She turned her face away from him. It wouldn't do to let him see her cry, to allow him to see her weak. After all, she was a dragon. She was supposed to be strong...right? She bit down on her lower lip and looked away into the distance. He had turned his back to her and she was at a loss for words.

It had been several months since she'd made the decision to help this band of nomad humans. She could no longer stand by and watch them struggle; watch them starve. While desperately searching for a home the rag-tag humans had inadvertently wandered into her protectorate. For many nights and days she silently watched them battle against the harsh elements from the safety of her forest. This stretch of countryside was rife with the Feathered-Ones.

The Feathered-Ones were her ancient tribal and racial enemies. She was a Child of Bahamut, the greatest of all draconic icons. Her linage was old and strong, her people proud and powerful. Countless millennia ago the first Feathered-Ones and Bahamut's children had lived in peace. All that had changed when the Feathered-Ones...their true name lost among the fogs of the past, betrayed and murdered Bahamut. That first, that greatest battle sparked a war that continues today. Bahamut's progeny bore the scars of the tragedy and now burn with hatred towards their treacherous feathered kin.

Bahamut had always taught her progeny to live in peace with the lesser races and they took her teachings to heart all these years hence. The Feathered-Ones lived in a shadow of selfishness and vile behavior. As Aquiel watched these pitiful humans before her, she half wanted to wait as the Feathered-Ones would inevitably descend upon them and rain down lightning and death.

They would not last long against the dragon-might. Weakened and tired, the humans were already in a slow painful death. They needed help – her help. It was at that moment she decided to end her self-inflicted exile and for the first time, she took the form of the two legs. She did, what before was, the unthinkable. She became a human.

Aquiel had approached them, in the guise as a barbarian woman, a forest ranger. She had told them she had lived alone in these lands for her entire life and offered to help them. They were not in a position to refuse, and so they gladly accepted her strength, her knowledge. She gave them anything they needed. She gave of herself all that she possibly could.

It wasn't long after she had joined the nomadic tribe that she met him, Rhys. He was strong, handsome and a natural leader. They fought at first. He was proud. She was proud. She could not completely suppress her draconian instincts and her natural tendency to see herself as superior was indeed hard to stifle.

Because of this, they butted heads often, rarely saw eye to eye, and had frequent, loud arguments. Many times, they quite nearly came to blows. She saw things in one way as he would see things in another. The people themselves were torn. They trusted and loved her...for she had saved them...and they loved and trusted him...for he was family. Everyone could see the attraction between the two...everyone except those directly involved.

It was a spring day when they finally came to blows. He spoke words out of hand, and she took them out of context. Something within her snapped and her hand flew towards his face of its own accord. He caught her wrist and stopped her blow easily. Rhys yanked her slightly closer to stay her hand while he glared mightily in an attempt to intimidate her into submission.

His grip was strong, but she knew she was still stronger. It wouldn't take much of an effort for her to break his human grip and smash him into the ground. Nevertheless, there was something there. As she glared into his dark soulful eyes, she felt a foreign sensation smash through her. She felt her chest tighten as his grip suddenly weakened and shuddered. Confusion replaced the anger in her own eyes and she could only marvel in astonishment, as she saw the same reaction in him. She could see the vibrant anger, thick behind his eyes suddenly seem as ephemeral as her own did. It evaporated like the morning dew. He yanked her closer and leaned down and brought their lips together.

The sexual tension, albeit unrecognized by both, had built up between them for weeks. It suddenly exploded around them in a whirlwind of passion that escalated rapidly. Suddenly their hands were all over each other and tore at each other like animals. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she was close to losing her delicate control and tried, without success, to reign in her emotions, but they continued to surge wildly out of control.

He, too, felt the overwhelming passion that surrounded them and knew he could not stop its progress. He knew where this would lead, if he did nothing to stop it. However, his mind and his body had two utterly diverging ideas about that now, and his mind could do nothing but sit back and watch as his body responded to the flames that were consuming them both. Then he stopped thinking altogether.

That was several weeks ago. Since that day, their relationship had grown. The hurdle was crossed and they found that they were indomitable together. He was yin to her yang, light to her shadows. Their people thrived, flourished and their village prospered.

The Feathered-Ones had not been seen in several seasons.

Concerned about this new trend, Rhys and Aquiel led a hunting party deep into the wilds to search for threats. Something was wrong; something was keeping all the evil dragons away. He knew this. In the pit of his stomach, he knew this. As they went, he grew more and more despondent, and Aquiel worried. She could sense a simmering anger in him, a deeply buried hurt. It troubled her and she decided to ask him about it.

The hunting party stopped to set up camp for the night. Rhys watched his friends, his troupe go about their nightly chores. He gazed at Aquiel for a few moments and finally closed his eyes and turned away. Troubled, he walked away from the camp into the woods. He needed time...he needed to think, to sort out his thoughts. He found a small glade with a small pond. Moonlight, like liquid silver, streamed across the water through a small break in the foliage above. The starlight twinkled in reflection over the pond and Rhys sat quietly on a hollow log, his head buried in his hands.

Aquiel had had a sense of unease for most of the trip and looked around the camp for her soul's mate. When she didn't see him right away, she sniffed the air deeply. Beyond the normal forest scents, the fire, and the natural stench of humans, her heightened senses told her exactly where he had gone. Worried, she followed into the woods.

Her footfalls were light in the underbrush, almost unnaturally so, and she was able to approach him without being noticed. Yet she stopped, quite a good distance away and called out to him softly. "Rhys? Are---err... Is everything ok?"

He looked up, somewhat startled and his hand started towards his sword, but he relaxed almost immediately. "I..." he dropped his head. Aquiel cocked her head just a bit as she fell to his side, her hand on his knee. He took it in his own. Rhys was larger than she Aquiel was, there was much strength in his solid body, but at this moment, he seemed tiny, lost, and scared.

"What is it?" she asked softly as her own fingers curled around his.

He looked up at her, his eyes sad and distant. "This whole affair with the Feathered dragons does not sit well with me. I'm...I'm afraid that something terrible is going to happen...again."

A slight furrow appeared in Aquiel's brow. "Again?"

Rhys nodded. "I never told you this...I used to have a family." His eyes clouded with remembered pain, distant, but still sharp and clear. "I was raised an orphan because Dragons killed my family. My father, my brothers, my sister, even my mother. They swept into our village one evening, and burnt everything, destroyed everything." His grip on Aquiel's hand grew progressively tighter. "There wasn't even any reason...they...they did it for sport." He suddenly looked up into Aquiel's eyes. His dark storm grey eyes burnt with the pain of his memories. There was a passion, a cold loathing there that she had never seen before. "I hate them all for what they did that night. I'm afraid they will do it again. That if we don't find them, they will find us and destroy everything I've grown to love again." He pulled her closer and raised his hand to cradle her cheek. "I feel so complete with you...I don't want to lose you to those demon spawn."

Aquiel fought to control her emotions. Hearing him speak his hatred of dragons slammed into her and her body went rigid. Faintly, she was glad it was dark; else, he would have seen the horror that passed through her at that moment. He hated dragons... was all her mind repeated. "But not all dragons are bad. Some..."

"NO!" He cut in with a ferocity that startled her. "They are ALL demons. You don't understand the pain they caused that night." His grip nearly crushed her now and had she been any lesser being, it surely would have. "They all deserve nothing but a painful end. You hunt the Feathered-Hell spawn. I thought you would understand this."

Aquiel stared at him a moment, then dropped her head and nodded once. "I do understand. I understand your hatred. I...I really do...but to hate an entire race for the actions of a few...To fall into that spiral..." her words died away and she shook her hand slightly. "You're hurting me..."

He immediately released his grip. "I'm sorry." Suddenly aware of his emotional level he pulled her into his embrace. Her body was tight, controlled, stiff, and he attributed that to his tirade. He must have scared her. "Mi'aeri, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. It's just that there is so much I want to share with you..." his words faltered a moment. "I...I love you."

She blinked. He had never before said such words. "Wh...What?" she whispered against him. He repeated his pledge and her heart knew a bittersweet elation. Her arms moved up to encircle him and she repeated her heart's lexis back to him. All around them, nature felt her inner joy, felt his elations and, in a rush of a thousand tiny wings, hundreds of fireflies took to the air around them. They lit the entire area, as if the very stars had descended from the heavens to surround them now. Aquiel smiled against his chest, she felt his body relax against her...but her mind...her mind did not, could not, leap for joy. Her mind...that hidden draconic part of her, asked a simple, weighted question ...and would he love you if he knew you?

She did not have an answer.

Eventually the hunting party returned, defeated in their task to gather information. They could only go on with their simple life. However, in the months that followed, Aquiel never grew complacent, merely comfortable. That almost idyllic existence came to a halt the day a Feathered dragon, one of the largest in even her memory, appeared in the skies overhead. It sent the small village below into panic. She rushed outdoors at Rhys' side and stared upwards at the creature. The people fired their bows, threw their spears but the Feathered-Ones was strong...too strong for mere human weapons.

She knew what she had to do...there was no another way. The Feathered-One dove towards the village square; its eyes were intent upon its prey. She took a deep breath, prepared to drop her human shell...and stopped...as the Feathered-One bellowed her name...her true name.

"Ah'kuielarhnn!" it roared. "I know you are nearby, I can smell you." It hovered in the hair and slowly circled the village below, its black shadow matching its black body in the sunlight. "Come to me. We have something to discuss." Tiny bolts of lightning crackled along glossy black scales that were lost among the wispy feathers covering it. It was a graceful creature, beautiful...but consumed with evil.

A dragon. One of the embodiments of all he hated. Rhys started to step forward, his face contorted in fury, to deny knowledge of this dragon that it spoke of, but the Feathered-One continued. "If you do not send her out...then I will destroy your homes." His threat spoken, Rhys snarled in both fury and fear. He started to turn, to tell Aquiel to run, to be safe, but his words died in his throat when she spoke instead.

"I am here, Feathered-One. What do you want?"

The Feathered-One ceased his aerial pacing and leveled its gaze on her. "So...it IS true then? You live among the--" He sneered this next word, as if it were disgusting to even say, "Humans." It spit in the sky. "How can you stand the stench?"

Aquiel narrowed her gaze, knowing that every eye in the village was on her, but acutely aware of only a single pair of human eyes, that now stared at her with both shock and betrayal. She did not look away from the other dragon, her eyes shone with a draconic intensity. "Yes," she answered. The more she thought about it, the more she recognized this particular adversary. He was ruthless, selfish and she had no doubts it would make good on any threats it uttered. She would protect this village. She had to, no matter the cost. He was older then she was, much older, and for their species, that meant bigger. He was powerful, perhaps more then she could handle. It puzzled her as to why he'd take wing now. "Surely, you did not come all this way to simply substantiate a rumor Ohanzee?"

The Feathered-One snorted. "Hardly." It growled and switched into draconic, his words sounding, to human ears, as an assortment of a deep musical rumbling. When he was finished, he turned and flew back up into the sky and left the village as it was.

Aquiel looked down towards the ground. The Feathered-Ones words were not good. He said it was time for her to leave this life as larger things for dragon-kind loomed on the horizon. It doubly perplexed her as to what could possibly be a great enough cause to call such a truce, and why they would send Ohanzee to her personally, but she had other plans. A change might be coming, something she would play a large part in, but, still, she could not leave these people to fend for their selves. They were more than just a collection of humans; they were her friends, her family...and her lover.

Most of the humans were not afraid of her. They knew and trusted her, but they were apprehensive of what had just transpired. She glanced around at the people approaching her, faces full of worry and concern, not fear and revulsion.

Only one wore that face.

A child, Evan, came up to her and took her hand. Flanked by his father, he took Aquiel's hand gently. "Are you going to leave us now?"

She smiled softly and shook her head. "No. I am not going to leave you. There is trouble coming. I will stay here." She knelt down to the child's level.

His tiny voice asked again "Are you going to help us? Are you -really- going to stay?"

Aquiel smiled again sincerely. "Of course I am. That's... most... of the reason why I came here. To help."Evan smiled up at her, his fears allayed.

Evan's father spoke as she stood up once more. "Most?" he repeated. "What other reason do you have?"

Aquiel's smile left her face and she looked towards Rhys, who scowled blackly before he turned his back to her and walked away. She grimaced, feeling an acute stab of pain. "I..." her words faltered. "I guess...that reason doesn't matter much anymore..."

It wasn't until much later that night she found him. The moon had rose high in the sky and sat there full, bloated and cheesy above them. He stood on one of the high cliffs that overlooked the forest beyond; his dark hair, tied low at his neck, streamed out behind him in the cool night breeze. His back was to her. His arms were crossed. Aquiel did not attempt to hide her footfalls and stopped a good distance behind him.

He didn't turn around, simply started to speak. "A barbarian woman..." he chuckled wanly. "A good disguise. You had us all fooled... Dragon."

His scathing accentuation of her race stung her but she didn't respond, and as the silence continued between them, he finally half turned to glare at her. She met his gaze evenly and when she finally spoke, her words were soft. "You hate me." It wasn't a question, but a statement. "Don't you?" she added.

When he didn't answer her, she turned her face away. It wouldn't do for him to see her weak, to let him see how much his ire hurt her, to let him see how much she loved him.

He had surely changed her. No longer was she the flippant, arrogant dragon, instead, like a caterpillar molting into a butterfly, she had grown into so much more. She knew she could never return to what she had once been. That life...that part of her...was dead. She kept her face averted as she came to stand beside him and gazed away into the distance. "I'm sorry that my kind stole away your family, your life. But I was not one of those that did so." He snorted and looked away once more. "Still...I understand your hatred of us...of me."

Rhys snarled and glanced at her. Any feelings of compassion, of trust, of love, were lost in the murky fog of hatred, anger, and betrayal he now felt towards her. He knew it wouldn't take much to provoke him to draw his sword and separate her head from her body. The fact that that realization came so easily to him scared him. It scared him more the he could face, but he forced it away and kept his voice low and measured. "How could something like you understand?"

Aquiel turned her head to face him and held his hate-filled gaze evenly. After a long moment, she took a deep breath and looked away, her eyes full with unwept tears. How could she make him see? See that she really DID understand. She began to speak, "We dragons are born in clutches. Clutches are typically eight eggs or so and we share a deep psychic bond with each other even before birth." Her voice grew distant, soft as she recounted her memories. "It was spring in the valley of Gilenstaad, nearly time to hatch when -they- came...a band of humans, cruel hunters that sought only to carve a name for them and for treasure. They invaded our lair. They slaughtered our mother as she tried to protect her eggs, us, her children. When my mother took her last breath the pain of that tore through my mind as keenly as their steel tore into her scales. Somehow, my egg rolled away, into a crack, to safety, and they smashed all the others."

Aquiel's hands clenched into fists as the memories long buried came back to the surface and her nails dug painfully into her palms. A drop of blood trickled away unnoticed. "Our bodies were immature, but our minds were sharp. I felt their agony, the pain-filled deaths of my seven brothers and sisters as intensely as if was me under their malicious boots. They all cried out for mercy and in the end received only cruelty. Helpless, every one of us, and those evil humans laughed as they desecrated even their dead bodies." Her head fell forward and her hair fell to hide her face, to hide her pain even as she fought to hold her voice steady. "Even now, their screams still echo through my mind." She took a deep breath to calm herself before she continued. "Eventually, I hatched, alone in the dark among the rotten and ravaged body of my mother and the smashed and ruined carcasses of my siblings. Life isn't easy, even for a young dragon, but I survived." Her eyes smoldered with pain. "And I burned with hatred for those humans who had done this to me. Their stench was all around me. Everywhere. Because of those humans, I hated ALL humans. My desire for revenge took over my life. It became my only thought. I could think of nothing else. I wanted nothing else but to avenge the deaths of my family."

A single tear slid down Aquiel's cheek but she didn't reach up to wipe it away. Unnoticed, Rhys turned fully to watch her, his own features softening. He wanted so badly to reach out to her, but his own inhibitions held him back. He could not bring his body to obey his heart. Heedless of his mental anguish, she continued with her story. "One by one I tracked them down. And one by one I made them pay." She shook her head slightly and grimaced humorlessly. "Oh no...I didn't kill them...I did much worse. I am guilty of a far greater evil, indeed. I took from each of them, one of their children and slaughtered it." Her head dropped and more tears fell silently into the dirt at her feet. "I made sure each one felt the pain, the terrible anguish of loss. That terrible stab when someone you love is taken for no reason." Unconsciously, Aquiel's arms came up to hug her body, to warm her from the coldness that suddenly gripped her.

"Those...those children were innocent. I was so totally consumed by my hatred I saw nothing else. I devoted my life to the destruction of those men who had taken my family. In the end...after the last man's guiltless child lay dead at my talons...I felt hollow and empty. Unfulfilled...and my family...remained dead. It was then that I saw. I saw the evil -thing- that I had become. I was everything you think we are. I hated humans for so long...I knew nothing else. I understood nothing else...until recently." Her voice died away for a moment while she gathered her emotions. She forced her mind into calm. "It wasn't until I met you that I realized what love really was. You taught me what it is to know love instead of hatred."

Aquiel dropped her arms and turned fully towards Rhys meeting his gaze, her eyes filled with an infinite, timeless sorrow. "I will live with their blood on my hands forever. I know that for what I have done there is no true forgiveness, but doing this...maybe... I can do some good. Her voice died away again and she remained quiet for only a single moment. "I'm sorry I lied to you...and I'm sorry that you loved a dragon." Her voice breaks slightly. "...A dragon that will always love you."

Without another word, Aquiel turned and melded gracefully into her draconic form as she walked away. A flap of her powerful wings and she was airborne. She did not look back.

Please review; as this is my first original work, I appreciate all constructive criticism. I'm thinking I should put a lexicon page on this, as well as a description of common creature/human characteristics ...but I'm not sure yet. Heh, depends on how flamed I get :)