December 31, 1980
"It wants gold. I'm sorry, Mr. Mayor, but the dragon doesn't seem to understand that Sternbild moved off the gold standard years ago." Sternbild's finance director hit play and the screens filled with the familiar Hero TV logo.
Agnes dangled a microphone out of her helicopter so the dragon could make its demands. It was about the size of one of the new commuter rail cars, but with scales that looked as if they'd been colored using all 64 crayons in the box. If it weren't for its immense size, bright colors, and giant wings, it would have looked very much like an iguana.
"Gold would be nice. Maybe some bullions and pieces of eight I could roll around in. It's not very comfortable up here. I'm a little hungry, too," the dragon said shyly. "What do dragons usually eat?"
They couldn't hear Agnes' reply, but the program had subtitles. "Cows, goats. They especially like food from Gyu-kaku, as does everyone in the city."
"Agnes is right, you know. Everyone loves our food," the Kronos CEO said. Free publicity was the best publicity.
"Hmm…" the dragon softly exhaled a puff of smoke. "That doesn't sound right. Dragons usually eat people, don't they? I've heard that princesses are delicious." The dragon primly folded its massive claws. "If you could send me a princess or two, I'd be ever so grateful and I won't have to burn down your city."
Her response lacked subtitles, but the dragon heard it and didn't like it at all. "Democracy? Well, I never. That simply won't do. Even a democracy, whatever that is, must have princesses."
Barnaby turned off the screens and turned the lights back on. Under the unflattering conference room lights, he looked golden. His decision to avoid Christmas entirely and spend the week on a beach drinking from hollowed out pineapples and coconuts had been a good one.
"What I would like to know is why a mythological creature is sitting on top of us right now," the CEO of Odysseus grumbled. Before settling on Justice Tower, the dragon had eaten Odysseus Communication's dragon statue; possibly it had seen it as a rival.
"It's a NEXT, of course," Barnaby said. A couple of the CEOs didn't look happy at the dismissive tone of Barnaby's of course. It wasn't right that Maverick had left Barnaby enough Apollon stock to interfere with meetings forever.
"We've never seen a NEXT with the ability to shapeshift into something non-human, but we can't rule out that possibility. Some NEXTs do have the ability to manipulate large objects, so I believe that's what we're seeing here. We need to find who is controlling the dragon."
"What do we do until then?" None of the other CEOs wanted their buildings to be the next target.
"I'm going to go up and talk to it. Get some gold bars together just in case."
"Just give me an hour and I can run up a dragon fire simulation," Dr. Saito begged in his wispy voice. Chances like this were rare.
"Barnaby and I will be fine." Kotetsu shuddered as he remembered the last time the doctor had used him as a fireball target.
"We're going to talk, not fight. Origami Cyclone is going to Hero Academy to see if any students there have a power like this and everyone else is helping evacuate the buildings downtown," Barnaby said. "Where are you going," he asked Kotetsu, who was trying to open the window.
"Going to sneak up on the dragon."
"You can crawl up the side of the building if you like, I'm taking the elevator." Barnaby adjusted his helmet and picked up a small plastic baggie of coins. The coins had once looked magnificent in Mr. Maverick's collection.
The dragon uncurled itself at the sound of the elevator's ding. Barnaby and Kotetsu stepped out cautiously.
"Hello," the dragon said. He sniffed at Barnaby's bag of coins. "Is that for me?"
"Yes," Barnaby said. "There's a 1922 Sternbild Double Dollar in there, along with a couple of other nice pieces." He set the bag in front of the dragon and backed away quickly.
"Oh, thank you." The dragon said. It pawed at the bag and coins bounced across the roof. "They're lovely. Who are you?" The dragon studied its reflection in their helmets. "Robots?"
"We're heroes. Wild Tiger and Barnaby Brooks, Jr.," Kotetsu announced.
"Don't heroes fight dragons?" The dragon's tail twitched anxiously.
"No, no." Kotetsu took off his helmet. "We came to give you a present and talk a little, there's a good dragon."
Barnaby took off his helmet and the dragon gasped. "Oh, your hair is like gold! You must be a princess!"
"No, we're heroes, not the dragon-slaying kind, regular heroes," Kotetsu said.
"You may be a hero, but this is a princess." The dragon trotted around Barnaby, then with a flick of his tail, he knocked Kotetsu off Justice Tower.
"Kotetsu!" Barnaby screamed. He ran to the edge of Justice's crown and saw Kotetsu's wire wrapping itself around the lower balcony.
"Should I eat you before or after my nap?"
Both options seemed unpleasant to Barnaby. "After. By the way, do you have enough coins to nap on? I can get you more."
"That's very kind of you. It would be far more comfortable up here with more gold."
"If you let me go, I can bring you bags of gold."
"How do I know you'll come back?" The dragon brightened and the sun sparkled on its chestnut and cadet blue scales. "I know! I'll get a backup princess, and if you don't come back, I can eat her."
"No, wait!" But the dragon was off, forest green, goldenrod, and orchid scales flashing.
The dragon was illiterate, so if Karina Lyle's management had simply painted "Princess of Song" on her tour bus, it would never have noticed. But, in an effort to appeal to her younger fans, they had added giant gold crowns to the roof and to her piano. Rehearsal stopped as the dragon flew overhead, Karina stepped away from the piano, but it was already too late. The dragon picked her up in his sky blue and thistle claws and flew away.
Her manager swore at their recklessness in ignoring the evacuation orders. "For insurance purposes, do you think that counts as an Act of God," he wondered.
The dragon slept peacefully, immense head resting on the pile of gold bars Barnaby had spent the day collecting.
"Now that he's asleep, freeze him."
"There's not enough moisture in the air. I could pull together a spear or something." Karina stretched out her foot and gently prodded the dragon. "He seems pretty tough. If someone brought me my old guns, I could do something."
"We need to get a message to the others. It's too bad it ate the communication tower they had up here. That's disrupted service all over the city." Barnaby tapped at the communicator on his wrist. "Still doesn't work. Maybe tomorrow it'll let me go to get more gold."
"The helicopters are still out there." Karina and Barnaby watched the black dots in the distance. Earlier, a Hero TV helicopter had swept in looking for an exclusive interview, and the dragon had knocked it out of the sky. The crew had parachuted to safety, but they were not going to take any more chances.
"Do you think my kidnapping has been on the news?"
"There's no such thing as bad publicity," Barnaby said.
"I know, but I want the people who come to my concerts to come for the music, not for Blue Rose. I've worked hard to build a career under my own name and this could ruin it."
The dragon shifted its head, sending a blast of toasty air in their direction.
"Wild Tiger was going to bring his daughter to my afternoon concert," she said.
"That's nice. She really likes music, she'll listen to anything."
"Because of the late night show, I wasn't going to be able to come to his New Year's party. But, I'm sure the three of you would have had fun," she said.
"Three? He didn't tell me Kaede was staying in the city."
"She's going back to her grandmother's after the concert. Apparently Kotetsu invited everyone over, but the only one who didn't have plans is Antonio. Remember how the last time they got drunk together they treated everyone to a medley of songs that were popular when they were in high school." The way she said high school clearly meant rather you than me.
Barnaby decided that the five day resort option was a mistake and next year he would go for the ten day package. Spending any holiday in Sternbild was a mistake.
For a long time the dragon's snoring was the only sound on the roof. The city below them was uncharacteristically dark.
"Do you think the dragon's strong enough to carry both of us," Karina whispered, but Barnaby was already snoring quietly. She rolled up her sweater as a pillow and tried to get some sleep. The area around the dragon was perfectly warm. The sky had a velvety darkness she'd never seen in the city before, and the stars twinkled merrily, free from the overbearing competition of brightly lit buildings. Karina didn't know much about astronomy, but the sky told her it had to be after midnight. "Happy New Year, Barnaby," she said.
"Happy New Year, Blue Rose," she heard him say just before she fell asleep.
January 1, 1981
"What's your idea?" The dragon was prancing around Justice Tower, snapping at the helicopters that were bold enough to come close.
"We tell him there's a boat, a boat made of pure gold out there, and get him to take us close to the water. Once we get close, I'll freeze him and you can punch him out, hit him in his weak point or something. Then, I don't know, maybe someone from the Sternbild Zoological Society can come take him away," Karina said.
"In this plan of yours, we're riding on his back?" Barnaby didn't have a fear of heights, but the dragon didn't look fit for passengers.
"Or, we can wait for it to rain or snow and hope it doesn't get hungry."
The dragon settled on to his small nest of gold bars with the satisfied pride of a dog who has kept the postal service from delivering mail.
"Would you like some more gold?" Karina asked.
"Hmm… I think so, yes, more gold is always welcome. Do you have some?"
"We know where you can get some, but the directions are very difficult. If you let us ride on your back, we can show you where to get lots of gold."
"On my back?" The dragon looked from Karina to Barnaby. "That might hurt my wings. You're both so tall."
"If we're on your back, that leaves your claws free to grab lots of gold," Barnaby said.
"And the princesses," Karina added. "The boat has golden sails and a crew of princesses, one from each borough."
"Let's go!" The dragon was so excited it took immediately, spinning in the air.
"This isn't going to work," Barnaby said.
Eventually, the dragon calmed down enough for them to crawl on his back, which turned out to be much too scaly for comfort. They managed to make a sort of saddle out of Karina's sweater and Barnaby's jacket, but it wouldn't hold them for too long.
If the situation had been different, Barnaby would have enjoyed flying over the city on the dragon's back. Unlike the helicopters he was used to, it was quiet and no one was putting a microphone in his face. The grid had a quiet beauty, and there was something familiar in the shape of the streets that circled Justice Tower, but the urgency of the situation kept him from thinking about it too deeply. Karina had said to hit the dragon in his weak point, but now that he'd felt the scales under him, he doubted there were any weak points.
"I wish I had my camera," Karina said.
The dragon glided over the warehouses; his wings beat faster as they approached the water.
"We're still too high," Karina said.
"Excuse me," Barnaby shouted. "Can we go down? I think I see the boat over there."
Karina and Barnaby held on tightly as the dragon descended. They were now close enough to see the reflection of the dragon's apricot and copper and mahogany scales on the water below.
"One last Cutie Escape!" Karina let go of the dragon and jumped. Barnaby almost lost his grip as the dragon twisted around to see what they were doing.
"Where'd she go?"
Ice erupted from the ocean below them. The dragon squawked as icy chains wrapped around his tail and pulled him down. Barnaby slid down the ice until he was under the dragon. He'd been right to worry—there wasn't a weak point in sight.
The dragon roared and bright flames melted the ice that was holding his tail.
"Do something!" Karina shouted. The dragon was indiscriminately spewing fire everywhere, melting the ice as fast as she could freeze it.
With every fiery breath, the dragon became smaller. The size of a cow, the size of a greyhound. It broke free of the ice and ran back to the city. Barnaby chased the now cat-sized dragon as it skittered over the frozen ocean, turning every step back into water. It leapt into the sky, a little wobbly as it adjusted to the shrunken wings, then with a burst of speed, it disappeared from view.
Barnaby attempted to storm away angrily, but the remaining ice shattered and plunged him into the cold ocean.
"Next year, ten day resort package," he thought. He kicked off his shoes and started swimming for the faint patches of daylight he could see above him.
Kotetsu had fluffy towels and coffee waiting for him on the rescue boat.
"The dragon escaped into the city," Barnaby said. "We need to go after him before he causes any more damage."
"Don't worry, Bunny. The dragon is more or less gone." Kotetsu tapped his communicator. "Origami Cyclone, are you there?" The screen expanded to show an empty hospital room.
"Wild Tiger, we have successfully apprehended the dragon." A torn page from a sketchbook was held up to the screen. The ink had run, but the crayon was still vibrant and Barnaby instantly recognized the detailed scales.
"That's not a police sketch, what is that?"
"That's your dragon," Kotetsu said. "There's a kid at Hero Academy who could make drawings come to life, mostly small creatures, butterflies, spiders."
"They found him unconscious yesterday, holding a blank sketchbook. They knew something must have come out, but they didn't know what until they turned on Hero TV," Origami Cyclone said.
"He could make drawings come to life?"
"He can't seem to do it anymore. They've been testing him ever since he woke up and except for an ant, which turned out to be lint, nothing."
"It's for the best," Kotetsu said. "He can have a normal life. Some of the scientists here, I really wouldn't trust them around someone who could make anything."
"Another towel? By the way, Barnaby, last night's New Year's Eve party is now officially a New Year's Day dinner, 6PM at my place. That gives you plenty of time to shower and nap and warm up your vocal cords."
"Warm up?" A sense of doom crawled over Barnaby.
"Antonio is renting a karaoke machine and my brother sent up one of those big bottles of sake."
The look of happiness on Kotetsu's face was all that kept Barnaby from jumping back into the ocean and swimming until he reached a tropical, holiday-free beach. "Happy New Year," he said.