The Flavour of Thunder
Rufe loved how the air tasted when a really serious storm was brewing. It tasted like burnt popcorn – of excitement, and freedom, and the wild abandon of thunder rolling over the skies. It reminded him of how Rhymer always looked when she was stuck outside in the rain... which happened quite frequently. It was a miracle that their dotty, loveable owner managed to complete any task, to be honest, as she mislaid the key to their home more often than not. Rufe, retired lockpick and petty thief, was thankful for the skills that he had picked up on the sulphurous streets of Moltara, as they came in rather useful when one had to break into one’s own house.
Rhymer didn’t mind him going out when the lightning crackled over the sky. Sometimes she went with him, and they both stood in the rain, letting the fat water drops batter their cheeks. But she had always told him never to fly the night sky when clouds thundered their anger across the heavens in a rippling blaze of light, and the very winds tore holes in the heavens. It hurt him a little. 'Does she think that I’m weak, just because I’m small?' he wondered angrily. He flexed his wings and felt their agile power. 'I’m strong enough to do it! I’m not a fledgling anymore!'
He tried to forget the panic that had been in Rhymer’s eyes when she had found him surrounded by one of the mining gangs on Kreludor. They had all been looking forward to it, their conversation an excited babble as their shuttle neared the moon's surface, but he’d got separated from them. When they had finally found him, his elder brother Ilsair had leaped into the fray, scattering the burly miners right and left in a businesslike manner. Not so, their mentor. She’d waded into the crowd, this small young woman with frizzy hair and too many freckles, and shrieked his name hoarsely until he was safely in her arms. She had buried her face into his neck and sighed as he looked up at her questioningly.
"Don’t you know how I would feel if anything happened to you, Rufe?"
So he brushed away the pang of guilt that resounded in his scrawny chest when the skies darkened and became bruised with purple clouds. He felt the wind change directions, and the thrill of what he was about to do thrummed through his veins. What was it about the prospect of storm chasing that made his blood sing? The others were inside, bathing in the glow of the fire, sleepy and content after their evening meal. Rufe had crept outside, and now, here he was, shivering a little in anticipation.
He leapt from the roof.
The wind caught him at once, tossing him playfully into the air like one of his favourite plushies. He growled at it mischievously, feeling his laughter burst from him as from behind a dam. So, it wanted to play, did it? He dodged and flitted his way between the snatching fingers of the nearby trees, revelling in his ability to blend seamlessly with the storm. He urged his wings to bring him higher, closer to the loud rumble of the night sky. He felt them straining, and gloried in his flight. How could Rhymer think this is dangerous? he wondered heatedly, too happy to care that she would probably ground him for a month.
A thin, slender branch spiralled into his path, whipping around in a frenzy on the tree it was attached to. It caught in his wing, and suddenly he lost his balance. And now, the storm was no longer friendly. He was hurtled into a crosswind, felt it tear and claw at him, tossing him across the land in a whirl of leaves and debris. Frantically, he struggled to open his wing, but it was pinned to his side, and he was spiralling down... down... down...
Strong arms caught him, and their owner was suddenly shielding him as they fell to the ground in a heap of tumbled wings. Rufe struggled free of his saviour’s tight hold and gazed in stupefaction at his elder brother. Islair? The grizzled Eyrie was lying limply across the sodden ground, and even as Rufe watched he stirred, opening an eye.
“Sai!” Rufe sobbed, burrowing into his elder brother's strong embrace, all of a sudden feeling foolish and very, very young. Sai had fixed a dark eye on the young Korbat’s features, and was regarding him disapprovingly.
“Rufe, you can’t just –”
“I know, I know –” Rufe wept. Islair gaped down at the armful of sodden younger brother he held, and shifted uncomfortably. He felt that some sort of reassurance was necessary, and awkwardly patted his protégé’s back.
“There, there, you silly fledgling. It’s quite all right.” Rufe gulped back his tears and tried to stay very still as Sai gripped him all the tighter and conveyed him to a small rundown shed by the side of the track. The older neopet shrugged off the rain with a rapid shiver that went from head to tail, and the water sort of slipped off of him. Rufe tried to hide his awe. He knew that the reserved Eyrie disliked untoward displays of emotion.
Sai gazed at the outside storm, which continued to whistle balefully outside the little lean-to’s walls, and Rufe couldn’t help but glimpse the wistfulness in his eyes. He swallowed.
“Islair?” he faltered. The elder Eyrie didn’t turn his head, but the ensuing silence told the young Korbat that he was listening. “D-do you like to do that t-too, sometimes?”
“Do what, fledgling?”
Rufe paused, and then asked in a small voice: “Flying with the storm?” In the dim light, Rufe could have sworn that he saw the serious Eyrie smile. He dismissed it almost as soon as the notion occurred to him. Sai didn’t smile. However, his voice was warm and full of longing for the storm when he spoke.
“Yes, I do. Ever since I was a cub, I have loved the feeling of being one with the heavens.” His voice turned stern. “Rufe, you must promise me never to try that again, unless I am with you. It is too dangerous.”
The young Korbat bristled. He’d managed all right on his own with his gang, hadn’t he? He’d looked out for all of them, including himself, and now this old (practically ancient, in Rufe’s opinion) Eyrie was telling him what to do! Well. Before he could voice his anger, though, Sai turned and fixed his baleful gaze on his young charge.
“I am perfectly aware that you think yourself able to storm-surf, but I assure you that it needs far more concentration and better reflexes than you have... at the moment.” His voice had turned reluctant. “I suppose –” he continued grudgingly, “that I could teach you, so that your concentration does not waver when it is needed most.”
And even though the stunned, adoring gaze Rufe turned on him caused his belly to squirm in a most uncomfortable way, Sai considered that the offer had some merit. After all, anything that shut his garrulous younger brother up so effectively was most certainly worth it. He grunted when Rufe tried to stutter his thanks. “No need, fledgling,” he muttered. “Now, get some sleep. We will both of us have to face Rhymer in the morning.”
Unlike his previous expression, the slightly green cast to the young Korbat’s face gave Islair an absurd desire to laugh.
Rufe would have preferred the quick, hot anger that his owner was so famed for. A temper to match that hair of hers, their interfering neighbour, Madame Sol, would mutter. But this time her frizzy red curls trembled only slightly as they traipsed back in, sodden and dripping. The storm had not abated overnight. Rufe looked at her face, pale and drawn, carved with shadows. She had evidently been up all night, trying to organise a search party for them.
She said nothing, merely shot a tired grin of gratitude at Sai, and then bit her lip, turning to go to the kitchen. They heard the clatter of pots and pans, and glanced at each other. Islair motioned with his head for the young Korbat to go upstairs, most likely for a hot bath to drive away the shivers that racked his body, but Rufe shook his head mutely. He hated the look of hurt that had flashed in Rhymer’s eyes, and felt a trembling ball of guilt settle flatly in his stomach.
'It’s all my fault. She’ll send me back for sure.'
He saw the thin, bland faces of the others in his street gang in his mind, and felt a wave of despair engulf him. What an idiot he’d been, to risk the only home he’d ever had. Rhymer might be pretty laid-back, but even she wouldn’t want him around if he carried on doing things like this. Rufe crept into the kitchen, lurking close to the walls, his damaged wing hanging limply. He heard a gasp, and raised his head hesitantly, not wanting to see the anger he was sure must be present in her gaze.
She was crying, her eyes fixed on his wing. In her hands was a muddly mess of bandages and a healing ointment, which she had pulled haphazardly from one of the cupboards in her rush. “I hadn’t realised it was so bad,” she murmured. He said nothing, his wide eyes fixed on her face. Rhymer pulled him into a gentle embrace, and deposited him on the broad tabletop so that she could access his wing better. Grinning wetly, she said: “I’ve never been very good at this stuff. Juskon’s far better, but I thought you’d rather not have him attend you just now.”
Rufe nodded his head vigorously in agreement. Next to Rhymer’s reaction, he had been sure that the fastidious Grundo would glare disapprovingly at him throughout the entire process, but now that he had been greeted with care rather than annoyance, he wouldn’t have been surprised if the gruff neopet pulled him into a hug and started making daisy chains when he next saw him.
Rhymer washed and bound his wing, but when she stepped back to admire her slightly clumsy handiwork, she clucked her tongue against her teeth. “I’m such an idiot!” she exclaimed, exasperated. “You need a bath, and this bandage will just get wet in the water.” She cocked her head at him, smiling humorously at her mistake, and he couldn’t help chuckling. She dropped a kiss on his furry forehead. “There’s the Rufe I know,” she said quietly.
“So, you’re not going to send me back?” he asked hesitantly. She recoiled.
“Of course not! You’re a part of this family!” She paused. “Why would you think that?”
He felt his cheeks redden, but found he couldn't voice his fears. Rhymer smiled at him.
“Don’t worry about it. Hey, you go and have that bath, and I’ll fix us a cup of hot borovan each. I can actually do that, you know.” Rufe glanced suspiciously at her, but did as she said. It was a well-known fact that Rhymer’s cooking skills were worse than dreadful. Her last attempt at toasting bread had tasted sublimely like charcoal, and he had never ventured near her efforts since. A stream of chuckles bubbled from her lips. “Okay, okay, I’ll ask Sai to do it for me.”
He breathed a sigh of relief, and turned to go up the stairs. He could hear the hot water plunging into the bathtub in the small bathroom, and the house was warm. His wing barely bothered him now, although there was a strange stiffness to it that told him he wouldn’t be able to fly for many weeks. What was it that made his belly jump and wriggle with a feeling entirely alien to him? He paused, and as it hit him, his lips curved up in a shy, delighted smile.
He was home.
First time writing for the Neopian Times. Hope you enjoyed reading this!