Sid’s dragon named herself. It’s true and he’ll defend it for as long as he lives, even though nobody in the UNAC believes him. It doesn’t stop him from flushing when he takes the new guy--Evgeni Malkin, goes by the name of Geno, just transferred into the United Nations Aerial Corps from the Russian Aerial Corps--around the covert and they end up at her pen.
“This is Stanley’s pen,” he says, forcing himself to keep a neutral face even when Geno blinks.
“Stanley? But she girl.”
Despite his best efforts, Sid frowns. “She is,” he says reluctantly.
Geno grins knowingly at him. “I’m hear you big hockey fan. You name her Stanley after Cup?”
Sid’s about to explain, for approximately the thousandth time, that that’s not what happened, when there’s a crash and a rumble behind him and a cloud of steamy breath swirls over his head. “Actually,” Stanley says, “I named myself.”
He grins and pats her flank companionably. “Hey, girl, how was dinner?”
Stanley hums thoughtfully. “It was alright. There were cows.”
Sid has to suppress a snort when Geno looks at Stanley confusedly. “She prefers fish,” he explains, “but she can’t have them every day. Not enough nutrients.”
Geno doesn’t look like that cleared up anything, but he smiles agreeably enough and peers around. “This girl pens?”
“Yeah. We don’t have a lot of female dragons on site permanently, it’s usually just Stanley and Estelle, Flower’s Fleur-de-Nuit, so there’s plenty of room for Vasilisa. Speaking of...”
Stanley shuffles her wings. “She is with Estelle. One of her crew served on Viktor for a while and speaks Russian. They won’t be long.” Stanley pauses. “She is very nice,” she settles on in the end, tone decisive.
Geno puffs out his chest. “Vasilyushka best,” he says smugly.
Sid resists the urge to laugh. “I’m sure,” he murmurs. “Anyway, so this is where the dragons stay. They’re usually outdoors, but there’s shelter closer down to the woods if necessary.”
Geno nods. “And me?”
“And you what?” Sid frowns.
Geno gestures vaguely. “Room for me here too? I’m not see barracks.”
Oh. “Oh! No, uh, we, uh. We don’t sleep with the dragons,” Sid explains awkwardly. It’s not exactly a secret that Russia doesn’t treat their Aerial Corps very well, but Geno’s easy admission still sort of blindsides him. “When on-base, we sleep in the main buildings. Nobody showed you your room yet?”
Geno’s eyes widen. “I’m get own room?” He shakes his head. “No, doesn't matter, just--” His face is skeptical. “If we sleep in main buildings, how we know if dragons need us?”
Stanley huffs out an amused breath. “Trust me,” she says drily. “You will know. We are not very quiet.”
Geno doesn’t look entirely convinced. “Okay. So, how teams work?”
Sid leans back against the enclosure. “There’s a number of us signed on to this covert. Missions get distributed, teams get formed, we go out in combinations best suited to the mission.”
“So we not always with same guys?”
Sid shrugs. “Johnston tries to keep us together when it works out, but yeah, pretty much.”
“They are coming,” Stanley interjects.
Geno immediately looks up eagerly and sure enough, Sid hears the beating of wings behind him. When he turns around, Estelle is approaching with another dragon in tow.
Sid’s familiar with a lot of breeds and has seen most of them in action, but the Ironwing is rarely found outside of Russia, a country that’s notorious not only for its primitive treatment of the Aerial Corps and aviators, but also for its secrecy.
“She’s gorgeous,” he blurts out, because shit, she really is. Her wingspan is impressive, half again the size of Estelle’s (who isn’t a slouch to begin with), and her scales are a smooth expanse of varying shades of grey with only a few steel-coloured embellishments. Next to Estelle’s pitch black bulk, Vasilisa looks lithe and shiny. She’s the most reptilian-looking out the the three of them, except for the intimidating spikes on her tail.
“Yes,” Geno agrees easily. “Vasilyushka most beautiful.”
Sid snorts, cutting his eyes sideways. “You’re very modest, Captain Malkin.” Geno only hums, already headed for the enclosure that Vasilisa’s been assigned to.
Stanley shuffles closer, carefully sliding a paw around Sid until he takes the hint and settles down against her. “I like her,” she says.
“Good,” Sid answers. “You’ll help her? You and Estelle?”
Stanley makes an agreeable noise. “Of course. Will she stay with us?”
“I think so.” His eyes linger on Geno. “I hope so.”
Stanley cranes her neck. “Do you like Captain Malkin, Sidney?”
“I guess,” Sid shrugs. “He seems nice, and we’re short-handed, so--”
“No,” she interjects. “Do you like Captain Malkin, Sidney? Do you think he’s handsome? He would be a fine match for you.”
Rolling his eyes, Sid jabs an elbow in her paw. “You really need to stop matchmaking, Stanley. It’s embarrassing and it never ends well. Remember Jordy?”
She makes a thoughtful noise. “I remain convinced you and Jordan could have worked things out.”
Sid snorts. “Jordy’s straight. And married.”
“Minor obstacles,” Stanley says airily.
“Yes, well, bear in mind I’d also like to have a say?”
Stanley’s head sinks down and she nudges him carefully. “I worry you are lonely, Sidney.”
He gives her a look. “I’m fine. And besides, we’re plenty busy, I don’t have time to get lonely. And if I did,” he says evenly, “I can find my own dates.”
She looks at him doubtfully. “Alright. If you say so.”
“I do. Now can we go over the maneuvres for tomorrow, please?”
Stanley settles down with a snort. “Of course, Sidney.” She pauses. “Though if you change your mind, I’m fairly certain I heard Vasilisa say Captain Malkin is single.”
Sid sighs. “Thank you for that. Maneuvres, please?” He breaks open his laptop, very carefully not looking toward the next enclosure, where Geno and Vasilisa have their heads bent together.
Sid had sort of expected it, but he’s still pleased to learn that Geno and Vasilisa are assigned to their base. They’ve been short-handed since Jordy and Talbo both got moved, and while their assignments are flexible, two dragons is a big loss, especially two experienced Yellow Reapers.
Vasilisa doesn’t speak English at all but Stanley picked up some Russian from Gonch and Viktor before they moved. They manage to become close in a startlingly short amount of time. Sid can’t even count the times that he arrives at the dragon pens to find Stanley, Estelle and Vasilisa curled up together in some kind of whispered conference.
Well, as whispered as dragons can get, anyway, which isn’t very much. Sid isn’t surprised to find that Vasilisa picks up French and English quickly, and while Estelle’s Russian lags behind somewhat, she’s making strides.
“Soon Vasya speak better than me,” Geno says mournfully one morning, while the two of them are nursing a coffee, waiting for the crew to finish suiting up. Vasilisa, Stanley and Estelle are in their own enclosures for a change, patiently being harnessed.
“Soon?” Sid asks innocently, and laughs when he receives an elbow in the ribs for his troubles. “Watch it, hot beverage here!”
Stanley eyeballs Geno. “You are welcome to join our lessons, Captain Malkin,” she says meaningfully.
Vasilisa’s head raises hopefully and next to Sid, Geno sighs. “I’m think I not have much choice, right?” He grins, saluting Stanley with his cup of coffee. “You very good teacher, I’m think, Stanley. Probably learn from Sid, hmm? He very good also.”
Sid flushes scarlet at Flower’s loud cackle from the next enclosure, and puts his cup down quickly. “Alright, that looks good enough,” he says loudly to his ground crew, cutting off any more jesting at the pass. “We’re already running late so we’d best hurry up and board, don’t you think?” Flower salutes with a mischievous wink, getting his cadets buckled in without another word, and Sid sends up a wordless thank you for small blessings.
He jumps when a hand closes around his elbow. Geno is smiling, though there’s far too much wide-eyed innocence in his expression for Sid’s tastes. “Sid, we look forward to maneuvres.”
Geno nods. “Yes,” he says slyly. “Vasilisa fly, how you say, rounds around you?”
“Circles,” Sid corrects unthinkingly, and then raises an eyebrow. “Oh yeah?”
Geno is smirking now. “Yep.” He pops the p, which only makes him sound more obnoxious. Clearly he’s been spending too much time with Duper.
Sid sniffs. “We’ll just have to see about that, Captain Malkin. Hey, Flower,” Sid calls out. “Geno says he can outfly us. What do you think?”
Flower sputters in incoherent French, eyes narrowed. “I think he talks a big game, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Geno’s smirk doesn’t abate and Sid grins in response, before surveying Stanley’s set-up.
“Well, gentlemen,” he says. “Only one way to find out. Shall we?”
The Tabernas is hot, dry and deserted.
“Get it? Because we’re in the desert?”
“Shut up, Duper,” Flower snaps, wiping dust off his helmet and visor. “Christ, I fucking hate the heat.”
“Guys, come on,” Sid says mildly. “Focus.”
It’s not like he can’t understand what they’re on about, because the desert doesn’t make for good flying conditions in the best circumstances and now that the hot desert winds are coming in, it’s even worse. But bitching about it isn’t going to get the work done any faster and besides, he knows for a fact there’s a shower waiting for him at the end of this day. It feels like it’s been weeks since he was dust-free and the promise of clean, hot water is so close he can almost taste it.
It takes another forty-five minutes for the briefing to end, though precious little has actually been decided, which doesn’t make Sid feel better when he walks through the camp afterwards. The harsh afternoon sun is painting the temporary structures a bright gold shade that’s reminiscent of the desert Sid remembers flying over yesterday. It’s strangely beautiful.
“How did it go?”
The dragons are penned on the outside of the haphazard camp, and as per usual, Stanley, Estelle and Vasilisa are grouped together. It doesn’t look like Estelle is around, but Sid can see Geno half-settled in the crook of Vasilisa’s arms, gesticulating wildly. Judging from the pinched look on his face, today’s meetings and briefings left him feeling as irritable as Sid.
“Okay,” he sighs, settling down easily. “How was lunch?”
“Delicious,” Stanley says. “I like sheep a lot.”
She peers at him. “You are distracted, Sidney.” Her eyes narrow. “Is it because of Captain Giroux?”
“No.” He jabs her gently. “You have got to let that go.”
A cloud of smoke hisses from her nostrils. “He implied we are incompetent and overly prone to complaining, Sidney. I will not.” She nudges him carefully. “What is it then?”
“Nothing,” Sidney says. “I don’t know. I’m not sure why we’re even here, to be honest.”
“Setting up a new UNAC training encampment,” Stanley answers promptly.
Sid rolls his eyes. “I know that. I just don’t know why it’s us.”
Stanley peers at him carefully. “You are bored with this mission.”
Sid scowls. “By all means, say what you really think.”
“But I am not wrong, am I?”
Sid slumps. “No. Why are we doing grunt work? Logistics and support? We have years of experience on everyone here!”
“Perhaps that is why we’re here?”
“You’re probably right,” Sid sighs. He grabs a handful of rusty-red gravel and starts throwing the pebbles away one by one. “But it still sucks.”
“I remember a time, not too long ago, when you were complaining about not having any time to yourself between all the missions.” Stanley says pointedly. “Something about how you could barely remember what the inside of your home looks like. Have you changed your mind?”
“Shut up,” Sid grumbles. “I just wish there was something to do, other than neverending briefs and meetings.”
“Joaquin said there was a lake nearby,” Stanley offers. “It has been a while since I swam.”
Sid perks up. “That’s a good idea.” It’s not a shower, but he’ll take what he can get right now. “Did he give you directions? Is it far?”
Stanley nods. “It is well within parameters.”
Sid resists the urge to pump a fist. “I’ll go tell Holmgren.”
“May I invite Zhenya and Vasya?”
Against his better judgement, Sid pauses. It’s only for a moment, just long enough to imagine Geno stripped down, wet and glistening, but it’s enough. Stanley, damn her eerily accurate perception, notices.
“Of course you can,” he says briskly. “I’m sure we could all use some refreshing.”
She looks at him oddly. “Alright. I shall ask them now?”
Sid nods. “I’ll meet you back here in a minute. “
He curses himself all the way to the Major’s tent. It’s not like he’s carrying a torch for Geno or anything--it’s not-- it’s just that Geno’s funny and kind and smart and also seriously hot in his uniform, and yeah, okay, it’s possible maybe Sid has developed an appreciation in the two months Geno’s been with the Corps. A small, inconsequential appreciation. And now he’s going to have to spend the rest of his afternoon trying not to look at Geno out of his uniform. While making sure Stanley doesn’t notice.
The lake is close indeed and even though the water is freezing-cold on account of the mountain snow, Sid is still more happy to chuck off his sweaty uniform and slide in carefully. Geno is oddly flushed when he glances back, looking away and hastily chucking the rest of his clothes.
“I wouldn’t--” Sid says, but it’s too late, Geno’s already jumped in feet first. He squeaks and Sid snorts. “Too cold?”
Geno shakes his head. “No,” he says decisively. “This nothing. I’m grow up in Siberia.”
“Uh huh,” Sid says. “So those aren’t your teeth I can hear chattering?”
Geno narrows his eyes. “Sid talk big game.”
Sid laughs, which, he will later maintain, is the only reason he doesn’t see Geno’s splash coming. His yelp when the wall of freezing water hits him is loud enough to make Stanley and Vasilisa look over from where they’re play-fighting.
“Oh,” Sid says slowly. “It’s on, Malkin.”
The ensuing water fight is loud enough to scare away most of the local wildlife, especially after Vasilisa and Stanley join in. It’s fun, though, and it makes Sid forget about why he’d been nervous about coming here. At least until Geno hoists himself out of the water, water glistening all over his back and his shorts clinging to his legs and, fuck, his ass and--Sid turns away quickly. From the bank, Stanley eyes him meaningfully and he has to resist the urge to groan.
“Sidney,” she says smugly--which is when the radio in Sid’s clothes starts blaring loudly. Sid and Geno curse almost in sync.
“First decent bath I’m have since we get here,” Geno grouses. “Of course alarm go. Of course.”
Sid slings a towel over his hair quickly. “It might not be anything serious.”
The look Geno shoots him is incredulous. “That be twice bad! Then we stop swimming for nothing!”
The camp is a hive of activity when they touch down and Sid gets hailed by Major Holmgren almost immediately.
“Good, Crosby, you’re back. Buckle up.”
Sid hustles into his uniform quickly, signaling to his ground crew to bring out the harness. “What’s going on, sir?”
Holmgren’s face is serious. “We’ve received word that a group of ferals is targeting civilians nearby.”
Sid nods. “You want us to draw them off?”
Holmgren shakes his head. “I want Malkin, Hornqvist and Dupuis on distraction. You and Perron are on crowd control and rescue, with Fleury in reserve if you need him.” He pauses. “I’m told the dragons are targeting an excursion of school kids. I don’t think I need to stress how delicate a situation this is.”
Holmgren frowns. “No. There’s nothing doing with these Tabernas dragons, I’m told. They get a few of these situations every summer, usually a couple that can’t find enough food, go look for better things outside the badlands. Scare ‘em off. Killing only when unavoidable, I don’t want any of ours close enough to get injured.”
It doesn’t take long to find the exact location. Sid curses even as they’re quietly approaching, trying to assess the situation.
Three buses are parked close together, small forms visibly huddled together inside, and Sid can see at least two groups trying to hold their own in the foliage. They won’t be able to hold for much longer. There’s at least one Flecha-del-Fuego, though they’re all so malnourished that the best he can do is belch out clouds of thick dark smoke.
“Split up,” he radios. Vasilisa, Loïc and Hjalmar bank left to go harass the ferals, while Stanley and Evan hang back, carefully waiting for the ferals to be engaged away from the civilians.
“We could easily take them,” Stanley grouses, and Sid pats her on the neck.
“We’d overwhelm them,” he says. “They’d panic and the kids down there would get hurt. This way Geno, Patric and Duper draw them away and we help them get out.”
He hasn’t even finished the sentence when Geno and the others take off. They’ve engaged the feral dragons enough that they’ve lost interest in the people on the ground and swoop after them. Sid directs Stanley and Evan to soar down immediately, and prays that none of these kids are the squeamish kind. The giant, tent-like civilian transporter Stanley and Evan have strung between them is not for the faint of heart. It’s certainly strong enough--even dragon claws have trouble tearing the thing apart--but it’s mostly canvas stretched over their heads, dense rubber under their feet and a place to buckle themselves in. Safe, yes. Practical, not quite.
“Any casualties? Injuries?” he asks the first teacher he can snag.
“No, only bumps and bruises,” she says in heavily-accented English. “You arrived just in time. Thank you.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He scans the surroundings carefully. “Do we have everyone? I don’t want to linger in case they come back.”
“Yes, I have counted and so has Elena. All of the children are here. We go?”
With a last glance around, Sid nods. “Let’s get out of here.”
There’s a few uncertain moments during take off, but Stanley and Evan work well together and soon enough they’re making fast time over the dusty landscape to get the kids back to safety. By the time they’re far enough away that Sid’s comfortable enough to settle down, there’s even some enthusiastic, high-pitched cheering from the carrier.
The welcoming committee descends as soon as they touch down. Sid counts at least three medics and a bunch of unfamiliar faces that have a distinct ‘worried parent’ look about them before Holmgren hails him. He motions for the crew to lead Stanley away from the chaos and follows the Major into his tent.
“Good job, Crosby.”
“Thank you, sir.” He throws a quick look back. “An adventure for them, all in a day’s work for us, I guess.”
Holmgren isn’t smiling but he also doesn’t look as though everything in his vicinity is displeasing him, so Sid’s counting it as a win. “Your guys looked good out there,” he says. “I want your after action on my desk by noon tomorrow.”
Sid nods. It’s not surprising and also, whatever, it’s not even dinner time yet. Plenty of time still to enjoy a job well done before getting bogged down with paperwork. “Yes, sir.”
Stanley’s already unharnessed by the time Sid makes it to her pen, jittering with energy and complaining about being hungry.
“Dinner will be soon,” Sid says soothingly. “You did great today.”
Stanley preens. “We all did very well, I think. The children were mostly not frightened!”
Sid chuckles. “I guess with children, that’s the best you can aim for.”
She hums. “I very much enjoyed swimming, too. I wish we could do it more often. We only ever seem to when we visit your family in Canada.”
“Yeah,” Sid says wistfully. “We really should look into some lakes near Pittsburgh.”
She looks at him slyly. “Was it just the swimming you enjoyed?”
Sid chokes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Stanley hums. “Is this why you told me to stop matchmaking? Were you worried he would say no?”
“No,” he says firmly. “I told you to stop because it never ends well, which you very--”
“Because I don’t think he would. He looks at you quite often, you know.”
“--well know and, wait, what?”
Stanley tilts her head and gives him what he assumes is a significant look. “It is true.”
“No, it’s not.” He’d definitely have noticed.
“I don’t wish to insult you,” Stanley says, “but you are not very perceptive, Sidney.”
Her tone is so matter of fact, he can’t even find it insulting. “Thanks?”
She snorts out a breath. “I was not trying to be mean, but it is true.”
“What,” Sid says indignantly, “that I’m oblivious?”
“Yes,” Stanley says promptly. “And that Captain Malkin looks at you. In fact, he is doing so right now.”
Only years of training stop Sid from checking to see if she’s right. He glares at her instead. “Looking or not, I told you to let that go. Quite a while ago, even.”
“That was before I knew you liked Captain Malkin!” Stanley argues, and God, Sid has never been happier that his dragon actually knows the value of discretion and how to keep her voice down. The idea of this conversation spreading through the whole camp is enough to make him want to break out in hives.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me,” Stanley insists quietly. “You have not had a mate in a very long time and I worry that you are lonely.” She lowers her snout. “As does Taylor.”
Sid narrows his eyes. “When did you talk to Taylor?”
Stanley looks shifty. “She writes to me. Sometimes.”
“She...writes to you?” Sid pauses. “How do you read the letters? And how did I not know about this?”
“Beau gave me an e-mail address. He reads them to me,” Stanley sniffs.
Sid groans. “My sister e-mails you about my love life. And my cadet reads them to you.”
“No!” Stanley says irritably, rearing up. “We talk about many other things!”
“Oh my God, you e-mail her back, don’t you?”
“Taylor is a good correspondent,” Stanley says mulishly. “I do not want to stop.”
Sid looks at her for a few moments before sighing. “I’m not going to have any say in this, am I?” In his head, he can almost hear Taylor cackling at him. Sid’s always been pleased his family loves his dragon so much, but he’s starting to reconsider the position.
Her eyes narrow. “You won’t make us stop?”
Sid snorts. “Could I?”
“No.” She looks at him consideringly. “But if it were really important to you, I would.”
He sighs, tugging on her harness so she leans down and he can rest his forehead against her sun-warmed scales. “I won’t stop you.” He jabs her gently. “But for the love of God, let me read them to you next time. There’s no reason to subject a cadet to that.”
“Okay,” Stanley says eagerly. “So. Dinner?”
Sid finds Geno in the hall of the med bay, sitting on a gurney and staring intently at the door behind which Vasilisa is being treated. Geno’s chest is bare, his arm in a sling, and there’s a long bandage curving around his side and upwards. Sid swallows and looks away, pretends his flushed cheeks are just from Brazil’s oppressive humidity.
“Hey.” Geno doesn’t turn, but he scoots obligingly when Sid settles next to him. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine.” Geno’s voice is hoarse, which is no surprise considering how much shouting he’s done recently.
“Dislocated,” Geno grunts. “Doctors set already.”
Meaning the doctors told him to rest and Geno took that as permission to do whatever he wanted. Sid resists the urge to roll his eyes. “And the cut?”
“Is just cut, Sid!” Geno bursts out, shooting Sid a glare. “Is nothing! Shallow!”
He flinches when Sid touches his shoulder. “Geno…”
“Am fine, Sid.” He shrugs, laughs bitterly. “Could be much worse, right?”
“What happened out there wasn’t your fault.”
“No?” The corner of Geno’s mouth pulls into a bitter grimace. “People die. I’m get sent out for rescue, and people die, but I’m still here. How is that not my fault?”
“Because you couldn’t have known that roof was going to collapse,” Sid says unwaveringly.
Geno slumps. “You not hear her cry, Sid.” His voice is low, barely audible, but Sid can make out the words nonetheless. “I see people trapped on top of house and protocol say women and children first, so I do. But you not hear the little girl scream when her parents drown.”
“I know,” he answers. “Geno, I know, I’ve been there. We all have.”
They have, too. The UNAC does good work and Sid wouldn’t want to do anything else but it’s not an easy job; he can count on both hands and feet and still have ghosts left to spare. Rescue missions are unpredictable to begin with and the floods and mudslides they’ve been dealing with are some of the worst in Brazil’s history. There’s more than one crew member not going to be able to face closing his eyes tonight, of that Sid is certain.
But they have to move on. He nudges Geno’s shoulder until they’re facing each other. “This is the job, Geno. We do what we can and it makes a hell of a lot of difference, but you can’t save everyone. You know that.”
“I’m try.” Geno’s voice is stubborn.
“I don’t doubt that,” Sid says carefully, “but how long till you get yourself seriously hurt?” His fingers touch the sling lightly. “How long until you get Vasilisa seriously hurt?”
Geno shudders. “Low blow, Sid.”
Sid isn’t swayed. “It’s the truth, and you know it.” He lets himself lean in a little closer. “What you did out there was stupid and reckless. We have protocols for a reason, Geno. We can’t afford to lose you.”
It’s perhaps a bit more honest than he usually lets himself be, but it’s not so far from the truth. The team would be in serious trouble if Geno and Vasilisa were out, even disregarding Sid’s personal feelings on the matter. Vasilisa fits in perfectly with the other dragons, and Geno, well… He’s only been on the team for five months and already Sid can barely remember what things were like before he got here.
“Promise me you’ll at least be careful out there?” He nods to the window, through which lashing rain and dark clouds can be seen. The weather isn’t expected to improve for the next few days. With no replacement team in sight, like as not they’ll be sent out again soon. It was probably sheer luck that allowed him to be on the covert for Geno’s return to begin with; he knows for a fact that Tanger, Flower and Kuni are still out there.
“Not going to make me promise to be safe?”
Sid snorts. “Trust me, I’m well aware of how pointless that would be.”
“Not going to yell at me for reckless?”
“Would there be any point?”
Geno opens his mouth but he’s prevented from retorting by the door opening. The medic that steps out looks tired, but then most anyone on the covert looks tired right now.
“You can see her now,” he says, gesturing inside. “Aside from a few scratches, she’s fine. Considering the accelerated healing factor, she’ll be good as new in a day or two.”
Geno’s off the gurney and into the room the doctor’s even finished, but Sid doesn’t hold it against him. Regulations dictate captain and dragon be split for post-mission check-up if one of them is hurt, because there’s no dealing with them when they’re together. Sid’s been there and it’s not a fun place to be.
“Thank you,” he says sincerely.
The doctor smiles. “No need, really. I only had to do some superficial stitching. Looks like Captain Malkin had the worse end of the deal.”
“Yeah, well, jumping into a collapsed house in the middle of a flood will do that.”
The doctor blinks. “I suppose he’s lucky she fished him out then.”
“Bless dragon reflexes,” Sid agrees. “Thanks again.”
The doctor waves him off, already headed down the corridor, his mind no doubt already on his next patient. There’s no shortage of them, with whole towns destroyed or carried away by the water or mudslides. It’s impossible to make up an official death toll but the unofficial numbers are well into the hundreds.
Sid shudders and heads for the dragon enclosures. If they’re headed out again soon, he wants to spend every available minute with Stanley.
Vasilisa is alone in the med bay when Sid drops by to check on her the next day.
“Sidney,” she says, surprised, sitting up slightly. “Zhenya is not here.”
“I know,” Sid says. He’d seen Geno stagger into their dorm just half an hour ago, grey-faced with exhaustion. “I’m glad he’s getting some sleep, he looked terrible.”
“I made him go,” she says firmly. “I am healing fine, my stitches will be removed tomorrow already. There was no need for him to linger and his whining was making me irritable.”
Sid snorts. “How is he doing?”
Vasilisa cocks her head. “Zhenya? You don’t know?”
“I know what he tells me,” Sid answers. “Which isn’t always accurate.”
“So you come to ask me?” She sounds curious, and Sid feels the irrational urge to defend himself.
“You know him best, don’t you? You’ve been with him the longest.”
“Oh,” Vasilisa blows out a breath. “I am sorry, I did not mean to offend you, Sidney. I am just not used to my opinion being considered, that is all.” She sounds more than a little bitter about it and Sid can’t blame her. He’s always sympathised with Russian aviators, but never considered what it must be like for Russian dragons to be treated with such obvious disparagement.
He touches her side gently, and she relaxes. “Sorry, Vasilisa.”
“Thank you, Sidney. And you may call me Vasya, if you wish,” she adds generously.
Sidney cocks a grin. “I’m honoured. So how is he doing?”
“As well you should be,” she says, “and he is alright, I think. Physically, the doctors seem to have done everything right. I cannot smell any infection and he does not complain about pain. No more than usual, at least.”
She pauses. “I think the child is on his mind.”
“Yeah,” Sid says quietly. “I thought it might be. Is he talking to anyone about it?”
“If he is, I do not know,” Vasilisa says. “Do you think that is why he lingered with me? He did not want to go to sleep?”
Sid shrugs. “He wouldn’t be the first guy to take something like this hard.”
“And Zhenya and children…” Vasilisa trails off. “Do you think he will resolve it himself?”
“I don’t know,” Sid says slowly. “Sometimes it does, sometimes you need to talk about it. It’s different for everyone and every situation. I just wanted to ask if you’d keep an eye out.”
“Of course,” Vasilisa replies immediately. “Zhenya is my captain. We take care of each other. I will think on this, Sidney. Thank you for telling me.”
“Of course,” Sid says easily. “And you’ll let me know if it gets worse? There’s other things we can do, of course, but I wanted to get your input first.”
“And I am grateful.” Vasilisa peers at him. “I think you may also benefit from some rest, Sidney. You look dreadful.”
Sid rolls his eyes. “It’s my lot in life to be surrounded by blunt dragons, isn’t it?”
Vasilisa huffs amusedly. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.” She resettles herself. “I’m to be moved back to my enclosure tomorrow, I’m sure Stanley would not like to hear about your forcing yourself.”
Sid throws his hands up. “I’m going, there’s no need for blackmail.” He smiles. “I’m glad you’re feeling better, Vasya.”
“Sleep well, Sidney.”
Sid doesn’t realize anything is amiss until he’s Skyping Taylor, later that night, hunched over a battered UNAC laptop in an empty office. He’s in the midst of detailing his conversation with Vasilisa when she rolls her eyes.
“How’s the rest of the team?”
“They’re fine,” Sid says defensively. “Well, Flower has a cold and he won’t shut up about it, but other than that, we’re good. Why are you making a face?”
“Talk about people who won’t shut up,” she smirks. “Pot, meet kettle.”
“Come on, Sid,” she says. “You’ve done everything besides describe Geno’s injury in gruesome detail, but you’ve barely even mentioned who else is there with you.”
Sid frowns. “I… What are you getting at?”
Taylor shrugs. “I’m just saying, you talk about Geno a lot.”
“No, I don’t!”
“Yeah,” she says. “You really really do. Ask around. Even Stanley agrees with me, and by the way, did I say she mentioned you two would make a cute couple?”
“I should have stopped the two of you from writing when I had the chance,” Sid says darkly.
“It’s cute that you think you could,” Taylor grins. “Listen, I gotta go, we’re going out tonight--no, shut up, don’t make that face, I’m nineteen and in college, I’m allowed to go out.”
“No drinking,” Sid says seriously.
“Sure, yeah, Dad.” She laughs. “Stop worrying, I’ll be fine. You should go, get some rest. You look terrible.”
“Oh my God, you know that’s the second time I’ve heard that today?”
“It must be true then.” He face goes serious for a moment. “Take care out there, okay? Come home in one piece, both of you.”
“We will,” he promises. “Love you.”
“Love you too, Squid.”
Duper’s the only one in the dorms when Sid gets in, dozing on his bed. “Taylor doing okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, she’s fine,” Sid says distractedly. Taylor’s words are still on his mind, and he can’t help but think-- “Hey, can I ask you something?”
Duper opens one eye lazily. Then he frowns and gets up. “Sure. Everything okay?”
“Yeah. I think so.” Sid sinks down on Duper’s bed. “Listen, I, uh. Can this stay between us?”
An eyebrow arches. “Okay,” Duper says slowly. “Is this where you confess your deepest and darkest secrets to me? Because I have to tell you, Sid, I already know about that time with Tanger and the hockey stick and--”
“Shut up,” Sid says quickly. “Jeez, we swore we’d never talk about that again.”
“That was before you walked in here looking like someone kidnapped your puppy. What’s up? I promise to keep it to myself, even if it’s really embarrassing.”
Sid takes a breath. “Do I talk about G a lot?” It comes out rushed and kind of garbled, but judging by Duper’s amused noise, he gets the idea.
“What brought this on?”
“Taylor said--never mind, just answer the question, will you?”
“Pretty much, yeah? Like all the time?”
Sid flushes. “Really?”
“Yes, really,” Duper parrots. “Why are you asking about this now? It’s not like it’s ever been different.”
“You’re exaggerating,” Sid says. “It’s not--It can’t be that bad.”
Duper snorts. “Please. Don’t take hair advice from Nealer, don’t go out drinking with Talbo and don’t try to split up Sid and Geno,” he intones. “They’re like the cornerstones of UNAC in Pittsburgh. Or they were, I guess, until Nealer and Talbo left.”
Sid flushes. “You’re so full of shit, Duper.”
Duper raises an eyebrow. “Remember in Australia, when G got hurt? I thought you were going to bitchslap that doctor who said he’d just have to walk it off. Good thing Tanger was holding you back.”
“Okay, but that guy was just completely incompetent,” Sid says defensively.
“And remember in Guatemala, when that waitress wouldn’t stop flirting with him? If looks could kill…” He mimes an explosion.
“She was being invasive and rude!”
“And remember when Geno dated that nurse? Man, you hated her.”
“I did not,” Sid says weakly. He really, really had. But in his defence she’d sneered at every aviator Geno ever introduced her to and insisted Geno shower after he came from the covert because she ‘couldn’t stand the smell’.
Duper shoots him a knowing look. “Look, it’s not as if G’s any better. You guys spend, like, all your time together on-base. Trust me, it’s not just you.” He clasps Sid’s shoulder. “Take comfort from the fact that you’re not the only overly co-dependent weirdo on the team.”
“Yeah,” Sid says slowly. “Um, thanks. And you won’t--”
Duper chuckles. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.” He gets up. “Hey, I heard that the weather is looking up. Sounds like we might be relieved soon.”
“Great,” Sid says distractedly, settling down on his own bed.
Duper rolls his eyes. “I’ll leave you with your deep, dark feelings then.”
The door closes before Sid finds a reply, not that he’s trying very hard. He’s too busy trying to make sense out of the conversation they just had. He thinks about Stanley’s words back in Spain, all those months ago, and about the way he’s always seeking out Geno’s company. He thinks about the look on Taylor’s face earlier and the way Duper assumed everything was completely obvious.
Then he thinks about Geno’s smile and the way his eyes crinkle when he laughs and how he’s always touching Sid--a hand on the shoulder, a nudge in the arm--and about how he’s always thinking of Geno when he’s not around and about how he feels when Geno looks at him or touches him.
Something warm sparks in his gut and Sid resists the urge to bury his head in his hands.
Sid knows before Ovechkin has even landed that something has gone wrong.
It’s not the expression on Ovechkin’s face or the solemn yet apologetic look he slides Sid before going off to make his report. It’s in Ovechkin’s face, in his posture, in every non-verbal way his body can communicate. Something’s gone FUBAR and he’s got a bad feeling in his stomach telling him exactly what it is.
He’s not surprised when he gets called into the Major’s tent less than half an hour later, though he wasn’t expecting Flower there with him.
“Crosby, Fleury,” Babcock says, “at ease.” He’s sitting behind what can be called a desk only with a lot of imagination, an open report in front of him.
Babcock’s a good sort, Sid’s worked under him before. A good CO with a firm grasp on the politics and responsibilities of running a UNAC covert. He’s not one for over-dramatization, which is why his grave expression only makes the knot in Sid’s stomach tighten.
Babcock frowns at them. “I’m sure you saw or heard the rumours about Ovechkin’s arrival, so I won’t beat around the bush.” He pauses. “Malkin’s MIA.”
Sid sucks in a breath but he forces himself to stay still otherwise. Next to him, Flower’s face has gone completely blank.
It’s not coming completely out of the blue. The mission Geno and Vasilisa were sent out on--a solo recon to gather highly sensitive intel on insurgent camps--had been risky from the start, and they’d missed their first and second rendezvous. That Babcock is now claiming MIA must mean they’ve lost all contact. But all the same, Sid feels frozen, rooted to the ground, and for a few moments, all he can think is “fuck, no, not Geno”.
“What’s the plan, sir?”
Babcock fixes Sid with a look. “I know you feel responsible for him, Crosby, but I need you to set that aside right now. Malkin’s an asset and I want you and Fleury to stage an S&R.”
Babcock nods. “The region’s still volatile, and you two are the best we’ve got under cover of darkness. Crosby, I want you to put Estelle on point for this, she’s got the best chance of finding Malkin in the dark. Stanley’s in backup position.” He gives Sid a stern look. “Second string only, you understand? A little moonlight gone the wrong way and those markings on her wings will light up even with the wrappings.”
“Yes, sir.” Sid hesitates. “Sir, is this… on the record?”
Babcock sighs, shuffles his papers. “Yes,” he says eventually. “I’m assured that if things go wrong, you’ll have the full weight of the UNAC behind you. Even so,” He gives them a significant look. “I’ve also been assured that it’s of the utmost importance this is done quickly and quietly.”
The knot in Sid’s stomach pulls even tighter. That means it’s a toss up and whether or not the UNAC will back them depends entirely on how big the shit storm will be if they get caught. “Do we have an approximate location?”
Babcock pulls out a map. “Last contact was here.” He marks a spot. “These are the rendezvous locations, and these are the last coordinates Malkin gave us. That was five hours ago.” He sweeps his hands over the map. “Which leaves you with a hell of a lot of ground to cover. You’ll have to be tactical about this, gentlemen.” He looks at them intently. “You’re go at zero dark hundred. Good luck.”
Sid’s hands are shaking when they make it back to their tents. Not bad enough to be noticeable, but still enough to make him pause to pull himself together. It’s not the first time one of his team has gone missing and it won’t be the last.
Yeah, his subconscious says, but this time it’s Geno.
Sid forces it quiet while he suits up. Night ops require an entirely different set of gear, both for him and Stanley, which means a different setup and no cadets.
Stanley’s uncharacteristically quiet when Sid goes to suit her up. She noses his head gently. “We will find him,” she says quietly.
“I know,” Sid replies.
Temperatures drop quickly in Kandahar in November. By the time it’s dark, Sid’s glad for the thermal uniforms. Babcock’s the only one to officially see them off, but Sid can see a suspiciously large number of his guys loitering close by.
“Be careful,” Babcock says gruffly. “Stay in contact and for God’s sake, Crosby, don’t do anything stupid.”
“Yessir,” Sid replies crisply, but he can see from the look on his face that Babcock doesn’t believe him.
Estelle runs point after takeoff and it doesn’t take them long to reach Geno’s last known location. They search it quickly and quietly, but as expected there’s no one there.
“I don’t get it,” Flower says. “There’s no sign he was ever even here.”
Sid taps the map carefully. “He knows UNAC would come for him. There’s only one reason why he’d erase evidence that could help us.”
Comprehension dawns on Flower’s face. “He’s being tracked by the insurgents.” He bites his lip. “Sid, that complicates things.”
“I know,” Sid says quietly. “But we’ve got an objective and not that much time.” And we’re going to get him out of here if I have anything to say about it, Sid doesn’t add. But then, judging by the look on Flower’s face, he doesn’t really have to.
It takes three nights but eventually they manage to piece the puzzle together. A buckle off Vasilisa’s gear, some blood spatter and in one instance, a set of dragon prints Sid knows aren’t from any beast on his team; all together it forms a trail that Sid and Flower painstakingly trace out and follow. They take cover during the daylight hours, napping, taking watch and trying to figure out where to go next. At night, they sneak their way through the plains and shrubbery.
The trail leads into the mountains, because of course it does.
“God forbid he ever make things easy on us,” Flower curses. “That place is rife with ferals, Sid.”
Sid considers the maps carefully. “I know,” he says. “That’s probably why he went there.”
“What do you mean, Sidney?” Stanley asks.
Sid bites his lips. “If Vasilisa’s hurt, and we think she is, it’s the best strategy to get rid of any pursuers. The Afghans aren’t likely to risk their own dragons by tangling with ferals.”
“It’s also c-r-a-z-y,” Flower says sharply. “Who’d take a chance on ferals? With a wounded dragon?”
Sid shrugs. “It’s what I would do.”
Flower has some rather unflattering things to say about both Sid and Geno’s parentage at that, but he subsides soon enough. Sid’s not fooled. They’re stretching their resources, should have been on their way back to the camp by now, but by mutual, unspoken agreement, they’re rationing. Flower’s just as unwilling to leave Geno behind as Sid is.
Or, almost as unwilling, Sid heart reminds him. He squashes it ruthlessly.
“This changes things,” Sid says eventually. “The mountains are dangerous, even under cover of darkness.”
“Especially under cover of darkness,” Estelle interjects. “The Al-Taneen breeds here will be less volatile during the day.”
Sid nods. “Alright, so we go in during daylight.”
Flower makes a face. “And if we’re seen?”
“We’ll just have to take the risk.”
“Great,” Flower sighs. “Remind me not to tell Vero about the level of crazy that’s rampant in this team.”
Sid arches an eyebrow. “You want to leave him behind?”
“No,” Flower snaps. “Of course not.”
“Good.” Sid folds up the maps easily. “We leave at dawn.”
They search for hours, endless tours over patch after patch of identical landscape. It’s all hard rock with flimsy vegetation, crevices and overhangs that could be hiding anything from their wounded teammate to enemy combatants to a pack of ferals.
By the time the sun is starting to lower in the sky and Sid calls a break, he can see his own weariness reflected into Flower’s face. Stanley and Estelle are equally subdued, curled up together on a rare flat surface and sharing their rations.
“Sid,” Flower says hesitantly.
“Don’t,” Sid interrupts. “Just. Don’t, Flower.” He rubs a hand over his face, resisting the urge to curse. Goddamnit, Geno.
“We’re running out of time.”
“I don’t think you do,” Flower says. “We’re in extremely hostile territory, we barely know where we are and there’s been no sign of G. We can’t stay here overnight, Sid, it’s suicide.”
“A few more hours.” At Flower’s sputtered protest, Sid crosses his arms and glares. “Sunset’s not till 170. We keep looking.”
Flower looks at him piercingly. “You’ve always been a good leader, Sid, and I trust you, but,” he visibly hesitates. “Duper told me what you guys talked about in Brazil. Sid, are you in love with him?”
Sid ignores the ugly burst of surprise and embarrassment and narrows his eyes. “Are you insinuating I’m letting other factors interfere with my job, Captain Fleury?”
“No,” Flower says softly. “Sid, no. But don’t try and tell me that this is like any other S&R and you’ve got no more investment in this than you would if it were Duper or Tanger or Horny. Because we both know you’d be lying.”
Sid slumps. “I know.” There’s not much point in denying it anymore, anyway. Somewhere between the jokes and the missions, the heartbreak and the laughter, Geno’s gone from teammate and friend to something a little more nebulous and a lot more weighty and Sid hasn’t been able to do a thing about it. “Did you really have to bring that up now?”
Flower clasps his wrist. “I’m sorry.” He hesitates. “I don’t want to leave him behind either. But we--you--have to be rational here.”
He’s not wrong. Sid painstakingly pulls together all the parts that have been thrumming with fear and uncertainty ever since he stepped into Babcock's tent and pushes them to the back of his mind. There’s no time.
“1700,” he says. “The sun will be setting. Then we’ll leave.”
He ignores Flower’s dubious noise and makes his way over to the tangled dragon heap. Stanley immediately makes room for him, untangling from Estelle who Sid presumes goes to check on her own captain.
Stanley’s eyes are big and worried. “Sidney?”
“We leave at sunset,” Sid forces himself to say. Impossibly, her eyes get wider.
“And if we haven’t--”
“We leave at sunset.” The tremor in his voice is clearly audible. “You have to make sure, okay, Stanley?”
“If you think I would leave you, Sidney Crosby,” she says angrily, and Sid grabs a hold of her reins, cuts her off.
“No,” he says. “I’m just--I’ve never had to leave anyone behind, and now… It’s Geno, Stanley. I need you to make sure.”
She settles down against him, her breath ruffling his hair. “We leave at sunset,” she says eventually.
They’re less than an hour from the deadline when Stanley exclaims loudly and swoops down to a nearby overhang that reveals a narrow, dusty ledge. The relief is almost incapacitating. Almost. Sid can see it reflected in Geno’s face when they touch down, when he hustles to meet them, when he stumbles into Sid’s arms.
“Knew you find me,” he mumbles into Sid’s neck. “Knew Sid best.”
Sid clenches his arms around Geno’s shoulders and forces his lungs to breathe. “You have no idea how happy I am to see you, Jesus.”
Flower jumps down quickly and helps Sid support Geno back to the cave.
“Vasya hurt. Not serious yet but bad to fly.” Geno’s slurring and Sid shoots Flower a grateful look when a water bottle appears in his line of sight.
“Here,” he says, curling Geno’s fingers around it. “Slowly, okay? What happened?”
Geno takes a few gasping gulps but then visibly reins himself in. “Thanks.” He coughs. “Not sure. We get--in corner? With rebels.”
“Yes,” Geno says emphatically. “Cornered. They have Kazilik, chase around.” He shudders. “Vasya get hurt from fire and guns. Try to lose in dark, but they keep come, so we go into mountains.”
“Stupidest idea ever,” Flower mutters from where he’s slowly patching up a nasty burn on Vasilisa’s belly. “Crazy Russian.” Vasilisa whines, but settles down when Stanley and Estelle murmur soothingly. “You’re lucky to make it out alive.”
Geno shrugs. “Thought it only thing might work. They not follow me and we hide from ferals till someone come.” He smiles weakly. “And you did.”
“Yeah,” Sid says. “We did. It was a close call, though. Are you hurt?”
Geno’s shrug is dismissive. “Cuts, bruises. Can wait. We leave for camp now?”
Sid slings Geno’s pack over his shoulder. “Yeah. It’s getting late and we’ve got a while to fly.” He shoots Flower a questioning look. “She can’t fly?”
“No,” Flower says, “but we should be able to carry her.” He glances outside. “Best get a move on, Sid. It’s getting late”
Between Sid and Flower, they get Vasilisa tethered to Stanley and Estelle quickly. The sun is setting when Sid supports Geno outside and straps him on to Stanley’s gear. “Hang on, okay?”
Geno smiles vaguely. “Have done before Sid.”
“Not when you were dehydrated and close to passing out,” Sid says sternly. “I’d like to get all of us back to camp in one piece.”
“Sid, come on,” Flower says, rolling his eyes. “It’s getting way too dark out here for my comfort.”
One last tug and then Sid swings himself into the harness. “Okay, girl,” he pats Stanley on the neck and swallows past the relief and adrenaline in his throat. “Let’s go home.”
Ingushetia, Caucasus Mountains
Sid knows as soon as the missiles come out that things are going to get very ugly, very fast.
There’s hardly any time for communication before the sky is chaos, and command is shrieking over the radio to get the hell out of there. Sid’s only got Beau harnessed in, but his hands are quick and capable as he prepares their aerial defences.
“How are we looking?” The air is filled with the sound of hissing shrapnel and screaming artillery, and Sid is clutching to Stanley’s harness as she jerks around, yelling to make himself heard.
“Not that great, Cap,” Beau calls promptly. “Standard patrol gear, we weren’t briefed on anti-air so we’re, well.” He gestures briefly. “We don’t have much.”
Sid curses internally. So much for a simple fucking patrol. He flips on his radio. “Okay, guys, we’ve got to work with what we got here. Scatter, use the mountains for cover and get your asses back to camp!”
“Solid copy,” three voices crackle as below him, Tanger, Geno and Duper fan out.
“Defensive manoeuvring, Stanley,” Sid shouts, and then gulps when she banks dangerously close to a very sharp-looking rock formation. “Get us out of here!”
Perhaps their saving grace is that the rebel area they’d been sent to patrol is nestled deep in the mountains, which makes for a less than ideal shooting ground. Stanley swoops and swerves relentlessly, pushing closer to the mountains than is probably advisable, to the point where Sid can see Beau getting a bit green around the gills. It’s working, though--the sky getting clearer with every passing moment.
And then there’s a burst of sound from the radio, a nonsensical shout from Beau and the shattering sound of gunfire.
Stanley screams and the world lurches.
Sid’s arm and sides jerk and burn. Geno is shouting in his ear.
Stanley heaves under them. Sid’s knees give away.
Sid! Hold on!
More gunfire. Stanley roars. The harness slip-slides over her back.
And the last thing Sid sees are Beau’s wide eyes as he tumbles backwards into the clear, empty sky.
Then everything goes black.
When he wakes up, it’s dark and Stanley is whining.
“Sidney, you must wake up. Sidney, please, we must both of us go home, Taylor made me promise, she will not forgive me if we don’t!”
It’s the keening more than the words that prompt Sid to jab her in the paw. He groans when she jostles him in her attempt to scoot closer.
He cracks his eyes open. “What--where are we?”
“A cave. It was close by where I fell and we needed cover.”
Slowly, everything starts trickling back. The patrol. The missiles. The--oh God.
He jerks up and shouts when his body explodes into a sharp pain. “Fuck,” he swears through clenched teeth, fighting to stay conscious. When his vision clears, Stanley is looming over him. “Beau?”
She whimpers. “He fell.”
Sid pushes down on the sorrow that blooms. There’s no time. “The harness?”
“It is gone. As is the radio.”
Shit. “Are you hurt?”
Stanley hisses out a breath. “Not life-threatening,” she says. There’s a moment’s pause. “But I cannot fly.”
Self-awareness is one of the first things the UNAC training drills into them. Sid doesn’t doubt her words, mostly because Stanley’s been pushing her limits to beyond what was physically advisable since she was a dragonet. If she says she can’t fly, Sid’s one hundred percent sure she couldn’t get them in the air if their lives depended on it.
Which, he realizes with a mixture of ironic amusement and despair, it very well might.
It takes him a while to be able to move and even longer to take stock of his own injuries. He’s pretty sure the collision broke a couple of ribs and he’s got some serious mountain rash. His right arm is out of commission, on account of a smattering of graze wounds and an almost neat through-and-through just over his elbow, and there’s another bullet wound in his abdomen that’s still bleeding sluggishly enough to make him worry.
But far worse that all of those is the unnatural angle his leg is twisted into.
Stanley looks at him worriedly. “The medkit--”
“--was with the harness,” Sid finishes. “I know. And unless there’s a convenient tree growing around, there’s no way to splint it.”
They both glance briefly at the entrance of the cave. It’s getting dark out there and Sid’s pretty sure those are flurries of snow he’s seeing. He swallows.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay, we need to... There should be some--” He makes a triumphant noise, dragging a pack of emergency supplies out of his vest. “--supplies in here.”
The pack is smaller than he remembers but there’s some bandages that he gently presses to his abdomen. He carefully drags himself closer to Stanley.
“Come here, let me see you.” Her wounds aren’t too bad, mostly grazing, but he winces when he sees the unnatural angle her left wing joint is in. “Dislocated?”
“No,” Stanley says in a small voice. “It’s broken.”
Sid sucks in a breath. “Are you sure? We’ll need to set it.”
“Yes,” she says. “And how exactly do you propose to do that?” She shoots him a look. “You cannot stand.”
“I’m sure I can make it work,” Sid counters. “Stanley, if we don’t set your wing, you could have permanent damage.”
“So could your leg!” Stanley huffs stubbornly. “I will not have you make yourself worse.”
“Damnit, Stanley, we need to--” He’s interrupted by the slow rumble of thunder. “Shit.” A few seconds later lightning cracks, throwing the inside of the cave in sharp relief.
“Sidney,” she whispers fearfully. “What are we going to do?”
“Survive,” Sid says determinedly. “Hold on until someone comes for us.”
Stanley brightens. “Do they know where we are?”
“I don’t know,” Sid says quietly, hating the way she slumps. “There’s a beacon on the harness, but, well…” He doesn’t bother finishing.
“They won’t come soon, will they?”
Sid hesitates. He can’t remember the forecast off the top of his head, but he’s pretty sure he remembers something about patrolling this morning because the weather was about to turn. “I don’t know,” he settles on. “It depends on the weather.”
Stanley whines. “We have no food and no water. It is likely to freeze out there tonight!”
“I know, Stanley, but--”
“We are both injured and incapable of defending ourselves against so much as a strong wind, let alone an actual adversary!”
“I know, Stanley.” Sid says forcefully, trying to keep his voice steady. It’s hard, because he’s just as aware as she is of their current circumstances, but he has to. He ignores the panic, focussing on his training. On Stanley. On staying calm. “But we have to try. Okay?”
There’s a pause. “Okay,” Stanley replies eventually. Her voice is quiet and apprehensive, but there’s a small echo of determination underneath it. He pats her on the side.
“That’s my girl.” He scoots closer. “We’re gonna need to be a bit closer for the night, I think.” The cave is growing colder by the minute. “Now tell me everything you remember seeing when we crashed.”
Sid sleeps fitfully, in stops and starts. Stanley’s a warm, comforting bulk on his one side, but the other is nothing but icy rock. He thinks he dreams, but when he wakes up all he can remember is echoes of Taylor and Geno’s face, heat and someone screaming. He tries not to think of Beau’s wide-eyed panic. He fails.
The left side of his face is completely numb and he’d forgotten to put his gloves back on before falling asleep so his fingers protest loudly when he tries to stretch them. Not for the first time in his life, Sid’s very grateful that the UNAC uniforms are fully outfitted for cold temperatures. For all their problems, frostbite isn’t likely to be one of them, at least not for a while.
By the time muzzy grey light filters in, Sid gives up sleep as a lost cause and hauls himself to a sitting position cautiously, waiting out the dizzy spell and the nausea. It’s hard to see much, but even from a distance, Sid doesn’t like the look of the cave entrance.
The ground is uneven and there’s no way he’ll be able to get up, but he needs to know what they’re up against so he grits his teeth and slowly inches himself closer. It’s agony, white-hot fire pulsing through both his legs and his ribs with almost every motion he makes. He grits his teeth and clenches his fist, whimpers around the pain, eventually managing to get close enough without cursing loud enough to wake Stanley, who seems to be snoozing restlessly.
It’s still snowing.
Sid swears quietly. The snow is waist-high, which is better than being snowed in but not by much. By the time he makes it back to the semi-sheltered space between Stanley and the rock wall, his entire body is throbbing and the cave is spinning around him.
“You should not have moved,” Stanley mumbles.
“I wanted to see,” Sid says. He’s not slurring, exactly, but it’s unexpectedly hard to shape his mouth around the words.
Stanley isn’t fooled. She twists her head around and looks at him concernedly. “Are you--Sidney!” Her eyes are wide. “There is blood on your jacket.”
Sid looks down. “Oh, hell.”
The bandages, when he finally manages to peel his shirt up with clumsy fingers, are soaked through. Underneath them, the wound is still leaking steadily. Sid pulls off his undershirt with shaking fingers and presses it down on top of the bandages.
“Do we have any more?”
“No,” Sid says quietly, resting his head against her belly. “We don’t.” He’s so tired.
Stanley makes a noise. “Sidney, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go to sleep now.”
He jerks his head up. Fuck. Hypovolemic shock must have snuck up on him overnight. “I know,” he says slowly. “Stanley, there’s. There’s snow.”
She doesn’t roll her eyes at him, but Sid can tell she really wants to. “Yes, Sidney, I know.”
He glares at her. “We’re going to be snowed in soon, unless we do something.” He gives her a meaningful look. “You need to warm it up.”
Stanley hisses. “In a confined space like this, I could hurt you!”
Sid shrugs and winces when it makes his ribs and arm burn with pain. “It might help them find us.”
Stanley looks at him darkly. “You are already hurt, I won’t risk making things worse.”
Sid smiles at her, or tries to at least. “You won’t. I know you can do this. And at least we’ll be warmer then.”
Not that he needs to get any warmer, judging from the sweat he can feel beading up. Also a sign of shock.
Stanley shuffles around carefully, whimpering in pain when her wing gets caught on a rock. “Stay behind me,” she instructs, as if Sid could move from where he’s protected by her substantial bulk even if he wanted to.
He pats her again. “You can do it.”
Stanley murmurs something intelligible and focusses on the cave entrance. It’s almost three quarters covered now and Sid’s never been afraid of small spaces but this might just be enough to get him there.
The first attempt does nothing and the second time all that comes out is a cloud of smoke. But on the third try, Stanley belches out a flame. It’s larger than Sid would have liked under the circumstances, but it’s enough to clear the entrance and a patch outside, he’d guess. Stanley’s breathing hard, but she looks pleased and Sid smiles at her. “That’s my girl.”
“Do you think anyone saw?”
“I hope so,” Sid says. “You’ll just have to keep doing it, okay?”
Stanley settles down carefully, her tail curling up around him. “Okay,” she says quietly.
It stops snowing around what Sid thinks is noon. By that time the mess of bandages and fabric on his belly is soaked through again. Stanley has cleared the entrance twice more.
Nobody has come.
Sid loses consciousness for the first time soon after that, though Stanley jerks him awake immediately.
“‘m aw’ke,” Sid slurs. Barely. He feels lightheaded, dizzy even when lying down, and he’s having trouble remembering what happened. “Stanley,” he forces out. “Dunno how much longer I can--”
“Shut up,” she tells him fiercely.
Her growl is angry enough to startle his eyes open. “Shut up,” she says. “I am not leaving you.”
Sid glares at her. “You’d make it further withou’ me.”
Her tail curls a little closer. “There’s no point in trying, Sidney. I’m not leaving you.”
“Stupid,” Sid mumbles. But he’d be lying if he said he didn’t feel at least a little comforted. It’s a hard prospect to face, dying alone in the cold in the Caucasian Mountains. “Promise me you’ll go,” he says. “After.”
Stanley looks away. “Someone will come. I think I heard shouting earlier.”
Sid smiles. “Liar.”
She scowls, inasmuch as dragons can scowl. Then again, Sid’s always thought Stanley has a very expressive face.
“You are not talking sense.”
“‘M going into shock,” he articulates carefully. “Don’ need to.”
Stanley twitches, but doesn’t reply. “Tell me a story,” she says instead. “About when you were small.”
She’s heard them all already, but Sid can recognise a distraction when he sees one. “Okay. Did I ever tell you ‘bout when Taylor was born?”
Sid jerks awake when he’s jostled. “Wha?”
He knows that voice. He’s sure he knows that voice but it’s so hard to stay awake, so hard to think...
“Sid, need you to talk to me.”
Sid groans. “G?”
There’s a loud exhale and then Geno’s face swims into focus. “Sid!”
Behind him, he can feel Stanley breathing heavily. “Sidney, Kzikas and Vasya are here!”
Sid blinks. “Wha’?” He’s sure he knows those names from somewhere.
“He has lost a lot of blood,” Stanley’s voice sounds far away even though she was right behind him just a second ago.
There’s some indistinct mumbling and Sid can feel his grasp on consciousness slipping again. He yelps when Geno shakes him. “Stay awake, Sid!”
“‘s hard,” Sid groans. “Hurts.”
“Yes, I know,” Geno answers. He’s rummaging through something, comes up with an armful of bandages and a syringe. “I’m give you something soon, okay? Have to take care of wounds first.”
“Okay,” Sid slurs. “How’d you fin’ us?”
Geno’s quick and methodical in stripping Sid of his soggy clothes. “Stanley,” he says. “Kzikas see steam from fire.”
Sid smiles. “Knew that was a good idea.” He twitches when Geno tugs at the haphazard compress. “Ow.”
“Yes, Sid very clever,” Geno says quietly. “Good thing we see, we already look for hours.” He pauses. “I’m almost think we not find you.”
“I knew you woul’.”
Geno smiles, gently cleaning the blood off Sid’s stomach. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Sid says. “You always fin’ me.”
“I’m try.” Geno’s voice is neutral, but his expression is serious. “Have to stop meeting like this though. Always hurt, always cave.”
Sid giggles and then groans. “Don’t like caves?”
Geno pushes the clean compress down and carefully starts bandaging around it. “Caves okay, though always dirty.” He gives Sid a significant look. “I’m not like being hurt though.”
“Yeah,” Sid breathes. “That part sucks.”
It takes Geno the better part of half an hour to take care of the rest of Sid’s wounds and put a splint on his leg. By that time everything is blurry and unfocused and Sid is having trouble keeping his eyes open again.
“Sid, need to go. Need to stand.”
“No,” Sid groans. “Don’t wanna.”
There’s a muffled curse and then Geno’s lifting him up. Sid resists the urge to press his face into Geno’s throat even though it’s very close. He’s sure there’s reasons for it. Right?
“Smell nice,” Sid mumbles. “Like y’r face.”
Geno sighs. “Thanks, Sid, I like your face too.” He stumbles, catches himself on the rough wall.
Sid shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I like your face. Really like it.”
“Wanna kiss it,” Sid continues carefully. “Always. Have f’r ages.” Then he decides he might as well prove it and presses his lips against the underside of Geno’s jaw.
Geno chokes and stumbles again, and Sid grunts when his wounds are jostled. “Ow!”
“Sorry!” Geno says.
“‘S okay.” The world is spinning. “Don’t feel good.”
Geno sets him down, careful not to bump Sid’s makeshift splint. “Sid, need you to stay awake. Okay?”
“‘Kay,” Sid mumbles. He wants to stay with Geno. Geno smells nice. “How c’me you never kiss me?”
Geno splutters and Sid would laugh except it’s hard to make his face move and the ground under him is sort of heaving and he can see Geno’s face go from shocked to concerned except it looks very far away. He tries to lift his hand but it won’t move and Geno’s mouth is moving but everything is muffled and--
Everything goes dark.
Sid wakes up in a med bay, aching in places he hadn’t even known he had. It’s quiet and dark, feels like it’s the middle of the night. Maybe very early in the morning, it’s hard to be sure. He tries to smile when a nurse immediately comes over to check on him, but it takes a while before his face cooperates.
She smiles at him gently. “Awake again, I see. How are we feeling?”
“Okay,” Sid says carefully. “Tired. Kind of like I got run over by a truck.” He looks around. “Where am I?”
The nurse fiddles with his IV. “Tbilisi. You were brought here right after they found you. You were pretty banged up, so I’m not surprised you’re sore.”
“Oh.” He swallows, looks away. “I--I woke up before?”
She snags the chart from the end of his bed. “Yes, you did, a few times. Though I’m not surprised you don’t remember. You weren’t very lucid.”
Sid breathes in, winces at the immediate protest in his ribs. “Do you know anything about--”
The nurse gives him a flat look. “Your dragon is fine. Stanley, isn’t it?” She flips open Sid’s chart, scribbles something down. “She had multiple fractures in her left humerus and ulna, but the breaks were set cleanly and she should make a full recovery.” She arches an eyebrow. “Though they had to give her a mild sedative to keep her from trampling everybody in here.”
The relief is almost palpable. “Yeah,” Sid smiles. “She’s like that.”
“You seem to have that effect on people.” The nurse nods her head. “We couldn’t keep that one away.”
It’s only then that Sid registers the soft snoring and the bulky form of Geno in a chair in the corner. He flushes and the nurse smiles. “Don’t worry, honey, I’ve learned not to ask. I’m gonna take your blood pressure and temperature, so try to hold still, okay?”
It takes her an age to complete all the tests, though it can’t be more than a few minutes, and by the end of it, Sid’s eyes are drooping again.
The nurse chuckles at his annoyed noise, pats him gently on the leg. “Stop being so stubborn, Captain. Your body needs the rest.”
Sid’s asleep before he can make a reply.
When he wakes up again, there’s light shining through a nearby window. He must make a noise because the next thing he knows, Geno is looming over him.
Entirely against his will, Sid smiles. “Hey, G.”
Geno smiles back. “Good to see you awake. Nadia tell me you wake up in the night, I’m sad I miss.”
Sid fiddles with his blankets. “Oh, yeah, I--It wasn’t for long.”
The curtains slide open and a doctor walks in, Anderson stitched neatly on her uniform. “Ah, Captain Malkin,” she says amusedly. “Still squatting in my hospital, I see?”
Geno smiles charmingly. “I’m just want to check up on Sid, ma’am.”
She hums disapprovingly, but Sid can tell she’s not annoyed. “Well, I need to check up on my patient, so you can take your leave now.” She shoots him a look over his glasses. “I promise we’ll take good care of him.”
There’s something in her tone that makes Sid want to blush, something she’s insinuating about the two of them, but he can’t--oh God. Oh shit.
“Captain Crosby,” Dr. Anderson says, “are you alright? You look flushed.”
Sid blinks. “What? Oh, yeah. Um. I’m fine.”
The arch of her eyebrow says she’s not convinced but Sid can’t pay any attention to it right now, he’s too busy trying to remember what happened on that damn mountain. Everything’s so fucking fuzzy, but he definitely remembers Geno and--oh God, did they… Sid suppresses a groan. Yeah. He definitely told Geno he wanted to kiss him. And then he did.
Dr. Anderson’s thorough in her examination, and by the end she seems cautiously pleased. “All things considered, you’re not doing so badly.” She clips the chart back to his bed. “I’m going to keep you here for a few more days before sending you back stateside, though. Your blood loss was quite severe, and that gut wound was nasty even without breaching any major organs.” She looks at him archly. “Bedrest for at least a few days. No,” she holds up her hand at Sid’s protests, “I know what you aviators are like. No leaving this room until I say so. Understood?”
Sid’s thrown doctor’s advice to the wind more times than he can count, but this time he finds himself staring at his bedding and swallowing his complaints. “Yes, ma’am,” he mumbles.
“I’ll get one of the nurses to keep an eye on you,” she continues. “I’m sure someone will keep your dragon informed.” She rustles the curtain back. “Captain Malkin, perhaps?”
Geno, caught standing right outside, blushes. “Yes, ma’am.”
It’s just the two of them left when Dr. Anderson bustles off with an admonishment to rest, and Sid can feel his face heating up just at the thought of the upcoming conversation.
Geno sinks down into his old chair. “Everything good?”
“What? Oh, yeah. Bedrest and stuff, but otherwise, yeah.” He can barely look Geno in the eye.
“Glad to hear, is good news.” Geno smiles. “Team will be happy too. Will help after news about…”
He falters and Sid remembers Beau with a lurch. “I’d hoped.” He clears his throat. “I hoped maybe...”
Geno shakes his head, looks away. “No,” he says quietly. “We look but. Not find anything.”
Sid swallows. He’d known it was impossible to survive a fall from that height, let alone survive the night in the mountains in a snowstorm, but that last bit of hope is hard to squash. “They’ll keep looking though. Right?”
Geno nods. “Yes. Team still back in camp, they send me updates. But it’s dangerous area, so.” He shrugs, looks at where his hands are resting on the side of Sid’s bed.
“Hey,” Sid nudges their fingers together. “This isn’t your fault, okay?”
The noise Geno makes is both amused and bitter. “We have this conversation before.”
“Well, it was true then and it’s true now,” Sid says strongly. “You couldn’t have saved him.”
“How you know? Vasya maybe catch him!”
“Come on, G,” Sid scowls. “We were doing evasive maneuvres all over them place, it was crazy up there, you know that. You had no business being close to us.” He looks away. “If anything, I should have--”
“No,” Geno snaps. “Not my fault, okay. But not your fault either.”
Sid’s shoulders sink. “Yeah. I guess.” Beau’s face swims in his mind’s eye, eyes sparkling and smile wide. Another ghost for Sid to carry with him. He clears his throat. “So you’re the only one here?”
Geno nods. “Yes. You hurt bad when we find you, Laviolette order us immediately casevac after we get you stable. Tbilisi was closest UNAC base, less than hour away.”
“Oh.” Sid bites his lip. “And the team?”
Geno gestures with his phone. “Worried. I’m keep them updated.” He grins. “Duper want me to say he glad you wake up, you make terrible Sleeping Beauty.”
“Tell him to fuck off,” Sid replies, but the message settles something inside him he hadn’t even realized was twisted. “They don’t… About Beau, they don’t--”
“No,” Geno cuts him off harshly, eyes flashing. “Sid, I’m tell you. Was not your fault!”
Sid blinks rapidly, forces himself to turn away. It’s stupid, because Geno’s seen him in all manner of states from inadvisably drunk over violently ill to embarrassingly enthusiastic, but this is different. It’s an open wound, still raw with feelings. He flinches when Geno touches his arm gently and when he turns back, Geno’s expression is soft.
“Nobody blame you, Sid. Nobody.” He glares and makes a fist. “I’m hit them if they do.”
Despite himself, Sid snorts. “That wouldn’t help.” He blows out a quiet breath. “But thanks. For saying so.”
Gently, Geno touches this hands together. “Always, Sid.”
It’s quiet in the med bay, just the sounds of beeping machines and a quiet humming that Sid always associates with hospital. Shamefully, he finds that he’s grateful the rest of the team isn’t here. If he’s honest, he’s not sure he could deal with their particular brand of grief management right now.
After a while, Geno nudges him again. “Sid, I--I’m want to ask.”
Oh. “Was it really only yesterday?” Sid asks weakly. It’s a terrible attempt at stalling, but he can’t figure out what to do.
Geno’s look says he’s not fooled. “Yes. You unconscious a lot. Very boring, lots of sleep.”
“Hey,” Sid protests feebly. “I’m injured.”
“Yes, Sid very delicate,” Geno teases, but then his face goes hesitant. “I’m--Can we talk?”
It’s clear what he’s asking, and Sid can see it all play out in his head. Geno’s not an idiot and Sid was hardly subtle about how his feelings for Geno are not quite what they are for any other teammate. He’s probably bringing it up now so Sid won’t have to. Geno would be nice about it too, Sid thinks. Nice, but firm. Flattered by your attention, if a little bit surprised. Thank you, but no.
And Sid just… can’t. He’s aching in more ways than one, physical wounds battling with a bone-deep weariness. The idea of having to sit here and listen, having to work with Geno for months after with this barrier between them. It’s terrifying and exhausting and Sid just can’t. He takes the easy--the coward’s--way out.
“I don’t remember,” is what comes out of his mouth, tinged with inaudible sadness and a hint of shame.
Geno blinks. “What?”
“On the mountain,” Sid clarifies. “I don’t remember much. Some of it, obviously, but I’m not even sure--I mean, I think I was hallucinating? I remember things that couldn’t have actually happened.” He hesitates. “People too.”
Geno’s face shutters blank so quickly it almost hurts to watch. “Oh.”
“I can’t be sure, obviously, but. Yeah.” Sid trails off, eyes on where his hands are fiddling with the sheets. “So anything you want to talk about--I mean, we could but I’m not sure how helpful it’d be.”
Geno frowns. “You hallucinate people?”
“Yeah.” Sid forces himself to breathe evenly. “Like. I think I thought there were other people there? Than you.”
Sid hums noncommittally. “Oh, just. Someone from home.” He forces a weak smile on his face. “You know. People you think about when you want to feel better.” The breath Geno sucks in is all kinds of painful, but Sid reminds himself this is for the better. “Listen,” he goes on quickly. “I think--have my parents been notified? I should probably call them.”
“Yes,” Geno says. Sid wonders if his voice sounds the tiniest bit rougher or if he’s just imagining that to make himself feel better. “I’m not think they know. Not sure.” He gets up quickly. “Should check in with team and Laviolette also.”
“Right,” Sid says carefully. “I’ll do that.”
Geno’s clumsy in a way Sid hasn’t seen from him in months. “I’m leave you to it,” he says quietly. “Have to go--I’m have things to do.”
He lingers by the curtain, looking back. “I’m glad you okay, Sid.”
Sid forces himself to smile. “Thanks, G. Me too.”
A pause and then the curtain rustles. Well. Sid scrubs his face with his hands. That had gone about as well as expected--which is to say, really fucking awfully.
He takes a few moments to try forget the look on Geno’s face when he realized Sid thought he was kissing someone else, then he reaches out for the phone attached to the bed. He can already hear his mom’s concerned questions and Taylor’s angry yelling.
Might as well get all the unpleasantness over with.
Malakal, South Sudan
Sid contemplates Malakal as they fly in. The city looks dusty, run-down and more or less deserted. The roads are mostly dirt, the houses, if any, are shacks. Entire buildings have been destroyed by the rebel groups that seem to trade off occupancy of the formerly bustling city. The difference from Juba, where they’d been stationed the past week, is startling.
They’re headed for the UNHCR camp on the outskirts of the city and as they cross, Sid can’t help but wonder if these people aren’t regretting their choices, wondering if they were better off under Sudanese regime.
Then again, he’s pretty sure violence and war was as common then as it is now.
Their purpose in Malakal is as of yet unclear, which irks him to no end. Central Africa treats its dragons with a reverence not unlike the Chinese and doesn’t take well to them being used for military purposes. It makes very little sense that they’d be called up here if there’s no aerial threat, yet the briefing package had seemed deliberately vague. He hopes the field office director will at least be able to clarify some things.
The briefing directs them to a cluster of buildings next to the obvious white tents of the refugee camp, and before long they’re settling into an empty barn.
“And it just figures we’d get sent here during the hottest time of the year,” Flower grouses.
“Could be worse,” Kuni says mildly. “Could be the wet season.”
“You just annoyed because dusty again,” Geno smirks. “Means you have to shower more.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Flower squawks. “And don’t think I don’t remember the way you bitched in Spain last year.” He shoots Geno a dark look. “And went swimming without inviting any of us.”
“Settle down,” Sid calls out. “And make yourself comfortable. We might be here for a while.”
He helps Olli unharness Stanley before changing out of his travel uniform and into a moderately clean one. “You’re going to have to adjust to hot climates again, girl.”
“But I don’t like naps,” Stanley whines. “They always leave me feeling out of sorts.”
“Weirdest fucking dragon I’ve ever met,” Duper says from where he’s putting away Loïc’s harness next to them. “Doesn’t like naps. Who doesn’t like naps?”
“I don’t either,” Loïc interjects, and Sid has to muffle laughter when Duper looks at his own dragon in betrayal.
“Not when it’s this warm,” Loïc says defensively. “Stanley is right, we are never at full strength when we wake up.”
Duper splutters. “I don’t. How did I not know this?”
Further down, Geno laughs. “Not our fault you not know own dragon, Duper.” He smirks. “I’m think maybe you not pay attention anymore in old age, yes?”
“Fuck off,” Duper shouts, fruitlessly trying to throw a dirty rag over Vasilisa’s back. “I’m plenty young enough to still kick your ass!”
Geno’s full-on laughing now, the rest of the team chirping Duper relentlessly, and Sid’s hard-pressed to hold in his own chuckles, at least until their gazes connect and Geno’s face goes shuttered. The guys are still heckling, but Geno’s suddenly studiously interested in Vasilisa’s reins.
Sid blinks, bites his lip and sighs. “Right.” He pats Stanley on the hip. “Olli will take you out when it’s time for food, okay.” Stanley makes a disgruntled noise and Sid pokes her. “Try not to make a fuss, please, I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes just because you’re not a big fan of stew.”
“But it tastes funny.” She falters at Sid’s look. “But I’m sure it will feed us just fine and I shall not complain.”
She nudges him gently with her snout. “I’m sure it will get better.”
It’s been three months since Ingushetia and things between Geno and him are… different. They’re just as great in the air as they’ve always been, but it’s like as soon as their boots touch the ground, a rift opens up. There’s no more late night talks, no in-jokes, no tag-team mocking of Flower or Duper. Sid misses it fiercely. He knows he messed up, but he doesn’t know how to fix it. Not to mention that judging from the persistent avoidance, Geno might not want him to.
He hums noncommittally. “I have to go meet the director.” He shoots a stern look around the barn. “Behave.”
A chorus of agreement meets him, but Sid’s hardly fooled.
He’s just out the door when it creaks open again and Tanger dashes out.
“Walk you there?” Sid blinks and Tanger makes a face. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to make that sound so… junior high. I just wanted to run something by you?”
“Sure.” Sid gestures. “Lead the way.”
Tanger clears his throat. “Great. So, uh. You and Stanley seem to be getting back in the swing of things.”
“Yeah,” Sid agrees. “I’m surprised by how well she’s doing actually, but I guess I should know by now that dragon bones knit together faster than average.”
Sid shrugs. “My ribs are a bit sore sometimes, but they said that was going to be happening for at least six months, so. It’s nothing I can’t handle.” He gives Tanger a look. “Kris, you do know we were cleared for missions, right? Is that what’s on your mind?”
“What? Oh! No, no, that’s not it.” Tanger flushes. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about, uh. You and G.”
Embarrassingly, Sid stumbles. “What?”
“Look,” Tanger says determinedly. “We’re not idiots.”
Realisation dawns. “Oh God, I am not having this conversation again.”
“You’re avoiding each other,” Tanger says persistently. “We’ve all noticed.”
“You’re seeing things,” Sid says firmly.
“Last week, Luka asked Estelle about it,” Tanger says drily. “I don’t think we are.”
Shit. If even the dragons have noticed, well... That’s saying something. “Look,” Sid sighs. “It’s not getting in the way of our job, is it?”
“No,” Tanger says easily. “But that’s not why I’m bringing it up. We’re not worried about missions, Sid, we’re worried about you. Well, and Geno, but you’ve always been a more delicate flower.”
“Fuck off,” Sid says, but there’s no heat in it. “I’m fine.”
“No, listen.” He stops outside the command post building. “I’m fine. Anything else really isn’t your business, okay?”
Tanger looks at him carefully for a second. “I’m just looking out for you, Sid,” he says. “We just want to help.”
“Well, you can’t. It’s between us, and it’ll. It’ll be fine.” Maybe. Possibly not, but Sid’s not worrying about that until Geno requests a transfer, which will hopefully be never.
“If you say so.” Tanger sounds dubious, but he’s letting it go so Sid will take it as agreement.
“I do,” Sid says. “Was that it?”
“Yep.” Tanger’s already turning back. “Good luck in there.”
Sid suppresses a sigh. “Thanks.” Between the tangled local situation and the tangled team situation, he could probably use some.
“So the most likely threat are the Lou Nuer?”
Dahab Agok, the field office director, shrugs philosophically. “Maybe. The Lou Nuer are very angry at the Murle tribesmen. But there’s also the Jikani Nuer. And the Murle themselves are also dangerous. For now the government holds control, but in the future...” He holds up his hands as if to say ‘who knows?’.
Sid sighs. “And the Lou Nuer and Jikani Nuer fight each other too?”
“Sometimes. The Nuer White Army is very unstable.”
“Yeah,” Sid says. “I’m getting that.”
“The SPLA, the government army, holds control over the city for now. Though,” Agok says bitterly, “that hardly improves things. But they are stretched thin and if the rebels attack, it’s unlikely they will be able to hold. Dragon team or not.”
“We’re not here to support the SPLA. The UN is supposed to be neutral.”
Agok spits over the side of his table. “There’s no neutral in this place, Captain Crosby. There are only the men out there, committing terrible crimes, and the people in here, whom we try to protect as best as we can. I suppose we must consider you and your team as well now.”
He looks tired, and Sid feels a burst of sympathy for causing him extra problems. Technically, Sid’s in charge of the UNAC regiment, but they’re quartered in with the Malakal field office, which means Agok is his commanding officer. It’s a tangle and the head office in Juba has shoved it into Agok’s lap without warning or consideration.
“We’re pretty good at taking care of ourselves,” he offers.
It prompts a laugh from Agok. “That’s good to hear, indeed. At least It will help,” he continues, “having some extra security around here.”
Sid raises an eyebrow. “But?”
The noise that comes from the other side of the desk predicts nothing good. “It confirms some things,” Agok says eventually. “Things that I’d rather hoped wouldn’t be confirmed.”
“Things that would explain why a UNAC presence is sent to help resolve a dragon-free conflict?”
Agok shuffles his papers. “We can no longer be sure it’s dragon-free. But the UN was supposed to prevent the militarisation of South Sudan’s ferals and they don’t like to admit to failure. The fact that they are sending in your team, well. It says many things, none of them good.”
“Great.” Sid bites down on a curse, takes a deep breath. “What makes you think dragons might be in play?”
Agok shrugs. “Many things. There have been far less people killed by ferals, for one.”
“Indicating that the ferals may be domesticated, or at least busy elsewhere.”
“Yes. And there have been many rumours and stories.”
The unease in Sid’s gut clenches up. “What kind of rumours?”
“Suspicious deaths in the country.” Agok rests his elbows on the desk. “It is very hard to prove dragon-related deaths, Captain, on account of how very often there are not that many remains left. But lately I’ve heard reports of brutal violence, clearly inflicted by non-human means, with no indication of anything else.”
“Meaning they were mutilated, but not eaten,” Sid surmises bluntly.
Agok nods. His expression is grave. “As far as intimidation tactics go, it is not unsuccessful. There’s been a marked increase of refugees in our camp.”
“I’ll bet,” Sid murmurs. “And that’s why they want us here. If the rebels see that there’s a UNAC team quartered in, they’re less likely to attack the city.”
It’s nothing they haven’t done before, and yet the uncertainty of the situation makes him want to scream. “I don’t suppose you’ve got an accurate assessment of what we might be up against?”
“No. I wish I did.”
Sid tries to mask his frustration. “So we don’t know which rebel group we’re up against, we don’t know what forces they have at their disposal and we don’t know when or even if they’ll attack?”
Agok has the grace to look at least a little embarrassed as he confirms, which is only reason Sid calms down. Nothing about this situation is the director’s fault. He gathers up the maps. “Can I take these? We’ll need something to base our patrols on.”
The director waves. “Yes, of course.” He looks at Sid tiredly, the weathered lines in his face made more obvious in the low light. “I wish you could have come here under better circumstances, Captain.”
“So do I, director. So do I.”
The team, as expected, doesn’t take the news well. “So we’re, what,” Flower scowls. “Flying completely blind?”
“No,” Sid counters. “This doesn’t change anything. We’re here to provide aerial and ground support to the UN field office and UNHCR coverts and camp, the same objective we set out with.”
“Except we don’t know what we’re up against!”
“That’s just unfortunate circumstances,” Kuni interjects wryly. “Come on, Flower, it’s not like we’ve never been in this situation before. Remember India?”
Duper yelps and slaps Kuni across the head. “Goddammit, don’t you know anything? We don’t mention India, Chris.”
Across the barn there’s a collective snigger from the dragons. Sid grins. “If it makes you feel better, there’s a chance the rebels might not even have dragons. Or that they might not use them now that they know we’re here.”
“And if they do?”
It’s the first time Geno’s spoken during the whole briefing. Sid risks a glance, but Geno’s not looking at him. “Then we proceed accordingly. Security is our prerogative. There’s over 20,000 people in this camp, with more coming every day, and they have nowhere else to go.”
“Okay,” Tanger says. “So, standard patrol roster?”
Sid nods. “I want teams of two, a rotating schedule with air patrol and camp security on the ground. Let’s get to work, guys.”
A roster is set up in short order, with a minimum of complaining and a fair distribution of the hot afternoon timeslot. Over the course of the next few days, they settle into a routine with the same ease that every mission brings. The dragons settle into the schedule quickly enough and soon Stanley even stops whining about the endless supply of stew that’s provided as their dinner.
The guys spend their time bickering over the use of facilities, complaining about the dust and the heat and mocking Duper when he inevitably gets a case of the runs after sampling local cuisine a bit too enthusiastically.
“It can’t be normal,” Sid says when Duper’s settled back into his seat after running off the bathroom again. “You get this every time.”
Tanger laughs. “Duper’s just delicate.”
“Fuck off, not all of us can survive on two year old MRE’s,” Duper snaps, but he looks unconcerned. “It’s fine,” he continues, “my doctor says I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome.”
“And you stayed in the military,” Sid says slowly. “Where half the time your choice of food is ‘crappy’ or ‘crappier’.”
Duper shrugs. “It was that or join the police.”
Kuni and Tanger are still cackling when the door slams open and a UN staffer comes in. “Captain Crosby,” he says, his voice bored. “The director wants to see you.”
Director Agok doesn’t waste any time. “I’ve got reports that confirm a dragon presence in the white army.”
Sid pauses. “Shit.”
“Are they coming here?”
Concern is clearly visible in Agok’s posture. “There’s no way of knowing until they attack. There never is. But we can assume they are.”
Sid can feel the tension inside him mount, but at the same time he’s relieved. They’ve been here long enough that not knowing what they were up against was starting to weigh. At least now they can prepare. “Is there any more information than ‘they have dragons’?”
Agok slides a sheet across the table. “This is all I know.”
He scans it quickly. “No,” he murmurs, “this is good. This helps.” There’s nothing more than a rough description and estimate, but it’s definitely more than they had before. “Thank you.”
Almost as if they know something’s coming, the citizens of Malakal retreat even more over the next few days. The streets are empty from almost anything except routine SPLA patrols, and even the people in the camp huddle together closely and stay quiet.
The army doesn’t venture close to the camp as often anymore since Sid and his team arrived, but every few days a couple of sneering soldiers saunter past, waving their guns in an obvious attempt to taunt them.
“Don’t,” Sid says, gently holding Flower back when it happens during one of their shifts. “They’re just trying to pick a fight.”
“They’d be better off doing their jobs,” Flower sneers. “You’d think the SPLA would know that we’re not the biggest threat here.”
Sid doesn’t disagree, but... “It’s more complicated than that, and you know it.”
“I know, sacred dragons, UN butting in where it doesn’t belong, yadda yadda yadda.” Flower makes a frustrated noise. “”It just makes no sense to me that they’re shoving their guns in our faces when we are so clearly not the threat here. Tanger said there was trouble all last night in the northern quadrant, which is the other goddamn side of the city. What are they doing here, for fuck’s sake?”
Malakal seems to be in, for lack of a better word, a holding pattern. The white army is in the city and, Flower’s comments aside, the SPLA have been trying to counter them with a series of brutal searches, but so far nothing’s happened beyond a few skirmishes.
“It’s like everyone is holding their breath,” Kuni had commented yesterday during air patrol, and Sid agrees wholeheartedly. The people of Malakal are used to violence and well-versed in reading the signs. They know what’s coming and are as prepared as they can be.
Sid wonders if the same can be said for them.
The attack comes in the small hours before dawn.
Sid’s on duty at the camp, yawning while Flower talks quietly with Estelle, when Stanley raises her head.
“They’re coming,” is the only thing she says.
Sid jabs Flower. “We got company.” He turns to Stanley. “How many and how far?”
Stanley sniffs the air, twitching her ears. “Between five and ten minutes” she says. “And I don’t know. A group.” She makes a frustrated sound. “It’s not large, but also not small. They are trying to be stealthy, I cannot tell anything else.”
Flower clips himself into Estelle’s harness quickly. “We have to lead them away from the camp.”
Sid nods, thumbs on his radio. “Head’s up, guys, we got incoming. Estimated medium group, origins unknown. ETA five to ten minutes. Flower and I are leading them away from the camp, I want all hands on deck for this one.”
“Copy that,” Tanger’s voice crackles through immediately. “We’ll be there ASAP. Hang on.”
“You got the advantage here, Flower,” Sid radios as they ascend. “You want to run point?”
Flower gasps dramatically. “Why, Captain Crosby, are you handing over responsibility?” He straightens. “Southeastern quadrant’s as good as deserted. And it just happens to be right next door.”
Even in the semi-dark, Sid can see Flower’s grin. He returns it easily. “Ready when you are.”
And then the dragons are upon them.
It’s not Sid’s first aerial battle, but it’s been a while. Even so, he’s studied the local dragon culture plenty and he knows exactly what to look for.
“Watch the spikes on the back!” Sid radios. “They’re poisonous!”
He has just enough time to see Flower gesture his understanding before two of the African dragons descend, claws outstretched and roaring fiercely. Stanley returns the roar, dodging them easily and swiping them with her sharp claws as she goes. The wounds are deep, but not bad enough for them to fall back and they immediately swivel around and start chasing them when Stanley takes off.
Gunfire bursts out behind him and Sid instinctively ducks, taking out his own sidearm and returning fire.
“Hold on,” Stanley shouts and Sid has just a moment to brace himself before she banks sharply. There’s a crash as at least one of their pursuers crashes into a building. His place is immediately taken by another, though, and Sid curses quietly.
“Go up,” he instructs her. “We need to get away from the buildings so you can fire at them properly!”
She twists instantly, and in the rush Sid can see Estelle struggling to fight off three attackers of her own. “Come on, guys, where are you?” he murmurs quietly. Then Stanley banks again, and Sid refocuses on their own troubles. “Think we can lose them in the clouds?”
“Too high,” Stanley responds immediately, “but I have an idea.”
“Do I want to know?” Sid asks, and she just makes a gleeful sound, looping so sharp and suddenly, Sid doesn’t even realise what she’s done until he’s looking at the back of his two assailants. There’s the tell-tale whistling and then she belches out a stream of perfectly aimed fire.
The dragons scream in agony, wings flapping half-heartedly as they drop down. There’s whooping in his ear when Sid rejoins the battle down low, enough shouts of ‘get some!’ that he realizes the rest of his team has arrived.
“Enough chit-chat,” Sid admonishes, but he’s grinning. “We got work to do!”
The white army’s dragons aren’t as experienced as they are, but what they lack in knowledge, they more than make up for in ferocity and numbers. There’s more than Sid had expected, he counts at least twenty still mobile and multiples already on the ground.
Still, they’re unpracticed and though they may have soldiers on their backs, the dragons clearly barely follow orders and won’t be budged from a fight once they’re in it. More often than not, Sid can see or hear men screaming as they get dislodged and fall to their death when one of their dragons makes an unpredictable move.
It only takes a second for Stanley to hover down next to Heilan so Olli can come on, and then they’re off again, soaring through the slowly-lightening sky. As morning gets closer and closer, Sid can see the dragons more clearly. They’re middleweight, bigger than Heilan, Loïc and Luka, but easily outweighed by Vasilisa and Estelle. But they look thin and underfed, and Sid’s sure that they can outlast them.
Stanley rises quickly, but Sid only has a few moments to take in the battle underneath him before three dragons are on them. They’re obviously more careful, having seen Stanley’s quick maneuvres earlier, but nonetheless approaching fast. Stanley takes off at high speed, only to pivot mid-air once the distance is great enough.
“Give them a good scare, Stanley!” Sid instructs. Gravity is to their advantage so she folds her wings carefully. They drop quickly and Stanley roars with all her power, loud enough that Sid can feel it in his bones. The effect is instantaneous, the first dragon instinctively drawing back, screaming in obvious fear and getting the second dragon tangled up in its wings. The third is clever enough to avoid them but its vision is blocked and Stanley gets close enough to burn all three of them while managing to do significant damage with her claws.
“Yes!” Sid cheers, when the three slink away. Stanley is breathing heavily, but she wiggles with pleasure when Sid praises her.
“There are still many,” she says.
“Less than before,” Sid points out, just as Vasilisa comes screeching by, chasing two bleeding would-be attackers. Geno goes by in a flash but Sid can still easily read the expression of excitement and adrenalin, knows it’s reflected in his own face.
“Captain Letang, sir!” Olli shouts from behind them and Stanley immediately turns and sinks to where Tanger is being harassed. Luka’s tangled up close and personal with one of their enemies, doing terrible damage with his teeth and claws, but two others seem to be regrouping off the side, looking to take advantage of Luka’s unprotected sides.
“No fire, Stanley,” Sid instructs.
She huffs. “I know, Sidney, I would never do anything to harm Luka.” She changes course instead, noiselessly gliding closer until they’re almost directly behind the pair. Then, with a mighty beat of her wings she speeds up, claws out, and charges directly between the two, leaving great, gaping wounds in their sides, deep enough that Sid can see bone.
“Watch out!” Sid shouts, and Stanley only narrowly avoids collision with an adversary that unexpectedly appears in their flight path. The dragons tangle up, snarling and biting at one another while two rebels try and make the jump onto Stanley’s back.
“Boarders,” Sid shouts, and reloads his sidearm, climbing across as quickly as possible to take aim. Stanley shudders in surprise, and the other dragon takes advantage of her surprise to sink his claws into her belly.
Stanley screams and Sid can feel the world lurching around him. “Stanley,” he shouts helplessly. She keens in return.
There’s a sharp crack of fire from Olli’s rifle. “Boarders repelled!” Stanley heaves and with a mighty effort, sinks her teeth deeply into the neck of the other dragon. It trashes, shrieking in pain, and then abruptly goes limp.
“Retreat, Stanley,” Sid orders harshly. “Olli, get the medpack, we need to look at the damage.”
“It’s not so bad,” Stanley says, but her head hangs low and she sounds exhausted. “We cannot afford to stop.”
Across her back, Sid can survey the full field of battle. It’s chaotic and messy, the air full of roars and screaming, smoke from Stanley’s flames and the sound of gunfire. “I’ll be the judge of that,” he says, making is way down Stanley’s belly carefully.
“Bandages, Olli,” Sid shouts. Stanley’s right, the wounds aren’t as bad as they could have been, but they’re still deep enough to leak copiously. Sid packs and binds one as carefully as he can, leaves the other one to Olli. When he gets back up top, Stanley’s eyes a bright and she’s regained some of her earlier spirit.
“Can I go now,” she asks impatiently, “I can still fight and there are still dragons out there. Vasilisa could use some help.”
Olli shrugs and nods and with a sigh, Sid relents. The fight is teetering in their advantage but there’s still almost a dozen dragons flying around and Sid can see Loïc and Estelle struggling to hold their own.
Sid grabs his radio. “Duper, Flower, there’s two crumbled apartment buildings to the southeast of you, can you lead them through there? Geno, I want Stanley and Vasilisa to double team them. Let’s see if we can finish this.”
Duper and Flower break off immediately, spurring their obviously fatigued dragons into a last rally. Together, they’ve got a handful dragons on their tail as they loop around the city quickly.
Sid sidles up to Vasilisa easily, grabs his radio. “Geno, what’s your status?”
“Good,” Geno replies immediately. “Vasya hurt only superficially. I’m think she getting tired, though. What’s the plan?” Sid sketches his idea quickly and a wolfish grin appears on Geno’s face. “Sid always bring me best plans.”
Sid only smirks in return, hustling Stanley into position. “Duper, Flower, we’re in position, get over here!”
Estelle banks gracefully, Loïc right behind her and with a final burst of speed they rush to the two crumbled buildings where Geno and Sid are concealed. Sid counts down silently, three, two, one--
Stanley takes off swiftly just as Duper and Flower zoom through the gap between buildings and then immediately drop down in an almost vertical line. Vasilisa roars, Stanley replies and they swoop in, each on one side of the confused group of rebel dragons who now find themselves without a quarry.
It takes only a few seconds for the rebels to realize what’s happening, but for Sid and Geno it’s more than enough. Stanley fires jet after jet of destructive flame, herding the howling dragons right into Vasilisa’s path, where she wreaks deadly havoc with her claws and tail.
It’s over in a matter of seconds, limp bodies falling to the ground or hightailing it out of there at great speed. A small distance away, Sid can see Tanger and Kuni’s assailants also detaching themselves and soaring away.
Vasilisa and Stanley thunder triumphantly and Sid can hear cheering coming out of his radio. He grins and for the first time in months, Geno doesn’t look away, just grins back just as fiercely.
“Alright, guys,” he radios when everything’s quieted down a little. “Looks like the sky is clear, I think we’re done for today. Let’s get out of here.”
It’s getting dark by the time Sid meets with the director in a small office off the dragon barn.
“Captain Crosby, thank you for meeting me. How is your dragon?”
“She’s doing well, thank you,” Sid says. “She’s taken some wounds, but they’ve all been stitched up now and she’s eating, which is an excellent sign.”
Agok looks relieved. “I’m glad to hear it. And the rest of your team?”
“Some of them were less lucky,” Sid says, “but nothing seems to be life-threatening and all should make a full recovery. What’s the situation on the ground?”
It had only been once they were grounded that Sid had discovered that the rebels had staged a ground as well as air attack on the city.
“Not quite so resolved,” Agok says grimly. “The camp remains secure for now, but the rest of the city…” He trails off and Sid doesn’t need the picture painted to him. Like as not the rest of the city is a battlefield, with civilians caught in the crossfire.
“What about your ground forces?”
“They’re all engaged with the protection of the camp,” Agok says. “And I would not send them out even if they were not, it would be sending them to their deaths.” He sighs. “I’m sorry, Captain, I didn’t mean to trouble you with this.”
“No, that’s.” Sid blows out a frustrated breath. “Maybe there’s something we can do?”
Agok shakes his head. “It’s the job of the SPLA to hold the city against rebel forces. You’ve already protected us from what they couldn’t, Captain, and at considerable cost, it appears. I don’t think any good could come from your team wading further into this.”
The barn is quiet when Sid lets himself in. Stanley lazily lifts an eye when he drops by her, makes a pleased noise and then drops off to sleep.
“How is she?”
Olli gets up from where he’s crouched next to Stanley’s harness. “Very good under the circumstances, Captain. The stitches are holding, she ate very well, and there’s no sign that any of the poison is lingering.” It had only been after the battle that Sid had noticed the odd sheen on some of Stanley’s wounds, which were later confirmed to have come from the poisonous spikes. The poison itself seems to be slow-acting, though, and was immediately leeched out of the wounds and countered with an antidote, much to Sid’s relief.
“Come get me if anything happens,” he instructs his cadet and then makes his way further across the middle divide, where Flower is dozing against Estelle’s front paw.
“How is she?” Out of all of them, Estelle is in the worst shape, having taken some brutal damage early in the battle before reinforcements showed.
Flower yawns, shaking his head as if to clear it, and leads Sid away. “Sorry, it’s just that she’s finally sleeping. She’s hanging in there, under the circumstances. Everything is stitched up but some of those slashes are pretty nasty. She lost a lot of blood and she’s got some heavy bruising around her ribs.” He shoots a concerned look over his shoulder. “She wouldn’t eat much.”
Flower’s worry is unmistakable and very much understandable. It’s standard procedure to feed the dragons after a fight, and a very bad sign if they don’t want to eat. Sid clasps Flower’s shoulder. “She’ll get there,” he says, infusing confidence in his voice. “Estelle’s tough, right? Give her some time to rest, she’ll be raring to go tomorrow.”
It coaxes a smile out of Flower, albeit a small one. “Thanks, Sid. How’s Stanley?”
“Sleeping,” Sid answers. “Olli says she ate well and it looks like we flushed all the poison out before it really got a hold of her.”
He leaves Flower with the admonishment to get some rest himself and goes to check up on the whole team. Luka is still eating, but assures Sid that he feels okay in a quiet voice, in deference to where Tanger lies tucked under his wing, snoring. Heilan, in the next pen over, is less vocal, but Kuni seems reassured so Sid resolves not to worry about it overmuch.
He quiets when he approaches Vasilisa’s spot, though. Out of all of them, she probably took the least damage, hadn’t even needed stitches in all but one place, but Sid is well-familiar with Geno’s tendency to overreact, and this time is no different.
“I think that wound is covered,” Sid says gently.
Geno jumps, drops the bandages he was packing on. “Sid,” he breathes. “Scare me.”
“I saw him coming,” Vasilisa says archly. “Have you come to reassure my captain, Sidney? He is acting as though this was our first fight.”
Geno flushes and Sid suppresses a smile. “He worries, Vasya. We all know that.”
She harrumphs, drops her head down and nudges Geno in Sid’s direction none too gently. “I am fine. Go talk elsewhere, you are making me nervous.” She curls an imperious claw. “Daniel, come read to me.”
The new cadet, Sprong, immediately rustles up a book and nestles himself against her paw. Even a few steps away, Sid can still hear them murmuring. “How is he doing?”
“Sprong?” Geno glances back. “He do okay. Not scared of Vasya, which is good.”
Sid grins. Having grown up very much outside of the UNAC, Vasilisa is used to surroundings far more harsh and strict than they are currently in. It’s hard to overrule that much learned experience, so inevitably, she scares crew members away with her no-nonsense attitude.
“Good to hear, I’ll tell command we want to keep him around.”
Geno nods. “How was meeting with the director?”
“Good. I mean.” Sid bites his lip. “He was grateful.”
Geno raises an eyebrow. “But?”
“He told me he doesn’t want us involved anymore,” Sid says reluctantly.
There’s a pause. “Involved in what?”
“Out there,” Sid gestures. “ It wasn’t just the dragons. Malakal’s under attack, Geno. It sounds pretty bad.”
The noise Geno makes is nothing short of disbelieving. “Sid! Cannot think--You want us go out again?”
“No!” Sid sighs. “I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem right that we’re sitting around here doing nothing, while the city’s going to pieces.”
“Sitting around?” Geno’s raised his voice by now, and across the walk Kuni and Tanger are watching. Even Vasilisa and Sprong have looked up from their reading.
Sid yelps when Geno closes an arm around his shoulder and drags them out a side door. “What the fuck, G?”
“You want we have this conversation in front of others?” Geno says. His expression is thunderous. “Not believe you so stupid, Sid.”
“Yes,” Geno says loudly. “Stupid. We not sitting around, Sid. Stanley hurt! Estelle hurt!” He gestures viciously to the bloodstain on Sid’s jacket. “You hurt! Probably not even take care of yet.”
“It’s just a graze,” Sid snaps. “And I have, not that it’s any of your business. And where do you get off, calling me stupid?”
“Because is stupid idea!”
Sid glares. “It’s not like we haven’t gone out hurt before. People are getting killed out there!”
“How much help you do if you get killed out there, hmm?” Geno’s eyes are dark and furious. “We not at full capacity, tired from lots of guard and patrol, and now hurt from battle. We don’t have right equipment and no ground support! Cannot do.”
“That’s not your decision,” Sid scowls. “Is it?”
“Not yours either,” Geno counters. “Field director is superior, yes?”
Sid swallows a curse. Geno’s right, not that Sid would ever admit it. “I’m in charge of this regiment,” he snaps instead. “Not you. I’m always open to suggestions, G, but right now I’d appreciate it if you kept it to yourself.”
He turns away, only to be pulled back around. “Sorry,” Geno says, and he looks it, though he also still looks pissed. “I’m not want to tell you what to do, Sid. I’m just worry. Is bad idea, going out there. Is dangerous. Especially now.”
“Director tell you no for a reason, right?” Geno looks at him imploringly. “I’m just. I’m not want us to get hurt more. Not want you to get hurt.”
“Well, that’s not your call is it?”
“Cannot go out, Sid,” Geno says stubbornly. “I’m not let you.”
Sid splutters. “You’re not gonna--Oh, I’d like to see you stop me!”
Geno curses loudly in a mix of vicious Russian and garbled English. “Most stupid,” is all Sid can catch and he opens his mouth to tell Geno to fuck off, when there’s hands on his face and then Geno is kissing him.
At first, it’s all Sid can to keep upright. His brain blanks completely and by the time he realizes what’s actually happening, Geno’s already pulled away, looking upset and pretty much anywhere but at Sid.
“Now?” Sid says hoarsely. “Now is when you choose to do this? Really?”
Geno’s head snaps up. “What, going to pretend you forget again?” He says tartly.
Sid sucks in a breath. He tries to keep his face composed, but something must show because Geno’s eyes go wide. “I’m knew it!” he shouts. “I’m knew you lying.” His eyes go sharp. “Why you do it, Sid?”
“Oh, no, we’re not having this discussion right now,” Sid says. “We’re in a war zone and you just kissed me, G.” He glares. “If this is one of your shitty stalling techniques, I swear--”
“No!” Geno lunges, grabs Sid’s hand. “No, Sid. I would never.” He flushes, looks down at their joined hands. “I’m want for long time. Think in cave, maybe you do too. But then you say you think it someone else...”
“That could have been true,” Sid says weakly. He folds easily under Geno’s look. “Okay, I lied. It wasn’t my best moment.”
“Why you lie to me?”
“Why did you kiss me?” Sid throws back.
Geno shakes his head. “No way, I ask first.”
“I just…” Sid’s had a lot of time to think about this. Sometimes it feels like he’s done nothing but think of this in the last three months. But now, somehow, he can’t find the words to explain how tired he’d been, how sad and upset. And scared. “We’re on a team together, G,” he settles on eventually. “It’s kind of a colossally bad idea.”
Geno shrugs. “Can think of worse ideas.” He pauses. “Could go kiss Flower, maybe.”
“No,” Sid says vehemently, and then flushes. “That would be. No. That would definitely be worse.”
“Yeah,” Geno says, smiling slightly. “Also Vero kill me slowly, I think.”
Sid snorts. “So why did you? Kiss me?”
“Because I’m want to,” Geno shrugs. “Because I’m worry you go out there and get hurt more.” He gives Sid an imploring look. “I’m hear about you and injuries, Sid. Bad idea to go look for trouble.” He smirks. “Maybe want to give you other things to worry about.”
A groan escapes before Sid can stop it. “That’s awful. You’re awful.”
“But it work, right?” Geno grins, the slightly lopsided one that Sid can never resist. “Change your mind?”
It hadn’t, really, but at least it made him realize the decision wasn’t his alone. “Well,” Sid hesitates. “I’ll put it before the team.”
“Team on my side,” Geno says confidently. “They also say is crazy idea, you’ll see.” He tugs Sid closer. “But first we kiss more?”
“Yeah?” Sid teases, going easily. “What’s in it for me?”
“I’m best kisser,” Geno says promptly. “You see.”
“I don’t know, I’m not convinced. That was a pretty poor showing.”
A gleam enters Geno’s eyes and before he knows it, Sid’s pushed back against the wall, Geno pressed up against him. “I’m best,” Geno murmurs. “I show you.”
Geno kisses the way Sid’s pretty sure he does everything. Focused and dedicated, with attention to every little detail. It’s hard to resist that kind of attention, especially when Sid finds he doesn’t really want to. Yeah, this is still a terrible idea. But he pulls Geno closer anyway because, whatever, there’s worse things and besides, the UNAC’s only rule on fraternization seems to be “as long as the dragons don’t mind”.
Sid lets himself get lost in the kissing, giving as good as he’s getting. He groans when Geno’s mouth wanders down his jaw, fists clenching in Geno’s jacket. “Why weren’t we doing this months ago?”
“You fault,” Geno says smugly, while he cleverly untucks Sid’s shirt and his hands go wandering. “You the one who pretend nothing happen.”
“I’m an idiot,” Sid breathes. “Please feel free to disregard anything I say in the future.” Geno just chuckles, returning to his dedicated exploration of Sid’s neck.
I’m going to have a hickey, Sid thinks hazily, and thumps his head on the wall. And then, the guys are going to give us so much shit about this.
Which is of course when the door opens and Flower sticks his head in. “Everything okay in here, we’re hearing--what the--!” Flower fakes a moan, covers his eyes. “I don’t want to see this! It’s like watching my parents!”
“Sid hurt,” Geno says, completely deadpan. “I’m kiss better.”
“Yeah,” Flower scowls. “I’m sure that’s exactly what you’re doing. You couldn’t have waited till we got back, asshole? Then I would have won the pool.”
“There’s a pool?” Sid squawks.
“Yes, there’s a pool, which Duper won. He’s going to be insufferable.” There’s a crash and a whoop of ‘pay up, suckers!’ from inside the barn. Sid’s pretty sure his face is scarlet.
“Please get the fuck out, Flower.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Flower’s voice trails off as the door drifts shut. Then he sticks his head back in, grinning at them crookedly. “About fucking time, you assholes.”
Sid hides his face in Geno’s shirt and laughs until he cries.
It takes three days for the violence in the city to quiet down, but in the end, the SPLA remains in control. Sid watches from the barn, because as promised, he put the vote to the team and they unanimously decided to ‘do the sensible thing and not get killed, Sid.’
There may also have been a few swats upside the head, but whatever.
Casualties are thankfully minimal, mostly on the side of the rebels, with very few civilians getting caught in the crossfire. And even better, a couple hours after the city is officially declared rebel-free a message comes in from Juba: they’re being replaced. Despite everything, Sid breathes a sigh of relief. Malakal has been both kind and cruel to them, but in the end, he just wants to be able to go home and sleep in his own bed.
The director sees them off the very next morning. “Thank you for everything, Captain.”
“It’s what we do, sir,” Sid says, “but you’re welcome regardless.”
There’s a crash from inside the barn. Tanger’s sheepish voice floats out. “Sorry!”
The director smothers a chuckle and Sid has to resist the urge to roll his eyes. “My apologies,” he offers.
“Don’t worry about it,” Agok says, eyes still shining with amusement. “I can imagine it wasn’t easy, keeping six recuperating dragons cooped up.”
“No,” Sid says. “It really wasn’t.”
In fact, it’d been nothing short of sheer torture near the end, but he’s not about to regale the director with tales of what Vasilisa is like when she’s bored or the heights Estelle’s whining reaches when she’s not allowed to touch her still-healing wounds. He’d like to keep the man on their side after all.
“I wish you a good journey,” Agok says eventually. “Safe flying, and thank you again.”
Another handshake and he’s gone. Sid reluctantly heads into the barn to find out what Tanger broke.
“Alright, saddle up,” he shouts as soon as he’s inside. Involuntarily, a smile breaks out over his face. “We’re going home.”
Taylor’s already up when Sid walks into the kitchen, twisting her chair around at the island.
“I demand sustenance, oh brother mine,” she intones.
“You’re going to make yourself sick,” Sid replies easily. “And you know where the cereal is.”
“Yeah, but it’s way more fun to make you get it,” she grins.
He rolls his eyes and grabs the box and two bowls. “You coming to the covert with me today?”
“Duh,” Taylor says. “Have to go say hi to the only other Crosby currently in Pittsburgh who actually has any sense.”
“Hey,” Sid says mildly. “I resent that. I’ll have you know my superiors speak very highly of my sense.”
“Nuh-uh,” Taylor says around a mouthful of granola. “I stopped believing in the intelligence of your bosses the day they decided to give you a dragon. Sorry.”
“No, you’re not,” Sid says, slowly finishing his own bowl.
“Nope, I’m not,” she says cheerfully. “So, what’s the grovel activity today?”
“Shut up, I’m not grovelling,” Sid glares.
“Uhu,” Taylor chuckles. Her expression is mischievous. “So the jewelry and the fancy dinner and the shopping trip, that was just to settle your not-guilty conscience?”
“You’re way too cheerful for this hour,” Sid grumbles, neatly avoiding answering her question.
Taylor doesn’t look the least bit fooled. “Maybe I’m just happy to spend time with my brother,” she chirps. She looks around. “In his sad, unfurnished, depressing house.”
“I don’t spend a lot of time here,” Sid says defensively. He pushes his empty bowl away. “I don’t see the point in spending money on a house when I’m at the covert more often anyway.”
“Listen, Sid,” she says slyly, “it’s a place to have some alone time with your secret boyfriend--”
“It wasn’t a secret!”
“--which means you really should make it more welcoming.” She gives him a mock stern look. “Geno deserves better.”
“Shut up,” Sid grumbles.
“I noticed he slept over last night,” Taylor continues innocently. “I’m kind of surprised you’re even up at this hour. I thought you might have had a,” she smirks, “tiring night.”
Sid almost chokes on his coffee. “Please don’t ever say anything like that again.”
“Hmmmm. Listen, why don’t you ask him to join us?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Sid hesitates.
“Come on, Sid,” Taylor wheedles. “Nobody at UNAC cares and I want to hang out with my brother’s boyfriend.”
“It’s not that,” Sid says, curling his hands around his mug. “It’s just that--”
He’s interrupted when Geno stumbles into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and looking entirely too unsure of his footing. He grunts when he walks into the kitchen island and makes a pitiful noise at the empty coffee machine. Wordlessly, Sid slides his mug over.
Geno makes a pathetically grateful noise, cradles it and and then looks at the two of them balefully. “Morning people,” he mutters, before fleeing the room.
“--Geno really isn’t much of a morning person,” Sid finishes.
“Yeah,” Taylor answers, awed. “I’m getting that.”
Stanley squeals when Taylor bounds into her pen and Sid hangs back a little, looking at the two of them with a smile. Within moments, Taylor is settled against Stanley’s paw and in deep conversation, gesturing wildly, talking about who knows what.
He’s still there, leaning against the fence, when Geno settles next to him. “You not going closer?” Sid shakes his head and Geno laughs quietly. “Not want to know what they talk about, hmmm?”
Sid shudders. “I know exactly what they’re talking about, which is why I’m not there.” Taylor chooses that exact moment to laugh loudly and smirk at Sid. Next to her, Stanley huffs slightly and looks equally amused. “See?”
Geno laughs again. “Yes, I’m see.” He nudges Sid. “Vasilyushka say hi.”
Sid smiles. “How is she?”
“Good,” Geno says. “Now that we have time off, they prepping her for breed.” He makes a face. “I’m not sure if I like.”
Sid grins. “She made you go away, huh?”
“Shoo me like I’m puppy,” Geno admits. “Tell me to go bother you.”
Sid nudges Geno’s shoulder. “You never bother me.”
“That’s what I’m tell her,” Geno says smugly. He laces their fingers together. “She say she very happy, now please get out.”
Taylor and Stanley both look up when Sid laughs loudly. Taylor narrows her eyes, grinning when she notices their hands, and shoots him an obvious thumbs up. Then Stanley bends her head again and the ensuing heated conference makes Sid wonder if he should be worried.
“Is nice,” Geno says, gesturing with his free hand. “She love dragon like family.”
“Stanley is family,” Sid says. “It’s kind of. I don’t know, she’s not just mine, you know?” He slides a bit closer to Geno, pressing their shoulders together. “Is Vasya not a part of your family?”
Geno’s quiet for a bit. “They never meet,” he says eventually. He sounds subdued and Sid can tell his expression is sad. “I’m leave home when little. Never take Vasya back.”
Sid squeezes their hands together. “We can change that, if you’d like.”
Geno looks up, smiling slightly. “Yeah?”
“Sure. I mean, not now, but next time we have some time off?” He gives Geno a hopeful look. “August is always kind of quiet. And I’ve always wanted to go to Russia.”
Geno’s smile widens. “You been to Russia,” he teases. “Did not end well for you, remember?”
“Whatever,” Sid says petulantly. “Everything worked out, didn’t it?”
Geno drops a kiss on the top of Sid’s head. “Yes,” he says. “Work out perfectly.”
“We could go to Canada, too,” Sid offers quietly, toying with the tassels on the hood of his sweatshirt.
Geno’s expression is soft and happy and it makes something go embarrassingly warm in Sid’s stomach. “I’m hear Canada very beautiful,” is all he says, but Sid knows exactly what it means.
He rests his head against Geno’s shoulder and just breathes the quiet mid-morning air. The covert is peaceful, he’s got leave till the end of the week and his sister, his dragon and his boyfriend at his side. Russia or Canada or both, Sid thinks, it doesn’t really matter. He’s good for now.