Wow… thanks for the brilliant reviews, people! I'm gonna get emotional… *sniff* I apologise for having left it for so long but, you know, work and stuff. ^^; I've decided to make into a three-shot instead, one for reunion. And I shall include more Portrait Ghosts like Melody. Enjoy. :)

Mario: The Ever-Watchful Brother

As sworn protector of the Mushroom Kingdom and hero of the highest order, it came as no surprise to him that wherever he went, he was constantly pestered by people with adoration in their eyes and hero-worship on their minds. Perhaps it was just to look at him and be acquainted with his charismatic personality. Sure now, the red-capped plumber seriously did not look like the world's best contender for fighting evil but there he was, always willing to put his life on line to save those from the dark hands of evil. The inhabitants of Toad Town seemed especially gracious and somewhat smug in the knowledge that the world's well-known hero resided in their town. With such a person on their side, there was no possible way that evil could triumph. He could go against it all; he was Super Mario.

It was therefore, embarrassing, for one of his calibre to have been trapped so easily, so gullibly as to be a mere novice. Well, it had to happen at some time and in any case, he had brought joy to a select group of people, namely the Boos.

Mario sighed as he attempted to shatter the barrier of his, for want be of a better word, cage. He knew that resistance was futile since this thing was practically unbreakable but nevertheless, he refused to acknowledge this and kept up his vigorous attempts of freedom. He honestly didn't know how Peach managed it, sitting ever so daintily in whatever room she had been placed in, waiting for her hero to come along, to rescue her, to bring her home to her beloved subjects. She dearly loved her little plumber; the man who was so much more than he seemed and was always very affectionate with. He had to smile at that as he softly placed a hand on the unbreakable glass. And yet Mario's thoughts were not wholly preoccupied with that of the princess at the moment but someone else closer to his heart. His brother, Luigi.

He was supposed to have met his brother here, at the front of this mansion but unable to keep his curiosity contained, Mario just had to have a look around this peculiar and yet strangely familiar place. Now he wished he had been more patient; it probably wouldn't have been much longer to wait before Luigi arrived anyway. He knew that his recklessness was a major downfall of his and this trait had played wonderfully into the ghostly hands of the Boos.

Ah, the Boos. Those supposedly shy spirits who now seemed to have come out of their shell (to use a term belonging to Koopas). Many a time ago, they used to hide their faces when an enemy appeared to be looking at them and then only sneaked up upon said enemy when their back was turned; a sly but common Boo tactic. Not that they had needed to on this particular occasion; they had completely outnumbered him and had taken him by surprise.

Mario tried everything in his arsenal to fight back but because of the low intensity of light, he was rendered incapable of being able to physically harm them. Even now, he thought that he could still hear the echoes of their ghostly cackling as, breath stolen away by some mysterious Booish force, he had slipped into the black realm of unconsciousness. Their ghostly abilities seemingly made them invulnerable in this darkness though hopefully, not invincible. Because if that was the case…

Mario groaned, clutching his head as it still throbbed from that earlier ambush. He knew he had been dragged unconscious at some point throughout the Mansion and… then what? He had been slowly coming round when they hoisted him into a loud, devilish-looking machine and… oh, stars above, something had happened.

Mario examined his prison more carefully, having been most preoccupied in just getting out of it. He glanced at his surroundings, surmising that he was in an underground chamber of some kind; perfect for the dark-dwelling Boos. Everything glittered as if it had been covered with gold showing the rich tastes that Boos in general had. Two low brackets had blue smoke drifting lazily out of them. He then noticed the mirror out of the corner of his eye and himself reflected back in it. And what he had been trapped in.

"Mamma mia…" he breathed as his condition dawned upon him. He had been trapped alright; trapped inside a painting of all things. "How? How did they get me in here?"

Thinking about it, it was quite ironic considering one of the occasions in which he had to rescue Princess Peach was in her own castle, only that he required numerous Power Stars to do so. He was forever jumping in and out of paintings. One of the paintings led to Big Boo's Haunt and…. ah, retribution.

Surely then, if the Boos had wanted to capture him, then they obviously wanted to capture Luigi too. One Mario brother wouldn't be enough since the other would want to free his trapped sibling. They had to get both at once; payback for all the times that they had been defeated before in their quest for kingdom domination.

Mario was the bait; Luigi was the missing piece. It could have easily been the other way round but he felt that the Boos preferred the way that things had turned out. Mario clenched his fists and muttered to himself; they would have so much fun terrorising his little brother, safe in the knowledge that nobody else would be coming (or at least, capable of doing anything helpful). They knew of Luigi's deep fear of ghosts which only made their fun and games much more delicious. Yes, they would play about with him a little before turning him over to their boss, wherever he was.

Ah, speak of the devil. The Boo materialised directly in front of Mario within the room known as the Secret Altar. He looked up and down at his precious painting before bursting out into maniacal laughter. Mario waited for this triumphant cackling to die down before listening to what he had to say for himself. His red, bejewelled crown gleamed brightly, its light sparkled magnificently when illuminated by the low, hanging chandelier from above. His red eyes burned brightly as well with all the delights of vengeance. He had Mario exactly where he wanted him.

"Ah, Mario," King Boo sighed melodramatically. "Who would ever have thought that the situation would boil down to this, eh? For many years have you been persecuting our kind with the glorious and ridiculous aims of protecting your precious little kingdom. You have been an admirable opponent, it is true, and a worthy adversary in our game. But no more! We are playing games no longer. You will be the tool that shall lead your pathetic little brother to us." He allowed himself the satisfaction of a grin as he watched Mario's predictable reaction. "Oh, come, come now. Surely you want to be saving your strength for possible escape instead of this rather amusing tantrum? Hmm? Oh, I apologise, I quite forgot. You can't escape from this painting!"

King Boo could not help but laugh at the red plumber's predicament, especially when in his frustration, Mario charged up a ferocious, burning fireball with the intention of frying the ghostly monarch with it, quite forgetting that the barrier rendered this impossible. He was quite lucky that the worst that had happened was the singeing of his moustache.

"I know that Luigi will come," he said through gritted teeth. "And I don't care what you think about him. He will come and he will defeat you."

"Now surely you don't think we have that low an opinion of him?" asked King Boo as he polished the corners of the painting frame to his liking. It glistened much like the rest of the opulent room. "I do acknowledge the fact that he is as dangerous as you are. Think about it, the pair of you are quite clearly our enemies for the fact that you make it your sole mission to vanquish anything that is deemed to be a threat. But who deems the object to be a threat? Who decides the level of evil in a person? If the decision-makers happen to be you and your brother, then I must question, what does that make the pair of you? And what constitutes heroism?"

Faced with such questions, Mario's rock-hard principles faltered if only for a moment. All that he and his brother faced in the face of true evil; those who wanted to claim the world as their own, those who bent others' lives to their own will, those who revelled in the planning of destruction. But there were also those who were merely followers of such life-forms, hangers-on, minions, they did not show the purpose of true evil and indeed, saw it as something to benefit from for it was safer to be on that side than against it when all hope seemed lost. But for those who loved freedom and justice, they fought so that everybody could have a life.

Everybody deserved a life…

The will for self-sacrifice, the constant display of courage and the aiming for the greater good. All that and the recognition of mercy even to those who did not deserve it. Why else did Bowser, King of the Koopas, still reign in the Dark Lands and still have the freedom to express desire for world domination and constant kidnapping of a princess who did not reciprocate his love? Even he may have something to give to the greater good one day…

Mario and Luigi dedicated themselves to fighting evil that was recognised not just by themselves but ultimately by the citizens themselves, even at the cost of a personal life. They were knighted as the Protectors of the Kingdom; they carried the Star Power. And here King Boo was just playing with his mind…

And King Boo was a threat, just another threat…

The lull in the conversation was interrupted by a soft knocking at the door and King Boo bade the messenger to enter while Mario found himself forging a new-found determination that he would regain his freedom. The Boo Messenger gave a small bow before relaying his words:

"Sire," said the Boo named Booreguard. "It appears that our foe has finally arrived at the Mansion. He is quite unprepared; he is only carrying a torch. Surely he can be no match for us!"

"He is indeed of little match to us," said King Boo lightly. "But still, I want an eye to be kept on this man, just in case he has a few tricks up his sleeve. I do not want him to be underestimated as we have done in the past. And even beforehand, we were only just about lucky with Mario; he quite nearly escaped our grasp, didn't you, Mario?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said. "I don't even know how you got me in here!"

"In all due time, I may inform you since it isn't as if you can escape this trap of ours. Do not worry, we shall leave your brother for the time being; the Portrait Ghosts are hankering to feed off an actual mortal since they do lack that precious life force of their own…"

"F-feed off?" Mario stuttered.

"In any case, there are numerous other ghosts about; this place does seem to be overrun with them, doesn't it?" King Boo continued, completely ignoring Mario. "They will no doubt want to feed off Luigi as well. With all these spirits, it does impediment our own movement around the Mansion unfortunately. This makes it somewhat difficult to get to Luigi ourselves but ah, well, let the other ghosts have a bit of fun."

"Fun? You call baiting and no doubt killing my brother fun?"

"And now is the time to take my leave," said King Boo. He turned to face Mario who was suddenly taken aback by his rather more vivid red eyes. "I dare say you will be reunited with your brother soon. Dead or alive, whichever way really."

Ignoring Mario's protests and frantic battering against the barrier, King Boo allowed his servant to leave first before closing the door behind himself with a resonating click that told Mario he was now on his own with only the distant sounds of pouring rain and the howling winds for company..

"GWAHAHAHAHA! Your kingdom belongs to me and now you'll belong to me too! Where's your plumber boy now, eh? He still hasn't come and he's never going to come. He's failed you, Princess!"

Peach was shaking with terror but still she grasped for the tiniest bit of hope. Mario was probably delayed. There was nobody on this planet that could defeat her knight in overalls. Bowser was surely getting ahead of himself, she thought, too cocky and proud in his mindset to think that his plans actually worked.

"I refuse to believe you, Bowser," she cried. "You know that you'll just be beaten by Mario again, like you have been every single time!"

Just then, Mario gallantly leapt onto the platform, illuminated by flashes of white lightning in an otherwise dark, thunderous sky. He tugged on his cap, threatening a challenge and stared down the Koopa King. Peach smiled triumphantly; she knew that Mario would always come for her. He began to stride forwards, safe in the knowledge that Bowser already appeared weakened.

Then suddenly, a black barrier enveloped him and Mario keeled over, screaming with agony and paralysed onto the very spot. He heard a faint cry from some distance behind him, barely audible over Peach's gasp of fright. He tried moving forwards but the motion was excruciating; so excruciating… Tears ran down his face; he was imprisoned, wrapped in a torture barrier. The world before him was starting to dissolve into blackness. He looked up and saw Peach and Bowser merge into one demonic force with fiery eyes and a shadowy outline. The dark and terrible creature laughed; its voice somehow scintillating and petrifying at the same time. Mario heard the cry again, only this time, it was much louder and with a jolt, he recognised who it was.

"No…" he croaked.

"Yes…" it hissed menacingly. "Should have waited for your brother. You should have waited shouldn't you? Always the hero; never thought you'd be the one in trouble. And look. He could have helped you. But now he's paid the price for your neglect."

"No…" Mario sobbed. The demonic figure turned into a cackling King Boo who with the voice of his beloved Peach whispered, "Mario. I'm disappointed in you. You've failed me. You've failed everyone."

"What about Luigi?" he gasped.

"Hm? Oh, nobody cares about him. You've forgotten about him before haven't you?"

And with a final, nasty cackle, King Boo rushed over Mario, covering him with his nightmare cloak and everything was lost to view. But in the distance, there was a faint blue light. Mario, finding himself able to move, rushed over to it in case it meant something, anything.

"Hey! Do you know how to- AHHHHHHHH!" Mario staggered back, clutching at his heart with fear as the ethereal figure turned around, revealing his brother. His face was bloodied, streaked with his own scarlet blood and his eyes glowed white. He seemed to be staring directly into Mario's soul.

"Why did you leave me behind, Mario?" he said with a whisper as light as the air surrounding them. "Why couldn't you have waited for me? Am I that worthless to you; that you thought you didn't need me? Well, look at me now. You left me behind… and left me to my fate with those monsters…"

"Luigi, I'm sorry, I'm sorry…"

"They took my heart, they took my soul…" Luigi said, his figure becoming ever more shadowy and lined with red light. Mario saw the gaping hole; where his heart should have rested and barely avoided throwing up. Luigi raised an eyebrow. "And you'll be trapped in a painting forever, Mario. I was King Boo's sacrifice; you're going to be his prize."

Beside him, King Boo turned up; a flash of white in a world of darkness. Luigi faded away from sight gradually, before Mario's eyes, and the last part of him that disappeared were those glowing orbs of his. Mario cried out and tried to reach his brother, only to be plunged in the dank and cold: King Boo's grasp. His smile belied the hell that was prepared for Mario.

"Time to say goodbye to life itself, Mario. For you can never escape from the painting."

And with one swift movement, a gaping hole opened up beneath the now-forgotten hero and he plunged downwards, the wind rushed past him until he met the red flames of the canvas hell…

Mario screamed as he violently awoke from his nightmare, pouring with sweat and shaking from head to toe. So that's what a nightmare felt like. He knew Luigi to have had them before but he had never experienced them himself. His heart was still pounding horribly fast as he pressed himself against the black canvas wall to support himself. Clearly, this imprisonment business was getting to him…

He wondered how long it would be until he saw his brother since he knew that they were eventually going to meet up in this lonely room that perpetually glittered with all the signs of riches and yet offered no comfort to a man being held against his will. Mario also considered whether Princess Peach, assumedly knowing of his disappearance, had sent out some Toads to seek him out. Mario gave a snort of disapproval; nice as they were, there was no way that they could do anything to help his predicament. Most were terrified by the mere thought of a Boo so how would they react if they actually saw one? Well… suppose that these were more courageous Toads, what would they be saying or thinking as they searched out for him? And, with a sorry sigh, Mario also wondered, didn't they think that Luigi was capable enough to do this on his own?

"Mario? Mario? Where the heck are you, Mario? The Princess is gonna cream us if we don't find you!"

"Did Mario really end up here? I wonder whether he is in here…. ARRRRGHH! THERE ARE GHOSTS IN HERE!"

"I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die… I hate ghosts!"

"Dude… this place is real scary. If Mario got captured, then what can we do?"

"Isn't Luigi coming? Can he help us?"

"He will."

"He won't."

"He will."

"He won't…"

It may have intrigued Mario to know that his imagined conversations were rather accurate as to what was being played out. As it was though, the Toads would have to depend on Luigi in the end since he had the actual means of the defeating the spectres. Mario, as he was thinking, wished that they would have more confidence in Luigi and he himself, wished that it hadn't come to this for himself to believe in his brother, now more than ever.

Mario was distracted from his thoughts as out of the corner of his eye, he saw a dim light slowly increasing as something was making its way along the dark passage hidden behind the figurehead. Whatever it was, it wouldn't be able to squeeze its way through the small opening. He saw the figure peer through the hole and with dim surprise, realised that it was in fact a Toad. Well, well, well. One of them did manage to find him then.

The Toad screamed as soon as he clapped eyes on Mario.

"Oh no! Mario? Is that really you?" he quavered.

"The one and only," Mario answered glumly.

"Mario! Ohnoohnoohnoohno, h-h-how did you end up in a painting? What sort of fiends would do this to you? This is completely terrible! What would the Princess say if she saw you like this?"

"You're no oil painting, that's for sure?"

"Mario, this isn't a time for crummy jokes! She would flip! She would be absolutely devastated! How in the heck are we gonna get you out of there? How in the world were you put in this… this… painting in the first place?"

Mario hesitated. "I'm not completely sure. There was this large machine which was the last thing I saw before waking up here. I think they might have put me in it and, I don't know how, turned me into a painting I suppose."

The Toad looked seriously alarmed. "Mario! What if you're trapped inside this painting forever? We… we have to get you out of there this instance!" The Toad looked at his surroundings wildly, as if he would suddenly find the solution. "Can't we just rip you out of there or something? It's only a painting!"

Mario winced. "Sounds painful," he said. "Somehow, I don't think you can destroy the painting without destroying me. And besides, weren't you there when Bowser stole all of those Power Stars and the only way to travel to the places where he kept them was through those paintings?"

The Toad shook his head. "I've not been in her Highness's service for all that long," he admitted. "I never expected to get a job at the castle in the first place but I get to see her, I often see you and your brother…"

"Hey!" Mario interrupted. "Have you seen Luigi yet? He was supposed to come here but I got captured and I don't know where he is!" And I'm worried about him, he added silently to himself.

"Luigi?" said the Toad blankly as if he had never heard of the name before. Mario resisted the urge to want to smack the glass in front of him. "No, I haven't seen him yet. I hope he comes. Maybe he can free you…"

"I hope so too," Mario mumbled. "I don't know how Peach copes with this waiting! Or this feeling of helplessness!" Mario banged the wall behind him in frustration and received a lot of pain for his trouble. The Toad looked sympathetic.

"I know," he said sadly. "Especially as we depend on you so much. I suppose Peach copes because she knows that you will always come for her. And well… I suppose we have never been much help to either of you…."

"You do what you can," said Mario kindly.

"If you put it that way, it's better than nothing I suppose," the Toad sighed. "Anyway, you're used to being able to help others, Mario, so you're going to find this hard. If only there was some way to reach you…"

"Do you know how to get to that door?" asked Mario pointing. "You might have to go through some corridor or something. But I think it might be enchanted shut and I don't know where the key is…"

Suddenly, as if their conversation had been privy to others, the door was starting to unlock itself; the barrier was dissolving before their eyes. The Toad was already starting to panic and with this unexpected intrusion, Mario suddenly remembered something.

"Hey!" he hissed. "While I was being chased through the Mansion, I dropped some stuff including a letter. If Luigi hasn't seen these guys then, then he needs the letter at the very least! Find them for me!"

The door violently swung open and Mario was blasted with a shot of Boo magic, lifting him off his feet and sending him careering into the canvas wall. He saw stars floating before his eyes. He felt like he was in agony… but how did that magic pass through the painting without damaging it? He heard the Toad suddenly flee and saw the torchlight fade away again.

Mario almost gulped when he saw King Boo's wrath, such as it was when he found out that already Luigi had taken a few of the Portrait Ghosts out of action including a 'Boss Ghost' named Chauncey. A few of his minions who accompanied him were cowering before their lord as he ranted and raved about this human foe. He wanted more ghosts to patrol the corridors, he wanted Luigi destroyed. Why had he been given a chance? Who had decided to give him a chance?

Mario smiled to himself, fortunately hidden from King Boo's view.

Well done, Luigi.

King Boo was finally calming down now that he had vented his anger. He knew that there were several other Portrait Ghosts yet for the moustachioed man to battle and all of them were a lot more powerful than the puny ones that he had recently faced. And besides, the Boos who formed the massive Boolossus had been training for this very battle. He would allow them to have fun with Luigi, show him what he was up against…

King Boo stared at Mario who raised an eyebrow and stared back. He would not allow the ghost to get the better of him; he simply couldn't. King Boo motioned for the others to leave and floated over to the painting. The look that he gave Mario could only be described as one of pure hatred.

"I'll see you dead before your brother arrives here…" he hissed menacingly, eyes flashing blood-red. "You can be sure of that, little Red-Cap, try as you might to get free. And we will make sure that your brother will not go unpunished for his defiance against my ghosts. Let us say, you got off lightly."

Mario growled as King Boo launched in a tirade of laughter and threw himself against the barrier even though this would achieve nothing. He winced and held his hand up to the long cut which he had just made on his face. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Luigi, almost hidden completely from view in the same secret passage that the Toad had gone down earlier. Luigi had noticed Mario before Mario had noticed him and now he had switched his attention to King Boo who felt that he could be jubilant in his upcoming victory.

"Luigi…" Mario whispered, noticing how upset his brother was. "I'm so sorry that I dragged us both into this. I should have waited for you but hey, you know what I'm like."

He saw Luigi quickly get up and run away from his hiding spot; Mario also saw the strange device that he was carrying on his back. What was it? Looked like some sort of vacuum cleaner. Was this what Luigi was using to get rid of the ghosts? No wonder King Boo was mad; how could such a machine defeat a whole barrage of ghosts?

"Aha, so good to see you my friend," said King Boo.

Mario frowned for it seemed to him that the ghostly monarch was talking to thin air until he realised that a shadow waiting in the corner materialised into a clearer form. He was carrying a palette with him and several paintbrushes tucked into his pockets. This Portrait Ghost's name was Vincent Van Gore.

"Ah! Zis eez terrible, non? How can my masterpieces be defeated by zat lowly creature with a vacuum cleaner?" He ranted and raved, taking little notice of King Boo who was just floating there. "It burns ze soul to see zer creations defeated like zat!"

"Calm yourself," said King Boo. "Make ready, you will simply have to create some stronger enemies. You do say the power is in the brush, correct? Though they say that art is a painful subject, however."

"I am suffering for ze causes of art!" Van Gore cried.

"Nevertheless, we do need some brute force behind these ghosts. I fear that your foe is becoming rather strong thanks to that infernal Poltergust 3000 he carries with him. Bleh!"

Poltergust 3000, huh, thought Mario. Sounds like something a crazy professor would invent. Then Mario realised something important. There was a professor hanging about near the Mansion earlier, wasn't he? Stars above, I'm so stupid, he warned me not to go to the Mansion, he warned me…

And I thought I knew better.

Vincent Van Gore looked slightly worried. "Ah, oui. But zere eez just one teensy little problem with zat, kingie."

"Then please tell me that you have simply run out of paint," said the monarch. "And under no circumstances, do you call me, kingie. I had this place built as a shelter for all of you ghosts you know."

"Of course, of course," the artist said. "But I appear to have ze problem of ze artist's block. It may be difficult for moi to create some stronger ghosts…"

"I don't want excuses," said King Boo dangerously. "I want results!"

Van Gore sighed. "An artist's life can be very troublesome at times, oui…"

He then noticed the magnificent painting behind King Boo before realising that its occupant was in fact, moving and alive. He was also being glared at and by George that was some lifelike art…"

"I am alive you know," Mario growled, his arms folded across his chest.

"Perhaps not for long," said King Boo lightly. "What do you think, Vincent? I think that this is the start of a marvellous and most splendid collection, yes?"

"Oui," he said, completely agreeing just so that he could leave faster. "Although, vat is ze name of zis painting?"

"The name's Mario," said Mario, punching the glass again, getting the message across that under normal circumstances, he was not to be trifled with. King Boo thought that this was quite amusing.

"Hmm… I suppose it is not too bad," Van Gore mused, giving Mario his art critique. "Although I must say, I have seen better paintings than zis one."

"Thanks very much," Mario muttered sarcastically.

"Come, we shall now leave you in your prison," said King Boo as he directed Vincent Van Gore towards the door, impatient in his desire for stronger enemies. "We shall be meeting again shortly though. Perhaps I should watch your brother's progress? I do so hope that my Boos will take care of him; he released them earlier you know. Quite by accident but nevertheless, it is his fault that we are all here. And once we have him in our grasps, rest assured that I will be putting him through the Ghost Portrificationizer. Then, I shall have a truly wonderful collection of paintings."

"Wait!" Mario cried. "So you put me through this Ghost Portraf… Portif… whatever to turn me into a painting?"

"Of course," said King Boo heartily. "Another genius invention from the mad-cap scientist. It seems that mortals do have their uses. Farewell, my old foe!"

King Boo left the Secret Altar along with the painter and Mario heard the magical thorny barrier being erected again. He sighed and leaned back on the wall. Something moved. It was behind the velvety curtain that Mario thought was just the canvas. He pulled it apart and gasped in shock when he saw what loomed above him.

"A Bowser suit…" he breathed. "What in the world has King Boo got a Bowser suit for?"

Mario had no way knowing the precise details of the villain's plan; he only knew though that this was to be King Boo's choice weapon against his brother. And a little hoover wasn't able to do much against that. No doubt it was powered up with all sorts of fancy Boo trickery. Just what was the extent of his hatred against the pair of brothers?

Mario pulled the curtains to again and reminded himself just how far Luigi had got thanks to the courage that few people thought he had. Luigi would do whatever it took to get here and reach his brother. There was no way he was giving up now.

Mario smiled faintly and made himself comfortable. He trusted in Luigi. He didn't how long it would be until they were together again but he could sense that his sibling would save him.

"Luigi," he whispered to the darkness in a language that few others understood in this kingdom; one that seemed important to say now, one that connected himself to his brother. "So che lei potrebbe essere spaventato ma coraggioso. Credo in te, fratello..."