Kashel, Brex, Denald, and Lainan stood shoulder to shoulder in line, each of them eying the floor tile in front of them as if they were analyzing it for weaknesses. Standing in front of them, Cade thought the boys had done a fair job of pulling themselves back together.
They stood easy, firm, but not tensed or angry. They’d walked through the front fall with a congenial wave and skip, then come immediately when called and taken their place in line before they fell into silence. Their collars were straight as their shoulders. Their ash blonde hair lay in its usual finger-combed glory. They’d put their jackets back on. The buttons were even. The cloth was smooth.
But Brex was using his jacket to keep one shirtsleeve on. The entire left side of Denald’s trousers was lighter than the right where he couldn’t beat the dirt off himself. Kashel’s knees were covered in dust and everyone but Brex was sporting a fresh, dark shiner around their left eye. Brex had a bruise on the left side of his jaw that was digging dark fingers into his skin.
Cade looked at each of them, folding his arms over his chest. “Well…” He said.
Kashel looked up, slow, but it was hard to read any hesitation behind the sharpness of it.
“Should we start with the false apologies so we can move on to the real ones?” Cade asked.
“For what?” Kashel asked.
Cade would have laughed at him, but the calculated, stony look on his son’s face stopped him. “Should we start with an explanation then?”
Kashel didn’t say anything. Brex glanced over at him without turning his head, while Lainan leaned hesitantly out of line to check his expression. Turning to the other three, Cade waited, but they were watching Kashel, and holding their silence as long as he did.
“All right,” Cade conceded. “Well, I think I can read two things pretty clearly off of you, so let’s–”
“Two?” Kashel questioned. “Not five?”
Cade paused, focusing on his eldest again. “Five sounds reasonable,” he said. “One for each of us. Should I start?”
Kashel considered, then nodded.
Cade spread his hands, resisting the urge to smile broadly with his announcement. “You’ve been in a fight.”
Kashel nodded again, as if that was what he expected. Then he looked down the line to Lainan.
Lainan’s eyes went wide when he realized he was supposed to say something. “Uh…” he stumbled over the first syllable, eager to say something. “We… won?”
Kashel nodded again and shifted his focus to Denald.
Denald rolled his eyes. “They had one good man, and he had one good move.” He mimed a fist shot to the side of his face, knuckles landing perfectly on the swollen bruise around his eye. Cade glanced down the line at the identical bruises on the others.
“He was shorter than me,” Brex said. He tilted his head to show off his jaw. “But taller than Kashel.”
Cade eyed the two of them, expecting Kashel to respond to the ribbing. Brex hadn’t been taller than him for long, and a statement like that usually received some attempt to knock him to his knees in answer. If Kashel could make him shorter on demand, than Brex was still short.
But Kashel only stood beside his younger brother, shoulders squared, spine as straight as he could make it, displaying plainly that neither one of them was short. Beside them, Denald looked small, and Lainan looked tiny.
“And?” Cade asked. He looked at Kashel again. “Number five?”
“And he had no problem laying a beating on little kids,” Kashel said.
Lainan shifted on his feet, looking away. Denald shoved him gently with his shoulder, and raised his chin, suddenly proud.
Cade stared at them.
“It started with Lainan?” he asked.
Kashel, Brex and Denald nodded.
Blinking, Cade leaned back. Then he shrugged. “I have no idea what you need to apologize for. Maybe the sweets you’re about to steal out of the kitchen?”