Gail gasps. “No way! Where was it?”
“Pocket,” I lie. Gail wilts with relief.
“Thank god.” She straightens. “Well, you ready?”
“Ready for…?” I try to keep my vision straight as I welcome another fan, toting what looks like an action figure of me. Good god, I’m an action figure now.
“The whole point of this con?” Gail shakes her head and takes me by the elbow. “Come on, Carmindor. You’ve got a contest to judge.”
I SMOOTH THE YARDS AND YARDS of night-sky fabric to disguise my trembling hands. Through the smudges in the mirror, Sage frets with my hair. It never does what anyone wants it to do, and today is no exception—it’s not staying in its braid at all. When a lock falls out again, she throws up her hands.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I should’ve warned you my hair sucks.” I try to thread my fingers through the strands to remove the rest of the braid, but they wrap around my fingers and the more I tug, the knottier the knots get.
“Ten minutes!” yells a stagehand. “All contestants to the wings—in order!”
The other Amaras and Eucis and Carmindors—some genderbent, some AU, some strictly canon—shuffle around us and out of the bathroom until only one other Amara cosplay remains. I wonder if my Carmindor is in the lot. He has to be, right? He has to be in a contest or on a panel here or something. Otherwise he never would’ve texted me about the con in the first place.
The other Amara fixes her black lipstick in the mirror and pauses. She glances over. “Oh my gosh. I’m sorry, this is probably super creepy but…are you the girl who writes Rebelgunner?”
“I—um—yeah?” I’m too shocked to be embarrassed.
“Oh my god, I love your blog! I loved it before it got popular!” She envelops me in a hug, even though I don’t know her at all. Is she a commenter? Or just a reader? Does it matter? It feels like a real hug. Friendly. I hug her back.
“I recognized you from your avatar—I hope that’s not weird.” She steps back and looks at my costume. Yards and yards of Amara’s fabric, and the scraps of my father’s jacket as the shoulder pads, golden tassels dangling. “Is this your costume? The one you were talking about in your post?”
I hesitate. “Sorta. My dad’s, and my mom’s. Kind of a mashup. It doesn’t matter, though. This is all just so…so cool.” I say, motioning out of the bathroom to the larger con. “It’s everything Dad hoped it would be.”
A thoughtful look crosses the girl’s face. “Your dad?”
“He started ExcelsiCon,” I reply. “Well, one of the people who did—”
“Wait. You’re Robin Wittimer’s daughter?”
“I—yeah.” I nod. “He would’ve loved your outfit, by the way. I mean, it’s amazing. You look like Amara.”
“Thank you, but…” She flicks her eyes down the length of my costume, from the torn uniform to the broken starwing badge to the noticeable lack of a crown, and then, to my utter surprise, she plucks her own crown from her head.
“There.” She rests it on my brow. “Better.”
“What?” I touch it gingerly. “I can’t take this—”
She holds up a hand. “Don’t say no. I’ve been coming to this con for years. I love it. So consider it a thank-you.”
In the mirror, behind my mess of hair, Sage’s face flickers. I wait for her to complain about a new crown throwing off her whole look, but instead she snaps her fingers.
“That’s it!” she cries.
She digs a pack of makeup removal wipes out of her bag. “Wipe that makeup off. I’ve got a new idea.”
“Shush! We’re against the clock. The contest starts in literally ten minutes.” Then she turns to our new friend. “Do you think you can get us a—a starwing? Or maybe a gold rubber band?”
“I can get you more than that,” she replies and hurries out of the bathroom.
I give Sage a strange look. “What are you doing?”
“Do you trust me?”
“Is that a trick question?”
“Do. You. Trust. Me?” She enunciates slowly.
What can I say? “Yes. Of course.”
Behind her, the bathroom door bangs open, bringing in a flood of Carmindors and Amaras and Eucis and Nox Kings. So many Starfield characters, crowding around me, some I recognize from the message boards, new faces and old. They pick off pieces of themselves, handing them to Sage.
“If it wasn’t for Mr. Wittimer…” I hear them say.
“This was the first con I ever went to…”
“…For the first time in my life…”
“…felt like I belonged…”
“…thanks to your dad.”
I smile at all the cosplayers handing over bits and pieces of their costumes, because otherwise I might cry. They’re just small things—Amara’s gloves, licorice-colored earrings in my ears, even a sticky star under my left eye—“Because in the Black Nebula she’s galactic,” says a petite girl with a wink—and then, through the throng of people, an Amara with dark hair and purple glasses pushes through.
I do a double take. Oh—Holy Batnipples, no. It’s Calliope.
We lock eyes. Cal stares at me, frozen as though she’s just been ejected into space. She’s wearing such an expensive cosplay gown. It’s Princess Amara to the works—the best money could buy. It fits her beautifully, a deep blue with inlaid sequins and a draping neckline, silver-metal shoulder pads and clasped at her breast a brooch in the shape of starwings. I’m sure she doesn’t understand what any of it means.
The chattering crowd goes quiet. Sage freezes mid-braid. Cal steps up and looks at my dress—the dress she was supposed to wear—and the jacket that Chloe tore apart, and her eyes water.
“It looks so much better on you,” she whispers.
“Where’s Chloe?” My voice warbles.
“Out in the audience. She wants to get the best view for when…” She hesitates. “I’m so sorry, Elle. I didn’t think Chloe would go this far. She just…she really wants to be famous. She wants to be someone.”
“She is someone,” Sage snaps. “She’s the queen of awful.”
Cal looks at her helplessly. “She really isn’t that bad.”
“She is.” Sage folds her arms. “And you just go along with it.”
Cal blinks. And then, after a moment, she shakes her head. She takes a deep breath and says, “I’m so sorry, Elle. I think these are yours too. They’re really tight on me and…” She lifts her dress and steps out of my mother’s sparkling starlight shoes. “I think they’ll fit you better.”
Hesitantly, I slip out of the black flats Sage let me borrow and slide them on, one foot at a time. And for a moment I’m back in the living room, waltzing around on my dad’s feet as he twirls me, around and around, in Mom’s dress made of starlight and universes and love sewn into the seams.
The shoes fit perfectly.
“Contestant forty-two?” calls a stagehand, poking her head into the bathroom. “You’re on next! Hurry up!”
Sage looks me square in the eye. “You ready, Princess?”
“I—I think so.”
“Good.” She finishes wrapping my hair into the crown and snaps back her hands. “Take her away!”
I glance over at Cal one last time, and she gives me a small wave before the stagehand spirits me out of the bathroom. I dodge a long-eared Nox. I don’t even have time to look in the mirror, to look at what Sage and the other cosplayers did to me. I just know that she took the knots in my hair and folded them into the crown, and there are pieces of costumes on me that aren’t mine and glitter on my starched tailcoat that sheds like stardust as I’m pulled down the hallway, the folds of the universe billowing around me. My face feels too light. Not enough makeup. There’s too much me. I can’t be Princess Amara.
We pass the contestants that just went on, and they turn to look at me with strange, thoughtful looks. I try to ask if there’s something wrong, but the stagehand just keeps pulling me forward—and then we’re at the mouth of the stage and the emcee shouts, “Contestant forty-two: the Black Nebula Federation Princess Amara!”
“Go,” whispers the stagehand, and she nudges me gently.
My feet take the lead. One step. Then another.
My mother’s starlight slippers echo across the stage like glass against the ground.
Chin up, Elle, I hear Dad’s voice say in my ear. Look to the stars. Aim…
My hands fall out of their fists, my shoulders ease back, straight, relaxed. I’m half of my father. Half of my hero. And I am half of my mother. Half soft sighs and half sharp edges. And if they can be Carmindor and Amara—then somewhere in my blood and bones I can be too. I’m the lost princess. I’m the villain of my story, and the hero. Part of my mom and part of my dad. I am a fact of the universe. The Possible and the Impossible.