"Mario... Mario... Mario! Wake up!"
"Huh... wha?" Mario blinked his eyes open, then immediately squinted as he found himself staring directly up at the sun. "Wha... what happened? Where are we?"
He said up slowly and realized that, for the second time, he'd been deposited on the ground directly in front of the Soluna Temple... only this time, everyone was here with him.
"Oh, Mario, you're awake! Thank goodness!" Peach gasped from where she was kneeling next to him, and Mario realized hers was the voice he had just heard. His other friends were all sitting around and looking at him too, but suddenly he only had eyes for Peach.
He gazed at her, and it was only then that it finally hit him... for the first time in weeks, she was really back. All of her.
He had his arms around her before he knew what had happened.
"I... I really thought you were a goner this time..." he said quietly, fighting back tears.
"Oh, Mario... you should know I don't go away that easily. Not as long as you're here," Peach laughed lightly, her voice like a bell. By the stars, she was less shaken up than he was...
"Hey Mario, save some of that for us too, would ya?" Hanner snickered. "We were all worried about you too."
Mario looked and saw his partners all sitting together, smiling at him and looking very cheerful.
"Good to see ya, partner," said Snatchel.
"Good to see you guys," said Mario, returning their smiles.
"Master Mario! Goodness, Master Mario, is that you?" came a voice, and Mario turned around again, this time seeing Luigi, Toadsworth and Rodolfo all come running up the steps of the temple to greet them.
"Hey, big bro! You're back!" Luigi cheered. "And you've got the princess! Does that mean you beat the bad guy?"
"Yeah... we sure did," Mario laughed. "Although I really had my doubts there for a while."
"Toadsworth! For goodness's sake, Toadsworth, I'm fine!" Peach snapped as the elderly Toad immediately started fussing over her. "Ugh! Mario rescued me like he always does! Can't you see that?"
"Don't be daft, Princess! For all I know you contracted some horrible disease while you were gone! Now tell me, does your forehead feel warm? How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Well, Mario, it would seem you've saved our world after all," Rodolfo said with a chuckle. "I truly never doubted you for a moment. I knew the moment I laid eyes on you that you were something special." He suddenly grew a curious look. "But... what does this mean for your partners? Are they still the Guardians?"
Mario suddenly felt a horrible pang as he remembered the answer to that... and what they'd had to give up in order to make it happen.
"No... no, we're not," Hanner finally spoke up, shaking her head. "We don't have our Sun Souls anymore. But it's okay... honestly, that job was pretty overrated."
"Yeah! I'm not gonna miss it one bit!" Stubba giggled.
"You don't have to worry, Mr. Rodolfo. We brought the real Guardians back," Dulia said happily.
Rodolfo looked astonished. "Did... did you truly? Why, that's wonderful! That's remarkable! But..."
His face suddenly fell. "But, Mario... you're missing someone, aren't you? Where's your Goomba companion?"
Whatever happiness Mario had felt at being reunited with Peach immediately vanished.
"He... he's..." He lowered his face to the ground, feeling tears springing up in his eyes. "Goomblaine... he's..."
"He's right over there!" Peach gasped.
"What?" Mario whipped around and stared at where Peach was pointing. Sure enough, there was a Goomba lying several yards away from them, on the opposite side of the steps.
"Goomblaine!" Mario cried, scrambling to his feet and dashing over to him, trying not to panic. He wasn't conscious... he wasn't moving... he couldn't be... he couldn't...
Mario got down to his knees in front of Goomblaine and started shaking him, vaguely aware that the others had all followed him and were watching nervously from behind him. "Goomblaine... come on, Goomblaine, wake up... please..."
For a moment nothing happened and Mario began to despair, fearing the worst... and then Goomblaine suddenly opened his eyes, sitting up and looking around in confusion.
Mario tried very hard to hide his overwhelming relief. "Goomblaine... it's us. Are you okay? What happened to you back there?"
Goomblaine kept looking around for a moment longer, as though he couldn't believe where he was, before finally looking back at Mario.
"I was... somewhere else... some big glowing place..." He began uncertainly. "And I swear I saw them. My parents, I mean." He looked astonished. "And they were smiling. They looked so proud."
Mario had no idea what to say.
"But Goomblaine... we thought you..." Peach said uneasily, wondering how he could be here. "You had your powers taken away, didn't you?"
He gave her a smirk. "Well, yeah, duh. I'm not the Master of Day anymore." He shrugged. "But y'know... I'm not gonna miss it."
Hanner grinned. "That's the spirit! Who needs that stupid Guardian stuff anyway?" she cheered.
"Sweetheart, I don't think you should be saying that out loud," Maizee said softly, making a small pointing gesture up above their heads.
Everyone looked up where she was pointing, and several of them gasped.
Floating up in the air just above the temple were twelve very familiar figures, gazing down on them with wise and knowing looks. Six of them were colored lightly, six of them dark. As Mario stared, he suddenly got the feeling that they were not quite corporeal, and that no one else in town would be able to see them if they happened to look in that direction.
After a moment of silence, the twelve figures bowed their heads and slowly faded away.
"What was that about, I wonder?" said Luigi, looking quite confused.
Mario smiled a little. "I think they were telling us... good job."
"And as if that weren't enough, dudes," said Ferdinand, "check it out."
Mario realized Ferdinand was pointing over at the clock tower. He turned and looked, and his face flooded with excitement.
For the first time in living memory, it seemed, the clock read just after noon... and it was growing later still, as the minute hand continued to crawl away from the top.
"You really did it, Mario," Peach whispered joyfully as they watched the clock together. "You brought Chronoside back to normal... there's only one now... just like it should be." She looked at him in wide-eyed astonishment. "But Mario... time is moving again... what does that mean for us?"
Mario thought about that for a moment, and as he realized the answer, the smile began to fade from his face.
"It means it's time to move on."
The last thing any of them wanted was to leave Soluna Town, to say goodbye to all their dear friends. They put it off as long as they could and ended up staying in town for over a day afterwards (Rodolfo was nice enough to let them all sleep over in his living room, cramped as it was). Mario and his partners took the time to regale the others with the full account of their adventures, now that they no longer had anywhere to rush off to.
In the meantime, everyone in town was extremely confused that they all of a sudden seemed to have two separate memories of the past few weeks, and so of course Mario and his friends explained the truth to anyone who would listen. Most people didn't believe them, though Mario could hardly blame them for it; things like this only happened once in a great while, and some people were more open to them than others.
But they couldn't put off the inevitable forever. Peach finally had to admit that her allotted vacation time was over, and she had royal duties to attend to back at the castle. And she couldn't very well return to the Mushroom Kingdom without the Mario Brothers being there to look after her.
And so as the sun set on the day after their return, Mario found himself standing with Peach, Luigi and Toadsworth near the exit of town, at his least favorite part of every adventure.
"Mario... why do you have to go?" Stubba asked sadly, looking ready to start tearing up as he stood with all the other partners. "Can't you stay longer?"
"I wish I could, Stubba. I really do," Mario sighed, getting down next to him. "But I have things I have to do back home. I've already been away for too long."
"You all had to put your lives on hold for me," said Peach, her hands folded in front of her. "We have to leave now, but I'm sure you all have important things you have to get back to as well, don't you?"
Snatchel had been holding hands with Maizee, and now he immediately started grinning and threw his other fist in the air. "Shoot, I'll say we do! Yer sheriff's gettin' hitched!"
Everyone gave him weird looks. Maizee raised an eyebrow. "Honey, I think maybe we should take it a bit slower than that."
"Aw, forget that! I'm a man of ACTION!"
"Peach is right, though," said Mario. "You guys all have your friends and family waiting for you back home. I'm sure they all really want to see you."
Suddenly he turned to a certain one of his partners. "Although, Goomblaine... are you really sure you want to stay here in Soluna Town? You could go anywhere you want to."
"Yeah, Goomblaine! We'd let you stay with us if you wanted," said Hanner.
"Oh yes, the circus can always use a few more helping hands... or whatever Goombas have," Dulia giggled.
Goomblaine just shrugged and gave an unconcerned smile. "Ah, thanks for that, but I'm cool here. Place has got a lotta memories, y'know? And all the gold and silver doesn't bug me like it used to."
"I'll make certain he's well looked after, Mario," Rodolfo promised him. "It's the least I can do for you after you saved us all."
Mario smiled. "Well, you know... the Guardians are the ones you should really be thanking for that."
He sighed, suddenly feeling his gaze drop to the ground. "So... I guess this it it, then. This is goodbye..."
"Hey, c'mon, Mario-dude. Don't be so bummed out," said Ferdinand, walking over and giving him another pat on the back. "Goodbyes are only as sad as you want them to be. Don't be sad 'cause it's over, be glad 'cause it happened, right man?"
Mario looked up and grinned at him. "You know, that's what I really like about you, Ferdinand. You always say the smartest things, and it always surprises me. You really are a lot wiser than you let on, but you still know how to relax and have a good time, and that's something all of us could really take a lesson from. I hope you always stay the same as you are, because the world really does need more people like you."
Ferdinand beamed at his words, but it was then that Mario realized he had things like that to say to all of his partners. He looked away from Ferdinand and found the next person he wanted to talk to.
"Maizee... I can only imagine what it was like for you before you came to us, but somehow you made it through. That amazes me. I admire you so much. You have the biggest heart that I've ever seen, and you would move mountains for the people you care about. I know that because I saw it myself from you more times than I can count. I'll always be grateful I had the chance to meet the real you, because she's wonderful."
Maizee just gave him a warm smile in response, looking happier than he'd ever seen her. He felt like he should say more, but he knew he had to keep on going.
"Dulia... you really are one of the most talented people I've ever met. You keep on amazing me with all the things you can do, and I think not even you realize all the potential you have. Even if you are a little shy, you're incredibly brave and strong, and I know I can always count on you no matter how hard things get. You have such an amazing future ahead of you, and don't you forget it. I just wish I could be there to watch you every step of the way."
Dulia was blushing furiously and hiding her smile behind her hands, but the look of gratitude she gave him was unmistakable. Mario gave her another smile before he went on.
"Snatchel... sometimes I feel like you were the real leader of this group. You never once doubted yourself, and you were the one who always kept our heads together when things got rough. You were the one I could always turn to when I was lost, and I knew you'd always have the right thing to say. Your town is so lucky to have you there to get them through the good times and the bad, and so were we. I know we wouldn't have made it a day without you."
Snatchel just gave him a shrug and a modest-looking smile, tipping his hat to Mario. As Mario turned away, though, he found it was difficult to keep the smile on his face. Why was this getting harder and harder to do the further he went?
"Stubba... you really amazed me the most of all our friends. I should never have asked so much from somebody as little as you, but you came through time and time again, and I can't thank you enough for everything you did for us. Sometimes I even forget you're a kid, because you're even stronger and more dependable than most grownups I know. I'm so proud of you, and I know your mom and dad are too. And I know you'll keep making them proud every day."
Stubba had long since started crying, and all he could do was smile shakily and nod as he the tears fell down his face. Mario had to leave him very quickly, knowing he would start crying too if he wasn't careful. It was nearly impossible for him to keep going now...
"Hanner... I honestly don't know what I would have done without you. No matter where we were, no matter what we did, you were always there for me, making me smile or just fighting right there alongside me. I feel like I don't deserve a friend as good as you; you gave so much and never asked for anything in return. No matter what anybody else tells you, you're the greatest Hammer Bro, or Hammer Sis, I've ever met. Don't ever forget it."
Hanner was crying too, her hands folded in front of her face as she smiled at him, her eyes bright with sorrow and joy. Unable to contain himself for very long, Mario looked away from her...
And onto Goomblaine.
They looked at each other in silence for a moment. For the first time, Mario had no idea what to say. What could he say? What words were there to express how much Goomblaine meant to him? How much they had come through together? How much he had changed him forever?
Finally Goomblaine spared him the trouble and just shrugged. "You don't gotta say anything."
So Mario didn't. Instead he got down and hugged Goomblaine as hard as he could. As well as he could without arms, Goomblaine hugged him back.
"GROUP HUUUUUUUUUG!" Hanner cheered, and Mario yelped in surprise as everyone else started cheering too and threw themselves onto him, burying him under a sea of arms.
As much as he wanted it to last forever, he knew it couldn't. They all let go and said goodbye, and Mario, Peach, Luigi and Toadsworth turned away and made the very long walk out of town.
Several minutes later, their pink plane was soaring through the air just above Soluna Town, and all the partners and Rodolfo were still standing in the street and waving up at it as it flew by.
"Bye, Mario! Bye!" cried Stubba.
"We'll miss you!" shouted Maizee.
"Come back soon!" Dulia called.
Mario waved back down at them from his seat on the plane, though he wasn't sure if they could see him. Finally Soluna Town passed them by as the plane continued to climb higher into the sky, and he sank back in his seat and sighed. He couldn't believe it was really all over... he'd just finished another amazing adventure, one he knew he could never relive. All he could do now was turn and face the future, trying as hard as he could not to think about how much he had to leave behind in the past... all the friends who were still back there, watching after him as he went away...
"Mario, are you crying?" asked Peach, sounding amused.
"No," he lied, quickly drawing away from the window. "Well, I guess this is the downside of making so many friends... you have to say that many goodbyes."
Peach just shook her head at him and gave him a smile. "Oh, Mario... you don't honestly think that's the last we'll ever see of them, do you?" she asked. "Remember, we still have to come back to Chronoside for a real vacation!"
Mario gave her a very wide-eyed stare for a moment, and then a broad grin crept onto his face.
"Hey yeah, you're right!" he realized. "And boy, do I have a bunch of places to tell you about! First of all, we have to go to Golden Spur Ranch. It's a real live cowboy town just like from a Western movie! And after that we need to go visit Viney Valley. Hardly anybody even knows it exists but it's one of the most beautiful places you've ever seen, the flowers there are so colorful and gorgeous and everything is so clean and bright..."
"Oh brother... not this again," Luigi groaned.
And so Mario continued talking with his friends as the plane soared through the enormous sky, flying through the pink cotton candy clouds and carrying them on the long road back home.