The soldier who’d done most of the beating, pulled his blaster out and angled it at Bristol’s head. “Now answer the question or I’m going to paint the wall with your brother’s brain matter.”
Bristol screamed against his gag.
Ture’s stomach heaved at the threat. Time stopped as he stared into the same eyes his sister had held, and he remembered holding her hand while she took her last breath. The shrill sound of the monitors flat-lining was forever engraved in his heart. Bristol had just been a boy and Ture had held him for hours as he cried.
The assassin removed Bristol’s gag.
Tears fell down his cheeks as he sobbed. “P-p-please, Ture. Don’t let them hurt me!”
It was the same plea Anachelle had made.
Completely unsympathetic, Bristol had curled his lip at her. “Shut that bitch up.”
They had shot her a heartbeat later. The horror of seeing her die for no reason sickened him. The fact that his own brother had told them to silence her. . . .
“I love you, Bristol,” Ture whispered.
Bristol smiled. “Then tell them where Sulle is. We can split the reward. You and me! It’s a fortune, Ture. We can both retire. We’ll never have to work again.”
Hot tears stung the cuts on his face as they fell. Ture drew a ragged breath and shook his head. “Sorry. I love Mari more.”
“I’m your brother!”
And Maris was his heart.
The League soldier sank his hand into Bristol’s hair and pressed the tip of the blaster to his temple. “I will do this.”
Ture had no doubt. Killing people was their specialty. “I know.”
“Ture . . . you can’t let me die.”
“I didn’t do this, Bristol. You did.” Had Bristol not called the League, wanting to claim the bounty on Maris’s life, they wouldn’t be here now.
“They’re going to kill me, big brother! Please help me!”
Ture screamed out as agony ripped him apart. He didn’t want to do this. What kind of monster consigned his own brother to death?
“One last time, cock-jockey. Where’s Sulle?”
Before he could even draw his breath, the door behind the soldier blew apart.
“I’m right here, ass**le.” Maris opened fire on him and then swung his blaster to the other two in the room. Before Ture could blink, they were dead.
Ignoring Bristol, Maris ran to Ture and knelt beside his chair. His hand shaking, he brushed the hair back from Ture’s battered face. “Baby?”
“I knew you’d find me.”
Maris cut his restraints and pulled him into his arms as Darling joined them in the room. “Thank the gods you’re alive.”
“What about this one?” Hauk asked as he covered Bristol with his blaster. “Friend or foe?”
Maris helped Ture to his feet. “Ture?”
“He’s my brother.”
Hauk cut Bristol free while Maris leaned Ture against the wall and inspected his wounds.
Darling checked the corridor for more League soldiers.
Maris clicked on his link. “Caillen? Report?”
“I think we got them all on the way in. You should be free to the shuttle.”
Maris held his hand out to Ture. To his complete shock, Ture grabbed the reserve blaster from his hip and angled it up. Stunned, he couldn’t move to defend himself as the barrel pointed to his head.
Then Ture jerked it and shot behind him.
He turned to see Bristol sinking to the floor as a blaster fell from his hands.
Ture collapsed against him. “He was going to shoot you in the back with the blaster Hauk handed him to defend himself with.”
Slack-jawed, Hauk looked at Darling then Maris and finally Ture. “You said brother.”
Ture swallowed hard. “He was.”
Maris’s heart shattered at those words. For him, Ture had killed his own brother. Before he could stop himself, he opened the face shield on his helmet and kissed him.
“Guys!” Hauk shouted. “We need to get out of here while we can. Put it back in your pants. Let’s go!”
“I still have three charges,” Darling told Hauk. “It should get us to the bay.”
Maris pulled away and made sure to keep Ture by his side as they headed toward their shuttle. Like a mother hen, Darling guarded them while Hauk went first as their scout.
They were halfway there when Caillen’s voice came over the link.
“We have company, and they’re throwing us a welcome party.”
Maris flinched at the sound of blaster fire and Fain’s curses. He closed his face shield, then shrugged his blast resistant jacket off and put it on Ture. It wasn’t as much protection as he’d like, but it was better than nothing. He inclined his head to Hauk to cover them as they moved forward with Darling covering their backs.
When they reached the bay, it was crawling with League personnel. His heart hammering, Maris knew he couldn’t carry Ture with his current wounds, and Ture was in no condition to run. “Hauk? Darling? Take Ture and get him on board. I’ll draw fire.”
Darling cursed at him.
“You sure?” Hauk asked.
Ture went pale. “Mari?”
He cupped Ture’s cheek as a wave of regret washed through him. I want to make it back to you…
But there was a lot of fire power here.
“Go with them, baby. I’ll be right behind you.”
He saw the doubt in Ture’s gray eyes as Hauk took his own jacket off. Tossing Ture over his shoulder, Hauk used his jacket to shield Ture’s legs. “On three I’m running to the shuttle with Ture,” Hauk announced to the Sentella members who were with them. “Don’t shoot us and someone open the damn door.”
“On it,” Caillen said.
Darling pulled out his bombs. “I’ll deflect them with two charges.”
Maris took one last look at Ture’s damaged face and prayed for a miracle. When Hauk hit two, Maris jerked his helmet off so that the League would know he was the primary target they were after. He set it on Ture’s head to protect him then ran into the bay before the others could stop him from doing it.
Darling’s profanity echoed in his ears as Darling tried to cover him.
“Sulle!” one of their enemies shouted before they opened fire.
Darling’s two charges went off, forcing them back temporarily.
Maris ran between ships and docked cargo, away from the shuttle, making sure that the soldiers had a clean line of sight on him.
“Damn it, Mari!” Darling shouted through the link in his ear. “Where did you vanish to? And what the f**k are you doing?”
“Protecting what I love. Don’t worry about me, Darling. I want you to launch as soon as Ture’s on board.”
Darling went into a round of Phrixian curses that would have made Maris’s father proud.
“Hauks, get Darling on that ship even if you have to shoot him. Fain, sit on his ass tight.” Maris ducked as a plasma blast whizzed by his head. “Lock it down and get out.”
Maris ran toward a large stack of boxes. Hitting his knees, he skidded around and opened fire on the soldiers who were closing in on his back. Then he jumped up and dove for cover.
And slammed against a League assassin.
He waited for death. Until the assassin opened his helm.
It was Safir, who’d led them here to save Ture.
Maris scowled at his brother. Saf was supposed to have left already. “What are you doing?”
Saf handed him his blaster. “Use me as your shield.”
“Are you insane?”
“No. I’m repaying a blood debt. At least partially. Now, do it, Maris, or I’ll have to kill you.”
Still, he hesitated. “If I do this, you’ll lose your rank.”
“Better than losing my brother.” Saf closed his shield. “Don’t worry about me, Mari. I’ll live. Just get the others out. You know your crew will never leave you here to die and the League will never let any of you live.
Saf was right.
His heart breaking over what he had to do, Maris pulled him into a hug before he stepped around to Saf’s back and grabbed his neck. “Darling? Are you in?”
“On the ramp, looking for your stupid ass. We’re not leaving you, Mari. Ever.”
He’d been a fool to think they would. But then, that was why they were family.
Family hung together, even when it was insane to do so. They didn’t leave each other to die.
“I’m on my way.”
Saf pretended to struggle as Maris dragged him toward the ship. While assassins were trained to kill each other in a situation like this, the men in the bay were foot soldiers. They wouldn’t shoot so long as Maris held one of their own.
“I love you, brother,” he whispered to Saf.
Saf squeezed his arm to let him know he felt the same way.
Maris hesitated as he reached the ramp. Kyr would have Saf beaten and stripped of his rank for this. They both knew it. But if Saf allowed Maris to escape without injury done to him, his punishment would be death.
Pressing his helmet against Saf’s, Maris held his brother close. He wanted to take Saf with him, but that would be even worse. Then Saf would be marked for death and hunted by every assassin the League had. It’d be kinder to shoot him in the head himself than relegate his brother to that fate.
“Shoot him!” Saf yelled to the other soldiers, covering his ass.
When one of the soldiers came close enough, Darling set off his last charge.
As it erupted, Maris pushed Saf away from it and down the ramp. With a deep breath for courage, he shot Saf in the shoulder then ran the rest of the distance up the ramp.
Darling and Hauk met him at the top. Hauk slammed and held him against the steel wall as Caillen launched their ship before the ramp finished closing.
Darling held on to a strap on the opposite side.
Hauk tightened his grip on Maris. “Ture’s strapped in beside Caillen.”
Maris patted his arm. “Thank you, Hauk. For everything.”
“Any time, buddy.”
Darling held his hand out for Maris to take. They didn’t say a word to each other.
They didn’t have to.
Through thick and thin, brothers to the bitter end.
The ship turned sharply as Caillen outmaneuvered their pursuers. How Hauk managed to keep him pinned to the wall, Maris had no idea. Damn, the Andarion was strong.
As they reached escape velocity, Nykyrian, Syn, Nero, Jayne and Fain brought their fighters in to engage the smaller ships after them.
Hauk released him. Maris made his way to the bridge where Chayden provided cover fire while Caillen piloted the ship. He barely saw them as his gaze locked on Ture. Rushing to him, he sank to his knees, threw his arms around Ture’s waist and laid his head in his lap.
Ture brushed his hand through Maris’s damp hair as tears blinded him. “You ever risk your life like that again, and I’ll make Darling beat you.”
“Copy that,” Darling growled. “Only I’m allowed to be that stupid.”
Maris laughed at them. He lifted his head to see Darling going over their settings. “What happened to Saf?”
“He’s en route to the hospital and is suspended, pending investigation.”
“Don’t worry, Mari,” Nykyrian said over the line. “Kyr will have him punished, but he won’t kill him.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. He won’t trust Safir in the foreseeable future. However, he will know that one of two things happened. Either you got the drop on your brother and used him, and you’re not worth the loss of a highly trained assassin who has family loyalty to him. Or Saf helped you, and you now owe a blood debt to him. That, Kyr can use to trap you in the future.”
And that was why Nykyrian was still alive, even though the League wanted him dead. It was frightening how much he understood the intricacies of other species and their politics.
Darling glanced over to him and offered a smile. “We also have one of our spies covering Saf’s back. If anyone makes a move on him, we will get him out immediately. I promise you, no one’s going to hurt your brother.”
“Thank you.” Maris looked up at Ture. “Are you all right?”
“Now that you’re safe, I am.”
Maris treasured those words as he forced his thoughts away from the tragedy of the night. The League had dealt them a hard blow.
Ture’s brother was dead.
Because of me.
Taking Ture’s hand, he held it to his lips as that harsh reality sank in. No one, other than Darling or Saf, would have protected him like that. It was something he’d never forget.
“I love you,” he breathed.
A single tear fell down Ture’s cheek. “Love you, too.”
For the first time in his life, Maris knew it wasn’t lip service.
This was real.
And it would be forever.
Maris laughed as both Darling and Ture answered him. True to his promise, Ture never took offense to the times Maris called him ‘darling.’ Rather, he took it as the endearment it was meant to be, and never assumed Maris was calling him by the wrong name.