Unsurprisingly, there was clearly a lot running through both of our minds. Not to mention a lot we needed to say as well. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to get into it. Even as I saw the boy open his mouth, I put my hand up to stop him. My voice was a hissed whisper. “Not now. They’re gonna figure out we’re missing really soon. I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly want to start explaining to Arleigh and her brothers why we’re hiding up here in their dad’s office.”
A visible blush crossed his face and I saw his mouth open to say one thing, but he thought better of it and simply gave a short nod. He kept his own voice below as well, barely a whisper. “We’ve got to get back down there, without letting Micah see us. Hang on.” His head tilted a bit as though he was–oh, he was seeing through one of his mites. “Okay, he’s in his room and the door is mostly shut. The plants are still taken care of–” He saw the look on my face and explained quickly. “They’ve got cameras and plant spies in here. The cameras aren’t any issue, but I’ve been working on the plants for awhile. They were a problem until I got this stuff from a… friend.” In one hand, he held up what looked like a small pocket-sized spray tube of perfume. “It makes those plants, uhh… hallucinate is the best word. Mostly it makes them see what they’ve been seeing recently instead of what’s really there. So if they’ve been seeing an empty room–”
“They keep seeing an empty room,” I finished. “That seems pretty specialized. And probably expensive. Where–never mind.” Interrupting myself, I shook my head. “Later. So it’s still working? And just how many plants do the Sherwood people have spying on this house?”
For a brief moment, he looked confused. “Wait, you don’t–” It was his turn to interrupt himself, shaking that off. “Right, no time. Here.” Standing up, he moved to the door leading into the hallway and carefully poked the bottle through the doorway before giving it a quick spray. Then he counted to ten before opening the door and stepping out. “We’re good,” he whispered while heading through.
On our way out of there and back downstairs, the boy kept glancing at me. I could tell he wanted to say something else, or maybe a lot of something elses. But as we had both established, there was no time. All that would have to come later. Instead, we quickly made our way back down and split up. He went into the kitchen with the others first, and I heard them start teasing him about getting lost.
I waited another fifteen seconds before heading in after him, making a show of saying goodbye to my mother before shoving the phone into my pocket. Then I looked up and rolled my eyes. But I didn’t talk about anything she supposedly said to me. I thought about it. Hell, I thought about coming up with a whole story about what my mother had said. But honestly, why would I talk to Arleigh about a phone call with my mom? There was no way that wouldn’t come off as making up a story. So, I left it at the rolled eyes and looked toward Inessa before asking, “How long are you in town for? And please tell me you’re doing another show. I have got to be there.”
The blue-haired girl offered me a grin. “Well, if what Arleigh here has been saying is true, perhaps I should invite you to come up with me to help make the show even more impressive. It sounds as though you could teach me a thing or two.”
A deep flush crossed my face, for more than one reason. First, I didn’t really need to think about Arleigh talking about me at all, and I definitely didn’t want her to talk about me being a good skater. That was just… yeah, I didn’t want that to be on her mind. Letting Ryder/Eits find out my real identity was one thing–and yeah even that was freaking me out pretty bad right now. But the very thought of goddamn Arleigh finding out about me was enough to make me want to vomit. I could barely handle having to play nice with her as it was. If she had that sort of leverage, there was no way I would survive for very long. Or possibly no way she would. One way or the other, one of us wouldn’t get through it.
And yet, I still had to play it cool. This was my skating idol talking about me going to a show with her. No, not just going, actually performing with her. It was like a rock star inviting one of their biggest fans up on stage with them. What kind of person wouldn’t jump at that? Even if it did mean letting Arleigh act like she had done me some sort of favor. A favor I would owe her for.
Again, I felt the urge to vomit. But I kept it down, and simply offered a weak giggle, as though I was totally overwhelmed. It wasn’t exactly a hard thing to fake. Actually, I wasn’t really faking it at all. “Oh, haha, uhh, no, I–I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I could ever teach you.” Even as I said that, I could see Ryder staring at me from the corner of the room where he had moved to get a soda. He was out of sight from everyone else, so they couldn’t see the way he was staring. But I could, slightly. It made my blush deepen a bit, which I played off as just being about the Inessa thing. “You’re like, the best in the world, dude.” My voice cracked a bit embarrassingly with that.
A cheerful, charming laugh escaped the older girl, which sent a tingle through my stomach for some reason. She gave me a wink before replying with that clear Eastern European accent. “Trust me, nobody is so good at something that they can’t learn from somebody else. That’s something I figured out a long time ago. Actually, I’m pretty sure I learn something new from every big skater I talk to. And if Arleigh is to be believed, you are a very big skater.”
“I’m not a big anything,” I immediately pointed out reflexively. My blush was back and wouldn’t go away. I honestly couldn’t figure out whether it was more from her praise, or the way Ryder was looking at me. He wasn’t being completely obvious about it after sitting back down at the table, but since everyone else’s attention was on us, he had an excuse to stare a little bit. Under all that attention, I shifted in my seat before coughing. “Seriously, it’s no big deal. I just like to skate. And I learned a lot of it from watching you. So, you know, I’m pretty sure anything I could teach somebody would be what I learned from you.”
For her part, Inessa seemed to consider me briefly while taking a bite of pizza. Then she nodded and spoke casually. “You should definitely come to my next show. It’s tomorrow night at the park on… what was the street?”
“Riverside.” That was actually Errol. I’d almost completely forgotten the boy was there until he piped up right then. “I mean, the Riverside Skate Park on Jefferson. It’s a really cool pla–” He started to say something else, before jolting a little.
“Eat your pizza,” Arleigh, who I realized had just kicked her brother under the table, ordered before turning back to us. “So you’re going tomorrow, right, Cassie?”
Some part of me was tempted to say that I had way too much to deal with right then, but that would have made her ask what I could possibly need to do that was more important than going to a live performance from my idol. An idol who happened to be sitting right there looking at me. Though, to be honest, I did consider what it would be like to outright tell Inessa my secret and get help from an international skating star, the part of my brain that wasn’t completely enamored with her knew that was incredibly stupid. Even if I could talk to her about all that without Arleigh being around, what on Earth was she supposed to do about it? Yeah, she had been my hero for a good portion of my life. But, in the end, she was just a skater. I couldn’t dump something like the Ministry on her, nor did I want to.
And, when I got right down to it, there was no way to know for sure that I could even trust her. It was a painful thought to have, but if I couldn’t trust my parents, there was no way I could just blindly trust some superstar skater I happened to like. It couldn’t happen.
That was, obviously, just a fleeting thought before I pushed it out of my mind, a wild and completely ridiculous impulse. Maybe because I’d already exposed myself to Ryder? Was that why the idea jumped into my head? Whatever, the point was, it couldn’t happen.
So, I forced myself to look back at Arleigh while casually replying, “Oh believe me, if I have any say in it, I’ll totally be there.”
With that, we went back to eating. I hung out with them for another hour or so while trying not to look or act as though my entire world had been upended. I could not look like I was panicking or freaking out. Calm. I had to pretend I was calm. Hell, I had to pretend I was having a great time. Which–yeah, to be fair that much wasn’t hard. Arleigh would probably never be someone I voluntarily hung out with (though I was starting to think her older brother and possibly her dad were a really big influence on how she acted), but Inessa more than made up for that. It was just so cool to be there, eating dinner and talking to her as though she was a normal person. And yeah, I knew she really was, but this was… it was special for me. Even if I did have that voice screaming in the back of my head to panic about the real situation.
I had to talk to Ryder. I had to make sure he wasn’t going to tell anybody. Yeah, he’d kept my secret about being a girl, but this was even bigger. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to pull him aside without being obvious about it. And I had Jefferson coming to pick me up. Hell, even if he wasn’t coming, Ryder and I couldn’t exactly go somewhere else in this neighborhood to chat. Not with the Sherwood spies all over the place.
To that end, before the dinner was over, I got a text on my phone. It was from Ryder himself, giving me an address elsewhere in the city, followed by a time, ten pm, and a question mark. He was asking if I was good with meeting up then and there. Hesitating slightly, I glanced across the table that way. Obviously he wasn’t using his phone. He could control it with one of his mites without even taking the thing out of his pocket. Our gazes met briefly, and I gave a short nod without actually responding on my phone. That, I slipped back into my pocket. Then I turned my attention back to Inessa and tried to postpone freaking out until later, after all this.
And hey, at the very least, Ryder was probably the least terrible person in this house who could’ve found out my secret. Except maybe Errol, he seemed cool. But I wouldn’t want to shove this sort of secret on him. He already had enough to deal with, having Arleigh and Micah as siblings. Inessa–yeah I couldn’t even imagine having her find out the truth about me. She didn’t even live here. How would I deal with some international star knowing my secret identity? Probably panic all the time. Even more than usual.
The point was, if Micah or Arleigh had found out who I was, my life would basically be over. This whole thing could’ve been so much worse.
Now all I had to do was wait until ten pm, so I could talk to Ryder and find out just how bad it was.
I ended up having to promise Inessa that I would be there for her show the next evening. She gave me a couple ‘backstage’ passes (there wasn’t really a stage or anything since it was at a skatepark, but there was a VIP area that would be roped and curtained off for privacy) for me and any friend I wanted to bring.
But all that was something I would have to think about later. For now, I was in costume and perched on the side of the building across the street from where Ryder wanted to meet. I’d thought about bringing Izzy with me, but that would have required me to tell her exactly what happened. Which I didn’t want to do until Ryder and I actually talked. How could I expect him to keep my secret if I went and blabbed about his immediately?
I’d also tried texting Amber just to see if she was available to play backup if something went wrong. But there was no answer. I had belatedly remembered she was going to some special costume party with Dani tonight. Hopefully she was having a good time there. Or at least a less crazy one than I was having.
Shaking those thoughts off, I watched as a figure emerged from the stairwell access door. It was hard to make out in the darkness, but I spoke quietly. “Night vision engage.” Immediately, my Wren-provided helmet switched my viewing mode so I could see better. Sure enough, Ryder was standing on that roof, also in costume as he nervously fidgeted around.
Obviously, I wasn’t stupid enough to jump right over there. I looked around from where I was, scanning every area I could see. I didn’t expect to find out that he had told the Ministry or Blackjack, just because… well, if my parents knew my identity, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t show that with an ambush in the middle of the night like this. And it didn’t seem to be Blackjack’s style, if he’d even do anything with it at all aside from possibly use it to force favors out of me. But I wasn’t going to take that for granted. I checked for any sign of an ambush for the next couple minutes, letting Eits wait for me.
Finally, I couldn’t put it off any longer. As certain as I could be that he was alone, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, landing a few feet away from the boy as he jumped at my arrival.
“Hey, Eits,” I managed to sound vaguely casual while turning that way. “What’s up? Read any good books lately? Seen a fun movie?”
He, in turn, coughed and looked embarrassed. “Hey, Paintball. I mean…” Pausing, the boy kicked the roof before meeting my gaze. “Are we good? I mean, good to talk for real.”
I knew what he was asking. He wanted to know if we could talk about our identities, or if I had someone watching. Meeting his gaze, I asked evenly, “We’re good on my end. Are we good on yours?”
The question made him pause before he nodded once. “I’m alone, I swear. I haven’t talked to anybody about it. Hell, I haven’t talked to anybody about any of that. Nobody even knows I’ve been going into Sherwood territory at all. It’s kind of my own private investigation.”
Private investigation? Well, I definitely wanted to know more about that. Why would he be investigating Arleigh’s house? Pushing that out of my head for the moment, or at least to the back of it, I gestured. “Stairwell’s safe, right? I don’t really wanna risk people looking out windows.”
He confirmed it was safe, and we went through the door he had come out a few minutes earlier. Now we were standing in the stairwell, with no cameras or witnesses. This was as safe as we could possibly be. Reaching up, I hesitated very slightly, then pulled my helmet off, followed by the mask. My fingers were shaking a little bit as I did so, but I forced myself to look at him straight on. “Hi.”
Eits reached up to take the X-shaped mask off his own face, slipping it free. Then he was just Ryder again, holding the mask in one hand while staring back at me. “Hi.” There was silence for a moment, before he finally offered a weak, “This is awkward, isn’t it?”
“Little bit,” I agreed, dropping my gaze briefly. Then I took a breath and looked up again. “Thanks. You know, for not telling anyone about me being a girl before. I’m pretty sure if you had said anything to anybody, it would’ve gotten around by now. Even Pack doesn’t know, and I… I know she’s your friend. So, yeah, thanks.”
“I’m not gonna tell anybody about this either,” he assured me quickly, his eyes staring right into mine. “I won’t tell Blackjack, or Pack, or anybody else. I just–I won’t say anything, I swear.”
“You know, I… I believe you,” I slowly replied. “You kept me being a girl secret, now this is just sort of… the next step?” Shrugging self-consciously, I sighed. “I won’t tell anybody about you either. I mean, yeah you’re sort of… a bad guy?” Even that felt wrong to say. The lines between good and bad were so blurred they seemed practically nonexistent sometimes. “My point is, I won’t use this to help anyone catch you, or follow you to find out any secret La Casa bases or plans, or… or anything like that.”
He offered me a faint smile. “I’m pretty sure if you were the type to do that, you could’ve followed Pack one of those times. Even if you… don’t know who she is?” His voice turned questioning.
“I don’t,” I replied. “Trust me, that whole situation is already awkward enough as it is. I don’t know who she is and I’m not trying to find out. You…” Oh boy was there still a lot I needed to say. “Look, before we get into anything else, I just… I know you just said you wouldn’t tell. And like I said, I believe you. But you really can’t tell. You can’t even let anyone know that you know. You can’t hint. You can’t–” My eyes squeezed shut as I tried to think of how to make sure he understood how vital this was. “It’s… it’s more important than you know. I mean, life and death important. You have to keep it a secret. I can’t– I can’t get into why it’s so–”
“Because of the Ministry, right?” the boy immediately put in.
“And because your parents are the people in charge of it.”