“At least try it on,” Ruby insisted. She’d been trying to convince me to expand my color selection for the past ten minutes after realizing I was only picking out black and dark grey clothing.
“Adding other colors would defeat the purpose. The idea is to blend into the shadows as much as possible,” I said.
“I’m pretty sure your goth meets hipster aesthetic doesn’t blend in. People notice you,” she said.
“I’m not trying to blend into crowds. It’s easier to hide in the shadows if I’m already wearing the right colors for it,” I explained.
“Magic is out though, soon enough, people won’t blink twice at someone appearing out of nowhere. Besides, it’s not like I’m suggesting you try on pastels or anything,” she said.
“Fine,” I said. I took the stack of shirts from her. She wasn’t going to let it go, so I figured I’d try to get her to agree to some changes too. “You know that’s not how things are going to be. We’re not going to get to be normal people as the rest of the world gets used to magic. At the end of the day, you and I still have to hide. We don’t know how things are going to change for us. We should do everything we can to minimize how much people notice us.”
“A girl can dream, can’t she?”
“What is your dream?” I asked. I was genuinely curious. I didn’t let myself think about the future anymore. At least not past where to go next and how to get money or supplies.
“What?” she asked.
“Your dream, that might not be the right word. Do you have a goal or destination in mind?”
“I hadn’t thought that far out. I’ve been more focused on where I don’t want to end up,” she said. If her pursuer had more limited reach than mine, there might be a way out for her. There was an equivalent to the Coven on every continent, often more than one. No matter where I ran, there was always someone that would hand me over for the right price.
“You might want to give it some thought this weekend,” I said. If she was going to find some way out and leave me on my own again, I wanted to prepare for it. Despite how new she was in my life, I didn’t like the thought of losing her. Being around her was refreshing. I hadn’t had anyone to care about besides myself in too long.
She stayed quiet while I tried things on. I didn’t interrupt her thoughts. When we did speak again, we kept the subjects light. I ended up buying more than my usual black and grey. All the colors were so dark that they would blend into the shadows as well. The hotel lobby wasn’t any calmer when we got back. I’d had my reservations about staying when Ruby sprang the convention on me, but I had to admit that it would be easy to lose someone in this crowd. A long hot shower and a new outfit gave me a sunnier disposition. Ruby still seemed distant, though. I couldn’t help feeling responsible for her gloom. I wanted her to take things a bit more seriously, but it didn’t feel right for her to be so sedate. She perked up at the suggestion of going down to check out the vendors.
The busy lobby was nothing compared to the crowds milling through the booths of memorabilia, merch, and celebrities downstairs. I’d never in my life been around so many people. If Umbra weren’t with me, letting me feel out the energy of everyone in a ten-foot radius of us, I would have been panicking. My anxiety still put me on alert as we moved through the mob. So many of the costumes included weapons, as did a good percent of the booths. The security at the doors was doing their best to ensure that nothing was dangerous, but none of them had been checking for any enchantments. I forced my discomfort down. Umbra’s power was doing a lot to help with that, but we were still new to each other. I wasn’t used to relying on help.
Ruby’s smile at the tangled mass of fandoms told me her worries were gone as assuredly as any magic could have. Her head never stopped moving as she took it all in. When she turned to face me, a bit of hesitation came into her expression. My stress must have been evident. She grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the throng. She surprised me with how deftly she extricated us from the herd. There wasn’t much free space for people who weren’t moving or perusing the merchandise, but she managed to get us as out of the way as possible. The t-shirt vendors she’d pulled us towards were so busy with actual customers that they didn’t have time to see if we wanted to buy anything. She didn’t let go of my hand.
“We can go back to the room,” she suggested. I gripped her hand tighter as people jostled us.
“No. I’m okay.” It wasn’t a lie. This experience was completely foreign to me, but I’d been through worse without breaking down. I’d lost my entire world twice and kept going. I didn’t want to admit defeat here.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yeah, but don’t let go if that’s okay?” I asked. She squeezed my hand in reassurance. There wasn’t any romance to it. I didn’t know Ruby’s orientation, but I could tell that she didn’t see me that way which was a relief. It would make traveling together a lot easier if I didn’t have to let her down in that way. She guided me back into the stream of conventioneers.
Up ahead of us, a crowd was forming. There was palpable excitement in the air. It was clear that we wouldn’t be able to make another escape like the one we just did without using more brute force than would be justifiable or taking a more magical route out. As I was considering that idea, I started to hear some of the excited chatter filtering back to us. The crowd was talking about magic, real magic, at the convention. There were as many people saying it was a cheap stunt pandering to nerd culture as there were exclaiming how excited they were for their turn. The mass pushed us relentlessly forward until we couldn’t go any further. There were multiple queues set up, all leading to a series of tents that lined the entire back wall. The same message scrawled over and over the whole length of it. “Safely Test Your Magic Here.”
I let go of Ruby’s hand. Her reflexes were fast enough to get a grip on me again immediately. I was looking around for any way out. I was so stupid for not thinking of it before. Of course, the Coven would have a presence here. It served them well. They looked open and welcoming, all while they had enthusiastic new potential recruits rushing toward them. I couldn’t push my way back the way we came, and I hesitated to use magic to escape. No matter who they sent, anyone with the most basic recruiting training would be able to feel a flair of power like the one it would take to get Ruby and me to freedom. She tried to get me to answer her, but I couldn’t even focus on what she was saying. Hers was another voice in the crowd even as she put her other hand on my arm to ensure she wouldn’t lose me. I was still paralyzed with uncertainty when Umbra’s ever-shifting shadow touched someone I recognized all too well. I didn’t think. I reacted. The shadow underfoot of the crowd swallowed Ruby and me. Noises of excitement followed us out of the room, but they were senseless when my mind was so focused on him. Icelus. Ice.