Rubbing the exhaustion from his eyes, Marco hardly bothered with propriety at this point. He slouched, dragged his feet, and spoke little. The young man was tired, and it was only 10 PM; dead on his feet, as they say.
The party, comparatively, was still very much alive. Still going strong, the afterthought of a bass thumped through the quiet hallways, accented by the clapping of dress shoes against stone tiles.
He waved half-heartedly to River as the man entered the double doors, watching them close fully before entering himself.
"Best we go in seperately, or else the women might think we've been up to something!"
Lest Marco point out he, the King and Sir Lavabo had most definitely been up to something, he opted to just nod politely and let the King go first. The Knight of the Wash had elected to stay behind and tend to his freshly recovered magical cloth so he might clean it as quickly as possible.
On the way back, Marco had been tempted more than once to ask River what exactly he had done at the party to justify all of this secrecy and for him to have rushed to recover the clean calico, but he wasn't really in the mood for Butterfly Shenanigans™ any longer.
With gratitude, the tired teen had accepted three of the bizarre chicken-esque sandwiches Lavabo had offered to him in the subterranean concourses of Butterfly Castle, but that hadn't been much. His head was hurting, he imbibed a larger-than-average swig of strong alcohol, and sent himself into a near panic attack in the course of an hour.
Marco abandoned the facade along with the cape he had inappropriately adorned downstairs, simply too tired to deal with regulations and expectations. If he wasn't in the King's good graces, apparently, he very well could have been put to death for his reckless actions. His relationship with Star and the kingdom permitted River to simply laugh off his blunder, but, Sir Lavabo looked as if he had seen a ghost.
Even inadvertently, Star was still saving his life.
Star doesn't need you. But you need her.
"Ugh," he said audibly, dragging a hand down his face before burying both fists into his pants pockets. How much he wished he could be in a comfortable red hoodie right now, cuddling in a fort of pillows in Star's room and watching some unbelievable novella that his Mom would have hated.
Instead, Marco shook the strangeness of the evening from his limbs and focused his vision forward.
"Now or never, Diaz."
Marco entered the ballroom for the second time that evening, considerably less sweaty and definitely more drunk than the first time. The alcohol in his body hadn't really hit him until the panic rose when Sir Lavabo left him alone, and before he had some trouble deciphering what might have been intoxication from fascination, contemplations, or just plain old hunger.
He descended a stairway that was the epitome of grandeur. Steps of golden stones expanded outwards as the room opened before him, giving the room a broadening effect that made it all seem that much more surreal. Marco was reminded of the amphitheatres he had seen on Earth, only inverted to open up into an even greater room.
Everything shined. It was like someone had taken the essence of Star's butterfly form and smelted it into masonry, forged from the fires of magic that were only as fierce as she was. Long velvet drapes covered many of the windows, hitched up about halfway from the ceiling to offer some natural moonlight as a silvery reprieve from the flaxen intensity that bathed the room. The party was divided into the primary auditorium that opened below him, but at eye-level there was a rectangular balcony that overlooked the dance floor with standing tables.
Marco decided he best go back to the last place he saw anyone - his parents, before he sprinted from the room the first time - nearby to the refreshments table.
There was a large of swath of dancers in the center of the room, and Marco didn't let his eyes linger for long. Star was easy enough to spot, her hair tied into an elegant bun with curls framing her face. Earlier, when he saw her enter, she had been too beautiful to bare, and he didn't really want to focus on who might have their hand around her waist right now.
Near to the windows, Marco sleuthed across the perimeter of the room with scanning eyes. At level with the dancers, the room seemed even larger - he could look up to see the marvelous sloping ceilings, painted with murals of the Mewnian skyscape.
He managed to spot his Dad, tall as he was, after a few minutes of searching. Marco's parents were dancing casually - and embarrassingly - around a gaggle of younger Mewnian royals. The kids were encouraging their irrefutably lame dance-moves, so Marco averted his eyes and looked for another familiar face.
Along the southern wall, Marco had gotten as near to the dais as possible without alerting some interrogation from the guards. (Though he had been a regular in Mewni's castle walls for years, more than a few of the knights still enjoyed teasing him of his "squire" position, and would give him an overly difficult time.)
He could see Queen Moon seated at the throne, and River slipped into his seat from the otherside of the platform a minute after Marco had reached the edge. The Queen smiled fondly at her husband, and the man relaxed notably as he tucked a flash of gold and blue into a small bag beside her.
The King spotted Marco easily enough and sported a tiny thumbs up, at which Marco sort of smiled lamely and turned away, ready to search for someone else when he nearly screamed. An obnoxious winnie sounded in his ear, and he leapt backwards out of reflex.
"Hey, it's Earth-tuuuuurd. Nice of you to make it, thought you might have been ditchin' on my girl." Pony Head gave him an accusatory glare as she essentially ambushed him, blocking his path towards the window.
"Don't think I'm not looking out for B-Fly. If you even so much as look at one of these girls tonight…" She spoke the phrase with emphasis, leaning a little closer with narrowed eyes.
Marco put up his hands and took a step back. "Whoa, Pony Head, calm down. I was just... getting some air."
She bared her teeth slightly, horn pointed in his direction, and huffed loudly through her nostrils. Marco hadn't seen her so worked up in years, so he was genuinely concerned that there was something going on.
Just as he opened his mouth to speak, his floating unicorn bestie starting laughing in his face, pulling back and spinning in the air from her mirth.
"Oh, my god. The look on your face. You the one who needs to calm down. Lookin' kinda sweaty there, Earth-turd." She said through her guffawing.
Offering a half-hearted chuckle, Marco tried to move around her and head towards the wall once again. He wasn't really in the mood for Pony Head's… personality right now.
"Fair enough. Maybe some food will help, if you'll excuse me…" his evasive maneuver was somewhat successful, but the magical princess just floated after him, easily weaving in and above dancers that pushed into him as he passed. She was yapping into his ear, practically yelling above the music.
"SO, WHAT YOU THINK OF RICH PIGEON'S NEW GIRL? PRETTY OKAY, I GUESS."
"Sure," Marco replied as he stalked towards a window, eager to see something that wasn't people dancing and having a good time.
"I MEAN, IF I WERE HIM, I'D DEFINITELY WANT TO PRENUP THAT. BUT AT LEAST SHE CUTE THOUGH."
"I guess," he said with a large breath of relief. He faced away from the dancefloor and looked out over a courtyard in the castle. It was the rose garden that Eclipsa used to sit in, and the turrent of her old holding chamber was visible from their perch in the Banquet Hall.
"YOU SURE YOU GOOD EARTH-TURD? SEEM OFF TONIGHT - WHY YOU NOT OUT THERE DANCING?"
"Pony Head, please? I have a headache." Marco hissed at her, resting his forehead against the cool glass that overlooked the world beyond.
"Oh, well, why didn't you say so? Sheesh. Not my fault you in a baaaaaaad mood." Pony Head replied casually, but her voice did sound a tad apologetic. He could at least appreciate that she lowered her voice.
"Marco! There you are!" Another voice called his name, this time coming from his right, so he turned away from Pony Head to see a familiar, less annoying presence.
"Tom! Hey. How are you?" Marco lifted up a hand to fist bump his demonic friend, who looked genuinely happy to see him.
At his side, he noted the floating image of his bestie appeared, blowing a raspberry at the new arrival.
"I'm good man, how are you?" Tom accepted the fist bump with his own knuckles and a smile. "Didn't see you when the rest of the Earth crowd came in."
"Oh, yeah. Just got mixed up with the crowds I guess." Marco scratched his head awkwardly, not sure he wanted to go into details of his strange, private night around Mewni.
Eager for a new topic, he returned his attention to Pony Head. "So have you guys danced much? Being royals and all, I'm sure there's lots of 'protocol' you've got to abide by."
The pair groaned in unison, and Marco felt a tiny bit better to know he wasn't the only one having a bad time.
That's not cool, Diaz - they're your friends!
Before he had chance to further regret his knee jerk reaction, Pony Head properly responded. "Yeah, I'm just glad I ain't B-Fly. Dancing all night with people you don't know sucks. I had to do it a few months ago at my sis's wedding."
Tom nodded knowingly, leaning up against the window and looking out at the dancefloor. "Yeah. It's annoying, but I'm just glad for a break. We can still dance with other people, but if my Mom tells me to dance with someone, I have to. All about appearances, you know?"
Marco followed Tom's gaze to the center of the room, noting the King take his wife by the hand and leading them into a waltz with a new song.
"You're telling me…" Marco muttered under his breath, watching the man twirl and Moon be none the wiser about their earlier escapades.
"Oh! That reminds me, Marco, here." Tom leaned forward suddenly and dug around in his jacket pockets, and Marco and Pony Head turned to watch. After a moment of searching around his suit jacket, the demon retrieved a familiar cell phone with a dinosaur wearing a party hat on the back.
"My phone! Oh, thank you, how'd you find it?" Marco readily grabbed it from Tom's open palm and cradled the familiar rectangle against his cheek, certain he was never going to see the device again.
A nonchalant shrug followed, but Tom looked pleased by Marco's reaction. "Eh, you know Janna. I had one of my guys from the Underworld offer to buy it from her. Actually, you should thank Pony Head," he paused and nodded at the so-named princess, who went wide eyed and looked away.
"She was the one who noticed Janna trying to hock it."
Marco blinked slowly for a moment, absorbing the statement before finally looking over at Pony Head. She appeared to be a shade or two darker blue in the cheeks, he could have sworn.
"Well, thanks, bestie." Marco nudged her with an elbow, surprised and a little touched that Pony Head intervened like that on his behalf.
"I mean, whatever, you know B-Fly wouldn't like it if you couldn't text her, or, whatever…" she replied, blowing some air through her nostrils and looking away. Tom was watching the two with a bemused expression before ultimately finishing his explanation.
"Yeah, well," he sighed and returned to leaning against the wall. "Janna is a lot to handle. Need a whole team of people to keep her in-line. " There was a trace of longing in his voice that Marco noted, and reflexively he looked towards Tom at the curios inflection. Again, the young prince was looking at the crowd, and the object of his vision this time was the dark-haired girl in question.
She wasn't exactly hard to spot, to be fair, given that she was riding on Slime's shoulders and whooping above the crowd while others were trying to sway elegantly with the music. Marco chortled at the sight of her, and soon all three of them were laughing.
After a long moment of giggles, Tom patted Marco on the back and went towards the crowd. "Alright man, good to see you. I better make sure she doesn't get herself banned from the property again. Pretty sure Star could only undo that sort of thing with 'Princess-authority' once."
"See ya," Marco replied with another laugh. Pony Head still floated nearby, and they watched in silence as Tom made his was through the thicket of bodies.
Ahead of them, perhaps twenty feet in, they could see Tom negotiating with Janna to get down, though their voices were lost to the music. She was ignoring Tom at first, winking in the general direction of Marco and Pony Head's and about to bound off Slime's shoulders into the crowd. She stopped when Tom lifted himself into the air and scooped her up, feet ablaze, and shot off to the balcony across the room with her.
It was hard to tell across the distance, but Marco was pretty sure he saw Tom create one of his fiery roses, and Janna looked rather red in the face.
"Huh, how things change…" Marco mumbled absently, looking to his side to see Pony Head staring back at him, a knowing look carved into her brow.
"What?" He replied, shifting with minor discomfort at the unexpected scrutiny.
"Alright, Earth-tu - I mean, Marco," she said, eyes narrowed at him. "What's really goin' on with you? You're not your usual worried-about-literally-everything self, and B-Fly is out there dancing with a bunch of randos. Are you seriously gonna try to tell me nothin' is up?" She floated a little closer, notching an eyebrow that seemed to dare him to challenge her.
Marco swallowed at the gathering lump at his throat, rubbing his thumb over the glass face of his phone in his pocket. "No no, I mean, it's not…"
Pony Head lowered her nose and looked at him with heavy skepticism, eyeing the sudden sweat lining his brow.
"Okay, fine, Pointy Head. You got me. I'm not loving tonight. I am glad Tom got my phone back, though. Thanks again for that." She rolled her eyes, but smiled at him. Marco took that as an invitation to continue, but he didn't want his jealousy to be obvious so he tried to focus on something else. He pulled out his phone and started to thumb through it randomly, seeing if Janna had deleted or messed with anything else.
Clenching his teeth a bit, Marco tried not to appear visibly bitter. "This is Star's big night, not mine. I'm trying to let her do her Princess thing and not get in the way. Okay?"
"Mmm…" Pony Head replied, surprisingly quiet for her. Marco doubted it would last long.
He was, of course, right.
"Yeah, I mean, I get'chu… but you seem like all down and stuff. That ain't fair to you, and I know B-Fly wouldn't want you to be all sad in the corner by yourself."
Marco laughed a little mirthless chuckle, just short of dumbfounded that Pony Head of all people was giving him a pep talk. Oh boy, he really was in a bad place, wasn't he?
"I know that - Star is too nice to want that for anybody. But it's not like I can waltz right up to her and drag her away from some other royal just to tell her that I'm a little jealous. That's not fair to her. I can deal for one night."
While they were talking, Pony Head looked towards the mass of people in the center, scanning for a particular dancer. She was nodding along to Marco but not really providing her full attention, which he noticed, so he stopped talking and started to scroll through old pictures.
He lingered on the one with Buff Frog's kids, the one he had looked at earlier in the evening on the balcony. Star had a large, goofy smile plastered across her face. The image was as hilarious as it was captivating - it was like someone captured Star's very essence and managed to implant it directly into the image itself. Strong and bright, confident and confounding, a little less than prepared but somehow totally perfect, it was the embodiment of Star all in one. Her oceanic eyes sparkled against the backdrop of green tadpoles, alive despite their capture in the paradox of time.
Marco could stare at the image forever, stay in that place with her in his memory, but they kept moving ever-forward. He just wanted to slow down, take things one step at a time, hold her hand and kiss her and not worry about the future.
"Aye, Earth-turd? You hear me?"
He shot up from his daydream and looked towards Pony Head, who was suspended slightly higher than normal and looking into the living sea.
"Mmm? What, sorry, did you say something?"
Pony Head shot Marco a dirty look before returning to her studies of the passing faces, hypnotic and strange above the music that seemed better suited for the Bounce Lounge than a castle.
"I don't see B-Fly anywhere. I thought she was dancing, but…"
Marco's head snapped upright, and immediately he looked over heads for the delicate blonde tresses he knew so well, the ones that smelled like sugar and strawberries, that were somehow even softer and smoother than they appeared.
He couldn't find them anywhere.
Before Marco could so much as say goodbye, he was already moving. He had been able to spot her from the stairs, a high vantage point, and his feet dashed the length of the room in a flash of motion.
"Sorry - s'cuse me - sorry! Emergency! Pardon, sorry…" through pants and yells over the music, Marco pushed his way through the room until he was back at the door again, looking out over the length of the room.
She had been wearing a soft purple dress, lilac with white and gold trim that complimented her skin tone. Marco could remember it down to the last stitch, utterly mesmerized with the sight of her when she walked into the room at the beginning of the ceremony. Since then, he tried not to look right at her, else his heart might have burst from a twisted mix of love and desire.
She looked beautiful beautiful in that gown, but now, neither gold nor purple could be found across the room.
"Star?" Marco yelled a little uselessly, knowing his voice would never be able to carry the length of the room.
Despite the emptiness of the grand stairwell, it was like she was there beside him, a faded echo along the nape of his neck.
I don't need a hero, the air seemed to say. It made his hair stand on end.
Marco blinked like a madman, confused and head throbbing worse than ever.
"What am I doing…?" He asked, covering his eyes with one hand, reminding himself of his tendency to worry senselessly.
Star was probably just somewhere along the balcony, or maybe she stepped outside for some air, too. Maybe she even needed to just use the restroom - there was no need for Marco to twist himself into knots over this. Star would be fine without him.
Star would be fine without him.
The phrase repeated like a record caught on its last tune, looping in his head like an unwelcome melody.
A dizziness rising like bile in his throat, Marco staggered over to the bannister along the staircase and led himself back down into the throng of golden faces, masked from his vision of reality by shared commotion and rejoice he did not savour.
His legs led him automatically to a corner around the stairs, the northernmost part of the room that were usually only frequented by handmaids and servants. There was almost a sickness that seemed to rock him as he drew himself along the curving base of the stairs, rising like a wall behind him as he neared the farthest corner and lifting the side of a sailor's mural.
This was a passageway he had only ever used once, and at the time, he had vowed to never come or go this way again. It was something Eclipsa had shown him.
Once the portrait had been turned a full ninety-degrees, a small tunnel was revealed to a secondary set of stairs. It was lined by magical torches that would take him under the castle, and right now, he just needed a quick escape.
Marco rubbed his forearms carefully, remembering the crackling feeling of dark magic beneath his skin as he descended the stairs and sealed the portrait opening. He descended the stairs without any hurry, eager to waste time so the party might sooner end.
What was wrong with him? He really felt ill.
Carefully, Marco sat on the lowest step that opened to a modest dirty path, perhaps twice his height that stretched as far as he could see. It reminded him of what a bomb shelter must look like, although it wouldn't do a whole lot of good against magical explosions.
Fingers moving of their own volition, Marco realized he was outlining the crescents that were etched beneath his skin. They were no longer visible - even if he wielded Star's wand. The magic was all but gone from him body, and rightfully so. Marco wasn't nor ever should have been magical.
His human body and human mind could not bear the responsibility of such power, and he had learned it the hard way.
"...It's not always going to be like this, is it?" He whispered, holding his head in his hands. Since he was seated on the stairs, Marco propped his elbows into his knees and buried his face in his hands. elbows propped against his knees. His dress shoes were already dirty from descending into the abandoned cellar, and he couldn't care less about the condition of his suit anymore.
He felt like he was underwater, a ringing in his ears making his vision swim through a dark lake. "Star is royal and magical and awesome, and you're just…" he sighed. He didn't know what word he could use to describe himself there, but a sigh felt sufficient.
After a heavy silence, perhaps ten more seconds of focused breathing, a voice broke the silence as delicately as the wind. "Marco?"
His head flew up, and in a flash Marco was standing, facing the speaker to his right from the shadows of torch light.
Marco had to rub his eyes to make sure he wasn't imagining it, but it was her, and she was so lovely it was intoxicating.
She had led down her hair from its intricate bun, letting the golden waves spill across her shoulders and down her back. The dress accented her slim figure with grace, a gradient from lavender to lilac as it trailed around her feet. In her hands, she had bunched the fabric around her hips so it wouldn't drag on the ground, exposing her bare feet and the tops of her ankles. Her lips were parted slightly, looking just about as shocked as he was, though they radiated with familiar softness that drew him closer out of instinct.
He breathed her name again, casting her in his own shadow by the orange glow. "Star?"
She fluttered her lashes, blue piercing eyes stealing his focus with untenable luminosity. If the calico had shined unnaturally, it had nothing on the purity that shone from within the eyes across from his own.
Her smile came so naturally that he felt the breath leave his body. "Marco! That is you - I wasn't sure at first, and then I… well, I heard you talking to yourself. I'm sorry!" Her hands flew up defensively, guilt settling across the creases of her forehead. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop - honestly, I didn't really hear anything 'cause I was zoning out. And then, you… wait."
Her hands fell from their position between them, one positioning itself on her hips and the other holding her chin.
"What are you doing here? Did you follow me?"
"W-what? No! I didn't even know you knew about this place!" Marco replied indignantly, blushing at her accusatory glance. It wasn't an unreasonable thing to expect, considering he had about sprinted from the ballroom in search of her earlier, but this was truly a coincidence.
"How do you know about this place? Here, let's sit," he stepped aside and offered her to sit on the steps he had just occupied. Star made a face, wrinkling her nose, but did not object - a moment later, she was sitting about four steps up and he sat on the second from the bottom, turned to look up at her.
When she smiled at him a second time, there was notable strain there, and Marco shifted slightly to better look at her. "So? How'd you know about this place?"
"I…" she bit her lip, looking guilty. "I actually know for the same reason you know. Eclipsa."
Star said the name darkly, and Marco flinched.
"I guess I never told you this, huh? Back during all that, when things started not to add up anymore, I used to All-Seeing Eye. I didn't mean to spy on you. I was just, you know, worried."
Marco grimaced at the announcement. "I see," he responded, unsure of what else to say. but he didn't begrudge her. After all, he was typically the one who was worried, not Star.
"Yeah… but, hey, some party right?" Star's hand flirted with his shoulder, tapping delicately along his suit fabric.
"Mmm, sure…" Marco replied absently, his own hand moving up to grasp her own. For all the ugly things they had both done, their hands certainly looked perfect together under that basking orange glow.
"You're… pretty quiet tonight. You okay, Marco? Why are you down here, anyways?" Star scooted along her backside and plopped down a step closer, bending her arm so she did not have to release his fingers from her own.
"Oh… just, needed to clear my head. Same reason as you." He was pretty sure he had said that four or five times this evening already, and not once had it really ever been true. The longer he looked at their hands together, perched on his shoulder, the more his eyes started to deceive him. The wicking light in the tunnel caused the shadows to stir every-so-often, and Marco was unnerved when the shadows were cast across his skin. It reminded him too much of the blackened feeling of magic coursing through his limbs.
"I never said I came down here to 'clear my head'." Star retorted with a dark laugh; it was out-of-character enough to get his attention.
"I guess that's fair - you didn't say why you were down here after all, did you? Fess up, Princess."
She sent him a devastatingly beautiful smirk and nudged him playfully, but the smile faded as quickly as it had come. "I actually don't know why… I just, I dunno. My feet hurt from dancing, and I wanted to take off my shoes. I sort of just gravitated this way and thought of this passage. Not to 'clear my head,' but I needed a break."
"You deserve a break, that's for sure." Marco placed a soft kiss along the tips of her fingers, and Star giggled.
"Dancing is stupid when it's not with you." Star leaned forward and placed her chin on top of his head, the softness of his brown hair providing a thin pillow as she sighed contently. The sensation sent a tremor from the center of his heart to the tips of his toes.
"S-Star?" Marco called her name softly. His throat was dry, so the sound was strained.
"Mmm?" She replied almost sleepily, nuzzling her cheek against the top of his head.
"We should get back to the party, or else the guard might think you've been kidnapped or something. Wouldn't want to be Defiant, now would we?"
Star snorted at his bad joke and sat up again, placing a hand along his jawline and turning him to face her proper.
"Oh Marco, you dork."
He grinned sheepishly, feeling the electricity of her skin along his cheekbones.
"You look really, really amazing tonight, by the way." He felt like the words weren't even worthy to explain how divine she really looked, but Star seemed grateful as she turned a flattering shade of pink.
"Thanks, you. Oh-oh oh check this out." Star stood up excitedly, her eyes wide with excitement so Marco humored her and stood. She turned around and lifted her hair, practically stunning him with her sudden movements, only to reveal the plunging back of her dress. It went about halfway down her spine, and Marco gasped audibly at each little notch in her delicate vertebrae. They crested her skin just so, close enough to touch, but deep enough to wonder, and Marco felt very flustered all of the sudden.
"Look! My wings!" Star nodded her head, causing her hair to dance around her shoulders as she balled the ends up in her fists. Marco swallowed hard and focused on the purple wings per her instructions, and they had notably grown since they first appeared.
Still small and delicate, they rose away from her skin by maybe a foot now. Normally they folded down naturally so they were mostly flush with her pallor skin, but at her command they flutterly uselessly through the still air and buzzed every so faintly in the silence.
Star turned around with a woosh of movement, a wide grin on her face. "Pretty cool, right?"
Marco was blushing furiously and cleared his throat. "Y-y-yep! Cool. V-very cool."
She looked at him, puzzled, but eventually took his hand and led him up the stairs back to the ballroom.