The old red hat still fit. It was a little faded from when he had first worn it, a little stained from years under leaky pipes, but after all these years it sat just as comfortably as ever upon his head.

It was what was under the hat that'd changed.

Mario Mariamotti looked thoughtfully into the mirror. Was it really a grown man looking back at him? A man about to leave home, to go off to college, to begin an adult life? Yesterday, it seemed, he had been an eager, active boy, caught up in carefree games, imagining himself on fantastic adventures with his friends.

How had it all gone by so quickly?

And why did it feel like he wasn't ready yet?

As he tried to puzzle out his feelings, he saw the door behind him open and his brother poke his head in.

"Are you packed yet?" asked Luigi.

"Just about," Mario answered, shaking off his gloom and adjusting the hat. "I'm making some last minute choices."

Luigi came and frowned into the mirror next to Mario. The two brothers were very different types; Luigi was tall and lanky, taking after their father, while Mario was shorter and stockier, more like their mother. But both of them now had thick black mustaches, just like papa's.

"Are you really going to take that?" Luigi asked, indicating the hat.

"I think so," said Mario. "I don't really feel right without it."

"It isn't very scholarly."

"I'm going to engineering school, not Harvard," said Mario. "Besides, I have to represent the family, no? And the Mariamotti men are plumbers. Let the college people say what they wish!"

Luigi chuckled.

"Mama mia, I'm glad you're going first at least," he said. "Though it's sure going to be strange here without you. Papa's gonna have to yell at me for your share as well as mine."

"Your time will come, little brother," said Mario, slapping him on the back. "You just watch yourself. Won't have me to look after you now."

"Me?" said Luigi. "What about that time we went to Rome and you got lost at the airport? Who was it who found you, eh?"

"I was eight!" Mario protested. "Besides, that was one time."

"As you like it," said Luigi sagely. "In any case, if you're done, mama needs us to run down to Donker's and pick up a few things for tonight. After that, I'm gonna treat you to one more lunch at D.K.'s."

###

"That's the one, isn't it?" said Mario, pointing at a manhole cover not far from their house. "Papa was doing a job down there and he made us come down with him to see what it was like. We were, what, six and four?"

"I remember," said Luigi. "Wow, gave me nightmares for about a month."

"I though it was cool," said Mario. "Made me wish I could just pop down a pipe whenever I needed to go somewhere…."

He sighed. The hole looked so small now. And he hadn't really thought of it before, but the old Brooklyn neighborhood where they had been born and raised had changed a lot. It was dirtier, and there were fewer people around. Some were saying that it was liable to end up sold to a developer. Everything was fading away….

"Are you okay, big brother?" Luigi asked.

"Ah, just thinking," said Mario, shaking himself. "Nothing's ever gonna be the same after today."

"You'll be back," said Luigi.

"Sure, I'll be back, but it'll be different then. I'll be all grown up and college'd. And the neighborhood won't be the same. Isn't now, as a matter of fact. I feel like...I don't know. Like I'm not quite done with it yet."

Luigi didn't know what to say to that. He awkwardly patted his brother on the back, but was spared the need to respond when something suddenly leaped upon him from behind, wrapping arms around his neck and feet about his middle and dropping sweet-smelling, auburn-colored hair over his face.

"Gotcha!"

Luigi staggered under the sudden impact of his girlfriend, which gave her the chance to plant a kiss on his cheek. Mario laughed.

"Ciao, Daisy," he said, as if this were a completely normal form of greeting. Which, for Daisy Saraza, it was.

"Heya, Mario," she answered, still clinging to Luigi's back. "Today's the big day, huh? Were you two trying to sneak off to D.K.'s without me?"

"No," Luigi gasped through her grip on his throat. "We're shopping first."

"Oh, then I'll come with," she said. "Mush, plumber!"

"Get off me!" he said, trying to pry her arms loose from his neck.

"You're no fun," she said, dismounting, "I'll have you know there are plenty of guys who would kill to have me on their backs."

"I like you where I can see you," Luigi answered, feeling his throat and flashing her an affectionate grin. "For many reasons."

"Yo, nice one!" she said. She inserted herself between the brothers and put an arm over both their shoulders. "Ah, Mario! You're not really gonna leave the two of us unsupervised, are you?"

"When you put it that way, I wonder if I should," he chuckled. "But you seem to have had a good effect on him."

That was certainly true enough. Luigi had always been the shy, nervous one of the two, which had once made Mario doubt his prospects with the overwhelmingly confident Daisy, despite Luigi's having been enamored with ever since they were children. But Luigi had risen to the challenge, and the relationship had left him much more assertive and confident than he'd ever been before.

"Please," said Daisy carelessly. "I have a good effect on everyone! So, what're we shopping for?"

"Just getting some things for ma," said Luigi. "She needs some cooking wine, some spices, and…"

"Let me guess," Daisy put in.

"Mushrooms!" they all said at once and laughed.

Mrs. Mariamotti swore by mushrooms. She'd found them as a relatively cheap, healthy staple that could be eaten on any day of the week and any time of the year, and so the boys had gotten them in one form or another just about every day of their lives. Their mother didn't even have to put them down on the list; it was assumed that any time someone went to the store, they would come back with mushrooms.

"Eat 'shrooms, they make you big and strong!" Daisy said, imitating their mother's thickly Italian voice.

"It seems to have worked, doesn't it?" said Luigi, flexing.

"Yes, very impressive," Daisy laughed, feeling his arm. "Oh, by the way, I've got a surprise for you, Mario."

"You do?" said Luigi.

"Yep. One even you don't know about, but which I think our man of the hour will like quite a bit."

"You're not dumping me for him, are you?" Luigi asked. Daisy laughed.

"You're so cute when you're nervous," she said, patting him on the cheek.

"Nice try, little brother," said Mario. "You picked her, you're stuck with her. So, what is it?"

"You'll see," said Daisy, smiling. "Like I say, it's a surprise."

###

Donker's was a large convenience store on the corner two blocks from their house. It had been an institution in their childhoods; no matter what was needed, from mushrooms to a hammer to water hose, it was understood that Donker's would be the first place to look. The proprietor, Pauline Donker, was a pleasant, curvy kind of woman with a very pretty face. She had once served as Mario's ideal of adult feminine beauty, back before he'd even really liked girls. Now, as she warmly greeted the trio, Mario noticed that her face had grown lined and her dark brown hair, though as thick and full as ever, was showing some strands of gray.

"We're sure gonna miss seeing you around here, Mario," she said, flashing her still-charming smile. "But I'm glad to hear that you're headed for college. Always knew you'd make good, unlike some people I could name."

Mario grimaced. This was, of course, a reference to their cousin Warren, who had gotten his first job at Donker's and swiftly lost it due to his bad manners and attempts to add his own personal 'sales tax' to expensive products. Only her fondness for the family had prevented Pauline from pressing charges, though the experience had left her a little bitter.

Warren and his brother Waldo were always after get-rich-quick schemes, much to the family embarrassment. The last Mario had heard, they'd gone out west somewhere to try to start their own company. The fact that they hadn't asked for money in a while meant that either they'd succeed after all or they were in jail.

"Well, we won't talk about that," said Pauline, her smile returning. "Let me know if I can help you find anything."

They thanked her and the three split off to cover the shopping as fast as possible. Luigi went to handle the mushrooms, Daisy volunteered for the spices, and Mario went to find the wine.

He was standing in the aisle, considering between two different cheap vintages, when he suddenly heard a loud, familiar voice.

"Gwa-ha-ha! Hey, it's the plumber!"

A hard blow to his arm accompanied this greeting and made him wince.

"Hello, Bronson," Mario said, turning to greet him.

Bronson Cooper III towered over him, grinning in an admittedly friendly manner. His red hair was neatly styled as usual, his football-star frame enclosed in a tailored green jacket, and his chauffeur trailing unobtrusively, yet disapprovingly behind him.

Mario had never liked Bronson, though in fairness he couldn't really call him a bad person. He'd bullied and teased Mario in their early school days, but they had still wound up playing together fairly often. As they grew up Bronson had channeled his over abundance of energy and dominant personality into sports. And Mario had to admit that most people liked him; he'd been very popular at school, especially amongst his teammates. Nevertheless, the early dislike that Mario had formed for him never went away. And there were...other reasons.

Still, he tried to put on a friendly face.

"Didn't know you were back in town. What are you doing here?"

"Beer run!" Bronson said, holding up two six-packs of jingling glass bottles. "Over twenty-one!" he grinned, giving Mario another dig in the arm. "So, how's life in sewage?" he added.

That was another reason Mario never could like Bronson. He had a habit of being casually rude in a way that hurt, but which you couldn't really push back against.

"Same as ever," Mario answered, wishing he could come up with an equally offensive counter question. Failing that, he turned to the sepulchral chauffeur.

"Ciao, Mr. Kamek," he said. "How are you?"

The old Pakistani man who had been shepherding Bronson around since they were toddlers merely nodded. Bronson chuckled and jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

"Can you believe this guy is still going?" he said. "I swear he's a witch or something."

Mario would have given Mr. Kamek a commiserating look at the thoughtlessness of his employer, but he knew that the old man would be more insulted by the implied comradery than by Bronson's gaucheness.

"Hey, Mario, you ready…." Luigi began as he came around the aisle, Daisy trailing behind him. He stopped in surprise on seeing Bronson.

"And it's the other one!" said Bronson cheerfully. His eyes lit up. "And Ms. Sar-hots-a!"

Luigi scowled and drew protectively toward her.

"You watch your mouth," he snapped.

"What? It's a compliment," said Bronson. "Don't be so sensitive."

"You certainly haven't changed a bit," said Daisy. Bronson sighed expressively.

"Daisy, Daisy, oh-so-crazy, you are way too good looking for one of these plunger jockeys."

"I know," she answered composedly, slipping an arm through Luigi's. "It keeps him in line."

Bronson laughed. Mario scowled. Then he smiled as an idea came to him. Though Bronson had always been the popular one at school, the one who had all the girls chasing after him, who won all the trophies, and who threw the big parties, Mario had scored at least one victory over him. Early on in their school career, he'd managed to get him fixed with a nickname that he'd hated, but never been able to quite shake all the way to graduation.

"So, how's school, Bowser?"

Bronson blinked, then gave a short chuckle.

"Come on, Mario, no one calls me that anymore."

"Ah, but you'll always be Bowser to me," Mario answered.

"School's good," Bronson answered with a shrug. "What can I say? They love me there. I hear you're going to plumbing college."

"Engineering school," Mario corrected him.

"Same thing, I bet," said Bronson. "Oh, hey, that reminds me!" He jabbed Mario again. "Guess what? I'm not the only one in town this week."

"What do you mean?" Mario asked. Behind him, he heard Daisy swear under her breath.

"I just happened to hear that a certain sweet Jewess we both know dropped in earlier than expected," said Bronson grinning.

Mario felt as though he'd just touched an electric outlet. He swallowed hard and felt himself going red. Bronson, he was sure, observed everything.

"You mean...Peach?"

"Dear sweet Peach Tadstle is the one," Bronson sighed. "Been a while since she's graced this dump of a city, isn't it? I don't know about you, but I'm going try to make her feel welcome while she's here. Might get a chance to sample some of her cobbler, if you know what I mean." He nudged Mario in a vulgar way then laughed. "Figured I should let you know, though. She used to hang out with you, didn't she?"

"Master Cooper," said Kamek, speaking for the first time. "May I remind you we are running late."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," said Bronson, waving a careless hand. "But if you don't have time for old friends, what's the good of time, am I right?" He laughed and waved. "See you boys around the toilet bowl!"

Mario stood rigid as Bronson and Kamek headed for the checkout counter. He felt as though his heart were on a rollercoaster.

"Sorry," said Daisy. "I...I just found out last night. Thought you'd be glad to know."

Mario swallowed.

"Not your fault," he said bravely. "It, uh, it is a surprise."

He forced a smile.

"Let's...let's get this stuff home.

###

"You would think," said Mario, looking around the restaurant, "That after being in Brooklyn so long, these folks would've assimilated a bit more."

"Ah, you know what they say," said Luigi. "You can take the Khonigs out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the Khonigs."

The Khonigs were a large clan of displaced hillbillies who have moved to Brooklyn and opened up 'D.K.'s Country Fried Diner' when Mario was about five years old. Said restaurant, and the overflowing family house, had remained a veritable island of the rural South stuck in the middle of the city.

"Hey'a folks," said Candy, the bleach-blonde waitress. The brothers couldn't help but stare at her tight shorts, bare midriff, and straining pink top. "What can I getch'a?"

They placed their orders and watched her swaying hips as she sashayed back to the counter.

"You know," Daisy whispered into Luigi's ear. "It's so warm in here I think I might just take my shirt off."

"What?" Luigi exclaimed, jerking around to stare at her.

"Oh, good, you're still at least vaguely aware of my presence."

Luigi swallowed and blushed.

"No, I...I was just wondering how it was possible that, even with all that, she's still not nearly as pretty as you."

Daisy snorted, but looked mollified.

"Good effort anyway."

Mario was about to say something when a blow between his shoulder blades nearly knocked the wind out of him.

"We-hell! Mario and Luigi! Been a minute, ain't it?"

"Ciao, D.K.," Mario gasped. Why were so many people hitting him today?

Huge, muscular, with a shock of untidy red hair and wearing a somewhat incongruous red tie with his initials stamped on it, Don Khonig had been seven when his family moved to Brooklyn. There had been some friction between Mr. Mariamotti and Don Khonig Sr. – the restaurant's founder, and affectionately known around the neighborhood as 'Cranky' – that had made the two families avoid each other for a while, but as Mario and Luigi and the Khonig kids were always meeting at the park, the feud fizzled out after a while. 'Cranky' Khonig's passing away last year had put the final finish to it.

And though Mario still found D.K.'s personality a little overwhelming, it wasn't nearly as obnoxious as Bronson's.

"Y'all hear?" D.K. announced proudly. "I've taken over full management!"

"Is that right?" Mario stammered. "Congratulations."

"I hear you're goin' off to college, is that right?"

"That's right," said Mario. "Leave tomorrow."

"Well, now, don't you forget all your old friends when you go off and get yourself educated."

"I don't think anyone could forget you, D.K.," said Daisy.

He beamed on her, then suddenly whipped around.

"Diddy! What'd I tell you 'bout flirtin' with the waitstaff on my dime?"

Edward 'Diddy' Khonig scowled over at him from behind the fry counter.

"Like you're one to talk!" he called back. "Candy could take you up on harassment charges 'she took a mind!"

"Watch your mouth, or I'll fire you!"

"You can't fire me, I'm your cousin!" Diddy answered.

"Then I'll fire Dixie so you won't be distracted all the time!"

"Like to see you try!" the waitress answered, tossing her blonde ponytail. "I'll just marry him and then you won't be able to fire either of us!"

"Woohoo!" Diddy tossed his red baseball cap into the air over the frying food and caught it.

D.K. seemed to feel he was losing his authority.

"Just get back to work 'fore I have to tell your 'Ma on you!" he snapped.

That did it. Diddy returned to fry cooking, Dixie shrugged and picked up her order, and D.K. turned a beaming face back to Mario's party.

"Y'all just let me know if there's anything I can get for you," he said, then disappeared into the back as Candy came out with their order.

"Ahh, the food just wouldn't taste as good if they weren't yelling at each other," sighed Daisy.

"Like a troop of...well, you know," Mario said.

All three sniggered at the old joke.

The food was delicious, though as Luigi said they were probably losing a couple years of life every time they ate there.

"So," said Daisy after a moment. "Are we going to talk about the sweet, blonde, and beautiful elephant in the room?"

"No," said Mario shortly.

"Why not?" she demanded. "I thought you'd be excited to learn she was back in town. You two didn't have a fight or anything, did you?"

"Of course not," said Mario, almost laughing at the idea of Peach fighting with anyone. "It's just...we haven't spoken in a while."

"How come?"

"Oh, you know," he said. "She went off to that boarding school, then to college, and I...I didn't want to bother her."

"You didn't want to bother her?" Luigi repeated.

"She was busy with school," said Mario. "And I was busy too, you know?"

"Still, you should have called her, or written to her or something," said Daisy. "She would have been glad to hear from you. Probably wondering why you never did."

"No, she's not," said Mario. "She...I doubt she even remembers me."

"You spent half your childhoods together," said Luigi. "She's not going to forget you."

"It's too late now, anyway," said Mario.

"No it isn't," said Daisy. "Just call her, why don't you?"

"Call her?" Mario repeated, looking shocked.

"Yeah. She doesn't bite, you know," said Daisy.

Mario shook his head.

"I can't."

"Why not?" Luigi demanded.

"I'm sure she'd love to hear from you," said Daisy.

Mario got out his old flip phone and opened it. Peach's number was still in the contacts.

"I...I don't know," he said.

"Just do it," said Luigi.

"She's way too good for me," Mario muttered.

"Yeah?" said Daisy, putting an arm through her boyfriend's. "I'm way too good for Luigi; didn't stop us."

Luigi cast her an amusedly reproachful look.

Mario's hand trembled on the call button. At that moment, D.K. started shouting at someone in the kitchen.

"I...I think I'll go outside and call," Mario muttered.

"You can do it, big brother!" Luigi said. He flashed Mario a 'V for victory'; their secret sign since childhood. Mario smiled weakly and returned it.

He stepped out of the restaurant and onto the sidewalk, drew a deep breath, then hit the call button.

The phone rang once. Twice. Three times….

"Hello?"

"Hello, is...is this Peach?"

"Yes. Who is this?"

"It...It's'a me, Mario."

"Oh!" her voice took on a sudden tone of flustered surprise. "Oh, hi! How...how are you?"

"Not bad," he said. "You?"

"Fine! I just got back yesterday."

"So I heard," he said. He swallowed. "Um, Peach, I'm actually going to be leaving for school tomorrow."

"You are?" she said. "Where are you going?"

"Engineering school. But would you...I mean, you wouldn't want to go out later, would you? Catch up?"

There was a silence that made Mario wince inside.

"Oh, Mario, I'm really, really sorry," she said. "But I'm afraid I already made plans."

His heart, which had been hovering somewhere around his throat, dropped suddenly down to his feet.

"Oh," he said. "Okay, that's fine."

"I'm so sorry," she said. "I really would like to see you again sometime."

Mario's dying spirit flickered a little.

"That's okay. We'll just try again later. What are your plans?"

"I'm going out with Bronson," she said.

Mario immediately regretted asking.

"Well...have fun."

"Thanks. Good luck at school. And...call me sometime, will you?"

"Sure."

He hung up and groaned.

###

"I'm real sorry, Mario," said Daisy on their way back to the house. "I should have told you sooner."

"It's okay; I'm fine," he muttered. It wasn't remotely true, but he wasn't sure what else to say. His insides felt like a twisted up empty sack.

As they entered the house, they found their mother waiting for them.

"Boungiorno, Mrs. Mariamotti!" said Daisy. Mrs. Mariamotti responded in a flood of affectionate Italian, accompanied by a warm embrace and gestures at Daisy's clothing, with occasional sprinkles of English.

"Like a stick! We see what we can do. Sweet girl!"

She then turned a far more serious tone on her two boys. They answered in the same language, then she added another command to Luigi, prompting a complaint from him that she immediately shut down with a snap.

"So...what was that all about?" Daisy asked in a low voice as she followed the brothers to their room. She was Italian too, at least on her father's side, but unlike the Mariamottis she was third generation and had lost most of the language. She did her best to use it whenever she came over, but Mrs. Mariamotti spoke so fast that she usually ended up completely lost.

"She wants us to go through our old toys before Mario leaves and see what can be given away," Luigi answered. "Also, your clothes show too much skin and you need to eat more, but you are such a sweet girl nonetheless that she's delighted to see you."

Daisy giggled as she checked herself in the brothers' mirror.

"Personally, I think I'm plump enough where it counts," she said critically, twisting around to examine herself from different angles. "So what was she yelling at you about?"

"Oh, that was nothing," Luigi grumbled.

"He needs to clean the living room and the toilets tonight," said Mario.

"Why amI the one who always has to do the cleaning?" Luigi demanded

"Yo, that's what you get for being entrepreneurial," said Daisy.

When he was younger, Luigi had started his own housecleaning business to try to earn some spending money. It'd been fairly successful, financially speaking, but had also imprinted on their parents' minds that he was the one to do any cleaning around the house.

"Well, let's get started anyway," said Mario. He didn't add that hopefully it would take his mind off of the thought of Peach.

Daisy went and sat on Luigi's bunk. As the men dug their old toy chest out of the closet, she picked up a framed photo that hung on the wall and sighed.

"It still feels weird to come over here and not hear him barking," she said.

The brothers came and looked over her shoulder. The photo showed the two of them as boys, their arms around a big mutt whose long red tongue lolled out happily. The dog was decked out in a home-made dinosaur costume.

"Poor old Yoshi," Mario sighed, feeling a catch in his throat. "He was the best dog a boy could have."

"Cani magnifico, as mama would say," said Luigi. He took the photo back from Daisy, shook his head, and re-hung it on the wall. Then the two boys upended their toy chest and spilled the contents out on the floor.

Daisy leaned forward eagerly to see what they were. It seemed at first glance to be a hodgepodge of utter junk. A few half-deflated balls, one or two very old plush toys, some rubber bath toys, and a few that appeared homemade. There was absolutely no common thread to any of it.

Mario and Luigi, however, at the sight of the toys spilling out onto the rug seemed to have regressed at least ten years in a moment.

"Hey, it's Goomba!" said Mario, snatching up what looked like a brown rubber mushroom that had had an angry face crudely painted on it. "Remember Goomba? The rank and file of the evil Koopa Troop!"

"What's the Koopa Troop?" Daisy asked laughing.

"The forces of the evil king Bowser," Luigi said, picking up a squashed red leather ball. "This is one's a Koopa Trooper: wicked turtles, see? You have to jump on them, then you can kick them into other baddies."

Mario set Goomba up on the floor, then kicked a similarly-squashed green ball into it, knocking it over.

"Still got it!" he exclaimed.

"That explains the squashedness," said Daisy. "I wonder what Bronson would think to know he was the villain in your games."

"Oh, he knows," said Mario. "We'd rope him in sometimes, usually when we went by.…" He stopped abruptly and cleared his throat. "Anyway, he liked the idea of being the villain. But we kind of had to just play along with him, since he always tried to make Bowser a lot cleverer and more important than he was, but didn't really have the brains to pull it off."

He smiled fondly as he picked up an orange rubber flower.

"See, this is a fire flower," he said. "It shoots fire at the bad guys!"

"Also known as water," said Luigi. He pounced on a somewhat deflated white volleyball with a face drawn on it. "Hey, it's Big Boo! Remember? He only moves when you don't look at him."

He held the ball up and waved it at Daisy.

"Wooohoo! I'm gonna get yoooouu…"

"Pow!" Daisy answered, knocking the ball upwards out of his hands. "I am fearless!"

Luigi, unperturbed, continued making ghostly sounds and creeping closer to her, waving his hands.

"Now he's invisible! Ooooo…."

She laughed, trying to fend him off as he advanced on her, catching at her hands and pulling himself up onto the bunk. Mario laughed too, but then their playfulness turned his mind back to gloomy thoughts and he hastily returned to the toys. Only, that didn't help much either, since everything he saw reminded him.

"So you guys really worked all these things into all your games?" asked Daisy, once she'd exorcised the Big Boo with a quick kiss.

"Not all the time, but usually," Luigi said as he returned to work.

Daisy leaned forward, turning over the toys a bit with her sneakers.

"Yo, what's this?" she asked.

"Bob-omb!" said Mario, picking up the little wind-up toy. "I wonder if he still works?"

He turned key on the back of the little black sphere and set it on the floor. It shuddered for a moment, then began walking along the carpet toward Daisy's feet. They all watched intently as it approached and slowly wound down.

"Kaboom!" the brothers both shouted at once, making her jump and then laugh.

"Okay, just for that," she said, picking up a green plastic can. "I'm gonna...whatever this is at you!"

"Yeah, what is that?" Luigi asked.

Mario shrugged. Daisy examined it.

"Well, only one way to find out," she said. "Eat this!"

She pressed a lever on the side and lid popped off and a plush, spring-loaded Venus fly-trap burst out and hit Luigi square in the nose.

"Oops," Daisy muttered, covering her mouth to smother her laughter. "Sorry."

"Piranha plant," said Mario, nodding over it. "Most deadly."

Luigi retaliated by snatching up an oversized nerf-gun that had been clumsily painted black and shooting her with a plush bullet decorated with an angry face. She picked up a plastic star that was still shedding bits of glitter and threw it at him.

"Ha!" he said, catching it. "The tables have turned! Now I'm invincible!"

"Howzat?"

"That's the rule," Mario explained. "Whoever holds the star is invincible for ten seconds. Blooper!"

He squeezed the rubber squid at her, shooting a blast of stale air into her face. She kicked a red rubber fish with a bell inside at him in retaliation. All three of them were laughing.

"I'm starting to wish I'd joined in more," she said.

"No, you were always too cool to play with us," said Luigi.

"What do you mean 'were'?" she answered. "And I played with you guys all the time!"

"Sure, when we were playing baseball or on the go-kart track," Mario answered. "But you didn't join the really fun games."

"Well, you did once or twice," Luigi admitted.

"Did I?" Daisy asked.

"I'm pretty sure. I remember rescuing you, distinctly."

"Sounds like a dream to me," she answered. "But didn't you always just play pretty much the same game? Princess Peach has been kidnapped, and only the courageous Mario brothers can save her!"

Mario felt another kick in the stomach at the mention of Peach, but he laughed anyway.

"Yes, but there were always so many ways to play that," he said.

"Oh, do you remember?" said Luigi eagerly. "When Rosalina started babysitting us, we moved the whole thing into space!"

"Yeah, that was great!" Mario laughed.

"Yo, I remember her," said Daisy. "Rosalina, the world's most beautiful astrophysicist! What's she doing now?"

"Teaching space stuff at Com Tech," said Luigi. "Married with two kids. She dropped by a little bit ago when she was in town visiting her parents."

Again, Mario felt as though something in his stomach had kicked him. All at once the pile of old toys no longer spoke to him of the endless, carefree games of their childhood, but of broken dreams and useless regrets. He wanted to get away.

Fortunately, at that point Daisy made a distraction by pouncing on the pile with a cry of delight.

"Hey, I know this one!" she said, seizing the little doll with the white face and red robes. "Shy Guy! He was my best friend when I was little. I thought I'd thrown him away!"

She cocked a suspicious eye at the brothers.

"You guys stole my toys?"

Mario and Luigi looked at each other.

"Did we?" asked Luigi.

"No...no, I remember!" said Mario. "You did come by to play with us a few time! When we were a lot younger, and you always brought Shy Guy. Then one day you left him here, and I remember running over to your house to bring him back, but you said you didn't want him anymore."

"Well, I do now," she said, hugging the doll to her chest. "No one's taking my little Shy Guy from me ever again! I'm sorry, Luigi, but my true love has returned."

"We'll see about that!" said Luigi, eying Shy Guy darkly and fingering a rubber turnip. "I remember how we dealt with that little creep…"

Mario sighed as he looked over the pile. From the shine of childhood memories, the toys now suddenly appeared faded and drab.

"You know," he said. "I don't know about this stuff. What are we gonna do with it?"

"Give it away, I guess?" said Luigi uncertainly.

"Who would want it?" Mario asked. "I mean, it's special to us, but to anyone else…."

"It's mostly just junk," Luigi admitted, looking at the squashed leather balls.

"You're not gonna throw it out, though, are you?" Daisy asked.

The brothers looked at each other. Neither liked the idea at all, but there didn't seem much alternative.

"I can't decide right now," Mario sighed, putting down his old rubber hammer. "We'll figure it out later."

"Sure, if you want," said Luigi.

"Well, whatever you decide, I'm keeping Shy Guy," said Daisy firmly. Mario smiled, then his face fell once more.

"If you two don't mind, I...I feel like I need to think. I'm gonna go for a walk."

"I bet I know what you want to think about," Daisy muttered. "But I won't say anything!"

"You just did," Luigi pointed out, then added to his brother, "Do you want us to come?"

"No," said Mario. "Thanks, but I think I want to be alone for a bit."

"Well, just be back in time for dinner," said Luigi. "Don't want to show up to school skinned alive, do you?"

###

The old neighborhood really had changed, hadn't it?

Mario hadn't noticed it before. It had been so familiar that he hadn't bothered to look. For a long time his whole world had been from his house to the school to the park, with occasional trips to the beach or the go-kart track or something. It had simply existed in his mind, absolute and unquestioned. Now, looking around, he saw how different it had become.

The old go-kart place was closed. They'd gone for one last ride some years ago, and he remembered his surprise at how small the karts were. There hadn't been nearly as many friends then, either. Peach was away at school. Rosalina had left. Warren and Waldo had gotten in trouble with the law again. It'd been just him, Luigi, Daisy, and some of the Khonigs.

He should have realized then that his old life was drawing to a close. Now he stood at the very end of it.

What was going to happen next?

Of course he'd go to school, then come home and he and Luigi would open their plumbing shop as they'd always planned. That he would be a plumber had never been a question. Indeed, he'd often felt grateful when he heard classmates agonizing over what career they would pick, knowing that that problem, at least, need not trouble him. People would always need plumbers.

But what else?

As a boy, he'd had those wonderful games, or sports in the park, or his dog Yoshi to give his life texture and meaning. Now all that was being left behind.

He passed by the school. His parents had scrimped and saved to send the two boys to a private school. That's where he'd met Peach….

Mario shook his head and passed on by. But as he did so, he spotted a couple people on the athletic field across the street and, recognizing them, crossed over to say hello. He hoped it would distract him.

A lean young man with shaggy hair died deep blue was just finishing up his stretches. Next to him was another boy in a yellow hoody running down a checklist. This boy had two thumbs on his right hand.

"Hey'a Sonny," said Mario. "Hi, Miles."

"Hey, Mario, how's it hanging?" Sonny answered.

"Not bad," said Mario with a shrug. "Heard you won some big race recently."

Sonny chuckled.

"State championship," he said. "Next up is the regional qualifier. Then it's on to the Olympics!"

"Well, with a few intermediary qualifiers in between," said Miles. "But from the trends he's been setting in training, I'm pretty confident we stand a good chance of winning."

"Good chance?" Sonny answered. "Come on, Tails, you know I've got this in the bag!"

"Pride goeth before a fall," Miles chided him.

Sonny and Miles had gone to a different school from Mario and Luigi, but they'd sometimes met at the park. For a long while they'd been archrivals on the baseball diamond: Mario had much more muscle mass than Sonny and could hit or throw a ball a lot harder, but neither he nor anyone else in the neighborhood could ever match Sonny for speed.

Miles had been Sonny's best friend ever since they were little (the 'Tails' nickname stemmed from the old, oversized jacket with coattails that Miles used to wear to school). His deformity had gained him a lot of ridicule from the other kids, until the brash and ultra-confident Sonny had stepped in to defend him. They'd been inseparable ever since, which was lucky for Sonny, as Mario doubted he ever would have made it through school without the brilliant Miles's help.

"You're really aiming for the Olympics?" Mario asked, impressed.

"You kidding? That's what I've been aiming at since we were kids. I already know I'm the best in the world, and soon everyone else is gonna know it too!"

"Ready?" said Miles. "Going for a new mile record!"

Sonny shook himself and got into position, then winked at Mario.

"Gotta go fast," he said. Then at Miles giving the signal, he took off at top speed.

Mario watched him for a moment, admiring his athleticism. Then, wishing Miles luck, he resumed his wandering.

He felt no better, but meeting with Sonny had given him a clearer understanding of just what was bothering him. Sonny's whole life was directed to athletic excellence, the pursuit of a dream he'd had his whole life. He knew what he wanted, and it was within his grasp.

And that made Mario realize what was nagging at him, the thing that had felt missing all day. Because he too knew what he wanted; really the only thing he'd ever wanted.

Only, he'd let her slip away.

Well, he'd never had much of a chance anyway, had he? Peach was a rich girl from a family of business people. The Tadstles had been prominent in Brooklyn society for generations. And he? He was the son of a first generation Italian plumber, whose mother barely spoke English, who'd gotten all his childhood toys from the discount bin, and had grown up on a diet of cheap mushrooms. It wasn't realistic to think of her ever...of their being together.

No, but they'd played together enough. They'd been friends most of their lives. And he'd been in love with her the whole time.

He hadn't been thinking about it, but his feet were taking him into the wealthier neighborhoods. Realizing where he was, Mario suddenly shook himself. No, he wasn't going to give up that easily! Sonny was out there practicing every day just for some stupid medal; it was time he put some effort into achieving his dreams!

Walking quickly now, not letting himself think lest he come to his senses, Mario made straight for the Tadstle house. It was a classy old brownstone, one that had been built back in the mists of time when houses were still made to last and to look beautiful.

When they were kids, it had seemed a veritable castle to his eyes.

Not letting himself hesitate, Mario walked right up to the door and rang the bell. Only then, when it had been done, did it occur to him to wonder just what he would say to her.

Before he could come up with an answer, the door opened. But it wasn't Peach. It was her little brother, Todd. Not so little anymore, though; he was now taller than Mario.

"Hey, Mario," Todd said in surprise. "Good to see you."

"You too," he answered. "Is, uh, is your sister home?"

Todd looked a little uncomfortable.

"Sorry, Mario," he said with a grimace. "She, uh, she's out with another guy."

"Ah," said Mario. Of course; she'd already left on her date. His heart sank like a rock once more. "Thanks anyway."

"You want me to tell her you dropped by?"

"No!" Mario said hastily. "No, don't bother. I...I'll see you later."

He walked away from the house, hopes dashed for a second time that day, though hopes of what, he couldn't have said. All he knew was that he wanted badly to see Peach before his last day in Brooklyn came to an end. But now there didn't seem much of a chance of that.

Mario thought of going home. Dinner would be on pretty soon. But he decided he couldn't face it. Not yet. So he turned away down another road and strolled vaguely in the direction of the park.

The big, rambling park stood in the heart of Brooklyn, set at the meeting of the east side, where he and his brother lived, and the west, where Peach and Bronson and the other wealthier people made their homes. There were plenty of people about now in the late afternoon. A pick-up game was starting at the old baseball diamond. A few people were on the tennis courts. And here and there, couples or families strolled along the paths.

It had been some time since Mario'd been down here. It was all so familiar and yet so different. There was the pond that had seemed a vast lake when he was little. There were the clumps of trees and small thickets that his boyhood imagination had transformed into deep, haunted forests. Everything was smaller, duller. It had all lost its wonder.

He passed the playground, where a few kids were running to and fro, laughing with abandon at these moments of carefree delight. Here the path was lined with a set of square stone pillars, about two feet high, with circular holes cut into the middle. Mario stepped up onto one and looked about him. When they were kids, they had often jumped from one to the other, imaging falls of limitless depths below. Hop from one to the other quick before the first one falls. Hop from the pillar to the monkey bars. Don't get hit by the fire balls!

Now Mario found he could simply step from one to the other. There was no lava, no bottomless pit, no leaping flames. All that was fading into his memory, and leaving...what?

Would he be leaving this all behind him now? All those childhood days, those endless, joyful games...was it all to be buried along with his loyal old dog, unfulfilled? Incomplete?

He dropped down from the pillar and resumed his walk. Funny how he'd never thought this way before. If he had, he might have reached some kind of conclusion. But he'd been so busy with work and with preparing for school that he hadn't had time. Only now, when everything was ready, did he have a chance to contemplate what he would be leaving. But of course, there was nothing to be done about it. All things must come to an end, and he had to grow up sometime.

Still, if only...well, if only he could have one more of those games. One more...just to set things to rest.

With such morose thoughts, Mario strolled up another path. He checked his watch, realized it was nearly dinner time, and picked up his pace.

He was soon passing through a shaded part of the path. It was a quiet, lonely spot, and there didn't seem to be anyone around. Ahead of him the path forked and one way turned sharply to begin a circuit of the pond, but Mario didn't mean to go that way. But as he approached the fork, he heard voices raised down the path to the pond.

"What are you, my mother?" said a loud, slightly slurred voice. "So what if I want to enjoy a few drinks? What's it to you?"

"Nothing, except that I don't like you when you're drunk," came the answer. "And I thought that you knew that, since I've mentioned it before."

"I just wanted to get in the mood!" the first voice chuckled.

"Well, I'm not in the mood," said the second voice. "Not to go out with you like this. So, I'm sorry, but I think I'll just go home. You can call me when you're sober."

"No, don't be that way!" said the first voice, chuckling again.

There was a brief pause, during which the atmosphere shifted subtly.

"Bronson," said the first voice. "Please let go of me."

A new note, a faint tremor had crept into her voice.

"Let's just talk about this a bit," said Bronson.

"We won't talk until you let me go," she answered.

"Ah, but then you'll run away," Bronson said in a slurred laughed.

"I'm serious, Bronson, let me go right now!"

The tremor was becoming more pronounced, as though she were swiftly losing her composure.

"Not on your life…."

"Bronson!" Mario said, stepping out into view on the path around the little pond. "Let her go!"

They both turned to him. Bronson huge and muscular in his dark green coat, his eyes somewhat blurred, his handsome face flushed.

And there was Peach. Mario didn't have time to fully look at her right now, but he dimly noted that she hadn't lost her love of pink. She was wearing a pink and white blouse with a matching skirt, and her long blonde hair was swaying as she tried to pull away from Bronson, who held her by one arm. She looked tiny compared to him.

"Mario!" she gasped.

"What's it to you, plumber?" Bronson snapped. "Go fix someone's toilet or something."

"Let her go first," Mario answered.

"Or what?" Bronson sneered.

Mario swallowed. He had no plan, and he was fully realizing just how much bigger Bronson was.

"Or...or you'll regret it," he said with all the confidence he could muster.

Bronson snorted.

"Think I'll regret more if I do," he said. "You just want to cut in, steal my girl, don't you? Not gonna happen, so go back to the sewer, will you?"

Peach gasped as it seemed Bronson, in his anger, was unconsciously tightening his grip on her.

"Bronson, you're hurting me!" she said.

That was enough for Mario. He squared his shoulders and stepped forward, feeling suddenly as bold and as brave as he had once imagined himself to be.

"Let her go right now, Bronson!" Mario snapped.

"Oh, you want to try it, plumber?" sneered Bronson, his face twisting into drunken anger. He shoved Peach aside and she fell into the dirt with a cry. "There, I let her go. Happy?"

He advanced on Mario, who ground his teeth and put up his fists. He'd never actually fought Bronson before, and he didn't like his chances. The other man was a trained athlete, not to mention having about a foot's advantage on him.

Still, it didn't occur to him to run away. Peach needed him, and if that meant he got beaten up...well, then he'd get beaten up.

Bronson suddenly came at him, faster than Mario would have believed from his size. He had a fleeting impression of his rank, alcohol-infused breath as the larger man swung at him. Mario ducked, jabbed twice into Bronson's side as hard as he could, and sprang back.

Bronson looked down at where he'd hit him and laughed.

"Gwa-ha-ha! Is that really the best you can do?" he sneered.

Mario swallowed. This was not good. Even with him drunk, he couldn't possibly out-slug Bronson. The other man was getting serious now. He'd put up his huge fists and was shifting and weaving back and forth in front of him, clearly getting ready to attack again.

Then Mario's foot slipped slightly. He righted himself immediately, but it made him realize that he was standing on the slick slope of the bank leading down to the pond. And inspiration flashed on him just in time. He set his teeth, fixed his eyes on Bronson, and tightened his guard. He would have only one chance at this.

"Let's'a go, Bowser."

Bronson rushed at him. Mario gathered his feet beneath him and leapt with all his might. He sprang past Bronson, and as he did so, he kicked him in the side in mid-air.

The combination of his own momentum and the added impetus of the kick caused Bronson to pitch forward down the slope. He slid, tumbled, and finally crashed into the muddy water with an almighty splash.

Mario stood on the bank, breathing hard and looking down at him. Bronson blinked, dazed, and began to rise, then gave a yelp and clutched his knee.

Flushed with relief and triumph, Mario laughed.

"Sleep it off, Bowser," he said. Then he turned to Peach.

"Are…are you all right," he asked, hastening to help her to her feet.

She nodded, gazing at him with wonder. Mario found himself struck dumb by how beautiful she was. For a moment, they stood that way in silence. But then his practical common sense intruded; this was not a place to catch up.

"Come on," he stammered. "He'll be fine."

Leaving Bronson to limp grumpily out of the pond, they walked qucikly back to the main path and so on to the edge of the park. Mario didn't really know what to say. He wanted to look at her, but was afraid that once he started, he'd never be able to stop.

"You're not hurt are you?" he asked at last as they reached the street and slowed their pace a little.

"No, not really; just a little shaken," she answered, rubbing her arm. "Thank you, though. If you hadn't have come…."

"I'm sure he wouldn't have really hurt you," Mario said hastily. "I don't like the guy, but he's not that bad."

"It was still scary," she said. "So, thank you. You were...you were really quite magnificent!"

Mario felt himself going red.

"It was nothing," he muttered.

"Nothing?" she answered. "Bronson's about twice your size! It was the first I've seen someone be really brave."

"First time I've really been brave," he answered. "Hopefully the last."

She smiled, and they lapsed back into silence for a while. Mario was furiously trying to think of something to keep the conversation going, but nothing seemed appropriate to the moment.

Then, to his surprise, Peach suddenly laughed.

"I'm sorry, but something kind of funny just occurred to me," she said. "That was just like those games we used to play when we were little. I'm sure you don't remember, but I was always the princess in distress, and you were always the brave knight in shining armor coming to my rescue. And you even used to pretend that Bronson – or Bowser – that he was the one who'd kidnapped me. I'm sure I'm being absurd, but it really feels just like that."

He looked at her in surprise.

"You remember those?" he said.

"Silly, I know," she said with a shrug. "But it just struck me all of a sudden..."

"No, it's not silly. I was just thinking of them today," he said. "We were going over our old toys, wondering what to get rid of."

"Oh, I hope you don't!" she said. "I love those old things. Goomba and the Koopa Troopers, and Bullet Bill and Piranha Plant and Shy Guy…."

"Well, he's not getting given away at least," laughed Mario. "Daisy's taking him back. I can't believe you still remember all that."

"We did do it a lot back then," she said with a shrug. "Playing those games, I mean. Do you remember the time those exchange students were staying at my house, and you and Bronson both came over and we dreamed up a big adventure?"

"Oh, yeah!" he said happily recalling the event. "We were two whole days at it, as I recall. What were their names again?"

"Janus and Malachi," she said. "I still send them Christmas Cards."

Mario laughed at the memory.

"Speaking of which…" she said, and her face grew rather pink. "And I don't want this to sound like I'm accusing you or anything, I just was wondering, how come you never wrote to me at school?"

The question made Mario flinch.

"I was busy with work," he said. Then, realizing how lame an excuse that was, decided to confess. "And I was nervous. I wasn't sure you'd want to hear from me."

"Why wouldn't I?" she asked.

"Oh, I don't know. I meant to at first, but when I sat down to it...Mama mia, I wondered what I was doing; an apprentice plumber writing to someone at a fancy school like that. I pictured you getting the letter and then the other kids wonder who it is, and you say 'Oh, it's from a plumber I know.' I thought they might laugh at you, and then you'd be angry with me, and...Ah, well, I worked myself up so that in the end I thought, 'I'll write if she writes.'"

"I'm sorry you felt that way!" she said. "I certainly never would have been mad at you, even if they had laughed. But I don't think they would; they were mostly nice people there. And you make me feel guilty now, because I did think about writing to you. I meant to, but I...I forgot."

She grimaced.

"I was so busy with school and new friends and all that," she said. "And then one day I thought 'Oh, I haven't written to Mario yet!' and then I realized 'But he hasn't written to me either. Maybe he doesn't want to hear from me? Maybe he's forgotten me.' So...so I thought I'd wait until you wrote."

"Forgotten you?" Mario repeated, stopping and looking full at her. It was like looking into the sun, with her golden hair and wonderful, gentle face. "Who could ever forget you?"

Peach smiled and blushed.

"Well," she said. "We were both a little silly, I guess. Promise not to do it again?"

She held out a small, dainty hand, and he took it in his rough, calloused one.

"Promise," he said fervently. Then, suddenly feeling brave once more, he said, "Do you want to come to dinner?"

"Dinner?" she said in surprise.

"At my house. Mama's making her famous mushroom sauce, and Daisy and Luigi'll be there. In fact, I'm very late for it as it is," he admitted.

Her face lit up with a radiant expression of unfeigned delight.

"I'd love to!" she exclaimed.

###

Mrs. Mariamotti was waiting by the door when Mario entered. From the looks of her, she certainly was well prepared for the flaying of her eldest son.

"Hi, Mama," said Mario in Italian. "I'm very, very sorry I'm late. It was very important. I...I brought a guest."

Peach slipped shyly into the house behind him and waved at the others assembled around the table.

"Hello," she said. "I hope it's not too much trouble…."

Mrs. Mariamotti's whole demeanor changed as fast as the flipping of a light switch. She rushed forward to embrace the young woman, wreathing her in a stream of enthusiastic Italian and throwing in the occasional English phrase.

"So good to see! So pretty! So long ago it is!"

She was nearly outdone by Daisy, who on sight of her friend leapt up and fairly ran to the door to embrace her.

"Hi, Daisy," said Peach, a little overwhelmed.

"Yo, you meany!" Daisy exclaimed. "I thought you couldn't go out with this handsome mustachioed creature tonight?"

"Ah, change of plans," said Peach awkwardly. Mario looked at Luigi to try to convey that he should prevent Daisy from pressing for details. His brother got the message.

"Come on, Daisy; let them in! We can hear all about it later."

Mr. Mariamotti added his more reserved, but no less warm greetings.

"Miss Tadstle. It is good to see you again. How is your father?"

Peach entered smoothly into conversation with the old plumber as grace was said and dinner served. Mario saw Daisy straining to question them several times, but Luigi managed to keep her in check.

The conversation moved smoothly to Peach's own school experience, then to Mario and Luigi's respective plans. It was all very comfortable and warm, and Mario felt as though they were back in old times, when Peach would often come by to play and stay to dinner. Only it was better now. It was more...more real than it had been.

"Oh, that reminds me," said Peach suddenly near the end of the meal. "Mario said you were going through your old toys?"

"That's right," said Luigi. "We thought of giving them away, but as Mario said, who would want them?"

"Well, I had an idea about that just now," said Peach. "I was just thinking, you guys are gonna have kids someday, right?"

Daisy choked and Luigi went as red as brick.

"That's, ah, that's a little fast, no?" he stammered.

Mario and his father were both shaking with laughter. Mrs. Mariamotti asked what the joke was, her husband told her, and she turned an appraising eye on Daisy, who tried to cover her embarrassment by gulping some more wine.

"I didn't mean specifically you two!" Peach said hastily. "But maybe, I mean, not to exclude the possibility. You are adorable together, after all, and…" she buried her face in her hand. "I'm sorry, that all came out wrong."

"Go on, go on," said Mario. "We know what you mean."

"Well...if one of you two," she indicated the brothers. "Or both of you have kids, then I was just thinking, you could give them your toys. That way you could show them, you know, how special they are."

Mario and Luigi looked thoughtfully at each other.

"That's a good idea," said Mario.

"Why not?" said Luigi. "No trouble keeping them, is there?"

"No trouble at all," said Daisy. Then, as Luigi took a drink, she added, "and a little incentive can't hurt."

Luigi nearly spat his wine across the table.

###

Mario's last day in Brooklyn finally drew to a close. They'd had a wonderful evening, all sitting around the living room, talking, laughing, and playing games. But he had an early train to catch, which meant it was time for the guests to be leaving.

Mario and Luigi, Peach and Daisy set out together. The girls went on ahead a little, talking in low voices. Mario suspected that Peach was finally satisfying Daisy's curiosity about what had happened that afternoon. The exclamations filtering back from the auburn-haired girl – who was constitutionally incapable of talking very softly for any length of time – confirmed it. He himself filled Luigi in on the same point.

At the end of the recital, Luigi's eyes were wide and he whistled.

"I can't believe you did that!" he said in a whisper. "That was...that was heroic!"

"It didn't feel heroic," Mario admitted. "Just...well, I'd do a lot more for her."

Luigi shook his head.

"I wish I were brave like you," he said.

"You are brave!" Mario answered. "You're dating her, aren't you?" he added in an undertone. Luigi laughed self-consciously.

"Trust me," Mario went on. "I know you. If she needed you to, you'd take on fifty Bronsons. If there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that anyone can count on Luigi."

Luigi smiled modestly, and they were quiet for a moment.

"I'm going to miss you, big brother," he said, patting him on the arm.

"You too," Mario answered, returning the gesture.

"Well, here we are," said Daisy. "Why don't you two go on ahead?" she added in a not-exactly casual tone. "I have a feeling someone wants to say goodnight to me."

Mario winked at Luigi and flashed V for victory. The brothers laughed, and leaving the two lovers, Mario and Peach walked on. For some time they didn't say anything, but it wasn't the awkward, uncertain silence that it had been. It felt, to Mario at least, as though they didn't need to say anything. At last, as they approached her neighborhood, Peach spoke up.

"I had a really good time tonight, Mario," she said.

"I'm glad."

They looked at each other, then blushed and looked away.

"Can I ask you something?" he said.

"Of course."

"In those games of ours, did you ever get tired of being the kidnapped princess?"

She smiled shyly.

"No," she admitted. "Not at all. Because it meant I got to be rescued by you."

Her face turned as pink as her blouse and she looked away, swallowed, and laughed.

"To tell the truth," she said rapidly, as though wanting to get the words out before she lost her nerve. "I had the biggest crush on you."

He nearly tripped.

"You did?!" he said in amazement.

She nodded, blushing furiously and not looking at him. Mario felt himself also growing hot.

"Well," he stammered. "You were my princess. And you always will be."

They stopped outside her gate, beneath the halo of the streetlight. She seemed to his eyes to glow.

"You will write me this time, won't you?" she said

"Absolutely," he said fervently.

Neither seemed to want to leave. They just stood there, swaying gently as though getting ready to move on, but never doing so, now looking at each other, now looking away. But the lookings away became shorter, and the times of looking at each other longer. Slowly, their hands drifted together.

"I still really like you, Mario," she said in a choked voice.

And with one more wild burst of courage, Mario suddenly leant forward and kissed her.

In that moment seemed compressed all the joy of all the games they had ever played. This, he realized in a burst of understanding, was what they had all been meant for.

At last, they broke apart and stood for a moment, breathing into each other's faces. Then they both giggled, and Peach felt her upper lip.

"Mustache tickles," she said.

"I'll shave," he answered at once.

"Oh, no," she smiled. "Don't you dare!"