On the third day, Ronon asked to see the dragons.
John had been bracing for the request since the SGC had first invited Ronon and Teyla to visit Earth. The Expedition hadn't brought any dragons to Atlantis, of course. Earth couldn't spare any, especially for an expedition that could have been walking into anything, and even after they were settled, Atlantis hadn't presented itself as a place where dragons would thrive. The Expedition had, however, brought plenty of photos of the Dragons Corps. And stories. And videos. The documentaries produced using Ancient tech made an especially powerful impression on people who had grown up in a dragon-free galaxy, and even Rodney's lengthy lecture on how puddlejumpers were much more useful (not to mention safer and more hygienic) hadn't done much to dampen Ronon's enthusiasm. Or Teyla's, for that matter, and John suspected the only reason she hadn't been the one to make the request was that she'd noticed how often John left the room when the topic came up.
Rodney bowed out of the visit on the basis of non-specific-but-highly-urgent scientific tasks, which left John alone with Teyla and Ronon in the flight fields outside of Colorado Springs, face-to-face with dragons for the first time in nearly three years.
"How do the riders communicate with their dragons?" Teyla asked, watching in fascination as a blue touched down gracefully twenty feet in front of them. "I don't see any sort of reins, or other means of guidance. Is dragon hearing so good as to allow them to hear their riders while in flight?"
"Telepathy," replied a familiar voice coming up behind them. "They can read their riders' minds."
John flinched. Of all the places for Mitchell to track them down...
"So they know what we're thinking?" Ronon asked, looking more interested than concerned.
"We're a little out of their range right now," John said. "Besides, being able to speak with dragons is kind of a rare talent." He glanced sideways at Mitchell as he spoke, belatedly recalling the circumstances of Mitchell's own departure from the Dragon Corps. Which was worse, he wondered: to be kicked out of the Corps because you could no longer speak to dragons, or to be kicked out because the dragons no longer wanted to speak to you?
Mitchell was gazing out at the field of greens and golds and blues with an expression of barely-disguised longing, but no obvious bitterness. Perhaps that was an answer, although John thought that he'd be bitter if he were in Mitchell's position. The only reason he wasn't bitter now...much...was that he'd known the risk when he went after Holland and Rysel. He'd made a choice.
"Were you also in the Dragon Corps, Colonel Mitchell?" Teyla asked politely, as if it were an everyday event to have transferred out of the Corps and not the result of extreme disaster or horrific failure that it actually was.
"Yeah," Mitchell replied, turning away from the field. "I was."
"What happened?" Ronon asked, and John thought from his expression as he watched the dragons that he understood how hard it would be to walk away from that.
"Went up against a Goa'uld named Anubis when he tried to invade Earth," Mitchell replied. "The Goa'uld had lost ground fights against the Dragon Corps before, and Anubis had a solution. He developed some sort of mind ray. It that burned out our brains. Or at least the part that let us talk to dragons.
"So you can no longer speak with them at all?" Teyla asked.
Mitchell shook his head.
"It must have been difficult, losing that." She nodded toward the fields.
"Hardest thing I've ever done, requesting that transfer," Mitchell agreed. He looked at John as he said it, and John looked away before he could see the judgment that he knew was waiting for him in those blue eyes. The same judgment he'd seen in the eyes of every Dragon Corps officer since the day he'd flown off on an unauthorized rescue mission and returned walking.
Mitchell at least had the courtesy not to press the issue, instead moving on to what John assumed was his real reason for joining them at the field.
"Why don't we head over and see if we can't get one of them to take you two up?" Mitchell asked, smiling warmly at Teyla. He turned his head to include Ronon as well. "You should have the full experience while you're here."
He did, John had to admit, have a very attractive smile. And judging by Teyla's charmed expression, it was working. Well, more power to them. From what he'd heard, Teyla could do worse than the SGC's current golden boy.
"Coming, Sheppard?" Mitchell asked, still smiling, and John fought the urge to look away again as he shook his head. It was a surprisingly powerful smile when you were the target.
"You kids have fun," he said. "I've got to get back to the Mountain. I've got a meeting with General Landry." A blatant lie, but it seemed better than telling them that any dragon he went near would dump him off its back as soon as it hit a fatal height. Mitchell's expression suggested he recognized the lie, but he didn't call John on it--just nodded and said that he'd get Teyla and Ronon back to the SGC when they were done in the field.
John walked away from the three of them with the vague sense that he'd disappointed Mitchell, though he had no idea how.
"Colonel Mitchell has asked if we would like to join SG-1 on their next mission," Teyla said.
John slouched deeper into his chair. "Of course he did." For the past two weeks, Mitchell had been there every time John turned around, helpfully offering to introduce Teyla and Ronon to this or that aspect of Earth society, doing his best to charm both of them, and often John as well. Even worse, it was working. John was starting to really like the guy. More than was comfortable, given John's blacklist status among members of the Dragon Corps and Mitchell's obvious interest in Teyla. Or Ronon. John wasn't quite sure any more which of the two had drawn Mitchell's attention, as he seemed to be dividing his attention equally between the two of them. Going by SGC rumours, it could be either.
"I think it would be very interesting to see how your people conduct trade relations within your own galaxy," Teyla said thoughtfully. "And I would like the chance to visit another world unaffected by the Wraith."
"A lot of the worlds in this galaxy were affected by other things. Like the Goa'uld."
"So I have been told. It will be an educational comparison." She smiled as she said it, but there was iron beneath the words. Teyla had clearly decided that the Atlantis team was joining SG-1 for this visit.
Well, he'd managed to visit the dragons already. A quick jaunt with a man who seemed intent on seducing his teammates while John hung awkwardly around the edges and tried not to stare couldn't be any worse. He reluctantly uncurled from the chair, stretching as he stood. "I noticed you've been spending a lot of time with Mitchell." He kept his tone casual, because it wasn't really any of his business unless Mitchell was actually trying to seduce someone on his team into staying on Earth--an unlikely occurrence at best--but he really wanted to know which of them Mitchell was after. What kind of person did he go for? Graceful and powerful and diplomatic? Strong and silent and surprisingly perceptive? Or was he really so much the good soldier--or so lacking in any sort of life outside of work--that he'd devote all of his free time to securing alliances for Earth?
"I don't think I have spent any more time with him than you have," Teyla replied. "But he has been most generous in sharing your world with us."
"Oh yeah," John agreed. "He's a generous guy." Which he was, really. And he hadn't once brought up John's failure as a rider, not even a trace insult or casual criticism, which was something of a minor miracle in John's experience with Corps officers.
"Did you know him before you joined the Stargate Program?"
John shook his head. "I think we crossed paths once or twice in the Corps, but we weren't ever stationed together anywhere. Different units." Which was unfortunate, when he thought about it. Back then, before earning the enmity of every Corps officer alive, he might have had a chance with Mitchell. "So when does this mission leave?"
"At 14:00. Colonel Carter assures me that it will be a relatively standard trade mission. However, she did warn me that we will likely be spending the night. The Miraldi tend to plan very long formal dinners, and consider it an important part of their hosting duties to put up their guests for the night. She indicated that they would be insulted if we tried declined their hospitality."
"Sounds like a real party." How had Mitchell managed to wrangle such a tame mission for the SGC's premiere gate team? At least it meant that Rodney could probably be talked into joining them, which would make it easier to avoid Mitchell without being too obvious. And speaking of Rodney... "I'd better go track down the rest of our team."
The Miraldi were long-time Earth allies whose main value as trading partners was access to some plants that SGC doctors thought held promise as potential treatments for various diseases, and the mission--whose main purpose was to assure the local council of Earth's ongoing esteem rather than to do any serious re-negotiating--was straightforward.
Seating at the formal supper proved surprisingly informal. John tried to unobtrusively manoeuvre so that Mitchell and Teyla were seated together while he sat with Rodney, but a last minute shuffle (Teyla apparently needing to compare notes with Vala and Rodney somehow ending up next between Teal'c and Ronon) left him sandwiched between Mitchell and one of the Miraldi representatives.
John smiled at the Miraldi woman next to him as he took his seat. Two hours later, he was regretting it.
"I would be delighted to show you the Tower Gardens tonight after dinner," the Miraldi woman, Deleigh, said. "And afterward--"
"I really can't," John interrupted. "I have to..." He cast desperately for a good reason to turn down yet another invitation without insulting her. He'd already tried suggesting that it was against SGC rules, only to learn that SG-11 and SG-19 had already enthusiastically demonstrated that was false, and all of his carefully tactful explanations that she was absolutely lovely but that he was too tired had been treated as a challenge to step up her game.
She rested a hand on his forearm and leaned a little closer. "If your hesitation stems from the fact that you're married, John, I assure you, I can be very discreet."
"Not discreet enough," Mitchell drawled, leaning into the conversation. He reached down and ran his hand slowly down John's thigh, keeping his eyes fixed on Deleigh as he did.
Deleigh's eyes widened and she pulled back her hand. "Oh. I hadn't realized...is the Dragon Corps like the Hamri warriors, then? You all stick to your own kind?"
"Dragon Corps?" John said, looking properly puzzled. "We're with the SGC."
"Yes, but you were both Dragon Corps once, weren't you?" Her voice was light, as if the matter were of little interest to her, but her attention was sharply focused.
"Where did you hear that?" Mitchell asked casually, hand still resting on John's leg.
Deleigh waved airily. "I don't remember who told me. It was one of those things that was floating around. You know how excited my people get about any hint of dragons. Especially after all they did in bringing down the Goa'uld."
The Dragon Corps had played a major role in the ground wars on the various occupied planets, although John was inclined to think that in the end, it had been the battleships constructed with salvaged technology and some help from the Asgard that had been the real source of victory.
Deleigh turned to talk to her companion on the other side of the table. As soon as she had, Mitchell pulled his hand away, but kept his head close to John's.
"What do you think that was about?" he asked in a low voice.
"I'm assuming the SGC doesn't send around our records before we visit," John replied. "Where'd she hear it from?"
"Yeah, and why does she care?," Mitchell agreed. "She was looking for confirmation that we were both Dragon Corps."
"What's her position here, exactly?"
"She's a courtier, basically," Mitchell replied.
"I thought Miralda was some sort of democracy?"
Mitchell shrugged. "The elected bodies hold all the power, but Miralda still has a bunch of old-style aristocrat-types floating around. They have enough prestige to get invited to all the good parties, but they don't get to actually do anything. Usually."
"I don't think she's just here to be decorative."
"Maybe the Miraldi are bucking for their own dragon army and are looking for advisors," Mitchell suggested.
"They'd have to get some dragons, first," John pointed out. "We still haven't found them anywhere but Earth."
"We haven't," Mitchell agreed. "Maybe they have. I'll mention it in my report."
"Thanks for the rescue anyway," John said. "I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have see those gardens after all."
Mitchell grinned and picked up his wine. "It's not the gardens you have to worry about, Sheppard. It's her plans for you after the gardens."
It was late in the night when the two teams finally stumbled toward the local guest houses. There were four houses grouped tightly together, with just enough space separating them to show the usual Miraldi respect for privacy. Carter, Vala, and Teyla quickly claimed the largest house, and Jackson and Teal'c the second. John turned to ask Rodney if he wanted to share, but he and Ronon were already heading up the path to the third house. John blinked. Ronon never voluntarily roomed alone with Rodney.
Mitchell shrugged--a little uncomfortably, John thought--and nodded toward the remaining house.
"I guess we get the leftovers, Sheppard."
"What happened to team leader privilege?" John joked as he followed Mitchell into the small guest house's single bedroom. He was relieved to see that the Miraldi had at least supplied them with two beds, which decreased the possibility of embarrassing revelations.
"Which bed do you want?" Mitchell asked.
John waved the choice off to him, and then claimed the remaining bed, leaning back against the pillow while Mitchell slipped into the bathroom.
"Did Carter serve on a dirigible?" he asked when Mitchell emerged. He thought he'd heard her say something about it to one of the Miraldi at dinner, and it had struck him that he knew very little about the rest of SG-1, apart from what he read in their reports.
Mitchell nodded. "Ship's pilot, until she was recruited to the Stargate program and realized she might have the chance to go a whole lot faster than a dirigible."
John had seen the plans for the small fighter planes that the SGC scientists had up come up after a nearly a decade of studying Goa'uld and Ancient technology. The specs suggested they'd be a hell of a lot faster and more manoeuvrable than any dirigible. Or dragon, for that matter. He wondered idly if Carter was thinking of transferring. Or if Mitchell was. Although if he'd wanted to keep to the skies...
"Did you ever think about asking for reassignment aboard a dirigible?" John asked without thinking. "After Antarctica?"
"No." Mitchell sounded...hollow. Tired. "It wouldn't have been the same."
"No," John agreed. "It wouldn't." It wasn't a choice he'd ever had--it had been all desk duty after Laizal died, paperwork from dawn 'til dusk until John was ready to scream, and only the discovery that he was an unusually effective carrier of the ATA gene had saved him spending the rest of his career in that office--but he didn't think he'd have gone that way even if he'd been allowed to choose. Better a clean break.
In the dark, after they were both settled in bed, Mitchell's voice floated across the room.
"How did you do it?" he asked. "After the court-martial? Walking away when you could still talk to them? How did you leave knowing you could still fly?" His tone was curious--and perhaps a touch sad--but not accusatory.
Besides, John had asked the first question.
"I let her die," he said, and was surprised to find the pain as raw now as it had been nearly three years ago. "I couldn't have asked any of them to trust me after that. I don't think...no dragon would have flown with me after that."
"Is that what you think they think of you?" Mitchell asked dryly. "That you betrayed them?"
John stared up into the darkness. Mitchell, he recalled, had still been in the Dragon Corps when John had launched his ill-fated rescue mission. He'd probably talked to his dragon about it, afterward. He'd probably heard what a lot of dragons thought of it, given how dragons gossiped.
John wasn't at all sure he wanted to know what they'd said.
"You tried to save Rysel," Mitchell said, voice suddenly gentle. "And Holland. They know that. They also know--better than the panel at your court martial, apparently--that no rider has ever forced a dragon into a mission against that dragon's will."
John hadn't been within thought-range of a dragon since returning from that mission. He hadn't dared face them, knowing that he'd failed them twice over, and hadn't even managed to bring the bodies back to be properly burned. Judgement from his fellow officers had been hard enough to take. He hadn't been sure he could take it from them too. He'd never considered the dragons might view things differently from their riders.
"You should visit the fields when we get back," Mitchell said. "Go talk to them. Say hello for me."
Because what John wouldn't do, Mitchell couldn't do, and how he must resent John for that.
"Yeah," John said, and rolled onto his side to sleep.
He woke to the creak of his door opening. The intruders were on him in a rush, restraining his arms and legs before he had a chance to reach for his gun. He managed to call out to Mitchell before they gagged him, but the sounds of scuffle on the other side of the room suggested that Mitchell was undergoing similar treatment. Their captors were efficient; he and Mitchell were tied and being shoved out the door in under five minutes.
John counted off six captors lit by the pale moonlight: two in the lead, one with each prisoner, and two bringing up the rear. All six men were armed. As their captors marched them away from the guest houses and into the woods, John managed to catch Mitchell's eye long enough to exchange a quick nod of agreement. They'd wait and watch for opportunity.
John's internal clock told him they'd been moving at a fairly brisk pace for just over two hours when their captors slowed down. A few later, the trees gave way to a flat field dotted with large, shadowed lumps, like small hills, with smaller figures moving between them. As they moved closer, John realized the hills were dragons, each weighed down by heavy chains. Rage boiled up, hard and fast. That they should dare--
They dare a great deal more than this, whispered a familiar, sibilant voice in his head. It's good to see you again, Colonel Sheppard. Congratulations on your promotion.
Good to see you too, Arys, he replied, pushing down the rage with an effort, and focusing on organizing his thoughts. He'd forgotten how much effort was needed to carry on a telepathic conversation. How'd you hear I made colonel?
We do keep track of our riders, the dragon replied with some asperity. When you can speak again, tell Colonel Mitchell that we say hello, and that we're very sorry we can no longer communicate with him directly. But first, we need to deal with this situation. I believe they have plans for you. And for us.
His escort reached out and removed John's gag. John swallowed and licked his lips, trying to summon some moisture into his mouth while their captors removed Mitchell's gag.
"Miralda doesn't have dragons," Mitchell said. "Where did you get them from?"
"It doesn't matter," his escort replied. "They're ours now."
John looked from dragon to dragon, trying to pick out Arys from among the dark shapes. How did they get you here, anyway?
Some sort of ship, I think, replied a different dragon. They seem to have access to some sort of teleportation technology--we lay down to sleep in the hunting fields, and woke to a bright light surrounding us, and then we were in what looked like a ship's hold. They drugged us as soon as we were on board and kept us that way until we were here and chained.
The voice was also familiar. Ysala? he asked tentatively.
How long have you been here?
A few days, Arys replied. The dragon sounded tired. Foggy. Not long enough to have been missed. We were all on leave, and not due to return to duty for another week.
Dragons tended to roam when away from duty. Arys was right; if they weren't expected, no one would notice they were gone, and even if they did, there was no reason to expect Earth to trace them to Miralda. The only help John could expect would be from his team and SG-1, and possibly not until morning. John turned his attention back to their captors.
"What do you need us for?" John asked.
The captor John had mentally pegged as the leader turned around to face them. "You were both in the Dragon Corps of Earth. We need you to teach us how to control these dragons like you do the ones on your world."
Dragon Corps. John thought back to Deleigh. Had she been sent to confirm their status? And if he had gone walking with her, would he ever have made it back to the guest house?
"Control them?" Mitchell said, choking a little on the words. "You can't just control a dragon; that's not how it works."
On the contrary, Arys said. We'll be happy to do whatever you and Colonel Mitchell--or even any of the men with you--say if it will get these chains off.
The leader did not look impressed by Mitchell's statement.
Do not openly resist them, John, Ysala said. We did so earlier, and they hurt Tyla rather badly. They will not hesitate to use force on you and Colonel Mitchell as well.
"It's more complicated than just controlling them, but we can teach you how to get the dragons to do what you want," John said quickly. "But before we do, I need assurances that you're not going to use them as a weapon against Earth."
"We have no interest in going to war with Earth," the leader said. "Their use will be purely...domestic."
"They aren't really a good law enforcement tool," John said cautiously.
"That's not what we're looking for."
Not interplanetary conquest, not law enforcement, and as far as he knew Miralda had a united planetary government. Which meant...
"I take it you're operating independently of your government," Mitchell said.
"Our relationship with our government is none of your concern. Teach us to ride the dragons as you do, and you will be released unharmed."
John took a deep breath, considering. The first step seemed obvious enough. "You need to unchain them."
The leader raised a skeptical eyebrow. "And what is to prevent them from flying away if we do?"
"We won't let them," John said. "You control us, we control them." He focused on looking as harmless as possible. Having his hands tied behind his back helped. The Miraldi clearly had no idea that the dragons were intelligent, so as long as they were convinced that John and Mitchell were sufficiently cowed, it should be possible to--
"We'll start with one," the leader said, nodding toward a figure that John thought was Arys. "Go unchain it and we'll see what they can do. Keep the tranquillizer guns ready. And keep a gun on our guests." He turned back toward John, smiling coldly. "We will kill you if you try to betray us, Colonel."
"I need my hands."
The leader shook his head. "No, I don't think so. As you said, our ability to control the dragons rests in our ability to control you."
"You've got me as a hostage," Mitchell said. "You don't need to keep both of us tied up."
The leader looked from Mitchell and John and back, then nodded. "All right. Untie Colonel Sheppard. Keep a close eye on Colonel Mitchell."
Hands free, John walked slowly toward the newly unchained Arys, and contemplated how to proceed. There didn't seem to be any point to letting their captors know that the dragons were intelligent, or that John could speak with them mentally, so as he got closer, he began crooning softly, as he would to his mother's horses, and reached out to rub the dragon's head. Arys snorted mentally, but didn't pull away from his touch. John used the close proximity to examine the dragon, noting the slightly cloudy eyes and downward droop of his tail.
Are you okay?
They have been experimenting on us with different drug combinations, trying to find a way to exert control. Some of the effects have been...unpleasant. None of their attempts have been successful. I believe abducting you and Colonel Mitchell was a secondary plan. Their final hope.
You didn't try to fake obedience, then make it to the Stargate? John asked.
I'm afraid some of the younger ones were too upset by the circumstances of our capture to think that strategically.
Right. Okay, with you unchained and me untied, do you have any brilliant ideas for how we can rescue everyone.
No. Truthfully, I'm not entirely sure I can manage to fly right now. I think all that we can do is wait until help comes. I assume others will come looking for you and Colonel Mitchell?
I hope so, John agreed. It was galling to sit around and wait, but there was no way he and Mitchell could rescue six chained and drugged dragons on their own, and he had no idea how many other people were part of this plot, or when they might return.
He gestured the Miraldi closer and they gathered around him, all but the two whose guns were focused on Mitchell. With their captives in a tight circle around him, John began lecturing them on the importance of affection and proper food while Arys kept up a dry running dialogue in his head.
"You'll need equipment too," John said. "Saddles, if you want to stay on during flight. The right clothing, so you don't start suffering from hypothermia. And--"
He was interrupted by a scream from the other side of the clearing. His audience turned and ran, and John followed them.
A dragon he didn't recognize had reared up, straining against the chains. One man lay prone, nearly beneath the rearing dragon. Two other men were brandishing long burning sticks, clearly trying to get the dragon under control. A fourth man was running up with a gun. John raced toward them.
"Move back," he called. "Move back."
The two fire-wielders fell back. The gunman raised his weapon, aiming for the dragon. John put on a burst of extra speed and crashed into him hard, bringing them both to the ground in tangle of limbs. John grabbed the gun, trying to gain control of it. Above him he could hear the dragon's panicked, deafening screams. He tried to send out reassuring thoughts as he struggled for the gun, but he couldn't get a response. He finally managed to knock out his opponent and broke away, gun in hand. He stood up just as the dragon reared over him, claws gleaming dully in the firelight. He started to run, and was knocked to the ground as the giant claws tore into the ground where he'd been standing.
"You okay?" Mitchell asked.
John was suddenly, intensely aware of the weight of Mitchell's body on his. Inappropriate, he told himself and pushed the thought away.
"I'm good," he said as Mitchell scrambled off of him and offered him a hand up.
The dragon had turned away from them and was now targeting a group of fire-wielding Miraldi a few feet away. John tried again to reach out to the still-frantic dragon.
"Can you talk to her?"
"She's not listening."
It's the drugs they gave her, Ysala said. She can't hear you right now. She can't hear any of us.
"She can't hear me," John corrected. "They said they have tranquilizers around somewhere, didn't they?"
"We may not get a chance to use them," Mitchell said, gesturing as the growing number of armed Miraldi surrounding the dragon.
"We've got to help her," John said. He turned to look for a weapon of his own, and then froze as the clearing was suddenly flooded with light.
Above them hovered the puddlejumper that Atlantis had sent to Earth for study.
Teal'c's voice sounded over the loudspeaker. "Back away from the dragon and put your weapons down."
"Ronon realized you were gone pretty quickly," Carter said, "but it wasn't until we thought of using the puddlejumper's life sensor technology that we were able to find you."
"I'm just happy that the Miraldi government has agreed to let the dragons come home," John said.
"I think they're a little worried about keeping them here after Polya's reaction to those drugs," Carter said. "They've decided that dragons are a little too unpredictable for their tastes." She turned her head as a Miraldi peace officer waved to her. "Excuse me."
"Looks like we managed to foil a whole revolutionary movement, Sheppard," Mitchell said. He draped an arm over John's shoulders. "I guess that makes us the heroes of the hour."
"You should be making use of it," John said. "Take advantage of the boost to your reputation." He nodded toward Teyla and Ronon, who were standing off to the side talking to Teal'c.
Mitchell followed his gaze, looking puzzled. "You're trying to set me up with your teammates? Or do you mean Teal'c? 'Cause he and I--"
"I just thought...you've been hanging around them since we arrived on Earth. I sort of assumed that..."
"Hanging around them?" Mitchell said, looking amused.
"Well, you know, taking them places, showing them things."
Mitchell took a step backwards, turning until they were face-to-face. "Yeah, I find it's useful to make friends with the friends of people I'm interested in. If they like me, they'll sometimes do me favours. Like letting me sit next to their friend at dinner."
Interested in. John licked his lips, mouth suddenly dry. "Wait. So you, uh, you weren't hanging around because of Teyla?"
"She told me you had no idea," Mitchell said. "I didn't believe her."
"I'm not always good at catching these things."
"Obviously," Mitchell said dryly. "So now that you know, what do you say? Maybe we can do dinner properly once we're back on Earth?"
"You can't...I got my dragon killed."
"And you plan on punishing yourself for the rest of your life because of it?" Mitchell asked.
"You were Dragon Corps. You know what that means. You'd be a pariah if you started dating me."
"A lot of people weren't thinking clearly when it first happened," Mitchell said. "When was the last time you talked to them? Not the generals in charge, but the other riders? They don't all think the same way. Not anymore."
He hadn't talked to anyone from the Dragon Corps in years. Not since the conclusion of the court martial. He hadn't seen any point.
"I can take care of my own reputation. All you need to worry about is whether or not you want to have dinner with me tomorrow."
"Lunch, breakfast, coffee, a walk in the park...whatever you want. As long as we get to leave the rest of your team behind."
"You'll like me once you get to know me," Mitchell added.
"I guess I owe you," John said. "For saving my life."
"I'll take what I can get. We can work from there."
John looked around the still busy clearing, then tilted his head toward the woods. "Come here."
"Where are we going?" Mitchell asked, following him.
John led him a few feet in, just out of sight of the mass of Miraldi and SGC personnel, then stopped and turned around so that they were facing each other, just barely not touching.
"I thought I should thank you properly," John said, and stepped closer to kiss him. Mitchell responded immediately, wrapping a hand in John's hair, pulling him in closer.
"That's one hell of a thank you," Mitchell said a moment later, pulling back a little.
"We should probably make it dinner," John said. "Easier for me to finish thanking you afterward."
"It was completely selfish, you know," Mitchell said. "I just didn't want to live with the image of you crushed beneath a dragon burned into my brain. And Polya would have been devastated once she realized who she'd killed."
"So you really did it for the dragon."
"Absolutely. That and to prevent nightmares. Got enough of those as it is."
"Not because you were afraid of what Ronon and Teyla would do to you if you let me get crushed by a dragon?"
Mitchell considered and shook his head. "I think Carter and Teal'c could take 'em. Vala too. She's pretty scrappy."
"Your team outnumbers mine," John protested. "It's not exactly a fair fight."
"Good thing you're still alive, then," Mitchell said, and leaned in to kiss him again.
"You and Colonel Mitchell seem to have bonded during your captivity," Teyla said. Her expression was perfectly serious, but John could see the amused sparkle in her eye.
He swallowed a mouthful of beer. "You could have told me."
"You could have noticed," Ronon said. "He was here every day."
"I noticed he was here," John protested. "I just thought...you know."
"You thought he was interested in Ronon or me."
Ronon looked at him skeptically. "You didn't notice that he spent all of his time staring at you?"
"I think you really enjoyed that," John said. "Knowing that I was completely oblivious."
"It did add a certain flavour to our excursions," Teyla admitted.
"Good to know I contribute to your entertainment." John tilted the bottle up, draining the last of the beer.
"He seems like a good man," Teyla said. "Do you plan on keeping in touch when you're back on Atlantis?"
"It's going to put a whole new spin on long-distance relationship," John said.
"Could be worth it," Ronon said. "If he's the right person."
"Could be," John agreed. He'd done the military marriage thing once before and it hadn't worked out, but he'd been in the Dragon Corps then, and she hadn't been military at all. This time... "It's early yet."
"With only two days left on Earth, I'm surprised you're not spending all the time you can together," Teyla said.
"He's got some things to take care of upstairs right now. We have plans for later."
"Rodney was asking about a team dinner," Teyla said.
"I guess I should probably tell him."
"That might be a good idea," Teyla agreed. "He will be very hurt if he thinks you kept it from him."
"I know." He didn't want to keep it a secret, exactly, but Mitchell and Rodney weren't exactly friends, and he wasn't sure he wanted to deal with Rodney's reaction right now.
There was a tap on the door. Mitchell stuck his head in and nodded a greeting to Teyla and Ronon.
"The meeting finished early," he said. "You ready to go?"
John took a deep breath. "Yeah," he said, standing up.
"Where are you going?" Ronon asked.
"Getting back in the saddle," Mitchell said. "Arys's way of saying thank you."
He smiled reassuringly at John as they headed for the exit. "It'll be fine. It's like riding a bike--you don't forget."
Which wasn't his worry, exactly. John had been one of the best riders in the Corps. He didn't think three years had taken that away.
The Flight Sergeant was waiting for them at the edge of the field, and saluted as they approached. He didn't look happy to see John, but he didn't look outraged, either.
"Arys is over there," he said, gesturing. "Saddled and ready to go."
John stepped onto the field, and was met with a wave mental greetings so numerous they almost overwhelmed. Arys abruptly cut them off.
Hello, Colonel Sheppard. Please say hell to Colonel Mitchell for me.
John relayed the message. Ready to fly, Arys?
Ten minutes into the flight, John realized that while he hadn't forgotten how to fly, he had forgotten what it was like.
"Better than a puddlejumper?" Mitchell asked from behind him.
John grinned. They flew.