It seems so good to see you back again
How long has it been?
Seems like a mighty long time
Shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby
It seems like a mighty long time
Barbara Lewis - Hello Stranger
He’s still half-feral, that much is clear. Furiosa watches as he makes his way down one of the upper tunnels, shoulders hunched and eyes jumping every which way, as though he were still waiting for a War Boy or the Organic Mechanic to leap out of the walls and drag him down to the workshop.
Or it could just be him trying to dodge the girls. Toast, Capable, Cheedo, and the heavily-pregnant Dag were clustered around him like an escort around a war rig, peppering him with questions and comments and curious plucking hands. He’s a rare novelty; an enemy-turned- protector, a mysterious wanderer, the only full-life male they’ve ever known as a friend. She allows herself a smile as the little group draws nearer.
“Crazy’s growing out,” comments the Dag, lifting a lock of the tangled mess that is Max’s hair. “Sinful snaggy sirocco, that is, all reaching up under the sun.”
“You do look different,” Toast agrees, as Max half-heartedly swats at the Dag in protest. “It’s kinda hard to see your face.”
Capable giggles. “Could be anyone under there.”
A ripple of laughter goes around the group. Max fends off the plucking hands and growls at them without any real anger behind it. “Shuddup, all a’ you.”
They’re near enough now for her to actually be able to read his expressions. Max catches her eye over Toast’s shoulder, and Furiosa offers him a nod of welcome.
“Max came to see you!” announces a grinning Cheedo, nudging him towards Furiosa with her shoulder. “Came in from the west, new wheels and everything.”
“Supply run,” Max corrects in his gravel voice. “Guzzoline, water, food. Got parts to trade.”
Capable opens her mouth indignantly, no doubt to say that he doesn’t have to trade for anything, that he is welcome to whatever he needs, but Furiosa cuts in. She understands the need to avoid ties and debts, however imaginary.
“Fair enough. We can top up your car, look her over in the garage, get you as many supplies as you can carry.” She gives him a quick once-over, noting the new patches on his clothes and the hastily mended leg brace. “It’s good to see you again.”
Max grunts in thanks.
“But…you aren’t leaving, are you?” Toast pushes forward, frowning. “You just got back!”
“Sun will bake your brain straight crazy again,” injects the Dag.
“Stay a little longer!”
“You’ve never slept soft up here, so much has changed…”
The girls crowd in, pressing him with hands and words, and Max looks at her with an awkward, trapped confusion. “I…um…”
“You’ll have to stay the night, at least.” Furiosa steps into the circle, nudging Capable with her shoulder. “It’s almost dusk, and the black thumbs won’t get to your car until tomorrow, at least. You can rest here, decide later.”
She angles back down the corridor, allowing him to fall into step beside her.
It had been a hard time of it, those first few tens of days after the return. Old Joe was gone, but they were all still unknowns to the status quo of the waste. It was only the pups’ awe of Furiosa and the support of the milk mothers that allowed them to take control.
That, and the threat of withholding water.
Capable and Cheedo might hate it, but that threat saved them more than once. It saved them when the envoys from Gas Town and the Bullet Farm had come, sneering at the jumped-up breeders and demanding that the old ways be put back into place. It saved their envoys from being torn to pieces by the Wretched when the crews were sent down to build the reservoir. It saved them when the convoy went to Barter Town, hauling their very last tanker full of Aqua Cola.
All of them had been exhausted, in those early days. The constant, anxious rush to try and get the Citadel up and working for them had felt too much like trying to dig the War Rig out from the sucking mud with Old Joe at their backs. Furiosa chafed at her wounds, under threat from both the girls and the two Mothers to stay still and rest unless they absolutely needed her. And they did, sometimes. The Citadel’s last few full-grown sentries balked at taking orders from the new leadership, and the Wretched learned to scream her name when they wanted answers. Two of the other women would prop her up while she rasped into the microphone, feeding the people awkward, stilted reassurances that the water would keep flowing.
Toast and Ismene pored over the records and machinery of their priceless aquifer for days on end, trying to ensure that it would never run dry. Capable walked endlessly among the pups and the dying War Boys, winning them to her side as much by her smile and her words as by Furiosa’s name. Brytha, and Cheedo set themselves to managing the water sensibly – directing the older pups and the strongest of the Wretched in the building of a reservoir and finding a place for the seeds the Dag planted. It was slow, uphill work, every bit. Most of the knowledge they needed was trapped in the mountain pass, and none of them quite trusted the few of Old Joe’s followers left behind.
Corpus Colossus was dead. The girls stood firm on unnecessary killing, but one day Cheedo had opened the door of his room to find a wall of stone-faced milk mothers, all insisting that he threw himself from the window. Capable had been angry and Toast had been coldly disappointed, but Brytha advised them to pick their battles. The milk mothers were not things either, and they needed to stand as one when trouble inevitably came.
Not a single member of the three great war parties that had set out after her rig ever returned. Furiosa looked to the horizon, thinking of shared blood and a final nod, and told the rest of the group not to worry.
The Citadel she is leading Max through is a different place. It hasn’t changed much, physically – the solid height of the rock towers is still one of their most valuable defenses against threats. But there’s an indefinable shift in the air; a fine tuning that somehow makes all the difference in the world. There is no more white chalk or poisonous paint for the pups. The Wretched are just the people now, thirst sated enough to begin helping with the business of the Citadel. Toast and Ismene are working out a scheme to hollow out more defensible rooms in the upper levels, a way to shelter all of the people of the Citadel rather than just the few. Atop the Citadel, where their little group is headed, the Dag’s crops flourish in all their green glory.
“Here’s where we’ve been putting all the beds,” Toast informs him grandly as they go through a doorway into a new and wider corridor full of branching doors. There is little enough glass for windows, but the high slits cut into the walls let in a fair amount of light. “Choose any one you like, ‘cept the ones that have people in them already.”
“We’re in the big one at the end of the hallway.” Cheedo points to the open door. “Brytha and Ismene used to sleep here, but they like to be closer to the green.”
“You can go see the crops, if you want,” the Dag says, voice filled with pride. “Haven’t even planted all the seeds, and we’re starting to get beans already.”
“Soon it won’t be dark at night, Click is putting up more windmills.”
“Don’t take that one, Mug sleeps there.”
“The pumps are loud sometimes on the left, we made them bigger…”
Max obligingly listens to the long, rambling descriptions of the improvements made, understanding of their need to show off. It is impressive, Furiosa allows. They weren’t children when she helped them escape, not by a long shot, but the women they are now would do the Many Mothers proud.
“…and Furiosa’s on the right, at the very end across from ours.”
Capable’s voice has an odd note in it, and she turns around just in time to catch the tail end of a glance between her and Toast. “There’s an empty one next to hers.”
“Yeah.” Toast pushes off the wall from where she was listening to her precious water pumps. “’S close enough to the spigots and the john, quieter at night. No one would bother you.”
“Hmm.” Max grunts, slanting a wary look at Toast. He walks a few steps down the hallway to peer into the door of the room in question, and Furiosa catches another look – this time flying between the Dag and Cheedo.
Apparently the room passes muster, because Max – after a thorough, careful circling of the bare space – comes to lean against the doorway, facing out at all of them.
“It’ll do fine, I guess.”
“Great!” Cheedo’s smile is a wide, gleeful thing. While she was watching Max canvas the room, the girls had huddled together behind her in a tight knot, squeezing each other’s hands and grinning at each other.
“We’ll…we’re going to go back to the greens,” the Dag announces, hooking her arm through Cheedo’s. “If that’s alright.”
“I promised the boys down in the chop shop a visit.” Capable glances at Max. “I’ll see about your car.”
“There’s some stuff left that I’ve got to sort through about the pumps,” says Toast, as the other three retreat down the hallway.
“We’ll probably be gone a long time,” Cheedo adds, with another sudden grin flashing across her face. “Probably till sundown, and then we’ll have to go straight to bed –“
“Later!” interjects Capable hastily, putting each arm about the shoulder of one of her sisters. “See you later!”
“Later!” the group shouts behind them as they turn the corner. A burst of laughter echoes behind them.
Furiosa turns around to Max, who is watching them go with his customary confused frown. It is odd, that they would give up the chance to spend time with one of their few friendly visitors. The Citadel always has something to do, but that doesn’t mean that novelty isn’t a welcome diversion at times.
“Seems happy,” Max offers, seeing her frowning silence. “Things are good here.”
“Very,” she replies, taking a step back. The air is different between them, without the balancing energy of the other women to fill the space. “It was hard after you ghosted, but we pulled through.”
“And the…her…” Max gestures uncomfortably with his hands, cupping a vaguely round shape in the air in front of him. “She gonna be okay?”
The Dag’s pregnancy was an uncomfortable subject for everyone but her. Despite anxious warnings from the other women that she should be taking it easy, the Dag insisted that she didn’t care one way or another about “Little Joe.” Furiosa knew her strength better than most, but even she couldn’t help a pang of worry when she saw the Dag, grown big as a full moon, taking the long stairways up to the gardens. Cheedo, she knew, was worried that it would be more than the baby she lost.
“She’s strong,” she says instead, trusting him to understand. “It isn’t what she wanted, but she’s got help if she needs it.”
He grunts again, and one hand comes up to brush away the shag in his eyes.
“You do need a haircut, though.”
“Itches,” he agrees. “Hot. Heavy. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Furiosa doesn’t know what makes her say it, but the words are out of her mouth before she can do anything. “I’ll do it.”
Max’s eyes snap to hers....dammit.
Well…that cord has been cut, and Furiosa has never backed down from anything in her life. She shrugs, covering up her own surprise and uncertainty. “We used to do it, with the Many Mothers. Fuss with each other’s hair. Something for peacetime, when there wasn’t so much fighting to be done.”
“Hm.” He keeps looking. “’M not much for fussing.”
“Me neither.” She tilts her own clipped head. “It’s no trouble. I promise not to put you in braids.”
That startles an amused breath out of him that could almost be a chuckle, and Furiosa turns to lead them both into her room.