“What about… drinks are on me the next we’re at the pub?” Mike suggested and John sighed.
“Can’t you just let it go?” John leaned back into the uncomfortable cafeteria chair. Around him the chattering of doctors and nurses provided a soothing atmosphere, but what he had hoped would become a relaxing lunch break on an uneventful Monday was slowly turning into a talk. Without much appetite, John pierced some more of his chips only to lay down his fork in the end.
“You know I won’t,” Mike said confidently, ignoring the signs of discomfort. “You’ve been back for a year, got rid of the cane, and don’t get startled each time someone slams a door, so I’m officially declaring you fit for society again. It’s time for you to meet someone.”
“But there isn’t anyone I’m interested in,” John retorted.
“You’re not supposed to marry, for God's sake! Just go out once in a while!” Mike rolled his eyes. “So I’m topping my offer from before. I’ll buy the drinks the next two times if you do as much as try to get a date today. Beer just for the mere effort, John! It can’t get any better!”
John rubbed his temples. “I don’t know…”
“There’s this nurse from paediatrics who’s single at the moment. I could hook you up with her.”
“Liz?” John shook his head. “No, thanks.”
“Then perhaps that flamboyant young dermatologist? He’s something like the superstar of the second floor.”
Mike grinned when John glanced around hectically.
“Stop with that nonsense!” he hissed. “This is not funny! Why do you even think I... damn it, Mike!”
“Oh, come on. You were in the cricket team at uni, and it was painfully obvious that you were rather bad at cricket, to say the least.”
“And what has that–?”
“Let’s just say I saw you with the reason for your sudden interest in that sport.”
John compressed his lips. It was clear that Mike had been savouring this information for such a moment. That bastard.
“Those warm summer nights, all the sweat…” Mike continued. “You were quite a sight, the two of you, making out in the showers, but I have to give it to you, Donaldson was one handsome bloke.”
“Yeah, thanks for the memories,” John said to make sure he wouldn’t go into more detail. It was bad enough that Mike had actually seen him and had stored away the image just to conjure it up in a moment like this. “So basically you’re telling me that your pestering will get worse if I don’t give in, is that it?”
Annoyed, John crossed his arms on his chest. There had to be a way out of this. Something to get Mike off his tail and avoid an annoying date at the same time.
“What about Molly?” John asked.
“From the lab?”
“She seems to be nice enough.” And too shy to say no to a date. Apart from that, she wasn’t exactly his type, which meant that they wouldn’t end up in bed together. Perfect.
Mike shrugged. “Fine with me. So off you pop.”
“I’m supposed to ask her now? We’re at work!”
“Rubbish. Get down to that basement immediately.”
“You know what? I’m not really hungry anyway. At least not anymore,” John huffed. “See you later.” He stood up and grabbed his tray.
“Good luck!” he heard a voice call after him. Of course nothing could deter Mike when he was on a mission, John thought to himself. So why not let some of this peculiar enthusiasm rub off for a change? The tray with the dishes landed on the counter with a clatter and, using his sudden burst of energy, John headed for the lift.
But whatever Mike thinks, he’s wrong, John decided when he stepped into the cage. It doesn’t matter if everything looks normal from the outside! There was still a fundamental problem. Somehow, a vital part of himself had become lost during the previous years – and not just in Afghanistan. Perhaps this had been the reason he had decided to join the forces in the first place.
John greeted a colleague passing when he went down the hallway towards the labs, but the need to stop and talk simply wasn’t there. Even with Mike it was the same sometimes. Going to the pub, meeting him in the cafeteria seemed a waste of time because there was no real connection.
But talk about the hospital, football and politics was fine, much better than what was to come now. Reluctantly, John entered the lab, hoping that Molly Hooper would be having lunch somewhere.
She wouldn’t. She’s just as much as a recluse as you are, he reminded himself. Maybe we’ll get along after all.
“Hello?” he asked.
“Huh?” Out of nowhere, Molly appeared behind a counter. “Oh John, hello, I’ve just been searching for…” she smiled and then rubbed her hands on her gown. “Never mind. What can I do for you?”
John closed the door. “Well, I...” He cleared his throat. “I’m here on a, erm, private matter.”
“Oh.” She didn’t take a step forwards. If anything, she looked a bit alarmed.
“I was just wondering if you, not immediately but sometimes, I mean if you don’t have anything else to do or anyone else...” John stopped. Was he a teenager? Why on earth couldn’t he speak normally to that poor woman? Molly gave the impression that she was ready to bolt. “This isn't coming out right.” John took a deep breath. “What I actually wanted to do is ask you out. If you’re interested, that is.”
He approached her a little more and noticed that she didn’t retreat. Her expression became questioning, which did not necessarily have to be a bad sign.
“You? Want to go out with me? Why?” she asked.
John let his shoulders drop. “I’m not going to lie, Mike’s been nagging me to ask someone and well, your name came up.”
“Don’t get me wrong!” John interjected. “I thought of you because you’re... you’re nice, yes.”
He smiled at her and she gradually seemed to become a bit more relaxed.
“I don’t know, John. You think we two...?”
“We could meet as friends,” he hastened to say. “Spend some time together. Better than being alone, I mean... I... I don’t want to insinuate that you are, just if...”
Exhausted, John sat down on one of the stools. This was the exact mess he had anticipated. God, he was out of form.
“I suppose you’re right,” he heard and he raised his head again. Shuffling on the spot, Molly appeared to have the same problems formulating a sentence. “And I would really like to... go out, but it’s not been that long ago that Bernard and I, you know, and I don’t want the hospital to start gossiping again.”
Bernard the Shark. Why Molly had fallen prey to the womanising head of cardiology was a complete miracle to John. The breakup had come as a relief, yet the damage had been done. Since then, stories about Molly’s role in the whole affair circulated among the staff and John suspected they were a fabrication of Bernard himself to cover up the despicable way he had behaved.
“We could go to my place. So we won’t run the risk of being seen by someone,” John suggested. “It’s not big, though. But it’s got a table we could have… dinner at.”
“So we won’t become the talk of the town again?”
“Nope. Just friends. Just dinner.” John got up. “How does that sound?”
“Sounds good.” Her smile proved that she really meant it. “Perhaps this Friday?”
“Great, should I pick you up? We can’t leave together from work, can we?”
They grinned conspiratorially.
“Nah, I’ll find the address if you send it to me.” She went to her desk and scribbled. “That’s my mobile number.”
John pocketed the slip of paper she handed him. “Thanks, and I, well, yes, I’m... till next week.”
It’s actually nice to look forward to something… or someone, John thought on his way upstairs. Just the pub with Mike felt a bit repetitive sometimes and perhaps Mike was of the same opinion and wanted to get rid of him for a while?
“Now what’s your report, doctor?” John heard and whipped around. Mike had positioned himself at the entrance to the internal station and his cheerful face told John the former suspicions were unfounded. Mike just couldn’t help being a good friend, as always.
“I did it, okay?” John said under his breath.
Mike slapped him on the shoulder. “You’re the man!”
“We’ll meet next Friday at my place.”
“Your place? Hadn’t taken you for–”
“Now that’s enough,” John cut him short. “Really. We want to avoid that kind of talk.”
“No problem, John, my lips are sealed.” Another pat. “Well done.”
The sense of accomplishment coursing through him seemed almost ridiculous, but during the afternoon it kept returning, lightening John’s mood considerably. On his way home, he got out a station earlier to stroll through his neighbourhood and enjoy the unusual energy he felt. He already regretted his decision the minute he started walking down the dark street. The usual light drizzle was increasing rapidly, emptying the street and slicking the pavement.
John wiped some of the moisture from his brows. It was still a mile left to go and if he took some of the side streets, he could cut his way short – preferably before it started to rain heavily. Before he turned around a corner, he heard voices and, expecting some drunks who had started early, he fixed his eyes on the ground to keep out of trouble.
“Grab the leg!” he heard. “Hold it fast, you idiot, and watch out for the claws!”
Claws? John looked up. Squinting, he tried to discern what was going on. A small group of municipal workers in their reflective gear were fighting with someone John could not see clearly. He inched nearer.
“It wants to get back into the drain!” The barriers securing the roadworks were torn down when the dark figure threw half of the men off and they stumbled into the construction site. Speechlessly John stared at the creature that was now illuminated by the entrance light of an adjoining building. A dragon! Those men were really wrestling a dragon!
But dragons in the sewer system are the same ludicrous urban myth as crocodiles, right? John wondered. And why didn’t it revert to its human form? The men wouldn’t handle it so roughly if it was... normal.
The dragon cried out in a low pitched voice. It rose to its legs for a moment before the men pulled it down again and John was astonished to see that it was just a little taller than them. But the long tail seemed to be a force to be reckoned with as it strained against the hands holding it, curling and twisting like a snake.
The workers charged at the dragon in a renewed attempt to subdue it and panicking, the creature tried to slip away from them. When its escape was stopped again, it looked as if it gave up, the wings that had been useless until now – almost as if the dragon didn’t know what to do with them – were hanging completely limp. It seemed to muster the effort to stay on its feet but that was about it.
“Can’t you see that it’s no threat anymore? Leave it alone!”
The pairs of eyes directed at him made John aware that he himself must have uttered those words.
“Bugger off, mate!” one of the men shouted. “We’ve got a situation here, but it’s under control.”
John felt his fists clench and took some steps until he was facing down the heap of limbs plus tail.
“I said leave him alone, you’ve got no right to attack a citizen in such a way!”
Searching for someone who would meet his eye, John found two intelligent green orbs in the end, but they turned away immediately when the commotion started again. One of the men had grabbed a wing, tearing at it, and this seemed to overstep a boundary. All of a sudden, the dragon bared two rows of sharp teeth, the short snout drawn back. John forced himself to remain unmoved.
“Let that wing go!” he barked, and if it was this command or the threat of the teeth, the man really let it loose. The dragon faced John again and fascinated John saw the features soften, the dull grey scales not twitching with nervous muscle movement under them anymore, and the frown in the silver streaks over its eyes easing.
“Don’t worry, I’ll stay here,” he said and the snarl that had still left the dragon’s canines visible vanished. John marvelled at the curiously human looks in that reptile face, which were mixed with the traits of a predator in such an astounding fashion. A silver brow furrowed, but before John could make out what this meant, he heard a car honk and tires screeching. Not daring to take his eyes off the scene before him, John didn't look up when a car door was opened.
“Let him go, you idiots!” The angry voice finally made John turn his head. He saw a dark clad man quickly crossing the street from where the black limousine stood parked in second row. “If you continue that one minute longer, the London airspace will be swarming with dragons.”
“Sir, it attacked a sewer cleaning team!”
John tried to keep track of what was going on, his eyes flitting between the man from the limousine and the worker who had been speaking and who was currently holding on to the dragon’s neck. “Stop whining, will you?” An umbrella was pointed at the worker. “I’m sure it was the other way round. Why else would he have fled the sewage? And now away with you!”
The umbrella wielder positioned himself next to John.
“But it–” another worker began.
“Stop it, you moron! Or do you want to risk him breathing fire?” the man beside John seethed. His voice could barely be heard over the background noise of the traffic but it was so cutting that John could see the dragon’s attackers freeze with respect. “Do you want London to become a second Rome? A bunch of navvies end Vespasian’s Human-Dragon Accord? Is that it?”
Hectically, the men released their catch.
“No, of course not, Sir,” the spokesman from before assured him.
The dragon shook its head as if to rid himself of a bothersome insect but it didn’t rise to its hind legs. Instead it looked away from the posh new arrival and studied John, who couldn’t help getting a bit apprehensive in the focus of those green eyes. But something was wrong, no matter how daunting the vertical slit pupils appeared.
“Are you all right?” he asked. The stance at the feet of everyone else was so contrary to the image of dragons in the media that John was close to stepping forwards and performing some basic medical checks.
On a dragon, yeah. Get a grip! he thought inwardly. To his relief, the creature stretched its front legs, but only to make a dive for the drain and disappear in it. The tail knocked one of the barriers over again before it disappeared, leaving behind a street looking like a surreal play, with a horde road workers monitoring a hole in the ground just for the sake of squandering taxpayers’ money.
John turned to the man next to him. “What’s going on here?” he asked but was completely ignored. The man’s attention had been caught by the blue lights that had started to reflect on the walls. The police cars they belonged to followed suit – siren’s still switched off – and before John knew it, they blocked the entire area.
“Ah, Lestrade. Finally,” the umbrella owner said and hurried towards a man getting out of one of the cars. Gesticulating wildly, the officer appeared to try to explain himself, but John couldn’t understand what he was saying. The fact that a very stern look of the other man directly spurred him into action showed the power relations clearer than anything, though.
“You come here!” he shouted and motioned the workers to move nearer. John took a step back. “You there! I said come here!”
Torn between meeting the officer’s command with a rebuff and complying, John remained where he was and ended up in between the workers who assembled around him.
“Now listen carefully,” the officer said. In his trench coat and suit, John assumed that he was at least a sergeant. “You’re very lucky that nothing has happened apart from some dirty clothes, okay? You attacked an innocent citizen as a group and I’m this close to having you tried for racial assault!”
The men murmured something unintelligible.
“Now shut it and clean up this mess!” the officer barked. “And if I get wind of any of you talking to anyone, let alone a reporter, you can bet that there’ll be an investigation after all, have I made myself clear?”
The men dispersed, busying themselves with the boards around the construction site. John glanced towards the figure in the posh clothes. Leaning on his umbrella, the man looked exceptionally pleased with the performance of the police.
“Now what are you waiting for, huh?” John heard, startling him out of abstraction. The officer – what had he been called? Listerd? – fixed him with an impatient gaze.
“Just that you know, I tried to protect that... the dragon,” John replied and the man heaved an annoyed sigh.
“I don’t care what you are – nosey bystander or accidental hero,” he growled. “The directions I gave those nitwits apply to you as well.”
John felt his anger soaring. Calm down, he ordered himself. You don’t want to be the one sleeping in a cell tonight!
“Thanks for reminding me that civil courage’s really worth the effort!” he scoffed instead. “Where were you when I was still lying in the Afghan sand?”
Without waiting for an answer, John turned to go. The brief glimpse he caught of the officer’s face was enough to see that he was on the verge of apologising for his harsh words, but John decided that he had had enough. This damn evening was already much too weird and had effectively ruined his good mood.
Bloody city and its lunatics lurking in every corner! he swore inwardly. And if even the dragons are going daft, this town’s lost for good.