short of the vile puddle in front of him. His breath came shallowly for a moment, his vision blurring at the edges.
"Stop," he tried to say, but only a harsh breath came out, which he had to struggle to draw in again.
"What I love about exiles," Hiram could indistincely hear Gurney saying somewhere above him, "is how you people with your God of light and mercy can honestly make yourselves believe that they don't exist. You know how fucked up that is?" Hiram struggled to raise his salt- stung eyes, just in time to see Gurney shove a random Ishbalan, hard. She stumbled, but stood her ground, stolidly looking away from Mattias and his molestors. "See? Isn't that great, big bro? Or are you little bro?" Gurney nudged Hiram with a steel- enforced boot. "You're bigger, but that's what happens when your balls get ripped off, I guess."
Hiram wasn't sure what it was about that statement that made him snap. Maybe the suggestion that his brother was less than a man, or less than a human, or maybe the fact that Gurney spoke like he had any idea what he was talking about, like Mattias' crime had been something trivial -- turning lead into gold, animals into monsters -- something not worthy of the Grand Arcanum. But it had been love, love, and Mattias had been broken a long time before he had allowed his body to be mutilated or his country to fall into chaos.
Gurney knew nothing.
Hiram heard himself screaming, felt the break in his arm twist and splinter as he wrenched it out of Sol's slackened grasp. He was up and running in a second, berserker rage tainting his vision red. Gurney's face filled his eyes and mind, that little smile flickering dead with a hint of genuine surprise and concern at Hiram's outburst --
Hiram didn't notice the shots fired around him, didn't notice the bandits rushing him from all sides, and he wouldn't have noticed his own death had it come swiftly enough. His fist connected solidly with Gurney's face, high on the cheek, and Hiram felt something crack beneath his knuckles and the vibration of Gurney's scream sang along his arm, and it felt so good to hurt him, just that, nothing more, just to kill --
Some reflexive resistance to such violent thoughts stayed Hiram's next blow long enough for the other bandits to reach him. After that the pain was overwhelming, and he gave his mind over to the black without a fight.
The last thing he glimpsed as he collapsed was the look
of anguish on Mattias' face.