Corrus woke in the light. Through the large bedroom windows, the mid-morning rays of sunshine beamed, brightening his room up, making him feel like he was waking up in one of the over the top commercials he'd seen on TV.
For a moment, he simply lay there and shuddered while his dream faded. After twenty years away from home, Corrus still had nightmares.
Over two decades ago, Corrus' father had beaten both him and Penum so badly that all their healing efforts couldn't hide the angry red and purple marks he’d left over their bodies. It wasn't the first time he'd abused his son and nephew, or the first time Corrus had dreamed about it.
Corrus had learned to cope with the vivid memories. But it was the sound of laughter that haunted him. It always echoed in the large warehouse where his father usually carried out his punishments. Punishments that resulted from making major screw ups to just being around when the old man was in a bad mood.
All that laughter, Corrus thought, wiping sweat from his face with both hands. He and his cousin Penum were too young to have the responsibilities of full-grown men placed on them from before they were teenagers. Corrus knew that it was vital that he push the memories aside. They would lead to nothing but pain and renewed anger.
Corrus rose and walked into the bathroom. He winced at his reflection. His black shoulder-length hair was in disarray, his forest green eyes swollen from lack of sleep. Rather than feel sorry for himself, he stepped into the shower and let the steam absorb the worst of his sluggishness.
Once Corrus emerged into his bedroom with a towel around his waist, the tan colors of his room did their job by helping him relax even more, letting the bad energy that had built up within him fade. Unlike his teammates, Corrus fully believed in, and appreciated, the power of his environment in affecting his mood.
He'd gone far too long relying on grit and manliness to get him through everyday struggles. Now he had no problems admitting that a little interior design helped him bounce back faster than most. Especially on days when he'd had nightmares.
After putting on a t-shirt to match his eyes, he pulled his hair into a man-bun, which he'd worn for most of his life. Corrus smiled to himself as he remembered the not-so-subtle complimentary whispers of several women he'd walked by on his shopping trips. Apparently, the hairstyle was all the rage, adding a touch of femininity to the average alpha male.
These humans know nothing about alpha males. They should spend a day on Brevia and see the foolishness that goes on, he thought.
Corrus walked into the kitchen to a warm welcome.
"Look who’s up!" Cimmeris greeted.
"Good morning to you, too," Corrus replied, unable to keep a smile off his face. Cimmeris sat with his mate Emily by his side. If he’d thought Narchis and Zara were glued at the hip, Cimmeris and Emily had them beat six ways from Sunday. The two had a lifetime of history and a deep understanding of each other that went with it.
Several times, Corrus had found them working on one of Emily's projects together. Laughing one minute, then having fierce debates the next, both claiming that they knew what the other was thinking before defeating the other's argument. They were perfect for each other, and sometimes it sent a rare pang of envy through Corrus. If he, who had no interest in finding a mate, felt that way, he couldn't imagine what Narchis felt, being away from Zara.
"Morning, boss," Corrus said, patting Narchis on his shoulder.
Narchis scoffed. "We haven't been on a mission in months. I think it's okay for you to act as if I'm no longer captain of this team."
"Aww, but that would take the fun out of teasing you behind your back," Penum said, his bright green eyes twinkling.
Narchis shook his head and smiled. "Don't forget that Veilios and I do the same in our meetings."
Veilios, Narchis' second, laughed. "And don't even get me started on the personnel reports we have to do. Your file is pretty thick, Penum. What was it he did last time?" Veilios asked turning to Corrus.
"I believe he spent the better part of a five-minute op, taunting the same wolf to get up and fight him again. What was it he said?" Corrus asked, tapping his chin. "Aah, yes, I remember. 'Widen your stance and engage your core.'"
"At least he's helpful," Emily chimed in over the entire team's laughter.
Penum nodded to Emily. "Thank you." She'd taken Corrus' rough-around-the-edges cousin and worked miracles with him. Penum better understood when and where to share certain opinions, and the result was a more harmonious team. Emily, in Corrus' eyes, was a saint.
"We all know Gleonite soldiers lack skills in hand-to-hand combat," Penum said. "Their training focuses on fighting in their animal forms too much."
Veilios nodded. "I agree, but while I admire your devotion to turn into a teacher after Emily's wonderful work with you, I think you should pass on helping the enemy, don't you think?"
Penum blushed and shoved away from the table, heading to his room. The tactic, which some might view as childish, actually helped him calm down. After several failed attempts, and taking a deep breath and counting to ten didn't work, Corrus fully supported the new technique. He ran after his cousin and blocked his path.
"Hey, I'm going shopping. Want anything?"
Penum brushed past him. "No."
Corrus smiled indulgently. Watching Penum learn to deal with his emotions, rather than snapping back or turning to his fists, was too entertaining.
"Come on." Corrus wrapped an arm around his cousin's shoulders, tiptoeing up to do so. "Don't tell me you're not even the least bit interested in some fudge."
Penum stopped in his tracks, a grin taking over. "Half classic fudge and half caramel."
"Feeling indulgent, aren't we," Corrus teased.
"It's been a rough few months. All this being passive stuff is tiring."
"Now you understand why people need some alone time."
Penum nodded. "I do. Now get me that fudge or the old Penum will come back and tease you mercilessly. It's very rare that you're late for breakfast. Has all this time alone inspired you to take matters into your own hands?" Penum wiggled his eyebrows, and Corrus rolled his eyes.
"Your jokes still need some work. I'll talk to Emily and see what she can do." Corrus patted Penum's cheek, then took off running before his cousin could retaliate. With a smile, he picked up the shopping list on the kitchen counter, then waved at his teammates before he left the house.
Shopping was his favorite part of the week. Due to his relatively smaller stature, he drew less attention than his teammates and so the onus had fallen on him. Despite their jealousy over his ability to leave the base regularly for hours at a time, Corrus loved shopping.
It allowed him to engage his mind in a non-tactical way, thinking about how to get the most for the least amount of money, rather than thinking of the fastest way to kill.
The best part, though, was the warm interactions he'd have with store clerks. So many humans merely picked what they wanted and scrolled their phones as they waited for everything to be rung up. Corrus, who had worked from a very young age, sometimes in a similar capacity, understood the need for connection after hours of inactivity or, even worse, hours of being treated like a machine.
After dropping the groceries in the car, Corrus walked to the little candy store that stood adjacent to it. One thing he loved about the Shadow Squad's new base was that it sat right outside a large town in Kentucky. That meant having a variety of treats for the team that they could access on occasion or Corrus could bring back. Online shopping wasn't an option, because their base's location was meant to be top secret.
As he walked to the shop, he saw a homeless man seated on a bench facing the store. Reaching into his back pocket for some money, Corrus stopped behind the man. He understood that all people had pride and he planned on dropping the note into his lap before moving on. Drawing attention to an act of kindness often made the receiver feel pitiful.
Holding the twenty-dollar bill in his hand, Corrus approached the bench, but, before he passed the man, he scented something that drew all the blood from his face. A dragon. The man was a dragon.
Corrus crumpled the note in his hand and marched on to the candy shop. What in the world was a dragon doing seated outside of a candy store in the middle of the day, dressed as a homeless man?
Dragons were never poor. Their strength and magical ability made sure that they would always find employment somewhere. So, the sight of a dragon posing as a homeless man sent a chill down Corrus' spine as he realized that the dragon was hunting for someone.
Looking at the dragon in the store window’s reflection, Corrus breathed a sigh of relief as he saw that his own dragon scent had not registered. Veilios made a human-scented potion for all the dragons, but Corrus' had run out because of his frequent trips to town. He made a mental note to remind the older dragon to make him some more.
Corrus walked into the shop with a frown on his face, but it quickly melted as he came face to face with the store clerk.
"Hello," the young woman said.
"Uh, hi." Corrus quickly turned around to stare at the shelves of candy. He had no intention of buying any, knowing, from several trips to the store, that the fudge was kept at the back. He just needed a moment to steel himself.
The store clerk was new and beautiful. Painfully so. Her light brown hair matched her eyes, and her oval face drew him in. Then there were her curves. Oh, gods. Full and well displayed. Not in a bid to attract all men. Just in a show of confidence. Corrus didn't discriminate, but curves were his weakness, and this young woman had them in abundance.
The sound of a man yelling cut through his reverie and Corrus turned and looked out. An older man was yelling at the dragon. Usually, Corrus would feel sorry, but he knew the man wasn't homeless. He was a dragon with more than likely evil intentions.
"Poor guy," the clerk said. "All he wants is a break."
Corrus approached the counter. "How long has he been out there?"
The young woman shrugged. "A couple of days."
"Has he tried anything funny?"
A warm laugh bubbled up from her, and something warm flickered in Corrus’ rib cage. The sound was heavenly and the idea of hearing it once more, as she lay her head on his chest on a lazy afternoon, floated to the front of his mind.
"No. I think he likes the candy."
Corrus nodded. "Where's Bill?"
The young woman's eyes widened. "A regular customer, I see! Bill's retired. I took over just a week ago. I'm Jamie."
Corrus stuck his hand out, desperate to make some physical contact with her, despite how unusual the gesture might be in such a setting. "Corrus."
Jamie tilted her head as she took his hand. Her skin was smooth, and her hand felt so small in his larger one. Corrus was small for a dragon, but still over six feet tall. Jamie must have been about five four, and he hoped, for the first time in his life, that his towering over her wouldn't make her feel intimidated.
"Corrus. Like a choir?"
Now it was Corrus' turn to laugh. He often forgot just how unusual his name was on Earth. Brevia was a place with so much rich history and such a diverse population from several different planets, no one there would blink an eye at his odd-sounding name.
"It's c-o-r-r-u-s. Weird, I know."
Jamie shook her head and smiled. "It's unique. I like it." Corrus' felt his chest puff up and he berated himself. He had no intention of pursuing anything with Jamie. Life with a mate wasn't in the cards for him. And flirting with someone he had no intention of pursuing wasn't his style.
Corrus sighed, willing his adrenaline to calm down. "It is unique. Uh, can I get a box of fudge?"
Jamie reached for a pair of tongs. "Sure. How much would you like and what kind?"
"Enough to fill up the middle-sized box you have, half classic and half caramel."
"You must have a serious sweet tooth." Jamie moved behind the counter, bending to grab a box.
"It's, uh, for a friend." Corrus struggled to keep his eyes from staring at Jamie's backside. Gods, she was everything he liked in a woman. Gorgeous, but not vain. Kind, but not a pushover. And he had a strong feeling that there was even more to her. It was a shame that Corrus wasn't built for life with a mate. If he were, he would have made his interest in Jamie very clear. Corrus found himself hoping that she was single, based on the lack of a wedding band that humans often wore to show their mated status. A gem like her wouldn't stay single for long.
What is wrong with me? I want her when I know I can't have her, he thought, shaking his head.
"Mom," a little boy called, emerging from the back room. His light brown hair confirmed he was Jamie's, but there was a lot more to the boy.
Jamie walked to him and squatted to eye level. "What is it, Ethan?"
"Are you almost done?" the boy asked.
Jamie sighed. "No. It's going to be a few more minutes till I can take a break, bud. Go back in and wait for me."
"But I feel so bad," the boy whined.
"I know, but I'll be done soon. Just a few more minutes, then I'm all yours." Jamie cupped the boy's cheek and kissed his forehead. The boy huffed but returned to the backroom as instructed.
Jamie stood and smiled apologetically. "That's my son, Ethan. Sorry for the delay."
Corrus nodded, unable to find appropriate words to respond with. Jamie had a son. But more importantly, her son was a half-breed. And now it all made sense. The dragon outside was probably from Gleon and here for the boy. Male half-breeds were hard to capture, and they'd found one they could grab without a fuss and monitor through all stages of magical development.
Corrus pulled out his phone and dialed Penum's number. Before he turned around, he saw a look of disappointment on Jamie's face. He wanted to find out what the look was for but he didn't have the time. A Gleonite sat outside of a candy store where a half-breed boy innocently sat within, with his human mother standing guard.
The odds had been against them, but now Corrus was here, and he didn't care about protocol. He would not allow the dragon to get his filthy claws into Jamie and Ethan. They deserved better, and he would not rest until they were safe.
"Don't they have my fudge?" Penum answered.
"Forget about the fudge," Corrus said, hissing into the phone. "There's a half-breed boy here, and I'm pretty sure the dragon sitting outside the store is from Gleon."
Penum drew a sharp breath. "Stay there. I'll round the team up."
"Don't. I don't want to spook him or blow our cover. Just brief them on what's going on. I parked the car outside the supermarket. Meet me there, and we can decide what to do. We'll be able to see the store and keep an eye on him until we come up with a plan."
"Okay," Penum sang into the phone. "I'm glad we finally have a mission. I was starting to get antsy."
Corrus hung up without a response. This wasn't just a mission. This was about keeping Jamie and her son safe. Penum might view it as a chance to flex his muscle. But without understanding why, Corrus knew that their safety already meant far more to him than it should have.
Is meeting them a blessing or a curse? He wondered.