Shao is driving dangerously close to the citadel---that enemy castle, destroyer of all around it, all that it can reach---when something other than sand comes into view. At first Shao tenses, expecting a citadel war party he would have to outrun, but the blur of color is too small and too light for that to be the case. So he slows as he drives by, and catches a glance of white painted bodies, struggling down a dune in a line. Shao screeches to a stop and considers; they are war boys, that much he can tell from the paint. But war boys this far from the citadel without vehicles? That is strange, and strange can be dangerous. Shao needs more information. He needs to know if this is some new plot by the citadel, or if it’s something he can twist to his advantage. Perhaps the war boys carry something of value; the citadel is rich in water, food, spare parts, bullets, guzzoline---the list goes on.
So Shao revs his engine and speeds towards the figures, kicking up a plume of sand when he stops near them. He’s close enough he can see them cough as the cloud of sand covers them, and as they rub at their unprotected eyes, he raises his shotgun and aims through the window of the interceptor. He’s tempted just to shoot and have this done with, but he notes the smaller form of one of them, too small to be a full adult. A teenager, and Shao doesn’t kill kids unless he has to. So he aims the gun and yells, his voice hoarse with the grit he’s kicked up:
“Who are you?”
The leader, a tall lanky man raises a hand and Shao tenses; he’s holding a knife. Shao is close to killing him then, but the war boy drops the knife. It buries itself in the sand dune and none of the others reach for it. Shao scans them; none of the others are carrying weapons, although their pants have many pockets that could hold small knives or guns. Shao growls; the dropping a knife was a peaceful motion, but he doesn’t trust warboys. Still, he’s not one to kill a surrendering enemy, so he shouts:
“Move and I’ll kill you. Don’t answer my questions, I’ll kill you.”
None of the warboys move, which Shao takes as an affirmative. He snarls:
With extra, hateful emphasis on the word warboys,
“---Where are you going and why?”
The leader tries to speak, but only a hoarse noise comes out. They’ve been a long time without water, Shao can tell. The leader tries again and it comes out clearer:
“We come from the citadel. We go nowhere, but anywhere away from there.”
Shao grins; this one speaks awful fancy for a war boy, who usually foam at the mouth and scream relentlessly. Still, it doesn’t make sense, for them to be headed nowhere, Joe wouldn’t waste manpower on nothing. So Shao says:
“Warboys going nowhere. That’s gotta be a lie, warboy, and I said I’d kill you for that.”
The leader swallows, his throat bobbing with the movement. They all look afraid but like they’re trying to hide it. The leader says:
“It’s not a lie. We may have been warboys once, but no longer. May my brother move forward, so I can show you why?”
Shao tenses, finger moving closer to the trigger.
“Slowly, and hands up.”
The man behind the leader raises his hands towards the eternal blue sky that stares down at them, the sun beating on their necks like an enraged thing. Then he steps forwards and Shao can see that he’s covered in bloody cuts, the blood crusted on and sprinkled with sand. Some are still weeping red. Some of his paint is wiped away in swatches, revealing dark brown skin. He’s been through a wringer, and he carries himself with a familiar hunching of being burdened with much pain. The leader speaks:
“Perhaps you’ve heard stories of warboy initiation. It’s a well kept secret from the pups, and we had no idea what they were going to do to us. Ra Ra was chosen to go first. We could only watch for so long before we had to act. So we drew our knives and killed, and said we’d kill any who came after us. We ran, and they didn’t follow. The desert is a death sentence for those on foot anyways, why waste the guzzoline?”
Shao smirks. Brave of these warboys, to run from the citadel, where they were marginally safe, at least until they ended their life as battle fodder. They could be lying, and that causes Shao to hesitate, but he looks at the teenager’s wide eyes, and the bloodied body of Ra Ra, and judges them truth tellers. He lowers the gun and gestures at the back seat of the interceptor.
“It’ll be a tight fit for four of you, but you’ll make it work.”
For a moment the warboys just stare. Shao glares at them and snarls:
“This offer isn’t going to last. Get in or die here, I don’t much care.”
Then they’re scrambling for the car. Shao waits until they’re in and then guns it, away from the citadel and the dangers that come with it.
They drive for hours, the warboys silent, and shao doesn’t try to start a conversation. He has little need for words. Finally, he pulls to a stop on a dune that looks like any other. The warboys twitch nervously, wondering if his kindness is a prelude to more violence. Instead Max gets out, bringing a small bag with him, and gestures for them to get out. They do so slowly, the teenager coming last, the group obviously trying to protect him. The leader asks:
“Why have we stopped?”
Shao grins at him.
“Like your words, don’t you?”
The leader shifts, smiling nervously back, and says:
“They call me Books, because I’ve read all the manuals.”
Shao smirks; warboy names always have some meaning. He takes in the scarred letters on the warboy’s chest, covering his pecs and stomach in manuscript, something about repairing engines. Then he takes a seat in the sand and opens the bag as he says:
“And the rest of y’all?”
Ra Ra shrugs:
“You already know my name.”
Shao nods, taking in the sun scarred on his shoulder, looks at the next.
This warboy has splotches of scars, like someone splattered him in paint and then scarred where it landed. He says:
The teenager laughs and interjects:
“Because he’s so spacy he almost fell off of a ledge, too deep in his own head.”
Shao laughs and shares a look with the teenager, who seems brash and less cautious than his brothers. He’s got scars of jagged lines crossing his abdomen in an interlocking pattern. The teenager nods and says:
Shao hums and says:
“Well, y’all take a seat. Ra Ra, come here.”
Ra ra hesitates and Shao pulls a roll of soft fabric bandage out of his bag.
“Would you rather keep bleeding?”
That gets him to move and he settles down in front of shao. The rest of the warboys look relieved and sit as well. Shao begins to clean and wrap the bandages around the worst of the wounds with a practiced ease. As he does Boo Boo looks entranced and asks:
“Are you an organic mechanic?”
Shao shakes his head.
“Hardly. But out here, you have to learn to care for yourself. It’s different from the citadel. It’ll eat you alive if you let it.”
Books looks worried. Ra Ra is gamelty trying not to wince as Shao works on him. To distract him, Shao asks:
“How’d you get your name, Ra Ra?”
Ra Ra grins weakly and says:
“Named for the before time sun god. Because I’m smart as could be.”
Shao nods and finishes the last wound. Then he stand, brushing sand off his pants, and says:
“Back in the car.”
They trail after him like ducklings---and isn’t that a before time thought, duck swimming in their giant pools of water, all fresh and clean and good eating but no one ate decorative ducks back then---and he gets in the front seat. As he does, Books asks:
“Where are we going?”
Shao grunts and revs the engine, speeding them forwards, towards the horizon.
“Settlement. We need more supplies, and y’all have nothing to bargain with.”
Shao leads them into the settlement, but not before having them roll around in the sand to get the paint off. They grimace, but don’t complain. War boys are good at following orders, it’s what they’re born for. But perhaps these war boys could be more. They look at the people around them with intrigued eyes. They’ve probably never been in a settlement like this before, being too young for raiding parties. Ra Ra rushes up to Shao and asks:
“How are we going to pay for anything?”
Shao grins a vicious grin and points ahead of them, at a ring set up with ropes around the edges. There’s a crowd watching as two women beat the shit out of each other. He says:
“This settlement loves their entertainment, they pay well for interesting fights. Not to the death, but they like them long and bloody.”
The war boys stare, something like fear and distaste in their eyes, and Shao thinks no wonder they didn’t survive the war boy training. He groans and says:
“I’ll fight, but at least one other person needs to, otherwise we won’t make enough.”
He expects Books to volunteer. Instead, the one who’s only spoken once so far steps forwards: Dizzee. Shao steps towards the ringmaster and says over his shoulder to Dizzee:
“Time to put that warboy training to the test.”
The ringmaster looks over Shao’s strong build with greedy eyes and quickly enters him in the roster. Dizzee looks less impressive, mostly because he holds himself with less confidence. He’ll need to learn to fake it, to survive out here.
Shao goes first, and dismantles his enemy easily, drawing out the fight to the crowd’s cheers. Dizzee is up next. The man walks in the ring to a round of boos, hunching in on himself and looking vulnerable. Shao groans and worries that he’s about to lose. Dizzee then proceeds to uncurl and destroy his opponent with quick, precise moves. He looks regretful the whole time, but he does it. Shao smirks; he knew their training would be effective, as long as they had the guts to use it. They walk away from the ring with promised barter for clothes, food, water, and weapons.
Shao makes sure to buy them each a gun, and shirts as well. Then he gets rations enough to last them a week. When he gestures, they all follow him out of the settlement. They make it back to the car and Shao claps Dizzee on the shoulder as he enters the car. Then he takes off into the desert again, whooping with the pure joy of it.
Shao and Books are hunting lizards. Books has tracked one to a nest and are scooping them out in handfuls, dropping them into a bag. They’ve been silent the whole time, until Books breaks the silence and says:
“You’ve killed a lot of people?”
Shao’s mind flashes red for a moment, memories of the man he’d failed to save, and he shakes his head to send the thoughts flying away. He growls:
Books is silent, taking that in, before he continues:
“I haven’t killed anybody yet. I don’t want to.”
Shao sighs; that’s a wish he doubts will be granted. Not out here, in the wasteland. So all he says is:
Books smiles that gentle grin that makes Shao’s stomach flip and says nothing.
Shao and Books are on the hood of the car, Boo Boo, Ra Ra and Dizzee asleep on bedrolls beside the interceptor. Shao and Books are looking up at the star filled sky, the freezing cold of the desert night causing them to lean into each other for warmth. At least, Shao pretends that’s all it is. He’s ignoring his true feelings, but that’s no surprise. He’s not going to survive by going soft.
Books stares up at the sky and Shao stares at him, and they say nothing but it feels like everything.
Finally, Books says:
“You know, amongst the war boys, we’d, uh...”
He hesitates, finding whatever it was hard to say.
“We’d...wife each other. For fun. Weren’t supposed to, were supposed to save that for the breeders, but it was nice.”
Shao feels discomfort spreading through him. He’s no stranger to sex, has fucked plenty of people in the back of his car. But they never meant anything to him, not like Books does. It worries him, talking about this with Books. What does Books mean by it?
Then Books turn to look at him, eyes glimmering dimly in the starlight.
“Some of them were in love I think. Like you’d love a wife.”
Shao is trembling, a need to run away growing in him. But Books keeps talking and Shao keeps listening:
“Shao, I think I can have the same thing. I think I have it with you.”
Shao instinctively snarls:
“I’m nobody's wife.”
Books shushes him:
“I know, Shao. But I’m saying I love you.”
Shao turns away from those eyes, the fear dominating him, and says:
“I need time, Books.”
Books just says:
Shao and Books are walking through a settlement, Books in front, going after a new pair of pants, full of pockets to put his treasures in, when Shao sees the glint of a knife and a person diving for Books. Shao moves on instinct, grabbing the knife holding hand and twisting, sending to the ground. Then, with an easy motion, he pulls out a pistol and shoots. Books jumps at the loud gunshot and turns, gaping:
“Shao, what was that?”
“That was you almost getting killed, you idiot.”
That settles in Shao, that he could have lost Books. It makes him feel like a great dark hole is opening in him, like the last time he lost someone. And suddenly something clicks. He gasps out:
“I’m going to kiss you, you idiot.”
Books looks bewildered:
Shao practically shouts:
“I want to kiss you!”
It hits Books then, and he smiles his beautiful smile. Then he’s hooking a hand behind Shao’s head and pulling him in, their lips meeting. Shao leans into the kiss, cherishing the feeling of not just kissing someone, but kissing Books.
They pull apart and Books has eyes as soft as bandages when he says:
“I love you.”
Shao stutters, words sticking in his throat, but manages too:
“I love you, Books.”
Books grins and takes Shao’s hands and finishes buying those pants he wanted. He doesn’t let go of Shao’s hand until they’re back at the interceptor and Shao has to drive.
Books is wrapped up in Shao one night, warm inside their shared bedroll, when he senses something is wrong. Nothing deadly, no attackers on the horizon, but something is distressing Shao. Books can tell by the curl of his eyebrows and the slant of his mouth. Shao doesn’t look Books in the eye as he buries his face in Book’s neck. Books smoothes a hand over his back in a comforting motion and asks:
“Shao, what’s wrong?”
Shao groans, his breath brushing over Book’s neck.
“You noticed, huh?”
Books grins and says:
“Sure did. Now spill.”
“I don’t want to bother you.”
“You’re not. I want to help. I don’t want you going through this alone.”
Shao finally opens up:
“It’s the anniversary today. Of the day I lost someone. Someone really important.”
Books breathes deep as he thinks: they’ve all lost someone, and they carry those wounds with them. Sometimes talking helps, but Shao doesn’t always want to be forward about his feelings. Still, it can’t hurt to ask. So Books does:
“Do you want to talk about them?”
Shao heistates, but says:
“Yes. He was the grandmaster, the leader of my settlement. I was set to succeed him, when the citadel attacked. He helped me escape, but went back for others and never came back out. I miss him, so much. I miss him every day. ”
Books can't think of anything to say but:
“I’ll be okay. It just hurts, and I don’t think it will ever stop. But I’m happy here, with you in my arms, and that’s enough for me.”
Books holds him a little tighter and says: