“If you call me ah’blena again.”
He takes my hand and steps closer, so close my bones are jittery. He smells like the Magic Pumpkin and fresh deodorant and cinnamon, and it’s a scent I want burned into my memory. I want it on my clothes. I want his gaze, the way he looks at me—like I’m the last star in the night sky and the first one at dusk—branded on my heart. He’s tall, but not so tall that I’m looking up his nose into his cerebral cortex. And he’s unsure and he’s courageous and conflicted and so very…Darien.
The real one.
“Ah’…,” he begins, enunciating every syllable, raising his hand to my chin, “blen…,” tilts my face up, slowly drawing toward me, like two supernovas about to collide, “…a.”
And somehow, in this impossible universe, his lips find mine.
“Got it,” James says somewhere behind me. “And…uploaded!”
“Uploaded?” Chloe echoes, her voice bordering on a shriek. “No—no take it down! Take it down right now!”
“Excuse me, miss?” A huge burly guy in a suit—Darien’s bodyguard, I guess—claps a giant hand on her shoulder. “I’m going to need you to calm down.” When he sees me looking, he shoots me a subtle thumbs-up.
Darien slowly pulls away from me, smiling. We can’t stop smiling, can’t look away enough to care. The entire world could be falling to the invasion of the Nox and we wouldn’t be the wiser. “I’ve wanted to do that ever since you called me ah’blen.”
“I’m glad you know what it means,” I reply, tongue-in-cheek, remembering Hello, America. “But what if I was bald? You didn’t even know what I looked like.”
“Shared it,” Cal confirms, looking at her own phone.
Sage peers over her shoulder and nods. “Nice. Twitter, Tumblr—want to hashtag it?”
“Stop it! This isn’t funny!” Chloe cries. “You are the worst! I can’t believe you’re ruining this for me! You all are!”
Darien chuckles. “You’re behind Rebelgunner. That’s worse.”
I scrunch my nose. “Is it, really?”
“Oh yeah. You’re the enemy.”
“I’ll just keep you on your toes.”
He mock-gasps. “I wouldn’t want to jeopardize the integrity of a critic!”
I grin against his mouth. “Then you better kiss me again. I want to make sure I get that part right for my next post.”
“Now that I can do, Princess.” And he kisses me again. It isn’t the kind of kiss to end a universe of possibilities. It’s the exact opposite.
It’s the kind of kiss that creates them.
EIGHT MONTHS LATER
I STARE OUT THE TOWN CAR window in amazement.
“They’re monsters,” I mutter to myself, looking at all the fans. I imagined myself getting out onto the red carpet with the greatest of ease, but there’s no way that’s happening with this crowd—let alone in this dress. I couldn’t even wiggle out of the Magic Pumpkin at prom, and now I’m supposed to just casually slip myself out of the back of a black SUV? Ha.
Sage and Cal gaze out their windows too, their hands laced together. I don’t think they’ve stopped holding hands since that day at the country club. And I don’t think they’re going to stop anytime soon. They’re even going to the same city for college. I mean, New York is a huge place and there are tons of colleges there, but they’ll still be in the same city. Sage even designed their wardrobe for the premiere tonight: a sleek pantsuit—with a subtle print in the shape of starwings—for herself, and a slinky dark-purple dress that swirls in and out of itself like the Black Nebula for Cal.
“I’ve never seen so many people—uh, dog!” Sage scowls, shoving the brown Dachshund off her pantsuit. “This is premium quality! Next time you jump on me I’ll skin you and wear you as a hat!”
Frank the Tank swishes his tail and gives a yip. I pick him up and stroke him under the chin. “Shhhh, Auntie Sage didn’t mean that.”
“Oh like hell I didn’t!”
“You’d clash with her wardrobe,” I whisper into the Frankenator’s ear. “You’ll never be a hat.”
He barks again, tongue lolling happily out of the side of his mouth, and Sage scowl-smiles. Under her thorny exterior, she’s actually grown attached to the Frank.
After the con, Catherine was still…well, she was still Catherine. She never apologized for her words, but I never expected her to. I just began treating her with the exact courtesy she showed me. Which was none.
So on the night of my eighteenth birthday last September, I packed my bags, got into the Magic Pumpkin idling in the driveway (surely drawing the ire of all the neighbors), and left. I didn’t even write a note. For the rest of my senior year I lived with Sage and her mom. At night, I missed my house. I missed the way it creaked and groaned. I missed the leaks. But I learned that when I closed my eyes, I was still home. I still saw my parents waltzing in the living room. I still smelled Dad’s burnt roast in the oven. I could still remember following him around as I read my fanfics. It was all still there, tucked tightly away inside me. The house might have belonged to my parents, but Mom and Dad weren’t the house. They were in me, and wherever I went I carried them along.
The car slowly moves up in the cue line. There are so many people out there, waving signs and shouting Darien’s name. Some say I HEART DARIEN, others I WANT TO WABBA-WABBA WITH YOU. It reminds me of the crowd I first saw on Hello, America.
I lift Franco so he can see all the crazy people too.
“So is your lover boy gonna meet you on the carpet?” Sage asks.
I shrug. “I think so.”
“You think so?”
“Uh, I’ve been a little preoccupied, remember?” I put Franco back down and scrub him behind the ears. “That whole cross-country move? Not to mention orientation at school. And Darien’s been insanely busy with promo. So I’ve mostly just been talking with his manager, Gail.”
Long-distance relationships are hard. I found that out right away. The video got an enormous number of views, but reality soon settled in and Darien went back to postproduction, promo, and the next season of Seaside Cove. Sometimes I would see him with other girls in magazines—just friends, I knew—and I pushed down the jealous part of me. I tried not to think too much about it. Senior year was busy anyway, between SATs and college prep and applications and scholarships. Plus, I had Sage and Cal to hang out with, and I even went to a party or two. No country club people there, of course.
So it was okay that Darien went along with his life, and I mine. We never missed saying goodnight to each other, though. Not once.
But now that we’ll be on the same side of the country, in the same city, it makes me nervous. Nervous because of his larger-than-life persona. Nervous because I don’t know if I want to be part of that circus. Nervous because I have my whole life ahead of me, and this is just one small part of it. An important part, but a small one.
I don’t know if I can keep balancing on the tightrope. I’m starting at UCLA in the fall, film studies, because apparently my blog garnered the attention of some film professor and he liked my Starfield critiques enough to vouch for me despite my grades. My entire world is about to open up and bloom. Do I really want a famous boyfriend on top of all that?
I bounce my knees nervously as our car reaches our destination. Cameras flash like strobe lights in a haunted house. I stare down the red carpet like a too-long hallway. I gulp.
Finally, the car stops. “Okay, misses,” the driver says, “here we are.”
Sage and Cal look at me expectantly. “So: question,” Sage says. “Does this mean we can’t gripe about his bad acting anymore?”
“Since when did I say his acting was bad?”
Sage raises an eyebrow, and my smile fades.
“Not a word, you hear me?” I poke a finger in her face.
“My lips are sealed.” She grins. “After you, Geekerella.”
I sigh—one BuzzFeed article and you’ve got a nickname for life, apparently—and wrap my free hand around the door handle. Breathe in, breathe out. The world is watching. Even Catherine and Chloe, somewhere, on that giant TV of theirs. Or maybe they’re sitting in their new condo in Mount Pleasant, in an immaculate living room, looking for someone else to make miserable.
You can do this, Elle, I tell myself. You went to a cosplay ball alone. A red carpet’s nothing.
Channeling my inner Princess Amara, I open the door to a raging flash of cameras. I slide out, only slightly stumbling on the curb, and clutch Franco tightly to like he’s a football and the theater door is the goalpost. I just have to get there.
I strain my lips over my teeth in something that I hope is a smile, and move down the red carpet. Thank god I decided to wear my Doc Martens instead of those three-inch heels Sage suggested. I’d have done fallen flat on my face.
“What’s your name, gorgeous?” asks a paparazzo.
“Here with someone?” another asks.
“Oh look, over there! I think that’s the contest winner!” someone else adds, pointing to a tall dark-skinned woman making her way down the red carpet—the girl who won, way back at ExcelsiCon—and they flutter off to her like moths to a flame.