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Dancing With Fire

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold, cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, and Daily Science Fiction. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

The pond where I grew up was swampy and buzzing with insects. I slept in a bed of stargrass, and Mother whispered lullabies in the gentle current. Mother grew up in the ocean, and she hated our pond. Too many memories of Father lingered beneath the surface, long after drought had stolen him away.
"Why don't we go back to the ocean?" I asked.
"I'm too old," she said. "I don't flow as smoothly anymore, and cloud hopping is for the young. Go play."
There weren't any other water spirits, so I did mud magic with the earthy kids. We made soldiers from dirt and water and green swamp sludge. Every night, the soldiers got soggy and fell apart, ending the war until we remade them the next morning.
I was making mud soldiers the first time I met Seraphina. She was a fire spirit, inquisitive and bold, drawn to our games because she'd never seen mud magic before. She flickered in and out of existence in bursts of orange and indigo. When I invited her to join our game, she danced around the pond. Her flame turned the mud to stone, and the soldiers fought for weeks without getting waterlogged.
When we tired of armies, we made geysers and dragons and steam-powered trains. She asked me how I could breathe beneath the surface of the pond, and I asked her if she continued to exist when she flickered out of existence.
Then one day her parents came and hauled her away, fuming with black smoke. They told her that she was too old to play outside her element.
My cozy childhood pond became stagnant and confining. I longed for open water and strong currents, and I was tired of hiding from Seraphina's parents. Mother told me stories of her childhood in the ocean. She encouraged me to go to the ocean, to find another water spirit and start a family, but I didn't want to leave.
Seraphina came to my pond at night. We talked about magic and far away places and what her parents would do if they found out she was with me. We touched hands in a puff of steam. Her flames cast beautiful reflections on the water, and I told her I loved her.
Seraphina's father heard me. He blazed with rage and boiled away half my pond. Seraphina grabbed him and they flickered out of sight.
I dove down to check on my mother, and was relieved to find her at the bottom of our pond, frightened but unharmed. She asked me to stay away from Seraphina, but I didn't answer. The answer she wanted to hear would have been a lie.
It was Seraphina's idea to run away, whispered in puffs of smoke across the surface of my pond. She flashed from tree to tree and I hopped from cloud to cloud, fleeing across the forest and high into the mountains.
We stopped at an icy lake surrounded by scraggly pine trees. I sent a storm to my mother, and was surprised when she sent us a light rain with her blessing. Seraphina sent her parents a flash of lightning, but they never answered.
In the thin mountain air, Seraphina had more red in her fire, and less indigo. She assured me that being together was worth trading away some of her strength. I agreed. My magic was slowed by the ice around the edges of the lake, but at least we were together. The lake was wonderfully secluded--our only neighbors were an elderly air couple that swirled above the lake, and they were too involved with each other to notice us.
It is a strange dance, when water loves fire.
We had to be careful, but isn't that how love ought to be? Not mindless or thoughtless, but considerate, with each of us thinking about what our partner needed? I held back my desire to flow into her flames. I waited.
Seraphina approached the edge of the lake, melting the ice that kept us apart. She danced close and darted away, raising a cloud of steam that hid us from our neighbors. She didn't stay long enough to scald me, and I never clung long enough to extinguish her flames.
We had bright-hot moments of contact punctuated by the cooling of separation. My steam mixed with her smoke and we hung together suspended in air until I condensed into drops of rain and fell back into myself in the cool water of the lake.
Children of fire usually separate easily from their mothers' flame, but Seraphina struggled to deliver our child. Adding water changed the birth magic, an outcome we might have guessed if we'd thought it through. The birth took too much energy, and the mountain air was thin. One mistake, despite all our caution, and that was all it took.
Seraphina was dying.
She wrapped our son in a cloud of smoke and carried him into the lake. Her flames danced on the surface of my water, too weak now to burn me. She held our son, and I embraced them both.
Seraphina's flame went out. She had always flickered, so for a moment I waited for her to reappear, but she never returned. My Seraphina was gone.
Our son flashed bright and hot and angry at his mother's disappearance. I worried that he would flicker out of existence, but he was strong and young and made as much from me as from his mother. I bathed him in my tears, but he had his mother's energy and he wiggled free and swam circles around the lake. He took in mouthfuls of water and released them as jets of steam. Magic that Seraphina and I had done together, our son could do on his own.
At sunset he transformed into flame, and the memory of his mother danced in a gleam of orange firelight, reflected on my lake.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, May 25th, 2015
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