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It didn’t feel right to put it on Misty, so V lurked in the alley out front, tucked herself into an alcove. She watched the street prophet’s back sway and bob, limned in pink light, yelling himself hoarse. The mattress shunted in the corner was sodden in places, springs jutting through, and had squished unpleasantly when V sat on it.

Thinking of it now, it was probably that guy’s mattress. The prophet gave no indication that he noticed the woman on his bed, other than a slight, wary cant to his head.

“Finite fucking moments in a life,” Johnny said, leaning against the opposite wall.

“So what,” V hissed.

The alcove was as humid as a mouth, and the optical ports of V’s helm were fogged with condensation. She could see Johnny roll his eyes with regrettable clarity.

“You want to waste your fucking mayfly existence talking to your dead choom’s output, fine. You want to waste your fucking mayfly existence hiding from your dead choom’s output, fine. This—” his hand swept to the preacher, the scattered trash, V sitting knees-to-chest on the mattress.

“It’s my mayfly fucking existence—” V said, voice cracking, and there it was again.

Johnny scrubbed a hand through his stubble, lips thinning.

“Can’t slink through the rest of your life. Can’t keep crawling through Night City on your belly.”

V felt a muscle tick in her cheek. “Man, fuck you.”

Johnny turned his head to watch the preacher, lashes casting thin, spiderleg shadows on his cheek.

“Still talkin’ out loud,” he said, after a moment.

The prophet had plowed through their dialogue, voice risen to a pitch, arms frozen midair like branches. V could see the white of his eye when she slunk past him into the street.

 

***

“Buggy,” Johnny said later, long, easy strides matching her jog, “When you talk to yourself. It makes you look… buggy.”

“I’m talking to you, you fucking gonk,” V said, voice cracking, again. Shit.

“Shrill,” he said.

V pounded fucking pavement.

“That’s what they say about women, who—” V panted, “Who have shit to say.”

Johnny didn’t quite laugh. “Ah. What is V’s message to Night City?” He materialized at the end of every block, arms crossed— mirrored, impassive eyes watching her sprint awkwardly towards him in her baggy vinyl joggers.

“Johnny Silverhand,” V gasped, ribs stitching, “sucks big fucking dog dick.”

He didn’t quite laugh.

 

***

She crawled on the roof of the garage like a low, low thing. It was the middle of the night, and tar oozed sluggishly up from the seams in the concrete. Her knees leeched warmth from the roof as she pressed herself to the protruding skylight.

V saw them huddled around a table below, looking at something. Eight men, or seven, heads bent in a tight circle, run afoul of Wakako Okada. The warm light of the garage glinted off the links of a necklace, high on a thick neck.

“Twenty eddies from my wallet,” said Johnny, behind her, “if you’ve ever seen a dog.”

They weren’t Valentinos. She felt relieved for no damn reason.

“There hasn’t been a dog in Night City since fucking Columbus-times,” V whispered distractedly, breath fogging the glass, “Or a wallet.”

She heard him tsk. Smelled smoke.

“You seem like someone who could’ve benefited from a dog.”

V scanned the men at the table, learned their names, and where they’d been. Her helm clunked against the glass, but no one stirred. She cut the lights, and didn’t lay a finger on them.

 

***

V’s head boiled in the diner. She hunched in the booth, mechanically shoveling her fries. The second-hand Biodyne II was one sneeze away from combustion, V knew she couldn’t keep throwing fries at the problem.

“So, you’re into that pacifist mindkiller shit,” he said, eyebrows peeking over his glasses appraisingly. One leg propped on the table, fucking cowboy boot next to her plate.

V swallowed, “Dude, what.”

“Y’know,” Johnny said, raising two fingers lazily to his temple, “bzzt.”

V saw herself doubled in his glasses, face stuffed, chewing, “Dude, what.

“Never fuckin’ mind,” he said, turning to face the window, fingers tapping his knee where it lay between them. Paused.

V sighed, flapped her hand to him, out with it. Johnny shrugged, lightly.

“Tried to shoot your way out of that, you probably would’ve died,” he said, rolling his neck in a stretch.

“What is—” V choked, dislodged a gullet of chewed potato, “What is this fucking interaction.”

Johnny’s dark brows arched, lip in a faint sneer, “Trying to pay your gonk ass a compliment.”

V knew when Vik yanked her cyberdeck out, it would shatter like matzo.

 

***

“I don’t have to—”

“There’s no wrong answer,” Johnny said with equanimity, eyes closed, “Just guess.”

V pursed her lips, thumbs tapping the wheel, “It’s like… they love commodities so much, it’s a fetish.”

“Christ,” Johnny said, levering his seat down.

 

***

Idled in the back alley between them both, for what that was worth.

Back door to Misty’s was propped open with a cinderblock, she was airing the place out in plumes. It smelled like Misty, which meant it smelled like Jackie. Everything and everyone around Misty eventually started smelling like Misty.

V saw a shadow move through the candlelight inside, climbing the wall like a tongue, fled.

 

***

V answered the call from Regina on the first ring, tasted Johnny’s disdain in the back of her throat like a nosebleed.

Regina was professional, and complimentary, and V found it extremely refreshing.

“Are you that fucking desperate for a pat on the head?”

Johnny sighed long through his nostrils, idling a ways up. She could see his back, broad shoulders edging through the crowd, black hair dull in the streetlight. With his thin legs, he seemed almost top-heavy, moving with a precarious, weaving rhythm.

“Fucking fiending,” she murmured, turning into a stall. The owner’s thin eyebrows quirked with surprise, and V flushed.

The counters were lined with little plastic turtles, picture frames that glittered when you shook them, baskets of mismatched buttons, thirty little plastic cats whose heads bobbed up and down, hanging in hollow necks by a hook.

V placed a finger on one cat’s paw, felt the dusting of synth velour.

Johnny’s voice was bone dry, somewhere at the edge of them both, “When she says ‘Good job, V’, does it get you wet?”

The cats bobbed.

 

***

“That shit doesn’t help,” he always comes to her mid-sentence, like a root that dives and resurfaces from the ground.

V rolled over in bed, boot-tips scuffing the ground in a lazy corkscrew. Johnny stood, hip cocked against the wall, looking down on her. In anyone else, she’d call it looming, but that couldn’t capture the aura of put-upon boredom radiating from the ghost in the corner.

It was late afternoon, but she hadn’t slept in days. Her sinuses ached, the bridge of her nose felt blindingly tender under the weight of the helm.

The room was warm, coolant from the AC gently plinking on her window.

“Johnny Silverhand’s power ranking of unhelpful shit,” V said.

He propped a foot on the edge of her bedframe, leaning, knocked on her helm three times.

I can feel your headache in that fucking brain bucket,” he said, “Take that shit off. It’s pathological.”

“Get your feet off my fucking bed.”

Johnny didn’t move an inch, eyes flicking over the helm almost imperceptibly. “Only time I’ve seen you outta that thing is when the ripper fucks around in your head. You ever take it off? Like, when you’re not having brain surgery?”

V resisted the urge to pull the covers up to her chin. The helm was MaxTac, at one point, several owners and several coats of paint ago. Good pieces tend to change hands.

Corpo engineers gave it four stable optic ports, but someone else knew better, bolted in a fifth, and modded the controls out of the apertures. The lenses were deep red glass, expanding and contracting in endless, hyperalert twitches.

“You’ll get your shit fried walking out your front door,” V said, haltingly, “if you aren’t careful.”

Johnny palmed it like a basketball, tilted V’s head back slowly, but firmly.

“Fried in your fucking sleep,” she said.

“There’s no goddamned way you’re dying in your sleep,” Johnny said, wryly. Dark, lank pieces of hair fell forward, hung in front of his eyes. V got the feeling of being watched from the underbrush.

V laughed, high and brittle.

He had kept his distance, usually. The few times he’d had to scrape her off the pavement, V had hardly had time to really look close. Hadn’t really wanted to.

The way Johnny’s pitch hair and beard framed his face made his skin look drawn, brought out the hollows of his cheeks, the thin lines around his eyes. V could see the first glints of gray in the black stubble. Small scratches, burst capillaries that brushed his cheekbones like freckles. Then, freckles.

Johnny’s arm was steady; thick, corded muscle of his ganic forearm where he grabbed her helm, hemming her in. His fingers drummed absently.

“I know you wireheads get… uneasy, in the real world. Can’t raw-dog it,” he said lowly, trailing off.

Johnny’s gaze was careful, watchful, and devoid of malice.

“Spider Murphy never took her helm off,” she said, voice rough from exhaustion.

Something strange shone in Johnny’s eyes, just for a second, flashing like coins in the gutter.

“Spider Murphy,” he repeated, and lifted the helmet up.

V’s arm struck out, caught his forearm, hard. She could see him through the cross of their arms, staring.

“Fuck off,” she ground out. Panic throbbed in her throat.

Johnny released her as casually as an afterthought. His hands raised mock-defensively, walking heel-toe backwards into pit of the room, like a she had a pistol at his belly.

“Easy, partner,” he said, and turned his back.

 

***

“Pig work.”

There’s no vitriol when he says it anymore, and that made it worse. V’s thumb scrolled up and down through her text chain with Regina in aimless, blind jerks.

“In and out,” she muttered, “yanking some files, leaving through the window. I’m not busting up a picket line.”

Johnny sprawled out on her sofa, arms behind his head, one leg propped wide. His glasses were on, indoors, and had slid down his long nose far enough that V could see his eyelids were shut. Johnny’s brow, faintly lined, was utterly relaxed. He looked more well-rested than she had been in years.

He dug the heel of his boot into the cushion.

“Yet.”

“I don’t do that shit.”

Johnny snorted. “A collaborator with principles.”

“Mm,” V said, scrolling, “You ever do any mutual aid when you were alive, or just nuke downtown?”

Johnny’s lips twitched, “From each according to their ability.”

“Of course.”

Johnny’s eyes were still closed, heavy lashes against his cheek. His chest rose and fell slowly.

Sitting on her own couch had an air of unreality. If V was honest, she never really used it, not even when Jackie was alive. Megabuildings in the southwest are all mostly homogenous, V could walk through a stranger’s apartment with her eyes closed, but this one—

Jackie had seen the lounge, the recessed sitting area, and that was it. He called it a conversation pit. Took more care in setting her up than she had, maybe a little vicariously.

V picked the cracked skin of her lip, “Can’t really see you at the anarchist bookfair.”

She tapped the images that Regina had sent, zooming in and out, mechanically. The tenement was off Olympic, and had old, crumbling stone cornices turning white with sea air, jumping between romantic and decrepit in pulses. She tapped, listened.

“So—want me to wait?” V said, “For like, the state apparatus to fucking wither away?”

He laughed, soft and bitter as dregs.

“Nothing fucking withers,” Johnny said. His glasses were off, and his eyes were already on her, burning like coals. There was the old obstinate light—

“Hold your breath,” he said.

 

***

“Degraded,” Vik said, handling her old ware carefully, “Here and here. Acid damage, from overexertion.”

“Oh,” V said. The heating clunked gently, rhythmically in the basement. She almost missed his sigh.

“You and Jack, doin’ all those jobs. Now just you,” Vik grimaced slightly, hands coming to rest the riddled deck on his lap, “V.”

His eyes were level, and warm, and made V feel like shit. She smiled thinly, and whatever Vik saw there made the compassion in his eyes ripple like a flame. He sighed again, rubbing his brow.

“Can I give you some free advice, that you’re not gonna hear a word of?” he asked.

“Yeah, Vik,” she said.

“Go slow. Dial it back. Stop working for two—no one expects you to.”

“I can keep up.”

“I know you can. Ten guys a week come in here for repairs—got their ware fried by you. I never say anything, V, but—” Vik lifted his hands, exhausted. They fell back in his lap.

“Go slow, V,” he said again.

“Alright, Vik,” V said, and sat patient-still, hands folded, waited for him to take a look at her eyes.

Vik nodded to himself, smiling faintly in a way that felt resigned. He leaned in, pulled her eyelid up with a hard, dry thumb, and then he was looking at the kiroshis.

“You think he fuckin’ carried me, Vik?” V asked neutrally.

Vik frowned, shrugging dismissively, staring steadily into her membranes.

“That was Jackie. Carried everybody.”

 

***

Johnny moved her, and it was a federal fucking issue.

“I didn’t ask you to,” V said thickly, swallowing blood in fat drips.

The Shiv had ahold of her, pounded her armored face into holy hell, until she heard it in discordant tings more than felt it—then she resurfaced on the freeway, in the middle of a dead sprint. Her shoulder was fucked. The sun was almost down.

“Didn’t do a goddamned thing,” Johnny said, brow furrowing, pacing in wheeling figure eights. He couldn’t quite meet her eye, “Just—” his hand groped the air in agitation, for a moment, gave up.

“Happened?” V croaked. She could feel a nervous giggle working itself loose—spat weakly, red strands running down her chin. V tipped forward into a crouch, tried to lever herself up from the ground. The blockers rattled heavily in her pack, back and forth.

Must have heard it, because Johnny acted like he didn’t. Pacing tapered off, he turned his back to her, leaned forward against the railing. A thumb drummed the rail, but he was still, limbs disaffectedly stiff, gallows dignity that almost surprised her. The sight of him bore down on her like a train.

“S’alright, Johnny,” she said.

Johnny tensed, impossibly, fists tight on the rail. Didn’t turn to face her, but V felt her own lip curl in a sneer, shivering in her like one end of a magnetic pole.

“Alright,” he repeated.

Rattled every step to the outpost, and all through the city.

 

***

Slept with the blocker bottle in the crook of her arm, two fingers on the ridged lid, just barely. Felt something furtive gnaw at her.

 

***

They shot Kang Tao out of the sky, and the regulars at the Afterlife knew before it hit the ground.

“You’re writhing like an eel,” Panam muttered into her glass, “You’re going all blinky.”

V could hear the five apertures of her helm, flexing open and shut in a constant, undulating whirr, trying to catch faces in the press of bodies around them. She hunkered down against the bar, shoulder-to-shoulder with Panam, caught in her periphery.

“They’re gonna keep asking us shit. They have no couth,” V grumbled.

Panam hummed into her whiskey, sipping. It was late enough in the night for sipping. Her eyes were heavy, lids glowing above the dark, wet lashline.

“They pay mercs in couth?

She smelled like dirt, and overpoweringly like the sweet, dense desert scrub they’d mowed through on the way over. V nursed her drink, tasted maple syrup.

“Lil’ miss fuckin’ opsec,” Panam smirked, eyes crinkling, “‘Shh! Don’t tell!’

She giggled drunkenly, index finger wavering before her lips, and V laughed, felt a sweat break in pinpricks across her entire body.

Some gonk tapped Pan on the shoulder, had some gonk-ass question, and V slipped out the back, easy as breathing, yakked in the alley. She shivered, palms gripping her knees.

“Can’t get a bead on you,” he said, picking his nails. Johnny leaned on the piss-soaked wall, companionably close.

“Not many can,” V said, doubled over, panting, “Fastest draw in the West.”

Johnny’s teeth glinted in the light. He cocked his head down at her, meeting her eyes in the lurch.

“Glory-hungry street trash— won’t let anyone talk to you. Won’t let anyone look at your big weird helmet.”

“I wanna be a legend,” V said, rising. She sounded wrecked to herself, voice dragged from the grille of a car, “I wanna be left alone.”

Johnny’s thick brows drew in, blink or you’ll miss it, and V bowed, retching.

 

***

V woke up to five texts from Panam, two from Saul, from Mitch, from Carol—

You bailed

but dont thibk

u can riggle out of this one

bitch

;)

V stuffed her phone in between the mattress and the frame, paced the halls until she could decide what that meant. Left it there when she did.

 

***

The splinter Del was nervous, so she went the exact speed limit on the i-5, 65 on the button, the whole way through to downtown. The night was alive with screams, dopplering past them in blurs.

“Johnny,” V said.

Bitch!” a maroon golf shrieked past. Del’s cabin bristled with anxious heat, rolling down the windows in drips.

“Johnny,” V said, hands digging into the wheel.

Oh my god,” another driver wailed, gassing them with exhaust.

“Johnny, if you don’t keep me company while I gentrify the i-5, I’ll never fuckin’ talk to you again.”

The cabin filled with smoke.

 

***

Woke her up in the middle of the night, flicking his silver lighter open and shut.

Johnny sat on the edge of her bed, facing away. His wide back was hunched, elbow on his knee.

His shoulders were pale, scuffed, grimy, and V wondered, not for the first time, why Johnny’s engram always came into the world bruised. A scar crept from underneath the tac-vest, spanning his shoulder blade and disappearing in the dark thatch of hair under his arm. It looked half-healed.

One knee bounced quickly in time with the clunk of the lighter, and V realized that she had been jostled awake.

“Find it in your heart,” he said.

V wanted a cigarette more than she’d ever wanted anything. The realization sent her stomach through her ass.

“No,” she said, burrowing deeper. The heavy snap of the lighter continued, in perfect time.

“Help a wandering spirit, they’ll do you a great boon,” Johnny said flatly. He chewed his thumbnail.

clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk

“What boon,” V said.

“Three wishes.”

“Go to bed,” V groaned, to herself, to him.

“Right. I’m supposed wait until you have a whim,” Johnny said, under his breath, “Rattling my tin cup against the bars.”

Johnny’s eyes were fixed on the far wall. V couldn’t see his face. His black hair hung forward, over his shoulders, bare neck peeking out above his vest. More smudges, scrapes.

“I’m not your jailer.”

He barked a laugh, head ducking.

“Fucked up enough of my body for you,” V insisted, pulling the covers over her head like a shawl. One eye peered through mulishly.

“I’ve seen your memories. You’re like a nun. No chems, no smokes, no men, no women—”

“Fuck off—”

“Just one, for me,” he said, voice steady, “and I’ll live on bread and water, and kneel on fuckin’ broomsticks with you, until we get you fixed up.”

V felt the snare.

Johnny’s head turned a fraction of an inch to the left. V could barely see his cheekbone, the eyeless curve of his brow, next to nothing.

Please,” he said, bitterly.

He must have felt it in her, because he stopped flicking that fucking lighter.

V fished out Evelyn’s cigarettes, in their cold little case. Johnny was still as glass.

“Seen yours. Sometimes,” V said, lighting one.

Johnny’s shoulders sagged at the sound of the flint, tension cut like rope. His head listed to one side, waiting.

“Feel bad for me?” he asked, low and sardonic, and something shuddered in her gut like a tapeworm.

“You thrive on pity,” V said, quietly, “You fuckin’ hate pity.”

She took a lungful, ignored the way he curled away.

Johnny exhaled, quick and mirthless, “Oh, you are fuckin’ funny.”

V smoked it down to the filter in hard, mechanical drags— didn’t ask what that meant.

 

***

She went to see Misty again. Tried. She saw Garry.

He never made her feel weird about it, or anything. She walked up on him while he was doing his thing, slipped back into the alcove to listen to him. He mostly ignored her.

It was nice just listening to someone else.

The air from the vents was thick, broke on V’s face in puffs. Water dripped out from the vending machine in a steady trickle, pooling under the swollen wooden pallets supporting Garry’s bed. V sat, flinched at the unmistakable tong of a spring dislodging.

“Though they walk the streets in the form of women, their true nature is far more insidious!” Garry called, from out of the mist.

V settled in, leaning her head against the alley wall. The angle offset her helm, relieving the pressure on her right eye, digging in further on the left. She grunted.

“Though their skin is warm and dry to the touch, the blood in their veins is cold, aquatic!” he said, sweat dotting the back of his neck, “For each night they shed their disguise, donning their blood-soaked pelts, and return to the sea! Seal-women!”

V thought of the seals she’d seen at the pier, sunning themselves together in heaps on the jagged rock.

She’d never gone near one, knew they were wild animals, bit the faces off drunk corpos once a month, at least. Looking at them then, she’d had the irrepressible urge to touch one, feel the plush blubber under her hand.

“They’re sweethearts,” Johnny had said, grinning, and she’d stood on the pier, frozen like Lot’s wife, until Hands had called her.

“So what if they are?” V mumbled.

Garry mopped his brow with the sweatband at his wrist, turning to look at her over his shoulder in an abortive jerk. His eyes landed on the vending machine, shifting awkwardly away.

“Seal-women, I mean,” she said, “They just go swim at night?”

Garry made a decision, angling himself far enough to the right that he was straddling the alcove and the street.

“Yes!” he crowed.

“Well—”

“But not only that!” Garry’s arms shot up, grasping, “Once the ruse grows thin, once the call of the sea grows too strong, they return to the briny depths forever—abandoning friends, lovers, kin, leaving nothing but grief and betrayal in their wake!”

V thought of the seals in the pile, minus one.

“That’s fucked,” she said.

Garry’s eyes flicked to hers, then quickly to her shoes. He wiped the sheen on his upper lip, hiding a small smile.

“Now you see it.”

 

***

V flung macadamia nut shells into a shotglass, one by one, looked up and saw Rogue.

She was in her booth, one arm resting over the seat back, another holding a drink, tilting the glass from side to side in minute, rhythmic tips. Her gaze was neutral, but unshakable, cutting across the bar. Rogue’s eyes were silver, made V think of pins and mercury, impossibly still.

V watched Rogue’s hand resting on the couch, knew two fingers would twitch in summons, knew it before it happened.

V bailed, felt snakes writhe in her belly.

“Can’t blame you,” Johnny said, muted, under the pound of blood in her ears, and V ran through the city like a fieldmouse.

 

***

V called Panam. Hung up, called again, hung up.

 

***

“You’re gonna have to take the helmet off,” Vik said, gently, “if something goes wrong, I have to resuscitate—we’re talking worst case scenario— your whole head will fry like a damn egg. So, come on, V.”

“No one ever fuckin’ flatlined getting their legs done,” V said.

“From what I hear, you’re making history every day.”

He patted the chair.

V pulled the helmet off with a thick noise like suction breaking, sat back in the chair, felt her whole face throb.

Vik spared her a quick smile, glancing up from his palette, “Attagirl.”

Something warm bloomed in her with all the weight of dread.

Vik held her calf in a firm, professional grip, tuned the embedded pistons by hand, made notes under his breath to the accuvox at his elbow, said “doing good,” and V’s pussy twitched like a mandolin string snapping.

Hoped against hope.

“Oh, no,” Johnny’s voice, gleeful, “Oh, V.”

 

***

“So that’s what does it for you,” Johnny said, later.

V walked stiffly through the street, hissed under her breath, “I guess that’s what does it for me.”

Garry smiled, tipped his chin up to V. She nodded sharply, breaking into a jog.

Johnny’s smirk was almost understated, walking unhurried alongside her.

There was yellow tape up ahead hanging in a lattice, pigs flanking. V’s skin crawled.

She chewed her lip. “Didn’t used to feel like this all the time. All fuckin’…” V’s hands rose, whisking.

“Horny?”

“Wired,” she said.

Johnny didn’t say anything. His mouth tensed in a small grimace, and he drew his sunglasses out of his pocket. Tweaked the arms.

The streets bent, and weaved, and V realized that they were circling the block.

 

***

Came to in the projection booth, blood and bile drying on her face in streaks, from her mouth, eyes.

And Johnny, hanging over her, fist on the other side of V’s head, eyes inscrutable, mouth moving.

V thought, fried, and Johnny’s face spasmed, lips thinning.

“Well,” he breathed, “Look at you.”

 

***

V watched him fuck his girlfriend in the wired, moving with her body. His. V felt his lust move in her, rage, grief, and then she hung him out on a hook.

Brigitte pulled her out of the tub, dripping and shaking like a wet rat, and V held on to that.

 

***

“Be easier if we trusted each other,” Johnny said, later, after he peeled her off the ground.

“Never gave you cause not to trust me,” V said, and the look he gave her was so dry it made her squirm. She held the cigarette hesitantly, hand frozen at her chin, smoke burning in her eyes.

“Why’re you fuckin’ helping me,” she said, finally.

He looked at her carefully, eyes flicking to the helm plinking drops on her shoulders, “Already told you that.”

“I know you did. I keep forgetting,” V grinned, weak as water, “I need you to keep saying it.”

Johnny took a long, slow drag, scanned her face. He looked away, into the parking lot, casually—gestured towards her.

“Said I would.”

The traffic on the street had slowed to gridlock, and his words had an unnatural weight in the quiet. He looked wan in the light, drained.

“Worst thing you could ever fuckin’ do to somebody,” Johnny said, his voice like ash, “Little by little.”

Johnny stubbed out his cigarette, tapping, kept tapping, staring into the lot.

 

***

Her dreams became strange.

V felt Alt’s hair in their fist, saw her red, and towering. Felt her dripping down her chin. Saw herself too, bathing, veal-weak and pocked under the water.

V woke, reaching for Johnny, like reflex.

 

***

“Well fucking what—”

“It’s estrangement. Making things into people, making people into things,” Johnny said, hand gesticulating stiffly, rings glinting off the sunlight.

“That’s alienation, that’s already—”

“Similar, not the same.”

“What’s the difference. Quickly,” V turned her blinker on, knifed through four lanes of traffic.

Johnny sucked his teeth. “Reification, you’re making something a thing. Something fucking ephemeral, that can’t be pinned down, you’re making it static. Quantifiable.”

“Like the linen coats.”

“Think I hear your phone ringing. It’s that cop, wants you to take his loads.”

V flicked her cigarette to the passenger window, and it bounced right back. Somewhere on the carpet, it was burning a hole.

 

***

V ran through the parade after Goro plugged the heiress, brain on fire.

“Fuck!” she screamed, sound lost in the rain, in the cars swerving past her, nearly clipping her as she ran.

“V, relax.” Johnny’s voice ground out, under it all, bare fingerhold on calm.

V’s phone buzzed, texts, and she spiked it into the gutter, howled.

“V, fucking relax.”

Shut the fuck up!

She ran the rest of the way to Goro’s hideout, legs pounding through overflow, calf-high in the downtown basin. Sirens rose like half-hearted wails, distantly, felt bad for yelling at fucking Johnny, distantly.

V slammed her palms on his door twice, hard, and Goro took a shot at her.

The helm took it, cracked down the center.

 

***

V managed to crawl away herself, ears ringing like radar, skin burning, shaking off Goro’s hands.

“Let me walk it off,” she hissed, forearms scraping against the sodden carpet. She felt a sourceless, clawing terror under her haze.

“V—”

“I don’t fucking need—” V panted. The floor tipped and bobbed under her as she crawled. Goro’s hands closed hard around her biceps, holding her in place, and something in her crumpled like a lily. He turned her up off the ground to face him.

V remembered how he looked at her, the day he saved her, bruised but unruffled, impatient, like it was the thousandth borg he speared off the 5.

Goro’s eyes were egg-white. Somewhere behind him, six windows broke at once.

 

***

V lay back on the bed and watched him do material.

“If they’re going into the city, then they stay in the city,” Johnny said, tilting a chair back and forth with his leg, “If they’re leaving, they just keep driving.

Her ears still rang from the shot, but she heard him under it all, as usual, close as blood. V’s face stung, superficial burns and streaks of powder on her lips and jaw, where it hadn’t covered.

It was up on the table next to Johnny, exposed web of wires holding the split chassis together like laced fingers. It gaped in the middle. Didn’t want to think about it.

“Folks—” V said, voice cracking, “Folks, we’re talkin’ motels.”

Johnny snorted, didn’t look at her. V felt a horrible, fleeting gratitude. The cheap venetian blinds put their shadows on him, made him look awful fucking noir. His knee bounced.

“No, for real! Who the fuck stays in these places?” he insisted, chair sawing steadily. His eyes were fixed on a reproduction of a reproduction, hanging crooked and optimistic on the wall.

Something tugged at V when she looked at him, could’ve sworn she was forgetting something.

“Dude, what’s the fucking deal with motels?”

Johnny shot her a wry look, brief enough, “Think the second shot to the dome did you some good. You’re not so fucking depressing anymore.”

“No,” she grinned, “Just talking to myself in a shithole motel, gun on the door, being very fucking funny.”

The gun was, in fact, on the door. Some tin peashooter she’d picked off an early job with Jackie, forgotten in her trunk until now, only marginally better than holding her thumb and forefinger out.

“Glad you’re enjoying yourself,” Johnny said, “Anyone fuckin’ knocks, blast the door, no warning.”

“And if it’s Goro?”

“Especially if it’s fucking Goro.”

“Goro’s alright.” V said, rolling to lie on her back. Johnny scoffed, but fell silent. She strained hard to hear over the ringing in her ears.

“Second time this year I had to get out of NC in the middle of the night,” she said.

Johnny made a soft noise, “I remember.”

“These places are for people bugging the fuck out,” she said, lowly.

Headlights passed over their window like a wave. She heard brakes squeal, Johnny curse softly, and she remembered.

“We’re in the right fuckin’ place,” he said.

“Hey,” she said.

“Finger on the fuckin’ trig, V,” Johnny said, leaning against the window, two fingers hooked in the blinds.

“Johnny,” V said, “I’m sorry for fuckin’ yelling at you.”

Johnny’s head jerked back to her, eyes incredulous, almost hostile. V felt the capillaries in her face fizzle and tick, pores opening like sinkholes, in time with the pounding on the door.

“Don’t open the door, V,” he said, finally.

It felt like a matter of principle.

 

***

Clink.”

 

***

When the malfunction hit her, boiling up in her throat like agita, V tried to outrun it. Physically. She had always felt that there was a hard limit to what could be outrun in a motel parking lot—mind flashing unhelpfully, compulsively to all the times she’d proved that on others.

The ground came up to meet her and she curled, dissolving into acid. Johnny pulled her up, caught her in the crook of his arm, like a baby.

Johnny,” she cried, “I’m fuckin’ dying,”

“You ain’t dying yet, I got you—” Johnny said, and she screamed.

 

***

“Johnny?”

It was like sleeping, then waking up, and V didn’t like that shit one bit—knew with some internal resonance, like a coin dropping in a well, that he didn’t either.

V saw the blockers in her hand, the ones for her. She smelled the ocean, and stared at Johnny, and the black hole of his silhouette against the light. The sky was almost red.

“That’s the sea breeze you’re smelling,” he said, staring out, “Come on up.”

He had a way of making offers sound like taunts. V crawled up to join him, two of them hunched over the balcony wall. Her eyes felt weak to the sun, egg-fragile head swinging unnaturally light without the helm. The wind skated over her shaved scalp, sticking its thumb in it all.

V noted distantly that her clothes had been changed, new pants, shorts, socks—tried to keep that wave of shame and gratitude from toppling her.

“You need glasses,” Johnny said, squinting into the sea. He sounded a little surprised.

“You could tell?” V asked. The sun shone off the waves like a wall of fire, sending off astigmatic poles.

“Couldn’t—I knew something was off.”

“Hm.”

Didn’t have anything to say for a while, watching the coast erode, then he pulled her away and showed her something. V had to follow him, stumbling.

“Thanks, for helping,” she said, falling to the ground, hard. Could’ve sworn that Johnny winced, crossing her, flitting down the hall.

“What are imaginary friends for?” he said.

The second time she ate shit in a pile of broken glass, Johnny hesitated. He meandered back down the hall towards her, leaned against the wall, like he was waiting for the bus.

“I’ll get you back,” V said, clawing her way up the stuccoed wall.

“Hold you to that,” Johnny said. He was watching her from above, face contemplative. There was no smirk, she realized.

V smiled, hoped it wasn’t red, “Why do I have a feeling you’re talking about sex?”

Johnny rolled his eyes and the look was gone, “Because you’re addled. ‘Sides, wouldn’t be sex. Be more like jacking off.”

V wondered why she said that, and threw herself through the window. The room inside was dark as a rabbit warren, but still smelled like the sea. There were knives in the ceiling. There was more glass on the floor.

There was a hidey-hole, with an old necklace. V’s brain still felt warm, hazy, but the tags were heavy in her hand, she felt her stomach sinking before she knew why.

“Who’s’re these,” she said. The cabinet was empty, fifty-odd years of dust.

“Yours, now,” he said, and V saw them there on his chest, too.

Johnny turned his chair around, sat hunched and watchful over the low back of it, like she might swing at him. That didn’t make sense.

“Imagine we’re fightin’ in a war together,” Johnny said, “Would you take a bullet for me?”

His voice was getting that tense flatness, like he was punching each word with equal weight. Like he was trying really fucking hard to tell her ass something.

“I would, yeah,” V said. Didn’t let her hands cover her face.

Johnny exhaled subtly, nodded. Some of the tension drained from his face minutely, resolved into something sunken and winter-hungry. He looked fucking tired. Johnny leaned forward, nodded again at the dogtags.

“Tags belonged to a man who sacrificed his life for mine, in Mexico,” he said, still looking at V’s hands. When he met her eyes again, his face was blank, just that quick.

“Been thinkin’ about our predicament. Wanna be clear—I will do you no wrong,” Johnny said, voice flat again, like he was talking through an inch of plexiglass. Like he was giving dictation. “When the time comes, it’ll be my life for yours, I’ll agree to get wiped.”

V was frozen, holding the tags like an idiot.

“Tags are proof of my promise,” Johnny said, voice softening. He’d almost gone the whole thing without sounding bitter.

“Johnny—” V said. She leaned back against the cabinet doors, feeling sudden, immense pressure bloom behind her eyes. She cast around for something she hadn’t said already.

“I’d do the same for you,” V repeated.

Sunspots rose in her vision like static. She could see the left side of his face, smiling dry as ice at the sincerity of the gesture, the uselessness. V closed her left eye.

“Yeah. Thanks,” he said.

V traced the embossed face of the tag, thumbnail clicking over the letters. She could barely read the name.

“Still considering Hanako’s offer?” he said.

Wondered if they were friends, or if he was just some guy. V wondered how long you had to know Johnny before you did something like that.

“Got a better idea?” she asked, idly.

“No. A request. Adam Smasher,” Johnny said, and V looked up. His knuckles were white on the back of the chair. V had never seen him so still. “Whatever happens to me, I want him zeroed, gone, tossed to the wind as mulch.”

His eyes were like pits.

V could feel the name, right under her thumb.

“Good as dead,” she promised, chest burning, and Johnny breathed again.

 

***

V showered for a full-on year, watched the water run off her in visible waves of filth, pooling in grey-black inches, up to her ankles in the clogged shower. She let the spray run down her face until her skin felt boiled.

Her showers since the relic had been perfunctory—and that had been more about the helm, than it had been about modesty.

V didn’t hear anything, but she kept her eyes shut. Listened. Weighed the situation, like a pervert on the bus.

She scrubbed her chest like she was tanning leather.

 

***

V endured the dreams, and Johnny never mentioned it. Sometimes, she woke with an itch.

Last night, she’d dreamt that she’d got her cock sucked.

“What are you fucking staring at,” Johnny said, blandly, to the roof of the car.

He was in the passenger seat, leg ratched up again the dash, fingers limply drumming the insides of his thighs. His rings flashed even in the dark. Johnny’s head lay back on the seat, baring the tiny nicks on his throat.

V made her mind go blank.

“Do you know?” V asked, eyes narrowing, “What I’m thinking, I mean. You ask me shit all the time. It doesn’t feel rhetorical.”

“Why would I ask if I knew?” he said, turning to look at her like she was gonked.

Nerves flared in her chest, unexpectedly. “How do you not?” V said, eyes flicking back from him, to the empty predawn streets, to him.

Johnny scowled, then chewed it over a minute.

“Hm,” he said.

V felt it leak through the cracks like radon, the memory of Johnny grabbing himself in his fist.

“Maybe it’s like—” Johnny said, and held his hand stiff, slicing the air down the center, “Partitioned. So we don’t fuckin’ lose it. Like a snake eating its own tail.”

“Hm,” V said, “So far so good.”

He laughed, barely an exhale, and turned his head back to the dash. Reaching, he rubbed at the mud on the tip of his right boot. It had been bothering her for weeks. It only figured that he noticed his dirty fucking shoes less than the people around him did.

“So?” Johnny said, brushing dirt into her car.

V’s guts writhed. She realized she had been driving in circles around the tenement. He hadn’t said a thing.

“Silverhand,” she said, “Do you ever—”

Johnny kept on scraping his boots, like he didn’t smell blood in the water. V turned the corner again, a little sharper than she’d meant to.

“Do you ever dream?” V asked, casually.

His thumb stilled on the boot, just for a second. When he spoke, his voice was nearly careless.

“Sometimes,” Johnny said.

 

***

“If you give a shit,” Panam added, postscript. V could imagine her arms crossing, over the phone.

“The fuck do I look like?” V said.

“If I tell you, you won’t come,” Panam said, and hung up.

 

***

The pieces were cut-rate, up and down, but nobody buys gear on jig-jig if they had the means to avoid it.

“Fuck,” she muttered, nose to the glass. Mostly visors, thoroughly secondhand, thoroughly unlucky. If she bought two, she might have the parts to make a functional one.

“Dire straits,” Johnny said, peering into the case alongside her.

V grunted. She looked closer at a pair of goggles, welted on the bridge where they’d been fused back together. His reflection shifted, and he was looking at them too.

“Rogue oughta have something that fits you,” he said, neutrally, and waited.

They were shoulder-to-shoulder in the cramped store. He gave off heat like a furnace, made her skin itch. It had been days since she last pulled on that thread. She wasn’t going to now.

“She big on charity, the Queen of the Underworld?” V said.

Johnny snorted, meeting her eyes in the glass, “We’re gonna fucking find out.”

Looking closely, one of the welders was warped on the edge, bubbling hard like it had been melted.

“Mm,” V said, “Maybe tomorrow.”

Johnny smiled humorlessly. His arm flashed in the light when he shrugged, slow and impassive.

“What’s your fuckin’ rush?”

 

***

“Fuckin’ ran off,” Panam said when she got down there, “Nice goggles.”

V followed her where she stormed off into the brush, flashlight swinging in a hard beam across the ground.

“When’s the last time you saw him,” V asked. Her foot sank into a rabbit hole, nearly throwing her.

“Three days,” Panam said, and gave her a hard look. She looked tired, eyes red, hair clawing up in ragged flyaways.

V didn’t say shit, tried to scan through the rocks and scrub, cheap goggles just turning the desert a muddy shade of green. Panam’s eyes burned, glinting full and yellow. They spent an hour in silence, picking their way through the brush.

“If you leave a blanket out, they can smell their way back,” V said, finally, switching the goggles off. She blinked in the dark.

“He knows where I fucking am,” Panam said, and walked deeper in.

V followed. They were miles afield of camp now, it was nothing but desert in any direction. She could see the yellow light of Pan’s flashlight bobbing, shrinking.

 

***

She hadn’t been mugged in 13 years. The light from Misty’s caught him in pink, and V felt nothing but confusion, staring down the barrel of the gun.

Huh?” she repeated.

“You’re being mugged,” Johnny said, idling in Misty’s doorway, and the sight of that—

V didn’t see the butt of the gun as it swung down on her, breaking her stupid face, shattering the goggles into two discrete halves.

V swore into her hands, bowing, didn’t try to catch the guy when he crumpled to the ground. A long leg stepped over him.

“What the fuck was that?” V asked, clutching her face. The goggles were fucked, Johnny nudged them with the toe of his boot. He pulled her up by the arms.

“You got pistol-whipped,” Johnny said, turning her jaw to the left. He squinted, catlike, face tensed in fine wrinkles.

V felt her eye beginning to throb, saw the thin scrapes on his own cheek, just below the lashes.

“By some guy?” V asked, nearly shrill. His fingers were warm—grimy, she realized.

“Yeah,” Johnny said, releasing her chin to cross his arms, “Just like, a dude.”

The guy was in a heap on the asphalt, breathing weird and deep. His cheek was to the ground, body lying halfway in a puddle, jacket already soaked through. One of his shoes had fallen off.

“Man, what,” V sighed, leaning back against the wet bricks.

“I don’t think he recognized you,” Johnny said, leaning next to her. He scratched his beard, smirking beneath his hand.

It occurred to her, like a turn in a nightmare, that the face she’d been wearing for the past year was lying in pieces in a fucking motel.

It occurred to him too.

“Shit, V,” Johnny said, and took a drag. Held it for a while, then exhaled through his nose.

“Shit,” she echoed. She dug around in her pockets, pulled Evelyn’s case free, started in on them. Heard Johnny groan, just a little, when it reached him. They hung there a while, billowing like flares.

Couldn’t stop looking at the shoe, the guy’s one, exposed foot. There was a hole in his sock, right where it met the water.

V sighed again, leaning down. He was heavy in the way of the truly unconscious, she had to drag his legs behind her as she moved across the alley, head lolling on her shoulder. Put him down, back straining, on the bare, reeking mattress outside Vik’s. He had one of those shitty visors on, neon still ticking over his face. V could see a weak chin, stubble growing in patchy.

“Alright,” she said, turning, “alright.”

Johnny had another one of those looks for her, like she’s walking on her hind legs. He was still, again—openly staring.

“Christ,” he said. Johnny’s face was pink in the light, half in shadow. Then Misty stood in the doorway, and her shadow swallowed him.

“Oh,” she said.

 

***

Misty looked a little older than she had. There was an open, watchful look on her face, like she was seeing something for the first time. Her eyes didn’t seem to move.

It lasted only a second. She smiled at V, dragging her into the warm room by the hand. She hadn’t seen her since her apartment. She hadn’t seen her since she carried her to bed like a fucking baby.

Her face shone, sweat creasing her shadow in thin, purple crescents on her lids. V couldn’t run if the place caught fire.

“It’s been a long time,” Misty said, eyes crinkling, “You look good, V.”

Her head swam in the smoke of the room. Nothing had changed in Misty’s Esoterica, down to the ash. It smelled powerfully like Jackie.

“It’s been a long time,” V said, and let Misty pull her into a recliner.

“How are you two?” she asked.

“He’s—it’s alright,” V said, “We’re—”

Misty nodded. Smoke curled behind her from the incense, coiling upwards in horns.

“I’ve been doing readings for you,” she said, hushed. Her eyes were on V’s, shining a little in that way Jackie had called “quiet intensity”. He always called it that. V had been sick of hearing it, but now—there it was.

“All right-side-up, I hope,” V smiled weakly.

Misty’s smile turned dry. The electric kettle beeped in the corner of the room, and she rose, turning. V watched her steep the tea, thin arm bouncing in the loose sleeve. The strainer clinked against the china.

“I didn’t go to the ofrenda either,” she said, stirring, and V’s blood ran to icewater in the churning heat of the room.

“Oh,” V rasped.

Misty turned, handing her the mug. Her face had that soft, observational blankness again, blurring and shifting in the smoke. She shrugged, smiling thinly.

“Are you taking care of each other?” Misty asked.

 

***

V spilled out, and into the street. The air was frigid compared to the inside of Misty’s. Flopsweat clung to her face like gauze.

She tore down the street again, blindly, turning corners on impulse, wheeling like a bat. Thought of her split helm, her missing phone, her buckets of ice, tried to place the funeral in her mind.

“When’d that fucking happen?” V asked, breath fogging in the air.

She didn’t say his name, and he didn’t answer.

 

***

It was more time than she’d had to herself in weeks. V slept in, smoked in bed, and ate a late breakfast at the noodle stand outside the mega, idling at the counter until her skin crawled.

 

***

The Alt-dreams came like clockwork, worse when he bailed on her, tunneling deep underground.

V dreamed that she was being worked open.

Alt was moving her fingers in her, stretching her. Alt’s other hand was bruisingly hard on her dick, pad of her thumb swiping bluntly at her slit in a way that made her shiver, not enough, fairly infuriating her. V felt her mouth dry, vision spotting like a migraine, and Alt crooked her fingers.

Alt was looking at her like a god looks at an insect.

V woke up with a deep ache, clenching around nothing.

 

***

There was a ritual altar, a woman in the ice, and Johnny was back like he’d never fucking left.

V didn’t think he was capable of laying low. Watching him lean over the tub, cursing, she wondered if she hadn’t imagined it.

“You see this?” he asked, head canting up to hers, brows high over his glasses.

“The dead lady?” she asked.

He snorted, “The fucking ice.”

Wires coiled out from the altar in spheres and angles, dead Maelstrom scattered throughout, red paint and blood. A huge, white skull grinned out from the center of the courtyard, cleaved by the altar, ringed in lights.

V knelt, fished a phone out from one of the guys’ pockets, cracked it open easy.

“God, it’s a whole thing,” she said, scrolling. She watched him out of the corner of her eye, pacing the spheres, eyes to the ground. Sleuthing, god damn him.

“Yeah?” he said.

V squinted hard through the new visor—it was shit. Late 60's raveware, too bulky for her face. Practically horse blinders. She tried to angle her head, subtly.

“It’s like, long—It’s like a sacrifice,” V said distractedly. Johnny had been walking, back bent, following something in the grass. He didn’t look up.

“Now we know,” he said, drily, kneeling to another dead man, looking through his pockets.

V craned her head at him, held her tongue. Wondered how big of an asshole you had to be to get ghosted by Johnny Silverhand.

Johnny looked up from the corpse, froze. Tipped his chin behind her.

“V,” he said.

The woman towered, stared at her with six red eyes, glowing in her helm. She staggered out of the ice, dripping, panting harsh and low from her chest.

V pressed her synapses, and the woman shuddered, like there’d been a chill.

V,” Johnny said urgently.

V pressed them again, and Lilith beat the dogshit out of her.

 

***

Came to in the booth of a deli, slumped against the window. Her tongue found the empty socket without trying, and V gagged.

Johnny grimaced where he sat across the booth, settled in.

“Not our finest,” he said, flat, and then a waitress came by with matzo ball soup.

V didn’t feel mad. She felt concussed. She reached shakily for the soup, dragging the bowl towards her.

“Did you run?” V slurred, chasing a carrot through the broth.

“When I saved your ass?” Johnny said, tapping his rings against the formica. Hesitated, “Yeah.”

V slurped, nodding. The broth was good. Johnny was watching her, eyes implacable, twisting his rings. V felt relieved that she was in no state to fucking wonder about it.

“You got me soup,” she said.

Johnny rolled his neck, sighing, “That’s just the kind of guy I am. Thoughtful.”

V carved off a little piece of matzo, chewed it gently. He shifted in his seat, knee hiked on the bench—spun a butter knife absently on the table top. The corn snake on his hand writhed.

Johnny’s eyes were on her still, tense and roving, counting her missing screws. V felt something come loose, some load-bearing part of her internal architecture crumbling into the sea.

“Y’know,” V said, chewing, “I wasn’t worried for a second.”

Johnny snorted at her, and sagged back against the window. Sat there, twisting his rings, until she finished.

 

***

V noticed the tissues on the walk home, wadded huge like a fist in her breast pocket. She fumbled it out, found the long, yellow tooth, whole to the root.

 

***

Wakako called her midday. V could hear her breathing over the line, not saying a thing. She strained to hear her over the Bradbury foot traffic.

“Wako?” V asked.

“Are you well, V?” Wakako asked. There was an odd note to her voice.

“Yeah, Wako, I’m alright,” V said. She walked faster, scanned the rooftops, open windows, afore and behind her, “Are you alright?”

“Good,” she said, audibly relieved, “Good. Well—one hears things.”

 

***

“Didn’t think you’d show,” Panam said, flinty. She had the little shoebox out in front of her, held to her belly.

“Yeah,” said V, “He was a good boy.”

Panam looked right into her, nodded, and they walked deeper into the desert.

“Been a minute,” Panam said, looking straight ahead, “Got a new thing.”

The new goggles weren’t much better, big red welders, ten OS out of date, but the guy had said they were ‘sturdy’. V flushed.

“Didn’t wanna send Mittens out bare-faced,” V said, “I mean, my face—”

“Yeah,” Panam said, and pointed to a clearing in the scrub.

V put the toe of her boot to the shovel, leaned hard into it. She dug for a while, turning up stones.

Panam held the box, walked around the edges of the brush, staring out. Sweat shone on her face, she sniffed hard against the wind. The hole got bigger, V plowed through small tunnels in the earth, under the surface.

“No one else—” Panam said, shifting. She cut V another of those looks, like she could see clear through to the insides of her pockets. The muscles in her forehead curdled, just a little.

“—No one—fuck. Nevermind,” Panam breathed, stomping over to the hole. She put the box in, carefully. A bell jingled.

“Say something,” she demanded.

V’s mouth dried. Panam’s irises were almost red in the light.

“I liked him,” V said, “He was a—a good, little guy.”

Panam stared down into the hole. She knelt to sweep the dirt in by hand.

“Thanks for coming,” she said, thickly, and piled the dirt on. She kept at it, for long seconds before V realized she should help.

Panam was nearly done, but smiled at her. It didn’t look half-mean.

“It’s just his collar, anyway,” she said, “He could still be out there. Laughing at us.”

“Cat like him? World’s his fucking oyster,” V said, nudging more dirt into the grave. Her chest felt tight.

The hole in was too shallow, half-done, and the lid of the box sat nearly level with the ground. V focused on filling in the sides.

Panam laughed, like a brittle hiccup. “Think I drove him away? Being a cunt?” Panam asked, eyes bright.

Guilt rolled in her stomach like pure acid.

“I don’t think you’re a cunt,” V said.

Panam’s smile twitched and jerked, pulled by threads. She laughed again, wetly, “Are you gonna fucking cry?”

 

***

“My old man was fucked up,” Jackie said, one hand on the wheel. He was driving the car she’d had when she first blew into town again, the sedan.

“Yeah?” she said. V couldn’t look at him. Every time she craned her head, her eyes seemed to roll, sightless.

Jackie chuckled, dark, a little embarrassed, “I thanked my mother once. He said—Ah, I told you this shit—”

“Yeah, yeah, he said—”

“—‘Gratitude is for dogs,’” he said, and she groaned.

V couldn’t see him. She kept turning to him, curling over herself, blind like a newborn snake. V heard him snort.

“Fuckin’ weird, the shit you remember,” Jackie murmured.

V woke in the backseat. She stumbled out of the side-door, called his face to mind, and then it came.

 

***

Misty’s was locked in the middle of the day, accordion gate pulled tight. V couldn’t see any light from behind the painted windows.

“Speaking of old friends—” Johnny said, and V went to check the back door.

 

***

“It’s like the first thing they go for,” he said, almost in awe. Johnny bent, hands on his knees, to look at her where she sat on the pavement, bleeding from the face.

It was a girl with a chain this time, swinging it in heavy lashes. V’s welders had nearly exploded with the force of the blow, pieces scattering across the lot. Pain-blind, she’d had to fry her by touch.

“Statistically, it’s a miracle,” V said, blinking as the blood ran into her eye.

His teeth were blunt and grey when he smiled.

 

***

Johnny leaned back in the booth, arms behind his head, and let his eyes close a little, like he really was at ease. V didn’t know how to take that.

She prowled through the gutted diner, looking for Regina’s girl.

“Right back on the horse,” Johnny said.

His arms were thick, ravaged on the ganic side. It used to make her wince to see how the scrapes and gouges cut through the tattoos, and the meat of him, and now—it still made her wince.

V held a breath, turned the new visor’s infrared on. Its quality didn’t bear thinking about, she had started to buy in bulk. The infrared was broken, showed the entire burnt-out shell of the restaurant as one screaming, hot blur. V turned the infrared off.

“Gotta get right back on that horse,” she murmured, bending to look at a footprint in the ash. Footprints.

“It’s not how many times you fall,” Johnny intoned, sweeping his legs up to rest on the table, “It’s how many times you get on that horse.”

The muscles on his side peeked out from under the vest, rippling as he moved. The word lats rose up in her mind like a body in a dredged lake.

His eyes were still closed, not even fluttering under the lids.

V found the snaking, purple gouge, fat with scar, that ran from his shoulder, curling across into the dark hair of his underarm. There really was a lot of it.

V was sure that was a thing three hundred years ago, when no one looked at women undressed—knew she’d heard that, that the hair under their raised arms had reminded men of—

A blackened panel of florescent lights fell out of the ceiling, shattering in the corner. The whole building was coming down.

“What do you know about horses, ” V said, forcing herself to look down to the footprints between her knees. They were bare. V counted the toes, found one missing on the right foot.

“You’ll never forget how to ride them, or something.”

“Huh.”

V rose, and followed the footsteps into the kitchen, reeking of sulphur. The plasticine tiles had curled off the floor. The stoves were husks, still ticking with current. Someone had pressed their circuits until they blew, gas line vomiting torrents of fire. V knew it before she even scanned them—intuitively.

NCPD had been through the scene days ago to collect what was left, leave fingerprints everywhere, but no more competently than usual. There was a small, charred bone at the toe of her shoe. It might’ve been a finger. V didn’t touch it.

“This doesn’t make sense,” she said, stepping around it to take up the footsteps again. They trailed out and into the diner floor, almost making a circle where they stopped at the counter.

“What?” Johnny asked. The back of his head tilted slightly in her direction, glinting almost red in the light.

“She’s been loose for almost a week,” V sat on the stool, swiveling her back to him, “They don’t evade.”

There was a black smear on the countertop, through the ash. V leaned over it, squinting.

“Maybe she wants to be left alone,” Johnny said, just a little pointedly.

V could see filthy swipes, and something that looked just like a toe-print. The hairs raised on the back of her neck. A woman of her height, standing on the counter—

V did not look up to the ceiling. Didn’t breathe, or blink, or move.

“I think you’re right,” she whispered.

Johnny was silent. Listening, like she was, to the wind groan through the wreckage. Listening for movement.

“Shit, V,” Johnny said, nearly whispering himself.

V widened her legs, and slid herself back off the stool without turning her head an inch. She walked, stiff and lateral, to the gaping frame where the door had been.

Behind her, she heard a soft, wet slap, like someone landing very lightly on their feet.

“I’m going,” V said quietly, taking another step towards the door. It felt nearly steady.

The doorway in front of her was framed in chrome, smoke-tarnished and curdled from heat. In its reflection, V could see six pinpricks of blood red light, shining from over her shoulder.

“I’m going,” V said.

She took another step towards the door, and lost her balance.

 

***

When she woke again it was to Johnny, grabbing her arms to pull her up from the floor. She had been lying on her stomach, cheek to the ground.

The road outside was silent, orange streetlights bleeding into the darkened diner through the windows. It was the middle of the night.

Johnny’s metal hand chilled her. She felt his voice resonate on the back of her neck, tingling more from proximity than breath. V couldn’t feel his breath.

“What?” V said, letting Johnny pull her to a crouch. He turned her, and then V could see him in pulpy neon, grimacing as he scanned her face.

“I said—” Johnny’s eyes flicked away, and he exhaled through his nose, “Shit. Your face is fucked up.”

The visor was still on her head, askew, with a gaping hole in the middle. Shards of glass hung from the top and bottom of the frame, like teeth. She was looking at Johnny from inside the mouth of something.

V began to speak, and felt the glass where it was still stuck in her face, needle-sharp, studding her through like a fruitcake. Her breath caught in her chest.

Johnny swore again, and held her steady with his cold hand at her back. He reached through the shattered visor, and pinched the end of something. He tugged, gently, and drew a long, thin sliver of glass out of her cheek.

Johnny’s nose wrinkled, cringing.

“Shit,” he said. He was blinking wide, shadows batting on his cheek.

“Are you gonna pass out?” V asked muzzily, letting his arm take her weight.

“Funny.”

Johnny plucked out the next shard a little quicker.

V flinched, and let him work. There was a vein under his eye, hair-thin, but visible in the harsh shadows. She hadn’t really noticed it before.

“Your friend used to patch you up,” Johnny said. It didn’t sound like a question.

V was suddenly very awake. Johnny didn’t seem to want to do anything with that information. He just pulled the broken glass from her cheeks, fingers clumsy, but light as if she were sleeping, or knocked out, or dead. V thought he might’ve been waiting for her to say something.

She waited with him, until he gave up.

“Don’t strain yourself,” Johnny said, under his breath. He set another piece of broken glass to rest in the growing pile beside her, shining wet and black on the floor.

He swiped at her a little with the back of his hand, where she felt something running down her forehead.

“Johnny,” she said, and waited for him to move.

“What?” he said.

“Let’s go see Rogue,” she said, before she could stop herself.

Johnny hesitated, wiping his hand on his shirt. He flicked his fingers together minutely, where her blood had dried tacky.

“Tomorrow,” he said, and reached back in.

 

***

They didn’t know her at the door. The guy stood there like a pillar, staring at a point just above her head. He seemed uncomfortable looking at her face.

“Let’s go, miss,” he said, barely moving his lips.

“V,” she said.

“Not here,” he said.

My name is V,” V said again, impatiently. Her neck cracked, looking up at him.

The guy looked at her again, pulling the antenna lenses down over his eyes. He squinted, scanned her up and down.

“No,” he said, shaking his head, tone skeptical, “You’re not her.”

“I am her,” V said.

“Where’s—” he started and stopped, eyes lingering on her bare face, unmistakably on the gouges.

“Everyone knows—” he tried again, and came up short. A flush crept up his neck, and his mouth hardened.

“You gonna behave in here?” he asked.

 

***.

“Any crying in the bathroom, and you’re out on your ass,” Johnny said, sweeping in behind her.

“Right?” V asked, “What the fuck was that about?”

“You have a rep,” he grinned, rumbling in her ear, “You’re a dangerous—you’re a mercurial merc.”

“Oh fuck,” V groaned, shrugging him off.

The Afterlife was the same, running at full capacity at four in the afternoon, same as in the morning. Smoke rose from the crowd like steam. No one had seen them come in. She thought, with a manic kind of amusement, that it wouldn’t make a difference if they had.

V stuck out her neck, couldn’t quite see the way clear to Rogue’s booth. A throng of people, and Claire, listlessly shaking a canister at the bar. She didn’t recognize anyone else.

Johnny stopped ahead of her, leaning on the wall, arms crossed, and then that was it. He tilted his head at her, raking pieces of stringy black hair out of his eyes. It was strange thinking of this place as one of his haunts. Something about him never quite settled right in here. His edges fizzled.

“You look like you’re going to your fuckin’ grave,” Johnny said.

V considered softening it.

“Well, I’m fuckin’ going,” she said, and felt something flicker in her gut, some vestigial wretchedness, at the way Johnny bore it.

V swallowed the pills dry. They stuck at the threshold of her open throat, giving her a fleeting chance to cough them back up.

“I’ll be gentle,” Johnny said. He looked nearly bored again, picking his nails. V felt the air in the bar change, and he didn’t seem to mark it—his face turned to her by degrees, like a sundial, eyes elsewhere.

 

***

He felt like a gull in a hurricane.

 

***

He ate carnitas until her mouth blistered, hot grease dripping down her face.

Some dim memory of him dry heaving in a strip club toilet, walking to the mirror—projectile vomiting on the mirror. Johnny used her body to make enemies.

He was knuckle deep in an informant. The back of their right hand was raw, burning where it worked against the rough lace of the woman’s underwear. It itched in her sleep.

 

***

When V wasn’t coming up for air, she wasn’t in the old Arasaka Tower either. It was some dark, blue-boned place in herself. The alley looked horribly familiar.

There was a big man in a recliner, framed in the shivering doorway. His broad hands were folded over his stomach, resting, and V knew if she took another step across the alley, he would turn his face to look at her—but he hadn’t seen her yet.

 

***

“Know that mean smirk anywhere,” Rogue said, eyes unnaturally still, “How he talks, how he moves, how he smokes—” she cut herself off abruptly. Her posture was rigid at the foot of the bed, she seemed to force herself to V’s side.

Rogue’s hair hung over her, just grazing V’s cheek before she flipped it again. Her perfume ploughed through V’s hangover, made her stomach roil.

“He make you take the helmet off?” she asked, absently. She searched V’s face with transparent fascination, some remote disquiet.

“No,” V said, head spinning, “That was someone else.”

Rogue smiled grimly, “Ah.”

V was certain, certain, she hadn’t always wanted to fuck Rogue this bad. The dissonance sent another wave of nausea through her. She clenched her eyes shut before Rogue could see them cross.

“Can’t believe that bastard’s in there,” V heard, breath grazing her cheek.

When she left, V finally let her hands cover her face.

“My body was a temple,” she whispered into her palms. The roof of her mouth throbbed with every word. He flickered into her periphery, scratching his balls, and she rolled, puking.

“Fuck,” Johnny groaned.

V’s nose ran. Her brain felt unmoored in her skull, “You should be the one puking.”

“You should be happy I left at all,” he said, long limbs sprawling out on the desk across from her.

V wondered if ‘happy’ was how she felt.

“What the fuck does that mean?” she muttered into the mattress.

“What I fucking said,” Johnny said, lips twitching. He was black and blue in the light of the television, lying like a sunbather.

V sighed, tried to focus on her nausea, her burnt mouth—pretended that his desperation didn’t leave a residue in her. Him chain-smoking, relief and joy so sharp she’d almost tried to look away. V pressed her tongue to the tender roof of her mouth, kept pressing for all the good it did her.

“S’alright, Johnny,” she said.

Across the room, she felt him stiffen. Johnny looked ahead into the wall of crumbling monitors, pulling a smoke out, glitchy and thin.

Faint, thin clicks, like insect legs, where his metal hand clenched and fidgeted.

“Don’t do that,” he said.

“I’m not doing shit,” V said, and pushed herself upright. The room spun.

Johnny laughed through his teeth, “Don’t feel fuckin’ bad for me. I can feel it when you do.”

“I don’t feel bad for you.”

“That’s the spirit,” he said, flicking his lighter shut.

“What, you want me to be fuckin’ mad?” It could’ve been a joke, how she said it. V wasn’t sure if it was.

“You should be fucking mad,” Johnny said, “It’s your body. Someone fucks you over, you start apologizing.”

Kept smoking, weak odorless smoke that fizzled into nothing, while V chewed on that. He let her. His voice had that tone again, flat and pushy as a vise, like he was repeating himself at great inconvenience, for her benefit.

V squinted, and felt some small, important circuit short.

“Is that what you did—fuck me over?” V said. She was breathing funny, like she’d woke up running. She was breathing like a crazy person.

Johnny finally turned to look at her, rolling his eyes.

“I’m just saying. Unsolicited advice.” he said, sticking a pin in every syllable.

“Saying I’m a fuckin’ gonk for trusting you?”

Johnny’s tongue darted to his cheek, counting molars like it was the only thing keeping something ill-considered from falling out. He closed his mouth, slowly, and a sneer broke on his face like the annihilating sun.

“Forget it,” he said.

V spun on her heel, walked to the door, forgot it.

Then spun again, walked back into the room.

Johnny was uncharacteristically where she’d left him, hulking frame crammed into the desk overhead. His dark eyes narrowed.

“For real,” V said, “Told me you’d fuckin’ die for me. And I said— You can’t say one nice fuckin’ thing, without trying to undermine it. Trying to make it fuckin’, something else.”

“I’m still dying for you,” Johnny said, like it’s obvious.

“Don’t say that shit,” V said.

It snuck out. She turned sharply, paced, turned again when she’d reached the end of the small, dank room.

Johnny had stopped bristling at her, and that made it worse. He rubbed his jaw at the joint, face carefully blank.

“Fucking balls on you, Johnny, giving advice to anyone,” V said.

“Yeah,” he said, “Alright.” He didn’t move a muscle.

“Telling me what to feel, or what to say about it—” V flung her arm out and away, like she was throwing trash from a speeding car. She turned, and turned back.

“It’s fucking colonial,” she said.

Johnny’s brows drew together. He leaned forward, hands on his knees.

“V,” he said, pausing, “You’re tired.”

Tired didn’t cover it. V side-stepped her own vomit on the floor, sinking to sit beside it. She felt like her mods would pop out of her cyberdeck, one by one. She felt like skin and bone. Johnny’s eyes, the pity in his face— V felt old silt churn up from the bottom of her, and then she had to stop looking.

V covered her face with her hands.

Didn’t hear a thing, except his breathing. Not even footsteps, and then he was crouched in front of her. Johnny hesitated, then grabbed her biceps, squeezing.

“Tell me I can trust you, no fuckin’ bullshit,” V said into the palms of her hands, “That I’m not an idiot, and I’m not NC’s most legendary fuckin’ doormat. You fucking bastard.”

Her voice had a weird, thick echo in her palms. It made her sound like she was crying.

“Tell me,” V said.

His fingers were light on hers, where they covered her face.

“Yeah, V,” Johnny said, voice rough, “Alright. You can trust me.”

He hooked his fingers under hers, delicately, prying them back by degrees. V felt her lids sting cold in the air— realized with a jolt of horror that her fingers were wet, and now his were too.

“S’okay,” he said, letting his palms rest on the back of her hands. His dark brows were knit, he was staring at her like it gutted him.

He was holding his breath.

Johnny’s fingers curled inwards, into her palms, touching the dead heart of them. V could feel his knuckles against her cheeks, against her cracked lips.

V slumped forward. The deep cuts in her face ached where she clutched his fingers to her.

“Thought you’d leech into me, I’d need all this shit less,” V said, barely a whisper, “I thought I wouldn’t need all this shit all the time, but I need it worse, what the fuck is that all about?”

She felt him breathe, shaky and hot on her ear.

“You’re a fuckin’ black hole,” Johnny said.

V choked on a laugh. His fingers twitched under her lips.

“And a castrator,” he said, murmuring, “And a self-flagellating terrorist bitch.”

She looked up from out of their hands, and stared at the join of his prosthesis to his shoulder, red and swollen on the edges where the filaments had gone ragged. His adam’s apple bobbed in his throat.

“I did feel fucking bad for you,” V said, and pressed a kiss to his trapped fingers.

They stiffened, and she felt a horrible spark, fluttery and hot in her gut—knew with sober certainty that she’d made his dick jump.

Johnny pulled his hands carefully, slowly free of hers, and gripped her shoulders probably harder than he’d meant to. He leaned her back, until she was upright.

His lips were bloodless, and very close. V could see every scrape, every smudge of grime on his cheeks, through his beard.

“D’you wanna talk about it?” Johnny said, “Your friend? Fucking any of it?”

“No,” V said, and he sighed like she’d sunk a knife in his gut. The whites of his eyes shone dully in the light, black irises wavering like tadpoles.

“You think you’re doing yourself some kind of fucking favor?” Johnny breathed.

V lifted her hand, pressed her thumb to a grey smudge on his cheek, and rubbed at it. She didn’t know what to make of it when it stayed.

Johnny shivered, and moved in on her, slow as glaciers splitting off.

 

***

V’s head was swimming, thoughts coming muddled and incomplete like she was overheating. Johnny was driving the brain cells out of her head in shallow thrusts—careful, like she was dying or something.

She locked her ankles behind him, pulling him deeper.

“Don’t be a fuckin’ jerk,” V whispered, mouthing against his neck, stubble pricking her tongue.

Johnny made a strangled noise that might have been a laugh. His hair hung loose over her, framing them, blocking out the shitty little room. There was a strange glimmer in his eyes.

“I’m not a fucking jerk,” he said, snapping his hips until V clawed him.

Johnny dipped his head to her breast; long, muscled frame hunching over her. He tried to suck bruises into her skin—kept trying, doggedly, after any refused to rise.

When his head rose again, his face had that fixed, unblinking feverishness she’d seen on newsreels, him, younger, holding a pharma rep at gunpoint in the fucking Troubadour—big, crazy eyes, black and flat as plates.

V moaned, digging her ankles into his calves.

“Look at me,” he said, hips rolling.

The frame of Johnny’s arms boxed her in on the filthy motel carpet, one hand cradling her scalp, thumb running shaky and quick over her buzzed hairline.

“Fuckin’ look at me,” Johnny ground out, panting hard into her mouth. His face was flushed pink, glowing.

She felt like a mosquito, staring into the zapper.

 

***

If they had laid side by side, one of them would’ve ended up in the vomit.

Their legs were tangled in a loose scissor, lying mirror-opposite each other, staring at the crumbling ceiling. One of Johnny’s legs was resting, boot heavy on V’s shoulder. The heel dug her a little.

“This the same place we took Hellman?” V asked, tracking the mold above her.

“Nah,” Johnny said, quiet by her feet, “Maybe. I think so.”

V didn’t know what time it was in the windowless room. She knew once she got up, she’d have to find out.

“That night, you said you were gonna take my body, to like, fight a fucking people’s war,” she said.

“But I didn’t,” Johnny said, agitation creeping into his voice.

“Nah, you didn’t,” V said.

Johnny let it hang there a while, thumb rapping idly on her calf. “So, what then? Just reminiscing?”

V shrugged. Johnny’s laugh was harsh.

“Fuck, V,” he said.

V stole a glance down at her ankles. He was smiling up at the paneling, like the last man on a sinking ship. There was still color in his cheeks.

“You know, if he hadn’t given me the relic, it’d be him.” V said, and waved a hand to encompass all this, “—Jackie, you know. If he’d kept it.”

“Yeah?” Johnny said. He was waiting, then. Listening to her.

“I just—” V said, pausing. Her back was beginning to ache. In the lot outside, she could hear car alarms start up, one by one, leading right to them. “—I just thought of that, now.”

Johnny let that lie. V rolled up onto her elbows, and started about untangling them. He watched her from the ground, something on the tip of his tongue.

 

***

She only saw the tattoo when she reached out for the door. Red, weeping, perfectly symmetrical. Message sent, message received— an offer or a taunt. V has the whole rest of her life to misunderstand it.

Johnny and V, at arm's length.