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Max dreams about hands. This is a familiar nightmare: being held and trapped by many grasping fingers. It’s suffocating, as if each touch on his skin was smothering. He wakes in panic from those dreams, fear of contact tangled up with blood and the accusing faces of the dead.

Very rarely, he has a different kind of dream. Sprog holding his hand, or tugging at Max’s trouser leg as if he could climb up him, smiling when he’s lifted and held. Jessie’s hands, ruffling his hair or pinching his bum, precise and steady when she played her saxophone or signed. He dreams of her fingers, stroking idly down his arm, cupping his face or working at knotted muscles in his back.

Once, just once, he had slept long enough to dream a complete and perfect memory. The three of them had been curled together on a lazy Sunday morning, after Sprog had got into their bed and fallen asleep. None of them had wanted to get up, so they hadn’t, just lay in together, warm and safe. Max had cried when he woke after that, wasting water, alone in his car. His skin is aching for them, for the soft and easy contact, for their trust, for that one morning. His face feels stiff with salt, painful when the desert wind touches it. He huddles into his jacket, drives on.

He’s heading for the Citadel, bringing bits of news, a bag of traded seeds and a frail seedling in a cup. He’s been back more than once since the Fury Road. The length of his visits had increased, then plummeted again after the Dag gave birth, to a healthy girl. He’d managed to look at her, but had fled soon afterwards. That was more than two hundred days ago. His wanderings have been more aimless since.

They’re pleased to see him. Furiosa smiles when she meets him at the lift, with a brief touch to his shoulder. Cheedo hugs him, though this time she doesn’t try dragging him off to see the baby. The Dag and Toast pounce on the seeds and the seedling, while the two Vuvalini give him friendly nods.

He’s come at a peaceful time. Trade and salvage operations have been going well, while the latest harvest was completed a moon ago. The Citadel is as relaxed as it’s ever likely to be; even the Buzzards haven’t been doing much more than skirmish. That evening, Furiosa invites him to join her and the others in their common room. It’s a space with very little furniture, but many cushions and even more plants.

Capable is reading aloud, with the other sisters in a cuddle puddle around her, the Dag holding the baby and Cheedo holding the Dag. Toast breaks in to argue about the book, but she does it from a comfortable position in the nest of cushions, her back against Capable’s thigh. The Vuvalini have bagged the only couch, Mel knitting unravelled wool back up into a new sweater while Gilly looks through old maps. She catches Max’s eye.

“At my time of life, I need the lumbar support.” He smiles, still looking for somewhere he can sit. Finally he drops down at the edge of the cushioned space, a careful distance from any of the women.

Furiosa has found a spot between the sisters and the Vuvalini. She’s taken off her prosthetic arm and the bodice that goes with it, but the way she holds herself is still so upright. She’s not tense, but she’s not relaxed, particularly when he looks from her to the sleepy girls, chatting and dozing around the Dag and baby Angharad. It occurs to him, for the first time, that Furiosa’s poise and his own hunched stance might mean the same thing. He wonders if she feels the same longing for touch, the same terror.

When the baby cries, it’s not as bad as Max had feared. It’s a natural sound, part of life, and this time it doesn’t lure out his ghosts. When the Dag gets up to change her, she casually leans on Max’s shoulder as she climbs out of the pile of cushions and bedding. He manages not to flinch – he can’t, not when she’s using him as a support, the little girl held over her shoulder. He sits very still, goes on sitting very still. When he does look up, it’s to find Furiosa watching him, with an unnerving look of understanding.

He sleeps in his car that night.

“You don’t have to,” she tells him. He knows they have spare beds, but he can’t face it. The interceptor is as comfortable as he can be bothered to make it, and he’s used to that, used to being alone in it. As the evening breaks up, Furiosa accepts pats and hugs from the other women. Max gets tense when they hug him too, though afterwards he finds he isn't sorry they did it. Furiosa touches his arm as he leaves for the garage.

She’s found him a good place to park his car, an alcove near the front of the main cavern. It’s almost out of sight, a defensible corner, but it has a view of the lift and the desert beyond. It’s hundreds of days since he spent a night anywhere this secure.

Perhaps that’s why he sleeps so badly. The interceptor feels both familiar and unfamiliar. Sound steel and all his modifications are there to protect him, walls against the wasteland, but the light and air are different. He should be used to sleeping upright, but this time he wakes with stiff and aching muscles.

In the morning, he gets to work on his car. It’s a perfect opportunity to give it an overhaul, to fix underlying issues rather than just keep patching things up. There isn’t a better place in the wasteland when it comes to trading for parts, though he has to work hard to make them accept any of his barter in return. They’re too generous, Furiosa is too generous. The thought that this is for him, rather than a universal open-handedness, makes him uncomfortable in ways he doesn’t like thinking about.

Still, getting deep into the engine soothes away some of his bad night. When the garage staff begin to knock off for lunch, Max gets some food from the kitchens – another thing he isn’t asked to barter for. Retreating from the noise of the eating hall, he heads up to the gardens, tempted by green.

The nearest stair takes him past the common room. The Dag comes charging down the corridor; the only reason she doesn’t collide with him is that he can hear her coming from a long way off. She’s carrying Angharad, who is screaming – a real howling baby rage, the sound of a child who hasn’t slept and is going to let the world know about it. He’s not surprised to see the Dag looks frazzled, her face pale and her eyes heavy. She’s trying to juggle a bag of baby things and a handful of fruit, while her small daughter yells and kicks in her other arm.

“Here,” Max says, without thinking about it. He takes the bag and the fruit, follows the Dag into the empty common room. She flops onto the sofa, still trying to soothe Angharad. Max puts the fruit on the table with his own plate, looks around for what to do with the bag.

“You need changing, sprog,” sighs the Dag. The word makes Max flinch – she doesn’t know, she can’t know, it still hurts – but it also does something else.

“’ll do it,” he offers, nodding towards the table in the corner, set up for changing with cloths and soap and water. The Dag stares at him.

“I thought you didn’t like babies,” she said. Max shrugs, already wishing he hadn’t said it.

Then she sits up, hands the child over. He takes her automatically, both his and her mother’s hands steadying Angharad from what seems to be a passionate attempt to hurl herself at the floor. Some of the tension goes out of the Dag when she sees him do that, realises he knows what he’s doing. Angharad wails louder, then hiccups, squirming and heaving against his shoulder.

He knows the Dag is watching him as he changes the nappy, but the routine of it comes back easily: cleaning the baby up, finding a new cloth and wrapping it securely around her. She screams for the first minute, then seems to get interested in having a new person paying attention to her.

He carries her back to the sofa, clean and changed, only to find that the Dag has fallen asleep, slumped against the cushions. Max sits next to her, Angharad in his arms. He’s wide awake, despite his own bad night. He sits quietly, holding the warm, surprisingly heavy weight of the baby, trying not to wake the Dag. He remembers the sleeplessness.

Moving very carefully, he manages to reach out for one of the blankets, pulling it over the Dag, so she won’t get cold as she sleeps. He eats most of his lunch one-handed. Angharad dozes, fidgets, dozes again. When she’s awake, she babbles at him, reaches up to prod and tug at his face. Max can still be surprised by the unpredictable way babies move. Angharad bends in unlikely places, a solid little body wriggling and kicking against him. After forty fairly peaceful minutes, she starts to cry again. The Dag emerges from under her blanket, still heavy-eyed but looking better than before.

“Thanks,” she says, holds her arms out for the baby. “She should be hungry.” When he lifts Angharad to pass her over, he notices the scent of her baby hair, such a distinctive smell. He’d thought he wouldn’t be able to bear it, but it’s oddly comforting, the idea that life goes on somehow, even if his own has stopped. From long-forgotten habit, he almost kisses the top of her head as he gives her back.

“You can,” the Dag tells him. He doesn’t, but he’s glad she said. Still, he has work waiting for him in the garage, and hurries back to it.

Furiosa comes to check on him mid-afternoon, helps him get the crankshaft out for maintenance. It’s going to need grinding and welding. The Citadel is the one place where he knows he can get that done safely, trusting both the materials and the workmanship. She makes sure he knows all the current welding crew, then vanishes back to her own duties.

Almost despite himself, he gets into conversation with the welders. The cult of the V8 is being dismantled, but nothing is going to dent the revhead’s respect for the interceptor’s engine. With so many dead on the Fury Road, most of the garage crew is young, new in their roles and keen to learn. They’re eager to hear about his car, to talk about the current repairs. He does his best to answer questions, until the chatter gets too much for him, when he retreats to check over the interceptor’s undercarriage.

This time, he works late, rather than stopping after the evening meal. He wants to be tired, wants his body’s weariness to quieten his mind enough for sleep. He needs space from people, too, room to process more words and touches than he’s had in months. He’s tired enough to sleep heavily, though his dreams are vivid and confused.

The following afternoon, the Vuvalini invite him to join a seed sorting work party. They’re still hunting through the Citadel’s stores, finding treasures and junk. One of the treasures is an unlabelled sack of mixed seeds. They’ll need to be separated, in the hope of being able to identify at least some of them.

It’s pleasant work, sitting in dappled shade, looking through the precious handfuls. Cheedo and the Dag preside over their books of plant lore, a mix of old world published books, handwritten notes and tattered labels. It’s relaxed enough that people can chat, focused enough that Max doesn’t have to. There’s a smell of freshly-watered earth and greenery, with the promise of a picnic supper to follow.

“Another Green Place,” Mel says, admiring the work. There’s a ripple of pleasure from the sisters, but Max is looking at Furiosa, sees the way her face changes. She doesn’t freeze, exactly, but her expression sets, a reaction stopped in its tracks. A moment later, she gets up, mumbling about checking the irrigation hoses. When she doesn’t come back, Max goes to look for her.

She’s perched in one of the secondary lookout posts, staring at the desert. Max sits beside her on the bench, not too close.

“They had to watch it die,” she says. There’s a long pause. “I wasn’t even there.” Max nods, gives a quiet hum. She’s chosen a burnt, bare spot, turning her back on the green. It’s the barren world she survived for so long.

“I don’t know how to live in a green place any more,” she says. “All I know is how to be an imperator.” She’s curled up tighter in her perch, arms around her knees.

“Hey, hey,” Max murmurs, to his own surprise. He hears her take a tight little breath. He turns on the stone bench, puts an arm out – not touching her, but offering. For a moment, he thinks she hasn’t seen; for a longer moment, he thinks she won’t respond. Then she shuffles a little closer. He puts his arm around her shoulder, over the armour of her prosthetic, careful not to rest his weight on her. She lets herself lean against him, a little.

It’s not relaxed. It’s nothing like the way baby Angharad had settled against him, let alone the ease he’s seen among the sisters. But it’s not nothing.

With all his longing for touch, he hadn’t seen it as something he could give to someone else. And though this isn’t exactly what he craves, there’s a different kind of comfort in offering it.

After what feels like a long time, she turns more towards him, knee touching his thigh, her face against the bare skin of his neck. It’s jangling, so much contact, but he tries to keep his breath steady, willing his heartbeat to slow back down. When she draws a deep, shaky breath, he realises there’s a wetness on his skin, where her face is pressed against him. He puts his other arm around her, very aware of his own clumsiness. She is warm against him, tough leather and steel around soft, vulnerable skin.

By the time she pulls away, muttering a thank you, he thinks she feels better. They share an awkward nod, then make their way back to the picnic. The Dag firmly gives them cups of what she insists on calling tea, a hot herbal drink. It’s warming, even if the taste is a little peculiar.

The next few days go quietly. He sleeps on his car, and works on it during the day, though he also does some shifts of Citadel work – in the gardens, in the garage. The repairs to the interceptor go quickly, with a well-resourced machine shop to call on. He spends a couple of evenings in the common room, hears more of Capable’s book and helps to entertain Angharad, who seems to be fascinated by his nose, prodding at it with her small, fat hand.

When his repairs are finished, he knows it’s time to leave.

“Don’t stay away so long this time,” Cheedo tells him. Toast and Capable ask about his plans, suggest things he might look out for on his travels. It’s strange but nice, feeling that they care about him. It’s dangerous, he knows it’s dangerous, but he likes it.

On his last evening, there’s another garden working group, this time planting seeds in cups and jars, to get a sheltered start before they’re planted out. It becomes a kind of party, as work ends and night starts to fall. The Dag brews more of her tea, then curls up against Cheedo, who is already snuggled under a blanket with Angharad. Gilly, of the Vuvalini, pours a tot of moonshine into the cups, which makes the peculiar tea more warming.

This working party is a bigger group than the last one; Max doesn’t know everyone here. He notices Toast sharing a cushion with one of the revheads. Another – the most earnest – is talking to Mel, asking complicated questions about her motorbike engine.

As the air cools, the gathering moves in, huddles closer around the lanterns. Getting up for a refill, Max spots Furiosa. She’s taken her metal arm off for the evening, with a Vuvalini blanket over her shoulders. The last time he saw her with one of those, she’d been wrapped tight, guarded and tense. She’s more relaxed now, the blanket shrugged on. She looks up from her own cup, sees him standing at the edge of the circle. She holds out her arm to him.

He’s surprised, and even more surprised at himself, because he just goes. He sits down beside her, close enough that the blanket covers both of them when she drapes it over his back.

It isn’t simple. He doesn’t think it will ever be simple again. They’re both tense, but neither pulls away, and as they sit together, his nervousness ebbs. While stories go round the circle, passed along with food and drink, Max and Furiosa relax against each other. Her shoulder brushes his, then comes to rest; he lets himself shuffle in a little, until their sides are pressed together. His eyes keep closing, sleepy from food and fresh air.

Max dozes, drifting towards dreams. It’s nothing specific, not like his Sunday morning dream, but he feels a sense of warmth and touch and safety. He’s just awake enough to be annoyed by how cold his right side is.

He shivers, and wakes to find his head on Furiosa’s shoulder. Her hand is in his hair, trying to keep his head steady as she leans back to let Capable past. Max shifts, but doesn’t pull away, feeling her shoulder under his cheek. Her hand moves, idly combing through his hair.

Max melts. He can smell her skin, feel her fingers on his scalp. She’s stroking him. The gentleness of it is overwhelming, the generosity. This isn’t practical, isn’t even fixing or healing. She’s doing it because she wants to, or because she thinks he might like it. The skin of his neck and back is prickling with how much he does like it, how much he wants to be touched.

Perhaps she knows that. She moves her hand down to rub his neck, firm and steady, her cold fingers making him aware of the heat of his own skin. He gives a little noise, soft and involuntary, as she strokes over the nape of his neck. She murmurs, pleased, and leans into him a little more. Max waits a few moments, his heart thumping, then gently puts his arm around her waist. She rests her cheek on his hair, her fingers still petting his neck.

They sit like that for a long time, hearing voices and laughter, his head on her shoulder as the last of the daylight fades from the sky.