In her dreams there was only water where blood should be. It poured from wounds, from the sky, from his cupped hands to her mouth. This easy drip of rain was a sigh of safety through her sleep, but when she woke it became uneasy, too foreign a feeling. The same every night, cool and clear and light, until she woke in the gum of her lungs in early twilight, her breathing still twisted by sick.
She’d been told she would heal fast once the infection was staved, or so Hernina, now their one good excuse for a healer, had said. Though she’d had enough triumph in her to stand when they got back to the Citadel, and help doing it, now she still needed so much sleep, and only her own spine for it when she did get up. All things considered, it was a sleep of relief, enough to make her well again.
The first of the old War Boys to make any kind of self-initiated reparation was a green one named Ro-Ro, whom she scolded for attempting to bow to her on a couple occasions, the second of which provoked her to say, “A little lower so my knee can kiss your jaw.” After that he seemed to get the message. It was him she asked to bring her the crutch and to help her down the winch to the Hand, as they’d called the tunneled wing of the middle level of the Citadel where all the blackthumbs and craftspeople worth a rock to sleep under had stayed. The area was being given over to the two pregnant women and the elderly and their families, which was all for the better, but when she thought of one person’s living space being ransacked once it was found empty, something raked at her insides.
Ro-Ro didn’t follow her past the winch or do anything to draw attention, just as she’d instructed. She’d waited for the time that night would be closing in so that the light wouldn’t allow many people to recognize her.
As she strode forward at a pace that disguised her pains, there was such a tangle of strange elated activity all around that she couldn’t imagine anything could have demanded that old fearful respect she brought out of people. A group was helping to fold up some of the oiled patchwork tarps that they used now to trap stray splashes of water on the bottom level, all of them spread around the long circle, synchronous in movements and sung notes as they were all trying to learn the same sand shanty. One backed up into her briefly, then fixed her direction with a tickled sound without even a slight apology.
She was relieved, almost excited: she'd spotted the familiar cloth slacked up from the pulley hook it shared with the torch sconce that rotated in the floor to tighten the tapestry into a charted wall so flat you could ink notes and maps onto the surface. It looked loosened, but undisturbed.
There was a certain still weather just behind the curtain when she pulled it aside to step into the musty space.
That late night came back to her, of coming to say, “The plans have changed. I think if I'm seen here that morning, they'll think you helped.” However much good that did in its last-minute reluctance: since someone must have seen her coming here to see her at all in the past couple moons, they would have known, no question, or at least it would have made no difference in how she was treated in the witch hunt whether they really knew for sure.
With the patience of believing she was owed nothing but for Furiosa to come anyway, Doc Lock had stood up from the mess of tin boxes on the floor and pressed a small key into her palm. Furiosa instinctively put it in the pocket just inside her left pant leg, translating the motion to what looked like counting her bullets even though she knew Lock had checked for eyes before handing it to her. “What's this?”
“For the paddy,” she said, motioning to the narrow metal chest with a padlock that had seen newer days. “After it’s done, it'll be in there. And I'm to oil the cogs that day, so we won't be seeing each other in the morning either way.”
Furiosa wanted to emphasize more strongly that there were so many obstacles that meant she just couldn't hope too hard to make it up here to get the thing, much less stow it off without anyone being too curious about what she was carrying, while also orchestrating the distraction—or the back-up distraction—that would make it possible for Angharad and the others to get into the Rig. But then, she almost sneered at herself at how stupid it would sound to suggest Doc Lock couldn't do anything about losing a key.
Lock had told Furiosa to leave the key in her apron after she got the yoke—when she got it— and they'd said their goodbyes. And now she stood there again, the key sitting in her palm, the chest on the floor promising the thing she only had asked for because she thought for sure she would never be coming back, and which it was strange to only claim now in her return, after the making of it might as well have killed Doc Lock.
“I didn't know you'd had another one made,” Capable said.
Furiosa had been trying it on when Capable showed up in the infirmary and stumbled in on the moment, and then without a word moved closer to give a gesture offering to help her find the right adjustment for the harness, which was fitted with a softer and more intricate attachment of buckled leathers than she was used to; she was waved off with a brief signal.
“I don't know too well how to fix one,” Furiosa said simply, “and much less how to make a new one.” She neglected to mention anything about Doc Lock; none of the women had ever asked her something so direct as how she happened to come by the limb. Let the kid assume such a contraption could be thrown from a week’s work rather than get into how it came to be in the citadel under a disappeared woman’s blanket.
Capable jumped a bit as the extension snapped the hand to an open set of claws, fast enough that Furiosa was also surprised. She smiled a little, and Furiosa met it with the corner of her mouth. “Toss me something.”
Capable removed the thin shrug from her new multi-layered rags of warm colors. Furiosa backed behind her bed and Capable launched it underhand: if the release had been quick, the opposing action somehow was loaded off just as tight a spring. She didn't swing the angle quite right, but the fingers snapped it out of descent much faster than her phantom muscle memory could adjust to. This one would almost be dangerous until she got used to its handling.
“Careful with those talons,” Hernina said in amazement on her way by.
Capable took her rag back when Furiosa tossed it, testing the arm’s underhand. It went fine, but there was the slightest hitch, a tough stop somewhere in the movement that resonated straight to the same part of her mind that would have sensed it if something was causing the slightest drag on the rig. She could have guessed it: when she tried to retract, the elbow joint whined, jammed.
Capable noticed. “Is something wrong with it?”
Half-teasing but a little cold, Furiosa asked, “Shouldn't you be telling your fables to the sick?” When she turned back around from taking the offending relic off and wrapping it up under her blankets with a kind of exasperated ginger care, Capable had left her under her curtain of linen. She wondered, only for a breath, if her old charge was supposed to be a friend now.
Her thoughts abrasive, she lay down on one side; those thoughts unyielding rock, she turned onto the other hip. Someone was humming a meandering melody. She followed it into the oasis that would make her wake with thoughts of thirst.
The crowds didn't part for the traveler when he arrived close to dusk. He offered help for some undisturbed shelter, to an elderly woman who squinted at him in uncertain, half-formed recognition.
It was two days there he took, helping her to carry her bags of crop and to get the cooking done in time, before he gave a question in return. “Is there a price for meeting with the Imperator Furiosa?”
She had looked up from her peeling work, and now considered him. “If you know her, there sure isn’t. But she prefers you go through messengers, I think.”
So he found a messenger, and the messenger went to one of the young women—now called the Little Mothers by some, or was it Young Mothers—that had reason to remember him well. Toast the Knowing was pointed in his direction and came around just long enough to give him a little smile that was a grimace in the sunlight, and then turned away. The messenger came back that night to send for him.
Furiosa was one of a few now living in the rooms formed next to the lookout tower. She’d been offered a place there before, but had opted to take the winch up and down a number of times a day so as not to sleep as close to the other high ranks; now there was more quiet, so she’d requested the smallest enclave, set up with the rare luxury of a well-padded mattress but very little else, nothing she couldn’t stash underneath the bed.
Toast had been strange about the news of this particular visit. “Someone wants to meet you, and I think you’d better take this one.” Perhaps Furiosa had her half-baked suspicions: she’d been on guard for the last few minutes of sundown, and then in the empty time she had that inability to do anything other than wait with a singular steady anticipation.
The stars came out. She heard the footsteps shifting just around the craggy doorway, and spoke without looking up from her relaxed sitting position, her legs over the side of the bed and one elbow hammocked in a pocket of the poncho she sometimes wore to sleep.
“State your business.” In the moment she’d managed a strange sort of calm, and nothing seemed wrong about the long pause.
He sounded like he'd stopped at an even distance between her and the threshold: “An exchange of favors.”
With her back mostly turned to him, she was free to smile, but she would only remember later that she must have done just that. What she would remember vividly was more strange: that she’d been suddenly conscious of the limb, stowed in precious near-secrecy in a satchel underneath the bed frame, at the very moment she recognized his voice.
She stood to face him, abandoning her smirk for that calm he’d know better, and somehow it was in that moment that it occurred to her in twofold: that yes, she had been expecting to see him again, some day; but also she had thought that that some day would be something much further, deep along the recesses of the life she found it difficult to imagine existed now for more than a few paces’ worth of freedom.
“We don’t really go in for earning the keep anymore,” she said, “at least not in that way.”
His shoulders shifted in something that wasn’t quite a shrug. “It’s a big favor.”
If she imagined herself in his place for a moment, there was no question. “You need a ride,” she said.
He nodded. And then, surprising her with some soft deadpan, he said, “You already granted me a bike, but I seem to have lost it.”
She was cheerfully baring her teeth. “Yes, I think you fed it to another big favor, if I remember right.”
“I know you either have what you can spare, or you don’t.” He was scratching the back of his head. His voice didn’t sound quite as out of use as she remembered. “But you’re the one what has the kind of influence to even ask. And I’d do whatever I can, in return.”
“So you’d stay for a little while?” Somehow she was only now realizing this. “Long enough for the parts to come together?”
“Or for me to do whatever is needed in return.”
She tried to think of whatever else there could be to say. “I’ll think on it.”
He seemed a little stooped, humble, and she thought with unease he was going to bow. To stop from seeing if he might she said, “Talk a while?”
He blinked, and offered, “Some reports?”
“If you have anything.”
“I put together a half-ditch weapons inventory off those with the feathers camped over south…”
“We've noticed them,” she said with a nod. “Haven't gathered much about them. How close did you camp?”
“I dealt with them, only much,” he said, holding up fingers pinched around a lash of air. “They had a good lot of water, I figured from the bullet farm. They were wary of you lot; they'd taken the long way around, I knew not long enough to be missed by you. Guns, mainly, not a lot of fire, unless they had it hiding.”
She'd gone back to relaxing at the foot of the bed and began to tell him how much they knew. After a moment he sat down backwards in the barber chair that sat across from where he'd entered, so simple and present in his only half-relaxed state that she realized the dream had been all about that life transfused from him to her, so essential and non-specific. The man himself was different.
She knew everything about him, almost: all of the things she'd been taught to know. She knew none of the things that really mattered.
When he left later that night, it was without any further negotiation. He wouldn’t push her; if she didn’t have a task for him in mind, she’d have to come up with something easily enough, sooner or later.
The next day was cause for some small celebration, as many of the villagers had finished the structure around a handmade basin that would collect some of the water off the more labyrinthine irrigation they were building, functioning as a bathing oasis. It wasn’t perfected; most of the water had to be brought in buckets, but it held up finely. There had been some talk of crowning it with the presence of the Young Mothers, but Ivanha, a woman currently being taught as a midwife and doing something of an apprenticeship with the Dag’s care, screwed her face up at that idea of them getting soaked up for all to see, and someone else suggested something more symbolic.
So the four girls gathered in a half-circle around the front: Capable leaned and cupped some of the water in her hands, and splashed it into Toast’s hair. Toast caught laughter from the masses as she barked and shook like a dog, then sobered herself to repeat the ritual with a dribbling of water over Cheedo’s forehead. Cheedo did it to the Dag; Dag went round and did it to Capable. He didn’t join in with the vocal clamor and banging of metal for applause, but he did the simpler gesture of raising his hands with some of the more quietly appreciative townsfolk.
Later, after the crowd had cleared, he took to a seat on an ideal groove of boulders and restitched the leathering on one of his boots. After a time the sounds dispersed leaving mostly the murmurs of the young mothers who had settled into their circle just next to him. This sharing of space was the extent of their greeting, and the only contact was when the Dag pointed to an insect crawling up the side of his leg. He gave her a nod and she took it gladly.
Toast had gotten herself a bit of a hero worshiper: Pock, a probably younger boy whom she'd been teaching how to read the stars, now followed her as often as he could find her. She’d sent him off to get her backgammon set (Max thought the girls made up the rules as they went, and they'd called it something else that he couldn't remember) and Capable insisted he play with them when he was coming back.
When he did he brought with him some magazine in a language none of them knew. He was waving a page that had caught his eye, and as Toast smoothed it down Max caught enough of a glimpse to see it was some thick old catalog with sale flyers glued by time into segments of the spine, preserved here for some curiosity he hadn't seen evidence of in a while. “This was Angharad’s,” Toast commented, without much reverence, as if she'd never seen the appeal of that piece of history.
“She used to look at all the treats,” the Dag said. “Miss Giddy could never convince her that chalklack was actually delicious.”
“Chock-lot,” Capable corrected, then stuck her finger up a gagging expression.
His thread got snagged and he resisted the temptation to yank on it, gave some little tugs to guide it through without breaking it. Furiosa was off talking to one of the mechanics next to the bike she had a complaint about; he had noticed a moment ago, but now her gaze seemed to land over on him, picking up on something. She began to make a line towards him, letting the man make up his own mind to follow as she kept talking.
“It’s for clearing out the leaves,” the Dag was saying decisively.
“But why would you want to get rid of them?” Cheedo asked.
“I want to know about these gears,” Capable said, flipping a few pages over. “I think they play music, but I was never sure.”
“Music?” Toast laughed, then seemed less sure.
“It’s for cleaning, maybe?” Cheedo was ambitious to play along, and at this, some reaction quirked at his face and Toast, sitting closest to him, seemed to catch it. “Like you blow into them and…”
“What’s the little black box then?”
“I think our fool knows what it is,” Toast said.
It did seem it would have to be her to drag him out. He found himself looking up at Furiosa’s approach as if for a bail-out, and noticed that she’d stalled, a curious amusement softening her brow.
“What do you say?”
Their words were a tangle to him now; he had noticed something in Furiosa’s face that relaxed him a little.
“He knows about afore stuff, right?”
“Look, gimme it,” the Dag said.
He was looking down and trying to keep his stitches straight when the Dag came looming over, sticking the magazine page right into his sight. The attention of all the women swayed onto him like some light his eyes hadn't adjusted to.
“This here,” Dag said, tapping her finger to the page. “D’you know what it's for?”
It was a saxophone.
He swallowed, looking away. He gave a grunt of consideration, feeling his eyebrow tense upward, then said, “I'll tell you when you're older.”
Furiosa came up sneering now, as Dag scoffed back to where Toast was the only one sniggering. “How strong is your wire?” she asked. “My holster needs a mend.”
They had sat in simple quiet for a while, several moments after the girls had gotten back to their work. When he cleared his throat, her glance came away from the horizon.
“The Dag,” he started, reluctant. “How soon is she?”
Her thoughts turned a little stiff, old anger rising. “It's Joe’s, if that's what you mean.”
He blinked but didn't seem burned by the misunderstanding; she remembered suddenly just what he was. The man who had saved her life, cradled her back into it with the blood from his veins. Which is who exactly? She was only now getting used to hearing him talk so often.
Considering how to explain, he finally asked, “The way they look at the young ones. Don't you worry about when it will happen?”
It took her a moment, but she did understand. The Dag wasn’t exactly finding a lot of peace and quiet these days; the reverence they’d inspired was respectful, but sometimes stupid. The other day Furiosa, showing what she realized had been her first protective interest in the girls ever since they’d gotten back, had slammed her authority on a couple younger adolescents who’d been reaching to touch the now obvious belly to ask if the kid was kicking yet.
“When her labor starts,” he was continuing, “they’ll mean well, but they’ll crowd.”
How long does it take for the old blood to replenish what's borrowed? The question charged like an invasion she'd spotted on the horizon. Wasn't it several moons? Wasn't it like he'd returned just in time for that part of himself to start fading from her body?
Favors, she reminded herself in a broad, awkward settling into the concept.
“You’re right. They’ll be waiting for the news...whether it’s healthy...” She’d been worried, the thing was, she just hadn’t put it into words until he had. “I wouldn’t know what to do. The vault is the safest place, only it’s someone else’s room now, and the women…”
His look was confused.
“Way up top, past the green. It’s a suite room with a safe lock.” What do you want?
A dark understanding passed into him, then drifted away like dust. “And she won’t go in there, much less...?”
“It was their home for years,” she said, “and they weren’t sorry to leave it.” What do I want?
He thought for a moment. “How heavy is the vault door?”
She almost didn’t realize this was a hopeless sort of joke. “That’s a shine idea, right there. She could just hide behind it and we’ll tell everyone it’s welded by the new glory of motherhood and no one gets by.”
A glow of humor slowly waxed and waned. “You’ll just need a lot of guards, then, and a calm place.”
“Got somebody in mind?” She wasn't sure if she was relieved.
“I can't know if I'll be here,” he said, after a careful reluctance. “But if I am.”
This was no suggestion of a deal, then, just something for him to do to keep busy if he was still around. But the subject was still in the air. Maybe I won't have to ask him, she thought, as if reaching back towards some thrill of relief.
“Would she be willing to stay high up when the day’s coming?” he asked.
Something else will come up, something more important that I need him for. “I don't know. I can't see her wanting to get up the winch in that much trouble...I'll approach Cheedo about it first.” That settled it for the moment.
He never asked her whether she'd thought of something to ask him for. He knew she'd come to him when that was sure, and in the meantime he almost kept more company around the women than she ever did, though that wasn't as often as someone could have supposed.
She felt less than cozy around those girls, alright. Their new health and ease should have been everything Furiosa had wanted to see, and they were, but it was all too strange to be equated with her means to revenge, or treasured as if the change could be that easy. Any bad she'd done had been for Joe, and now all the good she was known for came back around to the same man. Maybe some time before the days she won't remember anymore, she had not been so written by anyone other than herself, but now she saw the hand-in-hand creatures that had been waiting to crawl up out of soldiers and slaves and felt almost none of that in herself. Maybe they were all just playing along until it felt right, but perhaps besides Cozetta, the older Mother who had survived to tell her tales of her own Mary Jo, there wasn’t anyone she really talked to about that.
She did worry about the Dag, though, and not just in the ways the weird fool had brought up.
Was that her responsibility? She told herself that wasn’t it, that wasn’t the question, that she’d already decided she wouldn’t think like that anymore. But was it?
Pock had an almost perfectly planetary mound of a hollow ball he could bounce off of a fist, stitched very tightly together from shapes of leftover oiled cloth. The Young Mothers took to playing a volley sport with it in their leisure time before the sun went down. Capable would tightrope through the sand to create the boundary lines; one time as she was doing this she caught Max’s eye, made a pointing and summoning gesture. He didn’t move to decline the invitation in a hurry, but he seemed to have accidentally gotten himself into it just by standing in proximity to where they’d come to lay the match.
“I don’t think so,” the Dag discouraged her, her look crookedly amused.
“We need an even six!” Toast helped with the teasing.
“That’s a whole game then,” Pock said. “How about two wives to a team?”
Toast’s flinch was subtle, but she wanted to let it go. “I’ll start on set. You and Capable with me?”
“I don’t know about him or who you meant,” the Dag said in a mean show of teeth, obviously knowing exactly, “but I’m nobody’s wife.”
Looking for a rescue out of reflex, Pock looked at Toast, saw she wouldn’t help him more than she’d already tried, and looked at Dag. “I...I’m so sorry, Mother.”
“Whose mother?” she snapped. “Whose mother?”
“...I don’t know,” he muttered. “I thought that you...We’ve all gotten used to being called things we don’t like—but it's different now, and if you don’t—”
“So that’s my problem? What I’m called?” The Dag tilted her head coldly, her squinting at the dusk looking predatory. “I ought to take this baby out and shove it where you’ll wish you had a tumor instead.”
“Dag,” Cheedo said, moving towards her.
“You can play with five for a while,” she said. A sour calm spirited her off back to the rocks.
Max had automatically begun to fade back into his own space, having recognized an imposition at the moment the insult scratched, but Capable had caught this quickly enough to move after him and mutter, “You have to play now, or she’ll think she ruined it. She hates to ruin things.”
Settling for a middle ground, he moved off to the side of the square, holding up rounded thumbs and pointers to indicate a zero on either team. Pock and Toast got it, backing into their side, and Cheedo was being pulled at the arm by Capable—“You know better; you can’t scold her for how she feels about it”—before Pock sighed and tossed the first throw. Max almost lost sight of the game from looking attentively through it after the Dag’s cross-armed figure sitting alone over by the oasis.
Furiosa was back from her test drive. The four-wheeler that had been refitted for her handicap, with an odd levering set-up on the left front handle and a different balance of accelerator control, was both sufficient and uninspiring. Provided she didn't need to make the yoke let go of the handle in a hurry, or hadn't jacked the elbow again. She turned off the ignition after pulling up a few yards away from the girls and Pock, and their game, and him. She let the arm down her shoulder a bit by loosening the topmost belt, considering for a while.
It would do for now, her clockwork finally conceded, and she curved down off the wheels and set the yoke carefully over the handles after unstrapping it.
“Out of bounds,” he grunted, adding a fourth finger to the three he'd been raising on his left. She lingered, curious.
After the second time in a minute that Toast and Pock knocked each other into the sand, Toast came up squinting at their point keeper. “What?” she demanded, as if he'd said something.
He shook his head.
“There's something you want to say?” Furiosa joined in on the prodding; she'd seen the mild trepidation too.
“...You're not calling ‘mine,’” he finally said.
The players had swerved in the sand to hear his mumbling. “What again?” Pock said.
“When you know you've got the hit,” he said. “ You say ‘Mine,’ so your partner gets out of the way, focuses on covering the other side.”
“What's the score?” Furiosa asked, and the phrase was only half-natural, something she hadn't asked since the occasional board-and-stones game they'd had around when she was a child. There was a shiver of memory around the answer being re-erected by those fingers with the same chips of dirt her mother could never quite keep out of her nails.
Once the game was back in running, he asked, very quietly, “Go check on the Dag?” In response to her look that he barely turned his gaze from the match to see, he said, “I'll explain later if it needs explaining.”
She didn't need more than that. She walked into the shadow under the Citadel.
The game finished, and he almost left, but he was waiting for Furiosa.
The four young ones were lounging just next to the grimy rise of hardened sand where she'd parked the wheeler, taking turns telling Pock a supposedly true story that became a little too elaborate to not seem improvised. One voice in their harmony was missing still, along with the one that would always be gone.
Finally the boy stood, laughing and catching the exaggeration of the tale, as the subject tapered off and was replaced with some talk of his “mayber”—This was what the boys took to calling the women of the town that could presumably be but weren’t without a doubt their mothers; Pock had two of these, both of whom had had a long look at his pale eyes before taking him under their wing. This was something to celebrate after so long of warning the War Boys off from socializing with the community, accounting both for their violent desire to please only the Immortan and their relative chastity. Pock’s one mayber, he thought, was in need of some pain potion, but he didn’t know where to get any.
He was pacing around as he talked, stopping to lean against one handle of the wheeler. “Would Hernina have anything I could use to make it myself?”
“She had opiums,” Capable explained, “but nothing less potent, when I was helping out Bell.”
“Not actual opium?” Cheedo asked.
“Some drug. I don’t know. If we’d had—”
“Pock!” The sharpness of Toast’s voice froze everyone, made them look over to see the boy backing away from the other handle of the wheeler.
“What were you doing?” Capable asked, though immediately started to soften at his expression. “Pock, nobody touches it.”
Max understood: the “yoke,” as Furiosa called it, was still hanging off the handle.
“I didn’t…,” Pock laughed nervously. “The blackthumbs are sent to get the wheels at night, if they’re not brought in, and she wouldn’t want—”
“They wouldn’t move that,” Toast said, edging into patience now, “and neither should you. Nobody touches it except her.”
“Because it’s the only one she has,” Capable said, reluctant to divulge this where everyone else never questioned the details, “and she’s never getting another.”
“What?” Cheedo was attentive, forgetting the tension over Pock.
"At least not another one like that."
“She told you that?”
“No, but she said something to Cozetta about it that made me wonder, and I asked around about who could have made something like that, and it sounds like that person's done with.”
Capable’s face was turned away from the torch light, and Max couldn't try a look at it, but would have sworn there was something harbored within the words: something more to this misfortune she decided not to say.
“She's coming,” Cheedo muttered.
He saw what she'd seen, the white sash of Furiosa’s clothes slipping between the weavers moving their work away from the torches, and moved to meet her.