Chapter One Welcome back to Cosplay or No Way. Our three remaining contestants are fighting for the opportunity to make it to the final round where one of them will win $100,000 and the chance to work in costuming for a major motion picture!" Kenya stared at Mark as the host recapped the competition so far. Being in the final three had her mentally bouncing with excitement. She'd read enough online comments after last week's show, the first to broadcast live, to know that a lot of people thought she was there simply to mark a diversity checkbox. Please. She'd worked her ass off to stay in the competition. "As you know, this round's theme is cosplay mashups. Kenya, tell the judges about your cosplay." Kenya smiled as she stepped forward, buoyed by the audience's applause. "For my cosplay mashup, I chose Dora the Milaje Explorer. In my vision for this, Dora's mother is a powerful warrior who instilled in her daughter all her skills and a desire to explore, learn, and grow. Dora's prized possessions are her digital helper Boots, her mother's gauntlets, and a map to Wakanda." Based on the audience's reaction, she'd done an excellent job on her mashup. Using the fabrication skills her best friend, Cam, had shown her, she'd recreated Shuri's panther-headed gauntlets, complete with blue glow-lights to simulate energy beams. She'd sewn her battle costume in General Okoye's style but with Dora's pink and yellow colors. A black panther-shaped backpack holding a map of Wakanda and Dora's signature brown bob completed her look. Everyone had instantly known what she'd done. When you didn't have to explain your cosplay, you were already a step ahead. That didn't stop the anxiety fluttering in her stomach. "Thank you, Kenya." Mark turned his good looks to the panel. "Judges, do you have any comments you'd like to make about Kenya's cosplay?" Kenya tightened her hands in her gauntlets, almost wishing she could bite her nails. This was the part she hated most, facing the judges. Not because she didn't want their opinions-they were some of the best in their fields-but because one judge seemed to have it out for her. On cue, Rebecca leaned forward, concern drenching her features. "Kenya, do you really feel that you embodied the blending of Dora the Explorer and a Dora Milaje?" She bristled at Becky's use of the word embodied. Throughout the competition, Rebecca had taken issue with her size, her race, and her assertiveness, but Kenya hadn't made it anywhere in life by being anything other than true to herself. Today was not the day to change. "It's plural, not singular." "Excuse me?" "It's the Dora Milaje, not a Dora Milaje. They are a group, a sisterhood, never alone. Like Dora, who has many adventures and discoveries with the help of her friends. Neither Dora nor the Dora Milaje apologize for who they are or what they do. They simply are, and people accept that and move, or they will be moved." Applause washed over her. She lifted her chin. She'd refused at the start of the competition to wear the Angry Black Woman mantle, and she wasn't about to cosplay that caricature now. That didn't mean that she wasn't going to stand up for herself. "You've been a dark horse this entire competition," Rebecca said. A murmur rose from the audience. Rebecca had made herself the judge people loved to hate, with good reason. "Your cosplay choices have been extremely risky, considering your limitations." Dark horse? Limitations? Kenya fixed her face in the automatic flat expression that all Black women perfected before puberty. She had no idea if Becky meant her size, her color, or her skill, but she'd be damned if she would consider any of those limitations. She was fat, Black, and had been cosplaying since she'd first dressed as Sailor Moon for Halloween as a kid. She knew what she was, but she also knew what she was capable of. Her parents hadn't raised her to be ordinary. Knowing she had nothing to lose at this point, Kenya lifted her chin. "With all due respect, Rebecca, I don't know what you mean by limitations. I believe I've met every challenge with grace and ingenuity. I refuse to limit myself so someone else can be comfortable." Including you. Especially you. The crowd applauded in support, and Kenya nodded at them, gratitude welling in her chest. Their opinions mattered the most, since they could boost her popularity at cons and help her costuming business get off the ground. "That's what I like about you, Kenya," Leon said, a ghost of a smile curving his lips. "You don't allow anything, or anyone, to hold you back. I've enjoyed your unique spin on each of the cosplays you've presented to us over the last two months, especially today's. I know you have a lot of people who see you as a role model and who are rooting for you. I look forward to seeing what else you have up your sleeves. You have my vote." "Thank you," she mouthed. One vote in my favor. I only need one more. All eyes focused on Rebecca. Kenya knew her vote before she opened her mouth. "I'm sorry," Rebecca said, her tone declaring she was anything but. "I think Amanda delivered the better cosplay this week." Amanda had chosen the Cat in the Hat Woman for her cosplay. She'd had another meltdown on set because she'd run out of glue for her glue gun, as if it was someone else's fault she didn't have extra glue sticks in her supply kit. The crying jags had become a daily occurrence; they just didn't know what would set her off. Kenya hadn't minded giving the other woman support, but she wasn't there to help someone else win. The longer she stayed in the competition, the more exposure and publicity she received. During the brief times they'd been allowed to use their phones, she'd discovered that she'd gained tons of new followers (along with some new trolls) on all her social media streams, but that wasn't all she wanted. The winner would get the chance to work in the costuming department of a big-budget live-action fantasy film. She hadn't come to the show to be runner-up, and she sure as hell hadn't come to be number three. Kenya's stomach bubbled as she focused on the last judge, Caroline. The perky blonde flailed her hands. "Oh my God, I can't believe it's up to me! Both of you have done an amazing job week after week. I've been so impressed with how each of you have risen to every challenge we've thrown your way." Mark stepped forward. "Unfortunately, only one can move forward into the Cosplay or No Way final round. So, Caroline, who will it be? Will it be Amanda, or will you choose Kenya?" Dramatic music swelled as the audience chanted both their names in a muddled cacophony. Caroline looked at them each in turn. Kenya reached out to clasp Amanda's hand, awkwardly squeezing the other woman's trembling fingers in an effort to steady her own. The other woman had already started the deep breaths that presaged tears. "This is so hard . . . and I'm really sorry that I have to do this," Caroline began. Silence fell, thick enough to choke on. "Kenya." Her eyes flew open as ice raced down her back, her shocked gasp echoed by the audience. Surely that didn't mean . . . ? Caroline stared at her for a long moment before finally breaking into a smile. "Welcome to the final round." "Oh God." Relief nearly buckled her knees as the audience rose in a standing ovation. She covered her open mouth with her gauntleted hands, smothering the gasp that wanted to become a scream. She had the presence of mind to turn to hug Amanda before the other woman sprinted from the stage. Blowing out a breath, she pulled back the panther on her left gauntlet, then straightened her shoulders to face the judges. The host set up a commercial break as Ben, the other finalist, returned to the floor. He gave her a smile and a hug before joining her in facing the panel. "And we're back with our two Cosplay or No Way finalists, Ben and Kenya!" The audience cheers washed over Kenya. Euphoria zapped through her, nervous energy making her bounce on her toes as she vacillated between disbelief and elation. The final round! She was in the final round! She almost pinched herself as the reality of being a finalist began to settle in. The grand prize was close, so close. Just one more cosplay away. Mark turned to them with a smile. "Congratulations, top two. You've fought long and hard to make it here, and each of you deserve your place in the finals. However, there's no time to rest on your success. In fact, in this final round we want to see how you design and create your cosplays on your home turf." She and Ben exchanged glances. Home turf? "That's right. The next part of the competition will follow the two of you as you return home to make your final-round costumes. A production crew will film you in your element. We want to see how you craft your creations in your personal space!" Excitement and anxiety faced off in her nerves, ready to duke it out for the top spot. Her personal space was her bedroom in the apartment she shared with Cam, her best friend. She couldn't imagine trying to fit a camera crew in there. Besides, it was her bedroom, and she tended to be a bit messy during the design phase, creating several sketches as she finalized her concept. Maybe Cam would agree to let her use their dining area since they usually ate at the breakfast bar or in front of the television. "I'm sure everyone is wondering about the final-round challenge. For that, we turn to our judges. Leon?" Leon regarded them, his smile stuck somewhere on the road between heaven and hell. "Contestants, you've consistently brought your A game for every week of this competition. Now, we want to see your A-plus work. Your final challenge will be iconic duos." Duos? After they'd just finished mashups week? If that's what they wanted, she wasn't going to complain. She could do a gender-bent Two-Face, or one of the gem fusions from Steven Universe. "That's the good news," Caroline said, "but you know we have to step it up for this final round. With that in mind, your iconic duo must be a pairs cosplay." "What?" Ben whispered, looking as confused as Kenya felt. Did that mean making two costumes? "That's right." Rebecca surveyed them. "Not only do we want to see how you juggle cosplaying with your normal life, we want you to create two costumes: one for you, and one for your cosplaying partner." Kenya's mouth dropped open. Two costumes? Cosplay partner? Her mind raced. Did they need to create them from scratch or could they source parts? Most importantly, how much time did they have to create two costumes? Caroline leaned forward. "We all know that cosplayers do everything from making their own cosplays to commissioning full costumes from someone else. You're probably wondering what's allowed for you in this final-round iconic duo cosplay challenge. So here are the parameters. "First of all, both costumes must be at least fifty percent handmade. Of course, the more handmade the costumes are, the more points you can score. Secondly, we know there's a lot of pressure to make two costumes, so you're allowed to have help from your cosplay partner. However, seventy-five percent of the work has to be yours. You'll also need to recap your work at the end of the day with a video diary entry." Rebecca gave them a smile Kenya instantly mistrusted. "This is all about being the best, which means testing and stressing you. That's why you and your partner will have four weeks to complete your costumes before you return here to cosplay for the live audience." The shocked murmurs of the audience echoed the shock that swept through Kenya. There was no way they could expect two costumes to be finished in four weeks, especially with that fifty-percent-handmade requirement. And with one person doing the bulk of the work? She looked at Ben, who looked as floored as she felt. "What?" he whispered. "Are they serious?" "We're very serious," Leon answered. "Just as you should be, especially about who you'll pick as your cosplay partner. Remember, your partner can do up to twenty-five percent of the build, and they'll need to cosplay with you in the finale." "Who will our finalists pick as their cosplay partners?" Mark asked the audience. "We'll find out-right after this." Kenya's mind raced as everyone waited for the commercial break to end, imagining and discarding all the duos that immediately came to mind. With four weeks to work, it would be nearly impossible to do any costume with a great deal of detail work, and certainly not two. Then there was the matter of picking her cosplay partner. Who could she get to help her? Her mind instantly went to Cam, but her best friend had his hands full running the fabrication shop, especially since she wasn't there to handle logistics and order intake. Her parents were out. Neither one understood her obsession with the geekery of anime and gaming or adults running around in costumes outside of Halloween, and even then they deployed maximum side-eye. Besides, they'd been against her doing the show from the start. They wanted her to "give up this foolishness" and use her engineering degree they'd paid for. Her brother was off in the air force and her sisters were busy with their families and their careers on opposite sides of the country. Janelle might have been willing, but her other best friend didn't even own a sewing kit. Bringing Janelle on board meant Kenya would wind up doing one hundred percent of the work. What was she going to do? "Welcome back to Cosplay or No Way," Mark announced as he was counted back in from the commercial break. "Let's recap the parameters of the final round." Dramatic music and lighting rolled across the stage as the jumbo screen lit up, bold white letters spelling out FINAL ROUND RULES on a purple background. "First, conceive of an iconic duo cosplay that you and your partner will showcase during our live finale. Second, at least fifty percent of each costume must be handmade. Third, your cosplay partner can help you, but you must do seventy-five percent of the work. Each of you will have a production crew following your progress, and of course we want to continue seeing those video diaries. Judges, anything else?" Excerpted from The Love Con by Seressia Glass All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.