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Rock and a Hard Place

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Will the wind ever remember / The names it has blown in the past / And with this crutch, its old age and its wisdom / It whispers, "No, this will be the last" / And the wind cries Mary

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Toast
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The bike she bought was pretty good, based on what Toast knew about bikes, which was only what she'd gleaned from a few web sites. It moved her forward with relative ease, basically all bikes had to do to be successful. Gears switched when she wanted them to, brakes stopped when she wanted them to, the seat made her ass fall asleep on days that she rode for more than a couple of hours, there was a basket on the back for her shit. Would've been better on the front, so she could keep an eye on her bag, but she managed. Toast was good at managing.

The best part about it had been its price: real fucking cheap.

She could ride all day, despite the uncomfortable seat, and sometimes she practically did. Unlike Cheedo, Dag, and Capable, Toast had nothing on her schedule other than school. She attended full-time - Five classes a week. She had debated finding a job, concluded against it: school had a higher return on investment. She had books to read, papers to write, and a constant threat of tests, but other than school, Toast was free. Almost literally - she could ride essentially wherever the hell she steered her bike. She went down the water, over to Cheedo’s theater district, uptown to the museum row, practically all the way to Gas Town. Free, as long as whatever she wanted to do was free, too.

Plenty of things to see in Citadel City. That was all she wanted to do - Ride, look around, ride someplace else, look around there. That was enough.

---

One day after a morning class, she rode up instead of home. The sky was bright and clear, as cheerful as Citadel City could be, and as she sped through the different parts of the city, she didn’t have a single incident: no cat-calling, no cars too close, no gangs at all. Even as she left the nicer neighborhoods behind, the ride was fine. Not great, but good enough. Under her tires the potholes got bigger and more frequent and she had to serve around burnt out shells of cars in the street, piles of trash that spilled over from the sidewalk, a busted fire hydrant that sprayed water into an overflowing sewer drain. But those things were fine. She could avoid them.

When she found her old street, Toast slowed and pulled out her headphones. She’d barely been listening to the music anyway; the headphones were an attempt to discourage people from talking to her. Her eyes darted around, a quick stare at the people she passed to see if she recognized any of them or if any of them recognized her. Over the trees she could see the barred windows of her old school and the convenience store on the corner was still there. There were some kids walking in a group together, bottles of soda dangling loosely from their hands.

The houses were all little things, mostly one floor with a couple that had dormers. Cleaned up, they might have been cute. She passed a few with owners who were clearly trying - one even had a rose bush in the front. She rode past the house with the kid who used to pull her hair, then her friend’s house that had a shitty little pool that they’d spend all summer in, then the one with the couple who’d scream at each other all night, and then the place with dogs that had scared her when she first moved to Citadel City.

And then, almost at the end of the street -

Her house.

Which wasn’t there.

The house was gone. Her house was gone.

Completely gone, wiped off the block like maybe it had never been there at all. There was still a driveway underneath the overgrown weeds and briars, but it led into an empty plot. Toast pulled into it and then stopped. Stopped but didn’t climb off, just let the seat rest against her inner thigh, supporting the weight of the bike. There wasn’t a reason to stay; there was nothing to look at and no one to ask, but her legs were tired and ass tingling, and the driveway was as good a place as any to rest.

A fire probably, she thought as she waited for her legs to recover. Arson to collect insurance maybe, or someone just having a bit of fun, or an accident caused by a shitty space heater and old wiring. Because Joe wouldn’t have bothered to do anything to it. It would have been extreme, even for him. For a moment she considered calling someone - Dag or Furiosa, maybe Valkyrie with her file cabinets of unsolved or unjust cases. But Toast knew Joe just as well as they had, and if she couldn’t come up for an explanation then they probably couldn’t either.

Someone across the street yelled, “Hey, you, boy, get away from there!”

He probably meant “boy,” not “Boy.” She still kept her hair short and her sweatshirt was loose enough that maybe it hid the shape of her body. Reasonable explanation. Not that it mattered, she told herself through gritted teeth. The old man on the sidewalk burnished his walker like it was some sort of weapon, riled enough that he’d probably give himself a heart attack if she yelled anything back. So she swallowed against the lump that had formed in her throat and ignored him. Wasn’t worth engaging - even if he could tell her what happened, what would that change? It’d change fuck all. The house was gone and she’d moved on, anyway. Figuratively and literally. It wasn’t like it had been the family homestead; she’d only lived there for a few years. What, was she supposed to mourn over an overgrown plot? Stand there wailing at the crickets and roaches?

Toast dragged the bike around and kicked off a few times before she got the speed to keep the bike steady, and didn’t give the guy another glance. She made a loop around the school for the hell of it and then turned back to head into the city again. The sky was still light, so she had plenty of time to make it home, but Toast pedaled hard anyway and soon her street was miles behind her. She rode wherever the streets took her, as long as it was away from her old neighborhood.

When she pulled onto Rains Memorial Drive, the city gave her a second nasty surprise. It shouldn’t have been War Boy territory anymore but there they were - a cluster of War Boys, a clusterfuck of War Boys, she thought with a sneer, were loitering loudly around the busted fountain in the little park. One of them threw a bottle in and she heard the glass shatter, then the raucous laughter of his mates. They were an army of anonymous assholes, each of them in their black uniform, shaved like skinheads, and massive, probably raised on steroids along with their beer. Impossible to tell apart, but that was point - no accountability of individuals, no thoughts, no responsibility other than than groupthink.

She debated going down a different street to avoid them, but she didn't want to give them that power over her - It was fucking ridiculous, all of it. All of them: the Rock Riders, the Buzzards, and the Boys most of all. They were still playing pretend, like they didn’t get the fucking message that their old bastard of a leader had been turned into a smear on the street. So Toast pedaled slowly down the street, not bothering to act like she wasn’t staring at them.

One of them turned to look back at her. He flicked his cigarette into the gutter and stood at the curb for a moment, watching her watch him. If he thought she’d be intimidated, he was wrong. She could have ridden through the red light, but instead Toast came to a stop and waited at the faded lines of the crosswalk, balancing on the tips of her sneakers. In a way she almost welcomed the confrontation, ready to prove to him - and all the bastard Boys - that she could hold her own.

Easy enough to recognize him: Nux’s partner. Slit sauntered, that was the word for it. Hips almost swinging, shoulders back, with a lazy grin, the scars on his cheeks making it frighteningly wide. A couple of cars honked at him as he crossed the street, but they all stopped for him then took off squealing. Jaywalking, what a bad ass, she thought to herself and almost snorted.

When he came closer she straightened and tilted her chin up so she could meet his eyes. Not afraid of you, she thought to herself, each word hard and firm like a brick, building a wall around herself. Not afraid. Not impressed.

"Red's little partner," he said. His gaze roamed over the bike and slowly back up to her face.

"Toast."

"Toast?" Whatever he’d been expecting her to say, it hadn’t been that. His dark brows raised and his expression changed slightly, like maybe he was thinking she was insane instead of just a joke.

Not that anything about their situation was funny. Though maybe it was a little absurd.

"My name. Toast."

"What the fuck kind of name is Toast?"

"What the fuck kind of name is Slit?" she challenged and he stared blankly at her, then pointed at his face. She rolled her eyes and pressed, “Yeah, but what about before?"

Another blank stare. Stubbornly blank.

It was something of a shitty question, she admitted to herself. It wasn’t any of her business, and even if it were, it didn’t mean he owed her the long explanations of how it happened. That was personal. And that was sensitive. The scar on her cheek itched suddenly, and if she’d been fanciful like Dag, she could have interpreted that as a reminder of just well she knew that Citadel City left its fucking marks on people.

"Fine.” There was no point in hanging around on the street with him and his crew. There hadn’t really been a point in stopping in the first place. He wasn’t going to apologize for being a dick. War Boys probably didn’t have the word “sorry” in their limited vocabularies. So why had she stopped and waited for him? She told herself that it was the surprise of seeing her house. Or not seeing her house, really. “Well it’s been a real treat talking to you, Slit. Perfect ending to a perfect day.”

That seemed to amuse him or maybe she was misreading the movement of his scars. “Running off already?”

“Yeah, some of us actually have shit to do beyond loitering around on the street.”

Slit’s grin didn’t falter. Or his scowl. Whatever it was. Toast snapped her eyes away from the broad stretch of his jaw before he could accuse her of staring. Slit snorted then said, “You run on back home. And you stay there and tell your mate to do the same.”

“I don't take orders from War Boys.”

He shrugged off the insulting way she pronounced that name. “Should. Common sense. You got any?”

“Got more than that, War Boy.”

“Yeah? What else does a Toast have?”

The sleeves of his leather jacket pulled up and she could see black lines of tattoos starting at his wrists. He’d gotten closer so now she had to crane her neck to meet his stare, which was a bullshit move on his part. Closer, close enough, but he’d stopped before he was too close. And she could definitely tell he was grinning now, lips pulled up and the scars mirroring it.

“Got a pair of eyes and a brain to use them. Which is more than some people have.” She leaned over the handlebars, making herself shorter, smaller, so he had to bend his neck to keep looking at her. Turnabout was fucking fair play.

“Doesn’t look like they’re doing you any fucking good.”

“In this moment, yeah, you’re right.” Toast had to agree on that point.

Behind him the other Boys had started watching and they jeered something, but Slit ignored them. Something in his expression changed, got harder, and when he spoke again, in was in a low grumble, “Figured you want to avoid trouble. I got enough of it with Nux.”

“Am I giving you trouble, War Boy?” Toast taunted and it was a weak insult, but Slit still grimaced at it and shrugged, a quick movement that was almost a flinch. What a terrible loss of reputation it had to be, shooting the breeze with her. When the other Boys yelled again, she realized that despite her flippancy, she was probably right.

“Nah, just a headache.”

“Feeling’s mutual.” Another thing they apparently agreed on. Toast didn’t want to find out what else they had in common so she tilted her bike away, turning the front wheel so it pointed back down the street and started kicking off. The other War Boys’ hollering got even louder and she flicked them an annoyed glance. “Tell your friends to shut up.”

He snorted a laugh. “You sure you got a brain in there?”

Toast jerked her head up with a glare. The asshole was smirking at her, real fucking proud of that wit. “Fuck off.”

“Hey! You fuck off!”

“You fuck off!” Not even a single wobble when she kicked off this time. A final glance up at him didn’t tell her much - he was turning away, heading back to his cronies. When she pedaled past them all, she turned up her music so she wouldn’t have to hear them and stared determinedly at the traffic ahead of her.

That night, finally back at their house, she kept the whole damn day to herself. She didn’t even tell Capable about it. There was no point, she reasoned as she lay on her bed. Capable would want to know about Nux, and Toast had no report on him. She’d learned nothing from the exchange with Slit that she didn’t know before: War Boys weren’t worth the trouble, the time, the effort.

It still took her forever to fall asleep. Fucking War Boys.