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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

---
Toast
---

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.

Chapter Text

I'm gonna fight 'em off / A seven nation army couldn't hold me back / They're gonna rip it off / Taking their time right behind my back

--
Slit
--

The rungs of the ladder were rusted and the whole thing groaned under his weight, but Slit climbed up onto the roof anyway. He could see the whole of their shitty territory from up there - Like there was anything to see. The roof was littered with empty beer cans and some of Morsov’s cats, which skittered away when they saw Slit. What they needed was some junkyard dog, he thought as he watched them disappear, something on a chain that would shred anyone who got too close. Instead they had a colony of fucking cats.

So fucking mediocre it made Slit sick.

There was an old business sign on the roof that was still partially standing; whatever name the garage has before the Boys took it over was long gone, covered up with layers of spray paint. He leaned against it and poked through a dirty ashtray that they balanced on the edge until he found half a cigarette. It was almost too damp to light, but he got it and then squinted through the smoke and smog toward the highway that lead into the city.

Suddenly music blasted out from below. Twanging guitar, women’s voices, bullshit about holding hands or sunshine or something - Nux was awake and blaring his fucking CD again. Slit inhaled a lungful of stale smoke and then hissed it out in a long breath.

Capable wasn’t just a thorn in his side, she was a damn knife in there, tearing apart all those soft, sensitive bits - Jabbing the blade in deeper and deeper and with the other hand dragging Nux farther and farther away. If he could just deal with Capable… Slit leaned against the wall, pressing his knuckles against the concrete until they cracked and then hurt, but the pain didn’t clear up his thoughts. So fuck her then. If he could just deal with Nux...

Fucking Nux. He was the root of all of Slit’s fucking problems. He was the goddamn engine of them. And Slit was soft for not fixing him. Even if teaching Nux a lesson would save him - both of them - a lot of trouble down the line. It was because they were partners, he told himself again, with years and blood between them.

Joe wouldn’t have stood for it. But they were stuck with fucking Ace, and Ace didn’t give a shit, mediocre, fake-boss that he was. Things were changing, heading for a burnout, and Slit was the only one slamming on the brakes.

The rancid smell of the filter burning reached him through all the other stenches, so he flicked it away - Toward a cat who’d decided to venture back up. The cat took the fuck off before the butt even reached it, faster than even Slit, so maybe the ragged little bastards had one thing going for them. Slit climbed back down, slinking through the piles of tires and shells of cars they’d dragged back from the streets or out of the river.

Under Ace’s truck was Nux, his feet tapping along with the music’s beat. Slit kicked Nux’s boot, tried to feel satisfied at Nux’s squawk of surprise and irritation.

Slit opened the hood, took a glance down at the engine and what Nux was doing. He’d never had the talent that Nux did when it came to cars, which he chalked up to being too big to squeeze around the parts. Nux was tall, but he was thin as a rail - Always had been, from the day that Slit had saved his skinny, pale ass.

“Let’s go into the city,” Slit said. “Find some other Boys, see what’s going on.”

Nux wiggled out from under the truck. “Need to finish this. Hey, wait, listen to this part of the song - It’s coming up. So that’s Toast singing, right, and Capable is going to start -”

“Like I give a fuck,” Slit grumbled. But it was impossible not to hear the music, loud as Nux played it. Ace should have broken the CD, broken the damn stereo, done something to shut it up.

Nux tilted his head, closing his eyes so that Slit could see the dark smudge of his eyelashes against his pale cheek. When the song ended, he stared up at Slit, eyes wide and clear and bluer than anything else Slit had ever seen. “Shine, right? What do you think?”

“We’re going into the city. Hurry up.”

“Give me a hand then.”

It was a tight squeeze, getting under the truck with Nux, but they were working together. And it muffled the song, at least a little bit, at least for a little fucking while.

---

Two hours of circling around the city and they still had jack shit to do. Better than being at the garage, Slit thought - it made him itch, being locked up there, and he never could figure out how Nux could stand being trapped under a car for hours on end. They chased after some Rock Riders, just to piss them off, then parked at a convenience store in War Boy territory to see who showed up.

“Dred and Rotor are around somewhere,” Nux said as he read through his texts. “Don’t know what they’re doing. Want to find them?”

Slit shrugged. They weren’t as mediocre as Morsov, but they were shit compared to Nux and him. What they needed to do was find a real crew with a real boss. He was about to tell Nux - again - about what they needed to do to get back into the game, when movement on the road caught his eye.

She was on the other side of the street and down a ways, but Slit recognized her immediately. It was Toast on her bike, pedaling up the incline with her ass in the air. She was on the road, not the sidewalk, and Slit watched her turn her head at the cars that drove past - one honked at her and she flipped up her middle finger. Not bad. At least she knew something about the way things worked in Citadel City. Made her interesting. Made her worth watching.

Made him grin and then bang his shoulder against Nux’s, pointing as the small figure that was still small, despite being closer. “Hey, look who we got coming. You should make her a real bike so she doesn’t keep embarrassing herself on that piece of shit.”

“You know she’s Capable’s sister, so don’t be an asshole.” Nux jammed his elbow into Slit’s side before jumping to his feet and waving as he yelled, “Hey! Toast!”

Like she had the other day, Toast stopped at the curb but didn’t immediately come over. Slit liked that, the way she observed them and waited as she decided, like she wanted them to know that she didn’t really give a shit about them. She was a good partner for Red, even if Nux’s girl didn’t appreciate it. Finally she hopped off her bike and walked it slowly over.

“Hey guys,” she said, and she was a little breathless but trying to rein it in. Maybe she’d been riding all day - she looked like she had been: her short hair was plastered down to her head and there was a sheen to her skin. A thick bike chain lock was across her chest like a sash of ammo. Not bad, Slit thought again.

“Hey!” Nux said first before Slit could get a word in. “What’s up? What are you doing all the way out here?”

“Felt like a ride before class,” she answered with a shrug. She looked behind them and then up and down the street, and her grip on her bike handles relaxed a bit. “Just you Boys today?”

Slit frowned as Nux nodded enthusiastically at that, like Nux was proud that they were out wasting time instead of doing proper War Boy business. He asked eagerly, “So how’s Capable?

“Fine, last time I checked. Weren’t you guys on the phone all this morning?”

“That was hours ago. Hey, yeah, I should call her again!”

“Can’t wait to see the phone bill this month.” Toast’s gaze flickered up and her eyes caught Slit’s before she looked away and busied herself with the chain lock. She pulled it off and dropped it with a clank on the ground, then rubbed at her arm, dark fingers pushing her t-shirt up her bicep to her shoulder.

When Nux pulled out his phone again, Slit stood and purposefully knocked his knee against Nux’s elbow. He could feel Toast watching him but she didn’t say anything when he walked by. Not like they had anything to talk about, he thought as he moved toward the convenience store.

The guy behind the counter looked up when Slit pushed through the door and he shifted a little, arm stretching to a phone or a button or, hell, maybe a shotgun. Or jerking off. All sorts of shit happened in convenience stores. Better to be feared than be afraid, so Slit smirked at him as he leaned heavily over the counter to buy a pack of cigarettes, making sure to stretch his scars as wide as they could get.

The bell over the door jingled and Slit turned quickly, the cigarettes forgotten as he pulled his hands in to his pockets. His eyes had to flick down to see who’d come in - It was Toast, who glanced back up at him as she moved around him. But after that initial look, she went about her Toasty business and he relaxed. She planted herself in front of the rack of newspapers by the door and then crossed her arms as she stared intently at them. Not that there was anything interesting in headlines or some blurry gray pictures. Finally she reached into her pocket and came out with some coins and counted each of them carefully.

He grabbed the pack of cigarettes and his change and then stood over her. “Guess you’re not rolling it in with that subway racket.”

He wanted to rile her, but surprisingly Toast looked up over her shoulder him with a grin. Her whole face changed, from her wide lips up to her raised eyebrows, and suddenly she looked a lot younger - And Slit, staring down at her dark eyes, forgot what else he was going to say.

Her voice was different when she started talking again, lighter with a note of amusement, a joke she was telling and he got to overhear, “They probably print this in someone’s basement. It’s been around for a hundred years, if you can believe it. I don’t think it was ever any good.”

There was the Times and some other national paper, but Toast’s fingers skimmed over them to a sickly yellowish one. She picked up and opened it, holding it up so Slit could read it too - Not that he gave a shit about whatever was in there. When he didn’t bend down, she lifted it up a little higher and then said, “See? None of the other papers are covering this stuff.”

Something about some guy who said that police were harassing him, another about deadbeat landlords, something else about debtors prisons. Not anything that he thought she’d be interested in. “What’s it to you?”

Again she looked up at him. She frowned and then quickly folded the paper and stepped away a bit. “I want to know what’s going on. Don’t you?” Then she added, louder, in a more sure voice, “They have basically no web presence, so if you want to read it, you actually have to buy a copy. So I do, sometimes. When I feel like splurging.”

Buying a newspaper was splurging? She was worse off than the Boys were. He might have felt sorry for her for that, if she wasn’t so annoying. Which is what he told himself, even though it’d been sort of fun playing with her. Least she rose to the challenge, even if Nux wouldn’t. Reminded that he’d left his partner outside, Slit glanced out the barred windows. Nux was sitting on Toast’s tiny little bike with her chain around one arm, his long legs spread out at crazy angles as he pushed himself around the sidewalk.

“Idiot,” Slit said with a sigh.

“He’s doing me a favor. Which is more than I can say about some other assholes.” Toast rolled her eyes but she also made a noise that was something like a laugh. With her little cache of coins, she slid over to the cashier. And then she paused - not much, but he saw the hesitation, the way she brought her arms in closer and hands turned into fists for a moment. Slit followed her gaze, but all he saw was a rack of porno mags. But she’d definitely been looking at them, she couldn’t hide that.

Leaning over her shoulder, he taunted in a low, suggestive voice, “See anything you like?”

Her sharp elbow jammed into his stomach. “Fuck off.”

It hurt more than he’d been expecting, but Slit laughed triumphantly. Smaller than a pup, but as much guts as a proper War Boy. A little more admiration at that, and Slit wished that Nux was inside with them so he could see how this random girl was so much better than Nux at everything. Toast flicked her eyes up at him, hooded by her dark eyelashes, and he laughed again. Tried to make it scornful but he didn’t have enough breath for it - damn, maybe she had hit him hard - and it came out soft, not even a chuckle.

“Laughing at your own jokes. What a comedic genius.”

“Chrome as fuck,” he told her.

The guy behind the counter looked back and forth between them, opened his mouth, closed it when Slit glared, opened it again. One of his hands still had Toast’s coins, the other one was under the counter again, playing around with whatever the fuck he had under there. “He, ah, bothering you?”

“Yeah.” Toast answer came out quick enough. She added a shrug to it before the guy could figure out what to do next and said, “But he’s nothing I can’t handle.”

Her handling him, he thought with a sneer, like she wasn’t half his size. Toast rolled her paper up and stuck it in her back pocket and then went to the door. Holding it open, she looked pointedly at Slit and then asked, “You coming? Or are you going to hold up this joint? Then hurry up.”

The guy didn’t like that - that hand quaked and sweat beaded on his brow, over his twitching lip. Toast didn’t hold back on any of her targets. Slit stomped after her, swallowing down the annoyance that he was following her and her order. Wasn’t like there was anything else to do in the store, he reasoned. He had to get back to Nux, anyway.

Who was still on the bike and still on the phone, paying more attention to that than where he was going, so when he fell off the curb, he almost toppled off the fucking thing.

“Some fucking War Boy,” Slit complained, embarrassed. There was no way in hell anyone would catch him being that soft, especially over some street-trash girl. At least no other Boys had seen it - or Buzzards.

“Worried about your street cred?”

That was a taunt, but it still meant that Toast knew the deal. Slit looked down at her again. “Won’t do assignments, stopped carrying, half the time he’s off with that girl. Didn’t used to be like this.”

“Didn’t realize he needed your permission.”

“He needs to follow orders! Better for him if they come from me.”

“Yeah, well, you know what I think about War Boys’ orders.”

Slit choked on his reply. There were she was, barely up to his chest, with her arms crossed and her lips in a sneer like she won a fight. It wasn’t quite anger, but something revved in him, energy pooling and then pumping. “Yeah? You know what I think about you?”

“What?” she challenged.

“Hey guys! Capable says hi. Might meet up with her later.” Nux’s sudden interruption made them both jerk away from each other. He climbed off the bike and wheeled it over to Toast, who graced Nux with a smile as she hopped onto the seat.

A smile, innocent as all fuck. Un-fucking-believable. Slit angrily peeled the plastic wrap from the carton and pulled out a cigarette. Nux stretched out his hand but Slit held it back, out of his reach, until Nux lunged at him.

“Asshole! Slit, come on! That was my fucking money.”

Hands on Slit’s jacket, yanking his arms down, and Slit eagerly pushing back, relishing the contact. Nux grappled him, got an arm around Slit’s neck - And then laughing, snatched the carton. Not a real fight at all, over too soon and probably didn’t leave a single bruise, and Slit growled in displeasure. Soft. They were both getting soft.

“You know, I’m sort of surprised you’re still smoking,” Toast said as leaned over the bars of her bike. When Nux looked curiously at her, she added, “Figured Capable would have said something.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. That she doesn’t want you getting cancer and dying.”

“Oh shit.” Nux hurriedly exhaled the breath of smoke and then held the cigarette at arm’s length like it was dangerous, like some sort of explosive. “I’ll stop. Don’t want to give her something else to worry about.”

Slit puffed aggressively on his cigarette in response, but Nux and Toast were too busy with each other to notice.

“So Joe let you guys smoke?”

Nux nodded. “Sure. Guess he wasn’t worried about cancer. Guess he figured we wouldn’t live that long.”

“You planning on writing a song about it?” Slit asked sarcastically, and Toast and Nux finally looked at him, both of them glaring.

“Let me have it?” Toast asked Nux and he obediently passed the cigarette to her. Holding it up, she studied it for a second before tapping off the ash, then brought it to her lips. Behind the smoke her eyes seemed to glitter.

“We got cigarettes. But no TV, no coffee, no other clothes, no hair.” Nux ran his hand over his scalp. “No money, and that meant no a lot of other shit.”

“Kept us sharp,” Slit argued. Kept them from getting soft, from wanting anything soft, from thinking anything soft.. Joe knew how to cut out the weak spots, how to make sure the rest of them stayed strong. Once the rules started to get broken, the whole gang started to get broken. The War Boys ruled the city because they were the best, and it had taken years, and work, and blood too, but Slit had bled it and it hadn’t killed him. Made him stronger for surviving it. Nux liked to forget that - how shine he’d been, how shine he could be again - and instead was letting it all rust away.

“‘Kept you’ is right,” she said.

“What do you know?”

“I know a lot of things, War Boy,” Toast replied and then with a nonchalant ease, blew a perfect smoke ring.

Nux whistled appreciatively while Slit just stared at her. Without acknowledging either of them, she tossed the butt into the street and then shoved her bike into motion.

“See?” Nux said, his grin wide and eager, “Everything about Capable is shine, even her family.”

Slit punched him, but it wasn’t as hard as Nux deserved.

Chapter Text

I don't give a damn ‘bout my reputation / You're living in the past / It's a new generation / A girl can do what she wants to do and that's what I'm gonna do

---
Toast
---

The city was always better after a rain. Water swept the streets clear, whisking the grime off the sidewalks and into the long-suffering river. So it was just the appearance of cleanliness, but she appreciated not having as much shit to ride over. And it made the air a little clearer, and Dag swore that the trees looked different, too. Toast let Dag say stuff like that, to play up her mystical persona to impress Cheedo. Furiosa complained about her joints and Capable about the frizziness of her hair, and all of them hated waiting for the bus in the rain with their cheap umbrellas. But after the rain, things weren’t terrible.

She had a couple of hours to kill before class, and used the weather as an excuse not to be in the library. Toast came to a stop at the traffic lights outside of the hospital and debated her next turn. Still in the middle of her one-sided argument, she turned to go uptown, even though common sense dictated that she loop downtown instead: it was safer, she could conceivably meet up with Cheedo, she could run a couple of errands.

Uptown instead. Because why the fuck not.

At the river she stopped to took a long drag from her water bottle and switch her heavy bike lock to the other shoulder. Taking out her phone, she was surprised at how much free time she still had. Her random expedition hadn’t taken much time at all. Weird thing, having so many hours to herself. There were a few other people around - people, not gang members. Not that any of them bothered her. They probably barely registered her, which was what she preferred. A police boat cruised by and way down the river she saw some sort of long shipping vessel. Further up were the refineries, which made the horizon waver with heat and smoke. Didn’t matter to her - She wasn’t going that far up anyway. The War Boys could keep their Gas Town.

When she climbed back on her bike, she made a circle around a cluster of indifferent seagulls and moseyed back to a main road. She decided to go back downtown, to stop at one of her favorite bookstores to see if there was anything she could afford. Turning down Rains Memorial Drive was the fastest way to go. And why the fuck not.

She was biking wherever the fuck she wanted, and if that meant cruising through what the gangs still thought was their part of town… She deliberately looked away when she passed convenience stores. Didn’t even glance at their parking lots. Same for empty lots. Same for liquor stores. She wasn’t looking for War Boys. Didn’t want to see them. Didn’t even want to acknowledge their existence.

But then she broke her own tenet when she heard a commotion by the old fountain: looked up at the noise and stared. Just like the first time, even at a distance she recognized the gang. War Boys again - always fucking War Boys, why couldn’t she escape them?

Immediately she picked out Slit. His voice was louder, or maybe it was the angry red lines of his scars that cut through the rest of the sallow faces. The other Boys milled around in a tight circle; she couldn’t identify individual words, but the rest of it spoke loudly enough: something was going down. No Nux, and without his partner, Slit was alone against the rest of the gang. Toast squeezed her handbrakes all the way down to the handles and dug her heels into the pavement. Some of them heard that and glanced back at her before they turned away. Because of course they didn’t think she could do anything. Stupid fucking War Boys.

She jammed her hand into her backpack, fingers pushing aside her can of mace before closing around the metal key chain and the whistle that was attached to it. The shrill shriek of it silenced the rest of the din. As soon as she saw she had their attention, she whipped out her phone and held it up to her ear. Making her voice carry over the dull sounds of traffic, she yelled, “Police? I want to report gang activity! On Memorial between Seventh and Eighth. And hurry!”

They came apart like globs of tar, yanking and jerking into smaller groups until it was Slit on the other side of their black swarm. He was snarling back insults as the other Boys jeered.

“Saved by street trash!”

“You gone soft, Slit?”

“You got a girlfriend, too? The fuck is Ace letting you rusted losers do over there?”

“I’ll fucking show you, you mediocre fuck! See if Tag wants you back once I bash out all your teeth!”

“Have fun with the cops,” the last one to limp into their car yelled over his shoulder. When they drove by, they hollered at her and Slit again, stupid shit and nothing she hadn’t heard before. She memorized their license plate, even though she knew it didn’t matter. Made her feel better anyway, that little bit of spite.

When the car squealed off, she hopped off her bike and walked it warily over to where Slit was standing. Standing, not knocked prone or bent over in agony. He looked fine, as far as she could tell: no blood, no labored breathing, and his scowl was probably out irritation. Satisfied that she didn’t really need to call for help, she put her phone away. Besides, it wasn’t her job to coddle War Boys. She’d already done enough for him. “Always fun running into you,” she said and his dark stare moved from the retreating car down to her.

He started to answer when the wail of a police siren sliced interrupted whatever cutting mark he was about to make. Surprised, he asked, “You really called the fucking cops?”

“Of course not!”

Their eyes met. “Shit,” he hissed and then, faster than her, grabbed her bike and took off with it over his shoulder.

“Hey!” Toast sprinted after him. The chain of the bike lock slowed her down and her backpack slapped painfully against her spine until she ripped it off and held it by a strap, ready to hit him with it if necessary. “Give me back my bike!”

“Like I want this piece of shit!”

As their feet pounded against the cement, he pulled farther away from her. “Hey!” She yelled again, maybe a little desperate. “Wouldn’t it make more fucking sense for me to ride it?”

“You gonna ride it over a fucking fence?”

He disappeared into an alley and she heard a metallic clatter. Summoning a burst of energy, Toast sped up and careened around the corner behind him. A chainlink fence spanned two abandoned buildings, blocking the alley and their getaway. If she’d been alone, she would have kept running. But Slit had come to a stop. Shit, she thought, if he was going to do what she thought -

“Don’t you dare fucking throw my bike over that!”

He gave her a brief, angry glance before he dropped the bike and then in a smooth movement, hoisted himself up the fence. A lizard’s grace, almost fluid as he climbed. At the top he threw one leg over and then reached down.

“Come on, come on! The bike!”

It was a street bike, lightweight and thin, but lifting it over her head was still awkward. Determined not to show any weakness, Toast gritted her teeth and stretched onto her tiptoes as she raised it up. Slit grabbed it and with another one of those effortless movements swung it over the fence and lowered it front-tire first onto the ground before dropping it the rest of the way. And then he leaned down again, big hand out.

She glared at it, up at him, behind her at the encroaching siren, and then, clenching her teeth even harder like somehow that’d keep everything else under tight wraps, put her hand into his.

Wasn’t much time to compute the sensation. He tugged and she climbed as fast as she could, shoving her sneakers into the holes and pushing up with her free arm. Wasn’t fast enough for him because he barked at her, “Come on, thought you were stronger than this. Hurry the fuck up!"

“War Boy fucking orders!” she growled back and when she got to the top, she snatched her hand away.

Slit jumped down and Toast shuffled her legs over the top of the fence, wincing as the metal links snagged at her shirt, and she half climbed half fell down after him. With her backpack and bike lock shifting around awkwardly on her shoulders, she didn’t exactly stick the landing. The alley was full of trash cans and an array of refuse - broken furniture, an old TV, piles of tires. Under their feet glass and grit cracked and she saw the quick scuddle of some rat - or maybe massive bugs. It was a labyrinth. And that made Slit what, exactly? The monster in the middle?

In his blacks he almost blended into the shadows. Swiftly he found a shattered window and snaked his arm through the gaps in the broken pane and then opened it as it squeaked and groaned. It was big enough for him to slide through and once he was inside the building, she passed him her bike and then wiggled in behind it.

Sirens as loud as a storm and Toast inhaled a sharp breath and kept it in her lungs until they hurt, like somehow any movement would give them away. Slit leaned against the wall, face intense as he listened, too, but then snorted a laugh.

“They’re leaving. Course. Too fucking flat-footed to get over the fence.”

Sure enough the sirens stopped and a dusty silence filled the building. Toast rubbed her damp hands on her jeans, smearing dirt down her thighs. Slit crossed his arms over his chest, clearly pleased with himself, but she looked away before their eyes could meet. Instead she did a quick assessment of the building and the mess she’d gotten herself into.

It’d been an office building, by the looks of it. They were in a large room with some cubicles still in place. Graffiti everywhere: on the walls, the skeletons of desks and chairs, even across the worn-out carpet. It made for a weird patchwork: the gray dirtiness of the interior broken up by the frenzied colors of the graffiti. She couldn’t hear much beyond her still rasping breaths and Slit’s heavy footsteps as she went to check another window - Hopefully that meant they were alone. And then she realized that she was relieved to be alone with him. Better not to follow that train of thought.

Still, she couldn’t stop her eyes from drifting over to him again. Satisfied that the police had given up their chase, he was grinning smugly to himself. After another look at the window, he pulled off his jacket and tossed it onto the remains of a broken desk. The black t-shirt outlined his broad shoulders and chest, giving her a show of what she’d sensed when he’d pulled her up the fence: muscles. Long, tattooed arms: muscles.

Not aware or not caring of her surreptitious stare, he pulled up his shirt to wipe his face.

Holy shit muscles.

His stomach. Muscles. Some more tattoos there, too. Then he turned slightly and her eyes swooped over the curve of his back. Muscles.

Of course he’d be gorgeous. Of fucking course. Toast dropped her bag onto the ground with a thud. Quickly she bent over it and rifled through her schoolwork until she grabbed her water bottle. After a couple of gulps of water, she poured some on her hands to splash on her face. Some fucking ablution that was. She shook off the thick bike lock, too, and stretched out the ache in her shoulder. Aloud, she said to fill the silence, “Grungy. And smells horrible. Pretty much what I expected for War Boy territory.”

“We don’t live in this shithole,” he snapped back.

She rolled her eyes as she shrugged her backpack onto her shoulders again. “Didn’t mean to hurt your delicate feelings. What I meant to say is that you’ve got a really nice dump here.”

“You didn’t have to come in.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, did you forget the part where you grabbed my bike?”

“You’d rather stay and hash it out with the cops? Figured you’d know what they do to black girls.”

Like she needed some pasty War Boy to lecture her about dealing with the police. Even if he was chiseled out of marble. Toast grabbed her bike and put it between them, an ineffective wall. “Yeah, I’m much better off with War Boys who eat their own.”

“Bunch of mediocre assholes,” he grumbled. “Was putting them in their place.”

“You’re lucky I showed up. Where’s my ‘thank you?’”

“Didn’t ask you to get involved!”

“Fine, next time I won’t save your ass.”

He stared at her with abject surprise. And then he started to laugh, the noise echoing up and through the big empty space.

“What?” she demanded.

“Should have jumped in! Those bastards wouldn’t have known what hit them.”

In spite of herself, Toast let her lips quirk into a smile. Macing a whole squad of Boys would have been a sight to behold. Or maybe she could’ve joined the fray, bitten a few ankles. She agreed with a nonchalant shrug, “I do have sharp little fingers.”

Slit’s laughter tapered, but he was still grinning. “Yeah,” he said, “and elbows.”

Surprise replaced some of her indignation. Interesting thing to notice. And to remember. Interesting thing for her to consider. Fucking War Boys, and their modus operandi of royally destroying her life. Even if he was different from his erstwhile mates. It was almost the beginning of a math equation: if he wasn’t as bad as her first estimation, then...

“Where’s Nux today?” she asked, changing the subject.

The smile slid away and Slit shrugged. “How should I know? Piece of shit partner rode out this morning. Should keep him on a fucking leash.”

“Maybe he should put a muzzle on you,” she replied and he made a low, growling noise of frustration.

“Not my fault I’m the only one making any sense. How come you haven’t got her to back off?”

Toast frowned back at him. “You know her name: use it. And no, I’m not going to break them up. If this is what Capable wants, then I’m not going to stop her.”

“You know it’s a shit idea.”

“If Nux is worth any of the things she says about him, then he’ll treat her right. And as long as he does, I’m not getting involved. And you better not either,” she added definitively.

“Don’t know what he does with her, all fucking day. We have shit to do.”

“You jealous? So get yourself a girlfriend. Or boyfriend. Whatever. Someone out there has to be willing.”

Toast looked blankly back at him as Slit spat out a stream of choice curses. She shrugged at the conclusion and said, “Fine. Don’t know who’d kiss you with a mouth like that anyway.”

That shut him up.

Toast was surprised at the sudden silence and then abashed. It had been a clever remark, but apparently she’d struck his one feeling. She should have remembered that scars were a literal sore spot - they’d had an exchange about them already. Her fingers pressed against the her own scar on her cheek.

“Poor choice of words,” she offered. “Sorry.”

He grumbled something unintelligible in response. Toast left him behind and began a slow loop around the room with her bike. Pigeons took off with a noisy flutter when she got too close to the windows, and there was another frantic scurry of some small animal. A large staircase rose up into darkness and she peered up it.There hadn’t been time to count the stories when she was outside, but the building probably didn’t have more than a few floors. Were all of them as in bad a shape? Part of her wanted to explore, maybe even get up on the roof, but instead she steered her bike away. “So what do you do here?”

“Used to scavenge.” He picked something off a busted desk, inspected it, then tossed it aside. “Pretty much cleaned it out.”

He seemed to have forgiven her for the mouth comment. Or maybe he was biding his time, planning some revenge. Though her experience with War Boys was that they reacted more than plotted. She decided that she was spending too much time worrying about him and turned her attention back to the building. So War Boys did scavenging. Probably pulling out copper, Toast thought as she continued her survey. A door hung broken in it’s frame and she shoved it aside just enough to poke her head into the other room. More of the same: shattered wooden chairs, spray paint on the walls, and light filtering in through the dirty windows. Maybe there’d been computers at some point, or maybe the filing cabinets were full of valuables. Or maybe there hadn’t been much to begin with. She wondered if scavenging was a post-Joe activity, if times had really gotten that lean for the gang, but didn’t bother asking the question out loud.

As she followed along the walls, she began to study the graffiti. The War Boy tag was everywhere, but there were other images, too: skulls, a whole fucking lot of skulls, flames, and cars. And cars in flames. With skulls on them. In flames. Aside from the subject material, they weren’t bad - colorful, done with surprising neatness. Maybe even care.

“Live fast, drive faster,” she read one of the spray-painted messages. “Ride eternal, shiny and chrome.”

Glancing over her shoulder, she caught Slit staring at her before he twisted away to grab at his jacket. The next wall had “War Boys” written on it, in huge sprawling letters full of stars that were being shouted (or maybe vomited) out of a pale War Boy head. She looked it over carefully, taking her time as Slit stomped and stamped around behind her. Next was a crocodile/alligator/some sort of reptilian behemoth with bullets as teeth in its gaping maw. A bona fide War Boy art exhibit. It was impressive, she allowed herself to admit. “This is pretty good. Disturbed, but not bad.”

“Fucking chrome as fuck,” he corrected her loudly.

“These yours, War Boy?”

“Yeah.”

“Your personality really bleeds through.”

He grunted at that and then after a few moments of silence went by, demanded, “Think you can do better?”

He was glowering down at her, this frustrated artist. Toast smiled sharply over her shoulder at him. Riling him was too easy. “Sensitive, aren’t you?” she drawled, and unlike his, her goading actually hit its mark. He made a short, disgusted noise and she smiled again, then said, “Tell you what - I can play art critic for you. Show me your best.”

His eyebrows lifted. She expected him to tell her to go fuck herself; instead he glanced around, seriously considering her offer. But then he seemed to conclude that she’d been teasing him again and he crossed his arms over his chest with a scowl. And of course she’d been teasing him. But Toast would’ve held up her end of the bargain. Maybe it was a peace-offering of sorts. She shrugged and continued the tour on her own, making her way toward some large, colorful piece on another wall. He skulked around in her peripheral vision, gradually moving closer.

This one was a tyrannosaurus rex, caught in mid demolishment of Citadel City. Entity Memorial was recognizable, and the decadent roof of city hall, and the gas refineries along the river. All done with spray paint. Creative mayhem.

“Another overt example of the artist’s reliance on violent iconography. Clearly the city’s geography has been altered for effect.”

“Shine as fuck.” Slit announced. When he stood next to her, she glanced up. He had at least a foot on her. And at least a hundred pounds. With all that muscle, it might even be more. With his jacket on, she couldn't get a closer look at his tattoos. Sort of a pity - It might have been fun to explore those, too.

“Interesting color palette. The contrast between the flames and the river is noteworthy; the opposition of the colors as well as the shapes make for an vivid background.”

“You see the cars?”

“Despite the simplicity in tools, the artist still captures the essence of his subjects. Surprising detail the structure allows the audience to fully grasp the annihilation. Particularly as it’s juxtaposed over recognizable landmarks.”

“Hey, check out this one.”

"A simple yet bold statement: 'Witness me.' The prismatic interior design of the letters offsets the primitivity of the phrase. A philosophical query, which raises the question: witness what? What must we do to be remembered? Can there be existence without acknowledgement?"

“Fucking good, right?”

“Not bad. Subject gets a little repetitive. All the destruction, I mean.”

“I can do other shit.”

“Not from the look of it,” she said as she contemplated a motorcycle made out of bones. “But they aren’t terrible, regardless.”

“Come on, this one’s shine. Took a while to get the shape right - Had to cover the whole thing in black and start again twice.”

If she leaned sideways, she could rest her head against his chest. There was something… entertaining in his search for her approval. The word endearing came and went through her mind, dismissed before she could form any real thoughts about it.

“I’ve seen worse things. The shadowing is interesting - but if that’s the moon, then the shadow should be more on this side. Still, there’s something imposing about the severity of it. For a skeleton bike.”

“The white’s actual paint. Found some in the basement.”

“A veritable collage. I can’t wait to see what you do with decoupage.”

There were a few more pieces, which he pointed out excitedly and Toast responded with her museum tour criticism. And then they were back at the staircase, standing side by side as they looked up it.

“Got some more upstairs. Unless you’re too chickenshit?”

“You know,” she said coolly to his goading, “if you want me to stay, all you have to do is ask.”

He slammed his jaw shut and then snarled, “Not going to beg.”

“No,” Toast said, shaking her head but not taking her eyes off him. “I didn’t say beg.”

The result was a stark change in atmosphere. She watched as his eyes narrowed and he pressed his lips hard together, his broad jaw shifting. And Toast - Toast was calm. He hadn’t stepped away from her; they were close enough that she see his shirt move with every one of his breaths. She dragged her eyes up from that broad expanse of chest to his eyes.

“Want to stay?” he asked in a low voice.

“All right.” Simple as that.

He was looking at her intently. Not angrily, but there was a simmering heat there. “Any other orders?”

It was a sarcastic question, but she answered it anyway. “Yeah,” she said, and licked her dry lips. “Sit down.”

Someone had dragged a bench inside; like everything else it was broken and covered in paint, but it would hold his weight. Both of them looked at it; neither of them moved. Slit's expression had darkened into suspicion and maybe something else. Disappointment? But then he obeyed, backing away and dropping heavily onto the bench. After a moment, he growled out, "Why?"

“Maybe I’m answering my own question,” she said. When he frowned she added, “Want to kiss that mouth of yours.”

Maybe she’d misjudged his attention. Maybe she’d misinterpreted what he’d said. If he didn’t want to, then that was fine. She’d go to school, focus on all the other shit she had to do, and go back to pretending that he and the other War Boys didn’t exist. And if he did… Well, she could do whatever the fuck she wanted. No one else had to know.

Simple as that.

"Told you I'm shine as fuck."

"We'll see, War Boy." Toast flipped out the kickstand and then put her backpack into the bike’s basket.

“If you try to touch me, I’m leaving,” she stated. She meant it as a legitimate warning - maybe even as a threat - but instead of being insulted or spiteful, Slit nodded. She stepped forward slowly, gauging his reaction to her approach, but he was seemingly cooperative - big hands curled around the edge of the bench. Still and silent and dark eyes following each of her deliberate movements, and Toast watched him back, the way that his jaw clamped shut but then his lips slightly parted, the rise of his chest under his shirt. She stopped directly in front of him, willed her heart to slow down so that she wouldn’t start gasping for breath.

“Won’t touch you,” he promised when she didn’t move and her gaze slid down his long arms.

“Hold onto the bench. And don’t move.”

She slid her fingers over his jaw. His eyes weren’t like Nux’s huge pools, but they were a surprisingly intense blue - or maybe that was just his stare. This close up, she couldn’t help but stare at his scars: one side was older than the other, the skin in a ragged patchwork.

His jaw was heavy in his hands as she guided his chin up. Slowly, slowly, preparing for a sudden movement, she leaned forward. His lips parted slightly before she kissed him but that was it - Slit was motionless as she pressed against him. Warm under her fingers and lips, hard lines under smooth skin. And the scent of him, faint cigarette smoke over gasoline, then the mellow, warm smell of his leather jacket. Musk, wasn’t that the word? Under her heavy-lidded eyes, she saw him look back at her. Wary. Waiting.

Well. He’d certainly taken her instruction to heart.

“Want to kiss me back?” she murmured. She pulled back, just a hairbreadth, just enough to see the rest of his face as his jaw clenched under her hand.

“Yeah,” he finally admitted, his breath warm on her lips.

“Good. You can.”

When she kissed him again, she felt him return it. Big man, with such small, tentative movements.

“Good,” she said again, a little breathless, a little mumbled. Nudging him with her nose made him tilt his chin up higher and she deepened the kiss, digging her fingers under his jaw made him open his mouth to her, slipping her tongue over his lips tore out a noise, something low, something rough.

It shouldn’t have sounded so good. It shouldn’t have made her kiss him harder. But none of it should have happened at all. In an empty building, with a War Boy, tasting touching tonguing - Dragging her mouth over his cheek over that messy track of scar, slipping her finger passed his lips, sliding it against the crooked line inside the slick silk of his mouth as her tongue traced from the outside.

He had been watching her, lids low over those intense blue eyes, but then as she followed the scar with her tongue, his eyes finally closed.

“I’m going to get on your lap,” she said and waited for him to respond. When all he did was grunt, she pulled back. “Do you want me to? You tell me.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah what?”

“Want you to come here.”

“Good boy,” she said, and it almost came out like a purr. It wasn’t even a step closer - just a shift and her legs were against his thighs. The bench creaked as he gripped the frame harder and she could see his knuckles whiten. He didn’t exactly move, it was more like a shift in return, but Toast still warned him, “Don’t touch me unless I say.”

“Yeah. Won’t.”

“I’m holding you to your word, War Boy.”

“Didn’t think the word of a War Boy would mean much to you.”

Damn, got her there. “Lucky you,” she said and somehow the words came out huskier than she wanted. Before she could lose control of anything else, she slid her legs over his and leaned against the wall of his chest. The leather jacket was soft under her hands as she gripped his shoulders, and she could feel the roll of his muscles there. The thick hardness of his legs under hers - The narrowness of his waist -

She moved as she kissed him, couldn't help but rise and press against him, and when he lifted his hips she just leaned back to push them down, didn't even break away from him. He tasted like - felt like -

They stopped to catch their breath. He tilted his head again, nudging at her chin, but this time Toast didn’t move. His breath was hot on her face when he snorted, "That all you know how to do?”

It didn't have the bite of his other comments, coming out rasping and rushed.

“I know how to do a lot, War Boy." It'd be easy to do it. Still on him, still gripped to him, her mouth hovering over his - She knew about all of it. In a soft part under her right arm was an implant, a tiny sliver of medicine that she gotten along with the slew of tests from the days immediately after Joe: as near as permanent contraception as the doctors would allow.

“Yeah?" he asked.

Hopeful. That’s what he sounded like.

"And that completes today's lesson," she said, forcing her lips to turn up in a wry grin. Toast climbed off him with not as much grace as she would have liked. Her bike was waiting for her and she kicked up the stand and grabbed her backpack. She'd wanted to kiss him and she had. That was it. She didn't need to do anything else.

"What?"

"You were doing so well, War Boy. Don't ruin it now."

"Show me what else you got," he ordered, which she ignored. He tried again, called after her, "I’m waiting.”

“Wait all day for all I care.”

“You running away again?”

“Leaving isn't retreating,” she asserted. Backpack on, chain lock over her shoulder, bike in hand… She was all set. Could leave whenever she wanted. There was class to contend with anyway. She hadn’t checked her phone, but it was probably time to get moving. Had to be.

“Come on -”

“Don’t push me,” she said as she gripped the handles of her bike. A deep breath steadied her and when she spoke again, her voice wasn’t so brittle. “So you liked that, did you? Glad I pass War Boy muster.”

She heard him rise to his feet. “Guess there are worse ways to waste time.”

And that was all it was. Just a way to pass time. Nothing wrong with that. Time was something she had now. Her eyes darted up him, starting at his boots, up those long legs, stomach, chest, shoulders - Slit linked his hands behind his head and was looking down his nose at her. The damp cling of her t-shirt scratched at her armpits and her hair was hotly heavy on her scalp.

“Is there another way out or do I have to go over the fence again?”

“No. Door over there leads down the alley. Can show you -”

Quickly she cut him off, “I can do it myself. Hey - Don’t tell Nux about this.”

“What? How come?”

Because with Capable and Nux joined at the hip, there was no way that Nux would be able to keep the secret. And then there’d be questions. Capable would not leave it at “Because why the fuck not.”

“Where's that War Boy obedience now?” she needled as a response.

And that was that. No goodbye and she didn’t look back until she was outside again, and that was just to make sure he didn’t try to follow her. He didn’t. She was alone on the street. Some cars went by, there were a few clouds in the sky, and everything was exactly the same. Toast put in her headphones, scrolled through her songs until she found something with a beat fast enough to ride to. The harder she pedaled the less she had to think, an inverse relationship between the physical and the mental, and once she was moving, the pavement blurred under her tires. At school, Capable asked if she’d had a good ride and Toast said she had.

Chapter Text

Freezing, rests his head on a pillow made of concrete again / Feeling maybe he'll see a little better, any day / Hand out, faces that he sees come again ain't that familiar / Dark grin, he can't help when he's happy he looks insane

---
Slit
---

Warmth against his back, but when Slit reached to flick at Nux, he got a handful of fur instead before something screeched and kicked off his bed. He jolted up in time to see Morsov’s fucking cats dart out of the room. Fucking cats. Fucking Morsov. And fucking Nux, who wasn’t in bed at all. Still dark - the light in the room weak and still sort of gray - and the rest of Ace’s shit crew murmured themselves back to sleep. Morsov, sharing a mattress with Mack, sat up but Slit rose to his feet and got out the door before the mediocre shit could complain about the cats. Or ask about Nux.

The garage was quiet as a morgue. Back in the Pits, the old Boys’ headquarters, any hour of the night there’d be noise and action. There’d be fights and food and Joe at the front of it all, steering them toward glory.

Opening the fridge revealed fuck all: a couple of cans of watery beer, someone’s half eaten sub. Freezer was empty except for a bag of peas. He stood there for a couple of moments just looking at them. And feeling a bit like shit. And wasn’t exactly sure what to pin it on, which made it even worse. Helplessness - he fucking hated the feeling.

He closed the fridge and wandered toward the front of the garage, passing by his bike - still a work in progress. A couple of wrenches littered the ground, which meant that at least Nux made an attempt at not being the shittiest War Boy in existence before he fucked on off to wherever. Slit nudged one with the toe of his boot and the scrape of metal against the cement floor rang out through the garage. He could work on it - could complete it - if he wanted. But that made him feel like shit too, picking up Nux’s pieces and trying to fit them together. And if Morsov or any of the rest of Ace’s crew saw him, they’d know exactly what happened: that Nux had abandoned it. Him. Them.

Ace should’ve ordered Nux - to stay, to work, to do whatever needed to be done. Slit was fuming over that when suddenly he thought of Toast, the way she scrunched her lips at “War Boy orders.” And the way she’d given her own.

And what those orders had been.

Just a way to waste time. Not the worst way to. Slit repeated that to himself as he roamed around the garage. A gun on one of Nux’s workbenches gave him something else to focus on, but unloading it, loading it again, aiming at the row of oil cans by the window - it barely registered, his attention someplace else, on something else. Someone else.

Unload. Load. Pop out the clip. Pop out each bullet. Slide each one back in. Slide the clip back in. Aim. Lower. Unload. Mechanical motions, as smooth and quick as one of Nux’s engines.Being a War Boy, he’d learned it young and done it for years, polished shine by the repetition. Diligence. Vigilance. Unload. Load. Aim. Unload. Load. Aim.

Nux had flat-out refused to keep carrying. Ace hadn’t pushed on that, because of fucking course he wouldn’t. Even though Buzzards were circling in and the cops were picking fights, Nux had removed the holster from the undercarriage of the Monte Carlo. Had to be his girl’s doing. As soon as Slit thought about her, his mind drifted toward her sister Toast. If that’s what they really were - According to Nux, the two were family. Slit couldn't believe that, and it wasn’t just how different they looked. There had to be a way to get more intel on her. But he’d promised he wouldn’t let Nux find out, and even though he’d wanted to brag to his partner, Slit had kept it all to himself. She’d ordered it and just like she said, he knew how to follow orders.

Under that certainty boiled another couple of reasons, but Slit wasn’t going to mope around stewing on them like fucking Morsov. But still. Still. Still there was the softness of it all. All that touching, mooning, moaning, emotion shit was a waste of time for War Boys. It wasn’t just a reputation to protect: back in the Pits, anyone caught fucking around never did it a second time. No matter how cold it got down in the basements. Or how warm your partner could be. Softness was weakness. Even thinking it was treason.

But the softness of her. Muscle in her legs and in her shoulders, but even with her strength, Toast’s weight on his legs had been unbearably soft. He didn’t just want to touch it - her - he wanted to sink in. Lose himself.

Slit realized he’d stopped aiming, stopped doing much of anything, and was standing like a fucking idiot in the middle of the garage. Fortunately none of Ace’s crew was up to catch him in that rare moment of mediocrity. He berated himself for a second for letting his head get too soft - stupid, fucking, bullshit; he was trying to drive with a flat, like a rusted idiot - found some comfort in blaming Nux for all the distractions. Gun went into the waistband of his pants and he grabbed his jacket as he headed out - The garage was too stuffy. That was it. Too stuffy to think straight.

Outside at least had air. Slit slammed the door and stood in the gravel driveway. Nux’s Monte Carlo was there - No Nux inside, though. He paced around it and then climbed onto its roof. Lights blinked from the city and the highway, and there was a dash of something by the parked cars: a cat or a rat or something else that Slit would have taken a shot it, if he hadn’t felt so shitty. He put his hands in the pockets of his pants - not much there, just his knives and an almost empty pack of cigarettes that he’d found in Ace’s truck - and just watched. Just listened. Just sat there, wasting away.

Heard before he saw it, but as soon as the soft scuffle of feet on pavement whispered in the fading darkness, he twisted toward the noise and his right hand closed around the gun. Someone coming -

Nux.

The tall, lanky figure of his partner shuffled quietly down the street, back and forth and pausing and turning like the asshole was drunk. When he finally got closer, Slit could hear the low drone of his voice - couldn’t make out the words, but knew anyway that it had to be his girl on the other line.

Nux managed it all like it was no fucking deal. Him and his girl talked for hours - days - and he even managed to charm Toast, who’d flashed her smiles at Nux like the asshole was as shine as Joe. Fucking Nux, who spun the wheel 180, turned everything the wrong way.

Made Slit look in the wrong direction.

Slit slid down the windshield and opened the driver’s side door. When he didn’t find the car keys in the glove compartment, he tossed the gun in and snapped it closer. He could hotwire the Monte Carlo - And fuck it, in fact that’s what Nux deserved. Popping off the panel under the wheel and pulling out the wires was easy; cracking the locks Nux had installed on the steering column was the tricky part. If he hadn’t watched Nux put them in, he might not have figured it out. Engine on, steering wheel free, backed up and turned around with one heavy foot on the gas pedal, and then Slit sped past Nux, glancing in the rear view mirror before he turned off their street. Nux was in the middle of the road, hands on his head.

He cruised past old hangouts and lost territory, neighborhoods that should have been theirs - would be again, once shit got back on its wheels. Midtown Citadel City was already starting to get crowded. Street vendors were unfolding tables to pile on lame t-shirts and plastic crap, glass pipes and reeking incense. Spread out on small sheets were counterfeit purses and bags, which could be easily swaddled and picked up, if any cops started sniffing around the merch.

When he got to Joe’s old nightclub, he slowed. Slit stopped in front of it and looked the whole thing over, pissed at the way it was falling apart. Of course shit had to happen before he’d been allowed in. The windows were dark and empty, and the chained door had some piece of neon paper stuck to it - police or tax collectors or the Health Department. He’d need tools, someone else to keep watch, and the cover of night to try it, he thought to himself. Part of him dismissed the idea - Joe’s turf was still Joe’s turf - but curiosity gnawed at the other parts. Probably all sorts of treasures still locked inside, just waiting for someone strong enough to get to them. Nux would chicken out before they got to the door, since his girl had some sort of rule against doing anything remotely worthwhile. Slit thought back to his partner standing in the middle of the road, not even trying to catch up with the car.

He shifted into drive, up to second, and sped past the Vault. Not too far away from the nightclub was an empty lot, another piece of property that the War Boys used to occupy that now was barely acknowledged. He was surprised to see a couple of cars pulled into it; when he slowed, the Boys inside yelled and waved. Felt surge of exhilaration at seeing that, hearing them all, so he parked and grabbed his jacket. And ignored the call from Nux that was lighting up his phone.

The Boys surrounded him, banging shoulders and passing around warm beers as they talked.

“Hey Slit, when are you going to ditch those mediocre shits and run with us?”

“Told you you should’ve followed us that night.”

“No Nux?” Dukes asked as he looked around Slit to the Monte Carlo. His nose had been broken so many times that the lump there was a permanent red, and he swiped at it with a knuckle as he spoke, like he was making sure it was still hanging on. “Hey, give him a call. Engine’s clunking again - Need him to take a look at it.”

“Hey Slit, is it true he’s gunning to take out Rictus?”

“Where’d you hear that?” Slit asked quickly and Solder shrugged.

“He’s been stirring shit. Didn’t make any sense to me,” he added when he saw Slit’s scowl. “Know you keep your partner in line. Sides, he’s not boss material.”

Dukes fiddled with his nose again. “So what’s he doing, then? Saw him in a blue shirt once. And heard that he picked a fight with Rictus.”

Heart pumped fast at that, like it was burning gasoline in there.

Nogo had been quiet for the whole thing, but when he shifted his weight, drawing his hands into his jacket, Slit’s eyes slid over to him. But hunched over as he was, he didn’t seem to be all that threatening. “Some Boys said he said that his girl said that Joe fucked up. Joe fucked us up.”

“Where’d you hear that bullshit?” Slit demanded.

“There are these rumors-”

“They’re bullshit,” he said again. “And if I find out you’re spreading them-”

Ballast slung his arm over Slit’s shoulder. “Come on, mate, you know Nogo’s all rusted. It’s in his fucking name, right?”

But Dukes had nodded along to Nogo’s words. “Last time we saw Prime, he beat the shit out of Gran. For no fucking reason. One time, when I was a kid, I saw Joe-”

“Whatever he did, he did it so we’d be the best. All you got to do is follow. Forget all this pissing and moaning.”

“Yeah, but don’t you think-”

“Slit’s right,” Ballast cut off Dukes. “You want to end up like Gran? Then stop asking for trouble and shut the fuck up. You’re lucky I’m looking out for you.”

Dukes and Nogo shared a look. “Come on, Slit,” Nogo tried again, ignoring Slit’s annoyed growl, “tell us about Nux and his girl. He’s your partner - you got to know everything.”

“I said, drop it!” Ballast shoved Nogo back before Slit could.

He should have realized that driving with them after that would be mediocre. Few more minutes of sitting around, a couple more beers, then Dukes got a text from their boss and Slit went with them. Ballast called shotgun and dropped himself into the passenger’s seat in the Monte Carlo, and they took off ahead of the other Boys, but even leading the pack felt like a consolation prize and not a true victory. Even cornering a couple of Buzzards didn’t cheer him up, though he got some good hits. Afterward, he stood by the cars and read through Nux’s increasingly angry and decreasingly coherent texts. The same feeling from the morning, the shitty empty boring mediocre feeling, pushed out the satisfaction of the ride, so when the other Boys decided to head uptown, he kicked Ballast out of the Monte Carlo and went downtown instead.

And then there - side of the road. Toast. On her bike.

Slit stamped down on the gas and pulled away, but kept his eye on the little figure in the rear view mirror. Cutting through all the background noise of Nux, of the other Boys, of Ace, even of Joe came a craving, almost feral in the way it grabbed him and wouldn’t let him go.

He had time to kill, he figured.

The intersection of Fulton and Atlantic was always shit, even in a car. Trucks barrelled through, trying to make the light, and cars turned illegally, zooming around the sorry sacks of shit in the crosswalk who didn’t have a car of their own. The potholes didn’t help either, made bad drivers even worse as they banged over them or drove into other lanes to avoid the bumps. Slit sat behind a crappy white van with half-scraped-off decals on the bumper and dicks drawn into the layer of dirt on the windows, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as he debated. When he saw a gap in the oncoming traffic, he shifted up and yanked to the left, cutting across the lanes and over to Bergen street.

It was a gamble, but he bet she’s do the same.

Slit got out, sat on the hood of the car. Further down were the honks and squeals of the intersection, but Bergen was quiet - No one on the sidewalk, only a couple of other parked cars. Mostly rowhouses, all jammed in a tight line, though there were a couple of storefronts wedged between the apartments. A lot of dark windows. One looked promising, and if he didn’t have something else to do, he’d go over, pull himself up to the window and look for signs of occupancy. Maybe even go in the back, test the doors.

It was the color of the stone that made him consider it, the brown of it.

A squeak and then the trill of spinning wheels - And of fucking course he’d been right. Toast had turned onto Bergen and was coasting down the street, eyes already up and on him. A yank in his chest at the sight of her - fuck, what had he eaten lately? Soft insides had been giving him trouble all day. When she saw him, she pulled out her headphones and tilted her sunglasses up into her hair, one smooth motion.

Slowing her bike, she let it drift over to where he’d parked. “All alone again,” she said as she came to a stop.

“You too,” he pointed out.

“Don’t have a tandem bike, do I?” She glanced at the car. “So where’s Nux?”

“You jealous he’s spending so much time with that girl?”

“And once again, it sounds more like you’re jealous,” she replied. She rocked the bike back and forth with the tips of her toes.

Which was bullshit, of course. Didn’t even bother trying to argue that with her. Instead he just looked at her. Her hair was a mess again, spiked up and damp, and her jeans were ripped at the knees, stained around the cuffs. Made her look like she’d come out on top in a fight, all roughed up. As he studied her, she gazed back. He waited for her to come over again, waited until impatience turned to annoyance - At her, for sitting there motionless, at himself for wanting it in the first place.

“So were you waiting for me, War Boy?”

Toast was still staring, studying, the same flat expression on her face. Clearly she was waiting for him to say something - probably to ask something, to make him beg like she had before. Scowling at her had no effect. “You looking for me?”

“No.”

She snapped it, a little too quickly for it to be casual, and Slit’s scowl shifted into a grin. He eased off the hood of the car, strolled a few steps closer. Her knuckles paled as she gripped the handles of her little bike, but otherwise Toast kept up that poker face. He stopped a few feet in front of her, pleased at the way she tilted her head up to keep her eyes on him. “Fourth time you’ve found me.”

“Correlation is not causation,” she stated, whatever that meant - sound more like she was reciting something than arguing. “It’s not my fault you've got nothing else going on.”

He chuckled, which made her frown even harder. “You can come up with a better excuse than that. I’ll wait - Got time to kill.”

“That’s great for you. But I came here for business."

“Yeah? What kind of business is there in this shitty part of town?”

“You just think it’s shitty because it’s not War Boy territory.”

No argument there. If the neighborhood had been worth anything, Joe would’ve taken it over. He was going to point that out, but he swallowed the words instead when she hopped off her bike and wheeled it forward.

“There’s a store right there. Book store. You’re just… a roadblock.”

This time she grinned along with the insult. That heat he felt before came back - not anger, he wasn't offended. Fact, he sort of liked the tease, like she was testing him.

“You stopped,” he pointed out. “Could have kept riding.”

“You need to stop for roadblocks.”

Anyone else seeing a War Boy in their way would put their head down and hurry the hell past. Or turn around, found some other way to go. But Toast had kept coming and then she had stopped, ready to meet him. Iron balls. He was impressed, that was all, he thought as he grinned at her again. It stretched his scars, but Toast didn’t look away from that, either.

“So what are you doing so far away from home, War Boy?”

The empty building behind her was a decent enough answer. He pointed; she narrowed her eyes again, pausing before she turned to look over her shoulder. Four stories, the first floor raised up from the street, so there was a stoop leading to the door. Like the rest of the street, the building had two windows on each floor: the ones on the first floor windows mostly boarded up and ones of the second were smashed. Glinting pieces of glass in the overgrown weeds and some plastic bags caught in the rusting fence decorated the place. But other than that, Slit thought the place looked untouched.

“A little morning B&E, huh?”

“Place is empty.”

“So no victims?” Toast scoffed. She rolled her bike back and forth a bit. Like before, she had a backpack, bungee-corded to the basket on the back, and the chain lock over one shoulder. But despite that jeer, there was a gleam of something else in her dark eyes. “How do you get in?”

“Window’s the fastest. Try in the back, see how those are.”

“And if you can’t get through a window?”

“Picking the lock’s pretty easy, especially on older doors. You ask nice and maybe I’ll teach you.”

Her lips parted and after a second of just staring at him, she snorted a laugh. But she didn’t refuse. He’d found something she didn’t know how to do, and the offer to learn was clearly a valuable one. There was another hesitation as she weighed the offer. When she shook her head, she did it slow and that half smile was still on her lips. “Tempting.”

“Come on,” he urged. Get them inside, maybe she’d have another order for him. Maybe she’d want to give him another lesson. Thinking about it in terms of a fair trade made it easier to manage; kept those rebellious thoughts out of it.

Another shake of her head and Slit felt disappointment rush through him, unexpected and intense. Which annoyed him. More than annoyed - Upset, like something collapsed out of place. He squashed it and stomped back toward the Monte Carlo, making his steps heavy so the sound of his boots banged down the empty street. He yanked open the car door and then glanced back at her, scowl on his face in case she was looking back.

She was facing the building, still considering it, and then she wheeled her bike toward the stoop. He slammed the car door shut and then slid closer again, pleased with himself that he’d been right. Course he’d been. Course she wanted to know. And she’d probably be quick to pick it up, with how sharp she was.

Toast stood on the tips of her toes, like that made any fucking difference. She’d dropped the chain lock on the ground, succumbed to her curiosity. He watched with amusement as she braced herself on the window sill and tried to peer in through the boards. Almost felt sorry for her, having to deal with everything being about two feet too tall for her.

He grabbed her around the waist and picked her up - good chance to touch her again, anyway, he thought in the one second he had a hold on her. One second, because as soon he got his hands around her, Toast lost it.

Lost it. She shrieked a noise and kicked back, pummeling him in the thigh, knee, thigh again - “Shit, fuck -”

Immediately he let go and immediately she scrambled to get away. Sunglasses and phone clattering to the pavement, sneakers sliding against the dirt, flipping around to glance at him, ass hitting the ground before she surged back up, fists out. Her eyes were all whites with just pinpoints of brown darting around, back at forth, not really seeing him or anything else - maybe just a path to escape.

Shit.

Fuck.

She wasn’t just scared - he’d fucked her up somehow. Backing away from the stoop, he put his hands up. And then they stood there.

Sharp guilt, like a bullet in the chest. Shit, fuck, he thought again, cursing himself for not reading her right. "What the hell was that?"

“Told you not to touch me,” she said in a flat voice. Her fists lowered, flattened against her thighs, then she crossed her arms over her chest. Eyes were downcast, brows lowered as she stared at the ground. When she sat down on the steps, it was more like her knees were giving out, a hard slap of her ass against the concrete.

"Going feral over jack shit."

“I don’t like being grabbed,” she said. No shit to that comment. It wasn’t her usual sharpness - another sign of just how much he’d fucked up - but after another moment, she shook her head and exhaled a breath. Her shoulders rolled back a bit, not relaxing completely, but at least she started to unfold.

“Just picked you up - Nothing to freak out over.”

“Fuck you. I told you not to touch me unless I said so, and you did it anyway.”

Slit shifted his weight, tried to get that ache to disappear. When it didn’t, he took a desperate measure. It was worth it, if it made that feeling rust away. “Sorry. Toast.”

It was the first time he’d called her by her name. It made her look up at least. He unlocked his knees, took a shuffle of a step forward, making sure his boots scuffed the pavement so she’d hear him move. Finally her dark eyes came back to him; his knees felt soft in relief now. Jamming his hands in his pockets gave him something to do with them, and in the depths of his jacket he found the crumpled pack of cigarettes. He tapped one out, brought it to his mouth, searched for his lighter. After a couple of puffs on it, he said, “Didn’t think anything scared you.”

“You come up from behind and grab someone, of course they’re going to -” she stopped suddenly and clamped her lips together. Stare was almost murderous, but that was better, far as he reckoned. Anger was better. “Don’t do it again.”

“Won’t.” The way she phrased it made him straighten a bit. Maybe there’d be more running in to her in the future. “Almost got me in the junk.”

“I should have aimed better.”

He laughed and she didn’t. Another couple of steps brought him to the bottom of the steps and he held out the cigarette carton. Toast shook her head before resting her chin on her hands, tilting her face up a little bit to look at him. Silence followed for a bit as they both just breathed, enforcing each steady inhale.

Finally she leaned back and said, “So you aren’t following Nux’s lead on smoking, huh?”

He grunted as he exhaled a puff of smoke. “You telling me you’re worried I’ll get cancer?”

“No one likes making out with an ashtray.”

It felt like they’d gotten back on track; the twisted muscles in his chest loosened a bit. Her eyes followed when he stretched his arms up above his head. More shit in his chest stirred at that. He snorted out a breath of smoke and then flicked the rest of the cigarette onto the sidewalk and Toast raised her eyebrow into a high arch. He said with an unconcerned shrug, “Wasn’t mine anyway.”

“Stole it?”

“Just from Ace.”

She didn’t ask who that was. Maybe Nux had told her - or Capable - about them all. The other possibility was that she didn’t give a shit, which she would probably claimed was the case. But she’d said she knew a lot, knew about War Boys.

He nudged her phone and sunglasses with the toe of his boot, then bent down to retrieve them. She accepted them in silence, busying herself with wiping them clean. When she stood again, he moved to the side, giving her more space, and she marched over to her bike and other shit on the ground. He figured that was the end of it, that she’d be riding off again, but instead of climbing onto it, Toast walked down the sidewalk and then across the street. After locking up the Monte Carlo, he trailed her from a safe distance.

Little storefront, nothing special and barely noticeable between the other buildings. But that was her destination.

She leaned her bike against the iron bars that imprisoned a scraggly tree and then dragged off the thick chain and swiftly locked her bike. A couple of shakes seemed to satisfy her that the bike was secure, but she still pulled out the seat.

A glance up at him - more like an angry sweep, eyes narrowed and brows low - and then she clamped her knees around the bike seat. She wiped her hands on her pants and then dragged them through her hair. Sweaty as it was, it still looked soft. Getting long - the spikes only stayed up for a second before they sank down again. She tucked the bike seat under her arm, then she turned away and strolled toward the store. Opening the door, she turned to look at him over her shoulder. “Coming?”

Not really an order and not much of an invitation.

The store was chockablock with books. Shelves went from floor to ceiling, but just as many books piled up on the ground. There were tables full of more books, too, including one shitty table with a leg missing, held up by another stack of books. Smelled like dust. Silent as a tomb. He grimaced, but Toast seemed pretty pleased with it. Her shoulders relaxed and she twirled the bike seat.

“Hi Mama Bell.”

The women behind the counter was a mountain, with a book clenched in her thick hands. When she looked up, she skimmed over the top of Toast’s head and then up at Slit. One eye was all white and the eyebrow above it was mangled. Still managed to glare at him.

“I won’t let him ruin anything,” Toast said before he could tell the woman to keep her fucking eyes - eye - to herself.

“Not like this is a china shop,” the woman said in return. But she didn’t relax. “If more Boys show up around here -”

“He’d probably kill himself before admitting he came in.” Toast glanced up at him, that sharp smile on her lips again.

“So why’s he in here?”

It took Toast a second to think of a reply. He watched her eyebrows raise and then scrunch, but it was all in that second - She shrugged and shoved the bike seat at him. “Need someone to hold this.”

“Yeah? So what do I get out of this?”

At that she rolled her eyes. But before she turned away, her lips turned up into a smile. “We’ll see, War Boy.”

He grunted to let her know that he wasn’t completely sold on all the bullshit. The woman behind the counter did the same. Even moving carefully behind her, he still banged into the bookcases. Hard corners of books hanging off shelves grabbed at his jacket and the towers of paperbacks wobbled every time he took a step. One almost toppled down completely, but he was fast enough to catch them and shove them back The whole place looked like it was about ten seconds from collapsing, built out of paper instead of anything decently strong. Paper and dust. Worse than even the garage, the air in the store was nearly yellow. Hard to breath, hard to see, hard to move.

Made him itch. And if he didn’t have Toast finally back to acting normal, he would have just kicked the whole place over and fucked off back to Gas Town. If he had any room to do it in.

“See? Look at this. Slit. Hey, War Boy?”

She must have been calling to him for a bit, but Toast’s frown looked more like it was from confusion than irritation. He rubbed at his forehead, smearing dust into the sweat there, and rolled his eyes. Making his voice as gruff as possible, he barked, “For fuck’s sake, what?”

“Yes, you’re very scary. Here - Just figured this would be up your alley.” The book she banged into his chest was wide and thick, and surprisingly heavy. She pointed at the cover as she took back her bike seat. “History of tattoos. Nice pictures.”

“You like tattoos?”

A shrug. But then she smiled and her dark eyes flashed. “On some people.”

Made him feel a little better.

He flipped through the pages, but still kept an eye on her as she went on her Toasty way. Ducking, squatting, standing on the tips of her sneakers - she looked at practically every book in the whole place. At first her expression was the usual guarded blankness, but she got caught up in the search and her eyes widened, lips kept quirking up.

Flipped through some more pages, just for the noise. The full-body Japanese tattoos made him pause, and then he found a photograph of a shriveled corpse with tattoos on the leathery remains of its skin. Fucking valhalla. “Tattoos on mummies,” he said to her back. Made him wonder if his would last that long. His were chromer, for fucking sure.

“Ask Mama Bell how much the book is. Maybe she’ll give you a new-customer discount.”

Toast disappeared around a corner, another pile of books wobbling in her wake. The woman behind the counter said something to herself, low and biting, like it was his fucking fault she was a hoarder living in a death trap. Slit scowled at her, scars stretching as far as he could make them, but the woman didn’t flinch. He inhaled a sharp breath, hissed it out again, practically tasting the dust as it clogged his lungs. Waste of time. Waste of air.

When he dropped the tattoo book on a table, it smacked loud enough that Toast yelled from the back. “You break it, you buy it, War Boy!”

“You break it, I call the cops.” The woman’s voice had been quiet but she’d made sure he’d hear it.

No air in the place at all. Just the low ceiling and the swaying books. A couple of matches and the place would light up the night. Wouldn’t even need gasoline. Slit could picture that, how glorious of a display that’d be.

"You sure you want to try that?" He asked and the woman's eye looked down at the book quivering in her hands.

Course she didn't.

Showing what he considered a remarkable amount of restraint, he didn’t tell her to go fuck herself. And he didn’t kick over her bookshelves. Or break down the door. He slammed it behind him, knowing Toast would hear it. Good - serve her right.

Back out on the curb, he gulped at the air, spat a mouthful of gritty spit onto the street. Waste of time, he thought again; at least the last time he’d run into Toast, they’d gotten to play cat-and-mouse with the cops. Slit grumbled and swore, spat again, and didn’t spend any time thinking about how up until that point, until she’d ditched him in the shitty excuse for a store, it’d been -

“So you’re still here.”

Toast clicked the door shut behind her and walked heavily to the sidewalk. In her arms was a cardboard box. She had to juggle it a bit as she lowered herself down on a stoop next to the store, but she didn’t ask for him - just flicked her eyes up at him when he moved closer. Her gaze lingered, just a bit, catching on his chest before rising to his face.

Heh, yeah. There was that craving again. There was that weird shit in his chest.

He sat down beside her, looked at the pile of papers she’d bought.

“Fanzines,” she said.

Like that word meant anything to him. She held one up and then waved it when he didn’t immediately take it. Slit snatched it out of her hand and stared at the cover. It was just paper stapled together - not like a real magazine: no glossy cover, no fancy photographs. The picture was of a woman, or a person anyway, hard to exactly fucking tell what it was supposed to be. Huge eyes, both of them different sizes, mouth that was a black splotch, and hair that was just straight lines that surrounded the circle of a head.

“Who did this?” he asked with disgust and Toast glanced up, shrugged.

“See if there’s a name inside. Mama Bell said these were from some sort of collective from years ago. I wonder if any of them are still around.”

He didn't know what the word "collective" meant, but rather than admit it, he flipped through the zine - more shitty drawings on the inside, plus a bunch of printed pages that he didn’t bother to read. When he looked up, he caught Toast’s eyes on him. “Mediocre,” he told her.

“I’m sorry they don’t meet your exacting standards.”

“Here, look.” He pushed the magazine toward her, his finger jammed against the figure on the cover. “Arms are too long - look at the elbows. Who the fuck looks like that? Legs too short. Hands are just squares. Feet are too.”

She considered his list of complaints. “Alright, so how would you do it?”

“Better,” he said.

“Didn’t know you were a portrait artist.”

“I can do anything.”

Toast smirked, leaned on her fist as she looked at him. “Yeah? You’ll have to show me some time. Actually. Hold on a sec.”

She jumped to her feet and went over to the backpack. A couple of swipes inside and she found what she was looking for and tossed it to him - a pen.

“Alright,” she said as she sat down again. Her knee banged into his thigh before she folded her legs under her. “Let’s see what you can do.”

Face was too wide for starters, so he scribbled a new shape. Fixing the eyes (too close together), the nose (the fuck was that supposed to be? A triangle?), and then the mouth only took some heavy lines. The rest of it couldn’t be salvaged. He dropped the pen into her lap and crumbled the zine. “If they’re all this bad, just burn the whole fucking box.”

“I’m not going to burn them. Give me that.” Toast yanked the zine away and smoothed it out. “If you’re just going to throw it away, I want it.”

“Why?”

“Because I just bought these.” She ran her palm over the paper again. “I guess you can draw.”

There wasn’t much to doing something lame like a face. Cars and guns, those were important to master. But he was still pleased that she admitted she was impressed. Felt like it meant something, getting that out of her. “Told you I’m the best.”

“Hm,” she murmured, still looking at the cover. “Learn something new every day.”

“I haven’t yet.”

Toast dragged her thumb nail over her bottom lip. It was easy to get hypnotized by that, and he had to force his eyes back up to hers. “Alright, War Boy. Let’s see what we can do about that.”

“Lap?” he asked with a quick breath.

“Lap,” she confirmed, nodding, and after tossing the zine back in the box with the others, swung her leg around his own and sat on his thighs, straddling him. “This doesn’t mean I don’t think you’re sort of an asshole.”

“Hey, said I was sorry before,” he reminded her. But didn’t mention that she should feel honored she got such a rare apology - she’s probably say it proved her point. And he wasn’t about to risk doing anything that’d make her climb off him, just when he was starting to memorize the way her weight felt on his legs. Toast hummed a disbelieving note, forcing him to add, “Grabbing you from behind - cheap shot.”

“You know you’re twice my size.” She leaned back, her ass against his knees - soft - and her hands on his arms. “I’d be a fucking idiot if I thought we were equally matched. You get that, right? That I have damn good reasons for wanting to get away from you?”

“Makes sense. War Boy.”

“War Boy,” she agreed.

“But you’re still here.” He’d been keeping his hands flat on the cool cement of the steps. Pressing them down hard made his arms flex, and her hands tightened on his biceps in response.

“Probably because I am indeed a fucking idiot.”

“Nah. You know everything.”

“Do I really? I guess I act like I do.”

That amused her, but it seemed to be the right thing to say. At least it wasn’t the wrong fucking thing. She hadn’t run away - In fact, she was so fucking close that he could see the wet flash of her teeth as she spoke. No kissing yet, but fuck it, just having her near enough to look at was shine.

“Give me your hands,” she said suddenly.

“What?”

The stupid question didn’t make her mad, though. The intense expression on her face was hard to read, but it wasn’t anger. “Hands,” she repeated, hurriedly, impatiently, almost begging.

He held them up and she slid her dark fingers between his. He stared at the tiny things, and Toast seemed to be just as surprised at the size of it too, because she said in that same urgent voice, “See? You’re so damn big.”

“You’re small,” he replied without thinking. She may a low noise of disagreement that he laughed at. “Nah, it’s good,” he explained. “Compact. Squeezed all the fight down into tote sized.”

“I guess that’s a compliment.”

He folded his fingers over her hands. Skin was soft, too, and smooth as… as… He couldn’t think of a comparison. Nothing was like her or the way she felt.

Then fucking finally, she moved forward and kissed him.

She guided his hand to her hips, pressed them there and he understood the silent instruction. But her hands roamed - over the back of his neck, back of his skull, down to his shoulders, across his collarbone, up to his jaw. Fingers on the angle of it, almost touching his ears, while her thumbs rubbed at his scars. First time ever he wished he could feel them, feel more than the usual tingling pressure. And wished he could touch her back, but instead he kept his hands on her hips, didn’t move them at all to feel the muscles in her legs or the flex in her spine as she rocked against him. Wasn’t worth pissing her off. Had to impress - like passing a boss’s inspection, getting the invite into a crew. But it was hard to think straight when she moved - Maybe that was the reason Nux was soft in the head. Though his girl couldn’t be as shine as Toast, with the way she stroked him, getting him hard and hot and ready to tear out.

She was hot too; he could feel the heat of her through the thick layer of his pants. And when he managed to remember that he could open his eyes, he saw the dusky flush of her cheeks. Made the freckles over her nose disappear and the scar on her cheek stand out. He wondered what she’d do if he kissed her there, too - and that made him think about other places to drag his mouth over.

“Tell me where,” he said when she pulled away for a couple of heaving breaths.

Her dark eyes were unfocused for a second before she snapped back into control. “Where what, War Boy?”

“Where I can touch you. See? Waiting for you to decide. So don’t flip out.”

“What a quick learner.” The sarcasm was softened by the breathiness in her voice. She kissed his along the side of his throat, up under his jaw. He felt her lips drag, just a little but it made him realize that he hadn’t shaved before driving out of the garage. Shit, he thought, and froze. Toast made a questioning noise and then exhaled a short, low laugh. “Alright. Here.”

Failing as a War Boy. Easy thing to do - shaving - and he hadn’t even thought of it until that moment. What else was he forgetting? Losing? “What?”

“Here. Kiss here.”

With one hand on the back of his head, she drew him to her neck. A kiss there made her shudder - he could feel it move through her. Made him growl, made him hungry, made him scrape his teeth where her pulse leapt up to meet him - and that made Toast gasp and grind down onto him. She pulled him even closer, other hand on his jacket now, yanking it forward like she was trying to pull him off-balance. Another bite, another gasp, moved down to her shoulder and sucked there, and Toast full on groaned.

“Still haven’t seen your tattoos,” she said suddenly, all breathy and rough.

He pulled on the hem of his shirt to lift it off his stomach, which seemed to surprise her. She jerked away, ignored his grunt as he tried, failed to get back to the curve where her shoulder met her neck.

“What are you doing?”

“Showing you the tattoos.”

“You’re just going to strip here on the street?” She laughed before she kissed him again, cupping his chin to tilt him to an angle she liked. And then she looked down at the bunched t-shirt. A little wiggling to get him to move his arms, and then Toast’s small hands were on his stomach. Not a light touch - her palms lay flush against his skin, sliding and gliding and pushing his shirt up higher. “What if some other War Boys saw you?”

“Could take them,” he replied instantly.

“Oh yeah?” Again she pulled back and he felt her body change along with her mood: spine straighten and her hands moving up to lie flat on his chest, as if to hold him back. “What about Joe?”

He stared at her, puzzled. “Ask him how valhalla was.”

She said nothing to that, just waited, and he released his grip on her hips. He knew what she was asking. But he still didn’t have an answer for her. Or one that she’d want to hear. If Joe were alive, Slit’d be in the Pits or putting his practice to use. If he was on the streets, it’d be with a crew or with Nux. And they wouldn’t be on Bergen.

“So let’s go inside,” he said instead of all that. “No one to see us in there.”

“Do you have any condoms?”

He was already hard as a rock, but just the suggestion that she’d fuck him made his dick throb. He said quickly, words spilling out, “No. Fuck them. Tell me how you want it and I’ll learn fast, get you purring like a motor -”

“Yeah, no. Who knows how many diseases you War Boys are crawling with?”

“Run clean,” he insisted, affronted by the idea that Joe wouldn't have kept them pure.

“And you don’t know anything about me.”

“You’re shine. Anyone can tell just looking at you.”

“It doesn’t work like that, you know,” she said. Toast’s voice was quiet, tinged with something else that made the words sound regretful. “Appearances mean jack shit most of the time. Can’t judge a book by it’s cover - Haven’t you heard that before? You should spend more time in book stores.”

“Would piss the hell out of that woman.”

She snickered. “Are you afraid of Mama Bell? That’s a surprise.”

“Fat ass like her-”

“You’re being an asshole again.”

He buried his face against her neck again and she murmured something, sounded like a couple of fucks. Her knees squeezed against his waist, made him think about the muscles in her legs, what she’d look like under her jeans, and she must have been driving along the same road because she skimmed over his shirt again, down to the hem of it.

But Joe.

And the rules.

His hands slid away, back down to the step.

She pushed herself off her lap and he let her go, even though it made him groan. She slowed down, but she didn’t stop this time and instead she grabbed all her stuff, including the box of zines, and went back to her bike. When she was finally ready to go, she looked at him again, considering something. ”Maybe I do want to learn how to pick a lock. Next time. You’re covered in cat fur, by the way.”

He couldn’t think of anything to say to that parting shot. When she was gone he stood up and clomped back to the Monte Carlo, leaned on the door until his erection died down. That was another thing he hadn’t said about Joe - if he were still alive, Slit wouldn’t have even considered fooling around. Softness like that, like a rotten spot that mushed and spoiled, that was on the list of things that Joe’d forbidden. Nux hadn’t mentioned that to Toast the day they’d run into her at the convenience store. But it was there, maybe on the top of the list: no getting close, not to anyone.

But Toast was different, he thought again. Following her orders felt…

Fucking girl. Fucking Nux.

Took him a while to break open the Monte Carlo. The piece of wire he used to fish open the door lock kept slipping in his fingers. He almost punched through the window, hit it hard enough that the car trembled and his knuckles cracked. Finally got it open, jammed the wires together again, and took off. Not immediately back to Gas Town - he needed to burn off excess energy - but after a while the gas refineries appeared and he pulled in to the front of the garage.

It looked the same as when he’d left it. Sounded the same too - Quiet, with nothing going on. Ace’s truck was at the curb, stacks of tires and pieces of cars were scattered along the front, and pigeons pecked at the remains of something in the scrubby grass that grew in the gravel.

Nux was sitting inside the shell of some stripped sedan, arms crossed over the steering wheel. He looked up through the windshield when Slit walked by and raised one hand to flip him off.

“Here.” Slit opened the door and ignoring Nux’s growl, tossed the bag onto his partner’s lap.

“The fuck is this?”

“Sandwich. You need to eat more. You’re too fucking skinny.”

“Asshole. This doesn’t make up for-”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

The bag rustled as Nux gripped it. His big eyes were huge, eyebrows in practically half-circles. “What?”

Slit slammed the door shut. “Your hearing fucked up now too?”

“Hey, Slit, wait.” Nux slid out of the car and caught up to him, grabbing Slit’s elbow when he didn’t stop. “Something happen? When you were out?”

“No.”

“You sure? Didn’t run into anyone?”

“Gonner’s crew." Dukes and Nux together - it'd give Dukes an opportunity to vomit out all his questions and give Nux an audience. He should've kept the whole thing to himself, Slit thought. Too late now. "Dukes fucked up his car again and needs you to patch it.”

Nux’s blue eyes were bright, clear as he looked Slit over. “Yeah, alright,” he said with a shrug. “Dukes is usually good for it. So you rode with them? Do anything?”

“Should’ve just come with me if you want to know so bad.”

“I was stuck in the garage all day because some piece of shit jacked my car. Did you at least fill the tank?”

“Put a few bucks in.”

In one of the doorframes they’d welded in a bar for pull-ups. Slit shucked his jacket and then reached up to grab the bar, watching the muscles in his arms flex as he pulled himself up. The tattoos on the insides of his wrists move a bit with every repetition. Better than any dried out mummy, he thought, but even he had to grudgingly admit that thousand-year-old ink was pretty fucking chrome. A thousand years of people seeing them, knowing what a bad ass the guy had been. Immortality.

Nux leaned against the wall, chewing on the sandwich as Slit worked out. But he kept silent for once. When he finished, he crumpled the wrapper and chucked it into the sink, but then he stayed where he was, standing and watching. “Was going to strip your bike down and sell it for parts, but maybe it’ll survive another day.”

Slit dropped to the ground. “Let’s work on it. Thing’s been sitting around so long it’s probably rusting.”

“I don’t know,” Nux drawled. “Was supposed to go see Capable. Now that I have my car back, maybe I’ll go wait for her at school.”

“Tell your girl -”

Nux straightened, tensed. Blue eyes narrowed, hardened. “What?”

“Fuck.” Slit ran his hand over his scalp. “Nothing.”

“You sure something didn’t happen to you?” Nux asked. He circled Slit, jammed a couple of fingers into his sides. “Get in an accident? Hit your head? You didn’t fuck up the Monte Carlo, did you? Because I’ll find out.”

“I will if you don’t stop fucking doing that.”

“Alright. Let’s get back to work on the bike. But we’re listening to Capable’s CD the whole time.”

Slit groaned. When Nux turned away, he grabbed him in a headlock, dug his knuckles into Nux’s scalp. Laughing, Nux shoved him back and hopped a couple of feet away, putting his fists up for a second before he raised his middle finger again. The CD went on, went on loud as hell, and Nux hummed along as he and Slit passed tools back and forth over the fenders.

“Hear how chrome she is? The way she plays, too. This part is fucking amazing - That’s Capable, right? Listening? Capable right now, and here comes Toast. Can’t wait to see her again. Think we’re going to see a movie. Or maybe go out to eat. At a restaurant. If we get the money. Maybe just drive. Doesn’t matter what we do, really.”

“Soft,” grumbled Slit. He pocketed a couple of the smaller screwdrivers, shoving them away before Nux could see and ask about it. They’d be useful to have, for whatever happened next time.

Chapter Text

We blew the doors, didn't we? / Pissed in their champagne / And did a real thing, didn't we? / Gave ourselves a name / And peeled away the shame / I wanted to explode / To pull my ribs apart / And let the sun inside

---
Toast
---

Like with most things, the reason she’d been able to afford a whole box of zines was because of their flaws. Mostly duplicates and many in poor condition, Mama Bell had lowered the price into Toast’s budget probably because no one else would take them. The zines still managed to pull in an audience: Toast had started organizing them on the kitchen table and soon it was like a damn exhibit, with Dag, Capable, and Cheedo passing them back and forth, even Furiosa flipping through them and then calling the Vuvalini to see if they recognized the names. The fact that the zines were all done by women fascinated them.

“These titles are amazing,” Dag said. “‘I’m Not Having Garbanzo Beans.’ ‘Holy titclamps.’”

“Where’d they sell them? Who bought them?” Cheedo’s eyes were wide as she flipped through one, and her dusky cheeks darkened with a flush as she stared down at one of the pages. Probably one of the explicit zines. “Are you even allowed to sell these?”

Capable helped Toast put them back into piles. “So what are you going to do with them?”

“Read them. Save the ones in the best condition, toss the rest.” She was already thinking about how to organize them. Theme? Year? Name?

“Do people still make them?” Cheedo asked. She leaned over Capable, resting her chin on Capable’s shoulder. “These are all pretty old, right, Toast?”

Toast had wondered that herself. Some of the zines were pushing forty, but the hodge podge nature of the collection didn’t lend itself to any clear catalogs. A DIY culture didn’t have the support structure of art school shit. It didn’t command the attention or consideration the establishment.

“Hey, this one is about punk.” Capable pressed it open on the table and Dag and Cheedo leaned in. Her eyes were wide with delight and she read part of it along - a review of a riot grrrl band - finishing it with a grin. “Think we could do something like this?”

“It’s just paper and staples,” Toast pointed out.

“Interested, Cheedo?” Dag asked.

Cheedo was about to start a class in screenwriting, but judging by the face she made as she shrugged, it hadn’t been going as well as she hoped. So much for the investment, Toast thought to herself and hoped whatever course Cheedo chose next came with a smaller price tag.

“I worried that I won’t like writing,” Cheedo admitted bashfully. “I've been trying to get ready for this class, but it never comes out right, you know?”

Worried she was disappointing them, Cheedo’s voice tapered off and Capable and Dag assured her that it was fine. She was fine. Toast looked at the zines spread in a rainbow of faded colors across the table. The control of writing, that’s what she liked. The ability to define every action and reaction. When Capable asked again about authoring a zine themselves, Toast considered it. None of them were artists, though, and whatever they managed to draw for a cover would look worse than the sketch of a woman on the “Muse Milk” zine.

The one Slit had defaced. That stayed in her backpack.

Lying in her bed in the darkening bedroom after dinner, Toast listened idly as Capable talked to Nux on the phone on the porch below. The words weren’t clear but the tone of it was, and sometimes she could hear Capable’s laughter rise up through the night.

There hadn’t been a reason to keep the zine with his drawing on it, and there wasn’t a reason to look at it again, but she pulled it out anyway. She turned on the lamp by her bed and then studied it, the sketch he’d done in mere seconds that fixed the irregular face. When she opened up her economics textbook to do some homework, she stuffed the thin zine in the back.

Eventually Capable padded up the stairs to their bedroom, and Toast heard her conversation with Nux conclude in a flourish of “No, I love you more.” That four-letter word, repeated over and over but never losing its meaning, and even though Toast scrunched her face up a little in exaggerated show of disgust, Capable’s joy was infectious. How relaxed she was, how sure in it all, a place for everything and everything in its place, like she and Nux were two notes in harmony.

“All good?” Toast asked as Capable flopped onto her bed.

“All good,” she replied, and the smile confirmed it.

Back to studying. Of all her classes, she liked economics the most. Still in their first semester, they had time to decide their majors, but Toast was already thinking about graduate school. The neatness of the math and the reliability of the statistics appealed to her; but economics had more than just spreadsheets and calculations. Capable’s fondness for psychology, Dag’s for anthropology, and even Angharad’s foray into sociology… Economics was a sister to those sciences.

Good jobs, too, with good salaries.

“I’ve been thinking…” Capable began, but then trailed off into silence. When Toast looked over, Capable was staring at the black screen of her phone. Finally she sighed and shook her head, made her braids swinging down from her shoulders. “Those zines are really cool. Think you can get more of them?”

“I’ll try. I’ll ask Mama Bell what else she knows about them. I was going to go over there to sell some books anyway.”

“I really do think we could make one.”

Toast agreed with that. Certainly had enough proofreaders in-house. “We could print all of them out at the library.”

“We could pass them out at school. Or the rally!”

“Music reviews? Or more than that?”

“I could handle the music part. What do you want to write?”

Angry poetry, maybe with Capable on a bongo, Toast thought to herself. A short story where the bad guy gets it, painfully and slowly. Aliens. She used to love aliens as a kid. She’d even tried writing a story about space once, and it ended up too much like Sailor Moon with not enough plot, characterization, cohesion, or quality at all. “Don’t know.”

Capable nodded, slow and maybe distracted. Looking back down at her economics, Toast had to force herself to focus on the words.Thinking about the zines again lead her thoughts to one zine in particular. Distraction bounced around in her head, making her more annoyed as she read the same sentence three times before she digested any of it, but she was determined not to brood over just what kept pulling her eyes away from the page. If Capable hadn’t been across the room, Toast would have stuffed the damn zine under her mattress, and slept spitefully on top of it.

“I think I’m going to go on the pill.” Capable’s announcement was sudden. “Maybe I’ll go back to the doctor, see what she thinks.”

“I can go with you, if you want.”

“Yeah, thanks. Your implant - How is it? Does it hurt?”

“Nope. I keep forgetting it’s there.” And that was a lie, but not because it hurt - Which it didn’t. But Toast thought about it often, that piece of metal in her arm. The birth control implant had wasn’t really a talisman, as Dag might have characterized it, although it did offer protection. She touched it then, gently digging her fingers through the soft part under her bicep.

“That’s good.”

Are you having sex? Toast almost asked, but instead kept her mouth closed. Though she couldn’t stop her eyebrows from raising.

But Capable answered the unasked question. “I haven’t, with Nux. I don’t know when or if…”

“You don’t need to examine it to death. Have sex if you want to. Don’t if you don’t.”

“That makes it sound so easy,” groaned Capable.

“It is,” she said firmly enough that it ended the conversation.

---

It was that easy. If she wanted to, she did.

On the second day of exploring, she let herself admit she was looking for him. Why the hell not? She could take chances now, she thought as she sped down a hill, and fucking around with a tall, muscular man - That was practically the universal dream, wasn’t it? Pop songs, movies, endless paperbacks that Mama Bell stashed in endless shelves, all dedicated to the same activity. The L-word that Capable used so frequently did not enter into Toast’s thoughts. Maybe a different four-letter word though… Riding helped to exhaust her, but even as the miles passed, her heart kept racing, stomach kept jumping, and brain kept imagining.

And when she finally did spot the smudge of black down the gray sidewalk, it pulled her eyes and attention with all the inevitability of a black hole. Alone on Memorial Drive, waiting for something. Slit.

Astride a motorcycle, self satisfaction radiated from him even before she could see his smirk. The bike was primarily black - because of course it would be - except for the silver gleam of its engine and other parts. She half expected it to be dolled up with some ridiculous fairing or be some massive hog with streamers on the handlebars, but Slit’s motorcycle was sleek.

Her eyes coolly took it in. “At least I don’t have to pay for gas.”

“Ask nice and I’ll let you ride it,” he said, flashing a grin.

They were a twenty minute ride from Bergen - for her; on the motorcycle, Slit could probably get there in half that time. Or less. Not exactly in War Boy territory already, heading back toward Mama Bell’s store - and the abandoned apartment - would take him even further away his gang. No Nux again, and no other members of his crew. Motorcycles were usually one-person rides anyway, unless the passenger was small enough to hang onto the back.

“What kind is it?”

“Triumph frame, modified Beemer RR engine. Still needs a name.”

“You name your bikes?”

“Course.” One large hand caressed the frame of it, fingers splayed over the black paint. Toast pressed down on her seat.

“Chrome,” she told him and Slit puffed up. “Looks like the one you painted in that office building.”

He nodded, looking pleased that she remembered that, and leaned backwards as he inspected the bike. It was a surprisingly provocative pose, long legs out and shoulders back, and again Toast rocked her hips to press on the bike seat.

Above them the sky was dappled with clouds. The color or cement, of the concrete sidewalks, walls, and columns of the city. Not quite dark enough to suggest a storm, but still… “Not the nicest weather for a bike ride,” she observed.

“So let’s go inside.”

Why the fuck not? “That place on Bergen?”

“Got tools, if you got the balls.”

“Got no balls, so you’re shit out of luck.”

“Mine are big enough for the two of us.”

“Hm, have to see for myself.”

Another grin. This one spread lazily, cat-like, and Slit leaned back even further, which made his t-shirt pull tight across his chest. “Then let’s get moving.”

Cocky bastard, she thought to herself. Another isolated building. Another block of time with him. She could tell him it was just for the lesson. She could pretend it was just for the lesson. Or admit that it wasn’t. Why the hell not? The back and forth with him tugged on some part in her chest, but just a pull and not anything painful, and she realized that she’d been smiling back at him. Dueling with a War Boy shouldn’t have been so fun. “I’m ready.”

He revved the engine, the thing snorting and snarling like it was an animal under him. “Want to race?”

“You wait for me, War Boy,” she said and kicked her bike into motion.

Slit pulled up beside her and then passed her with a glance, and then it was just her on the road, watching the smoke from his bike dissipate. Her mind raced along with her wheels and she pedaled hard enough that her wheels blurred as she whizzed down the street. She rode like there was someone on her tail; as fast as she was going, no one would be able to catch her.

Should’ve kissed him again on the street, seen if he was still smoking. Should’ve climbed on his bike, felt it between her legs. Should’ve turned around to go home. Should’ve stuck with Capable. Was it nervousness or excitement that made her pedal so hard? Did it matter when both made her heart pound?

And then there was Bergen, and then there was the empty four-story building they’d looked at the other day. The motorcycle and its owner were nowhere to be seen and Toast figured that was fair enough. It was just some sex, after all, and if he wasn’t -

“Told you you need a real bike,” Slit called. “Been waiting for fucking ever.”

They squabbled a little about bicycles versus motorcycles as they went around to the side of the building. He said he’d been scoping and that the neighborhood was empty enough that probably no one would see them. Still, they decided to try to door to the cellar on the side of the building instead of the front door. For deliveries? She wondered as she looked down the few steps that lead down to the door. Servants’ entrance? She had no idea how old the place was. No idea about architecture at all really, and resolved to check out some books from the library.

After parking her bike, she followed him down. In her backpack she had her water bottle, school stuff, the books she was going to sell to Mama Bell, and a couple of zines - and then in the same pocket were the can of mace and a box of condoms. All bases covered, she figured, and wryly wondered what Capable brought on her dates.

They stood shoulder to shoulder, as much as they could be considering his height. Out of a pocket he pulled screwdrivers of various sizes and handed her one of the smaller ones. Next came pliers, then some small strip of metal, and a bobby pin. The shadow of the alley made it difficult to see exactly what he was doing, even with his explanations, and Toast had to squint and stand on tiptoes to really look down at his hands as they moved around the lock.

“What if you couldn’t pick it?”

“Got other ways. Could shoot it open.” He glanced down at her, amused. “You want to try that, too?”

If he was carrying, she couldn’t see the gun. But his large leather jacket obscured the angles of his body so that he was more like a black mass beside her. After the quick lesson, he handed her the tools: her turn. He wasn’t the world’s most patient teacher - and she could hear every time he shifted, the rustle of his jacket and the clink of whatever else he had in his pants, then his low grunts whenever she fucked up - but he didn’t crowd her.

Having him bent over her…. It didn’t exactly make her nervous, but it did something to her so that her palms got damp. The metal of the tools grew warm in her hands and slipped between her fingers. She elbowed him back. “Don’t need you breathing down my neck.”

“Thought you liked my mouth there.”

She flicked her eyes up to him. That wicked mouth of his was opened slightly as he chuckled and she saw his teeth flash in the remains of the light. The scars didn’t detract from his attractiveness; in fact they made him even more fascinating to look at.

Annoyed, she grumbled back, “Don’t get ahead of yourself, War Boy.”

When it finally clicked they exhaled a breath and grinned at each other. Slinking into the silent apartment building, she was almost disappointed that there was no alarm, no police entrapment, not even the scurry of roaches to greet them. Almost. She took the small flashlight she always carried out of her bag and turned it on, and the thin beam illuminated the dusty floor. Even the windows that weren’t boarded barely let in any light.

“Got a bigger one,” Slit said behind her.

“Course you do.”

Other than the boiler, the basement was empty. But she had no time to explore before Slit slid past her and went toward a staircase. Horror movies never scared her, but she didn’t see a reason to skulk around alone in the cellar so after dragging her bike down the stairs and leaning against the wall, she went up the stairs behind him.

He waited by the door at the first floor apartment and Toast tried the lock there. This time his advice was more limited, and Toast had to rely on her own sense and senses. But he waited, and he didn’t badger, and he stood far enough away that she could move her elbows and shift her backpack in peace. Maybe it was slightly better than her first attempt, although it still felt like it took ages for her to hear the soft click of the lock.

“Knew you’d pick it up!” he pronounced. Proudly? No, probably just relieved that he wasn’t going to have to wait around for ages. He rapped on her shoulder with his knuckles and motioned up the stairs. “Come on; second floor.”

She hadn’t even turned the doorknob before he was walking up the stairs. There’d been no real reason to investigate the basement, but the apartment had potential. A Schrodinger’s room: endless possibilities on the other side of the door.

“Not going in?” she called to him curiously.

“Did already. Jack shit.”

“Did you go through the whole building?”

“Told you I scoped it out.”

Toast pushed through the now open door instead of answering that. Stale air rushed past her, bringing with it the scent of old wood, mold, and faint urine. Her flashlight illuminated a small, mostly empty apartment, with motes of dust floating in the few beams of light that made it through the boarded windows. Whoever had lived there before had left in a hurry: furniture stood in the darkened rooms and there were pictures still on the walls, ragged rugs on the floor. Despite Slit’s dismissal of it, Toast was intrigued, and as she wandered from room to room she imagined scenarios that could have led to the inhabitants abandoning their home.

“Boring,” Slit’s voice grumbled from the dusty shadows behind her. “Come on.”

She ignored that command and tried the small bathroom. The medicine cabinet still had a crusty tube of toothpaste in it. It was such a pathetically mundane remnant of normal life that it depressed her a little. Life fell apart, and in the cabinet was proof of it. She ran her hands through her hair, smearing dust into the dampness, and after a glance into the shower - gross - meandered thoughtfully back into the hallway. No books at all. Maybe she could look up who last had a mortgage for the building. As a lawyer, Valkyrie seemed to have access to countless databases; someone somewhere had to keep track of shit like that. Toast figured that if anyone knew how to research property history, Valkyrie would.

“You find anything interesting when you do this?” she asked over her shoulder.

He shrugged. “Like what? Money? Jewelry?”

“Yeah. Electronics, savings bonds, a Picasso, I don’t know. Treasure.”

She heard him step into the apartment. Stomp into the apartment, really. Toast went into what was once a bedroom and after a few moment he appeared in the doorway.

“I’m the best at finding shit,” he said.

“I’m asking about treasures, not shit.”

He didn’t return her grin, which she had to admit was sort of a smarmy one. He glanced back toward the door out and crossed his arms over his chest. “Won’t find anything good in here. Foreclosed; means they had jack shit to begin with. And they would’ve taken anything valuable with them when they jumped ship.”

“Still think it’s interesting,” she said. She dipped the flashlight’s beam over a rocking chair, then the dingy bed. Slit grumbled, looked up at the ceiling, then back behind him - Ignoring the bed completely. Some seduction, she thought with a quiet snicker. Maybe he was waiting for her move. Maybe the next floor had a king-sized bed instead of a broken twin. Another glance at him, and it occurred to Toast that he wasn’t just impatient - Slit was uncomfortable. She looked quickly around for cockroaches or anything else disgusting that he might have seen but she had missed.

“You looking for something?”

No giant bugs that she could find. “Don’t know. Books, I guess. See if they were reading anything good. I’m an asshole when it comes to judging other people’s libraries. All right. I’m ready to leave. Let’s see what’s behind the next door.”

He couldn’t get out of the apartment quick enough. They were on the stairs when he finally answered her question, and Toast, mulling over foreclosures and how it was bullshit to kick families out when the building was just going to stay empty, frowned for a second before she could follow his train of thought.

“A box of grenades, pins still in them. Had to be twenty years old. One time a stuffed lion, real one, propped up in a hall and it scared the shit out of Nux. Whole room of dolls. Big oil painting up in an attic.”

“No old dead guy underneath?”

The literary reference was lost on him, unsurprisingly, but he still looked over his shoulder at her with his eyebrows raised. “You want to hear about all the bodies? Knew you were weird. That’s your turn-on?”

“Want to know my turn-ons?” she asked. His hips didn’t exactly sway, but it was still… interesting to watch his body move as he climbed the steps. Heavy body, graceful movements. “Thought you lost interest.”

He turned around suddenly. He was a couple of steps above her, and the stairs had to add at least another foot to his height. But instead of feeling intimidated, Toast licked her lips in anticipation. She could still get him, take him down - and all the things that could be insinuated with the saying.

“Let’s keep going,” she said, prodding at his knee with her finger. Picking up her pace, she caught up to him and then squeezed along side him - good to be small, sometimes - slipping between the wall and the warm bulk of him. Slit made a low noise but didn’t grab her.

“You’re the one dicking around,” he reminded her. The criticism was softened by the huskiness in his voice and Toast wet her lips again - dry as hell in dusty building - and decided to speed things up a little.

“Kiss,” she said. Now on a step above him, they were closer to being the same height. She jammed her flashlight into her bag. She wanted both hands free for this.

Linking her fingers behind his neck, pulling him down to meet her lips, having him bend to her was so fucking hot and crazy that it fried and scrambled every thought in her head. “Touch me,” she commanded breathlessly. “Hips. Waist.”

She barely got the last word out before one of his big hands was on her. One tug and her breasts were crushed against the flat hardness of his chest. More, harder, and she opened her mouth to catch his bottom lip between her teeth, swiped her tongue over it, too, to taste him. No smokiness this time. So he had been waiting for her. Maybe even looking for her. Big, strange, interesting, gorgeous man and maybe he’d been thinking about her the same way she’d been thinking about him. Made Toast revel in her power.

They broke apart long enough to get to the door of the second apartment. The doorknob jammed into her back as he crashed against her, even with her backpack there, and Toast swore and jerked aside, pulling him with her so the door was behind her. He braced himself on it, arms on either side of her and legs pressing heavy against her own. His flashlight was still on, but pointed uselessly up at the ceiling so she could barely see him through the dingy darkness. But fuck, that was fine. Made it hotter, somehow. And that mouth - kissing deeper and harder now, so close that she felt like they were sharing breaths.

Picking the lock was hell. But Toast still managed to do it. This time when she started to search the rooms, Slit stayed silent, waiting with panting, bated breath, and she barely looked at the rooms and didn’t bother to open up the cabinets and closets. Still had to do it - And if he’d tried to stop her she would’ve taken longer. But after one loop she came back to him, kissed him again as a reward and a promise, and then they were stumbling up to the next floor. Same deal there: they roamed quickly through the apartment and then were back on the staircase.

Top floor. No need for her to practice her new-found skill here: the door to the fourth-floor apartment had been taken off its hinges.

“Busted lock,” he explained, breath on her ear.

“Didn’t want to shoot it open?”

“Can teach you how to pull out hinges.”

She snorted. “Know that already.”

“You do?” There was that possibly-proud expression again, but Toast pulled him down for another kiss before she could spend too long trying to decipher it.

This apartment was the brightest and airiest of all of them, and once she dragged her mouth free from his and managed a quick look around, she saw the open windows. Smelled different, but it wasn’t just the fresh air: she recognized the scent of spray paint. As she looked down the little hallway deeper into the apartment, her eyes adjusted to the light and she saw more of his masterpieces over the wallpaper and plaster. Fewer skulls, more abstract designs. Or maybe he hadn’t had time to finish them before she’d rolled up.

Later. She’d think about it later.

She planted a hand on his chest and pushed, but kept her fingers on this shirt. He moved backward, eyes intense on her face, letting her steer him inside, past the kitchen, past the bathroom, toward the back where she could see the wooden frame of a bed. He tossed his flashlight aside, she dropped her backpack on the floor, he yanked off his jacket. Toast finally got to slide her hands up his arms. Firm and smooth - like the rest of him was sure to be. There was no stubble this time, not on his arms or his throat or his jaw.

His lips moved up her chin toward her ear. Unable to help it, her eyes fluttered closed and if she hadn’t been gripping his shirt, she might have flopped boneless to the floor. Unpracticed, but the energy behind his kisses made up it. Dizzy - or maybe crazy - Toast pulled herself up to her tiptoes to get as much as him as she could.

“Wait -” he started and Toast immediately released him, heels thumping as she dropped back down.

“What?”

“See? Pure nitro.” Paper, crinkling. He held the sheet out with an almost theatrically gestured. The STD test results of Doe, John: negative all the way down. He’d listened. He’d gone. “Nux went. Needed back-up.”

Blaming Nux once again. Of course she had the same excuse, didn’t she? She’d gone with Capable as her shield. “Got mine, too. In my bag -”

But instead of getting it, Slit’s arms were around her again and his mouth was on her throat - that place, that spot, the way he moved his tongue on her skin - and Toast clenched the back of his neck to keep him there.

Couldn’t wouldn’t didn’t say another word. Kissing again, grabbing, clinging to him, his hands under her ribs, her legs around his knee. The way he kissed was hard, fast, burning, like time was running out, like he needed it to survive, like there was no way to stop. Gasping and groaning, Toast coaxed him on.

“Bed?” he asked, low and rumbling.

“Bed.”

Which was an uncovered mattress on a wooden frame. It creaked from just his weight when Slit dropped onto it - it’d probably sound like hell once they started fucking. Good thing the apartment below was empty, she thought wildly. Now with space between them she could think a little more clearly and she turned around to retrieve her bag. Water bottle first - needed to rinse off her hands and maybe her face and maybe just dump the whole thing on her head as an impromptu cold shower.

She was fighting with the zippers when she heard Slit sit up.

“Got these,” he called to her.

He tossed something metal toward her and Toast fumbled to catch them, but until her fingers closed around them, she couldn’t figure out just what the hell they were. And then even staring at them, the surprise of it stupefied her.

Handcuffs. They were heavy and dense, and when she tugged on the cuffs, the chain link between them jingled. Her mouth was dry and she had to think for a moment before any words made it from her brain to her mouth. “Kinky,” she said at last, forcing it out slowly, completely nonchalant.

“Won’t be able to touch you.”

“Lie down,” she said. It came out husky, came out low.

He obeyed, but despite the smug facade, she could see the way his chest rose under his t-shirt, the material straining with each breath. Toast spun the handcuffs on her finger for a moment - but it wasn’t out of hesitation. Slowly she strolled toward the bed and propped her foot up as she rinsed her hands off and set the water bottle down on the remaining unbroken nightstands.

And then she leaned over him and handcuffed him to the bed.

Eyes traveling up the hard length of him, starting at the bottom of his long legs. His boots were massive, feet braced against the bottom rungs of the bedframe, With his arms up, his big body looked even longer, and the stretch made each flex of his muscles more apparent. No silk sheets or satin negligee, her water bottle on the remaining table and not a bottle of chilled champagne, and her arousal a near ache.

“Knew you like it like this,” he purred.

She jammed her index finger into his armpit - “Hey!” - but the rest of her touches down his body were gentle. As she caressed the bulge at the crotch of his pants, she teased, “You like it too.”

“Can’t be soft when you get me so hard.”

And his voice too, scratching at the sensitive parts of her. Daring and challenging and filling Toast with a kamicrazy urge to show him - Not that she even know what that really meant, but she couldn’t stop thinking it.

He was spread out before her in a glorious display. Not just a box to tick off on her list - She wanted it. Wanted him. Heart wasn’t just pumping blood - each beat made her wetter, too. So she climbed on him, legs around his middle, and kissed and kissed and kissed.

With his jacket off and arms up, she finally had a chance to see his tattoos. The black lines of them were like mazes for her eyes to get lost in. Cars, curling flames, tiny figures among the designs, and gears that fit together with all the intricacy of a real machine. Just stroking down from his wrists to his elbows made his long body writhe under her and when she sat back, he grunted in disappointment at the loss of her touch.

“Who did your tattoos?”

“Me.”

She wiggled lower until she was sitting on his thighs. “You did these to yourself?”

“Course,” he bragged. “Do fucking chrome tattoos.”

“Even the ones down here? Didn’t it hurt?” Toast held him by his hips as she kissed his flat stomach, tongue on his tattoos like she was drawing new ones of his smooth skin. Shaved almost everywhere, there was a line of dark hair under his navel, a path easy enough to follow down to the top of his loose pants. Heavy fucking jeans, she thought as her fingers curled over the hem. Thick and rough under her legs. When he didn’t reply, she prompted, “Well?”

“Smeg - no.”

“Bleed?”

“Worth it. Everyone knows how fucking boss I am. Like the mummy.”

The Siberian princess from the tattoo book. “Mm, hers were pretty shine.”

“Hers?”

“Hers.”

“No shit?”

Instead of replying, she lowered her mouth back to his skin. Lapping at the sheen there, rubbing against his leg, dripping sweat already and there was so much more she wanted to do. She kept on hand on his hip to keep him steady while the other snaked toward the front of her shorts. Flicking the button open was easy enough, pushing open the zipper, and then there was just the thin cotton of her underwear to push aside. Her fingers slipped over her clit and just that one swipe was already a heady heaven.

“Come on, come on,” he growled as he jerked his hips up.

His cock sprang up to meet her hand when she undid the button on his jeans. His hips lifted to help or possible instinctively, and she tugged the pants down far enough to get her hand around the base of his erection. Awkward and sloppy, but she didn’t want to take her other hand out of her shorts, take her fingers away from where they dug into the curls of her pubic hair. Being half on top of him was almost good enough. Slit swore and bucked, the handcuffs clicked and the bed groaned, and he twisted under her.

Hard and smooth and big - like the rest of him. His cock was flushed and the tip of it slick against his palm, and the feel sight scent of him -

“God I want to fuck you.” Too late to bite her tongue - the words were out and maybe she didn’t care.

“Do it,” he hissed.

“Ask.”

He strained against the cuffs. “Fuck me.”

“Beg.”

“Toast, fuck me.”

She almost did, then. Almost. The way he had said her name… She circled her clit harder. “Those are orders, Slit. Ask me.”

He licked his lips. “Can you fucking fuck me?”

“At least give me a ‘please.’”

The jean shorts stuck to her damp skin, underwear stretched as she yanked them down over her sneakers. Got on him again, got astride him, crushing her crotch against his stomach and sliding back until his cock was flush against her ass, and Slit closed his eyes and tilted his head back and finally begged - “Please, Toast. Fucking smeg schlanger -”

Bowing under the shivering pleasure of it all, she kept touching herself instead, clit and lips and cunt wet under her fingers, and then when she started to hold her breath and tense, she raised her hips and felt his cock slip toward her and reaching back she caught him and then with one smooth motion guided him inside her. And moved and rose and rocked and thrust and - She came with an orgasm like a wave, crashing over her, leaving her slick, stealing her breath. Under her his bucking was irregular but even that felt unbelievable, and as her mind started up again she realized she was urging him on with noises of her own. “Yeah, there, Slit -”

He shuddered and pulled up and the bed crashed against the wall. His eyes squeezed shut when he came and he bit his lower lip, and then she felt it - felt him - liquid heat that poured inside of her.

Did it. She did it. They did it.

Toast hauled in breaths, arms shaking under the pressure of holding herself up, and closed her eyes. For a moment there was nothing but the sound of their ragged breathing, but then he moved against and the handcuffs clinked.

“Want to touch you.”

“You are already,” she answered. He was soft enough that she wiggled backward until she was flush against the flat planes of his pelvis, keeping his cock inside of her.

The low noise he made was nearly a growl, low and rumbling. And then he lurched and the cuffs and the bed rattled. Her eyes flew open in surprise.

“What are you doing?” she exclaimed.

He grunted through gritted teeth. She felt his legs raise behind her as he braced himself on the mattress and he yanked forward again. The bed frame creaked and shuddered and Toast scrambled up - cock slipping out - getting to her feet before the bed shattered out from under her.

“Stop, stop! What the fuck are you doing? You’re going to break your wrists!” Grabbing the key, she rushed back to him and fumbled with the handcuffs - He’d finally stopped yanking and was staring with a frown, like somehow he found her reaction completely fucking baffling.

Toast unlocked the cuffs and caught his hands. Bruises had already appeared, ringing the smooth paleness of his skin and marring his tattoos. She covered the fine red lines with her fingers, which could barely span the circumference. She didn’t look up at him and didn’t look down at his naked lap, instead glaring down at their hands, and demanded, “The hell are you trying to do?”

“Bed frame’s a piece of shit. Figured I could break it.”

“Were you trying to fucking break your hands?”

“What? Course fucking not!”

“Could’ve fooled me, for fuck’s sake. Didn’t that hurt?”

“Yeah.”

Just that, a casual acknowledgement. Toast wasn’t content to leave it like that. “So…?”

“Lots of things hurt.”

“Are you kidding me?” She jerked her head up, met his eyes; they were narrowed, wary, like he was trying to figure out her angle. Her fingers were still surrounding his wrists - big fucking hands, what an asshole.

The sweat that had been dripping and steaming down her back was suddenly a cold shell. Anger left her too; she was just tired now, which was why her voice was quiet and rough when she sighed, “Listen, try not to get hurt. I can’t believe I have to spell this out.”

“You worried about me, Toast?” He asked. Maybe he meant to be smug, but Toast thought it sounded more like hollow bravado. Maybe no one had ever worried about him. Him with his fucking scars tearing his face apart. War Boys. Fucking War Boys. A cancer. A wound.

“I’m getting used to seeing you around,” she said, the words more flippant than the tone. She released him, pulled her arms back and crossed them over her chest. Her bare legs were dotted with goosebumps. The only warmth was from his leg where it lay against her own.

Slit’s lips were pressed flat between those asperous scars. He prompted, “So?”

“So what, War Boy?”

“Can I touch you.”

After all that... He’d practically severed his hands just so he could touch her. “Yeah, sure. Go for it,” she said with a mirthless laugh.

When he reached toward her, Toast forced her shoulders to relax. They’d already fucked; whatever he wanted to do had to pale in comparison to that. Still, she kept her eyes on his large hand as it came closer. She expected a grope, but instead of grabbing for her breasts, Slit’s long fingers grazed over her hair. Maybe he was waiting for her to bolt, because there was a pause before he cupped his hand around the back of her head.

He was staring at her with brows drawn low.

“Been awhile since you had any hair, War Boy?” she asked.

A snort and he tugged on her hair - though not painfully. Leaning in a little made him scratch gently, blunt nails. His hands were warm - all of him was warm, radiating heat that started to melt away the ice that formed during that moment of fear.

"Nux better keep shaving,” he said.

That was apropos of nothing. And not what she was expecting. Annoyed that she was hoping for anything, she moved away from him. “Don’t tell Nux about this,” she warned again.

He sat up, yanking his pants back up before rolling of the bed. “Course I fucking won’t.”

“Good.”

The black leather jacket went on again, too, and then he was completely covered. “Why do you care? Red doesn't seem the type to kick your ass about it.”

“Capable isn’t like that.” Toast dressed just as swiftly as him, turning away as she pulled up her underwear and shorts.

“So why the fuck do you care if she knows?”

Angry, it had taken her an extra moment to process what he’d said. “Is that what would happen to you? To War Boys?”

Nux had said they had limitations, but his list had been physical items. Maybe Joe restricted them in other ways. A sudden realization shook her: she hadn’t thought about Joe at all until that moment. Not his face, not his voice, not any part of his body, not anything about him. Like it’d been an exorcism, the shade of Joe hadn’t touched her at all. Startled at that realization, she paused, then had to bend over to fiddle with her sneaker to cover up the hesitation.

Meant she was over him. Of course she was.

To Slit, she asked, “Were there rules? About having sex?”

“Keep pure,” he said, which was an ambiguous answer at best.

Fine. She didn’t need to know any more about how fucked up the War Boys were. She took a swig of water and then passed it to him, and their usual grudging cooperation seemed to be restored. And that was fine. Didn’t need to spend hours engaging in pillow talk, after all. It did feel awkward, not saying much of anything as they collected their stuff, but Toast kept her face neutral and her eyes ahead of her.

They clamped down the stairs together. When they got into the basement, he brushed past her to the door out. He opened it, but then turned back to her. “Going to break in the Vault. Want to come?”

Toast’s face went slack, wiped of any expression. Of course the Vault was still there; just because Joe was dead didn’t mean he was gone.

Mistakening her surprise for anxiety, Slit goaded, “Too scared of War Boys now?”

“Aren’t you?” she threw back at him.

“Why the fuck should I be scared?”

“Of Joe.”

“Dead, remember? Seems like you keep forgetting.”

“His sons?” she asked pointedly and his scowled deepened. “The bosses? Who’s in the Vault now?”

“Not afraid of any of those schlanger-eating fuckers.” He boasted, jerking his thumb toward himself, “Better than all of them.”

“Need someone to help with the locks?” she asked facetiously, tone softer this time.

“Need someone to watch.”

The Vault - Joe’s nightclub. Gaudy joint, as shitty awful as the owner had been. Silk curtains, crystal chandeliers, Cuban cigars that burnt holes in the velvet upholstery. Singing, dancing, drinking… And everything that happened in the windowless rooms. She was over it. She was fine. Toast raised her eyes back to Slit, pondering over his request. And his reason. That was easier to focus on.

Of all the places for a clandestine meeting.

But going there was Slit was not the same as Joe taking her there. She could go wherever the fuck she wanted, she reminded herself. A sudden thought ran quickly through her, but she kept her face neutral as she dealt with the panic that arose: did Slit know anything about her? Nux had sworn he wouldn’t tell Furiosa’s crew about them, but had he included Slit in that embargo? What if it was some sort of trap?

Again she studied him. His blue eyes narrowed under her scrutiny, but it wasn’t threatening. Impatient, certainly, but other than that… How fucked up was it that she believed she could trust him?

At last she answered, “I’ll consider it. When?”

She mentally flipped through her own calendar. School of course, but nothing else. Still, somehow she didn’t want to go home. Capable plucked at whatever strings she could see, and as Toast’s roommate, sometimes her kind questions were impossible to avoid. Toast could stay at home, admit she was afraid, or she could go back into the heart of Joe’s territory and screw one of his War Boys, the ultimate middle finger.

Squeezing her legs together made her aware of the remains of slick wetness between her thighs. She’d had him inside her, had some part of him still there. Stupid to get dramatic over it, but she couldn’t stop that thought from cycling through her brain.

“Next couple of days?” she suggested and Slit’s grin widened.

“Knew you thought I’m shine.”

A day when she had an early class. If Capable didn’t have work, she’d be at home, possibly with Nux in tow. Sitting with the two of them or, more likely, sitting downstairs alone while the two of them went up to the bedroom… Instead of explaining, Toast gave him a shrug. “You are handsome.”

She’d managed to surprise him again. The smirk disappeared and his wide-eyed expression made him look younger. He turned away with a noise of disgust, but it wasn’t quite fast enough.

“Are you blushing?” she asked gleefully. She grabbed at his jacket and tried to hold him in place as she chased around him, but he was just as determined to evade her. “Slit, hold still. You are!”

“Fuck off.”

“Come here. Let me see.”

“No.”

“Fuck you - Come here”

Laughing through a smirk, she finally got her arms around his waist. Her face smashed into the cool leather of his jacket before she could shuffle around him, but then his arms surrounded her and pulled her tight against his chest. With a bit of wiggling she managed to tilt her chin up.

“I think blushing is just too adorable for words,” she cooed, and he groaned and crushed her in an even tighter embrace.

“Just fucking hot in here, for shit’s sake.”

She laughed. “All right, I believe you.”

He bent around her and then rubbed his face against her hair. Dangerously close to too cutesy pie territory, Toast pulled away before he could kiss her and went back to her bike. Dangerously close. Dangerous.

“I might be around Bergen,” she said as she grabbed her bike. “If I see you, maybe we can check the Vault out.”

It seemed like an anticlimactic way to end a tryst. And a little dishonest, considering how fast her heart was going. And he seemed to be expecting something else, maybe something more - but Slit didn’t try to reach for her. He really was something. And really was handsome, she thought to herself, and felt a bit guilty for having said it such a glib tone.

“If I don’t have more important things to do,” he said at last. “Yeah.”

Yeah. That was that. Toast nodded and wheeled her bike out, back to the street. The quiet clicking of metal as he locked the door against behind them was immediately swallowed by the sound of a passing car, but other than that the street was clear. Mama Bell’s bookstore was further down the block, but Toast didn’t see the lights on. Even though it wasn’t that late; the sky was darkening but not dark, and Toast had time to get home before anyone noticed she was gone.

Which felt odd somehow. More time should have passed, considering everything they done. She didn’t exactly blush, but Toast felt herself heat up again.

Again she heard him approach; she startled a little, not because of the sound of him behind her, but because she’d nearly started to fantasize on the sidewalk. “Wool-gathering,” was the metaphor, and it felt like there was fluff in her skull instead of a useful brain.

“Night’s better for it.”

For breaking and entering, she assumed. “I have class to go to, so I’m not going to traipse around the city at midnight.”

He grunted. “Least wait until it’s dark.”

“I thought you weren’t afraid?”

“Not. Just common fucking sense.”

Common sense, she repeated caustically to herself. “How come you’re still in the War Boys?”

Slit stared down at her. More than surprise, she saw consternation in his twisted expression. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

He shifted his weight, and his demeanor changed to something she hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t his usual smugness; when he spoke, Slit’s tone was reverent, “Because that’s all that matters.”

War Boy. She had fucked a War Boy after all. Been on top of him, pulled down his blacks, traced his gang tattoos, looked up at his spray-painted tags. So there was no way she should have forgotten who he was. Still, an icy feeling hardened in her chest. “Good luck with that. Looks like it’s worked out really well for you so far.”

“Vault’ll show you.”

“It’ll be something,” she muttered.

They were a couple of feet apart. One kick forward on her bike and she could roll up beside him. For what? But somehow she couldn’t convince herself to ride away.

“You feel ok?” he asked suddenly and she dug her toes in against the sidewalk to stop her bike from moving.

“Yeah. I mean - Are you asking about the sex? It was -” Toast composed herself. “Yeah. Sort of wish we’d used condoms, though.”

“Why? No diseases.”

Because she was a mess from him. Because she liked it so much. “Did you forget about pregnancy?”

“Can’t girls just shut that down?”

They stared at each other in confusion. “Shut it down?” she repeated. “Do you know anything about women’s bodies?”

“You can show me,” he suggested, leering.

“More time in book stores, Slit. They’re good for you.” So much for a kiss goodnight. She didn’t need it - She’d achieved what she came there to do, hadn’t she? “See you around.”

She had to ride all the way back to Green Place with her ass up in the air - Her crotch was too sore to sit on the narrow bike seat.

Chapter Text

We found you hiding, we found you lying / Choking on the dirt and sand / Your former glories and all the stories / Dragged and washed with eager hands / But oh your city lies in dust, my friend

---
Slit
---

The Vault was so close he could almost see it from the roof of the garage, through the smog and the shit, the big ass sign that he’d light up again. Morsov’s cats sat on the roof’s edge, perched like they were waiting for something too. Morsov had been somehow getting money to buy them food. They looked less like feral rats since they’d been getting two squares a day - more than the rest of them got.

Wary of him, they mostly kept their distance. They moved like hunters, sleek and silent, and Slit watched them stalk the dumbass pigeons that shit all over the War Boy cars. One came close enough to him that he could see the lines of its pupils in its green eyes. Its shoulder blades jutted out from its back as it crouched down, then with a pause as it aligned itself - It sprung up in an arcing leap. Without realizing it, his thoughts turned to drawing them. He imagined them as a tag, one fluid movement from head to tail.

He snapped back to attention and slapped his palms against the ledge, loud enough that it spooked the cats. Flipping open his phone, he looked again at the time. Hours to go until they were going to meet up. Or not. But despite the validity of that option, he didn’t really consider ditching her. If she were there, if she were waiting for him -

With a curse he kicked out the thought of her. Went back downstairs into the garage - not that there was anything worth doing in there.

For the rest of the morning Slit worked out through a shitload of Capable’s songs, complete with Nux’s commentary, then even let the schlanger talk about all the traitorous slogans that would have gotten him strung up in the Pits for even thinking them. Nux’s girl was a dreamer, Slit thought as Nux bragged about some march she was planning, like walking in the street would do her any good. Probably just get run over. Whatever she was aiming for, it wasn’t going to work. And the sooner she realized that - sooner that Nux realized that - the easier it would be for everyone. She didn’t have a clue about how Citadel City worked. What the hell did she think she could do with a guitar? Deflect bullets with it?

Mediocre.

He looked across the garage at his partner, who was unscrewing hubcaps with Dred, while Rotor sat on the hood of Ace’s truck. Getting into the Vault, a feat no other War Boy had ever managed. Even dared to try. Course it would be him doing it. Better than Ace or any of his crew, or Gonner and his Boys, or any of the other bosses. Once the police had swarmed it, not even Scab had tried to take it back. Slit stopped in the middle of push-up number seventy and stared unseeing at the concrete below him. The Vault, Joe’s pride and joy. Would be his, too. And Toast would be there to witness it all.

Just the thought of that charged him back up. He climbed swiftly to his feet and strolled over to the other Boys. Dred begged to borrow his bike and Slit grinned as he shook his head. “Got plans for it tonight,” he told them and smirked when they cursed in disappointment.

Nux, in the middle of typing a text, didn’t even look up.

---

The lights were pouring out of the bookstore window and pooling around her where she sat on the curb. She looked up as he revved the engine and her eyes glinted as the headlight fell on her face. Something in his chest lurched a bit - Probably shifted down too quickly.

“Look like a Boy,” he said approvingly and she rolled her eyes.

“Figured dark clothes made sense.” She tugged the sweatshirt’s hood up so a shadow obscured her face. “Almost got a mask, but I thought that might be overkill.”

“Brown skin like yours should be good enough,” he told her. “Nux practically glows in the fucking dark.”

She snorted. “Got news for you, Slit: You’re a pale-ass white boy too.”

He had a bandanna around his neck and he pulled it up over his grin. Toast politely applauded.

“So we’re all set. I left my bike in the basement,” she explained, nodding her head to the building they’d broken into. She’d picked the lock again with no problem. Course she would. He’d taught her and she was smart as hell. She picked up her backpack and shrugged it onto her shoulders as she approached, but then stopped a bit away and her eyes roamed over the bike. And him. “No helmets, huh?”

“You don’t wear one.”

“Touche,” she said, exhaling a laugh. She reached out to touch the handlebars. He leaned back, giving her space, and Toast inched closer and dragged her dark fingers along the piping. “But I’m not going 70 miles per hour on my bike. This thing is in a different league entirely. They call them donorcycles, you know.”

“That mean you’re backing out?”

“The date’s still on.”

“Date?” he repeated.

She waved her hand dismissively. “Whatever. Assignation. Though I’m not sure if that’s a better word.”

Whatever she wanted to call it, it was the two of them partnering up.

“Assassination?” he asked, twisting her word.

“Look at how deadly I am.”

He stretched his legs and watched Toast’s eyes follow the movement. She didn’t look away, even when he pulled his scars up into a grin. Brave as any War Boy. He was right: she’d be good back-up if they ran into trouble. Something restrained that thought; for once he almost hoped there wouldn’t be anything to beat down. Not that he couldn’t protect her.

“Lap.” He said, but didn’t reach for her - not yet - even though he could have grabbed her.

Rest of her face was neutral, but he saw the slight quirk of her eyebrows. She softened, just a little, just her shoulders relaxing. “Lap.”

This time when he put his hands on her waist and picked her up, she reached back, holding onto his arms as she hauled herself onto his thighs. Before he could pull her against him, Toast wiggled out of his grasp - and he let her go, biting back a command to make her stay. But instead of sliding off him, she twisted around. To straddle him. Like she’d ridden him in bed, the way she’d leaned forward and he’d felt her slick on his dick and her sweat dripping onto his stomach, all of her wet, all of her moving fluidly.

Her face was small, delicate against his hand. Toast’s eyes shut as he tilted her chin up and kissed her. “Knew you liked it,” he said roughly against her mouth. “You like riding.”

Kissed again. Held onto her hips as she angled them up. Groaned as she slid her hands up his neck to the back of his head. It was easy to forget everything else when she touched him - easy and smooth. But War Boy training restored his control and got him back on track. He asked, “Ready to try the door on the Vault?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” she said. And sounded grim: heading toward punishment instead of treasure.

“This’ll be shine as fuck.”

“You think so?”

“Moment of glory,” he replied, thinking about the prizes he’d haul back, spill out in from of Ace and his crew to make them rust in jealousy. It’d show Nux what he was missing - what he could have again if he wanted. Money for anything, everything. Joe’s best treasures, waiting for Slit to rescue them.

Toast climbed off, shoved the bag he had tied on there to make room, and got on behind him. At first he felt her lean away, trying to brace herself on the seat, but then she slid forward and wrapped her arms around his waist. Her elbows locked and she gripped him tight. His jacket was thick between them; had to wear it, of course, but he almost wished it wasn’t there, that he could feel her soft against his back.

When he turned on the engine, the vibration of it stoked at what Toast had got hard and hot. Sky above them was getting dark, but the night was young - they had time to get into the apartment building and up to the top floor. Hadn’t brought the handcuffs, but even without them -

“We going or what?” Toast asked loudly over his shoulder.

Slit gunned it and grinned at her yelp. Bike flew down Bergen, tires gripping the pavement as he cut through turns and swerved around cars, obeying him flawlessly as he pushed it to go faster. Toast was clamped around him, squeezing hard enough that he felt each of her fingers digging into his stomach. He lifted himself a bit to try to get her hands to go lower.

His eyes snapped from road to lights as they weaved through the traffic. To avoid running into any Boys, they had to stay off the highway, couldn’t take the usual routes. A longer trip, taking the twisting backstreets of Citadel City, flying through unclaimed territory. He kept a sharp look-out anyway, searching for Boys or Buzzards, for once trying to keep out of the action. He circled a block twice to make sure no one had followed them, but Slit didn’t see a tail. Proof that they were meant for this. Didn’t take long for the Vault’s sign to rise up over the roofs. Even though it wasn’t lit up, it was still a beacon. There were other bars and other buildings, but nothing like Joe’s.

He steered into an alley. “Here looks good,” he told her and felt her nod against his back. A quick look around and then he parked the bike behind a dumpster. Close enough to get back if shit went south, but far enough from the Vault that anyone sniffing around wouldn’t know where they had gone.

Toast hopped down and they both grabbed their bags. War Boy tags were everywhere and he berated himself for not bringing spray paint to add to the display. Later. He’d come back to fix it up - He had more important shit to do now. As they walked through the alley, a rat scurried out before disappearing behind a pile of bricks. Behind him, Toast made a low noise of disgust.

“This place is a slum,” she pronounced.

Slit stared at her in astonishment. “You said you knew about War Boys.”

“I do,” she insisted irritably.

He flung his arm out to gesture at the nightclub. “Joe Moore’s. Heart of War Boy power.”

“I thought Boys lived in the Pits,” she said and Slit clamped his teeth together. Toast glared up at him and taunted, “You ever been inside the Vault? He ever let any of you in?”

“Bosses.”

“Boys?”

“Going in now,” he replied darkly instead of answering that. Slit turned away from her and her inciting glare. “Should’ve seen it a year ago. People’d kill to get in. Every light on. You were asking about valuables, right? Won’t find much in foreclosed houses. Joe’s got money,” he said proudly. “Best of the Boys’ stuff - It’ll be here.”

“So why did you bother to break into that apartment?”

“Copper,” he answered. When he glanced down at her, Toast was frowning. Something about that, the disappointment there, made him shrug and add gruffly, “Good walls for tagging.”

“I went up there while I was waiting.”

Still pissed that she wasn’t impressed by the Vault, Slit just snorted in reply and then started weaving through the trash to get to the Vault’s backdoor. There had to be entrances for supplies and shit, tucked away where Joe’s glittering guests wouldn’t see them. He focused on that instead of on Toast. For a few steps - Then he glanced back down at her.

In the shadows he couldn’t see her face. But she sounded less pissed off when she said, “I liked it. The figures you drew, they were with a marker, weren’t they?

“Yeah.”

“I appreciated the dearth of death and destruction.”

Wasn’t hard to figure out what she meant, even if he didn’t recognize the word she’d used. He’d told her he could draw whatever the fuck he wanted, not just the good stuff like explosions and cars.

“The artist’s change of medium is indicative of a bold new direction. Will we see further maturation? Maybe some figure studies? Will he need nude models?”

“You offering?” he asked. She’d gotten to see him, but he hadn’t gotten much of a view of anything when they’d fucked. Didn’t seem fair.

“I’ve had worse jobs.”

He moved swiftly through the alley, keeping his footsteps soft as he lead them around to the back of the building. No graffiti there either, but the walls weren’t as pristine as Slit imagined. Streaked with dirt and bird shit, they were more gray than white. There were small windows of thick glass; couldn’t be broken easily and even if they busted through, even Toast was too big to fit through them. He rapped his knuckles on one just to test it - the glass was hard as bricks. Joe had thought the design of the place through, built it like a fort.

The remains of cameras were everywhere. Slit spotted three just in their alley, figured there had to be at least that many more that he couldn't detect. But none of them rotated, none of them had blinking lights, and two of them had their glass eyes broken. There were probably alarms everywhere, too, but without power, they did jack shit as he eased forward.

Toast ducked down and kept watch at the mouth of the alley as Slit crept deeper into the shadows. Just like in the front, more papers stuck to the doors, official seals that warned away anyone who got close enough to read them. Slit jiggled the doorknob on one, pushed it a bit to hear what sort of locks it had. It would be a pain in the ass to bust through, so he moved on.

One door had new locks, courtesy of the CCPD. Shittier than the ones that Joe had installed, they were the best bet in. Cops had done something right for once. Slit hissed to Toast and when she approached, he motioned to the locks lower on the door.

“Teamwork,” she murmured as she accepted a screwdriver.

Deadbolt eased open like Slit had been turning its key. Below him, Toast worked on the other lock. Once it clicked, she turned upwards and flashed him a grin he could see in the shadows. She pushed open the door and he slid in behind her. Inside they both went for their flashlights. The sky outside still had blue in it, but the Vault was pitch black, closed tight against the rest of the city.

“Come on,” he urged. Now that they were in, he couldn’t wait any longer.

Swiftly he moved through the remains of the kitchen to a hall, then followed his instincts toward the front of the building. They went as quietly as they could but were too fast to make it silent. Couldn’t slow down, even if it would make them stealthier. It was like the Vault was calling to him, making him race for it, chase it down, a hunt with Joe at the head. When they got to a small staircase, his boots banged down it. He jumped down the last of the step when his flashlight reached the closed doors - big doors, pearly doors, shinier than any other he’d ever seen. And then all it took was his hand on the handle; one push and it opened for him.

“Glory me,” he breathed, half a prayer and half a curse.

The room was a cavern, all diamonds from the floor to the walls to the ceiling, sparkling under the beam of light. Even with the dust, even with the furniture all pushed to the side, even with the leftover pollution from the cops and whoever else had gotten in before him, the Vault was a sight. In the huge space, their flashlights barely made a dent, but the room’s chromeness reflected the light back.

Panels on the ceiling glittered. The floor was some white stone. Jeweled chandeliers drooped down high above his head; when he pointed the flashlight at them, they flickered and glimmered like sparks. There was a stage of pure silver, then another one a little higher behind it with a podium embossed with a stylized JM, the letters curling and curving each other. Excited, he pointed it all out to Toast.

He went to the bar first, which still had rows and rows of bottles behind it. Toast sat on a stool and spun around it before resting her arms on the counter, regarding him with heavy-lidded eyes. “Fancy,” she said, nodding along as he read the unfamiliar names aloud. “Think they watered it down?”

“Course not.” Under the counter was a gun rack - empty now, and he grunted in disappointment. But his frustration didn’t last. Plenty of booty: Cartons of cigarettes, boxes of matches etched with Joe’s name, long-stemmed glasses so fine they looked like they were spun out of smoke. He held one between his fingers, marveled at it.

“Can you get anything for these?” she asked.

“What are they?”

“They’re for champagne,” she explained. She tapped her fingernail against the glass, and it rang like a delicate bell. “They’re called flutes.”

He shook his head. “Don’t even know who to sell them to,” he said. Words came out like Nux was talking, all full of wonder.

She hopped down from the stool and came behind the bar beside him, crouching to do her own inspection. Their knees banged together but she didn’t move away, even leaned in a little more to support her weight on him. “Typical bar stuff back here. The booze might be valuable, if the bottle’s still closed. But same deal, right? Who would buy it? Would they, if they knew where it came from?”

Before he could answer, she grabbed a bottle and yanked out the cork. A quick raise of it, like a salute, and then Toast tilted her head back as she took a swig. And sputtered and coughed a laugh. “Been awhile since I’ve had anything that strong.”

When she shoved it back at him, Slit fumbled to keep it from slipping out of his hands. “Don’t waste it!”

Her puffy lips pursed for a second before she smirked. “You Boys allowed the hard stuff?” At his grimace, Toast shook her head with sarcastic concern. “Clearly a prohibition that didn’t apply to Joe. Fair warning: This isn’t your usual cheap beer. It’ll put hair on your chest.” She snickered. “Maybe that’s why it was forbidden.”

Suddenly her little hand was on his leg. “Wait,” she said, voice a little husky. She pulled the bottle back and took another drink from it. Her dark eyes were on him, making sure he watched her. Then she moved forward, caught his mouth with her own. He felt the wet lick of her tongue on his lips and he opened his mouth to her, tasted the sharp bite of the alcohol.

She didn’t need the handcuffs to call the shots.

Pleased with herself - That’s what she looked like. More than that - like she’d won something. Toast rose and slipped away. “Too bad we don’t have any music,” she said over her shoulder. “I bet you can cut a rug like nobody’s business.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

Without answering to that, Toast jogged across the long, empty room. Her footsteps were soft but he could still hear each of them. She jumped onto the stage and crossed her arms over her chest as she looked around.

Realizing he was still holding the bottle, Slit took a slug. Burnt, even against the numb knots of his scars, but he swallowed it all. Fueled up, he followed her, bottle swinging with his long steps. When he shined the flashlight up to the ceiling again, beams shot back down to illuminate her, a thousand tiny spotlights.

“So what’s ‘cut a rug?’”

Toast laughed. “Outdated saying. Probably picked it up from a book. It means dance.” She paused, got a distant look in her dark eyes as she looked over the room. “Can’t imagine War Boys dancing. Moshing, maybe. Or do you guys have choreographed routine?”

He scowled at first, but a grin broke through it. “We got the matching clothes.”

“I’d pay to see that.”

He stood below the stage and watched as she roamed around it. Even in her sweatshirt, he couldn’t keep his eyes off her. Marching around like she owned the joint. If she were decked out too, she’d outshine the rest of the room. When she stopped in the middle of the stage, he asked, “You about to sing?”

“I’m not Capable,” Toast said, but it was sort of soft, not a scoff at all.

Taunt fell flat and his smirk fell along with it. There was a silent moment where he could have added something to turn his comment into a concession, asked her to sing. But he clamped his teeth together instead. Her fingers went into her hair, rifling through it to spike it up, and then she turned away and walked slowly along the stage again. There were a couple of poles jutting up to the ceiling and she slapped her palm on one of them.

“Catch,” he called and tossed the bottle and flashlight to her, then climbed onto the stage. He grabbed onto one of the poles and with a grunt hauled himself up. Kicking off it, he swung around.

No way for her to ignore that, and sure enough Toast came over. “Not bad! Think you can climb it all the way up?”

“Course,” he scoffed. “Time me.”

Boots on the pole, he started pulling himself up when suddenly there was a tug on his jacket. Toast had grabbed onto the bottom of it and was stretched up to hold on to it. “That was a joke, not a dare. Last thing I need is you breaking your neck. I’d never get your body out of here.”

“Won’t fall! It’s a straight climb up. Hauled ass over harder things than a pole.”

“Is War Boy life dangerous or are you all just idiots? You promised not to get hurt, remember?” Toast held tight.

He dropped down when Toast tugged again, but instead of stepping back he slithered out of his jacket, leaving it in her grasp. He grinned again when she sighed, and said as he pulled himself up again, “Watch this.”

“War Boys are all strippers - Everything makes sense now.”

“Race you to the top.”

“You just want to show off your biceps.”

“You like them,” he grunted as he climbed. Didn’t even need to brace with his boots; he was strong enough to heave himself up. Felt everything flex at the effort of it.

“Showboating.”

“Boat? Nah, muscle car.”

When he swung back to the floor. Toast tossed the jacket at him but he still caught her. He pushed her hood back and kissed her, easy as anything. Pride and pleasure at that, that he’d read her right and she didn’t flinch away. She laughed, low and smug like she’d been the one showing off.

They grabbed their shit and finished investigating the perimeter. Doors in the back led into a hall with statues built into recesses in the wall. At some point they were probably fountains; course now they were bone dry. There were windows, too, though they didn’t look outside. The glass was colored, the designs so intricate that they almost looked like paintings. Slit pushed open one door: a bathroom, bigger than the whole living area of the garage.

At the end was another locked door. He had to wipe his palms dry on his shirt before he could grip the tools to pick it. This was just the first step, just a taste of everything the Vault had to offer. The dance hall just whetted his appetite for everything. They pushed through to the next area; doors lined either side of this hall.

“What do you think this is?” he asked Toast in a hushed voice.

“Open one.”

A room with a billiard table. Balls gone but there were still pool cues in cases on the walls. The walls were velvet, floor covered in a rug so thick that his boots sank into it. Toast squeezed under his arm to look in.

“Anything you can sell?” she asked.

“Need a truck to haul the table out.”

They went from room to one - couple for card games,couple with just a long table and chairs, couple empty. Slit examined crystal decanters and silverware, more wine glasses, vases of dead flowers, and statues of naked girls that made Toast press her lips together flat. There were paintings of everything in the world: castles, men in old-fashioned military gear, naked girls reclining on beds.

“Couple hundred thousand,” he guessed at the value of it all. Had to be, at least.

“Just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s good. Looks like Joe didn’t know fuck-all when it came to art.” She crossed her arms as she glowered at the painting. “Rather have anything by you than any of this.”

Too shocked to reply, Slit just followed her when she started walking again. He could probably fit a couple of the paintings in his bag. So far it was empty of everything but his tools and the one bottle of whiskey; the glamour of the place was still out of his reach. He paused at a framed photograph of Joe and a couple of suits, everyone with a girl draped over their arms. Toast glanced up, but didn’t stick around to study them. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her pull out her phone, like she had something better to do - As if there could be anything fucking shinier than this. A growl didn’t get her turn around and she continued walking away down the hall, holding the phone up to her ear.

Another picture had Joe and the head of the police department, chumming up. Slit stared at their faces. Joe’d had the entire city under him. The War Boys territory was everywhere in the city - was the city - and that’d included the top brass of the CCPD. He could almost hear Toast’s sharp voice needle him: while Joe was inhaling whiskey with the Chief of Police, Boys were getting hassled by the cops.

But she didn’t say anything. And when he turned around, she was gone.

Shit.

Fuck.

“You get lost?” he called, then flinched at the echo of his voice. The ceilings were so fucking low that he thought he’d bang his head on them, and with the hallways all narrow and twisting, it was no wonder she’d gotten lost. When he flung open doors and flashed his light into them, they all looked the same, with nothing in them for him.

Dark and dusty, and there was another smell, something thick and sickly, chemical but unsettlingly human. Not sharp at all - it was old and it was faded, but it stuck to everything, clogged up his lungs as bad as the dust. Pulling up his bandanna brought the familiar smell of gasoline and cigarettes, helped clear the air.

What if there was someone else inside with them? Rock Riders weren’t dare come in, but Buzzards were stupid enough to try it. Even though he hadn’t seen any sign of recent activity, Slit pictured her being cornered. He’d let her get caught while he stood around like a mediocre idiot. Maybe even Boys - Maybe they’d been followed. She had mace but she probably didn’t have a gun - He should’ve brought one for her, made sure she was armed.

The hall wound deeper into the building, further away from the ballroom in the center. Rugs got replaced by tiles, the wallpaper got simpler, turned to paint. Darker and darker, ceiling coming lower and lower, and his flashlight beam got thinner and thinner.

“You take off? Afraid of the dark? Toast!”

“No.”

Her voice was suddenly at his elbow and Slit spun around, nearly nailed her with the flashlight. Toast jumped back with a curse. The sound of their heaving breaths filled the small space.

“What the hell are you doing?” she demanded.

“Where the hell did you go?”

She jammed her hands into the pockets in the front of her sweatshirt. When she brushed by him, her shoulder grazed his chest, making him take a step away from her. “I was making a phone call for fuck’s sake. Didn’t think I needed your permission.”

Relief then irritation flooded him, but he pushed back both. He growled out, “Don’t go fucking around!”

“Piss off.” She took out her phone again, but just turned the screen on and then off. “We going or what?”

Feeling stupid that he’d been worried at all, he sneered, “If you’re done slowing us down.”

“Let’s get this over with.” Whatever the phone call had been about, it had revved her up. Toast moved quickly down the hall and Slit stamped after her. She seemed to be choosing doors at random, shoving through doors into another hall, almost kicking them open. They didn’t talk at all, which was fucking fine with him, just focused on tearing through the place.

They passed a pair of huge elevators, doors of course closed and inoperable. There were columns on the sides, framing them like works of art. Toast’s flashlight glided over them to another door, and then they were moving again. It was almost hard to keep track of her in the dark, like she was trying to lose him. Slit’s ears twitched at every click of a door, the echo of her rapid footsteps on the floor. His eyes snapped from blank camera to blank camera. Under his arm his gun was a reassuring presence.

Another hall. Another door. And on the other side, a staircase. This wasn’t for the expensive parties and VIPs. Out of the way. Thick walls. Low ceiling in the stairwell. They climbed in agitated silence until both their flashlights landed on fancy carpeting. Following it like a path lead them to another door.

She jiggled the handle - locked.

“Got to be something good in there.”

She nodded. “This is a different lock than the ones in apartment building, right? More secure. Door looks heavier too.”

He flattened his palm against it. “Probably bulletproof.”

Their eye’s met, temporary irritation between them gone. “Joe’s office,” she said.

“Jackpot.”

The door’s lock was massive, but as he finagled the picks into it, he realized it was more for show than for security. As he worked on it, she asked sarcastically, “So you aren’t afraid his vengeful spirit will haunt you?”

“He’s dead. Not coming back.” Even though it wasn’t the first time she’d brought up, it wasn’t until that moment that Slit really meant it. All Slit had wanted was for the War Boys to work the way they had under Joe. Slit would’ve died before he turned traitor, but he still couldn’t stop himself from relishing the sound of the lock turning over. He pressed his fist against the door until his knuckles cracked and he could feel the familiar shot of pain erase those treacherous thoughts and-

Toast pulled his hand down and snaked her fingers through hers. When she spoke, her voice was light, “And to the victors go the spoils, huh. That seems like a War Boy motto.”

And then she pushed open the door.

The room was a shrine to Joe’s might. Glass cases on the walls held medals and plaques. Slit could see his reflection in them, like the awards were hanging from his jacket. He moved to the next case and stared at the ancient guns and knives inside, more like pieces of art than weapons. He’d never seen wooden paneling as rich before. It was dusty under his fingers but still smooth, almost warm, darker than Toast’s skin, and there were hints of gold in the brown.

One of the times Joe had come to the Pits, Slit had shoved through the rest of the Boys to get him and Nux right up in the front. Joe’d been flanked by Rictus and the top bosses, and all of them had been decked out, bright as headlights against the sea of Boys in their blacks. Nux had practically blown a gasket when Joe looked at them; Slit had stayed ramrod straight while his partner vibrated in excitement. All of them chanting, the cars outside squealing and honking, and that night the skyline had glowed from every place they’d lit up.

Beside him, Toast let go of his hand and he rolled his eyes down to her. She was trying to hide it - face was expressionless - but he still picked up on her uneasiness. Arms in, just a bit, to protect her ribs. Hands in fists, like she was expecting someone to come out from under the desk. Shoulders bunched tight. She stopped to stare at some photograph the wall, then she glanced up sideways at him.

The fortune on the walls dragged him in. Everything his flashlight touched was a prize. There was a rifle so fucking long that it’d probably be taller than Toast. There was a spike at the end of it like the thing was a fucking spear. He pressed his hand against the glass - Be so easy to break and claim. Rifle like that wouldn’t make sense to carry, but he couldn’t stop imagining himself hanging the hell out of the Monte Carlo, the rifle hard in his hands.

“Your gun’s loaded,” she said suddenly and his attention snapped back to her.

“Course.”

“Give it to me.”

Wasn’t a request. Slit spun around to face her, and straightened under the intensity of her stare. Eyes were bright and her jaw was set, but he couldn’t read anything in her face. Images flashed through his mind as he tried to figure out her plan. Two of them alone, no one tracking them, no War Boys - not even his partner - aware of where he’d gone. Two men enter, one man leaves-

She held out her hand. “Slit, give it to me.”

“Yes boss.” He pulled the Zastava M57 out from the holster under his jacket. Barrel down, he passed it to Toast who accepted it with the same blank expression.

She twisted away, her flashlight clattered onto the desk, he heard the safety click off, and then she yanked up her arms and planted her feet apart and -

BANG

“Fuck!” After the first shot he was in action, bounding to the side of the room. She held the gun straight out - The recoil yanked back her hands but Toast just straightened them again and pulled the trigger. The headrest of Joe’s chair shattered, spattering slivers of wood into the air. Smoke and dust clogged his nose, throat, but he didn’t shield his eyes, just kept staring at her. Each shot vibrated through him, made his heart jump.

BANG

BANG BANG BANG

Toast was still going, unloading the whole clip until -

Click

Click click

The clip was empty and she had to know it but she kept pulling the trigger. Slit stepped behind her, looked down at her rigid shoulders, but even though she was out of bullets, he didn’t grab her. Even though he felt like he was going to explode, he kept still, waiting for her to move. Toast finally lowered her arms, the gun loose in her hand. “Owe you,” she said, and there was a quiver there, slight but he still heard it. “How much do bullets cost?”

“What the hell was that?” he demanded instead of answering. Joe’s chair was a fucking mess. Slit gawked at it, back down at her, back up at the wreckage. “What the fucking hell was that?”

She shoved the gun back at him. “Target practice.”

“That was Joe Moore’s!”

Her glare was furious but she didn’t reply. She swooped across the desk to grab her flashlight and then bent down. So staggered at it all, he didn’t realize what she was doing until a shell was flying right by his face. He caught, then had to jerk back to catch the next one she tossed at him. Toast found all nine, flinging each over her shoulder at him, and when she was done, she snatched her bag and marched past him to the door.

“Hey!” he said and caught her elbow. “What the fuck?”

She shook her arm, trying to dislodge him. “What? I’ll pay you back!”

His heart was still running in overdrive, going a thousand miles per hour and pumping blood so fast that he thought he was going to overheat. He had to stare back at the chair to really believe it, and even then with his flashlight on the mess it was still so astounding that he thought he might have turned kamicrazy, scrambled up and feral. The top of the chair was just bits and fucking pieces, the leather in tatters, and the wood in splinters. Not a lot of distance to miss, but still, that she had done it, that she had done it so well, that she had destroyed a piece of the greatest leader of all time with barely a flinch -

“V8,” he breathed and Toast narrowed her eyes warily. If she’d been in the car with him and Nux that night, if she’d had a gun then, if Toast had been a Boy, they never would have fallen. “You’re shine.”

Her eyebrows rose and her lips parted, but before she could respond he pulled her up to a kiss. Lips were salty with sweat and when she opened her mouth he tasted the slick sweetness of her too, and he groaned and ground against her like they were fucking again. He was already getting hard - maybe he was still hard, maybe because of Toast he’d never go soft again.

“You sure you want this?” she asked.

“Yeah! Yeah. You?”

“Yeah.”

Her flashlight clattered to the ground and then her hands were on him too, sliding up his arms to grip his shoulders. She moved him backwards and pulled him with her until she hit the desk. Slit dropped the gun and quickly shucked his jacket, then leaned on the desk with his arms on either side of her. Her hands were one his arms again, fingers pressing into the muscles there.

“Do like them,” she murmured before her mouth was on his throat.

Leaned in harder, felt her whole tense as her muscles held them both up. She was so small under him, strong as hell, and so shiny that he closed his eyes as she worked her hands up and down his chest, down to the top of his pants.

The dry, thick smell that had been biting at his lungs was gone. Rubbing his face in her hair, Slit inhaled the warm scent of her. Just her and the smoke from the gun in the air like a perfume. Made him forget about the open door at his back, the empty gun lost somewhere in the dark, the tight feeling that he’d been swallowing down.

Toast cursed and tore away from him. She wiggled and yanked at her clothes, banging against him. “Fucking jeans. Skirt next time.”

But he pushed them down easy and as they slid past her thighs, he got to feel the silk of her skin. He could almost span the whole width of her with his hands. Almost mystifying, that she could be so small against him. In the garage he’d managed to keep his mind from dredging up images of their first time. Been too confusing, thinking about what she’d done to him. But now Slit couldn’t keep his hands off her. He flattened his palms, which brought his thumbs toward the crux of her. Curls of hair, all damp under his fingers, covered the unfamiliar flatness of her crotch, weird and wet, made him so hungry that he ached for it.

“Keep touching there,” she ordered.

She spread her legs more, pulled all of him forward. Their fingers slipped over each other as they both stroked at the opening there. For once his hands were clumsy and felt too fucking big, but Toast just breathed a low laugh when he swore. Later - he’d make her show him everything.

When he got his dick out, she groaned and then tilted her hips up. But stopped him. “You’re big - don’t push too hard, alright? Or too deep. Let me do it. Let me.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he agreed instantly. “You lead. You do it. You.”

Gripping and shivering and holy hell she was hot and each slide was slick and she was completely around him - not just on his dick but her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck, so close that they fit together like gears.

The desk thunked against the floor. Wood got slippery under his palms. Fucking on Joe’s stuff. His back to the open door. His gun empty and out of reach. Joe’d been right, the rules had been right, fucking around got them off track. But that voice was drowned out by her. And the little noises she made: breathy groans and gasps, like each thrust was a surprise. When she yelped his name he lost the rhythm, stuttered and skidded between her slippery thighs, until she started the pace up again.

Good - good - shine - had to prove to her that he was worthy, show her what he learned. Better this time, had to read her better. Slit concentrated on those noises, peeled his eyes open to watch hers squeeze shut. When he kissed her damp neck Toast shivered all over, rewarded him by holding him there, her little hand on the back of his head.

She was getting tighter and wetter, tighter and wetter, and he almost couldn’t stand anymore. She was rubbing him into a shine. And then suddenly Toast squeezed around his dick and jerked her knees against his waist. She did that before - he hadn’t been sure then but he knew now that it wasn’t an accident, wasn’t him misreading her body. He tried to keep thrusting against that sensitive spot inside her and Toast whimpered and gasped, and he would have kept it up forever if it meant keeping her in a vice around him.

But when she bit him on the shoulder, he lost it. Slit snarled as he shot his load in her, and Toast held on, held him, as he shuddered.

He was curved over her, one arm around her back while he braced them up with the other. He couldn’t see, hear, smell, think of anything other than Toast. Like after the first time, he was almost weak with exhaustion. She’d left him drained again, soft and shivering. This time he didn’t have a bedframe to try to break, but he didn’t give a shit, was content to ride it out with her until she was done. Her legs were still around his waist and she pulled him closer, pulled him in deeper, and Slit exhaled a breath against her ear, ruffling her hair. His heart banged steadily, or maybe it was hers - close enough that he could feel her pulse. Hear her breathing. Hear -

Her laugh. “Can’t believe,” she whispered hoarsely. She said something else, but the words got run over by another snort of laughter, and then Toast was shaking with it. The way she was moving, he couldn’t stay inside her but even when they both felt his dick slide out, Toast didn’t loosen her grip on him. “Can’t-” she gasped and then said again, “Can’t - fuck - Slit, Slit, do you even get it -”

She laughed again. Tried and failed to soften it. Turned it into a thin sort of giggle. Giggled, pressed her face into his chest, giggled until it didn’t sound like giggling -

Crying. Toast was crying.

Shit. Fuck. “What? What’d I do? Fuck-”

Quickly he padded down her sides, searching for wounds. He couldn’t stop the erratic fear that somehow she’d shot herself. But he didn’t feel any damage. Her ribs felt fine. His fingers slid along her hips and legs - nothing marring her firm muscles. With her wrapped around him and refusing to be budged, he couldn’t get to all of her unless he yanked her off him.

But he had to figure out what he’d done to her, where she got hurt. Had to. A panic at it, desperate and determined to solve it. The hell had he scared her this time? This was different than the time on the street - She was different.

Girls bled, he remembered suddenly, then cursed when his scrambled thoughts couldn’t come up with more. It had something to do with the moon? All the time? During sex? After sex? There hadn’t been blood on his dick after their first time, he knew that much. Maybe he’d fucked it up this time. Slit growled out a curse. He got one hand between them and gingerly swiped at the wetness on their thighs. Hard to see in the darkness, but it didn’t smell like blood. But Toast was still making the quiet, painful noises.

“No blood,” he assured her. “So relax.”

“It’s funny-” she said, then cut herself off.

Nux had cried all the time as a kid. Anything could get his big blue eyes leaking. Taunting, ignoring - Nothing ever worked to shut him up until Slit gave up and gave in. Now it was Toast still huddled up, a little ball that latched onto his shirt.

One swift movement to pick her up and turn them so he could sit on the desk. Toast choked out some sort of word, but all she had time to do in that one second was hold onto him tighter. He pulled her on his lap and got both his arms around her. Wished he could have pulled up his pants, but at least sitting was better than leaving his ass up and vulnerable. That all faded as he petted her, rubbed at her thigh and down the bumps of her spine. He got lost in her again, kissing her hair, nuzzling there too and it was soft on his lips and chin. “Alright. I got you.”

After a moment, Toast gently pushed at his arms and he let her free herself and slide away. They both stood, grabbed their pants and got dressed. He kept shooting glances at her, but Toast stared straight ahead as she covered herself back up. Finally she grabbed her flashlight, flicked it on and off like she was testing it. She swung it around, making the beam move wildly over the desk, the photographs on the walls, the huge oil painting behind the chair.

“Didn’t hurt you,” he told her. When she said nothing to that, he tried again, “Toast, did that - did I hurt you?”

Questions. She liked to answer questions.

“Wasn’t that uncomfortable a position,” she said. She sniffled, wiped her nose on her sleeve. After she scrubbed her face, she stood straight and finally met his eyes. Hers were puffy but they were clear. “You didn’t hurt me, Slit. In fact it felt good.”

“Course it did,” he said, keeping the relief from his voice.

“I came both times,” she continued, but it sounded more like she was saying it herself than telling him. “That’s a pretty decent track record.”

“When you clenched up. That’s what girls do?”

She snorted a laugh and then swiped at her nose again. “You’re learning. I guess... “

He said as she trailed off, “Will get condoms.”

“Oh. Yeah.” She had her flashlight again and it went wild as she ran both her hands through her hair. “That’s ok. Don’t worry about me getting pregnant; I took care of that.”

He banished the thought of Toast being knocked up.

She continued, a little hurriedly, “There’s something hot about it…” A laugh interrupted whatever else she was going to confess. “What about you? You like filling me up?”

“Makes you sound like a gas tank,” he said.

“Unleaded, please.”

“Premium.”

“Of course,” she said, and her little fingers skidded down his sides to pat gently on his crotch. “Only the best.”

He bent over to rub his face in her soft hair again, wished he could feel it on his cheeks. Toast’s kinky confession was still ricocheting around in his head. Hearing it was worth the emotional crap. “Like being in you,” he took a chance on admitting. She wouldn’t tell Capable or Nux; it was safe to concede it. “Like that you like it.”

Awkward silence after that. Too much fucking talking, he thought quickly and stepped away, then turned away so she couldn’t look up at him. He told himself she wasn’t his problem anyway. She was alright after all, didn’t need any more petting. Probably just the dust. The way it could be suffocating. He squashed the urge to ask her. Out of his bag he grabbed the spare clip and reloaded the pistol. Once it was back in the holster, he started searching the room again.

There were books, too, thick and sturdy, not at all like the flimsy paperbacks in the bookstore. “You want?” he asked, pointing to them and she shook her head.

“He knew less about literature than he did about art.”

The oil painting behind Joe's desk was massive, longer than Slit was tall. It was a war scene, men in chrome armor battling and dying as the clouds above the fight rolled in their own storm. The closer he got to it, the harder it was to see the figures, but the globs of paint were damn impressive too.

Even the frame was shine. It was gold, the whole fucking thing. He shoved the remains of the chair out of the way to move in front of it. “Want this.”

“This is your favorite?

Slit nodded. Quickly he estimated the size, pictured trying to fit it in the Monte Carlo.

“Color me surprised. I guess I should relieved that it’s not Rape of the Sabine Women.”

His eyes fells on dark spots on the gold and he prodded one with his finger. Bullet hole. The frame wasn’t gold at all - just a yellow paint job.

“Gilded,” said Toast before she gripped her bag again and walked out of the room.

“Hey, I’m not done in here!” He grabbed the gun and his bag and jogged after her.

“So you can stay. I have to get home.”

He looked back at the open door but still followed her. “You need me for a ride.”

“I don’t need you for anything.”

“You planning on walking?”

“I have a cellphone, remember?”

“Good luck getting a taxi around here.” He added sourly, “You going to beg Nux to pick you up?”

“Remember what I said before? All you need to do is ask. You want me to stay?”

None of her usual guff went into that statement and she didn’t press him for an answer. When they reached the staircase again, she said, “No attic here, right?”

“Basement for supplies,” he replied, picking up on her train of thought. Muscles tensed a bit as he hesitated; he grit his teeth and strode by her so he’d be in front.

They went back down the stairs, following them deeper. Air got colder and thicker with dust, and when he opened the door at the bottom, more of those human smells raced up the stairwell. Old blood, he recognized this time. Offal. Toast made a low noise and he saw her cover her mouth.

But it didn’t slow her down.

The basement looked like it spanned the whole building. Shelving units broke the space into areas and aisles, like a maze. His shirt was damp with sweat and it felt like all the dust in the fucking place was sticking to him. Not that she noticed or cared. Toast kept hurrying forward, ducking and squeezing between the towering shelves. The shadow she cast was huge, stretched out long and dark as War Boy blacks.

A door with a small window was some sort of meat cooler. Some hooks still had slabs hanging from them. If there’d been bodies in there, the cops probably would’ve taken them out. Still, he didn’t offer to pick her up to let her see in. His flashlight made bizarre shapes of shadows as he moved it across the spaces. Stacks of furniture and boxes, broken light fixtures and piles of electronics, and crates of rotten food, all stashed away and forgotten. Fleeing from the light were cockroaches and rats, and he reached for his gun. If he hadn’t already lost a whole clip, he’d take shots at the moving targets, show her how to aim proper.

With a wiggle she slid through a sliver of space between cartons - No way he could follow through the tiny gap. He searched through some boxes himself. Stuff that would be good in the Pits - tools, nails, batteries, wires, old clothes - were all getting dusty and rusted. There were a couple of pawn shops he could get good deals from, the owners willing to bargain without asking too many questions. The liquor would be trickier, the art probably impossible. But he still wanted it. He tossed some of the supplies into a box and pulled it off the shelf, then moved his flashlight around the rest of the room. He heard her footsteps echo, starting loud and then softening as she kept going. It was like the place was eating her up. “Hey!” he yelled again. “The fuck did you go?”

“Here! Jackpot!” More footsteps and then she popped out of the darkness and brushed by him. She seemed like she was done with the place.

He still grumbled as he followed her, “All sorts of good shit to go through.”

“It can wait. I’m done here.”

Dust and cobwebs had turned her dark clothes gray. There was some in her hair, too, and Slit looked at it as he walked behind her.

They climbed the stairs back up to the first floor and when they reached the main hall again, Toast finally stopped and pulled something out of her pocket. She said as she held it out to him. “This more than covers the cost of the bullets.”

Silver needle, silver grip, two coils held in a square frame. A tattoo gun.

He took it and turned it over in his hand, then held it between his fingers like he was using it, the muscle memory waking up. Good machine was fucking expensive. At the Pits, everything was available - the gun itself, the ink, the needles. Everything had been lost when Joe died, and there was no way to get that stuff back. But now he had a gun again. The rest of it - he could find the money to buy ink and shit. Could he charge for tattoos? None of the Boys had a ton of cash - Who’d be able to afford it?

“Do you have one already?” she asked.

“No.”

“Didn’t think so.” She slid her thumbs under the straps of her bag and shrugged up her shoulders. “Well, better than nothing, right?”

Slit tucked it into his pocket and reached over to pull the cobwebs out of her hair. “Yeah.”

They found the way out and slipped back into the alley, and she took watch again as he re-locked the doors. When they heard breaking glass they didn’t run but they didn’t dick around either. Bike was waiting right where he left it. He heaved a relieved sigh at that. They’d have been fucked if someone had jacked it. Nux would never forgive him.

He went slower on the way back to Bergen. Toast was pressed almost flat against his back and her arms were warm around his waist. No sharp fingers in his gut this time. He took them through downtown where the neon lights were still on and the streets were still crowded. Plenty of people on the sidewalks, too, not like around the Vault.

“You going back for your bike?” he asked when they were stopped at a light.

“I need to get home somehow.”

“Can give you a lift.”

He felt her shift on the seat. “It’s not that late out,” she said as an answer.

The residential streets were quiet, not even any Rock Riders racing them. He pulled into the side of the apartment where the entrance to the cellar was and pawed through the box of stuff he'd taken from Joe's while she got her bicycle. Wasn't coming back with armfuls of treasure and the Vault was still closed up. Agitation roiled in him, threatening to turn into anger. Going to the Vault was supposed to be an awakening.

She wheeled her bike slowly back to the street. “Listen,” she said, looking over her shoulder at him, “the phone call I got - It sort of concerns you. Capable was mugged by Buzzards.”

“Where?”

“Subway by the university.”

So she’d been playing again. Bold as fuck, Buzzards being there. Slit cracked his knuckles.

“She’s probably told Nux at this point. And he’ll probably go rushing over.” Her dark eyes flickered over him before she looked away with a sigh. She shifted her bag from one hunched shoulder to the other. “That’s why - Fuck. Look, about earlier - In Joe’s office -”

“Surprised she never got mugged before. Asking for it,” he said loudly before she started to cry again. Standing around with money in the open guitar case - What did Capable think would happen? When he’d run in her and Toast the first time, it’d been Toast who’d snarled and fought him, not Nux’s girl. She probably tried to sing to them.

Toast climbed onto her bike without comment. No argument from her - Of course he was right. “So don’t expect Nux to be around,” she concluded.

“He’ll come back. Has to.”

“Why? Being a War Boy isn’t ‘all that matters.’”

His words thrown back at him. Slit drew himself up, away from her, and hissed, “Thought you were smart enough to -”

“If you act like an asshole, don’t be surprised when people fuck off. There are good reasons why Nux keeps leaving the War Boys. If he’s your friend -”

“He’s not my friend.”

“Fine,” she said and rolled her eyes. “Semantics. Partner.”

Slit grimaced at the way she said it. It seemed like they’d gotten aligned, but here she was, deliberately steering off course. “He’ll come back,” he repeated. When she still looked unimpressed, he growled, annoyed that she didn’t get it. That he couldn’t make her get it. He added, “He owes it to the War Boys.”

“Owes what? His whole life?”

“And death.”

“You’re fucked up. The War Boys are fucked up.”

“You’re the one fucking me!”

She ignored that. “Joe’s dead. Even before that, he was a piece of shit.”

“You saw the Vault - all that money, all that power. He did that.”

“Through extortion, robbery, murder, and all the other shit he did.”

“Is it better now? Capable getting mugged, that’s better? That’s what you want? You tell me, Toast, if you’re so smart: How are you going to stop the Buzzards?”

“I know how you would: shoot them.” Toast was rigid. She said in a flat, dull voice, “I’m right, aren’t I? You’d kill, if that’s what Joe wanted.”

“Course.”

“Even though he’s dead, you’d still kill for him?”

In his pocket his phone buzzed, but Slit left it. “War Boys aren’t dead.”

“Joe is,” she said. “If you were there when he died...”

“Kill whoever did it.”

“You might’ve died too.”

He eyed her with impatience. Toast’s observation was uncharacteristically dull, like something had filed her down. “Course! Got to take a bullet for Joe. Any War Boy would.” It would’ve been the highest honor. If he had managed to save Joe that night, all of Citadel City would be a memorial to Slit’s greatness. The thought of that cooled him a bit, so his voice was low when he added, “Would do that for anyone on top.”

When he rubbed his knuckles against her shoulder, Toast sighed. She reached up and brushed her fingers over his, but that was it. Didn’t ask any other questions, didn’t turn her face up for a kiss, didn’t even really look at him. She rearranged her ass on her seat and kicked off the curb. He sat on his motorcycle and watched the little blinking taillight disappear down the street.

The phone vibrated again. Figuring it was Nux he ignored it, giving the mediocre bastard a taste of his own fucking medicine. That and he didn’t know what to say to his partner. He’d spent too much of the fucking night talking, pissing away too many words and wasting too much time. He spun his bike around and rode against traffic to get off of Bergen. He went back up to the Vault and circled it. Keeping his eyes on it and their territory kept his brain too busy to churn through the pigshit in there. Circled, circled, but didn’t go back in.

He was still doing that when he saw a car drive close behind him in the mirror, and his foot pressed down instinctively on the pedal before he recognized the War Boys. Gonner’s crew, with Ballast at the wheel, pulled up when he slowed down.

“You get the call?” Ballast yelled out the window.

“Course!” he snapped immediately.

“You coming or what?” Dukes leaned out and twisted so he could look down the street behind them. “Where’s your partner? Crew?”

“Ride with us, Slit!” Ballast said before Slit could lie again.

"Got to go to Gas Town."

From the back seat, Nogo shouted to get Slit’s attention. "How come you're alone? Where’s Nux? He ditching?"

The other Boys stared out the window at him. Slit twisted his scars up, made them stretch out. "You keeping your crew in line, Ballast?"

But Ballast didn't get sidetracked. "So where are your Boys? What are you doing out here, Slit?"

There was an edge to those questions that made Slit’s hackles raise. "You're not my crew. Not any of your fucking business."

"You going soft, too? Ave said he saw you with some street trash girl. You and Nux - the fuck are you guys doing? Never thought you'd roll over-"

Slit grabbed Ballast's arm and yanked him through the window. The other Boys shouted but Slit was faster than any of them. First punch hit Ballast in his big fucking mouth. Shut him up good. Second one cracked his nose, got blood everywhere so everyone would know he'd lost a fight.

"Fuck you, Slit!" Ballast howled. When Slit released him, the rest of his crew pulled him back into the car.

"You got anything else to say, asshole?"

Ballast spat blood onto the pavement. "No," he said, sulking. But there was a spark in his eyes, admiration. Slit had won; Ballast wouldn't dare question him again. Course he wouldn't. Ballast knew how Citadel City worked.

He sat on his bike, arms crossed and scars still pulled up, as they took off squealing. Soon as their car disappeared he took out his phone: texts from Ace and even Morsov. Fuck. Something was happening. Something was going down. He called Nux, then texted him when the schlanger didn’t pick up. Toast was right: he was with Capable, of fucking course. If there was real shit happening, then Rictus and Prime would probably be around. And if either of them realized that the Monte Carlo wasn’t with the rest of the cars when they called the War Boys together…

He wished he’d knew where she lived. He’d drag Nux back to Gas Town. On her shitty bike, there was no way she could've shaken him - But he'd let her get away. Slit revved the engine and took off for Gas Town.

Chapter Text

So here's the way I'm gonna break it down / Speak my mind any time cause I got the master plan / Power in my soul, strength from my hand / I'm going up north to claim my land

===
Toast
===

For a few days Toast let balancing their budget consume her life. In some ways it was a respite from the rest of it - from Capable’s mugging, from Angharad’s health, from Nux’s continued presence in the house, from Seeds’ politics, from all the other stuff that piled up like garbage on the curb - but all good things had to come to an end, Toast thought sarcastically to herself as she explained the state of their accounts over a solemn dinner. The spreadsheets that Toast had been using to track their finances had shown an increasing number of cells in red.

The Vault hadn’t had much in terms of accessible wealth. The jewels and furs were at his apartment, not the club. Drugs and cash had probably been divided the night he’d been killed. She gone with Slit to do an appraisal of everything that was left, but instead of finding their financial salvation in the Vault’s remains, she’d just gotten more and more pissed off until she just wanted to leave and forget the whole thing existed. Maybe nuke it from orbit when she was far enough away.

The whole thing had been a fucking nightmare, a cockroach that Toast squashed down and smashed out of her thoughts.

It was almost a relief when Toast came up with another idea.

It’d dawned on her when she was crouched down in the back of a thrift store, going through a rickety case and being pleasantly surprised by the books she discovered there. She didn’t need them, unless she was going to start reading Victorian astronomy books, but someone had to be interested in them. She already knew all the stores - from the charity shops out near their house to the fancy stores downtown. There was no point in her hoarding books: no space, for one, and then that perpetual issue of no money. But maybe there was still a point in buying them. She knew all the bookstores in the city: cheap spots like Mama Bell’s and then the stores in midtown where they have clientele instead of customers, collectors instead of just readers. Buy cheap at the second-hand places, haul them over to book dealer offices.

She also started busking with Capable again; more fun than lucrative. No Slit, though they did see the shadows of War Boys skulking around. Capable’s reputation was growing and her CD sales improved. Dag thought they should do a limited run of vinyls for the collectors and Cheedo wanted them to make music videos. The fanzine option of communication seemed more reasonable to Toast. And powerful. And just damn interesting.

Those she didn’t sell. Wouldn’t. She kept an eye out for zines at every store she went to, glancing over magazines and sorting through stacks in the back, asking bemused cashiers and sending emails to the owners. She was amassing a library of them - and of ideas for her own. Taking the bus in with Capable gave her time to start writing drafts: a review of Mama Bell’s store; an article on the way the university treated its blue-collar staff; a poem on the water, water, everywhere, nor a drop clean enough to drink; a description of some of the street art she saw on her ride to school. Not the War Boy graffiti, of course. Even though she noticed it. Noticed a lot of it, noticed it a lot - Either way, it was like she couldn’t make it down one street without their tags appearing on signs or buildings or cars.

At least she wasn’t seeing the Boys themselves. Or a specific one of them.

She kept her eyes firmly on the road ahead of her. No thinking about what she’d done with that particular one.

Staying at home meant facing them all - Capable, Cheedo, Dag, and Furiosa, and even Nux, who was appearing at their door or window at all hours. It meant talking to them about Angharad while the cellphone that Toast had rescued from the Vault sat under her mattress. Not quite a Poe’s thumping heart, but still another shitty reminder of Toast’s growing list of mistakes. It had been right where they had hidden it in the bowels of the Vault, Angharad’s phone that Joe didn’t know about and their one way to contact Furiosa. The battery had long died and her current phone was a different type - no sharing chargers. She could buy one online, but there’d be questions when the package arrived.

Instead of riding around to all the secondhand shops in the city to find a charger, one night Toast stayed in, hovering around so much that even Capable couldn’t complain about her absent roommate.

“There’s got to be a make-out point somewhere in the city, right?” Capable asked rhetorically. She and Dag were lounging on the sofa during a break from studying, the two of them singing as Capable idly stroked the strings of her guitar. Toast snorted to herself as she went through the books on the shelf.

“How romantic,” Dag teased.

Which Capable ignored. “I’ll go out looking once I get my permit.”

She was getting driving lessons courtesy of Nux. Toast had heard all about that first date: he had taken Capable out at night on the town, as per War Boy standards, which had included teaching her stick-shift. Slit had been dragged along as a third wheel. Or he had tagged along as a chaperone. Toast hadn't asked Slit for his take on that evening. She pulled out one of her books - an English Edwardian romance, purchased for its cover and not content - and opened it up, glancing at the text but keeping part of her attention on the conversation.

“You’ve been biking through the whole city - Find any place good, Toast?”

Capable’s gentle question wasn’t supposed to be probing; she was just trying to get Toast involved in the conversation. Still the question was uncanny. Toast didn’t look up when she answered, “Nope. Unless your turn-ons include trash and abandoned buildings.”

“So what do you do when you go out?” Dag asked.

In some ways Capable and Dag were the hardest people to confess to. Furiosa the stoic would be surprised for approximately a second before she came to some sensible conclusion. It was easy to imagine Cheedo’s reaction: she’d be shocked and then desperately curious; and she’d accept anything Toast told her with wide eyes. And Angharad - were she awake, she’d probably demand to be taken there herself. Dag was tougher - mostly lackadaisical, but sometimes her wit came out like a weapon, caustic enough that even Toast was impressed.

And Capable…

Toast just held up one of the books as a reply.

There was a moment of silence - maybe Capable and Dag were exchanging looks - and Capable strummed something quick, loud, and brash, that ended with a flourish. “You guys should learn to drive, too. We could take a roadtrip!”

“Get everyone together, rent a van…” Dag trailed away into a laugh. “Wait, is this a vacation or a concert tour?”

“Why not both? No, really, I’m serious. We should get out of the city for a while. We can go camping or something. Take Furiosa. How about next break?”

“Would the War Boys let Nux leave the city?” Toast asked. “How far does his leash go?”

“Way to kill the mood, Toast,” Dag said.

Toast turned around and tossed the book on the pile with the others she planned on selling. She should’ve kept her mouth shut. The hell had she said that, anyway? There’d been a moment of pure spite shooting through all and she’d wanted to hurt Capable. She apologized with a shrug, “Didn’t mean to burst your bubble.”

“Time’s they are a’changing,” Capable said, quoting a lyric from one of her favorite songs. Not much of an answer, but Toast hadn’t really expected her to have a solid plan for Nux’s excommunication.

“Not everything changes.”

“Most things do,” Capable replied in her even tone. With an optimism as bright as her hair, Capable’s emotions never got mired in all the shit they had to wade through.

Toast was frowning over that mixed metaphor when Cheedo came in. She’d been in the street, skateboarding around, and she was out of breath when she said, “Hey, are you guys talking about the houses? You see what Skully’s been doing?”

“What, sweetling?” Dag asked.

“She’s laying out tiles so they look like mosaics. It’s really cool. I’m going to take some pictures now while the light’s good.” She rushed out again, all energy.

Furiosa and her team of construction workers had been turning the abandoned property into livable houses. Turning - not turned. The theory had been to fix them up and rent them out for a steady stream of income. The plan hadn’t come to fruition and despite all the people they had working on the houses, they were still empty. A black hole sucking in all of their funds.

Dag and Capable stood up to follow her out. “You coming, Toast?” Capable called at the door.

“I’ll see it later.”

All the sacrificial books were gingerly placed in plastic bags and packed away. Upstairs in her bedroom, she recorded all their information in her notebook: a neat list of more data for her to analyze. There wasn’t really much reason for her diligence, so after she’d finished her work she flipped to a blank page.

When she started scribbling there, the words flowed like water.

---

In the morning she took off again and somehow ended on Bergen Street again, pulled there by a strange gravity. She greeted the other woman but disappeared into the stacks before Mama could start asking questions. Nothing caught her eye, no brilliant covers or obscene titles. She browsed through slowly until she spotted a familiar cover - the tattoo book she’d shown to Slit. She shoved it into the back of a shelf.

Back outside, she pulled out her phone. Toast had stolen Slit’s number off Nux’s phone and it squatted in her contact list as “Sod” between Seeds and Val; her fingers nimbly scrolled through the names to look at that nom de guerre she’d chosen for him. And then started typing out a text. Why the hell not? Made more sense than waiting around on the off chance that he was riding by the same time she was.

hey it’s toast
in the city
you up to anything?

Simple enough, she thought as she read over her words. If he was around, fine. If not, she had plenty of other shit to do. She rocked back and forth on her bike and then rode it across the street to the abandoned building that they’d claimed. Some fucking get-away. Toast snorted and ran her hands through her hair, annoyed and amused and agitated all at once. “Fucking Slit,” she grumbled to herself as she dragged her bike to steps down to the basement.

Was that a verb or an adjective?

As she locked the door behind her, her phone jingled. A message from Sod:

ya
brt

What in the fresh hell did that mean? Bert? Bart? Bort? Boys R Terrible? She quickly typed back: ?

And then her phone rang - Sod was on the line.

“Yeah?” she said when she picked up. Good enough. She didn’t need to get all emotional over a phone call.

“Be right there.”

It took her a second to process that. “Oh. Pretty sure BRT is not a recognized acronym.”

“Piss off. I’m at the Pits. Can get there pretty quick. Usual place?”

“Usual place,” she confirmed. Shit, they had a usual place. She dismissed that realization as quickly as possible. Realistic hook-up spots were limited, unless they were going to meet at some pay-by-the-hour hotel. Or she was going to bring him back home.

“Shine.”

“Nothing go on at the Pits?”

“Nothing fucking good. You want me to pick you up?”

“I’m here already.”

“No shit?” he asked, and she could practically see his smug smile. “You waiting for me, Toast?”

“You rushing to see me, Slit?”

“No.”

“Well, don’t take too long - I have other shit to do.” Toast hung up before he could get the last word in. And then wiped her hands on her jeans.

This time she moved slowly through the abandoned building. She’d taken out her mace, just in case - there wasn’t any indication that anyone else had gotten in since her last visit. In a way it felt like they’d claimed it. What an auspicious prize. Just like before the place was empty. The streets were full of homeless people, and this whole building still vacant.

Bergen was quiet as usual, but she could still hear the sounds of life going by. Which it always did, no matter what armageddon went on. Pick up what you can and run. That was what was important - not looking back.

Traitorous memories fought their way back into her brain: of all the abandoned buildings in Citadel City, the Vault had been the stupidest one to break into. Boys could’ve been infesting it. Rictus could have reclaimed it. And tangled up with that night was what had happened to Capable. Toast should’ve had to deal with shitty gang members, not Capable who was supposed to be safe at the university. It was impossible not to see the irony in it: Toast was the one in gang territory, in a gang base, with a fucking gang member, but it had been Capable who’d been exposed.

Toast went up to the others floors and unlocked the doors, just for more practice. A loop through the apartments revealed nothing new. More dust, perhaps. More bugs. She continued up the stairs, her footsteps echoing in the otherwise quiet building. And then she stopped and heard her breath come out in a hiss.

His art spilled out of the fourth floor apartment and down the staircase, a rainbow that covered the dirty beige walls.

Toast eyes traced over the bold lines of a monstrous animal. Feline in the fluid movement of its body, it stretched down the hall, spine curving as its many legs moved in an arching jump. Shine as hell. It was huge and amazingly detailed considering the medium: claws out, ears back, eyes dotting the long skull.

That one she liked, but there were others that she stared at with apprehension: a car driving over a river of people, arms and legs in the air like waves. A skull with a massive bullet hole cracking through it and the bullet painted red, flying toward another group of long-limbed figures.

She took her phone out and stood in the middle of the stairs. One side was brutality. The other was the cat. She snapped pictures of it all, saving them for… what exactly? There was no one to show them to. Some art show they’d be, anyway. The camera on the phone didn’t do them justice, she thought, then caught herself.

Deleting the photos only took seconds.

She pushed her way through the broken door into their boudoir. She’d brought blankets for this extracurricular, taken out of the closet in the hall. Smelled a little like shoes and mothballs, she thought as she spread one of the dingy mattress. But better than another romp on someone else’s stains. She’d taken a second blanket too; autumn had begun and the unheated building wasn’t getting any warmer. Toast pulled out the worn flannel blanket and left it folded at the foot of the bed. Very homey.

At the bottom of her bag were a couple of tupperware containers. A simple distraction in the form of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and celery. As she ate she pulled out her books - library books this time and therefore even cheaper than Mama Bell’s. The Citadel City University was hardly Ivy League, but the library wasn’t terrible. Toast folded her legs under her and opened up the book on a cult in America in the 1970s.

The screeching howl of a motorcycle echoed up from the streets and Toast stuck a bookmark between the pages and rose from the bed. Had to be him. Loud as hell as usual. Shaking her head, she went to one of the windows at the front of the apartment and managed to shove it open.

He walked his bike to the next building and disappeared, but soon enough there he was on the street again. Toast leaned out and cupped her hands around her mouth. “Oi, asshole!”

She saw him back up like he was surveying her. “Knew you were waiting for me!” he yelled back. “Watch this shit.”

She leaned out, heartbeat accelerating as she tried to keep her eyes on him. The hell was he doing?

He hoisted himself up onto the first floor window and then stretched up -

The fucker was going to climb up the side of the building.

Toast tore herself from the window and took off through the apartment and down the stairs. She flew down to the third floor and the screeched to a halt - he probably hadn’t gotten up to the third floor yet, right? Cursing that she wasted precious seconds, she started jumping down the stairs, sneakers crunching on the grit as she landed hard on the old wood.

Running toward the front of the room to the windows - glass broken by the frames still intact - she yanked one open and looked out. He wasn’t lying on his back on the ground. She craned her neck, looking up, but didn’t see him there, and -

“See anything good?”

“You -!” She yelped in surprise and jerked back into a wall of chest. He’d climbed up and hid, the rusted jerk. “Asshole!”

Wickedly he laughed, real fucking proud that he’d managed to fool her. “Knew you worried about me, Toast.”

“Fuck you.” Toast gasped it out and flipped up both her middle fingers. “Scared the shit out of me. That’s not the greatest aphrodisiac.”

“Aphro-what?”

“Not the best way to convince me to fuck you.”

He considered that, then shrugged. He pulled her arms up to get her to wrap them around his neck and then slid his hands her back to her ass. “What if I climbed all the way up?”

“Oh, I’d definitely have to fuck you then,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

The tall bastard just grinned at that. In his blacks, of course, with his leather jacket. He’d pushed up the sleeves to his elbows so that she had no choice to admire the tattoos there.

“Been a while. Knew you couldn’t wait to see me.”

“Does that mean you’re happy to see me?” she asked smugly. He lowered his head and she tilted up her chin for a kiss that lasted until she was out of breath. His mouth worked down her throat and then bit - not hard, but the unmistakable sharpness of teeth flashed there. Maybe he was. Maybe she was too. She’d cried on him, hadn’t she? Got snot all over his shirt. She’d acted like a lost kid. Toast clenched her jaw, pissed at herself for that. As long as he didn’t bring it up again, it was fine. Whatever there was between them didn’t require any explanations. Baring her soul to a War Boy - Toast wasn’t like Capable, who had music to do the talking for her. “I’ve been busy. I actually have stuff to do.”

“Yeah, like stirring up shit.” The fondness in his tone flattened. “Nux has been a bigger pain in the ass than usual.”

They stepped apart now, waiting for the other one to make a move. He growled and rubbed a hand over his head.

Which was still shaven, but Toast thought she saw the shadows of scruff along his jawline. Shadows under his eyes were like dark smudges, bruises left by whatever the War Boys were doing long into the night. An menacing aura, maybe, though Toast’s disorganized emotions didn’t include fear. At least not of him, even though he’d managed to surprise her. She crossed her arms over her chest and rubbed at her elbows, slow, casual movements that belied the frenetic pace of her thoughts.

“I heard that Scab’s dead.” The same night that they broken into the Vault and Capable had been mugged by Buzzards, the police had killed Joe’s son Scab. A hell of a blow to the Boys. Max had come to tell them with his uniform still on, stained from the raid, and had delivered the news while they were trying to recover from the night before. Nux had handled it well, better than Toast had expected. Probably because of the night he’d spent with Capable.

“Course you did. Got a cop under your roof.”

So Nux had told him about Max. Even if Nux was proud of his forays into civil disobedience, that had to be dangerous - The other Boys had to be wary that Nux had a connection to the CCPD. Even though Joe had been in control of the police department - she’d seen that firsthand with the piece of shit Commissioner Kalashnikov, who lounged around the Vault like he owned the place and probably had gotten a cut of the profits - the low ranking Boys were prey. She said back archly, “Seems like that’d be the death knell for the War Boys.”

“Plenty of Boys still.”

“That’s a fucking relief.”

Slit was looking down his nose at her. “Capable get her money back from the Buzzards?”

“Maybe she should go on a rampage to get those ten bucks back.”

“Only if the drum circle doesn’t work.”

She rolled her eyes. “So are you guys exacting terrible vengeance on everyone who pisses you off? Do you have a chart of appropriate responses or do you just wait for a bolt of inspiration?”

“Can you afford to pay off the cops if the Buzzards keep robbing you? Guess having one in the house means you’re all set.”

Her eyes narrowed and she made a low scoffing noise. “The police? They’re part of the problem.”

She’d surprised him again. Slit shook his big head in disbelief. “You’re just pissed at everyone, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, maybe,” she muttered back. “And maybe they deserve it. You think there isn’t shit in the police department? In the government? I thought you were more observant than that. At least the War Boys aren’t much of a problem anymore.”

“Used to be the best. No one would even think about fucking around in our territory. We owned the city - all of it and everyone in it.” He leaned against the wall, cracking his knuckles against it.

“By that logic, the War Boys owned you too.”

He sneered back at her. “I’m the fucking best - Course they want me.”

“Nux doesn’t think that way.”

“Nux thinks a lot of stupid shit. And he says a lot of stupid shit.”

“How’s Rictus doing? Is he everything you hoped for in a boss? Joe’s family is dropping like flies - Is he worried he’s next? Maybe he’ll ditch you all for a permanent vacation in the Cayman Islands or wherever Joe did all his tax dodging.”

Slit was worried, that was obvious enough. “War Boys will fix it,” he announced. “Nothing can knock us out. Don’t tell me you forgot about the Vault already - all that stuff. Where else you gonna find all that booze and paintings and pool tables and gold and guns? Only way to make it in Citadel City is with the Boys. Only way to make it to the top.”

Standing straight with his shoulders squared, Slit was the poster boy for Joe’s army, in uniform and scars like badges.

“You have to step on a lot of people to get there,” she said.

“Rusted, wretched -”

“- And I’m fucking tired of being at the bottom. That whole fucking system is coming down.”

A moment passed, both of them holding their breaths in the dusty air.

“We going to fuck or what?” he demanded at last.

“That’s what we’re here for, right?” she snapped back. She headed out the door and up the stairs, Slit at her heels. She could sense him over her, tall fucking bastard, close enough to feel his body heat rolling off him. Or maybe that was her burning up. Marching up the stairs, they passed by his art without comment; she didn’t turn around to see his expression, to try to read his thoughts, and Slit kept his big mouth shut for one. They clomped into the room and he tossed his jacket aside before dropping onto the bed.

She stayed at the side of the room, arms crossed over her chest as she watched him. And he deliberately ignored her. The tupperwares of her lunch caught his attention and he grabbed a piece of celery and took a big bite.

An attempt to piss her off that backfired spectacularly when he actually tasted what he’d devoured. “The hell is this?”

“It’s mine.” She reclaimed her containers and stuffed them in her backpack. “You can have the rest of that one. I don’t want a half-eaten stick of celery.”

He scrunched up his face in disgust and then flopped onto his back like the vegetable had killed him.

Utterly ridiculous, she thought as he suffered through the remains of the celery. Some of her irritation faded as Toast watched his big hands slid over the blanket on the bed. He rolled onto his side, rising up on his elbow, and rubbed the material like he was just as surprised about that as he had been with the celery.

Something his reactions, something about him, made her hesitate. Instead of stripping and hopping into bed beside him, Toast asked, “How many partners have you had?”

He frowned, then made a low noise of irritation. “I don’t go fucking through them like water.” When she stared at him in confusion, he added, “Just the fucking one.”

“‘The’ one?”

Another snort of disgust and his gaze slid away to glare at his tags on the wall. “Nux.”

“Oh. No.” It was her turn to frown. Sometimes they snapped back and forth, quick as gunshots, but this showed the lacuna between them. “I meant sex. Sexual partners.”

He rolled his eyes back to her. For a moment he was silent, then he said gruffly, “Just the fucking one.”

And that would be her.

There was something odd in the realization that she’d deflowered him, a strange reversal of tradition, snatching away whatever sort of virginity a War Boy could have. Purity, that had been a term he’d used before. The insidiousness of Joe’s control - maybe it’d gone too deep to rout. That was the fucking power of that bullshit, though, wasn’t it? She’d read enough, studied enough, seen enough to understand the grip that those beliefs had on the soul. Hell, they defined it sometimes, didn’t they? An intrinsic part of identity, as strong as bone. And just as painful to break.

It wasn’t her job to keep him from drinking the Kool-Aid. Still… Unsettled by those thoughts, she wasn’t sure how to respond to his confession, so she reverted to acerbity. “You should’ve told me before.”

“Pure-” he began, snapping the word, but then he bit back whatever else he was going to explain.

“I didn’t know. Maybe I should’ve guessed.” A unexpected vulnerability there from her apex War Boy. Still feeling guilty for her earlier comments, she leaned forward to catch his eye. Unlike War Boys, she could admit when she was being an asshole. “I’m sorry. I should have asked more. Better questions. Look, Slit - are you ok?”

He was irritated again, the scars bringing his lips into a jagged scowl. “With what?”

“Sex. Look,” she said again, hands in her hair like she’d be able to coax clarity out of her head if she massaged it enough, “we don’t have to do it again. Ever. If you think it’s wrong or filthy or whatever -”

“You backing out?”

“I’m asking you if you want to. Listen to me. Did you know what you were getting into? And are you ok with that? You don’t go back to Gas Town and have to do penance, do you? Purify yourself again or something? Flagellation or an auto-da-fe?”

“You say the craziest shit - Don’t know what the hell you’re saying.”

Toast stared at him. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

There was a moment of silence at her blunt question. His expression shifted into a sneer and then Slit pounced, grabbing her wrist and hauling her down to the bed. “You, hurt me? You said it yourself: got a foot on you, at least. Hundred pounds. Knife in each pocket, gun against my side. Know how many fights I’ve won?”

His fingers were a cuff around her wrist, long enough that they wrapped fully around. It thrilled her, but she still twisted her arm free and then grabbed at him, digging her own fingers on his forearm. His dark stare didn't waver.

“Besides, I know you now, Toast. Know the way you think. You could’ve shot me - You didn’t. You can’t hurt me.”

“Not just physical,” she argued. There were so many fucking ways to hurt someone. Humans and their vast imaginations. “I need to know you want this.”

“I want this.”

She felt his pulse beat against her palm and Toast ran her tongue over her dry lips, watching him follow the movement. “You want me.”

“I want you.”

“I want you, too.”

There was that grin, wicked and flashing. “You ready, Toast?”

“Yeah. But we do it my way.”

Slit nodded at that, licked his own lips. “Want to see you this time.”

She contemplated that request. His blue eyes were beautiful - and intense as they stared down at her. Pretended to contemplate, really, because Toast was throbbing for him already.

“My way,” she said again and he nodded again, eagerly.

“Yeah. Yours. Tell me what you want.”

“Take off your shirt.”

When she released him, he immediately obeyed. Sitting back, he stretched his t-shirt up over his head. Flat stomach, muscled chest, shoulders, arms, neck, white teeth in his grin, all revealed like night turning to day.

“Good. Now pants.”

Mattress creaked as he moved. He was gorgeous as he undressed and Toast’s heart pounded and mouth practically watered, eyes tracing over the length of his bare legs, back up along his naked torso. His eager obedience sweetened it.

“Lie on your back. Do you have the handcuffs? Then hold onto the bed. And don’t touch me unless I say.”

His cock raised even higher at that command. Even that part of him was gorgeous. The word sprang up into her thoughts - gorgeous. And she wanted it - wanted to curl her fingers around it, stroke at the smooth thickness of it, get it inside of her again. Like he was her first too, there was no one else in her thoughts, no other experiences in her memories pushing through. Just him and her.

“So you want to see me?”

A nod, which was a start.

“Well?” she prompted. She rose enough to pull her sweatshirt over her head. Just a t-shirt and under it just a comfy bra, but he was staring at her like she was in diamonds. She heated more under that gaze. “You need to tell me.”

“Yeah. All of it off.”

“Order…” she began, hands on the clasp of her bra.

“Will you take it off?”

She hopped off the bed to drop her bra onto the pile of clothes. He made a low whine of complaint but he stayed where he was. “Good boy.”

The jeans went down her thighs and puddled over her sneakers. Those she kicked off, socks too, bending down with her ass out. And then it was just her in her underwear. And then it was just her.

Toast climbed back on the bed sat next to his outstretched legs. The bed frame creaked again as he twisted as much as he could to the side without letting go. It was obvious how truthful he’d been in answering - he wanted her. And yet he waited for her.

And that stoked her want into a need. Hard, hot kisses, lips on his, breasts against his chest. Him, all naked and waiting. The tattoos seemed to move with every one of his breaths, hypnotizing her for a moment before his growl brought her back to the present and snapped her eyes back up to his face. It wasn’t quite a grin but his lips were curled up. A sensual mouth. She spread her palms over his stomach and he tilted his head back, eyes closing. The broad jaw, the line of his nose, the high cheek bones. It wasn’t the first time that she’d studied him, but it maybe felt like it was.

Her hands glided up him - those muscles were so gorgeous that it was unfair - until she was cupping his face. Her skin was dark against his; even flushed as he was, his cheeks were a pale peach. Except the scars, of course. Her hands looked small as she covered his scars with them - he was so fucking big, she thought again, which was such a mundane observation but it still made her stomach flip.

He would have been classically handsome without the thick scar tissue that gouged up from mouth to mid-cheek. Questions flickered through her brain: when? Why? What had he been like before? What would he be like without them? Just as sharp? Just as intriguing?

Staring at his face, the idea that had been germinating grew into a desperate desire.

“You haven’t seen all of me yet,” she told him and felt him writhe beside her. She threw her leg around his chest - not exactly sitting on him, but she close enough that she could feel the heat of him. She hadn’t shaved her pubic hair because she’d never go through that bullshit again, but she’d trimmed it despite feeling like an idiot the whole time she’d done it. Now though, she thought as she touched herself and watch his eyes follow the movement, she was proud of it. She ran her hand over the short curls of hair that didn’t hide her venus mound or - moving lower - her labia. Spreading her lips, she felt the slick wetness there.

She crawled up the length of him, feeling her breasts sway as she undulated. Her knees were at his shoulders now; she was right above him. And then with one more sway forward got his head between her legs.

“Now lick.”

Mouth on her, mouth on her clit - And Toast closed her eyes, squinted them shut, and shook and clenched her teeth and gasped. Wet and in her and the slide of his tongue and one of his hands let go of the bed but she didn’t care because his fingers drew her closer and Toast was whimpering from it, groaning from him, and groaning his name like agony like desperation like rapture. All her instructions she was intending to give melted away.

She came with a cry but he didn’t release her, his tongue and lips still stroking still probing until Toast was yelping helplessly. Legs too weak to hold her up, she dropped back to sit on his chest. When he rose up to kiss her, she spilled off him and flopped onto her back on the mattress.

“Fuck me,” he breathed against her lips.

Her legs weighed a thousand pounds and just raising them made her knees shake. “Too tired to ride,” she murmured back. Slit growled, a low note in his throat, and she managed to lift her eyelids up to gaze at him and urged breathlessly, “Come here.”

She opened her arms to him - and legs, spreading them as open as her favorite book. And then - one slide and his cock was inside her. The orgasm that had only barely subsided rocked through her again every time he moved. And he wasn’t even thrusting, just shifting to get close, pulling her up and pressing her down, burying his face in her hair and digging his fingers into her hips; just small movements, just their bodies aligning, but Toast gasped and shivered and tightened her grip on him like he was carrying her to safety.

When he lifted himself up, Toast let out a small cry of disappointment and peeled her eyes open again. His big hands moved down to her thighs, moving them more apart so he could watch his cock go into her. Slide in, slide out, his eyes on where their bodies met. And then that hot gaze swept up her, his hands following. Over her pubic hair, a light brush against her clit, and then they glided up her fluttering stomach to her breasts, then back up into her hair. She wrapped her arms over his shoulders to kiss him, hard, fierce, tongue and teeth their too to urge him on as she increased their pace. And she watched him - liked seeing him up close with his eyes shut and teeth on his lower lip.

Thrusting now, snapping his hips, thumping them against the mattress that squeaked rhythmically as they fucked. The bed banged against the wall - good fucking thing the place was empty because the neighbors would call the cops with a noise complaint.

Going mad from it, the pleasure as sharp and intense as bolts of lighting spiked through her. Toast gripped him but her hands slid over his sweat-slicked back, hands sliding down his shoulders until she dug her nails in. The scratch made him call out, gasp, then growl as hoisted her hips up and slammed into her and -

CRACK

The bed broke with a thunderous crash.

They both yelped in surprise in that one second before the mattress dropped on the shattered, pluming up dust, and the frame bashed to the ground around them. A fucking hard hit onto the ground - but his big hand behind her head protected it. And then he was cradling it, cradling her with his other arm under her back and shoulders hunched over her. Toast sputtered a couple of fucks, gasping in the dusty air.

He coughed and raised himself to survey the destruction. “Told you I could break the bed.”

She gaped at him, mouth open and eyes wide, and then finally her brain recovered and she began to laugh - loud, gasping, hard enough that her sides hurt. Or maybe that was because they busted the bed like they were in some stupid movie - the whole thing was crazy and absurd and funny and she laughing so hard that she snorted.

She dug her fingers into his side. “Oh yeah?” she managed to wheeze between her laughs. “You’re completely ridiculous!”

He’d been frowning down at her but at that he cracked a grin. His eyes seemed even bluer somehow. “Nah - completely fucking awesome.”

If she told him how pretty his eyes were, what would he do? Instead she went with his favorite compliment, “Shine as hell!”

She kissed his cheeks, over his scars, her lips sliding over his, down his chin, across his jaw He caught her mouth with a hard kiss of his own, brief but still scalding and then grabbed her around the waist.

With that surprising grace of his, he hoisted her onto his shoulder as he rose, smooth and effortless like she weighed nothing at all. Her stomach flopped, but maybe that was just from the height. She yelped and the arm around her waist tightened, but Slit didn’t stop or put her down; instead he bent over and grabbed the mattress and blankets.

Toast planted her hands on his back to lift herself more horizontal for a better view. Muscles moving and damn, his ass was fantastic. Slit kicked the mattress over so it was flat on the ground and then pulled her down into his arm. They fell on the impromptu bed together, grappling and kissing so that their teeth clinked together, but Toast stopped him as his hand moved over her knee.

“Wait. My way, remember?”

He obeyed with a quick nod and waited, breath bated as she rearrange herself. She rolled over, pressed her ass against his crotch and hot erection. When he stayed motionless she groped behind her to grab at his thigh - big and firm - and felt his groan rumble through her.

“Slow this time.”

Rocking back against his cock until he slid into her, Toast whimpered in strange completion. His big body curled around her. She pulled his hand up to one of her breasts. About to command him not to squeeze, all she could do was sigh when he palmed her nipple - taunt and sensitive. And then he did squeeze, gentle and in time with their thrusts.

The blanket tangled around their legs as they moved together. Spooning her, his whole body moved with her - hard everywhere, hot everywhere, wet everywhere. His cock nudged at her g-spot with a pleasure that prickled with an intensity that made her eyes close and mouth open helplessly. In her ear his breath came out in rough gasps - and then his tongue touched there, then lips, then the graze of teeth, and she reached back, her arm around his shoulder to pull him closer. So big and her so small beside him -

Pleasure building more and more and then she came - a shudder and a shock that made her clench. Slit leaned over her, pinning her hips between him and the mattress. Filled her again - she could feel the flood of his semen spill out onto her skin - and Toast groaned with him in pleasure. Take him, yeah, all of him - It was fucking insane how good it felt. Like every nerve was stripped raw, shivering and shaking with the sensations of it all. The slow slide of his cock, his hand on her chest, his fingers rolling his nipple, him arching to kiss the side of her cheek. And the rough sounds he made, ragged and feral -

The other times they separated as soon as they were done, but this time she kept her grip on him so he couldn’t move away. Not that he tried; Slit seemed content to play with her breast and nuzzle at her hair while he continued to roll his hips against her ass. Not the most comfortable mattress, with the floor hard under them, but for some reason she barely noticed that. She was probably tired.

His long fingers slipped over her slick thighs. “Sure you’re not knocked up?”

“Want to use condoms?” she asked seriously. He shrugged, eyes still on her legs. She could tease him, but Toast didn’t - didn’t even want to. Maybe it hit too close to home. She wiggled out of his embrace and lifted her arm, pointing to a patch of flesh on the underside. “Look - I got an implant.”

He shot up and curled his fingers around her arm, gently pulling it closer. “No shit? Where? How big is it? Don’t feel it.”

“Here. It’s pretty small. Pills, condoms, they’re not permanent; and there’s too much room for error. Implant takes care of that.”

He probed at her arm as she turned her bicep toward him. The touches were gentle as he tried to locate the small piece of plastic and when he did - sliding it slightly under her skin - he whistled and then sat back with a look of admiration on his face. Maybe it appealed to his War Boy traditions, having something in the body to make it stronger.

“Can’t believe they can do that. The chemicals in it are crazy.” He watched as Toast rubbed at her arm and then pronounced, “Bad ass.”

“More like practical,” she said with a dismissive shrug. “Wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t get pregnant if someone raped me again.”

“Who did it?” he demanded.

She tossed back a question instead of an answer, “So what, you can sic the War Boys?” Toast’s anger disappeared behind her blank expression. There was no point in getting outraged - or disappointed - in his response. He was a War Boy after all. Why the hell did she need to keep remind herself of that? “No thanks.”

“No way you let someone get away with that!” He barked that out furiously. And ferociously - scars pulled up to bare his teeth, the muscles in his shoulders bunching as he rose, brows in harsh lines over his eyes.

“I didn’t sing at him, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”

“Won’t let it happen again.”

“Oh yeah? And how does that work? You going to follow me around? What if I run into other War Boys? Bros before hos? Some fucking protection.” She continued grimly over his mutterings, “What if you turn on me? Rape me?”

Shock registered at that last question; with eyes wide and lips parted, that younger man appeared again. But she didn’t give him a chance to argue the point.

“I’m not a thing! I get to go where I want and do what I want and fuck anyone who thinks I should get put on a leash because the city’s too dangerous. If it is, it’s because fucking rapists are allowed to run it.”

Silence after that exposition. With a dark look at him, she pulled up the flannel blanket all the way up to her chin and drew her knees up.

Slit ground his teeth together. The muscles in his shoulders were bunched together like he was about to lunge up to attack. “It was a War Boy.”

Toast kept a breath in her lungs, feeling them expand in her ribs. She let it out in a slow hiss to calm her heart rate back down. “Yeah.”

Slit’s hand curled around her leg, fingers massaging the muscle there. His eyes on her to read her reaction, he slid it up, past her sticky thighs, over her ribs, out from under the blanket to her cheek and the scar there. “He give you this?”

“One of the last things he did.”

“Dead?”

“Yeah.”

“Hurt you anyplace else?”

His hand was warm against her face. There were calluses on his palm, but it was still comforting. She stopped herself from resting against it. “It was a while ago.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Don’t see why it matters,” she replied with a shrug. She looked over his shoulder at the figures he’d drawn on the walls. Some of the people were more like outlines than full drawings, but some he’d filled in with detail - clothes, features, faces, each one unique. Some of them were War Boys, but not all of them. “He liked to pull my hair. Crush my face into the mattress. He - Whatever. It’s over.”

“I’d kill him. Shred him.”

She laughed grimly. Now was the perfect time to tell him - fling it at him. It’d be dramatic, turn the comedy of farces that was whatever the hell their relationship into a ridiculous tragedy. She opened her mouth to say Joe’s name… But the same cowardice that she called common sense froze the words in her throat and she choked back the truth, just like she had with Dag, Cheedo, and Capable. Tell them everything? Or nothing? Trapped between the two options, she hesitated. It was a terrible choose-your-own adventure, which every page leading to a shitty resolution.

And there was no certain way to predict his response. Remembering Slit’s worshipful reactions to Joe’s office, she wasn’t exactly optimistic. What was the War Boy punishment for killing Joe? Maybe he’d haul her to the Pits to face Rictus - And who the hell knew what ending she’d get from Joe’s massive son. And besides, she didn’t owe the War Boys anything, and that included Slit - the rat bastards had gotten enough from her already.

“It doesn’t matter,” she repeated.

“Toast.” The way he said her name, something about it tugged at her and she closed her eyes to keep them from meeting his. He brushed his knuckles of her bare leg. “Won’t let anyone - even War Boys - do that again. Put them in their place.”

“That mean you’ll watch over Capable, too?”

“Yeah.” Not a second of hesitation.

“I know what you’re trying to say. But look, Slit, it’s not just about having a partner. Don’t you get that? Because all you’re doing is shifting it so some other person without back-up gets raped. There’s all this other shit happening. Don’t you get it? ”

He let out a low growl of irritation. “Need to do something.”

She didn’t have time to figure out an answer for that; Slit enveloped her in his arms, curling around her again.

“Alright,” he said, that low voice rumbling through her. “Got you.”

There was so much that needed to be said. It needed to be purged, like lancing a wound, everything spilled out so that someone could start with the difficult work of patching it all back again. Just like at the hospital, with all the shit and piss and vomit that came before the wounds healed. Toast closed her eyes, let the sound of his heartbeat fill her ears and drive away her thoughts. He’d done that before, too, in Joe’s office: stopped everything to hold her. He slid his fingers through her fair, nails lightly scratching. And damn did it feel good. Proof that not telling him was fine. A hook-up could just be a hook-up. She didn’t need to dig herself in deeper.

She roused herself enough to murmur, “It’s getting long. Think I should do anything to it?”

“Shave it.”

“Nope.”

“Do whatever you want. You’ll still look shine.”

She hadn't realized that there was a right answer to that question; she hadn’t meant it to be a test, but he passed it anyway. Joe had his “preferences,” which ruled them, and her hair suffered the most for it. He hated dreadlocks, hated curls, hated afros - hated when she’d cut all of it off and flung the scissors at his feet. That’d been a fun night. Her mind churned through those memories, making her wish she’d stabbed him with the scissors instead of tossing the weapon away, until she sighed and rubbed her face against Slit again. Her fingers found their way down to his stomach under the blanket.

“Want to tattoo you,” he said as she stroked his silky skin there.

“Kinky.” Toast rolled over so his fingers could continue their exploration across her front. Slit followed the curve of her breast, dragged his blunt nails between her cleavage, leaving goosebumps in their wake. “I don’t want War Boy logo permanently etched into my skin.”

“Can be something else.”

She chuckled and shifted so she could trace the intricate ink designs that covered his firm abdomen. “So everytime I look down I see ‘no regrats.’ Yeah, no.”

“Fuck you, Toast; I can spell. ‘Regrets’ is easy: two Rs, two Es, two Gs.”

For the second time that day, he stunned her into silence. She probably looked like an idiot - mouth open, catching flies, and her eyes protruding from her skull, because Slit raised himself up to look into her face. A fucking War Boy, ready to kill and die for the biggest piece of shit in the city, and then he had to do things like make a goddamn joke. And then she started to laugh again, giggle-snorting and shaking her head. “Oh yeah?”

He pounded at his chest like some ridiculous gorilla and boasted, “Best at tattooing.”

She pinched his nipple to make him squirm. “Alright, I believe you. So what kind of tattoo were you thinking?”

He pushed gently on her shoulder she rolled over. His big hand spanned from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. “Here. Good spot. Maybe up.” She shivered as he finger traced up her neck and into her hair. “Back’s a good place to start - Lots of space. Some places hurt more than others, if there’s not a lot of muscle underneath. Figure you can handle the pain, though. And some spots are rusted. One Boy wanted tires on the side of his feet. I did it and they looked chrome for about a year and then the ink started to fade. Wasn’t my fault.”

“Your art’s not bad,” she allowed.

“Stuff in the hallway?”

“I couldn’t miss it, could I?”

He rubbed his thumb against her shoulder. “So?” he prompted. “You gotta have something to say.”

“A colorful representation of organic energy, the force of it duplicated in the artist’s choice of vibrant shades of oranges and blue,” she lectured. Eyes closed, she could see the images as though she were still on the stairs. “These hues are on opposing sides of the color wheel; perhaps this too is a statement about the dimorphic nature of life, which incorporates both birth and death, joy and pain. Just as the creature leaps forward, so does the creator. Or was this a single step forward with two steps back? The artist must be studied further.”

Slit pressed his face in her hair; she couldn’t see his expression. “Like doing on the outside more so everyone can fucking see it, but this place has good wall for it - decent paint.”

“Hey, you used the new tattoo gun yet?” The one that she’d found down in Joe’s basement, tossed away into the dark like all the other things War Boys wasted - She’d given it to Slit as a cover for getting the phone and payment for the bullets.

“Not yet. Need good ink. There’s a place way downtown that might hook me up. But I will.”

“Didn’t realize the type of ink mattered.”

“Course! Different blacks, how they run, if they fade - Only the best for me.”

“Your art all over the city - on the walls and on the people.”

“Yeah. Fuck yeah.” He rubbed her back again. He let out a rumbling sigh and then said almost dreamily, “Snake. Big one. All the way down.”

Down her spine, down to the cleft of her ass.

“Mm, because I’m the serpent in the garden?”

Change in atmosphere - He grunted and his hand pulled away. “More shit I don’t understand. I’m not soft in the head - Just don’t have time to read fucking dictionaries.”

She’d managed to hit his other feeling, she thought, and then felt a twinge of shame. Toast rubbed her knuckles against him like he’d done before. It must have meant something in War Boy vernacular, because he rolled back to her. His jaw was set and eyes narrowed so they looked dark against his pale skin. Definitely some scruff there, though she restrained herself from brushing her hand over his jawline. “I know you’re smart, Slit. That’s one of the reasons I like…. Hanging out with you. I’m just an intellectual snob. I was making a literary reference.”

“‘Semantics.’”

She squinted at him in confusion and he grunted again, eyes rolling.

“You said that last time. ‘Semantics.’ And ‘gilded.’ ‘Assignation.’ ‘Knell.’ ‘Flagellation’ and ‘auto-da-fe.’”

He had a full list of words she’d tossed at him, tossed over his head. A hell of a recall, she thought, her eyebrow arched in bemusement. He wasn’t stupid - Despite all her complaints about the Boys, about him, Toast hadn’t ever thought that he was. Strange, yeah. And interesting. And quick. And she was an asshole for using vocabulary he wouldn't understand. She squashed that self-criticism. She defined them all, including the metaphors, explaining what she could; he digested them, at first with his usual frown, but as she went on, his brows lifted a little.

“Auto-da-fe…” he said again. With a look of extreme pensiveness, he reached over to fondle one of her breasts.

“A great combination of murder and arson,” she said, laughing. “Not surprised you like the concept. Hey, careful with that.”

“How the hell do you know all of those? Never heard them before.”

“I read a lot. You can learn from books. If there’s anything else you want me to explain, just ask,” she said - an offer for him and a challenge for herself. And if he asked about how she knew about the War Boys? Or where she had come from? Or how long their relationship had to be kept a secret?

“Cause you know everything,” he said through his grin. “And you have great tits.”

She made a face that hide her relieved smile. “Don’t call them that.”

“The hell not?”

“Fine.” Toast slapped her hands against his bare chest and rubbed her palms over his pectoral muscles. “You have the chromest tits ever.”

It was his turn to recoil. “Don’t call them that!”

“Mm, Slit’s tits. Slit’s big fit tits. Slitty’s titties -”

He rolled over and smushed her into the mattress.

Time enough to spend rolling around. Spend, she mulled over the word, and what was she buying with it? Slit grunted and growled as she palmed the curve of his ass and then measured the width of his biceps. But he rolled over and let her explore, pleased with the attention like some overgrown housecat. Down his long back, down his long legs; he curled in his toes and snapped when she got to his feet and she laughed and smacked his flank. Like she was blind and reading his body with her fingers, she trailed them along the lines of his bones and the angles of those muscles. He shaved everything except his armpits and crotch - a strange preference of Joe’s, one she didn’t really feel like asking about. Instead she prodded at one armpit and stroked at the soft hair and skin with her thumb while Slit snorted a laugh. His crotch… She’d been desperate to touch him there before, but the haze of ardor had cleared and now uncertainity unsettled her thoughts again.

Later, maybe. She had other shit to do beyond a full-body examination, she told herself. The hell was she, a doctor? His personal urologist? He was looking at her like there was something he wanted to say so before he could, she climbed to her feet. She had to hop around the broken bed to avoid splinters - they destroyed the damn bed, she thought again in a mix of awe and horror - and collected their clothes, tossing him his before dropping down on the mattress to slip back into her jeans.

“Covered in cat hair again,” he observed with a dark mutter as he pulled his black t-shirt over his head.

Capable had said something about one of the Boy’s being a crazy cat lady. Toast leaned back - all the better to watch the movement of his body as he dressed. “You have been getting a lot of pussy.”

Lewd as hell, and she liked it.

Slit barked a laugh but before he could reply, the phone in his pocket rang. When he flipped it open he frowned and turned away to answer it. “Yeah.”

War Boy orders, she guessed. His tone had switched - voice lower than when he talked with her, growling out the words. So the date was clearly over. Which was fine - She’d dallied enough. Swiftly she dressed and then stuffed the blankets back in her bag. Eavesdropping like some tattler at the door, she listened to the rest of his conversation, trying to figure out the other part.

“Been there all morning! You aren’t my boss - Fuck.” The last word was hissed out. “Yeah.”

Some command he didn’t like. But he didn’t argue it. Toast glanced at him with an expression of disinterest as he hung up the phone and stuffed it in his pocket. How quickly their demeanors could change.

“Trouble in paradise?” she asked innocently.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Like I give a shit.” Whatever the hell was going on with the Boys was none of her concern so long as it didn’t spill into her life again, she reminded herself.

They were halfway down the stairs when he spoke again, “Nux is stirring up shit again. Tell Capable that whatever she’s doing to him isn’t helping. One of these days someone’s going to shut him up.”

“One of these days he’s going to drive away and not come back. Then he’ll be out of your hair. If you had any.”

“So that’s what you’re gunning for?”

There was that jealous tone again. “Yeah, no. Last thing I need is a War Boy roommate.”

She got her bike, he went to reclaim his, and then they were in the road again with no reason to loiter around. She rocked her bike back and forth anyway, then took out her phone as if she had important messages to check and not just a series of puppy pictures from Dag and Cheedo. “Time to blow this popsicle stand,” she said as she shoved it away again.

“Got your number now,” he bragged, arms crossed over his chest and clearly pleased with himself.

“That mean I’ll be hearing from you?”

There was that intense look again and Toast didn’t exactly hold her breath, but her lungs did feel tight. But the he snorted. “If you’re lucky.”

“If I’m lucky?” she sputtered incredulously. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

The way he flipped her off as he drove away, it was almost like he was blowing her a kiss.

Chapter Text

Oh the boys on the radio / They crash and burn / They fold and fade so slow / In your endless summer night / I'll be on the other side / When you're beautiful and dying / All the world that you've denied / When the water is too deep / You can close your eyes and really sleep tonight

===
Slit
===

Regimented days, each hour with purpose - Under Joe, all the useless parts were removed until only the chrome remained. At the Pits they worked out and worked on cars, in the streets they patrolled. Everything was laid out, clear as a road map.

More War Boys were coming out to Gas Town and he had to show them that garage wasn’t full of rusted weaklings. With Scab dead and his Boys running feral, it meant that the rest of them had even more slack to pull up. Slit shaved meticulously, leaning in close to the mirror to inspect every plane of his face and chest. He worked out until it hurt, then until his arms and legs were numb. No one could say he wasn’t fit to be a War Boy. Not that anyone would dare to. But there was still the current of dissatisfaction. Still the feeling like wheels weren’t aligned. He still climbed up on the roof to stare out to the cityscape, even though he couldn’t see much of anything but smog.

He still couldn’t believe that Scab had let himself be killed. He got some of the story from Nux, who’d gotten it from a cop that holed up in Capable’s house. Taken down by the bronze - insult on injury. Wouldn’t have happened if Rictus paid them off as well as Joe had. Dropping like fucking flies. Someone had to fix it.

In the garage the radio was on, the university station coming in scratchy. The news interrupted the stream of music: weather report of dropping temperatures, a murder-suicide in a nail salon, car crash on Anarchie Road backing up traffic. They were all working on cars, even Slit who was trying to bash out a busted muffler.

“Been thinking about what you said about school.”

At the word “school,” Slit’s attention snapped toward Nux and his droning conversation with Capable. Slit shuffled out from under the van - almost relieved to have an excuse to get back to his feet; he hated being on his back with no damn space to breathe - and stared at Nux, who was just standing there, arms crossed, not doing anything he should’ve. Too hard to walk and talk, Slit thought nastily.

“I want to try.”

He’d heard all about Nux’s adventure at Citadel City University, told loudly and repeatedly like Nux had busted into the Vault and not stumbled into a classroom. For a moment the memory of that night with Toast in Joe’s night club distracted him; Slit had decided that the wretches at the garage didn’t deserve to hear about that - Not even his partner, who’d been too knocked flat by Capable’s run-in with Buzzards. He wanted to go back, get Toast to help him start hauling out treasure or at least the supplies in the basement. But the last time they’d met up she’d dropped a bomb on him. Wasn’t just that she’d been raped, but that she admitted it; a display of vulnerability that he hadn’t expected she’d let another War Boy see. Maybe it was a test, he reasoned - she was trying to… what? He shoved those thoughts aside.

Course they made a u-turn and came right back.

“Not yet, though,” Nux told Capable. “Don’t think I’m ready.”

Since that was settled, Slit could have gone back to work. Instead he sat on the hood of the van and listened in on one of the ten thousand conversations Nux had with his girlfriend. And like always, talking to her made him shed his War Boy skin. Loping gait around the garage, laughing the whole time. Soft as hell, melting just from the sound of her.

And proud of it. Slit scoffed at the observation, but it had to be true: Nux was all but dragging Capable back to Gas Town to show her off. Even Nux had enough sense not to try it, thank fucking valhalla, but talking on the phone with her all the damn time and playing her CDs nonstop meant that her voice was everywhere.

“Yeah, thanks, Capable. Just wanted to make sure you didn’t think it was a huge fuck-up.” A pause, then Nux laughed again. “I love you so much. Can’t wait to see you.”

Jealousy made him scowl - A look completely missed by Nux, who was strolling away. It wasn’t about getting Nux to come back to the van, back to War Boy business - Slit almost wanted to take out his phone, call Toast. She fit in his thoughts so smoothly that he almost didn’t realize he was thinking about her again, about what they’d talk about if she was on the phone. She’d have something to say about Butchey hanging around, eating all their food. And opinions on Ace and how the old man was changing up their routines.

Nux sighed. “I don’t know. I’m not smart like you.”

He snapped his head back and forth to see if anyone noticed that he’d been standing around just as useless as Nux. Dred and Rotor had their eyes on Nux, listening too. Slit saw them lean forward together, Dred’s arm on Rotor’s shoulder as they bowed in to the sound of Nux’s soft voice. Slit tensed, eyes narrowed, the wrench clenched in his fist, daring them to make a move. Ace’s crew hadn’t done shit to Nux so far, but with him flaunting his weakness, it was an opportunity that no real War Boy could resist.

“Seriously, I love you. Totally do. Love you! You’re stuck with me. What? Never! Because I love you. You’re the shiniest, chromest, sweetest - Hey, what? You are so fucking cute when you blush. Ok, bye Capable. Wish I were there right now… Can’t wait to see you. Never had Thai. Yeah? No, I’ll pay this time. Can’t wait to kiss you, hold you, get my hands in your hair...”

Dred and Rotor slid away toward the back of the garage. He cracked his knuckles, irritated that they were somehow still bothering him. His gaze moved back to Nux, who was going through his endless goodbye routine. At least it was finally on its last legs.

He sauntered over to Nux and snatched the rag that Nux was aimlessly flapping. Hand free, Nux flipped him off. Their eyes met: Nux’s huge and clear - but then his attention went back to his phone and girl. “And a movie. Want to take you out. Anywhere! I love being out with you, Capable. Ok, bye for real this time.”

The conversation he’d had with Toast had been short. She said what she wanted with no roundabout ambiguity. And just like that she was back in his brain. The phone in his pocket banged against his leg and he fished it out, flipped it open.

“What’s up?” Nux asked, coming back to the real world at last. “Something going on?”

Quickly he closed it and shoved it away before Nux could peer at the screen over his shoulder. “I’m sick of lying around soft. Need to go into the city.”

“For what?”

For Toast. Fuck. Slit quickly searched for a viable excuse. “Look for parts.”

“Yeah, all right. Need to finish Gonner’s belts, but I can do that later.”

A replacement that was supposed to be done already. Slit flung the rag into the backseat on top of the mess of tools. “Chrome. Got to get my gun.”

Nux followed behind him. “Hey, you remember the drive-in movie theater? The one by Bartertown? Capable says some people are trying to raise money to fix it up. That’d be shine. Think about that, Slit - Sitting in the Monte Carlo, watching a movie, on a date.”

“How’s it work?” Slit asked, trying to figure out the mechanics of it. “Massive loudspeakers?”

“Don’t know. I’ll ask Capable.” He threw his arm over Slit’s shoulder. “See? Knew you’d think it was a shine idea! Makes me feel bad we fucked it up, you know?’”

War Boys had claimed it, but even before that, the old site had been torn down and fucked up. Some of the screen remained, but just as bars - good place to climb and shoot bottles off. Movies were time wasters, anyway; another Joe rule that Nux was trying to break. Again Toast got into his brain, popping up like she was in the backseat of a car. Take her out there, spread out in the car with her on his lap.

“It’s still ours,” he reminded Nux.

“We haven’t done shit with it in years, Slit.”

“Still War Boys’.”

“How’s that fair? We wreck it, let it rust, then want it back just so someone else can’t have it? And how come it’s ours in the first place? Because we tagged it?”

Because everything in Citadel City had an owner. Slit rolled his eyes. “That’s Capable talking. Come on, Nux, War Boys don’t hand over territory. Buzzards would piss themselves laughing if they heard that. And then blow our heads off.”

Nux pulled his arm back. “Joe’s dead,” he said, and there was a low note in his voice that made Slit look up at him. “Even before, cruising the street, that territory wasn’t ours. Wasn’t yours or mine. Remember all the times we had to sleep in the bottom of the Pits? Listen Slit, we drove around and claimed the drive-in or whatever, but you and me and all of the crews, we never owned it. Never got anything for it.”

“Your memory’s rusting. We got plenty. Cars, guns, race down any street, everyone moving aside, respect -”

“Joe got the Vault, we got the Pits. Or jail. Or the river. And everyone else got worse. You know what Capable said? I was talking to her and Toast, and she said -”

“How about we ride over there, take a look at the place ourselves.”

There was a pause and Slit glanced over to see Nux rub his hands through his hair. But then he relented. “The drive-in? Yeah. All right.”

Both of them knew Slit’d only interrupted the argument, not won it. For once Slit didn’t feel like picking a fight with Nux about his girl. “Haven’t been there since you got us kicked out of Bartertown.”

“That was your fault!”

“Not how I remember it! Could use some new paint and Bartertown had the best,” Slit whined and Nux laughed.

“Maybe they won’t recognize me now!”

They moved down the hall to the room they used for sleeping. Slit shoved open the door and -

Two figures on the bed, that rhythmic moving like pistons did, in and out, dark and soft and wet noises. Dred and Rotor, naked and fucking. Like him and Toast, coiled and curled up, her reaching and riding - And a flash of heat followed the shock, flooding his body and wiping his thoughts blank.

The two of them, together -

“Oh fuck! Sorry guys! Lock the fucking door next time! I have condoms if you need them!” Around him came Nux’s arm; he grabbed the doorknob and slammed the door closed. “Fuck me, didn’t see that coming. Guess we should’ve. Partners and all.”

He tugged on Slit’s elbow, but Slit stayed rooted in place.

“Come on, Slit. You don’t need your gun for a drive.”

“Two Boys like that.” Slit chewed through the words.

“Yeah, so?”

Big eyes were blue, still as clear, nothing in them other than confusion. No fucking clue, no thought about it, because that was it: he never thought about it.

“Can’t even fucking believe!” Slit twisted away from Nux to yell at the door. “Rictus is gonna fucking shred you! You know what happens -”

“Oi, shut the fuck up!” Nux shoved his shoulder - hard, fast, enough to push Slit back.

“You’re just as fucking bad as those two -”

“Shut up, Slit! What do you care? Come on, let’s get out of here.” This time when Nux grabbed his elbow, Slit let him, let him pull him down the hall, back into the garage. “It’s all bullshit anyway. Telling us who we can be with - Another way to make us feel like shit, like we don’t deserve anything.”

Slit stare at him through squinted eyes and Nux returned the glare. “You know what Joe did -”

Nux cut him off again. “Yeah, because he was a piece of shit. Why can’t you see that? Look, I’m glad the two of them hooked up. Yeah, I really fucking am. This is what Capable and Toast were talking about - it’s not just about me getting to be with her, or you and me getting to use the drive-in. It’s about all of us. And that means Dred and Rotor. If we don’t include everyone, we’re just as bad as Joe. Ok, look, Slit -”

The buzz of his phone cut through Nux’s explanation. Just his phone, not Slit’s - wasn’t a War Boy message. Swearing, Nux pulled it out. The way his expression changed to surprise, Slit bet it wasn’t Capable bothering him again. Someone else had Nux’s number.

“I need to go,” Nux said as he typed something back. He looked back up and pointed the phone at Slit. “Swear to valhalla, Slit, if you do anything to Dred and Rotor, I’ll scrap your bike.”

“The hell are you going?” Slit demanded.

He didn’t even turn around. “Out!”

Slit spun on his heel and stomped back to the bedroom - kicking open the door, nothing came out at him this time. Beds were empty, room was still, and his gun and holster were on the floor by his mattress. He shrugged into the holster as he moved quickly back out to the garage. Morsov’s whine of a voice followed him, but as soon as Slit started his bike, the roar of the engine cut him off.

No way was he going to stay in Gas Town with Morsov, with the scent of sex polluting the garage. No way was he going to let Nux escape without him.

He raced through Gas Town toward the highway. The bike was built for speed and Slit floored it, passing between cars as he caught up with Nux’s Monte Carlo. It didn’t take long to find him - all roads led to Citadel City.

If Nux knew Slit was on his trail, he didn’t show it. None of the usual methods for ditching a tail: Nux drove straight on, took an exit to go downtown, going fast but not fanging it. Again Slit cursed his partner - Nux was lucky it was only Slit following him. Staying back enough that Nux wouldn’t be able to see him in his mirrors, Slit’s thoughts flipped back and forth between options, decided on seeing where the hell he was going, what the hell he was doing.

Maybe he was going to see Toast.

The streets passed quickly, though Slit kept the map running in his head as Nux weaved downtown. Not to the university, not to any familiar territory - Nux led Slit to a weird part of the city until finally he pulled over in front of a small building. Slit leaned over the handlebars; that low, he was less of a target, though Nux gave no indication that he knew he was being watched. Just like when he’d be driving, he didn’t looked back, didn’t make any circles, and the schlanger just jumped out of his car without checking the street at all.

Slit surveyed the street for him, eyes moving quickly but carefully over the buildings, the parked cars, the people on the sidewalk. Residentials, mostly, with a couple of shops. It wasn’t War Boy territory for fucking sure, and he didn’t see signs of any other gangs. The graffiti was mostly random shit, names and bad designs, nothing that he recognized. The street - Bouwerie - wasn’t too crowded, but not empty like Bergen; the people walking by him hurried the fuck up and didn’t look up into his face. Or if they did, they knew better not to fucking stare. Suddenly a long-haired girl came sprinting out of a building by the Monte Carlo. Slit let out a short bark of surprise as a Nux opened the passenger side door for her.

Not Toast. Something churned in him, mix of relief and disappointment like oil and water, neither of them really winning. A jeering yell from down the street caught his attention immediately: workers on a construction site were shouting some shit at Nux’s car.

“Wretched fucking shit,” Slit swore to himself. “Come on, Nux. Come on!”

That was more than a provocation - that was a full on challenge. Slit shot up, one hand already at the gun under his jacket, ready to defend his partner. Nux straightened - the breath in Slit’s lungs heated - but then the girl must have said something because he turned away. The two of them flipped off the construction workers but that was all. This girl wasn’t even Capable and he still followed her back into the car like he was on a leash.

Made the construction guys bolder; Slit saw one of them raise his arm like he was going to throw something after the Monte Carlo as it sped by them. Slit climbed off his bike and pushed the sleeves of his jacket up to his elbows, showing off the scars and tattoos on top of the muscles. Anger boiled, sped up his steps. He reached into his pocket, fingers finding one of his knives. Under the knife was a cigarette; something made him take that out instead of the blade. He lit it, letting it dangle at the corner of his mouth.

Three of them. One clearly the boss, with the two flanking him cheering him on. A quick look confirmed: no one else at the site. It wasn’t much, just one lot with a skeleton of the new building in place. Cheapo construction, probably, with shitty workers bought and worth jack shit. Pigeons and rats ducking away, the sidewalks clearing, and Slit coming closer -

Maybe it was the heavy beat of his boots on pavement, maybe it was the rancid smell of smoke, maybe the assholes finally got their brains working - one of them turned toward him, gave Slit the start of what he was probably trying to make into a shit-eating grin. Mouth opened, he was about to call to his mates, but Slit was faster.

Slit struck out first: slamming his first across jaw of the first guy got him out of the way, making space for Slit to grab the leader.

One punch to the mouth to shut him up, a second to fuck him up. Blood splattered up, rained down red. Slit grabbed the asshole before he could fall, fist in the guy’s thin t-shirt, and then shoved him down. His mates yelped but didn’t step in, didn’t even move as Slit pressed the guy into the pavement.

He plucked out the cigarette, held it by the guy’s face. Any closer and the hair would fizzle, skin would fry. Any closer and the guy would lose an eyeball. “You got about ten seconds to convince me not to shred your ass.”

“Oh shit…” he wasted his first fucking breath.

Slit leaned down harder, knee on the spine to get it to crack. His other knee was on the ground, gravel digging through the worn fabric. Gravel and dirt and bottle caps and crumbled cigarettes, trash everywhere mixed in with the tools and supplies. “You dumb fuck - What made you think you could go against the War Boys?”

“I swear, we didn’t know he was a War Boy!” one of the others said desperately. Slit glanced up at him but he hadn’t dared to get any closer.

The guy beside him yelped, “We didn’t know she was your girl!”

“You look at her again - or any fucking girl - and me and my crew will come and pull this fucking building down on whatever’s left of you. You got me, smeg?”

But the leader was still struggling, mouthing off like he didn’t know he was beaten - or maybe he wanted to go out with a bang. “There’s just two of you! War Boys are over!”

Over?! There was an army of them, even without Joe! Slit sucked air through his bared teeth in a hiss that made the filth whimper like vermin caught in a hunter’s claws. A sudden noise made him jerk his chin up. A car screeched up, squealed to a stop, doors slamming as people piled out. No siren - wasn’t cops - could be Buzzards or -

“Well, well, fucking well! Slit, you shine bastard!”

“Oi, Slit, how come you’re having all this fun and didn’t invite us?”

He heard Scavs and Cleanbomb holler as they clamped across the pavement. More calls followed him, more noise, keys and lighters and knives, everything coming together. He looked up to see Gonner’s crew with some other Boys spreading over the sidewalk and into the construction zone.

Triumph ran through him like a wildfire. He got in the guy’s face, sneering so his scars stretched into pain. “War Boys are over? More like fucking death knell for you, asshole.”

Black boots and blank pants filed around him. Black Stump dropped beside Slit, looped his arm over his shoulder. “Look at this bugger,” he said with fake awe. “Ugly schlanger, huh, Slit? Worse than you.”

“Shut up, Black Stump, you stupid fucker. He’s just jealous that he’s mediocre and you’re getting all the glory, Slit.”

“Holy v8! Think there’s copper in here?”

“You coming, Ballast? Hurry the hell up!”

Slit laughed and pressed the guy harder, grinding him into the ground like a cigarette stub. “Citadel City belongs to the War Boys, you got that? Come on, filth, give me an answer and I’ll let you and your friends go before you piss yourselves.”

“Yeah, smeg! Say it! Citadel City belongs to the War Boys!”

The guy’s gasping breaths blew the cigarette into a smoulder. “Citadel - Citadel City belongs to the War Boys.”

“Louder!”

“Citadel City belongs to the War Boys!”

Slit hauled him back to his feet and released him, but the guy barely got a step in before Cleanbomb threw his arm over the guy’s hunched shoulders and started leading him away. “There you go, mate. Back on your fucking feet. Now, don’t you feel better?”

Motor was running hot and fast - he hadn’t felt like this with the War Boys for ages. Almost felt like when he was under Toast, with her on his dick, shifting him up into overdrive. Without thinking he flicked the cigarette away, and pulled out his phone and typed her a quick message.

in the city
lets meet

“Look at this fucking place! How’d you even find this dump?”

He looked up at Dukes with a start. How’d they find it?

“Joe never sent us here,” Dukes continued. He kicked a bottle into the lot, watched it roll away into a muddy hole. “You think he’d know every street in the city. Guess he thought it wasn’t worth it?”

Solder shrugged. “Not much around here. We saw little shops and shit, but nothing else. Sort of looks pure, you know? Can’t wait to claim it!”

“Coffee shops?” Nogo asked excitedly. “Shine! Nux was talking about one. I want to try it.”

His phone buzzed - Toast. Course she’d reply so fast. He was the fucking best and driving historic.

I have my period

“Oi, Slit! What’d you doing now?” Scavs sidled up beside him and banged into his arm. “Wretches are still moving and running their fucking gobs. Want us to shut them up?”

Slit clamped his fist around his phone to protect it. His gaze roamed quickly around the site and hee did a quick calculation. “Take whatever they got on them, shove them back into their fucking construction zone.”

“Hell yeah!” Scavs thumped him on the back and whooped. “Wretches probably don’t have shit, but we’ll see what we can make them cough up. Fuck, not bad for some easy work! Can’t believe you found this place, Slit! You spreading out?”

He punched Scavs back. “Got to do something to keep us shine!”

“Yeah, mate! So what else you want us to do?”

“Drive around, see what there is around here. Didn’t see any tags - Start claiming. Do it slow, see how long it takes for someone to respond.”

Finally Ballast himself dared to approach. The beating he’d gotten from Slit last time they had a run in must’ve still hurt - Head down, eyes down, he rubbed the back of his neck before he asked, “The bronze?”

“Security, Buzzards. Anyone.” Once he saw them nod their agreement, Slit’s attention went back to his phone.

so what
meet u ther

“That Nux?” Nogo asked. “Where is he?”

He straightened, crossed his arms over his chest. “Leave Nux to me.”

Ballast and his crew shut up about that. Behind them, Slit could see Cleanbomb and Black Stump rifle through some tool boxes, tossing aside junk and chucking some of the pieces at the huddle group of construction workers.

“Let them off. They’ll spread the word.” When he turned away he heard the running steps of the stupid fuckers as they took off and the cheers of the War Boys egging them on.

“You got it, Slit!”

“Oi, Cleanbomb, witness this!”

“Shiny!”

Grinning as he did he, he revved his bike. Still needed a shine name - Titan Chrome. Laser Flood. Use one of Toast’s big ass words: Auto de fe. The cheers got louder, into a roaring wave as he raced by.

Didn’t just race, fucking fanged it. All the way to Bergen. When he got there, he moved swiftly up the stairs. He took off his jacket and ran his hand over the holster under his arm. That he pulled off too, then draped his jacket over it. And then there was the waiting. He paced in front of the window overlooking the street, eyes out for her little bike. Finally he saw he pull up - he banged his hands on the window sill and went back to the bedroom. She’d left the sheet spread over the mattress from the last time and he squatted down next to it to run his fingers over it. Getting colder now, with winter running up fast. Hopefully she brought a blanket again.

Slit moved to one of the windows in the back and leaned against it to look out into the alley below. If Nux hadn’t taken off so suddenly, Slit would’ve brought more cans of spray paint to start filling up the walls outside. Didn’t have to be tags, which Toast would steam over. He could do something big with all the space. Something that spread out.

He was planning that when he heard her on the stairs and he pulled himself up, standing straight for her.

Without a snarky comment and without even really looking at him, Toast dragged herself into the room. More tired than pissed, he thought as he watched her move - she wasn’t easy to read like Nux, but he was getting better at it, his eyes on the set of her shoulders and the way she moved her legs: determined like she was ready to shove past anyone in her way, but slower than usual. She finally glanced up when she got to the mattress on the floor, her brown eyes narrowed a bit, studying him in return. Slit crossed his arms, getting ready for a fight, but Toast dropped down on the mattress.

Flopped down, really, like a knee’d been shot out. Face first. He snorted a laugh that she ignored, instead kicking off her sneakers. And then she rolled up into herself like the cats did. Like she could tell he was staring, Toast curled up and in, her small body getting even smaller as she brought her knees and elbows close. “I’m not in the mood for sex. Told you: I have my period.”

He groaned loud enough that she couldn’t pretend she hadn’t heard him. “Fine. No fucking,” he promised and she grumbled something back. “That mean you want me to stay ten feet away at all time?”

Another low noise. She lifted her head enough that he could see her raised eyebrow. Not really sly… He struggled to put a word to the look. Smart ass like her, she’d have the right term. Like she’d brought a gun to a knife fight.

“Such a martyr. You can come here.”

“You want me?”

“I guess I probably wouldn’t mind if you wanted to share this used mattress of nastiness.”

“Not even fucking close to begging me,” he complained. He still moved closer, as if she’d given him a command. And it’d been too long since he’d had his hands on her.

“Begging? That’s what you want?” Toast grumbled to herself again. “Not today.”

“Begging, not fucking,” he said as he stood over her.

She didn’t even look up. “I feel like shit. The only thing I’d beg you to do is rub my back.”

Sitting down beside her didn’t get a reaction either. Slit rubbed at his chin, up to his scar, over the back of his head. Even curled up like a cat he could see the muscles in her sloping shoulders. One smooth line, down her spine, down her legs. If he drew her, he’d use paint, wet paint and not spray paint. He traced his finger where his eyes had been; Toast shivered and then wiggled a little close so her ass pressed his knee. He hooked his finger the hem of her shirt and dragged it up. Soft skin, and that color like the old brownstone houses in the rich parts of the city. Up to a strap. That was another shiver.

“Lower,” she ordered.

He smirked in satisfaction. “Beg me.”

There was a silence as she debated that. He was able to start again, get back to touching her even without her holding up her end of the deal, when Toast stirred a bit.

“Don’t stop, honey, please. Please, Slit. I want it so bad.”

All of it was husky, low, voice rough like she’d been running. And then she exhaled a breath, part moan and part sigh. Her shirt was still up, her hair was messed up and pointing everywhere, and she smelled so damn good - it was like she’d taken control of all of his senses. Not plugging them up - making them sharper. And every piece of him responded to it.

“How’s that for a performance?” she asked. Full on mocking. She rolled over to look up at him and then licked her lips and lowered her eyelashes. “Honey, please -”

“Yeah, yeah,” he interrupted. “Real fucking impressive.”

Now she was the one smirking. But then her expression changed; he could see her lips drooping, but she turned away again. “Can you rub my back, Slit? I feel like shit. Feels good when you do.”

He obeyed. Pressing his knuckles in gently made her sigh in real pleasure so he did that, stroke and massage, fingers going while he ran through other stuff. Repeating “honey,” he thought to himself, squinting unseeing across the room as he analyzed it - Maybe there was something else to the taunt. His dick ached to press against her, but he angled his hips away.

“My back always hurts when I get my period,” she complained. “All I want to do is lie on a heating pad and watch stupid movies. Don’t want to do anything. Especially not go to school.”

“So fuck school.”

“I have finals, remember? I didn’t go through the entire semester only to blow off those.”

“School’s pointless anyway.”

“No it’s not,” she said firmly. “Not even for you, if you ever felt like blessing CCU with your presence.”

He bit at the inside of his mouth where the scar tissue came through his cheek instead of telling her about Nux’s conversation on school. Convenient that they both brought that up. What else did they talk about together?

“You don’t know how lucky you are,” she said with a grunt and tucked her legs in even more. A little ball of Toast. “Cramps are insane. I can feel my uterus being awful.”

Grabbing at her hip got her to roll over. “Let me see.”

“See what?” She smacked away his hand. “I’m not some damn science experiment. Besides, it’s just blood - Nothing you haven’t seen before.”

“Let me get down there. It’ll make you feel better.” When he covered one of her tits Toast sighed but didn’t push him away.

“I should’ve figured that bloodplay was one of your kinks.”

“Extra lube.”

She laughed at that and he grinned, pleased. Then she stuck her little fingers into his gut and wiggled them until he snorted a laugh too.

“Salacious. That’s a ten-dollar word right there.”

“Means?”

“Perverted!”

Sliding his hand under her shirt made her quiver - he felt it spread through her - he got her back for her attack. Suddenly she tensed, another whole body movement, muscles locking and her breath caught in her ribs, and Slit stilled, fingertips just under her jeans’ waistband. She didn’t need to bring it up again; he could read her clear enough. Once his hand was on her back again Toast exhaled and softened.

Maybe it had happened to her in a dark room, like Joe’s office had been. Something hard under her, which was why she liked the bed. He’d been able to keep thoughts pushed back, stuffed away in the trunk so they didn’t interfere with all the shit he needed to take care of, but Toast’s halted admission of her rape still clung on, tar on the wheels.

“Hey,” she grumbled and swatted at his hand when he palmed her ass. “Nice rubbing only.”

“I’m being nice!”

Her laugh was quiet, but it was definitely there. “For you, I guess not being a total asshole is as nice as you’re going to get. More to the left.”

Lazing around with her was a 180 from the rest of the afternoon, but it didn’t feel like he was wasting time. The construction workers, the other War Boys - all of that had somehow gotten so distant that he’d almost forgotten about it. Thinking about it again, Slit’s blood surged. After what he’d done, no one would dare try to say that being with Toast made him soft. He proved himself twice fucking over with that. Joe had warned them all - not ruined, like Nux claimed - that messing around would dull their chrome. Toast wasn’t like that, maybe Joe’d been wrong more than once - he was weak enough to be killed.

Most of the time they got each other: her sharp and knowing it all, including the War Boys and their business. But then there was a deviation - a fork in the road. They’d argued over that, about how to stay safe. A second set of eyes, a second set of fists, that was protection. As strong and quick as she was, by herself she was a walking target - anyone was. All alone in Citadel City, it was practically asking for it.

“You owe me,” he said instead of any of that.

“Fair enough. I’ll rub your back next time you’re feeling shitty and bleeding all over the place. All right, all right. Look at that pout. Come here. Kiss.”

She reached up, he bent down, and she kissed as hot as always, getting her hands on him too and knees raising, all of her ready for all of him. Shine and chrome and all of it, reward and motivation all in the heat of her mouth. When she collapsed back down on the mattress, her chest was heaving; period didn’t stop her from getting revved. Smugly he grinned down at her.

“You have a nice smile.”

“You like things big,” he teased to escape the compliment.

“Maybe.” Wasn’t distracted by that - Toast went back to studying him. “Broad jaw. Heavy brow makes you look serious. And your deep set eyes. Which are… hm. Not just blue: cerulean.”

“Not like Nux’s,” he said, then slammed his mouth shut.

“No,” she admitted. Her hands stroked up to his cheekbones. “Nux has limpid pools. His face is about 80% eyeballs.”

“Limpid. Sounds like limp.”

“I don’t think they’re related. Limpid means ‘clear.’ I should get you a pocket dictionary.”

“You probably just make the shit up as you go.”

“You discovered my secret.” Even that didn’t divert her: she was examining him with a closeness that felt almost piercing; digging around his parts, pulling out pieces for inspection. Like she did with his tags and shit on the wall, not just looking, but finding. He felt the pressure of her fingers on the scar on his right cheek. Toast stroked there, then said. “This one looks older.”

“Happened when I was a pup. Long fucking time ago.”

This close, her eyes looked huge, smooth like the stones on the river banks, licked wet by the moving water. She was thinking; he recognized that expression, could practically see the cogs turning. “How?”

“Knife,” he replied and Toast’s lids lowered but she didn’t look away. Course she wouldn’t. He spat at the rest, making the words harsh and fast, had to get them all out as sat as possible. “Couldn’t even cut straight, that mediocre fuck. I tore out the stitches, got it to stay messy, look bad ass enough that no one would ever try it again.”

Toast’s face was blank. He could hear his own ragged breaths but she was completely still, totally untouched like maybe some figure in a picture or something, no reaction to anything that happened outside of their square. Her dark eyes finally crossed to the other side of his face and her lips did something, twitching a bit. Lifting her hand, she dragged the tips of her fingers up from his chin to the other scar. “Got news for you, big boy - Looks like it happened again.”

“This?” He grinned wide as he could. “Nah, did this myself.”

Before she could jerk her hand away, Slit grabbed it. Toast’s eyes widened and her lips parted, but that was all she allowed herself to show.

Maliciously he held. “What’s up, Toasty? Don’t fucking believe me?” Thumb and a finger, that was all it took to hold on as Toast tried to yank her hand away. He pressed her hand down, forcing her nails to dig into the gnarled flesh. Make her horrified. Get her to fight back. Get her angry, angry as he fucking was. Anger was better. Anger was powerful. “Didn’t even hurt and it looks shine as fuck. Did it right - Better than that wretched fucker Dunnage did. “

With every word he pushed her nails in deeper, digging them in as though they’d be able to scrape something out. “Ask Nux if you don’t believe me. You like him, right? Trust him? Ask him. Start at the corner of the mouth, right? Start there and just cut - Got a knife sharp enough and it goes through like fucking water. Ask Nux. Him and you are all fucking cozy, aren’t ya?”

“Don’t!” Toast yelped and yanked her hand back.

She was heaving breaths - couldn’t hide that. Maybe was too, or maybe his heart and lungs and everything else surviving behind the chassis of his rib cage was all fucked. Slit kept the grin on, kept relishing in the triumph of beating her. She couldn’t argue that - In fact, she couldn't even say anything. It was perverse by he wanted to crack her, to get her to really fucking see for once. Get her to admit when he had her beat.

“I should’ve… Ah, shit. Look - It’s all right, Slit.”

“What?”

“It’s all right. Come here.”

When she reached forward he recoiled, hands sliding off the mattress and onto the dusty floor. Toast’s dark eyes were huge, unwavering, two big ass pits that he could fall into and drown if he wasn’t careful.

“All right,” she repeated. There was some splintery part of him that wanted to demand more than repetition but that part was getting buried under the weight of her. “I got you.”

And then she did - She got him. Up on her knees, tall enough to wrap her arms around him, hands on the back of his neck and sliding up, her cheek on his head, her lips there, kissing, kissing, sliding up, too, pulling him down to her, into her embrace. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” he snarled, but his hands crept back up to her.

“If what happened to me wasn’t my fault, then it wasn’t yours either.”

He’d had to do it to prove himself. And it’d fucking worked, of course it did, made everyone see that the pain meant nothing and anyone who tried to say otherwise was a mediocre wretch, not fit to be a War Boy. Meant that what Dunnage did to him was just bullshit, insignificant.

He was still breathing hard, choking on the breaths. They fought in his throat, each bit of air trying to push back the other, fighting so knowing got to escape. His chest heaved but that didn’t throw her off. Toast kissed him again.

“Oh, honey. I got you.”

In that dark room, the pressure and pain turning into wet blood - that had been before he had a partner at his back, before he’d met Nux. He’d barely been a War Boy, then. Small room, with dust and rust in the dry air. It almost killed him. Maybe it should’ve. Maybe it had.

He rolled into her, face in her soft t-shirt and Toast wrapped over him. He cried - he couldn’t help it, emptying himself because of her again, getting her wet and smearing against her and every part of him was weak, was broken, with only her holding him together.

“All right. I got you.”

Her tits - breasts - were soft, even under the layers. With his face buried in the crux between her neck and shoulder, the world was just made up of her again: the way she smelled - no blood, despite her being periody, the way her thick brown hair looked, the sounds she made. A hum, a distant engine, that turned into words. Her voice was deeper than Capable’s, low and slow.

His throat was raw and he had to clear it to ask, “What’s that?”

“Hm? What?”

“Song.”

“Was I humming or something? Side effect of living with Capable, I guess.”

“Your voice is shinier.”

“Don’t tell Nux that,” she warned, but she nuzzled against his neck, eyelashes, nose, lips brushing over his skin - she was pleased. “So you don’t think I’m a shrew?”

“Ten dollar word? Shrewd?”

“Close - Shrew. It’s an insult for women: someone who talk too critically or too loudly. Or just too much. There are a ton of insults just for women, you know; think about it. Lots of ways to hurt us.”

He tightened his grip on her, felt her sigh. “Not a shrew.”

“Even though I tell you what to do? Or try to, anyway.”

“You give orders.”

“Is that what you call it?”

“Semantics.”

She breathed a laugh, went silent again and enough of his smeg memories receded so that he could think again. Toast had told him her story without tears. Or maybe she got it all out in the Vault. Good enough place as any to heave out your guts. Even Slit couldn’t guess at how many had done that down in the basement, down where the walls and ceiling were thick enough to swallow the sounds.

She kissed him again, her lips sliding over his forehead, down to his eye. He got his hands into her hair and tugged her down to get at her mouth again - couldn’t hold the kiss for long, too much snot in his nose to breath through it, but it felt good. She felt good. She kissed him up his jaw, down his neck, down his arm to his knuckles. He let her pull his fist open to kiss at his palm - made him shiver a bit, but he stopped it before she could notice.

“How’re you feeling?” she asked. Her eyes were on his fingers, not on his face so she couldn’t see him swallow hard, lick at the corners of his mouth where the scars started.

“Chrome.”

She dropped his hand to run her own through her hair. Longer and longer every time he saw her, it was getting unruly enough that it was falling into her eyes. Pushing it back did jack shit - it just sprang forward again. “Look,” she started, and then pressed her mouth shut.

“I am looking. Your hair’s going feral.”

“Yeah,” she agreed and then made a noise that might’ve been a laugh. “I need to do something with it. I should let it grow out again, but it’s in this shitty in-between stage and it’s driving me insane. Look…” she said again, and again the rest of her sentence went nowhere. But then she squared her shoulders and looked back into his face. “You any good at cutting hair?”

Something else to distract them. And of course he could cut hair - he’d cut through harder shit then strands of hair. If he couldn’t keep a hold on her, having his hand around his knife was the second best. Neither of them wanted to talk and the silence was a relief. It didn’t feel oppressive; just a silence, like at night when the streets quieted or being up on a roof, far enough away that sounds couldn't carry. Slit was glad her back was to him - he could scrub his eyes back to normal and set his jaw without her watching him. There was too much to read in her eyes for him to concentrate on anything else if she was facing him.

He snapped open his knife and slipped it along the back of her head.

It was feathery light, nothing to it; a breath scattered all the clippings. Toast scratched at the back of her neck, her fingers lingering at the now shorter hair there, a brush through and a tug. No complaint from her, just a nod. Slit ran his hand through her hair, making it stand upright between his fingers. Small, all of her. Somehow he forgot her size; she was bigger than her little frame.

“Shave it all off,” he told her again.

“If I look in the mirror tonight and I have bald spots…” she began the threat, but then exhaled a low laugh.

Slicing through her hair was easy enough. Wasn’t like it took any concentration, but Slit didn’t reply to her comment. He has a chance for him to say something about before, and maybe she was thinking about it to, because he could see her fidgeting, fingers tapping on her leg.

“Which of you has long hair?” he asked before she start with her own questions.

She didn’t jerk - luckily, because he might’ve taken off a bigger chunk of hair than she wanted - but her shoulders moved suddenly. “Why?”

“I trailed Nux. He was off with one of you,” he explained, watching her reactions closely. No movement this time, but it had to be because she was reigning it all in. Suspiciously he watched for movement, but Toast kept still at that explanation. It had to be because she was reigning it in, he thought. She was jealous that one of her sisters - or whatever the hell the girls were to each other - was riding around with Nux. The realization came with a spike of his own envy that he ground back down.

“What’d they do?”

So she hadn’t heard about it. Some crew she had. “Rode off.”

“Where?”

“Bouwerie somewhere.”

Her shoulders relaxed. “So he was picking her up. You were ominous for no reason - ominous means that something bad is about to happen, by the way. Wonder why she didn’t just take the bus. It was nice that Nux picked her up.”

He scoffed. “Can tell you that,” he answered quickly, ready to get her attention back to him. “Assholes working on the site next door.”

“They were bothering her?”

“Not anymore. I put them in their place.”

“Wait. Stop. Put the knife away.” She stood and turned around to face him. “So what does ‘put them in their place’ mean to War Boys?”

He flicked the knife open, closed. Open. Closed. She ignored it at first, eyes on him, glaring, but she couldn’t resist it. Her eyes snapped back to him and he watched her expression flatten, eyes dull.

“Told you before, Toast: War Boys know how to do things right.”

“If I hear that there was a drive-by or something on the news -”

“Didn’t need to go that far.”

“I guess I should be relieved. Fuck, I am relieved. Fuck. Just… fuck. Fuck!” She gripped her hair and pulled it up - half of it, anyway, what was still long enough to muss up. Angrily she swung away. “This is my fault. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me. I delude myself into thinking that maybe you aren’t a reprehensible murderous asshole and then, nope: you’re exactly what it says on the tin. Asshole thug. Says so right there. I’m such a fucking idiot! Fuck me!”

He caught her irritation. There she was again, pretending like she didn’t know how things worked. “I’m a fucking War Boy. Not my fucking fault you forget that! That’s what’s fucking written across my fucking face.”

She jammed her finger at him. “First off, fuck you. Secondly, I just told you that those scars aren’t your fault. What is your fault is what you’re doing now.”

That rocked him. Like an idiot he opened himself up just like Nux. And Toast threw it back at him, but not in way he expected. He realized that he could turn the conversation; a couple of words, a certain look, any admission and the atmosphere could change. But he shoved all that aside to toss a cheap insult, “Maybe you need to sing me a fucking song about it!”

Toast grabbed her bag and stuffed her feet into her shoes. “I’ll give you a fucking song,” she said, words coming up like a threat. And then she took off without giving him a chance to make her stay. From the stairs her voice came up, loud and rough along to the beat of her steps:

I feel so bad in the morning
I feel so bad in the middle of the day
I feel so bad in the evening
That's why I’m going to the river, to wash my sins away
I ain't gonna study war no more

V8 she was something. There was that feeling again, pride and jealousy and something else that made him grin. He ran to the broken door and flung it open. Cupping his hands around his mouth so he was sure she’d hear him, he yelled down the stairwell, “Chrome as hell, Toast!”

“Piss off!”

Yep. Chrome as hell.

---

Even in his dreams she was there; Toast was taking up more and more space. He woke up from a hot one, dick hard for her; memory and dream all tangled up so for a second he reached for her. Just a second before he opened his eyes and scrubbed his hand over his face.

It was a strange traffic: some shit in gridlock, some things racing so fast that Slit was losing sight of them. Like Nux - who wasn’t sleeping beside him. The bed was empty.

Scratch that, not really empty - Somehow the cats had climbed onto the mattress without waking him. The one behind his knees was purring like a v8 engine - probably Hellspawn, the one with the torn ear and fangs. He could see the orange tail of Razormouth, who was up against Slit’s head, getting his fur fucking everywhere. The third one - black as proper War Boy clothes - was in Nux’s usual spot. That one Slit hadn’t completely named yet: either Death Hunter or Cracked, on account of the thing’s attempt to take down pigeons mid-flight.

Idly he pet one of their sleekly furry heads as his eyes adjusted to the dim morning light. No Morsov and no Ace either, but he could see Mack, and on their mattress were Dred and Rotor. He stood, observing them as he pulled on his jacket. They were huddled up, but they could blame that on the cold. Ace hadn’t split them, but probably because the old man hadn’t discovered their secret. Slit rubbed his hand over his jaw but then turned away without putting his boot between them.

Joe wouldn’t have let it get that far. Joe would’ve fixed it when it was still a rumor. Even before it got that far.

He stomped down the hall, steps loud enough to scare off the cats who ran out in front of him, darted into the dingy shadows. Taking out his phone didn’t offer any distraction: nothing from Toast, nothing from Nux.

But he didn’t have to worry about his partner for long - One of the front doors to Gonner’s van was open and hanging out where Nux’s bare feet.

The van should’ve been done but was still up on blocks. Pieces were scattered around it like a sort of vehicular murder scene. Slit leaned in through the open window with a snort, rested his chin on his arms to watch Nux sleep. Long as Nux was, he had to bend up his knees to fit on the seats. They’d slept in cars to avoid the Pits or after crashing after a long night on the streets. Even when they both filled out: one in the front, one in the back; one sitting upright, one with his legs draped over the other.

He reached in, toward Nux, toward the bristles of his dark hair, toward the slender length of his fingers - and slid the phone out of Nux’s loosely clenched hand.

Text messages. Some from him, a shitload from Capable, a few simple ones from “Chee.”

can you pick me up?
soon?
plz?
:(

Slit clicked over to the contact list, checking there, too, for more information on what Nux got up to when he left Gas Town. Capable again, “Chee,” and then “T.”

Toast. Slit had memorized her number and recognized it as soon as he read the first digits.

No texts though and no calls. Which meant what?

Slit tossed the phone back in with Nux with a curse. If he hadn’t stopped to fix the construction assholes, he could have followed Nux back to Capable and Toast and whoever else they lived with. And Gonner’s crew could have followed them, too.

“Slit!”

He was brooding over that when someone called his name. In the van Nux shifted and mumbled but didn’t wake; Slit pushed himself back and turned toward Ace. His jacket was off and Slit could see the coils of muscles in the boss’s arms. Thick fingers, gnarled, with even thicker knuckles - old, but didn’t look feeble. For a second Slit thought of a conversation he’d had with Nux, with his partner wandering out loud about Ace and what he’d done before the War Boys. As if there’d been a time in Citadel City without gangs. Slit walked slowly toward Ace, keeping his strides loose, shoulders back.

Ace held open the door, moved aside to let Slit through. “Gonner’s here. Got something to say to you.”

Just barely dawn, with the sun trying to get through the smog and smoke from the refineries. Gas Town was still quiet; sounds a traffic wouldn’t start up for at least an hour. Slit could see his breath hang in the air like he was a smoke stack, too.

Gonner had his hands in his jacket pockets, and there was bulge in one of them that Slit eyed uneasily.

“Corpus heard about Bouwerie Lane.”

“Yeah?” Slit said when Gonner didn’t add on an explanation. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ace frown, a small but notable movement. Behind Gonner was his car, a couple of Boys lounging in the back - Ballast was looking out the window back at him.

“Course he did,” Slit said loudly. Fucking fork in the road again - there were two different things that Corpus could hear about what happened in the city. "Nice piece of work."

A pause, full of energy. Slit could take Gonner, Ballast too, but Ace was a rogue element. Maybe Nux would wake up, maybe he was up already, at Slit’s back. If Toast were around, she’d have him covered. She’d have figured it out. Maybe she knew about Corpus, too - Joe’s third son who stayed in the shadows while Scab and Rictus shared the spotlight. War Boys had rumors - he was a girl, he was a wretch, he wasn’t Joe’s at all, he’d been a massive accident and came out in pieces - all Slit knew of him was that he handled the business while Rictus worked the Pits. His thoughts swerved back to Toast. She knew about the War Boys - maybe she could tell him about Corpus.

And what Corpus could do for them.

Gonner nodded at Slit. “Corpus agrees.”

Slit smirked scornfully. Gonner clapped him on the shoulder then knocked his fist into Slit’s jaw. So everyone could see, the boss stepped back before he pulled an envelope out of his pocket. Folded bills inside, crisp and clean.

For ink - the first thing that sprang into Slit’s mind. He’d finally be able to use Toast’s needle. He tucked the money away but then fingered it. A reward for what he’d done, encouragement to keep going.

Proof that he was shine.

Proof that he was right.

Chapter Text

Oh, see the fire is sweeping / Our very street today / Burns like a red coal carpet / Mad bull lost its way / War, children, it's just a shot away

===
Toast
===

She biked in and met Capable and Dag at school, all of them agreeing that it was easier to study at the library than their kitchen. The Vuvalini Construction Co. was banging around at all hours, forging ahead with the neighborhood in ways that went beyond Furiosa and Valkyrie’s original architectural plans. The library at Citadel City University had never been more of a refuge, but after four hours of studying and four cups of coffee, Toast left it behind for another book run.

Had to evade Capable’s blaring, blazing rays of love. It was like staring at the sun – impossibly bright and blinding, casting light on things Toast preferred not to see. And it cast shadows, too. Even though Nux wasn’t at school with them, his name kept popping up during study questions and his texts kept buzzing Capable’s phone.

Outside the air was brisk, with a breeze blowing away the smog. Though It could have been hailing sideways and she would have charged unto the breach. Up and downtown, back and forth and through, she crisscrossed the city. The weather wasn’t great and the book search was more of a fool’s errand than anything else, but she had to get out, had to move, had to go fast enough to stay out of reach of… What? Capable? Nux? Dag’s suspicious stares? She wasn’t running away, she thought as she raced down Deckard Street. In fact, she wasn’t even running.

On Hicks Avenue she heard tire squeals and angry yelling and turned away in time to avoid the Buzzards who were cruising through the neighborhood. It was a new concession to Furiosa, who made them promise to at least avoid looking for trouble, if not abstain completely.

But only a few blocks away she found War Boys parked in an empty lot. Buzzards to the left of her and War Boys to the right, and there she was, stuck in the middle. Irritated that she had to take a detour already, Toast decided keep on her path. At least the Boys were more muted than the Buzzards; maybe cooler temperatures led to cooler tempers. Riding by – on the other side of the street so she had the two lanes of traffic to dissuade them from bothering her – she looked over at them.

There was Slit.

Last time she’d witnessed him with a bunch of War Boys, a civil war had broken out. But now these Boys were practically holding court around him. Over their heads he looked back at her, confidence pouring out like car exhaust.

The lizard king of trash mountain, she thought contemptuously, but the insult was forced and her scorn evaporated almost instantly, like maybe it had never really been there at all. The way he looked, the way he looked at her…

He didn't wave her over - maybe he was expecting her to break first and come crawling over. As if she would, as if she had anything to admit to him. Her body's response was just that, no indication of anything going on beyond chemical reactions. He was hot as hell and they'd had some fun. That's all they had. That's all he was to her.

So she pedaled on through the financial district, away from Buzzards and Boys and toward books. She reached her favorite bookstore in the neighborhood and stood at the shop’s window, still on her bike, and stared unseeing at the books inside while her brain whirled through all the mess that had been collecting in there.

She wasn't envious of Capable. After all they'd been through together, it'd be insane to begrudge any of them their happiness, even if it came at a cost. Of all the people in Citadel City, Nux might have been the most grateful for Capable's love - for that was what it was, even Toast had to admit to that bit of sentimental romanticism - and every time Toast saw him, he seemed more determined to repay Capable's affection in multiples. But what could War Boys give? THey had nothing of their own, unless they'd stolen something and stashed it away. Books good, Boys bad. Simple, really. In front of her was endless possibility of knowledge. Limitless learnings. Behind her was Joe.

Slit already knew what he should, that the War Boys were one shitty chapter in the book of Citadel City crappiness. The War Boys were so eager to conquer, it didn’t matter who they victimized - even if it meant themselves. But Slit going back to the Boys couldn’t be blamed on Joe anymore.

Though Slit had been sweet to her when she’d had her… Toast struggled to label it. Breakdown? No, not that intense. Momentary distraction. But it maybe felt sort of nice. It was the thought of that, his big hands on her that made her take out her phone. Big hands, big body, and that stupid shit-eating grin.

She’d seen him cry, too. They were even now. In that regard, anyway..

That antsy energy returned and Toast kicked off from the curb, back into motion. She didn’t have that many books on her to sell, she reasoned with herself as she rode away from the store. She’d come back with a bag full of goods, a traveling merchant, some day when her backpack wasn’t bursting with homework.

Cars in front of her slowed and started honking at some idiot driver stuck in the intersection and Toast decelerated too. As they all waited for the jam to untangle, she heard the snarling rumble of a motorcycle and twisted around. The glimmer of chrome flashed between the cabs and trucks behind her. A big bike, loud as hell, and by the sound of it, flooring it in spite of the congestion. If she waited by the curb, she’d be able to see just what it was chewing up the pavement down the street.

Slit’s bike - had to be. On her tiptoes so she could see over the cars’ roofs, she spotted the motorcycle and its rider. Helmeted, whoever it was, which gave her pause. But same body type - that big bulk - and that omnipresent War Boy costume.

Was it a costume? Something that could be removed and discarded? Or was it a cancer? Grown into his very cells?

The biker pulled up and over his shoulder she saw the passenger in a sedan stare out in surprise. A big ass gang member and then her on her dinky bike. Had to be strange sight, maybe even scary; not that Toast, who knew it was Slit, even without being able to see his face, was frightened of him. Other emotions welled: curiosity, a bit of amusement at his machismo, a bit of annoyance at herself for her reactions. If she were really the hard ass she pretended to be, she’d have kept riding.

Slit pulled up and off the helmet, and there was that wide, irascible grin. “Knew I’d be able to find you. Fuck, you look good. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

From the back of the motorcycle he pulled out another helmet. Toast caught it when he tossed it to her, but didn’t put it on. Ignoring his impatient noise, she asked, “Where’d you get this?”

“Killed a bunch of orphans. Come on.”

She rolled her eyes and stayed put, and he swung his long legs around and climbed to his feet. Up went her chin and she rested the helmet on her hip - muscles tensed and body ready for impact. She felt a shiver move through her, leaving her slick. He strode toward her and she was ready; her hand shot up, out, against his flat chest. He stopped at that - at just her hand (so damn little) pressing lightly against him. Thrilled by it, she grabbed a fistful of t-shirt and then tugged. Dragging him down to her, she got a kiss that she hadn’t admitted that she’d been waiting for. His mouth was hot - god, all of him was - and he smelled like beer and french fries and then the dark scent she’d come to recognize as uniquely Slit.

With his arms around her, the sounds and scents of the city disappeared; his massive chest was a bulwark against it all. But he didn’t let her snuggle in for long, shaking at her shoulder and peeling her back so he could look at her.

“Kittens?”

And ask her the important questions.

“They’re fine,” she assured him. “You did a good job as a midwife. Want to see some pictures?” She gave him her phone as she chained her bike to railings outside of a deli. Hopefully the business bros weren’t interested in stealing it, she prayed as she locked it. She pulled off the seat and managed to get it into her backpack. Before she could convince herself that she was unnecessarily risking her single means of transportation she turned to face him.

With almost exaggerated motions, he was gingerly moving his finger over the screen of her phone. It must have been a new experience for him, or at least an unfamiliar one. Once again she imagined the scene from the people in the cars going by, the barbaric bulk of him and the flimsy technology in his hand, his heavy brows drawn down pensively.

Toast touched his hand, prodded one of his fingers with her own. “Here, let me show you where the other photos are.”

She had to stretch up and he had to bend down, but they met in the middle.

“They’re still too young to do much,” she told him. “We’ve been leaving them alone for the most part. But they’ll be running around like maniacs soon.”

He snorted a laugh. “Good. All right - Let’s fucking go or I’ll fuck you right here.”

“On the bike?” she asked as she followed him to it. She sat down and then wrapped her legs around him; with a hard squeeze and rub she got a jolt of pleasure up from her clit. Sex, that was what she needed. A good fuck, plain and simple.

“Bend you over it,” he agreed with a growl she could be feel. He shifted uncomfortably, jostling her legs.

She reached around, sliding her hands over his waist, down to his thighs, found the tell-tale bulge under his black pants. “Too hard to ride? I’m surprised you War Boys don’t steer with your dicks.”

“Bet you’d like to see that.”

“I’ll be seeing yours if we ever get moving.”

“Fang it!”

She’s barely got the helmet on when Slit took off. Her backpack thumped against her spine every time he screeched around a corner but she barely felt it. They fucking fanged it - when traffic slowed for a stop light, Slit roared a ridiculous string of curses and drove between the line of vehicles. She saw their reflection in the windows and the blurred faces of people inside the vans and cars that they narrowly passed.

So damn different than being on her bike! No one messed with her - they didn’t even have a chance to. And it wasn’t like when they rode to the Vault - this time curiosity fueled her excitement and Toast held on tight with glee, working her hands under his jacket, under his shirt, sliding around his waist.

Through the commercial streets, past the theater district, down to the oldest parts of the city, with fewer cars and more portholes. The buildings were shorter, the roads narrower, and the people on the sidewalk standing in clusters instead of bustling.

“Where are we going?” she shouted over his shoulder.

“Almost there!”

They were out of the grid now - these streets curved in on themselves, thin and inconvenient, built long before huge SUVs were ever even imagined. When Slit slowed, the few people mulling around took off until it was just the two of them.

And some buildings.

That looked mildly interesting, Toast allowed, but she’d be damned if she could figure out what had attracted Slit. They cruised slowly into an alley and Slit hopped off, all agog with eager energy. She got a quick kiss, more teeth than lips, and then he grabbed her hand and started dragging her along behind him. Skillfully he unlocked the door and they stepped into the shadowy darkness. Light glittered in from broken windows and holes in the walls, catching on shards of broken glass and metal remnants of furniture. The faded board on one of the walls marked it as some long-closed restaurant.

Through it, then up a staircase covered in leaves that crunched under their feet. It was sort of peaceful, like an undiscovered shrine in some lost temple. If he hadn’t been booking it as fast as her little legs could keep up with him, Toast might have wandered around - Not to go treasure hunting, but just to sit, to think, maybe to read. Slit had always been brusque, always impatient, but even in the Vault he hadn’t been so singularly driven. Finally he stopped in a hallway and put his hands on his hips in proud surveillance.

“Oh wow, I’m so impressed. Let me get my phone out so I can photograph the glory that is... this.”

“Don’t be fucking mediocre. One fucking second.”

He shoved the window open, a gust of dust and cold air sweeping over them, and then grabbed a 2x4 that was leaning against the wall.

A parade of emotions followed that: quick confusion, shivering surprise, unbelievable realization. “Slit - what - no-”

“Hell yeah!”

They really were like adventurers now. Fucking Indiana Jones in a restaurant of doom. She stood witless but Slit was still revved up. He balanced the plank of wood on the remains of the windowsill and then with a grunt shoved it through, all the way across the alley to the building next door. “Come on! Only way to get across.”

Before she could tell him no, to go fuck himself, that the game was off and she was going home, Slit climbed up. Before she could grab his jacket, his heavy boots stamped onto the board.

Without a single wobble.

Arms out, but that was just to show them off, Slit walked over the chasm. From the relative safety of the window, Toast stared in silent shock. She’d known he had a grace to him, she’d known he’d had a death wish, and she’d known that he liked to climb. But somehow that Venn diagram of traits had come together in a way she hadn’t expected.

From the other building, Slit grinned and then called back to her. “Let’s go, Toasty! You’re the one in a fucking rush!”

“This is –“ Insane, dangerous, War Boy recklessness. “Fuck you!”

“You’re not scared, are you, Toasty?”

She sputtered and then flipped him off. “And here’s a reason why women live longer than men: we’re not total dumbasses like you.”

“It’s... safe!” He paused, clearly not totally agreeing with his own word choice. “Fuck it, I’ll carry you over –”

“No!” Her heart almost exploded at the thought of that, of being helpless over the abyss. And it was a fucking abyss, she thought as she made the mistake of looking down. The ground was feet upon feet upon feet below, an ocean of gravestone gray. If she fell, she’d at least break her legs. Maybe her whole back, every vertebrae in her spine. And skull - there was no way it’d survive an impact like that. Up in the air, helpless, nothing to grab on to -

“Hey. This is fucking worth it.”

She jerked her head up. Slit had sat down on the window frame and stretched out his arm.

“You’re not afraid of anything, right? Come on.”

“Don’t tell me what I am or am not,” she grumbled, but it was a weak throw back and the words caught in her dry mouth. Fucking War Boys and their fucking demands and their fucking dares and their fucking death wish. Wobbly, she rose slowly to her feet and hoisted herself up to the frame. She stood there for a moment, air drying the sweat from her face, and hissed out a curse.

It was stupid to be afraid, she told herself. That became a mantra: stupid to be afraid, stupid to be afraid, stupid afraid, stupid afraid, stupid, afraid -

She took a step out.

The board creaked under her foot. Just her foot, not even her full weight. Toast froze and swallowed - tried to swallow, but her mouth was too damn dry. The building on the other side of the alley was about the same height as the one she was still in, but the architecture was completely different: brown bricks instead of yellow, with stonework in elaborate curls around the top of the window frame. In the center there looked to be some carving of a face, or what had been a face before acid rain had eaten away at it. There was a word for that sort of thing, had to be. Ornamental arch? Close. She’d gotten a book out of the school library about buildings in Citadel City, but for some reason she could barely remember it. Not crenelation; that was something completely different. She followed the windows up, counting all the floors, and then stared at the outcropping roof. Beautiful building, really. Another thing neglected and forgotten. She wondered what it had been in its heyday and for a couple of seconds listed the possibilities in her head. She’d almost gotten her heart rate back down to a level approaching normal when she made the mistake dropping her gaze back down. The height struck her again, as hard as a blow.

There was another creak and afraid that the fucking board was already breaking under her, she looked back up. No, it was Slit, stretching even farther out toward her.

“Come on, Toast.”

Stubborn, pissy, difficult determination filled her. Toast kept her eyes on him, his stupid shaved head and the twisting scars, his lips parting and then turning up into a smile, his big hand getting closer and closer. Up in the air with nothing under her, but she’d survived every other fall. Almost there, almost there, and -

He reached forward and grabbed her hand, arm, elbow. When had she put her hand out? Didn’t matter - he had her on his lap and he turned them around, his back facing out and his feet on the floor, and she had done it. She was safe. And he was warm around her.

“Mascaron,” she said into his shoulder.

“What?”

“I think that’s what the carvings are called. You know, around the window.”

He pulled her back and then cupped her face between his hands. “You’re fucking insane,” he said as he stared into her eyes.

“Me? You’re the one who -”

“Kiss?”

She swallowed the rest of her retort. “Kiss.”

She was sweating in spite of the chilly weather, clammy now, with goosebumps everywhere. Until his hands got on her, warm and heavy and

Suddenly he pulled back. He stood up still gripping her, so she was half carried, half tucked under his arm. “You recovered? Let’s go.”

With a bit of an awkward struggle she got to her feet but even then Slit didn’t really let her go - he caught her hand and led her on through the dusty rubble. Had to be a hotel, she thought as they moved quickly through the room and into the hall. Dust and more dust, and cobwebs and leaves, flotsam and jetsam blown in through that broken window. But other than that… Toast’s critical eye followed the walls, inspected the floor, peered through the other open doors and Slit barreled them through the place. The wallpaper was faded and in some places sheaths of it had started to peel and fall, but it was still damn nice looking: a blue green with golden fleur de lis, ready for a royal. Some framed paintings still hung on the wall and there were light fixtures with curlicue arms. There was no graffiti anyway, no empty cans or broken bottles, no syringes, not even the faintest scent of urine. The place had been locked up tight as a tomb.

“How you find this?” she asked and Slit glanced over his shoulder at her but didn’t slow down.

“Riding around, looking for new territory.”

“You’re Christopher Columbus all over again. What made you stop here?”

“Saw the building and some of the brick things, and the color of it...”

“Yeah?”

“Looked chrome,” he finished lamely.

The second non-answer he’d given her. Toast was about to press when they reached the end of the hall and he kicked - literally, boot on the wood like some action hero - the door open.

The hall opened up into an atrium. Light poured in from above and motes of dust glittered here and there, floating with a strange beauty in the pale sunlight. It was a hotel: with the open-aired central court she could see the floors below and above and the grand staircase that sprawled down to the first floor with all the regality of a grand dame and her cascading dress.

“Impressive,” she managed to say. Then she laughed, she couldn’t help it. Delighted and surprised and she needed to take pictures, show everyone else, and maybe get Cheedo to come in to photograph it all properly, and look up articles on it at the library. Awash with options and optimism, Toast stood basking in it all until Slit clapped her on the shoulder.

“This is nothing,” he said and took off again. “Come on! You gotta see this.”

She grabbed his hand without a second thought. Like two giddy kids they clamored up those magnificent stairs, steps echoing down, down into the open atrium below.

“I can’t believe you found this place intact! This hotel looks like it was closed up ages ago!”

“Chrome, right?”

“How many rooms do you think are in here?”

“Haven’t counted yet.” He paused, considering. “Fuck in each of them?”

“A lofty goal! Just the bedrooms? Or every single room including the janitor’s closet?”

“All. Starting with this this one.” Slit stopped at a door and covered the knob with his big hand. It was a dramatic pause, as though he was waiting for her to rev her engine. His blue eyes were bright and he was grinning again, and in the mellow afternoon light, he looked so handsome that she laughed again, soft and amazed.

“All right, show me what you got.”

He pushed open the door with a flourish and Toast peered inside.

Books!

Wonderingly she walked inside, eyes jumping from shelf to shelf, case to case, table to table. The hotel had a library for guests! Old hardbacks in mostly neat rows and piles of flimsy magazines, even some pulps in bawdy covers, the colors still vivid.

She ran her fingers over the spines, smearing away the dust and cobwebs and picked one out at random. Years of fluctuating temperatures and dampness had cracked the leather but Toast barely noticed as flakes stuck to her fingers. Had anyone touched the book since the hotel closed? When had that been? Maybe some other young woman had flipped through the pages as she waited for her lover. Or maybe a daughter had escaped from her parents for a few minutes of peace. All libraries were time capsules but she’d never been more aware of it then right there, standing with a book in hand as the motes swirled around her. They had bookplates in them, too - beautifully etched with the hotel’s name, Beekman, and drawing of the front facade. If she had one, what would hers look like?

“Pass muster?”

When she heard Slit’s voice, she looked up with furrowed brows. “What? Yeah. Yeah, this is something.”

“You said you judge libraries.”

Slow to pick up, her mind still half trapped in the book, Toast finally comprehended what he was asking. “You remember I said that?” She barely recalled the passing remark that she’d made in the place on Bergen; it’d been something about how she always sized up people’s books.

He snorted at that comment and turned away. “Better than Joe’s?”

“This is better.” She closed the book and stared at its cover.

Silence fell between them like a brick. She heard him shift, the floorboard creaking under his weight, and out of the corner of her eye saw him prod at the magazines.

“Thanks,” she offered.

“Yeah.”

More silence. More bricks. Before a wall could be built of them, Toast blurted out, “So want to have sex?”

“Yeah.”

Easy enough to find a room with a bed. Nice than Bergen, of course, and looked cleaner too: the big bed still had its bedding made neatly up, waiting patiently for its next guest. It wasn’t until she was shucking her backpack that Toast realized she was still holding the book from the library. She unzipped her bag but before she dropped it in, she paused, then stood up and put in on the nightstand.

“You’re not taking it?”

“I don’t know. It feels too much like stealing.”

“They’re just rotting here. No one would miss them. Hell, no one else knows they’re here.”

“Finders keepers isn’t actually a legal defense, you know.” Toast rubbed a spot of dirt from the book’s cover. “I’m amazed they lasted this long. Temperature change, bugs, humidity… I guess I could take them home, purely for preservation.”

“So you’d be keeping them shine.”

“Oh god, you’re rubbing off on me. That totally sounds like bad War Boy logic.”

Suddenly the atmosphere of the room changed and Slit cackled. “Told you already that you’re a good War Boy. Stick with me, Toast, and I’ll bump you up the ranks.”

“Over my dead body.”

“Some fucking thanks I get for all this!”

“You broke into another abandoned building; it’s not like you built this damn thing for me. What do you want, a blow job in gratitude?” She’d tossed that out carelessly and regretted the words as soon as they were free. “No blow jobs,” she added quickly. She wasn’t ready for that. “I’d probably choke on that behemoth you have.”

Still mollified, still grinning, still shedding his clothes as he prowled toward her. He tossed them all aside without a second glance, even his holster. She met him with the same hot energy. Kissing, undressing, hands roaming, getting hot despite the cold. She climbed on top of him, her hands pinning down his arms. She dizzily envisioned going down on him – if he was tied up or handcuffed, his whole body writhing and waiting for her. She kissed him everywhere, anywhere her mouth would land. Slit groaned and swore and stretched up to her.

And she did want to thank him, but not like that, not by using her body as payment. She reached up to hold his scarred face. “I like this place. Thanks for bringing me here.”

He exhaled a laugh. “Knew you would,” he rumbled, pleased and proud.

Last time she’d dug her nails into the gnarled flesh; now she rubbed her thumbs over the scars. His hands moved up to, sliding up into her hair, short now, thanks to him and then Cheedo, who cleaned it up. Too short for him to get purchase but now she could feel the scrape of his nails there. He studied for her a second and then dragged her down for another kiss, his lips searing hers.

No foreplay this time – or maybe that’s what the books had been – Toast was wet and wanting, and his cock was hard and waiting. He hissed a curse when she sat back on his crotch and then surged up and flipped her over, her legs sprawling and splaying open for him to get between.

“Come on,” she said and scrambled to grab at his shoulders.

Barely any words after that, but this time Toast didn’t give a shit about her aphasia. She didn’t need to coax or command. She bucked and twisted, then he was under her again. He grabbed her arms and pulled her down, she dug her knees into his sides to hold one. Rough and hard and finally finally her brain was wiped clean and everything was clear.

Floundering, reaching, finally she grabbed his hands. Braced on him, his strong arms, muscles flexing, she pushed herself upright. His big hand covered her crotch: his thumb with her fingers on her clit and the rest of his fingers splayed up over her stomach. Only a couple of seconds touching and Toast was coming like some over excited teenager, body all nerves and each one sparking; like a shock wave it coursed to him, too. Spread out under her, he was fucking glorious. Her eyes were heavy-lidded, but she still drank him in: his flushed skin, the moving lines of his tattoos, his own eyes closing as his tipped his head back in pleasure.

She pushed down even harder when he came and watched him greedily, grinning and panting herself through his orgasm. Silence except for their noises, stillness except for their movement, the whole building completely empty except for them, and nothing else in the world mattered but him clutching her so hard that she almost couldn’t tell where she ended and he began.

Afterward they lay sweaty and satisfied. They’d kicked off the blankets and with all the dust, Toast didn’t really want to wrap up in them. She’d have to start carrying a blanket at all times, she instructed herself lazily. An emergency sex pack she could whip out whenever the two of them continued their spree of breaking-and-fucking. She cuddled up to him and he wrapped an arm around her, warm enough.

“I bought ink. Good ink.”

“Yeah?” she stirred and lifted her head enough that she could rest her chin on his chest. “So are you tattooing again?

“Yeah. I’m going to do me first; the other assholes can wait. Check this out,” he said excitedly. He leaned off the bed and stretched to his pile of clothes, rummaging through them. A pocket knife fell out of his leather jacket as he hunted, and brass knuckles, then a lighter. A gang member starter pack. He ignored all of them, still searching until he pulled out a packet of folded paper. “Do your art review shit.”

Toast accepted it and then flattened them on the mattress. Almost like a Slit fanzine, she thought as she laid the pages out. He arranged himself next to her so they were shoulder to shoulder, or at least arm to arm, considering how much bigger than her he was. Flank to flank, too. She leaned against him as he shuffled to one of the sheets of paper. Little guns, little cars, pointed shapes that had to be explosions… But he was branching out, and she saw more faces in the mix, one who looked somewhat like Nux, tools, and a boat on the river.

“Here! Shine, right? What do you think?”

His motorcycle, with lines around it like gusts of wind, or maybe wings.

“Still figuring it out,” he muttered and stretched over to his clothes, rummaging through until he found a marker in his jacket. A few lines was all he got before it died, and he swore and flung it away, complaining about every rusted thing he had to put up with before Toast got a pen out of her backpack for him. She got a kiss for her efforts.

“Next tattoo,” he told her, “up here, top of my arm.”

She rolled onto her back and looked up at him in consideration. “It’ll look good. The motorcycle: a representation of rebellion, of freedom. In this case undoubtedly masculine, though one wonders if the artist is aware of its potential as a phallic symbol. When are you going to do it?”

“Just need to hook everything up.” He return her scrutiny, then leaned on his elbow so he could caress her chest with the pen - Gently, barely a whisper of a touch, making her shiver. “How about here? Right down the middle.”

“Maybe.”

The pen glided lower. “Here?”

“Maybe.”

They rolled over together, but the second round was interrupted when the papers under them crinkled a complaint.

“Oh, shit,” Toast exclaimed as she peeled a sheet from her thigh. “Sorry. I ruined your masterpiece with my ass.”

“Your ass is a masterpiece,” he retorted lazily.

“You should pursue it - art. Go legit.”

“Legit?” he repeated. He rubbed his face against her neck then up to her hair and she could feel his warm breath against her scalp when he said with derision, “Spray paint a museum?”

“Put a fancy frame around it and it’s art. Are War Boys even allowed in museums? You’d set off the metal detector for damn sure.”

“If the rent-a-cops let me get that far. So what, you saying my stuff’s good enough?”

“I told you before that I liked it. Some of it. A little.”

“Admit it. I’m the fucking best. You can say it: ‘Slit, you’re so chrome that my panties are leaking.’”

“Gross. I admit nothing.” Another chuckle, and then Toast shifted away and tilted her head up. “Oh Slit,” she cooed, opening her eyes wide, “you’re so chrome.”

All that sneering cheekiness disappeared. “Shut it,” he grumbled.

He was so easy to rile, her sensitive artist. “I like these animals. They’re some awesome amalgamation of pigeon and dragon. Amalgamation means combination. I really like all these eyes and wings. How’d you come up with this?”

He seemed surprised to be asked a question like that, his eyebrows raising and without the usual scorn twisting his face he looked youthful. “Doesn’t take thinking, just doing.”

“So they just spring up, fully formed?”

“There are pigeons all over the garage; probably picking through our trash. Watch them a lot because there’s not much else to see. They’re the only ones dumb enough to hang around.”

“Do you do drafts? Like, draw it a few times before you get it right?”

“Shine designs like that one I’ll do a few times. See?” He rearranged himself on the bed, big body bending the mattress, and they flipped through the papers, Slit’s big finger pointing at more monsters.

“Do you ever do regular animals? Or are they always beastly?”

Slit squinted at the drawings. “Doing all this is a waste of time anyway, and if anyone caught me with bunnies and puppies, they’d kick me out. Kick my corpse out.”

“So many rules,” she commented. “So if you saw someone drawing bunnies and puppies, what would you do?”

He rolled his eyes down to her. “We playing a game now, Toasty? What do you want me to say?” There was a beat or two of silence as she waited; sure enough, Slit couldn’t ignore the challenge in her tone and said gruffly, “I’d beat the shit out of him, make sure he learned his lesson about being soft.”

“All for some bunnies and puppies.”

“Fine - I’ll give him a hug and we’ll talk about our feelings. That better?”

“There are only two options for any situation: beating or hugging, got it.” She puffed out a sigh and went back to the papers, once again telling herself that the War Boys’ behavior wasn’t her problem. “You have a thing for eyes; they’re everywhere. Hey, I like this one. This is the subway right? With all the wheels? Wrapping around city hall? Nice. You’re good at doing details.” She gave him a nudge with her shoulder. “‘Thank you, Toast.’”

He laughed. “You want a blow job for thanks?”

“Later. If you’re lucky.”

He laughed again and rubbed his palm over her ass. “You draw?”

She shook her head. “Only stick figures. I liked writing more as a kid, so I did that instead of learning how to draw.”

“Those zines had mediocre covers and you still bought them. Bet you can do some shinier.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. I just always liked writing more. I kicked ass in grammar as a kid. And spelling. Words word words.”

“Started tagging when I was a pup,” he said, offering another glimpse into War Boy childhood. “Had to make sure that mine looked better than everyone else’s. Lots of practice. I wonder if any of them are still around.”

“So what’s the difference between Joe-approved tags and forbidden art? You said that this is a waste of time,” she explained, motioning to the drawings.

She watched as his lips dipped into a frown. He was incredibly expressive, even with the scars pulling at his mouth, obscuring his expressions. But this time instead of arguing he crumpled the papers and tossed them aside.

“The hell was that for?” she asked with surprised disapproval.

“Waste of time,” he repeated.

Had she hurt his feelings again? All she’d done was repeated his own words back to him. “You don’t have to have a tantrum whenever something doesn’t go your way. Give me that. I’ll hold onto them, in case you ever change your mind about them. And when you’re famous, I’ll sell them and retire to the French Riviera.”

The drawings were easily rescued. She smoothed them and folded them neatly while Slit glowered from the other end of the bed. After a second of thought, she put them inside the book and then packed it away in her bag.

That uncomfortable silence was threatening to return, the air pregnant with all those words that she wouldn’t - or couldn’t - say. Slit climbed off the mattress too, and she admired the muscles in his back as he stretched and flexed.

“It’s a waste of time if it doesn’t get anywhere,” he said as he stuffed his long legs into his pants. “Tattoos mean something. Tags too. The other shit doesn’t.”

“Your judgement is skewed,” she reminded him. “The War Boys did that. Joe did that.”

“You want to look around?” he asked, ignoring her criticism.

“Yeah.” She dressed quickly, cold now, without him beside her. There was too much to do, too much to see for just one trip, but her rapacious curiosity beat back her sensibility. With her phone up like a weapon, they toured the hotel. Bedrooms upon bedrooms, bathrooms with clawed tubs like white, tubby dragons (maybe Slit would take inspiration from them), broken lamps with colored glass that collected like flowers at the bases. She peeked into what had to be a dining room and snapped more pictures, even though the diminishing daylight meant most of the most of it was in shadows.

They argued which had better furniture, the Beekman or the Vault, as they climbed up and down the stairs. Toast said the paintings were better; Slit thought they were all lame. Beekman definitely had bigger spiders, so they agreed to come back when it wasn’t so dark that they ran into webs.

And maybe come back for the books. She couldn’t resist another look at them, so they went back to the library for her to stand in the doorway.

“They’re yours,” he insisted. He cleared his throat, got his voice deeper, then added, “They’re not worth anything to me.”

Bibliomania: the madness for books. “I can’t carry them all over the 2x4 of death,” she said at last.

“You’re leaving them?”

“Just for now,” she assured him.

Placated, he told her about some of the War Boys he’d be running around with, including Morsov who apparently was pining over the kittens. In return she got to complain about her test and how hard it was to study with all the noise in their neighborhood. By the time they made it back to the window and the way out, she’d almost forgotten about having to walk the plank. She balked at crossing it again and dithered around the room cursing for a while until she followed him back over the board.

The ride back to the financial district was subdued. Toast planned the logistics of moving the books - if she decided to play librarian to the lost collection - and then the added complication of storing them. Even if it was only a partial accession, the sudden appearance of all the books would raise questions and eyebrows. She sighed and gripped Slit tighter.

Her bike was fortunately still chained up at the deli. Aware that she had to be depleting her cache of luck, Toast vowed to be more careful in the future. Maybe that meant abandoing the books. No, there had to be some other option. She’d figure a work-around.

She took off the helmet and ran her hand through her hair. “So where did you get this?” she pressed again as she handed it back. “If you tell me you burned down an old folks’ home, I’m never speaking to you again.”

“You mean because you think I’m bullshitting or because you think I really did?” Without waiting for her reply, Slit slapped his big palm down on the top of it. “Earned the money. Saw these shine bastards at a shop - They’re for racers.”

So they weren’t for safety, she thought wryly; of course he’d got them to show off. “So what, the bosses giving out bonuses this year? A reward for years of loyal service?”

“Not the bosses - Corpus.”

Corpus, Joe’s third son.

Slit’s narrowed eyes moved closely over her face, searching like he expected more reaction from her. “Something you don’t know about the War Boys, Toast? Corpus Moore, Joe’s son and everything. He’s smarter than Rictus. And different than Scab.”

After Scab had been killed, they’d heard from Nux about how Rictus had tried to step in, step up. But Nux hadn’t said anything about Corpus. How the hell had she forgotten to take him into consideration? What was he doing?

“All the way to the top,” Slit was bragging. “I’ll get the city working again.”

She’d have to tell Furiosa. But just as quickly as that notion popped up, Toast’s certainty floundered.

“This was nothing - just a down-payment. I’m gonna be swimming in cash.”

Joe’s sons were barely shadows of their father. Corpus was just another artifact of a bygone era.

“You were right. Joe was wrong.”

Their eyes met - hers startled, his serious. Fumbling in surprise, all she could manage was, “What?”

“Joe’s rules kept us from getting out, really seeing Citadel City. I’m not going to follow the bosses any more like I’m some blind Buzzard. I know more than them now. I know how the city works. That’s why Corpus gave me all that cash - he sees how shine I am.”

“Sure.” She adjusted her backpack and then began to walk back toward her bike. If he somehow heralded the new direction, she’d have to kill him herself. That’s what Furiosa would do - Just like she had with Nux, when she’d considered him a threat. Struck as quickly as possible, tried to take him out.

“Hey! Toast! The fuck are you going?”

He was staring at her with irritated confusion. He had no clue, of course, of anything going on in her head - To him she was just waiting on the corner like some streetwalker. “What? We’re done here, right?”

“Yeah,” he said slowly, sullenly.

In a couple of steps she could be back with him. A kiss for the road, some quip or tease to keep them grinning. But this new intel was like a chain around her.“Thought so,” she said and turned away.

----

In the morning, everyone got up while Toast stayed in bed, skipping breakfast and coffee to remain under her covers, holding onto the dreamy remnants of sleep a little longer. She’d barely slept during the night, all riled with no place to go. When she finally extricated herself from her nest, she pulled out her phone. Scrolling through the pictures, she scrunched up her face in disappointment. None of them did the hotel justice. She really would need Cheedo, and maybe a real camera too. There were a couple of shots with Slit in them, his big bulk blocking whatever she’d been trying to capture. Finally she tossed the phone aside and grabbed her backpack, but pulled out the papers instead of her textbook.

Slit’s art. It was mostly scribbles, quick lines like he didn’t give enough of a shit to spend any time on it. Still…

She found a pen under the blanket and and grabbed a blank sheet of paper, then laid it over the other. As she outlined the figures, she tried to clean them up. And the people at the front she made into women.

Why the fuck not? If he didn’t want the drawing and the War Boys certainly had no use for it, she could take it. She could make it useful. Steal it right out from under the War Boys feet, take something of theirs that they didn’t know the power of, take advantage of their ignorance. Take something of his. Use it. Her venom dripped away. Make it her own.

“Hey,” Capable said. She didn’t exactly hesitate at the door, but she was slow to come into their shared bedroom.

Startled, Toast had to scramble to take advantage of that precious delay. Her version of Slit’s drawing was right there on the bed, framed by the blankets. There was no way to hide it. “Hey. I’m just doing some zine stuff.”

“Oh, cool! I’m just going to play for a bit before I head to school.” Dag and Capable had their last test together; Toast still had a couple of days before she was done with the semester. “This is it! I can’t believe it!” she continued as she dropped onto her bed. “Once you’re done, too, we should all do something.”

Toast nodded and looked back down at the papers. She heard the familiar sounds of Capable getting her guitar, then the buzz of electricity as she turned on her amp. With her headphones plugged in, no music escaped to fill the room, but Toast could still hear the twang of the strings.

They weren’t fighting, but they weren’t in sync anymore. Like Capable’s gold Gretsch electric guitar, plugged in and working, but the only noise in the room was the plucking.

What did Slit and Nux talk about? Was it all arguments? Was Nux a never ending river of Capable compliments? Did he get on a soapbox with the Boys and cats as his audience? She knew that they’d grown up together, dependent on each other for even longer than Toast had been with Capable and the others. She tried to imagine Slit at five, at ten, even at fifteen. It as just as impossible as picturing him at thirty, at forty, at fifty. He’d been formed out of blood, meat, and oil, appeared on the river floating on the shell of a car. And he’d die just as anonymously, just gone some day.

And then there was Corpus, his tiny, misshapen body squatting in her thoughts.

Toast rubbed at her neck, down her aching shoulder. Her hand fell limply onto the sheets of paper and they crinkled under the boneless weight. Suddenly she realized that their room was silent and she looked up to see Capable staring just as sightlessly at the guitar in her lap.

“Hey Capable,” she called and waved her over. “Here, take a look at this. What do you think?”

“Wow, Toast, did you draw this?”

Toast scooched over to make room and Capable perched carefully on the edge of the bed. Her hair had fallen around her face in messy curls, springing back whenever she tried to push it behind her ear. Toast drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. “Sort of.”

Capable’s eyes were wide. “I don’t think I’ve ever really seen you draw.”

“Does that mean its really good or unbearably terrible?”

A laugh, not much of one, but something, “I’m allowed to be surprised. Yeah, I like this. I like the way the people look. It’s stylized and cool, but you can tell they’re people. Can we use it on our flyers?”

“That’s what I was thinking. Flyers, posters, signs…”

“Hey, maybe we can make them into us? Like can you add more hair and stuff?”

Toast moved a little closer. “That would definitely make it personal. Are you ok with that? Being out in front of everyone again?”

“I’m fine when I’m playing. What about you? People might recognize us from before.”

“Can’t hide forever,” Toast said breezily, although with both Corpus and Rictus leading the War Boys, maybe there was real cause for concern. Unless Slit really did protect her, as he’d promised. Whatever that meant to a War Boy.

Maybe Capable heard more in that stupid comment. Maybe she suspected more, knew more, learned more than Toast had realized - For a second her blue eyes were piercing. But she didn’t push, thankfully, and instead looked back at the image. “Got to change the words a little. Ok! What about something like…”

“Raise your feet, raise your fists?”

“I don’t know; that’s a little violent. ‘Raise your feet, raise your voice?’”

“Maybe this is all too abtract.” Toast frowned as she thought of other mottos. “Spell it out so no one will be confused. ‘March on this day about these things.’ No on ever last money underestimating the stupidity of the general public.”

They worked together and it didn’t take long for them to compile a list of decent ideas. They stayed safely on that neutral topic, tiptoeing around anything too touchy. Before Capable left, Toast promised her she’d show Cheedo and Furiosa, and Seeds too. Sometimes it was so easy, sometimes everything was so obvious. She waved Capable before before she let the good mood inundate her good senses. As soon as she was alone in the room again, Toast expelled a sigh that left her deflated.

The big goon that he was, thoughts about Slit barged into her mind. And memories. Maybe she should tell them, she thought. A casual remark for a casual fling. More than ever she was aware of the catch-22 she’d gotten herself into: if it weren’t a big deal - if he weren’t a big deal - then there was no reason to keep up the smoke and daggers. Until he’d told her about Corpus, she’d seriously considered spilling her secret. She could hide behind Capable’s defense: if Nux wasn’t bad, then maybe the War Boys weren’t either. Harder to stick to that logic with Corpus in the equation.

Fuck him, she thought fiercely.

That afternoon she went to the hospital. A headstart on Angharad’s care was a good excuse for avoiding the innocently probing Cheedo.

Like she’d been a martyr, it was Angharad who bore the brunt of Joe’s brutality, even after the asshole had finally done them all the favor of finally fucking dying. Toast washed, dried, and lotioned Angharad’s uncooperative body - a big improvement from her motionlessness. In the early weeks after all hell broke loose with them and they’d come out on top only because there wasn’t anyone else there anymore, those first few times they’d come in to care for Angharad, it was more like laying out a corpse. An observation Toast had kept to herself, but stayed with her. A Snow White lying in a pearly bed. Not that Angharad looked anything like a fairy tale princess, one of those opulent ladies in an Arthur Rackham print or some shit. Angharad was skinny and full of tubes, and she and the whole damn hospital smelled like sickness and death and piss and blood.

Progress was Angharad twitching and flailing, flopping like a fish on the bottom of a boat, pulled out of her world and drowning in the air. Toast watched as Angharad stretched her fingers up again and then reach over to grab the pale hand in her own. With her other hand, Toast spread her cache of books across Angharad’s bed. As tall as Angharad was, the months of immobility had wasted her away into a remnant of her former self - plenty of room to use the mattress as a table.

Anger flashed through Toast, but she kept her mouth flat. Wasn’t fair that Angharad was where she was while the Boys and Joe’s sons still ran rampant. They were to blame, as sure putting a gun against Angharad’s head.

Her phone started buzzing - Capable and Dag were done with their final. “Not bad,” she said for Angharad’s sake as she typed back a response. “One semester down; seven more to go.”

It didn’t take long for Toast’s replacement to arrive; she heard Dag in the hallway talking to the nurses before she knocked at Angharad’s door.

“My brain is completely empty,” she announced as she entered. She spun, throwing her backpack into a corner. “It feels great. Hi, Angharad. Someday you’ll be in class too and we’ll commiserate.” Dag flopped into the other chair and started rubbing Angharad’s leg. “No Capable - she’s off with Nux tonight. They’re going drag racing or something equally romantic.”

Toast nodded along, only raising her eyebrows in surprise. Good - if Capable and Nux had some time together, maybe he would bring up Corpus.

“So what are you two up to? You look deep in thought, Toast. More than just thinking… hm, cogitating.”

“Books,” she replied. It was only a partial lie - books were always in her thoughts. “I had a good day yesterday: sold a nice edition of Jane Eyre. Still looking for something good for Capable, though.” Definitely a profitable month, if her mental calculations were correct. And then the books at the hotel - Free for the picking. Pure sentimentality made her argue with him about laying claim to the books. There was no logical reason to abandon them to the elements. Maybe she should go back, start boxing them up.

“Toast the book hunter!”

“Don’t encourage me. I need to focus totally on studying and not shopping. Final final coming up and there’s no way I’m going to fail when you guys passed.”

“Damn, that was a kick! You see that, Toast? Angharad, it’s me; it’s ok. Remember when you were pregnant and I used to do this? You owe me, Angharad. So many massages.” Dag tilted her thoughtfully as she looked back at Toast. “You still want a job over break?”

“That too.” Not that she’d forgotten that goal, but somehow it’d fallen by the wayside. Fucking Slit. She promised herself she’d put some more effort into job searching. Data entry she could do, clerical work, anything to get her foot in the door.

“All work and no play…”

“Who says I’m not playing?” she tossed back casually.

“Oh ho! What is Toast up to when no one is looking?”

“Nothing good.”

Dag made a scandalized face and laughed. “I know you and Capable are the dynamic duo, but if you need anything, I’m taking over Angharad’s role as leader. I’m the oldest, it’s only fair. And tallest.”

“I can handle my own fights. I don’t need you to stand up for me. Same with Capable,” she added, and didn’t quite keep the grumble out of her voice.

Unmoved by Toast’s dismissal, Dag waved her hand and the bracelets around her wrist jingled and jangled. “The only reason why the two of you are fighting is because you’re so alike.”

Alike? “I think your third eye’s going blind. Capable is sugar and spice, and I’m piss and vinegar.”

“Sometimes you’re so wrong, it’s like you do it out of spite.” Dag held up her hand again, this time to silence Toast’s disgruntled grunt. “So what do you think Angharad would say?”

“About what?” she said peevishly, tossing back a question of her own to avoid Dag’s. What would she say about Slit? It’d probably put her right back in a coma.

“Ok, hold on, I think I thought of something Angharad-esque: you can’t drive away shadows with more darkness. You get me?”

“I get enough of this from Capable. I’m fine, Dag, really. Better than fine. I’m almost done with this semester, I’m selling books like a maniac, and the march that we’ve been talking about for ages is finally happening. Life is fucking amazing.”

Dag shot back, “That’s what your spreadsheet’s saying, huh?”

Angharad murmured at that and Dag gently patted her head. “See, Angharad agrees with me.

“What are you trying to get at? Yeah, so I want to make sure I stay on track. And I want to make I’m doing things right.” And she needed good ideas to counteract all the fucking idiocy she’d gotten herself involved in. She was in deeper with the War Boys than even Capable. Damn War Boys; a wound that was never healed, just scabbed over. And here she was picking at it. “Everything’s fine. I’m fine.”

Angharad’s eyes were only partially open, but it was enough for Toast to see her pupils move. But of course she couldn’t speak her own opinions. It was more than likely that she wasn’t listening to the conversation, either. Even if she could hear, there was no guarantee that she could comprehend. But Toast still wondered what Angharad thought about it all. Would she condemn Toast? Condone? Forgive? Slit, and Nux, and Angharad, and the march, and the cops, and school, and now Corpus, and always their lack of money - somehow the arithmetic was too messy to add up straight.

“Sometimes you have to break the bone to heal it,” Dag said, yet another unsolicited opinion. “And the darkest hour is just before dawn.”

“Fucking solid advice, Dag; thanks. That level of astuteness… Did you get that from a self-help book? Or maybe a pop song? So you and Capable are both plagiarizing music and calling it wisdom now?”

Dag’s angry retort didn’t get past her lips as the door opened again. Furiosa and Valkyrie’s came in together. The tiny room was crowded, but that was preferable to facing Dag alone. At least Capable was out and about somewhere else, Toast brooded. She’d never survive an army of all of them together.

“How’s she doing today?” Furiosa asked before anyone else could talk.

“Good,” Toast spoke up before Dag could unleash more uncomfortable observations.

“What if we brought in the kittens?” Dag added. “Some animal therapy?”

For a bit Angharad was at the center of everything again. Toast only half listened to Dag’s report on Angharad’s progress, instead debating how to escape.

“So, Val, how’s work?” Dag asked, when it became clear the Toast and Furiosa weren’t going to carry the conversation. “Did you get us the permits for the march?”

“Work’s busy,” Val replied. The lawyer in their group, she handled anything even remotely legal for them, which unfortunately for her was a shitload. “But yes, I did find time to put through the permit applications. But the police keep putting up red tape.”

“Can’t you get Max to push them through?” Dag asked Furiosa, who shook her head. “Then what’s the point of dating a cop?” There was no way such a puerile taunt would get Furiosa to react, and sure enough she didn’t twitch a single eyebrow. Dag soldiered on through the disappointment. “Maybe they’re just bored, Val. Without Scab around, the cops don’t have anything to do.”

Val chuckled. “Why’s that? Because they got orders from him or because his Boys have taken off?”

“Either. Both.”

The photograph she’d seen in the Vault of the police commissioner and Joe together flashed through her thoughts. They were everywhere, still; War Boys wheels were still turning. Rictus was too dumb to buddy up with the cops, but Corpus wasn’t. Torn between wanting to warn them and admitting her mistakes, Toast struggled with coming up with something neutral but still important.“Just because Scab’s gone doesn’t mean the War Boys are too.”

“Nux doesn’t think Rictus will be able to bring the War Boys back,” Dag pointed out.

“Yeah, but Nux has all the guile of a puppy. I wouldn’t write off the whole damn gang based on Nux’s observations.”

Dag seemed amused by that, but Toast saw Furiosa’s eyes narrow. “You’ve seen other evidence?” Furiosa asked

Toast shrugged with the nonchalance of an impassive observer. “I’m riding through the city every day, remember? There are the Buzzards being assholes south of the university, then the Rock Riders doing whatever the hell they do. Plenty of jerks who aren’t in gangs causing trouble.” She inhaled a deep breath, stalling for a second to contemplate how much she needed to give up. “War Boys are everywhere, even with Scab gone. Maybe Rictus is better than Nux thinks. Or maybe Corpus is trying to take the reins.”

“Corpus!” Valkyrie echoed the name with a start. “What do you know about him?”

She should have questioned Slit more, she thought with a twinge of regret. “Not much. We didn’t really cross paths.”

“Is that little creep still alive?” Dag asked. “Maybe Rictus ate him.”

Toast gave her a casual shrug. “You can ask Nux. Might as well get as much out of him as we can. Having a mole could be useful.”

When Furiosa nodded, Toast felt her shoulders relax a bit. “Corpus is a rogue element,” Furiosa said musingly. “But he’s still Joe’s. I’ve been keeping my ears open but I haven’t heard anything about him yet. Doesn’t mean he’s not a threat.”

“See what Max has on him,” Val suggested. “And I’ll see what I can find out. Like you said, Toast, the War Boys aren’t gone yet. I don’t want them throwing a wrench in things.”

“Like at the march.” Dag massaged Angharad’s leg with renewed vigor. “Last thing we need is a gang war to break out while we’re all on the street. If you need help fighting all these monsters, Val, Toast is looking for a job when school’s done. She can be your paralegal-in-training. Or office manager. She’s good at running books.”

“Or intern,” Toast interjected against Dag’s wild remark.

Val’s eyebrows rose. “Does that mean you’re interested, Toast?”

Toast kept her gaze up when Val’s dark eyes met hers. Intense, piercing, cool, like Furiosa’s. In that moment Toast felt like some damn child in front of them, but she steeled herself too. She knew more than either of the women thought she did, she reminded herself grimly. “I can type, file, make calls. And maybe my perspective is worth something. I spent all that shitty time with Joe; might as well make it useful.”

They talked about what Toast could conceivably do in Val’s office, with Dag interjecting how Val could use her lawyer-y powers. As usual the conversation eventually went back to the march. Of the three of them, Furiosa was the least optimistic about it, even more dissenting than Toast. She didn’t stop them from discussing it, though Toast could see the frown lines about Furiosa’s mouth deepen with every one of Dag’s new ideas.

She pulled out her phone and quickly typed in a text. Take that, Sod, she thought as she sent it.

im going to use your drawing for our protest

She half-hoped for a response. It was practically a dare and Slit couldn’t resist those. And under that revenge was another fervor that she tried not to acknowledge: maybe he’d take it as an invitation, too. Suddenly Furiosa fished her own phone out. She made a noise, half grunt and half gasp, and everyone turned to her. “I need to leave,” she said as she shot to her feet. “Now.”

Val’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “What? Why?”

“And where?” Dag cried.

“Capable and her damn boyfriend.” Furiosa grabbed her jacket and strode out of the room. She called over her shoulder before she disappeared, “Val, can you take them home?”

They all looked at each other, unified by surprise, even Toast and Dag staring blankly in hopes that the other one had an answer.

“Maybe Nux got in an accident?” Toast suggested.

“Or arrested?”

Toast looked down at her own phone, but there was nothing from Capable or from Nux, even though he had her number. Slowly and still tossing out rhetorical questions, they tucked Angharad in and gathered up their bags. In her pocket Toast’s phone buzzed. Not Dag’s, she noticed as Dag continued to say goodnight to Angharad. Surreptitiously she pulled it out and saw a text from Slit.

keep eye on nux

There had to be more than that! Toast typed back ? and then frowned at the screen, but it was as blank as an empty piece of paper.