Vey knew he was trouble the first moment she saw him. He swaggered. He posed. He had a thin, wolfish face and a dangerous smile, all sharp edges and white teeth. He wore an oil-stained T-shirt beneath his suit coat and motorcycle boots beneath his slacks. Trouble all over.
She liked him immediately.
It wasn't even her day to work. Part-time at city hall meant more days off than on, and she hadn't been scheduled for almost a week. But her coworker, Tyler, had called to tell her that the new road opened today—a year's worth of construction finally finished. For one brief period, every single road in the city was drivable.
She'd hurried in to get a look at the new map, in pride of place on the city hall board, but Vey hadn't been the only one. As she studied the new lines on the grid, he sauntered up beside her, and said, "The road's open, then?"
"Vey," Tyler said. "Meet Carlos. He's a city planner out of south Texas. Carlos, this is Vey. Short for Veyron. Not for Verity. No matter what her employee file says. . ."
"Shut up, Tyler," Vey said.
Carlos took her hand and that first contact between them struck like lightning, warm skin heating up fast. The fluorescent bulbs flickered then went out with a strong electrical scent. Thin, acrid plumes of smoke spilled downward, wreathing the room. Tyler ran for the fire extinguisher.
City planner, her ass.
"So, you like my city?" she said.
"Looks just my speed," he said.
He couldn't have declared himself any more clearly. He wasn't a city-planner. He was a city-runner.
"I don't know," she said. "Weather's crappy, roads are always being rebuilt."
"There's real potential here. A small city just waiting to link up to bigger ones on either side. Everything a man could want."
"Looks are deceiving."
He grinned. "I'm good at assessing the situation. This city suits me fine."
Her poisonous glare was intercepted by Tyler returning with the unneeded fire extinguisher. He winced at her expression and tried to defuse a situation he couldn't understand. "So dinner tonight, Vey?"
"Sorry. Rain check. Gonna be busy. Gotta go." Too abrupt, but most of her attention was elsewhere.
"See you out, Vey?" Carlos asked. "I'm going your way, after all."
She ignored him, but made sure she was in the lead as she left the office. He kept pace with her all the way to the elevator, staying in her blind spot, trying to coax her to turn. She was pretty sure he was still smiling. Enjoying himself.
She jabbed the call button hard, and he leaned up against the wall, watching her. He was smiling, dammit.
When the elevator opened, he gestured her in; she demurred. "Oh, guests first."
"No, I insist."
She stepped into his space, breathed in the scent of the road, asphalt and hot metal, tasted the vibration of a motorcycle engine in the space around him, all thunder and banked lightning. Vey reached up and kissed that curving, confident mouth. He kissed back, chasing the electricity between them. She rested a hand on his chest, then pushed. He slid away like a failed car in a wind tunnel test, skidding into the elevator's far wall with a pained grunt.
The elevator door slammed shut like a car wreck, a screech of metal and momentum. Vey put her hand on the call panel, focused. Beneath her skin, sparks blossomed and raced up the wall. The elevator motor whined to a halt.
She ran for the stairs.
This was her city, damn it, and no Johnny-come-lately warlock was going to take it from her. No matter how cute.
The parking lot, soft under the late afternoon sun, made her hurried footsteps sound slow and sludgy. Her Charger was parked close to the exit. Some people fought for spots close to the buildings; she always found spaces close to her streets. She paused, one hand stroking its sun-heated yellow hood, and sought his ride. A thread of her power, called closer to the surface, helped her home in on her quarry. The city's energy bent toward those who had the tools to tap it. There were two snags in the otherwise smooth city flow, one agitating at her feet, the other. . .
There. In the midst of boring metal and fiberglass, one vehicle burned with a heat not caused by sunlight. An old model Indian motorcycle, cherry red, radiated power like lightning against a cloudy sky.
This would explain the drone of motorcycle engines she'd been hearing in her dreams. This would explain why she'd needed to gas up her car this morning for the first time in four months. She'd thought it had to do with the completion of the new road. Whenever there was a change in her streets, she lost power.
When the construction had first begun, her power levels had taken a dive. It had felt like driving on three good tires and a donut, forcing her power expenditure to be low-speed, cautious, and sluggish. Vey had needed to rebuild her magic to useful levels over the year. She had chalked up the most recent fluctuations to the finished construction, the new gap in her pattern, but now she knew—the minute he'd hit her roads, he'd started the circuit, drawing power from her city into him. Away from her.
Sunlight flashed off city hall's glass front door as it opened and spat him out. The elevator had held him for less time than she'd hoped. She bit her lip. She could try to take out his bike here and now, but city-runners had all sorts of ways of keeping their rides safe. Trying to damage it was a danger she wasn't ready to court.
Instead, she knelt, put one hand on the street, one hand on the parking lot, and brought the two together. The long straight flow of the street—a power source that hummed and moved, as rapid and strong as a river—crashed against the sluggish stasis of the parking lot, weighed down by cars parking on it, day in, day out.
Immovable object, meet irresistible force.
The parking lot shuddered and heaved; all the cars slid toward each other, creating a tangle of car alarms and snarled metal.
At the edge of the lot, he saluted her.
She really wanted to dislike him, but his grin was wide and entirely anticipatory, and woke a responsive smile of her own. Vey slammed herself into her car and took off, wheels spinning, magic sparking beneath her undercarriage.
Her city was 30 square miles. 400 linear miles of roadways, plus another 300 for the two-way roads. She had 700 miles to cover to reclaim her city. It didn't sound like a lot. It wasn't a lot at highway speeds. 10 hours give or take.
But this race ran through stop-and-start traffic and residential neighborhoods at a maximum of 35 miles per hour. It took her 24 hours of driving under the best of circumstances to run the city. And that was without a challenger chewing at her heels.
It wasn't enough to be the first to finish. She also had to be the last.
The motorcycle growled; Carlos found a path through the tangled cars by sheer agility, and slid onto the road behind her.
The race was on.
The motorcycle growled impatiently behind her, then, at the light, snarled leftward while she turned right.
Smart of him. There was no rule that said he had to follow the same path she took. Everyone ran a city a little different.
Her car grumbled, running just below the speed limit. The family sedan ahead of her puttered. Vey could pass but that would put a tiny gap in her map, a section of road she hadn't traversed, a hiccup in the smooth flow of power. Normally, it wouldn't matter, but when she was being challenged? She flicked her fingers at the slowpoke, a shoo shoo gesture, and the sedan made an immediate right turn into the hardware store's parking lot. Passing by, Vey saw the woman's confused expression and had to laugh.
The police scanner between her seats crackled to life. Instead of the usual chatter—the telegraphic muttering in police code—it was Carlos's voice, warm and clear, even with the whistle of the wind in the background.
"So, how long you been doing this?" he said.
"Long enough to make you regret coming here—"
"Hey, hey. I'm just chatting. Not picking a fight. Me? I figured it out when I was 19. Working for some real scumbags in Dallas."
"You did not own Dallas," Vey scoffed. "Bullshit."
"I didn't own Dallas," he said. "But a suburb sure liked me. Saved my ass when I came up short on the cash. I moved after that. Found myself a nice city of my own."
"Why don't you go back there?" She jigged hard, feathered a corner that she'd nearly missed—that damnable cul-de-sac just beyond Hillside elementary. 500 feet of road that churned power like a whirlpool.
The scanner was quiet, back to the rushing of air and the growl of his engines. Church bells rang over their connection, a false carillon: the campanile tower on the college campus. The college was a tangled knot of half-roads, service streets, twisting alleys, and dead ends. Vey grinned. A bad time of day to be running those roads. The erratically moving students made better roadblocks than spike strips. But Carlos didn't have a choice; he didn't know the campus well enough to drive it in the dark.
"Los narcos," he said.
She'd forgotten her question.
"They chased me out. They run my city now. I had to get out of town."
"And you came here? There's twelve hundred miles between there and here."
"You aren't my first stop," he said. "I've run four other cities. Regaining my strength."
Sudden rage scalded her, so fierce that all the traffic lights along the street flared white. Cars screeched around her; she gunned her engine and passed beneath three traffic lights, flashing white, white, white, before she gained a useful grip on her anger and forced the power through the link between them. He swore over the radio as the traffic lights on campus went white instead. Cars crashed near him—slow speed collisions. You could always count on the students.
"You're a dick," she said. "You ran those cities and you just left them?"
"What's the deal? There wasn't anyone there to challenge me. No one was using it."
"You don't get power for nothing," she snapped. "It comes with obligations."
"To the city, jackass."
She snapped off the police scanner and adjusted her route to veer close to his, the map playing in her head. If she ran the state-named streets near the college, she could spin the one-way signs. It would slow him down, maybe even unwind some of the power he'd been gathering. City running wasn't particularly complicated, but it was finicky. If you drove every road, both directions, every alley, one-way street, cul-de-sac, dead-end road, traffic circle, if you didn't reverse yourself and run backwards over your path too often, if you made the complete circuit—the magical power humming beneath was yours. The city was yours. It recognized you and bent to your will.
But that didn't mean you drove off and took the city's magic with you. You didn't leave it defenseless. A city that had been stripped of its magic was a dreary thing. At best, it had a long recovery period where its prosperity stalled, its population soured, and the city-runner lacked the resources to protect it. At worst, the city's magic never restored itself, its people dwindling, turning on each other and the city itself.
Full dark was settling in, and Vey took to the residential areas around the downtown district, gliding along the mostly deserted streets. Everyone was either tucking up for the night or heading downtown for dinner. She smirked. Even if he figured out the one-way streets, getting out of their tangle would bring him downtown just as traffic slowed to a trickle of people leaving restaurants and clubs. Try to take her city, would he?
After a stop for a large chai, she set out again. It was going to be a long night. The scanner burbled quietly; it sounded like a distant motorcycle. His presence thrummed through her roads.
Dawn brought her to a halt in the Daybreak parking lot—best breakfast in town. She staggered from her car, cramped from sitting, her hand sore from gripping the gear shift. For the last few hours, Carlos had been quiet. Vey wanted to believe that her tricks with the one-way signs, the stoplights, and the parking lot earthquake had convinced him to give up. But the streets still hummed with his intent.
She settled into a booth, waved the waiter over, and dove facefirst into a cup of coffee and preliminary toast and bacon. Halfway through her second cup, leather creaked. She looked up. Carlos approached her booth; his suit was long gone, traded for worn motorcycle leathers.
He slid into the seat across from her, waved for his own cup of coffee. His eyes were smudgy with exhaustion.
"Why the hell does your city have so many one way streets?" he grumbled.
She laughed. "Beats me."
"I nearly got arrested."
"Serves you right," she said.
Her pancakes arrived, studded with pecans, laced with powdered sugar. He unwrapped his silverware and helped himself to a bite. "Oh god, that's good."
"Order your own."
He waved at the waiter, pointed to her plate, to himself. The man nodded.
"So, can I ask you something?" Carlos said.
"You've invaded my city, helped yourself to my breakfast, but you're asking if you can ask me a question?"
He grinned, raked sweaty hair out of his face. "When you put it like that. . ."
She bit her lip, reminded herself he was an asshole. A city-eater. A warlock who just wanted power without the responsibility.
He took another bite of her pancakes, licked a gloss of maple syrup from his lips; she pulled her plate away. "What do you want?"
"How'd I step on your toes so bad?"
"You mean, besides trying to take my city from me?"
"Well, yeah, besides that," he said, waving that off as if it were nothing. He leaned back as the waiter brought him his own plate of steaming pancakes, and was reaching for them before the man had finished setting the plate down. "God, you're saving my life," he told the waiter through a messy mouthful of food.
The waiter smiled glassily, responding to the coil of city energy simmering in Carlos's skin.
"Stop that," Vey snapped. The waiter fled.
Carlos sighed. "You don't like me. You don't want anyone to like me."
"You steal city magic," she said. "That's not a likable trait."
"It grows back," he protested.
"That's like saying you can take water from a drought-stricken area. It'll rain again. Someday."
"No one told me that," he said, playing the newbie.
She wasn't going to fall for it. "Some things you just don't need to be told."
He grimaced, folded pancakes into an enormous mouthful and chewed. When he had choked it down with a swig of coffee, he said, "I'm sorry I'm screwing up your day, but I can't stop. If I lose this run—I lose everything I've gained."
"Why didn't you just stick with one of the towns you took?"
"I want my city back." The pleasant expression on his face shifted, showed the predator beneath. "I need power to rescue it."
"Good intentions pave bad roads," she said.
"Screw you," he said. He threw his napkin down, grabbed the last pancake on his plate, syrup sticky, and headed for the door.
He got the last word. She got the bill.
Three hours later, the sky closed in as she crested the highest hill in the city; storms swarmed low and dark, the city air drawing close and chill as the front moved through. She flicked on the radio: thunderstorm watch. She grinned nastily. Let it rain. She wasn't the one on the motorcycle.
Through the grey downpour, a single headlamp shone in her rearview mirror, brighter than it should be. She glanced back; the light flickered, winking at her. She put more speed into her car, widened the gap, took the long, curling curve ahead at frankly unsafe speeds—but this was her city and she knew the roads.
She slowed enough to look back, expecting to see him slide and skid, to have his bike go out from under him, setting him sprawling across the slick roadway. Anticipated it, dreaded it. He rocketed around the curve, rain plastering itself over him as close as saran wrap, and he leaned, leaned, leaned into the curve, riding damn near horizontally, and his bike was going to wreck. Any second now.
Then he was past the curve, up and roaring past her, trailing a wild laugh that shot sparks out of her police radio.
"Now, that was fun!" he said.
She gunned the gas, wheels slewing briefly as she chased him, and that near fishtail spared her his first attempt at a counter-attack. The trees alongside the road bent down, kissed asphalt, then exploded into splinters, spraying her windshield, the road, everything within a quarter mile. Including him.
His bike wobbled, slipping across lanes as his own trap blew back on him. Vey swept the biggest chunks from the roadway, and drove on, barely slowed.
"That didn't work the way I expected it to," he murmured into her radio.
"I get the impression things rarely work the way you want them to," she said. "Ever think the universe is trying to tell you something?"
She clicked the radio off. She liked him, that was the trouble. But he was greedy and reckless and willing to injure himself to get ahead. He wasn't going to survive long, even if he did manage to take her city, and the idea of his death twinged sadly in her stupid, sentimental heart. His taillight burned red, growing distant in the grey haze of rain.
Vey shook her head, shaking away melancholy. More caffeine. That was what she needed. She veered off to a coffee shop, taking the opportunity to run the all-but-forgotten access road that ran alongside the main thoroughfare. The road was lumpy, pock-marked, covered in puddles that masked enormous potholes. She knew which were shallow, innocuous, and which ones were axle rattlers; he wouldn't dare to ride his motorcycle through this area until the water drained away.
The rain hadn't lasted long enough for her to feel rested. Tiredness fluttered around the edges of her consciousness, despite the triple-shot espresso she'd downed. She floated on her exhaustion and a growing wave of despair.
Noon, now, and Carlos was still running her city. Dogged. Sodden. Exhausted. His harsh breathing had kept her company for the last ten minutes, rasping through the radio.
He should have given up by now. She'd flung more small magics in his path whenever she could get a read on his position—she'd sent three ambulances wailing down his roadway, called out for non-existent patients; she'd turned a light to an endless red cycle, forcing him and others to a long slowdown; she'd considered triggering a city-wide school exodus, sending kids and traffic pouring into the streets, but decided against it. She couldn't count on him not to hurt anyone, accidentally.
He was reckless. Careless.
She was going to have to be dangerous too. It wasn't enough to slow him. He wasn't going to cede the race until he physically couldn't continue. She was going to have to stop with the discouragement, and start with honest attacks.
She. . . didn't want to. This was the best fun she'd had in years.
He slid off the road, the thrumming note of his engine changing in the speaker box, and she asked, "Giving up?"
"Are you kidding me? I'm just stopping for lunch. Barbecue."
She closed her eyes for a moment, put her hand on the radio, and reached for him—
Lured in by the black iron, bullet-shaped smoker, still steaming off rain, smelling like heaven and spice. He tugged off his helmet, shook out wet hair like a dog, and cracked his back.
She pulled into the lot four minutes later, even though she had to cross her path to do it.
He looked up as she slid into the chair opposite him. He grinned, but it wasn't the same wicked smile he'd greeted her with the day before, all confidence and excitement. Subtract energy, add wariness and exhaustion. She helped herself to some of his ribs, pulling the crackling flesh off the bone, and dipping it into the puddled sauce, savoring the sweet burn and smoke.
Barbecue, she thought, was the flavor of the apocalypse.
"So," she said. "How is running my city going to help you take your city back?"
Maybe he'd listen to reason.
And maybe the city council would get their act together and actually sync up the traffic lights as they'd promised to do for fifteen years.
The one seemed as likely as the other.
"I need to get enough power built up to challenge them," he said. She was surprised he'd answered her, then she was just surprised.
He simmered with city magic and he wanted more?
She knew better but she still fell for it, the newbie act, the urge to reassure him. "You've got power," she said. "You just don't know how to use it."
"Careful," he said, with a return to his earlier sass. "No man likes to be told he's doing it all wrong."
"It's about finesse, not brute force."
Another innuendo balanced on his lips, the glimmer of a wicked smile. Words quivered. Then he let the smile go, the words dissipate. His face fell into somber lines. "You don't know the people I'm up against. When I moved into town, it wasn't great. Small town, not enough jobs. Then the supremacist groups started up—patrolling the border; the narcos moved in. Everyone got scared. No one trusts the cops; no one trusts anyone. People are dying. Kids are missing. And the only thing the bad elements agree on is that I should be shot on sight. I owned that city, but I'm not bulletproof."
"You think enough power will let you swan back in like Wyatt Earp and clear them out? Go for them head on?"
"No one else is going to do it." He sounded more desperate than confident. "Vey, I am going to run your city."
"You going to kill me?" he asked.
"You won't give up?"
"I can't," he said.
"I don't want to kill you. But I won't let you take my city and run off with its heart."
He grimaced, and pushed his plate away. "Even if I need it? Desperately?"
"You don't," she said.
"I'm not you," he said. "I don't know how you've been doing what you've done. You saw my trees. I meant them to bend over and block the road. Not explode."
"Finesse," she said. His hair dangled in his eyes, and she reached over and brushed it out of his face. He caught her wrist; the lights in the restaurant trembled.
"There was a hotel back half a mile. Want to get a room?"
"You trying to change my mind?"
"Maybe I just want to show you a little. . . finesse."
The skies were still slate dark. The hotel's red-shingled roof was bloody and bright against the lowering sky like a neon sign summoning them home. Vey lingered in the parking lot while he got a room, staring at his motorcycle. It simmered in the storm-ridden atmosphere. She wanted to stroke it, to feel that vibration ripple through her skin. The lobby door jangled open.
Carlos flashed the room key, and she thought, forget touching the bike, she wanted to get her hands on the rider. They crashed into each other, racing for the room, and all the lights inside the room flared on. The TV shouted; the clock radio burst into a shrieking overlay of music and alarms blaring. The light bulbs sizzled and hissed. Carlos laughed.
Vey waved at the lamps, the radio, and they went dim and quiet again.
He pointed at the TV; it exploded internally, the screen star-splattered with soot.
"Finesse!" Vey said.
"Fuck that," he muttered, and grabbed her close again, his breath hot as exhaust on her skin, his lips like sun-scald on her throat. She laughed and dragged him closer, tripped them both, and sent them sprawling over the mattress.
They tangled together and their exertions raised the scents of tar and asphalt, leather seats and hot metal, the faint acrid tang of gasoline. Flammable.
Together, they were combustible.
Damn, she hoped she wouldn't have to kill him.
She slipped away while he slept, wrapped around in tangled sheets, his hair a dark tumble on the white pillows.
Power hummed and sizzled beneath her skin; it took a heartbeat's worth of time to slag the lock. It wouldn't hold him; she doubted she was the only one crackling with power.
She'd never slept with another city-runner before. She wondered if it was always like that, or if it was just him, just her, their own particular chemistry. Her car started before she even opened the door, the engine growling in anticipation. Beside her car, his bike wavered in a self-contained heat mirage; the red paint looked slick and motile as lava.
She found herself smiling foolishly and shook it off. She wasn't going to give up her city to him. Maybe she'd have considered it if he had planned to stick around, but let him take the city and abandon it? No way in hell.
Twilight; the horizon rolled in low and grey, green shadows creeping underneath. Vey perched on the hood of her charger on the final road and waited. No matter how you split the map, no matter the path you chose, this was the only stretch to end on—a long, straight stretch that connected the city to the highway.
Ending here allowed your last segment to be a rush of speed and strength. Allowed you to look back over your shoulder and see the city shimmer in your newly charged vision. Right now, it allowed Vey time to plan her ambush.
Her nerves had settled; despite her best intentions, she'd let him manipulate her, stoke fears and trepidation, distract her from the truth. She didn't need to kill him to stop him. She just needed to wreck his bike, and out here? Where there were no bystanders to be hurt by the flare of discharged magic?
He'd lose all he'd gained. It wouldn't be worth it for him to start again.
She had it all figured out.
She would take his bike out of the running, here on this outer road, where she'd knew he'd be, this outer edge where she could do all the damage she wanted without injuring anyone. At this hour, in this weather, the roadway was deserted. Tornado weather. She felt it in her bones, felt the city's tornado sirens trembling in anticipation.
Carlos expected a trap; the tension sang between them, his heartbeat drumming through the radio, faster than excitement alone could account for. Her hands shook on the steering wheel, her nails beating out the pulse of his heart. Her plan was a simple two-stepper. A feint to distract him and the real track to disable. Truth was, she might not be able to pull this off. He might actually have more power than she did.
The mile markers quivered along the road, waiting for her command. The road whispered its readiness; the electrical wires above sang.
The growl of his engine, a flash of red in the sullen sky as he crested the low hill—it was time. She pressed the gas; he chased.
Step one: she loosed the mile markers, turned them into spears, flinging them into the road; she slowed, preparing to gather her strength, to encourage the road to shake itself beneath him, the wires to drop down and bind his bike, running current through the machine until it burned—
The mile marker sang out and slammed through the struts of his front wheel, spinning and slamming up against the wheel fairing, crumpling metal. The bike flipped forward, flinging Carlos head over heels, helmet over wheels. Lightning hissed through the air, limning the line of his body slamming into the roadway, the crash of his bike coming down after him, breaking apart, blowing apart in a violent burst of pure energy. He skidded across the dark highway and lay still.
She slammed on her brakes and idled, waiting for him to get up. To limp off the road. To move at all.
Playing hurt, she thought. Playing possum. Trying to lure her in. . .
His helmet popped loose, released by a hand she hadn't seen move, rolled away from him. Her heart thudded. Now, he would get up. Grin. Say, "nice try," and maybe try to steal her car.
He merely curled tighter on the roadway, shaking his head, trying to rise. Failing.
All that power, she thought, and he'd never bothered to shield himself or his bike. Her spears should have been nothing much, akin to big bugs on a windshield, an unexpected splat that made the driver twitch. A distraction. Nothing more.
He was the newbie he'd declared himself.
She fought free of her seat belt and ran back along the highway. Her breath was slipping in her throat, savage and grinding, like a missed gear change. She didn't want to win like this.
His gloved hands spread out over the asphalt, trying to push himself up, trying to get up. She grabbed his shoulders; bone grated beneath her palms, and he hissed, "Fuck."
She had never been so glad to hear someone's voice.
"Gonna call me an ambulance?" he asked.
She nodded. Laid her hands on the road and summoned help, thought of the wail of the ambulance siren coming their way. When her call was done, the wail wasn't all in her head. But it wasn't the ambulance responding.
Tornado sirens. Going off.
"Fuck," he repeated, then clutched at his side.
The wail changed. Went from a high pitched throb vibrating through the air to a churning roar.
Her hair pulled itself toward the sky, crackling with electricity, whipping in the draft. She raised her head, peered through the gloom, the blowing dirt and grit. A tornado bore down on them. A mile away. Way too close. Carlos licked blood-smeared lips. "That's not good."
"How hurt are you?"
"Dizzy," he said. "Bruised."
Her voice trembled, audible only in the close pocket of their bodies.
He grimaced. "Nothing life threatening."
"Ditch," she said. She dragged him toward the low dip beside the road, his weight heavy on her shoulders, him limping badly, breathing harshly. She got him settled, jammed his helmet back on. "Stay down," she said.
"What are you—"
"Stay down." She backed away, burning the sight of him into her memory. A reason not to fail. All of her skills were about finesse. That didn't mean there was never a use for straight-up power.
She spun on her heel and ran for her car. Five miles left of her race. Five miles and the city was hers completely again. A surge of power just when she would need it most. She could do it. She just had to outpace the tornado.
Vey flung all the power she had to spare at the twister, fenced it as best she could as she raced by, let the funnel drill into the same field over and over. The air filled with debris, sucked toward the tornado like it was an evil-minded magnet. She hoped to hell Carlos had his head down, his helmet on, that he hadn't been lying about the extent of his injuries.
The last hundred feet of the race were always the most difficult, the build-up of power churning into her, reaching a point close to pain, past pain. Then she hit the city line, and it all snapped tight. The city's magic sizzled within her, threaded through her as neatly as her nerves and veins.
She u-turned, tires screeching though she couldn't hear them over the howl of the wind. Even her heavy car rocked in the weight of the stalled tornado. Her 'fence' failed. The tornado hopped forward, lifting and landing across the road, heading toward the city. Toward Carlos. She shoved her car between the twister and everything she wanted to protect.
Carlos stood on the edge of the ditch, clinging to the scrubby vegetation for support. Shouting for her to keep going.
She climbed out of her car, crawled onto her hood, trying to gain her footing in the gusting winds, and screamed back at him. "Finesse!"
Her hair lashed her face; grit stung her skin hard enough to raise tiny, bleeding welts. She reached out, the city's power humming through her blood, fueling her.
Brute force, brute power, had slowed the tornado, but hadn't stopped it. Finesse. . . she found the raw edge of the tornado, the whirl of warring hot/cold air that fed the beast, and sliced it off. She sucked the thread of heat from it, drawing the energy toward her car—like to like—her engine pinging and protesting, the soles of her boots softening beneath her.
The tornado chilled and dwindled, turning spindly and lashing out like a striking snake. Vey leaped from the hood and huddled in the lee of her car as a street sign flew by.
Her ears rang. Carlos lurched over the debris littered roadway—leaves, glass, gravel, branches—and she caught him as he fell beside her.
"Finesse, huh," he muttered.
A new wail touched the area, and both of them flinched, looking toward the sky reflexively, before they noticed the red and blue lights bouncing off the lowering dark clouds.
"Your ride," Vey said.
"Yeah," he agreed. "So. . . you won."
"Want to be gracious about it?"
She cracked her eyes open; she was so damn tired. She wanted to sleep for a week. He was half-smiling, made looking worth the effort. His lips were swollen; his chin smeared with blood, but his eyes were bright.
"What did you have in mind?"
"My ankle's broken, my shoulder's screwed, and I think I've got cracked ribs," he said. "My bike's busted all to hell. It's going to take me time to repair it. Time to heal up. I thought maybe I could use the downtime wisely."
"Wisely," she echoed.
"You want me to teach you—"
"I need to save my city," he said. "Maybe I could rethink the way I intend to do it."
The ambulance pulled to a halt; the EMTs started out, and Carlos seized her hand. The EMTs jumped back at the blue spark and crackle between their palms. "Yeah," Vey said. "I can help you with that."