The Tao of Fire Poi

This is another short set in the world of Snowburn. It takes place a few days after the end of that story and before the beginning of Throwing Fire. I hope you enjoy!

***

Nock City at sunset. Should be beautiful with the red-gold light from the Twins reflecting on the windows of the city’s highrises and slanting across its dusty white streets.

But Nock’s an industrial port: grimy and utilitarian. The sunset emphasizes the dark streaks down the buildings where acid rain has eaten into the permacrete and the congested streets where cargo hovers vie with personal skimmers for each slow centimeter in the evening rush-hour.

So the only thing really beautiful about the sunset is the woman standing in front of me on the roof of her house, overlooking the lowrises and industrial blocks of the city. She’s backlit against the binary star. Light gleams across her pale skin, touching the small hairs of her bare arms and belly with fire.

Her hands are full of fire, too, but this is man-made. She’s lit a pair of Kevlar knots dangling on metal chains. She loops her fingers through the fabric ties at the ends of the chains and flicks her wrists so the fireballs arc in front and then behind her. The fire-poi describe burning circles in the air, brighter than the distant star, brilliant against the darkening sky.

I rise from where I’ve been sitting on the exposed roof. She’s taken up the solar panels and decked over a ten-meter square so she has a practice space up here. That her alteration, and her nightly practice with whirling balls of flame, have gone unnoticed by the authorities is a testament to the laissez-faire attitude of Nock City’s govvies. One of the reasons I picked this city as my home.

The reason I’ve stayed is standing in front of me, grinning her mischievous grin.

“Burn me and you won’t be smiling like that for long,” I tell her.

My warning doesn’t dim her grin. First of all, she knows I will – and have – suffer far worse than a minor burn for her. Second, she’s a true expert with the fireballs and the likelihood of her burning me is low. Still, we’re practicing a move tonight that’s as likely to burn me as anything I’ve ever done, including crawling underneath an incinerator during my escape from Tol Seng.

“I still think you should take off your pants,” Kez says. She’s spinning the poi as we talk. The burning balls describe a figure eight, now over her head, now up and down the length of her body as she twirls.

“Not a chance,” I respond. I’m only wearing a pair of worn fatigues. I never wear a shirt when we spin because I like Kez’s reaction to my bare chest. Spinning that ends in sex is the best kind. But there’s no way I’m letting anything that’s on fire near my naked groin. Spinning that ends with singed balls is not the best kind of anything.

“Wuss.” Her grin is wider than ever. She brings her hands together in front of her and the balls loop in hypnotic arcs, spinning so fast that fire paints a perfect circle in the air.

“Yeah, I don’t see you takin’ off your pants,” I say. Admittedly, though, she’s not wearing much, despite the cool spring night. Just a strip of fabric across her breasts that looks more like a bandage than a top, and soft black leggings that outline the firm runner’s muscles of her thighs and calves. The leggings are slung low on her hips and when she turns with the motion of the fireballs, I can see the huge burn scar that craters her lower back. That’s not from the fireballs.

She turns again to face me, spinning the poi in long arcs over her head, but there’s no haste to her movements. She’s not trying to hide her back from me anymore the way she did when we first got together. And that she’s wearing clothes which expose the scar is an indication of how comfortable she’s become with me seeing it. That makes me smile as I move to stand in front of her. I keep a half-meter between us, enough space for the poi.

“I want to try this first with you in front of me,” she says. “So I can see where the poi are going. Then we’ll do it with you behind me the way we would in a show.”

I nod. We’ve already performed a couple of times together, at the beach parties Kez and her crew frequent.

She opens her arms so the poi circle at her sides and I close the half-meter, until I’m standing nose-to-nose with her, or nose-to-collarbone, since I’m considerably taller than Kez.

She lifts her arms; the fireballs whush over our heads. Then she flicks her wrists hard. This is a motion I’m used to, one she uses to control the momentum of the poi. What I’m not used to is the poi going over my shoulders and landing on my back. I put my hands on her waist so she knows exactly where I am, and hold very still.

There’s a kiss of heat across my lower back. A hot shiver up my spine and over my shoulders. A billow of white smoke follows the poi’s bright path as they whizz back over Kez’s head, completing their arc up my back. She folds her arms down and lets the poi loop behind her. Her baby blues are incandescent, a supernova against the sunset.

“I don’t know how that felt, but it was amazing to watch,” she says. “The fire spread out over your skin for a second.”

I flex my back. I don’t feel burned. My skin doesn’t even feel particularly warm.

“Turn around so I can see your back,” she says.

I take my hands off her waist and comply. Her breath catches, and I hear a hiss as she drops the poi into their insulated bag and extinguishes them. Then her warm hand flattens on my shoulderblade.

“I don’t think you’re burned, but it’s hell to look at,” she says.

She sounds a lot more concerned than I feel. I’d know if I was burned. I’d be hurting by now, or numb if it was a really bad burn, and I don’t feel either. Just a little sticky. “It doesn’t feel bad.”

“Mm. It might just be soot. I’m going to touch it. I hope this doesn’t hurt.” Her fingertips brush, feather-light, between my shoulderblades. No pain. She giggles again.

“What is it?”

“Just soot. The skin underneath is fine, but you should see your back. It looks like you’ve rolled in charcoal.”

Very funny. “Why is it that whenever we do somethin’ like this, I’m the one who needs a shower after?”

She giggles. “I can’t think of anything else we’ve done where you’ve been the one who needed the shower.”

I can, and since she’s giggling again, and put out the poi, I think it’s time for some of that. I turn and catch her by the waist, sling her up over my shoulder and carry her, protesting in a wholly unconvincing manner, towards the hatch that leads down into the house.

After a different kind of activity, we lounge on the soft polymousse insulation of the loft space just below the roof. She lies on top of me, her back to my chest, legs up between mine as we rest our calves on a roll of insulation. She wiggles her long feet in the air, flexing her toes. Maybe they’re cramped. She was digging them pretty hard into the backs of my thighs less than five minutes ago.

We’re both going to need a shower, and not just because we’re sweaty. The insulation is slightly fibrous and bits are sticking to both of us. I pick a bit of fluff off Kez’s arm, then rub my thumb over the black mark my fingers leave behind.

“Now you’re sooty, too,” I tell her.

She sniggers. “Not as sooty as you. Your back is a mess.” She holds her hands up in the air, turns them so I can see her black-streaked palms. “Guess I shouldn’t have held on so tight.”

“That’ll teach you,” I say. “What made you thinka that move?”

“Holding on to your back? I always do that when you’re on top.” I can’t see her face, but I can hear the grin in her voice, more lascivious than mischievous. “Leverage.”

Naughty kitten. I flick her on the ear. “Pulling the poi up my back like that.”

“Oh, I saw it a couple of years ago at a fire festival. This guy did it to himself. I mean, up his own back while he was spinning. It looked phenomenal.”

“Plagiarist,” I tell her.

“I think it’s called a homage,” she retorts.

“Uh-huh. Were you spinning then?”

She shakes her head, tickling my chin and cheek with the short shag of her hair. “It was before I started.”

She hasn’t told me when she started spinning, but I’ve gathered it was after she was so badly burned. “Someone teach you how?”

“Mm.” She rolls her head on my collar as she considers the question. “Not really. This guy who used to be on the Liquid Circuit showed me how to do infinity loops when I got stuck, but I figured out most of it just from watching people.”

She’s a natural. Same as when she flies. I’ve taught her the basics: space-flight, in particular, is not instinctive and she needed to learn the rules, but she’s a natural flyer. I envy her a little. Not much comes natural to me. Except killing. I’ve always been good at that.

“You practice a lot?”

“Every night since I got out of the tank.” I think she’s referring to the regen tank she was put into for a month after she was burned. “Until I met you.” She twists her neck until she can plant a kiss on my jaw.

“It’s been almost every night since that first five.” The first week we knew each other, we were too busy trying to stay alive to do anything recreational. Well, except fucking. We did a lot of that right from the off.

“And the night you nearly died on me.” She wriggles, settling deeper into my body.

“Doc says I was only mostly dead,” I tell her. That’s not really true. Doc Gray was not impressed at how long I waited to call him after I developed an infection from pulling a knife out of a subcutaneous sheath in my forearm a little too enthusiastically. He wasn’t in the mood for jokes. “And I was back in the saddle the next night.”

“In a manner of speaking,” Kez sniggers.

“Hey.” I give her a harder flick on the ear. Okay, I wasn’t up for any serious play the next night. Or last night, to be fair. According to the Doc, I was only a few cell divisions away from sepsis, and it took its toll. But I feel good now; I’d be up for playing tonight. “I can go get the paddle anytime.”

She winces. “No, thank you.” She wriggles around until she can look up into my face. “Are you feeling better?”

I give her a lazy grin. I know why she’s asking. “Yeah.”

Her smile could light up the whole universe. “Cool. I’m feeling the need for some rules.”

She really wants to play. I push her off me onto the insulation, roll up to my feet and pull her up after me. She’s dotted with fluffy white bits and soot-marks. “Rule one is we’re takin’ a bath.”

She wriggles with excitement as she takes my hand and follows me across the loft towards the stairs. “What’s rule three?”

Rule two is always our safe word, so she’s asking what game we’ll be playing tonight. “Fifteen seconds. Think you can manage that?”

She shivers. This is a new game, one we started playing just before I went down with the infection, and we’ve only played it twice. But it turned her on like nothing else both times. “Yes,” she whispers.

Good kitten. “You’ve got to earn it, though,” I say, pausing at the top of the stairs that lead down into the house.

She looks up at me quizzically.

I gesture to the stairs. Down into the house. Where, from the sound of it, some of her crew are busy making dinner. The stairs to the loft are on the far side of the kitchen from the bathroom, so we’ll have to walk past them. Both of us tufted with bits of insulation, sweaty, sooty and naked. “You first,” I say.

Kez rolls her eyes, but never one to back down from a challenge, she starts down the stairs.

***

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Author: ejfrostuk

Writer of sci-fi, urban fantasy and hard romance.

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