Out here, everything hurts. Trapped away like a corpse underground, he hadn’t forgotten pain, but he had forgotten the changeable nature of it. Grit and wind scour his face, radiation stinging across his skin. He is chained to a rusted hunk of suicidal intentions, a fleshy masthead, eyes streaming from the sun’s unaccustomed brightness.
The endless optimism of the body. Within twenty minutes he will most likely be on fire, crushed by a rolling car, chest cavity blown out around an explosive-tipped lance. With Valhalla waiting, the war boys don’t have much reason to take care. And yet his lungs flex, his eyes water protectively, his hands twist in the manacles to try and build up enough lubrication to slip through. When they start moving, his brain will estimate direction and speed for a return trip that he will most likely never take. Being human is just a collection of instincts whispering survive, survive, survive.
A different person, maybe a better one, would hope for an ending. The dead murmur to themselves just out of sight, whispers threaded between the revving of car engines. All the people he failed to save, sometimes speaking together in a shout, sometimes in overlapping accusations that make his breath stutter like a badly-insulated wire. Dead, at least his regrets would be finite.
He is too practical for suicidality, though, or perhaps too aware of the accounting. The handful of people saved, the long list of failures. His own existence feels like a necessary evil.
A growl ripples through the vehicle and then they are springing forward like a great wave about to break. His legs are weak and cramping from that long dizzy stretch of captivity, and his arms strain to support him.
He isn’t sure how long he has been kept prisoner. His past is unreliable, a jumble of dreams and truth and regrets so well-worn that he sometimes forgets which are which. Memories of a world with so much water that people used it to wash their shit seem impossible, some parched hallucination. It is hard to believe that he is the same man who once held a newborn’s head in his palm or gave a man the choice of limbs to remove bloody.
Some things he will never forget: the sour taste of this muzzle, the sound his daughter made as she was turned to jelly beneath a set of tires, the bloody color of the citadel at sunset and how fitting it seemed that he had ended up there.
The fleeing rig is a dark shape up ahead. If hope is a mistake, then pity is a waste and he isn’t in the habit of either. The imperator’s fate isn’t one that he envies, though; better if she dies in the chase.
He catches her eye once, as the war boy driving tries to get in front of the rig to cut them off. He has never met an imperator before; if they required blood bags, it was for uses other than their blood. He expects someone chrome-mouthed, leaking sanity like a busted engine, but her gaze is as cool and flat and bland as the desert at night. She is the first person who seems to see a man and not a bag of blood and vital organs when she looks at him.
When she looks away, an obvious dismissal, he goes a little crazy, throwing himself against the manacles and the yielding pole behind him. They are pointed at a wall of dust and furious winds like the open mouth of hell. No sane person would try to drive through that, but then this world left sanity behind a long time ago.
His body feels like it’s been lovingly gone over by a war rig. There is sand in his nose, crusted in his eyes, scratching where the muzzle fits tightly against his skin. Already his lips are cracked with dehydration, not a good sign. His head feels loose on his spine, dizziness like a fog around him, and even in the desert’s heat his hands and legs feel numb.
He pulls the needle out of his neck, tries to calculate how much blood he’s lost. There’s no way to know how long he’s been out, but if the storm has shifted away from him then the rest of the war party can’t be far behind.
The chain is still attached to the war boy and the car door, and he doesn’t realize that he is throwing his weight against it, rattling the links, until there is blood on his palms and his breath comes short. His stomach is small and tight and acidic. For a moment, he can smell his own flesh burning with Immortan’s brand, remembers the weight of a dozen kneecaps holding him down.
He places the shotgun against the boy’s wrist and pulls the trigger. It sighs instead of firing, and he looks at the boy’s pale arm and has a sudden image of his teeth tearing the skin, gnawing on tendons until the elbow comes clean away. His mouth waters and he thinks he might once have felt shame, but that emotion, like so many other things, is a luxury out here.
An arm is better than a whole war boy, and a war boy is better than one that comes attached to a car door, but even those are better than being pinned here like a dog on a leash. He hefts the boy over his shoulder, staggering a little until the dizziness recedes, and loops the door over his arm. There is a shape in the distance more promising than this exposed stretch of sand. He puts one foot down, and then another. He repeats.
The women look like something out of a dream, muslin fluttering around their feet, rainbows shimmering in the air around them. Only the imperator seems like she belongs to this mad world, grease-blackened and missing half an arm, violence resting easy on her frame.
His whole body seizes up at the sight of all that water, throat clutching with thirst. The pregnant woman, out of cruelty or perhaps just spoiled ignorance, lets some drip onto the ground before turning off the hose. When he was first taken, on that long nightmare drive back to Citadel, the war boys would pour his water ration onto the ground and laugh as he pressed his tongue to the damp sand.
The women stare back at him, wet skin like a taunt. With a rig like that, filled to the brim with untainted water and an extra fuel pod hitched to the back, he could drive for months without stopping.
When the pregnant woman holds out the hose he snatches it and drinks greedily, even though everything tastes like rust through the muzzle. His stomach puts up a half-hearted protest.
The first punch when it comes isn’t a surprise, but the ferocity behind it is. The imperator fights like she has something to lose, which makes two of them. They are evenly matched, his greater weight offset by her quickness and his own dehydration. The girls are vicious as well, clawing furrows down his arm and hauling him off by the trailing chain, but he gets to the gun first.
One of the girls screams “Furiosa!” as he fires a bullet into the ground an inch from her left eye. He fires twice, a third time.
Furiosa goes still in the sudden, ringing silence, but he knows better than to confuse acquiescence with defeat. In that moment, gun hot in his hand and her body a furious line of muscle beneath him, he thinks they understand each other.
He gets to his feet, leg almost buckling as he puts weight on it wrong, and swings into the rig. This is not his fight; these are not his people to protect. The women are too valuable to come to much harm from Immortan, and the imperator knew what she was doing.
The engine rumbles beneath him, as though it too is eager to race the sun towards the horizon. The dead are always quieter when he is moving, and he doesn’t know whether they are lulled by the unchanging barren landscape, or whether they are content only when he is as friendless and untethered as they are, barred even from the dubious comfort of staying in one place.
Brief mention of past non-con. After this chapter there will start to be more non-film scenes threaded throughout.
The engine coughs and stutters. He thinks maybe it’s out of guzzoline, despite the almost full meter, until he sees Furiosa coming up at a jog. He should have expected that an imperator would booby-trap her own rig; trust is a currency most people can’t afford out here.
She doesn’t look smug or pretend that the choice isn’t his to make, which he appreciates. He holds the gun and the wheel, though he wouldn’t put it past her to fight him for both if he refuses.
“You’re sitting on 2000 horsepower of nitro-boosted war machine,” she says. Her hand closes, possessive, over the doorframe, and they watch a gout of flame erupt in the side-view over a particularly ear-splitting chord. “You want that thing off you?”
He grunts and moves over, keeping the gun pointed at her throat. It isn’t a hard choice. There is something intimate about violence: the sharing of strength and weaknesses, pain traded back and forth like sips from a common water skin. He knows her, now, more than he knows Immortan or the anonymous horde of half-lives screaming death into the wind. There is something of the desert in her that he recognises, built to endure and stripped of softness, but honest about its nature. The desert has never pretended to be anything but what it is.
He keeps his back against the window and growls when she reaches too-casually for a slot in the dashboard just big enough to hide a pistol. He feels trapped in the cab’s confined heat, too many hands to keep track of and not enough exits, and doesn’t feel much better with a pile of guns at his feet. Furiosa is smart enough to have a few weapons hidden in places he wouldn’t think of.
The girls look young, squeezed into the backseat. Their faces are the same as every person he has failed to save, the same spectrum of hope and fear and the anger that comes after hope has been disproven.
When the fuel pod starts dragging he is already halfway out the door, scrubbing at his neck to erase the feeling of eyes. Ghostly faces peer up at him from the gap between the cab and the tanker, and every time the pod’s jammed wheel hits a bump it sounds like a child screaming.
The war party is a slow-moving cloud in the distance, limited by their slowest vehicle. The fact that Immortan hasn’t sent his faster cars ahead means he is confident in the eventual outcome. Matched against Furiosa's limited supply of guzzoline and bullets, it is not an unreasonable assumption.
Once the muzzle is off he can’t stop touching his lips, the forgotten shape of his nose and chin, strangely vulnerable without it. He learned a long time ago that the secrets carried on his face can be the worst ones. Better to pull those up by the roots, leave him with a barren heart and a face bland as concrete, than to let someone else skewer him with the things he cares most about.
He works his jaw open and closed, under no one’s control but his own. Back in the citadel he’d been fed milk through a dirty tube bolted to his cage, so the muzzle had only been removed when a war boy was bored or feeling particularly aggressive. They had a bar they used to shove between his teeth to keep him from biting. He always fought, but not too hard. Calories were calories.
He doesn’t realise that his hand is shaking until Furiosa glances over at him, and he will shoot her between the eyes if she pities him. He has a sudden image of her head flopped forward over the wheel, blood and brain sprayed across the windshield, the high pure sound of girls screaming in unison.
"I made a deal up ahead," she says. Her voice is gentler than before, but her eyes are clear and unflinching. She has a soldier's way of making everything around her feel neat and solid.
The rig slows as it pulls into the canyon. "Listen," Furiosa says, as though his ears are not already straining for the skitter of falling rocks, the distant music of war, a rifle's crack. He recognises the look on her face before she tells him the kill switch combination; he has seen the same look on war pups waiting to see the Organic Mechanic, tumors cradled like old lovers in their hands. She steps out into the dusty air without looking back, her forehead freshly-blackened, an easy target.
He wants to point out the bruises rising on her face, remind her who scraped half the skin off her hands and arms. He could detach the cab and leave them stranded in this canyon between two different flavors of death. He could shoot Furiosa and trade the wives for any price he could name. There is a small ocean of people who have made the mistake of putting their lives under his care. Her trust is a gift he wants to return.
Furiosa shouts and he leaps into the driver’s seat, already reaching for the hidden switches. There is no time to look back and check to see whether she is still standing.
Someone is yelling. He floors the accelerator, pushing the engine just shy of burning itself out. He is prepared to add her to the parade of dead. These girls haven’t learned yet that survival is more important than any one of them.
There is a sound like the earth itself has split, the canyon trapping the echo and shaking the rig like a tuning fork. Dust blooms in the rearview.
Motorbikes rev their engines and peel down the canyon walls, and he braces the wheel with his elbow and shoots a driver in the head. The bike smashes into the ground, grenade detonating harmlessly twenty feet away.
One of the girls screams and there is a sudden wash of heat as another bomb explodes directly above them. He steps harder on the accelerator, feeling the engine start to whine, and then there’s a hand next to his on the wheel and a voice in his ear saying, “You shoot, I’ll drive.”
Furiosa unclamps her prosthetic from the doorframe and attaches it to the wheel, swinging a leg over his so that she is half in and half out of the vehicle. The scarred back of her neck is level with his face, so that for a moment it is as though he is driving directly into that grinning skull. “Go,” she says, and he maneuvers his bad leg, and then the rest of him into the other seat.
He picks off another driver, sends a bike spinning into the canyon wall. Most of the others are dead or have fallen back. No other vehicles come roaring out of the dust cloud behind them for one minute, then two.
Furiosa seems undamaged. None of the girls are missing heads or limbs. She nods at him and after a moment he tips his head in response. After so long in silence, words feel unwieldy, dangerous as a badly-balanced knife.
The rig drives for him, but it leaps under her touch. It is good that she didn’t die.
Brief mention of past non-con
To stay awake he starts drawing a map on a scrap of fabric he’d found snagged on the rig floor. Whenever he starts to fall asleep he jabs the needle from the tubing into the meat of his left thumb. Red for obstacles, and blood mixed carefully with engine grease to mark terrain and the winding path of the Fury Road. The whole of his captivity felt like one long hallucinatory patchwork of stitched-together dreams; he is content to let someone else have them for a while.
The backseat is quiet, Cheedo asleep on Capable’s shoulder, Toast’s forehead pressed to the grimy window, Dag braiding and unbraiding her hair. Angharad has a hand cupped around her stomach, a faint line etched between her eyebrows.
They are strange as ferns to him, with their soft places and skin unblemished as factory-made steel. A pole cat could snatch one of them out through the window, or saw a hole in the roof and drop a lapful of grenades. Better that he stays awake.
“Talk,” Furiosa says.
He looks up from his thumb. He isn’t sure how long he has been drifting, but the bead of blood has gone dark and tacky, useless now as ink. There is an aggressive set to her jaw as though she is prepared to fight for this, too. Her eyes look tired.
It takes him a while to dredge up words. “This yours?” He nods at the dashboard.
Her shoulders settle like a bow unstringing. It is different than being hooked up to a war boy, the way their faces slackened when the blood first hit. Back then he would’ve poisoned himself if it meant causing them pain. This relief is something he is choosing to give.
“Salvaged her from an old oil tanker. Built everything from the engine up, guess that makes her more mine than anyone else’s.”
He might’ve felt that way about his daughter, once. It’s hard to remember. “How’d you get them out?” He tilts his head towards the backseat.
“I had help. Immortan was more worried about someone trying to fuck them than escape.” Her eyes slide to the rearview and then away. “Packed them into the baskets we use for carrying vegetables to Gas Town. Got Rictus himself to help load them into the rig.” Her mouth quirks in something that is not a smile.
"You been planning this a while?"
She looks in the mirror again and then away. There is a long stretch of quiet. "Not with passengers," she says eventually.
He is back in the cage, muzzle tight and hateful against his mouth. Numbness creeps through his body, tingling in his hands and feet and moving towards his heart. A war boy croons at him from between scarred lips and reaches for the drawstring of his pants.
He struggles, but his arms are limp and unfeeling and the hands around him squeeze tight as metal bands.
His daughter is staring at him from across the room. He jerks his head towards the tunnel, trying to tell her to run without giving her away. She shouldn't be here, he doesn't want her to see this.
She moves closer and he thrashes his head from side to side, teeth aching around the bar in his mouth. "You deserve this," she says. The war boy is laughing and there are tears leaking from the corners of his eyes, a waste of water. "You promised."
He jerks awake, head crashing against the window, arm flying out to hit the dashboard. Pain reverberates in his skull and the small bones of his hand. His chest feels shrunken.
The rig has stopped and the girls are staring at him. Cheedo looks terrified; Dag looks fascinated.
"Bathroom break," Furiosa says. It takes a minute, but then they are climbing out in a flurry of limbs and dirty fabric and curiosity. Their hair smells faintly of flowers.
He looks out over the endless ripple of sand and tries to remember how to breathe. The dead stare at him from outside the rig, watching each breath he takes with a malevolent hunger.
"I was fourteen when I was brought to the citadel," Furiosa says. "They put me in chains and counted my teeth and tumors. When they saw I had all of one and none of the other, they congratulated me on my marriage." Her hand tightens around the gearstick and its sheathed knife. "I gave him two little monsters before he stopped calling me his wife. Just bled them out on the ground."
He holds onto the sound of her voice. She is giving him part of her story to bring him ease. This is something that words can do. "I deserved it," he says. The dead speak along with him so that the words echo and multiply.
"No," she says immediately, and grabs his wrist, digging her thumb into the bundle of nerves there.
He startles and tries to jerk free, but she has a better angle and a grip like steel.
She drives her nail into the thin skin. "No one deserves that." Her grip loosens slightly, bracketing his wrist. "You are not a thing."
The dead surround the rig like a dark and silent ocean. His wife and daughter, the old man with the mangled legs, the woman who lived in a rusted-out van and burnt herself alive inside it when slavers took her son. And behind them, rows and rows of accusing eyes whose faces and names he can't even remember.
He rotates his wrist just to feel it, lets himself be anchored by the gritty touch of her fingers. This is real. The whispers are just air through the rig's ventilation system, the murmur of the wives' voices outside. Tension starts to drain out of him like a tire with a slow leak.
He does not pull away. She does not let go.
They keep driving. There are still no vehicles on the horizon, but even a man who believed in hope wouldn’t be fool enough to think that a pile of rocks could keep Immortan Joe from coming to reclaim his property and his pride. All the war party has to do is follow their tracks clear as an arrow across the sand; there is no storm to get lost in this time.
Furiosa has both hands clenched around the wheel, though exhaustion is harder to read in the grip of her mechanical arm. Her eyes flicker like a failing engine.
“Sleep,” he says. He is half-turned in his seat, showing Toast how to dismantle and reassemble a gun. When she can do it fluidly and without hesitation, he will have her teach the others. “I’ll drive.”
“I’m fine,” Furiosa grits out. Her eyes tick across the dashboard, checking the fuel meter, the engine gauge, the compass. She will do it again in a few seconds, like a heartbeat. “Think you’re the only one with nightmares?”
He shrugs. He assumes that everyone has their private accounting of failures, except maybe these girls, sheltered for so long within the citadel’s thick walls. Even then, there are dead babies, parents or old lovers, fellow wives to be included in the reckoning. Any justice the world might once have held has long since been depleted.
“Tell me about the Green Place,” he says. Angharad looks up, and Toast’s hands pause around the gun barrel.
Furiosa tells the story like it is familiar to her, edges smoothed off the words. All of them look soothed by the telling, as though the Green Place has magic beyond what she has described, if only he knew how to listen for it.
“You want to go there?” He pictures the forest of dead trees he’d driven through before ever coming to the citadel, short and twisted and rotting from the inside out, and the florescent orange mold that grows on tunnel roofs and in the corners of the citadel’s deepest rooms. He has the feeling that this is not what Furiosa had in mind.
“Why not?” she challenges, and he shrugs again. He cannot imagine people like them living in a place that sounds so soft, food and water for the taking, people staying together beyond what is required to survive. With all those people living so close to one another, he doesn’t know how there would be room for the dead.
They have stopped to refuel and sip from a skin filled with milk, when Dag’s head snaps up. A moment later there is a metallic glint on the horizon and a distant rumble. Everything happens very fast after that.
The engine is hot and sulky even under Furiosa’s hands, barely accelerating. He takes four guns, slinging one over his shoulder and tucking another inside his jacket, and climbs out the window.
The war party is moving fast, throwing up so much dust that it is hard to tell exact numbers. There is only a short amount of time between when the vehicles come into rifle range and when his position becomes too exposed, easy to pick off. The turret is meant for long-range bombardment, not to protect gunners from approaching vehicles and polecats.
He squeezes off shots, sending drivers and lancers and once an entire car straight to Valhalla. He is low on bullets, but that doesn’t matter: by the time his ammunition runs out they will either be too close for rifles or he will be dead.
There is a squeal behind him and he spares a glance to see the back window roll down, a pistol held steady in Toast’s slim brown fingers.
The tide of vehicles is unrelenting; every downed car seems to be replaced with two or three others that have better armor and steer erratically across the sand, making them harder to target. Polecats howl and arc across the sky.
The wind filling his ears, the sun on his face now pale as a mushroom, his arms and legs free to move any way he wants. Destruction has been brewing inside him for all the long days of his captivity. Only now, weapons in his hands and violence singing through his body, does it have an outlet. The war boys think they are going to Valhalla; he knows he is going nowhere but to face his own dead. They fall. He does not.
Locked in a polecat’s crushing embrace, he sees Immortan’s vehicle pull up, watches the gun tilt towards Furiosa. Every muscle tenses, as though even after all these years of being trapped in this broken-down body, some part of him still thinks it can clear thirty feet in a leap, snatch a bullet out of the air.
Angharad throws open the door, hair golden and alive around her face, swollen stomach held in front of her like a shield. In that moment there is nothing soft about her: she is chrome, steel-reinforced, bulletproof.
The gunner hesitates and glances back at Immortan before lowering his gun. A moment later the car is slowing, slinking back among the other vehicles. Angharad watches them leave and spits on the sand.
Something shakes the rig, almost knocking his footing out from under him, and the engine shifts into a strained register. He breaks the polecat’s knee and pushes him off the rig before jogging up the tanker's broad back towards the cab.
Furiosa has the gun pressed to his forehead before she recognises him and rolls her eyes, shifts her grip. Beyond a reflexive flinch, it does not occur to him to be afraid.
"Drive," she says, lifting her body so that he can take hold of the wheel and slide under her. For a moment she is suspended above him, and then she swings into the passenger seat and his foot replaces hers on the pedal, neat as a magic trick. "There's something –" she leans out the window and plants a bullet brain-deep in a lancer with his arm thrown back “– wrong with the engine. I need to –"
"There's a chain holding us back," Angharad says, pulling herself back into the cab, breathless. “I've got it." She grabs the bolt-cutters and disappears out the door before he can say anything or grab at the fabric trailing behind her like a banner.
He looks down at the wheel in his hands, built for smaller fingers than his own. He is suddenly aware that he is piloting a thousand pounds of moving metal, able to crush a skull like an egg. His vision is momentarily filled with landmines, unexpected ditches, loose rocks.
A lifetime ago he held a newborn's fragile skull in his palm, terrified of ordinary things: pollen, a sudden hand tremor, shallow puddles of water. How stupid he’d been, to think he had found the circumference of danger. How stupid to think that fear was any kind of protection.
There is a musical sigh, and he catches sight of a chain whipping backwards in the rearview mirror, smashing through the roof of its attached vehicle.
Angharad grins at him in the mirror, and he has to look away from the fierce pride in her face, bright as sunlight on chrome. His chest feels overfull, no room for words even if she were able to hear him, but he manages a thumbs-up. He thinks she sees. He hopes she sees.
Afterwards, this is how he will remember her: smiling and unbroken, lit bronze and gold by the sun.
Minor violence, a bit of a gory image at one point.
Furiosa wants to know whether he saw Angharad go under the wheels. Distress rises from the backseat like steam. She shouts at him, like enough fury will mend Angharad's broken bones, set her upright, return her to the rig, smiling and whole.
He tells them what they need to hear. There is no going back; that is the nature of sacrifice. He will not fail them too (except he will, he always does).
The girls fall into a numb silence. Furiosa takes over driving, and he understands that he has lost that privilege by failing to save Angharad. Capable volunteers to take lookout, and he understands that too, the need to be alone in grief, or in anger.
He will take these women as far as they want to go, and then he will leave them and find some lonely place, where the only devastation he can level is against scavengers and the uncaring back of the desert itself.
They drive through the lengthening shadows, finally stopping in the middle of a swamp so Furiosa can check the engine. It's far from ideal, but the location is high enough to see anyone approaching from a long way off, and driving any further will lose them these last dregs of daylight.
Dag takes one glance at the foul-smelling mud and pulls her bare foot back into the cab. Cheedo looks like she has been crying. Furiosa hands them the milk-filled skin and ignores him to squelch over to the engine, still shimmering with heat. Even her words aren't meant for him, half-heard muttering about coolant levels, sand damage, some cap half-melted and sealed shut.
He wanders away into the swamp. He is meant for solitude, designed for it. There is no future where he is not alone, hounded across the wasteland by ghosts. No reason to think he could have any other fate.
Max. Max. Max. Whispers echo through the swamp, Angharad's somewhere among them. He deserves this. He takes a step further into the sulfurous gloom. He will not run away.
"Hey." Furiosa is standing behind him, mechanical arm propped against her hip. It is unclear how long she has been there. "What are you doing out here?"
He grunts. Her gaze makes him itch, as though she is divining some truth from his bones that he has not meant to share. His hands clench around nothing in a way he usually associates with violence. Normally, this feeling would have him racing the Interceptor towards the horizon, not stopping until he felt scoured of this seething restlessness.
"Look at me." Her voice falls like the business end of a whip, and he remembers that this woman has commanded armies.
His eyes lift, pulled up by a string, before he jerks them away. The swamp seems to glow with a dead phosphorescence, like each pool of oily water has a single accusing eye dropped at its center.
“Hey.” She grips the front of his shirt, pulling him off-balance until he recovers and throws his weight back. The shirt, softened by age and damp, rips from throat to sternum.
His teeth are bared like an animal's, but no animal has ever been filled with this mindless rage. He wants to put out her eyes. He wants to beg forgiveness. He wants to disappear into the foul darkness so that he can't fail her, too.
He isn’t sure who moves first, but her leg is kicking through the space where his knee was a moment ago, his fist driving through the air to the right of her cheekbone. His chest feels a size too small, and his movements are uncoordinated, badly fueled by desperation. He hooks a foot around her ankle, pulling her feet out from under her, and only partially dodges the elbow she sends toward his gut.
He knows exactly who destroyed the world: men like him, with blackness running through their veins like oil, trying to remake the world in their own image. He is not so different than Immortan Joe or his cronies: peel away his skin and he is wasteland inside, where nothing good can grow.
Dead children twine around his legs, looking up at him with decaying faces. His daughter stands a few paces away, holding a small grey doll in her arms. As he watches, the doll moves and Angharad’s unborn child lets out a thin wail. “You killed us,” his daughter says. The infant is covered with bloody slime and his daughter’s arms are shining with it. Her voice rises with an anger he doesn’t remember ever hearing before. “You did this.”
Furiosa throws her metal forearm around his throat and pulls it tight. His breath stutters and wheezes, and he tries to claw the arm away, unable to get any leverage. He flails behind him for a hold in her hair, an eye, anything, but his grip is failing.
His knees buckle, pitching him forward into the fetid muck. His vision starts to fade around the edges.
She follows, half-supporting his weight as he falls. The pressure against his windpipe eases a little.
He pulls in a great gasping breath of air. His hands close around the rods and hydraulics at his throat, holding it like a line thrown into quicksand. For a moment, even the dead are quiet. All he can think about is breathing.
“It’s my fault,” he says, voice scraped raw. The fight has rattled words out of the depths of him. It seems appropriate that he should say them here, in the filth and the gloom, head bent like a man on the execution block.
Her arm tightens around his neck, a feeling like he has been kicked in the chest. “Angharad made a choice. Blame Immortan, blame the old world, blame whoever you want, but don’t take that choice away from her.”
He struggles, surging halfway to his feet before she snarls and hauls him back down like a dog on a choke chain. If he hadn’t shot her leg, if he’d gone with the bolt-cutters instead, if he had reached out an arm before she fell… “I should’ve –”
“You did what you could. We all did.” The arm loosens and they are breathing hard together, her chest inflating against his back, like she is the bellows giving him air. “It’s enough.”
They stay like that, the freezing mud injecting cold into his marrow. He is only warm where she is touching him: her chest against his back, arm hooked over his right shoulder, her forehead tipped against the back of his skill. The dead have scattered, bored now that they have made their point. He is so used to their whispers that the silence they leave behind feels strange and fraught.
She moves her arm away slowly, as though prepared to wrestle him back to the ground if he fights.
He takes the hand she offers, steadying himself against her when his bad leg cramps. He feels like a war boy leaving the Organic Mechanic's surgery, insides scooped out and replaced, leaving him inexplicably lighter.
They walk back towards the rig, and she looks over at him with a tiny curl to her mouth. "We might need to get you some new clothes."
He looks down at himself, covered in mud from balls to boots, ripped shirt exposing a triangle of vulnerability to enemy gunners, the whole of him radiating swamp gasses. He sends her a pointed look in return, sleeved in the same swamp muck as he is, hand black with grease from her prosthetic.
The curl widens and becomes a smile, and he has to look away, unable to hide his answering expression.
The rig starts up willingly enough, but the wheels just churn in the soft ground. He gets out and sets his shoulder against it; even the girls come and help, with their soft hands and bare legs quickly covered with the foul mud. They all push on Furiosa's command, but the tanker only shifts slightly before settling deeper into the ruts
They drop rocks and handfuls of sand scooped from the cab's floor in front of the wheels to provide traction, but it just gains them an inch or two before the rig slips backwards. There is a look on Furiosa's face like she is considering laying herself down as fodder.
He is pushing at one of the wheel wells when the engine cuts out suddenly. He glances up, expecting to see smoke billowing from under the hood, some other mechanical disaster. Furiosa is looking behind her, and he follows her gaze to see a light blink out in the distance like a pale, searching eye.
There is some commotion when the war boy makes an appearance, championed unexpectedly by Capable. His idea of winching the rig out of its shallow grave is better than anything else they've got. Furiosa mostly looks upset that she hadn't thought of it first.
The boy unspools a chain from behind the rig's sand-plow, holding it like a live snake, hands wide and open and unthreatening. Emotions waft across his face as naked as the engine block carved into his chest: fear, eagerness, a tender and fragile hope. Any deceit would be visible from miles off.
Max helps him secure the chain around a nearby stump, bracing himself against the spongey wood as the rig starts to pull. The light has moved closer, a steady and growing brightness now that it has found its target.
Furiosa stands nearby, reloading the guns as the war boy eases the rig forward with surprising skill. A clunking sound starts up from within the engine, and she shoves a bullet into the rifle with unnecessary force. "Four left," she says to Max as he leaves the tree and comes closer.
He takes the gun and kneels in the cold mud, trying to judge the vehicle’s distance through the rippling fog. One shot, and then another. It is difficult to tell whether he hits anything over the sound of tearing roots. He fires again and the searchlight cuts out, a brief rejoicing moment, before it flickers back on a moment later.
The gun rests heavy in his hands, weighted beyond just the barrel and single remaining bullet. It is dense with the future of each of those girls, even the war boy's meager span of days. He holds it up for Furiosa to take. He is a good shot. She is better.
She swings the rifle onto his shoulder, the whole tense line of her pressed against his spine. "Don't breathe," she says, and the gun jerks, heat searing along the exposed skin of his neck.
The searchlight blinks out. He can feel it when she exhales, lets his breath out too so that they are breathing together. This is a shared victory, something that could not have been achieved by either of them alone.
"That was a search party," she says quietly and he grunts, unsurprised. They will be harder to track in the darkness, so it makes sense for Immortan to dispatch vehicles along some tight grid, ready to send up a flare once the rig has been spotted. It means that they cannot afford survivors, but even this will only buy them a little time. When one vehicle fails to return, the war party will know which direction to travel.
"I'll go." It seems unnecessary, when he is already standing and tucking a pistol into his waistband, but Furiosa seems to like words even when they are not required.
"You're leaving?" Cheedo asks, arms wrapped tight around herself, glancing between the rig and the rippling darkness. She sounds like she has been expecting this, and he remembers that he killed one of her best friends.
“Supplies," he tells her. Even if she wishes him harm, she still has to recognise the necessity of food and more bullets.
Furiosa wants to know what to do if he is not back in time; rarely, even she is strange to him, asking questions she already knows the answer to. "Then you go." He touches the rig's shuddering metal flank once before he walks away. He doesn't look back. He doesn't want to see fear or relief on her face, anything that might make it harder to leave.
He cannot bring Angharad back, but he can give those girls hope, bloody his own hands so they don't have to.
Time slips away like he is back in the citadel's perpetual twilight. Strange shapes rise out of the dimness, as though he has passed into some grim underworld. Eventually the Bullet Farmer's vehicle materialises in front of him, little pings and hisses as the engine cools like something awful is hatching inside.
The smell of blood rises thick and metallic from the vehicle. The driver is still alive, breathing shallowly, pinned to his seat by a jagged spear of glass. A hand over his mouth and a blow to the back of the neck finishes the job.
The Bullet Farmer and his gunman are gone and he has no light to follow their tracks, assuming that the swamp hasn't filled them in by now. The fog takes noises – animal sounds, strange wet gurgles, the clack of dry branches – and throws them back at him until it is impossible to tell where they came from.
Familiar whispers tease at the edge of his hearing, and he presses the bruised skin of his throat, letting it ground him. He cannot afford to get distracted now. Of all the marks he carries — his serviceable organs listed down his back, Immortan’s seal on his neck — he finds he does not mind this one.
He keeps the vehicle at his back and sweeps methodically forward, trying to calculate probable speed and trajectory. It is only a bitten-off curse that gives him enough warning to crouch before the Bullet Farmer and the gunner stumble in front of him. He waits until the gunner glances around and then turns before shooting him in the back.
The Bullet Farmer whirls, reaching for the rifles hanging at either side and shooting a spray of bullets into the air.
Max dives to the ground, pulling the gunner's twitching body in front of him as a shield, feeling it rock and thud. A bullet sails screechingly close to his ear; another kisses a swathe of skin off his shoulder. It is only now that he can see the dark cloth tied around the man's eyes, and he wriggles through the mud like a grub and throws himself at his ankles.
The Bullet Farmer howls as he falls backwards, firing the guns in great soaring arcs. All around him bullets scream and sizzle as they hit the mud. Even blind the Bullet Farmer is formidable, pulling a knife out of his boot and slashing wildly in front of him, but he has nowhere to go except death and failure. Max has somewhere to be.
He bends the man’s flailing arm back towards his throat. His skin is tough and leathery, but with enough pressure it splits under his own knife, spilling blood dark and foul into the thirsty swamp. Once he has bled out, Max flips him over with his foot, kicks him once for good measure.
He slings both guns over his shoulders and takes the man's jacket, using it to carry spare bullets and whatever else he can find on his body. Back at the vehicle he takes a container of guzzoline and an assortment of bullets. Remembering the wrench clamped around the rig’s steering column, he breaks the driver’s fingers still clenched around the wheel and tosses it into the makeshift sack, too.
He feels newly-crowned by death. This is his true self, like a car stripped down to its chassis, leaving only madness and violence and blood. He is not like the wives, with fertile ground left to tend hope for the future. He is not like Furiosa, searching for redemption to wipe her past clean. He is what is left when those things die and rot away. He is a weapon. All that changes is the hand wielding him.
Furiosa has a gun pointed at his head when he walks back to the rig. This is good, it is right that she should be afraid of him. He drops the supplies at her feet like a dog being told to fetch and tosses the war boy the scavenged wheel. He has forgotten about the blood until Cheedo points it out, and he shrugs. Better that they should see the truth of him.
The noise of the wheels changes as the rig moves towards solid ground, and the wives scramble in past Capable, whose hand is gripped tight around the war boy's pale shoulder, silver paint chewed off his lips.
Furiosa gives him a dark look as he climbs in, and he imagines it sliding it off him like rainwater on an oil slick. She had tried to see him as someone else, someone redeemable, unclaimed by madness and death. Better for all of them if she can see him as he really is.
“I didn’t thank you before.” Furiosa’s voice comes soft under the hum of the engine. Everyone else is sleeping, the girls curled against each other in the back seat. Capable’s head rests on the war boy’s shoulder, and even asleep he has a cringing expression like he is waiting for permission. “For going after the Bullet Farmer and getting those supplies.”
He grunts. She might as well thank a dog for burying its shit. He is no soft young thing, to be coddled and praised for a job well-done. Weapons are made to be used, and when they outlive their usefulness they are replaced.
The steady heat of her gaze. “You might want to clean up before it gets light.”
With only the stars and the dim wash of headlights to see by, the blood is nearly invisible, just a faint tackiness to his skin. It is as though whatever foulness the Bullet Farmer carried has already been absorbed.
“You’re like a war boy with your lips sewn shut,” she says. Her voice has acquired a mocking edge.
He squeezes the hilt of the Bullet Farmer’s knife so hard that the leather wrappings creak. She asks for words like he has a bottomless well of them, its machinery well-oiled and effortless to use. She does not understand that he has been scoured clean, emptied of everything except the echo of failure and this brutal efficiency.
“Trade the blood for clay and no one could tell the difference.” She gives him a look like she expected better, and it makes him want to take her skull in his palm and crush it against the windshield.
Violence shivers over him like a current. He does not belong here in the cab, where sleeping hopes thicken the air under Furiosa’s watchful eye. He is a loaded gun, ripe with destruction and waiting to be unleashed.
He slips out the door and onto the rig of the roof, afraid he will twist Furiosa’s head off like a loose bolt. Up here it is just him and the desert and the dead, and everything is very simple: if he sees something alive, he will kill it. Weapons have no past, no emotions, no language. If he has ever been anything else, it was discarded long ago for these more useful qualities.
It is less than a minute before the rig slows and stops, and then Furiosa is climbing up the side of the tanker, a little slower one-handed. He expects to see her face freshly-blackened, staring at him down the barrel of a gun, but it is just her. “You always run when you hear something you don’t like?”
He feels a growl start up inside him like an idling engine, and his hands ache with denied violence. If he had any words left to him, he would tell her that removing a lit grenade from the cab isn’t running away, it’s simple preservation.
“Didn’t take you for a coward,” she says, taking a step forward.
He has a sudden memory of a woman hissing coward, yellow pile of buzzard shit as he’d been trying to get her and her kids out before their settlement got hit by raiders. The kids were already in the backseat, but she just spit at him from the other side of her rifle and refused to leave. Two of them had died, anyway: the youngest opened the car door to try and go back to his mother, his soft little skull smearing across the rocks at ninety miles per hour, and the middle girl had gotten shot through the head when the raiders gave chase. When he dropped the oldest girl off at the nearest town, she said it should’ve been you, the first words she’d spoken, and hadn’t looked back.
Furiosa is closer and the dead, quiet ever since the Bullet Farmer had spilled his life out into Max’s hands, are starting to murmur. “Nowhere to run but desert, unless you want to try your luck with the war party,” she says. Her lip twists, the first cruel expression he has seen on her face. “I know Immortan’s always looking for more blood bags.”
His fist flies out to crash into her cheekbone, pure reaction. His head has gone clear and still as deep water, a bone-chilling rage.
She licks red off her teeth. “You trying to scare me?” Her gaze flicks to his arms, sleeved in blood. “I’ve seen worse. I’ve been worse.”
He brings his elbow down on the area of her shoulder he knows the prosthetic places the most strain, savage with the need to hurt her. He is not like her and the others; he is not someone she can redeem with gentleness and kind words. He will do what it takes to make her understand that violence is the only language he knows.
Furiosa is strong, perhaps more intolerant of physical weakness than any other person he has met, but she is tired and her body is showing strain. She is bleeding in several places, crouched on the tanker’s curved back, her breath coming in short wheezes.
He wants his foot on her back, her throat squeezed in his fist. Everything feels like it has come unmoored inside him, a sorrow so profound it feels like joy, or maybe a joy so sharp it slices at his guts. She will never again give him words to bring comfort, or look at him with that patient weight in her gaze. She will never breathe against his back like she is gathering enough air for both of them. Weapons are designed to be self-sufficient; they have no need for these things.
He lifts his foot to deliver a final, devastating kick, and that is when she swings her metal arm like a club into his bad knee, fast as an adder. Pain whites everything out, lifts him away from his crumpling body.
Possibly dubious consent, depending on how you look at it. More D/s overtones than undertones, here
It is only a few seconds before he lands back inside himself, but the pain radiating from his knee locks everything up inside. He is slung over Furiosa’s shoulder, nausea intensified by the way the prosthetic’s thick shoulder pad digs into his stomach, his head dizzy and waterlogged with trapped blood.
She drops him on the sand with a groan, and it’s not until he hears the quiet unspooling of the winching cable that he struggles to get to his feet. But his body is sluggish, still mostly dissembled, and she sets a knee easily on his back before trapping his wrists with a few twists of the cable.
He goes crazy, then, thrashing and heaving. The smell of heating metal and singed hair is in his nostrils, and he can hear the sizzle of the branding iron. There are hands everywhere, holding him down, and no matter how he fights he cannot get free.
Sand flies in the air as he throws his weight around, clogging his eyes and nose and scraping exposed areas of skin raw. Strangled, desperate sounds are being dragged up from the bottom of him, and a hand presses over his mouth, muffling him until he sinks his teeth in and tastes blood. His knee sends pain like a live wire into the very core of him.
Eventually his struggles weaken as his muscles start giving out, and it is only now that he becomes aware of the hand stroking over his head, Furiosa making quiet shushing noises. He turns his face to the side. There are still wounded sounds echoing inside him, and something deeper than shame forces his eyes closed. He had wanted to hurt her beyond repair, and now this.
Her hand keeps moving, back and forth over his hair. ”I'm going to get water," she says, and stays there for a moment before her weight lifts.
He shifts experimentally, but the cable would take minutes to detangle, sticky now with blood from his chafed wrists, and he isn’t sure whether his knee could even support his weight. A voice that sounds like Angharad's hisses stupid schlanger, there's nowhere to go and he cannot argue with her.
He startles at Furiosa's touch, even though all she does is rip his shirt down the back and lay it open. Liquid sloshes quietly, and he does not look or fight. He deserves whatever punishment she levels at him.
A wet cloth starts at his shoulder and sweeps a cool path down his spine. The memory of the tattoo gun is still fresh, making him flinch. The cloth wipes away blood and sweat and dried mud, leaving his skin damp and shivering with vulnerability. He feels like some burrowing creature, scooped out of his shell and left squirming.
He struggles even though there is nowhere to go, wishing he could disappear into the earth like a grub. Alone in the wasteland and surrounded by ghosts, he traded his last scraps of humanity for survival. This kindness is more than he can bear.
“Shh,” she says when he makes a guttural noise, and there is the sound of the cloth being wrung out before it smoothes down his left side. She has a knee to his lower back and the unforgiving pressure of her metal fingers against his neck. He is shaking like an unbalanced flywheel running at top speed.
When she has cleaned every inch of his back, she cups her palm carefully over the back of his scarred neck, making him flinch hard with remembered pain. “You’re not a thing.”
Shudders start from under her hand and run the length of him. "Weapon," he grunts. It takes several tries to get the word out, as though his vocal apparatus has rusted in even this short time.
"No." There is something almost unbearably intimate about her touch against this part of his body that has been taken and owned by someone else. Stripped of its usual protective layer of dirt, her hand radiates warmth past the skin, past the brand, into the furthest reaches of him. "I'm more than an Imperator, they're more than wives. You're more than just a weapon."
She unwinds the cable from his bloodied wrists and moves to let him sit up. His muscles are juddering visibly, and he cannot stop his shoulders from hunching.
She talks while she runs the cloth down his arms, stories about the Green Place that sound like dreams when heard in such a barren place. The shaking quiets gradually under her touch, and he lets himself be lulled by the steady cadence of her voice. There is a kind of simplicity in moving where she directs him, letting himself be pliant under her hands. It is different than the cut-edged clarity of violence, but it brings him ease. When she is finished, his arms gleam palely in the starlight, scars silver on his skin.
Her fingers pause on his waistband, and he bends to untie his shoes and skin out of his pants. Self-consciousness is a luxury he has never really understood.
She touches the mess of his left knee, gentle as he's ever seen her. There is a bruise coming up dark there, but the metal pieces and splinters of bone that used to be his kneecap all seem to be where he left them. She runs a cloth over it carefully, before moving on to the mud flaking off his lower legs. When she is finished, she gets a fresh bucket of water and hands him the rinsed cloth, gesturing before he understands what she wants and washes between his legs.
He leans against the wheel, drowsy and half-drugged with whatever is left behind after pain. Naked, her lines are as clean as a factory-made car. She washes herself far more brusquely than she had touched him, a beautiful efficiency to her movements.
Afterwards she comes and sits next to him, and he has a deep and distant appreciation for the warmth of her shoulder against his. “I said things I thought would hurt you,” she says. There is no apology, but the back of her hand brushes his own. “I would have done it differently if I knew how.”
He tips his head back against the wheel. Baring his throat like this feels insignificant after she has seen him stripped down to the metal. “Thought you were going to –” he mimes a pistol to his temple.
“I know,” she says. They sit together in the sand, skin drying in the cool nighttime air. He wonders if she feels trapped, with only her prosthetic free in case of danger. Or maybe she knows that on her other side he has a right hand, and so she does not need to worry.
“That’s bait,” he says. The naked woman cowers like a frightened child, but her arms and legs are too well-muscled, and she checks vantage points the way a trained warrior would. It is early morning, but the sun already burns hot and clear above them.
"'Bout time,” Toast had said to him earlier, elbows on the seat backs as she handed Furiosa a piece of jerky. “That mud smelled awful.”
“Made the whole place smell like a shitter,” Dag offered.
He chewed on his jerky, forming words carefully in his head. “Her too,” he said, pointing his thumb at Furiosa. It felt like an unexpected blow, painless and devastating, the way Furiosa’s eyes crinkled at the corners, Toast’s surprised bark of laughter. Even Cheedo giggled.
Now, Furiosa’s hands are white-knuckled around the wheel, and the girls are tense and watchful in the backseat. Toast holds a gun in her hands with casual familiarity, a far cry from yesterday’s panicked grip, and Dag is helping Cheedo sort bullets across her thighs. The war boy has his shoulder angled protectively towards Capable, who has picked up a wrench and looks ready to brain anyone who threatens them. He has to look away, pride rising like nausea inside him.
Hope flares bright in Furiosa’s eyes, and he knows she will walk alone into that defenseless bowl of sand even before she reaches for the door. He wants to grab at her arm, ask what they are supposed to do if she gets herself killed. Hope is a poison, shutting down good judgement and other vital faculties before dealing the final blow.
“Get ready,” he murmurs to the back seat, once the door closes behind her. At least if he had gone with her, one side would have been protected from bullets. He has two guns in his hands with a third loaded and waiting on the floor, ready to floor the accelerator and be firing before any shot has even found its target.
The roar of motorbikes is surprising but good, means he can focus on visible targets instead of scanning the dunes for the glint of rifles. He is already aiming at the motorbike leader, trusting Furiosa to keep an eye on the naked woman in case she turns out to be armed, before he remembers that Furiosa and their easy understanding is gone. “Watch her,” he says instead.
“Who?” Toasts asks, and then it doesn’t matter because the naked woman, now wearing some kind of cloak, is running towards Furiosa and he’s not sure he can shoot her without hitting Furiosa, too. They stop toe-to-toe, and he is waiting for a clear shot before it becomes obvious that he never needed to make one.
He feels a low wrench at the way their foreheads press together, like they're creating new and secret languages in the warm space between their mouths. The woman has her palm over Furiosa's brand, and he wonders whether she realises what a gift that is, to be allowed to touch skin that has known only pain. To her it is just another scar; when she looks at it, she cannot see the Citadel’s dark tunnels or Immortan’s leering face, know the stink of blood and clay and metal. Perhaps she does not need to; Furiosa has words, can explain all of this.
“Hey,” Capable says. “I think you can put that down.”
Furiosa is waving at the cab, whole and unharmed, brilliant with joy. Dag and Toast and Cheedo hurry forward like everything they have ever wanted is standing out there; only Capable lingers, giving him a worried look. He steps down from the rig but stays slouching behind the open door, keeping a pistol in his hidden hand.
Something changes when they see him, the older women closing protectively around Furiosa and the girls like he is a disease carried all this way on the rig's underbelly. He wants to remind them who kicked lancers and polecats off the tanker, got supplies from the Bullet Farmer, held the rig steady when Furiosa needed to climb underneath and do repairs. They might never have made it here without him. Of course, Angharad might also have been alive. He hears that familiar litany whispered in his ear of all of the people who have died under his protection. Maybe these old women are right to distrust him.
He keeps to himself, doing minor repairs on the rig: topping up coolant, tightening bolts, pulling bits of shrapnel from the tires and patching them as best he can.
The war boy helps, crawled halfway inside the hood and muttering about absent tools. He keeps up a steady conversation with the engine, chiding it about the sand it has collected and the burned grease gummed between rotating parts. He doesn't comment on the pistol Max keeps within easy reach or seem to expect a response, which suits Max just fine.
He is too far to hear what the women are saying, but he keeps an ear open for the tenor of the conversation, listening for raised voices or the brittle sound of Furiosa's voice under strain. When she screams, he throws himself skidding under the rig, emerging on the other side with his pistol drawn and scanning wildly for something to shoot. But there are no raiding parties, no drawn weapons, no smell of blood, nothing except the huddled group of women and the echoing dunes.
It takes a moment to find her, kneeling in a golden spill of sand, prosthetic discarded behind her like a shed skin. She has never looked so small. He thinks about shooting one of the older women, since there is nothing else to explain the naked pain in Furiosa’s voice, but he does not want to spoil any revenge she might have planned.
Instead he leans against the rig and braces the pistol against his hip, making his intentions clear. Grief and joy are dangerous, give too clear a window into the depths of a person; better they should be conquered alone so that no one can take that knowledge and use it for harm. He might not be able to guard her against pain, but he can shoot anyone who tries to intrude.
He takes a small amount of satisfaction in the fact that no one tries to approach her, including the cloaked woman. Even one-armed and cut off at the knees by sorrow, no one makes the mistake of thinking Furiosa harmless.
Furiosa and the women, who call themselves the Vuvalini, have been talking for hours. Whether to stay or go. The condition and loyalties of the nearest but still-distant settlements: Outpost, Sand Crust, Broken Rock. What lies beyond the salt flats and whether the water in the swamp has sweetened at all. The unassailable needs of the body, measured against their supplies.
He sits on the other side of the rig, separated from the chatter and cooking fires by its great metal bulk. Lying down feels too indefensible, so he leans against one of the wheels and inks their latest progress on the muslin map. It occurs to him that this might be the end of the journey, at least for him. The predictability of the needle's tiny pain is soothing in a way, focusing him like a telescope. He does not want to hear his role in Furiosa’s retelling of their escape, or listen to doubt creep as slow as vines into her voice.
She comes over once, rich smells hanging around her. “There’s food,” she says. She leans against the side of the tanker, the right height for her fingers to brush against the top of his head, her palm to settle against his neck. She does neither. “Moonshine too. Val says it’s fermented berries, but it tastes like old guzzoline.”
“I heard that!” Valkyrie calls from the other side of the rig, and Furiosa smiles like a reflex, something she is helpless to prevent.
She seems about to say more, but then a woman hollers at her to come get some stew and Valkyrie is threatening to tell the story of her initiation if she won't. "Come," she says to him at last, before going back to the light and warmth and noise, so different than anything Max himself could give.
He does get food, eventually, but everything is a blur of heat and ricocheting conversation, expressions shifting as fast as desert winds. Even Furiosa is laughing and talking and gesturing with her spoon all at once. He gulps down the gamey lizard stew and slips, unnoticed, back to the far side of the rig. Here in the cool and the quiet, at least he knows where he fits in the shape of things.
Valkyrie comes over later, not unexpectedly. She sits before he has to decide whether or not to fight her, but the stiffness of her back suggests that she has at least one weapon hidden under her clothing.
He crumples the muslin into the shadows behind the wheel, a minor pettiness. That map is not meant for her. The blood tube he leaves loose, using the needle to pick at a splinter lodged in the meat of his thumb. If she is trying to outwait him, she is going to find it a long, cold night.
“You helped bring Fury back,” she says finally. Her voice is as stiff as her spine. “Our clan owes you a debt for that.”
He grunts. In his experience, debts have been worth less than the air used to promise them.
“Are you coming with us tomorrow?”
He jabs the needle deeper into his thumb, trying to remove the splinter now by excavating the flesh around it. He had intended to travel with them until they found the Green Place, or at least what little of it remains in the Seed Keeper’s ratty bag. But he has no pressing engagements elsewhere, and wherever they end up going, he might be of use. It is... strange to think of waking with no heads there to count like a prayer, no one to grip the back of his neck and tell him what he is not. Everything he cares about, there under his hands.
Laughter rings out like a bell. Even though he has never heard Furiosa laugh before, he knows her voice, knows its shades of anger and tenderness and dry humor. This is what she sounds like, unbound and freed by joy.
“If you care about her,” Valkyrie says, “you’ll leave tomorrow morning and you won’t look back.”
He turns away from that bright sound, the sand around the fire lit a burnished copper. Valkyrie's eyes are as dark and unreadable as a crow’s.
“She’ll never heal if you’re there to remind her of the Citadel every time she sees you.” Valkyrie lets out a breath and doesn't look away. “Back when we could afford to be choosy, initiation into the clan was about becoming: becoming a warrior, becoming a woman, becoming worthy of a name. Fury and those other girls need to become again, otherwise they’ll never be free of that place.” She spits, as though even the borrowed memory of the Citadel leaves a sour taste.
He tries to picture it: Dag planting bullets in the fertile ground of a man’s skull while Toast steers a growling bike between her knees. Capable's hair streaming in the wind like a banner, Cheedo cloaked in black like ragged Death itself. Only Furiosa remains unchanged, impossible to imagine her as anyone except herself.
“We can give them a home, a purpose, a new identity.” Her voice is pleading. She does not ask what it is that Max can offer, but he hears the question anyways.
Silence. Madness. A life on the run, spurred by ghosts and the accumulating weight of failure. Moments of joy sparse and quickly overshadowed: a child delivered safely to its mother, the roar of a unthrottled V8 on an empty road, a stomach full of raided supplies and the night sky crammed with stars.
After Valkyrie leaves, he is filled with a sudden and terrible restlessness. He never showed Toast how to strip and reload the larger guns, and he needs to check her grip, make sure she changes her wrist angle or it'll get sprained from the kick.
He stands and looks inside the rig but she is asleep on the backseat, Cheedo tucked into her shoulder. There is a gun in easy reach, smart girl, but Cheedo looks like a hothouse flower, fresh and easily bruised. No one has taught Cheedo that she can be dangerous, and it feels important that she know this before – just that she know this.
The murmur of Capable's voice drifts down from the rig's turret, and he thinks about hauling her onto the sand and teaching her how that wrench can be used – crushing a man’s windpipe or popping kneecaps off like a bottle tops – and making sure the war boy sees and knows that she is no soft-clawed kitten.
He sits back down. They have the Vuvalini to teach them these things, now. Anyway, what good can he do without words or gentleness; what does he know except death and hues of pain. The man who held his wife's fingers between his own and soothed a crying infant against his chest is less than a memory, like an overheard dream. He has no place in this green and growing life ahead of them.
It is late when Furiosa comes over again, and he keeps his eyes closed and his body still. He has no words to give her that will not come bloody out of his mouth. Strangely, just knowing she is there sends him into a truer sleep, but he wakes later, gasping. The sand has leeched all heat from his bones, and Furiosa is gone, the sand around him unblemished.
In his dream, he had been as omnipresent as the sky, watching Furiosa face down a sea of grim-faced war boys. Her metal hand slipped and clanged against the smooth rifle stock; bodiless and unable to kneel in front of her and offer his shoulder, he had to watch as she disappeared under that chalky surge of limbs.
He sits on the tanker's roof after that, all the sleeping bodies laid out under his watchful eye. Rifle across his lap and listening for harm in every direction. The sky is filled with stars, and his stomach aches pleasantly. If Furiosa or the girls wake, they will see him and know not to worry.
"One of those bikes is yours." She looks tired, as though her own sleep was sparse and filled with awful fumbling dreams. Or maybe they were good dreams, of green places and laughter, and she looks tired only because she had been reluctant to leave them.
The salt flats shimmer off to the east, beautiful and barren and deadly. Even if their supplies stretch perfectly, there is no guarantee the salt does not go on forever, or that there is not something worse on the other side. The word no one is saying is suicide.
He thinks about it, even so. He has had a long span of days, most of the shine worn off them by now. He is tired of seeing evil in the world and in himself. Even dying thick-tongued and baked of all moisture, at least he would not be alone.
Valkyrie's mouth is a thin, hard line, and it is easier than he expected to turn the bike west, away from the salt. Maybe there is something selfish about it, too: Furiosa and the girls will never be more brilliantly alive than they are at this moment. This can be one memory that he hoards like a gem.
Alone and speeding into the emptiness, he feels as though some scab has been ripped open, leaving his insides exposed. His eyes stream with wind, lips cracked from the heat, the bike jangling his bones. Everything feels brand-new and unfiltered.
He keeps checking behind him. For a while could see the dark speck of the convoy’s progress across the salt, but now there is just a bleached, shimmering horizon. Nothing following him but ghosts and the desert’s hot breath. It is a relief, in a way, freed from other people’s hope. He could flip his bike right now, and nothing would change except the vultures' dining options.
With the unchanging landscape, it is impossible to tell how long he has been riding or how many miles have passed beneath his wheels. Sometimes he looks out and sees children streaming behind him like a ghostly exhaust trail, whispers stuttering through the air. Max where are you why didn't you it hurts Max it's dark in here Max where are you Max Max you promised Max. His own name like a brand. He has learned to guard it; better to be called a fool than have another dead voice cursing his name. Not that it makes a difference.
Memories snag him with their thorny touch. The mining town that he helped reduce to a greasy black smear, screams as overlords and miners alike were trapped in the collapsing tunnels. The traveling troupe, half circus and half gladiator ring, that pitted disfigured children and men with no arms against each other. As hard as he tried, none of the kids would leave; he was just a drifter with no promises of a better life, and there at least the winners were fed. The hill clan who worshipped a little albino girl until she was no longer able to seek out water in the waste. He'd found her, tied to a rock, brains scrambled by the sun. She hardly weighed a thing, hot forehead pressed against his shoulder, mumbling as he took her to the shade and dribbled water into her mouth. She died quietly, baked so hot that it took a long time for him to notice that he held a corpse in his arms. He burned the leader after, had to keep himself from throwing every adult with guilt written across their face onto the fire as well. It still hadn't felt like enough.
His mind circles back to the rig, a predictable pain. Whether Cheedo has her own bike, and if someone taught her to lean into curves; she seems like she would let the bike drive her rather than the other way around, and he has seen that kill people more than once. Whether the war boy can be straightened out like a bent piece of metal or whether his past has left a deeper stain. Whether that had been hope in Furiosa's eyes, or what is left afterwards. Free of Immortan and surrounded by her clan, he thought she'd found her redemption. Now, he wonders if that had been resignation instead, making the choice to end her days free and under the sky instead of locked up like cattle. The thought kicks at him like a pebble caught between gears. He had left so they could have a bright and green future, not die choking on their own tongues.
He blinks and there is a woman standing in front of him, hair a tangled curtain in front of her face. There is no time to think: he jams on the brakes, throwing the bike into a skid. It flies in one direction, sending him sailing in another. Skin peels off his left side like a fruit.
The woman steps towards him, and only now does he recognise Angharad. The proud neck and dirty muslin wrappings are the same, but she never before looked so gleefully cruel. “For someone who promised to protect us, you sure give up easy,” she says. The left side of her jaw sags with broken bones, distorting her words.
He flinches, can’t help it. He tries to find words to say that he is protecting them, best as he knows how, but his mouth is dry and sullen. It has been hours since he last had a sip of water.
“Men,” she sighs, so like the old Angharad it makes his chest ache. Then her mouth twists into a sneer, and the resemblance is gone. “Always making excuses that suit you best.” She looks like she wants to kick him, but won’t lower herself to it. “You owe them your witness.”
His head is ringing like a bell. He isn’t sure what there is to witness, other than the seamless way they have closed around his absence, like a healed wound.
Angharad hisses and lunges, stopping inches from his face and making him jerk backwards. This close, he can see that a chunk of her skull has been ripped off, revealing the quivering grey jelly beneath. “They ride historic on the Fury Road,” she says. “Witness them, for Valhalla is waiting.”
He feels clogged with sand, his brain dull and slow-firing. Valhalla is for the dead; they can’t go there.
“Dried up like leather,” she croons. “Torn to pieces when sun fever makes murderers out of them all. Valhalla doesn’t care how its dead come to it.” She presses a hand to her stomach, as though she hasn’t noticed that it’s as empty as an unstuffed mattress. “Ride with them, plant an anti-seed in every heart and send them off with a warrior’s farewell. I will be waiting to welcome my sisters at the gates.”
He shoves past her outstretched arms and wrestles himself onto the bike, drinking half a canteen and feeling some grip around his skull loosen. When he looks up, there is just sand and scrub and a few scattered pots flung off his bike, no sign of Angharad.
The bike rumbles to life, pointed east. His whole left side is a hot wash of abraded skin, muscles torqued and stiff from the fall, dizziness lapping at his skull. He leans forward and opens the throttle, letting pain fuel him like guzzoline. There will be no witnessing. He will throw himself in front of the gates before he fails another person he has promised to protect. Pain grows and blurs until it soaks into him, indistinguishable from the beat of his own heart. Out here, everything hurts.
The whole ride back is like a dream of falling, everything streaming past and the thread between mind and body snapped. He feels whittled by the sharp air, made less when he stops to refuel the bike and cram a handful of jerky into his mouth. He rations his water, unsure how long it will take to find them again, and what he will do after. Dehydration beats at him in slow waves.
He checks behind him, but Angharad isn’t among any of the fleet-footed dead behind him. He doesn’t know what laws of physics govern ghosts and their travel. Are they impeded by wind or rocky terrain? Do they feed on carrion, or the decaying dreams of wretched men? He leans forward, urging the bike on. He must reach them before Angharad does.
As the sun bleeds out across the sky, he sees things that might have been. The world that was, continued indefinitely, soft as being wrapped in wool. His wife’s graceful fingers becoming delicate with age, his daughter growing tall and beautiful and smart, arguments joyful in their meaninglessness you’ve been in the shower for twenty minutes, how long can it take to wash your hair.
Himself, grease-blackened and outfitted in leather and metal, driving a war vehicle to Gastown. The things he would have had to do to become an Imperator, whether at the end of it he would still have been the kind of man to help the wives escape.
Immortan and his followers erased as if they had never been, replaced by a matriarchy led by Furiosa and the former wives. Tunnels echoing with a child’s laughter, rooms full of green, all of the sharp and hard places transformed. As though happiness were a force powerful enough to soak into the poisoned soil, sweeten brackish water, bring even the desert into bloom.
He rides through the night, stopping only to refuel, catch an hour of sleep huddled next to the bike. He finds them shortly after dawn, cooking fires dowsed, repacking the bikes for another day of travel. The cool touch of relief grabs him by the throat and sweeps him away. Each precious face, undamaged and whole. As though he has given something up for this – his knees, the steadiness of his hands – and he cannot find it within himself to regret the trade.
They are looking at him like he has died.
He staggers off the bike. Surely ghosts have no weight to knock into things, no regard for muscles gone stiff as roots. He has not given any thought as to what he would say.
Something knocks into him, Cheedo ducking away from Toast's restraining hand. Her arms wrap around his middle like a heart attack, rendering him deaf and dumb. "I told you he'd come back," she says, darting back to Toast, who does not appear to be listening.
"What is it, fool?" Furiosa has a gun in her hand, prosthetic clamped around the handlebars and her body braced as though prepared to throw the bike like a skipping stone. One of the old women has a pair of binoculars scanning the horizon.
He glances down at himself, sees the shredded cloth and bloodied surface of his skin, guess at whatever terror might have shown on his face. They think he has come to warn them of some approaching disaster. When he tries for words, nothing comes out.
"Water," she snaps, unnecessary because he has a canteen, he'll get it in a minute, but then Capable is handing over hers and Furiosa grabs it and holds it out. She has a look in her eye like she is considering pouring the water down his throat herself.
He drinks and hands back the canteen, like some bizarre dance. They are all waiting and there is nothing to say, just this churn of relief, the certainty that some crisis has been narrowly averted. He shoves his cracked hands into his pockets, toes at a crust of salt. Their stares whittle him down to a nub, faster than a sandstorm.
There is something crumpled in his pocket, and he pulls out the map, smoothes its creases. Viewed like this, the Citadel is an easy day's ride: a straight line through the desert, just a few grey squiggles of swamp and other terrain, before the gap in the ring of triangular mountains surrounding the Citadel. He holds it out; it was meant for Furiosa, anyways.
"Fury..." Valkyrie starts, impatient.
Furiosa holds up a hand. Silence billows out in a blast radius. "What's this?" Her thumb passes over a red cross where he had seen signs of undetonated landmines. He doesn't know how to tell her that he made it to be whatever she wants: a memory of him or the journey, something so that she never has to feel lost.
To the east, salt. To the north, Bullet Town, unless they detour through the shelled, toxic area of Pusland with its buried explosives. To the south, scrap towns and cults, people who will shoot them on sight as soon as sell them out to Immortan. There is only one way to go. "It's your way home.”
The plan unrolls like a carpet as the others chime in, until everyone is looking at Furiosa. She glances behind them, and he is surprised by the naked longing on her face, as though some part of her wants to hurl herself at the horizon and go out flaming. He has seen that look on the war boy's face, lit by a sputtering flare against the violent backdrop of the sandstorm. He wants to replace that expression with nearly anything else.
"At least that way, we might be able to, together..." Words fall half-formed out of his mouth. He is suffused with a vague terror. There is nothing he can offer, beyond an abundance of ghosts, two hands, a shoulder for her rifle to rest on. All he can do is put himself on a plate, let her take what she wants and discard the rest. "Come across some kind of redemption." He has long ago lost rights to his own, but there is still hope for hers.
Her eyes refocus, as though she is seeing him for the first time. When her hand clasps his, there is a feeling like something finally settling into gear.
They stop far enough from the war party's estimated location that they won't have to defend themselves overnight, but close enough so that they can make it to the pass in the morning without needing to refuel. There is just one fire to cook over, small and nearly smokeless. Valkyrie is good for at least one thing, turns out.
He has been restless all afternoon, jittering in the passenger seat, feeling unsettled even when Furiosa gave him the wheel so she could ride with the Vuvalini. It is worse now that they are not moving, like something is simmering inside his skin. Words feel further away than usual; if someone asks him a question he is likely to bare his teeth in response. Luckily, with the Vuvalini here, no one is that desperate for a conversation partner.
He walks through the campsite, around the rig, makes a larger circle to ensure nothing is lurking. Everyone is sitting near the fire, talking and cleaning weapons and offering conflicting suggestions about the stew, which is taking a long time to heat over the small fire.
Capable and the war boy crouch nearby, where he has a bike halfway dismantled in front of him, rattling off what sounds like part technical specification, part conversation with the piece itself, and part rambling stories about his days as a black thumb. Capable seems to alternate between mild interest and horror, but she is standing over his bowed back and easily able to defend herself if necessary, so he does not worry.
He does not understand how they all fit themselves so neatly among each other, how every person knows where to sit, has an endless supply of words to trade back and forth. There is no guidebook, no algorithm he can use to predict their patterns, or cipher to decode these subtle wordless exchanges. He is meant for action, violence, solitude; nearly every part of him is clamoring to take one of the bikes and point it in any other direction. The only thing that keeps him there, exiled to the far side of the rig, is fear that the alternative is worse.
Furiosa walks around the back of the rig, stops and sucks a few mouthfuls from one of the hoses coiled under the tanker before coming towards him.
He is picking restlessly at a scab on his leg and thinking feverish thoughts about burying himself in the sand, as though being trapped neck-deep in the cool earth might siphon off some of this crawling feeling. He cannot bring himself to look up when she approaches, makes it to the top of her boots, the belted curve of her hips.
“Hey.” She drops a carpetbag onto the ground next to him, and if he’d been holding a gun he would have shot his own foot off, the way it makes him jump. “Bullets need inventorying.”
The scab pulls off under his fingernail, leaking a sluggish stream of dark blood.
Her metal hand closes around his left wrist, ratcheting tighter when he reaches for a scab with his right instead. “Bullets,” she says.
He pulls out of her grip, taking a strange satisfaction in the torn skin her claw leaves behind. He had watched Dag and Cheedo go through them yesterday; besides, it is not the number of bullets that is the problem, it's everything else.
She sits down next to him and unbuckles her arm, unrolling a small leather bundle with pockets stitched inside to hold tools of varying sizes. By wedging the shoulder of the prosthetic under her left leg, she is able to get enough leverage to start tinkering with the elbow joint.
He rips the loosened scab off and she fixes him with a dark look before going back to the arm. Scowling, he dumps the bag on the ground between his legs. He is wound so tightly that the slightest touch will unleash violence from him like blood from a severed neck.
As he sorts, he imagines firing each bullet into a forehead: at Furiosa with her imperious military aggressiveness, like she is trying to melt him down and pour him into a mold; Valkyrie and her easy familiarity; the old Vuvalini with the laugh like a bag full of nails. All of his swarming feelings transmuted so quickly to rage.
And yet by the time he is done, stacking bullets and neatly-coiled rounds back in the bag, most of the restlessness has been skimmed off. As though her presence is magnetic, powerful enough to rearrange the world around her into neat and orderly shapes.
She tilts her head in an unspoken question, and he points inside the bag and gives her the numbers. Her smile has an unaccustomed warmth to it. When she adjusts the angle of the prosthetic, her knee presses into his thigh like a lightning rod, familiar and grounding.
They put out the fire as soon as it starts to get dark, since even the faintest light can carry miles across the desert at night, but still everyone sits around the dead coals. Some of his tension has faded, although there is still a sliver of wariness jammed at the top of his spine. It is easier now that it is dark and he can pretend himself invisible if he wishes.
He’d tried to get out of it. There were still adjustments that could be made to the prosthetic, engines fine-tuned to get every last scrap of speed, last-minute weapon practice even though they couldn’t risk the sound of a gun. Anything except sit pinned in one place with a dozen eyes on him, grunting as whole symphonies of words passed in front of him. Like a dog brought to the dinner table.
All Furiosa had said was, “Come,” and waited while he looked at the slice of activity visible from under the rig, thinking again about taking a bike and racing it until his head was empty as a melon and even his ghosts were quiet. Some of that hazy poured-tar feeling from before was already starting to burn off.
He bristled when her hand flattened against the back of his neck. He was neither an animal to be led nor a child to be coaxed into compliance. But then he remembered that she had trusted him with the steadiness of her weapon, been witness to the unvarnished whole of him; that they had sat uncovered on warm sand with an easy wordless understanding between them. She would not hurt him, or make him smaller in any way.
When he stood, she tugged him forward until their foreheads touched. “Sit with me,” she said as they walked towards the others. “You don’t have to talk. The stew’s…” she seemed to change her mind halfway. “Well, it’s filling.”
Now, Furiosa has stretched out on her stomach, and when she laughs her shoulder sometimes shakes against his knee. Even though he can't see much, he likes imagining her long and languid, trusting him to guard the undefended curve of her spine. Each time finding it amazing that this is something they can do for each other, guarding the other's ease.
She comes over later, kicks at his outstretched legs. The guns have been stripped and cleaned, the various parts of his body cared for as best he can so that they will not get in the way. There is nothing else that can be done until daylight, and even that is mostly limited to fanging it and hoping.
He has spent the last hour flipping the Bullet Farmer’s knife from hand to hand and letting the sound of voices lull him. In his half-asleep state, the ghost world and the real one have merged. He listens to Toast tell some story to Cheedo and his daughter while Capable tends to the grievances of those who didn’t die easy. One of the wide-eyed children sitting around the dead fire pulls some outrageous face, making Dag shriek with laughter.
Furiosa sits down next to him and he wonders what shape her ghosts take, whether his own feel easier with hers there to keep them company. "Why'd you come back, fool?" she asks after a long, comfortable quiet. It is pitched low enough that he can pretend not to hear, if he wants.
He's not sure how to explain Angharad's terrible prophecy, the fear that he was too late. Knowing that this was a failure that would stay with him into his grave and out the other side. He doesn't understand how there can be millions of words and yet nothing to describe the entirety of that terrible feeling. Maybe the full wealth of language is another thing that has been lost from before, words of extravagance and richness of emotion all buried like landmines under the waste's toxic soil.
"Never mind," she says eventually, when he has taken too long to respond. "I'm glad, is all." The silence that comes after is soft and rich. "Get some sleep," she says. "I'll stay up a while."
He kicks her ankle back. The novelty of it, touch without pain. "Shifts."
She argues until he pulls himself upright, grunting with exaggerated effort. She elbows him hard, calls him a stubborn schlanger without the sense of a lizard, but he can hear her smiling, lets his own expression warm the air around him.
He sleeps, and wakes a few hours later to her hand on his shoulder, for once not full of urgency. He props himself against the rig, looks out into the night. There is the sound of Furiosa shifting and huffing before she turns and drops her head on his thigh. He freezes, unsure what to do with his hands, now, and his leg filled suddenly with the need to stretch. Her breaths soften and deepen, and he risks one hand on her shoulder, the other tracing aimlessly through sand. For once, even his ghosts are quiet, as though they, too, know that he is where he needs to be.
So I feel like a jerk for not having done this sooner, because I've been thinking basically every day for the last two months that I've been working on this story, but seriously? You guys are fucking awesome. I have been blown away by the number of people who have commented and supported this story and let me know they enjoyed it and said nice things. This story swept me away but you guys have absolutely kept me going and pushed me and encouraged me and every single thing that a writer wants. We're getting close to the end, here, but instead of getting all emotional about that, have an extra-long chapter instead! You all rock <3
Cheedo asks again about the plan, if it can be called that. Joe fuck stupid into you? Dag snaps, and Toast glares at Dag before explaining for the third or fourth time. “We race 'em to the pass, detach so they can’t get through, and go home.” Her mouth twists as though the word has left an unexpectedly bitter taste.
It is easy to tell when the war party has spotted them. A few hasty chords squeal across the sand like the Doof Warrier has been caught napping, and a dozen vehicles rev their engines.
He looks around at each familiar face: Toast's eyes unflinching as gunmetal, Cheedo’s lower lip caught between her teeth, Dag with her head bowed and bullets held in the bowl of her lap. Capable is holding a wrench in one hand and a heavy spanner in the other, shoulder angled protectively towards the war boy, whose face is as calm as a benevolent ocean. Furiosa paints grease carefully across her forehead, fierce and brilliant and unwavering as a lodestar. He drives each of them like nails into the root of his mind, so that they will be the last things he sees when he goes.
Furiosa checks the nearby weapons: the gun in her lap, the smooth unsheathing of the knife in the gearshift, the mostly-empty stash of guns and explosive crossbow rounds on the floor next to her feet. As she pulls her arm back from the rifle mounted over Max’s head, her fingers brush against his skull. You’re not a thing. Or maybe, you’re not alone. They have never needed words to communicate.
His blood is thrilling. All of that earlier murkiness has been wiped away, leaving the world spotlit and uncomplicated. He can feel death settle around him like a cloak, but for the first time he is thinking about what comes after.
Max is everywhere and nowhere. He is clinging to the hood, dizzy with the taste of uncut guzzoline, breathing fire into the engine and feeling it roar in response. He is their guns, feeling each bullet sear through his gullet to fly hot and straight and true. He is the rig, burning through his own engines and straining like a yoked ox against the chains that hold him back. He is a machine of sinew and muscle, kicking men off the side of the rig to the tune of shattering bones.
The high whine of a chainsaw slices through his head, and he turns to see a war boy bending over the hole in the cab’s roof. There is no time for finesse; he uses his body like a smasher, one of the beat-up old rigs whose only job was to ram enemy vehicles off-course, usually crushing their drivers into uselessness. The war boys who crewed them never lasted long.
The man recovers quickly, thrusting the chainsaw forward. Max can see his own ribcage sawed neatly in half, the clean pink-and-white stripes of bone and muscle before blood covers everything. He jerks backwards, waiting for pain to hit as his foot scrambles for roof that isn’t there.
Everything happens at a strange stately pace, like a waltz being conducted from offscreen. The People Eater is coming up quickly as he falls, big tires churning the sand where his head will be in three seconds, two. There is a breathless absence of pain that is impossible to trust. It seems appropriate that he go the same way as Angharad.
The girls, his daughter, Furiosa, his wife: each face, held close like a beloved deck of cards, ready to fan out when the last spark in his brain goes dark.
Something grabs his ankle, cracks his spine like a whip all the way up to the small bones of his neck. The ground spits gravel in his face from inches away. He looks up to see Furiosa’s claw clamped around his leg, tight enough to bruise. She is wearing her fiercest expression.
There is a flash of movement, barely visible from this angle, and Furiosa screams. Outrage erupts from the back seat. His whole body seizes but he is upside down and helpless, unable to do anything without risking her grip. The People Eater’s vehicle is almost close enough to touch, and this must have been the last sound his daughter heard, the numbing roar of huge tires coming up close and too fast.
Furiosa’s face has gone white, and the only warning he gets is an agonized twist of her mouth before her hand slips open.
It’s enough. He twists and throws himself at the vehicle’s grille, scrabbling for purchase among the brittle skulls and bones tied there. Bullets soar over his head. When the driver pauses to reload, he scrambles up and tosses him out, slots himself into the seat instead.
The limo reeks, even with the lattice windows letting in hot curlicues of air. There is a cloying, woodsy smell that only partially covers the stench of rotting flesh, and under it all is an oily, diesel stink.
The People Eater's gaze seems to strip away layers of clothing and flesh, leaving him an collection of bones and naked secrets. “Male, full-life, approximately 13000 days.” His tongue flicks out across his thin lips like a lizard. "Possibly younger when clean."
Max tightens his grip around the wheel. At this speed, distraction would be suicidal at best. The Bullet Farmer's knife fell out when he was dangling by his ankles, and he has no other weapon besides his fists. The People Eater doesn't seem kamakrazee enough to grab the wheel and send them and the war rig careening into the canyon wall, but madness can be a subtle thing.
The man spreads his bulk across the seat, closer to Max. "I remember everything, you know. Every unit of guzzoline, each canister of nitro, the loss of every human commodity." His voice is high-pitched and nasal, half a register from a whine. "Throwing your lot in the the imperator, hmm? Not very economical." He tugs on a nipple clamp, eyes tracking down Max's face like hot oil. "I remember her. Couldn't have been much more than 4000 days when she was brought in. Flat as a pup. Had a rope of hair like you wouldn't believe, only beautiful thing about her. Driest fuck I ever had, never understood why he kept her."
There is a rushing in Max's head, louder than the noise on Aqua Cola days. He wishes he could take a spoon to his brain and dig out those awful images. He wants to cut out the man's tongue, peel his lecherous skin off in strips, leave him out in the sun until he is forced to calculate each ounce of fat as it melts off. This is the problem with words, the way they can soak in and leave a stain.
"You, though, pet." The People Eater reaches out a hand, small and pudgy as a child's, stopping before he touches Max's cheek. "I'd catalogue every one of your screams. I'd weigh your balls every morning, analyze the salt in your tears, count how many needles you could take through your nipples until they were as swollen as a girl's."
Max freezes, that old, caged helplessness closing over him like a lock. Fear sours the back of his throat. His eyes, tuned to a prey-like quickness, catch a hint of movement off to the side, and he only barely has enough time to grab at the other man's shoulder.
The massive chest thuds with the bullet's impact, and the People Eater sags against him. Immortan's watery blue gaze narrows over the barrel of his pistol before the Gigahorse speeds towards the rig.
He is suffocating, crushed beneath the man's stinking weight. Thick diesel fumes are starting to seep into the cabin, and he can see dark curls of smoke rising off the tanker in the rearview. His brain feels foul as an oil slick, and his hand throbs savagely where the bullet grazed it.
The limo shudders as small explosions detonate somewhere in the tanker. Dead men are impervious to punishment and the whole vehicle is about to go up in flames. Desperate, he rips off the elaborate nose cover and the nipple chain, so that at least in death he will be denied all comforts. Before he leaves, he spits once on the People Eater’s face for Furiosa, hoping that the man can feel it somehow, made lower than a patch of sand, and brings it with him into death.
Sorry for the long wait! I'm definitely still working on this story, these last scenes are just finicky, I've had to rewrite them a few times. I'm still fiddling around with them and where to break each chapter, so this might change a bit, but I couldn't bear to leave you all without at least a little something :)
By the time he lands in the back of the Gigahorse, his left hand is nearly useless, he is half-deafened in one ear, and his limbs are shaking so hard from adrenaline letdown that his knee clatters against the dirty floor. His head feels like a tree stump with an axe-blade sunk down to its haft. All he can hear is Furiosa’s scream from when he was dangling off the rig, long and unending and full of outrage. She can’t be dead, he would have felt it, one of the girls would have –
Furiosa is lying there on the floor, expressionless as a corpse. She looks like she has gone a few revolutions under the wheels: one eye swollen shut, blood and grease streaked across her face, a dark spreading stain on her side. Terrible wheezing noises rattle around her chest, the only sign that she’s not dead. Cheedo glances up at him and he is struck by the flattened grief on her face, the look people wear when hope has run dry.
He doesn’t realise that he has moved until he is slapping Furiosa’s cheek, saying “hey, hey,” over and over again. Her head rolls back and forth like a doll’s.
One of the Vuvalini sits next to Furiosa, wrapped in black rags and bits of colored feathers, a pair of driving goggles pushed up on her forehead. ”She’s pumping air into her chest cavity,” she says, and then sits back as though her job is done.
He looks wildly around him. There must be someone better suited to this: one of the Vuvalini, with their accumulated clan lore and knowledge of seeds and potions, even one of the girls, familiar with birthing and whatever medical care Immortan bestowed on his favourite wives. Max is a machine of blood and gunmetal, soldered by revenge and driven by an animal drive for survival; he knows nothing about giving or preserving life.
The girls look back at him, desperate and pleading. The other Vuvalini has her hands full steering the Gigahorse over the cratered road, and the goggled woman just watches Furiosa like providing witness is the beginning and end of her responsibilities. Someday, when Furiosa is alive and whole and spitting fury again, he will put a knife in this woman's side and leave her in the desert for the scavengers to pick clean.
Furiosa takes another agonized breath, a little quieter than the one before, like a spring winding down. His ghosts are howling and this is not a job that he should be trusted with, but he has already witnessed so many deaths today. He touches the hard curve of her ribcage, gentle as he can. If there is air inside her that shouldn’t be, it needs a way out.
He grabs a knife and licks the blade clean, grimacing at the bitter dust it leaves on his tongue. “I’m sorry,” he says, because she has always asked for words, and pain is already written across her face in sunset colors. Maybe someone else would know healing without pain, but Max is a creature of the waste, and everything hurts out here. Before he can overthink, he drives the tip of the blade between her ribs, just enough to let out whatever bad spirits are trapped inside.
She takes a huge breath like she has been waiting years for it, and he is smiling and frowning, touching her skull and the planes of her face, telling her over and over again that she is okay. She cranes her face close to his ear. “Home,” she whispers, and then goes limp.
A tide of negation rises inside him, his tongue losing every word except no. He shakes her shoulders, peels back an unresisting eyelid. His head is filled with a single sound, high and shrill and piercing as the traitoring whistle that used to shriek down the tunnels whenever Immortan wanted to dispose of somebody.
The Vuvalini leans forward. “Exsanguinated,” she announces, like tossing out the name of an unusual plant on the roadside. Being picked clean by vultures is too good a death for her. Max will take her out to the desert and open up her ribcage, let all of the beetles and squirming grubs come feast. Once he sews her closed, it will take them a long, painful time to chew their way out.
His hands are clumsy as he unrolls the coiled blood tubing, and he jabs the needle too hard into the bruised vein at his elbow. Dark blood shoots into the tube. He only hesitates briefly before opening his mouth on Furiosa’s arm, sucking at the thin skin there. She tastes like the open road, dust and sweat and a sharp chemical tang, with faint swampy undertones. When he pulls back, the skin is pink and clean as he can get it. A vein throbs faintly under the surface.
He has to look away from her face, pretend this is some other arm as he slides the needle in. The way she looks right now unsettles his hands in a way that he cannot afford. It is impossible to tell if he is doing this right, whether he is hurting her or tapping the wrong vein. He has never done this to someone else, only ever had vengeful dreams of intubating all of the war boys and letting their poisoned blood spill out down the grates in the Organic Mechanic’s workroom.
He holds her head between his palms, familiar and beloved. He has never before thought of her as fragile, but like this, her bones might as well be made out of eggshells. There is nothing to do now but wait. Either she will wake up, or his heart will quit when there is nothing left to pump but dreams and sorrow.
“Max,” he tells her. His blood is already carrying all his secrets into her heart, where they can be read and understood. Hers is one ghostly voice that he will not mind hearing, even if it is to call his name is anger. “My name is Max.”
Had to do some reorganizing, so ended up reposting this chapter. Sorry to anyone who read it already!
He ends up curled around her when the dizziness gets too bad, as though his body is the only thing sheltering her from death’s watchful gaze. His muscles feel waterlogged with fatigue, his hands and feet cold despite the heat. Panic beats at him in slow waves, leaving him sweating and tense as a tow rope. There are two feet of space between his back and the side of the vehicle where someone could put a blade through his spine, and he is weakened and tethered in place. Worse, everything he has tried to keep hidden is displayed openly on his face, ripe fruit for picking. He might as well put his internal organs on a table and hold out a hammer, ask for volunteers.
His hand rests over Furiosa’s heart, counting heartbeats like bullets, afraid to miss even one. He cannot shake the feeling that his attention is the only thing keeping her heart beating.
He looks up at one point and sees Angharad crouched in the corner, watching Furiosa. Her face is thoughtful and sad, none of the raging madness from before. For the first time, he wonders if his ghosts are lonely, and his fingers twitch over Furiosa’s ribcage. Angharad will have to content herself with the way boy, for a while.
Nux. The war boy’s name is Nux. He’d watched him flip the rig, guessed at the words shaping his pale lips. It wasn’t hard; Max had heard them often enough, reverent witness me as war boys fumbled in the citadel’s cavernous dark, or torn from dying throats under the sun. He doubted that a broken-down blood bag was the audience Nux had in mind, but it would have to be enough. He couldn’t remember the last time he tried to ease death, had forgotten it could be anything except a bloody, vengeful path.
Afterwards, he asked Capable for the boy’s name. It seemed only right to have a name for that chalky, expressive face when it goes to join his ghosts. If there is any peace in the land of the dead, he hopes that the boy is able to find it.
Everything narrows to the faint thumping under his fingers, the slight rise and fall of her chest. Angharad has disappeared, and Toast and Dag are arguing over the map he drew, trying to retrace their path through the sandstorm. The Vuvalini, perhaps correctly interpreting the knife he kept pointed in her direction, has gone to take lookout. He feels like he is dissolving, some essential force flowing out of him and leaving only this crumbling husk behind.
On some level, he is aware that Furiosa’s death will salt whatever fertile ground remains of his scarred heart and leave it barren. He will see the girls safely to whatever future they wish and then drive out into the waste, let himself be dismantled by ghosts and radiation. The world can find some other road warrior, one who isn’t dense with failure and the echo of all the evils he has been witness to.
He does not expect to find peace. But death will bring him closer to the people he has loved, and that is enough.
Furiosa mumbles and stirs. Her cheeks are already pinker than they were.
He freezes, suddenly aware of the weight of his arm on her ribs, the jarring rattle of wheels on uneven road, hidden forces of infection. Everything seems baited for disaster. Is this hope, this tender, clawing thing? No wonder it drives men straight to madness.
“‘Mortan?” she slurs, and he is distantly amazed that even now, her first instinct is to reach for words.
“Dead.” The word has never tasted so crisp or so sweet. “War b– Nux flipped the rig.”
The fingers of her right hand twitch. “You filling me up?” Her voice is scraped down to a whisper.
He hums. Words feel too fragile for this welter of emotion. Better to let his blood speak for him in a way that cannot be misunderstood.
“It was close,” she says. It is not a question.
He grunts, has to keep his body from tensing, ready to fight her lungs, her pumping heart, anything that tries to quit.
“Just as well,” she says eventually. “Angharad would have vexed me about it every day if I’d let him kill me.”
A laugh startles out of him, unexpected as a gut punch. One corner of her bloodied mouth lifts in a smile.
He watches a vein pulse in her neck, listens to the sound as she swallows, all these tiny signs of life. “What’ll you do?” It takes a long time to force the words out. A day ago, the question would have felt too dangerous, like sinking a chain into the depths of him and handing her the other end. The things he does not know cannot haunt him. He is already half-mad from the conflicting demands of the living and the dead; adding another set of responsibilities would shred him.
On some level it is already too late. It has been too late since before he tried to ride away into the desert and found himself hobbled, before he came back covered in the Bullet Farmer’s blood, maybe even since he fired into the sand instead of into Furiosa’s skull. Besides, she has shown him that two people can be better together than the sum of their rusted, scrap metal parts.
“Go home. Rebuild.” She turns her head with painful slowness until their foreheads touch like a lock sliding home. “You going to stay?”
He lets himself think about it: the citadel green and blooming, a place of building and growing and new life, everyone he cares about close enough to touch. But he can feel the old restlessness stirring in his bones, the malcontent shuffle of his ghosts. He will be worse than useless when the madness takes hold and shakes him between its teeth. Better if he deals with it while he is still himself enough to explain. Furiosa settles him like nothing else, but she will need all her strength to start a revolution, and there are other ways. Besides, she will need information on clan allegiances and the other towns, someone who can barter for supplies without attracting attention. People pay less attention to a drifter than a one-armed ex-imperator, and if his path happens to cross by the citadel every so often, that’s just good sense.
“Not good at… staying,” he admits. Shame prickles at his throat, but there are no more secrets left between them, not anymore. He will take himself out to some lonely place where the only destruction he can wreak is against the rocks and the lizards, and reckon with the dead. Whatever is left he’ll drag back to the citadel, place himself in her hands. “‘M okay at coming back, though.”
Her hand grips his, presses his fingers against her chest. Magnified like this, the rhythm of her heart seems to travel up his arm and lodge beneath his breastbone. “Forty days.” Her voice is hoarse but sure as welded steel. “Any longer and I’ll come get you myself.”
Her words should ignite his restlessness like a lit match, whip his ghosts into a howling frenzy, but instead it loosens some last tightened cord inside him. Knowing that however mad he becomes out there, she will be able to follow the magnetism of their shared blood to find him, bring him back to himself.
He closes his eyes. Later, he will go out into the desert, lose himself so that he may find himself again. But for now, lying close like this, it is as though one heart beats between them, their mingled breaths drawn from a shared set of lungs, trading ease freely between them like a completed circuit.
I can't believe this is done!! This story has been such a huge part of my summer, and I'm so grateful: to the movie for grabbing me by the throat and making me more excited about writing than I have been in a long time, and to all of the people who have read it and commented and said nice things and agonised right alongside the characters. I can't tell you how much that has meant to me. Thank you thank you thank you for being amazing.