Staring at a tray of strange Mewnian delicacies, Marco Diaz was trying to ignore what was going on around him.
It wasn't going very well.
In defense of the high school senior, he has developed a rather poor rapsheet when it came to this sort of thing. It had different names depending on the dimension or occasion, but they were the same thing each time. Lots of people and pageantry, formal attire and expectations, dates, dancing.
If it was a formal function that involved any combination of these, Marco had already resigned to the fact that it was bound to go wrong.
And typically, it was going to be or had been his own fault.
Before high school, he hadn't been to any dances that required an invitation or a date. A cousin's quinceañera or relative's wedding might have had people moving and grooving, so-to-speak, but those were family affairs.
Since then, it's basically been downhill.
He unceremoniously crashed the Blood Moon Ball, a night that has hung over him for the past four years. Star had been disappointed in his behavior that night, and in retrospect, he was, too. It wasn't fair to her, to presume that she needed him there to look out for her… but, a tiny arrhythmic thumping in his chest also admitted some twisted pride in the matter.
Marco may have disappointed Star, but if he could go back, he would do it all over again.
What he had done may not have been right, but if Star had taught him anything, wasn't it that sometimes you have to mess up a little to get it right the next time? Or, maybe it was something about bad decisions are eclipsed by good intentions?
Or, maybe he was just making excuses. Either way, that night had meant something to him, even if it was never supposed to happen.
This line of thought was starting to make Marco feel even worse, so he moved down the list.
His first real "school dance" had been quickly ditched, with Jackie Lynn Thomas, no less. It wasn't a bad memory either, but the night ended with Star nearly being pulled to her death through a portal into the void. It had been the day they lost Glossaryck, and the rest of the year basically fell apart thereafter. Lots of misunderstandings and missed chances.
Marco felt the Monster-Mewman petition celebration extravaganza was probably the worst of them all. At least before, he hadn't realized how he felt about Star; that had been the first time he had to purposely keep his distance so she could manage the party (and so she could manage Tom). She had looked so beautiful that night, her powdery blue dress and hair in elegant curls… In fact, it reminded him of the dress she had chosen for the Song Day Celebration. Was it the same?
Whatever dress or however her hair, she looked amazing, and it only made it harder as the night fell apart.
Heinous came for him that night. He was, and had always been, the target - not Star. And it wasn't his fault that Mina essentially ruined everything , but it had been him that brought Meteora back to the temple in the first place. So the dominos fell, leaving them battered and bruised with little to show for it.
Things are different now, and they should be better.
They are better. Stop being such a downer .
Marco chided himself with a sigh, finally taking one of the 'savquals' (which looked to him like a cross between a taquito and sashimi) onto his appetizer plate and took to moving around the outskirts of the ballroom.
Thinking about dances wasn't helping, and watching the dance wasn't going to help either. His Earth friends were invited here along with his parents, but he had lost them in the massive hall almost as soon as he came in.
He had already tried his cell phone, which Star had modified to work on Mewni, but Janna had snatched it at some point and so he was upstream without a paddle, as they say.
He was without a paddle, but at least he had this savqual, so it wasn't all bad. Right?
A familiar voice made him jump before he could try the strange food that had been his only company all night.
King River addressed the crowd on a dais at the far end of the room.
"Thank you everyone, thank you for joining us! What a wonderful opening dance. Just wonderful! This is one of the Kingdom's most cherished traditions, second only to the passage of the wand on the fourteenth birthday of the Princess of Mewni. Hopefully, tonight's celebration will result in less destruction and despair!"
Several nobles laughed at the King's joke at Star's expense, and Marco snickered lightly in his private corner. He could imagine the chagrin on her face, wherever she was in the grand room, and it made him laugh a little louder.
"Just a little joke, my dear," River cooed in the direction of his wife. It was hard to tell from where Marco was standing, but she appeared to be debating with herself which sort of weapon would be most appropriate to lash him with if he continued with his revelery.
Clearing his throat, the King continued. "The celebration of our daughter's eighteenth birthday is a gift in itself, and we are blessed to share it with you all. It is by happenstance that it is also the celebration of royalty, the Day of Designation. So, family, friends, allies - enjoy this evening in the n-name of Star Butterfly, our daughter."
He choked up a bit, beaming in the general direction of the rebel princess. All eyes seemed to follow towards the middle of the dance floor - well, except Marco's.
An invisible rope separated the bystanders from center of the room, hollowed out to provide a perfect place for the opening dance. Tradition dictated the Princess of Mewni dance with the Princes or Lords of their allied Kingdoms throughout the evening, starting with the Opening Dance.
Marco was neither a prince nor a lord, so he would not be dancing with Star tonight.
Queen Moon stood from her spot on the throne, at least a foot taller than her husband. She was positively glowing, the grandeur of Star's celebration obviously infecting her with uncharacteristic excitement.
"It is with the utmost pride that I introduce to you all, the future Queen of Mewni, Star the Defiant!"
Clapping and cheering followed, which Marco was glad for at that moment - he had just tried to eat his food and promptly began to choke, hacking loudly by himself.
Doubled over, he felt the air return to his lungs, and the music started to play for the second song.
It was perfect.
More people were dancing now, several pairings of knights and nobles swaying towards the center of the celebration. Marco noticed the Queen dancing with a very old Mewman he did not know, and River had taken to dancing with Tom's absolutely colossal mother.
The room was shrinking as people started to move more and more to the music. Less of a circle, the atmosphere loosened to a more casual (by royal standards) amorphous blob of couples and regular groups of superficially friendly people dancing and clapping and making merry. The music became progressively louder as more people spread out to celebrate.
Marco, comparatively, was finding it rather difficult to breath.
"Air. Need some air," he said to no one in particular, abandoning his plate on the nearest table and squeezing between rhythmic, faceless partygoers.
His reprieve came in the form of a crisp rush of oxygen as he staggered onto a balcony off the main hall, high above the standards of Mewni. It was dark, but the rays of the trio of Mewni's moonlight kept the kingdom well-lit in a sort of sterile evanescence. It was irrefutably beautiful, if not a bit unsettling; there was something too divine in the image, like Mewni at night was a sacred sepulcher that he had rudely intruded upon.
Then again, maybe he had.
What am I even doing here?
His scissors were upstairs, and Marco silently cursed himself for not bringing them with him. A quick ride on Nachos surely would have cleared his head. But, then again, Heckapoo was here for the Day of Designation - she probably would not be pleased if one of her clones reported him sneaking around her dimension unannounced.
Besides, this was the day to celebrate Star. What kind of friend would it make him if he ditched for his own benefit?
Leaning over the bannister, Marco looked down into the streets. Most of the town was celebrating Star's party, too, although he couldn't help but notice a few beggars slumped against cold hovels of garbage they had gathered. A few passed around a small collection of corn and told stories, smiles on their faces, but they were not cheering and dancing like everyone else.
"Eh? Karate Boy?"
Marco jumped slightly at the unexpected presence right behind him, though the Russian accent had clearly outed the owner.
Grabbing his chest, Marco half-turned and waved. "Hey, Buff Frog. You just about scared me to death. You know you can call me Marco, right?"
The tall monster came forward with a beaming smile, each one of his carefully filed teeth flashing under the alabaster light. "Uh yes. I know this is name. Yvgeny Bulgoyaboff my name, but still call Buff Frog. Friends have nickname."
That made Marco grin a little, turning back to look over the balcony. Buff Frog moved beside him and joined him in his Mewman-watching.
Marco was glad for the distraction. "What brings you out here?"
"Party not exactly monster thing." Buff Frog laughed a little, but it was a humorless kind of statement.
Marco didn't know what to say to that.
They studied the crowds below for a while, chuckling when they saw some of the people get into a scuffle.
"Things sure have changed, haven't they?" The boy gestured at the fighters, internally critiquing each opening left unguarded.
They chatted idly about the old days for a little while, mostly-friends-but-occasional-enemies for the past four years. It was nice, nonjudgmental, nostalgic.
But only for so long.
"Why you not at party, Karate Boy?" Buff Frog offered, straightening his posture and stretching his arms above his back.
Marco answered honestly. "I'm not really sure. Same reason as you, I guess."
"Party not human thing?"
"No, they are. They're just not really a... me thing."
The monster nodded slowly before speaking again. "Is that why not with Butterfly girl tonight?"
Marco sighed and looked up at the the celestial trio that bathed the town in light, seeking answers beyond this dimension. He figured this is where the conversation would go.
"Not... exactly. Things are a little… tense between us right now."
"Ah," Buff Frog responded knowingly. "Lover quarrel. Want talk about it?"
"N-no, it's not like that." Marco cleared his throat. Turning around, he leaned against the balustrade and looked into the castle through the open French-style doors. Most people were in the Banquet Hall, so the Main Hall of the castle was mostly empty. A few giggling Mewnian girls walked past them, looking intently at a compact mirror-phone with gossip and mischief written in their sly smiles.
Some things are the same across dimensions, I guess.
Without really thinking, Marco started to talk. He had been pretty tightly wound the entire day, so the need to clear his head took precedence.
"I mean, Star and I have been together for over two years now. I'm fine. Really. It's just hard, things are different. So different."
"Wait, can see where is going," his monster companion said, searching through a large satchel-like bag that he had brought with him. Setting it on the ground and rummaging for a moment, Marco noted it had a few badges on the front. One of them read Monster Expert , embellished with gold and royal calligraphy. The other was a sort of shoddy rustic one that said Best Dad .
"Here. Buff Frog know thing or two about love."
He offered Marco a drink in a modest thermos-style cup, and at risk of being rude, Marco accepted with a small smile. He didn't sip from it, but just held it and kind of swirled it around while the monster returned to standing.
"Is different?" Buff Frog prompted when Marco didn't speak.
His response was met with a sigh. "Yeah. Is different. Star and I will graduate from high school at the end of the next quarter…" Marco looked to his left to see Buff Frog's confused reaction, so he clarified.
"Basically, Star will be returning to Mewni for good in about six months. I won't be coming with her."
"Why is problem? Karate Boy has scissor, goes back and forth all time now."
Marco laughed wryily. "You sound like my Dad. He said the same thing. That's why I've tried to let it go - it shouldn't be a big deal. I'm starting college - um, a different kind of school. It'll be more intense - in about a year, and I'll be really busy. Star will be starting to learn to govern Mewni, and there will be more and more events like this . Star is only allowed to dance with those lords and princes - no matter how Defiant she is - because that's the way things are here. It just… is all catching up to me, I guess. There won't be anymore adventures. No more trying to avoid detention because of another of Star's crazy ideas. No more arguing over whose turn it is to walk the laser puppies. No more Friendship Thursdays. No more…"
"Star?" Buff Frog added when Marco hung his head, looking into the liquid courage he had been neglecting.
Marco didn't want to admit it, but his chest was starting to ache thinking about this. He had really only talked to his Dad about it, and that hadn't gone very far because Marco's father didn't really get Mewni. Traditions are written in stone here - literal magic tapestries begin to weave for the next Queen from the moment they're born, recording their magical lives for the next generation.
Star has a destiny to rule, to be inspiring and wonderful, to earn and embody her title - The Defiant - for the rest of her life. She had told Marco on more than one occasion that she loved him, and that she wouldn't let her duty to the crown get in the way of their relationship, but… that was the problem.
Marco looked at Buff Frog who had remained silent, absorbing the human boy's confession in earnest.
"Do you see that guy, the one with the reddish beard and brown jacket? The one with the patches." Marco pointed towards the group of beggars, long since returned to their small fire and happy conversation after the fight broke out.
"His name is Bynar Earnfast. He's lived in the western district of Mewni since he was born, but he walks all the way to the outskirts of the castle to see his friends almost every night. He can't really work - I guess he was born with some problems with the nerves in his hands. The most he can do is use the palms of his hand to hold things up, but his fingers don't work."
Reflexively, Marco switched the glass he was holding to his other hand, taking care to be thankful for every one of his ten working fingers.
"Star met him outside of the castle one night, I think it was something to do with her parents meeting some diplomats at the gates. She told me this story a while ago when she introduced us. But I never forgot his name, or how he preferred to hug instead of shake hands. Star knows even more - his mother's name, the name of the street he grew up on, his favorite type of Mewnian corn. It's seared, with a pad of unsalted butter. No spices - it gets in the way of the 'pure corn flavor.' That's what Star said."
Marco paused to watch Earnfast for a moment, the way he elbowed his buddy Wynhart next to him, a broad smile on the pair's faces as they shared some joke.
Buff Frog finally weighed in when it seemed like Marco was finished. "Is… very nice story. But... why is about Karate Boy and Star Butterfly relationship?"
"Yeah, I guess I kind of got off track. The point is, Star is going to be the most amazing queen. She really cares about this kingdom - the people, the monsters, and even the nobles… though she would always deny the last part," he said with a chuckle. Buff Frog joined in and clinked their glasses together at that.
"But, I couldn't… I can't stand in the way of this. She wants to make things work 'long-distance,' if that's what you would call living in different dimensions. And believe me, I do too. She's the most amazing person I've ever known."
Marco held his breath for a long moment, closing his eyes to still the welling tears that threatened to spill over.
"She needs to focus on her Kingdom and herself. I can't monopolize her time. Bynar needs her. The monsters need her," he gestured towards Buff Frog's bag, the gold face of the medallion that she had given him proudly sported at the top. She had been the one to initiate the reformation of Mewnian social tensions, which have grown better over the years, but there was still much work to be done. Buff Frog's presence out here tonight was indicative of that; Marco wouldn't be surprised if he was the only monster invited.
"The princes and lords who she's dancing with even need her - they're supposed to be representations to the people of Mewni's posterity and the strength of friendships between Kingdoms, blah blah alliances, blah blah betrothals. Even if it's just for show, the show is important."
His fingers tightened a little on the chilled glass, and Marco only now realized how icy the air outside had grown.
"And I know what you're thinking. I'm just being a dumb teenager. Jealous of my girlfriend dancing with other guys. I'm at least self-aware enough to recognize that, but…"
Marco flinched when a massive hand rested on his shoulder. He had fought Buff Frog enough times to know that this was intended as a "gentle" gesture, but it was probably hard enough to bruise.
"Wait, Karate Boy. Don't say these things. Is not dumb."
Marco shrugged the hand off his shoulder with some difficulty and looked away, admiring the monochromatic stillness the Mewnian moons cast over this beautiful world. He wished he could just stay in this life forever.
"Karat- er, Marco ," the monster tried again, clearing his throat at the strangeness of the name.
"Is very honest of you. Thank you for telling. Now is my turn to tell story."
Marco was justifiably surprised, especially when Buff Frog shoved a photo two inches away from his face. Where did he even get the photo?
"My Buff Toddlers first day of school. You see little Katrina? She could not stand with backpack on, so is set on ground." He sort of cooed the last part, and Marco had to chuckle. They really were adorable.
The photo was placed into his free hand and Buff Frog continued. "Is not just their first day of school. Is monsters first day school, ever. You know this - Star Butterfly started education initiative for monsters. Buff Toddlers part of first class."
Marco did know this - it was one of Star's proudest moments. In fact, he had pictures from this same day on his phone (which, he recalled, was probably being sold to a black magic merchant right now by Janna). He and Star had waited outside of the gates of the first Monster-Mewman School for Buff Frog to drop off the family. There was a photo, one of his favorites, with all of the little ones hugging Star so fiercely that her eyes went crossed - he loved to tease her about that. In the background, there was a big red ribbon that Star had been invited to snip, discarded on the ground to commemorate the occasion. Against his better judgment, Marco had agreed to let Star use his dimensional scissors to perform the act, and an accidental-portal nearly sucked them all into what would surely have been a death trap.
Marco actually still had the ribbon.
Since being named Star's squire, he had developed a fairly simple organizational system to help keep them both on top of their responsibilities. Each compartment of a large chest of drawers was labeled for a different purpose, if ever there was a need to document some evidence or, in this instance, remember a special occasion. There was perhaps a dozen or mementos of the things Star had accomplished in the Monster-Mewman Relations cabinet, and he had no problem visualizing the exact spot where the ribbon was now stored.
"Is one of proudest moments as father. But is only possible because of you."
That made Marco laugh abruptly. "You're kidding, right? That was all Star."
As Marco looked over, he was a bit shocked to see how serious Buff Frog's face was. Not even a smile graced the usually spirited monster's countenance.
"Not joke. I watch you and Butterfly girl almost whole year. Was you who started to tell her monsters treated unfairly. Why you think she no longer celebrate Mewnipendence Day with battle? It you who told her bad idea to start with segregated schools. She went right to joined education. It you who helped get petition signed for improved relation in first place. Star Butterfly is… brilliant and kind person, but is Karate Boy who helps her realize potential."
That struck him silent. Indeed, there was no trace of mirth in his monster companion's voice. Marco felt his brain moving a-mile-a-minute as he processed Buff Frog's counterargument.
After a long sip from his glass, Buff Frog continued before Marco had a chance to respond.
"Think about day Toffee capture you. I remember clear to this day. Star Butterfly destroy wand to save you, but she knew what was doing. You did not see look in eye outside castle. She knew risk, but took anyway. Wand means nothing compared to you."
Some bile started to rise in Marco's throat as he remembered, the feeling of hard crystal pressed against his shoulders, his legs, his face, his everything as the air started to become harder to breath. He had come close to dying a handful of times, but that had been different, because it was coming for him. A mistake in battle was spontaneous and fueled by adrenaline; that had been a slow and contemplative sort of fate, tempting him with freedom and oxygen while his muscles started to feel the crushing pressure of unyielding crystal.
Marco swallowed the lump that had formed, but addressed Buff Frog's point.
"But that's exactly why this is messed up. I know… I know Star loves me as much as I love her. But if she is willing to risk everything for me, I feel like I'm a hazard to not just her but to the future of Mewni. She is the future of Mewni, and I'm a flight risk. First Toffee, then Eclipsa… they saw it too, and they probably won't be the last. If I'm around, Star will constantly be put in the position to choose between her duty and her magic, and, well, me."
Marco felt it best to omit the fact that he still had no idea how he had ever been so lucky in the first place - what did Star see in him, anyways? But that was a conversation for another night.
The truth hung in the shared silence for a moment, and Marco realized he had started to feel a little light-headed. Maybe he should eat something, even if it was that horrid savqual again. The glass in his hand went to his lips automatically.
"Augh, augh! Buff Frog, what is this?" Marco had taken a deep gulp of whatever he had been handed without thinking about it and nearly wretched all over his suit jacket. He narrowly avoided dropping the cup over the railing, saving some poor Mewman from being showered with the horrible beverage.
"What? Is West Mewnian swamp water, adult drink for special occasions." Buff Frog raised an eyebrow at him, not necessarily surprised that the teenager could not hold his drink.
" Swamp water? Buff Frog, I'm human . I thought this was like, a soda or something."
A moment of recognition flashed in Marco's mind and he gasped.
"Wait, an adult drink? Buff Frog, is this alcoholic?"
His companion looked rather uncomfortable, not meeting Marco's glare.
"Uhh, if is Earth term for fermented spirit, then yes. I thought is adult now?"
Marco looked horrified, numbly pushing the glass back into Buff Frog's open hand. He grabbed his forehead and started to pace the length of the small balcony.
"Oh god, I just drank alcohol. I'm underage! My parents will kill me. Star will never let me hear the end of this. Am I going to end up like Janna now? I'm a delinquent. What is wrong with me? Am I inebriated right now? Buff Frog, do my eyes look bloodshot? Watch me, am I walking in a straight line, I - "
Marco stopped when Buff Frog began to laugh at him. Really laugh. The monster was laughing so hard he had to lean down and set the drinks on the ground or he would have dropped them. The teenager was indignant for a moment, but the volume and hilarity of Buff Frog's sniggering started to become infectious and Marco became caught up in the moment too.
"I sorry, Karate Boy," Buff Frog wiped away a tear from his own eye, sighing airily and leaning against the bannister. Their drinks remainder forgotten at their feet, and Marco sheepishly rubbed the back of his head.
"No, it's okay. It was an accident. Just, wow. This night is definitely not going the way I would have guessed."
He rejoined Buff Frog at the edge of the castle, looking down into the streets again. They had been out here for awhile, he had to assume, because many of the revelers had started to return to their houses. Not all of them - many still partied and whooped and sang out of tune - but the thoroughfares had begun to thin.
With a refreshed little chuckle, Marco spoke again.
"Thanks, Buff Frog. I mean it. I feel a lot better."
"Do not be mentioning it. I still owe both Star Butterfly and Karate Boy for much of my happiness." He gave Marco a toothy smile.
The gesture was returned with a knowing smirk. "And 'do not be mentioning' this whole alcohol thing to anyone, please?"
They laughed and Buff Frog recovered their drinks from the ground. He poured the rest of Marco's swamp water into his own cup, and the two clinked glass again.
There was a peaceful silence for a minute or so while the both of them thought of the conversation. Marco had a lot still on his mind, perhaps even more than when Buff Frog had joined him on the balcony, but it didn't feel as terrifying now that it was out in the open.
Eventually, it was the monster who took the initiative to end their respite outside the castle.
"I think is best we go back. Queen Butterfly will worry that I sold to Ludo if gone too long."
They both laughed again, and Marco agreed.
"Yeah, I'm actually really hungry. Some food would be nice."
They moved through the open doors into the castle hall, and Marco found he was surprised by how cold he was. When he closed the doors behind them, the air in Butterfly Castle felt charged with electricity, making his fingers start to tingle as the numbness began to ebb. He thought about Bynar a little sadly, lingering at the doors for a moment longer.
"Karate Boy," Buff Frog called his attention one more time before returning to the Banquet Hall.
"Just one more thing. You said is choice for her between magic, crown and you. If Star Butterfly love Karate Boy as much as said, enough to risk her wand and crown, then what is Karate Boy willing to risk for Star Butterfly?"
Marco's response was automatic, his hands balled into fists.
The monster winked and turned around, walking towards the muted music and revelry behind the doors that lead to the Banquet Hall.
"Then, is different?"
Entering the room, Buff Frog left Marco to himself. There was a loud burst of music as the door opened, followed by a muffled thumping of the bass when it closed behind him.