Lockheed stirred in his sleep and John glanced at his watch. It was well past dawn and the dragonet had been dozing for a little over three hours. Outside the marines had returned with fresh meat and Lorne and Neeru were chopping it up and laying it on broad leaves plucked from nearby trees. Gerber had cut the top off a ten liter plastic water bottle and filled it with fresh drinking water.
Under John's stroking arm the dragonet stirred and yawned, muttering under his breath in a language John didn't understand. John shot a look at Rodney who lifted his head from his datapad in amazement.
"Did you hear that?" Rodney asked.
Lockheed opened his eyes, blinking against the morning light streaming through the cave. "I'm hungry," he said, then blinked and glanced around at John. "Hello, John," he said.
"Hey, Locky," John greeted, watching with undimmed fascination as the dragonet sat up, wings ruffling out a little behind him. "You ready to eat?"
Locky hummed an affirmative, then his brows lowered and he dipped his head. "I need to pee."
Very glad that Keyes had discovered the dragons cess pit on his first day, John nodded and heaved himself to his feet, back creaking alarmingly. He was getting way too old to be sleeping on the hard, cold ground. Locky stood on all four legs and stretched as well, opening his wings up to their fullest, causing John to step back as the strong muscles gathered and bunched.
"Wow," John said in awe.
Lockheed ducked his head, looking pleased, and folded his wings as John led the way onto the rocky outcrop. The dragonet paused and stared around him in wonder as the people gathered stepped back to give them room. John followed his gaze to the assembled marines and scientists, and then further out to the rolling plains below. Finally the dragon lifted his head and looked up at the azure sky, dotted with fluffy white clouds that drifted in the small breeze.
"I want to fly," Lockheed said breathlessly, spreading his wings again.
A little alarmed at the thought of his very new dragon launching himself off the outcrop, John stepped closer and stroked his smooth neck.
"I thought you were hungry," he reminded him. "And that you needed to pee?"
Lockheed lowered his head, looking disappointed, then sniffed at the meal laid out for him and brightened a little.
"That does smell very good," he observed. "And I am hungry. Perhaps I'll fly later."
John breathed out a silent sigh of relief, echoed by the assembled Lanteans, then led Lockheed around the corner to the cess pit. Necessary ablutions taken care of, the dragonet settled himself in a warm sunny patch on the outcrop and fell to his meal. As before he ate quickly and with evident enjoyment, then yawned and settled against John as the man carefully wiped around his jaw again with a soft, damp cloth.
"Locky?" John asked tentatively as the dragonet purred and nuzzled him affectionately. "What was that language you spoke in when you woke up?
Lockheed blinked and frowned. "Did I speak in another language? It must have been dragon language then."
"Dragons have a language?" Gerber exclaimed.
"Did you learn it from your mother?"
"What do you remember?"
John silenced the questioning scientists with a glare and they subsided back against the rocky walls resentfully.
Locky looked a little dazed and sleepy and John stroked his head lovingly, coaxing it down onto his lap. "Don't worry about it, little guy," he said softly. "You just got here, we have plenty of time for questions." The last was a pointed dig at the scientists, who grimaced guiltily.
"I did learn it from my mother, John," Lockheed confided sleepily, sighing in pleasure as John stroked his head. "She told me stories about The People, and sang me songs about the Great Sickness." He closed his eyes and sighed, wide nostrils flaring. "She was very sad..."
A moment later he was asleep again.
"Songs," Gerber was whispering excitedly. "We need Andrey out here, the cultural anthropologists will have a field day with that."
Rodney, who might be totally clueless when it came to every day personal relationships, could still surprise John with his occasional moments of insight. In this particular case he might have been reading John's mind as he stood and began shooing the scientists and Lorne off the outcropping.
"I think we're going to have to make some rules," he said as the quietly protesting scientists backed away from his flapping hands. "The tiny, newborn dragon is not a test subject, and is not going to be questioned or in any way prodded and poked."
Gerber was swelling with anger, face reddening, and not just from the strong morning sun. "You can't..!" he began indignantly, but Rodney held up his hand and placed his finger pointedly on his own closed mouth. If anything Gerber's face got even redder, but the gesture worked and he closed his mouth with a snap.
"You all have plenty to do up there," Rodney said, nodding towards the caves above. "So from now on you should stay up there or in the jumpers. We'll call you when we need you."
"But we must make observations," Neeru whispered urgently. Despite her Indian appearance she had a broad English accent. "You can't just shut us out."
"Oh please," Rodney said, rolling his eyes. "I've been making observations since before you clowns arrived, and I will continue to make them for as long as needed. And, I might add, they will be damn good ones." He made the flapping, shooing motion again with his hands. "Now go, you all have work to do. Major," he said to Lorne. "Keep the food coming, and be so kind as to keep the scientists..." and it was amazing how much scorn and disbelief Rodney could inject into that word, "out of our way."
Lorne looked to Sheppard for confirmation and John nodded, glad he had Rodney to speak while he couldn't, and even gladder that Rodney would now be the focus of all their inevitable complaints to Elizabeth.
McKay was used to it anyway.
"Dr Keyes is not going to be happy about this," Gerber hissed, and then he and the scientists flounced away, a rueful Lorne following behind them. John could spare his 2IC some sympathy, the guy had a major thing going for Neeru, and him playing the heavy in this was not going to sit too well.
"Thanks," John said quietly to Rodney as the outcrop cleared and they were left to their quiet.
"Huh," Rodney dismissed. "You should have known better than to start them off by asking Locky a question in front of them. I hate biologists anyway." He shuddered. "You should eat while you have the chance as well," he advised, and handed over some cooked meat and a bowl of green vegetables.
"Keyes is going to go complaining to Elizabeth," John said, picking at his food.
"Let him," Rodney said complacently. "She trusts you to do the right thing. Keyes and his team have to get it into their heads, Locky's not some alien they can put in a glass case and study. He's completely different."
"Yeah," John agreed, stroking over soft scales.
"We should come up with some questions for him though," Rodney added. "Elizabeth is going to want to know about these People he mentioned, which I'm assuming means other dragons."
"And the Great Sickness," John said worriedly, remembering the patches on the mother dragon's body, and that terrible spiraling crash to earth as her strength left her.
"You think maybe he's the last of his kind?"
John gazed down at the small, vulnerable creature whose life had been entrusted to him. He could only shake his head.
"The People started to get sick," Lockheed confided, sitting in the shade now against the afternoon heat. "My mother didn't want me to get sick too, so she left The People and flew far far away. She came here and that's when she laid my egg." Lockheed's head dropped sadly. "But she got sick then, and grew very weak. She sang me songs about The People," he said softly. "But they were very sad songs."
"I'm sorry, buddy," John said huskily, running a comforting hand down Lockheed's back as he leaned trustingly against him. Under his hands there were new protrusions under the soft scales, a bumpy ridge of horns around his head and down his spine. And in the afternoon sunlight John could make out the vague patterns under the soft green blush of his scales, probably indicating the markings he would bear as he matured.
"What did she tell you about the sickness?" Rodney asked, tentatively reaching out his own hand and looking pleased as Locky nuzzled against him.
The dragonet's brows lowered as he thought. "She said that there used to be a plant that everyone ate," he said. "To keep away the illness. But then it died out and The People started to get sick. I think she hoped that she would find it, but then she got sick too..."
"Maybe we can help find it?' John ventured. "We have botanists back in our city. People who work with plants," he explained as Lockheed tilted a curious head. "Our city is pretty far away from here, perhaps the plant grows near it?"
"But I don't know what it looks like," Lockheed pointed out. "I don't even know where The People are, or even if there are any left."
His head was drooping sadly again, and John judged it time to change the subject. "You know," he mused thoughtfully. "I think you've grown a bit already."
Lockheed turned and craned his head to look behind him. "Do you think so?"
"Wouldn't surprise me, the way you've been eating," Rodney observed. He groped in his bag and pulled out the extendable tape measure. "Let's see."
John had just wanted to distract the young dragon, but to his amazement Lockheed had actually grown nearly two inches.
"In less than twenty four hours," Rodney said excitedly, grabbing his datapad and making rapid notes.
"Soon I'll be big enough to fly, won't I, John?" Lockheed said proudly, and John nodded, both pleased and worried at the prospect.
"All of Atlantis is agog," Elizabeth said, voice dry even over the crackling connection. "The pictures and video Keyes has transmitted back have been replayed over and over."
"I can imagine," John said, settling back in the comfortable jumper chair with a weary sigh. "It's been three days and I can hardly take my eyes off him."
"You sound tired," Elizabeth observed.
"I don't know if you've ever taken care of a baby, Elizabeth," John said ruefully. "But four hour feedings are no joke."
"You could trust someone else with Lockheed, John," Elizabeth chided gently.
"I trust Rodney," John protested. "He's amazing with Locky, and always knows the right questions to ask."
"And his reports are very comprehensive," Elizabeth agreed. "Even Keyes has to admit that, although grudgingly.
"Keyes is an okay guy," John conceded. "He understands that Locky is still just a baby and shouldn't be overwhelmed with questions and testing and stuff right now."
"Just a baby," Elizabeth mused. "Well, at three days old I can't argue with you. But according to Rodney's report he's grown nearly six inches in just that time?"
"I guess dragons grow pretty quickly."
"John, I understand your need to keep him safe," Elizabeth began carefully. "But at some point he's going to have to get used to other people. You can't be spared indefinitely, and I hardly think you'd want to spend the rest of your life in a cave anyway."
Well, no, John had to conceded he didn't. But on the other hand, if it was what was best for Locky, he could figure something out. Set up a pretty comfortable log cabin or something, hunt and fish with Locky to keep them fed. If if came down to it and that was what he needed to do.
"As soon as he's ready I'll bring some of the others into it," he said stubbornly, and winced at Elizabeth's sigh. "Rodney's started recording the songs Locky remembers his mother singing him," he offered. "And what they mean. Maybe you could get started on figuring out the dragon language when he forwards it to you?"
"Hmm, learning dragon language," Elizabeth said doubtfully, but all the same she sounded a little intrigued at the notion.
"If we find out any more about the sickness or the location of The People, we'll let you know. But I think Locky's told us all that he knows."
"He might remember more later. John," Elizabeth said. "I know I said it before, but it bears repeating. I trust you to do the right thing here, for Atlantis and for Lockheed. His species is unique to anything known in either the Pegasus or the Milky Way galaxies. If we ever do regain contact with Earth..."
And there was that 'if', and that doubt, and that question. It occurred to John to wonder what would happen to Locky if they established contact with Earth again.
John found he didn't want to think about that.
"My wings are strong enough," Lockheed said, standing and spreading them out. Keyes, sitting on the outcrop with them, exclaimed in admiration and clapped. Lockheed preened and flapped them a little, stirring up dust that hung in the still air.
"I'm sure they are," John said, studying them closely. Lockheed was five days old, he'd grown ten inches in length and at least that much in girth. He now walked easily around the outcropping and had thoroughly explored the cave and cairn of stones his egg had been laid on.
Now it was clear he was bored.
"John," Lockheed said, refolding his wings and nudging him gently. "I need to fly. Okay?"
John gazed into his friend's intelligent eyes and nodded resignedly. "I know."
"I promise, I'll just circle a little and come back down." Lockheed stretched, neck craning as he gazed eagerly at the sky above him.
"Stay low," John counseled urgently as muscles coiled in the dragonet's long body. "And don't go too far. Stay in sight!"
And then Locky was leaping, wings flapping and catching the air as he lifted off, dipping for a moment and sending John's heart into his throat, and then gaining height as he spiraled above them.
"Look at me, John, Rodney!" Lockheed called happily. "Look at me fly!"
"Doing great, buddy!" John managed through his terror, and Rodney laid a comforting arm around his shoulder and squeezed.
"How quickly they grow up," he teased. "Look at him, Colonel. He's fine."
Lockheed was certainly fine. He was circling them now, higher than John liked but easy and confident in his long strokes. He lifted his head into the spirals, then simply held his wings outstretched as he glided back around in a tight curl. A moment later he was on the ground and John could breathe again.
"Did you see!" Lockheed said excitedly, rushing to John and nuzzling against him. "It was great!"
"You were amazing," John said, gratefully accepting the warm weight against him, and only then admitting his deepest fear. That once in the sky Lockheed would forget all about them and fly away. But the small dragon was bouncing excitedly and looking back up into the sky.
"Just once more," he said, and was up and away again.
John resigned himself to standing and watching, and made himself comfortable.
"I'm sorry, Locky," John said, rubbing the tender spots that the dragonet liked scratched around his brow. The small bony bump that Keyes told him had been to help Lockheed break out of his shell had disappeared, but around his head larger horns and bony spikes were starting to protrude. Lockheed complained that they itched and were sore, and would sit for ages while John and Rodney rubbed and scratched at them.
"It's okay," Lockheed said, stretching out full length on the rock. He was nearly five feet long now, and had started staying awake for longer and longer between meals. He was also flying further, and John was finally forced to explain why he was forbidden to explore the caves up above.
"I know that's not really my mother up there. Just her remains."
John nodded, astounded all over again by the wisdom this amazing being showed.
Rodney seemed equally as moved. "How did you figure that out, Locky?" he asked, wide, strong hands stroking gently.
Locky huffed the sigh that they had learned was the equivalent of a shrug for him. "I just did," he said, as he always did when he couldn't find the words to explain. He frowned and tried again. "I mean, I remember her voice, and her songs, and the way she loved me. And all that's gone now. What's left is just what's left."
"They're being very respectful," John said, even though he himself hadn't gone near the lab the biologists had set up in the higher caves. "And when we can we'll have a funeral. It's an Earth custom. A way to say goodbye to the people we loved."
"I'd like that." They sat in silence for while, watching the wind in the trees and the bustle of the scientists and the marines below them.
"John?" Lockheed asked, breaking the peaceful quiet that had been punctuated only by Rodney's occasional notation on his datapad. "When can I go to Atlantis?"
John exchanged glances with Rodney. "We'll have to wait until you're strong enough to fly further, Locky. You're too big for the jumper, and I'm not sure you'd enjoy it much."
"If I get as big as my mother was..." Lockheed said thoughtfully. "Maybe you could fly with me, John?"
"I will fly with you," John said. "In the jumper. I'll stay as close as possible and show you the way."
"No, no," Lockheed said, and his tail began to swish excitedly. "I mean, I could carry you! You could ride on my back!"
John was speechless at the thought.
"That wouldn't be safe," Rodney said doubtfully, but he was staring at John as the idea sunk in.
"I guess we could make a kind of harness," John said slowly. "Maybe I could strap myself on."
"You could!" Lockheed said confidently. "And I'd be careful and not roll or anything while you were on my back. Oh, John!" His wide eyes shone with excitement. "We could have so much fun, flying all the way back together, and swooping in over the wide lakes, and climbing up in the clouds to fly with the birds. We could, couldn't we?"
John couldn't help the smile at Lockheed's happiness and his own bubbling excitement welling up inside him.
"Oh, this is such a bad idea," Rodney said, but there was already a tone of resignation in his voice as he sighed and clicked away at his datapad. "I'll start designing the harness."
Lockheed spread his wings a little as a breeze rustled the trees and bushes around them. Winter was coming and the days were getting shorter.
"Why did Rodney have to go back to Atlantis?"
John looked up from his work. "I told you why, buddy. Because the scientists back in the city need his help with something."
"Because they're all dunderheads if he's not there," Locky said, nodding sagely.
John chuckled. "I guess McKay told you that."
Locky tapped his claw against the rocky ground beneath him. "I still don't see why he had to go. We need him here."
John laid aside the straps he was attempting to turn into a safety harness, and scootched closer to his friend, wrapping one arm around a drooping neck. He smiled a little as Locky nestled against him, missing for a moment those early days when he could wrap his arm all the way around his dragon.
"You miss him, hmm?"
Locky nodded sadly. "He wanted to be here when we fly for the first time. He'll be so disappointed to miss out."
"He might make it back in time," John consoled. "By the time I get this stupid harness finished anyway."
Locky snorted a laugh. "You could ask for some help, you know. I bet Dr Keyes would be glad to help, or Neeru. She's missing Lorne, she might welcome some company."
John blinked in surprise. "She's missing Lorne? How do you know that?"
Locky peered at him curiously. "You couldn't tell? She looked pretty sad when he flew Rodney away, and she doesn't smile nearly so much any more."
"You're pretty smart, you know that?"
Locky preened a little. "I know. Rodney told me that as well."
"Hey, maybe when Rodney comes back he'll bring Teyla and Ronon," John said, trying to cheer his friend up. "You'll like them both, they're great."
"Will they like me?"
John patted the dragon's side, feeling the warm sheen of green gold scales under his touch. Lockheed's soft golden hide had slowly hardened and toughened since his hatching, and the horns around his head were now prominent, giving him a fiercely powerful appearance.
"Course they will. Everyone on Atlantis is dying to meet you."
They sat in silence for a while under the rising lavender moon.
"John?" Lockheed said, scratching at the ground with one claw. "Rodney says there aren't any dragons on Earth."
"He's right. Not real ones anyway."
Locky frowned. "Then how did you know I was a dragon?"
John wrapped an arm around his friend's neck and thought about it. "Well," he began slowly. "I guess it's the stories about dragons. The books and the movies and the comics." He chuckled, scratching at Lockheed's back. "Graphic novels, as Rodney would call them. Even old paintings and tapestries and things. It's like..."
Locky curved closer, purring under the scratching fingers.
"It's like there's always been a dragon shaped hole in the world," John said thoughtfully.
"But how?" Locky wondered. "If dragons aren't real on Earth?"
"Well, millions of years ago there were these creatures, see, called dinosaurs. And I guess if people found their bones and stuff, maybe they started to think about dragons," John mused.
"Or maybe dragons were on your world a millions and millions years ago?" Locky suggested. "And we all flew away here, and your people missed us and sang story-songs about us?"
John laughed, hugging more tightly at Locky's neck. "It's a nice idea, buddy," he said and Locky hummed agreement. "People think about power and they remember dragons. They dream about flying and remember a dragons wings."
"They think about not being alone any more," Locky murmured, voice growing sleepy. "And they long for their dragon friends."
John's heart surged with love and he patted gently at Locky as the young dragon drifted into slumber. "Yeah," he whispered.