Slipping out of the castle, Kila blew her hair from her eyes. She waved to Jaxx, who leisurely stretched out his nose to be caressed. Over the past several weeks she learned his fierce face housed an affectionate heart. Good morning, little sister. Good morning, m’lord. She responded with teasing affection, fingers gently tickling the softer scales that edged his nose. Are you ready to do something different today? He closed his eyes in enjoyment at the touch. She caressed the inside of his hands as he bore her up. Looser scales made them rough. What are you thinking of doing? She revelled in the feeling of her stronger arms, firmer limbs. Her shorter hair curled around her face. She had hacked it off herself in a fit of rage, after Stura kept using it to wheel her around like a bola. I am itchy, Mal is busy, and I miss swimming. We will go to the lake, swim, and I will show you how to take care of this itch. His thoughts had become a little crusty lately it made sense. She realized he was shedding. No training today? She suppressed the whine in her voice, resigning herself. Several of the Dragons had taken their own personal time to train her on their own days off. Life IS training. He had become more and more distracted, spending more and more time at the lake. One of the mages had told her he was more of a sea species, and probably missed the water. Life is LEARNING. She responded, and he send a chord of affection back at her. For the first time in her life, she felt loved, and it made her try harder to please than she ever had before. It wasn’t just the soft love, it was the hard love she appreciated. Once Jaxx had learned what she wanted, he offered to help. He was a harder, firmer taskmaster than Stura. His human face was sterner, and he was an implacable ‘mock’ enemy. Stura showed her what it was like to be toyed with. Jaxx showed her what it was like to be hunted. She also felt, while outside the grounds and with the Dragons, a strange peace. Her irritability fell away, and she was calmer. Or maybe they had broken something in her. They had made her realize how right Malcolm was, and how insufficient she was. They had tempered her rage with a healthy dose of fear and avoidance of pain. The first time she tried to fight instead of running, Turaz, a Copper Dragon, had bent her over his knee and swatted her ‘til she howled. When she had lost her temper two weeks ago and let herself get caught, Jaxx had calmly, methodically and coldly broken her arm while gazing unblinkingly into her eyes. He had healed it, but it had been a lesson in pain she would never forget. Running to avoid pain added on a whole new dimension. Once she learned this lesson, they began teaching her offensive measures. The estimated half a year timespan for their stay was rapidly spinning out to what looked like at least a year, and the Dragons seemed to think her training important, for they never flagged or questioned the validity. Or maybe they were just bored with inaction. Though her mention of them attacking directly and driving her foes off were met with strictures on what Dragons WERE and were NOT. And a human plaything was definitely something they were NOT. Today, Jaxx settled his massive yet lithe body on the shores of Lake Lota. She stretched while he swam. He was as graceful in the water as in the air, and fast! His dark shape swept rapidly under the surface. Walking out onto the dock, shivering in anticipation of the cold, unwarmed water, she dove in. Surfacing, she keened briefly at the coldness, then dove under the water. She dove as deep as she could, playfully trying to catch up to the Dragon below her, before flipping and speeding straight for the surface, breaking through with a gasp. A hard featured, aristocratic faced man surfaced beside her. She took one look at his face and took off. This was training, she realized, and fear about drowning spurned her forward. He might not let her die, but she was very sure if he caught her, Jaxx would abundantly make her regret it. She was beginning to realize there were things in life worse than death. He was a good swimmer, even in human form. But she knew this lake, inside and out. Making for the sheer cliff face on the diagonally opposite shore, she kicked powerfully, not looking back. Kila couldn’t help but be pleased. She might never have strength, but her endurance had dramatically increased with her training. Reaching the wall, she dove straight down. She glanced up briefly as she descended, nearly fifteen feet. Her ears rang painfully, and she saw him following closely, grinning at her silly move. Darting to the rock, she squirmed into a narrow hole, facing upwards towards the rock. It was a tight fit the last time she had been in here was when she was fifteen. She kicked as hard as she could, walking along the rock, upside down, with her fingertips. She scrabbled against the rock, flailing. When she tried to go backwards, she bumped into Jaxx when she went forward she bumped into rock. She keened in panic, bubbles rising through her clenched teeth, making it difficult to see. Her lungs BURNED. A dull panic was seeping in, as she realized the tunnel might have collapsed, she might really be trapped and die here. Fueled, she kicked harder and shot into an underwater cavern. Her head broke the surface and she gasped, flailing. A strong hand cupped the back of her head, and Jaxx kissed her forehead. “Easy, little one,” he murmured, a small smile playing around the corner of his mouth. “Well done!” She let herself relax, and he eased her to shore. He looking about with interest, and sat beside her. “How did you find this place?” He asked, his voice echoing slightly. “I found this place years ago while exploring,” Kila told him, laying back, trying to catch her breath. “This used to be my secret hiding place I kind of thought of it as my home.” Raising an arm without getting up, she pointed to a wall. “I even brought bedding, food, tools I was determined that I was going to run away from home and live here,” She chuckled at the absurdity. Jaxx rose lightly and investigated, murmuring to himself. When he sat beside her, his face wore a thoughtful expression. It looked like he was remembering something painful, and he cast about with his eyes, as if searching for something. What, dear one? She asked him, holding his hand. She never had to worry about what she said with him he could basically read her mind anyway, she had found out. It didn’t bother her as much as she would have thought it. Magic wasn’t as bad as she thought either at least when the Dragons used it. The thought of mages wielding it still made her panic. She ran her fingers up her forearm. Well, some mages. She was still struggling to come to grips with the atrocity of magic, and the warm conveniences. He sighed, then faced her. When he smiled, and lines radiated from the corners of his eyes. “I am just surprised, is all.” He answered aloud. The Dragon turned his head, a half smile playing about his lips. He grazed the pad of his thumb over her palm. “If this was by the seaside, this could pass as a little home.” He frowned suddenly. Kila sat up. “You live in places like this?” He blinked, raising his gaze again. “Indeed.” He held up a hand, tracing where the webbing would be in his Dragon form. “Aquatic, don’t you know.” Leaning back, he pillowed his head on his forearms, looking up at the dark ceiling. Shivering a little, Kila squirmed closer. Now that they were inside, he didn’t seem inclined to leave in a hurry. His blue eyes removed from the ceiling to follow her with movements with amusement. Tentative, she lay her head on his breast, leaning in to his warmth. It felt odd, to be so close to a man. But then, he wasn’t really a man, either. Would Mal be this warm? “Geoff said that your father banished you both from this lake.” His voice echoed slightly along the walls. “Why?” “I kept coming back to this cavern,” Kila responded quietly, painful recollections intruding. “Every time Papa looked away I was across the lake and into this room.” She swallowed. “The last time we were here as a family I was so determined to get here I didn’t even notice Geoff trying to follow. He almost drowned trying to follow me. Papa was furious ” She had never seen him so angry. “He said there was something evil, something magical in this place, something that kept drawing me back.” His chest rose and fell with his breathing, and he pet her hair, soothing her until her anger webbed away. ~*~*~ She awoke from her dream, dead awake. Never had the dream been so powerful. Kila had dreamed the same dream for as long as she could remember. Cold, freezing water pressed against her. An invisible barrier keeping her from the sun. It was so cold, so lonely, wishing she could die. Gazing wildly about, she carefully detached herself from Jaxx, who still seemed to be slumbering in human form. Still damp, she shivered, rubbing her arms. This time in her dream, she had felt the rocks rub against her sides, felt the water lap at her face. Hunger, ever present, gnawed at her relentlessly. That little spark, always in the back of her mind, was again close. So close. She had almost forgotten that little glow since her father had banished her. Once Papa had died, she hadn’t even had the time to come back. Shivering, teeth chattering, her eyes fell on the dark water. How had she even got here? She couldn’t remember. To the left, daylight filtered through the hole that lead to the outside. To the right was blackness. Slipping into the water, she stared down into the blackness. She felt drawn, as if an invisible chord pulled her. Fear, confusion everything slipped away as she floundered towards the call of the darkness.