The first dragonchild Nicholas had ever met—not long after becoming an Observer, in fact—had been a Wakeup: one day the human woke up and discovered she had dragonblood in her veins. As per the rules at the time, he had left that one alone and watched her realize she could never adjust. It had been the first time he’d seen a human take her own life. Poison. Because she couldn’t stand the sight of blood and didn’t trust the rope. He’d been horrified until his mentor explained that it was typical of that kind.
It still bothered him. Even now, he remembered the pain in her eyes the day before she died. Thankfully, the rules changed not long after that for dragonchildren and he’d made a point of learning how to walk the line between hinting at the human’s new reality and revealing too much.
Most he’d encountered since had been a variation on Wakeups or Walkers: the kind that slowly walked through the change so that the threshold, though still powerful, wasn’t nearly as big a change as it was for Wakeups. Or a Turbulence. He fought against a shudder. Horribly unpredictable those, and rare. According to what he’d read, one could never tell which spells they could use and which they couldn’t and he had even heard a few could change from day to day. One moment you thought for sure their dragonblood was about to change from dormant to active and the next they were almost indistinguishable from pure humans, save it be the faint scent of dragon. The moment Nicholas had caught that mixture inside his own cave, faint though it was, his curiosity overcame him.
He had never seen a Turbulence before.
If it hadn’t been for that, he might have spent untold years alternating between sleeping and sorting through his confusion. Maybe not that long, he thought, as he and Annie Bourland left the woods and entered what had originally been a meadow. He’d begun to shake off what had happened. The confusion hadn’t entirely left, but he’d begun to accept that dragons were complex creatures and he might never understand, whether they were his own kind or not. Was it better to hide away, or move on?
They left the woods and he stared. Time had slipped away from him. The pavement that circled around the pond, both of which had not been there when he’d burrowed into the earth, looked almost as good as the concrete he had seen in Rome and the bits the Empire had left in England. The wheeled vehicles on the paved courtyard with its bright yellow and red lines were a far cry from the horse-driven wagons humans had been using when he’d left.
That made him think of the Grand Aerie and he wondered if he hadn’t struck a deal with Annie too soon. They would have appreciated notice of the deal and his return from his leave of absence.
He didn’t like the idea of returning to work. But he’d never seen a Turbulence before, and he couldn’t get near her unless he returned to work.
After all, a Turbulence had to be watched and who better than a Master Observer in the Human field. Easily explained. Well, maybe not as easily since his Investigation, but the charges had been dropped, and everyone involved assured him his place in society was still intact. Just like the Valley, he thought and focused on walking again, the memory of blood too close.
Nicholas followed her to a rather dirty vehicle with two doors instead of the four the others had. “It’s not much,” she said, then paused as if remembering something. “Lift the handle. On the side.”
He looked at the side and did as she said. The door clicked open. He got in and began to examine the interior.
When he had started out as a Human Observer, he had been told to study everything about humans and their effect on the universe within their Scape, write his report for the Great Library, and never, ever have anything more than enjoyment in his studies. Do this and your life as an Observer will be sunshine and happiness. They hadn’t used those exact words but that had been the sentiment. He sighed before he could stop himself, glad the sound of the closing door hid it.
“You’ll need to wear your seat belt or we’ll get a ticket,” Annie said, reaching across his chest. He sniffed, catching her scent just to be sure he had really smelled that dragon undertone. Yes, it was definitely there. She pulled a durable cloth strap from the side of the vehicle across his body. He took the strap from her and looked to his left for something that matched the casing for the metal tab. “It may have slipped down,” Annie said and, after a moment of searching, pulled up the other end. Nicholas slid the tab into the slot, then leaned back in the seat and watched Annie start the car.
He realized he had already begun searching for ideas for a thesis. Habit, again. The moment he discovered what his mind was doing, he felt tired. It made sense. He was a Master Observer after all, and Observing meant you had to have a thesis.
He’d enjoyed it before the Valley and the Investigation. You don’t become a Master if you can’t stand your job, in spite of politics and the lack of filters.
Filters. Probably still being ignored in the data. Which meant his field was probably still maddening guesswork. It didn’t help that the ones who were interested in the negative side of humans were often the ones with the most distinguished service, though he’d learned professionalism made up for this lack of negativity in his case.
He blinked hard. Focus, Nicholas, focus. Once again, he felt a little groggy.
Glancing at Annie, he watched her easily navigate the roads and thought about how easily she had managed to get past the wardings he’d put up. Perhaps he was wrong and had let the warding drop unintentionally?
No, he decided. You don’t care about humans that much. The Investigation got to you more than you thought. If you’d let the warding drop you would have known.
“How long have these been around?” he asked. Annie looked at him as if she expected a reaction she wasn’t getting. Did she think he would be frightened? Or that he wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off the interior? Probably the latter. Humans usually assumed other species were as rash in their curiosity as their own.
“Seat belts or cars?” Annie tried to smile. She pulled onto a larger road that ran higher above the ground, signs in various colors and designs posted now and then along the sides and above the road, and sped up.
Nicholas closed his eyes. It almost felt like flying, rising like this. Something else he’d have to add to his schedule. Something pleasant.
“Both,” he said, eyes reluctantly opening.
“Seat belts,” she’s still anxious, he noted. “I don’t know how long they’ve been around. Fifties. Sixties. Something like that. Cars have been around since the beginning of the…do you know what a century is?”
Nicholas tried not to smile but couldn’t help himself when he answered. “Yes, I believe I’m acquainted with the concept. One hundred years, correct?”
He had flustered her. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. I’m probably the first dragon you’ve met.”
“Yeah,” Annie murmured, her deep frown showing more emotion than she probably wanted.
“Just assume that if I don’t know something, I’ll ask.”
“Okay.” She shook her head. “Anyway, cars have been around for a little over a century. So, we’ve kind of gotten used to them.”
He’d made her too nervous. It might be better to pretend he was taking a nap. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, his head turned toward her. After a few moments, he opened them again and watched. Now that he wasn’t a present concern her posture had relaxed and soon, through watching her, he had figured out most of the basics of driving a car. The pedal on the right moved the car forward (must be some sort of concentrated power inside the contraption since wood and coal wouldn’t account for so much energy inside such a small vehicle) and the one on the left must be the brake. It didn’t seem that difficult. He would have to try it sometime soon, after he decided on a thesis.
He watched Annie and sorted through the various topics he could study this time around. Yet each one brought either boredom or frustration.
He closed his eyes, the faint smell of dragon growing stronger in the confined surroundings.
It really wasn’t fair to the field or dragonchildren to not have filters, he thought, breathing it in. Maybe he should revive that topic he had been told to shelve all those years ago, politics be damned.
The thought made him a bit nervous, and yet once he began to consider it he felt that familiar excitement course through him at the thought of starting a new study. Yes, that’s what he would do. Forget politics, he would somehow manage to get a filter put in place that would identify the threshold: the traits and changes that all culminated in the moment when the dragonblood inside a dragonchild woke up. Unfortunately, he’d have to leave Annie out of his study. Even if the law hadn’t stated human bridges tainted data, she was a Turbulence. Although she required watching, it was better to start with Walkers and Wakeups. Far more consistent. He watched Annie’s face as she concentrated on the road. That’s what he needed to do this time. Focus on observing, not helping. Helping led to Investigations and discovering that your kind had turned out different than you’d thought. He didn’t want to lose anything more.
And so he watched her drive, learning the rules of the road for later practice, until they pulled up in front of a rather shabby looking building with multiple doors and windows. It vaguely reminded him of the apartments he’d seen in Rome when he had first gained Master. Annie shut off the car and turned toward him. Her eyes widened with fear when she caught him with eyes open.
“I thought you were asleep,” she said.
“I woke up.” Nicholas kept his tone casual, hoping this would calm her down. He found the interior lever that opened the door and got out, making sure he didn’t make any sudden movements. Yes, he decided. It’s time to bring that old thesis back to life.
Annie closed her car door and took a deep breath, not sure how to bring up the topic of a job to Nicholas. She was sure he knew what one was. He’d been around people before and people had always worked. It’s just the last thing she wanted to do was insult a dragon.
I know you’ve been hiding out in a cave for who knows how long, Nicholas, and I’m sure you have some sort of dragon thing that you do…hopefully, but you see, I have this thing called “rent” and my landlady is a bit of a stickler about it. I’m not sure I can feed you (I’m assuming you’re going to be eating my food…probably a lot of meat…rare) and pay the rent as well. So, it would really help me out a lot if you would earn some strips of paper called “money” and then give some to me so that we can stay in my apartment. The sooner the better.
It really wouldn’t be right to bring the subject up when he’s just getting used to the world. Annie decided to wait.
“So, this is where I live,” she said, unlocking the door. “One bedroom, one bath.” She gestured to each room as they walked toward the back, cringing as she saw it through the eyes of a stranger. “This is the living room.” A little cluttered but not too bad. “And here’s the kitchen.” Dishes in the sink with a few cobwebs in the kitchen window to add that “no one lives here” touch. “And this is my room.” She would wait on the bathroom until she could get the laundry off the floor and scrub it up. Her bedroom was bad enough as it was. Clothes on the floor along with books, print-outs on obscure topics, and notes she made to herself when that feeling of emptiness got really bad. If only I made enough to hire a maid, she thought, barely able to look at Nicholas to see his response to the clutter.
His eyes seemed to take it all in without judgment, though she hadn’t seen him when she had shown him the kitchen. “Where do I clean up?”
Dang it. “Bathroom. Right.” Annie sighed, entered her bedroom, picking up clothes as she walked along. She opened the bathroom door, then winced when Nicholas walked in.
“An interesting use of indoor plumbing,” he murmured.
She couldn’t stand it anymore. “Sorry about the mess. I’m rarely home.” She threw her clothes into the already full hamper then lunged forward to keep it from toppling. Once it looked stable, she stepped away.
“Yes, you said you were wearing a costume.” He picked up one of her shirts and threw it on the overflowing hamper.
“Are you trying to make them fall?”
“I thought I was helping.”
“Sorry.” Feeling jumpy, Annie walked toward the closet, grabbing a stack of papers on her way. “To answer your question, I only do the warrior thing on the weekends. Not that I’ve done it before, I mean, this is the first time I’ve done this. Probably the last,” she muttered under her breath before continuing in a louder voice. “And before the warrior thing, I would spend any extra time just watching TV or practicing swordplay or reading. The rest of the week I work in a gym helping people get fit and healthy and wow that sounds like something from an informercial. In practice, it means I’m an encouraging voice while they sweat.” She put away the papers, grabbed some shoes, and looked at her watch. Sunday afternoon had quickly become Sunday evening. “Okay, here’s where I ask the questions. What do you eat?”
“In human form, I can handle anything a human can. Every now and then, I’ll need to change back into a dragon, and then you can expect me to take care of myself.”
Nice, Annie thought, glad he would take the initiative. A first among men she had known. She stopped herself before she asked when he would start looking for work. Then she realized what he’d said.
“Wait. Change back?”
“Yes, every few days I’ll need to return to my true form.”
“Not here, though. Right?”
He turned around the room. “I think if I knocked out a wall, I could fit very nicely.”
“What the—” and then she noticed mischief in his eyes. “Do not scare me like that. I rent this place, I don’t own it.”
“No need to worry. I’ll spend those nights in my retreat. Though I really do think I could fit in your rooms without difficulty, or renovation.”
“So then, why live here if you need to do that? Why not just live in your cave?”
“What would you think of a person who sleeps in the woods?”
“Plus, having a home among humans makes them feel more comfortable and willing to trust.”
Annie remembered how she felt inside the cave. He didn’t need to have a home to make her feel comfortable around him. “Do you usually freak out the locals?”
He hesitated. “It depends on how others are told that I exist.”
“Why is it so important that they trust you?”
“Because no relationship can survive without it.”
That made sense if he just wanted to be around humans. “Well, now that we’ve established that you won’t be transforming inside my apartment, what do you feel like eating?”
“At the moment, nothing. Feel free to eat whatever you like.”
Pizza tonight, then. She had a dragon in her living room. She deserved a bit of a treat. “Okay. Just make yourself at home while I order some food.”
Nicholas nodded and left the room, still looking to Annie like he was taking notes on everything inside.
She pulled out her cell phone and started dialing. Rules. Living together, she had found, never worked without rules. She’d order pizza, let Nicholas know what she would and wouldn’t accept in a roommate, even if this was only temporary, and he would stay out of her life just like he promised, with the exception of the rent. Utilities as well. Too much to ask from a dragon that’s just come back into the world.
Annie ordered the pizza and ended the call, then paused. Did he even have any job skills?
She didn’t want to think about the implications of that.
“Hey, I’m going to get my food now,” she called out.
No answer. Annie checked the bedroom.
Maybe he was gone. Maybe he had just used her to get out of his cave. Her gut said, no. Concerned, she picked up her keys and went to look for him.
As far as she knew he wasn’t familiar with the outside world. He had no idea how badly he could get hurt, though she had to admit he seemed able to pick things up faster than she had expected. A lot faster.
“Here!” she heard him call out a short distance from outside her front door. Annie’s eyes went wide when she saw who he was talking to.
“I’ve always loved Europe,” her landlady said, touching her wrinkled, bejeweled hand to her chest. Annie winced, as she always did when her landlady, Mrs. Harrier came into view. Dang jewels. They always turned the sun right into Annie’s eyes. A faint burning tingled under her skin. “How long did you live in Oregon?” Mrs. Harrier continued.
“Not long,” Nicholas said. “I travel quite a bit.”
Annie got ready to jump in and save Nicholas from himself. Mrs. Harrier loved to interrogate every guy Annie had ever invited into her home and gossip about it with all the elderly tenants. One more thing to warn Nicholas about.
Yet before she could, Mrs. Harrier said, “My husband was an executive for an oil company, back when Texas had so much oil you could put a seed in the ground and harvest a well. We traveled all over the country, til he lost everything gambling. Oregon was one of my favorite places. You know what my favorite thing to do was?”
Nicholas shook his head.
“Route 66. You could see all of America down that road. Gave you a whole new perspective on the people around you. It’d be too much for me to go down that road now. I’ve got this place to look after. But back then—” Mrs. Harrier drifted off, staring at something far in the distance. She jumped a little and waved whatever thoughts she had away. “I’m sorry. Gettin’ lost in the past. Never a good thing.”
“That depends on the past,” Nicholas said, with a smile that could charm the meanest recluse. “It sounds like yours was a good one.”
“For the most part.” Mrs. Harrier said, then noticed Annie. All the softness left her face. “You gonna chase this one off, too?”
“We’re not together,” Annie said. “He’s just staying with me for a while.”
“How long?” Mrs. Harrier glared at Annie, but her smile had returned when she looked back at Nicholas.
“Just until I can find my own place.”
“Oh, well, that’s too bad. A man nice as you would be good for Little Miss Tomboy here. Now, what is it you do?”
Expecting this conversation to take a turn for the worse, Annie stepped forward. “Really sorry to interrupt, but I need to talk to Nicholas.”
Mrs. Harrier looked sad. “Well, all right. But you come visit me like you promised.”
“I’ll do my best, Louise.” Nicholas bowed slightly from the waist in such a natural, fluid manner, Annie wondered how often he had done that in the past. For a moment, Annie saw him in richer robes, discussing current events with kings and their courtiers. Then he headed back to the apartment. Mrs. Harrier grabbed Annie by the arm, leaned in, and said in a low voice.
“You remember that I’m supposed to have a week’s notice if you’re gonna have a roommate?”
“Yes, I do.”
Annoyed, she met her landlady’s stare with her own until finally Mrs. Harrier sniffed. “I’m not gonna raise a fuss about the lack of notice this time, Annie.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Harrier.”
“But you hold onto this one, tomboy. He’s a lot better than the others, and they were pretty decent.”
No, they weren’t, she almost said. They were leeches who said that if they just had a leg up they could snare whatever dream they were chasing. And I thought I could save them from themselves. “We aren’t going out.”
“Well, not now,” Mrs. Harrier winked, smiled, then went back to her office.
He’s not my type, Annie nearly shouted. Instead, she sighed and went back into her apartment.
“Others?” Nicholas asked just after she closed the front door.
“Mrs. Harrier should learn to keep her nose out of other people’s business,” she grumbled shoving her hands into her pockets before realizing she didn’t have any. Frustrated and unsure what to do, she folded her arms instead.
“She’s not too bad.” Nicholas settled into the couch longways. For the first time, Annie noticed he had on a worn pair of sandals. Clothes. She would have to take him shopping for clothes either tonight or tomorrow. “She’s bored and full of memories,” he continued. “In the past, she would have spent her time passing those memories on to her grandchildren.”
Annie began picking up the living room just to have something for her hands to do. “Her children probably moved away as soon as they could.”
“Have you ever asked her?”
Annie paused, then shook her head. “Wait a minute. You told her you were from Oregon?”
“No. She noticed I didn’t have a local accent, assumed I was from ‘Europe’ possibly British, though she wasn’t sure, then she asked if I was from England. I told her I don’t consider myself a citizen of any particular place and that’s when she said she loved Europe.”
Annie thought back on the words, then remembered the burning she had felt under her skin. It was a milder version of the feeling she had gotten when Nicholas had breathed fire at her. “Then why did she ask you how long you had lived in Oregon?”
This time Nicholas didn’t answer as quickly. For a long moment they stared at each other until finally Nicholas sighed. “I’m allowed to use a little of my…ability…to keep myself anonymous. Anyway, enough of that topic. What others?”
“You mean magic, right? Like at the cave?”
He shook his head. “Later. What others?”
This time Annie sighed. “I really don’t want to talk about that.”
“Never mind,” Nicholas smirked and leaned against the cushion, closing his eyes.
“What do you mean?” Again, it seemed he knew more about humans than she expected.
“I know what she meant now.”
“Well, it’s not like I have a lot of guys live here. One or two. The rest stayed here so often that they might as well have moved in, but I’m not doing that anymore. I just want to stress that—”
Nicholas interrupted her, surprised. “I don’t think any less of you. By the way, do you want me to help you straighten up?”
“I’m fine,” Annie said and glanced at the clock. She would need to leave soon to pick up the pizza. It was one thing to spend money on a pizza and another to add a delivery charge.
“Are you violating some taboo by having men live in your apartment?”
“No. Well, not anymore. It used to be a big deal, you know, back when my parents were dating. Kind of. You know, doing…anything…um, together before you were married, or at least being obvious about it was a pretty bad thing.”
And I never felt this uncomfortable about it until now, she thought. This is how humans live.
“Really?” Was he enjoying her discomfort? Annie swore she could see a hint of a smile threatening at the corners of his mouth. “And Louise assumes—”
“Like I said, Louise…Mrs. Harrier needs to keep her nose out of other people’s business.” Annie grabbed her purse. After that conversation she did not want to take Nicholas with her anywhere. Who knew what he was going to ask next? Before long she would end up like Mrs. Harrier, wistfully relaying the events of her life. Annie shuddered.
“Cold?” Nicholas asked, a little too interested.
“No.” The last thing Annie needed was to look back at her past. The only thing that mattered now was what she did with the present. And that brought her back to Nicholas. And pizza.
“Okay, well, I have books, TV, and a computer in the back. Make yourself at home.”
Nicholas grinned again and she found it difficult not to smile back. She went into her bedroom, changed into normal clothes, then left to get the pizza.
When she came back she found Nicholas had indeed opened up several of her books, all lying around him in carefully stacked piles. The one he was currently reading was a book on the Middle Ages she had bought. She put the pizza on the counter. “Finding anything interesting?”
“I always find it interesting how humans change their history to suit their own purposes.” Nicholas put down the book. “I find it doubly fascinating when humans try to live in a fantasy past.”
“What do you mean?”
He waved her question away. “There’s a few items we need to discuss.”
Finally, Annie thought, a chance to bring up the topic without looking pushy. “Sure you don’t want pizza?”
He shook his head so she got a slice for herself, put it on a plate and sat down in the chair across from the couch where Nicholas still reclined. Or at least, had reclined. When she sat down he sat up and laced his fingers together, elbows on his knees. Placing his laced fingers under his chin he said, “It is all right if I stay here, isn’t it? It won’t make things more difficult for you?”
“Yeah, sure. I mean, Mrs. Harrier seems to like you and that solves a lot of problems right there.”
“You said you pay rent.”
“Yes, I do.” Glad for the opening, Annie was just about to mention the details when Nicholas beat her to it.
“Then, it would probably be best if I had some sort of employment so that I won’t be a burden to you?”
“That would be fantastic! Not that you’re a burden or anything,” she quickly added. Dang it, she was starting to babble.
Nicholas only smiled. “Now, in the interest of keeping your life normal, what is your usual routine?”
“Well, Monday through Friday I get up pretty early so I can jog and practice swordplay, then I leave for the gym where I work all morning, take a long lunch, then work until about eight. I’ll usually pick up something to eat on the way home, and read a book or watch TV until I fall asleep. On Saturday I’ll practice my swordplay some more and lately, on Sunday, I meet up with a bunch of people and we pretend we’ve gone back in time. Or as you put it, try to live in a fantasy past. I don’t think I’m going to do that any more though.”
This time, she was the one who hesitated. Considering she’d tried to attack him in his cave, telling him she had expected something more like a real battle was probably not a good move. “I just don’t like it. Back to my schedule, I live a pretty boring life. Not much else happens.” She lifted a slice of pizza to her mouth.
Nicholas nodded, deep in thought. “May I use your car, then?”
Annie froze before her teeth could sink in. Her car? She lowered the slice. “Are you saying you know how to drive?”
“No. But I’m sure I could figure it out.”
“No. You’re not getting in my car.”
“If I told you I could prove proficient by tomorrow’s lunch, would you let me use your car?”
“There’s no way you could become street-worthy in a few hours.”
“My kind are known for their intelligence. And their adaptability. In fact, the only species we’ve found that comes close is yours.”
“Yeah. That’s why you still have a kinda, sorta British accent in America.”
He shrugged. “I happen to like the accent I currently have. If it turns out to be too much of a distraction, I’ll change it.”
He grinned and said with a perfect Texas twang, “Really.”
She stared at him for a long moment then shook her head. Mrs. Harrier. He picked it up from her. Trying to stick to her resolve, she said, “I’m not letting you have the car after only one morning learning to drive. It just isn’t possible.”
He sighed. “Why not?”
Annie paused, looking at the determination, the confidence in his eyes. “Okay, maybe you could figure out the basics but driving a car is more than knowing which pedal makes the car go and which one makes it stop. There’s rules and laws you have to know. For example, if you get caught driving without a license—unless, of course, you can magically create one—you get charged with a misdemeanor which means technically you have a criminal record, and that’s a bad thing by the way, plus you have to pay a fine since you’re a first offender and—” she sighed. “If you get in an accident this could get really bad, and before you remind me that you’re not human I’d rather hear an example that deals with that issue.”
Eyes watching her, he said, “Then what do you suggest?”
Annie sighed. He had been proving himself surprisingly good at picking things up as he went along.
Besides, if he didn’t use the car what would he do for transportation? This was Texas for cryin’ out loud. Was he going to walk? This state didn’t seem built for that, and Blackland didn’t have mass transit. Too small a city. Even with a car, a ten minute drive anywhere was considered close and thirty-minute drives from one place to another were fairly average. She’d been lucky to find a job in the ten-minute range, herself. And she did want him to be self-sufficient for however long he was going to stay. She shook her head, trying to hold her ground, feeling it slip out from under her feet. “I can’t pay for any ticket you get.”
“And I can’t get a job without transportation.”
Once again they stared at each other.
“Let me have the car tomorrow morning,” Nicholas said. “I promise you’ll have it back at lunch, no worse for wear, and without causing an accident.”
“It’s not as easy as it looks. And there are a lot of rules to remember.”
Annie swore Nicholas looked as if he was about to laugh out loud. “I don’t expect it to be easy. Believe it or not, I’ve handled many different kinds of machines, each with their own quirks.” Annie watched him briefly fight what looked like a cynical smile that didn’t match what she knew of him so far. “I’ve also had a bit of experience with rules. All I’m saying is that I’ll learn faster than you think I will.”
“And what about the rest? Birthdate and so on?”
Nicholas took in a quick, shallow breath. “That will be a little more difficult.”
And that was all he said about that. After waiting for him to continue, Annie said, “What will you need to do?”
She hadn’t realized Nicholas had gotten lost in his own thoughts until his eyes focused on her again. “I’m not entirely sure. It’s been a while.”
Annie leaned back, arms still folded across her chest. She really didn’t like giving in on something with very expensive consequences. But, as he’d said, in order to get a job, he needed a car. “All right.” She got up to put her plate in among the other dishes in the sink. “But if anything goes wrong, even the slightest thing, you are never touching my car again. Never.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Nicholas said. He got up from the couch and inspected what was left of the pizza.
“You can have some if you want.”
Nicholas grimaced and shook his head. “I’ll take the couch tonight, if that’s all right with you.”
His confidence had been nice at first, but Annie wasn’t sure if she liked him taking charge of the decisions like this. This was starting to feel…arrogant. Maybe, maybe not, but she definitely didn’t want him to get the idea that all he had to do was say the word and she would go along with it. First, staying in her apartment, then taking the car, without a license…well, okay, she hadn’t gone along as easily with that one, but he was still going to take the car tomorrow. And she still had to get him some clothes so that he didn’t look like he’d escaped from a Ren Faire.
Then Annie remembered that he may not have any marketable skills in the first place. “What kind of job are you going to get?”
“I’m not sure. Something that doesn’t require specialization, I imagine. One that involves multiple clients instead of a single ‘boss’ to increase flexibility. Something service oriented. The more people I meet, the more I think it will suit me.”
“Because you enjoy being around humans.”
“Of all shapes and sizes,” Nicholas smiled. “I’m sure that whatever I find, I’ll be happy with it. There’s something to learn in every job.”
Annie wasn’t too sure about that but saw no reason to argue about it as long as he got something that could cover his half of the rent. “So, what did you read while I was gone?”
“I looked over your books on the Middle Ages, laughed, and then moved on to the dictionary, a book about government by a man with far too much time on his hands, and a guide on how to believe yourself into a better position than you currently have.”
Annie stared. “You actually read them or you skimmed them?”
“Skimmed? Like milk?”
“What I mean is—”
With a twinkle in his eyes he said, “I skimmed the government book and the history books, but I read the dictionary and the book on belief. All of them gave me fascinating insights into this region’s current culture.”
Too intelligent, she thought. And way too confident. “Just so you know, not everyone believes you can think yourself out of problems.”
“Those who do usually don’t get out of them, so I imagine the belief goes in and out of fashion. However, that wasn’t his point. His point is that once you believe something is possible to the extent that you can see yourself already there, you gain the necessary momentum to continue working until you’ve achieved your goal. And that is a belief that has some power to it. More than most humans realize.”
That made Annie think of being on the porch with her…their landlady. “Is that how you do magic?” Annie asked. “You focus on what you want until you can see it clearly?”
“About the so-called Middle Ages, however, you have several erroneous beliefs. First—”
“Is that how you do magic?” Annie repeated, annoyed that he would ignore her.
Nicholas gave her a hard stare. “Do you want my help with the dishes?”
Annie could barely look at them. Well, if she was going to have company over for the next few days, she didn’t want him getting sick from an unwashed dish. Nodding, she opened up the dishwasher. “About my question—”
“I can’t answer it.” He gave what sounded like something between a snort and a sigh, and began placing the dishes she rinsed into the dishwasher, once again doing a better job than Annie expected. “At least, not now. As I said when we first met, there are certain rules regarding my interactions with humans: things I can and can’t do. At the moment I cannot answer any question regarding what you call magic and most of your questions regarding dragons in general. Eventually, that will change.”
“I can’t tell you. But I can promise you that when I can, I will. What games do you play?”
“Well, humans like a lot of different games.”
“I meant, what games do you like to play, Annie? Besides hunting dragons.”
“I wasn’t hunting you.”
“I’m teasing. Gods, you’re serious.”
Pretending to be upset, Annie flicked some water at Nicholas who grinned, and said, “Seriously: dice, riddles, what do you like?”
“Card games, mostly. I like rummy, gin rummy, poker, and none of those sound familiar at all, do they?”
“None. But I’m willing to learn.”
“Fine, after we’ve loaded up the dishwasher, I’ll teach you to play poker.”
Once again, Nicholas surprised Annie by how quickly he learned. Then again, it wasn’t all that difficult a game. Most of it was chance with a little bit of psychology thrown in to make things interesting. Before long he had discovered all her “tells” and could consistently beat her.
“This isn’t fair,” she said, pretending to be annoyed.
“What? That I’m more intelligent than you?”
“No, that you’re better at poker than I am. Besides, there’s more than one kind of ‘smart’. I tried taking sociology once and the professor talked really well. He sounded so very intelligent. I found out later that this guy who was an expert on people, had been married twice, and both ended in a spectacular display of pettiness. Get him talking about women and it was obvious he didn’t know what he was talking about.”
“Most men don’t.”
But you look like a man, she thought. Shuffling the deck once more, she said, “Since you’re more intelligent than I am, Mr. Dragon, why do you like to hang out with humans?”
“I just do.”
She shook her head, watching her hands shuffle. “Not good enough.”
“Why not? Are you saying simply wanting to do something is never a good enough reason?”
“I think it’s debatable, but you mentioned rules, and that means there’s probably more than one of you, and that means your kind has interacted with my kind before.”
She looked up and noticed he had suddenly become very interested in the cards as she shuffled them. Bingo. “It just seems odd to me that a group of beings with rules for interactions and a lot of secrecy surrounding them, at least when it comes to creatures like myself, wouldn’t have a purpose of some sort. So, I think that you’re here for more than to play poker with me.”
She paused, cards in her hands undealt. When he looked up at her, his face had closed up to the point that she couldn’t read any emotions. He hesitated. “Do you think I’m lying to you?”
“No. You were honest with me about the secrecy. You could have lied or turned me around the same as you did to my landlady. You didn’t. I just don’t think your personal enjoyment of human company is the only reason you’re here.”
No smile touched his mouth, but she swore she could see one forming in his eyes.
“Are you worried that I might?”
“Might what?” she said.
“Try to charm you the way I did Louise.”
She studied him for a while, thinking over their interactions. “No,” she said slowly. “And if you did, I think you’d have a good reason for it.”
This time a smile did spread across his face, as well as relief. “I can tell you this much, Annie. I will never charm you away from any question.”
“Well that’s good to know.” She looked at the cards, still undealt. “And the rest?”
“Someday I’ll tell you. Perhaps sooner than you think.”
Why doesn’t he sound happy about that? she thought, watching the smile leave his eyes. “In the meantime then, is there anything I can do to help you with your studies?”
His poker face returned. “What do you mean?”
“You were obviously examining my room. Why? I have no idea. And you said I was your bridge back to the human world or something like that. So, I figure I’m your stepping stone to something else.”
He relaxed. She tried to remember that. But when he smiled, eyes sparkling with mischief and what she could only call enjoyment (though she wasn’t sure in what) it got a little difficult to focus on anything other than the present. “That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in you, Annie.”
Her heart stopped for a moment. Thankfully, she’d played this kind of game before and had lost often enough to know she shouldn’t play again. “I thought you said you weren’t going to use any charm on me.”
The sparkle in his eyes grew. “I’m sorry. I should have been more clear. Only the magical kind.”
With a smile, she grabbed a throw pillow and chucked it at him. He caught it easily.
She grew serious. This could get very out of hand. “No flirting, okay. It’ll give the wrong impression and have ‘Louise’ talking until the whole complex is sure we’re getting married.”
“Fair enough,” he said, then he grew serious as well. “Why did you agree to this?”
“To you living in my apartment? I’m starting to wonder myself.”
“No, you aren’t.”
She almost told him about the days that stretched out, each one more empty than the last, about the constant searching, growing ever more desperate for something to fill that gnawing ache until she stopped questioning anything that pulled her toward it. But this was temporary. She wouldn’t share anything that close to her with anyone who didn’t intend to stay. Even if he was one of the things that drew her close. “You have your secrets,” she said with a grin, “and I have mine.”
He didn’t seem pleased with that. “Too many secrets and this arrangement won’t work.”
She felt like laughing and almost did. “What an interesting observation.”
He chuckled and smiled again, though this time with no amusement or warmth. It took a minute for Annie to realize he looked concerned. But then, the moment was gone. “Fair enough.”
For the first time, she wondered how long they’d played. She fished her cell phone out of her pocket and sighed. It was past midnight.
Nicholas got up. “To the couch.”
She put away the cards and got her sleeping bag and travel pillow out of the closet. Handing them to Nicholas she said, “How long do you plan on staying?”
“I’m not sure. It depends on a lot of things.”
“Well, if it turns out you’re going to stay longer than a week, let me know. I’ll get a futon or a day bed or something.” She fought the sudden need to hug him or in some other way bring him close to her. Instead, she rubbed her eyes, feeling more tired than she had in a while.
“What time do you wake up?” he asked, unfurling the sleeping bag on the couch.
“Four. I’m gonna be dyin’ tomorrow.”
“I hope you mean that in a figurative sense.”
“You still need clothes. I don’t have anything here, so I’ll have to take you shopping during lunch tomorrow.” Annie paused. “What games do you like to play, Nicholas?”
“Life,” he said and pulled off his shirt.
Ordinarily, she would have stuck around to watch. It wasn’t as if Annie had never seen a man’s chest before, and she had to admit his looked pretty good. Strong, but not too muscular. The kind a girl could easily snuggle against at night, sure that for that moment she was safe.
But she felt drawn too easily. Is that really how I feel, she wondered, or is it the pull in disguise? She turned away. “Okay, then. Night, Nicholas.”
She could hear him pause, then put the shirt back on. She looked up just as he climbed into the sleeping bag with only his sandals off. “Night, Annie.” The warmth in his voice almost made her blush. No one since her first crush had managed that trick. She went to bed and smiled all through the night.