But then I hear footsteps. Walking toward me. I peek open an eye. Shiny black boots, embroidered at the calves with the Federation symbol. My heart’s already beginning to sink as I slowly look up. Black pants and a coat that buttons on the left side, golden knobs and shiny golden lining. Three chains draw out from one of the pockets, looping around under the left arm to the back of the shoulder, hiding under the golden epaulette.
Even in the dim lighting I can tell the coat is the wrong shade of blue, but what it lacks in color it succeeds in measurements. It hugs his slim waist and broad chest, tight across his shoulders—and he does have commanding shoulders. I’m sure even the collar would fit perfect around his neck if it wasn’t unbuttoned (which is actually a good idea; it’s way too hot for a wool jacket). The starwings clasped to the lapel glint in the city lights shining in through the window. It’s like the coat was made for him. And given that this is a cosplay ball, it probably was.
My eyes trail all the way up to his face, his brown skin and strong jawline, his piercing dark eyes beneath the black eyelet mask, and my heart sinks into my gut like a stone.
“Cheese and crackers,” I mutter. “You again.”
Darien Freeman puts his hands on his hips, cocking his head. It’s not adorable. It’s really not. “I came to ask the second-place winner for a dance, but I think I’m a little late, Princess.”
“It’s Princess Amara to you,” I snap back. “And yes, but I’m taking a moment. Alone.”
He puts up his hands. “All right.” And, miraculously, he turns to leave.
I close my eyes again, thankful for the moment of silence. Dad would love this ball. He’d love everything about it, even the crappy pop music. He would love the costumes, the intermingling of species, the heart and soul of people being something else for a little while. But I don’t feel like Amara right now. I feel exhaustedly like myself.
“Hey, that costume’s pretty amazing,” someone says.
Two minutes of peace—all I ask for is two.
“The details are so sweet. Was it expensive? Who did it?”
My eyes snap open. I glance up at whoever’s asking. He’s my age, dressed in one of the most ostentatious cosplays you could choose. Black robes, large shoulder pads, makeup that looks like scales. The ends of his adhesive ears blink purple and blue almost in time with the music. The Nox King.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I mean, what’s the name of the guy who made it?”
“It couldn’t have been a girl?” I ask.
“You know, I didn’t think I’d seen you around a con before,” he replies, as if that’s some sort of explanation. “Darien Freeman fangirl, right?”
He scoffs. “Come on. You’re too cute to play dumb.”
I stare at him, suddenly very aware that Darien Freeman isn’t as far away from this conversation as I’d like him to be. I set down my punch, trying to work out the right words to say.
“For your information, the costume was my dad’s before he died, and my friend and I did a few alterations to it.” I don’t include the part where it almost got destroyed. “Actually, a few other cosplayers helped too, so you could say it was a cosmic effort.”
“Knew it.” The Nox King looks way too happy. “There’s no way you could’ve made that.”
“Oh?” I cock my head. “And why’s that?”
“Chill out, I’m not trying to be offensive.” He laughs. There’s a spot of black lipstick on his teeth, but I’m not about to tell him. “You just dressed up to get some attention and hey, it worked—”
“Excuse you.” I jump to my feet. “Starfield is one of my favorite shows of all time and—”
“You don’t have to try and explain yourself to me, okay? Fake geek girls like you always win.”
He turns away but in I grab him by that stupid tattered cape—why does the Nox King have a cape, anyway? I never understood that in the show—and jerk him around. He’s surprised for a moment but quickly turns angry. I guess no one touches his costume without permission. Well no one calls me a fake, either.
“You’re right, I don’t have to explain myself anyone, but especially not to some left-testicled Nox like you. Do you think you’re funny? You couldn’t even cosplay as Euci! You’d bring shame to every slapstick secondary character in the omniverse!”
“Yeah, coming from someone who’s just here to play princess, that’s a little rich, isn’t it? What’s wrong—couldn’t think up anything more original?” He shakes his head. “Poor little fake cosplayer—”
“Excuse me.” It’s Carmindor—Darien—back in his wrong-blue uniform.
“Stay out of it,” I snap.
Darien arches an eyebrow. “Easy, Princess.” I make a hmph sound, but he keeps talking. “I was just going to ask what episode you’re from, sir?”
The Nox King scowls, lipstick smearing over his teeth even more. “Episode sixteen.”
“Huh,” says Darien.
“What’s it to you?” The cosplayer crosses his arms.
“Nothing.” Darien shrugs. “Just that the Nox King doesn’t wear a cape in episode sixteen.”
“Yeah, so?” Nox King says. “I improvised.”
“Cool, cool.” Darien frowns, then taps his own shoulder, then gestures to the shoulder guard on the cosplayer. Now that he points to it, I realize what’s wrong.
“But what about the insignia?” Darien says. “Because I seem to remember it on the other side. In every episode. And it’s not a small detail. It’s pretty big, actually. How can your followers kiss the symbol of their religion if it’s on the wrong shoulder?”
The cosplayer opens his mouth, then closes it again.
“That is why you didn’t win,” Darien Freeman goes on, “because you were careless. Not because you’re a ‘real fan.’ We’re all real fans. This girl most of all.”
The cosplayer advances on Darien. “Yeah? Then who the hell are you? Her boyfriend?”
Carmindor Darien simply smiles in the face of the Nox King—how I wish that the movie revolved around that plot arc instead—and stands his ground. Shoulders straight but easy, his chin slightly inclined, a smirk tucked into the side of his lips.
I don’t mean to stare—and I’m not staring, I’m merely looking—but for a moment, in the dim light of the disco ball and the fog machines and the glow from the sconces on the walls, he actually looks the part.
“I’m Federation Prince Carmindor to you,” Darien Freeman replies, and the irony isn’t lost on me, “but also just a fan. Like you. And no, she isn’t my date, but now that you mention it”—he extends a hand to me—“I wouldn’t mind some fresh air, would you?”
I freeze, until I remember I’m part of this whole thing and not just watching from the wings.
Darien’s eyebrow arches higher over his eyelet mask. “Well, Princess?”
My gaze raises from his outstretched hand to the coy look glimmering in his eyes, asking me to play along. Okay, I’ll play along. I take his hand. “Only if I don’t have to walk through a Black Nebula.”
“Once is enough,” he jokes, and leads me out onto the balcony. “Let’s get on with our meet-and-greet, shall we?”
I DON’T STOP UNTIL WE’RE OUTSIDE on the small veranda connected to the ballroom. Two Vulcans are making out by the peach tree (everything in Atlanta is peach themed, apparently), so I lead her to the other side. Beyond the balcony, the city stretches out like a map of lights.
Princess Amara unravels herself from my arm, leaving a strange sort of hollowness. I brush it away.
“You didn’t have to step in and save me, you know,” she begins, retreating to the bench. “I can save myself.”
“Self-rescuing, are you?”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
“I’m not disappointed at all.” I sit down beside her. “It’s just one of my pet peeves is all—someone accusing a fan of being a fake. I know about that way too well.”
She chews on the inside of her mouth. “Look, about that blog post…I didn’t—I didn’t think…”
“Please, you know you thought I was only in it for the money,” I tease, and her cheeks redden even more.
“I didn’t know you,” she replies. “I mean, I don’t know you, but—”
And there’s the problem. That’s always the problem, isn’t it? Nobody knows me. I should go back inside. I should tell Gail that we need to go. The meet-and-greet is over. I’ve done my part. I shouldn’t linger here long enough for people to snap photos and begin making assumptions, selling the gossip. Maybe she’ll get some TV host or DJ to pay for an interview. Cash in and get her five seconds of fame, like Brian.
But this girl seems nothing like him. And neither did Elle.
I clear my throat. “You probably know enough about me. I’m sure you’ve read a few interviews, watched a few talk shows.”