Flash Fiction: Reasons (822 words)

Jaera and Zain slipped up through the rear hatch, running shoulder-to-the-wall across the back of the officers quarters in the soft light of early evening. The ocean was turning to shards and edges as it gleamed in the setting sun, while shadows faded in the rest of the world. Half the sky grew hazy in shades in blue and gray while the other side rioted orange and purple and pink. Jaera led the way, leaned forward to watch for the rest of the crew while they aimed for Terius, leaning against the rail. He was watching the water, leaned on both elbows, and didn’t see them coming.

He didn’t mind either, when they claimed their places on either side of him, just raised his eyebrows carefully to examine the tilt in Zain’s smile and the quiet light in Jaera’s eye.

“What?” Terius asked quietly. He glanced between them, and they glanced at each other, preparing their answer.

“We need you to go into the city,” Jaera said. “To get paint.”

“Paint,” Terius repeated. He looked at Zain, remeasured his smile, as if he could see the tipping point coming when it would be come a full grin and was trying to calculate how much time he had left before that disaster struck. “Why me?”

“Because,” Zain told him. “All three of us can’t go, or we won’t come back to the ship. We’ll skip the face-painting altogether, get stuck in Festival, and that just wouldn’t be as much fun.”

Terius nodded slowly as he sorted the sense of that.

“And we can’t send Zain by himself,” Jaera said. “Because he’d get stuck in Festival, and not get the paint, and not come back for us.”

Terius cut a sideways look toward him, eyebrows snapping together.

Zain’s eyes widened for a minute, and then he glared back. “Don’t act like that’s a surprise,” he murmured. “And we can’t send Jaera by herself because she’ll bring back crazy colors, and I am not painting my face like a peacock or a rainbow trout or a jungle frog, whatever you two say.”

Terius blinked, and looked at Jaera. She just shrugged. Shifting her arms on the rail, she pulled her sleeve back just enough for him to see the blank leather of her wristband and shrugged again. Terius slid his hand over hers, hiding it, and nodded.

“We can’t send Zain and I, because we’ll take too long,” Jaera told him. “And we’d miss out on fun that way, too.”

“We can’t send you and Jaera, because you’ll come back with more than paint,” Zain told him. “Like ribbons and sparkles and puppies and two dozen pies.”

“We can skip the sparkles,” Jaera whispered to Terius.

Terius nodded quickly.

“It can’t be you and me, because you and I have been building the habit of getting into tumbles when we go out alone,” Zain said. “And Jaera is tired of missing out and says if we get into trouble without her again she won’t bail us out of holding.”

“You’re afraid of getting into a fist fight in a paint shop?” Terius questioned.

“Too big a risk,” Zain said.

“All right,” Terius said.

“So,” Jaera leaned across the rail to look Terius in the eye. “That leaves you.”

“No,” Terius said, glancing between the two of them. “That leaves no one. Because I can’t go alone because leave ends in five minutes, we’re all supposed to be aboard ship, and I break rules by myself.”

Zain stared at him. “You big fat liar,” he said pleasantly.

Terius smiled, and bit it back. Then he shook his head. “I’m not doing this tonight. Come on. We’ve been at Festival all day.”

Jaera shook her head at him. “And Festival goes on all night,” she told him.

There was a moment of heavy quiet. The sky grew hazier, while the sun dipped lower and the riot on the horizon grew wilder, bouncing between the streaking clouds. The breeze kicked across the ocean, sharpening the wave tips, and running through their hair. Jaera gently dragged her hair out of her face.

“You can get whatever colors you want,” Jaera told Terius. Her voice was low, almost a plea, and hardly above a whisper. “I’ll paint your face for you.”

Zain’s smiled slowly tipped.

Terius took a breath. “Promise me that we’ll be back before sun up.”

Leaning forward, Zain checked with Jaera. She kept her expression as neutral as possible, and he glanced back at Terius. “Are we allowed to lie?”

“I hate you both,” Terius said.

Zain grinned. Jaera covered her wide smile with her hand and Terius pushed away from the rail. He came back after two steps, leaned hard against the rail.

“We will be back before we ship out, right?” he whispered.

“Of course,” Zain said.

“Absolutely,” Jaera said.

“So, maybe,” Terius said. He nodded to himself, and turned away again, heading for the docks.

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