“Nyk,” Hauk breathed. “If you really loved me, drey, you’d take that blaster at your hip and shoot me right between the eyes. Right here. Right now. This instant.”
Nykyrian came as close to laughter as the somber warrior could.
As if on cue, Darice stormed off the shuttle and slung his pack to the ground in front of Hauk’s feet. At fourteen, he was as tall as most full-grown human males, but he only reached the middle of Hauk’s and Nykyrian’s chests. Even so, he was still just a boy with the very lean build and temperament that marked the young.
And as he moved to glare up at Hauk with his fists clenched at his sides, Hauk understood why some species chose to eat said young rather than raise them to adulthood.
It was so tempting.
Furious, the boy gestured toward the shuttle. “I’m not going anywhere with that—”
“Bite it,” Hauk growled before his nephew let loose a word that would have him disciplined.
Or worse, hunting on the ground for his teeth.
Darice hissed and exposed his long canines in protest.
“Oh my God, did he just fang you?” Thia gasped as she joined them in the landing bay. With an exaggerated gape, she blinked at her father. “Dad, he just fanged Uncle Hauk and Uncle Hauk didn’t kill him. Is the world coming to an end and I missed the e-mail?”
His features turning even darker, Darice snapped toward her with obvious intent.
Hauk caught his nephew’s arm in a gentle, yet firm grip. “Fang her, boy, and you will feel the pain of my displeasure to such an extent our ancestors will curse you for it.”
Darice jerked away from him. “You’re not my father. And that—” He gestured angrily toward the shuttle. “Is not my family. I will not dishonor our blood or ancestors, or dishonor my blood father’s memory by being in a shuttle or on a planet with him! You know our laws! How dare you bring him here!”
Hauk glanced past his nephew to see the look on Fain’s face as he heard those cruel words. The pain his brother felt nauseated him and increased his need to tan the backside of Darice’s buttocks until the boy limped.
For all eternity.
His features guarded, Fain stepped down from the shuttle’s ramp. “I’ve got Chayden coming in to do the drop. He’ll be here in five minutes.”
“A human?” Darice sneered as if that was the only thing worse than Fain.
“Careful who you insult, boy.” Hauk jerked his chin toward Nykyrian, who was the crowned prince and heir for their native Andaria.
He was also half human.
To impugn the honor or prestige of the Andarion royal house was to defame your own Andarion family and ancestors. It was also viewed as a blatant act of treason.
That alone made Darice calm himself.
Satisfied the boy was subdued, Hauk released his arm. “And while you might not claim kinship with Fain, I do.”
Darice rolled his eyes. “You would,” he mumbled under his breath.
Ignoring him, Hauk went over to his older brother, who was one of the very few beings taller than him. And not by much. “I’m sorry. I should have known how he’d react. I was only thinking of tradition. Not selfish pubescent stupidity.”
Fain clapped him on the arm. “It’s all right, drey. I knew what I was giving up the day I walked out your mother’s door. I have no regrets.”
That wasn’t true and they both knew it. The deep sadness that never left Fain’s eyes called him a liar for the choice he’d made all those years ago. But it wasn’t Andarion to admit you acted rashly, or that you made a mistake.
Especially not when you chose one family member over another.
Too bad most humans lacked the loyalty and honor of the Andarions. But then, they were a different species. And not just in coloring and dental needs.
“Thanks for coming, Fain.”
Fain dutifully inclined his head to his beloved younger brother as hurt and anger tangled inside him. Though his brother was one of the fiercest warriors he’d ever fought alongside, he still saw Dancer as the boy he’d been. The one who used to run after him with worshipful stars in his eyes, begging for any attention from him.
A brother who’d recklessly and courageously defied their parents to maintain a relationship with him that could cost Dancer dearly. For any Andarion male to do such was an incredible testament of loyalty and love.
For Dancer, that risk was so much higher.
He already had a mark against him. One more, and he would be relegated to an Andarion class even worse than the one Fain was in. Fain knew of no other who would risk that.
Not even for a full-blooded brother.
But then Dancer was the bravest male he’d ever known. He lived his life with reckless disregard for the fact that he was mortal. And there was absolutely nothing he wouldn’t do or risk for those he loved.
Smiling, Fain clapped Dancer on his back. “For you, anything. Any time.”
Hauk watched Fain leave with a heavy heart. At his departure, Darice started to shout something to him, but the sight of a guard carrying Thia’s pink floral rucksack for her distracted him. His jaw gaped even wider than Thia’s had a moment ago. “Seriously?” he said to Hauk. He gestured after the guard who was headed for the shuttle to deposit his cargo. “She can’t even carry her own pack?”
Thia flashed him a sweet, adorable grin. “That’s what I have you for, punkin’. Didn’t you know?”
Hauk heard Fain’s insidious laughter as his brother vanished. “Just like his arrogant father . . . Not enough Tondarion Fire in existence to make me take that brat across the street, never mind do an Endurance with him. Good luck not choking the little bastard, Dancer.”
Hauk actually whimpered as he heard his brother’s mumbled words. Thanks a lot, Fain. If his brother really loved him, he’d do this for him.
“Are you listening to me, Dancer?” Darice tugged at Hauk’s sleeve. “Why is she going with us?”
He pulled his arm out of Darice’s grip. “Because she’s Andarion.”
Again with the eye rolling that, since puberty, had become Darice’s automatic response to most stimuli and any words uttered by an adult. But the eye rolling stopped as a group of men brought in a large covered crate and took it on board.
“What is that?” Darice gestured toward the men. “Her wardrobe?” He put his fists up to his temples and growled fiercely. “This is a disaster. I want to go home. Now, Dancer! I don’t want to be here. With her or with you!”
Hauk knew the feeling intimately. “Get on board, Darice.”
“Now, boy!” It was his turn to fang his nephew.
Screwing his face up, Darice appeared to have the same degree of intestinal woe that currently plagued Hauk. “You’re not my father,” he mumbled between clenched teeth as he snatched his pack up from the ground. “You’ll never be my father.”
Thia moved to rub him gently on the back. “It’ll be all right, Uncle Hauk.”
No, it wouldn’t. His family, and in particular Darice and Dariana, would never forgive him for what had happened to Keris. But it wasn’t Thia’s fault they were assholes.
Smiling, he cupped Thia’s gentle face and started to thank her, but before he could say a word, two excited voices rang out.
“Thia! Thia! Thia! Thia! Thia!” The last one was punctuated with a screech so high, he was amazed his ears weren’t bleeding.
He barely had time to step away from her before Adron and Jayce all but tackled their older sister to the ground. To her credit, Thia stayed upright and hugged them against each side while laughing at their enthusiasm. At six and eight, the blond boys had blue eyes and were almost identical in looks. The only way to really tell them apart was the difference in height. Adron, being older, had a good three inches on his brother.
For now. Hauk remembered well when his older brothers and Nykyrian had towered over him, too, and that definitely wasn’t the case these days. He was a good three inches taller than Nyk, and had Keris lived, he’d have barely reached Hauk’s shoulders.
The boys were talking so fast and furiously that Hauk got a headache trying to figure out what they were saying. With the patience of a saint, Thia nodded and listened attentively.
Except for the difference in their ages, no one would ever guess she wasn’t their full-blooded sister.
Freakishly tiny, and graceful in everything she did, Nykyrian’s wife Kiara approached them with her golden-amber eyes twinkling. “Boys, slow down. Take a breath. Give your sister a minute to catch up.”
Jayce immediately started in on a round of “buts” and ended with a simple “Mama!”
Still laughing, Thia patted his back. “It’s okay, Kiara. I can strangely follow their gibberish.” Kneeling down, she took both of Jayce’s arms in her hands and smiled at him. “And yes, I’ll bring you back a rock for your collection. Two, even.”
Adron sighed heavily. “I wish I could go with you.”
With an exaggerated pout for him, she cupped his cheek in her hand. “Me, too, sprout. Maybe next time.”
Nodding, he stepped away then pulled his brother with him. She stood.
Kiara held out a black sweater toward Thia. “Stay warm, sweetie. Don’t get hurt.”
“I will and I won’t.” Thia took her sweater and gave Kiara a light hug. She looked expectantly at her father, who had the same what-did-I-do-now look Hauk was sure he’d worn when his parents told him he had to do this with Darice.
Facing her intense husband, Kiara motioned toward Thia with her hands. “What do we say to our daughter before she leaves us for six weeks?”
Nykyrian recovered himself and unstrapped his blaster from his hips. He checked the charge level before handing it to Thia. “Remember what I taught you. Check your perimeter every night and never sleep with your headphones on.”
With a patient sigh, Thia took the blaster from his hands. “Thanks, Dad,” she said drily.
Arms akimbo, Kiara approached her husband. “Sweetie? Are you out of your mind? You don’t give a loaded weapon to your little girl right before she leaves. What are you thinking?”
“That she might need it.”
“A blaster?” Kiara asked incredulously.
He frowned as if he had no idea why she was upset at him. “I’d rather she have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”
“And what if she accidentally shoots Darice?”
Thia snorted. “Trust me. If I shoot Darice, it won’t be an accident.”
Hauk bit back a laugh at something that really shouldn’t amuse him.
“You see!” Kiara said to Nykyrian as she indicated Thia. “You see what could happen?”
Nykyrian shrugged. “She’s a Quiakides. She’ll have to make a first kill at some point. Why not keep it in the family? Hell, it might even make Hauk’s day if she shoots Darice.”
Sighing in surrender, Kiara shook her head. “You’re awful.” She turned her pleading eyes toward Hauk. “Would you help me out here?”
He met Nykyrian’s gaze. “Is she trained?”
Hauk duplicated Nykyrian’s earlier shrug. “Then I’m glad to have the backup.”
The boys stared bug-eyed while their mother sputtered at the men’s lack of concern.
Adron flashed a big grin to Jayce. “When I’m big, I’m going to be an assassin, just like Daddy and Uncle Hauk!”
Jayce shoved him. “Hah! I’ll be an even better one than you.”
“Nuh-uh!” Adron dove at his brother. The two of them hit the deck, pounding on each other.
Kiara’s face flushed bright red as she pulled them apart. “Stop it! Both of you. None of my children are going to be assassins. None of you! I mean it!”
“Mom!” they whined.
She made that imperious maternal gesture that never failed to quell squabbling children, and reminded Hauk of how his own mother used to break him and his brothers up from fights.
Hauk let out a tired “heh” as he faced Nykyrian. “Remember when it was just the five of us and the only kids you had to break apart from fighting were me and Darling? Oh, for the blessed peace of those days.”
Nykyrian swept Adron up in his arms to keep him from punching at his brother. A rare devilish grin curved his lips as he held his son against his chest, and Adron laid his head on his father’s shoulder. “I will gladly take one minute of this chaos over an eternity of that peace.”
A tender, heated glance passed between Nykyrian and Kiara. The love they bore for each other never failed to amaze Hauk. The gods knew, he didn’t understand it. He’d never felt that way about anyone. And he still couldn’t believe Nykyrian did. Battle-hardened and battered by life, Nyk had every reason to kill. No reason whatsoever to understand, never mind show, any kind of love or compassion.
Nykyrian pulled Thia against him with his free arm and placed a kiss on the top of her head. “Let no harm come to you, mu tina.”
Adron launched himself from his father into his big sister’s arms with such unexpected force that she stumbled back. “Love you, Thia! Don’t be gone long.”
Closing her eyes, she squeezed him until he protested it. “Love you, too, Addy. Be a good boy and I’ll bring you back a souvenir.”
She cast a speculative glance toward Hauk. “Darice’s head on a pike if his manners don’t improve.”
Adron laughed as she set him down on his feet. Thia opened her arms for Jayce to get just as warm a hug from her. She released him before ruffling the hair on both their heads. “Keep Tiernan and Taryn out of trouble, and don’t let them steal Zarina’s bottle from her while I’m gone.”
They gave her sharp, military salutes. “It will be done, Captain.”
Hauk turned at Chayden Aniwaya’s teasing tone as their longtime ally joined them. Almost as tall as Nykyrian, Chayden had the lethal swagger that marked most of the Tavali pirates who brazenly preyed on League ships and flouted the laws of any organized nation or empire. But his laughing hazel eyes and mass of short curly dark hair stole the bad ass from his gait and demeanor, and gave him a boyish, carefree appearance. It was why he kept his face and hair covered whenever he had to deal with people he needed to intimidate.
Only those who called him friend got to see this relaxed, playful side of the fierce pirate captain who never took prisoners.
Or showed mercy to his numerous enemies.
“Guys,” Chayden said to the boys, “she’s at least a commander. Can’t you tell?”
The boys whooped as they ran to Chayden and jumped into his arms while rattling off their rapid-fire words. The bewildered look on the pirate’s face was hysterical as he met Nykyrian’s gaze. “Help! I don’t speak small-human Andarion. I need a translator.”
Kiara took Jayce from Chayden’s arms while Nykyrian retrieved Adron. “They’re wishing you a safe trip,” she said with a smile.
“Ah, ’cause I could have sworn the bigger one just asked me for my pilot’s license and the launch code to the shuttle.”
Kiara laughed. “Actually, that’s exactly what Adron did. See, Chay, you do speak small-human Andarion.”
Chayden grinned, exposing a deep set of dimples.
Hauk didn’t miss the sudden blush on Thia’s face as she averted her gaze from Chayden then quickly ran into the shuttle without greeting him.
Shit. A sick dread clenched his stomach as he realized she had a crush on their friend.
And he wasn’t the only one who noticed it.
Nykyrian’s features turned to stone.
As soon as Chayden saw that dark expression, he stepped back and held his hands up. “Sacred embryo, Nyk. Got it. Have no fear.” He lowered his hands to cover his crotch. “I value my body parts highly and none of them will breech the no-fly zone for the most precious fruit of your loins. Not even my eyes. I won’t so much as glance in her general direction. I’m just here to fly the shuttle and leave. Immediately.”
“Good. Remember all that.”
Chayden took another step back. “Um, Hauk. I’m going to need you to lead me in since my eyes will be clenched tight, like my sphincter, until I hit the pilot’s seat.”
Nykyrian set Jayce down beside Kiara. “No need. I’ll lead you in.”
His expression terrified, Chayden turned toward Hauk, out of Nykyrian’s line of sight, and mouthed the words, “Help me,” to him as Nyk grabbed the front of his dark gray battlesuit and hauled him inside.
Kiara laughed. “You better go make sure he doesn’t hurt poor Chay.”
“Yeah, let’s get this fiasco started.” Hauk gave a quick kiss to her cheek and a hug to the boys before he ran inside to make sure Chayden was still breathing and not bleeding.
Thia was belted in across from Darice, who had his bright orange earbuds in while he played a handheld game and blatantly ignored her.
True to his words, Nykyrian had the door to the flight deck blocked as Chayden ran through the preflight checks.
Hauk snorted. “You know, Nyk, Chayden really is good at this. You and I have put our lives in his hands, many times.”
Nykyrian gave him a harsh, dry stare. “What I do with my life is one thing. What I do with my daughter’s . . .”
“Copy that,” Chayden said, without looking up. “I will fly like I’m hauling eggs.”
“Unless you run into League ships. Then you better fly like your life depends on it.”
“’Cause it does,” Chayden fearlessly finished for Nykyrian. “Again, copy that, Commander. Now, let me concentrate so I don’t miscalculate and wind up in the wrong galaxy or splattered against an asteroid.” He flashed a devilish grin.
One Nykyrian returned with a look that promised a painful death would be Chayden’s if he spoke another annoying word.
Hauk wedged himself between them and gently nudged Nykyrian back. “We’re all good here. You might want to go help the mothership with your unruly spawn.”
Nykyrian hesitated before he inclined his head to them. Turning around, he went back to where Thia and Darice were now both absorbed by their electronics. He paused to stare at his daughter, but Hauk knew what he was really doing. He was mentally assuring himself that she had everything she needed, and that she was properly fastened in.
Something Nykyrian verified for himself an instant later by tugging at her harness and double-checking the buckles before he left them.
Amused as hell, Hauk retracted the loading ramp behind him and closed the door.
Thia let out a tired sigh as she pulled her headphones from her ears to glare at the ramp her father had just used. “He really doesn’t think I can do anything for myself, does he?”
Hauk tsked at her as he double-checked the seal on the door. “Ah, Thee, this isn’t about your competence. It’s about his fear over his own.”
“How do you mean?”
Hauk glanced to Darice, who had them all completely tuned out. “It’s something you won’t understand until you have kids yourself. But don’t take it to heart, kisa. All of us still want to cut up your uncle Darling’s food before he eats it, and he runs his own empire.”
That succeeded in making her laugh. “Does he know this?”
“Yeah. And like you, he hates that we mother him.”
She fidgeted with the small MVM in her lap as she looked past Hauk, toward the flight deck. “You think I could sit up front for the launch? I’d like to learn to fly.”
“Uh . . . no.”
She curled her lip at him. “You’re just as horrible as he is. I’m not a child anymore, you know?”
“Trust me, we know. Why do you think I’m not letting you ride up front?”
Rolling her eyes in a way that would make Darice proud, she put the headphones back in her ears and turned the music up so loud that even a human would be able to hear it clearly across the room.
Satisfied the two of them were safe and occupied, Hauk returned to the flight deck, where Chayden was firing the engines. “Are they secured?”
“Yeah. Nyk tucked Thia in before he left.”
“Of course he did.” Chayden passed a wicked grin to Hauk. “I’d be just as bad, if not worse if I had a daughter that age. That pretty. She’s what? Twenty-two now?”
Hauk didn’t answer. “She’s too young for you.”
Chayden laughed. “No. She’s too connected for me. But don’t worry. Meant what I said about my fondness for my protruding body parts. I can keep my hands to myself. I never violate my oaths or my codes. . . . Only international laws.” He pulled the mic closer to his lips and turned on the intercom. “All right, kids, hang tight. Last time I tried this, it didn’t work out so well. But that’s okay. I can learn from my near-fatal mistakes, and I have the fire extinguishers ready this time. There was only minimal superficial scarring, and my innards healed up quite nicely, after a while. Oh hey . . . I wonder what this button over here does. Never seen one like that before. Maybe I should have checked the shuttle’s model number. Hope I’m licensed for it.”
Buckling himself into the copilot’s seat, Hauk laughed at the expressions on Darice’s and Thia’s faces as they heard that over their music. “You’re so wrong.”
“That’s why all of you love me . . . I always fuck things up and make it interesting.”
“Isn’t that an old Gondarion curse?”
“May you live an interesting life?”
Laughing, Chayden hit the boosters and lifted the craft with such skill that Hauk barely felt it move.
As soon as they cleared the port, Hauk saw a small ship on their starboard aft monitor. “We have company.”
“Relax. It’s just your large, hairy mother tailing us in a fighter in case we need him to beat up some bad guys.”
“Why didn’t he say something to me about it?”
Chayden shrugged. “Hell if I know. He’s your mother. Maybe he didn’t want to upset Darice any worse. Or, knowing my second-favorite Tavali, he wanted to piss him off more.”
Chayden flashed a grin. “Yeah. I like me best . . . most days.”
Hauk snorted at his old friend.
“So what’s the deal, anyway? What heinous crime did Fain commit to be blacklisted by the entire War Hauk clan? I mean, damn, you’re an outlaw to most governments, you’ve kicked in the front door of a League prison, been tossed out of League military service, and started a rebel organization, yet your family still claims you. What could be worse than all that?”
Hauk stared into the darkness of space as he considered everything Chayden was asking and how best to answer it. “Acts of political defiance are forgivable, according to Andarion tradition. But Fain . . . he foolishly besmirched our family’s honor and tainted our lineage.”
“Married a human.”
Gaping, Chayden turned his head toward him. “Seriously? That’s it?”
He passed a dark glower to the Tavali for his hypocritical contempt and outrage over their customs. “Your mother? Your father? They were both humans, and how were you and your sister treated because Mom was Qillaq and Dad Gondarion?”
While Andarions and humans were close enough genetically to procreate, they were two vastly different species. Two species that voraciously hated each other and had spent centuries at war. Human-on-human prejudice had never made sense to Hauk.
Yes, it was. Chayden’s treatment over the fact that his parents were from two different human cultures had been so foul that Chayden had run away from his homeworld at fourteen, and had grown up on the back streets of other planets, alone. It said a lot that the hell he’d known on his own was better than the one he’d left behind.
Chayden leaned back in his chair to check their headings. “So where’s Mrs. Fain now? I’ve never seen or heard of him being with any female. Or male either, for that matter.”
Hauk winced at the tragedy that had been his big brother’s life. “Sadly, he’s never been with anyone except Omira. She was everything to him. And when she left him, he never got over it. I don’t think he’s gone near a female since.”
“Left him? Why?” he asked incredulously. “What’s not to love about Fain?”
Hauk sighed as he remembered the harsh betrayal Fain had never recovered from. “Bitch didn’t care that he’d given up everything for her. His education, his military career, his future . . . his entire blood family. Less than two years into their marriage, she packed her things and went back to her human family.”
“Damn,” Chayden breathed. “That’s so cold. How old was he when it happened? Five?”
Hauk frowned. “When she left him?”
“Damn,” Chayden repeated. “He was an infant.”
“Yeah.” He’d been way too young to have his heart carved out and handed to him. “Fain was completely wrecked by it. He tried to come home, but my parents wouldn’t have anything to do with him. My mother told him that he’d died to them the day he chose to walk out the door to be with a human harita. That the last thing she wanted was the stench of a human-lover in her house.”
“And yet you two are still close.”
Hauk glanced to the monitor, where Fain followed at a discreet distance. Just like he always had. He was the only blood family Hauk had who had proven to him, time and again, that he would always stand at his back and not judge him. That was too rare a gift to take for granted. “Like my brother, I don’t give up on my family. For any reason.”
Chayden brushed his hand against the small religious medallion his sister had given him. “I know the feeling.” He glanced over to Hauk. “And that includes my all brothers who get on my nerves.”
Snorting, Hauk playfully turned Chayden’s head back toward the instrument panel. “Don’t be cutting them eyes at me, human.” But in his heart, he knew what Chayden did.
They were family.
And every bit as screwed up and dysfunctional as one related by blood.
Still, he hated what Fain had been through because his brother had given his heart to an unworthy bitch. Omira Antaxas had been the sorriest excuse for a supposed sentient being as Hauk had ever met. Devoted love like Fain held for her was so incredibly rare. Even for Andarions. How could anyone walk away from that?
For any reason.
He glanced back to Thia and Darice. Thia had been the by-product of her mother’s curiosity about what it would be like to sleep with an Andarion. Because Driana had been young, and she and Nykyrian were different species, it’d never dawned on her that she could actually conceive a child by him.
But Darice . . .
His parents had loved each other in that mythical way that Fain had deluded himself into believing he’d shared with Omira. To this day, Darice’s mother elevated Keris to a godlike status that no mere mortal could touch. No one was allowed to besmirch his memory in any way, and she would die before she allowed another male to claim her.
At the time Hauk had gone on his Endurance, he’d envied the hell out of both of his brothers for the women they had in their lives. Back then, he’d naively assumed he would have it, too, one day.
Decades later, he knew what an idiot he’d been for that assumption. Both relationships had ended tragically.
And once this was done, his parents expected him to go home and marry Keris’s widow, who hated him for the part he’d played in his brother’s death.
It was something they should have done years ago, but Dariana had violently refused him at every turn. She couldn’t even look at him without baring her fangs, and she hadn’t called him by name since the day his brother had died.
Yet she was Andarion and their custom was for an unpledged male relative to marry the widow to keep her safe and provide for her.
Especially when there were kids involved.
Duty. Honor. Obligation. Loyalty. That was the lifeblood of all Andarions. It flowed thick in their veins and ruled their entire existence. Like it or not, hatred or not, Dariana would marry him and keep her family’s honor, and protect her son’s prestigious lineage.
And make his life a living hell over something that hurt him as much as it did her. Sick to his stomach, Hauk sighed at the bleak future that awaited him.
Maybe I’ll get lucky and Darice will throw me down a mountainside, too. And this time it would succeed in killing him.
One could only hope.