Flash Fiction: Four seconds (910 words)

Zain was looking at Terius the exact moment Terius figured out that Zain was cheating.

A moment before, Terius stood with his arms crossed over his chest, heel kicked up against the wall behind him as he leaned against it. He caught more light from the lantern built into its shelf than the player’s table in front of him did, so he leaned his head forward a little, considering the play as it went around. His mouth had dropped into a flat line that might have been boredom, if it weren’t for the slight way his eyebrows bent toward each other. He watched, silent, glanced at Jaera beside him, and then back to the four men at the table.

The next moment, Terius stood, arms crossed, heel kicked up, mouth flat, eyebrows raised, green eyes wide as wheels. And Zain laughed.

“What’s funny?” the man across from him asked, quick.

Dropping his eyes back to his cards, Zain shook his head. “Nothing,” he said on a breath.

The man twisted wide shoulders around in his seat to look at Terius.

“What?” he asked, catching the shocked look on Terius’ face.

“Nothing,” Terius echoed, but it sounded like a thousand somethings, and Zain snorted again.

Jaera looked down, glanced at Terius, glared at Zain. But she was smiling too.

“What are you up to?” the man demanded again.

His friend on his left grabbed Zain’s wrist. He turned Zain’s hand with a firm twist, and the corners of three cards edged out from under his cuff.

“You must not be real attached to your guts,” the third said, threw his cards on the table, and stood to tower over the table.

Zain shrugged helplessly, smiled at Terius and Jaera, then kicked back his chair, brought his knee up to flip the table, and ran for the door. Terius and Jaera ducked as they saw the cards and chips and players scatter through the dim corner, ducked to the side, and pounded after him.

The cool dark outside hit Jaera’s lungs, and she paused on the doorstep, just to get a second breath down before she tried to run. Terius stumbled to the same stop, and Zain danced one step ahead.

“Since when do you cheat?” Terius demanded.

Zain grinned. “Since I figured out that I could,” he said.

“You realize you could make two of you out of any one of them?” Jaera asked.

Regretfully, Zain nodded.

They bolted as the three men clattered through the door after them. One quick twist around the corner, and they left them out of sight just long enough to scramble a dozen long strides down the street. Then the men found which way they had gone and ran after them. Zain looked back at the line of them, half-laughed, half-winced and Terius yanked him back around by the collar. The paving stones were solid under their feet, and they moved quickly. The street stayed wide, the buildings standing dim guard on either side and echoing the clap of their feet back to them.

A dozen yards ahead, the street ended, walled off by a fat little building hunkered down in the dark.

“We went the wrong way,” Jaera said. She glanced to either side, then risked a look behind her. The street was not really a street, but an open square between solid walls.

“Yes,” Zain agreed. “We did.”

The men behind them were shouting, running, echoing so badly, Jaera couldn’t sort out the two, and she didn’t care to.

“Should we stop and explain?” Terius murmured. “I’m sure they’ll understand, let us go back and start again.” He looked to Zain, as if he half expected this to be a reasonable suggestion.

Zain kept running, all out. When that wasn’t enough response, he raised his hands helplessly. “I didn’t take any of their money on the way out. They’re doing this for fun.”

“Great,” Terius said.

“So…” Jaera said.

“We’re going over it,” Zain said.

“Is it short enough for that?” Jaera asked.

“I think so,” Zain said.

“He thinks so,” Terius said.

The men behind pushed a little faster, and Zain bolted ahead. Jaera lengthened her stride to keep close behind him, and Terius fell in just behind her. He caught her hand on a stride, squeezed it so she could feel how close he was, slanted just off to the side so that he would catch her feet, and let her go so she could run, hard.

The men kept shouting. Jaera forgot about them.

Zain hit the wall first. He planted his hands against the flat face, bent his knees just a little. Jaera jumped just before she ran into him, planted a foot on his back and jumped again. She caught the edge of the roof, felt Terius catch beside her a second later, and she pulled herself to the top. Spinning, she saw Zain stride back, come at the wall running. He jumped, grabbed hold of Terius’ ankle, plant his feet on the wall and reach for her hand. She hauled him onto the roof. Terius pushed himself up.

Four seconds, and they looked down, breathing hard, at the tops of the men’s heads.

All three had come to a sudden, stunned stop. They craned their necks, staring at the shadow of them.

Jaera smiled, letting out a breath and pulling it right back in.

Looking down, Terius tapped Zain on the chest. “Stop cheating,” he said.

“Maybe,” Zain said.

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