Cinderella Dances

None of this was supposed to happen.

Accomplished spinal surgeon Dr. Li feels that about a complete stranger, Elaine Crowley. When she arrives in his operating room after being hit by a car, his world is turned over as he races to see her well again in the hopes that, one day, Elaine could stand up and dance.

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14. Costumes

  "I never knew I could be so anxious about picking out a costume," grumbled Mark as he appraised his options.

  Annette's assistant had been prompt in finding and arriving with costumes for the masquerade tonight.  He'd even come with Mark in tow, all but dragging him by the ear. The sight of it was immensely gratifying after the stunt Mark had pulled with the show.

  "Why are you anxious?" I managed to ask the question without any of my lingering upset.  We could address that after tonight.  I needed to focus on my own anxieties and the ridiculously stupid ideas that kept forming in my head.

  My latest plot refused to leave me alone, wedged tightly in the forefront of my thoughts while I watched Mark debate his options.  I knew that Elaine was going to the party, and I had been taking lessons.  I couldn't tour the country with my dance experience, but I might just keep up enough to entertain Elaine for a minute.  Just a minute.  Where was the harm in that?  It wasn't like I'd hunted her down and broken my word.  We were both going to the same event, planned for my fiancee.

  Where was the harm?

  No matter how I tried to justify it to myself, I couldn't feel the guilt I knew I should be wrestling with right now.  Not for the people I should, at least.  I was regretful of everything that had ended with Elaine, and I very much felt guild over possibly opening old wounds.  I could wait until after the festivities to talk, as promised to Carl.

  It could wait just long enough.  There was plenty of time to endure whatever more consequences my actions incurred.  I just needed one dance.  That was all.

  Where was the harm?

  "Hello?  Li?"  Mark snapped his fingers. "You zoned out for a minute there.  Are you okay?"

  "I'll be fine," I replied curtly.  I nodded to his outfit to deflect his attention. "That looks good."

  He took the bait easily. "Are you sure?  It's not too flashy?"

  "No, it's perfect.  It'll even match Annette," I added offhandedly, making him flush dark red. "Don't let that stop you, Mark.  You'll wear it better than her."

  From there, it was just a matter of selecting my own costume.  Mark had left by the time I'd narrowed it down to two options.  As much as I wanted to be frustrated with him, Mark had been right.  There was far too much anxiety in this mess of an activity.  Why did it matter?!

  "You have a good eye.  No one would recognize you in either of those costumes," commented Annette's assistant.  Had I even learned his name?  The past couple of days seemed too surreal for names. "It's a pity you can't wear both!"

  I gaped at my choices with a dawning sense of awe as the revelation his me with his idle chatter.

 

~~ * ~ * ~ * ~~

 

  My plan wasn't exactly revolutionary, nor was it entirely something I would be proud to claim as an actual plan.

  Annette's assistant had all too happily agreed to allow me to use both costumes.  He'd even agreed to my devious request to keep my selections secret.  He was absolutely beside himself to think he was helping me fool his boss with a harmless little prank of switching disguises midway through the party.

  While that wasn't my exact plan, it was close enough.  I would find Elaine wearing my first costume, then change and pretend to be late wearing the second.  I didn't know what I was intending to happen with Elaine, but...I couldn't do nothing.  I knew that much.

  When I arrived at the location, I felt the first wave of doubt that this was possibly a very terrible idea.  The masquerade was much larger than I had anticipated.  What I had assumed might add up to a couple hundred people with staff was easily double than in guests alone.  It was overwhelming to think of sifting through all of those people as I passed my keys off to the valet.  Climbing the steps into the impressive structure, I had to admit that my engagement to Annette was wholly advantageous for my family.

  And I was putting so much at risk tonight.

  That thought fell away quickly when I entered the masquerade.  Everything was glittering with polish and decor, brightly lit and absolutely vibrant.  The chatter of the crowds died, the sound of a violin echoing in the ensuing stillness.  The next moment felt unreal as the throngs of people split to make room for the troupe preparing to perform.  I had the perfect view as they lined up, my heart skipping painfully in my chest as I recognized the swan that stood front and center.

  I was so close despite the distance of the floor.  I thought for sure that she'd recognize me.  She was staring in my direction, anyway.  I couldn't care what else was happening.  The music played, and her troupe moved, but I didn't see anyone else.  Watching her now didn't compare to the other night.  I was closer here, it felt so much more tangible, even with all of the dreamlike qualities of the timing.

  Elaine was right there.

  Performing at my future in-laws' party.

  With both of my options so plainly displayed before me, I felt foolish to know which one I'd choose.  It wasn't even a choice, pushing through the crowds as the performance ended.  I couldn't lose sight of that swan.  I wouldn't.  There was so much I needed to say, so many things to apologize for--

  "Oof!"

  I helped steady the swan I'd accidentally collided with, dropping my hands and staring in shock as I took in her smile.

  "Oh, sorry, I don't navigate crowds well," apologized Elaine with an embarrassed shrug.  She looked me over. "Hey, cool costume!  Owls are neat."

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