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Scorched Earth

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Scar tastes himself when he walks. It's unavoidable. Tarred cobblestones on his boots, mud from the road. Sawdust mixes in the rain, damp and moldering; the factories are sulky children huddled together in rows as he passes them by, glowering underneath the grey afternoons of Central. Their windows narrow in suspicion. He's only been here three days and the city is already trying to swallow him alive.

Scar tastes like moist garbage cans and stoplights. He's walked the streets, and now he smells like them. Crippled dogs could find him from miles away. Military ones -- real ones. Both unforgivable.

This won't do. For one thing, he killed a man yesterday. An alchemist -- and by now the law is shuffling into motion, officers springing to clockwork life behind the scenes. The city is quiet, draped with the sodden blanket of humidity, but Scar knows that within the dull military buildings, there are soldiers waiting to take their revenge.

He can't hide forever in alleyways and sewers. Not while the first wave of investigations pass. Central will be alert for trouble; Scar is a stranger, dark of skin, red eyes cloaked behind his shades. He radiates suspicion as readily as his skin is flavored with street trash.

Cleanliness is, technically, a luxury. Years in the watersparse deserts of Ishbal have taught Scar the use of oils and scouring sands, but ever since setting foot in Central, Scar has been coated with moisture. Droplets have crawled down his back and nestled between his shoulderblades like miniature assassins. For a man like Scar, it is intolerable. He no longer relies on sound or sight to provide his greatest warnings: it's all about pressure now, the barometer of temperatures and density helping to warn when the next explosion will hit.

With the heat of Central's summer, the overcast skies and heavy rain, the city feels like a huge bomb waiting for its detonation trigger.

Scar's instincts have hated it with every step. Here the wind is thick, heavy; humidity clings to every square centimeter, laden with dew and the clatterings of the city's inhabitants. The breeze can barely struggle through the openings presented by Central's narrow streets. Exhaust puffs out of the cars that rattle about daily business, mixing with the smog from the industrial quarters and the greater engine of the military machine. To Scar's mind, the water here does not know what to do with itself. It bumbles against the tightly-clumped houses instead, picking up the taint of the local sinners, and infecting nearby pedestrians.

In this lush, ripe luxury of water, Scar cannot afford to indulge himself. The air is filthy. The city is dirty, and still his problem of escape is not solved: he cannot find a place to conceal himself properly without the aid of civilization, but is not foolish enough to dare the main facilities. Here in Central they have plumbing almost everywhere, funneled from wells that people do not have to dig themselves, but Scar knows better than to be tempted by the sweet lure of this softer form of life.

"No plant will grow on this barren land," he reminds himself, plodding through the intersections while cars swish by him only inches away. He keeps his eyes down, face down, everything about his overlarge demeanor huddled inwards in an attempt to maintain a semblance of harmlessness. "No good can come from soil diseased."

That night is spent on a bypath behind a series of restaurants. Scar beds down among cardboard boxes sodden with the juices of rotting kitchens; disgusted by his own actions, he scrounges through the night's discards anyway until he finds a sauce-coated roll of bread, and peels away the outer crust until he can gnaw at the softer fluff within. The meal does little to quiet the grumbles of his stomach. Forcing it down, Scar pushes two garbage bins together to form a makeshift barricade, and bends his limbs until he can fit behind it safely.

He sleeps, and dreams of rifles.

The morning finds his joints stiff, screaming when he attempts to uncramp them. Dawn snuck past without rousing him. There are cars on the road already, distant wheels humming as their motors click away, pedestrians mumbling on the way to their workplaces. Moving brings a renewed hunger with it as Scar's muscles demand fodder; casting an eye at the cold offerings of the trash heaps, the man turns away resolutely and picks a direction to walk.

By the time the sun has painted fuzzy shadows across the afternoon, Scar has left the better restaurants behind and wandered into rows of grey, soot-streaked houses. They're jammed so tightly together that the tiny address numbers are stacked up like coffins, hammered into place with pennynails and tape. The wood rooftops are splintered. Bricks tumble out from the side of one home, where the wall has started to collapse, bursting open like maggots out of a belly wound.

Scar passes exactly one other person as he walks: a haggard woman, who refuses to lift her eyes from the road and instead scowls down at her own feet as she hurries by.

This is not a good sign.

There is a smell that Scar can't identify, a chemical breeze, and after a long moment he figures it's blowing in from the factories further down. Some part of his mind recognizes this district as one neglected by the city's authority, pushed into the corner and ignored by the law. The dark roads, as his brother used to warn him back home, pointing out narrow alleyways and houses whose windows were always covered over with black sheets. Where, it was whispered, there were certain types of merchants who played dangerously with sin. Where everything had a price -- but it could always be delivered, usually in the middle of the night.

Scar feels his lip curl as he walks, as if his body is ten again and defenseless against the threats of thieves and slavers. Muscles coil. Scar is tall now, huge and taut with his own power, but some fears, he has never been able to escape.

But this district is safer for him than any others, so long as the military is on the hunt. Scar hasn't seen a car in over an hour. The parking signs are bent and graffitied; one scrawny house has all its windows broken in and boarded over with plywood. A few streets over, a man's voice lifts in drunken anger, purling its syllables out clumsily before releasing a belch of noisy vomit as punctuation.

Scar's stomach twists in mixed hunger and nausea. He needs to be fed -- more than that, he needs to get clean, to scrub this city off his body and be done with his god-given task. The obsession is heavy in his arm. It simmers in his brain.

At the next intersection, he finds what he's looking for.

The sign is blurred from being pressed against the windowpane for so long, ink softened until the letters stream into each other. One meal, it announces. Linens provided. Nothing more than that, but Scar knows this is as good as it's going to get.

He knocks. The house smells like mustard.

It takes a few minutes for the door to open, but Scar is patient. Expecting some gruff half-shaven landlord, he's surprised to see only a drab hallway, and then he brings his eyes down to discover a woman there. She barely comes up to his chest. There's a thick ring on one of her fingers; a marriage band, Scar assumes, observing the silver that's so tarnished it's nearly black in some places.

The woman's eyes are cabbage-grey, set in a face lined with tiny dishwater wrinkles. She is not ancient -- not even qualified for middle-years -- but the weariness in her motions is unmistakable. Scar has seen the symptoms often in Ishbal, the disease that turns young into grey. He suffers from it as well, and is reminded every time he touches his own scalp to find hairs that have gone milk-white before their time.

War has its price.

"Payment in full up front." She's brisk. Her hands dry themselves in her apron, fast swipes of her fingers. "No smoking, no gambling, and absolutely no doxies. Dinner's at six each night. Any extra days, you tell me before you plan on taking 'em."

Scar's hand fumbles in his pocket. It was a craven act to steal from the dead, but God did not provide any other form of currency save the wallets of his victims. "Is this enough for three nights?" he asks, offering the crumpled bills in hopes of high denominations.

One look and the woman's frowning. She takes her time to answer; the hardened lower lip of a practiced barterer. "Barely enough for one." Another twist of her apron, and she's working the cloth through the webbing of her fingers, cleaning off any lingering traces of soap-suds. "Could throw in a little extra egg for your supper though. You look like you could use it."

"I need three nights." Scar, firm. He could kill this stranger and live in her home -- kill the other renters too -- but she is not one of the alchemists marked for destruction, and Scar is queasily certain that she may be a total innocent. Destroying her would be cowardly. Even he has limits.

A roll of her eyes. "Can you fix the plumbing?" When Scar shakes his head, laboriously slow, the woman hisses a sigh of annoyance. "What about the washup, can you at least manage that? Y'look like you've got some meat on your bones. If you can manage the repairs and chores, I might be willing to trade you for a day."

Trade. Scar isn't sure what to say to that. He is more of an animal than he'd like to admit; years of vendetta have done that to him, isolation from his own people turning him into an alien twice-over, exile from normal behaviors. He's not sure what constitutes fair trade in a city of equivalent sinners, but the taste of garbage-can slime is in his mouth, and he knows he can't afford to be picky.

When the woman squints and leans forward, Scar finds himself recoiling away from the whiff of flour and lye soap on her skin.

"The name's Mabel. Do you have one?"

Scar shies again to the side, wondering if, this close, the woman can see past his shades and into the color of his eyes.

If so, she makes no indication. Shaking out her apron with a sigh, Mabel studies him for a minute, and then shrugs. "All right then, Mister Nothing, I'll put you upstairs with all the others."

Dinner is a short affair, one that Scar skips. Not willingly. His stomach is murderous, but Scar knows it's more important to scout out his new location, and food will make him sleepy. If the military finds him in the night, he'd rather be able to move fast and not be tracked. That means cleanliness comes first.

When he asks about water, he's pointed to the bathroom down the hall from his room. Mildew paints black clouds across the tiles inside, a growing fungal invasion that threatens to overwhelm the tub and devour the house. The ceiling sags. Scar's pants are filthy enough that he has to peel them off his body, and there's a blotchy pattern left behind on his skin like a leper's mark.

Scar's aware of what showers are for, but he never liked the waste. Rather than spoil all that liquid in an irreverent flood, Scar only fills up the washbasin and scrubs himself clean with a handtowel, trying his best not to let any puddle around his feet. The houses in Ishbal had stone floors; here, there are only cracking tiles, the grouting frozen in twists where it's trying to peel itself out and escape.

His clothing is harder to manage. It takes numerous rinses to get the dirt out, mud and blood and trash, and Scar only watches stoically as each fresh basin of water becomes polluted.

Eventually, the liquid soaks clean, and Scar wrings the drops out of the fabric.

He doesn't trust the other renters, so he waits until everyone is downstairs eating before wrapping a towel around his waist and padding back to his room. There's no lock on his door, but he can wedge the dresser in front of it with a minimum of effort. When Scar pulls the drawers out so he can hang his clothes on them to dry, he discovers artifacts of previous guests: a candy wrapper, a toothpick. Half a shoelace, along with a wrinkled and crumbling thing that he realizes is an Amestris contraceptive.

It looks used. Scar ignores it.

Through the flimsy walls, he can hear the plodding steps as the lodgers climb the stairs and take to their rooms for the night. Some of them joke to each other. Others are sullen. Someone sneezes.

In the next room over, one man is crooning a stream of lusty pleas, grunting more and yes and like that, baby -- but nothing answers him and no bedsprings creak, and Scar realizes that he's alone.

That night, Scar dreams of leaving Ishbal. In it, he's been drinking of himself for days. His tongue runs over his hands to consume the moisture from his pores, tasting salt from his left, and death from the other.

Damp palms are wasteful. Water expended, when he should be conserving every drop. Hot sun and exhaustion conspire to the point where Scar's throat is closing tight, trying to dry-heave protests of its own needs, but his body screams for relief.

He can't stop walking. The gnawing hole in his stomach was a dim reminder that he should eat something, but he can't slow down, he can't afford to become distracted. If he stops in the desert, he'll die -- that's a rule that his brother taught him too, how easy it is to lose your bearings if you let yourself stumble off the path.

When the straps of his supply packs burn with friction, sweat slicking every inch of his throbbing palms, Scar sets the bags down and touches his tongue to the welted flesh. He feeds off himself. Grinding his swollen hands between his teeth helps the pain go numb, just for a little bit, and that's enough for him to get his stamina back.

The dream doesn't bother with the entire trip, but when Scar finds himself blinking awake in his cheap hotel room, he rolls over and his side and remembers the rest. His fingers had eventually become too dehydrated even for sweat. Scar had fumbled in the road-dust until he'd managed to collect several pebbles; these, he put in his mouth one by one, sucking on them to fool his body into producing saliva. That had been the trick that kept him from going mad from thirst, all the long way down to Central.

His brother had taught him that one too, but never how to keep from trying to chew.