The box hit the floor with an unceremonious thud.
“God damn,” Judy grumbled, rubbing the ache from her forearms. “Couldn’t live on the ground floor, could she?”
The wetsuit itself didn’t weigh much, but the tank was a heavy bitch, and it only grew heavier with every step up from the parking garage. But it was here now, which felt… significant.
This was, of course, assuming V wasn’t so traumatized by nearly drowning in Laguna Bend that she’d actually want to go diving again at some point. And assuming they could borrow (or “borrow”) a boat to get anywhere worth exploring. And—the real kicker—assuming Judy could put aside her hatred for Night City for a little longer, stay in a place that had been eating her alive, piece by piece, for the last fifteen years.
Judy stood and waved the door shut behind her. Too fucking many assumptions. One measly date and she already had expectations, like a house of cards, perfect and pretty and ready to be demolished by an errant breeze.
Hell of a first date, though.
She took in the view from the doorway, feeling a bit like an intruder despite V’s invitation. So this was V’s pad. It smelled like her, sort of: nothing overtly masculine or feminine. There was something like recently-burned incense, heavy and resinous—sandalwood, maybe. A faint trace of aerosolized gun cleaner. And… cigarettes? That was odd. V said she didn’t smoke. Could’ve wafted in from the cluster of bums smoking like a ‘Saka plant outside. But nope, that was definitely an ashtray full of butts on the table over there. Strange. Though they could be anyone’s, she reasoned; she doubted she was the only visitor to V’s apartment. Or maybe V picked the habit up recently. Judy wasn’t exactly in a position to judge.
The apartment wasn’t as messy as V made it sound. There were a few pieces of clothing scattered around the floor and some empty cans and wrappers decorating the table by the couch, but everything else was relatively clean. Hell, downright pristine compared to the group home. Then again, the inside of a scav’s asshole after a night of glitter and burritos was cleaner than the fucking group home.
“You won’t mind if I do a little pokin’ around while I’m here, right V?”
Judy had to admit, she was curious. V was far from being an open book. And it wasn’t like they’d had all the time in the world to delve into more mundane topics of conversation in between handling each other’s personal nightmares with Evelyn and the Relic. Judy had no idea what V’s favorite color was, or what she did for fun when she wasn’t killing people for eddies.
Like surfing, apparently. A board leaned against the wall to Judy’s right, shoved behind a beanbag chair. V had never mentioned knowing how to surf, though it made sense, seeing how quickly she’d taken to scuba diving. Judy had never tried it herself, but she bet she could learn. She mentally filed it away for later.
The closet was next, stuffed with enough synleather and spikes to clothe the entirety of Maelstrom for a month. Judy looked through everything, appraising each piece like she was at a thrift store. It took an embarrassing amount of effort to resist sticking her nose into one of V’s jackets, but she managed to refrain from being a total fucking weirdo. She glanced below the hangers, smiled and shook her head. How many pairs of boots did one woman need?
Moving on. Oh, now this was interesting. V had an audio setup hooked up next to her closet. A damn fine setup, too—almost as nice as what Judy rocked in her studio. Speakers were preem, real top-shelf shit. Preamp could use an upgrade, though: the C27MKII’s 3D soundfield was way inferior to the Mark 3’s, especially in the low midrange frequencies, but if V let her pop it open, a few minutes with a soldering iron and some scrap parts would spruce that baby right up.
Seemed all that tech talk when they first met wasn’t just a dick measuring contest. Something to pick V’s brain about next time. The thought made Judy’s heart rate kick up several notches.
She flicked the power switch on and the room filled with the dulcet sounds of a man screaming over crunchy distorted guitar and blast beats. So, V was a metalhead. Nice. But not really what Judy was feeling at the moment. She turned the volume knob down and switched the station to something a little less abrasive, and then she heard another noise behind her. Something that sounded like a meow, but that couldn’t be right…
Except there was a goddamn cat sitting on the ottoman.
“Uh… hey buddy,” Judy tried, quickly realizing she had no idea how you were supposed to address a pet cat. Didn’t know much about them, period. A few strays meandered near her house as a kid, but with Night City’s penchant for wholesale slaughter of wild fauna, combined with its exorbitant pet tax, she hadn’t so much as seen a cat in years—closest she got was catching a glimpse of her impeccably-placed (and impulsively-selected, and alcohol-fueled) kitty tattoo in the shower.
Leave it to V to have one, though. Classic lesbian. Now Judy had a way to get her back for that terrible, ancient joke about the moving vans.
The cat stared at her with what she interpreted as mild disdain before slinking off the ottoman and onto the couch, where it curled into a ball, its bald, skinny tail covering its nose, and proceeded to completely ignore her existence.
If the cat was a test, Judy appeared to have passed it. She went back to perusing V’s shelves. There were loads of old books, gathering dust. Mostly pulpy shit; nothing an academic would wet themselves over. Thrillers and spec fic. Definitely fit V’s tastes, from what Judy knew.
So did the boxing gloves. Judy rolled her eyes and ran her fingers over the leather, wondering how many noses were broken under it. She never understood the appeal of the sport. If she wanted to see two gonks beating the shit out of each other, she just needed to poke her head out of the window after bar time. Wouldn’t cost her an enny. But V was scrappy as they came, and—if her tattoos were any indication—a former Valentino. Probably grew up with the stuff.
Reaching a door, she opened it, and was greeted by a small armory. Guns, guns, and more guns, all meticulously organized. Tiny handguns and massive rifles. Scopes, silencers, and stocks. Crates of ammo. Bulletproof vests and grenades… the hell did V need all this for?
“Oh, right,” Judy muttered. “Merc.”
How quickly she forgot. Shit, the only reason they met was owed to V’s chosen profession. Evelyn had needed a thief who packed iron and didn’t ask too many questions, and V fit the bill. She was damn good at her job—Judy had seen it for herself, literally stepped over the trail of bodies V left behind her on the way to find Ev—but this room made Judy’s guts twist into knots. She left it, away from V the merc and back to V the woman, and let the door close behind her.
The discomfort felt irrational. Judy was no stranger to violence, after all. Like everyone in Night City, her hands were stained red, and that shit didn’t wash out. She told herself the lives she took were for a greater cause, like planting a slug into a pimp for free was somehow more noble than doing it for eddies on a fixer’s behalf. All bullshit. Greed and depravity grew in this city like weeds, pushing up between the paving stones in her path of good intentions. Someone, somewhere was always going to profit. She just hoped no one was profiting at V’s expense, even if the cynic in her scoffed at such naivety.
Sidestepping around a low table, she took a seat on the couch, carefully, so as to avoid disturbing the cat. She needn’t have bothered; it continued to pretend she didn’t exist. There were more books on the shelves here, sandwiched between knicknacks from different districts in NIght City: maneki-neko from Watson, ceramic calaveras from Heywood, kitschy seashell souvenirs from Pacifica. A few fraying, creased concert fliers decorated the wall, like V had torn them off venue doors and shoved them into her pockets after the show. V was a woman of varied tastes: Fist of Satan: Tearing Up Totentanz! was taped up next to Papito Gringo: Por Solo Una Noche en La Rosa Espinada!
Judy grabbed a can of Cirrus on the table and cracked it open, then took a long drink, making room for the bourbon V had conveniently left beside it. The alcohol was a necessity for flavor as much as getting buzzed; Cirrus was appallingly sweet on its own. Beyond a few bottles and cans, it didn’t seem like V had much in the way of sustenance. It wasn’t too surprising—there were countless stalls around Night City providing food (of varying levels of edibility) at all hours of the day and night. Most of NC’s citizens had no idea how to cook, and even if the urge to learn struck them, the majority of apartments didn’t have kitchens
Judy’s culinary skills weren’t anything to write home about, but her grandma made sure she wouldn’t be entirely at the mercy of vending machine burritos and sketchy noodle joints. Maybe she could invite V over for dinner at some point. Something besides pizza, anyway. She touched her cheek and groaned. God, was she seriously blushing? Gross.
She’d never cooked for anyone else before. Maiko’s idea of a romantic evening had meant rubbing elbows with corpo-cunts at ritzy lounges with bottle service and cloth napkins. She never seemed to notice how the other patrons side-eyed them while murmuring under their breath about how this part of the city was “going downhill.” Judy had hated it, but it made Maiko happy. So she just kept playing along, eating caviar and drinking imported Prosecco and trying not to think about what Maiko had to do to earn the eddies she so desperately wanted to flaunt.
But that was the past. Dead weight she needed to cut loose.
Something bumped into Judy’s arm. The cat, roused from its slumber, was now headbutting her. She shifted away, wary of a possible attack, but the cat followed, rubbing its face against her elbow, then her leg.
“What, do you want pets? Or are you gonna bite me?”
She decided to take her chances and gingerly ran a hand over the cat’s back and flank. Its furless skin felt like warm velvet, a strange but not unpleasant sensation. The cat arched its back, made a chirping sound, and rammed its head into her leg again. A good sign, then? Cats were weird.
“We friends now?”
As if in reply, the cat stepped onto her lap, circled twice, then tucked its paws under itself to lay down, making Judy its new bed.
“All right,” Judy conceded. “Guess I’m stuck here.”
She sipped her drink with one hand and absently pet the cat with the other, over the wrinkles between its ears and the knobbly bumps of its spine. Did V do this same thing? Sit alone in her apartment with nothing but the cat and the terrorist in her head to keep her company? Was she lonely in this city of millions, too?
Judy had been allowed a few tantalizing glimpses inside V’s mind when they were underwater. The nature of the parallel braindance made things fuzzy, fleeting, even more than the rawest of single-track BDs, but she was able to pick a few gems from within the noise: the sting of skinned knees and swollen knuckles, the nervous butterflies of a first kiss in the back of a south Heywood nightclub, the smell of tamales steaming in a pot on the stove. For every drowned memory of Judy’s they uncovered, V had her own subconscious reaction, her own tangential links, a spider’s web of thoughts and feelings.
Judy wanted so damn badly to map every thread of that web.
“What do you think? Does she feel the same?” she asked the cat. And then, quieter: “Should I stay?” The cat, sadly, had no answer. Judy sighed. “Always said I was gonna leave this place, you know.”
That was what she told herself on the dock when she watched the sunrise the morning after their dive, the city barely within reach on the horizon. But the farther dawn’s glow crept up the skyscrapers, the more she thought of the woman sleeping inside the cottage, and the more her conviction wavered.
“I worry about her. This thing she’s fighting… it’s bad. Real fuckin’ bad. If I could help her somehow…” The cat was purring so loud she could feel the vibration in her legs. “It’s just—she’s done so much for me, and—”
But that wasn’t what it was about, not really. It wasn’t about who owed whom. It was about V’s smile, her laugh, her touch. It was the way V looked at her, the way Judy’s stomach flipped when she thought about them talking geek shit over dinner, the way the currents of their minds blended without impedance in Laguna Bend’s flooded streets. It was V’s unshakeable forthrightness, even when the truth hurt. It was the raw ugliness of her past and the fragile hope of her future.
Judy’s phone beeped twice. She fished it out of her pocket—not easy with a cat on her lap—and couldn’t help but smile when she saw who texted her.
It was their past now, wasn’t it? Their interwoven tragedies. V had seen the worst moments of Judy’s life, and though she couldn’t be certain, Judy guessed the reverse was also true.
The cat looked up at her, blinking slowly, like it was waiting for her to finish. Judy scratched under its chin, trying to sort her thoughts. What of their future? Could they share that, too? Shoulder that uncertainty together? Could Judy’s bruised and broken spirit keep limping toward salvation if V was by her side?
She took a deep breath and trailed a fingertip down her phone’s screen. “Maybe I can stay a little longer,” she whispered.