The Nox King is standing in the way, phone out and recording the entire thing under the harsh light of a streetlamp. He smirks, and that’s when I recognize him. I curse as he grins wider.
“Nice cosplay, Brian,” I spit out at him.
“Had you fooled at least.”
“Can you stop recording?”
“Why don’t you ask your dad?”
I sigh. Yeah, Mark is going to kill me. But I’ll deal with that later. “You can just not sell it, you know. Pretend to be a decent person.”
“Still so blind, man?” Brian shakes his head. “I kinda feel sorry for you.”
I’m too angry to play games. Elle was right here—right beside me—but then suddenly she wasn’t, and when she left it felt like she took the air from around me until I could barely breathe.
Brian’s still talking. “I’m sure we’ll get a lot for this footage, too. What should the headline be, you think? Darien Favors Contestant? Geek Girl Will Do Anything to Win? Renowned Cosplay Competition Upended by Star Darien Freeman’s D—”
That’s it. If one good thing has happened over the last several months of preproduction and soulless salads and protein shakes and four a.m. workouts with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cousin, it’s that I learned to throw a punch. Thumb out, clench fist—
Brian stumbles from the force of it. Clutching his jaw, he waves his phone at me. “It’s still recording, stupid! You want assault and battery on the headlines too?”
“ASSAULT THIS.” And with a wild yell, I charge at him.
Brian spins around and dashes toward the revolving doors. I slam into the same wedge with him, like two sardines in a tin can, pulling at his obnoxious Nox ears.
“Ow, ow, ow! Hands off!” he cries. “Those were expensive!”
“We were friends!” I manage to rip off one ear before he pushes the revolving door far enough to escape into the lobby. “You just said you wanted to be friends!”
“Yeah, until you turned out to be a better-than-everyone-else asshole!” he shouts over his shoulder, circling an expensive-looking couch. The upholstery is really nice, but screw it. I climb over the cushions—he thought I’d go around—and grab him by that stupid nonsensical cape. I always said the Nox King didn’t need a cape.
“And you sold me out! You were jealous!”
“Seriously, man?” He whirls behind another chair and shoves it at me. “Your head’s so far up your dad’s ass it’s unbelievable.”
I catch the chair before it slams into my crotch. “Take that back.”
“You’re daddy’s little boy. Doing everything he wants. He manufactured you, you know that?” He grabs a handful of magazines and throws them at me.
I duck as a Teen Vogue with me on the cover sails over my head. “I said take it back.”
“What, not proud of being his little b—”
I charge at him again. He cuts through a family of four and shoves their luggage cart between us. I grab the other side. “So you took a picture of me face-planting into a dock and sold it? That really made everything better!” I try to jerk the cart away, but he holds fast. “Why’d you do it?”
His dark purple makeup begins to flake off as his face scrunches in anger. “Why don’t you ask your father?”
“Mark’s got nothing to do with it—”
“He planted the pictures!” Brian roars.
“Never thought of that, huh?” He sneers. “Don’t you think the timing was a little too good? Just wrapped up the second season of Seaside. You’d auditioned for Carmindor and people kinda knew who you were—”
“—but they didn’t really know you. No one cared outside of your SeaCos or whatever the hell they’re called.”
He’s lying. I know he is. But his words begin to constrict my throat, making it harder to breathe.
“I took them as a joke—something to give you shit about later. But then Mark confiscated them, told me they could get me paid,” Brian says. “And he was right. One big story and you were on the map. You were everywhere.”
“It was hell!”
“It was business, man,” Brian says. “I thought you’d get over it eventually.”
“And I thought I could trust my best friend.”
The dad of the family whose cart we’ve commandeered tentatively reaches for their luggage, glancing between us as if we’re crazy monsters. At the check-in desk, the clerk is already on the phone, probably with security. I can see the headline now—DARIEN FIGHTS WITH SLEAZY PAPARAZZO AND MURDERS HIS ASS.
“Sure,” Brian says, “blame me for all this. Can’t stomach to blame yourself, can you?”
I spin the cart away from Tourist Dad and attack with a Conan the Barbarian cry of rage. Brian retreats through the ballroom doors, disappearing into the dark mist of the dance party. He skids to a stop at the balustrade leading down to the dance floor and glances back.
But I’ve already taken a flying leap. My shoulder slams into his chest and we tumble over the railing like King Kong off the Empire State Building. The ten-foot drop takes a lot longer than I expect. Long enough for me to regret this entire decision.
Well, at least I’m insured.
We crash onto the floor with enough force to knock the breath out of me. The DJ scratches a Pokérap remix to a halt. Avengers and Night elves and Jedi circle us. I roll onto my back, groaning. I don’t think I’ve broken any bones, but I can’t tell. It feels like I’ve cracked absolutely everything. Beside me, Brian rolls over too, and we stare up at the ceiling. It’s actually a pretty nice ceiling. Golden chromed like the rest of the hotel, fancy…
I must’ve hit my head harder than I thought.
“You know what?” I sit up unsteadily. I’ve been bruised and beat up today more times than I ever was on set. I knew I wanted to stay away from this con for a reason. “We could’ve been friends. But it never would’ve worked, and not because I’m famous. Because you’re a dick, Brian. You stalked me, you yelled at me in front of my fans, you stole my freaking phone…”
Somewhere in the back of the ballroom I hear Gail yelling at people to get out of her way; she’s already calling our insurer to make sure my abs are covered for battle wounds.
Brian inhales a long, shuddery breath. “Maybe.” He glances over. “But I’m telling—ow—the truth.” He slowly gets to his feet. His lip is bloody from where I nailed him. He stretches out a hand and I take it, painfully standing up (okay, so I might’ve sprained something, or bruised something very, very bad). “He controls you, man. And you were gonna let him take that girl away too.”
Gail finally finds her way to us and takes me by the face. “Dare! Are you okay? Are you hurt? How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Three,” I reply, realizing that Brian is no longer there. I whirl around, looking for him, but all I see is a black cape as he slips between two Orcs and disappears.
Gail yanks my face toward her again, inspecting my nose, then my lips, and muttering to herself in her mother-hen way about how much Mark is going to chew us out this time. “I always get into the worst trouble with you, Dare. We’re heading back to L.A. and I’m locking you in your apartment until the premiere. That’s a promise.”
“Actually…” I remember the words on the side of the food truck that Elle left in. The Magic Pumpkin, “Charleston’s Best Vegan Food Truck!” It’s all beginning to make sense now. The chimichangas. The jokes. She was already so close. Brian’s words echo like warning bells in my head.
You were gonna let him take that girl away too.
I should’ve told her the truth in the beginning. I shouldn’t have been so scared of the consequences because I’ll live through them, whatever they are. I just want to be real. For once. Without a mask, unscripted, unknown. I would rather live my life knowing that Elle hates me than live as fake Carmindor in her head.
“We’re going to take a nice long vacation. It’s going to be perfect—”
“No.” I hold my ribs, trying not to grimace. I think I definitely bruised them. “I need to talk to my dad first.”
THE PHONE RINGS ONCE, TWICE, BEFORE Mark picks up. I check my watch. 12:31 a.m. Way early out on the West Coast. He should still be up partying. Or going to some event sponsored by this film studio or that production company. Networking, he says. I remember the years he did nothing but network, night after night. My entire childhood was filled with it. I had more babysitters than I could name. And then one weekend, long after the divorce, he got me that toothpaste commercial gig, and three months later an audition for this OC-esque TV series called Seaside Cove. Then the headlines happened.
I rub the scar on my chin absently. I don’t know how much I believe Brian, but I don’t know whether I want to believe Mark either. I can’t remember much from those weeks in the tabloids. It was a whirlwind of paparazzi and press and headlines, and it never really died down afterward. There was my life before the headlines, and after.