Page 42

Cal smiles. “Cool.” Then, as if remembering her other half—or sensing evil, who knows—she glances into the crowd. “Elle, you might want to hurry off before Chloe comes up here. I know she’s on her way.”

“Let her come.” Sage juts out her chin. “I’ll punch her in the face.”

“No, I think I should just go,” I say. “Thank you again,” I say to Cal, even though she’ll just tell me that she doesn’t deserve to be thanked. Which might be true, but I’m half my mom, and my mom was always kind and always thankful. And my dad would want me to be like her.

Sage hands over my duffel bag and I pick up my dress, hurrying out of the throng of people. I know Carmindor hasn’t responded since last night, but I’ve been busy too with the con. I can’t imagine who else I’d bring to the ball.

In the bathroom, I drop my bag and splash water on my face. When I look up, a terrible thought strikes me.

What if he says no?

The girl in the mirror, with the crown of stars knotted in messy hair, with her mascara bleeding, in her hand-me-down cosplay jacket and her mother’s dress, whom no one wanted, no one ever wanted, not since Dad died. But at this con, surrounded by the makings of my dad’s dream…

Maybe he’ll say yes. Maybe at this con the worlds are colliding, and nothing is impossible.

I reach into my duffel bag, building up the courage to ask him. Even if he says no, it’ll be all right. Even if he doesn’t want to meet me, I’ll understand. But as I take out my phone, I see there’s a message already waiting for me.

Carmindor 1:47 PM

—I’m sorry, Elle.

—I don’t think we should talk anymore.

My excitement, my anticipation, my hopefulness slowly slide down to rest like a lump of coal in my stomach.

I SLIP OUT OF THE CROWD onstage, toward the wings. It’s done, I tell myself, looking back at all the fans, some with cameras, flashes on, others with GoPros and video recorders, their tiny black eyes aimed at me. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s sent. I duck behind a stage curtain to get out of the line of sight.

“You okay?” Gail asks. She’s the closest thing I have to a friend—and I have to pay her. “You’re looking a little pale.”

“I’m fine. Just…overwhelmed.” I swallow and try to make a joke. “Some contest, huh? Pretty sure I showed my fans that I’m an excellent judge.” When Gail doesn’t laugh, I clear my throat. “Where’s the bathrooms in this place?”

She nudges her head toward one of the stage exit doors. “I think through there. Do you want me to call Lonny over to go with—”

“No,” I quickly interrupt. “I draw the line at bathroom escorts.”

She shrugs. “All right. Just hurry back.” Then she turns back to the crowd to deflect a group of girls storming me for a selfie.

I head toward the door, feeling queasier by the moment. This is the right thing to do. Just cold turkey. I could’ve ghosted her instead, let myself slowly fade from her life and that would’ve been truly harsh—

The stage door cracks me right in the face. I stumble back, clutching my nose as the person who opened the door curses.

“Ohmygod!” she cries, catching me by the shoulder. “I didn’t see you—”

I curse, my hand coming away with blood.

“I am so sorry!” she goes on as I right myself again, pressing the backside of my hand gingerly against my nose. Sharp pain shoots up my face. “I was just coming from the bathroom and—oh…it’s you.”

I glance over. My stomach sinks to the bottom of the Black Nebula.

“Oh no,” I groan.

Of all the people, the blogger. The second-place winner I embarrassed myself in front of once—well, twice—already. She quickly takes her hand off my shoulder. As if I burned her.

“I—I really didn’t see you,” she says.

“Obviously,” I snap, and then instantly regret the sharpness.

“I’m sorry, okay?” She drags the heel of her hand over her eyes. They’re puffy. From crying? Why is she crying?

“I—um—it just—are you okay?” I ask, and then she must realize it looks like she’s crying, because she scrubs harder at her face.

“I’m fine!” She sniffs. “You should watch where you’re going.”


“I was opening the door!”

“So was I!” I argue. The blood leaks into my mouth and down my chin and onto my favorite T-shirt. Of course she has to ruin my favorite T-shirt. “Excuse me,” I grind out, pushing past her into the hallway.

“I said I was sorry!” she shouts, her voice following me down the hallway. I shove my way into the bathroom and try to wipe up the blood with a few dozen paper towels.

“Crap,” I mutter, twisting a piece of toilet paper and shoving it up my nose. I go to sit on a toilet so I can lean my head back. “Nothing like a good nosebleed to remind you you’re an idiot, Darien.”

I’m talking to myself in a bathroom stall. That is how far I’ve fallen into Tom-Cruise-Jumping-on-Oprah’s-Couch territory. And that is pretty far in the span of a few weeks. Compared to the beat-up guy now sitting in a john at ExcelsiCon, the guy stuck in that New York hotel room seems saner than ever. Hiding out in the stairwell and everything. Talking with a girl I barely knew. Thinking I could—what?—be normal with her?

I was fooling myself. I began to believe my own lie. And now I have a broken nose to explain to Mark.

I take out my phone and pull up the message Brian sent her.

I’m sorry, Elle.

I don’t think we should talk anymore.

I could reply again. Tell her it was a mistake, a joke, something. Maybe she’d understand—this girl who’s normal and nice and funny. Who always finds a way to make me laugh. Who knows what to say and exactly when to say it, sending up words like constellations to guide me through deep space.

“I’m sorry,” I mutter, trying to compose some semblance of an apology, thinking of something, anything, that doesn’t sound douchey. “I wasn’t thinking. I was stupid. But if you knew who I was, would you still talked to me? You hate Darien Freeman.”

I sigh, massaging my temples.

“I hate Darien Freeman,” I add, my thumbs bouncing along the touch-screen keyboard. The cursor blinks back at me. “And I am Darien Free—”

The door swings open right onto my kneecap. I clutch my leg with a yelp as Lonny glares down at me, his shoulders taking up the entire stall—wall to freaking wall. I sink down on the toilet, puddling into his shadow.

“Oh.” I sound just like him—emotionless. “Hi there, big guy.”

“Gail told me you came in here.” He narrows his eyes. “Get into a fight?”

“With a door.”

“I didn’t think I needed to protect you from doors too.”

“No, it wasn’t this door,” I say. “I was walking here and some girl shoved past me and…” But looking up at my bodyguard, I realize that even explaining won’t help my case. I sigh and pull myself up on the seat. “Just forget it.”

“Don’t tilt your head back,” he says as I do exactly that. “It won’t help. Pinch your nose at the bridge. I’ll tell Gail you need some ice. And painkillers. Do you want me to tell her you won’t make it to the masquerade thing tonight?”

“It’s not just a masquerade, it’s a cos—” I let my shoulders sag. “Never mind. I…guess I have to go.”

“The threat has been neutralized,” Lonny agrees. “You ought to be safe.”

“Yeah. And I’ll be wearing a mask anyway, right? How much worse could today get?”

He shakes his head. “You know every time you say that, it just gets worse, right?” he replies, and leaves the bathroom.

I take out my phone and read my unsent text.

I am Darien Freeman.

I think of all the things she could do with the texts we have. All the places she could sell them. All the news stories she could cover. All the secrets I’ve told her. All the half-lies. All the times I called her ah’blena.

But I am Darien Freeman. And I lied to her. Maybe I didn’t write that text, but Brian was right—I was going to have to write it one day anyway. It had to be done. For Elle’s sake and mine.

I tap my thumb against the backspace a hundred and three times, erasing every space, every letter of my unsent apology. And then, with shaking fingers, I delete her number.

In an instant, the history of Elle and me is gone.


There really isn’t any other way to interpret that.

I see myself into the lobby outside the Cosplay Ball, shifting on my glass slippers. It’s inside a huge hotel in the center of Atlanta. I stare up and up and up at the skyline, clutching the tickets close.

It’s funny, but now that I’ve realized Carmindor doesn’t want me, my heart isn’t rattling around in my chest. I feel weirdly calm. I guess it’s because I knew—like with James—that I’m not good enough.

Every person who walks in through the revolving doors could be Carmindor. They all look familiar yet still strange, like funhouse-mirror versions of the characters you know. A Klingon comes escorting a Vulcan, Dean Winchester with the angel Castiel, two World of Warcraft Orcs, Harry and Hermione—so many pairs of people so that when someone enters alone, I stand a little straighter, squint a little harder, wondering if maybe this one is him….