His amusement faltered. “It … it’s stupid.”
Curiosity lit through me. “Come on, tell me.”
He picked up a Harry figurine, stared at it, then sighed. “It’s the scar thing.”
I glanced from the figurine to the jagged white line that cut down Ezra’s face, an injury that had stolen half his vision. In the near six months I’d known him, how many times had complete strangers stared at him, pointed, or rudely asked what had happened? He had a collection of ridiculous explanations for the obnoxiously curious; last time, he’d warned the person to be extra careful with knitting needles.
I plucked the figurine from his hand and set it on the shelf, then unwound the Gryffindor scarf from around my neck, replaced it on a hook, and put on a Hufflepuff one instead. “Hufflepuffs are loyal and hardworking. That’s where I want to be.”
Smiling crookedly, Ezra adjusted my new scarf, snugging the soft knit up under my chin. The backs of his fingers brushed my cheek. “There. You’re ready.”
My skin tingled, but I pretended to be unaffected. “Ready for what?”
“To run for it. The cashier will never catch us. On the count of three. One—”
“Whoa, what? We are not shoplifting—” I belatedly noticed the sparkle in his eyes and growled. “Oh my god! You!”
Huffing, I playfully—mostly—swatted his shoulder, and his laughing grin broke free. With a roll of my eyes, I stalked up to the counter and dug into my purse, but he appeared beside me, bills already in hand. The cashier rang up the scarves, passed Ezra a handful of change, then cut the tags off our new winter wear.
“I can’t believe I fell for that,” I muttered as I swept ahead of him and pushed the door open. “Just wait until—AAHHH!”
The high-pitched shriek erupted from my throat as a blood-splattered face loomed six inches from my nose, mouth gaping in a loud moan. I fell backward into Ezra.
“Gaaahhhg,” the zombie burbled.
Dragging one leg, it lurched past me—and behind it followed two dozen bodies in torn clothes, their pale faces artfully smeared with glistening gore. As the horde shambled down the sidewalk, pedestrians stepped aside, laughing or pretending to cower in fear.
I clutched Ezra’s coat, wheezing as my brain caught up to reality. Halloween. It was Halloween, and those were costumes. A zombie walk. Fun downtown event, with professional makeup and all that. Pretend dead people. Ha ha, fun.
Sliding an arm around my waist, Ezra nudged me away from the shop’s doorway. I sucked in air and told myself I’d only freaked because my nerves were shot from the real-life horror show going on right now, unbeknownst to the public.
“I didn’t scream, did I?” I muttered.
“No, not at all,” Ezra lied solemnly.
I puffed out a breath, amused and embarrassed, then drew away from the safe circle of his arm. Straightening my jacket, I took one step—and a girl’s purse smacked me in the face as she flung her arm up to wave at someone.
“Oh, sorry,” she said brightly and hurried away.
Holding my throbbing nose, I took another step. Ezra grabbed my hand and hauled me back as a trio of knee-high kidlets in dinosaur costumes ran past, a frazzled dad chasing after them.
Ezra led me into the chaos, weaving through the jostle with better coordination than I’d displayed; he could use his air magic to sense movement around him. After half a block, we broke free of the worst of the crowd and I fell into step beside him. My fingers were curled around his, his warm palm engulfing mine. I didn’t need a guide anymore, and it was silly to pretend I did. I should nonchalantly free my hand. I really should.
Only when the bakery’s glowing windows were one shop away did I finally withdraw my hand from his. As I shoved the door open and stepped into the humid interior, my mouth immediately watered.
“Oh,” Ezra murmured. “It smells really good in here.”
It smelled like heaven, if heaven were made entirely of chocolate, vanilla, caramel, and cream cheese icing. The place was packed with salivating customers, and I got in line, Ezra right behind me. We slowly made our way to the front counter, and surrounded by warm light, chattering people, and delicious aromas, I could almost forget why I was bone tired and jittery with apprehension.
I finally stepped up to the counter. “Pick up for Tori Dawson.”
“Oh, you made it! Excellent.” The pretty eighteen-ish-year-old tucked a lock of blond-streaked hair behind her ear. “Can I get you anything else?”
I asked about buns and muffins, and she piled a dozen on the counter, then disappeared into the back. She returned with four big bags stuffed with cupcake trays, and we wrestled the new items into the bags. As we finished, she peeked at Ezra, who was drooling over the cake bombs in the glass display.
“Would you like to sample a pumpkin-spice cupcake?” she asked him, smiling shyly as she held up the bite-sized goody with pale orange icing. “They have orange buttercream icing and they’re to die for. I have one left.”
“Thanks.” He took the cupcake and offered it to me. Unable to resist anything sweet, I unwrapped it and bit off half. The moist cake exploded with flavor, its smooth, light icing melting on my tongue. “Oh hell, that’s delicious. You have to try this.”
As I held the second half out to Ezra, I started to ask the cashier if this flavor had been included in my order, but her gaze was darting from me to Ezra and her expression had dimmed with disappointment.
Sometime in the last eighteen hours of hell, I’d lost all coordination. Instead of holding the cupcake bite out for Ezra to take, I’d stuck it up toward his face—as though to feed it to him, like the cutesiest newly-in-love-and-revolting-everyone-around-them couple.
Ezra hesitated, caught off guard. Embarrassment ricocheted through me and I yanked my arm down to navel height—now weirdly low like I was trying to pass it to him in secret. Failing to maintain any dignity, I stuffed it into his hand and turned back to the counter.
“Are we good to go, then?” I asked gruffly.
“Yes, that’s everything,” she replied in a glum tone. “Have a nice evening.”
As Ezra took two bags, I heaved the other two off the counter and sped onto the sidewalk—almost crashing into a group dressed up as plastic green soldiers, faces painted and everything. I squeezed past them, my bulky bags bouncing off their legs. Behind me, Ezra apologized to someone he’d knocked into a bus stop bench.
We inched through the throng, trying to protect the cupcakes, but it was impossible. Spotting a group of thirty people, probably in the middle of a Halloween pub crawl, I ducked into the opening of a nearby alley. Ezra slipped in with me, just missing the oncoming swarm.
I watched them pass—but another group came in right behind them. If I tried to go through that horde, I was likely to punch someone out of my way. And then I’d get arrested for assault, and the police would confiscate all the delicious cupcakes before I got to eat any.
“Let’s cut through here,” I said, turning away from the sidewalk. “Skip some of the crowds.”
Ezra hesitated, then nodded. He didn’t like crowds either.
With the space to walk together, we fell into step side by side. He glanced warily around the alley, the darkness broken by lonely bulbs hovering above the back doors of shops. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, seeing what the bakery cashier had been admiring. Soft, loose curls in a perpetual tousle tumbled across his forehead and teased his eyes. Dark, sexy scruff edged his strong jaw, and his full lips formed a serious but somehow sultry line when he wasn’t smiling—but he usually had a quiet tilt at the corners of his mouth, subtle but warm.
His head swiveled, shoulders tight.
My steps slowed as I broke out of my reverie. “What’s wrong?”
Stopping in the center of the narrow alley, he turned in a circle, his smile nowhere in sight. As his brow scrunched with focus, he faced the way we’d come—then his head snapped back, gaze jumping to the rooftops three stories up.
He dropped his bags and the cupcake containers hit the ground with a crunch. Grasping my arm, he yanked me so hard I almost fell.
“Ezra?” I gasped.
I let go of my bags. The plastic containers broke open, spilling orange cupcakes onto the wet pavement. He hauled me into a stumbling run and we sprinted to an intersection of alleys. Fifty feet away on our right waited the brightly lit and bustling street. The other three directions were dark, narrow alleys full of dumpsters and graffiti-marked overhead doors.
Ezra glanced at the bright street, then pulled me in the opposite direction.
“Ezra!” I yelped, his grip on my arm painful. “What’s wrong?”
His gaze shot upward. This time I turned fast enough to follow his line of sight, my neck craning back. The rooftops loomed over the narrow alley, the silhouettes marred by power lines and rickety fire escapes.
Fear hit me like a bolt of arctic lightning, seizing every muscle in my body.
Two buildings down, perched on a rooftop, was a shape that belonged only in nightmares and horror movies. Something blacker than ebony, horns rising off its head, curved wings like a bat, and eyes that glowed like twin drops of magma.
Ezra and I fled down the alley.