She'd been bred for reentry, harnessed specifically for that single instant when, kicking free of the shuttle, she would drop like a stone into Earth's gravity well, straight past all those sensors barring the way to metal and ceramics.
None of her trainers had told her it would feel as if up until that day she had never truly flown.
None of her trainers had told her it would be beautiful.
She plummeted through space, wings closed tight and neck and tail angled just right. She'd practiced and practiced for days and months and forever for this, when she slept in zero-gravity it was the stance she took, perfectly aerodynamic, but for the first time she felt the strain of it, the insistent tugging of contrary forces, turbulences she sliced through even as they pulled at her, and the rush and the speed left her blind with exultation.
In the back of her mind she calculated trajectories and timing and reentry speeds and terminal velocity, and she waited and waited for the order to open her wings and slow, and the longer it didn't come and the stronger she loved her rider for loving the terrifying exhilaration of free fall as insanely as she did.
"See," he said, thrown negligently over his shoulder, "If you'd crushed my egg we could never have done this."
His partner laughed, head thrown back, teeth bared. He growled out a laugh to match, and dove until the tips of his wings skimmed the water, and he roared his challenge to the sea.
Here. This is mine, this wave and the next and the next, it's all mine and I'll fight you for it.
When his partner yelled his own war cry -- puny, puny -- and freed a hand from the reins to pump it at the sky, he flipped around and dumped him off the saddle into the sea.
She didn't mind plodding along on the ground, going up and down and up mounds and slopes it might have taken her three seconds to fly past. She walked alongside her handler, wings furled, taking one step for the five he jogged.
They watched the scenery, green trees and tiny, tiny birds and a tiny strip of water flowing freely right there on the ground for anyone to take or bathe in. (Not that she could have put more than a foot in it, but it was the principle of the thing.) It was a lot like what he'd told her about, it wasn't new to him, but he seemed content nonetheless. He hadn't touched his gun for at least two minutes.
"That lake didn't seem so far away, from the sky," she mused, tail swishing.
She didn't mind the trip.
"Oh god, it's hot, why is it so hot. You brought me here on false pretenses."
His friend laughed, hair matted and dark with sweat so that it hardly gleamed like gold anymore. He harrumphed, groomed one of his wings pointedly and then gave in and draped it over his head to make a little shade. In a matter of minutes the heat under his wing was suffocating and he had to emerge again.
"I was bred for space!" he muttered. "Thicker skin to retain heat for days on end in hard vacuum! Not that my lungs would hold out that long, mind, serious design flaw there. And where do you bring me? A desert. A desert! I admit, it's very interesting how much the décor matches, though having your tail clambered on because it resembles a small dune is a bit disconcerting; but the heat!"
He took a big, dramatic pause, flicked the end of his tail in an elaborate pattern the likes he had seen people do with their hands. His friend laughed again, patted his muzzle.
"I'm sure we could build you a tent. A couple of poles, a light cloth, open sides to let the breeze in..."
He oozed all over his warm, warm rock and dug his claws in delicious warm sand, defensive and wary, though it had been months since he was small enough to be moved bodily. "No, thank you."
She had been named Long Shen Kai, even though she did not belong to the Shen breed in any strict sense. She was told her dam had been. The rest of her... Experiments. The other dragons had whispered it wherever she went. She was a thief of bloodlines, the noblest Celestial blood stolen and marred with wild, uncouth Kazilik and that plodding mutt in white scales.
Now she was named nothing and answered to nothing, not even to his voice when he attempted to call her the name her true rider had used, and she wished more of her robe had inherited her false-sire's mourning colors, but the rest of her would be jade until she died.
She would never answer to Nataku again, and she wasn't going to live until her robe faded.