“Alpha Thunder, this is Little Dog Blue.” A slight pause, staticky silence over the radio. “I really hate that name.”
“I know.” I flip on my wipers as the first fat drops of rain hit my windshield, splattering against the glass. “What’s up?” I’m not all that successful at keeping the grin out of my voice and beside me I hear Conall snort. When I glance over, though, he’s completely focused on his laptop, tracking the storm system we’re driving into.
“We’ve got—” Whatever she’s got is lost in a sudden burst of static, and a crack of thunder so loud and close that I nearly swerve into the opposite lane. Conall yelps, hugging his laptop to his chest with one arm and bracing his other hand against the dashboard. His glasses slide down to the end of his nose and I have to fight a sudden attack of giggles that almost sends me across the road again.
“You dogface Faerie fuck,” he says. “Pay attention to the fucking road.”
This is Conall in a nutshell: tiny ball of angry red-haired science. He’s half a foot shorter than me, all ribs and angles and pale freckled skin, and the sharpest tongue I’ve ever had the pleasure of being eviscerated by. He’s a human scientist specializing in meteorology and storm systems, and we’ve been partners for over ten years now, since we were both dumb teenagers getting a high off lightning and wind. He’s also one of the most vicious fighters I’ve ever seen in action; I’ve watched him wipe the floor with people twice his size and weight, and not even break a sweat doing it.
I’d probably be a little bit in love with him if he didn’t terrify me.
I drag my attention back to the road in front of me, dropping my speed as the clouds really open up and the rain pounds down on the truck. The radio crackles again and I catch a few aborted words that don’t make any sense before the static descends once more. Above us the thunder growls and the purple-black sky shatters into branched lightning. Conall’s fingers fly over the keyboard and he snaps instructions and information at me, directing me in towards the heart of the storm.
I’ve been chasing storms since I was a kid, first following them through town and then, once I’d gotten my license and a vehicle, criss-crossing the entire country on my summer vacations, Conall at my side. We still did, me running my little chasing business and Conall running his experiments, throwing all sorts of shit up into storms so he can read the info it gathers. I just love the power and the strength, and I chase in the hopes of encountering that perfect storm, where everything comes together in the ultimate destruction.
The next boom rattles my windows and the radio gives a tortured shriek before going completely silent. I’m a little worried about my student—Little Dog Blue, aka Blue, which is her real name about as much as Maverick is mine—but she’s a big girl and she can take care of herself. Otherwise I wouldn’t have hired her and I definitely wouldn’t have trusted her to drive the truck with all our important gear inside it.
“Pull over.” Conall barely waits for me to hit the rumble strips and slow to a stop before he shoves his door open and jumps out into the fury. He drags something out of the back of the truck and then he’s gone into the pounding rain and hail.
“No, Conall, stop,” I say flatly, then lean over to pull his door shut so the seat doesn’t get soaked.
I wait, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, as the storm really lets loose. Outside the smeared glass of my windshield, the world looks grey and faded, except when the lightning flares bright. The heavy bulk of our supply truck creeps past me then pulls over to the side of the road in front; I don’t need to actually be able to see Blue to know she’s swearing. Sometimes she and Conall have little competitions to see who can come up with the best expletive, usually when we’re sitting around bored and waiting for a storm to show on the radar.
Conall slams back into the truck so suddenly that I jump. He’s dripping wet, his hair plastered to his skull and his T-shirt and jeans sticking to his body, but he’s flashing that wide and slightly manic grin that means he’s pleased. He looks at me and blows water off the tip of his nose, squinting behind the blurry lenses of his glasses. For a human he’s always had very sharp eyeteeth, and it lends his grin a somewhat feral air.
“One day you’re going to get hit by lightning or washed away by flood waters,” I tell him. “I’m just going to stand there and laugh.”
“You don’t stand anywhere if you can help it, you lazy shit.” He takes his glasses off and starts to wipe them on his shirt before realizing how useless that is. “Shit. Give me a towel.”
I dig one out from the mess behind my seat and realize that the storm is beginning to fade, tattering away into grumbles and misty rain. The clouds clear, releasing a reddening shaft of sunlight, and in the distance I see a rainbow. The storm’s over as soon as it began, leaving me feeling mildly disappointed; for all the loud thunder and rain, it was more of a whimper than a bang.
“Radar’s clear til tomorrow evening at the earliest,” Conall says, squinting at his laptop again. “We should find somewhere to crash for the night.”
“Yeah, okay.” I toggle the radio. “You there, Little Dog?”
“Stop calling me that, Mav.” Her voice is a little crackly but solid. “What are we doing?”
“Finding somewhere for the night. Con says we’re clear til tomorrow evening. We can do those repairs we’ve been putting off.”
“You mean I can do the repairs. There’s a motel nearby, good enough?”
“Good enough. We’ll follow you.” I turn the engine back on and wait until Blue pulls back on the road, then tail her a few miles down the highway until she turns onto a side road. A little further and she pulls into the gravel parking lot of an old house that looks more like someone’s home despite the neon sign proclaiming it to be the Midsummer Motel. Name like that, it’s probably Fae-run.
I park the truck beside Blue’s and get out, sniffing appreciatively at the damp air. There’s nothing like the smell right after a thunderstorm, when the air is so clear and clean. Conall joins me, cradling his laptop in one arm and still studying the screen, and Blue leads the way up to the little front office, where she books us in and I study the paintings on the walls. They’re almost aggressively homey, and very odd in contrast to the pointy-eared, mohawked girl at the front desk.
Blue leads us up some steep, dark stairs to the third floor, where she’s snagged us the last two rooms available. I don’t even need to ask to know she’s taking one of them and making me share with Conall, but it’s not the first time I’ve bunked with Conall and it likely won’t be the last. I leave him sitting cross-legged on the bed, glaring at his laptop, and go back downstairs to grab our packs.
He finally puts the laptop away when we eat dinner—takeout from a nearby burger place—and we spend a little time discussing the next day’s plans before turning in. It was an early morning and I’m glad to strip down and crawl under the sheet, shifting over to give Conall room to climb in beside me. He’s still awake when I drift off, but when I wake again in the silent depths of the night, he’s fast asleep, curled up into a little ball and hugging himself. I get out of bed as carefully as I can and use the washroom, then decide to take a walk outside to see if that’ll tire me out.
There’s a bit of woods behind the motel and a path leading through it, easy enough to follow in the moonlight. The night’s a little on the chilly side, bringing up goosebumps on my bare chest and arms, and my legs between boxers and boots. It’s nice, much better than the latest stifling heat wave, but I’m hoping the weather’s still uneasy enough to spawn storms. The season so far hasn’t been all that exciting and I’m itching for something big, something to really get the blood pumping.
I’m completely surrounded by trees when I see something flicker out of the corner of my eye, bright like lightning. Automatically I wait for the following growl of thunder but of course it doesn’t come; Conall said we were clear til tomorrow and I don’t think I’ve ever known him to be wrong. He’s kind of uncanny that way. The light flickers again and after a slight pause I head towards it, trying to keep my footsteps light as I move off the path and onto dirt and leaves.
I realize there’s actually someone there just as I stumble over a tree root and fall on one knee in the little clearing beyond the trees. My hand comes down on something smooth and round, but I don’t notice it immediately, unable to take my eyes off the man—or at least he’s shaped like a man—in the middle of the clearing. For all my clumsy entrance, he doesn’t seem to have noticed me yet; he’s looking up at the sky and his eyes glow like lightning in his pale face. Dark curls—the purple-black of building storm-clouds—drift around his face in a breeze that I can’t feel, and there’s something both melancholy and viciously gorgeous about his narrow features.
I know what he is, of course, and that more than anything freezes me in place. Seeing a Storm Lord at all is a one in a million chance; seeing one without his mask on—and I’m suddenly sure I know what I put my hand so carelessly down upon—is impossible. Should be impossible anyway, except I’m currently looking at a Storm Lord’s real face.
Almost as though he hears my thoughts, the Storm Lord’s eyes snap towards me and I curl my fingers under the edge of the round object beneath my hand, pulling it in towards my chest even as I get awkwardly to my feet. His eyes hold me but I’m able to rub my thumb across the smooth material and trace the vague rudimentary outline of features on the mask’s front. I try a smile but after the first wide-eyed shock, rage paints his face and he crosses the clearing in two long strides.
He smells like ozone up close, like a lightning strike that just barely misses hitting you. He tries to snatch the mask and if he had I would have lost my life right there and then, but I hug it to myself and he misses. His eyes blaze then he suddenly straightens up, taking a step back and squaring his shoulders with seamless grace and such a noble air that I have to fight off a sudden fit of slightly panicky giggles.
“Hand it over and I’ll make your death quick,” he says, like he’s offering me such a good deal.
“How selfless of you.” I take a step back instead, aware that one more will bring me right up against a tree. “You know, I’ve heard stories of what happens when you get hold of a Storm Lord’s mask. To be honest though, I didn’t expect you to look so... normal.” I see his eyebrow arch and add, “You know, glowing eyes and personal wind aside. I was kind of expecting horns and teeth and maybe some tentacles. Growing out of your forehead.”
“What do you want, a wish? You think to hold me prisoner by holding my mask?” He steps forward, and then again when I back up and, as expected, come up against the tree. The air between us is super-charged and I feel the familiar storm-chasing excitement prickle across my skin. Or maybe that’s the static from being so close to him.
“A wish is good.” My voice cracks a little and I clear my throat. “Just one, and I’ll return your mask. Work for you?”
“No,” he says, but there’s a certain gleam in his eyes beneath the white glow. He has no pupils, I notice. “But assume I’m feeling generous. What would your one wish be?”
“The perfect storm.” I don’t even have to think about it. “The perfect storm, somewhere wide and open, where nobody’s going to get hurt, but where me and my partners can chase to our heart’s content. Nobody gets hurt, Storm Lord.”
“I don’t think you’re in a position to negotiate that much.” He snorts but I can see the interest in his expression. “I could still just kill you.”
“So do it,” I say, grinning to hide the fact that I’m terrified and hoping he won’t call my bluff.
His eyes flick down to the mask and then up again. I read my death in his eyes and brace myself, but after a single frozen moment, he grins and displays a good set of the sharp teeth I was expecting. It’s like seeing a shark suddenly grin at you when a moment before it was aiming for your leg, and I’m so unnerved that I don’t even react when he suddenly takes hold of my shoulders and kisses me. He tastes like the air just before a big storm, crackling with electricity and the scent of rain, and then he’s gone. There’s nothing dramatic about it; he’s simply there one moment and gone the next, leaving me standing there with the taste of a storm in my mouth and a Storm Lord’s mask clutched to my chest.
I wait a few moments longer, expecting him to come back and kill me, but when he doesn’t I begin to make my way slowly back to the motel. The sky’s beginning to grow light as I sneak quietly back to my room and hide the mask in my pack. The Storm Lord could come back for it but somehow I don’t think that’s likely and I feel okay about crawling back under the sheets beside Conall. Conall makes a sleepy growling, questioning noise, kicks me in the thigh, and rolls over to go back to sleep. Smiling a bit, I reach over to ruffle his hair and settle into the coolness of the pillow. I expect to have trouble falling asleep but instead I can feel the drag almost immediately, and within moments the room fades away.
Blue wakes us around ten by pounding on the door even as she’s coming in, announcing that we better be decent. I squint at her blearily and Conall just growls again and buries his head under the pillow, yanking the covers away and wrapping himself up in them like a cocoon. Blue pokes him a few times with one finger then turns a raised eyebrow on me.
“What did you two get up to last night? You look like hell.”
“We slept.” I rub at my scratchy eyes. “Though as you can see, Conall likes to hog the blankets.”
“I slept,” Conall mutters into his pillow. “You disappeared for an hour or two in the middle of the night.”
I jump a little and Blue’s eyes sharpen; she doesn’t miss a lot. “Went for a piss then a walk because I couldn’t sleep,” I say. “Didn’t know I needed permission.”
Conall lifts his head enough to give me a measuring look from under his fall of flame-red hair. “Said like someone feeling real fucking guilty.”
“Climb off my dick, please.” I push myself to my feet and stretch, reaching my fingers up towards the ceiling. “You’re not tall enough for this ride.”
Blue snickers but Conall only looks at me a moment longer, his narrow features inscrutable. “You look different somehow.”
“Lack of sleep combined with too many stupid questions.”
He snorts, finally heaving himself up and running his fingers through his hair so it sticks out in spikes. “Somebody needs to ride your dick, maybe you’d be less of an asshole.”
“As fascinating as this is,” Blue says before I can come up with an appropriate response, “I have repairs to do. I’ll see you two at lunch.” She lifts a hand in a wave and heads out the door again.
Conall goes to take a shower and I pull the mask out of my pack, sitting on the bed and turning it over in my hands. It looks like bone, polished to a gleam and tattooed with blood-red markings around the eye slits and across the slash that represents the mouth. It almost seems to hum in my hands and I remember the stories I’ve heard, of how the mask is a Storm Lord’s true power and how they hide their faces behind it so people can’t cast any spells on them, kind of like how Blue and I keep our true names a secret. The mask calls to me and I wonder what it would be like to put it on; whether I would gain the power to call down storms and bend them to my will.
The mask is only an inch from my face when Conall suddenly drops something in the bathroom and looses a colourful torrent of swearing. I start guiltily and hurriedly shove the mask back into my pack, under a pile of clothes. Getting to my feet, I knock on the bathroom door and ask Conall if he’s still alive in there.
“Yeah,” he calls back. “Not sure I can say the same about this cheap-ass shitfuck of a medicine cabinet though. Nearly fell on my goddamn head.”
“Hey, on a real man, it would’ve fallen on his toes,” I say, grinning.
“Shit.” He says it with a slight drawl, so it almost becomes ‘sheeit’. “Go on and get it out of your system, Maverick. Free-for-all on short jokes. Maybe if you try really hard, you can actually find some shred of amusement.”
“Love you too, Con.” I go back to the bed to wait for my turn to shower, drumming my fingers on my knees and pointedly ignoring the mask inside my backpack.
We eat breakfast at the buffet an hour later, hunched together at the far end of a table so we can study radar and satellite maps on Conall’s laptop. My pack sits at my feet and I can practically feel the mask inside, like it’s vibrating gently against my toes. It distracts me enough that I don’t realize Conall has stopped talking until he bounces a slightly stale bun off my head.
“What’s on your mind, Maverick? You’ve been looking constipated all morning.”
“I have not.” I glance at the endless movement of the radar on his screen, green shading into yellow shading into red shading into irregular spots of purple. It looks like there’s a storm gearing up nearby and I point to it. “Are we chasing that one?”
“Don’t change the subject. What’s wrong?” Conall snaps the laptop shut, nearly closing my fingers in it.
“I’m thinking about the perfect storm,” I say, which is true enough. “I think this is our summer, I really do.”
“You say that every year.” He’s still eyeing me but the suspicion’s beginning to fade. “All right. I figure we have an hour or two to kill before we have to move to meet that storm you were pointing at. Think you can hold yourself together that long?”
“Anything for you, darling.” I eat my toast in three big bites, even though it’s gone cold.
We move out a little over an hour later, after Blue gives the go-ahead on her repairs. The weather is gorgeous with just a hint of a breeze, but I can feel the heat soaking in as the sun rises to the midpoint of the sky. Shortly after that we start to see clouds massing on the horizon, fluffy and pale at first, then gradually building up and darkening into an ominous band of grey. The wind picks up and soon I hear the first grumble of thunder. In the passenger seat Conall’s fingers fly over the keyboard and out of the corner of my eye I can see him starting to grin.
“She’s looking like a big old bitch,” he says. “Big and beautiful.”
“Perfect storm big?” I ask, resisting the urge to snatch a look over my shoulder at my pack.
He’s silent for a moment. “No, don’t think so. Definitely a boomer though, good chance of a tornado. Watch the road and don’t pull another one of those shit-for-brains swerves.”
“What, you mean like this?” I send the truck sliding across into the opposite lane and sit there for a few minutes, until an approaching car honks angrily at me.
“I hate you,” Conall says, his knuckles white where he’s gripping the edge of the laptop. He seems to be gripping it hard enough to make it creak, but a sudden bellow of thunder distracts me before I can tell him to relax.
Just like that the storm hits in a torrent of rain and hail the size of golf balls. Lightning splits the sky and I can feel the truck shuddering under the push of the wind. The other cars on the road are pulling over and I see more than one person fling themselves out and run for the nearest ditch. I can’t really blame them, not when I don’t even need the radar to see the tornadic supercell forming in front of us. Voice tense, Conall directs me down a side road that will hopefully keep us out of the incoming twister’s path, and as I split my attention between what little I can see of the road and the clouds, I see the first lengthening of a tornado reaching towards the ground.
I hit the brakes so hard the truck fishtails and spins to a stop, and on the radio Blue swears at me; but she sounds about as excited as I am, an excitement that’s more than a little sexual. Conall’s right, she’s a big bitch, and she’s one of the most beautiful funnels I’ve seen in years. It passes barely half a mile in front of us, a twisting snarling black vortex that tears up everything in its path. We’re in farm country and I’m glad for that; glad I can watch it with awe and not have to feel too guilty about people losing their homes and possessions and maybe their lives while I’m getting off on its sheer power.
“Fuck me,” Conall says when it’s passed by and begun to fade back into nothing more than clouds and rain. “Shit, too fast for me to even think about setting up probes for it.”
I’m watching the clouds, which still look a little ominous. “What’s the radar say? Still looks like she might have some fire in her belly.”
He seems amused at that but he checks the radar. “Might be right. Maybe she’ll have twins. Get your ass moving, maybe I can still set something up.”
I tell Blue over the radio what’s happening even as I’m spinning the truck around and booking it to get in front of the storm. It’s slow-moving, at least when it’s not sending down convective destruction, but the first twister’s scattered enough debris to make driving hazardous, not to mention it’s still raining like somebody let out the plug in the bathtub in the sky. One eye on the storm clouds and half-listening to Conall, I move the truck through the debris obstacle course and bring it to a sliding stop in what we hope is the path of the next tornado. I keep the engine running as Conall hops out and drags his probes into position, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel.
“Have I given you your perfect storm yet?” The voice is so close and so sudden that I make an embarrassing strangled yelping noise and jerk against the driver’s side door. The Storm Lord, sitting casually in Conall’s seat, gives me a cool look from his pale-bright eyes.
“This is good,” I say when my heart slides down from its new position in my throat. “But I wouldn’t call it perfect.”
“You’re picky.” He sounds a little sullen. “I won’t indulge you forever.”
“You don’t need to. Just do your part of our deal.” A bolt of lightning striking a little too close for comfort distracts me and when I look back again the Storm Lord is gone. The wind picks up into a shriek and the second tornado drops suddenly, hesitates a little and shrinks up, then comes down again with more purpose. “Shake your ass, Conall,” I say out loud, watching the funnel power towards us.
This tornado seems to have more staying power than the first, though it’s a little smaller. It’s picking up more dust and debris as it comes, and throwing it away haphazardly through the screaming winds. On the radio Blue’s keeping me updated on her own progress where she’s filming it and taking pictures, but I barely hear her over my increasing worry for Conall. The tornado’s bearing right down on us and we need to move in the next five seconds unless we want it to overtake us.
I leave the engine running when I throw the door open and get out into the storm. Dirt smacks me in the face and I pull the collar of my shirt up over my mouth, squinting into the shadows. The steady flashing of a red light leads me to where Conall’s set up the probes but I don’t find Conall himself anywhere nearby. The wind’s getting strong enough to rock me on my feet and I’m vaguely aware that Blue’s already hightailing it out of there in the second truck. I yell Conall’s name but the winds just whip the word from my mouth and spiral it away into nothing.
I have to run for the truck and with my head down to try and keep debris out of my eyes, I don’t see Conall until we crash right into each other. There’s a scary moment where it seems one of us might lose our feet and drag the other down—and the wind doesn’t help—then he grabs my arms tightly and steadies me. An instant later the passenger side window in the truck blows out, spraying us both with glass. I pull Conall in automatically, protecting him with one arm, and barely feel the sting of the glass cutting my face.
Blood drips hot and wet down my cheek, then washes away in the pouring rain. Swearing, Conall elbows me hard in the ribs—hard enough to hurt and to knock me out of my daze—before yanking me to the side of the truck and shoving me into the passenger seat. Almost in slow-motion the tornado bears down on us as Conall throws himself into the driver’s seat and floors the gas.
I know we’re not going to make it, except somehow we do, even though more than once the winds pick up the rear of our truck and threaten to suck us into the sky. Conall drives like a pro, his knuckles white against the steering wheel, and he slides us down a side road and out of the tornado’s path in a move a drag racer would be proud of. The tornado rumbles by, beginning to lose power, and for long moments we just sit there in panting silence, staring wide-eyed out the windshield at the path of destruction in front of us.
“Did it hit the probes and pick them up?” I ask finally, and see Conall shoot me an incredulous look. “What? I’m going to be pissed if I nearly lost my balls for a probe that didn’t even deploy.”
Silently he snags his laptop and flips it open. “Yeah,” he says after a moment, his voice oddly choked. “Fuckers deployed. I’m getting the data now.”
I look at him to see what’s wrong—he sounds a bit like he’s trying not to cry, which is definitely not a Conall thing to do; but then, that was also the closest we’ve come to being flattened—and find him biting his lip in an effort to fight off a convulsive fit of the giggles. He glances at me quickly, just enough to meet my eyes, and that’s enough to set us both off, until we’re howling like hyenas in the truck cab, soaked and bloody, while the storm mutters itself out.
When we find Blue, she first hugs me tight then slaps me upside the head, before giving Conall the same treatment. “I thought you idiots were dead, splattered over some redneck asshole’s corn field.” She inspects the cuts on my face. “You should be dead.”
“I’m not leaving you the business so you can stop wishing me dead.” I wince as she probes at a slice near my eye. “Ow.”
“Don’t be such a baby.” She digs out the first-aid kit and makes me sit down on the truck’s tailgate so she can clean and disinfect my face. “Doesn’t look like you need any stitches, but how about you don’t go flinging yourself into a tornado next time?”
“Hey, blame Conall, he’s the one who took forever setting the damn probes up.” I look for Conall and find he’s wandered off again, leaning against Blue’s truck with the laptop balanced in one arm. He’s frowning a little but he looks kind of excited too, so I assume he’s received some good data from the tornado we probed.
“I blame you both, because you’re both insane.” Blue puts the first-aid kit away. "We’re done for the night, I hope.”
“Yeah. Did you get some good video?”
“Fucking awesome video, and some nice shots too. I’ll put them up on the site tonight,” she says, referring to the website for my stormchasing company, which she built and maintains. The only thing I use a computer for is tracking storm systems and occasional badly spelled e-mails to colleagues and clients.
“What would I do without you?” I say, mostly teasing.
“Crash and burn,” she replies.
We stumble into the first motel we see that has its Vacancy sign lit up and I end up sharing with Conall again. After we’ve eaten and settled in he shows me the data he’s collected, going off into his usual lecture mode, which I pay attention to only because it’s laced with amusing curses. If he ever did anything on TV, it'd just be one long bleep with occasional use of 'the'. Some of the technical jargon he spews is too much even for me but I gather that the storm showed near-perfect rotation and he’s hoping to use the info it gave him to develop some sort of improved warning system.
I think of the mask, still safely hidden in my pack, and the Storm Lord it belongs to. Distracted by my thoughts, I tune Conall’s chatter out until he socks me in the arm hard enough to make me yelp. When I glare at him he raises an eyebrow and says, “Am I boring you, Mav?”
“Yeah, actually. Don’t be such an ass to the guy who saved your life.”
He snorts, but reaches to gently touch my cheek just below the line of one cut. “You’re bruising up a bit. Hurt much?”
“Nah. Can’t say it improves my features any though.”
“Nothing short of a miracle could do that.” He strokes his thumb across my cheek then smiles a bit and lets go. “Since I’m so boring, I’m going to bed.”
I let him go into the bathroom first and move my pack next to the door, not really letting myself think about what I want to do. When Conall’s done I use the bathroom and strip down, climbing under the sheets beside him. The bed’s not as big as the one in the other motel and he growls at me as I try to get comfortable. I poke him in the ribs and that leads to an impromptu wrestling match that ends with me knocked to the floor and Conall sitting on my back, twisting my arm up behind me and demanding I say uncle. I do just to spare my arm and let him help me back to my feet, taking the opportunity to ruffle his hair. The look he gives me should roast me on the spot, but he says nothing and just climbs back into bed.
When I’m sure he’s asleep, I get up as quietly as I can and take a step towards the bathroom, just in case the movement wakes him. He only rolls over in his sleep, bringing his knees up a little, and after listening to his deep breathing for a few moments, I head out the door, snagging my pack on the way by. There’s no woods here, just parking lot and a scrubby looking little park with some sagging playground equipment, but I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. Above me thunder mutters softly.
I sit on a splintery wooden bench at the edge of the park and take the mask out, holding it on my lap and waiting. I smell him before I see him, that ozone scent like lightning’s just hit nearby. He glows in the darkness still but the light seems a little faded, and there are hints of shadow beneath his pale eyes.
“Come to return the mask?” he asks.
“Not until you give me what I want.” I get to my feet, holding the mask between my hands. “You pull a stunt like today again, and I’ll smash this thing if I have to run it over with my truck. I told you nobody gets hurt.”
“Nobody did. Except you.” His tone implies I don’t matter. “And you said nobody gets hurt in your perfect storm. You didn’t say anything about any other storm.”
“Then let me make this so clear even you can’t twist it around. If you put my partner in danger again, I will fucking destroy you. I will do it if it kills me, so long as before I die, I see you fucked up beyond all repair.” My own rage surprises me but it’s running hot and fast, and I can't stop even if I wanted to. “Are we on the same wave-length now? You don’t touch my partner, my student, or anyone else in this whole wide world. You and me, okay, we’ve got business, but they are not involved.”
He opens his mouth to reply, dark eyebrows drawn down in a V, but in the slight silence we both hear a muttering growl. I look up automatically, thinking it’s thunder, then follow the Storm Lord’s eyes to the entrance of the park. Conall’s standing there in nothing more than his jeans, his shoulders hunched and his hands clenched into fists. Steam rises gently from his bare skin and when he growls again—a real growl, not his usual grumpy reactions—smoke leaks from his nose.
The Storm Lord seems as taken aback as I am, but he rallies quicker. “Dragonling. I knew there was something wrong with you.”
That’s about the point I decide I must be dreaming; that I actually fell asleep in the motel bed instead of getting up and coming out to yell at a Storm Lord. As good as dragonlings are supposed to be at hiding themselves in human guise, I’ve known Conall for over a decade. I’ve bunked with him a thousand times over the years, I’ve met his parents, I’ve been about as close to him as you can get to another person without actually screwing them. I’ve never once had the thought that he might be anything other than human.
Except that’s not entirely true and I know it. Once or twice, after I’ve watched him mop the floor with some guy twice his size, I’ve wondered what he’s not telling me. It’s just not possible to do what he does at a shade over 5’6” and a shade under 130 pounds. Not without either drugs or magic.
“Mav, get your ass over here,” he says, and I take a few steps towards him automatically before I can stop myself. I make myself stop after that, getting angry again.
“You’re not my mother, Conall.” I keep an eye on the Storm Lord, in case he decides to try and take advantage of my distraction. “Tell me what the hell’s going on here.”
“Get your ass over here and I will.” He snorts out more smoke and I’m pretty sure I can see a smattering of red-gold scales like freckles on his skin. “Maverick, now.”
My mother’s always said that my biggest problem is that I hate being told what to do. She’s been calling me a contrary son-of-a-bitch since I was in diapers, though at least she admits I come by it honestly. When Conall commands me—and it was a command, not even phrased as a request—that stubborn streak rears its ugly head and instead I back away from him, opening my mouth to tell him to fuck right off.
I’ve forgotten about the Storm Lord but of course he hasn’t forgotten about me. When I step back he snakes an arm around my waist and reaches for the mask with his other hand. I jerk my body to the side as hard as I can and throw my head back, aiming to break his nose if I can. I don’t connect, but it startles him into pulling away from me. I stumble and go down on my knees, still clutching at the mask, and something rockets over my head with a crack of displaced air.
When I manage to pick myself up, they’re both gone, though in the clouds overhead I see flashes of lightning and hear the bellow of flame. I still can’t quite believe this is even happening, but pinching my arm hard enough to bruise does nothing to wake me up in any bed, let alone the motel one. It’s just so completely ridiculous, every single step in the chain of events leading up to this, that a snort of laughter escapes me even through the worry about what Conall’s doing up there. This is the sort of thing that happens to adventurers and princes in bargain basement fantasy novels, not to a small-town stormchaser like me.
Thunder booms directly over my head and I crouch instinctively, feeling my heartbeat ramp up until it’s thudding in my chest. Something thuds nearby and when I risk looking, I find myself staring down the sinuous snaking head of a red dragon mottled with gold. It’s not actually that big—Conall’s not that big—but he’s still bigger than me and I don’t possess leathery wings twice the size of my body, or a mouthful of sharp teeth. He digs claws the length of my hand into the gravel and suddenly shifts, the movement like a high-speed photograph. A moment later Conall is standing there naked, weaving a little on his feet; blood marks the side of his face and lays a swath of red across his ribs.
I move automatically to support him, looping an arm around him until he regains his balance. We walk in silence back to the motel after I’ve snagged my pack and put the mask safely back inside, Conall limping a little in his bare feet. He pulls on a pair of shorts once we reach the room then turns to glare at me, crossing his arms over his chest. I glare right back and set my pack down, resisting the urge to copy his pose.
“You have any idea what you’re involved in?” he says finally.
“I’m sure you’re going to tell me. Or maybe not, since you’ve apparently been keeping a major fucking secret for the past ten years.”
“It just didn’t come up.” He gives that little shrug I’ve always found so aggravating, the one that says he’s just dismissed everything I’ve said.
“You don’t think maybe it should’ve?” I snap. “You’re a dragonling, that’s not exactly a small secret.”
“You mean like you told me or Blue that you’ve gotten yourself involved with a Storm Lord?”
Okay, he has a point there, but I’m not really in the mood to acknowledge it. “It’s been two days. You’ve kept this from me for ten years.”
“I would’ve kept it longer if you weren’t so fucking stupid. It’s none of your business.”
“Then it’s not any of your business what I do with a Storm Lord. Goes both ways, Conall. You don’t get to—” I would’ve said ‘pick and choose’ but he moves across the room with that uncanny speed he’s always had, grabs the front of my T-shirt and half-drags me away from the door until he can practically throw me onto the bed. Before I can catch my breath and get over the shock of it—it’s been a long time since anyone manhandled me, especially anyone shorter—he’s got me pinned down, his upper lip lifting slightly in a snarl.
“It’s my business when it gets your dumbshit self hurt, Maverick. Then it becomes my business. I’m not...” He’s been glaring at me, eyes narrowed, but he looks away when he hesitates. “I’m not letting anyone hurt you, okay?”
I think back to how angry I was yelling at the Storm Lord, telling him he wasn’t allowed to hurt Conall, and can’t help a bit of a laugh. “Trust me, I get it. I gave the Storm Lord an earful about you before you showed up.”
He looks back and raises an eyebrow at me, like he thinks I’m actually lying. After a moment he releases the death-grip he has on the front of my shirt and reaches up to gently stroke one of the shallower cuts across my cheek. Nobody ever called me particularly quick on the uptake but I guess it doesn’t really take a genius to interpret the movement, and the expression on his face. Or maybe it does because it’s probably been sailing over my head for a while. I’m trying to figure out just how long I’ve been an oblivious moron when he kisses me, hesitantly at first then more confidently when I don’t shove him away.
His mouth tastes like heat and smoke, and a little bit of blood. That makes me think of the blood across his side and I push him back enough to take a look, trying to see if he’s seriously injured beneath the sticky mess. The cuts across his ribs look deep enough to bleed a lot, but not deep enough that I think he needs a hospital. He swats my hand away and kisses me again, but we both look up at a sudden crack of thunder.
“Think that’s natural?” I ask. “Or is he still pissed?”
“He can piss all he wants, he’s still not taking away what’s mine.” Conall frowns at the ceiling, like he can see through it to the stormy sky.
I laugh a little, but I’m a bit annoyed too. “What’s yours? Here I kinda thought my life was, you know, mine.”
He drops his gaze back to my face. “I’m claiming it. You.”
I feel my eyebrows rise. “Really. So what happens if I don’t want to be claimed like a prize?”
His expression goes flat, like someone wiped it clean off his face. Without a word he gets up and leaves the room, closing the door quietly behind him and leaving me feeling absurdly guilty. If he’d slammed it, then I could’ve brushed it off as Conall being a brat—though he’s not, usually—but instead I’m left feeling like I’m the one in the wrong for pointing out that I’m actually a person, not a possession. I think about going after him, then decide it would probably only lead to a fight. If he wants to sulk, let him sulk by himself outside.
Blue wakes me the next morning after a fragmented sleep interrupted by frequent rumbles of thunder. She pokes her head into the room and looks me up and down before dryly asking why she found Conall sleeping in the hallway five minutes earlier.
“Go ask him,” I tell her, and haul myself out of bed to go have a shower.
Conall’s already taken the truck to get the window fixed when I make it downstairs, so I eat breakfast with Blue, who keeps giving me appraising looks as she eats her eggs and bacon. I just pick at my food and manage to choke down half a chocolate chip muffin before pushing my plate away and half-watching the local news on the big-screen TV in the corner. The weatherman seems excited about an incoming storm, practically predicting the end of the world; but I’m used to meteorologists the world over acting like every storm is the big one. It’s probably the only profession where you can be wrong 95% of the time and still stay employed.
I use Conall’s laptop to kill some time and to see what the radar’s telling us today, and find that maybe the excited weatherman isn’t so far off after all. Satellite and radar both are predicting a massive storm forming in the area and there are already warnings and watches for towns nearby. I point it out to Blue and we spend a little while marking the predicted path of the storm and watching the red alerts spring up over one town after another. It looks nasty already, a big slow-moving system with the type of rotation that is guaranteed to cause nasty tornadoes. I try not to get too excited because a storm system like this is extremely dangerous, but I can feel it puddling in my belly anyway.
There’s no time to see if Conall’s still mad at me when he arrives back with the truck; by that time the storm’s getting close and we have to move out immediately to meet it even as everyone else battens down the hatches. Conall’s voice gives nothing away as he rattles off instructions and directions, his gaze fixed on the laptop’s screen. I hear the storm before I see it, thunder in the distance, and as we get closer the day begins to steadily darken and the wind picks up. Soon I have to flick on my headlights and the sky above is an odd dark green shaded with purple and shot through with brilliant lightning.
“This does not look good at all,” Blue says over the radio, her voice crackling with static. “Are we still going ahead?”
“If you feel unsafe, pull off and get to shelter,” I say. “I’m still going in.” I look at Conall and he nods slightly. “Con too. Just let us know what you decide so I don’t worry.”
“You’re both idiots,” she sighs, but I can see her truck keeping pace with us as we head deeper into the storm.
“Park here,” Conall says a few minutes later, motioning to a dirt road leading off the highway. We’re into farm country now, a bunch of big wide open spaces dotted with the occasional farmhouse and barn. It’s about as safe an area as we’re going to get, but I still can’t help feeling uneasy as I kill the engine and hear the scream of the wind outside.
I check in with Blue over the radio to make sure she’s still okay and to make sure we have the same escape plan if it comes to running. A bolt of lightning blazes across the sky, shattering into slender forks, and the following boom of thunder makes me glance nervously at the newly repaired truck window. On the radio the weatherman is chattering at high speed, reading off a list of places where tornado warnings are in effect and advising people to run, not walk, to the safest shelter they can find.
“Looks like you’re getting your perfect storm,” Conall says.
“Looks like it.” I point out the windshield, towards where the clouds look angriest. “Probably going to come down there. You probing?”
“Hell yes. I’m not letting this opportunity get away just because you’re a dumb asshole.” He slides out of the truck and moves around to grab his kit.
“I’m the asshole?” I mutter, watching the clouds twitch and heave like waves in the ocean. It’s spitting a bit but not really raining, though the sky is heavy and swollen with it. I know when it comes down it’s going to come down like a waterfall, but while it holds off I can admire the cloud pattern and keep an eye on Conall as he sets out his probes.
The rain drops in a solid sheet just as Conall’s sliding back into the truck and he hurriedly yanks his foot in and shuts the door. Hail bounces off the truck with heavy metallic pings and one particularly big chunk spiderwebs the glass of my windshield. Muttering a curse under my breath, I turn the wipers on as high as they’ll go and try to see what the clouds are doing. I look at Conall to ask him what the radar says, and suddenly the driver’s side door rips off its hinges, flying away into the darkness. Pale hands grab me and haul me bodily out of the truck into the storm and I smell the now-familiar scent of ozone on the wind.
“The mask,” the Storm Lord growls in my ear. “You have your perfect storm, now hold up your end of the deal. Give me my mask.”
“It’s in the truck,” I manage past the grip he’s got on my throat. Somewhere in the distance something roars; I think at first it’s Conall, but it’s in the wrong direction and I can see him coming towards us, hesitating despite the scales covering his skin. He has my pack in one hand.
“The mask.” The Storm Lord holds out his hand, the one not currently digging into my neck, for it.
Conall digs into my pack and takes it out, holding it up. “Let Mav go and you can have it.”
“Dragonling, this is my arena now, and your Mav is my trophy.” He tightens his grip on my throat until I choke, the sound almost lost in the shrieking of the wind. “He saw a Storm Lord’s face, stole his mask and forced a wish out of him. He cannot be allowed to live.”
“I’ve seen your face, Storm Lord, and I have your mask. You want to try me instead? Storms don’t last forever but dragons live a long time.” Conall tosses his head to get wet hair out of his eyes, ignoring the hail bouncing all around him. I can hear the roaring getting louder, the sound of a freight train speeding towards us, and the wind snatches at my clothes.
The Storm Lord lets me go so suddenly that I stand there like an idiot for a few long moments before he places a hand against my back and shoves me forward. I stumble, catch my balance, and gratefully grab Conall’s arm for support when he offers it. In almost the same motion he holds the mask out to the Storm Lord with his other hand. Just before the Storm Lord’s fingers touch it, Conall jerks back suddenly, shoving me behind him with unnerving strength and throwing the mask as hard as he can, directly into the whirling darkness of the approaching tornado.
Thunder booms so hard above us that my knees give out and I go down, clapping my hands over my ears to try and get rid of the feeling that my brain’s just been rattled out of my skull. A flash of heat rushes against my back then great leathery wings close over me, sheltering me from the wind and the rain. Conall curves his long neck around my shoulders and hunches up as the rain pounds down. The tornado is so close there’s no way we can outrun it, so all I can do is wrap my arms around Conall’s neck and hold on, hoping he’s strong enough to withstand its force.
I’ve been caught in a tornado once before, when I was just barely twenty and cocky as hell, but that was a baby compared to this monster. It’s thundering so hard and loud that I can feel it in my teeth, and even Conall’s rocking back and forth in the force of the wind. I can feel the muscles in his neck tense and flex against my arms as he adjusts position constantly to try and stay on the ground, which is trembling beneath our feet. I bury my face against the smooth warmth of his scales and hope that at least Blue managed to get to safety.
I hear a sudden thick ripping sound and Conall makes a noise of pain, his breath hot against my skin. One of his wings sags a little and when I risk a look I see something’s torn a jagged tear in the leathery membrane, just beneath one of the long bones. I can’t even think over the sound and pressure of the wind and vaguely realize that the tornado must be passing right over us. There’s a brief moment of silence that tells me we’ve just passed into the eye of it, then the wind begins to pick up again. I’m not sure how long Conall can keep resisting it; hell, I’m not even sure how long I can, and I’m mostly protected by his bulk.
Then suddenly it’s over and we’re left mostly whole, even if my head is ringing so hard I can barely hear the thunder. I twist and push the heavy weight of Conall’s wings apart like they’re curtains, watching the tornado—a big black mass of cloud that seems to take up the entire horizon—continue east, laying waste as it goes. I can’t actually believe we survived that thing passing over us and a slightly hysterical laugh escapes me as I check my hands and arms for damage. Conall pulls his wings in against his sides again and in a stutter-blink he’s human again, weaving on his feet and covered in scrapes and bruises, but whole.
I wrap my arms around him and just hug him for a moment before scraping off my wet shirt and giving it to him to cover up with. He looks kind of ridiculously adorable in it and I have to fight off more laughter, but all amusement fades when I look around and see our truck’s been demolished. All around us are haphazard areas of destruction; whole stands of trees flattened while a section of fenceline stands completely whole. The tornado tore up some fields and left others untouched, and in the distance I can still see it, flashing with orange light as it tears up powerlines.
We find something approaching shelter and sit huddled up together beneath it to wait for the rest of the storm to blow itself out. Eventually it does, the clouds tattering away to reveal bright sunshine and the brilliant blue of a summer sky. Conall’s dozed off on my shoulder and I stay quiet for a few long moments, watching the sun shade everything gold, before shaking him awake and starting on the walk to find civilization.
I offer him a silent arm when I see he’s limping and he leans on me gratefully, blowing water off the end of his nose. We must have been walked for at least twenty minutes before the familiar mud-splattered bulk of Blue’s truck squeals to a stop beside us. She takes in our appearance with one eyebrow arched and parks the truck on the side of the road ahead. I help Conall to sit on the tailgate so she can fuss over him—while dryly asking if the tornado had torn his clothes off—and snag her laptop to check the news. There are some injuries but as far as anyone is aware, nobody seems to have been killed, something they’re calling a minor miracle.
I look up at the sky, now clear and gentle, and wonder if it’s the last I’ve seen of the Storm Lord. He’s got his mask back now, but I doubt he’s the type to forgive very easily, and Conall and I have probably embarrassed him quite a bit. After a minute I look away from the sky and wander back around the truck in time to see Blue snap the first-aid kit shut and tell Conall that he’ll survive.
“What next, boss?” she says when she sees me.
“We go see if anyone needs help over there.” I nod to the path of destruction the tornado’s left, then grin, catching Conall’s eye. “Then we get ourselves kitted up again. Summer’s not over yet and there’s still storms to chase.”
Conall snorts, Blue rolls her eyes, and me? I just stretch, hitch my wet jeans up on my hips again, and get in the truck.