“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.”
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 f**k 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 all my 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.
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.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.”
Darice curled his lip at Thia before he went out of his way to kick her crate. “I’m not carrying this off the ship. You can carry your own clothes, human.”
Hauk cuffed him on the back of his head. “She’s your princess, tarsen. Respect her as such.”