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Black Summer

Love formed in Fire

By Natasja RosePublished 3 years ago Updated 2 years ago 23 min read
11

Partly the original bits-and-pieces draft that ultimately became the my Superhero Trilogy "Two Sides of the Same Coin", this short story was beaten into something coherent for a charity fundraiser in the wake of the Black Summer Australian bushfires in 2019-2020. A heavily edited version found it’s way into “The Darkness Before the Dawn”, but since it ultimately stood on it’s own, I decided to publish the original version here.

By Nathan Lindahl on Unsplash

Jason’s first memory was the first time fire had whispered to him.

It had been a cold winter’s night, when he was about five, and he’d been sitting around the fireplace with his parents, godparents and their children. Riona, his godparent’s oldest, had been grumbling quietly because her parents kept telling her that the marshmallows should be lightly toasted, not gleefully set on fire and burned to charcoal with a gooey centre, the way she liked it. The shadows cast by the dancing flames sulked with her, and the fire whispered a question, asking why.

Jason whispered back, and the fire leapt high, scorching the marshmallow held at the mandated height, and bringing a radiant smile to Riona’s face. By the alarmed shouts, their parents were a little less pleased. The marshmallows were put away and the children sent to bed shortly after.

Riona had hugged him and they had been friends ever since.

By Cullan Smith on Unsplash

The first time Jason knew he wasn’t going to get a normal life, he was fourteen and stopped a school shooting.

Modern guns may have improved a lot from the original firelock pistols, but they still required ignition, and the sparks wept with what was demanded of them. Jason soothed them, and let them go, and the gun stopped firing. So did the shooter’s back-up rifle, and the back-up to that back-up.

The girl he had been menacing, blue-streaked platinum hair stark against her darker skin, stopped screaming and sat up. The children who had been hiding made a break for the exit. Jason tackled the asshole to the suddenly-cold ground – probably spilled water mixing with the Ammonium Chloride the class had been working with - and cursed his life when people in dark suits and glasses showed up at his house the next day and forcibly enrolled him in mandatory Superhero Training.

By Maxim Tajer on Unsplash

The girl he had saved, Melissa, joined him the next year, the trauma of nearly dying activating her ice powers. Jason had asked her to the school dance, (because apparently even teen superheroes had to suffer through enforced social interaction) and spent an enjoyable amount of time making out and seeing how long it took the chaperones to catch them. For ex-Superheroes recruited into the education system, the teachers could be impressively unobservant.

Riona didn’t join them until two years later, when giant constructs, dragons made of shadows, rescued the inhabitants of a sinking cruise ship where the weather prevented helicopters from getting close. Jason’s godparents had seemed more annoyed at her getting caught and recruited than surprised, but they had always been fairly laid back. Jason kissed her in a school play, and stopped caring that he was on a stage in tights and the gaudiest outfit the Costuming Department could come up with.

Riona fell in with Melissa as naturally as she had with Jason, and they all pointedly ignored the teasing from their peers about which one Jason was dating.

By Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Upon graduation, it felt almost natural to team up, save the world when necessary, and otherwise try to convince the general public that taxpayer-funded services like police and firemen were there to be used, because Superheroes need to eat and sleep, too.

Then came the day that everything changed.

In a rare change of pace, the three of them got the chance to sleep in and sit down for a leisurely breakfast together. Jason had just started collecting the dishes to wash when the call came. Dumping the dishes in the sink, he returned to the dining room just in time to hear the tail-end of their conversation. “…isn’t out of the realm of possibility.”

“But how would – Jason, what’s wrong?” Riona and Melissa caught onto his sudden change of mood and body language, and sat up, instantly alert.

Jason wished that he could reassure them. “International mission. There have been bushfires, bad ones, in Australia.”

Riona’s brow furrowed, “That happens every year, though I’ll admit it’s a bit early. Don’t the regular firefighters usually handle it, and we step up at home?”

Normally yes, but this was different. “It’s been worse this year. Far more than they were prepared to cope with, even with the drought. Earlier and stronger, too, but it’s only hitting international news now. Something about their PM already being on shaky ground and not wanting to admit how bad it is by seeking aid.”

The two women exchanged concerned glances. “So, we are sending firefighters? I know that’s still covered under the mutual aid treaty. Normally Superheroes are a last resort.”

Jason had made the same argument. Superheroes were usually a last resort because few of them had powers that would be truly helpful in a bushfire situation, and many would have made things worse. “Someone remembered that I could talk to fires, and control them, rather than just generating fireballs.”

Riona had known him longer, and knew how much of an understatement that was. Both of her eyebrows still shot up. “Persuade a megafire to stop burning? No shade against your skill or power, but is that even possible?”

Jason shrugged; he had the ability to help, and while he didn’t like being away from his team, at least the space would give him time to think. “I suppose we’re about to find out. If nothing else, I can do something about controlling back-burns and spot-fires.”

Melissa and Riona looked at each other again. Riona downed the last of her hot chocolate and reached for Melissa’s oversized coffee cup. “I’ll call the back-up teams and see who can cover for us sight unseen.”

Melissa pushed away from the table and made a beeline for the closet where the suitcases were kept. “I’ll pack. We shouldn’t need much, but I doubt they’ll object to extra med-kits and ice packs.”

Jason blinked; clearly, he had missed something. “Wait, what?”

Riona smiled, a laughing sparkle in her eyes as she flicked her fingers and the shadows behind the couch morphed into a Labrador-sized dragon who took the third suitcase that Melissa was balancing and scurried up the stairs. “You didn’t think you were going alone, did you? Besides, my constructs can get where the helicopters and trucks can’t, and they fly.”

Jason honestly hadn’t thought that far. “Well, no, but—”

Melissa cut in while he flailed for a reasonable objection. “I doubt that they’ll turn down extra water, even if it does have to melt first. Not with the drought they’ve been battling. Riona, you need more cheap underwear, if you don’t want to wear the lacy ones.”

Jason’s mind temporarily blanked at Riona and lacy underwear mentioned in the same sentence, and he almost missed the brunette’s laughter. “I would ask how you’re so familiar with the contents of my underwear draw, but I know who was doing the laundry last month. I’ll detour when I pick up the extra first-aid kits.”

Normally, Jason had no objection to being managed by the women in his life, but he’d been hoping for some space to sort through his feelings without the distraction of the women in question. Now it looked like he’d be spending his free time worrying over them, instead.

Why couldn’t anything in his life be simple?

By Adam Wilson on Unsplash

Not for the first time, Jason was grateful that his Superhero uniform and mask were resistant to everything the Mad Science department could come up with. He’d already emailed home, asking if the technology that extended a small forcefield over his face in the event of unsafe air could be added to the firefighter helmets. His own powers added an extra degree of protection, but it was still rough going. He couldn’t imagine how people without his limited immunity were coping.

Riona had been on the ground all of five minutes before she was muttering darkly about the limited equipment available to volunteers and sent a message home to her sister to go through her finances and see what she could afford to buy. Melissa had sent an email to her friend, Medic, to see if he could get enough time off to come and do a quick bout of healing on the firefighters and locals. The amount of smoke and ash in the air could not be healthy.

By Christopher Burns on Unsplash

The Commissioner and Fire Chiefs had decided that it was a waste of time to have Jason on the hoses, so he had been assigned to controlled back-burning, keeping evacuation roads open and clear of fire, and preventing ember attacks. The embers complained like excited children being told to stop playing and wash up for dinner, but obeyed with minimal grumbling. Convincing the back-burning flames that they didn’t want to ignite all the lovely dry tinder, trees and houses outside the zone was harder, but they listened, albeit with a certain amount of sulking.

In the distance, he could see the outlines of dragons, Riona’s shadow constructs, outlined against the slightly-lighter billows of smoke. One of the nearer ones broke away, tiny figures barely visible on it’s back, and another soared toward the fires, clutching a shipping container of supplies. More puppy-sized constructs were probably entertaining the younger refugees, as they had been last night, giving the parents a much-needed break.

Melissa was back at the base, filling buckets and storage containers with barely solid ice, and occasionally hitching a ride with helicopters to throw boulder-sized chunks of ice at fire tornados. Her unofficial role was as emotional support and making sure Riona didn’t wear herself out by sustaining the larger constructs for too long. Jason was grateful for that; realistically, they were on damage control, rather than actually preventing the fires. Countless buildings and animals were already lost, more every day, and the death toll only mounted.

Whether Melissa returned his feelings or not, he could use a hug when he returned to the base.

By Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Mealtimes were subdued, many of the firefighters too run-down, or busy grieving, or just not in a mood to socialise. Jason sat with two of the men who drove him out, Tom and Ben, eating in quiet camaraderie. Riona was stacking dishes near the food line and chatting to Melissa, stealthily refilling the water coolers. Jason did a double-take when he saw a small group walk in, wearing what looked like heavily modified hi-vis vests and… honestly not much else. Beside him, Tom brightened and waved to one. “Jane! Got a spot for me in your schedule tonight?”

The woman came over to their table, and Jason desperately tried to find a safe place to look as she leaned toward Tom. “I have an hour before your next shift. Get you up and ready to go in plenty of time. What about you, honey?”

Jason started as she addressed him, and glanced desperately to where his teammates were watching, looking rather more amused than he felt was strictly warranted. “Uh… thank you, but no. I’m, ah… emotionally unavailable.”

Jane followed his gaze. “Huh, I thought they were dating each other. Pity, I was hoping for a three-way. No worries, hun, I’ll let the rest know that you aren’t a potential customer and not to bother you.”

Jason appreciated that, though he would appreciate the ability to go back in time and erase the last five minutes from his memory even more. Especially since he now had the new worry that his team-mates might be more interested in dating each other than him. Melissa’s family was a bit more traditional, but Riona’s parents had always taken the stance of ‘whatever makes you happy, as long as you’re safe’. Jason had never considered that to be a bad thing, but…

Tom patted him on the shoulder sympathetically, “You’re first experience with them? Most newbies get a shock when they realise that sex-workers have a role to play in disaster zones, too.”

Ben nodded sagely. “The wife and I have been SES for going on twenty years, now. We aren’t always stationed together, though, especially during widespread disasters. We agreed long ago that whatever we do to stay sane and come back to each other at the end of it… we don’t hold it as wrong.”

Jason had honestly never considered it, but it made an odd kind of sense. People who had lost everything and needed a distraction from reality, people stressed beyond endurance and far from loved ones and needing some kind — any kind — of release… how many days now had he returned to base and needed nothing more intensely than a hug and reassurance that they weren’t raging against a tide? Riona and Melissa understood and were more than willing to provide… but how many others here could say that?

He realised that he had been silent too long and shook his head. “I don’t have a problem with it, or anything. Just… I’ve never been able to do unattached sex. I need the emotional connection, not just the physical.”

Ben patted him on the shoulder again. “You’re not the first like that, either. Mary and Hank, in the orange vests, they just do physical contact; hugs and cuddles and the like, for anyone who just wants comfort. Should you need to take advantage of that, no one will judge.”

Jason shook his head, feeling grateful that he probably wouldn’t have to have this conversation a second time. “Thanks, but I’m good on that front. Will you excuse me?”

He headed over to where the two women stood. Riona squeezed his hand. “They approached us on the first or second day. I’m surprised it took so long with you.”

At her dry tone, Jason couldn’t help but smile, a warm feeling inside him chasing away the discomfort of earlier. “I don’t think I’ve been on base and conscious long enough for it to be an issue. Mel?”

Melissa waved a hand, “Normally I’d be annoyed at the assumption that bisexuality is an open invitation for a threesome, but I don’t think they were coming from that angle. Our cots got appropriated for the Field Hospital, but the donations centre has an excess of blankets that we can use as cushioning.”

Jason shrugged, “It wouldn’t be the first time we slept rough on a mission. At least this time we’re not worried about freezing.”

Melissa rolled her eyes, but there was no annoyance in her tone. “I swear you only want to share a bed so you can use me as a noiseless air conditioner.”

Jason tried to banish the image of their bodies, wrapped intimately around each other, and failed miserably. He tried to brush it off with a joke. “Don’t worry, you can use me as a pillow instead.”

Riona laughed, tapping him lightly on one firm bicep. “You’re not the one with the cushy bits, but they should have pillows, too. Are you coming?”

She took Melissa’s hand and walked off, a rare sashay in her gait. Mildly dazed, and not just by the swing of uniform-clad hips, Jason watched them go. Had they really just…?

Well, he wasn’t about to get answers standing around. Jason re-booted his brain and hurried after them.

By Michael Held on Unsplash

By the time he arrived at the resource centre, where a pile of blankets had been tucked against a wall, Riona and Melissa had already changed into the lounge pants and oversized shirts they had taken to wearing after they discovered that pyjamas took too long to change out of when there was an emergency. He lay down next to Melissa, Riona trapped between the cryokinetic and the wall. “So, I’m genuinely not sure if you just propositioned me…”

Melissa cut him off with a smile, white teeth flashing against her dark skin. “We did, but we also know that you’re Demi, so if you just want to stay friends, we can forget that it ever happened.”

Jason shook his head. “Honestly, being Demi tends to involve a lot of falling in love with your best friends. Just, I’ve been struggling because I like both of you. Are you ok with that?”

Riona laughed softly. “We’re already a team professionally, why not see if we can work that way romantically, as well? I love you, and I love Melissa, though I’m not sure if I want to do the horizontal tango with her.”

Sometimes it was easy to forget that Riona had been raised with such a casual attitude toward sexuality and relationships. Melissa stroked gentle fingertips down his arm, comforting and arousing at once. “I’ve been ignoring my family’s disapproval ever since I gained powers. You’re worth it, both of you.”

Jason felt a rush of blatant adoration for both of them, along with a brief spike of anxiety. Could they handle the balance, without jealousy or insecurity getting in the way? The media already ran speculative articles on slow news days, and general society was not as accepting as it liked to pretend; how much worse would it be if this came out?

He turned on his side and carefully draped an arm over both of them, not quite comfortable with using Melissa’s chest as a pillow like Riona was. “Can I think about this? It’s… a bit unexpected, and I don’t want to rush in and hurt either of you.”

Riona mirrored him, the skin-to-skin contact as comforting now as it had been over the years of their friendship. “Of course, take as long as you need.”

By Issy Bailey on Unsplash

The problem of what to do was brushed aside in the morning, when the first reporters showed up.

Until now, the fires and the fact that all available roads and landing areas were being monopolised by evacuation and firefighting vehicles had kept them away. The news had run stories featuring cell phone footage, Skype interviews and a lot of speculation and statistics, but all at a distance. Now that the roads were being kept cautiously passable, the media descended in droves.

Jason watched in disbelief as they approached people who had lost everything, sometimes including friends and family members, harassed firefighters who wanted nothing more than food and a nap before they returned to saving lives. Melissa had an amazing Resting Bitch Face, and had informed them to go away with several adjectives that had been thankfully drowned out by the sound of a reversing supply truck. Riona had dealt with any questions by creating a larger construct between her and the reporter. Few people wanted to argue with a dragon the size of a Clydesdale, after all.

Jason gave up on politeness and simply shoved past the ones who tried to ambush him as he was climbing into a truck for patrol. Tom shook his head as they drove off. “Fecking vultures, they are, mate. Not to worry, it’ll be forgotten as soon as the bludgers on the Hill open their mouths again.”

Jason tried to think of the various appellations he’d heard referring to some of the louder politicians. “The Potato, Barnyard, or the guy from Marketing? Or the Radio Loudmouth or literal Human Trashfire?”

The firefighter laughed and clapped him on the shoulder, and Jason felt like taking the piss out of politicians had been some kind of ultimate bonding activity. Australians were fun. “That’s a new one for the Xenophobe. Spoiled for choice, we are. You’ll be right, mate.”

He darted off to talk to another firefighter who had just climbed down from a patrol truck, and they both laughed. Jason couldn’t help but smile; even amid the devastation, people managed to give him hope. It still didn’t solve his problem of what to do about his love-life, though.

By Benjamin Lizardo on Unsplash

One of the larger fires was mostly under control, and the patrols were moving in with hoses and fire retardant, when a shadow construct landed between them. One or two of the firefighters squealed as though it were an oversized puppy, but Jason wasn’t reassured. Before the horse-sized dragon even opened its mouth, Jason knew it was bad news. Riona’s voice emerged from reptilian jaws, sounding more scared that Jason had ever heard her. “A fire jumped the containment line. The base and evac centre are surrounded. Melissa has ice-walls up, but we don’t know how long they’ll hold.”

Jason could feel his blood freeze in his veins. He turned to look at the equally pale patrol firefighters. “Can you handle things here?”

Tom nodded, “We’ll manage. Go.”

Jason leaped onto the dragon and held tight as it raced back to the evacuation centre. They would make it in time, and come hell or high water, the fire would obey him and back off. It had to. He couldn’t be too late. He couldn’t lose them, not now!

By Megan Lee on Unsplash

Jason had always known that he was on the higher end of the power spectrum, what with early manifestation and his power levels never yet peaking. But the fire had always been a friend, like a small child laughing at mischief, rather than any real malice. Up until now, he had been able to persuade the fires to back down, rather than imposing his will on them.

It wasn’t a thought that made him comfortable, but to save lives, to save his loves, he would do it.

Melissa’s ice walls were barely thicker than a cheap lemonade iceblock, steam rising from the ground as the fires failed to be deterred by what used to be meltwater. Constructs the size of a small apartment had flown past Jason as he approached the base, carrying the able-bodied refugees as far away from the danger zone as possible, and Riona, pale and exhausted, was arguing with several more, trying to convince them to leave.

Jason sympathised; riding a construct was like being in mild turbulence on an aeroplane, but without the walls. There was no way to secure a mobility device to the construct, no way to promise that the totally non-ambulant wouldn’t fall if the construct had to dodge something suddenly. It wasn’t the first time Riona had weathered blame for such a thing, and it wore on her more than she allowed the public to see.

Riona could handle herself, at least for now. Melissa saw him and retreated to impose herself between Riona and the hysterical, shouting refugee.

Jason landed, as close to the centre as he could, and reached out with his senses.

The fire was raging, tinged with what, in a human, could almost be called madness. It didn’t want to be contained, it wanted to burn. It wanted to consume everything in its path, unbound by things like ecological balance and innocent lives, sentient or not.

Jason pushed back, heedless of the way the ice walls trembled and shattered, ignoring the flames that reached for him as those still present huddled under fireproof blankets and barriers. He was the Phoenix, made stronger by the fire that consumed him, and he would not fail! Matchstick or Mega-blaze, he would be obeyed!

Jason poured all of his will, every ounce of his strength, into controlling the bushfire. It resisted, but Jason had too much at stake to allow himself to falter. Dimly, he felt slender hands slide into his own, a familiar and supportive presence on each side, lending him their strength. Slowly, the out of control flames shrank, first to the size of a bonfire, then to a campfire, and finally down to smouldering embers.

Trucks roared up, firefighters beating at the embers with blankets and water and sand and anything else that came to hand.

Jason saw none of it, darkness encroaching on his vision, and suddenly standing felt like an even more monumental task than putting out the fire.

His last thought before he passed out was a vague hope that there were no recording devices around.

By Joanne Francis on Unsplash

There was a muted roar in the background, and something heavy pinning down his left side.

Opening his eyes was harder than it should have been, and at first all he could see was a brown and blue-white blur. Blinking several times, the blur resolved into Melissa’s face, clear of the streaks of grey ash that had marked her skin and hair the last time he had seen her, leaning over him. The weight on his left side was Riona, dark hair loose and fanned over his torso, likewise clean, but looking exhausted even in sleep.

He tried to talk, but only garbled noise came out. Melissa held a straw to his lips, lukewarm water flooding him like rain on parched, cracked earth. “Don’t try to talk; you’ve been out for nearly a week, and breathed in quite a bit of smoke. That’s on top of severe power burn-out, you and Riona both.”

She glanced at the sleeping woman, concern and affection as clear as day in her eyes. “I was only down for the count of roughly thirty-six hours. Riona woke up two days ago, but hasn’t managed to stay awake for more than an hour since. The fires are all under control, but everyone agreed that there was no more we could do. The Prime Minister did a blatant publicity stunt by offering his private jet to fly us home, but I wasn’t about to turn it down.”

Riona stirred and opened her eyes, managing to prop herself up on one elbow. Melissa leaned down and kissed her gently on the lips. Part of Jason was deeply annoyed that he was too exhausted to enjoy watching that the way he wanted to.

Riona brushed a lock of hair out of his face. “We’re both on medical restriction for the next month. On the bright side, it means plenty of downtime to figure things out together.”

That sounded nice. Jason stretched as much as his heavy limbs would allow, managing to wrap an arm around Melissa as she lay down on his free side, turning his head enough to kiss her, then letting Riona do the same to him. “I’d like that.”

Melissa’s skin was cool to the touch. “No more death-defying stunts for at least that long, either. I’m not up for becoming a widow before I get the chance to be a wife.”

Jason almost managed a laugh. “Isn’t that moving a bit fast? We’ve only just started dating.”

Riona hummed, a soft vibration against his chest. “Well, yes, but ‘ex- before girlfriend’ doesn’t have quite the same impact to it.”

Jason decided to worry about it later. Sleep was luring him back into its all-encompassing arms, and they had plenty of time before they landed. He could get used to sleeping like this, probably.

Battling the fires had been harrowing, and exhausting, and a lot of other adjectives that he was too tired to think of, but something wonderful had come from it, and that was enough to starve off regret.

By Hamish Weir on Unsplash

Read the further romance and adventures of the trio in Deep Sea, and the series that this work inspired here

Young Adult
11

About the Creator

Natasja Rose

I've been writing since I learned how, but those have been lost and will never see daylight (I hope).

I'm an Indie Author, with 30+ books published.

I live in Sydney, Australia

Follow me on Facebook or Medium if you like my work!

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