Chapter One

The bell above the coffee house door rang, high and merry, sharply contrasting with the semi-gothic atmosphere, dark-colored wallpapering and leather furniture. The air was fragrant with the scent of fresh-brewed espresso and vanilla aromatherapy candles, morbid-sounding, slow rock murmuring from the speakers in each corner of the spacious room. The Star and Night Coffee Shop and Poetry Corner was the hub of the town, a place where modern thinking had made nearly all the formerly prosperous churches within its borders be reduced to run-down mockeries of the comforting steeples that they had once been.

A young man entered, wearing a sweater with odd patterns strewn across it and a pair of ragged blue jeans, his bright grey eyes half-hidden by messy sable hair. He looked every bit the part of a typical teenaged boy; arrogant in his opinion of the world, awkward physically from sudden growth spurts, not quite a child but not a man either, stranded on the crowded desert island known as Teen Wasteland. He shoved his hands in his pockets and began to walk to the counter with a slight frown on his face, looking like someone who had nothing better to do on the weekend.

The café was unusually quiet for a Saturday; a ten-time pierced college student was sitting in one corner, a laptop set in front of him, and there was one or two pale-skinned girls standing at the counter, their fingernails painted black. A single cashier managed the café, clad in everyday garb and a black cook's apron with the coffee shop's insignia stamped across it.

The young man sat down as the two girls departed with their drinks and the bell rang again, gripping the sides of the bar stool with his pale hands. The cashier, a tall woman who looked to be in her early twenties or early thirties, paid him no mind as she checked the register to make sure she had enough change for the next customer, her hands working busily as she opened a roll of new, shining pennies.

"Excuse me," said the boy politely, "Do you know where I can find--?" He suddenly stopped as the cashier raised her head and the two recognized each other, and he felt his mouth come slightly ajar. The cashier smiled, dropping the rest of the pennies into the cash register and closing it with a clack.

"Hello, Rashol!" she greeted cheerfully. "Stormy weather on the way, hmm?"

"Wadjet?" Rashol gasped, his eyes suddenly flashing cat-eye gold for a brief moment. "Wha-What're you doing here?"

"Working," explained Wadjet shortly as she took the order of the next customer.

"You're working in a coffee shop?" said Rashol incredulously, his mouth still hanging open. He was aware of how weird he must've looked, so he tried to regain his composure before people started to stare. Then again, there were only two customers here; who was going to stare?

"I don't see why not," replied Wadjet casually as she added whipped cream and dark sprinkles to a steaming cup of hot cocoa. Her hair was long and braided, dyed an electric blue hue, which was also the color of the sweater she was wearing beneath her black work apron. Her gold eyes were the same but were set to human proportions. Gone were her elegant wings and long tail, and her fingernails looked manicured and were painted the same shade as her hair.

Rashol was still deciding if he liked the change; it was so odd not to see the cobra dragon in all her glittering majesty. "B-But," he sputtered, "Why? I mean, a café?!"

"Some of the most interesting humans come through here," she explained as she handed the drink to an entirely black-clad customer, "For poetry, jazz and the like. Besides, they have really good biscotti."

He raised and eyebrow. "Biscotti?" Wadjet pointed to a jar of stick-shaped cookies next to the register in answer. "Oh."

"You want to try one?" she asked, wiping down the counter with a rag.

"No, I'm broke," Rashol replied flatly. "I don't have a human job."

Wadjet snorted, a thin, barely visible trail of smoke coming out of her left nostril, "Of course you don't; you don't have to live with them like I do. You just make sure storms don't get out of hand, that's all." She paused, "Which reminds me." She looked Rashol squarely in the eyes, her fingers tapping the counter.

"What're you doing here?"

Rashol sighed. He should've known that Wadjet would pick up on his emotions; it was part of her job, after all. He folded his fingers together and bowed his head. He felt like he was in a public confessional. The customer with the laptop folded his electronic notebook and headed for the door, the chains on his pants jingling.

"I'm…being re-assigned," he said heavily.

"Where?"

"Not so much 'where' as 'who'…"

Wadjet raised her eyebrows. "You're a guardian now?"

"Starting at midnight I am," answered Rashol darkly.

Wadjet chuckled, "You went to all the trouble of finding me in the middle of the day to tell me that?"

Rashol flinched, "Yeah."

She frowned, leaning forward against the polished wood countertop and whispered, "That's not all, is it?"

He shook his head.

"Well?"

"Her name is Ruth," he began, shifting his weight on the bar stool.

"That's a nice name," she commented.

"Will you let me finish?" he growled.

Wadjet shrugged in response.

"Ruth's parents are divorced, and she lives with her mother in a housing development not far from here," he elaborated. "Both of them work high-end jobs six days a week; she hardly ever sees them. My job is to be her friend and protector, nothing less or more."

"Does that mean you'll have to go to school?"

"Yes. I'm already enrolled in Ruth's high school."

"Do you have a place to stay?"

Crap it! He had been hoping she wouldn't ask that…

"…"

"You don't, do you?" she asked flatly, her tapping fingers increasing in tempo.

"Ah…no," Rashol confessed, hanging his head. Wadjet sighed and folded her arms across her chest.

"For mercy's sake…," she muttered, "All you had to do was ask. Tell you what: you can stay at my place until your assignment is over. I'll help you adjust, find a job; the works. Just don't start breathing fire and roaring whenever someone annoys you and you'll be fine."

Rashol raised his head, feeling a little better, "Thank you."

Wadjet smiled, reaching over to ruffle her cousin's hair, "Don't mention it. Just wait around 'till three and I'll walk you to my loft." She paused, "Want a chocolate biscotti? It's on the house."

Rashol allowed himself a small smile. "I think I'd like that."

"All right then," she said, reaching into the jar and pulling out a dark brown biscotti with small chocolate chips scattered across its surface. She held it out for him, saying, "Enjoy."

The air outside was crisp with the taste of autumn, but to Rashol's senses, there was also an acrid electricity in the wind that coated his tongue like a film of wax, and finally, there was the hopeful underlying perfume of rain. He breathed deeply as he stepped outside the coffee shop with Wadjet, hands back in pockets. Wadjet was now sans the apron, yet wore no jacket, though her breath came as pseudo smoke into the air.

"Are we going to fly?" he asked, his grey eyes alight.

Wadjet looked troubled. "It's not very far…"

"Please?" Rashol asked imploringly, making his own version of a puppy dog face.

The elder grimaced, "You're still going to have time to be a dragon once you become a guardian, you know."

"I know," replied Rashol, exasperated. "But still--"

"Alright," said Wadjet, cutting him off with a wave of her hand. As a dragon, she too understood; flying was perhaps the best part of being a member of their species. The call of the sky and flight was hard to resist, even for someone like her. "There's a park not far from here, lots of trees; if we transform just far enough to get our wings, and if we fly high and fast, we won't be noticed."

"Cool," Rashol murmured, grinning, his eyes returning to their natural gold coloration. He took a deep breath and began to walk forward. "Let's go."