A/N: Firstly, I have to shout out my thanks to Derek57 for being such a willing beta for this story; I very much appreciated your help and your friendliness. You're a wonderful beta. :)
Secondly, this fic was supposed to be a prelude to a larger story, but somehow wandered away from my planned storyline and traversed into uncharted territory, altering itself enough to no longer fit my original intentions. It is now a one-shot. :) I began writing it about a year ago, sketching out the barest skeleton of details in my mind, occasionally dressing it with sentences when I had the chance, but somewhere along the line I got stuck and forgot it completely. It wasn't until I had met a dear friend that I even remembered this thing existed in the first place. Talking with her gave me enough courage to once again roll up my sleeves, grasp at the remainder of my fleeting ideas, and attempt to nail down something of substance. Because it was she who finally managed to come at my author's block with shovel and pick in hand, she who ignited the burst of creative inspiration needed to finish this piece, I must therefore dedicate it to her: Happy birthday, Dreamer of Legends. *hug* Now, please enjoy the story:

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"According to Darwin's Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives;
it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able
best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself."

-Leon C. Megginson, 1963

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Elves: beautiful, sophisticated creatures. They have no blemishes upon their fair skin, no physical faults to be found on their slender bodies. They have voices soft as the wind and laughter reminiscent of gentle, tinkling music boxes. They are the epitome of elegance and grace, never faltering in their cool dispositions and astute observations. They are enigmatic forest-dwellers who despise change to their perfectly balanced ways of life: the purest examples of a perfect coexistence with nature.

That's what I had been taught.

I had always heard legends of the Elves, that most esteemed race. In comparison, Elves made humans appear dirty, crude, disgusting, and, well, unworthy. Unable to match the beauty of such a higher plane of existence. Elves were the wonderfully finished and carefully sculpted artworks of a great and talented artist, representative of his finest creations. Humans were the misshapen lumps of clay discarded along the way.

Or, that's what I had thought.

Before I met him.

His name was Aeron, and he was gorgeous, it's true. I won't deny his physical prowess or his nearly unnatural beauty, but he certainly was no Elf. He drank, stank, belched, gambled, lost, cursed, gambled, and lost some more. He was a regular patron at my father's bar, and I the most unfortunate only daughter of the Lucky Tavern's owner. I tended the bar, drawing beer, mostly, for my father as he waited tables and my mother and younger brother occupied the kitchens. It was too bad my little brother was barely three years of age; I'd have loved to trade places with him, even if it meant slaving away over a hot furnace while trying not to cry too much as I sliced onions all evening. (Our onion rings go quickly. Mother makes the best.) At least I wouldn't be around this rowdy drinking crowd of crude, smelly men.

But, on this particular night the gambling tables were full and the majority of the patrons' purses were nearing empty. So was the large keg of beer behind me, but I knew we had another in the back, so there was no cause for riot or panic. I was watching Old Man Miller deal his way into another spectacular hand of cards when some other man stood, fat slug of a cigar clenched tightly between tobacco-yellowed teeth, and pulled Old Miller to his feet. Miller, knowing he was caught, simply dropped the stacked cards in favor of his sword, and dealt his offender a quick, killer hand. Satisfied that the man had no further complaints, Miller cleaned his sword on the fallen man's shirt, sheathed it, and resumed his game by re-raising with another silver.

I sighed as I wandered through the crowds of large, hairy, stinky men to where Miller's latest ex-opponent lay, bleeding all over the floor I had so painstakingly scrubbed and polished that very morning. Inconsiderate fool, I thought as I nudged his body with my foot. Now I have to clean it all over again. Confirming the man was quite dead (I had expected no less from the Old Man) I sighed once more before prodding a burly man at the next table over. He agreed to toss the body out back in exchange for a fresh tankard on the house. Since the dead man was so big, however, I decided to give the live one two tankards for his efforts. I don't think he minded my apparent inability to count to the number one.

That done, I returned to my place behind the bar and wiped a few glasses clean. That was when I noticed Aeron waiting for me, impatiently tapping a finger on the countertop as he stared, glittering green eyes unfocused, at the wall above my head.

"What?" I asked, loudly clinking an empty glass on the aged countertop in an attempt to get his attention.

Aeron started and nearly tipped off his barstool. He recovered by gripping the edge of the counter with his long fingered, calloused hands and somehow, I'm not quite sure how exactly, given how drunk he was, righted himself. "Wha?" he asked, thoroughly bemused.

I looked at him. "What," I said again.

"Oh, yes," he seemed to remember where he was and that I was the person who supplied him with his liquor. "Anoth'r drink. On th' rocks."

"You're too drunk for another drink."

He fumbled in his deflated purse for a moment before finding two coppers. He slid them across the counter as if he were the Old Man Miller himself, dealing me a fantastic hand of cards.

"It's four if you want it full."

He pouted slightly, brow furrowed in concentration as he struggled to remember if I was lying or not. I wasn't, but I almost wished I had been, just to see if he'd figure it out.

He wouldn't have. He reached into some other fellow's purse and withdrew a silver. Scrunching his eyes to look at it, he deemed it satisfactory and passed it across the counter to me. "Keep th' change," he said. I did.

As I supplied him his poison, I looked at him. Judging by the amount of blonde stubble covering his dirty face, he had been too hungover to bathe this particular morning. Well, that was nothing new. Judging by the red-rimmed gaze he mournfully poured into his emptying glass, filling it with sorrow just as quickly as he emptied it of its liquor, I could tell he was thinking of his sweet little darling, Marlieri. He hadn't seen his baby girl in over a year now, not since her mother had taken her to visit her grandparents living on the southern coast. It was an excuse, and the whole town knew it; an excuse to escape the liquor taking over Aeron's life like the slow-seeping poison it was, but still he couldn't quit. He was too afraid of the nightmares that crept forth on dark wings and smothered him when he was sober.

Aeron never spoke of his past. He never mentioned his homeland. He never talked of his family, of his life before he came here to work in the degraded paper mill with everybody else, of his travels or wonders or other such curiosities harbored only by one of his kind. He never spoke of love, of tenderness, of happiness, or of joy. He was just as crude as any other oxen of a man in this bar at this late hour. And he was just as smelly, too. He was just as sad and lonely as the Old Man Miller, although he didn't cheat at cards nearly so cleanly.

In short, Aeron fit in well with the locals. Nobody here asked any questions. Nobody here wanted to answer. Everybody here was here because they had escaped from something unpleasant in their past. Some fled because they had stuck their grubby, greedy hands a little too far in some molten mess of something illegal. Some were unlucky, and had fallen on the coldly unforgiving stones of misfortune. Some were just born into this forgotten dust-hole of a town, knowing they would someday die in the same place.

Some like him. Some like me.

His name was Aeron, and he was gorgeous, it's true. I won't deny his physical prowess (I had seen him lift a gorilla of a man three times his size, once, before he threw said man out the door in a drunken rage) or his nearly unnatural beauty (aside from a small scar running the length of his left cheek, from ear to jaw, a trophy of his first bar fight, so many years ago), but he certainly was no Elf. He drank, stank, belched, gambled, lost, cursed, gambled, and lost some more. He was a regular patron at my father's bar, and I was the most unfortunate only daughter of the Lucky Tavern's owner. I tended the bar, drawing beer, mostly, aiding the occupants within on their quest for drunken invincibility (as they all seemed to think of themselves that way when I had finally supplied them enough and they could pay no more).

He was the Elf and I was the human; two opposing races brought together in the same dead-end little town, under the patchy roof of the same dead-end little tavern, sitting on opposite sides of the same dead-end little bar. He was the Elf: beautiful, strong, and secretive: enigmatic. I was the human: crudely built, misshapen, and imperfect: flawed. But he was the one who drank his life away, and I was the one with a steady job and a loving family and a feeling that there was something more out there for me to reach. And if he truly ever did drown the rest of his eternal years in gambling and booze, well, perhaps, in just this one instance...

Despite being of a lesser race...

Perhaps I had won, anyway.

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