“'Find the blue scale,' he says, 'It's that simple,' he says . . .” Mikey shuffled a little deeper under the stairs, hunched to keep his head from hitting steel. It was stifling there – the air felt scorched – but it was markedly cooler than it had been two floors further down. He wanted to go higher, to run as far from the heat as he could, but he'd agreed to wait here. He'd agreed.
Above him, a shadow flickered, fell between the open metal stairs. He stilled, eyes turned up to catch the first sign of scale or talon.
But the steps coming down were quick and bipedal, and he recognized the boots.
“Here,” he hissed as Ray left the stairs. Ray spun and slid into the space beside him, almost sliding on his knees. His curls stuck to his flushed face. He was panting, as quietly as he could. He tugged on Mikey's sleeve until he knelt too – they made themselves small in the shadows on the landing.
Above them, a dragon moved.
Mikey closed his eyes. He could hear it. The talons rasped on the concrete floor, the wings – folded, but still too wide – shushed against the walls. It would be filling nearly all of the corridor, he knew, crowding it with scale and tooth and wing and claw.
It should thump, he thought. It should walk like an earthquake.
It didn't. He wondered, eyes still closed, sweat running down between tensed shoulder blades, if it had bones like a bird's bones, hollow and light.
The dragon stalked on. Ray squeezed his hand. He opened his eyes.
“No blue scale on that one,” Ray said, voice low. He blew away a curl that must have been tickling his nose. “I thought there might have been, but the stripes were green.”
“How many of them are there?” Mikey asked. The one in the basement had been red and gold like the sparks from a welder's torch, with breath like hot tar and wings that glowed. He could still see it in the dark, a ghostly echo imprinted on his corneas. He wondered if that might be permanent.
Ray was still holding his hand as they knelt below the stairs. “I'm not sure,” he said. “At least one more.”
“If that thing about the blue scale is true, anyway.”
Ray sighed. “Well, it's all we have to go on. This sure seems a lot like what Frank was telling me about . . . heh. I thought it was a prank or something.”
Mikey felt, absurdly, like smiling. “Or a dream.”
* * *
It was amazing, Mikey! Gerard gushed into the phone. Really epic. We were in this city, me and Frank, just a normal city – but there was nobody around. Just me and Frank, and an empty city. And then, suddenly, dragons!
Mikey turned his head on his pillow, and his phone slid a little down his face before he caught it again. Gerard forgot sometimes, when he was on tour, about things like sleep. And time zones. “Dragons?” he managed to ask, catching a least the end of his brother's sentence.
Dragons! They were gorgeous, and they scared the shit out of me. I hid in a bathroom for like, forever, but Frank found me. He was mad, because he's on tour too, you know? He had places to be. So he's like, 'come on, Gee, we've got to get out of here, I'm supposed to be in Poland in six hours.' Gerard was talking just a little too fast, like he'd had a lot of coffee and not much time to enjoy it. Mikey was having some trouble following him.
“You were with Frank?” he puzzled out. “But you're in Japan. . .”
I am now, yeah, but I wasn't then. I told you, I was in this empty city, and Frank was too, and there were DRAGONS, and we had to find a way home, because Frank was going to miss his show, and I had a flight to pack for, and also, Mikey, the dragons were really fucking frightening.
Mikey decided his brother had weird dreams all the time, and let his eyes close as he listened. “So did you get away on time?”
Yeah, 'cause Frank's a badass. You should have seen him, man, he just . . . wham, and slid right under the dragon's neck, and Mikey, you awake? This part's important, Mikey, you listening?
“Mmhmm. Important part, coming up,” he mumbled.
It's important, Mikey, I've got a feeling . . . It's the blue scale, the one blue scale in the middle of a dragon's chest. You'll have to find it, and you'll have to get close enough to touch it. Mikey, that's the way home.
Gerard's words were tumbling over themselves now, urgent. I feel like it'll happen again, you know? Frank said he'd tell Ray, but you've got to listen too, Mikey, you've go to remember.
“Blue scale. Got it, Gee,” Mikey said, and fell asleep to his brother's voice in his ear.
* * *
The emergency stairs were lit with amber lights – Mikey wondered who they were for. He hadn't seen anyone around who wasn't a great, impossible lizard, and none of the ones they'd seen so far would have fit into this stairway without massive structural overhauls. Ray lead the way up – Mikey watched the line of his shoulders and was glad that he was there. Felt guilty for that, but was glad anyway. He didn't want to be trapped with Gerard's dream dragons without Ray's solid, practical presence.
There was a roar, far below them. The stairs shivered under their feet, and they paused, waiting. Mikey pictured the dragon in the basement, and could almost feel the heat rising. “Keep going,” he whispered. “Keep going.”
Ray looked down over his shoulder. Mikey met his eyes. “The one I saw was . . . big.”
“The roof should be just a few more flights up,” he said. We can get the lay of the land from there.”
They went on. Mikey's legs were burning. The amber emergency lights shone steadily, unflinchingly. They glowed off the sweat on the back of Ray's neck, and glinted in his hair.
The door to the roof opened effortlessly. Mikey had to catch at it, panicked, as it swung shut again. He didn't want to be locked on the roof.
Ray handed him a chunk of concrete cinder to stop the door, and the two of them reveled for a moment in the cool air outside the stairwell.
In fact, Mikey thought after a very short while, it was cold.
The oppressive heat rising from the basement had given way to a brisk wind, which smelled of ice, and snow, and winter.
Mikey shivered, and Ray drew closer, leaning against his arm. He was thankful for the warmth.
The sky was pale, a distant, washed out grey. He couldn't see the sun behind the clouds, and there were no shadows.
The building they were on was higher than those around them. Mikey looked over the waist high ledge. The city was still. No taxis, no pedestrians. No murmur of voices or machinery. Not even pigeons, fluttering under ledges.
And then, wings.
They unfolded slowly, almost ponderously, and Mikey felt Ray's hand clench around his wrist. Just below them, across the street on the roof of what looked like a office building, the great white dragon yawned.
It was bigger than the one in the basement, Mikey thought. Its scales were ghostly, its wings transparent as sheets of ice. Its teeth were . . . Mikey gulped. Its teeth were longer than he was tall.
And there was a brilliantly blue scale, dead center in its massive chest.
* * *
He remembered falling asleep, his phone against his ear, Gerard's voice receding as his pillow got softer and more welcoming. He remembered sleeping.
And then Ray was shaking him awake, and they were in a an empty building (a stadium? Some sort of public arena, all corridors and ramps, wide, empty doors), and he was dressed, and something very large was coming towards them, around the curve of the hall.
He remembered running, Ray's hand tugging him along.
He remembered the warm, wet breath of the thing behind them, remembered looking back to see the wide toothy grin of the green striped beast, remembered Ray tugging him into the stairwell, and the frantic, whispered consultation under the stairs.
Turns out Frank had, indeed, called Ray. Ray had been more awake than he was, and had paid more attention.
Mikey was really, really, thankful for Ray.
* * *
“Can we get across the street without going back past those other two?” Ray asked, looking apprehensively at the wide, empty street between their roof and the great white dragon.
“Maybe,” Mikey said. “Maybe.” But the striped one had been fast, for all its bulk. And the one in the basement . . . He shivered, and it had nothing to do with the chill in the air.
“So,” Ray asked, “is this a test?” Mikey looked over, struck by the fierceness in his voice. “I mean, what the hell is the point?” Ray's eyes were locked on the white dragon, and gleamed with temper.
“We just, run and run and hide and then . . . touch that scale, somehow, without being eaten or tossed off the roof or clawed to death, and then we're home? And none of this is real?” Ray's hands closed into fists. “Or all of it's real? If it's real, then . . . what do we do next? I mean, Frank said . . . Frank said something about a choice. He sounded pissed, but he said 'you gotta make the choice, and take the risk.' He said . . . 'You've got to reach for it.'”
Mikey looked at Ray. The white dragon was just across the street, huge and impressive, dangerous and fascinating. But he looked at Ray's tired face. His honest, angry eyes. Somehow, he seemed more important.
“You could do it,” he said. Ray looked over, startled. “You could do it,” he said again, and meant it. “You can reach for whatever you want.”
Ray stared back at him. And then a smile quirked his lips, quickly there and gone again. “You can too,” he said. “I know it.” And he leaned down, and he kissed him.
* * *
They had a plan. Probably, Mikey thought, not a great plan. But some semblance of a plan.
“Are you ready?” Ray asked. His breath wisped white against the grey sky.
“Sure thing,” Mikey lied, and hoisted himself up to the top of the ledge. He felt . . . tall. Like he could hold up the sky. Ray held his ankles, until he looked down and smiled. “I'm good,” he said.
He looked out across the eerily quiet city street. He took a deep breath of chilled, grey air.
“Hey!” he yelled. “Hey!” His voice sounded thin. But the dragon turned its head.
Its eyes were blue, he saw. A pale, ice-drowned blue. They pierced him, rocked him back – but Ray was there. Ray was solid, and warm, and there.
He made himself stand tall.
“Come on, you overgrown gecko!”
The dragon uncurled. Mikey swallowed. It was so much, much larger than the burning beast in the basement. Enormous and cold, as inevitably crushing as an ice age, and it was staring straight as him.
“I've got you,” he heard Ray murmur behind him. “I'm here.”
The dragon's wings spread wide. The shadowless light glowed through them. Mikey could see the bones – thin, fragile. They couldn't possibly hold the weight of the dragon in the air.
But it flew. A downward thrust that sounded like a collapsing circus tent, a swirl of dust and an icy draft – and Mikey fell backward, avoiding the clutch of colorless talons over the concrete ledge. The dragon was all he could see. It swallowed the city, the world – all but Ray, the shivering hands that caught at his shoulders, the hissed breath in his ear.
The blue scale burned like a summer sky, right in the middle of its white scaled chest, built like a bird's. The dragon roared.
Its voice resonated through Mikey's bones – he was shaking apart. Ray was. . . Ray was holding him together.
“Now,” Ray yelled, barely audible over the iron tinged shriek that was ripping the world apart – “Do it now!”
And Mikey reached. His hand brushed against scales so cold he flinched, and touched the single bit of color he could see.
* * *
He sat, clutching his blanket, gasping for air. The room was dark, and warm, and quiet. Ray was . . . Ray was . . .
His phone rang.
Mikey? Ray's voice was tinny and thin, the best thing he could think of ever hearing. Mikey, are you all right?
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I'm. . . I'm fine.” He thought of dragons, and of fear. He thought of Ray. “I'm good.”
He listened to Ray's breathing on the phone, calming slowly. “I think,” he said, “that there are things I need to do.”
I'm with you, Ray said, without hesitation. We're going to make it.
Mikey smiled in the dark. “Yeah. We will.”