Notes: So many updaaaaates... I will have to cool my heels soon, but I will make a valiant effort to update once every week or two, should "life" permit...
I'm kinda thinking a BS'd a bit of this chapter, but I'm not too worried. It's not like they give awards in cash for fanfics!
In which: Stuff Happens. Enjoy!

There was only silence when I stepped onto the porch of the palace. Peacefulness. So much different than the tone inside the castle. Why was she being so unreasonable…?

Without warning, an eruption in the town close by echoed off the marble balcony. Screams followed, and I knew Bowser was up to something again.


He joined me and watched as a few Troopas were silhouetted on the horizon. Luigi shook his head with a sigh. "We got this."

I cut him off and grabbed his arm, still staring over the crest of the hill. I held my breath, horrified, when those few were joined by a hundred, another hundred, and a hundred more. It went on for miles. Like a flash flood of yellow, red, and green, they charged down the ridge and into the valley we had known as our home, bringing chaos and violence with them. It truly was a fearsome thing to behold. Dark, silent anger churned inside me but Luigi instantly took action. With a quiet curse, he grabbed the feather from his pocket and stood up on the railing, his sudden golden cape blowing into my face.

"Are you crazy?"

He must have been. Headstrong little bugger; he jumped off without a second thought and grabbed the edges of the cape, floating momentarily, then dive-bombing straight in the middle of the mass of reptiles, the lake of fire. He disappeared into the chaos. With a frantic curse of my own, I finally snatched my leaf, practically crushing it as I absorbed it's gift.

Before I could climb over the railing of the balcony, a slender, satin-coated hand grabbed my wrist. Peach looked at me with a new fear. "Mario, don't go…"

"My brother is down there!"

"Don't leave me!"

It pained me, but I had to jerk my arm away from her grasp and vault over the railing, without looking back. I couldn't.

Floating down to the soil I readied myself for the worst. They came nearer, and I gave them everything I had. Bricks and blocks were hurled, my fists, feet, and even raccoon tail flew, but it wasn't enough. A star wouldn't have helped much either once they started tossing Bob-ombs. I heard them go off within homes, right before they went off in front of me.


I was tossed back against a pipe. There was heat all around me, and a ringing in my ears that I knew would last for a week. The smoke cleared, the dust settled, and I weakly tried to raise myself from the smoldering hole in the ground. Too late. I wasn't fast enough, my leaf ability was lost…they were already on top of me, so many of them that I could barely move.

The sound of the Mushrooms fleeing and screaming, the sight of them dying and dead…I took it all in with disbelief as they tied my hands behind me, forcing me to rise with their spears carefully aimed in my direction. This couldn't be real…

I looked up from the singed spots on my overalls to see Luigi tossed out of a pile of Troopas, wincing and hugging his stomach. I wanted to kick them away like they had kicked him; it was as if I was in grade school all over again, and Luigi couldn't hold his own against a bully. I never really believed he could.

I stopped squirming when Bowser Koopa himself approached us through the smoky air. He didn't seem to notice the destruction his minions wreaked upon the Mushroom's homes. With an air of indifference he strode towards me, so confident and cool that I felt sick to my stomach with disgust.

He tisked me as his shadow loomed over mine. "Mario, Mario. What are we going to do with you?" I glared back defiantly, as he picked some ash off my shoulder. He sighed heavily as the screaming and explosions persisted. "And they call you 'super'. Some hero you are."

I spat in his face vehemently. What else could I have done?

He didn't retaliate, not yet. He coldly wiped his cheek with his scaly hand, then turned to Luigi, who had just been forced up to his knees, his hands bound like mine. A swift kick sent him falling back, and I cringed as the lizard king's heavy foot flatly met my brothers chest, eliciting painful gasps. "S-stop…pl…please…"

Bowser smirked, and I could almost hear Luigi's rib cage creak. "Looks like one of you already knows how to beg. Good." His foot was lifted and Luigi breathed freely and heavily, not meeting my eyes.

Bowser gazed at the castle sending a shadow of protection over us. His ugly face wore a sly grin.

"I still have one last stop to make, boys. I'll only be a minute."

My vision turned read as he strolled past, much too casually, to the palace gates, a handful of Troopas loyally trailing behind. I told him you had better not, don't you dare, monster, no, you stay away from her…! They dragged us away before he disappeared into a home that was not his. When we were some distance away, another explosion sounded and I turned to look over the mushroom caps that followed our march and saw the castle, or pieces of it, flying about, and several of the foundations crumbled, collapsing in on itself. His malicious words came back to haunt me: some hero you are.

The weather never seemed to change in this world. The sky remained a dull, earthy shadow that never yielded rain, never yielded a sun. Inside the dilapidated palace, however, things were changing.

Five months had passed. Kelley remained true to her word; she checked in with the Marios as often as possible without blowing her cover or losing another comrade. She dared not speak of it to any other Troopa that accompanied her; she trusted herself to keep this secret, but the others in Bowser's keep she could not afford to trust.

The Mushrooms in the palace started warming up to her. Kaden was civil, to say the least, but Adeline and Jack seemed to enjoy her company the most. Her visits were short, as there was little time for chit-chat, but the somewhat normal conversations Adeline dredged out of the Troopa seemed to soothe old wounds for both parties.

Princess Peach was no longer ill, but she remained weak and spent most of her time in bed. Mario fairly passed out cold when he heard the news that he was to be a father. The Mushrooms were particularly excited about this, and a thrilled Adeline wasted no time in making decent preparations.

Luigi made weekly visits to their allies in Sky Land, and he too started to see past the shell and scale and saw the hearts underneath, hearts that desperately wanted to be free, just as much as he did. They provided him with what food and water they could give, and even helped him scour other Lands for unused item blocks.

The Marios' army, morale, and list of provisions flourished.

Bowser, however, became further disquieted.

Kelley anxiously arrived when summoned one afternoon, but as he said nothing at first, she could only watch him pace and snort, the ground shaking under his feet, his eyes wild. The deep trenches of lava leading to the throne glowed brighter, as if mirroring the lizard king's emotions. Kelley could only watch and worry.

"They're not found yet. Maybe they died after all." Bowser spoke more to himself than to the Captain of the Troopas. "There's nothing to live on out there…I have all the resources, I have all the food and water! They'd have to eat themselves to survive-!" He paused to growl and huff. "I hope they did. They can't be alive. Without me, they can't survive. No one could survive! I killed Mario. I should have killed Luigi! No one leaves my domain and lives to tell about it! They belong to me!"

Kelley instinctively took a tiny shuffle backwards; her master looked ready to kick something.

Breathing heavily, his crazed pacing making odd patterns on the floor, the Troopa was able to notice how much Bowser had truly changed. He himself was thin in his own way. Stretched, rather. His eyes were tired from lack of sleep, his scales grew pale with age. His hands, though still dangerously strong, showed wrinkly scales. His tail dragged more and more as the years and months passed. Kelley still couldn't really feel sorry for him. He did this to himself, after all.


She looked up with a start as he finally addressed her. She could hear the sudden weariness in his voice, and it surprised her. She maintained her confident, loyal appearance as she ventured another step closer. "Yes, Lord Bowser?"

"…you have to find them. I cannot rest until they are found. Dead or alive, they must be found and brought to me. I want what is mine."

"Yes, your highness. Of course."

Bowser sighed heavily and retreated back to his throne, sitting down as if he was carrying a heavy weight on his back. "Do whatever it takes. Just find them."

"…your meaning, Lord Bowser?"

"Whatever it takes!" His outburst was frail. "Scour every Land, comb every inch of that forsaken place until-until it has been confirmed. That they are dead or alive."

Kelley felt both a rush of relief and something like a brick fall in the pit of her stomach. To visit the other Lands would enable her to find more resources for the Marios, but it would also put the army living in the clouds at serious risk. As long as her cohorts obeyed her, however, there would be no problem….

She bowed deeply and respectfully. "Yes, your highness. We will scour the eight Lands for your enemies."

Bowser dismissed her weakly with his giant hand, the other holding up his scaley, horned head. His breathing was ragged, his eyes would not rest. He began to realize his entire being would not rest until his property was found.

Mario stepped into Peach's room after a soft knock, and couldn't help but smile. On a stool next to the Princess' bed, Adeline was carefully sewing clothes, in sizes fit for an infant, but using bed sheets the Marios had brought as her fabric.

"We could have used those, y'know."

Adeline looked up suddenly, embarrassed, but stammered for an excuse. "I-it was the nicest I could find, a-and Peach deserves the best…"

Mario smiled warmly enough to put her back at ease. "That's alright, Adeline."

Peach smiled too. "Ignore him, Addy. He'll tease anyone in his path."

Mario sat carefully on the bed by her side, finding himself staring at her dirty, ragged blindfold again. Why doesn't she take it off? he wondered.

"How are you feeling?"

"Better. I may go for a walk."

"Only when night falls, Peach."

She nodded, displeased, but understanding. Finding Mario's hand, she gave it a squeeze, seemingly for no reason. He looked back at her with a warm gaze she couldn't see.

"…do you want to feel the baby?"

He blinked and stammered. "Wh-what? Baby?"

She smiled in spite of herself. "Yes. The one we've been talking about for months. Here." She took his hand and placed it softly on her growing tummy.

Mario thought he felt it right away, then realized it was merely his pulse that was beating too hard. Peach senses his nerves and smiled again.

"It won't hurt you, Mario."

He nodded, still nervous, but tried breathing more slowly, and waited. And waited. And waited.

He was glad Peach couldn't see the sadness in his eyes. "I don't feel anything."

Peach tried again. She scooted a bit so she sat up even more, and put her frail, cold hand over Mario's, sandwiching it between princess and child. She whispered down. "Baby? Your daddy's here. He wants to meet you. Can you tell him you're here, too?"

Mario continued to wait, and with a gasp his gaze was drawn from the Princess' face down to the bump in her body.

"…I felt it."

Peach smiled again. "That's good."

"I…I felt it."

Peach laughed quietly. "It's not an alien, Mario. It's your baby. I'm glad."

Mario looked up at her suddenly, and she sensed his silence. "…what is it?"

"You laughed."

She bit her lip at her smile. "…yes. I suppose I did." Noticing Adeline's silence through it all, she changed the subject. "Where is Luigi?"

Mario paused. "I don't know. Why?"

"…it's just that, he hasn't come to see me in a few days…"

"I'll find him, if you want."

"No. You shouldn't force him into anything."

Silence reigned, and Adeline meekly broke it.

"…h-he…he is not himself, lately."

Mario looked over at her. "What do you mean?"

"His mood. It…sinks lower everyday."

Mario frowned. "He seems fine to me."

Adeline lowered her head, embarrassed. "…he doesn't want you to know."

"What? Know what?"

The Mushroom bit her lip and continued sewing.

"Doesn't want me to know what, Adeline?"

She sighed in regret. "He is unhappy."

"Tch. That's not a surprise. He was never happy to begin with. Always pouting and grouching about stupid things…"

"Yes, he was." It was Peach who spoke up now, thin fingers feeling the edge of her bedspread. "He was happy once, Mario."

"Probably when I took that vacation to Isle Delfino with you. He beat all the palace mushrooms at poker…"

"No. Daisy. Sh-she-"

Mario's cheeks flushed and his gaze fell. It was admittedly easy to forget Luigi's pain when Mario himself was able to keep his own flower.

"She brought out…the best in him." Peach finished her thought sadly.

"…I should talk to him."

"D-don't tell him I told you anything!" Adeline pleaded, a little more loudly than she needed to. "I don't want him to hate me!"

Mario chuckled softly. "I don't see how he could hate you. But alright. It's a deal."

Peach found Mario's hand again. "Be gentle with him…?"

He almost bristled, but swallowed his pride. "Don't worry. I will."

Adeline sighed in relief, but glanced up nervously as the shadow lingering at the doorway moved out of sight.