Jade Leaf

Chapter 1

The taxi let her out in front of her destination.

The Jade Leaf.

It had been on the news and in the newspapers around the world. The shop that offered tea, juice, lunchtime sandwiches, pastries, and free wi-fi.

There were hundreds if not thousands of stores like this. What made this one different?

The owner.

She walked into the shop with the little bell on the door signaling that someone new had arrived.

She was looking for just one person. One.

She recognized him even from the side view. He turned from the register to the muffin rack behind him, picked one, and bagged it for his customer.

She clenched her jaw. The man was wearing one of those shirts that would have gained him entrance to any Renaissance Faire in the world. He had an *emerald* earring in one ear.

She walked up to the counter, ignoring the looks she was getting. There wasn't a line, so it was probably the way she walked.

He turned, easy smile on his lips. "Hello, have you-"

Their eyes met, green to brown. They immediately knew what the other was. For her, it wasn't a surprise.

"What are you doing here?" she said in a low tone. She looked left and right, then back at him with a scowl.

"...selling tea. Business is rather good, especially since I just opened two months ago."

Anger rose in her. "We agreed to hide," she said, biting off the words.

"Ah." He swept his arm toward the swinging gate at the end of the curved counter. "Obviously a private conversation. Would you like to come into the back with me?"

He left the counter and she had no choice but to follow him.

"Tim, would you take the counter for a minute?" Stephan asked.

The short man nodded and left his apron on. He went through the tall swinging door, leaving them alone in the kitchen.

Stephan turned to face her. "I'm tired of hiding."

"They'll start the hunts again."

"I'm the only one out in the open. No one knows of anyone else. I barely know anyone else," he said, grinning at the last.

"But-"

"No, listen, sweetheart. They're not going to hunt me. I'm in the public eye. I was very careful to approach people at a national level first."

"So they can kill us."

"No," Stephan said patiently. "So they know there's another race here on Earth. I made it very clear what I wanted." He reached back to rub the back of his neck. "I must have spent a week being questioned."

He saw her swallow, her hands clench. And kept his voice even. "They wanted to know about our military strength, our magic, what numbers we had."

"...and?"

Stephan chuckled. "I told them a lot of us were killed in the time when being a dragonslayer was still a good profession. We hid after enough of us were killed to warrant the action." His face grew sad. "When our eggs were smashed."

Dark days that she had lived through.

"We don't have a military, our numbers are few, and what magic we have we keep for ourselves." Stephan shrugged. "After a week, I finally got it through their heads that I wanted what I wanted."

"Which was?"

"My tea shop." He grinned at her. "Once they figured out that I'm rich, it went much better. I make money and pay taxes. Of course, I didn't tell them everything I have..."

"You've outed us to the world for a tea shop?"

Stephan shook his head. "No. I'm tired of pretending to be a human or hiding my true form somewhere humans never go. I wanted a world where everyone knew what I was and didn't care." He drew himself up to his full height. "And now, ma'am, you can either have a cup of tea or you can leave with the answers you came for."

She stared at him, still in shock over what he'd said. When he didn't move, she gave him a nod and left.

MMM

She was back the next morning.
She waited in line with the others, keeping her head high and ignoring the glances and whispers.
Stephan smiled at her when she reached the front of the line. "What can I get you?"

"Tea and a muffin. Whatever's freshest."

Stephan poured her a cup and chose a warm muffin. She paid him and went to sit down.

She chose one of the two-seater tables by the window. Her tea was set down gently and she pulled a napkin out of the dispenser to put her muffin down on.

While she munched on the lemon poppy seed muffin and sipped at raspberry tea, she looked around at the tea shop. He really hadn't done a bad job at decorating it. The chairs were dark wood with deep green cushions and the booths followed. The hardwood floors were a lighter shade than the chairs. The counter matched the floors and the counter top was the color of jade.

...surely he hadn't found a sheet of jade?

Somehow she wouldn't put it past him.

The shop was full of people, even at nine thirty in the morning. People were working on their laptops or just enjoying what they had bought.

No one was making jokes about breathing fire. Or asking him for a light.

Or trying to shoot him.

She wasn't so lost in observation that she didn't notice when Stephan took a break from the counter. He pulled back the opposite chair and sat. "So," he said, glancing down at the crumbs and teacup.

"It was good."

He nodded and rested his jaw on his fist. "You came back."

"Yes."

"Why?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"

A slow smile stretched over his face. "You're curious."

She opened her mouth to deny it, then hesitated. She was. Wasn't that an odd occurrence.

"How is he still alive? Why is anyone in this store at all? Why didn't the governments dissect me?" He leaned back in his chair. "I'm old and I've got a lot of magic knowledge. I make good tea and I finally found someone who makes decent muffins." He smirked. "And they didn't dare."

He's insane, she thought to herself. All this for a tea shop?

"I'm Stephan."

She frowned at him. "I know."

"That was an invitation to tell me your name. Or should I keep calling you sweetheart?"

She snorted. If he thought waggling his eyebrows at her was attractive, he was dealing with the wrong female. "Eleanor."

"Ellie?"

She shook her head. "Eleanor to acquaintances, Nora to friends."

"Well then, Nora, when was the last time you flew?"

Her jaw dropped, both at the use of her name and the question. "We're not friends and flying is forbidden."

"We will be," he said, his words promising the fact. "And flying is okay as long as you're sure no one is watching."

"They have satellites now! There's nowhere they're not watching!"

He held up a finger. "Now, Nora, there's something you don't know. I have clearance to fly up to five miles outside this city and as far up as I care to any time I want. As long as I call first to make sure I'm not going to surprise any planes."

She was still gaping at that when he pulled out a cellphone and called the tower. "I'm clear? Good."

Stephan stood up and held out a hand. "Come on. You look like you could do with a stretch of the wings."

"I can't."

"They'll be stiff after a few centuries, but you won't fall."

Nora shook her head. "I'm hiding."

"Everyone in this store knows what you are."

"You told them?" she said, aghast at the betrayal.

"No, you did. Yesterday, when you swept in here talking about hiding."

"The government," she whispered. They could know who she was!

"You can disappear as easily as you could before. Anyone who comes out of hiding gets the same deal I do. Residency of whatever country you want, obey their laws, the same thing we've done for a long time."

"But..."

"What," he asked gently.

She swallowed. "I'm scared."

He tilted his head. "You've flown before?"

"Of course I've flown!" She glanced around the tea shop. Yes, there were a few people trying to listen in on their conversation. "I can hide again."

"Yes, you can. So can I. I can leave this shop tomorrow and go back under the ocean. But while I'm here, I'm going to fly."

Oh, she *ached* for the sky. To live under it day after day and not be able to fly...

She stood, not accepting his hand. "Where?"

MMM

Nora looked down from the roof. "You can't be serious. There isn't enough room." She'd crash into a building.

Stephan laughed. "No, we'll go up first."

Of course. Using air magic to push up into the sky. It had been so long she'd forgotten her basics.

Stephan raised a hand above his head and pressed down slowly. He rose into the air at the speed his hand fell. When his hand was down as far as it was go, he hovered until he raised his hand again.

Nora did the same until they were hovering far above the streets. She breathed in the air and smiled. There was a reason she lived inside a mountain. To be close to the sky.

Stephan pushed himself away from Nora while she was admiring the sky. He triggered his change by concentrating on his scales. Green, shimmering in the sun, warmed by her light.

Nora's eyes widened as she watched Stephan's human form blur away and elongate into his dragon shape. No wonder he calls the shop The Jade Leaf. He is jade, she thought.

He was a four-legged dragon with wings and a long-haired mane starting between his ears and ending at his shoulder blades. His scales were jade, but his mane and the membrane between his wings was a lighter color.

He opened his mouth and tilted his head. He gave her a dragon smile and spread his wings.

She snorted and closed her eyes. She kept her human form when she wandered out among the humans and even in her mountain home. Well, most of the time when she was home.

Stephan felt his chest ache with something he couldn't name as he watched this small female change. He knew he was impressive looking.

She was a small dragon and if he hadn't gotten a sense of older from her, he would have sworn she was only a couple centuries old. He was old enough to have seen the pyramids when they were younger.

Her scales were brown, but flickered in the sun like they had strands of something through them. Her wings were the same color brown and the membrane was lighter, almost honeyed. Her mane was shorter than his and black.

She turned her head to look at him. He threw his wings back and headed up. A heartbeat later, she followed.

It must have been half an hour before they stopped.

He did slow wheels in the air. She hovered and looked down at the ground below. She flew straight up and freefalled down until catching herself. She glided while he watched.

For Stephan, it was immensely satisfying to see her enjoying herself. She started slow, but ended up playing like a youngling.

And it had been a while since he'd seen a female of his kind. She was lovely. He'd forgotten so much about how a female dragon moved. Humans... just didn't.

When he saw her wings trembling, he flew by her to catch her attention and started toward the ground. She hesitated in following him, but exhaustion was catching up.

Stephan felt her push herself up when she noticed what he had expected.

He continued down and stopped a few hundred feet above the roof. He shifted back to human and lowered himself to the building.

Nora was still in dragon shape in the air.

"Come on," Stephan said, holding one arm out toward the door and the other in a circling motion. "Give her some privacy."

The small crowd went back downstairs and Stephan waited for her. Nora landed shortly after that.

"They watch you?" she asked when she had human vocal cords.

"Sometimes."

She struggled with how to voice her outrage. "We're not animals!"

"No," Stephan agreed. "But we can fly. They can't."

Her eyes widened. "I am not carrying a human on my back!"

Stephan snorted in laughter. "I didn't say anything about that. They watch birds and marvel at wings. Always have. Watching us is about the closest they get to having wings themselves."

When she didn't say anything else, he asked delicately, "Are you cold? The kitchen is warm."

She gave him a nod and he led her downstairs. A few moments in the kitchen would do them some good. Tim would be baking and the warmth and smells would be wonderful.

MMM

Somehow, she managed to stay all day.

Tim made her lunch himself and talked shyly to her as she sat in the kitchen with him. Stephan was in and out all day as was the second person he had on the counter, Thomas.

She found out from Tim that Thomas was his older brother. "He's better with people than I am," Tim said quietly. "I like being out of the way." He shrugged. "Thomas came home and said that Stephan was looking for someone who could follow a recipe."

"And a simple recipe," Stephan said, coming back into the kitchen for more scones. "Nothing fancy. Muffins, scones, sandwiches. Good home cooking. If people want doughnuts, there are lots of chain stores. If they want fancy French pastries, they can go to France. Not that I'm going to stop Tim from baking anything he wants." Stephan winked at the man and left for the front again.

Tim laughed softly to himself. "I was the one who asked about scones," he explained to Nora. "I made one batch as an experiment and they all sold in a few hours. So now they're a permanent item."

"Are you thinking about anything else?" she asked.

Tim tilted his head. "Like what?"

She pursed her lips and thought. "Maybe something limited to the lunch crowd. Or after lunch for the next crowd. Is there a next crowd?"

"Most of the afternoons are quiet," Tim said. "Stephan said something about attracting the college crowd."

She took a few minutes and Tim checked the things in the oven. "What about a cake?" she said slowly.

"What kind?"

"A fancy one. Two layers, chocolate... Maybe with some kind of chocolate icing that's really addicting. Or peanut butter icing." She frowned. "Chocolate shavings? Thin bars of white chocolate sticking out of the top of each slice?"

"We could sit it on the counter on one of those glass cake things with the cover." Tim nodded. "Chocolate buttercream icing, maybe. I'd have to experiment."

Tim asked Stephan about it the next time he had a break. Stephan nodded. "It sounds good. Only make two or three of them at most and we'll announce that they're only on sale between two and four. People will be lining up to get a slice."

Tim went to get the cookbooks and Stephan looked at Nora. "How long are you staying?"

Nora blanked out for a few seconds at the question. Originally, she'd just come to ask what he was doing. Now she was flying and giving cake suggestions.

"I don't know," she said eventually.

"Where did you sleep last night?"

"In a hotel."

"If you're going to be here longer, you might think of finding an apartment to rent for the month."

Nora blinked. "They do that?"

"Yes. You can rent that hotel room for a week, too. At a lower rate, probably."

Did she want to stay?

Did going home hold any attraction?

MMM

She sat in her hotel room, hugging her pillow. The Jade Leaf was closed the day after tomorrow. She could ask Stephan if she could spend the day with him.

But how much longer was she going to stay here?

She had the money to buy this entire chain of hotels, so it wasn't the hotel stay. It was not having anything to do.

...plus she'd forgotten what it was like being around another dragon. That feeling of not being alone. The warmth of having someone know what it was to fly, to be connected to an element, what it was to be a dragon.

The Jade Leaf was a cozy place. It smelled of tea and baked things. It had friendly people and customers.

But it wasn't hers. She couldn't see herself at the counter.

No one from the government had approached her. That didn't mean they weren't going to. One thing she couldn't figure out was how Stephan wasn't fighting natural disasters somewhere. Or hadn't he told them about that?

Home didn't seem to hold that much appeal anymore. A mountain with a few things inside it compared to a place in this city with a sky to fly in?

So where was her place.

MMM

"We're closed tomorrow."

Nora paused in setting her plate in the sink. "Really?"

"Yes."

Her plate secured with the others, she shrugged. "Then I'll find somewhere else to go."

"Do you want to take a day off or meet me for a flight tomorrow?" Stephan offered.

She'd gone for a flight every day for the past four days. And she had ideas for tomorrow. She declined his offer.

MMM

"You know, that's the eighth time you've looked out the windows in the past minute?" Thomas asked.

"She's never this late," Stephan said, his eyes still on the windows.

"She had a day to herself yesterday. She could be sleeping all the shopping off."

Stephan shrugged and went to wait on the next customer in line. Where was she?

MMM

Nora finally walked in for lunch. "Hello," she said, greeting Thomas and Stephan. "Should I eat out here with the rest of the customers or in the kitchen?"

"Whichever you want as long as I can join you," Stephan told her.

She walked around the swinging gate and went into the back. "Good afternoon, Tim," she said.

The man turned around from mixing more muffin batter and gave a great sigh of relief. "Stephan has been worried."

"Yes, I have," the man said. "Where were you?"

A little smile played on Nora's lips. "Shopping."

"That's what Thomas said you were doing," Stephan muttered. "The one time the man is right..."

"For a place to put my business," Nora finished.

Stephan stared at her. "What business?"

"A small bookstore. There are a few places that would be more than adequate, but the best one is beside a tea shop. I'd like to knock down part of their wall and have two entrances, but I don't know what the owner would say. There would have to be a sign on his side that said any books that were spilled on were bought by the owner of the cup."

"I can see where that would be a problem. But I know the owner and I don't think he'd have a problem with a discreet entryway."

"I do have several things to discuss with the owner. Do you know if he has time for a short meeting?"

"At the moment I do."

She straightened on her stool. "Are you sure the government will not have a problem with me or my business?"

"Yes."

"I'd like to have some live entertainment. Music."

"I'm sure the customers won't mind."

"I'll pay for the door."

"We'll split the door." Stephan grinned. This was going to be so good for both of them.

Tim came over with her lunch. She thanked him and he went back to the rest of the sandwiches.

She tilted her head, looking at Stephan. "You're not surprised."

Stephan glanced down and then back at her with the same smile. "Before we got so few, we lived in clans. Some still do. But a female dragon on her own? You are on your own, right?"

She nodded. "Parents dead, no mate, no children."

"I knew there was a good chance you'd stick around. It's warm here, you know me, Tim, Thomas... A safe place with a dragon and other humans that you know." A thought occurred to him. "What are you?" He coaxed a little of the oven's fire to him and held out the flickering flame.

She shook her head. "Air like we all are." She smirked. "Let's just say that any plants in the area will flourish."

An Earth. How long had it been since he'd met one? They were the reason that dragons were reputed to like gold.

"Can I help you choose books?" Tim asked.

"Yes." A thought occurred to her. "Do you know anyone who needs a job? Register work or bookkeeping?"

Tim shook his head. Stephan shrugged. "We can put a notice up at the counter."