There was a dragon following him.
John tucked his hands into his pockets, hoping that it would go away. He’d had quite enough of dragons, really. Quite enough to fill a lifetime and then some.
There was a crash as the dragon hopped onto a fencepost, and then some bleating. A sheep tumbled past him, baaaing in panic, and he heard the leathery ruffle of wings. If John were feeling fanciful, he’d say it sounded almost — embarrassed.
“You can stop following me,” he said, not turning around. “I don’t care if we’re on friendly terms with your lot. I’m not going to be your friend.”
A disappointed rumble sounded behind him, and John sighed, turning.
“Look,” he began, and then he stopped. It was a Night Fury. It was a bloody Night Fury. And it was looking at him with huge, guileless eyes and a broad, gummy grin. John took a step back.
“I—” he said. “I’m not good with dragons.”
The dragon took a step forwards.
“I have a traumatic and tortured past when it comes to dragons,” said John, taking another step back and walking into a sheep. It baaed loudly as he fell over it, leaving him helpless on the ground as the dragon leaned over him. He tried to dig into the ground with his shoulderblades. “No, really, I do. I was on the expedition to the Perilous Lands, and there was this Nightmare, and our boat was— and I was—”
It licked him. He scowled, trying to bodily shove it and its bizarre displays of affection away.
“Can you please get off my leg, at least?” he asked, and the dragon growled, shook its wings and then took off, lighting on a rooftop and watching him carefully as he limped his way home, wiping dragon spit off his face with his sleeve and cursing all things that flew, and all things that had scales, and especially, especially, all dragons.
Next morning, the dragon was asleep on his front doorstep. It was huge, and black, and it would be completely impossible to climb over, especially with his walking stick. John sighed, poking at its flank with his toe.
“Get up,” he told it. It rolled over, making a little grumbling sound, and so John was forced to clamber over it, almost-but-not-quite getting stuck on its tail. It seemed to be enjoying the morning sun, though, so at least he didn’t have to worry about a scaly companion this morning.
He still wasn’t sure about how readily people had taken to dragons. The ferocious burn mark on his shoulder hurt in the cold (and it was always cold) and was ugly when he stripped off at night to wash away the day (John was particular about washing, no matter what people said about a good layer of dirt keeping demons away). He couldn’t see a Monstrous Nightmare without thinking of how he’d got that burn, of the metal of his armour sticking to the soft flesh of his shoulder.
He limped down the path as dragons buzzed overhead. They were harmless, really, except when a Gronckle exploded, but people assured him that was only recent. On another day, he might have stopped and watched the sway of the ocean, the brightly coloured dragons, relished the fact that it was sunny and he wasn't on a damn boat and he wasn't fighting raiders, or dragons, or both. Not today. John had an appointment to keep.
He knocked on the door to the Chieftain’s longhouse — Stoic was related by marriage, not blood, but where Stoic was concerned, this mattered little. He’d requested John’s presence as soon as he knew that John’s boat had landed; not urgent, he’d said, the other doctors had looked over Hiccup, but urgent enough.
Stoick opened the door, and there was Toothless, the famous Night Fury, and there on the bed, illuminated by the sun streaming in through the doorway was Hiccup, asleep. Stoick nodded, letting him in. Hiccup was his favourite of all John's distantly-related cousins; they both had the same distinctly non-Viking build. He’d always hoped that the boy would show some interest in the medical profession, but then he’d gone off chasing dragons.
“So how is he?” asked Stoick, once John had prodded and poked at the damage to Hiccup’s leg.
“It’s a clean wound,” said John, the Night Fury — and he couldn’t help but think of it as the other Night Fury — breathing over his shoulder. “The flames cauterised it quickly. I won’t say it won’t hurt — and I’ll give you something for that — but it’s clean. It’ll heal well.”
“Good,” said Stoick. “Otherwise I’d have had to kill you.” He clapped John on the shoulder with a huge hand, and John winced as a line of pain thrummed in his chest, a reminder that yes, his old injury was still there. He'd never go out on the boats again; he'd be stuck here in the village, patching up shepherds and riders and Gobber the blacksmith, who had the most remarkable talent for losing limbs that John had ever seen. Stoick was joking — well, he thought Stoic was joking. Toothless jumped up onto a shelf, staring at him with huge, distressingly feline eyes, and John wondered if one day he'd be told to patch up a dragon.
They emerged into the sunlight, blinking after the dimness of the longhouse — the sun making the grass almost unrealistically green, the bright waves peak blindingly, and— oh. The dragon that was waiting for John by the gate, scales gleaming like oil. The dragon made a delighted trilling sound, and then wound its way up to John, nosing at his sore shoulder.
“Get off,” said John, pushing its snout away.
Toothless was in the doorway to the longhouse, and he growled. The Night Fury — John’s Night Fury — stepped between John and Toothless, tail swishing.
“That’s certainly—unusual,” said Stoic. “Sherlock usually bites anyone who gets close enough.”
Toothless bristled, looking at John's dra...looking at Sherlock. Sherlock bristled back, his crest rising, his teeth out and proud.
“Oi!” Stoick hollered. “You, inside. You’re supposed to be looking after my son, not biting Sherlock. You, get gone. I’m not extracting you from Toothless’s gullet.”
Sherlock growled, shaking his wings.
“You know him, then?” asked John. “Sherlock?”
“Don't ask me; one of the boys named him that. He came across with the other dragons,” Stoick said, as Sherlock flew up into the air, did a loop, nearly took out a fluttering Terrible Terror and then landed perfectly on his feet again. “Never seen another dragon approach him. Even the Gronckles stay away, and they’re dumber than a box of rocks.”
“Why?” John asked.
“He’s a bit — funny. All of the Night Furies are,” said Stoick. “Give him a fish and he’ll be yours forever.” There was a crash from inside. “Toothless!”
John made good his escape while Stoick yelled at Toothless; despite his somewhat manic mood, Sherlock kept pace beside John, walking along with his limp, looking at his cane with a calculating glare.
“Don’t even think about it,” said John, quickly. “And Sherlock, is it? What do you want with me?”
Sherlock licked him again, and then growled, hopping on ahead, and John sighed. Like it or not, it seemed he had a dragon.
There were flames in John’s head, some nights. Flames and the smell of cooking meat, like a spit roast over an open fire, but he knew that they weren’t real, knew none of it was real. Hiccup had woken up nearly a week ago, and the boy had tried to explain — they were defending themselves, just like we were — but he hadn’t been able to explain how the dragons had always seemed to be so much better at defending themselves than humans had ever been.
Tonight, his shoulder hurt and the flames were lapping at his neck. There was a little growl, just the barest of sounds, and then something nudged his shoulder. He sighed as the whatever-it-was soothed the sore scar tissue, slowly coming to wakefulness when he realised that Sherlock was pressing at his shoulder with a huge paw, rubbing out the tension.
“What…?” John asked, and Sherlock trilled, curling up around him, wrapping a wing over his shaking body. “How did you even get inside?”
The bed creaked under their combined weight, and then all four legs collapsed, the impact winding John. He considered shoving the wing aside and getting up, but it was altogether too much effort, so he rolled over and most emphatically did not snuggle against Sherlock’s flank, no matter how close they were when they woke up in the morning.
Sherlock didn't come inside every night. Sherlock didn't even come home every night. Some nights, John would wake up with a Viking hammering on his door and a gruff instruction to get your bloody dragon out of where it's got itself into. That "where" could be anything from a barrel of beer, a door, Gobber's forge, the bay, and on one memorable night, wedged between two rocks in the middle of the square (and where had the rocks even come from?) and covered with mysterious green slime that smelled like rotten seaweed.
No matter how many times John said he's not MY dragon, he was he one left scrubbing slime off the kitchen floor as Sherlock noisily explored the cupboards at 2am, before snapping up John's good knife in between dragon-teeth and hopping out the door like a dog on the trail of a scent.
"If he's your dragon, why don't you ride him?" John said, to the slime. "If he's your dragon, how come he knew where the missing golden torc was? Are you sure he found it, and didn't just steal it? If he's your dragon, why can't you get him to stop tipping sheep over in the night?" (He rather suspected that Sherlock liked the chain reaction that happened when you rolled a sheep down a hill into a flock.) "If he's your dragon, why doesn't he act like a normal dragon?"
He finally gave up when the slime was nothing but a stain, and crept off to what was left of his bed, curling up and sleeping, dreamless. Sherlock wasn't home when he got up a few hours later, so he made himself a proper breakfast, one that Sherlock wouldn't bloody well steal, and went outside to eat it because the kitchen still smelled distressingly of seaweed. There was a Gronckle in John’s garden, snuffling through the daffodils and digging them up, crunching the bulbs between its powerful jaws.
“Oi!” he said, through a mouthful of eggs, and it looked up at him, mouth full of flowers, and then exploded.
He was knocked flat against the front steps, and out of nowhere, Sherlock bounded to his rescue, eating John's scattered breakfast in one huge bite and then growling and snuffling at the steaming heap of Gronckle remains.
“What the—?” said John, as Gobber walked past.
“That’s the third one this week,” he commented, hobbling off as Sherlock clattered and wound his way around John. “Someone should do something about it.”
Sherlock picked up a bit of dead Gronckle in his jaws and tasted it. John shook his head.
“That’s disgusting,” he said, and Sherlock spat it back out again, thoughtfully. And then he nipped out and grabbed John’s cane like it was a toy, tossing it between his paws, leaping backward and away from him.
Sherlock had his cane and was throwing it.
“Put that down!” John yelled, and Sherlock ignored him, catching his cane with a snap of his jaws. “Put that down now, you stupid—”
There was a horrible crunch as Sherlock bit right through John’s cane, and then he spat it out at John’s feet. John bent to pick it up, the slimy fragments ruined beyond repair.
“Why would you do that?” he asked, furious. “You cannot be that bored.”
Sherlock nodded. John dropped the sad little remains of his stick in shock.
“You’re bored,” he said. Sherlock nodded again, with a hopeful little growl. “Why am I the key to alleviating your boredom?”
Sherlock settled on the ground, kneeling so that if John wanted to, he could climb onto Sherlock’s back. If he wanted to. Which he definintely did not. He shook his head.
“No,” he said. Sherlock raised his crest. “No.”
Sherlock reached out then, grabbing him. John kicked Sherlock, trying to force his mouth open with both arms, realising as he did so that Sherlock didn't have his fangs out -- he wasn't trying to hurt John. Sherlock growled low in his throat, and too late, John felt the movement of muscle as Sherlock bunched back, springing into the air with John in his mouth, yelling helplessly. He stopped struggling, though, because he wasn’t about to struggle his way out of a secure grip and fall down and onto the rocks, even if said secure grip was drooling bits of his own breakfast and dead Gronckle and gods-knew-what onto John's jumper. They were climbing, high, higher, well above the other village dragons with their human riders. Why couldn’t a Terrible Terror have fallen in love with him? Terrors liked to lie in the sun and have their belly scratched. Why did it have to be a demented Night Fury?
Sherlock's mad speed slowed, his trajectory evening out, and John looked down. The waves were so far below that they looked like they weren’t even moving; the sun reflected blindingly off the water, and there, if he squinted, he could see a ship in the far distance.
“What’s that?” he asked. He didn’t recognise the sail, and that meant only one thing — invaders. “Sherlock, could you grasp me more securely and then take me over to the ship?”
Sherlock dropped him.
John had about three seconds of oh, wonderful before he realised that the fall was actually going to kill him, and he allowed himself to panic. Sherlock was doing a great looping whirl in the air, and John closed his eyes so that he couldn’t see the rapidly approaching ocean. From this height, it would be like hitting solid—
He hit something solid, and it knocked the breath out of him. He opened his eyes, and saw dark scales, and then his instincts kicked in and he held on so tightly that his hands hurt. Sherlock didn’t have a saddle or reins, but he didn’t seem to need them as John sat up, the majestic bulk of his body twisting and sinuous under John’s thighs.
“Wow,” said John, softly. “Oh, oh wow.”
Sherlock skimmed low over the water, and the adrenaline pumped through John’s veins, warming then cooling and relaxing his body into it. They were one creature, flying together, each in control, each aware of every inch of the other’s body. Sherlock's wings were making great sweeps beside him, thumping through the air, his huge reptile heart thudding against John's as John lay along his spine, chest-to-back, scales to skin.
Sherlock gained height near the ship, and John swallowed, his worst fears confirmed.
This wasn’t a Viking ship. John wanted to get closer, see more, leaning over Sherlock's shoulder to watch the men on deck, tiny but resolving into distinct forms as Sherlock dipped closer, unbidden. John sucked in a breath once the colours were more visible, the emblems on shields and sail.
"Raiders," he said. Sherlock made an enquiring noise. "From the South."
There was no point in wondering what they wanted. Viking raiders seldom wanted more than to raid; John had only ever been on dragon missions, but he knew the bloodlust and desire for treasure that sat in some men's hearts. The little men on the deck were running, now, and there was something tethered to the deck, something that lit up like a bonfire, something with scales and claws and...
"Nightmare," said John, as it took off from the deck, a great clanking chain around its neck. What was the range on it, what was the range? Sherlock roared, putting his wings flat against his body, diving into the fray. The Monstrous Nightmare roared and flamed, the fire blasting past John's head as Sherlock flew around and around and around it, dizzying. "Sherlock!"
Sherlock didn't stop, and John tried to clear his head as Sherlock flamed back, the water and the deck too close for comfort, the dragon too close for comfort. Think, he commanded himself, what does he want me to see? There had to be something, or Sherlock would have flown away by now; death wish he had, but he didn't seem to want to kill John. There were the men -- and loop -- and there were the cannons -- loop and swish as a cannonball flew past them -- and there was a great big pile of something, yellow but not gold, on the opposite end of the boat to the dragon. Loop and dip and Sherlock was gaining height again, the Monstrous Nightmare flaming impotently behind them, both of them panting with the effort and the shock and the sheer bloody brilliance of flying together.
Their majestic return with the news was rather spoilt by the fact that Sherlock chose to land right in the middle of the blast radius of another Gronckle, but he dropped the yellow rock like it were a fresh eel, and then shuffled away from it, coiling his tail around him and standing by John's shoulder with a smug purr.
The Long Hall was packed, Vikings and dragons jostling each other to get a look at what John and Sherlock had come up with. Sherlock was twitchy in the middle of so many people, and John wasn't sure how long he could hold Sherlock before Sherlock lost his temper and bit something. A little Terrible Terror came in close to sniff the rock, and Sherlock growled at it, showing flame at the back of his throat. It puffed up to the size of a smallish cat, bristling, and Sherlock blew a tiny bluish flame into its open maw. The Terror stiffened, coughed, and belched smoke as a woman ran out to grab it, scolding it as she dragged it back from the shiny yellow stone and the dangerous black dragon.
"That's sulfur," said Gobber the blacksmith, looking at the rock. "It comes from the Perilous Lands."
A Gronkle waddled forward, and Sherlock raised his crest. "But it's yellow," said Hiccup, looking at the rock. "Why do they want to investigate it?"
"Yellow?" asked John.
"Dragons won't eat yellow food," said Hiccup. "At first I thought it was eels, but it's something else."
"Well, neither should humans," said Gobber. "Or is that yellow snow...?"
"Well," said John. "What does it do? Sulfur?"
Sherlock shoved him out of the way and picked up the rock, throwing it into the fire that illuminated the centre of the Hall. The fire flamed bright for a few seconds, and then sudden blue, like a Night Fury's breath, and then the smoke that was pouring off it reached the assembled crowd. It made John's eyes water, and he coughed, stumbling for the exit as Stoic yelled "EVERYONE OUT" and Sherlock made a satisfied sound, ruffling his wings.
"Your dragon..." said Stoick, once the coughing and choking Vikings were outside, the acrid smell still hanging around.
"No, I think he's onto something," said Hiccup, as Toothless nudged at him. Hiccup put both hands on Toothless's snout, scratching almost absentmindedly. "Look, we know Toothless and Sherlock's breath can make another dragon seriously uncomfortable, if not explode."
"You think--" said John, sudden pride in his nephew blooming. "You think that the raiders are feeding this—this sulfur to the Gronckles to make them explode!"
Sherlock sat back on his haunches, nodding, and Toothless nodded back. "But why would they do that?" asked Gobber. "Gronckles aren't exactly—"
A large, sad-looking Gronckle waddled into the middle of the group, shouldering others out of the way. It made a few pathetic noises, and John suddenly knew what it wanted.
"They're not stupid," he said, quickly. "Dragons. They're not stupid. Sherlock's smarter than me, most days. This one knows what's happening."
"And what do you propose we do?" asked Stoic. Hiccup stood tall—well, as tall as a kid can—and folded his arms.
"We help it," he said, as the Gronckle's stomach rumbled distressingly. Toothless leapt to his side, and as the other Vikings backed off, Sherlock spread his wings.
"Let John do it; he's the doctor," said Stoic, but Hiccup was already prodding at the Gronckle, and everyone else had backed right off. John sighed, rolling up his sleeves.
"Only one way to see how much like us they really are," he said. "Hold it steady."
The Gronckle's jaws were dripping with something slimy and unpleasant, yet familiar, and John stuffed his hand into the cavernous space. He heard a slight rustle, and realised with a start that Sherlock was standing over them both, ready to grab the Gronckle, or John, if things went wrong.
"Come on," he said, as Hiccup strained to hold the great jaws open. His fingers hit the back of its throat. Gag reflex, gag reflex. Surely dragons had one? Yes, the Gronckle was heaving, and squirming and then it was sick all over him. Chewed up yellow rock and seaweed and the smell of— the smell of— the stuff that Sherlock had brought home.
That's how they were doing it—covering the sulfur in this stinking stuff. The Gronckle retched again, and John got out of the way this time, Toothless extending a swift wing to protect him. It caught John off-balance, shoving him to the ground. He cried out as his shoulder hit awkwardly, rolling, wondering just how this day could get any worse.
Sherlock pounced, knocking Toothless off his feet, the two dragons rolling through the crowd.
"Toothless!" Hiccup yelled.
"Sherlock, no!" John added for good measure.
The Gronckle was sick again, and then it settled on the ground, whining and panting. Sherlock had Toothless on his back, and then Toothless bit Sherlock's leg, tossing him off, throwing Sherlock hard against the ground. Sherlock was up in a second, tail lashing like a whip, body low to the ground as he growled.
"Sherlock!" John repeated, hobbling to get between them. Sherlock was panting and frothing, but he didn't resist John pushing him back and away from Toothless. "Stop it, stop it, you idiot, stop it!"
He pressed his forehead to Sherlock's snout, trying to breathe in time with him, trying to get him to calm down so that they could deal with this problem. Toothless was snarling over by Hiccup, who was doing the same sort of thing, and Sherlock shook himself off, licked the slime off John's face, and then sat down.
"So," said John, to the shocked circle of onlookers. "Shall we sail out to find these raiders, then?"
Sherlock, of course, hadn’t wanted John to go on the ship. And what Sherlock wanted or didn’t want, Sherlock got, because he weighed about twenty times what John did, and he was most insistent when he was getting in the way. John had been trying to shove past him when he realised that he didn’t have his stick in hand, and that had been enough to stop him and make him step back in shock.
“What is it?” he asked. “What do you want?”
This time, when Sherlock knelt so that John could get on his back, John climbed on carefully, letting him take off in a coil of muscle and swift wings (not without a bit of yelling, because Sherlock was really quite fast and frightening when he was on the trail of something). John felt a burst of excitement, a tightness in his stomach that he hadn't felt since getting on a longboat for the first time. Sherlock didn’t head for the ship, though — instead, he went for one of the other islands; prime dragon feeding spots, but not exactly interesting. And besides, John had fed Sherlock while trying to wash the sulfurous sick off before they left, and Sherlock didn’t eat much at the best of times.
“Why are we here?” he asked, when Sherlock landed, and Sherlock sighed a put-upon sigh as only a dragon can, gesturing down the beach with the graceful sweep of a wing. Someone had left food out on the shoreline, and a herd of Gronckles were happily digging in, snuffling and snorting as they ate.
“Ah,” said John, the other shoe dropping, and Sherlock approached the food. He took a mouthful, and then pulled a face, spitting it back out. “You knew you didn't like it — why on earth did you taste test?”
It was hard to be frightened of Gronckles. They were like big, scaly bumblebees. One, a huge male, had eaten so much it was finding it hard to take off. It looked around, whining distress, and Sherlock put up his wings, backing away towards John.
“What?” John asked. “What is it?”
Sherlock pounced, knocking him to the ground, covering John’s body with his own as the Gronckle exploded. The other dragons took off, leaving Sherlock and John alone with the scattered remains of the dead Gronckle. Sherlock nudged John, and then hopped off to nudge at the remains. John wiped a bit of dead dragon from his hair, and then looked at the food. It smelled of sulfur and seaweed; only a Gronckle would be stupid enough to eat it. The other Gronckles had taken off when their peer exploded, and John climbed out from behind Sherlock's bulk to investigate the damage.
Sherlock made a warning noise in his throat.
"Let me look," said John, with a wave of his hand. Sherlock growled, and John turned back to see him pulling a disdainful face before he took off with a crack of wings and a downdraft that ruffled John's hair.
“Fine!” he called. “Leave me, then!”
He stomped up over the rocks, swearing about stupid bloody dragons and their stupid bloody whims, and then he stopped. There was a Gronckle on the rocks, waddling up towards him with a trusting grin, and there, moored in the harbour, prow pushed into the sand, was the raiders’ ship. And there, leaning lazily over the edge of the ship, was the chained Monstrous Nightmare. John couldn't help it. He crouched, hoping that it hadn't seen him, his heartbeat thudding in his ears.
The Gronckle had seen him. It snuffled its way around his rock, slobbering on his shoulder.
"I haven't got anything for you," said John, turning to it. "I really haven't."
He looked around the rock. The Monstrous Nightmare had hopped up again, was scanning the sky. A bolt of blue fire shot out of the clouds and hit the Nightmare clean in the flank, and John looked up. Blue fire. Sherlock. Sherlock was rocketing out of the clouds, flying straight for the boat, and John got to his feet quickly.
"Why didn't we bring anyone else?" John muttered, as the Gronckle bumped against him affectionately. "We could have brought a whole fleet of dragonriders, but oh, no. We had to fly off like a mad Night Fury. Come on, you."
There was an answering gout of flame from the ship, and then the roar of cannon fire. Sherlock was whipping around and up and John winced as the cannonball hit him in the ribs. He went into a roll, body limp, wings folded in, and he hit the water as John began to run, the Gronckle following him. He waded out to his waist, but he couldn't see where Sherlock had hit. The Gronckle had abandoned him in favour of scratching its scales on the barnacles on the side of the ship. The Monstrous Nightmare stuck its head over the side, firing off a warning shot at the Gronckle.
"Sherlock!" John called, but the ripples from where Sherlock had hit the water had completely dissipated, and John felt something very hard settle in his chest. That was his dragon. He turned to the boat. “Hey!” he called. No answer. “Hey!”
One of the men looked over the side, as the Gronckle scratched enthusiastically enough to shake the prow. The Monstrous Nightmare climbed over the side, chain clattering and gleaming as it moved. John steeled himself. It was just another dragon. Nothing to be afraid of. Nightmares were just another dragon.
“Whaddaya want?” asked the raider, as the Nightmare got close to John, making a ticking sound low in its throat as it sniffed him.
“I want my dragon,” said John, and he heard the Gronckle make a low sound. It looked like it had nudged the boat free of its sandy mooring, and it was drifting out. “And I want you to get out of here.”
“Tough luck on both of them,” said the man. He was definitely from another tribe, judging by his shield — it had a huge chicken on it. John wasn’t even sure that he wanted to ask.
“I think you misunderstand,” said John. “That thing you can hear at the side of your vessel? That’s a Gronckle. That’s a Gronckle that had a good, hearty meal at your sulfur buffet earlier in the day. It could blow at any time. And it answers to me.”
Lies, lies all of it, but it was a distraction — and distraction enough. The Monstrous Nightmare blew a smoke ring, and it wreathed John's head. Just another dragon, just another dragon, just another dragon. The Nightmare caught like a candle, the whumph of flame wreathing it in unholy fire, and John stepped back.
"See that dragon?" asked the man lazily. "That dragon answers to us."
The Nightmare caroled, sniffing at John's shoulder, the heat of its flames making his skin red and taut. It stopped, and jerked back. John looked, and realised that the Gronckle had knocked the boat free, and it was pulling the Nightmare back. It spat sparks, offended, and he heard the gurgle in its throat as it got ready to fire, and he steeled himself -- even if he ducked underwater, he'd be boiled alive.
John didn't flinch when he heard a great cracking sound, but the Monstrous Nightmare did. Something burst up through the timbers of the boat, something black and wreathed in water and blue fire, shedding steam and bits of decking off its flanks as it climbed higher, rearing back to fire another shot at the ship. The Nightmare screamed, pulling in a huge breath to shoot its flames, and then the black something flew at it like a thunderclap come to life.
The boat was listing, flaming, and John heard a shout from on deck. “Lads! RUN!”
John ran into deeper water as the two dragons fought — every time the Nightmare ignited itself, Sherlock ducked it under the water, and the deck of the ship creaked dangerously as the men deployed lifeboats on the seaward side. John heard an almighty crack, like rocks splitting in two, like a forest falling, and he had just enough time to catch the expression on the Nightmare's face before it dragged Sherlock underwater. The boat shuddered and split, timbers and sail and chattels bobbing to the surface.
John took a deep breath, intending to dive down to extricate Sherlock, when he saw a blue bolt of underwater flame, and Sherlock broke the surface, the Nightmare in his jaws. He tossed it onto the beach, and then cast around, looking for something. John wasn't overly surprised when Sherlock splashed through the water and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, throwing him onto the beach beside the Nightmare. It snarled at him, shaking off the water and lighting its skin again.
"Sherlock—" said John as it pulled back, and John felt the flames lapping at him, just like they did in his dreams, but this time dark wings enfolded him, keeping the fire out. He buried his face in Sherlock’s scaly neck, listening to Sherlock breathe out soothing noises as the flames roared and the heat radiated inward, even as Sherlock tightened his grip. Eventually, Sherlock let his wings drop, and there was a whirring noise from the Gronckle as it flew overhead, taking potshots at the lifeboats. The Nightmare was gone, flown off after its masters, and John was glad that Sherlock hadn't chased it, had just stayed with him.
“Invaders,” said John, leaning against Sherlock for support on the rocky shore. “They’ll be back.”
Sherlock was shivering, just a little, and John could smell charred scales.
“Hey,” said John, scratching Sherlock behind his crest. “We’re safe now. Come on; let’s get back to town. We’ve got some Gronckles to save.”
John was reasonably sure that after today, his nightmares would take on an entirely new tenor. He’d never thought that he would have to make an entire herd of Gronckles throw up sulfur pellets, but, well, there you go. Life is interesting sometimes.
He’d washed best he could, and he’d cleaned off Sherlock, using a small knife like a currycomb to get the ash out of his scales. Sherlock sighed happily, curling up around John. John gently shoved Sherlock’s tail out of his face, and then had to contend with a fond wing, and a snout that nuzzled at his hair, Sherlock’s breath on his forehead.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said, as Sherlock licked him. “Good gods, will you stop that?” Sherlock trilled. “I’m fine, really,” he repeated. “Come on, Sherlock. At least pretend to get some sleep.” Sherlock snuffled at him, lovingly. “Oh for the love of—”
Sherlock bit him, and then crashed his way out of the window, ignoring the fact that he had to break the frame to fit. There was stillness for just a few seconds, and then in the distance, John heard a baa followed by the unmistakeable sound of a sheep rolling down the hilly side of a steep field and into the middle of the rest of the flock — baa-ing and trampling and discomfited noises. A light went on in the next house, followed by another, and another, as sheep clustered in the streets of the village, presumably trying to escape the mad Night Fury.
John closed his eyes, falling asleep to the sound of people swearing and sheep baa-ing and someone yelling his name, along with come and get your damn dragon! He figured that he’d need his rest; Sherlock was peculiar, and often disgusting, and frankly useless at being a decent dragon, but he was John's dragon, and that was good enough to be going on with.