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'Tis the Gift to Be Free

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Max is a day and a half out of the Citadel when the wind picks up. Driving one-handed, he reaches into his beat-up duffel bag, behind the passenger seat.

There's not much inside: a spare shirt, new socks to prevent the blisters he got last time, a blanket, some rations. It's easy to find his scarf by touch.

As soon as he gets it out, though, the scent tells him it isn't his. His scarf and Furiosa's are identical; he must have grabbed the wrong one.

He brings it to his face and breathes in deep.

Furiosa's room -- she's started calling it theirs, but he hasn't caught up yet -- is spotless, apart from the orange dust that gathers everywhere. There's a drawer for her things, and a drawer for his. There are hooks for clothing and for her prosthesis. There are tools in an old can on the workbench, and shelves for things they use less often.

She was looking in his bag when he came back from the bath, yesterday morning.

Max breathes in again as he wraps the scarf around his neck, and pictures her wearing his.


Bit and her friend Coil spend a few extra minutes giggling in the barracks, and arrive at dinner much later than their friends. The war pups like to be first in line. Sometimes they still shove the other children out of the way, even though they'll be sent to the end if they're caught.

The Citadel is different now, everybody says so, and Bit can see it. But she remembers when she could eat all she wanted.

Now she and Coil are at the back of the queue. There's always something for everyone, not a lot, but something. If you're at the back, you can't choose what the something is.

As they get closer, Bit sees four apples, and six people ahead of them. Then there are three apples, and two, and one, and a kitchen worker brings out tomatoes to replace them. But Bit can taste that apple already.

She and Coil reach for it at the same time, and laugh.

"Can you cut this for us, please?" Coil asks the worker.

"Gotta get a knife." And he takes the apple with him. Bit worries that he might not bring it back. She looks around, making sure no one is going to jump in and steal it.

There are two other children right behind them in line. They're about her size, but they're Wretched -- no, she's not supposed to call them that anymore. They're People, and People children are always smaller than pups, so they're probably a little older than Bit. One of them is staring at the apple, too.

Bit glances around the dining room again. Some still don't think People belong there.

When the worker comes back, Bit says, "Can you cut it in four?"

"No!" Coil says.

The worker smiles at Bit, who turns to the two children behind her and says shyly, over Coil's objections, "Want some apple?"


Ellie has been asked many times who her son's father is, and she always refuses to answer. She doesn't want to belong to anyone, after belonging to Joe for so long. Every time she nurses the baby, she remembers the machine. Maybe she'll start to forget when he's older.

Still, she sits with the man most nights at dinner; it's not much of a secret. It's just never said aloud. Bright -- she named him after her mother -- will be tall and strong and smart enough to stay alive for a long time.

Dinner tonight is salty bean soup and a whole fresh cucumber on the side. She'd never tasted cucumber until after Joe. It's crisp and clean and new.

Ace is there, trying to get Bright to eat some soup, but at 153 days old, Bright doesn't understand spoons yet. Most of the soup ends up on his little shirt and some on Ace's trousers, making Ace laugh. Bright doesn't like it, though, so he cries and reaches for her. She bares her breast and lets him latch on.

Ace knows how she feels about nursing. He doesn't look at her with pity anymore.

"Are you free tonight?" he says quietly, trying to distract her. "Can you meet me, around sunset?"

"I can," she says demurely

Former milkers stick together. She leaves a sleeping Bright with a pair of them, and makes her way down the long stairs, out of the city, to their place at the base of the northernmost spire. Ace is already there, leaning against the rock, tapping his foot as if he thinks she won't come.

His lips are stiff as they kiss hello, and she feels him slip something into her hand.

There's still enough light to see what it is, a long metal pin. He's drilled a hole through a stone -- she won't be able to tell the color until morning, something to look forward to -- and bent the metal to keep it on. She marvels that they have enough extra materials to make something so pretty.

"Of course I can use it," she says. She takes down her hair, twists it up on top of her head, and tries to secure it with the pin. It's been many years since she did this. She has to try again, and again.

"Can I help?"

"No, I've got -- there! What do you think?"

"How'd you do that? Looks nice."

"A trick I learned as a child," she says, blushing. She reaches up to touch the stone again. "They'll all be jealous when they see."

"You want more? I can make more."

"No," she says. "It's okay if they're jealous."

He touches the knot of her hair, so carefully, and smiles down at her. She smiles back.


Toast's hair is getting long again, and Toast is too busy to notice. But Cheedo sees it falling in Toast's eyes, sees Toast blow it away out of the corner of her mouth. Toast probably doesn't even know it's irritating her; it's one problem out of so many.

So one night after dinner, when they're in the bath, Cheedo leaves wet footprints as she goes to fetch the scissors from their place by the mirror.

She returns to sit on the edge, with her feet in the water, and waits for Toast to resurface. When she does, she makes a face and shoves her hair away.

"Do you want me to cut it for you?" Cheedo says. "It's getting long."

Toast looks at the scissors, then back up at Cheedo's face. She pulls a strand of hair straight down in front to see how long it is, and it reaches her chin. "I hadn't realized," she says.

"It's been bothering you."

"I guess it has." She sweeps all her hair down, checking the length around her head. "I don't think I will, actually," she decides, as she sweeps it back again. "I only did it for him. I liked it long."

"You did it for you." And she'd taken a beating for it, too.

Toast shrugs and says, "What about yours?"

"My hair?"

"Sure. Do you really like it long, or are you just used to it?"

Cheedo is used to it. She's always had long hair, as far back as she can remember. When she asked to cut it, crying because it was so hot in the sun, her mother said no. Her hair would please the Immortan, and the gatekeepers. It would allow Cheedo to be taken up one day.

It falls in a long ribbon between her shoulder blades, dripping down her back. The drips make her cold now that she's paying attention. She slips back into the water next to Toast. "There's no one to tell us what pretty means anymore," Cheedo says.


If she cuts her hair, she can give it away: it will be used to make yarn, and blankets, or to fill a pillow. "But what if --" She stops herself. Her own opinion is all that matters.

"Okay," she says.

Toast grins. "Yes?"


Toast sits on the edge of the bath now, and starts talking about what would look good around Cheedo's face, how to highlight her eyes, how much to take off.

"All of it," Cheedo decides. "Really short."

"Like Furiosa?"

"Maybe a little longer than Furiosa's."

"Are you sure?"

Cheedo nods. She's sure.

Toast picks up the scissors.

Later, looking at herself in the broken mirror she keeps in her room, Cheedo decides she likes it. She looks like her, like Cheedo, not like one of Joe's endless parade of wives or like the doll her mother had made her out to be, to keep her alive.

She puts the mirror down and opens the little metal box where she keeps her special things. She'll give Toast her Vuvalini headband, to keep the hair out of her eyes while it grows.


Furiosa is in the dining room when word spreads that Max has returned. He's been gone much longer than usual, long enough that Furiosa would have worried if she'd allowed herself. Even so, a tiny, vulnerable voice wondered, at night when she was alone, whether she'd pushed too hard with her gift. She always rolled over and told the voice to shut up.

She studies him when he appears in the doorway, while he waits for his food. He's a little leaner, a little darker, a little somber. He's already bathed and shaved, and he's wearing her scarf.

The sisters and the mothers make room for him at the table, next to Furiosa, and pepper him with questions. He answers with nods and grunts and they all know better than to expect more right now. He drinks nearly a whole jug of water -- he'll be up half the night, unless he's more dehydrated than she thinks he is -- and eats every bite of extra food they pile on his plate.

"Thanks," he says to them all, not looking up.

When he's done, Furiosa squeezes his knee under the table, and he nods. They both rise to leave.

"Have fun," Toast says behind them. Furiosa ignores her, and the giggling, as always.

She has just enough time to notice that Max's bag is already hanging on the hook where it belongs before he's on her, steering her back against the inside of the door. His lips are on her neck, sucking hard enough to leave a mark, and his hands on her waist. Her nub lands on his shoulder, her hand in his hair.

Then her boots and her pants are off, and his face is between her legs, and Furiosa bangs a fist against the door, hard.

Later, after they've made it to the bed and exhausted each other, he lies on his side, using her stomach as pillow. She finger-combs his hair while she relates Citadel news in a soft voice. He'll tell her about his trip when he's ready.

"Brought you something," he says suddenly, interrupting her account of the most recent harvest.

She tilts her head, and scratches his. "Oh?"

"Hold on." He climbs over her and out of bed, and she enjoys the view while he bends to retrieve something in his drawer. It's wrapped in a rag torn from one of his old shirts. He stands nervously by the bed as he holds the bundle out to her. "Here."

It's heavier than she expected. She lays it in her lap and tugs his hand toward her. "Sit."

He does. "Found it up north," he says. "Had to dig it out. I thought, mmm."

Furiosa unwraps it, then stares up at him.

"It's an animal." He rubs the back of his neck. "Only it's rock. I forget the word."

"Fossil. One of the mothers had a few when I was a child."

"Oh," he says, disappointed.

"No, Max, I love it. It's beautiful."

She turns it over in her hands. There's a striped spiral burned into the surface, and she traces it with one finger.

"I think it's from the sea," Max says. "Millions of years ago."

Hundreds of millions, she thinks, but she doesn't say so. "Wonder what it looked like?"

"Kind of a, maybe a snail?"

"Mmm," she says. "I don't know what that is."

"A little fish that lived in a shell."

"Millions of years ago," she says, nodding.

"Millions." Max looks away, fidgets. He can't keep his fingers still. "Some," he says. "Some things, mmm. They last."

Furiosa takes his hand in hers, and they trace the spiral together.