Zain’s father was an intelligent man. He knew it, from what he’d heard about him and what he remembered of the shelves upon shelves of books that he was not allowed to touch when he was small. Still, the wordlessness with which he showed his quick questions and capability of reading the answers without any response, was interesting, and Zain stayed where he was. He answered with his own curious look, and slight tilt of his head.
“Are you angry with me?” Cade asked. “Or is this just the way you are? Crisp and polite and cold with strangers…”
Zain blinked. He had never been called cold before. It was a fascinating statement, if only for its newness, but it was not altogether pleasing. “I don’t think anyone would say my father counted as a stranger,” he said simply.
“I think, with a little more explanation, you could get almost anyone to say that a seventeen-year-old who hasn’t been home in ten years, or seen his parents more than a dozen times since he was five, could name his father a stranger,” Cade mused back. “And you’re smart enough to know without my saying, that you didn’t answer my question.”
Zain shook his head. “And folks would agree, that by that last statement, you prove you’re no stranger. Strangers think I’m an idiot.”
Cade took a drink, simultaneously enjoying Zain’s joke, and considering it as an argument. He smiled into the lip of the glass, and watched the liquid a long moment after he straightened it and set it back on the table. “A person could allow,” he said slowly. “That we easily find our own. That one intelligent man can spot another, and quickly.”
“And one braggart another braggart,” Zain said lightly.
Cade actually chuckled at that. He pulled the decanter off the shelf and left it in the middle of the table, an invitation, but not a command.
Hesitating, Zain poured himself another drink. He needed the excuse for a moment to think anyway. “People would generally say that a friend, who circumstances have kept you away from for years at a time, is still a friend when you see them again, whatever new mysteries they’ve acquired.” He set the stopper back in the decanter, and pushed it into the center again.
“And would they tell you that a five-year-old boy is capable of being friends with his father?” Cade looked mildly doubtful.
“They’re family,” Zain said, letting the weight of his tone show that it was a greater measure than friendship. “If the thread of friendship can stretch the miles, the cord of family will, too.”
“But, then, how do we define family?”
Zain laughed a little and shook his head at his father, feeling the hook. “You, sir, have enough of it, you should know what it is.”
“I’m aging,” Cade said. His voice grew rougher on an instant, subtle gravel under his tongue. “My memory is going. Help an old man out.”
Smiling, Zain leaned forward over the table. “They’re the ones who have known you longest. The ones you expect to know you longest yet.”
“There’s a midwife here,” Cade said, and leaned his elbows on either side of his drink as well. “She was a girl when she helped deliver me. She’s married to an undertaker now, and it just might be that she’ll help to bury me too. Does that make her my mother?”
Zain shrugged. “Does she make you soup when you’re sick and tell you exactly how many cookies you’re allowed to have with dinner?”
“Is that family?” Cade asked on another grin.
Zain shook his head. “Family is the shoulder that just keeps coming up next to you, and you don’t expect it or not expect it, you just count on it. It’s the hand that reach for first when you need a leg up and when you’ve fallen. It’s the smile that always lasts the longest in your memory, and the scolding that cuts the deepest. They’re the ones who know you so inside out and thorough that when you pretend a thing, they always know it, so they always catch your joke, and they always catch your need for help. They’re the ones that are just always there, when you ask for them, and when you don’t.”
Cade’s smile relaxed slowly, gentling more than flattening, until he was looking at Zain with a calm seriousness that he had a hard time looking back under. Zain took a breath at the end, just to feel his chest move with it, and stayed where he was.
“And I don’t imagine you remember a time when I did any of those things for you,” Cade murmured. “So are you angry with me? Or is this just the way you are with strangers?”
Zain hesitated. “I’m not angry with you,” he said finally.
The quiet hung steady between them for a breath. Cade considered him, and Zain thought he saw doubt in the way his gray eyes searched his face, but he didn’t say anything. Zain wasn’t sure of the statement either, but he pushed it away to decide later if he was lying.
“How do you define it?” Zain asked, to clear the silence. “Family.”
Cade’s smile came back instantly, along with a thoughtful glance dropped onto the table. He paused, gathered the full thought before he let it off his tongue. “My father once explained it to me, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it clearer. Family is who you choose, over and over, day after day, year after year, over every one else. Including yourself. And if you are lucky, they’re the ones you share blood with. And if you are very lucky, they choose you in return.”
Cade’s eyes were heavy when he looked at Zain again, too heavy, and he couldn’t hold it for long. He looked away again and nodded Zain toward the door. “Go,” he said kindly. “Jaera, docks…”
Zain stood up, slow. Turning, he pushed his chair back in toward the table, and took a several quiet steps toward the door. When he opened it, he turned back. Already half outside, he held one hand on the edge of the door and didn’t let go.
“Why did you do it?” he asked. He kept his voice quiet, allowing that his father might decide not to hear, or decide it didn’t warrant more than a shrug. “Why did you give me away
Looking up, Cade held his eyes for a long moment, too firmly to shrug anything away. “I’m sorry,” he said at the end of it. “If that’s how you have ever thought of it. I never had a single child I was willing to give away.”
Zain shifted, wanting to smile, but hesitating without any real answer yet.
“It was Ryden’s idea, for you to come live with him,” Cade began slowly. “His house was too empty, and your cousin, Terius was looking very small to him alone inside it. I don’t know if he chose you specifically, or if you were just the boy I had that was closest to Terius’ age, but he’s told me that he’s thanked a lot of stars for you. He’s never regretted having you in his home for a day.”
Zain looked away then, just to duck the compliment, just to let it sink in because it was thing Ryden would never have said to his face.
“I said yes, because, boy that you were, I knew I would be looking at a man soon enough, and I couldn’t imagine looking him in the eye and telling him that I’d taken that from him,” Cade said. “I couldn’t tell that man that I had kept him out of the First Lord’s house, with all its adventures and opportunities and richness, and the chance to be something more like brother than blood to its heir. I couldn’t rob you of that over an ache from thinking about you’re going.”
Zain nodded and met his eye. Cade looked back without moving, giving him permission to continue out of the room without responding.
Pulling the door shut, Zain paused halfway.
“Thank you,” he said.
Then he pulled it shut, and turned for the front door.