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The Whipping Boy

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Capable is left out of the negotiations, having no understanding of the raider clan's strange language. What little she'd gleaned off of Max's stilted translations before they were separated doesn't reassure her in the least, his words full of blood and trespasses and retribution. A scant few hours ago the three of them had been cruising over the sands in a light rig, indulging her curiosity of a strangely marked area of a map she'd found in one of the store rooms. Now she's in a stinking tent with a silent hulking figure guarding the entrance, sick with terror over what's going to happen.

It takes an age before one of the raiders enters the tent and speaks to her captor, who hauls her to her feet with a rough grip on her arm. The daylight is blinding after the gloom and it takes her eyes a moment to adjust, a reflexive gasp tearing out of her when she finally takes in the scene before her.

They have Max tied to a post, feet barely on the ground with his arms stretched high above his head, bare skin baking in the hot light of midday. There are dozens of men ringed around him, one or two occasionally picking up pebbles to fling his way with careless malice, and the implications of it settle like hot coals into her belly.

Capable wants to turn her face away from the sight of impending violence but she recognizes her role here as a witness, and instead takes in as much as she can. Compared to whatever torture they have planned for him to endure, watching will be the easy part.

There are already bruises littering Max's skin underneath the dark scrawl of his tattoo, shallow cuts earned in the scuffle that landed them in this horrid raider's encampment. When Furiosa finally is shoved out from beneath a grimy awning and into the circle she looks no better, a dark smear of dried blood peeking out from underneath her hairline. Clenched in her remaining hand- the metal one having been confiscated when they were taken- is the dark thick coil of a whip.

Joe had never allowed such harsh punishments to be enacted on his “treasures” but Capable knew the look of them. Knew how much damage the agony leather could inflict if handled with skill, the mangled remains it could leave behind if not. Seeing one in Furiosa's hand sends a shiver down her spine despite the heat as the final piece of the puzzle clicks into place.

If the raiders themselves were to wield a whip to flog Max there's no telling how dire the injuries would be. It would be all to easy to break bone or tear too deeply in search of whatever twisted penance this was supposed to deliver. But if Furiosa were the one to administer the blows, she might be able to make it as gentle as such a horrific act could ever be. Capable is close enough to see the anguish in the woman's eyes as she stutters to a halt a few paces before Max's exposed back, but is too far to make out whatever words he speaks lowly to her.

She expects to see detachment on Furiosa's face, the sort of blank far-away look that Capable remembers well from her own time enduring the unspeakable, but her expression remains open. There's defiance and regret and a terrible vulnerability, as if she's the one who needs to brace for the pain of it.

With a harsh word from the raider's chief, still in that tongue Capable doesn't speak, Furiosa lets the whip uncoil onto the sand until only the heavy handle remains in her grip.

The men gathered around them fall into a predatory silence, jostling each other as they tighten the ring around the whipping post. She can see the muscles in Max's back coil in tense anticipation of the first blow and finds herself holding her breath.

The whip moves too fast to be tracked with her eyes, but the crack of it landing and the bitten-off shout that Max gives are unmistakable. Capable flinches against the hand digging into her upper arm at the sound of it, but she forces herself to keep her gaze trained steadily ahead, taking it in.

“One,” Furiosa calls out in a voice just this side of shaky, and the chieftain spits out something incomprehensible but obviously disdainful, tone jeering.

Max says something in reply, still too quietly for Capable to hear, but Furiosa must be able to make it out because a flash of- some nameless emotion Capable isn't sure how to sum up, anger or pain or despair maybe- overtakes her face, gone in an instant to be replaced with a hair-thin mask of resigned indifference.

The second lash breaks skin, blood welling up bright sickening red, a sharp contrast to the black lines inked there. The ringed crowd cheers loudly, drowning out Furiosa's count.

When they reach five strokes Capable gives up on not crying and lets the tears fall freely from her eyes. It's a waste of water but there doesn't seem any other way to express her helpless fury at the situation, the shared pain of knowing what this is costing both of the road warriors, the loathing she feels for herself that she's the reason they've been captured in the first place.

Furiosa is focused on her task, delivering each blow with precision, voice steady now as she counts them off for the crowd. By ten lashes Max has stopped growling words at her and just stretches against his bonds, panting harshly in the lull between strikes, doesn't attempt to stifle the shouts he gives at each cut.

The horrid noise of it echoes off the stone walls surrounding them, a deafening din underscored by the rhythmic pounding of feet against hard-packed earth, metal tools clanking and hands clapping in unison. In the growing frenzy the man holding her releases his grip but Capable remains rooted to the spot, unable to look away from Max's bleeding back, the growing agony in Furiosa's eyes.

When Furiosa at last calls out twenty and pauses Capable thinks that surely they're finished, that the chief will be satisfied that his price has been paid and finally let them go. He walks around the post Max is hanging from, tests one of the slices with his finger and seems pleased by the ragged gasp it earns him. When he reaches to grab Max's chin and look him in the face Max lunges as much as his chains will allow, teeth flashing white as they snap shut in the air where the hand was a split second before.

The raider's leader steps away and snarls an order at Furiosa, still in that strange language. Capable can guess at the meaning when the men around her give a loud cheer, and the hope she was harboring of it being over dies.

Furiosa steps back into place and continues to deliver lash after methodical lash, until the count nears fifty and Max hangs gasping from his chains, blood flowing freely from his ruined skin to soak into the dirt below.

Finally the chieftain seems satisfied with the results, and holds up a hand to stop Furiosa from drawing back for another swing. When he prods at Max this time there's almost no reaction, just a weak stirring that results in a mean chortle of laughter and an almost lazy hand gesture to one of his waiting cronies.

As a last insult a bucket full of some sort of liquid is upturned over the flayed expanse of Max's back, the action drawing one more ragged shout out of him before he goes completely limp, not even attempting to brace his weight on his feet or hold his head up. The sharp tang of salt and piss reaches Capable's nose as the liquid puddles on the ground, and it's the final straw that has her turning aside and retching.

When she straightens the man that had a hold on her earlier grabs her arm again, drags her to stand besides Max and Furiosa in the center of the ring. The raider chief makes a speech of some sort in his incomprehensible language with wild hand gestures, causing the circled men to shout something in unison and cheer once more. Finally he unlocks the chains around Max's wrists, and Capable darts in to catch him before he sinks to the filthy dirt below.

Max jerks weakly in her grasp before his gaze seem to focus on her for a moment in recognition and his struggles subside, turn to an attempt to stand on shaky legs. It would be easier to support his bulk if Furiosa were to help, but she's standing stiffly to the side, eyes distant.

The raiders stripped almost all their belongings but they return Furiosa's mechanical arm and the rest of Max's clothes, though not his pack, and with a few more dismissive words the circle breaks open. Capable takes a step forward, pleased to see that Max catches on with the movement, and begins hauling him away from the blood-and-piss-stained ground.

Furiosa falters for a moment before coming up to Max's other side and helping to prop him up, and together the three of them leave the raider clan behind.

It's not long before they need to stop, just far enough that they're out of sight behind a rocky outcropping with a merciful sliver of shade. None of them speak as they help Max into his grimy shirt, the fabric soaking dark with blood immediately but better than nothing to keep the sand at bay. Furiosa straps her metal hand on again and Max pushes his jacket into Capable's hands and grunts at her until she realizes that he wants her to wear it. She wants to protest but her skin is already reddening, still not used to the harsh sunlight after years of being kept indoors, and she shrugs the heavy leather on.

That Max is still looking out for her after enduring what he did has a fresh wave of tears welling in Capable's eyes, and it's only with effort that she chokes them back. Neither he nor Furiosa seem to blame her for inadvertently dragging them into the path of the raiders, for trampling over their sacred boneyard and causing them to seek reparations, but she feels the failure keenly. There's no time to waste on her tears now that they need to save their energy to haul themselves back home, so she musters her strength and grimly carries on.

 


 

He doesn't know how they get back to the Citadel. Max had let himself retreat into the recesses of his mind after the first dozen or so lashes, the physical pain of it washing over him like a wave of the long-ago ocean. Now the awareness of a throbbing ache down to his bones brings him back to the present as his shirt is peeled away from the raw flesh underneath, deeper but less sharp than the initial cuts.

“I'm sorry,” Furiosa says quietly as she splashes something that burns like hell over his back. It causes him to jerk involuntarily, strained sore arms spasming out to hit against her side where she's sitting next to him. He's not sure if she's apologizing for the way the antiseptic burns or the fact that his back is ripped to shreds to begin with, but when the gray haze leaves his vision again he shakes his head in refutation either way.

It takes a long while for him to find his voice, long enough that there's the blessedly cool sweep of a salve over his ragged skin instead of the sickening tug of stitches piecing him back together. She doesn't make the best nursemaid, demeanor too brusque to be anything like soothing, but Max thinks he wouldn't know how to handle untempered gentleness, not anymore. “Not your fault,” he slurs out, throat clogged dry but worth the effort.

The careful movements don't falter as Furiosa continues to spread the ointment on. “I didn't have to,” she says, “We could have fought our way out. Or it could have been me, instead.”

Max closes his eyes against the image of it. If it had been just the two of them, properly armed for an expedition into the wastes, they would have stood a decent chance of shooting their way out. But it had been a day trip, a lark to let Capable to explore and teach her more about navigating a car. They had packed light, not expecting trouble so near the shadow of the Citadel. Taking on a gang that size while protecting a girl still new to harsher reality of life outside a cage with a bare few weapons between them would have gotten them all killed- or worse.

He can't even contemplate the idea of Furiosa beneath the lash in his place, the thought of it drawing his breaths short even now the danger has passed. He's seen the way bodies can be so easily broken for the blood-lust that comes with destroying something strong and beautiful, but he knows he wouldn't have been able to wield the whip himself and spare her the worst of it. No, it was far better that it be him who gave up his body to pay the pound of flesh, sure as he was that he would survive, equally sure of her ability to be strong enough to carry out the punishment herself.

She lays her organic hand against a rare patch of unmarked skin on his shoulder, gives the lightest tug. “Up,” she says, “I need to wrap the bandage.”

With Furiosa's support he heaves himself more or less upright, the pain of his torn flesh muted under whatever was in the salve. “Had to be me,” he says as she starts winding gauze around his torso, passing the roll between her hand and stump nimbly as she works. “Too many to fight,” he points out when she doesn't saying anything.

“I'm not weak,” she says, and finishes tying off the bandages, tucking the end in to lie flat. “I could have stood in your place.”

Max doesn't know how to articulate his reply. It's not a matter of thinking her weak- he knows well how powerful she is, the strength in her bones and muscles, the fierce determination of her soul. Had Furiosa been the one under the lash she would have borne it and come out fighting, unbroken in spirit if not body. But she shouldn't have to, not when he can spare her. And to be the one on the other side of things, holding the corded length of a whip meant to draw blood from someone he never wants to see hurt...

Quietly he confesses, “I couldn't use the whip.”

“You would have, if meant our lives,” Furiosa says with a surprising depth of conviction.

Max shakes his head, he knows his own self too well. “Couldn't,” he repeats, mind's eye flashing a nightmare image of Furiosa battered and bloodied by his own hand. “But I... I can be in front of it. That part's easy.”

She doesn't reply but raises a cup to his mouth, water and bitter herbs tasting foul as he swallows it gratefully. Furiosa guides him to lie back down and he goes easily, leaves his head turned to face the openness of the sickroom.

The combination of blood-loss, general exhaustion, and the herbs in the mixture tug at Max's eyelids, cause him to blink slower and slower as sleep creeps up on him. By his side Furiosa shifts but doesn't leave, a silent companionship he's grateful for.

“Max,” she says, and it's rare enough for her to use his name that he makes the effort of slitting his eyes open, seeks the shape of her through the dimness of impending unconsciousness. “Don't make me do that again.”

They both know that he can't guarantee anything of the sort, life in the wasteland being what it is, but the quiet underlying hurt in her words has Max desperately wanting to. He turns to her direction as much as he's able, back screaming a wave of agony at the movement, and meets her eyes with his own. He takes hold of her wrist as gently as he can through the numb haze surrounding him, and when he's sure she can see the intent in his eyes he nods.

“Can't promise... But I'll try.”

Furiosa twists her hand so that her fingers are interlaced with his and breathes out a sigh. His declaration means nothing to the vagaries of the world, is if anything tempting fate, but saying it out loud gives it a sort of solidity, makes it seem like a real possibility instead of the vain hope it really is.