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Eternally Never Yours

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Mario,

Let's get this cleared up:

You're a moron.

I don't get how you've been missing it for so long. I'm not going to make it easy and spell it out for you. It's not your style and that's not how I want it. But I'm losing my patience, which has never been that high to begin with.

It's been years of the same routine, over and over again. I kidnap the princess; you jump around tons of worlds that I've taken control of, and storm your way to my castle. Have you ever stopped and wondered why I keep at it? You must have.

Everyone else wonders. She does. Her people do. My people. I'm pretty sure your brother does too. So you must have questioned my routine. What I question is how you couldn't figure it out from that.

How could you not see that I'm doing this…all of it…for you?

The easy opinion is that I like Peach. Where that started is beyond me, but it became the most popular reason that anyone can follow. "The monster has to be in love with the girl! Why else would he constantly take her away? Certainly not for her hero, that's for sure!" Ugh.

Don't get me wrong; she's pretty. Blonde hair and blue eyes, a favorite, winning combination for anyone, I suppose. The blonde is too bright, for my tastes. You brown is softer to look at. Blue eyes are quite lovely, but her glint of ice and lack the warmth I see in yours. Whereas hers are cold, yours are deeper, immersive as an ocean, and much more assuring to look into. It's easy to lose myself in your eyes.

What of the rest of her? What of her sugary sweet personality that everyone loves? I loathe it. She's soft, too soft. It's a wonder that she could be in charge of an entire kingdom. I must compliment her, as she can buckle down and show strength, once in a while. But that's so overshadowed by her insecurity, her fragile appearance, and constant need to be rescued.

Of course she would like you. Short, but strong. You get a fair bit of a workout from your travels and battles, I'm sure. I do contribute, after all. Sure, you look a little pudgy from time to time, but that means you eat, unlike the boney princess. A little over nourishment isn't a problem for me, as you could identify by my own outward appearance. (The shell adds a lot of my bulk, honestly.) Of course, the mustache is a plus, as anyone could tell you. I'm dying to know what it feels like to have it graze my lips and can only imagine how many lucky women have had the chance to take what I so desperately desire. Especially, of course, our "beloved" princess.

If you're interested in her, that would make sense. That's the logical thing, isn't it? The story with the, what's it called, "brave, noble, dashing hero" risking everything he understands and climbing every mountain to reunite with his, "beloved princess," right? It sounds like the most romantic tale of them all, of course.

No one would suspect any interest in the monster, at least.

Anyway, the answer is no. Peach is my target to prove how flawed her kingdom's defenses are, how prone she is to attack. If I were to marry her, it wouldn't be out of love; I want her kingdom, plain and simple. It wouldn't be a long arrangement and she'd quickly be…disposed of, so to speak. But everyone loves a good show, right?

So I give them just that: the grandest charade they'll ever entertain. "The big and terrifying monster that lusts for the beautiful princess and terrorizes her kingdom so he can have her for himself." HA! Truly, this makes the most sense to the public at large, be it for one kingdom or another. Hers, some foreign land, whatever, or even my own. They all fall for that sham of a story.

Going along with it is bitter work, but I do so nevertheless. Feign interest in her, dumb down my speech and intellect, and act like she's everything I want. It's easy to fall into and even easier to fool everyone, including the girl herself.

It's not so good of a performance, however, that even you should be deluded by it. You're better than that and I know you are.

Clearly, you do enjoy playing the hero, what with all of the constant dangers to handle, perilous adventures that await, new worlds to explore, and so much more. And then, when you've "vanquished the evil tyrant" and rescued "thy fair lady," you're rewarded on a grandiose scale. It's all too alluring for you to resist, I imagine.

Who could?

If I looked so handsome and fell into that role in the tale, I'd take it and run with it, just like you. It grants the greatest of payoffs, after all, so why not?

If you knew the truth, it could stop you, or at least give you pause before your next little quest.

You can't know. You're somehow caught up in the act. You have to be.

You must be.

I tell myself this every time we square off. Each time you engage me, I wait a moment, looking to see if you've changed. I'm hoping I see your mind conflicted, maybe some sign of hesitation.

But no, you never do. You're as confident as ever. Beat the tyrant, save the princess. I can almost guarantee that's your mantra as you approach me.

Did it ever, even once, cross your mind that the big, bad Koopa may be less caught up in usual drama than you realize? Do you ever think that, maybe, just maybe, that he's looking for something more?

If I were to yell out, "I love you," would you hesitate then? Would you think more carefully, with a cleared mind, away from all of the lies?

I can't tell you how tempting that is for me. Just to see you freeze up would be a delight. You might even stop and I could finally be honest about my feelings, about the act, and everything else. Maybe you'd reciprocate my feelings.

Could you?

My heart pounds with hope every time I see you. It leads to disappointment, always. But I cannot…no, I refuse to give up.

I don't know what it takes. The more days that pass by, the more I feel at wit's end. What does it take to get you to understand in the subtlest way? How do I save face for us both if we ever do get the right words, the proper feelings out? What happens after, when the tyrant Koopa king relents in attacks and suddenly goes out to more and more parties and sporting events with what everyone foolishly considers his arch nemesis?

Actually, it's those times I enjoy the most. Simple sports. Racing, golfing, football or soccer, tennis, baseball, or whatever else we can play. It's these times that I don't have to work against you. I normally do, for appearances obviously. But there's always the chance for the unthinkable: the two of us on the same side, working together. The chance for you to be with me, however brief, and for us work as equals. The moment for us to share the same burning desires, the goals and victories we hunger for. I long for that to go beyond games.

But I lose myself again. My attention is always on you, one way or another. It gets to the point where I forget everyone else, including your brother, the green clad fellow. He's…charming, in his own rights. In fact, I have debated pursuing him, as he seems more, um…what's the proper way to say it? Feminine? Easily emasculated? Either way, I suppose do find him somewhat viable as an option. He's related to you after all, and does well enough to oppose my forces.

But it's you I prefer by far. I don't know how else to say it, but I prefer the more masculine and strong types. It makes a suitable match for me, reflects how I am as well.

This all leads back to my introduction: you are, in fact, a moron.

You're brilliant, strong, cunning, kind, and quite talented. However, I firmly believe that you're not as smart as I believe. This train of thought soothes me when I'm driven insane by the lack of acknowledgement to me. The smart man would realize that I'm after him, not the princess. You? You couldn't be further from realizing it, could you?

Or could I be mistaken? Are we both anticipating the same thing and waiting for one another to make the first move?

What am I to you? Nemesis? Evil king? Dark lord? Am I a friend with a twisted sense of humor? Mutual crush that fails to admit to shared feelings? Anyone important? Nobody? Tell me, I'm begging to know!

I need a sign. I've told you so many times how important you are to me. All right, I admit that it's not blatant and I continue my charades. But if you're so important as an enemy to me, can't you try connecting the dots? I'm not as good of an actor as I've lead everyone to believe.

Are you nervous too? Are you afraid to bring out your deepest feelings? Can you not stand the thought of playing any role beyond the hero? Do you share feelings with not only me, but your precious princess as well? It's not my son that brings doubts to your mind, is it?

My son. Is that who causes you to hesitate? Is he who makes me hesitate? I've told him many lies to keep him under the veil of my performances. He believes my artificial hatred of you is quite real. I don't know how to tell him otherwise. There are days that I wish he were a clone of me, something produced by a Magikoopa's magic. He's not. Junior is…from a fling. One I don't even remember. It must have been another Koopa, since he doesn't possess any other traits from…well, anything else. He could be my clone, for all anyone cares; he's identical to me and shares almost every little trait with me. Physically, emotionally, mentally, he's me. He's far too young for me to explain the truth. Getting with you might even prove disastrous for him. I may not always act it, but I do cherish him. Junior and the other Koopalings. My army is my family and they do what they can to keep my spirits up. It's not easy playing the villain; less so when I'm smitten for my so-called adversary.

I'd love to work it out somehow. My life would suddenly become picture perfect if I could just have you by my side, no questions asked. It goes to the point where I could relent any conquest desires I have; my kingdom is strong enough as is and if giving up my plans to rule over all meant us being together—happiness—I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Yes, conquest. As I said, it's all for you. I act like a vicious ruler so no one can see my tender side, my vulnerabilities. In truth, I would probably make a very normal, if not boring, empire.

There's a reason that I've ventured to space; castles with lava moats can only hold an appeal for so long. You stopped me there; I knew you would, of course, even relished your pursuits of me, but it was an undeniable blast for both of us. It was something I was delusional about; the grandeur of space was alluring. Part of me hoped that we could get lost out there, just the two of us. It could never work though; we have too many responsibilities. My kingdom, your princess; there's so much to keep up with. So much that keeps us apart.

That's the point of total conquest for me: take control of everything, no more opposition. No more sides. You would be with me. There would be no more acting. I wouldn't need to make an excuse to see you or work with you. You would be mine and I would become yours. We could rule, both of us, together.

The people would think you'd do it to keep me in check, to stop any further forms of my infamous evil domination. We could laugh in privacy, mock the idea that I did it for any power hungry ambitions. Power is a tool, an extension of oneself to accomplish goals. Mine is simply to have you. It's dramatic, sure, but worthwhile, I'm certain. If you could tell me of alternatives, I'm more than willing to listen.

If you would tell me anything intimate, I'm desperately waiting to hear.

I delude myself with how much I want from this. My thoughts drift, wondering if a monarchy has ever had to kings united through their matrimony and if we'd be the first. We haven't even begun to explore a relationship, let alone entertain such thoughts. (Still, I can't seem to help myself.) Could we engage in romance with one another? Would we be so compatible? I don't know. I like to think so, but I realize that we need to actually get there first.

It goes nowhere though. I hesitate, afraid of consequences. Fear seeps through me as I wonder what the world around us, the people, will think. Is it so unnatural? On how many levels? What lines would we cross by becoming lovers? Would we be rejected and horrify the masses? Or would we be embraced, finding the best solution to peace that could be arranged? Would your brother accept a monster in law, literally instead of figuratively? Could my son understand my love for you and accept you as a second father?

There are no answers. Only fantasies.

My heart bleeds and, more than anything, I fear that we will never be together. If you were to reject me, that would be simpler. Painful, but we could make the illusion real. My appearance as an evil overlord would be much easier to keep up with. Or perhaps I could relent, let that go entirely, with nothing left to pursue.

No, I fear more of your mutual acceptance of me.

It would not be of your love. It would be of the difficulties that rise from us being together. There would be a strenuous amount of problems and trials for us to face. There would be someone, somewhere, that would deny us, refuse our love.

We would be outcasts. I would be overthrown from my kingdom. You would be banished and labeled traitor to the Mushroom Kingdom. They might even hunt us; do everything possible to separate us. Claim that we're mentally ill. Keep us apart.

It's unimaginable. Even if we could manage to be together, could we manage to be parted from our loved ones? Could we leave everything we've ever come to know behind, with only each other forevermore?

If you could, maybe you could give me the strength to do so. It's incomprehensible to me at base value.

I wonder, again and again, if there could be a perfect world for us. I could wish on all the stars for us to be together. Is there was a possible way for everything to go right? You know that I've tried. You've stopped me without knowing why, but if you knew, would you let me? Or do you stop me because it isn't right? Would it be so unnatural to create our own world from scratch?

If you knew, would you let me? Would you help me? Would we agree?

There's so much that I wish to know. I want so much from you, from myself. I'm not brave, not like you. I'm afraid. I'm insecure. I need you, your guidance, to let me know if I'm right. I need to know if you want what I want.

Mario, you are everything to me. No, you will never know, but you are everything that I could ask for, all that I pine for.

I call you the fool because I want you to make the first move. It should be me, but I'm far too afraid. Could you understand someone so mighty being so frail? I disgust myself with such thoughts, but it's true. It burns me so.

These are the most painful truths, but they're all I know.

Years will trickle by. We will engage eternally in battle. We will never be together. We will die, again and again, longing for an impossible end.

But as I've said, you should know by now:

I will never give up.

Eternally never yours,

Bowser

Chapter Text

Beloved Friend,

I have a confession: I love to play with fire.

It's probably my fatal flaw, or it's definitely one of them. This is just something that's fascinated me since I was a child, a baby even. Dancing flames, swirling magma, flowing lava, smoky smells, sensational warmth, perfect destruction, and it's got my attention more times than I can count.

Sure, it's a hazard and the more you fool around with it, the more likely you are to get burned. If you're really careless, it will most definitely kill you. Yet, there is a certain thrill to having the power flow from your fingertips and unleashing just a tiny ball of beauty onto the world, however brief it is. Honestly, I don't recommend it to anyone else. Fire is my everlasting addiction, one that I shouldn't have, but I can't tear myself from it.

The problem is that I don't really tell anyone about it. People think that everything is under control. Not even my brother has any clue at just how entranced I am. One would think that he would be more likely to struggle with something like this. It fits more in line with his character, not mine.

What's my character? Well, I'm supposed to be the hero. My role is to be the one that everyone looks up to. The sky turns dark, the princess is taken, people lose hope, and hell has essentially broken loose. But as soon as I walk in, no one is afraid anymore and the world is suddenly at a calm. I'm meant to plunge myself into spiraling stacks of flames and emerge victorious, restoring the world to its proper order. The people clap, they cheer my name. Their savior returns balance and keeps them going for another day. And that's when the fire is supposed to go out.

But it never does.

And I don't understand why. It burns, passionately as always, the very next time. Any time I try to pat it down, whenever I look to put it out, the fire seems like it dies, but it just waits for a moment before it comes back to life.

The people may think to be afraid, but their bravest man will appear again, and, no matter how difficult, he will work to tame the fire. What they can't see, what I'm afraid of them ever seeing, is that I help light the flames. By trying to put them out, I only build them up again.

An endless cycle is a kind way to describe it. My burning waltz is maddening.

Truthfully, the worst part is how much I enjoy it.

No, not playing the hero, not exactly. One would think that being everyone's idol would be what keeps me going. It's not. It's diving into the inferno. It's my obsession. It calls to me and I respond without hesitation.

We come together, time and again, and I love it. What? Love, you ask? How could a fool be so mesmerized by something that does nothing but bring pain upon your loved ones?

Thing. That's what they would call it. I frown whenever I hear that for the name. The thing. The monster. The freak. The beast. The terror. The villain. The king of all evils, everything wrong with the land. His royal majesty, they call mockingly call him, his grouchiness, his awfulness, his wretchedness, and all the terrible rest. That's what they would call him.

The fire. My fire.

Madness. Sheer, utter lunacy. That's how they'd label my mania, my passion. That's why I'll never tell. Truth be told, I'm no hero, for I love this destruction, this chaos. When the people cry out for me, I'm not caught up in the pleasure it is to save them, their princess, the kingdom. With a strong grin on my face, that's what they'd assume, but they're wrong. That smile is because I'm excited to go after him again.

Yes, him. He is the fire, my fixation. He literally breathes flames and would dare to put on a show just for one, just me. Always just for me, I like to tell myself. Imagine.

It's not though.

I hear the whispers through the towns, the castle courtyards. "The beast would so love the princess, if he could make her his own!" Lies. Slander. It has to be.

Doesn't it?

Yet, it makes sense to me, as I piece it together. He tries so hard, not for me, but for her. Conquest is for her, to show his strength, his girth. He thinks that by toppling her, she'll somehow become more invested in him, more in love with him. I don't think he understands how desperately she detests flirting with danger.

Her. Not me.

I love the badness. It's hilarious how many people would peg Peach for it. Pretty perfect princess that she is, everyone imagines that she wants something that stands as a foil. People look at her when they think someone would actually desire a person that's darker, meaner. They look right past me.

It must be, since I get my hands slightly dirty now and again, that they think I want something soft, tender. Don't get me wrong, I want someone to open up to; it's a bad habit of mine to keep things bottled inside, hardly mentioning a "hello" some days. And I've taken days to wonder if that would be Peach. It might be nice, in another world, another day.

But we're just friends.

It should be easy to follow. I've rescued her many a time, and yet, while we share tender moments together, they're just because I've taken the time to get to know her. See the princess beyond the appearances, beyond the sugary sweet personality she lets the world see.

Her delicate fragility is actually her armor. No, she's not going to burst forward with the strength of a hundred men. Peach is more complicated. Yes, she is sweet as the kingdom knows her, but deep down, she is burdened. The kingdom, world sees her in the best possible the light, the warmest and brightest. It's not all cakes and roses for her though. She's had to make hard calls, painful decisions. They're not always moral, and they're not at all easy. They take a toll on her, mentally, emotionally.

Peach never lets that slip through though. Never her. Not her grace. She has to be the perfect princess everyone expects her to be. If she were to show any signs of slipping, even the slightest hint or promise of failure, the people would be in despair. They would anguish. They would riot.

And so, when she has no one, she turns to me.

It sounds a lot like love, but it's not. There's a difference between the secrets of friends and those of lovers. She tells me of her struggles and I'm her shoulder to cry on. It's not because she thinks I'm the greatest thing she's ever met, but because she knows that I can handle the harder side. Sure, she's called me handsome, attractive even, but not with passion behind it. These are more off hand or matter of fact comments, not ones that she would want me to understand are only her thoughts. They're the thoughts that any woman could have.

Or any man, right?

What defines a man, anyway? Is it so simple, a handsome fellow who knows his way around tools, sports, power ups, and, of course, the ladies? Or is there something deeper behind it? Is it just a slightly short and a bit stout fellow, who happens to be quite athletic all the same, or can it be extended to a much large creature, one that runs a kingdom all his own, with loyal subjects and followers, hampered only by his desires for conquest and his physical appearance?

People would call Bowser disgusting. How is beyond me. He's strong, imposing. Carrying the shell on his back shows signs of this strength. Yet, he always manages to wear some kind of a pearly white smile. Many claim that his eyes are blood shot and full of threatening evil, but I see something else. When our eyes meet, I see warmth. It's a beautiful red color, one complemented by his scorching red hair, which fits so calmly between his horns. Any strains in there are from a tired workingman, or monster, as others prefer to call him. Sure, the scales are different, but they seem so smooth, uniform in their place. The spiked cuffs and collars are intimidating, but fit in a style that suits him nicely. Sure, the claws might be sharp, but he keeps them well groomed; maybe I should be more afraid of those, but I feel some kind of excitement from seeing them.

The fun part is the tail. It wags around as he saunters, flowing delicately after the rest of his form. I have a fascination with exotic features, and this a highlight indeed. He manages to keep it in tow, yet it just calls for someone to reach out. It beckons for a tug, to test his body's potency. More than once, I've gone after it, swung him by it. After all, I need to assess it for myself, examine him. Show off myself, a little. I admit, it's not the best way to offer myself to him, but it gets the point across.

His persona is something to behold in itself. Most know only his wrath, rage. I'm told how he is selfish and lacks redeeming qualities. Yet, he rules a kingdom. His subjects hold him in high regard and willingly send themselves out in his name. Some take the utmost pride in it. Even his name commands respect. (Bow, ser, before the mighty Koopa King, Bowser.) Perfectly fitting.

Many say that he dominates his soldiers into submission, to enforce their undying cooperation. How, then, can he manage to keep his army loyal? Fear only works for so long, especially on the younger seven Koopalings. He holds them close to his heart, almost like his own son. Junior, however, he showers with endless amounts of affection.

Obvious that he would get all of the love, being the rightful heir, but there are rulers, parents that refuse to show love even to their children. There are Toads that would run in terror and leave their children to die. These Koopa kids purposely put themselves in the line of danger, to impress their father, to show him that they are just as capable as the soldiers he sends forth.

And what of their father, the king? He fights right alongside the children. His go to partner in crime is his own son. Even when the boy makes mistakes, he can still make his father proud.

How could a total family man be only evil?

Still, there are those that insist Bowser to be as much a fool as a terrible tyrant. Judging by his well-crafted plans, from invading any defenses that the castle guards could think up (myself included), to whatever schemes and obstacles he creates, reaching so far as to journey into space, I would conclude that he is anything but dim-witted. It takes a wealth of knowledge and intelligence to pull off even half of what he does. There's a certain artistic flair hidden within the king, one that is only noticed through careful observation.

It also amazes me, how no one can notice his mischievous side, with a playful grin here and a mocking look there. I suppose I am the usual recipient to these, as if he is daring me to challenge him. If only he understood that I wanted more than fighting him, more than being his number one competitor in battle, sports, parties, and whatever else.

There must be something more there, right? He has the same obsession with facing me as I do with him. He comes at me with everything, time and again. Is it hatred? Does he detest me so much, being the foil to his every effort? How could he stand being near me, when we're not clashing? We've worked together before, gone along on adventures together, even played on the same team in the different sporting events we attend. He has a sort of love-hate attitude toward me and I desperately want to understand it.

I already know the kingdoms, the world, would call my love a form of insanity, but would he? I would tell him, but I'm afraid that he would mirror their reactions. Disgust. Laughter. Something else to use against me, I suppose.

More frightful, I gather, would be if he returned them. What then? What would we become after that? Could I change him? Should I? Would I change?

Me, the slaughterer of his armies, the man that ruins the plan, asked by the King of Koopas to be welcomed into their castle, their kingdom? Him, the one that strikes away a heartbeat in any Toad's chest, the "monster" that harasses their ruler, the one that terrorizes the world at large, presented as the love of my life?

I can't even imagine my own brother's reaction. His twin, so twisted inside? How could his big brother, the hero and his idol, be intimately involved with the worst demon of them all? How could I ever let my little brother down? I worry that I take away so much from him already. The world is a cruel place, he is very wary of that. And yet he soldiers on, chasing me to hell itself, if not to stop the "forces of evil," then at least to save me.

Luigi has always been so selfless, putting everyone and everything before himself. How could I possibly hurt him in such a way, betray him? How could I put him through a horrifying truth? Lie to him? Put his neck on the line? He's not my subject, a citizen, or my follower. He's my brother. How selfish would it be, for me to tell him that I love our designated enemy? Risk him to flirt with fire?

I am mad. To fathom that there would be acceptance is absurd in and of itself.

And I'm painfully avoiding the fact that he may truly love the princess. Is it just a means to an end? Does he only want her for the kingdom? I see a hunger in his eyes, but I mistake it to be for me. What if it is for her? She calls me the handsome one, yet she is a beautiful creature in another level above mine. Well above. He must notice her that way. Why settle for less and deal with all the risks that come with me? She is the prize, the highest honor. She could give him so much more than I can offer.

Even if Peach rejects him, he must still desire her. He must want her. Almost everyone does. Why not him? Why should I think him above it all? Just because I want him, just because I believe that he should be mine, that doesn't suddenly make my King into my lover. My crush. Not love.

Such thoughts slay me. I laugh at people who expect so much from Peach and myself, as it goes nowhere, but I am presented with the same trouble between Bowser and I.

We have gone nowhere.

My thoughts are a mess. I cannot see clearly, even with the brightest lights. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes me happy.

How can I want my enemy? He is the worst possible thing I could have ever asked for. He opposes me, he terrorizes all that I love, and, simply put, he drives me insane.

The worst part of it all is that I can't live without him.

Even as I look over all that I have written here, it's something disgusting for anyone else to behold. I should hate it. I should hate these thoughts, this lust. Love between men is a delicate subject in and of itself. Love between mortal enemies isn't possible.

Yet it's real. These are my thoughts. I desire these things. This is my truth. I say so little, and I'll never let myself come so close to revealing these secrets, but it's all here. Something that no one can know, and it's that I love—


"Mario?"

The door creaked open and I whirled around to find my younger, leaner brother, standing just outside our room. The lights have been turned off and the rest of the house is cloaked in the night's dark, save for the little light next to me. He glanced to the wooden desk, giving a curious look to my letter, scribbled on paper.

"What are you writing, bro?" Luigi asks, probably controlling a burning desire to dive at the letter and read it all for himself.

I wouldn't dream of giving him the chance. "Nothing special," I flawlessly lie to him, "just a little something to organize my thoughts about some silly speeches that Toadsworth wants me to present. You know, the opening for road and bridge, the one from Toad Town to Peach's Castle?"

"Ah, ok," he replies, with a hint of satisfaction. "Fun stuff. Bet you can't wait to have the crowd cheer for you, huh?"

I roll my eyes and he laughs. "Of course. It's what I live for," comes my exaggerated reply.

"Well, they love you for it," he manages, through his dwindling chuckles. "Get some rest and make sure you've got it set in the morning."

"I will once I'm done. There's just a little more."

He nods and climbs into the bed nearest to the door, taking his place on the lower bunk. "Good night, Mario," comes my brother's sleepy voice.

"Good night, Luigi," I whisper as I return to the paper.


Something that no one can know, and it's that I love Bowser. Not Luigi, my brother whom I share many things. Not Peach, who can be my confidant as much as I hers. Not even Bowser himself, who will probably never know my declarations of love.

I want this written though. It's dangerous to do so, but it's been plaguing at my mind for the longest time now.

Yes, I'm sure this will end up in someone else's hands, at some point or another. I am hopeful that it is someone who comes to understand me, if not someone I come to love. Hence my address to you, reader; I hope you have stayed with me thus far and, should I know you, that we continue to work through things together. Truly, I hope that I've given this away willingly and that it was not stolen from me.

Perhaps I should burn this before then. But it is late, and I need to draw this to a close. It clears my mind, writing this down, but I suppose I'll need an alternative.

Until then, I'm sure my fiery waltz will continue.

Fondly,

Mario (Yep, that's-a me!)

Chapter Text

[Mario]

I'm at the castle again. His. It's in the final corridor of my journey, which happens to be his throne room today. We're across the way from one another. It's warm, but not because of the torches lit around the room. He stands from his spiky black throne, revealing the red cushioning underneath.

He looks at me, with his usual toothy grin. Already I am looking from that to his eyes. Red. Fire. Perfection.

Seeing the princess in a cage beside the throne means we're in for a fight. She's in a white dress though, strangely. Wedding? Was he forcing her into it? Why isn't he in a tux? Would he wear one? Can we get him to wear one?

No. Not here. Focus. I need to stop him. I hate it, but I must…

Stop. I'm looking over to my right. My brother is against a wall. He's battered. I don't look long, but I'm sure he took too many hits. But he never ventures this far, or rather, not before me.

I look down. I'm a bit scratched up, but it's not as severe as his. Or, I don't think?

Cries and cheers for a father echo. His son, Junior, is waiting to join in, ready to fight with his father. He looks angrier than usual. Twisted, almost. Pained, somehow?

A thunderous roar erupts and my attention is back to the center, to him. He bellows a breath of fire and I need to move. But I can't. I don't. Why won't I?

The fire consumes me…wait, this isn't right!

Laughter is the last thing I can hear. It's faint, far away. "You're a fool to even look at me that way." His voice. His words. But I never heard him…this still isn't how it goes…no, enough!


I wake with a jolt and nearly fall from my bed. My heart is racing as I scramble up. A dream. A nightmare. That's all.

"Mario?" Luigi, sounding concerned. "You ok? I thought I heard muttering while you were sleeping. Sounded like you were scared."

Looking over the bunk, I meet my brother's eyes looking up at me, into a matching pair, mine. His hair's a little messy, but I'm back at his eyes, which waver a bit. His expression looks more afraid than his voice allows.

I laugh. It confuses and calms him at once. "It's today, isn't it? The opening?"

His frown lifts to a smile. "Of the new bridge and road? Yes, it is."

"Fantastic. My nightmare was about Bowser and his minions arriving to ruin it, but I was already standing at attention in my underwear." I try to make it sound convincing by making it ridiculous.

He frowns again, eyes lowered a bit. He's not buying it.

"What's worse," I added, still trying to sell it, "was having the princess gasp a little 'Oh my!' right behind me, Toadsworth babble about how preposterous it was, and then everyone proceeded to laugh at me. Every time I tried to get away, I walked or jumped into a tree." I pause here. I'm ready to say more, but Luigi's lips curved into a smirk. Now it's close to crazy enough. Now it can't be made up.

"Sounds completely humiliating, bro," he says, getting up from his bed. Luigi moves to the drawers and tosses a red shirt and blue overalls up at me. "Hit the shower and don't forget these on your way out."

"Yep, will do!" I toss off my covers and hop from the top bunk, clothes in hand. Moving toward the door, my hand reaches for the knob before my brother interrupts me.

"Shouldn't you bring that paper?" He points to the desk, with my letter from last night still decorating the center.

Did I really leave that there? I am insane. I'm expecting to rush Luigi to grab it, but he must think better of it and watches me snatch it. Too quickly, I've taken it. Think.

"Right, thanks, Luigi," I force another laugh. "Now I'm positive I'll forget something."

Not bothering to see his reaction, I hastily move out the door. He calls out to me anyway. "That's why I follow you. Someone has to make sure you've got your act together!"

It's unintentional, but those last words sting me.


[Bowser]

After a terrible nightmare of Mario and Peach marrying, with me ruining the wedding reception and being soundly trounced afterward, I wake with a cough.

"What does he see in her anyway?" I know the answers, but I ask the question out loud as it rolls from my head. With a groan, I toss my head back and onto my pillow again. I stare blankly at the ceiling. She's perfect, especially for him. Don't think about it.

There's a knocking at the end of my bedchamber. "Yes?" I gruffly call out, but it gets buried under another cough. Clearing my throat and answering the knocking again, "What?"

"Lord Bowser," comes a minion's voice. It's a grunt soldier, a Goomba, by the sound of the meek voice. "W-Word has been sent that a new road is being built between Peach's Castle and the Toads' little town." Stammering? What, is this a new recruit? Does he think I blast the door open and burn his little…? Bah, enough.

"And I care, why?" And the acting begins, with my continued annoyed responses.

"Um, well, the princess will be there." This has to be a new recruit if he thinks that will get me moving faster. Still, this has already gotten me rolling off my bed and up for the day, so he's got me by that technicality.

"And I suppose her little knight, will be there?" I grunt, and stifle a laugh. Twisting myself a bit, I stretch some while he pauses.

"W…Who, sir?"

Really? "Mario, you nitwit!" Seriously, must I spell it?

"O-Oh! Right, o-of course," stammering little Goomba continues. "Uh, yes sir, Mario, will be there as well." Naturally. "He's meant to give a small speech for the opening, along with the princess." How cute.

I roll my claws through my hair to fix it up before continuing. "Tell me again, soldier. Why should I care? Am I meant to trifle with every little event the princess holds?" Trifle? Hang on, that's almost too good. His mighty king doesn't speak like that. At least, not to anyone's knowledge.

"B-But sir," he continues, "I was sent by my superiors to tell you about this. It does lead to the c-castle. It would be a perfect time to-to kidnap the princess and proceed to eliminate Mario and take her kingdom, all in one fell swoop."

Huh. He's got a bit of a brain himself. I would hope more than the genius that sent him. "If this were any other kingdom, that would be a terrible idea. If everyone will be there, Stammers, why would an enemy like me appear there? So the guards can slay me and lay waste to my army?" Too theatrical with those words, I realize as I yawn. Straightening my cuffs, I realize I'm still waking up. I even named the Goomba.

"I…uh, well, sir, it's…um…"

"You're lucky, Stammers, that we're talking about the Mushroom Kingdom. As always, stealing Peach will be a cinch."

Strolling across the room, I throw open the door. The small little critter hops up with fright and I see his face. It's a Goomba, but his eyes are wider than others and his expression is nervous, not confident. His teeth aren't quite soft, but certainly not as sharp as they should be. He hits the floor hard, but quickly hops up again.

"Y-Yes, sir, certainly!"

"Well? What are you standing around for? Get back to training!"

"R-Right aw-away, Lord B-Bowser!"

Stammers the Goomba speeds off, down the hall, and disappears from my sight. Junior walks out of his room just to see him speed off. Undeterred, he looks to me with a grin on his face. He walks over, and by his bouncy stride, I can tell he's been up longer than I have.

"Morning, pop! …What was that all about?"

"Just a messenger, son." I pat his head. He giggles, still young and affectionate of his father. "It appears that now would be a good time to kidnap the princess again."

"Really? Can I come watch? Oh, I can help you grab her and tie her up!" He's eager, as always. I laugh and pat him again.

"Thanks, son. But if this goes well, I'm going to need you and the Koopalings to move out and begin a total takeover of the rest of the kingdom." His smile drops into a pout. Oh boy.

"But pop," he whines. "Why can't I help you kidnap the princess? The Koopalings can take over the rest of the kingdom without me. I wanna help you! And you need me!"

The kid has a point. Bringing him along could be helpful, and I've done it before. Not today though. I want to be alone a bit. I need to clear my head. If my son's around, I'm going to feel compelled to play father and teacher. Normally, I do love to, but now is not the time. So I force a laugh and put my hand on him.

"Thanks, son! And you're right; I could use you. But if I can take care of the princess on my own, then I'll need the rest of my takeover to go without a hitch. That's where you and the Koopalings will come in. They're pretty good at handling things, but I need to know that this plan turns out well. I'm only going to know that if you go and be ready for everything, son."

Keeping my smile up, I wait. Junior frowns for a bit, letting his head drop down. I doubt my words for a moment before he lifts his head, a confident smile on him now.

"Yeah, ok! You got it, pop!" he responds, full of renewed pep. "I'll go get the Koopalings ready now!" And he races off down another hall.

I let loose a breath that I didn't know I had been holding. Perfect. World's best dad just goaded his kid out of more important work. Bah, I can make it up to him later. And he seems fine with it; he'll only pull this kind of thing up on me when he's a teenager. I've got some time before then. Besides, if the plan does somehow backfire, at least he'll be safe.

Bah, that's enough parenting. The army awaits their king.


[Mario]

The ceremony has been underway for a little while, with probably the whole town of Toads gathered. Princess Peach and I wait on a slightly raised stage, listening to Toadsworth talk about kingdom history. Well, she might be. It's interesting to hear the first two or three times, but after hearing similar speeches dozens of times, I've started to let my mind wander as I awkwardly shift in the small seat, probably prepared last minute and not quite for someone as big as me.

It's fun to see the different expressions on the Toads. A good number do pay attention, listening patiently to elder steward explain how the Mushroom Kingdom came to be, noble rulers that lead to her Grace, Peach herself, my coming here for the first time, and current history.

Casting a glance, I look to see the princess, who wears a bright smile and keeps a steady posture. Honestly, I can't tell if she's completely engaged by Toadsworth's retellings of our lives, or if she's putting up a wonderful performance. Her eyes wander into the crowd, which is filled with a plethora of Toads, many that hold in gasps and squeals of awe once they think their eyes met Peach's. Her smile broadens a bit by their actions, taking in the moment. They look to me as well, and I find myself follow Peach's example, smiling kindly at excited eyes.

I turn my head and share a gaze with Peach. Already the crowd may be getting the wrong idea, but we need to find each other, breathe a minute. There's a moment that she seems like she wants to say something, but—

"And now, a few words from our Princess, Peach!"

Clapping sounded and Toadsworth has finished. Not what I was expecting to interrupt. By her quick jump, she wasn't anticipating it either. Yet no one seems to notice this and she strode up next to her steward, delicately taking the podium.

"Thank you all. It's a pleasure to be here for the opening of Toadstool Road…"

She has a few lines to read over, royal customs. I tune these out as well, having helped her practice one too many times myself. Perhaps it would be hard for anyone other than me to believe just how nervous she can get about these speeches. It's not so much about speaking in front of people as much as it is choosing her words carefully. If I could speak longer sentences and was required to recite stories of the kingdom, I might be as well. But that's not what people come to see me for. No long tales of old are necessary from their hero. Just a few quick whoops and they'll erupt into cheers.

My eyes scan the assembly for Luigi, who sticks out too easily with his vastly different appearance. He's caught up in Peach, not getting the opportunities I've had to spend with her. For a moment, I wonder if there's anything between them that he'd like to explore. Neither has mentioned it, though, so I find it doubtful.

Wandering, again, my eyes take another stroll. There are bright yellow banners around us, confetti waiting to burst forth from golden containers, and a small band waiting to play a few more lovely numbers for their princess. We're by the bridge, not too far from the castle. The stones used for it are smooth, fresh, and feel nice to walk on; maybe one would forget the dull grays used to make it. There's a nice view of a blue pond below it. The road is carefully paved, managing to not disrupt the charming nature around it, filled with lush green grass and tender trees.

It's a peaceful scene, if only a bit dull at the moment. Everything feels a bit too still, stiff, as the weather is fair and the community is neatly gathered before us. They should enjoy the resting time, instead of having to worry about the kingdom falling into disarray. Unlike me, I doubt many Toads are excited by adventures and battles and…facing a certain king.

Wait, no, not here, not now! Even if everyone believes I'm daydreaming about Peach, I don't need to be distracted, disoriented by—

"And now, please welcome our hero and my personal friend, Mario."

Never mind, I suppose. Letting a small sigh out, I jump up, a little high, and hear the cheers from all around. Deciding to give the people more, I pull off a back flip and let loose a loud, "Wahoo!" They love every second, cheering louder. That's enough for now though. I hurry past Peach, who claps and giggles softly, as I take the podium.

"Hello! It's-a so nice to see you!" I don't know why they love the accent, but it's something they've grown so accustomed to. More cheering and clapping continues, so I take a minute to wave excitedly, smile broadly, at everyone. I'm so caught up in the show that I almost miss Peach's gasp. Glancing back at her, she's looking skyward.

"Oh no!"

"It's him!"

"Not now!"

Toads cry out all around as I look to the sky and see the familiar dark airship approach. His majesty's arrived at last. Farewell, peace. This kingdom hardly knew you.


[Bowser]

My ship descends a bit, casting a dark shadow over the folks below. Cries of "He's here! It's Bowser! Oh no!" erupt all around. Delightful. Well, I'm sure Mario and Peach had their fun. It's time for me to ham it up and take the stage. Leaping from the airship with some of my soldiers, we do just that.

"BWA HAHAHA! That's right, you chumps! Bowser's here to take over!" Ugh. Why did I ever pick my dialect to sound like this? If I had just stuck with how I normally speak, when I'm alone, that would still be intimidating. I'm not just brawn; I've got a good share of brains. Sometimes. Oh well, this is all an act anyway. More importantly, it gets the job done.

"Bowser!" a fierce call out that prompts me to turn. The princess. And naturally, her little knight in overalls is already at her side.

"Well, hello, Peach," I laugh. "What a nice little ceremony you have here." A few pesky guards try to climb onto the stage and attack me, but my guardsmen severely outclass them. "What, didn't hand out the power-ups beforehand?"

"Why must you do this?" she chastises. "For once, couldn't you leave us in peace? Is there a reason you choose now to kidnap me?"

I laugh again. "I need one? Peach, dear, any time is as good as the next to kidnap you, for any and every purpose it serves!" Wait. Did I call her "dear" now? Bowser, back it up already. A Hammer Brother tosses a hammer at Mario, but he dodges it. His brother stomps on my soldier. Damn him.

"Give it up, Bowser!" The green one calls. "You're outmatched—whoa!" A few Koopas rush him.

"Bwa ha ha! Hilarious! I'd stay for more, but I've got more plans to keep up with." They're in progress, but they don't need to know that. I jab a finger out at the princess. "Peach! You're coming with me! Mario! Why don't you stand aside? Your brother needs you and a doctor soon!"

"Luckily I've dabbled a bit in that then," he challenges, a smirk on his face. His confidence against me is brimming right from the start. I love it. "My brother will be just fine. I can't say the same for you."

"There're a lot of same things we can't say, huh?" What? Where did that…? Oh crap, they're looking quizzically at me. Quick, cover it! "Like…bomb's away!"

…Pause. Why is there a pause? "I said, bomb's away!" I roar. Late to the stage, a squad of Bob-ombs rushed up and lit their fuses. Mario attempted to rush forward, but that just made it easier for me. I spat a fireball at the back Bob-omb, lighting it up and causing a chain explosion.


[Mario]

Coughing, sputtering, I tried my best to see around the smoke and fire from the Bob-omb blast, but to no avail.

"Mario!" Peach cried out from behind me.

"Hey! Someone grab Peach, let's go!" Bowser roared aloud. No, not today! Turning on my heel, I rushed back and dove to protect Peach. Finding her, I listened to heavy footfall nearing us, approaching faster than I imagined.

"Mario, help!" Peach called out as Koopas approached. I leaped onto one, knocking it from its shell. With a shout, I hurled it at the second one, a direct hit smashing it off the stage. Smirking, I turned to Peach as I heard something whizzing through the—


[Bowser]

Blasted smoke is everywhere. But I'm right on top of Peach now. Cannon fire erupts from around us as I reach forward. Wood tears up from nearby, shavings flying into my eyes.

"Damn it all!" I shout, reaching out and grabbing the princess. She practically falls into me. Keeping my eyes shielded (and a little shut), I try to escape, nearly falling off the stage. "Hey! Get me an escort!"

"This way sir!" A deeper voice called. Koopatrol. That's surprising; they just began training new regiments a week ago. In spite of an unexpected appearance, he guides us from the stage and to a rope. Feeling for it, I grab it with one hand and we're lifted from the ground. Several soldiers call out and I try to look as they jump back aboard. An attempt to mock Peach over another successful kidnapping is met with a sharp breeze into my eyes.

No matter. A kidnapping is a kidnapping. With a roar and laughter, I bellow out to the Toads below. "BWA HAHAHA! Peach is mine again! Rescue her if you dare, Mario! Soon, the entire Mushroom Kingdom will be mine! GWA HAHAHA!" Listening to cries of aguish grow faint, I feel the rope tugged up by my army.

Scrambling back on board, I rub my eyes. A few tears slide, but no major damage. Reaching forward, I tapped the Koopatrol.

"Send word to my son and the Koopalings to proceed with our plans."

"Right away, sir." With that, he marches off and I motion to gather my crew's attention.

"Good work, soldiers! As expected, everything went perfectly."

"Uh…sir?" some soldier starts. Koopa underling. I ignore him.

"Here, let's get the princess tied up," as I motion for some Hammer Bros. to get the ropes, but once they look at me, they can't move.

"Sir?" the same Koopa calls out, more persistent.

Annoyed, I snap, "What?"

"You…may want to take a look at your, um…hostage."

Raising an eyebrow, I look down past my arm and see bright blue overalls. My eye twitches a bit as I carelessly drop him. His red hat flops off a bit.

"We…we kidnapped Ma-Mario?!" a soldier's surprised cry rings out and several others begin to join in on a storm of conversation. I'm frozen. He groans, but I'm barely listening. Shouts sound around me, some pleads for orders, but my eyes are concentrated on Mario as he rises.

"B…Bowser…!" he tries, coughing a bit and sputtering my name out. He's wobbling and I'm tempted to prop him up. But that's a weakness that I can't afford the crew to see.

The crew. My army. Mario…here. Crap! I need to get myself together (after all, this isn't a first). The hero has himself more put together as he tries to steady his fists. No, he'll lose for certain here. My army will swarm him in no time.

"Knock him out!" I call out in a more panicked voice than I would have liked. A Hammer Brother takes the blunt side of his hammer and does so, encountering a somewhat surprising lack of resistance. Mario falls flat to the floor.

The excited clamoring begins. "He's still weak!"

"We got him!"

"Now's our chance!"

"We can end him now!"

"No!" my own voice roars out to everyone's surprise, myself included. All eyes turn to me, perplexed. They realize that I should want him dead. Quickly, Bowser, come up with something!

"We, uh, we are not going to make him a martyr. The last thing the Mushroom Kingdom needs is a reason to suddenly grow strong. And it could take them years, but they will make our fights more tedious than need be."

Murmuring begins among them as they take it in. I don't know if they're convinced yet. "We can torture him and kill him when the time is right, but we need to do this slowly and carefully. They need to believe that Mario still has the upper hand and can escape at some point. They need to fall into the belief that if they obey each of my demands, that Mario can eventually put an end to my so-called 'tyranny.' When they've given us everything, then we can crush their hopes. Then we can kill Mario."

More muttering commences, spreading all around the ship. Eventually, I see a good number of soldiers nod. They are still very tense, but they trust their king. I rouse them to continue the trip back to the castle. Mario is…mine.

Chapter Text

Dearly Beloved,

We are gathered here today to have a complete and total panic attack.

As anticipated, my troops managed to pull off the attack on the Mushroom Kingdom's finest without a hitch. That's the fantastic part. Somehow, I'm the one that managed to ruin that and captured Mario by accident.

Me! How is that remotely possible?! Out of my entire army, I bungled the attempt to kidnap the princess and use her for extortion to overtake her kingdom. Here I am, claiming to be the most intelligent being no one will ever truly know, and how do I prove that? By acting perfectly in character and pulling about the dumbest move I've made in ages. Brilliant!

He may be their luscious little hero, but how far would Peach campaign to get Mario back? She wouldn't turn over the castle and courtyard for him, that's certain. They still have his brother too! Blast it all to hell and back again, they'll probably send him out to save Mario the second there's a chance.

Another issue for the damage control is that my soldiers are most certainly suspicious over my actions from the kidnapping. My own miscalculation on the attack is what caused me to catch Mario instead of Peach. He may be heavier than her, but I let my ambition cloud my common sense. Magically, no one noticed until we already climbed on board, not even that Koopatrol! To be fair, they're specifically trained to not question orders, but this was an obvious point to disobey! After that, I continue to think I have Peach and make myself a total fool in front of my men, cry out for help when Mario wakes up, and proceed to lose it with them around.

And as the pièce de résistance, I spare him. The monster they see, the one that stomps down on so many fellow soldiers, was right within their grasp. All they needed was my blessing and they were free to tear him apart, gaining retribution for their lost comrades. But what does their king do? He spares the enemy. Their enemy, his en…my enemy! It should be one in the same! It's that simple!

I should hate him.

So why do I only love him more?

It's just stupid! I can't even think of more eloquent ways to put it because it's just that obvious! He loves Peach! He hates me! What do I have to do to convince myself that he'll never be mine, never the way I want him? How can I even feel anything for him? It has to be lust, not love! We barely know each other. Hell, he doesn't even know the real me.

Why do I torment myself?

Why do I keep going on like this?

Why am I still writing every little thought of fear?

This is an opportunity for me. Before I questioned how someone so mighty could be so frail. Sure, I'm afraid and insecure, but here and now, I have a chance that I beg for. He'll be annoyed, and probably angry, but once he calms down, I can tell him my little secret…wherein little means gigantic abomination that I've guarded so carefully that I planned to die before telling a soul about it. Not even a Boo can find what I've written about. (Especially since I burn half of the notes, but that's beside the point.)

Do I really want to tell him now? I know every possible consequence right? He'll either reject me, or the world will reject us. And then there's the nigh impossible universal acceptance, but there's no chance Junior will understand. I did that to myself, teaching him the charade. Hindsight says how foolish that was, but it worked flawlessly at the time. Now I understand. I know the consequences, I truly do.

So I can't tell him. That would ruin both of us. Destroy everything all of the outliers and whatever were left between us. It's just not worth it.

Reminder: I need a love therapist.

Bound by duty,

Bowser


[Bowser]

Puzzling over the note, I'm thinking about burning this one. It felt good to get it out though. Grabbing a magic scepter, I cast a spell to open a safe. This reminds me of how no one asks where the Koopalings acquired their own scepters. Then again, no one is usually bold enough to ask us about anything.

Quickly, I punch in the combination, stuff yet another sheet of paper in there, close it, and magically seal it away once again. Nostalgia will ruin me sometime, but not today. A knock sounded at my door.

"Yes?" That's too polite. Add a little fire. "What is it?!" Better.

"Lord Bowser, sir," comes a Koopa's voice. Female. "We've successfully put the prisoner away."

"Good." And why did I need to know that? "Any trouble?"

"We kept it under control." Seriously, do I want to know this?

"Excellent. Is there news of my son and the Koopalings?"

"Their takeovers are underway, sir." Could she add a little personality? I understand she's following orders, but I'm not that harsh…wait, no, to them I am. Oh well.

"Very good. Have someone send a report once their work is complete."

"Yes sir." Good, now jump as high as the tallest tower.

"That will be all, soldier."

"Sir, if I may," she starts, still monotone and emotionless. "I'm looking to become a member of the Koopatrol."

"Ok, so go do it. This isn't the ancient days where the kingdoms were beginning; I've got a number of female soldiers as Koopatrol trainees." Everybody counts where every body counts.

"We're required to have a royal seal of approval before applying, sir."

"Right, of course." Opening the door, I see the purple-shelled Koopa with matching shoes and ruby eyes waiting for me. I take the paper she's holding and sign it quickly, reaching back to grab a stamp. She's somewhat unnerving, with her differences from the usual troop, but I pretend to take no notice. Placing an official seal of approval next to my signature, I hand the letter back.

"There you go, Koopella, all set," I murmur, catching the startle in her eyes at the use of her name. She recovers quickly, and takes the letter with a nod.

"Thank you, Lord Bowser. It is my honor to serve you." And with that, she turns to leave, but pauses.

"Is there something else?" I inquire and she turns back.

"The prisoner wished to see you, sir. We denied him and we assumed that we wouldn't mention it, but…I think you should know. It's your decision, sir." She walked out of the hall before I could question her further, leaving me to my thoughts once again.


[Luigi]

It's really terrible how instances of calmness can be so abruptly taken away.

I watch outside Peach's throne room, looking at the cleaning crews in the distance from the attack earlier today. It's already dark out, but they're still trying to undo Bowser's damage. It took a good few months for the Toads to work on everything and I feel for them. The Bob-omb explosions left craters across the road, grass was shred, and the bridge went to pieces. Toadstool Road being left to ruins would be a bit of an understatement.

Glancing down, I've got his speech notes in my hand. I haven't read it yet. It's a bit torn up, but I managed to find it while helping the princess return here. Gently passing it between my fingers, I tuck it away and return my attention outside.

"Master Luigi?" comes Toadsworth's voice. "Are you quite all right, my boy?"

"H-Huh? Yeah, I'm fine." I whirl around and see the old Toad staring at me. "Just a little worried about Mario." More like freaked out, but not that anyone's paying that much attention to me.

Case in point, Toadsworth just pats my shoulder with his cane. "There, there, Master Mario knows what he's doing. I'm certain that he'll be out in no time." Everyone seems to forget this isn't the first time Mario's been kidnapped. By Bowser. And that he needed to be rescued. At least one of those times was by me.

I should be rushing out to go save him now, but usually, Bowser kidnappings have more trouble behind them. We're waiting in Peach's castle to learn more news. The princess herself, however, is left to pace while we wait. I want to calm her down, but she's much too bothered to listen.

Turning back to the window, I wait quietly for someone to speed in and tell us what else they know. I may not be the bravest brother, but even I can't wait forever. If no one comes in the next hour, I'll—

"Princess!" A call sounds as the large red throne room doors open. Peach stops and faces the front of the room. Toadsworth and I follow as the Toad runs forward. "We've got a bad situation on our hands, your highness!"

"Yes, Mario has been kidnapped," Peach sighs. She seems…annoyed? By the Toad? That's unlike her.

"No, your majesty, it's worse than that!" The frantic Toad sounds, jumping in place a bit. "Bowser's minions are trying to take over the rest of the kingdom!"

My heart sinks as I realize my impending mission got a taller order. Fit for the taller brother, I suppose. Swallowing hard, I focus as Peach responds with a flat, "Go on."


[Bowser]

Making my way to the chambers behind my throne room, I move to the private cell, usually reserved for Peach. Two Koopas turn and look surprised upon my arrival.

"L-Lord Bowser? S-Sir?"

"Leave us."

They looked as though they would have protested, were it not their king giving the orders. Nodding, the duo walked away, leaving me with him. Mario stood up and walked over. He looked ruffled, with his vibrant clothes a little messier than usual, maybe a few holes, and his hat was down over his left eye, but overall, he was still in good shape. (Shut up, I mean his condition, not body.) Upon getting a closer look at me, he raised his visible eyebrow, still frowning.

"Am I actually speaking to the Koopa King? Or is this another False Bowser trick?"

His voice sounded dry, with a touch of rasp to it. No one must have given him any food or drink yet. Obviously; after all, they hate him, unlike Peach.

"This is the one and only," I grunt and can't help but smile. He probably doesn't realize it, but it's not my usual boastful grin, but a genuine one.

"Funny how you grabbed me instead of Peach," he continues, with an aim to hit my pride, I'd imagine. "Something that elaborate seems like it would make her the intended target."

A chuckle escapes me. "She was, at first," I begin with a little truth, but decide not to give in to him that easily. "I realized, however, that getting you out of the way might be worth my while. If they refuse my demands, then who can stop me from kidnapping Peach now?"

Mario swallowed hard; tables successfully turned. He coughs and continues, "I know several people that can."

"Who?" I laugh this time. "A bunch of miserable Toads? Or your little, green brother? They're both far too cowardly to face me."

"They'll do what they need to." He returns this quicker than I expected. There's a pause and we stare each other down. He snorts and then starts again. "Honestly, I thought Peach's personal prison would look nicer, or be more comfortable."

Laughing again, I answer: "Contrary to the popular belief, Peach's cages and cells usually don't have any more special treatment than other prisoners' jails get. Maybe a ribbon for a mocking decoration, but that's about it."

"Ah." He nods, and I can't tell if it's meant to be condescending or not. He pushes up his cap and I see his hair is also messy underneath. Not enough to cover his deep blue eyes; not enough to spare me. "Why do you kidnap her?"

Isn't it obvious? "I want her kingdom. They're not willing to hand it over, so this is my preferred method."

"Bowser, this is constant." He sounds a little more upset this time. "Why do you really take her?"

"What do you want me to say?" Returning a question with another is an obvious avoidance tactic, but I really don't understand.

"The truth," he sounds back. "There's more to you than just kidnapping princesses and taking control of kingdoms, isn't there?"

"Well sure, I've got my kid, actually ruling over my own kingdom, uh…" Wait. What was he trying…?

"That's not what I mean."

"Then what do you mean?" I'm impatient now, especially because he sounds more broken every time he speaks. "I'm not a mind reader, Mario. Spell it out."

He looks into my eyes this time. They're as beautiful in the dark as they are under the sunlight. I'm searching them for something and he's looking for something else in mine. What is he trying to get at?

"Do you love her?" It just comes out softly and suddenly. I need to blink to focus again. I should step back to better assess everything, but I'm too into him.

"What?" I let out, even as I've figured it out.

"Do you love Peach?" He asks it, a little louder now. His face looks crestfallen as if he already knows the answer. And right here, I want to lie. Right now, I can crush him, make him hurt for all the ways that he tortures me. It's easy, isn't it? After all, I know he loves her. And he thinks I do, as if we have some weird love triangle going on that will never end. What Mario doesn't know is that the triangle gets a little more twisted than that. But if I tell him the truth, then what happens?

I don't know. And I'm curious to see how he'll act.

With that, I shake my head, but I realize he's not paying attention. "No," I grunt a bit, and he looks up with the most astonished look. So, let me make it clear. "No, I don't love Princess Peach." I come close to the truth, but I wait.

Mario's eyes have widened. His mouth opens to say something, but he doesn't know where to begin. The expression reads totally perplexed. If it's not love, then why do I do it? Why do I claim it is? Why do I continue the farce that everyone else so easily believes?

He doesn't see it. He most definitely doesn't get it.

Mario is a moron.

A smile creeps back onto my face, but it's more of a grimace. I doubt he'll see the distorted parts of my eyes, the grin.

"Does that make it easier for you?" I taunt, covering up my emotions. "Or are you more worried for her safety than ever before? You can keep your precious princess all to yourself. I just need to take her kingdom first."

There's nothing left to say here. I turn to leave, begin walking away.

"If not for her, then who?" he blurts out.

My hand is against the door and I stare at the claw, and then let my gaze drift to the door. Why are half of the things red around here? …Why else?

A deep breath in, a deep sigh out. "You," I whisper as I push the door open, certain that he couldn't hear it. The guards walk back in as I trudge out. My heart's racing and as the doors close again, I take a minute to control myself before walking back to my quarters.

That's the closest moment we've ever shared. Yet that moment is already so far.

Chapter Text

Hello,

I'm not quite sure who will read this, how long it'll be until it gets seen. But it helps me pass the time while I wait here in this dungeon. Otherwise, I fear that I'll grow mad from the wait, insane from solitude.

My options are limited to waiting, sleeping, eating small amounts delivered, and planning on what to do next. The fourth is more difficult that I would have imagined; it makes sense how Princess Peach can't break free so easily when she's captured. If I so much as try to battle my way out, I'll lose by sheer force, easily outnumbered. There are no hidden escapes, not to my knowledge anyway, that I could take out. Persuasion is definitely out of the question, as neither Bowser nor his troops would be willing to listen. Certainly, there must be another way, but it's difficult to come up with a plan over guard racket, threats on how I'll next be tortured, or overwhelming exhaustion from tolerating my captors, my wounds.

One frightening thought is if they do decide to kill me at some point. Surely, it won't be soon, but it could happen. His forces detest me. He does himself, but he hasn't shown his true rage yet, unlike his soldiers. It's understandable, I've mentioned it before, but it's quite terrifying when I'm at their mercy.

Worse still, I don't have a rejuvenating 1-Up Mushroom on me; they're extremely powerful, enough to bring all life back into the user, but quite rare. Harvesters from Peach's Castle look to find the mushrooms, saving them for when Luigi and I journey to rescue her, to combat. Use one and no abyss is too deep, no lava is too hot, no enemy is too strong. The user will live. Unfortunately, we're out of the supply, and didn't press the matter during peacetime. Everyone hoped it would have lasted.

Alas, should I die, here is where I will truly lie. Such is the mantra that keeps me awake, restless, until I can stay awake no longer. Two days have passed since my kidnapping, but I've fallen in and out of slumber more times than I care to count.

Dreaming hardly occurs, but it's faint when it does, nothing like my nightmare from before. Bowser confessed to me that he does not love Peach. Obviously, the first instinct is not to believe it. After all, who would?

Letting that moment play over in my mind, however, has led me to decide that he's telling the truth, that he does not love the Princess. Following that leads to many questions, but I didn't even get his answer to my first question, let alone figuring out the rest. He wants me to be afraid for her, for the kingdom. All that I have become fearful of? Not understanding. If not for her, if everything is not to impress her, win her, then whom or what for?

I wish he would tell me. I want to tell him.

He told me his true feelings, making me feel obligated to follow. Should I be so bold? Tell him the secret that could ruin me, the one that gives him control over me?

Should I truly tell him that I love him?

My reservations on doing so are clear. However, I've never considered what to do about it should I suffer an untimely death. Who would think of that? Now that I can, though, what do I do? At this point, what's left to lose? If he rejects me, then it's clear and I can die. If he accepts me, loves me back, then his army will kill me, so I will die. He could call them off, but that couldn't be so simple. Whether on the King's orders or not, someone here will kill me, once the opportunity is presented.

What if I'm not meant to die here though? What if someone does manage to rescue me soon? What then? Do I risk never telling him and hope that I am saved, let the secret live on? Should I give in and just make sure that it is out of the way? Is it about surrender, relenting, or is it about letting truth have its day?

Ah, there's little room left on the paper that I brought with me. This will have to end here and I'll need to figure out my next steps soon, or I'll lose my mind, slip away. Until I can write again though, this is the end for now.

Still breathing as of writing,

Mario


 

[Mario]

With the last of it written, I fold and tuck the page into my shoe, keeping it pressed to the bottom. There are no good places for hiding, and I'd prefer to keep it on me than somewhere in here, to be found easily.

Torch light down here isn't very helpful, so I still feel around the dark, almost black cell, locating the cot to sit on. It's not really a bed, far too cold and lacking proper care, but it works. Lying back on it, I run my hands across my body, feeling various bruises, small cuts. Nothing damaging, nor permanent, but painful, more than I've felt in a while. Parts of my gloves are ripped open, allowing me to feel each sore spot, each torn fabric of clothing.

After I let out a long and heavy sigh, the doors open. The two guards outside my jail turn and watch a new Koopa walk in. He whispers to them briefly, and then exits. Nodding, they turn to me and I rise, force myself up. They've got a matching pair of dark grins, wicked smiles, on their faces.

"Good news," one speaks up, something nasty about his tone. "You'll be going with Bowser to take your first hostage photos. We'll be sending demands out soon after."

They cackle together, as if it's something humorous. Perhaps they feel that defaming me will somehow break me. It's going to take more than that though. Unfortunately, I suspect they'll bring additional soldiers to…well, "escort" me.


 

[Peach]

Two days have passed since Mario was taken. If I had been the one taken, I'd imagine he would have rushed out immediately to Bowser's Castle. The issue is that Bowser moved sooner than anyone anticipated, with the rest of the kingdom recently falling to his forces. Unlike Bowser, or even Mario, I await a final tally before I will make any moves with our forces.

It's only half of my decision, though. Part of me wants to act impulsively and charge off to go save Mario. Contrary to people's beliefs, I can handle myself and would go if I had the opportunity. The same part is still mentally abusing the dazzled princess that couldn't help Mario from the attack. However, I still have a kingdom to run, and officials that simply refuse the notion of me saving the man who constantly does the same for me, always for so little in return.

They lie to me though; I know that they're forcing me back in order to keep me safe, so that they won't have to deal with the kingdom falling into complete disarray. And it's the part of me that sees and understands their viewpoint that plays the strategic route; waiting and being cautious, until we can see each step Bowser has taken.

The sun has nearly set and I sit alone in my throne room. Though it doesn't last for nearly as long as I prefer, it's refreshing to have my thoughts to myself. I only wish I could talk with Mario about everything; he's a good listener.

Abruptly, taking me from these thoughts, the throne doors burst open. Luigi rushes in, with two Toads, blue and yellow in tow. They appear ragged, with slightly scuffled clothing.

"What happened?" I lightly gasp as I rose.

"Grasslands…overwhelming…" pants Luigi.

I cover my mouth with my hands for a moment before lowering them slightly. "No, that can't be right," I protest, "The Grasslands are the closest to the castle!"

"They're holding…positions," Luigi responds, still catching his breath. "Maybe they are…awaiting orders?"

"Then we simply cannot wait. We must respond!"

My fists are clenched and I'm ready to begin sounding orders across the castle, but Luigi shakes his head.

"We'll try again," he breathes in and out, slowly recomposing. "Easier. It's easier to send smaller groups. Us. They'll think we act independently, like usual." The two Toads nod in agreement, still breathless.

"This isn't wise," I shake my head. "We need to retaliate—"

"Not yet," interrupts Luigi. "They must have plans for you still. It's taking longer than usual for them to issue threats and they changed too many tactics."

"Luigi…"

"We'll try again," he repeats. Beckoning the two Toads to follow him, the trio rushes back out. A heavy sigh escapes me.

Though he isn't so persistent about it as the retainers are, I know that he's protecting me as well. However, I understand that he's worried for his brother's safety. And as valuable as an asset Mario is to this kingdom, he still does not hold the proper ranks that would let me meet my desire for a full-scale attack.

Retribution that Bowser's had coming for ages. This would weaken my forces, including my protection, which would leave me vulnerable to another kidnapping attempt. If they were to succeed, even with Luigi left to save the day, my kingdom would still fall. It's too much to toy with my people's lives like this, constantly endangering them and leaving the potential to have their kingdom overturned by a tyrant. Allowing this would be inexcusable, and my guards will be increasing tenfold soon enough. To keep the kingdom alive, safe, I need to maintain the throne.

It pains me to do so, but I relented again, and will continue to wait.


 

[Junior]

Waiting on anything is boring. Waiting on Dad's orders, waiting on total takeover of the Mushroom Kingdom, waiting on news, it's enough to drive anyone nuts!

A Magikoopa walks into my Airship cabin, fixing his glasses.

"Yeah, what is it?" I demand. Dad says that I need to work on bossing troops around.

"Reports from the Koopalings, young sire," the Magikoopa answers. "Ludwig, Iggy, and Roy have overtaken their respective sectors completely. Wendy and Morton have made strong progress, with the tropics and mountains conquests respectively. Lemmy's takeover is underway as we speak. Larry's forces had an issue with Luigi, but his forces have dealt with the issue."

"Larry better not mess this up," I grumble. "Anyway, that's good news, so good for you. But I want total domination by this point! If the Koopalings aren't done by the end of today, there will be super serious consequences!"

"Yes sir, young sire. I will issue your orders immediately. Any messages for your father now?"

"When we're done later today, sure." I wait, but then I have to ask something. "Did he send anything?"

"Not yet." Weird. Dad usually issues orders for us every day or other day. No one's heard from him since he told us to takeover. I wonder how different this plan is.

"Ok, fine, whatever," I nod. "Now get my orders out!"

"Yes sire," he bows, and then walks out.

Dad must be waiting on us to finish up before he tells us more. He wouldn't hide anything from me. Well…ok, he might, but…I'm sure he's just waiting on us! Either way, we'll be back home soon. We better be.


 

[Mario]

There's a slight spark in me that's begging for me to build it. Several soldiers surround me though, and I understand this is not the most ideal situation to suddenly spur on an attack. Still, I crave an escape, or rather, an engagement, with me stomping on each Koopa, Hammer Bro., and Magikoopa that forces me forward.

That won't get me out of this though. Even if I could take them at once, I would still need to find my way out of here. The Magikoopa are casting hexes above us, blocking my view of the corridors we pass through. Were there any chance that I could memorize a path to an exit, they've made certain to take it away from me.

Annoyed, practically blinded by the flashing, vibrant, multi-colored spells waving around, I drop my head and watch the floor shift from nicely sorted gray stones to luxurious, decorated red carpets. Truthfully, perhaps surprisingly, we have yet to pass the lava pits that I normally need to cross around the castle. Perhaps they haven't had the need in a while, similar to Peach's lowered guardsmen.

Though unlike Peach's soldiers, Bowser's forces don't have a hero they rely on. Therefore, they need to stay well trained, to properly protect their king.

Admirable, or it would be more so, were it not for this predicament.

Time has passed until we finally reach an end, with the ring of enemies around me easing into a halt. A Hammer Bro. takes the liberty of shoving me forward, into what I'm barely able to make out as a doorway, pushing me past it and slamming the door shut behind me.

"Welcome," he chuckles. I don't even need to look up to realize Bowser's in here as well. What I do glance at are the spiral stairs that I imagine we'll be climbing.

"What, no rest?" I retort. It's justified though; I'm exhausted and was marched all the way over here. The least he could do give me a minute to gather my bearings.

His grin is almost wicked. "Not a chance," he sneers. "Go on."

Letting out a sigh, I drag my feet forward, placing them on the first stone step. There shouldn't be any motivation for me to continue, but I feel him place his hand on my back. Gently, not rough. Confusing.

"The faster you move, the sooner you can rest," he mutters. "You want to struggle and have me drag you up, that's fine. However, I think you should take the small choices that I give you."

"Is that what you call it?" I snap back, or would if I had energy to put behind it. The words just feel like they tumble out of my mouth rather than cutting at him like I want. Stepping forward, his hand left my back. Suddenly, I feel a chill; his missing touch, warm and oddly pleasant, is noticeable. Shaking it off, I continue up, with Bowser steadily at my heels.

Still perturbed by the situation, I can't help but ask, "Why do you pride your troops on making this place so complicated to navigate?"

He laughs, and it feels condescending, mocking. "You don't know the first thing about tactics, do you? More long halls, more complicated turns, and more climbs are designed to weaken invaders." He pauses a moment before adding, "I don't know how to deal with stubborn asses that bound and bounce through every room though. What keeps you so damn energetic?"

My mouth curves to a smile, but I can't manage the laugh I want to come with it. "You wouldn't quite understand."

"Try me."

"Well, to keep it short," I think for a moment, then continue, "I get kicks out of stomping down one enemy and leaping to the next one." He's good at it, but I can play insult games too.

"Huh, is that all?" He murmurs, almost…disappointed? "Here I am thinking you've got a special stamina power-up or whatever. Just good exercise, ricocheting off of my troops' heads, and getting your stupid princess are all you need?"

"Something like that," I chuckle and cough softly.

"Hey, are you dying after only two days?" he asks. "They should be feeding you. After all, I did say that I needed you." He almost purrs that last part. Or is that just my imagination, delusion again?

My next response is stifled by a coughing fit, and I need to pause my climb. "They're still not the most ideal living conditions," I manage after the coughs.

"Poor thing," he coos, and I can't tell if he's mocking me.

Looking back, I find my eyes on level with his. An obvious change occurs, his expression softening once he looks at me, eyebrows rise, peering into pain. We connect, and it lasts a small moment, lingering for both of us. Empty air waits to be filled by nothing. His eyebrows lower again.

"Eyes front," he snaps. "And keep moving." I turn back and obey.

We quietly continue for a bit. Why does he always have such endless staircases? More importantly, though, are my questions from last time.

"You never answered me," I start. "Last time, I asked about you kidnapping Peach. If it's not for her love, why do you do it?"

"Does it need a reason?" he questions, not missing a beat. "Seriously, just because love is what motivates you to play hero doesn't mean that it helps me play the villain. Did you ever stop to think that there are some really nasty people out there?"

"Even you need something to fight for," I counter, positive he isn't sharing the truth today.

"Whatever," he grumbles.

We continue to climb, each step more painful to land than the last. We come near a window, but it's shuttered. I stop here and turn again. He avoids my gaze.

"If I'm going to die here, could you at least let me look out again, see the world?"

"You're not dying today," he snaps, annoyed from my question. "And there's nothing out there that you haven't seen already."

"Perspectives change when we take a new approach to how we look things over," I offer. "Maybe you'll find something new out there too."

Bowser looks at me now, one eyebrow raised. Burning tension, I wonder if he can feel it, with us waiting here and looking into one another. Taking a calmer face in, his mouth closed, messy red hair, focused eyes. My mouth curls again into a smile. He frowns, suddenly looking annoyed.

"I don't know what you're playing at," he growls, "but if you're trying to pull one over on me, good luck."

"Do you think I'm going to jump out and try to escape?" My question flies out with a venom that I can't quite contain. "This high? Wait. How high up are we?"

"Please. You'd make the jump anyway." He turns me around. "Now enough! Keep climbing!"

Again, we fall silent and continue the relentless climb. We've passed several torches, dancing flames. I'm tempted to bat one over and make a move, but I'd have to hit Bowser to have a chance. Passing another one, I raise my arm, slowly, carefully. It's not enough and he smacks it down.

"Don't even think about it," snarls Bowser, and we keep moving, not missing a step.

Several steps later, I'm not sure what energy I had before, but it's expunged by now. My movement is sluggish, I feel my legs get caught on a step, and I fall. There's no hard landing though; he won't even give me that.

He laughs, "Well, I thought the overalls were a weird fashion statement, but I guess they're pretty practical." Bowser tugs back and I'm back on my feet.

"Thank you," I reply softly.

"Yeah, yeah," comes the muttered response.

Silence fills the stairwell once more. I lean back against the wall and take a breath.

"They won't risk her for me," I hear myself say in a hollow voice.

"They don't have to," he returns. "She will."

My head shakes. "No, she won't. My brother might, but I'm guessing you took over more than just the Grasslands." He doesn't answer. "Then, it'll take time."

"We're just getting started. I haven't even issued my threats yet." It's strange how he half comforts me, with plots of conquest. "I shouldn't even be telling you that much, but if it shuts you up and keeps you moving, it works."

"Why does this one feel so different?"

"You're letting it get to you. I'm not doing anything different from usual."

"Aren't you?"

Bowser's quiet again. He glances at me, but turns away. "Just move."

"Can't you talk to me?"

"No. Move."

"Why not?"

He lets out a heavy sigh and moves to scoop me up. I bounce forward and up a step to dodge him, not conceding. Not now.

"Explain to me," I persist, but I don't know how. "You actually bothered to visit me, you're being civil and talking with me—"

"I'm going for a new image," he interrupts and misses me again. "Come on!"

I keep talking. "You're tell me things that you've never spoken about before—"

"I'm sick of them," he snaps. "You don't know what it's like to hold everything—"

My turn to be disruptive: "You even try to keep me in good spirits and keep me healthy? Why?"

"You're my bargaining chip!" he roars, turning to me. "Right now, you're a perfect little tool that I need to get that damn kingdom under my total control! I didn't plan to take you, but that changed and here we are!"

"What aren't you telling me?!" I yell back at him. "What are you hiding?!"

"What am I hiding?!" he bursts, nerves shot. "How about you, Mario?! What the hell are you hiding?! You're not this damned weak! You're just trying to pick at me, figure me out, question me, and for what?! How about you, pal?! Huh?! Why do you have to come save the day?! Why don't you just stay out of everything that doesn't even concern you?! Why can't you just submit now and wait until someone else saves the day?! Do you always have to play the hero?!"

He stops and pants, heavily, angrily. I don't even know what to say now.

"Why do you feel so damn self-righteous?" he growls again, only a bit calmer. "Why do you need to play hero? Do you need to impress her that desperately?"

He thinks…? Of course he does.

"If she's that much trouble, why not just move on? Find some other girl. There are plenty of idiots all over the kingdom that would take you. Does it have to be her?"

"It's not for her," I shake as I answer. "I'm not…I'm…"

"Speak! It's your turn to talk!"

He's…right. It is my turn. I suck in some air and then let it out slowly. Another breath and I start:

"It doesn't have to be her. Actually, it's not for her."

"That's a load of crap!"

"No, it's not. We're friends. She's not interested in me. And I'm…interested in someone else." That should not have come out.

"What?! Who?!" He leans in, demanding, but patient. Curious.

My heart is on fire. "It's not…" Name anyone. Daisy, she visits enough. "I don't…" Pauline, my ex, she'll do.

"Tell me!" He's close and has me against the wall. Rosalina, she's an option. His head moves closer to mine. "Mario." Run, now, there has to be an opening. "Talk." Bowser is inches from me and his breath is warm, still heavy. "If not Peach, then who?" I look up and my eyes are burning under his gaze.

"This isn't relevant," I try, shift my eyes to find a spot to slip out. No good.

"Yes it is. You don't love Peach, I don't love Peach, why the hell are we dealing with each other?"

"You threaten people! That's enough—"

"That's not why we brought this up." No. Think faster, Mario.

"Yes it is! You wanted to know why I play hero, and I do it to save people!"

He's not buying it. "Who? Tell me, who do you love?" I could name any other guy. Any of them, anyone else will do. I could make something up, anything.

"Why do you have to hide it from me?" he asks in a voice that's soft, hurt, innocent somehow. We're enemies! I don't owe him anything. We're supposed to hate each other. We don't share secrets. I don't need to say anything, and he wouldn't care. He'll pick me up and drag me upstairs any minute. He's never this patient. Never.

"I told you some things," Bowser whispers, and I still feel every breath. "Please?"

Is he really begging? Should I? I'm going to die anyway. No! No, I'm not. Just stall, he'll give in. Say anything else, change the topic, and breathe.

"Cornering me doesn't force me to say anything," I retort. Good.

"No, but it's more fun this way," he chuckles. Cave to me!

"Bowser, please." Think.

"No, Mario. It's a simple question." Snap back at him, anything.

"Why do you care? What, do you want to torture everyone I love?" Got him!

"That didn't even cross my mind. Pure curiosity right now." No!

"Why?!"

"Look, we were early for my threats," Bowser explains. "We're still going to be on time, I've got plenty of it to kill and be late with whatever I want to do next. I freed myself up just to get those pictures and warnings out early. Just to be with you." I can't think with him on top of me. "Wasn't that sweet of me?" Is he…flirting?

"No." He can't be.

"Tough. Talk. We've got hours to sit here." I'm going to break. I'm going to…

To…

…Just do it.

"You." I've officially lost it.

"What?" He backs up.

"You, all right? It's you."

Why does he look so confused? "I don't get it." What do you mean you don't…?!

"And you call me an idiot? It's you! You, you're why I play hero! You're the reason I risk my life and have everyone cheer for me! You're why I fight, why we fight! The only reason why I rescue her is because you have to take her! You and your stupid tail! You and your red hair and matching red eyes! Your lousy, toothy smile! You!"

A smile. His mouth forms the exact thing I just…! "What are you getting at?" He asks, with…amusement?! "Me, me, me, what about me?" What?!

"I love you!"

There! Damn him! I've played this exact scenario I don't know how many times, in how many ways, with all kinds of results, and yet it's nothing like this! An outburst. I just confessed to him in a fit of rage over his ignorance, his persistence, his…!

His arms wrap around me. I feel his body bouncing. Laughing? Laughing. He's busting a gut over this, great. That's one of the reactions and not a good—

"I don't believe this!" Bowser manages to get out. I try to shove out of it, but he's got me locked in tight.

"Yes, super," my deadpan response. "Now you know. Happy?"

"Very!" He loves every second.

"Wahoo. Can you kill me now?" Please do.

"Not a chance! Never! Not for the rest of…of…" He pulls himself back and looks at me. He still has a huge grin and his eyebrows are raised. I don't even want to look at him anymore. "You…you don't get it?"

"Look, I'm glad this is a great big joke to you, but I—"

"Joke? No! No, no, you don't understand."

"I'm pretty sure I do."

"Now I know you don't."

"Ok, I don't. Can we just drop it here?"

"Absolutely not! You have no idea how long I've waited for this!"

"…What?"

"I love you, too! I've…that's why! That's my explanation for everything! It's all for you! I do everything for you too! Oh my Stars, is this real? Are we really doing this?"

"…What?" I can't process this at all. Is he pinching himself?

"We love each other!" He exclaims. I feel a swift shift in pressure, tension. We do? "Mario, this is…us! This is really us! Ha! Ha-ha-ha! I don't believe that just happened finally! My heart feels like it's exploding right now!" He hugs me tightly again, his laughter vibrating against me. This is the most genuine joy I think I've ever seen from him. I smile.

This is real.

My arms move and I reach up to hold him. I'm shaking and he squeezes me. Should I say something? No, that might ruin it. He pulls back, his smile drooping a bit.

"Are you all right? …Please don't say you're lying." He's nervous. So am I.

"No. I just…what now?" Yep, I just ruined it.

"Huh?"

"Bowser, we can't." I feel like explaining, but I don't know where to start.

"…We can't," he echoes. "There's…a lot in the way." He understands.

I think I can feel my heart sinking. My arms drop away, but he grabs my hands, almost as a reflex.

"No."

"What?"

"Mario, we just…no, no this can't end here." Denial.

"You have to understand," I voice my thoughts. "Bowser, there are so many—"

"Obstacles. I know. But I'm not quitting here."

"There's nothing to quit, we haven't even started."

"Yes, we did. We started the minute I brought you here. Before that, even. We just made progress now."

"That's not—"

"Hush. We're not giving in here. We're not giving up before we really get rolling. I want this. You do too, don't you?"

"Well, yes, but—"

"No buts. I love you and I'm not about to lose this, lose us, now. This is the greatest moment that I've feared and begged for. We're going to do this." He lifts me up.

"Bowser…"

"We'll make this work. I promise." Determination.

"You can't promise that though. I want this too, but it's not—"

"Realistic? Fine by me, it feels fantastic either way." He carries me up to the top of the steps. Gently, he places me down. "Go with me on this, all right?" Whispers.

"…Ok."

He kicks the door open and tosses me in. "Get moving!" I stumble, very close to falling, but manage. Looking around, there's a video camera and a blue Shy Guy in this darkened room. It's almost blank, but torches lit around us make it menacing.

What's he up to?

"L-Lord Bowser! Greetings! You're right on time."

"Can it, Blue Guy!" Bowser thunders. That can't be his name. He grabs me by the collar. "Start recording!"

"Yes sir!" A red light signals that we're on.

"Princess Peach! I've got your precious little hero right here! By the time you get this message, my forces will have control over your kingdom. Surrender if you want to save Mario! Don't, and he's finished. I'll send you more terms soon."

The light goes off and the blue hooded Shy Guy packs it away. I'm stunned, even after Bowser lets me go.

"Blue!" He barks.

"Yes sir?"

"Send that out as soon as you hear word from my son. In the meantime, I want a cell arranged near my bedroom, even if it's just locking a spare room. I need him close to me at all times. Remind his guards that he is not to be harmed without my say-so."

"Is…is that safe?"

"Do you want to know what it is?"

"Um…"

"AN ORDER! Follow it!"

"Yes sir, absolutely, sir."

The Shy Guy scurries past us and down the stairs. I notice that he has a small pin that has Bowser's insignia on it.

"And keep at your project, Blue!" he calls after the Shy Guy.

"Of course, sir!" I hear him call back.

I wait a minute before I burst out, "What was that all about?! Are you out of your mind?! I thought we were—"

"We are." He has his mischievous grin on. "You're ok, right? Was that too rough?"

"I'm fine! Bowser, what are you doing? Peach won't just surrender, don't expect—"

"Yeah, I'm not, I know she won't." He paces.

"Then what was the point of that?"

"Maintaining status quo."

"What?"

"Look, everyone still needs to think I'm going to kill you. They don't need to know that I'm not. Peach won't surrender. My son will have the rest of the territories conquered by tomorrow morning. We'll usurp her throne in days."

"That doesn't make any sense! What does this have to do with us?"

"Mario, I take control, and we're free. I'll be in charge and we can do whatever we please. You could rule alongside me." He stops and comes to me, picking up my hands. "We do this, we answer to no one."

I take my hands away. "Bowser, that's not the answer." He frowns. "People will lay down their lives over this. Your troops hate me enough as it is for that, for killing their brothers-in-arms."

"So? Are you worried that they'll rebel?"

"Everyone will!"

"Do you have any alternatives in mind?"

He gives me a quizzical look as my mouth hangs open. What other way could there be?

"No," I admit. "But total domination is not going to win anyone over. We need another plan."

He smiles again, scratching under my chin. "All right. We'll think of another way. But in the meantime, I can't call this off. Inexplicably giving you up wouldn't solve anything for us."

"That's not true."

"No? Tell me, does your brother know about your obsession with me? How about Peach? Is there anyone in the entire kingdom that knows? I haven't told a soul."

"Bowser, it's not like this is unacceptable." He drops his eyes, raises an eyebrow, and gives me an expression of disapproval.

"You're joking right? How do you expect it to play out?" He snatches my cap and puts it on his head. Then, in an awful imitation, "'Wahoo! Hey-a everyone! It turns out that we're-a in love! That'll be-a ok, right? Bowser's sorry for all-a the bad things he did! Do you think we can-a live-a happily together at-a his castle and never fight again-a?'" I need to hold in my laughter while he grins. "Come on."

Composing myself, "We'll work on it."

"It's going to be a lot of work. I promised my people this kingdom. I promised them your blood. There's no way around that."

"No simple way," I insist. "We can do it though. Together."

"Together," he repeats, placing my hat back on my head. "Right." He slides his arms down my shoulders and pulls me in for a hug. I reciprocate, reaching up to hold him.

This is only our beginning, and everything is complicated already.

Chapter Text

Hello World,

I'm on top of you right now! Finally, after ages of hiding it, finally Mario and I could admit our feelings to one another! Everything is ecstatic!

Oh, all right, that's not completely true. He's not tolerating my taking over the entire Mushroom Kingdom, as I expected. And Peach's forces refused to surrender, as everyone anticipated. However, I was expecting to maintain a tighter control on the Grasslands. It appears that Mario's brother is putting up more of a fight than my troops imagined. We've only faced them both countless times, so forgive me for expecting better of them. To their credit, we haven't completely lost the territory just yet, so we'll see if we can hold it or not.

Adding to the troubles there are my personal problems here. After I sent to get Mario moved closer to my room, a good number of soldiers felt their heads turn, quite literally for the Dry Bones troops. Several tried to talk me out of it, but I appealed to them, stating that he'd be safer if he were closer and that I had done so before with Peach. (Truth: I haven't, but no one seemed to remember or correct me when I said so. We really do kidnap her too often.)

Otherwise, everything is currently in our favor. Kingdom control, kidnapped hero, relationship started, everything is looking up! Now, if Mario could just let me take the princess's castle, we'd be done with everything. Why we can't simply be together and not worry about whom we step on is beyond me, but I knew he wouldn't give in that easily. Not everyone's hotshot hero; he would never.

Still, I can't object to finding a new approach. It's been a few days and we haven't been able to come up with an idea that works. Mario's still losing sleep over it, so I feel like we should take it easy for a moment. We still haven't spent much time together since we professed our mutual attraction, outside of me slipping in quietly at night to make sure he was doing ok and nagging him to rest more.

How is it possible to be so close and so far at the same time? It drives me insane.

At any rate, I've sent word to get Junior to come home; even if we're waging a war, I don't want him involved, especially if we manage to create a more peaceful solution. The trouble with that, however, is whether I should tell him about Mario and I. Duping soldiers, guards, and advisors is one matter. Trying to fool my boy is another one entirely, and not one that I can keep up. Even if I avoid explaining it to him for a while, he's bound to figure it out eventually. I just can't think of the right words yet.

In spite of this, I refuse to keep him away any longer. The Koopalings can maintain control on their own and will excel doing so, I'm sure. Furthermore, I'd like today to not be about all of our troubles. It might be foolish, but I want some time alone with Mario, and I'll be sure that I can get it.

Everything else can wait, just a bit longer. We deserve at least one day.

Try and stop us,
Bowser

(On second thought, don't.)


 

[Bowser]

Blinking, I look over what I wrote and think for a minute.

"This is crap," I mumble, grabbing a scepter to seal it away with the rest. There have been a good number of times that I haven't liked what I wrote, but I'm too stubborn to get rid of any of them. It's not like I'm planning on showing Mario everything I write about him.

Though, maybe I should?

"Don't be an idiot," I grunt and move to a window. The sun is rising, which we can barely see through the volcanic haze. The land around my castle remains dark, as always, with few signs of life at the moment. Dull. And yet, I find myself wearing a stupid grin.


 

[Junior]

The Grasslands were ours! I don't understand how we lost them! Well, we haven't just yet, but it's as good as gone!

"Young sire," a red robed Magikoopa knocks and walks into my cabin. "The Koopalings have arrived."

"Super. Send Larry in!"

"Yes, sire," he replies and goes out. I bounce up from my seat, looking out a window. From this angle, all I can see are clouds and blue skies. The sun's rising, which isn't helping. A few seconds later, the bright blue-shelled loser himself comes in.

"You gotta be kidding me, Larry!" I yell. "We're supposed to have complete control over every stinking territory and you actually lose yours? It'd be one thing if it was Mario, but he's not even the one taking you guys down! And you're still losing!"

"My apologies, my young prince," he speaks the last part with a mocking tone.

And I'm not letting it go unnoticed. "Do you want me to throw you from this ship? Because I'll do it."

His frown curls into a smile. "Of course you would, Junior. But you must admit, we are your best—"

"Well, then, act like it!" I'm fighting down a smile myself. "Look, you guys may be older than me and my dad might like you, but you really gotta work harder at keeping things under our control! Remember what happened last time you seven disappointed my dad?"

His smile's gone and he shudders. "Unfortunately," he admits.

"Then get it together! How is Mario's brother giving you this much trouble anyway?"

"You'd be surprised."

There's another knock at the door and Larry lets the Magikoopa from before in.

"What is it?" I ask impatiently.

"News, sire. Your father requests your presence home as soon as possible."

"Really? But we're still trying to hold the Grasslands." I'm happy that he wants me home, and it's been almost a week already, but I feel like we're not done yet.

"He says to come regardless. There's also a request for the Koopalings to journey with you."

"Us too, huh? Neat," Larry comments.

"Wait, but then who's going to watch the castles?"

"We'll see that it's taken care of before we depart," the Magikoopa bows and pulls out his scepter as he walks out. Larry folds his arms and looks over at me.

"Well?"

"Well what?"

"You're gonna see your dad. It's been a while. You should be thrilled, right?"

"I guess, but I don't get it. And now he's definitely going to be annoyed that you couldn't keep the Grasslands."

Larry sighs, but nods. I shrug and start to get ready for the trip home.


 

[Bowser]

Outside Mario's room, two guards are only half awake at their post. Nudging them, they suddenly become alert. They're flushed pink with embarrassment. Good.

"Hey," I snap. "Get yourselves some rest and make sure the next shift comes."

"But sir," one Koopa protests. "We still have two hours."

"I'll be here for most of that," I wave my hand to send them off. "I can keep an eye on a door too. Go, or you'll keep disgracing yourselves."

"Yes, sir," the other Koopa interrupts and drags the other guard off with him. Idiots.

With a small sigh, I wait a moment before opening Mario's door. The room is more spacious than his cell, with an actual bed and dresser. It's dark now, but there is a light so it doesn't stay that way. It's not perfect, but it's above and beyond what Mario had before. He's flopped over on his bed, face buried in a pillow pool of drool. How adorably disgusting. To be fair, I'm not better when I haven't slept much. Actually, I'm not much better period. Quietly, I sneak over to his bedside.

"Good morning, gorgeous," I chuckle, and he jumps up, eyes suddenly wide open.

"W-What are you doing in here?!"

"Oh, I don't know, visiting my boyfriend, maybe?" After shrugging, I stick my tongue out and give him a playful look. Secretly, I'm waiting to see if he reacts to his new title…our shared title to one another. And listen to me, like labels define us.

"But the guards," he points to the door. "They, they're, there?"

A laugh slips out and I sit on the bed with him. "No, they're not there. I sent them off to rest. They looked almost as tired as you've been. When did you manage to get some sleep?"

"I passed out about…three hours ago," he estimates.

My mouth falls open a bit. "Are you joking? You need to rest!"

"We need to think of solving our problems first," rationalizes Mario.

"You'll do better with that if you actually sleep," I argue.

He shakes his head, "Have you thought of another way of ending your feud with Peach that doesn't involve taking control of everything?"

"Uh…no."

"And you've been sleeping, so what good has that done for you?" He smirks.

"Look, it's better than not getting any sleep or answers," I insist, and he shrugs.

"Maybe you should have left me asleep then."

"I expected that you would have actually rested like normal people do."

"Who do you even know that's normal? Is anyone?"

"That's not the point!" I pinch my eyebrows together and hear him laugh. Releasing them, I turn and look at him for a minute. His brown hair looks as smooth as it is messy. "You just love annoying me, don't you?"

"Of course," he teases. "How else can I keep your attention?"

Scratching under my chin, I think a minute. "Well, I can think of several ways."

"I'm not sure I want to know."

"You asked!"

"All right, name one."

"Flexing."

"That's going to keep your interest in me? If I just show off my muscles?"

"Why wouldn't it? I like looking at you." We pause. "Sorry, that's creepy."

He laughs. "I guess I shouldn't say that I do the same then." Now I laugh with him. And I think he tries to be subtle about it, but I feel him wrap his hand around mine. The laughter dissipates and we sit quietly for a minute. He breaks it, "We don't have long, do we?"

Breathing in and exhaling, I sigh, "Not very, no. They'll send someone by soon to make sure I'm all right and that you're contained."

He nods and frowns, which I mirror. "Can't you get your troops to stop or not want to kill me anymore? You are their king, so it should be possible, right?"

"It should, but they'll certainly believe that I've gone mad, if they aren't thinking that already. And they have every right to, with me kidnapping you, keeping you alive, visiting you, moving you closer to my chambers…I'm practically giving us away."

"I see," he sighs. His grip loosens in my hand.

"Mario, don't believe for a second that they'll kill you. I simply will not allow it."

"If what you say is true, then they might not care what you have to say about it. All it takes is for one of the soldiers to snap and come after me in the middle of the night or some other time you're busy."

Clearly, he's doing a better job at assessing these situations than I am. "I'll work on that, then," I muse, tightening my grip on his hand rubbing my thumb softly against the back. "And here I thought I could just walk in and make your day better."

"You did. You're here, and that helps. Even if it's a risk, I'm glad you did it."

"This is still my castle, my kingdom," I tout, puffing out my chest and sounding snobbish. "It may be complicated, but I'm still getting a few things that I want."

He laughs harder now and I'm glad I can give him that much. "Bowser, you are most certainly a piece of work."

"The finest, naturally," my response comes complete with a toothy grin.

"Of course," he snickers. I'm ready to retort when I suddenly hear a flapping noise. Hushing Mario, I move over to the window and look outside. Nothing. I hear the flap again, open the window, and look down. Below is a Paratroopa, with a white winged shell and matching white boots.

"Hey," I bark. "What are you doing over there?"

"Oh, good morning your majesty," replies the airy Paratroopa as he looks up at me. "Tm just cleaning the windows and making sure that they're secure." He continues cleaning the window, almost forgetting that he was speaking with his king. Then he lifts his head again. "Sir, is everything all right with that window?"

"It's fine," I growl. "Is this all you have to do?"

"At the moment, yes, sir."

Grumbling to myself, I want to tell him to do something else. Anything. "Did you clean the other sides of the castle windows?"

"Yes sir, and if I didn't, then someone else was assigned to it," he cheerfully answers. A groan escapes me, loud enough for him to hear. "My apologies sire! I should be up shortly. All I need is to get the next window up and then I'll clean that one you're near right after."

"Thanks a bundle," sounds my sarcastic voice.

"You're very welcome, sir!" He's either a complete ditz and responds happily to everything, or is much smarter than I'm giving him credit for and is trying his hardest to please me. Either way, he's not my favorite worker right now. Sighing, I close the window and return to Mario.

"So, time up due to maintenance?" He smiles while asking this, but I'm still annoyed over it. He pats my arm softly. "It's fine. We can find another time."

"I'm coming back tonight. And nothing is going to interrupt us then. Especially not Feather Duster out there." He laughs, but I'm mostly serious. We were supposed to be together longer. Instead, I'm leaving before the first hour is up. Grumbling, I rise, with Mario getting up with me.

"Don't stress it too much. We have more important things to worry about."

"Like you getting more sleep? You should while I'm gone."

"I can try."

"Fair enough." We smile at one another and I turn to leave.

"Oh, and Bowser?" I turn back around instantly.

"Yes?" He walks closer to me.

"I like being your boyfriend."

Leaning up, he kisses me a little below my cheek. It's soft and sweet, yet far too quick; I can barely feel his mustache graze against me. Admittedly greedy, I already hunger for more. However, I decide not to press my luck too early. Instead, I rest my face against the top of his head. His hair is smooth. Kissing the top, I whisper, "I love being yours." Mario moves into me and we embrace one another for a while.

A year could have passed and I still would have thought I left too soon.


 

[Luigi]

Screaming fills the air as we charge forward. It's me, of course, as I jump up and crash down on a Koopa Troopa, firing it from its shell and tossing it at the other Koopas and Goombas ahead of me. My Toad tagalongs race ahead, jumping up a few cliffs and grabbing onto the flagpole. I launch myself after them, leaping above where they latched on, and spin around to the other side. We pull the black flag with Bowser's insignia down, and I replace it with my own green one.

"We did it," cheers the Yellow Toad. "We recovered the next location!"

"And we're almost at the castle too," adds the Blue Toad.

"Great work, you guys," I compliment the duo. "The Grasslands will be ours again in no time." Saying so reminds me of the patch of grass on my overalls and I brush myself off, hearing a crinkle from inside my clothes. Reaching in, I pull out Mario's speech. The two Toads are too excited at first to notice that I've stopped following them. "Keep going, I'll catch up in a minute," I call to them. They stop, but I wave them ahead, and they walk onward.

Honestly, I complete forgot that I had this thing with me. Trying not to die from Bowser's forces makes me forget the time of day, let alone what I'm carrying with me. Opening the folded paper, I decide that I could use a rally from my brother. Even if he's not with me now, he can still motivate me.

"'Beloved friend,'" I read aloud. "'I have a confession to make…' …What?" Skimming through the first few lines confuses me quickly. This isn't a speech that Mario was going to tell people for a bridge opening. He must have taken the wrong paper. Reading along a little further, he goes on to talk about playing a hero role and keeps describing this enchantment he has with inextinguishable fire. My heart races and I'm growing worried about him, wondering if my brother's been going through more issues than I've realized lately.

As I go to read more, however, I hear one of the Toads yell ahead from a distance: "Luigi! We need your help!"

"Help Luigi!" The other Toad shouts. "We've got tough bad guys up ahead here!"

Reluctantly, I tear my eyes from the paper and look ahead. In the distance, the Toads are running from charging Goombas. Folding the letter back up, my eyes read, "love Bowser. Not Luigi," and I'm tempted to read it again. What could that even mean? Shutting my eyes as I stick the letter back in between my shirt and overalls, I run forward, off to help the Toads.

I'm not sure what scares me the most anymore.

Chapter Text

Maybe we're taking too many chances trying…
And perhaps neither of us has thought this through.
Really though, when have we been so close?
In every sense and breath, together we live!
Obviously, it's worth the risks…right?


 

Atop a dark hill, kissed by a blue-violet night sky, under a small silver shrine, I'm sitting quietly, Bowser at my side. His body is turned toward me, but I'm facing the edge of a cliff, staring into an open valley. Stars glitter against the sky, shimmering off the shrine's posts and slightly illuminating the land near us. There are some trees visible, but everything fades, as I look further out.

With a finger tucked under my chin, he turns my face toward him. He's frowning and looks sorrowful.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

What? Why would he be? Did…did he just wipe a tear from my eye? When did I…?

"Mario, I never meant for this to happen. You have to believe me when I say that. We tried everything, you know that we did."

The kingdoms. Did they go to war? Taking control of my dream body, I turn to look behind us. Wishing to the stars that I hadn't, my eyes are now fixed on the cadavers of several subjects from both kingdoms. Fallen Koopas and Toads, squished and flattened Goombas, charred bits of land that must have come from Bob-omb and Bullet Bill blasts, shattered egg shells, torn banners, scattered weapons, and far too many other signs of battle are around us.

On a broken pedestal in the middle of the carnage, a multi-colored star shaped object gently floats, failing to counterbalance the destruction around it.

"How could this happen?" I voice my thoughts, though I sound broken from the tears in the dream. Separated, my mind is going through complete shock.

His claw scratches softly behind my head. "I'm sorry. We'll make it right though." He rises, and then extends his hand for me. Taking it, Bowser pulls me up and we walk over to the star above the pedestal. Gripping his hand tightly, I take in a sharp breath; I can feel my heart racing. His thumb rubs the back of my hand and we look to one another. "It's easy from here."

"We'll lose everything we gained," I blurt out, but it's not from my thoughts. What did I miss that my dream self seems to know?

Bowser shakes his head. "We don't know that for sure. What we do know is that it's worth the sacrifice." The what? Where is this going? He smiles to reassure me. His free hand wipes away his own tears, then mine. Why is this happening?

His eyes suddenly widen as he looks past me, slowly baring his teeth. My arm is tugged and Bowser tries to pull me away, but a sharp pain in my back tells me that he failed. An anguished roar and billowing fire confirm that something has just happened to me, as I slip into his arms. Even with the light emanating from the star, even with Bowser's shouts of, "Stay with me! Don't go! Mario! Please," my vision slowly fades to black.

Snapping awake, my breath is hard and heavy. My heart is still racing, hammering against my chest. Running my hands over my face, feeling my surroundings, I shake my head and realize that I'm still in his castle, still in my room.

"Nightmare," I exhale, and then sit quietly for a while. Two fingers pinch the side of my mustache and I tug it a bit, the scenes from horrendous reverie slipping away, but exacting a steep toll. Tightly gripping the covers, I breathe again, shutting my eyes tightly. Think. Think of anything else, Mario; think of anything that can make it go away. Sighing, controlling myself again, my eyes are open and I jump out of the bed.

Tiptoeing to the window, not certain of the cautious measures I'm taking, I open the shutters and gaze out. It's impossible to see with the setting sun, the mix of red and orange soaked skyline, but I know Star Hill's direction from here. I've traveled there on several adventures before, but dying there…

No. Stop. It wasn't real. That was a nightmare, not a vision. Come on; stop thinking about it!

Turning away from the window, I walk back to the bed and grab my cap. Using my hand to fix my hair quickly, I slip the hat back on. Reaching under the bed, I pull out my shoes and slide back into them. Pulling my gloves out of my overalls, I push them back onto my hands. Making a fist, I glance at the scuffs in my clothing. They're minor, but I'd like to get them fixed and stitched up at some point. My eyes drift back out the window.

Suddenly, a rough rapping sounds at the door. Smirking, I realize there's only one person who can make it sound like that.


 

Anyone would think we're bizarre.
Now that we've come so far and said so much…
Does it matter what they believe?

Both of us are terrified about everything.
Of course, it's justified, all things considered.
What comes next and can we handle it?
Solutions are in short supply…
Ergo, we'll make our own future.
Right or wrong, we're deciding our fate.


 

Opening the door, wearing a stubborn grin, I see him standing in the vermillion light of the window. His body is highlighted in the glow, showing off his muscled arm and clenched fist. The legs are spread, but steady, showcasing a balanced posture. While the setting sun's rays dull the red clothes, his overalls stand out. More importantly, his bright eyes stand out in a gorgeous display of cool blue against the red backdrop.

Taking in a whiff, my nose twitches a bit and I do my best to stop scrunching my face. Mario may look more handsome under the sun, but he needs to wash up. He raises an eyebrow, which means I didn't quite cover it up well enough.

"Can I help you, your nosey majesty?" he jests, bowing. Snorting, I wave my hand in front of my nose. "That's your fault, not mine."

"Touché," is my answer, gesturing him to come out with my finger. His head tilts, but he slowly walks forward anyway. "Just us," I reassure him. He pokes his head out and looks around. "Everyone was rounded up for training exercises, courtesy of a grouchy king," my explanation comes, ending with a chuckle.

His bright smile makes my heart beat faster. Grabbing his arm, I lead him down the hall and to a bathroom. "Here, go wash off. I'll bring some clothes by in a bit."

He stops and gives me a bewildered look. "You have clothes that will fit me?"

"They're not mine," I laugh a little. "I had a Troopa give them to me."

"So, a shell and shoes. Swell," he mocks the idea and sticks his tongue out.

"Hey, we have more than that, you know. Formal occasions require formal clothes."

He scratches the back of his head. "True, it's just…I rarely see a Koopa in a suit coat."

Chuckling, I walk back to my room. Opening the door, I find a small, dark blue suit and pants waiting for Mario, paired with matching socks and a button-down carmine shirt to go underneath. Along with it wait my larger black suit jacket and a dark green dress shirt, neatly hung up and ready for use.

However, the yellow robed Snifit and pink Boo that I sent to get things together are also there waiting for me. Frowning, I fold my arms over. Here we go.

"O-Oh! Lord Bowser!" the yellow Snifit squeaks, and I can't tell if she was or wasn't expecting my return. "We, um, we got your clothes!"

"Fantastic," I grunt. "But why are you and your girl pal still here?"

"Girl? Ohohoho!" laughs the pink Boo, and judging by the deep voice, I'm mistaken.

Shrugging, I note, "Give me a break, you're pink, and it's easy to assume."

"Pink? Ehee hee!" cackles the Boo. "Your majesty, I'm a Red Boo! That's our species after all!" Cocking an eyebrow, I tilt my head and look him over. "All right, I'm clearly pink, yes. But sire, we are known as the Red Boo. It's quite funny, don't you agree? Ehee hee hee!"

"…Right. Well, off with the two of you. Thanks for the clothes and all—"

"Oh, but your majesty," the giggling Boo interrupts. "Won't you permit us to stay for the date?" Grinding my teeth, I glare him in the eyes. "Ehee hee hee! Your highness didn't expect us to be so foolish as to not know about your plans? Clearly, you are trying to impress a…certain someone, yes?"

"Ruby! Hush now!" the yellow Snifit scolds him. "Lord Bowser, forgive him. He simply does not know when to keep his silly tongue out of people's business. What do we care if you're planning a date with Mario anyway?" My cheeks start burning and I can't tell if it's embarrassment, anger, or a fireball ready to be shot out at the next one of these two to speak. "…O-Oh! Sire, please! F-Forgive me!"

"Ohohoho!" Ruby bursts with laughter, bouncing around as he floats. "Well met, Jasmine! It must be Mario! He's the only one not running around with training exercises!"

"Listen," I growl fiercely. "If either of you so much as thinks of spreading a vile rumor like that, I'll have you two—"

"Lord Bowser, we would never!" Jasmine protests. "It's such a lovely idea. You could use someone to be beside you. Mario might just make your best suited match yet!" There's a pause as we look from her to the suits, then back to the Snifit again. "Beg pardon, sire. I wasn't trying to be funny."

"Ehee hee hee! How can we not keep this secret?" Before he continues, I'm already dreading his humored tone. "Just think of it, your majesty! We know a special secret about you that no one else does…yet! Oh, Jasmine here might guard it with her life, but this kind of leverage is just too much to simply keep the secret!"

On the verge of roaring, I stifle it once an idea pops into my mind. "You know, Ruby. Mario's brother has an uncanny knack for ghost hunting." The…"Red" Boo's grin disappears in an instant upon hearing that. Smirking, I add, "You'll keep this between us, or I'll make sure to find more than one way to torture even a ghost like you." Suddenly, his afterlife became more valuable, as he silently nods.

"You have our word, sire," Jasmine chimes in. "We'll keep this secret as safe as can be! Why, not even your son will hear of it! He…he doesn't know, does he?"

"No, and you'll do well not to tell him first," I snap. "Now, be gone!" The two bow and make a quick exit. Scratching my head, I feel a heavy doubt settling in the pits of my stomach. Sighing, I take a second to shake it off, and then fumble around with my suit and shell. After a struggle, I'm able to throw it and the jacket on. Taking the smaller suit for Mario, I walk back over to the washroom.

Raising my hand to knock, I pause, hearing a tune coming from the room. Listening carefully, past the rushing shower, I catch just the end of it. He sings:

"You say you'd reach for the stars above,

You'd travel all the lands and back for me.

Just don't forget to take me too, my love,

Take me to the ends of the land and sea."

It's not that he aces the song, and it may not strike a cord with anyone else, but the very idea of Mario singing melts my heart away. Even if he isn't quite perfect at it, I'd kill to hear more. However, the shower stops and I'm forced to abandon the notion for now. Hearing the knocking, he gasps.

"B-Bowser," he stammers. "Uh…hi."

"Hello, love," I coo, and lightly scratch the doorframe. "I got you some fresh clothes."

"Oh, right. Um…" he clears his throat. "Just, give me a minute." Listening, I hear a towel flip about. My heart starts racing and I feel a smile creep onto my face. Shaking my head, I sigh and suck in a bit of my cheek. "All right, just pass it through the door when I open it." There's an edge to his voice that makes it clear he doesn't want me looking in…or else. Listening to the click of the lock and the knob turn, I hold the clothes and look away. Barely hearing the door creak or feeling his hand snatch the suit away, I blink and turn back as he shuts it again.

"Wow, speedy," I comment, with a nervous chuckle.

"Yeah, my brother can be a pest," he murmurs, making me curious to learn more. "And you weren't kidding about the formal attire, huh?"

"Nope," I beam. There's a pause while I scratch my head and yawn.

"Um…Bowser? You're not going to wait there the whole time, are you?"

"What? …Oh, uh…no, I'll be in my room." Huffing, I trudge off.


 

Joining one another was the first step.
Unified, yet are we still coming together?
Sharing every moment, glad or sad…
Tempting the other to outdo the last.


 

Oddly enough, the suit fits me pretty well. It's a little snug on my legs, but it gets the job done. Combing my hair, I swing my red cap around on my free hand. Gathering my shambled shirt and overalls, I continue to twirl it around. After debating it, I decide to leave my clothes in my room, hat and gloves included. All I take with me are my shoes, a little scuffed, but not quite as noticeable as the rest. Slowly, I stroll to Bowser's room and knock. He opens it, and I notice him wearing a suit and coat as well. Pants, he lacks, though I imagine the ventral plastron covers it.

"Funny," he murmurs, with lowered eyes, a small smile. "Here I was thinking that I'd pick you up. I forgot that you came to my house." His mischievous grin curls up and I laugh.

"Well," I sigh, still smiling, "you're the one who planned the rest. So, where to?"

Wrapping his arm around me, all I get is, "This way." We walk along the halls, but I'm too caught up with Bowser holding me to pay the passing gray and red blurs any notice. Those two cliché feelings, about a tightened stomach and walking on air, are about what I'm experiencing now. Exchanging a look with the Koopa King, I'd be remiss to think he felt any different.

As we walk, he rubs my arm and back a bit, pulling me closer, binding us. The size weighs me down a bit, but his scales are smooth and his muscles feel tight, superb. It's doting, yet protective, understandably. However, the corridors we navigate are empty, save for this odd couple. His tail curls around my waist and I can't help but grab it, raise it a bit. He flinches, but loosens as I begin to massage it. He moans a little, failing to cover it up, blushing.

Soon, we arrive to a spacious roof, and I blink, apparently numb to staircases. A small table for two sits near the edge, but not enough to overlook the castle grounds below. However, there's no need, as the night sky is already filled with shimmering stars, bursting through the volcanic smog.

While I'm caught up with the view, Bowser lowers his wrapped arm to my waist, sliding his tail away. His other arm clasps one of mine, and he playfully grins. By the time I process this, he starts swaying around, then spinning and twirling me along with him. My heart skips a little, but after he builds momentum with the silly dance, we're laughing. Once we near the table, he dips me, winking. My cheeks heat up, alive with fire, and I share his smile. Pulling me back up, we take our seats.

"That's just to ease the tension," Bowser laughs. "Next time, we'll have a real tango."

"Fantastic," I laugh, and I feel a mix of cheer and fret over that.

He uncovers our meals and I nearly drool over the succulent smells. There's roasted shroom dish with a fresh, healty salad for me, and a steaming shroom steak with drumsticks for him. The delicious scents already fill my nostrils and my empty stomach is on the verge of screaming with delight.

"Sorry it's a little simple, but I don't normally eat mushrooms, so the order was a little, uh, suspicious," he fires out at me, twisting the tablecloth. His foot grazes my leg under the table, patting mine as he lowers it.

"Bowser, this is great," I reassure him. In all honesty, he could have served the chef's mistakes and I'd be delighted to shovel it down my throat. Seeing me unwrap the napkin and hastily pulling out the silverware must reassure him, as he lets out a breath and smiles. Before I can dig in, he reaches over and brings up a few candles. With a quick huff, he lights them, setting them down neatly on the other end. I can't help but laugh. "Really?"

He tries to keep a straight face, but a grin forces its way in. "What? When else would we get to use these?" The aroma of trees and flowers settle in and I can't argue; it's a bittersweet reminder of what we don't have here.

After we've eaten, Bowser pushes the table aside and drags our chairs together. Still not close enough for him, he wraps his arm around me again and pulls me closer. The arm of the chair digs in a bit, but there's no helping it and having him hold me is too charming to refuse. I slip my arms around his body, hugging him, feeling his heart beat pick up. Bowser hums with delight, curling his tail around my legs. His free arm reaches over and entwines into my hand. Quietly, we look out to the sky.

He nuzzles his face into my hair after a bit, and takes a whiff. His enchanted sigh signals that I smell much better now. Chuckling, I press into him, letting his body warm me up. Cuddling with him feels so gratifying and I've already decided this will be one of those moments to treasure for life. Judging by his soft squeezes now and again, I'm pretty sure he agrees with me.

Stargazing doesn't last forever, and after we've found a few patterns, I can't help but bring up the current situation again. Unwrapping his tail from my legs and untangling our hands, I'm already a bit colder. He scratches his chin and then looks down at me with a quizzical expression.

"Are you sure we can't just conquer the whole kingdom?" His tone sounds half serious, yet half lighthearted.

"No," I flatly reject the notion and he laughs.

"Worth a shot," he relents easily. "Well, what do you propose?"

I think for a bit. "Maybe a peace treaty?" I offer.

"Highly unlikely to succeed," he muses. "We've been feuding for ages, there's no chance that'll work."

I bite my lip and decide to elaborate. "Hear me out: you come up with some terms, agreeable ones, and then send me over. Maybe you could ask for a little more territory, expand your part of the kingdom, and work as an ally to the Mushroom Kingdom for future disruptions. I'm sure that we can go about it rationally and if you agree to pull your troops out and help fix things up, we'll be over the war in no time."

He grunts. "You're delusional if you think that's really going to work."

"Better that then storming in and trying to take over the world," I counter, a tad too defensive. To balance it, I add in, "I really want this to work out for everyone. This is a really shaky plan, I'll admit, but it's something."

Bowser crosses his legs and scratches under his chin. "Peace negotiations…" he murmurs. "And what do I tell my troops? They'll think I've gone soft, that I'm giving in."

"Do you really think they'd be opposed to peace?" I blurt out. "No more of me stomping down on their heads and backs."

Breathing in and releasing it, Bowser continues to think it over. "We should keep brainstorming, but this makes a good foundation, as opposed to my ideas," he finally admits.

"Thank you," I cheer and hug him, squeeze him, again. He rumbles a little with laughter and holds me as well.

At the sound of something crackling, we break our embrace and look back to the sky. A shooting star soars across the night sky. We get up to watch it slowly travel into view and sail through. I burst out laughing again.

"Could this be any more sappy?" I have to ask.

"Of course," he smiles. "How else were you expecting this to go?" Then he leans down and whispers into my ear, "I've only got one idea left myself." I feel his hand brush against my face and he pulls back.

Our eyes are locked in, taking each other in. His glossy red eyes are just too enticing to look away from. His smile reflects my own. He bends his knees a bit to get a little closer to my level. Bowser gently raises my chin and strokes my head. I reach up to run my hand through his red strands, and then slide it to his horn. Soft. Rough. It takes a fair bit of effort to close my eyes, to shut this sight out even briefly, but I do. Our hearts are thundering against our chests. We lean in to each other and I can feel the warmth of his breath, hotly brushing over my whole face.


 

Keeping us apart at all costs…
It's what the world wants.
Somehow, we'll fight back!
Sickening feels fade in time.
Everyone will learn this…
Day and night, we won't relent.


 

Out of every way I dreamt our first kiss would unfold, I didn't quite think it through. My mouth covers a good portion of his face, to the point where I can feel his chin against my bottom lip, and it looks as if I'm trying to eat him. Pulling back with a bit of a pop, he brushes some saliva off of his face while I scratch my cheek.

"Uh…heh…sorry," is about all I can manage; there's no salvaging this one.

"That's all right," he laughs as he brushes his face once more. "Want to try again?"

"Please!" I beg, not hiding my desperation for a second chance. Well…the first kiss is already gone, sure, but I need to get one good one in before the night is over.

Scooping his soft face into my hands as he wraps his around mine, I lean in slower. Pausing just before his face, possibly teasing a bit, we shut our eyes and gently push our lips out and press them in together. It doesn't feel like I'm putting everything in at first, since I'm trying to avoid another mistake, but my lips are practically covering his. I let back a bit, but he moves into me, not letting up just yet. His mustache tickles my lips and it's so soft, with the most magnificent feeling of it brushing against me. I'm not quite sure where to go next, so I press back, and part his lips open. He moans a little and our tongues touch a few times. I'm tempted to go further and deepen the kiss, but I'm afraid to ruin the moment and want to enjoy what I've got so far. Instead, I slide my hand up his face and run it through his hair. He caresses my cheek and I moan a bit in response, feeling a lightning fast tingle surge across my body, top to bottom and back again. Reluctantly, we ease away from one another, trying to savor every last sensation.

"Better?" I quietly yet hopefully ask, feeling a grin return to my face.

"Much," Mario answers and I open my eyes to see him smiling back at me.

My beam broadens and I envelope him in my arms. Rubbing his back and pressing my face against his head, I chuckle a bit, and then squeeze him tighter. His arms slide up beneath mine, clinging to my body. Wrapping my tail around his waist, I try to push us in even closer, as if it were possible. He rubs my sides and pats me gently. Our hearts continue to pound against our chests, for one another.

Breathing into his head, I feel an overwhelming yearning for him. I literally can't pull him in any more without crushing him, but I want to keep Mario so close to me. It's a rushing mix of desire, greed, and love, bundled up and begging me to never let him go again, like I should magnetically bond to him and cling together for life. I can't really explain it properly, but almost every fiber of my being just wants to stay here, latched to him, to my love. The best part is that he squeezes back, and feels that same surge of want for me.

We physically can't though, and slowly, we unfold from the tight embrace. Staring into his deep blue eyes, all I want is to kiss him and hold him repeatedly. We breathe in to one another and the warmth is the most refreshing thing I've ever felt.

It's real.

Wrapping my arm back around his waist, I want to keep him near me. A distant buzzing snaps me back into an alert state and I look out across the sky. The whirs become a chorus and I squint, trying to see past the sooty sky. A pang hits my stomach hard, and my warm emotions are overturned by less soothing ones.

"What is it?" Mario asks. I turn back to him and he searches my eyes, worried.

"It's…my son," I utter, having completely forgotten about summoning the boy back home. Reading my thoughts almost perfectly, Mario can only nod. "What am I going do? What are we going to do?"

He takes my free hand and closes both of his around it. Even if he can't answer, it's more reassuring that I imagined.

Thinking a bit, I sigh. "Well, I guess we should get out of these suits first, so let's head back inside." Mario agrees and we make our way back in. We pause a minute and look back to the sky. The shooting star is disappearing.

"Maybe we should make a wish," suggests Mario.

Nodding, I agree, "Sure." Still, I need to add, "Honestly though, I can't see another wish coming true so soon." We break into smiles, make silent wishes, and tread back inside.

Dragging our feet doesn't change what's coming up, but it keeps us together a little longer. "You've got to admit," Mario pipes up as we head down the steps, "this was probably the best night we've had in ages, and possibly the best for a while yet."

"Of course," my absent agreement sounds. Mario bumps me and gives me a dirty look. Sighing, I understand that we've already gotten a lot out of tonight. Still, I crave him and want more. Kissing him on the head, he smiles we hold one another as we continue. Even with a pit in my stomach, I keep a grin on my face.

Even as reality is punching back in, it can't take what we've already shared.

Chapter Text

Dearest Toadsworth,

I sincerely apologize for what I am about to put you through, but I can no longer sit by idly while the kingdom falls into chaos.

While you have made it absolutely clear that the kingdom would remain safe and stable so long as I remained out of harm's way, it seems quite apparent to me that the opposite is true. The castle may stand tall, but the rest of the kingdom is in disarray from Bowser's forces.

No longer. My patience has been tested time and again, but even I have my limits. Mario has already been taken and Bowser has threatened his life. Luigi and many of our strongest Toad soldiers are trying to fight through the Koopa King's minions, with varying degrees of success.

However, I simply cannot wait for Luigi and the Toads to throw their lives away or for Bowser to completely take this kingdom over. Most of all, however, is that I will not let Mario's life dangle in jeopardy, just so I can sit pretty on my throne and wait for everyone else to decide his fate.

Even though I know you will do the opposite, please do not panic. I will take the best possible precautions, ones that no one has ever anticipated from me before. And I will meet up with Luigi before going any further, but I will not rest until I've won back my kingdom.

This is war, and I will not wait to be told the results. I will decide our fate today.

Take care until my return,
Peach
(And that is an order, Toadsworth!)


 

[Peach]

Perhaps I could have been more delicate, now that I have a chance to think about that letter. And poor Toadsworth will wander into my room and discover it neatly on top of the desk before he sees my blanket-forged escape rope. But I haven't the time to worry about what he'll find or how he'll act. The castle is far behind me now.

"Princess? Are you all right?" the purple Toad asks me. I turn my head to look at him and nod. Looking down, I notice my tight grip around my golden scepter. Relaxing it, I can feel my hand shaking a bit, but it feels lighter now.

The green Toad with us lets out a heavy sigh. "If Toadsworth knew where we were going, he'd…he'd…I don't even want to think about it!"

"Now, now," I begin to reassure them, "Toadsworth will feel much calmer knowing that you two came with me as my guards, rather than going alone." I'm headstrong, but not foolish. As much as I want to lessen the causalities of my people, I do know that I would be in over my head to journey to the Grasslands fortress alone.

Nodding, the purple Toad chimes in, "Yeah, Toadsworth would be happy that we went with Peach."

"No," the green Toad snaps back at him, "he'd be mad that we didn't stop Peach and bring her back."

Laughing, I contribute, "Well, my orders far outrank his, so that's the end of it." Thinking for a second, the green Toad nods, relenting.

We continue walking along the quiet dirt and grassy paths, making any necessary jumps across various cliffs, wary of possible troops that could attack us as we listen to the crunching of the trails below. However, we have faced none thus far, more than likely due to Luigi and the others already clearing the way.

"Gosh," comments the purple Toad, "I really would have thought that more troops would have taken the place of the fallen ones. Other than jumping over occasional ravines, this escort is as easy as a spring breeze."

"It hasn't been all that long since Luigi and the others passed through here," the green Toad points out. "Even Bowser couldn't have learned about it that quickly."

While the two Toads continue to chatter, I look to the late night sky. My thoughts turn to Mario, and I can only hope that he is managing to survive. Bowser's words echo in my mind:

"Princess Peach! I've got your precious little hero right here! By the time you get this message, my forces will have control over your kingdom. Surrender if you want to save Mario! Don't, and he's finished. I'll send you more terms soon."

Shivering off the punch I feel in my stomach, I hold my scepter close to me. The moonlight glimmers across the blue and pink jewels that decorate the heart-shaped head of it. Breathe in, breathe out; come on, Peach.

"Princess? Are you all right?" the purple Toad repeats the question. It's not the first time, nor will it be the last, that he asks me that.

Sucking in air, "I'll be fine." Exhale. Stop worrying about him; he's Mario.

The green Toad excitedly jumps up and down. "I see it! The fortress is up ahead!"

Looking ahead, I see the tall, dark citadel before us. My heartbeat races, and there's a bubbling of excitement pulsing through me. No one has cleared this stronghold yet, which means that we will be facing at least one enemy: Bowser's chosen minion. Whoever he placed to guard the Grasslands will be the one we need to stop.

"Come on," I assert, moving ahead of the Toads. "We have to help the others." They follow with cheerful, though nervous, chirps of enthusiasm.

Stepping inside, the walls are black, and it's difficult to see, even with torchlight. Whispering an incantation to my staff, it begins to glow, emitting a small yellow light that casts a beam ahead of us.

"Wow Princess," gasps the purple Toad. "That's a really handy rod!"

He's right, and it's one that I should carry around more often. However, were it to fall into Bowser's hands, we could be dealing with more trouble than we bargained for. Ordinarily, I borrow its power and leave the scepter locked away.

This time, however, things are different.

Carefully, we navigate the dungeon-like rooms, moving quickly to the back of the building. Aside from chains and stones, I fail to take in the surroundings; it's not my first time in one of these, and I highly doubt it will be my last. This fort in particular is especially not noteworthy, given how the Grasslands have a plain design; while poor for defenses, it has a comforting simplicity to it.

While we move along the linear trail back and upwards, the purple Toad finds an unused block and jumps up, punching it open. A red flower pops up from the top and he grabs it. Glowing briefly, his attire changes from purple and white to red and purple.

"All right, now I'm Fire Toad!" he cheers.

The green Toad laughs, then runs off and jumps up higher. Moving my staff to guide him, I realize that he's making his way to another block, knocking it open to grab a blue flower. With a flash, his attire of green and white becomes blue and green. He makes his way back down from the plateaus above.

"Ice Toad reporting for duty!" comes his joyous cry.

Presently, we reach the studded red door. It's laughable how these essentially say, "This way to the boss of building, step right in!" Nevertheless, we would be lost without it.

"Are you both ready?" I ask. They may be properly equipped now, but one hit from the enemy and they're back to normal Toads.

The duo glances to one another, and then turns to me, both nodding. "Let's go, Princess!" they shout simultaneously. Smiling, I open the door and we walk through. Ominously, it shuts behind us.

My heart feels like it jumps, but I tighten my grip on my scepter. There is no turning back anymore.

We race ahead, rushing down the long hall to the main room. Ahead, we can hear a shout of horror. One of the Toads is in danger. A surge of anger rises within me, and, heels be damned, I double my running speed. My escorts shout, trying their best to keep up with me.

At the end of the hall, we move to the wider room, looking inside. It's a bit brighter than the rest of the fortress, enough to see the large Piranha that slashes his leaf at Luigi, who barely jumps away. The red head turns up, almost as if he can look at us. Its yellow petals are bent, presumably from the fight with Luigi and the Toads with him. His body, much too small to properly carry the head around, looks a little worn, but I can tell from a glimpse that it's still rearing for a fight.

Petey Piranha readies to attack us, flapping his leaf-like arms to fly. His mouth opens, and if the fangs weren't enough to intimidate us, he lets loose a menacing roar.

I can almost hear Luigi's startled cries before he sounds them: "Princess?! W-What are you doing here?!"

He's universally ignored, however, as Petey fires a sludge bomb down at us. The Toads run off to the left, while I break to the right. Looking to the wall, I can see the yellow and blue Toads are injured and I run for them. Casting just a look back, I swerve out of my charge and dive away, dodging another ball of sludge.

"Keep going, Princess!" the Fire Toad shouts and shoots a fireball at Petey, scorching a leaf. "We can handle him!"

Regaining my footing, I run back to the injured Toads. Quickly whispering another incantation, a soft pink light sparkles from the scepter and whirls around the two. Coughing, they push themselves up from the group.

"P…Princess?" the blue Toad asks, his voice with slight disbelieve, but mostly weary.

"What are you doing here?" the yellow Toad questions, a little less worse for wear.

"Ending this," is all I leave them with before turning back to Petey, who slams back into the ground and knocks the purple Toad away, zapping him of his Fire Flower power.

"Hang on," calls the Ice Toad, firing an ice ball at Petey and freezing his legs in place. With another roar, he fires another sludge bomb, dousing the green Toad. When he pops back out, his Ice Flower power is gone.

As Petey rears to attack again, Luigi jumps off the back wall and plummets down on Petey's head, but gets tossed away with ease. Running to him, another drop of sludge cuts me off.

Turning, I look directly at Petey Piranha. Tapping my rod, it flashes and a pink fireball appears in my hand. "Enough," is what I leave him with, as I lob the fireball at his body, scorching him. Petey emits a sharp cry of pain. His body flashes with a red and blue burst, and he coughs, sputtering sludge from his mouth.

Defeated, Petey breaks the ice from his legs and thrashes through the back of the fortress, fumbling away. Panting, I look around. The four Toads have gathered together, helping Luigi up from the ground.

"Peach, what was that?!" exclaims Luigi.

"Petey Piranha," I answer, a bit mockingly. "You have faced him before, right?"

"That's not what I mean and you know it," Luigi retorts, still flustered as he brushes himself off.

"Look, I couldn't wait at the castle forever," I explain. "That's never been me, and you know that. Mario is in peril and we need to rescue him in record time."

"Don't you think that I understand that?" protests Luigi. "What if Bowser hastens that death sentence that he's been threatening if Petey manages to get back to him and reports what just happened?"

His words hit me harder than any of Petey's sludge bursts could have. I was so eager to stop the Grasslands from being kept under enemy control that I didn't look at the bigger picture.

Shaking it off, I respond, "No matter; I'll send some of my forces to cut Petey from making it back to Bowser. We're not going to submit to his demands, Luigi. We're taking back these kingdom lands whether he likes it or not. And we will rescue Mario along with them."

My determination must have rocked him to his core somewhat, because he doesn't say anything after that. The Toads cheer as I hold my scepter up. No more Ms. Nice Princess from here on out. My patience is worn out.

"The Mushroom Kingdom is ours and I will take it back by whatever means necessary!"

They clap for me as we make our way from the fort. I'm proud that we were able to save the Grasslands, but the pang of worry settles deep into my stomach, mixing with the surges of confidence. We're just getting started.


 

[Bowser]

As we step back into the castle, I reluctantly let Mario slip from my arm and back into his room. "Good luck," he whispers and I wink, giving a small smile as he closes the door. My face falls almost immediately after and my heart sinks. It's been difficult enough as it is to hide Mario from everyone in the castle already, but hiding him from my son will prove damn near impossible.

And suddenly, my heart picks up again. My son! He's home! My smile curls back up and I'm elated to let that fact hit me. Until now, I hadn't realized just how much I missed the boy. Now, I eagerly wait for him to come into the halls.

Once the doors open, I barely see him before I spill out, "Junior! Welcome home, son! I…" My cheer slowly dies as I take a closer look and see seven certain Koopas trail behind him. Junior runs forward and hugs me, but I take a minute to respond in kind. He backs up soon after and I can't help but let out, "And…you've brought the Koopa…lings…?"

"Yeah," Junior answers, still delighted to see me. "Weren't those your orders, Papa? It's what the Magikoopa told me."

"Uh-huh. Right, of course." Someone either messed up my message or very clearly went against my orders. A flick of annoyance in my head signals for the latter.

"What's with the suit?" questions Roy, as the pink-headed Koopa flicks his red sunglasses. I freeze; I took too long with Mario that I didn't remember to change.

"It's, uh, new," I muster up. "I was in the middle of trying it on."

"Well, it certainly looks sharp, your highness," coos Wendy, as she adjusts her golden bracelets and fixes the bow behind her head.

"T-Thanks," I stammer out. Come on and pull it together!

"You seem a bit tense, Lord Bowser," notes Ludwig as he brushes his blue hair back.

"Ah, yes, you're right," I relent. "Honestly, I'd rather not be parading around in suits while the troops are training, but Snifit that brought me this was so insistent, and I'm pretty uncomfortable being caught basically playing dress-up." Good.

"He-he-he," laughs Lemmy, tossing a yellow star-marked ball up and down. "Bowser playing dress-up. Too funny!"

"Shut up, Lemmy," Junior snaps. Looking back to me, he asks, "So, how's the Princess, Papa?"

"Um, that's, uh, another part of my problems," I pretty much choke out. "You see, this time I managed to grab…Mario."

Subtly, I watch as the Koopalings eyes widen, shocked at the news. Junior giggles.

"Way to go, Papa!" He cheers. "Did you fry him yet?"

"Not exactly," I answer, carefully keeping my tone in check. "To keep it short, he'll be playing Peach's role this time. We're going to use him to barter for the rest of the kingdoms."

"Wow, really?" Junior's enthusiasm fails to falter. "Is that really going to work?"

"I suppose we'll find out soon," I chuckle, thankful that my son's attitude is enough to keep me calmed.

"This should be good," Roy chuckles himself, deciding to be amused with the news. The other Koopalings sound agreements and are slowly pacified.

"Where are you keeping him, anyway?" Larry asks.

"Ah…here, actually," I answer shortly.

"Well, duh," Roy retorts. "He means where in the castle."

"Here," I repeat and the Koopalings shock is borderline comical.

"Which room?" Junior asks, pushing open a nearby door.

I twitch as he jumps backward from the room.

Chapter Text

[Bowser]

Junior jumps from a few mops and brooms falling from the closet he pushed open. I bite my lip a bit and move over to him while the Koopalings snicker.

"All right, that's enough," I growl at them, looking over my son to see if he's hurt.

The boy giggles, "I'm fine, papa. That was pretty funny."

Exhaling a bit, I wait for the laughter to quite down. I open my mouth to speak, only to have Iggy interrupt: "So, which room is he in? Do you want me to whip up a device to keep him locked in?"

"No, I have two guards posted," I comment, realizing the skepticism as the words fall out. Recovering, I add, "And I make sure that their very lives depend on how well they watch him."

Ludwig clears his throat. "Careful Lord Bowser," he advises, "you're…flirting with danger." What? …Not possible. Raising only an eyebrow, he mimics my reaction, but I've caught on to his test. No visible reactions kid, don't forget who trained you.

"Is there anything else you immediately require from us, your highness?" inquires Morton, taking my focus away from Ludwig. "If not, do you have any heads that need knocking?"

"Uh, nothing here," I muse. "You can check on the troops. In fact, all seven of you, go crack down on them. They should be finishing soon, which means they've got some heavy exercises to complete before stopping. Make sure they don't slack at the end."

"Right away, sire," Larry answers, with a bow. He then leads the Koopalings out of the hall.

Sighing, I shake my head. "It's strange how they seem to operate collectively." Junior nods in agreement. "Now son, you said that you were told to bring them back with you?"

The boy looks up at me, puzzled. "Yes, papa. Those were the orders."

"Were they?"

"Papa, you're not old enough to be losing your memory."

We share a laugh, but I'm still disturbed by his sincerity about what he thinks was my message. More frightening, however, is the possibility that I may have trouble brewing within my own ranks. It's not an entirely new concept, but it still—

"Papa? You ok?" I blink, looking back to my son.

"Yes, I'm fine, Junior," I force out with a chuckle. "Just…thinking."

The boy laughs again. "Losing your memory, getting lost in thought, geez, what are you're losing next?"

Scratching my chin, I realize that he may have a point, and that maybe I have lost my mind over…well, everything. And I'm only going to prove that once he asks where Mario is, so I might as well go ahead with that.

"Junior, son, listen" I gather his attention again. "Now, Mario's in that room over there," I speak and point to the door further down the hall.

He gasps. "Right next to your room?! Papa, that's crazy!"

"Maybe, but I need to keep him close," I explain. "If anyone tries to come looking for him, or if he tries to escape, we'll lose our biggest edge over the Mushroom Kingdom and we need that. The best place to keep him is nearest to me, like how I do with Peach."

And I think about the numerous times I've stolen the princess away and kept her in the dungeons until Mario would eventually reach my castle to claim her back. Even though it's early, I'm doing the same with Mario, so I don't understand why that seems so abnormal in everyone's eyes…well, besides the fact that it's Mario. Or is it because it's not Peach?

"Papa," comes the interruption of my thoughts, "are you torturing him anyway?"

Yikes. I forget where I live and enforce. "Not quite, son. We need him here, but we also need him alive." Scratching the back of my head, I decide to lay a new rule. "Junior, I want you to stay away from Mario, all right? The last thing I need is to give him the chance to hurt you or use you to escape."

Waiting for complaints or resistance, I'm shocked as I watch him nod. "I understand, Papa," he replies. "He could be trickier than Peach, huh?"

"He sure could, son!" More like he wouldn't want to, but that's not for him to know. And while Mario probably wouldn't use my son for an escape he's not planning, I still need Junior away from him. Torture…maybe my kingdom needs a bit more order…among various other changes.

"So, do you need anything from me, Papa?"

"Hm? Oh, not at the moment, son. You could help the Koopalings if you want, but I'm sure you could use some rest."

He shakes his head, keeping up his energetic front. "I'll be all right! I didn't sleep as much while I was out conquering, but I'm not sleepy now." He clamps his mouth shut and I watch him struggle to stifle a yawn, with his jaw lowering and cheeks puffed out. Tapping my foot and smirking, he groans, and trudges to the door across from mine, reluctantly retiring into his bedroom.

Letting out a sigh and a yawn of my own, I begin to unbutton my clothes. Resting is a great idea, and I begin to walk to my room. Pausing at Mario's door, however, I wonder if I should take a minute to…no, not now, that would come off…risqué. Yet, I can't help but ponder how Mario would react to me sauntering in as I peel my jacket off and give him suggestive looks and purr sweet nothings.

Shaking my head hard, I toss the notion out of my head. Another yawn slips from me and I continue on to my door. My hand rises, but as my claw reaches for the knob, it slumps back down. Lowering my eyes, I feel my head hit the door and for a moment, my eyes are shut. Forcing them open again, I rub my arm against my eyes. Picking myself up, I reach for the door, but stop at the sound of another one opening.

Turning, I look down the hall and see the Koopalings return. That was…too quick.

"What?" I snap. It's curt and unjustified, but I'm not in the mood for their usual mind games they play.

"Sire, it appears you have an…uprising on your hands," Ludwig muses as he uses a claw to comb his hair.

"What?!" I growl.

"It's not the whole castle, sire," Morton explains, "but some of the Koopa Troop isn't thrilled about Mario still breathing when they can kill him…well, now."

Snorting, I answer, "I've been over this. He needs to live for now, to give Peach hope that she'll be able to save him. Mario needs to stick around until I have full acquisition of the kingdom."

"Well, given our winning record, I think there's some skepticism over that happening," Larry puts in. "There's a group ready to come here now, actually."

"And you're allowing this?!" I roar.

"Absolutely not, sire," Wendy recovers for the septuplet. "That would be treason. We simply needed to come ask you for what we do next."

Grinding my teeth and ready to spew fire any second, I pause for a breath. After exhaling, I move closer to them and murmur, "Set an example."

"You want us to punish them?" Lemmy asks. "In front of everyone?"

"I'm not going to have my orders questioned. This is an unorthodox situation, but as easy as it would be to slice Mario to pieces, to burn him down bit by bit, and to ultimately give the utmost satisfaction to my army, we need him." Pinching my forehead in between my eyebrows, I add, "I've made that clear to you, and I've told the troop repeatedly. There's nothing more I can say and if they're still acting up, I need them to have it drilled in somehow."

"Oh, we'll get it into them, all right," Roy chuckles, taking a little too much delight in my orders. "Hey, Iggy, ya got anything we can use to…help them out?" They're more twisted than I realized.

"I'm sure I have some non-lethal equipment that should aid with their correction treatments," Iggy ponders, practically undeterred by what he's saying. "I'll go grab a few things on the way over to publically decry them. Maybe I can test a few new devices as well." They're a lot more twisted.

"Will that be all, your highness?" Larry inquires.

"Yeah, but don't completely break them down," I hastily return. "No more rebellions, but I still want them to be battle ready. It's not like—"

"Lord Bowser!" thunders a new voice and I look past the Koopalings to see three Koopas, seven Goombas, a Hammer Bro., and two Fire Bros. waiting in the doorway to the stairwell.

"Oopsie," Wendy giggles nervously. "Did we leave the door open?" I'm tempted to fry her for that.

"Sire," a red-shelled Koopa steps forward and speaks, "would you truly keep us from our justice? He's killed our families, our friends, good Koopas and—"

"Have you only been half-listening?" I interrupt. "I've said multiple times that he's needed. I want revenge as much as any of you, but that's not the only thing that I can focus on. Mario is too useful to kill right away over our grudges. Any other time would have been fine, but this is useful right here and now to us."

"The longer you keep him alive," a Goomba with green eyes starts up this time, "the more likely it will be that he escapes, or that he comes after us again! Everyone in the castle knows this!"

"There could be ways that we can fake his appearance to the Mushroom Kingdom," a Fire Bro. joins the others. "The Magikoopas have spells, we can pull his clothes from his corpse, there are other ways we can pull off this charade."

It takes quite a bit for me not to shudder or spit a fireball at him. "For the last time," I repeat myself, "no, we are keeping him alive."

"Then forgive us, sire," a green Koopa speaks up this time, "but we're going over your head on this. We don't want him for political gambits, especially if we can end it here and dominate the rest of the Mushroom Kingdom by sheer force. The Toads won't rally over his death; they would fall into despair."

"You're severely underestimating them if you truly believe that," I blink as the words come from my mouth.

"They're not clever enough to handle us," the Hammer Bro. cries out now. "We can take them all down! We're the Koopa Troop! They will perish under us, that's how we work!"

"Enough!" I roar. "Leave now, or—"

"No!" a red eyed Goomba shouts out. "We'll go right past you if we have to!"

Letting out a heavy sigh, I realize that they will try. "Roy, Morton," I turn to the Koopalings and the two called step forward. "Discipline them."

"Yes, your highness," Morton bows his head.

"Aw, I've been waiting for this!" Roy laughs and cracks his knuckles.

For a moment, there's stillness in the air and no one moves. Roy breaks that by taking a step forward and the Fire Bros. are the first to launch attacks, shooting fireballs at us. Morton whips out his wand, fires a spell, and blocks both shots.

Roy rushes forward, punching the closest Koopa and knocking him back onto his shell. Two Goombas and the Hammer Bro. attempt to retaliate, but Morton leaps into the air and crashes down, sending a shockwave that knocks the trio away.

The black-shelled Koopaling then grabs one of the Fire Bros. and tosses him into the other. After that, the remaining Goombas gather close together and try to create a tower formation for a counterattack, but Roy shoulders the stack and they fall to the floor. With only two Koopas remaining, Morton and Roy close in on them.

"We'll give you one last chance, so try not to anger us," Morton's low-voiced offer sounds. "Stop and admit you're wrong. Continue your opposition and suffer the consequences."

"You know we're right!" cries the red-shelled Koopa. "We can't leave Mario alive when we have him weak and at our mercy!"

A blue fireball whizzes through the air and knocks the defiant Koopa back against the wall. I turn my head to watch Ludwig cast another one at the remaining Koopa, who slams into the wall and crashes down next to his comrade.

"Apologies, my King, my brothers," Ludwig lets out with a light laugh. "I grew bored with their constant declarations of vengeance."

"It's cool," Roy laughs. "Morton and I got enough punches in."

Ludwig pats the end of his scepter on his hand, looking up at me. "You're right, sire. They're clouded by a thirst for Mario's blood and refuse to see this logically." He pauses and studies the rebels before continuing. "At first, I had doubts of my own, but hearing it come from you again, Lord Bowser, it's begun to make sense."

"It's crafty and sneaky, just how I'd do it," cackles Larry. My head nods in response, but I'm awed that they're finally consenting to my plans. Not that the Koopalings are ones to disobey, but I was worried they wouldn't this time around.

"They live, sire," Morton's voice echoes my mind back into focus. "Shall we continue their punishment now, or…?"

"No, that's enough," I shake my head, part response, and part disbelief. "Bring these thirteen to the dungeons. If anyone attempts this again, and I'm sure they will, this group will be used to set examples of what happens when you question my orders. Their names will be known for their foolishness."

Nodding, the seven Koopalings move to gather the group and drag them away. Some stir and shout cries for Mario's blood. They're knocked out soon after that. Within a minute or two, the Koopalings have taken the rebels away.

Part of me waits for the stairwell doors to pop open again, and I'm not sure what I expect, but I stand still for a while, uncertain of what to anticipate next, and unable to do anything else. A door opens behind me and I turn to look at my son.

"Papa," he starts but I shake my head.

"Go back in, Junior," I whisper, walking over to push him back in. He hugs me and I freeze for a minute before hugging him back.

"I know you know what you're doing," he quietly cheers, and then walks back into his bedroom. I feel a smile creep onto my face and I'm filled with warmth knowing that my son is back in the castle.

It dissipates when I think about it for too long and I go back to watching the doors.


 

[Mario]

The shouting from the hall outside has quieted down, swept away by silence. My heart races, pounds against my chest, as I reflect on what I had heard. That group of soldiers, enemies, would defy Bowser and risk their livelihood, just to kill me. A pang hits my stomach and I clutch it, wincing.

It's not the traitor-soldiers themselves that terrify me; I've fought many bigger and stronger adversaries. How close they were was unsettling, but the fact that they went against Bowser and probably would have came in here without their king blocking the way frightens me, haunts me. A shiver passes through me, rebounding from the top of my head down to my feet, back and forth for a bit.

And while the idea of death is horrible enough, Bowser losing control on his troops is almost equally shocking, rivaling my personal fears for survival.

Tugging my torn glove, I try to shake things off a little, breathe again. My suit is back on its hanger and I had just enough time to switch back into my ragged clothes. They smell a bit better, but I'm not sure who would have cleaned them a bit, let alone cleaning anything of mine at all.

Glancing at the walls, I scratch my head. Even though it's morning, the room doesn't look any brighter; I've grown used to it, but I still wonder how sunlight simply refuses to shine through the blackened skyline, even if it just passes through a crack.

Yet, it's not enough to keep my attention, however, and I'm back to worrying about Bowser and myself. I try to think of Luigi and Peach, but the two of them worrying about my wellbeing only turns into another punch at my gut.

With a deep sigh, I sit on the bed for a minute and tug my cap back into its rightful place. My hand slips from the top of my head and I press my cheek against it, leaning over and trying to quell my anxieties, become calm.

When I fail to do so, I jump back up. Moving to the door, I slowly, carefully turn the knob and pull the door open. Hearing just the slightest creak, I grasp the edge to reduce the sound, just a bit. Peering out, I see Bowser whirl his head to look at me as I try to look down the hall where he was gazing.

Noticing some scuffle marks and what might be charred walls, I glance back to Bowser, who moved closer and waves his hand at my room, his lips wording, "in." Huffing, I give him an annoyed look and tap my foot. He grumbles before swiftly slipping to my door, pushing both of us back into my room, and closes the door behind himself.

"What are you doing?!" he hisses at me. "The Koopalings and my son were just out there, they could have seen you!"

"Well, they already know that I'm here," I whisper, trying to sound a little nasty to him, but it sounds more like I have a cough I'm holding in.

His eyes widen regardless. "Then you…heard everything," he starts out asking, but finishes it as a fact. I nod and he pulls on his fallen face with his hand.

"To be fair, it was difficult not to," I protest, but he shakes his head, drops it, and sits down on my bed.

"I'm sorry. Yesterday, when you said they wouldn't care, you were right," Bowser replies, with his voice cracking a bit. "I didn't think they'd be this quick about it though, and I should have done better with protecting you."

My face twists a bit and I feel my grimace; I shouldn't need his security. Suddenly, I imagine myself as weak and it frustrates me to be even remotely powerless.

"You did protect me though," I state, holding back on the edge, self-loathing that's now brimming in my mind. "You were there and Koopalings managed to fend them off. I did call it, but you didn't allow it, just like you said."

He turns to me with a smile and his face picks up, but his mouth drops back to a frown when his eyes meet mine. "Um, Mario? Are you all right?" My brows are lowered over my eyes and I must look angry.

"Fine," I lie, but Bowser lowers his eyes, signaling that he's not oblivious to my thoughts. "Ok, I'm annoyed at myself for needing you." His eyes pick back up and he raises an eyebrow. "I shouldn't have to depend on you to keep me safe. I can take care of myself against your troops."

Bowser laughs. "I don't think I'd want you to do that. You can be…a bit forceful, I should say." Biting my cheek, I remember that he has more than me to keep safe. "You're not helpless, Mario. If you think that you haven't proven that countless times, you indeed are a moron. Fighting your way out of my castle doesn't solve anything though. Unless you want to break my heart." He stops and gives me an exaggerated sad look, pushing his bottom lip out and trying to make his eyes tear up. I softly kick him and he laughs again. "You know, you're a lot calmer than Peach. She would have hit me several times over if I tried even moving this close to her. And she hits harder than I like to admit." He winces at the memories and I smile.

"Yes, you're right," I relent. It doesn't make me ok with things the way they are now, but he understands how to make me feel better.

"Of course I am! I'm allowed to be too, you know," he grins and presses his foot on mine, grinding it a bit.

"Only when I need you to be, sure," I jest and laugh at his shocked face. Moving closer, I lean on him, pressing my hands against his unbuttoned shirt and jacket. He wiggles his eyebrows and I bop his nose for it. "I think you need to go get some rest," I mock him, trying to mimic his voice a bit.

He laughs at the attempt and pulls me in for a hug. "What have I been doing without you for so long?"

"Trying to beat me up, for starters," I tease as I hug him back. His laughter vibrates against me and I feel his belly bounce.

We break from embrace and wait for a bit, just looking at each other. Bowser sighs and gets back up. "I'll have Iggy work on something. He can whip something up to keep everyone else away from you."

Grabbing him for a second, I squeeze his hand and he squeezes back. I want him to stay, but he's been in here too long already. With his son right across the hall now, it's only become increasingly dangerous to be together. Letting that sink into my mind, I wince as my stomach takes another blow. Releasing Bowser, my hand drops down and back to my side.

"Hey," he beckons me and I look back up. "Hang in there. You keep me going too." He leaves before I can reaffirm his words, but I realize that he knows.

There's a little jolt of hope in me, that in spite of increasing obstacles, we still have a chance.

Chapter Text

A crowd was gathered just outside the castle. On the front balcony, Iggy and Lemmy stood on right side, while Larry and Ludwig waited on the left. Wendy stood in the center of their raised stage, with the Koopa Troop below wondering what they were doing.

"Does anyone understand why all of the Koopalings are standing around up there?" asked a confused Ice Bro. to no one in particular.

"No idea," came the hushed response of a Shy Guy that walked by. "But there's only five of them around. There are seven Koopalings, which means that something's going on."

"Ehehehe…we should watch and find out," cackled a Boo that joined their conversation.

A door slammed open, and the audience gathered below jumped. They watched as Roy appeared to the front of the balcony, pointing forward. Wendy cleared her throat and spoke aloud.

"Pyre," she announced, in a voice that had a mix of authority and sinister delight. A Fire Bro. in handcuffs stepped forward, taking the end spot at the very edge of the balcony. "Pyro." Another Fire Bro. in cuffs walked forward, keeping his head down, and moved to the edge of the balcony next to the first.

"What is the meaning of this?" a Magikoopa whispered the question out.

"Hush," hissed a Monty Mole. "We'll find out soon."

Wendy continued over the quiet talks of the assembly below, "Ren." A red-shelled Koopa Troopa with handcuffs came forward, notably annoyed. "Bill." As the first Koopa moved to the end of the line, a blue-shelled Koopa appeared, looking worried. "Garen." The third, calmer Koopa Troopa, green-shelled, joined the other two at the end with the Fire Bros. The throng grew a little louder, more curious over those called.

"Hey," spoke an orange-shelled Koopa Troopa from the ground below. "Don't I know those guys?"

"Quiet, quiet!" urged a Buzzy Beetle. "You want to end up there next?"

"Wheezy, Baldy, Grumpy, Sleepy, Jumpy, Happy, and…Doc," Wendy announced aloud, sounding almost disappointed by the last name. Seven Goombas in shackles bounced up to the front of the balcony, struggling as they gathered on the opposite side of the Koopas.

"Hey whoa," shouted a bouncing Goomba. "Those are the guys I know!"

"Shaddup!" came a Lakitu that flew low and bopped the Goomba. "You're gonna get the resta us in trouble, ya goon!"

"Quiet down," Wendy calmly called out to the Troop below, silencing them. "Sledge."

A cuffed Hammer Bro. that wore a scowl across his face made his way forward and took the center of the balcony, standing in front of Wendy. Morton strode forward, taking Roy's place on the left, as the purple-shelled Koopaling made his way to right side. As he passed, he bent down and shifted a podium forward, allowing Wendy to step up. Roy walked to the right side and stood alongside Iggy and Lemmy.

"Hello, and thank you, to those of you gathered and watching, listening," Wendy's cheerful voice rang out to the Koopa Troop. "Here, I have gathered thirteen treasonous fools that defied the King's orders and decided to make an attempt on our prime prisoner's life."

"Wait…what?" dared the Koopa to let out, being the only one to do so at first.

"Does…she mean Mario?" inquired the Ice Bro. His companions were prompted to reply, setting off a slight chain of answers.

"Why would they stop them?" asked the Magikoopa. More chattering sounded.

"I don't see the problem here," the Goomba observed, with the conversations growing louder.

"SILENCE!" screeched Wendy, her voice sounding over the rest of the talking, quieting them once again. Composing herself, she delightfully continued, "Now then, these thirteen are to be punished for this indiscretion. Does anyone know the usual punishment for treason?" Not a soul answered her, too afraid to speak again. Pleased with the response, Wendy, in a more solemn voice, announced the response, "Death."

Expressions of the thirteen paled and tensed, showing that they had not been informed, but had expectations of this news. Gasps and cries rang out from the crowd below.

"However," Wendy picked up her voice again, though its tone changed from delight to bored. "The gracious King Koopa has decided that to be too steep of a castigation for the first offenders. Therefore, death will be the sentence only to those who follow the actions of these foolish fiends." Though the whispers started again, they were less in number, and died out quickly. "Instead, the sentence for the group that stands before you…will be the Bowser Games." Awe sounded again from the troops below.

"Damn it," hissed Ren.

"No, no, no," trembled Bill.

"Wait, what does that mean?" whispered Garen. "What are those?"

"It's torture sentence," Sledge answered. "We'll be competing against these brats for our survival in sick and twisted little scenarios. Bowser brings them to Mario's parties on a whim, but they're more dangerous for the rest of us."

When the rest of the prisoners began to react, the six Koopalings on either side growled and threatened to lash out at them, quickly quieting them.

"These games are scheduled to begin next week," Wendy excitedly picked up again. "For now, they will remain in the dungeons. Anyone astonishingly stupid enough to go after them shall join these thirteen in a new execution sentence." Silence overtook the audience once again. "Thank you all for your time! Remember, continue your usual operations and schedules, or else you might just end up like these felons!"

With a wicked laugh, Wendy stepped away from the podium, as Roy and Morton led the thirteen back from the balcony, shoving them back inside the castle. Ludwig and Larry followed them in. Wendy stood and admired as the Koopa Troop that had gathered below quickly dispersed and went back to their usual business. Iggy and Lemmy met her in the middle.

"Wow, that was a great sentencing, sis!" cheered Lemmy as he bounced over to her.

"Sure was," Iggy agreed. "Next time, I'll make sure the Super Silencer is functioning, so you can really shut the crowd up."

"Thank you, boys," giggled Wendy. "Oh, and it's no trouble, Iggy. I prefer commanding their attention."

With that, the trio strolled inside, following their brothers.


 

[Luigi]

Breathing in the fresh air of the sunny afternoon, I exhaled heavily, following Peach and the Toads back to the castle courtyard. Though I'm still short of breath with chasing them about, we've slowed our pace and I've caught up with them again. The four Toads running quickly through the fields, I understood. Princess Peach? The woman who can dash with the wind in heels and a long dress? Not so much.

As we made our way through Toad Town, I noticed that the citizens were out and about again, ripping away the boards on their homes and shops, appearing much more cheerful and masking the frightened faces that I left behind with Bowser's assault. Some paraded around, zipping with extended arms, happy to just feel the wind whipping them again. Another group of Toads gathered flowers in the field, removing dead ones and weeds, chatting up a storm with one another, and planting new seeds. Almost everyone took a moment to stop and either wave, cheer, or bow as we passed.

Straightening up as we march through the town, I still had heavy arms and throbbing legs, but I kept the posture, allowing the town to feel more at ease with their heroes returning.

Approaching the bridge, I observed that the construction workers have returned to work on rebuilding it. They haven't made much progress since I watched them from the castle, which feels like ages ago, but it's understandable, given the circumstances that arose as Bowser's army approached. Shattered stones still needed to be swept away, but now that the Grasslands are back under our control, I relaxed my body and breathed, confident that things will begin to pick up around here again.

"And now we're just a few steps away from being murdered," muttered one of the Toads, though I missed which one. The four nodded their heads at one another, and I lose myself trying to understand.

"Hush," Peach shushed the quartet, and they let out a simultaneous sigh before doing so. "I'll handle him. Remember, we need supplies, so there's no avoiding this."

Pulling at my mustache, I'm on the verge of asking what they're talking about when I heard a sudden, "Whoa!" and other noisy cheers. Turning, I saw a green dinosaur charging at me. A rough tackle sent us both to the ground, and he wrapped his arms tightly around me.

"Yoshi! Yoshi!" chirped the eponymous dinosaur.

"Yoshi…heavy…" was my limited response. Doing my best to look up past Yoshi's big head, the Toads erupted in laughter.

Peach, however, had her hands at her hips. "Yoshi, what do you think you're doing?" She scolded. "Get off of Luigi. He's quite exhausted from today's return trip."

The green dinosaur let out a sigh, pushing up from the ground and I, bouncing back to his feet. He jumped, and then kicked his legs into a flutter. "Wow! Yoshi!" he happily announced.

"PRINCESS!" thundered a voice from within the castle. Hitting the side of my head, it clicked; Toadsworth couldn't have been angrier.

"Gracious, I don't have the strength to deal with all of this," Peach groaned. Moving her scepter around, she whispered something and pointed it at Yoshi. A gold collar of dust wrapped around his throat and swirled around for a bit. It then pulled apart and vanished as Peach marched toward the castle. After exchanging nervous glances with one another, the Toads followed.

"Yikes, they're in trouble," Yoshi murmured.

Scratching my head, I mumbled, "Yeah, I…" Pause. My eyes widened. "Yoshi, did you just talk?!"

He bounced and answered, "Yep, I talk a lot! You don't usually answer me this directly though."

"N-No, but you…those are complete sentences!" I managed to gasp out.

He turned his head to give me a sideways look. "I always do that, Luigi! I'm smart too, you know. Peach was right, you must be super exhausted!"

"But you…I…did she just…?" Sighing, I shook my head. "Never mind."

Wagging his tail and humming, Yoshi and I followed the others back to the castle. He bumped into me a few times, and I wonder how Mario dealt with the large lack of personal space.

Trying to get him to back off a little, I whispered, "Yoshi, uh…could you—"

"Help out?" Yoshi interrupted as he grabbed my arm and stubbed my feet. "That's what I'm here for! Toads told me that Mario got kidnapped by Bowser."

"Yes, but that's not—"

"Necessary, right? Sure it is! Mario and you are my favorite pals!" He gave my arm a squeeze and bumped his head against me. Yoshi's cheerful disposition made it almost impossible to really get angry with him. Instead, I just bit my lip and bottled it in…which I do more frequently than I care to admit.

As we made our way to the throne room, we walked in to see Toadsworth had already started on Peach, and swiftly moved to scold the Toads. With a red face and a cane that flew wildly about the air around him, angry Toadsworth was doubled as scary Toadsworth. Releasing my arm, Yoshi sped behind me, now putting his hands on my shoulders and only peeking out.

"And you four!" Toadsworth boomed. "Letting your princess wander off like that! An absolute disgrace! How could you let her get so far? She could have been kidnapped or killed! Bowser would win! Doesn't that very thought disgust you?! This kingdom would be in peril and disarray! I hope you're all feeling ashamed of yourselves. This is outrageously despicable!"

The Blue Toad stepped forward from his shivering quartet, whimpering, "B-But two o-of us w-wuh-weren't—"

"No excuses!" snapped Toadsworth.

"Toadsworth, that's enough!" Peach intervened. "Two of these Toads were with Luigi, who was struggling at the fortress. And I coerced the other two into guarding me as we ventured over there to rescue them! They were following my orders and were quite brave."

Tugging on his mustache, Toadsworth's voice lowered a bit, but still contained all of the rage from before. "That doesn't change a thing! Princess, this was completely irresponsible on all of your parts! And mine, for not keeping a sharper eye on you!"

"Toadsworth, we were fine," Peach argued. "I had the scepter with me and—"

"You took the Royal Scepter?!" gasped Toadsworth. "Are you completely out of your mind?! Do you have any idea what would happen if that fell into Bowser's scaly claws?!"

"Toadsworth, I'm not a child!" huffed Peach.

"Then stop acting like one!" lectured Toadsworth. "Honestly, Princess, this was a completely naïve action that endangered multiple lives. What would your parents think or say if they—?"

"They aren't here, Toadsworth," snapped Peach. With a blink, I could have missed it, but Peach's demeanor went icy cold. Her face, which was a little annoyed before, was now starkly filled with anger.

Realizing too late that he had stepped over the line, Toadsworth lowered his cane and tugged harder on his mustache. He attempted to reach up to her, trying to apologize, "Princess, forgive me, that was uncalled for—"

"Enough," Peach held her hand up and Toadsworth stopped. Her voice was firm, but almost void of any emotion. "We returned for supplies, not for lectures. You will give each of the Toads and Luigi a Power-Up, from whatever reserves we have. I'll recharge the scepter and then we will be on our way out again. Is that clear?"

He nodded. The earlier angry Toadsworth was somehow nothing compared to this sudden change in Peach. My eyes wandered to the Toads, but they were huddled together, shaking harder from Peach's voice than from Toadsworth. Yoshi wrapped his arms around me from behind, shivering a bit and spreading it to me. Looking around at the guards near the door, they simply pretended not to hear anything and made sure not to make eye contact with anyone.

"Good." Sucking in a breath of air and letting it out again, Peach turned to her throne. "Go now, Toadsworth. They're waiting. The more time we waste here, the worse the rest of the kingdom becomes."

Bowing, I heard a faint, "Yes, your Highness." Gathering the Toads like he was suddenly their protective grandfather, Toadsworth ushered the six of us from the throne room.

"Toadsworth, what was…?" I started to ask, but when he shook his head, I left it at that.

Silently, the six of us followed the old steward to a supply room. Hardly anyone took notice of us as we passed through the halls, going about their busybody business and cheerfully moving along. For the first time, I wondered what secrets were buried within Peach's Castle. Did Mario know anything about them?

Between Yoshi's constant dangling on me, as well as getting continuously sidetracked by the passing Toads, I soon gave up on my thoughts as we arrived at the room. The shelves were almost barren, offering a very limited selection.

"I have four power-ups remaining here," Toadsworth murmured. "You'll have to decide which among you will go without one."

"I will," I answered quickly. While these are brave Toads to come this far with me, they'll need whatever abilities we can grab much more than I will.

"Wait," interrupted the Yellow Toad. "We should, um, pool the items together, instead of using them now. That way, all of us can use them later when we need them most."

"Excellent idea, lad," Toadsworth answered, grabbing an Item Bag to put them in. The four items were a Fire Flower, a Super Bell, a Propeller Mushroom, and a Penguin Suit. For a moment, I thought I had noticed a Cape Feather, but it turned out to be an ordinary one from a feather duster. Tightly tying the bag, Toadsworth handed it to the Purple Toad to carry. "Take good care of it, boys. You'll need it."

We nodded, but Yoshi laughed. "Don't worry! I can just chomp down on whatever enemies we happen to run across! And we can fire my eggs right back at the baddies too!"

Blinking, the five Toads exchanged perplexed glances with one another. Finally, Toadsworth asked the Green Toad, "Does she use that scepter for everything now?" The Green Toad nervously chuckled and shrugged. Sighing, Toadsworth shook his head and shooed us from the room.

"I guess we'll wait for Peach outside," I suggested and the others agreed, making their way outside. Trying to follow them, I'm held back by a tug at my overalls. As I turned back, it was Toadsworth who met my gaze.

"Please, Master Luigi," he begged, "I know this isn't normally your cup of tea, but please protect the Princess and the Toads at all costs." There's more that I wanted to ask him about before answering, but I studied his face to find tears welling up behind his spectacles. Breathing out through my nose, I silently nodded to reassure him. He bowed before walking away.

Going the opposite direction, I chased after the Toads, catching up with Yoshi, who stopped to wait for me. "What happened? Did you guys find another Power-Up?" I shook my head, unable to share the rest of what happened. Whether he was too happy to care or polite enough to let it go, I was relieved that Yoshi didn't press the issue further.

Instead, I decided to catch up with him. "So, Yoshi, how's the Island?"

"It's all right, for now," he cheerfully hummed.

"For now?" I questioned. "Is everything ok?"

"Oh, yeah, but I doubt it will stay that way," he explained. "If Bowser's going after the whole kingdom, I'm sure someone will be sent to Yoshi's Island to take over."

"That's terrible," I murmured. "Yoshi, why don't you stay there?"

"Oh, the others can handle it," he laughed. "We don't need every single Yoshi to defend our Island. Besides, you guys need all the help you can get to find Mario!" He sighed. "I miss him already. I hope he's ok."

While I hoped for the same, I tried to convince both of us with, "He's fine. Mario can handle himself in tough situations. He probably just needs to wait for the right moment to escape on his own."

Yoshi bounced with his steps at my response. "Yep, you're probably right!" His stomach suddenly growled. "Whoa! I'm getting hungry again. Do they have any fruit around here?" I chuckled as he sniffed the air, and then huffed at the lack of food scents.

We walked outside, met the Toads near a tree, and sat down. The four chattered to one another and asked Yoshi a few questions, but I paid little attention to them. I got lost in glancing around at the castle courtyard, watching Toads traveling to and from Peach's Castle, running various errands or doing some sight seeing of their own. Sighing, I gazed out to the sky, watching various clouds pass by in the sunset bathed sky and an occasional leaf fall from the tree. Patting my overalls, I felt Mario's letter was still safely tucked away, and was tempted to read more. However, from what I read, this seemed like something I shouldn't share with the others.

"The problem is that I don't really tell anyone about it," he wrote. "People think that everything is under control. Not even my brother has any clue at just how entranced I am." And reading that alone was enough to frighten me. He goes on past that and talks about his struggle "playing the hero," but I need to read more to understand. Once I read it through, alone, I'll see if it's something that I can share.

Something suddenly plopped on my legs and I jerked at the weight of it. Or him. Looking back down, Yoshi had fallen asleep and landed on my lap. I'd grown so used to him being on top of me that I hadn't realized how close he had gotten. Resting his head and chest against me, I felt his breath against me as his body expanded and receded. Petting his nose gently, I leaned back against the tree trunk.

I'm very afraid for everyone and everything. My brother's in danger, the kingdoms need help, Peach has secret problems, and I somehow have to maintain a strong composure to keep everyone encouraged.

Out of the people we passed today, no one made any fuss about me taking over for my brother, but the way that some people would stare as Peach walked by…it made me feel inept at doing this. In fact, now that I think about it, if Peach hadn't come along to save us, I don't know if the Toads and I could have stopped Petey Piranha. I shivered and trembled. What if I mess up again? Everyone is counting on me and I—

"Luigi?" mumbled Yoshi, stirring from his nap. "Is it raining? I felt a water drop."

Hastily, I brushed my eyes, and whispered, "No, it's fine. Just a dew drop."

"Oh, ok," Yoshi yawned.

He buried himself closer into me, back to his steady rhythm of sleep. Rubbing his nose, I realized that I had to keep myself together. It was nice, however, having Yoshi around; he can cheer up almost anyone.

Hearing the grass crinkle from approaching footsteps, I looked up to see Peach arrive. The Toads all picked themselves up and moved to her. Shaking Yoshi, he woke with a start, bouncing up, before reaching down and pulling me up as well.

"All right, everyone ready?" Peach asked, back to her usual happy and gentle, but still firm, tone. Each of us nodded. "Good. We're going to the Deserts next."

She led the way, as we walked back toward Toad Town, off to take the trails to the next fortress. And I was reminded that if I felt this much pressure from our situation, Peach must have felt a similar amount of her own. It's hard to manage without Mario, no matter who we are.


 

[Mario]

Waking up from earlier, I shook my head a bit to stay awake. A soft yawn slipped from my lips, barely making a sound, unlike those that echo from outside my door. Slowly shutting my mouth, I listened.

"…They're going to be going through the Bowser Games next week? Harsh," sounded one soldier. Guards must be resuming their posts.

The other laughed, "Yeah, that's putting it lightly. If anyone does anything to help them, they get an automatic death sentence along with the whole group."

"Yikes. That's hardcore."

"Tell me about it."

The first soldier sighed. "What if we were to just…go in there now and…?" In? Here? Oh no. I jumped to my feet and raised my fists, ready for a fight to break out as soon as they walked in.

"Nah, don't do that," the second one answered. "They declared that whoever tries that stunt again gets executed."

"Seriously?"

"Yeah, keeping him alive is important." Exhaling a breath I apparently held in, I relaxed the rest of my body, dropping my arms. Bowser wouldn't let them dare. Though, death for an attempt on my life feels extreme. Then again, I'd rather no one try what the other group did.

"Hey!" snapped a third voice. Larry. "You two aren't assigned here anymore! Didn't you get the memo?"

"What?" asked the first soldier.

"N-No, sir," blurted the second.

"My brother is developing a new device to keep Mario contained," Larry explained, with a slight hiss in his voice. "Iggy needs this space cleared for the next two days. That means no one stands guard here anymore, got it?"

"B-But sir, what if he escapes?" questioned the first guard.

"Yeah," agreed the second. "And the royal family isn't here right now, so—"

"Idiots!" I heard a few smacks and thuds. "Keep your voices down! He doesn't know that. And he won't get very far if he even tries to escape anyway. Now go!"

"Y-Yes sir!"

"R-Right away!"

A pair of footsteps shuffling away told me the soldiers were gone. I waited for Larry to leave as well, but he didn't right away. Quietly, I moved back toward my bed. A hard banging sounded for a minute at the door, but then stopped.

"Geez, he's a heavy sleeper," muttered Larry, and I heard him leave.

Waiting a bit longer, half in the bed, I pulled myself out again, sneaking quietly to the door. Turning the knob, I realized it was unlocked. Opening the door, slowly, I peered outside, cautiously. No one was around.

Unsure whether I was bound by a desire for escape or exploration, I stepped outside of the room. Now it was time for my own little adventure.

Chapter Text

Bowser,

You want me? Come find me.

Yours,

Mario


 

[Mario]

Recalling the note that I left for Bowser, tucked away, yet possible for anyone to find, I bit my lip and mentally swore at myself, cursing my name and everything I stood for. Even if he's the one who finds it, he wouldn't…he'd get it.

Would he?

Shivering the doubts away, I continued through the hall, as I crept gingerly with every step.

Navigating down the shadowy staircase just outside the door, I kept my hand against the wall as I carried on slowly. Even if there were any light coming from the windows, it was too late for any more to appear.

About a quarter of the way down, my hand pressed further into the wall and I heard a click. Frozen on the spot, I turned to look at the wall, and pushed with my hand. The wall creaked, and part of it slid open. I stepped in, blindly feeling the wall to help navigate the pitch-black room.

It was narrow, from one wall to the next, which didn't make sense, since Bowser would need more space. He would barely be able to fit through the door, but after that, there wouldn't be any—

"Oomph!"

A quick breeze and the slamming sensation of hitting the floor, I rolled onto my back and looked around quickly. Within just a minute, I had already circled the room.

But that couldn't be right. What purpose would the room have if it were just a round space between the stairs, too constricted for Bowser to fit it?

I put my hands in front of me, ready to push back up, but felt an edge against where I had tripped. It was a stair. As I felt about a bit more, I found that there were a few more. Climbing it, I reached out to feel the walls. One was stony, but the other felt different, closer to…

"A Warp Pipe?" I whispered as I felt the rim of the cold and smooth surface. Pulling myself up, I balanced myself at the top and gazed down. I wasn't looking to go far on this little trip, but I would get myself worked up over trying to come back here later.

Jumping in, I saw nothing but the dark tunnel as I went from the secret room in the stairwell to the other side. Or, what I believed to be the other side. Pulling myself from the pipe, I scanned the room, which appeared the same as the one that I had just departed from.

Dangling my legs as I scooted around the pipe's frame, I found the stairs and stepped down. Reaching ahead, I pushed the wall open, and stepped out into another hall.

It was dark and empty, with dim torches lit to offer a small help. One side offered a door, but the other was a corridor that led to more light. Sneaking forward, I paused momentarily every so often to wait for guards, but I heard no one. As I inched toward the light, I felt a little sweat drip my forehead and wiped some away from my head. Confused, I poked my head forward to find the next part of the room held a grated bridge over lava, with the last end of it leading to a black door.

A sigh escaped from my mouth. While I have a deep fascination with fire and lava, Bowser is far more obsessed with it, using it to decorate his castles time and again. Still, I couldn't argue with it, as I did find it quite alluring and stared at the fires below. Something just captivated me whenever I took the moment to watch the red, bubbling magma dance just below, as it swirled in a calm, calculated manner.

Shaking my head, I returned my attention to the bridge and took a breath in, and then exhaled. Without any Lava Bubbles to jump up at me, this should be easy to get over. However, I studied the bridge a little longer, and searched for a mechanism that would drop it open or flip it around, sending the unfortunate, unprepared soul that crossed it down for a dip.

Noticing nothing, I decided that there would only be one way to determine it. Sucking in another breath of air, I dashed across the bridge. Skidding to a halt as soon as I saw the fires vanished from beneath my feet, I turned back, exhaled, and saw that the bridge hadn't reacted.

"Normal then," I observed. Naturally, it would be. After all, if this were meant to be a secret passageway, I highly doubt that Bowser or his soldiers would want to kill themselves crossing each time. Of course, they do have spells that aid them with lava resistance, so perhaps it wouldn't be a risk. With a shrug, I turned back and opened the door that waited at the end of the room.

Inside, the chamber was lit with green torch fire, giving it a different kind of flare as it reflected the glow. Wooden bookshelves lined the walls, filled with not only books, but also various other objects, including potions and small statues. A desk with a crystal ball and empty vials sat on the far end, with a portrait of Bowser hanging up against the wall.

"What is all of this…?" I pondered aloud and strolled around. Lightly, I touched the nearest bookshelf, which was built even above Bowser's height. There were several scrolls and papers that stuck out in between the books and their bookends. Turning away, I scanned the room for a ladder. One rested against a shelf near the desk.

As I moved closer, I paused and noticed a cabinet with one door open. A silver scepter hung inside of it, missing whatever company it normally had. Tempted to take it, I decided against it, and continued to the ladder.

Walking behind the desk, my eyes strayed to look at the crystal ball, which waited atop a violet cloth covering its stand. My hand was on the ladder, but I found myself unexpectedly drawn toward the table, toward the ball. Near the chair was a white and gold book titled: Divine Arts and Studies of Divination.

With a glance to check the door, I opened the book and thumbed through the pages. A few words stood out here and there, and I flipped quickly between the chapters and the table of contents, certain that nothing would remain in my mind…until I hit a chapter that piqued my curiosity: "Divination and Dreams."

Recalling my own dreams as of late, I wondered if they had any insight into them. Turning the pages to the chapter, I pulled the chair out and sat down.

"Precognition, being one of the more sensitive parts of extrasensory perception," I quietly read, "has a strong basis in dreams. There are many that have claimed to have the ability to prophetic dreams, though these are usually unfounded. However, there are possibilities for one to experience these instances and ultimately a form of déjà vu, particularly when they are in familiar locations or around familiar persons."

Skimming through the words, I searched for something that could relate to my current dreams. "Shamans and Magikoopa have been said to have carried these abilities, along with other types of fortune telling. The former are said to have latent abilities that they learn to build over time, whereas the latter study them through various scrolls and supplementary means. As such, if a dream were to have an unusual occurrence that could predict the future, it would be more likely for a Shaman to experience it. Outside of these species, few others are identified with these abilities, thus rendering the experiences void."

With a heavy sigh, I felt a mix of relief and worry. This meant that there was no real chance that my dreams were predicting the future. However, I still failed to understand what they meant, and though sporadic, they were progressively turning worse.

Turning a few pages, I stopped at certain words and began reading again. "There are claims, however, that precognition is possible for Shamans and Magikoopas to inflict upon others. Some do this as a method of torture, laying curses of false dreams within a victim to terrorize them into doing a psychic's bidding. However, there are more innocent instances, in which merely spending enough time with a Shaman could leave an aftermath of divination. Though normally brief, some instances have long term effects."

Pausing, I tried to remember the last time I had even seen a Shaman, which was ages ago. But, if a Magikoopa had cursed me, wouldn't Bowser know about it?

A wave of fear and doubt passed through my mind when I abruptly entertained the thought that my entire time with Bowser was his design to keep me here while he took over the Mushroom Kingdom. He could have ordered something like this over me. My fingers drummed along the desk as I thought. While Bowser can enjoy tormenting prisoners, I haven't known him to twist their minds, their realities, inside and out.

What if everything was an illusion?

Scratching my head, I shivered at the idea, but shook it off. If Bowser did want to torment me like that, he wouldn't be so involved in it. The emotions and sensations I've experienced around him, with him, have been so real, alive, that it would seem like an extensive bother to have kept everything up as a grand charade.

Then again…wasn't that the point of us being enemies, of his kidnappings?

Clutching my head, I groaned a bit. It was a realistic possibility. Yet, wouldn't Bowser need to rely on knowing about my feelings for him? Tearing my eyes away from the book, I wanted to look at anything else. Staring straight ahead for a moment, a soft glow returned my attention to the table.

The crystal ball was lit, with a bluish white glow.

"How is that…?" was all I could manage. Entranced by the swirling lights, I waited for something to happen.

For a while, there was only silence. Leaning closer to the ball, I listened for any slight noise, but heard nothing. My hand touched the book and I glanced away from the ball, only to hear a soft whisper. Turning my head up, I watched the room around me. No one. Casting my attention back to the crystal ball, I listened again. This time, still faint, I heard an unfamiliar voice whisper, "Sar…ill…" Confused, I waited, but heard nothing more. The ball's light faded and I blinked.

This was certainly a strange event.

Pushing back against the seat, I read over the book again, looking for something about crystal balls or fortune telling. However, I heard a cough from outside the chamber and froze.

The door opened and a Magikoopa walked in. He wore blue robes with white trimmings around the base of the cap, as well as the sleeves and bottom of the robe. In one hand, he held a golden staff. In the other was a green book. He carried a regal air about his posture, and it was fairly easy to guess that he was none other than Kamek, leader of the Magikoopa and one of Bowser's closest aides.

"Lord Bows…oh. It's only you," he murmured as he pried his face away from a book he had entered reading. I couldn't tell if he was annoyed or disappointed that it was me in the room, but it surely wasn't the reaction I had anticipated.

"Only me? That's it?" The words tumbled from my mouth as quickly as they entered my head.

"Beg pardon," he shifted his spectacles. "Would you prefer me to treat you like a prisoner?"

"Treat me…isn't that what I am to you?"

"Anyone else might imagine such," he mused, "but considering that you're waltzing about in fine Koopa clothing late at night, I'd imagine otherwise." My mouth dropped open and he let out a quick laugh. "If you'd imagine that I would be completely naïve to my king's actions, you're dreadfully mistaken."

"B…But you weren't there!" I protested. "…Were you?"

In a lowered, hushed voice, he clarified, "I can be in many places and you would never know."

Curiosity getting the better of me, I had to ask, "…Are you in my head?"

"I am now," he chuckled as he walked over to the desk. Getting a closer look, I noticed a small Bowser pin on his robe.

"That's creepy and disturbing," I informed him, wondering if he knew that.

"There are far worse things in the world," Kamek shook his head. "What are you doing over here, anyway?"

"Um…reading," I admitted, though I wasn't sure if I wanted Kamek to know exactly what I had been researching.

"Ah, yes, I don't imagine they gave you any books for your cell," Kamek cackled.

"I'm glad you're enjoying the idea of it," I muttered.

"You're one to talk," he sneered. "Bowser's showing you quite the time here at the castle, and doing his best to keep you happy, while still trying to prove to everyone else that you're his little prisoner."

My face grew warm with embarrassment, but remembering what I had been thinking about, I questioned him again, "Aren't I his prisoner?"

"What, do you think he's putting on a stage scale show for you?" Kamek mocked me, but stopped and thought for a moment. "Hmm. In a way, I suppose he is giving you a grand performance."

"By that, you mean…?" I inquired, with my voice wavering between worry and frustration.

He bit his lip and gave me a sideways look. "Didn't I just make it clear that you two are doing a horrid job of keeping your little secret from me?" Looking at the table, he eyed the book in front me. "Divination?"

"Yes," I answered, a bit offensively. "I learned Magikoopa actually curse people with it."

"Oh, and yet, the Shamans are clearly more innocent, yes?" he countered. He shook his head. "Wait, what have you been reading from there exactly?"

"This and that," I tried to evade him from prying further.

"Curses of fortune are first discussed in the dream chapter," Kamek recalled and thwarted my efforts. "Having nightmares?"

"Possibly," I snapped. "Know anything?"

Scratching his chin, he thought for a minute. "Why would I? You think I cursed you?"

"It would make sense."

Kamek shook his head. "Unless King Bowser ordered me to cast it, I wouldn't bother to curse you," he explained. "And I would most certainly know if he had another Magikoopa perform the same upon you."

"If there's no curse, why are they happening?" I asked, with a layer of disbelief tangled in my aggravation.

"You do realize that nightmares are still natural incidents, yes?"

"Well…yes," I relented. "But these feel…different, even from normal nightmares."

Even through his spectacles, I could tell he was staring long and hard at me after I uttered those words. "Perhaps…you have a lot on your mind, lately," he offered. "You were recently kidnapped, and now you're orchestrating an affair with your captor and nemesis, all while your life and the fate of the kingdom hang in the balance."

"I…suppose…" I trailed off before I could go further. He did know a lot.

A knock came from the door and we turned our attention to a red robed Magikoopa waiting by the open door. "Um, M-Master Kamek, sir," he stuttered, "Y-You're, uh, needed wuh-with…i-is th-that Mario?"

"Yes…" Kamek murmured, and closed the divination book. "I'm not quite sure how he got here. And yet, I'm not quite sure how you got here either."

"T-They told m-me upstairs th-that you'd b-be here," the Magikoopa continued.

"Hmm." Kamek placed his book on the table and patted his scepter against his free palm. "Who, exactly?"

"I, uh…I don't kn-know the name…s-sir?"

Shifting my focus back and forth, I watched Kamek studied the quivering Magikoopa. "Tell me, youngster, are you a new recruit?" he asked carefully.

"Y-Yes," the Magikoopa answered nervously. "P-Please sir, I d-didn't mean to intrude on any-anything. I even t-told them I wasn't su-supposed to be d-down here."

"Clearly," he huffed. "Well then, I'll find my way. You will…escort Mario back to his, ah, room."

"Y-Yes…sir!"

Magikoopa turned to walk away, but a glint caught my eye. "Wait, that Bowser Brooch…"

Kamek sighed, at the end of his patience. "What about it?"

"I've seen that before, on one of the soldiers. What's it for?"

He thought quietly to himself. "Hopefully, you won't need to find out." And if I had any more questions on the matter, he would not answer them.

Even if I wanted to ask Kamek anything else, an approaching sound of stomping would have stopped me. In the doorway behind the Magikoopa appeared Bowser himself.

"What's going on?!" he thundered. The red robed Magikoopa sped from the door and crashed into a bookshelf, causing a stack of books to spill on top of him and a heavy sigh from Kamek. Glaring from the Magikoopa to Kamek and I, Bowser growled, "Mario, what are you even doing here?!" He then pointed to the elder Magikoopa, and commanded, "Kamek! Explain!"

"I was bringing a book back here," Kamek calmly answered. "Your…guest…must have stumbled his way across the way here." He exchanged a glance with me before turning to the Magikoopa that rose from the pile of books. "That youngster was sent for me, and I instructed him to bring Mario back to his room. Which," he cleared his throat, "he was just getting to, correct?"

"Y-Yes, sir," the Magikoopa bounced up, "absolutely, sir!"

"Forget that," Bowser ordered. "I'm here now, I might as well bring Mario back up myself! You! Go take Kamek back upstairs yourself!"

The red robed Magikoopa shivered, "I…I…"

"That's a direct order from your king, youngster," Kamek hissed as he walked over. "That means you get to it. Now go on ahead and wait for me across the bridge."

"R-Right away, sir!" he ran to the door and bowed to Bowser. "A-Apologies, milord!" He tripped over his robe and hit the floor, but quickly recovered, jumped up, and ran off. I walked over to the door as Kamek was on his way out, but Bowser blocked his path.

"Where the hell did you get that one?" he angrily asked.

"I don't hire all of them," Kamek answered, still level headed. "Just like you don't hire every single soldier."

"No, but I can replace them if need be," Bowser snarled. "No matter how high ranked they are."

"Boy, you would never replace me," Kamek proclaimed, and then slinked away. Bowser grumbled quietly to himself before he turned his attention to me, as I felt a smile appear.

"What?"

"'Boy?' You let him call you that?"

"Yeah, he practically raised me," Bowser fumbled with his words. "So…bah! What do you care, anyway?!"

"I think it's cute," I teased, and laughed, as his cheeks flushed red.

"What do you know about cute, anyway?!" he snapped.

Grinning, I started, "Well, I do think that you are, so—"

"Don't start," Bowser sourly interrupted.

"You did ask," I teased.

"I did. Which brings me to another question," he began, and held up a small piece of paper.

"Oh, that." Uh-oh.

"'You want me? Come find me.'" Grinding my teeth as he replayed my words, my daggers, I could have thought of a thousand things to say; yet everything failed me. "'Yours, Mario.'"

"Ah…uh," was what came out of my mouth. "S…Sorry?"

"You damned well better be," huffed Bowser. "Want you? Find you? Yours? Could you have possibly been anymore obvious?"

…What?

"Don't give me that blank stare," growled Bowser. "Mario, you are biggest—"

"Moron, yeah, got that much," I replied quickly. "But you're not…mad?"

"Why would I be?" he inquired. Suddenly he eyebrows shot up. "Was that a break-up note?"

"What? No!" I exclaimed. "That, you were—"

"You left a note for me and made it so anyone could read it," Bowser explained to me as much as he did to himself. "You read it without context, it spins anyway the reader interprets it. That was it, right?"

Flabbergasted, I nodded. "Ok, you're the brawn and the brains in the relationship."

He laughed. "I'm tough and smart, but considering you beat me on a regular basis, I think you've got me beat on one of those."

"Or I'm just lucky," I chuckled while scratching the back of my head.

"Nah," he shook his head. "That would be too often, and luck can't be that good for you. Or, that bad for me," he chuckled at the end.

"Well, you do lose a lot," I taunted. He nudged me back and I laughed.

"If I was that unlucky, I don't think we would have happened," he grunted, and pulled me back toward him. Bowser rubbed my shoulder and I rested against him, patting his belly. "How'd you end up down here, anyway?"

"Uh…went exploring?" I sheepishly admitted and he glared at me. "Where is here, anyway?"

"Kamek's Study," Bowser answered. "It's meant to be for myself and Junior, but he uses the room more often than I do, and I can't remember when I took my kid down here last."

"Ah, ok, that explains…everything," I motioned my arms around and he laughed. "So, did you tell him about…us? Because he knew about the date…and probably anything else."

"Did he?" Bowser pondered. "Huh. He is a smart old coot."

"Guess so."

"Well, if you're done…exploring," Bowser mocked, "why don't we get back upstairs?"

"Um, sure," I agreed. "But…how far down are we, anyway?"

"Pretty far, actually," Bowser noted. "The pipe makes it feel a lot shorter though."

Nodding, we walked out of the chamber and he closed the door. Taking my hand, he guided me back across the bridge, taking his time to the pipe room. He dragged me around a bit, and we took a moment to gaze at the lava. His tail brushed past my legs and he winked at me before we walked off again. I rubbed his hand as he gently pulled me along, looking back every so often and grinning. Happily, I returned his smile, though felt a pang hit my stomach. How did I start thinking this was just a trick?

We made it to the room, but as he pushed it open, I stalled, staring at the door that I hadn't taken.

"I'm really glad you didn't take that one," he sighed.

"Why?" I questioned.

"You might have gotten hurt," he responded and nudged me to the Warp Pipe. I wanted to know more, but I realized that I had my fill for today.

Warping back to the stairs, Bowser scooped me up and carried me back to the top.

"This feels a bit awkward," I muttered as he grabbed the door.

"Aw, why?" he whined. "Carrying you is fun!"

"For you, maybe," I moaned.

Bowser laughed, "Well then, that's your punishment for leaving! Next time you do it, I'm carrying you around the whole castle."

"You wouldn't dare," I challenged and folded my arms.

"Watch me," he grinned and opened the door. He stepped forward but came to a halt not too far in. Looking over, I found out why.

"Papa?" Junior stood at the other end of the hall, his hand on the door to his room, but his attention directly on us. "What…what are you doing…with Mario?"

Looking back to Bowser, I watched as his eyes widened and he glanced down to me.


 

[Meanwhile]

The red robed Magikoopa led Kamek to the group of other Magikoopa that were clamoring over a spilled cauldron in the courtyard.

"Thank you, that will be all," Kamek waved off the red Magikoopa. "You'd better get back to practicing…well, everything you can."

"Y-Yes sir!" the Magikoopa bowed and ran off. Kamek shook his head and walked toward the group.

Sprinting around a corner, the red robed Magikoopa ducked into a closet and shut it behind himself.

"Finally," he exhaled, and pulled out a light blue umbrella. Waving it about, a slight sparkle of dust was cast from it and whirled around the Magikoopa. When it cleared, a Red Toad poked around the room and grabbed a small electronic device.

"Hello? It's me," the Toad whispered. "I've got confirmation that Mario is alive. Repeat, he is alive. The Sneaky Parasol helped me find him. Respond during a later hour and I'll get back to you when I can."

Hiding the device again, the Toad sat down. He placed his hand on the Sneaky Parasol, and waited until he heard someone walk by. Creaking the door just enough to point the tip of the umbrella out, he shot a spell from it and was transformed into a green robed Magikoopa, and shut the door quietly.

"Green?!" he hissed. "Oh well, that's why I grabbed this." Pulling out a trunk, he opened it and pulled out a red robe. Exchanging it for the green one, he closed it and slid it away.

Stashing the parasol away, the…Magikoopa stepped outside and walked away.

Chapter Text

[Bowser]

It's taking an obnoxiously abundant amount of resistance for me to not drop every expletive in my vocabulary at this very moment.

Junior is down the hall staring as Mario rests in my arms, as if I were his lover taking him home from our honeymoon. Now that I think about it, we're just two very large steps short of that. Wait, no, stop!

"Papa," he sounds again. "What's going on?"

Think, Bowser, think!

"Junior, I-I was just," I stammered, "um, bringing Mario back to his room!"

"Did he…escape?" Junior questioned, with a tone of disbelief in his voice.

"What? I mean, yes! Yes!"

"Do you need help?"

"Ah, no, I can handle it, son."

"Then," Junior investigated, "why is he cradled in your arms like that?"

"Uh, well," I pondered my defense. Wait, defense? This is my kid, not an enemy!

Mario wriggled in my arms. "He…won't…let me go!" he cried. Genius!

"That's a pretty awkward way to carry him, though, Papa," Junior pointed out, and by the sound of it, clearly not buying Mario's performance.

"You, um, you're right, son!" I relented. "He's, uh, a pretty tough one though, this Mario! But I got him under control. I'll do w-whatever it takes to keep him here, with me. Us! Here! The castle! Um, you get what I mean."

"I don't think I do."

Damn it. "Junior, Mario's just a real pain in the ah…bum." Oh, like the kid never heard me swear before? "I…I'll just toss him back in his room now."

"Shouldn't you put him in the dungeon?" Junior inquired. "It would be safer since Iggy hasn't finished caging up the room."

Speaking through grinded teeth, "Son, you let me worry about that."

"But Papa—"

"Junior," I growled, "let me deal with this." Mario tried to tap my arm, but I needed to ignore him for a bit.

"I just—"

"Enough, Junior!" I roared.

Mario elbowed me and I nearly dropped him right there. With a blink, I looked at Junior again. His eyes welled up with tears and he kicked his door open.

I tried to recover, "Junior, wait, I didn't—" but with the slam of his door, he wasn't listening anymore.

My arms dropped as Mario slid out of them. If he had kicked me in the gut on the way down, I couldn't tell; the blow in my stomach was dealt the minute I looked at the kid's tears. It's not the first time that I've yelled at Junior, but it's not something that I make a habit of.

"Hey, Bowser," Mario called. "Come on, get up from the floor."

Floor? With a blink, I gazed down, and found that I had sunk right down to the ground. Slowly, I moved my arms around to push myself back up, but my body wasn't cooperating.

Trembling, I shook my head. "Mario, I can't."

"Sure you can," he comforted me. "You're tougher than that. Just push yourself up."

"No, not that," I softly groaned and looked up at him. "I can't believe myself."

He folded his arms and nodded. "You didn't mean it. He just got you worked up."

"That's my son, though," my voice broke. "I snapped at him like I…like I would—"

"Go berserk over his questions," Mario interrupted. "Which, you did. And, he pressed you, like an inquisitive child would. It's natural; we all have limits. Just go talk to him."

Just walk right in and start talking? "Mario, I can't even think of anything to say aside from apologizing. He idolizes me and I practically broke him."

"So go put him back together," he winked. "And yourself, while you're at it."

"But he'll keep asking," I protested. "Junior will want to know how you got out, why I'm acting so strangely, everything."

Mario took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "You have to tell him the truth, Bowser."

Scratching my hair, I shrugged, "I did!"

He shook his head. "The whole truth," Mario clarified.

The whole…he means about us? "Are you bonkers?!" I growled.

"No, it's-a me, Mario," he deadpanned. We paused as a grin broke out on his face and my eyes lowered.

"You're an idiot," I sighed.

"Come on, that's hilarious," he chuckled, and held out his arm. I grasped it and he pulled me up.

For a moment, I pause to look him over. To pick me up, anyone else would think that he'd need to have the biggest chest and muscle packed arms. While he's not completely short in either department, he certainly doesn't come close to carrying the look of a body builder. Yet, when we've fought in the past, he could latch onto my tail, spin me around, and throw me from a cliff. All of that strength, and he managed to keep an average looking frame, even with a bit of a belly.

My hand slipped out of his and, automatically, perhaps unconsciously, rubbed his belly. Even through his clothes, it feels soft and smooth. Gently, I let my claws scratch him a bit, just enough to pick away at itches. Too curious, I moved up to feel his chest, just to check—yes, there are muscles there. Still, I could hardly tell—

"Bowser!" Mario hissed and I shook my head. His face was beat red, with his hand over mine. My face grew warm and I sheepishly grinned. "Your son," he reminded me, and pushed my hand away.

"R…Right," I managed. "Just, uh, stay—"

"Bedroom, got it," he mumbled and walked down the hall. I had to think for a minute before I realized he meant his own room. Ooh, I need to get a grip.

Slowly, I trudged over to Junior's door. Lightly, I knocked on the door and waited. Could I really tell him about Mario and I? Would he understand what was going on? Pushing my teeth together, I thumped at the door again, a little louder.

"Go away!" his muffled voice cried out. "I hate you!"

Sure, kid; rip out my heart a little more, please. "That's all right," I rumbled, my voice loud enough for him to hear, but not enough to…hurt him. "I'd hate me too." My hand reached for the knob and turned it, while I expected resistance. It turned easily, and I walked in.

Unlike the rest of the castle, which alternated between color schemes of black, gray, red, and dark green, Junior's room was colored with gold floor tiles and bright green walls. Even his red and orange shelves and desks were brighter than the colors I used for the rest of our home.

Stepping cautiously, I tried to move around the building blocks and other toys that littered his floor. Junior himself had his face buried in his pillow, with his bright green blankets tugged over the rest of his body. Once I made my way to the bed, I waited a minute to see if he would do anything, but he didn't.

Clearing my throat, I asked, "Can I sit with you?" The only response I was given was his sheets thrown over his head. A heavy sigh escaped me and I sat at the end of the bed. For a moment, I tried to think again, piece together what I was going to tell him.

Would he understand?

Could he accept what I told him?

Is it possible that he wouldn't even care?

What if he was repulsed by the idea?

How can I face him if hated me now?

Can he really breath under there?

If I told him, would he only hate me more?

Would anyone tease him over it?

Should anyone else know?

Violently, I shivered my head, and I wanted the questions to stop. But more just had to slip into my mind:

What if I told him everything?

Would he still love me, or ever love me again?

Enough. I'm being selfish. My teeth were clenched and I kept quiet as I controlled my thoughts. Slowly, I reached my hand over and gently rubbed Junior through his covers. Amazingly, he didn't flinch or lash out at me for doing so. And for a little while, that was good enough.

But I couldn't keep quiet forever. We couldn't just hide in here.

"I'm sorry, son," I whispered. "I've been worked up lately over conquering the Mushroom Kingdom that everything sets me off."

Another pause, met with more silence. Still, I patted him a bit, and went back to massaging his back. In spite of everything, I smiled.

"You know," I continued, "I was a lot like you when I was younger. I wanted to ask my parents a lot of questions and always wanted to know what they were doing. One day, though, my father was so fed up with me, that he roared and yelled at me over it."

The bitter memory stirred in my mind, and I could remember myself, probably younger than Junior, quaking at my father's legs as he thundered at me. I couldn't even look him in the eye by that point.

"Eventually," I rambled, "he had Kamek take me away, and ordered him to be responsible for raising me. And back then, Kamek wasn't even at a high rank, so he was basically shoving me on whoever he could."

I laughed a little, but that still pained me. My own father had rejected me so much that he couldn't even stand raising me anymore.

And that hurt more than I realized.

"When you were born, I promised myself that I wouldn't do that to you," I admitted. "More than anything, I didn't want to be like my father and throw you away. I vowed not to be as passive as my mother, who never even stood up for me when I was gone. And, more than anything, I really wanted to love you more than they could have imagined loving me."

My smile dropped and my frown weighed my face down. "Yet here I am," my voice broke again, "acting just as nasty as my father did. And the only thing that could accomplish is pushing you away." A tear slid down my cheek and I hastily rubbed it away. Trying to clear my throat, I coughed a bit.

The sound of covers shifted had me turn my head. Junior moved over and held my hand. "You're not bad, Papa. Not like that." A smile returned onto my face and I threw my arms tight around my son. "Geez, Papa, stop!" he protested. "It's not that big of a deal."

"No, but this is!" I teased as I gave him a noogie. He laughed and squirmed under my grip, helpless to escape it. After a couple of minutes, I let up and he pounced me. We wrestled a little longer, until Junior ran out of breath, and laughed for a while. But once we sat back up, he seemed unsatisfied again.

"What's wrong, son?"

"Nothing, just…Papa, what happened with Mario?" he brought up again. "I'm worried about you. I know you're tough, but he is too. Is he giving you too much trouble?"

Guess the only thing left to do is to tell him the truth.

"Son, I caught Mario sneaking around. I was just bringing him back to his room."

It's just…not the whole truth.

"That's really it, Papa?" he still seemed unconvinced.

"Well, it's complicated, but," I started, but couldn't quite finish it. If I kept lying to him over this, I really am no better than my parents. "Junior, listen. The truth is—"

A rapping sounded at the door. My mouth was hung open and the words were caught in my throat, but they were there. However, Junior had already redirected his attention to the door. It would have to wait.

"Come in," I called.

A red robed Magikoopa shuffled in, followed by a floating mint green Blooper.

"Ouch!" cried the Magikoopa, who had stepped on a building block. Guess he stepped too far in.

"You'll have to buy me a new one," grumbled Junior.

"Uh, um," the Magikoopa stuttered. "Miss Olive, if you could—"

"Beg pardon, your most gracious majesty," the Blooper excused their intrusion. Wait, most gracious what? Does she not know whom she's serving?

"Cut the formalities," I ushered. "What do you two need?"

"Ah yes, very good," she nodded. "Petey Piranha has returned and is requesting you for an audience. He was defeated and lost control of the Grasslands. At the same time, Master Kamek and his Magikoopa are looking to make an offensive force against the Mushroom Kingdom and are requesting you for specific tactics. Reports are coming in that the Mushroom Kingdom's squad is approaching the Deserts."

"Ugh." I ran my hands across my face, and slowly slid them up and down. "Right, I, uh, I'll—"

"Head to Petey Piranha," Junior informed the others. "I'll help Kamek until my Papa can come over. All right, Papa?" He turned to me and smiled. Without any ideas otherwise, I grinned back and nodded.

"Excellent," Olive commended us. "Thank you both, your regal highnesses. I'll take you to Petey, milord Bowser. Red, please take the young prince to Master Kamek."

The prim and proper Blooper glided out of Junior's room. Red watched her, and after a double take, turned back to us.

"Oh, um, r-right this way, m-my prince," he stammered and hurried out. Junior waited a moment and turned to me.

"Papa, how did that Blooper just…float in and out of here?" he asked. "Without water?"

"Unlike a number of sea creatures, son, Bloopers can move freely in or out of water," I explained. "However, it is their preferred habitat, which is why I tend to keep them there."

"Oh ok," he accepted, and ran out the door before I could say another word.

Carefully, I stumbled about until I was out of the room myself. Olive was alone and hummed until I appeared. She floated over to one of the…doors…

"My cordial king," she pointed at his door, "Do you have any important business to attend to with your prime prisoner?"

She knew exactly where he was. How? "That's none of your concern," I snarled.

Somehow, Olive was unfazed. "Oh, many apologies, your highest grace," she bowed. "I meant no disrespect. Truthfully. However, I was informed to give you the chance to speak with him before—"

"By whom?" I snapped.

"Well, Red," she replied, and bid me to follow her forward. "He was told by Kamek to tell you, but he wanted me to know, just in case you went along with me first, which you have."

"Red, huh?" This Magikoopa seemed to be a bit…busy, lately. "Do you know anything else about him?"

"Nothing much, milord Bowser," she addressed. "In fact, I'm not certain that 'Red' is his actual name."

"I see," I murmured as we continued to move. Though I didn't expect her to know much about him, I was wary about this Red.

"If it pleases you, sire," she offered, "I could keep a closer eye on him and investigate him further."

"Yes, that would be a good idea," I muttered. "Don't overcrowd Kamek over it, but if you find yourself again with…Red…stay close to him and learn whatever you can."

"Absolutely, your royal majesty," she agreed. "Ah, we're here already!"

Olive was right; I hadn't paid much attention to how quickly we had navigated through the stairs or halls. She floated over to a black box and tapped it with a tentacle. It popped open to reveal my scepter inside.

"When did you…?" I started, but trailed off and thought. "Kamek sent this?"

"Yes, milord," she answered. "For Petey."

"Right. You have anything else to do, Olive?"

"Aside from escorting you, my grace, nothing is more important—"

"Well, you escorted me," I waved her off. "Get back to…uh, whatever else you need."

"Of course, as you wish, my righteous king," she bowed and floated away.

I shook my head and muttered, "Who taught her to address me like that?" With a shrug and no one to answer, I walked inside my Council Chamber. It was just a simple room with a long table in the middle, as well as a semi-circular one in the back. There was enough space in between for room to walk or present something to either side of the room. Only sporadic torches helped light the otherwise gray room.

Before Petey Piranha even began, I waved my scepter about. He normally speaks with some kind of garbled tongue a polite person would call another language, but I couldn't understand if Petey had used real words. Besides that, I'm pretty good with learning a few words in other real languages here and there.

"Petey Piranha," I bellowed as I approached him. "You're meant to be one of my strongest soldiers and one of most fearsome in any battle. Yet, here you are, with a report that the Grasslands are no longer mine! What kind of incompetence does that suggest of you?"

"Petey sorry, sir," Petey gurgled. "Pesky plumber was easy to beat, but Petey didn't realize that pretty princess would help him."

Pretty princess? "You mean Peach?" I asked.

"Yeah, pretty," he insisted. "She had a magic stick like that."

"Like mine? That's not…" I argued, but stopped. She would have a scepter; that's what was originally scattered throughout the Mushroom Kingdom, with several rulers holding their own. One of my earlier attempts at conquest involved stealing them with the Koopalings. Instead, I inquired, "What exactly could Peach do with her magic?"

Petey held out his leaves, which were gray or blackened in some spots. "She burned Petey," he explained. "These from her evil friends. This," he patted his body, which was singed in a…glittering pink burn, "hers."

All I could utter was, "What the hell…?"

"Pretty magic princess scary," Petey whimpered. "Petey could have died."

Though burns on anyone else could be pink, Petey's wouldn't be that color, nor should they be sparkling. It was a different kind of magic than I was exposed to.

"I'll need to see Kamek about this. Petey, come," I ordered, and hurried out of the Council Chamber, Petey in tow.


 

[Mario]

Quietly, I waited in my room, wondering if Bowser would return soon. Earlier, I had heard a few voices, one of which wanted him to see me. Curiosity crept quickly into me, festering all over my mind, hungry to know more. Carefully, I opened the door and stepped outside. I gazed down the hall, toward Bowser and Junior's rooms. Junior's was left slightly opened.

"Hey!" shouted a voice, and I whirled on my heels. Iggy hurried down the hall, and carried a sack of contraptions with him. Lemmy followed him, barely visible from behind. "Mario, stop right there and get back in your cell! …Or, uh, room. Whatever!"

Though I could probably take down Iggy and Lemmy in seconds, I didn't want to cause Bowser more trouble with his son…or worse. I held up my hands and walked back to my door. "Before I go in," I asked, "where is the royal family?"

"Wow," Lemmy huffed from the back, lifting the sack up. "He didn't hesitate on what to call them or anything." Truly, I hadn't thought of that as a goof.

"He's just trying to soften us up," sneered Iggy. "You're not pulling one over on us, Mario!"

"I'm not, actually," I clarified. "Really, where did Bowser and Junior go?"

Iggy and Lemmy exchanged glances with one another, but refused to answer me, even after I stepped back into my room.

"Is this about that cage you were shouting about earlier?" I questioned, though I already knew that it was.

"You shouldn't know about that!" Iggy snapped.

"Well, he could have just asked Bowser about it, at some point," Lemmy offered.

"Why would Bowser tell him?!" Iggy argued.

"I don't know, why not?" Lemmy countered.

They continued to bicker back and forth with one another, to the point where I was so annoyed by it that I closed my door on them.

"Hey!" yelled Iggy. "Open that back up! We're not done forcing you to listen to us argue over what Bowser told or didn't tell you!"

"Wasn't there an easier way of saying that?" Lemmy teased. "And yet, I'm labeled the crazy and childish one."

"Shut up!"

"Make me!"

I climbed back into my bed and threw the pillow over my head, and hoped that would muffle the rest of their arguments.


 

[Bowser]

Petey and I marched to the courtyard, where Kamek's Magikoopa were still practicing their spells. Kamek, on the other hand, was in a discussion with my son and a few select Magikoopa. They paused as soon as one had spotted me.

"Hi Papa!" Junior greeted. "Is…everything ok?"

"Not quite," I admitted to Junior. "Kamek, can you examine Petey for a minute?"

"He's rather large, an imposing and unique species of a Piranha Plant," Kamek rambled off his quick assessment. "From what I remember, he can fire sludge—"

"No, none of that!" I barked. "Take a closer look at his body!"

Though he appeared puzzled, Kamek adjusted his glasses and walked forward. Almost immediately, he noticed Petey's magic burns. "Where did you get these?" he asked, almost demanded from, Petey.

"Pretty—"

"Peach," I answered for him. "She was apparently using a scepter of her own."

"She has her own scepter?" Kamek mused. "This is news. Then again, it makes sense, considering she tends to have a gift with healing her little friends now and again."

"That though?" I pointed at Petey's body. "What's that? Because that isn't healing."

"No, it's magic residue," Kamek described. "In fact, it could be a personal variant on light magic."

"Light magic?" I echoed.

"Light, white, holy, whatever the kids call it these days," Kamek muttered.

"I don't know anything about it," I confessed. "Is it rare?"

"Extremely, more so than normal and dark magic," Kamek continued, "which are the types we use."

"Well, leave it to the so-called 'good guys' to use good magic," I spat.

"Oh, I wouldn't call it, 'good,'" Kamek debated. "Depending upon the spells and the caster, it can be just as destructive and malicious as dark magic. Light magic tends to have long-term effects on more spells. It's renowned for restorative effects, which are good, but no one takes note of the more sinister side, which includes nasty, enduring attacks that have results like the burns that Petey acquired. Other spells can slowly suck the air out of an enemy's throat, crystallize or freeze a foe, various enchanted binds, and more beyond the surface."

"Yikes," I mumbled. "Even with healing spells making it famous, how could anyone call that 'light' magic."

"Long ago, it was known as 'natural magic,' since the spells tend to work with the world around us," Kamek elaborated. "Though it doesn't necessarily use the surrounding environment, it does use elements that you could find in every day life. Dark magic, on the other end, takes those same elements and corrupts them into alternative variants. For example, a dark spell could warp a Mushroom into a Poison Mushroom. Another example would be making ice capable of burning someone. Normal magic defies both of these types and creates its own abilities."

"That's a lot to take in," I grumbled.

Kamek nodded. "It takes years to understand the mechanics behind these spells and their differences, which is why most people give the broad term of 'magic' to everything."

"So, Peach has—"

"A lot of power at her fingertips."

"But, so do any of you," I observed. "Peach is no different from the Magikoopa."

"Except she is," Kamek contended. "We need to practice and study our spells, in order to properly utilize and control them. Peach can just pick up that scepter, read a few notes on the spells she chooses, and use it."

My mouth dropped open. "With that kind of power, she could be unstoppable."

"Potentially," Kamek concurred.

I thought for a moment. "Is that power inherent?" came my question. "Or could we steal it from her?"

"Without the scepter or history on the princess, I can't be certain," concluded Kamek. "Just from knowing her from the years we've kidnapped her, I couldn't sense or trace anything."

"So, if it was innate, you would have known by now?" I asked.

"Not necessarily, no," Kamek shook his head. "Worse still, someone could have cast a charm or a curse to block me from properly reading her. We never learned enough about the bloodline of the Mushroom Kingdom, which is why it is beneficial to take over her kingdom, or at least, her castle. There are secrets that not even we have explored yet."

I nodded, but then thought of something else: "Would Mario know anything about it?"

"Only if Peach shared that knowledge with him," Kamek clarified. "And since her own secrets are so well guarded, I highly doubt it. In fact, only the people extremely close to not only Peach, but her entire family, would probably know anything about it."

"Petey…so…confused," the overgrown Piranha Plant suddenly piped up. Apparently, he had tried listening.

"Can he be healed?" I inquired.

"It'll take a while," surveyed Kamek. "I have to read over whatever books and scrolls we have that could counter these spells."

"Papa," Junior called. "You and Kamek have been talking forever. Don't we need to figure out how to stop Peach at the Deserts?"

"That's right, son," I assented. "Kamek, what are our options?"

"For normal troops, I'm short on counter measures for Peach and her spell kit," Kamek murmured. "But, I may know of something to take on the princess and her forces when they try to win back the fortress."

"Get on that, then," I commanded and began to walk away. "I've got a message to…" I stopped in my tracks and began to gaze around.

Kamek watched me, and then asked, "Who or what are you looking for?"

"Do you know the Magikoopa named, or nicknamed, 'Red,' or someone like that?" I requested from him. "He's that nervous Magikoopa that showed up in the Study."

"Him? I…don't even remember calling him 'Red.' Good to know he has a name," Kamek nodded.

"Every one of these grunts has a name," I snapped, annoyed that Kamek hadn't known.

"Forgive me, boy," Kamek shrugged off. "It's difficult enough to be in charge of knowing each and every inch there is to know about magic, let alone keeping track of your entire army."

"Not everyone," I growled. "Just the suspicious ones."

"King Bowser!" shouted a voice. I looked around to see an orange Bob-omb signaling for me. "We have a situation!"


 

[Meanwhile]

Red moved silently up a spiral staircase, and turned every so often to make sure he wasn't followed. Tightly, he gripped his scepter.

"Ok…just need to head in there, grab Mario, and…" he muttered to himself as he quietly slid the door open. He glanced in and saw the two Koopalings working on Mario's door. When they looked up, he gently shut the door.

"They're not supposed to be there," Red hissed to himself. "Now what?"

He looked down at the scepter in his hand. Waving it slightly, it began to softly glow. Red gripped the door with his free hand, with a smile on his face.

Chapter Text

To Luigi,

Where can I begin? I know this won't actually reach you, but I cannot take my mind off of you and the others. I'm worried about everyone, how they might be dreading the worst to have befallen me, when in actuality I've been doing just fine. I wanted to tell you that Bowser hasn't personally harmed me much after the assault on the castle and that…

Are you on your way to save me? I'd imagine that it would be you; who else besides the two of us would actually be able to rush across the kingdom to combat Bowser's troops and leap their way to the rescue? Certainly, there are some Toads that might be up to the challenge, however daunting or perilous it may be. But it's us, us two, that are counted on, relied on, to get these sorts of things done.

Truthfully, by this point, it's terribly unnecessary. You see I've been managing to do fine within Bowser's Castle, live daily even. Sure, there is the threat of death that looms around the corner each day, and I fear for my life on multiple occasions, but Bowser has made it a point to keep my alive. What no one knows is why, yet I do.

How are Peach and Toadsworth, though? Is she keeping herself safe at her castle? Toadsworth isn't driving everyone else mad with worry, and other foreboding thoughts, is he? I'm sure the other Toads can quell him, put him at ease, but still, it must be frustrating for the princess to listen to him yammer about keeping her safe.

It's actually a bit similar here, and I suppose Peach would understand that best. I do try to move about the castle, just to see what it's like when I'm not fighting my way through all of Bowser's traps, but he has me under tight surveillance, and wants to keep me locked up, for my own protection as much as for the safety of his own troops. And, obviously, so that I can't escape; but I'm not quite in as much of a hurry to do that.

Has anyone else stepped forward to help you? Besides Toads, that is. Frequently, we gain a few different allies on our quests, from time to time anyway, but I wasn't certain if anyone would be with you by this point. Perhaps Yoshi and several of his friends have joined you, maybe? Other than him, though, I'm not certain who else would work with you. Is there anyone else, or are even the Toads too frightened to join the journey this time? Then again, a handful of them can prove to be quite brave and talented, capable of extraordinary feats, so I shouldn't be too dismissive.

Actually, if you keep an open mind, you can find many wonderful truths, and unveil many secrets, that you may not have noticed before. In fact, here with Bowser, I was able to witness just that.

No, not just observe. Participate.

It's hard to even write this down, let alone consider actually telling you, but if I practice, maybe it'll work out by the time I really tell you.

Bowser needed to tell Junior, so I should be able to do the same with you.

And that is, tell you what happened between us, Bowser and I.

If only I could just say it, or write it rather, but it's difficult. I didn't tell you before because, honestly, it is incredibly strange, and I can't explain how it came about, but the truth…

I love Bowser.

And he loves me.

Tapping the page doesn't make this any easier. And if I can't write it on a piece of paper, how can I tell anyone about this?

It is a farfetched concept. How could a villainous king fall in love with the hero that constantly thwarts his plans, takes away every opportunity at conquest, and denies him that desire to rule? How can a man love a monster?

How are we possible?

And telling you, on paper, is hard enough to do, let alone actually tell you in person or anyone else. Even Peach might not understand, and we've shared a number of stories between one another. Perhaps her more than I, and usually related to the stresses of the kingdom, but I should still be comfortable to tell one of us, if not both of you.

But I'm not.

And you'll never see this, or not any time soon, but could you accept us, the Koopa King and I? Honestly, there is a struggle in my mind over accepting us, especially when I'm confined in just one room for most of my days, but it's worth the effort to try, isn't it?

That question comes into my mind a good number of times, but I still have no answer for it:

Are we worth it?

Brother, I don't know how to tell you any of this. I don't know how to tell you anything. And I'm sorry for it. Nevertheless, I hope you'll still love me.

Love,

Mario


 

[Mario]

After I've written it, my hands immediately worked at folding the letter and burying it beneath the pillow. Revolted, what I feel, that much I understand. Why though?

It was late in the afternoon while Iggy and Lemmy continued to pound away at my door, as they installed a type of lock or cage, to properly produce the cell that I would remain in. Bowser wanted it made to keep outsiders from coming in and killing me, but the more that I had time to think it over, the less enthused I am about the idea.

He's treated me perhaps identical to Peach, but I had not given it much thought until recently. Surely, she has managed to make her way around the castle, to explore its chambers. Of course, Bowser must have found her at some point, and forced her back to her cell. While I have an actual bedroom of my own, is it really much better? The date may be something that Bowser entertained for me, but who's to say that he's never given Peach a nice night? Even if he doesn't love her, he could still give her some freedom here. Who would know? Who would argue? So, that presented a question to me:

Am I a lover or a prisoner?

Bowser does love me, that much I know. Kamek told me that he's treating me to a great time here. Junior, the Koopalings, and everyone else even acknowledged that he's been acting stranger with me around.

Yet, thus far, I'm kept isolated, hidden, from the rest of the castle, from the rest of his world. Safety, that was the motivation for having done so. At least, that's what I'm told. Yet, here I am, still full of doubts.

After the time I spent in the study, after helping him with Junior, I thought that they would be cleared up, but now I've questioned it more.

As if to silence my mind from sorting it out further, a bang sounded from down the hall. I sit up on the bed as Lemmy and Iggy stopped working. Bowser must have returned. Or maybe it was Junior?

"Hey, who are you?" Lemmy asked. Not Bowser or Junior?

"We're busy right now and we don't need interruptions," snapped Iggy.

Even though it was distant, I listened to a crackling noise as something started up down the hall.

"What do you think you're doing?!" demanded Iggy. Just as he got the words out though, the noise turned into a whiz and flew past the door. Two thuds were all I heard for a moment after that.

Then, soft but hurried footsteps trailed up to my door. The hum of a spell rose up as the door was burst open. In walked a red robed Magikoopa, as he stepped over the fallen bodies of Iggy and Lemmy.

"Mario!" he cried. "You're ok! Thank—"

"Who are you?" I interrupted. The Magikoopa appeared confused at first, and looked as though he were searching my eyes for answers, but then realized it as he glanced down.

"Oh, this, right," he laughed as he stared at the robe. "It's me, Mario. Well, this isn't really me, but I know you, and Peach sent me—"

"Peach knows a Magikoopa?" I had to cut him off again.

"No, no. I'm a Toad," he explained. "I've used a Sneaky Parasol to keep myself hidden while I snuck through Bowser's Castle! Pretty cool, huh?"

My heart lifted and sank as I processed what he told me. Peach had sent a Toad to infiltrate Bowser's Castle and rescue me. While I was pleased with that, I was also upset with it. What would Bowser think if I just ran off? No, that's obvious, but what do I—?

"Mario?" the Magikoopa, or, Toad asked me. "Are you all right?"

"Huh? Oh, y-yeah," the words slipped from my mouth, as I studied him over again. "It's just…"

"Oh, the Magikoopa thing," he nodded. "Yeah, it's pretty confusing. It's a great disguise, but it does too good of a job. Speaking of which, I'm going to have to knock you out too."

"What? Wait, why?"

"Well, the spell I cast against the Koopalings won't last long," he admitted, and pointed back to the two. "If I leave you unharmed, they'll know something's up."

"But I thought we were leaving," was my confused murmur.

He patted my arm and stepped back. "We will; I promise that I'll get you out of here. But I just need a little more time to get a proper escape plan formed. We want to get out of here without getting captured again."

Though I'm reluctant, I nodded as the wand began to glow.

"You won't be stuck here too much longer Mario," he vowed again. "Trust me."

My lips forced a smile to reassure him; the Magikoopa disguise made it difficult to tell just how nervous the Toad was. He smiled back, and raised the wand. A rush of colors gleamed from it before bathing the room white, and then black.


 

[Junior]

I hurried through the castle halls after Papa as he followed the marching orange Bob-omb with a curly black mustache and green fuse rope. He ran and was far enough ahead of us that we could probably talk without him hearing.

"Papa," I whispered loudly, so only he could hear, "what about that magic stuff from before? The stuff you and Kamek talked about?"

"Hmm?" Papa grunted. "What about it?"

"Well, why don't we use it more? And why wouldn't Peach always use it?"

"That's the thing about magic, son," he explained. "While it's powerful stuff, it's pretty costly to use."

"How?"

He scratched his chin for a minute. "You know how Kamek has those wrinkles behind his specs and under his robe?"

"Yeah," I answered, but I haven't seen them in a while. Kamek's good at hiding those kinds of things.

"That's just the tip of using too much magic," Papa kept going. "There are all kinds of side effects, or bad things, that can happen from using a lot of magic."

"Bad things?" I asked. "Like what?"

"It depends on the spell. Let's see," he listed. "It might make you grumpier, make you forget all kinds of memories, take control of your body, or mind, cause bleeding, turn you into another species, drive you crazy, and, in really extreme and dangerous cases, kill you or someone else."

"Wow, that's…a lot of bad things," I barely whispered back.

"Yep, that's why we don't use it too often," answered Papa.

Suddenly, a Blooper came floating over to us from another hallway. "Your majesty, Olive sent me to tell you about Red."

"What happened?" growled Papa, and he got the Bob-omb to stop with us for a minute.

"She told me that he was coming from the stairwell to your quarters, sir," the Blooper explained. "He wasn't meant to be there, so she sent me—"

"Of course he shouldn't have been there!" roared Papa. "I'll head over there—"

"Sire, you're still needed with my soldiers," the orange Bob-omb cried out, and he sounded pretty worried.

"I can go, Papa," I volunteered. "You come after you help out the Bob-ombs."

He scratched his chin again, for a little longer, but nodded. "All right son, but be careful. If you see that red robed Magikoopa, you get away from him."

"But Papa, a bunch of Magikoopa wear red. How do I know it's him?" I asked.

"If one points a wand at you for any stupid reason," Papa told me, "that's him. I'll meet you there in a little while."

"All right," I nodded and followed the Blooper down another hallway to our rooms.


 

[Bowser]

I refused to move until Junior and the Blooper were completely out of my sight. Once they were, I turned back to glare at the Bob-omb with the handlebar mustache.

"This issue with the Bob-ombs better be serious," I snarled. "My kid could be in danger."

"Rest assured, my King," he soothed. "It's a bit of a crisis, but with your help, we'll be finished quite quickly." He urged me to follow as he ran back down the corridors.

"What went wrong, anyway, uh, you," I tried to ask, but realized that I couldn't remember his name. "Um, what's your name again?"

"Bombkin, sir," he bitterly responded.

"Bombkin? Like—"

"Like pumpkin, yes," he sighed. "Yellow eyes, orange body, black mustache that looks like a mouth, green fuse and top; a few folks thought they were being wickedly creative."

"Huh." That's unfortunate. "Well, what's up with the other Bob-ombs?"

"Remember how you assigned us to calibrate the cannons on the Airship?"

"Yes," I murmured.

"Well, we may or may not have had a few…complications. Cannon clogging. A few that lost sight of what they were doing."

My patience wore out before he could go on. "Why the hell do you need me for that?"

"Oh, uh, Gooper Blooper may or may not have popped out of the ocean for a spell to come, um," he awkwardly spoke, as he tried to make it more hypothetical than factual, "and possibly crunch the ship to bits and demanded for you."

"What, he came from Seaside for me?" I questioned and tried to hide sounding impressed; we have a direct route from the sea, but it's more of a hassle if you're traveling by anything aside from aerial routes, with hidden pipes and perpetual storms en route.

"He'll explain more once you arrive," Bombkin sighed, as we rounded the corner to basement stairwell, en route to the underground hangar outside the castle walls.


 

[Mario]

With a blink, I gazed around. I was at the base of a blue and purple mountain, in an open field. A red bird flew above me and dove down, blitzing past me. The bird almost seemed to be lit with flames, with a mix of red, orange, and yellow in its feathers. It soared back up again, and I found myself chasing it.

"You are gifted," whispered a faint, masculine voice. Was it the bird…? It continued to fly, but I couldn't tell if it was speaking to me.

Gently, it floated down, near a blue, moss-covered stone. It was larger than most birds, almost my size even, perhaps just a bit smaller. My approach slowed and I tried to still my body.

Was I hunting this…bird?

If so, why would I even bother, while it can see me in the open?

Logic didn't seem to stop me, as I inched my body closer, and waited again. By the way the fire danced on its body, it seemed like the bird was resting in a breeze, but I felt nothing. Though I heard the grass beneath me, which rustled with a gust, I couldn't feel any of it.

Just as I neared the flame-feathered bird, it spread its wings and flew off. However, it refused to leave as I watched it dance in the sky, taking off only as I began to chase it again.

It guided me further up along a hill, as the sun began to set. Two butterflies, one colored a bright red, and the other a dark green, floated together past the bird. Even as they neared it, even if the bird was truly a being of fire, they would not separate from one another.

As I watched the two disappear, I heard the voice again, though it sounded more feminine this time: "You are cursed."

Gifted, cursed?

It glided down and stopped for a moment on a purple rock. Then, it leaped over to a star-shaped stone, dimly lit in a bright blue.

For some reason, I repeated my tactic from before, still standing in the open and trying to pounce on the bird. Why, I couldn't understand, nor control. Part of me felt uncertain about even catching the bird, but the other part of me had an odd yet strong determination to do so.

Once again, before I could reach the bird, it took off. Again, it hovered in the air, and waited for me to chase it again.

Don't. I don't know why, but don't do it.

My body, however, ignored my thoughts and charged after it once again.

Night had fallen as I traveled higher, closer to the sky, almost as if I could touch the stars. The bird flew in front of me, turned to face me, and as it flapped its wings, I approached it again. Why I have done so doesn't make sense, nor did it when I stretched my arm up to reach out to it. I was much closer this time, enough that I should have felt those fire-feathers burn my hand.

"Not yet," it voiced again. The voice sounded not from the bird, but around it, us.

Before I could react, it soared back into the air, and took flight away from me once more. This time, I do not follow it. Instead, I gazed ahead and saw Luigi, Peach, and Junior sitting together in front of me. They did not acknowledge my presence, but stared outward at the stars.

"Luigi?" I called, and waited for my brother to turn around. "Luigi!"

Somehow, he wouldn't budge. I tried to call out Peach, and even Junior, but neither one moved either.

A short distance away, Bowser pushed himself up from the ground, now sitting up with the others. He, however, turned to me, and with a smile, rolled his head and waved his hand for me to join him.

Slowly, I shuffled across the dark grass, and passed another blue star-shaped stone near the others. Somehow, they were entranced with the stars in the sky, and still did not shift their vision to me, even for just a moment. I sat beside Bowser, and heard the grass crinkle beneath me, but felt nothing. His arm wrapped around me and pulled me closer, into him.

Softly, he leaned his face near mine, and, with his breath airless against my ear, sweetly whispered, "What should we wish for?"

To know what's going on would be fantastic, came my thought, but I didn't voice it.

"Mario…" he whispered, his voice more distant. What would I wish for?

"Mario." Wait. Wish? What was all of this?


 

[Bowser]

"Stupid squid," I muttered, as I trudged up the stairs to the bedrooms. "Asking for that kind of a thing. Really, just how much does he need…?"

With little effort, I picked my arm up and pushed the door open. Junior leaned against the left wall and was having a discussion with Lemmy. Iggy trod from Mario's room and shrugged.

"What's going on?" I grumbled as I approached the three.

"We were working on the cage when we were attacked," explained Lemmy.

I grinded my teeth, and managed, "Let me guess, by a red Magikoopa?"

Lemmy nodded. "Junior told us that you were wary about one."

"Yes, I am," I corrected. "What else happened?"

"They don't know," Junior intervened. "Iggy questioned him, but they both got zapped and knocked out instead."

My fits tightened as I turned to Iggy. "And Mario?"

Iggy adjusted his glasses, and swallowed before answering, "He was attacked too. And he's still unconscious."

Impulse guided me to move past him and I glanced in through the door. Mario was leaned against his bed and on the floor, asleep. Unconscious.

"How long…?"

"Since Junior came in about," Iggy calculated, "…forty-five minutes and twenty-three seconds ago."

Turning back to them, I studied the Koopalings carefully. Lemmy had been seated the entire time I had been there while Iggy wobbled on his own two feet.

"And how long have you two been like that?"

"Since after Junior woke us up," noted Iggy.

Lemmy added, "It felt like we got up too early. I don't even want to move."

I rubbed my hand under my chin. "Junior, go with the Koopalings and take them to Kamek. He's going to be annoyed with the interruptions, but explain that another Magikoopa likely attacked them with a sleeping curse."

"Sleeping curse…?" asked Iggy, who attempted to stand upright, but only teetered around once again.

"Easy," I insisted. "Junior, take Lemmy and guide Iggy. Go. And if you see any Koopalings or other soldiers along the way, have them help you."

"Got it, Papa," my son answered. "Come on guys."

Junior gathered the two Koopalings and slowly took them back down the stairs. I walked into Mario's room and gazed out the window as I scooped him up and placed him in the bed. Darker. Late night.


 

[Mario]

My eyes snapped open and found Bowser's face in front of mine. I felt myself jolt from the bed and into him. Though I was pretty sure that I crashed into him, he wrapped his arms around me and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

"Good morning to you too," he laughed heartily. My eyes shifted to take in the room; if it was morning, it was early. "Bad dream?"

"No, not this time," I murmured.

He pulled back from me, and held my shoulders to get a good look at me. "You get them often?"

I tilted my head back and forth a bit. "Lately, yes."

"Well, I get that my castle isn't the coziest," he muttered, "but I figured, since you've been here before, that you wouldn't—"

"Oh, no," I grasped his hand to interrupt. "I wasn't here. The first nightmare was, but I wasn't. Since I've been here, they usually take me somewhere else."

His eyes widened with curiosity. "Where?"

"Um…Star Hill, and…" I thought for a minute. "Actually, all of them have been there."

He tilted his head and cocked an eyebrow. "What are you doing off over there?"

"A few different things," I commented and scratched my head. "Chasing a bird for today's."

"Huh," he grunted.

"Yep, they confuse me too."

"You sure it didn't have anything to do with, um," he started to ask. "Well, a Magikoopa was here earlier, and I hate admitting that I failed you more than once, but…he attacked you."

"Magikoopa?" I thought for a minute and tried to remember.

"Yep, he wore a red robe, pretty shifty acting, knocked out Iggy and Lemmy," Bowser listed.

And then it came back to me. The Toad. My eyes widened when I realized that part had actually occurred.

Bowser rubbed my shoulder. "Sorry, I'm sure that's not what you wanted to hear."

"It's all right," I shook my head. "As long as I'm still alive, it couldn't have been that bad."

"He could be the one giving you those nightmares," grumbled Bowser, but I shook my head.

"Kamek told me that he would have known if it were a Magikoopa," I clarified.

"Kamek knows about this?"

"That's why I was in the study," I admitted. "I wanted to know more, tried to look it up, Kamek came in, and explained that much to me."

Bowser slowly nodded. "So that's why he found you there and not running off somewhere else."

"Ah, right," I chuckled.

His chest expanded and compressed as let out a heavy sigh. "I should have known about this."

"Sorry, I didn't want you—"

"No, no, I should be able to figure it out," Bowser persisted.

I winced and gave him a confused look. "How? You're not a mind reader."

"No," he snickered. "But I want to be a Mario reader."

He bubbled with laughter while I stared blankly, and then lowered my eyes. "That sounds like an awful learning game title."

"It's perfect!" laughed Bowser. "I should be in charge of your marketing division!"

"Please no," I deadpanned my plea. "It can be weird enough to see what the Toads come up with using my likeness. I'd rather not imagine what my boyfriend would put together."

"Hey," he nudged me. "I think I'd do quite well, thank you very much!" He huffed and folded his arms together. "You have no confidence in me, I swear."

A pang hit my stomach; that wasn't what I needed to hear. "Can you blame me?" I defended.

"Yes," Bowser pouted. "I've done a lot for you."

Like metaphorically stabbing my heart, sure. "W-Well…" For some reason, part of me screamed to tell him the truth, but part of me resisted. "You're right, but…" I could just ask for better arrangements, right? But if I tell Bowser the truth I could be putting that Toad's life in more danger that he's already risked.

Would it be easier to ask for forgiveness later than tell the truth now, and then try to have him spare the Toad? It's hard enough keeping me from dying, and after the attack on the Koopalings, no one will take kindly to the same idea for the Toad.

"Mario?"

It was the best I could think of. My head dropped. "S-Sorry."

"Aw, come on, I didn't mean to guilt you…well, maybe a little," Bowser nervously chuckled.

"You're right though," I admitted and realized the truth. "You have done a lot for me, just keeping me alive here. It's not perfect, but not everything is, so…"

He rubbed his hand against my back, and let his claws gently scratch me, soothing me. "You're right too, though. It's not my best efforts, is it?"

"No, Bowser—"

"Why don't you sleep with me tonight?" he asked. I waited for a laugh or a joke, but his red eyes just pierced through me. Sincerity. No, I'm not reading him right. My eyes lowered and I puffed out my cheek. "What? I'm serious."

"Right," I scoffed, "because that's not going to lead to anything—"

"I'll be good, I promise," he winked with a smirk. "Besides, it could be helpful. Maybe I can chase the nightmares away." His smirk grew into a hopeful grin.

Still, I shook my head. "Somehow, I don't think it works like that."

"Probably not," he relented, yet insisted, "but it's worth a shot. Not to say sleeping with your boyfriend suddenly prevents nightmares and bad thoughts, but I might distract you." My eyes narrowed. "Not like that! Just…you know, being with me."

Relaxing myself, I sat back and studied his face. Maybe we're not an ace pair of lovers that can aptly read each other, but I'm learning when he's being serious. This was one of those times. "You'll behave, huh?"

"Well, maybe I'll just torture you a little bit." His toothy and mischievous grin grew, and I punched him lightly in the arm. "What? I'm joking!"

"You better be," I muttered. "It's too dangerous to fool around."

"Trust me," he assured me. "I can be discreet. We'll stuff you under my covers and no one will know you're there." I glared at him again. "Aw, loosen up! I have to have a little fun with this."

Though I was still hesitating, on multiple thoughts, my head nodded. Without any more fuss, he scooped me up, stealthily opened and peeked out the door, and crept down the hall. Quietly, he opened the door to his own room. We slipped inside and he shut it just as carefully, and then locked it.

The room wasn't lit, but I could already tell there was a lot of red that decorated the place. Red curtains, sheets, pillows, dressers, and trunks. My eyes wandered about, and I observed what I could.

"I'll try to show you more tomorrow," he whispered, and then yawned. "Do you want to take the bed or share it?"

I turned back to him, mouth opened, but nothing came out. The only things I could see clearly were his bright, flaming red eyes.

Chapter Text

[Luigi]

One would imagine that marching through the Deserts might be quite the trying and tiring experience. Considering that my brother and I have done so before, I can tell folks that it certainly would be, on most occasions.

However, when someone that traveled with can whip out a magic scepter and blast most enemies to cinders, the road would be easier.

Sure, she didn't have anything to make the actual hike there easier, but it was nothing compared to past visits. As we trudged through the sandy trails, Peach would cast spell after spell against whatever Goomba, Koopa, or Firesnake jumped up to attack us. If I looked away for a moment, a pink flash would be the only sight that I would see as I returned my attention to her.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were worn out from just traversing the desert's landscape. Yoshi had already taken to carrying both Green and Yellow Toads on his back, and moved a bit slower as a result of the extra weight. Whenever we reached platforms that allowed us to quickly get across large mounds of sand, I would force myself to stop and turn back to help pull the Blue Toad up and along, who helped the Purple Toad right after. Though she waited for us, our princess was always leading the way.

After she floated to the top of the latest flagpole, Peach ripped off Bowser's black flag and glided down to the rest of us. The Purple Toad took out a pink one with Peach's royal crest on it, one of her crown, and hoisted it to the top.

"Right," Peach sighed and nodded. "That should be the last one before the fortress."

"Hah…good," I panted. "I think…Yoshi might be…getting tired."

"Nope, I'm ok for now," reassured the ever-energetic Yoshi.

"Well, we can take a break and walk to the fortress instead of running," suggested Peach. "Sound fair?"

The four Toads and I nodded. Yoshi watched us a bit and joined in.

"Ok. Yoshi, why don't you lead the way for a bit?" asked Peach.

"Sure! Leave it to me!"

The green dinosaur happily skipped ahead, and the two Toads on his back buckled with each step. Behind them, the Blue and Purple Toads snickered with one another. I moved to follow them, but Peach tugged on my arm and held me back.

"Luigi, could you hold my scepter, please?"

"W-What? Me?"

"Yes," Peach sighed. "We shouldn't run into any more enemies along the way."

Still perplexed, I shrugged and took her golden scepter as we slowly followed the others, and fell behind by a bit. Its heart-shaped head caught my attention, and I gazed in at the sun-sparkled jewels. The rim of it was golden, like the rest of the rod, but there was a thin blue layer between it and the pink ones that shaped around the heart. A larger blue gem was at the core of the wand, similar to the one that Peach wore on her dress.

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

My head snapped up and I turned to Peach. "O-Oh, y-yes it is," I stuttered out.

She shook her head, and then looked at me with disdain. "Luigi, you don't have to pretend it doesn't concern you." What? "I can tell that you're just as worried about my safety as everyone else is. Please don't be."

I scratched at the back of my head. "Princess, we're all concerned about you because you lead this kingdom," I explained. "If anything happened to you, we would be in more peril than we could imagine. It's only natural that we act defensive over you and show our worries. However," I added, "I also know that you're very capable, especially with this scepter in hand. In fact, we're all having a hard time keeping up with you as you lead us about. None of us will stop watching out for you, but don't mistake our apprehensions with doubts." Still, she seemed unconvinced, so I tossed in a bit more: "I act the same way around Mario every time we venture together."

Peach took a long stare at me. "I'm sorry, Luigi," she bowed her head. "Honestly, I know that I haven't been myself lately."

As it gleamed again, I waved the wand at her while she picked her head up again. "Would this have anything to do with it?"

"Probably," murmured Peach. "Magic is…complicated. And the side effects can take a toll on the user."

"Side effects that include…?"

"Memory loss and nastier personalities, for starters," Peach answered. "It takes a heavy hit on the user, and has different effects for the various spells. Sometimes, the side effects vary based on users. For example, one person might experience memory loss, while another has the sharpest memory around. In turn, however, the latter person may become more hostile, whereas the former has the sweetest demeanor."

"Peach," I practically gasped before I continued, still anxious, "with that kind of backlash, you shouldn't be using this rod."

"Perhaps, and that's normally why I limit the use," admitted Peach. "However, I still have used its magic before, but I don't always carry it around with me. Usually, if I'm able to prepare beforehand, I'll cast a spell that allows me some magic capabilities before leaving the castle." She sighed. "It's not all bad magic, Luigi. And Bowser has tested my patience to the very last end. No more. I'm taking back the entire kingdom by whatever means necessary."

My head slowly shook. "And at what cost, Peach?"

We stopped and she gave me another long, hard look. After a silent minute, Peach took her scepter back and muttered, "Whatever it takes to get Mario back. He's done the same for me countless times before and I owe him this much. I owe my kingdom as well."

And with that, Peach resumed her walk behind the others. There was more that I wanted to ask her, but I had already pushed the princess too far. Perhaps later I could dig for more answers.

Answers from her, at least. One foot lifted up and fell forward as I got ready to follow the others. However, my hands shuffled around my overalls until I pulled out Mario's letter. I waited more than long enough to read over the rest of this.

Hesitation flared up within me, however, as I studied the folded letter. Was this the time to read it over? The preview I had earlier had given me some worries over what was going through my brother's head. And it is his, so maybe I shouldn't.

In spite of myself, my hands slowly opened the letter. Curiosity trumped fear today.

My feet dragged along, and I was able to follow the group, but the distance between us was quite noticeable. A slight jog closed the gap a bit, but kept it sizeable enough that I could read the letter in peace. With a periodic eye on the road, I brought my attention to my brother's letter.

Beloved friend, wait. I've already read that bit. A bit further along and I'm past what I've read over. We come together, time and again, and I love it. What was he thinking of? His royal majesty, they call mockingly call him, his grouchiness, his awfulness, his wretchedness, and all the terrible rest. Those titles sounded…familiar. Bowser's henchmen have called him such before, in either mock support or the weirdest terms of endearment. But why would Mario…? Truth be told, I'm no hero, for I love this destruction, this chaos. What? No way.

Yes, him. He is the fire, my fixation. He literally breathes flames and would dare to put on a show just for one, just me. Always just for me, I like to tell myself. Imagine.

I stumbled and took a moment to regain my footing. The path took a few turns that I hadn't been aware of and I followed the others carefully. While I was ready for one of them to turn back to me, ask me something, none of them did. The four Toads laughed and told stories to one another, which managed to keep Yoshi's attention. Peach had already worked her way to the front, too focused on leading to check on me again.

Good. I needed the space, because the way Mario's letter sounded was off. For some reason, it felt like a love confession for…but that can't be right.

Back to the letter, it…he went on to mention how people misjudge the princess and to discuss his relationship to Peach, a mostly platonic one. He even went on about how she confided in him, because the stresses might be too much for anyone else. And I needed to look back up again, at Peach, because I'm one of them, the people she refused to tell about her inner turmoil. Even as we spoke before, I still wasn't able to get her to open up further. What nerve had Toadsworth struck earlier? What else would set her off like that?

My eyes drifted back to the letter. Mario went on to reaffirm that Peach was not interested in him romantically, contrary to many people's beliefs. Though part of me had hoped my brother would be interested in royalty, specifically Peach, I hadn't dwelt upon the two as an actual couple. Mostly, I just wanted one of us to be able to get close to her for whatever benefits it might have brought. Since Mario managed it, I left it to him, but it appeared that Peach wasn't interested in him, and I'd imagine myself by extension. The way she's held her attention on Mario, how she steals him away from everyone, just for some time alone, whatever compliments she handed Mario in private…

They're the thoughts that any woman could have. Or any man, right? Wait, wait, what?

A bit further in, I hit: People would call Bowser disgusting. How is beyond me.

I've practically tripped at this point, and flailed my arms to keep balance. The letter flapped as I waved and my eyes are widened. I thought Yoshi might have looked back, so I pulled myself back together, and stiffen myself back into a stroll behind the others and move the letter in back of me. The dinosaur glanced in my direction and smiled. With a struggle, I sent him one back and waved. While Yoshi was pacified, the Yellow Toad turned to check on me as well.

"You all right, Luigi?" he called.

"Fine," I lied. "Just keeping an eye on the rear." If Peach had been at all curious, that would force her attention away. The Toad nodded and went back to chattering with his friends. My forced smile fell and I felt my body shake.

This isn't right. The letter isn't right. He's strong, imposing. No, it's fake. When our eyes meet, I see warmth. The heat's playing tricks on my eyes. Sure, the scales are different, but they seem so smooth, gross. The fun part is the tail. It wags around as he saunters, flowing delicately after the rest of his form. I'm not really reading this. I'm not. I admit, it's not the best way to offer myself to him, but it gets the point across.

What I have here is not my brother's writing. The-this garbage about a nicer Bowser and love for his army, his kid, that can't be Mario's thoughts. He calls out Toads on their cowardice, my brother would never do that. Bowser isn't a family man; he is a monster! Of all people, Mario would know.

I can barely read this anymore, yet I can't stop completely. I already know the kingdoms, the world, would call my love a form of insanity, but would he? Yes, this is insanity. If it were real, that is. Could I change him? Should I? Would I change? Mario never changes. Not that much. He wouldn't.

But the next part of the letter holds no punches. I can't even imagine my own brother's reaction. His twin, so twisted inside? Sure, Mario would be concerned with my opinion, but…no. How could I ever let my little brother down? He…he…stop, it's not real. Luigi has always been so selfless, putting everyone and everything before himself. How could I possibly hurt him in such a way, betray him? …You never would. Mario, that is. He never would. This trash heap isn't him.

Why am I even still reading this? I should hate these thoughts, this lust. Love between men is a delicate subject in and of itself. Love between mortal enemies isn't possible. I…well, men in love…enemies definitely shouldn't be. No, no! This. Is. Not. My. Brother! Yet it's real. These are my thoughts. I desire these things. STOP! …Stop reading.

Something that no one can know, and it's that I love Bowser. Not Luigi, my brother whom I share many things. Not Peach, who can be my confidant as much as I hers. Not even Bowser himself, who will probably never know my declarations of love.

…No.

Yes, I'm sure this will end up in someone else's hands, at some point or another. I am hopeful that it is someone who comes to understand me, if not someone I come to love. A pang hits me hard in the chest. Truly, I hope that I've given this away willingly and that it was not stolen from me.

I lifted my head as my hands quaked. I'm desperate for one of the others to look back now, to wonder if I'm all right. But they're satisfied in keeping to the path, and they're in no hurry to look back.

The letter ends with: Fondly, Mario (Yep, that's-a me!)

And that was it.

My eyes poured over the words, over and over again. It couldn't be real. There was no rhythm, no rhyme, and no reason. It was illogical. Somehow, I had to have made a mistake in what I saw or did. Checking again though, I was certain:

This was his handwriting. It was my brother's work.

No, this had to be a ruse. Bowser planted it, or had one of his soldiers do it.

My brother, our hero, could not be in love with the evil king. Bowser is a demon! Mario knows that. Even if he were gay, he wouldn't go after a literal monster. Not after the tyrant of the Mushroom Kingdom, not after the cruelest being we know.

Wait, what am I saying?! This isn't the truth! The letter is just a very convincing fake that someone else made! It's not real! …It can't be.

…And yet…

"Luigi!"

"What?"

A shove against my head refocused my attention. Peach stood in front of me, annoyed. The rest of the group stood behind her, concerned and…in front of a pyramid. The fortress.

Fingers snapped. "Luigi, come on! We've tried getting your attention repeatedly!"

"S…Sorry Princess. Everyone." I bowed my head. Peach's eyes followed and I realized that my hands still clutched the letter.

"What's that rubbish?" she asked.

"It's not rubbish!" I jumped to the defensive instinctively. Peach gave me an inquisitive expression and I bit my lip. Wasn't it trash? Wasn't this piece of drivel exactly that?

"Then what is it," she questioned, and carefully studied my behavior, "if it's so important that it'll distract you enough to walk straight into the fortress?"

Was I really about to? "It's a letter from Mario," the words slipped out of my mouth. No! No, they can't know!

"Really?" asked Yoshi. "When did you get it?"

Before Peach could even think of snatching it from me, I folded the letter back up and hid it away within my overalls. "A while ago, before all of this. He sent it to me from his last adventure," my lie rolled right off of my tongue. "It's just something that I took with me so I could…so I wouldn't…"

A hand came down and rested on my shoulder. I blinked. Peach's face changed and was more sympathetic. "He'll be fine, Luigi. We've come this far. We will save him."

Does he want that? "…Ok."

The Green Toad leaped off of Yoshi and tossed out the Item Bag, which I hadn't even realized he was carrying. "Should we equip anything before we go in?" he asked.

"Fire Flowers are always useful," suggested the Purple Toad.

"But we're in a desert," pointed out the Blue Toad. "They're going to have some resistance to fire prepared in there, right?"

"No way, that would be Seaside," argued the Yellow Toad.

"If anything, our best bet would be the Penguin Suit," I intervened. "But we need to save that for the colder areas where we really need it."

"Then what should we use?" the four Toads asked together.

"Nothing," came my answer that they feared. "We'll go in and use whatever we can find."

"Luigi," argued the Purple Toad, "we can't just go in defenseless while the Princess, uh…well…" he trailed off.

"I can handle the front," Peach huffed. "The last fortress may have been empty, but the entire way here wasn't."

The Toads exchanged nervous glances and nodded. They lined up behind Peach to enter the fortress. I moved to follow, but something grabbed my arms and held me back. Yoshi.

I pivoted back around to him. In a lowered voice, I asked, "What's wrong, Yoshi?"

"Uh-Um…" he shivered.

"Are you scared?" I asked. He nodded quickly. It wasn't the first time this happened. "Yoshi, it's fine. Just wait out here for us to get back."

"But what if something goes wrong?" he questioned. "I…I've gone into these before."

"That's really brave of you," I soothed. That was brave of him, something that a lot of us lacked. And being courageous was something that Mario excelled in.

Still, Yoshi shook his head. "No, just desperate. If I didn't, who would?"

"Well, you don't have to worry about that here," I reassured him. "We can handle it."

"But…what if something bad happens in there?"

For a moment, I wasn't certain on how to answer him. "We'll take care of it," I forced out and put on a smile to calm him. Yoshi's dark blue, almost black, eyes studied mine. They wavered with fear. He couldn't go in.

He would try to go against that though. "I can't just…" he whispered.

"Yoshi, stay. We can do this." I felt I was telling myself that as much as I was telling him.

Somehow, that managed to pacify Yoshi, at least enough to nod and back away. I nodded back and ran into the pyramid fortress, quite a bit behind the Toads and Peach.

After I had entered, all that I could see at first were large amounts of sand, which practically covered the brown floor. Straight ahead appeared to go on for a while, so I started to sprint again.

"Luigi, not that way!" called one of the Toads.

With a skid, I stopped myself and looked upward. The four Toads were jumping on platforms above me. Peach had paused to glance down at me, before she returned her attention to an approaching Dry Bones. A small pink spell fired out, and encased the bone pile in a block of ice. The Green Toad hopped over, lifted the ice block, and threw it away. Upon contact with a wall, it shattered to bits.

"Hurry up, Luigi!" shouted Peach. "The Toads are still searching for Ice Flowers."

It took a brief scan of the room around me, but I noticed some blocks formed together just above a sand mound. Running up the heap, I jumped onto the platform and made my way up toward the others. A Dry Bones leaped after me and I barely managed to avoid it.

"Hey!" I yelled. "You guys missed one!"

"My bad," the Yellow Toad apologized. "I stepped on that one before by accident."

Left to repeat the attack, I jumped up and stomped down on the resurrected Koopa's head, which knocked the bone pile back to pieces. Again, after I spotted a path of platforms, I hurdled myself upward. Eventually, I had caught up to the group, just as the Blue Toad bashed a block open to reveal a batch of Ice Flowers.

"Ah! Here they are!" he cheered. "Come on everyone! Get them while they're hot! Or, uh, cold, I guess."

Each of the four Toads and I had rushed around to grab an Ice Flower. With a glow and a flash, the five of us have our clothes altered to include a bright blue, and now signified our acquired ice powers.

"Too cool!" announced the Green Toad as he spun around and launched two balls of ice. "Pun intended!"

"H-Hey, watch it," cried the Purple Toad. "You nearly froze me!"

We continued to ascend the pyramid, and the space around us slowly thinned as we climbed higher. Though a number of Dry Bones had showed up, Peach froze most of them before we caught up, and left one of the Toads to throw it away. A few Swoopers had appeared, and the small purple bats tried to impede us. Peach, however, took out most of them. Any Swooper she missed, an ice ball would be sent out to send the leftover bats spiraling down the pyramid, with a faint shatter that sounded below.

"Huh. I would have imagined that Bowser would at least have tried to give us a harder time over this," echoed Peach's voice.

"Be thankful that he didn't, Princess," laughed the Green Toad.

It's true. Why wouldn't Bowser have made his forces here tougher? Could Mario have anything to do with that? …Wait, no, that would be admitting that they're interested in each other, which—

"Luigi! Watch out!" yelled a Toad.

Barely, I processed it enough to spin away from a Swooper. The Yellow Toad shot an ice ball after it, and watched it plummet to the ground.

"Phew. Thanks," I let out a breath.

"You're welcome!" giggled the Yellow Toad.

"Keep up, Luigi!" chastised the Purple Toad, as he froze another Dry Bones.

I nodded, but was still distracted by similar thoughts. As the room narrowed, we arrived at large, studded orange door. Peach turned to check on us.

"Is everyone ready?" she asked.

"Definitely!" cheered the Yellow Toad and clapped his hands together.

"Let's go for it!" shouted the Green Toad as he thrust his fist into the air.

The Blue Toad bounced up and down. "This place has been so easy! It's great!"

Another laugh sounded and the Purple Toad chimed in, "Bowser's slacking here!"

Slacking. Distracted. Kidnapper. Tyrant. I bit my lip. How could Mario possibly—?

"Luigi?" Peach interrupted my thoughts. "Are you ready?"

"Uh, y-yes," came my not-so steady answer. "But don't you think this has been…well, too easy?"

"Maybe, and we'll keep our guard up," Peach agreed. "Even still, we can only go forward."

While I still hesitated, a single nod was all that the princess needed to see. With a smirk, she turned and opened the door. Our group marched in single file, and the door eerily closed behind us. It made us jump, but we recollect ourselves quickly.

The path ahead moved slightly uphill. Peach broke into a dash and charged ahead. After a few shouts, the Toads and I raced after her. Soon, we run into the main room.

"Hmm, is no one here?" questioned Peach as she moved further into the dark yellow room, lit by orange torchlight. It was cone-shaped, and the space narrowed up to the roof.

"Princess, be careful!" warned the Blue Toad.

His words had scarcely left his lips when Peach stepped on a tile in the middle of the room. Abruptly, a faint gust of air pulsed through the room. The torch flames suddenly went out, and the room was darkened. However, it didn't remain that way for long, as slowly, blue flames mysteriously relit the torches.

"W-What's going on?" nervously asked the Green Toad. "This is c-creepy."

"Yikes! Look over there!" cried out the Purple Toad. "Princess, m-move away!"

Past Peach, at the end of the room, rested a large pile of bones that had appeared. A couple of blue fireballs bounced around it, which caused them to shake. Bones rattled and the heap slowly clustered up together, into the shape of…

It was of Bowser…or a Dry Bowser.

The bones had formed into his shape, with burnt red studded collar and armbands where his normal black ones would be. Its shell was colored like charcoal, with lava-like red spaces between the plates. Rotten hair was tied up between the chipped horns on its head. Somehow, this creature gave off a more sinister vibe than Bowser himself.

"B-B-Bowser?!" shouted the Blue Toad. "He's d-dead?"

"C-Can that be true?" wondered the Yellow Toad. "Or did he rip his skeleton out?"

In the black holes where eyes belonged, two small orbs, which looked like tiny fireballs, suddenly lit up. The Dry Bowser hunched over, and let out a rattle-filled roar.

"Get ready," I called out, and hoped the Toads could focus.

"Princess…Peach…" came the awful, ghostly voice of Dry Bowser.

"H…How does it know…?" Peach began to ask, but instead fell silent.

"Congrat…ulations…on getting…this far…" rattled the boney abomination. "You have…proven to be…more of a pest…than we had originally planned for." Its speech had slowly improved as it continued.

"Happy to exceed expectations," taunted the princess.

"King Bowser had mentioned…that he still had terms to send you," he sounded out between the clattered bones.

"I'm not remotely interested in them," snapped Peach.

"Give up here and now…and you will be able to spare Mario," Dry Bowser clacked as it continued, and seemingly ignored anything Peach added in.

"We haven't come all the way here to just quit now," the princess fired back. "If Bowser wants to send idle threats, he may. But if he so much as harms Mario—"

"He lives," rattled the bones. "Tell his brother so. It might…motivate him otherwise."

Bowser was trying to get me to stop Peach? Why?

"No chance," I refused the skeletal monster's offer. "The only way to my brother will be through you and whoever else gets in the way."

Dry Bowser rolled its head around, and clacked as it did. The fireball-like eyes were a bit bigger now.

"He wondered if you truly cared about him," sounded the bones, clearer than before. "If you did, there might have been a better chance, had you accepted the offers. Now, no negotiations can be made." Dry Bowser shook violently. "Now, you decided that the war continues."

"So we have."

Peach lifted her wand. She then fired out a pink ice ball, which hit Dry Bowser's chest. It slid back a bit, with part of the bones now frozen.

"Quick guys," shouted the Purple Toad. "Get him!"

The Toads joined in, and shot a few ice balls in succession of one another, and iced up more of Dry Bowser. I was ready to throw one of my own, but faltered instead.

"What the…?" was all I could manage.

Purple smog whipped around the iced bones and melted the chunks away. Dry Bowser let out another roar and threw a large bone, which soared right after the Yellow Toad. He narrowly managed to jump over it, and fired another ice ball before the Toad bumped into the enclosed ceiling.

"Hang in there!" rallied the Green Toad.

Dry Bowser sent out a fireball, but it was a blue color instead of red or orange. As the two attacks collided, they puffed into a cloud of smoke and water, and cancelled each other out.

"Not good," cried the Yellow Toad, as he fell back down.

Dry Bowser stumbled into a run, and charged at us. Peach leaped to the side, and tried to cast another spell, which proved ineffective as a pink ball bounced off of Dry Bowser. The Purple and Green Toads tried to pelt it with ice balls, but were knocked away by the rushing bone monster, and lost their ice abilities as they slammed into the walls.

"Incoming!" yelled the Blue Toad.

As it redirected itself and neared us, the Blue Toad tackled the Yellow Toad away and I jumped out of its path. It stopped near another wall and turned back around.

"I've had enough of this!" Peach snapped and raised her scepter again. Hastily, Dry Bowser lifted its hand, which suddenly fired out and burst through the air. The bone claw slammed into Peach and locked her into a wall.

"Princess!" the Toads cried out in unison. She struggled to move her rod, but the bone claw only tightened its grip, and rendered her unable to move.

Annoyed, I leapt out and fired another ice ball at Dry Bowser, who cancelled it with another fireball.

"He would be disappointed in you," murmured the creature. "He truly would have expected you to be more cooperative, for his sake."

Wait, what? Did it mean Bowser or Mario?

"Luigi!" screamed Peach as a bone quickly fired out and knocked into my head. I stumbled backward and hit the floor.

Even as I winced from the blow, I knew that I had just lost my ice power-up. With two more shouts of pain that followed in quick succession, I forced myself back up. The Blue and Yellow Toads rolled away on the floor, and tumbled over to the claw snared Peach.

"No!" the princess cried out in anguish.

Meanwhile, it felt as though the room was spinning around me. Barely, I made out that the Green and Purple Toads had struggled back to their feet and staggered forward to fight back. Tightly, I pressed my hands against my head to make everything still again.

Refocused, I moved my hands away to find that Dry Bowser had nearly clobbered the two Toads. A swift glance allowed me to spot the other two as they squirmed and shoved against the claw that held Peach against the wall.

"The end is already near," roared Dry Bowser once more.

Quickly, I ran to a wall and kicked off of it. Launched into the air, I moved for the center, to get as high as I could. Then, I flipped and forced my feet downward toward Dry Bowser. Briefly, I felt a surge of speed and power, as my legs connected against its head. A crackle sounded and purple smog spilled out.

I bounced off of Dry Bowser, who flailed as it tried to attack before it slowly fell back to pieces. Briefly, I caught sight of its attached hand that held another bone, prepared too late for another attack. Peach cried out as she suddenly fell to the floor, along with Dry Bowser's other claw. The purple smog gathered around the shattered bones and covered it completely, before it slowly dissipated.

"You did it, Luigi!" cheered one of the Toads. Before I could tell which one, I sank back to the floor and felt my eyes shut.

He would be disappointed in you. He wondered if you truly cared about him.

My eyes snapped back open and I found myself back outside of the pyramid. Yoshi was staring down at me, with a clearly concerned expression stuck on his face even as I pushed off of the ground. Perhaps I did it too quickly, since I felt a dizzying rush fill my head again.

"What happened?" I asked and slowly went back to the ground.

"You collapsed after beating Dry Bowser," explained Yoshi. "He gave you a nice knock on the head to remember him by."

Carefully, I felt around my head, where my cap was missing. Instead, I felt a large bump through my hair, which still stung with pain.

"Rest," Yoshi insisted, and he handed my cap over. "The Toads and Peach are trying to find out something about Bowser's Castle."

My eyes went from half closed to suddenly widened.

"Well?" I demanded. "What happened? Is Mario all right? Did Bowser mess with him? Can we get him out?"

Yoshi shook his head. "They're still checking up on it."

Gently, I pushed myself up from the ground again. This time, Yoshi wrapped his arms around me to help me up. He then sat beside me, practically on top of me.

"Are you ok?"

"Still a little sore, but I'll manage," I reassured him.

Oddly, Yoshi shook his head again. "Not like that. I meant about Mario."

Confused, I blinked and raised an eyebrow at Yoshi. He kept his arms around me, and held eye contact.

"What do you mean?"

"You seemed really worried about him before," Yoshi reminded me. "And now, you did it again, and got really scared over him. I miss Mario too, but even I'm not getting as panicked over him as you."

"He was kidnapped, Yoshi," I clarified. "Of course I'm concerned about him."

"That's not what I meant."

The green dinosaur studied me carefully. His eyes searched mine, and pried for answers that I refused to give him. Yoshi couldn't possibly understand…he wouldn't really think about what I'm hiding.

"I'm just really worried about him, Yoshi," I persisted.

Yoshi waited a bit before he pulled me backward with him, and then leaped up with me. It took him a minute to steady us, but he managed to do it.

"You can tell me some other time, then," hummed Yoshi, and he gave me a tight hug. "Mario would want me to wait too. He'd trust you with whatever you know."

That last bit stirred my headache. Yoshi couldn't know about that. No, that's just me misinterpreting him. But this dinosaur knows me better than that. I am keeping something from him…and everyone else. Something that Mario didn't trust me with. And though I'm still not sure about the letter, I've decided to take it at face value, and consider that my brother is in love with a literal monster. And that elicits a shiver that snakes around my body and over to Yoshi's.

"Luigi?" he asked as he pulled out of the hug. "Was that—?"

"Guys!" called out the Blue Toad. "Guys, we got word!"

"Huh?" was all I could get out.

"They've sent us a message from the castle," explained the Green Toad. "They're almost ready with the escape attempt!"

"Mario might be free really soon!" exclaimed the Yellow Toad. "Isn't that great?"

There's a pulse of hope that courses through everyone, and we exchanged smiles and sighs of relief, though my drains out after a minute. The question on only my mind: does Mario want to leave?

"We also got word from our castle," added the Purple Toad. "There's a visitor that will be by soon for Princess Peach."

"Visitor?" asked Yoshi.

"Yes, that's about my reaction as well," sighed Peach, but she kept her smile. "Oh well, we've faced quite heavy challenges so far. We could use a bit of regrouping."

Yoshi and the Toads nodded in agreement. Peach went on about getting back to her castle, but I remained hung up over the thoughts that buzzed around my mind. She was definitely wrong, though, that much I know.

The challenges we've faced so far were easy compared to what still lies ahead.

Chapter Text

Morning Mario,

Sorry that I couldn't stay with you until you woke up. A few of my troops have pounded on my door and asked for my presence, so duty calls.

Hope you slept well. Last night, you didn't really toss and turn while I was awake, so I think you were ok for the most part. I'm worried though and feel like I should have tried to stay up longer, just in case.

But, here you are this morning, still sound asleep, and you look fine, so I keep trying to tell myself that you're ok. Truth is, I'm still worried about what you told me. Don't get me wrong; I'm glad that we're on the same page now. It's just that I want to know more and see how else I can help you. I don't want you to be miserable every single time you try to sleep.

Then again, that led you to spend the night with me, so…maybe there are some benefits? (Don't glare, I'm teasing. Mostly.)

Really though, I enjoyed talking with you last night. It didn't really amount to much, and I kept turning the more serious matters into, well, silly stuff, but I was glad to have shared the night, with the different stories and topics. Except maybe that one where I went on too much about that tennis tournament. That was just…sorry.

And I don't mean to sound so lovesick or obsessive, but you are cute while you sleep. You tugged all of the covers around you, like you're in a little cocoon of red blankets. Also, your hair is messy, but I like the way it looks. It's kind of pushed up on one side and spread out, so it gets a good laugh out of me, but it also has a natural flavor that I can't quite pin down. I guess it's a little wild, maybe.

Sorry, you didn't really need to read all of that, but I can't scratch it off. So, secret's out, I'm into you. (As if either of us had any doubts.) In fact, I feel like we're actually going in a good direction. Do you feel like we're getting closer? I mean, obviously, since we're dating, but I just wonder if we have that good of a connection.

Nope, I digress, enough of that. Kamek should be by later with a big breakfast; I'll eat later, but I made sure that he could bring it by once he has a chance. That way we won't need to worry about anyone else walking in and…well, you can fill in the details.

Anyway, I need to get going. There are a few things on my agenda today, and I need to speak with the Boomerang Bros. battalion, Rex troopers, and the Cheep-Cheep squadrons. Not that you really need to know about all of that, but apparently I'm just telling you everything today.

Thanks again for spending the night, and if I helped at all, I'm glad to have done so. It's been ages since I've had that with anyone, where we actually bonded. And now that we're not beating each other up, it's much easier to talk with you.

All right, I really have to go. Don't worry, I'll be back later to overbearingly gush over you and awkwardly make us both uncomfortable. That's my specialty!

Love,

Bowser


 

[Bowser]

As I snapped my collar on, I stare at the letter I left for him on the pillow. My eyes continued to bounce back and forth between it and him, as he snuggled deeper into the dark red sheets and sank under covers.

Even though I had been up for a while, I couldn't bring myself to leave that quickly. He was comfortable here, safe. And I wanted to stay with him and keep things that way.

A knock came at the door. "Lord Bowser, sire," came a Rex's gravely voice. "It's been a half hour since you told me you were coming. The troops could really use your presence soon."

"Yes, I'm coming," I called out and strolled across the room. Part of me felt I should have been more forceful, but I didn't want to wake Mario.

But should I? While we have just another moment together, should I just wake him up for a little bit? All I need to do is just nudge him with my nose, give him a quick kiss, and we'll be good to go. He could go back to sleep or it might be better for him to be up and alert.

Still, I don't imagine that he's slept as well as he was this moment. Kamek should be able to stop by shortly anyway.

Reluctantly, my hand gripped the door and I slipped out.

With a pivot, I turned to face the Rex soldier who had come to collect me. Nothing out of the ordinary with him: purple scales that coat the body, orange belly and tiny, sharp wings, red boots, horn on the nose, two small spikes on the tail, thin eyes, and a pair of protruding fangs on either side of the mouth.

"Is everything all right, Your Highness?" he asked.

"Fine, fine," I murmured. "Just a little slow this morning. Not a lot of sleep."

The Rex nodded and moved to guide me back downstairs, but he stopped short as Junior walked in.

"Morning Papa," he warmly greeted, but took note of the Rex trooper that had shown up. "The Koopalings were looking for you too."

"Tell them I'll get to them later on," I relayed to Junior. "I'm running late and I've got three other troops that need me too."

"Why are you running late?" questioned Junior. "I thought you were up a while ago."

"It was a long night, Junior, don't worry about it," I hurried my response and waved the boy to follow us down the stairs.

Junior followed, but continued to bring up conversations. "There are a few Koopas that are wondering if you're all right, lately, Papa."

"Of course I am. Why wouldn't I be?"

The boy shrugged. "Well, the Koopalings told me that they say that you've been acting weird lately," he explained. "You captured Mario instead of Peach, used him as a chip to start war, didn't kill Mario, locked up a bunch of people that made an attempt, ordered everyone away from those guys—"

"And it's a strong plan in progress," I cut in.

"The Koopas don't think so. They think that you're doing too many things that are different from usual," Junior continued. "They think that Peach would have been the better bargaining chip for taking over the Kingdom."

"We've gone down this route before," I grumbled. "I made the mistake earlier, but this works out well enough. Peach is always rescued by Mario, so with him here, we can try to turn the tables on that." I pinched between my brows and let out a heavy breath. "I'm improvising, but it's not a bad plan. Why is that so difficult to follow?"

Honestly, I wasn't expecting my son to have an answer to it, but I needed to let it out somewhere. Gossip doesn't normally weigh down on me, but lately, it's been hitting harder than usual and slowly breathing on the truth.

I climbed down the last few steps and exited the stairwell behind the Rex and Junior. We walked through a few stony hallways to the right, then the left, and made our way to a studded door. The Rex walked in, and I turned to face Junior. He's quiet and stared down at his feet.

"You know I'm trying, right son?"

He looked up at me, and tugged down on his bib. "Sure, Papa, but…you have been different lately. Some of it's a good different, and you seem really happy some days, but other times it's different. And I feel like you're trying to hide something from me a lot of times."

If it's that obvious to him, it's that obvious period. Air swept in through my nose and I softly exhaled it.

"You might be right Junior," I relented. "We should have a talk later. Send my message to the Koopalings and I'll see you eight later."

"Ok, I will, Papa," he nodded and turned, but I grabbed him to hold him back for a moment.

"How are Iggy and Lemmy doing?" I asked as I turned the boy back to me.

"They're up, and they're better," Junior reported.

"Good. Do they remember what happened exactly?"

"Lemmy can't remember anything exactly, but usually agrees about what people tell him. Iggy remembers just working on the door, a flash, footsteps, and that's it."

My claw raked through my hair; I knew it was that Red Magikoopa, but without knowing much else, I couldn't do much about it. He wasn't the only one that wore a red robe, which would make finding him difficult.

Still, I shook my head. "All right, thank you son. Go, I'll see you later." And I bent down to give him a tight hug. "You keep those Koopalings in order for me, all right?"

"I will, Papa," he hugged back and ran off with a smile right after.

Once he was out of sight, I followed the Rex inside and found the troopers inside as they rushed about the spacious room, practicing formations and attacking methods. There were a few obstacles set up, mostly with open space and several steel platforms, set to simulate the mountain-like environment they would be sent to.

"So, what am I here for?" I asked.

The Rex began, "Well sir—"

"Hold everything!" shouted a deeper voice. "I'll take over from here."

He nodded and stepped aside as another Rex walked up. A few things about this Rex in particular were different. He had black scales where the typical color was purple, a white belly where it would have been orange, larger white wings that he might actually be able to fly with, wider green eyes, white boots, and three tail spikes instead of two.

"Hello, milord Bowser," he…purred to me. "My name is Nix, but you can call me what ever you like."

"Uh, hi," came my flat response. "Nix is easy."

"Memorable, good, I should hope so," he licked his lips slowly and lowered his eyes.

"Um…are you in charge?"

"If you'd like, I could be," he suggested with a quick wink.

"What? It's a yes or no question."

"Oh, don't worry, I have…some authority here," he murmured as he eyed me up and down. "It's been a while since I've seen you in the flesh, sire."

My eyebrows shot up and I tilted my head a bit. "…Right, so, what am I here for?"

"Some of us were requested to deploy near Seaside, not just by the mountains," he informed me. "We were hoping you could…" he gazed at my arms and down a bit before his eyes came back to my face. "…Give us some tactical advice. Among other things, of course."

"Sure, I guess? Does this need to be right now?"

"Oh, yes," Nix purred. "Yes indeed, milord."

I shifted uncomfortably in my position and folded my arms over my chest. This Rex was acting…oddly, to say the least. Quickly, I glanced down to reassess him when a small little brooch of my emblem caught my eye. It was pinned on his right shoe, barely noticeable, but definitely there.

"See something you like, sire?" He chuckled softly.

Our eyes connected again and I blinked at him. "Just show me what you need."

"Of course," he murmured and beckoned me to follow with a finger. "Right this way."

With an exasperated sigh, I trudged after him.


 

[Mario]

The click of the door, along with a creak open, woke me up as I threw the covers over my head.

"Relax," came Kamek's unenthused voice. "It's just me. Bowser wanted a tray of breakfast brought here."

A tray's clatter from the end of the room confirmed that.

"Being a confidant over this relationship is just so rewarding," he muttered to himself as he shuffled back outside of the door.

With a laugh, I tossed the covers off of my head and heard a paper flap. I turned to the pillows next to me to see a small note written out. As soon as my eyes registered my name, I took the note and read it over.

Bowser had written a small bit, a love letter, to me, explaining about sending Kamek in, where he was, and that he had enjoyed our night together. My hands shook as I read through it, and my heart pounded, but then sank.

He was happy just to have me here, just to be by my side.

There was a clatter from the tray and I jumped up from the bed. It was on a small round table on the opposite end of the bedroom, with a large silver tray that covered its surface. I grabbed my cap from the nightstand, brushed my hair with my hand, and pulled the hat over it. Quietly, I crept over to the tray and lifted the lid.

"Yikes!" came a cry. "O-Oh. Mario, it's just you. Phew."

The Red Toad hopped off of the food tray and laughed. There were several empty plates, along with bits of food that were torn and scattered, with sauces scattered along the tray and smeared napkins.

"So you managed to sneak into Bowser's room too?" My hand clawed at the back of my head. He looked up at me with a bright smile. "Nice work! Great minds, huh?"

"Yeah, sure." Not even close.

"Well, it's a perfect place to get ready for our escape attempt," nodded the Red Toad.

"Wait. Just…how long were you under that tray for?" I had to ask.

"Oh, uh, a little while," he pondered. "Long enough to have myself a pretty fancy feast! I didn't think you'd be here already though; I would have saved you some."

Part of me was hung up over the fact that it was for me, but I forced a smile and nodded to him as he knocked on the discarded lid.

"It's pretty soundproof in there too, and I tested it before I stowed away," he explained. "Must be so durable to keep the food warm…lucky for me!"

"Good thing," I chuckled.

He suddenly straightened his face and dropped a fist into an open hand. "All right, so I still have a Magikoopa wand in case of emergencies, but we're looking for a clean run." The Red Toad reached into his vest and pulled out a Cape Feather.

"Where did you get that?" I asked, not withholding my awe.

"It took ages to find one, but I brought with me from Peach's Castle before I came here," the Red Toad explained. "Remember, you can't fly indefinitely with it, so the second we hit the ground, we'll be swarmed by enemies."

"The way to the roof is just down the hall," I explained. "We can get a good distance before they see us fall. And after that, we'll fight to clear some distance and—"

"Mario, we'd be doomed if we had to fight off Bowser's army with just Capes," interrupted the Toad. "There's a secret pipe, a Warp Zone, that's hidden at the tallest volcano's base. We can take it in order to find our way back to the Grasslands."

My mouth dropped open. "We'll be right near home."

The Red Toad nodded, but gravely added, "It's a one-time use, so we need to go together and make sure we aren't followed. And this is the only Cape Feather we've found in years, Mario; as soon as an enemy attacks you, it's gone."

Slowly, I nodded. There would be no avoiding enemy attacks. We would literally need to run for it from our landing point and shoot straight for that Warp Zone.

"To tell you the truth," the Red Toad went on, "I actually had a completely different idea devised while I was still preparing to rescue you. They got word that you were here from the castle and sent me whatever records they had on that Warp Zone." He scratched his head. "Honestly, even I'm surprised with how many attempts people have made to rescue Peach, but then they fail and usually end up leaving it to you."

Peach's failed rescue attempts left a heavy weight in my mind; our chances for success were virtually non-existent. And I felt fear for this Toad, who would pay far steeper consequences than I would. I shook my head.

"You've done well, Toad," I congratulated him, "but this isn't worth the risk. I can stay here until more help arrives. I don't want you risking yourself for me."

He looked up at me and smiled. "That's something that Peach would order us to do too. But if I hadn't timed this out Mario, if I wasn't sure of myself, we'd still be waiting." His expression then changed to a more determined one. "I'm not leaving you here. You're our best chance and everyone else is already risking everything they have to come find you. I've come this far and I'm not about to quit."

He held the Cape Feather up before me.

"Whenever you're ready, Mario."

My eyes glanced around the room for a moment; not to take in every detail, but to get a good reminder that Bowser had brought me here himself. He opened up every inch of his heart with little to no questions. The Koopa King risked the wishes of his own people, of the ideas that he built his kingdom upon, for me.

But this place wasn't home.

With a heavy sigh, I stuffed Bowser's letter tightly, securely into my overalls. The Red Toad smiled again when my hand stretched out and clenched the Cape Feather. In a bright flash, the Cape Feather divided itself and turned into two long yellow cloaks. Capes. The Toad and I fastened one each around our necks and our ankles and nodded to one another.

"All right, now we hurry," the Red Toad cries as we burst from Bowser's bedroom and into the halls.

I lead him to the doors to the roof and knock them open to the next staircase. Our sprint is fast and we didn't check for anyone else that could be in our way. The Capes flap after us as we push off from one step to the next.

Quickly, we smash the doors to the roof open and rush outside. The roof is a long stretch before it runs out; it's perfect to build momentum.

We hardly pause as we redirect ourselves from the stairs, in the direction of the tallest volcano. "Ready? Go!" I hear myself shout as we race toward it, running with whatever energy we could give.

Our capes beat in the wind behind us and we keep our eyes on the edge. Just as we come to it, we jump over it and grab hold of the capes.

After we're in the air, we have a brief second of flight before we quickly feel gravity pull us down to the ground. My hands grip the cape, and I watch as the ground comes closer.

Forming a bubble shape, the cape catches the wind and gives me a bounce, firing me back into the sky.

With a quick glance, I see the Toad fly up past me, able to go further with less weight. He laughs as we bounce across the sky, toward the volcano.

Slowly, we're adjusting our height and descending from the dark clouds and soot that line the dark sky.

We're near the volcano and closer to the ground when I hear a boom sound in the distance. Cannon fire.

Within seconds of that registering into my mind, a cannonball comes whizzing past us. Another one speeds across, just over us.

The third, however, strikes the Red Toad's cape, and in a flash, it's gone. With a scream, he plummets to the ground.

Hardly anything else goes through my mind as I dive bomb right after the Toad. His fall is fast, but he's light, and my drop, even with the cape slowing my descent, is quicker.

My arms reach out and I snatch the Toad. He holds around me as I ready the cape again. We're near the ground and I puff it out for another bounce. The cannon fire continues in the distance.

Just as we lift from the ground, a cannonball smacks straight into my cape. It bursts in a flash and the Toad and I turn just a bit before we crash hard into the ground.

We push off of the ground, and I grasp my arm. Pain, but not broken. It wasn't from too high. I glance ahead and the volcano's massive base is just some distance ahead.

"We're there, Mario!" the Red Toad cheers. "We're right here!"

A sharp bang is heard from behind us. We pivot to find a swarm of Koopas with Bob-ombs, Magikoopas, and Hammer Bros. chasing after us.

The Red Toad whips out his wand and fires a hex out. The spells come out with various colors and shapes as it hits the ground. A rumble sounds and the Koopa troops skid to a halt as the earth before the rises.

A stonewall billows up and the Toad grabs me to run forward. I turn as it continues to form, and I stop looking once I see that none of the Koopas have followed us.

Once we arrive at the volcano's base, I notice a circle of markings that form the shape of a door. With another wave of his wand, the Red Toad casts another spell to unseal the base and, crumbling open, the volcano's secret Warp Zone is revealed.

Rapidly, we rush inside and the Toad whips the wand again to seal the volcano behind us. He taps it just before the stones close and lights up the interior. It's a red and craggy cavern, with slight markings on the walls around us. Just ahead, I see an orange Warp Pipe, ready for just one use.

"Mario, let's go home," the Red Toad happily cries as we walk toward the pipe.

"Stop!" thunders a voice. Impossible.

We whirl around and a lone Koopa Troopa stands opposite to us. He holds a wand out, his hands trembling. He's not trained to use it properly.

"Don't move!" he orders.

"You're outmatched," I reason. "We have a wand as well, and there are two of us. Give up now and—"

My words are left unfinished as a spell fires out. The Koopa flies backward while his wand shoots out and hits the cavern's wall.

I'm too stunned for a moment, but I turned to see the Red Toad pull his wand back. He waved his hand in front of me.

"Mario, are you in there? Bowser's Koopas can't be reasoned with!" he harshly reminded me. "Remember?"

I shook my head and stared at the Toad, who patted my arm lightly.

"It's hard to remember sometimes, I know," he soothed. "There are some Koopas that you've worked with, some that don't work for Bowser. But that one was definitely not one of them."

For a moment, I gazed back and saw the Koopa flopped over on his back. With a squint, I could see that he was unconscious. I turned back to the Red Toad and nodded.

"Let's go home."

Together, we jumped onto the orange Warp Pipe and plunged down into its dark abyss, its sanctuary.


 

[Bowser]

My hand slammed the door open and I rush out from the stairwell. Kamek called out from behind me, but I refused to listen. With a roar, I punched the wall next to my bedroom door, which had been left wide open.

Reports had buzzed through the castle the second someone caught Mario's escape, but I didn't want to believe it. He wouldn't. But he did.

My teeth were clenched, and smoke billowed from my nostrils. Water burned my eyes.

Kamek lightly grasped my arm. "I'm sorry, sire."

"One time!" I roared. With a gasp, I lowered my voice, but it's not by much, and I'm still yelling. "I kidnap that damned princess repeatedly, and he's always there to save her. Finally, I have him here, I tell him, give him, everything, and he runs?" My claws dug into the doorway and I carved straight down. "Why?"

No answers came to mind, and Kamek just shook his head.

"Sire—"

"No. I want answers! I want to know why Mario, my boyfriend, decided to run long after I kept him here. I—"

"Your what now?"

My eyes nearly popped out of my face as shot wide open. Kamek jumped and we both slowly turned around. Ludwig's voice sounded. Morton's hand dropped from the doorknob.

Just a few feet away, Junior and the seven Koopalings stood outside of the boy's room, mouths agape, and all eyes on me. Briefly, I exchanged a glance with Kamek, who shook his head, and we turned back to face them.

Chapter Text

To tell the truth was facing judgment.

Hiding it seemed like the better option.

Even with everything out and exposed,

You stand half a chance to prove us right.


 

[Mario]

The Red Toad and I jump out of the pipe and emerge in a blue cavern, which is darker, yet calmer, than the volcanic Warp Zone we came from. Behind us, a rumble sounds and the orange pipe submerges back into the ground from behind us.

"Well, good to know that we weren't followed," laughs the Red Toad. I silently nod and he pulls out the Magikoopa wand. "Well, let's see if I can find the way out of here," he mumbles and walks about the cave for a moment.

His scepter glows once he approaches a wall opposite to the pipe's location, and mirroring the entrance to the Warp Zone from the Dark Land.

"Guess this is it," calls the Red Toad, and he waves the wand to open the cavern walls. Slowly, the crumble and shift open. We hurriedly stroll outside and the walls behind us close.

Once we've made it out, I squeeze my eyes shut and take a minute to slowly pry them open again. It's much brighter here than it was in Bowser's Castle. After a little bit passes, though, my eyes adjust to the lush green fields around me.

Here, trees are still lively, and they stand tall, proud, as they bask in the sunlight. The air is fresh, crisp, and I'm able to take a heavy breath in and out. A gentle breeze passes by, and the plants waver as it blows through. I can look up and see a bright blue sky again, clear, save maybe some gentle white clouds that help decorate it.

Softly, the Red Toad pats my arm. "It's great to be here, isn't it? I forget how great the Grasslands really are," he observes. "I guess it's because we're usually so busy and it looks so simple by comparison. But, when you stop to take it in, especially now, it's really beautiful."

My agreement is another quiet nod, because I couldn't put it better any other way. And after a little more time passes, he leads me along the path for Peach's Castle.


 

[Bowser]

Damned be my loose tongue.

It was in the heat of the moment, and for not burying my emotions, I faced eight curious and confused faces. My eyes scanned quickly across them until I lock on to Junior. His small eyes look back to mine and I grinded my teeth behind my lips.

Pain. That's what I caused him.

With just a step forward and my hand raised, he shook his head, pushed past the Koopalings, and ran off, down the hall and into the stairwell. I felt myself turn to follow him, but the Koopalings slid up to block the path.

"Move," I ordered. My temper shot from zero up to eleven in an instant.

"Why should we?" protested Roy. "You got some explaining to do."

"To my son, not to any of you," I snarled.

"Oh, that's not how we work," chuckled Ludwig. "You request us for help and we deliver, so long as we can actually follow you through on these…schemes."

"Listen you little brat," I roared. "If you think for a minute that I won't crush you like the insects that you are—"

"Insects?!" snapped Wendy. "Excuse you, King Bowser, but we've done far too much for you to earn that disgraceful slur."

"Far too much?! Please!" I bellowed. "I practically raised you rotten twerps! Everything you know? You owe that to me! As for your sorry excuses for help, look where we are! I am losing yet another war!"

"Those are your tactics failing, not ours," Larry insisted.

"With that attitude, it's no wonder that we fail every damn blasted time!" my voice thundered across the hall. "You pests think that you don't need to contribute to every last effort, but look where you are! My castle! You want to keep calling this place your home?!"

"We don't actually call it home," interjected Iggy.

"It's not on us that we don't agree with your plans all of the time," added Lemmy. "Sometimes your ideas are too crazy even for us."

"This teeters on treason," Kamek contested.

"No it doesn't," Ludwig challenged. "We have every right to know our king's activities and the choice to follow his plans accordingly."

"Like hell! This isn't a democracy!" I rang out again.

"Well, we're not exactly your soldiers," Morton explained. "We chose to be here."

"He's right," added Wendy. "You want to call us out for lack of support, fine. But you call on us for help. You helped train us, fine. But we are not your children."

They're not.

Her words are left in the air and I hold a glare over all seven Koopalings. For years, I have taken them in, kept and treated them above most of my army, but they have never been my kids. Constantly, they're mistaken for such, but we usually shook it off.

After all of this time…were they really so unattached to me?

…Did I deserve their loyalty?

"Bowser," Kamek interrupted my thoughts.

"Are you truly going to keep me from my son?" I questioned the Koopalings, and still shifted my eye contact around each one of them.

"We need to discuss this ourselves," persisted Larry. "You can console your son later."

I was about ready to spit out a fireball at him, but Kamek rested his hand on my arm. "I'll go check on the prince." Slowly, I nodded and the Magikoopa walked up to the Koopaling barricade.

"Oh no," Roy guarded the path. "You're coming with us too."

Kamek laughed. "Little Koopaling, your King is being most merciful by not sending all seven of you through the walls already." And with the wave of his wand, he slid Roy into Iggy and Lemmy, and calmly strolled away.

What was stopping me from doing the same? They're high ranking amongst the Koopa Troop, but why was I letting them impede me from taking care of my son?

"What now?" Lemmy asked as he pulled himself away from Roy and Iggy.

Ludwig stared at me, and I noticed that his eyes were wavering. He's thinking, carefully planning. "Shall we go to the Council Chamber?" he finally suggested.

His six siblings nodded in agreement and then turned to me. Slowly, I nodded as well.

"Larry, lead the way," ordered Wendy, and her younger brother complied. Soon, the rest of us followed, with the Koopalings wisely keeping me in the middle.

And as we made our way to the pipe and the lower levels, I realized that I might actually want to be kept from Junior right now. It disgusted me, but I was worried about seeing him. What would I tell him? What could I do to help him understand? Junior's younger than these brats; he's too confused right now, to deal with me or to be left alone.

As we reach the Council Chamber, I wonder just how lost the Koopalings are. They may be older than Junior, but they're quite young as well.

Larry ushered the group to the back of the room, and the seven of them were seated at the raised semi-circle table. I stood before them, at the center of the table.

What do you know? Judgment Day for the Koopa King has arrived.

"Great, you're all in a circle and propped above me," I mocked. "Feeling powerful yet?"

"Not really," admitted Lemmy, who quickly earned scornful looks from his siblings and sank down into his seat.

A minute passed and I looked around the table. Morton sat on my left, Roy on the far right. Next to Morton was Larry, who tapped at the table. Iggy fiddled with a small gray device next to him. Lemmy pulled himself back up, and waited to see if Roy would try to hit him. In the middle, Wendy held a mirror and applied more lipstick, to which Ludwig rolled his eyes.

"So, uh," piped up Roy and suddenly everyone's gaze shifted to him. "How did you guys, um, start?"

My hand clawed through my hair. "Well, we went to kidnap Peach at first—"

"He means the relationship," disrupted Ludwig. "Stay on topic."

"Look, I don't need to deal with any of your little shenanigans," I threatened. "I'm still your King, like it or not. You will treat me with more respect than that!"

Ludwig folded his arms and sat back. I waited for one of the others to jump to his defense, but they sat in silence.

"All right," I consented. "The start of it. I, uh, initiated the discussions between us. Or he did, when I had him in the dungeons and he requested to see me, but I actually went to him, so that's technically on me…" I looked up to see the lowered eyes and bored expressions of the Koopalings. "What? You wanted to know."

"You can give us a bit of an abridged version," advised Wendy.

"Fine," I grunted, a little miffed. Still, I cleared my throat and continued. "So, I told the guards to leave, he pestered me with questions and threats that led up to him asking why I take Peach. And then he asked if I loved her, to which I told him that I didn't."

"Wait, you don't?" asked Larry, who had the Koopalings glare in his direction.

"No. She's just in the way," I clarified. "If I were to marry her, it would be to take over her kingdom by an alternate method than force, not because I actually love her. The whole idea that I did like her was some foolish rumor that the Toads probably pitched while they pondered why I kidnap the princess. That idea spread here, the Koopa Troop kicked it around, and suddenly the rumor was assumed to be a fact. So, I just went with it for simplicity's sake. It was a charade, but served purpose in inspiring morale and ceased questions."

"Huh," pondered Wendy. "That's a little disappointing to hear."

"Tough, it's the truth," I shrugged and continued. "Mario wasn't exactly my, what's it called, 'one true love,' or whatever that love at first sight crap is labeled. But he kept showing up, we fought continuously, suddenly we started playing sports and going to parties together, and over time, I realized that I was actually attracted to him."

"I take it back, that's adorable," squealed Wendy.

"How exactly is fighting each other and then developing an attraction adorable?" questioned Iggy.

"Sparks fly," defended Wendy. "Don't question the rhymes and rhythms of the heart, my brother, just go with it!"

"Wendy, you need to calm down," murmured Ludwig, to which Wendy smacked the backside of his head and Ludwig knocked into the table.

"Keep going," Roy insisted to me. "The thing in the dungeon…?"

"Right, yes," I nodded and felt my face burn. "Well, he, uh, wanted to know more, but I left him with that. Um, the next time, I had him hauled up to the east tower for a message to send to Peach, and we…talked. Argued, really. Eventually, I hit a breaking point, went berserk on him, and questioned his reasons for everything. I suggested Peach; he denied feelings for her, while also confessing that he was interested in someone else. And then I pinned him down to that until he told me the truth, which fortunately enough, was that he loved me too." I paused as the Koopalings continued to listen and watch me. Some sweat dripped down from my head and palms, but brushed it off off. "So, uh, I told him that I felt the same, explained that he was my reason for everything, and uh…we hooked up after that?"

"How romantic," deadpanned Larry.

"Isn't it?!" cooed Wendy excitedly.

"Wendy, you are too into this," noted Morton. Wendy slid off a golden ring, spiked it off of Morton's head, and caught it as it whizzed back to her.

"Continue," persisted Ludwig.

"Well, that's kind of it," I folded my arms together. "Unless you want me to talk about moving him to the room next to me to keep him close, the time you lot caught me coming back from a date with him on the roof—"

"You had a roof date?" asked Iggy.

"Uh…yes?"

"That is pretty romantic," he agreed. The other six gave him quizzical looks. "What? Only Wendy can like mushy stuff?" A series of shrugs were exchanged and their attention returned to me.

"Ah, after that was the rebellion," I recalled. "I didn't want him killed, for obvious reasons to you now, he had some nightmares and looked them up, I had him sleep in my room—"

A few of the Koopalings snickered while Wendy clapped her hands together excitedly.

"Not like that!" my face burned as I protested. "Look, that's practically everything, up to the point where he ran off and you heard my outburst." I coughed up a puff of smoke and waved it away. "Good enough, or do you need more?"

"More please!" cried out Wendy, to which her brothers shook their heads. "Fine, that's enough then," she reluctantly relented and tapped at her red necklace.

"Ok…now what?" I asked.

The Koopalings exchanged expressions with one another for a moment. Then, Ludwig sat up in his seat.

"We'll decide where we go from here like we usually do," he announced. "We vote on supporting Bowser or going against these plans. Anyone disagree or think we should do otherwise?" They whispered to one another, but ceased upon finding no disagreements. "All right, we'll take a minute, then start with Morton, and work our way down."

"Do you really need me here for this?" I objected. "You vote in favor of me, you stay around the castle. You go against, you leave. Why do I need to stay?"

"Because we have a slightly sadistic side in which we enjoy watching anyone squirm, you included," blurted Lemmy. This time, Roy punched him over the head.

"Because we've kept you long enough, so just see it through," proposed Ludwig. My eyes lowered, but I nodded; I was curious.

A few whispers went back and forth down the line as the Koopalings bickered with their opinions to one another. I walked back over to the long table and leaned against it, as I impatiently waited for them to finish.

"Morton? You ready?" requested Iggy.

"I guess so," mumbled Morton, and his hand circled around the table, with one nail scratching a circle shape. He waited and looked up to find the Koopalings watch as they waited on him. "Um…I'm for helping Bowser out still," he decided. "He hasn't really done anything against us." I felt a small smile come up on my face; it was nice to have a positive lead off, and I was pleasantly surprised by Morton's choice.

"True, but this goes against every basic principle we've been taught," Larry argued. "Mario and his friends were always the enemy. I'm against working under those conditions." My smile dropped away and my eyebrows lowered. "Iggy?"

"Against, but only because can't really think of what else I can work on without war," Iggy explained.

"Couldn't you work on anything else?" questioned Morton.

"But my mindset is geared toward war right now!" griped Iggy. "It's hard to suddenly stop those thought processes and switch over to…to…well, whatever else!"

"You do realize we'll still be at war if we side with Bowser, right?" inquired Larry.

"Uh…oops."

"Leave it to the tech genius to over calculate himself," teased Lemmy.

"All right, all right, come on," broke in Ludwig. "Wendy?"

"You boys are joking, right? Definitely for!" cheered Wendy. "This is the cutest thing ever, as odd as it seems!" I held back a laugh, but couldn't help a bigger smile from returning to my face.

It dropped away quickly, however, when Ludwig rose up. "I'm against. Not only does Larry have a point, but also this is hardly a conducive situation at this point. What would we do now? Kidnap Mario?" The Koopalings looked from him to me, and I shrugged at the notion, but kept the idea buried in my mind.

"You're just trying to make yourself seem more important than you really are," huffed Wendy. Ludwig slammed his hands down on the table, but froze as we watched the other as Koopalings nodded in accord.

"Fine, you got me, whatever," Ludwig waved his hand about. "Lemmy?"

The smallest Koopaling pondered for another moment. "Well, it's kind of funny, and I like funny, so for!"

Larry and Morton nodded while Wendy, Iggy, and Ludwig shook their heads. Not my favorite decision, but so long as Lemmy sided with me, I'd graciously take it.

And then, Lemmy turned to his left, my right, "Guess that leaves you, Roy."

Damn it, him, and everything else. Roy would have the final decision on whether or not the Koopalings would continue to help me? Roy?

My eyes lined up with him as he leered and watched at me from behind his sunglasses. I squeezed my eyes shut and just listened.

"For."

Wait. What?! My eyes fluttered open.

"All right, that's the end of it," Ludwig murmured. "King Bowser, we apologize for monopolizing your time. Thank you for sharing with us."

My mouth dropped open and I gawked as the Koopalings slowly rose from their seats and hurriedly shuffled from the Council Chamber. Roy was the slowest, almost as if he waited for me.

"You standing there all day or getting back to your kid?" he questioned.

Honestly, I did want to tear away from that room as soon as possible, but I needed to understand this.

"Roy, I'm grateful, but…" What was I supposed to finish with? You're the biggest bully of your siblings, why in all the kingdoms would you pick to keep working with me? That would certainly show appreciation.

The purple shelled Koopaling kicked at the floor and waited for me to continue. When I didn't, he started up. "I, uh, I don't really get everything that's been going on. I mean, you explained stuff, but…it still hasn't, I don't know, processed for me," he admitted.

"Then why…?"

He picked at his red-framed sunglasses. "Because, um, I like working for you. And even I don't totally get everything, I can follow enough to get that you're really into what you're fighting for." His hand shook as he slid off his sunglasses.

My eyebrows raised as I gazed at his dark blue eyes, the median between the brighter blue eyes of one half of his siblings and the darker, black eyes of the other half. "Why would you ever hide those?" I couldn't help but ask.

"I…we hide a lot of stuff," confessed the pink-faced Koopaling. His eyes met mine and I was honestly awed by how beautiful they were. "Like, uh, I don't really know how much the others agree with me on this, and I guess I can't really speak for them, but, um, I…I like to think we like you as a dad, or a fill-in dad. Whatever."

Without hesitation, I reached down and pulled him into a firm hug. I couldn't believe that it took until now for me to realize how much these seven meant to me, but that somehow stayed present in at least Roy's mind. Leave it to him to make me want to eat my thoughts from just a few minutes ago.

Roy shuddered a bit and I pulled back to see water line behind his eyes. He hastily brushed his arm over his eyes and placed his sunglasses back over them.

"D-Don't tell anyone about any of this," he snapped. More softly, quietly, he added, "Please."

"Not a chance," I whispered and rubbed the kid on his head.

"Thanks." He sniffled and rubbed his arm across his face. "W-Well? What are you waiting for? Go find your kid already."

"Right." I nodded and rushed out of the room, as I left Roy to his thoughts and began to hunt down Junior.


 

[Mario]

We've nearly made it back to the castle, but there's still a little ways to go. And along the straightforward path, there are stragglers from Bowser's army that pop out from their hiding places, looking for a fight.

"Yikes, they're everywhere and relentless," quipped the Red Toad.

"Just keep moving," I ushered him to press on, but a Koopa slid out and blocked our path.

"Hold it right there, Mario!" the red-shelled Koopa Troopa halted us and raised his hand. "I have orders from King Bowser to take you back."

"Great to know, but I'm not going back," I told him.

He opened his mouth to argue, but before I could further my reasoning with him, the Red Toad jumped from the side and slammed the Koopa down into his shell.

Quickly, the Toad kicked the shell out of our path and beckoned me to follow him along once again.

"Mario, what are you doing?" he questioned as we ran again.

"I…I just can't do it." There was no way for me to explain the guilt I felt over it now.

We slowed to a brief stop. He patted my arm again. Understanding?

"Don't worry Mario, I get it," he soothed. "You're always pulling through on your journeys, but I'm sure even you get worn out." No, he's clueless. "Leave the enemies to me! You just keep back and recharge your energy, ok?"

Quietly, I glanced at the Toad's reassuring smile and reflected it to him with a nod.

With another start, we raced to a hill, climbed up it, and slid down along the other side. We jumped up and ran until—

"There! There it is!" the Red Toad cried and excitedly pointed to Peach's Castle in the distance. "Come on, Mario! We're home free!"

A green-shelled Paratroopa swooped down from the sky and I shoved the Toad down to the ground. We bounced back up as it flew back into the sky.

Not waiting for a second strike, the Toad rushed up the hill and leapt up. He stomped down on the Paratroopa's wings and knocked it from the sky.

With a flip, he ground pounded the Troopa back into its shell, which promptly rocketed away.

"Ugh, I've had enough of these guys!" complained the Red Toad as we broke back into a run.

There were no more enemies after that. The flashes of green plains swirled into gray, yellow, and red colors as we zipped through Toad Town, with some confused murmurs from those who hadn't quite seen us and delighted cheers from others that had.

The Toad and I slowed our pace as we hurried across the bridge and up to the castle courtyard. We panted and I gazed ahead to see several Toads, Peach, Luigi, and Yoshi walk up to the castle doors.

They turned upon hearing us trudge in, and Yoshi darted over and tackled me to the ground.

"Mario! You're back! You're ok!" he cheered and tightly wrapped his arms around me.

"Yoshi! It's good to see you," I laughed and hugged him back. I paused and pushed him off for a second. "Wait, you can speak our language?"

"Peach helped," Yoshi answered and went back to his tight clasp.

I patted him and looked past to see the four Toads run over to Red Toad, and all of them cheered, danced around and about, each one stopped a moment to give him a strong hug and congratulatory pats on the back.

"Oh Mario!" cried Princess Peach.

Yoshi let go and pulled us both up from the ground. He moved away as Peach let a golden rod drop to the ground and ran up to hug me herself. It wasn't as tight as Yoshi's iron grip, but she held tightly against me as I raised my arms to hug her back.

"It's nice to see you again, Princess," I whispered. Her messy blonde hair surrounded my vision almost completely.

"Mario, I'm so sorry you had to deal with that," she apologized. "It must have been a nightmare for you to deal with! I only wish we could have gotten you out sooner."

"Come on, Peach," I soothed. "You deal with that all of the time. Besides, it wasn't so bad." She pulled back and gave me a quizzical look. "Well, it was bad, but not awful," I corrected myself.

A smile burst onto Peach's face and she kissed my cheek. "Come on, your brother missed you terribly," she guided me over to the castle door, where Luigi patiently waited.

Only…I caught a glimpse of his eyes. Lowered. He frowned. And it looked, appeared, as if he were…as if he studied me.

"Breathe, Luigi," Peach laughed. "He's back. Mario's back."

"Hey bro," I raised my arms out and waited a moment. Luigi slowly stepped forward and wrapped his arms around me as I closed mine around him.

"Glad you're back," Luigi whispered to me. "But…we need to talk."

My head jerked up as he pulled away and carefully looked me in the eyes. He walked away and I continued to stare, even as Peach gently rubbed my back and Yoshi strolled back up to me, and wrapped his arms around one of mine.

Toadsworth emerged from the castle door and his face lit up as he caught each of us in his sight. "Oh, thank the Stars! Master Mario has returned!" he cried out. "And Princess Peach has returned with her retinue as well! Splendid! And perfect timing too." He shook my hand and bowed to Peach. "Princess, you have a special guest waiting for you inside."

Peach nodded and turned as the Purple Toad returned her wand. She took it and followed Toadsworth inside, with the parade of Toads chasing them in. Luigi glanced at me once more before joining them. Had Yoshi not tugged me forward, I might not have moved from that spot.

Even as I walked past the door and into the golden and pink castle halls, my heart slowly sank and I felt an empty pain stir inside me.


 

Knights against dragons are old stories.

Newer ones are deeper, more complex.

Only you can choose to accept changes,

What stands between us will never die.

Chapter Text

[Mario]

We made our way to Peach's Throne Room, where Toadsworth led us to a familiar bright face in an orange and yellow dress that turned from a window to greet us.

"Peach, hey!" greeted Princess Daisy and she hurried over a bit before she stopped short. Her delighted smile switched to a visibly confused expression. "I…wait. Mario? You're back already?"

"Yep," I breathed out. "Special thanks to the most successful rescue attempt we've ever had."

"Rescue? Who—?"

The Red Toad cleared his throat and proudly placed his hands on his hips.

"You? That's really impressive!" Daisy congratulated.

"Aw, thank you, Princess Daisy," the Red Toad giggled.

Peach walked up to Daisy and hugged her lightly. "It's nice to have you here." She then let go and studied the other princess. "So, what brings you here, Daisy?"

"Well, here I thought I was going to help you out," Daisy explained and gazed over each of us. "But, I guess I'm a little late to the party."

"As per usual," Peach sighed. "But it was a nice effort."

Daisy raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?" Uh-oh.

"Well, our kingdoms are meant to share an alliance," explained Peach. "Yet, whenever I find myself kidnapped, or threatened, Sarasaland is never at my defense, nor the defense of my kingdom. So—"

"Wow, hold up," Daisy interrupted. "One, my kingdom has its own issues to resolve on a regular basis. Two, you're the one that gets kidnapped so often, and we can't help that. Three, we support you whenever there are some kind of sporting events that you need multiple kingdom representation to attract more publicity."

Princess Peach shook her head. "That last one barely holds any weight and you know it. The first one is a strong argument; I'll give you that. But my getting kidnapped is either so frequent that you can't be busy for every single occurrence, or not all that common after all, in which case you should be more supportive."

"Oh no, you listen—" Daisy started again, but glanced down at Peach's hand. "Wait, is that your Royal Scepter?"

Peach shifted her attention down at the rod and back to Daisy again. "Yes, why?"

"That thing shouldn't be out, Peach," Daisy chastised. "Have you been using it the whole time? You know what it costs!"

"I do, and it's worth it," Peach answered curtly. "I'm beyond exhausted of leaving my people to worry about their princess and the state of this kingdom. I'm through with having it taken over and run to the ground until I have to rebuild it back again." Peach hoisted the wand up. "This time, no holding back."

Daisy shook her head. "Peach, that's still not the right way to go about this."

"I've already tried that," muttered Toadsworth.

Peach folded her arms and looked away. Still, Daisy persisted. "You do realize that it messing with your emotions is only the first—"

"You don't need to go over them, I know what I'm doing," huffed Peach, and visibly became more angry at Daisy.

"Did you at least think about any precautions or countermeasures?" asked Daisy. "I think you should at least—"

"Will you quit babying me?!" snapped Peach.

Now Daisy became more annoyed. "Well, apparently someone has to, since…!" She suddenly trailed off and her aggravated face became fearful.

"Since they're not here," Peach finished for her. "Yes, I understood that."

"Oh, no, Peach, I didn't mean—"

"No, of course you didn't," Peach tersely broke in. "So, if you'll all excuse me—"

"Please, Peach," Daisy grabbed Peach's hands into her own. "I'm sorry."

"Don't—"

"I'm here to help, not argue!" Daisy fired out. "Do you want me here or not?"

Both princesses stared one another down. Peach pursed her lips together, still visibly agitated, but nodded slowly.

"Ok, then…let's…" Daisy trailed off to think a bit. "Let's go to your room and devise some strategies. Just us, how about it?"

Again, Peach nodded, but she took a second to glance at me. She took her arms from Daisy and walked over to me.

She stared into my eyes and asked, "Will you be all right, Mario?"

My eyes met hers and I nodded. "Don't worry about me, Peach. I'll be fine."

"You still need some rest," Peach analyzed. "At least don't do anything strenuous while you're here. Go somewhere quiet where you won't deal with…well, everyone."

"I'll keep him in a guest room," Luigi offered. Suddenly, I felt the need to run off anywhere else, even if that meant getting swarmed by concerned Toads from all around.

Peach nodded. "Good, you watch over him, Luigi." She turned to her steward. "Toadsworth, get a heavy meal prepared for everyone, but go ahead and serve Yoshi first. He'll probably eat for a while. And make sure the Toads get a great helping too, for all of their hardwork."

Yoshi and the five Toads cheered over Toadsworth's sigh. He led the group off to the Dining Hall while Peach and Daisy made their way upstairs. Luigi took me from the Throne Room and guided me to one of the guest rooms.

"So, we're having that talk now?" I inquired.

"As soon as we're alone, yes," answered Luigi.

His voice sounded so leveled, controlled…serious. I felt a lump in my throat and swallowed hard.


 

[Bowser]

Hastily, I barged into Kamek's Study. The old Magikoopa jumped backwards as the door slammed open, tripped over his blue robe, and crashed into the nearest stack of books.

"Uh…" was all that came out of me at first. After an awkward pause, I added, "Sorry."

"I should hope so!" screeched Kamek. "Since you were a child, I don't know how many times I've specifically asked you not to slam doors open on me!"

Quickly, I placed my hands over my mouth and suppressed a fit of laughter from bubbling out. This intrusion wasn't for my amusement.

"Kamek," I composed myself, "where is my son?"

"His room," Kamek solemnly answered, "and he specifically requested to not be disturbed by anyone."

"Not to…? Tough!" I snapped. "I'm his father and the king! He'll deal with me whether he wants to or not!"

The Magikoopa sighed. "If you walk in with that attitude, you'll certainly push him further away."

My scowl lowered. "Well…I need to talk to him."

"So go do it," advised Kamek. "But don't be a blowhard or hotheaded about it. He doesn't understand and needs you to go about this gently."

"I'm…pretty bad at gentle," I admitted.

Kamek shook his head. "No, you just don't like acting that way because you think it's weak. You need to show some vulnerability, at least to your son."

He stared at me through his spectacles as I clawed through my hair.

"You're right," I relented. "And I hate when you're right."

"Then you must be filled with a lot of hatred, huh?" prodded Kamek. I answered with a fist over his head and stomped out as he sank against his books on the floor.

Even though I felt the heated floor against my feet as I cross the bridge, then the cool stones as I entered the staircase to the pipe, I couldn't stay too focused on anything. A few things kept nagging at me repeatedly:

How was I going to get Junior to listen to me?

What was I going to tell Junior?

Could he really understand what I felt about Mario?

When will I be able to get Mario back?

Why do I keep asking myself questions that I can't immediately answer?

With a growl of frustration, I bashed open the nearest door and found myself in the hallway to our bedrooms.

Calm down, Bowser; just take it one step at a time.

Slowly, I trudged over to my son's door and knocked, not as roughly as he'd probably expect from his gruff father.

"Junior? It's me," I called.

"Go away!" He yelled out, in a voice that had a painful mixture of sorrow and anger. "I don't want to talk to liars."

"Son, please—"

"Just leave me alone!"

"I…I can't do that, Junior."

"Yes, you can," he snapped. "That's how you kept everything else to yourself!"

My teeth grinded together and I held my tongue. I hate it when people call me out on my screw-ups.


 

[Mario]

Luigi pulled the door shut behind him, quickly, quietly. I glanced around the guest bedroom quickly; red curtains and carpet, blue bed sheets, white closets and desks, nothing too spectacular, save for a nice window, but nothing too great, for a castle room. My brother turned to me and folded his arms together. His eyes were lowered and he already wore a frown.

"Can you explain to me what this is about?" I blurted out.

"Well, to start, you lied to me," murmured Luigi.

My eyebrows shot up. "Lied? About what?"

"I'm not exactly sure where it begins," sighed Luigi. "Were you actually kidnapped?"

"What?"

"Mario, don't make me repeat myself," Luigi groaned.

"Yes, Luigi, I was really taken by Bowser," I snapped, and felt a burning temper flare up. "Why would you accuse me of otherwise? Did you think I wanted to be taken away from everyone and forced to be a prisoner?"

He shook his head. "Not exactly that, but something along those lines."

"Did you hit your head recently?" I questioned, flabbergasted at where this conversation already went.

"No…wait, yes, actually," he admitted. "That, however, has nothing to do with this…"

Luigi dug around his overalls and pulled out a piece of paper, slightly torn, clearly wrinkled, and visibly aged a bit.

"And what's that rubbish?" I spat out.

The paper was abruptly thrust in front of my face. "Here, let me know when you recognize it."

My hand snatched the paper as I glared up at Luigi, while he stared back nonchalantly. It took maybe a second to register my handwriting, but another minute to…

No. It was the love letter.

"W…Where did you get this?" I demanded.

Looking at him now, his eyes were more alert, focused. "Remember when you were kidnapped?" he asked me. "That's all I found afterwards. And for a while, I assumed it was just some nonsense you wanted to read and rally the Toad Town citizens." He took in a deep breath through his nose and slowly exhaled through his mouth. "Imagine," his voice wavered with a mix of sorrow and anger, "my great surprise, when I finally did manage to read it."

I was at a loss for words. "Luigi…"

"No," he curtly stopped me. "No, this doesn't get to suddenly get washed away. Explain that to me." When I didn't answer right away, he snapped, "Mario, tell me the meaning of that letter."

"It's exactly what it is," I fired back. He pulled his gloved hand over his face and left it covering his mouth as he turned away from me. "What are you looking for? What do you want from this?"

"To understand it, for starters," he spun back around to face me, his voice barely containing a wave of rage. "Mario, do you even realize the idea of it?"

"I should, I wrote it—"

"No, no, you don't get it," he interrupted, and his voice rose. "You are meant to be the hero of this kingdom, of the Mushroom Kingdom. Bowser is the enemy. He's not some misunderstood creature, some unfortunate monster that's down on his luck."

"How would you even know? Were you kidnapped recently?"

"Mario, that wretched beast is not a thing you can find compassion for," he darkly laid out for me. "You cannot feel love for a freak that terrorizes people you defend, that tries to destroy innocent lives!"

"You don't understand," I retaliated. "He does stupid things for…we're not that much better! Luigi, we've murdered—"

"We fought back against monsters that wouldn't give us a choice, Mario!" he thundered. "We are protecting people, not enslaving them! We are in the right!"

"Are we?"

"You did not seriously just ask me that."

"And what if I did?" I questioned.

Luigi massaged the temples of his head. "Then we're going to be here a while."


 

[Bowser]

I sat quietly in my room and waited. After the first ten minutes, I stopped counting. My hand gently brushed over the bed and slid near the pillow where he had slept.

How the hell could someone turn a sanctuary like your room into a mental prison?

A series of knocks rapped against my door. Before I could rise and open it, the Koopalings poured in through it and fell into a heap on top of one another as they crashed to the ground.

"Idiots," snapped Ludwig. "I told you I was knocking."

"Yeah, well, who wanted you to play leader anyway?" countered Roy.

"Oh, will you two please stop arguing already?" moaned Wendy.

"What's the meaning of this?" I boomed. "Get in here and shut the door!"

The seven scrambled and dragged themselves inside, and Larry kicked the door shut. They stood up and gazed at me.

"Uh, you did call us here," reaffirmed Larry. "What did you want?"

"You seven held me up earlier," I blamed, to which the Koopalings looked to protest, but noting my glare, they ultimately remained quiet. "So, you twerps are going to help me get back in my son's good graces."

The seven exchanged glances with one another. "Are you really asking us that? And are sure you want us to help out with that?" questioned Lemmy.

"Yes. Not too long ago, you were on an assignment with my son, correct?" I recalled. "And he works fairly closely with all of you. If anyone was able to help me right now, at least one of you should be the best one for it."

Again, they faced one another. With a closer look, I noted an uncertainty in their eyes.

"We're…um, not really sure what to do," Iggy admitted.

"Well, you better get sure and get busy coming up with a way to help me!" I ordered.

The Koopalings huddled together and began shooting whispers back and forth with one another. Just before I could lean in to listen better, they pulled away from one another and turned to me again.

"Ok, how about you go over there, knock on his door, act like there's an emergency, and then that'll force him out," suggested Lemmy.

"…Is that seriously the best you've got?" I questioned, not hiding my disappointment.

"It's the first and fastest idea, just try it," recommended Wendy.

With an exasperated sigh, I relented, "Fine."

They pulled the door open for me and sent me across the hall. It just dawned on me that I had no idea what kind of emergency I would act out. Without much thought, I quickly pounded on Junior's door.

"Junior, come out, quick!" I shouted. "We've got trouble—"

"No we don't, I would have heard someone come running to tell you," replied Junior quickly.

"Ah…I, uh, noticed first?"

"Papa, go away."

And with a heavier sigh, I slumped my shoulders and hauled myself back to the Koopalings in my room.

"That was such a stupid idea," I grumbled.

"Well, give us a few shots," suggested Ludwig. "We're just getting started."


 

[Mario]

Luigi continued to pace around the room, and still pondered over my responses to my letter. I had flopped over onto the bed, and alternated between squeezing and punching a pillow.

"So, you and the Toad just…jumped from the roof and flew off?"

"Yes, Luigi, yes," came my annoyed answer. "We knew where we needed to go."

"Neither of you even thought about the idea that they'd fire cannonballs at you?" he asked again, thoroughly unconvinced.

"No, we were thinking about getting shot down and wanted to experience the fall," I retorted.

"Mario."

I threw my hands up. "What?! We wanted to escape with one of the fastest routes we could use! That's what we came up with! And no, I didn't want to be captured again, I wanted that Toad to get out of the castle."

"The Toad," he repeated, "and what about you?"

"Sure, I wanted to get out too, but the Toad's life was more important," I insisted. "If they had found him, he wouldn't have made it back here."

"Fair enough," Luigi relented. "It just seemed like a really stupid plan."

"It's called spontaneous, ok?" I snapped.

"Right, impulsive," Luigi continued. "Kind of like your feelings toward Bowser."

"Oh, for the love of—"

"Seriously, you think he loved you?" Luigi almost laughed at his dispute.

"Think nothing, he outright confessed to me," I blurted out.

"Yeah, after you did, got it," he double-checked. "And yet, he still kept you locked up in that room."

"He got me out of the dungeon," I muttered.

"Were you still locked up?"

"…Yes."

"Then that's not really an improvement, is it?"

"Damn it, Luigi," I barked. "He was just starting to think of different ideas and that's what he came up with first!"

"If that's how you want to look at it," Luigi shrugged.

"How do you want me to look at it?" I countered.

"Realistically," came his flat and stubborn response.

Still annoyed, I lobbed the beaten pillow at his head. He glared at me while I reached for the next one and pounded away again.


 

[Bowser]

Morton crept up to Junior's door. He looked back at the rest of us while we waited a little way down the hall. Wendy waved her arms to urge him forward, to which he nodded and knocked on Junior's door.

"Excuse me, sir?" I whirled around and peered down at a gray-shelled Buzzy Beetle. "Glaucus, sir. I was wondering if you—"

"Hush," I quieted him. "Not now."

"Oh, right," he observed. "I'll come back later." And he crawled away.

"Package delivery," called Morton in a higher pitched voice. "Got something for a Prince Bowser Junior."

"Morton, I know that's you," I heard Junior deadpan.

"W-Who's Morton?" Morton tried to uphold his charade. "I'm a delivery Koopa."

"Ok, delivery Koopa," challenged Junior. "Why are you personally bringing me that package, without the rest of my mail, when it's usually brought to me by another servant completely?"

"…Uh…he's sick?"

"Morton, just give up already," sighed Junior.

The Koopaling hesitated and turned back to us. A few Koopalings sighed and Iggy took off his glasses to pinch his forehead. I waved Morton back over and he slowly came back to us.

"Delivery Koopa?" asked Ludwig. "That was your best?"

"Hey, it beat the lunch delivery idea!" argued Morton. "This was more realistic!"

"That was brilliant, and you know it!" defended Iggy. "Roy just screwed it up."

"Hey now, how's that my fault?" contended Roy. "Lemmy's the one that let out a burp and screwed the plan."

"It just came up, ok?!" cried Lemmy. "It's Wendy's fault for shoving soda down my throat earlier!"

"Sorry, that was just me trying to get him to laugh," hissed Wendy. "It was better than Larry's scheme to guilt him back outside!"

"I wanted him to open the door already!" snapped Larry. "Not like Ludwig's plan to trick him into thinking he forgot something was going to work."

"Oh, so now it's my fault again?"

"When isn't it your fault?"

"Uh, how about when it's yours?"

"All of you are too dense for these things."

"Hey, I don't see you having any more luck than us!"

"At least we're trying! Unlike some people…"

"What makes you think I'm not?!"

My eyes lowered and I slouched as the seven continued to bicker and banter with one another. I had already yelled at them to stop arguing four times before and was just too fed up with it to bother trying again.

Instead, I marched back over to Junior's door and knocked.

"Junior, it's me again," I called in.

"Tell the Koopalings to get lost already," he ordered.

"They're…not exactly listening, right now," I clarified. "Or can't you hear their argument?"

"No, I hear it."

A chuckle escaped from me. I glanced over to see the Koopalings still arguing with one another and leaned my hand against my son's door.

"Um, Junior? I'd really like to talk to you." My voice sounded hollower than I cared to let out, but I had grown desperate.

"Why?"

"Because you're my son," I persisted. "Because I love you, and I did a really brainless thing by not telling you the truth."

"Yeah, you did," even his few words were like daggers.

"Son, please," I begged. "Can't you just…give your Papa a chance?"

For a minute, I waited and only heard the Koopalings as they continued their squabble. Then, I heard a faint click from the door. Gently, I turned the handle and opened it.

Junior sat on his bed, with his legs huddled against his body and his bright green blanket wrapped around his back. As I moved in closer, I winced at the tear stained pillow. I'm certainly not the Kingdom's Greatest Father material, but this just made my heart sink further into my stomach.

Quietly, I sat next to him on his bed. "Hey."

"H-Hey," he sniffled.

"Thanks for letting me in." He only nodded softly. I took in some air and exhaled a heavy breath. "Your Papa's pretty dumb, you know that?"

"I learned," he coughed and I bit my cheek.

We sat together in silence, with only the Koopalings yelling outside in the hall to make up for our lack of discussion.

"Why didn't you tell me?" came Junior's sudden question.

"Honestly, I'm not really sure," I confessed. "It happened so quickly, and everything I did felt spontaneous. And I was…scared of how you might react. Last time, I had you believe Peach was your mother; I didn't want to bewilder you again. Really, I did plan on telling you, and I almost did a few times. It's just…I didn't want you to feel so confused or hate me. But now, that's what I ended up doing anyway."

He didn't answer me, and I watched him as he blankly stared at the floor. I inhaled again, but the breath came out choppy. Tears sat in my eyes and I shivered.

"The only thing I'm getting good at is pushing everyone away," my voice broke.

"That's not true, Papa," I heard Junior disagree.

"Isn't it?" I choke out. "I lied to you and pushed you away, I've been losing touch with the majority of my troops and my kingdom, I did something wrong to make Mario leave, and I just don't know what to do anymore." And the last of that line echoed repeatedly in my head as I shook it, in an attempt to get the tears to stop sliding.

Junior took my hand into his. "Papa," he started and I hastily brushed away at my face. "It's ok, Papa."

"No, it's really not, Junior. You deserve better." I watched him as he gazed back into my eyes. I felt uncomfortably weak in front of my own son, and that's the last thing I should be for him.

Still, he shook his head. "There isn't anyone better than you, Papa. You're all I have. And that's ok." I heaved a bit and he patted my hand. "I don't really understand what you want to do, but I like seeing you happy. And…Mario makes you really happy, and you talk to me a lot more because of spending time with him, which I like. So, I think that…I can be happy if you guys are."

My heart froze and I stared at my son as a smile slowly appeared on his face. Is my little boy growing up already? He pushed himself into me and tightly hugged me. Though my arms shook, I wrapped them around my son and held him back.

"Thank you, Junior," I murmured. "I love you."

A chorus of sniffling filled the air and we broke out of our hug. At the door, the seven Koopalings watched us and fought against the tears that were coming out.

"What are you twerps crying at?" I snapped. More softly, I added, "Get in here."

They slowly made their way in and I wrapped all eight of the kids in a group hug. And I felt some peace, holding my family in my arms.

"Excuse me, sir," interrupted a voice and, with a grumble, I looked up. Glaucus. Am I not allowed to have my heartwarming moments?

"What?" I growled. "I'm still busy."

"Sorry sir," he came again, and I caught on to his leveled voice. Calm, even though I could hurl him out the nearest window for interrupting. "There are several troops asking about what are next strategies are. The Princess will most likely continue her campaign in recovering the rest of kingdom."

"So, we'll stop her," sounded Larry.

"Yeah, and any of her friends too!" agreed Lemmy.

"Do you have an official word you want me to convey, sire?" inquired Glaucus.

"Are there troops already posted at the next location?" I asked.

"Seaside? Yes, sir."

"Good, that should…" A thought buzzed through my mind. "Kids? Why don't we take a little trip over ourselves?"

"You'll go, Lord Bowser, sire?" questioned the Buzzy Beetle. My only response was a nod. "Very well, I'll inform Master Kamek and spread the word." With that, he slowly toddled away, and I caught glimpse of a brooch on the end of his shell.

"We're going to meet Peach and her posse?" asked Roy.

"Yes, we will," I murmured. "And most likely, Mario will be with them."

Junior bounced up. "Then we can kidnap him back again!" As I nodded, he and the Koopalings cheered in delight. "Come on! Let's get our Clown Cars ready!"

The seven Koopalings jumped up and hurried out of Junior's room. My son followed them, but stopped and gazed back at me. We smiled at one another as he ran back over, took my hand, and pulled me out of his room.


 

[Mario]

The pillow rested on my face as I let out a heavy sigh. Luigi was still wandering around the room, and puzzled over the odd equation of my romantic interest and involvement with the Koopa King, Bowser.

"I just…I don't get it," he conceded.

"You don't want to get it," my muffled response sounded from beneath the pillow.

"Nonsense, that's not true."

"Yes, in fact, it is," I accused as I threw the pillow off of my face and sat up. "You don't want me to be in love with him. You don't want to accept that it's a real thing, that's it possible for such a situation to even exist."

"You're…sort of right," he gave in only a bit.

"Luigi, what is this all about?" I complained. "What's your problem with all of this? You haven't even told anyone else, so as far as the rest of the kingdom is concerned, they just think I've been to hell and back again. The only one who can't look at me without this glare of disgust is you."

My brother stared at me and stood quietly in front of the door.

I shrugged. "I don't know what your problem is, and you're only demanding answers from me. How can I help you if you're not willing to help me?"

He rolled his shoulders and sighed. "I don't know what bothers me the most, honestly. You're gay, or you're starting a same-sex relationship, that I've got. But you lied to me. You didn't even tell me or think to trust me with something like this." He paused his rant to pinch his brows together. "You already cast a big enough shadow for me to drown in, now this?" Once he released them, he looked directly into my eyes. Different shape, but we shared the same iris color. "Doesn't that bother you?"

My hand grasped the letter from the edge of the bed and I held it up. "I thought you read this."

"I did."

"And yet you don't get it," I chastised. "I struggled with this very concept of you ever learning anything about this, about me. I didn't want you to know this because I knew you'd be upset, unable to understand. You think I like keeping this a secret? You think I enjoy tormenting myself with whom I love and who can know about it, about me? The very last thing I wanted to come from this was you hating me."

Luigi blinked, bewildered. "I don't hate you."

"Yes, you do."

"No," he persisted. "No, I don't. Mario, you're my brother. We disagree, we don't always see eye to eye, and I'm definitely not ok with a lot of this. But…" he trailed off to pull his thoughts together. "But we're brothers, Mario. We've been through way too much for me to ever really hate you." He sighed. "I may need some time to figure this stuff out, but I still love you. We're family."

Though I wasn't entirely sure if I could believe him, or if he even believed in what he rambled off to me, Luigi was right, and ideally, that's how we should see one another. He walked over to me and patted my shoulder.

"I'm really glad to have you back here, bro," he smiled. "Safe, alive, home."

Home. I nodded, but something hit my stomach hard.

"Get some rest, all right, Mario? I'm sure the princesses will have us marching off to the next fortress soon." And with that, Luigi strolled out the door and gently shut it behind himself.

Slowly, I pushed myself back against the bed and tossed my letter aside, deciding to pick it up later before I left. I had trouble shutting my eyes, and I kept waiting for Bowser to walk into the room and lay beside me, reassuring me that everything would work out in the end.

Back at his castle, I might have believed him. Here, after Luigi's interrogation, after facing off against his army myself, I wasn't so sure anymore.

Chapter Text

My Dear Bowser,

Perhaps that's a little too strong of a title, so I'll start by apologizing for it. However, I'm driven mad, insane, over your absence, with a limitless feeling of agonizing pain that hits me more frequently than I realized it would.

It should be no surprise, considering how desperately I wanted you. What I had desired from you was something fictitious, impossible for anyone to comprehend as a realistic and plausible option.

Yet, you had sought the same, and pressed the ideas in my mind forward.

Being with you, even for just a short period of time, not even a month, was just exhilarating, breathtaking. Something about having you made me feel alive, and whole, complete. The time we shared together wasn't ideal, not at first, but I grew comfortable to be near you, and blissful with how precious everything had become.

Most of all, it was you who made me feel worthwhile.

Granted, this kingdom considers me an asset, and they value my abilities, but it was really you who saw beyond that. And I suppose it only makes sense, but I can't tell you how desperately I love to be seen as something besides a hero. I am mortal, we all are; I grow weary of needing to live up to expectations, as anyone would. And as much as I like to see the smiles light up in people when they see me, it's not because they know and love me. They're delighted because I protect them, keep them safe, and I'm able to reassure that their tomorrow will come.

Is it selfish if I too desire that same feeling, those same thoughts? Perhaps not so much the protection, or the safety, but rather security, comfort. I don't need a hero, or some type of knight, to stand up and take blows for me. But I need someone to see when I'm ready to fall, when I'm at my weakest, and still want to pick me back up, press me on, keep me going.

Am I too bold in telling you that you were becoming that?

The mistakes that I've made are numerous, not even including those that I made in your company. Yet, when you did see me broken, when I did falter, you didn't make me feel like anything less for it. It was by your insistence, your confidence in me, that I kept going.

Even as you faced your struggles and troubles, you pushed past them to make sure that I would be right there with you. When your troops came after me, you guarded me, knowing that I didn't need it, but because you wanted to keep me safe anyway. After I had horrific nightmares, you comforted me, not because it was the right thing to do, not since it would make us closer, but because you wanted me to feel better.

Where others might have identified these as weaknesses on my part, where I might have shattered all confidence and hope by allowing myself to fall apart within your walls, you simply put me back together again. Nothing seemed imperfect to you, or at least, you didn't let my flaws deter you. It's true that we were only just getting to know one another on a completely new level, but from what we had, I was already hooked, already wanted more of it, of you.

I had you. And yet, I left you.

Certainly, my living conditions were not what I wanted, but I understood the bind we had entered. We both knew about the risks, the difficulties that would arise from it, from us. And I was fine with taking it slow, or I imagined that I could endure it. Sure, I had some curiosity that needed to be sated, exploring rooms that I shouldn't have, and some misgivings that I felt were fairly powerful, but I planned to move past them. I could be wrong, but I think you felt the same, in some regards.

But I had to leave; you were already struggling with my presence, and adding someone else on top of it was a greater gamble than I wanted to test. That Toad would not have been as safe as I had been in your castle. In the short amount of time I had to think about it, I knew that alone was enough to leave. More over, had I kept the Toad at bay from rescuing me, had I hindered his efforts, what would we do then? You hesitated to tell your son the truth, I've kept it from my friends; it was too much of a risk.

Maybe I had more time to think about it, and there's a chance that we could have stayed there. He might have been fine. We all might have. But I didn't want to put that much on you.

Still though, I understand that I didn't tell you, that my actions still betrayed your intentions, your love for me. And for doing that, I am sorry. It's probably too late to tell you so, too late to smooth things over, but I need you to know that I still do love you, that I still want to have you in my life. You've already done so much for me, and I need to return the favor. I don't know what to do or how, but I will figure this out.

However, I need you to figure that out, because when you're not by my side, I can't see the whole picture. When we're not together, the nightmares take over and it's impossible for me to think as clearly anymore. And now that I've had you, now that I don't, I'm longing for you, yearning for that clarity that you gave me.

Yes, I think it's too much to ask you for forgiveness, but if I still try, if I don't give up on us and share your determination, can we find ourselves together again?

Will you forgive me?

Love,

Mario


 

[Mario]

With a heavy sigh and trembling hands, I folded the letter and stuffed it inside my overalls. A yawn escaped from me, and my eyes weighed down a bit; though I had rested, sleep never came. Closing my eyes led back to visions of my previous nightmares and I was afraid to completely fall asleep, and my heart raced over their possible return.

It's a little excessive of me to have written all of that, perhaps overboard. But some small desire in me hoped that he would read it some day, that we could still be lovers. It's either that, or the crippling fear of anyone else finding it tucked away in this room, that I kept it with me.

A knock at my door made me jump. Luigi opened the door.

"Hey," he greeted. "We're ready to go to Seaside. Peach was hoping you would come with us."

Though I was hesitant about leaving the room, I nodded and followed my brother out to meet the others.


 

[Bowser]

My eyes scanned the hallway and I waited a minute before I opened his door. Without hesitation, I slipped inside and closed the door behind me.

After I turned around, my heartbeat picked up as I gazed into the room. Small, dark, dingy…had I really kept the man I called my boyfriend locked up in here?

Slowly, I inched forward and crawled about the room. A little less sheepishly than it should have been, I sniffed the air for his scent, as if it would still be here.

Making my room into a prison was a way to level the field, but torturing my mind to the point that I'm unsettled without him here? It doesn't make sense. We weren't together long. Mario's absence shouldn't affect me to the point of restlessness, clawing at walls and desks, or throwing pillows around the room.

But it does.

Quietly, I sat on his bed and slid my hand along it. This is overly emotional and I don't need to react like this.

No, you just don't like acting that way because you think it's weak.

Damn it, Kamek. With a heavy linger, I pulled at his sheets and dragged my claw across it gently. My nails tugged each fold along and ruffled the sheets.

It was the faint sound of a paper flapping that got me to pause.

Quickly, I flopped across the bed and threw the pillow away. A small letter floated in the air and I swiped at it while it dodged my grabs. Annoyed, I snatched at it once more and caught it in my hands.

A letter. His handwriting. Was it for me?

My eyes scanned the first words at the top. "To Luigi," I read and disappointment flared up instantly. Of course he wouldn't have written to me; I was already here.

Still, I kept reading; I hungered for his words, any words, even if they weren't for me.

He doesn't know where to begin or what to tell his brother, but he makes it clear that I haven't harmed him. Skipping through the lines, I scanned past them until I see him mention my castle or me again.

Although I tried not to falter, my eyes move slowly over one part: Sure, there is the threat of death that looms around the corner each day, and I fear for my life on multiple occasions…and I feel the worst ache in my chest. Stab my heart a little harder, won't you? Even though the next lines make up for it, the damage is already done.

Again, I scroll through the words, and he mentioned that I kept a tight surveillance on him. Mario made it clear that though he couldn't do so, he wasn't looking to escape.

"So why did you?" I begged for the paper to magically answer in his stead.

When it didn't, I skimmed on. Something about truths, being open minded, and I'm held up again: Bowser needed to tell Junior, so I should be able to do the same with you. A few more lines in, I caught: I love Bowser. And he loves me.

And had I stopped there, I might have been able to swoon over Mario some more. But I kept reading, and paid for it: It is a farfetched concept. How could a villainous king fall in love with the hero that constantly thwarts his plans, takes away every opportunity at conquest, and denies him that desire to rule? How can a man love a monster?

How are we possible?

My mouth fell open. Unrealistic, that was a given earlier. But by the point he was in this room, when he wrote this? How could he still be questioning…us?

Further along: Honestly, there is a struggle in my mind over accepting us, especially when I'm confined in just one room for most of my days, but it's worth the effort to try, isn't it?

Then he repeated himself:

Are we worth it?

That was essentially how it ended. My hands quaked and the paper flapped with each shudder. The last line etched itself inside my mind. He was seriously unsure of us. For how long had he felt like this? All this time, I hadn't been completely positive about the direction, but I had thought that, at least between us, we were fine.

The door open and I listened as my hands tore the paper in half. My eyes whirled about and focused on Junior and Kamek.

"Um…Papa?" he asked. "Are…you feeling ok?"

"No," I confessed in an uneven voice, and I bit my cheek. "But I'll be fine."

"The Koopalings and I are ready," my son informed me. "And Kamek's coming."

"Good," I growled. "We can use more powerhouses."

Kamek and Junior exchanged an uneasy glance with one another, and then back to me. "Sire, are you…certain about this?"

"Positive," I snarled. "I want him back."

Though I now had my own misgivings, I still had a right to answers. And Mario was going to give them to me. One way or another, he was coming right back here.


 

[Mario]

An hour had passed since our group left the castle. Already, we could smell the salty air from the waters just a short distance away, and we continued along the sand coated pathway. The sparse trees waved in the wind that blew by, and we glanced over the cliffs that we traveled, with Seaside waiting for us below.

Luigi and Yoshi led the way, while the Toads crowded together behind them. Daisy and Peach chattered a bit in between them, but Peach had slowed her pace to fall back with me, as I trudged quietly behind the group.

"You're usually the first one forward," she whispered to me and nudged my shoulder.

"Yep," I admitted. "Guess I'm still tired."

Peach slipped her hand into mine, and as if on cue, Daisy peeked back, smiled, and returned her attention forward.

"I love how well this works," giggled Peach as she lifted our hands to show me. "I suppose we make the perfect couple, huh?"

My head bobbed up and down. "That's how it seems."

She sighed and lowered our hands. "Honestly, Mario, I feel so much better with you here."

"Is it because everyone else lowers their guards when I'm with you?" I teased.

"Oh, that's a definite benefit, absolutely," she laughed. But quietly, she continued, "It's not just that though. I truly feel…safer with you around me."

"Of course." Everyone does.

"That came out so plainly, I'm sorry," she murmured. "I don't want you to think that I'm just happy to have my knight and journal composite back with me. I worried myself sick that Bowser had hurt you."

"But he didn't," I reassured her. "Just put that behind you now."

"You don't understand," Peach sighed. "I broke down while I waited. Normally, by the end of a week, you'd have rescued me. A week ended and you weren't back home. I was desperate. And that's why I…well, this." She hoisted her scepter up with disdain. "I'm not you, but with this, I could move as quickly as you do, save lives. I was so certain that Bowser would have killed you, and the 1-Up Mushrooms are so scarce now that I…I don't know, I panicked."

"Peach, you don't have to explain yourself," I rested my hand on her shoulder. "Not to me."

"Maybe not, but I can't rationalize it myself," she persisted. "Talking to you gets it out. No one else really gets it, gets me. They don't understand how much of a show I normally need to put on, being the regal princess that could be a friend to every living creature." She exhaled a heavy breath. "It's hard to put on a cheerful face when tomorrow you're going to deal with a wicked king that will impede all of your hard work again."

Her words about Bowser bother me, regardless of accuracy. I forced myself to nod, and rubbed her back. "I understand. Putting on a charade is a pain."

"Yes, yes I know. You don't always want to be the big hero," she reiterated her words that I've heard several times before. "But you're good at your showmanship, and have what you need to show for it. Not to belittle your issues, but being the perfect, benevolent ruler of this kingdom is a lot harder."

"We both have hard lives to lead," I argued. "Everyone does. But still, you don't need to act like the weight of the world is on your shoulders."

"Don't I?" she questioned. "Don't you do that too?"

"Well…yes," I caved. "But, it's not all that healthy, and—"

"Mario, we're put into these positions and we have standards to meet," Peach explained. "You and I don't really get time to…well, be normal."

She was right, but I didn't want to give up that easily. "Peach, we really don't need to live up to every single expectation," I tried again. "Sometimes, we just can't keep up that perfect image that everyone sees in their idols."

"No, we can't," she agreed. "But we need to nevertheless. When you think about it, everyone needs to put on a show the minute they walk outside and meet someone."

"Not always," I contended.

"Usually," she amended. "Just once, I'd like someone to not need me to be so—"

"Princess!" cried a Toad, and we looked ahead to the Purple Toad. "We've got enemies up ahead!" He pointed down to the beaches, with Rexes and Koopa Troopas parading across them. With a squint, we could make out the Cheep Cheeps in the sea.

"Let's take them on!" rallied Daisy.

"Easy, Daisy," Peach waved her down. She gazed back to me, studied me, and then returned her attention to the others. "Mario's still tired. Someone should stay back with him and keep him safe."

"Peach, I'm fine," I rolled my eyes, but she shook her head.

"If we really need you, it'll be for something a lot harder than what's up ahead," she insisted. She leaned closer to me, and whispered, "I don't want them to take one of my best friends from me again. Leave this to me, please."

She straightened herself back up and our eyes met. Her eyes reflected the sky. Limitless. I couldn't stop her once she made up her mind; she wouldn't allow anyone to. With a small sigh, I nodded.

"Daisy, you'll stay back and keep Mario safe," commanded Peach. "We'll clear a path up ahead and make it easy on him."

"Me?!" cried Daisy. "Look, Mario's great, but I came along to actually help you. After what we planned out back at the castle, I thought—"

"We had assumed that Mario would be back up to speed," argued Peach. "He's not. Just leave the rest to us while we clear the way open."

"But why can't his brother, or Yoshi, or one of the Toads—?"

"We assigned them to teams, remember?" reminded Peach. "Luigi can't work alone though, so I'll go with him."

"Hey, I could too!"

"Right, but you don't have…" Peach thought for a moment, probably about the right way to put it.

Daisy, however, finished it for her: "Oh, what, your magical wand? Give it to me, I'll blast holes into everything!"

"One, that's not a good idea," Peach contended. "Two, it won't work for you. Or did you forget—?"

"Family blood forged magic or whatever, no, I got it," huffed Daisy. "You know what? Fine, whatever, go ahead. You split into your pairs and go clear the path to the fortress." She folded her arms and maintained her annoyed expression.

"All right, let's go everyone," Peach ordered to the others. Though Luigi and Yoshi hesitated, they looked me over and nodded. Then, with the rest of the Toads and Princess Peach, they marched down the coastal cliff, toward the shoreline.

I frowned and turned to Daisy. "Sorry. We'll help out with the fortress, I promise."

The ginger haired princess stared at me; her eyes were a darker blue than the rest of ours, save maybe Yoshi, but almost an opposite of Peach. "You think this is because of you?" She asked. "This is because Peach wants to get back at me."

"Over your arguments earlier?" I questioned. "Daisy, you know that Peach rarely holds a grudge—"

"Yeah, usually she just hates Bowser," she interrupted. "But that stupid wand is messing with her head! You and I both know it, everyone does!"

Maybe not me, as just a minute or so ago, I was talking with my dear friend.

Still, taking on Daisy's temper would not be smart. "I'll admit that she's worked up," I consented. "But she's got her heart in the right place—"

"Not a chance," snapped Daisy and she plopped down on a flat white stone. "She's just trying to get me worked up and pressured into using magic too."

"You…you can use it too?" I asked.

Daisy bit her lip and pressed her hands along the rim of the rock, but nodded. "Magic isn't really a prerequisite to be a ruler, but, well, Peach and I have it in our blood."

"I didn't know that."

"It's not exactly something we want to air," explained Daisy. "The side effects from using any kind of magic are…well, pricey. I'm sure Bowser would do the same, but he has so many grunts to fall apart for him, there's less of a need."

Though I wanted to defend Bowser, I shrugged my shoulders instead.

"It's not a great idea, at all though, for Peach to be stuck on using this stuff," Daisy continued. "Magic is meant to be a last resort kind of thing, not a way to flaunt your talents or settle scores or whatever she's up to."

"And yet…you carried something with you too," I observed.

She glared at me, but pressed her eyes shut and slipped her gloves off. On her ring fingers were two silver, flower-shaped rings, with turquoise pendants in the center.

"Peach knew you had those," I murmured and Daisy nodded.

"You getting kidnapped is…rare," Daisy sighed. "Not unheard of, but rare. And it's been almost a month, which is a long time for Bowser to be holding a grip over everyone." She twisted her hands around and glowered at them. "I'm so annoyed at Peach because I'm angry with myself. We had the same reaction; she just acted on it. I didn't because I wanted to believe that you'd be ok." She dropped her hands and smiled at me. "And I was right, you are. Well, mostly."

"No, you had it right, I am," I insisted.

"Right, that's right," Daisy agreed, but frowned. "It's just…I…" She pursed her lips, wrapped her fingers together, and lowered her head to stare at them. "You're strong."

A laugh slipped out of my mouth. "So are you. A lot of us are."

Daisy shook her head. "No, Mario, you're almost inhuman," she argued. "I still remember how Tatanga had captured me, that sick little purple creep." Daisy shivered and held herself for a minute. "But…you came through, and saved me," she continued. "You went up against what my people couldn't. What I couldn't stop, you did." She looked back up at me. "And you do that repeatedly for Peach, like it's nothing."

Maybe because Bowser went softer on me than I realized.

"It is a lot harder than I make it seem," I tried, but Daisy remained unconvinced.

"Not even Luigi has the tenacity you do," she noted. "He's good, but you're…I really don't know how to put it. Born to be a hero?"

"So they tell me," I chuckled.

"But…you get why Peach panicked. Why we panicked," Daisy relented.

I shook my head. "I understand, but you can't really believe—"

"What, that you're superhuman?" asked Daisy. "I'll admit, your use of power-ups steered me away from those thoughts, at first. Lately, though, when we do see each other, every so often, I'm almost positive that you have to be."

My eyes rolled and Daisy laughed. "If you think so."

"Yep, I do," she asserted. "And, that brings up another good point: we never really hang out anymore. You saved me once, we spend some time at sports and parties together, but I feel like I've gotten to know Luigi better than I have you. And you're the one who saved my kingdom!"

"You're right," I nodded. "We should probably spend more time together." Cleverly, I had to add, "Guess Peach had more in mind about us staying behind together."

The Sarasaland princess shrugged. "I wouldn't put it past her, but I'm not giving her that much credit." Still, she smiled again. "Guess we are kind of the odd ones out this time around, what with you being a little out of the loop and me…well, trying to finally be in the loop."

"Daisy, Peach didn't mean what she accused of earlier," I soothed.

"Yes, she did," Daisy muttered. "And…she's not entirely wrong. I should be here, more often than just for fun. But, sometimes, beneath all of this toughness I show the world, I just…feel a little self conscious, just a little bit of doubt in myself."

"We all do."

"Maybe, but it feels like everyone else brushes past it," Daisy sighed. "I put on a brave face, and I talk big game, but when I'm faced with a big crisis, with kidnapping in particular, I just…" she shivered. "It's a little bit tougher."

"Daisy, you were abducted," I reminded her. "An alien nearly took you off planet."

"You've been to space," she argued. "You even met a girl who lives in space. I get so annoyed over myself for worrying about it."

"It's not a normal thing," I contested. "Daisy, it's all right to—"

"Mario, please," she interrupted. "I want to be tougher, braver, like everyone else. I want to become my mask." She picked up her legs and pressed her face into her hands, which rested on her knees. "You wouldn't get it. You're a hero. This kind of pressure is—"

"What, non existent?" I snapped. "Do you really think I don't know what that feels like?" Calmer, I continued, "In Bowser's Castle, I literally feared for my life, like I was going to die any minute. You and Peach have been through that, I get it perfectly. How the two of you reacted makes sense."

"It does, and it doesn't," Daisy conceded. "But…thanks. I feel a little more…or maybe not as powerless…whatever, you helped." We laughed a bit before Daisy changed topics. "How was that, if you don't mind? Like, besides the fearing for your life, which was awful, but…how did you cope, really?"

It might have had something to do with my boyfriend being the king over there. Should I tell her that? It was difficult enough to share with Luigi, and Daisy wouldn't take it well at all, or might even tell Peach. On second thought, I'd be insane to tell her, but…

Was it something to share with anyone else?

"Um, I, uh, managed," I stammered out. "It was difficult, but they kept me alive."

"Right, as the bargaining chip," Daisy recalled. "Toadsworth explained that to me." She shook her head once more. "You know what? It's fine; we both get what it's like to be a victim. You don't need to relive that for me."

"It's not—"

"Zip it!" she jumped up and put her hand in my face. "Positive thoughts, from here on out, got it?" That's not exactly where my mind is— "Hey! Don't drop your sad sack eyes on me! I mean it, Mario!" Daisy placed her hands on her hips. Was this the same princess that just confessed to being somewhat insecure just minutes ago? "As soon as the others come back, we're going to kick some—"

"Koopa shells?" offered a voice. Yoshi and the Purple Toad strolled over to us. "I prefer to munch on them myself, but—"

"You two finished already?!" cried Daisy.

"Yep," giggled the Toad. "First areas are usually the easiest."

"That's true," I agreed.

"Come on, it's a quick way through," Yoshi beckoned us to follow.

The four of us made our way down the coastline, and walked quickly through the disheveled beach that Yoshi and the Toad had traveled through. It wasn't the sticks or stones that bothered me; I winced as my eyes scanned empty Koopa shells that were tossed aside. A beached Cheep Cheep had already gasped out its last breath and left a vacant corpse behind, with its eyes wide open. Boot prints indicated that there had been Rexes in the area, but I couldn't see any of them; they were probably all flattened and blown away.

To think, dozens upon hundreds of times, I had blazed through areas and fought past these minions, but never once so much as glanced back to witness the damage that I had caused. Traveling through it, I studied the Purple Toad and Yoshi to see if they would show any visible reactions of their own. Mostly, the two kept their eyes forward, making a careful point not to take in their surroundings.

At the flagpole near the area's end, with Peach's flag already beating in the wind, the Blue and Yellow Toads waited for us. They waved as we came into view, and pointed us to a landmass ahead, a large purple rock with green moss on the top.

"In order to get through, we'll need to swim," explained the Blue Toad.

"But we mostly cleared the way," cheered the Yellow Toad. "Just wish we had kept the Ice powers!"

We moved ahead, jumped on the stone, and took it as far as it extended. Once we hit a wall, the only option was to swim below. The three Toads jumped in first, and Daisy followed them. Yoshi looked back at me and smiled.

"You ok, Mario?" he asked, and managed to keep his usual cheer in his voice.

"Um, yeah, I think so," I lied. "You can swim, right?"

"Not well, so it's a good thing that the others dealt with this level," Yoshi admitted. "I can manage a clear swim though, without anything to throw me off."

"Couldn't you jump around the top?" I pointed at the wall ahead of us, but Yoshi already shook his head.

"Too high," he murmured. He took my hand and led me to the edge. "I'll be fine, especially since you're here! You always look out for me when you can."

Slowly, I nodded and Yoshi smiled before he jumped in. Quickly, I dove in after him, with bubbles streaming past me, and found him swimming ahead. The others had already gotten a good distance on us, so I was left to quickly paddle after them.

Underwater was no better than the surface; there were frozen Cheep Cheeps, Bloopers, and Porcupuffers that bubbled up toward the surface or had sunk further below, out of sight in the depths of the sea. Two downed Urchins had clogged themselves into pipes. Broken bits of Fish Bones floated about, and I half expected one to become repossessed, chase after us again. But none of them did.

Ahead, the Toads and Daisy swam into a Warp Pipe. Yoshi and I paddled after them, and I watched the murky depths disappear behind me, with only a dark pipe's walls around me. As we were transported up, our weight returned.

We reemerged atop another large rock and jumped over some brown stone steps to the next flagpole, also with Peach's flag already raised. Just as we took turns to jump and slide down it, the Red and Green Toads came into view.

"You guys just come back from clearing the path?" asked Daisy, and the two Toads nodded. "Cool, let's go!"

She ran ahead, with the five Toads dashing after her. They seemed happy to be together once more, but frantic to keep Daisy amongst them. Yoshi went down against the ground scooted back. He slowly rose up between my legs and thrust me onto his back.

"Come on," he laughed, as I slammed into the back of his head, somehow undeterred. "Let's catch up with them!"

Yoshi charged forward and we ran along the landmass, catching up to Daisy and the Toads in just a few seconds. Soon, we reached the end of the mass, and I winced again at the Deep Cheeps and Spiny Cheep Cheeps that floated on the surface of the water.

"Are…we're going back under?" I forced out.

"It's the only way forward," noted the Green Toad.

"Don't worry, we made sure we took care of everything!" laughed the Red Toad.

Everyone jumped back into the water. Going back under this time, the water was darker, almost pitch black. If it weren't for some glow blocks that were in rocky wall crevices, I'm not sure that the light would reach us. What made the journey more eerie, frightful, was the lack of enemies, live or otherwise. The entire trip through was full of underwater plants and stones, maybe a clam, but nothing else.

We burst back from the water on the other side and jumped back onto the landmass above us. A short distance away was yet another flagpole.

"Huh," observed Daisy. "I was expecting Peach and Luigi to be back already."

"They were trying to find the fastest route, from what Peach told me," recalled the Red Toad.

"Well, I'm sure they'll be back soon," reassured the Yellow Toad.

As soon as the words left his mouth, I spotted Peach and Luigi strolling back to us in the distance. They crossed a long wooden bridge that led to a tall brown structure that I couldn't quite make out from far away. They slowed and waved us to meet on the bridge over the sea. Single filed, we made our way across the bridge and over to the two.

"This bridge is a straight path to the fortress," informed Luigi. "It's actually an abandoned ship!"

"That sounds like a pretty bad place to end up," murmured the Blue Toad.

"I wouldn't recommend it under normal circumstances," agreed Peach. "But, it's massive, and definitely the fortress for Seaside."

"Then what are we waiting for?" asked Daisy. "Let's go beat that boss out of the ship and regain control of Seaside!"

She rallied everyone to race across the bridge, and we rushed along the long way to the grand ship, almost the size of a cruise ship. However, when it came into view, the ship appeared to be some type of war vessel, with broken masts and holes on the deck railings that appeared to be from cannon fire. By the black flags that flapped far away at the top, I gathered that either Bowser's troops were here, or that it was a pirate ship, placing more faith in the former. Though we could see the top of the ship from down below, it would take some time to actually get up there, and we entered the lower decks.

"This shouldn't take very long," mumbled Yoshi, who seemed uncomfortable with coming along. I pat his back and smiled at him.

"If you want, Yoshi, you can wait outside," I suggested. "I know how much you hate to enter the dungeons and fortresses that Bowser's army occupies."

He shook his head. "Luigi already tried that one, and he got hurt inside," Yoshi told me. "We just got you back; I don't want to risk not going for my own safety."

My eyebrows raised and I turned to Luigi. "So, when you told me you hit your head before…?"

"Yeah, that was the last fortress," Luigi clarified. "After we stopped the boss."

"After you stopped the boss," corrected the Purple Toad.

"Oh, right, Luigi was awesome back at the pyramid," agreed the Green Toad.

"Well, I…I guess, yeah," Luigi sheepishly caved and scratched behind his head.

"All right, enough chatting," Peach interrupted. "Let's get inside and reclaim this land."

Peach led the way aboard the ship's ramp and door, followed closely by Daisy and the five Toads. Yoshi hesitated, but shook his head and marched in after them. I went after him, but stopped just before boarding the ship, and turned back to Luigi.

"Are you sure you're ready?" he asked me.

"Luigi, I can handle this," I assured him.

"Physically, maybe," he relented. "But…well, can you face your, um…boyfriend's army?"

Folding my arms, I squinted at my brother and studied him for a minute. He bit his lip and frowned, while his eyes appeared…worried.

"You're not telling me something," I assessed. "I've already had to fend off the Koopa Troop." Truth be told, the entire journey here disturbed me more than I imagined it would, and I was wary about taking down Bowser's forces. But…it had to be done.

Still, Luigi shook his head. "It's…well, last time, we faced off against a Dry Bowser," he explained. "He had direct messages to Peach…and me…about you, specifically."

An eyebrow shot up again. "What's your point?"

"Mario, the next boss could have something from Bowser and use it against you," he muttered. "They went for my mind and my emotions in the last fortress. Can you handle something like that?" He waited as I hesitated over my response, and then added, "You did escape from his castle. And judging by the story, it wasn't something he was made readily aware of, was it?"

Though I hated to admit it, Luigi had a fair point. But I tightened my fists and stared into his eyes. "I can handle this," I reaffirmed, and turned to walk inside the ship. Luigi's footsteps sounded as he chased after me.

As soon as we had stepped inside, the door slammed shut behind us.

"Not good," murmured Luigi as we whirled around to inspect it.

"Hey, Super Mario Brothers!" called Daisy. "How about you two get over here and lend a hand, huh?"

We turned back, watched the princesses on a platform, and waited to see Daisy leap up and stomp down on a flattened Rex, and she squashed it to the ground. Peach held her scepter and whacked a Dry Bones to pieces as it tried to sneak up on Daisy.

"That's not a battering ram!" shouted Daisy.

"Well, I thought you wouldn't yell if I used it this way," laughed Peach.

Daisy smirked and the two continued their way up the ship. On the platform across from them, Yoshi used his tongue to snatch a Buzzy Beetle, then spit its shell toward a Spike Top that was marching after two Toads.

"Phew! Thanks Yoshi," sighed the Green Toad.

"Yeah, you're great!" cheered the Yellow Toad, and Yoshi grinned.

"Mario, Luigi, come on!" called the Red Toad as he knocked a Dry Bones apart.

My brother and I stepped forward, and were ready to jump on the nearest crates to a platform, but stopped once we heard splashes below us. We exchanged a horrified glance before we gazed down to find the floor had suddenly filled up with water.

"Looks like we're going to need to speed this up," I yelled out. "This ship is sinking!"

"What?!" exclaimed Peach. "I know it's old, but it was fine a minute ago!"

She stared back down to us and watched as the water began to fill the floor. Daisy watched as well and gasped.

"Yikes! Double time, people!" she shouted.

"I knew this was a bad idea!" cried the Blue Toad.

Everyone jumped up through the ship, grabbing onto the poles and platforms while we avoided the enemies that rushed us. The sound of water rushing through the ship grew louder as it continued to sink, with more holes allowing the water to leak through.

Eventually, we made it to a high point and a giant, yellow studded door.

"Uh, should we go back down and search for power-ups?" wondered the Purple Toad.

Peach gazed down and shook her head. "We might have some time, but that water's leaking through quicker as the ship sinks lower. It's best to not chance it and just deal with the boss in the best we can naturally. All ready?"

Our group exchanged expressions, some worried while others calm, myself included. We returned our attention to Peach and nodded.

"Then let's go," Peach waved us forward and I pushed open the door.

We charged forward and ran onto the deck of the ship. It was steadily lowering toward the sea and we rapidly looked about for the boss.

"Where is it?" asked Yoshi.

"Maybe it was a trap," grumbled Luigi.

A loud slam sounded on the starboard side of the boat, and knocked us to the ground.

"W-What was that?!" yelled Daisy as we tried to stand up.

Another crash sounded port side and we were knocked back over.

"This is ridiculous," groaned Peach as she raised herself up again. I rolled over and helped her up.

Several more smashes sounded as a white tentacle with blue spots and tips crashed onto the ship. Another three long tentacles soon joined it. From the water, a large squid with a round mouth, a Blooper, surfaced and glared at us.

"Gooper Blooper!" I shouted and readied myself for the fight. Peach and the others followed suit.

The massive Blooper whipped one of its tentacles down toward us, and we spread out to dodge it. Right after, it fired three heavy blasts of ink, with one nearly splattering over Daisy and Peach, but missed overall.

"Try to grab the tentacles and pull them apart!" I ordered.

"Yes," oozed the Blooper. "Try, try, TRY!"

It slammed down another tentacle and slapped three Toads away. The remaining two, Blue and Yellow, went to pull at its tentacle and tried to drag it back.

"Mario, it's…not…working!" struggled the Yellow Toad.

Another tentacle slammed right next to me and broke through the ship. "Ground Pound it!"

As I rolled away from the tentacle, Yoshi kicked his feet from the deck and flutter jumped into the air. He flipped and slammed his bottom down hard on the tentacle, flattening it. Daisy rushed over and pulled at it, but she failed to tear it away from its host.

"Still no good!" reported Daisy.

"Well, you're going to hate me for this, but," Peach whipped out her scepter and aimed at Gooper Blooper.

Luigi, however, tripped over a third tentacle and crashed into Peach, who fumbled about with her wand.

The other two tentacles lifted back into the air and spiked the two Toads and Daisy across the deck, while Yoshi just managed to jump clear.

"Mario!" screamed the Red Toad. "We're getting closer to the water! We're running out of time!"

If the ship sank before we were rid of Gooper Blooper, it would most likely drag us to the depths.

Shaking my head, I pressed my teeth together. There had to be something else. I squinted at the Gooper Blooper's mouth. I could pull it back and shoot the mouth back into its face, but I'd need a distraction. We could—

"Watch out, Mario!" yelled Yoshi.

Two tentacles swung at me, and I flipped between them. Quickly, I jumped over to Yoshi and stared at him. Of course!

"Everyone! I have an idea!" I called. "Pair up with someone and grab hold of a tentacle!" Quietly, I rested my hand on Yoshi's shoulder. "You're with me. We're going to rush up and grab its mouth."

He nodded and I jumped onto his back. We watched as Daisy and the three Toads grabbed the tentacles nearest to the port side, while Peach, Luigi, and the other two Toads grappled the tentacles on the starboard side.

"Now!" I shouted and Yoshi dashed forward.

The Gooper Blooper struggled to pull its tentacles free from my friends' grips, but then refocused its attention on Yoshi and I.

"No good, no good," it taunted and spewed ink in front of us.

Yoshi jumped up and fluttered over a good portion of the ink, but couldn't stay airborne for long.

"It's…up to…you, Mario," Yoshi panted and slowly fell back to the ship's deck.

We skidded across the ink and were headed for the large hole in the ship. Quickly, Yoshi repositioned his body and arched his back to fling me forward.

Gooper Blooper's eyes widened as I landed and grabbed its mouth. Swiftly, I ran back across the deck and pulled its elastic mouth back with me.

"Hurry, Mario!" yelled Luigi. "We can't hold these much longer!"

"Good, let them loose once this snaps back," I ordered.

More than half way back across the boat, I was unable to tug the Blooper's mouth further.

"Everyone ready?" I asked as the pairs squirmed with the tentacles, but managed to nod at me. "Now!"

I released the mouth and watched it fire back at the Gooper Blooper. It tried to bring its tentacles back around to catch its mouth, but it zipped back too quickly.

With a loud snap, the Blooper's mouth hit it hard back in the face. While it winced in pain, its tentacles came reeling back and slapped it four times across its head and knocked it from the ship.

Yoshi pulled himself free from the ink and tried his best to shake it away. He walked back over to me as everyone else watched for Gooper Blooper to return before meeting us back in the center.

"Way to go, Mario!" congratulated the Purple Toad.

"Yeah, you're the best!" cheered the Green Toad.

"That's the Mario we need!" clapped Daisy.

"Thank you, everyone," I laughed. "But we did this together. So pat yourselves on the back too, because we couldn't have ended this without one another."

The Toads hugged one another and bounced around. Daisy glanced at Yoshi and picked up a broken bit of the wooden deck to try brushing the rest of the ink off of him. Luigi pat my back, while Peach smiled and rested her hand on my shoulder.

"Did we mention that we missed you?" she asked.

"Oh, once or twice, maybe," I chuckled, and Peach kissed me on the cheek.

Abruptly, a rumble from beneath us knocked us off balance. We wildly looked around, but saw nothing.

"Not…over…" moaned the distant and water obscured voice of the Gooper Blooper.

Before anyone could move, a blast sounded from below deck. Another one followed, along with several more in quick succession.

"He's blasting the ship to pieces!" shrieked the Green Toad.

Fiery explosions began to burst from all around the ship and everyone tried to run for cover. One blast went off and tossed me overboard.

"No! Mario!" I heard Luigi yell as I fell into the sea. Another blast knocked the wind out of me. As I hit the water, the world around me went blue, then black, and silent.

I had you. And yet…

A flash of fire went off in front of me, but I couldn't feel the heat. The world around me was suddenly purple, rocky, with glowing blue lights. The fire flew up near me again. It was the bird. I saw my gloved hand reach out for it, but it flew up into the starry sky.

"Not yet."

Bowser appeared and was over me. His hand interlocked with mine, but I couldn't feel it. At first, he smiled, but suddenly, his eyes widened and he bared his fangs. I watched as he worded "no" on his lips and the world began to go dark again.

"Stay with me! Don't go! Mario! Please!"

My eyes snapped open and I looked at darks clouds that lined up on the sky. I took in a deep breath of the damp, salty air. My hands pushed off the sandy ground and I shot back up.

Trees were sparse across the land in front of me. I glanced around and saw my friends scattered about, slowly rising from the ground as well. I pivoted back around and saw the sea around the land. Though it seemed to surround the area, I squinted and caught sight of a sandy path that led back to the coastline we were on before. This was a tidal island; we would need to wait for low tide to get back inland.

Thunder crashed along the sky and I gazed skyward. More dark clouds were rolling in. I looked back down to Luigi and Peach walking over to me.

"Are you all right, Mario?" Peach asked and I nodded.

"Mostly," I murmured.

"Well, at least we stopped that Gooper Blooper," Luigi laughed and stretched.

I smiled. "Yeah, and survived blowing the ship back into the sea."

"Well, hooray for you," bellowed a familiar voice, accompanied by slow applause.

No.

Luigi and Peach whirled around first, and I slowly turned after them. Daisy, Yoshi, and the Toads backed up toward us.

Hovering down past the trees came eight Junior Clown Cars, one Koopa Clown Car, and an old Magikoopa on his broomstick. Junior and the Koopalings, Kamek, and Bowser.

"Did you fools miss me?" he taunted. "I see you've been very busy, as of late. Why don't we catch up on a few things?"

Bowser's fiery red eyes glared straight into mine. This would not end well.

Chapter Text

A beating heart lets you know you're alive. It races as your emotions stir. Tensions flare up as dire situations rise.

Both war and love are untamed beasts. No matter how well we may know this, they somehow manage to catch us off guard, repeatedly.

Looming in our minds are great fears; our inner demons claw from the inside to burst out and tears us apart.

As a day begins, we can play around these problems and try to control the damage that could occur. But by day's end, these plans unravel in twisted ways we failed to predict.

Challenging our people, our society, and ourselves was never the easy route to travel, but it's the only way we know.

The questions: when and where can we stop? How do we know our limits? Who can see us, and what we strive for? Why is peace so far out of reach?

Are untamed beasts always meant to be?


 

Bolts of lightning flash in the sky above the island. The trees sway with the howl of the wind. Bowser grins menacingly as the Toads protectively line up in front of Peach.

"Well, well," the Koopa King snickers. "The gang's all here! How cute. I must admit, Peach, I'm impressed!" He lowers his eyes briefly and adds: "You've finally learned to use every able body from your castle to actually get things done." His eyes rise up as he glowers at her scepter. "And by any means necessary, I see."

"Bowser, just what is the meaning of this?!" Peach demands.

"The only thing we ever meet for, Princess," he taunts. "I'm here for a kidnapping."

"Back off, Bowser!" shouts the Yellow Toad, choking down the fear in his throat.

"Yeah, we're not going to let you take Peach!" chimes in the Blue Toad.

"Peach?" Bowser chuckles softly, which builds into a larger burst of laughter. "You think I'm here for Peach? Please! I've been down that road far too many times to handle, regardless of how much easier it is." Calming his voice, he points forward, directly to his target. "No, I'm here to kidnap Mario."

Mario grits his teeth as his friends quickly exchange fearful expressions.

"You have no need of him!" snaps Peach and holds her scepter up. "Keeping Mario will not be getting you any progress with your conquest."

"I did notice that, thank you for pointing it out," Bowser huffs. "Problem is, I still need him for, ah, personal matters. That, and considering how great your odds are with rescuing prisoners, I highly doubt you'll be saving him a second time in a row through crude and unconventional means."

For a moment, everyone waits in silence. Daisy breaks it by piping up, "When exactly did Bowser learn how to talk on a more intelligent level?"

"Sooner than you got up off your flowery pedestal that you comfortably rest your ass on," shrugs Bowser with a level voice. "Time's are changing, huh?"

"Ok, for that, I'm taking him down myself," fumes Daisy.

"Daisy, cool it," cautions Luigi. "He's just trying to bait you."

"Bait her? That would imply that she's useful," goads Bowser.

With a spike of rage, Daisy runs forward, only to be cut off by Wendy.

"Move," demands Daisy. "Or do you really need an obligatory cat fight?"

"Cat fight?" asks Wendy. "Do you have a Super Bell?"

Daisy slaps a hand to her forehead. "…I don't even know why—"

A punch from Wendy's Junior Clown Car sends the fiery princess flying across the beach. The Blue and Yellow Toads rush forward, attacking Larry and Lemmy, who force the two away from the crowd.

"Bowser, please!" pleads Mario. "There's no need for this! For any of it!"

"Oh, I'm sorry," mocks Bowser, "are you trying to reason with me?"

"Mario, there's no sense," argues the Red Toad. "We'll just have to wallop them."

"Big talk from a little Toad," chuckles Roy.

"This little Toad was clever enough to slip through your defenses," spat the Toad.

"Ah, see, that's where you're wrong," corrects Roy. "You got through the castle's defenses. You haven't seen anything about me, not yet."

The Koopaling drives his Clown Car after the Red Toad, while also forcing Mario and his friends to separate. As Roy chases the Red Toad off, Iggy and Morton swoop after the Green and Purple Toads that remain.

"Bowser!" Mario shouts.

"What are you waiting for?" asks Bowser. "This isn't any different from how it usually goes, is it?" He pauses and watches Mario bite his lip. "Oh, I suppose it is. All of your little friends are out here, in the open." Bowser grins wickedly. "Makes them easy targets to pick off, huh?"

"We'll see who's an easy target," murmurs Yoshi, as he raises an egg and aims it at Bowser. Before anyone can notice him, he fires it.

Ludwig, however, moves his Clown Car to intercept the attack. "Now, now, that's quite rude."

"Luigi, let's get him," Yoshi waves the plumber forward. "Princess, Mario, you handle Bowser and his son."

"Wouldn't a magical duel be more appropriate for her current interests?" questions Kamek. "And I'm afraid I have quite the vendetta against filthy dinosaurs like you."

Swiftly, the Magikoopa whips out his wand and wraps Peach and Yoshi in a spell to pull them away. Ludwig gives chase.

Mario and Luigi glance around to find their friends are scattered across the beach, fighting with Bowser's minions. A rumble of thunder and crashing tides obscure the shouts and punches from each fight.

"All right, they're out of the way," notes Luigi. "Bowser, I know you're dating Mario."

"How cute, you actually told him," Bowser ridicules Mario. "Good thing I already told my son as well."

"Why are you doing this?" demands Luigi. "There are a lot of ways this can be sorted out, and Mario is definitely willing—"

"Exactly why are you speaking in his defense?" inquires Bowser. "This is between us, not you."

"He's my brother," defends Luigi.

"And he's so much more to me," snaps Bowser.

"Please, Bowser—" Mario pleads.

Bowser scoffs, "You want to talk? Why don't we go somewhere private for that?"

Roughly, the Koopa Clown Car surges forward, knocks Luigi away, and grabs Mario with a pincer. With a roar, Bowser maneuvers it up and past several trees, flying to the center of the island.

Recovering, Luigi jumps up and runs to give chase, but Junior intercepts him.

"Move out of my way, kid," commands Luigi. "I need to go save my brother."

"And my Papa wants to have his boyfriend back," assesses Junior. "I'm sick of you people trying to ruin my family!"

"Right now, you're ruining mine!" thunders Luigi.

"Good, consider it payback," snarls Junior and lunges his Junior Clown Car at the plumber. Luigi flips away from the assault and dashes forward to attack Junior.


 

[Blue Toad versus Larry]

Larry spins his light blue Junior Clown Car at the Blue Toad and slams him across the beach. The Toad rolls across the sand and into a tide that crashes over him.

"Ha! I'm already winning this," sneers Larry.

"Not yet…you're not," pants the Blue Toad as he pushes himself up from the water.

"Please, don't bother," advises Larry. "Look around you: not a power-up around for days. Face it, half-pint, you're doomed."

"From where I am, it feels like I'm still standing," the Toad announces and balls his hands into fists.

"Yeah, but not for much longer!" Larry laughs and drives his Clown Car at the Toad.

Blue Toad leaps into the air and jumps down hard on Larry's head. He bounces off, and the force sends Larry's Clown Car into the sand. It overheats and the Koopaling abandons it.

"You don't look so high and mighty now," mocks the Toad.

With a growl, Larry whips out a wand. "When did Toads grow spines?" He snarls and casts a blue fireball from his wand.

The Toad leaps over it and jumps for Larry's head, stomping down on him again.

In an outrage, Larry slips inside of his shell and spins around. He torpedoes himself after the Blue Toad, who jumps away from the shell and rolls across the sand as another wave crashes down on both of them.

Rattled, the Koopaling pops out from his shell and wildly looks around, unable to find his opponent.

"Where did he…?" softly ponders Larry.

Just as the Koopaling shifts his gaze upward, he only has the time to let his mouth drop open as the Toad crashes down once more over his head.

Delivering a powerful kick, Blue Toad leaps from Larry and sends the Koopaling into the sand.

"This…isn't over!" groans Larry, just before another wave of water slams down over him.

The tide drags him out into the water, along with his Clown Car, which he scrambles for. Barely getting in, Larry cries out as the water swirls around and capsizes his vessel.

"Guess that's the end of him," laughs the Blue Toad and he turns to find the others.


 

[Purple Toad versus Morton]

Morton fires cannonballs at the Purple Toad, who runs to a field of gray stones. The Toad leaps from one stone to the next, listening to the rocks break from each blast.

"Hold still, you little pest," calls Morton as he fires from his black Clown Car's cannon once again.

"Somehow, that doesn't seem like the best idea," quips the Toad as he jumps to another stone.

By carefully jumping around in a circle, the Purple Toad is able to mount his own attack on Morton and stomps down on the Koopaling.

Though he is shoved to the sand, Morton simply growls and heaves his Clown Car back out. "You're making me fairly angry, and that's something I would advise you against."

"Ha, who are you trying to fool?" the Purple Toad inquires. "You may be the strongest of the Koopalings, but you must be one of the slowest and definitely not one of the brightest. Mouth off about your muscles all you want; I'll outwit you easily!"

"You were warned!" roars Morton.

The Koopaling jumps from his Clown Car and slams down to the ground, sending a shockwave across the sand and shattering stones.

A draft from the wave knocks the Purple Toad off balance and he falls backwards.

Morton chuckles, "Where's that cleverness you promised me?"

He stomps forward and takes out his wand. The Purple Toad jumps up from the ground and dashes around the sand, kicking up clouds of dust as he runs.

"What are…you doing?!" coughs Morton.

"Outsmarting you," laughs the Toad.

Growling, Morton lifts one leg and stomps the ground. A tremor emits around him, sending a pulse that expands and quakes across the sand. Once again, the Toad falls over from the wave.

With a whip of his wand, Morton clears the dust away and glares at the Toad on the ground. "Still waiting," the Koopaling taunts.

Quickly, the Purple Toad kicks up sand at Morton's eyes and attempts to run off.

Flicking the sand away with his wand, Morton laughs and leaps up into the air. He crashes down hard and sends a focused quake rumbling across the ground.

Its pulse eventually catches up to the fleeing Toad, sending him soaring into the sky and sailing off into the distance.

"To think he actually wanted to make me angry," snorts Morton as he trudges back to his Clown Car.


 

[Daisy versus Wendy]

Daisy lifts herself up, and hears the splashes as she rises. She steps backwards and realizes that she's on the submerged sand strip that leads back inland. The princess gazes back and sees only water between her and the main shore.

Wendy sails up on her Clown Car and giggles, "Well, well, all washed up already, little princess?"

"You're one to talk, you little brat," snaps Daisy.

"How dare you!" screeches Wendy, and she throws a hammer from her pink Clown Car. Daisy jumps backwards to evade it.

"That all you got?" taunts Daisy. "Your creep of a father would be disappointed."

"He's not my father," hisses Wendy. "But when I'm through with you, he'll wish he was!"

The mouth of the Clown Car opens and a cannon emerges from it. Wendy charges it as Daisy shuffles in her footsteps, unsure of where the Koopaling will fire it.

Abruptly, Daisy stops moving and waits as Wendy takes aim.

"Don't make this too easy, darling," mocks Wendy and fires the cannonball.

Princess Daisy waits and jumps over the cannonball, as it whizzes beneath her.

"This is way too easy," laughs Daisy as she approaches Wendy.

"You want me to make it harder?" grumbles Wendy. Then, she shouts, "Consider it done!"

Wendy draws out her wand and waves it to fire a glowing golden ring at the ground. It rebounds off of the sandy trail and shoots up at Daisy, who bends backwards to dodge it.

"Not bad," relents Daisy, "but not great either."

Fuming, Wendy casts out another two golden rings at Daisy, who dodges both. Daisy jumps up and stomps down onto Wendy's head.

"Oh man, you're as slow as you are dumb," teases Daisy.

"I will ruin you!" screams Wendy and she throws out another hammer.

Daisy leaps back and evades the crashing hammer, laughing as she does so, and outraging Wendy.

Again, Daisy maneuvers around Wendy, jumping onto the Clown Car, and bouncing off of Wendy's head.

"This is way too easy," snickers Daisy.

"That does it!" shrieks Wendy.

The Koopaling whips her wand around in the air and casts out another golden ring, which again misses Daisy. This time, however, she casts a spell into the air and knocks the first golden ring back down with a second one.

It rebounds back down and the ring spikes off of Daisy, shoving her to the ground in a splash.

"Ah-ha-ha-ha!" laughs Wendy. "I suppose that makes you the easy one now, dear!"

Wendy points her wand at Daisy's head as she picks it up from the sand. She balls up her fists and grits her teeth.

"Sorry Mario," the princess whispers and presses her fingers and knuckles together.

A faint turquoise glow emits around her hands and shines as Wendy attempts to unleash an attack.

"W-What is this?!" demands Wendy.

Crystals grow around Daisy's fists as the Regal Rings luster with light. It slowly fades as Daisy rises and pulls back one of her crystallized fists.

"No…no way!" Wendy cries.

"Coming through!" Daisy shouts and throws a punch directly at Wendy's Clown Car.

The ship rockets back and sends Wendy sailing across the sky and off into the distance.

Daisy grins as the Koopaling disappears from her sight, but looks down at her crystal-encased hands, balls them back into fists, and slowly frowns.


 

[Green Toad versus Iggy]

Iggy winds up several Mechakoopa robots and keeps them ready aboard his ship. The Green Toad peeks out from behind a tree, but realizes too late that he's been sighted.

"Come on out!" cackles Iggy as he tosses a Mechakoopa. It clatters along as it sneaks behind the tree and explodes.

The Koopaling waits a moment, but then sees the Toad pop up from behind another tree, further from the explosion.

"Lucky you," hisses Iggy.

"Oh, sorry, was that your best?" taunts the Green Toad.

"Not even close!" snaps the Koopaling and throws another three Mechakoopas at the Toad, who disappears behind the tree again.

Two explosions go off quickly, but the third one doesn't come. Iggy adjusts his glasses in confusion.

"There should have been a third blast," he murmurs.

"And there will be!" laughs the Toad's voice. Iggy wildly looks around to find him, but is unable to.

Instead, he hears a plop nearby him and slowly turns to see the Mechakoopa ready to blow.

Screaming, Iggy jumps clear of his light green Clown Car, narrowly evading the explosion.

"That little…!" he growls, only to have the Toad bounce off of his head.

"So much for the mechanical maniac!" giggles the Green Toad and zips behind a tree once again.

"You're…driving me…crazy!" wails Iggy.

In a frenzy, Iggy pulls out his wand and casts out erratic green fireballs. They bounce around the two trees that the Toad uses for cover and forces him out.

Quickly, Iggy sprints forward and whacks the Toad on the head, laughing wildly. The Green Toad turns to run away, only to have Iggy pop up on the other side of him.

"And where do you think you're going?!" barks Iggy.

He blasts the Toad away with a close range spell, knocking him backwards into a tree. Dazed, the Green Toad attempts to get back up, but is reeling from Iggy's consecutive attacks.

Glancing up, Iggy wears a twisted grin and fires another three spells to knock down a coconut from the tree. It spikes off of the Green Toad's head and he falls back down to the ground.

"Ohohohohoho!" Iggy maniacally laughs. He then coughs and clears his throat. "You certainly had that coming," he sneers at the fallen Toad.


 

[Red Toad versus Roy]

Roy glides his red Clown Car after the Red Toad, who races across the shoreline and bolts behind a large brown stone.

"Like that's going to save you," mocks Roy.

He moves the Clown Car up to the stone and activates its fists, punching and shattering the boulder to pieces.

However, the Toad is nowhere in sight. Roy taps on his sunglasses and looks around.

"Think you're clever, don't ya?" calls Roy. "There's nowhere to run, twerp."

"I don't run, I plan!" Red Toad shouts from behind the Koopaling, as he jumps onto and off of Roy's head.

Growling, Roy leaps from his Clown Car and pounds his fists together.

"You want to play tough? I can do tough," snickers Roy.

Red Toad readies himself as Roy lowers his arm in front of his body and charges forward. He jumps and watches as the Koopaling struggles to stop before a tree.

"Guess you're not so tough," teases the Toad as he jumps up into the air and crashes down onto Roy's head once again.

Roy pulls out his wand and casts a purple fireball from it. It whizzes by the Toad, who ducks to evade it.

Following up on the spell, Roy kicks off of the tree Ground Pounds the sand and a shockwave rockets forward, knocking the Toad backwards.

"Lucky shot," coughs the Toad as he leaps back up.

"Luck's got nothing to do with it," Roy calls, and whips his wand to cast another two fireballs, one high and the other low.

Waiting for the right moment, the Red Toad jumps over the low fireball and quickly ducks to dodge the high one.

Just as he rises up, however, Roy charges into the Toad and sends him rocketing back to the water.

Red Toad bounces along the shoreline, splashing against the ebbing tide. He forces himself up again as a pulse fires across the sand.

"I'm not going down that easily," grunts the Toad as he jumps up and over the tremor. He lands back down and sighs.

Gazing back up, however, the Toad is unable to find Roy.

Astonished, the Toad falters in his footsteps. "W-Where did he—?!"

"Guess who?!" shouts Roy.

Before the Toad can whirl around, Roy pops up from his Junior Clown Car and fires out another purple fireball.

The Toad slips and manages to evade it, but gawks as he looks up to find Roy slam back down to the ground, sending another shockwave.

"I'm not done yet!" insists the Red Toad and he manages to leap over the pulsing sand.

"Yes you are," laughs Roy, as the Toad falls down onto an exploding Mechakoopa and rockets off into the distance. "So long, chump!"


 

[Yellow Toad versus Lemmy]

The Yellow Toad darted around the sand, running off from the bouncing balls that Lemmy threw from his yellow Clown Car.

"Hey, you're not even trying to go after them," moans Lemmy as his latest shot misses its mark.

"Right, so you'll blow them up on me?" snaps the Yellow Toad.

"Noooo," insists Lemmy and giggles as he volleys out another ball.

It lands hard in front of the Toad and he skids to a halt. Lemmy floats forward and lifts another ball over his head.

"Bye-bye!" he laughs and throws the ball.

Yellow Toad jumps up, bounces off the top of the ball, and soars into the air.

A flash of lightning blinds Lemmy and he struggles to watch as the Toad comes crashing down over his head.

"Ouch!" cries Lemmy as his Clown Car slams into the sand. It explodes and fires him outward.

"Are you done yet?" asks the Yellow Toad as he rolls into a landing.

"Nope, not yet!" laughs the dizzy Koopaling.

To prove it, Lemmy whips his wand and manifests a giant, yellow bouncing ball with orange stars. He hops on top of it and rolls it around after the Toad.

"Come on, stay there so I can bowl you over!" demands Lemmy.

"No thank you!" wails the Yellow Toad.

Unfortunately, the Toad trips over a stone that he fails to spot. Lemmy laughs as he rolls over the Toad.

"Ha! Perfect!" the tiny Koopaling giggles and bounces around on top of his ball.

Dazed, the Yellow Toad struggles to lift himself up from the ground, only to have Lemmy come crashing down over his head again.

"Got you again!" laughs Lemmy. "One more should do it!"

As the Koopaling rolls his ball after him again, the Toad jumps up and runs off.

"Aw, don't ruin it!" Lemmy whines and manifests a smaller ball to ricochet at the Toad.

However, the Yellow Toad pivots and bounces up onto the ball. He plummets down, and bounces off of Lemmy's giant ball.

"What the…?!" shouts Lemmy.

"Surprise!" cheers the Yellow Toad as he rockets off up, causing Lemmy to flop off of his giant ball.

The Koopaling struggles to rise up again, and the Toad crashes down onto his head.

"That was…wild…!" laughs the winded Koopaling as he falls over into the sand. The Toad waits for a moment, but Lemmy doesn't pop up again.

"Phew," sighs the Yellow Toad. "Glad that's over." He grabs a fallen ball and dribbles it as he glances around to find his friends.


 

[Peach & Yoshi versus Ludwig & Kamek]

Peach and Yoshi roll across the sand as Kamek releases them from his spell and flies overhead. Ludwig pulls out his wand and joins the Magikoopa.

"Two scepters against one?" assesses Ludwig. "This fight will be ours easily."

"So, you haven't faced a royal's magic yet, have you?" questions Kamek.

"Does that make a difference?" asks Ludwig.

"You have no idea," murmurs Kamek.

"Princess!" Yoshi forces himself up and hurries over to Peach as Ludwig casts a spell to summon three blue fireballs.

The flames rain down toward the two as Peach scoops up her scepter and creates a shield from the water nearby.

"Huh. Pretty clever," admits Ludwig.

"She's just getting started," observes Kamek.

"That I most certainly am!" thunders Peach.

Using her Royal Scepter, Peach morphs the water into a javelin and fires it at Kamek. Ludwig intercepts the attack, at the cost of his blue Clown Car, which plummets from the sky.

Kamek flies below Ludwig, catches him, and heaves the Koopaling onto his broom.

"All right, you weren't kidding," breathes Ludwig.

Yoshi produces another egg and aims it carefully at the broomstick. He lobs it up and scores a direct hit on it, with the broom spiraling around.

"Rotten little pest," hisses Kamek as he regains control of his broom. "His kind have given me problems for more years than I can count."

"Want me to end it for you?" cheerfully offers Yoshi.

"No thank you, I can take care of the problem myself!" yells Kamek and he fires a hex down at Yoshi.

Sand bursts from the ground and blocks the hex, knocking the square and triangle shapes to dust. It lowers again upon Peach's command.

"You're trying the limits of my patience, royal brat," snaps Kamek.

"Funny," quips Peach. "You've already sent me beyond mine."

A flash of lightning lights up the sky, and Peach hoists her wand up toward it. A bolt cracks down from the air and into her rod, which she then redirects at Kamek's broom.

"Oh no, I'm not sitting back for that," grumbles Ludwig as he whirls his wand around and spews another series of fireballs at Peach.

Yoshi launches a batch of eggs to block each fireball and laughs as Ludwig winces.

Kamek whisks another hex, creating a circular shield shape. Peach lowers her scepter and smiles.

"Tell me, does that shield make you feel safe?" questions Peach.

"It did until you opened your mouth," notes Kamek.

"Good answer," agrees Peach and presses her hand over the head of her rod. The heart begins to glow with a bright blue light.

"What's…what's she doing?" inquires Ludwig.

"Probably charging her lightning bolt enough to shatter through my defense," mutters Kamek.

"Do something!" cries Ludwig.

"I'm afraid she'll match whatever spell I try to counter with," bemoans Kamek as he whips his spell to create two more layers to the shield.

"She can't be that powerful!" roars Ludwig as lobs a larger and more powerful blue fireball down at Peach and Yoshi.

Princess Peach takes a step back and thrusts her scepter forward, with a crackle of lightning ripping from the tip.

The surging bolt of lightning pierces through Ludwig's giant fireball, breaking it to bits and ashes. It shatters through each layer of Kamek's shield, blasting each piece apart before electrocuting the broomstick, Kamek, and Ludwig.

"Nice shot," nervously muses Yoshi.

"Thank you. Let's keep the pressure up," advises Peach.

Ludwig and Kamek fall from the sky and crash through tree branches, down to the ground. Peach and Yoshi hustle over as the two force themselves up and ready their wands.

"Are you still trying to hide behind those?" taunts Peach. "I thought I had already proven that it's useless."

"We have a better chance with them than without," observes Kamek.

"She means that you should surrender," explains Yoshi, to which Peach nods.

"No chance," snarls Ludwig.

Peach shrugs, "As you wish."

She waves her scepter and causes coconuts to rain down over Kamek and Ludwig, who raise their wands and fire spells to deflect the falling fruit away.

Yoshi, however, sneaks around and flutter jumps around the tree, stomping down first onto Kamek, and then Ludwig. He flips backward and rushes back to Peach.

"Is that…all you've got?!" booms Ludwig.

"To be honest, I didn't think they'd be standing after all that," Yoshi admits to Peach.

"They won't be for much longer," assesses Peach. "That bolt has certainly taken its toll on them."

"Rubbish," spits Kamek and he fires another series of hexes at Peach and Yoshi. Yoshi tosses an egg to block the first one, while Peach raises more sand to block the rest.

Ludwig attempts to follow up and sends out another fireball, but Peach freezes it in the air.

"You have got to be joking," grunts Ludwig.

"Didn't anyone teach you about playing with fire?" scoffs Peach as she pulls the blue fireball closer to her. It hovers over her hand and a pink beam slowly encases and expands it.

Kamek lobs another trio of hexes at Peach, who drops her hand from the fireball and rockets it directly through the spells. Each shape bursts as the flames plow through them and crash before Ludwig and Kamek, engulfing them in a pillar of pink fire.

Peach concentrates her rod on the pillar, smirking as it burns. Yoshi's eyes widen as it continues to billow, unrelenting.

"Princess…" Yoshi murmurs as she continues to focus on the flames. "Princess Peach," his voice grows louder, "stop!" When she refuses to listen, Yoshi grabs her arm, yelling, "Peach, that's enough!"

Blinking, Peach drops her arm and watches as the flames die down. Kamek and Ludwig are coated in pink smoke, barely breathing.

Hastily, Princess Peach runs back to the water, whips it up with her scepter, and taps the heart jewel to make the water pulse with a bright blue light. Carefully, she guides the water over her fallen opponents and pours it down upon them, with the pink smog dissipating as the water splashes over the two.

Kamek and Ludwig gasp for breath as they shoot up from the ground. The Magikoopa glares at Peach through his spectacles and wraps a spell around himself and Ludwig, warping the two away.

"Peach, what was that?" fearfully asks Yoshi.

Unable to answer, Peach drops her scepter and stares at her trembling hands.


 

[Luigi versus Junior]

Luigi leaps back from a falling hammer and rolls between several trees.

"Like that'll save you," snickers Junior as the rain begins to fall.

The green Junior Clown Car opens its mouth and produces a cannon, which Junior charges and fires right at the trees. Luigi dives away as the cannonball rips through the tree trunks.

"Can't you just give up?" whines Junior.

"You wouldn't understand," calls Luigi as he pushes himself back up from the sand. "I don't serve my brother with blind loyalty. I care for him. He doesn't need to indoctrinate me to follow in his footsteps."

"If you're trying to tell me that I don't love my Papa, you're wrong!" snaps Junior.

"No, I'm sure you love him, but your views are misguided," explains Luigi.

"They're not," protests Junior. He flings another hammer at Luigi, who dodges it.

"What you're doing is wrong, Bowser Junior," insists Luigi. "It's not your fault; I blame your father for forcing you to think that what you're doing is right."

"I am doing the right thing!" shouts Junior. "I'm trying to make my Papa happy and he will be once Mario comes home with us!"

"Forcing him against his will won't solve that," argues Luigi.

"So keeping him away will make everyone happy? Is that it?" demands Junior.

"Junior, you don't understand—"

"What don't I get?" asks Junior. "Papa loves Mario, and Mario loves him back, right? It's not like what everyone thinks about with them and Peach; it's real. So why shouldn't they be together?"

"Not everyone likes the idea of it," clarifies Luigi.

"It's not their relationship! It's none of their business!" snaps Junior. "This is why Papa needs to rule the whole Mushroom Kingdom. It'll stop people from thinking stupid things and judging what makes other people happy."

Luigi shakes his head. "See, that's the complete wrong way to go about it."

"Who cares about right and wrong?" bursts Junior. "If Peach's way is the right way, then Papa and Mario should be able to be together with us and be happy! But they can't be, and that's wrong!"

"It's not that simple," defends Luigi. "The two of them being together would throw a lot of things out of balance and force everyone to question almost everything they think they understand!"

"Are you afraid of that?" questions Junior. "You don't want Mario with my Papa, do you?" Luigi doesn't answer immediately and Junior growls. "I knew it! You're just as bad as anyone else! Why wouldn't you help your own brother?!"

"I'm trying to," protests Luigi.

"No, no you're not," accuses Junior. "You're probably angry because Mario didn't tell you right away. My Papa didn't tell me either, and he even lied to me about it." Junior glanced to the ground, and continued, a little more softly, "But he did that because he was scared of hurting me, and then he took time to explain it to me." The young Koopa Prince picked his head up and glared at Luigi. "I know Mario would have done the same with you. So why don't you want him to be happy? And why aren't you forgiving him?"

"Yes I do, I-I did," Luigi forces out.

"Don't lie," snaps Junior. "Family should stand up for each other no matter what. If I get that, why can't you?"

"Again, it's not that simple," repeats Luigi.

"Well it should be," grumbles Junior. "And I'm done trying to make you understand that."

Bowser Junior releases a Mechakoopa from his Clown Car, which rushes forward after Luigi.

Swiftly, Luigi leaps away from the ensuing explosion, and tries to stomp down on Junior's head. Reading his movement, Junior forces his Clown Car away as Luigi slams down to the ground.

Capitalizing on his error, Junior launches the Clown Car's pincers to snatch Luigi before he can move away. Laughing, Junior throws the plumber into a tree.

Wobbling, Luigi sinks to the ground and shakes his head. He forces himself back up and runs after Junior again.

"You can't fight this, Junior," Luigi manages. "This isn't the way."

"I already told you that I'm done talking," reaffirms Junior.

The Koopa Prince drives his Clown Car forward and spins it around to attack Luigi, who narrowly rolls away from the strike.

With a back flip, Luigi leaps and stomps down on Junior, smashing the Clown Car to the ground.

"Look, even if you're ok with what your father wants," Luigi presses on, "you can't force that will upon other people. Everyone should be free to make their own decisions and opinions of whatever matter they encounter."

Junior shoots the Clown Car's boxing fists out and pushes himself back up. "Then why is it ok for everyone else to tell us we're wrong?"

"You're using violence and oppression to instill a change!" thunders Luigi.

"Because no one listens to reason anyway!" fires back Junior.

"Like you?" challenges Luigi.

"I'm not listening to your reasoning because it's not helpful to my Papa or your brother," declares Junior. "I bet none of your friends even know, because if they did, they wouldn't be fighting back so much. At least my Papa is starting to tell everyone and wants everyone on his side! And I'm helping him! You should do the same for Mario instead of fighting back."

"By fighting back, I am doing the same for Mario," insists Luigi. "Bowser's methods are toxic and will only drain Mario of everything good he represents and gave the Kingdom and its people. Blindly forcing people to accept change they're not ready for is definitely not the way to go about this. You need to introduce it and help people build tolerance to it."

"And let my Papa suffer in the meantime? No thanks," spits Junior and lobs another hammer at Luigi. As Luigi dodges it, he launches a fist from the Clown Car, which plows Luigi into the ground and back toward the shore.

Once more, Luigi pushes himself up and pants heavily. Junior growls, and spews a fireball at Luigi. The plumber sidesteps it and races forward to stomp down on Junior again.

"At the end of the day…" Luigi calls, "…only Mario and Bowser can decide on this!"

"So why don't you let them?" questions Junior, as he pulls out a Bob-omb and tosses it as Luigi jumps up.

Unable to stop his momentum, Luigi flails as the Bob-omb connects and blasts him back down to the ground, spiraling and skidding across the sand, all the way back to the shoreline.

Junior glares and waits for Luigi to come running back into view. When he doesn't, the prince lets out a light laugh and drives his Junior Clown Car past the trees.


 

[Mario versus Bowser]

Bowser throws Mario down in the center of the island, which has the thickest amount of trees around.

"Enough!" He jumps back up and throws a punch down on Bowser. The Koopa King blocks it with his claw and shoves Mario back to the ground.

"Now, that's a poor way to start," growls Bowser.

"Start?!" snaps Mario. "Start what?! I'm not the one who just flew in from nowhere to assault everyone my boyfriend cares about!"

"So, we are still boyfriends," hisses Bowser. "Funny, I didn't quite get that vibe, after the whole escape plot you carried out."

"You're going to hold that over on me?!" yells Mario. "You're the one who kidnapped me and locked me up in the first place!"

"I was working on it!" roars Bowser over a crash of thunder. "I even let you sleep in my room! At least I was trying to make a bad situation good and keeping you in the loop on practically everything!"

"What's that supposed to mean?!" cries Mario.

"Besides the escape attempt?" blusters Bowser. "Oh, gee, how about the letter you wrote to your brother, where you actually question our relationship, well into actually having it?!"

"…What?!"

A broken edge sounds on Bowser's voice as he snaps, "Do the words 'are we worth it' sound familiar?!"

Mario's head jerks back as though the words hit him square in the nose as thunder sounds in the distance.

"Wow, not even a half-assed retort or plea against it?" sorrowfully scorns Bowser.

"That's not how I meant it," Mario tries to reason. "Bowser, it was to my brother—"

"I know damn well who it was addressed to!" rages Bowser's uneven voice. "I tore the blasted rubbish in half myself!"

"Bowser, please, I was trying to think of how my brother might view it," clarifies Mario. "And really, I wanted him to understand—"

"Yeah, bet a lot of good came from that one, huh?" challenges Bowser.

"That wasn't meant to call doubt to our relationship," Mario insists. "Please."

"Even if that wasn't, how about you leaving me?" accuses Bowser. "I thought you understood how much trouble I was going through just to keep you protected, safe, alive, with me. Why would you run off from me? You're going to tell me that you were just a little too homesick?"

Mario blurts out, "I was!"

"You could have told me that!" rants Bowser. "You could have told me about your problems! We could have actually tried working through problems as a couple! That's what you're supposed to do with the person you love, isn't it?! Not dart off at the soonest possible chance! Not wait for him to lower his guard so you can stab him straight in the heart!"

"It was for the Toad's sake!" yells Mario, rain falling onto his face. "I knew you were struggling with me around! I didn't want to make that harder or risk his life! I made the choice to run for all of us!"

"But you didn't even bother to explain that to me!" contests Bowser. "You didn't even try asking me my opinion, or let me know that you needed to get a friend out of the castle! You just assumed that I wouldn't do anything to help him!"

"No, I didn't!" persists Mario. "Yes, it wasn't right for me to keep that escape plot withheld from you, but I really wanted things to work out ok! I thought we could smooth everything over after I got him back safe and sound."

"Lies," grunts Bowser. "You're lying."

"Why would I lie about this?" pleads Mario. "I want our relationship to work just as badly as you do! Look, I even wrote you an apology letter," Mario mentions as he pulls the paper from his overalls. "I knew that leaving you was wrong, and I regret it the second that I left, but I had the best intentions in mind!"

Bowser stares at the letter and takes it from Mario. He nearly opens it, but stops himself short and crumples it up as lightning flashes in the sky.

"What are you doing?!" cries Mario.

"Excuses," snorts Bowser and tosses the paper ball back to Mario. "I don't want any part of them."

"Read it, please, just read it," begs Mario.

"No," grumbles Bowser. "I've had enough of this."

"Can't you just read it?" questions Mario.

"I already gave you my answer," growls Bowser as his voice rises.

"Please—"

"Enough!" roars Bowser and spews out a breath of fire. Mario barely manages to turn away from the flames that shoot forward at him.

The Koopa King clamps his claws over his mouth as his eyes widen with shock. Mario mimics this expression at first, but his eyebrows tighten as he glares at Bowser. Another flash of lightning strikes as a chorus of thunder rumbles.

Shaking his head, Bowser starts to apologize, "N-No, Mario. I…I didn't mean to—"

"Oh, you didn't mean to almost fry me?" barks Mario and spikes his balled letter to the ground. "Just shut me up with a little bit of fire, singe me on the crispy side, is that it?"

"It was an accident, Mario, I lost control," justifies Bowser. "Please, I didn't—"

"Huh, why does the tone of this conversation feel familiar?" ridicules Mario. "Oh, right, we just flipped the tables! Now you're the jerk and I'm beyond annoyed with your idiocy!"

Rain falls and drips down Bowser's face. "Mario—"

"No, you know what? We've put this off for too long," Mario slams his right fist into his left palm. "You and I are well over due for a classic beat-down."

"Wait, no, Mario!" pleads Bowser.

But it is too late, as Mario jumps up to hammer a punch down at Bowser. The Koopa King scoots his Koopa Clown Car back, evading each stomp and blow Mario throws at him.

"Stop, Mario! I'm not going to fight you, not like this," implores Bowser.

"Why not? This is exactly where we were going with this," Mario snaps. "Come on, it's our go-to for blowing off steam."

"We've fought enough already," shouts Bowser. "Look, that was stupid of me, and I'm sorry! Please, Mario, I don't want to fight you anymore."

Another crash of thunder sounds. "Tough luck for you."

Quickly, Mario kicks off of a tree and leaps over Bowser. The plumber bounces off from another tree and flips to Ground Pound the Koopa King.

Still, Bowser guides his Clown Car away from Mario's rampage, in a sturdy refusal to retaliate.

"I get it, I get it!" claims Bowser, his voice unsteady again. "This is how I was acting. I messed up. I get it! Come on, Mario!"

"Explain why I should listen," grumbles Mario.

"You're better than me!" admits Bowser. "Mario, you're always the more sensible one. I pick fights that you'd rather not have. I cause pain and mayhem, not you!"

In spite of this, Mario refuses to lower his guard. The rain pushes his cap down a bit, causing the brim to tip over his eyes.

"Mario, I love you," murmurs Bowser. "We can work through this. That's what you were trying to tell me."

"Yet, you didn't listen," shrugs Mario.

Bowser shakes his head, "You're right, and I'm truly sorry. Please, can't we just—"

"I think it's a little too late for that," retorts Mario.

Before Mario can move again, Junior bursts through the trees. "Papa!" cries the prince.

"Junior, stay back!" warns Bowser.

The child opens his mouth to question his father, but is interrupted by Roy, Iggy, and Morton also plowing through the trees.

"Hey, what's going on?" asks Roy.

"We'll save it for later," Bowser mutters as he reaches down and pulls up rope.

"Oh no, you are not taking me back," spits Mario.

"Yes I am," asserts Bowser. "We're sorting this out one way or another, and I'm taking you back home with me."

"No, you're not," Mario raises his fists again.

Bowser sighs and waves his hand. "Stop him," he groans.

Under a flash of lightning, Junior and the three Koopalings use their Junior Clown Cars to spin into Mario and knock him around from four different angles. The dazed plumber's legs buckle as he slumps to the ground.

"Now, do it!" Bowser shouts as he tosses the rope out.

The Koopa King and his four subjects whirl around Mario and tie him tightly with the rope. In a matter of seconds, the Koopas have him tied up.

"One grouchy and uncooperative boyfriend for you, Lord Bowser," delivers Morton as he tosses Mario into Bowser's Clown Car.

"Uh…thanks," accepts Bowser. "…I think."

"Papa, what do we do now?" questions Junior.

"Where are Kamek and the other Koopalings?" inquires Bowser.

"I guess they lost their fights," assesses Iggy. "Though, I saw Kamek's magic dust popping up in the distance around various parts of the island."

"Then we're done here. Let's get going," commands Bowser, as he rides his Koopa Clown Car into the air. Junior and the Koopalings follow his lead.

Just as they begin to take off, however, a rustle sounds from beyond the trees. Peach, Daisy, and Yoshi dash forward and cry out as the watch Bowser's escape.

"Peach! He's got Mario!" announces Daisy.

"Stop! Let him go!" demands Yoshi as he lobs an egg into the air. Bowser pivots and spikes the egg back down to the ground.

"Mario! Don't worry, we'll get you down!" shouts Peach. "We won't let them get away again!"

"No, please, don't fight back," calls Mario. "I'll be fine, just wait until you can get home. You can rescue me later."

Reluctance fills the princesses' eyes, but both slowly nod as the Clown Cars soar off. Mario watches as tears line in Yoshi's eyes while the dinosaur drops to the ground.

The ships fly off and over the shoreline of the beach, where Mario watches two Toads gather three fallen Toads, along with Luigi. He winces as he attempts to study the pain his brother has sustained.

Luigi's eyes snap open just in time to see Mario taken away overhead. "Mario! No!" yells Luigi as he attempts to race after his brother and runs out into the water. The Blue and Yellow Toads manage to stop him before he rushes out too far.

"I'll be all right, Luigi!" cries Mario. "You'll get me back later!"

Desperately, Luigi struggles to fend off the Toads, but sinks to the ground when he realizes that Mario is too far away to be saved. A combination of rainwater and tears line under Luigi's eyes as he and the Toads miserably watch their enemies fly off with their hero.

"Um…I'm…sorry, Mario," Bowser lifts his hand to place it on Mario's shoulder, but the plumber bats it away with his face.

"Don't," snaps Mario, tears streaming from his eyes.

Bowser grits his teeth and leans against the edge of his Clown Car, quietly watching Mario sob as the rain pours and the thunder rumbles across the sky.

Chapter Text

[Luigi]

The rain continued to fall as I stared blankly across the water, and paid no attention as the drops hit my body. I'm seated on the sand, my arms hugging my legs and cap tilted over. My clothes were singed and torn in multiple places. There are scrapes and cuts visible on my skin, which sting under the soft gusts of wind and sand that pick up occasionally. A rumble of thunder sounds as I hear footsteps behind me.

"Luigi." It's Daisy, with an unusually even-tempered voice. "It's going to be low tide soon. We can leave soon."

Not turning away, I nod.

"Do you need me to pick you up?" Her voice is still trying to stay calm, but I can hear the agitation rising up.

In spite of that, I shake my head.

"We'll get him back, Luigi," she reassured me.

Still, I remain silent. This caused Daisy to march in front of me. Her yellow-orange dress was torn in several places, and she had a few scratches on her face, but nothing that kept me focused on her as I shifted my sights back to the water.

"All right, come on!" The princess finally reached her limit, patience lost. "I get it, we lost, and Mario got kidnapped. The world doesn't end here, ok? We just go back to square one, no big deal. Bowser isn't going to have his way with Mario, and we're going to win back this kingdom!"

"That's not it," my hollow voice echoed out as I shook my head.

"Then what's wrong?" Daisy demanded.

What would I tell her? That my brother was actually in a romantic relationship with the tyrannical king that constantly harasses her best friend and our kingdom? That each of the aches in my body remind me of a young child's questions and personal accusations against me? That his resolute resolve was strong enough to leave me replaying the fight over and over again in my mind, always ending with his last remarks:

"Family should stand up for each other no matter what. If I get that, why can't you?"

And even though it's only played for a few hours, it kept pestering my mind, shaking me to the core. Should I tell her the truth?

"Luigi, come on," Daisy insisted. "Talk to me."

"I just…don't understand…a lot," I confessed only that much to her.

"It's Bowser," she maintained. "There's nothing to understand; he just needs to be stopped. And…" Quietly, she added, "Maybe Peach is right. Maybe this should be a once and for all kind of deal."

The words flew out of my mouth as soon as they hit my mind: "That's not the answer."

"Then what is?"

"I don't know," I admitted. "But I know that isn't it."

Finally, I focused my attention away from the sea and onto Daisy's dark blue eyes. It had an odd mixture of emotions, but I couldn't quite make all of them out. I glanced down and noticed her rolling a turquoise crystal shard around in her hand.

"What is that?" I asked as I slowly stood up. A sharp pain rose through my legs, but I managed to rise.

She gazed down at it, and made a disgusted face. "A lousy reminder for myself."

Before I could inquire further, a pair of arms slipped under mine and pulled me back. Green. Yoshi.

"Sorry," he softly murmured.

He let me go after that, but remained near me. I turned around and stared at the five Toads: three were on the sand, bruised, battered, and unconscious. The two remaining Toads, Blue and Yellow, stood over their fallen comrades.

Separated from them, Peach was staring at the trees and the sky. She loosely held her scepter in one hand, with her other tightened into a fist.

"You're not the only one out of sorts," Daisy muttered to me. "So, hang in there and let's at least get home, ok?"

Quietly, I nodded and Daisy went to collect the Toads and Peach. Too curious, I had to ask Yoshi, "What happened to Peach?"

As I turned to look at him, he shook his head. "She nearly killed Kamek and Ludwig."

My mouth dropped open a bit. "Peach doesn't kill without cause."

"And she still hasn't," Yoshi optimistically affirmed. More solemnly, he continued, "But this was probably the worst I've seen her. Well, not possessed, anyway."

"That's not entirely accurate," I whispered as we watched Daisy put her hand on Peach's shoulder. At first, Peach didn't even move. Once Daisy gently shook her, the blonde princess turned to Daisy, with an empty expression plastered on her face.

"What's happening to us?" Yoshi wondered aloud.

War. Love. Magic. Any of those were the choice words to start with. Instead, I patted Yoshi on the back and remained silent.


 

[Bowser]

Slowly, I trudged from the hangar and into the halls that led back to the castle. The Koopalings had surged ahead, with Iggy, Roy, and Morton carrying Lemmy, Wendy, and Larry. Ludwig mentioned something to Kamek and Junior before following his siblings through the black stoned corridor. The two glanced back to me, but quickly resumed a separate discussion.

Gently, I placed Mario down against the right wall and sat in front of him. His blue eyes were puffy, maybe a bit bloodshot. His glare, however, was prominently above that, refusing to even return my gaze. To be fair, I still had him bound in the rope, and I had stolen him back from his friends. Still, I couldn't just tell him that he was right or send him back out.

"Look, I told you I was sorry," I started off, right on the defensive.

Mario, however, didn't answer. He wouldn't so much as look at me.

"Come on!" I growled. "You can't shut me out like this. What I did was stupid, fine. But I didn't know what else to do, all right? Diplomacy isn't in my repertoire."

He still wouldn't answer.

"The silent treatment is just as naïve of a way to handle this, you know!" I snapped.

And…that just didn't seem to faze him.

"Fine! Don't answer me!" I roared. "This doesn't solve or change anything!"

In my fit of rage I stomped away from him. Junior watched and hurried over to grab Mario, while Kamek strolled beside me.

"Sire, you should be a little more delicate in your approach—"

"I started with that!" I burst at him.

"Right, I heard. However, you need to maintain that—"

"What?! Stay soft? Hope that he'll miraculously forgive me?" I challenged. "No, he's mine, and I took him back. Simple as that!"

"Lord Bowser, he's not yours," murmured Kamek.

"Of course he is! I stole him…" and with that I paused.

"Yes, sire, you stole him," clarified Kamek. "That's how this whole thing started. Sure, you've fallen in love with him. That doesn't make him your property."

"No, but I didn't call him property!" I protested.

"The words, 'he's mine,' don't exactly respect an individual's worth," emphasized Kamek.

"Ok, point taken," I growled. "But—"

"You also stole him not once, but twice," pointed out Kamek.

"True, but—"

"And let's not forget that you are endangering the lives of his friends." Kamek quickly added.

"Fantastic!" I snarled. "Big news: I'm the bad guy!

"Sire—"

"Yes, I take what I want by force!" I ranted, lacing in sarcasm with each sentence. "What a shocker! It's the only way to ensure that I can get anything any more! It's not like being polite as ever worked in my favor! But what would any of those glorious angels of the Mushroom Kingdom know? They're not the ones that face judgment every day since they were born! They don't make the world cringe in fear just by walking outside and—"

"Lord Bowser!" thundered Kamek. "I am not your enemy, boy! We faced the same struggles, remember?"

"He didn't!" I pointed at Mario, who was flopped over Junior's shoulder. "He has no idea just how cruel this world is when it's against him!"

"Not yet," corrected Kamek. "He chose you, understand?" He turned to Junior and Mario, who Junior flipped around to face us. "You two still want to pretend to hate each other? Fine. But you both went down this path. There is no simple route to end the pain you've dealt with, or what you'll endure." He gazed down at his wand and tapped at the head. "You've already come this far; might as well see it through."

Without anything else to add, Kamek shuffled onward toward the castle. Junior picked up Mario again and followed, unintentionally forcing me to watch Mario the whole way back into the castle.

As the walls grew lighter, I tried to keep my eyes on them or on the dirt floor changing back to evenly tiled stones. But Mario kept a nasty glare on his face, and appeared to be directing it to me. I glared back, only to have my heart race.

Quite honestly, I would have thought I'd be safer from his persecution once we made our way back upstairs from the sublevels of the castle. But with every few steps, my annoyance grew.

Who does he think he is?

I thought he loved me!

It's not like I walked out on him!

As if his brother could help out.

Peach wouldn't even accept him!

Why won't he stop glaring?

This couldn't get worse.

Just as that last thought had buzzed through my mind, I heard an excited cheer, "Lord Bowser has returned!"

Oh, for all of the kingdoms, here we go…

Kamek glanced back uneasily at us; my troops only knew that we were going out to head off Peach's troupe. Therefore, their expectations would be…

"He's back already? Record time!"

"Hooray, this will great!"

My eyes shifted around at the delighted Koopa Troopas that lined the corridor we walked through, slowly becoming disheartened once they caught sight of Junior carrying Mario in. Goombas hobbled by, their expressions twisted from excitement to fear. A pair of Rexes waited near a large painting of myself, happily gossiping before catching sight of us, and then gasped. A Swooper flew in through an open window, but quickly flew back out.

Around the corner, a Spike passed and scratched his head. I stifled the only laugh I had in a while as a Magikoopa strolled straight into a desk while she gawked at us. Two Koopatrol tried to remain stoic as they guarded a vault door, but I caught their nervous stares. A Paragoomba floated about, but hid behind a chandelier once he noticed Mario.

And the further along we traveled in the castle, the more whispers started to fly around, making the trip back to my room ever more agonizing.

"What? He kidnapped Mario again?" I listened to a Monty Mole question a Koopa.

"Weren't they meant to snatch Princess Peach?" asked a Hammer Bro. to a Goomba.

"Maybe Bowser just enjoys the challenge in this," cackled a Boo to a Lakitu.

"The whole thing just seems, well, odd," a Rex commented to a Magikoopa.

"You know, we follow him pretty well, but this is just absurd," huffed a Paratroopa.

"Unbelievable," sighed a Buzzy Beetle.

My claws rolled into fists as Kamek tried to usher us quickly through the courtyard, where Magikoopa halted their spell practices to gape at us. More Goombas and Koopas popped up, along with a group of Shy Guys. I clenched my jaw as they kept up their decreasingly subtle comments going. It was between their words and Mario's narrowed gaze that fired me up.

"Is Bowser just this dumb, or his luck really terrible?"

"Hush, that's the king."

"Why should I care? He's been doing so awful lately…"

"It's not any different from before."

"Seriously?"

"Are we killing Mario this time, or is this more negotiation crap?"

And with that, smoke sizzled from my nostrils as my eyebrows twitched. We had stopped walking altogether as Junior glared at the troops gathered around. Kamek had hurried back to my side and patted on my arm, whispering something that I couldn't focus on.

"Why Mario again? The Koopalings should have helped, right?"

"Peach had to have been right there. What gives?"

"We're never going to control the Mushroom Kingdom."

"Wow, he's the worst. All hail the king of screw-ups, huh?"

"ENOUGH!" I bellowed as Kamek fell backwards. All eyes were focused on me. Damn my short, little fuse; it's worse than any Bob-omb I could think of.

"W…We have a r-right to know why, sire," voiced a red-shelled Koopa. "Mario will only get us revenge. Princess Peach will give us the chip we need for her kingdom."

"She won't, we're already at war for the Mushroom Kingdom," I shot back.

"Exactly, they'll surrender f-for her," quivered a green robed Magikoopa.

"Have they in the past?" I retorted. "They only send Mario to get her back!"

"Well they're st-still coming for him, too," a yellow hooded Shy Guy observed.

"Good, let's see them actually take him back," I snarled.

"But that's not the point, sire," complained a white robed Magikoopa. "We could finally have them—"

"Would you dare to challenge your King like this?" boomed Kamek.

"He-he hasn't delivered yet, s-so," started a green hooded Shy Guy.

"You think he won't?" challenged Junior. "My Papa knows what he's doing!"

A Goomba laughed. "Good to know that his son is clouded by his father's ambitions."

"Don't you dare insult my son, your prince, do you understand?!" I thundered.

"We'll show more respect when you actually lead us to what you've promised!" cried a black hooded Shy Guy.

"Yeah, grab the princess and force marriage or something!" chimed in a yellow-shelled Koopa.

My heart raced and my fists shook violently. "I've already tried that repeatedly! It's not worth it and I don't even love her as it is!"

That revelation shut them up for a good minute. A Goomba suddenly called out, "What?"

"I don't love Princess Peach," I repeated for them all to hear. "I don't know where that romance rumor came from, or why it runs so rampart within my own castle, but it's not true. I've never been in love with Peach, I only acted that way."

"But…but I really supported you two!" wailed an orange hooded Shy Guy.

"Even if you don't love Peach, what's with Mario?" questioned a blue-shelled Koopa.

"Can we finally kill him?" asked a gray robed Magikoopa.

"For the last time, NO!" I snapped. "We are not killing Mario!"

"Why not? He's killed tons of us," protested a pink hooded Shy Guy.

Too quickly, too loud, I answered, "Because I love…" and froze as a stillness settled in the air.

I watched as eyes widened from the various troops in the courtyard, with some dropping whatever staffs or wands they carried. My heart skipped a beat as I glanced over to Kamek, who gawked at me. I looked to Junior, who scratched at his head. Even Mario, who held an annoyed expression the entire time, raised his eyebrows over this.

Finally, a voice broke the silence with, "Is this a joke?"

Tightening my lips, I rolled my head back.

"O…Of course it is, you blithering idiots!" snapped Kamek. "What does it take for you to obey your King?"

"Not that, for sure," murmured a Magikoopa.

"Ugh, that would just be disgusting," shivered the red-shelled Koopa.

"Why?" asked Junior.

"He's the enemy!" shouted another Goomba.

"And…if he was…not?" asked Kamek.

"Well, what does it matter?" shrugged the green robed Magikoopa. "He is, so it's wrong."

"Right, yes, of course," waved Kamek off.

"Wait, Lord Bowser, you don't really love him, do you?" questioned the pink hooded Shy Guy.

"We told you that he didn't," spat Kamek.

"Then what's the harm in roughing him up some?" questioned the yellow-shelled Koopa.

"He's a valuable asset!" snapped Kamek. "We already knocked him around, along with his blasted little friends! There's no further need for retaliation."

"Of course there is!" cried out the gray robed Magikoopa. "He's slaughtered how many of our people? We should all get a chance at vengeance, not just the royal family and their closest companions!"

"Unless…does Bowser really love Mario?" repeated the pink hooded Shy Guy.

"N-No!" stumbled Kamek.

"You're…lying," observed the green robed Magikooopa.

"Seriously? He loves Mario?" the red-shelled Koopa questioned.

"Oh, no. No way," murmured another Goomba.

"So what if he does?" shrugged the yellow hooded Shy Guy.

"Because it's not Peach!" moaned the orange hooded Shy Guy.

"Because Mario's the enemy!" cried out the yellow-shelled Koopa. "We can't support a King that's in love with a man that murdered our people!"

"Hold on, we might be getting a little hasty," soothed the white robed Magikoopa.

My stomach dropped and I lurched back. Kamek whipped a spell to force me upright and shook his head. We returned our attention to the arguing crowd around us. I shook my head as I lost track of who mentioned what.

"This is insane!"

"It's not that bad."

"Are you joking?!"

"We could kill them both right now!"

"That's treason!"

"And drastic."

"Though we could rebel, right?"

"Should we?"

I stared blankly at the crowd while Kamek cast a binding spell around the whole courtyard and dragged me away from it. Junior carried Mario behind us as we slipped out and watched the crowd continue to argue with one another, hands waving and pointing in our direction.

One Magikoopa raised his wand and fired a spell, which ricocheted off of the magic barrier around them. It knocked into a Koopa, who fell on top of a Goomba. And suddenly, we witnessed the beginning of a brawl.


 

[Luigi]

"All right, hold still."

I winced as Toadette continued to clean out a heavy scrape along my side. The pink Toad with mushroom braids patted the wound dry and rubbed an ointment into it. After that, she covered it with a bandage and nodded for me to drop my shirt back over it.

"There you go. All set, Luigi!" Toadette cheered.

"Thank you," I mumbled and hopped up from the medical room's bed. I turned to leave but stopped short and turned back to her. "How are the other Toads?"

She shook her head. "Still not well. You're lucky that you've taken punches and can still jump up after." Toadette sighed. "Toads…aren't quite as durable as you or Mario," she explained. "Even Yoshi and the princesses would hold up better with getting battered around. Speaking of, Daisy left a while ago; she recovered pretty quickly, actually."

"I see," I murmured. "Well, thanks again, Toadette, and I'm sorry."

With a heavy sigh of my own, I lumbered through the halls and made my way back to Peach's throne room. In the center, Toadsworth shook his head and tapped his cane against the floor while Peach folded her arms and rolled her eyes. Yoshi and Daisy watched off to the side.

"Princess, this has become far too dangerous!" protested Toadsworth.

"It's always dangerous!" corrected Peach.

"My dear," argued Toadsworth, "three of our best Toads were battered around to the point where they've been rendered unconscious!" He coughed a bit. "Do you realize that we have not been able to solve that shortage of 1-Up Mushrooms? If they go out anytime soon, they could…die."

"Then they'll stay here," shrugged Peach. "But we can't."

"Princess, you must!" insisted Toadsworth. "You could die! Do you have any idea just how deeply that will harm this kingdom? Do you understand what that could do?"

"Toadsworth, I understand the risks!" retaliated Peach. "That can't stop me!"

"Have some sense!" retorted Toadsworth. He turned and noticed that I had walked in. "Just look at Luigi! Even he took a heavy beating! Poor Mario must have had the worst of it!"

"That's right!" Peach capitalized on the last part. "Mario took the worst of this. And while we're back here to get our wounds cleaned, he's at Bowser's Castle, suffering from who knows what!" She stomped her foot down. "We can't allow him to stay there! And if we need to risk our lives over it, then so be it!"

"There are others we could send—"

"No, Toadsworth," interrupted Peach. "We need to do this."

"She's right, Toadsworth," I stepped in. "It needs to be us." I shook my head. "What we faced, going up against the Koopalings and Bowser…it was a lot to handle. They fought with…I don't even know what kind of motivation, but it powered them so much and made them so…strong." Junior's words seeped into my mind and I shivered.

"Maybe you should stay here too, Luigi," Daisy recommended.

"Absolutely not," I refused. "They have my brother. I'm going there to get him back, and no one is going to stop me."

"There, you see?" Peach shot back to Toadsworth. "We all feel this way. We need to go get Mario back."

"Just the four of you?" questioned Toadsworth.

"Five."

Everyone turned back to the door and I spun on my heels. Toadette was briefly taken aback by the attention, but tightened her hands and stepped forward.

"Toadette, please," begged Toadsworth. "You can't go too. You must see reason, my girl!"

"What I saw was that my brothers had been wounded," she quaked as she spoke. "Well, not my actual blood brothers, not like family, but you know, my people…not important!" Toadette sighed and dropped her head before she continued. "Three Toads still need to recover and the other two want to remain behind to wait for their recovery. I don't want to force them out, but a Toad should always accompany the princess." She looked up at us with a smile. "I'm a Toad, and the others already have doctors and nurses treating them. I can go."

"But…Toadette…" murmured Toadsworth, still uneasy.

"That's the end of it, Toadsworth," asserted Peach. "The five of us will travel to the Glaciers and do whatever we can to keep winning this kingdom back." With a fierce determination in her voice, she added, "And once we're done, we will rescue Mario and bring him back home."

Toadsworth pinched at his white mustache, still not content with the notion, but he relented enough to let the five of us marched out the door.

"Just stay safe! I'm begging you to come home!" the old steward shouted. "And don't forget the Item Bag!"

"Already got it outside," Toadette called back. "We can do this, Toadsworth!"

I turned down and watched Toadette skip in her step as she hurried back to catch up with the rest of us. We exchanged various glances with one another. Nervous. Shaken, but not broken. Our conviction would propel us forward once more.


 

[Bowser]

We had retreated back up to my chambers, and Kamek sealed the stairwell behind us. He groaned and slid a hand over his face before he adjusted his spectacles and shot a glare at me.

"Are you happy? That had to have been the most impulsive, brash, and outright foolish…!" He threw his hands in the air and violently shook his wand. "Ugh! I have no clue what you were looking to gain from that, boy, but you've certainly made enemies in your very own kingdom!"

"Papa, why would you do that?" Junior chimed in. "You couldn't even tell me right away."

Even with Junior's help, I ignored Kamek's ranting. I glared at Mario, who was propped against the wall near his room. His cell. Somehow, he appeared even angrier than he was before.

Annoyed, I snarled, "Does that do anything for you?! I just confessed to what will be my whole kingdom in a matter of hours! That has to warrant something! Anything!"

Not in Mario's book, it didn't; he remained as quiet as he had since we left the hangar.

"Then fine!" I bellowed. "You want to act like a prisoner?! You might as well be one!" I whirled my head around to Junior and Kamek. "One of you two, lock him up!"

"What?" questioned Junior.

"Sire, are you certain about doing that?" inquired Kamek.

"Yes, now stop questioning me and do it!" I snapped.

Kamek and Junior exchanged uneasy glances as Junior grabbed Mario and Kamek opened his cell door. Slowly, Junior entered, dropped off Mario, and exited the room. With one last look at me, Kamek then closed the door and locked it.

"Done," the old Magikoopa murmured.

"Good," I forced out and clawed through my hair.

"Papa, is everything all right?" asked Junior. I shook my head. "What's wrong?"

What's wrong at this point? "It feels like everything is, son," my voice broke and sounded uneven.

Three parts of the Mushroom Kingdom were lost. Peach was still very much in control of her own castle and these territories. Every move I took only made Mario hate me more. I just seeded the sparks of revolution within my own kingdom.

I've lost control of everything.

A pounding sounded on the doors from the stairs. It was followed by three timed knocks, each spaced out from one another.

"Ah, let me get that," murmured Kamek.

"Why are you doing that?" Junior questioned. "We don't want anyone—"

"It's fine," reassured Kamek as he unsealed and opened the door. A Goomba walked in. From a distance, I hadn't noticed, but as he approached me, I noticed his teeth were not particularly sharp as they should be, and his eyes were wider than normal.

"G-Greetings, your ma-majesty," Stammers shivered. "I-I'm here to re-remind you about the, uh, the Bowser Games tomorrow."

"Why the hell would I go through with that?" I questioned, voice still uneven.

"After what you just pulled, sire, you're going to need to show some force," advised Kamek. "It's not the best route, but it will remind everyone that you're still in charge."

Though I nodded, I grew increasingly uncertain in Kamek's plans, and even more so of my own. Quietly, I rested my hand upon Mario's door and let it slip down and away from it.

Even if I haven't lost everything yet, I imagined that I was well on my way to doing so.

Chapter Text

A small black ball of fuzz, aptly known as a Fuzzy, giggled as it bounced down the stairs and slipped into a dimly lit hallway. It hopped over to a studded, wooden door, and knocked it open. A series of cells waited inside, with seven Goombas crammed inside of one, three Koopas in another, and the last containing one Hammer Bro. and two Fire Bros.

"Hehehe, meork," the Fuzzy cackled. "Look at you sorry chumps!"

"Can it, fuzz ball," snapped Sledge the Hammer Bro.

"Now, now, that's no way to treat a messenger with the juiciest gossip," snickered the Fuzzy.

"Wh-What gossip?" quivered Bill the blue-shelled Koopa.

"Oh please," huffed the red-shelled Koopa, Ren, "he's just messing with us."

"Then why risk coming down here, where he could share our sentencing?" questioned Garen, the green-shelled Koopa.

"What's the story, then, fuzz?" asked Sledge.

"Meork! So now you want to know?" pestered the Fuzzy. "It'll cost you."

"How about your life?" offered Pyre, one of the Fire Bros.

"My life?!" came the Fuzzy's surprised response.

"You do realize we can call a guard down here and get you into the Games with us, or worse," clarified Sledge. "So, yes, your life."

"That's nasty of you, meork!" cried the Fuzzy.

"Tough," murmured Pyro, the other Fire Bro.

"Fine," gave in the Fuzzy. "There's word going around the castle about a rebellion, and some people want to get you out of the Games!"

"Get us out?" asked one of the Goombas.

"Who would be that crazy?" inquired another Goomba.

"Not me, but it's funny to talk about," bounced the Fuzzy. "Oh, and it turns out that Bowser's been in love with Mario the whole time!"

"He what?" asked Garen.

"See? Messing with us," declared Ren.

"No I'm not, honest!" protested the Fuzzy. "The whole castle is up in arms over it! A lot of folks are looking to challenge Bowser's rule and overthrow him, while other people are still unsure or defending him."

"Bowser in love with Mario? Is that your best joke of the day?" rang out another Goomba.

"I may like a good joke, meork, but I don't like the idea of being stuck with you sorry bums!" admitted the Fuzzy. "There's no way I'd risk lying about this!"

A Boo suddenly floated in through the walls, and looked around at the prisoners. She then caught eye of the Fuzzy and laughed.

"Ohohoho!" the Boo chuckled. "So you came to tell them after all!"

"Tell us what?" asked Bill.

"About the castle revolution," laughed the Boo. "Bowser's gone mad and revealed himself to be in love with Mario!"

The thirteen prisoners dropped their mouths open simultaneously as the Boo and the Fuzzy laughed.

"Meork, we should go," giggled the Fuzzy. "I want to see who's crazy enough to go against Bowser!"

"Wait!" called Sledge. "Tell whoever you can to not come down here for us. We don't need to be rescued."

"What?!" wailed Bill.

"Sledge, you're insane!" yelled Ren.

"Can you do it or not?" asked Sledge to the Boo and the Fuzzy.

"Oho, if you'd like, certainly," cackled the Boo. "We've nothing better to do, what with all of the protests underway."

"Speak for yourself, meork!" hissed the Fuzzy. "There's a lot more that I can do than work over this!"

The two continued to bicker as they made their way back out of the dungeon. The Goombas erratically bounced around in their cell while the Koopas glared at Sledge.

"Just what were you thinking?" demanded Ren.

"Someone could have rescued us!" cried Bill.

"At the very least, we wouldn't be in here any more," noted Garen.

"Don't any of you understand? If anyone tries to get us, we'll have a massive war break out amongst our troops," explained Sledge.

"Uh, yeah, I think that's the point," quipped Pyre.

"Exactly, and that's bad," affirmed Sledge.

"Come again?" questioned Garen.

"We're at war with Princess Peach and her Toads," informed Sledge. "If we divide ourselves over support for Bowser, we'll be easy pickings for them."

"Couldn't we just get the fight over with quickly?" asked Bill. "We don't need to have it last long, just to get Bowser out of the way."

"No, there are other people that still like Bowser," realized a Goomba. "Sledge is right. We're going to divide ourselves in the middle of a war and that will lead to Peach defeating all of us."

"But we can't just go through with this!" countered Pyro. "If we die from the Games, then there will be a cry for blood on our behalf!"

"Exactly," added in Ren. "One way or another, we're going to have a civil war slip out amongst our people!"

"So we can't let a rebellion happen, but we're doomed if we compete in the Bowser Games," reviewed another Goomba.

Sledge shifted the helmet on his head around and thought for a minute. "Not necessarily," he murmured.

Meanwhile, Bowser slammed his door open and walked outside into the hall. Kamek stood by, waiting for him.

"Good morning, sire," the Magikoopa bowed.

"Save it," snapped Bowser. He brushed a claw through his fiery hair. "How bad is it?"

"A good number of rumblings about a full scale revolution are underway," assessed Kamek. "Lots of troops realize that today will determine the fates of those thirteen prisoners and want to stop it."

"So," murmured Bowser. "I stop that, I'm a coward and prove my ineptitude as a king, while also admitting that I was wrong to have imprisoned them and to spare Mario." He paused and sighed. "If I continue with the games, I go against the wishes of my people, or some, at least, but carry out my punishment against the prisoners, which will reinforce my will." Bowser scratched his chin and shook his head. "Either way, I'm wrong and the result is a rebellion."

"Well, if it makes you feel better, not everyone is against your will," noted Kamek.

"Such as?" Bowser inquired.

Kamek tapped his wand against his hand. "I believe the Bob-ombs are still on your side, in terms of whole factions. Most Moles, Beetles, and Rexes still favor your viewpoint. All aquatic forces are still struggling with their recent loses, so they're out of the picture." He adjusted his spectacles. "I believe that I can conjure some reanimated troops for our side as well. And if the Piranhas stay fed, they're loyal."

"Is that it?" questioned Bowser. "What about the other groups?"

"Uh…let's see," Kamek rolled his wand around. "My Magikoopas should fall in line, but are questioning my authority, with dissenters claiming that I'm too close to you. Fuzzy and Boo troops could care less about loyalty and enjoy the idea of fighting between the others, rallying behind any argument they can, regardless of sides. All of the other Koopa relations are very harshly divided, as are the Goombas, the Shy Guys, and the Lakitus. Spikes, Snifits, and Swoopers are confused and generally remain quiet."

Bowser punched the nearest wall. "That's ridiculous!"

Kamek shrugged. "Well, sire, you should be pleased that no troops have united a whole faction against you."

"Well isn't that a relief?" deadpanned Bowser. "Smaller troops favor me while larger groups are split on the idea of rebelling. But, I have the bombs, so how soothing."

"Actually, I would agree to that, boy," laughed Kamek. "You do realize that you still have the Koopalings and your son united with you? Having them and retaining the Bob-ombs is a strong start."

"My own species is against me," Bowser asserted. "Koopas, Hammer Bros., Paratroopas, Fire Bros., Boomerang and Ice, all against me? Can you imagine them deciding to revolt?"

"They haven't yet," Kamek mumbled.

"Yet. So, they could," observed Bowser.

"…Theoretically," relented Kamek.

The Koopa King slid his hand over his face. "Fantastic," he muttered.

Junior walked out of his room. "So, what will you do, Papa?"

"…Go forward as planned," decided Bowser. "Junior, tell the Koopalings to fetch the prisoners and bring them to the arena. Kamek, send the announcement through the Castle, and warn the dissenters with death should they intervene."

"Sire, are you certain—?"

"Yes."

"Very well," nodded Kamek. "I'll send you an escort to meet you downstairs."

"Escort?" Bowser protested. "I don't need—"

"Oh, yes you do," Kamek insisted and whacked Bowser's arm with his wand. "I'm not dealing with a possible group that tries to murder you before you get there."

Before Bowser could argue it further, Kamek shuffled across the hall and exited through the stairwell. Junior exchanged a glance with his father.

"Um…are you sure you want to bring him?" asked Junior. "I could do it."

"No, I want him with me," murmur Bowser. "Even if he hates me right now."

"He won't forever," beamed Junior. "If I can't, he can't."

Bowser chuckled, "I hope you're right, son."

He reached down and hugged the prince before Junior hurried off to find the Koopalings. With a heavy sigh, he trudged over to Mario's door and knocked it open. Inside the dark bedroom, the red and blue clad plumber glared at Bowser, his wrists and legs bound to the bed.

"If you promise to play nice with me, I won't tie you up," offered Bowser. Mario only narrowed his glare in response. "Suit yourself."

Slowly, he pulled out a rope and wrapped it around Mario's body, only cutting loose one leg at a time and dodged each kick. Bowser did the same for Mario's arms, also evading the punches the plumber fired out.

After tying and tightening the knots, Bowser sat next to him on the bed and sighed. "I'm actually not a big fan of this, honestly," he tugged at Mario's binds. Bowser waited another minute and tapped at his knees before he hopped back up, lifted Mario over his shoulder, and exited the room.

Silently, Bowser carried Mario through the hallway. He raised his eyebrows at Mario's stillness, but continued down a few steps and pressed the stone panel. It opened to the black room with the matching pipe in the middle. Bowser climbed atop the Warp Pipe and scooted down it, keeping Mario near him.

They traveled through the dark tunnel and subsequently emerged on the other side. Bowser repositioned Mario pat him gently on the back.

"Last chance," he whispered. "Sure you want me to carry you around like this?" Again, Mario refused to answer, and Bowser shrugged. "As long as you're here, this is fine by me."

As they walked from the pipe and stairwell, a purple-shelled Koopa approached them. Her face was stoic, with her ruby eyes fixated on her King and his prisoner.

"Greetings, Lord Bowser," Koopella bowed.

"You?" Bowser blinked. "Aren't the Koopas against me?"

"Some, not all, sire," she corrected.

"Huh. Right," muttered Bowser. More clearly, he asked, "So, how's training?"

"Going well," Koopella raised her arms and showed off her black studded armbands.

"Congratulations," nodded Bowser. "Keep it up."

"Will do, sire," she pledged.

They stepped forward and moved to the larger, red studded door. A black Rex with white wings eagerly hopped forward, and softly grinned at the company.

"Hellooo…" began Nix as he attempted to run his hand across Bowser's arm.

"Not now," Bowser snapped and Nix retracted his hand.

"…Oookay then," the Rex finished as the Koopa King walked past him, and slowly followed the group inside.

The quartet walked through another hall, which was dimmer than the one they left. Another door waited at the end, and Koopella opened it.

As they walked in, a crowd of Bowser's army was gathered in a circular series of stands and bleachers set around a circular platform, which dangled from chains over a bed of magma. Kamek stood up from a decorated booth not too far from the pathway that Bowser and the others had entered. He stepped forward and held his wand under his chin.

"All hail your king, Lord Bowser!" announced the Magikoopa as he rode his broom around.

Cheering and booing sounded from across the ring, as Bowser made his way to his box seating.

"Hooray, Lord Bowser!"

"Rotten king!"

"He's no leader!"

"Greatest around!"

"Is that Mario bound up?"

"How disgusting!"

"Not like Peach had it better."

"They're so cute together!"

"This will be so exciting!"

The Koopa King marched into his box with the escort, and walked in front of two black thrones as a white winged and shelled Paratroopa flew up to the box and flapped to stay level with it.

"Hello your majesty," chirped the Paratroopa.

"Feather Duster?" gaped Bowser.

"Actually, sir—"

"What are you even doing here?" the king interrupted.

"Oh, well, Kamek sent me to keep an eye on you while we're in here," explained the Paratroopa. He turned to the Koopa and Rex with Bowser. "Um…are you too here for that too?"

"Affirmative," nodded Koopella.

"Affirm…? Relax, darling," purred Nix, who received a threatening glare in response. He smirked and turned back to the Paratroopa. "Answer's yes for me as well, cutie."

"Neat," nodded the Paratroopa as he flew above them. "Guess you two can handle the sides, while I take care of the skies." He chuckled as he flew another two feet up.

Nix watched as the Paratroopa flew up and licked his lips. Koopella punched him hard in the arm.

"What?" he complained. "He is cute."

"You're like that with everyone," growled Koopella.

"Not true," defended Nix. "But between him, yourself, and our…well," his face lit up with a blush, "our fine specimen of a king, I can see how one might think that."

"I'm standing right here," sounded Bowser.

"I know," purred Nix, to which Koopella punched him again. "Ouch. Baby, don't hit so hard. I like it rough, but—"

"Stop," she hissed. "You're revolting."

"Ooh, venomous words," Nix clutched his chest. "But, as the lady commands, I shall desist." He eyed Bowser and toothily grinned. "For now."

The Rex made his way to the right side of the box, and stepped aside as Junior made his way across the stands. Eying the bound Mario, the Koopa Prince frowned as he stepped beside his father. Koopella bowed to them and made her way to the left side of the box.

"They're all set," Junior whispered to Bowser.

"Good," the king sighed and sat down on his throne. He gently placed Mario down on the empty side and Junior sat in the smaller throne on the right. Aloud, Bowser called out, "Bring out the prisoners!"

With a loud clang, everyone watched as a large metal platform rose up near the central one. On it were the seven Koopalings, their Clown Cars, and the thirteen prisoners, with the latter still bound by chains.

Some audience members jeered their displeasure:

"Free them!"

"They don't deserve this!"

"Injustice!"

Whereas others voiced their approval:

"Fry them!"

"Serves those traitors right!"

"Give us a show!"

Mimicking Kamek's gesture, Larry lifted a wand underneath his chin and announced, "Welcome, everyone, to the Bowser Games!" Cheers and jeers sounded from the crowd. "Today's event will feature the thirteen prisoners you see here, facing charges of treason against the Koopa King himself!" The uproars continued. "Being a fair and sporting leader, however, Bowser has decided to offer them a chance to compete for their lives, and sentenced them here. With a week passed since their sentencing, it is officially time for their trials to unfold!"

The Koopalings released four of the Goombas from their shackles and kicked them onto the platform, which swayed even from the slightest movement.

"Our first four players will be Jumpy, Grumpy, Happy, and Sleepy!" called out Larry. "They'll be taking a Magmagical Journey across the stones on the lava river below!"

Kamek waved his wand and the circular platform unchained from the bleachers around it, dropping the four down below. Several stones waited in front of them as they looked to one another and shivered.

"Wait, which Goomba is which?" Junior asked Bowser, as they pulled out binoculars.

"You can distinguish them by their eye colors and expressions," Bowser explained. "Happy has hazel eyes and smiles a lot, Grumpy has amber eyes and scowls, Jumpy bounces around with violet eyes, and Sleepy yawns and has droopy gray eyes."

Junior blinked and turned to his father. "How do you even know that?" Even Mario raised an eyebrow in confusion.

"They've been in cells for a week," informed Bowser. "I had to have reports about them at some point. Not knowing them would be a little lazy and tactless, don't you think?"

"Well…I guess," shrugged Junior and they went back to watching the event below.

Below, the four Goombas lined up at the edge of the platform and readied to jump forward. A cannonball whizzed out and crashed in the magma before them. Roy chuckled in his Junior Clown Car on the right side, while Morton flew his to the left.

"Oh, I should have mentioned this," laughed Larry. "Roy and Morton will be firing cannonballs as the four cross." Audience members either joined in on the laughter or started screaming out obscenities. "Their goal is to reach the ending marker, down over yonder," Larry continued and pointed a distance away, where a platform with a goal line waited for them. "You can begin whenever you're ready—go. Oh whoops, better get a move on!"

Nervously, the four Goombas exchanged glances with one another. Jumpy leapt forward first, and bounced on a stone to the left side. Happy jumped forward next, following Jumpy. Grumpy readied to go after them, but hesitated and noticed Sleepy yawn. Growling, he dashed over, rammed Sleepy forward onto a stone on the right side, and leapt after him.

"Well, well, they're off!" narrated Larry. "Roy, Morton, fire at will!"

Morton slammed the front of his Junior Clown Car, readying the cannon as the four Goombas continued to jump along their paths. He fired a shot out, aiming to knock Jumpy from the sky as he jumped forward again. The violet eyed Goomba spun around to watch the cannonball whiz past him and landed on a longer stone platform. Roy mimicked Morton's motion, aiming and firing as Grumpy nailed Sleepy to the same platform that Jumpy reached. Luckily, the tired Goomba crashed against the platform as the cannonball hit the edge and fell into the magma below.

Happy and Grumpy jumped forward and met the other two on the platform. Together, the group moved onward and leapt to another longer stone slab, narrowly evading cannon fire from Morton and Roy.

"Hey, we're doing really well!" cheered Happy.

"Yep, almost there!" bounced Jumpy.

"Good…" yawned Sleepy.

"How can you sleep at a time like this?!" snapped Grumpy.

In spite of that, Grumpy slammed into Sleepy and knocked him forward to the left stone. Happy and Jumpy leapt to the right side as Grumpy chased after Sleepy once more. A cannonball from Roy fired out and crashed on the platform Jumpy and Happy stood on, sending them flying forward to the next one.

"Huh," muttered Roy. "Didn't think that'd happen."

Grumpy panted as the stone beneath him began to crumble and slide toward the magma. Sleepy stretched and slid back as Grumpy bonked him forward again, narrowly able to jump away from both the sinking stone and cannon fire from Morton.

"Lucky…" growled Morton.

The quartet raced toward the final platform and jumped to it before Roy and Morton could retaliate. Recovering from their jumps, they stumbled forward and ran across the goal line.

"Oh, look at that," Larry observed, though lethargic about it. "Guess those four Goombas made it safely over, somehow." Some of the audience clapped, while others booed. "No matter," continued Larry, regaining his energy. "Time for the next challenge!"

As the four Goombas walked forward to approach a craggy wall before them, Kamek flew overhead and cast a spell. Magic dust rained over the Goombas as they briefly disappeared, reappearing back on the raised metal platform in the center. In their place stood Bill, Garen, and the Fire Bros. The four gazed up at the wall before them, which now had a tall fence in its place and open air on the opposite side, revealing the volcanoes in the distance.

"Next up, the Funderwall!" cackled Larry. "This one is for Bill, Garen, Pyre, and Pyro!"

"Wait," Junior turned to his father again. "Those Fire Bros. look identical."

"If you look carefully, they each have burn marks on their shells," pointed out Bowser. "Pyre has a star shape burn and lighter brown eyes. Pyro has a crown shape burn and darker brown eyes."

"Wow, you're right, Papa," observed Junior as he checked through the binoculars.

"These four," Larry continued his announcement, "will scale this wall and make their way to the flag markers at the top." He pointed up to red and black flags with Bowser's insignia on them. "They'll need to avoid traps set along the way to get there."

The Koopas and Fire Bros. looked up the wall, gazing at the spiked orbs that rotated in place on the fence.

"Begin when you're ready!" called Larry to the contestants.

"Shouldn't you tell us about the Koopalings first?" questioned Garen.

"What's that?" asked Larry. "Can't hear you over the rumbling rocks."

Underneath the quartet, their base stone platform began to sink into the magma. Quickly, they latched onto the fence and watched as the rock sunk.

"He should have told us about that too," groaned Bill.

"Ooh, I spit or throw fireballs at them if I could," snarled Pyro.

"That's what they'd want, so they could punish us further," rationalized Pyre. "Come on, let's climb."

Carefully, the four made their way up the wall. Once they were two feet up, they moved in a single file to steer clear of the spike traps.

About a quarter of the way up, Larry's voice boomed out, "Iggy! Lemmy! They were asking for you. Why not fire up the party?"

Giggling, the two Koopalings flew their Junior Clown Cars around the opposite side of the wall and leveled their crafts with the four climbers.

"Uh…they're here to make this harder, r-right?" inquired Bill.

"Unfortunately," answered Garen. "As if climbing and holding onto this wall wasn't hard enough."

Propping up a gray hose-like device on their Clown Cars, Lemmy and Iggy shot out streams of fire and moved their crafts near the competitors, attempting to burn them off of the wall, but missing.

"Well, that's kind of a cruel and demented twist," murmured Pyre.

"They're using fire against us?!" cried Pyro. "That's a load of crap!"

Quickening their pace, the quartet hurried their ascent, evading both fire and spiked orbs. Half way along the wall, Iggy and Lemmy tried to change up their tactics, shooting one flamethrower stream at a time on different sides, hoping to catch one or more of the four off guard.

"Come on, burn already!" moaned Lemmy.

"No thanks, we're fine," calmly responded Garen as he climbed down to evade the wisp of fire.

"Just hold still for a minute," growled Iggy.

"That's the exact opposite of what we should do!" wailed Bill.

Still with a quarter of the wall remaining, the climbers continued their pace, and slipped between the decreasing openings between fire streams and spiked traps. Lemmy began to wildly fire his stream about, burning the fence at random spots to the point where he missed the contestants completely. Iggy, however, used this to try isolating each of the four, trying to trap them between the orbs and fire blasts from either his brother or himself. Pyre scrambled quickly across the fence once Iggy locked him between his brother's flame trail and a row of spiked traps.

"Gotcha now, you pest," manically laughed Iggy.

Just as the flamethrower's stream neared Pyre, however, the Fire Bro. managed to reach an opening and climbed up. Iggy snarled in annoyance as Pyre regrouped with his team and the four reached the flags.

"Ha!" cheered Pyro. "We made it!"

"Guess they fizzled out," chuckled Pyre.

"Aw, no way," grumbled Lemmy. "We should have gotten at least one of them."

"And, check it out, the four competitors made it," deadpanned Larry across the arena. Some members of the audience clapped and cheered louder, while others tried to stomp and hiss out their applause.

Kamek flew by on his broom and cast another spell. The Fire Bros. and the Koopas disappeared under the magic dust as a long, metallic platform fired out from the top of the fence, making its way back to the center of the arena. Near the flags, three Goombas and a Koopa abruptly appeared.

"Ah, time now for the Funstacle Course!" announced Larry. "Watch as Ren, Baldy, Wheezy, and Doc try to run across this bridge as Wendy, Ludwig, and I follow them along and fry them to bits!" The young Koopaling laughed along with the outcry from part of the audience, while others applauded him.

"He's enjoying this too much," snarled Ren.

Back at the box, Junior studied the four contestants. "Ok, wait, I think I got this one," he murmured. "Wheezy coughs a lot and has green eyes. Doc has brown eyes and has glasses on his head. And…Baldy has blue eyes, but doesn't have eyebrows?"

"Very good, son," congratulated Bowser.

"Bowser!" cried a voice.

The Koopa King and Prince turned to see a Lakitu float in front of their box, with a Spiny Egg in his hand. Koopella and Nix rushed back inside the box and stood in front of the royal family.

"This madness needs to stop!" demanded the Lakitu. "You're not fit to be our king and you have no right to punish these people!"

Annoyed, Bowser opened his mouth to retort, but gaped as a white flash knocked the Lakitu from his cloud.

"Feather Duster!" was all that came from Bowser's mouth, as the Paratroopa swooped down, grabbed the Lakitu, and flew back up near the box.

"Hey! L-Let me go!" wailed the Lakitu.

"No can do," laughed the Paratroopa. "You threatened our king's life! That means you'll be brought to the dungeons." He signaled and waved to the metal platform. Morton noticed and rode over to the box. "Here you are, enforcer, sir!"

Morton toothily grinned as the Paratroopa handed the shivering Lakitu over. He flew off and away from the arena.

"Nice work," congratulated Koopella.

"Yes, good show," agreed Nix.

"Aw, thanks guys!" the Paratroopa chuckled and lightly blushed. "You all right, Lord Bowser?"

"Um…yes, I'm fine," Bowser muttered and blankly blinked.

"Good!" the Paratroopa nodded. "Well, back to our posts!"

He flew up and away once again. Nix and Koopella checked on Bowser, Junior, and Mario once more before they walked back to guard their sides of the seats. Bowser scratched his head, blinked, shrugged, and picked up his binoculars to watch as the three Koopalings rode their Junior Clown Cars behind the four runners.

"Are the Koopalings ready?" rang out Larry's voice.

"Of course, brother dear," laughed Wendy.

"This should be a quick performance," boasted Ludwig.

"Wait, shouldn't they ask us if we're ready?" Baldy whispered to his companions.

"Go!" shouted Larry and the Clown Cars floated forward, forcing the four prisoners to flee from the approaching Koopalings, who opened their buzz saws to force the four along the metal platform. Ahead, Thwomps floated in the air in an arranged pattern.

"Ok, we should probably go about this carefully," analyzed Doc as the group ran closer to the Thwomp field. "If we plan out our path—"

"Screw that, just run it!" yelled Ren.

The red-shelled Koopa raced forward to the front edge of the platform, narrowly able to move past a Thwomp that crashed down on the metal bridge. Baldy ran after him, evading another falling Thwomp near the back platform edge.

"Well…I suppose that works," mumbled Doc. He readied to chase them, but faltered as Wheezy stopped and had a coughing fit.

"Just…go…ahead," Wheezy sputtered, and nervously glanced back at the Koopalings as they approached.

Doc hurried back and carefully nudged Wheezy along, finding openings along the bridge that allowed the two to navigate through the falling Thwomps. They met up with Baldy and Ren past the Thwomps and watched a gap in the bridge, with three platforms that quickly raised and fell in place.

"Time it right, then jump," advised Doc.

Carefully, the four took turns jumping from the bridge and onto the first platform.

"At least the Koopalings won't be able to follow us," grumbled Ren as he wobbled himself steady.

"Uh…don't be so sure of that," cautioned Baldy.

Back near the Thwomps, the Koopalings flew their cars over the falling blocks and began to approach the four competitors on their platforms. Panicked, the prisoners jumped to the next platform together, and quickly again to the third.

"Yikes!" Baldy cried out, slipping near the edge of the platform.

Ren ran over and pushed him back to the middle before the bounce knocked either of them overboard. The three Goombas and the Koopa readied themselves once more and leapt to the other end of the bridge.

"Can we…breathe now?" panted Wheezy.

"Not yet," warned Doc, and the four turned back to watch the Koopalings float over the platforms that they had crossed.

Onward, the runners raced forward, coming to a narrow portion of the platform. They lined up and ran across, moving quickly across the thinned area of the bridge. Midway through, the four jumped across another gap in the bridge, and ran across the last part of the narrow pathway. Once they made it through, the platform expanded again, and they were able to spread out again.

"Hey, the Koopalings stopped a little ways back," noticed Baldy.

"Baldy, eyes front," murmured Doc.

The blue-eyed Goomba turned around to find spiked bars rolling toward the group. Ren ran forward and jumped over the first one, with the Goombas following his lead. They darted again, and leapt over the slower moving second bar, and then jumped straight up as the third one sped up and crashed in it. Recovering, the four ran and leapt over two more spiked bars, which rolled off after the others.

"Is it…over?" gasped Wheezy.

"Almost, just keep going," rallied Ren.

"Where do you think you're going?" taunted Wendy as the Koopalings flew back near the four prisoners.

"Time for the finale," chuckled Ludwig, as the trio lined up and readied their Clown Cars' cannons.

With a series of bangs, the Koopalings fired out cannonballs at the contestants. The four jumped over the whizzing line of shots and raced forward. Annoyed, Ludwig and Larry blasted their shots together, but the Goombas and Koopa ran to the middle, away from the next blasts.

"How dare you!" screeched Wendy.

She and Ludwig fired shots, to which Ren leapt over as the Goombas ran up and evaded them. With a growl, Larry and Wendy fired their shots together next, with the Goombas jumping up to dodge the cannonballs while Ren dashed down to dodge. Once more, the Koopalings fired their shots together, but the runners leapt over the cannonballs once again. Everyone looked ahead and noticed that the goal line was just inches ahead of them. Hastily, Ren shoved the Goombas across the line and the four fell forward, off the bridge. They crashed back onto the central platform, where their fellow prisoners waited for them.

"Unbelievable!" shouted Larry. "We actually…failed."

A roar of applause and joyful cries sounded from around the arena. Kamek flew back near the group and waved his wand, casting dust over the bridge, which folded back into the wall. With a rumble, the fenced wall collapsed back down to the ground, leaving only the craggy wall in its place. The stones below them sank into the magma river.

"What now, Papa?" asked Junior.

"Hold on, son," Bowser patted the prince.

"Twelve prisoners have managed survive their challenges!" narrated Larry. "However, we still have just one more prisoner remaining." He glowered at Sledge as the Hammer Bro. stepped forward. Slowly, the audience's excitement died down.

"I'm ready whenever you are," Sledge announced and folded his arms.

"Oh, we've already exhausted ourselves," confessed Larry. "You, however, will have quite the challenge ahead of yourself." He rocketed his Clown Car forward and rammed Sledge off the platform, down to the magma below.

"Sledge!" yelled Bill.

"What do you think you're doing?!" bellowed Ren.

Kamek whipped his wand and Sledge's descent slowed until he landed softly on a mechanical raft below, which floated in place on the magma river.

"For the final game," Larry continued, "we decided to combine the usual challenges left for an individual into one greater set-up. So, enjoy now, the Treasure Tunnel Whirl Finale!"

Silence remained as Larry's large grin slowly faded.

"Explain it," hissed Ludwig.

"Right!" called out Larry. "First, Sledge must line up and match three slot wheels." A heavy slot machine dropped down on the raft behind Sledge on cue. The Hammer Bro. stumbled back as he glanced up at the device. "Once he matches three key icons, the slots will be replaced with sixteen Mechakoopas, one of which has swallowed a key. Once the prisoner finds that key, it will open one of five treasure chests, which will need to be opened in a specific order to unlock the door to freedom!" Larry pointed a lone door at the end of the river, which only appeared to lead toward the craggy wall at the end. "If he succeeds, then the explosives won't go off at the end."

"Explosives?!" coughed Sledge.

"Should Sledge reach the end of the river without the correct key, the explosives will go off and blast him to bits," laughed Larry. "…Oh, and his friends will still face the penalty of death for his failure."

"What?!" cried out Bill and Ren together.

"Ready? Go!" Larry called and Sledge stumbled as the raft surged forward.

"Not good," he muttered as he dashed up to the slot machine.

Three large buttons waited before him, each to line up a picture on the slot reel. Sledge mashed the first one in, and glanced back to see a key icon appear on the slot's screen. He grinned and ran to the second one, hitting the button again. It stopped the slot, but as Sledge looked back, he only saw a red Bowser insignia.

"Damn," he growled and watched the slot carefully. Timing it, he punched the button again.

This time, a key icon appeared on the middle slot and Sledge hurried to the last slot's button. He glanced back and watched the reel spin quickly. Unable to spot the key icon, Sledge hit the button. The slot stopped on a green Bowser emblem. Sledge nipped his tongue and watched the reel spin rapidly again, looking for the golden key icon. He hit the button again, but frowned as a blue Bowser insignia showed up instead.

"Not looking too good," assessed Garen from above as the raft neared the half way.

Once more, Sledge jammed the button and nervously turned back. The slot reel slowed and landed on a key icon. He pumped his fist as the slot machine fell apart, with a golden key floating in its place.

Suddenly, a Mechakoopa leapt up and swallowed the key. Sledge blinked and gazed around the raft; sixteen Mechakoopas lined up around the raft. They hopped around in a circle and Sledge lost track of the one that swallowed the key. Quickly, he jumped up and stomped down on the first one, which burst to pieces. Tightening his fists, Sledge ran forward again and bounced around several Mechakoopas, each one exploding, but no key found. He destroyed about half when they whipped out a fire stream, causing the Hammer Bro. to fumble and falter backwards.

"Come on, Sledge!" shouted Pyro.

"You can do this!" cheered Pyre.

After the fire died down, Sledge leapt and stomped down on another three Mechakoopas. As the last one burst, a key flew out and the Hammer Bro. snatched it from the air.

"Gotcha!" he grinned.

With a puff of magic smoke above him, Sledge ran back as five treasure chests slammed down onto the raft. He looked up and noticed it approaching the end of the river. Sledge darted forward and twisted the key in the nearest chest, which failed to open. He ran to the box across from it, which also failed to open.

"Come on, work with me!" he yelled.

The Hammer Bro. ran at the chest above, which opened to reveal a second key. He ran to the middle chest, which failed to open. Sledge turned to go for the box past it, but ran back to the first box instead. He tried the key and the chest opened, revealing the next key.

"He's cutting it close," announced Larry as the raft approached the ending platform.

Sledge ran up past the opened chest and turned the key into the next treasure box. It opened and revealed another key. He moved to the middle chest, but paused and ran back to the further box. Twisting the key around, it opened and revealed the final key. The mechanical raft began to slow as it neared the base platform.

"Crap," grunted Sledge as he slipped. Recovering, he ran to the middle treasure chest as the raft hit the end of the line. He turned the key and opened the final chest, revealing a larger golden key inside.

"Did…did he make it?" asked Garen.

Scooping the key up, Sledge madly ran at the door near the craggy wall. He slammed the key in and twisted it as the explosives began to go off. The audience gasped and watched the fireworks blast around the magma river below.

However, a glow appeared in the middle of the central metal platform, in the shape of a door. It opened and Sledge tumbled through it. In a puff of magic dust, the door dissipated, leaving the final prisoner back with his companions and the six Koopalings. The crowd sat quietly in their bleachers.

"Huh," grunted Larry. "Uh…well, I guess that's it. Congratulations to the thirteen rotten traitors; you all managed to live."

An eruption of screams rang out from the audience while the twelve other contestants ran into Sledge, crowding around him and grabbing him. Bowser stood up and watched as Morton flew back in to join the Koopalings, who sourly watched their former prisoners celebrate. Kamek flew his broom back over to Bowser and sighed.

"Prepare yourself, sire," he whispered. "Their wrath has just begun." Bowser quietly nodded and glanced back to Mario and Junior, both who appeared worried.

Breaking away from his companions, Sledge jumped forward and snatched Larry's wand away from him. He tapped it and held it under his mouth, ignoring the Koopalings as they demanded its return. The others guarded the Hammer Bro. as he faced the royal box.

"Lord Bowser," he called out. "Surprise, surprise!" Sledge grinned as Bowser grit his teeth and clawed at the edge of his box.

"Ungrateful whelp," spat Kamek and raised his wand to ready an argument.

Koopella and Nix closed back into the box. "Give us the orders, sirs, we'll take care of things," offered Koopella.

"On behalf of my fellow convicts, I wanted to thank you," Sledge continued. "It was you who gave us this sentencing." He paused and listened to the audience's roars of delight at his words.

"Listen here!" snapped Kamek.

"No, no, you listen," Sledge interrupted. "Our great and mighty Koopa King has recently been the subject of harsh scrutiny." He waited for the crowds to quiet down once again.

"If you think, even for a minute, that I'll let you finish those words," Kamek ranted again, "you have another—"

"It's in your best interest," Sledge cut in again. "Quite honestly, Bowser shouldn't need a puppet to voice his thoughts or enforce his will."

Kamek opened his mouth to retort, but Bowser raised his hand to silence the Magikoopa.

"What point are you trying to make?" Bowser called out.

"I thought I already made it," shrugged Sledge. "To thank you, sire. You gave us the chance to fight for our lives rather than sentence us directly to death."

Gasps sounded around the arena as Sledge bowed down. Bowser's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open a bit. Momentarily, the other twelve competitors turned and bowed down as well, causing the audience to murmur and bicker amongst themselves.

"People question your rule in spite of such mercy, Lord Bowser," Sledge pressed on as he rose up again. "It's a shame. I don't know why a heavy bias clouds the judgment of many, but you are our king, the one who has built up our forces that we have so far. You've united countless of mistreated and shunned individuals, who were feared or rejected from the so-called righteous Mushroom Kingdom." He pivoted around and faced the audience again. "Many of you claimed that we were being mistreated here, but King Bowser's judgment was more fair and in our favor than anyone realized. As for injustice, don't cast your hatred and disgust toward our king, whom we still very much need." Darkly, he carried on, "Turn that hatred back toward the true enemy, the one who rules the kingdom that banished us and left so many of us to die in the wilds. Unleash your anger at the one that refuses to amend the decades of wrongs against us, the one who, unlike our king, is closed minded to revolutionary changes. The real enemy is the same, as we've always known her to be. It's Princess Peach. Not Bowser, who guides us against her oppression. Not Mario, who blindly serves her without understanding the truth. Our enemy is Peach."

For a while, the crowd remained silent. Suddenly, a clap began from a single Koopa Troopa. Two more joined her, and a Shy Guy began right after. Slowly, the audience grew into a chorus of applause and cheers. A chant rang out, "Bowser! Bowser!" as they continued their uproar. The Koopa King felt his mouth drop open, but no words came out. He looked to Kamek, who mirrored his reaction, and then to Junior, who smiled brightly. Blinking, Bowser stepped forward again and waved to the crowd, who cheered loudly as he did so. With a confused chuckle, he turned back and picked up Mario.

"S-Sire, what now?" asked Kamek as Bowser began to walk away, his escort following him.

"Now? Now, I think of a way to reward those thirteen lunatics," laughed Bowser. "They just put me back into the good graces of my people."

"That's a load of crap!" shouted a nearby voice.

Bowser and the others turned to find a Spike, a Fuzzy, two Boos, and a Shy Guy running over to the box, with spears in their arms. Koopella rushed back and slid into her shell as she slammed into the three on the ground while Kamek blasted the Boos away with a spell.

"What was that about good graces?" snapped Kamek.

"Well, the majority is in favor," muttered Bowser as he took Junior by the hand, repositioned Mario, and followed Nix away from the box seats. Koopella hurried after them while Kamek called the Koopalings over to assist with detaining the latest dissenters.

"Those were the coolest Bowser Games ever!" cheered Junior and he beamed at his father. "And the prisoners even liked you after all that too! You're the best, Papa!"

"If you claim it so, Junior," laughed Bowser as the escorts guided them back inside the halls of the castle's lower levels.

The group made their way back to the stairwell Warp Pipe, and was transported back to the upper levels of the castle. Junior ran back to his room, with Koopella hurrying after him. Bowser marched back to Mario's room and opened the door.

"Give me a few minutes," he mumbled to Nix.

"As you command, milord Bowser," bowed the Rex as he turned to stand guard at the door.

Bowser shut the door behind him and placed Mario back onto the bed.

"You could not possibly remain quiet after that," assessed Bowser as he placed Mario back onto the bed.

Still holding a glare, Mario shook his head. "Fine, you win," he snapped. "But that speech back there? That was completely insane and brutally misguided!"

"Oh, you think so?" challenged Bowser.

"Peach isn't an oppressor!" defended Mario. "Your people are absolutely out of their minds if they can go from rallying against you to uniting against her!"

"Maybe they are a bit crazy," agreed Bowser. "But they're not lying about being cast out from the Mushroom Kingdom. Why do you think I have so many different troops in my army, so many different species in my kingdom?" He paused and studied Mario's face as the plumber eyed him back. "They're outcasts. We're outcasts. Rulers before Peach banned them for a variety of reasons from living within the Mushroom Kingdom. If your princess was the benevolent ruler she's claimed to be, they would have been welcomed back ages ago."

"That's a lie!" barked Mario.

"No, it's not," murmured Bowser. "Or haven't you learned that there are secrets being kept from you, hidden or lost within Peach's Castle?"

Mario opened his mouth to argue, but couldn't find the words. Bowser shook his head as he cut open Mario's ropes and quickly tied him back to the bedposts. This time, the plumber put up no resistance.

"I don't think she's evil, at least not anymore than myself," admitted Bowser. "She has shown tolerance to some Koopas and Goombas, and let them live freely within the safer regions of her kingdom. But collectively, they're still kept out and isolated, away from the Toads, away from the kingdom."

"She is not evil, period," refuted Mario.

Instead of arguing it further, Bowser simply finished tying Mario back into place. He leaned over the plumber and gently stroked his cheek, which Mario turned away from.

"Don't. I'm still mad at you," grumbled Mario.

"So I see," sighed Bowser. "What does it take?"

He waited, but Mario refused to answer him.

"If you want to go back to your creed of silence, that's fine," whispered Bowser. "But I'm not giving up, even if you want to."

Again, he waited, but Mario still wouldn't even look at him.

"Hate me, then," relented Bowser. "Maybe we shouldn't be in love, maybe this is just too much on top of everything else." He took in a deep breath and exhaled. "But I still love you, and I'm not letting it end here. Not yet."

Slowly, Mario turned his head back toward Bowser, and the two stared quietly into one another's eyes.

Chapter Text

[Peach]

An icy gust blew around us as we crossed the bridge to the Glaciers. I kicked a bit of ice off the bridge and watched it disappear into the dark blue waters below. Once I reached the frosted surface, I turned back and watched as my shivering friends made their way over to meet me, albeit at a slower pace.

"P-Peach, h-how is it t-that you are n-n-not f-freezing?" Daisy asked.

With a shrugged, I answered, "I guess the cold never bothered me."

"N-No way," Luigi cut in. "I've s-seen you c-cold before."

"Well," I turned back around and marched forward, "not today."

Onward, I stepped across the dense ice, slowing my pace every so often to wait for my friends. They staggered along, with each chilling breeze slowing them down, not to mention the slight movements of the glacier threw off their balance every so often as well. I bit my lip, annoyed at their sluggish pace, but then, had an idea. Waving the Royal Scepter around, I cast out fireballs that circled around us, creating a circling wall of warmth.

"W-Wow, thank you, Peach!" cheered Toadette. I smiled and nodded in response.

"Hey, yeah," laughed Daisy. "It's the first time in forever that I've seen a fireball not blast someone to cinders."

"Um…I don't know…which is worse…for me," panted Yoshi, as he wiped sweat away from his face. "Extreme heat…or cold."

"Neither seem like ideal options to deal with for very long," agreed Luigi.

"No, and we'll need to keep a quick pace if we don't want to melt a hole where we're standing," I directed. "Come on!"

My friends followed me across the frozen mass, but I wasn't looking to work through every last glacier, every little area. We didn't have the luxury of clearing each individual location and dragging down all of Bowser's flags. What we needed was control here, and hasten our pace to get Mario back.

Ahead, there was a gap between the Glaciers, with several Goombas and two Ice Bros. waiting on the other side for us.

"Looks like we've got company," Daisy assessed as the others gazed past my fireballs and to the enemies across the way.

"Hold it right there, Princess," called one of the Ice Bros. "This will be as far as you go—"

He wouldn't get to finish his sentence as one of my fireballs cracked across the sky and blasted him into the waters below. A chunk of ice with a frozen Ice Bro. was all that came up after.

Shocked, which turned to anger, his companion shouted, "You miserable little—!"

Another fireball crashed against him and sent him off into the waters to join his friend. The Goombas ahead shivered and I readied to attack them.

Before I could move, a long red tongue stretched out and smashed them across the glacier, into a wall of ice. Frozen blocks came crashing down over the Goombas and they were trapped in seconds.

Yoshi and I stared at one another, with the fire's heat bothering him less since that the numbers dwindled. Though he did his best to maintain a neutral expression, I could see a bit of wariness in his eyes.

"My, that was certainly a wonderful show of strength, Yoshi!" Toadette applauded and I cast the fireballs aside, out of our way. "For someone so cute and with your reliance on eggs, I didn't know you had it in you."

"Don't talk to him like that," muttered Luigi to her as he walked past me.

"Well, excuse me, mister," huffed Toadette.

He and Yoshi leapt across the gap to the other side. Daisy followed them, and I turned to Toadette, who frowned at the distance.

"Toads aren't the best jumpers," I murmured.

"That gap is easy to make," Toadette reassured me and smiled.

"There will be longer ones up ahead," I warned her.

"Then I'll have to figure something out," shrugged Toadette and she jumped forward. Easily, she reached the other side. "Come on, Princess!"

With a final glance back to the frozen Ice Bros., I leapt across and joined the others. Whipping the fireballs back around us, we hurried along the way, until we reached a large ice structure ahead.

"What is that thing?" Daisy asked and I motioned the fireballs away.

"It's…it's a palace made of ice!" cried Luigi.

Everyone gazed at the ice fort before us. It seemed fairly grand, at least in height. Carved into the castle were doors and small openings for windows. The blocks of ice that were made resembled stones that one would build a proper castle with. Near the left side was a type…slide?

"Is this meant to be the fortress?" wondered Yoshi.

"Hey guys!" called Toadette. We turned down to see that she turned her attention away from the palace and gazed out to the ocean. "See that iceberg over there?"

She pointed and we squinted at the huge ice chunk that floated away in the distance. A polar bear that stood upright on its hind legs wandered atop it, with what appeared to be black sunglasses and hot pink shorts.

"…What is that?" carefully questioned Daisy.

"A polar bear," I answered, more plainly than I should have.

"But…why is it…?" Daisy trailed off as the palace's doors opened from behind us.

Several Penguins marched out, with wide and curious eyes. They were much taller than any of us, and looked down as they came closer.

"Who are you?" demanded one that stood in front. The voice was a female's, but very authoritative.

"My name is Princess Peach," I introduced. "I'm here to help free the Glaciers from Bowser's control."

"Princess? He…he hasn't kidnapped you?" she asked, quite surprised.

"Not this time," I nodded. "We need to get through these Glaciers quickly and free the fortress that's been taken over. Once we do that, the rest of the land is yours to restore back to order, as you see fit."

"That would be nice," agreed the Penguin. "All right, if you take our slide, you'll be able to reach the glacial caves quickly. But, be very careful; it's a bit of a stretch, and you don't want to fall off from the slide."

"It goes above the water, doesn't it?" checked Daisy.

"Yes, and Penguins tend to enjoy the swim, but I very much doubt the rest of you would," murmured the Penguin.

"We'll be fine," I assured her.

"Very well," she nodded and turned to the Penguins behind her. "Allow these five through, and let them use the slide."

"Yes, Madame," complied the Penguins and they waddled aside.

With a smile, I guided the others through the entrance of the palace and the Penguins guided us to the nearby slide. The Madame Penguin followed us over and stood next to the slide.

"Do be wary of Cooligans," she advised. "Unlike us, they're not the friendly sorts. They're cheeky and will try to bump you off, just for laughs."

"Thank you, we'll exercise additional caution," I curtseyed to her. "Toadette, do you have the Item Bag?"

"Sure do," she pulled it out and I rummaged through it until I pulled out the Penguin Suit.

"Oh, that's a smart idea," Luigi smiled. "Can we all use it?"

"We should be able to," I nodded. "Grab hold, everyone."

My friends gathered around and touched the Penguin Suit as it glowed bright. In a flash, we were enveloped in a light. When it disappeared, I gazed down at my hands, which were now covered with flippers. My pink dress remained along the outside, but it was now around the body of my blue Penguin Suit. Daisy had a similar costume, with her orange and yellow dress around a black Penguin Suit. Luigi's was a dark blue with green overalls on the outside. Yoshi's was a plain suit, but had his saddle on the back of it. Toadette had a blue Penguin Suit as well, with her pink vest and dress on the outside of it.

"Gracious, I didn't realize you were all part-Penguin," mused the Madame Penguin.

"Oh, we're not. I'm sorry, Madame," I shook my head. "This is just a temporary, to help us as we slide."

"Ah, I see now," she nodded. "Well, those will certainly help, I'd imagine."

Another Penguin stepped up to help us climb onto the slide. Luigi and Yoshi scooted to the front, while Toadette sat between Daisy and I in the back.

"Hey, you boys ready?" asked Daisy.

"N-Not exactly," gulped Luigi.

"Too bad!" she laughed and kicked Luigi and Yoshi forward. Slowly, they fumbled about and slid down the icy slide, with Luigi wailing as they flew off.

Quickly, the girls and I flipped onto our bellies and pushed off, as we hurried down the slide after them. It had a steep drop at the beginning, but slowly rose up a bit, allowing us to slow our pace a bit. The slide dipped down and around a bend, letting us go through another set of the Glaciers and over the ocean below.

"This is awesome!" shouted Daisy as she threw her hands into the air.

"Woohoo, yeah!" agreed Toadette, who began to pick up speed and slid further ahead. "W-Wait! What?"

"Oh dear, hold on, Toadette!" I called as she continued down slide, between the boys and us.

Ahead, we slid into a cavern between the next two of the Glaciers. A quick gap of air let us know that we passed from one to the next. However, from that opening, I glanced up and watched several small penguins with sunglasses dive down at us.

"Cooligans!" cried Luigi, who had also noticed them drop from above.

We sped through the next glacier as they dropped into open spaces around us. Daisy held her hand up and summoned an Ice Ball. She threw it at one of the Cooligans, who turned into a block of ice and gained momentum.

"Uh…oops?" nervously chuckled Daisy.

The frozen Cooligan knocked two of its allies away and sped closer to us. Luigi and Yoshi screamed and I whirled my head around.

There was a slight gap in the slide itself, where we soon launched off and dropped to the next part of it. Though we continued to rocket onward, the frozen Cooligan had dropped off the slide, too heavy to launch properly.

Three Cooligans remained with us, and one sped up to attack Toadette.

"Watch out, Toadette!" I called out again.

She spun about and fired an Ice Ball, which missed and burst on the slide in front of Daisy, who had to wipe her eyes from the powder that flew at her.

I launched an Ice Ball of my own and hit the Cooligan, who was encased in a block like the last one. It slid down and crashed into the remaining two Penguins, who were batted off the slide.

Luigi and Yoshi jumped up and allowed the frozen Cooligan to race past them, dropping back down and next to Toadette as it disappeared around the next bend.

"Phew. Thank you, Princess," sighed Toadette as we continued to slide along.

Soon, we reached another steep drop in the slide, and we sped down it. The end of it lifted up and we soared off from the slide, over the ocean, and through the air. After a moment, we crashed down on another glacier, this one with a large cave in front of us. I glanced at the top of it, with a flag of Bowser's insignia at the top of it.

"A glacial cave," observed Luigi. "Doesn't seem like the best place to convert into a fortress, does it? What if the place collapses or melts?"

"Considering that we already dealt with a sunken ship, I think they could care less on a permanent fortress foundation," countered Daisy.

"Regardless, this is definitely the place," I pointed up to the flag at the top. "Let's get in there and get this over with."

They nodded and we walked inside the icicle-lined entrance of the cave. Cautiously, I guided the others further along the cave, but stopped when I noticed the Dry Bones ahead.

"We'll need to deal with those," I whispered to the others and shuffled forward first.

Luckily for us, we were already prepared to deal with Dry Bones. I formed a new Ice Ball in my flipper and aimed my arm to throw it at the first Dry Bones, which rested on a cliff above.

As I threw the Ice Ball, Daisy yelled, "Peach! Head's up!"

Shaken, I watched my Ice Ball score the hit against the Dry Bones and froze it before I gazed up to watch a giant ice stalactite come crashing down.

It knocked me away and in a flash, I was on the ground, back in my normal dress, and lost the Penguin Suit.

"Drat," I hissed as I pushed myself up.

"Are you all right, Princess?" asked Toadette.

"Yes, I'll be fine," I brushed myself off and pulled my Royal Scepter out. "Well, let's continue, shall we?"

The others exchanged glances, but I turned back and jumped up to the cliff. Placing my scepter down, I lifted the ice encased Dry Bones and threw it against a wall, shattering it.

"Is that really necessary?" wondered Yoshi aloud.

"Of course it is," I responded. "We don't want them coming back to attack us, do we?"

"But, they don't always attack," countered Yoshi. "Sometimes, they just patrol."

"Yoshi, don't tell me you're pitying these undead Koopas," I snapped. "They're not worth it!"

"They're not worth obliterating either, are they?" questioned Luigi. "We're in a hurry, aren't we?"

My eyes locked with his, and even at a distance, Luigi held a good stare. With a heavy sigh, I nodded.

"Then let's go," Luigi called out and jumped onto another cliff on the opposite side.

Daisy and Yoshi followed him up, while Toadette hurried over to my side and jumped to follow me. Instead of attacking the Dry Bones that we passed on our ascension, we evaded them and leapt to the next platform.

A crack sounded from above and Toadette shouted as we watched another ice stalactite slam down by Luigi, Daisy, and Yoshi. Toadette and I jumped to another platform and saw Luigi and Daisy jump on top of the ice stalactite, but Yoshi was against the floor, without his Penguin Suit.

"Ugh," I heard him groan. "Not fun."

Luigi jumped down and helped Yoshi back to his feet. We jumped up and continued to climb, evading the patrolling Dry Bones and ice stalactites that fell as we pressed on. Eventually, we reached a platform that brought our groups back together, along with a few snowmen lined up against the cavern walls.

"Happy snowmen!" cheered Toadette as she ran over and poked one. "With carrot noses! So cute!"

A long red tongue stretched out and lashed against the snowmen's faces. Toadette jumped as it stretched in front of her, and paused for a second for us to see the lump of carrots that were wrapped up. It slipped backwards and went into Yoshi's mouth as he swallowed the vegetables whole. Everyone else stared at Yoshi as he rubbed his belly.

He stopped and looked back at us. "…What?" Yoshi questioned. "I was hungry."

We shrugged and continued to jump up the cliffs and platforms of the cave. Another stalactite fell, which I launched a fireball at to shatter it. The remaining pieces rained down, however, and one struck Luigi.

"Nice aim, Princess," Luigi muttered as he was lit by a flash. He folded his arms as his Penguin Suit disappeared and the light faded.

"It was worth a shot," I grumbled.

Our climb continued, mostly uneventful as we paraded past the Dry Bones, who wandered aimlessly around by this point.

"You know, some of the others attacked us before," observed Daisy. "Why won't these guys?"

"The cold must be messing with their heads," guessed Yoshi. "Dry Bones have a pretty solid weakness to ice and frozen environments, right?"

"True," I agreed. "Which…makes it confusing as to why Bowser would send them here."

"Isn't every fort guarded by Dry Bones?" inquired Luigi. "I've been through so many and it's always full of Dry Bones. Why is that?"

"Bowser probably knows that we'll just clobber anyone else and rush through the place," assumed Toadette. "So, might as well make it easy for us!"

"That…doesn't exactly make sense," argued Daisy. "Why put the boss at the end?"

"Oh. Then that's probably it," presumed Toadette. "He wants us to go through quickly to fight the boss, who he thinks we'll struggle against."

"They're not the only ones here!" shouted a voice.

Everyone glanced up to see two Ice Bros. waiting near the top of the cavern.

"Hello," Toadette waved, undeterred. "Can you tell us why Bowser uses mostly Dry Bones in fortresses and such?"

"W…What?" asked one of the Ice Bros.

"Well, they're pretty weak, for the most part," continued Toadette "Besides the whole resurrection action they have going on and…hey, that's it!" She snapped her fingers at the revelation. "Guys, Bowser probably uses them because they're the ones that can come back from almost everything! Dry Bones can handle extreme temperatures, reassemble from being knocked apart, aren't afraid of the dark, they're ideal troops for these places!"

"…Why do you even care?" questioned the other Ice Bro.

"Care? Who told you that?" asked Toadette. "I'm just distracting you two."

Realizing it too late, the Ice Bros. whirled around to find that Luigi and Daisy had climbed up and jumped on top of their heads. The Ice Bros. fumbled back and fell from their perch, back down the cavern below.

"Nice work, Toadette," I congratulated.

"Thank you, Princess!" Toadette beamed.

"Hey, how about us?" demanded Daisy as she folded her arms. An abrupt flash enveloped her and she blinked as her Penguin Suit disappeared. "W-What?!"

"Is that a Freezie?" asked Luigi as we looked to the passing ice block with a perplexed facial expression. It silently slid from the edge and fell down the cavern.

"…Seriously?" questioned Daisy, as her arms hung out loosely in front of her.

"That could have been worse," noted Yoshi.

Annoyed, but agreeing, Daisy nodded and folded her arms back together. Yoshi, Toadette, and I jumped up to the next cliff and met Luigi and Daisy as we leapt further up the cavern. Eventually, we reached a big, green studded door.

"Well, congratulations, Toadette," muttered Luigi. "If this were a mini-game to see who could keep the Penguin Suit to the end, you'd be the winner."

"Woo!" cheered Toadette and twirled around. We laughed as she spread her arms out and posed happily.

"Come on, let's keep going," I urged. Toadette nodded and we pulled the door open.

We walked inside and the door slammed shut behind us. I stare down the long corridor and realize how dull this becomes as we venture through each one across the kingdom.

"Let's race down the hallway!" suggested Toadette. "First one there gets the first attack!"

Before anyone could contest to her idea, she broke into a run and hurried along. I charged after her, with Yoshi, Luigi, and Daisy running not too far behind me. At one point, Toadette tripped and slid forward on her Penguin Suit, which helped her glide along a little faster for a moment, but skidded to a stop. She giggled as I scooped her up and carried her along to the end of the hallway. For a moment, I thought I heard Kamek's evil cackle resonate in the distance.

Once we reached the end, we exited the glacier cave and appeared at the top. Thick ice stalagmites surrounded us, preventing a chance at escape, if need be. A mound of snow was all that was at the end of the area.

"Wait, did Toadette win, or Peach?" Yoshi asked.

"Whoever you are, just show yourself already," I called out. "We've already been through three of these fortresses, we know how this works."

"T-Three already?" a voice echoed around us. "Oh d-d-dear, that's not good news."

A surge of wind billowed from the snow bank and blew the powder all around us. When it cleared, a giant snowman rested where the pile originally was. He had a blue bucket on his head, a stick arm that had a yellow mitten with a pink stripe at the end of it, and an expression on his face similar to the Freezie from before. Black stones were used to make up the face and the buttons on his lower section.

"And you are…?" inquired Daisy.

"I-I'm Mr. Blizzard," a voice sounded from the snowman, but his mouth did not move a bit. "B-B-Bowser requested me to watch over the Glaciers."

"More like ordered," corrected Daisy.

"Not exactly, b-but I suppose you c-could c-call it that," shivered Mr. Blizzard.

"You don't seem all that evil," assessed Luigi. "Why are you oppressing this land?"

"O-Oppressing? No, I d-don't do that," Mr. Blizzard insisted. "I k-keep the land cold and h-helped the P-Penguins build their ice p-palace."

Something clicked for me as I inquired, "So, it was between you and the Penguins to work for Bowser?"

"N-No, Bowser didn't even c-consider the Penguins," the snowman shivered again. "He t-thinks that they're t-treated well enough."

"Treated well…?" I questioned.

"B-By you," accused Mr. Blizzard.

"As opposed to whom?" I demanded.

"Other s-species of the k-kingdom," continued Mr. Blizzard. "P-Princess Peach enforces l-laws that keep them out from h-her kingdom."

"If by others, you mean the nasty grunts that Bowser uses, then that's wrong," defended Toadette. "Princess Peach keeps us safe from them."

"S-She keeps the others out, a-and they're f-forced to defend themselves," persisted Mr. Blizzard. "B-Bowser takes them in a-and uses them for t-troops, but also g-gives them m-more help than the r-r-royal family."

"Listen," I intervened. "Bowser has been trying to tell that lie for ages, and it's been passed down within his line for generations. My family has done no wrong to these other species. They're hostile creatures, and they'll attack innocent people on sight. The Toads, the Penguins, the Yoshis, they're more defenseless folks. How have they ever incurred the wrath of such vicious monsters?"

"I-If they were truly v-vicious, you wouldn't even n-need to c-call them such," Mr. Blizzard picked out. "Y-You've grown up on t-the lies you've b-b-been told and now you c-continue to spread them amongst y-your p-p-people."

"These aren't lies," I insisted. "The first instinct of a Goomba is to bonk an approaching target. A Koopa will launch its shell at someone to attack. Cheep Cheeps bite, Piranha Plants spit fire, Dry Bones will throw bones—"

"Toads will stomp, Penguins dive, Yoshis fire eggs and eat foes," clearly sounded the snowman. "They're not quite as defenseless as you believe them to be. You are not as defenseless as many would believe you to be."

My grip tightened around my scepter. "The Koopa King has fed you nothing but lies, and now they've festered in your head for far too long," I darkly murmured.

"S-So if they w-w-were lies, w-why do you grow so angry?" challenged Mr. Blizzard.

"Because you believe them," I called out. "And I'm upset that you do."

"Does my o-opinion bother the g-great Princess of the M-Mushroom Kingdom?" he questioned.

"It wouldn't if it was your own opinion," I pointed my rod at him. "However, this is just what Bowser wanted you to tell us. He's trying to stir something against us."

"Who's to tell?" inquired Mr. Blizzard. "I only see you and your allies here. None of them have connections to Bowser, do they? Their absolute, undying loyalty resides with you, doesn't it?"

"That's right!" piped up Toadette.

I flashed her a smile, but when I turned to check on the others, I noticed Daisy wearing her own perplexed expression while Luigi and Yoshi were frowning…at me.

"You don't seriously believe him…do you?" I quietly asked them as I lowered my wand.

Yoshi shivered quietly, though he didn't look like he had an answer in mind for me.

"No, we don't," affirmed Daisy, though there was unsteadiness in her voice. "I've known you for years, Peach. You're not evil, or oppressive, or whatever he's trying to imply."

"Not by choice," mused Luigi.

"What was that?" I questioned.

"It's just…Peach, you were never there during the time that the Koopa Troop soldiers were, well, not apart of Bowser's army," observed Luigi. "Have you ever spoken with them on a personal basis?"

"Are you insane?" I blurted out. "Bowser kidnaps me! Why would I ever—?"

"I didn't suggest Bowser," corrected Luigi. "Though, maybe he's just doing what he was always raised to do."

"He wasn't raised to kidnap me and hold me ransom for my kingdom, he chooses to do that!" I snapped. "He's doing it with Mario right now! Luigi, you have to see that, out of everyone here!"

"…My brother and Bowser…" muttered Luigi. He glanced at Yoshi, who continued to shake from the frigid environment.

"They're enemies!" I shouted.

"Are they?" boomed Mr. Blizzard. "Or have you made them such?"

"What?!"

"Why would they be against one another?" contested Mr. Blizzard. "Mario foils Bowser's attempts at rule to keep you safe. Bowser despises Mario because he keeps helping your kingdom. If you're taken out of the equation, what do they have left to fight over?"

"Anything!" I forced out. "Everything! They hate each other! Mario only ever puts on a good front when we invite Bowser to things because I ask him to!"

"Always?"

"Yes!" I insisted. "Even then, Bowser crashes to I don't even know how many events and gatherings we have! He's cruel, vile, nasty, rude, insecure, bossy, spiteful, evil, insensitive, manipulative—!"

And I froze as that last word registered in my mind. I checked back on Yoshi, who had folded his arms and crossed his legs as he shivered still.

"Manipulative," I repeated. "Manipulation. That's your game, isn't it?"

"Excuse m-me?" questioned Mr. Blizzard.

"Most bosses have forced us into a fight by this point," I recalled. "But you haven't. And that's your trick, that's why Bowser chose you. You're trying to get in our heads and have us freeze out here figuring ourselves out. Crafty, and it was going well for you."

"C-Confrontation is something I-I'd rather avoid," Mr. Blizzard tried, but I shook my head.

"No, that's exactly what you were going for," I readied my scepter again. "And that ends right here."

Before anyone else could speak, I whipped up a fireball and shot it at Mr. Blizzard. The snowman took the hit right across the face and wailed in pain, but didn't flinch.

"And you've called others monsters?!" cried Mr. Blizzard.

"Peach, hold on a minute," Daisy reached out and grabbed my shoulder. "He can't move."

"That's the point!" I thundered. "He's just trying to get into our heads!"

"But Peach—"

"No, you guys don't understand," I argued. "That's all this boss is made of. It's not like the others that can fight us back. He's stuck where he is. The way he battles us is by messing with us verbally and mentally, not physically."

With a glare at the snowman, I readied another fireball.

"M-Maybe we could just…run around him and confuse him, instead?" weakly offered Toadette.

"If your friends won't help me, and you won't stop, then I have no choice," moaned Mr. Blizzard.

A snowball materialized in his hand, formed from the icy dust around the area. Quickly, I shot a fireball at him, but he lobbed the snowball at my shot, which cancelled the blast.

My mouth dropped open. "How…?"

"For my lack in mobility, I have sharp aim and a mastery over colder elements," announced Mr. Blizzard. "This allows me a chance to defend myself from predators, such as yourself."

"I'm no predator!" I angrily defended.

"You launched a fireball to harm me, when I haven't wronged you in any way," noted the snowman. "What do I call you if not—?"

"Just stop talking!" I shouted.

"Truth lives, even if I fall silent," rumbled Mr. Blizzard.

"Enough!"

Again, I sent out another fireball, which Blizzard blocked with another snowball. He formed another one and quickly tossed it at me. I ducked but heard an odd, crackling sound behind me.

"Yoshi!" cried Daisy.

Whirling my head around, I gasped. Yoshi was encased in solid ice, frozen in place.

"S-Surrender now, p-p-please," bellowed Mr. Blizzard. "Leaving him frozen for too dangerous."

"Then release him!" I commanded.

"Only if you leave this place," he contended.

"We can't do that," I argued.

"Well, then you leave me no choice," Mr. Blizzard echoed.

Another snowball launched out and I shot a fireball to block it. Daisy ran forward and went to jump onto the snowman, but he was far too tall for her to rise quickly enough.

"Daisy!" I shouted as another snowball formed in his hand.

It was too late. Blizzard hit her directly with the snowball and my fellow princess was quickly encased in ice. She crashed back down to the ground, not far from Mr. Blizzard.

"Will you stop now?" he asked.

"No!" I yelled.

"So be it."

Mr. Blizzard whirled up another snowball and launched it. I created a pink barrier around Toadette, Luigi, and I, which blocked the snowball.

"Nice work, Princess!" thanked Toadette.

"Peach, you're doing well," observed Luigi, "but for Yoshi and Daisy's sake, we should probably stop here."

"Absolutely not!" I boomed. "Just give me a minute."

Another snowball formed in Mr. Blizzard's hand, bigger than the last. He hurled it forward and I watched it hit my shield and…break through it!

"That's not possible!" I cried out.

The large snowball crashed down beside me and I pivoted to see Luigi slowly encasing in ice.

"Luigi! No!" Toadette gasped.

Hastily, Luigi called out, "Either end this, or s-save my brother!" The ice closed around him and froze him like the others.

Angered, I whipped up another fireball, bigger than the last, and sent it right at the snowman. It hit him without fail and he moaned in pain.

"Is war…the only answer…you know?" gasped Mr. Blizzard's voice.

"You're the one launching snowballs! Just stop!" I shouted.

"Must I be the one at fault?" he challenged. "You launch fireballs repeatedly at me."

"Those snowballs froze my friends!" I yelled.

"Unfortunate," he murmured. "I've been aiming for you."

Quickly, he formed another snowball and lobbed it at me. I shot a fireball at it, canceling it, as another snowball whizzed through the air at me. Again, I burnt it down, and readied my staff for the next one.

The third, however, flew across rapidly after the second, and I couldn't ready my spell in time.

"Princess!" wailed Toadette.

As the snowball soared down, Toadette jumped in front of me and took the hit.

"No!" I screamed. "Toadette! Why?!"

Thinking that I was asking her, she tried to laugh, but coughed instead. "I guess some people are worth freezing for," she managed out to me as the ice encased her.

My mouth hung open. All four of my friends were frozen solid. And if they stayed that way for too long…

"Forgive me, Princess Peach," bellowed Mr. Blizzard. "This will be the end."

A roar of anger escaped me. The snowman threw another snowball, but I blocked it with a shield.

He created a larger snowball again, but I lowered the shield and waited until he threw it.

As the snowball came flying at me, I waved my wand and froze it in the air.

"W…What's this?!" gasped Mr. Blizzard.

Pink ice encased the snowball and shifted its shape into a spear. With another wave from my scepter, I threw it back and it sliced through Mr. Blizzard's arm. The snowman shrieked in pain and I used the scepter to create a giant fireball above him.

"Release my friends, right now," I demanded.

"This…heat…should…do it," coughed the voice of the snowman.

Slowly, the ice around my friends began to thaw, but it wasn't fast enough.

"Help it along!" I commanded. "Now!"

"I can…only create…snow…not destroy it," wheezed Mr. Blizzard.

Daisy gasped out as the ice around her face melted. Yoshi and Luigi soon followed as I moved the fireball above the center of the area. Mr. Blizzard also began to melt as I kept it raised above us, waiting as my friends were freed from their icy prisons. My shoulders were stiff until I heard Toadette breathe again, as Daisy broke out of the remaining ice and ran back to us.

Once my friends were thawed out, all that remained of Mr. Blizzard was a slushy body, and his partially melted head.

"Good job…Princess," he gasped. "You've…won. I…surrender."

Hearing that didn't satisfy me, not like I assumed it would have. The fireball floated overhead and I guided it above Mr. Blizzard.

"Peach?" Luigi spoke up. "Peach, what are you doing?"

"He's too dangerous," I murmured.

"Who…danger…?" was all that Mr. Blizzard could manage.

"Stop! Peach, don't!" Luigi cried out.

But I didn't listen, as I released the fireball and let it fall in front of the melted snowman. A pitiful last cry of pain was all that we heard.

We watched as the fire burned the ice. Luigi shouted something, but I stopped listening. Tears filled my eyes as I summoned water from the ocean below and tried to put out the fire quickly.

It shined a bright blue color and I washed the flames away. But all that remained of Mr. Blizzard were burnt objects that he wore, and a large puddle.

I glared at the Bowser flag that continued to beat in the wind. As I guided the water back down from the glacier, I made a wave slice the flag off from the ice.

"Princess…?"

Sharply, I inhaled, and looked down at Toadette. She worriedly gazed up at me, but neither of us spoke. A tear dropped and I brushed it away.

"What have you done?" asked Yoshi.

"He was evil," I defended and scowled at Yoshi. He backed up, taken aback, and seemed quite sorrowful, fearful even.

"Who is the evil one, Princess?!" thundered Luigi and I locked my glare against his.

"Are you seriously asking me that?" I questioned.

"Yes, yes I am!" he snapped. "Bowser's taken my brother, seized control of these kingdoms, and hurt us all on multiple levels, but you know what he hasn't done?" I stood quietly as Luigi paused, waiting to see if I knew the answer. When I didn't fill in the blank for him, he continued, "Killed. Somehow, after all of this, not a single person is dead on your side. Meanwhile, we've taken down so many troops from Bowser's side that I've lost count."

"They're monsters, Luigi," I insisted.

"Are they?!" he challenged. "Blizzard was ready to give up, Princess. He didn't need to be incinerated."

"He did!" I shouted as my voice broke. "If I didn't stop him here, he could have done worse to another person! Who knows what he would have done?!"

"How?!" Luigi demanded. "He couldn't even move! All he could do was throw snow and talk! That's it! So long as no one else came here, who could he harm?"

"Luigi, Peach might be right about this," cut in Daisy. "Mr. Blizzard couldn't move, true, but why should this place be kept under his control? We needed to free the Glaciers. Now that he's gone, the Penguins can get rid of Bowser's troops without fear."

"Without…he helped build their palace!" defended Luigi. "If anything, we've given them something to be more fearful of!"

"I think Luigi might be right," voiced Yoshi. "If Blizzard helped the Penguins, we might have only made matters worse here. What if he was the one that kept the tension to a minimum?"

"While he kept Bowser's troops here?" protested Daisy. "Come on, that's no way to live. This guy…or, snowman…he was evil!"

"A necessary evil," I muttered.

"Peach?"

Quietly, I stepped over to the puddle and lifted the charred mitten. With a final glance at the other remains, I stood back up and walked past my friends and used my scepter to form a bridge from the ice stalagmites. Slowly, I crossed them as I silently walked back toward the ice palace, visible from this glacier in the distance.

After a minute, I heard small footsteps chase after me. And soon, my friends followed Toadette as she hurried after me.

Barely, I observed the other Glaciers below, watching for Bowser's minions. There weren't many, but there wasn't much that I could make out. Mostly, I watched the water and glanced between that and the steps that I took across my ice bridge. Each time the bridge stopped, I motioned for a piece from the back to break off and form the next part of the path, creating my own never-ending steps.

Eventually, we arrived back at the ice palace. The Madame Penguin stepped outside to meet us as I shifted the pieces from the bridge into a descending staircase.

"Welcome back," she greeted. "I'll take it that you were successful?"

"At the cost of Mr. Blizzard's life, unfortunately," I reported. "I understand that he helped you create this place?"

"Indeed, and it took a lot of his power to do so," she confirmed. "It's unfortunate that you needed him gone, but what's done is done."

"What will happen?" I quickly asked. "Without him, what will happen to this place?"

"Well, we'll be fighting to take back the rest of the Glaciers," noted the Penguin. "After that, I suppose we'll need to find another, um, 'winter wizard,' if you will, to help us continue to fortify our lands."

"I'm sorry," I apologized.

"Dear, there's nothing for you to be sorry about," insisted the Madame Penguin. "You did only what was necessary."

Somehow, her reassurance failed to comfort me, but I nodded.

"Thank you, Princess, for your kindness, in rescuing not only your land, but giving our people hope," she bowed to me. "We will no longer fear the tyranny of Bowser's forces."

"Have they done much to harm you?" asked Luigi.

"Nothing too over the top, but they've threatened our lives and taken control of more than a fair share of land," informed the Madame Penguin. "Mr. Blizzard was kind enough to protect us when they overstepped their boundaries, but we'll be able to take care of things from here, without him in our way either."

"Just don't over do it," I cautioned. "If you need any support, send word to my castle immediately."

"Of course. Thank you again, Princess Peach," she smiled.

With a nod, I turned away and led my friends away from the palace.

When we were a great distance away, across another glacier and bound for home, I uttered, "I just promoted war."

"Well, yeah," came up Daisy's voice. "You are in the middle of it."

"But I've done nothing to stop it," I murmured.

"Neither has Bowser," Luigi admitted. We locked eyes for a moment. "Peach, I'm sorry for how I acted earlier. It's just…well…"

For a moment, Luigi looked like he had more to tell me, with his mouth open and a finger raised, but he dropped his arm and shut his mouth as he scratched the back of his head.

"It's all right," my voice broke out. "You're just keeping an open mind. You just want Mario back. I get it." A tear slipped from my eye. "I really want him back too. But I don't…I don't know the right way to go about it."

Once we reached the bridge, I stopped walking. The others crowded around me, but I couldn't look at any of them. Instead, I dropped to my knees and tossed my rod aside.

And then, I cried.

Chapter Text

[Bowser]

Night fell as I wandered back into the hallway of our rooms. While I was focused on going to bed by this point, I slowed my pace as I neared Mario's door. It had been two days since he left…since I forced him out for the Games. My hand gripped the doorknob and I gently turned it open. Quietly, I slipped inside and shut the door behind myself.

He was already asleep when I came in, with nothing else to do, nowhere to go. Even in the dark, I watched his body steadily rise and fall. My heart raced while I inched closer to the bed and he shivered. Part of me begged to lie beside him and sleep with him, but another part screamed not to wake him or else. Conflicted, I stood over his bed and limited my breathing as I observed him.

As I turned to leave, a short tapping noise sounded from the floor. My eyes flashed back to Mario, who continued to sleep. Carefully, or as much as I could, I reached down and picked up a ball of paper. Mario groaned and I crept further away from him, back to the door. My heart continued to pound as I came toward it, with my eyes bouncing back and forth between escape and my lover, my prisoner. A bit too quickly, my hand slipped on the doorknob and opened it too hastily. He murmured again and I scrambled out of the room.

My heart hammered and I waited for him to wake up, with the door still open and me clearly visible. I didn't even know what he would do, or what I would do. But a minute passed, then two, and he continued to sleep. Exhaling, I pushed the door closed and gently shut it. Again, I waited and glanced down at the crumpled paper ball in my hand. With a shrug, I strode over and into my room.

"What the hell was I thinking?" I mumbled as I crashed onto my bed, burying my face into the pillow.

Momentarily, I picked my head up and peered at the paper, still clenched in my fist. Rubbish, possibly, but it is Mario's, so…I can't burn it right away. On top of that, it's also the only thing I got from my…whatever that was.

Slowly, I turn on a light, unwrap the paper, and open it up to several written lines. A letter. The words are upside down and I turned it over to start from the top. At first, I let it rest on the pillow and want to just read it from there, but my hands latched back onto the paper, as if I could hold him again by grabbing it. Instead, my head rested on the pillow while my hands locked the letter in front of me.

My Dear Bowser—oh, damn him, it's for me. Did he plan this? …No, he couldn't have. I didn't even plan that.

With a sigh, I try to buzz through the words, but stop hard at the beginning. He writes that he's going crazy over my absence and I'm confused for a minute. "Metaphorically, probably," I dismiss it and try to continue, ignoring my heart plummeting to my stomach as I glaze over what he considers as the unrealistic relationship we have.

He goes on about how we haven't been together long, and that's when I realize it's dated. A month has already passed since I first started this. His compliments, however, drive me forward through the letter.

Most of all, it was you who made me feel worthwhile. My cheeks burn up as I read that line and my hands trembled. I'm already dating him, or…was; either way, how can I feel so…?

The letter goes on about how Mario gets sick of heroics and being everyone's idol. It's surprising, but then, not so much, now that it's written here for me. My breathing became tense as he stated that I helped him get beyond that, gave him confidence, protected him. I gave him everything…and he realized that.

I had you. And yet, I left you.

Something stirred or grinded inside of my stomach while my hands shook more violently, and I couldn't understand what it was exactly. Sorrow? Rage? Confusion? Pain? What is this ambivalence? What do I call everything mixed into one?

Still, after steadying my breathing and hands, I kept going. (If I could read him questioning us, I should read an apology too, right?) He goes on about the past events we struggled with, and then asserted that he left for the Toad's sake, as he had during our fight. Though…he admitted then that he knew it was wrong, and that the whole situation was risky.

And I'm caught when he writes: You hesitated to tell your son the truth, I've kept it from my friends; it was too much of a risk. Our relationship, as it turned out, nearly cost me my entire army. He was right. And if he still hasn't told his friends, then he's still right about the risk.

Further along, his words line up with what he explained to me back at Seaside, that he realized he went against what I wanted for someone else…like the hero would. But he was sorry for it, and yet I…didn't listen.

And that makes the next words all the more painful: It's probably too late to tell you so, too late to smooth things over, but I need you to know that I still love you, that I still want to have you in my life. A tear slipped down my eye and I blinked to find that several had already hit the pillow. Damn him.

If that torment isn't enough, he insisted that he wanted to make everything right, claiming that I had already done so much for him. The letter explained that he couldn't think clearly, that his nightmares returned to torment him, even after he went home to his friends. And guilt panged inside of me when I realized that he shivered while asleep in the room just a slight distance away…I thought I helped him before, but now I…don't.

Will you forgive me?

Mario asked that, in spite of thinking it too much to ask me. Moreover, it was after he wrote what I thought was his wavering confidence in us, but here, he wanted my determination. He wanted us to still be a couple, regardless of his reservations over everything, even after everything…but before I had…

My mouth shook as I buried my face into the pillow puddle and sobbed a bit. "Why couldn't I have just listened before?" I heard my hollowed voice wail.

Filled with self-loathing, I slammed the paper over onto my table and pushed myself upright from the bed. How was it that he was going to fix everything, and then I went and screwed it all up?

Brushing my eyes, I glanced at the flipped over letter on my nightstand and saw something scratched down on the back. Just a single word, two letters, but it looked practically carved onto the paper, with how thick and deep the black ink went into it.

NO.

It was my answer to his request of forgiveness. It's what I gave him after he had looked to salvation from me, only to have it blow up in his face. As if I had been without sins, as if I had never made mistakes, and that's what I gave him when he begged for me back. Two. Icy. Letters.

"I'm a moron," I voiced my thoughts to no one but myself.

Digging my claws into my soaked pillow, I clenched my teeth together. I ruined us. Here I was thinking that he had given up already, that he was being too stubborn, but it was…I did this to us.

…Damn him.

"No," I forced out aloud. It hurt to hear, but I shook my head. Mario tried to put us back together and failed. He could have kept trying to explain this to me, but I forced him into submission, to give up. No more.

Determined, I rolled back over and began to plot out how to make this right. We both screwed up, but I'm moving past that and winning Mario back over. I'll just need to figure out how to get him to like me again.

Somehow.


 

[Mario]

This morning, I was awoken by the pleasant sound of my door slamming.

Panicked, I jolted up, alarmed by my inability to jump up. My eyes refocused as I realized I was still tied to the bed. Groggily, I turned to the door and saw Bowser grinning at me, hands behind his back and the door closed.

"Good morning, Mario!" he practically sang. Even if my eyes were only half opened, I glared in response. "You look gorgeous!"

With a bit of drool still stuck on my face and an idea of how my hair must be standing up in several different places, anyone else would think he had lost his mind and I was inclined to agree.

Still cheery, he inquired, "So, would you like me to undo those binds?" If you're looking for me to strangle you, certainly, you may. But, as if he read my mind, he added, "I will if you promise not to lash out at me right away. …And you have to actually tell me 'yes' or 'no,' since I'm pretty awful at reading you."

No he…wasn't. "Fine, yes," I muttered.

Smiling, Bowser let one hand fall from behind his back and quickly scratched off the ropes that held my legs back, and then the ones on my arms. It was almost as if he wanted them off more than I did. And now that I got a closer look, I caught that his cheeks were rosy colored.

"Better?" he asked. I nodded as I rubbed my wrists. "Good!"

"…Are you all right?" I questioned.

He blinked and nodded. "Yes, I was just…well…" I gave the king a quizzical look and tried to peek around him to the door, but he shifted a bit, as if avoiding…

"What do you have behind your back?"

"Nothing," he lied. "Why would you think there's anything there?"

"You haven't moved your left arm since you walked in," I pointed out. "And you haven't turned away from me the entire time."

"I can't keep my eyes off of you!" Bowser insisted.

"…So, what do you have?" I nonchalantly asked.

He puffed out his cheek as he brought around a bouquet of red and white flowers and a heart shape box of chocolates.

"Are you kidding me?" I blurted out and my face burned.

"Well, I was trying to surprise you, but—"

"Why would you even think that this would make me feel better?" I snapped. "O-or that it would make up for anything?"

"Yikes, calm down!" Bowser placed the flowers and chocolates on the bed. "I didn't get this to make up for anything. It's just…the first part of…my…plan?" The last bit didn't sound quite convincing.

"Plan?" I repeated. "For what?"

"You!"

"…What?"

He laughed and strode back toward the door. "You'll see. Just get up in a little bit and then, uh, come on out?"

"I'd rather not," I folded my arms and turned away. "Besides, I haven't washed the entire time I've been here, again, and the last—"

"Time you ended up smelling really bad," interrupted Bowser. "Got it, a good shower will fix you up then! I'll go get it ready."

"Wait, what?" was all that I could get out before Bowser left.

A sigh escaped me and I stared at the flowers, which were carnations mostly, but I dug through them and noticed that he placed two Fire Flowers in between them. Either Bowser was trying to be very generous, or wanted me to burn him to pieces. The red box of candy I left alone as I pushed both away from me, along with the bed covers. Slowly, I turned myself to the edge of the bed and tried to fix my hair.

"Was he honestly relying on the most cliché method to win me back?" I demanded from my empty room. And honestly, I'm not sure what bothered me more: that he did that and expected more favorable results, or that I actually was flattered from the gesture. "I'm supposed to be angry with him," I murmured as I shook my head and forced my cap over my head.

Just as I stood up, a pounding sounded at my door and I fell back onto the bed. Bowser opened it a bit and poked his head in.

"Shower's ready!" he announced and grinned.

"Fantastic," I deadpanned and brushed my hands over my eyes.

He slipped back out and I grabbed my gloves and shoes. As I got up and trudged to the door, I hesitated. A minute passed and I shifted my clothes around. I pulled off my cap again and glanced at it as I added it to the pile. Another minute went by and Bowser popped his head through the door again.

"What's wrong?" he checked. "I thought you wanted to clean up."

"I did."

"Then what are you doing?" Bowser questioned. "You've got yourself together. Do you want me to have your clothes washed?"

"I—"

"Wait. That's a dumb question. Of course you do." He marched back in and took what I wasn't wearing into his own arms. "You can pass me the other stuff when you're in the bathroom, like last time."

"Last…?" I started, but remembered. "Ah, right. Sure."

"Well then?" Bowser walked back out the door and waited for me in the hall. I rolled my eyes and lumbered out after him.

The bathroom wasn't too far, so staying silent walking up to it made things easier. I went up to the door, but Bowser opened it for me before I could even touch it.

He frowned at my glare, so I clarified, "I'm not helpless."

"I'm just—"

"And I don't like to be mothered."

Bowser opened his mouth to defend himself, but shut it and nodded. I slipped past him into the washroom and closed the door behind myself.

Angrily, I threw my clothes off and glared at my reflection in the mirror. Instead, however, I paused and admired the white stones of the room, which were refreshing to the eyes after seeing nothing except black and gray corridors all day and night. Even in here, though, the curtains and rugs were red.

"Mario?" Bowser called in.

"Yes?" That's too soft. "What?" I snapped.

"Your clothes?"

"…Oh."

Quickly, I opened the door, shoved my clothes into Bowser's empty hand, and slammed it shut behind myself.

"Uh…I didn't look," assured Bowser.

"Good," I murmured as I walked away from the door and turned on the shower.

Hot water poured on me and I let each drop slide down my skin as I stood quietly, with my hand clutching a soap bar. The shower blocked out any noises that would have sounded outside, but it only gave me more time to think.

"He hurt them, and he hurt me," I muttered to myself. "I don't care how overly sweet he's acting. I can't just give in to him and pretend nothing happened."

Absent mindedly, I had doodled heart shapes around the steam-coated stones on the wall. Annoyed, I smeared them away and continued to wash off.

After about a half hour, I stepped out and slipped a red towel around myself, only to hear another pounding sounded at the door.

"What Bowser?" I wearily asked.

"Bowser?" questioned Kamek's voice. "No, it's just me, and I've brought you spare clothes."

"…Oh. Uh…just—"

"Here," Kamek called as the door burst open while the clothes whipped across the air and into my face. Within a second, the door slammed shut again. "You're welcome," the Magikoopa called in.

"Um…thanks?"

I pulled everything off my face, which included a red button shirt, blue pants, fresh socks and underwear, white gloves, and…I glanced up to see black shoes at the edge of the room.

"Lord Bowser requests you to dry and dress quickly," instructed Kamek. "He's looking to meet with you downstairs."

"Where his troops are?" I questioned as I dried off. "And some of which still want to kill me…or us? That doesn't sound smart."

"Too late, I've already tried to talk him out of it," murmured Kamek. "He's insistent on you going down there."

"And if I refuse?"

"Please don't," pleaded Kamek.

"Why not?" came my agitated response.

"Because then I'm to drag you down, dressed or not," he informed me. "Please tell me that you're dressed now."

"Getting there," I muttered as I began to dress myself.

"Could you hurry along then?"

"Not really, and I'm already going as fast as I can, whether Bowser likes it or not," I snapped. "He can wait an extra minute or two."

"Sure, it's only my hide, but please, take your time," complained Kamek.

As I buttoned the shirt and squished my feet into the shoes without untying them, I was compelled to ask, "Just who wears these clothes?"

"Koopas," answered Kamek. "They wear clothes too, sometimes."

"But who matches my sizes this closely?"

"Apparently, more than one Troopa," noted Kamek. "Are you done?"

"With your impatience? Yes, and beyond it too," I dryly responded. "You're worse than my brother."

"Well, your brother doesn't serve a fire breathing king with a short fuse temper, now does he?" questioned Kamek.

"True," I relented as I did the last button. "Though he might claim otherwise."

Kamek chuckled as I brushed my hair and shoved the gloves on. I opened the door and turned to see the old Magikoopa as he grabbed his wand and pushed off of the floor.

"Shall we?" Kamek gestured to the door and we walked over to it.

As he opened it and we walked into the spiral stairwell, I asked, "Does it bother you?"

"Working for Lord Bowser?" he assumed. "Some days, but I practically raised him myself, so I can't really hate him, and really—"

"Actually," I interrupted, "I meant our relationship."

"Oh. Ah, that," Kamek suddenly became fascinated with his wand. "Well, it's certainly atypical on several grounds."

"So, you don't approve," I figured.

"On the contrary," Kamek turned from his wand and gazed at me. "You're the first person in ages that the king has been trying to have a genuine romantic relationship with, and he could have chosen from far worse options." He paused on the step to adjust his spectacles, and then continued, "At least you're able to keep up with him."

"Keep up?"

"Physically, mentally, I'm not sure about emotionally, but I'm going to assume so," Kamek assessed. "I suppose it's only been about a month, but I find it more favorable than others."

"What about Junior's, uh…mother?" I inquired.

"Can't remember her," admitted Kamek. "Actually, it's as if the boy just appeared."

"That's…odd," I decided.

"Truly, but considering that we've never heard from the mother since, I wouldn't imagine her to be much competition to you," shrugged Kamek.

"Uh, I didn't mean to imply—"

"Of course you didn't, I'm joking," he chuckled. "…Mostly."

"Why does that sound familiar?"

"Well, I practically raised him myself," repeated Kamek. "Ah, here we are."

I blinked as he opened the door; I hadn't even realized that we had reached the bottom of the stairs. Rolling my shoulders, I stepped through and Kamek quickly hurried after me, readying his wand.

"That bad?" I checked.

"Quite honestly, I'm just not taking any chances," he explained.

No sooner had the words left his lips as a hex sparked and came at us. Kamek quickly countered it with a barrier spell, which he then launched down the hall.

It snared around a figure in the distance, which we cautiously approached. As we neared it, I realized it was an ordinary Koopa Troopa trapped in the glowing net. Kamek scoffed as he picked up a wand from the floor.

"What, your rebellious friends thought you could handle the master Magikoopa himself?" taunted Kamek.

"They didn't tell me that I'd be dealing with you," whimpered the Koopa.

"Serves you right then," Kamek mumbled as he waved his wand and in a flash, the Koopa disappeared. To my astonished face, Kamek simply uttered, "The dungeon."

All I could do was nod and follow Kamek soon after. He guided me down another four halls and led me up a smaller and straight flight of stairs, to another door.

"This is your stop," he pointed to the door and began to walk back down the steps.

"Aren't you coming in?" I asked.

"The king gave me the impression that it's just for the two of you," chuckled Kamek.

As the Magikoopa walked away, I tugged at my mustache. Exhaling, I pulled the door open and walked through it.

To my surprise, it led outside and onto a solid, wooden deck. It extended out a bit over the some of the land below, but I didn't see any ways down. Bowser sat by a table near the railing, with his head resting on his right hand, staring out at the mountains and volcanoes in the distance. On the table was a plate of love pudding, heartful cake, and love dish noodles. He turned and grinned the second he noticed me, quickly pushing himself up from the table and knocking the food off in the process.

"Damn it!" Bowser growled and glared at the mess he made.

"I wasn't hungry, anyway," I mumbled and shrugged.

He returned his attention to me and smiled, but I turned away and walked to another side of the deck, which had part of its view obscured by a tower from the castle. Bowser lumbered up behind me and put his right arm around my shoulders as he grabbed the railing. I scowled, but didn't push away from his warmth, his…no.

"Do you think I should build this out more?" he asked. "I don't really get many chances to come back here, and I haven't taken you out before, but now that we're here, yet the view could be better, so—"

"You should do whatever you please," I muttered and kept my attention fixed on the scenery, trying hard not to look at him.

We sat in silence for a minute, but Bowser broke it, "Would you like me to serenade you?"

"No."

"Want me to…" he wrapped his arms around me, "keep you warm?"

"It's hot out here," I deadpanned and pushed away from him.

"…Would you like your hat back?" Bowser asked as he shoved it down onto my head.

"Thanks," I snapped and shoved it up above my eyes.

"Well, at least that was a more positive response, if only a bit," Bowser tantalized.

"Is this all you brought me out here for?" I demanded.

"What's wrong with me trying to spend time with you?" he groaned.

"Here's what: I'm still angry at you!"

"For how long though?" he questioned. "Mario, I've practically begged for your forgiveness, apologized repeatedly, tortured you, tormented myself, publically revealed our relationship, fought for you, and now I'm swarming you with love and attention. What does it take?" At the last part, he grabbed my shoulders and shook me. "Just tell me! What do you want from me, what do I do?"

My arms flew up and knocked his away. "Not that!" I yelled. "None of this! I just…I need my space, all right?"

"But I—"

"Bowser, just leave me alone," I pleaded. "Please?"

He stared at me, begging longingly with his watery red eyes. "If that's what you want," he relented.

"That's not what I want, I just…I don't know," I admitted. "I…I need to go."

Barely watching him nod, I pivoted and hurried back to the door, closing it too quickly behind me as my heart raced.


 

[Bowser]

I flinched at the door slam and grimaced. My claws dug into the railing and I carved at the wood beneath them. Hearing the railing beginning to crack, I relaxed my grip and pulled myself away from the edge.

"What does it take?!" I bellowed to sky. "What do I do with him?! Why am I hated every time I try to fix things?! Why can I never find or bring happiness to someone without having it thrown back in my face?! What does it take to not be such a screw up over everything?!"

My hands clawed through my hair, with an intention of ripping a few strands out. I panted as my breathing steadied, but my heart still hammered.

"Once. Just once, can't I make things right?" I moaned. "Am I always going to be the villain to everyone?"

Shaking, I dragged my left claw over my face and heaved.

"How can I get Mario to like me again?" I pondered aloud. "I've poured my heart out to him, I've given him everything that I…"

Wait. No, I haven't yet. It's a stupid idea, but considering how awful I've done already, what have I got left to lose?


 

[Mario]

Regret filled me as I stared at the door from my bed. Any minute, I was bound to run out and go searching for Bowser. Forcing myself to roll over, I threw the pillow over my head and peeled my attention away from such thoughts.

However, the sound of the door bursting open got me to push myself back up and to turn around. Bowser marched in, with a long black wand in his hand. It had a red jewel at the top of it, but other than that, I wasn't certain if it was a personal scepter.

Moreover, his expression was hardened, even as he lifted his eyebrows to gently shut the door behind himself as he stormed in. I wasn't able to read just what he was feeling, which made my heart sink.

"Bowser, look, I—"

"Don't start, please," he pleaded. "I know you don't want me around, but I just need to give you a few things."

"But—"

"Yes, I know you're sick of my surprises already, but this is the last one for today, I promise," he explained as he waved his wand and opened a portal hole above me. Papers rained down on top of me as they coated my bed in a short matter of time.

"W-What is all of this?" I asked.

"It's all…for you," Bowser smiled and sat on the floor to watch me.

With a puzzled look plastered on my face, I dug around the papers and pulled one up from the pile, and then another. His handwriting was all over each sheet.

"Read them," Bowser insisted.

"Uh…all right." I cleared my throat before starting:

"Dear Nobody, since I'll never tell anyone about this,

Today, when Mario came by to get Peach back, the sun actually poured in through the hole in the roof and shined so magnificently on him, that I gawked blankly at him for the first two minutes he had rushed in.

Worse still, he grabbed me by the tail to throw me around, but his touch keeps making my heart pulsate, as I grow used to it.

I don't want to imply that I'm falling for him, but…I'm starting to like it."

Turning it over, I find nothing written on the back.

"Read another," Bowser persisted. "I kept throwing them aside, so they'll seem like I should have written more."

"But—"

"Please? Just do this for me and I'll leave you alone, I mean it," he vowed.

With a sigh, I grabbed another paper and read it:

"Today, Mario invited me to head out go-kart racing with him and the others. Usually, he just sends me a flier in the mail, or I just drop by parties and sport events unannounced, but this time, he specifically came to me and asked me to come. I think I accepted a little too eagerly, but screw it; I've been dying for him to do this. Who knows? Maybe we can distract each other on the racetrack a bit. Actually, wait, that's dangerous, forget it. But still."

Again, I glanced at him, but he just kept a smile on his face. Though I wanted to tell him that it was enough, Bowser kept shifting his attention between the pile and I. With a sigh, I picked up another paper.

"Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Mario, when will you learn,

That I'm really into you?"

I place it down and smirked at him while he blushed.

"That was cheesy, but I couldn't help myself," he chuckled.

"It was adorable," I teased as I grabbed the next paper. "Damn Mario and his stupid mustache. For some reason, I couldn't pull my eyes away from it as I kept thinking about him kissing me. I bet every girl in the kingdoms that has the chance to steal a kiss goes wild over it. Just once, I'd love to do the same. And then after that, if he was up for it, we could—"

"No, wait, not that!" Bowser snatched the paper away and crumpled it up, blushing furiously. "Ah…ha, I forgot what that was about until the last sentence came up."

"There was still a lot left written on that," I complained. "I wanted to read more."

"Uh…m-maybe another time," Bowser scratched at the back of his head. "Just…read another instead."

Shrugging, I picked up another letter and read off:

"Dear Mario,

You'll probably never read this, and I'll lock it away somewhere you'll never see it, but I just wanted to tell you that I love you. Wow, this is dumb, but there, I wrote it down. And I don't care how much you love Peach, or that this might gross you out, or that you'll never really know how much you mean to me. But I've put it down somewhere, so now you know. And you know what? I'll sign this stupid thing so you have no questions knowing who wrote it.

Love,

Bowser

Ha, that's right, me! Bet you'd never have guessed…or felt the same. Oh well."

We lock eyes and he sheepishly smiled.

"How long have you had these for?" I asked.

"Uh…a very long time, longer than I care to admit. And I…really never thought you'd read that," he laughed. "Even now, the whole never finding out bit sounded accurate."

"But it's not," I pointed out.

"Of course it's not!" Bowser grumbled. "I just thought it sounded that way."

Stifling a laugh, I grab the next one. It's much longer.

"Mario,

Let's get this cleared up:

You're a moron."

My eyes lowered as I glanced up to glower at Bowser.

"H-Hey! Don't stop there!" he protested. "K-Keep reading it!"

"I don't know about that, this is a really long one," I admitted.

"At least read a few lines!" whined Bowser.

"Fine." I skimmed through the lines and read a few bits out:

"How could you not see that I'm doing this…all of it…for you?

Sure, you look a little pudgy from time to time, but that means you eat, unlike the boney princess…Of course, the mustache is a plus, as anyone could tell you.

It's not so good of a performance, however, that even you should be deluded by it. You're better than that and I know you are.

If I were to yell out, 'I love you,' would you hesitate then? Would you think more carefully, with a cleared mind, away from all of the lies?

What happens after, when the tyrant Koopa king relents in attacks and suddenly goes out to more and more parties and sporting events with what everyone foolishly considers his arch nemesis?

But it's you I prefer by far. I don't know how else to say it, but I prefer the more masculine and strong types. It makes a suitable match for me, reflects how I am as well.

I need a sign. I've told you so many times how important you are to me.

Are you nervous too? Are you afraid to bring out your deepest feelings? Can you not stand the thought of playing any role beyond the hero?

Yes, conquest. As I said, it's all for you. I act like a vicious ruler so no one can see my tender side, my vulnerabilities. In truth, I would probably make a very normal, if not boring, empire.

That's the point of total conquest for me: take control of everything, no more opposition. No more sides. You would be with me. There would be no more acting. I wouldn't need to make an excuse to see you or work with you. You would be mine and I would become yours. We could rule, both of us, together.

I delude myself with how much I want from this.

My heart bleeds and, more than anything, I fear that we will never be together.

There would be someone, somewhere, that would deny us, refuse our love. We would be outcasts. I would be overthrown from my kingdom. You would be banished and labeled traitor to the Mushroom Kingdom. They might even hunt us; do everything possible to separate us.

I wonder, again and again, if there could be a perfect world for us. I could wish on all the stars for us to be together.

There's so much that I wish to know. I want so much from you, from myself. I'm not brave, not like you. I'm afraid. I'm insecure. I need you, your guidance, to let me know if I'm right. I need to know if you want what I want. Mario, you are everything to me. No, you will never know, but you are everything that I could ask for, all that I pine for.

Years will trickle by. We will engage eternally in battle. We will never be together. We will die, again and again, longing for an impossible end. But as I've said, you should know by now: I will never give up.

Eternally never yours,

Bowser"

"That's a few lines to you?" laughed Bowser.

He stopped as soon as he realized that I wasn't laughing with him. My heartbeat fired up as I read through the words and grew lost in everything Bowser poured out over this letter. And he would have never showed me, thinking that we would never have been together. But now…

"Right," Bowser grunted as he stood up. "I'll, uh…I'll get going then." He turned away and started toward the door.

"Wait!"

I stumbled out of the bed of papers and scrambled to stop him. He pivoted back to me and caught me, helping me back up.

"Mario, what are you—?"

"You should read mine!" I blurted out. I went to reach into my overalls, but realized that I wasn't wearing them. "Uh, hold on, I must have…"

"Your apology?" he inquired. "I read that already."

"What? Oh, good, but not that." I zipped back to my bed and dug under the mattress for my own letter, the one my brother returned to me. "Here, I brought this and, um, it's similar to yours." I handed him my letter and he slowly took it. "I…I don't know what to say really. I'm sorry."

"It's fine," chuckled Bowser. "It'll be a fun read, I'm sure."

"No, not just that," I shook my head. "I'm sorry about…being so cold and unforgiving and treating you so horribly, even after you did so much to get me back. And…well, I didn't mean to be so—"

"Stop. You're good," he wrapped his arms around me and smiled. "After all of the years that I've been so nasty, even if I was just acting, I kind of had a little backlash coming. And…well, we still have a lot to work out, with everything going on."

"Then, let's get back to it," I offered. "Back where we were before, together."

"That's all I wanted," Bowser laughed. Softly, he put his head down on mine and pulled me in closer to him, and whispered, "More than anything, I want you."

Returning his embrace, tightly, I moved my head up and kissed his neck. His arms tightened around me and squeezed me into him.

"We should read the rest in your room," I suggested.

"Why Mario," he gasped and pulled back. "We just got back together, and you want to hurry into my bed already? Are you sure you're ready?"

He snickered and burst into a roar of laughter as I punched his arm.

"Oh, come on," he slowed back to a controlled voice. "It was there."

"You're bad," I murmured.

"Yeah, that's the one thing I'm good at," he sighed.

"No, no you're good at a lot of things," I informed him. "Like being a Mario reader."

Bowser blinked blankly at me before he erupted into another fit of laughter.

"Ok, there, I used it," I kneed into him. "Quit it."

"I can't," he coughed. "That was so perfect."

"Right," I hid my chuckle and turned back to scoop the letters from my bed. I stopped when I felt him tug me back to him.

"Hold on," Bowser purred. "We need to make our relationship official again."

"With how determined you were, I didn't think you considered it over," I teased.

"With how thick headed you are, you act like you don't want what comes next," he fired right back.

He leaned down while I smirked and his hands scooped up my face. We shut our eyes as I moved closer and took in his warm, refreshing breath. Our lips don't touch just yet, and I tease him with the tip of my mustache, as I rub my hands across his cheeks.

"Now you're teasing me," he softly moaned.

"Yes, and I love it," I snickered.

"More than me?" he playfully asked.

Smiling, I pressed my lips against his and gently moved my mouth along his. He groaned as my mustache pressed against him, and pushed his lips further into mine. Softly, his tongue slid across them, parting them open a bit. We pulled back briefly to take a breath, but I quickly dived back into him. His laughter is lost between us as his tongue grazed against mine and we deepened the kiss. A minute passed, maybe two, but our breaths run short and we're forced to break apart again. We opened our eyes and I lost myself back in his fiery, bright red eyes.

"I like making up," Bowser chuckled. With a soft growl, he pulled me back in closer, and seductively whispered, "But I love you."

"I love you, too," I breathlessly returned.

"You realize that I'm never letting you come back to this room again, right?" he softly asked.

"By now, I wouldn't want to," I confessed.

With a giant grin, he pushed my hat off and tossed it aside. We shut our eyes and kissed once again, slowly losing track of time, and completely losing track of the world around us.

Chapter Text

[Mario]

Underneath a silver shrine, between pillars adorned with star shaped carvings, I sat between Bowser's legs, resting against him. We gazed out to the dark night sky, crisp, starry, as we looked out from the purple mountaintops. Bowser slid his arms around me and pulled me into his belly, which was warm, heated, relaxing.

"What should we wish for?" He whispered softly, sweetly to me.

"Wish? I…I don't know," I admitted as he scooped my hands into his.

"We'll have to think of something just right," he murmured, gently rubbing my hands with his thumbs.

"But we already have what we want, don't we?" I asked him, and glanced up at him.

"It's not about what we want, though, is it?" Bowser countered, and I lowered my head as he put his atop mine.

Then…what was this about?

My eyes slowly opened and I pushed myself up from the dark red pillows. Still tired, I rubbed my hands over my eyes and tried to refocus my eyes.

"Hey, you ok?"

A light amount of worry in his voice helped me open my eyes again. Bowser walked from his ebony wooden wardrobe, back over to the bed and sat down on it, facing me.

"Yeah, I'm fine," I smiled to his fiery red eyes; even in the darkened room, they stood out sharply.

"You didn't have another nightmare, did you?"

"No, but I was at Star Hill again." I sighed. "Actually, we were both there. Something about a wish we were making together. I…didn't really understand it."

"Sounds pretty romantic to me," he purred and smiled mischievously, inching over, closer to me.

"Maybe that's all it was," I murmured, though I wasn't as certain about that.

"Or, we could look into it, today." His arm glided across the bed sheets as he lowered himself next to me, his face neared mine. "I've got all the time in the world for you."

Smiling, taking in his hot breath, I shook my head. "No, you've got your own schedule to work with," I reminded him, and leaned over to put my face near his.

"There's always those days where you can't get any work done," he seductively whispered, cupping my face with his hand, lightly scratching at my mustache with a nail. "And maybe, just for today, I came down with something. You couldn't get me out of bed." He widened his grin while bringing our faces closer, air stifled. "So, I'll give Kamek some assignments, check on Junior for a bit, and then come back here, with you…"

He pressed his lips against mine and we shut our eyes. I kissed Bowser back, lifting a hand under his chin, rubbing softly. We broke apart for a minute for a breath, but quickly went back to kissing each other. He slipped his tongue into my mouth and ran it over mine. I shivered as I let mine slide against his before it retreated back behind his lips. Again, we broke apart, breathing heavily, but smiling.

"Well…?"

"Answer's still 'no,' Bowser," I refused him again. "We can spend more time together later."

Disappointed, Bowser groaned. "Why must you be such a good little…? Fine. But, we should work on it later, tonight. Ok?"

"Sure, definitely." We exchange smiles, but I raised an eyebrow. "You did mean my dreams, right?"

"What did you think I meant?" He playfully grinned again and moved his arm down near my leg.

"Nothing in particular, just checking," I pushed his arm away.

"You sure?"

"Get going, Bowser. You're up early enough for work, so get to it."

"Yes, dear," he mockingly huffed, and forced himself up from the bed. Then, with a wicked grin, asked, "Or should I call you 'my fire?'"

"I gave you that in confidence."

"And I loved it."

"Then don't mock it."

"But I'm not, I'm just using the title you gave me," Bowser teased.

"Go, or I'll pulverize you."

"Want me to make it easy for you?" He walked over to the door and swayed his hips and tail around. "It's your favorite target, remember?" I lobbed a pillow at him as he laughed. "So, I'll see you later then."

"Goodbye, Bowser."

"Unless you want me to jump back onto that bed and we could—"

"Goodbye, Bowser."

Again, he laughed and opened the door. Slowly, Bowser stepped out of it and turned around to stare at me again. He couldn't shake the smile stuck on his face, causing me to keep smiling back.

"Mario…I really don't want to leave."

"I'm not going anywhere this time."

"Great, but I still don't want to leave you."

We sat quietly for a minute. Still, I shook my head. "You have things to take care of, and I don't want to distract you."

"Too late."

"Bowser—"

"All right, I'm going." He pried himself away from the door and closed it, leaving me to get myself ready.


 

[Bowser]

Though I told Mario that I'd go, my legs stayed anchored just a bit outside of my room for another three minutes. After that, I forced myself over to my son's door and knocked.

"Junior? Son? Are you awake?"

Slowly, I opened the door and let myself into the bright green room, stepping where there were less toys scattered about. Junior hopped up from his bed and gave me a hug.

"Morning, Papa!"

"Good morning, Son," I laughed.

He let go and stared at me, smiling, but…unusually quiet, or hesitating.

"Something on your mind, Junior?"

"It's just…you're really happy again, Papa," my boy observed. "You haven't been like that for a little while now."

"Really?" I played oblivious to the notion. "It hasn't been that long, has it?"

Quietly, Junior nodded.

"Oh. Well, uh—"

"Did Mario finally start talking to you again?" He actually sounded intrigued over that.

"Um, yes, he did."

"Ha, I knew it!" Junior let out a light laugh. "I heard you laughing a lot when I woke up and I knew that you were with him again."

"Uh…g-good job, Junior." Though I commended him, I grimaced, hoping that I hadn't been loud enough for him to hear everything.

Junior caught my contorted face and tilted his head. "Are you ok, Papa?"

"Y-Yeah, I'm fine, Son," I nervously chuckled and shifted my legs uncomfortably.

"Are you sure about that?"

Actually, no, but I don't know why, I thought as I took in a deep inhale of air. "Junior, uh…w-what do you think of Mario? Now that he's…um—"

"Dating you again?"

"…S-Sure, right."

"Well…" He stopped for a minute and thought it over. "When you guys aren't fighting, he makes you happy, so that's good."

"Right, right, but…" I rolled a claw through my hair, struggling of how to ask him. "Junior, what do you think of him, without how he makes me feel?"

"Oh. Um…I guess we'd…need to hang out more." Again, Junior grew lost in thought, but shrugged this time. "Really, if he's not making any of us mad, I think he's ok."

"Good. Uh…so, what do you think of Mario staying?"

"Here, with us?"

"Yep."

"I guess I can get used to Mario being around." He smiled and nodded, decided over his opinion. "So, do I start calling him my papa too? Or do I wait until he and you get married?"

"Junior!" I gasped. My face flared up and I could only imagine my glowing red cheeks.

"What? What'd I say?"

"N-Nothing wrong, it's just…well…I-I don't know if he's…you can wait on calling him 'Papa.'"

"Ok, so after you guys get married."

A lump welled up in my throat and I forced it down. Trying to turn it into a joke, I forced out what I thought was a laugh and, "What, are you marrying me away?"

"Well, don't you love him, Papa?" It was an innocent question from the boy, yet it made my heart hammer harder than when I was with Mario before.

"I…yes, but…" My hands trembled, even as I tightened them into fists.

"Well, if you love him, you have to marry him, right?"

"N-No, not right away." I'm pretty sure I had at least one drop of sweat trickle down the back of my head.

"But some day, right?" He still smiled up at me, while I tried desperately to control my breathing and heart rate.

"Um…well…I…suppose…b-but it's not…going to be anytime soon."

"You mean like not until next year?"

"Uh…ah, maybe longer."

"…Two years?"

Flustered, I pat him on the head. "Junior, we'll talk more about this later, ok?" No, no we won't.

"Ok, see you later, Papa!"

We hugged before I hurried out of his room and rushed down the hall, not even stopping to wave to Mario, who had just slipped out of my room.


 

[Mario]

My mouth hung open as I gently closed the door behind me and watched Bowser zip down the hall, disappearing into the stairwell. Blinking, I turned to see Junior walk out of his room.

"Hey there, Junior."

"Hello Papa Mario!"

"…Papa?"

"Uh…sorry, that's…just forget it," Junior giggled. "So…what's the next sporting event you're planning? Have you started on that yet? They're really fun."

"Oh, I haven't actually thought about those in a little while," I admitted. "Which one is your favorite?"

"Um…I like all of them, really!" Junior smiled, but then frowned. "Oh, sorry about all the trouble I've given you, since that time on Isle Delfino."

"Nah, it's fine. You were just following your Papa's plans. Which…you're actually pretty good at, now that I think about it."

"Thanks!" He beamed with delight, joy. "I like making him proud, but I like him happy more. You're really good at that!"

"Ah…I guess so," I chuckled as my face flared up, bright with a blush. "What are you up to today, anyway?"

"Probably going to practice fighting with my Junior Clown Car," he decided. "And then without it. I want to spit fire like my Papa does someday."

"You'll get there, I'm sure."

"I hope so. Thanks again!"

And with that, Junior sped off, cheerfully giggling, down the stairwell as well. With both of the royal Koopas out and about, I decided to head downstairs myself.

As I exited the stairwell, however, that proved to be a less than ideal idea. Down the hall were two Magikoopas, a Shy Guy, a Lakitu, and three Goombas. As soon as the group caught sight of me, they charged down after me.

Quickly, I ran off to the right and glanced into doors to see if anyone would be willing to help me.

"Just hold still, Mario!" The Shy Guy shouted as a shaped hex spell ripped across the room, missing me.

"Come on, hit him!" shouted a Goomba and I glanced back to dodge the Lakitu's Spiny Egg.

Unfortunately, most of the other rooms I passed were either empty, or the soldiers inside simply were not paying attention. Except for a pink…or Red Boo, that laughed when I ran by.

Eventually, I hit a dead end, and glanced up. The ceiling was far too high and I didn't have a chance of wall jumping to the top. Turning around, I watched as the unruly group rushed in to corner me. The Magikoopa raised their wands.

"Game over, Mario," giggled one of the Goombas, and the other two laughed.

Suddenly, a glowing, blue fireball shot forward and blasted to bits above me. None of its embers rained down on me, instead falling in front of me. As soon as they hit the ground, taller pillars of bright blue fire spiked up from the ground. A sizzling noise hissed from the other side of the pillars, which died down slightly, still burning forebodingly on the ground.

When I watched the two Magikoopa, they had panicked faces, and the entire group pivoted around. Abruptly, the Goombas were knocked about while the other four dissenters scattered. Roy cracked his knuckles and strolled through, with Ludwig and his wand in tow.

"Fascinating." Ludwig's single word caused each of the rebels shiver, tremble in their places. "In spite of watching just how dangerous the Bowser Games were, you fools still seem to think that rioting is just a fantastic idea, to the point where you'd kill Mario while he's without an escort."

"L-Lord Ludwig," pleaded the Lakitu, "p-please sir—"

"Excuse you." Roy pounded his fist, with a light, faint shockwave firing out and knocking some of the troopers over. "My brother wasn't done talking."

"Thank you, Roy." Ludwig cleared his throat. "The seven of you are to be taken to the dungeons by yours truly. And since we recently had others go through a trial, I highly doubt Bowser will be looking to give you the same opportunity. If he lets you live in the dungeons, that will be lucky on its own account."

"How did you even know about us?!" blurted out a Magikoopa. "Not even Kamek had suspected us!"

"Treason against not only Bowser, but Kamek as well?" Ludwig laughed. "You're just racking up strokes against your lives."

"How did you know?!" snapped the other Magikoopa.

A quiet, cheerful cackling was heard. From the wall beside me, the Red Boo passed through and giggled.

"Ehee hee hee! Guilty, which was me, Ruby! Ohohoho!" The Boo laughed and teasingly floated around the dissenters. "You should have planned your route more carefully. As soon as I sighted Mario, I went and got him some help right away."

Outraged, the Shy Guy jumped to swipe at the Boo, who flew out of reach and laughed again.

"An attempt on my life may not net you as much trouble as an attempt on Mario's or the royal family's, but that's certainly not going to help your cause!"

"He's right," agreed Ludwig. "But, please, continue being disruptive. It's not as if you're all already in deep enough."

Visibly angered, but with nothing left to do, the group quelled down as Ludwig cast a blue binding spell around them.

"Thank you," I whispered to Ludwig, who shrugged.

"Don't think I'm doing this because I like you. This is just the enforcement of punishment that my King has declared on any dissenters." He glanced over to his brother. "Roy, stay near Mario for a little while, or take him to the other Koopalings. I'll take these idiots to the dungeons."

Tightening the binding spell, Ludwig caused it to burn the seven slightly as he forced them to trudge back down the corridor. I turned to Roy, who shrugged.

"People get confused and think that I'm the more sadistic one." He let out a light laugh. "I mean, they're not completely wrong, but Ludwig can really crank it up when he wants."

"So I noticed. Still, thank you as well."

"No problem."

"And you too," I turned to the Boo, who snickered while he floated freely.

"My pleasure, ehee hee! It's always fun to make others miserable, especially if they have it coming to them!"

He disappeared behind the wall with a roar of laughter. I blinked and turned to Roy, who shook his head.

"Boos are freaky."

"Tell me about it," I agreed. "One trapped me in a painting…twice."

"Ah…right, that…King Boo."

"Yep." I paused and raised an eyebrow. "Have you met him?"

"Uh…nope, not me."

Roy shrugged and waved me on to follow him. I hesitated at his response, but followed him all the same.


 

[Bowser]

With a heavy sigh, I shifted in my throne as several soldiers debated their plans and strategies to me.

"Sire, all I'm asking is that we reinforce our troops more." A Boomerang Bro. shook his head. "The Mountains and the Skyline will need their defenses fortified if we want to maintain the fortresses there."

"You're on about that, but we still need support before that," countered a Goomba. "Peach's forces will be after us in the Jungles next."

"If we keep sending out too many forces to those other areas," argued a Koopatrol, "we'll weaken our homeland's defenses. We don't need the Mushroom Kingdom being able to rally against us here."

"There is still a chance to use Mario strategically." I picked up my head up from my hand as the Blue Guy…or, blue Shy Guy, interjected. "Oh, not as any kind of bait, Your Highness. Those were from ploys with Peach and they never worked out anyway. What we should be looking to do is utilize what Mario knows about the coming threats against us, create countermeasures—"

"No, no countermeasures," I interrupted. "I'm not asking Mario to help us think of ways to hurt his friends."

"…Sire, you do realize they still have every intention of brutalizing the rest of us, even if Mario no longer does?" I nodded to the Koopatrol, who threw his hands up at my response. "Then we need to act!"

"Actually, I wasn't counting on using violence with my tactics," explained Blue Guy. "What we need to do if find ways to disable Mario's friends in whatever offense they try to mount against our defenses, not prepare counterattacks against them. Once they're unable to defeat us, we can try to settle them down for more peaceful negotiations."

"Peace?!" snapped the Goomba. "This is Princess Peach! She's as vicious as all of the other rulers have been. What we need is to stop her."

"You misunderstand," Blue Guy shook his head. "We have Mario with us, and we still have that leverage against Peach. It's not down to how we use her against him, but how he helps all of us to cooperate with one another—"

"No, no cooperation," the Goomba challenged again. "They'll only figure out how to turn the screws on whatever deal we make and have it backfire against us."

"To be candid, I agree." My head sank back into my hand as the Koopatrol joined in. "Sire, we understand that you don't want Mario involved any longer, but—"

"But nothing," I asserted. "We're not using him."

"That kind of sentimentality will get us all killed!" The Goomba gasped as I stood up from my throne, perhaps knowing my reaction just as he utter the words.

"You would dare to question my orders?" I roared at him.

"Absolutely not, no! Sire, please—"

"Out of anyone here, you—"

My throne room doors slammed open as the yellow robed Snifit hurried in, with Boom Boom and Pom Pom in tow.

"Oh, excuse us, sire!" Jasmine bowed. "We didn't mean to interrupt."

"What's the big deal if we did?" asked Boom Boom. "He'll want us."

"And what will I want you for?"

"Isn't this a war meeting, of sorts?" questioned Pom Pom. "You're going to want the two us to work as additional units to fight off Peach and friends, right?" I nodded. "Then we'll do just that. After all, we were so delighted to hear about your new relationship with Mario, weren't we Boom Boom?"

"We were?" Pom Pom punched his arm. "Ouch. Uh, yeah, definitely!"

"If you're looking for some type of reward out of this, you'll actually need to do more than just slow Princess Peach." I scratched under my chin.

"Well yeah, we can knock their heads around and then some," assured Boom Boom.

"All right, then I'll defer further tactical discussions to the two of you." The Goomba and the Koopatrol bowed and walked out with Boom Boom and Pom Pom.

Blue Guy was following them, but stopped by Jasmine.

"Hi there!" She cheerfully greeted him.

"I…uh…h-hi." A smirk slipped onto my face as the Shy Guy waved. "Um—"

"Hey, Blue!" I shouted. "Flirt less and get going! They're going to need you for the proceeding discussions."

"R-Right, yes, sire!" He timidly hurried out of the throne room while Jasmine watched him go.

"Yes?"

"Oh, right! Master Kamek was also looking for you, Lord Bowser."

"Fine, thanks." I watched her tap her mask as she studied the nearest window.

"Jasmine."

"Y-Yes?"

"You're pretty level headed. Go help Blue and the others."

"Certainly, sir!"

She hurried out of the room, ran back in to bow, and ran off again. I chuckled as I walked from the room myself.


 

[Mario]

Roy led me down another hall, snarling at a Spike and a Paratroopa that glowered at me as they passed, and we came up before a wide brown studded door. He stopped and turned to me. I hadn't told him how we had gotten back together, but he was curious about us dating again, so I told him an abridged version of yesterday and this morning's events.

"So, he was going to take the whole day off just for you?"

"Yep."

"And…you told him not to. Why?"

"Well, he is a king. He can't spend every day drooling over me."

"No, I get that, but you two haven't been together all that long. Shouldn't you, I don't know, spend a few more days together? You've spent years fighting each other."

"That's true. I…I don't know. I don't want him going over the top for me."

"Wow. You're way too late for that." Roy laughed. "The whole castle thinks he's gone insane over you."

"Do they really?"

"Yeah. I think it's cool that he's really into you though."

"Thank you." Oddly, talking with Roy had been far more easygoing than I had anticipated.

"Sure. Anyway, I got other work to take care of with Larry and Morton outside of the lab here. Iggy's working on tech, or whatever. Lemmy might be helping him. And Wendy should be there for a little while too. You should be fine."

With a frown, I nodded. "This feels like a burden on you guys."

"Nah, you just need to wait for things to simmer down some. Then we'll…uh…"

"…You know what? Maybe I'll go visit Bowser for a bit, when the others come by for me."

At that, Roy smiled. "You got it!"

"Great." I paused for a minute as he went to open the door. "Hey Roy, you enjoy making Bowser happy too, don't you?"

He froze as his hand was outstretched for the door. "Uh…kind of, yeah. Just…I'm not sure about the others, honestly."

"Just you?"

"Um…yeah, or as far as I know. So, uh, don't—"

"Stays between us."

"Cool. Thanks."

Roy pulled the door open and we walked in. The room had lighter stones decorate the walls, with light bulbs and lamps lighting up the room instead of torchlight. A few long, white desks were set up as various workstations, with Koopas and Monty Moles working at the different tables. A good number of them looked up to see me, and slowly stopped working. Larry and Morton made their way over to Roy.

"We ready to go?" Roy asked.

Morton nodded. "Sure, I'm looking to fix up the Clown Cars already."

Larry stared at me and I tried to smile to him. He leered at me in response, scratching the blue star marking on the side of his head.

"This is still really weird," confessed Larry to the others.

"What is?" questioned Roy.

"Uh, him," Larry deadpanned and pointed at me.

"Relax, little bro. Mario's cool," Roy assured his brother.

"Even still, I'm not so sure." He glanced at his other brother. "Morton, what about you?"

"It is all new to me too," admitted Morton. "But, I don't really mind much."

To that, Roy nodded while Larry shrugged. After that, the three of them walked out of the room, and I was left to find the other three Koopalings. I walked over to the first table, where a Koopa eyed me suspiciously and covered up his current project.

Deciding on a calm, sociable approach, I stood beside him. "So…what kind of weapons are you guys building?"

"We don't always build weapons," snapped the Koopa.

"Right, sorry. Um…what are you working on?"

"Nothing for now."

I opened my mouth and went to point as his towel covered supplies, but he pulled everything together and walked away from me.

Moving to the next table, I walked over to a Monty Mole, who was hammering down a nail on a block…with a wrench.

"Do you double as a Rocky Wrench?" I asked.

"Wouldn't you like to know?"

"Well…that's why I asked."

"Good for you." Quickly, he also snatched his supplies and took off.

Barely glancing at the other troops scattered around, I had the feeling that none of them would want me near them. Catching a glimpse of the three Koopalings in the back, I went straight over to them.

"Just how much longer are you going to be, Iggy?" questioned Wendy.

"It'll be done when it's done, Wendy." Iggy grumbled. "You can't rush good things."

"Yes you can."

Iggy used a screwdriver on what appeared to be a mechanical Chain Chomp. Lemmy watched him while Wendy read a book. I grabbed a stool and sat next to them, with the Koopalings pausing their activities to study me instead.

"Um…hi?"

"Hi Mario!" giggled Lemmy. "This is new."

"Guess that's what today's been about for everyone I met."

Wendy bookmarked her page and snapped the book shut. "Ok then." She glared at me. Then, slowly working her authoritative voice up, she commanded, "I. Want. Details!" I raised an eyebrow at how excited, cheerful the last word sounded and she suddenly ran around, practically reappeared, to the other side of me.

"On…what, exactly?" I inquired.

"Everything!" Uh oh. "I want to know the story from your perspective. At what point did you fall in love with Bowser?"

"Kind of, uh, early? I just kept coming here, or he joined in with sports and other adventures, so the more I saw him, the more interested I became."

She nodded. "Yes, Bowser had a similar response. That's…so cute! Ok, ok, next part!"

"Come on, Wendy," groaned Iggy. "Are you just going to have him reiterate Bowser's story from before?"

"Absolutely!" She waved her book at us, titled, Simply Star-Crossed. "The main couple in this book is far less interesting than what our king and Mario here are going through, and I need to know every last bit of their much cuter relationship."

"Everyone already knows about the relationship Wendy." Iggy took off his glasses and wiped a hand over his eyes.

"From Bowser's side!" Wendy argued. "I want to hear Mario's!"

"It's the same thing."

"With probably adorable differences!"

"Sure," deadpanned Iggy, "instead of Bowser sobbing over Mario running away, we get Mario sobbing over having run away."

"…That's a very distinct difference!"

"I don't mind retelling it," I offered.

"See?!"

"Well, I mind listening to a rehashed story." Iggy put his glasses back on.

"Ugh, you're such a buzz kill." Wendy pressed her head against the desk while Lemmy pat her back.

"They're back together, at least," the smallest Koopaling offered.

"Ooh, yes!" Wendy shot back up, knocking Lemmy over. "When did that even happen?! Did Bowser serenade you with all sorts of love words and silly gifts?"

"Um…yes, actually?" I admitted, surprised at her accuracy.

She squealed. "That's super cute! Ok, ok, what was the one thing that got you back into his arms?"

"Wendy, I'm trying to work," moaned Iggy.

"Why can't you just let me have this?!" Wendy snapped. "What, you can't be bothered listening to the cutest love story?!"

"No! I can't!" thundered Iggy and he slammed down the screwdriver. "It's distracting!"

"Why?!"

"Because it is cute and I want to give it my full and undivided attention!"

"…Oh."

Wendy blinked as Iggy tooled around with the mechanical Chomp, which started up and barked, but short-circuited seconds later. Frustrated, Iggy banged his head on the desk, while I became deeply fascinated with the shelves of inventions, Mechakoopa, and larger tools, including drills and sledgehammers.

"…You know what might help, Iggy?"

"Not now, Wendy."

"He's right here," she sang.

"Not now, Wendy."

Lemmy bounced back up and looked at me. "So…what'd you think of the Bowser Games?"

"They were pretty dangerous." I shook my head. "Honestly, I was worried that one of the prisoners might have died."

"Oh, nah, they weren't…um…" Lemmy glanced up and stared at the other troopers in the lab, who were either focused on their work or observing me, not listening to him. Quickly, Lemmy finished, "…Yeah, it was really great that they all made it out. Lucky too."

He pulled out a small yellow bouncing ball and dribbled it around, leaving me perfectly perplexed over his answers. To take my mind off of it, I returned my attention to Wendy and Iggy, with the former poking the latter in the arm.

"Will you cut that out?!" snapped Iggy. "You're driving me insane!"

"Iggy, you're always insane."

"Hush, that's the secret."

A Koopa walked over to a cabinet nearby and opened it. A miniature mechanical Chomp barked and leapt out, tackling the startled, screaming Koopa. Iggy snickered while the rest of us stared from the fleeing Koopa to Iggy. Wendy shook her head.

"…Did you really?"

"What? I love pranks!"

"That's not a prank. That's terrorizing."

"Same difference."

Stifling my own laughter, I shook my head and went to look back around the room, but the lamp on the desk grew brighter.

"Is there a way we can turn this down?" I asked and pointed to the lamp.

"Sure, I got it." Lemmy hopped over and switched it off.

Instead of improving my sight, the other lights in the room grew brighter instead.

"Better?"

"Um…no. Everything else got brighter now."

"Wait, what?" Iggy stopped working and looked around. "I don't think anyone made their lights brighter."

"Are you all right, Mario?" Wendy tilted her head, as she looked me over.

The door opened again, with a gray-shelled Buzzy Beetle and a mint green Blooper wandering inside. Catching a glimpse of me, they made their way to the back of the room.

"Beg your pardons." She floated lower and appeared to curtsey with her tentacles. Master Mario is needed, at the great Lord Bowser's request." Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the Koopalings rolling their eyes.

"More like wanted, Miss Olive," corrected the Buzzy Beetle.

"Ah, fair point, Sir Glaucus. Either way, we'd like you to come with us, Mario."

"Sure. I'll see you three around."

Each of the Koopalings waved as I followed the two servants out of the labs and back into the halls. Oddly, though the lighting dimmed, everything still appeared brighter.


 

[Bowser]

Kamek finished giving another Magikoopa instructions and sent him back out to the courtyard, where several others practiced dueling one another. Various hexes and spells fired across the area, with bright colors and magic dust lighting up the place.

"Sorry," Kamek apologized as he walked back to me. "That one would have encased himself in stone with his casting form. Now, where were we?"

"It's just, I don't know," I sighed. "Junior was going on about us getting married, and I just can't focus on that. He's already trying to call Mario his papa too!"

"You…do realize that your son brings up a fair point." Kamek stroked under his chin.

"Yes, yes, he'll have two fathers. If anyone tries to harass him over it, I'll tear them apart so quickly—"

"Actually, I wanted to focus more on the marriage aspect of it. Others around the castle have discussed the matter too."

"What?!" I cried out. "Why that?!"

"Because for the first time ever, we'll have two kings that rule over us."

"So?"

"How many years have you ruled over this kingdom on your own?"

"Then imagine how much better I'll be if I actually have someone else helping me. Uh, no offense."

"None taken, I can understand where you're going with that. However, are you truly ready to have Mario step up and take a joint role of ruling beside you?" Kamek adjusted his spectacles while I stood quietly and folded my arms to think. "Sure, he may not be your exact equal, but, he'll certainly have a prominent role in…well, a large number of decisions and actions you make."

"It's something to consider, but I'll…I don't know, figure it out as I go. Mario and I definitely won't agree on everything; he cares too much about people that I could easy stomp all over." I shrugged as Kamek shook his head. "But…well…I guess I want to go through those changes with him. We'll learn and grow together. That may not be the best approach, but we won't really know about what tomorrow holds until we get through today."

For a minute, the coot observed me in silence. "That's…very mature of you."

"Listen, you old fart, I happen to know a few little gems of wisdom, even if you steal most of them away."

"I suppose you'd have to." He burst out laughing while I growled. Calming down, he continued, "Anyway, let's discuss present events. When are you proposing to Mario?"

"W-What?! I have no idea! We just got back together!" My hands clawed through my hair and I tugged on my horns.

"Yes, yes, how wonderful," Kamek murmured, undettered, "but really, we do need to consider the near future."

"Who thinks that's the near future?! We haven't had more than a single date! Mario might not even want to marry me!"

"Have you asked yet?"

"Of course not!"

"Worth a shot," he muttered. Back to a normal volume, he carried on, "Regardless, I haven't had the chance to prepare for a royal wedding, so excuse me as I immerse myself in studying up on that."

"You…you've married troops before!"

"Troops. Castle weddings. I've never married off a king before. I'll need to learn just what measures I should take to make this an unforgettable moment in Koopa history."

"But…we're not getting married!" I protested.

"Not yet, of course. Some day, however, is always right around the corner!"

Kamek then grinned widely. I turned around and saw Olive, Glaucus, and Mario approach us. With a yelp, I jumped back as they approached.

"Is everything all right, Sire?" Glaucus checked.

"Uh…y-yes, it's fine. He's fine—I'm fine!" My cheeks began to burn as the three exchanged confused looks and Kamek broke into another fit of laughter. "Um, Mario, come on back inside with me."

Still confused, Mario slowly nodded. In spite of Kamek, I scooped up Mario's hand and took him back inside with me. We strolled over to a door and slipped inside of a trooper break room. A Goomba happened to be in there, but one quick snarl sent him flying through the door at mach speed. I sighed and dropped my hand from Mario's crashing down on the tacky lime green couch. He eyed me with a raised brow, but I ignored it and pulled him onto my lap.

Throwing my head back, I moaned out, "I think I'm going to be sick."

"You? What's wrong?"

"People are already expecting us to get married."

"Us to what?" He pushed himself up slightly, but I pat his head and ruffled his cap a bit.

"Relax, nothing's happening yet." I assured him. A grin popped onto my face, and, suggestively, I added, "Unless you're as impatient as everyone else is."

"No, I…I'm good." He sighed and I laughed.

"Exactly. And I'm not ready for it either. But…I don't know, my son was asking about it, Kamek brought it up, I heard that it's a hot topic buzzing around with the latest castle gossip…and I'm just not thinking about that right now. And I know it's not on your mind either."

"Not really, no." He paused and thought about it again. "Well, it wasn't until now, anyway. I'm sure you haven't so much as entertained the notion either."

Thinking back to the time Junior caught us, I realized that it had crossed my mind. "…Uh…"

"…You've seriously thought about getting married? To me?" His voice had a mixture of disbelief and…was it hope?

"W-Well…maybe for a quick…it-it's not important and now's not the time!"

Flustered, I turned my head away to focus on the black fridge and counters, face blazing. He laughed and reached up to kiss my cheek. I looked back to him and we shared smiles. My arm slid around his back, but he slumped back down onto my lap.

"Too fast?" I joked.

"No…it's…really bright," he mumbled. I blinked and noticed that Mario had grown paler. His breathing now appeared irregular as well. "The lighting has been…like this? It seems harsher ever…since I left the lab."

"Mario?" My grin dropped quickly as I carefully rearranged us to have Mario lie down on the couch, his head on my legs. "Hang on a second." I tried to place my hand against his head, which was a little hotter than usual. "Did you catch something?"

"Maybe, I must have."

"Damn it, I shouldn't have kept you in that dank room for so long." I grumbled to myself over my foolish choices.

"But…I felt perfectly fine earlier," Mario murmured. His eyes widened and he stared directly at me. "What happened?"

Baffled, I raised my eyebrows. "What's wrong?"

"Your eyes are…blue. And your scales…they're a dull blue."

"What?" My body was still the yellow-orange amber it always was.

"And your hair is…gold now."

Blinking, I quickly yanked a stand of hair from my head and looked at it. Red.

"Mario—"

"There's…someone…behind you."

My eyes widened and I glared behind me, but only a blank stonewall met it.

"Um…there's no one here, Mario."

"It's…right there." He gasped. "With a dark colored robe…black…? Glowing eyes?"

"But…who…?"

Without another word, Mario shut his eyes and turned his head into me. Frightened, I shook him a few times and shouted his names.

No response.

Chapter Text

[Bowser]

Mario shuddered a bit, but otherwise remained silent and unconscious. I scooped him into my arms and hurried out from the break room.

"Sire?" A Goomba stared up at me. "What's—?"

"Go get Kamek and send him up to my room immediately!" I barked. "And if you don't, I'll burn you alive myself!" With that, I hurried off, surging through the halls and rushing back upstairs.

I kicked the door open to the corridor, thinking that I might have knocked it off its hinges, and then bashed my door open as well. Gently, I placed Mario down on my bed and carefully watched him.

"Papa?" I glanced back quickly to see Junior appeared in the doorway. "Papa, what's wrong? I came up to get my paintbrush and then I heard the doors…" He stopped behind me. "What happened?"

"No idea!" I burst out. "One minute, everything's fine and I'm just ranting to him about all of the little things that stress me out, the next he's slumped over and seeing things that aren't there." I clawed through my hair and tugged on it. "He was fine just this morning! I leave him for just part of the day, let him go alone through the castle, and this is what I get!"

"Wait, Papa—"

"It's not that I didn't see something like this coming, but so damn soon?!" My voice breaks, and I can't tell if it's from anger or anguish. "We just started to move past our fight, and now this! It's like the universe just doesn't want me to be happy, ever!"

"That…Papa—"

"So help me, son, I will find the blasted dissenters that did this to Mario and wring their necks until they—"

"Papa!"

"…What?"

"Was anyone else even with you?" I blinked and spun back to Junior.

"N…Not with us, no. But they wouldn't have to be!" I shook my head around and pulled my claws down the sides of my face. "Junior, I need something to punch that I won't regret later."

"Um…use a pillow?" I reached over and grabbed the pillow Mario wasn't on, throwing a punch that sent it flying against the wall. "…I don't think that's going to help."

"Maybe I should burn it instead!"

"Papa, that's not going to make Mario better, and it's not going to help you."

Again, I stared at Junior, who patted my leg. Slowly, I took a deep breath, exhaled, and nodded. Quietly, I turned to Mario again, and my shoulders dropped.

"Did you get Kamek?"

"I sent a Goomba to do it."

"Ok, I'll go get the Koopalings."

Junior hurried out as I silently nodded, and continued to helplessly watch Mario.


 

[Mario]

My eyes snapped open to the dark, midnight blue sky above me. Slowly, I went to push myself up, but stopped upon noticing the gravelly, purple ground around me.

Star Hill? Again?

"Mario, you're up." Bowser walked over from a few feet away and pulled me up to my feet. He smiled and rubbed my back, but I couldn't feel anything.

"I can't tell anymore." No kidding.

"Relax, you are." I turned to see Luigi join us. When did he…?

"Good, are we ready?" Peach?

"Don't be so impatient, Peach!" Daisy?

Both of the princesses walked over to us. No one started attacking Bowser and he seemed completely comfortable, not only around them, but with me. Confused, I wanted to ask them if they knew anything, but nothing came out.

"All right, the path ahead should lead us to the shrine," Luigi explained and started walking off. "Mario and I will keep you three safe." What? Bowser wouldn't need our protection. And Peach and Daisy should be—

"Bah, I won't need it," Bowser grumbled.

"Oh no?" Luigi smirked. "I thought you promised Mario." Me?

Bowser and I glanced at one another, with him nervously smiling. "W-Well, I…uh, all right."

He took my hand and we followed Luigi up a trail, past a large stone star embedded into the ground. Only two ends of it were fully out of the ground, with two more half buried and the last end of it underground completely. I squinted and noticed the right side was chipped a bit.

"Keep moving, Mario!" I shook my head as Bowser playfully tugged me after him.

While we wandered along the cliffs, I watched as flaming bird flew overhead, and then away from us.

"That bird, again…?"

"Mario? What is it?" I turned back to Bowser, who was watching me, but puzzled.

"Didn't you see it?"

"No, what?"

"It…" I whirled around and tried to find the bird again, but all that I saw was a steep drop down. "Never…mind."

The king laughed. "Maybe you woke up too soon."

"Was I really the only one who saw it?" I turned to the princesses, who both shook their heads.

Luigi shrugged. "Don't worry about it, bro. Come on."

We pressed onward as the trail began to narrow, with another mountain wall appearing behind us. Ahead, the path led behind a powerful waterfall.

"Pretty romantic, huh?" Bowser nudged me, and then tugged me closer with a wink.

"All right, kiss and make out later, boys." Peach waved her hand to send us forward.

"Jealous much?" Bowser teased, and we moved after Luigi.

"Daisy, can you pass the pack?" Luigi called back as he walked near the waterfall.

"Sure, hang on!" Daisy hurried after him and handed an Item Bag over. "Be nice if we had some power-ups in there instead."

"Says you," Luigi laughed and took out a canteen.

"You're not going to fill that up, are you?" I shouted, nervously eyeing the waterfall as Bowser and I passed it.

"What? No, it's full already."

Luigi went to take a sip from it, but spat the water back out as Daisy shouted. Bowser and I spun around and saw the trail behind us give way, with Peach falling from the cliffs. Her hands flew out and she grabbed the ledge.

"Peach!"

Quickly, I dove down to catch her, but a cracking rock was all I needed to hear. She screamed as she fell through the air, down into the murky abyss below.

"PEACH!"

Water splashed into my eyes and I cried out as Bowser pulled me back. Everything faded from around me, until all I heard was the crashing waters beside us. Then nothing.


 

[Bowser]

Slightly, Mario shook a little in his sleep and winced a few times. I covered his legs with the blanket, but I wasn't sure if he was too hot or too cold.

"Mario?" I touched his head, which burned, and I dragged the blanket back off. He shivered and I sighed, pulling it back over his legs. "Even when you sleep, you can't make up your mind."

Studying him, he continued to have slight movements for a bit, but then stopped. His breathing was a bit tense briefly, but he seemed to relax now. I tried to shake him, but he wouldn't get up.

"Hey!" I shouted near his face. Nothing. With a grunt, I sat down on the floor beside him. "Can I bribe you up with a kiss?" No answer. Still, I chuckled. "Didn't think so."

All I wanted was for Mario to at least acknowledge that someone else was with him, even if he didn't understand whom it was. Gently, I rubbed his stomach with one hand, and gripped his hand in my other.

"See? I should have spent the day with you." I chuckled again. "Because we ended right back in the bedroom anyway." If only he could actually laugh with me.

Another minute passed before I heard the stairwell door squeak open. I watched the doorway as Kamek shuffled over, panting.

"Wow, did you actually run?"

"Couldn't…find broom." He heaved deeply, and then straightened up, walking over to Mario. "When did this happen?"

"A little after I pulled him inside, after my troops brought him over by us."

Kamek studied him quietly, trying to discern his symptoms from normal problems. "It's certainly not anything normal, such as a cold or exhaustion. If it's a spell, I should be able to get rid of it."

He slipped out his wand and waved it around, as it glowed with a colorful cloud over Mario. I watched Kamek move his hand in odd gestures as he shook the wand. Glancing at Mario, I couldn't see any visible changes.

"Well?"

"If this is a spell, it's a powerful one." He shook his head. "I can't detect what it is or how to remove it."

"You're the grandmaster sorcerer," I argued. "If you can't, then who can?"

"Probably no one." Annoyed, I smacked the back of his head. "Sorry! I didn't…" He shook his head and loosened his grip on the wand.

"Do you know for certain that it's magic related?"

"To be honest, no, I'm not sure," Kamek murmured. "It's…it doesn't seem like the spells that I'm used to."

"Those damn rebels must have conjured something up." I growled.

"Maybe." His tone didn't sound convinced.

"Papa." We turned to Junior and the seven Koopalings in the doorway.

"Come in." They each made their way inside and took turns looking at Mario and one another.

Larry stepped forward. "What happened? He was fine before."

"Were you with him?"

"Uh…not really, but Morton and I saw him."

The youngest Koopaling turned to Morton, who nodded. Turning to Iggy, Morton asked, "Wasn't he with you?"

"Yes, while we worked in the lab." Iggy adjusted his glasses. "Wendy and I babbled over him and other nonsense."

"He was fine while we were in there," added Wendy. "I even talked to him while I argued with Iggy."

"Me too!" Lemmy chimed in. "Oh, but before he left, he complained about the lights being too bright."

"Right, there was that." Wendy tapped her fingers together. "But, otherwise, he was fine when he left. At least…he seemed it."

"He complained about that with me too," I recalled. "Did he hallucinate around you three?"

"What? No, not at all." Iggy stared at Mario, and tilted his head. "He escalated."

"Roy, he was with you too," Morton piped in. "Did we miss something?"

"No, I don't even know what this is about." Roy shrugged. "He talked with me the whole way to the lab and didn't complain about anything once."

"When was he with you?"

"After Ludwig and I stopped some idiots trying to kill him." Ludwig nodded.

"So, they were after him." I grumbled.

"We stopped them, sire," Ludwig contested. "Roy and I showed up just as the lot tried to corner Mario." He folded his arms. "There were two Magikoopas, but Mario didn't show any signs of taking a hit from their spells. Nor did he show visible damage from other attacks."

"If this were Magikoopa magic, I'd have it cured already," Kamek concurred. "They couldn't have used normal spells on him."

"Could they have learned something else?" Ludwig questioned.

"Not under my watch." Kamek thought for a moment. "They couldn't have picked anything up quickly, either, not of this level." He adjusted his spectacles. "No one knew about the relationship until Bowser let it out a few days ago. Even if anyone disagreed with him prior to that, we didn't have the insurrection issues that brewed over the past few days. They wouldn't have thought about learning something that I couldn't detect, let alone developing the proficiency to do so."

"So…what?" Roy glanced at Mario, and then turned to Kamek. "They didn't do it?"

"The dissenters? I'm highly doubtful of it." Kamek sighed. "But that only makes this more difficult and frustrating to understand."

"Well, we brought our wands," Lemmy sounded and brought his out. "Should we try something together?"

"Yes, that's a good idea."

Junior and I watched as the seven Koopalings took positions around Mario with Kamek. Each of the eight twirled their wands around and began casting different spells to see what they could do.


 

[Mario]

My eyes snapped open to the dark, midnight blue sky above me. Quickly, I jumped to my feet and stared ahead. Bowser turned and walked over to me, with Luigi and Daisy behind him. None of them seemed bothered by the fact that the princess had just fallen to her death just minutes ago.

"Mario, you're up." Bowser smiled, but I shook my head.

"Peach."

"Huh?"

"How did that even happen?! It was fine when we went over it!"

Luigi put his hand on my shoulder. "Mario, are you feeling ok?"

"Ok?! Not even close!" I batted his hand back. "Didn't you see what happened to Peach?!"

"You too, Mario?" My head jolted at her voice. Bowser and Daisy stepped aside as Peach walked over to me, arms folded. "Honestly, I tripped one time too many, and suddenly Toadsworth has everyone having heart failure over me."

"Tripped?" My mouth dropped in disbelief. "You…you fell!"

"Same difference." She rolled her eyes. "I'm a big girl, Mario. I'll be fine."

"Hey, lighten up," Bowser grumbled. "He's just making sure."

"No, but she…she…" My eyes traveled around the area wildly. Quickly, I ran ahead and up the pathway.

"Mario, wait a minute!" Luigi ran after me as I skidded to a halt. The stone buried in the ground was off to the side. Two ends visible, two only partially so, one not at all. Right side…chipped.

"That's too close to the one from before," I murmured.

"What one? We haven't seen a star stone like that for a while now."

Bowser, Peach, and Daisy came up the path and stopped near us. Everyone stared at me as though I had lost my mind.

"Is…everything all right, Mario?" Daisy slowly asked.

"Before, we had just passed…we…" I glanced back and forth between my friends and the rock. "We were here already. Just a little while ago."

"Was it in your dream?" Bowser inquired.

"No…it was…" I hesitated. Perhaps before was the dream. "Wait, maybe…now I'm not sure." But…if it had been…how did the details line up so well…?

"We'll be fine, Mario." Peach placed my hands in hers and smiled at me. "It was just a dream."

"I…I'm not so sure."

In spite of that, I followed everyone onward. The trail led the same way, growing narrow and with a deep edge to nothing right next to us. Luigi still led us forward, but the bird didn't show up this time.

Eventually, we reached the waterfall again. I stopped for a moment, nervous.

"Pretty romantic, huh?" Bowser nudged me, and then tugged me closer with a wink.

"All right, kiss and make out later, boys." Peach waved her hand to send us forward.

"Jealous much?" Bowser teased. He moved forward, but I froze on the spot. "Mario? What's wrong?"

"Daisy, can you pass the pack?" Luigi called back as he walked near the waterfall.

"Wait!" I shouted and stepped in front of Daisy.

"Why?"

"This…this is it!" I whirled around to Peach. "Before…in my, um, dream, you fell, no you…you died here."

Peach's eyes widened. "Right here?"

"No, as we went behind the waterfall." I bit my lip and glared at the raging water. "The path beneath you collapsed and we couldn't save you." Staring at her hands, I shook my head. "Where's your scepter?"

"Toadsworth has it right now," Peach explained. "I gave it to him and the others when we split ways." Not good.

"How did she fall on her own?" Bowser questioned.

"Well, Daisy went ahead to Luigi, we followed, and Peach was last…"

"Let's try to change the order then," Bowser suggested. "Luigi already went, but Peach and Daisy should go first. Then you, and I'll go last."

"No!" I firmly grasped Bowser's hand, but it barely felt like anything. "I'm not letting you do that!"

"It's probably a weight thing," guessed Bowser. "If all of you go before me, then I go, and it'll break once I'm across."

"We can't take that risk. I can't lose you!"

"Isn't there another way?" Daisy wondered.

"We don't have enough time for that," argued Peach. "Mario, we'll go first, and then you walk across with Bowser right after. If we're quick, we might all make it."

"That is not a smart idea!"

"We don't have a lot of options right now." Bowser shook his head. "Let's just try it."

Before I could argue further, both Peach and Daisy hurried past the waterfall. Bowser smiled confidently at me, and we charged after them. Crumbling rocks sounded behind us and I glanced back to the path break behind Bowser's tail. We hurried across and moved beyond the waterfall. Looking back, the others gazed in awe at the missing segment of the trail.

"What happened?" Luigi inquired. "I didn't hear anything you guys spoke about."

"Mario dreamt of Peach dying from the path breaking," Daisy explained. "So Bowser sent us first and we all rushed across just in case."

"And that turned out to be a very good idea," Peach joked. "But in all seriousness, thank you, Mario." Bowser cleared his throat. "Uh…I suppose you helped too."

"You suppose?" Bowser growled.

"Ok, you guys can thank me by not arguing." I ushered everyone forward and Luigi led the way onward.

As we approached a cave ahead, I saw the flaming bird fly over it. It seemed to wait around until we got close, but then flew off before anyone else could notice it.

"What is it, Mario?" I looked back at Bowser, who had tried to follow my gaze into the sky.

"A bird. It flew off, though."

He nodded and we followed the others into the cavern. Though dark, it wasn't very long and we could see the exit a slight distance away. A few dripping noises sounded around the cave, but I couldn't quite tell where they came from.

"Hey, I think I see the shrine up ahead." Luigi jogged forward. "Come on, everyone!"

His words echoed through the cavern. A slight rumbling sounded and I heard something hard crash down next to me.

"What?!"

"Stalactites!" Peach shouted. "Hurry!"

Several more came raining down and crashed around us. Peach and Daisy cried out and I heard Bowser roar. His figure towered over us and hunched over.

"Bowser?"

"I've got you three covered, just hurry up! Go!"

Quickly, the four of us ran for the cave's exit. Luigi waved us on as we neared him, when a loud cracking snapped out over the quaking rumbles. Something heavy pushed the princesses and I forward. Stumbling, I spun around.

"No! Bowser!"

The Koopa king laid half buried under several rocks, dragging himself out from underneath them. Blood dripped across his body and his shell was shattered, with many of his spikes either chipped or broken completely. I ran back to him and tried to help him up.

"W-Well…what do you know." Bowser coughed. "Once upon a time, this…would have made everyone happy, huh?"

"Shut up." My heart raced and I fumbled as I held him up. The others ran over and tried to help Bowser to his feet, but it was no good. He crashed back down to the ground. "Bowser, please! Get up."

"Maybe…in a bit." He groaned. "Just…need to rest."

"You can't," Daisy shook her head. "Bowser, we need to get you over…" She gazed at the shrine, which seemed miles away.

"Mario…?" Weakly, he looked up at me. "Can you just…stay with me?"

"We need to keep going—"

"Please?"

Nodding slowly, I slumped down in front of him. Even if I couldn't feel it, I stroked my right hand on his cheek, running my left hand through his hair. He smiled and stared right into my eyes. Burning, beautiful red orbs locked onto me, and then slowly shut.

"Bowser? …Bowser, please!" I clutched his head tightly and wailed. "BOWSER!"

Trembling, I squeezed my eyes shut. The Koopa King gave no response.


 

[Bowser]

Mario began to quake in his sleep and looked as though he was in pain.

"Stop, stop a minute." The eight lowered their wands and watched as I checked on Mario. Placing two fingers onto his neck, I leaned back. "His heartbeat skyrocketed! What did you do?"

"Nothing that should have caused that." Kamek checked Mario as well, jumping back upon feeling the hammering heart. "That's not possible."

"Is he having a nightmare?" Junior's question made my eyes widen.

"The nightmares. They started before the rebellions did." I turned to Kamek. "Does this have anything to do with those?"

"They…could be related." Kamek muttered quietly to himself for a moment, working something out in his head. "What Mario had read, before…when he was in the Study, that is. He was looking something up, on divination and dreams." Kamek stared at Mario and focused carefully on him. "He mentioned researching a curse." He gasped.

"What? What is it?"

"Hold on."

Kamek whipped his wand around again, quickly casting a spell about and scanning Mario once again. The Koopalings exchanged looks of confusion, and lowered their wands, just as unsure of his actions as I was. Sparks flew from Kamek's wand, but he kept waving it around. He suddenly jumped and threw his wand to the ground, with red bolts running across the head's jewel. Angrily, Kamek shook his hand and held it up, rubbing it gently.

"Are you all right?"

He mumbled, "I'll be fine."

"What was that?"

Clearing his throat, Kamek turned back to Mario. "He's cursed. And he's been like this for a while now, long before anyone even knew of your relationship."

"Even before we started it ourselves?"

"It's probable, but I can't give you an exact estimate on time." Kamek studied his wand before he picked it up. "All that I was able to detect was that it was aged, well over a month. And it is very clearly not the work of a Magikoopa."

"But they're the only…wait." I shook my head. "You're not suggesting—"

"No, I'm not suggesting. I'm outright stating it."

"What?" Junior piped up. "Who did this?"

"It's the spell of a Shaman." Kamek's face contorted as if he had spat venom from his mouth. "Bowser, where do Mario's dreams take him?"

"Star Hill…son of a—"

"Wait, wait, why is Star Hill important?" Roy questioned.

"Shamans were once more common around the Mushroom Kingdom," explained Kamek. "However, their numbers dwindled heavily over time, to the tiniest bit they're down to today." He shook his head. "They're gathered in a small colony on Star Hill."

"Then we should pay them a visit," murmured Ludwig. "Perhaps terrorize their home a little until they send someone to help us."

"If it were that easy, I'd advise it." Kamek sighed. "But it's not. They hide deep within the mountains and cast numerous protection incantations to keep themselves distanced from travelers."

"We need to do something," protested Wendy.

"And we will." He shuffled back to the door. "You seven, with me. We're going to the Study to learn more about them."

"What about Mario?" Larry asked. "We can't just leave him. I mean…we can, but, uh, Lord Bowser's right here and that really wouldn't be a good idea."

"Actually, we do need to leave him."

"What?!" I snarled and glared at Kamek.

"Sire, please, after what we discussed earlier?" What we…oh geez. My cheeks burned up a bit as I relaxed and nodded. "Mario will wake up from that in a matter of time. However, this curse will not subside, even as his symptoms disappear."

He beckoned the Koopalings to follow him and they slowly poured out from my room. Junior watched them go, and then turned to me.

"Papa, are you going to be ok?"

"As soon as Mario wakes up, or once Kamek finds answers, I'll be just fine, son."

Junior waited a minute, and then hugged me tightly. My arms wrapped around him and I squeezed him back.

"Can I do anything else?"

"This is all I need for now." Slowly, Junior pulled away and gazed up at me. I forced a smile and nudged him. "Go, you went to get your paintbrush. I can stay here alone. We'll be fine."

Though he didn't look convinced, Junior nodded. He walked over to Mario and patted his arm gently. Looking at me once more, the boy walked out from the room.

And I shuddered as a tear slipped down, quietly watching over Mario.


 

[Mario]

My eyes snapped open. Dark blue sky was above me. Quickly, I jumped up and my eyes barely registered the purple ground beneath me. Bowser turned around and smiled.

"Mario, you're—"

"You're alive!" I ran over to Bowser and dove into him. Slowly, he wrapped his arms around me and held me.

"Um…yeah." He chuckled, but I couldn't feel him vibrate. "Why…wouldn't I be?"

"This…wait." I moved away from him and studied his body. No wounds. I shook my head and noticed Luigi, Peach, and Daisy staring at us. "Not again."

"What's wrong?"

"Nightmare." I tugged my hat over my head. "Peach died while we passed the waterfall, and then you died from a cave-in."

"Waterfall?" Peach asked.

"Cave-in?" questioned Bowser.

"It all happened while we were going along that path." I pointed ahead. "There has to be another way we can go." I looked around, but there was only one other trail that led out of the area.

"We can't go back that way," Luigi explained. "We split up from the others for the royals' protection."

"Luigi, there must be some other way we can go!"

"Mario, I don't know where else to go." He shook his head. "You told me that this was the best route for us to take."

"Me?! I just told you Peach and Bowser died going this way!"

"But…that was a dream, or…two," Daisy pointed out. "They're fine now."

Wildly, I shook my head, but Bowser rested his hands on my shoulders. "Mario, we'll be careful. I promise."

My shoulders dropped and I opened my mouth to argue, but the others had already started walking ahead.

"Come on!" Luigi called and waved us on to follow.

Bowser pulled me close to him and we joined the others. Passing the buried stone, I shivered. Not long after, we reached the waterfall.

"Huh. This would have been more romantic if it wasn't destined to be a graveyard," joked Bowser.

"So…what happens here?" inquired Peach.

"The ground breaks away and you fell before anyone could grab you." I shook my head. "If you three go first, while Bowser and I go last, we should be able to make it. But we need to move quickly."

Everyone nodded and approached the waterfall. Luigi and the princesses ran across first, and then Bowser and I raced after them. We turned around and stared at the trail. At first, it remained in tact. After a minute, however, the trail cracked and parts of it broke away.

"That's the best version I've seen." I exhaled deeply.

"Best?" Peach raised an eyebrow. "We did this more than once?"

"Yes, we made it through in the second dream, but barely," I explained. "Come on, the cave's ahead."

Everyone followed me along the path that led us to the cave. I stopped and stared above the cave. No firebird came by this time.

"So, now what happens?" asked Luigi.

"It's not a very long cave, but you shouted at the end of it, which must triggered the cave-in. Bowser gets pummeled from falling stalactites while protecting us, and crushed by boulders just before he can escape."

"Ouch." Bowser chuckled nervously. "But please, Mario, tell me how you really feel."

Sharply, I stared him in the eyes. "If you die again, I'll go berserk."

"Uh…ok then, no heroics for me." Bowser grinned. "Good to know you care, though."

"So, we'll just go through silently," decided Daisy. "Should be easy enough."

"Unless Luigi didn't trigger it," I observed. "If that's the case, it could just happen anyway."

"Well, we can't move too quickly, or we'll all cause enough sound to start it," contested Peach.

"Carefully and quietly it is."

Slowly, everyone crept through the cave. Again, I listened to the dripping echo around us and watched the stalactites. Nothing seemed to budge.

"Easy enough," whispered Bowser.

We were about halfway across when I heard something snap. Spinning back, I watched a stalactite shatter as it hit the ground. The sound vibrated across the cave.

"Oh…that's not good," murmured Luigi.

"Run!"

All five of us ran for the exit as the stalactites began to crash down around us. I grabbed Bowser's hand and surged forward with him. Altogether, we dove out of the cave as the rocks crashed down behind us. Alarmed, I shot up, and threw myself onto Bowser.

"Are you ok?"

"I'm fine."

"Let me just check—"

"Mario." Bowser lifted my chin and stared calmly into my panicked eyes. "I'm alive."

My lips quivered and he kissed me softly. Everyone stood up and gazed at the silver shrine in the distance.

"We're almost there."

Luigi led us forward and we made our way to the plateau. Something bright shined from it, but faded as we approached. In front of us stood a shrouded figure that turned away from an empty column.

"What…who are you?" Peach demanded.

No answers were given as the figure stared at us. It looked like a robed person, but I couldn't tell if it was even a living being.

"We don't want any trouble." I raised my arms up and tried to approach in a non-threatening manner.

Suddenly, four more just like it stepped out from a line behind the first figure. They lined up and stared us down. They each readied what I assumed were battle stances.

"Well, that's…terrifying," muttered Daisy.

"Everyone, take one and take them down," I instructed.

Each of us spread out as the figures leapt at us, practically whizzing through the air like spirits. One tackled Luigi to the ground, while Bowser spat fire at another.

Daisy threw a punch directly at one that went after her, but it went straight through the shroud.

Peach ran off, looking for a way to stop her opponent from chasing her, while I jumped away from mine. I tried to throw a kick, but it simply dissipated into the air when I attacked.

Before I could assess anything else, a sharp pain rose up through my back. Slowly, I turned back and looked behind me. The figure had appeared right there, somehow. It backed away as I dropped to the ground.

"NO!" Bowser roared and rushed over to me. Luigi tried to make his way over, but was kept away, along with Peach and Daisy. Past them, past the shrine, I saw the flaming bird flutter in the distance, as if it were too late to reach us.

The Koopa King crashed down beside me and breathed fire through the air around us, in a futile attempt to retaliate. My vision faded as Bowser looked down at me.

"Mario, hold on!" Bowser pleaded. "Stay with me! Don't go!"

My mouth opened, but no words came out. Everything began to go dark as I concentrated on Bowser's shining, splendid red eyes.

"Mario!" Tears welled up in his eyes as mine shut. "Please…!"

Though I wanted to answer him, everything around me fell silent instead.


 

Gasping, I shot up. Bowser jolted back from me, but leaned forward right after.

"Mario? Mario, you're awake!" He wrapped me into a tight hug, his warm body soothing me. I blinked and looked down. Red sheets. His bed. As Bowser pulled back from me, I quickly took in the sight of his bedroom.

"Real." I smiled weakly. "It's all real again."

"What is?" Bowser tilted his head in confusion. "Are you all right?"

I shook my head and forced my lips against his. It wasn't exactly a kiss, but I needed to feel his breath pour into my mouth and his rough lips against mine. Bowser had moved his hand against my cheek, but I had pulled away just as he touched me.

"Not that I'll ever complain to that," Bowser chuckled, "but…what happened?"

My mouth opened and moved to answer him, but nothing came out. Instead, I just shook my head and tightly gripped the sheets.

"It's ok," soothed Bowser. "You're here, I'm here. You're safe."

Still, I shook my head and shivered as I held my arms against my body. Bowser wrapped his arms back around me and quietly rocked me in them, rubbing my back and softly hushing me.

If only he could fix everything, just like that.

Chapter Text

[Luigi]

Our journey back to Peach's Castle was somehow more silent than the journey back from the island. Though, the rain had made up for our somber mood last time. This time, however, the sun shimmered bright in the sky, oblivious to our latest struggles.

Though she still led the way home, Peach seemed different this time. Her shoulders were lowered, and her pace was slower. Instead of firmly holding her Royal Scepter up, she led it dangle in her lowered grip. Peach's head was normally held high to match her poise, but now it was tilted down, watching where her feet fell.

The rest of us were affected as well. Yoshi would walk with a skip in his step, but now had his feet firmly shuffling across the ground. Daisy seemed more concerned with her clothes than she truly ever was. Even Toadette moved slower and tugged on her braids rather than letting them flow in the wind.

Quietly, I fixed my cap and watched the castle come back into view. My mouth kept opening on instinct, looking to diffuse the tension. Considering that I had caused a bulk of it, however, nothing came out and I would shut it each time.

Several Toads cheered and clapped as we marched back onto the castle grounds. While Peach and I remained stoic, the others waved and smiled, a little less exposed to the encouragingly warm reception and delighted audience.

Peach guided us to her throne room, where Toadsworth awaited us.

"Princesses! Masters Luigi and Yoshi! Welcome back." He nodded to Toadette, who waved slightly. "Glad to see you're all back in one piece. I trust things went well at the Glaciers?" No answered right away. "Or…perhaps not?"

"We took care of it." Peach's voice was hollow, still stuck on her actions.

"Are…you certain?"

"Yes, Toadsworth. We wouldn't be back otherwise."

"Ah, right then." He gazed at the rest of us, twirling and pulling his mustache. Tapping his cane, Toadsworth nodded. "Would you like me to get the five Toads that accompanied you prior? They're feeling much better now."

"Please do."

Silently, Toadsworth bowed and walked off to gather the quintet. Toadette walked to Peach's free hand and grasped it. Daisy folded her arms and glanced out a window. Yoshi came over and rested his head on my shoulder, and I gently petted his nose.

"Is this it?" Daisy abruptly blurted out. "Are we going to let this do us in for the rest of our time saving the Mushroom Kingdom?"

"It's not exactly something we can shrug off," I murmured.

"Fine, I get that, but we can't let this leave us moody the whole time." Daisy strode back over. "This is war, there's a 1-Up shortage, and it will have unfavorable outcomes. We need to get that into our heads and keep on rolling."

Each of us turned to look at her, save Peach, who stared absently at her throne, head still tilted down. Yoshi grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly, smiling at me. Toadette still held Peach's, but nodded to Daisy.

"Ok, then starting now, we leave the sad attitude behind. We're moving forward, got it?" Daisy placed her hands on her hips as we nodded. She then turned to Peach, who hadn't moved. "That includes you too, Peach."

"I'll get over it."

"You need to get over it now."

"But I was the one—"

"Peach." The blonde princess turned to face her ginger counterpart. "You did it to save us. War is filled with hard choices like that. Acknowledge it, learn from it, accept it, and move on."

They stared into one another's eyes before Peach slowly nodded to Daisy. She smiled at Peach and relaxed her shoulders.

"Good. So, where are we headed next?"

"The Forests, I believe."

My heart dropped as my eyes widened. "W-Where?"

"Forests," Peach repeated. Everyone watched as I began to quake in fear. "Oh, come now, Luigi. After everything we've been through so far?"

"H-Hey! W-We all h-ha-have our f-f-fears!" I continued to shiver as Yoshi hugged me, only to start shaking himself. He let go and tried to rub my back instead.

"Mm…I suppose that's true." Peach relented and sighed.

"Wait, since when are you afraid of forests, Luigi?" Daisy questioned.

"It's n-not the f-f-forests, b-but what's in them," I explained through my stammers.

"Luigi isn't overly fond of ghosts, and they tend to thrive in the forests," Peach clarified. She turned to me and smiled. "We'll be fine, Luigi. You won't be alone this time and we won't have to deal with that many ghosts."

"That's w-what Ma-Mario tells me, a-and then w-we deal w-with all k-k-kinds of s-spooky ha-happenings," I trembled.

"And you've gotten through all of them," Peach soothed. "We'll be fine."

"She's right!" Yoshi nudged me, still trying to calm me down. "We'll be with you, Luigi!"

Recalling that he wasn't fond of ghosts either, I slowly nodded and gained control over my shaking.

"O-Ok." I sighed. "But the Forests are still the creepiest in the Mushroom Kingdom."

"I won't argue that," Peach giggled. "It's not somewhere I like to travel either."

We turned as Toadsworth walked back in with the five Toads, each cheering and running over to greet us.

"Princess Peach!"

"We're so glad you're safe!"

"And the others are ok too!"

"Toadette was with you guys?"

"Did you help with the Glaciers?"

"Hey, cool it!" Toadette ordered.

"Everyone's fine," Peach laughed. "Toadette did great work with us. And the Glaciers are no longer under Bowser's control."

Again, the quintet cheered and clapped for us.

"Boys, come on, settle down!" Toadsworth stamped his cane to the floor and the five fell silent. "Better."

"So, what's going on next?" asked the Red Toad.

"Once we're ready, we're taking off to the Forests," explained Peach.

Exchanging nervous glances with one another, the five Toads turned back and nodded.

"Just how creepy is this place?" Daisy asked. "Luigi's worried, they're worried, and now I'm getting anxious about it."

"The Forests? Certainly not somewhere I'd travel to willingly," mused Toadsworth. "Please take an extra amount of caution going there." He paused and picked at his mustache again. "Then again, considering the Princess is armed with that," he pointed at her scepter, "I suppose you'll do just fine."

"Actually…" Peach lifted her Royal Scepter and stared at it. Then, she held it out for Toadsworth to take. "I'm going to leave it here, this time around."

Some of the Toads gasped, while Daisy and I exchanged bewildered looks with Yoshi and Toadette. We turned back to see that Peach hadn't moved, still holding the wand out to her steward.

"Leave it?" Toadsworth shook his head. "Princess, of all the times to suddenly rethink your strategies, when you're going to—"

"I know where we're going and I know that magic could be helpful there. Daisy also has her rings with her, so we can fall back on those." Peach exhaled heavily. "But I need to give it a break. The Glaciers were…taxing."

Toadsworth eyed Peach with a mix of suspicion and worry, but nodded. He took the Royal Scepter into his free hand and Peach hesitated briefly before letting it go. She folded her hands together and let them sit in front of her.

"And now I'm filled with a dreadful amount of worry once again." Toadsworth sighed as he observed the rod.

"Don't be, please." Peach looked back to the rest of us. "I've got a lot of support by my side now, and we'll be fine as we go."

"Ah, yes, that reminds me: there was a visitor, waiting for you in the gardens, Princess."

"Visitor?"

"It's…um…Ma…Mi…" Toadsworth scratched his head and sighed. "It's Birdo. I instructed a few Toads to serve…'her,' until you returned."

"What was all of that stumbling for, Toadsworth?"

"Well, Princess, uh…Birdo's an elusive character. How should I refer to such?"

"Toadsworth, it's simple: you call her Miss Birdo, like you would anyone else. And in spite of her questionable past, we will treat her fairly until proven otherwise."

"But—"

"That's the end of it, Toadsworth."

He nodded and we followed Peach outside. Considering Birdo's spotty background, I'm impressed that Peach would be so lenient about the pink dinosaur with her red head ribbon. Then again, I'm not quite sure that anyone knows how to deal with her.

In the back of Peach's Castle, various flowers and bushes were decorated about the courtyard. Near the fountain in the middle, Birdo sat at a small table while several Toads bustled back and forth to her, bringing various dishes of food for her to inhale while she sharpened her nails.

"C-Can we get you anything else, Birdo?" asked one of the Toads.

"No, I suppose I'm satisfied for now." She studied her nails and rubbed them for a moment before handing the file to another Toad. "Thank you."

"O-Of course, M…Miss Birdo."

"Oh, you Toads are just the cutest things!" Birdo giggled.

"Birdo!" Peach cried out, fed up. "What are you doing here?"

Jumping up from her seat, Birdo fixed her bow and happily bounced over to our group.

"Nice to see you too, Princess." She winked at Peach and blew a kiss from her funnel shaped mouth for the fleeing Toad servants.

"That didn't answer my question."

"Relax, darling. I'm just here for a quick visit, checking in on…" She eyed each of us, halting her gaze on Yoshi and I. "…Things."

"Why the sudden interest?" inquired Daisy.

"Daisy dear!" Birdo clasped her hands together. "I'm always interested in the Mushroom Kingdom's affairs. Why, we have such nice venues for shopping here."

"Shopping?" Peach shook her head. "There's no chance that you're suddenly interested in what we're doing simply to save shops."

"You usually talk about how they can be rebuilt easily," added Toadette.

"Ooh! Hush, Toadette!" Birdo nervously giggled. "Come on, we usually go to those places together, don't we?"

"Birdo, you're evading, again," snapped Peach.

"Fine, it's not for the venues." Birdo stretched and rolled her shoulders. "To be honest, I've heard some lovely bits of news from…how do you call them? 'Impudent scoundrels?' Yes, quite the buzz from Bowser's little patch of the kingdom, hmm?"

"Buzz?"

"Oh, didn't you hear the news from over there?" She fixed the ring on her finger, undaunted that we hadn't heard anything.

"What news?"

"Delicious bits that even you'd kill to hear, Princess!"

Birdo laughed, not noticing that she had inadvertently struck a nerve.

"What news?" Peach's hands tightened into fists. "Birdo, just what do you know?"

"Dear oh dear," Birdo giggled. "You truly haven't heard."

"Heard what?" Everyone else could tell Peach's patience was gone. Though…I suspected Birdo was also aware of this. "Out with it, Birdo!"

Birdo wagged her finger. "Fair warning: I'm just a messenger, so don't hate me for it."

"Just tell us!"

"All right." She shrugged and sighed. "Word from Bowser's Castle is that the Koopa King himself is in love with Mario."

My eyes burst wide open as if the words hung out in the air before us. Quickly, I looked to the others, checking their reactions. Yoshi's seemed to match mine: eyes open wide as he turned to stare at me. Toadette clasped her hands over her mouth. Daisy's arms seemed to hang a bit looser and she shot Toadette a perplexed expression. Toadsworth and the five Toads exchanged varying faces of shock and bewilderment.

Peach, however, took a moment to collect herself and folded her arms. "That's it?"

Confused, Birdo tilted her head and studied Peach. "I should be asking you that! With that bombshell of a reveal, I'd certainly expect a stronger reaction, especially from you, Princess Peach!"

"Please." Peach shook her head as the others began to relax. "It's a lie, or just slanders that someone cleverly threw out against Bowser."

"They're not!" Birdo protested. "These are actual reports that have been running rampart from Bowser's Castle! And they've claimed that Mario reciprocates!"

"That's absurd. Mario would never date an enemy to the Mushroom Kingdom, let alone the greatest enemy to us all. That would be treason to everything he stands for."

I bit my lip as a shiver traveled down my back. If there was a chance for me to tell them the truth, that Birdo's information was correct, it was long gone now.

"Treason? Please! It's such a romantic drama that's ensuing and you'd—"

"You have been filled with nothing but nonsense in your head," Peach huffed. "Unless you have anything truly useful to offer us, I suggest that you take your leave, before I have you escorted out."

Taken aback, Birdo glanced at Yoshi and I, and then to Daisy and Toadette. "One of you must believe me!"

Yoshi and I glanced at one another, silent. He seemed to study me, perhaps realizing that I knew the correct answer.

"Sorry, Birdo, but I'm going to have to side with Peach on this one," murmured Toadette. "It's a funny story, but that's about as far as it gets, I think."

"Well, I'd like to believe you, Birdo, but they're right," Daisy agreed. "Mario's not the type to suddenly fall for Bowser, nor fall for him at all. And I don't think Bowser's even remotely interested in Mario unless he's killing him or using him as leverage against us."

Desperate, Birdo looked to the five Toads, who all nodded in accord with Daisy and Toadette's statements. Toadsworth picked at his mustache, unsure of what to add in.

"But…you must…" Birdo's head dropped and she slowly shook it. "Fine, if that's how it is." Her picked herself back up, annoyed. "You're confident now, but just wait. The truth will come out in time, and you'd best prepare for it."

With a huff, Birdo roughly knocked past Yoshi and I, storming from the courtyard. I rubbed my arm and watched her head back through the castle, with Toadsworth and the other Toads chasing after her.

"Honestly, how can either of you stand spending time with her?" Peach questioned. "Birdo can be nice sometimes, but when she's like this, she's an absolute—"

"Powerhouse."

The girls turned to look at one another, and then to me.

"Luigi, what—?"

"Birdo's strong, right?" I glanced at Yoshi, who nodded. "And here she was, just deciding to stop by and get involved within everything."

"Um, I don't think she was, really," contested Toadette.

"Ok, probably not." I shrugged. "But think about it. We could use her on our side."

"Like that? Not a chance." Peach shook her head. "She's all hung up over lies."

"No, she's…that's not the point." Taking in a deep breath and releasing it, I tried again. "Look, Birdo's a solid option to turn to. If we get her to cooperate with us, she could be a strong asset."

The others studied me carefully, and then stared at one another, conviction wavering.

"Really, what's the harm in letting her join? We have to double check our supplies or watch each other's backs a little extra? We're already doing that enough as it is. If she somehow gets persuaded to join Bowser, we'll have to deal with her as an adversary, and Birdo's not exactly as easy to defeat as she used to be."

"Asset or adversary…" Peach isolated. "Good point, Luigi. See if you can stop her and bring her on board. Meanwhile, Toadette, I want you to gather the five Toads and take them with you."

"Am I going somewhere?" Toadette asked. "I mean, I suppose I'm going somewhere either way, possibly always going somewhere, but in regards to specific…not important, you know what I mean."

"I'd like you six to travel to Bowser's Castle."

Toadette's mouth dropped open. "W…Where?"

"Bowser's. On his own, Red Toad rescued—"

"He has a name," interrupted Toadette.

"Oh. Right. Well, either way, he single-handedly managed to rescue Mario. If all six of you work together, you may be able to help Mario escape once again."

"But Princess, we've tried rescue operations countless times with you, and Bowser's forces are almost always prepared." Toadette trembled. "What if we fail?"

"You won't fail." Peach smiled encouragingly. "I believe that the six of you can prevail together."

Though less confidently, Toadette smiled and nodded.

"Good. Now, Luigi, you hurry up with Birdo, while the rest of us prepare for the Forests."

"Actually," Yoshi piped in, "I think it would be better if I went with Luigi."

"That's not necessary," I intervened. "I think I can handle talking—"

"To Birdo? You?" Yoshi chuckled. "Are you forgetting who she actually likes to deal with?"

"So maybe I should get her?" Daisy offered.

"No, I need to go over a few things with you." She shot a quizzical look at Peach. "Good things, I think. You'll want to process these with me."

"If you insist."

"And I do." She beamed and returned her attention to Yoshi and I. "Luigi, he's right. Birdo is so much happier around Yoshi, and she pairs up with him whenever she can. If you want to persuade her to our side, he's your best option to convince her."

Yoshi grinned brightly while I bitterly nodded. I needed to talk with Birdo alone.

"Very good. All right everyone, let's get to it."

Toadette, Yoshi, and I nodded, racing back inside. We hurried through the corridors and to the front door, just in time to watch Birdo storm out as the six Toads shook their heads. Toadette stayed behind to talk with them while Yoshi and I rushed after Birdo, straight down Toadstool Road.

"Ok, now that she's gone," Yoshi sounded, "what aren't you telling us?"

"What do you mean?"

"Look, while Peach might have convinced everyone otherwise, you didn't even bother defending Mario or shutting down that rumor." I nearly tripped as we neared Birdo. "What's the truth?"

Instead of answering him, I tugged him after the pink dinosaur, still outraged from her unfavorable dismissal. Noticing that we were fairly isolated, I exhaled a bit and managed to catch up with Birdo. She glared at us and tried to keep walking ahead, but I threw Yoshi and myself into her way.

"Move," Birdo demanded.

"Wait, you're right."

"Of course I'm right, you're in my way." She folded her arms. "Now move."

"No, that's…what you heard was right. The bit on Bowser."

Birdo relaxed a bit, letting her glare fade. I glanced at Yoshi, whose mouth had dropped open. With a sigh, I turned back to Birdo.

"Please, if you don't mind, we can't talk about this openly."

"Why not?" Birdo snapped. "There's no shame in hiding their relationship!"

"They're enemies!" I hissed. "Or…supposed to be."

"That still should…oh, whatever." Birdo dropped her arms and rolled her eyes. "Fine, let's…go over there."

She pointed to a few trees that were distanced from the road, not far from the pond, and the three of us walked over to them as a few Toads passed back and forth along the way, paying no mind to us as we disappeared behind the trunks.

Leaning against a tree, Birdo crossed her legs and folded her arms behind her head. I sat down on the ground, while Yoshi plopped down beside me, a little rougher than even he expected.

"Take it easy, Yoshi," giggled Birdo. "It's been a while, hasn't it, cutie?"

"Um, yeah. A little while." Yoshi scratched his cheek, which looked a bit pink to me. "Besides this stuff, uh…how…have you been?"

"Same old each day. A bunch of folks ridicule me over the way I look, a bunch more question my gender, and I brush them all off while trying to live a life I like." She sighed from her more solemn attitude, and tossed her head back. "They're annoying, but I don't let them keep me down. There are better things to bother me than those that outright hate me."

"Sorry to hear."

"We all have our struggles." Birdo shrugged, and then turned to me, her tone back up to normal. "So, Luigi, right? Mind confirming that bit again for me?"

"Actually, could you better explain it?" Yoshi asked. "I'm…really confused."

"Well, Birdo heard right. Bowser is in love with Mario. And…Mario loves him back." I hugged my legs closer to myself as the two dinosaurs stared at me, obviously waiting for more. "I'm…not exactly sure when or how it started, but I found a letter that my brother had written. Remember the Deserts, Yoshi? When you wanted to know what was wrong with me? That's when I first found out."

"I knew you weren't telling me something!" He practically sang over it. "And I knew that you'd tell me later, too!"

"Wait, you've known about this for how long?" Birdo questioned.

"Definitely before the word got out around Bowser's Castle." I paused to think back, fairly certain that I was correct in that assumption. "By the way Mario made it out, when he was with us before, hardly anyone knew when he told me, as Bowser didn't even want to tell his son."

"That must have changed," murmured Birdo.

"It did. By the time we ran into Bowser and before he took Mario again, Junior already knew about their relationship and lectured me over it." I recalled Junior's conviction and how he tore me apart over my differing stance. "And now, his whole castle is in on it, so it'll only be a matter of time before Peach really understands it."

"So…his whole castle knew before any of us did?" Yoshi questioned. "And yet, you knew." He frowned at me. "Luigi, why didn't you tell us?"

"Did…you not see how Peach reacted? Because she's the leader of the Mushroom Kingdom, and the way she acted reflects on and from the rest of her people."

Yoshi grabbed his feet, and he moved them back and forth with his hands. "I guess, they might be critical of that, but…Luigi, you could have told me."

"Maybe, but I really didn't want to risk it." My eyes shot back over to Birdo. "And that's what I need to ask you. I know that you'd defend their relationship and that you're keen on sharing them, but please, I'm begging you, don't tell anyone else about Bowser's real relationship with my brother."

"Honestly, I still don't understand the fuss." I opened my mouth, but Birdo held up her hand. "Your protests, I get. Anyone else who wants to cause a ruckus over this? Nope. Anyone can feel love's embrace; it's not exclusive to one gender or one type of couple."

"It's good that you think so, but I'm pretty sure a lot of other people would think otherwise," I countered, and shivered after. "Or d-don't you have issues?"

"Fair point." Birdo tugged gently at her bow, perhaps tightening it. "So, I keep quiet about them, regardless of who believes me. And…what's in it for me?"

"What? Why does anything need to be—?"

"Oh, come on, Luigi. After what Peach made me deal with?"

"Yes, that was terrible, I agree," I relented. "But…I don't have anything to give you."

"Right, so what's stopping me from—?"

"How about a date?" I blurted as my legs shot out.

"Uh…you're not that bad, Luigi, but I hardly know you all that well." Judging by her tone, I wasn't sure that was the only reason for apprehension.

"Not with me," I clarified. "Yoshi here. He'll go on a date with you, provided you keep that a secret."

"I'm doing what now?" Yoshi questioned.

"A forced date isn't any fun," groaned Birdo. "I've had bad experiences with those in the past." She paused before adding, "Besides, I can get Yoshi to date me when he's good and ready."

"You can do what to me?" Yoshi sputtered out.

"Hush, Yoshi," I muttered to him before looking back to Birdo. "Please…I already have no idea how I'm going to explain to Peach why I'm coming back empty-handed."

"Why would you be?" Birdo inquired.

"Um…I might have…told them I was…getting you to join us?"

"Deal."

"Wait, what?"

"There's always a big buzz about Mario and whoever else helps him save the day, right?" Birdo watched as I nodded. "Well then, I'd imagine that the Mushroom Kingdom would celebrate and adore anyone who restores their kingdom to peace. On top of that, bringing back Mario would get people even more delighted. And if we actually manage to eventually convince people that the relationship is good and it works out somehow, then we'll become some of the greatest heroes to not only the Mushroom Kingdom, but to history too!"

"Ah…Birdo, I don't think that's quite how it works—"

"It will most certainly work out when we're done with everything!" Birdo bounced away from the tree and tightened her fists. "Yes, this is a perfect opportunity! If I manage to help restore balance to the Mushroom Kingdom and aid the Koopa King with his relationship, I'll become a hero and a star to everyone around! This could literally be the big break I've been waiting for!"

"Break? What do you need that for?" asked Yoshi.

"It all relates back to what troubles me. Think about it: if I become one of the heroes and get recognized by everyone, people will finally have to acknowledge me for those actions! And if they're looking at that, my gender and my looks are some things they won't get hung up over so easily." She jumped up and kicked her feet about. "Oh, this could really do it! People will finally notice me for…well, me!"

"…So…"

"All right, Luigi!" Birdo zipped over, pulled me up, and roughly shook my hand. "You've got yourself a deal! No more premature reveals on Bowser and Mario, and I'll help your friends with the rest of your journey and whatever else! In exchange, I get to share the glory and credit for helping out! And not just a quick side mention, but an actual and important, noteworthy role that is quintessential, vital to what you guys do…or will have done!"

Releasing me just as roughly, I flew back as Yoshi ran over to catch me, managing to hold me up. We exchanged confused faces, and then stared as Birdo fixed her bow again.

"Sorry. Sometimes I don't know my own strengths."

"That's fine." I smiled. "We could even use that."

"Perfect! Now let's get back to the castle, grab those stuffy princesses, and be on our way!"

Proudly, Birdo marched ahead of us back to the castle. Yoshi walked close to me and leaned against me as we followed her.

"So," he whispered. "She's got a reason to keep that a secret, but what about me?"

"Do you really need one?" I mumbled.

"It'd be nice," Yoshi chuckled, his breath hitting my ear.

"Fine. How about…I get you all the fruit you can eat for a week?"

"Two weeks, and you have to bring it to me." Yoshi grinned and I tugged my cap over my head.

"Ok, deal."

"Thank you!" Yoshi wrapped his arms around me and hugged me tightly as we reached Peach's Castle.

"Can't…breathe…" I managed to get out, and Yoshi quickly released me.

"Hey, quit making out back there," Birdo teased as we walked back into the pink and golden corridors.

We returned to the throne room, where the Toads and the princesses were gathered once again. Everyone turned and showed slight signs of surprise to see Birdo back.

"There, see?" Peach spun about to Toadsworth. "Birdo will accompany us to the Forests, bringing us back up to five. Meanwhile, Toadette and the Toads will infiltrate Bowser's Castle to see if lightning strikes twice and they can rescue Mario once again."

Toadsworth pinched his mustache and tapped his cane. "I still don't like it," he murmured. "But I'm not going to stop you, am I?"

"Nope."

"You also realize that I can't hold the others off forever, right?"

"They should understand that I'm the princess, and that I can make decisions myself, especially if it's concerning my own actions." Peach placed her hands on her hips, satisfied with her decisions.

"Very well." He turned to Daisy, and then to the dinosaurs and I. "I'm counting on the rest of you to keep Princess Peach safe, as always."

"She'll be fine with us around," assured Daisy.

"Let's hope so." Toadsworth then pivoted to the six Toads. "As for you lot, be very careful at Bowser's Castle. Take care looking after each other, and if it's too much, get yourselves out of there."

"Don't worry, Toadsworth, we can handle this!" Toadette declared, and the five Toads cheered.

"Good. Very good." Toadsworth nodded and shuffled over to a window. "Good luck."

Everyone nodded and we departed from the throne room. The two groups made their way outside to the castle grounds and we faced one another.

"Will you need anything before you go?" Peach asked the Toads.

"To give you this," Toadette turned over the Item Bag to me. "Other than that, I think we're all set here."

"Shouldn't you take an item with you?" I offered.

"If we do that, you'll have one less." Toadette shook her head. "The six of us can take care of things."

"Wait, that's not smart," Daisy contended. "And…I've got an idea."

Taking the Item Bag and digging out the Fire Flower, Daisy held it between her hands. A soft turquoise glow encased the flower. Slowly, she pulled with both hands, as the flower was split…into two items. When the light faded, she handed one Fire Flower to the Toads, and placed the other back into our Item Bag.

"There you go, now you've got that for back-up." Daisy smiled as the Toads cheered over their additional Fire Flower. "I'd do that again with the other items, but that only works once a week, and we don't have that kind of time."

"This will be plenty for us." Toadette lifted her head and smiled. "Thank you, Daisy!"

"You're welcome!"

Toadette slipped the Fire Flower into her vest and walked off from Toadstool Road with the other five chattering Toads. We took a different direction, waving to them as they disappeared from sight.

"It'll take them some time to get to Bowser's Castle this time, without the Warp Zones," assessed Peach. "And they'll need to plan a better escape route as well."

"They'll be fine, Peach," soothed Daisy and she rested her hand on her friend's shoulder. "We should worry about the horrors that we're about to deal with."

"O-Oh d-d-dear…" I stuttered and shivered.

"Hey, you didn't mention anything about terrors," Birdo grumbled.

"Well, brace yourself for the foreboding Forests that await us," laughed Peach.

Birdo rolled her eyes as our group continued onward to the Forests, set to free another fortress from Bowser's control.

Though, now I wondered: would we be one step closer to helping Mario? Or would this only make matters worse?

Chapter Text

[Mario]

Hours zipped by while Bowser and I waited for Kamek's return. Most of the time, Bowser tried to keep my mind off of what I had gone through. He told me jokes, flirted, and stories about his castle, none of which seemed to really stick with me. Eventually, he gave in and we sat quietly in his bed, with him massaging me periodically.

"You don't have to do this," I murmured, as my body melted into his arms.

"Are you joking? I love feeling these!" Bowser squeezed the muscles in my arm and pressed against my chest. "And this too!" He slipped a hand over my belly and rubbed around it a bit. "Oh, but then there's—"

"Actually, I meant staying with me." That got his arms to stop, and I bit my lip.

"Why wouldn't I?" He let his head drop on top of mine.

"Pick any reason. Helping the others research, run the kingdom, check on your son—"

"Junior's fine," Bowser asserted. "The kingdom doesn't crumble because I'm not making a decision every second of the day. And there are eight of them sorting through the Study downstairs, which should be plenty."

"But you're working yourself up over me." I sighed and leaned back into him as he wrapped his arms around me. Firm grip. Gentle. Safe.

"Hardly." Bowser chuckled and I relaxed into the soft vibrations. "Staying around you helps me calm down. If I were doing anything else, I'd probably be a panicking mess."

"Right now, I'm all right." I looked up as he hung his head over me, giving the most skeptical expression he could pull off. "Well, I'm awake and feel fine."

"So, that's it?" Mama mia, here he goes again. "I should just calm down and leave you in peace? Forget that you literally hallucinated, fainted, and had your recurring nightmares? Get over my concerns, bury my emotions, and—"

"Ok, ok!" I wrapped my arms around his head. "Sorry I tried to relieve your burdens."

"This isn't a burden." He kissed the top of my head.

"That's a lie; I've ruined your life countless times." I sighed, guilt bubbling inside of me. "Including recently. And now I'm only adding to your stresses."

"Oh no," Bowser deadpanned, "my boyfriend is dredging up the past and thinks he does nothing to alleviate my problems by dating me."

Annoyed, I smacked his head. "I can't be that helpful to you. I cause problems."

"So do I." He cuddled me and nuzzled his head against my hair. "And you have no idea how much this helps me."

"My hair?"

"No, you moron, you." He shook his head. "Being with you, not holding everything in. Us." He sighed. "Even when you're giving me a heart attack, I still feel better now than I ever was without you."

His tail brushed against my leg, and then my thigh. He kept one arm around my waist, and used the other to gently scratch at my shoulders.

"When are you going to understand that?"

Rolling around, I turned to look at him. My mouth parted open a bit, but I couldn't think of anything to tell him, no ways to contest his point.

Not waiting for me to think of something, Bowser leaned in and gently pressed his lips to mine. Shutting my eyes, I kissed him back, letting his warm breath sidetrack me from my thoughts.

He pulled back for a breath, and then I pressed into him again, licking at his rough lips. Opening them, he moaned as I slid my tongue over his, tapping at his sharp teeth. Bowser pushed his tongue under mine and bounced it a bit, which tickled and caused me to break away laughing. He giggled and placed his hands on my waist.

"See?" Bowser seductively whispered. "Feels good."

"You make a good point," I murmured back to him.

We moved closer, into one another again, caressing one another's faces. His cheeks were rosy and mine were heated. Desperately, craving him, I didn't want this to end.

But a pounding from the door made us pause. Bowser squeezed his eyes shut and grumbled quietly. The rapping came again.

"One minute!" Bowser boomed.

Quickly, I scooted off of him and sat back on the bed. Bowser rolled around to get up, but turned and kissed me instead. It wasn't long and he pulled back, but with a grin for me. Still, he got up and trudged to the door.

"What?" He asked as he opened it. I glanced past his legs to see that it was Ludwig.

"Greetings…sire." Bitterness, possible hostility, was evident in Ludwig's tone. "Kamek has sent me to fetch you and your beloved."

From Bowser's raised, stiffened shoulders, it was obvious that he was no happier about this than Ludwig. He glanced to me and rolled his head forward to beckon me over. Getting up, I walked over to them and went out into the hall to follow Ludwig downstairs. The blue haired Koopaling studied me with contempt before turning ahead. I waited as Bowser shut the door and strolled beside me.

Though we weren't far from Ludwig, he didn't hold the door open as he went down the stairs, with Bowser having to catch it before it closed. I shrugged as Bowser rolled his eyes and gestured me onward with a wink.

Again, we reached the center room with the Warp Pipe, and again, Ludwig let the door close behind him. Grabbing in, I glared into the darkness after the Koopaling, with Bowser taking the door as I followed Ludwig in.

"So would the…uh, maybe not happy…let's go with 'odd couple,' shall we?" He snickered. "Anyway, after—"

"No, please," I interrupted. "Mop heads first. To clear the path."

At the Koopaling's snarl, I smirked. We listened as he went down the black Warp Pipe, and hesitated.

"Well, after you?" Bowser reached around for my waist, but missed. "Uh…sorry."

Perhaps unexpectedly for him, I laughed. Climbing up onto the rim of the Warp Pipe, I kissed his cheek before jumping down.

Launching out from the other side, I watched as Ludwig opened the door and glared back at me before letting it slam shut behind him. Bowser came through and I helped him down before taking off. Storming from the pipe room, I grabbed Ludwig and forced him to a halt.

"Let go."

"Fine, but we're not going anywhere."

Bowser stopped and gave me a puzzled look, but nodded in agreement.

"Obedient pet," Ludwig muttered.

"Repeat that and I'll toss you right over the bridge!" Bowser snarled.

"And that's just it. Ludwig, why do you hate us so much?"

"Mm. 'Hate' is a strong word." Bowser and I lowered our eyes at him. "What? I don't hate either of you, really. This just…irks me."

"What?" I folded my arms. "Is it because we're dating?"

"Well, in part—"

"Oh, to hell with that." Bowser folded his arms as well. "You've been giving me attitude for years now, but it's been at an all new high lately. What, were you that put off by not getting your way amongst your siblings?"

"Please." Ludwig flipped his hair. "Don't make me sound so juvenile and petty."

"Then what is it, Ludwig?" He tried to turn away, but I forced myself into his line of vision. "We're not going anywhere until you talk."

The Koopaling spun around to do just that, but Bowser thought ahead and blocked his path.

"Just talk to us, Ludwig," I insisted.

"You?!" He snapped, fury firing into his dark eyes. "Why, for all of the Mushroom Kingdom, should I be able to talk to you, of all people?! As far as I'm concerned, you're still a hindrance to us all!"

Glaring, Bowser reached down to his shoulder. "Hey, Ludwig—"

"No, get off!" Ludwig batted Bowser's hand away. "You don't control me!"

"Not completely, but while you're in my kingdom, my castle, you follow my orders!"

"Bowser."

"What?"

He leaned around and stared at Ludwig, who shuddered and tightened his fists. In his eyes, I thought I could see tears well up.

"Ludwig, what is it really?" He scowled at me, but I softened my face instead. "Just talk. Even if you don't like us, it's better to just get it out."

For a minute, Ludwig remained silent. However, after he swallowed and roughly brushed his eyes, he moved aside and faced us.

"It's the same as it's always been." He directed this to Bowser. "I was your top officer, and you gave me command of every—"

"Oh, this again?" Bowser groaned. "How many times—?"

"Wait, what?" I intervened.

"It's about his rank compared to my son." Bowser rolled his eyes.

"Not just your spoiled brat of a son!"

"What did you say?!"

"Cool it!" I slid between them. "Both of you." They glared past me, but nodded. "Ludwig, explain it calmly to me."

Inhaling, then exhaling, Ludwig nodded. "You know how Bowser keeps us ranked high amongst the troops. You remember how we used to be practically his own children back when we first met." I nodded. "Well, after losing to you once to many, and after he slept ar…after Junior was born, Bowser quickly began to shaft us."

"He's my son." Bowser grumbled, and shot a look to me, but I shrugged. "Of course I'm going to give him preferential treatments."

"Fine, but don't outright ignore us!" Ludwig choked and coughed, clearing his throat. "We may not go with all of your plans, but there are times you wouldn't even ask us to help you!"

"Refuse me once, shame on me. Refuse me twice—"

"And that's it?!" Ludwig held a glare against Bowser. "We respected you for years. I followed your wildest orders. Even now, even when I can't stand some of the choices that you've been making, I'm still standing under your rule. And how do you even thank us?!"

"By giving you a stabilized home? Compared to where else you go?" Bowser raised a brow as Ludwig turned away. "I've brought all seven of you in when no one would even consider—"

"That doesn't fix anything!" Ludwig yelled. "Just once, can't you…?"

"What do you want?" Bowser threw his hands up in aggravation, but I touched his side and calmed him slightly. "Ludwig, you're the wisest of your siblings, but you're the most difficult to please! What do you want from me? We don't see eye-to-eye, but I can at least get the others to work with me. What is it that you want?"

"…I don't know."

"Yes, you do." Bowser turned to look at me, puzzled. "He wants your approval. Bowser, you're like a father-figure to him, like the other Koopalings."

"Like the other…?" His eyes widened and the Koopa King nodded. "Ludwig—"

"No!" He spun away from us. "That's…that's not it, not at all!"

"Ludwig, please." He turned his head to look only at me. "Bowser may not show it as often as you would like, but he really cares about you, and your siblings. He wouldn't keep you under his wing if he didn't feel as close to you as you do to him."

Dropping his arms, Ludwig looked away from me as well. Bowser shared a look of concern with me, and then looked back to the eldest Koopaling. He stepped forward and placed his hand on Ludwig's shoulder, and he jumped. For a moment, he left Bowser alone, but Ludwig recovered, and brushed Bowser's hand away.

"Your sympathy is noted, but I don't need it. And we don't need you." He stepped away from Bowser.

"Maybe not. Maybe it's just that I need you." Ludwig spun back around. "And Mario here definitely needs you, as does Kamek. And Junior loves having all seven of you around." He sighed. "The seven of you round us out when we need it most. So…I do really need you."

Silently, Ludwig nodded. Bowser shot a smile over to me and I returned it.

"Well…let's go then."

"Ludwig—"

"No, heart-to-heart is over." He shook his head and walked toward the bridge. "Mario needs to speak with Kamek and we've taken too long already."

Without another word, he continued onward and crossed the bridge. Bowser heavily exhaled and I grabbed his hand. He softly smiled at me again and I nodded.

We walked into the green-lit Study, where the other Koopalings were placing several books back on the shelves. Larry shot a quizzical look to Ludwig, who stared off before joining in.

I stared at the shelves that they reorganized, studying the wooden shelves that lined the walls and towered over even Bowser. Kamek sat by the desk, glancing up at us, but lowering his head back down to stare ahead.

Approaching him, Kamek stood up and turned a book around to face us. I gazed down at the white and gold book, titled: Divine Arts and Studies of Divination.

"That's from before, when I first came down here," I observed.

Kamek nodded. "I hadn't realized it before, but you were on the right track." He bit his lip. "My apologies for dismissing it."

Shrugging, I nodded. "It's a fair reaction."

"And usually a foolish one." He shook his head. "But that's neither here nor there."

"Right," agreed Bowser. "What's up with this curse?"

"As you're aware, the curse stirs nightmares in its victims." He nodded to Mario. "From what you checked, ages ago, these are meant to be false dreams that cause the victim to follow a psychic's bidding." His expression went grave as he continued. "However, these dreams do have some basis on events that are possible to come. Thus, one could actually pull certain events that occur in the dream and relate them as they come to life, so to speak."

"Does…that mean they'll happen?" I questioned as my heart raced and my hands shook. Bowser scooped one into his and rubbed the back of my hand with his thumb.

"Ultimately, it's impossible to tell, as the future isn't exactly written. Or, so I'd assume." Kamek shrugged. "The symptoms are numerous, but…"

"But what, Kamek?" Bowser urged.

"Mario…displayed an unhealthy number of them." He sighed as our eyes widened. "They include the nightmares, obviously, but also involve hallucinations, passing out in at least one deep slumber, though more are possible. Along with those include irritability or other mixed emotions, latent magic abilities to surface, recurring visions or symbols—"

"Like a bird?" I paused as Kamek glanced up at me. "In…in a few of my dreams, I've been with a firebird of some kind. I don't understand how it's involved—"

"Doesn't matter. If you've had at least one recurring symbol, it's a definite sign of the curse." My heart hammered as Bowser squeezed my hand. "I believe you get the point. Along with that, the nightmares tend to be in a recurring location, and with Shamans predominantly hailing Star Hill, it's the typical setting for these to occur."

"That's great, but how do we get rid of it?" Bowser's voice seemed to mix annoyance with concern.

"In order to have a curse removed, another Shaman would need to be able to take care of it." Kamek tapped at the notes beside him. "And it does need to be performed in the location that the nightmares occur, so you would need to go to Star Hill to rid yourself of this curse."

"No." Bowser and Kamek gazed at me while I shook my head. "It's too dangerous."

"Actually, it's not as bad as leaving it in you." Kamek double checked his notes, flipped through a book, skimmed a page, and nodded. "If untreated, you could go delirious, for a much more extensive period of time, or your body could begin to have physical reactions to the dreams. For example, if you get cut in the dream and actually begin to feel it—"

"It could happen to him in real life?"

"His body will feel like it has, which…could be potentially worse."

"I can die, can't I?"

"Theoretically speaking, yes."

Bowser grabbed my shoulders and turned me to him. "You are going to Star Hill."

"No, I can't!" I shook my head.

"Why not? You run a risk of dying if we don't do anything!"

"How likely would that be?"

"Mario!"

"Someone dies there!"

The room grew quiet as the Koopalings turned around to stare. Noticing their own silence, they quickly returned to shuffling the books and papers back onto the shelves, between small statues and potions. Bowser gaped at me while Kamek adjusted his spectacles.

"Dies?"

"Yes! And I don't know who, but it could be you." Bowser's shoulders slumped down as he continued to gaze at me. Kamek observed me carefully, as if he could learn something else. Maybe. "How likely is it that those symptoms will overcome me?"

"Stronger than your dreams being accurate," assessed Kamek. "However, both are possible."

"Then we're not going," I reaffirmed. "Better for me to suffer alone than—"

"What, the off chance that I could die?"

"It's not just you." Bowser locked his eyes into mine, before they widened in horror, understanding. "We can't go."

Kamek shook his head. "I highly advise you to do so. You won't need to spend long there, just enough time to find a Shaman that can get rid of the curse."

"Are they a threat?" Bowser inquired.

"Depends. Shamans are quite private with their lives, but I'd imagine that one would recognize you two."

"Who wouldn't?"

"The trick is which one would be most inclined to help." Kamek shifted his hat around. "Some may like Mario for his heroics, some may enjoy the trouble Bowser has caused, though I suspect many will not even want you there."

"We'll find someone."

"Bowser—"

"Look, we're going. I'm not letting you die Mario." Desperation. "Neither of us will be dying anytime soon." Determination.

"You can't promise that though."

"Watch me."

He grinned confidently, but I don't share his enthusiasm. Kamek shifted his face between the two of us and shook his head.

"It's getting late. We'll talk more tomorrow."

Both of us nodded, and Kamek turned the books around, organizing them on the desk. He looked me over one last time and nodded before walking out.


[Bowser]

It was definitely the early morning, but even a few hours later, Mario was still awake. His breathing was irregular and he shifted uncomfortably repeatedly. My sigh caused him to jump.

"How long have you been awake for?"

"About as long as you."

"Well, sleep." He rolled away from me. "This is exactly why I didn't want to be on top of you tonight."

"Oh, but you're not…yet." I chuckled as he rolled back over to whack me with his pillow. "You set yourself up for that."

"I'm trying to be serious."

"Not when you're all grumpy like that. It's too cute."

"Go to sleep, Bowser."

"Not while you're awake. I'll worry too much."

He groaned and rolled away from me. Not letting up, I turned with him and slipped my arms around his sides. His heartbeat raced and his whole body was tense.

"Don't."

"We're just lying together."

"But—"

"Mario, if I can't love you, can you tell me who can?" He didn't answer. "Who are you going to let in?"

"No one."

"That's a horrible decision."

"It will keep people alive."

"Forever? No, it won't."

Again, Mario was silent. Still, I rubbed his chest, resting my head above his.

"Talk, at least to me. What happened?"

"You died. I died."

"I got that, but I need a little more than that."

Heavily, he sighed. "I dreamt of three possible ways it could go down. The first involved Peach falling from a cliff near a waterfall." He paused as my eyes widened; her death I hadn't expected. "After that, we saved her, but you were killed as we escaped from a cave-in. And on the last run, you both made it, but I was stabbed by a mysterious assailant on Star Hill."

"…Why can't you dream of happy things?" He spun around and punched my shoulder as I laughed. "Sorry! I shouldn't have, I'm sorry." Stopping, I kissed his forehead. "So, you had a dream that resulted in someone dying after we corrected each issue that came up." Mario nodded. "Heavy stuff."

"What am I supposed to do about that? I can't just willingly bring you into danger, let alone anyone else on top of that." He squeezed his eyes shut.

"Well, I'll tell you now, we're not going to be with Peach when we go to Star Hill; she's still rallying against me, in case you didn't know. So, like Kamek told us, it's not even certain that those dreams will come true."

Slowly, he opened his engrossing blue eyes and nodded. Smiling, I slid one arm down to his waist, taking hold of his hand.

"We both know that I can't guarantee anything." Admitting helped enforce it into my own mind, along with letting him know I understood his concerns. "Honestly, I'd really like to not die. But I also don't want that happening to you. And on top of that, you've suffered enough from this curse."

His free hand moved up and covered my lips, at least as well as he could. "Bowser, I have one brother and fans. You run an entire castle, where you live with an adoptive father and eight children. Tell me, which of us is worth living?"

"Oh, are we going to weigh our lives against one another?" My tone was mixture between amusement and annoyance. "Let's see…villainous king that has some of his own subjects that despise him, let alone the rest of the greater kingdom he lives in, versus the symbol of hope that the greater kingdom practically worships, let alone a hero of galaxies." He frowned at my smirk. "So, if you're looking to measure the two of us, try harder. Because kingdom hero versus parent king is a pretty tight race."

"Why can't we be talking about go-karting?" We shared a small laugh. "You raise a good point, but I still can't have you do this."

"Would you feel better if I grabbed some troops to go with us?"

"Depends on the soldiers."

"Kamek can pick some reliable options. And the Koopalings are usually a good choice."

"All right, then that would ease my mind a bit, since you were the only one from here to be with us." I tilted my head a bit. "It was the two of us with Peach, Luigi, and Daisy."

Snorting, I shifted my head on the pillow. "If there were five options, why was I one of the three to die?" Again, Mario hit me. "Hey, that was a fair question."

"None of you should have died."

"War doesn't usually allow for complete survival on both sides."

"This might not have even been related to the war!"

"If it's not, I'll be stupefied."

"Still…"

"Still, we need to go to Star Hill and find you a Shaman."

Pleading, Mario stared into my eyes with a hint of tears in his, probably hoping to sway me otherwise. However, I quickly kissed him instead.

"Bowser, please—"

"No, Mario, we will go, and it's better to go sooner when it's just the two of us." Though I smiled, I was adamant in my decision. "You can't seriously expect me to continue to watch you suffer and do nothing but hug you. We need a real cure for you. And as much as I'd like to think the 'super boyfriend' role works, we can't rely on that forever."

That got a nice laugh out of him, a delight to hear. Not wanting him to stop, I wiggled my hands around him, making him laugh some more. After a couple of minutes, I stopped my tickle torture and let Mario catch his breath. Once he did, I kissed him again, getting nice brush from his mustache as he kissed me back. Still low on breath, he pulled away after a minute, as both of our heartbeats danced. Softly, I caressed his cheek, easing him back into a steady breathing.

"Well, has my 'super boyfriend' come up with any ideas to get me to relax and sleep?"

Grinning, I massaged his back and moved my tail near his leg. "Oh, I have a few ideas. So, how about we—"

A knocking sounded from my door and I let out a heavy sigh. Mario laughed and kissed my cheek.

"Perks of ruling?"

"Not even close."

Lingering, I ran my hand through his hair before bouncing up from the bed. Opening the door, I stared down at my son, who gazed up at me with tears in his eyes.

"Junior? Son, what's wrong?"

Shuddering, my boy couldn't speak.

"You have a nightmare, son?" Quickly, he nodded. Softly, I chuckled and picked him up. "Guess you've got more in common with your Papa than I thought."

"Wait, you?"

My eyes widened as I glanced back at Mario. Nervously laughing, I slipped from the room and closed the door behind me, leaving him without my answer.

Quietly, I took Junior back to his room. Carefully, I crept through his room, avoiding the mess scattered around the floor. Reaching his bed, I sat down on it and went to put Junior down. Just as I went to, however, he quickly grabbed onto me again.

"What is it, Son?"

"Papa, I don't want to." He whined and tightened his hold on me.

"Junior, you need to rest." Softly, I sighed and put my hands around him.

"But then you'll leave."

Thinking for a minute, I offered, "If you want me to stay, I'll be right here with you."

"But…then Mario will be alone."

Freezing, I faltered in my response. "He'll…be fine."

"No, he won't. He wasn't fine earlier. Papa, you need to stay with him."

"Well, I can't be in two places at once." Junior pulled back and lowered his eyes. "Or, you could…stay with…us."

"Yes please."

Sighing, I nodded and rose back up. Not paying as close attention, I stepped on a block and yelped. Rubbing my foot, I tiptoed from Junior's room and trudged back to mine. Opening it, I stared at Mario, with his arms folded behind his head. He glanced at us and smiled.

"Will we have a guest for tonight?"

"Um…if you don't mind?"

"Not at all!"

My shoulders dropped in relief. Of course Mario wouldn't mind, but…it's nice to hear such. Sliding back into bed, I set Junior down between us. He slowly crawled under the covers, and still seemed just a bit wary around Mario. In less than a minute though, Junior settled in easily.

"Comfy?" He smiled and nodded. "Good. Now, let's get some sleep."

"But…I'm still scared, Papa."

Holding in my groan, I buried my face into the pillow.

"Do you want to talk about your nightmare, Junior?" I heard Mario ask him. "Your Papa's a great listener and helped me feel better after I had my nightmare."

"Really Papa?" I picked my head up and glanced from Junior to Mario.

"Uh…yeah?" Wait a minute. "Junior, you've told me about them before."

"This one's different." Junior squeezed the covers around him. "In it, Mario was still asleep and we couldn't get him up. And then you were really sad, and then angry at everyone."

"Aw, Junior, that's my fault from before." I ran my hand soothingly across his head. "I let myself panic over Mario too much, and I shouldn't have taken it out around you. But he's fine now, and so am I!"

"No, it was different. We went to a purple and blue mountain to get him help, but something went wrong and they told us that they couldn't help him."

Slowly, I gazed at Mario, whose eyes were as wide as my own. Neither of us had spoken to Junior about Star Hill, and even though he had overheard a bit from before, I couldn't recall taking him there.

"Junior, who were 'they' that you're talking about?"

"Um…people in dark cloaks, and you couldn't see much besides their eyes." He paused and pushed the covers away from his face. "Are those the Shamans that Kamek keeps talking about?"

"It sounds like that fits the description, if memory serves," murmured Mario.

"And who went to Star Hill?"

"Star Hill?"

"That's the mountain in your dream, son."

"It's real? That's what Star Hill looks like?"

"Yes, that's it; the purple and blue mountain where you can see shooting stars and make wishes."

"Wow!" Junior sat and thought for a moment. "Well, besides you and me, Kamek and the Koopalings came with us. But…they ended up disappearing while the dream went on."

"Disappearing?" Mario raised an eyebrow.

"Yeah, they just suddenly weren't there anymore." He tugged off his bib and handed it to me to place off of the bed. "Each of them just kind of disappeared little by little as the dream went on. And then it was just you, Kamek, me, and the Shaman."

Mario and I stared at one another, unsettled by the information Junior provided. Studying us, Junior frowned and tugged on my arm beneath the pillow above him.

"Papa, are you going to Star Hill soon?"

"Well…I need to take Mario there. We need to find a friendly Shaman that knows how to remove his curse."

Junior's eyes lowered and he nodded. "Make sure you're careful with the Koopalings when you go then."

For a minute, I thought it over. "Maybe they'll stay here with you, son."

"But you'll need someone to go with you," argued Junior. "It can't just be the two of you. The Shamans are…weird."

"Kamek can come and he'll help us think it over before we go." I glanced at Mario, who bit his lip, but nodded when Junior turned to him.

"Ok…that's good." Junior yawned. "I'm…sleepy now. But…I don't…"

"Don't worry Junior," assured Mario. "Your Papa's good at chasing away nightmares too."

"He is?"

"Yep." Mario winked while I held in a small fit of laughter.

"Wow. That's…cool."

Yawning again, Junior snuggled under the covers and soon fell asleep. Mario and I smiled as we watched his breathing rise and fall at a steady rate.

"Thank you," I whispered. "I wasn't sure how I was going to deal with that one."

"Sure you would have." Mario reached past Junior and held my hand. "It was just easier for me since I could relate quicker."

"…If I find out my son is cursed—"

"Bowser, I'm sure he's fine." Mario quietly yawned. "It's just a coincidence."

Rubbing his hand, I hesitantly nodded. "Hopefully."

"And here I thought you were becoming the optimistic one." Mario chuckled.

"Let's just agree not to put anything out of the realm of possibility." To that, Mario nodded. For a moment, we listened to the soft sounds of my son's sleeping breaths. However, I needed to make my original point clear. "So, we're going to Star Hill, and soon, ok? I don't need my son panicking over this for longer than he has to."

Slowly, Mario sighed and nodded. "You want to go tomorrow, don't you?"

"It does take a while to get there and back."

"Yes, I know." I squeezed his hand and smiled as he stared past me. He shook his head and looked back at me. Something about his blue eyes was calming, even in spite of everything else we were dealing with. "All right. But we can't take the Koopalings."

"Fair enough. Again, I'll have Kamek pick out some troops to take with us." Grinning, I added, "Oh, and no princesses. Or your brother." Mario glared at me while I stifled my laughter. "Just to be sure!"

"You just couldn't wait to add that in, could you?" He pouted and turned away.

"Hey, come on now." I tugged on his hand. "I admit, I'll need to get along with your brother some day. Peach, I'm not so sure about, but we'll try to address that again once we've taken care of you. All right?"

He rolled back over and I smiled at him. Mario smiled back and tightly gripped my hand. Soon after, though, he frowned.

"I'm scared."

"Me too," I admitted. "This certainly isn't something that either of us are familiar with. But that's why we'll face it together." Smiling more, I tightened my hold on his hand as well. "Anyone who crosses the two of us individually already had problems. Together though, they'll need to think twice." I blew him a quiet kiss. "We'll be fine."

"What about the environment itself? I don't think you can stop natural events from occurring around us, unless you've got tricks that you haven't told me about."

"Again, nothing's definite, but I promise you that we'll do our best to be on guard and watch out for even the slightest changes. If a pebble begins to crumble, we'll react to whatever follows. And we can get through that too."

"Hopefully." Mario smiled again. "I'm taking your word on that."

"And I intend to keep it." I winked at him and rubbed his hand again.

Softly, Junior grunted in his sleep. Mario and I silently hushed one another, and then quietly laughed. Still holding hands under the pillows above Junior, we watched one another as we drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

[Bowser]

Morning came sooner than I expected. With a snort, I picked up my head and shook myself awake. Though the light from the Dark Lands isn't as noticeable to everyone, I've grown used to the slight difference when the morning light breaks through the smog and into my window.

Carefully, I unraveled my hand from Mario's and slid out from the bed. My feet dragged a bit on the ground, while my arms weighed a little heavy. I took a minute to stretch before I turned back and smiled at my slumbering son, and then glanced at my boyfriend…who woke up.

"Good morning," yawned Mario. He clamped his hands over his mouth once he remembered Junior was beside him and quietly slipped from the bed as well.

"Sorry," I whispered. "I thought I could get up without waking you."

"Oh, I was already waking up." Mario buttoned his overalls in place over his red shirt, and brushed his hair before tossing his hat on. "Should we let him rest?"

"Yeah, he'll get up in a little while." I smiled down at my son again before beckoning Mario to follow me out of the bedroom.

He carried his shoes from the room and I close the door. Chuckling, I folded my arms and watched him bounce around to get his feet in.

"You know, you could have just put those on in the room."

"Hey, I…didn't want to…make any more noise—oomph! …Than need be." Mario stomped down with his foot and tugged it to make sure his shoes were on properly. Again, I laughed, and he shot me an annoyed look as he shoved his hands into his gloves. "What?"

"Nothing. You're just really cute." Mario blushed and I slid my hand around his waist with a wink. "So, any more nightmares last night?"

"Nope. I had you nearby."

"Good. Are you ready to head out later today?"

At that, Mario's shoulders and smiled dropped. "Not exactly."

"Aw, are you still worried?" He nodded almost immediately. "Come on, Mario. I gave you my word."

"That seemed fine last night, when today was miles away." He swallowed hard. "But now it is today."

"Mario. Peach won't be there. I'm not taking the Koopalings. This won't end up like your nightmare, or Junior's." I brought my hand up and rubbed his back. "We can get through this."

For a minute, he didn't answer. Then, with a deep inhale and releasing it, Mario nodded. I gave him my free hand and held onto his.

"So, what about you? You're…not nervous anymore?"

"Oh, no, I still am."

"Wait, what?" Mario's mouth fell open before he shook his head. "Then don't bury it to keep me calm!"

"No, I'm not burying it for your sake!" I laughed and bounced on my feet a bit. "My own excitement is what's keeping it down!"

"Excitement?"

"It's just that this is the first time in ages that I've been able to willingly go on an adventure with you!"

"Well…that is one way to look at it."

"You bet it is!" Again, I bounced around, but paused as I glanced back at Mario. "Isn't this the first time that you're teaming up with my troops instead of your team?"

"Um…I think it is, yes. I've worked with similar species before, but…"

"But not my actual troops, and not with me at the same time!" Mario shrugged and nodded while I rubbed my hands together. "I can't tell you how exciting this is for me!"

"Apparently, very."

"Even me jumping around like a fool won't relax you?"

"To be honest, I find it a bit terrifying." He chuckled while I dropped my arms and let my head fall. "Oh, all right, I'm sorry. Don't get all upset on me like that."

"And people call me the bad guy?"

"Yes, among many other unflattering names."

I picked my head up and expected him to have a smile stuck on his face, but he surprised me with a rather annoyed expression instead.

"Mario, those aren't that big of a deal to me."

"They can't be unnoticeable."

"Yeah, but I'm a king." A light laugh escaped me. "In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not often met without resistance of some manner. Insults come with that."

"But—"

"There's nothing for you to get hung up over," I soothed. "People talk, they fire off unflattering comments. It's unavoidable, and if it were the worst I had to live with, I'd practically sing everyday."

"Sing?" His smile instantly appeared. "Now I would very much like to hear that from you."

"Oh, no you wouldn't." I shook my head. "Unlike your singing voice, mine is…awful."

"That can't be true."

"Let's just leave it a mystery that you'll need to solve at a later date."

"Another date to reveal the 'Ballads of Bowser?' Sounds like a win-win scenario for me."

"Hey, that's not…" He grinned as I let out a heavy sigh. "I think you're spending too much time around me. You're starting to get as cheeky as I am."

"Like attracts like." Mario pulled me down the hall, away from the bedroom door.

"Really? I always thought it was, 'opposites attract.' That makes more sense, no?"

He guided my head down and I leaned closer. "Honestly, it's probably somewhere in the middle of those two." My eyes were met with the deepest blue. His mustache tickled my top lip and my face flared up. "After all, that's where the best things happen."

My smile practically invited him into my lips as he tenderly pressed against me. We kissed deeply, our tongues pushing into one another's mouths almost immediately. Wrapping my arm around his waist and my hand behind his head, I pushed forward and ran my tongue on the back of his, delighted by his moaning. His hands gently gripped my face and pulled me into him. Mario's tongue rolled against my cheek and tapped at my tongue before rubbing over it. And a moan escaped from me, causing him to slide his against the edge of mine.

Out of breath, we untangled ourselves and broke apart for air. Still, he scratched under my chin and beamed broadly at me as we panted. Again, I pulled him in closer and leaned forward, but paused.

"Hold on. We need to get going." His hands lingered on my face even as I inched away from him. "Kamek will be waiting for us."

Silently, his hands fell from my face and my heart dropped from their abrupt absence. Mario stepped back and nodded, ready to turn down the hall.

"Wait." He paused as I moved my face back against his. Kamek can wait a little longer. Once more, I returned my arms around him, and we kissed tightly. Our lips pressed against one another's, his so soft and delicious. We pushed our tongues past and into each other's mouths, and my heart skipped in delight.

But then, Mario slid his hand onto my chest and slowly pushed away. We stopped and I pulled back from him.

"We can't keep him waiting too long."

"Yes we can."

"Bowser." He stared straight into my eyes. "Come on."

Frustrated, I grunted. "Fine. But I demand more of these later."

"Considering that there's no one around to hide from, deal." Mario smiled as I blinked and nodded. Though I knew there was no one left to hide from, it still didn't come naturally to me. Besides, stolen kisses are fun.

In spite of internally screaming to stay up here, we took the stairs down to the main level. Mario gazed around at the portraits of me along the walls, and I clawed at the back of my head.

"T-Those aren't because I wanted them up," I brought up. "Well…not all of them."

"They look nice."

"Really?" I paused as he lowered his eyes at me. "…Oh. Because you're into me, right."

Mario chuckled while I scratched my cheek. Couldn't he stare at the tables with a bunch of little statues on them instead? I blinked and glanced at them. They were also of me. Grumbling, I shook my head.

"Ok, so I'm pretty vain."

"Not entirely."

"Oh no? Even as you're fixated on it?"

"Well, if you were completely self-absorbed, I don't think we'd be able to date." He started to walk away as I jumped a bit. "I wouldn't be good enough for you."

At that, I hurried back over to him. "No way! You read my letters!"

"Right, but imagine if you were completely full of yourself." We stopped by a portrait of Junior, and thankfully without me in it. "That wouldn't exist, and neither would your interest in me. Or, it would, but then you'd be disappointed that I couldn't measure up to your expectations."

"Screw vain me then, you've exceeded them."

He blushed and picked at his mustache while I grinned and ruffled his cap. His hair brushed against my hand slightly, making it harder to pull away. Mario took my hand and intertwined it with his.

"See? Not entirely."

"At least when it comes to you and my kid, sure." I posed proudly and he laughed, before he tugged me along to continue.

Passing some closed windows through the stony corridors, we eventually found the red carpet that led to my throne room. Mario quietly studied them and rubbed under his chin.

"What is it?"

"Did you really pick out the red colors because of me?"

"Yeah."

"That's an odd way to decorate your interior." He glanced at some red curtains that hung from the windows and a few red and black banners with my emblem on them. "And I've seen the red colors for years, so…"

"First off, I have been interested in you for years, so that definitely works." We slowed to a stop and turned to one another. "Second, it's not everywhere that's decorated with red rugs and curtains, just a lot of places that I frequently visit." He raised an eyebrow at me, unconvinced. "It's true! I use other colors in other places. But red works as a reminder of you and can be menacing, so it was a two-for-one decision." That was a lie, but he already knows how obsessive I am over him.

Still appearing unconvinced, Mario nodded and rubbed my hand. Blushing, I tried to look away to hide it, but squeezed his hand as well.

Down another couple of halls, we reached my throne room and walked in. Tall, unlit candles and torches lined the walls as we walked into the empty room, again with statues and portraits of me along the walls. For the first time in a while, I really wish I had put a little more variety into my design decisions.

Toward the end of the room, I went to go sit on my cushy black and red throne, but hesitated. Mario had stopped before it and watched me stand next to it.

"Well? Come on."

"Up there? That seats one."

"Yep, but so do I." Grinning and lowering my eyes, I sat on the throne and patted my lap.

Rolling his eyes into a glare, Mario tapped his foot. "That's indecent."

"No it's not. And we're the only two here right now, so what does it matter?"

"It matters because I don't want Kamek or anyone else walking in on me straddling their king." If my grin could grow any bigger, it would have. "Stop smiling!"

"When I'm around you, I can't help it!" His face was flushed and he folded his arms. "Come on, Mario. I don't have an extra throne in here, since Junior threw his last one at a Spike, but I'll get you one while I get a new one for him, ok?" I stretched out my legs and patted my lap again. "For now, just come on up. And you don't need to straddle me, unless you want to." I finished with a wink.

Flustered, Mario bounced on his feet for a moment. Then, to my delight, he walked up to the throne and climbed onto my lap. Too excited, I threw my arms around him and pulled him into me.

"B-Bowser!"

Jumping, I slid back into my seat and let him rest on my thigh. He lightened up a bit while I rubbed his back, still flushed. My cheeks burned as well, but I couldn't get the smirk off of my face even if I wanted to. Steadily, he relaxed and eased into me.

"So…you'd get me a throne too?"

"Yeah, why not?"

"For starters, we're not married."

My eyes widened as it finally clicked. "Uh, well, it's not, I mean, you're not required to be…to have a throne, that is…um." He laughed while I shifted around in my seat. "Really, it's just a chair. You having one wouldn't mean anything more than it does for me."

"It means you're king."

"So does a crown, and I don't usually wear those!" Mario laughed again while my free hand clawed through my hair. "Quit it!"

"Aw, why?" He leaned into me and placed his hands on my chest. "You made a good point, and I'm just agreeing."

"…So do you want a throne or what?"

"Wasn't it just a chair?"

"Sure, but I…" A sigh escaped me and I wanted to look anywhere but his bright and smiling face. "You've been in this kingdom for ages. Don't you want more from it?"

"Right now, I'm getting more." He scooted up further and moved to level his head with mine.

"Please, tell me the truth." My arm dropped away from him and I pulled back. "I can't be your end goal."

Mario's expression shifted to a confused one. "Why not?"

"Because I…I can't be." He frowned while I shook my head. "Never mind; we're focusing on getting you better, ok?"

If we had another minute, I could have spoken more. But the doors down the end of the hall smashed open and we whirled our heads around to find a few troops coming down the room toward us. Notably, Kamek wasn't with them.

Quickly, Mario jumped off of me and I stood up as they approached. A Lakitu, two Koopas, a Paragoomba, a Snifit, and…a Fuzzy. Not Kamek's choices.

"Never heard of knocking?"

"Apologies, your most regal nastiness."

Dissenters.

"State your business." My fists tightened as I pushed Mario behind me, though he tried to bat my arm away.

"Are we not allowed to come visit our king and his precious pet?" The Lakitu darkly smirked. "Or was this meant to be a more private moment?"

"Cut your crap," I growled. "You're not even trying to hide your intentions. If you're here for him, you're going through me this time."

"Hehehehe!" The Fuzzy bounced around excitedly. "With pleasure, meork!"

The little black fuzz ball bounced at me, but my hand shot up and flicked him out of an opened window. I rolled my eyes while the Paragoomba flew over to attack next, knocking him on the head and tearing his wings off.

He yelped out and bounced back while the two Koopas rushed forward. Mario leapt from behind me and stomped down on them, knocking them back into their shells.

Smirking, I kicked the two back at the Snifit, who was attempting to launch a bullet at us. They collided and fell over, with the Koopas sliding back out from their shells and groaning.

"Tell me this isn't everyone you brought," I taunted to the Lakitu.

"Of course not."

At that, the Lakitu threw a Spiny Egg down the room and hit the door. It rattled on the floor for a moment before the door slammed open once again. A Sledge Bro clomped into the room, releasing slight tremors as it stepped in.

"Will that make things more interesting, your grumpiness?"

Glancing back at Mario, I watched as the Sledge Bro made his way over to the throne while the other rebels stood back up. "Take care of the trash." He nodded and I spewed a stream of fire at them.

Walking past the flames while Mario jumped at the Lakitu, the Sledge Bro pulled out his mallet and watched as I strode over to him.

"You can always turn back, you know," I offered.

"No chance," rumbled the Sledge Bro. "No choice."

"Those only happen after you attack me."

"Sorry."

A hammer sailed through the air to give me his answer. Sidestepping it, I spat a fireball at the Sledge Bro, who jumped away from it.

Once he hit the ground, a shockwave that rippled around him, ruffling the red carpet beneath him. Keeping my distance, I spat another fireball, which he threw a hammer at. It cut through the fire, but fell to the ground and dented the floor beneath the rug.

This was taking too long for me. I rushed over to the Sledge Bro and tackled him to the ground. Falling backwards onto his shell, he struggled to rise. I started punching him while he tried to block my blows with a sledgehammer.

Instead, I took it and whacked him over the head with it. While the helmet softened the hit, the Sledge Bro's eyes spun and shut. His chest rose and fell, but he didn't move after that.

Grunting and standing, I checked on Mario. He leapt onto one of the Koopas again and threw the shell at the Snifit, who tried to spit a bullet at him. The shell collided and took the Snifit out.

Just as that happened, the Lakitu threw a Spiny Egg down at Mario, who had barely pulled his arm away from the needled egg. He glared at the Lakitu, and watched him ready another Spiny Egg.

"Hey!"

Hearing my bark, the Lakitu panicked and turned to throw the egg at me. He was met with a large fireball to his face as his cloud disappeared.

Smiling at Mario, my eyes shot open as the Goomba popped up and threw himself at Mario. The other Koopa hurried over to attack him as I stepped forward to help.

Something else anchored me to my place. Glaring back, the Sledge Bro had grappled me into place within seconds.

"When did you get back up?"

"Faking."

"Ah."

Struggling to break free of his hold, I helplessly watched as Mario jumped away from the Goomba, only to get tackled by the Koopa. His other two opponents recovered and the Snifit hurried over to join in while the second Koopa checked on the fallen Lakitu.

Angered, I readied another fireball in my throat, but the Sledge Bro choked it and kept my mouth clamped shut. The Snifit's bullet whizzed just past Mario as he kicked the Koopa off of him, and the bullet ricocheted away from my throne. Once more, the Goomba crashed into him and my shouts for him were muffled.

"You lose," murmured the Sledge Bro. Harder, I squirmed in his grip and almost broke out of it.

Suddenly, he grunted and his arms fell away from me. Freed, I breathed a heavy fire stream at the trio still attacking Mario, each one who cried out from the flames.

I ran to Mario as he pushed himself up from the ground. He steadied himself and dusted his clothes off, which looked wrinkled, but otherwise fine. I checked him over, noticing just a few scratches, but nothing major.

"Are you ok?" It was an unnecessary question, but I had to ask it regardless.

"Yes, I'm fine. And you?"

"Just panicked a little, nothing new." A quick glance showed a few scratch marks from where the Sledge Bro had grabbed me, but nothing threatening. Mario hugged me and rubbed my sides while I embraced him back.

Remembering the last Koopa, I jolted away from Mario and whirled around. Before him and the fallen Lakitu were a gray Spike Top and an orange Tail Bob-omb.

"Oh, greetings, sire," the Spike Top turned to me.

"…Glaucus?"

"Yes sir, it's me." He shuffled in place. "Got a tiny bit of an upgrade since we last met. They wanted me prepared for when we left."

"Prepared?"

"Best not to talk about it in front of these craven cretins," interrupted the Bob-omb.

"Bombkin?"

"How ever could you tell?" He wagged the green and brown tail behind him with a sigh.

"When did we get Super Leaves?"

"One Super Leaf," Bombkin corrected. "I was supposed to have it for Mario, but that klutz of a Goomba crashed into me and now I have…this." He spun and whipped his tail around, not at all pleased by the result. "Enough of that, though. He's taking care of the Fuzzy outside while we bring this lot to the dungeons. You two head down to the Council Chamber. Kamek should be waiting there for you."

Nodding, I took Mario and led him out from the throne room. Walking down the hall, we glanced back at the throne room doors. Shrugging, the two of us stopped halfway and turned right, strolling down another stony corridor. A Spike wandered past us and waved, turning left from the hall we just departed.

"This place is still confusing me." Mario shook his head and held it with his hands.

"That's the point." I laughed and pulled him along.

We took another left and made our way back to the stairs. We traveled to the lower levels and went down the back hall to the Council Chamber. Mario hesitated and stumbled as I guided him along.

"What is it?"

"Ah…I didn't even notice this hall before." He stared down the darkened corridor and shuddered.

"Don't worry; they try to make it all secretive." I lifted my hands and waved them around, getting a laugh from Mario. "It's just a straight walk down and the door's right there." And we walked right over to it…though the darkness was intimidating, I'll admit.

Inside, Kamek waited at the end of the long table, hopping up and shuffling down to Mario and I. Along with him were a colorful gathering of troops, some that I recognized from earlier, though it took a moment.

"Kamek, who do you have assembled here?"

"My selection for those to serve as your royal guard."

"Royal guard?"

"They'll function as elite soldiers that are specifically working to your benefit, a cabal if you will." I scratched my head and looked to Mario, who shrugged. We stepped forward and the door opened behind us, with a Spiked Goomba tripping his way inside.

"Goomphen, you've got to get a hold of yourself," scolded Bombkin as he and Glaucus helped the Goomba back up. His eyes were wider and his teeth were softer than most other Goombas.

"S-So-Sorry, guys."

"Wait. Is that Stammers?"

"Yea-Yes, sir, it's m-me." The Goomba with the green spiked cap shuddered in my presence. It had three horns in a triangular shape at the top, with a fourth larger spike protruding from the middle. "They n-needed a f-final m-me-member."

"He's actually stronger than he appears to be," vouched Glaucus. "You'll see."

The trio made their way to three open seats around the table, while Kamek guided Mario and I to the opposite side. A yellow Snifit and a blue Shy Guy whispered to one another, but stopped once we approached.

"These are Jasmine and Tech Guy," introduced Kamek.

"Wait a second, I know them." I stared at the duo as nervously waved. "His name is Blue Guy, I thought."

"No, sire, that's the name you gave me."

"Then why didn't you correct me?"

"Correcting the king doesn't seem wise."

"…Smart." I nodded to the blue Shy Guy, who now had a propeller on his head. "Does that make you a Fly Guy now?"

"Supposed to, but you can call me what you please."

"Very smart." He tugged on his hood at my compliment. The yellow Snifit patted him, and I noticed her nozzle was slightly charred at the end of her facemask. "Jasmine, right?"

"Yep, that's me, sir."

"What's with the burn marks?"

"Oh, I've upgraded my nozzle." She shifted it around and clapped. "Now it shoots out fireballs too!"

"So, bullets and fireballs?"

"Exciting, isn't it?" She twisted her nozzle again. "I think there's still an ice upgrade for me too, but I'll get that later."

Kamek took us along the table to the next two, a Red Boo and a green Blooper.

"These are Ruby and Olive."

"Hold on, I met them before." I glanced at Mario, who scratched the back of his neck.

"You too?"

"Duh. We've met both of you." Ruby cackled as he floated around. "But, you didn't meet me when I could do this!"

His body glowed and he morphed his form into a hybrid of himself and a Shy Guy.

"Now I'm a Boo Guy!" He cackled. "But wait, there's more!"

Again, he shifted his shape and turned into a dinosaur-like ghost.

"Eerie, right?" He snickered as he turned back to normal.

"They call that a Shifting Boo, or a Morphing Boo, your highest grace," explained Olive.

"Hey, hey! I wanted to tell them!"

"Apologies; you weren't quite getting to the point." I blinked at the darker spots on her head and around her tentacles. "Oh, I've been temporarily cursed, lord sire. I'll be able to double as a Poison Blooper for the time being."

"Um…will you be ok?"

"From the poison? Most certainly, your gracious majesty, it won't harm me. Our enemies, however, should proceed with caution." She paused and shook her tentacles. "Or perhaps not, since that would help them."

"Just think though: you could have been a Blooper Nanny!" Ruby laughed while Olive shuddered.

"Children are fine, but I'd hate to bring them around to fight with me."

"Aw, where's your sense of adventure? We're going on one!"

"Ruby, truly, you mustn't be so insistent on endangers the lives of others like that!"

"Why not? Then I get more friends like me!"

Ruby laughed once more as Kamek took us to the end of the table. On one side sat a purple, armor clad Koopatrol, while a black Rex and a white-shelled Paratroopa were on the other side. I studied the Koopatrol for a moment.

"Is that Koopella?"

"It is indeed, sire." She stood and saluted me. "I recently completed my training."

"Congratulations, then!"

"Thank you, sire!"

"Ooh, Koopella dear, relax." Nix smirked from the other side of the table and rested his head on his hands. "No need to be so uptight."

"Nix, you're the foulest and most idiotic option to have joined this group."

"Tell me how you really feel, love." He winked at her and grinned broadly. She responded by throwing her glove and bouncing it off of his head. "Ouch."

"You kind of deserved that," admitted the Paratroopa, flapping his wings a bit.

"Mm, that's fair." The Rex leaned closer to the Paratroopa, grinning again. "Would you say that I deserved you too?"

"Bowser's still right there."

"I know."

"Then lay off of Feather Duster, will you?" I folded my arms while Nix slid back into place, now turning his smirk to me.

"As you wish, milord Bowser." He winked at me and stared for a moment. Mario coughed while I raised an eyebrow. Oddly, Nix waved to Mario too.

"Um…my name isn't Feather Duster, sire," whispered Feather Duster. "It's—"

"Cutie pie," interrupted Nix.

"What? No."

"Nix!" Koopella slammed her fist onto the table. "Kamek, why did you even add this imbecile to our line-up?"

"Each of you has a different reason with one common goal," explained Kamek.

"That, and I'm one of the very few Rexes that can fly," gloated Nix.

"So? We have how many people here that fly?"

"True, but I've also got a few tricks to back me up." Nix mischievously grinned. "Though, nothing quite like Sparkles here." He patted Feather Duster, who scratched his cheeks. "Shining Paratroopa, you called it?"

"Yep! When light gleams off of my shell, I can redirect and—"

"Blind the enemy." Nix nodded and licked his lips. "You'll be stunning."

"All right, this should be everyone." Kamek clapped his hands as Nix and Feather Duster moved down, with the others repositioning themselves in their seats.

"Um…Kamek—"

"Give me a minute." He turned to the others. "Before we begin, I just need to check that everyone here is part of this, ah, inner circle, so to speak. Bowser Brooches?"

Each member of the group held out their brooches of my emblem. It was a dark green, almost black, pin, with an orange rim and my insignia colored red. Kamek gazed at all ten of them, held out his own and nodded.

"That appears to be everyone then. As you're aware, this cabal was personally selected and assembled by me to defend Bowser regardless of circumstances and costs. I've determined you as the most loyal minions available among the army, be it that you have a high personal interest in Bowser, or go above and beyond all assigned duties pertaining to him, and so only you are meant to know the king's status to the fullest extent available. As such, it will be you that accompanies the three of us on our journey to Star Hill in order to cure Mario's curse. We'll be up against Shamans, with indeterminate allegiances to both Bowser and Mario, so we'll need to proceed with caution, but nothing drastic until measures against us are clear. You are under my orders, but your interests are always foremost for the king."

Mario and I gawked as we gazed down the table at the ten selected soldiers, each quietly listening and nodding to Kamek's words. These ten? They were Kamek's choice to be my closest guards?

"Any questions?"

Ruby's hand shot up. "Oh, oh! Can we come up with a cool name for this? 'Royal Guard' sounds so played out and overused. We should be something creative, like the 'Bowser Baddies!'"

Nix shook his head. "How is that not generic?"

"Ok, ok, maybe…the 'Bowser Battlers!'"

"You're trying too hard for alliteration," voiced Tech Guy.

"Uh…oh, how about the 'Bowser Monsters?'"

"That's definitely a baseball team," Jasmine recalled.

"…Um, 'the Bowser Bunch?'"

"Enough." Kamek shook his head and pinched his brow. "We don't need a title—"

"No way, we totally do!" Ruby huffed while Olive pushed him back into his seat.

"Regardless, we're getting ready to depart soon, so we'll need to get everything else ready." Kamek returned his pin to his robe and looked over us. "Understood?"

"Yes sir." They collectively nodded and rose.

"Good. Get to the docks then. We'll meet you there."

"'Bowser Loyalists!'"

"Ruby…shut up and go."

One by one, each of them poured from the room, until only the three of us remained. Mario and I stood up, shooting confused expressions to Kamek.

"What?"

"How long have you had this group put together?"

"Planning it, ages ago. Actual assembling was recent."

"Huh." I turned to Mario, who shrugged and nodded. "Well, that's sort of new."

"Eventually, you'll come to like them. Hopefully." He beckoned us to follow as we exited the Council Chamber. "Oh, you know what? Let's test this spell…"

Kamek whipped his wand around and cast a magical dust cloud around us. Mario and I covered our eyes as the sparkling colors flashed around us. Our bodies became weightless and we floated briefly before regaining weight and dropping back to the floor.

The magical cloud dispersed and we gazed around the dockside of the hangar. A large, wooden boat was docked at the end of the pier. I observed it, noting the black sails with my emblem and the figurehead shaped like me at the prow under the bowsprit.

"We're not taking this old thing, are we?"

"Why not?"

"Kamek, we have airships."

"Right, which the entire Mushroom Kingdom assumes to be a threatening sign."

"Anything from me is a threatening sign." I pointed out the sails and figurehead. "Those scream 'Bowser is coming,' and no one at Star Hill wants to see that."

"First, we don't know that for certain. And second, we're sailing for an abandoned harbor at the base near Star Hill."

"Isn't Star Hill closer to Bowser's Castle?" Mario glanced from the boat to Kamek and I.

"When the kingdom was younger, it was easier to reach," clarified Kamek. "These days, it's a bit of a journey, with new locations popping up between…and that a lot of them don't like seeing us." He tapped his wand against his palm and pointed at the boat. "That's another reason we're taking this ship. Not as many people check the waters as they do the skies."

"Maybe, but Kamek, my great grandparents used that." I shook my head. "Just because you gave it a slight overhaul doesn't make it useable."

"You'd be surprised."

"Are you trying to keep the airships here for the Koopalings or something?"

"Considering that we don't know how long we'll be—"

"Then why didn't you just start with that?"

A sigh escaped him. "Sire, we may be gone while Peach's forces bypass the other fortresses. The Mountains and the Skyline need the Clown Cars and the Airship for additional defenses." He ruffled his cap around. "Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"If there's a chance that happens, then yes."

Tilting his head, Kamek rubbed his chin. "You're usually angrier when someone reports unfavorable possibilities like that."

My eyes shifted to Mario, and then back to Kamek. "Maybe I'm mellowing out."

He looked to Mario and chuckled. "Maybe."

Meanwhile, Mario gazed at both of us, still clueless. "Uh…"

"Don't worry about it." Again, I turned to Kamek. "Give us a minute. I need to see my son before we leave."

"Taken care of."

The old Magikoopa pointed toward the entrance, where the ten soldiers walked behind Junior. He hurried over and jumped into my arms.

"Be careful, Papa!" He pulled back a bit to look at me. "They told me you and Mario were leaving soon. Just be really careful, ok?"

"No worries, Junior. We'll be fine." Again, I embraced him. "You take good care of this kingdom while I'm gone, ok son? Any trouble, send for help and we'll be back as soon as we can."

"Ok. But if the Koopalings are still here, we can handle it."

"I'm sure you can."

Slowly, I set him back down. He hesitated for a minute and then ran to hug Mario, who was startled at first, but hugged him back. "You be careful too!"

"Right. I'll try keeping your Papa safe."

"And you." Junior backed away from Mario. "This is about you too, so protect each other." Silently, Mario nodded and smiled at him, and then me.

Lastly, Junior embraced Kamek. "Bring everyone back home."

"As you command, my Prince." Softly, Kamek stroked Junior's head and sighed. "And hopefully, not from a beating, as per usual."

Junior giggled and backed away. He nodded to the soldiers and walked away, waving us off.

"The Koopalings will keep him safe," promised Kamek. "They're already looking after him."

"But who's looking after them?"

"Between the eight of them, they should be well looked after." He tapped at his wand. "And I'll be in touch whenever necessary."

"Good." Though I wasn't certain about leaving them alone, it wasn't the first time, and I imagined they could manage. I turned to Mario and smirked. "Ready?"

"As much as I can be."

Grabbing his hand and stroking it, we walked down the pier and aboard the ship, with Kamek and the crew in tow. I gazed at the spacious deck and surveyed the Bill Blasters and Skull Boxes that were added to it. Several crates were scattered about, loaded with supplies. There was a cabin that led below deck to the rooms below.

Mario stepped under a mast and gazed crow's nest. A Starman was painted under it and looked withered compared to the rest. I scratched my head, wondering why it would be there when it was usually a symbol of opposition to my kingdom. Our eyes met, but we remained silent on the matter.

After making their final preparations, the soldiers untied the ship, brought up the anchor, and readied the sails. The boat rolled off across the water and we set off for Star Hill.

Chapter Text

[Peach]

Traveling to the Forests, I had this weightless feeling. Perhaps it was the lack of magic usage, but I wouldn't admit that aloud.

Trees towered around us, with more adding to the scenery, but blotting out the sky and concealing the sunlight. The leaves were lush green colors, with each trunk a bright or dark brown color. I imagined most were deciduous, but I didn't dwell over identifying each singular type down to detail.

Some rocks and dirt mounds of light brown and beige colors were also nearby, as we walked the dirt trails that were surrounded by tall grass. Various bushes were sprinkled between the trees as well, with vines and thorns that slid against tree trunks. Something about viewing these, in spite of crunching leaves, was…relaxing.

"Hey, Peach." I blinked and turned back to Daisy. "You ok in there?"

"Fine, yes." I shook my head and brushed my hair from my face. "Did you need something?"

"No, you're just…really quiet, I guess." Daisy shrugged and placed her hands on her hips.

"Just thinking."

"Ooh, that's dangerous," teased Birdo. "I thought I saw steam coming out of those ears!" If there were, it would more likely be from me getting ready to deck the pink dinosaur.

"Birdo, that's rude."

"Sorry, Yoshi dear."

She scooted close to him and winked, wrapping an arm around him. I don't know how Yoshi could put up with her, but he was at ease as she touched him.

Daisy giggled over the two while I rolled my eyes. Staring back at Luigi, I watched as he shivered slightly and kept gazing behind every plant that caught his eye.

"H-Hopefully there are n-no Treevils," murmured Luigi. "Or g-g-ghosts."

"We'll be fine, Luigi. Just—EEP!" Quickly, I rushed away from whatever poked my back. Pivoting, I noticed it was just a tree branch and sighed into a giggle. "See? You're just getting all worked up over nothing. Like me."

Quietly, he nodded and studied me. "You seem a lot like your old self again."

Silently, I frowned. What was my old self to him? The frail princess who needed some bold, dashing hero? The defenseless girl who begged for rescue from the clutches of the great and terrible monster? The pitiful creature that too many subjects of my own kingdom mistook me for? I didn't need magic to prove otherwise.

"Peach? You're zoning out again."

"S-Sorry."

Shaking it off, I pressed onward, still leading the way. This time, however, I did stay closer to the others as I advanced.

Ahead, Piranha Plants grew from the ground and old pipes, snapping and chomping at nothing in particular. We slowed to a stop and looked around for a way around them.

"Well…we could burn them," suggested Daisy as Yoshi flipped the Item Bag around.

"That doesn't seem necessary," he countered. "They're not launching out and biting at us."

"We're not close enough."

"Let's keep it that way."

"Um." Everyone paused and turned to Luigi. "W-We could comb through the grass and climb that mound over there. It gets us around the Piranha Plants."

Following his lead, we pushed through the grass and climbed up the dirt mound to the right of the Piranhas, evading them.

"Nice call, Luigi!" Daisy patted him on the back while he blushed and scratched the back of his cap.

"Aw, that's nothing. But thanks."

Continuing ahead, we jumped over to some logs sticking out of the ground. A Piranha head abruptly fired up and chomped as we jumped from the first log to the second.

"What the—?!"

"It's a Stalking Piranha Plant," observed Luigi. "They can stretch up to take a bite out of us."

"Ok, this has already grown annoying." Birdo stepped forward, but paused. "Pun intended."

She winked at us while I rolled my eyes before turning back to the Stalking Piranha Plant below. Sucking in a bit of air, she spat an egg at the tall plant. It connected with a sharp blow, knocking the plant down to the ground.

Pushing past us, Birdo aimed and launched another egg forward. Two more Stalking Piranha Plants shot up and tried to bite the rocketing egg, to no avail.

Running forward and into a jump, Birdo flipped into the air and fired an egg down at the Piranha that shot up to meet her. Again, the egg connected and sent the vicious plant to the ground.

Rebounding off the third log, Birdo blasted one last egg at the remaining Stalking Piranha, which slammed against a nearby tree trunk and crashed to the ground.

Leaping forward again, Birdo made it to the next mound and beckoned us over. Exchanging awed expressions, we jumped across and over to her.

"Birdo, that was incredible!" Daisy cheered and gave her a tight hug.

"Of course!" Birdo patted Daisy's shoulder. "We all have to do our part and have our moments, right?"

Across the land, we strolled ahead, where the plateau ended into a darker abyss. Dangling from the higher trees were a few vines. Paragoombas fluttered around over the long chasm.

"Wow," hummed Yoshi. "I didn't think we were that high up."

"Could you Flutter Jump across the whole thing?"

"Doubtful."

My hand grasped the nearest vine. "Then we have one option left."

"Peach, wait." Luigi grabbed my free hand. "This is too dangerous."

"Good." I pulled my hand away from him. "Then we'll have to do our best the first time over, and nothing less."

"But—"

"No 'buts.' Birdo, can you snipe them from the sky?"

"Sure I can." She lowered her eyes and I pinched the space between my brows.

"…Will you shoot them down?"

"Yeah, sure."

Turning to them, Birdo spat eggs out to knock down each of the Paragoombas. We watched all four fall into the dark pit, screaming out as they fell.

"Um." I clasped my hands together around the vine. "Thank you. I didn't think, uh, well, I knew that would happen, but…Birdo, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to put that on you."

"What?"

"Well…killing them."

"Oh." Birdo scratched the side of her head, but then shrugged. "It's not exactly my first time, though I do try to avoid it nowadays. War is war though."

Though I nodded and turned back to the vine, her response was almost a punch to my gut. Birdo wasn't even my subject and she did that without any qualms. How many times had I…for the Toads…?

"Peach?" Daisy again. "Do you want one of us to go first?"

"Huh? Oh…no, I'm fine." If she could hear my racing heart, which sped up as I gazed across the pit, she'd know otherwise. I took a deep breath in and slowly exhaled it. Tightening my grip on the vine, I backed up and then ran forward.

The vine lurched as I swung from it, and for a few seconds, I thought it was going to snap from my weight. It didn't, and I flew back near my friends.

Kicking my legs forward, I swayed forward again, this time releasing myself and grabbing the next vine. Two more.

Again, I swung the vine, but when I reached my arm out for the next, I realized that I couldn't grab it. Clutching tightly to the vine, I swayed back and hesitated.

"Come on, Peach!" Yoshi's voice broke out. "Just keep swinging!"

He was right. I shifted myself a little lower on the vine, to get my weight around. Managing to shake it back and forth once more, I reached out and left the vine.

My hands locked around the third vine, and I slowed down a bit. Forcing myself to swing once more, I grabbed the last vine and swung to the cliff awaiting me.

"Phew! Made it." I knelt down and let out a heavy breath I didn't realize I was holding. Looking back, I waved to the others, who jumped excitedly for me.

Luigi and Birdo made their way across next, both surprisingly agile and without error, in spite of being the heavier amongst us. Daisy swung around after them, laughing and screaming during each swing.

"WOOHOO!"

"You're having way too much fun with that!" I had to tease.

"Nah, you just didn't have enough!" She laughed and spun around, jumping from the last vine. Daisy landed and swiftly came over to pat my back. "We'll work on that for you!"

"How—you just…you know what? Fine."

Sharing a chuckle, we pivoted back to watch Yoshi launch from the first vine to the second. He grabbed it and swung himself over again.

However, he launched himself too far, and he missed the third vine.

"Yoshi!" Everyone shouted and our mouths hung open.

The green dinosaur kicked his legs and Flutter Jumped the rest of the way, narrowly missing the edge with his feet.

Quickly, Yoshi's hands shot up and he grabbed the cliff. Birdo and Luigi dove over and pulled him up.

"T…Thanks!" Yoshi panted and slumped to the ground. "That was…was…scary."

"And here I thought Peach was going to have the worst run." Birdo giggled and patted Yoshi while I threw a glare at her. "You're ok. Come on, up."

She and Luigi helped him up from the ground and steadied him. Nodding, they let go and Yoshi stood up straight. I let out another breath and brushed my hair back.

"When you're ready."

"I…I'm good."

"Good. Then, let's go."

We stepped forward, where the trees and leaves grew to darker browns and greens respectively. Even less sunlight could break through the trees, which I hadn't realized was possible before.

Long tree branches made the platforms that we could use ahead, but atop them crawled three Wigglers. They jiggled around as they paced back and forth along their tree branches.

"All we have to do is get past them without angering them," I assessed. "Should be simple enough."

"Famous last words," muttered Birdo.

Carefully, we crept by and each of us climbed onto the first tree branch. The Wiggler had its body turned away from us and we took turns climbing up to the second branch.

Oddly, the next Wiggler simply wandered closer to us, making no hasty motions to attack us. Again, everyone climbed up to the next tree branch.

Waiting for us past the third tree branch was the next cliff to press onward. Though, to get to it, we would have to jump higher, and faster, as the Wiggler was approaching us. This one, though smiling, glanced past us and looked to push us off.

"H-Hey, quit that!" Luigi shouted and pushed back.

"Off, off!" The Wiggler pushed forward again.

"Why don't you back off?!" Daisy ran forward and slammed her fist into the Wiggler's face. "Uh-oh…"

Suddenly, the yellow caterpillar grew angry, and its body flashed to a darker red. Glaring at us, the Wiggler stomped down as we ran past it.

Jumping for the cliff, only Yoshi and Luigi could grab it right away. Daisy, Birdo, and I turned back to the charging Wiggler, now racing across the branch much faster than before.

"Jump!"

The three of us leapt into the air as the Wiggler crashed into the base of the cliff. We bounced off of its body, further angering it, while climbing up to Luigi and Yoshi.

"Is anyone else getting sick of close calls?" Birdo folded her arms together. "Because I am."

"This is kind of the norm for me," admitted Luigi, and he sighed.

Making our way down the cliff, we strolled along to a long, flat log that floated in the river like a raft, held back by a vine tied around the rear. Two Koopa Troopas patrolled across it.

"Hmm…I'll distract them."

"Wait, what?"

"Excuse me!" I stepped forward and waved at the Koopas, walking along the dirt road. They jumped in alarm and readied themselves.

"It's the princess!" One Koopa shouted.

"Grab her and let's get her back to the castle," his companion ordered.

Both came running over to me as I waited for them to get close. Yoshi leapt from the grass along the side, wrapping his tongue around the shell of one Koopa and launching it into the other. They collided and fell into the deep indigo river below.

"Nice shot, Yoshi!"

"Yeah, but you could have warned me sooner." He shook his head and tapped his foot.

"Sorry. Anyway, let's go!"

Together, we boarded the log and Daisy untied the vine. It drifted down the river's current and we sat quietly as we slowly passed through the forest. Waves splashed slightly against the log, and I glanced between it and the plants that we sailed away from. Skyward, only tree branches and leaves were visible, with maybe a ray of sunlight breaching through the top.

"Honestly, I thought we would have passed a flagpole by now." Daisy scooted next to me as I shrugged. "Come to think of it, we haven't found many coins, either."

"We don't have time to search for everything. The faster we save the fortresses, the sooner we can win back land that will help chase Bowser's forces out. Once they're on the ropes, we take the fight to him."

"That makes sense, but…can your Toads keep these forts secured? Can they free the rest of the territories by themselves?"

"It's not exactly a matter of freeing the territory. They just need to keep it occupied until we're finished beating Bowser's bigger threats. Once that's taken care of, we'll work together to restore peace."

"Sounds nice in theory." Daisy folded her arms behind her head. "Guess I just haven't seen it in practice."

"You will."

Sighing, I turned back and watched as Luigi, Yoshi, and Birdo chattered quietly amongst one another. They whispered and giggled to one another, sometimes casting a glance at Daisy and I, to which I turned away, pretending to have my interests elsewhere.

"Really?" Daisy murmured. "You're not that insecure, are you?"

"What? No." My shoulders dropped and I hugged my arms together. "It's just that they seem…so happy, I guess."

Daisy raised an eyebrow. "Yeah. We're usually all pretty happy."

"When we're at parties or sporting events, yes. But during these bouts with Bowser, and when I'm trying to restructure my kingdom, it's just not easy to let go."

"Pressures of ruling, huh?"

"Yes." I ran my fingers through my hair, digging in a little too much and yanking a knot. Wincing, I brushed through it and straightened it out. "Actually, it's not just the usual drama that's getting me down."

"So, what would you like to talk about first?"

"If you're implying that we could talk about melting Mr. Blizzard, no, we can't." Dropping my head, I let my hair cover my face. "I've become some kind of a monster from this."

"Peach, we can't go through life thinking that we can avoid every atrocity that we're forced to face." Even through my hair, I could see her shake her head. "While I get that not everyone has to face a life or death situation, we all end up coming up against some type of confrontation that we really don't want to deal with. But when it happens, it just does. There's no changing it." She let out a heavy breath. "It was a kill or be killed situation."

"We don't really know that," my voice broke as I whispered. "He might not have—"

"It's a risk you couldn't afford to take, plain and simple." My hands shook as I brushed my hair back to see Daisy's calm and reassuring smile. "You're not a monster, Peach. You fight them."

"Is that all I do though?" I glanced back to the river, watching the water flow. "Or do I make them, too?"

"They choose to fight."

"But is it really their choice?"

"Probably not, it's Bowser's."

"And what makes him hate me so much?" Turning to her, I gazed into her deep blue eyes. "Our families have been feuding, but why is he so relentless against me?"

"Because he wants to win." Daisy shrugged. "Seems pretty simple to me."

"What if it's not?" I glanced down at my hands, which I had wrapped together.

"If there were more to it, he would be more civilized about it. Maybe." Daisy giggled. "Honestly, it is Bowser, so maybe he'll just always have that rough and tough exterior."

"Maybe."

My eyes drifted back over to Luigi, and he happened to glance at me. For a moment, we stared at one another, and even from the distance, I could see a tinge of something in them. Was it…fear?

Quickly, he turned away, laughing at a comment Birdo whispered about.

"And now you're wondering about the whole 'relationship reveal' that Birdo dropped on us."

"Well, yes." I returned my attention to Daisy. "It's easy enough to dismiss Birdo, but that wasn't exactly…really, where would something so vile come from? Mario? And Bowser? Especially now?"

"Yeah, it's ridiculous." Daisy sighed. "Look, Birdo's really nice, more than you give her credit for—"

"She's sometimes nice. And other times, not so much."

"To you."

"To Mario too."

"Ok, I'm not going to argue that. She's totally different when I'm alone with her, compared to when you're around." Daisy shook her head. "Off topic. Point is, even though I'm good friends with her, coming up with that silly idea for them to be in a relationship is a little off-kilter, even for her."

"…Wait, wouldn't that make it true?"

"No, I…" Daisy laughed. "What I meant was that it's a little too out there to be believable."

"Is it though? What if Mario and Bowser used me as an excuse to see one another?"

"…Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds out loud?" Daisy lowered her eyes while my cheeks burned a bit.

"Very."

"So…?"

"It's unlikely."

"There you go."

"Fair point, but…well, it's already not common, for two guys to be in love around the Mushroom Kingdom." Twiddling my thumbs, I watched Daisy progressively judge me as I continued to entertain the idea. "And, if Bowser's trying to take over—"

"Peach, please!" Daisy rolled her eyes and laughed. "Bowser is power hungry. That's it. He doesn't love Mario, and he's not trying to take over the Mushroom Kingdom to, I don't know, marry his gay lover. If anything, there's a better chance of him lusting over you."

Shuddering, I swallowed back some vomit that tried to burst from my throat.

"Sorry, that was not a pretty picture for me either. Hopefully I'm wrong and he's completely not interested." She shivered and shook her hands. "Anyway, back on track, Bowser just wants to rule and make everyone do his bidding. Why he's going through the trouble of kidnapping Mario this time is beyond me. It's probably just a new tactic to drive you out of your mind and make you panic."

"Which…is working."

"Nah, if it were, you'd be totally bonkers." She grinned at the small smile that popped on my lips. "You're just fine, Peach. Honest."

"To you, which is great to know, so thank you." I rubbed my shoulders. "Still, I just can't…get over myself, I guess."

Almost immediately, Daisy crawled over and tilted my chin back up to look at her soothing eyes. "Peach, you are fine. We all love you. You are not a killer, and you are not a tool. What you are is an overly stressed princess who's sick of dealing with a tyrant and worried sick over her favorite knight." She winked at the last part, and I didn't have the heart to correct her. "So come on. Keep that smile up and let's keep plugging away until we beat Bowser's butt out of this kingdom."

Nodding to her, Daisy kissed my cheek and ruffled my hair, knocking my crown a little out of place. We laughed and she straightened it back on my head, tilting her fingers around as if she were setting it for a picture.

"Daisy?"

"Yeah?"

"…Thank you."

"Anytime, Peach."

A few more minutes passed by until I noticed something moving around on the land. Narrowing my eyes, I tried to watch the movement of the figure, which was quick. Daisy glanced at me before following my gaze as we both stood up. Something in either purple or black was rushing through the trees. Losing track of it, I suddenly realized that it was actually several things. Just as soon as I did, they all seemed to disappear.

Luigi, Birdo, and Yoshi stood up as we met them in the middle of the log raft. Silently, we observed the trees, waiting to see exactly what was out there.

Abruptly, Daisy shouted, "There! Ninji!"

She pointed to the top of a tree, where a black clad ninja-like demon had thrown a small black orb into the sky. Several more Ninji appeared and followed their companion's lead, throwing similar objects into the sky. After the last one threw its sphere, they all appeared to vanish once more.

Worriedly gazing up, we suddenly found a swarm of Ninji had thrown a cascade of Parabombs into the air, which was now slowly descending down toward us.

"There has to be at least fifty or sixty of them!" Luigi cried out.

"If they land on this raft, we're toast!" Daisy pounded her fist into her palm.

"Or sunk," added Birdo. "Good thing I'm here."

Sucking in a large amount of air, Birdo held her breath for a moment before launching a massive egg into the sky. It connected with a good number of the Parabombs, which exploded above us. However, several more still managed to break through and rain down.

"Still about twenty or so left," assessed Daisy. "But nice shooting, Birdo!"

"Thanks…" Birdo sank to the ground, panting. "Yoshi, could you be a darling and take care of the others?"

"Not all, but I can shave off a few more."

Yoshi jumped up and launched his tongue out, wrapping it around the lowest Parabomb. He then swung it and fired it at the biggest crowd he could, taking down another four bombs.

"Nice work!"

"You're welcome, but that's not going to be enough."

"Daisy!" I turned to her and gazed at her hands, but hesitated.

However, she must have read my mind and nodded. "This would probably be a good time for it."

Pressing her knuckles together, a turquoise glow shined around them, as her Regal Rings lit up.

She then began to move her hands in a circular motion, creating a bubble around them. Water rose up around us and mirrored the motion, creating a barrier around the raft.

The Parabombs connected with the surface of the water shield, splashing into it. Daisy waited as each parachute-cloaked Bob-omb was netted along the outside of her barrier.

Slowly, she moved her hands apart, opening the water bubble. At first glance, we smiled and relaxed, watching each of the bombs dragged safely away from us.

Immediately after, however, we gasped and watched as another flood of Parabombs rained down from higher up.

"Ninji must still be in the trees," realized Luigi.

"Not…for long!"

Daisy whipped the stands of water around, smashing them against the trees. Several Ninji were knocked from them and fell to the river below. We watched closely as the remainder leapt out and scurried away.

With the glow of the rings fading, Daisy let her arms dropped and sighed. "Peach, I can't do that again. It's too much."

"If you don't," I jumped at Luigi's voice, "we're definitely going to be burned. Daisy, we need you to do this."

Looking carefully at him as he rested his hand on her shoulder, Daisy nodded and repeated the motion.

Birdo forced herself up and spat out two more eggs, clutching her stomach after doing so. They both managed to hit marks, taking out at least eight Parabombs total.

Casting the water around us once more, Daisy formed the bubble barrier again, netting most of the Parabombs into it. Three, however, slipped through and continued to float toward us.

Deftly, Yoshi shot his tongue out, twisted it around one Bob-omb, and released it into another one. We ducked down as they burst, the explosion taking out the third.

Moving her hands apart carefully, Daisy dragged the rest of the bombs back into the water, effectively drowning them. She gasped and sank to the floor, panting.

Luigi hurried to her and gently helped her straighten out. "Are you ok?"

"Now? …No." She paused and exhaled. "But…I will be."

She smiled and patted his cheek. I sighed in relief and watched as Yoshi helped Birdo up, who pulled him into a hug.

"Daring rescue, cutie," congratulated Birdo as she pulled back. "Way to go!"

"Ha, thank you!" He scratched the side of his head as he blushed. "You did a better job than me, though."

"Not when those bombs were closest!" She swung his hands around and laughed. "Besides, it's not a contest, dear." More suggestively and with a wink, Birdo added, "Unless you want to make it one."

"Ah…I'd rather not deal with anymore bombs, if possible."

Smiling at my friends, a crash erupted and we flew forward. Picking myself up, I glanced ahead to find that we struck land. I hobbled over and helped Daisy up, while Luigi grabbed Yoshi. Birdo rolled about and forced herself up, shaking her head.

"You darlings just have all the fun in the world, don't you?"

We met her with an agitated group groan, to which she forced out a chuckle. Together, we disembarked our raft and marched onto solid land again. It took my feet a minute to readjust, still feeling the river's flowing current beneath me.

Wandering further inland, the trees appeared much darker now, with the trunks ebony and the leaves truly a dark green. Passing into a clearing, we studied the area around us, which had several sharp planks of wood around, almost forming a fence.

Brusquely, a similarly fashioned wooden gate rocketed from the earth behind us and further ahead of us. We closed together, recognizing too late that we had just walked into a trap.

Luigi sighed. "Well, this can't be good."

Two new voices cackled. "Oh, it definitely isn't!"

Thunderous thuds rumbled and we spun about to fine ourselves across from Boom Boom and Pom Pom.

"Well, well." Boom Boom snickered as he lifted his massive arms from the ground. "Princess Peach and her little friends have arrived."

"They actually made it past my Ninji unit? Bravo!" Pom Pom mockingly applauded us. "You twerps really are a terror, even without Mario!"

"And you two learned how to form whole sentences," I ridiculed. "Fancy that!"

"Her tongue did get sharper, huh Pom Pom?"

"Guess we'll have to teach her some manners all over again." She whipped out a white boomerang with a pink bow tied around it. "The rest of you will have to pay the price for your princess's insolence!"

"Wow, Peach," gibed Birdo. "Way to call it. They did expand their vocabularies."

Angered, Pom Pom tossed her boomerang out at us. Everyone sidestepped it, fairly unfazed as it whirled by.

Boom Boom followed up by extending his arms and whirling around while Pom Pom leapt into the air, seeking a new attack position.

Yoshi Flutter Jumped and hovered over Boom Boom as the rest of us evaded him. Once the lackey slowed to a halt, head spinning, Yoshi promptly smashed down on him.

Crying out, Boom Boom retreated into his shell. I heard a whizzing noise from behind and jumped up as a pink shuriken flew past me.

Pivoting around, I turned just in time to see Birdo stomp on Pom Pom's head. She slipped into her shell and whirled it into the air.

Running as I checked on my friends, I saw Luigi and Daisy jump over Boom Boom's plated shell. Meanwhile, Birdo rolled away as Pom Pom's spotted shell slammed down overhead.

Consecutively, the two popped from their shells to attack again. Boom Boom swung his arms around, forcing Yoshi to double back from his charge.

At the same time, Pom Pom disappeared into a cloud of pink smoke, while Birdo and Daisy ran up beside me. We watched as two duplicates rose from the smoke with her.

Together, we rushed at the three Pom Pom figures, each holding a shuriken. Only one was pink while the other two were silver.

Daisy forced herself down on top of the real Pom Pom's head, forcing her to withdraw within her shell again. Taking a second, I glanced over to see Luigi rocket off of Boom Boom's head as well.

Repeating their early pattern, Boom Boom also returned into his shell and spun around on the ground, while Pom Pom crashed her shell down from above. Easily enough, my friends and I managed to keep away from the slamming shells.

Once the two popped out again, Boom Boom whirled his arms around in a circle again, with fire streaming across the ground as he spun around. Birdo and I had to double back once the flames burst up.

From the fire, a second plated shell raced past us, knocking Birdo from her feet. It bounced against the wooden fence and came back at us, to which I quickly grabbed Birdo and jumped over it.

Watching it speed away, my attention then diverted to Pom Pom creating more smoke duplicates of herself, throwing both shuriken and boomerangs at Daisy, Yoshi, and Luigi.

They managed to flip over her weapons at first, until Luigi tripped. He glanced up and quickly ducked down as a pink shuriken nearly sliced off his head.

Annoyed, I rushed over and jumped onto Pom Pom's head before she could unleash another attack. She cried and fell to the ground, her head spinning.

Letting out a growl, Boom Boom threw up his arms and began to spin around at me again. He had stopped paying attention to Birdo, who jumped up and slammed her feet down on his head.

Groaning, Boom Boom fell to the ground, just as dazed as his companion. Birdo and I locked eyes and nodded to one another. Luigi walked over to me, and he opened his mouth to congratulate me, but instead, it hung open as his eyes widened.

Nervously, I followed his eyes to Boom Boom, who was suddenly swallowed into the ground. Spinning around, I watched the same happen to Pom Pom. Within in seconds, both went under and were soon gone without a trace.

No sooner had the two been taken did the gate ahead fall down. My friends and I met in the center of the clearing, exchanging anxious expressions.

"A-Are we r-really about to g-go f-f-forward?" Luigi shivered as his teeth chattered.

"Unfortunately." I sighed. "We don't have much of a choice. There's no leaving this place until we free the fortress."

Leading the way forward, I made my way out from the clearing, followed by Daisy, then Birdo and Yoshi, with Luigi shakily bringing up the rear.

Our surroundings had changed, but for the worse: the ebony trees had less leaves on them, only to reveal twisted branches. The light from the sky shone through, and it turned out that the sun had set while the moon was barely out now. Even the brown dirt road that we traveled on appeared to be a darker color. A gust of wind breezed past us, and everyone shivered.

"Oh…p-p-please tell me that's n-not the f-fort."

Looking ahead, I stared as an old mansion came into view. It was large, but broken down, with the outside beige paintjob being worn and several windows shattered, with dark red curtains to cover the interior. Even the purple roof appeared to have had patchwork done on it. Sharp, black metal gates were in front of the manor, giving it the perfect horror vibe as the moon glistened upon the terrible structure.

"Well…we haven't seen anything else, and I'm pretty sure this is it," I confessed. Luigi quickly went pale as his knees buckled, while Yoshi grabbed him to keep him standing up.

Clouds rolled in front of the moon, and its soft light was stolen from us as we approached the mansion's dark green door. Ominously, it creaked open before I could lift my hand to push it open. Glancing back at the others, their eyes widened as they fearfully met my own anxious eyes.

Sighing, I turned back and led the way inside. Once all five of us were in, the door harshly slammed shut.

Chapter Text

[Mario]

The xebec sailed across the waters, slowly making its way onward to Star Hill, still some distance away from us. Gazing at the glittering stars across the nearly blackened sky, a short gust of wind rushed by. Waves splashed as the boat surged ahead, though I could only take in the faintest whiff of salty scents at the moment.

Though my eyes and body weighed heavily upon me, the ship's bobbing rhythm had kept me awake for an additional hour. Glancing back across the deck, I noticed that only Kamek and Bowser were present this late. The Magikoopa whipped his wand around, casting hexes and spells that flowed around the masts. Nodding, Bowser watched them bounce and spin around the sails.

Turning back, I stared at the wheel, lit up by a few hex shapes that softly steered us. Examining them, I fixated on the red triangle first, which appeared to point and pull the wheel in the directions we sailed. Several yellow shapes were wrapped around it as they st