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 ass**les.
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.”