Or worse, living the rest of her life without Dancer. It burned and hurt so deep that it was a physical ache.
How stupid, right? She’d lived years without him and now he felt as integral to her well-being as breathing.
Holding his hand to her face, she savored the warmth of his body pressing against hers. This was all she’d ever wanted. Someone who loved her. Someone who wouldn’t hurt her or make her feel like crap when she was with them.
How cruel that having finally found him, she couldn’t keep him.
I will die for you, Dancer.
Saddest part of all? She most likely would.
“Not enough root in the universe, eh?”
Hauk groaned at Bastien’s perky tone as he silently damned every person who’d had a hand in making him feel like this. “Be glad my weapons are too far to reach or I’d shoot you.”
With a groan of his own, Bastien sat down beside him. “Not a morning person, are you?”
Bastien laughed. “You’re not my type and I’m not quite that desperate.” He flicked playfully at Hauk’s ear. “Though I have to say that you are awfully pretty for a male. If I were ever tempted, it’d probably be by someone as cute as you.”
Hauk bared his fangs to him at the same time Sumi came over with a plate for each of them.
“Our fierce protectors.” Her eyes danced with mirth. “You two don’t look like you could take on a sleeping lizard this morning.”
Hauk mustered a lopsided grin for the only person who could amuse him in the current physical misery he was in. “I have to say that I definitely felt better last night.”
She blushed profusely.
Then Hauk blushed, too, as he realized where her thoughts went. That hadn’t been what he meant, but…
Darice came running up. “I saw a sparn this morning. Isn’t this where they nest?”
Hauk hesitated, knowing what Darice was really asking him. “Dari —”
“Can’t I go with Thia while we wait?”
He shook his head. “That’s a bad idea. Thia’s no better at climbing than you are. I wouldn’t trust the two of you at an indoor gym alone.”
Darice’s face swelled up immediately. “We’re so close! It’s not fair that I can’t get my Endurance feather!”
Sumi was stunned that for once, Darice didn’t turn that into an insult for his uncle.
Dancer’s expression was every bit as despondent that he was having to say no. With his brow furrowed, he rubbed at his ribs as if he was actually considering taking the climb with his nephew.
Don’t you dare…
But he was crazy enough that he might attempt it to make Darice happy. Especially since he’d failed on his own trip with Keris. This had the makings of a whole new disaster.
Afraid of what Dancer might do, she looked up at the cliff in front of them. “What kind of climb are we talking about? Can it be done in one day?”
Dancer hesitated before he answered. “The main approach is just over there.” He pointed to her left. “It’s twelve pitches to the summit. Mostly face climbing with some corners and headwalls. There’s a couple of gendarmes where sparns nest so you shouldn’t have to go all the way to the summit to get the feathers. The only hazard really is loose rock and I wouldn’t trust any existing anchors that you might find along the way.” He locked gazes with her. “It’s easily done in a day, barring an accident… What are you thinking?”
“That I take him.”
They all stared at her.
“What?” she asked, offended by those astonished faces. “League trained, folks. Head of my class. Before that, I was a xenobotanist. Been on many vertical expeditions in some frightening places. I can climb a mountain… building… dead body…” She cast a playful grin to Dancer. “Surly Andarions… no problem.”
Hauk’s gut drew tight at her offer as memories tore through him. He despised this mountain and everything it reminded him of. The last thing he wanted was to lose another loved one to this hellhole.
“Please, Dancer?” Darice screwed his face up like he used to do as a small child whenever he’d ask for a ride on his shoulders. “Please! Please! Please! I’ll do anything if you say yes! I’ll even wash your boots. Sharpen your sword. Be your personal slave.”
Damn, how he hated that pleading, adorable expression. He glanced to Sumi.
“You know I won’t let anything happen to him.”
Darice went down on his knees, crawling toward Hauk and begging as if he were in absolute agony. “Please, Uncle Dancer, please!”
Against his better judgement, he nodded. “But!” He held his hand up to his overly excited nephew. “You lip off to her and she’s to bring you right back down here. You understand me, Darice?”
“I’ll be good. I promise! I love you, Dancer!” Whooping in delight, he shot to his feet and ran off to get ready.
Hauk pushed himself up. His entire body protested, but he wasn’t about to watch them leave without some guidance.
He nodded at Sumi’s concerned question. “I want to double-check the climbing gear.”
“All right, Grandma.”
“I also have the pitches diagrammed.”
“That’ll be helpful. Anything else?”
He pulled her against him and pressed his cheek to hers. “Don’t get hurt.”
Sumi held him close as she felt his fear. “I won’t let anything happen to Darice.”
“Not just him.”
“I know.” She kissed his cheek before she pulled back. “Thia? You going with us?”
The look of horror on her face was priceless and comical. “Oh hell no. Peeing off the side of a mountain, listening to Darice moan and complain… I’d rather bring a date home to meet my dad – that would at least be entertaining until I had to scrub the blood out of my clothes.” She gestured toward Bastien. “Think I’ll hang at base camp and watch over the two males who don’t whine like babies.”
Sumi laughed. “All right.”
Hauk turned toward Thia. “Hey, Thee? What size shoe do you wear?”
He looked back at Sumi. “You?”
“You’ll need climbing shoes, won’t you?”
That would be helpful.
“I’ll grab my pack,” Thia said, heading for her tent. “Everything should fit.”
“Thanks, sweetie.” Sumi followed after her.
While Sumi and Darice changed, Hauk checked the ropes, anchors, biners, harnesses, cams, hexes, nuts, slings, belay devices, and packed them each a day sack.
When they returned, he took a moment to help them gear up and double-checked everything again.
Darice made a sound of supreme disgust. “Do I have to wear a full body harness? Really? Dancer, I’m not a baby.”
“If you invert on the climb, you’ll thank me.”
He rolled his eyes. And again when Hauk made sure everything was fastened properly to his sling. “Gah, Dancer. Really? I’ve been climbing since I was three. Stop, already!”
“Don’t get arrogant. I had a lot more hours than you in a harness when I fell over four hundred feet, and your father had even more. Humor me.”
Darice froze to stare at him. “What really happened on that climb, Dancer?”
Sumi held her own breath as she waited for the answer.
Dancer’s eyes darkened with sadness. “The anchors and belay failed.”
“Who was lead?”
Tears filled Darice’s eyes as he realized Keris was responsible for setting the anchors and belay. That he’d been at fault when they failed. “Is that why you cut the rope?”
Hauk winced as anger and pain mixed inside him. He was so sick of that accusation. Furious at the way his mother and father looked at him as if he’d murdered his own brother. “I didn’t cut the rope, Darice. I didn’t have my hands free to do it.”
He scowled. “I don’t understand.”
Hauk clenched his teeth as old memories surged past the darkest place he tried to keep them relegated to. “We fell because your father hit me before I could finish tying in to the belay station. I slipped and the anchors failed until we were down to only one. I was inverted, attempting to right myself and hold on with one hand, while I was trying to steady Keris with the other.” He held his hands up to show Darice the scars he had from the rope burns. “My knot was coming undone and the last anchor was slipping. We both knew what was about to happen. Even so, I didn’t stop trying to hold on for both of us. Next thing I knew, Keris pulled out his knife and sliced through the rope before I could stop him.”
Darice fingered the scars on Hauk’s hands. “You really didn’t cut it.”
“I would have died before I cut my brother loose.”
Darice wrapped his hands around his uncle’s scars. “You were my age.”
“A few months older.”
He swallowed hard as if it finally dawned on him just how horrific that event had been. Then, he threw himself into Hauk’s arms. “I won’t fall, Uncle Dancer.”
Sumi’s throat went tight as she saw the look on Dancer’s face as he held Darice against him.
“I know you won’t, Dare. And don’t let Sumi fall, either.”
Darice inclined his head to him. “I’ll bring you back a feather.”
Dancer ruffled his hair. “Deal.” He handed Darice his climbing helmet.
Sumi offered Dancer a bittersweet smile as he met her gaze. “We’ll be very safe. I just need to get him a feather and return, correct?”
He nodded. “Remember, the sparn will attack if she thinks you’re going after her nest.”
“Don’t worry. You rest and we’ll be back before you can even miss us.”
Hauk scoffed at her words. “Not possible. I miss you already.”
She made the most adorable expression before she kissed his cheek and buried her hand in his hair.
Hauk wanted to hold her like this forever.
Unfortunately, Thia came running, which caused Sumi to release him. She handed her bright pink helmet to Sumi, and a pair of sport sunglasses. “Good luck. Try not to strangle Darice.”
Darice glared at her as he fastened his helmet on.
“Thanks, Thia. You’ll take good care of the guys while I’m gone, right?” Sumi fastened her helmet before Hauk rechecked her harness and sling.
She sighed heavily, but said nothing about his paranoia.
“Absolutely. Be safe.” Thia kissed her cheek then moved to stand beside Hauk.
Sumi inclined her head to them and clapped Darice on the arm. “Ready, champ?”
“I’m your belay slave, mu tara. Acrena tu.”
“He said after you,” Thia translated.
“Thanks.” She led the way to the approach.
Hauk watched as Sumi and Darice began the climb he’d taken with Keris so long ago. It helped his mental state that Sumi was completely calm and did appear extremely accomplished, and the two of them weren’t going at each other’s throats verbally. Still…
He had a bad feeling.
Thia put her arm around his waist while he watched them. “It’ll be fine, Uncle Hauk. You’ll see.”
He smiled down at her, hoping she was right and he was wrong. And he refused to move until they were out of sight. Only then did he return to sit and watch them through the scope in Sumi’s rifle.
While he watched, Thia went to gather rocks for her little brothers.
“So who was the first mother hen? You or Fain?”
He dropped the scope to glare at Bastien. “Meaning?”
“You two are so much alike. It’s actually scary.”
That’s because they were always having to watch out for each other. Between their parents and Keris, the only affection he and Fain could count on was from themselves.
And as Sumi and Darice vanished completely from his sight, he heard a strange sound. “What was that?”
Bastien scratched at his chin. “What?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
Thia stood. “I do… Someone’s coming.”
Hauk moved to draw his blaster, but before he could, three darts went into his chest. The paralytic hit him instantly as he saw similar darts fly into Bastien, Thia, and Illyse.
Before he could ID their attackers, he passed out.
Sumi was impressed with Darice’s skill as he climbed up to her. “Who taught you?”
“My mother mostly. But Dancer’s been taking me for small climbs since I was little. Maybe once or twice a year. He’s really good at it. He actually free climbs a lot with his friends.”
She remembered seeing that from the photos. He and his friends appeared to enjoy it as a favorite pastime. With and without gear. “I’m surprised he’d ever climb again, after what happened.”