In Homburg town, which was just waking up and finding that last night’s rain had turned into a morning deluge, Jaz Contra stood just inside the open doors of The Defiant, staring into the rainy haze in search of a particular figure. Main street branched into two streets on either side, forming an awkward wedge where The Defiant stood like a pale ship parting the waters. On a clear day, she could see straight to the field at the edge of town where her new friend, a young morpha named Bracken, had pitched his tent.
“He forgot, I bet,” she muttered, lifting a severely cracked white mug to her lips. She tapped one foot against the black strip separating her floor from the sidewalk. She could send someone to get him, but not before the rain stopped. Jaz scowled at the blurry shapes of pedestrians hurrying toward The Defiant for shelter. “Damn that kid.”
Though the air coming in from outside was cold, Jaz lingered on the threshold, letting the nearest pedestrians walk past her into the shop before turning and walking to her place behind the bar. Here it was considerably warmer. Refrigerators hummed beneath the counters enclosing her workspace, and above them on the counter the bronze espresso machine gurgled quietly, its boilers filled and heated. Hot water rumbled in a row of silver kettles on an adjacent counter. Beside the kettles sat a row of clear, vaselike coffeepots with clean white filters in their open tops, ready for fresh grounds. She passed a hand through the threads of steam rising from the kettle spouts and wiped the moisture on her jeans as she faced the first customers of the day over the counter.
They were green from head to foot.
“Morning,” sighed Jaz, stowing her mug on a counter beneath the register.
“Good morning Jaz,” said the first one, pleasantly. “Can you guess who I am?” Her hair and skin were grass green, while her companion was a cool shade of mint. Instead of clothes, their torsos and legs were covered in a scalloped texture that resembled fish scales: a typical shapeshifter response to rain.
Jaz didn’t need to guess: she knew the voice. “Astrid. Nice hair.”
Astrid pouted, fingering the mass of large green curls that fell to her shoulders. “I was sure you wouldn’t be able to guess this time. We haven’t had a green day in weeks.”
For some months now the local trend in Homburg was to turn oneself a new color each day of the week. Fortunately for Jaz, voice was one feature that most shapeshifters neglected to change. They also had certain favorite patterns that they wore like favorite outfits, which marked them separate from each other and improved Jaz’s chances of guessing their identities correctly. It helped, too, that they tended to come into the shop at the same time every day; most of them gave themselves away instantly by ordering their favorite drinks.
Which was how Jaz had learned to identify them in the first place.
Jaz shrugged and said simply, “You always come in with Elisi. Coffee for two?”
“As usual. How did you know Elisi though?”
“I’m a good guesser. And her hair is always straight.”
“You can’t fool Jaz,” said Elisi with a little laugh. “She’s half morpha.”
This was partly true–Jaz was hard to fool, but not because she had any shapeshifter blood.
More customers came in, lining up at the counter, and the question-and-answer game repeated itself for the next several hours. Jaz played along because it was expected and it kept them moving smoothly from the register to their tables.
The shop filled with customers in every shade of green, from chartreuse to neon, seeking shelter in The Defiant until the storm passed. They came on foot and riding bicycles, and some even attempting to fly through the deluge. Those on the ground sprouted hoodlike shields from their shoulders that curved over their heads, shielding them from the worst of it. From a distance they resembled green humanoid quail. Those in the air moved quicker but had to struggle against sheets of rain pushing down on them.
One of those flying was the elusive Bracken.
Shivering, his featherless black wings trembling with effort, Bracken passed over a group of olive-colored businessmen trundling along the sidewalk and landed in a clear spot outside the open doors. He paused to reshape his wings into arms and checked the shoulder straps of his backpack to reassure himself it was still there. Water streamed down his legs to the sidewalk, making a puddle at his feet that seeped toward the floor of the shop.
A slender female morpha glanced at him as she passed on her way in, then stopped and turned back to him, looking concerned. “You’re not green.”
Bracken stretched his arms in front of him, confirming they were the same length after reshaping, then rubbed his hands through his wet, black hair. “Er…no.” His thoughts were still on the flood waters that had woken him a few minutes ago, flowing around his head as they beat down the walls of his tent, washing it away along with his food and bedroll. He had barely escaped in time.
“It’s Green Day,” she informed him helpfully.
“Oh.” Bracken looked down at himself. His upper and lower halves were two different shades of brown and his arms were still black, giving the impression of mismatched pajamas.“Right. I’m not from here. Just passing through.”
“Welcome to Homburg, then.” She smiled prettily. “What brings you here?”
“I’m looking for someone.” Bracken leaned to one side to see past her. Customers surrounded the square of counters like grass around a flagstone. Through the gaps he glimpsed Jaz’s blue hair as she hurried around, taking orders, making drinks and handing them out.
The young lady stepped into his line of sight. “Human or morpha?”
“Morpha. My aunt, Sadie.” He reached into the backpack for the picture he had brought, but stopped as he remembered it, too, had been lost in the flash flood. Sighing, he described his aunt instead. The young lady hadn’t seen her and was sorry she couldn’t be of more help. Bracken, more upset at losing the picture than her lack of help, thanked her, flashed a brief smile of farewell and proceeded to the crowded counter. Two men with wispy, sage-colored beards shifted to make room as he pressed in between them. The espresso machine hummed on his right, dripping espresso into clear shotglasses which Jaz set on saucers and passed to the waiting sagebeards.
“Hey Jaz.” Bracken leaned far over the counter to grab a fistful of paper napkins from a stack beside the machine.
Jaz scowled disapproval of his encroachment into her space. “You’re late.”
“The field I was camping in flooded.” He expected this to soften her, but Jaz seemed to only notice things that affected her directly. Rain that flooded her shop with customers, she noticed. Whatever else the rain happened to do outside of the shop earned a shrug at most from the barista. She sullenly dumped coffee grounds into one of the cone-shaped filters in the waiting vessels.
Bracken tried again. “I lost my stuff.”
It was not technically ‘his’. The sleeping bag and cookware had come from his parents’ attic, and the camera had sat neglected for years on his older sister’s dresser. Bracken had reasoned none of it would be missed. Besides, his sister had a new camera and this old one, a gift from his beloved aunt, deserved a better life than that of a glorified knickknack.
Jaz’s hand jerked, spilling water over the counter, and her eyes snapped up to his. “All of it?”
Bracken did not seem to hear her. He reached into his backpack and withdrew the boxy camera, which he wiped carefully with the napkins, frowning at the water stains that had already settled into the leather.
Jaz set the kettle down and leaned toward him. “Bracken. The pictures?”
Bracken finished inspecting the camera and set it carefully on the counter. “I’ll need a place to stay now, since my tent is gone.” He raised his eyes, large and black and pupilless, to her smaller, violet-ringed ones, and tried not to blink. Jaz had a glare that could scorch at a distance. Bracken countered it with a polite, vague expression that he’d perfected on his teachers at school.
“Nice try.” Jaz said flatly, and broke away to attend another customer.
Bracken sighed and pulled a brown, rain-spattered package from the backpack. He slid it across to her when she returned.
She brightened. Unlike most morphas, who smiled even when they slept, Jaz’s smile was elastic, put there with effort and snapping back to neutral like a rubber band. “Thanks. I’ll pay you in a minute.”
The rush turned into a two-way river of customers coming and going. Jaz swept around the workspace, grinding beans, pouring hot water on grounds, tamping espresso, steaming milk, and taking money—all while playing the ‘who am I’ game with each customer. Bracken lingered at the counter, squeezed between other standing bodies, waiting for a seat to come available.
“What do you want pictures of Homburg for?” He asked as she cleaned and tidied during a lull. “You live here.”
“I collect pictures, so what?” She swept a towel over the counter, then went to the register, took several bills from the drawer and dropped them in front of him.
He folded the money and tucked it into the backpack, tying down the top flap with the attached leather laces. “Just curious. It’s kind of odd. You could just, go outside and look around.”
“I don’t go outside. Speaking of odd, you’re the only one here who’s not green.”
“You’re welcome.” Bracken smirked. She was blunt, even for a human, but he didn’t mind. Though she appeared to be in her late twenties, Jaz acted more like a great-grandmother whose old age entitled her to bypass manners. Bracken found her lack of manners refreshing after living for sixteen years—a lifetime, to him—enduring perpetual, polite smiles from morpha-kind. “You should open a shop in Cavicea. We don’t do color days there.”
“No, you have Cabbage Week. With parades and everything.” Jaz looked past Bracken, watchful for new customers. Her eyes followed a female morpha on the sidewalk just passing the windows toward the open door. Crimson and brown stripes on her upper body set her boldly apart from the backdrop of green pedestrians, and her black hair closely matched Bracken’s in shade and texture. “Out of curiosity, where did you get that camera? I feel like I’ve seen it before.”
“It’s my sister’s, actually. I borrowed it.”
Jaz’s mouth quirked. “Borrowed.”
“Well…not exactly,” Bracken admitted, “But I needed it and she won’t miss it. She has a better one.”
Jaz looked past him again. “Where is she now?”
“Back home in Cavicea, interviewing cabbage competition winners. She writes for a newspaper.”
“Oh, good.” Jaz gestured toward the doors. “So that’s not her coming in, then.”