Ari tucked the poufy blue tulle of the gown she’d been wearing into a garment bag, careful not to catch any fabric as she zipped it closed. Out of all the skills she’d acquired over the years, from memorizing lengthy scripts to crying on demand, these days, the most useful seemed to be her ability to change in the car without flashing strangers. It was a decent skill, she supposed, given that she was in the parking lot of her younger brother’s university. If she had accidentally flashed his classmates, Sim would’ve killed her.
She finished up by placing her shoes in their box and shoving her feet into a pair of comfy flats. She loved her heels, but after three bookings in a row, she was definitely ready to take them off.
During her first princess party job, she’d made the mistake of thinking kids wouldn’t notice what shoes she wore with her floor length gown. She’d been wrong, of course. Children notice everything.
After that, she doubled down on the quality of her costumes. If she really wanted to act—to be the best—that meant immersing herself in her characters, not seeing what she could get away with. Besides, costumes were one of her favorite parts of the job.
Stepping into the afternoon air, she shivered as she closed the car door and pulled up the directions Sim had texted her earlier. She followed the sidewalk out of the parking lot, took a left at the bronze statue of two dancers, and kept going until she reached an open field behind the admissions building. Classical music played from several speakers as a bored looking usher checked people’s tickets.
He raised a brow when Ari reached him. “Performers go around back,” he said, gesturing to the side of the stage.
“I’m not a performer,” Ari said, waving her ticket in confusion.
The usher glanced at the top of her head. “Okay…” He shrugged. “Enjoy the show, your highness,” he said before waving her through to the sea of chairs set out on the lawn.
As she walked away, Ari reached up to pat the elegant bun she’d styled her curls into. Her fingers collided with costume gems.
She’d forgotten to take off her tiara.
Well, excellent. She wasn’t going back to the car to put it away, and she didn’t feel like carrying it around. It stayed on, then.
She lifted her chin, smiled at a lady who was staring at her, and wandered through the crowd to find her parents.
They were exactly where she thought they’d be: sitting in front of the outdoor stage, first row, directly in the center. Between her mom’s punctuality and her dad’s need to be the most obnoxious cheerleader, the close seats were not a surprise.
As she got closer, she saw her dad was logging into a database on his phone and rolled her eyes. Whatever new debate her genius parents were having, she didn’t want to know.
“That’s cute, Isaac,” her mom was saying. “Now, where’s the research?”
“It makes sense,” her dad said as he scrolled through abstracts, most likely skimming for someone to back him up.
“Numbers,” her mom demanded, holding out her hand. “Stats.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Ari said, settling into the chair between them. “You know the rules. Case study, or it didn’t happen.”
He grinned as soon as he saw her—then grinned wider when he saw her crown. “There’s my princess,” he said while trying to smother his smile behind a hand.
Ari straightened her tiara and leveled her father with a regal look. “You may bow,” she said.
He busted out laughing. “Lena, that’s your child,” he said between giggles as he pulled off his glasses to wipe his eyes.
Her mom hummed in agreement. “But those theatrics are all you.”
Ari cracked a smile. While they were distracted, she not-so-stealthily looped her arms through theirs for body heat.
Unfortunately, her dad was wearing a turtleneck, not a jacket she could steal, but he caught on and wrapped his arm around her shoulders to block the wind.
Her mom pulled off her blazer, covering Ari with one half and herself with the other. “Parasite,” she said affectionately.
Ari pointed to her tiara and snuggled closer. “Is there a program?” she asked now that she was warm. “How many performances before Sim?”
“He’s at the end,” her dad said. “You know, best for last.”
“I mean, he’s alright,” she teased, but Sim probably was the best.
When they were kids, she and Sim had both fallen in love with Romeo and Juliet. For her, it had been the film, and then the play, and then any adaptation she could get her hands on. For Sim, it had been the ballet. Then The Nutcracker for Christmas, and then years of ballet lessons before he decided to pursue contemporary. Sim was dedication and precision and passion. He was—
“He’s the best,” her dad said. “I always tell you two, you can do whatever makes you happy, but you have to be—”
“—the best,” Ari finished.
“Exactly,” her dad said, giving her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “What about you, princess? How are you doing?”
“Any auditions lately?” her mom asked.
“The usual.” Which was none—not that they needed to know that. Ari picked at a button on her mom’s blazer.
“You’ll be on the big screen soon enough,” her dad said. “I’ve already got my tux picked out for the red carpet.”
“You know, your room is still set up,” her mom said, “if you change your mind about moving back home while you’re saving. I haven’t let your father turn it into an in-home theater yet.”
“For you,” her dad said. “So we can watch all your future movies in surround sound!”
“Thank you, Mom,” Ari said pointedly, and her dad clutched his chest in feigned hurt, “but I’m doing great.” She sat up straighter in her seat. “Honest.”
“Magnificent guests,” the host cut in, and Ari sent him a silent thank you as her parents turned to face the stage. “Welcome to tonight’s charity dance performance.”
Ari and the rest of the crowd clapped politely, but the wind chose that moment to pick up. On stage, the metal poles bearing the show’s sign swayed unsteadily.
The host eyed the poles, mic hovering in front of his mouth, until they stilled. “Well,” he said, straightening his bowtie as he grinned at the audience. “That’s concerning. But one thing we don’t need to be concerned about is tonight’s show. I got to catch some of the rehearsals, and Simeon Williams—”
Her dad whooped.
“Same, sir!” The host pointed at him. “Simeon Williams—and all of the other dancers backstage—came to impress. So, let’s begin, shall we?”
Every performance was amazing. Ari drank in the jazzy undertones of one girl’s footwork, loose and alive, and felt her heart leap at the light steps of the pas de deux that followed.
There was something about seeing people do what they loved, something that fueled her when she couldn’t seem to find her motivation.
That was what she was striving for. That was why she’d gone off to LA once, waiting tables and taking any non-creepy audition she could get. Sometimes she wondered if she should have just lived in a cardboard box and stayed. Or if she’d let everyone down when she had to come back, not just herself.
Sim walked on stage then, dressed in sleek black, his eyes lined and closed as he posed just before the music began. When he moved, it was a gentle rolling of his shoulders. A deep breath. It flowed out in the extension of his arms, in the sweep of his bare feet across the floor, and in spins that brought him to his knees. He pushed himself back up, tumbled over his shoulder to stand again at center stage with his hands raised above his head. His gaze was fixed on something higher. Something out of reach. Ari lifted her own gaze from the stage, just for a moment, to follow his; she saw the stars.
As the song ended, the audience leaped to their feet in applause. Ari’s dad pulled out a glitter-covered sign from beneath his chair, waving it proudly while her mom clapped earnestly on her other side.
Ari brought two fingers to her mouth, whistling loud enough to be positive her little brother heard it over the crowd.
Sim came forward to give a quick bow, and even though he always liked to play up his seriousness, she saw his lips twitch when he spotted them.
The host practically skipped back on stage trailed by everyone that had performed that night. He stopped next to Sim, giving him a smile Sim didn’t return.
The host’s smile wavered, but he hastily masked his confusion and turned to face the crowd. “Incredible, right?” he said. “Before we close this evening, I’d like to take a moment to thank you all for your support.”
As he rattled off a list of sponsors, Ari returned to her seat, thinking about what that weirdness between the host and her brother could have been. She ducked back under her mom’s blazer, rubbing her arms against the chill.
A breeze ripped through the air. On stage, the poles holding the sign rocked. Its banner caught air. A second gust of wind sent it plummeting forward.
Dancers darted off stage as the poles fell, and Ari watched in horror as Sim pushed the host out of the way, and a pole collapsed on him instead.
Sim still hadn’t woken up.
The doctor let out a breath through her teeth as she looked over his chart. “There are complications,” she said. “I won’t lie to you. His ankle is only sprained, but that pole landed on his head.”
Ari knew that. She’d seen it. It felt like the only thing she could see even as she’d driven to the hospital behind the ambulance.
The doctor continued on, sharing details Ari wanted to unhear.
She expected her dad to go into neuroscience mode, spouting textbook brain jargon like he did when they watched cheesy action movies at home, but he just listened, stone-faced.
Her mom didn’t pull up stats on her phone. Didn’t ask for numbers to analyze.
“We’d like your permission to operate,” the doctor said.
“Yes,” her parents said in unison. “Please,” said her mom.
The doctor nodded to them both and left.
There were only two chairs in the hall. Her dad was already moving to lean against the wall as he said, “You two go ahead.”
Ari glanced over to the doors they’d rushed Sim through for tests and tried not to think about what the doctor had implied: that Sim might not— “No,” she said, gently tugging her parents toward the seats. “You sit. I think I’m going to get some air for a bit.”
Her mom caught her hand, squeezing it. “Baby, are you okay?”
Ari forced a smile. Her hand squeezed her mom’s back as she nodded. “I’ll be back,” she said and slipped down the hall before her tears could spill.
The hospital walls stretched on like an icy maze she let herself get lost in. Arms wrapped around her middle, she wandered through corridor after corridor until her eyes were less wet and her feet hurt enough to drown out everything else.
She found a waiting area and dropped into the nearest chair, letting her eyes fall shut. Tears stung at the corner of her lids, and she squeezed them closed even tighter. This was a nightmare. She was going to open her eyes, and everything would be okay.
“Are you a princess?” asked a tiny, awed voice.
Ari looked down to see a little girl with glasses sliding down the bridge of her nose. Her curly hair was twisted into pigtails, the bobbles at the end bouncing as she hopped in place.
Ari was still wearing her tiara.
“I’m so sorry,” a woman said, already tugging the girl back to her seat. “Remember, Mommy told you we have to be quiet in the hospital,” she said, sounding as exhausted as Ari felt.
“I’m sorry,” the girl whisper-shouted.
“That’s alright,” Ari found herself saying. “I am a princess, actually.” She slipped into the role, straightening her posture and folding her hands daintily on her lap. Her voice took on a sing-songy lilt. “In fact, I have just the thing to prove it. Do you think you could wait a few minutes?”
The girl nodded at triple speed, and Ari looked over to her mom for permission.
The woman gave her a tired smile and bobbed her head.
Within minutes, Ari returned from the car in her princess costume.
At the sound of her heels coming down the hall, the little girl spun around and squealed. “I knew it!”
“I brought you something,” Ari said, holding out an extra tiara.
“Oh, wow!” the girl said, making grab hands as Ari helped settle the crown on her head.
“What do we say?” her mom chided, smiling for real now.
“Thank you!” said the girl, twirling in place.
“You’re very welcome,” Ari said.
She and the girl were in the middle of a very serious conversation about sea turtles when Ari noticed the receptionist approaching.
There was technically a stack of paperwork she was supposed to do before visiting children at hospitals, and she’d only filled it out for the one near her apartment.
“Excuse me,” the receptionist said. “Have you perhaps visited this hospital before?”
“I’m afraid not,” Ari said. “I usually visit the pediatric wing on the other side of town.”
“I see,” said the woman, and Ari braced herself. “If I can get them to fax us your paperwork, would you be willing to visit a few of our children here? I know it’s late, but they would be so excited.”
“I would love to,” Ari said in relief. She gestured to the little girl next to her. “Can I bring my friend? She’s a princess, too. And a marine biologist.”
“That sounds excellent,” said the receptionist.
Together, Ari and her fellow princess made quite a few new friends, although Ari had to keep reminding the girl not to slam open the doors as they went. She stopped once, briefly, to check on her parents between visits and found them with their chairs pushed together, her mom’s head tucked beneath her dad’s chin. They smiled knowingly when they saw her and ushered her back to the next child after a nurse promised to find her when there were updates on Sim.
By the time she and the girl headed back to the reception area, Ari only remained upright by sheer strength of will. She had never broken character in front of a child before, and there was no way she was going to let this little girl see her go from graceful princess to drooling heap on the next available surface.
She had every intention of returning the girl to her mother and making a magical exit, stage left, but as they rounded the corner, someone else was sitting in the waiting area.
The man lowered a leather journal he’d been writing in when he saw them, setting a fountain pen between its pages as he tilted his head, considering her.
He wore a three-piece brown suit, and Ari wondered if it was fair of him to stare at her that way when they seemed to be equally overdressed for a hospital visit. Then she remembered that she was also staring.
Her face warmed.
The little girl peeked out from behind Ari’s dress and gasped when she saw him, clasping her hands beneath her chin. “Is that your prince?” she asked.