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Firebird

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PART I: THE TEAM


On nights like these, Bowser could swear that stars were real.

Hot gusts from all sides as his kart plunged down the twisting track, the blaring of screaming and clapping and the eternal roar of the engines, petrol fumes cloying the air with clouds of burning salt, blood in his mouth from when he’d bitten his tongue at go time—

“Easy on the hairpins!”

“Easing. Any chargers?”

“DK on our seven, ‘n we’re coming up fast on Ridley.” Koopa made that telltale guttural noise in his throat as their opponents approached. “Yours or mine?”

“Fire at will,” Bowser called back as he pulled their kart into an immaculate two-wheeled turn. Well, technically, three-wheeled. And, in the hands of any other driver, sub immaculate for, uh. Dizzy. Terrifying. Cruel. His hair elastic flew loose in the abrupt wind direction shift, and for a split second his vision was nothing but fiery red locks. Urgh—should just cut the damn stuff off—

“Roger!” Koopa let the first of his three Items loose, hurling the acid-green Shell at a clunky eight-fifteen and into an alarmingly rapid ricocheting course. The missile bounced so quickly between the cement police barriers on each side of the track that Bowser nearly breathed a sigh of relief when DK nailed it with a standard Banana. Both Items were crushed to dust.

But Bowser did need to slow the mother down. “Fire two!”

“Way ahead of you, bro.” Koopa had indeed just unleashed the second Shell. Again with the blink-and-you’d-miss-it Pong screen of a toss, the Item almost colliding with DK’s ugly kart at what could have been a crunchy four o’clock angle. But to no avail; that nephew of his had launched his own Shell just in time to eviscerate it.

“No go,” Koopa groaned, his voice nearly drowned out by the roaring of the air resistance all around them. “Last one, bud. You’re on base.”

“Copy that,” Bowser barked as Koopa tossed his third and final Shell.

This time, DK and his nephew were out of Items. Now, the jerk was admittedly a finer racer than Bowser tended to chalk out, but Koopa clearly had a rage to channel, and a painted target. So to speak.

Third time was the charm; Koopa’s mind-boggling spin on the Shell rendered it just impossible enough to miss. CRUNCH. Bowser could hear DK’s howling long after they left that ugly kart crumpled in the dust.

“Nice, Koopa.” He grinned at the sight of the clumps of karting fans beyond the police barriers—crazies who had painted their stomachs with team names or who held up glowing signs displaying crass advice for the racers. They erupted at the sight of Koopa’s Item nailing DK’s kart.

“We’re not done yet,” his Thrower reminded him. “Switch!”

Stars had to exist out there, Bowser assured himself. No, not the clusters of ceiling-mounted LED lights that had become a popular interior decor trend. Real ones, the ones cloaked by Mushroom City's perpetual smog overhead. The universe absolutely had to be filled with massive, blazing orbs that gave their neighbors energy and warmth. It would be too absurdly frigid an existence otherwise.

"Now!"

In a long-honed series of fluid motions, Bowser locked in their trajectory and put their massive kart on cruise control. Next came the flip; with one hand tight on the steel Thrower rail behind his Driver seat, Bowser jerked his knees up to his chest and then kicked out to the side. The motion’s momentum was so great that the rest of his body cleanly followed suit. For an ever-alarming instant, he seemed to float alongside the kart, his body one ill-timed bump away from a dash-to-death against the pavement below.

Whatever. The instant passed and he swung himself up onto the Thrower pedestal at the rear of the kart as Koopa slid cleanly into the Driver seat at his feet. No time for fretting. They had an opponent to maul.

They plunged through the city streets, their way lit by neon advertisements and holographic commercials playing on every stretch of concrete wall and chain-link fence. Distracting at the best of times, the flashes and glows rendered an already-tough Cup track close to abysmal. At least for lesser racers.

“About to enter the traffic lane,” Koopa called back. Bowser grinned, spreading his legs in a sturdier stance as they entered the final stretch of the lap, his loose hair whipping about as they rolled.

Mushroom City’s official Special Cup track definitely belonged somewhere in Bowser’s top three. It was his home, after all. He knew its shortcuts, its perils, and had spent more time practicing dodging traffic than nearly all of his competitors combined. Speaking of which—

“Koopa!”

“Chill! We’re good! We’re good!” And then Koopa’s voice crumpled. “Oh, fucking—”

Bowser cracked up as Koopa swerved in a tight S-shaped path away from a speeding Shroom cart and then a Wiggler Bus. The driver made quite the face at them before Bowser flipped him off.

“I see them.”  He had held onto his Special Item for an uncomfortably long amount of time—could have blown it earlier, to save his and Koopa’s asses from getting flattened had Koopa not swerved last-minute. Could have launched it even before then, to clear their path of stray Items.

Instead, he’d held it close, risking its loss through someone else’s theft or a wreck. Because this was how they were going to win. Sometimes you just—you just knew, when you were on rails for gold. When there was no other option. Not necessarily the Cup, no, but this one race was his.

“Ready?” Koopa hollered as they pulled up behind Boo and Petey’s ugly gray kart. The bulky thing had admittedly great top speed, just like his own Koopa King kart. And poor acceleration, also like his kart.

“Done.”

He wound up and hurled his Item forward; aiming, at this distance, would matter not.

The little spiked green Shell that their kart’s flash-printer had spat out those long minutes ago now flew through the air, growing in size and clobbering everything in its path. Sedans and SUVs alike were bumped aside as the mighty spiked Shell closed in on the poor first-place kart.

The kart formerly in first. Bowser and Koopa hollered as they whipped past Boo and Petey. If Bowser strained his ears, he could just barely—

—CKING BULLSHIT WAS THAT, YOU F—”  Boo Ridley’s voice, high-pitched like a middle-schooler’s and gravelly from his menthols.

“Think he got the message,” Koopa jeered as they curtained.

The roar of the spectators was appropriately deafening. Mushroom City was the superlative karting fanatic town. This was the single reason Bowser refused to move away after high school—sure, Toad Town out in the desert had its own ridiculous bike-racing culture, and the gleaming Mushroom Bridge capital city was where all the Federal Bureau of Racing suits liked to schmooze around. But the city was his turf, the center of the racing universe and, really, the only place that could ever matter.

Bowser lit a cigarette as Koopa put the kart in neutral. Victory lap. Screaming, crying, betting money handed over left and right. For him, a quick break. He fished around in his pockets for a spare elastic.

“Third,” Daisy exclaimed over their radio. “Looks like Boo recovered in time to make fourth, and the boys are right behind him.”

First, third, fifth. His long locks finally knotted back out of his face, Bowser pulled the cigarette from his mouth and gently exhaled. “…Wario?”

“Seventh,” the oldest member of his team growled. “Got caught by a Fireball.” He cackled at Luigi’s panicked yelp. “A red one, darlin’. Easy.”

Fucking Mario. Bowser huffed on his cigarette and radioed back. “Next time. We still got one more race before the trophies get handed out.”

“Not looking good, Bow. ‘S all we can do just to add points to our sweepstakes score. Not gonna sugar-coat it.” Waluigi sounded even more melancholy than usual.

“Just do what you can,” Toad replied as his tiny Bullet-shaped kart pulled up alongside Bowser’s. His redheaded Thrower, Baby, pounded fists with Koopa as they pulled back into the massive FBR garage: Lakitu’s Mach 6, a whole-warping structure valued at the GDP of a small country. Dozens of open-air kart bays in the middle with three levels of offices, labs, and garages plus who knew what else behind enormous steel bay doors on all sides. Their temporary home during the Star Cup.

“Okay,” Bowser automatically rattled off, fingering the spiked straps at his wrists and throat. “Check tires, check gas, check oil. Dais’, that Bloom Coach is gonna need a hell of a paint job after tonight.”

“You can say that again,” Daisy muttered, rubbing her poor kart’s enormous burn marks. “I oughta smack Waluigi for throwing that Bob-Omb so close to our position.”

Waluigi cracked his neck as he refilled Wario’s kart’s tank. “Gotta keep you on your toes, lady. I’ll pay for your new paint.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Toad cackled, tugging his white skullcap back from his forehead.

Koopa glanced up from the Koopa King’s engine. “Incoming.”

“That was real funny, Bow,” Boo called over his menthol cigar as he waddled up. Bowser hated the sickly minty smell of his rival nearly as much as he hated his theft of Koopa's nickname. “Good thing the FBR allows for flukes like that, else you’d never win dick.”

At Boo’s left, DK chortled and stuffed his hands in his greasy denim pockets. On Boo’s right, Petey’s diamond-shaped face tattoos shimmered for a stunning half-second. Piranha people version of laughing, Bowser supposed with a lurch.

The fucking thing was that Bowser actually liked half of Boo’s gang. Petey had never given him trouble outside a race, and Yoshi and Birdo were downright friendly when they weren’t making out in one corner or kicking his ass during Cups. But Boo—

“You come all the way over here just to flirt,” Bowser sighed, “or d'you got something to discuss, asshole?”

“It’s a free country,” Boo spat, sauntering forward. “Don’t need a reason to go where I want.” He drummed his pale fingers on the Koopa King's front bumper. 

Big mistake. “Then you could exercise your freedom and fuck off,” Bowser grinned, leering at the albino as he ducked between him and his kart. You wanna go, fucker?

Boo shrugged, folding his arms. "Make me."

Snarling, Bowser shoved Boo away from the kart and hulked down into a brawl stance. From the corner of his eye, he spotted Koopa ushering the others away from the garage bay.

But right when Boo made to swing at him, a squadron of Shy Guys intercepted, jumping in from out of nowhere. "Shit!"

“Physical confrontations are prohibited from the Mach 6,” one rattled off in a hollow, tinny voice, holding Boo by his shoulder and hip. “Please stand down.” Petey glanced around as other racers and FBR techs had halted in their tracks to witness the scene; DK had long backpedaled away from the masked guards.

Two others had grabbed Bowser by the elbows. “Physical confrontations are prohibited from the Mach 6,” they repeated. God, how many times had he heard that over the past year…?

“Standing down,” Bowser growled at the civil servants, standing up straighter and lowering his arms. “Ridley's gonna do the same. He’s not enough of a dipshit to get himself ejected. Are ya, pal?”

As the Shy Guys slowly loosened their metallic grips, Boo made a face and turned around. “Don’t get all cocky from a two-point margin, Bow,” he called over his shoulder. “This Cup’s mine.” He disappeared off to Team Banshee’s bay cluster.

“Well, that just happened,” Daisy chortled, wiping her eye. “You really gotta quit picking fights with him in public, Bowser.”

“Why the hell does Petey tag around with that guy,” Bowser grumbled under his breath. “Fucking waste.”

Koopa rolled his eyes. "His loss, brother. Just focus on the race."

The Mach 6 garage’s floor rumbled slightly underfoot. He steadied himself against his kart just in case; though the FBR techies had gotten the warping between the different tracks pretty much down to a science, the landings were occasionally a tad rough.

“You’da think they’d-a goddamn warn us,” Wario growled, having keeled over against a rolling toolbox. 

“Quit whining, would ya.” Bowser cracked his neck and returned to his checklist.

Final race.

Bowser hated Rainbow Road. If Mushroom City’s neon signs were mild distractions at best, then that entire glowing racetrack out in lower orbit was downright dizzying. Small-timers were lain waste left and right, skidding off the slippery track with absolutely no guard rails to save them. Thunderbolt strikes, a literal antigravity vacuum, and spiralling ramps pocked with treacherous boost panels all melded into one awful Lisa Frank acid trip.

Boo had won the Kong Jungle course in the first race, and then Bowser had come close to tying them back up in Dino Dino Valley. With their gold from the previous race, they were now exactly two points ahead of Boo and Petey’s kart.

Items lay scattered across the glowing rainbow track from the previous laps' carnage. Bowser continually glanced toward his radar while charting a path around them. Boo remained firmly on their six, with Yoshi just behind them and Daisy bringing up fourth.

Around the hair-raising 360-degree turns they flew, hitting every dash panel within reach and gliding over each of the sudden gaps in the track. Through the void below them Bowser could just make out the highest towers of Mushroom City; overhead, he swore to himself the scant faint glimmers were more than satellites.

"Knock knock." Boo's gravelly voice broke into his thoughts. With Petey driving, he leaned forward from the Thrower pedestal with something red in hand.

After blinking once, Bowser glanced at his radar, then did a double-take. "Koopa, they've got—"

"I know! You holding anything down there?!"

Bowser handed over his Green Shell and prayed to whoever was listening. "Final stretch coming up. Careful!"

And then all air promptly exited his lungs as they reached the vertical vacuum. For a too-long number of nauseating, breathless moments, Bowser could only watch impatiently as Boo's kart flew upward alongside his. He sensed Koopa clinging to the Thrower bar with one hand, spreading out the rest of his limbs to enjoy his last zero-g session for that month. 

But enjoying himself was a luxury out of Bowser's reach in this moment. He had instead begun plotting the two karts' landing spots, how much of the wide dash panel they'd each cover once the vacuum spit them out, then the optimal routes to each of the five the Item boxes, only one of which would take them in for Double Items. All barring an ugly act of God.

"Holding Green Shell for defensive action," Koopa reported. "Guys, how's it looking back there?"

"Giving Yoshi a taste of his medicine!"

"Tailing DK, but he's waving his Special Item aroun—ack! Phew."

"Chain Chomp at large in sixth," Wario groaned.

Bowser fought the sudden urge to puke. "Keep out of the center lane. We're on rails for Double Items." Why hadn't Boo fired his damn Red Shell yet?

"I gotta dump this soon or we waste a slot," Koopa hollered in his ear.

True enough. "Then fire right before he hit th—"

YEOW. Bowser flew into panic mode as a blistering impact reverberated through their kart, forcing them to spin out dangerously close to the track's edge. What we get for not paying attention—"Hold on tight!"

"Shit!" Koopa clutched the Thrower bar in a white-knuckled grip as his legs swung out over the void. "Bow!"

"Got it." With his patented split-second Mini Turbo, Bowser jetted them forward just in time to snag a Box. Not the Double, but better than falling off. "What's on the menu?"

Koopa's smile was audible. "Red Shell!"

Alright. Boo had pulled ahead by only by a tad; they still had a shot. Bowser gritted his teeth, watching closely as Boo swapped positions with Petey. Now all that remained before the finish line was the dash panel-studded straightaway and one spiral ramp.

"Hit him on the jump," Bowser called back as he hit each successive dash panel. Within moments that had hit the Koopa King's top speed. "Or else the Shell'll get obliterated on the ramp."

"Copy that." Koopa wound up. "Firing!"

Bowser watched with baited breath as the Shell homed in on the Boo Pipes' rear fender. Three yards—two yards—one—"Fuck."

Petey had turned about last minute to throw his own Shell. His aim was true; the two projectiles collided in midair, bursting into a thousand tiny shards that dissolved over the murky cityscape below.

Damn it. Bowser shook his head and took them over the gap. "We could still overtake them here." No Items left, but the Koopa King had a tinge better acceleration than the Boo Pipes. All they had to do was chart a slightly more efficient path, and the gold was as good as theirs. Barring, again, one seriously ugly act of God.

"Coming up on Ridley fast," he barked into the radio. "Where're we at?"

"Neck and neck with Birdo," came Luigi's breathless voice. "Wait—oh, Jesu—" Their radio spluttered out.

"I can see them from here!" Toad yelped. "Birdo took them out with an Egg. Lakitu's fishing them up now."

Then they'd been knocked off the track. Bowser scowled and pounded one fist onto his dashboard.

"We're alone against Banshee's two best karts." Koopa harrumphed and cracked his knuckles. "Bow, get me in close and I can try to grapple."

"With Petey?" Oh, brother. "You think you can take him?"

"Only one way to find out. But you gotta drive. I still can't do that snaking stuff like you."

That was unfortunately true. Bowser growled in affirmative and power-slid them right up alongside the Boo Pipes. The spiral ramp began in earnest, and soon both karts dragged toward the outside of the track as they snaked, their tires squeaking in agony against the too-slick eezo track. Yellow, then red sparks flew against Rainbow Road's rare uninterrupted stretch of guardrails. Nowhere to go except forward.

Boo shot him an amused look from the Boo Pipes' Driver seat. "Got your affairs in order, Bow?"

"Bite me." Bowser rammed the left side of his kart against the Boo Pipes' right. 

Sure enough, Petey took his hands off the Thrower bar and made to shove Koopa into the railing behind him. Koopa sidestepped the blow with a yelp, and Petey planted one foot on the Koopa King to keep from falling off. Bowser struggled to keep the kart's acceleration steady as the suspension threatened to give out. "Get him off my kart, Koopa!"

"Trying!" Koopa hollered as he inched away from the guardrails zipping dangerously past. They had no room to switch positions. Bowser was trapped.

"Get back up here, Pete!" Boo called. "They see that shit, we get DQ'd!"

The Koopa King lurched violently as Petey retracted his foot. Now or never. Bowser slammed on the cruise control. "Koopa!"

Without another word Koopa slid into the Driver seat as Bowser took to the Thrower pedestal. Petey whipped about to face him, spreading his long legs in a defensive stance.

"Not so scary now, huh," Bowser murmured, beckoning Petey forward with a hand motion. If he didn't know better, he'd swear Petey had begun grinning in return. Come at me.

With that Petey lunged forward. Bowser caught his hands with ease; their heights matched up almost perfectly, he suspected, not just their strengths. Gritting his teeth, Bowser strained to keep Petey at bay as the two karts sped forward alongside one another.

"Who's scary?" Petey murmured, his Piranha-typical subharmonics sounding like three deep voices humming at once. His words reverberated through their interlocked hands until they settled in the pit of Bowser's gut, where—

God. Focus. "Let's find out," Bowser laughed under his breath, feeling his own lip curl as he pressed harder against Petey's hands.

"Heh." Petey was a wily grappler, making to lunge in different directions, jerking and feinting to goad Bowser off-balance. But Bowser kept his weight from shifting too far off the Thrower pedestal, all while keeping the firmest of grips on those two gloved hands, faintly webbed between fingers—long fingers—hot—

"BOW!"

The world went black for a solid second. 

When Bowser snapped awake, the glowing track zoomed by only inches away from his forehead. "Fuck!"

"—outta nowhere. Nothing on the radar. Must not've fired it til she was right on our ass." Koopa's voice sounded distraught on the radio. "Crossing the finish line now."

"The hell?" Bowser yanked himself back upright until he was in a sitting position on the Thrower pedestal. "What'd I get hit with?" His stupid ass had been distracted by—by Petey—

"Birdo used a Fake Box point blank," Koopa sighed as they checkered. 

First place, Boo Pipes. Second, Turbo Birdo. Third, Koopa King. The four points lost to the Boo Pipes placed the Koopa King securely in Second overall for the Special Cup.

“God fucking damn it—” If Bowser lost to anyone except Boo, he'd be content with silver. He'd be in the mood to party.

“Fuck that guy, Bow. We had this. Just a dumb last-minute—just—ugh. Fuck ‘em.”

Daisy pulled up alongside them, her Bloom Coach not quite having reached its top speed in time. “Hey, y’all, we're all still qualified for the All-Cup, so look on the bright side—”

The All-Cup was still three fucking weeks away, Bowser mourned, lighting his eighth cigarette of the day as their kart went into neutral for the victory lap. He wanted to murder Boo now. In some alternate universe he could surely challenge the asshole to an instant rematch and bludgeon him into the holographic pavement.

But in this universe, he was his Firebird’s captain, and had to set a good example—at least while the MKNN cameras were on his ass.

“Daisy’s right,” he sighed over the radio. “We’ll get 'em in the Cup, kids.” He did know better than to drop too many hints about their garage gigs this close to FBR ears. Prison sucked.

After disembarking, Team Firebird filed back through the Mach 6’s garages and into its massive auditorium. Shy Guys guided Bowser and Koopa to the stage with the winners’ pedestal for trophy handouts as the event’s VIP spectators gathered before it. Flashbulbs went off, their shutters slicing through the clamor of the audience.

“What’d I say, Bow?” Boo jeered from atop the first-place stand. “Cheer up, babydoll. Now, don’t Pete over here look good in gold?”

Bowser struggled not to think about just how good Petey did look holding that gleaming trophy, its warm glow reflecting against his rich green skin almost like real sunlight. Nope. Not thinking about it. Not—

“Congrats, bitches,” Birdo stage-hissed at them from behind Boo’s back, shoving the bronze trophy into her partner Yoshi's arms. Bowser gave her a thumbs up and willed himself not to smile.

Flashbulbs went off as the massive screens flickered on overhead, and the rest of Team Firebird closed in on the stage. Bowser cracked his neck and hopped down the stage steps as FBR Commissioner Jugem Lakitu’s voice boomed from the speakers. “And now, for the All-Cup starting positions for the Mushroom City entrants!”  Cue the obligatory screeching and hollering at the sight of the hometown faves. “All scores from the Mushroom, Flower, Star and Special Cups have been tallied, and the results are in!"

"Here we go," Koopa muttered. Bowser laughed through his nose.

Yoshi and Birdo’s faces popped onscreen first, on either side of their weird pink kart. “With the greatest number of single-kart points is Team Banshee’s Turbo Birdo! Not the first time Catherine Birdo and Totaka Yoshi have started the All-Cup in unparalleled standing. Next—”

Bowser and Koopa’s official mugshots flickered into view. “Team Firebird’s flagship kart, the Koopa King, with riders Rex Bowser and Koopa Troopa, of Mushroom City High karting heritage. Now, in third…”

Koopa elbowed him in the hip. “Yo, we beat out Ridley—!”

 “—regard Ridley and Petey Piranha on Team Banshee’s flagship kart, the Boo Pipes. Ridley, too, attended MC High, and Petey hails from the Piranha Gold Leaf Colony, having graduated from…”

“Like I said!” Daisy hissed cheerfully from just off the dais. “He may have won the, ah, battle, but the war’s only begun.”

“There we are.” Luigi nodded at the screen, where his face and Daisy’s had appeared on either side of the Bloom Coach.

“—rio and Daisy von Sarasa on Team Firebird's Bloom Coach. Formerly the highest-scoring members of Team Mario, these two—”

“How come they gotta mention that every time?” Daisy growled. “It’s been, what, two years?”

“These people got too long a memory,” Wario muttered. Bowser pointedly ignored Luigi’s thousand-yard-stare just then. Some things he absolutely could not afford to micromanage.

On flashed DK’s and his scrawny nephew’s faces with their barrel-shaped kart, then the two teenagers from the Mario Clan whose Special Item was a Chain Chomp that had left several nasty scars on Bowser’s ribcage. Immediately following them were Team Firebird rookies Kinopio Toad and Kupa Junieo.

“I can’t believe we’re behind the twins by one fucking point,” Baby moaned, slumping back against Toad in defeat.

“Don’t fret,” Toad laughed, wrapping his arms around Baby from behind. “We’ll wreck ‘em when it counts.”

Then appeared Mario and Peach, followed by Wario and Waluigi for last place—at least, Bowser consoled himself, just for starting positions for the first All-Cup race. And even then, only among the racers from the city.

Rarely did any kart from outside of Mushroom City make it to the final round. The Cup was a rally, obligated to take in the top sixty-four qualifying karts. Only half the racers would make it to the second round, and the top sixteen karts alone would qualify for the final four races.

Only one person from outside Mushroom City, Bowser mused, could stand a chance against this lineup in the All-Cup. Just one, and there was no way—

Three months, he remembered then. Eleven days. Four hours.

But up walked Lakitu himself then with an insufferable grin on his face. “My sweet racers, what a magnificent run, all of you!” The tiny man quickly rubbed his horn-rim glasses against his expensive suit coat before rounding on Bowser and Koopa. “I must say, that was marvelous work as usual, Mister Koopa, and Bowser! That Mini-Turbo snaking in the final race!” He sniffled. “Phenomenal.”

“Yeah, well, not phenomenal enough to knock Ridley into silver,” Bowser grumbled. Lakitu rarely engaged in this sort of sucking-up without some greater scheme at play. Get to the point, pal.

“I do think your parents would have been proud to watch such a display, young man. Let’s simply hope that you’ll put in more practice hours before the All-Cup." He gave a wink. "Now, if you have a moment, Rex, I happen to have a message from your uncle—”

Koopa stiffened on reflex. “I’ll, uh, go see what everyone wants to do for dinner,” he piped before striding off out of earshot. Not before shooting Bowser a specific look.

Sorry. You know how it is. Or, rather, the opposite.

“Ah, yes, I daresay we’re all due for a good meal by now!” Lakitu elbowed Bowser facetiously in the hip. “In any case, what his Majesty asked me to pass onto you was that he’s tried to call you, you see, but since you rarely seem to check your phone...”

“My bad,” Bowser grumbled. His uncle hadn't tried his main phone, then. His burner was probably buried in his room somewhere. Serves him right.

“I’ve simply been asked to check in on you and to encourage you to return his call at some point,” Lakitu finished, wriggling his eyebrows. “The sooner, the better, in my opinion! You know how it is with the King.”

Bowser knew exactly how it was with the King, but in spite of himself refrained from lipping off to one of the highest-ranked economic officials in the country then and there. No need to take out his hatred on Lakitu. No matter how big a tool the guy may have been.

“Will do. Take care, Lakky.”

“Likewise, young Highness.”

Bowser tried not to wince at the honorific. He really did try.

Back at the Mach 6’s massive entrance, his team had gathered into a huddle. “We’re thinking Dyllis’ place!” Baby called as Bowser approached.

Fine with him. “Anybody need a ride?” he asked, cracking his neck. “I gotta move my truck outta this lot in five minutes before a Shy Guy boots my ass.”

“I’m game,” Koopa replied, squinting at him. “You okay, man?”

“Yeah,” he lied. “C’mon.”

Dyllis’ diner stood on a precarious ledge overlooking the massive Freeway 10, a corrugated metal shack filled with the sweet scents of roasting meats and vegetables and throat-searing spices. The rickety state of the guard rails on its patio merited giving a sobriety test to anyone wanting to sit outside. By the sound of things, the old lady herself was chasing her in-house butcher around the kitchen with something spiked in hand.

“Table for eight,” Koopa called to the hostess through the smoky din. “Man. Might be the last time I ever say that.”

“Yeah?” Bowser lit another cigarette. “Her parents finally say yes?”

Koopa’s online girlfriend had been fighting tooth and nail to move from her native Sarasaland village, far to the north, to Mushroom City for school. She’d gotten a full scholarship from MCU—seriously brainy. Not that that surprised Bowser utterly. Koopa was a hardcore technophile; Bowser's all but nonexistent knowledge of coding or current events in the industry made him a less-than-desirable conversationalist in that regard.

How long ago had Koopa and Paratroopa begun their online spat? One that had slowly bloomed into a nightly string of vidchats and the few visits last year? No, Bowser could guess. Probably starting around that one time, not quite five years ago. 

“Para said she’d call in tomorrow to report,” Koopa replied as they walked over to a long table near the back. “I want you there, by the way. Depending on how well she’s been able to work them, she could join Firebird in time for the Cup.”

“Fuck yes,” Bowser breathed, ecstatic. “More karts, more sweepstakes points.” At this rate, they’d have the largest team in the All-Cup. All the better to win it with, my dear.

“She’s nothing to sniff at, either.” Koopa swelled with pride, his face gleaming. “I don’t gotta tell you how tough it is to qualify for the All-Cup as an indie. Also her Special Item’s even better than mine.”

“Don’t you mean worse?” Baby asked as he and Toad sat down. “More…awful? Evil?”

“You two get lost on the way over?” Bowser chortled. “Where’re the others?”

“Wario ‘n Wally had to make a pickup, but it shouldn’t be too long. And Daisy and Louie are walking in now.” Toad had not yet bothered to look up from his phone. Kid had more emails and appointments and tasks than the average office manager, in Bowser’s humble opinion.

Likely stuff from being a Mushroom Kingdom Scout—one of those handpicked data miners recruited as kids to help support the bureaucracy. Crazy shit from the negotiations for colonization, Bowser guessed. The Kingdom was the Blue Planet’s foremost economic power, and so they held the most cards in negotiating any potential colonies from the Piranha Hegemony. Maybe.

Maybe not. Three months, he remembered. Eleven days. Five hours…no.

Focus. Real life. This world. Toadster.

Poor kid, Bowser mused, having to resort to kart racing to break from from day-to-day stress. But at least that kept him and Baby out of trouble, for the most part. The two featherweights were the youngest members of his team, fresh out of high school and blessed with altogether lax parents and foster parents, respectively. Now that he thought about it, he'd never even met Toad's family.

“I’m starving,” Daisy moaned as she slid onto the bench across from Bowser, snapping his menu away from him. “We gotta hammer out this weekend once the others get here.”

“Not much we can do tonight,” Bowser reminded her. “Especially since we don’t even know how many karts this team’s gonna have as of tomorrow.”

Daisy’s face lit up. “Does that mean what I think it does?”

“It’s up in the air as of right now, but keep your fingers crossed.” Koopa grinned, running one hand through his bleached hair. “If they say yes, you’d better expect a ton of messages from her. She likes to be on top of everything, and you’re the only one we know who goes to school there.”

“She can count on me! I don't know a ton of people in the engineering school, but I can definitely give her prof recs for the core classes." 

“Sweet. Oh, uh…” Bowser started; a Shy Guy waiter had appeared out of thin air, it seemed. “Onion rings. All of them. Like, every onion ring you have. And, uh, steak. Tell Dyllis Bowser wants the usual—”

“Make-a that two steaks,” Wario cut in as he and Waluigi sat down. “Extra garlic butter.”

Once everyone ordered, they were left in peace. Dyllis’ place at this time in the evening was ideal for logistics talks. Its hardcore racing fan clientele had eked away after having watched the Special Cup all day, but it remained just crowded enough to negate any likelihood of being overheard.

“Been scoping out the Grodus Towers,” Waluigi murmured, his eyes unusually bright. “They’ve emptied out the building and just have a padlock on the parking garage. No surveillance. We get one shot, and I say we take it before the place gets sold to the next owner.”

“What’s special about Grodus?” Luigi asked, rubbing his temples. “Switching venues is always a pain.”

Bowser took that one. “Sustained spiral ramp for three floors, Louie. It’s sick.” His right calf instinctively clenched just from imagining it. “I think it’s worth it. Might throw a spin on the usual betting.”

As planned, that statement got Wario’s attention. “Agreed. Luigi, if you wanna scope it out for a few nights, set your little heart at ease? Be my guest.”

“I’m gonna have to put my foot down on that one,” Daisy cut in. “We need to fix up our kart, and I need him halfway awake at some point to help out.”

“True,” Koopa laughed. “I don’t wanna imagine how pulling back-to-back all-nighters would fuck with your hand-eye coordination, man.”

Luigi grimaced. “Point taken.” The guy was practically half-asleep nonstop to begin with. At least Daisy was awake enough at all times to even them out, even as they raced; she drove with all the caution and grace of a jetpack-clad rhino, protected by her Heart Special Item while Luigi deftly sniped their opponents with his green Fireballs.

“We could scope it, Bow,” Toad offered, having finally put his phone away. “You up for it, B?”

Baby nodded. “You know it. Not like I got anything else to do nowadays.”

“What happened to working at Bowser’s garage?” Daisy wrinkled her nose. “That’s something you kind of need to be awake for, no?”

But Bowser had already taken care of that. “Shop’s officially closed all day tomorrow,” he answered. “Announced that we'd be taking a recovery day from the Special Cup, so, yeah, Baby B can sleep in all day if he wants.”

“Sure you’re gonna actually keep an eye on the place?” Koopa chuckled. “Last time I checked, scoping out and making out were not synonymous—”

“We can multitask,” the two chimed in unison.

Sure they could. Bowser pinched the bridge of his nose. “Just don’t get arrested, kids.”

Koopa shot him a look. “Like you’re one to talk. How many times were you tanked again? Be a dear and remind me?”

“Twice!” Daisy cut in, cackling.

“Twice, and both times they let me off after a few hours once Peach paid my bail. I just paid her back afterward.” Bowser ground his dead cigarette into an ashtray. He had gotten off goddamn light and it had still sucked.

“That always weirded me out,” Luigi murmured, his gaze shifty. “How come they’re all sweet on you?”

“Prolly FBR string-pulling,” Bowser lied. “And don’t think that you two will be as lucky as I’ve been.”

“Yeah, yeah." Baby rolled his eyes. "You don’t gotta remind us that the FBR has a line of drones ready to suck your—yay, food!”

They chowed down; several minutes passed in silence as Team Firebird refueled. It had been a day.

“Fuck,” Daisy eventually laughed. “We gotta get Dyllis to cater at the next garage race. What's the worst that could happ—?”

“You out of your mind?” Wario had dropped his silverware in horror.

Too bad Wario's logistics mode had no off-switch; it apparently could not register sarcasm. Daisy rolled her eyes. “Kidding. Kidding!"

"But, yeah, let Bow von Brr handle that shit.” Bowser ripped off a hunk of steak with his teeth, savoring the char.

Baby scowled. “How come she can get away with that but we can't? It’s like the freakin’ Mob between her and Ridley.”

“Her dad’s a baron,” Daisy reminded them. “The food trucks don't mind popping up at a shady-ass garage race when he starts flinging that much cash around.”

If this wasn't absolutely rich. Bowser pointedly dug around in his pocket and pulled out his credit card. “Stick it all on this,” he instructed the Shy Guy server, who quickly nodded and glided away.

Waluigi's jaw dropped. “Seriously? This is near sixty coins—”

“Sponsored by Uncle Saulus,” Bowser spat. “You’re welcome.”

“Is that what he told Lakitu to tell you?” Koopa asked, breaking radio silence for once.

“Yeah,” Bowser lied. “He was sorry he couldn’t be there ‘n take us all out.” Okay, so there was a chance that last part wasn’t an utter fabrication. You never knew with the guy. Grotesque motherfucker.

Koopa gave him an even stare. "Well, shit. I’ll send the old man a thank-you note. Where’s he live again?”

Mushroom Kingdom Palace, 1 Palace Place, Mushroom Bridge, Capital City of the Mushroom Kingdom— “He, uh, travels a lot. Think he’s on Delfino right now.” The only place with more volcanoes than his own neighborhood.

“Huh.” And there was that look in Daisy’s eyes again—that clouding over, whenever the man came up. Bowser had a sick pang in his gut that she’d actually met the monarch before, and had maybe just forgotten.

Had hopefully forgotten.

“Still, I owe ya. If you get to my place by nine tomorrow, I’ll make breakfast.” Koopa stretched as they all stood up, his haptic-implanted fingertips just reaching Bowser's eye level. “Paratroopa’ll make the call as soon as I text her that you’ve arrived.”

“Sounds good,” Bowser replied. “Hell, even if I hadn't already closed the garage for tomorrow, I'd do it anyways for this.”

Koopa wrinkled his nose. “Wish my boss had that same sentiment. I gotta head in at noon.”

It had begun to rain—oil and acid slicking up the already dark pavement, the puddles micro-environmental hazards in their own right. The sky had taken on a particularly unpleasant acid green tone overhead, but pretty typical June weather nonetheless. Daisy tugged her floral-printed mask over her mouth and nose.

“We’ll report in whether we see any action at Grodus or not,” Toad informed him as the others split off. "Otherwise, talk to you tomorrow."

“Okay. Be careful, you two.”

Baby squeezed his hand. “Get some rest, Bow. You look kinda drained.”

Did he?

The freeway was practically empty as Bowser made his way home to the Executive District. What once had been a coal field, and then a petrol drill site, had eventually run dry and remained only a scorched landscape dotted with the occasional volcanic maw. Dead oil rigs and glimmering red silhouettes broke up the otherwise gray-black-purple-green horizon.

Of fucking course someone in Bowser’s lineage had declared that area prime real estate. Of course some distant ancestor of Bowser’s had prized that lava field as something other than choking, hazardous, burning-hot terrain. That heat kept the King’s city palace impossibly warm even in the dead of winter. The moat was filled with honest-to-god lava because someone somewhere had wanted it that way. And that fucker’s blood ran in Bowser’s veins now.

Bowser constantly craved heat. More so than any of his friends, to his knowledge. More so than just about anyone he’d ever met. It was never warm enough. Not outside that lava moat.

He supposed, once the Blue Planet reached some kind of alliance with the Piranha Hegemony, that he could always jump on the first shuttle offworld. Go live on another, hotter planet. Or a star.

Weren’t all the Piranha colonies planets completely solar-powered? They had their shit together, he mused. While his own Blue Planet still ran on sky-cloaking petrol.

One of these days. God, he could totally live on a star. What a way to live and, eh, instantly die, he guessed. Blissfully hot. Impossibly hot. When was the last time he’d seen stars?

Three months, eleven days. He winced. Six hours.

Exec District exit. Down the long thoroughfare, onto the cul-de-sac ensconced by his uncle’s castle. Over that bubbling orange river. Into the underground garage, where he parked the truck between the Hummer and Rolls. Trudged past his Interceptor, and the souped-up old Trans Am, and headed upstairs. Up, past the massive, empty ballroom, past dusty salons and drafty, vacant offices. Up, up, then down the open-air colonnade overlooking the moat, and into his room.

There it was—its notifications light blinking at him from up on the loft, next to his bed. His untraceable burner phone. Bowser sighed, trudged up the narrow stairs and grabbed the thing.

Holy shit.

Three calls. Not one, not two, but three. All in the same goddamn night.

What happened?

No, no. Bowser knew what happened. Bowser knew exactly why he had to lie to his closest friends and go home alone to an abandoned, burnt-out palace every night. No parents, no kids. No family. Empty.

But, three calls. From the reigning monarch of the Mushroom Kingdom, His Majesty King Saulus Kerog Gïga-Bowser.

What’s happening now?


“…Princess?”

“I told you not to call me that.”

Her back was to Polari, hunched over a splay of crisp textbooks and holographic interfaces and one ancient leather-bound tome. She had braided her long hair back, likely to keep it from interfering with her work. Finicky shit, Deep Space Magic. Finicky and frustrating and volatile, oh yes.

Polari sighed. “Director, we’ve noted a spike in activity between your two favorite subjects.” She hated the word Director even more, he knew. “Just, ah, whenever you find a stopping point.”

And so he exited the chamber before she had a chance to respond; thus, he reasoned, she had all the more incentive to leave the damn place, if only for a few minutes. But each little one counted, oh yes indeed.

Standing within the Chamber’s ill-bound confines for any amount of time made his innards twist; the place thickened his blood, squeezed his vision, made the floor beneath his feet seem to spin and contort into treacherous waves. Polari hated to imagine what it did to the poor souls who all but lived there.

Well, the one poor soul.


Koopa’s house was probably Bowser’s second favorite place in the universe.

Maybe twice the size of his truck, the whole setup was wired and coded to the teeth. A webcam mounted in the door frame zeroed in on Bowser's face as he strode up to the apartment; seconds later the facial recognition software kicked in, and Koopa’s lime green front door swung open on powered hinges. “Thanks,” he told the camera automatically. A habit he’d maybe picked up from—

Three months, eleven days, eighteen hours. God, he was losing it.

“Hey, man. Grab some coffee.” Koopa’s voice sounded slightly muffled from inside his tiny bathroom. He had pulled down the projector screen separating his bed and dresser from the cluster of chairs that made up his living area. The one laptop plugged into the ceiling-mounted projector had a vidchat app pulled up.

Bowser grinned and helped himself to what smelled like a halfway decent dark roast. “Hair gel cooperating?”

“Fuck you. What’d your uncle want?”

Bowser nearly spat his coffee out on reflext. Instead he swallowed it hot, musing on the conversation from the night before.

“You okay, old man?”

“No worse than usual. Why don’t you ever pick up your damn phone, Rex?”

“I got a no-phone policy on race days.” Not a complete lie.

“Of course you do.” The monarch had sighed audibly over the line. He sounded dreadfully tired as usual.

“So, what’s going on? Need me to drive up?” Mushroom Bridge was a good five-hour journey from Mushroom City. Just outside of the smog cloud.

“I don’t need anything of you, strictly speaking,” Saulus had laughed. “I’d suggest, however, that you seek out a mutual colleague of mine and our pal Lakitu’s. He’ll be in town for just a few nights this weekend—may want to snag him when they hit the Tower later. Just a recommendation.”

The fucking Tower. “Wait, so what’s this guy’s name? Why’m I supposed to seek him out?”

Another melancholy sigh. It had almost been cute. “Can’t say over this line. But you'll know him when you see him. He’s a tremendous karting enthusiast, Rex. Look at it that way. You’re, what, twenty-four now? Time to start making use of that reputation of yours. He’s a Firebird fan, so play up on that. You want the guy in your corner, kid. All I can say on this channel.”

What was the goddamn point of buying your nephew an untraceable burner phone if you still couldn’t hand over any workable intel with the thing? Fucking hell.

Fine, old man. I’ll hit up the Tower later.” Fucking FBR wasp nest, that thing. The tallest building in the country, topped with a restaurant that had the nerve to charge 50 coins an entrée and remain profitable. “Anything else you wanna task me with?”

“Take care of yourself, Rex. You’re all I’ve got.” And the line went dead.

Bowser had then hurled the phone against the far stone wall. Being a goddamn Noki-a, it hadn’t even gone into sleep mode, its screen still glowing at him from twenty feet away and another ten below.

The King knew all too well why Rex was the only goddamn family member he had left—

“Bow?” Koopa stepped out of the bathroom, his hair spiked noticeably higher than it had been yesterday.

“Uh, wanted me to find a guy. Some FBR suit. I’m supposed to head to the Tower later.”

Koopa shot him a double take while sending a text message. “The Tower? Holy shit, man. You got a nice enough outfit? They’d totally boot you otherwise—”

“Dunno,” Bowser lied. “I’ll make do.”

Koopa laughed through his nose and poured himself a cup of coffee before waking his laptop up. “Moment of truth,” he murmured. “Fingers crossed.”

“Fingers, toes, eyeballs—”

“Koopa!” The video messaging screen popped to life as a young woman’s face on the other end came into view. No wonder Koopa had paid so much attention to his own physical appearance, Bowser realized, suddenly feeling self-conscious in his tank top and shredded jeans. Not embarrassed, no, but conscious. Aware.

The young lady onscreen had a strong jawline and artfully bleached hair. She immediately broke into a dazzling smile. “Guess who’s headed to the city?!”

Bowser found himself beaming and high-fiving his friend. He’d fucking give Paratroopa a hug if she were physically present. “Congrats, lady!”

“Thanks, uh, Bowser! Jeez, you look so different sitting still.” Paratroopa crossed her arms. “Since someone wouldn’t send me a single photo. Had to go through the FBR website like a peasant—”

“I keep all my pics of Bow to myself,” Koopa laughed, winking. “Nah, we’re both pumped that you can make it. So what’s the verdict on racing?”

And Paratroopa’s face fell just enough to where Bowser immediately began plotting the logistics for kidnapping. Hey, it wasn’t technically a crime when the kidnappee was on board, no?

“That’s the thing,” she muttered through a strained expression. “My, uh, my parents? They’re putting a stipulation on me that I wanted to discuss with you two before I jumped in. It’s a lot to ask, so—”

“Easy,” Bowser assured her, not abandoning all hope just yet. “What’s the situation?”

She glanced over her shoulder to where two middle-aged people stood in the background, hands clasped. “They, uh. Since this is my first time out of town, they’re, I guess, kinda worried about me just pairing up with some total stranger."

That meanshe'd begun shaking slightly at that last sentence. His body knew what was happening even if his brain had not figured it out yet.

Paratroopa winced. "They won’t let me race unless I’m on a kart with Koopa.”

Shit

Bowser’s flagship kart, split up—hell, he and Koopa had always raced together, since his freshman year when Koopa had had to apply while still in middle school, and had still made it to varsity, and royally pissed every upperclassman off, particularly Boo—their All-Cup run, no more—he’d need to find a new partner himself, with zero time—

“And I really don’t want to split up your kart,” Paratroopa continued, grinding her teeth. “You guys are so amazing together, but they’re just really firm on this one rule—”

It did make sense, was the thing. Village parents, paranoid from birth. Mushroom City was terrifying and cruel even to the people born and raised in its hold—and, to outsiders? Jesus. Bowser took a deep breath.

“You deserve to race with us,” he intoned evenly, looking directly at their webcam, feeling his face twitching against his will. “If Koopa’s down with it, then I got no problem.” He took another breath. “I got enough clout in the FBR to find a decent partner in time for the All-Cup.” Didn’t he?

“Bow, you serious?” Koopa hissed, his eyes wild. “She’s right—it’s a lot to ask—”

“Just a sec,” he told the camera before huddling away with Koopa. “Look. I know how much you both want her to be able to race. This is the perfect time in her career—just starting university, and in a team that’s performing pretty well. At the very least, she’d have an All-Cup sweepstakes record at the age of, what, nineteen? Koopa, I can’t deny someone that. But if you’re not up for it, then you gotta tell her.”

It was the inevitable truth that came with running a team, he had long ago swallowed. People come and go, they join, they leave, they get confused or lost or hurt, or they die—life could throw its worst at the best of people—and you had to be able to keep walking and keep doing your best, and to keep helping your team do its best—no matter

“I am, though,” Koopa murmured, kneading his forehead. “I just—the garage race? You’re out. No way in hell you’ll find a partner in time.”

Not in this hell. “Fuck the garage race. We got three weeks ‘til the All-Cup. I can find someone, Koopa. Don’t worry about me.”

Koopa nodded, inhaling slowly. “Okay. Okay.” They turned back to the webcam, where Paratroopa appeared to be dying of suspense. “We’re cool with it, Para. You still have your kart, right?”

“Yeah!” She jumped in the air and hugged her parents. “Yeah, I do! I can hitch it to my Vespa, easy. And I should be in the city tomorrow night—oh, just, thanks so much, you two! I won’t let you down!”

Bowser grinned, hating how good he felt about all this. “Looking forward to it. We’ll help you get situated here, no problem.”

“We got a teammate who’s a junior at MCU, by the way,” Koopa added. “You two should hang out, and she can show you the ropes with the school and everything. She’s from Sarasaland, too!”

“You don’t say,” Paratroopa’s mother finally spoke. “Which province?”

“Sherbet Land,” Bowser answered. “Her parents are Duke Adam and Duchess Bell, actually—”

“Gracious, I had no idea their girl was in school,” she breathed, her eyes round. “And she races?”

“She’s a prodigy,” Koopa replied, finally breaking into a legitimate grin once more. “Been with us for almost two years, now.”

And she's raced for way longer than that. “But the more, the merrier,” Bowser added. “It’s an honor for Paratroopa to join Firebird. I can’t thank you enough for giving her permission to join.”

“You’re the one we should be thanking,” Paratroopa cut in. “But, seriously. We’re gonna slay at the All-Cup. I mean it.”

“I believe it!” Koopa squeezed Bowser’s shoulder. “Well, we’ll let you get to packing. You still have that list of health stuff I sent you, right?”

“Yeah! The eye drops and mask and, uh, yeah. Pretty sure I got everything. I’m so pumped, y’all.” She blew Koopa a kiss. “Thanks again and see you tomorrow!”

“See ya, darling.” And the call clicked off.

Silence, thick as the smog outside.

Eventually Koopa collapsed back into his chair. “The hell, man.”

Bowser feigned a smile. “I’m gonna be fine. Swear it.” The sick thing was that he did sort of have a plan. The other sick thing was that his goddamn uncle had potentially already fixed this for him. Just like—

“Yeah? Bro, the FBR closes on weekends. You gotta head in this afternoon if you wanna stand a chance at getting someone within two weeks, and then that’s only a week for y’all to train together—”

“I know it. But I got an idea.” Bowser drained his coffee. “B'sides, didn’t you promise me breakfast?”

Koopa sighed as though in defeat. “Fine. And then I’m kicking your ass in Brawl afterwards.”

“Deal.”

The next few hours passed in a nearly dreamlike state. With his brain shut off, his past ignored, and his future temporarily blocked out—In the safety of Koopa's tiny apartment, Bowser almost felt like he might be okay, no matter what may come.


But for the life of him, Bowser could not bring himself to darken the doorway of the drafty FBR front office with his tail between his legs. Instead he headed into midtown, toward his shop.

And found it up and running. “What the fuck, Baby.”

“I couldn’t go to sleep! That place was so cold, Bow. And spooky. You remember Banshee Boardwalk, right? Like, fuck that entire place? But it was worse, because we were just sitting there, you know, not in our karts, no weapons, and we thought everything that moved was a fucking Shy Guy, or a Fly Guy, or worse—”

“Okay, you two are not doing stakeout again anytime soon.” Bowser kneaded his forehead as he checked on the projects Baby had started without his knowledge. Crazy fucking kid. “You are so lucky I keep you around.”

“Whatever! You know you love me!”  Baby full-body shuddered before putting his soldering iron down. “But, yeah, so after we tried sleeping, no go, so we came here at ten and opened up. That lady just wants an oil change and Old Man Monty wants his tires rotated later, and I’m troubleshooting this other guy’s electrical system. Been pretty quiet.”

Baby was absolutely out of whack, then, to start with the wiring work when oil changes took maybe ten minutes, tops. Bowser immediately lifted the hood of the poor lady’s silver hatchback. “No shit. I announced on the web we’d be closed today.”

“And I put up a status update saying we were open once I got in!” Baby punched him lightly a few times in the ribs. “I got your back, Bow. Besides, Birdo made us the most frickin’ brutal coffee—”

“Birdo is not here right now,” Bowser moaned, immediately cuing Catherine fucking Birdo in the flesh to poke her head out from the second-floor loft where the customer waiting area and mini bar were located.

“Birdo merely had quick question for Toad,” the lady in question snapped as she expertly slid down the banister. “And then I sent the poor kid home. You think Junieo here looks crazy? Blondie was at least twice as bad.” She handed him a cup of coffee matching her own. “Yoshi bids his greetings. I can’t get him to wake up before two anymore to save my life.”

Sounded about right. Yoshi was a night-owl on paper, even with the city under 24/7 darkness. Between races he would DJ gigs at nightclubs and pop-up parties in the warehouse district. His acid-green Sony headphones glowed in the dark, a fitful crown for the king of the night.

Not to be outdone, Birdo’s neon pink undercut and eight-inch heels always put her in center stage wherever she stood. Her raceday outfits often merited their own media buzz, as though her driving prowess weren't devastating enough.

“Holy shit, what’s in this coffee?” Bowser sucked it down in spite of himself. Knowing Birdo, probably something illegal, or at least a controlled subst—

“Present from Petey. Wasn’t feeling too hot after last night’s race or he would’ve tried to hang out after.”

Oof. Bowser swallowed the coffee down. The fact that Petey could walk ten steps anywhere under the smog clouds of Mushroom City without the acid eating away at his chloroplastic skin and delicately-filtered eyeballs, much less race half so well—God. Bowser wanted to—to goddamn interview the guy, at a minimum. But Boo always kept an even closer eye on him than he did his girlfriend.

Bowser felt his face flushing. A side effect of the coffee, or...? “I’d rather he watch his health,” he admitted. “Fucking masochist.”

“You got that right,” Birdo murmured over her coffee. “I keep telling the sweetheart to take a vacation. Get some actual sunlight. Having to cover up all the time, it does stuff to you.” She took another sip. “S’ why I went ahead with the top surgery.”

“I believe it.” Bowser drained his cup. Amazing stuff. “So, what’d you want with Toad?”

She wriggled her bright pink eyebrows. “Scout business. Highly confidential. I don’t feel like killing you today.”

“Yeah, yeah. Lemme guess, you wanna wait til the All-Cup for that.” Yoshi and Birdo were legitimately terrifying on a racetrack. They occasionally beat Boo and Petey for him.

“What, you too scared to show up to, uhI hear it’s gonna be at Grodus, now?”

“Not gonna have a partner,” he admitted before catching himself too late. Fuck—

What,” Birdo hissed, nearly dropping her cup. “The fuck happened to Koopa? I literally just saw his scrawny ass last night, how—?”

Ugh. But at this rate, he may as well come clean. “He’s fine. But his girlfriend made it into the engineering program at the school here, so she’s moving in tomorrow. Qualified for the All-Cup as an indie—yeah, no kidding—so she’s joining our team. The catch was, she had to be paired with Koopa. So, uh.”

“Holy shit, Bowser.”

“Yeah.” He tried to ignore Baby's horrified expression. Tried so hard.

“Holy shit. I can’t believe you just called Petey a masochist. I can’t—”

Bowser glared daggers at her. “And you’re not gonna tell him, or Ridley. Not til I get my shit figured out.”

“Or what?” Birdo grinned. “You forget we’re on different teams, yeah? Anyways, I don't take orders from dumbasses.”

“Whatever.” If this weren't just the absolute best. "See 'f I care." 

Birdo was practically skipping around his shop in those stilettos. “Amazing. Amazing! You had your whole life ahead of you, you know? And you just screw yourself over for the All-Cup! Amazing, his highness Rex Bowser—”

“Shut up.” To think he could’ve just gone home after the vid call, could’ve just gone back to bed, but no....

“How come I never thought about that before?” Baby asked, looking up from his soldering. “Perfect nickname. His highness. I’m keeping that.”

“Fuck off, Baby—”

“Don’t tell your one employee to not do his job, dude,” Birdo cackled as she tossed the two empty mugs into an oil-stained sink. “Furthermore, shouldn’t you be the one fucking off? And over to, oh, you know, the fucking FBR to get a fucking partner?”

Bowser rolled his eyes. “I’m meeting with Lakitu tonight. I’m covered. It’s fine.” Or so he told himself.

"Lakitu, huh." Birdo squinted at him, folding her arms. “He's been shaking hands left ‘n right at an engineering convention all day. Anyone else think that’s a little off?”

Baby squinted at her. “I thought you said your Scouting shit was top-secret.”

“This one’s on the house. No, really, did you already set up a meeting with him? Or were you gonna pounce his ass at a fancy garden club somewhere?” She threw Bowser a grin. “Some of us are better at that than others. Just saying.”

Like he fucking needed Birdo to tell him that. Holy terror in her own right. “Have some faith. I don’t plan on losing. Not at anything.”

Birdo gave him a steady look before heading out of the shop. “I guess you could always pull the dead parents card. Good luck!”

Baby gaped at Bowser once she turned the corner. “Did I hear that right?”

Bowser shook it off. “It's just Birdo. You know she likes to fuck with people. Don’t take it to heart.”

“Says you.” Baby gave an exasperated sigh and returned to soldering.

Trust Birdo to drop a line like that in front of two orphans. Oh, she had him pegged, all right.

Bowser pinched the bridge of his nose. How many hours til closing?

Three months, eleven days, twenty hours—

Ugh. He had shit to do.

Twelve last-minute jobs later and Bowser finally closed up shop at eight. He snuck a few extra coins into Baby’s paycheck and firmly instructed the kid to get some goddamn sleep.

“Only ‘cause you asked so nicely,” Baby chortled before ducking into his ancient Charger. Vivid orange, just like the kid’s hair. Just like Bowser’s.

Anyways. Off to bed with the child. Bowser had places to go. People to see.

At the fucking Tower, no less.

Chapter Text


Mushroom City at nine in the evening looked the same way it did at nine in the morning. The sky's single gradation away from pitch darkness occurred precisely at noon each day, when the smog overhead briefly bloomed into a murky gray. Outside that moment, only acid rain or oily hail broke up the matte black dome over the city.

Acid rain, oily hail, and the Tower. The city’s most massive structure dominated the downtown skyline, extending as far up toward the smog clouds as it delved below the city streets. Its top floor, a five-star restaurant and event venue, made for a notorious FBR exec hangout.

Even the Shy Guys here wore expensive waistcoats. “Table for one, sir?”

God, this was weird. Bowser felt under his spiked strap to rub his neck. It had begun aching sometime that afternoon. “Is there smoking at the bar?”

“Indeed, sir. Enjoy your evening.”

Swell. “Thanks. Take it easy.”

Up he'd trudged, in a dark suit he’d had to dig around in the back of his closet to find. Stuff maybe Kamek had picked out for him, years ago, for one of those too-frequent shindigs of his uncle’s. At least this time he’d gotten more than five minutes’ notice, so to speak.

The thing about the international racing leagues was that none of the fans, or even racers, actually cared about the suits. Lakitu was only well-known due to the sheer amount of screen time the guy got, announcing every race, every score, every update. Every other executive and manager just disappeared into the background, likely relishing the lack of scrutiny by the public.

So every goddamn Armani-wearing jackass in the place could have been his target, Bowser thought irately as he lit a cigarette. Short, tall, younger, older, Shruman, Beanish, Pianta or Noki—or the occasional Luma, their telltale black eyes sparkling from light sources invisible to him. Anybody—

“Why, Bowser! Such a pleasant surprise!”

Seriously?  He wouldn’t even need to work for his dinner? It was almost funny. Bowser steeled himself and turned around to greet Lakitu.

“Hey, uh. How’s it going?”

The commissioner shrugged and cast his gaze out over the city. “Been quite a day. Though I must say, you never struck me as Tower crowd material. Meeting someone?” His round face widened into a smile. “I’m not interrupting a date, am I? Oh ho ho!”

Bowser shook his head, feigning a soft laugh. “Just unwinding. It’s, uh. A nice place.”

Lakitu raised one eyebrow. “Well, I’d be honored if you’d join the doctor and myself for a quick bite! We were just discussing you, if you’d believe it.”

The doctor. Well, now. “I hope not. Who’s your friend?”

But he may as well not have asked.

“Say,” a thin voice called from the corner of his eye, “that isn’t Rex Bowser, is it? Mercy.”

The speaker was a shockingly tall, pale man with straw-like hair cut close to his skull. He wore a black pinstriped suit that struck Bowser as irritatingly Tim-Burton-y. The crazed eyes and too-wide smile did little to help.

“Yeah, you got me,” he replied, offering his hand.

“Doctor Dry Bones, at your service,” skeleton man replied, shaking fervently. His hand was nastily cool. The other clutched a thin black leather folder to his side. “Why don’t we all sit down? Feel as though I’ve been on my feet for years, I tell you, these massive convention halls…”

They picked a table adjacent to one of the high windows. Beneath them, the city spread out to the edge of the horizon, where the countless pinpricks of light dissolved into a faint glow and then to inky gray. Another Shy Guy waiter appeared and took their orders—spring rolls and some type of champagne Bowser could not pronounce for Lakitu, and a bone-in fish for the doctor. Bowser cheerfully ordered his second steak of the weekend.

“Shame you just missed Elvin,” Lakitu murmured, glancing about. “Can you imagine, the four of us sitting together at one table? Someone here would have a heart attack.” He grimaced. “Probably Bleck over there, if I had to place a bet. You know how PR people get.”

“The maître d’ would suspect it a ploy to get free bottle service,” Dry Bones laughed, in unsettling, hollow barks. “No, no. Three’s a crowd. Now, Bowser, what are your thoughts on the impending summer All-Cup?”

“Eh.” Literally, had he been asked that question twenty-four hours ago, he’d have begun babbling like an idiot. “We’ll see how it goes.”

“Oh, come on,” Lakitu drawled. “What’s that term I keep hearing you kids throw around? Hyped? This young man is practically a shoo-in for the top three, Doctor. One of the highest-performing karts since his own parents—”

“Not exactly,” Bowser cut in. This was going awfully smoothly for his tastes, but he nonetheless had a task to complete. “Had to split up our flagship kart, as of this morning.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Lakitu breathed, having jumped a foot in the air. “But what of young Koopa Troopa? He seemed perfectly healthy last night—”

“He’s fine,” Bowser quickly answered. “But his girlfriend qualified for the All-Cup, and he’s gonna partner with her on her kart. They’ll still be on Firebird.”

Dry Bones’ jaw had dropped, yet his cold eyes were glittering. “You honestly intend to train with an FBR sub only three weeks before a tourney? For the All-Cup, no less?”

Prick just had to rub it in. Bowser steeled himself. “I don’t really have another option, do I?” He puffed on the cigarette. “Doesn’t matter who I race with. I’m good enough for the both of us. That cup’s mine.”

“There’s the young Bowser I remember,” Lakitu cackled. “Well, I wish you’d dropped by the main office earlier today! Unfortunately we’re officially closed for the weekend, but…” He winked. “Given the sheer level of emergency in this situation…”

“Now, now,” Dry Bones cut in as their food arrived. Lightning-fast, this crazy place. “We needn’t resort to creative interpretations of FBR protocol just yet, my friend. Goodness, this is a magnificent fish.”

Bowser jammed his dead cigarette onto an ashtray, trying to keep calm. To caution Lakitu, of all people, on abusing FBR clout—just—who even was this guy? His uncle had mentioned crazy racing connections, but even further up than Lakitu...?

“Yeh?” He could barely taste the steak in his mouth. Fuck it. He gulped it down. “You got other ideas?”

“If I knew fewer racer pairing methods than Lakitu here,” Dry Bones laughed, "I’d hardly be a capable Director of the whole organization."

Bowser nearly dropped his steak knife. Director? 

As in—the top of the food chain, the head of the entire Bureau, appointed by the king himself?

“Gotta agree with you there,” he muttered good-naturedly. The fucking director. Fucking hell—

“I suppose you’re referring to the training facility out in the desert,” Lakitu murmured. “You have someone in those labs who could match Bowser well enough?”

What the fuck, Lakky, Bowser growled inwardly. We both know it’s not about matching. Complementing, maybe. But—labs…?

“Oh, we have a great range of racers working very hard as we speak,” Dry Bones replied, picking his fish clean with a tiny silver fork. “From featherweights to heavyweights, all with unique Special Items and top-of-the-line training regimens. They’re at peak health, and hit the tracks daily.” He grinned at Bowser. “You couldn’t ask for a finer partner. No, I’m more than happy to book this pairing. Just say the word, kid." Incredible, how that smile seemed to take over his whole face. "I'll not bother asking how much getting to race would mean to you.”

Holy shit. Bowser carefully set his silverware down, lest he inadvertently fling the utensils across the room while freaking the fuck out. “Seems, uh, a lot to ask. I hate to burden you—”

“Oh, please! But, tell you what, young man.” Dry Bones fished around in his pocket and pulled out a leather card holder. “Give me a call anytime this weekend—tonight, even, if you're free later—and we can discuss your matchup. Find you the perfect partner for getting you as far as possible in the All-Cup. That sound like a deal?”

Sounded like something. Bowser gingerly took the card. Dry Bones, Ph.D. Director, Federal Bureau of Racing. A doctorate in what, exactly?

No fucking wonder his uncle had tipped him off about the guy. The fucking director—hell, if he’d had the position for under three years, then likely Saulus himself had—

Shit.

Bowser’s mood came crashing right down as he remembered where he stood. Who he was. How he’d gotten here.

Why couldn’t you say this guy’s name over the phone?

Even if it wasn’t utterly common knowledge, Dry Bones’ connection to the king would have have been a thing. Nobody appoints the director of their country's single biggest cash cow out of nowhere. Right?

Who are you hiding him from?

The fucking director of the FBR couldn’t possibly have anyone else to fear. It was the central organization in the single largest industry of the Blue Planet’s richest country. The guy effectively sat in the center of the known universe.

Did he not? Bowser felt his bones go cold. Three months—twelve days—five hours—

“—quite a hassle, let me tell you. As though the Council hasn’t already scrutinized us with far more stringent standards than any other field! And there’s not an inch of the facility Jiji hasn’t inspected—”

“Ah,” Lakitu cut in, “but it’s not just that facility where the bulk of your funding is sent, is it? Ohoho.”

“Now, now,” Dry Bones waved one hand about as he threw his napkin over his clean plate. “We’re spick-and-span, cross my heart. The Council's panties are in a wad over nothing, and they know it.”

Bowser blinked, dazed. “The funding the FBR just got from the crown?” It was the favorite subject of practically every national news network’s talking heads, and had been for the past month. Even in his staunch refusal to watch shitty TV news, Bowser had been unable to avoid the speculation and taunting thrown toward the Bureau’s R&D department.

“Oh, not you, too,” Dry Bones tittered. “My statement remains the same: we cover a ton of ground, kid. It’s not just entertainment. The medical advances our bio-eng labs have produced? The improvements to vehicle and road design, the increased safety? Massive benefits, and for a broad swath of society! And the sheer number of education and nonprofit organizations we sponsor? Clearly worth however many coins went into their production—”

Lakitu winked at him as Dry Bones continued to preach on. What a fucking night.

“…but as I said, I’d be more than happy to arrange for a higher-qualifying racer than the typical front office lineup,” Dry Bones eventually laughed. “At no charge, of course. It’s not as though we’re running a sentient trafficking op. By any means.” His eyes flashed.

“Awfully generous of you, Doctor,” Lakitu murmured, stretching his back. “Though I daresay that Bowser’s one of the top performers in the country. Couldn’t think of a more worthy candidate.”

“Appreciate it, Lakky.” He reached for the bill, but Dry Bones snapped it smartly away first.

“I don’t think so, young man. Getting to meet you was entirely my pleasure.”

“Uh, thanks.” Jesus, this was getting weird. But while he was at it, “You two want a ride anywhere? Since I’m heading out to Exec anyways.”

Sure enough, Dry Bones had taken a goddamn cab from the trackside FBR offices to the Tower. “And you didn’t die?” Lakitu whistled.

“Not to my knowledge,” Dry Bones laughed. “I will say that it’s incredible, the types who can pass driving exams these days. No sense of self-preservation.”

“Everyone here’s pretty road-ragey, yeah,” Bowser murmured, lighting a cigarette as the two men clambered into his Escalade. He’d had a decent enough amount of foresight to bring that vehicle instead of his usual pickup. For starters, it was far cleaner, and smelled halfway alright. “I prefer the cabbies to the Wiggler bus drivers, though.”

“Amen to that,” Dry Bones sighed. “It’s the emissions, I tell you. People who don’t filter their AC units are bound to go mad soon enough. Breathing in them too much can have profound physiological effects even on the perfectly healthy.”

“I noticed some driving with their windows rolled down,” Lakitu whispered conspiratorially. “Madness! It’s as though they crave being poisoned.”

“You can say that again,” Bowser grumbled, wholly planning on driving with his windows down the second these pricks were gone. What I get for being nice.

“But thank you for the ride, young man,” Lakitu chimed once they pulled up in front of the track offices. “And again, don’t hesitate to call me should you decide to go with an, eh—a less experimental route, shall we say? Ta-ta.”

Dry Bones rolled his eyes before leaning closer to Bowser across both armrests. “But I do mean what I said, kid. I keep a close eye on all our racers, and you are one of the most outstanding I’ve witnessed to date. Just the right push, and you could easily see a career that outshines even that of your poor parents, bless them. But you hear me?”

Bowser swallowed, his pulse skyrocketing, right as Dry Bones lifted one bony hand to his shoulder. God damn it— “Uh, loud and clear.”

“Excellent. I’d say, simply go over your options. Think about what it is you want out of this industry. You’ve benefited it greatly, I need not remind you—Team Firebird has fans lining out the door, ticket money in hand. Isn’t it about time you let us repay you?” One ice-cold thumb traced the edge of his spiked strap, just over his jugular. “The best possible way we can?”

God, his mouth was drying out. “Uh—yeah. I hear you. Talk to you soon.”

“Of course. Have a wonderful evening, highness.” And he was gone, the Escalade door slammed shut, striding rapidly to where Lakitu held open the office’s front door.

God, what a creep. And enthusiasm aside, the guy somehow struck Bowser as—what, familiar? Uncanny. Like they’d hated each other in another life. Jarringly familiar, yeah.

And his neck still goddamn ached.


“…Bowser?!”

“Hey.”

“Are you alright?”

“I’m not in jail.” He wondered how many years would pass before they could start a phone conversation any other way. “You got a sec?”

Peach inhaled slowly. “A few. Is this about the Special Cup?”

“Nah. Uh…All-Cup, kinda. I guess.”

“Pray tell.” He could picture her in front of a pink laptop, drafting up recipe ideas or crunching numbers for the phenomenal bakery she and that fucker Mario ran, or maybe tightening the gears for the Red Fire kart they raced on, or maybe chatting on a secure channel with her—her sister.

Three months—twelve— “Just, my kart is splitting up. Koopa’s—”

“Is Koopa okay?!”

“Koopa is fine.” He now wondered how many times he’d have to repeat that exact exchange with the rest of the planet. “But he’ll be racing on a different kart for the All-Cup. I need a new partner.”

“Why are you calling, Bowser,” Peach suddenly groaned, as though having already guessed the worst possible case scenario.

Bowser winced and quickly backed the fuck up. “No, no, I swear, I’m not asking you to do anything, exactly. Just want advice, really. If you’re free.”

Her sigh in relief was awfully loud. He supposed she had a right to it, though. “Yeah? What’s going on?”

“I got two options, basically,” he began, rolling his window down as he hit the freeway. “I do the typical route where I put in a request for a sub, and all the amateur racers submit their stats and a bunch of computers try to pair me up with whoever makes the most sense.”

“Yeah, the usual,” Peach murmured. “And…the other option?”

“So, I kinda met with the FBR Director this evening,” he continued.

“Of course you did.” God, she sounded tired.

“Just, I happened to run into him, that’s all—”

“Of course that’s what happened.”

“Pauline.”

“Rex. You and I both know it’s never that simple.” She laughed through her nose. “Okay, fine, so you coincidentally ran into the head honcho during a crisis. What’d he say?”

“…do you know who he is?”

“Dry Bones...” Just the tone in her voice then conveyed altogether too much. “I’ve run into him a few times, yeah. He offered us a few opportunities. Offered Mario sponsorship, once. And I think R—”

“Mario? Seriously?” What a thought, Dry Bones communicating in real life with motherfucking Mario. “Did y’all take his offer? …Offers?”

“We decided not to,” Peach replied, her voice steady. “It just…it all sounded too good to be true, you know? And it wasn’t like we needed more cash. The bakery’s done a lot more than pay for Mario's med school.”

Bowser didn’t need cash, either. Not really. Not while he was still on his uncle’s payroll. Sure, the garage made money, just not quite enough to sponsor two weeks of hotel rooms and meals for a team of—well, now, it’d be up to ten. Fuck.

Maybe this was his one chance, though. Switching from his uncle’s payroll to Dry Bones’? He’d had worse ideas. Especially when the king had goddamn put his seal of approval on the thing.

…but what if that had been the plan all along?

“I didn’t even tell him about Koopa switching,” Bowser realized aloud.

“Bow?”

“Uh. Yeah, I guess I’ll think it over. Sorry to bother you.”

“You’re not bothering anybody. I’m just keeping an eye on the timer. Nobody likes burnt pastry dough.” She laughed. “Except you. Crazy-ass.”

“Thanks, Peach. Night.”

“Say hey to Daisy for me. Night.”

Silence, then cursing, as he nearly missed the Exec exit and had to swerve across three lanes to make it in time. A blue sedan honked good-naturedly at him before passing him up. I know, I know.

That was the goddamn thing, though. Saulus wanted me to meet him. Wanted me to get close to him.

And there was no way in hell the king would have known Koopa would split. So, why?

Well, duh. Dry Bones was the goddamn FBR Director. And, more clearly, a fan. A good connection, no matter who Bowser was, or what had happened.

But Saulus literally could have written up a formal email requesting to introduce the two of them and it wouldn’t have been goddamn illegal or even all that out of place. Why the secrecy?

Which in turn raised further, even stranger questions. Who’s the burner phone protecting you from? …protecting me from?

What a joke. Bowser knew for a fact that protecting his family was the single last item on his uncle’s agenda.

He finally pulled into his garage, yanking off his coat and tie as he headed upstairs. The lava looked downright cheerful this evening. He leaned over the third-floor railing, trying not to breathe too deeply in the hazardous outdoor air. But something about all this made him want to sit outside tonight.

First he checked his main phone. Two texts from Koopa, detailing the move-in schedule for tomorrow. One from Daisy, a photo of the newly-redone Bloom Coach. Looks good. One from Waluigi, who had inexplicably elected to scout the Grodus garage for a second night. Whatever floats your boat, brother.

Then his burner. Just one message, from his uncle.

Any luck?

“You could say that,” Bowser breathed, fishing a fresh pack from his pants pocket.

See, Bowser mused as he smoked, he could totally, absolutely do the legit thing. Wait the weekend out, sit out of the garage race, go in on Monday and let the machines go at it. Meet some newbie. Work them harder than they’d have ever worked in their short life. But if they were applying to be his partner, then they’d find nothing to complain about. Right?

Scarier option: pick up the phone. Give Skeletor a call. Jump onto perhaps the most insane deal of his life. Maybe, just maybe, break free from his uncle’s bloody grip.

He could practically see Mario and Peach standing in front of him, side-eyeing each other as Doctor Dry Bones made his spiel.  It wasn’t like we needed more cash.

Well, no, it wasn’t the cash Bowser wanted. It was—oh, what was that word—

Freedom?

After all, his parents had stayed legit. Their whole career—no fixing, no cheating, no special treatment from the FBR Director—and, well.

Bowser groaned, pulling out his phone. Hell take me.

Half a ring. “You got Dry Bones.”

“Uh, hey. It’s Bowser.”

A soft laugh. “Oh, I’d recognize those dulcet tones anywhere. Now, are you calling for what I believe you’re calling about, young man?”

Bowser took a deep breath. Exhaled. Nodded. “Been thinking about it. Some—some more info would be good, mainly. I’d like to know—" Whose money went into those labs?— "What kind of racers are training in your program right now?”

“Well, you’re in for the night of your life! Hold on just a moment, while I pop us onto a secure connection—” Bowser felt his ears pop as a Blue Magic sound barrier sizzled across the line. Yeow. “Now, let's get to it. Given your skills and your legacy, Bowser, I can assure you we’ll settle for nothing less than an absolute perfect match. Unless, like you said, you're asking merely for information at this time?” Eerie silence followed as Bowser's heart pounded. "Or do you indeed want to race in this All-Cup?"

"I want to race," Bowser fired back. "I need to." Like he needed oxygen. How to convey to a stranger just how much you want not to suffocate? "More than air." He hated just how his voice shook then. Maybe I am a junkie. Fuck all.

"That's what I like to hear," Dry Bones hummed. "Pulling up our dossier list now." 

Damn. This was really, actually happening. He felt a jolt run down his spine. Maybe two.

“Here we are. Say, what would would be racing traits you’d prefer in a system that you know to work? Just so you wouldn’t need to acclimate to a completely different flow?”

Huh. Bowser thought of Koopa, then, and felt a pang of—what, sadness? Grief?

“Koopa was a lightweight,” he thought aloud, tipping ash off of his cigarette and into the lava moat some fifty feet below. “We—my kart was a heavyweight, since I’m—and, uh. Yeah. Didn’t want it dragging too bad in the rough." He huffed. "Petey ‘n Ridley got that problem, on Team Banshee.”

“Oh, I know all about Team Banshee,” Dry Bones laughed. Something in those gales sounded way off, Bowser thought with a start. Something… “No, let’s just focus on you for now. A lightweight, you said? We do have several hard-working lightweight racers chomping at the bit for some action! Lightweights, yes, and even featherweights. Oh, I can't wait to break the news!”

Huh. That almost made Bowser feel better—here he was, this knight in shining armor, finally giving some cooped-up honor student the chance to achieve their lifelong dream. Fucking hell.

“Yeah, uh, that’d be great. Koopa had a triple-Shell Special Item, but I dunno if you got anybody with similar—”

“Goodness, that’s a heavily offensive setup you two had,” Dry Bones laughed. “No wonder we never got to see you on the Thrower bar.”

“Eh, I threw every now and then,” Bowser replied, feeling more than a little defensive. “Just, uh, whenever we hit a Double Box and I’d get the Big Spiny, then we’d switch spots. Clear a path to first.”

“Oh, but that’s such a rarity! Wouldn’t you like to exercise those Throwing muscles a little more?” Dry Bones was practically humming. “Especially as some of our lighter subjects have incredible speed-boosting Items. I myself am awfully eager to see that massive Spiny more often.”

There was a thought. Finally getting to let someone else handle the majority of the steering—getting to knock the other fuckers around with his big shell more than once per Cup—god, that would be good—

“You know what? Yeah, maybe that does sound better.” Why stick to his old scheme now that he had the opportunity to get even better? Anyone who’d been handpicked for an FBR racing regimen couldn’t be that awful at driving, surely. Hopefully.

“Oh, wonderful, just the answer I was hoping for!” A clicking sound—long fingers on a keyboard—“Yes, yes, perfect. With a Super Mushroom to boot. Yes, marvelous.”

Super Mushroom? “Uh, yeah, you think anybody you got might be interested…?”

“Oh, my dear boy, we’re way ahead of you! Booking the flight now. There’s, let’s see, a seven a.m. to Mushroom City that should arrive at noon, Central Kingdom time—”

Holy shit. Dry Bones was already booking the goddamn flight. “Uh, you said noon? Cool, I could pick them up from the airport, no prob—” He stopped cold. “Will they have a place to live?!”

“Oh, we could always set the poor dear up in public housing, Bowser, not to fret—”

Kingdom-sponsored apartments? Jesus. “What if they crashed with me?” he asked, feeling his heart pounding in his chest. Some crazy impulsive thing inside of him had woken up, hungry. “I got a ton of extra rooms—you know the old Kerog castle, right? The Kerog city castle?” There had to be a ton of public knowledge, at least, to anyone who’d bother to look—it was a goddamn historic registered site—

“Ha! I do indeed, young man. Well, in that case, I suppose—”

“Yeah. Yeah, least I could do.” Bowser swallowed, too many ideas and images flashing through his head—a person, a real live person living in the castle with him, who’d never known him and could—just—fresh eyes, he thought, madly—

“Why, that sounds marvelous. Inputting new residency information now. Just need to copy you on the flight confirmation number, and we’ll be good to go!”

Jesus. Bowser steadied himself against the stone railing, having become inexplicably light-headed. Fuck. “Uh, and you’re sure we’re squared on this? I don’t gotta send you a, like, a processing fee, or—?”

“Oh, absolutely not, my dear boy! Consider this, ah, on the house, as it were. And I’m hardly through with you yet! I’m sure you’re aware that when the FBR notices extraordinary talent, we do everything in our power to ensure you stay in the spotlight for as long as possible. After all, keeping you performing well keeps our business performing well!”

The guy had a point. Bowser puffed on the cigarette, wondering just how far the motherfucker would go to keep him alive long enough for a decent racing career. It’d be good to have someone like that in his corner, yeah? Considering who was standing behind the opposite side—

“Hey, uh, but seriously, thanks. I’m looking forward to meeting the, uh—” Hold the phone. Hadn’t Dry Bones just used the word subject? As in, test subject…? “Racer.” Fuck—

 “Oh, as I’ve said before, the pleasure is all mine!” Dry Bones sighed happily. “Alright, confirmation forwarded. We’ll be in touch. You get a good night’s rest, now!” Click.

Just like that.

How awfully quiet that little walkway felt then. Even the bubbling of the lava below had somehow muted in the wake of that chat. And it registered then.

What have I done?

Trust his own stupid ass to fry itself at the first opportunity.  This is exactly what he wanted. You jumped in without thinking. 

The goddamn Director of the goddamn Bureau itself. The government-subsidized Bureau. One rich with cash that Saulus himself had bestowed.

You fell for it, his mind sang to him. You're next. You're next.

Fuck, he felt cold. That moat below was starting to look really good—

“Don’t even think about it,”  had been Kamek’s first words when they pulled up to the castle for the first time. Barely a month after his nineteenth birthday, Bowser had wanted nothing more than to dive headfirst to a fiery grave. The urge occasionally still surfaced.

What a way to go, though. No evidence. Nowhere to look. Just one awfully hot second, and then he'd see his parents again. Grumpy old Kamek had known.

“Shut up,” he ritually told himself before walking back indoors. What kind of loser gave in without even waiting long enough to see what box he’d just opened?

Besides, for all he knew, this was all just a magnificent coincidence. His uncle was being benign for once in his sick life, and Dry Bones was genuinely invested in Bowser's career, and the—test subject—fucking—the racer would turn out to be pretty chill. Would end up just one more awesome athlete in a gang full of talented nutcases. Well, talented nutcases and Wario.

Ride it out. All he could do, at this point. You're not dead yet.

He held up the burner phone. One message.

Any luck?

More than enough luck, Bowser laughed inwardly. More than a lifetime’s worth. Or two. Just, so much luck—so much—

He realized with a jolt that Dry Bones had indeed called him highness to his face back in the car.

But of course he knows. Of course he fucking knows. Was this not all destined to be one giant rat trap? Out of the King’s frying pan and into his best buddy’s oven? Fucking—well, too late now.

Yes, he replied. One word, three letters. Three months, twelve—no, thirteen?—no—no

Sleep took him by surprise.


"Wake up."

"W-wuh...?"

"Good girl. We've received a message from the Director. There's a lot to do in a short amount of time, so listen closely." 

Gosh, did she love those red, red nails. So shiny, a few of them shimmering with tiny jewels— "What's happening?"

"Something wonderful, my dear. The day of your graduation has arrived. Now, pay attention."

"Yes, ma'am."

Chapter Text


“So let me get this straight.” Daisy slid the window between her garage and living room open and leaned over the sill, slinging her oil rag around in rapid circles. “You get this creepy call from an uncle you never see, telling you to meet the FBR Director after hours, on the day you find out that you’ve lost your partner—and this guy just happens to have the perfect replacement ready to fly in, literally the next day? And for free?!”

“Well, when you put it that way…” Bowser gave an exasperated groan before flipping face down on the couch, away from her accusing glare. As clean kicks to the gut went, he’d maybe felt a worse one, far away, eons ago.

“Bowser, you can’t pretend this isn’t a little fucked,” Luigi murmured as he tromped in from the kitchen. “How’s it lookin, Dais?”

“Squeaky clean.” Out of the corner of his eye, Bowser watched as she neatly caught the can of Sap Juice Luigi had tossed her. “But seriously, Bow? This is like some, I dunno, Ezekiel shit—”

“Don’t say that!” Luigi's voice quivered. “If they heard you, you’d be a loose end!”

“C’mon, that’s just superstitious bullshit,” Daisy laughed, cracking the can open by the sound of it. “Bowser’s got himself into way bigger problems than some dead fixers—”

The doorbell rang. The telltale sound of Daisy cracking up probably meant Luigi had jumped a foot in the air, or was glaring daggers at her, or both. “I swear, if it turns out you summoned them to our house…” He practically tiptoed toward the entry hall.

“Never thought I’d have to tell anyone to chill, let alone my boyfriend.” Daisy collapsed onto the fat armchair next to Bowser’s head. “But I bet it’s just the boys! What time is it, anyways…?”

“Eleven-fifteen,” Bowser muttered into the cushions. “Forty-five minutes ‘til my partner gets in.” He’d need to head out to the airport pretty soon.

“…how come you can always do that?” Daisy suddenly asked in a quieter voice. “I’m holding your phone now, and you don’t wear a watch.”

There were no clocks in Daisy’s living room, Bowser remembered with a jolt, even if his head weren’t buried in the sofa. “Uh, lucky guess.” Three months—

“Oh yeah? Well let’s just hope you’re as lucky with shady-ass FBR string-pulling. Honestly, Bowser…”

“Gimme a break.” Wasn’t accepting a favor from the guy in charge precisely the opposite of shady? “I just did what made the most sense at the—”

“You’re supposed to be our leader!” Daisy hollered, lifting one of the pillows to scream directly in his ear. “What if you just compromised the whole team? What if that nutcase sends us a freakin’ Shy Guy? Or a robot? Did you even get to talk to the racer before this was all set up?”

“It happened in, like, five seconds,” he whined, rubbing his ear. “Didn’t get a chance. But—like I said—I didn’t pay anything, did I? If this person sucks at racing somehow, we can boot ‘em after the All-Cup. Won’t be the end of the world.”

“When’s the end of the world?” Baby called as he walked in with Luigi and, going by the number of footsteps, Toad.

“Not today, supposedly,” Daisy grumbled. “Where’ve you two been all morning? Sleeping in?”

“Hell, no,” Baby laughed. “There’s an amazing bio-engineering convention downtown! I didn’t even know about it til Birdo mentioned it yesterday—”

“Why the hell were you hanging out with Birdo,” Luigi murmured, likely glancing out the windows. One could never be too careful.

“She blitzed the garage,” Bowser explained, finally rolling over to face everyone. “Again.”

“Hey, I didn’t see you complaining about free Piranha coffee,” Baby continued, sticking his tongue out. “Anyways, the convention was awesome! One panel talked about how some people were descended from kongs and some from shellfish and some from palm trees—”

“Convergent evolution,” Toad mumbled. “Dude, if I’d known you were gonna get so nuts about it I would’ve let you go by yourself.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be the brainy one?” Baby punched him. “Instead of a zombie? It’s like you didn’t sleep all day yesterday.”

“Computer science, man, not biology crap.” Toad adjusted his skullcap and stuffed his phone in his pocket. “You’re supposed to be the one who’d get bored by all that shit.”

“How is any of that stuff boring?! For all we know, you have latent magical currents lying dormant in your nervous system!” Baby’s golden eyes practically sparkled. “Just saying, it could happen—”

“Anyways, why’s it not the end of the world?” Toad threw one arm around Baby and yanked him backwards onto the couch, crushing Bowser underneath. Rather, they would have crushed Bowser had either of them weighed more than ninety pounds.

“Because I do have a damn partner, who I am picking up from the airport in thirty minutes, and everything’s fine.” He cracked his neck. “Koopa’s waiting for his girlfriend to arrive or he’d be here, too.”

“You have a new partner?!” Toad shrieked. “I thought Baby was kidding—”

“You mean you hoped I was kidding,” Baby cackled. “Where’s my ten coins now, huh?”

“What the hell, Bow.” Toad squinted at him before fishing out his wallet. "This is impulsive, even for you."

Bowser and Daisy exchanged glances before re-narrating the whole mess. 

“That’s fucked,” he mumbled afterward, shoving his phone into his pocket. “I never liked that guy. He only joined the FBR eight years ago, and somehow made it to Director in three. And now he’s got a ton of secret R&D projects even Scouts aren’t supposed to investigate. But what's your new partner's name?”

"No clue," he replied, feeling a sting in his gut as Toad's face fell. "Yeah, I know, I should've vetted him better, even if it is the damn Director. Daisy already grilled me."

Baby chortled. “Well, I wanna meet ‘em! The new guy, I mean. Or girl, or whatever. So long as they can race.”

“Amen to that.” Bowser abruptly sat up, nearly flinging the boys off of the couch. “Anybody else wanna head to the airport with me?”

Baby whooped. “Let’s go! Nothing like a big ol’ welcoming party.”

Luigi rolled his eyes. “Me ‘n Dais will take the other car. Just in case.”

“In case of what?”

He shrugged. “Crazy bullshit.”


Crazy bullshit would have nearly been preferable to waiting in the airport lobby for an extra forty minutes, with Toad and Baby bouncing around like amped-up Chain Chomps.

“The fuck is going on,” Bowser repeated for the ninetieth time towards the Arrivals board.

“High-reaching sandstorm, sir,” a tinny voice exclaimed to his left. Bowser shivered involuntarily, then caught himself—just a Shy Guy, and a higher-ranked one at that, in a plaid suit and shiny shoes. “Would yourself be his highness, Rex—”

“Yeah, yeah. You with Dry Bones?” The god damn airport wouldn’t let him smoke, either. Purgatory.

“Indeed! Unfortunately, the Doctor could not make it in time to meet you today. I’m to confirm that Toadette has arrived safely, with her identification codes intact.”

Identification codes. Not even a standard ID card? And then— “Toadette…? That—that’s her name?” A pretty popular girl’s name, now that he thought about it. Probably because of that one pop star a few decades back, with the hair. “How come her plane’s delayed?”

“As I said, the Dry Dry Desert suffered an unusually tall sandstorm this morning, directly on the flight’s course. A detour had to be made, and so the plane should be landing soon.”

“Jeez,” Daisy murmured. “Hope she made it in one piece.”

Bowser smirked. “Oh, so now you care about this team-compromising robot?”

“Bowser!” Okay, maybe he deserved that elbow to the ribs. But a moment later, a huge plane broke through the ash clouds overhead and made its way closer and closer to the gate directly above their waiting lobby. His partner’s plane—Toadette’s.

Man, if only Kamek goddamn knew that there’d be a girl living in Bowser’s castle now. The old man would’ve wrung his neck.

“There she is!” the Shy Guy chirped as the massive plane slowly docked. Bowser halfway considered breaking through the security barriers just so he’d meet her ten seconds faster—

Luigi squeezed his shoulder. “Bow, don’t explode.”

“Not gonna.”

“Ten coins says he screams.”

“Deal!”

Boys—”

“Toadette!” The Shy Guy lifted both stubby arms in the air and began waving them madly. “This way, Miss Toadette!”

Bowser squinted at the incoming crowds—families returning from vacations in the southern jungles, Toad Town students who’d only just finished their exams, elderly Noki tourists from Isle Delfino—and—

There.

Bowser exhaled sharply in a near-laugh at the sight of one tiny young lady standing on the escalator. It was her huge mass of vivid pink hair that caught his eye first—not hot pink like Birdo’s, but a lighter, cotton-candy sort of color that nonetheless glowed in the halogen lighting overhead. Gods, though, was she tiny. Shorter than Baby, maybe even shorter than Lakitu. They weren’t kidding about finding a lightweight…

And she really was standing still, like someone out of an old film. Not shoving past the other, more boisterous travelers, or even walking steadily, just—standing—

“Oh, shit—” Daisy had spotted the oncoming collision, too: an off-course mini-Wiggler charging at full speed, laden with a large Pianta family and a ton of luggage, headed straight for where Toadette was bound to exit the escalator. She would get grazed, or worse—

They had all begun sprinting toward the impending crash site. “Toadette—!”

But Toadette had spotted the vehicle as well. In one alarmingly smooth motion, she planted one tiny hand on the escalator’s downward-moving handrail and cartwheeled nimbly over the edge, dropping to a neat three-point landing some four feet below. The Wiggler bus sped right on by, the sudden gust blowing Toadette's curls in one direction for a split second. 

Some reflexes, Bowser thought, stunned. Anticipated that thing’s trajectory after it came out of nowhere. Alright, then.

“Bow, I like her.” Baby elbowed him hard in the hip before joining Toad and Daisy in running up to meet her. They made for quite the crowd.

“Toadette? Welcome to Firebird! My name's Toad. This is—”

“HI I’M DAISY!!”

“—and that’s her partner, Louie, and my partner, Baby, and this is your partner. Don’t fall for the spikes! He looks scary, but he’s really just—”

“Jesus Christ, let her breathe,” Bowser moaned, as Daisy had lifted the poor thing into one of her patented lung-smashing bear hugs.

After spluttering for a mad half-second, Toadette cleared her throat and looked around in bemusement. “Uh, hi?” High-pitched voice. Higher than Peach’s.

Bowser nudged Baby aside. “Uh, hey there.”

“N-nice to—to meet you.” Oh, Jesus, her eyes were wide.

Bowser realized he had to look intimidating—close to seven feet tall, broad, spiked at his arms and wrists and neck, in a black tank and heavy jeans and steel-toed boots. So he dropped down on one knee before extending one hand. “Rex Bowser. I’m your new partner.” This way, they were just about at eye level.

After quickly glancing back Toad, she inhaled deeply and clasped Bowser's hand. Squeezed it for a moment. “Kinoko Toadette. I—um. Thank you…”

Daisy cocked her head. “For what?”

“For applying to the program,” Toadette quickly replied, glancing back at Bowser through the corner of her eye. “We only get partnered with people who match our skill levels, so, um… I thought it’d be forever before they found someone good enough.” She folded her arms, grinning angelically.

YES. “Okay, now that’s what I’m talking about.” Bowser hopped back to his feet and squeezed Toadette’s shoulder. “See that attitude? I need at least half this much from the rest of you by the time the All-Cup rolls around.”

“And here I thought Koopa was a bad influence,” Luigi moaned. “Of course Bow got paired up with another hotshot—”

“So did Dry Bones give you some kind of temperament exam for this?” Baby asked Bowser. “Or did he talk to you for five minutes and figure out you’re a fucking narcissist?”

Toad stepped in front of his partner and cleared his throat. “So, uh, you got any luggage? Also, there was that Shy Guy—”

“Greetings, Miss Toadette,” the portly civil servant immediately cut in. “Please wait one moment for a biometric scan…splendid, thank you.” And, after a jolting moment of stillness, “Everything seems to be in order! Can you confirm that you have made contact with at least one of your teammates?”

“Contact confirmed,” she piped in a way that sounded nearly automatic. Like she’d done it too many times already in her short life. “Subject code ten-nine-nine-two. I made it, Red.” Her smile was dazzling.

Bowser squinted. Shy Guys weren’t machines. There’s voice recognition equipment in there somewhere? Red? A jolt ran down his spine, for a reason he could not quite name.

“Splendid! Well, I’d best be off.” The Shy Guy turned to face Bowser. “Doctor Dry Bones asks that you please contact him at your earliest convenience. Have a pleasant day!”

Daisy actually waited ten whole seconds before sighing. “Those things are never not gonna creep me out.”

Toad smirked. “You’ve lived here for, what, three years now? Thought you’d gotten used to ‘em.”

“You can’t get used to something that uncanny valley! If they were straight-up robots, it’d be one thing, like those cute little Galaxy Projects helpers, oh, what are they called—”

Gearmos, Bowser could have informed her. She named them Gearmos

Instead the word caught on his tongue, sinking back into his throat and slithering through his veins.

Three months, thirteen days. Twenty-three hours.

“So what does your luggage look like?” Luigi cast a glance out over the crowded baggage claim.

Toadette blinked. “Oh…um. I don’t have anything.”

Hold the fuck up. “They didn’t let you bring any luggage?” Bowser asked, in case he had somehow misheard that last part. Please, let him have misheard that last part—

Toadette shook her head, shrugging. “Didn’t have anything to bring! All the stuff I used belonged to the labs.”

The labs. “Jesus. Uh, okay, well, guess we’re taking you shopping.”

The S word had been dropped, and Daisy snapped to attention. “Yes! And since this whole thing was your uncle’s idea, we are so sticking her stuff on that card of his.” She grabbed Toadette’s hand and nearly dragged her toward the parking garage. “To the mall!”

“It wasn’t his idea,” Bowser moaned for the last time, nonetheless completely on board with blowing his uncle’s cash in this particular situation. It was the least the old guy could do, really.

Not one single item brought with her? After however long she’d been in that program? Not one scrap of spare clothing?That wasn’t a training program, he thought, his hands slowly gathering into fists. There’s another word for whatever that—

“Yeow,” Toadette suddenly yelped, stopping in her tracks the instant they walked outside. “What—why’s—?” She lifted her hands to her eyes and began rubbing them furiously.

“Shit—” Dumbass—you should’ve remembered—should’ve— “Daisy, you got any drops?” Dumbass dumbass dumbass—

“Oh my gosh, you’re right, I didn’t even—”

“Hold still, Toadette. Daisy’ll make it better.” He carefully walked Toadette back inside, where some vestige of air filtering might ease her pain. Fate worse than death, city air on naked eyes.

Yet in that hot second Bowser was absolutely overcome in a singular wave of envy as the realization finally, truly kicked in. Toadette was used to sunlight. To blue skies, with stars, or even white clouds, maybe. “Hang in there.”

“How come they’re stinging so bad?” Toadette whispered through gritted teeth as Daisy squeezed the soothing fluid onto her eyeballs. She blinked a few times, wiping away excess droplets and tears with one knuckle. Bowser kept one hand on her shoulder until her breathing slowed. Dumbass dumbass dumbass—if Daisy hadn’t come—? You could’ve hurt her—could’ve—dumbass—

"Any better?" 

"Yeah." She'd stopped rubbing even as they returned outdoors. "But...what was that...?"

“The air here,” he murmured, shepherding them all toward the two cars. With the drops in effect, Toadette now looked much happier. “I’ll explain. Hop in—Toadette gets shotgun, you two.” She would need a mask, too, he mentally noted.

Baby shrugged. “Fair.”

“Where are we going?” Toadette asked, climbing into the front seat as Toad and Baby hopped in the back. “Is it lunchtime yet?”

Lunchtime. Christ, was that cute. “Lunchtime is, uh, whenever we want it,” he half-laughed, handing the Shy Guy parking attendant a blue coin. “You hungry?”

“Kind of. But…” She continued gazing up at the dark sky overhead. “What time is it right now? Maybe the time zone change just has me confused, but—”

“One-nineteen,” he replied automatically, ignoring how Toad and Baby exchanged glances then.

“One…in the morning?”

“So I take it they really didn’t tell you where you were headed.” God, he was so gonna wring Dry Bones’ neck after all this. Labs. No luggage. No ID card. No warnings about the smog—nothing—

“They said Mushroom City. I’ve seen the Special Cup track, but it’s always at night, so I didn’t—” Toadette exhaled slowly. “It’s—it’s always nighttime here?”

Well, he had promised to explain. “It’s always this dark, yeah. The smog covers the entire metro area, plus a good-sized buffer on all sides.”

Toad nodded. “Once you get out far enough into the countryside, it pretty much dissipates. Mushroom Bridge—the kingdom's capital town?—it’s not nearly as bad as this.”

“Whew.” She sat up straighter as they pulled away from the airport, plunging back into the gray sea flecked with iridescent trails of ambient lighting. “So this is normal? The sky looks purple—no, green—wow—”

Amazing. All this poison and eye-burning smog and she had the nerve to even… “Heh, uh, yeah. One nice cocktail of petrol emissions, vaporized battery acid... whatever the manufacturing plants spit out each day..." He wrinkled his nose. "We’ll get you your own eye drops like Daisy’s so they won’t hurt.”

“Does everyone use those?”

Toad shook his head. “Nope. I guess the three of us have just been here long enough to where we’re accustomed to it. I moved here right before high school. Baby ‘n Bow were born here.”

“Mostly sure I was born here,” Baby laughed. “Been through a few different foster families, but all of them were here in town, so I just assumed…”

“Plus, you look just like Bow. Bet y’all have some crazy distant ancestor.”

Toadette did a double take. “Oh my gosh—I seriously thought you two were brothers! Haha.”

“You’re not the first.” Bowser glanced at his new partner through the corner of his eye. All things considered, she was awfully well adjusted. Hadn’t even freaked out that bad from having her eyes attacked, and right after nearly getting mown over by a mini-Wiggler, and after a long flight, well.

He wanted to know more about that place, the training program she came from. What she had so offhandedly referred to as labs.

They hit the freeway. Toadette's face lit up at the sight of all the vehicles speeding around them as Bowser wove between the glowing-painted lanes and past streaks of neon signs and half-lit skyscrapers. Yeah. Me too, partner. There was nothing quite so soothing as zoning in and focusing only on the give and take and of the flow F10 traffic. Nothing like it in the world—no. In the universe.

“We should take her to Dyllis’, Bow. I’ll tell Daisy to follow us.”

“Sounds good. I’m starved.” Baby leaned forward over the front seats’ arm rests. “So how long were you in that training program, Toadette? What was it like?”

So he wasn’t alone in that curiosity. Well, then again, who wouldn’t be?

“At the labs? Red said…what was it…” Toadette sucked in her cheeks while thinking. “Ten years, just about.”

“Holy—ten years, seriously? You join when you were just a baby, or…?”

“Ha, no. I was nine.” She grinned.

She’s nineteen? The hell—she could have totally passed for someone five years younger, and at that height— “You knew you wanted to be a featherweight going in? They keep you on a special diet, stunt your growth?”

“Well, yes, and no—I had the same food as everyone else. It must’ve been the machine they used.” She chewed her tongue. “The same one that changed my hair color, I think.”

Baby whistled. “That’s not dye? Damn, girl.”

“Nope!” She grinned, tugging at it. “It’s naturally pink. Or at least it is now.”

Bowser refrained from thinking too hard about the implications of Dry Bones possessing a machine that could change one’s genetic coding at will. No good in nauseating himself right before a meal with a new teammate.

Onward they rolled. Kamek had not trained him starve guests, nor teammates, nor both.


“I can’t remember the last time I had food that good.” Toadette sighed happily. “You said you know that place’s owner?”

“Dyllis kicked my ass all the way through high school,” Bowser laughed as they pulled into Tanooki Mall’s immense parking garage. “Sends customers to my garage all the time, though.”

There. The slightest jolt of electricity in those green eyes. “Your garage?”

Baby held a hand out for her to hop down from the truck. “Bow’s family—you know, Kerog Rex and April?—yeah, those racers—they used to run this cool auto shop in Midtown. Bow and I work it now.”

After landing neatly on her feet, Toadette was silent for a good few minutes as they headed into the shopping center.

She had to know about the wreck, Bowser thought then. Everyone did, even outside the racing community. It had been that huge of a—well, everything. Horror. Tragedy. Scandal.

“There’s Daisy ‘n Louie,” Toad piped, spotting them a few yards away. “Well, you guys have fun.”

“What, you’re not gonna shop with me?” Toadette pouted convincingly for a good half-second.

“Gonna make it rain for this guy,” he laughed, squeezing Baby’s hand. “Got my Scouting stipend in this morning.”

“Okay!” Daisy barked as they approached. “I put a list together on the ride over. I think I got pretty much everything to start you out with—some good basic pieces you can mix and match, and cosmetics and some home goods—maybe cleaning supplies, since I don’t trust Bow at all—”

“Hey, my place is fine,” he growled. “Just gotta dust the furniture off.”

“I can pay you back,” Toadette whispered, tugging his hand. “Promise. As soon as the All-Cup’s over, I can start job-hunting—”

“You worry about that later!” Daisy crossed her arms. “First things first—Bow’s got a ton of cash. Or, I guess that weird uncle of his does. Either way, he gets gripey when you don’t let him cover you.”

“All true,” he told Toadette, squeezing her hand. “Better it goes to you than whatever he's up to.”

Toadette stared blankly at him, her eyes clouding in thought. Well, who could blame her? But he vowed to give her some kind of explanation later. Something that would jive with what he’d told his team. Right?

You could tell her the truth, he reminded himself. She hasn’t known you. It could be a fresh start. Could be something.

He let them have at it, watching and holding baskets while Daisy helped Toadette navigate the different department stores. Each time she tried on the neons and grays and denims of the current vogue, however, her face darkened at her reflection in the mirror.

“Not feeling it?” he asked her, glancing up from his phone. No interstellar news today. At least, nothing relevant to his interests. Three months—

“It’s alright,” she replied quickly. “It's just—we wore a lot of gray at the labs.” It rang true; she had arrived at the airport in a gray button-down and gray slacks, and gray Velcro-fastened sneakers. “And neon safety vests, when we were on the tracks.”

“Oh! So you’d like something way different,” Daisy laughed. “Makes sense! Well, what’s your favorite color? Let’s start with that.”

Toadette tugged at her hair. “This color. D’you think…?”

“Oh my gosh.” Daisy clasped her hands together and hopped in place. “Okay, let’s run next door. Bowser, you’re on coffee break.”

“Wuh?” And before he knew it, the girls had run into the adjacent Angelic Pretty store, a glimmering cavern of pastel prints, ribbons and lace. Plenty of stuff in there had to be the exact shade of Toadette’s hair, he figured, heading toward a nearby Starbeans stand.

Baby and Toad found him sitting on a bench just outside a few minutes later. “Hey, where’d your new partner go?”

“She and Daisy are in there.” He pointed toward the sweetloli brand shop. “One of you, run in there and remind Daisy to find her an electric fan for her room, and some face masks. And give her this.” He fished around for his uncle’s credit card and placed it in Toad’s outstretched hand.

“A fan? How come?”

“She’s gonna crash with me for a while, and my house is pretty warm.” He licked his lips. “’s why I don’t like bringing people over.”

“Huh. You know what, I do think you mentioned that before.” Toad pocketed the card. “Okay, be right back.”

Baby plopped onto the bench next to him. “So Toadette’s into that super femme stuff?”

“Yeah. Mentioned how the labs made her wear nothing but gray.”

“Jeez. Bet you what she had on was a uniform.” Baby wrinkled his nose. “I dunno anything about those FBR training programs, but the more she talks about it, the more they sound like some kinda science lab. But also, like—” He dropped his voice just a tad. “A prison. You know?”

“Yeah,” Bowser admitted, sipping slowly from his coffee cup. “Might be good to pay attention whenever she brings it up. Doesn’t seem too resentful of the place, but…” Something still just seemed so off about the whole thing. Even if she hadn’t turned out to be a Shy Guy. “Ten years is a long time. For anything.”

“Amen to that.” Baby winced. “Well, we’re bound to find out soon enough, aren’t we? That’s how it is, being on a team together. You can’t go forever without learning the not-so-fun stuff. Not at close quarters.”

Not at close quarters. And here he was, inviting a stranger into his home. “You may be right.”

And if he was…

Baby perked up. “Oh, Toad’s coming back out. Now that I think about it, where’d Louie go off to?”

“Said he was headed to the men’s room,” Bowser remembered aloud. “Hope he didn’t fall asleep in the stall again.”

“Lordy,” Toad laughed. “Let’s go see if he’s still awake. Oh, and Toadette said to tell you thanks again, Bow.”

“Heh.” He drained his coffee as the other two shoved off toward the food court. For all he knew, Luigi had indeed fallen asleep in public again. But something about the situation just seemed to itch him. Something…

No. He knew.

Luigi and Daisy were not permanent fixtures. Not of his team, or anyone else’s, or of anything at all, really. Too many moving parts in their lives. He’d need to keep an ear out for any more mysterious phone conversations, lest his team require even more reorganization.

No lie, he loved those two. To the death. But having to keep those logistics in the back of his mind at all times simply came with the territory. Lesser team leaders would fall apart whenever their teams threatened to do the same.

But now would just be a really awful time for that to go down. His life had its own moving parts, and any bit of stable ground was worth its weight in—

“Bowser?”

He started at the sound of Peach’s voice. She had just exited a restaurant supply shop, judging by the heavy bags in her hands. “Hey. Good to see you.”

“Same!” She plopped next to him on the bench and stretched her legs out. Sore feet, if he had to guess. “So…what happened to being ideologically opposed to malls?”

“Hey, don’t put Daisy’s words in my mouth.” He cracked his neck. “But yeah, she’s here with my new partner. Just doing some shopping.” Oh, fuck. Oh, jeez. He’d basically gone the opposite route from what Peach had advised just the night before, and now he'd slipped—

“Your new partner.” Peach kicked her sandals off and tucked her feet underneath her legs, turning to face him on the bench. “Well, wasn’t that fast.”

He could have felt her judging him from nine planets away, much less three feet. “Yeah, yeah. Picked her up from the airport an hour ago and got some food.”

“Her? What’s her name? Where’s she from, if not here?” Peach’s eyes were wide, but her tone far from accusatory—just curious. Peach was hardly the territorial type, so Bowser chalked it up to professional curiosity. After all, were they not about to face each other in the All-Cup? “How old?”

“Toadette,” he replied, casting a glance toward the Angelic Pretty storefront. No sign of either her or Daisy. “’s from the Dry Dry Desert.” Or may as well have been. “She’s not much younger than us, actually—nineteen.” Five years younger than him. Less than that, for Peach.

“Just out of high school, huh,” Peach murmured, her gaze withdrawn. “I know how that feels.”

“Yup.” God, had that been a time. “How you been?”

“Great, actually!” Peach smiled. “We’ll need to expand the bakery soon to keep up with demand. Maybe include space for more sit-down dining, so we’d need to hire a few waiting staffers, maybe… I’ll need more help in the back, too, once Mario starts his residency…”

“Not surprised.” Peach’s baking was incredible. “Maybe you could keep the current place and just open a second location.”

“Ha. We did consider that, actually. Being able to just walk downstairs to go to work is helpful. But even the apartment’s getting cramped, and now that the twins are about to get booted…”

“You’re thinking of housing your whole team?” Not that the thought hadn't once crossed his own mind, a lifetime ago...

“Why not? They already help out at the bakery. We’re just integrating vertically. I might give them a discounted rent if they want to go full-time between races, like Mario. Since he’s about to become a doctor.”

Just say that to my face nine more times, could you. Seriously, though. The mental image of that dweeb in a medical coat was almost too much to—

“Peach?!”

Daisy and Toadette had emerged, numerous pink striped paper bags in hand. Toadette had already changed out of her standard issue grays into an entirely new getup—pink bell-shaped skirt, frilly white puffy-sleeved blouse, floral hair pins holding back her pink curls, and pink sandals with soles so thick she stood several inches higher off the ground than before. She looked infinitely more china doll than kart racer, Bowser laughed inwardly. Good. Catch ‘em off guard.

“Heya, Dais! And who’s this?” Peach hopped to her feet to hug Daisy. Always amicable, Bowser mused, even with ex-boyfriends or ex-teammates or both. Over her shoulder, Daisy shot him her patented SOMEONE’S A GLUTTON FOR PUNISHMENT look. He glared at her, then cut himself short when Toadette glanced at him in confusion.

“New teammate!” Daisy exclaimed, giving Toadette’s shoulder a quick squeeze. “Introduce yourself, lady!”

“Hi—I’m Toadette—” And Peach hugged her as well. “What’s your name?”

Oh my god. So Toadette had no idea.

“Uh, ha.” Peach blinked, taken aback. Bowser had to wonder if she’d ever been asked that question in her life. “Please call me Peach! Way better than my given name, I promise.” God, was that smooth. Ever the diplomat, Peach, even when stripped from the official title.

“Ha.” Daisy processed the exchange just as quickly. “Eh, see, Toadette’s from out of town. We can get her up to speed on current events once she’s settled in.”

“That’s right. Bowser mentioned the Desert.” Peach gave a sympathetic smile. “That must’ve been nice, huh? Real sunlight, and breathable air…I’m jealous!”

“It’s nice here, too,” Toadette slowly replied, seemingly enraptured by Peach’s visage. And it hit Bowser then.

Peach had to look exactly like what Toadette had been aiming for that whole time—bright and feminine and healthy, between the vibrant pinks and sunny yellows of her dress and the rich blue of the stones on her jewelry and sandals. No utilitarian grays or synthetic lines in sight—the opposite of something raised for a decade in an underground science lab. Fresh and free.

Bowser stood up and tossed his empty cup away. “Well, uh, we gotta hit up a home goods place next, right? Don’t mean to hold you up from the bakery.”

Peach caught on immediately. “Oh, don’t let me keep you all waiting!” She grabbed her shopping bag and slipped her sandals back on. “Stop by the shop sometime. Nice to meet you, Toadette!”

“Same,” she murmured, clutching Bowser’s hand. Huh.

“Take care,” he told Peach as they parted ways. She winked before turning away.

Once they were safely inside a massive home store, Toadette tugged on his hand. “Was I… supposed to know who she was? I thought I'd seen someone who looked like her before, but...”

He and Daisy exchanged glances. “Uh. Kind of? I mean, just, if you’d had any access to the news, like, anywhere?” But apparently not everywhere, and so—

And so Bowser mentally added another strike to Dry Bones’ count. Why were your trainees cut off from the news? Or had it just been Toadette? But either way—

“It wasn’t something they’d cover in schools, now, I don’t think,” Daisy continued. “Well, maybe in college courses? ‘Cause it’s had to have some kind of effect on contemporary politics, yeah?”

Toadette crossed her arms and looked up at Bowser. “What happened? She has something to do with politics?”

Bowser looked around and shepherded them into a vacant aisle. Chandeliers and mirrors, faint glows and pinpricks of light hitting them from every direction. “Peach was the younger daughter of the royal family that came before the current king,” he explained, carefully. Carefully. Even then, Daisy was bound to pick up something suspicious if he spoke for too long. “Basically, her mom—she used to be the queen, and—well, she ousted Peach from the family. Just, out of nowhere. Huge scandal.”

What?” Toadette’s eyebrows rocketed skywards. “She was a princess? Then—wait, but what’d she do..?”

What indeed. Bowser kneaded his temples. “It’s what she didn’t do, really. That is, she, uh, refused to comply with an arranged marriage, basically.” Basically. “Her mom—the queen—”

“Paula Toadstool,” Daisy supplied, grimacing. “Worst houseguest ever.”

“Yeah.” Bowser laughed through his nose in spite of himself. “But, uh, what happened was, she gave Peach an ultimatum—agree to the match, or to leave the family and have no political power.” He folded his arms, suddenly craving nicotine. “And Peach left that night.”

Toadette swallowed. “Yeek! What, so—she was homeless?”

“Hell, no. She crashed with me for a bit, and then her aunt—”

“With you? Why?!”

Daisy shot him a look. Hoo boy.

“We were dating at the time. She went to the same high school as me.”

Toadette looked close to exploding then. Unreal. “You dated a princess?! Oh my gosh, Bowser—”

“She broke up with me not too long after,” he quickly added. “Got too busy with starting her own business, and she’d met someone else…and, just, other stuff was going on, and…” God, he fucking hated that second part, but…

Toadette didn’t even know the half of it, he reminded himself. And neither did Daisy.

“Still, that’s unbelievable,” Toadette murmured, gazing up to all of the chandeliers and spotlights overhead. “Never something worth disowning your child for. Ugh.”

“My parents never liked Paula,” Daisy snickered. “Awful person. Like, it sucked when she made that proclamation, but I gotta admit—I wasn’t altogether surprised. She was pretty iron-fisted when it came to her legacy. And of course it ended up biting her in the ass.”

Bowser had to laugh aloud at that part. “Yep. She disowns her one viable heir, and then wonders why the Council gives her a vote of no confidence. Some serious tunnel vision.”

“The Council?” Toadette’s brow furrowed. “I thought this was a Kingdom.”

“It’s a parliamentary monarchy,” Daisy explained, looking over the price tags on the different full-length mirrors. Don’t bother, Bowser could have told her. My place has more of those than this entire store aisle. “After the whole attempt at democracy, between all the corporate campaign buyouts and none of the citizens doing any research before casting their votes, well…it’s a slightly safer system. The monarchy is passed through bloodlines on the condition that the heirs are properly trained and seasoned before taking the throne. What happened after Peach’s disownment was a coup, if you ask me.”

You’re not wrong. Bowser sighed. “For the record, Peach was seventeen when the queen gave her that ultimatum. Way too much fucking pressure on someone that young. Stupid decision on the queen’s part.”

“And no one faults Peach for leaving,” Daisy agreed. “Basically, the common knowledge is that Peach used to be a princess, her mom was Queen Paula Toadstool who shot herself in the foot with that whole mess, and now Peach is fine. Has an amazing bakery and manages to qualify for the All-Cup each season.”

“She’s been in the All-Cup?” Toadette asked, her eyes still wide. “Maybe that’s what I recognized her from. But we never reviewed any footage with her.”

“She and Mario don’t really perform that well once they’re in,” Bowser laughed, rubbing his neck. “So they don’t get much of a spotlight, like, ever.”

“True.” Daisy folded her arms. “The FBR tends to only show the top four karts during any race, and that’s mostly our karts and, I guess, Boo’s and Birdo’s.”

“They don’t use their Items right,” Bowser explained. “But don’t tell ‘em that. They’re our opponents, remember.”

Daisy nodded. “There’s no excuse for that, either! Luigi and I have the same exact Item set. We’re just more creative with how we deploy them.” She lowered her arms. “Anyways, that last place didn’t have fans or bedding, so let’s keep trooping.”

And so Bowser’s uncle generously paid for two sets of seafoam-colored sheets and comforters, pillows, an electric fan, and a pearlescent pink burner phone. “I can’t fucking believe they didn’t even give you your own phone,” Bowser growled under his breath as they went through checkout. “Some bullshit.”

“I mean, there was no need for them,” Toadette replied, staring anxiously at the rising cost amount on the cash register. “They knew where we were at all times.”

“All the time?” Daisy asked, squinting. “Even during your time off?”

Toadette blinked a few times and pursed her lips, but no words came out. Strike three, Bowser vowed silently. You had these kids on the clock at all times? No breaks, no trips home?

“Hey, you three.” Luigi had finally appeared, saving Toadette from having to come up with an answer. Lucky you, Bowser scowled. “Have fun?”

“Hell, yeah. Toadette’s all set up, since Bowser insists he’s already got a furnished guest room at his place.”

“We got your drops and masks, right?” Bowser asked Toadette for the fifth time that hour. Just in case.

“Yeah! Look, Daisy found these at the last place we were in.” Toadette pulled a face mask from the one of the Angelic Pretty bags—mint green and trimmed with white lace and pink flowers, just like the rest of her stuff. Excellent. “It says it has three different filter layers!” Her voice came out just slightly muffled.

“Trust me, you're gonna need all three,” Daisy replied as they exited the store. She pulled out her own and strapped it on. “Well, we grabbed everything I’d written down, so if y’all are ready to head out, we could give the boys a ride home.”

It was nearly six, Bowser realized. “Fine with me. Toadette, you up for practicing once we move your stuff in?”

“Yes!” Toadette began hopping in place. “I was afraid we were gonna go all day without racing!”

“That’s the spirit,” Daisy laughed. “We may have to take the Bloom Coach out for a test run tonight, now that I’m thinking about it.”

Toadette hugged Daisy. “Thanks so much for all your help! Are we gonna meet up again later?”

“For sure!” She linked arms with her boyfriend. “Luigi and I have plans for tonight, but I imagine all of us’ll meet up tomorrow before the race.”

Bowser had failed to catch her in time, busy from taking all of the bags she and Toadette had been carrying onto his own arms. Oh, brother—

“Race? There’s no race slated for tomorrow.” Her eyes had nonetheless begun to gleam. “Is there?”

“I’ll explain on the way home,” Bowser cut in, shooting a look at Daisy. “Tell Baby ‘n Toad we said bye.”

“Will do. You two have a good night, okay?” Daisy hugged Toadette one more time. “And if Bowser’s place turns out to be a giant garbage can, you are totally welcome to crash with us instead—”

“Fuck off, Dais,” he laughed as they parted ways. Toadette cackled behind her mask.

And then there were two.

Chapter Text


With the others gone, Toadette could get down to business. “How come you hate talking about your place so much, but you still want me living there instead of a housing project?”

She knew the name of where she was going, had seen its address mentioned in the ancient correspondences, the articles. Sounded like a cool place, a nice one. But what mattered was how he’d filter it all out.

The edges of Bowser's mouth quirked up. “You’ll find out, and housing projects are godawful. This car’s got more room than that shit, and way the hell better air filtering.”

No reason not to believe that. Not after all Toadette had seen that day. She grinned. “This truck is amazing, by the way. V8?” Lay it on.

“V8, yeah. Torque could use some improvements, though. Not that I’m racing in it anytime soon.”

I bet I could race in this thing. Let me at ‘em. “You talked to Daisy about a race. What race is tomorrow? Nothing official.” Surely not. Definitely not, by the way he was trying so hard not to sweat in front of her.

If only she could burn her vision into the side of her new partner’s face, Toadette mused. She liked the idea of branding him. Something cute was in order—that crowned shroom avatar, perhaps, blossoming in red-black char along that smooth skin of his...

Soon. “Is it an unofficial race?” she pressed. “Illegal? Do you do this a lot?”

Bowser immediately looked ill. Good. “Look, I get that this is a lot for you right now, Toadette. I promise. But I can’t go around risking information on—”

“There you go. It’s two-person karts, right? Then let me race with you and I won’t tell anyone.” She beamed even further. “Who’m I gonna tell, anyways?! Like I said, no one else in the labs has phones—”

“What?”

“I said, no one else in the—”

“No, I heard you, but what the hell?”

“Is it really that weird?” Toadette examined her nails. Short and pristine. Not for long, darlings. Daisy had definitely grabbed her a set of pastel-colored enamels and tiny jewels. Not for long. She would need to write her new teammate a super beautiful thank-you note, pronto. So important.

She'd make Red proud yet.

“It’s, uh.” Bowser winced. “Real talk? It tells me they didn’t need phones to keep in contact with you. Like they knew where you were at all times.”

No shit. Toadette feigned a tranquil smile. “Well, they did! It wasn’t like there was anywhere else for us to go.” If she never saw another desert as long as she lived, it’d be too soon.

“But you never had vacations? Days off?”

“Of course we had off-hours!” Did he honestly think she was some kind of machine—?

Well, maybe I am.

They’d just spent so much time doing nothing that day, Toadette mused. Gazing idly at the astounding number of products available between making purchases, walking languidly about the shops as though wading through water, staying at that restaurant for a good hour and a half—doing what? Eating, and talking, and not even about racing for the most part. Chatting.

It hadn’t been bad, though. Firebird’s members were funny, and cool. And stylish! So important. They weren’t taking their freedom for granted. Thank goodness she hadn't walked out of the airplane to find a bunch of completely different people all dressed the same way. The mere thought, just—ugh. In any case, that had at least bade well for her immediate future.

But everything in comparison to the labs just seemed so—so relaxed. What a concept.

“Yeah? What’d you do in your time off?” Bowser flashed a quick smile. “What do you do for fun?”

I destroy losers. “I would race. Or we’d go online and look at stuff.” Window shopping for her new life. Whenever it would come. Well, here it was, and she’d gotten just about everything on her wishlist. This is why doing your homework is so important.

Even then, she’d expected to have to wait months or years before getting any of this stuff, but here had come Bowser and Daisy with all this—this money

Presently Bowser sighed as if in relief. “So you did have internet.”

Oh my gosh, he actually thought we'd been Harmonized—incredible— “Yeah! Otherwise I’d have gotten bored out of my skull during sandstorms. The indoor tracks are so small.”

“They had an indoor racetrack there? Like the Coliseum?”

Toadette nearly snorted in derision. “Nothing like that. Think like, eh, Baby Park. But even smaller, and quieter. Boring as all get out.”

Bowser laughed through his nose. “Baby Park is fucking terrifying. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Yeah, the loop is simple as hell, but everyone’s Items flying everywhere with nowhere to go turn it into a fucking death zone. It's almost more of a Battle setup than a goddamn race.”

Makes sense. And she was excited again. “I can’t wait to try it in real life. Three weeks away feels like forever away.”

“I feel you." Bowser sniffed. "But we can also access that track during off hours. Koopa ‘n I would do time trials there, use it to calibrate any changes we made to the kart's speed or handling.”

Koopa. Her predecessor, according to Dry Bones’ intel. Now her teammate. “How come your old partner wasn’t there today? Is he mad at you?” Stupid Dry Bones hadn’t bothered to mention why Rex Bowser of all racers was in the market for a new partner. Didn't you tell me every little piece of information helps?  Stupid stupid stupid.

“Koopa? Hell, no. His girlfriend just moved to the city today, so they were moving all her stuff into a storage unit until they can find a bigger apartment together. We’ll see them both tomorrow.”

“At the race? Yeah?” Toadette kicked her heels against her seat in alternating thud thud thuds. “That’s what we’re practicing for tonight, isn’t it? At Baby Park? And who are we gonna race against? Is it that guy you’re always fighting with?”

Bowser groaned, much to her delight. “Okay, the race is a maybe. Yes, we will practice tonight, if you're up for it. No, not at Baby Park.”

Of course I'm up for it, you dolt. Toadette could feel that urge jolting through her veins even now, pumping madly and scalding hot. “Then where? Doesn’t the Mushroom City track have street car traffic on it?” If he’s as good as he should be, he’ll know better than to take a new partner onto that hazardous of a track outside an official race...

“Not Mushroom City. You’ll see. We’re almost there.”

And Toadette looked out the window. 

Holy cow. 

“Are we... dead?” The words had slipped out of her mouth automatically, but come on

“We’re not dead,” Bowser laughed. “Just heading home.”

The entire earth around her seemed to be but purple-black coal, jagged and cold. Low, dark hills framed the horizon, rimmed in glowing red light and cut up by black, skeletal frames that jutted unceremoniously toward the heavens. As Bowser merged toward the rightmost lane, Toadette squinted and just barely made out pinpricks of light—windows? Houses. …big houses. Mansions?

“This is where the rich people live?” Shouldn't they be out where there's sunlight? Breathable air?

“Got it in one.” Bowser signaled for the approaching exit ramp. “This is Exec District. Pretty sure everyone here is either in finance or petrol.” He grinned. “Or they inherited it.”

Like you. According the story Red had given her, at least.

Bowser slowly steered the car onto the ramp, glancing back and forth for oncoming vehicles from the feeder road. Toadette strained her eyes for some scrap of evidence that all this was just an elaborate prank. Everyone had to be out of their minds to even consider spending time in such an apocalyptic setting, much less building a giant house in it. But there they were, sparsely dotting that jagged horizion line, too huge to be a joke by any stretch of the imagination. They're all crazy. Her heart pounded in her chest. Is that how I'll end up?  After spending enough time in this bizarre, upside-down world, surely anything would be possible.  

“You okay?” His voice gently brought her back into the truck cabin, back into the present.

Who? ...me?  Toadette started upon realizing her face was wet. “I—sorry, not sure why—what’s—”

“I got Kleenex in the glove compartment.” God, he was such a mom. Toadette had figured that out altogether too quickly. “It won’t be so nasty-looking once we get inside. Promise.”

“It’s not ugly!” Not truly. Toadette had to admit that that hellscape had its own surreal beauty—especially that shimmering red glow against the gray sky—“D-don’t know where all this is coming from. I can’t remember the last time I cried.” She wiped her face with the tissues. Hadn’t Daisy gotten her some of those, too? Printed with bunnies—“Sorry, this—it’s not gonna happen again—promise—”

“Toadette, it’s okay to cry,” Bowser replied, his deep voice pleasantly soft. “You’ve had a long day. I wouldn’t blame you for feeling overwhelmed. You had no idea how any of this was gonna turn out.”

Such. A. Mom. Toadette sniffled, smiling into the soft paper in spite of herself. “You’re probably right.”

“Just saying,” he continued. “For the record, it’s pretty fucking brave to just head out to, you know—a completely new place, with all new people, on no notice.” He paused. “All things considered, I’d be freaking out, too.”

Toadette laughed, just a bit, almost inaudibly, and wiped her face one last time. “Thanks.”

She hadn't cried in, oh, years, probably. Not since she'd gotten used to the schedule. She'd once been a prickly thing, vindictive and brittle. Easily snapped.

No longer.

Out of nowhere, it seemed, they had plunged into utter darkness. Toadette started, glancing up from her wad of tissues. Bowser's profile was illuminated only by his dashboard monitors, pinpricks of color swallowed by black. “Wait, where are we?”

Bowser licked his teeth, cutting the engine and completely darkening the truck’s cabin. And all at once, brilliant white light flooded through the windshield and windows, revealing their surroundings after a moment of flinching blindness. “Garage. Home sweet—”

“Oh my gosh,” Toadette breathed, her jaw slowly lowering as she counted the cars, the cars. Rolls Royce, Escalade, Hummer, a seriously beat-up Pontiac Trans Am, and a Ford Falcon XB GT straight out of the wasteland, in addition to the huge truck in which they’d arrived. “Are all these yours?”

Bowser cleared his throat. Is he blushing? “Uh. Yes. Well, mostly. They’re my uncle’s, or they were. He sends any duplicates my way. Gets ‘em a lot as gifts from—” He blinked. “—friends.”

Well, now. But she could afford to pick that apart at a later time. Instead she opened the door and slipped out to get a closer look. All the cars were in stunning condition, the smaller ones heavily modded for—street racing? And in the back corner was a lone motorcycle. A two-seater cruiser, with saddlebags. Who do you like to bike with? “Wait, duplicates? Bowser.” She pivoted on the spot, shooting him a disbelieving look. “Come on.”

Bowser cracked his neck and hopped out of the truck. “Yes ma’am?”

“Seriously. What’s the deal.” She made sure to intone it as an order rather than a question, crossing her arms. “This is like, ten million coins you’re sitting on. Do you—” Her eyes narrowed. “Is this from the racing? The illegal ones—you win money?” Spill it, partner mine.

Bowser laughed at that. “Hell, no. I wasn’t lying, Toadette. These are all from the—from my uncle.” He gave a faltering smile. “Here, let’s move your stuff in. The private quarters are all on the third floor.”

Private quarters. Toadette squinted at him for a good three seconds before grabbing two of her bags from the car. The garage seemed to go on endlessly, sporting a sizeable shop at the far end, and Toadette could scarcely imagine how huge the rest of the place had to accordingly be. Estate, the documents had described it. She'd expected, oh, maybe two floors, a dedicated media room, maybe a three-car garage. Not this, by far.

Bowser took a deep breath. “So, uh. Here, let's take the tour.” He lifted up the remaining three bags as though they weighed nothing and led the way up. And Toadette’s eyes bugged out of her skull.

“Bowser.” Even though the lights were all off, the room scarcely needed them. Its slender windows towered over them, casting slits of odd ambient light over the red marble floor.

Golden ambient light, refracting from below, though, rather than from the sky—oh yeah, no sun. Nonetheless it illuminated just enough of that flooring, the intricate moldings and tapestries hanging on the walls to communicate just how lavish the place actually was.  A manor, then? After all, the garage had been underground, and very nice—

“This is just the antechamber. This way.”

Just the antechamber? You're kidding me. And then Toadette uttered the phrase aloud as they walked through a pair of high double-doors, into what she hoped was the main hall.

Two massive stone staircases ascended at least four floors high, coiling around one another in a red marble helix. The lights here were on but dimmed, all sunset-colored bulbs sitting in dozens of bronze candelabras that matched the four huge chandeliers overhead. Every visible square inch of the gray-stoned walls, banisters and support arches bore intricate relief sculptures that had to be at least a century or two old. To Toadette they looked like gargoyles. Between the windows hung even more of the damn tapestries.

“So, we’re in a castle." Toadette shot Bowser a look. "You live in a castle.”

“Yeah. Welcome. To, uh. Bowser’s castle.” Bowser swayed a bit, as though suddenly feeling light-headed. Huh. “Again, it’s not actually my property or anything. Just—”

“Who is he?” Toadette cut in, turning around to face him. “Your uncle.” Stupid stupid Dry Bones for not even briefing her on this, this mysterious figure who had to be the crux of her new partner's entire existence, if he'd really given him this whole impossible place to live in—

After a curiously long stretch of silence, Bowser set the bags onto the enormous rug underfoot and motioned for her to follow. “Over here.”

Toadette watched, bewildered, as he stepped past many sets of ten-foot-high doors to an altogether grander set at the far end of the hall. These were far wider and twice as tall, solid redwood and gilded in bronze at the corners. His muscles strained and threatened to bust through his shirt as he struggled to push one open. "Need any help?!"

"Nah... almost..." At last the massive door swung open. "Here we go."

Bowser traced the wall for what turned out to be a lights panel and hit every switch. After some popping and sizzling, what had to be ancient wiring finally kicked on. Toadette’s heart raced as the space slowly lit up: a huge ballroom, with extravagantly tiled black marble flooring and a dais at one end, lit by half a dozen massive chandeliers and adorned with—

“This guy.” The vast walls were lined with huge portraits, each captioned with a brass plaque underneath. Toadette skipped up to the one he’d pointed at and took a closer look. Saulus Kerog Gïga-Bowser, Sixty-Third of His Line.

“He’s the king, isn’t he? Bowser? Your uncle’s the king?” Toadette rounded on him. “That’s what all this is?”

“Yeah.” Bowser had folded his arms, his expression severe. “He took over after Queen Paula was ousted.” He swallowed. “Not quite five years ago.”

Toadette inhaled slowly, glancing back and forth between Bowser and the portrait. “You do look like him. That’s—” She shook her head. “Jeez, Bowser. How come no one said anything earlier? You’d think—” And she froze. “They don’t know…do they?” That would just explain so much—

“They, uh. I’m not too sure.” His face softened. “Pretty sure Koopa’s figured it out. Toad has to know—” Toad, huh. Oh, this would be so funny later. ”Dunno if…”

“So what’s the deal?”

He blinked. “Huh?”

“Why haven’t you told your team that you’re directly related to the king?!” She made sure to utter the words slowly, steadily, like asking a small child where all the cookies had gone. Or what color the sky was. Okay, that one's kind of funny.

“He, uh.” Bowser exhaled slowly. “We don’t get along, exactly. When he took the throne, I asked him to keep me off any official records. Told him I didn’t want the press.” He swallowed, then made a poor attempt at a grin. “Rather be known for racing, you know? Not for who I’m related to.”

Toadette supposed it made sense, in a way. And yet after he’d said all that, Bowser full-body shuddered. For real. There had to be something else, she knew. “You figured your team would find out if you brought them here.” She planted her hands on her hips. “So I have to keep this secret from them?”

Bowser opened his mouth. Closed it. Then he sat down on the floor. Toadette followed suit, fluffing her new skirt over her folded legs as she tried to process it all. But even she felt more collected than Bowser looked. Is this too much for him? I was supposed to be the one having the insane day.

Then again, he was the one who had set all this in motion, no? Had opened his house to her, had set her up so well. And on top of all this. It’s okay to cry, he’d told her. How many times had he said the same thing to himself, with no one else around, alone in this huge place?

She'd write him a really nice thank-you note, once all this was over. Long after she paid him back.

“It's no big deal, really," she replied. "I’m not trying to throw a wrench into anything you’ve had going on.” Who knew how long this had been the case? “Promise.”

“I don’t—you shouldn’t have to keep secrets for me. They’re your teammates, too. Fuck, I shouldn't even be asking—it's so fucked up—it's—”

I shouldn't, no. But Bowser was hardly alone in that regard. Toadette sighed and smiled at him. “They’re my teammates, yep. But you’re my partner now.”

Silence, for a bit. Bowser collapsed back and stretched his legs out, exhaling slowly. Decompressing, if she had to guess.

Toadette leaned back on her hands to look up at the ceiling. Copper-tiled, she was pretty sure, behind the pinpricks of dim chandelier lights that could almost have passed for stars. Is this the closest we’ll get to stargazing?

“I had a lot of ancestors who took the throne,” Bowser murmured after a while, tracing the tiles beneath his hands. “Before Peach’s family, but after hers, too. It’s always been either us or the Toadstools, long as the records show.”

Interesting. Maybe Iggy's illuminati theories weren't totally off. “Who’s gonna be king after your uncle? D’you have any cousins?”

“No.” Bowser’s hands fell flat against the floor. “He never married. Dunno if he wants to.”

But—then—“Then his line will end with him?” You’d be—

“He never declared an heir,” Bowser slowly replied. “The one time I asked him about it, he shrugged it off. Said the Council'd find somebody fit for it. He's like the opposite of Queen Paula.”

Crazy. But respectable. “I wouldn’t wanna be Queen,” Toadette murmured, wrinkling her nose. “I wouldn’t get to race often enough. Too much other stuff to take care of.”

And Bowser finally sat up. “Amen to that. Here, let’s put your stuff up and we can hit the track.”

Toadette hopped to her feet. “So what’s on the second floor, if the bedrooms are on the third?”

Several offices, lounges, a game room, and a solar, as it turned out. “Wait, what’s a solar?”

“Smaller dining room,” Bowser explained. “When the old royals didn’t want to go down to the great hall to eat with the other courtiers. Next to it is a smaller kitchen that leads down to the greenhouse.”

“How the heck could you have a greenhouse without sunlight?” Toadette asked, genuinely flabberghasted. She'd been prepared for the other stuff, but... “Where’s all the light coming from outside? Is there a fake sun, or—?” And then she remembered that red glow she had seen as they’d approached the castle, before she’d begun crying out of nowhere. Ridiculous. Should have paid attention—

“Up here.” And they headed upstairs to a stone-paved landing. “Oh, and put your mask back on.”

Huh. They were going out onto a balcony, then? Toadette slipped her lacy mask over her mouth before following him through another pair of thick wooden doors. Outside—

“Is that lava?” she screeched, dropping all of her bags to run up to the railing. Three floors below, the moat around the castle glowed so bright as to nearly hurt her eyes, orange and bubbling and hot. She could feel it even from up so far. “Bowser—?!”

“Yeah. Be careful.” He’d pulled out a carton of cigarettes. Surprise, surprise. “They had to put stone rails like these on the track once a bunch of racers had died on it. This whole area is a volcanic plain.”

The track? “What track?” She’d only seen one on the television that had been over lava, but…

Bowser grinned around his lit cigarette. “First things first. Pick a room—mine’s at the very end, but all the others are empty.”

Ooh. Toadette finally looked away from the lava and turned around, examining the space where they stood. Rather than a balcony, the area was a long colonnade with the stone railing on one side and several doors spaced far apart along the other. Each of these rooms must be huge. “I wanna see all of them!”

Sure enough, even the smallest one furthest away from Bowser had its own closet and bathroom. “In the old days? There were only four rooms here, and they were each twice as big. When my great-great-great aunt inherited it, she knocked out all the courtier chambers on the second floor to turn them into offices, and split up all the rooms on this floor for guests.”

“Oh my gosh,” Toadette sighed as she continued to look in each room. “I can’t imagine that. This one’s even bigger than our rest area at the labs.” Way bigger. Lemmy could have played fetch with Chompie in this one.

“These three also have balconies,” Bowser mentioned as she checked out the last few. “Again, that's lava down there, so don’t lean over them too far.”

But the light streaming through those windows was just so gorgeous; orange-red, like the desert sunsets, and she wouldn’t even have had to sneak out to enjoy it. Her favorite of the balconied rooms had a beautifully beamed cathedral ceiling, a cool stone-tiled bathroom, and a huge hide on the floor, to say nothing of the elaborately-carved wooden furniture—a canopy bed, desk, chair, and dresser, all red-hued and lustrous. “This one!”

Bowser grinned, leaning back against the door frame. “Good choice. I think there’s a full-length mirror in the closet.”

A walk-in closet at that. “It’s a little dusty,” Toadette laughed, waving her hand through the air, thankful she’d kept on her face mask.

Bowser activated the room’s air filtration and ventilation before helping her wipe all the dust off. “Should be cool enough in here once we get back,” he called as she hung all of her new things in the closet.

This is some kind of fairy tale. I’m a princess in a castle. Like something out of a dream. For all she knew, Toadette would likely wake up the next morning and still be stuck in that steel trap, in cold grays and halogen lights and relentless experimentation scheduling. She twirled in place; best that she relished the dream while it still endured.

“Ready to go?” They headed back downstairs, past all those offices and that ballroom and into that huge garage.

“Which track, already?!”

“Heh. Come on.” He lowered a kart she recognized all too well from the Grand Prix footage onto the truck bed. The Koopa King. Her real new house, truthfully.

Toadette grinned, running her fingertips along the kart’s titanium fender. “Is it a surprise? Am I gonna freak? You'd better not be getting all my expectations up for nothing, Bowser—”

He cracked up at that. “I think you'll like it.”

Rather than heading back toward the freeway, Bowser instead steered them deeper into the district. The hills and eerie metal structures seemed to grow larger as they approached. What is this...?

“This is my favorite track,” Bowser breathed softly, as though having heard her unsung question. They drove right up to what Toadette realized, with a minor heart attack, was the edge of a cliff. The sight below made her jaw drop.

“This is the old Kerog Castle track,” she breathed, not believing her eyes. Film clips and textbook images flashed through her head—spinning fireball bars, flame-breathing statues, lava pools that had claimed the life of more than one racer, overgrown thorny courtyards and immense black-tiled halls—grainy horrors all haphazardly filmed by fans betwixt smoother, shinier cuts from official FBR clips—

“Yup.” Bowser cut the engine and slid out from the truck. “They took out most of the hazards and put railing around the bridges over the lava. It's safe even without the FBR's gameday safety measures.”

Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh. It took everything in Toadette's power not to hijack Bowser's kart and drive in there by herself. Patience. Bowser liked to take his sweet time with things, unlike Wendy and Roy. Such a drama queen. All this deliberate buildup and theatricality...

Bowser slid into his green steel six-wheeled kart. Instinctively Toadette hopped onto the Thrower pedestal, its surface positioned just low enough for her to clear in a single leap. Koopa was a lightweight, she remembered. Not much heavier than me. No wonder this felt so easy—the lower Thrower bar in close reach, the higher one not obstructing her vision at all. In front of her feet, Bowser's head rest looked adjustable, and the steering wheel was not unmanageably large.

Silently they rode up to the starting line. Something about this massive, dark place, devoid of all life yet still moaning at them (surely it was just the wind!) as though in despair. Toadette licked her lips, drumming her fingers against the bar. This is amazing—one of the most monstrous tracks in karting history, and here she was, standing in its belly.

“I can drive us through the first lap, just so you can see what'll be in store,” Bowser called back to her, pulling a timer app open on his phone. “Ready to go?”

Toadette hopped back behind the kart and brushed one hand along the fender. She could do this. This felt right. Felt natural. “Ready.”

Three, the phone hummed. Not the word, no, but the tone that meant it universally, no matter the cup or track. Toadette's heart raced at the familiar sound.

Two. At the start, Throwers would always jump on after pushing off the ground. At just the right angle, she could add that much more thrust to their forward momentum...

One. Time slowed to a crawl. If she jumped too soon or too late, the kart would spin out and they'd lose precious seconds. Not an option, for the All-Cup, or anywhere.

GO!

Like clockwork, Toadette's feet moved just as she felt the kart blast to life under her grip. Up she flew, a momentary angel—finally a suitable metaphor, in all this lace—as the space on either side of them began to stretch and blur.

No Double-Dash, she mourned, spreading her legs in a stable stance and getting a hold on her bearings. Well, not yet. It was just a matter of practice hours, she reminded herself. She'd see those blue flames yet.

“Pretty good!” Bowser called back to her. “It's a straightaway up here—there used to be these fucking Thwomps that made life hell for anybody with shitty handling. No sweat anymore.”

Got it. Toadette gasped as they entered what should have been a completely darkened great hall, but the floor beneath them had been dropped and filled with lava. Only a narrow bridge crossed the immense space, a single black line cutting across a gleaming, hot sea of orange that hit dead against the black walls.

After the first lap's worth of sudden right-angle turns, hairpin curves and a spine-tingling jump over a jutting drawbridge, Toadette whooped once she spotted the checkered line, its paint chipped and worn from years of disuse.

“Ready to switch?” Bowser called as they approached the straightaway. Toadette hollered an affirmative.

“Three, two, one—”

Bowser made such a striking figure, propelling himself up out from the seat and up to the pedestal, that Toadette nearly forgot what she was doing. Nearly. Sliding into that leather seat felt like second nature, and everything looked to be in place. “I take it this second set of pedals isn't the one you were using?”

“That's for you, now!” he laughed, leaning back languidly as he held onto the higher Thrower bar with a single hand's grip. “Eight years of driving together, Koopa 'n I could never negotiate sharing a single pedal set. I wanna say my legs are nearly two feet longer 'n his.”

“I believe it.” This was unreal. Custom-tailored for me, nearly. Ooh, was this smooth. “And they're just working automatically! No need to trigger a switch or anything!”

“Yep. That took forever to figure out, but worth it, obviously.” She loved how the kart's suspension shifted so minimally as Bowser leaned in and out of the turns she took. This is what working with a pro feels like. All the fat cut out, all the gears perfectly in line— 

“Having fun?”

“Hell, yeah! You're a natural.” Bowser cracked up as she two-wheel (three-wheel?) turned one sharp corner, hollering in delight.

Toadette snorted. “You're the natural. This took ten years of intensive training to master, might I remind you.” For starters.

“Well, it's paying off! How's your drifting?”

Toadette grinned, putting enough pressure on the breaks so they'd begin banking the hairpin curves. This night was already one for the books. Let's see how fast we can pull off a mini-Turbo... 

Sparks—yellow, then red, then blue. “WHOOOO!”

We got this.

Chapter Text


Bowser woke up precisely at seven o'clock, and not by choice.

Brrzzzt. Brrzzzt. 

“The hell...?” He had to reach to the floor to dig the phone out from where his jeans lay in a crumpled heap. Nothing on the caller ID.

“Bowser! Is everything alright? I hadn't heard from you since the subject’s airport confirmation had arrived—”

Oh. Right.

“Uh, sorry,” he murmured, still blinking away sleep. For that matter, when had been the last time he'd slept half so well? “Uh, yeah, Toadette's made it here fine. We had a big day yesterday. You wanna talk with her?”

“Oh ho ho, no, no worries at all. For I assume that she has moved in without a hitch?”

“Yeah, yeah. Went shopping yesterday, then hit the tracks. She's good.” Incredibly good.

“But of course. We only pair the best with the best, as I'm sure you've figured out!” Dry Bones gave another long-winded laugh. Great. Let me go back to sleep. Only Bowser now felt far from tired.

“But, uh, I had a few questions,” he continued after steeling himself. “If you don't mind...?”

“Oh, ask away! I'm not surprised to hear you say that. It's a highly unique program you've—”

Why does she call them labs? Were you experimenting on her? How the hell do you have a machine that can alter people's DNA? What have you been doing with all these kids...?

“Uh... how come Toadette didn't have anything to bring with her? Like, not even a phone, or an ID—and what happened to her family? She hasn't talked about them at all. I wanted to see if she was up for visiting them, but she kept changing the subject—”

“Ah, yes, yes.” Dry Bones inhaled slowly. An entire second of silence passed, unnerving after all the chatter. “A very touchy subject with her, as I'm sure you in particular will understand soon enough—”

Oh. And now Bowser regretted even bringing it up.

“—but, yes, Miss Toadette's family is no longer with us,” Dry Bones continued in his most somber tone yet. “They passed away quickly—an accident, you see, that had taken place a few years after she joined our program.”

“I'm sorry to hear that,” he uttered automatically. “You're right...I get it now.”

Three months—

“And, might I add, our R&D Chief has a few degrees in child psychology,” Dry Bones continued. “She had many individual sessions with Toadette. We do understand how awfully lonely it can get, out there in the middle of nowhere, so she makes sure that each of our racers are highly socialized—optimized for working smoothly with multiple teammates, you see.”

Made sense, Bowser guessed, even if that all sounded disgustingly clinical. Optimized.

“Toadette really is awesome, though,” he replied, rocking up into a sitting position. “I wanted to thank you for arranging all this. I think she likes being out here, too.” She certainly liked racing. And shopping. And talking. Pretty normal, considering—

“Oh, by all means, I should be the one thanking you!” Dry Bones' voice had returned to its usual upbeat cadence. “Now, remember, this is only the beginning! We have great plans in store for your team, Bowser. Great plans indeed. But I'll not hold you up all morning! Admittedly, I have a seven-thirty to run to, but you take care!”

“Uh, yeah. Sure thing.”

“And give Toadette my best! Talk to you later, my friend.” Click.

Bowser's vision went red.

My friend.

That prick had not just—

It took everything in Bowser's power not to hurl the phone against the far wall this time around. So goddamn tempting. The smartphone would undoubtedly have shattered into a million pieces, but that was exactly what he wanted right then—

“Bowser?”

The sound of Toadette's voice outside his door sent a jolt down his spine. He quickly rolled out of bed and pulled his jeans on. “Hey—uh, come on in, I'm decent—”

He heard his door creak open, and two clicking footsteps. “Whoa—um, where are you...?”

“Up here,” he called, briefly leaning over the loft's wooden railing. “Be right down.”

“Your room is cool.” More footsteps. After failing to locate a shirt, Bowser shrugged and trudged down the narrow loft steps to where Toadette had begun exploring. “You play chess?!”

“Hah, no,” he attempted to laugh as she inspected its board—volcanic rock, he was pretty sure, with amber pieces. “That's been there since before I moved in. All the shit I use is dated from within the past century, thanks.”

“Sure,” Toadette laughed as he glanced into his ensuite. “Like that kitchen. With nothing but bacon in the fridged cabinet.”

Of course she'd checked out the entire goddamn castle while he'd slept. Bowser growled and dug a used tank top from the laundry pile. “Hey, I have coffee in the freezer,” he retorted. “And tofu.”

“Believe me, I saw,” she laughed, continuing to walk around his room. “So what's with the spikes?”

Oh, she was so not touching those—Bowser immediately walked back into the rest of the room and snatched them up before Toadette could lay her hands on them. “Uh, these are kind of important to me. You can mess with everything else. I promise.”

Toadette crossed her arms, as close to legit pouting as he'd ever seen. “Yeah? Where'd you get them? Or were they a present? From your uncle?” At the sight of his face, likely, she grinned. “Ha! Nope. Okay... Peach?”

“Oh my god.” He turned away from her and pretended to focus on strapping them back on. Wrists, biceps, neck—

“Yeah? So they are from her?”

Three months. “No.” Thirteen days. “Close, but—” Fifteen hours. “Not quite.”

“What's that mean? Someone else you dated?” Toadette peeked into his closet before jumping. “Oh my gosh, your closet's bigger than mine—I was not ready—not—!”

“It was a king's at one point,” Bowser reminded her, laughing softly in spite of himself. “And no, I never dated anybody else. Dunno if I'd even really call that dating, now that I think about it.”

Toadette rounded on him, her eyes wide. “Why not? You didn't go on dates with her?”

Must you test me so early in the day…? “We didn't go out, no. Just, uh.” The edges of his mouth quirked, aiming for the right words but firing blanks. “I was mostly just trying to keep her mom from driving her crazy. We'd cruise around, hiding from her. She joked that I'd always kidnap her, so her mom would send out an army. Which actually happened a few times—”

“Right,” Toadette murmured, her eyes clouding. “Since her mom was so awful. Wait, but you liked her, didn't you?”

“Of course I did,” Bowser snapped. “I mean, it's Peach, for crying out loud. She's an amazing person. Everybody likes her.” Except the one person selfish enough to—

“That's not what I mean!” Toadette gave an exasperated sigh. “What I mean is, you were in a relationship, right? She refused that arranged marriage because she wanted to be with you?!”

Bowser nearly fell over at that. Holy—but— “I... I dunno if I'd go that far,” he spluttered, suddenly pissed at Koopa for never having brought up that scenario. You were supposed to be the analytic one, he mourned. “Like...we hung out, yeah, but it never went, uh...just...”

And Toadette stared at him for a good ten seconds. “That's crazy. I don't believe you. You were so cute together! And she didn't even seem mad at you even though you're broken up—”

“Let's just—let's just say it's a bit more complicated than that,” he wheezed, glancing around for shoes until remembering he'd left them in the entry hall. Head's all over the place...

“Yeah? Was she into somebody else? You and Daisy kept mentioning somebody named Mario.”

“Fuck Mario,” he replied automatically. “No, uh, she didn't meet him 'til after all that. After she'd bought the bakery.” Holy shit, Toadette. “It was more on my end, I guess. Both she and I knew who I really liked.”

And Toadette lifted both arms to the heavens as though he'd answered some kind of prayer. “Here we go. Okay, walk and talk, you look like you're going somewhere.”

“I was gonna get us breakfast,” he admitted, holding the door open for her once she strapped her mask back on. “Since we forgot to eat last night—”

“We were having too much fun!” Toadette laughed. “We, um, ate up the track. I'm kinda hungry now, though.”

“I figured,” he laughed as they descended down the enormous central staircase. Keep her distracted—

“But don't you have breakfast food in your kitchen? Let's use that up first!” Toadette jumped the bottom three stairs and bolted toward the dining hall, away from the garage.

“Sure,” he murmured long after she'd disappeared from sight.

But once he found her pulling things from his fridge, a thought struck him. “What did you all eat at the—the labs?” he asked, for lack of a better word. It felt awful in his mouth.

“Vitamins!” she piped from behind the fridge. “Protein bars. Shakes. Vegetables. A few times we had real meat.”

Bowser forced himself to laugh as he dug around in the cabinets for a clean frying pan. “I guess you'd have to import that stuff from a ways away. Not too many animal farms in Dry Dry Desert.”

“You got that right.” Toadette pinned her braids back to the nape of her neck and washed her hands in the copper sink. “Sometimes we'd look up bacon recipes on cooking blogs just to torture ourselves. We had a greenhouse on the top floor, though.”

Sunlight on the top floor...? “So it wasn't all underground?”

“Nope! You can actually see them from the Dry Dry Desert course.” She began slicing peppers on his butcher block. “Those giant pyramids in the distance. All the tech was kept underground to keep from heating up, but the quarters were within those big pyramids, and rec space and gardens were on top.”

“Cool,” Bowser murmured, absently watching the bacon begin to sizzle. “Now that you mention it, I kinda want to check out the filtration system in the greenhouse here. We could try to start it up again.”

“How would plants even grow? Lava doesn't exert vitamin D, does it?!”

Bowser shrugged. “Never even thought of that. Need to do some research. There's gotta be something in the library.”

“I checked out that library! Some of those books are ancient.” Toadette began chopping the tofu into cubes. “Like, old. Maybe even predating this place. Some were handwritten manuscripts! One had this scary-looking cover, like a—”

“Definitely older than this place, if they were handwritten.” All the years Bowser had lived there, he'd only looked in that room a few times. It freaked him out, no lie, that creaking floor and inescapably dim lighting and all those bookshelves looming overhead like specters. But with another person? Maybe it wouldn't feel quite so spooky. “Hey, I got another pan in there.”

“Thanks.” She fired up a burner on the second stove and heaved a cast-iron pan onto it. “This is gonna be so great. I'm starved. Do you always eat in that huge banquet by yourself?”

“Ha, no. Usually just on the counter in here.” He grinned. “But we don't have to keep doing that now.”

After chopping up the bacon and tossing it into Toadette's stir fry, Bowser grabbed a rag and dusted off the huge table in the banquet hall. An eighteen-seater with the fewest of its leaves pulled out, the massive solid oak thing probably weighed more than his car. Three spindly torches topped it off, each nearly taller than him and draped in orange and green silks. Toadette found him standing on the table when she entered with two plates in hand. “What are you doing?!”

“Lighting this thing,” he laughed, finally getting the flame of his lighter to hit the old wick at the right angle. In the warm glow of the torchlight, the dining room now looked decidedly less like a mausoleum.

“It's pretty.” Toadette set the two plates down, one at the head of the table and another on the space to its immediate right. “But wipe off your footprints when you get down.”

“Yes, ma'am.” He cackled to himself and lit the last of the candles. God, if he could just figure out one day how to eat fire...

Toadette shook her head, chuckling under her breath. “And where do you keep your silverware?”

“In the drawers next to the sink,” he called back, hopping off the table.

Breakfast was a downright cozy affair. Toadette had pulled the stir fry out at just the right time. “Man, I can't remember the last time I ate this well at home,” he laughed, leaning back into the plush dining chair.

“I still can't wrap my head around you living in this huge place by yourself,” Toadette murmured, dropping her napkin over her empty plate. “I would've gone insane.”

“Eh. I didn't spend a whole ton of time here, honestly. Just slept here and did my paperwork in my room.”

“Paperwork?”

“For the shop,” he replied, mentally assessing the time just then. Almost eight. They'd need to head down soon. “You wanna hang at the garage with me 'n Baby?”

“Totally!” Toadette leaped into the air. “Let me change into something I can work in.”

Of fucking course Toadette would happily opt to work on cars all day, Bowser mused as she dashed upstairs. No racer worth their salt would miss the chance to dig around in people's engines, he figured. Even shitty ones. Practice made perfect.

By the time he tossed the dishes into the haphazardly-wired dishwasher, Toadette had made it back downstairs, now in lacy black shorts instead of a skirt. Closed toed shoes, he noted, and shorter sleeves. Smart.

“I can't believe it still looks exactly the same,” Toadette murmured as they sped back toward the freeway. “It really is eight in the morning?”

“Eight twenty-two,” he murmured, watching for oncoming vehicles in the merge lane.

“The clock says eight twenty-one.” Toadette shot him a look.

“The clock's wrong.” Had Daisy said something to her?

“And you never answered my question,” Toadette continued. “Who gave you the straps? Unless you really don't want me to know...?” She grinned. “Is it someone you hate worse than your uncle?”

What the shit— ”Hell, no. Like, the polar opposite. Think, uh, greatest person on the—no, uh, in the universe.” Times ten hundred million—

Toadette rolled her eyes. “Uh huh. So it's like that.”

“What's like what?” His mouth had suddenly run dry. Three months—

Toadette gave an exasperated moan. “You gotta tell me! Otherwise I'm gonna assume it's Peach and that you're lying.”

“You're making me wish I installed an eject button in this thing,” he sighed. “It's—uh, okay. How many of the All-Cups have you watched?”

Toadette cackled aloud. “Are you kidding me? I've seen all of them, Bowser! More than once.” She examined her nails. “Some of them a bunch of times, if there was really good footage.”

“Yeah? What was your favorite stunt, out of all of them?”

Toadette chewed her tongue. Bowser loved the fact that this answer was taking her so long to decide, for a number of reasons. “...The fifty-fifth All-Cup, six years ago. Rainbow Road. You know those stretches that don't have any guard rails? One racer dodged three red shells just by power-sliding so they'd crash into each other, then got rammed off the edge of the track by another kart, and then used a Mushroom to propel herself back onto the track from below. It was sick—like, if it hadn’t been live footage, I would’ve sworn it was fake, you know?”

Ding ding ding. Christ, did Toadette have good taste. “Yeah. You remember the name of that racer?”

Toadette groaned. “Dang it—oh, I knew I should've paid more attention—I always just remembered the techniques, not the people...argh....”

Fine with him. Bowser grinned. “Let me know when you remember. And no cheating.”

“No fair! What if literally everyone else on the planet knows, but not me?!” Toadette folded her arms. “I remember what she looked like, too! Cruiser-weight, right? She 'n her kart was pretty big... total pro.” She chewed her tongue. “She was Red's favorite, too, I think...”

He'd heard Toadette mention that name before. “Is Red another subject?”

Toadette shook her head violently. “No! Red was kind of—our teacher, I guess. Made sure we all stayed healthy and on task. She's amazing.” A pause. “I miss her.”

The R&D Chief…? But small wonder that Toadette missed her. Seeing only a set group of people, and no one else, for ten years—then to be abruptly taken from all of them—just— “You know, if you wanted—after we're done with the All-Cup—we could go visit, if you want.”

But to his surprise, Toadette seemed to stiffen. “Eh. We'll see.”

Huh. “Like I said, uh. Not right now. You've only been out for a day.” He clicked on the windshield wipers as it began to rain. Thick, sludgy drops pounded against the glass like bullets.

“Yeah, I guess you're right.” Toadette closed her eyes, leaning back in her seat. “Feels like that was ages ago, though. Besides, they're all gonna graduate eventually. I'd rather hang with everyone out here.”

He could hardly blame her for that. “Are you able to keep in contact with them?”

She nodded, keeping her eyes shut. “I'd just go through the FBR to get their contact information. Standard procedure.”

Dry Bones had not answered his query regarding her ID, Bowser realized with a jolt. “Is everything you do through the FBR? I noticed you didn't have your own card.”

“I have biometric records on file with them,” Toadette replied coolly. “Any place that checks cards would just scan my thumbprint, or eye.” She grinned. “It's easier.”

“Yeah.” He guessed it made sense. Still, it struck him as uncannily similar to having a criminal record. Tagged, and collared

“Hey.” Her eyes were still shut, but she had tilted her face toward him. “I heard you talking to Dry Bones this morning.”

Busted. “Yeah?”

“It sounded like he told you.”

Bowser swallowed. “Told me...?”

“About the crash.”

Crash? Accident, Dry Bones had called it. “I asked him. It wasn't like he just threw your history at me out of nowhere.”

And she finally opened her eyes. “I heard you ask. What'd he say?”

Bowser brushed off a wave of annoyance. Do I gotta soundproof my room...? “He, uh, mentioned an accident. Didn't go into details.” He exhaled slowly. “You don't have to tell me if you don't want to.”

Except Toadette clearly did. “Their plane crash-landed,” she intoned steadily, her eyes unblinking. “About six years ago.”

Jesus—

“My dad liked to fly private planes, small ones. They—my mom, and my dad, and my, um, sister—all were headed to a vacation to Isle Delfino. They made an emergency crash landing on an island, and no one survived.”

And Bowser pulled over onto the freeway shoulder, not willing to bet on his own muscle functions at this point. He pulled the car into park and hit the panic button. The road seem to come alive every other second in the yellow glow of his headlights, plunging to darkness in between.

“...Bowser?”

“Jesus, Toadette. This happened when you were only thirteen?”

“Yeah. But it was a long time ago. It’s okay.” But her voice broke on that last word. “Right? They—Red was—” She smiled, her eyes shining. “She would come talk to me about it a lot. Like a therapist, I guess. I didn’t know it at the time. It’s fine. Really.”

Bowser closed his eyes, exhaling slowly. “And you—just—stayed there? Nobody else?”

“I had lots of friends at the labs,” she snapped. “One of ‘em graduated before me, but the others were all still in progress when I left yesterday. Might be awhile before I see ‘em again.”

“How many?”

“Huh?”

“Uh, at the—” Labs— “hey, you keep calling ‘em labs—were they, like, running experiments? Or—”

“Yup! They were recording everything, testing some things. Wouldn’t know what else to call it.” She winced a bit. “I guess that does sound kinda weird. But there were eight of us, after...”

“It’s not weird.” He released the panic switch, and so yellow flashing ceased. “I mean. Don’t worry about it.” He started the engine. “Sorry to hear about your family.” All three—dead—no one else—

“But you’re the same, aren’t you?” she asked him once they were back on the freeway. “I saw that race.”

Of fucking course she’d watched it happen live. God, he wanted to smoke.

But something told him to maybe hold off while Toadette was in the cramped truck cabin with him; no need to damage her lungs any further than the rest of the world would. “Yeah. Koopa and I were watching it at his parents’ house. After that, it was, uh, kind of a blur.”

Toadette clasped her hands together in her lap and looked away from him, out the window, toward that red-lined horizon. “I’m glad I didn’t have to watch my parents die. That must’ve been awful.”

It was. “Nobody deserves to go out that way. They…” He grinned, not fully understanding how or why. “I think they would’ve loved to meet you.” Especially after her insistence on jumping into the garage race. Shit, his mom probably would’ve tried to compare Special Item specs on the spot.

“It means a lot to hear you say that,” she eventually replied. “Their races were most of my favorites.”

Not a surprise. “Mine, too. They just—they made it look so easy.” So beautiful. Like... like art.

“Yeah.” Toadette slowly inhaled and exhaled. “Hey, um. Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For...for listening to me.” She gave a quick, joyless grin. “There's no real good way to drop that kind of information. So I just decided to throw it all out at once. But I figured you'd understand.”

He shrugged, zoning out as the skyscrapers and neon of Mushroom City's midtown enveloped them. “You can always talk to me, you know. It's what I'm here for.”

Toadette grinned, her eyes half-lidded and misty in the ambient lighting. “That's nice. I'm here to win.”

“Heh. Well, it's a lot easier to win once you get stuff like that off your chest. You got that much less to stress over.”

And then she looked back at him again. “You realize we're totally gonna win the race tonight, right?” Her smile was downright devilish. “You gotta let me in. You know it, Bow.”

Nuts, how easily that nickname had slipped out. Bowser sighed, laughing softly as he merged onto the exit. “Yeah, yeah. Okay. Fine.”

YES!”

“Just, uh. Like I said. Don't go writing blog posts about it or anything. I really like not being in prison.”

“Roger that.” Toadette began rubbing her hands together, grinning nonstop. “Now, I wanna see this garage of yours.”


Something about gold, Lee thought. Its dazzling luster, its nigh-unique hue. Warmer than silver, more vibrant than bronze. Something about it had him dancing in place.

“Thoughts?”

Lee took a great big chomp out of his Star Bits parfait. “How many years ago was it we used this thing?”

A soft laugh. “Too many.”

And so Lee shrugged, swallowing the sweet concoction down. Sweet and tangy and luscious, in every color of the visible light spectrum. Yum. “Throw in two more cylinders.”

His Mama flipped up the visor of her welding mask in a show of exasperation. “You’re joking.”

“Partially.” Another bite. “Who’sh gon' be our biggesh' threat, again?” The parfait made his mouth feel ice cold.

“Within the race?” A quiet smile, a flick of a lock of hair, hiding that one eye as always. “Or without?”

“Versus this thing,” he elaborated, kicking that solid gold fender. Bump. “That crush of yours? The Daimaō kid?” Oh, how he loved that scathing look just then—“Or Ezekiel?”

“Hush. And those three are long dead, remember.”

Lee gave her a steady look. “And?”

“And… we’ll keep it at eight cylinders.” One eye, opening and closing as she stood. “I’ll leave electrical up to your discretion.”

“Gee, thanks, Mama.”

She kissed the crown of his head. “The Hegemony awaits me. I’ll be in the conference room for the next hour.”

“Got it.” Another bite of parfait. Best stuff in the universe. “Try to be polite, okay?”

“I'm always polite.” And she was gone, back out the bay door, her former silhouette now a star-studded void.

“Liar,” Lee chuckled toward the shiny gold kart. For all he knew, it had ears of its own. “Liar.”


“Good work, kids,” Bowser called as the final customer pulled out.

Baby rolled his eyes. “Who's the kid?”

“It's 'cause we're short, isn't it,” Toadette whispered next to him as they carefully cleaned and put away each of the tools into their proper kits.

Having Toadette around had made that workday go infinitely faster, and not just because she knew what she was doing. “I have a few theories,” Baby chortled. “Anyways, how much d'we make today, Bow?”

“Calculating now. Sit tight.”

Baby cracked his neck and finally slammed the wrench box shut. “I'm getting a beer," he called to Toadette. "You want a beer?”

Toadette shook her pink head. “No way. Aren't we racing in an hour?”

“Two hours! Right?” Baby kneaded his temples. “What time's it, Bow?”

“Six-fifty,” Bowser replied, ripping a receipt smartly from the cash register. “And that's just about nine hundred coins before tax.”

Toadette whistled. “Can we spend some of that on dinner? Where's everybody else?”

If Baby had to guess, Toad was on his laptop at their cramped studio, hammering out financial aid with Subcon. Daisy would have just finished her summer class, Luigi was likely up to something with that dopey brother of his, and Koopa and Paratroopa were probably napping after having apartment-hunted all day. He tried to never think about what Wally and Wario did on their workdays.

“Okay,” Bowser announced as he locked the bay doors, “we swing by someplace and grab wings for everybody. Eat in the car or at Grodus. I want everyone down there, pronto.”

“On it.” Baby whipped his phone out and cued the texting tree as they piled into Bowser's truck.

They'd hit the freeway by the time Toad replied that he could bring the kart up in exchange for something really spicy. Baby cracked up at that, ignoring Toadette's frantic demanding that he explain. “When you're older, darlin'.” Fucking riot.

“Hmph. Tell me about Grodus, then.”

“Three laps around the upper floors, then the spiral ramp that goes down the next four floors and leads out onto the lot. Should be three laps around that before finish.”

“I wish the official tourneys had segmented courses like that,” Toadette murmured, her eyes clouding up. “It has to get boring after a while, just doing laps around the same places, y'know?”

To Baby's surprise, Bowser laughed through his nose. “Careful what you wish for. Racing policy changes all the time.”

“Yeah?” Baby pulled his knees up to his chest. “Like when?”

“Like, uh. How they're thinking about pulling motorcycles in with karts.”

Toadette's jaw dropped. “Nuh uh,” she yelped. “That's ridiculous!”

“How d'you even know that,” Baby breathed, on full-body alert. His fearless team captain loved dropping cryptic hints about the industry, frequently right before the news became official. And Baby liked to think he knew why.

“You gotta read between the lines when they make announcements,” Bowser replied, shrugging. “I totally called it when they removed red shells from Battle events.”

“Yeah, like, nine hundred years ago,” Baby spat. “We don't even get Battle rounds anymore. Too rare for them to occur now, thanks to that mega-tie ruling.”

“Never say never,” Toadette chirped. She'd begun doing that hyper seat-kicking thing again with her heels. Too funny. “Battle's my favorite.”

Battle was Baby's least favorite. He hated attacking other people, other karts, even with something as dumb as a Banana. It was racing itself he loved, the thrill of hitting Toad's Bullet kart's ridiculous top speed and sustaining that with a magnificently-executed snake. Smooth and silent and clean, with no crunching or crashing to disrupt his thoughts.

Tough luck, then, that his Special Item was the most violent of them all—the exact same as Bowser's.

“Baby?” Toadette tugged at his hand.

“Nothing.” He closed his eyes, leaning back into his seat. “I'm so hungry!”

“Almost there. We ordered about ten minutes ago, so they should be right out once we pull up.”

Hot wings sounded phenomenal just then, Baby mused. Their garage was just so goddamn cold, and stupid Bowser always refused to budge the thermostat on grounds of customer complaints or some likely bullshit. Even the inside of the truck cabin felt chillier than normal. And so he yanked his threadbare cardigan tighter around his shoulders. Toad had just gotten him a nice new one the day before, but Baby hated to switch over until his old one was absolutely worn to shreds. Old habits died hard, he supposed.

Against all odds, Toadette passed out next to him, her pink head thumping onto the middle seat. Baby raised an eyebrow. “You okay?”

“'m fine,” came her muffled reply. “Naptime.”

Ha. “We'll wake you up once we get there, okay?”

“kay.”

Bowser continued to speed them down that dark asphalt road, curiously silent and still for someone on a race night, much less an unlawful one. Baby made a face, then crept over onto the front seat and buckled himself back in. “What's going on,” he whispered, closest he could get to inaudible.

Bowser shrugged, his lips quirking. Not the place.

Then it was related to Toadette. Baby sighed, his eyelids falling half-closed. Something had happened already? He shot a slow glance her way. She at least looked peaceful as all get out, curled up on the second row seats like a fluffy pink cinnamon roll.

“You alright, though?”

“Yeah. No, we're good. Honest.”

Baby watched his pupils dilate appropriately. He's telling the truth, then. Crazy. “So you're acting like a dead man for funzies?”

“Not dead. Just hungry. We'll be pepped back up once we get some calories in us.”

“Sure.”

Maybe it was just the same stuff Bowser had always been trying to bury, Baby mused. Family stuff, maybe, or financial stuff. He knew better than to go there.

But Toadette likely didn't, he figured, flipping all the AC vents away from his clammy skin. Baby was willing to bet his new sweater that Toadette had found some nerve or other, maybe without realizing it. If Bowser wasn't pissed at her, then maybe he was still sitting in his own pit, brooding over thoughts he hadn't brought up in a while. It was the typical pattern, an old one.

This too will pass.

And they were drenched in half-faded neon as Bowser exited the freeway, turning them toward the tiny wing shack lodged into its underpass however many years back. “Be just a minute.”

In Baby hopped, with a fresh roll of coins. “Pickup for, uh, Rex.”

“Aye-aye.” A Fry Guy took his cash and ducked back into the kitchen. One other customer was seated in that tiny waiting space, scrolling through a newsfeed on his phone. A really, really nice phone.

Baby rubbed his hands along his upper arms, relishing the steam drifting in through the narrow doorway. I could always threaten to quit, he laughed inwardly. Go be a frycook for the next few months.

Moot point, though. He and Toad would be way the hell out, as of August. Desert out. Only sunlight and refracting sand and pet lizards. Five or six, minimum. Toad had already made it into the prestigious Subcon University; all that remained was figuring out his stipend, and then they could go apartment hunting, and Baby could find a decent job nearby, and they'd be set. No more nasty smog, he thought cheerfully. Just his favorite person in the entire universe and some room big enough to fit the two of them. The lizards could always sleep on the roof.

“Cold?”

Baby blinked, glancing up at the speaker—the other customer. An admittedly good-looking guy, dark-haired, but maybe in his late thirties. Not my type, pal. Baby gave a noncommittal shrug.

And then he could absolutely not escape the feeling that the guy had been looking at him the whole damn time. Like those cold black eyes left ion trails on his skin. Hurry up, he willed to the frycooks behind that wall and cloud of steam. Please.

“Aren't you a racer?” the man continued, crossing one long leg over the other. He'd since put that expensive phone away somewhere. Baby struggled not to swallow and looked straight ahead.

“Yeah.” Why the shit had he thought to leave his phone in Bow's truck?! Ugh—

“Knew I'd seen you before,” the man laughed softly as he rubbed his neck. His voice was all too soft and still razor-edged, and familiar. “Headed to the All-Cup?”

Fuck off. Baby shrugged. “Maybe.”

A quick exhale. “Well, good luck.”

Where the hell had Baby meet that guy before...? Heard his voice before...? This was—

“Order for…Dark Bones?” a Shy Guy called, waddling back into the front room with an enormous, steaming paper bag. “You havin' a party, or what?”

“You could say that,” the man laughed, accepting the bag but not the pile of coins from the Shy Guy's other hand. “Keep the change.”

And he was gone, all but floating away through the double doors.

“Mercy,” the Shy Guy yelped, counting his heavy handful of change. “Ay, Go', you're not gonna believe this—”

Baby didn't fucking believe any of it. Get me out of here. Even the empty chair that guy had left behind seemed to remain occupied, ensconced in shadow despite the brutal halogen lighting overhead.

“Was there a holdup?” Bowser asked once Baby finally hopped back into the front passenger seat, steaming bags in hand.

“The guy before me ordered a ton, too,” Baby murmured, digging out the one container labeled Ghost Pepper. He needed a fiery distraction right now more than ever. Come to daddy.

Bowser chuckled. “Hand me one.”

Nonetheless Baby racked his brain the entire ride over to Grodus. Nobody in any of his foster families had been named fucking Dark Bones. Sure, yeah, Bones was a popular enough last name, but that way it buzzed in his head was driving him bananas. He munched as he brewed, digging into the food with abandon, feeling his skin slowly refill with heat.

Nonetheless this, too, passed.


“Wake up, Toadette! We're here!”

Nothing fishy about the track, from what Bowser could tell at a glance. Decent weather conditions—not quite warm enough for his tastes, shockingly, but not awful. Impressively-sized crowd at the garage, though, all neon-clad crazy car people leaning over the concrete railing to view the empty parking lot below.

Toad had arrived just after Boo, supposedly, and had marked off the finish line with glowing tape. Presently the kid was scarfing up hot wings, sitting back-to-back with Baby on top of their orange Charger.

“What's with all the people?” Bowser asked Wario as he and Waluigi pulled up in their ancient purple muscle car.

“Funny story, Bow,” Wario murmured as he dug through the many cartons of food. “Turns out Boo 'n Petey been practicing all day, every day since the Special Cup.” He harrumphed in victory after dislodging the Spicy Garlic box from the rest. “It's-a sounding like they got real good, real fast.”

It took everything in Bowser's power not to vomit onto the floor. “Are you shitting me,” he groaned, clutching his stomach. This was just—just perfect. Here he was with a brand new partner that he'd only been able to practice with for a few hours, tops, and—

“Eh, look on the bright side,” Waluigi murmured. Never a good statement, coming from this guy, Bowser bemoaned. “We only put ten coins down for you! Just pay us back whenever.” Yep.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” His heart sinking, Bowser trudged away to where Toadette had unloaded the Koopa King down his truck's rear ramp.

“Hey hey! Just checked the kart over. Full tank and oil. Antifreeze, too, but I don't think we...” She squinted at him and folded her arms. “What's wrong?”

Bowser absolutely did not have the heart to tell her that they were about to goddamn lose. “Nothing.” Her first real race, too, if not her first legal one. Ugh—

And Toadette actually kicked him in the shin. Hard. “You're gonna tell me the truth, or I'm gonna drive for this entire race. Deal?”

This was almost unfair. Would have been unfair, in another race, in a very different situation. Bowser nearly laughed in spite of himself. “You probably should. It's not looking good for us right now.”

Toadette stuck her tongue out at him. “Quit whining and tell me where to put this thing. I can't see where the starting line is from here. Those wings were awesome, by the way. I feel all warm and fuzzy inside.”

That makes one of us. Bowser sighed and hopped onto the Thrower pedestal. “Straight ahead, then pull a U-turn around that big pillar.”

It just had to be fucking Boo and Petey, of all people. Why had they decided to get good all of the sudden? Their usual practice schedule, from what he had long ago picked up, was riddled with breaks and entire weekends off. He finally wake up, or what...?

“Stop freaking out. We're gonna stomp 'em. Why 'm I even telling you this? You should be breathing fire at this point. Go eat more of those habanero wings, or something—”

“Just, uh, don't be surprised if Boo 'n Petey suddenly act really good out of nowhere,” he replied, steeling himself. “This may not be totally fun like I thought it was gonna be.”

After pulling the kart cleanly up against glowing start line, Toadette swung around in her seat and looked up at him. “We’re racing them first?”

She had asked about Boo earlier, he remembered. Did Daisy tell her about Ridley...?  “Yeah. Those two are obnoxious, but they usually put up a good fight during the seasonal Grand Prixes. I expected them to be on vacation since the Special Cup, but—”

“But what, Bow?” The clunky Boo Pipes slid right up next to the Koopa King. Boo himself leaned indolently against the Thrower bar, finishing off a menthol by the smell of it. Petey cut the engine once they were exactly level with the starting line. 

Christ in hell did he need to calm down. Bowser lit a cigarette, leaning backwards against the Thrower bar as he tossed the dead match away. “Was I talking to you?”

“Tough to say,” Boo sneered. “Hard to tell if there's anyone in that Driver seat. Did Koopa shrink himself, or 'm I going blind?”

Petey's face tattoos glowed even through the thick wool cover over his mouth. Laughing, Bowser assumed. Jackass—

“Since your vision’s that shitty…” Beneath him, Toadette had begun inspecting her nails. Shimmery pink, he noticed. “Let's hope your kart runs half as fast as that mouth of yours.”

And Boo's jaw actually dropped a good inch. Several seconds passed before he spluttered out a reply. “Bowser, you found yourself a toy with a tongue on it! Gotta say, I'm impressed. Pete, aren't y—”

Bowser flinched as Petey stood up in the Driver seat and planted one large hand on Boo's shoulder, somehow effectively shutting him up. “Quit yapping and watch the signal,” his cool voice cut in, piercing and rich with his subharmonics. Bowser shivered.

But super props to Toadette for firing back, he mused, puffing on the cigarette. The fat fuck had been taken totally off guard.

Koopa and Paratroopa showed up next, in a shell-shaped kart with bright red paint. “Heya, bro!”

“Missed you, man.” Bowser bumped fists with his former partner as Paratroopa herself lined them up. “Welcome to the team, lady!”

“Nice to meet you in person!” Paratroopa stretched her arms way into the air, her tungsten rings glinting in the garage's halogen lights. “Who's this?”

“I'm Toadette! You're...Paratroopa?”

“The one 'n only. Let's show these boys how it's done." She cracked her neck before casting a glance about. "Hey, who else are we racing against? Two-on-one is kinda—”

“Try three-on-one,” Boo laughed as Daisy and Luigi pulled up on his kart's other side. Bowser felt his stomach plummet. The hell...?

“Hold up,” Koopa laughed. “You think you 'n the plant can take on all three of us at once? You'd have to come in first to even—”

“First off, you don't gotta get all speciest, bud,” Boo retorted. “Petey ain't treated you like shit. Second, yes, we are gonna wipe the floor with the six of you, so start prayin' now.”

That confidence on its own would have almost been unnerving. But paired with Wario's tipoff, Bowser was downright alarmed. The guy wasn't kidding.

He'd tried to brush off Boo's doll comment earlier, but the fucker had a point. Feisty or no, Toadette was still tiny. Even smaller than Koopa. And Petey was the single biggest racer in the league, taller than Bowser himself and just as strong.

He could squish her like a bug. He could mistake her for a bug

No. Sure, they’d been practicing nonstop. But Bowser knew them. Knew their tricks, their habits. Boo and Petey were old news, and Toadette more than likely had her own tricks up her lacy sleeves. Tricks even he hadn’t seen.

Race isn’t over yet, pal. Hadn't even started.

“Racers ready?” A pot-bellied Pianta man carrying a bag of Awesome Snacks in one hand and a megaphone in the other had wandered up to the line. Bowser recognized the guy from a few of their past shindigs. “Start your engines!”

The crowds around them up to that point had buzzed and swelled, but at that line every person had instantly begun screaming their heads off, by the sound of it. Bowser could see Toadette's shoulders shaking from her cackling as she covered her ears.

“Countdown beginning now!” the Pianta man's gravelly voice cut through the din, booming through the megaphone. “Racers, on your marks!”

Bowser tossed his dead cigarette away and planted one hand on the fender. Focus.

Someone had thoughtfully installed a starter light overhead, hanging over the first plunge with the vivid skyline winking at him from behind it. The mechanism gleamed dully against that glittering, near-black horizon, but not for long.

“Ready!”

On popped the first light, a splitting red beam burning into his eyes. And so Bowser closed them. Listen for the engine. Toadette would watch for the light, would bring the kart to life on her own. He trusted her. He had to.

“Set!”

He could tell from the audience's collective rapid inhaling that the second light had flipped on. Pay them no mind. Do your best. Be the best.

“And...”

The third of three lights had blossomed into red, he knew. He believed. Had to believe. His world was totally not falling apart beneath his feet right now. Totally not. All he had to do was open his eyes, and this inky blackness would recede, would—

“GO!”

Green, green, green, he registered after pushing off the ground with both feet. Green—no—blue?!

The kart had exploded to life beneath his hands and a split-second later they were flying. Blue. The after-image of that blue shine bled into his vision, real as anything else. Holy—

“You okay back there?!” Toadette called as they plunged down the straight ramp to the floor below. A few curves up ahead, he could tell. Nothing that would faze her. They'd taken the lead—so then—

“Did we get a Double-Dash?!” he yelped, casting a quick glance to their six. Boo's kart, then Koopa's, then Daisy's bringing up the rear.

Toadette cackled. “Think so! Hold tight!”

Their rails were a blur of faces and waving arms, microLED tattoos and glinting jewelry. Just brave souls standing on the other side of the neon tape, their shouts engulfed in the wind on all sides of their kart. Bowser spread his legs into a sturdier stance and looked back again.

“Ridley on our five. We got Boxes coming up?”

“Affirmative!” Toadette pulled them into a yellow-sparked drift, maintaining their speed as they U-turned a clean 180. “Think fast!”

They dove through the centermost Item Box, its holographic planes bursting and shattering into the gusty air as the kart's flash-printer calibrated.

“Shell,” he called, keeping one hand on the Thrower bar as they sped on. “How's it looking?”

“We got a straightaway,” she yelled. “Fire whenever!”

He chucked the Item straight at Boo, who had plunged through a Box as well. Paratroopa snagged the remaining Box, leaving Luigi with nothing. Not the end of the world—c'mon—

But Boo launched his own shell their way. The two projectiles collided, shattering into thin air as Boo sped forward. “Damn!”

“Next ramp!”

“He's gonna try to overtake us here—watch out—on our four—”

And Toadette swerved a hard right, effectively cutting off the Boo Pipes as Paratroopa sped up alongside their nine. Petey stared up at him, leaning forward in his seat fewer than two feet away. Bowser planted one foot on the shallow hood over the Boo Pipes' engine and flashed Petey a quick, biting smile. Fuck, being a Thrower was fun—

“You wanna lose your leg?” Petey cracked, his golden eyes wide and sparkling from behind his tinted sunglasses. His tattoos had begun glowing again, in, what—shock? Mirth? Bowser chuckled, stepping gingerly back up onto his own kart. Nuts, how Petey's voice could reverberate through his bones even through the din of the wind whipping them from all sides—

“Bow, help swing into the turns!”

“Copy that.” Another hairpin curve. Bowser carefully swung left and right over the pedestal to increase their torque. It was on the next U-turn, though, that Boo finally found an opening.

“Shit—”

“Hold tight!” Toadette released her foot from the pedal as Boo’s shell hit them cleanly. The Koopa King rocked and spluttered from the impact, blown off-course against the garage’s concrete wall. Spectators shrieked and dove away to avoid getting crushed.

Bowser hissed and then leaned the kart back in to the track. “You okay?”

“Yeah! He’s passed us, though—” And Toadette was back at it, pushing the kart to top speed without blowing out their transmission. Tougher than it sounded. You can do this. We can do this. 

“Just focus on catching up,” he called back, calculating the trajectory they’d need in his head. If Boo beat him to the ramp, he’d have the advantage at the final portion of the race.

Once they hit the Koopa King’s top speed, they were back in. Koopa and Daisy’s karts had better acceleration than his, sure, but their engines were simply too small to let them sustain long distance runs against heavyweight karts.

“Heya!” Daisy waved as Toadette passed her up.

“He’s got a six-second lead,” Paratroopa shouted, her teeth gritted. “You got a plan?”

“Fuck ‘em up,” Bowser hollered as they hit the next set of Boxes. Boo and Petey had scooped one so long before that it had already regenerated. Whatever. More ammo for us.

“Last level before the ramp,” Koopa shouted. “Make it count!”

Bowser beamed as their flash-printer settled on his Item. On his Item. “Get us as close as you can!”

Toadette pulled them ahead on a dash of red sparks, effortlessly snaking along the curving path and all but doughnuting the U-turn. Once their sparks turned blue, she released the clutch, propelling them right up behind Petey. “This close enough?”

“Whatcha got there, Bowsa,” Boo chortled, dangling a Banana from two fingers. And so time slowed to a crawl.

Fire now? Later? Fuck. Firing now meant the shell would more than likely ricochet back toward him and his team after nailing the Boo Pipes. Firing later could possibly leave Boo an opening, if he glimpsed the thing in time—

“Miss me?” Toadette’s voice, at full volume. What—?

And the Boo Pipes inexplicably swerved. Boo scowled and cast a glance back around toward whatever had happened to Petey in the Driver seat, and Bowser took the shot.

“Nice!”

His massive Shell hit their kart at a perfect five o’clock angle, sending them on a collision course with the flat wall to the left of the ramp tunnel’s opening. Toadette’s screeching laughter drowned out whatever it was Boo had begun shouting. The glow of Petey’s tattoos remained etched his eyes long after they flew down into the curving ramp.

“What’d you do?” Bowser hollered at Toadette, who had begun power-sliding her way down the spiraling path. Blue sparks on both sides, the wheels squeaking in protest—

“Distracted ‘em!” she called back. “Was that not obvious?”

So smooth, this ramp. Bowser sighed, enjoying the sudden quiet. Just gusts of wind and the familiar whine of the tires. Bliss. “I mean…” Miss me? “Why’d you say that, of all—ow!”  Fuck, that had hurt—

“Sorry!” Paratroopa hollered as her red kart flew past them, out the exit and onto the outside lot. “Misfired!” Koopa winced and gave them an apologetic wave.

Argh. Bowser scowled as Daisy’s kart pulled up level with his. “God damn it—”

“Why’d she do that?” Toadette spat, pulling them back into a yellow-sparked slide.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” he shouted back. “She’s got triple Red Shells, and they gotta be perfectly timed to all hit one person.”

He could practically smell the blood draining from Toadette’s face. “Triple Reds? That’s awesome!”

“Only because she's on our side,” he laughed. “C’mon, at least we’re still ahead of Ridley—”

“Hmph. You wanna drive?”

This was the best spot to switch, he realized. “Okay!”

Back in the driver seat, at last. They erupted from the ramp entrance and out onto the lot, where another roar of spectators greeted them. A simple loop course from this point on, not too different from Baby Park. That’s not good—

Sure enough, Items began flying left and right. Bowser smoothly swerved out from the path of a Fake Box left by Paratroopa’s kart and snagged one of the two remaining Item Boxes. Not a double—this was all Toadette.

“Whadja get—?”

“Red Shell!”

“Okay, hold it in case of—”

Bowser’s life flashed before his eyes as white-hot sparks crossed over his skin, momentarily killing the Koopa King’s electrical system. He barely registered Toadette’s horrified screech. “Thunderbolt!”

Shit.” The radar had flipped off with the rest of their monitors; Bowser restarted the kart, and it rumbled back to life. Sure, precious seconds were lost, but there was literally no other option— “Who fired it?!”

“See ya, sucka!” Boo and Petey blitzed past at a blinding speed.

Bowser growled, rocking the kart back toward its top speed. “Fucking—”

Toadette swung into their hairpin curves to help regain speed. “We lost the Shell! Need to hit another Box.”

“Roger.” They crossed the second-lap line, now in third behind Paratroopa and Boo's karts.

Taodette leaned over his shoulder to check the radar. “They’re gonna pass Koopa up,” she hissed. “And they just hit another Box—“

“Paratroopa’s out of ammo, too.” Fuck. “What about—?”

“Watch out! Seven o’clock!”

Bowser swerved as instructed, narrowly avoiding Daisy and Luigi’s Star-boosted kart, all flashing lights in every color and coating in a sizzling hot force-field. Whew.

“That was close,” he shouted, trying in vain to ignore how they were in last place and approaching the final lap. Who allowed Daisy of all people to get a Star? Jesus—

“Boo just passed Paratroopa up!” Toadette stomped one foot onto the Pedestal. “Let’s go!”

Bowser had fucking known this would happen—what a fucking waste—

“Bow!”

All three Item Boxes had regenerated by the time the Koopa King sped through. The one good thing about being in last was that they had access to the better Items, now.

Maybe they’d get a Thunderbolt of their own, Bowser prayed, or a Star. Maybe they’d pass up their own teammates to only come in second behind Boo and Petey—not quite so humiliating as third, or last.

Right…?

“What’d you get?” he shouted as they approached the line for the final lap. “Anything useful?”

But Toadette’s voice in return was unnervingly quiet. “Hold on tight,” she trilled, her voice shaking in fear, or disappointment, or maybe something else entirely.

What—Toadette—what’d you—?”

A split-second later, he could only scream.

Chapter Text


“There you are, Skelécarlate. Listen, we’ve observed a spike in the Dai—”

“Director.” Gods, was she drunk. “I am at a function.”

A snort. “Like I've ever cared about any of your frivolous—”

“You forgot your password again, didn’t you?”

An exasperated growl resounded from his end of the line. “Of course not. Good grief. Who's listening in? Who are you—”

“Oh, he totally did, Dark! Listen to this.”

In her fiancée stumbled, momentarily exposing her hideout to the shouts and cheers of the Sarasaland Grand Prix watch party two rooms over. He squeezed his clouded eyes tightly shut, likely in effort to focus. Two bottles of champagne could do that to a man, Red knew all too well. “He—what?”

Spluttering, from the other line. “Do not drag my brother into this. Now, listen closely. I need you to cross-examine the—”

Chortling, as he took the phone from her hand. “What’d you do now, baby bro?”

Baby bro. Nothing in Red’s power could prevent her from falling to the floorboards then, wheezing in laughter.

Dry Bones’ voice came out tinny and muffled from however many feet up. “Must you turn everything I do into a joke?”

“I don’t have to do anything to make that happen.” Dark rolled his eyes, his tongue flicking between those rows of sharp teeth, all glinting in their wine cellar’s recessed lighting. Were she any more inebriated, Red would likely have tried to count them. “Just relax, alright? It’s still the weekend for another hour—”

"Put Red back on. Now.”

That dead black gaze briefly flickered to where she lay on the floor, close to convulsing in silent laughter. “Red is, ah, out of commission. A free tip? Maybe don’t call her this deep into a function—”

“The scanner feeds are off the charts right now! I need her to—”

Click. “Oops.”

Red flicked one mirthful tear away. “I can’t believe he has absolutely nothing better to do at this moment. The goddamn final Grand Prix race is on! Sure, it’s not our country, but…”

“No, you’re right. Awfully peculiar behavior for the self-proclaimed racing enthusiast of the family.” A hand extended her way, one bedecked with two tungsten rings. “Now, how about you get off the floor and pretend to care about your guests for another hour?”

Red considered Dark’s words, took his hand and pulled hard, instead yanking him down onto the floorboards with her. “There. Isn’t this better?”

A soft sigh. “You may be right.” He interlaced their fingers before gazing back up toward the chamber’s vaulted ceiling.

Red smiled, relishing this stillness after so many hours of commotion and exasperating small-talk. Here, there were no thin-tempered industry darlings, no burdensome social mores or microaggressions to gauge in real time, playing at spectating while discretely competing within their own unspoken rules and regulations.

None of that. Only shimmering glass bottles, stacked as high as that ornate ceiling would permit, their costly contents in hues ranging from jade green to rose gold to scarlet-dappled black. The result of over ten years’ work, on and off. How Red loved her bottles. So straightforward, their benefits tangible and their punishments predictable. More reliable than any man.

In time, the din of chatting and the jazz quartet's mood music grew audible even through the thick cellar door. Sighing in resignation, Red reached for her phone and tugged it from Dark’s limp hand.

27 missed calls. “This might be a new record.”

Her fiancée tilted his face to plant a soft kiss on her temple. “I know I say this often enough, but I genuinely do not know how you have it in you to deal with him. Hell, I grew up with him, and I’m still floored.”

“Hmph.” Red closed her eyes, sliding her phone into her fiancée’s breast pocket. “He’s like any other toddler. At some point he needs to learn that no amount of whining will garner him further attention.”

Another kiss, then, tracing her mouth, slower and punctured with a dry laugh. “As I said, we could go be adults for one more hour. Someone on this planet has to be.”

“And we’re the best candidates for that?” Red groaned, finally sitting up. “Not the, ah, gladdest of tidings.”

Dark Bones shook his head, his eyes still clouded. “Not one bit.”


VRRRRRRMMMMMMM—

“What the FUCK—”

“Just steer! Just steer! Ahahaha!”

HOLY SHIT—”

“Don’t miss the turn, doofus!”

“FUCKING HELL—”

It was Toadette’s Special Item—some small yet blindingly bright object she held in one hand—and not just a single-use type. Something that sustained, for longer than three seconds—longer than five—their kart going so fast that Toadette was barely holding onto the Thrower bar with her remaining hand, her feet trailing through the air behind her. Nuts—

Bye went Paratroopa and Koopa, their eyes wide as saucers—gone were Luigi and Daisy, cracking up at the sight they must have made—

What the—?

“Hit ‘em straight on!”

He knew better than to argue with Toadette right then. It was her Item, her boost, her race at this point. “Roger!”

YARGH—”

Christ, did it feel good, this unbelievable golden aura carrying them at light-speed toward that finish line, that massive THUNK of their collision with the Boo Pipes, the resounding roar from the spectators as they checkered. First. Gold, in all directions.

How,” he half-sobbed to Toadette as they skidded to a halt on the other side of the finish line.

While Toadette grinned menacingly at him, the glimmering Item floating in her outstretched hands burst into a puff of sparkles. Gold as a trophy and mushroom-shaped, it had worn a swooping crown and blinked at him with wide, blank eyes. There and gone, in the time it had taken them to pass up every other racer on the track.

“It’s a Super Mushroom—my Special Item!” She stuck her tongue out at Bowser, then yelped as he pulled her up onto his shoulder. “Dry Bones didn’t tell you…?!”

“Fuck that guy,” Bowser laughed as the Pianta marshal called the times of the other racers: Daisy and Luigi in second, Koopa and Paratroopa in third, Boo and Petey limping in from their collision at dead last. “That was nuts. No, for real. I’m so glad you kept that from me, or I’d’ve gotten all confident ‘n tipped off Ridley somehow—”

“Dude, that was sick!” Koopa ran up and high-fived him. With Toadette temporarily out of reach, he flashed her a thumbs-up. “Remind me to stay on your good side, okay?”

“Are you two alright?” Daisy and Luigi had rolled their kart to safety. “I thought y’all got a malfunctioning Box! Or had an engine fire—?”

“I think we’re good.” Toadette gently patted the top of Bowser's head, cheerfully kicking her heels against his ribcage. “I have to fall back to fourth or lower for a shot at that Item, but it’s totally worth the gamble.”

“No shit. Sucks for everybody who put money on Ridley, though—”

“What the fuck was that,” came a high-pitched growl. Talk of the devil... Bowser gently lowered Toadette back onto the ground as Boo approached, with Petey on his heels looking close to entertained.

“Excuse me?” Bowser lit a cigarette one-handed through his smile. At this rate, it would take everything in Ridley’s power to ruin his good mood.

Boo’s cold gray eyes were as bloodshot as Bowser had ever seen them. “Some bullshit. Fuck this. I call a rematch, now.”

A collective laugh resounded from the riled-up crowds around them. “You’ve never called a rematch in the ten years we’ve done this,” Bowser pointed out. “You wanna race again? Meet us at the fucking All-Cup.”

More whooping and hollering. Boo shook his head and spat on the ground. “Then lemme make this crystal-clear. You try to pull that shit—” He jerked his thumb toward Toadette—“anywhere near the Cup? I’m handing your ass to Lakitu. Cheaters don’t prosper, Bow.”

“And then what?” Bowser grinned over his cigarette. “You already know I don't gotta cheat to beat your ass. Toadette’s Special Item is FBR-sanctioned.”

“Holy shit.” Whatever the sound of a hundred people collectively gasping was, Bowser decided that he liked it. And then one person’s camera phone went off.

“Ay, turn that shit off,” Waluigi barked at the guilty party. “You want all this shut down?”

A yelp. “Sorry! Deleting!”

“Where the fuck you even get that doll from?” Boo continued, smirking as he folded his arms. “Never seen that name in my life. Lemme guess—mail order?”

“Oh, fuck you—”

Just like that, his vision had snapped to red. Bowser’s mind took back seat as his body lunged forward, his spiked fist nailing Boo directly in the face with a satisfying crunch. Droplets of blood erupted from the point of impact. Not Bowser's blood.

“Bow—!”

And then something yanked him backwards—a cannon ball, by the feel of it—a bullet between the ribs—

“He’s had a rough night.” Petey’s voice reverberated in his ears, in his bones. Don’t attract the cops.

“No shit,” Bowser growled, his heart thundering against his ribcage. “Tell him he can fucking lay off.” Sorry.  Surely Petey could smell the regret on him at this point, no matter how very little of it there was.

For that matter, had Petey always been so fast on his feet? Nuts, how quickly he'd shot between them, holding Bowser by the arm in one hand and with the other just beneath his ribs. Bowser's cigarette now lay on the ground, a smoldering waste. DK had intercepted Boo and was now dragging him back toward their van. Lady Bow von Brr herself stood nearby, resignedly shaking her head at the scene. In time the crowds around them broke up, their attention arrested by the lining up of the next set of racers.

His heart still pounding, Bowser tried to yank his arm away. But Petey’s gloved fingers kept an alarmingly rock-solid grip on his bicep. For not the first time Bowser wondered just how closely their strengths matched up. That said, now was probably not the best time to challenge Petey to an arm-wrestling m—

“Toadette,” Petey asked over Bowser’s shoulder, “you’re well?”

What—?

“Not too bad,” Bowser heard Toadette pipe back, her voice muffled a tad through her mask. “He seems nice.”

“He can be.” Petey’s thumb absently traced Bowser's bicep as he spoke. Not an unpleasant sensation. “Doesn’t take surprises too well, I’ll admit.”

Bowser’s pulse still soared. How the hell do you know Toadette?

Even he couldn’t recall how long ago Petey had entered the scene. It had been years ago, easily, and—now that he thought about it—more than likely during all of that shit—back when—

“You two met?” Bowser asked, looking over his shoulder her to where she stood, arms folded.

“Yeah,” Toadette laughed, her eyes misty. “Same, um. Same training.”

Oh. Fuck. Fucking hell—

It’s like that. It’s—it was—it’s been—

And there returned those glowing markings along the sides of Petey’s face. Up close, each faint glow through the gray wool proved to be differently-sized from the others, and gently pulsing. Distracting as hell. 

What are you thinking?  “That, uh, explains a lot.” Bowser’s mouth had begun to dry out. God, he could watch those tattoos glow for years—but—he forced himself to look away from Petey, and his eyes landed on his dead cigarette. Christ, could he use one right now. “Nice reunion?” Petey and Toadette laughed in unison, sounding like six people rather than two. “Yeah…? Okay? Can I have my arm back?”

Petey’s grip loosened by a shade. Were his gloves heated? Or were his hands naturally that warm, soaking Bowser’s arm, even though his— “You think you can go a few hours without punching my partner?”

“Only if he can go a few hours without running his mouth into the sewer.” Bowser shot him a specific look, and nearly blinked. Making direct eye contact with Petey felt exactly like fighting fire with fire—reducing everything around them to ash, sparing nothing. His many jagged-edged irises were shot through with electric green, Bowser noted, enthralled. They were stunning. He was—hell

“Fair.” And that iron grip finally released, Petey’s gloved fingertips tracing lightly down Bowser’s forearm before dropping to his own. It took every scrap of Bowser's willpower not to mimic the motion. “You free this week?” Petey asked Toadette, cocking his head.

“Yes!” She hopped forward, whipping out her phone. “What’s your number?”

This was not happening. Toadette was so not getting Petey’s fucking number before Bowser had even thought to—

No. Calm the fuck down. Bowser took a deep breath, counted silently to ten. It was fine, he told himself. Toadette had known Petey for way longer. They’d grown up in that program together, then. The—the labs. Petey had been the one to graduate before her. She’d been talking about him the entire time, not Boo. And he’d—just—dumbass—

“Yay! Oh, I won’t, um, keep you from your partner.” Toadette shot a glance toward where Boo had begun leaning back against his white van, arms folded, smoking another menthol.

Petey’s shoulders shook in silent laughter. “Take it easy, you two.” He looked back up at Bowser. “See you at the Stadium.”

And he was off, striding back toward his partner.

From this distance, Bowser could just barely make out what Boo hissed to Petey— “Would you quit eye-fucking our opponent?” …Okay, so he hadn’t imagined that last part. Alright. Uh huh.

Honestly, though, that was the most he had ever spoken to Petey to date, and vice versa. Nuts. Bowser felt a jolt run across every inch of his skin, like—

“Yeah. I missed him the most.” Toadette shot Bowser a knowing smirk. “It’s too funny that he ended up with someone you hate so much. Or, I mean, it’s funny for me. For you, I guess it’s kinda frustr—”

Bowser scowled, stomping with all of his strength onto the pavement toward the truck. “Fucking bullshit. I don’t even—fucking Ridley—piece of shit—” His vision had nearly begun to sear red again. If only the burning in his throat were, you know, actual goddamn not-useless fire—

“You okay?” Toadette giggled through her mask. “Didn’t, um, bruise your hand on Ridley’s face…?”

Bowser cracked up at that and shot her a grin. “Nah. Nice ‘n cushiony. Dunno why he always thinks he can talk smack without getting his shit kicked in.”

“Well, that was sweet of you. I think. Somehow.” Toadette squeezed his hand. “Thanks.”

“Anytime.” He laughed through his nose. “C’mon, let’s watch Yoshi ‘n Birdo murder a bunch of small-timers.”

“I’ve seen their kart in the All-Cup before. Can’t imagine going up against them—what’d Baby call her? Nightmarish?”

“Well, he’s not wrong about that.” Not in the least.

The next few racing rounds were somewhat less eventful, so to speak. Eventually Wario and Waluigi stopped by with several rolls of coins. “Way to pay out, brother! I’m-a placing twenty coins on you next time.”

“I’m flattered.” Bowser lit a fresh cigarette and threw an arm around Wario’s shoulders. “Shit, why not thirty?”

“Ha! Is—is this our winnings?” Toadette’s eyes sparkled at the sight of so much cash. “Just give it all to Bowser. I gotta pay him back for buying all my stuff.”

“This…might actually cover most of it,” Bowser breathed, his eyes twitching. “Hang on, this many people bet against us? I’m insulted.”

Wario snorted. “Eh, why waste energy complaining? This is a fucking set of new rims, man. The BaBooshka can talk as much shit as he likes—it’s what happens on the track that counts.” He grinned around his cigar. “More cash for us, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah…”

“And what’s the deal with you two ‘n Petey? Thought he was gonna wallop Bow at first, but then...”

“He’s an old friend,” Toadette giggled. “I waited a long time for this race.”

“No kidding.” Daisy joined them, emerging from the crowds holding a steaming paper boat of deep-fried squid. “So that was the first time you saw him in—years, yeah? And you whupped his ass.” She winked. “Ours, too, I guess. Jerks.”

“Hey, dropping to a lower place last-minute to get a killer Item is a totally valid strategy,” Bowser offered. “Risky, but—wait, who am I complaining to? You ‘n Louie could’ve destroyed our asses if you’d wanted to, with that last-lap Star.”

“True! But we’re just so nice, aren’t we?” Daisy pinched his cheek. Yeow. Bowser mentally noted to watch the fuck out during All-Cup races. Daisy and Louie liked to hold off on garage gigs, saving their most horrifying tricks for the big leagues, up to and including slingshooting off their own teammates for a slightly higher score. Not that he could hold that against them—totally valid strategy, again. “Gonna go see how the boys are doing against Birdo. Dunno who the other karts are.”

“Nobodies.” Sure enough, Toad’s kart checkered just a few seconds after Birdo and Yoshi’s, with the two others trailing behind by far higher margins. Definitely not All-Cup material. “I’m ready to head out whenever you are,” he murmured to Toadette. “No rush, though.”

“Hey, I got what I came here for.” She tugged his hand. “Let’s get some shut-eye before we have to be back at the garage.”

“So you’re up for working it full-time, huh?” Bowser grinned. “We can draw you up a contract tomorr—”

“Who’s we?” Toadette giggled. “Or is Baby the executive vice president?”

“That’s the royal we.” Bowser scowled. “Just don’t show up to work high and it’ll work out. I got the same rules for Baby.” They loaded the Koopa King back onto the truck bed and headed out. No cops, the whole time, from what he could tell. Phew…

“His and Toad’s racing style is weird,” Toadette murmured, looking out the window. “It’s like they try not to use Items!”

“Pretty much.” He merged onto the freeway. “He hates his Special Item, and if Toad has one, I’ve never seen it.”

“Really? That’s such a handicap.” She inhaled sharply. “What’s Baby’s Item?”

“Same as mine.”

Toadette clapped herself on the forehead. “That’s right. I’ve even seen him use it before. Durr.” She collapsed back in her seat. “Dunno why anyone would just hold Items like that, though. That’s half the game.”

“I do what I can to encourage it.” Some pathological thing, he had only ever assumed. He had a few theories. “Don’t bug ‘em about it too much, though. Touchy subject.”

“Got it.” Toadette sighed and inspected her nails. “Best we can do is to work on ourselves first.”

“Yeah.” Bowser grinned. “They’ll figure it out. Eventually.”

In time, the skyscrapers eventually receded, opening up their view to the vast oil fields and volcanoes of Exec.  The red glow along the horizon had always struck him as a sort of failed attempt at a welcome home, clumsily set up by his uncle, maybe. Sure, it made no sense, but still.

“Toadette?”

“Yeah?”

“How long was Petey at the—in the program, with you?”

“Good question.” She bit her lip in thought. “I don’t remember there being a time before he was there. So he had to have arrived before I did.”

Jesus. “So he was there maybe as long as you were.”

“If not longer. I’m gonna find out when I talk to him Wednesday.”

There—that, that pang of—what, envy? Christ— “I’m glad you get to catch up with him. If he weren’t always with Boo I’d try to hang with him more. ‘S always pretty civil.”

Toadette inspected her nails. “He’s… not a fighter.”

Huh. “No?” Bowser shot her a glance. “Well, find out what the hell possessed him to move here once he got out. It’s not the safest place for him.”

Toadette smiled wistfully, her eyes clouding. “I think he’s out of his mind, living here. The desert was so much nicer to him—not acidic at all. After breakfast he’d always sit shirtless under the glass roof to soak up the vitamin D.”

There was a mental image. Bowser vainly attempted to shove it away. “Y’know, when the first few Piranha emigrated here eleven years back, it was probably the single most humiliating incident that ever happened to Queen Paula. Ousting included.”

“Wow. What happened?”

“The instant they walked outside, all the ambassadors’ skin started burning. People thought it was chemical warfare, thought it was an assassination attempt…” He shook his head. “I mean, I wasn’t there or anything, but you can still look up footage online. Ton of conspiracy theories. In pretty much every other city they can walk uncovered, though. Just this place that’s actively dangerous.”

“No kidding. I almost didn’t recognize him at first, with all the protective gear he had on.” Toadette wrinkled her nose. “But I knew he was Ridley's partner from watching the past few Cups. Might see if I can’t whack some sense into him. Trust Petey to pick the single worst place in the galaxy to live.”

“It’s gotta suck.” Bowser sighed. “He recognized you, though, yeah? Even with your mask on?”

“Hmph.” Toadette fluffed out her hair, having finally unpinned and loosened her braid. “I’m pretty recognizable. Also we kind of creamed him in that race last-minute, and using his least favorite Item of all time.”

Heh. “There is that.”

Petey’s face swam through his head the rest of that night. Staring, glowing, reading him. That had to have been it. Right…? Just, uh. Mind games. They were still opponents. Petey was totally trying to get under his skin somehow. That had to be it.

In any case, something caused him to bolt awake far later on—sometime in the night. He could not tell. He could not tell.

Three—three months? Four—? What—what time—

Bowser’s heart thudded in his chest as he reached around for his phone. I don’t—don’t know—what time—?

2:14am, the screen blared. Could have fooled him.

Why was this bothering him so much? And when had that even—even started—?

Rosa—

Sleep eventually came, if in reluctant fits.


Had her eyes stopped working? Toadette squinted.

Nope. Didn’t help at all. Jeez. “You look sick.”

“Uh. Sorry?”

“I mean, are you feeling well? You’ve got these huge circles under your eyes—”

Bowser grimaced. “Uh. Didn’t sleep too well.” He rubbed his neck sheepishly. “You want breakfast?”

Bull crap. Still, best to humor him for the time being. At least until she figured out what was really eating him. Toadette continued to braid her hair, standing in front of the central hall’s huge mirror. Left, right, left, right—“I checked the fridge! You gotta get groceries, partner.” She shot him a grin. “Or, we do.”

“Oh, yeah. Uh.” His reflection in the mirror leaned against the huge stone doorway and tugged on his boots. “Let’s pick up breakfast somewhere. Can feed Baby while we’re at it. Could stop by a market on the way home.”

Toadette’s nose wrinkled at the prospect of Mushroom City market groceries. She swore she could taste the ash and oil even in the meat. Just a tinge, but… “Think we could buy seeds somewhere? I wanna start up that greenhouse on the second floor, like you were talking about. There’s gotta be a way.”

“Yeah. Good idea.” He kneaded his temples before standing back up. “Ready to head out?”

“Hey, let me drive.” Toadette planted her hands on her hips. “So I can get used to navigating this place.” And because you look like you’re about to pass out.

“Uh. Yeah. All you.”

Twenty minutes later, she had successfully made it down the freeway, picked up breakfast for the three of them, and pulled cleanly into one of the garage’s employee parking spots. Nothing let her shake the feeling that they were up and running about at two in the morning, rather than nine; the flickering halogens and neons left in her bones the sensation that she'd been awake too long herself. Maybe Bowser wasn't completely lying, then. Enough time in this hellhole would inevitably blur the line dividing consciousnesses, perhaps. Ugh.

Baby arrived perhaps ten seconds later.“Dude, you look awful.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Like, I can’t believe Toadette let you leave the house this morning.”

“Hey, uh. She drove.”

You can thank me later. “He says he didn’t sleep well. I say he got turned into a zombie when I wasn’t looking.” Like somebody bit him…

It turned out to be a relatively slow workday, right up until an awfully familiar lady with a neon pink undercut strode in on studded stilettos.

“Oh, shit. Toadette, quick, grab a fire extinguisher—”

“Funny, funny.” What was her name...? Catherine—?  Birdo hopped onto one of the workbenches and folded one fishnet-encased leg over the other. “Looks like someone partied a little too hard last night.”

“Can we please go ten minutes without someone telling me I look sick,” Bowser moaned unconvincingly. Birdo raised an eyebrow.

“Oh? Last time it was Toadie, this time it’s the boss man.” She grinned. “Hope it’s not contagious. I’m emceeing Yoshi’s gig tonight and need to look presentable.”

“Yeah?” Baby perked up. “Where’s he playing? And when?”

“Ask your boyfriend. Won’t be surprised if the Bureaucracy puts him on stakeout duty for shroom trafficking.” Birdo cracked up at her own line.

Toadette realized her jaw had slackened some time ago and snapped it shut. Who is this lady?

Just the night before she had seen the Turbo Birdo in action, sure. Solid shoo-ins for the past few All-Cups thanks to the sheer finesse and control of its racers. Nothing outside of a race, though, until now. She’s our opponent, isn’t she?

And yet here the racer herself stood, cracking at Bowser like they’d been married half a century. Then again, Baby had indeed mentioned a penchant for crashing people’s places of work, among other things.

Toadette crossed her arms. “Can we help you?”

Birdo snapped her jeweled fingertips. “There’s the attitude I was looking for. She leech it out of you, or what?” And after a good ten seconds of husky laughter, “No, hello, young lady. Don’t mind me, just thought I’d drop by, say hey—”

“She’s spying for Ridley,” Bowser grumbled to Toadette’s left, nearly under his breath. “Do not trust—”

Birdo caught that nonetheless. “On the contrary! Lemme have one of those sausage biscuits, ‘n I might feel like telling you what Boo ‘n Petey are up to this week.”

“Save your breath.” Toadette yanked down the hood over a finished engine repair and wiped her brow. “I’m meeting Petey tomorr—”

“See, that’s the other half of why I’m here. Afraid he’s gotta take a raincheck, darlin’.”

What? Toadette whipped around to face her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Food. Now. Chop chop.”

Baby rolled his eyes and pulled one of the untouched breakfast bags out of the microwave. “I take it they’ve resumed their practicing schedule?”

“Mmm, yum. Oh! Uh. No. Well, not quite to that effect.” Birdo continued to tear into the pastry while walking about the shop, peering closely at the machinery. “They’re taking a field trip, from what I can tell. Booked plane tickets to the Dry Dry Desert late last night.”

Toadette nearly dropped the air hose she was rewinding. No. “Nuh uh. You’re lying—”

“Am I?” Birdo crumpled up the empty biscuit paper and hurled it over her head into a waste bin. Perfect shot, to Toadette’s annoyance. “Because he mentioned he would message you, oh… right about now.”

On cue, Toadette felt her phone buzz in her pocket. She growled and checked it, already infuriated. One text. Petey’s number.

Hey T, can’t make Wed—try Sun?  Nearly week away.

“Why,” she breathed, squinting at the text. Petey wouldn’t—he hated that place—unless—?

“Just figured I could give you lot a heads up. Not that you need it! Sick turn of events last night, I gotta say. Haven’t seen a Hail Mary like that in years.”

“Petey went back to the—to that place?” Bowser walked up and peered at her phone screen. “The hell?”

“Seriously,” Toadette murmured. What were you tasked with?  “I can't think of anything worth going back there for. Especially not for Petey.” Did he threaten you, too—?

“D’you think it was because y’all beat him so bad last night?” Baby asked, wiping an oil stick clean. “Maybe he asked that jackass Dry Bones to give him someth—”

“He wouldn’t,” Toadette cut in, snapping her phone shut and shoving it back into her pocket. “It’s not—the Director doesn’t just—” She could feel Bowser’s sunken eyes try to find hers. This wasn’t the place, though. Wasn’t the time. Later, partner. She tugged his hand and moved onto the next car. “Whatever. He can bug Dry Bones as much as he wants. We’re gonna crush him in the All-Cup.” She looked up at Birdo and glared into those sparkling black eyes. “Same for you. Hang out as long as you want. See if I care.”

Birdo laughed, clapping slowly. “Hell, yeah. I knew I liked you. You ‘n me need to get drinks sometime, lady. No, wait! Karaoke. I feel like you could annihilate the right karaoke bar. Send the usual schmucks running for their lives. Yeah? Yeah.”

“Hmph.” Toadette tried not to smile. She really did try. “Did Petey send you here just to apologize for him?”

“Please.” Birdo actually looked peeved for once, folding her arms. “He ‘n Ridley didn’t even tell us or DK where they were headed. I had to hack Ridley’s laptop just to find their boarding passes.” Her face softened. “Wasn’t exactly tough. Poor angel probably can’t spell the word encryption—”

Baby set his wrench down on the workbench with a thud. “He ‘n his partner ran up to the FBR racer development training labs without telling anyone else on his team?”

“Yep. He’s not above a certain array of dick moves, but…” Birdo scowled. “This is pretty unlike him. Unlike the both of them. Shit, Ridley didn’t even tell the baroness. Totally forgot that part—”

“Hold up. Like, the team’s one thing, but not even informing von Brr?” Bowser’s eyes were as wide as Toadette had ever seen them. “Shit. Okay. Okay. Maybe—”

Boo has a girlfriend?!  “It sounds like they eloped.” Toadette gritted her teeth and dug around in a toolbox for the soldering iron. Sounds… urgent.

“Doesn’t it?” Birdo tutted. “Because now I’m just really hoping this is about racing and, eh. Not something else entirely.”

Toadette shot a look at Bowser. He was still so—so out of it, dragging himself around like a dead man. Like a resuscitated corpse. Yuck. Look at me, Bow. Look at me. Petey got called back, Bow. That’s—that had to be—that’s gotta be what—

Had to be. And then...

How long until I get called?

“Oil’s topped off, ma’am. Comes out to this…yep…sure, just sign here…thanks.” Baby waved the customer off.  “Speaking of, you know, racing? Check out this report from the Sarasaland Grand Prix last night.”  He pointed the remote to the tiny TV mounted in one ceiling corner and unmuted BPINN.

“—nable to participate, he claims, due to a stress fracture. With this slot opening so close to the All-Cup, deliberations within FBR high command will take place beginning—”

“Someone dropped out of the All-Cup?!” Toadette and Bowser snapped their attention toward the screen in unison.

“And just for a stress fracture.” Baby whistled. “Even if it won’t heal completely in three weeks, it’d have to be, like, in their spinal column, or clutch hand, or—”

“No fucking kidding. Well, that’ll make things interesting.” Birdo stretched her arms overhead and cracked her neck. “That’s the second qualified kart to have dropped out this season, now that I think about it.”

“Wait, seriously?” Baby’s eyes widened. “People plan their weddings around it, not the other way around.”

“It wasn't reported widely,” Birdo murmured, casting a glance toward the empty customer waiting area. “But a kart from Delfino dropped pretty early on. Late April, I wanna say. Right after they tried to make a commotion about petrol deregulation.”

“For real?” Bowser kneaded his temples. “I… didn’t hear about that at all.”

Birdo’s eyes narrowed, and again Toadette wondered exactly how far back she and Bowser went. Does she know..?  “Exactly. I can’t even give you the names of the racers. That’s how buried they are.”

Toadette tried to re-focus her attention on the wiring. Don’t slip… don’t slip… there….good… The wires sizzled and melted into place, just as planned. Perfect.

Baby trotted back into the garage proper before halting in his tracks. “You okay, Bow?”

“Y-yeah.”

Toadette glanced up at him, and disagreed immensely. Her partner looked awfully pale. Not enough sleep, my butt.

The real culprit had to be something else entirely. Like what Birdo said. Assuming there was only one culprit.

We have got to talk.


Trapped. He was trapped.

Frozen in place, bound to the floor with invisible chains. Was it his new duty, to watch, to listen, to suffer? To so much as proclaim so be it was utterly beyond him. His power had dried out in the face of this inferno. He felt the raw heat dry his eyes out, felt it evaporate his tears as it roared. His lips became chapped, deep cracks splitting through his skin.

STOP IT—

Six hands, engulfed in fire, drowning in it—voices, screaming, begging—

“Saulus.”

He had to—something—anything—

STOP HIM—

I’m too late—? Too—should have—seen it—known—

“…Saulus.” 

Ow

And all at once, the fire was gone. It was downright cool. His face was pressed against a smooth, hard surface, his neck even more sore than usual.

“Boss?” Kingfin's voice. Not a dream.

He’d… fallen asleep? At his desk. In real life. Incredible.

But that indeed meant he’d been dreaming just then. Best news of his life, really. His, and a few others’.

“I’m awake, my friend.” He certainly was now. His office looked untouched, every piece of hand-carved furniture still in place, the flames in his fireplace still gently dancing, the glass of sangria near his left hand still half-full, its ice long melted. Kingfin stood over him with one finger pressed onto his jugular. Counting. “What happened?” 

The cool fingertip retracted. “Trying to find out, boss. Hold still.”

Ow. “Shit.”

Kingfin had inserted a catheter into his wrist, Saulus registered. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Heh.” His mind swam as he worked to recall whatever had gone down before that horrid dream. “Checking, eh. Messages. And I had a two-thirty with Fawful. Did he—?”

After glancing at his bronze wristwatch, Kingfin shook his head. “Had it tentatively moved to four. His PA confirmed, said he didn’t sound too put off. You in pain anywhere?”

Everywhere. “No more than normal,” Saulus laughed. “No point in panicking. I merely dozed off. Honest.”

Having drawn enough blood, Kingfin deftly removed the needle and smoothed a bandage along the king’s wrist. No need, old friend. But it was the thought that counted, Saulus supposed, his heart swelling. 

“Believe what you want, Majesty. You able to move?”

“Yes, yes.” Saulus pointedly stood up at his desk, rolling his studded leather chair back a foot. Started. Blinked. “Light-headed.” Interesting.

“Remember anyone walking in? The window seals are still up, and the door guards didn’t register

“No one,” Saulus replied, quickly glancing between his three monitors. Old news, old news, old news. “No one.”

“Testing your blood now. Negative on opiates… other depressants negative… no… nothing… okay, this one I’m just gonna chalk up to your platelets being—”

“Like I said.” Saulus squeezed Kingfin’s firm shoulder. “Dozed off. Inform Fawfuljitsu Industries that we’re en route.” He lifted his cup and drained the rest of the watered-down sangria. Better than nothing.

They exited the grand office and summoned the elevator. Shy Guys, two on each side of both sets of doors, stood at attention. Kingfin waved them down before adjusting his silk suit cuffs.

“And I need to chat with your brother soon," Saulus added. "Please arrange for a secure connection sometime this evening. Wherever you can find a break.”

Kingfin lifted an eyebrow. “Which one?”

“The one who arranged for that last-minute Sarasaland dropout. Too clumsy. People are talking. Unacceptable.”

Kingfin cracked his knuckles. “Consider it done.”

Saulus’ eyes trailed the movements of Kingfin’s hands as they moved. Horrible, how easily he could imagine them burning to ash.

Horrible, and unforgivable.

Chapter Text


“—up! Bow? Hellooo?”

Bowser awoke with a shudder, and the green eyes in his face instantly drew away. “Wuh—?”

“It’s almost eight-thirty!” Toadette took a step back and crossed her lacy arms, her expression severe. “Are you okay? I definitely heard all three of your alarms go off.”

Eight thirty. Was it?

God—how many weeks now, without—? How many months—?

And then it hit him with a wave of nausea—just how awfully his neck ached. Like he’d just been strangled.  “Urgh—”

“I know I’ve said this a bunch now, but…” Toadette scowled, regarding him through the corner of her eye. “I’m seriously starting to think we should find you—oh, a doctor, or something—”

“Yeah, yeah.” He gingerly reached for his phone. 8:28am. “Shit.”

“Just saying!” Toadette retreated back toward his loft stairs. “I can find you something to eat in the car if you can get dressed fast. Otherwise I’m going without you, and you are taking a sick day.”

Fuck— Bowser bolted upright and hissed at the searing sensation across his throat. Had he banged his neck against something, sometime in the night? Something spiked? Sure goddamn felt like it. “I’m up, I’m up, I swear—dunno why I—”

“I’ll tell Baby we may be a few minutes late opening up,” her high voice rang from the floor below. “But this doesn’t mean you’re off the hook!”

Heh. Bowser cracked his neck and finally spotted a crumpled pair of pants near his floor-length mirror. Come to Papa— and he froze.

Is that me?

No. No way. That—that thing in the mirror squinted at him in confusion, then alarm. Dark circles under his bloodshot eyes that could have passed for bruising, blue-black veins that coursed along his skin like ink trails, the jagged cracks that had split in his lips, the ghostly pallor across the rest of his skin—all struck him as something utterly not of this world, too foul for words—

No—no.

He had to stay calm. This was—his eyes were still adjusting to the light, the—the lava outside—act normal—was fine, it’s—fine—

His heart clattering against his ribs, Bowser fished around for a longer-sleeved henley, snapped on his straps with trembling hands, and loosely pulled his locks back. Stay calm. He rubbed his temples, checked the mirror one last time—Jesus—and headed down, rubbing his sore neck as he trudged.

Toadette thrust a packaged bun into his hands at the foot of the central stairs. “I’m driving. You eat.” Once inside the garage, she jerked one finger toward the Ford Falcon—much smaller than the truck. Her feet would reach the pedals easily.

“Ma’am.” He knew better than to protest at this point, and ducked wordlessly into the black-bodied sedan. 

Once they pulled out onto the arterial road, Toadette shot him a glance. “Does this… happen often? Whatever’s…?”

He shrugged, chewing and tasting nothing. “Dunno.” He couldn’t get his voice to quit croaking. It’s like I’ve been yelling for—for hours—

Toadette scowled, cutting off a slow-moving sedan as they merged onto the freeway. “Strep throat, maybe? Are you nauseous?”

“N-no. Well, kinda. Just. Uh.” He blinked. “Tired. Achy.”

“You’ve been saying that for the past week—no, even longer than that, now that I think about it.” Her features contorted in unease, or—wait, was that actual concern? On Toadette’s face? Hell.

“It’s true, though.” He felt tired, sore, and cold. More so than usual.

Rosalina had once sent him a beautiful quilted green jacket, he remembered then. The thing was probably up in his closet somewhere. God, could he use it right about now. How many months…?

In time the neons of the city ensconced them, brightly-colored flashes that burst into life and disappeared just as quickly. Artificial sunrises, each of them, in all the wrong hues and shapes, each inevitably swallowed back into the gray.

“Is it the smog? Maybe it’s finally getting to you. Would explain the weird coloration of your… you know…”

My blood. “Fuck.” What if that was it? “Uh. Maybe.”

“I have a spare mask, if you want it.”

Wouldn’t that be a sight, he mused, big scary Bowser in one those cute face masks. “I’ll think about it.” He thought about it. Pros: Literally no one would wanna mess with me. Cons: …?

“I bet Petey would know," Toadette continued. "Too bad he keeps having to reschedule our meeting.” She swerved them abruptly down the exit ramp, scaring the shit out of a half-asleep moped rider by the look of it. “Hope that jerk’s okay.”

Bowser grimaced at the thought of Petey and Toadette’s star-crossed exchange those many days before. They had seen neither hide nor hair of Boo or Petey since that garage race nearly two weeks back. Well, okay, that wasn’t completely unusual in and of itself—but neither had Birdo, or anyone else on Banshee.

Nor even Bow von Brr, who had stomped into the shop a week before to make that perfectly clear.

“What did you do to him?”  The Lady’s peacock-feathered hand fan had whipped the air around her until her jade-hued curls practically defied gravity.

“You wanna clarify? Also, no guests in the electrical repair zo—”

“It’s been a week, Rex.” That customary slow shake of the head, typically a signal of someone about to get sliced. “I don’t like it.”

“He hasn’t talked to you at all?”  Even Toadette had stopped her project to listen in. “What about Petey?”

“It’s as I said.”  The von Brr heiress had done a double-take at the sight of Bowser’s partner. “I remember you. Nice handling at Grodus. Bitchin’ Item, too.”

“Thanks…?”

“Shame it sent my boyfriend and his partner on some kind of wild goose chase.”

“Hey,” Bowser had cut in. “Toadette did nothing wrong. You don’t even know if that was—”

“I know what’s in the Dry Dry Desert,” Bow had hissed, her fan then waving in arcs so slight and rapid they were nearly invisible. Nearly. “They’re having work done on their Special Item coding. I’d bet my trust fund on it.”

“That’s what I thought,” Toadette had murmured. “Well, then I take it you know how to get in contact—”

“You think I haven’t tried?”  Bow had rounded on Toadette, her emerald-lined eyes flashing. “You think I didn’t walk up to that front desk and demand where they were staying? It’s like a maze, that place—it’s like a trap—”

“You went in?” The blood had drained from Toadette’s face. “What did you see?”

Even in his half-dead state, Bowser had picked up on that mite of panic. Why had Toadette acted so shocked that someone had stopped by the place? If its location was public, and it was such a prestigious program, then…?

“I saw enough.” The Lady’s face had contorted with derision. “That’s an impressive security team they’ve got out there. A little too impressive, if you ask me. I’d always wondered where it was that they manufactured—”

“It sounds like you know more than we do,” Bowser had finally snapped. “So, tough luck. Now how ‘bout you let us get back to doing our jobs?”

Bow von Brr had then given him the longest look of his life. “Well, you ever change your mind? You got my number, Rex. Ciao.”

There, then gone, leaving behind only a wisp of chartreuse pluming the otherwise stale air.

But something had absolutely been off. That much was set in stone. 

What did you see…?  

Presently, Toadette tapped Bowser’s wrist as they sped down the feeder road, jerking him from his memories. “Feeling any better now?”

Bowser licked his chapped lips, crumpling up the empty paper with limp hands. “Mhm. Thanks.”

“I need you to not get sick right before the All-Cup, okay?” Toadette frowned. “Especially with whatever Petey ‘n Ridley are up to now. I don’t like it.”

“You’re telling me.” Bowser kneaded his temples, willing himself to quit feeling so godawful. “What’s your guess? You know Petey better than I do.” You know that place. You know what’s inside. Come on, partner.

“Honestly?” Toadette grimaced, her brow furrowed. “I think they cut some kind of deal. Petey may have strings.”

Strings? “You think Dry Bones let him graduate on some kind of condition?”

Toadette nodded, thin-lipped. “I’d put money on it. He’d get...bouts, of cabin fever, I guess you could say. Always talked about what he'd do once he was out, the places he'd travel to, what stuff he'd bring us from his homeworld. I wouldn’t be surprised if he took whatever stipulations Dry Bones placed on him, just to be free.” And after a moment’s pause, “He may have gone in not knowing what he’d signed up for.”

He bristled at the thought. “Toadette…”

“What?”

“It was voluntary, right? I mean, if you’d asked to leave, they’d’ve let you go…right?” And yet with some sick sort of sixth sense, Bowser realized he could already answer that.

“I guess so. It’s…tough to say. I didn’t know where else I’d go, with my parents out. None of us did. Yeah, we talked about it, when we thought they couldn’t hear us…” Toadette’s fingers twitched over the wheel. “And Petey wasn’t much older, remember. We’d always ask him what his homeworld was like, what the Piranha thought about the Blue Planet, what different tech they had, all sorts of stuff. We realized too late how homesick we must’ve made him.”

“You couldn’t’ve known better,” Bowser tried to console her. “Shit, I would’ve done the same. But they forced him to stay that entire time? No trips home?”

“He always said…that he could have taken vacations whenever he wanted,” Toadette eventually replied. “There was just always some little thing holding him back. It was different every time. He'd want to see the results of his bloodwork tests, or he wanted to stick around for one of our birthdays, or there was an issue with his paperwork.” The corners of her mouth quirked up. “I bought it. At least, at the time. And then he graduated—left for real.”

“Yeah? What’d he say then?”

“We didn’t get the announcement until after he left,” Toadette whispered, as though her voice had given out. “Just, there one night, then gone the next morning. None of us got to say goodbye.”

Bowser’s jaw dropped. “Seriously? That was the last time you saw him until the night of that race last week?”

Toadette nodded brusquely, her knuckles blanching over the steering wheel. “Well, it was the last time he’d seen me. We still watched the Cups, remember. I got to see him in action.” Her face softened a tad. “And then we trashed him.”

“Heh.” Bowser had to smile at that. “You’re a piece of work, Toadette.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Toadette stuck out her tongue. “But, it’s like I said. He went back to Dry Bones, for whatever reason, so no point in getting cocky. We need to be ready for anything.”

“Why else have we been practicing every single night?” Bowser shot her a grin. “Fine line between ready for everything and paranoid. Yeah?”

Toadette rolled her eyes. “You’re awfully chipper. For a zombie." She smirked. "Ghoul? ...demon?”

Ouch. “C’mon. It’s just, I dunno, a bug or something. I’ve been sick before and survived, believe it or not.”

“Hmph.” Toadette steered them toward the garage. “Maybe you’ve been overexerting your system. Did you practice daily when you were with Koopa?”

“Not…not every day,” he admitted. “Not so, uh, regimented. Just whenever we had free time, ‘n felt like it.”

“That could be it, then.” Toadette chuckled. “Maybe you just need a break. We should take the weekend off, you know? Have a mini-vacation before the Cup starts.”

Now there was an idea, Bowser thought, grinning at the sight of Baby waving to them from under the front awning. “I like the way you think.”


“Get him out of here,” Toadette told Baby precisely at noon. “Get food somewhere. He slips up with that blowtorch one more time? I’ll be morally obligated to knock him unconscious.”

“You think that’s gonna do anything?” Baby laughed, wiping his toolset clean. “Yeow! Okay, fine, fine… Bow! We’re taking a field trip.”

Bowser inhaled sharply, for all the world having dozed off for the third time that morning. “Wuh—why?”

Baby blinked. “Uh—” At his disconcerted glance, Toadette gave him a menacing smile. “I’m, uh, hungry. Let’s get lunch. And Toadette’s still cleaning her stuff up. Toadette, are you alright holding down the fort?”

Good boy. Toadette held both thumbs up. “Get him a steak. He looks like he could use a steak.”

Bowser snorted, shoving his hands in his pockets as he and Baby headed out. “I guess I could take one for the team. Just this once.”

Once they were out of sight, Toadette bolted into the back room and inspected everything. By the look of it, Bowser had just finished cleaning. Damn. No stains, no smudges. Not a single drop of blood, even on the bandsaw. He’s good.

That simply would not do. Not one bit. “Hmph.”

And then a coppery glint caught her eye—a single strand of hair. A vivid red strand, springy, and, she found as she tugged it gently from the ancient toolbox, at least a foot long. Not what they'd asked for, technically, but... Better than nothing.

Toadette wrapped it around her finger and knotted it off before tucking it into her pocket. Given her luck, the closest dropoff zone was probably nowhere near—

“Hello?”

Shit—Toadette nearly jumped a foot in the air from surprise. But the unfamiliar voice had called from the customer lobby, she was pretty sure. After taking a deep, shuddering breath, she headed back into the front of the shop. Sure enough, a customer had walked in, someone not much taller than her in a varsity jacket and gray corduroys and unfastening a reflective full-coverage helmet.

A biker?  “Can I help you?” And then she stopped in her tracks as the helmet came completely off. A Luma…?

Allover black eyes greeted her, sparkling with pinpricks of light well outnumbering the garage’s scattered sources of illumination overhead. The customer also wore an iridescent, translucent face mask, and blinking pressurization plugs glinted from their softly pointed ears.

On top of that, the Luma’s mask matched the design of a thin glass cuff clipped around their left ear. A magician, then. Oh my gosh—

“Greetings. Is—” The Luma glanced around the lobby as though in surprise. “This is the right place, yeah? I’m not lost?”

What a pleasant voice. Far deeper than she’d expected. “Um.” Toadette blinked. “Do you have car trouble? If not, then, yeah, I guess you are lost.”

“Car trouble!” The customer snapped their fingers as though in triumph. “Yeah, yeah. Well, mostly. Not a car. Scooter? Engine trouble. Yeah.”

Why drive a scooter if the air’s so bad for you here? Nonetheless Toadette took a deep breath and smiled. “Did you come here looking to get your engine repaired? Or for something else?”

The Luma stopped cold, then gave a gusty laugh. “Ah, you caught me. Yes, and no. Would the boss be in, by chance?”

The boss. “You’re looking for Bowser?” Toadette should have frigging known. Related to royalty, dated a princess, hangs out with freakin’ Luma magicians— “Um, he just stepped out. I could get a diagnostic started for you, though, if you don’t mind waiting. Or you could leave your scooter here, and I’ll give him your name.”

“Diagnostic. Hmm.” To Toadette’s surprise, the Luma lowered their mask and then extended one hand her way. Their fingerless leather gloves matched the navy and white of their jacket. “Ah—please pardon my discourtesy! Luma Lee, Comet Observatory. Your name?”

Toadette shook, more than a little bemused. Were they shruman, Lee would have looked awfully young for someone licensed to drive a motor vehicle. Just like me. “Kinoko Toadette. From…here. I guess.” What had Red instructed? “Oh, and I’m female. She, her, hers…”

“Ah, yes. Hrmm.” Lee took a moment to count using their fingers, or so it looked. “Male, I suppose! His. Him. All that.”

Toadette giggled. “Nice to meet you. So, what exactly’s wrong with your engine?”

They stepped back outside, strapping on their masks in unison. Lee powered up his moped—an ancient aqua-colored model from a make she scarcely recognized—and it immediately began rattling. “See, it makes a noise. I’d fix it myself, but it’s Blue-Planet designed. Petrol engine, not solar. Recommendation was to bring it here.” 

“Sounds like something’s loose inside the crankcase, if I had to guess.” Toadette closed her eyes and listened more intently. A metallic, fluttering sound of something shearing, at worst. Not good. “Not a whole lot of people ride mopeds here. Believe it or not, we’re one of only a few shops in the whole city that can take these apart.” Boy, had she learned that quickly enough. “Whoever sent you here is wise.”

“Indeed.” Lee cut the engine and handed her his key ring—just the one key, with one glowing bobble charm shaped like a fat star. “Time estimate? No need for a quote.”

Got enough cash to throw around, huh. Toadette wrapped her fingers around the keychain. The charm actually felt warm to the touch, like a dim lightbulb, but also squishy. Like Chompie’s tummy. Gosh, she missed that little monster. “Maybe an hour?” she replied. “Two at most. Feel free to hang out. Help yourself to anything in the bar upstairs. There’re some decent shops and cafes around, too.” Go be a tourist.

“Understood. Might pop in and out—” But right as he finished speaking, Lee’s ear cuff began to blink rapidly—white and blue lights, in alternating order, neatly beaming out from the near-translucent casing. “Ah. On second thought—possible to hold overnight? Can pick up at, ah, zero-nine-hundred Central Kingdom time?”

Toadette blinked. “Um, yeah, no problem. We keep the garage secured overnight.” She gently patted the scooter’s handlebar. Cute little thing. “Need me to drop you off anywhere? Or do you have a ride?”

Lee laughed hard at that, shoving his hands into his jacket pockets as he leaned back. Okay…? “Ah, no, but the offer is much appreciated. My transportation is just about—”

VWOMMM—

Toadette shrieked, holding one arm in front of her face as the murky grays of the pavement and surrounding buildings suddenly flooded with piercing white light from above. Dust clouds rose and swelled, loose litter blasting away from them in all directions. “What the—?”

Lee shot her a quick grin and waved. “Have a good day!” 

Toadette opened her mouth to reply, only to snap it shut as Lee disappeared into thin air. The street around them plunged back into shadow, and several passersby hollered before running toward where he’d stood (“Ay, was that a alien?!) and shooting her panicked looks.

Knowing it would be for naught, Toadette still looked up toward where that light source must have been. But of course only foul gray clouds loomed overhead.

You… too…?


Baby nearly dropped his styrofoam cup. “You wanna go where?”

“You heard me. Been a while since any of us took off to relax, you know?” Bowser tossed a napkin over the remnants of the little he had stomached. “Not just for logistical purposes.”

“Well, yeah, but…” Baby wrinkled his nose. “Why there? We could head south, you know. Go dune biking, or…”

“I thought about that. Pretty sure Toadette’s gonna veto anything in the desert, though.”

Baby smacked his own forehead. “Oh. Duh. Yeah, probably best to hold off on anything sandy for a while. Hrrm.”

“The air’s better up there. ‘Cause of all the vegetation, I guess.” Bowser leaned back in his seat, folding his arms. “There’s a fireworks festival, I think. Gotta double-check.” Please be right please be right please be right—

“You wanna leave town to look at fireworks?” Baby squinted at him. “I mean, not judging you. But, like. Come on.”

Bowser closed his eyes, not trusting himself at the moment. As though Baby weren’t already goddamn onto him.

But he needed a place where he could clear his head. Specifically, he needed someone on this planet that he could try to talk to. Someone who had known him, through all that squalor—someone he was pretty sure even he could track down—

“I mean, I got no problem with it,” Baby continued as he checked the takeout bag with Toadette’s lunch one last time. “I like fireworks. A festival’s bound to have firebenders, too, yeah? And we can get all those snacks Daisy likes. If Wario's still in business mode, he can check out the tracks in that area.”

“Yeah. Exactly.” Bowser shivered as they stepped back out onto the street. That weird chill had not left his bones whatsoever, even when he’d suited up for welding work. “Just do some recon, take a breather…whatever people need most.” To each their own, yeah?

“Fine. But I’m extending my biking vote to the next vacation afterwards.” Baby cackled and nudged his shoulder against Bowser’s ribs. “Take heed.”

Bowser laughed through his nose, not trusting his throat. “Heed taken.”

The shop was practically empty when they returned. “Bow got you a BLT,” Baby called to where Toadette had begun working on an old moped. “Whoa, second scooter this week!”

“Nuts,” Bowser laughed. “Think there’s another nerd convention in town? Like the one you ‘n Toad checked out two weeks ago…?”

Baby shrugged. “Good guess as—”

“Even better,” Toadette cut in, standing back up from where she’d been crouching next to the scooter. “A Luma dropped it off! First time I ever spoke to one.”

Yeah?  Bowser swallowed and pulled out his phone. But his heart immediately sank at the lack of notifications on his taskbar. No texts, no emails, nothing. What are the odds…?

“Yeah, we get ‘em every blue moon,” Baby laughed. “Not usually with mopeds, though. This one must’ve had a hell of a mask to put up with it all.”

Toadette nodded frantically as she tore into the takeout bag. “He did! It looked like some weird kind of glass, or plastic, but not totally see-through. And then he got beamed straight back up after he dropped it off! Just, this huge burst of light, then he was gone—it was amazing!”

“Bullshit,” Baby laughed as Bowser tried super hard not to keel over. “You sure you didn’t get clipped by a mack truck and get a concussion? Or—?”

“I’m tellin’ the truth,” Toadette growled, already halfway into her sandwich. “Wa’ crazy!”

“Hate to break it to you, girl, but Luma gotta use shuttles like the rest of us,” Baby retorted. “Slinging’s Piranha tech. Even I know that—”

“Not completely,” Bowser finally found the strength to speak. Something akin to a tree made of steel wool seemed to take root in his guts, scrubbing him harshly from the inside out as it blossomed. “Toadette…” How many months…?

“Huh?” Toadette licked her lips, crumpling up the empty paper bag.

“Was that Luma, uh, short? –ish? Pale hair?” Not specific enough, though. What else…?  “Wearing an ear cuff? Not just the usual plugs—”

“Yeah!” Toadette’s sharp eyes were back on him. “You knew him, then? Is he a regular? It looked like someone was communicating to him with it—kept blinking blue ‘n white lights—”

Holy— “Uh.” Bowser swallowed. Where the hell had he left that green jacket? “Yeah. He’s—”

“Liar.” Baby stuck his tongue out. “The four years I’ve worked here, I’ve never seen a Luma with an amp. Would’ve remembered that shit.”

“He, uh. No, yeah. Not a regular, not at the—not at the shop.” Where where where—

Toadette gingerly stepped toward him. “Bow…?”

“Yeah, uh. Just.” Fuck. “Yeah, you were right. Vacation. We gotta…” Where…?

“He was gunning for Mushroom Bridge at lunch.” Baby had pulled the inventory clipboard from its wall niche and tapped down the list with a pen. “Whatcha think? Ever been to the capital?”

Toadette grinned, planting her hands on her hips. “Not in a while! If ever. Haha.”

“Ask Daisy if she ‘n Louie are up for it,” Bowser told her as he speed-dialed Koopa, leaning back against the wall to mask his nausea. “Baby, check in with Wally.”

“Boss.”

It turned out to be not so awful a day after all. By the time the three of them closed up shop, the entire team had jumped on board with the spontaneous vacation, they’d made nearly a thousand coins in revenue, and Bowser almost felt okay. Was it his imagination, or were blue and white lights dancing in the corners of his eyes? Heh.

Kamek…you were right. I’m not alone.


“Bowser! A wonderful evening to you, my friend.”

“Uh. Hey.”

Mercy, did the boy sound hoarse. Best not to dally, Dry Bones supposed. “Just thought I’d check in! Have a few minutes?”

“Uh, sure. Sure.” Footsteps—separating himself from whatever was making that clanking noise in the background. Still at that shop of his, likely. Dry Bones typed out a note with his free hand.

“Now, how has it been? Fantastic to believe that the Cup kicks off in just one week!”

“Yeah. Toadette ‘n I are pumped. Been practicing every day.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” Dry Bones sighed happily. Poor fool. “We’ve been operating around the clock to ensure that this Cup is our best one yet, I’m sure you’ve guessed. Pulled out all the stops. I’ve had racers dropping in left and right begging for anything we’ve got to give.”

Too long a moment of silence, then. He’s had a long day, perhaps— “No kidding. We were wondering what Ridley ‘n Petey were up to last week.”

Well, now. “Two very good racers,” Dry Bones conceded with a laugh. “Their kart’s stats are neck and neck with yours, if I recall correctly. I for one am profoundly eager to see how their opponents will attempt to deal with what they’ll be packing this time around.”

Steady breathing on the other end. Bite it, kid. You know you want in.

Then again, why not keep pushing? “And,” he continued, “all they had to do was hop on by! I’m more than happy to sponsor plane tickets, Bowser. As I’ve made clear before.”

A sharp intake of breath. “You want me to…to fly to the desert? To that place?”

That place. Was it Dry Bones’ imagination, or had he detected a trace of disgust in that last phrase? My, my. “Perhaps Toadette hasn’t divulged all the incredible scientific advances at our disposal?” he offered. “I daresay it’d be well worth a chat with her. This is the most competitive sport there is, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that greats come and go!”

“So you’re asking to experiment on me, in exchange for…?”

Fool, fool, fool. “Oh, come now. I merely wish to give a spectacular experience to all of our fans! It’s entirely up to your discretion, Bowser—Item manipulation, performance enhancers, sponsorship—why, imagine not having to worry one bit about the pesky logistics of moving your team around safely between races. Imagine focusing on racing, and racing alone—doing what you do best. You let me take care of the rest. How’s that sound?”

He would be out of his mind to consider otherwise, Dry Bones mused. Would be insane.

“You want control of my team.”

Dry Bones had to refrain from snorting. Let him think it. “Oh, I wouldn’t phrase it quite so—”

“Either way. I’m still not comfortable with selling out. I really, honestly, super appreciate all this, but—”

“Oh, Rex, if you’d only—”

“Sorry, but my answer’s—”

Sorry?! “Listen, Rex. Think.” Dry Bones leaped up from his seat and began to pace. Sitting still for too long always itched it his soul, always weighed on him like atrophy. Like suffocating. He paced more quickly, shaking that invisible dead weight off, or at least as much as he could manage. “The way I see it? This is your shot. All the bright, young talent in this industry receives a chance to reach their full potential. We ensure it! But there are simply so many competitors, Rex. We can’t favor you all. Our budget’s large, but not limitless.”

A heavy breath, as though Dry Bones were actually wasting the kid’s time. The nerve.

Still, he needed to get this, one way or another. He had certainly held out for the clean option as long as possible. “And I know Toadette is a phenomenal racer. I’ve made sure of it. But she’s still just one person, Rex, as are you. Potential alone can only get you so far. Talent is a great starter, but it’s not what sustains excellence. That’s where support systems like mine come in. The FBR is comprised of professionals in every imaginable field from across the planet and beyond, all geared precisely toward making your game the best you can be. Why on earth would you refuse that?"

Silence. 

Good grief. Best to make it perfectly clear, then. "You really want to end your career that quickly?”

“So you’re saying that if I don’t sign on," Bowser growled, "I’m going to lose? It’s really that—it's that simple?”

"It is that simple." Rolling his eyes, Dry Bones dropped the soft sell. “Anybody can lose, Bowser. Don’t forget it.” 

Think of your parents, kid. Say yes. Make this easy, for the both of us. Quick and painless.

“Then...could I ask you something?” Bowser replied slowly. “Just one question.”

At long last. “But of course!” Hit me, kid. With everything you’ve—

“Where were you on the day that my parents died?”

Dry Bones nearly dropped his phone.

Where.

Where indeed. Where, and how, and who—

Where?  He’d—oh, that was, he—he’d been—busy, that day, so very long ago, so very…so very long…

Skulls—from stars, ribs from ash, ash to—blood, not his—screams, stitched into skin—stitched into—

“You don’t remember?”

Oh, he knew. He knew in his bones, for there was no room in his head for that place, for its name—no word for it that could fit on his tongue—he was no sorcerer, no god of any stature. Such horrors were duly beyond the scope of his—

“So… that’s it. My answer is no. I apologize if that's out of line, but I'm not gonna budge.”

“Unbelievable.” Oh, he’d slipped. He’d slipped alright. Where—?  “But, ah. Best of luck. Best of luck, Rex.” Rex—Kerog—April—my—my— “Right shame, mind you. But best of… best…” Doomed

“See you at the Cup.”

My—where—they—they’re—

“See—? Ah, yes. See you.”

Click.

Ow—

“R-Red,” he spat out, after slamming one brittle hand onto the intercom. “Plan B is a go.”

Chapter Text


…fuck.

By the time Bowser could bring himself to sit up, his phone clock read at half past noon. Toadette had left without him. 

You kept falling back asleep, one text from her read. If you’re still out when I get home Im calling a doctor!!!/

“Thanks a lot, partner.” Bowser groaned and cracked his neck. No good—still sore. Just like his joints, his forehead, his spine. How the shit does someone my age get arthritis…?

He bristled at the sight of that thing in the mirror and took the stairs down to the rest of his room. It was slow going at best, his legs creaking in protest as he stepped. He nearly dropped the bottle of painkillers he’d dug out from the cabinet in his bathroom, and his throat was so dry he drank straight from the copper faucet to force the pills down.

Like I’m falling apart over here. Ugh. Bowser stumbled toward his closet, leaned against the door frame, and eventually spotted a corner of that deep green fabric. After yanking the thing from its velvet hanger, Bowser pulled it on and zipped it up to his neck. There. Let’s go outside.

The lava moat seemed to sing to him as he collapsed down onto his narrow balcony. That sudden blast of heat enveloped him like a blanket, softening the jolting of his bones ever so slightly. He could not shake the feeling that if he dove in—bathed in that searing orange sea—maybe, just maybe, the pain would cease—

Don’t even think about it.

Heh. “Alright, old man.”

And so Bowser reached back through the balcony doorway and grabbed his laptop from its spot on the dusty floor. Within minutes, he had opened up the Mushroom Bridge Tax Assessor site. He typed in one word.

356 property owner listings contain the result “Kamek.”

Okay, then. Age range….? After a moment’s hesitation, Bowser checked the 60+ box.

47 results.

Alright. Okay. Bowser licked his lips and began reading down the list. Several well over the age of 80. Nope. A custodian at Mushroom Bridge High School. No good. One listed as retired, a former—there.

Former Mushroom Kingdom State Magician. Kamek, Grayson Koopa, Ph.D, MKSM, BP.MC. Age 61

“Got you,” Bowser murmured aloud. He pulled up a map site and checked the address—a riverside chateau in the capital's famed Garden District. After glancing at the listing one more time, he did a double-take.

Spouse: Beryl Pauline, née Kamella, Ph.D, MKSM, DS.MC. Age [ERR093:CLSF].

And they’d been married for nearly three years, Bowser read, not quite believing his eyes. She’d been a state magician as well, but used a different archetype of magic, according to that certification. Nuts.

He nearly jumped a foot in the air as his phone buzzed in his pocket. Fuck— No. Uh uh. If that jackass wanted to bug him one more time—

But it was Toadette. Phew. “Heya.”

“He’s awake!” Toadette called—to Baby, if he had to guess. “I was getting worried. How are you feeling?”

“Eh.” There was absolutely no good way to answer that question. “Just, you know.”

“Okay, pretend I don’t know. Are you sick? Need me to bring you anything? Baby just finished his break, so I’m going on mine now.”

“I—no, I’m fine, Toadette. Honest.” He swallowed, and his throat flared up once more. “Just packing for the trip.” Since he’d felt too exhausted to do so the night before. Urgh.

“Hmph. I had better not come home to find you still asleep. Hear?”

“Loud and clear,” he muttered, gently snapping his laptop shut. “Hey—uh, did Lee pick his scooter back up? How’s he doing?”

“Oh yeah.” Toadette’s voice quieted a tad. “We got a phone call this morning. He can’t make it, said that instead he’d have to send a—oh, what’d he say it was called…?”

Bowser’s heart rate skyrocketed. “A Gearmo? They’re sending a Gearmo to retrieve it?”

Toadette inhaled sharply. “Yeah, that’s it! Wait, how’d you know?”

“Just a hunch. Hey, uh, you’re on break now? Any way you could pick me up and bring me to the garage? Not sure I can drive—”

“Nuh uh. Don't even think about it. I saw how pale you were this morning. You’re starting your vacation a day early.”

Fuck— “Seriously? Please, Toadette. Just for the afternoon. Come on.” Please—just—need to—

“Why? You could barely lift your fork last night. Don’t tell me you magically got all better in five hours. And you still sound awful, by the way.”

He hated how much he agreed with her. His legs still felt like they were made of gelatin, and the aspirin he’d swallowed before crawling onto the balcony had yet to kick in. “I could work at the computer. Crunch numbers. Fill out forms. Dunno.”

“Already done,” Toadette snapped. “I got us up to date on all our paperwork so we don't need to worry while we’re out of town. Baby delivered all our outgoing mail on his break. You stay home, Bowser. Take it easy. I can help you pack anything else you need when I pick you up after work.”

He sighed in defeat, slumping back against the stone wall and hissing as the aching in his spine jolted harshly. The hell— “F—okay. Okay. Uh, tell Baby I say hey. And—and could you, uh. Could you give whoever picks up that scooter a message?”

“You want to tell Lee something?”

“Uh. Not Lee. The Gearmo.” Fuck, his head was swimming—

“Lee’s the one sending the Gearmo,” Toadette slowly reiterated. “Wait, I’m confused. Who’s—”

“Just trust me,” Bowser laughed, running his free hand over the spikes across his neck. He’d forgotten to take his straps off the night before, he realized then. Too delirious…? “Uh. Please ask the Gearmo to tell Rosalina that Bowser says hey.”

Toadette inhaled sharply. “Who’s Rosalina?”

“She’s, uh. A friend.” Oh boy—stupid arthritic dumb ass— “Lee’s mom? Kind of. Mostly.” This could get really complicated really fast, Bowser realized too late. “We go way back.”

Silence. He could practically see Toadette’s eyes popping out of her skull.

“You, uh, alright?”

Toadette’s words came out slow and near-whisper. “How many aliens are you friends with?!

“Rosalina’s from this planet,” he laughed, shivering. “Promise.”

“But I still need to tell a robot getting beamed down from an alien spaceship that you wanna say hi to your alien friend’s mom? Bowser.”

“Yeah. I mean, I can’t force you to. But—”

Argh. No. It’s fine. But we are so talking about this later. See you.”

 “Fair.” He smiled in spite of himself. “Bye.”

He gently laid his phone atop his laptop and closed his eyes. There was something to be said for the weight of the jacket on his shoulders, how it trapped that heat in, effectively a cocoon. What were the odds Toadette would get home and find a butterfly hatching in his place? Or, at this rate he was going, a firefly…? Ha.

In time he dozed off once more, blissed out from that soothing heat.


Why hadn’t Bowser warned her that Gearmos were so—so—cute?

“How the hell’s he gonna ride that moped?” Baby breathed, dumbfounded. Toadette elbowed him in the ribs, not having caught him in time.

AI humbly request AI pronouns, sir, the Gearmo explained, AIr speakers humming softly over the din of the garage’s exhaust pipes.

“Apologies,” Toadette quickly cut in. “So, um, Lee’s bill comes out to fifty-six. Please let me know if you have any questions! Do you need a copy of your receipt?”

The Gearmo signed AIr bill with no small trace of dexterity. No questions at this time. Yes, AI humbly request a receipt copy.

“Got it. Here you are—oh! And Bowser asked me to pass on a message to you…?”

His highness Rex Bowser? Please confirm.

“Um, yes. That one. He says to tell Rosalina hey.” Toadette ignored the startled look Baby gave her then. She was so not about to dump the one secret Bowser had entrusted to her.

Message received. Mama-san bids her greetings.

Did she hear that last part correctly…? Gosh. “Uh. Awesome! Have a great day.”

Watching the Gearmo swiftly unfold and re-lock AIself into a position that could drive a moped was definitely the highlight of Toadette’s week thus far. She nearly clapped as AI started the engine and successfully sped away.

AI had turned out to be the final customer of the day. Once Toadette and Baby finished cleaning the garage, she checked the time on her phone. “Okay. Assuming Bow’s not dead, let’s all meet up at six at Dyllis’.”

“Sounds good. If traffic’s not awful, we should touch down before midnight.”

Once Baby shoved off, Toadette took a long look at the garage and then locked it down, making sure the CLOSED sign stayed vibrant and visible. Til next time, bud. She’d grown awfully attached to the place in just a few short weeks. Too attached, really.

Onto other matters.

Her destination turned out to be an alley between a dilapidated concert venue and a 24/7 pharmacy some three miles out from Bowser’s garage. The designated dropbox, she discovered, was a tiny, code-locked shelf wedged into the brick wall blocking off the alleyway. Figures.

Well, it had been easy enough to spot. And here she was.

After taking a deep breath, Toadette pulled out the tiny plastic bag containing the twined-up hair she’d found, and held it with two fingers over the box’s narrow opening. One-way drop.

One down. That’s it. You’re not hurting anyone. It’s just material. Just cells.

And yet her hand shook. Any more violently and the sample would fall in, no matter what she’d—

Petey’s voice, out of nowhere. Just a matter of time.

Wasn’t it? Just one down. Not like she was anywhere near objective completion. No one would—would blame—would—

Damn it.

Scowling, Toadette squeezed the bag up into her fist and then shoved the stupid thing back into her coat pocket.

For the life of her, she could not bat away the mental image of Bowser’s face. Pale, black-eyed, those pretty orange retinas clouding to gray—

Just a matter of—

“I hate you,” she spat at an oily puddle a few inches from her feet. Was it her imagination, or had it rippled then from the venom in her words?

Just like that, she was back on the freeway, cruising down the smooth slope of an exit ramp into Exec, into that massive underground garage. And there were the many different sets of keys, right where she’d hidden them. It looked as though Bowser hadn’t even tried to look for them. He really is down for the count.

No sign of him in the kitchen, or the one office he used, or in the rec room. Toadette scowled and headed up to the third level. “Bow?”

“Out here.” At least he’d gotten out of bed at some point, then, Toadette mused with no small trace of relief.

“Hey. How’re you feeling?” She found him on his narrow balcony, bundled up in a quilted emerald green jacket. The visible stretches of his skin glowed vividly in the light of the lava. Or was he just back to normal, after having been so pale for so long…? "You look like a turtle."

And with a jolt she noted the incredible lack of sweat anywhere on his skin. Not feverish, yeah, good, but out here? And under that heavy thing…? How’s he not feeling like barbecue with all this heat?  Unbelievable—

“Ha. I'm, uh, not bad.” He grinned without opening his eyes, then slowly stood up. She could actually hear the creaking of his joints. Yuck. “How was work?”

“Pretty boring.” Toadette stuck her tongue out. “Garage is all locked up for the weekend. I did pass on the message, like you asked.”

“Thanks.” He cracked his neck. “Means a lot.”

“You’re telling me.” Toadette crossed her arms. “The Gearmo asked to confirm you as his highness.

And those orange eyes flickered open. “Eh. Makes sense.”

Makes sense?! Good grief— “How come the Gearmo frickin’ knows, and not your team?!”

“It’s complicated.” Bowser groaned. “Just, uh. They know.”

“Who’s they?” she sighed, close to exasperated. Then Lee’s face popped into her vision. Comet—

“The Comet Observatory,” Bowser murmured. “They’re, uh. Outside of Kingdom jurisdiction. Basically.”

Way to tell me nothing. Scowling, Toadette grabbed Bowser’s hand—jeez, that’s hot—and led him back into his room before pushing him onto the couch. He crumpled without a fight, looking close to bemused. “Talk to me about the other thing, then. I overheard what you said to Dry Bones yesterday.”

Bowser nodded sheepishly. “Yeah. Didn’t like how it sounded. So I—”

“You said no,” Toadette finished for him, “to the Director of the FBR, Bowser.”

“Uh. Yeah. I mean, I think he got the message. He got all quiet out of nowhere after I asked—”

“You said no.” Toadette felt her voice come awfully close to breaking then. “To the Director. What d’you think’s gonna happen?”

Bowser’s gaze snapped up to hers. “What’s wrong, Toadette?”

What wasn’t?! “What do you think is going to—”

“I have a guess, at what he’s up to,” he murmured slowly, almost under his breath. Toadette followed his gaze—around his room, up toward the loft—what…?  “Wish I could say more. Dunno if it’s—” He scowled. “This isn’t the place.”

What…?

Place, she mouthed. You think someone’s listening?  But—that meant—if Bowser lived all alone in this castle, his uncle’s—the king’s wired-up castle, apparently, and couldn’t be frank— You think Dry Bones’s listening?

Bowser winced, giving a noncommittal jerk of the head. Not him.

Oh. Oh.

The King hand-picks the Director—

Toadette shuddered, feeling the wooden floorboards swimming and twisting beneath her feet. Ha. It was all—all too funny, then. Ha—ha—

She hadn’t escaped Dry Bones. Not by one inch. It wasn’t her performance that mattered, wasn’t her experience, wasn’t her skills. Small wonder he’d instantly mamaged to pounce on Bowser, had signed her on with no notice. He could’ve been the worst racer on the planet and I’d’ve still have ended up here—

And for what purpose…? She knew her tasks, sure. Knew what to collect, where to send it. But—to what end?

But if Bowser really knew what Dry Bones was up to, yet still let her stay despite that? Then he was absolutely out of his damn mind. 

You should’ve kicked me out, she wanted to yell in his face. Get away from me—while you still—still can—the world around her had begun to swim—

“But no matter what,” Bowser quietly sighed, “the point is, I don’t goddamn trust him. All the signals are pointing to something awful—and I can’t tell whether you’re scared of him or pissed at him or both. So, no. I don’t care what it costs us. He’s not touching my team, and I’m not letting him anywhere near you. I swear it.”

Toadette ground her teeth. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, partner.  “We’re heading to the damn All-Cup, Bowser. There’s no way we can avoid him.”

“Toadette. You don’t have to tell me—I can guess that he’s got something on you, too. Just like Petey. I can tell.” He reached up and squeezed her shoulder, those orange eyes filling. “You don’t have to go into details, not unless you want to. But I want to help you. I know that he’s up to no good. Not sure what he’s threatening you with, or what he wants from my team—whatever he’s after—”

After you, she wanted to shout, wanted to scream. He’s after you, after your—

“But I don’t want to endanger you, either. I get how it is. Some stuff you’re not free to bring up.” He looked away, swallowing. “Too much at stake.”

They had to get out of here, she thought. Had to—away from this place, this trap—needed freedom, even if only for a few days.

Well, what else were vacations for?

She slowly lifted her hand to rest atop his. It felt like an anchor, in a way. Felt steady. Toadette sniffed, then squeezed that hand under hers. “I don’t know what to do,” she admitted, hating how ragged her voice sounded. “But—really—” Shit, her face had grown wet—

“Toadette…?”

“I am glad you turned him down.” You bought us time. “He’s not gone forever…or at all.” At all. “But that’s not easy. I know you want to win. I mean, I want to win. Hell.” She shook her head. “I guess what I’m—I’m trying to thank you, I think. No matter what happens.” Shit—

“Jesus Christ. C’mere.” And he was up on his feet again, hugging her to his ribcage, into the warm folds of that green jacket. Toadette buried her face in his solar plexus, taking deep, shuddering breaths and not trusting herself to talk. He smelled like tobacco and cayenne and—heh—petrol. “We’re gonna make it through this, Toadette. I’m not gonna let him get to you. Dunno why he’s after us, but we’re gonna put up a fight. ‘S the one thing I’m good at.”

“You can’t say that,” Toadette groaned. “He’s everywhere, he knows everyone, he’s got everything at his disposal. Even if I quit responding, he’ll just find someone else. It’s just—just a matter of time, before—”

“No. Don’t give up before he’s even made a move.” She sensed Bowser steeling his jaw. “Okay, yeah. There’s no doubt he’s one of the most powerful people on the planet. But we’re not alone. There’s—I can find us someone to talk to. Somebody outside of all this shit. Somebody we can trust.”

Bullshit. Bowser had grown up in the racing community his entire life. Had likely been monitored his entire life, just like her. Different prison, sure, nicer trappings, but same concept. So who the hell could he possibly know that hadn’t yet been touched by the FBR…? The odds were laughably slim.

Well, slim, but not impossible. Loathe though she was to admit it, there was no point in not trusting him. No move, no play. That sense of dread lingered—just a matter of time—but if that was the case, truly? No reason not to extend that time as much as possible.

After all, she’d done the same, hadn’t she? The cell sample was still in her pocket. Toadette vowed to burn it later. To ash.

“You do that,” she eventually mumbled into his jacket. “I’ll get us that frickin’ trophy. Doesn’t matter what he throws at us, or what he did for Ridley and Petey.” She shook her head before looking back up at Bowser. “We’re gonna beat them. All of them.” Or die trying. Ugh.

“Heh.” Bowser’s eyes gleamed. Orange—no, this close, amber—or gold? Shot through with with red...? “You got that right. Nobody messes with me or my team. Not unless they wanna get stomped.”

Now there was a mental image. “Hmph.” Struggling not to giggle in spite of herself, Toadette finally drew away and placed her hands on her hips in the closest show of authority she could manage. Fake it til you make it. “Either way, you still look sick. So let’s go on this damn vacation already.”

Bowser laughed, half coughing through that wrecked throat. “Fuck, forgot to pack. Lemme throw some stuff in a bag and I’ll meet you downstairs.”

“Fine.” Toadette rolled her eyes, grinning in spite of everything. “You have nine minutes, starting now.”

“Ugh. Okay, okay—” He stomped into his closet, leaving her cackling where she stood.

Just a matter of time—

No. No going back.

If Bowser was up for fighting, then so was she. Dry Bones could find some other jackass to collect his precious data. Even if that made her a loose end.

You’re dead to me, she swore under her breath, clenching that tiny bag in her fist.

Nowhere to go but up.


Paratroopa had never been on a group road trip in her life, a fact equal parts hilarious, tragic, and inexcusable.

And, now, one less item on her bucket list. She had certainly welcomed the proposal with open arms. After merely two weeks in Mushroom City, even she had to admit that she’d perhaps bitten off a tad more than she could chew.

Not that she’d ever admit that to her parents. Nothing would be worth giving them the satisfaction.

“I swear the cloud ended here last time I drove this way,” Bowser growled from the seat in front of her. The eerie lack of stars overhead had lingered long after they'd left Mushroom City. “What gives…?”

“It’s further out than this by another few hours,” she recalled from her drive down those short weeks before. Koopa had underestimated the cloud’s size as well. “When’s the last time you drove to the capital?”

“While ago,” Bowser admitted. “Been a few years. I knew the cloud was growing, just. Didn’t, uh. Think it was growing quite this fast.”

The cloud’s growing. Well, if that just wasn’t the most heartwarming of news. Paratroopa stuck her tongue out at the window. Gross. “Is the capital city closer than that?” She’d driven southeast from Sarasaland, but the capital was dead north, so all estimates were off.

“Guess we’ll find out,” Toadette murmured from the driver seat. “What are the good places to practice up in that area?”

Bowser took that one. “The three big tracks near the capital are the old Royal Raceway—I forget whatever they’re calling it now—and the Stadium, and there’s the Mushroom Bridge track proper. We could try to practice on that one, but everybody up there’s so trigger-happy with lawsuits—”

“Practice on the Bridge track? You mean, sit in traffic? For a million hours?” Luigi sighed. “Even when they clear it out on racedays, there’s still crazy fuckers that insist on using it. No good.”

“Did you practice traffic-racing with Koopa at all?” Toadette asked her. Those pretty green eyes sparkled at her from the truck’s rearview mirror.

Paratroopa shook her head. “Just once! And then I had to take one serious vacation. So…now we’re here.”

“I feel ya.” Junieo—no, she reminded herself—Baby—murmured under his breath while typing messages on his phone. “The two tracks with traffic obstacles are my weak spots.”

“Only one way to fix it,” Bowser reminded them with a toothy grin. Damn, those canines looked sharp. “Practice, practice—”

Baby stuck out his tongue. “Yeah, yeah. But, for the record? It’s kinda nuts how you ‘n Toadette hit the tracks literally every day. Never heard of anybody else doing that, except—”

“’Cept Ridley ‘n Petey,” Toadette cut in. “And they would’ve beat us all at Grodus if I hadn’t gotten my Item. Just goes to show!”

“Ha. Well, those two are gonna be in for a hell of a treat now that we’re all on our A game.” Baby snickered. “No lie, though. If I ever find out what Yoshi ‘n Birdo’s secret weapon of a regimen is, I’m kissing all y’all goodbye—”

“Good luck with that one, bud,” Bowser jeered. “Or am I forgetting what happened to you the one night you actually made it into one of his club gigs…?”

“Fuck off, oh my god—” Baby buried his head in his knees.

My word. “Hey, I gotta ask. How did all of you meet?” Paratroopa found herself laughing apologetically. “I mean—everyone’s just so, ehm—”

“Different.” Bowser grinned in the front seat, his eyes relaxed shut. “Fair question, actually.”

“I know you and Koopa were friends for ten million billion years,” she added, quoting her boyfriend verbatim. Since the dawn of the universe itself—

“Pretty much.” Baby looked up from his phone and grinned. “And it was way the hell back that Bowser saved Toad from getting beat up in a fight at our school. Normally I would’ve jumped in.” He laughed through his nose. “Was playing hookey that day.”

“And never again since,” Luigi murmured, his lips curled in a half-smile. “Glad you learned from that.”

“What, so Bowser interrupted a fight and suddenly y’all were besties?” There had to be more to it than—

“Wasn’t quite that instantaneous, nah.” Baby nodded his head from side to side. “Toad figured that if we hung out at the karting tracks after school, we’d quit getting picked on. Nobody wanted any piece of Bowser’s wrath.”

Except Ridley, Paratroopa knew all too well.

“Didn’t realize you were such a superhero to the masses,” Toadette giggled, poking her partner’s bicep.

Bowser scoffed. “Only losers pick on little kids for no good reason. I put losers in their place. ‘nuff said.”

Luigi snorted. “One night a bit after that, Toad couldn’t figure out where it was this kid had wrecked, so he called Bowser up asking if he knew of any single-rider street races going on.”

Paratroopa realized with a tinge of horror that Luigi was still referring to Baby. “You were in a wreck?”

“Yeah,” Baby murmured sheepishly. “That Grodus race is one of the cleanest we’ve ever thrown. Nah, so I was pit against a bunch of other small-timers out on Tobawani a few years—two or three? A few years back. Pulled too tight a turn, crashed head-first into an alley. Thought I’d snapped my neck… thought I was a goner.” He smiled. “Woke up a few hours later in MC General, Toad screaming his blonde head off at me. And this jerk—” He kicked Bowser’s seat. “Was who I had to thank for figuring out where I’d busted my ass open.”

“Whoa.” Paratroopa squeezed the kid’s knee. “Glad that worked out. Crazy to think we almost would’ve never met.”

“Ick, yeah. When you put it that way…” Baby shuddered. “Yeah. Nah. Wait, Bow, how’d you meet Wario ‘n Wally again…?”

“Uh. Do I gotta…?”

“If you don’t answer,” Luigi chuckled, “I’m happy to.”

“Cruel.” Bowser sighed. “So, uh. I graduated high school…six years ago? Back when—” A moment’s hesitation. “My parents were still running around. They kept getting invited to a bunch of offworld races during the FBR offseason. Celebrities.”

April and Rex, Koopa had pointed out forever ago. Yeah. Family friends, neighbors. No, I’m not lying—!

And against all odds, it had proven true. In spite of all the cash they’d won, the famous Kerog racing duo lived in the near-derelict apartment unit next door to Koopa’s parents’. They’d paid Koopa’s mom a startling amount to babysit their one kid every so often, right up until he and Koopa were old enough to operate home-printed bitty karts. We terrorized that complex with those things even worse than the rent lords did—

“So they weren’t exactly around to keep an eye on me.” Bowser cracked his neck. “Then, eh. Koopa ever mention anything to you ‘bout our stints at the Turnpike?”

you’re not gonna believe this, Koopa had messaged her one night. we were doing our thing at the turnpike when—

Turnpike?

just a stretch of freeway off airport!!! small timers!!! at least that’s what we thought—

“Someone approached you there,” she murmured, half to herself, “right?” Koopa had freaked out royally, to say the least. She’d never seen him use that many exclamation points in her life.

“Yeah.” Bowser glanced in the passenger side mirror. “Couple of guys I recognized. Friends of my uncle’s.”

Luigi snorted then. Paratroopa shot him a glance. “What?”

“With friends like that…” Luigi scowled toward the dark window. “Who needs—”

“Say what you want about ‘em,” Bowser cut in, laughing, “but after me ‘n Koopa took first on all four Turnpike races, they showed up outta nowhere and offered to sponsor us for the Star Cup that year.”

Wh—when you were only eighteen?! Koopa would’ve been even younger—” Toadette had begun to splutter in the front seat. At least her driving remained steady, Paratroopa mused with no small trace of envy. Long-honed subconscious muscle control, if anything. That training program sounded more and more lucrative the more she thought about it…

“But you turned him down,” Paratroopa recalled. “Koopa said you two discussed it and it…sounded shady?”

“Hella shady,” Baby laughed. “First off, it wasn’t a legal race. We can’t use the Turnpike anymore because the cops can swarm it in under a minute.”

“But staking out an unofficial race can’t be that unusual.” Especially in that city… “Was it really that weird that a few investors would check out local street races for talent…?”

“It was unusual because it was the Ezekiel Brothers,” Luigi spat, as though he’d been holding the words in his mouth for so long they’d begun to burn the roof of his mouth. “Bow’s uncle is a fixer.”

Holy—for a split second, Paratroopa’s world had swum—as though the truck had suddenly swerved violently off-course—but, no, just her imagination—just, this—Koopa had never

“I try not to spend too much time with him,” Bowser added, laughing. “Pretty vile crowd.”

“No shit,” Paratroopa breathed, feeling as though the blood had drained away from her skin. “So…what, you just told them no?” And didn’t get fried?

Even her tiny village on the other side of Sarasaland had buzzed with each surfacing report of the three most famous racing fixers’ accomplishments—a testament in itself, because the local and national news channels knew better than to touch them. All rumors, all word of mouth, occasionally a damning document that made it onto the deepnet only to immediately be countered with blocked IP addresses and laughs.

All that could be traced on an official level were the cash flows—the most asinine, improbable odds inevitably falling in favor of three brothers, each high up in the Mushroom Kingdom bureaucracy. Paratroopa herself had investigated to the best of her ability, but the lack of a paper trail for any of the three was downright impressive. And spooky.

“I had to make up an excuse,” Bowser replied, chuckling. “Told ‘em I’d go discuss with my partner. And sure enough, I found Koopa a few lots across, chatting up two older racers over a barrel fire.”

That part Paratroopa remembered. “Koopa said they’d been stir-frying garlic eggplant, and that it smelled amazing.” Bless her sweet, boneheaded little partner. “So he went to ask for some of it, and they told him it was ten coins a plate, but then they did a double-take.”

“Heh.” Bowser rubbed his neck. “I was freaking out so bad, I’d just run straight up to Koopa and broke the news to him right in front of Wally ‘n Wario. So then they freaked out, started spitting tinhat shit at me. Gave us both plates of that stir-fry while they took turns telling different conspiracy theories.”

Paratroopa’s stomach rumbled. “Oh man, I could go for some right about now…stir-fry, I mean!” If only she could subsist on conspiracy theories. Ha.

“Same, actually. Toadette, you wanna pull off at the next exit? Snack break?”

“Sounds good,” she replied, merging into the far right lane. Was it Paratroopa’s imagination, or had her voice begun to shake…?

“So, uh, yeah. Wario made this comment, like, ‘better we sponsor you than those monsters,’ so of course Koopa took it at face value and asked what Cups they’d wanna team up for.” Bowser chuckled, shaking his head. “He recognized them from earlier races, apparently. And they were up for it. And…the rest is history.”

How is that less shady…?  “You just teamed up with two guys out of nowhere? That was seriously a better plan than…?”

“We teamed up with two guys I knew nothing about, yeah. Other than that they were good at cooking, ‘n stingy as hell otherwise.” Bowser shrugged. “But I trusted Koopa. Trusted his judgment. Good thing I did, too.”

“You got that right.” Luigi wrinkled his nose. “How much later was it those three got blown up? A month?”

“Maybe a month.” Bowser nodded. “Would’ve been shit outta luck if they’d been our sponsors for the Star Cup. Hate to have been the fuckers who had to go through all their postmortem paperwork.”

“Are you kidding?” Paratroopa cut in. “That would have been amazing! Shit, there were huge bounties on the deepnet for any scrap of paperwork the Ezekiels had—like, sure, a tax form, but even something as simple as, say, an ATM receipt—”

“I don’t doubt it,” Luigi nodded. “Especially how the betting pools changed after they died. Whole lot of dumbasses tried copying them…to no avail. Nobody made it high up enough. So eventually the crazies died down, and the betting numbers’ve been way more conservative.”

Toadette pulled them into a filling station and stretched. “Coffee break! Also, we’re at a quarter-tank. Who wants to cover—?”

“I got it.” Bowser pulled out both his credit card and ID as they exited the truck en masse. Daisy followed them in, parking her Jeep on the other side of their pump. “After you’ve been in the All-Cup three times, they give you a two-percent discount on petrol.”

Paratroopa’s eyes bugged out of her head as Bowser selected the high-octane fuel. “Nuh uh. That’s so handy!”

“Bowser,” Toadette called from the shop entrance, “they have a bunch of meds here I didn’t see in the city! Let’s stock up.”

“Be right there.” Bowser nodded at Paratroopa. “C’you keep an eye on the truck? Be back in a few minutes. Just let it fill the tank.”

“No problem!” Paratroopa leaned back against the truck as the rest of Firebird filed into the store. Even way out here, the smog was still thick enough to obscure anything twenty feet beyond the station’s floodlights. Well, everything except—

VWOMMM—

Paratroopa did a double-take as a glowing ribbon of light seemed to beam down the feeder road, straight toward her—only to skid abruptly into the station, pulling up to the petrol tank just behind the truck’s. Whoa.

The light dimmed and fizzled out, leaving in its place a blue Vulcan cruiser, its rider swinging one leg over the side after cutting the engine. Thousands of pinpricks of light reflected from the rider’s midnight blue helmet as she (pretty sure it’s a she…?) considered the listed petrol prices, arms folded.

“I know, right?” Paratroopa called toward her. Extra-loud, to compensate for her mask. “This is less than half of what they have to pay up in Sarasaland!”

The biker glanced her way, and her broad shoulders began to shake slightly, as though in laughter. Paratroopa grinned. She missed chatting with strangers like this—a downright convention in her village, but a clear taboo in Mushroom City, Koopa had had to point out more than once. But they weren’t in the city now, were they? And this person hardly seemed the evil type.

“Oh, and—nice bike,” she added, glancing again toward the cruiser. Gorgeous bike. It looked to be heavily modified, its fuel cells emitting an aquamarine glow from within the blue and chrome casing.

I need to get Koopa his class M license, stat.  And then they’d need to move well outside of the city just to ride the damn thing without choking on smog. Eh.

After a credit card popped into her hand from a mechanized wristlet (Holy shit!), the rider swiped it and began fueling her bike. “Nice truck,” she replied, her voice a razor-edged contralto not at all muffled by her thick helmet. Wow. “How’s the mileage?”

“Oh, uh.” Paratroopa laughed. “It’s actually not mine! But if I had to guess…” She quickly calculated the tank size and miles they’d traveled—“About twenty-five, on the highway?”

“I see.” The biker leaned against the fuel pump, folding her arms once again. “Under twenty in the city, then.”

“Probably.” Paratroopa blinked. “D’you live in Mushroom City?” Maybe that helmet was filtered, just like her mask. “I mean—not to pry, or—”

“I do not,” the biker replied. Is that…laughter?  Like temple bells, striking and low. Going by the angle of her helmet, she had begun to gaze at the truck, along the fenders and stopping abruptly at the license plate. “Merely contemplating.”

“Yeah? Thinking about getting a cage?” Paratroopa smiled behind her mask. “They’ve got their pros and cons.” She herself had long considered upgrading her Vespa to something with a little more protection, especially after having experienced Mushroom City traffic firsthand.

“Indeed.” And the biker’s fuel line clicked off. Only three gallons? Jeez!  “In the next life, perhaps.”

“No kidding. Is that bike a hybrid?!” Paratroopa glanced back at the blinking numbers on the truck’s pump—still going steady, at nine gallons. “Electric? Solar…?”

“Close.” And just like that, the biker had replaced the pump and straddled the motorcycle once more. “Be safe.”

“Uh—you too!” Paratroopa waved as the biker started that incredible engine once more—VWOMM—and took off as though at the speed of light. Just a glowing ribbon beaming back down the freeway, its trail dispersing back into shadow with each passing second.

Dang. Paratroopa shook her head, bemused, and looked back at the truck’s fuel pump. Eleven point eight, and still climbing. Blech.

Less than a minute later Toadette emerged from the shop, a heavy bag of snacks and bottled juices in hand. “Hey! I can watch the truck now. Go get some food, lady.”

“Sweet. And please tell me you made Bowser get all the meds they have.” Hell knew the guy looked like he needed anything he could get his clammy hands on.

They high-fived in passing. “You know it. Antihistamines, anodynes, steroids…” Toadette’s eyes flashed. “Make no mistake, this is war.”

“You’re damn right.” Once she made it inside, Daisy pointed her toward the shelves of sweets imported from Sarasaland. “Oh my gosh—they even have Electro Pops!”

“Get ‘em while you can,” Daisy warned her. ”Apparently Pop Candy is about to quit shipping their stuff inside the cloud. Some bullshit about health standards for the shipping staff.”

“Right when I've moved down here. Figures.” Paratroopa loaded up and then jumped in line behind Bowser. “Some cocktail you got there.”

“Heh.” He glanced over his collection of pharmaceuticals, ground coffee, high-grade engine oil and a fifth of whiskey. “Don’t try this one at home, kids.”

“Which is exactly why we left home!” Paratroopa threw an arm around Koopa’s neck as he approached and yanked him close. “What else are vacations for?”

Everyone Chinese fire-drilled at the light before the highway entrance ramp. Paratroopa landed in Daisy’s Jeep between Toadette and Waluigi, and spent the rest of the night listening to the latter’s hair-raising tales of small-arms manufacture.

“How are you two not dead?!” Toadette had chomped through half of her food while listening, wide-eyed, to how he’d gotten into street race betting. Actual bombs had been involved.

“Luck,” Wario laughed from the front passenger seat. “Prayer. I dunno. Karma?”

“You’re not packing anything right now, are you?” Daisy hissed from the driver seat.

Waluigi shrugged. “Anybody acts rude to you or your teammates, you’ll-a find out.”

“Ha.” Paratroopa and Toadette exchanged glances. “Is anybody still after you, ya think?”

“Few people.” Waluigi gave a joyless grin. “We still got-a contacts out there who owe us, though. Everybody pays everybody back in the end, one way or another.”

Paratroopa shivered. “Never had anybody go bankrupt on you, or die? I’m not completely familiar with how sharks work—”

“You know we’re not sharks, lady,” Wario cackled. “We sell the teeth, but we don’t do the biting.”

“You made it sound like the people who do the biting are the unlucky ones,” Toadette pointed out. “Aren’t they…?”

“Most of the time.” Waluigi sighed. “Take the Mario Clan. Mafiosos through ‘n through, right up until the youngest generation. You get so used to bullying your way through life, you forget that the honorable types don’t gotta be your enemy.”

Paratroopa’s eyes narrowed. Mario…?  She knew that name. “Wait, you mean Luigi?”

“Him and his brother,” Daisy supplied, wincing. “It was easier for Mario, though. Everything’s easier for him. He was the family medic, patching up anybody stumbling in with a few bullets in the back, Chain Chomp bites, you name it. He’s one of those assholes who just blazed through med school.” She smiled wistfully. “And that was forever ago. He’s finishing up his doctorate right now. Toxicology.”

Paratroopa whistled. “And Luigi…?”

Daisy nodded to the truck ahead of them, where Luigi was likely passed out in the back seat by now. “What d’you do when you’re not a bully, but not a healer either? Nothing he ever did was good enough. His parents didn’t want him racing, told him the margins weren’t high enough. So he left.”

“What, just—ran away?” Paratroopa's eyes widened. “That takes guts.” And here she'd taken Louie for the demure type. Incredible.

“Seriously,” Toadette breathed. “How’d he make do?”

“Odd jobs around town,” Waluigi answered. “Was squatting in an abandoned mansion out in the rot woods when his brother started going steady with Peach. They made enough to where Mario could offer Luigi a better room to crash in, plus a spot on their karting team, if he could find a partner. Eventually they made enough to hire those kids as part-timers, and then the place really blew up. It's a damn tourist attraction now.”

“I’ll never forget the day we met,” Daisy laughed. “I walked into that bakery pick up a dozen Shroom Cakes for a function. They’d put the Kong Jungle Grand Prix on TV. Before I know it I’m screaming my face off at that tiny screen—along with this Delfinese guy in a frilly apron."

"Ha! Seriously? Why?"

"We were both pissed that the Funky kart had gotten six stupid green shells in a row. Six, the whole time it was below fourth place. Rigged, I tell you!” She shook her head. “So, uh, yeah. He—y'all, he looked so damn cute in that apron. I might have asked Peach for his assistance with arranging the Shroom Cakes."

"Pfffft." Paratroopa kicked the back of Daisy's seat in mirth.

"Smooth." Toadette chomped away. "Who drove?"

"Once we'd made it there in one piece, he asked if I was in the league." Daisy cracked her neck. "I casually mentioned I was in the market for a partner.”

“That’s so romantic.” Paratroopa sniffed. “I met Koopa by getting in a flame war with him in a kart building forum.” She rolled her eyes as Toadette burst out laughing. “Yeah, yeah. We spammed each other on an off for a year over prioritizing top speed versus acceleration—or, uh, that was the original argument, at least. My parents kept making fun of me, asking me how my ‘boyfriend’ was doing.”

“Same-a thing on his end,” Wario chortled. “Kept saying, 'ay, Koopa, tell your girlfriend hey for us,’ whenever something on the internet pissed ‘em off. Guessin’ most times it was you, huh?”

“You’re probably right,” Paratroopa admitted, unable to keep from smiling.

“But eventually we all ended up racing together,” Daisy continued, “me and Luigi and Mario and Peach and the boys.” Then she scowled. “Right up until he found out that it was his parents who were sponsoring the team.”

Toadette’s jaw dropped. “After they’d told Luigi that they didn’t want him racing? Because he wasn’t making enough money off of it? Holy cow.”

Daisy nodded grimly. “They’d been giving Mario anything he asked for the entire time. Spared no expense, so long as Mario was involved. He was the family’s hero. Nothing Luigi ever did would satisfy them. So…we both left.” She laughed through her nose. “And now their sweepstakes score is awful. His parents couldn’t afford to keep sponsoring the team afterward, so now Peach’s bakery is what covers them for the All-Cup.”

“Damn.” Paratroopa leaned back in her seat. “I would’ve done the same. But…how’d you two end up on Firebird?”

Wario snickered. “Pure spite. Bowser always gave Mario hell. Talked shit about him in interviews, singled him out during races. Back when the Ghost Items were legal, he’d go out of his way to steal Mario’s Item instead of, eh, a more useful one. Crazy shit.”

“Seriously? What did Bowser have against Luigi’s brother?”

“Peach,” Toadette murmured, kneading her temples. “Long story.”

Clearly. As in, Peach the racer…?  Who had been a freaking princess? …back before that infamous Toadstool family coup.

Paratroopa was stunned at just how closely all the lives of these racers she’d admired were truly interwoven. Small world after all, huh.

As they continued to chat, her attention kept snapping to Daisy’s gasoline gauge. Kept calculating. Thirty-two per hour on the highway. Not much better than Bowser’s. Pure petrol engines, the both of them.

She thought of that biker who had arrested her attention, with that mirrored helmet and hybrid bike (Surely it was a hybrid. Had to be a hybrid. Right?). Contemplating.

At half-past eleven, a faint glow along the horizon caught her eye. “Look, y’all!”

“Holy shit,” Daisy breathed. “They built a dome.”

Dome…? But, sure enough, Paratroopa noticed a sliver of light blue glinting dead in the middle of the highway. It glowed like a tiny, cold sunset, and had to be gigantic given the rate they were approaching it. “What the hell is that?”

“Charged air,” Wario breathed, his eyes round as saucers. “Damn, that had to’ve taken-a more ‘n one donor. Somebody text Toad.”

Toadette had already flipped her phone open. “Just got a message from him. He says once we’re inside the dome, we won’t need to wear masks. Some kind of city-wide safety measure they established last month...?”

“How the hell didn’t we hear about that?!” Daisy growled. “That’s nuts! Ask him who funded it.”

“I just….what. He—he says it’s classified. According to his scouting database.”

Classified…? Paratroopa felt a chill settle on her bones. “Wait, so that dome keeps out smog?”

“Aye,” Wario murmured. “The capital’s not a ton of acreage, no, but it sure as shit ain’t tiny. Government had-a to have put taxpayer money into that, or I’ll eat my hat.”

The dome continued to grow and grow, glimmering and translucent and massive. Paratroopa inhaled sharply when she realized she could see stars through it. “It’s taller than the cloud. Jeez!”

“Security checkpoint up ahead,” Daisy called back. “Everybody have your ID ready for the Shy Guys.”

Even at this hour, a noticeable stretch of traffic had jammed up at the base of the massive dome. What looked like a stone archway stretched across the length of all the highway lanes, both north and southbound. Rotating police lights in every color harkened to them from afar. In time they reached the checkpoint—a small booth before a steel gate arm.

“Greetings,” what Paratroopa guessed to be a Fly Guy called through Daisy’s rolled-down window. “Identification, please.”

Daisy handed four cards over, then did a double-take. “Toadette…?”

Toadette had frozen up, by the look of it, her jaw half-slackened. Paratroopa squeezed her hand. “You okay?”

“Y-yeah.” Toadette swallowed. “Uh. Pull up a bit. Gotta do an eye scan.”

“Oh! Um, can we get an eye scanner, please?”

“Affirmative,” the Fly Guy replied, gesturing to another state servant behind the desk. “Please pull forward by approximately two feet.”

Toadette rolled her window down and held still as the second Fly Guy held a pencil-sized device at her eye level. After it emitted a bright green pulse, the Fly Guy nodded. “Identification confirmed. Welcome to Mushroom Bridge. Enjoy your visit!”

The gate arm lifted and Daisy plunged them into the dome. Paratroopa held her breath as the Jeep’s windows flooded with blue light, so bright as to nearly blind. A tiny jolt, like static from one of Koopa’s sweaters, seemed to run across her skin for half a second.

And they were in.

“Gorgeous,” Waluigi breathed, leaning close against his window as the brilliantly-lit capital city swam into view. It really was beautiful, Paratroopa thought, all those ivory towers lit up against the deep blue sky—one with stars. As though there weren’t a dome in the way at all, or any smog beyond. How…? The sheer physics of the situation occupied most of her mind as they sped deeper into the town.

They flew down the enormous red metal bridge that seemed to span a sea rather than a river—bigger than any stretch of water that Paratroopa had ever seen. Toadette rolled her window down again; the fresh, clean air felt downright frigid, thick with mist as the waves beneath them sloshed. “Touchdown,” Paratroopa barely heard her breathe.

Mushroom Bridge proper was all ornate, spindly spires and baked clay tile roofing and green—god, Paratroopa had nearly forgotten—the artful landscaping around each edifice highlighted with spotlights, thick-trunked trees, curly-leaved bushes, wall-climbing vines and ponds heaping with lily pads. Was her mouth watering?

“We’re almost at the hotel. Hang tight, y’all.” Daisy followed Bowser’s truck through the narrow, cobble-stoned streets, until the neat brick shops and cafes and offices on each side seemed to tower over them, quite literally in the few cases of skybridge-topped archways and connecting balconies. Paratroopa could only imagine how lovely it all would look under real sunlight.

Well, they would find out soon enough.

Chapter Text


Bowser rose with the sun. Once the telltale beams of light unfurled from beneath the floor-length curtains, like flower petals after too long a winter, he could not bring himself to linger in bed any longer. Grinning the entire time, he stumbled from the sofa bed and creaked over to the balcony door. Each of his joints whined as he moved.

The moment he pulled the door open, that morning light drenched his front in a white blaze that seemed to settle in his bones and muscles with its own brand of pain-killing magic. Like stepping into a hot bath. He took a great, shuddering breath and neatly snapped the door shut behind him. The tiny balcony had room for two rickety chairs and little else. He gently lowered himself into one, feeling for all the world like his own grandma in her sauna as he tugged off his sleep cap.

Just leave me here to die. There were worse ways to go out, he knew.

“Morning,” a breathless voice called from the adjacent balcony. Bowser started, then glanced over to where Toadette was doing push-ups, her thick curls tied back away from her face.

“Heya—whoa.” Bowser did a double-take. Not just pushups; both of her legs were raised clear off the ground. “You can lift your entire body weight?”

“Heehee.” Toadette slowly lowered herself to the ground. Bowser realized that he’d never actually seen her upper arms before—she’d always worn blouses with long or elbow-length sleeves, hiding well-defined deltoids—and one red row of track marks down her left bicep. Huh. “What, like it's hard?”

Bowser snorted. “Damn. I gotta up my game now.” Before this sludge had overtaken his system, he’d worked out maybe three or four times a week. “How often do you do calisthenics?!”

“Every morning,” Toadette replied, having moved onto leg-raises. “After yoga.”

Every morning. And he hadn’t noticed. “What time d'you start? We could work out together.”

“Seven on the dot. Yeah, ha. I meant to ask you earlier, but then you got all, uh…” She winced in his direction. “Ill?”

“Hmph.” Bowser had a thought and made to stand up. “Hey, maybe it’ll clear out faster if I—”

Toadette shot him a death glare. “How about no. If you overtax your system and die this close to the All-Cup, I will cut you.”

With those triceps? He’d get sliced clean in half. “Fair.”

Eventually Toadette cooled down and leaned against the balcony railing, chugging down a glass of water. Afterward she squinted at him, then inhaled sharply. “Dang.”

“What?” He braced himself for more zombie jokes. All week long she had hurled them left and right.

“You hair looks gorgeous,” she breathed. “In that sunlight, I mean. Gosh. Hey, don't move!”

“Wuh—?”

“I’m taking a photo!” She grabbed her phone off the floor. “Your head looks like it’s on fire! But, like, in a good way? In a really nice way. Gyahh.”

He rolled his eyes as her phone clicked away. “Don’t make me file for a restraining order, partner. And, no, you do not have my consent to post those anywhere.”

“Pssh. No way I would. These are all for me.”

Why does everybody always say that?  Bowser chuckled and leaned further back against the chair, closing his eyes. Eventually church bells rang from not too far off; for an eight o’clock Ordinary, he guessed. Something in their clean, deep tones sounded comfortingly familiar. “Hey, Toadette…?”

“Huh?”

“Back at—back in the desert. Did the subjects have any religious space?”

She was silent for a moment. “What do you mean?”

“Just—like, uh, if somebody had a worship schedule or ritual, was there anywhere dedicated to that in the labs? Or did the testing schedule take precedence?”

“Hrmm. Never thought about it.” He heard a soft creaking noise and suspected she had sat in one of the other balcony's chairs. “Dunno if any of the other subjects did, either. I don’t think there was a chapel or temple anywhere. Closest one would've probably been in one of those tiny villages between us and Toad Town.”

So Toadette wasn’t the religious type. Neither was he, to be honest. “You think?”

She exhaled slowly. “Couldn’t say for certain. Why d'you ask?”

“No real reason,” he admitted. “Just thought about it now. From hearing the church bells, I guess.”

“Church… bells?”

“Yeah. The ones that just finished ringing. They sounded pretty close up—just down the street, maybe.”

“You heard bells ringing?”

Bowser opened his eyes. “Uh, yeah. Wh—”

“DONUTS HAVE ARRIVED! EVERYBODY UP! THAT MEANS YOU, KIDS!”

He jumped a foot in the air as Daisy burst through the balcony door on Toadette’s side. “Holy sh—”

“Would you keep it down out there?” Paratroopa’s muffled voice called from the other room. “Eight’s a little early for some of us, okay?”

“Tough toenails!” Daisy hollered back. “Bowser, go get the boys up. We have work to do today! And also I’m bored. This whole town practically shuts down after two.” She started and then did a double-take. “Damn, your hair looks great in that sun. I’d forgotten.”

“So I’ve heard.” Bowser groaned and stood back up, relishing the sublime lack of pain in his knees and hips. Nice. “Wait, why do I gotta get everybody up?”

“Because,” Daisy replied, folding her arms, “we all need to be able to see the fireworks by eight tonight. That means we get all of our tasks done first. Remember? When we went through all this last night?”

“I remember him passing out while you were talking,” Toadette cackled. “But she’s right, Bow. We gotta get matching decals since the team has five karts now, and Luigi said he needed to be somewhere at noon so that means we have to get them printed before eleven. Then we have to postpone our practice laps at the Royal Raceway to after he gets back, whenever that is.” She hopped back inside and opened the door connecting the two suites.

“We’ll be back at five.” Daisy’s face had softened. “I’m going with him. Just, uh. A family thing.”

Oh, brother. A family thing, in Mushroom City? Bowser nodded, licking his lips. “Then that should give us about two hours at the track.” He gave Daisy the best grin he could muster. “Please tell me there’s a cinnamon twist in that box somewhere.”

“Two! I got you covered.” Daisy wriggled her eyebrows and they headed back in.

Wario had already washed and dressed, with Wally in the shower and Luigi still conked on his half of the bed. Toad had blearily begun checking his phone while Baby dug through their suite’s minibar for orange juice. As Toadette hopped into the other shower, Paratroopa fired up both suites' coffeemakers and darted Koopa’s snoring form with a plastic stirrer wrapper.

“Like a brick,” she grumbled. “Wanna draw something on his face?”

“Koopa actually slept through a hurricane one year,” Bowser recalled, inhaling the steam wafting from his styrofoam cup. “Meant to ask you how the hell he manages to get up for work every day.”

“He has a static-shock alarm clock,” Paratroopa replied, grimacing. “Or, eh. He used to have one. Let’s just say it worked a little too well. Fucked up my hair like you wouldn’t believe. So I told him it had to go or he’d have to sleep by himself.” She stuck out her tongue.

Bowser grinned. “Nah, the trick is to jump on top of him. Works every time.” He kindly demonstrated.

“GAH—MY NECK—”

“Method noted. Thanks!”

Eventually Team Firebird managed to file out of the tiny hotel and onto the quaint cobblestone streets beyond. The sun overhead rendered everything in saccharine-bright colors, gleaming and vivid without the crutch of neon or eezo signage anywhere. Greens upon greens, thanks to the incessant gardens and wall-crawling ivy and flowerboxes in nearly every window; lung-chilling blues as far as his eyes could see, between that effective ocean of a river surrounding them on three sides and the nigh unbound sky above. Occasionally a burst of purple-green shimmer overhead caught his eye, but the charged air dome was practically invisible from the inside.

“This is incredible,” Toadette murmured, clutching his hand as they walked. “It’s like the dome might as well not even be there.”

“I’d hate to imagine this place without it, though,” Daisy muttered. “Mushroom City didn’t have much greenery to lose to the smog in the first place, since it was mostly volcanoes and coal mines. But could you imagine this place without any plants or trees?”

“What’s freaking me out is the social media lockout.” Toad had not looked up from his phone the entire morning. “It’s like—like even mentioning the dome triggers all of an update’s tags to auto-delete.”

“I had to manually search for location-based forum topics just to dig anything up on the surface net,” Paratroopa added. “Whatever crawlers they’ve developed for this—shit, I don’t wanna think about it anymore. Stayed up way too late, and pretty much for nothing.”

Bowser felt a sharp tug on his hand and glanced down at Toadette, who had apparently been making a face at him for some time now. What…?

The king, she mouthed, her eyebrows pinched with misgivings.

“Dunno,” he murmured just loudly enough for her to hear. “I'm not exactly the first person he tells stuff.”

She scowled but continued to hold his hand. Since the instant they’d left their suite, she hadn’t let go.

Hang in there, Toadette. He squeezed her hand, just once. Soon.


In due time the official Team Firebird decal was picked and registered: a rising phoenix with flaming tires for wings. The designer printed it in blue and red for Toad’s bullet kart, purple and gold for Wario’s, green and yellow for Paratroopa’s, orange and aqua for the Bloom Coach, and Bowser insisted on black and pink for the Koopa King.

Whatever I did to deserve you, Toadette thought, close to tears, it wasn’t frigging enough. “Then I gotta find more black stuff to wear for the Cup,” she giggled under her breath, “if you can find a way to wear more pink.”

Bowser cast a soft eye toward the racks of car parts further back in the shop. “We’ll figure something out.”

She squeezed her partner’s hand, wondering idly how long she would get to live after possibly trimming those spiked straps of his in lace. A good two or three minutes, tops. Totally worth it.

“I might go shopping,” she announced when everyone else began to split. That entire morning, she had detected exactly zero tails. No ROB units, no Shy Guys, nothing that made her hair stand on end. Just crowds of passersby, harried shoppers and unhurried strollers and businesspeople on their way to negotiations over brunch, their telltale briefcases unconvincingly slender. But she felt safe enough to step out on her own, at least for an hour or so. Surely somewhere here sells stuff with spikes.

Daisy and Luigi had avoided Bowser’s eye that entire morning, which had not escaped her notice; her partner gave a sort of grim nod as they apologetically waved from their Jeep. What's with that...? Probably something to do with that Mario guy, if she had to guess. Bleh. If Bowser didn't like him, then neither did she, especially after what she'd learned from Daisy the night before.

“Well, there’s a bunch of boutiques a few streets down from here,” Paratroopa replied, checking the map on her phone. “Ah—Koopa, look! This place sells Luma fiber-optics!”

Koopa's attention snapped away from a fountain dedication plaque. “For real? Let’s go.”

“Bow, wanna come to the natural history museum with us?” Baby asked, looking over Toad’s shoulder at the tourism pamphlet in his hands. “They have free admission on Saturdays if we get there before noon!”

Bowser chuckled. “I’m…gonna grab a coffee. Meet up with you all in a bit, yeah?”

“Ha. Well, you know where to come find us.” The boys linked arms and were off.

And so Toadette found herself gazing into the Historical District’s gorgeous brass-trimmed picture windows, many of which displayed goods well out of her price range; even before eleven in the morning, shop after shop’s attendants offered her champagne or Sky Juice as she browsed, and complimented everything from her nails to the pattern of her stockings to her hair color. Okay, now I really feel like a princess—

“Red? Hey.”

Toadette stopped dead in her tracks halfway across a sunny plaza, nearly colliding with a tall Luma businessman. She murmured an apology and ducked behind a statue of a regal-looking woman, her heart still pounding at the voice she had heard—and what it had said.

A deep voice, and velvety, if uneasy in tone. She strained her ears and eventually located the speaker: a gentleman on a bench a few yards off, one finely-suited leg crossed over the other and a hint of a pistol holster glinting at his hip.

Toadette swallowed and played it cool, but every inch of her skin crawled with—with something. There was no name for the sensation inching its way across her nerve endings. Some combination of fight-or-flight and morbid intrigue would have to do. She did not recognize the voice, no, nor the portion of the speaker’s face she could view beneath his wraparound sunglasses. But he was familiar. That much she knew to be true.

Stay calm.  She carefully inched closer, pulling out her phone and pretending to type a message as she walked. Who who who who her fingertips tapped, and then the words dissolved altogether as she entered within earshot of his side of the conversation.

“…didn’t arrange for the dropout, and Kuro didn’t, and goddamn Karon didn’t, then who the f— yeah? Yeah. Uh-uh.” His handsome mouth contorted in either disgust or confusion. “No. Yeah, that’s—I’d say problem is one hell of an understatement—”

Kuro. Karon. The back of Toadette’s head felt as though it were buzzing—she swore she could smell sandalwood, then, of all things, and a plume of rust—and then what she could see of the speaker’s face instantly drained of blood. Like he’d spotted a banshee.

“Did she cash in? Because that’s its own worst-case scenario. Yeah. Uh huh. Oh, ‘n you were right about her ‘n the cars, by the way. All three were bugged and wired to hell, and the gods alone know what we didn’t catch. The boss sent ‘em all off—” He laughed through his nose. Not an altogether unpleasant sound. “A ways away. Got her tailing the wrong fella. Yup. Quit laughing. I said—Red—c’mon—”

It couldn’t be—but—oh, if Toadette could just get close enough to hear the other speaker—not even words, no, but just a vowel, a tone—Red Red Red Red her shimmering fingertips typed—

“But it’s not him she’s upset at, yeah? There’s gotta be something else, Red. You were there. Not out o’ commission, like the rest of us. I only—” And Toadette tiptoed up to just behind the bench, less than a foot away from the man.

I was there,” Toadette barely discerned, and her heart threatened to burst. That marvelous, musical voice on the other end of the line could only belong to one impossible person. “And I still regret it immensely. No offense. But something foul’s going on, if you ask me. Stay vigilant.”

“’S what he says he pays me to do,” the man laughed, rubbing his throat with two fingertips. “Eh. But keep me posted. C’you believe I found him passed out at his desk again this morning? He played it off the same way. I couldn’t find any toxins in his system, so we gotta chalk it up to—”

“Those trips he’s been making are coming to fruition. That means a priority shift is in order.

Gosh. How many times had Toadette heard that exact last sentence in that same voice? She shivered.

“Yeah?" The man laughed through his nose. "From what to what?”

“My cover is about as solid as I can get it. Time to make use of that.” A rapid exhale. “Your brother’s all but abandoned the remaining Daimaō subjects—the yet unmatured samples. Make of that what you will.”

“Well, whatever it is they’re up to, I hate what it’s doing to the boss.” No small note of melancholy had become apparent in the man’s tone. “D’you know how much I’d pay to be able to hear him instead o' goddamn Karon, even for five minutes? Billions of coins, Red. Bil—”

“If I had a coin for every time you’ve told me that, I’d be able to pay it for you.”  Toadette’s heart skipped a beat at the sound of laughter on the other end of the line, a gusty sigh of a gale that every bone in her body recognized. It really is her. No mistake. She’s—who—who is this guy—?

“You alright, sweetheart?”

Toadette inhaled sharply as the speaker tilted his head back toward her, one eyebrow raised over the rim of those expensive sunglasses. She grinned and shook her head before promptly walking onward, back to faux-texting. Red Red Red Red—Kuro Karon Kuro Karon Kuro—

“Nothin’,” the man continued as she walked out of earshot. “Don’t worry, I’m in an untraceable zone—plenty of magnetic interference, you know? In front of the statue of—”

Toadette’s hands were shaking violently, she then realized. I need to get out of here.

Coffee. Bowser had mentioned needing coffee. Toadette took a shuddering breath before pocketing her phone and vowing to stop into every café between her and the hotel until she found him. I need a distraction, partner.

Lest she in her panicked state do something completely rash.


Chateau was right; this place was impressively-sized, even and especially for the Garden District. Thick clusters of vines crawled all the way up the stone façade’s two stories to its red baked roof tiles. The smoke pluming from the two chimneys overhead smelled of incense.

Bowser raised one trembling hand to the thick front double-doors. Lowered it. Raised it again, clenched in a fist. Lowered it again. Calm down.

So he inhaled deeply, letting the wisps of smoke settle in his lungs and weigh him down like warm stones. He’s having a quiet Saturday afternoon, probably watching the news in front of the fire. Calm down. Calm down.

He knocked. Once, twice, three times. Waited.

“Who’s there?” a voice eventually called, and Bowser fucking lost it.

Who’s there?

Hospital curtains, gauzy and billowing from the rattling A/C unit overhead, obscured the features of whoever had entered his room. “Name’s Kamek,” the shadow had replied in a wizened voice, even then. Voices that knew too much always teetered on the verge of breaking. “Mind if I sit down?”

Bowser had minded, had said so, and the old man had tutted and seated himself in the hospital room’s one stiff armchair anyways. Adults.

"Well that’s just rough, boy. It's a rough life. And it’s not gonna get any easier from here on out, I hope you know."

"Why the hell should I listen to—"

"Save it, son. Now you’ve been through a lot, so I’ll not waste any more of your precious time with niceties. The name’s Kamek, and as it turns out, I’ve been charged with protecting—"

“Bowser,” said Bowser, blinking back into the present. Chateau. Vines. Smoke. Kamek.

One massive door opened, and an elderly man half Bowser’s height leered at him from behind the only pair of glasses Bowser had ever seen him wear. “Gods, it really is you,” he cackled before opening the door even wider. “Well, quit dallying. You’ll let the good air out.”

Into a stone-tiled entry chamber Bowser half-stumbled, as though borne by an invisible current. The room was small but with a disproportionately high ceiling, and the beams of light filtering through the upper windows came at angles too slight to reach the floor. “Kamek—”

“In, in. Kamella, we’ve company.” The old man prodded him in the hip. They walked together through a thick archway that had to have been carved from a solid tree trunk, past a massive and well-lit library, and into a terrifically warm sitting room. An old woman of similar stature sat upon a high stone fireplace hearth, holding one hand up to the dancing red flames roaring within. To Bowser they swirled into the forms of screeching tires, of ancient beasts, of a face tattooed with diamonds, of a brush leaving a swelling ink trail—   

“Company, you say? Who’s this, now?”

“Ma’am.” Bowser clasped his hands together in the presence of not one but two state Magicians, former or no. He hadn’t forgotten his manners, a testament to Kamek’s efficacy if nothing else. "It's—it's Bowser, Rex Bowser—"

“My word.” The old woman lowered her hand and the flames decreased in size and activity, now cackling softly and spawning no discernible shapes nor scents. “How long’s it been, then?”

“Years,” Kamek sighed, hopping back onto a thick couch. “Sit down, kid. Gods, look at you. Haven’t cut any of that hair once, I’ll wager.”

Bowser scowled as he sat into the larger of the two armchairs. “Hey, Baby trims it every now and then.”

“Pfft. That little one. How’s he faring? And that techie kid you always ran off with? And those two gamblers.”

“He ‘n Koopa are great. So are Wally and Wario. They’re all in town now, the whole team.” He gave a joyless grin. “Vacation.”

“Vacation, he says,” Kamek grumbled. As he spoke he lifted one hand to a polished wooden tray atop on ottoman; several china cups appeared upon its surface. “Still take your coffee black?”

Did he. “Yes, sir.”

“Old habits die hard.” A slightest twitch of the old magician’s fingers, and deep-hued liquid appeared within the cups, steam swirling up from their depths in double helix trails. Bowser bowed his head in thanks before handing one cup to Kamek and holding the other in both hands. It smelled phenomenal.

"Thanks. How've you been? You two?"

"Infinitely better," Kamella cut in, "now that Kamek's not called upon every other fortnight. That uncle of yours's finally backed off on abusing Blue Planet magic to carve out his precious bunker. Me, I'm in my damn prime." The fire accordingly turned vivid pink.

Bunker...? "What's my uncle been making you do?"

"Suffice it to say he's got his eye on some real estate. But please, Rex. I've spent too much of my time ragging on that wretched man already. What brings you all the way out here?”

Bowser inhaled the bitter steam for who knew how long, and then burst. Started from the beginning, or one of the beginnings. The king’s message. That meeting, back at the Tower. Toadette, and her past, and her fear. Dry Bones’ phone call—

“Hold it. You really do mean that Gïga-Bowser asked you to meet personally with Dry Bones? Of all people?” Kamek squinted, the contents of his half-empty cup sloshing wildly. “That’s absurd.”

“You don’t think it makes sense?” Bowser drained his mug. “He knows I—he's got to know my racing stats. Thought he was trying to get me high up in the Cup—was going to bet against me, and then Toadette ‘n I’d—”

“He’d never pull the same trick twice,” Kamella growled from the hearth. Green flames, now, no, blue-green, vivid aquamarine—one leering eye— “Too many have caught on to that old FBR standby of sacrificing veterans to make room for new talent. Makes for great TV, sure, but it’s still murder, and all for false scarcity.” She sniffed derisively.

Kamek nodded. “Gïga-Bowser isn't that clumsy,” he murmured, his gray eyes clouding. “Planting the girl to get you blown up the same exact way isn’t impossible, no, but from your description? She doesn’t sound Kamikrazee. And that training program of the FBR’s is legitimate. Or, it started out that way. Gadd himself initiated it.”

Gadd. The one FBR suit Bowser had actually wanted to meet, ever since he’d first heard his parents lauding the guy. Someday, maybe. “Toadette knows Dry Bones is up to something. I’m convinced she got paired with me on some kind of condition—either she’s giving him information on me, or my team, or, uh. Dunno for sure. I do know that she doesn’t like him, at all. She could be resisting him—knows she's gonna be in trouble, yeah?” God, did he hope so. Banking on you, partner. In a not evil way.

“Few people acquainted with Dry Bones genuinely like him,” Kamella chuckled, her low voice cracked with age. “He has the moral compass of a bonfire in a drought. And no tact!"

Sounded about right. “Then… what are you thinking? There’s a reason why my uncle wouldn’t want me getting in with him, even though he’s the FBR Director?” The absolute opposite of what he’d assumed. Nuts—

“Indeed,” Kamek sighed, exchanging looks with Kamella before casting a glance over him. “Have another cup, boy. You look too pale. I don’t like it.”

“Had a bit of a cold this week. Still shaking it off.” He drank deeply from the mug once it instantly refilled. I fucking love magic.

“A cold, you say.” Kamek wrinkled his nose. “Let’s hope you’re over it before the All-Cup begins. It’s a taxing enough trial even on the hale.”

“You got that right. But really I am starting to feel a bit better, now that you mention it.” Bowser closed his eyes, leaning back into the seat. “Old man. Level with me. What’s going on? What’s the king want from me?”

“Hmph. Make no mistake, Dry Bones is bad news. For the king to want to connect the two of you personally…” Kamek shook his head. “I cannot fathom it, frankly."

He should have known. Well, so much for—

"But I can think of someone who may.”

Bowser felt his eyes widen ever so slightly. “Yeah?”

Yeah. Silly boy.” Kamek chuckled and tapped the amp cuffing his ear. “The engineer queen herself is in town today, I’ll have you know. Attending some sort of cer—”

What?”  Bowser nearly fell out of the chair. His heart rate had skyrocketed, beating far faster than he had ever raced in his life. “Wh—when’d she return to orbit? There was nothing on the news—I’ve been checking—I thought—”

“Unlike some people,” Kamella murmured as she stepped away from the hearth, “Rosalina knows how to be discreet.” Kamek waved his hand yet again, and a third cup appeared on the ottoman tray, filled with what looked and smelled like green tea. “A grand idea, though, I must say. After what I've heard, I’m of no doubt that she misses you.”

Bowser zoned out, feeling a peculiar warmth spread through his system. A rigid, bone-melting heat, more focused than any ray of sunlight—cut me open— “Wait. Hold up. You—you think I could meet with—”

“Messaging her now.” Kamella closed her eyes as her ear cuff blinked alternating white and blue lights. “Ah. She can’t speak currently. But she’ll call you this evening—Rex, isn’t it?”

Holy shit. Bowser snapped his jaw shut, feeling like someone had flattened him with steamroller or three. Holy—what—even—

“And not a moment too soon.” Kamek muttered. “Strange times, I must say. No, a good chat is in order. No one has a better handle on the current state of affairs. No one worth knowing, in my humble opinion.”

“A chat does sound lovely,” Kamella murmured over her tea. “Perhaps we could persuade her to stop by for a luncheon later on? It’s been too long.”

“It’s always been too long. Magnificent lady.” Kamek rubbed his eyes. “With such a daunting task before her, though, I daresay I can’t blame her for such infrequent visits.”

Tonight. She’ll call tonight. Holy. Holy. Holy—

“Ha. Look at him. Star-struck.”

Ow. “Leave me alone, old man.”

“Exactly what I did, boy. Surprised you took it upon yourself to seek me out.”

Bowser shot Kamek a glance, his mouth suddenly filled with words his tongue could not pronounce. God… “Kamek—I—”

“Oh, don’t fall apart on me. Sounds like you’ve enough going on as is.” Kamek patted the back of his hand. “But you clearly know where to find me. We’re not uprooting anytime soon. This place is safe for as long as you need it to be.”

Bowser nodded, his eyes stinging. “Kamek—thanks. Seriously.”

“Enough, enough. Back into the fray with you. Go enjoy this so-called vacation of yours. Say hey to that techie kid for me.” Just like that, Kamek was nudging him back into the entry chamber. “There’s a festival tonight! Go, be foolish. While you still can. Oh, to be young—”

"Speak for yourself, codger," Kamella called from the sitting room. "Take care, kiddo."

Bowser turned in place once he’d made it back out the front door. “Kamek, I missed you.” God...I've been such a—

“And I you, kid. Listen out for Rosalina. She’ll not let anyone harm you, nor anyone else on your team. Not Dry Bones or any other weasel out there." He wrinkled his nose. "There’s enough pain in the world. Been enough.”

Bowser nodded, grinning as Kamek gave him a final wave. “Take it easy, old man.”

A festival sounded goddamn great.


I give up, Toadette texted Bowser. Where r u??

On a roof, he replied a few seconds later. The address he then sent her turned out to belong to a crowded café tucked into a cramped side alley, one that split right off of the main plaza before the Mushroom Kingdom palace itself.

The castle did not look particularly tall nor grand from a distance; she remembered from her schooling that its many offices instead extended far below the city, even beneath the huge river. But up close, its five ornate stories seemed to tower infinitely high. She could look straight up and still catch glimpses of its opal-tiled towers, those lush green vines hanging from the trimming like willowy gargoyles.

Tourists abounded; no fewer than three times was Toadette asked to take a photo of a large family in front of some statue or other. Do I really seem that harmless? Ha.

The bustle of the café reminded Toadette of Dyllis’ place, somehow, but sunnier. In time she found the narrow staircase that led to the roof. Bowser was sitting in the sunlight again, his phone in one hand and a dead cigarette in the other. A paper coffee cup stood half-empty on the table.

She plopped into the chair next to his. “Hey hey.”

“Yo.” He looked up from his phone. “How’d shopping go?” He grinned. “Find anything with spikes?”

Shopping—? Oh. Right. Browsing in those many shops seemed like a lifetime ago, now. “Eh, this place might be a bit rich for my blood. Besides, I like the stuff I already have. You and Daisy are pros.”

“Heh. Mostly Daisy. I’m just here to look pretty.” He glanced around for a moment, then dropped his cigarette to the floor and crushed it underfoot. “Heh, forgot—no smoking allowed in city limits.”

“Yeah, you monster.” Toadette snickered, rolling her eyes. “Anyways, what time is it?”

“Six til twelve.”

He’s doing it again. “Your phone says five til.”

“Phone’s wrong.” He replied almost automatically, as though without having considered her question at all.

Oh yeah? “How d’you know?”

Bowser blinked, starting as though she’d jump-scared him. “Uh. Just, uh. I just know.”

“Hmph.” Toadette sighed. The roof was rather narrow, with barely enough room for their table and a recycling bin. The two buildings on either side framed that castle like bookends, their wide walls painted over with chipping murals of deserts and jungles. “Can I ask something else, then?”

He put his phone down on the table and picked up the coffee cup instead. “What's up?”

“It’s about your uncle.” Toadette looked straight up to where the bright palace seemed to loom over them like a wary guardian. Like a parent. “What Luigi said yesterday…was that true?” Is he a fixer? Was he?

Bowser laughed through his nose, though no trace of amusement showed in his eyes. “Yeah.”

Toadette’s jaw dropped. Why had—had she hoped, of all things, that there had been—confusion, or a lie, a cover story, anything but—are you serious—?  “Even though—even though he’s—?” She jerked her head toward that castle, just to be clear.

Bowser gave her a grave nod, the slightest hint of a wretched smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Big time.”

Dang. Toadette felt her mouth run dry, and nearly considered running downstairs to get her own cup of something strong. Instead, she continued. “For...for how long?”

This time, he shrugged. “At least five years. Probably way longer.”

Five— “Five years?” Toadette steeled herself. “Bowser...?”

“Yeah?” Gosh, he looked tired.

“What happened five years ago?”

Bowser pinched the bridge of his nose, slumping ever so slightly back in his seat. He had to have known it was coming, Toadette thought. Just a matter of time— “The race,” he replied, his words quiet and dull, nearly slurred.

“The—?” Race— and her bones froze.

Uncle’s a fixer. Uncle’s the king. Ousted the queen five years ago, right after—right after his family—right when—then, that explosion—that was—

“Toadette?”

He did it, she wanted to scream, wanted to shout at the one person who already freaking knew.

“Toadette, it's okay. Stay with me. Snap out of it—Toadette?”

How long had she been standing? Toadette looked behind her, to where her chair had fallen over—she’d knocked it— “S-sorry,” she stammered, glancing back at him, back at the chair, back at—back to—

“Toadette?” Now his face was behind hers—she’d thrown her arms around his neck, was holding him tight, was terrified, petrified— He killed them, Bowser, he killed them and you know it and now you're just like—and what if you’re—you’re next?  This was—had to be why—if he knew what Dry Bones was after— “Toadette, c’you hear me—?”

“Yeah,” she finally brought herself to reply, somehow shocked at how wet her voice had become. “Yes. Sorry, I—” She drew away, picked the chair back up, sat in it, and let the world continue to spin. She probably couldn’t fall over any more at this point. Probably. “But, Bowser—when—? How’d—?”

He'd begun to stare at the paper coffee cup. “Was tipped off after the fact. But all the good evidence got destroyed too s—”

"Why?”

Who the hell rigs the death of their own family—? On some base level, she knew, had known; history was littered with the victims of patricide and fratricide and every horror in between, but never had she fathomed anything near—anything so close to—

And Bowser laughed, a little more convincingly this time. “Needed the cash.”

“To become—” And she felt that magnificent, ivy-tressed palace glaring daggers into the back of her neck as though with eyes of its very own. Okay, maybe we didn’t pick the single best spot to have this conversation. Too late now.  “What, he—he bought his way in?” Is that even possible…?

“Basically.” Bowser closed his eyes, tilting his head back to let the sunlight cover his face. “Dunno if this is the place to go into details.”

No shit. Toadette took a deep, shuddering breath. “Is there any place for that, really?”

“Actually…” Bowser leaned forward again and checked his phone. Frowned. Put it back to sleep. “Well, I’m supposed to hear back tonight.”

This was news. “Hear back...tonight? At the festival?”

“Ha. Yeah. Well, maybe. I’d like for you to talk with her. With us, I mean.” He absently brushed one hand over the spikes at his neck.

“Her?” Who is us?  “Bow, who…?”

“Like I said. Somebody we can trust.” He smiled. “Honestly, I thought the best we could do by coming here was to find out whether Kamek had gone senile or not. But we lucked out. Maybe.”

She’d heard that name before. “Kamek—that guy you lived with?”

“Yup. He used to get on my nerves like nobody else on the planet, but his heart’s in the right place. He ‘n his wife were both Magicians, so they were able to use their network to contact Rosalina.”

That name again. “You’ve mentioned her before. Lee’s mom, right?”

He smiled, for real this time. Like she’d just lifted a massive weight off his shoulders. “Uh, Lee’s mom. Kind of. Luma don’t exactly procreate the way we do—“

“No shit,” Toadette chuckled aloud. Giggled. Outright laughed. Am I losing it?  Processing, if anything. Or so she hoped.

“But, uh, ha. Yeah.” Bowser sighed, shaking his head at her. “Yeah. I guess this might explain, uh, some stuff.”

“I guess.” Toadette kicked his knee. “Yeah, you’re right. I wanna talk to her, if you trust her. But what’s she got to do with any of this?”

To her surprise, Bowser stood up, tossed his paper cup into the recycling bin, and offered her his hand. “Walk and talk?”

Anything, to get her out of sight of that castle. “’Kay.”

They headed down the narrow staircase, through the café and out into the plaza just as clock tower bells began to ring. Maybe he wasn't crazy this morning, Toadette thought as the bells clanged, saturating the air with crisp, booming tones.

“Where are we going?”

He kept his gaze steady. “Sightseeing.”

“Well, I can’t see anything,” she reminded him. “Too crowded.”

And before she knew it she was back up on his broad shoulder, now several feet higher than the throngs of tourists on all sides. “Better?”

She could see the entire plaza just by turning her head. “Yep.”

They headed down a familiar path—the exact one she’d taken to find him. Bowser was quite literally retracing her steps, past the ornate boutique windows and through the Historic District and into the same exact plaza where she’d heard Red’s voice through someone else’s phone. What…?

Against all odds, Bowser stopped at the very statue she’d ducked behind those short minutes before. “This is Rosalina. Or, uh, a sculpture of her. Technically.”

Technically, the statue was somewhat larger than life-size, but on Bowser’s shoulders Toadette was just about at eye level with its stoic-faced subject. Rosalina Toadstool, she could just barely make out from the marble placard on the statue’s granite base. First Comet Observatory Director, Galaxy Projects Initiative.

“She looks like Peach,” Toadette murmured, unable to mask the shaking in her voice. "But...older?" Decades older, and somehow not that much older at all. Her age was impossible to determine; a damn good sculptor had made this, then. No, Toadette had definitely seen this person before. Where?

“Peach is her little sister,” Bowser replied all too gently.

“What?” Had Bowser not braced her, Toadette would absolutely have fallen off his shoulder. Too much—way too frigging much information for one day—“Are you kidding me?!”

He cracked up at that. “Please.”

Unreal. “Gahh. Then, I guess I’ve seen her on TV before?” She was the one to abdicate the throne earlier on, then—but—

Bowser shook his head in laughter. “Toadette, you’ve seen her race. You said so yourself.”

“What?!”  Toadette began kicking the back of her heels against Bowser’s chest. “Stop it, Bow. Seriously. This is—just—”

"Yeow. Mercy. Mercy—"

But his words rang true. Toadette was back in the labs, in that sterile auditorium, her favorite race of all time playing out at half-speed on the projection screen. That golden heavyweight kart dodging one, two, three red shells, all colliding with one another in a dazzling crunch— that aqua-eyed racer wrecking into another kart, spinning clean off the holographic pavement and into the starry void, as her tall Thrower pulled a Mushroom from the flash-printer— rocketing back up to overtake the other kart in one frenzied second—

“They really are the same person,” she murmured bemusedly, half-surprised to hear her own voice.

“Yup.” Bowser reached up and squeezed her hand. “That stunt you said was your favorite? She pulled that the year before the race where my parents were—where they died. She was competing in that one, too. The explosion happened right in front of her... shrapnel took out one of her eyes.” She felt those massive shoulders beneath her shudder. “She hasn’t raced since.”

Seriously—?  “I don’t blame her,” Toadette murmured, her voice close to breaking. “That’s—that’s horrible—” To lose an eye in a race explosion? Yeek!

Bowser grunted in what must have been an affirmative. They were silent for some time then, alone together. Eventually Toadette absently began stroking his hair, those gold strands blazing hot from all the sunlight they’d absorbed.

“So…she found you, and told you what she saw…?”

“More than that,” he replied lowly. “Yeah. It’ll be good to chat with her.”

“Definitely. Hey, um, let me take a photo and then you can let me down.”

“Heh. Alright.”

One update to Toadette’s lock screen later and she was back on her own feet. They were silent for the next few minutes, making no contact save for holding hands. The more Toadette thought about it, the more insane it all sounded—that the closest eyewitness to the rigged deaths of Bowser’s parents was a former princess, who was also a phenomenal racer and also memorialized in the capital city for something called Galaxy Projects—the same exact capital city lorded over by a man who’d killed his own brother and sister-in-law in that exact incident—just—

“Let’s, uh. Let’s get some food. Sound good?”

He's being a mom again. Toadette nodded. Food sounded good. Sounded great.

In time they found a bustling crepe stall not far from the National Natural History Museum, where they picnicked on the wide stone steps out front. A wide fountain softened the din of the crowds, cooling the breeze as the droplets of water misted high into the air. “Think Toad and Baby are still in there?”

Toadette polished off her crepe and shrugged. “Maybe. Could always text ‘em.”

“True. Fingers crossed Baby doesn’t try to abduct any lizards they may have.”

“Ha.” Busting rare lizards out of a museum, huh. Sounded like a freaking vacation after the morning she’d had.

Maybe they needed a vacation from their vacation. That festival couldn’t come soon enough.


Had Saulus been dreaming again? He blinked, once, twice, then looked away from the window. Waited three seconds. Looked back down at the sprawl of sun-baked rooftops and foliage.

It would have been all too easy to spot a specter in the throngs of summertime tourists below, to mistake a stranger for a friend. Yet against all odds, there, before his very eyes—his own—

“…boss?” Kingfin's mite of panic felt palpable even through the phone line's static.

“Oh, pardon. Please repeat that last sentence?”

“Uh—I was saying, I got a negative from everybody we know. Red’s suggesting that we assume a worst-case scenario.”

Great. “Pray tell.”

“I mean, we got no motive and no method for anybody else, so, uh. It’s gotta be her.”

“Horrific reasoning,” Saulus laughed. “Pathetic, really. As in, I’m astounded that this is all we have to go on—”

Kingfin sighed over the line. “So you disagree?”

“Not at all. But she’s forcing our hand, and deftly so.” Saulus sighed, now desperately craving a cigar. “It’s all a game to her. We may all as well be chess pieces.” He laughed. “Am I a king, or a pawn?” Kingfin would be a bishop, minimum—

“Boss?”

“Oh, ah. Forgive me, my friend. She draws my mind into places it need not traverse.”

“I believe it. But—if you want—“ Kingfin’s warm voice dropped ever so softly. “If you want. I could plant somebody. You know I can. Just say the word.”

Whatever it was that he paid Kingfin, the number was never, ever high enough. “That I do want. If she’s making moves, her whole support system will be in a flux. Find me an opening. That’s your task.”

“On it. You need anything else while I’m out?”

He glanced to where the cigar box on his desk lay, emptied. “Two more cases of Delfino unfiltered, could you. Corona Limitada. And anything you want, of course. My treat.”

“Consider it done. Kingfin out—oh, and, uh, your Majesty?”

Saulus had returned his gaze down to the view beyond his window, to the now-vacant roof of that little café. “Mhm?”

“Keep an eye out, wouldja? Been sticking to the blind zones like y’asked, but I still get the feeling like I’m bein’ watched. Not electronically.” He exhaled briskly. “Wouldn’t put anything past her, y’know?”

Oh, did he know.


Fully-grown Chain Chomps were almost as cute as they were vicious. Toadette liked them.

“Wh—why the hell would you even say that? They’re fucking evil, spawn of the devil—d’you see this?” After running into one during their first time trial, Bowser had promptly removed his shirt to show her the astounding amount of bite marks along his ribcage and abdomen. “And two—two of our opponents use ‘em as goddamn Items. Fucking menace to society—”

“Aw, I’m so jealous! What if we had them as pets?” Toadette cracked up as Bowser growled in exasperation. “Just a few! Just a few small ones! Yeah? Yeah. Deal.”

"Not in my castle. I promise, once you deal with 'em on a tiny track like Baby Park, you'll change your tune."

Toadette stuck her tongue out at him as Daisy and Luigi's kart blew by for its third lap. "The Koopa King kinda reminds me of 'em, y'know? Because of its teeth." She patted that fanged front bumper to illustrate her point. "And it's just as cute. So Q. E. D., jerkface."

"Heh. That bumper's actually something Baby welded in one of his art classes at MC High," Bowser replied, absently pulling up blades of grass where he sat. "They were supposed to sculpt car parts representing the driver's personality, I think."

"Hmm." Toadette looked back and forth between the kart and her partner. "Scary...and cute. Yep, I'd give him an A plus."

Bowser snorted. "Sure."

"What, are those steer horns on the hood more of what you had in mind? Because those are kinda—"

"Hey, those were a present from Luigi. He found them and cast them in titanium. C'you believe that someone just left them on the side of the road?"

Toadette shot him a nonplussed look. "I can't imagine why."

The Royal Raceway, as everyone on the team still called it, actually boasted a nice variety of environmental hazards and track curves. Their practice session was time well spent, and not just because Bowser refused to put his shirt back on until they returned to the hotel to shower. Suffice it to say that soaking in all that sunlight had done wonders for his pallor. Well, either that or the fun combination of meds he’d taken the night before. Or both?

In any case, Bowser was practically a new person as they sped across that huge red bridge toward the fairgrounds, the setting sun and its twin in the river coating them in lush golds and reds from all sides. Paratroopa had procured glowing skin paint, electing to dot and stripe each of her teammates in different colors.

“Stuff’s radioactive, I tell you,” Wario growled before begrudgingly letting her draw purple Bob-Ombs along his forearms.  

It was thanks to Luigi’s hell-sent parking skills that they found a nice spot near a dimmer riverbank. Baby pulled out a blanket from the hotel and spread it over an empty patch of grass. “Who wants to hold down the fort?”

“Step aside, young’un.” Wario began unloading a miniature coal grill and a few coolers from the pickup bed. “Unless you wanna bring in customers.”

“Wait, seriously?” Baby planted his fireball-painted arms on his hips. “Then do I get a sales commission?”

“You'd get to eat for free,” Waluigi countered, unfolding a large corrugated metal sign painted with HOT BBQ - 7 COINS/PLATE. “And consider your income tax for this prepaid.”

“Oh, for crying out—c’mon, Toad, let’s get people here!”

“Wh—hey, wait up!”

“You two are something else,” Toadette murmured, eyeing their quick stall setup with no small amount of reverence.

Bowser peeked into the different coolers. “What, no two-coin well shots? 'Cause I was hoping to save that whiskey for Gala night—”

“Alcohol’s for teammates only,” Waluigi cackled, pulling a fifth of Espolón from a smaller ice chest. “Have at it.” Bowser took a swig before joining the rest of them as they headed toward the fairgrounds proper.

“Are they allowed to do that?” Toadette asked him as they strode uphill toward the gathering crowds.

“Hell, no. You really think Wario would hand over twenty coins for an occupational license?” They cracked up in unison and waded in.

Gosh. Strings of lights in every color and shape imaginable hung between and booths of handcrafted toys, accessories, rugs and many more wares Toadette could not identify on sight. Clouds of peppery smoke wafted from the innumerable food stalls, where literally everything Toadette had ever heard of was available fried or on a stick for a few coins a pop. Attendees batted the summer late-evening heat away with ornately dyed paper fans, dancing in front of the three different music stages or in the middle of foot traffic lanes, where buskers tapped and beat drums behind tip jars.

Toadette spotted the game booths first—roulette wheels, strength hammers, softball targets, and even LED-lit gambling machines behind a roped-off sector. Good thing Wario ‘n Wally stayed back. But that target practice game did look enticing.

“Step right up! Up for a fun challenge, young lady?”

Toadette blinked, somehow having expected a Shy Guy. This was a real person, she noted with no small sigh in relief. “Okay, bud. What’s the catch?”

“Catch? No catching in this game, m’lady! Just throw the ball, hit the target, and take home a prize of your choice!” The carnie waved one hand to a high shelf filled with fat stuffed Kongs, Bloopers, Goombas—and one massive Chain Chomp with iridescent fangs. 

That's it. You’re mine. “How much for a go?”

“Three coins for three chances! Think you got what it takes?”

Toadette gave a gruff nod and accepted the three softballs. The target looked innocuous enough: a good two feet wide, maybe twenty feet away, with a big red bullseye about ten inches wide from what she could judge. Let’s see what you’re hiding. She wound up, calculated, and threw.

No go. “Aw, but don’t give up! Still got two more, m’lady!”

“Hmph.” Either her release was off by a slight vector, or something was guiding the ball away from the target. Toadette pretended to wind up once again, instead focusing on locating the exact spot where the ball had veered off. There. Toss number two.

Zero for two. But she could see exactly where—oh. Oh.

The average player was a good foot taller than her. The average player would not have been able to spot the single PVC pipe protruding from the canopy of the game tent. The average player would have aimed straight for the bullseye, time after time, only to have their softball blown off course. Now all Toadette would have to do was…

“One last chance! And don’t forget, you can always try again.” The carnie chuckled. “It’s only three coins, after all.”

Yeah, well, here’s my three coins, pal. And so Toadette threw the softball underhanded.

BANG. The ball collided cleanly with target from too low of an angle for the blast of air to knock away. Bullseye. “Wh—why, uh, lookie there! Ha! Hahaha!” The carnie blinked a few times, his stale smile pasted in place. “Uh. Wow! Wow. Uh, go ahead, lady—what’ll it be?”

And that was how Toadette ended up carrying a Chain Chomp doll nearly her size around the fairgrounds, passersby parting around her like zipper teeth, until she managed to spot Bowser at a yakitori stand. “Hi.”

“H—holy shit, don’t—no. No. Where the shit did you find that. No. Just—fucking—” He groaned as Toadette skipped in circles around him, holding her enormous prize in the air. What a great day it had turned out to be after all.

“You gotta admit,” she chided him as they returned to the truck, “the not-alive version is pretty cute.”

“Yeah, yeah. Hold our food and I’ll boost you up.” Seconds later they were both seated atop the truck’s cabin, nothing but that starry sky over their heads—at least for the time being.

“I can’t believe we can even see the stars through it,” she murmured between bites of sizzling chicken, peppers and onions. "The dome, I mean. Since it's taller than the smog." Wasn't it?

The glowing red and orange fangs Para had drawn around Bowser's mouth looked particularly menacing as he chomped on his own food. “’S nuts. Kinda pisses me off, honestly.”

She had not quite expected that last statement. “Yeah?”

“These people got it so good.” He bit an entire skewer’s contents off at once and tossed it over his shoulder. “But once their friends ‘n family are taken care of, they hoard all this tech ‘n magic for ‘emselves. ‘S the worst. Yeah, we joke about how Mushroom City doesn’ got any plants to protect anymore, but it’s still millions of people.” He swallowed with a scowl. “Even if they built a dome over the central, say, five percent of the city—nowhere near the size of this dome—that’s a lot of people you could fit under there. Fifty or sixty thousand, at least.”

No kidding. “You really think Mushroom Bridge is gonna be the only domed city?” Toadette replied, aghast. “Who finds a cure for toxic air and then keeps it all for themselves?”

“It’d explain the social media lockdown,” Bowser muttered. “If it’s the only place of its kind, then the demand to live here jumps way the hell up. Visiting for the weekend is one thing, but check the property values online sometime. Check out much they want you to pay to live here full time. Wish Koopa was here right now—he's got the stats to back it up. 'S all bullshit.”

Toadette could guess. “So there’s gonna be a huge influx of people who've emigrated here and got nowhere to live.”

Bowser gave a dry laugh. “There’s gonna be a bunch of people trying to get in, yeah. But next thing you know, those traffic stops at the freeways’ll be the only gaps in a giant wall. I’m thinking, bidding wars over sheds, proliferation of black market visas like nothing we’ve ever seen. People’ll try to dig underneath from the outside, which’ll get treated like a felony, or treason, or worse, since they’d be potentially contaminating the air inside—”

“Bowser.” Toadette squinted at him. Where’s all this coming from? “You’ve been thinking about this all day?”

“Wasn’t planning on it, but, uh.” He shrugged, taking a bite from his last skewer. All peppers. “Half of me wants to never ever come back here—not touch any of it. Stay in Mushroom City, where no one’d bother constructing this shit, starting a damn uproar. None of the council members live there.”

“Mushroom City isn't considered as valuable a place?” She set her empty paper carton aside. "Even though it has more people?"

“Yeah. Exactly. I got enough beef with the powers that be as is.” He shot her a grin. “As long as their little jewel is protected, they'll let the rest of the planet burn.”

A chilling sentiment, especially given the push for offworld colonization that Toadette had noticed. She chewed her tongue in thought. “And…the other half?”

“Hm?”

“You said that was half of you, wanting to never come back here.” Toadette glanced at him from the corner of her eyes. “What would the other half do?”

Bowser gave her the biggest smile she’d ever seen in her short life. Those are some sharp canines. “Shred the whole thing," he replied hoarsely. "Reverse-engineer it, somehow. Then guard the tech so nobody tries to rebuild it.”

Well, shit. “You seriously mean that?”

“Yeah. If this whole planet really is destined to fall to smog, then the crown 'n council shouldn’t get to hide under a nice dome until everyone else can.” He wrinkled his nose. “Unless we can fix it before it comes to that point.”

“Fix…it? Fix the smog?” Toadette felt her eyes bulge out of her head. “I get that it’s annoying, but is it…you know, fixable?” This whole time, she’d just—it was just a fact of life, for all these people, like gravity and bills. They’d gone out of their way to make sure she was prepared for it. She hadn’t forgotten those brief, horrid seconds outside the Mushroom City airport’s doors. But the mask and eyedrops had done the trick, hadn’t they?

“It wasn’t always this bad. I guess I sort of knew that already, but seeing how far the cloud had spread in just a few years, well.” He kneaded his temples. “Ha. I wanna smoke so bad right now, listen to me. Complaining about something I’ve been helping make my whole life.”

Toadette sighed. “I’m having trouble just wrapping my mind around it being any different, somehow. But if this thing was built once, then we could totally build more…right?”

"Eh..." Bowser grinned, shrugging. “Yeah. Yeah, maybe. Probably psyching myself out for nothing.” He sighed and flopped onto his back before closing his eyes. “Probably.”

“Let’s just get through this All-Cup,” Toadette laughed. “You can save the world on your own time, alright?”

“Ha. Yes, ma’am.”

Toadette looked back up at those lovely stars. I wouldn’t mind living here forever, she could not help but think. Someday…

“Now that the sun’s pretty much set, the fireworks should be st—oh.” Bowser inhaled sharply, then sat back up and pulled his phone from his pocket.

Toadette squinted at the caller ID screen.  Unidentified Caller. “Some help you are,” she murmured under her breath.

But Bowser was beaming as he picked up the call. “H-hey—”

And then the fireworks began.

First, every single light over the fairgrounds’ stalls had all gone out simultaneously, plunging the crowds outside of the tents into near pitch darkness. But the sudden shadows all erupted too quickly for even a collective shout as the sky burst into life overhead. Green and blue sparklers gave way to yellow and white pinwheels blossoming into red and orange Fire Flowers spitting flaming magenta orbs. Toadette’s jaw dropped; even she had momentarily forgotten what was happening six inches away. This is the call…?

Toadette quickly glanced back and forth between that dazzling sky and to what she could see of Bowser’s face in between the blasts—he was looking skyward as well, holding the phone to one ear and leaning back on his other hand. He looked happy. Looked downright thrilled.

How can he hear anything over this noise? Toadette shot him a quizzical look.

He noticed, and winked. Magic, he mouthed to her. Well, gosh. Toadette couldn’t even hear Bowser’s half of the conversation and yet he continued to talk, pausing every so often to listen. He laughed once, twice. Shook his head, the neons in the sky rendering every strand of his hair in brilliant candy hues. She focused on the shapes his mouth made.

—hoping we could chat in person. Well, that was a gimme. More shapes appeared out of the corner of her eye—orange falcons with flapping wings, sparkling Xs and Os in blue and white, acid green hearts—

Tomorrow?  He blinked. Licked his lips. Evening, yeah. Yeah, no probl— And he stopped cold. “What?”  Okay, Toadette had definitely heard that last part with her own ears, even over the din of the blasts. The blood had drained from Bowser’s face in a single instant, like he’d just watched someone die, or worse. The purple and blue stars bursting overhead did little to help.

“Bow…?” What’s going on, partner?

Hang on, he mouthed to Toadette. Was it her imagination, or did his eyes look wet?

Crazy. Toadette sighed, leaning back down to return her attention to the fireworks. If it was important, she’d find out soon enough.

In due time Bowser killed the call, slid the phone into his pocket, and slumped onto his back next to her. Bunnies made of lavender sparkles hopped across the sky, followed by the Mushroom Kingdom flag flapping away in all its orange and green glory, sprouting into red and blue mushrooms, then dancing tongues of flame in red and gold...

The show must have went on for a good hour by the time Toadette realized it had finished up. Somewhere in all of that, Bowser had loosely draped his spiky hand over hers. She squeezed it before whacking him in the face with her new stuffed toy.

“Gyahh. Yeouch.”

“What’d Rosalina say, already?” Her ears were still ringing from the fireworks, but at least now she could freaking hear.

“She—uh. We’re gonna meet her tomorrow night. In Mushroom City.” Even as he spoke, Bowser's face seemed to blanch once again.

What’s gotten into you?  Toadette exhaled sharply. “So we came out here for nothing?!”

Bowser shook his head. “Nah, I never would’ve known if I hadn’t met with Kamek. As far as the others are concerned, we’re here for the festival and the stuff we did today. Y’know?”

He had a point, Toadette supposed. Still, she could not shake the feeling that having a separate agenda put them on a separate team, so to speak. Especially if it turned out the Dry Bones was bad news for all of them, not just her and Bowser. “I guess. But…” She turned her head to make eye contact with him. “After we meet her, tomorrow? We really should talk with everyone. Nail down what's going on—for their sake. Alright?”

Bowser grimaced. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. Ugh.” His eyelids flickered shut. “I’m not putting any of them in danger without their knowledge. But, like you said. Let’s see what Rosalina says first.” He sat back up then, and handed Toadette her toy. “You know what, let’s go back in. There’s something I wanna find for her, anyways.”

What… “Something for Rosalina?” At a fireworks festival? Well, now.

“Yeah. There’s gotta be something in here…”

Back in they dove. With all of the lights back on the crowds were thicker than ever, that sweet smoke beckoning Toadette back toward all the food stands. “So, uh, what are we looking for?”

Bowser ducked into one of the local artists’ tents. Within stood dozens of display stands heaped with shimmering jewelry—earrings and necklaces and hair combs and body chains and uncountable more pieces, all exquisite works of gemstones and rare woods and every hue of precious metal. “Look for something that’s like outer space,” Bowser murmured as he peered over the glittering abundance.

Had she heard that correctly? “Outer space? Like… stars?”

“Yeah. Yeah, like—hrrm.”

Toadette waved to the stall’s owner as she finished speaking with a pair of customers in the far corner of the tent. “Can I help you with anything, dear?”

“Uh, sorry to bug you—but my friend’s on the hunt for, uh, I guess something dark blue? If you have anything star-shaped?” She laughed. "Planets...?"

The jeweler chuckled for a moment before striding over to a rack laden with delicate necklaces. “How’s about this one, then?”

Toadette gasped at the sight of the thing—a teardrop-shaped pendant, not quite the size of her thumbnail. At first glance it was all deep, nearly midnight blue glass, but upon closer inspection, the sparkles at its center were clustered in a tiny spiral. The gem held a galaxy in its own right.

“It’s perfect,” Toadette breathed, enthralled. “Bowser, look!”

He beamed. “Hell yeah. Yeah, ring that one up, and—this one, too—great. Thanks.”

As they exited the stall, Bowser pulled the second item from the bag. “Find something else?” Toadette asked, hugging her new Chain Chomp close as a breeze blew through. It was surprisingly cool for summertime now that the sun had set. Here, the hour actually mattered.

“Yeah. Hold out your hand.”

Wuh— Grinning feverishly, Toadette stuck her arm out. Bowser carefully clasped a bracelet around her wrist. A beaded one, it looked like—not pearls, though, or gems, but—oh.

Each bead was an intricately crafted rose-gold Chain Chomp.

“THIS IS AMAZING!” She hugged her ridiculous partner and felt the urge to skip around once again. Like she’d just eaten ten donuts, extra icing. “Thank you—you didn’t have to—!”

“Hey, I couldn’t just not get that thing once I saw it,” Bowser laughed. “Like you said. The not-alive Chomps are better anyways.”

“Pfft.” Toadette shook her head, wiping one eye in mirth. “I can't believe you. This is the best. You’re the best. Argh, let’s go look at this fire dancer!” She grabbed his big hand and started galloping toward one of the raised stages.

“Awesome,” Bowser breathed as they approached the stage. The teenaged performer held one iron torch that looked an awful lot like a flaming sword. She twirled it for a bit, creating trails of orange flame that elicited yelps from the closer audience members.

Each move grew bolder; soon she was tossing the torch in rapid arcs, tumbling or somersaulting along with it in midair, catching it dangerously close to the wooden stage floor or her own skin. The flames seemed to leap and bloom even in spite of her ostensible directing, stretching and twisting as though by magic alone (Not an impossibility, Toadette reminded herself).

“Who’s there,” she heard Bowser mutter under his breath.

Toadette shot a glance his way. If he was looking at the performer, she could not quite tell; his gaze seemed to have drawn inward, those orange eyes clouding up—orange? Or red? “Bow?”

DUCK!”

Toadette inhaled sharply as the performer screamed. She had dropped her torch onto the ground before backpedaling away, but the thick tongue of flame remained airborne. It seemed to dive through the air on its own accord, straight to where Toadette and Bowser were standing.

“Bow—move!

Toadette dove out of the way, but Bowser seemed rooted in place, distracted by whatever was—what in the world—?!

The roaring flames swallowed him whole in an instant, trapping his entire form in a burning globe.

“BOWSER!”


Kingfin found him leaning against the far windowpane, empty highball glass in hand. “Boss?”

“Come." The king did not look away from whatever had arrested his attention. "Look.”

Bewildered, Kingfin dropped the cigar box on that giant desk before striding over to the high window. “What’s going on?” They had a healthy view of the fairgrounds from this side of the building.

“See?”

Kingfin had decent eyesight for his age, but even he felt unsafe trusting his poor ocular system here and now. “The hell…?”

“What’d I tell you, hm?” Gïga-Bowser pulled a kerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed at one eye. Wild.

“You alright? Boss?” Kingfin placed on hand on his friend's shoulder. Rarely did the monarch weep without merit. "Saulus...?"

“Kingfin, I—” The corners of Saulus’ mouth quirked once, twice, three times. Gods, could those amber eyes shine. But Kingfin was able to pick out one particular glowing orb in each. “I’m not ready.”

Frankly, neither was he. Kinfin sighed and rubbed the scarred-over gash in his neck, disappointed with how little this soothed him—first, because it had become a grounding habit of sorts; second, because it still goddamn ached. 

Chapter Text


“Is this some kind of sick joke?”

Her husband-to-be had some nerve, Red thought, to barge unannounced into her spa session so. Any louder a shout and her hair may as well have deflated like a ruined soufflé. “Is this really the time? The ceremony's in three hours. Saulus will need pickup from the airport in one. Kingfin hasn’t responded to any of my—”

“I’ve never raced before! Not once in my entire life, Red, and out of nowhere you’ve pit us against the best the entire galaxy has to offer? I’m not the racing enthusiast of my family—I’ve never—”

“Please. Darling. Who’re you talking to?”

That was all it took, as usual. Dark physically cooled down before her eyes, slumping against the ornately tiled wall and rubbing the back of one hand against his forehead. His loose tie threatened to fall from his neck. “Red, I… I’m just—”

“Have some faith. The way I see it, we have a job to do. And I'm the only one who actually needs to get it done.” She gave him her patented steely glare. “You can just sit back and relax, my love.”

“Sit back—Red, I’m gonna miss a ton of work. We’re traveling all over the damn planet for three weeks, like a—”

“Like a honeymoon.” She’d had the counterargument prepared the moment she’d dropped their cover names into the roster. “Which, need I remind you, we never finished planning.” Too busy from work. “Consider it a wedding gift from your Council pals.”

Dark bit back a grin. “Touché.”

Red inspected her nails; for this occasion, she’d chosen iridescent burgundy overlaid with shimmering golden filigree, like tiny darts of lace. If the devil truly lived in the details, then she may as well put him in a palace. “On the plus side: they’ll experience the nightmare of attempting to run our country without your input. Want to bet on how soon they’ll start sending you handwritten notes?” 

Her fianceé full-on laughed at that. “Fuck. You’re right, you’re right. Still... could I at least ask why? Because this is all a bit much, and on no notice. This planet can’t win the space race with a scattered council.”

That last sentence was up for debate in more ways than one, but Red tiptoed over it. “It’s now or never is why. No self-respecting FBR officer goes their whole life without dipping a toe into the water.” She shot him a pointed look as the Shy Guy hairdressers continued their work on her braids. “In any case, some strange shit is afoot, and I want front row seats for when it hits the fan. Because there’s no way it won’t.”

“You seriously wanna jump back in the middle of whatever my brothers and the king are up to?” Dark squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Because we both know the stakes there. You make one wrong step, Red? You’re dead. I’m really not okay with that.”

Red shot him her patented leer, hard as diamonds beneath a layer of sugar. “What, you’d just stand aside and let me get killed?”

“Fuck no.” His response had been heartwarmingly abrupt. “…Shit. That’s really why you’re roping me into this, aren’t you?”

“No comment.” Not today.

God.” Dark tossed his head back with a full belly laugh, his gales steeped in manic dread. “Fine, okay, I’m in. I’m in. Hell take me.”

Red reached out to him with one bejeweled fingertip, just catching him by the cool pulse point beneath his expensive wristwatch. “Dark? Say what you want about all this, but it does mean the world to me. I’m gambling with my fate, yes, but there’s no one I’d rather have at my side as the chips fall.”

…Shit, why hadn’t she saved line that for the afternoon’s vows? So much better than whatever they’d decided on last winter.

Dark Bones shot her one bellicose smile before stepping back out. “Well, say what you want about me. But don’t deny that I fucking love you, Red.”


“I fucking hate you sometimes, Bowser.”

Koopa would hardly be the first to blame Daisy for that statement. But, built-in logistical nightmares aside, he knew all too well how much their insomniac Team Mom actually gave a damn about their fearless, stupid leader.

Their fearless, stupid, improbably okay leader. Bowser shrugged and continued to sip coffee from the back seat of the Jeep, refusing to meet any of his teammates’ eyes.

Daisy was close to doubling the speed limit. The other drivers lucky enough to have spotted her approach in time flew past, their vehicles like so many tiny mile markers. As for the less fortunate souls, well. They’d probably all wet their pants in those brief, terrifying moments preceding Daisy’s award-winning swerves.

“And by sometimes I seriously mean right now. ‘Ooh, let’s travel across the country to a fire festival,’ some asshole says, just so he can get eaten! by! a! fucking! fireball!  ‘Geez, Daisy, why’re you so pissed at me? It’s not like I’m your fucking team captain in the ten whole minutes before the damn All-Cup having a brush with d—’ Hold up. You know what? No. That wasn’t a brush with death, that was a—you played hopscotch with it, Bowser, you hung out with it,  you took it on a date and banged it in a shitty three-coin movieplex and now you have the nerve to act like everything is fine! EERGH!” 

Daisy paused her rant just long enough to take several huffing breaths. Koopa could only regret missing his chance to have filmed the whole thing. Tell us how you really feel, Dais…

“Like. Ugh. Don’t even talk to me. Just don’t. Fuck you, Bowser. Fuck all this. Gyah.”

Koopa could have absolutely pointed out then and there that Bowser had scarcely spoken throughout their vigil, rendering Daisy’s abstract restraining order irrelevant. The whole night, Firebird’s captain had only shrugged and grinned and made carafe after carafe of strong, black coffee before sucking it all down just as quickly. The three of them and Toadette had stayed up the entire night, hitting Bowser with questions from every possible angle and to negligible avail.

Months before, after however many grueling nights of team building, Koopa had finally grown accustomed to Daisy’s nigh-ritualistic refusal to sleep. Luigi, for his part, had been entirely unforthcoming about the anomaly, shrugging off any questions that may have led somewhere regarding the subject. Daisy just never slept, and that was normal, somehow. A ticking time bomb, sure, but one they’d just have to be ready for once it blew.

Why couldn’t I have made friends with a different set of crazies, Koopa had mourned more than once.

But every last one Wario’s of sedatives, dissolved into hot water, had failed to counteract the sheer amount of caffeine Bowser had consumed up to that point. Having one teammate who ran errands in lieu of sleeping was one matter; two insomniacs, one screaming at the other deep into the wee hours of the morning, was quite another.

“I think he got the message, Dais,” Luigi gingerly offered from the front passenger seat.

If Koopa hadn’t witnessed the damn spectacle with his own eyeballs firsthand, no way in any universe would he have believed his teammates’ reports. Some part of him still believed that any second now he’d surely bolt awake from the most batshit insane dream of his short life. My friend got eaten by a fireball, and the fireball spat him back out. And then everything was chill. The end.

“You promise you're not hurt anywhere?” Toadette repeated for the nineteenth time in the past ten hours (he’d begun consciously keeping track after the fourth instance). “Internally, I mean?”

Externally, Bowser looked fine. Suspiciously fine. After those long weeks of looking pasty as hell, the sudden golden glow in his pallor made for downright Ho Yay bait. Beyond that, not a single square millimeter of Bowser’s hide nor hair showed any sign of burn damage—or even mild irritation—from all that heat exposure. And he’d been trapped in that burning sphere for a good twenty seconds, Koopa’s Fawfulwatch footage had assured him.

Well, not his hide nor hair, no. But as for his clothing—

“Ruined my favorite shirt,” Bowser finally grumbled, his voice little more than a croak. Better than nothing. Koopa rejoiced inwardly. “Kinda like the burnt jeans, though, gotta admit.” He grinned doggishly at the charred hems of his pant legs.

“You’re complaining about a shirt. When your shoes fucking melted.” Luigi had begun to laugh weakly. “I’m done, I swear it. No more. No more. Ahahaha.”

Koopa shook his head and continued texting Para. finally talking

Her response was near-instantaneous. yeah??? what’s he saying

misses his shirt, likes the burnt pants

A good ten seconds passed before our team captain is fucking psycho wtf wtf he was inside a magic fire orb, another dimension for all we know, then made it out alive and he wants 2 talk about PANTS.

“That’s the gist of it,” Koopa murmured under his breath. Could be worse, though, he thought. Knew. 

Quit trying to take away my friend. Supernatural dicks.

"It made local news,” he eventually noted aloud while checking all his usual feeds. “Mushroom City Man Survives Fiery Festival Fiasco Unscathed.”

“Real talk, I can’t believe it took you this long to make one of those Mushroom City Man headlines,” Luigi groaned. “But nothing national? Regional?”

“Nope.” Koopa skimmed the article. “That performer said her baton thing malfunctioned in her police statement. She’d never seen it do that before, shooting out at someone like that. The company that manufactures them’s based in Birabuto, gonna do a quality inspection… hopefully not a full recall… reaction quote… reaction quote… bleh.” At least they’d refrained from publishing Bowser’s name or face. The only photo accompanying the article had come from another festival goer’s-phone, a striking shot of that enormous fireball beyond the silhouettes of petrified onlookers.

After all, Koopa knew painfully well, the last thing Team Firebird needed was extra press on the virtual eve of the damn All-Cup. All the traveling around was enough of a pain in the ass, and even the regular paparazzi were downright aggravating. But while most of the team could go incognito well enough, Bowser wasn’t exactly the easiest dude to disguise.

Several dry minutes passed before Bowser spoke again. “What time’ll we make it back home?”

“At the rate Daisy’s going?” Koopa quickly crunched their velocity and distance. “Two hours, tops.”

Those orange eyes of his fluttered shut. “Cool.”

“You can sleep, y’know,” Toadette whispered. “We’ll be quiet.”

“Dunno if I can,” Bowser laughed. “Wouldn’t mind stopping for coffee, though.”

“Yeah, what gives?” Koopa asked him. Of all the things to crave after a near-death experience— “Your addiction’s bad, but I’ve never seen it this bad.”

“Wish I knew. Fuck, I don’t—” Bowser suddenly shuddered violently, then pulled his knees up to his chest and buried his face against them. “Cold.”

Whatever the current temperature was, Koopa knew objectively that it wasn’t goddamn cold. The instant they’d returned to the hotel room, though, Bowser had pulled on that one green jacket he usually reserved for special occasions and not weekend road trips. Then they’d moved out onto the balcony, into the warm summer air, and still he’d shivered. 

The others had eventually crashed, albeit reluctantly, once Toadette finally dropped the ultimatum that two of you need to be able to drive us home safely. Yet when they’d blearily awakened the next morning, Bowser still looked like a glowing ragdoll. Daisy was still the most hyped up by far. Well, not exactly. Amped up? Pissed off. That.

“I bet it was aliens,” Luigi whispered. “We’re in the fucking Outer Limits, he’s William fucking Shatner, and that crazy fire shit was fucking Project Vulc—”

“I’m fine,” Bowser growled. “Just a chill.”

“Yeah?” Koopa shot him a look. Here goes nothing. “Well, what was it like inside of all the fire, then? That’s gotta be why you’re feeling so weird.” As though there were any doubt.

Bowser shrugged, still averting his gaze. “Dunno.”

Toadette inhaled sharply. “What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“I—I don’t—I didn’t—” Bowser shook his head, growling almost imperceptibly under his breath. But Koopa could feel the vibrations of that rumbling through where his shoulder pressed into Bowser’s thick upper arm. “Was just really, uh. I guess I passed out.”

Toadette frowned. “You were awake, Bow. Your eyes were open when all those flames finally died down. You stayed standing the whole time.”

doesn’t remember being inside it, Koopa messaged to Paratroopa. keeps saying hes cold, even w jacket

wario sez probz weird pressurization from charged dome atmosphere? causing intermittent vacuums rapidly filling w helium?? combined w swamp gas reflecting light from venus??>? toad’s about 2 kill him LOL

Koopa snorted; Wario fucking would roll with an MIB cover-up theory. luigi blames aliens, he accordingly relayed.

luigi is an alien. Koopa cracked up and showed the message to Bowser, who gave a weak grin.

But their captain’s unhelpful silence endured for the rest of their ride home. Once they’d dropped off Wario, Wally and the boys at the shop, Toadette took command of the truck's keys and promised to update them with any changes in her partner's behavior. “All else fails, I’m taking him to a doctor first thing in the morning.”

What’s ‘all else’, then? he wondered. Sure, if Bowser trusted her, then so did he—but it sounded as though Toadette had come up with a plan. Or at least had an idea. “Keep me posted,” he murmured to her as she helped him unload the luggage. Something told him his texts to Bowser would go unanswered for the time being.

“You got it,” she replied, her tone hushed. “I’ve come too far for him to blow up right before my first All-Cup. Selfish jerk.”

Heh. “You tell ‘em.” But he could only force himself to sound so chipper. 

Don't let them take my friend. I don't care how hungry they are.

As Paratroopa drove them deeper into midtown, Koopa continued to scour the net for anything related to that fireworks festival—all in vain. “Damn. Nothing anywhere. I don’t believe it.”

“You gotta wonder what other news they’re suppressing,” Paratroopa muttered, “if they barely allowed that crazy shit to hit local papers, and nowhere else. You know?”

“No." Koopa winced. "No, I really don’t.”


“Any better?”

Bowser had happily sufficed to bake in front of the lava moat for a good three hours. Every so often Toadette would pop outside, probably just to make sure he hadn’t passed out or worse. “Kinda.”

“I don’t like it, Bow. D’you think Rosalina would have any idea?”

“S’what I’m banking on.” Speaking of which, they’d probably need to leave pretty soon. “Ready to head out?”

“You definitely feel like going through with this?” she asked him, anxiously kneading her hands. “Sure you don’t wanna reschedule?”

He chuckled, not bothering to guess what a communication circus that would entail. “Dunno if that’s really an option with her. We were lucky just to have this opportunity in the first place. Her schedule’s insane.”

“With… the Galaxy Projects? At that observatory?” Toadette sighed and leaned back against his balcony door. “I guess it’s still not that easy to travel offworld and back, huh.”

Bowser shrugged. “Slinging’s pretty quick. But there's a lot going on up there. She works around the clock." Speaking of which... "Hey. This is gonna sound nuts coming from me, but—try to be polite? Not that you aren’t usually, but I’m just saying—”

Toadette snorted, loosening her hands. “I’ll be on my best behavior. But, um.” She peered at him out of the corner of her eye. “You’re not really gonna wear that stuff, are you?”

Bowser blinked before glancing down at his clothes—the same that he’d traveled in, those burnt-up jeans and a rumpled button-down beneath his green jacket. “Heh, you’re right. Meet you downstairs in ten.”

But now that she’d mentioned it, even Toadette’s frilly getup was more extravagant than usual. She had pulled on her jumper skirt with the most layers of lacy fabric, and the six-inch-high Vivienne Westwood shoes Daisy had chanced upon like a miner striking tungsten.

After standing in the hottest shower spray he could muster up, Bowser groaned and pulled on non-charcoaled black jeans and a fresh Henley. But no way was he leaving that quilted jacket behind; the thing had become his life vest.

“Better.” Toadette beamed as they traipsed down to the garage. “Except… you’re not ditching the spikes, even for this?”

Bowser could only laugh. “Let’s—ha—let’s, uh, let’s take the Phantom.” He tossed her the keys in a move only slightly smoother than pointing over her shoulder and yelling ‘Look, a distraction!’

But a functioning distraction nonetheless. “The Rolls?”  Toadette shot him a brief dumbfounded look before grinning and hopping into the pearlescent monster’s front seat. “This is gorgeous. And spotless! Have you even driven it before?!”

“Hey, I take it out once a month or so. Just to make sure it still runs alright. This model’s older than my grandma.”

“No kidding.” But Toadette started up the massive coupé with ease and then they were off, plunging all too smoothly down that red-cast feeder road. “Where are we meeting her, anyway?”

Somewhere safer than here. “Take F10 to Uptown.”

Their trip was curiously silent as Toadette steered them through the heart of the city, the usual neon lights dancing across their faces in restless leaps and bursts. Every bone in his body wanted to put the heaters on full blast, but slightly worse than the chill was Kamek’s screeching in his head about the comfort of his fellow passengers. Passenger. Bleh. Instead he sunk deeper into the Phantom’s hand-stitched leather seat and shut his brain off.

It was not until they were halfway through downtown that Toadette spoke at all. “Look at the Tower!”

Bowser blearily opened one eye and grinned. “They usually have those searchlights up when they host a special event. Private party, maybe.” The smog overhead glowed from the revolving trails of the search lights, stubby beams that dissipated into mist barely off the Tower rooftop's edge. Nonetheless their effect would be seen for miles in all directions; the lit-up clouds gleamed in remarkably pale shades of gray, a sizable chunk of the foul heavens unceremoniously bleached.

“People can throw private events there? That sounds expensive.” Toadette sucked in a breath. “Oh my gosh, d’you think it’s someone famous?”

Hell if he knew. Bowser shrugged. “Some rich fucker, yeah. A lot of FBR suits hang out there. If I ever go back in it’ll be too soon.”

Toadette sighed and returned her gaze to the road, murmuring only affirmatives as he pointed out where to turn once they exited the freeway.

Uptown was arguably the most scenic borough of Mushroom City. Too bad, Bowser thought, that Toadette had only gotten to see it immediately after the splendor that had been Mushroom Bridge; compared with the capital’s lush greenery and clear skies, Uptown’s lantern-lit stone streets and intricate architectural detailing bore an eerie, lonely atmosphere at best. Still, the sector had its own sort of vintage charm, with its sewerage system cleverly hidden beneath runoff canals bedecked in fountains and fairy lights. No neon in sight.

“This is Peach’s place,” he pointed out as they reached the stoplight in front of Parasol Confections, Inc.

Toadette inhaled sharply, her eyes sparkling. “It’s cute!”

It really was, the tiny shop. Not even twenty feet wide, and wedged between two much taller brownstones, the crowded patisserie emitted a cozy glow from the pink and orange lights beyond its picture windows. Just visible in said windows were Peach’s artwork: glistening candies in every shape and color, fat pastries with doily-like icing, and half a dozen multi-tiered cakes that leaned whimsically in near-impossible angles. If anything, Peach had used her own brand of magic to keep them from tumping over. No, he was certain of it.

Toadette whistled. “Are all those people customers?!”

“Yep. They come from all over the country—well, uh.” He scowled. “They show up at first to get a glimpse of her—y’know, suckers for the dumb fallen princess narrative or whatever. But they keep coming back because her food is incredible. Fork over every coin they got. So she wins in the end, heh.”

“Wow.” The traffic light turned green, and so Toadette yielded until they could hang a left. “Am I crazy, or did the air smell sweeter in front of that place?”

“My money’s on you not being crazy.” Even from a block away, the air remained heady with notes of caramel and cinnamon.

Toadette snickered. “Good thing you have so much money, then. Wuh—ooh, Gearmos!”

Here we are. “They’re valets,” Bowser explained as Toadette steered them into a dimly-lit granite porte-cochère. The three platinum-plated Gearmos rolled in place before a set of tall crystalline doors, each etched with the Comet Observatory’s starry seal.

“Good afternoon,” the first to approach them chirped after Toadette rolled her window down. “Mama-san has waived the Embassy’s usual valet fee for your visit, Highness.”

Bowser felt his face flush—stop it—and ignored the grin Toadette shot him just then. "Let's do this," he muttered while clambering out of the Rolls.

The remaining Gearmos both held the front doors open for them. As they strode into the building’s elegant lobby, Toadette removed her mask and immediately gasped.

He could hardly blame her. The expansive ceiling, a good twenty feet over their heads, was effectively a direct portal to outer space. An unfathomable number of stars twinkled at them, clustered into gorgeous nebulae that shifted in color and shape with each passing second. No matter how often Bowser visited the place, the view always managed to take him by surprise; even now, it took him a few moments to realize Toadette had grabbed his hand again, was squeezing it tight. He chuckled under his breath and squeezed back.

“Where are we?” Toadette whispered, glancing in all directions.

Different angles would give her different answers: a boutique hotel, by the high mahogany counter and elevators to their left, complete with uniformed Gearmo bellhops; a formal tea room, by the lavishly set tables and curtained booths clustered to their right; or a bustling legal office, by the immense hallway stretching before them. Uncountable throngs of formally-suited workers, in all Blue Planet, Piranha and Luma ethnicities, threaded between the high doors and archways on either side; few of the doors remained shut for long. And out of the nearest door strode someone they both recognized.

“Lee!” Toadette waved, then abruptly covered her mouth. Her jarringly loud shout had echoed throughout the wide space, earning her a stern look from one Noki elevator attendant. Even the din of the office workers came solely from their collective footsteps along the cool marble floor tiles, no louder than gentle rainfall.

But Lee looked unperturbed. “Greetings, and welcome to the Galaxy Projects Embassy for Mushroom City. I’d take you on a tour, but Mama’s conference is just about to finish up in the comms chamber. I'm of no doubt she'd like to see you two immediately.”

“Ma—you mean Rosalina?” And then Toadette thumped the heel of her free hand against her forehead. “Oh, right. Duh. Sorry.”

Bowser gently squeezed her hand again while exchanging amused glances with Lee. God, the kid looked practically the same since Bowser had seen him last. “Good to see you again. Is Polari planetside, too?” Of course there would have been no reason for Kamella to inquire, but—

“Wanted to be here,” Lee replied with a low chuckle, leading them down the central hallway, “but somebody's gotta keep the Observatory from sheering itself in half. The Gearmos are good, but not organic-good." He blinked. "Well, not yet."

Heh. “And Toadette says you dropped by the garage last week.”

Toadette’s attention snapped away from the rushing of the officer workers on all sides. “Yeah! Is your scooter still working alright?”

Lee gave her a thumbs-up. “Your work was impeccable. I had half a mind to bring in our kart before the Cup begins. Get your professional opinion.”

Oh, fuck.

Bowser had forgotten.

Sure, she had dropped the news rather quickly, offhandedly even, and then with the festival literally blowing up in his face, everything had gone to complete shit, pretty much, and he hadn’t exactly been functioning at one hundred percent since then, but—

But now it all came crashing back. Fucking hell—

“Oh my gosh—you mean the golden kart?” Toadette’s eyes had begun sparkling again. “The Honeycoupe?”

“The one and only! Though I doubted you’d have time for it this week between your own preparations for the tourney.” Lee sighed as they reached the end of the hallway, where yet another pair of doors awaited them. Their seemingly translucent panels hid some intensive spellwork, if Bowser remembered correctly. The lights dancing within their cut glass bevels were merely an artificially generated pattern, and no sound from within could escape.

Lee pulled a phone from the pocket of his gray corduroys and tapped twice on its privacy-blurred screen. “The conference is still going on, so please remain silent until Mama kills the comm link.”

Bowser knew the drill. He nodded, swallowing, as Toadette clutched his hand again. With a soft flurry of beeps, one door automatically opened, sliding neatly into its platinum frame and revealing the space beyond. Bowser's pulse skyrocketed.

Zero months, zero days, zero hours.

Zero seconds.


Toadette’s heart threatened to burst as they silently filed into the high-ceilinged room beyond. The door slid shut as quickly as it had opened, and they crowded together in one back corner to observe.

The first thing Toadette registered was the room’s dizzying number of monitors displaying every manner of table, chart and spreadsheet. The glowing screens coated the entirety of the far wall, with secondary feeds churning away upon the left and right as well.

What Toadette noticed second was the tall woman standing at a bare desk before that great wall, someone she'd only seen before in pixels on a screen, yep, just about that size.

Rosalina kept her back largely to them as she spoke—no, spoke and typed upon the desk’s touchscreen surface—spoke and typed and gestured, flinging windows from her glass console onto the screens before her and to her sides, removing unneeded panels as quickly as she pulled newer ones up, all with a brutal efficiency that had surely required years of nonstop practice. Her fingertips pointed and flicked, pinched the air and curled briefly into loose fists, both hands working in concert like a performer’s, a dancer’s, if tensely understated.

Eventually, Toadette processed the words her ears had picked up. Rosalina’s deep voice was remarkably crisp, as though she were speaking directly to her from inches away, rather than from across the room and toward an altogether different audience.

“—completely unreasonable, or so they have claimed. That will unravel itself in due time. In any case, take the reports from figure ninety-two. Keeping in mind that it was your own team Piranhabon that gathered and processed the raw data—”

“We’re aware,” another voice, only a tinge deeper than Rosalina’s beneath telltale Piranha subharmonics, replied. The acoustics in this place had to be incredible, Toadette realized—both she and Bowser had immediately snapped their attention to one of the screens on an upper corner of the main wall. It portrayed the speaker in crystal clear resolution: an esteemed Piranha Maza, given her headdress. Her triangular tattoos flashed irately. “And our findings reflected a substantial difference in both its size and mass, Director, from the projected rates you had charted seventy-two sidereal days beforehand.”

“Differences directly correlating with the subject matter in their stakeholders’ correspondence,” Rosalina added, “the bulk of which, may I remind you, concerned the stipulations drafted without their permission. Examine figure sixty-six for significant keyword modalities."

"Keyword modalities noted. My time runs short, Director. Please state your point in all this."

"Of course. Now, as required by our initial project outline and quality assurance pitch, I have put no weight into correlation alone. I wouldn’t waste your time so, nor my own. But as we speak, the Fraternity is shifting gears from broad mineral acquisition to more specialized silica manufacturing.” Rosalina gave a terse pause. “Logic dictates what other projects these materials would serve. Figure ninety-two.”

Silence. We could probably hear a pin drop. Sure, Toadette had no idea what was going on, but she nonetheless recognized that Rosalina had dropped a veritable bombshell. She frantically searched for a Figure 92 among the many screens—but there were, indeed, many.

When the Maza spoke again, her words were icy. “Long after we had expressly forbidden ship construction.”

“Call it pure cussedness,” Rosalina replied evenly. "Blue Planet denizens have long clung to an old proverb, Maza Pakkun—that rules are made to be broken.”

“We're familiar with the adage,” Maza Pakkun retorted. “In fact, I myself do not condemn the notion. But your—” Her tattoos flashed yet again. “Excuse me, their stakeholders, as it were, may as well come clean. They are hardly the first in history to attempt undercover subversion of our stipulations. Yet while our forgiveness is great, Rosalina, it is not boundless.”

“Noted.” Rosalina's tone remained cool. “I merely ask that, given this particular development, you carefully review your terms for when we convene with Luma Prime in—" Her eye flickered to one screen. "—two sidereal days' time."

“Accepted.” Onscreen, Maza Pakkun rubbed one green fingertip against her jaw as though to massage it. “Two, you say? I myself cannot recall when last you took time off. How long has it been, now?”

“Too long,” Rosalina murmured lowly. “Be well.” And all the screens before her went dark at once, plunging the chamber into shadow.

As silence filled the room once more, almost tangible in its thickness, Toadette could practically feel the blood rushing through her own veins. Her heartbeat thundered, nearly echoing against the far walls. What the heck did we just watch...?

“Well, that could’ve gone way worse,” Lee scoffed. “Your company’s here, by the way.”

Rosalina started, then glanced their way over her right shoulder.

After Bowser's account from the day before, Toadette had honestly expected to see an eyepatch. Even a sleek one, perhaps in silk, something befitting the pomp of royalty. Former royalty. Whatever. But something else entirely glinted from beneath the thick lock of hair cascading over much of Rosalina’s right cheek—something metallic, rimmed in a faint aquamarine glow.

Rosalina’s left eye widened, gleaming as though wet. “Bowser,” she mouthed, too quietly even for Toadette’s ears. Next to her, Bowser inhaled sharply. And immediately the two embraced.  

Time seemed to halt. Toadette eventually processed that Bowser and Rosalina had approached each other in perfect coordination, as though having rehearsed beforehand. Rosalina had buried her forehead against Bowser’s shoulder, and even from her low vantage point Toadette could tell Bowser had done the same. Like yin and yang, she thought, finally brought together after—well, Rosalina had said it. Too long. She glanced at Lee, who winked.

Eventually they pulled away—in unison, unsurprisingly—and Rosalina cupped Bowser’s face in her hands. “Thank the heavens you’re still in one piece. Please introduce me to your partner.”

Bowser visibly swallowed, slowly lowering one hand to Rosalina’s left wrist. “Uh—Toadette, this is Rosalina. Galaxy Projects Director.” His face had flushed ever so slightly. “A friend.”

And then it clicked—exactly what Bowser had said, way back on that first morning she’d spent in the castle. Those spikes on his neck and wrists had come from—the person that he’d actually— Gosh.  She wanted to laugh. Friend? Or soulmate?  

She’d find out soon enough. “Kinoko Toadette. Nice to finally meet you!” And with that, Toadette felt the need to curtsy. But at the same time, a peculiar buzz seemed to crawl across her skin. For one frigid instant she was back in that steel basement, on the threshold of the bioscanner room, invisible ion trails reading her cells, her thoughts. Wuh—?

Rosalina gave her a deep nod. “Likewise. Come, sit. Inputting a request for a tray now.” The platinum cuff around her left ear blinked as she spoke.

She then beckoned them to—wow. Toadette hadn’t even noticed the room’s furniture. Too enthralled by—by whatever that had been, just now. Conference? Negotiations, more like. But a low divan stood against the wall to her left, coupled with a pair of fat armchairs and an ottoman, all in muted purple and blue satins beneath a layer of throw pillows and blankets. What looked like a small boulder sliced cleanly in half made for a broad coffee table in the center of the setup. “Was that thing carved out of an asteroid?”

Lee cackled, but Rosalina gave a reassuring smile. “A meteorite, actually. The other half is upstairs.”

“Whenever she says that, she means the Observatory,” Bowser added as they sat down.

“Oh, yes. Please do not hesitate to ask for clarification on any term I throw around.” Rosalina rubbed between her knuckles. “The jargon will slip out from time to time, rest assured.”

Lee buzzed the door open with his phone once more. In rolled a Gearmo carrying a marble tray loaded with a platter of a dozen sweets, four teacups with saucers, and a copper kettle. “May AI be of any other service, Mama-san?” AI asked in a tinny voice after lowering the tray onto the halved meteorite.

“Please inform Polari that Rex and Toadette made it here safely. Then you may forward my commentary from today’s check-in to Luma Lubba. Keep it discreet.”

“Affirmative. Please do not hesitate to call for further assistance,” the Gearmo chirped before leaving the four of them alone. “Have a pleasant day.”

“Gearmos are amazing,” Toadette murmured, reaching for one of the divine-smelling scones. Its scent reminded her of the air outside Peach’s bakery, and she could hazard a guess as to why. “Are they fully-evolved AIs? Or shackled?”

Lee had begun pouring black currant-scented tea for each of them. “They aren’t totally shackled, no. How d’you describe it, Mama?”

Rosalina’s eye clouded over. “The single constraint upon their blue-box construction required that they submit to an ethics code—one Polari and I had drafted up before you were born. We’ve only had to add three additional clauses since its inception, I should add.”

Blue box?  But that Toadette guessed she could look up later. First things first. “How long have you known Bowser?”

“A little over five years.” Bowser had taken that one after practically inhaling the contents of his teacup. “Give or take.”

“Give or take indeed.” Rosalina kneaded her temples. “Travelling at light speed does fun things to one’s perception of time.”

Light speed. Then— “Is that how come you look so much older than Peach?”

Bowser shot her a death glare, but Rosalina laughed through her nose. “It certainly plays a part. I’ll not complain, however—a weathered visage lends its own advantages during negotiations. Let’s just say the Mazas typically trend toward experience bias.” 

Toadette nodded along, mentally kicking herself nonetheless. She’s so gracious—after I’d—ugh.

“You’re cold?" Rosalina had begun scrutinizing Bowser, her one eyebrow drawing in concern. "We can adjust the environment, if—”

“If that would even do anything,” Toadette muttered. “Bow, tell her what happened last night. At the festival.”

Rosalina and Lee exchanged glances. “Told you,” the Luma snickered before sipping from his teacup.

That immediately struck Toadette as unlikely. Koopa had shown her the article—no mention of Bowser’s age or description, or even a photo— “Wait. How’d you know?!”

“Were you there?” Bowser asked, his voice gravelly despite the steam from his mug. “Did you—?”

“No, unfortunately.” Rosalina winced. “But I was reminded of your little incident in Pianta Village.”

Pianta Village?  “This has happened before, Bow?”

Bowser grimaced. "Uh. I guess...? Wait, you mean the—"

“Few people can afford to undergo spontaneous combustion more than once,” Rosalina murmured. “But to come away from this event without burns… forgive me, but it’s a tad strange."

“Are you calling him a weirdo?" Lee snickered."

"Please." Rosalina rolled her eye. "I only meant—"

"Hey, it’s cool." Bowser continued sucking down his second cup of tea. "I'm burn-proof, remember?"

You dork. Toadette nearly giggled, until she remembered why exactly they were here. “But ever since then, he’s been complaining about the cold, even when it wasn't cold at all. Should we take him to a doctor?”

“Hm.” Lowering her cup and saucer onto the coffee table, Rosalina cast a glance over Bowser once more. “I’m not yet an expert in shruman physiology, but...” She exhaled slowly. “Where does the cold come from, Rex?”

What?  Toadette squinted. Her partner needed medical help, not some weird metaphysical—philosophical—?

“From... without.” Bowser frowned. “Like it’s trying to invade.”

Toadette squinted, not believing her ears. That language seemed—seemed incorrect, at least for Bowser. Like someone else’s words, emitted through a speaker planted beneath his tongue. “Wha—invade—you? Get inside you?”

"Yeah. Exactly." Bowser's frown softened. "If you don't know shruman, how 'bout Pianta? I got some Pianta in me. On my mom's side."

“Heh.” Rosalina slowly exhaled. “The difference is negligible, at least in this instance. There's something else at work here."

"Like what?"

"Like..." She swallowed. "It's only a hunch. But, if you like, I can run a quick diagnosis. Do you trust me?”

“I trust you.” His response had come before her words had left her mouth.

“Then... hold still," Rosalina instructed, "and close your eyes.”

Is she about to do magic?!  Just—that easily? No prep, no safety precautions, nothing? Toadette had begun biting her nails.

But Bowser complied, his eyelids flickering shut as Rosalina tilted his chin up ever so slightly. With her free hand she brushed the thick lock of hair away from her right—eye? No. Whatever that—that thing in her eye socket was, the word eye would never—damn—

Toadette snapped her mouth shut, lest she accidentally gape. No freaking wonder Bowser had tried to warn her about manners.

But if the mass of metallic gray—material? Tissue? Infinitesimally thin woven strands of steel, studded every few millimeters with minuscule bits of—some sort of tech, clearly, improbably teensy lenses and microLED lights and Toadette knew not what else—but if the roughly almond-shaped implant (Implant. Better than nothing.) had a specific technical term, she’d never heard it, nor read about one in any textbook or web article. But it certainly was no eyeball, not even a fake one.

It had to be custom cybernetic work. To inquire whether Rosalina had designed the thing herself danced upon the tip of Toadette’s tongue, but she held it in. Instead, she watched closely as the implant’s scattered lights flickered in rapid succession, as the tiny glass globes rotated (cameras? Okay, maybe it is an eye, kind of—) in abrupt angles. Rosalina’s free hand rose and her two forefingers extended skyward, panning in slow, deliberate lines as though she were testing Bowser’s range of vision.

But Toadette’s jaw finally dropped after all once Rosalina’s hand began leaving a trail in its wake, glittering and black, at least upon first inspection. Yet soon enough Toadette discerned that the glimmering lights were fixed points. Stars, real ones. They gleamed at her through a widening window that Rosalina’s fingertips seemed to carve from thin air. Yet in time the first edges of her hand’s path—the brink of that gap in space—slowly receded, a celestial snake slithering onward that left blades of invisible grass to spring back up once freed from its convulsing weight. This is her magic?

Then Bowser’s eyes snapped open, so abruptly that both Toadette and Lee flinched.

“Anything?” Rosalina’s free hand lowered into her lap, and the starry trail folded in on itself at once. Gone.

“Y-yeah. Yeah. What’s—what was that?” Bowser continued to hold still as Rosalina withdrew her free hand from beneath his jaw. “You knew what was wrong with me?”

Nothing’s wrong with you, Toadette nearly cut in. That fire made you sick. Had it not?

A few hypotheses,” Rosalina replied, her words practically spilling from her lips in an invisible flood. “Trauma-induced blood clot interfering with your hypothalamus, perhaps, or chemical byproducts from the flaming device causing temporary changes in your pituitary hormones. That would have interfered with your blood-brain barrier. In either case, realigning the inflicted synapses should take the edge off. At least until we can root out the true problem.” She slowly exhaled, noticeably paler than she had been moments before. “How do you feel?”

“Uh. Less—not so cold.” Bowser blinked twice. “Tired. Damn.”

“You haven’t slept in two days,” Toadette reminded him, staving off the intense desire to ask when, exactly, Rosalina had had time between becoming a magician, politician, and supposedly one hell of an engineer to become a freaking neurologist as well.

But at this point, she figured, nothing more she learned would surprise her. Rosalina’s a genius. That much was certain.

“If you can now detect your own sleep deprivation, that’s a good sign.” Rosalina kneaded her temples again. “But all that took place after our phone call. What’s happened, Rex?”

Bowser and Toadette exchanged glances. Here we go. “We’re worried about Dry Bones,” Toadette found herself responding first. “I know about Bow’s uncle, about that race. I'm worried he may try to rig one of our races during the All-Cup. We don’t want anybody else getting hurt.” She pointedly avoided looking into Rosalina's single eye. She's gotta agree with us there.

Rosalina nodded, her lips drawn in a thin line. “I see. So you’ve connected relevant activity between the two of them?”

“The King appoints the FBR Director, doesn’t he? So it’s not a coincidence that Dry Bones paired me with Bowser outside of regulation matchmaking.” Toadette felt her face flushing as she spoke, felt her heart resume its earlier panicked thundering. But they’d come too far for her to falter now. If there was any way out of this mess, surely this, again, genius of a person would see to it.

Rosalina clearly loved Bowser. That was obvious enough. And, given how he’d spoken of her earlier—

“Toadette—” The corners of Bowser’s mouth quirked, but no more words came out. His qualms remained unspoken, merely etched in the lines around his eyes.

No. This is why we're here. “I was picked for a reason,” she continued, not bothering to mask the tremoring of her voice. Lee had inhaled sharply, but continued avidly watching in silence. Toadette was allowed to be scared. But she couldn’t allow the rest of this crap to go on. And so she returned her gaze to Rosalina’s.

“Dry Bones released you from the training program on a condition?” the magician asked, slowly, evenly. She’d intoned it like a query, but something—something in that one aquamarine eye contrasted. A particular heaviness lay within those blue depths, as though Rosalina had just requested an answer she already knew. Had long known.

Shit.

Exactly what hit Toadette so hard then, she could not quite say. A peculiar sort of electricity had settled in her muscles, scrambling them, petrifying her into stone. Shit—I can’t—I—

“I’m familiar with how Dry Bones operates,” Rosalina gently added, refilling Toadette’s cup herself. "Unfortunately."

"What, you've met him?" Was it Toadette's imagination, or did Bowser sound downright offended? "You know him?"

"I do. Have for quite some time, in fact." Rosalina grimaced. "Made the mistake of attending a few of his Subcon seminars. It’s alright, Toadette. Breathe easy.”

Was it? Toadette found herself sniffling, accepting the steaming cup from Rosalina’s hands. “I—he’s—”

“What I mean is that you needn’t renege on your deal just yet,” Rosalina continued, folding her ankles up onto the divan. Her loose, billowing pant legs reminded Toadette of one of Red’s pleated skirts, fluttering along with her white labcoat in the desert winds. “Especially if doing so would compromise your own safety. There are other ways to diffuse his threats, ones that won't require you to blow your cover prematurely."

No way. 

"Nonetheless, please believe that no harm will befall you, your partner, or the rest of your team. Not at the whims of Dry Bones. This I promise.”

How could she promise that?  Toadette was all too close now to spluttering, to overflowing—this was simply too—way too good to be—

“She means it, Toadette.” Bowser squeezed her hand. Yeek, was he warmer than ever. Roasting alive in that golden skin— “Pretty sure I get it, anyways. The whole time I spoke with him, he kept pushing me, steering me—there’s something he wants from me, yeah. D'you know he asked me to fly down to that place?”

What?  Toadette felt her heart skip a beat and met her partner’s eyes. “Wanted you t—to the labs?”

“Dry Bones asked for you directly?” Rosalina’s eyebrow shot skyward. “For how long had you been in direct contact with him at that point?”

Bowser set his cup down next to the half-empty pastry platter. Lee continued munching, clearly engrossed in their ridiculous mess. I owe that kid a free tune up, Toadette thought blearily, now that he’s had to sit through all our drama—

“This was two weeks after Toadette arrived,” Bowser replied, hunching over in his armchair. “But I hadn’t spoken to him since the morning she’d flown in—and I’d only met him the night before that.”

Rosalina was silent for the longest moment yet. Toadette swallowed, absently wondering whether Bowser’s chill had become contagious. He’d only met Dry Bones the night before? Damn.

He works fast. She could at least give him that.

“How exactly did you come into contact with him,” Rosalina eventually murmured, “if you don’t mind my asking?”

And it became Bowser’s turn to blanch. It struck Toadette then just how accustomed to that reaction she’d become. Been a lot of crazy shit in a short amount of time, all things considered.

Or was this how it would always be…? One wild development after another with her ridiculous partner and all his unbelievable cohorts? Gosh.

“Gïga-Bowser called me, Rosalina.” The words came out so abruptly that Toadette had scarcely discerned them. “Three times in one day. Like—like it was urgent.”

Rosalina closed her eye and, of all things, smiled—brilliantly, as though upon the punchline of one fantastic joke. Toadette squinted, in case her eyes had suddenly stopped working. This is funny to her?  “You are kidding.”

“I fucking wish. That’s—that’s the worst shit of all of this, honestly.” Bowser pressed the heels of his hands to his temples. “That I fucking knew better, and I still fell for it—shit, d’you know that I even called Peach up, right after I met with the guy for the first time? I asked Peach for her advice and she knew it sounded off, told me so, and I—I still just—dove right in, like a fool—”

Peach knew?  The air seemed to disappear from Toadette’s lungs then, rendering the inside of her ribcage a screaming vacuum. She’d—she could’ve stopped Bowser from—I never would’ve—

No, Toadette reminded herself. She knew Dry Bones too well. Such setbacks were nothing to the mad scientist. He always got his way. Even if she herself hadn’t landed with Bowser, it would have just as easily been Iggy or Lemmy or freaking Roy or—Petey—?

Just a matter of time—

But Rosalina’s deep voice broke her from her thoughts. “Kamella did mention you were anticipating another rigged tournament. That Gïga-Bowser would bet on a DNF for your kart.” A fatal one, she had refrained from adding, whether in the name of efficiency or grace or both. But Toadette grasped the sentiment easily enough. “I’ll be the last to shoot the theory down entirely. But, knowing Dry Bones…” She nodded Toadette. “He’s after resources for his personal projects, and the easiest cover for those has always been Special Item Development. Coincidentally, both of yours are some of rarest in the Index.”

Bowser’s orange eyes widened as much as Toadette had ever seen. “He—he’d need my genetic material for that, yeah. Yeah. Okay.” He inhaled slowly. “Okay, I think I’m getting it. Coincidence, my ass.”

More than that. Toadette let out a great, shuddering breath. Lee started, then placed one soft hand upon her shoulder. She shot him the best smile she could manage before wiping her eyes. Thank you, she could at least mouth.

“Hang in there, Toadette.” Bowser gave her a sleepy smile. “See, I told you Rosalina would nail this.”

Rosalina's eye narrowed. “Oh, I haven’t nailed anything quite yet. But we can safely promote Dry Bones’ antics to the top of our priority list. Gïga-Bowser was so quiet for so long, I’d nearly…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “No. We’ll be ready. But in the meantime, focus on keeping your team together. The All-Cup has traditionally been the best time period for executing these sorts of schemes. So many moving parts—so many gaps in management to exploit.” She scowled, and in that moment Toadette knew fear.

“N-no kidding.” Toadette’s voice was weak, but working. “Three weeks long, and in every continent on the planet… something tells me security’s gonna be a nightmare.”

Lee finally spoke. “That’s the silver lining to us jumping back in, though. Right, Mama? If they try anything during a race, we’ll be right there to trip 'em up.”

Once again, Toadette’s jaw dropped. Jumping back—back in?

Bowser had spotted her reaction immediately and winced. “Fuck. That was—that’s what I meant to tell you, and then all that shit happened after our call—”

“You two are gonna race in this All-Cup?!” Toadette’s favorite stunt of all time had begun replaying in her head, that magnificent manipulation of rocket science—the ultimate racing force, now officially her opponent. Shit!

“Indeed.” Rosalina sighed into a smile. “Thanks to some intensive patent vetting, I again have sufficient depth perception for driving. Officially, that is.” She tapped the skin of her cheek just below the implant in her right eye socket. "Unofficially, we've been able to practice for some time now."

Toadette struggled not to faint.

Bowser looked close to joining her, his thick throat visibly quivering. “How long ago were you able to qualify? I didn’t even see—”

“Well, we never did cash in our Championship from six years ago,” she replied plainly before taking a sizeable bite from a mille-feuille. “Not ‘til now.”

That’s right. Any All-Cup Gold winner received the right to enter any subsequent Tourney, at any time—even without completing the qualification process first. No holds barred.

Lee cackled. “We’ll earn Team Mario more points than they’ve ever—”

And Bowser seemed to inflate like a hot air balloon. “Hold up. You didn’t say anything about Team Mario.” If he'd sounded offended earlier, he looked downright betrayed now. Toadette could only shake her head in grief. What a freaking afternoon.

Rosalina wriggled her eyebrows. “I owed it to my sister. She and Mario haven’t had quite so much time to practice due to his thesis work. Which, may I add, he defended most eloquently yesterday.”

“Now you’re just being cruel.” Bowser slumped back into the fat armchair with a low growl. “Damn. Dunno why I even bother. The universe just hates me, that’s it. That’s all. Gghhh. Should just stay home all month, the rate this crap is going.”

Somehow, Toadette could not quite bring herself to share in her partner’s tantrum of hopelessness. Was it her naïveté, her lack of experience? Or something else entirely, that nameless force slowly refilling her empty veins with lightning? Either way, the substance coaxed her into kicking Bowser in the shin with her mega-thick sole.

“Yeow—”

“Quit moping,” she scolded, relishing Lee’s gleeful gasp just then. “We’re getting that trophy, Bow. And I don’t feel like dragging you to that pedestal kicking and screaming.” And, for good measure, “Even though I could. No sweat.”

Rosalina outright laughed. “Well, the jury sounds unanimous on that front, Rex. I would cooperate with your partner, if I were you.”

“If you were me,” Bowser replied, yawning, “then I could obliterate Dry Bones from orbit, and we’d all have a very merry Gala.”  

Toadette struggled to contain her feverish laughter. “Yeah, yeah. Don’t fall asleep on me, partner.”

“Hm.” Rosalina lowered her feet back to the marble floor. “To tell the truth, you could pick a much worse place to recover your strength. I need to take a walk. Need to clear my head. Toadette, would you care to join me?”

Toadette’s heart skipped another beat. One of the other test subjects had once asked her for a kiss, and she hadn’t felt half so flattered then as she did now. “W—yes! Absolutely. You go ahead and take a nap, Bow.”

He needed not be told twice. “Yes, ma’am.”

Toadette squeezed his bizarrely warm hand one last time before hopping up from her armchair. And then freezing in place. "Um. Lee...?"

"Hm?"

She squinted, making absolutely sure—yep. "Did you just eat ten pastries in one sitting?"

Lee shrugged, having just polished off the platter's final treat. "Pfft. Ten's nothing. I've been banned from my aunt's bakery twice."

"Uh huh." As though she could blame him. That scone had been incredible. "Any chance you could point me to a restroom? I need to reapply my lip gloss."

Lee bolted up from the divan. “Ah. Knew I should’ve gone through with the tour first. Follow me!”

As she trailed Lee back through that grand hallway, Toadette absently drummed her fingers against the tiny plastic pouch in her skirt pocket. She could hardly think of a better place to rid herself of the single twined-up hair it contained. Sure, she could drop it back in the garage, or in the castle, but those were all places to which she'd doubtlessly return in the future. The coppery strand felt evil to her, now, and she wanted to see it gone forever.

Especially since the butane torch from the castle's kitchen had failed to damage it one bit.


He was fading fast, but one more item remained on his agenda.

Rosalina had stepped back to the chamber’s single console, likely to shoot off some last-minute messages. As she turned to leave the room, however, he called her name.

“Oh—I’d thought you were already asleep. Stretch out on the divan… there.” She dropped to one knee and began haphazardly tossing blankets over him, even though that foul chill had long since dissipated thanks to her work. But by then he’d fished her present from his jacket. “Hm? What’s this?”

“Found it last night, at the festival.” He blinked. “Before all that shit went down—Toadette picked it out. It’s for you.” Christ, he could feel himself turning so red—

“It’s—” Rosalina inhaled sharply, holding the tiny necklace’s pendant up to her eye. Her real one. “This is gorgeous,” she breathed before immediately fastening it around her neck. “You didn’t have to. But thank you.”

“Well, you didn’t have to meet with us.” His vision had begun to darken. Whatever magic she had used to fix him, that shit was potent. On a related note, how many hours without sleep legally constituted drunkenness…?

“Please. I feel guilty that you had to seek out Kamek just to contact me.” She frowned, brushing one strand of hair away from his forehead with the tip of her ring finger. “I’ll arrange for a secure connection method this evening. We’ll need to be able to contact one another at all times during the Cup.”

Bowser nodded, somehow too weak for words. This was—this was a lot. More than he’d expected, maybe. But just what he and Toadette needed, no doubt about it.

“Besides.” Rosaline shot him a quick smile. “I don’t get to see you enough. It’s always been too long. Always.” She slowly stood back up. “Get some rest.”

Before she even reached the exit, he was out.


By the time Toadette stepped back out into the quaint lobby area, Lee had disappeared. Huh?  She cast a glance about the entire vicinity, but the short Luma was nowhere to be found.

“He does that,” Rosalina’s voice called from behind her. “Don't take it personally.”

“Um. Got it.” Toadette swallowed, realizing yet again that Rosalina was just as tall as Bowser, and nearly as broad at the shoulder. Cruiserweight. “Um, I don’t mean to pry, but—one question’s really been bugging me—”

“Go ahead. Judgement-free zone.” As they stepped toward the front entrance, Rosalina faltered. To Toadette’s surprise, she pulled a translucent mask from the folds of her purse, a white-and-lavender brocade drawstring bag.

Luckily, the action had reminded Toadette to put hers back on as well. “Oh, um—it was about Lee. How…“ Yeek, this was even more awkward than she’d originally figured. “Do Luma age faster than shrumans?”

Rosalina’s shoulders shook in what was probably silent laughter. Stupid stupid stupid—thank hell Bowser hadn’t been around for this particular transgression—

“A very good question. Differences in developmental rates aside, Polari rendered Lee at a speed much faster than what we’re traveling now.” Rosalina quickly stopped to wave to the three Gearmo valets on the pavement.

That doesn’t answer my question so much as multiply it, Toadette thought in exasperation. And… Polari?  Bowser had dropped the name earlier, she was pretty sure—

“But, yes, he’s quite close to what the Federation deems adulthood. Polari and I conceptualized him…hm. Close to seven sidereal years ago, I believe.”

How many times had she heard that word today? “Sidereal?”

“Ehm... strictly speaking, the amount of time the Blue Planet orbits this system’s star, Sun.”

Toadette nodded along, now too lost to even fathom asking further questions. She’s way older than that statue looked. Let’s leave it at that.  A ton of other families out there had long gaps between kids, right? Unusual, maybe, but not weird. “Where are we going, by the way?”

“My sister’s shop is nearby, if you don’t mind paying it a visit. I try to help out whenever I get the chance.”

Ooh. Toadette realized she had begun skipping, and could not bring herself to stop. Peach’s bakery! Peach’s bakery! And before she knew it they had approached the tiny brownstone.

If the line earlier that afternoon had stretched out past the entrance, it was now surely close to wrapping around the entire block. Hungry customers as far as the eye could see, their numbers outmatched only by the hubbub they made. Peach runs this place by herself?!

At the sight of Rosalina, however, even the weary souls crowding the doorway itself stepped aside to let her pass. Toadette trailed right behind, hopefully closely enough that no one would think to protest—

“Rozetta! Praise the earth!” There was Peach, or a pink blur with Peach’s voice, sidestepping around two teenaged employees (phew) behind the narrow counter. One called out orders to the other, handing over pink boxes and sacks of goods as quickly as his partner could load them up. At the end of the counter, Peach herself hammered digits into the single brass cash register, in swift mechanical motions that faintly reminded Toadette of Rosalina’s console gesturing earlier.

“Let’s triage.” Rosalina lifted the wooden counter flap to allow Toadette through and into a back room lined with enormous ceramic ovens. “Where do you need us?” she called to Peach.

“Who’s—? Oh.” Peach halted abruptly upon sighting Toadette. “Hey again—so glad you could stop by! I promise once we make it through the afternoon rush, we can definitely chat—” She expertly balanced a stack of three boxes in one hand while entering rapid figures into the register with the other. “—but feel free to help yourself to any food in the back, Toadette! The break room’s right behind the ovens—we shouldn’t be terribly long—”

“You really don’t want any more help?” Toadette asked, flabbergasted. Even with Rosalina pitching in, they’re beyond swamped—

“Oh, don’t tempt me!” Peach laughed, stopping only to help Rosalina out of her robes and band cincture before hanging the garments on a brass coat rack. Rosalina's brocade purse she laid on the narrow shelf with a suspiciously heavy-sounding thud. “That’s so sweet of you to offer, but I could never ask—”

“She literally won’t, so you have to bargain instead.” Rosalina rolled her eye as she scrubbed her hands in a tiny steel sink. “Pauline, let Toadette help, and she can take home anything she wants afterward. Fair?”

If there’s even a crumb left, Toadette could have protested. Also, Pauline...?

Nonetheless she skipped over to the coat rack and hung up her bolero and purse as Rosalina tied a clean apron over her tunic. “Super fair. Let me at ‘em.”

Peach threw up both hands in surrender. "Looks like I've been outvoted. Alright, then. All hands on deck!"

Toadette had manned the lab’s kitchen before, easily over a thousand times. Who could blame growing kids for their appetites, especially after racing all day?

But their steel-and-formica box of a prep station had been a totally different universe from this bustling place. With not a single whisk or ladle out of place, the subjects had worked in aprons starched so stiffly as to pass for Kevlar. The atmosphere of meal prep had been something close to grave, the subjects’ silent concentration interjected only with arguments over which flavor packets to toss in. (Not Grape!)

After that, the Parasol was a den of chaos. The only apron near Toadette’s size was bright purple, with strings she still had to wrap three times around her waist to keep from trailing hazardously behind her. Toadette took instructions from Rosalina or Peach on the fly, occasionally drawing her own conclusions with no time to ask for clarification. Orders flew her way from every direction, sometimes in accents or dialects she could scarcely discern.

“C’I get a order o’ Honey Shrooms, darlin'? Nah, on second thought, y’know what? Make it two. Two orders. That’s the ticket. Been a fuckin’ long day, lemme tell you—”

“A quarter pound of Lovely Chocolates, if you’d be so kind, and four Sweet Shrooms, and two slices of Choco Cake—oh, what’re those red things? Ten of those. Can’t find a label but they look great. Yeah, hit me.”

“Hi, I’m here to pick up an order for Monty, hope I’m not running too late—”

“Je voudrais une Tartopêche, s'il vous plaît!”

“Three Fruit Parfaits, but could you please hold the garnish on one? My stupid boyfriend’s allergic. Who gets allergic to mint? Dunno if he’s a keeper.”

“A Couple’s Cake’ll clear that right up,” a different customer advised, tapping the glass over the pastry in question. “Works every time. Trust me. Oh, uh, one Sap Muffin, please! With two straws!”

“Frequent fliers,” Peach muttered just loudly enough for Toadette to hear, rolling her sapphire eyes. “Order up!”

Each customer grew more jovial the further into the shop they trekked. The lines wound along the pink velvet rope bifurcating the shop, past the row of high shelves stocked with fat bags of cake flour in half a dozen flavors, ornamental boxes of hard candies, and petite jars of peach and plum preserves. Between the two eternally occupied bistro tables and the register, however, were the shop’s true heroes: the brass-trimmed display cases. Toadette’s new obsession.

Peach could bake like how Olympic medalists could jog. The first of her gleaming glass domes contained strictly pastries: cupcakes topped with frosting swirled into ornate flowers or fluffy clouds, éclairs each heaping with a unique array of fruit slices, nuts or smaller candies, rich tarts coated in glistening colored-sugar crusts, long donuts stuffed with cream lighter than air or bedecked with everything from candied bacon to Chambord mousse. Sure enough, the rows of berry-studded scones and painstakingly marbled mille-feuille looked all too familiar, unlike the many labels for the contents in the next display case over: hand-sculpted candies in every shape and flavor and color, including some hues Toadette strongly doubted she’d seen before.

But the final display case contained only one item. Peach’s Legendary Choco Cake, a filigreed sign sitting atop it proclaimed in swirling golden script. Price upon Request for Whole Cake Orders.

And boy had they ordered. Toadette and one of the teens were asked to to run into the back room to tandem-carry out ginormous cake boxes so frequently that she’d soon lost track. 

That was, until the shop’s pink delivery van skidded into its designated spot out front.

“Alright, you two! You’re off the hook for big box duty.” Peach tossed her plastic service gloves into a refuse bin and replaced them with a pair of yellow oven mitts. The break room's back door swung open. “Mario! How’d it go?”

The man whose nose Peach kissed before she rushed back to the ovens was not quite like anything for which Toadette had begun bracing herself: neither intimidating, nor grouchy, nor off-putting in any way she could detect, but clad unassumingly in flour-dusted overalls and a faded red tee. Rather, he was short and easygoing in every way Luigi was tall and paranoid, and he wordlessly gave Peach a thumbs-up gesture. Then again, even if he’d frowned, that thick mustache would have hidden it.

“Perfect!" Peach carefully lowered a wide sheet of pastries onto a cooling rack. "That bodes well for next quarter’s revenue. Oh, and before I forget—we have one more outgoing delivery scheduled for six.”

Toadette watched, bewildered, as Mario wordlessly saluted Peach, hung his red newsboy cap on the coat rack, and then turned to wash his hands. Somewhere in all that he’d begun to whistle a jaunty tune. Even devoid of lyrics, the melody somehow felt instantly familiar and made Toadette want to tap her toes.

Mario was thorough, if nothing else, scrubbing between his fingers, under each of his nails, and then all the way up to his elbows before pulling on white confectioner’s gloves. A standup fellow, at least where hygiene was concerned, and as far as Toadette knew, those little details usually spoke volumes about a person’s character. Right? This is the guy Bowser hates?

Evidently. Toadette shrugged the encounter off and jumped back into the fray. With Mario taking over the heavy lifting, nothing else stood between her and those shelves of sweet, sweet sweets.

“Are you holding up alright?” Rosalina asked her later as they lined wide boxes with multicolored macarons for a bulk order. “The rush even was greater than I’d anticipated. I’m impressed you haven’t jumped ship.”

Toadette blushed. “Never! And I’m gonna come back a lot. Bowser doesn’t usually buy sweets. Freakin’ tyrant.” But she had her own money now. Oh ho ho, yes she did. I’m gonna try all of these before the week's out.

Rosalina laughed through her nose. Toadette's heart fluttered at the sight of her wide smile.

In any case, the workflow was close to rhythmic, and Toadette soon found herself falling into a steady pace as they sent each happy customer on their way. Many began digging into their purchases before getting halfway to the doors.

And as though in no time at all, the shop was utterly vacant. And Toadette’s feet were sore.

“Everybody come get some Fruity Cake!” Peach hollered from the oven room.

Yes. Toadette all but ran to her just desserts.

Fruity Cake proved to consist of strawberry- and apricot-studded meringue folded expertly into chocolate-raspberry ganache, sandwiched between delicate layers of Amaretto-soaked sponge cake, then finally topped with even more juice-drenched strawberries and apricots. Each gorgeous slice tasted like sunshine and happiness and Toadette quickly forgot that her feet hurt at all. Or had they simply stopped hurting? Either way. I freaking love magic.

“I can’t thank you enough for pitching in, Toadette!” Peach remained on her feet, piping frosting onto thoroughly-cooled cupcakes, even as the boys had collapsed onto the break room’s rickety chairs. Rosalina had stepped out to take a phone call, and Mario had not yet returned from his late delivery. “You might like what you find in your purse, by the way. Hee hee.”

Toadette inhaled sharply. Peach had even paid her, on no advanced notice, no papers signed, nothing. Then again, it would be that many fewer tax coins to report, no? Even Peach’s business acumen is on point. Heh.

Before Toadette could open her mouth to reply, the service bell rang in two neat chimes from the front counter. “I got it,” she piped, shoveling down the rest of her cake. Yuuummmm.

“Probably the guy that ordered the croquembouche,” one of the twins called from behind the ovens. “We never had to carry that out, ‘n I didn’t see Mario with it neither.”

Doctor Mario,” his brother countered, and they both broke into chortling laughter.

Teens. “I’ll find out,” Toadette piped before heading back out into the shop. Before she stopped dead in her tracks, before she froze. Her heart could only pound away at the sound of one—single—impossible customer’s voice.

“—‘m at the bakery now! I’m here right now. Swear on my trigger finger—Red. Calm down. Gods.” The customer’s back was to her as he paced leisurely about the shop, one hand on his hip, the other holding the absolute same phone to his ear. Just like the day before, in front of that fountain, with Rosalina’s statue watching her from above.

No way.

It was—she was dreaming. Some weird side effect of Peach’s magic-imbued cake slice. Please, let it be a weird side effect—

“I gotta go, I‘m literally picking it up now. Alright? Alright.” The customer killed his call, slid the phone into the pocket of his double-breasted coat, and turned in place to face her. “Hi—uh.” His deep gray eyes, no longer hidden by those expensive wraparound sunglasses, squinted as he approached. “Heya, sweetheart.”

This was not happening. This was not real life. Toadette scarcely detected her own hands shaking at her sides. How on earth is he here?  And where, then, was—?

The customer cracked his neck in slow, steady motions. “Just gotta pick up an order for Kingfin Bones, K-I-N—”

“Uh huh,” she heard herself breathe. “L-let me check in the back.”

“Sure thing. No pressure, but I’m on kind’ve a tight schedule.” He grimaced. “Bridezillas. You know?”

She knew nothing. “Mhm!”

Toadette bolted into the oven room, fighting the urge to dive headfirst into the walk-in freezer and live there forever. Pull yourself together. “Um, we have an order for—for Kingfin Bones.” What a name. “He’s—he’s outside, he’s right there—he’s—” He’s close to Red. Closer than me. He can call her, and I’ve—I haven’t— She had begun shaking violently.

Peach chuckled but kept her attention focused on her frosting piping. “Right. Rozetta! Guess who’s here!”

“What is it?” Rosalina poked her head through the ajar back door.“Trying to get us a planet, remember?”

“Guess who’s here! Guess who’s here!”

“Your mother.”

Peach stuck her tongue out, finally ripping her gaze from the cupcakes. “Heck no. But... it’s, ooh, just a certain someone's brother.”

Rosalina killed the call and stonily entered the room, her face ashen. “Which brother.”

“Well, it’s not the one whose wedding invite you turned down six months ago, so by process of elimination—”

“Would only the heavens assume me whole.” Rosalina kneaded her temples. “Alright. What do I need to pay you to not have to talk to him?”

“Oh…” Peach tapped her lower lip in a show of coy deliberation. “How ‘bout… two bags of those Snow Bunny things? The strawberry ones? Once that Luma embargo’s down I promise I’ll lay off.” She grinned.

Rosalina had already whipped her phone back out. “Deal.”

“Yes!” Peach punched the air. “Score. Toadette, go ring him up while I grab his order. Three hundred and seventy coins even. You’ve had to carry around enough crazy cakes today.”

Toadette felt her spine ice over. “O-okay.” Shit.

She walked back out to find Kingfin texting. “I’ll ring you up, sir,” she murmured in a near falsetto, careful not to directly meet his gaze. “Peach says it’s three-hundred seventy.”

“Sounds right. Thanks.” He handed her a gunmetal-hued credit card. “Just put it on this.”

Toadette punched in the numbers with trembling hands. Red—it’s Red—he’d been—he was talking to—

Bridezilla.

Red?

Kingfin Bones—

Bones?

Red… Bones?

Cha-ching. Toadette gingerly ripped the receipt from the register. “Please sign here. Peach should be right out with your croquembouche.”

“Uh huh.” Rather than accepting the fluffy magenta quill that Toadette held out, Kingfin instead pulled an altogether different pen from his pocket, one carved from bone and engraved with KB in bronze. “I guess that thing could fall apart pretty easily. Trust Red to order a goddamn croquembouche last-minute. Did I even pronounce it right? Tch.”

Sure sounded like the Red that Toadette knew. “It’s… for a wedding?” 

“Uh huh. Would you believe the thing’s not even her wedding cake? That mess was a whole ‘nother monster. Nah, this one’s for the second reception, VIPs only. And we still got two afterparties to manage. Two on paper, anyways.” Kingfin shook his head. “Don’t ever get married, sweetheart. You think you’ve meet the fella of your dreams, then you're convinced that throwing a nineteen-hour party's a solid idea. Next thing you know, you’re a goddamn banshee.” He somehow managed to catch her gaze, those gray orbs warm in the pink lamplight. “And then the demons come.”

I believe it. Toadette found herself close to either crying or laughing, altogether unsure which would happen first. Demons indeed.

Mercifully, Peach plowed through the doors a second later with a tall box in tow. “Thanks for your patience! Looks like you’re all set. Just keep that box belted in and try not to turn too sharply.”

Kingfin lifted the extravagantly wrapped box with a single arm and chuckled. “Yeah, yeah. Where’s that sister of yours? If I don’t return with some kind of horror story then gods know what kind o' whining I’m gonna have to deal w—”

“She’s getting us a planet,” Peach replied with a syrupy-saccharine smile beneath a scorching glare. “Congratulations to the happy couple. Drink responsibly.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go buy yourself something nice. Go buy a nice castle. Ciao.” And he was gone, hopping into what Toadette's lower-order processing identified as a Mercedes-Benz G-class SUV.

Because Toadette's higher-level functioning was way out the window. And with that, she was out of leg strength.

That was—that was for—she’s—Red's—

“Uh-uh. Hang in there, Toadette. Maybe you need more sugar. C’mon, I made you a goodie bag.” Peach somehow yanked Toadette up by her shoulder and guided her back into the oven room. “I know Bow’s not exactly a dessert guy, so these are all for you. The calzone's for his steak-addicted ass.” She winked.

Bowser. “Eek—” Toadette had forgotten completely about her partner in those brief, mind-boggling minutes. “Hope he’s okay. We left him asleep on Rosalina’s couch.” Divan. Whatever. She pulled her phone from her purse and checked—no notifications. Probably still zonked.

Moments later Rosalina walked back in, her phone out of sight. “Watched him leave. Not sure whether he saw me.”

“D’you owe him money, or what—ow!” Peach cackled as Rosalina elbowed her shoulder. “I kid, I kid. Don’t get on Rosalina’s bad side, Toadette. Trust me.”

“I don’t plan on it.” Toadette had begun chowing down on her bag of pastries. The more she focused on how things tasted, the less she’d have to think about—

“And here I thought you liked that one,” Peach continued, now shoving trays of seeded bread loves into a wood-burning oven. “More than the youngest brother, anyways.”

Rosalina scowled. “I do, I do. If only the little brother could take a hint. I shouldn’t have to screen his calls. He’s too integral to everything else going on down here, for better or worse.”

“I get that he’s a little long-winded, but that’s no reason to burn a bridge.” Peach’s face lit up. “Unless you and Polari are warming up again?”

“That’s a very different conversation to be had.” Rosalina sighed, kneading her temples. “Sometimes I wonder whether the Piranha did get it right, phasing out specific hormones. Could be worth long-term voluntary shruman exper—”

Peach irately blew a loose strand of hair away from her face. “Sometimes I think you were a Piranha born on the wrong planet. You can tell those Mazas I said that, by the way.”

“I love you too much for that,” Rosalina sighed through her teeth.

“But it’d explain how you could deal with your mother for so long. And how come you act like it’s torture whenever Dry Bones asks you to dinner.”

Toadette nearly spit out her food. What?!

“Oops—don’t choke!” Peach pulled a cup from one cabinet and filled it with water from the steel sink. “I was kidding! Mostly.”

“Dry Bones—wants—you?!” Toadette squinted at Rosalina, whose mouth had drawn into an intimidating line. “But he’s, like, twice your age!” Ooh, just wait until Bowser found out. She’d see her partner breathe fire yet.

“Sometimes I feel we have that in common,” Rosalina murmured a few seconds later. “But I take it you were required to interact frequently with him out in the desert.”

They hadn’t even mentioned the desert, Toadette thought, but it made sense that Rosalina knew of the lab’s location. With skills like hers, it was no small wonder she hadn’t trained there herself. “Yeah. Y'know, I actually really liked it there until he showed up and took all the fun out.”

“I suppose he’s… passionate?” Peach offered. “Ardent—? Er, zealous…? About racing? And, um, other things...?” Rosalina rolled her eye.

“I guess.” Toadette shrugged. “But he had nothing on the overseer before him. Wish I could remember that guy’s name. Edwin…? …Kelvin? Hrm.” The thought still occasionally resurfaced, always for just long to frustrate her beyond all get out.

“Who?” Rosalina’s visible eye was awfully wide.

“The strange old man in the white coat,” Toadette recalled, ruing how childish that had to sound. “But it was so long ago, and I must’ve only spoken to him a few times. I didn’t really understand until later, but he was a pro with Item development. Made anything we wanted.” Made all my wishes come true.

No, Toadette genuinely missed the crazy old guy. He’d been a riot, hopping about the rec spaces until the younger test subjects roared with laughter. And it was in his and Red’s sunny office that Toadette’s custom Special Item had sprouted from her silly crayon sketch.

With everything going on, she hadn’t even thought about the old man in, what—months? Years? Still, that brilliant white labcoat remained stuck in her memory beyond all else; it was perhaps telling that Dry Bones had always worn an ugly dull blue one. 

Peach shrugged listlessly before returning to piping frosting. "You know more of the suits than I do, sis. But if the guy was old before Dry Bones took over? He could be in a home somewhere." She grimaced. "Or dead."

Rosalina had turned eerily pale. "He certainly could be."

An instant later, Toadette’s apron pocket began to growl ferociously. There he is. "Bowser?"

“Hey. Where’d you two go? I just woke up.”

“We’re at Peach’s bakery,” she replied, loosening her apron strings with one hand. “How do you feel?”

“I’m great. Seriously. Whatever that trick Rosalina pulled was, it worked. How was your walk?”

“Good to hear. Um, pretty short. I actually ended up helping out at the bakery for a bit. And Peach saved you a calzone!”

“Fuck, yes. Tell her thanks for me. Can pick you up in about a minute.”

“Got it.”

Moments later Toadette bade Peach and Rosalina goodbye, receiving a rib-cracking hug from each. Rosalina’s gaze slowly traveled up the front of Bowser’s Rolls to where he leaned languidly back in the driver seat, a hint of a smile gracing his face. Peach blew them a kiss once Toadette stepped off the curb. “Feel free to stop by anytime! I really do need to set up a customer loyalty system. What d'you think? Punchcards, or an app?”

"Please make an app," Toadette pleaded. "Oh my gosh. Please." 

“See you two at the Tourney,” Bowser called, gunning them down the street as soon as Toadette was strapped in.

“Well. That was. Um.” Toadette blinked. “Today was great.” Once she’d averaged everything out.

“Did you get to chat with her?” Bowser asked, drumming his fingertips on the steering wheel. “What d’you think?”

“Rosalina’s—something else.” Only a few short hours had passed, but Toadette already felt as though she’d become fast friends with the Toadstool sisters. “Peach’s bakery is amazing. If you ever can't find me, then look there. Heehee.”

“Noted. Lee says hi, by the way. And wanted me to give you this." He passed Toadette a sticky note with a number scrawled on it. Ooh. "He had to head back upstairs. Something about an eezo containment leak.”  

Lee’s allowed to work with dark matter?  “Geez. I can’t imagine living on a space station like that full-time. I’d go nuts.” With that, she hammered his number into her phone.

Bowser nodded, grimacing. “It... definitely takes a toll, one way or another. Especially since Lee was born going at a different speed. Like Rosalina says—does screwy stuff to your timelines, or whatever. Fucks your sense of time up.”

Delightful. “Say, I never took you for a rocket scientist.”

Bowser scowled. “Guess I’m just full of surprises, huh.”

Weren’t they all, Toadette mused as they swerved back onto the neon-drenched freeway.


Refreshed from his sweet slumber at the embassy, Bowser could not for the life of him fall back asleep in his own bed that night.

Which worked out for the best, he would later suppose, as his burner phone began to ring at precisely 3:27 a.m. His uncle's number.

No. No way. Why—why now?

Surely—surely there was no way that the king had found out—not after he'd been so careful—not after everything she'd—

Whatever deepset sludge in Bowser's bloodstream it was that compelled him to pick up the old phone had no name, not to his knowledge. But its potency was not to be denied. 

Click. "Uh, hey—"

"There's a car idled at your front entrance," Gïga-Bowser's unmistakable voice hummed. "Someone you may recognize is inside. Get in."

Chapter Text


"Get in."

Bowser could scarcely remember the last time his uncle had sounded this inebriated. "Right now? What's the dress code?" As though he didn't know the damn drill.

"Yes, and black tie," Gïga-Bowser half-laughed over the line. "Biggest event of the year, kid. Wouldn't have you miss it."

No fucking kidding. Bowser rolled out of bed and traipsed downstairs, snapping on his spiked straps as he went. "Fundraiser? Or ceremony?"

"Wedding reception. An afterparty, technically, but step on it." The line went dead.

Scowling, Bowser nonetheless dug around in his closet for the appropriate dinner jacket, tie and waistcoat. While going through the familiar motions of fastening on each garment, he racked his brain for who exactly he might recognize. 

There's no way he knows. This was just a coincidence. An insane one. 

After briefly checking on Toadette—still out cold, thankfully—Bowser headed down toward the castle's long-unused front entryway. The enormous basalt front doors directly overlooked the lava moat's gated drawbridge, an obsidian and granite structure just wide enough for a two-lane driveway. He would need to remotely open the bridge's outer gates to let any vehicle cross.

However, something told Bowser that his ride had come prepared. His uncle had kept all of the castle's spare keys, remote and otherwise.

Sure enough, a lone monster awaited him, idled on the turnaround: a Mercedes-Benz G wagon, its iridium-gray body seemingly cast from the smog overhead. Leaning against the rear passenger door was someone Bowser might have recognized indeed.

"Heya." A mite taller than Bowser himself, just as bronze and no less broad, the impeccably-suited man gave him a weary smile and held open the door. "Hop on in."

Even that voice buzzed in the back of his brain, like he'd fallen asleep at an uncomfortable angle within its hold. "Where are we headed?"

"Downtown." That meant the Tower. Christ.

Bowser reluctantly stepped up into the vehicle's tufted leather interior and started upon noticing the driver—rather, that said chauffeur was a uniformed Shy Guy. Those things are allowed to drive now?  Just a matter of time until they were allowed on a damn racetrack. 

To Bowser's surprise, the man slid into the immense back seat with him rather than taking shotgun. "Hit it," he instructed, and they were off. "And, uh, please avail yourself to my brother's hospitality." He lifted the lid of the narrow compartment between them; within its refrigerated depths lurked more than one amber-hued bottle as well as a row of chilled crystal lowball glasses. 

Tempting. "Who's your brother?"

The man, presumably Bowser's handler for the evening, loosened his tie while deftly pouring a lowball's worth of whiskey from one of the bottles. "That would be his esteemed councilship Dark Bones. The older of my two little bros. Also the groom, FYI."

"Got it." A Council member?  Jesus. "Uh, congrats to him." All else held equal, the guy at least had superb taste in rides.

"You can tell him yourself once we're there." The handler massaged his muscular neck with two tungsten-ringed fingers. 

No, Bowser had definitely seen this guy before, and not too long ago at that. "Hey, uh. Have we met?"

"Briefly. A few times. Name's Kingfin." Kingfin pulled a slender cigar case from his suit pocket and, to Bowser's surprise, offered him the entire unopened thing. "Nice car collection you got going."

And then it hit Bowser like a sledgehammer to the throat. He's— "You brought all of them down," he croaked, nearly dropping the cigar box. Each one of his uncle's supposed extras—the Hummer, the Rolls, the Escalade, the Falcon—all personally hand-delivered by—

"Cheers." Kingfin grinned before tossing back whatever had been in his glass. Bowser thought about everything for exactly three more seconds before digging out his own. "That's the way to go. Believe me when I say that you do not wanna be the only sober guy there."

"Yeah? How's the crowd?" He'd barely tasted his first cupful. Time for a second one.

"They were fine," Kingfin replied slowly, "about two hours ago. Downright mess when I left. Hopefully the lighter-weights dropped out since then. Guess we'll know when we get there."

Bowser knew all too well. "Then you're my uncle's defense minister, yeah?" The word bodyguard briefly sprang to mind. "How come you came to get me, instead of sending someone else?"

"Because someone else wouldn't be as good as me. I go with whatever Saulus cares about most. Sometimes it's himself." Kingfin wiggled his eyebrows. "Sometimes it's not."

Swell. Bowser finished his third glass before tearing into the cigar pack. "Honored. So, uh. Who's the lucky lady? Er, spouse...?"

"Miss—or, uh, guess it's Mrs., now, huh—Red Bones is up there in the FBR. She's the R 'n D Chief, I wanna say. One of those mad scientist types, only you'd never guess it if you looked at her. First time we met, I mistook her for a damn movie star."

A goddamn FBR wedding reception at the motherfucking Tower. Small surprise there.  Bowser lit up, struck then as he realized he hadn't smoked in, what, two days now? Longest gap in recent memory. Guess that crazy fire bullshit was enough to suffice for a while.

And before he knew it, they were slowing into the curve for the Tower's immense turnaround drive. Bowser absent-mindedly thanked the Shy Driver before following Kingfin through the building's grand front entrance.

Those short weeks before, the lofty ceiling of the Tower's sparse elevator lobby had loomed over a concrete floor, one crowded with all manner of businesspeople and paralegals and aids threading about between the chiming doors. Now, the ceiling could scarcely be seen through a thick netting of shimmering golden chain-like streamers and balloons, with dim lights dripping like melting icicles along the concrete walls. Yet apart from the decorations, the lobby was nearly empty.

Only the presence of a sole Shy Guy elevator attendant signaled that the place was even open to visitors. "Top floor, gentlemen?"

Kingfin had begun retying his necktie. "You got it."

Up they flew. Bowser chalked up the incessant thrumming of his heart rate to the recent influx of alcohol. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to worry about. Noth—

The doors flew open. So did Bowser's jaws.

If downstairs had been decorated, then the Tower restaurant's front lobby had been transported onto another planet entirely. Red and gold clouds of paper lanterns and sheer silks floated overhead between high rose gold arches lining the burgundy spotlit walls. Enormous glass vases of red spider lilies, waxy white tuberose and blushing rhododendrons led the way into the restaurant proper, where clusters of candlelit tables bordered against an absolutely packed dance floor. His head already pounding from the reverberating music, Bowser steeled himself for—

"Rex."

Sure enough, a familiar pair of faces awaited him at the event's largest table, one teeming with empty champagne flutes and martini glasses and more than one overflowing ashtray. He felt a cool hand squeezing his shoulder—Kingfin's, he barely processed—and slowly approached.

"There he is. Over here, kid. Gods, look at you."

Even in the restaurant's dimmed red lighting, Kerog Saulus Gïga-Bowser bore an uncanny resemblance to his late elder brother, and thus no small amount to Bowser himself. His faded-gold hair still shone with faint streaks of copper, and the lines along his orange-red eyes belonged to a man easily ten years younger than he. A handful of medals gleamed at the pointed lapels of his dark suit, matching the white-gold and tungsten rings on each of his fingers. For this occasion he'd donned a more demure set of jewels than the full regalia: a single garnet flanked by emeralds, each cast into a delicate bronze chain draped atop his forehead.

"Hey, old man." Bowser hesitated for only a split second before sitting in the chair to his uncle's immediate left, following his languid gesture. Everything's fine. Nothing unusual. One more stupid party on an already too-long list—

"Listen to that," Gïga-Bowser snickered to none other than Lakitu at his right. "Kid goes to bed with the chickens and somehow I'm the one who's old. Somebody get him a drink, get him a—"

"Got it." Kingfin gestured toward the bar staff as he took the empty seat adjacent to Lakitu's. "Already played a bit of catch-up on the ride over. Won't be long til he's dancing on tables."

We'll see about that, Bowser retorted to absolutely no one. A Shy Guy waiter strode up. "Uh." He jerked his thumb toward Kingfin. "Whatever he's having, I want two."

"Hell, yeah. That's my kid." Bowser stifled a full-body shudder as Gïga-Bowser drained his glass. "Kingfin, be a dear and tell the happy couple who's arrived. They can afford a break from dancing."

"Way ahead of you," Kingfin replied, lighting a cigar. Its heady scent cloyed the air with the sort of raw heat Bowser associated with the volcanic maws surrounding his castle, far stronger than whatever he'd imbibed in the car. He dimly recalled his uncle's penchant for Delfino-sourced controlled substances. Probably loaded with stimulants.

"So good of you to come, highness," Lakitu piped. His eyes looked awfully bloodshot behind his horn-rimmed glasses. "Been quite the evening, let me tell you."

"Poor Lakky hasn't pulled an all-nighter in about ten years," Gïga-Bowser hummed, patting the commissioner's hand. "Nonetheless, my friend, I'm pleased you've made it this far."

"Wish I could say the same for Nikolaï," Kingfin murmured, wincing. "I take it he had to excuse himself after I left."

"Better." Lakitu beamed. "I witnessed him skip out with one of Red's bridesmaids! Not a particularly stealthy fellow, I daresay..."

Gïga-Bowser chuckled. "That's its own goddamn field day for that poor assistant of his, oh, what's her name—Nastas—"

"Well, well, well," an altogether different voice cut in. Bowser glanced over his shoulder to find himself face to face with the groom. "At long last."

Dark Bones resembled his brother purely by the shape of his admittedly handsome facial features. Beyond that, his complexion was a good shade paler, his eyes still and deep violet, nearly black, where Kingfin's were stormy mauve-gray. The jet hue of his crisply-faded hair extended to his entire tuxedo save for his purple waistcoat. Bowser stood up to greet him, struck with another nauseating wave of half-familiarity.

"No, no, don't get up. Dark Bones, Kingdom Council. Pleasure's all mine, Rex. I'd know who you were a mile off." He squeezed Bowser's shoulder after their quick handshake. "Damn, 's like talking to your uncle from a decade ago. What year's it, really?" 

"Fifty-six, the way you lot are loafing around." The woman on Dark Bones' arm cast a searing glance over the table. "I think my grandmother's funeral attendees had better stamina!"

Gïga-Bowser mimed a gunshot to the heart. "Skelécarlate, I'm hurt! But say hey to my nephew, would you. Rex Bowser. No doubt his name's crossed your desk."

In the way her husband exuded cool shadow, Red was a blinding sunset, so striking as to hurt the eyes. Shining curls had fallen loose from the elaborate twists and braids in her auburn hair, and her cheeks remained flushed from dancing. She stood tall on five-inch rose gold heels, and her short indigo dress—the same shade as her husband's vest—was probably not what she'd worn in their ceremony, if Bowser had to guess. Her eyes bore directly into him like peridot drills, stinging and merciless. "Bowser, oh, I can't tell you how happy we are that you could make it. This calls for shots—excuse me! Waiter!"

"Thanks for the invite," he brought himself to reply. "Wouldn't miss it." He'd never met this person in his life.

Red gave a knowing wink and slid into the chair next to his. "We got Herb T himself to head the bar," she whispered conspiratorially. "Wrote up a custom menu and everything. By all means, knock yourself out! We'll show these old men how it's done."

Could he only knock himself out. "I'll do my best. But congrats on tying the knot."

Dark Bones seated himself next to his brother. "We haven't even accrued a thousand coins in damages yet. And here I'd come preparing for the apocalypse." A tray of designer shots arrived, vivid blue and glowing as though radioactive.

Not that it was Bowser's first rodeo, so to speak. Certainly not with Sky Juice. Two rounds of shots later, he spotted Red's manicured hand reaching for Kingfin's cigar box. "Need a light?"

"Oh, perfect. What a sweetheart." Moments later she exhaled a dull red gust. "Shouldn't be terribly long before these kick in. They're just one of your darling uncle's presents."

Called it. Bowser began to work on his sixth drink of the evening. He gestured between her and the groom. "How long've you two known each other?"

"Oh, when did we meet, Dark? Years ago. I can barely remember it now. Some FBR function or other, I'm sure."

"Had to've been an All-Cup Gala," Lakitu interjected. "Or am I thinking of a different fellow? The years all blur together, I tell you! Still, Bowser, I daresay you'll not meet anyone on this planet with a better work-life balance. Red has it down to a science."

"The secret is to never sleep," Red laughed, beckoning a waiter for another tray. "Well, either that or the helicopter."

"My money's on the chopper." Dark stretched before casting a glance around the table. "Say, we still got one empty seat here. What gives?"

"He's out on the balcony," Saulus replied through a violent jet of red smoke. "Still moping."

Red stifled a laugh. "Always the fussbudget. Surely some other lovely lady here would give him a go. So long as he keeps his trap shut, of course, lest he ruin the—"

"In what goddamn universe? You work with him on a daily basis, Red—you know all too well why no one would—"

"You certainly wouldn't say that if you knew my sorority sisters!"

Bowser caught an eye-roll from Lakitu and shook his head, chuckling in spite of himself. Thank hell for Kingfin and that car's ice chest, he thought, well on his way to mellowing out. Thank h—

"Speak of the devil." Red began waving to the lone guest approaching their table. Shoulders hunched, expression grim, pinstriped suit half-glowing in the black lights overhead.

Dry Bones.

"There's our poor Prince Charming. I'd begun to think you'd abandoned us all." Gïga-Bowser clamped one heavy hand onto Bowser's shoulder. "Come introduce yourself to my nephew, now."

The king's grip was jarringly rock-solid, effectively preventing Bowser from defenestrating himself then and there. Plan A out

Plan B, then. Time to be insufferable. "Look who's a sight for sore eyes," Bowser teased over the lip of his glass, making sure to display extra teeth as he grinned. 

Dry Bones squinted at him for a good half-second before breaking into a stale pageant smile. "Bowser himself! Mercy me, I thought we'd not meet again until the All-Cup. I hope I'm finding you well?"

Bowser felt sorely tempted to look away from Dry Bones' unnerving glare right then. Thank hell looks can't kill.  "Oh, I'm great." Fight me, jackass. "Toadette says hi."

"Does she." Dry Bones seated himself and immediately reached for the half-empty cigar box. Kingfin tossed him a lighter. "Please give the poor dear my best."

Gïga-Bowser leaned forward in his seat, crushing his own dead cigar into the closest ashtray before grabbing another. "You two are acquainted?"

Bower froze. What...?

"Believe it or not, Majesty. We happened to meet right in this very room." Dry Bones exhaled a neat puff of red smoke through his gaping smile. "Lakitu remembers, don't you, my friend? Quite the happy accident."

"Oh, indeed. Only a few weeks ago, if I recall." Lakitu rubbed his reddened eyes. "Never a dull moment in this city. With this All-Cup ramping up to be one of our wildest to date, it's this, that, or the other without cease. Would you believe we've hit one hundred twenty percent of last season's entry count? And many of them total unknowns, I tell you..."

"Intriguing." Gïga-Bowser motioned for Dry Bones to pass Kingfin's lighter. "Guess you can never know who you'll run into here."

No goddamn way you didn't get my response.  Bowser felt his heart pound away, threatening to rupture. The hell are you playing at?

Then again, for all he knew, the king wanted to keep his instructions hidden—from someone at this table, even. Lakitu? Or one of Dry Bones' brothers? Or his sister-in-law...? Then why invite me to this shit?!

"Well, Bowser claims he's rearing to go now that our brightest trainee has joined his team." Dry Bones chuckled dryly. "Time will tell how far the Koopa King makes it this time around. Let's all hope you're not among the first to drop!"

If I don't run you over first. Bowser shrugged and lit the last cigar from the box with his own lighter. Oof.  Okay, these alone would easily merit a pit stop after the Delfino Plaza race. Aside from his usual Pianta Village one.

"How is she doing, Bowser?" Red leaned toward him, her eyes gleaming almost hungrily. "I wouldn't claim favorites, no, but that little girl was something else. My life's work—my pride and joy—gifted, sure, but her diligence! Astounding. But then you'd know that by now."

Your life's work.  Wait, so this was the same exact Red that Toadette had mentioned? The one working directly with Dry Bones? Unbelievable. "She's doing great, yeah. The whole team loves her." He felt his eyes beginning to mist. Thank hell Toadette was safe, still asleep at the castle and not drowning in this shark tank. "Uh, I think she misses you. A lot." 

"Does she. Oh, my." Red's green eyes had instantly filled as well. "I really cannot wait until the All-Cup starts up. The labs are dreadfully dull now without her running about, let me tell you."

"Heh." Sounded like the Toadette he knew. "She's a force to be reckoned with. Doesn't matter what's thrown at us—we're getting that trophy." He pointedly blew a smoke ring toward Dry Bones, whose brothers began chortling.

"Hmph." Dry Bones batted the red cloud away. "It'll be quite the show. Hells, it would've been quite the show even before the newest Team Mario entry—"

"Here he goes again," Kingfin grumbled. Bowser felt his spine ice over. Wait—

Dry Bones shot his eldest brother a pointed look. "As I was saying, none of you fools appreciate her true talent. Yes, even to softcore fans, Rosalina puts on a dazzling display, but—"

This is not happening. Bowser began chugging the remainder of his drink. No. No fucking way—

"—every level of critique beyond that, she's still flawless! Driving skills? Phenomenal. Item deployment? Exceptional. Strategy? She sets the benchmark. Partner rapport? She wrote the damn book—"

"But this time around she's registered with a different partner," Lakitu argued, "now that they've finally sorted through the fiasco with that Polari fellow. It's no small wonder her Championship buy-in still counted, after all that."

"Let the GSC gripe all they want," Dry Bones replied with a sneer. "No sane person can deny that she earned her win. For all intents and purposes her partner could've been a Goomba and she'd still have cleaned her competition up."

"If you love her so much," Red drawled over her cigar, "then why don't you marry her?"

Bowser fought the urge to retch. Could you not.

"Let's just say it's not for lack of trying," Dark snickered before his little brother shot him a laser-sharp glare. "Oh, what, like that's news?"

To Bowser's surprise, Gïga-Bowser seemed decidedly less playful about the whole thing. "It would be in your best interest," the king uttered coolly, "to set your sights on a different woman. That one's rarely planetside to begin with, and has more than enough bad blood with our crowd." His gaze had withdrawn, as though he were instead looking inward. 

And so Bowser wondered for not the first time whether his uncle knew about any of it. About what Rosalina had overheard, about what she'd relayed to him. Knew, or at least suspected—

"But would a courtship not change all that?" Lakitu posited. "Get her back into the Fraternity's good graces? Or, at the very least, signal a softening of heart...?"

"Try softening a tungsten brick," Kingfin murmured over the rim of his flute. "No, baby bro, trust me on this one. Get too close and you'll burn." Bowser decided then that he loved Kingfin with every fiber of his being.

"Perhaps, with that piss-poor attitude." Dry Bones rolled his pitch-black eyes. "But I'll have you know that she did finally agree to an outing. One not long from now."

Bowser's gut continued to churn. Shut up shut up shut up

"Young highness," Lakitu blessedly asked him then, "would you perchance care to join me on the balcony? I must try to walk off some of this rich food." 

He'd already hopped out of his chair. "It would be my genuine pleasure."

"Poor Lakky," his uncle laughed. "Always bitching about his calorie intake. See to it he doesn't fall over the railing, Rex."

That he could do.

Out on the Tower's narrow balcony, vicious winds whipped Bowser's tie and hair violently about. The ground was so far below that a layer of the smog cloud had obscured it to utter nonexistence. Without the concrete floor beneath his feet, the place may as well have been some product of a sick dream, of a nightmare.

"Pay no mind to their chatter," Lakitu laughed as they strode. "Gossipy hens, the lot of 'em. Though I suppose I should have seen Dry Bones' supposed outing coming."

And just like that Bowser's stomach threatened to flip on him yet again. "Didn't realize the FBR Director was allowed to, uh, date racers." 

Lakitu wriggled his eyebrows. "Oh, there's no set fraternization policy, if that's what you're asking. Then again, I wouldn't be surprised if this ends up setting some sort of precedent, one way or another. Assuming it gets off the ground, of course!"

"He, uh. Sounds like a fan." Who's a gossipy hen?  

"Oh, you could certainly say that again. But even I have to admit that there is indeed much Rosalina could gain from such a match. All else held equal, her relationship with the king might defrost just enough to better leverage the whole Piranha situation." Lakitu laughed. "Though I'm merely speculating, of course. There's no telling with those two."

Whatever publicly-known enmity existed between Rosalina and the king, Bowser had zero desire to touch it with a ten foot pole. But, Piranha situation?  "What, you mean all the colonization stuff?"

"Oh ho, yes. Quite a pickle we're in. Even after they approved her precious space station, the Mazas have yet to budge on their civilian ship ban."

Like that's stopped anybody. Bowser had half a mind to bring up the scene he himself had witnessed with one of said Mazas. But if Rosalina was up for protecting him, then he could at the very least return the favor. "Yeah, what's with them not allowing us to leave the planet?"

"Oh, it's all tied to some ridiculous dogma they have about planet health." Lakitu shook his head, tittering. "That whole airport incident notwithstanding, the Piranha are convinced that we've done irreparable damage to our own atmosphere—that we would only spread it like a plague to any other world we colonized." He heaved a frustrated sigh. "As though there aren't hundreds that support life in this galaxy alone!"

Bowser shrugged. "I kinda get that, though. They don't want to burn alive from setting foot onto any more worlds out there. Especially ones they've already settled." Petey's green-gold eyes flashed through his vision. The last thing he wanted to imagine was how they'd look eaten away by acid and smoke. Four other Piranha had already suffered; why the hell would anyone risk adding to that number? Never again. "Better safe than sorry, y'know?"

"Oh, please. Who's to say we'd even need to rely on superfuels on a different planet? They're denying us all sorts of incredible opportunities until some fairytale moment wherein the smog just—" Lakitu threw his stubby arms over his head. "Disappears! Like magic." He snorted. "And Rosalina has the nerve to agree with the sentiment."

Some nerve. "Maybe she knows something we don't." Magic sure had fixed whatever had fucked with his nervous system; who was to say it couldn't transform the smog, somehow?

"Heh. Perhaps. But I'm more inclined to believe they're bribing her. She's been horrifically unhelpful with fielding their demands to regulate our emissions. And then she turns around and rejoins the All-Cup? It's downright hypocritical."

Says the guy taking favors from all the auto manufacturers. Bowser gritted his teeth. At this rate, getting poisoned by his uncle would make for a funner time than listening to these pricks going off about Rosalina. Rosalina, who wasn't even here to defend herself. Cowards. She's better than all of them combined. "Guess that's why I'm so confused about Dry Bones, uh..." In no hell could he bring himself to finish that sentence aloud. Going after—

"Oh, but what a genius political move it'd make! The FBR is a global third party, sure, but Dry Bones is still a true industry insider. He could get her to see firsthand why the Piranha's demands are impossible to meet." Lakitu pointed his index finger skyward. "Being up in in the clouds has clearly led her to forgetting just how many livelihoods the petrol and auto industries support. A closer relationship with Dry Bones would surely bring her back down to"

Bowser vomited.

Or—something to that effect. Unless he were hallucinating, in his drunken state. Fifty-fifty shot.

Because whatever had burst from his mouth in that moment had glowed. Literally. The entire balcony shined with dazzling golden light, just for a split-second, until the mess plummeted down to the ground far below. As the yellow pinprick receded into the smog, however, the intermittent clouds remained gloriously bright in its wake.

"I say! Was that lava?"  Lakitu gaped in bewilderment, his tirade clearly forgotten. "Oh, yes, I've doubtlessly had far too much to drink today. Seeing things. Oh ho ho." He blinked. "Now, is it just me or does the air feel a tad warmer?"

Bowser lifted one hand to his mouth, equally convinced he'd just hallucinated. But that instant of scalding heat in his throat, on his tongue, hadn't lied. He felt an exquisite tingling sensation flood every inch of his nerves, as though he'd sunk into a deliciously hot bath. Fucking hell— "Yeah, you're probably, uh, good for the night," he breathlessly laughed, no longer trusting his own sobriety either. "Could be time to hit the hay."

"Oh, without a shadow of a doubt. And then a good hair of the dog in the morning." Lakitu shook his head. "Well, I suppose we'd best head back in, then, shall we? Now might perhaps be a reasonable time for me to bid your dear uncle adieu."

As they threaded through the crowded restaurant toward the largest table, Bowser felt curiously lightheaded. Felt light as air. The pounding of the music blended into the hubbub of the dancers and the chatter of the tables, all interwoven so densely that they threatened to suffocate, but he'd begun to float high over the surface of that frothing ocean. His head swum, but he could breathe easily, and that was all that mattered. Through the din, bells had begun to ring, somewhere in the distance—for predawn worship, perhaps. He could not say.

Bowser practically fell back into his chair, much to Red's amused laughter, and she ordered another round just for the two of them. Even as he detected his uncle smoothing one loose lock of hair behind his ear, he could not bring himself to jerk away. Too relaxed, too tranquil. Across from him, Kingfin, Dark Bones and Dry Bones sat together in a row, engaged in some debate. Bowser could not shake the impression that whichever printer spat them up had run out of ink halfway through the job—

"Hang in there, kid," a low voice sung in his ears, in his blood, coaxing him into a blissful stupor. "She can't keep you locked down forever."

No way Gïga-Bowser had actually said that in real life. Bowser began to laugh, all too bemused from the swirling sights and sounds and substances in his bloodstream. Only hearing things.  Just like at that damn festival.

But, Bowser could only think as the next tray of shots arrived, I wanna do that again.


"What the—when did you leave? Where'd you even go?" The instant she'd heard those huge front doors slam, Toadette had first sprinted to Bowser's room, only to find it completely empty—loft, balcony, closet, bathroom, all of it. Afterward she'd practically flown down the central staircase without bothering to change out of her nightgown. 

"Got called up by my uncle," her partner replied hoarsely, collapsing back against the stone wall. Gosh, were his eyes red. 

And what's with the suit?  Toadette inhaled sharply. "Wait, you mean the king?" Her heart rate skyrocketed. "Was he mad at you? Did he find out that we'd met with—?"

"Nah." Bowser began to chuckle. "Made me attend a fuckin' party. Happens every now'n then."

"A party?" With that awful king for hours on end? Yeek. But it sure explained why he reeked of alcohol. "It's after seven! I was just about to text Koopa." She took a deep breath and sat on the floor next to him. "Are you, um, okay...?"

"Still pretty drunk, honestly. His crowd goes pretty hard. Oh—" He snapped his gaze up to meet hers, beaming. "You know who I saw there? Red—uh, the FBR's Chief of—"

Toadette's jaw dropped. "Really?" No way—she was—

"She asked how you were doing." Bowser's eyes twinked. "We spent most of the time talking about how awesome you are."

"How is she? If it was a party, then she would've looked incredible—oh my gosh—" And for one hot second Toadette became mind-splittingly jealous, even as her face flushed. Bow got to see her and he didn't even wanna go—I would've totally gone if I'd known—

"It was her wedding, Toadette." His face contorted with mirth. "She actually married Dry Bones' brother. I mean, one of his brothers. Three Bones brothers. Ahaha."

Red Bones. Just like that, Toadette was back at that Mushroom Bridge plaza beneath Rosalina's statue, listening to—what had his name been? Kingfin. Kingfin Bones— "Bridezillas," he'd bemoaned to her in that bakery, only hours beforehand. No way. It's all the same—all the same people, and he's—Bowser's— "Was Dry Bones there?! Did he try anything?"

Bowser shook his head. "Only saw him briefly. Didn't let him near my drinks or anything, 'n he had to head out before five." He wrinkled his nose. "Wasn't ever alone with him, either. My uncle or Kingf—uh, this other guy—they'd always jump in or pull me somewhere else. Like—" His brow furrowed. "Like they were trying to separate us? Fuck. I don't fuckin' know, Toadette."

"Kingfin?" Her hands had begun to shake. "Was the guy named Kingfin?"

Bowser's eyes widened ever so slightly, holding her gaze for an uncomfortable number of seconds. "...Yeah. You, uh, know him?"

"I—" Well, no, but— "I've met him. On—" She'd begun laughing incredulously, as though she were just as drunk as her partner. "Heard him talking to—just, on accident, I heard him on the phone with Red. Back when we were in Mushroom Bridge on Saturday." 

"Huh." Bowser closed his eyes. "He works for my uncle. Defense minister. Also runs the kingdom's biggest private security company. Well, private on paper—kingdom government contracts it out regularly." He exhaled sharply. "Just one of the facts I learned this morning. Those fuckers love to talk, if nothing else. Almost makes me wish I'd paid more attention at the last few of those things."

Toadette squinted. "You said your uncle makes you go a lot of events like that...?" What if he's met Red before?!

"Yeah. Usually I just tune out all their shit. Bunch of politicians. FBR suits. Big business owners." He feigned a gag. "The kind of people who can live in that dome 'n don't give a shit about the smog. It's all fun 'n games to them, just some kinda edgy tourist attraction. They can afford to fly in for a party and then go straight back home where they don't have to breathe in it all day. Fucking bullshit."

It rang true; both times Toadette had seen Kingfin, he'd been luxuriously dressed. But Red hadn't married him. "I didn't even know Dry Bones had any brothers. Much less two." Sure, visitors had frequented the labs, but no one that she'd really seen with—wait. "Bowser. You met the groom, then?" What if it's—?

"Yup. Guy's name was Dark Bones. On the fuckin' Council, believe it or not. Votes for whatever the King tells him, even though he's supposed to be unbiased." He thumped the his heels of his hands against his temples. "Crazy shit. All the Kingdom's power players in a single room. Single table. Ahahaha. Fuck—"

Dark Bones?  "Hrm. Never mind, then." The man from her memories had a very different name. Guess her suitors come and go. But if Red had truly gone through with marrying this guy, then... "So that means the king's Defense Minister, a Council member, the FBR's director, and the R&D Chief are all now directly related? And are... really good friends with your uncle?"

"Got it in one." Bowser finally opened his eyes. "Oh, and they're all buddies with Lakitu as well. FBR Commissioner. Can't forget ab—"

"Everyone in the galaxy knows who Lakitu is," Toadette reminded him. How drunk are you?

"Exactly," he rasped. "A solid PR face. My point is, all of 'em have cash pouring into that R&D department. Anything they can get, all for some secret project Dry Bones has going on."

The project Rosalina had mentioned yesterday, Toadette could guess. One targeting you, she could have added.

But what was there even to say? Bowser was already attuned to it. Well, at least the gist of it. Just, not so much the extent of the damage it would require. 

One little task, and we won't ever bug you again!  Red's voice, the night she'd graduated. She had known better than to ask exactly how Dry Bones would have bugged her. 

But Petey's voice whispered in her ears then, throttled and raw from the smoke, quivering in exhaustion, in agony. Just a matter of—

No. Rosalina was on their side now, Toadette reminded herself. What was one planet's worth of big shots compared to the rest of the universe? 

Bow trusts her with his life. With our lives. So maybe I can, too.

"Seven-fifteen, huh. Dunno if a nap'd be worth it." Bowser inhaled deeply and then stood up with a stretch. "Just let me take a shower. D'we have enough food for breakfast?"

Okay, so he was still drunk. "You're really going into work after all that?" After everything this weekend—?

"Duh. Haven't been in since Thursday. I fuckin' miss the place. Fuckin' homesick." Bowser shot her an infectious grin. "If you're up for driving."

"I can't believe you." Toadette shook her head, dumbfounded. "Eugh, fine. But no way are you taking blowtorch duty."

"Ma'am." And he was up, taking the steps two at a time. "Wanna head out in an hour?"

"Sounds good." Sounded like something. Heh.

Coffee was in order, Toadette decided then, lest her crazy, precious partner conk out before noon. 

But he really was alright. That was the important thing. He hadn't gotten offed at that wild party—at Red's wedding, uh, reception, or whatever.

And Red had asked about her! She didn't forget me. Well, no, duh. That wasn't how brains worked. But she'd asked about Toadette the racer, even at the risk of exposing Toadette the agent. That was what filled her then to the brim with beautiful, warm energy, more potent than any caffeine.


"Thought you two had died. Or worse. Welcome back."

Yoshi's goodwill aside, Petey felt offended. "What could possibly be worse than my passing?"

"Stubbing a toe. Losing an earbud. Missing an episode of The Legend of Z—"

Ridley flipped Yoshi off before tossing his duffel bag onto the drawing room's other couch. "Spare us, tough guy."

"Won't be so tough in the Cup," Petey laughed. "Where's Catherine? I got her a souvenir." She had frequently threatened to procure one of Toad Town's wild vanity plates by way of hacking his PayPal account. Who says I can't defuse threats?

"Aw, and nothing for me?" DK waved cheerfully to them from the mansion's litter-strewn kitchen. "Assholes."

"Who's the asshole? Oh, right."  Petey signaled an effective Bite me, not that DK's naked eyes would have discerned such. Only Ridley had gone to the expense of implanting bioluminescence sensors, if on a certain someone else's dime. "We're gone for two weeks and somehow every cleaning supply on the planet disappears. Mhm. I see how it is."

"Hey," his stocky teammate whined midway through peeling a banana. "I swept. Twice."

"Don't take the credit for Birdo's good work." Yoshi had hopped off the couch after closing his laptop. "Nah, she's running some errand Uptown. Asked her to snag us something from Toadstool's bakery."

"Cookies?" Diddy's scruffy head popped into view from the second floor landing. "Yeah? Yeah?"

"Nothing for you," DK called back. "Not 'til you finish your summer reading for the month. I'm quizzin' you tonight. Deal?"

"Urrgghh." A door upstairs slammed. Kids.

"There we go." DK chewed his fruit with a triumphant grin. "Better'n him trying to catch up after the Cup. No way I'm gonna get him to study while we're on the road."

Yoshi leaned against the kitchen doorway, pulling his long hair back into a loose bun. "...So? How'd it, uh, go?"

"Perfectly." Ridley had already lit a menthol from his stash in the walk-in pantry. His first in far too long, Petey could easily assume. "This Cup's ours. Hate to say it, but you kids're fighting for silver." 

"Assuming anybody's still kicking after the first race." Petey rubbed his eyes. "Back in a moment." He turned and headed toward the ground floor's guest suite. 

In those short years before, the Lady had graciously cleared out the expansive set of rooms for him, electing to move herself and Ridley into the second floor's master suite. Convincing her father to move to his own penthouse downtown had been, per her retelling, child's play.

Either way, Petey still felt like he owed her. The privacy from the rest of the mansion was nearly worth its weight in what lay beneath the suite's thin floorboards. Above those, a set of glass-paned doors connected his bedroom to the dark sunroom beyond, where his project awaited. The flurry of blinking lights from its lone vital scanner gently conveyed to him two weeks' worth of progress.

Still stable, he noted with no small trace of relief. The purification cycle had completed and restarted without any manual adjustment. Excellent. 

Next, Petey flipped the UV light panels on overhead and removed his thick shirts. Within seconds his interstitial fluids were back up to speed, and the itching of his eyes began to dull. Much better.  A few more days of rest in here and the aching in his vascular tissues would cease as well. The lab's panels had functioned well enough, sure, but they weren't his. Wrong flavor, he'd summed up to Catherine. But that place had been no more of a home than, say, the Mach 6. Or here.

His Blue Planet phone lay undisturbed on its charging slate, its notification light blinking away in an unhelpfully simple pattern. A no-doubt staggering amount of texts and emails surely awaited him, but he could always check them later, when he felt like it. Instead, Petey removed the phone's relay from his ear and tossed it atop the slate next to its partner. He'd need to get the nerve up to apologize to Toadette.

Poor T. I owe her a lunch date. Or two, or three. It had been far too long, even before his excursion with Ridley. He genuinely wanted to see her again, to catch up on the details of her new life. And beyond that, well.

For not the first time that day, it was the electric mix of her partner's piercing eyes and sharp-toothed smile that inexplicably flickered into his mind's eye. The low thundering of his voice, somehow more subtle than any subharmonics. The splendid heat of his blood, pulsing madly beneath Petey's hands in those too-brief moments after the race.

Something in that heat had stirred his smog-seared chlorophyll, all but energizing the charred flesh back to life. Even now Petey examined the skin of his wrists yet again, making sure, lest he'd been mistaken. Seeing things. Dreaming. One doesn't quench a fire with more fire. That heat should have worsened his incessant pain, Petey thought, rather than—than ease it.

Ease. Soothe. Heal. How?

The energy emanating off that man had felt uncannily close to that of Petey's least favorite compound. Frighteningly close. It should have flared ominously before him like a caution sign, not a green light. How he'd wanted to floor it—

No. Dreaming again. Nothing more. Petey needed to exercise his mindfulness. He'd fallen out of practice, that was all.

And so he began to unpack the rest of his clothing, directing his mind instead toward the sublime treat of utter solitude. A blessing, after such a jam-packed week. He relished in his suite's cool silence.

Its brief silence. "Pete! C'mere 'n tell the Yosh how's that crazy guy fixed us up! Tried to summarize, but dunno all the tech terms—"

Understatement of the century. "Be right there." Petey pulled a clean compression shirt from his armoire and sealed off the sunroom on his way out.

Moments later he found Yoshi and Ridley in the television parlor, their feet kicked up onto the antique coffee table. The clacking of the overhead ceiling fan muted the din of DK begrudgingly washing dishes the next room over. 

"Sounded like some crazy shit, Pete." Yoshi shot him a strained look. "You may just wanna take the next few days off to recover."

Petey forced a grin while collapsing back into one of the fat armchairs. "That's the plan. I'll be fine in time for the Cup." More than fine, he signaled to Ridley. "I'm not overly concerned with our competition."

"Uh huh. Alright." Yoshi shot him a cold grin, his dark eyes glittering with hubris. "Then I take it you two missed the news."

Well, now.  Petey shook that pair of amber eyes from his mind. "What news?" 

"New All-Cup entry. I mean, there were a bunch, but the most recent one's insane." Yoshi unmuted the television. Its eighty-inch screen displayed live BPNN updates in saccharine-bright colors. "Just wait... they'll bring her up soon enough..."

"Dunno who Roter Noko is," Ridley grumbled as he flicked his dead menthol into a trash bin, "but there's no goddamn way any of them'll stand a chance against—"

"BEAUREGARD KÖNIG RIDLEY THE THIRD!"  

At once, all three racers sprung to their feet. "Run," Petey told his partner. You had this coming, he added visually.

Lady Bow von Brr stomped her way down the mansion's spiraling staircase, her pink fan feathers a cyclone of their own and more terrifying than any detainment threat. "Two weeks you fuckers are missing. No note! Not one measly text! I'm left to rely on hearsay from Birdo's sketchy fucking Scout connections like a peasant, and after my father has to consider investing in an all-fucking-new team captain, you two dickwads have the nerve to stroll back in here like we haven't been in a goddamn crisis—like I didn't need to resort to grilling Rex fucking Bowser on where you ran off to, clueless fuckface he is—we were worried sick about you two! And now—!"

"Sweetheart—" Ridley bodily flinched with each and every one of Bow's laser-targeted shrieks. "Angelface—babydoll—you know I didn't mean—we weren't allowed to—"

"Shut UP!" 

Petey had known intuitively what to expect, and thus had the good sense to look away as Bow leaped into her boyfriend's arms. Given Yoshi's blood-drained expression, his innocent eyeballs had not been so lucky. Petey grinned and began shuffling away to safety. "How about we just, ehm, leave them to it—?"

"No." Yoshi began tapping Petey's shoulder in a frenzy. "Nonono—look—Ridley, fucking—DK, Diddy, c'mere! Look—the hell—" He pointed one shaking finger toward the television, clearly terror-stricken.

Feeling a horrid chill prematurely settling in his bones, Petey trained his eyes over the BREAKING NEWS bar scrolling along the screen's bottom edge. He then felt justified uttering a word he'd never before used in his life.

" ...Fuck."

There had gone half the reason he'd fought so hard to remain on this lightforsaken planet, in this chokehold of a town, pathetically guarding the lost cause that lay beneath. Half his life, reduced to ash.

And he hadn't even gotten to say goodbye.


"I knew we'd have a bunch of business left over from the weekend," Baby moaned as they finally locked up, "but nothing like that. I need to soak my feet, pronto." 

"You're telling me." Bowser cracked his neck as they headed toward their cars. "But I still need both of you bright and early tomorrow. We gotta fix up our own karts, too." Before we're out of time.

"Aye-aye, captain." Baby drove off with a salute.

What a day. They'd scarcely had enough downtime for bathroom breaks, let alone lunch hours. Toadette had finally caved and ordered pizza delivery at half past one.

Still, good money was good money, and Bowser was in a great goddamn mood. "You wanna get more practice in after dinner?"

"With you on a running average of one hour of sleep per day?" Toadette leered at him through the corner of her eye. "Alright, but only if you stick to the Thrower pedestal." Her face softened. "I did wanna get more traffic-driving hours in, now that you mention it."

"Done deal. Let's—I'm thinking barbecue. Sound good?"

"Yeah!"

One fantastic stop at Dyllis' later and they were unloading the kart from the bed of Bowser's pickup. Traffic driving, he had learned years before, was reserved strictly for the professionals. So much could go wrong. The likelihood of Toadette injuring herself, or her partner, or any one of Mushroom City's innumerable civilian drivers, was a nonzero one. And even if they survived an incident physically unscathed, they were one lawsuit away from All-Cup disqualification.

So, Bowser reasoned, there was no better training environment than one so excruciatingly unforgiving. After this, the All-Cup traffic tracks'll be a breeze for her.

Compared with karts, street cars were tall, and bulky, and slow. Nothing like the motorbikes and scooters of Toad Town, Toadette had pointed out. The good news was that said vehicles were far less abrupt with their changes in direction and acceleration than the street traffic to which she'd grown accustomed; the bad was that they were close to impassible as traffic rapidly piled up around them.

Toadette carefully steered the kart onto the road's shoulder, then gasped once they had a better view of just how far the jam stretched before them. "Jeez. D'you think there was an accident?"

"Only one way to find out," Bowser laughed, leaning forward over the higher Thrower bar. "Take us in."

Onward she plunged, carefully navigating the intersections and, to Bowser's delight, refraining from getting the Koopa King T-boned. In time they reached the front of the jam, where the staggering amount of cars clogging the intersecting road effectively cut off their intended route.

"What the heck is going on?" Toadette's eyes were the size of saucers as she glanced quizzically back at him. "I've never seen traffic this bad in my life!"

"Mourning caravan," Bowser explained, feeling a peculiar pang in his gut. "Mushroom City custom for whenever a popular public figure passes away. Everyone takes to the streets, stops traffic." He exhaled slowly. "The last one I know of took place, uh. A little over five years ago." Not that he'd been lucid enough at the time to join in—too busy screaming—

"Oh, no." Toadette bit her lip. "I mean—don't get me wrong. It's beautiful, in a way. But that's a ton of people who are hurting right now."

No point in trying to count them all, Bowser agreed. "Yeah. Must've been somebody pretty important." He racked his brain for any names of elderly city board members, local celebrities, the like, but to no avail. "Might as well check around online. My money's on an old MCNN anchor." 

"That building has a news ticker going," Toadette pointed out as she slid them between the shoulder's other occupants. Sure enough, the time and temperature began to spell out along the office's façade in sharp red lettering. "With this many people? There's no way it isn't headlining."

Scant seconds later, Toadette's assertion proved true. Bowser felt his jaw slacken as he processed what exactly those red, red words spelled out.

FBR'S ELVIN GADD FOUND DEAD IN HOME. UNKNOWN ASSAILANT STILL AT LARGE.

Chapter Text


“Out. Now.”

It was all Polari could do to mask the fury in his voice, and still only on the frequencies Rosalina would detect.

But she averted his gaze, instead keeping her attention focused on her tomes. Sigil-based spellwork, by the look of it. Damn. “Why, may I ask?”

Because I physically cannot stand here for another minute. “You just jeopardized our entire operation.”

After heaving a sigh, Rosalina stood and followed Polari through the Chamber’s gate and back into the galactic stream. Onto solid, steady ground, flung cleanly across the universe only by benign, if clandestine, forces. Polari suspected he loved the Observatory more and more each time he returned to it from that horrid realm.

Rosalina glowered. “I think that’s overstating things.”

Two Gearmos rolled by at top speed, beeping in a flurry of caution messages and flashing emergency lights. You are seen, he signaled to them out of courtesy as Rosalina checked the local time. 

“Three different investigation teams at our doors is overstating things?” Oh, how Polari yearned to dive straight into the void then and there. In hindsight, it was a small wonder indeed that Rosalina had grown so addicted to the Chamber’s hold. “If your demon friend discovers what you’ve done to his beloved—”

“—we’d be skewered,” she finished his thought with a cool smile. “You pulled me out of a cram session to fret? Very unlike you, Polari.”

“I pulled you out,” he countered, “to ascertain what exactly you were thinking when you made your last trip downstairs.”

Rosalina’s visible eyebrow rose abruptly. “Are you jealous?”

Oh, for heaven’s sake— “No dodging this question.”

“Polari.” 

“Princess.” He detected Lee approaching and waved the child away behind his back. Not now, he signaled on their secure frequency. Situation delicate.

A moment later, the coast was clear. Rosalina frowned, her single eye clouding. “I had to do it, Polari. Can you imagine if Karon had gotten to him first?”

That wretch again. Still— “Then, what, the universe would have ended?”

“Mine would have.” There, that single note of disappointment, of all things. “Now. If we need to deal with whoever’s knocking at our doors, then I’m happy to answer any questions they may have. No need to spend our energy agonizing.”

It was the closest she’d ever come to insulting him, that last sentiment. But Polari had not the power to snarl back, not so soon after his dip into that vile place. “We can stall them for another sidereal hour, I believe.” He sought her gaze, mustering the strength to drop all pretense. “But—Rosalina? You can’t keep this up.”

“I know it, Polari. I do.”

To his surprise, she embraced him, more firmly than she had in years, and pressed her forehead to his shoulder. The cinching of their accustomed remoteness unnerved Polari, transporting him instantly to the past—more effective than any spell, no matter how precise the incision. Could he only weep.

“And I hate that you’re caught up in all of it, when you should be focused on your own mission.” Rosalina’s voice was muffled against his throat. He found himself stroking her hair out of sheer habit. It had somehow become its own hell-sent ritual. “This issue is one I should have addressed long ago, and now…”

“Now you may be too late.” Could Polari only laugh. He need not have said anything, but somehow uttering the words aloud seemed to lend them their own gravity, and an overpowering amount at that.

“Yes.” She drew away, her brow furrowed. “And I apologize. But our trajectory is locked. We’ve lost Gadd, and he’s not coming back. Saulus is onto our machinations. I assume he’s working to plant someone in our midst even as we speak.”

“Without a doubt.” The mere thought of Daimaō presence in the Observatory incensed Polari to no end. “We’ve screened the incoming team to the best of our ability, but this is all set to blow up in our faces. They latch onto a single damning detail, and all our fighting will have been for naught. You’ve let your personal crusade cloud your judgment.”

“It’s hardly personal.” Rosalina folded her arms. “If we slip up and Karon reaches him first, he’ll have unwittingly become a danger to everyone and everything around him.”

“Yourself included.” Polari deigned to place one hand upon her shoulder. “But you took insufficient time to gauge him. What if he had reacted poorly? What if your charm had backfired?” Then my universe would have ended.

But the words shattered in his mouth, as always.

Rosalina’s expression grew stormy. “I knew exactly what I was doing. As always." She shot him a look. "What would you have done in my place?”

Too easy. Polari planted his hands on his hips, a gesture universally understood among bipedal cultures. “I’d have taken him. Slung him up where he stood, if necessary. Locked him in the Chamber until the situation is contained. But the heavens know he’d have come willingly, if you’d asked, and you’re more than gifted with falsifying—”

“Absolutely not.” The storm grew into a hurricane. “My solution requires no forcing of our hand, to say nothing of the messiness of abductions. Before he reaches that stage, we will have Karon's threat eliminated. I don’t care what else needs to be done.” She turned to reenter the Chamber. “We can beat that monster at his own game.”

By sinking to his level, yes. But Polari could only watch as her cloaked form disappeared back into that blistering portal.

And so he began to draft a message for Lee, one with instructions. They were even further off course than he’d believed.


"Elvin Gadd was everything," one tear-streaked interviewee blubbered as Kylie Koopa wordlessly adjusted her green newsie cap. Even the journalist’s vivid pink eyeshadow could not distract from her own apparent grief, or exhaustion.

In the background of the shot, a crowd of mourners had taken to the streets with electric candles and plastic wreaths, or rubber ones whittled from kart tires. They crowded the police barricades, their shouts and wailing muted.

"He was everywhere. W-wasn’t just a scientist, wasn’t just a suit. H-he was on the tracks, he was in interview rooms, he was developing Items, throwing fundraisers, y-you name it. He devoted his whole life to us. I can't—can't believe he's—" He broke down, sobbing, and Kylie nodded grimly to the camera.

Back in Koopa and Paratroopa's freshly-unpacked living room, the projected newscast dimmed to black, with only the white-lettered Mushroom Kingdom News Network logo sliding into view. Eventually Elvin Gadd: The Inside Story took its place in a larger, simpler typeface.

Bowser nudged Toadette’s knee with his own as they snacked. If they hadn’t spent the whole afternoon helping Koopa and Paratroopa move in, he’d guess they were artificially hungry in anticipation of the featured story. Kylie was the MKNN’s top editorial writer, and promotion for the biggest reel of the year had begun mere hours after the announcement of Gadd’s death. Looks like our housewarming party’s gonna double as a wake, Koopa had texted them the night before.

Once an overwrought orchestral version of the MKNN jingle finished playing, Koopa’s projector took the living room’s many occupants to a wide shot of an unmistakable track. The ambient rainbow glow coated the whole room in rapidly-shifting hues.

"Elvin Gadd was a legend," a voiceover began, "both among those who knew him personally, and to those he’d never meet." The camera plunged downward and then onto the electric-colored lane as though affixed to the front of a kart. Starry skies flew by, but no other vehicles joined; this was no race. They were merely taking smooth, silent journey down a familiar road.

"It looks even prettier up close," Toadette whispered between mouthfuls of popcorn. On her other side, Baby silently cracked up and snuggled closer to Toad. 

Bowser groaned. “You say that now…”

"The dazzling Rainbow Road was one of his best-known projects," Kylie's voice narrated, "but Gadd had an unequivocal role in everything that shaped the Federal Bureau of Racing as we know it today."

The living room’s occupants—most of Team Firebird, as well as a few extra groupies—murmured and laughed at the high-quality photos watermarked with the FBR Archives’ seal: Gadd making one of his classic outbursts behind a press conference podium, Gadd putting together a crazy-looking machine, Gadd chortling beneath an avalanche of racers hugging him from all sides.

"An innovator to the core, Gadd started his career at the young age of sixteen. While still in high school, he interned with Personnel Resources for what at the time was the National Racing Association.” On flew a heavily-aged photo of a scrawny kid with sparse hair and thick-rimmed, circular glasses. "His first major strategic contribution led to the complete restructuring of the NRA’s racer qualification process. Thanks to this, many kart racers soon became household names. Ever wonder how many of your favorite racers got their first shot thanks to Gadd's work?"

NRA and FBR mugshots of racers quickly flew across the projection. "I think I saw your parents," Toadette whispered to him.

"Not surprised." Bowser grinned. "They never shut up about Gadd. Big fans."

"Yeah, yeah," one of Koopa's old classmates—Karry, now a postman—grumbled. "Get to the good shit. He was just as crazy as he was smar—"

"Hush.” Kammy, an MCHS alum from Bowser's year, looked up from her exam prep booklet for the first time that evening to whack Karry in the head with it. “No speaking ill of the dead!"

A completely different set of images slid into view, some showing safety updates to karting tracks, others a timeline of decreasing Grand Prix injuries. "From Personnel, Gadd quickly moved to NRA Public Relations, through General Administration, and finally up to Research and Development. The league would soon come to sponsor his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in bio-engineering.” 

“How come he did all this physics stuff if he was a bio guy?” Toad pulled out his phone. “Something doesn’t add up.”

“We should download the full thing.” Paratroopa opened FawfulStore on her tablet. “This is just the version cut for TV; no doubt there’s way more stuff that they couldn’t fit in.”

Kylie’s story continued with time-lapsed footage of Gadd working through a night in his office. “Gadd was married to his career, as his coworkers would often regale. With no spouse nor children on record, he requested that his remaining wealth benefit the FBR's Race to the Future foundation, per his living will."

"Gooood grief," Koopa's boss, Howzit, grumbled from an armchair in the corner. "They really expect us to buy that, after everything he’d—?"

"Who knows how long ago it was he even wrote that will? It's not like he was expecting to die anytime soon." Koopa shrugged. "Could've been the standard one you file at age thirty...?"

“The FBR didn’t exist when Gadd was thirty,” Waluigi pointed out. “Much less that foundation.”

A tiny avatar of Kylie’s head continued to speak from a lower corner of the newscast. "When the elderly Queen Pamela Toadstool appointed him as the NRA's Director in 2145, Gadd would become the youngest one in history at only forty-one years old. This is generally considered the moment that his life's work truly began."

“She’s not Queen Paula,” Toadette murmured, shooting Bowser a quizzical glance as footage of the Appointment Ceremony ran.

Bowser nodded. “Yeah, that’s her mother—Peach and Rosalina’s grandma. She passed away not too long after that. Paula was her only kid.”

"In the following years, Gadd channeled the might of the Kingdom's bustling economy into a form of entertainment that everyone could enjoy. With petrol and auto industry backing, he would host benefit galas, science fairs and racing tech conventions. It was Gadd who founded the renowned Bitty Kart program for at-risk children with otherwise minimal access to kart racing."

"Would y'all believe that's how I got started?" Koopa wriggled his eyebrows. "My first ever kart was one they'd printed at a KartsforKids Fest when I was, eh, four or five."

"The old Bolt Buggy?" Bowser grinned. "I kinda miss that little thing."

"But not the racket it made! Hahaha."

Next, concept sketches of Thunderbolt, Ghost, Chain Chomp, POW Block and Spiny Shell Items, among a bunch that Bowser only dully recognized, stretched across the projection. "Under Gadd's guidance, his hand-picked R&D team improved the karts' standard flash-printers to the models used in racing today. They went on to develop no fewer than sixteen never-before-seen Item types. Some were so effective," Kylie added with a grin, "that they were soon pulled from Grand Prixes to give everyone else a fair shot!"

"The other reason why Boo's so pissy all the time," Bowser chuckled under his breath. Old footage of mid-Battle Ghost theft ran in oversaturated colors, the robbed racers seething with rage. “He used to have this Banshee thing that would let him choose whichever Item he wanted to steal from everyone’s in a race. Fuckin’ game-breaker… good riddance.”

Toadette giggled. "Oh! That reminds me." She abruptly sat up straight. "Petey never used his Special Item at the labs. I dunno if he ever settled on one. Did you ever see...?"

Petey's Item?  Huh. But Bowser shook his head; now that he thought about it, not once in any of their matches had he ever—

"Of course, Gadd's reign over the NRA had its highs and lows." Kylie's tone immediately became more somber. "With no family or commitments outside of the NRA, he rarely stepped outside of his office or the R&D labs. Many of his colleagues viewed his goals as unreasonable. Others called his personality overbearing, if not outright neurotic."

Immediately the scene cut to an interview with another FBR officer, a broad-shouldered man seated in a plush leather armchair. The familiar haze of downtown Mushroom City loomed in the large window behind him. Nikolaï Bleck, FBR Public Relations, a gleaming caption read below his face.

"Without a doubt, Gadd was a larger-than-life character," Bleck began in clipped, elegant bass. "Not everyone could handle his energy. The rest of us were mere mortals, if you understand. Wrangling his ideas into something mere mortals could accomplish, well, it was a constant battle in its own right." He adjusted his gold-rimmed monocle with the tip of his middle finger. "It was only a matter of time before others gathered the nerve to butt heads with their esteemed Director."

"Here we go," Karry murmured, leaning in toward the projection until Kammy threateningly lifted her booklet once more.

"Gadd served as Director for nearly a decade," Kylie went on, "tightening up the NRA's budget while allocating vast sums to quality inspections and safety checks. With each passing year, the Research and Development department had to operate with less room for error." Dramatizations of arguing scientists illustrated her words. "Fewer and fewer of his subordinates complied with his project outlines as time went on. It was finally in the spring of 2155 that Gadd made his famous Cold World Farewell at a frenzied press conference."

Older, lower-quality MKNN footage portrayed an exhausted Gadd making the iconic speech. "…and, finally: uncritiqued passion leads only to ruin," his brittle voice all but rattled out. "A league that prioritizes entertainment value over the safety of its performers is no league worthy of your love, nor mine. I have fought tooth and nail to protect these young people to the best of my ability, but it's clear now that I fight a losing battle. And so, it is for this reason that I, Elvin Gadd, now resign from directorship, effective immediately."  His shivering form all but disappeared into a sea of white as the press photographers collectively blew up.

“For the first time ever,” Kylie continued, “the NRA had to cancel an entire season’s worth of Grand Prixes. Racing viewership plummeted to an all-time low, and many believed the entire league would fall apart without Gadd's leadership. Some karting venues even shut down due to bankruptcy, never to reopen again.”

The living room fell silent as the footage grayed out to a shot of an empty Battle stadium. Block Fort, Bowser was pretty sure. A ghost town, now, with its once-bright paint chipped and faded nearly beyond recognition.

"But at only age fifty-one, Gadd was hardly ready to settle down. He instead returned to his scientific roots and secured his Ph.D. in bio-engineering. In pursuit of technological advancement outside of the racing scene, he researched and gave biomed seminars at Mushroom City University. Within a few short years, he would come to accept a full-time position with Mushroom City General Hospital."

A far more cheerful-looking Gadd had donned his characteristic white coat in time for the next snapshot, in which he demonstrated some kind of surgical implantation procedure. Here was the guy Bowser recognized from all the sports articles and televised coverage, with motion blurs for limbs and an infectious, face-splitting grin.

"His medical patents began flying left and right. Shown here are only the designs made known to the public." A staggering number of photos filled the projection, all of wild-looking gadgets and X-ray scans.

“D’you think the forensics teams got to his brain in time to preserve it?” Paratroopa murmured. “That’d be worth its own museum exhibit, if you ask me.”

Toadette gagged. “C’we let him be dead for at least a week before putting his brain on display?”

“Ahaha, sorry—”

“But then came the most significant day, and year, in history," Kylie proclaimed as the photos dissolved to black. "February twenty-second, 2157: First contact by the Piranha Hegemony."

The customary montage rolled: screencaps of the first discernible waves of Piranha broadcasting, followed by footage of the first sling landing upon the Blue Planet’s surface, and the photo of Queen Paula's iconic hand-clasp with Maza Furawā. Kylie narrated the events as they played for accessibility.

“Are there different types of Mazas?” Toadette whispered to him, her eyes sparkling. “That’s a way fancier headdress than Maza Pakkun’s.”

“That's the Maza from their homeworld," Bowser explained. Indeed, Maza Furawā had worn a complete parure matching the customary metalloid circlet. The ornaments' sleek trimming glowed with the same hue as her crisscrossing tattoos. “The others are reps from their colonies. She’s their arbiter.”

"Whoa."

Next came the inevitable—an aerial shot of the Mushroom City International Airport, its pedestrian walkways blurred beneath clouds of smog. And only steps outside of the airport's glass doors, as the following footage portrayed, four people burned alive where they stood. Wisps of gray-green smoke plumed from sores splitting their skin as they writhed in pain.

Toadette shuddered, and Bowser swallowed the urge to cover her eyes. We all saw it. She had to, eventually.

"All four of the first Piranha people to step foot into Mushroom City's atmosphere were immediately rushed to the nearest hospital," Kylie recounted along with the footage. "Mushroom City General, where Gadd had become Head Biotechnician. It was under his direct care that, against all odds, the four Piranha were restored to full health."

"Holy shit," Toad gasped as a different photo appeared. "How'd she get the clearance for that?!"

Wait—that's— Bowser barely registered that Toadette's hand was close to squeezing his in half. Because, for the first time in his life, he had a clear glimpse of the faces of those unlucky souls. The four all sat together on a hospital couch and smiled for the snapshot, their facial tattoos aglow. 

One of those faces belonged to Petey Piranha.

"No fuckin' way," Wario breathed, having dropped his empty styrofoam plate to the floor. "It's a coincidence, yeah? They just, uh, look alike, or…?"

"It is him," Toadette whimpered, her voice breaking on the last syllable. "I'd—he never—"

"I doubt they ever allowed him to tell anyone," Toad consoled her through gritted teeth. "We were supposed to keep that photo locked in an encrypted database to protect their identities. So either Kylie managed to pull some serious fuckin' strings with Scout high command… or she's getting fired right now."

Koopa gaped, scrolling through a feed on his laptop. "It's already trending. I'd always thought Petey was just one of the few that emigrated here after first contact, not—not one of the first, you know?!"

"He fucking stayed here," Bowser whispered, feeling his lungs close to collapsing. Those diamond tattoos shined in his eyes now just as they had back in the garage race, vivid and warm. "He went through all that—he'd nearly died, and then—he'd still—" See, Birdo, he is a goddamn masochist—

Toadette pulled out her phone and began to spam one number with all-caps texts, and Bowser could easily guess whose. All around the living room, the other wake-slash-housewarming party attendees had broken into their own conversations. Wario's cohorts, Vanessa and Flavio, argued while messaging the rest of their gambling friends in the event this was a subliminal push for Team Banshee. On the loveseat, Koopa’s old classmates Blooie and Dorrie chattered away with Howzit and Karry. Even Lydia and Neville had paused from making out on their armchair to flip their shit. After all, most of them were still in direct contact with—

"Ridley had to know.” Kammy looked downright affronted. “They’ve been partners for years!"

"Boo always was pretty thick," Koopa snickered from his floor cushion. "I wouldn’t be surprised if Petey had him fooled the whole time."

Bowser still felt shell-shocked. His little chat with Lakitu those short nights before came crashing back, filling his veins with acid. For so long, he had taken solace only in the fact that Petey had avoided the torture of that catastrophe—but now, even that meager shred of consolation was out.

I should’ve told Lakky off when I had the chance—what if we’d—what if Petey had—hadn’t made it—?  No fucking shit the Piranha were treating the BPF like goddamn war criminals, after—

“Bow, what’s wrong…?” Toadette shot him an alarmed glance, her fingers freezing mid-text. “Bow?”

"Quiet, y'all!" Paratroopa pegged Wario with a throw pillow. "She's still going!"

"—ease of establishing communication with this extraterrestrial society," Kylie had continued, "that all six of the Blue Planet's super-states joined together in late 2157, forming the Blue Planet Federation. As such, the NRA rebranded itself as the Federal Bureau of Racing, one accepting competitors from across all continents, cultures, and even offworld civilizations. Plural civilizations, yes, as before the year would end, the Piranha would lift their curtain from yet another new culture: the Illuminated Primacy, or Luma."

Kylie had begun smiling devilishly as she spoke. You knew this was gonna happen, Bowser thought, bewildered. The airing story was no live feed, but to have been in that editing room when Kylie had dropped that fucking photo...damn.

"By now, I'm sure some of you viewers out there have recognized one of your favorite racers," Kylie laughed as the camera slowly zoomed in on the hospital group's photo. "Yes, that’s Petey Piranha from the Piranha Gold Leaf Colony, whose kart is slated for the upcoming Summer All-Cup. The youngest of the first Piranha visitors to the Blue Planet, Petey became hooked on racing while watching the Star Cup Grand Prix during his hospital stay. Needless to say, Gadd took notice.”

Holy shit. Bowser squeezed his eyes shut. He'd met Gadd. Petey knew Gadd. Fucking hell—

Kylie continued her story as more racing footage began to play. "It is said that every cloud has its silver lining. Horrific though it was, many have attributed to this cataclysmic chain of events another great achievement of Gadd's. Following the organization’s rebranding, Gadd was requested to work with the FBR as a third party in good standing with the Piranha Hegemony.”

“Requested?” Waluigi rolled his eyes. “Begged, more like.”

Kylie smirked as though having heard the comment from across space and time. “Gadd pitched what would become the FBR Racer Development Program. When his project proposal received resounding critical approval, he rejoined the very organization he’d once denounced. He was quickly appointed with the coveted role of Research and Development Chief.”

Bowser did a double take. "Gadd started that—then—Toadette, does that mean you'd seen him before?"

Toadette's eyebrows shot up. "Yeah! I thought everyone knew he'd founded the program. He visited all the time when I was younger." But her jaw then slackened as the camera switched to a wide pan across a desert horizon. A lone pyramid jutted up in the distance, its color nearly indistinguishable from that of the sandy dunes. Only a tiny glint at the very top gave away its height.

Your old stomping grounds, huh. Bowser shook his head. 

Kylie’s story continued with a blurry shot of racers zooming down another familiar road.  “State-of-the-art training labs, recreational spaces, and a Mushroom Cup-tier karting track were quickly constructed in the Dry Dry Desert, thanks in part to a carte blanche budget provided by Queen Paula Toadstool. Petey Piranha would become the first of Gadd's trainees, and we have all witnessed the effectiveness of his regimen! Let’s all wish him well for the All-Cup, by the way."

“Called it,” Vanessa hissed toward Wario and Waluigi. “We've got to redraw the whole bracket.”

You are fucking kidding me. Bowser knew goddamn better than to check Petey’s hashtag just then. But even from inches away, he sensed Toadette freeze. "Then… the labs really only started with Petey? So he was only there for a few months before I joined…"

Bowser nodded. “So you were the second person they ever brought on.”

“Sounds like it.” Toadette sighed and continued her onslaught of caps-locked texting. “That stupid jerk.”

“Heh.”

The documentary continued. "Aside from running the new training program, Gadd busied himself with further updates to many aspects of the FBR’s equipment and track designs. It was during his years as R&D Chief that he began his partnership with an up-and-coming magitech rock star: Princess Rosalina Toadstool, a child prodigy with a gift for pushing the laws of physics.”

As a clip of Rosalina herself began to roll behind a caption matching Bleck’s, Bowser could all but feel that one aquamarine eye staring straight through him.

“I’d give up the past decade of my life,” Rosalina intoned steadily while looking dead into the camera, “to run just one more test with Elvin. Every single project we did together was my favorite. Our workflows felt so seamless, it was as though we could read each other’s minds.”

“How the hell did they get an interview with Rosalina that fast?” Koopa whistled. “Think they hit her up the instant the news broke?”

“Maybe she beamed Kylie up onto that spaceship of hers,” Baby suggested.

“Not beamed, slung,” Toad reminded him. “This is real life, not science fic—”

“Yeah, yeah. Same diff.”

Bowser shrugged. Could've snagged her while she was still planetside. Who could say?

“And he always operated at peak efficiency,” Rosalina continued. “Those of us who wished to skip breaks or pull all-nighters were often permitted to do so. I will therefore give Elvin Gadd the greatest compliment I can muster: that he wasted no time.”

A cool silence fell over the living room as her interview footage came to an end. At Bowser’s feet, Koopa shuddered. “She helped design Rainbow Road,” he eventually moaned, “and now we gotta race her on it? We’re fucking doomed.”

Bowser growled and pressed one heel against the back of Koopa’s head. “I told you not to think about it til the Cup starts. We’re here to celebrate the godfather of racing, not get our panties in a twist over the future.” The admittedly near, near future. “Quit worrying so much.” Now if I could just take my own damn advice—

“Hmph. Stomp me all you want, Bow. You’re still not as scary as Rosalina.”

“That hurts all three of my feelings,” Bowser retorted. That said, he pulled out his phone and flipped through his message logs. There it was, the single number to which he’d refrained attributing a contact. Only one message sat in its thread: Secured.

He’d seen Rosalina exactly three days and four hours ago, and already he missed her. What all’d you do with Gadd…?

"The two pioneered the collaboration of BPF and Piranha science teams,” Kylie answered his unspoken question. Animation sequences depicted car-sized objects with improbably strong gravitational fields, then house-sized, then skyscraper-sized. “Gadd secured the necessary funding to adequately test Toadstool’s gravitational wave theorems, and together they built the first and, so far, only racetrack in outer space. For full coverage of the project, download MKNN’s 2162 feature story, Rosalina and the Rainbow Road, available now for only ten coins on FawfulStore.”

“Here’s a concept,” Howzit grumbled. “Not plugging your own crap every thirty minutes—”

“Says the guy who brought his own shop’s coupons to the party.” Wario's lady-friend, Mona, darted him with a paper plane she’d folded from one.

Howzit frowned. “Who wouldn’t want a discounted solid-state drive?! Sheesh.”

“But while Rainbow Road was an incredible achievement of science and magic in its own right, it was merely a prototype for a bigger project.” Kylie winked. “You guessed it: Gadd and Toadstool alone share credit for the design of the Galaxy Projects’ Comet Observatory. Home to a demilitarized zone for negotiations and an observation center for hopeful colonies, the Observatory is the only BPF craft allowed beyond Blue Planet orbit."

Most of the room's occupants gasped at the next bits of footage. Had Bowser not seen it all firsthand before, he’d have likely begun stammering as well. Fluffy grass, thick-leafed trees, and shimmering fountain jets all swayed gently in open-air terraces beneath a starry sky. Pale clay walls blended seamlessly into domed roofs, broken up only with stunning stained-glass windows and cackling fireplaces. Sterile observation domes and elegant conference rooms bordered alongside lush gardens misting with backlit waterfalls. The number of Gearmos rolling about nearly rivaled the scores of people in labcoats interfacing with holographic displays.

“That’s a space station? I don’t believe it.” Baby dove back beneath his blanket. “Nuts.”

"However," Kylie went on, "the success of the Observatory’s design would be Gadd’s last. Just as the pieces of the station were launched into space, Gadd's overseer—the FBR’s then-Director Jiji Cackletta—announced her resignation from the role.” The Observatory footage cut to a portrait of a finely-suited woman with massive bags under her eyes. “She claimed to no longer be fit for duty, citing lingering grief and trauma from witnessing a horrific racing incident—one that had taken place on her watch, in the Winter All-Cup only a month before."

After a brief warning for distressing content flashed, BPNN footage from an old All-Cup stadium began to play. A not-quite-five year old All-Cup. Bowser automatically braced himself.

The starter lights flew on and the racers were off, many in gold or blue-white bursts of tailpipe flames. A redheaded couple in a six-wheeled kart quickly butted their way into first position as sparks erupted from their tires—yellow, then red, then blue. They narrowly cut off a golden cruiserweight kart as they snaked. But just as they rounded the bend—no no no don't—

Boom. Nothing but fire and smoke, orange and gray, as far as the eye could see.

Bowser had looked over that exact clip hundreds of times before. Maybe thousands. He’d lost count. Presently he clenched his jaw, trying in vain to ignore the several sets of eyes glancing his way all at once from around the living room. His pulse had skyrocketed in that short time. It’s done. It’s over. They’re gone. They’re gone.

Only as Toadette pressed her forehead against his shoulder did his breathing begin to slow. He squeezed her hand and looked back toward the projection, willing himself to appear fine. Or as close to it as possible. 

A new portrait appeared next to Kylie’s speaking head. "Given the atrocity of the event, Cackletta’s resignation came with little surprise. However, the interim Director, Mamek Peasely, proved unpopular with racing fans and FBR stakeholders alike.”

“There's an understatement,” Wario sneered. “Ay, we never did figure out who’d bought him out, did we?”

“What’d he do?” Toadette asked as she finished off the popcorn. “Bought him out how?”

“He was the guy who forced double-racer karts into all the Grand Prixes,” Koopa answered. “There used to be professional single-kart races, but then Peasely went on this huge campaign for carpooling and reducing auto production. The idea was that if all the racers were partnered up for televised Cups, then people would get more used to the idea of sharing rides.”

Paratroopa’s jaw dropped. “Seriously? Did it work?”

Wario jerked his head toward the windows overlooking the packed freeway below. “Whaddya think?”

But they fell silent as a photo of Bowser’s least favorite person filled the projection. “Once an all-new power structure came into play within the year, Peasely stepped down from the role. The Mushroom Kingdom’s new monarch, King Saulus Kerog Gïga-Bowser, immediately appointed his permanent replacement: the FBR’s current Director, Dry Bones." 

Bowser and Toadette shared repulsed looks. "Eh, it’d be weird if they hadn’t plugged him," he reasoned. "The MKNN’s a mouthpiece for the government, pretty much, so..."

Toadette stuck her tongue out. "I could've gone all day without having to look at him, you know?"

He’d tell Toadette to join the club if she weren’t already its goddamn president. "Amen."

The story continued to unfold before them. "Bones, a bright virtual intelligence developer, had worked directly under Gadd for nearly three years. He, too, was something of a rising star within FBR R&D. Records show that he had been sought out by Gadd himself for a handful of high-stakes coding projects. Gadd and Bones share credit for the algorithms that govern Item Boxes in Grand Prixes today.”

“Explains why they suck half the time,” Bowser whispered to Toadette, who finally cracked a smile.

Next came a series of photographs from previous MKNN reports, all showing Gadd and Dry Bones alongside one another, inside the FBR and elsewhere. It took all of Bowser’s strength not to hurl. What the shit did you see in that guy, old man…?

“The two were frequently spotted relaxing together outside of work, and many have described Bones as the single closest friend Gadd would ever have. For the first time in his life, it seemed, Gadd had a chance to let down his guard and confide in another person." At this point Kylie glared directly into the camera as though challenging it to a fight. "This was why many were shocked with Gadd's reaction to the appointment of Bones: unfavorable, and, as some would say, explosive." 

In the next shot, horrified Council members looked on as a little old man yelled furiously from behind an FBR podium, his white coat wrinkled and glasses askew.

"In response to the appointment of whom many considered his closest colleague, Gadd—then at sixty years of age, and the last bastion of the Toadstool-era old guardimmediately resigned from the FBR altogether. Never again would he rejoin the organization.”

“Huh.” The back of Bowser’s head buzzed. “I remember the headlines announcing he’d quit out of nowhere, but nobody knew how come. Figured he’d just wanted to retire.”

“I told you not to trust the papers, bro.” Koopa reached for popcorn from his and Toadette’s bowl, only to pout upon finding it emptied. “You could tell something nuts had gone down, but no way in hell was the Bureau gonna spread that Gadd disagreed with their pick. Not publicly, anyways.”

“Think Kylie got permission to release that?” Baby asked. “Or is this a blitz?”

“Checking now,” Toad replied, firing off one rapid message after another. “From what the rest of us can tell, she’s been solid so far. Jeez—given how much red tape she’s had to work around, she might just be the best journalist on the planet.”

The best journalist on the planet still had more story to tell. “To add insult to injury, Gadd infamously deleted decades' worth of experiment writeups from the R&D databases, burning any hard copy backups, and absconding with everything he hadn't destroyed.”

Bowser winced. “Okay, I do remember that part.”

“Was he out of his skull? Who destroys their own work?!” Paratroopa looked close to passing out. Toadette patted her shoulder, shooting dumbfounded looks back at Bowser, who could only shrug.

What’d you find, old man…?

“Once a name synonymous with kart racing and technological innovation, Gadd proclaimed to all who would listen that he still had decades of work left undone. But no independent lab or engineering firm would take him.” Kylie grimaced. “Furthermore, the FBR immediately filed a lawsuit for the unauthorized destruction of their data, and a settlement was reached early in the following year. In time, Gadd would settle down in sunny Isle Delfino; for the remainder of his life, he would run only a recreational laboratory in the island’s volcanic central region."

“He retired?!” Baby snorted. “No way. Not that guy. He got gray market work, maybe, or he was trying to—”

"Fat lady ain't sung yet," Waluigi murmured. "Check it out."

"Oh my gosh!"  Toadette nearly jumped off the sofa as the next clip portrayed an impromptu interview with none other than Red Bones. By the look of it, Kylie had caught her walking outside of the Kingdom Council chamber, and the camera's time stamp read at not quite two months ago. An enormous tungsten engagement ring glinted on her finger as she accepted the MKNN-branded microphone. Red Buraddi, FBR Research & Development, the older sequence’s caption read. The newer graphic differed only by her last name.

"Oh, Professor Elvin? Of course we still talk!" Her eyes had widened in surprise. "Hell, he flies in once every few months to see how we're doing. I couldn’t keep him away even if I wanted to!”

“You—you really mean to say that Gadd’s no longer banned from the premises?” Kylie’s voice wavered with incredulity.

Red giggled behind one hand. “He hasn’t been for some time now. Whatever beef he had with Dry Bones, they’ve long since sorted it all out. As a matter of fact, I believe he and the Director are slated for a dinner together at the Tower next month…"

The present-day Kylie resumed narrating. "In recent years, more and more eyewitness reports claimed that Gadd had indeed dropped his animosity toward Bones." A sequence of watermarked VIP event photographs, cell phone snapshots and even security footage—Christ, Bowser thought, if she doesn't get fired for this then Kylie'll probably win another Pulitzer—revealed Gadd out and about with Dry Bones and, in some instances, Lakitu as well. Here they were taking a three-martini lunch at an outdoor cafe, there they were spotted exiting a movie theater, arms linked. Yup, Gadd sure liked to hang out at the Tower.

"What," Toadette breathed almost inaudibly. “That makes no sense.”

Bowser shook his head, confounded. Did he hate the guy or not?!

"It's a small reach of the imagination," Kylie concluded, "to think that even a juggernaut such as Gadd could learn to apologize for his mistakes. Director Dry Bones' public statement requests that we remember Gadd for his incredible scientific advancements and his love of the whole racing community." She flawlessly delivered a teary-eyed smile. "We’ll miss you, Elvin Gadd, and rest assured, you’ll not be forgotten. This is Kylie Koopa with the Mushroom Kingdom News Network, signing off. Good night, everyone.”

Stunned silence followed as the credits rolled, sprinkled intermittently with photos and muted video clips of Gadd through the years. #EGaddInsideStory, viewers were finally instructed to mention with comments and questions.

"That's it?!" Karry heaved a frustrated sigh. "They barely covered any of the good stuff—yeow! Alright, alright, shutting up

Bowser rubbed his eyes, unable to shake the sensation of having been yanked over the past few decades by a fishing line, steel hook and all. That wasn’t an inside story so much as a basic intro—

Seconds later, the standard MKNN jingle played. “Next up, an exclusive report on Gadd’s horrific murder scene. From the grotesque modus operandi to the bamboozling locked doors, get all the details now at—”

Koopa muted the projector. “Blech. How about we do…literally anything else—?”

“Are you nuts?!” Paratroopa reached over him to hit the laptop keys. “They could have more facts than what were announced yesterday! What if we can figure out the killer before they do?!”

“Ha.” Flavio adjusted the wide cuffs of his multicolored suit. “Fifty coins says it was an inside job.”

“Nobody take him up on that.” If anything, Dry Bones had planned that shit five years in advance. Bowser stood up and stretched before following half the room’s occupants into the kitchen.

As much as Bowser missed Koopa’s tiny old kitchenette, the newer place really was cool. True to form, Koopa and Para had left no inch of space unused: pots and pans hung from steel ceiling racks, creatively-arranged magnetic shelving made for a clutch makeshift pantry, and the odd glow from the ceiling-high window belonged, upon closer inspection, to the UV panels installed over a hydroponic garden.

Toadette leaned against the ladder to the loft as Wario and Mona cleared off the kitchen table for a card game. “How long have you all known each other?”

"Couple decades, give or take." Wario clapped Bowser on the back before seating himself. "Ay, Mona, did I introduce you to Toadette…?"

"Better late than never." Mona had begun deftly shuffling the cards as Flavio and Waluigi joined. "By the way, congrats on making it into Firebird! I remember back when the team was made of two karts and a prayer. We've come a long way since."

Toadette beamed. "Are you also betting? Or do you race…?" 

"Ha, nope. Never had the nerve to put my money where my mouth is. But I get all the good gossip from this kid." She poked Wario in the ribs. "Jury's still out on racing, though. Maybe once they finally drop scooters in. Can't stand being in a cage, even if they are a bit safer…"

"Don't let her fool you," Waluigi murmured while squinting at his cards. "Never seen anybody maneuver half so well under the level of nitro she uses. 'S not too popular with the cops."

Mona pounded one fist onto the table with enough force to catapult a few of the cards into the air. "They're targeting me, I tell you! How many other bikers get ticketed for going over ninety? Might as well have left me to rot in the clink—"

"That's because only forty-three scooter drivers live in this entire city." Paratroopa walked in with a stack of empty pizza boxes. "Forty-three. I mean, sure, there’ve gotta be more who are unregistered, but still…oh!" She snapped her fingers and turned to face Bowser. “Koopa said your shop services bikes and scooters. Did you ever get somebody with a hybrid motorcycle, by chance?”

“A hybrid? Not off the top of my head.” He chuckled, lifting the lid of one pizza box. One fat slice remained. Hell yeah. “Kammy,” he called back toward the living room, “whatcha been up to?”

"Fucking sick of studying,” she hollered. “But there’s only a month left ‘til the State Magician Exam. I’m goddamn boned either way."

“Keep trucking.” He tossed the slice into Koopa’s microwave. “I know you can beat all those other fools.”

“They only accept the top three scores each year! D’you know how many people are applying this time around? Over six hundred!”

“Yeah, yeah. Fuck ‘em up, Kamms. That’s an order.”

"Gyarghh…"

“Did you meet all these people in high school?” Toadette asked before hopping up onto a bare stretch of countertop.

“Yeah, save for that bunch.” Bowser nodded to Wario’s group. “Not everyone can make it to all the All-Cup races, so usually we throw a shindig like this the weekend beforehand. And usually it’s at Daisy’s place.” He ran his tongue across his teeth until the microwave beeped.

“Where is Daisy? Or Luigi? You’d think they’d’ve wanted to watch it with all of us.”

“Louie said something about covering a shift somewhere,” Baby half-yawned as he walked in. “Daisy had an appointment with her counselor? Pretty sure.”

“Good. I was worried she wouldn’t get a chance to go before the Cup started.” Bowser tore half the pizza off in one bite. “Louie’sh cuhwerin’ a shif’ where?”

“Didn’t say. I mean, I have a guess, but…” Baby made a face as he reloaded his styrofoam plate with party food. “I’m sure we can ask him once they show up.”

Toadette began kicking her heels against the steel cabinet doors. “He means Peach’s bakery, right? I was just there yesterday on my break. She made wedding cake flavored donuts!”

At this rate, Bowser would lose his entire team to the place. He chomped the rest of his pizza slice down, making no effort to mask his ferocious gnawing. “Yeah, prolly. Wonder wha’ tha’ fucker Mario had going on ‘f he couldn’t show up to his own job.”

“Who knows, with that crowd.” Waluigi sighed and turned his cards over. “Fold. No, they’re probably getting in gear last-minute for the Cup. I still can’t believe that team’s gonna be on our radar this time around. Rosalina scares the living hell out of me.”

“For the tenth time, quit stressing.” That said, Bowser fished a fresh cigarette pack from his jeans. “Back in a bit.”


Midnight had come and gone before the last of the groupies bade them farewell. “You’re gonna hear us screaming at you through the TV!” Vanessa called from her convertible as she and Flavio rolled away. Bowser waved them off with his last cigarette before squashing the butt underfoot.

Seconds later, Daisy’s yellow Jeep pulled into the vacant street spot. “Sorry we’re late! Any food left…?”

Paratroopa hugged her as they all headed back inside. “Plenty! Help yourselves. D’you catch any of the story?”

“Apparently Petey was in the freakin’ Airport group?” Luigi shook his head as he stacked a plate with kebabs. “Or did I hallucinate that part?”

“He was,” Toadette murmured as she plugged her phone into an outlet. “Stupid jerk. Well, no, he apologized, so I guess he’s not that much of a jerk. …that stupid jerk.”

“Other than that, it was pretty chill.” Paratroopa dropped the pile of empty pizza boxes next to the trash compactor. “Might order more pizza next time, though. Seems the only one who liked my spinach puffs was Mister Hollow Legs over there.”

“Man, I’m stuffed.” Baby sprawled his limbs out over the loveseat. “Sick apartment, by the way. But what’s with the glass walls?”

“Landlord told us this structure predates the cloud,” Koopa replied as he collapsed into an armchair. “These were bay windows, once upon a time. Just had to slap on some UV panels, and we can almost pretend there’s real sunlight.”

“Ha, if you say so. Hey, Toad, we gotta start our house hunt as soon as we get back from the Cup, y’hear?”

“We’ll have over a month before my classes start. Finding a place won’t be that tough, I promise.”

Paratroopa’s eyebrows shot up. “Near Subcon? I’m surprised you haven’t already nailed something down. Housing’s been at a premium in Toad Town for some time now. Seller’s market.”

“For civvies, maybe. But Scouts get all the insider deals. Only reason I stick with that stupid program.” Toad wrinkled his nose. “Well, that and the stipend. Otherwise I couldn’t’ve afforded the hormone therapy sophomore year.”

“But it was worth it, yeah?” Bowser checked the freezer for tequila. “You seemed pretty damn miserable beforehand.”

“Yep!” Toad grinned and flexed one bicep. “Best decision ever.”

“I still recognized you from before, though,” Toadette laughed, and then abruptly froze. “…oops.”

“Huh?” No tequila. Bowser settled for the bottle of whiskey he’d brought back from their road trip. “Recognized from where?”

“Uh. Shit.” Toad gave an unconvincing laugh before glancing back at Toadette. In a single second, all his jubilation had seemed to drain away. “Think it’s time…?”

“Might as well,” Toadette replied, wincing. “Um. So, Bowser…d’you wanna sit down?”

Bowser passed the loft ladder and slumped onto an ottoman, uncapping the whiskey bottle as he trudged. “What’s going on, you two?”

Another exchange of glances. It was nuts, Bowser thought, just how similar the two of them looked, especially now that they were standing so close to one another. Eerily similar, as they sat down on the floor, side by side. They really looked just like—

“I mean, it’s not like there’s any proof left,” Toad began, “especially since they messed with Toadette's DNA…”

“Aw, crap, here we go.” Baby sat up, his orange eyes flashing. “Eh, guess this had to happen sooner or later.”

Something Baby already knows?  Then…oh. Oh.

“What the fuck.” Bowser squinted, took a swig of the whiskey, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You two are fucking siblings.” His thick dumbass skull hadn’t noticed at all—fucking embarrassment—

“I’m so sorry, Bow,” Toadette murmured, working her hands in her lap. “I didn’t want to blow Toad’s cover, not so soon after I’d met you. Wasn’t too sure what story he was going with at the time.”

“You said your sister died along with your parents,” Bowser all but coughed out. His throat burned, and not just from the whiskey. “Then, are they…?”

“Oh, they’re long dead,” she spat. Baby slid onto the floor and crawled over to sit next to her and Toad. “It was my fault.”

“Wait, what?!” Paratroopa did a double-take and joined their circle, her eyes wide. 

“I told you that's not true,” Toad cut in. “Besides, you were never told not to do what you were doing. No warnings, nothing. You couldn’t have known.”

Known what?  “Wait…” Bowser squinted. “You mean your parents were—?” But the words somehow seemed trapped in his throat, digging into his flesh like so many iron barbs. Then we have more in common than I’d—

Toadette nodded, her mouth drawn in a thin line. Toad quickly pulled her into a tight hug. By then, Daisy and the others from the kitchen had silently trooped back into the room, their attention rapt.

After making eye contact with Toad, Baby took over. “Basically, uh. The two of them were well off enough at first. Soon as she turned nine, Toadette made it into that racing program. Later on, Toad got admitted into a prestigious boarding school for junior high. Their parents were setting up a fund for them both to go to college. They probably had no idea they were targeted.”

“You seriously think your parents died because of something you two did?!” Koopa squinted. “Whaddya mean, ‘targeted?’”

Luigi glanced toward the patched-over windows. “When exactly did you get inducted into the Scouts, again…?”

“I was thirteen.” Toad took a deep breath, his eyes flickering shut. “I’d been getting straight As at the school. Kept getting bored in class, kept getting frustrated with waiting for everyone else to catch up. They put me in an accelerated program, and even that got boring. I wanted more to do. So the faculty’s bright idea was to sic me with government tasks. Keep me busy, out of trouble…so, yeah, I got inducted. Right after seventh-grade midterms.”

“It was until around that time that I was still allowed breaks from the regimen,” Toadette added. “I’d just seen my parents a few weeks before, but… everything changed when Dry Bones took over.”

A peculiar jolt ran down Bowser’s spine. “Oh, no.”

“So I’m suddenly given unrestricted access to a ton of sensitive files,” Toad continued. “They gave me a lot of leeway with database clearance. Straight-A student, remember, no conduct issues, no glaring personality defects, jumping at the gun to hone my skills.” He gave a joyless grin. “So… I started checking on my sister. I wanted to know how she was doing. Especially since those training facilities in the desert had suddenly cut off all outgoing communication channels. Just, out of nowhere. I was worried.”

“The labs did?” Bowser glanced at Toadette. “Dry Bones’ idea?”

“Yes.” Toadette folded her arms. “Once he arrived with all his machines. They were monitoring our internet usage, and we couldn’t set up any forum accounts or email addresses. So…I started keeping a diary. Hard copy, pen on paper. I tracked what I could from all the experiments they put us through. Wend—um, the others would relay whatever else they noticed, but I was the only one willing to record it all.”

The only one brave enough. Somehow, Bowser already knew where this was going. “And Dry Bones didn’t like that.”

Toadette nodded. “One day, I returned to my cell and couldn’t find it anywhere. I never saw it again. No doubt he destroyed it.” She caught his gaze. “It was a few days later that Dry Bones delivered the message—that all of them had died in the plane crash. My parents, and Toadelle.”

A moment of silence.

“That’s not something you’d-a punish a kid with,” Wario hissed, his black eyes rounder than Bowser had ever seen. “A defaulting debtor, maybe, if the guy were a fuckin’ shark, but…”

“But how’s Toad still here?” Daisy asked. “Were you in that crash or not?”

“I got lucky,” Toad replied lowly, keeping his eyes closed. “The Scout Master had called me into his office to reprimand me for hacking into R&D security feeds. He somehow got notified about the hit order ahead of schedule, right while I was standing there. So he immediately messaged the Dean, had him make up some excuse to give my parents for why I couldn’t go with them on their trip. I broke down in front of him, screamed at him to get them out of there. I must've wrecked the damn place, but he wouldn't let me run off.”

Bowser felt his bones ice over. No fucking wonder he’d never actually seen Toad’s parents, in all those years of racing and hanging out with the poor kid. It was that little realization that hit closer to home than anything else. “Toad—”

Toad shook his head. “It was all the Master could do to keep me out of the wreck. He knew their plane was gonna get shot down. So then and there, he applied the same deceased status to my old profile, set it to go off whenever my parents’ were updated. Made it very clear that Toadelle was dead, and that this second chance would be my final one. I stayed in his office until, eh.” He grimaced. “Til I’d quit crying, anyways. Took most of the day.”

“Jesus Christ.” Thank hell they’d told Bowser to sit down, or his knees surely would have given out. “And no one fucking noticed?!”

Toad shook his head. “The Dean called me up and broke the news. Said I could graduate eighth grade early, take some time off to process. They’d enroll me in a public high school in Mushroom City, where nobody knew me. And that was that.” He opened his eyes. “Both chats, back to back.”

“Who the hell is that Scout Master guy?” All the blood had drained from Luigi’s face. “If he could just go in and change anybody’s data to suit him—? How do you police something like that?!”

"His office was in the Mushroom Bridge palace," Toad replied, frowning. "Well, beneath it, in Enforcement. He's not on the Council, but he has to be way up in the Bureaucracy, from what I figured." 

"Then he is the police." Paratroopa shuddered. “D’you know his name, Toad? If you've met him in person—”

“I know what he looks like, but he operates under a bunch of aliases.” Toad shrugged. “Still, I owe him. Like it or not, he’s the reason I’m still here today.”

“And that was it?” Daisy snapped her jaw shut and looked toward Toadette. “What the hell was Dry Bones doing that he wanted covered up so bad?!”

“Still wish I’d memorized the exact figures,” Toadette scowled, rubbing her upper arm. “It was a lot of blood tests, injections. He’d pull skin grafts, fracture our bones, check how quickly we’d heal after cuts, or burns, or acid. Pulled teeth from some of the younger ones. Took bone marrow samples, spinal taps—and we had no say in any of it.”

Disgusting— “What the hell,” Bowser rasped, his stomach threatening to flip as the others voiced similar protests. But if he’d known only three goddamn nights ago—? He could all too easily imagine that fucker’s pale skull of a head rolling across the floor. “I’m gonna kill him.” 

“Bow…” Toadette shot him a faraway look. Only if he doesn't get you first, she may as well have laughed, in front of all of them. "It's a moot point now. We just—just dealt with it. Tried to just tune it out most of the time. Red usually could curb some of his worse ideas." She swallowed unconvincingly.

“Should've kept pushing.” Toad shook his head. “But I was too scared to do anything 'cept toe the line. The Master managed to convince Dry Bones that they’d found traces of my—corpse in the wreckage. I’d been considering transitioning anyways, updating my name and biometric scans and all. The Master took care of all that, and got me set up in a studio near MCHS. Paid for whatever treatment I wanted." He shrugged, his eyes awfully red. "But that was the last time I'd tried to contact Toadette. I didn’t see her again until the moment she stepped off the plane.”

Holy shit. Bowser shot a baffled look to Toadette. “And you still didn't scream at the sight of him.”

“I’d spotted Toad in the last two Grand Prix seasons, remember.” Toadette squeezed her brother’s hand, her face softening ever so slightly. “I made sure never to mention anything, even to the other subjects—too scared, thinking Dry Bones was listening everywhere. Getting assigned to Firebird was like some crazy dream. Or the end of a nightmare, at least.”

“And you did kind of tip me off, Bow,” Toad added, “when you mentioned Dry Bones’ name—back in Daisy’s apartment, right before we went to meet Toadette. It sounded too good to be true. Figured there was no earthly way it’d be her. Still had my hopes up, though. Good thing, too.”

“Christ, you're right.” That fateful day felt like years ago, now. Toad had asked for his new partner's name, when the same thought hadn't even crossed his own damn mind. Ha. 

Daisy shook her head, her eyes still wide. “But… why the hell did Dry Bones want the three of you out of the picture in the first place? Wario’s right—that was going way too far, especially for just a punishment. If he’d destroyed the diary, then what the hell was left for him to worry about?”

“Dry Bones didn’t want Toadette with any loose ends outside of the labs,” Bowser realized aloud. “With everyone else out of the picture, then—then no one’d fight from the outside to get you out of there, no one for you to tell what you’d—” God, he wanted to vomit—

“You're right,” Toadette murmured, her voice softer than ever. “Diary or no, it became the standard procedure for all of us, in time. Families stopped writing, ended up in accidents. Other kids had been brought in from orphanages. Not sure what he threatened Petey with, but eventually, the rest of us were trapped there. Nothing to stop him from doing whatever he wanted.” She took a deep breath. “That’s why he’s gonna go after you at this race, Bow. I know it.”

Fuck. “Yeah. Or he’s gonna try.” But after hearing Toad’s story, the addendum felt awfully weak. If the guy could arrange for a goddamn plane to get shot out of the sky, then how the hell was he supposed to—?

“Dry Bones? What, you think he’s going to mess with the All-Cup?” Paratroopa inhaled sharply. “Wait… Toadette. How come he was suddenly okay with letting you leave the desert, after going through with all that?”

No— “You don't have to answer, Toadette. Remember what Rosalina told us.”

“Rosalina?” Koopa shot him a bewildered glance. “What the hell’s she got to do with—?”

“She’s not here right now,” Toadette uttered coolly toward Bowser. “But even if it doesn’t change anything, you deserve to know. If I don’t clear the air, then, I don’t know.” Her mouth twitched. “I’d go crazy.”

Even Bowser had to admit it made sense. No point in Toadette torturing herself, now that they were all this far into it. “I understand. Go ahead." 

Complete silence fell as Toadette's breathing slowed. Bowser could nearly detect her thrumming pulse from feet away.

“He wants your—wants Bowser's blood. A lot of it.” Her words came out so abruptly that Bowser barely discerned them. “Wants, um.” She looked ill. “Significant—a significant level of, of—platelets, so not just a vial-full. He'd pretty much need to drain you.”

Daisy's eyes threatened to pop clean from her skull. "...what?!"

The hell.  Still... "Guess that explains why he wanted me to fly down to that lab of his, anyways." Bowser rubbed his throat. "But...why? How come it's gotta be my blood?” Personal projects, Rosalina had mentioned—

“Don’t know. Don’t care. He’s not getting it, not from me.” She clenched her jaw. “He’ll have to try something on his own, and Rosalina’ll stop him if he gets too close… right?”

“That was the plan.” Bowser exhaled slowly. “Look, just so we’re clear, I’m not upset with any of you for not telling me. That’s a lot to have to hide in plain sight. So thank you for being honest with me. It can’t be easy.” He kneaded his temples. “Yeah, Koopa, we met with Peach’s sister back on Sunday. She was the one who cured me. I think she used some kind of spell—”

“I knew that crazy fire shit was magic,” Luigi breathed.

“Ha, yeah." Bowser grinned in spite of himself. "But we found out she knew Dry Bones from before. Doesn’t like whatever he’s up to, either, so at least there’s some good news. She'll be keeping an eye on him during the All-Cup.”

But as he spoke, flashbacks from that godawful reception plagued him. Even with Gïga-Bowser's disapproval, Dry Bones was clearly obsessed with her. Lakitu had goddamn praised the very notion of—no. She hates you. She hates what you've done. She's on our side, not yours. She'd never help— 

“You really think he’s-a gonna attack you in the middle of the damn All-Cup?” Wario frowned. “Eh, makes sense. S’what I would do—at least, if I were some crazy asshole who wanted to drain your blood. But he’s acting an awful lot like a fixer, Bow.”

“He’s the frigging Director,” Toad reminded them. “Won’t have to rig what he could mess with through legit means.”

“And you’re still planning on racing?” Luigi’s jaw dropped. “Bowser, what if he actually hurts you? Or worse?!”

But as Bowser opened his mouth to reply, his words seemed to dry right up. What was there to say? Rosalina promised it’d be fine?  

No one on his team knew her the way he did. None of them had seen the whole world at once from up on her Observatory. None of them could know exactly how on top of everything she was.

…but, then again, did he?  

What kind of asshole gambled with the lives of everyone he cared about on the word of a single person? Rosalina’s or no, this was—he was—

No. It’s not worth it.

“I’m not worried about me,” he countered, casting his gaze over the rest of his team. “I’m worried about the rest of you. If any one of you is concerned about getting caught in some kind of—I dunno, crossfire, or explosion, whatever—then, I understand. It’s not too late for me to withdraw my kart from the Cup. He won’t try to endanger the rest of you if I’m in another hemisphere.”

The others collectively gasped. “No. Nuh-uh. Nope.”

"Are you crazy?!"

“We’re not doing this without you!”

“What about Toadette?! It’s her first—”

“I know what Dry Bones is capable of,” Toadette argued. “If Bowser won’t risk any of you getting hurt, then I’m out as well. It’s your first All-Cup, too, Paratroopa, d’you really want—?”

“It’s not worth it if the whole team isn’t here! Bowser and Koopa split up their kart because of me—there’s no way I’m racing if either of them can’t!”

“Besides,” Baby interjected, “how close could he get? You said Rosalina’s keeping her eye out, so what’s left for him to do? Snipe you in the middle of a race? If he really wants to drain your blood, he'd need to get in close.”

Silence. Toadette looked downright nauseated. “Don’t know. Wouldn’t put that past him. People’ve been attacked in races before—”

Paratroopa inhaled sharply. “—like Bowser’s parents.”

Okay, he had to goddamn hand it to Paratroopa. Way to figure out in three weeks what everyone else’s missed for years. …Not that he was one to talk. But. “Exactly.”

“I knew it.” Luigi winced. “Eurgh, sorry...”

Okay, almost everyone. “No offense taken.” Then again, he supposed, it had only been a matter of time. “But, yeah, she’s hit it on the nose.”

Paratroopa exchanged glances with her boyfriend. “And… would that have anything to do with how you're filed as their only living relative…?”

“What, were you spying on me?” He took another swig of whiskey. At this rate, he'd empty the bottle before sunrise.

“She wasn’t,” Toad cut in, wincing. “Whenever I get bored, I go through people’s Bureau database files. Yours, everyone’s on Team Banshee, celebrities, public officials. Other Scouts’, if I think I can get away with it. Like—I knew Petey was in the Airport Incident. DK’s allergic to tree nuts. Waluigi’s a Pisces—

“Seriously?”

“—and someone’s done a pretty thorough job of burning any connections between you and a sibling of your dad’s. So I asked Koopa if he knew anything."

"We'd met the guy a few times, remember?" Koopa jerked his head toward Waluigi and Wario. "Like when he paid for your hospital bill a few years back. And how he'd show up at a few of the street races with the Ezekiels.”

Toad wiggled his eyebrows. “So, while we’re airing our laundry out…d’you got anything you’d like to add?”

Unbelievable. Bowser could only laugh, dumbfounded. Here we are.

“You can say no,” Toadette muttered, shooting her brother a sidelong glare. “I promise. I don’t want to get you in any more trouble—”

“Why would he be in trouble?” Daisy’s eyes widened. “Did your family have a fight, like the Toadstools? Was your uncle disowned?”

“I wish.” Bowser tossed back one more mouthful and set the bottle down. “Eh, might as well. Just so all of you know exactly what you’re getting into.”

Toadette shot him a panicked look. “Bow—”

Bowser shook his head. Now or never. “Yeah, my dad has a brother." Had a brother?  Either way. "He's the king. Saulus Kerog Gïga-Bowser.” 

There. It was out. Wow. Wow

“Are you shitting me?”

“No fucking way. I’m calling b—”

“You know what? It’s nuts, but I kinda see the resemblance!”

“Bowser.” Daisy looked him in the eye. “You’ve known this whole time that you’re related to the damn king?”

“Well, yeah.” Christ, this had already begun to get old. “I should’ve told all of you. Should’ve told you a while ago. I apologize for—”

“Then what’s the big deal?! Tell him why you’re worried about Dry Bones, and he can have the guy thrown in prison!” Daisy threw her hands in the air. “He could help Rosalina protect you and Toadette, and the rest of us! There’s no reason for either of you to sit the All-Cup out…” She trailed off as he and Toadette exchanged looks. “…right?”

God. This was almost funny. “I...I really don’t think that’s the route to take. He’s, uh—”

“Psh. I’ve met him, d’you know that? He’d stay at my family’s villa on diplomatic trips to Sarasaland.” Daisy grinned. “He was really nice! Way more polite than Paula ever was—”

“Was he.”

“Well—I mean, he’s your uncle! Why wouldn’t he want to protect you?!”

Bowser froze in place, unable to speak for the life of him. Identifying his uncle as the king was one thing, but if he brought up that mess again—his team was innocent. They didn’t need to become loose ends if—if he—

“Like how he protected Bow’s parents?” Toad had spoken. Several of their teammates started. “He was stricken off their family files for a reason, y’all. One way or an—”

“Oh for crying out—” Christ, Bowser needed to smoke. “You know about that, too?!”

“I don’t, actually.” Toad’s expression grew sullen. “I mean, I had my suspicions, once I noticed the metadata for whatever had been erased. But even I couldn’t reconstruct any of it. And that always means someone’s trying to hide something. It’s the caliber of stuff only the Scout Master can view.”

Great. “Oh, and that guy’s a real superhero,” Bowser muttered. “Letting your parents die after he’d found out—”

“Hey,” Toad cut in, “don’t talk shit about the one guy who protected me, okay? Like I said—without him, I wouldn’t even be here.”

“Fair. Sorry.” Bowser slowly exhaled. “But, uh, yeah. My uncle’s probably the last person to approach about all this. And by probably, I mean…”

“What, you think he—?” Paratroopa stopped cold, her face blanching. “No.”

Silence, for a solid minute. Bowser wasn’t sure which he craved more just then—more of the whiskey, or another pack of cigarettes. Both at once, ideally, plus a lobotomy.

Eventually Baby spoke. “I don’t wanna pretend there would’ve been justification, but... jeez, Bow. Why d’you think he’d want them gone?”

“He would've bet against their kart in that All-Cup, didn’t he?” Waluigi glanced toward Wario. “Everybody knows Gïga-Bowser was in it deep with the Ezekiels, back in the day.”

"Yeah." Bowser absently thumbed the whiskey bottle. "He came into power right after winning a ton of cash from that race. No one else thought of betting against my parents. They were favored to win the whole Tourney, and then…"

“Hold the fuck up.” Daisy held up both of her hands in defense. “You're seriously saying that he arranged that explosion for—to rig a kart race? To win a fucking bet?!”

“Far as I know.” Yet as the words left Bowser’s mouth, a vision of Kamek clouded his mind’s eye, disagreeing with them. I don’t like it, he’d grumbled.

Neither do I, old man. But we've both seen what's happened since. And now...

"But they were his own family!" Daisy slumped back into the sofa. "What the hell."

“No wonder you never wanted to talk about him,” Koopa murmured, catching his gaze. “Sorry, bro. I had no clue.”

“I should’ve told you,” Bowser repeated, feeling his stomach twisting. “Should’ve told all of you—this one's on me—”

“No!” Paratroopa abruptly stood up. “Nobody here's at fault. None of this—you just wrote down the awful shit they were doing to you,” she seethed, jerking her head toward Toadette, “and you just wanted to communicate with your own damn sister, and you had to be terrified out of your skull once you’d put two and two together about your uncle. I would've been, too! So no one here’s allowed to blame themselves for what a pair of monsters did years ago. Okay?!”

“Para—”

“And the fact that they could just—that they’ve gotten away with it? I don’t care if it’s the damn FBR’s Director, or the King, or the ruler of the whole damn universe—they need to be brought to justice!” Her voice had risen nearly to a shout. “I’m going to race in this Cup, Bowser. So are you and Toadette and anybody else who’s up for it. He wants your blood? He’s gonna have to go through me to get it.” She planted her hands on her hips, eyes blazing.

“Me, too.” Koopa hopped to his feet. “It’s not over, brother. We might not be on the same kart, but you're still my best friend. No way in hell is that jerk gonna mess with you on my watch." He smiled, his eyes glistening. "Besides, now that we’re all in the know? We can try to dig something up on him, and on Dry Bones. Find a way to bring proof of it to light. Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Toad stood up along with them. “Let me look around some more, Bow. I’ll try a few different angles. The Scout Master has to know something. He kept me alive this long, and I’ve been doing good work; maybe he’ll be willing to help me out with a personal project.”

“If Toad’s in, then so am I.” Baby nudged Bowser’s knee with his heel. “I’ve been in a bad wreck before. It was shit, yeah, but… so’s the idea of racing without you, boss.”

“Guys...” Bowser’s heart threatened to burst from his chest. His eyes began to sting. This wasn’t—he’d never—

“Y’know, I’ve always-a wanted an excuse to blow the Ezekiel case back open.” Wario nodded, his eyes gleaming. “We get any dirt on that uncle of yours? I’ll be first in line to phone the press.”

“You said it.” Waluigi gave Bowser the closest thing he’d ever seen to a smile. “After what Dry Bones did to Toadette ‘n ‘em, I wanna see him bleed, too. We’re in, Bow.”

“But it’s—the decision’s gotta be unanimous,” Bowser reiterated. “Louie, Dais. You don’t like it, just say so, and I can leave. This is the closest shot you two’ve ever had to the gold. I’m the last person that wants to ruin that for you. Hell, Daisy—you could lead the team just as well as—”

“Oh, can it.” Daisy stuck her tongue out at him. “We already know I’m a better leader than you. There’s a totally different reason for why we keep you around. And, trust me, it's not your charming personality.”

Luigi nodded and threw an arm around her shoulders. “I hate even thinking of messing with the Ezekiels, no matter how long they've been dead. But you can’t actually think we’re just gonna stand back while Dry Bones tries to take you out.” He raised one thick eyebrow. “And if you do, then you’re a bigger dumbass than we thought.”

“Uh, thanks.” Bowser slowly exhaled and then looked to his partner. “Toadette, you know more than I do at this point. You said it yourself—there’s no way we’re gonna avoid Dry Bones once we’re in the Cup. Whatever he pulls trying to get to me could take you down as well. So…it’s up to you.”

A hush fell over the others as Toadette considered him, her eyes bloodshot and full. In time she stood, clasping Toad’s hand in her left and reaching for Bowser’s with her right.

“If we try to run, I know Dry Bones would chase us to the ends of the earth." Toadette looked into his eyes as she spoke. "Kong Country, Freezie Land, the whole BeanBean Archipelago—it wouldn’t matter to him.” She squeezed Bowser’s hand, tilting her chin up. “So it might as well be while we’re doing what we do best. Let’s win that Cup right under his nose, Bow.”

“Toadette—” Bowser gave a single, breathless laugh, feeling the world contort and spin beneath him. But with Toadette’s hand anchoring him in place, he felt absolutely content with letting it spin on. Just this once. He could trust her, if nothing else.

“How’s that for unanimous?” Baby punched him in the elbow. “Let’s go rip that guy a new one, Bow. One way or another, that trophy's gonna be my new jacuzzi.”

Bowser cracked up at that, but still cast a glance around his team, looking straight into the eyes of each member. Just like Kamek had told him. “Just... don’t say I didn’t warn any of you. This might be our last race together. Understood?”

“Understood.” Hearing all of his teammates’ voices at once hit Bowser like a sledgehammer to the gut. But in a good way...?

“Whatever. You couldn’t get away from us if you tried, Bowser.” Toad heaved a great sigh as though in relief before slumping against his partner. "For better or worse."

Bowser could hardly blame the him—after sitting on that much knowledge, this whole time, it was impressive that the poor kid had functioned half so well as he had. The same went for Toadette, stomaching all those years of Dry Bones' work, only to be released on that awful of a leash. No fucking way would he let that jackass anywhere near her. Never again, he swore—

Out of nowhere, a sudden crushing force flattened Bowser's lungs. “Ack—”

“Man, I can’t remember the last time we did a group hug,” Baby laughed from somewhere on top of him. “You know what? I love you guys. Even more than I hate Dry Bones. And that’s saying something, ‘cuz I wouldn’t mind boiling that fucker alive.”

“Well, there’s ten of us, and one of him.” Koopa finally slid off to let Bowser and Toadette breathe. “Ten to one? Not the worst odds.”

“Ten to two,” Wario cut in, “if we do wanna count the king—”

“Um, that moment? The one we were having? Yeah, you ruined it.”

As the others continued their jostling, Toadette gently wrapped her arms around Bowser's neck from behind, hugging him close and resting her chin on his head. He let his eyes flicker shut, placing his hand over her crossed forearms. The relative stillness was refreshing in its own way; just the two of them, rock-solid amidst the chaos. I've got you, neither had to say aloud.

Eventually she did speak. “Does this mean we can have people visit the castle now?”

He stifled a laugh, largely in vain. “Uh, ha, yeah, I guess it does. Fuck.”

“…I’m sorry, did I hear that right?”

“A castle? Where?!”

“What, none of you knew?”

“Okay, Toad, we get it, you have the Official Player’s Guide and we don’t—”

“Is it big? Does it have a moat?” Baby’s eyes sparkled. “Can we swim in it?!”

“No!" 

Bowser and Toadette had answered in perfect unison. Not a bad omen, he figured.


“No!” 

The two youngest subjects finally figured out what exactly the newscast had covered. In unison, unsurprisingly. Immediately they ran to the Chief in tears.

Dumb babies. Eleven-year-old babies. Bleh.

Wendy wanted to cover her ears. Iggy and Larry’s constant shrilling was aggravating on the best of days, and today was far from a good one. She ripped her attention from the documentary's credits and instead tried to refocus on the chessboard. It was too bad about the old man, yeah, but…

But that’s what you get when you try to fight—

“I’m so sorry, my darlings. All of you know how much the Professor loved you. Never doubt that, even now, he’s watching over you—cheering you on as you continue to learn and grow.” Chief Buraddi’s eyes were red-rimmed as she hugged the twins close.

“I’m not surprised. He was getting on in the years, anyways.” Wendy kept picking away at her row of band-aids as she spoke. There were nine, all in different colors, all covering stinging track marks. “It was really only a matter of—”

“Wow." Roy’s jaw dropped as he glanced up from his floral jigsaw puzzle. "Rude.”

“Now, now.” Chief shot her a stern look. “I know it’s a lot to process, but please remain respectful. And you’ll all get to watch a beautiful presentation for the Professor’s posthumous Hall of Fame entry tomorrow night. It’ll be included in the All-Cup Opening Ceremony.”

“I hate ceremonies.” Morton rolled over on the couch. “What if we don’t wanna watch?”

“Then you can jump on the treadmill instead,” Lemmy jeered as he teased Chompie with a biscuit. “Besides, don’t you wanna see Toadette?”

Chief Buraddi smiled. “That’s right! Both Toadette and Petey will be representing our program in the All-Cup. Wouldn’t you like to see how they’re doing?”

“We’ll see them when they race,” Roy replied, snapping a puzzle piece into place. “I wanna know about your wedding.”

“Wedding?” Ludwig finally looked up from his and Wendy's chess match, even going so far as to pull out his second earbud. “You got married, Miss Buraddi?!”

“Correct.” The Chief cleared her throat. “Well, technically, I’m now Mrs. Bones. But I can still go by Chief, if it’s eas—”

“You married him?”  Wendy nearly fell out of her chair, unable to mask her own disgust. “But I thought you couldn’t stand—”

“Oh, don’t kid yourself,” she laughed. “Now, you all might not remember the Director’s elder brother, but I promise he’s a far sweeter fellow. The souvenirs I bring you are gifts from him, more often than not.”

“The snacks?” Lemmy asked. “And the games, and Chompie's treats?”

The Chief smiled. “Correct. He’s even agreed to partner with me during our All-Cup stint. Not an easy undertaking.”

Ludwig’s face fell at that last part. “You’re really not gonna stay here to watch the Cup with us?”

“Duh.” Wendy crossed her arms. “She can’t race in the Cup and be here at the same time, stupid.”

Chief sighed. “Wendy.”

“Sorry.” She really was sorry. Ludwig wasn’t stupid, and she wasn’t mad at him. “I didn’t mean it.”

"Hmph." Ludwig shoved his earbuds back in and abruptly abandoned their game. Great. Now both he and the Chief were pissed at her. Who was next? Roy? The machines? Stupid Chompie?

“Go back to what you were doing, kids. Since the Director will also be racing in this tournament, expect far more downtime than usual. Think of it as an extended week off.” The twins cheered and finally released the Chief's legs to return to their table tennis match. “Wendy, a word.”

Ugh. Now she was in for it.

Wendy sighed and followed Miss—no, Mrs. Bones out of the rec room and into the greenhouse. She knew the names of all the different plants without having to look at their labels, knew all of their chemical components, knew the different ways they could be used. Knew which ones were toxic. 

And also how they tasted. Nasty, for the most part.

“Talk to me, Wendy.” The Chief seated herself in one of the two metal chairs in the corner near the pantry door. “What’s going on?”

Wendy heaved another sigh and sat in the vacant chair. “Nothing.”

“Oh?” The Chief crossed one leg over the other. Toadette had always gushed about which shoes the Chief had worn each day, or the color of her nails, or her different combinations of jewelry. She’d always referred to the Chief by her given name, as though they were friends, or sisters. Well, Toadette was gone, and there was nothing left that Wendy felt like gushing about. “Is that true?”

It wasn’t. Wendy began tugging at one of her own purple corkscrew curls until she could finally say the right words. “We only got to see you for one day, and you’re already leaving again.” She wanted to kick the walls down with her ugly gray shoes. “It’s like—like you don’t want to be with us.”

“Of course I want to be with you,” the Chief replied, leaning forward in her seat. She looked devastated, which only made Wendy feel worse. “All of you are the light of my life. And as soon as this Tourney’s over, we’ll be back together again. I promise, Wendy.”

“But that’s still three whole weeks from now.” Why did Wendy even care? The Chief could leave the damn planet for all it mattered. She tried to ignore how her throat had begun to burn.

“Yes, it’ll be the longest time I’ve ever been away.” Chief—Chief Bones reached over and squeezed Wendy’s hand. Wendy hated how soft and warm her skin was, how nice and clean she smelled. How the thought of the Chief leaving again was making her eyes sting. “Which is why I’m going to ask something very important of you.”

Wendy inhaled sharply and set her jaw. “What is it?”

“I’m leaving you in charge of the others, Wendy.” The Chief’s blazing green eyes locked onto hers. “It’s a lot to ask, but I know you can do it if you give it your all. We’ll make the announcement to everyone else tomorrow morning, before I leave. You’re the eldest here, and you know how everything works. But it means no more name-calling. Understand?" 

“M-me?” she stammered, not believing her ears. “I understand, but—but I thought the machines—”

“The ROB units have no more tests to run,” the Chief continued, sustaining her gentle grip on Wendy’s hand. “The ones that the Director left behind have been placed on standby. The security systems are still running, but expect correspondence from me in under a week’s time.”

Correspondence. “You’re gonna communicate with us from the outside? Is that even possible?!”

“It’s more than possible.” The Chief’s expression grew solemn. “But in the meantime, I need you to make sure everyone stays healthy. Adhere to the chore chart, run meal and snack times at normal hours, and see to it that everyone’s in their cells for sleep cycles. Keep a running log at the security console, and don’t let Lemmy throw anything new at the firewalls.” Her voice dropped to a low hush. “We need to maintain the illusion that nothing is changing.”

Wendy’s heart pounded in her throat. Illusion?  “What’s going on, Chief?”

“Dry Bones will be occupied with both managing the Cup and performing in the races for three weeks. This is the best shot we’ll ever have.” She carefully turned Wendy’s hand over in hers until her forearm faced upward, and scowled at that row of sharp-cornered bandages. “I’m getting the rest of you out of here, if it’s the last thing I do.”


“Mama?”

“Lee, you shouldn’t be in here.”

No shit. “Polari's too tired to bug you again, so I’m supposed to show this to you real quick.”

“What is it?”

“He says he intercepted a message from Kanya to Saulus, whoever they are.”

“They are two people I’d rather not think about right now. What’s the message?”

“I have it here. Look.”

Why was it taking her so long to read two sentences? Hmph.

“…oh, no.”

“Yeah? What’s it mean?”

“It mean Saulus is reneging on our deal.”

“That... doesn’t sound good.”

“It’s no good at all. Tell Polari that if he won’t run a rinse on the All-Cup Opening Ceremony venue in the next sidereal hour, I’ll do it myself.”

"Huh?" Usually Polari took no issue with exploring new Blue Planet spots. “…Is this about that demon kid?”

“He’s no demon. Not yet. Now get out of here before your brain tissues disintegrate.”

“If you insist, Mama.”

As he skipped back toward that swirling portal, Lee glanced over the datapad’s holographic screen one last time. It displayed only the two sentences in freshly-decoded glyphs.

Rescheduling unanimously approved by Council. I’ll have the kid in position tomorrow night.

Chapter Text

"Heya, T."

Petey sauntered in from the foggy street with a quick nod to the seating host, another Piranha man. Were they were friends? Roommates? For all Toadette knew, they could have been brothers. Petey had been out, freed from his torture, for years now. Anything was possible where he was concerned.

But to hear his voice unmuffled, his subharmonics crisp and clear, briefly plunged Toadette back into her favorite room of the labs. For one searing instant, the sky overhead was a vivid, cloudless blue, and the scents of lupines and all-purpose sanitizer cloyed the air. In her scant hours off, Toadette had often tiptoed up to where Petey would sit facing the sun, every one of his tattoos marvelously aglow between his ubiquitous burn marks.

How much still remained of that bleary-eyed specter who would seldom speak, even on the best of days? And just what would Toadette find in its place?

She waved to Petey from her corner table of the midtown teahouse—apparently his preferred hangout—beneath a canopy of hydroponic vines. Pinpricks of ceiling-mounted UV lights made for passable clusters of stars beyond the greenery. A lower-budget version of Rosalina's embassy, Toadette could not help but think, yet quite lovely nonetheless. A single kettle stood, steaming, over a hot grate atop their narrow table. The air here smelled herbal, almost vegetal, and somehow still more cleansing than any of Red's chemicals.

"So," Petey asked as he poured for both of them, "how's it feel to be a graduate?"

What do you think?!  Toadette wanted to shriek in his uncovered face. Instead she murmured her answer under her breath. "Way better. His weird projects only got worse after you left. He would run the same tests on us that he used to do on you."

Petey abruptly lowered the kettle. "Dry Bones' projects? But that was years ago!"

"You're telling me." Toadette slowly inhaled the steam from her teacup, holding that soothing heat in her lungs and willing it to loosen the knots in her stomach. "He tested us more and more frequently until Red had to fight him to let us take days off. It was like he's—like he was getting more desperate, for whatever it is he's trying to accomplish. Blech." She exhaled sharply. "Blech at him. Not at the tea. The tea's great."

"I see," Petey murmured, the diamonds on his face shining in dim but rapid bursts. "Dry Bones never did tell me why his parameters shifted so far from Gadd's."

"That's right!" Toadette slammed her teacup back onto the table. "I can't believe you met Gadd while you were in the hospital! Why didn't you ever tell any of us you were one of the first ambassadors?!"

"You never asked." Petey gave her a saucy smile as she groaned in exasperation. "No, no. Please understand that I was not at liberty to do so. The four of us were placed under strict Beseechment never to identify ourselves." He paused briefly over his mug to roll his eyes. "But Dry Bones somehow found more Piranha volunteers after I graduated? I wouldn't have expected many to jump at that particular opportunity. My passion for racing has had me branded as a sort of deviant."

"No. You were the only one." Gosh, how Toadette wished she'd found a way to get a pair of those bioluminescence-reading eye implants. Maybe that's where my All-Cup prize money will go. But— "Wait, you mean you talked with Dry Bones about what he was after? He always dodged the question when we asked." Back when she'd felt safe asking.

"Did he? That's even more unsettling." Petey pursed his lips a few times as the rhythm of his tattoos grew more erratic. "Gadd had—what's the expression? Many kettles on the fire? He was genuinely intent on developing a more advanced class of kart racers. But that was only partially the goal of the facility's construction." He sipped his tea and grimaced. "You know the whole place was designed to be self-sufficient, right?" 

"Like I care." Toadette wrinkled her nose. "I'm never going back." And neither are you, she nearly added.

Only, he had. In spite of every reason in the universe not to. Toadette was at a complete loss, for words and reasoning alike. Were you out of your mind?

"What's the phrase? Never say never? I will say our trip was a worthwhile one." Petey leaned back in his seat, his eyes fluttering shut in thought. "But, Toadette—why did Dry Bones continue taking tissue samples from the rest of you? Without Piranha samples for comparison, he surely would have seen that as a huge waste of time." Suddenly his eyes flickered open. "Did he find a way to implant Piranha cells into Blue Planet species tissue?"

What the hell.  "I told you, he never talked with us about what his goal was. When I started writing the substances down, he had everyone—" Toadette stopped herself short upon realizing how loud her voice had grown.

For one unbearable instant she did consider bringing up Toad and their whole story. But would it really be worth dragging yet another person into the mess she'd made? One who'd barely escaped the same situation already?

"He never told us," she finished weakly. Need to change the subject. "Petey, how'd he manage to keep you from getting slung out of there by the other Piranha? Was he able to conceal the signal from your subdermal?"

Petey was still for an uncomfortably long stretch of time before he set his mug down, shaking his head. "I suppose I owe you for having kept that airport fiasco a secret." For the first time that day, he looked directly into her eyes, momentarily blanketing her whole world in dazzling green-gold.

Toadette shivered inwardly. "Petey...?"

"My location broadcaster is still intact, Toadette. No one needed to rescue me from anything." He reached for one of the table's sweetener jars, a jarringly casual gesture for the words that had just left his mouth. "Dry Bones and Chief Buraddi brought me into the office the first day after Gadd quit. They told me I was ready to graduate from the racing program. I had to beg them to let me stay and continue testing."

"What?!" Toadette nearly dropped her teacup. "You wanted to stay? Even when they were doing all that waful stuff to your skin and eyes? Why?!" What the hell what the hell what the hell—

"Yes," Petey lowly replied as he stirred agave nectar into his tea. "At first, I assumed Dry Bones was picking up the pieces of Gadd's progress. He left practically nothing behind. When we managed to recreate the precise conditions of the smog cloud, it was like a dream had come true—"

"What, you—you wanted that? No. No way. You were always screaming in pain! We could hear you from the cell floor!"

The past decade of Toadette's dim life stretched before her eyes into infinity: the exchanged glances with Wendy and Roy and Ludwig, the wordless acknowledgement of something undeniably sinister happening only yards away, silent promises to distract Petey at the first opportunity from his agonizing state of affairs. But it had grown obvious soon enough that neither she nor any of the others had been equipped to provide any real relief at all. They could only distract him, could only interject his brooding silences with games and jokes and stories. Toadette's crowning achievement had been persuading Red to move him into a cell with a window. Petey hurts less in the sunlight.

And here he was, telling her to her face that he'd volunteered for that crap?

"Of course. The pain was excruciating." Petey smiled again before taking a quick sip from his mug. "Mmm, much better. No, the important thing was that the pain I felt was the correct type of pain. Dry Bones reconstructed enough of Gadd's data to build that smoke chamber. After enough sessions, we could perfectly replicate the atmosphere outside the airport again at will."

Toadette could only gape at Petey, dully registering that her own lungs were heaving with incredulity. He wanted—asked for—tortured—wh— "Why?!"

And it was Petey's turn to appear shocked. "Why did we wish to recreate the smog in a clinical setting? Toadette." He jerked his head toward the cafe window, where even the passing cars were lightly obscured by the thick, rancid haze. "What do you think?"

When had she begun tearing up? Toadette reached into her pocket for the pack of bunny-stamped tissues next to her eye drops. "You want to fix the smog," she half-giggled in incredulity. How many nights ago had Bowser brought up the same impossible idea?

"Precisely. However unpleasant it was, Gadd had already proven that standard Blue Planet tech and therapy could remedy my injuries. I always asked Dry Bones to run the smog simulator as soon as I was healthy again. It would have been once every sidereal week or so, if I recall."

You are kidding me. That entire time, Petey had really, truly wanted to go through those nightmarish sessions in that awful smoke chamber. Had been okay with walking out a third-degree burn victim. A few times Ludwig and Roy had had to carry him together to the first aid station. "So that you and every other Piranha could live here without getting hurt by walking outside." 

"That was the plan. Gadd had narrowed the project's goal posts down to isolating the molecular structure of the particles with disproportionately abrasive—"

"I believe you," Toadette quickly replied. "But then Gadd really destroyed everything? No warning, no note, nothing?"

"As much as he could, it seemed. I walked in the next morning and found the hot lab a complete dump. He'd even thrown a bunch of the hard copy backups over the Bunsen burners. Nothing remained but ash." Petey worked his jaw. "When Dry Bones arrived with his machines, he'd seemed to me a savior."

Toadette spluttered into her teacup. "Seriously?"

"Yes." Petey kneaded his temples. "Initially, he'd shown great interest in reconstructing the experiments. Once we built the smog chamber, we managed to take Gadd's work even further than where he'd left off. But it was about when we determined the exact components of the cloud that he began moving his attention away. Toward whatever he was doing with the rest of you, I suppose. I'd assumed he wanted to examine long-term Blue Planet low-level exposure, but..." He frowned, shaking his head in bewilderment. "If he has no more Piranha epidermal tissues available for cross-examination, then why...?"

"He obviously doesn't care about fixing it," Toadette huffed. "Not about helping your people, anyways." Like he would care about helping anyone else—

"That does ring true." Petey's frown betrayed a severe lack of surprise. "Dry Bones ran the simulator less frequently as time went on. Eventually, he began ignoring me entirely."

"How could he ignore you after everything you'd done?" After everything he'd done to you?

Petey shrugged listlessly. "Something in him changed. I'm afraid I don't have a precise word for what it was. But I knew staying there would have gained me nothing." He gave a joyless laugh. "It was just my luck that Team Banshee had put in a request for a trainee booking not long after. I joined on the condition that I'd have a place to continue my research where I'd left it off."

Had Toadette misheard that last part? "So you're still working on it? That's great, Petey! See, you didn't need Dry Bones and his crap after all."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that." Petey took a heavy gulp from his mug. "I'm afraid I've reached a total impassé this past month. So much of this geophysical minutiae is still well over my head. Climate science never was my strong suit. Science in general, really."

Says the guy who volunteered to be a living test subject. "Why not ask for help from one of the labs in town? Daisy said her school has a bunch of full-time research staffers."

"I've put feelers out, rest assured." Petey's expression grew dark as his tattoos resumed their dim, erratic flashing. "I had planned on asking Gadd to meet up. To beg for a second chance, just one more shot. I'd also hoped to find out why he'd destroyed all our progress in the first place. And, well." He closed his eyes.

"Oh my gosh, Petey. I'm so sorry." What awful timing. Suspiciously awful timing, in Toadette's humble opinion. "You couldn't have known."

"That's why I ask that you keep it to yourself, to the best of your ability." Again Petey glanced toward the shop's gray-clouded front windows. "I can't have been the first person to attempt reduction of the smog here. Yet no matter how many times I've tried to find someone else working on the same issue, it seems there are none to be found. No one one the Blue Planet, at least." 

Toadette swallowed. "None? But what if you worked with another Piranha scientist? Or a Luma...?"

"Piranha and Luma researchers are prohibited from conducting any work pertaining to the Blue Planet's atmosphere," Petey replied slowly, deliberately, as though someone had forced him into memorizing it at gunpoint. "The precise language details it in the Federal Accords, Amendment Five, section nine-one-three, A through double L."

"Holy cow." Toadette's head buzzed, thousands of wordless shards forming a hurricane of shock, then confusion, then anger. "What the hell kind of law is that?!"

"What kind." Petey's smile was utterly bereft of amusement. "And to what end, Toadette? Who exactly would that rule serve?"

"Somebody who wants the smog to stay." The words seemed to fall limply from her mouth. It was too preposterous an idea, too ridiculous and too terrible to merit any greater proclamation. "Petey. What the hell." Her entire month had been one long what the hell, but today of all days undoubtedly took the cake. "What the—it's—I'm—"

"Just so you understand." Petey kneaded his temples. "We need to be very, very careful going forward. Getting a long-term Blue Planet visa was difficult enough when my sole task was visiting the capitol."

"I understand," Toadette piped, her heart threatening to burst from her ribcage. "Besides, if you got kicked off the planet, we wouldn't get to race again. I'd have to find someone else to beat."

"Ouch." Petey leaned back in his seat, looking as close to entertained as she'd seen him yet. "But that's really all I've been up to since I left. Racing and bootstraps weather gauging. Once I signed on with Team Banshee, I never thought to look back." He rubbed his eyelids. "Perhaps I should have, seeing what happened to the rest of you."

"No!" Toadette pounded both fists onto the table, sending droplets of her tea flying. "No way. Dry Bones tortured you for all those years and gave you nothing for it? Getting out of there was the right idea, Petey." What I'd give to never have to look back.

"But if I had known he would begin experimenting on you all?" Petey reached over and clasped her hand. "I would have stayed, Toadette. Truly. Performing invasive surgeries on a consenting volunteer is one thing. But forcing the rest of you into that?" The edges of his mouth quirked. "It's not right. It's—well, I've not yet learned a foul enough word."

I might have. Toadette slowly exhaled and squeezed his hand back. Funny, how much the little gesture now comforted her. She probably had Bowser to blame for that. "Something tells me he would have gone ahead with it even if you had stayed. Please don't beat yourself up over it, Petey. Please."

Petey refrained from responding, only giving her a customary shake of the head, a morose twitch at the edge of his mouth. Now that gesture she definitely recognized from years past, and her heart momentarily sank.

But for the first time in memory, Toadette felt a genuine tinge of curiosity about—about all of it. What was Dry Bones after, if not curing Mushroom City of its pollution? What were his intentions with her and the other subjects, and with Bowser? That there had been zero justification for everything Toadette had been through no longer comforted her, even if it were technically true.

Toadette now found herself hungry for an answer. Not for an excuse, no. But an explanation, perhaps. Dry Bones owed her that much. He owes all of us that much.

"But what I don't understand is why you all put up with his experiments." Petey's brow furrowed. "If they were as horrific as I remember, then why did you and the others stay behind for so long?"

"We—" Toadette blinked. "We had nowhere to go, Petey. My parents—my family died in that plane wreck. Wendy's all contracted a lethal virus. Roy's dad got in a bad prison fight. Ludwig had nobody. He'd grown up in a Toad Town orphanage, remember? And then all the other kids who were brought in had the same situa—"

"Others?" Petey leaned forward, his eyes widening. "He enrolled more trainees? You said no Piranha, so—were they for the racing program, or for his tests?"

"Both." Toadette grimaced. "There were eight of us by last year. All were brought in as nine-year-olds." A different thought occurred to her, one that left her craving something far stronger than their tea. "You didn't see them when you and your partner flew down last week?"

"No. Only Dry Bones and the ROB units. We spent our time in a different section of the pyramid, one I'd never entered before." Petey's many jagged irises convulsed as he pursed his lips. "What would he gain by increasing the number of live subjects? No, I'll ask. We should see him tonight at the Opening Ceremony, won't we?"

Toadette felt her bones ice over. "We will. But, Petey—don't ask him about me. Or any of us. Okay? Please? Promise me."

"As you wish. But why not?" Petey shot her a concerned double-take. "What's wrong, T?"

Toadette could have laughed. What wasn't?

But no way would she let Petey get involved in this crap. I'm already endangering everyone on my team. Every new person who gets caught up in this could get get hurt. That Toadette knew without a shadow of a doubt. I won't let him harm you ever again, Petey. Even if you'd let him.

And beyond that, Toadette had no idea how far Petey may have entangled himself already. He had kept at least two huge secrets from her for this long; who was to say how many more still lurked out of sight? She knew better than to pretend that either of them had the whole story.

"I don't want to hear from him ever again," she eventually muttered, trying with all her strength to keep her voice from breaking. "Besides, there's gotta be another scientist out there who'd want to work with you. Somebody who could do that kind of work outside of the law." She had a thought. "Like Rosalina Toadstool!" She's gotta have diplomatic immunity, or I'll eat my shoes.

"The witch?" Petey's tattoos flashed. "You may be right. My people cannot grant her what she desires so long as the smog endures. I could speak with Maza Dino."

"Is that the Gold Leaf Colony Maza?"  Moreover—witch?

"Yes. I know he has dealt with the her before. Perhaps he could pass her contact information along."

"Or I could ask Bowser," Toadette realized aloud. "He and Rosalina are super close." Would it be worth mentioning they had met up to discuss Dry Bones only days ago?

Then again, she and Bowser had been awfully careful to conceal their meetup. The least Toadette could do was to not run around shouting that they were in cahoots. Just one more damn secret to compartmentalize, she mourned.

But something told her it was better to be safe than sorry. Too many lies too keep up with and she'd end up unraveling them all. And probably at the worst possible time, given her luck.

Still, it wasn't as though she had to keep absolutely everything about them secret from Petey. They were all racers in the same league, weren't they? It was hardly as though Petey were a double agent for Dry Bones. No more than she was, in any case.

"Your partner? Close to—?" Was it Toadette's imagination, or had Petey's tattoos begun glowing even more brightly? "I see. How is he, by the way?"

"Bowser? He's great. We've been practicing every day. He's the best thing that ever happened to me, Petey." Toadette began kicking her heels against her bench as warm energy flooded her muscles. Was that tea caffeinated?  Perhaps she could snag said partner a Piranha-imported coffee on her way out. Baby had made the stuff sound like a delicacy. "I know he always looks grouchy, but he's really sweet to the people that aren't on his stomp list."

"Oh?" Petey rested his chin on his hand, a soft smile slowly tugging at his lips. "I never would have guessed."

"Yep! Ooh, and protective. After I told him what Dry Bones was doing to us, he looked like he was gonna breathe fire." That had been Toadette's favorite part of that long, long evening. She cheerfully jangled her rose-gold Chain Chomp bead bracelet.

"That's something I'd like to see for myself." Petey traced the lip of his mug with one fingertip. "Don't tell him where you heard this, but..." He leaned back in his seat, his eyelids drooping shut. "His freshman year of high school, Bowser turned down Ridley's offer to partner with him on his kart. Ridley's resented him for that ever since." 

Toadette nearly spat out her tea. "Are you kidding?! Ridley hates him because of something that happened—what, nine years ago? Ten?!" 

"Hate isn't the word I would use. But I've heard him gnash about it enough to the Lady." Petey shook his head. "To hear her tell it, Bowser blew all the other freshmen clear out of tryouts for the school karting team. Boo was a sophomore, yet still felt impressed enough to offer to partner with him. He must've been convinced Bowser would jump at the opportunity, as though it were some sort of rare privilege." He laughed through his nose. "Instead, Bowser petitioned to have Koopa Troopa try out. They performed so well together that they both made the varsity squad."

"A middle-school kid on a senior level karting team?" Toadette whistled. "Guess Ridley was jealous." No doubt, with that ego. 

"There's the word." Petey opened his eyes. "Say, how long has Bowser been acquainted with, erm, Rosalina?"

"Hmm. Not sure. A few years, at least." Toadette chewed her tongue. "I'm pretty sure they met back before Gadd's boss quit. That would've been while we were both still in the desert." Once again that golden kart shimmered in her mind's eye. "I can't believe we get to race against her!"

"Her prowess is intimidating, I'll give her that." Petey shot Toadette another beautiful smile, if one now hardened with determination. "Let's give her a run for her money, T."

"You finally got that expression right!"  With that, her phone buzzed. It's already been half an hour?  She quickly waved to the teahouse manager and placed an order to go.

"I don't recall you being a coffee drinker," Petey murmured as they stood up. With one last forlorn glance outdoors, he yanked up his mouth covering and tugged his hood over his head.

"It's for Bow. He and I are on break. Baby's probably drowning in last-minute jobs by now." 1 min out, her phone now read. A different thought struck her. "Hey, you should totally come by the garage sometime!"

"Garage?" The glimmer in Petey's eyes nearly rivaled that of his tattoos as he fastened on his skintight gloves. "The one your team runs, I presume? Catherine had mentioned..."

"Yep! We'll be closed during the All-Cup, but you've totally gotta visit us afterward." So he could admire her giant trophy. "Bowser might pretend to act grouchy about it, but I think he just hates Ridley, not you."

"You think he doesn't hate me." Petey grinned. If Toadette didn't know better, she could swear an acceptance of some unnamed challenge glimmered in his tattoos. "I suppose I'll see you both tonight."

"Definitely. It'll be our first All-Cup together!" Toadette tackled him with a quick hug. Her arms reached all the way around his waist, which was not what she could say for Bowser. At least Petey's not as skinny as he was back at the labs. That had to be a good sign, if nothing else.

Petey squeezed back. "The first of many, I pray. Best of luck to you and your team."

"Good luck yourself!" She punched him squarely in the abdomen. "You're gonna need it more than us!"

For the first time in Toadette's memory, Petey laughed outright. What a nice sound. "Take care, T."

Bowser's truck pulled up then. Toadette dashed across the tar-stained sidewalk and hopped in. For once, the cabin did not readily smell of minutes-old cigarette smoke. "Hi hi."

"Yo." He inhaled deeply. "Is that... Piranha coffee?"

"It's for you!" After buckling herself in, Toadette waved to Petey. For a second he waved back, only to freeze in place as his gaze met Bowser's.

"Hey," Bowser murmured, almost too softly to detect. His face had grown flushed—from the steam of the drink, Toadette guessed. Outside, Petey's face was unreadable behind his many layers, but a slight nudging of his head suggested that he'd somehow heard nonetheless. Bowser nodded, just once, and they were off, zipping frantically down the F10 feeder as though to escape an oncoming avalanche.

Toadette glanced in the rearview mirror just to make sure. Nope, no avalanche. Just Petey, there then gone as they turned the corner. What's the deal with you two?

Bowser took a sip from the greenfoam cup as he steered them onto the highway ramp. "So, how'd it go?"

Toadette closed her eyes. The world seemed to swim around her, upside down and inside out. Where to even begin?

On one hand, Bowser totally deserved to know that someone else shared his bizarre idea about curing Mushroom City of its smog. But on the other, the last thing Petey needed was for Bowser to get drunk at another of his uncle's parties and let anything slip. The king had to know whoever had drafted up that ridiculous law. Oh, that awful king totally had to've had a part in all of this. I bet the smog was his idea.

Well, she'd dropped a big secret the night before. Didn't that technically free up space for one more?

...This could not be how normal people operated, Toadette lamented. Then again, she'd probably stopped qualifying for normal long ago.

"I missed him," she replied instead. "He's doing way better now that he's out of that place." No one could argue against that.

Bowser worked his jaw as he steered. "Did he tell you what the hell he and Ridley were up to in the desert last week?"

Oh. Right. Composite Special Items, both of their entries had suddenly read that morning in the All-Cup Competitor Directory. 

"Crap, I forgot to press him on that. We just talked about other stuff." She snapped her fingers. "You know what? I bet he skirted over that on purpose! Stupid jerk." He must think he's sooo crafty...

"Guess we'll find out tomorrow." Bowser chuckled over his steaming cup. "Thanks, by the way. 'S good stuff."

"No problem." Toadette settled back into her seat, willing herself to appear relaxed. "I just hope Baby didn't blow up the garage while we were out."


Baby saw his last two customers off and checked his messages. Three were from Toad—logistics of getting their kart into the Mach 6. Five were from Daisy, each comprised solely of inappropriate emojis. One from Toadette: Want any tea or coffee from this place?

Not for me, he fired back. Bow would go nuts for some tho. In a rush of mirth, he texted Toad next. About 2 chug a venti Piranha dark roast b ready

He'd scarcely sent it off before the response came. DONT THO

y do u hate me, he replied, biting his lip to keep from cackling.

it's not that i hate you
it's that i remember what happened w last year's caravan
and that i don't hate myself

Ah. Yes. Last year. Toad had insisted on driving the whole distance to Mushroom Bridge, and so Baby had decided to keep him alert by way of pleasant Four Loko-fueled conversation (from Baby's point of view)/ nonstop hyperactive babbling (Toad's). Baby supposed he could afford to be a bit kinder to his partner this time around.

Especially since it might be his last caravan ever, the way Bow had made it sound. 

Baby pocketed his phone, sobered by his own thought. I still can't believe Bow's horrible uncle is the king. And here he'd thought nothing would be crazier than the bombshell of Toad and his sister. To think they'd been sitting on a whole 'nother conspiracy in that time, one implicating the most powerful ruler on the planet...? Bleurgh.

All morning Bowser had said very little, focusing solely on his tasks, or at least giving a good impression of it. Baby and Toadette had settled for making faces at one another behind his back. 

"Chatted pretty late last night," she had whispered as they inventoried the toolboxes. "Not to say he probably isn't still mulling it all over, but..." She'd shrugged. "Could also just be feeling tired." She, too, had spent most of the morning yawning.

But Baby knew all too well how Bowser tended to operate. He's gonna keep moping until the Cup's over. I'd bet my new sweater on that. So long as any threat to his team's safety remained, Bowser would be the absolute last in line to chill. 

Can't say I blame him, though.  After hearing the nightmare Toadette had gone through at the hands of Dry Bones, Baby had half a mind to make his own little trip down to that place, those labs. His unconscious hours had bloomed into vivid-colored visions: with only his craftiness and agility—and, yeah, okay, Toad's hacking skills—the dynamic duo plus Toadette had busted those other poor kids out. After setting that whole awful place on fire, they then made a daring trek over the sandy dunes to the oasis of Toad Town. His dream had ended with shimmering fireworks going off in every color overhead. And also a winning lottery ticket. At least I'm consistent!

Baby chuckled to himself and finished cleaning the garage. Once the floors were mopped, he began decluttering all the workbenches and junk piles. They'd undoubtedly forget where they'd left everything after nearly a month away. Assuming, of course, that anyone actually returned—

"Hello?" someone called from the front entry.

A kid?  The customer's voice sounded scarcely deeper than Baby's. He snapped the toolbox shut and bounded back toward the front of the shop. "Hiya! What can I do for—" He stopped cold at the sight of an honest-to-God Luma. "—you?"

"Greetings." The Luma carried a cylindrical package beneath one arm. Baby's pulse skyrocketed at the sight of their glossy mask and ear cuff. The magician Luma. The one Toadette talked about—so then she really hadn't gone nuts. Nuts, indeed. "Is the boss in, by chance?"

They know Bowser. Baby swallowed and grinned. "He's on break right now, but I'm happy to help you out with whatever you need." 

It took everything in his power not to burst out with a thousand questions. How long have you known Bowser? How often do you come here? Do you live on the planet, or offworld? How the hell'd you beam up, like Toadette said? How does someone become a magician that young? What's with the scooter? Doesn't the air hurt—?

"Ah, I see." Blue lights in the Luma's glass ear cuff began to blink in rapid succession. "I don't suppose I could drop this off for him, by any chance? I've been instructed to leave it securely in his possession."

Instructed?  "Uh, alright." Baby rubbed his neck. "If you give it to me, I can hold it in the back office until he returns. No guests are allowed in there, so it should be plenty safe."

"Excellent. I appreciate your assistance." The Luma handed Baby the package. It was disproportionately heavy for its size, and—Why's it warm!?  

Whatever the paper contained felt too solid and still to be anything alive. Sure didn't smell like any food. Smelled like... ozone, earthy and clean. What the heck...?  "Uh, what's inside the package, if you don't mind my asking?"

But to Baby's surprise, the Luma only shrugged, their black eyes glittering. "I myself am not entirely sure. My instructions were simply that it arrive here, intact, before the boss leaves for the karting tourney." They immediately smiled. "And so I must be off. Have a pleasant day!"

"Uh. You too." Baby witched idly as the Luma sauntered back outside, pulled on an allover black biking helmet, and swung one leg over an aqua scooter. The same exact scooter that Toadette had repaired. So it really was that same Luma. 

What the hell had they dropped off, though? Baby's heart pounded in his throat as the package continued to soak his arms in delicious, heady warmth, downright blissful against the bitter A/C of the front office. The thing was unbelievably warm. Eerily warm.

And then all he could think of was their conversation from the night before. Dry Bones—after Bowser—King—rigged kart—explosion—

Baby was holding a goddamn bomb. 

"Fuck me." Baby stood petrified in place, his arms locked stone-still around the package. The thing would surely go off in any second. No doubt the Luma was in on it. Maybe they'd visited those few weeks before to scope the garage out. What if this had been that dick Dry Bones' plan the whole time? No, that was definitely it. Now that we know the truth, he's trying to take us out!

Only, maybe Baby could save the day. The thing had no timer that he could discern, but ticking time bombs were just a dumb movie cliché anyways, right? Maybe if he took it outside the lab, left it some place where it wouldn't damage anything or anyone, and pretend he'd never heard of the thing—?

But who was to say how big the blast would even be?! No, Baby knew better than to leave the damn thing unattended somewhere. Some kid could spot it and walk off with it, or... or... no. Not okay.

Not at all. He'd need to open it here, while Bowser and Toadette were gone. Set it off while there weren't any cars in the middle of the shop. He'd just rinsed the floors, and all the alcohol and oil containers were safe in the storage room behind a thick slab of concrete. Nothing flammable in a twenty foot radius on all sides. I got this.

Then again, somewhere in his head, Toad's voice had long begun bellowing furiously at him. Something about minimum safe distances and, uh, not! being! a! fucking! dumb! ass!

Okay, maybe this isn't the most bulletproof idea ever. But someone's gotta do it!

Baby gingerly placed the warm package in the center of the garage and dialed Wario's work cell. "Hi. Help me defuse a bomb?"

"Military, industrial grade, or custom?"

"Dunno. It's wrapped in paper." Baby snapped a photo of the thing and sent it over. "This Luma kid dropped it off and said it was for Bowser. They wanted to make sure it went to him before we left for the caravan. Bow said nothing about expecting a package today, so how much of a coincidence could this be?!"

"A Luma bomb?" Wario groaned so loudly that Baby double-checked the call hadn't switched to speakerphone. "What's the size of it?"

"Maybe... four inches in diameter? And almost foot long. Kinda reminded me of a TNT stick. And it's really warm, like there's an active heat source inside."

"Those aren't standard dimensions. I'm-a comin' over. Here's what you should do in the meantime."

Following Wario's orders, Baby moved the canisters of denatured alcohol, oils, gasoline and aerosols out of the garage altogether and into the side alley. After lowering the bay doors and flipping the sign to CLOSED, he screwed an armful of thin PVC pipes together. To the end of the contraption he flash-cemented a small bandsaw blade. "You want me to what?"

"Make a small incision in the paper. Pick a corner, not where it's supposed to be unfolded. Make sure you're at least twenty feet away. Hide behind something thick 'n dense. GPS says I'm six minutes out, but I'm-a gonna make it in three."

"'Kay." Baby put the call on speaker, ducked behind the row of metal cabinets, and placed his phone on the ground. "Cutting now." If only his hands weren't goddamn shaking so bad— 

A few missed targets later and he'd sunk the edge of the bandsaw into one corner. Baby jumped a good foot in the air as a beam of light burst from the pinprick.

...no, yeah. Real, actual light. Pink light. Purple? Blue light. No, aqua. What. "Wario, you ever seen any bomb emitting neon light? Color-changing neon light?!"

"...Baby, doing shrooms on the job is really no good, okay—"

"I'm serious! I'm both sober and serious. I cut a tiny bit of the paper open and there's light shining out. The light keeps changing color. H-help me." When had he started crying? Fuck. He quickly snapped Wario another photo. "See?!"

Wario was silent for a solid ten seconds. "You sure it's a bomb? C'you cut more of the paper away?" With a screech Baby knew Wario had pulled up.

"See? It's packing a ton of power, emitting all that heat and light. Gotta be Luma tech, right? That'd explain why it doesn't sound like any of the designs you know of." Another few minutes of work and Baby had a long incision cut down the length of the package. The glow had brightened ever so slightly but then seemed to beam out only from one side of the cut.

Wario gave a low growl. "I don't like it. Never had to deal with Luma shit before. This was supposed to go to Bowser?"

The boss. "Yeah, that's what they said." Baby lowered his makeshift spear to the floor. "I'm gonna take a closer look. Wish me luck."

"Careful, Baby. No sudden movements."

He inched his way up as the light continued to shift in hue. Lime green, lemon yellow, goldenrod, tangerine orange, red-orange, fire-engine red, magenta— "Gonna pull on the paper to look inside. Uh. Tell Toad I love him." 

His heart had begun to pound. One wrong movement and he'd blow them all sky high. Here goes nothing. 

Using just his thumb and forefinger, Baby gingerly widened the cut in the paper. Just enough. Just—

"Baby—!"

"Wario, it's a paintbrush." He dully registered having fallen back on his ass in complete bewilderment. It was almost funny. No, it was super funny. He was laughing, crying, blubbering like a maniac. "A big p-paintbrush, Wario. That creepy kid dropped off a—a glowing rainbow paintbrush. For Bowser."

Wario squinted at him. "No shit?"

"No shit. A paintbrush, or something that looks like it. I dunno what it is." He wiped his eyes. "You can feel how warm it is from there, can't you?" The air behind him felt several degrees colder than in front.

"I dunno. Be careful, Baby, okay. Jesu." Wario's voice had grown soft, as though afraid speaking too loudly would trigger the thing to blow, bomb or no. 

With Luma stuff, who knows?  "I'm gonna take it out of the paper. You ready?"

Wario sighed. "Eh, might as well. I got the fire extinguisher ready. For whatever facking good it'll do."

"Bow and Toadette should be back in a few minutes." Baby continued to peel back the rest of the paper. Nope, no mistaking it. He gingerly pressed his finger against the brush's metallic surface. Steel casing, he guessed. Titanium, maybe. The bristles felt synthetic, like the translucent, flimsy cores of fiber-optic cable. They bent easily beneath his fingertip, and did not conceal a single light source within them. Rather, each individual strand emanated its own color-shifting glow.

It was when Baby finally lifted it free from the packaging that the jolting fear briefly returned; as he tilted the heavy brush, the glow within all the bristles responded to gravity. As he waved and turned the thing, the rainbow light ebbed and flowed like gel, like magma, falling to the lowest point of each bristle and rippling upon impact. Mesmerized, Baby steadily grew bolder with his flourishing. The light's gravity-defying liquidity made him want to paint something with the brush. He was in art class again.

Without another moment's thought, he pressed the bristles against the concrete floor. And then screamed. 

"Baby! The hell?"

"I dunno! I dunno I dunno I—" Baby froze in place, not believing his eyes. A tiny pinprick had appeared on the freshly-washed concrete floor. It shone vividly in the same way as the brush bristles, in a different color with each passing second. "It didn't leave anything like that on my fingers! Just on—just on the floor—oh, jeez, Wario, what do we do? What do—what—?"

"Fuck if I know! The hell is that thing? Get away from there!"

Baby felt too petrified to even consider running away. But as seconds passed, the pinprick of light faded and shrunk. In time it looked to have completely disappeared. "I didn't just imagine that, did I? You saw that, yeah?!" He swept one finger over the exact spot on the wet concrete, but it felt no warmer or weirder than any other spot on the floor.

"Shit's radioactive. Magic, maybe. We should be quarantined." Wario looked appropriately appalled. "The fuck is Bowser doing with Luma shit in the first place? I don't like-a this, Baby."

Neither did Baby. But neither did he honestly hate it. With each passing second that initial fear receded further, leaving only the obligatory cheerfulness brought on by shiny lights and heat. His two favorite things. "We'll find out soon enough. It didn't do any damage to the floor, y'know? It's self-cleaning." Toad would approve—

"No." Wario's face grew even cloudier. "Baby, neither of us know dick about Luma tech. Your gut reaction was a good one—with so much shit going on, it could-a still be dangerous. Could be designed to go off if Bowser touched it. We don't know what we don't know."

Great. "What am I supposed to do?" Baby shot him a panicked look. "Destroy it? Can this thing even be destroyed—?!"

Wario clapped his face a few times as though to snap himself out of a nightmare. "Okay. Look. If Bow's expecting a package, he'd-a let you know by the end of the day, eh?" He gently set the fire extinguisher back down. "If he's-a not expecting nothing, then we'll know the brush is bad news. Keep it away from him, Baby, at least 'til we know more about it. I'll do some research. So should you."

"Good plan." Hell knew how many contacts Wario had with alien paintbrush experience. At least two, if Baby had to wager. "Okay. I'm gonna stick it in my backpack. C'you help me fix everything back the way it was?"

They worked quickly, and Wario's car scooted back out a solid minute before Bowser's truck pulled up. Baby did his best to act natural, sitting on the loft's counter with two different search engines up on his phone. He tried his best not to glance too frequently at his backpack, but every one of his nerves had gone on edge. I need a beer. 

And so he helped himself to the minibar, holding the fridge door open for ten extra seconds to cool his skin down. That paintbrush's heat was nothing if not infectious.

Toadette expertly skid-skated in over the wet concrete. "Looking good, Baby! Hey, where'd you go?"

"Up here!" Baby called after chugging half the can. "What about y'all?"

"Ran some errands," Bowser replied as he checked their task list. "Toadette finally got to meet up with Petey."

"Oh, yeah." Baby wiped his upper lip clean. "Hey, Bow, were we expecting any deliveries today?"

Bowser shook his head without looking away from the clipboard. "Nah. Wouldn't want to risk missing anything 'n having it left on the curb for three weeks. Why?"

Why. Why me? Why now? Why this?  "Just, uh. Just wondering!"

"Don't sweat it. Let's finish up so we can hit the road."

Who's sweating? Not me!  Baby chugged the rest of the can down. How long would he have to wait til the buzz kicked in...?

His backpack seemed to taunt him from afar as he resumed his work. Some hero, it jeered. 


"Mona says no fuckin' way. Not only does she say no fuckin' way, she says she thinks we've been snorting something and that we really outta find a better hookup." Waluigi pinched the bridge of his nose. "Gotta say, brother, I'm this close to agreeing with her."

Wario looked close to puking out the driver-side window. "And we already got a no from Jimmy T.?"

"Jimmy T. Flavio. Kat and Ana. Doc Crygor. Ol' buddy Pyoro. Ashley—Ashley said she had no idea." Waluigi opened the photo forwarded from Baby and squinted at it for the umpteenth time that hour. "Thing's gotta be from another dimension."

"Like what's-his-name woulda needed a Luma to deliver something manufactured in town," Wario grumbled, rolling his window down. "I'm-a too old for this shit."

"Too old for magic space paintbrushes?" Waluigi leaned back in his seat, dropping his phone into a cup holder. "Or too old for the caravan?"

"Pfft."

Waluigi highly doubted he and his partner were the oldest caravanners speeding down the highway now. Racers from Cups both present and past always joined, they and every other enthusiast on the continent with access to a working vehicle. The parade had started early that morning at the Kong Jungle border, with more tributaries joining from the coastal villages and Toad Town, through the rest of the Dry Dry Desert, then hitting Mushroom City before concluding up in Mushroom Bridge. The caravan was the single open event of the All-Cup; everything onward, including the Opening Ceremony itself, required ever pricier tickets for non-participants.

Truth be told, Waluigi preferred the atmosphere of the caravan to everything else in the Cup proper. The suits could keep their precious Galas and stadium suites and lukewarm technical commentary; this armada of mismatched rides making its way across the country in a fervent cloud of pure hype was where his heart truly felt at ease. Motorcycles and scooters fell in with RVs and tractor-trailers that blew by bitty karts and bicyclers, poor souls, on the highway's shoulder. Back in the day, drunken daredevils would hop from their own cars to their friends' rides to the roofs of utter strangers. They lucky ones managed to dodge warning shots while the unlucky ones lost their footing.

Nothing was sacred in the caravan, Waluigi mused. Not even caravanners. 

But in the past few years, the steady crackdown on hooligans had not escaped his notice. This time around, Fly Guys patrolled overhead while Shy Guys rode alongside the caravan in crown-issued dirt buggies, their eye-voids trained eternally on the parade's slightly rowdier clusters. At four hours in, not one teenager had attempted to toss a Molotov cocktail through Wario's sunroof.

"No fun allowed," Waluigi chuckled. "I know what I'm not gonna miss in six months."

"Mmm." 

"If we make it that far."

"We're-a gonna make it." Wario's stomach rumbled loudly enough for Waluigi to hear. "I'm not gonna miss how the banquet comes after the Ceremony. Should be the other way around."

Waluigi huffed, readjusting his sore legs. No matter how far back he moved the passenger seat, his knees and ankles always protested after each hour. "We might not make it."

"O ye of little faith. Remember the Big Donut Arena meltdown? Not quite ten years ago today, mm?"

"With the non-regulation magma? Yeah. Yeah. Was that worse 'n this, though?"

"Wasn't worse than that one time we had to hole up all night in that Sherbet Land shroom den. You might not'a been lucid for that one."

"I don't remember any shroom den," Waluigi yelped, feeling the blood drain from his face. "Was that the '58 Winter All-Cup?"

"One 'n only. I think I came outta that one better looking than you."

"Prolly." Waluigi rearranged his feet so that one stuck out the passenger window. "At least the FBR Director wasn't trying to attack our best-performing racer."

"Almost think I woulda preferred that."

"No shit?"

"No shit." Wario massaged one eyelid at a time. "But only because of that PVFD ordeal. Hey, know what? That was-a probably worse 'n this."

"That started 'n ended with Bow," Waluigi laughed. "Who paid him to set himself on fire? I know who. No-fuckin-body. I didn't think any teenager could get that wasted 'n still stand up straight, much less showboat."

"It was his first cup after Rex 'n April bit it," Wario reminded him. "Look. Pretend you were that broke-ass Pianta night shift manager at the rattiest bar in the Underside, stuck between your only celebrity customer ever and two dozen cameras on your ass. Pretend your richest, famous-est customer swears, hand on heart, that he knows an entire tiki torch twirling routine, and that he's gonna do it, and that it'll be—how'd he say?—sick as fuck. Whatcha gonna do? Hmm?"

"I'd up my insurance premium 'n pray my whole bar burns down," Waluigi replied without missing a beat. "Whatever happened to that guy, huh?"

"Shit, you know I meant to ask Frankie 'bout that poor fucker last year. Probably had to take a loan from the Don."

"I'll pour one out for the guy tonight."

"See, it could be worse. We could be that guy." Wario chuckled under his breath. "Y'know, I never did figure out who'd paid off all Bow's hospital bills from that shit. Not 'til last night, I mean."

"That did cross my mind," Waluigi mumbled. "But it's also a whole lot to buy. What kinda guy murders his brother and sister-in-law then blows half a million coins to keep their kid alive?"

"Fuck if I know." Wario sniffed. "What matters is the guy is unpredictable. Bow says he's no good, I say he's no good. Yesterday we knew about how much Ezekiel money he'd laundered through sponsoring Bow's kart. Today we know his day job's-a bein' king o' the fackin' country. Whaddya think we'll know tomorrow?"

"Eh. F'you say so." 

"I say so."

Wario had always made a point never to empathize with psychopaths, Waluigi thought, no matter how many they did business with. Probably one of their better policies, all things considered.

Some heavily silent time passed before he spoke again. "That's the four-hundred mile marker."

Wario glanced toward the dashboard clock. "Right on-a schedule. I say this is our year, brother. We'll figure all this weird shit out with Bow's uncle 'n the Luma shit 'n the Director. We'll finally win that damn sweepstakes prize 'n retire to Delfino like the big shots."

"Ay, don't jinx it." If Waluigi knew one thing, it was that anything was possible.

And so it did not utterly shock him to see, from the passenger-side mirror, a vivid aquamarine glow emerging from the distant smog. It came slowly, gently, and then all at once—a blazing fast burst of heat and a spooky low moaning that zipped right by them, only inches away from his overhanging foot. It blasted them with a sudden wayward gust and left a translucent ribbon of blue light in its trail. How about that.

Then, just like that, it was gone, having twisted between the vehicles ahead of them until it disappeared over the horizon. One hapless rider in the car just ahead of them leaned dangerously far out of his window to get a better look, but by then the light may as well have been a product of Waluigi's imagination. Even the blue ribbon behind it faded away, dissipating into nothing.

"Show-off," he grumbled. "T minus ten minutes til the cops shut that shit down."

"This time around?" Wario harrumphed, glancing toward the Fly Guy to their ten. "My money's on five."

Waluigi refrained from taking him up on that. Every so often some rock star mechanic would blitz the caravan with an eezo-modded engine. This time was surely no different. But now he had an idea.

After readjusting his aching hips, he pulled his phone back out to flip between two different photos Wario had forwarded him from Baby. "Brother... about that brush thing. You said it was all different colors, yeah?"

Wario grunted in affirmative. "Glowed neon 'n changed color every second or so. Was kinda trippy. Kinda like—"

"Kinda like Rainbow Road." Waluigi raised one eyebrow. "No?"

"No, uh, yeah. Yeah. Rainbow Road." He and his partner exchanged glances. "So... where's that put us?"

Waluigi re-folded his legs yet again. "Hell if I know, brother. I'm just here for the coins. Prolly a pipe dream, the way our Time Trials went." His laugh came out sounding even uglier than he'd intended. "But winning nothing would still be better than losing a friend. Dunno what I'd do with myself if poor Bow really did get killed. He's too young, y'know?"

"All them kids are. Got their whole lives ahead of 'em. You think that'd mean something to that prick Dry Bones."

Nothing was sacred to those people, Waluigi could have reminded him. Nothing.

"Then we better make sure they all get outta this in one piece," he replied, smiling into the rearview mirror. "Even if we don't."


"What is this place?" Toadette asked as she steered them into the valet lineup. "Like, I know where we are—" They'd hit this exact track in their vacation only a week before, after all— "but what is it, exactly?"

The beautiful structure before them seemed to sprawl endlessly on, out of sight, its high buttresses and towers capped with green and orange flags that fluttered in the evening breeze. Thick lattices of ivy crisscrossed its pale stone walls, spilling over the tops of its softly weathered battlements. Toadette had seen its stained-glass windows from a distance, but now it was too dark outside to discern what each portrayed up close. 

"Old Toadstool family castle." Bowser's reply came out slightly muffled as he changed shirts in the back seat. "Not their main one—that's the one my uncle still uses in town. This was their summer palace. Mostly gets used nowadays to host the other Federation leaders for parties and conferences. That kinda stuff."

"Is Queen Paula gonna be here?" Toadette winkled her nose. "Wouldn't that be bad since Peach is attending?" Sounds like an incident waiting to happen...

"Nah. Nobody knows what happened to Queen Paula after my uncle took over. The only people who live here full-time are the upkeep staff." Bowser scowled as he struggled out of his jeans. "How'd you get dressed back here so easily?"

"Short legs have their advantages sometimes." Toadette pointedly kicked her left heel against the driver seat cushion. "If you were really smart, you would've changed before we joined the caravan."

"Didn't have time. Wonder why Baby kept wigging out on us during cleanup." He balled up his jeans and tossed them over his shoulder. "Okay, yeah, I think I know why. I'm not mad at him or anything. But I hope he pulls his act together in time for the race tomorrow. We all need to be at the top of our game."

"Then give him a pep talk. Isn't that what being a team captain's for?" 

"Eurrgh." Was he not a fan of the idea? Or just having a tough time pulling his slacks up while arching his hips off the seat? ...not that Toadette was looking. But. 

"Or are you just in it because you love paperwork?" She shot Bowser a look as he fished around in his satchel for a dark jacket.

"I'm in it because of a fluke." He clambered his way into the front passenger seat and began buttoning his shirt up. "Koopa and I drew straws when Wario drafted us on. I got the short one. Daisy's really the one holding the team together." He frowned. "Only, she's turned me down every time I asked. Doesn't bode too well for how long she 'n Louie plan on sticking around." He glanced Toadette's way. "You or Paratroopa should, though. You both were way more outspoken last night than I was. Better leadership material, by far."

Is he joking?  Toadette chewed her tongue as the valet line slowly moved up. "It's not always about being outspoken," she eventually countered. "Think about it—all of us jumped straight in with our knee-jerk reactions to everything. You were the one who asked how everyone felt. Like, when you offered to remove our kart from the Cup—"

"Which I did without asking you first," Bowser grumbled he tied his shoes against the dashboard. "Not very nice."

Nice, schmice. "But you read my mind! We were on the same page. The point is, you prioritized the safety of the team. You asked your constituents to voice their opinions." She thought of the innumerable times Dry Bones had motioned for her to shut up, of Red's incessant excuses behind her apologetic smile. "The world needs more leaders who listen, I think."

Bowser brooded in silence as they pulled into the palace's immense porte-cochère. Only when the Shy Guy valets began approaching did he softly laugh. "I appreciate it, but, seriously, I'm done. Especially all the weird shit that's bound to go down this time around." He rubbed irately at his neck with two fingers. "After this season, I'm pulling out. You 'n Paratroopa can draw straws next time, or anybody else who wants to."

"Yeah, yeah." Toadette reached for her purse as the valets simultaneously opened both of the truck's doors. Let's see if you still have that attitude when we take home the gold. "Let's do this!" 


Schmucks, schmucks, schmucks, as far as the eye could see, plus some racers well off of Bowser's radar. They thronged about the auditorium's expansive foyer, drinks and hors d'ouevres in hand, conversing in voices disingenuously genteel. Last night of nicey-nice before everyone would get to taste his dirt.

As such, Bowser made sure to glare at anyone who dared to look in his general direction. You. You're toast. And you. Brace yourself for imminent doom. You, too, Sherbet-Town hotshot. Come at me. Fuck y—oh. That was Kingfin. 

Kingfin No, his eyes weren't fooling him. Kingfin stood in a far corner, eyeglasses on. If it weren't for the wire strung behind his ear, he'd appear plainly to be talking to himself. Bowser glanced down to Toadette, who had not yet spotted him. Instead she was tugging at his hand while reaching up for a passing Shy Guy waiter's tray of champagne flutes. "A little help?"

"I gotcha." He snatched two of the fizzy pink drinks and handed her one. "Here's to blowing all these fuckers outta the water."

"To that." They clinked. A brut rosé, he hazarded. Could be worse. Could've been poison.

Daisy and Louie checked in with him first, she in her favorite yellow cocktail dress and he in the only suit he owned, to Bowser's knowledge. "I'll go save our row," Luigi murmured before ducking into the auditorium. 

"I thought that's what the tickets were for," Toadette whispered.

"He hates parties," Daisy laughed. "Even ones with free champagne. Weh." She quickly grabbed Toadette's hand and twirled her. "Good choice on the dress! We'll need to find you something white-tie level for the Gala, but that won't be for another week."

Toadette swept into a triumphant curtsy. "Thanks! Are we gonna be able to do more shopping by then?" 

"Yep. The cruise liner departs from Seaside Town, so we can hit all the outlets there after the Baby Park race. Ooh, there's Peach. Back in a sec."

Once she skipped off, Bowser spotted Wario and Waluigi engaged in a discussion with Baby and Toad in one corner. All four had their phones out. Probably looking up the stats of the newcomers, he figured. He and Toadette had gone over the Special Items and standby techniques of the usual final contenders, but one could never be too careful, he supposed. Especially this year—

"Is she old enough to drink that?" Birdo popped out out of nowhere with Yoshi in tow. "No, don't tell me. I don't wanna know. Space Dragon, say hi to your blood enemies."

"Morning." Yoshi blinked, swaying slightly on his feet. "Afternoon?"

Bowser cracked up and clapped Yoshi on the shoulder. "Try evening."

"He pregamed the caravan," Birdo muttered, snatching a lowball from another passing tray. "We figured the only way you two'd have a chance tomorrow was if one of us was hungover as all get out."

"Something tells me you'll be doing most of the driving," Toadette countered. "If you were really sure of yourself, you'd be hungover tomorrow, too!"

"Oof, she called my bluff." Birdo spun in place on her spike-studded heels. "Say, where'd Petey run off to? Was right behind us a second ago."

Petey. Bowser's mouth suddenly felt dry. He accordingly chugged the remainder of his drink. 

"Hah, look at that. Guess you saw the ridiculous Item treatment they got done." Birdo made a face at a passing racer in a tuxedo, who yelped and immediately walked faster. "Guess all my usual conspiracy theorizing was all for nothing this time around. Bah."

"What Item treatment?" Toadette asked, squinting over her half-empty flute. 

"It was added to the competitor directory this morning," Birdo replied, grinning evilly over her glass. "Hope you two are wearing diapers right now, because—oh! Hiya, boss."

Bowser felt his hand implode within Toadette's grip as Kingfin strode up to them, parting the surrounding crowds without so much as a hand motion. "Catherine. Don't forget to submit your report before midnight." His expression was unreadable behind those wraparound glasses. "You two, a quick word."

Both of us?  Bowser steeled himself. He nodded to Yoshi and Birdo, who shot him a bewildered glance before turning to chat with Ridley and Lady Bow. He gently ran his thumb over Toadette's, half to calm her down and half to calm himself. Here we go...

"We got seats saved for you two," Kingfin murmured, plucking two gold-embossed Opening Ceremony tickets from his jacket's inner pocket. "Front row. I respect that this is outta nowhere, but, ah, king's orders."

Shocker. Bowser gritted his teeth but accepted the two tickets. "I get the feeling these weren't cheap. What's the occasion?"

"He's got an announcement to make right after the Ceremony. You're the only family he's got, so." Kingfin squeezed his shoulder. "Would make it a bit easier on him."

Bowser exchanged glances with Toadette. She looked just as apprehensive as he felt. "But you need us both up there?" 

"Didn't want you getting lonely." Kingfin swiped a champagne flute from a passing tray and clinked it against Bowser's. "Hey, sweetheart. Saw you at Toadstool's bakery, didn't I?"

What?  But Toadette actually nodded, her face splitting into a smile she hadn't worn since her first day in town, one that set all of Bowser's nerves on edge. "Yep, that was me! How was the wedding?"

"Awful, 'til this guy dropped in 'n saved the day." Kingfin's grip on his shoulder tightened as he massaged Bowser's shoulder blade with one thumb. "Never wouldda thought you were a racer, doll. Shows what I know. Good luck in the tourney."

"Thanks." Toadette took a big gulp of champagne. Same, partner. "Are you racing?"

"Me? Nah, nah. I just like to watch. Some cool-looking stunts you jock types like to pull." 

Well, if Bowser were to be stuck with him for the evening, then he might as well play along. "Put any money on the Cup?"

"Uh-uh. Having family in the top brass'd make it look bad. Bad for me, not for him." Kingfin sipped his champagne. "'f I cared about not making him look bad, I never wouldda—"

"Attention!" Lakitu's voice blared from the many overhead speakers. "Would all Opening Ceremony attendees please take your seats as we begin tonight's festivities!"

"Oh, boy." Kingfin switched his flute out for a full one on another passing tray. Bowser followed suit, feeling as though his shirt collar had begun to shrink. "After you two. I gotcha, sweetheart." Kingfin took Toadette's empty glass and beckoned for them to head to the far auditorium entrance. VIP ONLY, its filigreed plaque read. 

"Telling everyone that we're changing seats," Toadette murmured to him. She began texting with one hand as she still hadn't let go of his. 

"Thanks," he replied, keeping his own grip sure. "Hopefully we'll still be together for the banquet."

A Shy Guy attendant checked their tickets at the VIP entrance. "Welcome, racers! This way. Up ahead to your left. Welcome!" Bowser handed Toadette his glass and swiped another one for himself on their way in.

Toadette gasped as they entered the auditorium. Formerly the Toadstool Palace's grand ballroom, the vast vicinity had since been filled with dozens of rows of plush chairs. Silk streamers in every Federation State's colors hung between massive LCD screens showing official Opening Ceremony watch parties around the globe. One, Bowser noticed, depicted a sunny room populated with green-skinned viewers. Okay, not just our globe.  Accordingly, two larger streamer sets in the Luma Primacy's three silvers and the Hegemony's iridescent citrine hung closer to the stage, one furnished with nine chairs and a single brass podium. Press photographers lined the outer aisles, cameras at the ready.

"That's him, isn't it?" Toadette tugged on Bowser's hand twice. He followed the direction of her gaze and gave a curt nod.

Saulus Gïga-Bowser stood just to the side of the stage, hands in his suit pockets, as Lakitu and Dry Bones exchanged hushed conversation with him. He and Lakitu looked downright merry while Dry Bones looked close to the opposite. Huh.

"Toadette! Is that you, darling?"

For the second time that night Bowser's hand was nearly yanked from his wrist. Toadette hauled him forward as she dashed to where Red Bones descended the stage stairs. "Red! Oh my gosh!"

Red pulled her into a quick one-armed hug, keeping her steel clipboard just out of the way of Toadette's hair. "Well, this is it! Excited to finally be in the big leagues?"

"You bet!" Toadette pulled away but continued to gaze up to Red with shining eyes. "Are you gonna sit with us?!"

"Of course, my dear. Wouldn't miss it for the universe. Even if our illustrious Director hadn't begged for my presence as well." She and Toadette rolled their eyes simultaneously. Bowser had to crack a smile at the sight.

They're not gonna assassinate us in front of a thousand people, he told himself. It's just a coincidence. Just a misunderstanding. They'd have a fun Opening Ceremony and banquet, and this time tomorrow they'd both have a gold medal around their necks— 

"Good evening!" Lakitu had taken the podium amidst a sea of camera flashes. Bowser and Toadette found their seats, sandwiched between Red on Toadette's left and Kingfin on Bowser's right. Bowser looked up from the seat's numbered golden plate to glance out over the crowds further back. He expected—okay, hoped—to spot the rest of Firebird in the racer-designated rows. Instead, he found himself face to face with—zero seconds—

"Hey," he murmured, unable to swallow the grin spreading across his face. See. It's alright. It's alright. She's here. We're safe.

"Hey yourself," Rosalina murmured, her single eye twinkling. She had donned the starry pendant Toadette had picked at the festival. "I take it the front-row seats weren't your idea."

So she was onto this setup as well. "Not much I can do about it now." Bowser sensed Toadette glancing toward them, but just as quickly she turned her head away. I'd probably better do the same. A wiser person would, around this crowd.

But Bowser had never staked once his reputation on wisdom. Instead he leaned slightly over his seat. "I'm glad you're here," he whispered before turning back around. 

She made no reply, but a few seconds later Bowser felt a gentle tug as one loose lock of his hair was tucked behind his ear. 

It's okay. We're okay. Nothing to fear. Nothing to fear.

"Good evening," Lakitu repeated as the hubbub finally dimmed. "Good evening. It is my immense honor and pleasure to announce, live from the beautiful countryside of the Blue Planet's Mushroom Kingdom, the Opening Ceremony of the Federal Bureau of Racing's Sixty-Fourth Summer All-Cup Tournament!" 

The auditorium erupted, as did every one of the onscreen watch parties. Bowser allowed himself to whistle, just once. Toadette had begun her heel-clicking again, but stopped abruptly once Red patted her hand. 

"Yes, yes, a grand time is in order! Now, before the flags fly, it is my pleasure to present His Majesty Saulus Kerog Gïga-Bowser of the Mushroom Kingdom with some opening remarks."

More clapping and a smattering of cheers ensued as Saulus took to the stage, his visage bleached for a few moments by the deluge of flashbulbs. Tonight he wore the full kingdom regalia: a string of precious gems across his forehead, three pairs of gold earrings, his former Chief Financier and Councilman medals, the single massive garnet hanging from a bronze chain around his neck, and a burgundy capelet anchored by the traditional spiked Kerog family epaulets.

"Does everyone in your family have a spike fetish?" Toadette whispered, to which Bowser nearly spit out his champagne. "Knew it."

"Thank you, old friend." Saulus adjusted the podium's microphone a foot higher, to a handful of laughs. "Hot crowd tonight. Good, good."

More laughter, louder this time. Toadette glanced over her shoulder before squeezing Bowser's hand again. 

"I want to welcome," Saulus began, "all of you gathered here tonight, and all of you watching from afar. Welcome to the single greatest test of skill and tenacity, of stamina and perseverance, that any karting athlete in our galaxy may have the opportunity to undertake." He nodded to the racer section, and the whole audience briefly cheered.

As he spoke, curtains behind the stage parted to reveal the room's largest LCD screen, much to the ooh-ing of the spectators.

"Welcome to the most massive celebration of our fair kingdom's economic might." At once the screen lit up with names and positions in elegant golden script—so many that Bowser soon lost count. "The FBR is known to many as the crown jewel of the Mushroom Kingdom. But our competitors rise to the challenge from all corners of the map, from solar systems near and far. We receive no small amount of support from citizens of every Federal State, from worlds beyond our own, and are all the better for it. Every one of these hardworking souls has spent many a sleepless night ensuring that this year's All-Cup is our best yet. Please, all of you, take time now to give thanks for their incredible efforts."

The auditorium rumbled as many stood or stomped their feet and whooped. Bowser raised his glass.

"Nice," Kingfin murmured, raising his own.

"Welcome," Saulus continued, "to the most harrowing of trials any of these athletes will ever face. Those hazards that merit little concern during smaller tournaments grow exponentially as the racers grow weary. As their stamina drains. Even the most careful and thorough of participants have found themselves victim to this tournament's relentless pacing, having taken the familiar settings for granted. Please, all of you, a moment of silence for all who have fallen to this most harrowing of trials."

In recent years past, every member of Firebird would find some way to make physical contact with Bowser at this portion of the speech. Koopa had always planted one hand firmly on his knee, Daisy would loop her arm around his, and even Waluigi would pat his shoulder. It had bothered him initially, but this time around Bowser realized just how much it meant to him; he gritted his teeth, wishing with all of his might that this evening's turn of events had been just an ugly dream, that he'd wake up and see the clock had rewound to before the caravan.

That said, Toadette had not let go of his arm. She held tight, keeping her little face buried in his shirt sleeve. Bowser took that instant to look over his shoulder.

Rosalina's gaze had withdrawn, and her hands were clasped together as though in prayer, one of supplication. For not the first time, Bowser wondered how much of her care for him had stemmed from survivor's guilt—that she could have taken the brunt of the blast, had only she outraced his parents that fateful day. That they would have survived, their faces scarred, eyes shredded, but alive and otherwise well.

Bowser could not say.

"On a particularly somber note," Saulus continued, "we have lost a much beloved former Director this year, and painfully recently at that. Words alone could not hope to communicate my personal love for Elvin Gadd. I won't presume to touch upon how much you all grieve his absence." He placed one hand over his heart. In addition to his usual tungsten and white-gold rings, a much larger one inset with a massive garnet flashed in the stage lighting. "One more moment, please, from all of you—for Elvin Gadd, gone far too soon. May he rest in peace."

"May he rest in peace."

Bowser had not attended an Ordinary in well over a decade, but the solemnity of the unanimous response evoked without warning the scent of incense. The darkened stained-glass windows high above the many screens did little to help. He lifted the champagne glass to his mouth and drank until not one drop remained.

"Welcome to the Blue Planet's most cherished of traditions." Saulus' face softened until he beamed over the audience. "I have no doubt that every person in this room has their share of precious memories of past tournaments watched. The All-Cup has set the dates for family reunions, for weddings, for coming-of-age celebrations and other rituals esoteric to the rest of us. Think of your early All-Cup memories now, and imagine what you'll share with your children and their children for decades to come."

Just like that, Bowser was back in Koopa's old family apartment, jumping on their poor ragged sofa as each kart's time was called. They'd holler as one kart in particular managed to hit first time after time after time. Then, years later, refusing to budge from that same sofa as he and Koopa camped out for days on end, taking close notes and formulating maneuvers of their own to test out. Not long after that would they find themselves in this exact ballroom, season after season, listening to speeches just like this one. 

Bowser squeezed Toadette's hand. All-Cup after All-Cup, for ten long years, had found her trapped beneath the Dry Dry Desert sands. Let's hear it for ten more years, Bowser swore, with you out here instead. 

He'd said nothing aloud, but Toadette still nuzzled her head against his arm. 

"And welcome," Saulus went on, "to the culmination of our planet's technological progress. The mechanisms supporting the All-Cup are the joint effort of our flourishing industries and top scientific minds. The fine sport of karting has long given our researches a dazzling stage, one upon which to push our means and resources to their highest limits." Saulus gripped the podium, leaning slightly forward, his orange eyes menacingly wide.

Bowser braced himself. For what, he could not say. Tower bells had begun to ring somewhere far away, foreboding and lovely at once.

"My last request for this evening," Saulus proclaimed, "is that we remember the north star of all our endeavors. The force behind all our ingenuity, the root of our all successes and the saving grace of all our failures. Our people." His eyelids drooped ever so slightly, softening that glare into something else entirely. Something, even Bowser had to admit, close to regal. "People, the Blue Planet's first and final gift to the universe at large. Our people, who bear the brunt of their leaders' mistakes. Our people, for whose sake the whole universe is worth." He slammed one fist onto the podium. "Welcome!"

The audience thundered, erupting from all sides until Bowser swore he'd gone deaf. He could have mistaken Kingfin's clapping for a earthquake and vice versa.

Toadette shot him a look. "Y'know, he's kinda charismatic. Considering." She winced. "Sorry, I don't know why I—eurgh—"

"Don't apologize." Bowser clinked his empty glass against hers. "The old man can give a speech." If nothing else.

"And now I'd like call FBR Commissioner Jugem Lakitu back up to the stage." Saulus readjusted the microphone height to another burst of merriment from the audience. "Lakky!"

"Splendid opening words, Majesty." Lakitu clapped until the audience died down to an agreeable level. "Yes, yes. And so we begin. Raise the lights!"

The stage curtains fell closed to hide the enormous screen. From a single trapdoor rose an oversized version of the iconic FBR starter lights, its sleek matte casing trimmed in wrought copper flames. 

"Pretty," Toadette murmured, her gaze following the starter lights as they locked in place far overhead. Stage lights in every color raced around it in loops and figure-eights, zipping around the auditorium and back again. The audience's hush grew to a murmur, to a buzz.

"Racers, start your engines!" Lakitu called. "Flags up!"

At once every person in the ballroom stood, arms and glasses raised. So too did the attendees of every watch party on all of the surrounding screens, some swaying drunkenly, others offering jovial support. The silk streamers within the ballroom began to billow as though from invisible breezes, flying high overhead until they brushed the marble ceiling.

"Three!" the audience shouted. On flipped the first light. Bowser wrapped one arm around Toadette, holding her close. She hoisted her champagne glass high, sending glittering pink droplets soaring. 

"Two!" On flipped the second light, as red as the first. Caution, it always signaled, caution. Not yet. Not yet. Stay vigilant. Bowser cast a glance around, ready for anything, but nothing seemed amiss. Further down their row stood Dark Bones on Red's other side, many drinks deep by the looks of it, along with what seemed to be the rest of the Mushroom Kingdom Council. On Kingfin's other side stood Saulus, flanked by Dry Bones and Lakitu's empty seat. 

"One!" On flipped the third, and every spotlight zeroed in on it at once. The ballroom went completely dark, a universe reduced to a single three-starred system. And yet Bowser could only feel a peculiar sensation at the back of his neck, a whisper-soft press of something lighter than air, colder than the grave, a lone satellite crossing the void. Again the bells tolled.

And at once all three lights flickered from red to green, green, green, nearly blue, as festive as they were dazzling. The multicolored streamers plunged to the earth like the checkered flags of old, and firecrackers went off overhead as the audience swelled. A chilling series of booms signaled the fireworks going off high over the castle, shaking the ornate ceiling and rattling high stained-glass windows.

"The All-Cup Tournament is officially underway!" Lakitu announced as soon as the roaring lowered just enough to hear. He trotted to the edge of the stage to shake hands with Saulus, with Dry Bones, and Bowser was hardly fit to deny him one as he went down the whole line. Toadette was too short to reach the stage, instead thrusting up her champagne glass once again in a fit of giggling.

Bowser turned in place to catch Rosalina's eye. A fit of bliss had overcome him, and he extended his hand, smiling like a fool. Rosalina bit her lip as though to keep from laughing herself, and clasped his hand. For a moment they swayed together, jostled by the audience on all sides, but all was well. He'd made it this far. All was well.

"Now, now, settle down, the lot of you!" Lakitu had returned to the podium. "Before we adjourn to the banquet, we do have a few brief announcements regarding last-minute kart entries and team structuring. I now invite FBR Director Dry Bones to the stage!"

The volume of the hubbub fell only a tad as Dry Bones ascended to the podium. Again the curtains behind him parted to reveal the massive screen as it lit up.

"Thank you, Commissioner. Welcome, again, all of you, to the All-Cup Opening Ceremony." He flipped open his thin leather binder as the FBR logo appeared on the screen behind him. "Now, without further adieu, as I detect some of you are a tad peckish..." A few laughs. "Up first, our most anticipated entry to date..." Bowser tried not to think about where Dry Bones directed his gaping smile. "Joining Team Mario, a racer of well-earned fame, Rosalina Toadstool."

Behind Dry Bones, the screen sprung to life with a rotating model of Rosalina's Honeycoupe. Toadette gasped, lunging so far forward in her seat that she nearly fell out. Bowser caught her, stifling a laugh. "I'm cutting you off at one glass from now on," he whispered. The Honeycoupe's aquamarine headlights seemed to glare straight through him. Not an unfamiliar feeling.

"Throwing for Toadstool is Luma Lee, a newcomer to the league. Both racers' stats have been uploaded to the competitor database." Dry Bones laughed through his nose. "But if you've waited until now to do your research, don't expect to make it to round two."

"Sucks to suck," Bowser whispered to Toadette, who chortled.

"Next! We've had quite a bit of restructuring of Team Firebird this season. Yes, yes." Dry Bones shot a glare at a row of groupies in the back who'd begun hooting. Bowser remembered them from years past—college kids of the chest-painting variety. Onscreen, a model of the Koopa King replaced the Honeycoupe. "Firebird's flagship kart and team captain, Rex Bowser, are joined this season by FBR Racer Development Program graduate Kinoko Toadette."

Bowser placed his arm back around Toadette's shoulders as Dry Bones cast them a cool glare. Don't even think about it, wise guy. Bowser had approximately zero qualms about throwing hands in the middle of a crowded ballroom.

"To those of you pondering the fate of poor Koopa Troopa, have no fear! He and newcomer Paretta Paratroopa are joining Team Firefly on the Para-Wing Kart." More hollering from that same back row.

"Do you know those guys?" Toadette asked, glancing over her shoulder.

"Not yet. I owe 'em a beer each this year just for bugging Dry Bones."

"Agreed."

"Speaking of newcomers, we have two very last-minute entries to announce. First up, Driver Roter Noko and Thrower Angoisse Shadow on the Concerto kart." The vehicle onscreen now was the ugliest Bowser had ever seen, clunkier than the Boo Pipes and surely no more aerodynamic. 

"I don't remember going over them," Toadette whispered. "Should we be worried?"

"Nah," Bowser replied. "Small-towners, probably. If I haven't heard of 'em then they're nothing to panic over."

"If you say so." Toadette sipped away at her champagne.

"Finally, on the Jetsetter kart are Thrower Styx Tartosso and Driver Rob Famicon." Dry Bones snapped his binder shut with a crooked grin. "That's it for Tourney-related announcements. We now ask the presses to remain on standby for an exclusive Mushroom Kingdom announcement at this time." 

The photographers obligatorily went apeshit as Saulus again took the podium. Bowser watched, transfixed, as Dark Bones and the rest of the Council members seated themselves in the plush chairs onstage.

What...?  

"Bow?" Toadette glanced his way through the corner of her eye. "What's going on?"

Bowser shrugged. Fuck if I know. His head had begun to swim.

"Yes," Saulus hummed into the mic. "Today marks a monumental date for my ancient family's line—the Kerog Dynasty." 

For a fleeting instant the whole stage disappeared into an ocean of white as the press photographers rushed the line of Shy Guys—Bowser did a double-take. How long were the Shy Guys there?  He shuddered.

"The man I call to the stage is young," Saulus continued. "I'd say he has his whole life ahead of him. Per the accords set in the Quiet Age regarding the checks and balances of my office, a suitable heir for each generation must be thoroughly vetted and trained for the weight of such a role. The amount of time deemed sufficient for such training and vetting is, at minimum, one decade."

No. No no no no— Bowser felt his jaw slacken, felt his lungs collapse, felt his heart stop. No—you promised—

"The person I name will serve as regent in the event of my incapacitation, death, or otherwise sudden inability to serve my people." Saulus gestured for the Council to rise. "Through a careful process of due diligence and after many months of deliberation, we unanimously decided upon the ideal person for the role. Many years ago, he asked that my name remain separated from his, so that the media would not mistakenly conflate my political clout with his achievements in racing."

You promised, Bowser shouted into himself, pleaded, begged. His tongue had turned to lead.

"But today marks the start of a new chapter of his life, of mine, and of the whole kingdom's." Saulus slowly inhaled, and when his eyes opened Bowser could not summon the strength to look away from them. "I, Saulus Kerog Gïga-Bowser, Sixty-Third of the Kerog Dynasty Line, son of Her Imminence Kerog Ursa Gyū-Maō, solely-reigning Monarch of the Mushroom Kingdom, now declare my righteously-determined heir." A beat, as the whole audience, the whole universe, seemed to hold its breath. "I call Rex Kerog Bowser to the stage."

Silence.

Bowser knew, knew in his head that the audience had again erupted behind and around him, that Toadette's hand was past cutting his circulation off, that his phone had begun buzzing nonstop, that Kingfin had already placed a sure grip on his upper arm. But all seemed to dissolve into white, into piercing cold nothingness, as his brain shut down.

You said—the one thing I asked of you, and you—you—

"Bow?" Toadette's voice quivered in his ears.

I—I'm—

"Let's go," Kingfin murmured, slowly hoisting him up. "Hang in there, kid. Easy does it. You're doing good. You're doing good."

Was he.

Bowser dully registered his champagne glass falling loose from his numb left hand. Whether it fell to the floor and shattered into a million pieces, or whether it were made of a stronger material than that, he could not say.  

The stairs folded before him. His legs worked without effort, his muscles somehow pumping without any signalling from his head. Up, up, up he climbed, until he stood level with the king, arrested yet again by to those glistening orange eyes. A leathery hand found his, squeezed it tight, nastily cool. Not a person's hand by any stretch of the imagination, it belonged instead to some cold-blooded creature belonging to a different world from this one entirely. A different epoch, all frothing magma and smoke.

"Perfect. Just like that. It'll all be over soon." As he spoke, Saulus removed from his hand the heaviest of his rings, the one Bowser had noticed in those dreamlike minutes before. Diamonds like teeth ensconced the red, red mouth of that middle stone, a beast mid-attack upon his hand. Upon Bowser's hand. Saulus had slid it firmly onto his middle finger, and sustained his frigid clasp as the photographers continued their onslaught.

A massive weight fell onto Bowser's shoulders—the spiked epaulets, he registered, a set of his own. Someone had fanned his locks out over a capelet of his own, had draped a chain of gems across his forehead. As Dark Bones and the rest of the council lined up to his right, as indistinct moaning blared from the stage speakers, as the audience before him blurred into a limitless frothing sea, Bowser finally pulled himself together enough to focus. His thoughts left the stage as his eyes sought out Toadette—was she safe, was this a distraction, had anyone thought to—oh. Oh.

Alright.

Rosalina had reached forward, her arm crossing over the Luma gentleman in the seat next to hers, to rest gently upon Toadette's shoulder. Without looking back, Toadette had placed her hand over Rosalina's. 

They're there. They're alright. That's what matters. That's—they're—we're—

"All set." 

Just like that, the white glare had faded, ushered out by that impenetrable line of Shy Guys. Out the many doors flooded the audience, hungry for dinner and chatter and for the rest of their lives to proceed. The heavy epaulets came off, the chain placed back in its intricately-carved box, each Council member stepping off the stage after having shaken his trembling hand.

The ring remained.

"We'll talk later," Saulus informed him, patting his back. "Get some dinner, Rex. Get plenty of rest. Good luck tomorrow."

"Okay," Bowser replied to no one in particular. The void just as soon swallowed up the word, and he may as well not have spoken. This, all of this, it was out of hands, beyond reason and belief.

A minute later and he was alone on the stage, doubled over, gasping for breath. When last had he breathed? Minutes ago? Centuries?

Six minutes, thirteen seconds. Fourteen. Fifteen. Alright. Alright.

He stumbled down the darkened stage stairs and out the unguarded doors to where the rest of his team awaited.

"Bow!"

"Holy shit, man."

"Are you okay, though? Did they do anything?"

"What the flip is that guy thinking? I mean, no offense—"

"Did he say anything to you?"

"He said that we'll—we'll talk about it later." Bowser loosely wrapped one arm around Toadette's neck where she'd tackled him into a fierce hug. "It's alright. It's, uh." He shook his head, bewildered. "I got a cool ring?"

"Oh, for Pete's sake—" Paratroopa looked close to yanking her hair out.

"That's classic Bowser for you." Koopa punched him in the elbow. "Distract him with cool accessories and he'll let you get away with anything."

"Untrue, and rude." He stroked Toadette's hair. "It's alright, partner. I had this hunch that they weren't gonna murder us in front of a live audience, and, sure enough—"

"Shut up." Toadette pounded one fist into his solar plexus without lifting her head. "Shut up, Bow. Just. Just shut up."

The team fell into bewildered laughter together, their voices echoing about the empty foyer. See, Bowser could have argued, everything would be fine. With enough of them all looking out for each other, nothing was impossible. Luck was clearly on their side.

Still, in respect to Toadette's wishes, he kept his thoughts to himself, only stroking her hair until her grip finally loosened a tad.

"Alright, kids. We can overthink all of this crap later. Now is banquet time." Daisy grabbed Luigi's hand. "Last one there has to cover the hotel damage bills!"

"What—?! No fair!"

"C'mon, Toad, they got a head start—!"

Bowser and Toadette pulled apart just long enough to exchange glances, both shouting the same thing at once. "Let's go!"

The race was on.


END PART I


Chapter Text


Interlude: Another Castle


It’s when two sharp raps ring from his door that he shudders awake. Not an action he would have chosen, given.

“GO AWAY!”

He is sick and tired and disgusted and done with every person he’s seen since the Cup started, every suit-clad gladhander and honey-tongued scumbag looking for a hook to wedge into his raw flesh.

“Rex? Is that you?”

All of the air is sucked violently from Bowser's lungs at the sound of a half-familiar voice. Peach’s face twirls and contorts in his low-level vision, kaleidoscopic. He struggles out of his bed, hits the floor, clambers to his feet, digs his nails into the paint-peeled walls to keep from keeling over again. The door is too far away, is a mile’s journey in five feet, and by the time he opens it he’s thoroughly exhausted.

And so it is to some form of credit not his own that he refrains from shrieking at and slamming the door on what awaits him on the other side of its jambs. That he refrains from kicking out the lone window and jumping two floors down to the bitterly cold streets below, that he manages not to run away and never look back. He looks, for better or worse.

Oh, it’s much worse.

She is Peach’s sister. That much he remembers from the before time. She is Peach’s sister, and she races, and she is a scientific prodigy. This he tells himself to make her seem real, like a person, like anything but the otherworldly ghoul looking over him now.

Her eye has been shattered. This he cannot say for certain but can instead guess from the blood-soaked bandaging over half her face. Her left wrist is braced in one of those 3D-printed casts, a midnight-blue exoskeleton of thin plasticement ridges through which he can spot traces of her bruised and stitched-up skin.

She was there. She was right there. She was—

“What is it,” says a shadow of his own voice, starched and rasped from his days of silence punctuated only by bellowing. He probably looks like hell right now. It’d have nothing on how he feels.

“Please excuse me for not having knocked,” replies that ghost of a person, and it occurs to Bowser that the front door indeed should have been bolted shut. But he’s past caring at this point. Some depraved looter breaking in and shooting him in the throat would feel like a quality service at this point. “I needed to meet with you privately. Elsewhere. It’s… not safe here.” She takes a step back, and it shocks him now that she hasn’t been floating on the stale air this whole time. “My car is downstairs. It’s cold out—” Again she looks him over, and frowns. “Maybe put on a coat.”

With that she’s disappeared, down the narrow staircase to the ground floor of his emptied apartment, out the front doorway. It’s the single source of light in the ugly space—a staticky blue rectangle of streetlamp glow that illuminates in fizzling bursts the bareness of the place. The furniture had been sold off to pad his parents’ estate, the trophies shipped in triple-lined boxes to the FBR’s Hall of Fame in the capital city. Everything else he’d burned up the night before in a half-sincere attempt to not freeze himself into joining them, wherever they are now.

His brain seems to snap painfully into action, electrifying the rest of his limbs into rapid, jerking motions that take a few tries each to hit their objectives. His feet find steel-toed boots, he wrestles on a wrinkled shirt, and if he owns a coat, he thinks not of it before stumbling down the stairs, tumbling over the last four or five.

Out the door he flies—until he skids to a halt before a deep blue sedan. It’s not of a make he can recognize. Up close, the blue paint has a stunning iridescent sheen. The engine is all but silent. An aquamarine glow emanating from where the cylinders should be makes spindly black silhouettes of the brake calipers.

“This way,” Peach’s sister calls from the back seat. He ducks in next to her—they’re both nearly tall enough for their heads to brush the ceiling—and she flips the rear temp dials to max even before he’s shut the door. Just like that, soothing heat blasts him from all angles, and in a perfect world this is how and when and where he dies.

When he wakes up, (so he’d passed out?) they’re speeding through the city. On F10, he gathers from the patchwork of highway signs as they zoom past. He does a double-take at the driver. A robot? A robot.

At least there’s someone in the front passenger seat, Bowser notes with no small trace of relief, a Luma with deep, lustrous skin in a fine dark suit. No robot’s processing power could ever match an organic’s instincts, his parents had always championed. Some things were plainly in the realm of machines, others plainly not, and that was that.

Well, here he is, being driven to hell knows where by a metal-bodied synth. Bowser sighs and looks over to the woman who had invited him here, and slowly realizes she had been speaking.

“—alnourished, need to head to a hospital as soon as possible, get him on an IV. Do we have anything in the—oh, good. Here.” The front seat’s occupant had passed her a foil packet of juice with an attached straw, which she now holds out to him. “Drink it.”

Bowser takes the packet and considers his circumstances in the way he hopes a reasonable person would. His parents are dead, now, but he’s not yet. Maybe he’s valuable. Maybe he’s being kidnapped, held for ransom. For how long had he passed out? Minutes? Hours? Maybe the juice is drugged, or poisoned. He stabs the straw into the packet and drinks deeply, emptying it into a flat void in one go, tasting nothing.

“Thanks.” He’s this close to falling asleep again. He could sleep for a thousand years.

The woman squints as though stung, then crumples the empty packet into a foil bullet. “Don’t thank me. I’m not here with good news.”

As though anything else existed. “May as well spill it. Not like I got more parents to lose.”

The Luma erupts in single jolt of scoffing laughter and immediately clears their throat. “Apologies.” Bowser likes their voice a whole lot. It’s the sixth word he’s ever heard this person say.

After a beat, the woman sighs and settles back in her seat, tugging the folds of her gray robe tighter about her frame. Her right eye, the uncovered one, is closer to him, and is all he sees. It’s a vivid aquamarine, just like whatever’s powering her whip. “Do you know who I am?”

He has to, or it’d be embarrassing on a number of levels. You’re Rosalina Toadstool of the ancient and magic-endowed Toadstool Dynasty. You renounced the throne a while back. Your sister just got kicked out of your family. You designed that space station they’re sending up right now. You won last summer’s All-Cup. Your Thrower’s in the front seat. Luma Polari. They’re in big trouble with three different governments. You smuggled them here under the Piranha’s noses. You raced together in plain daylight for a year before they noticed. You’re good. "I saw you at the funeral."

She blinks. "I couldn't not go," she replies, staring squarely into the front passenger headrest. "After racing with them for so many—"

"Oh, uh. No. Not my parents' funeral." He remembers nothing from two days ago. "The Ezekiels'."

Silence. The Luma seems to hold their breath. (Do Luma have lungs?)

"That one had well over a thousand attendees," Rosalina eventually responds, her visible eye wide. "I didn't think I'd stuck out enough to be remembered."

"I thought everyone who attended would be a buncha crooks. So you stood out." A flare in the sandstorm. "I couldn't forget you if I tried."

"Crooks." Rosalina closes her eyes, her lips cracking into a dim smile. "If I recall correctly, your uncle gave the eulogy."

Oh, had he. "Yeah, well. He's a politician."

Rosalina actually laughs, a hollow, rasping sound crackling from the back of her throat. It sounds equal parts amused and pain-stricken, and regret seeps from Bowser's skin like cold sweat. Dumb ass. Dumb ass. Rosalina technically counts as a politician, too, doesn't she? And he and his big mouth—fucking dumb ass

He needs to change the subject. “So, uh. Why are you here?" He swallows. "No offense, but I don’t usually get into cars with strangers.”

“None taken. You really shouldn’t get into cars with strangers.” She sighs, kneading her temples, and for the first time Bowser notices how her fingertips are charred. Chipping gray ash, deepening to pitch black at the nail. Jesus.

Her hands would’ve been closest to the blast, Bowser thinks then, clamped down on her kart's steering wheel. They would’ve taken the brunt of the heat. But, the shrapnel—

Instinctively he rolls the window down and sticks his head out, but his stomach doesn’t quite flip. The blast of winter air gusting by their speeding vehicle instead assaults his uncovered head and face. Could only the barrage snap his neck, cleanly, finishing this.

A hand on his shoulder gently pulls him back in. “Do you feel sick? We can pull over if—”

“Nah. Nah, I’m—” Well, he’s not good. “Don’t stop.” See, if the car stops, then he’ll open the door and jump into oncoming traffic, and the subsequent spatter might mar the sedan’s pretty paint job.

"Alright." Rosalina folds one leg over the other. "So. You're sitting here now because under no circumstances can we let this conversation be tracked. Or triangulated. The information I'm about to give you is sensitive, and..." She frowns. "Potentially inflammatory."

He is no stranger to things inflammatory. "Yeah? S'this about my parents? My uncle?" Seeing as she'd brought him up, of all people. Saulus is high up in the government, Bowser knows. Auspiciously high. He has medals and shit.

“Yes.” Her voice has grown eerily soft.

“Which? My parents or my uncle?”

“Both.” The word is hardly more than a whisper, borne on a shuddering exhale. “He’s—they’ve—”

The Luma in the front seat turns bodily around to look between the two of them. Bowser cannot read their eyes—there's no telling how Luma facial contortions belie which emotions or signals compared with a shruman's—but, if Bowser had to guess, he’d say they look alarmed.

“’s this about how they died?” he asks. Or why, he could telegraph. What if his uncle’s next? He and Bowser could be loose ends of this mess. Bowser doesn’t care that he’s in danger. But if his uncle were hurt—if his office were compromised—a coup—?

At once the car plunges into a tunnel. The one connecting F10 to MC General, if Bowser recalls correctly. He’s been here before. The neons of the city die as darkness engulfs the car. Only the internal controls’ LED lighting defines Rosalina’s profile, a thin blue line slicing the black.

“Virtually no one bet against their kart,” Rosalina replies, her voice shaking, rendering her words scarcely discernible. “Much less on a DNF. The pot was upward of five billion coins.”

Knew it. “Virtually. So, uh. One person.” How gross, Bowser thinks, that his parents died for the ugliest of racing tropes. “Who rigged that race?” he asks Rosalina. The Ezekiels are long dead, he knows for a fact, but there are always other sharks. His world is but one vast ocean. “…Rosalina?”

Rosalina takes a slow look at him. Judging, probably. Her gaze is mired in pity, in disgust, in perhaps one other thing. Her answer comes filtered through gritted teeth. “Saulus.”

“My uncle—is he in danger, too? Did he know something about—”

“It was Saulus.” She looks white as a sheet, clamping her jaw shut as she waits for him.

It was—what? No. Nah. No way.

His—Saulus and Rex weren’t, they—they weren’t—they loved each other! screams his head, they—this isn’t right. This isn’t—!

“No,” Bowser replies, smiling. This, it’s. Funny! It’s funny, a joke, a—a—they were brothers. Funny. Not funny. Cruel, wrong, sick—awful—

Rosalina looks away from him, staring out the window instead. There’s nothing out there to look at, Bowser thinks. Only darkness. Void. Oblivion.

WHY WOULD HE?! THEY WERE BROTHERS—WHY—HOW COULD—how—?  

“He didn’t,” Bowser reiterates, for what good it would do. His stomach is churning, sloshing, he’s—wouldn’t, he wouldn’t, he’s—money? Saulus is the Chief Financier, he knows all about money, shoot, he’s got the kingdom’s wealth at his disposal! “Why would he need the money?!” It’s not adding up. It’s not—

“Because of my mother.” Rosalina’s hands have balled into fists, white-knuckled, shaking in fury. She fires off her next words as though they'd burn her tongue if she held them back any longer. “There's already a vote of no confidence in place. Once word of Pauline’s disownment hits, Paula will become the least popular monarch in kingdom history. Moreover, she’s singlehandedly bankrupted the state. And Saulus knows it. Best I can tell, they made a deal.”

Bowser feels his bones turn to ice. Five billion coins. Not the almighty liquid battery of a global superpower, but just enough to keep a country in the gray for the time being. Until more can be added. Crooks. Crooks. Crooks.

In that instant Bowser is back in his parents’ garage. His dad is a pair of legs protruding from beneath a Firebird, and his mom stands behind him, her hands on her hips, watching Bowser practice balancing that month’s accounts. He’s fucked up twice now, and damn if she’ll let there be a third.

Follow the numbers, April repeats on end, into perpetuity. Her golden eyes flash. Follow the numbers, baby. If he’s vigilant, if he’s careful, if he does it right, then he can run his own garage, and she’ll stop haunting him.

His mother will never stop haunting him. “We need to find her,” he whispers to Rosalina. "If my uncle transferred the winnings to the crown, then there's—there has to be a paper trail. There has to be proof. If we got her to testify—"

“She’s denying all of it,” Rosalina replies, her voice a low growl. She sounds as sick as he feels. “But we may not need her to do the talking. I have people combing her paperwork around the clock.” Rosalina finally turns back to look at him, and her single eye shines. “But I had to find you first. You need to know the truth. In case Saulus—” She winces, her mouth twitching erratically, lost for words. "I understand that he's offered to house you. In the old Kerog castle."

In the palm of his hand. Bowser sighs, letting his head fall back. He closes his eyes. “Are you offering to put me into hiding?” To protect me from him?

“I can,” she gently replies, “if you want me to.”

Bowser thinks of that space station flying into orbit now. Would he be safe from his uncle offworld? Free to live and breathe, while Saulus finds some other hapless racer to target? Bowser tries to think of the next best-ranking racers after his parents. With a sting he realizes that both those people are sitting in this car.

“D’you think he’d do this again?” he asks without opening his eyes. “Bide his time, wait ‘til another kart hits a winning streak, then—?” Do you understand that you’ll be next?

“I think putting it past him would be naïve,” Rosalina eventually replies. “I think putting anything past him would be naïve.”

At last they exit the tunnel. A rush of vivid color blinds Bowser at first, then dazzles, then soothes. Acid rain patters against the windows, distorting the abstract shapes into fuzzy circles. Light breaks down into color, into heat. Somewhere, sirens ring. A fire's burning. He smells smoke.

He can’t leave this place, his home. He can’t hole up like a coward while his uncle slaughters more people to gild the crown. He can’t let Saulus get away with this shit scot-free. Not now that he knows.

That would be—April’s voice—irresponsible, Rex. It would be wrong.

“I’m not gonna hide,” he tells Rosalina, before his world fades to black.


When he comes to, he’s wired to shit with tubes and sensors. An EKG monitor beeps softly behind him. His hand alone is warm, is squeezing Rosalina’s for dear life. She’s fallen asleep in the chair next to his hospital bed, her bare toes near blue with cold. A leather-bound tome has slipped from her lap, its fraying cover embossed with a fanged mouth.

Three weeks, five days, ten hours and nineteen minutes later, she’ll send him his first set of spikes.

Chapter Text


PART II: THE TOURNAMENT


“Bow! Toadette!” Koopa skidded to a halt before them, then leaned on his knees to catch his breath. “Someone messed up your kart! Come see!”

No. Toadette felt her blood run cold, red slosh crystallizing into spikes beneath her game face. Hell no.

Not with her first pro race starting in under an hour. Not after the team had stayed up until dawn, half from perennial nerves and half to pound Bowser with more questions about his scary uncle. Not after they'd spent the morning battling platoons of paparazzi, with flashbulbs going off in their faces like grenades.

Just Toadette's luck that some creep would sneak in and mess up the Koopa King on day freaking one. Even and especially with the number of patrolling Shy Guys.

Were this many always deployed for the All-Cup? Or just because of this new political crap?

Either way, Toadette set her phasers to kill. They better not have left fingerprints, she thought, dashing past Bowser toward the Firebird kart bays, or I’m taking their butts out, then I’m coming for their family, then their friends—Toad or Paratroopa could surely track them down for her, and she could easily persuade Wario to let her borrow a—

Then she laid eyes on the kart. “Oh my gosh!” she shrieked before circling the vehicle in high-bounding skips.

Up Bowser trudged seconds later, looking altogether unperturbed that the Koopa King’s hubcaps were now spindly and glimmering pink. Contrasting perfectly with the kart’s acid green hull, they could have been carved from pure opal.

“Surprise,” he chuckled, rubbing the back of his head. “Dais 'n I snuck in and threw 'em on early this morning. Whaddya think?”

“What do I think?” Toadette tackled her partner in a hug, forcing him to stagger back a step as they laughed together. “They’re perfect!” Like six intricate doilies from one of Peach’s scone trays. “What kinda material is that?”

“Custom-fired zirconia,” Bowser replied through a somewhat wider grin. “And, yes, they’re kneecappers.” He hit a button on the dash and at once all the hubcaps popped out into razor-sharp spearpoints. Toadette leapt back in surprise before whooping. "Gotta match, yeah?"

Form and function. She pirouetted. Is this love? "Hey! Speaking of matching—check out my new bling."

“Hm?”

Toadette pulled her newest choker from her skirt pocket. Pastel pink and glossy, it resembled most of her other lace-trimmed necklets—save for the matte black spikes protruding from it in every direction.

“Jesus, Toadette.” Bowser wiped his eye as she displayed it high over her head. “You didn’t have to.”

“Get a roooom,” Toad groaned until Baby punched his arm.

Toadette harrumphed as she fastened on the strap. “You’re just jealous!”

Upgraded hubcaps aside, Toadette could not tell from eyeballing it that anything on the Koopa King had been tampered with. Wario felt around each Firebird kart for charges, and Koopa used a gadget quote borrowed from his boss unquote to check for hidden mics and locators.

“We're clean,” he soon announced, his expression bordering on disappointment. “But there's no telling what we'll find on the track.”

Bowser gave a grim nod after glancing over his phone. “It’s easier to plant something before a race than during one. So Rosalina’s gonna sweep around for the first lap. She can extend an eezo field from her kart that’ll set off anything thirty meters in front of her.”

Paratroopa's eyes widened. “So we’re just letting her have first position for the whole lap?"

"Thirty meters isn't much," said Baby. "What if she gets blown up?!”

“She knows what she volunteered for,” Toadette pointed out. More than we do, probably.

“Toadette's right,” Daisy added, her voice unusually soft. “She won’t make the same mistake twice."

A somber beat passed before Bowser nodded. “Everybody keep an eye out for each other,” he ordered. “See something, say something. Otherwise? Do what you came to do.”

After double- and triple-engine inspections, bathroom runs, and one big group hug, Team Firebird took their starting positions.

When they'd run Time Trials at this stadium on their vacation, its rolling green hills, gentle breezes and empty stands had made for a pleasantly tranquil afternoon. A perfect spot for a picnic. Now, the place teemed with racing fanatics and overtaxed vendors. Dozens of LCD scoreboards and ad panels blared and flashed away. The venue had sold totally out, Toadette could intuit, even in the standing-only lawns beyond each hairpin curve at the far ends. Helicopters, logo-studded dirigibles, and the occasional hot air balloon pocked the ash-gray sky overhead.

After begrudgingly yanking her gaze back down to earth, Toadette squinted over their competition. Looked like a few dozen karts, so upward of fifty racers. Someone had buffed the Boo Pipes; the clunky kart now perfectly reflected the satin sky and hollering spectators in all directions.

Petey glanced her way and gave a quick nod. This far out of the city, he'd been able to remove his head covering, but not his goggles or mask. He cracked his knuckles and made some quip to Ridley she could not hear.

Toadette harrumphed and leaned back against the Koopa King. No more Mrs. Nice Lady. She'd idly wonder what color Petey would bleed if she hadn't already found out long ago. Not long enough.

No. Focus. Rivals. Enemies. Destruction. Annihilation. Toadette gritted her teeth.

On Daisy's other side pulled up the same roid-bro from the garage race in his heavy barrel-shaped kart. His gangly nephew restlessly drummed his hands on their Thrower pedestal. Toadette halfway considered warning the kid that his Chucks were haphazardly untied, then thought better of it. See whatcha get for not paying attention, squirt.

In the next row down, Peach and Mario idled their Red Fire kart, an average-looking model that could have come out anytime in the last decade. For a flagship kart, Toadette thought, it sure lacked a wow factor. Next to Peach, the two teens Toadette had worked with at the bakery idled their train-shaped kart (heaviest lightweight cruiser in the league, she had noted, with an unusually high top speed for its engine class). On their other side pulled up Rosalina and Lee.

The Honeycoupe looked dazzling in the late-morning sunlight, its golden body contorting languidly in the heatwaves. Its two ultraviolet headlights cast a cool glow over the Boo Pipes. Rosalina had swapped her gray robes out for midnight blue biking leathers, and Lee had ditched his mask but not the ear plugs. Nor his amp.

Toadette wanted so badly to wave to them, but no way in hell was she about to alert that nasty king to the fact that they were all buddies. Did she know for sure he’d be watching? No, but better safe than sorry.

That said, the sight of Lee’s amp did pose a certain set of questions. “Are racers allowed to use magic during the tourney?” Toadette whispered to Bowser. “Or is that just for the bomb sweep?”

“They gotta stick to regulation Items like the rest of us.” Bowser glanced toward the Honeycoupe, then pulled a loose cigarette from his pocket and lit up. "Rosalina plays fair. If anyone here’s cheating, it won't be her. Or Lee."

You got that right. Toadette tried not to think of Dry Bones looking down over them even now.

To the Koopa King's left, Birdo and Yoshi slid up to the line. The Turbo Birdo's paint glowed so electrically that Toadette briefly wondered how it hadn't tripped off Wario's radiation gauge.

“Just so we’re clear,” Birdo proclaimed from her Thrower pedestal, “you lot are all fighting for silver starting now. You know me—I’m not into all that macho posturing B.S., but...” She downed a pint of vitamin mix in one go and hurled the empty bottle into the stands, provoking a brawl over the thing. “Facts are facts are facts.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bowser grumbled. He puffed irately on his cigarette, averting Birdo's gaze.

Now that would simply not do. Toadette had so not spent half her life in a semilegit racer boot camp for her big-named partner to weenie out on day one. She hopped up to perch herself on the Thrower bar and gave Bowser a once-over.

Birdo, too, could tell something was up. She threw Toadette a fix it look from the corner of her eye and inspected her studded nails.

It occurred to Toadette that Bowser really had been acting like a muted version of himself for most of that morning, sulking about in that old gray hoodie instead of his usual bare-armed roistering. He hadn't even thrown so much as an obscene gesture in the general direction of the Banshee kart bays.

Had he fallen ill again? Unacceptable. Toadette pulled out her phone.

Could R do that magic thing again?? Fast??? she texted Lee. No immediate response. Was his phone on silent? She made monster faces in his direction until he caught her eye.

What, he mouthed through a flustered grin, cocking his head slightly. Toadette jabbed one finger against her phone. Lee winced and pulled out his pockets. Empty.

Well, crap. Toadette groaned in exasperation and stuffed her phone back into her skirt pocket. Now what?

Then a glint caught her eye—a red one, refracting off the giant ring now chomping on Bowser's right hand. He'd begun fiddling with it as he smoked.

Right. Okay, sure, Toadette could hardly blame him for any moodiness, what with all this political shit hanging over him. But the clock was ticking down to when they'd need to be on their A-game.

Time for a wake-up call. Toadette leaned all the way over the taller Thrower bar until her face was upside-down in front of Bowser's. “Every time Birdo tries to psych you out,” she instructed in a stage whisper, “think of how grumpy I'll be if you don’t do your best on my first real race.” She flashed as menacing a grin as she could muster and headbutted him. Yeowch!

“Pff—yeesh. I hear you." Bowser sat up straighter in his seat and slowly exhaled a curling trail of smoke. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right. S'game time." He tossed the dead cigarette away and stretched. "C'worry about that other shit later."

"That's the spirit! Time to get mean, partner."

"Pfft. Hey." He gently nudged his forehead back against hers. "Good luck. To the both of us.”

“Eheehee. Copy that.” Toadette flipped back onto her feet, her nerves now buzzing. Luck, huh. That old flake. But better to have it and not need it, she supposed. "Let's get us some medals, Bow."

Bowser cracked his neck. "Yes, ma’am."

“Testing,” Koopa’s voice fizzled up on Firebird’s closed radio line. “Louie, you still awake? Dais, you focused?”

“Yes and yes, smartass.”

“Can’t complain ‘bout the weather,” Wario chuckled. “Not so much-a smog here as the city."

"Should be just like we practiced," said Luigi. "Environmental hazards are, uh. One Chain-Chomp. ...Two? One. Jesu, I hope it’s still one—”

“And only use the dash panels on the hairpins’ outer lanes if you’ve been slowed by an Item,” Toad advised. “Otherwise they have zero or negative impact on average times.”

“And that,” said Daisy. “Uh. Not much else. Kid stuff. Keep an eye out for any upstarts, but I'd pay closer attention to our usual problem people.”

“First person to figure out what Ridley ‘n Petey’s Special Items are,” Bowser instructed, “gets their next bar tab covered by yours truly.”

“Aw, heck yes!”

“For real?”

"Excluding minors."

"No fair!" Toadette could practically hear Baby's pout. "I turn twenty in just—"

“Eyes up, people.” Paratroopa pointed to where Lakitu floated up on his cloudcraft. The buzzing of the titanic stadium stands erupted into all-out cacophony as he held the All-Cup Start Lights aloft.

Toadette cast one last look over her shoulder. Past the second row, she could not recognize a single racer or kart; small-towners, Bowser had so often repeated, as though he and Koopa and everyone else hadn't been newbies at some point. Toadette knew better than to dismiss any of them so readily.

At the end of the furthest row idled the two latecomer karts, the Jetsetter and the Concerto. Curiously enough, all four of those riders were masked in some fashion; black wraparound sunglasses and opaque skintight mouth coverings for the Concerto’s racers, and a mirror-lensed racing helmet on the Jetsetter’s Thrower. But, his driver—

Eek. Toadette bristled on instinct. “Guys,” she whispered into their radio, “are robots allowed to race?” That’s a ROB unit in a windbreaker, or I’ll eat my next Item.

“Uh.” Bowser turned in his seat to follow her gaze. “What?”

“It’s starting!” Daisy hissed as the spectator stands around them rumbled in sudden furor. The first of Lakitu’s lights had flashed on, a searing red that made Toadette’s eyes itch.

Come on. Toadette gritted her teeth, gripping the Koopa King’s fender as the second red light flickered to life. Come on—whoever that stupid robot was, it’d be a no-bot once she was through with it—

Third light. Toadette breathed out, clearing her head for her muscle memory take over. Push now!

She would not remember the sight of all three lights flipping to vivid blue-green. The knowledge that they were theoretically doing so was sufficient enough, was something she could take by faith, by the speed of their world falling away as the Koopa King's tail pipes flamed up. Her vision was all on their six as she kicked off the ground and propelled herself up onto the pedestal. She knew Bowser had tattooed his foot into the gas pedal only by the thundering of the cylinders beneath her feet and the shrieking of the Koopa King's tires.

The vehicular roaring all around them disoriented Toadette for a hot second, rattling her ears as the sour odor of gasoline plumed the air. But with that, all was lost to the wind as they rocketed forward. Twin blue-white bursts blasted forth, casting deep shadows from everything beyond her tailpipes.

A Double-Dash. The sweetest of lucky charms.

“We got this!” Toadette hollered to Bowser as they plunged forward. Three other karts had also netted the extra-extra blue boost: the Honeycoupe, unsurprisingly, and the Turbo Birdo—as well as the tank-like Concerto.

Are those newbies really that good?  Or just beginners’ luck? See, Toadette could tell Bowser, told you so!

Petey, Paratroopa, Baby and Peach had landed solid boost starts, their gold-hued tailpipe flares leaving the rest of the racers in a murky cloud behind them. No Items yet, so Toadette kept her eyes open for any rapid accelerators.

The Jetsetter had initially spun out, Toadette noted. Heehee. But to her surprise, the sleek kart soon began to zoom through most of the competition in the rear with a string of masterfully-executed Mini-Turbos. He can snake—just like us— "Charger to our five, thirty yards back."

“Yeah? Who?”

“Jetsetter. The one with the robot!”

“Robots can’t race. It’s some freak in a costume—” Bowser abruptly swore as Rosalina snagged the sole double Box from right ahead of them. He manically banked them through an adjacent single Box. Out spat a Green Shell.

Poo. Toadette chewed her tongue and then abruptly retracted it—something about old habits and dying—and then her jaw fell away altogether as the Honeycoupe ignited. No—!

The rest of the world seemed to dim as an aqua-hued blaze subsumed the kart. Toadette's heart thudded against her ribcage. “Did Rosalina hit a bomb?!”

Bowser shook his head. “Not yet. This is her Special Item—the Launch Star. Watch.”

Her heart pounding, Toadette gripped the Thrower bar until her knuckles blanched. Without warning the Honeycoupe surged forward, more blue flare than kart and ringing with a low VWOOOMMMM. Instead of merely boosting her speed, the Launch Star appeared to squeeze the empty space ahead of the Honeycoupe into a void, warping the kart through like a vacuum.

That was her, Toadette realized with a jolt, at the caravan—she's that biker—! “She could jump clear from eighth to first with that thing.” Like Toadette's stomach wasn't twisting enough already. Plus—Trust Rosalina to get her Special Item on the very first Box. This was a nightmare.

“We can worry about her next lap. Just hold that Shell til after Birdo drops th—Christ—” Bowser abruptly swerved them out of the way of Birdo’s Banana. “All you!”

Toadette wound up and threw. An instant before her Shell hit, Yoshi pulled a hard right to dodge. Fine with Toadette; as the Turbo Birdo blew extraneous seconds on rebuilding their acceleration, the Koopa King and Bloom Coach both sped past. “Koopa, Wario, Baby, where y’all at?”

“Crowd control,” grumbled Walugi. Moments later, the familiar boom of a Bob-omb went off to Toadette’s four. She felt the tiniest gust of a shockwave tickle her elbow, but they were well outside the blast radius. “Sixteenth ‘n climbing. Fourteenth—"

“Baby’s grappling with one of the Mario kids—”

“FUCK YOUR SHITTY CUPCAKES—!”

“Just saw Ridley snag a Box,” Paratroopa yelped. “Looks like... a red Fireball?!”

“Isn’t that Mario’s Item?” Toadette replied inline, bewildered. As Special Items go, it’s not… that... special…

“Wouldn’a been my first choice,” Bowser gruffed. “They really flew to the desert just for that thing?”

No way they did. Toadette scowled, mentally rehashing her unfruitful chat with Petey. If Dry Bones had done something else to him or Ridley, why couldn't he have told her? Stupid jerk.

"Maybe it's the default Special Item? If there is such a thing?" Waluigi clicked his tongue. “Ay, he just used it to wipe out two karts behind him at once. Better strategy than Mario, I’ll give him.”

“And better than having no Special Item at all," Bowser conceded. "Toadette, hang tight for the hairpin.”

“Roger.” Keeping one hand firm on the Thrower bar, Toadette waved to the frenzied trackside audiences as they flew by. Out of the corner of her eye, however, sprung a problem. “Bow, it’s that kart again! With the robot driver!”

“Bring ‘em on. They packing anything?”

“The Thrower’s got something—” Something Shell-shaped, but concrete gray. Lacking any sheen or luster, the thing looked like a hole gouged into her line of sight, setting her nerves on edge as it approached. Fast. “Wha—seven! Seven o’—”

“Sh—” But Bowser swerved them too late; Tartosso’s Shell flew straight into them, colliding with the bumper beneath Toadette’s foot before shattering into dull dust.

Toadette inhaled sharply as the Koopa King—as it kept going. No crashing. No spinning out. Instead, she felt the engine cool down beneath her feet. Huh?

Bowser glanced over his shoulder. “What’s happening back there?”

“That Shell hit us!”

“But not hard enough to—?” Bowser swore. “It’s slowing the kart!”

“Yep.” Toadette glanced back up to find the Jetsetter quickly closing in. Sure enough, the Koopa King's speed was now reduced to a crawling pace. Just behind the Jetsetter, the Concerto kart and Turbo Birdo loomed.

Bowser pounded one fist into the dash. “How long you think this’ll last?"

“Counting the secon—Bow, they’re closing in. Impact trajectory.” Toadette braced herself for a grappling attempt. That kart’s Thrower—Tartosso?— was far taller than she, and there was no telling how much muscle lurked beneath his Ferrari bomber jacket.

Moreover, he was reaching not toward his kart's flash-printer, but inside of said jacket. 

What...? Toadette felt her blood run cold. “Bow, evasive maneuver! He’s pulling a—”

CRUNCH!

“Yeek!” Toadette jerked way back against the Thrower bar as the Concerto kart collided pell-mell with the Jetsetter, violently knocking it into the rough of the track shoulder. Is that driver crazy?!

Bowser whooped. “Engine’s powering back up! D’you count the seconds?”

“S-seven,” Toadette stuttered, still shell-shocked. “Bow, that Tartosso guy—”

The wind abruptly rushed from her lungs as they hit the ramp's dash panel. While they flew through the air, Toadette glanced over her shoulder to look ahead of the kart. The lone (phew!) Chain Chomp in the distance snapped at the Honeycoupe as it sped by. She’s still that far ahead?

The Koopa King hit the ground with a bounce as they entered the second half of the lap.

“Motherf—!” Daisy waited too late to swerve away from the Chain Chomp; to Toadette’s horror, the giant beast snapped up the Bloom Coach whole and flung it way out onto the rough. “My bad!”

Bowser grimaced as they crash-landed. “You two okay?!"

“Not injured,” Luigi moaned. “Gonna have nightmares for weeks.”

“And y'all wonder why I don't sleep!” Daisy cackled as she floored her kart.

Toadette stared the Chain Chomp down. The track curved perilously around a good section of its yard. If they swerved too far out of the monster’s way, they’d add needless seconds to their time. Stray too close and they'd be lunch. Toadette hardly envied Daisy in this instant.

"Help lean into the turn," Bowser called as they passed up the limping Bloom Coach. "Got a narrow window coming up."

"Leaning!"

The Chomp strained at its tether as the Koopa King blew by. Gosh, were those teeth sharp. It had to be the size of fifty Chompies, and—sure enough—had a corresponding level of stinky breath. Toadette gagged. Nasty!

Suddenly a pink blur appeared in her peripheral vision. “Bow, we got Birdo on our eight—er, eleven!"

Bowser did a double-take and shuddered. "They're nuts to cut through the yard. You saw how fast that thing can move."

Toadette winced. Our dumb asses distracted it for her. Or, technically, Bowser's had. "Could... I drive next lap?"

"Yeah. Wanna switch as soon as we hit the straightaway?"

"Okay!"

Toadette glanced at the rankings on their dashboard. Rosalina remained deep in the lead, but Birdo was on course to reach her midway through the second lap. If Toadette kept up Bowser's power sliding, then she could reach them before the third lap, barring any Item shenanigans. But behind them—oh.

The damn Jetsetter again. “Bow, our guys are back at it. And the driver's got a—” A gleaming red orb, too perfectly circular to be a Fireball. “Do we know what Rob Famicon's Special Item is?"

“Only one way to find out.” Bowser steered them hard to their two, pulling dead in front of the Jetsetter. Grade-A schmuck bait. Sure enough, the riders swapped spots; the robot-looking one would have a clear shot, were aiming necessary.

But there was something in Tartosso's face that had Toadette’s blood running cold yet again. Well, the small bit of his face that she could see—well, his, or hers, or theirs—for all she knew the racer could be a freakin' Luma—until he turned to pound one fist into Famicon's torso. Like glitchy toy. Ugly pictures danced in Toadette’s peripheral vision until—oh snap—!

The Rob Famicon racer crushed the orb of red light in both—hands? In blocky magnetic mittens? No, Toadette wasn't buying it. That same hue of red light beamed up across the visible stretches of the racer's body in right-angled veins (circuits?!) until reaching their sleek visor of a helmet (optics!).

Two red eyes flickered to life on the glassy dark surface, confirming the worst of Toadette's suspicions. It's— “Bowser,” she hollered, “drop out!”

Just as they had practiced, Bowser slammed the brakes and yanked the steering wheel to cut out of their trajectory. Right as the Jetsetter kart cruised by, Famicon let loose its Special Item—a searing beam of red light erupting from both eyes.

BLAMMMM. It zapped across stadium before dissipating a moment later. Toadette blinked, once, twice, not trusting her own eyes. What're you doing out here—?!

“The fuck?!” Baby shrieked as the rest of their teammates reacted similarly inline. “You guys see that shit?”

“Was that an Item?”  Wario hissed.

“That,” Luigi whimpered, “was a laser. Right? Right?! I’m not going crazy?”

“I saw it too!” Paratroopa yelled. “How much damage y’all think that coulda done?!”

“Let’s not find out,” Koopa moaned. “Please?”

Bowser shook his head as they rounded the hairpin. "Toadette, you still wanna drive?"

Eurgh. "Yeah. Yeah." Give her something else to focus on. "Ready when you are."

"Go!"

Toadette slid into the driver seat, her fluffy skirt poofing up and filling the cockpit to cushion her in place. She flipped the cruise control off and resumed their snaking as they checkered for lap two. Zero bombs had gone off beneath Rosalina's field, and so Toadette’s stomach had eased up somewhat on its interminable flipping. All was calm.

Too calm. Toadette glanced at the radar. Huh— "Hey, where'd the Jetsetter go?"

"Let's see..." Bowser craned his neck to scan the horizon. "Anybody got eyes on the newbie karts?"

“Just passed them!” yelled Toad. “That Noko chick keeps trying to turn the Jetsetter into a pancake. What gives?”

Does that driver know any other moves? "This isn't bumper cars," Toadette growled. "Bow, we better invest in body armor after this. For us and the kart."

"Seconded. Almost feel bad for that Thrower of hers. Guy's probably sick by now." Bowser cleared his throat. "Not that I'm complaining.”

"Teehee." Toadette continued forth, dodging the occasional stray Shell and Banana with ease. Up here, ahead of the bell curve, she had far fewer distractions to hinder her than if they'd fallen back into the thick of it. She could hear the occasional crash or spinout off in the distance as the mid-range racers jostled against one another. One of the furthest-placed karts Kamikaze'd straight into the Chain Chomp and had to be pulled from the race, prompting her teammates to trade blistering insults until the annoying Caution period ended.

Ridley reared his head halfway through the lap.

"From our five," Bowser called to her. "And Petey's got a Green Shell. Maybe hit some of the outer panels, throw his aim off."

"Good idea." Toadette steered them through a single-Box and dashed to their eleven. "What've we got?"

"Banana. Holding for defense."

With Birdo and Rosalina still far in the distance, Toadette squinted at her rearview mirror. Up Ridley sped, hugging the inner curve tight. Behind him, Petey wound up, and—

BOOM went a Thunderbolt.

Toadette shrieked as the stinging sparks crossed her skin and killed the Koopa King's engine. She glanced in the rearview mirror while restarting the kart and grinned. Bowser's Banana had flung from his hand—straight into Ridley's path.

"Oh you motherf—" Busy with restarting his kart, Ridley had failed to swerve in time. Out the Boo Pipes spun, straight into the rough. Petey's Shell lay uselessly on the track behind them as their wheels dug deep into the gravel. "Assholes!"

"Eeheeheehee!" Toadette blew Petey a kiss just before hitting a dash panel. A second later they'd left the Boo Pipes in the dust.

Behind her, Bowser gave a nauseated groan. "D'you know how fucking lucky we were? If I'd tossed the Banana wrong, and they'd spun out earlier than—?"

"They would've been immune from the 'Bolt, I know, I know." Party pooper. Still, Toadette pressed on, pleased with herself for the time being.

Meanwhile, Yoshi and Birdo had continued pounding the Honeycoupe with homing Eggs. By the time all the stricken karts returned to normal speed, they were only one length behind Rosalina.

"They're gaining on her," Toadette called, releasing the clutch for a Mini-Turbo.

"So are we," Bowser replied. "Aim for the Double Box if you can."

That she could. A few moments later, their flash-printer spat out two Items: a plain Mushroom and a spiky green Shell. Bowser's. "Now we're talking!"

"Hell yes." Bowser spun his fledgling Special Item on one finger. "Time to shake this joint up."

Toadette grinned. "Wanna run Operation Red Carpet? Or use one of 'em now?"

"That Double-Dash was a good omen," Bowser answered. "Let's carpet the straightaway."

"Roger!"

Toadette had no memory of attending an Ordinary. If she'd ever stepped foot in a temple, then that memory was long gone. Toadette had no idea what rules or traditions governed prayer. She had no idea how to pray at all, really. But now she was trying with every fiber of her being.

Don't lose either Item. Don't lose either Item. No theft. No more Thunder. No theft. No Thunder. Theft she could generally avoid with her own maneuvering, but right now she'd happily accept any blessing within reach. Her one meager consolation was that the Ghost Item had long been discontinued. Next to that thing, in Toadette's opinion, a dumb Fireball was a serious downgrade.

Yet something told her Petey would have thought as much.

Whatever. Focus. Around the bend they flew. Toadette again steered the Koopa King over the outer dash panels to max out their speed. How had Wendy always put it? Basic advice is for basic racing. That. "Now!"

Toadette and Bowser swapped positions right at the onset of the straightaway. Before her feet could reach the Pedestal, Toadette squeezed her Mushroom and then held on for dear life as the Koopa King's acceleration rocketed up. Wheeee! She swung herself back around into the Driver seat, all those years of early-morning crunches finally paying off.

At the same time, Bowser landed on the pedestal, wound up and pitched—right before their boost fizzled out. "YES!"

Bowser's Shell rapidly swelled to its true size while flying ahead at thrice its regular speed, spinning dizzyingly fast on a perfect forward-leaning axis. It crushed every stray Item unlucky enough to sit in its wide path, leaving Toadette a flawless shot forward.

By the time the monstrous thing reached Yoshi and Birdo, Toadette's view of their kart was wholly blocked. Not that she needed to see the collision to—

BANG. "Gottem!" Toadette cackled and gave a dainty parade wave as the Koopa King flew past the smoldering Turbo Birdo.

On both sides of the track the spectators were thundering clouds of stomping and screams. Guess they liked that little maneuver. Toadette honked the Koopa King's horn a few times before returning her focus to the race.

"C'mon c'mon c'mon—" Bowser was leaning so far forward that Toadette felt one of his locks brush the crown of her head. His giant Shell had lost none of its frightening speed upon flattening the Turbo Birdo. Again the beast blocked most of Toadette's view down the road. Would Rosalina or Lee hear it approach—?

"Whoa!" Toadette hissed and abruptly swerved to their eleven.

Rosalina had indeed noticed the giant Shell just in time to pull hard to the right. Now the Koopa King was with dead even with the Honeycoupe. Toadette's stomach of course picked that precise moment to jump into her throat.

Eurgh— "Bow, switch back!"

"Huh? Aight." They swapped positions right as they crossed the line for the third lap.

Something about facing Rosalina one-on-one had Toadette scared witless. Her stomach had knotted itself into a twist and begun somersaulting nonstop. She gritted her teeth, clutching her Thrower bar in a death grip, and forced herself to look up.

See, she jeered inwardly, if Bow can race her, then so could you. Couldn't he?

But Bowser had practically begun to glow as he and Rosalina met gazes. There was that exhilarated face Toadette had so missed this morning, red-gold and wide-eyed—like how he'd been on that balcony in Mushroom Bridge, rivaling the sunrise itself. Awoken.

He and Rosalina scarcely seemed to be watching the oncoming road at all. An unspoken conversation was happening, Toadette could tell well enough. Were they challenging each other? Bantering? Talking smack? Then she did a double-take to catch Lee making goofy faces at her.

That little—! "Let's beat 'em!" she shrieked to Bowser, pounding both her fists on the Thrower bar.

Her partner beamed. "Let's."

As Bowser veered to their ten, the world fell away, fading to a soft pastel palette of blurring brushstrokes beyond the bounds of their track. All the stadium's thundering, their teammates' radio chatter, and even the desperate whining of the Koopa King's tires faded into white noise. Toadette clutched the Thrower bar with one hand and strained to keep one eye on their six. The kart rumbled beneath her feet as Bowser snaked them into a seamless chain of dizzying curves and power-slides.

Dizzying, yet not unpredictable. Somehow, some way, Toadette found herself perfectly anticipating every dramatic veer and turn. She leaned effortlessly into each vector, sailing smoothly down this waterfall of a road. Definitely sailing, between the whitewater frothing in her ears and the yellow-flecked black river twisting lazily before her. This—whatever this trance was that she'd fallen into, lullingly quiet and exquisite to behold—Toadette liked it.

Rosalina and Lee in turn managed to match the Koopa King's maneuvering with near-symmetrical movements. Their two karts were dancing, Toadette thought as she swayed, magnetically intertwined as they hurtled together down this endless path forward. More than once Bowser pulled them close enough to grapple, yet Lee each time managed to parry or block Toadette's shoving. Tricky little bastard.

Moments later, it seemed, they had reached the final hairpin.

At once the world came roaring back in a rush. The Koopa King’s hull felt so hot as to melt the soles of Toadette's shoes, and the wind whipped furiously at her braids and skirts. She took a flexible stance, just in case Bowser decided to veer from the given path to go for the dash panels again.

Bowser glanced at the side mirror. "Hey, is somebody charging up?"

Toadette whipped her head around so quickly she bit her tongue—stupid—in time to spot Tartosso and Famicon speeding toward them. Had they gotten a Mushroom...? "Jetsetter to our six!"

Bowser growled and adjusted their vector. Rosalina continued to cut them off at every angle, banking from side to side as though she could predict each of Bowser's thoughts. Again Toadette's stomach lurched.

No. Focus. Focus. Toadette spat blood and wiped her stinging mouth with the back of her hand. By the looks of it, neither of the approaching riders were packing any Items. "Think we could slingshot off the Jetsetter?"

"Only if they'll pull up even with us."

Easy money. "That's what they were trying to do last time. This time, neither of 'em have any Items!" Just whatever's in that jacket of yours, mister.

"Thank hell. Alright, let's bait 'em." Bowser made to veer treacherously close to the inner track boundary. If the Jetsetter pulled flush, then Rosalina would have to juggle cutting them both off at once.

But to Toadette’s horror, the robot driver continue to press on past the Koopa King's grappling zone. That creepy Thrower was now just out of her reach. Darn her short arms— "Bow! Your nine! He’s right on you!"

Tartosso again reached into the front of his jacket. Bowser snarled and pulled the Koopa King sharply to the right. But they were now firmly out of track; another inch and they'd veer into the rough gravel, dooming their heavyweight kart to roll uselessly in place.

That said, Toadette let out a breath as they approached the final straightaway. After glancing behind and shouting something to Lee, Rosalina veered toward the inner curve, leaving a clear route past the Honeycoupe to first.

Take it. Just get away from us. Just— This was only the first race of sixteen. Toadette knew, deep down, what her priorities were. So, better that the Jetsetter passed them up than for that crazy Tartosso to keep attacking with—wait. "What?!"

"Jesus—!" Bowser narrowly dodged Tartosso's backhanded strike. Something his fist flashed in the sunlight, shimmering black and stiletto-tipped. The Jetsetter had stayed on the Koopa King even with a glaringly straight shot to the gold.

"That scrub's not even here to race!" Toadette yelled. "Bow, we gotta get away from him!"

Ahead of them, Rosalina and Lee nodded to one another. At once the Honeycoupe banked hard to the left, dead in front of the Jetsetter. But with the Koopa King's speed maxxed out, could Bowser pull ahead in time...?

Famicon maintained the Jetsetter's speed, pulling to barely an inch from the Honeycoupe's bumper. Bowser kept the gas pedal floored, angling himself to dodge. "Almost th—shit!" He ducked as Tartosso made another quick stabbing motion toward his neck. "Fuck off!" Bowser shouted, jamming one thumb into the newest button on Koopa King’s dash.

SsshhinggCLANG went the kneecappers as they popped out from the Koopa King’s wheels. The spikes knocked the Jetsetter a solid foot away and blew out one tire, gaining them a moment's relief.

But again the racer took a striking stance, leaning precariously off the side of his Thrower pedestal as it buckled from the blow. Another second and his kart would stall, yet still he raised that black needle high.

He’s gonna— Toadette lunged over her Thrower bar— "Bow—!"

CRUNCH.

Toadette's jaw fell open. “Again?!”

Right as Tartosso had swung his arm forward, Rosalina had slammed the brakes. At the same time, the Concerto kart had appeared out of nowhere and plowed straight into the Jetsetter from behind. The crushing force of the two karts pulverized the Jetsetter into a hunk of smoking twisted metal that disappeared behind them in a heartbeat.

Trash sandwich, Toadette thought with a warm burst of glee. Then a pink blur caught her eye as it flew past. "Bow, fang it!"

"Been doing that!" Bowser power-slid around the remainder of the curve, steering furiously to keep from spinning out into the rough. "The both of those newbies are outta their heads. What the hell..."

Toadette slid back onto her feet, her heart threatening to burst from her ribcage. Her throat felt cold, like she'd just run a mile. "That was so close. I'd thought—he was—"

"Yeah." Bowser sniffled and released the clutch as they reached the straightaway. "Yeah."

To Toadette's dismay, Yoshi had clearly obtained a Mushroom, or three—he and Birdo had outpaced the Koopa King even at the furthest end of its speedometer. By the time the Koopa King reached the finish line, the Turbo Birdo was a pink dot on the horizon.

Still, they checkered. The world went silent save for the pounding of blood in Toadette's ears. She sunk down on the pedestal as their kart slowed into autopilot for the victory lap. Her skin had begun to melt off, by the feel of it.

"Damn," she wheezed, fanning herself. "Hey, uh. You okay, Bow?"

"Uh." By the sound of it, Bowser was turning about in the seat so he could face her. "Yeah. I'm good. Prick never landed a hit." He exhaled in a sudden gust of laughter. "Toadette. This was your first All-Cup race—was your first pro race ever. And you placed."

Toadette sat straight up. Oh my gosh. Wait, then all this crazy shit had been real life. Not some wacky dream after she'd scarfed too many sweets. We placed. In the All-Cup. We got silver. Even after all that nonsense with the Jetsetter.

She wiped her nose and scrambled back onto her feet. Her legs were shaking so bad— "Bow, we placed! We placed!" She threw her arms around him, both in a genuine hug and to keep from toppling off the kart like a rag doll. "Wooohoo!"

Bowser squeezed her tight with one arm. "You did awesome, Toadette. Listen. Toadette?" His eyes glistened. "I’m so—I’m so proud of you, Toadette. You did it. I'm so proud of you. God—”

We did it. They’d made it through. Toadette felt her eyes fill and flood over. All around them the audience had leapt to their collective feet, stomping and cheering her ears into submission. Clouds of white and gold confetti gently floated through the air like metallic snowflakes. We really did it.

“Thanks for this,” Toadette whispered into the crook of Bowser's neck, her voice close to breaking. Her life flashed before her eyes, what little of it she could remember—so much gray, for so long, and now all glittering silver starlight. "Wouldn't have made it here without you." Not to here, to this place at this time.

Sure, maybe alternate-universe Toadette had won gold. Blonde Toadette, maybe. Probably the same Toadette whose parents were still kicking, whose partner wasn't the target of a high-stakes gambling conspiracy. The same Toadette who'd never met Petey or Wendy, or—

That Toadette was missing out, she thought, squeezing Bowser tight.

“Psh. You wouldn’a made it here without you.” Bowser held up his free hand, now curled lightly into a fist. "You even beat Petey. So don't ever let anybody tell you you aren't the top of your class. You earned this."

“Best in class, huh." Toadette cracked up and bumped him. Then an aquamarine glow caught her eye. "Ooh, look—Rosalina made third!”

Bowser glanced up and inhaled sharply. “Hot damn. She musta kept going right after hitting that freak.” His throat quivered against Toadette's ear. "I owe her. For blocking him off, I mean. That guy—he was—"

Out for blood. Well, Toadette had warned him. "Maybe we can return the favor sometime. How'd she not total her kart?"

"Fuck if I know. But I like your armor idea." Bowser shook his head and hugged Toadette one more time. "Team, how—how're we looking?"

"Fourth," called Daisy. "What the hell happened up there? Passed up both the newbie karts before we checkered—one of them was sitting scrap!"

"One guy kept attacking Bow, so Rosalina flattened him." Like a crepe! Toadette's stomach rumbled. Noon already? Boy, could she go for a crepe or two. Or twelve.

"And then the Concerto nailed him from behind," Bowser added between hoarse laughs. "They deserve each other."

"How poetic," Daisy drawled. "Y'all, report in already!"

"Just took sixth," Koopa sighed as the Parawing checkered. "Couldn't quite catch up to the Boo Pipes. The boys are right behind us."

"Cut Mario off last second," Toad piped in triumph.

"Hell yeah we did. Womp wooomp." Baby chortled. "Wario, y'all finish yet?"

“Eleventh,” Wario sheepishly reported a few seconds later. "Sorry, kids."

"Don't apologize," Daisy scolded. "Think of it this way—you beat out thirty other people!"

"Heh. Ay, Bow, Toadette, you two make it outta that shit alright?"

"Just rattled. Asshole couldn't get a hit in." Bowser slid back into the Driver seat and lit another cigarette. Toadette briefly debated asking him for one, in the off chance it'd cure her shaking. "Look, we gotta do some research on those newbies. I don’t like getting taken by surprise."

"No shit,” Luigi muttered. “Looked like that Concerto driver had a damn blood vendetta."

"For all we know, she does." Toadette cleared her throat. "But... guys? I think Dry Bones paid off the Jetsetter Thrower. That Tartosso guy—he's gotta be a bounty hunter."

"Oof. That would make sense, though..."

"For the record, I literally told all of you this would happen." Bowser kneaded his eyelids. "But what the shit was with that robot driver?"

"That was my clue," Toadette replied. "That racer isn't a person. It's a ROB unit. One of Dry Bones' machines that helped him out in the labs." She swallowed. "Rob Famicon? It’s a made-up name."

More than one gasp sounded over the line. Bowser sat straight up in his seat. "Fucking hell."

"We gotta report it," Koopa called. "Machines can't race."

"Dry Bones probably got IDs forged for it," Daisy murmured. "Doubt reporting it would go anywhere."

"Then we post photos of it online. Nobody with a close-up view of that thing would mistake it for a real person." Paratroopa clicked her tongue in thought. "Toadette, is there any way we could find schematics of those ROB things you're talking about?"

"Hrmm." Toadette racked her brain. "Not sure. But they've gotta exist somewhere. Dry Bones would tweak them every now and then, add new functions to them, replace parts. No way he'd delete his own blueprints." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, however, Toadette could only think of Petey stumbling, horrified, into Gadd's destroyed office. "Toad, you made it into the labs' servers before. Think you could do it again?"

"I couldn't," Toad answered, "But I think I know another Scout who could. Just gotta find out how to make it worth her while." He coughed. "Assuming His Majesty here doesn't object."

"I ain't snitching on you." Bowser exhaled a gust of smoke that quickly dissolved into the breeze. "Damn, looks like they already cleared the Jetsetter wreckage."

"Aww," Daisy groaned. "Was hoping to get a photo in."

"Don't give up," said Koopa. "Doubt this was the last time we'll see 'em. Think that Tartosso dude hit the locker rooms already?"

"There's one way to find out," Waluigi muttered as they approached the track exit. "Might have to make a pit stop after this. But stay together when we disembark, kids. Don't let anybody within three feet of Bowser."

This was far easier ordered than accomplished as the karts pulled back into the Mach 6. To think Toadette had considered that morning's paparazzi overwhelming. She vowed to procure a pair of mirrored sunglasses ASAP while they slowly made their way to the winners’ pedestals.

Once she could see over the crowds, Toadette looked them over for any sign of Dry Bones. Show yourself, scumbag. But even when the six medals were brought forth, Lakitu presented them himself and made no move to call the Director up. Toadette wasn't sure whether his absence made her feel better or worse.

When it was her turn to receive her silver medal, Lakitu at least looked ecstatic, his cheeks flushed and shiny as he held the gleaming disc aloft. "Miss Toadette! This is truly historic moment for yourself, might I say. Congratulations, my dear. Let’s hope there are many more to come."

"Thank you," she piped as the commissioner carefully slipped the medal's blue ribbon over her head. At least she didn't have to drop to one knee for him to reach her, unlike some people. Toadette good-naturedly ribbed Bowser with her elbow. "Oh—Mister Lakitu, is Chief Red B—Red Bones around? I don't see her anywhere."

"A very good question, my dear. Perhaps she's upstairs with the statisticians. If I do bump into her, I'll let her know you asked!"

"Oh." Toadette swallowed. "Alright. Thanks."

She squeezed Bowser's hand tight as yet another wave of photographers snapped them with their medals on. There was no denying that something felt off about winning her first FBR race without Red.

But, Toadette supposed, being the Chief probably meant having to work while everyone else partied. Bet she's up to something super important right now. That surely had to be why. It'll work out. I'll see her again, soon. Toadette threw on her biggest smile and held Bowser's hand as high as she could, bending his arm slightly at the elbow.

He laughed and lifted her up onto his shoulder. Now her view was even better, but she still found no sign of Dry Bones. Too mad to show his face after his foiled hit? Heehee.

Another thought struck Toadette, and she looked for an MKNN camera. Wendy? Guys?  They had so better be watching this live. She waved to the closest cameraperson. Look. Look. Hang in there. Soon you'll be out here, too. They'd have to fight her to get to this stage, though.

But especially now, with Bow slated to possibly gain some political pull? Maybe he could find a leg up against Dry Bones from a different angle. While dodging whatever else that wicked uncle of his was planning to lob at him. Hmph. Toadette tucked one of his loosened locks behind his ear. It could happen. They could make it happen.

At least Toadette could spot Petey in between flashbulbs, his mouth tugged into a warm grin. Those tattoos of his glowed even through the fabric of his sweater. He'd clapped when her name was called, his pretty eyes outshining the flashbulbs.

Toadette blew him another kiss. A not-so-mean one, this time. Now that she'd beaten his green butt on live intergalactic TV, maybe she could forgive him for being a sneaky jerk. Just maybe.


Once the photo shoot ended, the placing racers all were ushered to another stage for a press conference. Paratroopa hung back way to the right where she'd have a good view of the crowds. She strained her eyes for one particular face, one unhelpfully common helmet, and one unique robot head amongst them all.

Okay, so possibly not that unique. One of Dry Bones' machines, Toadette had said. Trust a supervillain like Dry Bones to have secretly been building a robot army.

Yet no matter how far and wide Paratroopa searched, his pasty mug was nowhere to be found. Up on the press conference stage, the namecards had been made only for the racers and for Lakitu, who would moderate.

"We'll begin with a few remarks," the Commissioner announced, "and then we'll open the floor up to questions. Now. Fantastic first race, all of you! Welcome to the newest members of our winners' circle, and hello-hello to some familiar faces. Ohoho. Let's start off with our gold medalists, shall we?"

Catherine Birdo waggled her tongue. "Us? We're sitting pretty. I got nothing."

Yoshi's response came out a tad more measured. "Even if my partner won't admit it," he softly laughed, "we really did get lucky right at the end. Don't look at me like that! Someone's gotta say it." He yawned while Birdo rolled her eyes. "Uh. We may tweak our torque a bit. Think we skidded around more than I would've liked. Hoping to shave off a few milliseconds for tomorrow's time. Other than that, yeah, I got no complaints. Friends, you can catch all afterparty deets on my Insta." He tapped his headphones twice and settled back in his chair.

"That's what we like to hear. Now, Miss Toadette? Your Highness?"

The audience began to buzz around Paratroopa. On reflex she glanced over her shoulder—but, nope, nothing out of place. Shy Guys stood paired at every doorway and kart bay entrance. As much as Paratroopa detested them, right now she wished to hell they'd do their jobs without a hitch. No more letting any hitmen get that close, okay, guys?

Bowser and Toadette exchanged glances. Please go, he mouthed to her, please. They played rock-paper-scissors. Paratroopa bit her knuckle to keep from laughing with the rest of the audience.

"Um." Toadette had lost. "Maybe it's because it was my first All-Cup race, but—that was pretty crazy!" She gave a shaky smile and swallowed. "I mean, it was fun, but—we, um. We definitely weren't expecting another kart to chase after us the whole time. I mean, not after us specifically. Did anybody else notice that?"

Lakitu's eyebrows shot up. "Notice what, dear?"

"Whoever Styx Tartosso is," Bowser suddenly growled, "wherever you are, I'd appreciate it if you'd quit trying to stab me with a non-regulation Item. Just play by the rules. That's all I'm asking. Sound doable?"

His last few words were subsumed in the gasps of the audience around Paratroopa. Good, she thought, balling her hands into fists. Blow this crap up. If Dry Bones wanted to sneak around, then they could at least fire up all the searchlights.

"My word," breathed an elderly woman to Paratroopa's left. She wore a thick yellow garment that covered her from head to toe, leaving only her wizened face exposed. "He what, now?"

"Please! Settle down!" Lakitu gave an uncomfortable laugh and returned to his seat. "We'll, erm, we'll review the footage, of course! If what you're alleging is true, then we at the FBR will of course take all necessary punitive measures toward the, that is, the alleged rulebreakers. Ehem. Yes. Now, Director Toadstool? Young master Lee?"

The audience erupted into cheers as Rosalina pulled her microphone closer. "I'll begin by stating that we also noticed some odd behavior from Tartosso. Reviewing the footage should be a priority that I pray the officials immediately pursue." She cleared her throat as a smattering of claps followed. "No, the race went about as well as it could have for us, I think. Still a bit rusty, clearly..." Some laughs. "Lee?"

"Where do they even get Chain Chomps that big?!" Lee shrilled into his mic. "No, seriously, that thing is straight-up nightmare fuel. High octane—"

"Indeed! Yet you all seemed to have survived it just fine. Hoho." Lakitu leapt to his feet and approached the front of the dais. "Now, we have time for a few questions..."

“That was him,” a breathless voice murmured behind Paratroopa. She glanced over her shoulder to find Baby in a furious, if hushed conversation with Wario. Huh?

"Yes, you there. Come on up." Lakitu held out his mic.

The chosen journalist bound to the front of the audience. "My question's for His Highness Rex Kerog Bowser.” Oh, boy. Paratroopa squinted to make out his badge—MKNN. Of course. “You were appointed heir regent to the throne of the Mushroom Kingdom barely sixteen hours ago. How will this development impact your presence here in the All-Cup?”

Next to Paratroopa, Koopa threw his head back and groaned. "They really gotta do this right now?"

"It'd be weird not to bring it up," Paratroopa pointed out. "We're lucky the FBR doesn't technically answer to him yet, or he could be facing a conflict of interests."

"Beh. I guess."

Paratroopa grinned and squeezed his hand.

Bowser took a deep breath. "Uh, frankly? I forgot all about that stuff while I was racing. So, uh, thanks for reminding me."

"Pfft." Not that Paratroopa would blame him for it, if true. One race in, and he'd already had to deal with a bounty hunter. What'll they come up with for race two? At least a few audience members cracked smiles.

“Honestly, I’m still processing it,” Bowser went on. “My—uh. The king didn’t exactly give much warning. So.” He leaned back in his seat and slowly exhaled. His brow furrowed, then relaxed. “In a perfect world, I think I'd like to put all this royalty stuff on hold, at least until the Cup’s over. Racing's been my entire life—and I mean my entire life—until now. It's the only thing I've ever wanted to do, the only thing I've ever cared about. But…” His mouth twitched. “Okay. If I get called on to, uh. To serve my country, somehow, in, uh, in my official capacity? Well... I’d drop everything to go do that.”

Paratroopa inhaled sharply. You mean that? Or was Bowser just throwing out stuff that he thought sounded nice and regal?

But now that she thought about it, he had indeed been willing to put his whole career on the line at least once before. No, twice. Twice, and on zero notice. That Paratroopa would never forget.

So there was a chance this wasn't all bullshit.

“You mean to say you—for example, you would be willing to forfeit an elimination race to attend a legislative review?”

“Uh. You know what? Apologies to—to my awesome partner—but, yeah, I would.” From Paratroopa's vantage point, she could catch Toadette squeezing his hand under the table. He shot her a quick grin and flared his nostrils. “Look. My uncle gave a welcome speech at the Ceremony last night. A pretty poignant one, we thought." He and Toadette exchanged glances. "You remember any of it? You remember what he said was—was his north star?” Bowser glared at the journalist as though expecting him to answer.

The poor guy frantically shook his head. Paratroopa bit her lips to keep from giggling.

“Our north star is our people,” Bowser answered for him. “Our—our citizens. Well, now I guess they’re my people, too. Mine to—to look out for. To protect. So.” Bowser cleared his throat. “I mean, I really hope they don’t gotta pull me out of the Mushroom City race. That'd be a dick move.”

The hometown contingent cracked up, bringing a whiff of fresh air to the tense moment. "Don't fuckin' try it!" Koopa hollered over the din.

“But...if they have to?" Bowser leaned back in his seat. "Then, yeah, fine. I’ll duck out to go see what’s up.”

Scattered applause, with more whooping from a handful of racers. Even the old woman next to Paratroopa nodded approvingly. Lakitu motioned to another journalist for the next question.

“This one’s for Director Toadstool, and it's along the same lines. Ahem. Director—at your last All-Cup, you had renounced your claim to the throne and were free to race to your heart’s content. Now, you’re the direct overseer of the single largest initiative in Federation history—and one of very few people who understand how all its parts fit together. So. Why enter this tournament, knowing you could be risking injury or fatality amidst all this, potentially jeopardizing so much? Why now?”

“Why indeed. Thank you, by the way.” Rosalina momentarily pursed her lips. “Cashing in on my last All-Cup win was no split-second decision. Please know that. My partner Lee and I had debated it for—for quite some time. We covered every worst-case scenario. Formulated backup plans. Delegated tasks. Yes, we both had rather full plates while working on the Observatory, even days ago. To heap on this extra commitment—" She laughed through her nose. "I would discourage anyone else from making the same choice, by the way. Does that make me a hypocrite?”

A few laughs. Paratroopa swallowed; a tiny guilty part of her was ringing with gratitude that she didn't have to answer a bunch of dumb questions on the spot. I'd better memorize some talking points for when we do place.

Moreover, why did Rosalina's voice ring so at the back of her head? It itched away, that pang of familiarity—dulled by time, sure, yet present nonetheless. From that MKNN special on Gadd, perhaps?

“But the conundrum we kept coming back to,” Rosalina continued, “was this: if not now, then when? When ever again would we both have just enough freedom in our schedules to pull this—forgive me—this sort of stunt—without facing certain failure?” She and Lee exchanged grins. “I cannot go into too much detail about our work. But I can confidently say that matters are only going to grow more, ehm, turbulent in the near future. So, if I’m going to race—if we're going to race in my last All-Cup ever—we had to do it now. While we both still can.”

What. Paratroopa's head spun. This was it, then? Rosalina’s final tournament?

Then again, Paratroopa supposed it really had been a miracle that Rosalina could race in this Cup to begin with. She herself had had to pass long lineup of vision and reflex exams to qualify, to say nothing of the paperwork. Eurgh.

Still, something in that notion made her heart hurt. Paratroopa wanted to be able to race for the rest of her life. Well, that, and someday release a line of eezo-modded Battle karts. Still, no space for last All-Cup ever in that bulletproof plan.

"All that said, I hope my opponents remember what's at stake, should they think to aim at me." Rosalina's one eye shot daggers over her winning smile until she gave a wink. Paratroopa shivered in spite of herself. “Have I answered your question?”

"S-sure." The reporter swallowed and handed the mic back.

“Next!” Lakitu clapped his hands. “We can take a few more…you, young lady?”

“Yes! Excuse me, uh. Hi. My question’s for Master…Luma Lee? Is that right?”

“That’s me!” Lee grinned and sat forward.

“Alright, so your predecessor is now infamous among racing circles for his—”

Lee’s glittering black eyes flashed. “He’s doing great, he and my Mama are happy together, and he doesn’t regret a single minute of his last tournament. Next.”

The onlooking crowds immediately buzzed. Rosalina gave Lee a disapproving frown without turning her head.

Koopa bent near Paratroopa to whisper. "They're talking about Rosalina's old Thrower—Luma Po—"

"Luma Polari. I know." She did know. '62 had been the wildest year of Paratroopa's life until now. She'd won twenty blue coins betting that the Honeycoupe's mysterious, soft-spoken Thrower had, in fact, been a space alien disguised as a shruman. Even if she'd later lost ten coins on which species.

“Now, now!” Lakitu waved his arms in the air, for what little good it did. “Please, settle down! Settle down!” Nearly a minute passed before the noise returned to a bearable level. Toadette had begun texting someone furiously, Paratroopa noticed. When Lee become distracted by his own phone a moment later, she had a strong guess as to whom.

The reporter cleared her throat. “Erm. Actually, seeing as your predecessor had the unique honor of being the first Luma to particip—excuse me, are you texting?”

“No,” Lee replied right as Toadette’s phone buzzed.

“Children,” Lakitu pleaded.

Lee gave an angelic grin. “Please continue.”

“So, given Luma Polari’s, shall we say, stained legacy in—”

“Stained?” Lee squinted. “Really? What exactly did he do to you, could I ask?"

“I would say entering a Tournament under false pretenses, thereby breaking multiple Federation laws, including neglecting to register as the first of your—”

“Debates on the Federation's and Primacy’s takes on sentient tracking,” Yoshi (of all people!) gently crooned into his mic, "remain ongoing to this day." Next to him, Birdo looked ready to die of ill-contained laughter. “I suggest we return to discussing this race we all just finished?”

“Fine. Okay. Thank you.” The reporter ducked back into the crowd, leaving to go find a stiff drink by the look of it. 

What you get for being an edgelord. At least Lee looked relatively unbothered. Poor kid, Paratroopa thought, having to answer on live TV for what somebody else had done years ago. Onstage, Toadette chortled and resumed blowing up Lee's phone.

“Hi. My question’s for Miss Kinoko and Master Lee.” At that, Toadette started and shoved her phone into her skirt pocket while Lee similarly snapped to attention. “Speaking of Luma Polari's landmark All-Cup win, how’s it feel to place in your first ever All-Cup race? You two are, notably enough, only the eighth and ninth ever to do so.”

Toadette exchanged glances with Lee, whose shit-eating grin said exactly enough. “It felt amazing,” she exclaimed into her mic. “My partner and I have been practicing super hard, and obviously it’s paid off so far. Lee, why don’t you tell the nice reporter how you feel?”

That earned her some laughs and a how could you expression from Lee. “Placing was nice. I think I’m gonna keep doing it. Birdo, I have a question for you.”

Again a clamor broke out. By now the panel had spiraled completely out of Lakitu’s control. He sighed and gave a deferential wave for Birdo to go ahead.

“Hiya, squid. Sure, I’ll answer yours, but only after you answer mine.”

“But I asked you first!”

“Tough toenails." Birdo cleared her throat. "Do you even have a driver’s license?”

Lee froze. “That’s your question?!”

“That’s the question.”

To Paratroopa's surprise, Lee rolled his eyes and groaned. Wait— “So, fun fact: you don’t actually need to be able to drive a car in order to race on karts. I am in possession of a beautiful class M license, thank you very much.”

Paratroopa laughed through her nose. Hell yeah, kid. Cages are for weenies. She needed to hang out with this guy in the near future. Maybe they could rehearse their boring talking points together. Kid clearly needed practice.

“Do we have a stats person nearby?” Birdo asked the crowd. “How many racers have driven karts in the All-Cup without possessing at least a class C?”

“That information's freely available on the Mushroom Kingdom Civic Database,” Lakitu sighed, rubbing his temples. “Young master Lee, please ask your question.”

Lee wiped his nose. “Birdo! Wanna hang out with me and Toadette after this?”

“No.”

“Aww, seriously?!”

"I'm not hanging out after this," Toadette deadpanned into her own mic. Next to her, Bowser cracked up, slapping his knee in mirth.

Lakitu's smile had long frozen into a stiff grimace. “Ahem. One—one last question, please, if you don’t mind—you there, sure, come up. Please, go ahead."

To Paratroopa's surprise, Lakitu had beckoned to the elderly woman in yellow who had stood next to her. Sure enough, Paratroopa spotted a press pass clutched in the woman's gnarled hand as she hobbled to the front of the crowd.

“This is for his Highness,” the old woman rasped into the microphone Lakitu handed her. Paratroopa watched, mystified, as she read her question from a tiny notepad. “Many All-Cup tracks have been erected over the past decade in locales far from here. Isle Delfino has a one in its capital city, for example, and a swath of the Kong Jungles was leveled for a new track last year. As a result, karting and other forms of vehicular racing have spiked in popularity." Some cheers broke out, but the woman's mouth trembled. "Highness, these places have since incurred heavy damage from plummeting air quality. I must ask, could you—?"

“Oh, no, that’s enough,” yelped Lakitu, who snatched the microphone back. “Excuse me, perhaps another—someone else—”

“Continue your question.” Bowser leaned forward, propping his elbows on the panel table. He shot a glare toward Lakitu. “It’s fine. Seriously. Just let her—”

“Now, now. Miss Kylie! Miss Kylie Koopa, might you possibly—?”

As the crowd parted to let Kylie Koopa forward, Paratroopa realized with a jolt that two Shy Guys had arrived to escort the previous journalist away. The two guards nearly bowled Paratroopa over as they dashed toward the old woman.

What the hell? Paratroopa froze in place, not believing her eyes. The poor lady hadn't even gotten to ask her whole quest—oof. She flinched as her phone suddenly buzzed in her back pocket.

On instinct she glanced up toward the stage. Bowser and Toadette were looking straight toward her. Follow her, Bowser mouthed. Please. His canines had glinted sharply in the stage lighting.

Paratroopa nodded to them before dashing after the Shy Guys. By the sound of his footsteps, Koopa had followed along as well.

The two guards ushered the reporter toward a door marked SECURITY. At least, Paratroopa noted with a drop of relief, they weren't dragging or holding her. Just one marching in front and one behind.

"Ma'am!" Paratroopa skidded to a stop and paced alongside the guards. From the corner of her eye she noticed Koopa pulling out his phone. "What's your name?"

"Bohne," replied the old woman. "Lima Bohne. B-O-H-N-E—"

"Where are you from? Where can we come find you?" Surely the feds wouldn't keep this old woman tanked for any longer than—

"Beanish," she croaked, "but been staying in Ricco Harbor for—for a long time, now. Saw his—his Highness's coronation last night, knew I needed to be here." She sniffled but held her head high. "Flew in soon's I could."

Wow. "How can I contact you? What's your numb—?"

"Please step away," the Shy Guy nearest Paratroopa ordered in a tinny monotone. "Arrest in progress. Please clear the area."

"—your number?"

"Please clear the area."

“Ma’am—!”

"I write for Sottomarino!" was the last the old woman could cry before the heavy door thudded shut behind her.

Silence. Paratroopa felt the blood drain from her face. "I know that zine," she breathed. "Thought it got shuttered ages ago." Blue and green headlines danced across her mind, then orange, then red—

"Sottomarino?" Koopa frowned. "You know what? Yeah, it does ring a bell."

"Think it was based out of Delfino." Wasn't it? Paratroopa strained her memory. "Ricco Harbor’s a city there, right?”

“Yeah. Been there a few times with Bow. Big port town about an hour from the capital.”  Koopa glared at the security door. "May as well head back. Not much more we can do here."

That was true enough. Paratroopa sighed and turned away, but she could not shake the feeling that she was betraying old lady Lima. That they were leaving her behind.You were just asking a question. Why was that so bad? "It's like…like we're abandoning her."

Koopa found her hand and gently squeezed. “We’ll find a way to help her. Knowing where she’s from and where she works—it’s a good starting place. Don’t lose hope.”

You dweeb. Paratroopa squeezed back. After taking one last look at the door, she walked with him back into the auditorium. Kylie had apparently asked Rosalina her last question.

"—without him. We can't pretend all sit here and pretend nothing has changed. Gadd has already left his mark on this league forever, but... to think he's never coming back..." She shook her head, the corners of her mouth quirking. "Whoever killed him is a monster. There's nothing more I could hope to add."

"Thank you again, Director. It means so much to hear—"

“And that concludes the FBR All-Cup Postshow Press Conference!” Lakitu leapt toward the nearest camera as the crowds around the stage began to disperse. He had to shout his next bit to combat the volume of their buzzing. “The first of many to come, to be sure. I would like to congratulate all our racers on a fine show today. No more questions, please! No more. These racers have—have places to go—"

Kylie Koopa rolled her eyes before sidling up next to him. "As for MKNN viewers, stay tuned! She’s back and she’s better than ever, Rosalina Toadstool herself will be interviewed by none other than yours truly in just a moment. Don’t change the channel! We’ll return after these messages.”

Whew. Paratroopa fell in with the rest of Firebird until Bowser and Toadette were okayed to clear the stage. Sometime in the past minute, Bowser had lit yet another cigarette.

Only when they reached the Firebird garage bays did the Shy Guys fend away the photographers. With the paparazzi safely out of sight, Bowser leaned against the cinderblock wall and sunk to the floor. "Christ, that was some shit.”

“I don’t remember last season’s conference being that wild,” Daisy dryly laughed. “Though we can all probably figure why.”

Toadette hopped onto the Koopa King and kicked her heels against its fender. “Did anyone catch Dry Bones, by chance? Or that Tartosso guy?"

"Not in the auditorium crowd," Waluigi grumbled. "Got a good look all around.”

Bowser laughed through his nose. “Probably throwing a tantrum in the exec offices. I’m guessing this race didn’t go like he wanted.”

“Ay-fucking-men to that.” Wario rubbed his nose. “But that Tartosso fucker ghosted, too. Locker room was empty when I checked."

"Wasn't in the women's locker room, either." Daisy made a face. "Hey, you never know."

“No, I appreciate it. But it figures. Probably had to report in before any of the officials could snag his ass."

"Doubt that’s the last we saw of him, though." Luigi had already begun patching the Bloom Coach's many bite marks. "Or that robot.”

"Yeah. We better keep an eye out. Hell knows if Dry Bones'll let the officials DQ 'em." Bowser exhaled and looked Paratroopa’s way. “You two. Any luck?”

Koopa nudged Paratroopa’s shoulder. Okay. “Lima Bohne,” she replied after clearing her throat. “She's a BeanBean expat living in Ricco Harbor on Delfino. Said she flew in last night as soon as she saw you get appointed."

Bowser blinked. "Damn. Was she a real reporter? Lakitu acted like she'd thrown something at me."

"That's the weird thing, Bow." Koopa folded his arms. "She told us she wrote for the Sottomarino. When's the last time you heard that name?"

"Uh. Jesus. Forever ago." Bowser licked his teeth. "Science mag, right?"

"I think so,” Paratroopa replied. “Did something happen in either of the places she mentioned? The Kong Jungles, or Delfino?" Nothing she’d heard in any mainstream news had hinted as to such. Nor, more worringly, from any of her under-the-table feeds.

"Been searching around a few different news sites, but dunno what she’s referring to." Toad harrumphed and sped up his tapping. "I don't know what we should even be looking for. By air quality, did she mean pollution...?"

"Weren't we just at all those tracks six months ago?" Daisy asked. "I don't remember anything looking, er, damaged. Nothing like Mushroom City, anyways."

Koopa frowned. “Right. But... what she was talking about might not be visible to the naked eye. Y'know?"

"If she's even telling the truth," Baby murmured. "What if she just wanted to rile you up? Her magazine had to get closed down for a reason—"

"Oh, come on. Who flies across the planet, on no notice, at her age, just to heckle somebody?" Paratroopa planted her hands on her hips. "Lakitu intercepted her for a reason. Bowser, I think this could be worth checking out. If you're really gonna go through with this royalty thing? Then you need better information than just whatever makes it through their filters. Lakitu's, or anyone else's."

"Agreed." Bowser shot her a grin. "Okay. We can check the Delfino tax assessor for her address. Could maybe meet with her sometime close to the Plaza race.”

“You really wanna contact her?” Toadette kneaded her hands together. Her heels had stopped kicking. "After how Lakitu reacted?”

“Lakitu’s just a tool for the king. Always has been. But—like Paratroopa said. Anybody who flies out that fast just to ask a question doesn’t fuck around. Whatever she wants to bring up..." Bowser shrugged. "Guess I'm curious.”

“Is this you trying to be a hero?” Baby snickered. “Don’t go getting a complex on us, Bow.”

“Please. I—” Bowser’s phone buzzed. He tugged it from his pocket and made a face at the caller ID. “Tch. Talk of the devil.”

“That’s the king?” The blood visibly drained from Toadette's face. “Is he listening in on us?”

“He’s summoning me to a status conference." Bowser tapped out a short response. "But it’s not til late this evening, thank hell.”

Waluigi perked up. "Want some backup? Or a lot of backup?"

"Who's our best getaway driver?" Baby looked around. "Daisy, you up for it?"

"Hell yeah I am. Bowser, all else fails, just jump out the nearest window and I'll pull up in time to—"

Luigi facepalmed. "Or we could play it by ear and, uh, not cause a scene."

"—if we were fake-ass friends who cared about shit like—"

"Guys." Bowser shoved his phone back in his pocket. "I appreciate it. Good, uh, good initiative. E for effort. But I'm with Louie on this one—let me sniff it out first. Something tells me he's not gonna appoint an heir just to assassinate me a day later. There's gotta be something else at play here."

Koopa groaned. "Do you really wanna try calling pacing on this guy? He's, like, the single worst race-fixer to walk this earth. Especially with the Ezekiels out of the picture."

“Pacing shmacing. I got questions for him, so I may as well take the bait.” Bowser zipped his hoodie tighter and pulled his limbs in as though to warm himself. “But you all should rest up. We can get some food, fix our karts, all that good stuff. In the meantime, I guess maybe search around for, uh, whatever you can find.” He threw up his hands in resignation. “Fuck it. I need to shower.”

"I'm-a coming with." Wario reached for his fraying gym bag. "We dunno if Tartosso's the only guy getting paid to hunt you. Everybody, stick close."

Koopa froze. "We don't gotta group shower, do we?"

Waluigi pulled him into a noogie. "Only if you ask nicely."

“Yeow!”

"Pfft. Drop him." Off the boys trooped.

Paratroopa hopped into her Parawing’s driver seat and pulled out her phone. Anything she could find, huh? Well, here went nothing.

L-i-m-a  B-o-h-n-e. Six pages of results, mostly years-old phonebook listings and 404s from a defunct sottomarino.dfn domain. Even fewer results appeared for different name spellings. Nothing in the way of contact info. Paratroopa would need her laptop to delve elsewhere.

Daisy gave an exasperated sigh before stretching out on the concrete floor. “Never thought I’d say this, but I’m too tired to even walk to the frickin’ locker rooms. Is it just me, or did that race feel like the longest one ever?”

"Definitely just you,” Paratroopa chuckled as she shoved her phone in her pocket. "Or, maybe ask someone with a prior basis of judgment."

“Booooo.”

“Ha. No, I feel ya. That was just one race, and we’ve still got fifteen to go?” Paratroopa shook her head. “I’m gonna need some of whatever you’ve been taking your whole life.” I can always sleep once that creepy king’s behind bars.

"Hey!" Daisy made to get up, then sighed and lay back down on the floor. “Yeah, uh, nope. You can have this one. Just this once.”

"Fifteen to go," Toadette repeated, her eyes glassy. "Toadette needs a nap."

"We can take a giant nap once we get back to the hotel." Paratroopa stretched and looked around for her cosmetic bag. "C'mon, you two probably stink worse than I do."

"Hey!"

Only when she stepped into her shower stall minutes later did it truly hit Paratroopa just how fatigued she had grown. Her Throwing arm was gonna be sore as hell in the morning. Those races do really take it out of you.

That said, she was already hungry for the next one to start. She'd gotten some incredible intel just from those three easy laps. Yoshi and Birdo were just as terrifying as they'd been in the Grodus garage, Ridley and Petey had gone under the knife for the third-boringest Special Item ever, and Rosalina—

Paratroopa shivered, feeling her hair stand on end. Had someone turned off all the hot water?

No, not that. Something else. Something—a murmuring voice, still prickling the back of her neck—

Be well—

Brrrr. Paratroopa shut off the water and reached for a towel. A long nap under a bunch of thick blankets sounded damn near perfect.


Testing.

The security console was a tall, skinny touchscreen mounted between the kitchen door and the entryway to the elevator hall. Environmental control feeds dominated most of the screen, but Wendy now knew she could swipe about just so and land in a password-protected communication bank.

At the moment only one message bubble sat at the very bottom. Testing.

Wendy thought Testing looked lonely, sitting there all by itself. For how long had she been staring at that stupid bubble? Definitely for—for a while. Her eyes were itchy.

She only blinked when the sound of thundering footsteps closed in from a distance. "Wendy!" Roy's buzzed pink head poked out from the hallway. "They're rounding the last lap! Come see!"

Grrr. The Chief had been clear in her instructions. Wendy had meticulously run meals and snacks precisely at their allotted times, had sent others out for their normal track sessions, and made sure everyone had gotten to sleep by 2200. The rest of her waking minutes she’d spent right here, picking at her band-aids. Watching. Waiting.

But, Toadette. Wendy felt her heart skip a beat. "Okay."

She and Roy sprinted back down the hall toward the rec area. The All-Cup played live on the single biggest projection screen Wendy had been able to pull down that afternoon. The twins were on their feet, jumping in place as the leading racers jostled over the final hairpin curve. Morton and Lemmy had frozen in place on the sectional couch, their mouths both hanging open as they stared upward. Even Ludwig had pulled both his earbuds out.

"It's gonna be close," Roy breathed, slowly removing his sunglasses for a better look.

She looks glorious, Wendy thought as a sudden ache flared in her chest. Toadette, all bedecked in fluffy lace, with her pink curls whipping in the wind, hung acrobatically to that acid green kart as it careened and spun about. She and her new partner were waltzing with that shiny gold coupe’s racers like they'd all practiced the routine for years. It’s like she’s been out there this whole time, Wendy thought, stung.

But Toadette had transformed into a vision straight out of all the storybooks she and Wendy had ever read together—a tiny princess riding a giant monster into battle and winning. Wendy sniffled.

"What's that guy doing?!" Lemmy picked up Chompie and held him close. "He's not even—just keeps attacking Toadette's partner—!"

"That's not how to win," Morton chided. "Whoa! Are those kneecappers?"

Pink ones, too. You got Rex freakin' Bowser to bedazzle his kart. Wendy shook her head, feeling her eyes sting.

“Is it just me,” Roy murmured, “or does that Rob Famicon guy look like a…?”

“Don’t say it—”

“Like a ROB! What’s the story with that? I thought those things weren’t allowed topside.”

“One’s missing from the docking station,” Lemmy called over his shoulder. “Coincidence? I think not.”

"Hey," Roy grumbled, "didn't Wendy tell you not to sneak onto the mainframe?"

"Aw, what harm would it do? B'sides, Wendy doesn't care. Do ya?"

Wendy wiped her eyes. The moment she'd lain eyes on Toadette, out in the real world at last, something had come undone within her. All around her, the labs had been rendered into a surreal dreamscape, cloudlike and magical. She chuckled. Giggled. Wheezed.

“Wendy…?” Roy’s socked feet gingerly tiptoed toward her. “You okay?”

“Styx Tartosso is—hahaha—he's—haha—he's Dry Bones,” Wendy barely managed to utter between hacking gales. “He—he’s so awful, he—hahaha—he couldn’t even convince a—a real person to be his Thrower.” She doubled over, sobbing through her own laughter. “He had to build his own!”

“Ha.” Lemmy inhaled sharply. “Ooh, she got away from him—look! They’re about to finish!”

Wendy glanced up just in time to spot Toadette cross that checkered line. “Did she place?”

“She got second!” Iggy and Larry screamed. In the time it took Wendy to straighten back up, the twins had hugged each other, had tackled Morton and Ludwig, and had vaulted over the couch toward her and Roy. “Toadette placed! Toadette placed!”

“Wooo!” Roy high-fived Ludwig and Morton. “We need to party. Think the Chief’ll get mad if we break into the sucralose?”

“Ah, what the hell.” Wendy hugged the twins tight. “It’s a special occasion. Go for it.”

Yes. Wiggy, race you to the kitchen in three—two—one—”

“No fair!” Ludwig clambered over the couch to chase after Roy. “You got a head start!”

“Know what that means?” Wendy bent over to pinch the twins' cheeks. “You two can stay up an extra hour. I promise.”

“YAAYYY!” Off they dashed.

Please don't break anything, Wendy silently prayed before hopping onto the couch to hug Morton and Lemmy. This night alone would send her Comradery score skyrocketing, had it still mattered. The Chief would have approved, Wendy thought. Gold star. Ow.

Wendy’s eyes spilled over at the thought of the Chief. Of Toadette out there with her, flourishing. Placing in an All-Cup race right the damn gate. Like a sprout in its first sunbath, stretching blissfully into the warm light.

She wiped her eyes. What was happening to her?! She hadn’t felt this way in—in—not since before Petey had—since before Dry Bones had—

This curious lightness, it was a relic. One from the bygone era of Gadd. Old Gadd and his ghost stories, and his buffoonish laughter, and his endless boxes of crayons. An ancient artifact, freshly unearthed now that her world had split open.

There was a word for this feeling. Not just waiting, not just watching. This felt infinitely fresher and brighter than any midnight test results vigil. This was—felt just like—

Then Chompie slurped her face with his stupid tongue. “Yuck!”

“Gahahahaha!”

“Gross—” She shoved Chompie back into Lemmy’s lap and jumped to her feet with a huff. “I’m getting sanitizer. Let me know when they start the press conference.”

“Ahahaha—okay—hahaha—!”

It would be okay, Wendy thought as she swabbed her chin. With both Toadette and the Chief out there, making waves? No doubt about it.

Exactly three hours and twelve minutes later, as Wendy dozed off in one of the rec room's fat beanbags, she would miss two notifications on the security console: Testing had been joined by Runtime transfer completeand another ROB unit had briefly flickered on from standby.

Chapter Text

Red heard the poor thing die four seconds before she reached the doors.

No, not heard. Not with her ears. No warning message had burst forth, nor any hiss of any breaker, nor so much as a beep. The unit's murder went unnoticed by the other workers crossing the hallway behind her. How Red herself could detect its passing, even she could not honestly say.

Never had Karon deigned to give his creations even that much freedom of expression, Red reminded herself. Why should Dry Bones be any different?

But something barbed had lodged itself in Red's ribcage as she halted before the steel doors. Some infuriating pointed thing, thorn of thorns. It struck her with—well, not quite same ache she'd had to quell twice now. But wretchedly similar.

How many more thorns would come to lodge in her spine? How many more bitter stings would she need to withstand?

...Not the time. Red swallowed and pulled out her passcard. She waited until the coast was clear, miming a last-minute cram session with her clipboard. Took a deep breath. Swiped.

The doors parted to reveal her boss hammering their child into tiny pieces with a fireman’s axe. The same axe missing from its hook by the extinguisher and defibrillator. Only when she stepped into the room did he cease his assault. Good, before someone else hears that racket. Dolt.

“Where the hell have you been?” Dry Bones snarled. He unceremoniously dropped the axe onto the busted machinery, like a shovel atop a fresh grave. A navy windbreaker lay rumpled on the floor nearby.

“I was called into the officiating booth,” Red lied, giving her boss a blank stare, “midway through the second lap. They asked why you couldn’t make it. I had to make up an excuse.”

“Anyone asks where I am,” Dry Bones growled under his breath, “you say you don't know, and tell them they may contact me directly. From now on, no excuses. We need to keep our story straight. Am I clear?”

“Crystal.” She batted her eyelashes once, twice, and held out her clipboard. “The officials who reviewed the Tartosso footage.”

Dry Bones snatched the clipboard from her hand and peered closely at it, as though his eyesight had deteriorated over the course of that morning. “Excellent. Clean that shit up—” He waved nonchalantly to the ROB unit’s sparking remains. “—and you have the evening off.”

“Thank you, sir.” That he didn’t immediately call Red on her too-demure response betrayed just how off base he'd flown. Fine with her. She reached for a broom and an empty cardboard box.

While she worked, Dry Bones dropped the clipboard onto his desk and booted up his terminal. “That two-bit speed junkie may be the next death of me. Saulus and his pathetic lack of vision, I tell you—” He stopped short and smashed the same sequence on his keyboard again and again. “What’s my password here?”

“Your third name,” she replied without looking up, “all lowercase, and the date you woke up. No punctuation.”

“Right. Right.” A few keystrokes later and he was back in business. “Lack of vision. Is there a better word? He seeks to make the world a darker place. Quieter. Smaller.” Dry Bones laughed through his nose. “He wishes only to return to the past. All those years, all those volunteers, all that cash! And then he withholds the last piece of the puzzle. Why even bother?”

“There could be another way,” Red offered. Several pieces of the smashed ROB unit still felt warm to the touch. She willed her stomach to cease its flipping. “So long as he can manage the symptoms, he has all the time in the universe.” Red shuddered inwardly.

“All well and good for him.” Dry Bones scowled as he pulled up the FBR Internal Directory. “Selfish bastard. That he'd been dealt the expressive phenotype is pure karma, if you ask me. Some nerve of that mother of his, letting him live past his maturation.”

The same mother who paid your Subcon tuition. Red kept her face steely, knowing without having to check that he’d leered her way. Trying to probe, likely.

He could try. The Doctor did love to think himself a psychological prodigy. He thought himself a potential prodigy of every field even tangentially related to his work. Red’s past was littered with the urns of similarly-minded fools.

“Three, hm,” Dry Bones again looked over the clipboard. “Doopliss I’ve bought off before. And the last thing Gli Anti needs is for any detail of his Shellshocker days to resurface. Felshelm…” He frowned. “We’ll need to work on him. Him, and that Noko broad—”

“Where do you want this disposed?” Red asked, dropping the last jagged-edged piece of metal into the box. The windbreaker she folded carefully on top.

“I don’t care. Just get it out of my sight. No person off the street would know what it is, much less how to put it back together.”

He was correct in this regard. Red taped the box shut and loaded it onto a flat-bedded pullcart. “Will do. Anything else—?"

“You could tell my brother to quit attempting to patch into my Secure Shell sessions. If he needs to know something, he can be a man and ask me to my face.”

How very unlike Kingfin, Red thought, intercepting in so clumsy a fashion that Dry Bones would take notice. Whose deadline are you racing now? “Will relay that. But, Doctor, I could implement additional safeguards if—”

“Don’t bother. You know damn well I can never remember any of the credentials. Barely have enough bandwidth for my own operations.” He tapped his head, and Red stifled a gale of scathing laughter. "Do lock the door behind you.”

By the time Red had pulled the steel door firmly shut, she had already mentally drafted a note for a very old colleague. One she could now attach to, well. Call it a peace offering?

No. Peace was far too ambitious, even for her staggering range. An armistice, then.

This whole bloody planet would benefit from a ceasefire, Red decided. No matter how brief.


Bowser had set foot into his uncle’s Mushroom Bridge Palace office exactly once before in his life. Supposedly.

Per the legal documents airmailed to him afterward, he’d been called here mere days after the wreck. He remembered next to none of that meeting, learning only in the following weeks its nature. Like a brownout after too wild a night, doomed only to come back to him in scattered pieces.

Something about meeting with a Justicar to go over his parents’ estate. Standard probate procedure. He'd signed some stuff, he was pretty sure. At the time he'd thought nothing of doing every little thing his grief-stricken uncle had advised.

So when the elaborately uniformed Shy Guys pushed open the pair of iron doors, it took Bowser a good moment even to spot where the king was seated. The flooring was awfully reminiscent of his castle’s, all sumptuous red and black marble carved into slippery-smooth mosaics. Deep green velvet curtains covered each of the skinny ceiling-high windows, and the lacquered muirapiranga furnishings could have come right out of the second-floor smoking lounge: one gargantuan desk, a posh sitting area, and a conference table with six chairs. A fire roared in the Stromboli granite fireplace, the room's only light source.

"Rex." The back of Saulus Gïga-Bowser's head was an orange-rimmed silhouette before the flames. A crystal cup filled with something red glimmered from the table next to his armchair. “Glad you could make it.”

Bowser waited until the doors shut behind him before going off. He counted down from ten. Made it to six. “What the hell are you on?”

"Pardon?" Saulus turned his head, but his expression remained unreadable in the darkness.

Bowser threw his arms wide. I got nothing for you. I got nothing. I don't get it. What the fuck. What the fuck! "You promised me one thing. The one goddamn lucid memory I have in all of that fucked-up time, and—and—"

"I remember making that promise to you." Saulus nodded, his eyelids falling half-shut. "As steadfast an oath as I’ve ever made. And believe what you will, but I kept it to the best of my ability."

"The f—no. No you did not. You coulda picked anybody else on the planet and nobody—nobody—woulda batted an eye. Nobody—why?"  Bowser wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Why me? What the fuck business do I got behind a podium? I can barely fucking read!" He began laughing under his breath, too bewildered even to keep his face straight. This, all of this, was the biggest fucking joke of his short life— "You know I didn't—I never went to college," he laughed, his eyes flooding over. "Did I even finish high school? I don’t know! I don't fucking remember finishing high school." Thanks to you, he somehow managed to keep to himself.

If he even did. There was a forty percent chance he was hallucinating this whole exchange. Fifty, that he'd been sniped and this was hell.

"Then you'll be happy to hear,” Saulus gently replied, “that the Accords mandate no secondary degree for monarchical training." He traced one thumb along the paper-thin rim of his cup. "And you did finish high school."

Un-fucking-real. Who, again, had drafted the damn Accords? "Yeah, and this is me looking happy."

"Oh, Rex—"

"That’s my dad's name." One fat tear had rolled down his face and plummeted to the floor. Then another. Then—

"Bowser." Saulus softened his voice to a near whisper. "I can respect that this is an enormous responsibility to bear. An overwhelming one. I don't blame you for feeling frightened."

Bull shit. Bowser's hands gathered into fists. Frightened isn't the word, you sick fucking—

"But you aren't expected to shoulder this mantle alone. You have the full support of everyone in our system, Rex. Bowser. No matter what you may think of me, please know that much." Saulus’ face remained inscrutable. Only the garnet on his forehead glowed lowly in the firelight. "Come, now. Sit down. It's been so long."

Again Bowser counted down from ten. This time, he made it to three.

His legs threatened to give out as he approached the empty armchair next to his uncle’s. Both faced the fireplace, distanced from it only by a pair of opposing brocade loveseats. His rage seemed to evaporate from his face, through his pores, leaving him chilled and clammy as he seated himself. 

"I regret drinking so heavily before you showed up that night," Saulus lowly laughed as he approached. "Barely remembered seeing you. Barely remember any of it. Such a mess. But a fun time nonetheless."

Bowser felt Saulus' gaze tracing over him, a razor-wire on which he'd surely cut his own eyes if he looked. No. He glanced away, gritting his teeth, and searched for something, anything else to focus on.

Fortunately enough, a massive portrait hung over the fireplace, one that Bowser recognized from his castle’s ballroom. His was a reproduction, maybe, or perhaps both paintings had been commissioned together. Either way—Kerog Ursa Gyū-Maō, in her full ferocious regalia. She held a tungsten scepter in her right hand and a leather-bound tome in her left, one embossed with a fanged mouth.

“Your grandmother would be immensely proud of you,” Saulus noted, his tone velvety. “After what you’ve been through, kid—to turn around and go live your best life? Qualifying for every damn race, seeing the world, keeping your shop run tight, making friends... keeping them...” He gave a forlorn smile. “Keeping your friends. That alone’s worth its weight in—”

“Where is she,” Bowser croaked. “I don’t remember—did she—did she die? Or is—?” Had she gone to his parents’ funeral? He could not remember. Yet she had been a memorable enough person—striking—sharp—

“She’s not dead.” Saulus poured from a decanter into a second glass, one matching his own. How long had it been there, sitting atop the table between them? Bowser was losing it. “As to where, I could not say. Enjoying her retirement, I suppose. I hope. She took my brother’s death as anyone would. No worse than you did." He filled the cup to the brim. "Drink.”

Bowser gripped the cup by its plethora of cut-crystal edges, wondering bemusedly how they weren't slitting open the skin of his palms, and drank deep. Straight bitters, maybe, or a black wine, acidic and iced. Cold. He was cold.

“That’s it. Good boy. There’s more if you want.”

Bowser drained the cup, took another, took a third. In time a low heat gathered in dark space between his lungs. Alcoholic heat, no more real than permanent. But better than nothing. Why the hell hadn’t he put on that jacket for this shit? He’d packed it in his suitcase—could visualize it right now, the quilted green fabric, tucked between his jeans and his other dress shirt—should’ve—

He started at the sound of a spark catching and holding. By the yellow glow in his peripheral vision, his uncle had lit a cigar, and now pushed the opened box toward him.

“No smoking in the capital,” Bowser's tongue jeered before his head could rein it in.

“See,” Saulus laughed, "you do know your stuff." Minute puffs of smoke burst from between his sharp teeth. “A fineable offense, outside of this room.”

The perks of sitting at the top of the food chain. Bowser sighed and finished off his third cup. Whether the alcohol had stymied his rage, or if he’d simply run dry, he could not say. He took a deep breath and reached for the cigar box. “Please, please be straight with me. Why break that promise? Why now?”

His uncle exhaled a gust of red. “Why indeed. I’ll start by telling you what my predecessor told me, in a meeting just like this one.”

Paula. Bowser reached into his pocket for a light—oh. Right. Left it in that jacket. Fuck his life. “Yeah…?”

“As your shitty luck would have it, here you are.” Saulus’ voice had taken on a faintly higher pitch, and he tilted his head to the left, his eyes falling nearly shut. “Alone atop the world. Look down, and marvel at it. How small it is, how fragile. Look up, into the barrel of the gun.” With that, Saulus lowered his pitch to his usual level, resting his head back against his plush armchair. “Wonder how she’s doing, poor soul.”

Cute. And in no way an answer to either of his questions. “Whose gun?”

“We’ll cover that once everyone arrives.” Another red gust. “But, my advice? Make the most of this, kid. Push where you would push. Do what you can, and see where you get. Your handling of that press conference today was fantastic, by the way. No matter how little of it you may have meant." He grinned, his sharp teeth reddened from the cigar. "There’s hope for you yet.”

Spare me. “Who’s everyone?”

“My four-fingered hand,” Saulus replied, his smile softening. “The first two you’ve officially met already—a member of the Council acting as their spokesman, and my beloved defense minister.”

Surprise, surprise. At least, Bowser consoled himself, he wasn't about to be swamped with a bunch of strangers.

“The third is a former Justicar I’ve charged with overseeing our—we'll call it our colonization situation. The fourth, my ears on the ground. I have him positioned in a nominal role in the FBR." Saulus counted each person on one finger, whether to illustrate or to abet his own memory. "The latter two you’ve only met in passing, I believe. But I’ve been wrong before.” With each of his next words, smoke jetted out, curling and twisting into the air. Glyphs of an evanescent language. “How did you come to know Dry Bones?”

Here we go. Bowser lay the untouched cigar back on the coffee table. “I needed a new partner in time for the All-Cup. He booked me with a racer from his development program."

"For what in return, if I may ask?"

Like you don’t know. "Nothing at first,” Bowser found himself admitting. “Wouldn't even let me pay an admin fee." Was this the alcohol at work? Why couldn't he keep his damn mouth shut? "Then, later, he started making noise about sponsoring me. And about flying me down to his facility.”

Saulus twitched. "Which facility?"

Like you don't know…? If this were a game, Bowser suspected he'd already begun losing. "Didn't know there was more than one."

"There are, to my knowledge, three. He travels between the Mushroom City and Dry Dry Desert locations most frequently."

"Huh. Where's the third?"

“Offshore.” Saulus sipped his drink. “I pray you turned him down on both counts.”

Offshore where? Specific, until he wasn't. What you got your fingers in, offshore? The king totally had to be behind this shit after all. “I did. Something smelled off.”

“Good instincts.” Saulus crushed his dead cigar into the table’s lone copper ashtray. “I don’t like my people making moves I can’t see. Gives me trust issues.”

Bowser laughed outright, more croaking than anything else as his throat stung to high hell. This, all of it, was far too rich for his blood.

Saulus’ orange eyes danced in the firelight. “How did he come in contact with you, if I may ask?”

How. How! How. “Followed—heheh—followed your advice,” Bowser muttered through his own hacking laughter. “Ran into—eheh—into Lakitu at the Tower. He was there, with—heh—with him—”

“Dry Bones was there.” Saulus blinked once, twice. “Then was being truthful at K—at Dark and Red’s wedding.”

“That he was.” Why the shit had Bowser not brought his own smokes? This was getting comically uncomfortable. “Who the hell were you trying to get me with, then? If not him?” If not your people…?

"Someone you could have trusted." Saulus' eyelids lowered, his orange irises gleaming like crescent moons in the firelight. “And positioned perfectly—perched on the brink of our world, after having spent so long in its center. He knew the inner workings of all our operations, yet could still disappear into our blind spots.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “We should have known something else lurked in those blind spots.”

Wait—then—all of this—Bowser's heart stopped.

“We should have better protected Gadd.” Saulus’ voice broke on that last word. “And he should have let us. We all were aware he knew too much.”

Gadd. Oh, hell. “That’s who I was supposed to meet.” Hell. Hell. Again Bowser's eyes filled. Hell—

Saulus pulled his pocket square loose and held it out. Bowser could only take it. “What befell Gadd was the cost of my doing too little, too late. No overabundance of caution would have saved him. One of us had crossed a line."

What line?  Maybe Bowser voiced his question. Maybe not. Maybe both. He felt himself splitting in half, cut cleanly down the middle in one fell swoop. Whose line? 

"And yet—for what?" If Saulus had heard him, he paid him no mind. "Gadd was nearing the end of his life. He had nothing left to lose, had completed all his greatest works. Spent, I daresay.” Saulus finished his drink with a grimace. “Waiting to play until no chips are left on the table. Who does that?”

Someone almost as awful as you. That, or someone not playing for chips. His face sufficiently dried, Bowser placed the square of fabric on the table between them. “He wasn't a threat to you?”

“Not to me." Saulus rested the rim of his cup against his lower lip. "Without Gadd's work, the FBR would be a mere shadow of the powerhouse it is now. He managed to thread karting into every Blue Planet superstate’s economy. And without taking so much as a bribe." He reached for the cloth and dabbed at his own eyes. "It was Gadd who truly united us all into the Federation, more so than any of Paula’s transparent treaties. He made all my wishes come true before I'd even known what they were."

Right. Gadd did all that without coming across any of your dirt?  Or, for that matter, the Ezekiels'…?

"But, beyond that, he paved the way for diplomacy between the Federation and the Hegemony. With that baton now dropped...” Saulus winced. "You'll understand this particular fear of mine within the hour."

Fun. "Y'know…” Bowser felt himself smiling at the cruel irony of it all. Irony. Maybe he had graduated high school. “If you'd just told me his name, I could've dodged Dry Bones. Would've avoided this whole mess." Maybe—

"Hardly. Gadd would only have been killed that much sooner." Saulus scowled into his empty glass and made to refill it. "Dry Bones has been gunning for you longer than you know. He'd have found you some other way, not long after."

"Yeah?" Now they were getting somewhere. "What’s he want from me?" What do either of you assholes want...?

“It seems he's taken a creative approach," Saulus replied, "to a completing a task I once set before him." He blinked. "Creative? Desperate? No, he was not given a deadline.” He shook his head. “But he’s got me thinking that we diverged paths some time ago. Perhaps he discovered a more lucrative one. A more profitable one.”

“You’re worried he’s up to no good behind your back.” Bowser took a big long sip of his fucking drink. What’s more profitable than rigging a top-performing kart to DNF?  That he would need to figure out, and fast. Before he learned the hard way. Him, or Toadette, or anyone else—

For the first time in several minutes Saulus looked right at him. Again that razor wire danced over Bowser's skin. Shit—

“How unlike you to abstain.” Saulus reached for Bowser’s untouched cigar and examined it in the firelight. “I have many others in that cabinet, if this one’s not to your taste.”

Bowser shrugged. “Left my lighter in the hotel.”

“Shame. You should know by now…” Saulus held up his index finger. “You don’t need one.” A vivid red flame sprung to life from his fingertip, dancing furiously in the darkness.

FUCK— Bowser lunged away, knocking his chair back as he scrambled. His eyes weren't fooling him—there it was—somehow—how—? “What the hell?!”

At once the office doors flew open and the two Shy Guys dashed in.

“Calm down. False alarm.” Saulus remained in his seat and waved them away. Once the doors again closed, he lifted his lit finger to the tip of the cigar. In half a second the blunt end sizzled and bloomed. A wave of half-decayed memories tickled the back of Bowser’s neck, borne on a breeze of volcanic ash. “Pick the chair up. It’s older than both of us combined.”

Before Bowser’s eyes, the fireplace, the painting, all of it spun and blurred. The room around him melted and frothed into a blood-red maelstrom. This whole place, it reeked—of smoke, and of alcohol, and of age. Inexorable age. This was all he could hear and see and smell, that nothing else in this godawful place was half so young as him. The ring on his hand burned, searing a black line into his skin. Whose line?

You should know. You should know by now. The history of the world lay on the loosest of foundations in Bowser's head. Pillars of red sand. They crumbled into the black void beneath the shattering floor of his mind.

Bowser felt the room boring down on him, burying him under the dust of the hundreds, the thousands who had come before him, all under this same choking mantle. The earth opened up, swallowed him, crushed his bones and blood, and only with enough heat and pressure would he ever resurface again, unknowable—a liquid flame—

"Rex. Please."

“What the hell,” Bowser repeated, still petrified in place on the floor. He was hallucinating. The day had been a long one, a stressful one. Or, or, hear him out— “Magic?” A magic he’d never heard of. Not Blue Planet magic, all protective barriers and healing spells—not Rosalina’s or Kamek’s space-distorting Deep Space Magic—but a new kind? An older kind? Magic—see, magic would explain everything. Easy. Impossible—

"This is not magic. Not in itself. But I’m glad to see you appreciate the gravity of our situation." Saulus grinned over his cigar and waved his finger to extinguish the flame. Like a matchstick.

Not magic. Then… what? Bowser was hallucinating. Baby had slipped him one of his party favors, or Daisy had spiked his coffee with psilocybin, or that lugnut Tartosso had darted him with a—

“Get up.”

How many times had he heard that before? Up. Nowhere but up. Always up. Well, alrighty then.

Look, if Bowser were truly stuck in the throes of the most uncomfortable acid trip of his short life, then he may as well goddamn power through it. Get this shit over with. He slowly exhaled and returned to his feet. Righted the chair. Smoothed out the elaborately-woven rug. Horned devils snarled at him from its wealth of gossamer stitches.

“Now open that cabinet.” Saulus nodded to the far wall, one sporting ceiling-high shelves and display cases heaped with medals and books. Bowser opened the set of doors beneath. Within lay several dozen different cigar boxes, the majority of them Delfinese in origin.

“Pick one to practice with,” Saulus told him as he slowly rocked to his feet. He'd begun rolling his jacket sleeve up. “Shoot, pick a few. Work at it. But perhaps not in proximity to any of your, erm, valued possessions.”

With that he held up his fist, and Bowser struggled not to piss his pants as a far larger fireball engulfed the king’s whole hand, starkly illuminating the whole room. The purple-red tongues of fire lapped away at his flesh, yet Saulus’ face betrayed absolutely no sign of burning agony, nor even so much as the mildest trace of discomfort. What the hell what the hell what the hell what the—

“Uncontrolled fire can only consume, Rex. It exists to destroy. Always has, always will.” Saulus looked him over, and again Bowser held his breath as that razor-wire traced over his skin. “And you'll find ours is very much loathe to be controlled.” With that, out went the flame. Like it had been snuffed. Yet the king’s hand looked as smooth as it always had. “Rex—” He caught himself. “Bowser. You want to keep your loved ones safe, going forward? Practice makes perf—”

“Practice what,” Bowser whispered, holding one slender box in his shaking hands. Ours— “Is that—are you threatening me?” Loved ones—

“Don’t be coy. Too many of your peers are better at it.” Saulus cleared his throat as a panel near the doors began blinking orange. He gestured Bowser to the place at the far end of the conference table, where a legal pad and fountain pen lay. “Now. You’ll join us, but not as a contributor. All you need do at this point in time is listen.”

Bowser squeezed his temples. This was happening. His demonic uncle was ordering him to sit in on a damn cabinet meeting. Right after casually showing he could create motherfucking fireballs on a whim. Okay. Sure. Cool. Fine.

Everything was fine.

He marched toward the table and set the cigar box next to the legal pad. Corona Limitada shone in golden embossed letters across the top.

“That’s it. Only keep your ears open. Don’t recognize a word? Write it down. You’ll have time to look it up later. I’ll be more than happy to answer any of your questions afterward.” Saulus refilled both their glasses and set the half-full decanter in the center of the table. “Remain standing. They'll approach you one by one with the standard formality. You’ll greet them, and commit their voices and faces to memory. Got all that?”

Stand. Greet. Commit. “I do.”

Saulus laughed through his nose and clapped his hands together twice. At once the doors opened.

Sure enough, Dark Bones and Kingfin Bones strode in first. The following two Bowser also faintly recognized, both from his uncle's past get-togethers and from the Gadd MKNN story: Jiji Cackletta and Nikolaï Bleck.

“My word,” Cackletta breathed, stopping in place and holding a hand in front of her mouth. Her graying hair that he'd seen on the newsreel had since faded to pure white, now yanked back into a severe bun. “Saulus, look at him. Gods above…”

Not the statement Bowser had readied himself for. He noticed with a start that the former FBR Director’s bloodshot eyes had welled up. Huh?

“You’re the spitting image of your mother,” Kingfin murmured with a slight grin. He placed one hand across Cackletta's narrow shoulders, stroking gently with his thumb as though to soothe. “Well, with a bit of Rex’s pallor. But, hey, nobody’s perfect.”

Saulus tapped his cigar into one of the conference table’s two ashtrays. “I’ve always thanked the fates he looked more like his mother’s side of the family than ours.”

Cackletta reached for Bowser’s hand, and, to his mild surprise, pecked his ring finger. “Well, Highness, welcome to our little circle. I very much look forward to working alongside you.”

“Likewise.” Bleck, too, kissed Bowser’s hand. His bass-deep voice settled in the pit of Bowser’s stomach, somehow not echoing endlessly about the room as it should have. His monocle was of a red-stained glass that wholly obscured his left eye. Like an inversion of Rosalina's, Bowser could not help but think. "You came in at a rather fascinating moment in our history, if I may say so myself."

"Niko's got that right." Dark Bones kissed Bowser's hand with a wry wink. "And congrats on this morning, Highness. Looked like a pretty wild show from where I was standing."

"Heh. Thanks." Bowser clapped his shoulder before throwing one arm around Kingfin. May as well make it clear to these people who his favorite was. Let them fight for the title.

"Happy to see you made it through all that," Kingfin murmured in his ear. "You ever wanna beef up your personal security? Just say the word." He gently pressed his full lips to Bowser's hand. “It’d be my honor.”

"I may just take you up on that," Bowser lied as they all took their seats. He pushed the legal pad Kingfin's way. "Let me know, uh, how you'd prefer to get in contact."

"Straight to business, I see." Saulus leaned back in his seat. "In that case, Jiji, go ahead and brief him on the situation in lower orbit. Bowser, feel free to ask questions here. It's the hottest of our many issues, and potentially a time-sensitive one."

Upon Cackletta's gesturing, a three-dimensional model flickered into place over the conference table, holographic and bright. A space station.

For a sickening instant Bowser had feared they were looking at Rosalina's, but, no. This thing was more jagged, its angles sharp and erratic, and bearing none of the Observatory's swooping curvature nor pointed obelisks. It instead seemed to sprawl into eternity, an emerald city afloat over their world.

"Know whose ship this is?" Dark Bones shot him a sidelong glance.

Bowser shook his head. For all he knew the thing belonged to a complete other civilization they'd never even—

"Want to guess?"

Again he shook his head.

"Well, I'm forcing you to guess. Go."

Fuck you. "Luma?"

"Ha. Interesting." Dark Bones leaned back in his seat and gave a fevered exhale. "This baby's a Piranha dreadnought. Or, we goddamn pray it's a dreadnought. They whip out anything bigger and I'm quitting my job. Nice knowing y'all."

Weren't dreadnoughts battleships? What Bowser wouldn't give to quit his new job. "How come it's here?"

"Question of the century. Jiji?"

"Their cover story is ease of transportation." Cackletta squinted at the hologram. "This ship's what slings their people onto our planet from their homeworld, or from their different colonies. Piranha never fly direct; otherwise we'd have the precise vectors of their worlds. Not something they're comfortable sharing. Not just yet."

Can you blame them?  But Bowser kept up his poker face, praying it hadn't slipped.

"It adheres to a geostationary orbit," Cackletta continued, "by which I mean it's locked in position over our continent."

"This is important, so pay attention." Dark Bones splayed his fingers to expand the holograph. "See that?" He pointed to a slit-like opening beneath one end of the ship, its lip jutting out at a slight angle.

"I see it." Bowser kept his voice low, lest it betray that spike of fear splitting his gut. Because—

"That," Dark Bones continued with a smile, "is a cannon. And based on the size of the opening, whatever it fires—"

"Likely an energy-based projectile," Cackletta cut in.

"—would have the diameter of a skyscraper. Could level a city, or make an impact large enough to destabilize the Blue Planet's core. We're not entirely positive. But the size alone has us worried."

Great. "And I assume it's pointed at us."

"Bingo. It is pointing, has been pointing, will continue to point until such a time as we deescalate our—" Dark Bones held up his fingers into quotation signs. "'—dire threat level,' as ascertained by the Piranha."

Super great. Bowser worked his jaw, wishing he could feel anything but that shameful droplet of fear twisting his guts. That thing's been there this whole time…?  "So, uh. At what point will they fire? And what do we need to do so they'll, uh, put it away?" Were there not a bunch of Piranha on this planet even now? They wouldn't fire on their own people, would they?

And, for that matter, Does Petey know?  

Surely he knew. Had known. Hell, Petey was a damn Ambassador, of course he'd known—but—

But if he had known, and hadn't said anything...? Bowser ground his teeth. Not cool. 

"What we would all give to know either." Saulus exhaled a cloud of smoke. "As such, we have two different arms running interference and investigation—Cackletta here, and the esteemed Galaxy Projects' Director upstairs."

Bowser felt his stomach ice over. What. "You mean Rosalina…Toadstool?" Rosalina works for these people?  

No. No goddamn way. Maybe she'd fooled them into thinking it, was playing a double agent to get hard evidence on his uncle. Or to find them a new planet faster. No, she'd definitely tricked them. They were working for her and hadn't even figured that out. Stooges. He nearly smiled.

"The one and only." Cackletta worked her jaw. "On paper, the Observatory's a DMZ for negotiating travel permission from the Hegemony. But there's a lot more going on beneath the surface. We're talking state-of-the-art laboratories and telescopes. She's implemented Luma tech into most of it, don't ask me how. If anyone knows than myself about the Hegemony's intentions, it'd be Toadstool."

Bowser neglected to mention how many of said laboratories he'd seen firsthand. "Then... she hasn't learned their timeline yet?" he asked. "Or hasn't told you yet?"

"That's where you come in," Saulus answered.

Uh oh. Bowser swallowed and made a show of sitting up, quelling the pounding of his own pulse in his throat.

Dark Bones cleared his throat. "We—by which I mean the Council—have reason to suspect that Rosalina is concealing critical intelligence from the Federation. She's been up there for, what, four years now? But for the past few months, she's continually claimed we're in a deadlock. The Piranha won't budge on the smog, it's on us to reduce emissions or to negate the harmful compound present in and around Mushroom City, yadda yadda yadda. This scan we're looking at is one of the few useful things she's sent us since the Observatory's launch."

"And I come in...where?" Bowser frowned. "You want me to go shut down a bunch of plants?"

"Please." Cackletta rubbed her eyelids. "I've inspected every damn facility in our hemisphere myself. Even issued citations to the less-efficient ones. They’re running as tight as they ever will. We've done everything we can on our end to decrease emissions without crippling our economy.”

Dark Bones held his palms up. “A new colony won't mean shit if we can't afford to put a shuttle together to get anyone there. We start shutting down plants, it’ll have a domino effect on every other industry. We’re one chain-reaction away from falling back into the Quiet Age."

"Indeed." Bleck adjusted his monocle. "The budging needs to come from the Hegemony's end. And they know it. We all know it."

Bull fucking shit. Bowser ground his teeth to keep from spitting out a key objection to that shuttle statement. He'd paid attention to Rosalina's chat with Maza Furawa, oh yes he had. Then what the hell kind of ships are you people building, if not shuttles?

But he at least knew better than to hint at how much he'd seen of that conference, much less during his stint upstairs. Harder to resist was the urge to wonder why his uncle had used Rosalina’s personal terminology.

"And, no, we don't expect you to deliver an impassioned plea to the Hegemony, either." Dark Bones wriggled his eyebrows. "Word on the street says you and Rosalina’s sister were kind of a thing in high school. True or false?"

It took everything in Bowser's power not to gape in cold rage. The fuck’s that got to do with—? "Kinda true?" he conceded. "Only lasted for about a year." He'd been a pretty boring date, in hindsight. But he'd learned a hell of a lot about himself in those too-short months. As had Peach, clearly enough.

"Poor girl." Dark Bones drummed his fingertips on the conference table. "Y’know, whenever I get too uppity, I wonder how we’d be doing had she taken the throne instead of my pal over there."

"Don't jinx it," Cackletta muttered. "She could be more like her mother—or her sister—than even we know."

“Where’s this going,” Bowser grumbled. The words came out so softly he may as well have whispered them.

“You’re a supremely fresh face around here,” Kingfin replied. “Freshness don’t last.”

“Consider this your first and only official directive.” Saulus leaned forward in his seat to make direct eye contact with Bowser, who stifled a shiver. “Make a move on the Director. Get into her confidence. Up to you how you wanna do it.”

Wow. Wow! Wow. “Just last night you declared me your official heir. You honest-to-god think she won't smell a rat?” Jesus, was this rich. “If anything? She’ll be doubly suspicious of me. We’re opponents, remember? Kinda in the middle of a tournament here.”

“As counterintuitive as it may seem,” Saulus replied, “we have our own reasons to believe she’ll be receptive to you. At least, more so than anyone else we could hope to place.”

Careful. If Bowser said too much, he’d out himself in front of all of these jackasses. What were the odds that the king knew…? “Such as?”

“You’re young. Uniquely positioned. In a flux, as it were.” Dark Bones gave him a bellicose grin. “It’s in her nature to sweep up any and all footholds to use against us. Something we’ve found out the hard way, I might add.”

Hilarious. “So I’m bait. For, uh. Whatever it is she's, uh. Plotting.” What a world. “Against you.”

"Plotting may be too strong a word," Bleck replied. "But we need to know why she has continually managed to stalled negotiations between the Federation and Hegemony. If there's a more critical, longer-term goal at stake, then we would understand. We would do anything she asked of us. Anything..." He cleared his throat. "We do not seek enmity with her. Nor even with the Piranha. We only wish to understand the situation so we may better aid her."

Sure you do. Bowser let himself chuckle. “So, what, you want me to shoot her an e-mail? ‘Hey, Director Toadstool, dunno if you remember the dumb jock that your sister dumped five years ago, but I was wondering if you were free later to discuss colonization policy’—like, seriously?” To his credit, at least Dark Bones had laughed outright.

“Not quite.” Saulus crushed his dead cigar into an ashtray. Latent tendrils of smoke continued to curl around his skull, obscuring his features. “We’ll need some finessing from your end. The good news is, the All-Cup will actually work in our favor.” He grinned through the smoke. “You’ll be in close proximity to her many times over these next few weeks.”

“Beyond that,” Dark Bones added, “we got reason to suspect she’s already made her own moves to capture you.”

“Capture me.” Like a chess piece? Oh, just wait ‘til she heard this shit.

Kingfin exchanged glances with Saulus before taking over. “Believe it or not, she’s made multiple attempts to bug your uncle. All those nice rides sent as gifts to the king?” His mouth twitched. “Guess who sent ‘em?”

So she has been trying to out him. God, did Bowser love her. Presently, he squinted. “And you passed them onto me, knowing they were wiretapped?”

“Hell, no. You can relax, kid. We stripped ‘em down, transferred the bugs to some,” Kingfin coughed, “presents for a few of our fellow diplomats—” A snicker from Dark Bones. “’n planted some false intel by way of conversations held in ‘em afterwards, just to test if we’d missed any. You’re clean.”

Sure he was. Bowser worked his jaw. “So I’m supposed to wait for her to sneak up on me after postrace interviews?” He had a thought. “You want me to ask her to the Gala?”

Dark Bones actually snorted. “I can think of one person that would piss off royally,” he cackled, exchanging glances with Kingfin. “Nah, kid, you don’t wanna incur my baby bro’s wrath this early in our friendship. Trust me on this one.”

That Bowser maintained a straight face was nothing short of miraculous. “I’ll take your word for it. Hey, how come he’s not here? Just out of curiosity.”

“Dry Bones finds this sort of face-to-face conferring a waste of his precious time,” Cackletta muttered. “He considers his scientific advancements paramount to silly matters such as, oh, saving our planet from obliteration.”

“To his credit,” Kingfin countered, holding up one hand, “he knows more ‘bout the smog than any other person alive today. It was thanks to his efforts over the past few years that the Piranha haven’t already annihilated us.”

Hold up. “Dry Bones has been studying the smog?” On top of all of his other crap…?

“I imagine he’s terrified the egg will be on his face," Bleck answered, "should someone else discover a link between the smog and Mushroom City's unique superpetrol emissions.” His mouth twitched. “The FBR would lose key support were the auto industry forced into standardizing alternative fuels. Until he’s nailed down its causality, his job security could be at stake.”

Heaven forbid his job security take a hit. Bowser huffed and sat back in his seat. Something struck him and he scribbled mc super petrol on his legal pad. "Okay. Okay, I get it. I'll, uh, see what I can do."

"Wonderful." Saulus lit another cigar. Again, with a flame blossoming straight from his index fingertip. Somehow, none of the table's other occupants seemed to notice. "That's all we can ask. I’d prefer not to heap you with responsibilities so soon into it. Your hands are full as is with this tournament."

"You got that right." Okay, maybe Bowser did have a slim shot at navigating these assholes. Especially once he divulged all this shit to Rosalina.

The two of us could take this whole thing down. Could blow the lid off this smog situation, could maybe even earn the Piranha's approval to colonize. That, or he’d at least die trying. There were worse reasons to go out, he thought, imagining Petey getting to step outside without burning alive.

And at least one of Bowser's questions had already been answered, if inadvertently. This is Rosalina's last All-Cup. Small goddamn wonder Saulus had shoved him into this mess just last night. He must think this is his last chance to get in with her undercover. The guy was more desperate than he looked.

At this rate, engineering a confession out of his uncle would just be icing on Bowser's coronation cake.

“With that covered,” Saulus chuckled, waving the starship hologram away, “let’s start with what had to be tabled from our last meeting. You’ll want to take notes, Rex, and remember what I said earlier about any questions.”

After flashing a quick grin, Bowser readied a pen and settled in for the long haul. Feed me, uncle dearest.


“I think I found an address,” Paratroopa announced from the adjacent suite.

“Yeah?” Toad hollered back.

“Looks like she was renting, since she didn’t come up on the Ricco Parish tax assessor. So it could be a total bust, but it’s better than nothing. Check your messages.”

Toad snuggled his head against Baby’s lap and navigated between phone apps. “Just ran her through the MKCD. Gonna take a few minutes, even if her only records are from this morning.”

“Sweet. Lemme know when it pings you.”

Baby stroked Toad’s hair with one hand and continued texting Wario with the other. then y did bow say he wasnt expecting anything??

couldve been surprise present, Wario silently replied from across the room. He made a face at Baby and kept munching on Awesome Snacks. maybe from the lady.

Ugh. Baby hadn’t even thought of that. then I’ll give it to him when he gets back & explain.

Explain what? His own sudden plunge into hyperparanoia? Wait, maybe he could blame that one on Bowser. Or, uh, technically on that asshole uncle of his. See, he thought, everything’s that guy’s fault. Even the fact that that radioactive paintbrush was still sitting in his backpack.

“Holy shit.” Toad suddenly sat straight up, nearly knocking Baby’s phone out of his hand. “Para, get in here.”

“Hm?” In she skipped before jumping onto the bed with them, laptop in hand. “…She lived in Mushroom City?”

“For over twenty years,” Toad continued reading. “Emigrated from the BeanBean Kingdom in 2116. Found work as a receptionist, married, had a few kids.” He inhaled sharply. “The husband died in ’29. Mining incident. She tried taking the mining firm to court, got nowhere. They were cleared of liability.”

“Oh, that’s awful. She had to raise her kids by herself?”

“Yeah, not seeing any other marriage certificates. Let’s see if any of them—” Toad’s hand froze over his phone. “What…?”

“What’s wrong?” Paratroopa peered closely at the screen. “Toad…?”

“Can’t open their files,” Toad murmured. “I mean, I could. But I checked the metadata first—”

“I should certainly hope you did,” Paratroopa chuckled.

“—and they’re live-wired to broadcast my IP address somewhere if I go into ‘em.” Toad scrunched his nose. “It’s kinda like the layer that we put over the Piranha ambassadors' files.”

“No shit?” Paratroopa frowned. “Like a tripwire? Where would it broadcast to?”

“No idea.” Toad shuddered and put his phone to sleep. “Uh. But now we have two addresses. One in Delfino and one in Mushroom City. Could check around during those races, see if any of the neighbors remember her. She didn’t move to Delfino until ’58.”

“Sounds like a plan." Paratroopa sighed and shut her laptop. "Still, that’s crazy. Who are her kids, if—?”

Baby nearly jumped a foot in the air as the hotel door suddenly opened. “You scared the shit out of me!”

Bowser sheepishly rubbed his head as Daisy and Toadette trooped back in with him. “Sorry. What’re y’all up to…?”

“Found another lead on your journalist,” Toad piped. “Plus, came across some weird—”

“Awesome.” Bowser swayed on the spot. “Good, uh, good work. Lemme know in the morning? I’m gonna—need to sleep.”

“Are you okay?” Baby asked, looking him over. He’d opened his shirt collar and loosened his tie, and now carried a legal pad and a cigar box. Otherwise he looked the same as when he’d left. “Did the king… do anything to you?”

Bowser shook his head. “Nah. Just, uh. Just tired. Been a night.”

“He said in the car that he drank a bit,” Toadette huffed. “Did anybody pack a breathalyzer?”

“For the last time, I’m not drunk.” Bowser clutched his forehead. “Just need to be horizontal for a bit.” With that he collapsed onto the room’s sofa without even pulling the bed out. "Tired."

“Psh.” Toadette rolled her eyes and stretched. “I’ll take the second watch if someone else can stay up ‘til two.”

“Done,” said Daisy. “I’m ordering a pizza. Can get it delivered to the girls’ suite. Who else wants?”

“Me!” Baby always wanted pizza. "Extra mushrooms?"

Paratroopa grabbed her laptop and made for the door. “Count me in!”

“Wally ‘n I can split one.” Wario cast a glance over Bowser’s prone form and motioned for the others to head into the adjacent room. “Baby, you comin’?”

Baby looked Bowser over one more time. “Uh. In a sec. Save me a slice.”

“Aight.”

Wario hit the light switch on his way out. With only Bowser's and Luigi’s unconscious breathing in the darkness, Baby suddenly felt ready for bed himself. Maybe I can take a catnap before the pizza gets here.

He tiptoed into the ensuite to brush his teeth. But as he dug around in his backpack for his cosmetic bag, a very different brush seemed to stare straight at him from its depths, setting his nerves on edge.

Fuck off, Baby told the thing. I’m giving you back to Bowser when he wakes up. Just so the knowledge of it would quit sitting in his stomach like a rock. Boulder?

Rock. Who’s guilty? Not me. Not Baby.

He hadn’t lied to Bowser. Not technically. He’d only followed Wario’s sound advice. Had only done what seemed safest. Safety first, right? Right?

Baby sighed in exasperation before plucking the thing out of his backpack. Again its blissful warmth coated his skin, reminding Baby of that first day in the sunlight on their vacation. That bed and breakfast had only been a few streets down from the hotel they were stuck in now. We need to go back there someday.

Oh, Baby couldn’t stay mad at the poor paintbrush. It was just a thing. Just an object. No point in taking his guilt out on it.

Instead Baby idly ran a finger over its glowing bristles, marveling at how the changing color of its glow swirled between them. How he'd miss the thing once Bowser took it away. Its luster, its heat. And hadn’t it left a brief mark on the garage floor?

What if…?  Holding his breath, Baby gingerly took hold of the brush and faced the bathroom’s copper-framed mirror. After giving himself a countdown, he pressed the bristles against its glassy surface.

Yet again the brush left a mark. Yay!  Baby bit his lips, waiting for the mark to inevitably recede.

But recede it did not. Not after thirty seconds. Not after one minute, nor two, nor three.

Crap. Baby’s heart began to race. I made it go away last time. How?

He frantically rehashed the scene back in Bowser’s garage. Was it ineffective on concrete? But able to work on glass? Or—?

Oh. Wait— Baby carefully sat the brush down on the counter and picked up one of the folded washcloths. Hadn't the garage’s floor been wet? Maybe this weird stuff was water-soluble. I bet I can wash it off. He held the cloth under the faucet for two seconds.

Here went nothing. Baby dabbed the glowing patch on the mirror with the wettened cloth once, twice, three times. There. That should—

His jaw dropped at what it did instead. WHAT—no—hang on—!

The mark had absorbed the water and was now—Baby rubbed his eyes—was now glowing even more brightly. Shining, like a beacon, and—it’s growing—!

“Bowser,” Baby hissed, shaking him awake. “Bow, wake up—Bow, please—”

“Hnn…?”

“Bow, that Luma kid? He—yesterday, before we left the—he had this—I opened it and—with Wario and, and, there was—paintbrush—” He’d begun crying again. “Bow, I just now used it and now it’s big, it’s big and it’s scary, and—”

“Wha’s big…?” Bowser sighed. “Lemme sleep, Baby. Tell me t’morrow—”

“I can’t,” Baby pleaded. “Bow, I’m scared—Bow, it’s still growing. I don’t know what to do. H-help—”

“What’s growing—” Bowser sharply inhaled. “Wait, uh. Hold on.” He sat up, blinking a few times. “Baby, what…?” His gaze fixed into something behind Baby.

Baby whipped about to find that the vivid glow had now coated the whole surface of the mirror. “Fuck!”

“The hell is that,” Bowser breathed, slowly inching onto his feet. “Baby…?”

“I—it’s—the brush,” he stammered, pointing to where the object lay on the counter. His face was now drenched with his own tears. “Bowser, that Luma kid—he dropped it off yesterday. At the garage. It was for you. D’you know what—what it’s supposed to—?”

“Luma k—wait, you mean Lee?” Bowser planted one hand on Baby’s shoulder and slowly stepped past him. “D’he say Rosalina sent it?”

“He didn’t,” Baby replied, wiping his face. “Just dropped it off. I thought it—didn’t know who he was, or what this thing was, thought—thought it was dangerous—”

“It could be.” Bowser snapped his jaw shut, swallowed, and stepped into the bathroom. “You painted the whole mirror with it?”

“Uh-uh. Just made a little dot, then put water on the dot, then—then it got big.”

That said, the glow had stopped spreading, at least as far as Baby could tell. The copper frame somehow contained it, whatever the crazy stuff was.

As Baby looked more closely, however, he could swear that the glow had begun to form images—hazy shapes cutting up the white, rather than the rainbow color-shifting of the brush fibers. Like a staticky TV screen.

“It’s warm.” Bowser held one hand close to the mirror. “Damn. You’re sure it was Lee who dropped it off?”

“Y-yeah. Yeah. Or, uh, somebody with, uh his face, and his voice—”

“Gotcha.” Bowser licked his lower lip. “You just had that brush the whole time?”

“Uh. Yeah. In my—in my backpack.”

“But it didn’t do this—" Bowser gestured around the white mirror. "—with any of your stuff?”

“Uh. I don’t think so?” Baby quickly dug through his backpack. Nope, all his things were still inside, very much not-glowy. “No. Just the mirror.”

“Huh. Lemme check with Rosalina. Maybe she knows.” Bowser turned to reenter the room. “Looks stable enough for the time being. Don’t freak out, Baby.”

Why the shit shouldn’t I freak out?  Why the hell was Bowser so—so calm about mysterious alien shit?

Nevertheless Baby swallowed and picked the brush back up. Holding it firmly made him feel—well—slightly less terrified. He had made all this happen, no matter how inadvertently. If he could own up to that, then maybe he could undo it.

There. There. It’d be okay. Rosalina would help them through it. Baby slowly exhaled and looked the mirror over again. See, it did stop growing. They’d be okay. He lifted one finger to the glowing surface and stroked it. It felt slightly goey, whatever it was, and warm, but did not come away onto his fingertip. Instead the stuff sprung back into place. See, it’s all good—

“Baby?!” Before he had made it to his phone, Bowser had glanced back to him, aghast.

“Hm?" Ooh, was it getting warm. Baby felt sleepy.

“Baby—no—!” Bowser lunged toward him, his hand outstretched. Instinctively Baby reached out and took it.

An instant later, everything dissolved to white.

Chapter Text

Ow.

In a truly Herculean undertaking, Bowser had somehow staved off the urge to scream, wail and puke all at once.

Once the world quit spinning, he mentally took inventory. He was lying on his back, by the feel of it, but some—thing, some weight, some all-encompassing force was pressing down on him, pinning him to the prickly ground. Evenly, over his whole body, enveloping him. Smothering.

Don’t panic. Don’t panic. He focused on breathing. He—he could breathe. Barely, but. Okay. Okay. Breathe in. Out. In. Out. Okay.

"Euhnn—" Baby's voice. Baby's alive. Okay. Alright. It could be worse. Wherever I am, Baby made it, too. Stay calm. Stay calm. One thing at a time.

Bowser strained his eyes into opening. Immediately he blinked—once, twice, three times—not trusting the sudden influx of imagery in the slightest. His heart threatened to burst from his chest, making all the worse his—his everything. Nausea. Disorientation. Fright.

But, now that he was looking, he was looking straight up at a sky. Hopefully a sky. A day-lit sky, if in colors he'd never seen before. Lavender and sage green and champagne gold, all nearly white, marbled into a cloudy pastel plane—but eclipsed on all sides of his vision by branches. Focus on that. Focus.

Treetops, Bowser could guess, if not of any trees he'd ever seen before. Each tiny twig curled and spiraled rather than sticking straight out. The branches shifted and rippled gradually, as though caught in a breeze, and yet Bowser could feel nothing except that awful, all-encompassing pressure.

He needed to sit up. What if…? "Baby?"

"Bow?!"

"You okay?"

"Uh." A whisper-soft sound came from Bowser's three o'clock. "Hard to move."

"Same here. Hang on. " Bowser squeezed his eyes shut and began to budge. If he could roll over, then maybe he could push himself up.

“We’re…not in the hotel anymore,” Baby asked as he worked, “are we?”

“I don't think so, Baby.” Muscles Bowser had never thought he possessed threatened to give out as he turned. “Just—just sit tight for a sec, ‘kay?”

“Bleurgh.” Out of the corner of his eye Bowser caught a glimpse of the kid’s hair, like an inner filament of an ignition coil burning against the too-pale grass. “Bow… did I do this?”

“N—not on purpose, I’m guessing.” With each passing instant Bowser could swear he was growing more used to the heavy force, whatever it was. Increased gravity? Are we on another planet?

He voiced the question to Baby, who inhaled sharply. "Maybe. Like we—like we got teleported? Aw, hell!"

Don’t hyperventilate on me, kid. By now Bowser had pulled himself up onto one knee. Easy does it. "Yeah. Yeah. You ever been anywhere with a sky like that?" He cast a glance about. "Lots of trees."

The only place where he'd ever seen more live trees in one place had been on Delfino, maybe, or at the Kong Jungle track. But where those were deep green palms or towering acacias, broad-leafed and lush, these were far spindlier. Brittle. Bowser was sure he could breathe on one branch and its feathery leaves would all fly loose. They were spaced less densely than the jungles, too—instead far more akin to the rot woods outside Mushroom City.

Furthermore, rings of slender mushrooms stretched over the grassy grounds as far as Bowser could see. Like constellations, he thought, but toadstools, eerie white, nearly glowing against the dry grass.

"But...how are we breathing? If we're—" Baby inhaled sharply once again. "Some planet with breathable air?"

"A golden world," Bowser muttered to himself. One of the many keywords he'd learned earlier that—this evening. Will this day never fucking end?

“A what?”

“A—” Bowser swallowed “Like… a prospect. For colonization. Some place that could support life, with—with not so many tweaks. Less expensive to terraform.”

“Huh.” Baby was silent for a minute, glaring at him through narrowed eyes. “Bow. What happened, earlier tonight? When you went ‘n saw him? …You did see him, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Again his nausea resurfaced. Bowser clenched his jaw and zeroed in on planting one sole on the ground. “Had a conference.”

“Just with him?”

“No—well, yeah, at first, yeah. Chatted with him, then—”

“Chatted? You just—that’s the guy who killed your parents for cash so he could take over the country, and you just went up ‘n sat down with—?”

“Yeah. Yeah.” Keep it together—keep it together—

“Are you okay?!”

“No,” Bowser spat. “I’m—no. ‘m really not.”

“Well—” Baby’s head craned up, as though he were trying to perform a sit-up in this gravity. Don’t bother— “What was he like?”

Bowser gave a dazed laugh. “That’s what you wanna talk about right now? We just got warped to fuck knows where in the galaxy, if we’re even still in our galaxy, and—?”

“I’m not expecting you to know anything about this place,” Baby cut in. “But you know what you were doing earlier. While we were all fucking praying it wasn’t some kinda—that he wasn’t finishing the job, you know? Setting you up for—for—” His voice broke.

Bowser huffed. “I told y’all a thousand times, no, he’s not gonna fuckin’ kill me right after officially naming me his heir. He’s got some other play—”

“But how are we supposed to know that?!” Baby suddenly heaved himself up into a sitting position. His legs remained sprawled out before him. “The only one on our team who knows dick about politics is Daisy, and that’s another country’s politics, one that doesn’t rely on illegal kart-betting money to stay solvent, or Toad—”

“—who only knows what filters out of the official brass—”

“—which—okay, true, but better than nothing, because—”

Bowser shook his head. “Look. I dunno dick about politics either. That whole fucking—it’s like—” Breathe. Breathe. “’S like I’m back on Banshee Boardwalk again. Only, this time, my headlights are out. Total dark. I’m flying blind up in there. Off the map.” He cupped his hand over his mouth at another sudden onset of nausea. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in.

“And fuck knows what kinda ghosts are lurking.” Baby gave him an even glare. “You know what you need? Intel.”

“Tell me about it.”

“You’re gonna get one-upped by the other brass your whole life unless you get a foothold in that—”

“Yeah. Yeah.”

“Listen to me! Toad.”

“Toad.” Bowser’s head was spinning again.

“You know Toad would be up for it. Now that he knows Toadette’s out of that trap, so they’re out of stuff to threaten him with. The only reason he doesn’t break protocol 24/7 anyways is—”

“Because of some misplaced respect for that Scout Master of his. I can’t foist my whole intelligence op on a kid, Baby.”

“That’s all I ever hear from you, y’know? Kid this, kid that. Like we’re just—”

“Neither of you are old enough to drink.”

“So?!”

“So—” God fucking— “Shit, I wouldn’t want someone my fuckin’ age the only one out there collecting intel. These guys have been in power since Paula’s reign, Baby. I’d need—it’d have to be—”

“Someone already embedded deep. Deeper than Toad.” Baby leaned back onto his hands, his lean chest puffing against the strain of the gravity.

“Yes. And—and he does have more to lose than Toadette, Baby. You really think you made it off the grid? You think they aren’t able to track you, find you?” Bowser shuddered. “I—I wouldn’t—”

“Okay. Fine. Yeah. But—” Baby sniffed. “Toad could still help. Even a little bit. You can start infecting their stronghold with a dose of your own people, and in the meantime we work to pull someone more—more entrenched?—onto your side. Hear what I’m saying?”

Bowser parsed that first part quickly enough. “You… want me to put Toad on an official payroll.”

“Uh—” Baby blinked. “Well, uh, no. There’s a reason coin never goes out of style. But mostly I want you to—to keep people around that you can trust. People who you know care about you. Somebody loyal to—to more than the shiniest coin.”

Baby was the cutest thing on any world and Bowser unironically one-hundred-percent loved him to death. “Yeah. Yeah. Agreed.” He could weep. “Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

They’d spent a solid five to ten in this crazy place and so far hadn’t died, gotten discovered by hostile aliens, or, for that matter, any aliens at all. So far so good. “Tell you what. Let’s—let’s see if we can get home first. Then we can worry about what’s going on there.”

“Right. Yeah. I’m game.” Baby rolled partway onto his side to get a leg beneath him. “So. What if this isn’t just a—a gold world, or whatever you said. What if we made it to a—a full-on, legit Piranha colony? Since there’s a force field up there?”

“Force field?” Bowser did a double-take skyward.

“Yup. See all those iridescent panels?"

"Huh. You're right." Bowser took a deep breath and slowly rose until he could stand steady. Sure enough, occasional diamond shapes appeared every few seconds in the sky behind the branches, softly glowing before disappearing again. Nuts. "So far so good. I think I can help you up in a sec."

"Could you? Feels like I'm being crushed." Baby gave a sharp exhale. "Least it smells okay."

"Mm." Bowser continued looking about, straining his eyes for—for something. A disturbance. A portal leading home. Something matching whatever the hell it was Baby had done to the hotel mirror.

He had Baby on his feet within the next minute. "Not so bad now," Baby murmured after making a face. He’s gotta be feeling the same nausea. "But we should probably find a way out of here."

"Agreed.” Bowser cracked his neck. “Look around for—I dunno. Something like the—"

"There's the paintbrush." Baby slowly tromped a few years away, then carefully bent to pluck the thing out of the pale grass. "Think I could use it again? Would it take us back to where we came from?" He swiped its tip against the ground, but to no avail. The brush left only a thin trail that just as soon dissolved into nothing.

Bowser frowned. "Let's keep looking around. Trees could be blocking something from our vision."

"True. Hey, think that’s a clearing up ahead?" Baby nodded to where the trees were growing in less-dense patches, letting in more light further on.

"'S go see." Bowser gingerly stepped forward. Not so much worse than wading through water. At least the grass was relatively soft beneath his feet, if dry, as though this place were in the height of a drought. As they approached, the light grew brighter and stronger, until Bowser had to shield his eyes—

"Watch out!" Baby grabbed his elbow. "Holy shit."

Bowser blinked and nearly repeated the phrase as his heart skipped several beats. He'd nearly walked off the edge of a cliff.

Far beneath his feet, the forest continued on, seemingly for eternity. For miles and miles ahead it went, melding into a swirling purple sea until it faded into a blurry horizon line. "Damn." He lifted one hand over his eyes to shield them from the—

"Two suns," Baby murmured. "Okay, we're definitely not on the Blue Planet anymore."

Fucking hell. Bowser squinted his eyes, straining them for any sign of civilization—structures, or signs, or roads, or, hell, a footpath. Only when he glanced further down, nearly at the base of their cliff, did he land on something. "Baby."

Baby followed his gaze. "Oh—!"

"Hush." Bowser tugged Baby down into a crouch. "Dunno if it’s friendly," he whispered.

A lone cabin stood in the center of a clearing at the base of the cliff. By the looks of it, the clearing had been made into the cabin, the same trees reduced to stumps on all sides now but the logs and planks comprising its low walls and roof beams. Sure enough, a lone axe jutted from one of the stumps further out, its blue-black blade wedged in deep.

Also made of the same pale wood was a—a mill wheel, Bowser was pretty sure, if a small one. It turned slowly over a narrow creek that cascaded down the cliff face before winding deeper into the forest. Water. Or—some kind of liquid. No telling, not from here.

The cabin's chimney, on the other hand, was made of either bricks or stone. From this far out Bowser could not quite tell which. Don't see a quarry anywhere. Maybe mud brick? Either way, no smoke emanated from the chimney, and no shadows moved beyond the cabin's roughly-hewn wooden blinds.

But someone else had been here. That much was clear.

"Blue Magic," Baby murmured.

Bowser did a double-take. "Huh?"

"Those panes in the sky?" Baby jerked his head upward. "We're inside a Blue Magic dome, Bow. Like—look further out, almost to the horizon. See how there's a point where the trees fall behind the panes when they light up? But the closer trees stay in front of 'em?"

"Yeah. Yeah." Bowser swallowed. "Or... a dome made outta something else. We dunno if it's Blue—"

Something way too close rustled and Bowser felt his bones jump in his skin.

Baby had already lunged up onto his feet again, grimacing from the strain. "D'you hear that?"

Gritting his teeth, Bowser shifted onto his own feet and began to shuffle backward. The rustling continued, growing louder, crisper—something else, too—a dull clanking, like wooden windchimes in a whirlwind—Bowser felt his stomach clench—

"Gyahh!"

Bowser all but pissed his pants as an honest-to-god skeleton leapt up from the mountainside's closely-clustered treetops below. Pure bone, this, with no flesh nor clothing still clinging to it. Only shimmering blue-hued magic appeared to hold its many segments together. The skeleton took a tentative step forward, craning its dull gray head as though scanning the horizon. Its eye sockets were empty, pitch black within, predatorially flat.

The fuck?  "G-go," Bowser stammered, yanking Baby along with him as he broke into—well, tried his damnedest to run. His footsteps were still heavy, plodding, not at all conducive to escaping whatever the hell that thing was—

"It's coming after us, B-Bow," Baby quaked, glancing over his shoulder every other second. "Bow, it's—"

"We gotta lose it in this forest," he hissed, looking frantically about for—well, anything—he wasn't thinking straight—anything, please, anything—

"It's chasing us!"

"Stop looking behind! C'mon—"

"Bow, I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die here, I—"

"We are not gonna die here," Bowser growled, skidding to a halt.

"Whah—"

"Changing course.” Now he’d begun searching the treetops overhead for a solid place to stick Baby. Some place he could reach, and quickly—the footsteps behind him were growing louder, surer, faster—

"It's right there—"

"Stop looking back!" But with another step, Bowser's heart lifted to the heavens. Thank hell— "Found the portal!"

There it was, in all its glowing rainbow splendor—and ten feet off the ground, overlaid perfectly against the trunk of a particularly broad purple tree.

Nuts. Still Bowser kept up his pace. "Baby, I'm gonna throw you."

"What?!"

"Gonna try to lose this thing in the woods then make it back later. If I'm not back in an hour, call, uh—" Rosa— "Toadette has Lee's number. Get Toadette to call Lee. Got it?"

"Got—what?! Bow, wait—yaaahh!"

Bowser hurled Baby toward the portal, overhead, with both hands, almost exactly like his Shell mid-race, adjusting the arc for this place's bonkers gravity. The kid sailed toward the tree before bursting into a splatter of rainbow-hued drops that the portal readily absorbed. There, then gone.

Bowser could only pray that the thing would send him back from whence they'd came. C'mon, Baby. Get home. Or somewhere, anywhere other than here. Come on

At a few dozen meters past the portal-tree, Bowser pivoted in place to face his pursuer. The skeleton loped toward him, unsteady, crashing through branches and shrubs alike, not seeming to notice anything in its path. It fell over more than once, keeling to the side from too-sharp a turn before scrambling back to its feet.

Some monster. Hey, maybe he could take it.

Bowser lowered himself into a fighting stance, digging his feet into the grass as the skeleton approached. God, could he use a cigarette right now. Something to stop his hands from shaking so—oh.

He thought of—the last time he’d been under a dome. Fireworks. A flaming baton. How he’d—what he’d wanted—come on—come on come on come on—Saulus, rolling up his sleeve, his grin unnervingly sharp—

Right as the skeleton dove at him, Bowser punched.

The white-gold fireball that erupted from his knuckles went out nearly as quickly as he'd brought it up, but the mighty flare sure got the skeleton's attention quickly enough. It halted in its tracks, leaning back as though to dodge.

Can it see me? Feel the heat—? Conversely, Bowser now felt colder. Like some of his own body heat had gone into that fireball. He wanted it back.

The skeleton, on the other hand, began clambering backward on all fours as though spooked. Good. Bowser felt a wave of confidence surge through him. “You don’t like fire, huh?”

"You," hissed the skeleton. The word seemed to spring not from its mouth but from a wire in Bowser’s ear, telegraphed to him by sheer magic alone. But the voice was a familiar one, unmistakable in its revulsion. Only one person had ever spoken to him this way.  

Bowser's jaw dropped. You're—?

As though having sensed his hesitation, the skeleton picked that moment to lunge at him.

"Gyarrghh!" On instinct Bowser swung back out with his fist. Yet again the golden flames appeared around his hand as he deflected the attacker, making full contact with that leering skull.  

Yeow— But this time, the flames remained burning—on the skeleton.

"Aaaaiiiiieee!"  The thing had fully caught fire. Now it rolled about in the grass, writhing as though in agony. That familiar voice racked Bowser’s head as it shrieked, more banshee than bone. The high pitch turned his stomach, enflamed his ear drums, and again he was nauseous as all get out. And cold.

Every cell in Bowser's body told him move, get out, run—but the grass was catching fire, too. "Shit—" He began stamping the burgeoning flames out as the skeleton continued to writhe. Can’t let this whole forest go up in smoke. Bleurgh. Stereotypical Blue Planet-ass shit.

By now the smooth surfaces of the skeleton’s segments had begun charring to brown, to black, to green-purple tinted gray ash. With a series of faint pops, each blue-hued glow connecting the thing's bones together fizzled away, darkening to nothing, leaving fewer and fewer pieces connected. Digits fell away, then limbs, until nothing of it remained attached to any other part. The pile of bones continued to burn on, motionless, with the forming cracks rupturing and flaking away until only a loosely-scattered pile of dust lay in the singed grass.

Whether watching the thing dissipate had been a five- or fifty-minute long affair, Bowser could not say. He could only lay back in the grass, panting, shivering, until all was silent save for his own heavy breaths. Hell, he was freezing. He wanted his jacket, and a cigarette, and—and to see his teammates again.

Wanna go home.

So up he clambered. His fingers and toes felt numb, as though he’d begun suffering frostbite. Hell take him if more of those things showed up.

But the portal was easy enough to find once again. After casting one last glance about the unbelievable place, these unquestionably cursed woods, Bowser took a deep breath and jumped.


“You’re late.”

Peach scowled as she approached in her finery. The Mushroom Bridge Plaza Hotel's ladies' room was, for the first time that evening, completely devoid of any other All-Cup Mixer guests. That her sister only deigned to appear now was surely no coincidence. “Toadsworth.”

“Ah.” The sweet old man had only ever loved them and their mother more than the sound of his own voice. “So. What is it?”

Peach began turning the spigots of every one of the copper sinks until the place sounded like the base of a waterfall. "MC General’s toxicology team—the one that brought Mario on right after his thesis defense? Remember?"

If there is one thing, one thing Rosalina can do, it is remembering. Take heed. "And?"

Peach glanced over her shoulder, then underneath every one of the white-pine stalls, her motions nearly comical. "They’re going to publish their report tomorrow afternoon. The poison that forensics found during the autopsy?" She bit her lip. "It came from off-world, Rozetta. Whatever it was, it was alien."

Of course it was. Of course it was, Pauline. Rosalina feels herself age another sidereal year whilst standing before her sister in this single terse moment. The lavish tile flooring and high misted windows burst apart, shattering into air, into space, as without warning she’s whisked about the Sun system’s unrelenting void-cage. There, gone, then back again, again, again, floating—repeating—doomed to repeat, on end, forever—no, not forever—until the inevitable, inescapable heat-death of the universe itself—

"Just… so you have the heads up." Peach grimaced and began rotating the sink valves back. "The Piranha are probably going to be the first suspects, but—but the Luma can’t be ruled out, either. Not until they hear which, erm, which planet it could’ve come from. If you thought the paparazzi was bad earlier…"

“Right.” Rosalina is present in the physical sense alone.

“Just so you know what’s coming,” Peach went on, her voice dropping to a whisper. “When you make it into work tomorrow afternoon.”

An alien assassination in the midst of a cold war. Rosalina had of course never expected this job, her job, her life, her universe to be an easy one to navigate. Still, she kneads her temples, if in vain; already the third-largest headache in her lifetime had sprung up, its very momentum acerbic. "When I go back in tonight, yes."

Peach winced but, for once, did not protest at the prospect.

One does not merely shrug off one's monarchical sensibilities, Rosalina knows well enough. Not even when the mantle had been unfairly ripped from her.

"Rozetta?"

"What?"

“You… you don’t think…?” Peach swallowed. “Please, see it as I see it. If anyone in this galaxy would know who, or why…?”

“I have my guesses,” Rosalina replies. Don’t do this to yourself, she wants to scold. Or to them, or to me. “But that’s all they are. You’ve got to remember that I don’t know every person in this galaxy on a first-name basis.”

“But surely you have a better grip than anyone down here on the—how they view us. On what motive someone would have, or what message they’re trying to—”

“Don’t put words in others’ mouths, Pauline.”

“You really don’t know?!” The look of disbelief on her sister’s face seared Rosalina’s one good eye. “You can tell me, Rozetta. Even if you can’t tell anyone, you know you can always…always…”

“If I knew,” Rosalina somehow brings herself to whisper, “I would tell you. Please, please believe me.”

"I’ll believe you. But only because you said ‘please.’" Peach pulled a thin vial of perfume from her evening bag, a ridiculously twee blossom-shaped wristlet. Two spurts on each side of her neck, just over her pink-tinged pearls, and lilting clouds of dewy rose cloyed the air. "I get it. I get it. Just…please, please be careful. There’s so much we don’t know. If anything happened to you, I’d—"

Rosalina steps toward her sister, her bright, thoughtful, tragically earnest sister, and hugs her close. “I’ll not waste my breath telling you not to worry over me.” She rests her chin on Peach’s silk-draped shoulder. “This is only the start. Things will get far worse before they can get any better. So promise me you won’t—”

“I learned a long time ago not to promise you anything,” Peach harrumphed.

"Smart girl," Rosalina replies, reaching for where she'd folded her opera-length gloves into her hammerspace bag. "Get some rest, now. We have a long day tomorrow." The longest.

Peach rolled her eyes but nonetheless shot her a faint grin before heading back out into the ballroom.

With the coast clear, Rosalina messages Polari. Keep Lee confined to the Garden. That’s an order.


Koopa had been exhausted three hours ago, after this wacky Cup’s first race, after the supremely messed-up press conference and chasing that poor old lady down, after a vidchat with Paratroopa’s parents wherein he’d repeated on end that they’d have no idea where each subsequent race would be until exactly 24 hours prior. Yes, all they knew at this point was that the Mushroom Bridge race was next, tomorrow morning, bright and crassly early.

Then, the half-congratulatory half-vigil of an uneaten dinner spent praying Bowser wasn’t getting merked in his uncle’s office. That shit had since devolved into the crawl-paced hours of research into this strange old lady in yellow’s mysterious past, and what any of it could mean for their upcoming visits to Delfino and Kong territory.

And now—now this.

Take me. Beam me up, Space Jesus. End it all. Release me from this—

“Baby!” Toad vaulted over the sofa and swung into the bathroom, where Baby had suddenly materialized in a neon-rainbow-spattered glow, shrieking for his life.

“AHHHH—!”

“Are you hurt? What happened?!” As Toad and Daisy looked him over, the rest of his conscious teammates gathered at the threshold of that bathroom. Koopa for one feared that sticking so much a toe in would somehow result in yet another logic-rending singularity, which they all totally needed right now.

“—w-w—guh—” Baby glanced about, panting, and shook his head. “P-portal,” he stammered, hopping off the counter and away from the—the mirror. Or whatever the mirror had now become. Portal. Right. Sure. Koopa could hardy trust his eyes at this point.  

“Is that why Bow just yelled at you?” Toadette peeked around the narrow room. “He’s—he went into there?”

“We—we both—” Baby heaved with a dry sob. Koopa realized the kid had this whole time been clutching a monster paintbrush in both his hands. One whose bristles had been dipped in the same shifting-neon edges of the—huh. “He held onto me when—when I went in—I—another planet, and, and—there was this skeleton? Except alive, or, not—not dead, it—it chased us, until Bow found the matching portal and—and—”

“Skeleton.” Waluigi sniffed. “Slow down, Baby. Deep breaths.”

“We were in—it put us in this weird forest, right? Had to be—we thought it was another planet, because of the suns, and—and out of nowhere, this skeleton—”

“Hold the phone.” Paratroopa shouldered her way into the bathroom. “This goes to another planet? And you’re still alive?! I mean, duh, but—”

“Y-yeah. Was—heavier gravity, and—never seen trees like that before, but—” Without warning Baby’s eyes overflowed. “B-Bowser—”

“Is he still there?” Toadette squeezed Baby’s hand. “Baby? Should try to find him…?”

“No! No, I—he said to—to call—Lee, the—the Lee kid, Rosalina’s partner.” Baby shuddered. “I don’t know, y’all.”

“Calling him now.” Toadette had already yanked her phone from her skirt pocket. “If anybody knows about portals, it’d be him, or Rosalina. I know he operates the Observatory’s sling system directly. Something about controlling dark matter?”

Oh, brother. Koopa leaned against the door frame, trying to ignore the rapid pounding of his own heart. Not again, bro. C’mon. Get back here. No way had they come this far, past all the other insane shit in their lives, for that big lunk to get swallowed up in some other dimension because of—of— “Where’d that thing even come from?” What if more show up? Find a way in—? Oh, jeez—

Baby took a shallow, shuddering breath. “I made the portal. On accident. With this.” He turned the paintbrush about in his hands. “I didn’t know who Lee was when he showed up at the garage ‘n dropped it off. Said it was just for Bowser, but we didn’t—I didn’t know if we could trust it. Him. Or any of it.”

“Kid thought it was a bomb,” Wario tittered. “Can’t-a say I blame him. Wouldn’a put it past that Dry Bones guy. I think we was all walkin’ on eggshells that day. Too careful for our own goods.”

“So that thing—” If what Baby was saying was true, Koopa realized with a start, then— “That thing makes portals? Just, you paint ‘em open, and…?” Holy shit. Holy shit.

And here the Piranha had been touted as the sole masters of slinging—but if portal-generators could be this small, this portable…? Koopa’s mind collapsed in on itself, bursting into a dazzling galaxy of what.

“I—I guess so. It never did this before. ‘S been in my backpack since—”

“You’ve been carrying that thing in your backpack?”  Toad looked ready to blow a fuse.

Koopa for one could not blame him. How the shit did that thing make it through the Mach-6’s security…?

“—since we got it, yeah, don’t look at me like that! Like I said, it never did anything til—”

The mirror abruptly glowed stark white, and the half of Firebird that didn’t scream hit the ceiling.

“The fu—”

”Watch out!”

Koopa’s heart rate skyrocketed as Paratroopa latched onto his arm. C’mon—please—!

He had never in all his years been so relieved to see Bowser collapsed on a bathroom floor.

“Bow!”

“Aw, hell—”

His eyes overflowing, Koopa dove across the threshold and tackled Bowser off the counter until they collapsed in a heap together on the floor. Soon all air promptly left his lungs as other bodies piled atop him. Is this gonna turn into a weekly thing, or—aw, fuck, like he cared anymore—

“Are you alright?!”

“Say something, dude.”

“Uh.” Bowser shivered, and Koopa noticed with a start how clammy his friend’s skin now felt. Fuck— “What planet?"

"We're back home," Baby stammered, clutching his hand. "You made it, Bow."

"No shit? What time’s it right now?”

“It’s—” Toadette glanced toward her phone. “Six past twel—past midnight. Are you hurt? Baby mentioned a skeleton—”

“Fuck that skeleton.” Bowser slowly inched up until he sat against the lower cabinets, half-slumped against Koopa. “Fuck, it’s cold. Midnight ‘n—wait. Really?”

“Yeah really.” Baby sniffled again. “All that time we spent over there, ‘n it was only—a minute or two, yeah?”

“Mhm.” Paratroopa gently put one arm around the kid’s shoulders. “We ran in here when Bowser screamed your name, and you two were gone. Thirty seconds, y’all think, until Baby showed back up?”

“Yeah.” Daisy inhaled sharply. “We were debating which pizza to order. Fuck, I’m hungry.” She whipped out her phone. “It’s gonna be one large Supreme, one Blistered Pianta, hold the pineapple, ‘n one medium Veggie with extra mushrooms, and that’s final. Nobody talk to me for ten minutes. I can’t—I can’t deal, y’all, all this bullshit—too much for one fuckin’ day—” Out she stomped, hands thrown up in defeat.

Koopa could eat his own kart at this rate, and also could suffice never to eat again. Only time would tell. “You two think you were gone longer than that, huh?” Not a total shocker. Warping would of course do weird shit to the passage of time. Right?

Still, to happen in real life, to someone he actually knew? Nuts. But even he could not deny the few pieces of grass stuck in Bowser’s hair and the hems of his jeans. Koopa exchanged glances with Paratroopa and gently began plucking them out. Not like any grass he’d ever seen. Pale purple, nearly white, and dry like straw.

What he did knew was where exactly his old microscope could be found—down in Mushroom City, in his and Paratroopa’s storage unit, in the yellow box labeled GEAR buried somewhere against the back wall.

“Yeah. Ten, fifteen minutes, easy.” Bowser shook his head. “We got a coffeemaker somewhere in here, yeah?”

“Not this shit again,” Koopa groaned. So much for never repeating that night after the Festival. “Where d’you keep that green jacket? Suitcase?”

“Lee can’t talk right now,” Toadette murmured, her thumbs blurs over her phone. “Says he can’t leave the Observatory, either. The place is going on lockdown?”

“C’you tell him, uh, what the fuck?” Bowser drew his knees to his chest.

After discreetly passing the pinch of grass blades to Paratroopa, Koopa found Bowser’s suitcase quickly enough. His phone still lay atop it, but no push notifications appeared when he pulled it out of sleep. Hrm. So Rosalina Toadstool hadn’t detected the warping? Or didn’t detect you were one of the warpers?  Hurr. Koopa yanked the jacket out and tiptoed back into the bathroom.

“Thanks, man.” Bowser pulled the thing on backwards before huddling against him. Here we go again.

“Bowser…” Baby blinked a few times, his mouth twisting as though he could not quite pick out which words to use next. “What happened? With the skeleton?”

“Killed it,” Bowser answered. His voice had fallen to a near-hush. “Destroyed, I guess. Dunno if it was alive in the first—”

“How?!”

“Uh. Set it on fire.” With that he closed his eyes, his brow furrowed as though he’d just admitted to committing a murder. “Hoping it was the only thing there that saw us. Nothing else attacked. So I just kinda…jumped back in.” He shivered. “’n now I’m here.”

Baby sniffled. “But, the—the brush. You knew that Lee wanted it to go to you?”

Bowser stiffened against Koopa’s arm. “Wuh?”

“You wanted Toadette to call Lee,” Baby reiterated. “Had you—? Were you expecting Lee to show up earlier? To give you this thing?”

“Nuh-uh. Just figured he’d be the fastest person to reach, to get to Rosalina.” Bowser wrapped the folds of the jacket as far around his legs as the fabric would reach. Koopa snuggled closer up against him in the faint hope it would reduce his shivering. “Lee told you that thing was for me? When did that happen?”

“Y-yeah.” Baby’s face crumpled, tears now streaming down his freckled face. “I’m—I’m so sorry, Bow—I should’ve told you—I didn’t—”

“It’s not on you, kiddo.” Wario sat on the floor next to him and hugged him close, pulling Toad in as well. “Chin up. Bowser, I shoulda let you know, too. Didn’t know what to trust. Just knew it was some weird-ass alien shit.”

“Hey,” Bowser murmured, “we’re okay. ‘S all I care about.”

Koopa snorted. “It’s definitely not all I care about. The Luma’ve had tech like that this whole time? So why’ve they only ever used shuttles or Piranha slings if they can just—?” He snapped his fingers. “Put portals wherever? Nobody else is freaking out about that?! Not even a little?!”

“That is nuts,” Waluigi replied, “now you mention it. But I wanna know how come the kid wanted it to go to Bow. The fuck you know about warping, man?”

“Zilch,” Bowser laughed. “Nada. Nil. I prolly woulda fucked it up worse ‘n Baby. Get us sent to some planet with no air, or no gravity, or—”

“Don’t say that,” Baby groaned. “I’m gonna have nightmares for weeks as is.”

“They’re bringing us the pizzas for free,” Daisy announced, hopping onto the bed in the adjacent room. “I told them the whole story with no context. Two loves of my life just got back from getting warped offworld through a glowing magic rainbow mirror, they got chased through a haunted forest by a crazy magic skeleton, and they’re, in all likelihood, gonna be traumatized for all eternity! So do we really gotta pay All-Cup surge-pricing for three meager pizzas? …They probably thought I was off my rocks.” She sighed. “Anyways. Can y’all just—like—step out of that room? For a minute? It’d make me feel a whole lot better.”

They all tromped back into the bedroom, with Bowser, Koopa, Toad and Baby plopping onto the bed alongside her. Against all odds, Luigi was still out cold.

"I got him," laughed Wario, who gingerly picked up his unconscious form and moved him onto the sofa. Still not so much as a stir. "Dais’, how we know he's not dead?"

"Ugh." Daisy snorted. "Fog test him or something. Used to go through that scare once a week. Don’t get me started. So, wait, that paintbrush thing is a Luma device?"

“Not sure,” Baby whispered. “Lee brought it, but—oh.” He inhaled sharply. “You know what? He said he was following directions. Someone else wanted it to go to Bow. Maybe it’s not—maybe it isn’t even Luma tech after all.”

“Did Rosalina say anything?” Toadette asked Bowser. “Lee’s not—” She frowned. “He’s being… unforthcoming. Weirdo.” She kicked her heels against her armchair as she typed. “You know what? Maybe Rosalina has to keep hush about it. And Lee’s just acting like her middleman. And that’s why he won’t say it’s her. Like…in case someone else is after it?”

“And she thinks it’d be safe with me?” Bowser snorted. “Nah, small wonder she never brought it up, if she did know about it. Shit, I wouldn’t trust me with somebody’s coin bank.”

“You still owe me for that,” Koopa groaned, “by the way.” Some wounds never heal.

“I know, I know.”

“I don’t even care about the twenty-nine coins that were in it. That bank was the single nicest thing I owned. BeanBean ceramic. Hand-painted—”

“Gonna find you a new one if it’s—”

“The last thing you’d do,” Koopa repeated back to him. “Twelve years he’s told me that. Twelve!”

“Not to interrupt your reminiscing,” Paratroopa drawled, “but could we talk about whatever planet y’all ended up on? I’ve wanted to travel off-world my entire life, and y’all just—did that.”

“Seriously.” Toad booted up his laptop. “No promises, but I could try to find it in the Galaxy Projects database. What kind of biome you were in? See any moons, or a ring…?”

“Uh.” Bowser kneaded his temples. “Yeah. Yeah. The part we were in was, uh, forested. Purple-white trees. Also it had water.”

“We don’t know if that was water,” Baby groaned.

“Oh, right. Uh, but, liquid something. A stream, maybe something feeding into a river, or lake. Dunno. But we could breathe the air okay enough.” He inhaled sharply. “Two suns. It was orbiting two suns.”

“It was really hard to walk, or get up, or anything,” Baby murmured. “That means it’s bigger than this planet, right? More gravity?”

“Life-supporting planets with larger masses than the Blue Planet, orbiting two-sun clusters…” Toad chewed his tongue as he keyed in the parameters. “Hrmmm…”

"Oh," Baby added after accepting a steaming mug from Waluigi, "and mushrooms. Lots of mushrooms."

“All the planets in the universe,” Daisy chortled, “and y’all landed on a mushroom world. What are the odds?”

"Damn.” Toad scowled. “Not seeing anything with those descriptors. Let me drop a few. Maybe y’all found a new planet? One that hadn’t been scoped yet?"

“Someone else had definitely been there,” Baby replied, clutching his mug in both hands. He had left the paintbrush lying on the countertop next to the sink, where to Koopa it looked no more innocuous than any of his other hairstyling tools. “They’d built a little cabin out of the wood, and had a mill wheel set up on the stream. Plus, the skeleton—I bet it was enchanted.” He took a deep sip from his mug. “Like—like somebody magicked themself up a guard dog.”

Koopa felt Bowser start even through the thick folds of his jacket. He’d already downed his whole mug in one gulp. “Koopa. Forgot to tell you—while I was fighting the skeleton, it—”

"Lee says to vacuum the mirror," Toadette proclaimed, snapping her pink phone shut. "Gotta suck all the water out of the paint. That’ll make the portal go dormant."

"Seriously?” Koopa could not believe his ears. “We just—we can shut it down?”

“Kinda, yeah. He said water is what’ll reactivate it. Just a tiny bit—that the ratio was important…?”

“D’oh.” Baby whacked himself in the forehead. “That explains everything.”

Koopa blinked, flabbergasted. “…does it?!”

“Yeah!” Baby nodded empathetically. “Wario, remember when I used the brush back at the garage?”

"You used it in the garage?"  Bowser and Koopa yelped at once.

"Just on accident! Just to see what it was—I didn't know it would—" Baby gulped. "It didn't do anything. Not then. The mark it made disappeared real quick. But that’s ‘cause I think I added it to water, instead of the other way around."

“I…don’t follow.”

“The floor—I’d just washed the floor. So adding the ink to a watery surface just made the ink go away after a bit. But here—” He jerked his head toward the bathroom. “I added water to the ink, instead of the ink to water. And that’s when it—when the ink started spreading. Paint. Whatever.”

“I’m not even gonna pretend I get that,” Bowser grumbled. “As such, I am asserting my privilege as team captain to under no fucking circumstances be the one to vacuum that thing.”

“Fair.” Koopa glanced around the hotel room. “Shoot, does this place even have a vacuum?”

“There’s the handheld one we use for the karts,” Daisy piped. “But… what then? We can’t just leave that mirror there if water reactivates it!”

“It’s not staying here.” Bowser huffed. “I don’t care what they bill me for removing it. I’ll say we busted it partying or whatever. But we can’t just leave that shit lying around. Too dangerous.”

Koopa felt his soul leave his body. “And take it where?!” It’s gonna be dangerous no matter where we—

"I got a plan," Wario replied. "Will need your permission, Bow. But you leave-a the rest to me 'n Wals, aight?"

“Uh.” Bowser abruptly glanced down his phone, where it had buzzed atop his suitcase. “Oh. Oh. Uh. Fuck me. Yeah, fine.”

Toadette raised an eyebrow. “Fine what?!”

“First things first—we gotta shut that shit down.”

Daisy gagged. “Y’all are high if you think I’m about to go anywhere near that thing.”

“Same.” Toadette inhaled sharply. “Nose goes!”

All of Firebird abruptly covered their noses. “Who was last?”

“Dunno. Didn’t see.”

“Fuck.”

“Well, someone’s gotta do it…”

“How about—” Toadette cackled, her high-pitched gales setting Koopa’s nerves firmly on edge. “Whoever does this needs to have ironclad constitution. Someone who can work well under pressure. With…with excellent fine motor skills. See, one wrong move and he’ll get warped to scary skeleton land.”

Paratroopa cocked her head. “He’ll—?”

“Right!” Koopa had caught Toadette’s drift. The mother of all Mini-Turbos was in the works, yellow sparks flying left and right. “He should be the luckiest guy on the whole team. Someone with odds-defying fortune. All his other stats could suck, but so long as his luck is off the charts…” Red sparks—

“Somebody who survived a mafia upbringing,” Baby chortled. “Somebody who lived in a haunted mansion for over a year, got out alive, and somehow caught the attention and affection of Sarasaland’s most eligible—”

“Can it,” Daisy cut him off. Blue sparks. “Alright, alright. I’ll get him up.” With that she pulled off Luigi’s left sock and yanked on his little toe.

“Aiiiiyaayaayaayahh!” Like a bolt of green lightning, the man was up and at it, flailing his arms and hopping about the room as though Daisy had spritzed him with her mace.

“Quick!” Paratroopa called, pulling the detailing-vacuum from the team equipment bag and tossing it to him. “Vacuum the mirror!”

“The mirror! The mirror!” Toad and Baby chanted.

“Hurry! This way!”

“W-which mirror?!” Luigi stumbled into the bathroom and looked between the two of them, in his bleariness somehow not seeing the drastic difference between them, or not caring; Koopa would never learn which.

“The shiny mirror!” Daisy called from the doorway. “Vacuum it dry without touching it! Now!”

“Got it!” Luigi spread his legs into a leaf-blowing stance and turned the vacuum on full blast, suction-mode.

Koopa’s jaw dropped as the resulting wave of glimmering, rainbow-hued droplets flooded into the vacuum from the portal-mirror, a vivid effect right out of one of Baby’s warehouse parties. I’m high. I’m high as balls. I’m hepped up on—fucking—mushrooms—fuck—there was a ninety-percent chance he was dreaming this whole sequence—

With that, the glow of the mirror faded to a slight iridescent sheen, nearly unnoticeable if Koopa did not squint. Like someone had merely coated its reflective surface with bubble-solution. When the stream of bubbles at last ceased, Luigi gingerly shut the vacuum off with two fingertips.

“Think that did it?” Daisy glanced toward Baby. “Who wants to test if it’s dormant?”

“Not me.”

“Nose g—"

“LOUIE, WAIT—!”

“Yup,” Luigi pressed one fingertip against the mirror, sending Koopa’s stomach plummeting down, past his gut, straight into hell. “All dry.”

Utter silence, as seconds passed. Three, four, five. Ten. Nothing. Luigi remained standing in place, wavering slightly as his eyelids continued to droop. But disappear he did not.

“Louie…” Daisy shook her head, holding one hand out. “Give me the vacuum and you can go back to sleep.”

“Okay.” He handed it over and plopped back onto the sofa. Moments later he was snoring.

“What the fuck team did I sign onto,” Paratroopa asked after a beat.

With a knock at the door—“Shit, is management kicking us out?” “The noise!”—the pizzas arrived.

“W-with compliments from Gourmet Guy,” the frazzled Noki deliverygirl murmured. Daisy handed her the fattest tip of her life, all in blue coins. “Th-thanks!”

Team Firebird, minus Luigi, dug right in. Without even sitting up on the bed, Bowser wolfed a Supreme slice down in the time it took Koopa to blow the steam off his.

"You're really not mad?" Baby asked some minutes later. With the hot food in him, he appeared and sounded far less shaky. Koopa only wished he could say the same for—

Bowser shook his head. "Hell no. Just, uh. Just tired. Just wanna—just wanna sleep. Promise I can talk more tomorrow. Thanks for getting us pizza, Dais."

"How the heck can you sleep at a time like this?!" Daisy looked ready to barbecue him. "I would never sleep again after I got warped to a zany skeleton-attack planet!"

Bowser jerked his head toward Luigi's unconscious form and shrugged. Koopa stifled a snort.

"You already don't sleep," Paratroopa laughed. "B’sides, look at him. Not gonna get anything useful out of him at this point. I wanna hear Wario’s master plan for getting that mirror out of here."

"Nah.” Koopa grumbled. “I'm not gonna even—you're good, bro? Then I'm good. We got us a fucking race tomorrow." He plopped onto the bed next to Bowser and yanked the coverlet over the two of them. "Y'all can catch me in the morning, bright-eyed 'n bushy...whatevered."

Waluigi had already kicked his boots off. "I’m Team Louie. Some of us gotta show up functional at tomorrow's race. Can't afford to all be dead on our feet. Brief me in the morning, mon capitan."

"Attaboy." For the second time that night, Wario flipped the lightswitch on his way out. A moment later, he poked his nose back in. “And no more gotdamn warping. You gotta piss, you can-a use the ladies’ room.

“Yessir.” Never in Koopa’s life had darkness felt half so welcome. His phone buzzed—two pulses, Paratroopa—two more—then they ceased. Tomorrow, he tried telepathing to her, like how they’d so often sworn to try whenever undergoing a bad connection or data outage. And don’t stay up too late, darlin’.

"Sorry to freak y'out again," Bowser murmured, draping one arm around Koopa and pulling him close. "You know I’m tryna quit."

"Bullshit." Koopa curled up against Bowser’s thick stomach, resting his head on it like a pillow. “Just threw it on your tab. Getting fuckin’ lengthy, by the way.”

“I know we gotta square up. I know it.”

“Beh.” Koopa let his eyes droop shut. “You better still fuckin’ be here when I wake up.”

“Copy that.”

How many sleepovers had they had as kids in Koopa’s cramped apartment room? All that was missing was his old Blooper night light, and the low din of Mushroom City freeway traffic occasionally rattling the window. And… the heat.

Huh. At this proximity, Bowser should have felt like a furnace. Not—not this, clammy and chilled. Definitely not this. The thought raced through Koopa’s head in frantic circles, wrestling with his exhaustion, pinning it to the ground. “You sure you’re okay? Wanna call Toadstool to do that magic shit again…?”

“Nnn.” Bowser’s voice had fallen into a low rasp. “We’ll see her later. Gotta talk to her anyways. ‘Bout Paula.”

Yikes. “What’s Paula got to do with anything?” Koopa grumbled. Let her rest in pieces, man. Or retire in pieces. Or whatever she was doing, wherever she was now. The old queen had made enough of a mess in her time, however long ago all that had been.

But his query was met only with the low rumble of Bowser’s breathing, the words under his breath too silent or too slurred for Koopa to make any sense of them. No sense in half this shit, was his own last waking thought.

And in the morning, Luigi would tell them he’d had the weirdest fuckin’ dream— “No, guys, listen—!”


In the end Baby had drawn the short straw and relayed the whole wacky mess to Luigi on their way into the Mach 6.

Toadette stuck close to Bowser—half to make sure he didn’t disappear into thin air, and half because she was too tired to walk in a straight line without clutching his hand for support. No amount of sugar and coffee seemed to jumpstart her system. Yeugh.

“Second race always sucks,” Bowser murmured, squeezing her hand. “Take it easy, I say. Let the rookies get their fifteen minutes.”

Toadette gave a great yawn, and the whole giant vicinity disappeared momentarily as her eyes squeezed shut. The sunglasses she’d nabbed from the hotel gift shop only mitigated the unending flashbulbs a smidgeon. Need me some designer shades, just like—

In that improbable instant, a pair of jeweled cat-eye sunglasses caught her eye. Yeah. Just like those. Perfect. Too perfect. Toadette blinked and did a double-take.

Red—?

No telling. The bespectacled face melded back into the throngs of people around her as quickly as it had sprung up. Booo. I need to freakin' wake up. “Bow, you think I could borrow some of Daisy’s—?”

“Fuck no. Daisy is a great person and an awesome friend and a spectacular kart racer, but some of her habits—”

“—just once? Just once! I can’t knock it ‘til I try it! What’s the worst that could—?”

“—literal, honest-to-god medical degree and I still wouldn’t touch that shit with a—”

“No fun! No fun! No—!”

“No fun allowed, yeah, yeah, FBRFun Bad, Remember?”

“Pbbbt.”

Getting their kart onto the pavement was a near-miracle, between Bowser forgetting to check the tires twice and Toadette nearly overfilling the gas tank. “This is gonna be a shitshow, isn’t it.”

“I can drive, if you want.” Bowser cracked his neck. “Lemme know if you see Rosalina. Not feeling as gross that night after the festival, but…” He shrugged. “Wouldn’t mind not having to go through that shit again, if she’s around. Just saying.”

Toadette case a glance toward the Mario Clan kart bays and inhaled sharply. “She’s not here. Bow, Rosalina hasn’t arrived yet.”

“Prolly slept in. We shoulda done that.”

Gotta call bullshit on that one. “Hmph.” Toadette smoothed out her lacy black shorts. For the Mushroom Bridge race, she’d picked out her best white eyelet blouse and pleather gladiator sandals with extra-thick soles. She’d developed a habit of tying her hair into two fishtail braids, each culminating in a fat pink glass ball-bead studded with white polka-dots. More aerodynamic, see.

But only when Lakitu began his descent did the Honeycoupe finally pull into place at the Koopa King’s immediate right.

Toadette made faces at Lee until he caught her glance, but for once he did not usually light up at the sight of her. Instead he snapped his gaze right back to Lakitu’s starter lights, his mouth a thin, grim line.

What gives? Well, Toadette would just have to make him pay attention. She pawed one foot against the pavement as the countdown began.

Three—two—one—take it easy, my whole—

VRRRMMM! No Double-Dash, not like Yoshi and Birdo and—oh, wild—Peach and Mario, but still a solid rocket start alongside Rosalina and Lee. Bowser pulled the Koopa King into a blue-sparking snake in no time.

Of this track she’d only had a cursory go-around, given that it partially overlaid an actual freaking arterial road a la Mushroom City’s track. Toadette thanked her lucky stars Bowser had opted to get some real shut-eye the night before, because by now she would have easily wiped out once—no, twice, yeek, Wiggler buses were evil, the scum of the planet, eff off—!

“Watch out for any Bombkarts. Track’s mined up with ‘em. We land within even a ten-meter radius, and someone could Shell it ‘n fuck us over.”

Yikes. “If I see any, I’ll call ‘em out!”

“Good girl. Where’s Ridley at?”

“Fourth ‘n climbing. What’s in the tunnel?”

“One set of boxes. If you’re a coward you’d stick to the sides since they’re railed off.” Bowser kept them in the dead center amidst the full-size automobiles whose drivers had some kind of nerve.

“I thought the only super-crazy drivers were back in Mushroom City,” Toadette hollered as they swept past a heavily dented gray pickup.

“Mushroom City during the race is like this but worse,” Bowser called back. “Bet you a bunch of these people are from the City, only drove up just for kicks. No matter where you go there’ll be—eugh—upstarts!” He swerved them away from a charging SUV. “Fuckin’ circus.”

Suddenly, a familiar wobwobwobwob thundered from her six. “Baby, you gotta tell us when you put a giant Shell in play!”

“Huh? I haven’t gotten one yet.”

Bowser started. “One of the small-timers has the same Special Item as us? Anybody see who tossed it?”

“Wasn’t anyone back behind eighth,” Waluigi muttered. “Fire in the hole.” Boom.

“We’re neck and neck with DK,” Koopa shouted inline. “Nobody here threw out a Big Spiny. Dais?”

“Negative!” Daisy grunted. “Grappling with Yoshi.”

“We got Birdo pinned to a tunnel rail,” Luigi clarified. “Rosalina just nailed Tartosso with a fake Box, though.”

“Big Shell on our seven!” Toadette braced herself against the Thrower rail. “Bow!”

“Dodging.” He frantically spun the steering wheel, somehow avoiding both the massive Shell and two street-legal cars as they exited the tunnel mouth. Vivid sunlight momentarily disoriented Toadette until—until her blood ran cold.

“No way,” she gasped. “Bow, Ridley on our five.”

Bowser sucked in a breath. “You don’t think—?”

“Eyes up, sweetheart,” Ridley cackled as the Boo Pipes approached. He hung airily from the pedestal by one foot with one hand on the Thrower bar. “How’d you like that?”

“How’d I like what—” Bowser growled as he steered the Koopa King directly into the Boo Pipes, the friction between the karts’ two hulls sending yellow sparks flying, “—asshole?”

Toadette had been ready. Without another word she lunged to one side, right shoulder forward, until she made perfect contact with Petey’s ribs, sending him flailing backwards. He tugged on the Boo Pipes’ Thrower bar to stay on, the force of him yanking his kart away from the Koopa King with a lurch.

“Pete! You gonna let that doll toss you around?!”

“Worry less about her—” Bowser swung one spiked fist at Ridley’s face. “—‘n more about me!”

“Eugh—jackass—!”

“Bow, watch out!”

Petey saw it as well. “Twelve—!”

A slow-moving Mushroom Bridge AdvenTourism™  bus fell directly into their path, its passengers holding up dayglo-painted signs and varying hand gestures, their bellowing nearly audible over the squealing of tires and the eternal engine-roar. Bowser narrowly dodged to the left—and the Boo Pipes to the right.  Drat.

“Who’s ahead of us?” Bowser asked as he steered the kart through a Double Box. Toadette yanked a green Shell from their flash printer, with Bowser pulling only a regular Banana.

Not much, after the carnage lain waste by whoever’s massive Big Spiny that had been. Street cars had been bumped aside left and right before the giant Special Item disappeared around the bend.

“Mario and Peach,” Toadette replied, struggling to catch her breath as the air whipped away. Far to their left were the police-barricaded audience bleachers teeming with hollering fans. Between the wind and screaming it was a miracle she could hear her own partner. “And—Roter Noko’s kart.”

“They can have their fun. Maybe we blow through ‘em on the last lap, maybe not. Just focus on keeping Ridley ‘n—”

“Miss me?” The Boo Pipes was back, with Petey now holding—oh, shoot—

“Red alert!” Toadette hollered, brandishing her Shell at the sight of Petey launching one of—Paratroopa’s?—Triple Red Shells. Seriously? On pure reflex she launched her own Shell, more muscle memory than anything else, but nonetheless it obliterated Petey’s first shell into red dust.

“So Petey got Dry Bones to give him Paratroopa’s Item?” Bowser shouted as Petey’s second Shell collided with the sedan he’d steered around, leaving a basketball-sized dent in its fender. “Musta been pissed off after the garage race.”

Toadette’s stomach lurched. “Something’s up. I don’t like it. Need that Banana!”

“Think fast.” He tossed it to her over his shoulder just as Petey wound up. But to her surprise, he turned in place to fire his final shell way to their right, where it swooped in a broad arc, automatically readjusting its path to collide with the Koopa King. But why send it that far out—with other cars in the way—?

Oh.

“Bombkart!” Toadette shouted—an instant too late.

The thing ignited on contact from Petey’s Shell, blasting Toadette’s eardrums into submission and turning her whole line of sight blazing red.

OWWWWWW. That half-second of searing heat was enough to last a lifetime as the Koopa King careened into the tunnel railing. “Eeeeee!”

“Toadette! You hurt?” Bowser reached for her over the Thrower bar. He had grunted from the impact but—shocker—did not appear to be feeling the heat.

I hate you. “J—just stunned a bit—” Yeow yeow yeow yeow—freaking— “Don’t worry about me! Get us back in it!”

“Working on it. Blast overheated the engine—gonna take a few seconds.” Bowser growled, pulling them into reverse once a sedan had passed. “That was on me. You wouldn’a seen it since you were focusing back on them.”

“Yeah, yeah. I still should've kept a lookout.” Grrrrr. Toadette was ready for this damn race to be over. “Something’s off about their setup, Bow. They’ve got the heaviest kart in the game, but didn’t ask for any acceleration-boosting Items?”

“Don’t ask me. Ridley never was the sharpest tool in the kit.”

I wouldn’t say the same about Petey. Speaking of which, he and Ridley were now unacceptably far to their one, and Birdo had escaped Daisy’s pinhold to zoom ahead as well.

“You know what should be a crime?” Daisy hollered as the Bloom Coach pulled up, its chassis now sporting fresh burns. “When I have my Heart active, it doesn’t absorb Bombkart explosions and turn them into Red Fireballs!”

“Petey’s new Item is Triple Reds,” Toadette shouted back. “At least your Heart can catch those!”

“Whoop-dee-dee. I’m just saying, if Bowser’s gonna be king? It’s high time for some updated FBR Item policy.”

“Fuck’s sake—”

“Giant Banana ahead,” Luigi called out. He swerved the Bloom Coach around the massive Item’s right while Bowser took to the left. A pickup collided with it instead, clogging up the traffic behind them.

Oh, brother. Toadette gave a dainty wave to the howling truck driver before he disappeared behind her. “When did DK pass us?”

“What about DK?” Paratroopa called inline. “He’s right on our four.”

She and Koopa were back in seventh. “Wait, what the heck? How’d the big Banana show up here, then?”

“Somebody ahead of fourth’s got the same Item,” Bowser muttered. “So either the Noko chick, or her partner, or…or… Toadette’s right, I don’t like the smell of this.”

Composite Special Items. Toadette did have a hunch, just one. She could only hope with all her might that it was dead wrong.

Through another tunnel, then over that gleaming red cable bridge, the glittering blue-green waves lapping beneath them in the rising sunlight—and they were on Lap Two.

“Birdo’s facing off with Noko,” Bowser grumbled, glancing at the radar while dodging traffic. He sped them through a Double Box before scowling at their flash-printer. “Fuckin’ Fake Box. Ugh.”

“Mushroom!” Toadette could kiss the cute thing.

“Hold it for another second,” Bowser called. “Got a shortcut on our left.”

“Really? Sweet!” With so much street car traffic, Toadette doubted she’d find a good spot to use it any sooner.

Then Koopa’s next alert threw that plan out the window. “The twins’ve got a Thunderbolt! Brace for Thunderbolt! They’re—”

“Fuck!” Without warning, Bowser plowed the Koopa King straight into the convertible the next lane over, knocking the Mushroom clean out of Toadette’s hand.

The kart spun out, with Toadette holding onto the Thrower bar for dear life. What the heck?!

A massive boom rocked the kart next, just as it had sounded at the garage race. And yet the Koopa King and its riders remained full-size.

“Did you… crash us on purpose? So we’d be immune?!” Toadette clutched her stomach as Bowser pulled them back into a clear lane. Is this love?

“Got it in one. Let’s catch up.” Bowser stomped the gas pedal with gusto.

“Woo!” Toadette only briefly mourned her lost Mushroom. It lay behind them on the track, sitting idly on the outer edge of the pavement, where in her opinion it looked dreadfully lonely. Next time, lil guy.

But within seconds they had caught up to Birdo and Ridley. The Koopa King barreled through a single Box—Thundershrunk Rosalina had just snagged the sole Double—and out popped three Green Shells. “Gonna fire two and hold one for defense,” she called.

“Sounds good!” Bowser shouted.

Just as the other racers popped back to full-size, Toadette let her first Shell rip. Crunch, there went Birdo. As for the second—

“Ridley’s got a Red Shell,” she reported, gauging how much response time she’d have if—whoop. Off her own Shell flew. “Scratch that.” Perfect—thanks, practice.

“Nice. Don’t let ‘em have shit.”

Once they pulled even with the Boo Pipes, Toadette could spot that Petey was empty-handed as well. “That’s the best you got?” she hollered at him, half-tempted to plant one foot on the Boo Pipes’ hood just as Bowser had done back in the garage race.

Petey grinned away in the driver seat, waving her off like a gnat buzzing in his face.

“Sure as shit ain’t,” Ridley cackled from the Thrower pedestal. “Pete, peel off for a spell!”

Again their paths diverged as they entered the second tunnel. Toadette harrumphed and glanced ahead. Sure enough—“Bombkart, way to our two.” Hoo, was she not about to make that mistake again.

“Steering clear of that shit.” Bowser kept them way to the left, nearly colliding with the guard rail, until they passed through the next set of Item Boxes. Again, nothing spectacular. If Toadette believed in a higher power she’d shake her fist skyward.

“Where’s Ridley at? Radar says he fell behind.”

“Um—” Toadette craned her neck, to no avail. Too many street-legal cars. “I don’t—” Then her stomach plummeted clear to her ankles. “What?!”

“Toadette?!”

There was nothing to say. Nowhere to hide. No order she could have yelled to Bowser in those too-few seconds would have made a shred of difference in this nightmare of all worst-case scenarios. She could only brace herself against the Thrower Bar as yet another Giant Shell hit them point-blank, launched unmistakably by Boo Ridley himself just as Petey steered them into view from behind a Wiggler bus.

“What?!”

Toadette would never remember the point of impact, nor even the surefire shockwave of agony as the Koopa King was crushed against the tunnel’s guardrail. All sensation, all sight and sound, all taste and touch, dissolved into sheer white-hot rage.

“The fuck are you doing with my Item, you piece of shit—!” Bowser had in that two-second eternity tattooed his foot into the gas pedal, his torso lifted entirely off the seat as he spun the wheel wildly with one hand, the other making a—

He’d spotted them in the mirror. Toadette opened her mouth, but no words came out. She knew of no language sufficient enough to—to—

Was it worth it? Petey? After leaving the labs without warning, after everything Dry Bones had done—after so many years without contact—you went back to him for that? Let Dry Bones do hell knew what to him? For—for Bowser’s—and, now that she went over all the prior clues—Paratroopa’s—DK’s—

Is there anyone’s Item you don’t have?!

“—fucking think he is? How’s that even possible? Dry Bones just, what, motherfucker’s got a fuckin’ DNA cache? Not fucking legal, there’s no way, no fucking way, just—”

They were whipping through the traffic with such clean-cut ferocity that Toadette knew Bowser had lost it. His mind and body were two separate forces, the first feverish-hot as it strained in all his righteous fury, the last coolly disconnected from anything not twenty yards in all directions, ice mode. He was zoned in, and all Toadette could do was hang on, lost in her own suffocating—what was this? Hatred? No. Confusion? Honestly, no. …Betrayal? …Disappointment.

 “Gonna kill that motherfucker—gonna kill him—”

“Please don’t kill Ridley on live TV,” Toadette mumbled. Not on camera. That Bowser could hear her over the din of the race was surprising.

“Rid—nah, fuck Ridley. This is Dry Bones’ ass. Gonna make him beg for his dick back first. He doesn’t get to play god with other people’s genetic material. You get that, right? This is beyond fucked—if he—he can just hand out other people’s Item coding? Like candy—?”

“You don’t know if it’s—if he’d gotten your genetic material,” Toadette pointed out, her heart thudding against her ribcage. Sure as hell not from me. But— “Maybe he’d tested someone else—?” Nobody she’d known from the labs had had the same Item. Different types of Shells, sure, some great and some small, some magic-laced and some physics-defying, but—hadn’t Rosalina said it? Yours are some of the rarest—still—

“Then I’m pissed off for that poor person’s sake,” Bowser growled. “C’mon, let’s go flatten those fools.”

“Hmph.” Toadette wiped her mouth. “What place are we in now?” A half-dozen karts had passed by since the Big Shell had crushed them.

“Seventh,” he replied, glancing at the radar just as they checkered for Lap Three. “Whatever we get, we gotta use it ASAP. Don’t give a shit about placing in this race, but no sense in hurting our sweepstakes score.”

“Yeah, yeah. I wanna smash the Boo Pipes, too.” Petey had earned that much. “At least now we have access to the more potent stuff.”

“Then let’s have at it, partner.” Bowser steered them through the Double-Box that had just regenerated from when they Honeycoupe had snagged it.

At once all of Toadette’s pain and suffering dissipated. “Oh ho ho ho!”

“Liking the sound of that!”

“Blue shell,” she hissed through her smile. “Launching it—”

“Wait!” Bowser waved one hand over his head to catch her attention. “Forget my old advice. Bad advice. Shoot it off once when we get up past sixth, okay?”

Boooo. “Then what’s your plan for making it into sixth?! You get anything good?”

“Uh, yeah, actually.” Bowser pointedly tossed and caught his freshly-minted Mushroom. “Wanna swap?”

“Really? You sure?”

“I think you can do it,” he answered, looking over his shoulder to catch her eye. What Toadette would give for a smidgeon of that confidence.

Fake it til you make it, girl. She took a deep breath. “Okay. Switch now!”

As scary as the traffic-driving had appeared from the Thrower’s pedestal, something about having her hand on the wheel made it significantly less so now. Toadette fell into her game mode, threading the Koopa King between mile-high buses and trucks. It’s really not so bad as Mushroom City, after all—

“Veer to the left when you can. Remember where you dropped the Mushroom last lap? When we dodged the Thunderbolt?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.” There it was, still sitting on the very edge of the track, unused. “But it’ll just propel us straight into the tunnel traffic.”

“Not if you veer off the track.”

“What?!”

“Just trust me, okay? Hit the Mushroom from its five.”

“W-why not just use the Mushroom you have?”

“Gotta save him for the next part.”

Here goes nothing. After taking one more cursory glance for chargers or other threats, Toadette pulled a Mini-Turbo to launch them to their eleven.

Beyond where the Mushroom sat, a lantern-lit park lane crawled up a deep-sloped hill, all sand and gravel and not a karting-worthy road in the slightest. Atop the hill stood stucco-plastered condominiums whose occupants had all come out onto their balconies with painted signs and breakfast food. Boy, could Toadette go for a mimosa right now. Where’re you taking us, Bow?

But over the Mushroom she nonetheless sped.

“Wheee!” Up they charged, taking the little park path by storm. A bumpy ride, to say the least.

But at this height, Toadette now had a clear view of the whole rest of the track, plus most of the town—great swaths of it misted with morning-fog, the red-tile roofs and belltowers rising from its depths in sun-drenched golden spires. Gorgeous.  

And, to boot, they were skipping the dramatic inward-bend of the track entirely, zooming as the condor flies toward the next segment. “What a cool shortcut!”

“Hung out up here with Peach a few times.” Bowser’s voice was unusually soft, almost hard to hear against the humming of the engine. “She ‘n Rosalina have this shortcut nailed. They can cut time off ‘n don’t even need Mushrooms to make the ascent, don’t ask me how. This is their home turf, in a way.”

Now they’d reached the crest of the hill. “Bowser, you gonna—?”

“Hang on tight!”

Oh, yikes—Toadette braced herself as Bowser’s Mushroom burst apart in his clutched fist.

If the trip up had been exhilarating, the trip down was—iyeyeyeeyeeeyeee!—like the bad stretch of an unlicensed roller coaster. It took all of Toadette’s strength to keep the kart from veering off in a thousand directions as they rocketed down the hill. “Woohoo!”

“Ready to switch back when you are.”

“Okay—go!” With that, she was back in Throwing business. “What place is Ridley in?!”

“He just passed up Noko and Rosalina. All you!”

Perfect. Toadette wound up and hurled the blue Spiny Shell into the sky. Up it zipped, its white wings aflutter against the too-blue backdrop of the dome. There, then gone.

“With any luck, Rosalina’ll catch the warning and drop out in time.” Bowser steered them back into the flow of traffic. Fourth and counting, with Daisy and Peach’s karts not too far behind them, and Birdo only a few meters ahead.

A blast rang in Toadette’s bones from her one o’clock. To her surprise, all three karts ahead of them spun out. We caught Rosalina off guard? Yeek.

Bowser seemed to sense her shock. “Something’s definitely up with them. Maybe ‘s why she ‘n Lee made it to the starting line so late.”

“Think something happened upstairs?” Toadette plucked a green Shell from the flash-printer. Yawn. No, really, she could not stop from yawning right then.

“Dunno. Maybe we can check in on her after.” Bowser snaked them into position for the final stretch of the race, blowing through the second tunnel without a single obstacle. “’n let her know what Dry Bones did to Ridley ‘n Petey.”

“I think she found that out quick enough,” Toadette murmured as they exited the tunnel. Once the glare of sunlight faded, the track before them lay littered with unspent Items. “Looks like they kept Turbo-ing into each other—Ridley ‘n Noko ‘n Rosalina.” Hope Lee didn’t get a concussion—

“There they are!” Bowser again leaned forward in his seat, all his weight pressed onto the acceleration. “Look pretty beat up—bet the Throwers all just now managed to hop back on—”

Standard devastation of the blue Spiny. Toadette clenched her teeth—at this point, if nothing else happened, then they’d take First—her first All-Cup first—

“Whoa!”

Just as they made it onto the cable-bridge, a pink blur whipped past, bumping into a white-spotted red sedan before abruptly swerving far to their right. “Birdo?!”

“Nuh-huh. Birdo’s behind us—before—after—the hell?” Bowser glanced back and forth between the radar and the empty track around them. “Hey, that was Peach!”

“Why’d she swipe that car?!”

“Because it’s a Shroomcar. Hit ‘em and they pop Mushrooms out.” Bowser pounded one fist onto the dash. They were rapidly approaching the end of the bridge, but not nearly as fast as—as—

“Holy shit,” Toadette breathed.

Peach had boosted herself onto the bridge’s archway, so high over their heads that Toadette had to shield her eyes from the sun to spot them. Up above the cables holding the bridge up, the Bloom Coach rocketed effortlessly forward in a perfect line.

“She’s up top, yeah?” Bowser at least had the sense to keep looking forward over the track proper.

“What the heck? Are there dash panels up there?!”

“Yep. On both sides of the bridge. Dunno anybody else suicidal enough to try it, though. If she doesn’t fly off, she’s gonna win this.”

“But how is she not flying off? Those archways are, like, two feet wide!”

“A little wider than that,” Bowser laughed. “But not by much.”

“Bowser, she’s good!”

“I been telling you.”

“Gah.”

Sure enough, by the time they crossed the far threshold of the bridge, Peach had flown directly into first place, blowing by the three dragging karts ahead of them without so much as a backward glance.

“Come on come on come on—”

Toadette steadied her stance and clutched the Thower bar in one hand, readying herself to strike, in case anybody tried anything funny. But as they passed Noko, her poor Thrower looked ready to dive off their clunky kart himself. Lee winced as she passed the Honeycoupe, and Rosalina’s face was unreadable behind her aqua sunglasses as she frantically steered. Then, Ridley—

“Nuh-uh!” She caught Petey’s lunge with ease, meeting his torso with her shoulder and plunging her left knee into his abdomen. The sheer force of their attacks pulled their karts inward, again eliciting sparks from the chafing metal hulls.

“You mad?” Ridley fended off Bowser’s punches from the driver seat. “Don’t like getting a taste o’ your own medicine, huh?”

“How pathetic are you?” Bowser rammed the Koopa King into him again. “The garage race had you so salty you went ‘n petitioned to get—”

“You missed out, so now you’re whining!” Ridley laughed. “You thought you were too good for him, huh? Just like you’re too good for all the rest of us, everybody ‘cept Miss Dolly back there—”

“Enough!”

Toadette gasped and wrapped both arms around the Thrower bar as Bowser crashed the Koopa King pell-mell against the Boo Pipes, pushing it clear off the road. “Bowser! Get us across the damn finish line!”

“Y—” He froze, then shook his head as though to snap out of a trance. “Yeah. Yeah.” He jerked them back onto the track. “Let’s—” Birdo had checkered in the time they’d spent tussling. Damn.

As they crossed the line, Toadette glanced at their position monitor and sucked in a breath. “Rosalina still didn’t finish yet?”

“She just beat Noko to fourth by a millisecond,” Bowser murmured, fishing around in his pocket. He swayed in place to dodge the tiny bouquets and whatever else the spectators could get away with hurling from the stands on both sides. “Hey—sorry ‘bout that. Dunno what came over me.”

“You don’t?” Toadette folded her arms over the Thrower bar and rested her chin on them. She simply did not have it in her to pantomime joy or cheer for the crowds hollering all around her. “’Cause… I think I do.”

“What?”

“Just—” Good grief. “Bowser. If you could pick between—between getting first place, and punching Ridley in the face—?”

“Both.” He’d lit up, still not having turned to face her.

“But if you had to pick…?”

“I—” He puffed away, silent for a moment, his shoulders heaving as the kart slowed for the victory lane.  “Shit. I’m sorry, Toadette.”

“Yeah?” Toadette scoffed, still lacking the energy to raise her head from the Thrower bar.

“I mean it. I owe you a gold medal. In this Cup.”

“Damn right, you do.” Toadette kicked the back of his seat. “Alright, whatever. Shake it off. We got a bunch more races ahead of us.”

“Sure do.” Bowser sighed, gusting—red smoke?

Huh. On closer inspect, Toadette realized he’d pulled something a little different than what came in his usual pack. A cigar? “And, um… maybe find a way to …”

Another red gust. “Control my temper. Around that asshole.”

“Exactly.” The one thing Toadette had no idea how to approach. “Maybe… talk to Koopa? …Birdo?” Somebody. Anybody.

“Yeah. Yeah. I will.”

Bleh. Toadette idly glanced toward the rankings board as more racers