“Don’t be boring,” the dragon admonished, uncurling its tail. “You’ve been doing a splendid job of annoying everyone; it would be a shame to spoil a good first impression with whatever realities lie inside your constricted little brain.
“Now, why would an army doctor want a dragon? You’re not setting up a mountain clinic, are you? I hate flying long-haul and crying nauseates me.” He spared a sideways glance at the ridiculous carrying on not so far away from them. “Room-mates should know the worst about each other.”
John didn’t flinch down, but he found himself staring into very clear, very piercing eyes that were very, very close. He swallowed, feeling the dragon’s breath puffing gently against him—smelling him?—across the fence, which seemed suddenly very flimsy.
He knew dragons talked, some of them, certainly none he’d ever come across, but weren’t they supposed to have very limited verbal capabilities? A general lack of grammar? Something about the way their brains were set up? Of course, the dragon in front of him was giving him a look of pure contempt and was clearly more than capable of eloquence. John cleared his throat so his voice wouldn’t come out as a squeak.
“Afghanistan. How… did you know that?”
The dragon ignored him for a little longer – no, he didn’t make mistakes, he was quite certain… — before it opened one bright green eye, flecked with bored grey. He had considered very seriously the possibility of going to sleep. Of course, that had been before the short little man opened his mouth. He was quite certain it was the same voice.
Declining to unwrap his tail from around himself, the dragon said, witheringly, “How perceptive of you. Tell me, what gave it away—my snoring, or the stimulating cement walls?”
All at once, he thrust his head very close to the fence just to see what would happen.
“Iraq or Afghanistan?”
Oh. Oh my God, I think I triggered a depressive episode in a dragon.
That clearly wasn’t going to work; he wanted to see combat again, though it broke his heart to see so fine and solid a creature cowering in its own tail.
“It’ll get better,” he told the dragon, for all the good it would do. That only seemed to make it tuck its wings closer, and John sighed, feeling utterly guilty and also disappointed. The RAF had already screened this one, so he wouldn’t have been as violent, but clearly he would never see the front lines.
The last dragon looked distinctly different from the rest, all smooth, matte scales that lay fine against his body except for a few glittering exceptions, like freckles, scattered in between. His collar was simply a number, not a name, which led John to understand that he’d been caught in the wild. The dragon’s color was gorgeous, a deep, sooty black that almost flashed blue where the scales were shiny rather than satiny, and the membranes in his wings were cut more deeply than the other dragons’. Those would heal, they always did, but they probably hurt badly.
It was interesting how the dragon had its tail draped over its neck, and was doing a fabulous job of ignoring him very astutely, much like a cat might.
“How about you. You look bored. Wouldn’t you like a little bit of adventure?” he ventured.
The spikes shook, like a rattlesnake, as the great jaws opened to exhale another impotent curl of flame, superheating the air immediately around its muscle. The billowing roar set birds flying off from a nearby hilltop, and the dragon came up off his front legs to stand up straight on the spot. When they hit the ground again, it shook.
(Because, Sherlock thought, a good long way off, he was getting quite ridiculouslyheavy; what did they do with these service dragons, drop them on the enemy?)
Words were spoken. Growling continued. Something was apparently said (something about past battalions) for it acted like a snap bracelet. One moment there was a hilarious display of machismo going on (even Lhasa had paused to watch) and the next the big brute had coiled up like a beehive, head buried inside a fort of his own coils.
Dear God, was he crying about it now?
The dragons were all behind a tall perimeter fence crowned with vicious-looking razor wire. There was a moat just behind it, wide enough to prevent anyone too close to the fence from being charred if one of the dragons let out a fireball (though the collar modulators were set to allow them no more than a puff or two, which would have been locked down as well if not for the need for them to clear out their gas chambers now and then—backlogs could be disastrous). That didn’t stop them from being utterly terrifying. John’s footsteps slowed as he walked hesitantly past where the first dragon was perched. The collar read ‘CHASE’ and he was staring at John intently—and licking his chops.
Perhaps not that one. John’s eyes were wary as he passed the orange-coloured one, but her tail crests labeled her as female and hadn’t the Captain said ‘she’, and though this one might not be the one being put down, female dragons were usually more unpredictable at best. The army had only recently started using them out of pure necessity, and they were still used primarily for breeding rather than combat.
Perhaps the scarred dragon, then? The spikes his species had along their spine had been clipped and filed down to fit a flying harness, and clearly he’d seen combat recently.
“Hello there,” John tried, quietly.
It was insulting, being grounded. He had spent a vast number of years earth-bound, certainly—walking about on the ground didn’t bother him, even if tails made doors somewhat inconvenient and hazardous. No, it was the abrupt descent that he objected to.
He was not alone. Sitting as he was on a crop of rock, with his head tucked down into his wings far enough wrap his tail around his ruff like a scarf (he’d become very fond of scarfs) he had an excellent view of his fellows.
The humans, that was; not themselves; he wouldn’t call any group that included himself lacking. But they weren’t rated particularly highly on the sympathetic category, either. If the Corps cared about the result, it was always the charity cases they put forward first. The dragons who’d lost their pilots, or lost their marbles, or might otherwise have come to the conclusion after a few months of lamb and rain that they might be better off out there after all.
No, there was Lhasa, who was twisting about on her back with all four legs up around her throat, attempting to tear the collar off. She was contorting herself on the spot, like an eel, getting mud all over her shockingly orange scales. Any attempt to give her the time of the day was tantamount to assassination. Chase was sitting with his eyes on the walkway, cleaning one of his talons with an unmistakable look of interest—and hunger—in his large agate-coloured eye. The murky green of his hide blended into the shaggy backdrop outside, though it showed up against the concrete well enough. He’d managed to glide down to a position just off to the side of the gate, within range if they came out on the left. Not that he cared. The other two he didn’t know by name, but from the lacerations along the younger one he was clearly AWOL from service and in no mood to go back. The other, a pepper-coloured Romanian import with dried blood around her mouth and a slowly weaving tail, had been sold for breeding purposes (come now, the scars were very particularly placed) and had developed the kind of creative malice one commonly associated with Stephen King.
The impression of unfathomable idiocy reached him at precisely the same moment as the smell of fish and chips reached Chase, and the military bearing needled Sgt. AWOL into roaring with a curly wisp of flame.
It had taken John a full month to wear them down. A full month of calling the same—and new—people over and over, of writing letters daily, of showing up and demanding a chance. A full month of living in a tiny flat over a fish and chip shop so that his clothes always smelt of fish and grease and he had a perpetual low-grade headache from the noise. A full month before the guard at the gate finally rolled his eyes and rolled back the heavy-gauge steel and let him in.
The man he’d spoken to on the phone a total of fifty-three times (John had kept careful records of whom he’d been harassing and how often) was the rough size of a large grizzly bear, with facial hair to match and an eyepatch over one eye. The ear on that same side was missing, leaving just a hole and scar tissue in deep furrows: it didn’t take a genius to figure out how he’d gotten that.
“The infamous Watson,” the man ground out, and John cheerfully saluted. “At ease, ye dolt. You’ll be signing so many disclaimers your arm will go numb from it. You’re too old, too injured, and too mentally unstable. You are going to get eaten. Idiot,” he added, more with pity than anger, which was all the more galling, but John just smiled a polite little smile.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” he said, which just made the big man snort.
“Aye, I’m sure Do you even know a thing about dragons?”
“Some. What I’ve been able to read, anyway; details about their anatomy, flight styles across species, dietary needs, hibernation and mating habits.” The bigger man had set off across the muddy courtyard, and John had to limp twice as fast to follow him, his cane left behind since it would just sink unhelpfully into the muck. “I know once they’re bonded, they can be trusted, but until then they’re much more interested in having you for a snack.”
“That about sums it up,” said his guide, and motioned a soldier stationed at a high wooden gate to pull it back. The sound of the dragons, audible from a mile away, was getting more distinct and clear: the screech and chatter, the hissing, the sound of very heavy creatures moving in their cement pens, the rattle of chains, the rustle of leathery wings. “We have five down out of the aerie on the south side of the compound. They were all clipped last week so they’re still pissed as hell. There’s one I’m going to end up putting down, killed two flyers and nearly took out another on the ground, so you won’t be getting her. The rest you can look over.” He gave John an unhappy look. “I can’t afford to give you a less unlikely beast. You take one of the rejects or you don’t. Simple as that. Don’t try to touch any of them, they’re tranqued and the collars are keeping them relatively still but they’ll still kill you if they feel like it.”
He motioned along a walkway.
“Down past the sheep paddock, to your left. Just follow the angry sounds.”
He was a loud, and presumably idiotic, excuse for a decidedly short man. Perhaps that was not being what one called generous – he was not, after all, too short to achieve the purpose of his visits, which seemed to be determined and willful disruption of normal visiting hours.
It took dragons a while to notice the silly things that humans did.
The whole point of putting a dragon base in the chilly depths of Wales was that no human in their right mind wanted to live there, and so it was an ideal location for the solitude of creatures who neither cared nor tolerated having little pink parasites climbing all over them. The peaks were steep, the sheep plentiful, and it was so dreadfully dull that rain started to seem interesting. Most of the dragons at Carnedd Llewelyn cared very little about what humans did with themselves, until directly confronted with dinner – carried by, or consisting of, said human. But they had slowly begun to care that the humans they couldn’t get rid of – the unfortunate, the disgraced, the infirmed Aviators whom the corps deigned to banish up here – were being so successfully wound up into a state of annoyance. They annoyed the dragons enough. It was high time they saw some of it themselves.
Connecting the state of agitation with the time of day and a particular voice was not a vast leap of logic. It was one many – if not all – of the dragons incarcerated (yes, not accommodated, not taken care of, or any of their obnoxious little euphemisms) there were incapable of or uninterested in making. Honestly, he had personally given it little thought until the day they came to bother him.
A distinct mistake without a good parachute.
John stared at the letter in his hand, not quite able to grasp what it was telling him. You decommissioned a jet; you decommissioned a Humvee. You didn’t decommission a medic.
“The RAF thanks you for your 5 years of loyal service as MEDICAL OFFICER. We regret to inform you that you are being DECOMMISSIONED due to SUSTAINED INJURIES AND PTSD. Report presently to PLATOON 8 CHARLIE DELTA to hand in your weapon(s) and other equipment.”
His boots kicked up sand as he ran all the way across camp to his commanding officer’s tent; Bill was leaning over a map and John didn’t bother standing at attention, not if he was being thrown the fuck away like a used condom.
“Did you know about this?” he demanded, slamming the letter down on the table.
“Watch your tone, doc,” the older man warned, but his voice was tired and his expression told John everything. “Of course I knew. I also knew you’d fly off the handle. It’s for the best, you know. You’re not in any state to be back on active duty and I can’t have you cooling your heels and using up munitions in the hopes that one day you might be again.”
“I’m perfectly fine,” John ground out, hands in tight fists at his sides, shoulder throbbing with how stiffly he was holding himself. “Anyone is going to need a few days to recover from seeing their whole bloody company get blown up right before them and—“
“And that’s why you’re going home. You are going home, Dr Watson, like it or not. Now get out of my tent before it becomes a dishonorable discharge.”
Nobody would look him in the eye after that; it didn’t matter anyway, most of them would have happily traded places with him in a heartbeat. He was going to get a medal and a letter of commendation and a photo op with some (decommissioned?) retired general and then he was supposed to slip back into civilian life and die quietly of old age.
The whole flight home, John stared out the window. How was he supposed to do this? He didn’t remember how to be a civilian. He didn’t want to remember. He was a damn fine medic, and he was good under pressure, and one psychic break over absolute carnage was just being human. It didn’t make him useless. It didn’t make him incompetent.
His boots felt heavy on the landing strip, duffel over his shoulder and the dust of Helmand still coating him from head to toe. John wasn’t paying attention, and nearly ran into a truck that was transporting crates of fledglings across the tarmac to a holding bay. He caught sight of yellow, slitted eyes and heard a hiss, and then the truck was gone and he suddenly had the stupidest, most suicidal idea of his entire life.