Disclaimer: Azure Dreams is a product of Konami Co. Ltd. I am making no profit from this story.
Everyone was there. I stumbled into a mansion I still hadn't adjusted to, and well-wishers immediately bombarded me with congratulations and questions: yes, I made it to the top; yes, the rumor about the ultimate egg is true; of course I have it with me now; no, I hadn't been scared or worried that I wouldn't make it; what happened to my chest? A dragon caught me rounding a corner, but I showed him what-for. (If I was going to tell Selfi the truth, it wouldn't be in front of the entire town.)
My many "girlfriends" (as Mom calls them) cooed and fretted over me, brushing my matted hair off my filthy brow and trying to ogle my body under the guise of inspecting the wound; probably only Cherrl was actually worried about infection. It went on like this for longer than my injured body could handle; the last thing I remember before passing out was catching Mom's eye over the rest of the crowd and seeing her beam through her tears.
I was surprised to wake up in my own bed instead of the hospital- especially considering I was all bandaged up and my wrist was wrapped in plaster. The section of bandage near my shoulder had a little heart drawn there and a tiny Koh doll was nestled next to my head on the pillow; it was holding the ultimate egg above its head with a big smile on its face. Cherrl's work, then. She was a sweet girl, really; I decided to find a gift as a way of thanking her.
I was grateful that none of the girls had come try to wake me up, but I was having difficulty getting out of bed since my muscles seized up in pain whenever I tried to use them. With my good hand, I gently traced my stomach where I remembered being sliced open; I felt the small bumps and grooves of the sutures that aided my flesh in rejoining where Beldo had seen fit to separate it and followed them from my stomach all the way up. I wondered at how many there were and how long it must have taken to do!
Mom must've heard me moving about because I could sense her coming to check up on me, followed by about five pairs of anxious footsteps.
"Koh? Are you awake now?" She sounded calm.
"Mmph. Yes." I pushed the sheets down. "What am I doing at home? I thought I'd wake up in the hospital."
"Oh, that's because that sweet girl- the nurse?- well, after you collapsed she and Dr. Hush decided it would be best if they didn't move you much until they could see how badly you were injured. A few of the other tamers helped move you to the beds without jostling you too much, and when Dr. Hush got a look at you, his face turned very serious. He said you were hurt very badly and that recovery would take a bit longer this time around, I'm afraid. That means lots of bed rest and no tower- for the time being, at least."
Weedy's little face popped out from behind Mom's leg. "Are you gonna be okay, Brother?"
I beckoned her closer. "Sure thing, squirt." She stuck out her tongue at the nickname but smiled all the same. "Good thing I've been ordered to bed, too, 'cause we've got a lot of work to do on our Monster Book. Will you help me with it?"
She placed a tiny hand over her heart and nodded solemnly.
"That's a relief; we all know how bad of an artist I am. I need your skill with crayons to bring out the true ferocity of the monsters." That sent Weedy running out of the room to collect her art supplies, giggling the whole way.
Not being able to stand being ignored anymore, Nico appeared at Mom's elbow. "So, how are ya feelin', Koh?"
"I could run a marathon," I laughed.
She smiled and let out a small chuckle. "It's just like you to be crackin' a joke at a time liked this. Ya know, we were all really worried about you when you just fainted like that."
For some reason, I felt guilty.
"Don't worry about it, Koh," Mom soothed me. "Now that you're awake, though, Dr. Hush said you should start drinking a special juice to regain your strength; his assistant-" ("Cherrl," I informed her) "-Cherrl taught us how to make it. I'll go prepare you a glass." Mom caught Weedy on her way out to 'help make Brother his special get-better drink so he can rest'. When she told my little sister that the book would have to wait, I saw that bottom lip stick out.
"Weedy." She turned my way hopefully. "I promise we'll work on the book later, okay?"
Her eyes welled up and dropped to the ground for a second before she rubbed them with her fists and nodded bravely. "'Kay." She skipped off after Mom, and suddenly I was faced with four pairs of eyes blinking at me expectantly.
"Don't 'heyyy' us! We were worried sick, you numbskull!" Fur had a lot of sass, but I honestly kinda liked that about her.
"Come on, Fur; don't be mad at me! You know I can't stand it when we fight." I shot her a winning smile and winked. "Besides, I was hoping you would do me a special favor."
She perked up at how I was singling her out from the other girls and made that weird face she gives me sometimes. I wish she wouldn't. "What can I help you with, Koh?"
I turned serious. "I really appreciate Dr. Hush and Cherrl patching me up." Her expression soured at the mention of Cherrl's name. "I've got the money in our safe, just ask my mom for the proper amount, but I was hoping you would deliver a bonsai plant for Dr. Hush and a handbag for Cherrl. I figure Dr. Hush likes plants 'cause he's got so many in the hospital, and Cherrl can use the handbag to carry around her medical supplies for house calls."
Fur sighed and pursed her lips. "Fine, fine. But only because you asked me, Koh. I've got to go open the shop anyway; I'll make the delivery after I close up tonight. Make sure you get lots of rest and drink plenty of that plant juice." She bent over to place a kiss on my forehead; she smelled so beautiful- like a flower in bloom or something else equally girly. My hand lingered on the fabric of her blouse sleeve. Fur was definitely the most fashion conscious of the girls; she looked so fancy all the time. As she pulled away, she wrinkled her nose. "Make sure you get a bath, too. You might be the greatest monster tamer in Monsbaiya, but that doesn't mean you have to smell like one of your familiars." She turned around at the door and blew me a kiss. "See you later, Koh!" The other girls glared daggers at Fur's back as she stopped Mom on her way to discuss my favor.
"Koh?" A nervous twitter broke the silence. "Is there anything I can do for you? Would you like me to bring you a book from the library to pass the time? I can even read it to you if you'd like." Mia was a cute girl at 13- or was she 14 by now?- but she wasn't my kind of girl. Still, I was nice to her because it was clear that not many men had been. They probably can't see past the glasses- which is a shame 'cause her eyes are actually quite pretty. But she's an awkward girl with weird hobbies and a vicious streak; to this day, Ghosh still checks his shoes for tacks before putting them on. (Selfi told me so.)
"Uh, thanks, Mia, but maybe later. I think Weedy might keep me pretty busy for the first couple days with the Monster Book." I felt like a jerk when her face fell, so I added, "but I'll let you know when I could use a story, okay?" She nodded and gave me a half smile, then went back to twiddling her thumbs in that nervous way she does.
Mom finally finished her business with Fur and came into the room. "Drink up," she instructed as she handed me a glass full of what looked to be poisonous swamp water; I raised an eyebrow at her. "Doctor's orders," she stated while crossing her arms over her chest. Mom was definitely a no-nonsense kind of woman, and I knew I'd end up drinking it one way or another, so I plugged my nose and downed the sludge as quickly as I could. My shoulders met my earlobes and I shuddered as I swallowed the last mouthful.
"I know what that is," I coughed.
"Then you'll also know exactly why you need to drink it."
"They couldn't find a way to make it taste better?" I knew I was complaining, but it tasted like spinach and toothpaste.
"They're medical professionals, Koh, not chefs. If you want this to taste better, I can ask Patty to drop by."
"I'm not doubting Patty's skills, but I'm not sure if even Coppe can make this abomination taste less disgusting! They're bad enough on their own; how could mixing Hazak and Medicinal herbs sound like a good idea in anyone's book?"
She let out an impatient huff. "The doctor assured me that it would help you recuperate as quickly as possible so you can get back to that tower. I know you're just like your father: you can't stay away from it. So do you want Patty to look at this or not?"
As much as I didn't want to ever drink that stuff again, Mom was right about the tower. Having reached the top, I'd already decided on a new goal: attain every kind of monster egg. Not something I could do from bed. "Fine," I bit out. The look on her face told me I had better adjust my attitude, so I tried again. "If you could please find time in your day to drop that off at the restaurant and explain the situation, I would be most grateful."
"I'll see to it this afternoon," she smiled. "I can tell you're still exhausted, though, Koh, so I want you to get some more rest." She turned to my visitors. "That means say your goodbyes, please, girls. You can come back again later."
I knew that Nico would hang around the house and help Mom with the chores while Mia and Selfi would be ushered out the door; Nico might even be the one to go see Patty about the herb mixture. I hated admitting it, but I was glad Mom wouldn't send Mia or Selfi to drop by the restaurant; they could both be somewhat catty when it came to me. Nico, on the other hand, would never be unkind to Patty because of a mutual crush. I don't think Nico's ever been that kind of girl; except for our tussles as kids (and her old habit of kicking me awake), Nico's always been genuinely kind to others. It's why I like having her around.
She approached the bed first, and I noticed her hair buns were disheveled and there were purple circles under her eyes. She squeezed my hand gently and smiled, kissed my forehead in the same manner as Fur, and advised me to get as much rest as possible.
"Hey, you, too," I said softly, making half-circular motions under my own eyes.
Apparently it was the wrong thing to say, though, because I saw the old, familiar storm clouds roll into Nico's eyes. "Well excuse me! You were out for days, ya know, and I was worried about you!" She stormed out of the room with her shoulders up around her ears and fists clenched by her side; if there was a door, she would have slammed it on her way out. I knew better than most: Nico is Queen of Hissy Fits.
Mia and Selfi exchanged glances- not necessarily nice ones- neither of them wanting to leave and both of them wanting a moment alone with me. I decided to make things easy.
"C'mere, Mia." I smiled as I held out my hand, and I saw Selfi look indignant first and then smug. Mia shuffled up to my bedside and kept her eyes on the floor. I was going to have to do all the work in this conversation, I could tell. "I'll let you know about the books, okay? So come see me if you have the time. Promise?" Even trained on the sheets, I could see her eyes light up with happiness, and- for the first time- I realized that there was a line between being kind and being misleading. And I had been crossing it.
Mia nodded and, speedy as a roadrunner, bent down to peck me on the cheek. "Bye bye, Koh. Take care of yourself!" And she was out the door.
Selfi just stood there quietly. In fact, this was the longest period of time I'd ever been around Selfi where she hadn't said a single word. She just stood there, looking at me. And I just laid there, looking back at her. Even at the top of the tower, when I recalled her face in my mind's eye, the details were fuzzy. With her standing in front of me now, I took in everything, told myself to remember it so that if I were ever in a similar situation again I wouldn't have a vague picture in my head but rather a clear image. She looked almost sad, with her hands clasped in front of her and her eyebrows drawn up toward the middle of her brow. I had to say something. "Self." Her eyes focused on me and her head tilted ever so slightly to the left, adjusting to the pet name I'd just used with her.
"Yes, Mr. Koh?"
She was always so polite these days. When we were younger, she would laugh at the fact that my family was poor and address me as Peasant Boy. As we grew older, she flattered herself into thinking I was courting her, and hence bestowed upon me the nickname Puffy Lips. Now that she actually wanted me to court her, it was Mr. Koh; I had told her a thousand times that just Koh was fine (heck, I would have even settled for Puffy Lips) but that Mr. Koh was too formal for a tough and dangerous man like me.
I patted a space on the mattress next to me, indicating she should sit. She needed to know the truth about her uncle and my father, even if she didn't want to, and she deserved to know what I had done, even if she hated me for it.
But when the mattress dipped underneath her weight, and her eyes were close to mine and so wide, I lost the courage. She looked so vulnerable. I couldn't help feeling it was all a bit backwards: I could accept my death at the hands of a violent sociopath, but I couldn't tell the truth to a girl I was probably in love with.
"Mr. Koh?" she asked again.
I took her gloved hand in my own and brought it to my lips. She blushed furiously, making her eyebrows look almost purple, and I had to chuckle. "Self, would you do me a huge favor?"
She readily agreed, "of course, Mr. Koh!"
"Does your sorcery have any side effects? You know, like that sleep spell you use on me sometimes?"
Her eyebrows knitted in confusion. "I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean, Mr. Koh."
I debated how much I should say. "I was hoping you would be so kind as to help me get some sleep. But I faced some pretty scary situations in the tower." I gestured to my midsection, and she blushed as her eyes trailed down my chest. "I don't really want to have any nightmares, see; I might jerk and reopen the wound. I would hate for Dr. Hush's efforts to amount to nothing." I didn't mention Cherrl in case it upset Selfi, but I saw her eyes flick to my shoulder where Cherrl had drawn the heart and narrow briefly before turning back to me with a demure smile.
She looked thoughtful for a moment and then asked, "Well, have you ever experienced dreams while under the sleep spell before?"
I thought back as best as I could, but nothing came to mind. "No, I don't think so. But, then again, I usually don't dream. I just want to make absolutely sure I don't end up doing further damage to myself if I should have a nightmare."
She removed her sorceress' cape and laid it across her lap before leaning over me; her thick, wavy hair brushed against my cheek as she dragged delicate fingers through my own tangled bird's nest. "Then… Would you like me to stay and watch over you, Mr. Koh?" She peered at me inquisitively through long, dark lashes, and I got this sudden feeling similar to being startled by a monster.
I averted my eyes. "Uhh, no. No, I don't think that will be necessary, Selfi."
She sat up, looking put-off. "If that's what you wish, Mr. Koh, then I'll just cast the spell now and leave." She stood to her feet and fastened her cloak around her neck.
Afraid I may have inadvertently said the wrong thing again, I shot out my hand, wincing as I tried to sit up. "Wait! Wait, I didn't mean to… You're not, or rather, I didn't upset you, did I, Selfi?"
Immediately she sat by my side again, gently coaxing me onto my back so as to avoid causing myself any unnecessary pain. "No, Mr. Koh, you didn't do anything wrong. Please. Allow me to cast the spell; after you've fallen asleep, I'll go purchase an Awakening herb and bring it back to your mother in case you do begin to dream. Does that sound good, Mr. Koh?"
As I was too busy wheezing to reply, I settled for nodding my consent and pulled the sheets up over my stomach; lifting my arms much higher just wasn't in the cards.
"Are you ready?"
I opened one eye and smiled. "As I'll ever be."
I heard Selfi's clothing rustle as she went through the required movements, then she began to murmur the words of an ancient language. I didn't know their meaning, but they sure sounded mystical; Selfi definitely had more promise as a sorceress than Ghosh did as a swordsman. (I was careful to stifle the snort that threatening to escape my nostrils because Selfi can get very defensive if she thinks someone is laughing at her.) As she was coming to the end, I felt my breathing even and my limbs getting heavier.
She must have thought I was already fully asleep because, in an unprecedented display of affection, I felt Selfi lift the sheets up to cover my arms and chest and tuck them in around me. I snuggled in and quietly hummed my appreciation.
"I was so scared I might have lost you, Koh. Please don't put me through this again." Warm lips pressed gently against mine for less than a second, and then I gave myself up to the comforting lull of her spell.