Home > Out of Character (True Colors #2)(5)

Out of Character (True Colors #2)(5)
Author: Annabeth Albert

   “Nerd,” I finished for him. “You don’t want to be seen with the nerds.”

   “No!” Milo squawked, but something about his protest rang empty. “I can message you.”

   “Message? Like, why can’t you talk to me at school? Or hang out at our houses like always. I don’t get it.” Coming to a stop at an intersection, I pivoted on my heel, staring him down, daring him to tell me I’d been imagining his weirdness lately.

   “I don’t think you should come over because… You know. You went to that meeting. The one for that club.” He’d gone paler now and his voice was faint.

   Heck. I never should have told him about that. I’d built it up to this huge deal in my brain the first part of the year, but then I’d finally gone on a day when Milo had had practice after school, and it had been totally fine. “The rainbow alliance? That one? There were like maybe fifteen people there—”

   “But other people noticed.” Milo’s face had gone pale, lending a sickly cast to his skin. He looked like he had after we’d ridden that huge roller coaster last summer, right before he puked up his guts. But unlike then, I had zero sympathy.

   “You mean your jock friends noticed. And now you can’t be seen with me?”

   “It’s not about what my friends on the team might think,” he said, even though it undoubtedly was. “My parents might find out too. My dad… Never mind. It’s nothing. Maybe everyone will just get over it.”

   He didn’t sound too sure, and the way his voice had wavered on the word nothing told me everything I needed to know. He was scared to be seen with me, and it wasn’t simply about me being too nerdy for the jock crowd.

   Now my own stomach lurched. Others might get over it, but somehow I knew deep inside that I wouldn’t. Not ever.

   He kept going. “And in the meantime, we can message and stuff.”

   Somehow I found the strength to straighten my shoulders, harden my stare, and toughen up my voice. “I’m not going to be your secret. That’s not cool. Either we’re friends or we’re not.”

   * * *

   I could still see his face as I’d walked away that day. His lips had been pale, but his cheeks were stained red, and his dark eyes had been hollow, an emptiness there that still haunted me.

   “Anything. Whatever you need,” Milo promised now even before I had a chance to lay out the bargain I was 100 percent sure he wouldn’t take.

   “Not so fast,” I warned, holding up a hand. “You’re not going to like this. But I need a Prince Neptune.”

   He blinked. “A prince who?”

   “Prince Neptune. Only the most iconic character in Odyssey. The one on all the set boxes? The one starring in their novel series?”

   “I’ll take your word for it.” He nodded rapidly. “So, you need his card? I can’t part with more of Bruno’s stuff—”

   “No, I need him,” I corrected. And to be fair, Milo wasn’t the only one I expected to hate this plan. I had no freaking clue why I was even having this conversation other than that I’d had four more texts from April and one from my friend Kellan while I’d been at work. Everyone was counting on my ability to find a Neptune, and I really wanted to deliver on my promise. And okay, Milo wouldn’t have been my first or hundredth choice, but then I’d heard him on the phone with Bruno, all sad. My better instincts had fled, leaving me here with this most ridiculous plan. “I’m part of a cosplay group. We go to different events as our favorite Odyssey characters—cons, tournaments, parties, that sort of thing. And we have a regular gig at the children’s hospital. We go to see the older kids, play cards with the ones who feel up to it, take pictures with others. It’s fun.”

   “Uh-huh.” Eyes wide, Milo clearly didn’t share my definition of fun. But that was fine. He didn’t have to like this idea. In fact, it was probably better if he didn’t, if he turned it down flat. We could both move on with our day that way, and at least I could say I’d tried.

   “Whatever. We love it. The kids love it, too, and they’re expecting us Wednesday, but our Neptune is doing a semester abroad and the backup my friend found fell through.”

   “It’s for kids?” Milo sounded slightly less reluctant. I, however, refused to let myself soften toward him simply because he was still a big softie for little kids in need. He’d always been good with baby April back before everything went sideways.

   “Yup. April’s involved in the group too. She’s counting on me.” I wasn’t going to beg, but I also wasn’t above using his sympathies here. “I’ve got the costume for you. Our regular guy left it with me. The kids are expecting to see Prince Neptune on Wednesday.”

   “I, uh…I’m not scheduled to work that day.” Milo sounded less than certain, but it wasn’t a no.

   “You have to wear the costume. Like, the whole time, no chickening out and no running from pics. That wouldn’t be cool.”

   He gave a sharp nod. “If I do that, if I pretend to be this Neptune guy, you’ll help me?”

   His eyes were wide and pleading, and I hated the pull they had on me, the way they made me want to help without exacting my price. “After. After you cosplay with us, and if you’re not a dick about it, then sure, we can do some hunting online, see what’s out there.”

   “Any chance that we could bring that $10k price tag down?” His head tilted, same expression as if he were angling for extra fries at the burger joint.

   “You’re not making this easy.”

   “Sorry.” Holding up his hands, he offered up a little smile, posture much easier now that he’d secured my help. “It’s just…I’m not exactly swimming in cash right now.”

   “Somehow I’m not surprised. I mean, we can see what we find, but this isn’t like ordering a new lamp. It’s more like treasure hunting. People spend years tracking down rare cards.”

   “Whoa.” Whistling low, his breath came in a frosty huff. “I don’t have years. Bruno said he might be home soon.”

   “Well, then you might want to start praying for good luck.” I resisted the urge to make a joke about the odds being in his favor because he wouldn’t get the reference. Geeky pop culture was never his strong suit, even before his sidekick jock friends got their claws in him.

   “I will.” He was so earnest, even glancing skyward like he might actually be making a wish. I couldn’t help my laugh. My chuckle warmed my chilled body, but I wasn’t looking for any thaw in my opinion of Milo. I stamped my feet, trying to warm up further. It was cold, and Milo’s earlobes were pink, peeking out from under his knit cap. How long had he been waiting? Was he freezing under that coat? I hated myself for caring, hated the rogue thoughts about all the fun ways two people could warm up. Because it didn’t matter how good Milo looked and smelled—I was done crushing on straight, asshole jocks. And I needed to highlight, boldface, and underline that rule for Milo specifically. He’d trampled all over my feelings once. No way was I giving him any power over me now.

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