A heavy weight pressed down on Dryce’s chest, a cold, unfeeling dread that unfurled and tried to settle over his exposed skin. The black expanse of space stretched out beyond his eyes, silver dots in the distance the only relief from an eternity of darkness. It was all that was left for him, no matter how the week ended. He could feel the certainty of his fate just as surely as a wave crashing onto the shore.
War was coming, and with it the same weapon that had destroyed his home planet generations before he was born. He and his fellow warriors had summoned it to Earth where they would doom billions if they couldn’t find a way to stop it.
And even if they did, Dryce was just as damned as he’d been before he fled Detyen Headquarters with his brother. Soon he would die, or worse, and though the men around him had all found their denyai, Dryce couldn’t believe that one would be out there for him. On the eve of war, he wouldn’t waste his luck on such a wish.
His eyes snapped open and Dryce eyed the clock on his bedside table. It wasn’t even midnight. He could hear muffled laughter from one room over and knew that Kayde and his denya, Quinn, had yet to find their sleep. Toran and his denya were likely to be at her house and Raze rarely spent time in the suite of rooms that they’d all been assigned when they made it to the planet. As for the final pair in the group, Dryce didn’t know where Druath and Laurel were sleeping tonight, but after what had just happened to Laurel, Dryce knew the two of them would want to capture some time alone while they could manage it.
He ran his fingers through his short dark hair and groaned. Sleep eluded him, just as it had so many nights since he’d first come to Earth. The place was so loud and bright, and nothing ever slowed down to a manageable speed. He’d seen dozens of planets and hundreds of cities, some far more technologically advanced than Washington, DC, but something about this city caused his heart to beat a little faster.
He threw the covers off his bed and sat up. Dryce could lay down for the next four hours, but he knew that sleep wouldn’t come without something to aid it along. And while there were plenty of medicinal sleep aids available to him, he’d found only one solution that led to a good night’s rest and a happy mood in the morning.
Dark pants, tight shirt, and a comb through his hair was all that it took to get him ready. He stepped out of his room and walked quietly through the common area so as not to disturb any of his flat mates. He called up a taxi on his communicator and by the time he made it downstairs it was already waiting. He put in the address for a nearby bar and watched the streetlights fly by as they cut through the scant traffic of DC late at night. He’d always enjoyed a few hours with a willing and exuberant body, and on Earth he’d found a level of popularity he’d never dreamed of. The people at the clubs and bars here loved a bit of alien flesh, and he was more than willing to oblige in the no-strings-attached encounters.
It was a little hollow, a little lonely, even in the hot crowds, but Dryce could deal with that, especially when finding a willing partner would give him what he needed for the night.
He paid the taxi and watched it drive away. A line snaked around the side of the building, but when the bouncer spotted him, he waved Dryce right in. It was good to be known, and the smile he offered those waiting outside seemed to go a long way to soothe their ruffled tempers.
Inside, music blasted, and bodies writhed on the dance floor. Dryce slithered and gyrated his way to the nearest bar and ordered a drink, nothing too hard, nothing that he would regret in the morning, but he found he liked the taste of Earth beers and despite his teal skin and occasionally red eyes, holding a bottle made him fit in among all of these strange beige and brown people. There weren’t just humans in the room. He spotted a dozen or so aliens, some bright blue and one with tentacles for arms. He’d keep his distance from that group. It was easier to prowl for a partner alone than pick off a hanger-on from the alien groupies.
And he’d been coming here enough to have groupies of his own.
“Dryce! I didn’t think you were coming tonight.” He could hear the smile in her voice even before he turned around. Renee was a short human who he’d met at several of the bars in the city, though they’d never gone home together. She was eternally cheerful and welcoming, offering him a hug whenever they met and introducing him to whatever friends she had with her. He’d picked up plenty of the friends, but something about Renee made her feel more like a younger sister than a potential lover.
He smiled and returned her hug. “You know me, I can’t stay away.”
She giggled, but they both knew how true it was. When his duties didn’t keep him overnight, more often than not he was out. His fellow warriors were content to stay at home, and lucky to have their denyai by their sides, but he had to find his comforts elsewhere.
“You should meet my friend Ella, she’s never been here, but she loves you already. Come on!” Renee tugged on his arm and pulled him towards the corner of the room where the mysterious Ella was waiting. Dryce didn’t know if she already loved him specifically because Renee had been talking about him, or if the woman was looking for a bit of alien fun, but either way worked. If they clicked, he could show her a good time and they’d both leave pleased.
Maybe she’d even be his mate.
The hope barely had time to form before it was dashed by the sight of a beautiful young woman who waved when Renee came into sight. She was short, with long dark hair and skin that seemed to sit between pale beige and something more golden. And she wasn’t his denya. Dryce didn’t know what it would feel like to find his mate, but he knew he’d recognize it immediately. Raze had tried to explain it to him but given that his brother had been soulless at the time he met his own denya, his experience wasn’t likely to match what Dryce would feel if the moment ever came.
He talked to the women for a few minutes, but whatever charms Ella possessed weren’t what he was looking for that night. He excused himself, pretending to see another person he knew, and left the two women alone to continue their evening. For a second Ella seemed disappointed, but she barely pouted as he moved away.
He surveyed the room, looking for someone who would do as his companion. Plenty of patrons eyed him, making it clear they’d love to show him a good time, but none of it felt right. He clunked his head back against the wall in frustration. It looked like it was going to be another long, sleepless night. Dryce checked his watch and saw that it had only ticked by midnight. He hadn’t even been gone from his room for an hour, but he was ready to head back. Given the mood he was in, he doubted he’d find someone who could satisfy him. And given his own grouchiness, he didn’t trust that he would be the best partner for a potential lover tonight.
He turned to walk away and recognition lit through him, despite the dim light and the crowd.
Dryce pushed himself off the wall and dove through the crowd, no longer caring if he jostled anyone. He gently hip checked someone who wouldn’t move out of his way and heard a cry as a drink spilled to the ground. He didn’t care. His entire focus was on the woman standing haloed in the light of the door. She was looking for someone, her eyes narrowed and lips scowling, clearly not happy to be there.
But how would she feel when she saw him? Would she recognize him? Could he take her home now and claim her tonight?
His heart beat faster than it did in the heat of battle as hope surged through him. His mate! She was here! He just had to get to her. All thoughts of finding another lover ever dissolved as he imagined what it would be like with her. He had to get to her. Had to find out her name, where she lived, when she would want him, what he could do to prove himself to her. He knew that humans didn’t always understand the denya bond. Detyens mating with humans was still new, but he would find a way to make this work, and he’d do it much more smoothly than his fellow warriors had.
Raze and Kayde, due to their soulless natures, hadn’t even recognized their mates when they’d first met.
Toran and Iris had been at odds due to Iris’s job and the human’s initial distrust of the Detyens. And Dru and Laurel had famously clashed before they mated.
He wasn’t going to suffer like that. He’d find his mate and woo her, prove to her that he was just the man for her, and then she’d be his, sated and safely ensconced beside him.
She pulled out a communicator and the light caught a bright sticker on the back of it. He couldn’t quite make it out, but that didn’t matter. A moment later the communicator disappeared from her hand as she put it away. She gave the room a final survey and huffed out a breath before turning around and making for the door.
She hadn’t spared him a single glance.
Dryce redoubled his efforts to get through the crowd, which seemed somehow even thicker the closer he got to the door. He made it to the spot where she’d been standing and thought he might have caught a hint of a floral perfume, something she’d been wearing. And on the ground lay a communicator with a bright reflective sticker of a smiling face.
His denya’s communicator.
His head shot up and he saw her duck through the door. He sprinted after her, but by the time he got outside, she was nowhere to be seen. He turned to the bouncer, but the man was caught up in an intense conversation with two patrons and didn’t seem to be paying any mind to the street.
His denya was gone. And he didn’t know anything about her.
Her communicator beeped and a message flashed up on the screen. And almost in time with the notification, Dryce had an idea. A slide of his finger lit the device up, and quick navigation brought him to her contact list. He had one way to find her, and he’d do whatever it took to make sure she became his.
Peyton Cho made it all the way back to her apartment before she realized her communicator wasn’t in her pocket. She groaned and slumped back against the door as her options flashed through her head. She could go back out, take the two busses back to the bar, pray that no one creepy was on board, hope that no one had stolen it, talk to the bartender and hope someone had turned the thing in, and then get back on the bus and hope again that she avoided the creeps.
Or she could tear off her dirty clothes and collapse into her bed and save that problem for the morning.
Ignoring her problems won, but when she woke up she could smell the faint scent of beer permeating the clothes she hadn’t managed to struggle out of before sleep claimed her, and that smell had sunk into her sheets.
“Ella, I’m going to kill you.” She muttered it into her pillow and tried to bargain with herself to claim a few more minutes of slumber. But her clock told her it was almost time to wake up anyway, and seeing as she was down a communicator, she’d need to fit time in her schedule to head back to that bar and hope someone had turned the thing in.
Ugh, she couldn’t even make it through her shower before her problems started to catch up to her.
She heard tinkering in the kitchen and let out a relieved breath. Only a few people knew the code to get into her apartment, and only one of those people lived with her. Well, supposedly lived with her. It seemed like Ella was away more nights than she was there. Peyton tried to remind herself that she wasn’t her sister’s babysitter, but old habits died hard, and the city could be dangerous for a girl like Ella. There’d been plenty of stories of young women being snatched off the street and abducted by slavers who took them to far away planets and sold them as slaves.
At first, Peyton had been sure that the stories were exaggerations. But after news had broken a few months ago of nearly a dozen women who’d been returned to Earth after their abductions, she’d grown worried. And she’d started to request that Ella check in with her if she was going to stay the night out. She didn’t see how it was such a big ask to know that her sister was safe, but Ella acted like Peyton was her warden, and recently she’d been sneaking away more and more.
That was how Peyton ended up at a crowded bar on a Wednesday night. She’d heard that Ella was there and just wanted to check on her. She’d seen nothing of her sister and had only managed to lose her communicator. But if Ella was back now, maybe she could breathe easy.
She’d relax when her sister started to realize that the world actually could be dangerous, and she accepted that a few damn precautions weren’t the end of the world.
Peyton pushed herself out of bed and into the bathroom. The shower woke her up a little, and by the time she was in the kitchen, Ella had the coffee made and was working on breakfast as she hummed a tune that Peyton didn’t recognize.
“When did you get in?” she asked as mildly as she could manage. “I didn’t realize you were coming home last night.”
Ella offered her a bright smile, as if she didn’t realize how close her sister was to wringing her neck. “Two or something? Renee introduced me to some great people, but none of us clicked. I hope this one alien comes back. He was so hot. I think if we hang out a little more…”
Peyton clenched her hands around her almost too hot coffee mug and tuned her sister out. If she hadn’t come home until two, that meant she was barely working on four hours of sleep, and yet she looked more rested than Peyton. Stress was a motherfucker.
“You’re not upset, are you?” Ella finally wound down her recounting of events and her lips curved into a hopeful smile.
Peyton’s anger fled. It had just been the two of them for so long that she never managed to stay angry long, especially not once she knew Ella was home safe. The girl had the defensive instincts of a leaf, but she was kind and young and just wanted to have fun. And it wasn’t like she’d ever gotten herself into any danger, at least not any that Peyton knew about. And Ella didn’t keep secrets.
Peyton opened her arms and Ella rushed her, enveloping her in a tight hug that smelled of the sweet shampoo she used. “I’m not angry,” she assured her. “I just wish you’d remember to contact me like I asked.”
Ella pulled back and her face took on an uncharacteristically mulish expression. “I did. Last night I texted you and told you I was coming back, but you didn’t respond.”
Peyton looked away and felt her cheeks heat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t check my communicator. I must have already been asleep.” She didn’t want her sister to know that she’d tried to hunt her down; that was guaranteed to lead to an argument and both of them had work to get to.
And just like always, Ella’s negative feelings evaporated. She wasn’t made to hold anger in. She kissed Peyton’s cheek and retreated to her room to get ready for the day, leaving Peyton with her thoughts and a cooling breakfast.
She felt naked without her communicator as she climbed aboard the bus to head in to work, and the entire morning she hoped that no one tried to contact her using her normal number, at least not with anything important.
She used her office communicator to call the bar around lunch time and almost promised her first born child to the person who answered when they confirmed that a communicator that looked like hers had been left with the bartender the night before. She ducked out of the office to get a sandwich and sprang for a taxi to get to the bar before she had to be back to continue with her duties. Things had been speeding up on a variety of projects over the last month and they were finally coming to a head. Peyton couldn’t afford to miss out.
It was a simple matter of getting the device back when she showed up to the bar and then she was on her way back to work, clutching the communicator to her chest and seriously considering one of the implanted models. She couldn’t loser her comm if it was attached to her.
But those had a bad habit of shorting out and burning their users, and she’d never been a fan of pain.
Half a dozen messages were waiting for her when she started to scroll through, but nothing too important. And just like Ella had said, she’d contacted Peyton and told her she was coming home.
Right under that message was one from a contact she didn’t recognize. She scrunched her brows together as she racked her brain to think of who DF could be, but she couldn’t figure it out. When she read the message, she realized it was whoever had recovered her phone. Apparently he’d added himself to her contacts and left her a text. She almost deleted it on principle; she wasn’t about to flirt with some guy who went to that kind of bar on a Wednesday night, but on the other hand, he’d been kind enough to turn in her comm and she’d be helpless without it. The least she could do was respond.
DF: Sorry I couldn’t return this in person. I saw you across the room and it shined.
Peyton rolled her eyes. Did lines like that actually work on people?
Peyton: Thanks for turning it in. You’re a life saver. 🙂
There. Simple, thankful, done. She put thoughts of DF and Ella out of her mind as her bus pulled up in front of her office. Rumors of a big assignment going out had been running rampant, and she needed to have her head in the game if she was going to be the one chosen. Her comm beeped again with an incoming message, but Peyton ignored it. She had work to do.
The incoming alien fleet wasn’t going to defeat itself.