Quick note: This story felt so Beauty and the Beast that I put an exchange of words from the original fairy tale into the dialogue. See if you can catch it.

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Not a Monster

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"In the moonlight I felt your heart
Quiver like a bowstring's pulse
In the moon's pure light, you looked at me
Nobody knows your heart…"

-Princess Mononoke theme

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"What?" A gruff bass voice rose above the roar of a spinning propeller, "No screaming this time?"

"Hmph!" Peach glanced at the spiked green shell of her captor. Her golden hair blew about her shoulders. She squinted her baby blue eyes against the cold wind blasting her pretty face and bare arms. The white gloves she usually wore were still folded neatly on her dresser, and she felt naked without them. Feeling naked only increased her annoyance at being kidnapped while dressing down for the night. She felt fortunate that her kidnapper let her put her dress back on before grabbing her! So there she was, flying high above the Mushroom Kingdom in the middle of the night. "I don't see the point in giving you the satisfaction, Bowser. Besides, I know Mario will come for me."

Bowser grinned at her and his flaming hair rippled in the breeze. "Mario's off on vacation and out of contact. I know, and it's all because my spies were waiting to give me a call on my brand new Koopa phone," he indicated the shell-shaped cell phone tucked under the Clown Car's control stick, "They let me know when he left…and I came right over! And I get to have you as long as I want!"

"My people will find him!"

Bowser's laughter rang in Peach's ears. She turned her head away in utter defiance, not wanting him to see that the tears forming in her eyes weren't just from the wind. Bowser was a monster. A selfish, unfeeling bastard of a monster! She had no idea what he had planned for her. He never actually hurt her, though on occasion he tried to force a wedding. And the way he'd look at her…it scared her that his russet eyes could meet hers in love, then look into Mario's with complete hatred. Maybe that was just the light. Monsters didn't feel.

"…and the best part is all but my youngest are off making trouble, so I have you all to myself. This is gonna be AWESOME!"

Rolling her eyes, Peach ignored Bowser's posturing. She tried to forget images of his Koopa Clown Car's grinning face appearing in the fog outside her window.

Bowser's phone screeched an obnoxious heavy metal song. It had ring tones, too? Bowser reached under the control panel, flipped the phone open and brought it up to the side of his head. "Bowser here. What? He was just a little sick to his stomach this morning! I-"

The Koopa Clown Car stopped dead in the air. Its metal rim slammed into Peach's belly, forcing the air from her lungs. She smoothed her pink gown and shot a glare at Bowser. The angry retort died on her tongue when she saw the arrogant smirk melt off Bowser's face. His eyebrows went up, something Peach had never seen him do before. Then his eyes widened.

"How bad is it?" Bowser asked, gritting his teeth, "You have to-huh?" He reached up and ran a hand over his hair. "Yes, yes, do it! Use the green stuff if you have to. I'm on my way! I'll be right there! Tell him I'm coming!" He slammed the phone back into its cradle under the control sticks and squatted down a little. "Peach, there is a harness behind you. Put it on, sit down and hold onto the handles beside it."

Peach didn't dare object. Bowser had gone from confident to anxious in a split second. She fumbled with the green harness until she was secured against the back wall of the Koopa Clown Car. There were two small Koopa head-shaped handles on either side of the harness. She grasped them. "Okay."

Bowser hit a button and a strange, clear force field zapped into being over the top of the clown car. Peach had no idea what this was for. Jerking the controls around, Bowser tipped the Clown Car forward and flew at a speed Peach didn't knew he could fly. The force field kept the wind off.

The Koopa king's silence scared her. "Bowser, what's wrong?"

"Junior's sick."

"I figured that much. Why is it such a big deal? Kids get sick all the-"

"It's Koopa pox," said Bowser.

Peach opened her mouth to ask more. Heat and orange light buffeted her. In all the chaos she didn't realize they had already reached Bowser's sprawling volcano castle. Usually, he flew slow and flirted with her, taking ages to reach his burning abode. This time they got there in barely ten minutes. He parked his Koopa Clown Car on a metal docking arm. Peach felt his large, rough hand reach back to pull the harness off her body. She took his offered hand without comment and let him carry her down to the ground. Trouble was…he forgot to let go. Peach found herself towed through a confusing maze of gray bricks, down a staircase and into a stark, darker gray medical area that smelled like cleaning chemicals. A white curtain blocked one corner. Peach heard a ventilator hissing. She saw something green on a countertop-Junior's empty shell.

"Um…Bowser? Is this pox thing contagious to me?"

"Huh?" Bowser glanced over as if just remembering her presence. She repeated herself. He blinked, "No. Only Koopas get it, and they're immune afterward. Kinda like your chicken pox…but…"

"But?"

His face lost all expression. "Deadlier."

Peach took a small step back. Monsters don't feel, she reminded herself.

"I had eight brothers. We all got it. I'm the only one that lived." He glanced at her, "Does that tell you anything about how deadly it is?"

Feet appeared behind the curtain. A short, green shelled Koopa troopa wearing a lab coat and gloves slipped out into view. He immediately bowed before Bowser. "My liege. I'm Doctor Flip and I'm in charge of your son's care-"

Bowser growled, "Just give it to me straight! How is he?"

Flip's face fell. "It's not good, Sire. His airway collapsed and I intubated him just before you arrived. I've done my best to stabilize his heart rate and maintain his oxygen levels-"

"Is he gonna live or die?"

The small Koopa troopa flinched. "…I don't know. If we don't lose his heart rate we can keep him going until the swelling in his airway goes down. I know you're well aware the severe cases can cause fatal airway swelling and heart arrhythmias if someone isn't right there to defibrillate. We're on top of his heart rate, we'll know if something goes wrong."

Peach saw Bowser's tail thump against the smooth black floor. He swiped the chart from Flip's hands and read it until his eyes crossed. Clearly, he didn't understand the medical jargon. He thrust the chart back at Flip, sneering, "Where's my kid?"

Flip gestured to the curtain behind him and stepped away. Bowser ripped the shroud aside, the metal rings holding it to the ceiling clattering loudly against each other. There lay Junior on his back in the white bed. The bed only stood knee high to Bowser. A clear tube had been pushed down Junior's throat and connected to the two larger tubes coming from the clicking, hissing machine beside his bed. Labeled bags dangled from metal hooks to drip yellow, green and clear fluids through tubes taped to his left arm. Glowing red cups on his chest translated his heartbeat into white lines on a flat screen monitor beside the ventilator. But what made Peach wince was the condition of Junior's naked skin. He was covered in yellow pustules the size of gold coins. They looked like the blisters she got on her hand the one time she played tennis without her gloves. Tears welled in her eyes. The only places that didn't have pox were the palms of his tiny hands and the bottoms of his three-toed feet.

Bowser didn't make a sound. Peach glanced at him. He'd clenched his fists and the muscles in his jaw twitched. His eyes were shiny. It was the harsh overhead lighting. It had to be the light.

"Bless his heart," whispered Peach. "That looks awful."

Still no answer. Bowser lumbered quietly to Junior's bedside. Peach followed him, choosing to stand on the opposite side.

"Hey, brat, it's dad." Bowser got on all fours and bent over Junior. His expression remained serious. He seemed pale as if little blood reached his face. Pale as if…afraid. He propped his elbow on the mattress and rested his cheek on his fist, still gazing down at his child's face. "You awake, kiddo?"

Peach couldn't see Junior's face since it was turned away from her. She only saw Bowser's frown melt away. He gingerly stroked Junior's red topknot. "Guess not. But it's okay. Daddy's here…"

Daddy's here.

Peach never heard Bowser use that tone of voice before. It was like hearing him speak for the first time. A soft, scratchy bass rumble with a growling undertone. Nothing even close to the boisterous, loud voice he used whenever he threatened Mario.

No, don't you dare sympathize with that beast!

Peach told herself. She bunched handfuls of her skirt up in her fists. You're just imagining those looks on his face. This is BOWSER! A tyrant! An arrogant, self-centered bastard!

He sniffed, "I remember when I got the pox…I was your age. I had to be on a machine like you are now, but they had to cut a hole in my throat because they couldn't get the tube in my mouth. Everybody thought I was gonna die, even me. And back then they didn't know you only got it once, so they didn't even let my parents come in and sit with me. I got so lonely that I'd pee all over my sheets on purpose just so the nurses would pay attention to me. Heh, heh, heh, don't get any ideas, though. Nurses get mad when you do that, even the pretty ones. They got so tired of cleaning me up that they stuck a diaper on my ass. Talk about embarrassing. Kids get beat up for that kind of stuff."

Bowser reached down and laid his large hand across Junior's belly. Junior moved his legs and tail around, reacting to the warm touch.

"Easy, easy," whispered Bowser. His hand nearly covered his son's entire torso. Alone, Junior looked pretty big…but right now Peach thought he looked so tiny and weak. It seemed impossible that such a bratty, wild child could get so sick this fast.

Bowser peered across the bed, "His fever's bad."

Peach touched Junior's arm. It felt like ice! "He's cold!"

"Koopa fevers are cold, not hot."

"Oh."

"Your Spikyness…" It was Flip again. The little Koopa troopa folded his hands and said, "My team and I need to run tests on your son's heart, to make sure it's still okay. Perhaps you should eat something and come back in a little while."

"No, I-"

"Bowser," Peach interjected softly, "Let's get out of their way. They can take better care of him if we're not underfoot."

"Fine!" snarled Bowser. "We," he turned pointedly to Peach, "will be in the kitchen. Doc, you call me if anything changes. If he twitches, I want to know about it."

"Yes, your Badness," Flip said, bowing. He moved aside so Bowser and Peach could pass.

.o

Their food arrived an hour later. A huge meat platter for Bowser and steamed vegetables for Peach-one of her favorite midnight snacks. One thing Bowser always did was make sure whatever food she wanted was available. Also, usually, he lit the elaborate gold candelabras on the table with his flaming breath and went on about how it was the fire of his love for her. He didn't do that this time. Instead, Bowser picked at his food while Peach ate in silence. The only sound was her fork occasionally clanking against the plate.

Peach couldn't believe herself when she asked, "Bowser, are you okay?"

Bowser just shook his head and stared at his plate. He'd only taken one bite of the drumstick. His food had long since stopped steaming, and he never bothered reheating it with his breath.

"You should eat."

"Peach," he said, meeting her eyes, "You just don't get it."

"What?"

"You're not a parent!" He slammed his fist down on the table, causing the heavy candelabras to tip over. White wax chips splattered across polished marble tabletop. Peach jumped and her fork clattered onto her plate. Bowser ranted on, "In Junior's eyes, dad fixes everything! And I can't fix this! Do you have an idea how that feels?"

His sudden shouting startled Peach. She felt like his red eyes pinned her to her chair. There was something different in them. Something not so evil. Not wanting to believe it, she averted her gaze to her hands, which were folded in her lap. Tears dampened her eyelashes.

Bowser stalked past her on his way back to the medical ward. His Koopa troopa servants cleared the table, cleaned up the spilled wax and offered her a slice of banana cream pie. They startled her by saying it was Bowser's favorite…it was one of her favorites, too! She accepted the slice and filled up on it since she didn't quite finish her midnight snack. It was the best pie she ever tasted. Sweet, creamy and without too many waxy nuts on top.

Peach left the grand dining hall and wandered out into the main corridor. Being a conceited creature, Bowser had paintings of himself lining the walls. She gazed at them in the flickering torchlight. He looked fierce in each and every picture. A few paintings had him fighting while displaying a rather shocking part of his anatomy. Well, it would be a shame if he was big everywhere except there. Oh, dear, why am I even pondering this?

Eventually, Peach found herself in the doorway of the medical area. Bowser sat on the floor by the bed, reading a children's book to Junior. The cover showed a Piranha plant and the title said Peter Piranha.

"…so Peter Piranha grew into the biggest plant, and he ate up all the wimpy leaves that made fun of him." Bowser closed the book and tossed it backwards over his shoulder. "The end!" The book crashed to the floor.

Junior wagged his tail a little. Bowser rested his hand on Junior's belly again. The gesture seemed protective as well as comforting. His smile dropped suddenly when Junior started to thrash around. "Junior? Junior! What's wrong?"

The little Koopaling jerked violently and the monitors near his bed beeped faster. Alarms rang, alerting the medikoopa team in charge of Junior's care. Five of them rushed up to the bed.

"He's seizing!" cried Flip, "I need a cc of Ativan, stat!"

"He's going into v-tach," said another nurse.

"HELP HIM!" roared Bowser. "For God's sake, HELP HIM!"

"We will!" Flip yanked the curtain around the bed. It didn't close all the way, so Peach could see what went on inside. The monitor went from rapid beeps to a steady tone. Medikoopas shouted at each other over the alarms.

"I lost his pulse!"

"He's in v-fib! Paddles!" Flip held his hand out as the flat metal and plastic objects were shoved into his grasp. He pressed them at right angles to each other on Junior's chest. "Charge to two hundred!"

A loud, mechanical whine, followed by someone yelling, "CLEAR!"

Peach heard a thump. Junior's limp body stiffened and relaxed. Bowser visibly winced. The monitors beeped a few times and resumed the steady tone. Alarms beeped everywhere. It was utter chaos.

"No pulse!" Flip called, "Cara, begin chest compressions!"

Flip's female assistant pressed her tiny hands to Junior's sternum and began rapidly pumping his heart through his ribcage.

"Junior…" Bowser's snout turned red and his eyes got puffy. As the shouting continued, none of it good, he grimaced and sank to his knees with both hands pressed to his mouth. Thinking he was going to throw up, Peach looked around for a bucket or bowl. Then she noticed the wet trails on his cheeks. His shoulders started to shake and whimpering sounds came from his throat.

Bowser, the great, arrogant Koopa king, was crying. Not just a little teary-eyed-he was sobbing and rocking back and forth on his haunches. He instantly ceased to be a tyrant and transformed into a desperate, frightened father in danger of losing his littlest child. Anybody could see that he was suffering.

If monsters don't feel…then…Bowser, you're not a monster!

Peach gathered her skirt and hurried to Bowser's side. She didn't even think about it when she wrapped her arms around his head and let him cry against her chest. His tears were like bathwater. He put his arms around her shoulders and made no attempt to hold back his heaving sobs.

"Not like this…not like this! Oh, God-oh, no, no, no…" he bawled.

"Shh, the doctors won't let him go. They're working on him. They're doing all they can," Peach said. She wanted to rub his back, but his shell got in the way, so she just rubbed the back of his head instead. His hair felt like satin, not coarse bristles like it's appearance led her to believe.

The shouting continued behind the curtain.

"Amp of epi!" cried Flip. Another assistant handed him the syringe. Cara paused the compressions while Flip jammed the needle into Junior's chest. When nothing happened, she resumed. Flip held up a hand. "Hold chest compressions…"

Nothing. Just a wavy saw tooth pattern on the monitor.

Flip growled and grabbed the paddles. "Charge to two-fifty!"

The unseen assistant called out, "Two-fifty!"

"CLEAR!"

Cara backed away. Flip shocked Junior again.

THUMP!

The monitor beeped three times. Peach tore her eyes off Bowser again to watch the screen. The lines onscreen meandered all over the place. Then Flip's head blocked her view.

Bowser continued his painful chanting, "Not like this…not like this…no…" and his eyes were far away, like he saw something that wasn't really there.

Flip's high voice shouted over the others, "Hold CPR…" Three more beeps. Then three more after that. A steady rhythm followed. "…we've got a pulse! Normal sinus rhythm. Phew, he's back. Good work, guys." The curtain opened and Flip's eyes widened upon seeing Bowser in such a state. He cleared his throat as if uncomfortable, "We caught it in time, Sire. He's still with us."

Bowser waved Flip away and put that same hand over his eyes. Peach felt him trembling.

"It's okay, Shh. They got him back," she petted his neck again, "Junior is all right. Hear the monitor? His heart's beating again. He's alive."

Peach heard Bowser take deep breaths in attempt to control himself. He moved his hand off his face. His eyes were closed. She wanted to give him something to wipe his face and nose with, but didn't have her gloves. She always tucked a few tissues into her left glove.

The curtain moved as more of Flip's team filed out. They'd put hot water bottles under Junior's armpits and against his feet. All the rapid activity caused some of his pox blisters to break, and the fluids smelled like rotten eggs.

Bowser wiped his face, nose and mouth on the back of his hand and jumped to his feet. The odd glaze in his eyes was gone. Without even thanking Peach, he grabbed a white washcloth off its neatly folded pile and said, "I need a bowl of hot water."

Peach glanced around. No bowls other than a metal basin the size of Toad's hat. It had handles on two sides. She carried it to the large scrub sink in the corner and turned on the water. Water in Bowser's castle had water coolers instead of water heaters, so the water always came out scalding hot first. Keeping her hands well away from the spray, Peach filled the basin halfway and carried it to Bowser. He plucked it from her hands without effort and set it down on a tray beside the bed.

"Is-can I do anything else?" Peach asked. She felt a little uncomfortable with this different side of Bowser. Almost like she witnessed something he really didn't want her to see. To make matters worse, he was still sniffing and wiping tears off his face.

Bowser looked straight at her with frightened eyes. "Just stay with me…just this once I'm asking you to stay," he winced as if the next word tasted sour, "…please?"

The pain and pleading in his eyes broke her heart. Everything that made her see him as a disgusting, selfish monster had been peeled completely away. She couldn't leave him like this, not when Junior could still die on him at any moment. Even if he was Mario's worst rival…he proved he was also a father who would die for his children. And no parent deserved to suffer through losing their child alone. An inkling in her heart told her that he'd stay with her if their situation was reversed. There would be no thought or self-questioning.

Peach spread her skirt out and sat down on the floor next to Bowser. She smiled slightly, "It's okay. I'll stay."

Bowser smiled back at her. He was actually a nice guy when he didn't posture and speak in an obnoxiously loud voice.

She watched him wet the washcloth in the steaming bowl and gently clean the yellow pustule ooze off Junior's scaly skin. Junior's forehead wrinkled and he squirmed, but his eyes remained shut. Bowser continued to wipe him down. Peach realized he was popping the largest blisters on purpose and then dabbing up the rancid liquid that came out.

"I know it hurts." Bowser said gently. "But you'll get sicker if we let these big ones pop the wrong way. It sucks. Hey, don't forget though that surviving pain makes you tougher. You just take it, get up and keep on taking it. Anybody can inflict pain, but the strongest are the ones that can take it and still get back up."

Junior moved his fingers a little. The tube down his throat looked extremely uncomfortable, especially since white surgical tape had been wound around his snout like a muzzle to keep him from coughing the tube up. Peach wondered how anybody could think clearly with all the beeps, clicks and hisses surrounding the bed.

Bowser set the rag aside. Grabbing Flip, he said, "Get me the black tube with the green stuff in it."

Flip nodded and brought him exactly what he requested. The cream Bowser squeezed out looked like toothpaste. He slathered it all over Junior's scales. It smelled minty at first, then took on a scent like steamed cabbage as it dried.

"Anti-itch cream," he said by way of explanation, "The blisters hurt, then they itch like you wouldn't believe if you pop them. You're supposed to pop the biggest ones. They leave scars otherwise, or they can burst into the flesh and cause an even worse infection."

"Oh." Her heart moved again in sympathy for the tiny Koopa child. "How fast did he get sick?"

"He just had an upset stomach when I left. It only takes two hours for the pox to show up and for a Koopaling to catch his death. It's…lucky that Flip found Junior in his room when he did. He would've died in there and nobody would've known until somebody checked on him." Bowser said. He wiped his hands off on the wet washcloth and put it back in the basin. "All the kids in my family caught it together. My oldest brother died first, and I saw it happen. We lived far from doctors, so my mom and dad had to wait hours for a medikoopa to get to our house. It…it was the middle of the night, just like this. Morton was the oldest, I named Morton Junior after him because he looks a lot like my brother did…his throat swelled up. He was turning all kinds of blue and purple, eyes bulging out of his head. He went on like that for about five minutes and then he was gone. My parents were screaming. Six more died like that a few hours later-Brutus, Spike, Maximus…called him Max…Talon, Bruiser and Red-they tried to fight it. They were just too sick."

"I'm sorry."

Bowser kinda waved his hand. "By the time the doctor got there, it was just me and my twin brother…yeah, I'm an identical twin-they run in my family, Iggy and Lemmy are twins. Anyway, my twin…his name was Bone. Heh, Bowser and Bone…the babies of the house." Bowser touched the leather bands on his arms and throat, "Mom made me wear my spikes just to tell us apart because we looked that much alike. Sometimes I'd put them on Bone so he'd get in trouble for stuff I did. It was funny. We fooled our parents all the time!" He shook his head, sighing, "Bone and I held hands the whole time the medikoopa was carting us off to the hospital. I told him he better not die on me, because I needed to blame all the broken windows on him when we got home. He looked at me and said I better not die because he still hadn't beat me up for pushing him into a mud puddle."

Peach leaned forward while Bowser talked. She couldn't believe he was opening up like this. "What happened?"

"The docs kicked my parents out and quarantined them in a sterile room by themselves. Then I swelled up tight. I was wide awake when they cut my neck open and put the tube in." Bowser tilted his head back and moved his spiked collar out of the way, revealing an unnatural hollow in his throat. He resumed his original posture and looked over at her, "Hurt like hell. They did it to Bone, too. It was bloody and we were crying. You can't talk with those things in your neck, so we just held hands. I think it was somewhere around sunrise when I felt Bone's hand go limp and heard his monitor go flat. They ripped him away from me and worked on him for an hour. They cut his chest open and the doc tried to pump his heart with his hands…I saw it all…but he was just gone." Bowser's eyes welled over. "I felt so alone after that…that's about the time I started getting obnoxious and peeing all over the sheets. I couldn't move and I couldn't scream because I was so sick. So I'd do that to make the nurses stay a little longer. They had to give me a bath every time I did it. It meant everything just to be held."

"I'm so sorry about your brothers," Peach said, laying a hand on Bowser's dark gold arm.

He kinda waved it off, even though the memory still clearly haunted him. "Nowadays, it's easy to treat Koopa pox if you hook a kid up to a respirator right away. Some get lucky and their throat doesn't swell shut. Adults get it very rarely, and no adult has ever survived it. It destroys the heart and lungs in hours. Their guts pretty much liquefy…you can suck 'em out with a hose. And that's what we do to adults who die of it since you can't mummify them the normal way. And-yeah, Koopas mummify their dead. Millions of years ago or so, we ate our dead. We still kinda do it ritualistically, but I don't want to gross you out with the gory details. Anyway, I could dig up a Koopa buried a thousand years ago and he'd look like he just died today. That's how good we are at it."

Was he talking to tell her all this, or was he just talking to fill up the uncomfortable silence? Peach guessed the latter. Usually, Bowser tried to make her talk, not the reverse. Unless, of course, he was bragging to her about his accomplishments. It didn't seem like him to reveal moments in his life where he'd been weak and afraid.

"Where are your parents now?" she asked. It was easier to listen to him than think too much about what he said.

"Oh, they died while I was still pretty young. Their friend Kamek raised me after that. He taught me all the magic I know, heh. I'm pretty good at it. Watch this." Bowser blew on his closed fist and held it up to Peach's face. He lifted his thumb and a thornless red rose suddenly bloomed from between his fingers. "This's my love for you. It'll never die."

He said it with such honesty. A statement he knew was true.

Blushing, Peach took the rose and smelled its sweet aroma. She tucked it into her hair and smiled, "Aw, how sweet! Thank you, Bowser." Her own words made her mind do a wipe-rewind. Sweet? Bowser? Well…he IS being really nice…usually he's so rude! I wonder if he could change.

Bowser got back onto his belly and rested his head on one folded arm. He closed his eyes, "If you ever have kids someday…you'll understand what I feel like right now. Kids are a pain in the ass sometimes, but they're the world, too. It's like…'I made that person.'"

"I-I'll remember that," said Peach. They went quiet after that, a silence that stretched on for over an hour. Bowser's breathing became slower and more regular and Peach found her eyelids getting heavy. She glanced up when Flip appeared to check Junior's temperature. He replaced the cold water bottles with fresh hot ones. Then he cast a quick look at Bowser, chuckled and shook his head. He was gone again before she could ask what he found so funny. "So, Bowser-" Peach turned to find Bowser fast asleep, his face peaceful. He snored a little through his nose.

"Um…Princess?" said a small voice. It was a red shelled para-troopa. "King Bowser had a room prepared for your stay-"

"Oh, I know, he always has a room ready. Thank you, though." Peach smiled. This para-troopa must have been new on the job. His other servants knew her well enough that they didn't need to tell her this information.

Bowser went to a lot of trouble to ensure she slept well-Koopa mattresses were little more than a slab of granite with a thin cushion on top. Koopas could sleep anywhere. Peach couldn't sleep on a rock, so Bowser had a huge mattress imported just for her. He decorated it with pink bedding and fluffy, frilly pillows. He even got her a modest white nightgown and pink bathrobe so she didn't have to sleep in her lingerie. Even more surprising, he got pink drapes for all the windows! They didn't match the cold gray walls at all, but Peach had to give him an A for effort…he honestly wanted her comfortable.

Peach glanced once more at Bowser and Junior. Out of all the kids Bowser had, Junior looked the most like his father. Maybe he reminded Bowser of his twin brother, Bone. She smiled and tip toed to her guest room.

.o

Bright sun streamed into the windows. The glare woke Peach from her slumber. She rolled onto her back and stretched. Her nose detected the scent of pancakes. Sitting up, she looked over and, sure enough, a tray of food waited beside her bed. Pancakes, butter, syrup and a piece of bacon covered in pepper. A note lay folded beside the plate. She reached over and picked it up.

Dear Peach,

You were sleeping so deep that I didn't want to bother you. I hope you wake up before your breakfast gets cold. I kinda made it myself, so sorry if anything burned. Try my Bowser bacon, it's tasty.

Good news on Junior! They took him off the breathing machine. He's still out cold, but he's breathing! Isn't that great?

See you soon, beautiful!

Love,

Bowser
OOOXXX

Bowser's note left Peach giggling. She couldn't believe that perfect cursive was his handwriting, but she'd seen him write before.

Peach dressed herself and brushed her hair. One thing she didn't have was her makeup. She wore makeup to look more her age. Sans makeup, she looked like a child! The best she could do was pinch her cheeks to put color in them.

Assured now that she at least looked presentable, Peach picked up the bacon and took a bite. It was good! Spicy, but she liked it. The pancakes were fluffy, just the way she preferred them. She glanced at the rose Bowser gave her yesterday. Usually a rose without water withered up overnight. Not this one…it still looked just as it did when he gave it to her. She picked it up and tucked it into her hair.

He tries so hard, Peach thought. Before last night she used to think it just angered Bowser each time she turned him down. Now she believed it actually hurt his feelings. Seeing him break down last night made her realize that he was more than just a power hungry, angry brute. He loved his children and he clearly loved her. Why he loved her, she had no idea.

No sense delaying any longer. Peach ventured to the stark, clean-smelling medical ward. The ugly tubes in Junior's throat had been traded for a plastic mask. A gray blanket took the place of the hot water bottles. Bowser sat nearby, eating a HUGE sausage. Table manners were one thing he never really mastered-he chewed loudly with his mouth open and didn't use silverware. His eyelids drooped low and his hair was messier than usual. He even had what looked like stubble growing on the front of his snout. This wasn't unusual since Peach had seen older Koopas with facial hair. It just seemed strange on Bowser.

"Hey," Peach cleared her throat, "Has he awakened at all?"

Bowser startled at her presence. "Not yet…" he stuffed the last of his breakfast into his mouth, mumbling, "but he growled a couple of times. Flip had to pop the pox on his back and Junior didn't like it."

"Oh…" she fidgeted with part of her skirt. "Um, Bowser? Could you not talk with your mouth full? It's kind of gross."

"Huh?" He blinked and swallowed, wiping his hands and mouth with a towel. No apology for his faux pas, naturally. "You look different."

"I don't have my makeup. Does it bother you?"

That made him laugh. "Peach, you could show up a bloody mess and you'd still be pretty to me." His own statement made his face turn bright red.

Heat rushed to Peach's cheeks. Why was she blushing? Bowser's advances were supposed to be disgusting and perverse! And when did she start to feel comfortable talking to him? She fumbled for something to say. Bowser was looking at her expectantly. He always gave her that look like he hung on to every word she said.

"So…did you sleep okay?"

"Few hours," he said, patting Junior's head. "I wanted to make sure Junior here didn't crash again. That…that brought back some bad memories."

"I understand." Peach said. She glanced towards Junior's shell, which still sat all by itself on the green counter. "I didn't know your shells came off."

Bowser's eyebrows crossed. "Say what?"

She giggled, "I really didn't know."

He scratched the back of his head. "Oh, yeah. You can pop my shell off my back if you pull it just the right way. It's only on there by suction, you know. It's pretty funny that Mario hasn't kicked it off yet. You've gotta get your fingers under the right spot or it won't come off. You could push and pull all day and it won't budge. Come over and try. I dare you."

"You-dare me?" Peach raised an eyebrow.

"Aw, c'mon. I won't bite."

He just wants to get close to me,

Peach told herself. It wasn't like Bowser was slimy or anything anyway. Besides, entertaining him might help take his mind off Junior's condition.

"Okay, fine." Peach walked up to Bowser. He squatted down so they were eye level and crossed his arms. His eyes had a mocking gleam in them. He cocked an eyebrow, waiting, and his hot breath puffed against her face. She hadn't taken into account they'd be this close together! But his arms were crossed. If he tried anything perverted, she'd be able to see him move.

Peach grabbed the rim of his shell right above his shoulders and shoved as hard as she could. It didn't budge! "Good…Lord…that thing's heavy!"

"Oh, come on. You push like a girl." Bowser chuckled.

"I am a girl!" Peach grunted. She kept pushing on his shell. He seemed all the more amused by her efforts. Before she knew it Peach was flush against him, her hands halfway under his shell. His skin was so incredibly warm that she felt his body heat through her dress.

Bowser rumbled in her ear, "Give up?"

"Okay, yes. That thing won't move." She wiped her forehead and leaned back, "What's the secret?"

He guided her hand to the back of his neck. "Push up, not backwards."

Peach did what Bowser said. To her surprise, his shell popped loose with little effort. He reached back and caught it before it fell onto the floor. His back was green and had a hump shaped like the inside of his shell. She saw grooves in his scales where it pressed tight to his body.

Bowser looked weird without his shell. He rolled his shoulders and straightened his legs out to stand just like a man. It didn't look comfortable or natural for him. His legs were long.Bowser always walked around in a crouch, like a four-legged being that only just learned to rear up on its hind feet. He was almost eight feet tall when he stood up straight! Peach knew he was big…she just didn't realize he was that big.

"Yeah…so um…" Bowser blushed and put his shell back on. He assumed his more natural hunched posture. "I don't like having my shell off. Makes me look weak. Don't tell anybody you saw me take it off. Most people don't know I can."

Peach made a zipping motion across her lips just as Flip pulled the curtain aside. She moved to let him pass. "How's he doing?"

Flip listened to Junior's chest with his stethoscope, looked at his chart and his face didn't change, "The swelling in his throat has gone down completely. I'm going to be honest with you-I'm a little concerned that he's not awake yet. If he doesn't wake up in the next few days…well…uhh…we might be looking at brain damage from the fever."

Anger flashed across Bowser's face. Out of the corner of her eye, Peach saw him wipe at his eyes with the back of his hand. "Brain damage…"

Flip frowned, "Permanent muscle weakness, seizures…intellectual disabilities, like your son Lemmy. I won't know until Junior is awake. If he wakes up and acts like himself, that'll be a good sign."

"And if not, you had better find him the best therapists so he can get well! If they could get Lemmy walking and talking again with only half a functioning brain, they can help Junior, too! Grrr…" Black smoke rose from Bowser's nostrils.

"I…" Flip swallowed hard and bowed as low as he could, "I'll make sure of it, your Smokiness!"

"Get out of here."

"Yes, Sire!" Flip bowed again and dashed around the curtain at top speed.

Bowser held his head in his hands and plopped down to sit next to Junior's bed. Junior didn't move a muscle. "C'mon, brat, fight this. You scared me once already. You're supposed to scare everybody but your old man!" He leaned back and waited. When no response came, he sighed and laid his hand on Junior's chest, "Okay…I don't care how you are when you wake up. We can deal with whatever happens. Just come back."

Peach lowered herself slowly to sit next to Bowser. Bowser looked terrible…he didn't sleep much, he hadn't shaved and his hair was an absolute mess. Even he couldn't go on like this for too much longer before the stress made him sick.

Maybe distracting him again would relax him. It worked last time. She asked, "Why do you put your hand on his chest?"

"So I can feel his life." He took her hand by the wrist and placed it on Junior's cool chest. Peach was startled by this, but didn't pull back. She felt every breath and heartbeat. He went on to say, "Any Koopa will find comfort from this gesture. It's like having another shell on your chest, protecting your heart."

Junior's heart beat slowly under Peach's hand. Suddenly, she faced Bowser and pressed her palms against his chest. He was warmer than Junior and his heart beat slower. Or at least it did until she touched him. Then it started beating fast. "Bowser, you need a break."

He gasped at the gesture. "Peach-I…no! I can't."

"Shower, shave and stretch a little." She shot him a stern look, "You won't be any good to Junior if you end up having a nervous breakdown."

"Peeeeeeeach…" he whined…literally whined at her like a big kid.

She didn't let it sway her. "Bowser, please. For me?"

The Koopa king sagged and rubbed a hand through his hair. He rested his hand over hers as if just remembering its presence there. Color came into his cheeks. He shuffled his feet and sighed. "Fine, I'll be back in an hour. No later. Send for me if anything changes."

"I promise." Peach said.

Bowser gave a nod and lumbered around the privacy curtain. She heard his footsteps fade out the door. When she was sure he'd left, she turned her attention to Junior. His breath fogged the plastic mask strapped over his round snout. There appeared to be less pustules than when she first saw him. Some had turned brown and felt hard like marbles.

Hard to believe Bowser was ever that small, she thought. I wonder how little you were when you were born.

"Your daddy is really worried about you," Peach said, smoothing Junior's red lock of hair back. Her fingers brushed the stubby horn-lets just starting to grow on his temples. One day, they would be thick and curved like Bowser's. She pulled the blankets up to his chin. "Get better soon. He misses you a lot."

.o

Another day went by. Bowser planted himself at Junior's bedside and nothing Peach said made him budge. He brought some of Junior's favorite toys to the medical ward. Sometimes he'd read to him. Other times he'd just sit there with his hand on Junior's chest. He got no sleep and barely ate. His appearance grew more haggard as the hours passed.

Peach spent the time talking to Bowser. She couldn't help it-he was going through a parent's worst nightmare. No telling what he would've done without someone there to keep him company.

Another concern crossed Peach's mind. By now her castle knew she was missing and sent for Mario. Mario would come in all blazing for a fight. There was no possible way she could explain this situation to him! Hi, Mario! Guess what, you don't have to rescue me this time! I'm staying here because I want to make sure Bowser's kid is okay. So go on home and I'll be there when I know everything is okay. Bye now!

"Hey, what's on your mind?"

"Hm? Oh…" she blinked and turned to Bowser, "Actually, just thinking about what I'm going to tell Mario. We both know he'll be on his way here if he isn't already."

"We could always say we got married."

Peach snorted at that. Bowser said it jokingly, but she knew he was also serious. She giggled, "Uh…that might make it worse."

"That's his problem," said Bowser. He returned his attention to Junior and the strange silence returned.

At dinner time, Peach asked the chefs to cook Bowser's favorite food. It turned out to be fried Cheep-Cheeps on a stick, though the chefs called them "Cheep-Cheep kabobs".

Bowser never thanked her when she brought him two steaming, greasy kabobs, but the way he inhaled them was thanks enough. He needed to eat. Then she practically shoved him out to go shave, wash up a little and brush his teeth, since he hadn't done any of those in the morning.

.o

Another night passed. In the morning, Peach found Bowser asleep by Junior's bed with all but his head pulled into his shell. He looked so peaceful that she decided to overlook his tendency for loud snoring, the drool puddle the size of his head and his constant, noisy flatulence. How he didn't wake himself up with all that, Peach would never know. She was just glad his back end pointed towards the window.

At noon, Mario was spotted heading to the castle and expected to arrive in twenty-four hours or less. Peach asked the Goomba messenger not to wake Bowser. The Goomba nodded and left.

Bowser's snoring stopped abruptly at one o'clock. He smacked his lips, yawned and his limbs popped out of his shell. Peach watched him scratch under his chin with his toes like a dog.

"Mornin'," his voice sounded husky, heavy from sleep, "how's Junior?"

"The same."

"Mmkay."

"A messenger came by an hour ago. Mario is on his way. He'll be here in a day or less."

"Just what I need, a plumber up my ass." Bowser grumbled. "Be right back. Gotta take a crap." He staggered into the small bathroom and shut the door.

Peach glared at the bathroom door. Bowser really didn't need to tell her that, did he? Then she sighed and shook her head. What else did she expect? She focused her attention on Junior. The spots on his body were scabs now. She took his hand and touched her palm to his forehead. He didn't feel as cold as before. His eyebrows crossed when she felt his brow.

"Muh…mama?" Junior croaked. The mask muffled his voice.

"Junior?" Peach's heart lurched and she leaned over the bed, rubbing his hand, "Junior, can you hear me?"

Junior turned his head and opened his eyes. He squinted, blinking rapidly at the harsh medical ward lights. "Where's my daddy?"

"He's-"

The toilet flushed and made the tell-tale gurgling sound of a hopelessly clogged drain. Bowser threw the door open and walked out with a satisfied smirk on his snout. "Sucks to be whoever has to go in there next. I dropped a fat one that clogged the damn toilet!"

"Bowser!" Peach ignored his posturing and motioned him over, "Come here, quick!"

"Huh? What?" Bowser scrambled to the bed and leaned over, almost cheek to cheek with Peach. He gasped, "Junior! Hey, kid…"

Junior turned to Bowser and smiled sleepily. "Hi."

Peach watched Bowser's heart melt from just that one word. She wiped tears from her eyes when Bowser bent all the way down and hugged Junior to his chest. He even kissed the side of Junior's head, which made the Koopaling's eyebrows cross.

"Daaaaaaaad," groaned Junior, "Stop kissing me! It's embarrassing!"

Bowser laughed and leaned back. "You had me worried, brat! But you get a pass this time, 'cause you couldn't help it."

Junior's eyes watered. He sniffed and looked away. "I puked on my Peter Piranha coloring book. Then I felt like something strangled me. Flip was outside my door, talking to the guards and saw me grab my throat. He had me brought here and…I don't remember anything else. I thought I was gonna die!"

"Oh, you poor thing. It's okay now," Peach said. She patted his hand, suddenly conscious of Bowser's eyes on her, "You're through the worst of it now. Your daddy and I stayed with you practically every minute."

She felt Bowser rest his hand lightly on her back. His touch didn't make her skin crawl quite so much anymore. He didn't do anything to her against her will-aside from the kidnappings and attempted weddings, of course. But he never once tried to physically force himself on her.

Love makes people do crazy things, Peach thought to herself. She let Bowser keep his hand on her back.

Junior tugged at the oxygen mask until it fell off. "I'm hungry and I gotta pee…and this place smells! Can I be in my own bed?"

"Uhh…" Bowser raised both of his bushy orange eyebrows. He sniffed and his voice cracked when he spoke, "I dunno about moving you yet. But I'll help you with your bathroom issue." He looked at Peach, "Think you can get this poor kid something to eat?"

Peach relaxed when Bowser's hand moved away. "I'll make soup."

"But I want a fudge cake."

"Soup is better," she crossed her arms, "Cake will just give you diarrhea or make you throw up. I don't think you want that."

Junior crossed his arms and pouted. It didn't sway Peach. He tried looking at Bowser. Bowser shrugged at him. "Women always fix the best food when you get sick. Better listen to her."

"Aw, dad!"

.o

Afternoon slowly faded to evening. Bowser fed Junior the soup Peach made-literally, because the poor child was still weak from the sickness. Peach helped Bowser give Junior a bath and they scrubbed the pox scabs off his scales. The little Koopaling basked in all the attention. It was also amusing to watch Bowser and Junior play some kind of battle ship game using the bath toys-with Bowser making "all the cool explosion noises". Then Bowser wrapped Junior's shivering body up in a towel and held him to keep him warm. This time around, Junior didn't seem to mind being cuddled.

Flip said Junior could be in his own bed as long as he didn't pull his IV's out. He also advised Bowser not to put Junior's shell back on for at least a week. A word from Bowser stopped Junior from whining about it.

"I'm the boss here, and I say the shell stays off 'till Flip gives the all-clear."

Junior let Bowser carry him to his room. Peach made a fuss about adding extra pillows and blankets. Then Bowser and Peach stood together in Junior's messy bedroom and watched the little guy go back to sleep. The only reminder of his sickness was the IV rack next to his bed.

Bowser seemed disappointed that Junior dozed off so soon. "You'd think he'd be up all night after sleeping so long."

"He's still sick, Bowser. Sleep is the best thing for him," said Peach. She gathered her pink skirt and tip-toed to the door. "Come on, let's let him rest…you can come back and see him in the morning."

Pouting a bit, Bowser pulled the blankets up to Junior's shoulders and followed Peach out into the hall. "Mario's gonna be here soon," he said. They walked down the corridor. Bowser stopped when they were ten feet from the door. "But I'm not gonna fight him this time."

Peach gasped. Did her ears deceive her? "Not going to fight him?"

"Nope. I'm giving you a freebie this time," Bowser grinned, flashing his sharp teeth. "It's a Koopa code of honor, Peach. Anybody who shows you kindness, even an enemy, is owed one act of kindness in response. Mine is to let you go without a fight. All bets are off next time around, though. So don't relax on me." He punctuated his statement with a wink.

It was dark in the hallway because the torches hadn't been lit yet. Only silver moonlight penetrated the shadows. Bowser shifted a bit and the moonlight caught his face in the strangest way. His scales glittered and his hair shimmered like crimson spider's silk. He looked majestic instead of menacing. She never knew he could look like that, just like she didn't know he was more than a savage.

"Peach?"

She blinked. Had she been staring? "Yes?"

"Do you love me, Peach? Will you marry me?"

Her face fell.

"Say 'yes' or 'no' without fear."

"Oh…" she turned away, suddenly she couldn't bear to see his face when she answered, "No, Bowser."

To her surprise, he only chuckled. "Can I have a hug, then?"

Peach smiled. After everything Bowser went through the past few days, he did deserve one. "Okay," she faced him and walked into his arms, which he'd already spread wide. He pulled her to his warm chest and cupped the back of her head, his other hand resting on her back. She felt him smell her hair.

"Peach…I-I want to-say…" his voice vibrated every bone in her body, "…um…th-thank you…for staying."

"You're welcome." She patted the back of his neck. His hug felt strange and warm, but not too bad. She noticed his heart pounding in his chest. He trembled as though her touch stole away his strength. Her own stomach fluttered a little, but she had a feeling his was doing back flips. Deciding to take it up one more notch, she stood on her toes and touched her lips to his cheek.

"Peach," Bowser gasped. His head turned and his hot breath wafted across her face. There was a question in his eyes. She answered with a barely perceptible nod. He came forward that last inch and the moist tip of his snout pressed to her lips. It felt like kissing someone with gigantic lips. And he did it so gently. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes. Was this what he wanted? Was this the reason he acted like such a monster? Was he too trapped in his ways to change?

She could love him if he changed, but he wouldn't be the Bowser she knew anymore. Changing him was like putting reins on a wild horse. It would extinguish the inner fire that made him so strong.

A dull thud sounded in the distance. Peach heard Mario shout Bowser's name. Bowser drew back from their kiss. His eyes burned with a flame hotter than his skin. He brushed the tears off Peach's cheek with his thumb, his claw like ivory against her skin. Her mind tried to recall images of Bowser breathing fire, bashing through walls and cackling menacingly-and they wouldn't come. All she could see was how he laid his hand on Junior's chest, the way he burst into tears when he thought he lost him…and this moment right now.

Footsteps pounded up the staircase.

"You're not a monster," Peach whispered. "Monsters don't cry when their children almost die. Monsters can't love."

Bowser glanced at the wooden door, which was closed. "Then marry me."

Mario's footsteps approached the door.

"I know you're not a monster, Bowser. But the rest of the world doesn't. The rest of the world can't see past how you look and act. Things like that only happen in fairy tales." She backed slowly out of his arms, her eyes downcast. "I'm sorry."

If her words frustrated him, it only showed in his fists clenching.

Suddenly, the door exploded into splinters. Peach's gaze stayed locked on Bowser as the wood splinters flew across the space between them. They were only six feet apart, but it felt like miles. She heard Mario's "kee-yah!" shout. Bowser made no move to defend himself. He just closed his eyes as Mario's boot slammed into the side of his head. The blow knocked him out and his body slumped over sideways.

"Peach!" Mario dusted his overalls off and rushed to her side. He was panting. "Are you all-a-right? Did-a that a-monster hurt you?"

"No," said Peach. She looked over Mario's shoulder at Bowser. The Koopa king lay sprawled on the splintered remains of the door. He was still breathing. She noticed the questioning look in Mario's eyes and shook her head, sniffing. "It's a long story, Mario."

Mario's blue eyes squinted as he smiled. Nothing about his body language showed remorse for spitting on Bowser's kindness. Of course there wouldn't be…he didn't bother to ask before he kicked Bowser's head in. He offered Peach his arm. "You can-a tell me all about-a it over a nice-a bowl of pasta."

Reluctantly, Peach took the plumber's arm and let him escort her towards the door. There was no relief at being rescued. For the first time in her life, she actually regretted having to leave this castle.

Peach couldn't avoid glancing over her shoulder. Bowser was back on his feet again, holding his head. Rubble surrounded him, both wood and pieces of the heart she just broke yet again. He met her eyes and smiled. His mouth smiled, but his eyes were sad.

"Anybody can inflict pain, but the strongest are the ones that can take it and still get back up…"

Pity washed over her. She squelched it; Bowser wouldn't want her to feel sorry for him. He proved himself stronger than anybody she knew. He had to be in order to carry a heart that heavy.

With new resolve, Peach faced forward again and followed Mario down the spiral staircase.

.o

Peach kept Bowser's rose on her windowsill. No vase, no water. Just the rose. She saw it first thing in the morning and it was the last thing she looked at before falling asleep.

It was red. Red like his hair. Red like his eyes. Red like his face when he cried for his son. Red like the one perfect kiss they shared in the moonlight. Red like the fire that made him so strong.

And it never died.

.o

THE END