Out of a crowd of people and Andarions, it’d been Nyk who’d jerked his jacket off and used it to put out the flames on Hauk’s back.
To this day, Hauk didn’t understand Nykyrian’s mercy.
And every time he saw one of those scars on Nyk’s body caused by that crash, he knew the debt he owed to a boy who should have let him burn for his part in making Nyk feel unwelcome at their school.
But that was a long time ago. And it was something he’d never spoken of to anyone.
Not even Nykyrian.
Clearing his throat, he picked through the fruit in his bag until he found a friggle. “It was a training exercise when I was a boy. My pod crashed and I was trapped in the burning wreckage.” He offered her the fruit.
She declined it with a shake of her head. “It must have been awful.”
He ate the friggle before he spoke again. “It isn’t one of my happier memories. Sadly, it’s not one of my worst, either.”
“Were you scared?”
He wiped his hand on his pants. “No.”
“Really?” she asked incredulously.
He gave her a pointed stare. “Really.”
Sumi couldn’t fathom what he was telling her. Not given the wealth and brutality of the scars on his back. He’d been burned severely enough that she was sure it’d taken him years of physical therapy to be whole again. And probably a number of skin grafts. “How old were you?”
“Thirteen Andarion years.”
She gaped at his answer. “You were a baby.”
“I was bigger than most.”
Typical Andarion answer, and it was one that brought to her mind that image of him as an adorable child with bright eyes who’d been holding on to his older brothers. She bit her lip as she tried to imagine the nightmare it must have been for him to be so young and so close to death. “How is it possible that at that age, you weren’t scared even a little?”
“I was too pissed.”
He cut a feral look in her direction. “Acting like a bunch of scared human schoolgirls, Andarions I thought were friends had run out to save their own asses without trying to help me save mine.”
“Then how did you escape?”
“Thia’s father. Even though he was just a kid, too, he ran in and dragged my bleeding hide out.”
She didn’t miss the fact that he had yet to mention Nykyrian by name. “Is that why you’re so loyal to him?”
“I’m loyal to him for many reasons.” He rose to tower over her. “I should check on Darice now.”
She watched as he made his way to the small, black tent. Dang, that surly male had the most predatorial walk of any creature she’d ever met. Loose limbed and sexier than it ever should be. And she knew the minute he ungagged his nephew. Darice let loose with a string of foul curses for his uncle.
“Stop, or I’ll gag you again.”
“Why? Does my truth offend you?”
“No,” Hauk snarled. “Your tongue offends me. Now bite it or lose it.”
“I vote he cuts it out for all our sanities. What do you think?”
Sumi started to smile at Thia’s words until she saw the huge black cat by the girl’s side. Gasping, she scooted away from it.
“Don’t panic,” Thia said quickly, stroking the cat’s head. “It’s just Illyse. She only attacks when I tell her to, or whenever someone attacks me.”
Her heart still pounding, Sumi returned to her seat. “You are a scary woman, Thia.”
A slow grin spread across her face. “You should meet my father sometime.”
“Only if I’m heavily armed.”
Thia laughed. “Trust me. It won’t matter if you are. In fact, you’re more likely to survive if you’re not. Then, he might take pity on you and show mercy. Armed, you’re on your own, and that’s a very terrifying place to be with him on your tail.”
“I think you enjoy scaring people.”
Thia shrugged. “We all need a hobby.”
“I hear crochet is the most therapeutic and calming.”
Sitting down by her side, Thia wrinkled her nose. “I strangely like you.”
Sumi opened her mouth to respond in kind then froze as she saw Hauk coming out of the tent, holding Darice by the belt of his pants while his nephew squirmed and insulted him more. “What the…?”
“Oh Lord,” Thia breathed before she ran to head Hauk off. She held her arms out to block his path. “Don’t do it.”
A tic beat a furious rhythm in Hauk’s jaw. “Thia, get out of my way. I’m going to drown him. I mean it this time.”
“Please, Uncle. Don’t. Let me do it, I’ve earned the right after this last week with him.”
Trying not to laugh, Sumi rubbed at her brow as Hauk and Thia argued over who had more reasons to kill Darice while Darice continued to shout obscenities at them both. Confused, the fierce lorina circled around their small group like it was trying to figure out which one it should bite.
Since it’d been just her and her sister at home, and there had been a large age gap between them, they’d never really fought.
Not like this.
Sumi blew a loud whistle to get their attention. “Guys?”
They paused to stare at her as if she was the crazy one.
“Is this normal? Do all families fight this way?”
Thia sighed. “I don’t know about all families, but it’s the norm for my little brothers. I’m pretty sure they’re all going to grow up to be terrorists.”
Without warning, Hauk dropped Darice. He hit the ground with an audible groan. Stepping over his nephew, the huge Andarion approached Sumi. “Are you sure you don’t have a ship?”
“Quite positive. Sorry. I did have a rifle, but you confiscated it.”
That ferocious tic returned to Hauk’s jaw.
Glaring at his uncle, Darice pushed himself up from the ground. “When we get back, I’m telling Yaya how you have shamed us all with your human behavior!”
Hauk turned toward him with a fierce grimace that would make anyone with a brain back down. “Like I give a minsid f**k. Trust me, boy, my mother did a lot worse to discipline us than tie us in a tent. She’d only be appalled that I have yet to put you in a ring.”
Darice lifted his chin defiantly. “You’re not Andarion enough to face me there!”
Hauk gaped at Darice as if the boy was shy a few charges on his blaster. Snapping his jaw shut, he went to grab a bottle of water before he paused next to Thia. “I’m going hunting. Keep your blaster close and your eyes and ears open.”
As Hauk left, Darice threw dirt in his direction. “That’s it, you coward! Keep walking. That’s all —” His words ended in a grunt of pain as Thia shot him.
Sumi gasped at her cold-blooded actions.
“Relax. I set it to stun first.” She holstered her blaster, and passed an unrepentant smirk to Sumi. “Though I shouldn’t have. It would serve him right to have a giant scar in the center of his chest, or better yet, on his arrogant, entitled ass.” She sat down next to Sumi and called the lorina over to her so that she could calm the beast.
Biting her lip, Sumi was confused by everything that had happened in the last few minutes. “Shouldn’t we take Darice back to his tent?”
Thia gave her a dry stare. “Ever tried to pick up an Andarion male? Even a small one?”
“Don’t.” She jutted her chin out for the lorina to nibble on it. “Trust me, that prick’s not worth the hernia. I say we leave him out in the open and hope something foul eats him. Slowly… and with relish.”
Unsure of what to think, Sumi glanced after Hauk, who had vanished into the night. He hadn’t even looked back as Thia had blasted Darice. That degree of callousness for his family seemed out of character for him, and said a lot about their relationship. “So what’s the deal with them, anyway? Why does Darice hate him?”
Thia paused as she took a minute to consider her words. “Most of the sniping is just being Andarion. We’re a snarky, warring bunch.”
“As you have heard, repeatedly. They blame Hauk for the death of Darice’s father.”
Thia shook her head. “From the snatches of conversations I’ve heard over the years between my father and Fain – Keris, Darice’s father, in spite of being an Andarion war hero, had some serious problems with drugs and alcohol.”
Sumi sucked her breath in sharply at that. While those weren’t good things for humans, Andarions had a very harsh penalty system for it, especially for those who wore a military uniform. Some drinking was allowed.
Excess was not.
As for the other, drugs could be a death sentence if used by a civilian who was caught, and was always such for those in uniform. “Why would he risk drug use?”
“Again, I’m speculating, but as you’ve heard Uncle Hauk say, their mother isn’t exactly a beacon of maternal instinct. Even though she’s a brilliant negotiator, she has little patience for her sons’ misbehavior.”
“Negotiator?” There was something his dossier hadn’t revealed. “I didn’t know Andarions had such in their world. I thought they just slugged out all their problems until someone gave up or died.”
“Not always.” Thia ran her hand over Illyse’s ears. “And his mother is one of the best ever trained. Like Hauk’s father, his mother is a military veteran who expected a lot from her three blood sons.” She paused to pour water for the lorina to drink. “Darice’s mother is also a veteran and was Keris’s wingman. I’ve heard that when Uncle Hauk told her what had happened to Keris on his Endurance, she buried a knife in Hauk’s stomach and gave him a gut wound so deep they had to remove part of his stomach to save his life.”
Sumi sucked her breath in sharply at that. What an awful thing to do, but it went along with the stories she’d been told about Andarion savagery. “You’re serious?”
“How old was he?”
And she’d stabbed him? How could anyone do such a thing? Sumi understood grief, but that… She looked over at his nephew. “Darice’s age.”
“No, he’s fourteen. Uncle Hauk had to delay his Endurance because of an accident at school. He was still having skin grafts when he should have gone originally.”
Sumi’s jaw went slack. So she’d been right about his injuries from the pod. What the hell had he been doing out here after all that? “Was he fit for Endurance?”
“According to my father, not really. It should have been delayed longer, at least another year, but their mother insisted Uncle Hauk go and that Keris not take mercy on him.”
Shocked, Sumi tried to grasp how any mother could be like that. But then, her own mother had abandoned her and Omira to an angry alcoholic who hated them, so she was well versed with women who had no business birthing children. “Why would she do that?”
Thia ran her hand down the lorina’s spine, ruffling its fur as it arched its back against her touch. “She was furious that Uncle Hauk had allowed himself to be scarred during the accident. Apparently, he was already pledged at the time it happened, and when his betrothed’s family saw the damage to his body, they withdrew their daughter from the Hauk lineage, and embarrassed his mother greatly and publicly. My father thinks his mother sent him so that Uncle Hauk wouldn’t return. In her mind, his death during Endurance would have restored their family honor.”
That was so cold and cruel. “Is that also why he’s never married?”
She shook her head. “That’s all Dariana’s fault.”
Sumi scowled as she tried to follow this nonsensical logic. “How is it her fault that he never married? Is it because she stabbed him and gave him a scar?”
“No. Andarion law and custom stipulates that if a female is widowed and there’s an unpledged male in the lineage, he is to marry her and provide for her in the absence of his fallen brother.”
Sumi remembered hearing Darice yell at him for that. “Then why hasn’t he married her already?” Keris had been dead for quite some time. The gods knew, Sumi wouldn’t have waited five minutes to drag that lush piece of malehood into her bed and ride him until he begged her for mercy.
What an idiot.
Thia ground her teeth before she answered. “Dariana hates his guts and refuses to accept him as her mate.”
Sumi’s scowl deepened. “Then why are they still pledged?”
“You’re thinking like a human,” Thia chided. “It doesn’t work that way on Andaria. Pledges are negotiated and drafted by the females. The male cannot back out of one. Ever. He is honor bound to see it through.”