Cheedo turns the waterstone in her hand, tilting it ever so slightly so each of its colours catches the light in turn. Flashes of orange and yellow dance with brilliant iridescence in the washes of blue and green. "Is there really water inside?" She runs her thumb over its smooth and solid surface.
Toast shrugs without looking up from their big book of rocks. "That's what the book says. It’s stuck inside, not enough to drink. It's not even useful as a rock either - too soft."
"So then what does it do?" asks Dag when Cheedo passes her the stone. She holds it overhead so it can catch the light, and she stares up at it from her back. It's dazzling in her hand, full of life and fire and colour, water too if the book is to be believed. "Besides look pretty."
Toast shrugs again and leans back in her chair before propping up her feet. "Nothing.” She smirks. “I suppose that's why no one had taken it yet."
Capable momentarily looks up from her work wrapping Max’s sprained ankle to shoot Toast a glare. “Toast…” she chides than looks to Max for a reaction, but he doesn’t seem to mind, not the words at least; fussing always makes him restless.
Toast looks to Furiosa for backup who folds her arms and lets her weight sink back on her heels. “Before people liked frivolous things,” she says neutrally.
That doesn’t explain why Max went for it, but he’s funny like that. His mouth twitches now with a silent chuckle, probably because he knows Furiosa’s right, but he just doesn’t care. Just because something’s frivolous doesn't mean it isn’t good, and ‘pretty’ is a perfectly good quality for a rock. Cheedo is reminded of the pair of little, porcelain rabbits he brought her after she told him about her favourite book. She gave one to Dag and keeps the other in a leather pouch on her belt so she can run her fingers over it in secret.
“You think it was there ever since the Before?” Dag asks, still turning the waterstone between her fingers.
Iris nods. “Probably cost some big bikkies back then. It wasn’t frivolous though…” she pauses as she sorts her thoughts. “It’s lovely to be sure, but it was this way for millions of years, long before any of us thought to pay attention to it.” Now it’s her turn to shrug. “It just is.”
Dag closes her palm around the waterstone and hums as she muses, “So what did it do before somebody dug it up?”
“Same as it’s doing now,” says Toast, “nothing.”
“It’s kind of sad how it was just sitting there, used to be valuable, but now…” Dag rolls to her belly and spins the stone on the floor in front of her.
Furiosa purses her lips. “Even the glass around it was long gone.” She gives Max an affectionate nudge with her knee. “Just waiting for some damn fool to break himself over it.” He scoffs in mock offence and jabs back with his elbow. Furiosa parries easily but lets her flesh hand linger as it glides over the thin fabric of his shirt.
Dag smiles softly as she sits and hugs her knees to her chest. “I’m glad you brought it back for us. We can give it a job.”
Cheedo squats behind her and drapes her arms over Dag's shoulders. They’re flushed a gentle pink from the time she’s spent in the gardens, and her hair looks even paler in contrast. Cheedo likes to rub it between her fingers and weave it into tiny braids before she sweeps it up into a high bun to keep it out of baby Orlando’s reach. Now it’s all coming loose, spilling out in silvery trails like the high, wispy clouds that streak across the sky and never make rain; it will need to be fixed before Dag takes the baby back from the Milkers.
Cheedo brushes a strand behind Dag’s ear as she says, “Not everything needs as job.” She wants to remind her that Orlie doesn’t have one, but then she thinks maybe their job is letting the Milkers coo over them, which has to be trying in and of itself. She'd rather have her work with charters and treaties any day.
“Oh no, it’s not about needing.” Dag snatches the big book of rocks away from Toast and then sets it on her own lap. She hums to herself as she flips through the pages before stopping at a section on history and culture. Cheedo rests her chin on her shoulder and peers over, watching Dag’s tattooed fingers dance over the pages.
“What’cha thinkin?” asks Max as he shifts his weight in an effort to see the book as well.
“Hey, hold still,” Capable protests as she struggles to keep his yet unfinished wrappings in place.
Dag smirks as she jabs a long, slim finger at a paragraph. “Dow-sing,” Cheedo reads, feeling out the word with her mouth. "A technique for locating water…”
Furiosa gives Max a stern look as if chiding him for encouraging nonsense, but she doesn’t press the issue. While he is obviously closest to Furiosa, he and Dag have a different sort of understanding. Maybe it’s because she appreciates his presents. Maybe it’s because she talks enough for the both of them. Maybe because neither one thinks the other is as weird as everyone else seems to.
When Max looks back at Furiosa she softens. “We already have water,” which is as close to encouragement as she’s ever given without being drugged or delirious.
“His water… Besides, the book says there are other types of dowsing,” Dag says, undeterred. Cheedo hums sympathetically as she tilts her chin so her cheek touches Dag’s neck. The scent of the garden, all black and green, has tangled itself into her hair and seeped into her skin. “We still have some time before dinner,” Dag whispers urgently. “Let’s give her a go, have an adventure, just us.”
Cheedo leans back, tugging Dag along with her. There's something satisfying about the feeling of her partner’s weight on her body. Time alone is certainly rare these days even if adventures are relatively plentiful. They could just go back to their room...
But Dag still holds the book open, and she's smirking, hungry for a different type of mischief. Cheedo can't blame her; Dag had gone on every trade run or mission she could before Orlie came. The wasteland had worked its way into her bones; Cheedo can relate.
Capable tucks the last bit of bandaging, and Iris leans in to admire Capable’s work on Max’s ankle. Then he contorts his face as he tries unsuccessfully to shove his foot back into his boot. Between the swelling and the wrapping it's almost doubled in width, and that's lucky because he's certainly stubborn enough to be walking about on his own otherwise.
“Not you,” Capable declares with full Vuvalini spunk, “You've had enough adventures already.”
Iris nods in agreement, and then to Furiosa with a glimmer in her eyes, “Best get your Magpie to bed.”
Max shrugs sheepishly, which makes Cheedo wonder if magpie means something sexual. He uses Furiosa’s shoulder to pull himself up then lets his fingers brush the back of her neck as he drapes his arm across her. Furiosa almost, but not quite, hides how her eyes go wide and her breath catches in response. She bites her lip to hold back a smile and makes a show of rolling her eyes. Then the pair moves wordlessly towards the door, Furiosa trying to be steady under the weight of everyone’s stares as well as Max’s injuries both new and old.
Furiosa probably doesn't think anyone notices how much she changes when Max is around, but every time he comes or goes the shifts in her moods are more pronounced. She blooms for him. At least now he’ll be around for at least the next couple of days. Cheedo stifles a giggle when she sees Furiosa’s gears turning, and she knows that ‘magpie’ means something sexual.
“Enjoy your adventure!” Dag calls after them as the door closes behind them. She smirks up at Cheedo. “We’ll be careful on ours; I promise.” She takes out a bit of wire and wraps it around the waterstone like a cage and bends the last bit into a loop. Then she pulls the leather thong from her hair, letting all Cheedo’s hard work collapse on itself and tumble free. She slips the leather through the loop. “Now we just need a wand,” Cheedo’s own magpie declares as she beams at her creation.
Dag bothers Toast until she lends her and Cheedo a bike with accompanying gear and a pair of pliers. “Don't waste too much guzz,” Toast says as she makes a note in her tally.
“We won’t,” Dag promises.
“Back before dusk, won’t leave our territory,” Cheedo ticks off the rules on her fingers, “and flares for emergencies.”
They fang it for the hills as soon as the lift touches the ground, Dag at the handlebars, Cheedo clinging to her waist. The desert stretches before, blue sky, tawny ground dusted in oranges, reds, and yellows. Dag whoops as they pick up speed, and Cheedo squeals, gripping her even more tightly. Her squeals turn to Vuvalini ululations when they get air rounding the top of a hill.
They stop when the Citadel gardens are just a distant spec of green, and they are alone beneath a sun that feels warm and kind, nothing like its harsher self from the height of summer. They pick a spot at the top of a gentle slope. Cheedo thinks the depression at the bottom might have once held a stream.
“So now what?” she asks as she climbs off the bike.
Dag is already assembling her contraption even though she hasn’t even stood up yet. She ties one end of her leather thong to each handle on the pair of pliers and then hold them out so the waterstone dangles evening between them. “Water clings to itself, right? It’s…” her voice trails as she tries to remember the fancy word Miss Giddy gave them for such a concept, “cohesive.”
“I don’t know if that’s how it works,” says Cheedo as she probes the dusty ground with the toe of her shoe.
“That’s why it’s an experiment.” She holds the contraption out from her body and points it in a series of distinct directions as she looks for subtle movements.
Cheedo is about to make some comment about being outside being nice in and of itself, but then the waterstone twitches. Cheedo blinks and looks again; the waterstone is clearly still, hanging straight down, pulling its thong taut. It sways again as Dag climbs off of the bike. Then she takes Cheedo’s hand and holds it while she watches the stone in rapt silence. It moves again, a gentle, diagonal sway that could just be Dag’s hand twitching with excitement.
“C’mon!” Dag’s chirps, her voice bright, her grip enthusiastic. She tugs Cheedo along as she gallops down the hill.
The slope, as it turns out, is only gentle at the top. It steepen towards the bottom. The last half meter or so is a sheer drop into a dried out ravine. The girls both squeal and cackle when a misstep sends them recklessly careening over the edge.
They kick up dust when they land; Cheedo struggles to stay upright with her knees bending to absorb the brunt of her fall. Dag, however, lets herself tumble and then roll like a pipe off the last drop.
Dag takes Cheedo's hand again as she stands, and with the other she holds the pliers out from her body. The contraption is heavy enough that it shifts her movements, setting the waterstone swaying as it hangs. Cheedo marvels that she didn't crush herself into it when she fell.
“It’s this way!” shouts Dag when the waterstone sways ever so slightly. Then she takes off sprinting down the creek bed. Her too-big boots flop against the ground and stir up the long abandoned sediment.
"Whatever the waterstone wants us to find…"
Dag quickens her pace. Cheedo lets the fingers of her free hand trace ripples and ridges in the red stone as her bound hand feels the newly risen calluses on Dag’s palm and fingertips. Then Dag's enthusiasm wins out, and she drops Cheedo's hand and pulls ahead. Cheedo follows behind and shakes her head.
She thinks Dag’s way of running is cute, how her long and angular limbs whip out from her body. She’s always moved like that, at least as long as Cheedo has known her. Instead of fighting this awkward tendency, Furiosa taught her to harness it by swinging her arms and legs to hit with the sides of her hands and the tops of her feet. Dag’s favourite part of the lesson was the effects the motions would have on another body if they hit in just the right spots. She would milk Furiosa for lurid details of breaking bones and collapsed tracheae and then cackle with glee at the descriptions. Dag glowed with fascination almost as brightly as she did the time she found the section on potions and poisons in Giddy’s big books of plants.
"I bet you didn't know," Dag had half gloated then in her way overly enthusiastic way as she poured over the book, "that potatoes are toxic if they start to sprout." She was right; Cheedo didn't know. "We just eat them before that."
Cheedo cocked her head as she recited:
She knew this in general if not in specifics. That knowledge made her smile; what can nourish can kill, and pretty things can be dangerous.
"Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power:
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.”
"Mm-hmm, they're related to nightshade."
Cheedo didn’t know what nightshade was, but that didn’t stop her from trying to claim the word as her name after that. Cheedo was a stupid name after all. The Vuvalini Leona thought she might be named for an old snack food, an orange, brittle, tubular crisp soaked in oil and fat so it made for good kindling. Cheedo did not want to be named for good kindling, but Nightshade never quite caught on. She’d picked Joan for her Vuvalini name when she went on trade runs, but that never breached the Citadel, which was for the best.
She’s still Cheedo when the Boys tell each other about the runs. To them, not flinching when a rock bounces through a window is nothing; they never close their eyes against incoming fists. They laugh when an explosion sends her diving under her seat on her first run. But she speaks without her voice flinching when she negotiates, and the boys respect her for that magic; none of them have her talent for asking hard questions softly. Cheedo learned long ago to keep her eyes soft and sweet while her mind works, that sometimes seeming kindness is the best defence. Furiosa says Cheedo has a talent for survival, one gift for lowering guards and another for slipping through cracks, and Cheedo supposes her name is fine for someone like that.
And Dag is still Dag, even when she’s Blue because she’s all mischief and mysticism. At first the gardeners had been reluctant to let Dag into their territory. What could this sheltered girl possibly do that they couldn't? Dag eventually convinced them to let her prove herself with a couple of rows of potato plants. Then she snuck a few potato seeds from the Vuvalini into the rows and won the gardeners' respect when she pulled the blue tubers from the ground. That's how she earned the nickname Blue, that and how her experiments with berries often left her fingers stained, and, if you asked her, the fact that at the time she rather resembled a walking potato.
She looks nothing like a potato now; she’s lean again now if softer in the middle and fuller in the chest and hips than she used to be. Her new flesh bounces when she runs in a way that Cheedo thinks makes her look positively and pleasantly grown-up. Not that either one of them really feels comfortable thinking of herself as an adult woman yet. They are both girls, full of fears and possibilities in unequal measure.
Dag stops before a scattering of grass defiantly slicing their way through the dust. "Here," she says, and Cheedo nods in agreement: Max told her to look for spots like this when he was teaching her to hunt, places where insignificant-seeming, stubborn scraps of life belie the secrets hidden beneath them.
Dag probes the ground with her booted foot, stirring the dust to check for lower layers dark with moisture. She squats for a closer look while taking care not to disturb the grasses. "Shh, don't mind us," she assures them. They seem to ease under her care, swaying softly although the air is still.
The dirt she reveals doesn't look any different from the dust she pushes aside until she brushes it back in place and gives it a gentle pat. Then the dust settles, first into dry, dirt, but then, as her fingers hover over it like a low-hanging cloud, it darkens. Dag hums contentedly, and Cheedo notices a few more blades of the yellow-green grass than she did before. They curl subtly towards the tips of her fingers and the dark lines about her nails.
First lightening, then thunder - the sky has gone dark, and the winds have picked up out of nowhere. Cheedo looks at Dag. "We should go back." Their emergency flares are with the bike.
"Not enough time," she says calmly. She cranes her neck so she can face the sky. She sways as the sudden wind moves over her and through her, lifting her hair, rustling her clothes.
"Then we need to find shelter here." Cheedo turns to jog back they came along the depression in the ground, then stops and looks back to Dag beneath the dark and menacing sky. "Do you think we have time to go back for the bike?"
"We need to mover higher, not lower where the water can wash us away."
"Gravity," Dag announces. "Where do you think the rain's gonna go? Lowest point, right?"
"Rain?" The word seems to drizzle from her mouth.
The first drop is fat and heavy. It collapses under its own weight when it lands on Cheedo’s shoulder. Even with the wild winds howling in her ears, she stares up in disbelief. The next drop hits her squarely in the middle of her forehead. She squeals in panicked delight as she wipes her face.
Dag’s long legs with strides to match take her out of the creek bed easily. She reaches back and takes Cheedo’s hand with a smirk. "Told you."
The rain's falling harder now, soaking their clothes, wetting the sentiments, coating the rocks with a slick mix of water and dust. Cheedo is torn between gawking at the miracle and scrambling for higher ground. Once she slips and catches herself on her hands, she knows where her attention belongs. Still the feeling of growing heavier as water clings to her clothes and her skin is marvelous. Cheedo clutches at Dag with shaking hands as her heart thunders in her chest. Dag helps her onto the top of the embankment with a gentle pull.
Then they stand facing each other, and Cheedo can't hold back a grin. “How did you know?"
"Smell it in the air, feel the temperature drop, hear it echo off the stone from upstream..."
Cheedo scrunches her face in delighted confusion. "Upstream?”
"Uh-huh, listen." Cheedo closes her eyes and takes a long, slow breath. Raindrops cling to her eyelashes until they can hold their weight and roll down her cheeks like tears. She does hear a rumble, steadier and more subtle than thunder, distant but nearing.
"Mm..." Cheedo feels the rumble move up her legs, through her belly, and into her chest. She can’t quite tell where it ends and her own pulse begins.
"Look." Dag points towards the north, the source of the winds where the clouds are thickest as she slips her arms around Cheedo’s waist. "There she blows."
Brown water, thick with dust, rushes through the channel, covering the ground where they stood just a few moments earlier. White foam dances on its surface. It splashes too, exploding outward where the raindrops land and where it tumbles back onto itself as it races along.
“Shouldn’t we…” water glides over her parted lips as she speaks, “do something about the bike?”
Dag’s shoulders shift with a shrug beneath Cheedo’s arms. Then their mouths meet. Dag’s kiss is somehow both smooth and urgent; or perhaps that is the water flowing between them, blurring their boundaries.
“Bit too late for that, eh?” Dag mumbles between kisses.
“But…” But their wet clothes are clinging to their bodies, and the ground still hums with the force of this resurrected river. Cheedo decides not to worry, decides that rust and lightening and even Toast’s wrath over the damaged bike or even Furiosa’s for making her worry are insignificant compared with Dag’s wet and swollen breasts pressed against her sternum. Cheedo feels the ground shift beneath her feet, not the jolt of an earthquake, but the relaxation of a sigh.
Cheedo lets the currents carry one of her hands down Dag’s body so her finger trace the slot canyon between her breasts as the water flows. This opens into the plateau between her ribs, shifting fault lines stretching and relaxing the expanse between them. Her hand ventures on, not that this is undiscovered country even in its current form. She cups her palm around the hill of Dag’s belly, and how it shifts like a sand dune beneath her touch makes her ache with want. Next she finds a valley with gently slopping sides and then wetlands with a soft, central mound of twisting vines. She lets her fingers linger there, lazily lost in curls as she draws circles around the curves of Dag's lips then gently parts them.
Dag kisses her forcefully then with her tongue and her teeth. She's as sharp stones beneath a raging current. Her edges lurk. Her fingernails dig into the skin at the base of Cheedo's skull. "Ex marks the spot," Dag whispers mischievously before nipping at Cheedo's earlobe in her special way where the flesh catches on the gap between her teeth.
Thunder rumbles overhead. Lightening crashes close by. Cheedo and Dag are just as noisy, maybe more so, be there is no one around to hear.
The storm leaves as suddenly as It came. It rolls out to the southeast, past the Citadel, and then dissipates somewhere beyond the gypsum plains. Cheedo lifts her gaze to follow it, and her mouth gapes in amazement at the wake it's leaving; every corse and stubborn tuft of grass has burst into bloom. Yellow, pink, red, white, and green coat the dusty ground. They swirl around stones and reach for the sky.
"Did you do…" Cheedo doesn’t even know what she's trying to ask. She's shaking and breathless with joy and wonder and other impossible things. She would think this all were magic if not for all the miracles she's already seen. Life is small; life is fragile. Life is sneaky; it is, above all, resilient. It bursts forth from dark corners and barren expanses.
Dag shrugs and instead of giving an answer she crouches to examine a distinctive plant that has emerged from the ground. Each green leaf is covered with red stalks each with a bead of glimmering moisture, giving the whole plant a bizarre, surreal appearance. "Ooh, check out this little fucker."
Cheedo crouches beside her, hands on her wet thighs. "It's pretty," she agrees.
"Mm-hmm…" Dag lets her hand hover almost touching the plant but not quite. The beads sway like the upraised hands of a crowd.
When she stands, a lone beetle lands on one of the middle leaves. It laps at a moisture bead, and once it has eaten its full, it pauses to clean its legs. It tugs at one and then another. It opens its shimmering back and frantically beats its wing. No success - the beetle flaps until it can flap no more while the leaf slowly curls around it with quiet self-satisfaction.
"Yeah…" Cheedo says as she slips her arm around Dag's waist, and as they trudge back to their bike, they steps are light though their clothing soaked through and heavy. "Pretty little fucker."