July went to great lengths to make her home as uninviting as possible. From the border of salt rocks surrounding the small yard to the warding runes woven into the doormat, the house made it clear that visitors, particularly of the supernatural variety, were not welcome. The ones she’d dealt with almost always intended her some sort of harm, and she’d found that most of them wouldn’t be dissuaded by words alone. Luckily, July was at least as stubborn as any of them and twice as resourceful.
A Sunday afternoon found her in her basement office, hard at work on her longest-standing literary project: a catalogue of all the immortals she’d dealt with over the past nine years. As one of few mortals involved with the complicated hidden society of the supernatural, she had taken it upon herself to gather as much information as possible into a guide she could someday share with others. Others in the same unfortunate position she was in.
As she was in the middle of editing a recent entry, she was startled out of her concentration by a sharp knock at the front door. Although slightly muffled, the sound was still loud enough to carry all the way down to the basement. July sat where she was for a moment, hoping the intruder would leave, but as the knock repeated, she sighed and headed upstairs to answer.
When she peered through the peephole, she let out an involuntary groan of irritation. She’d thought she might make two weeks without one of them bothering her. That was too much to hope for, she supposed. When she opened the door, there was Death herself, better known as Valen Desavi, in all her perpetually-agitated glory. Her hyper-modern, professional image looked exceedingly out of place in July’s rural neighborhood.
“Since when do locked doors keep you out?” July asked, making no effort to feign friendliness.
“I’m trying to be civil. I want to talk.”
“Wonderful. Well, let me save some time for both of us and say: no.” She tried to close the door, but it was blocked by a red-soled leather boot as Valen stepped forward to stand in the doorway.
“Twenty minutes,” the Reaper said evenly. “Then I’ll go. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t important.”
They both knew July had no way of making her leave. That fact only seemed more evident when they stood juxtaposed this way. Valen was over half a foot taller in her heels. She was larger in every sense, in fact, from her wide hips to her broad shoulders to her confident, even cocky body language. While July’s wardrobe consisted of Victorian ankle-length skirts and lace-trimmed blouses, Valen opted for an array of bespoke suits to accent her business-first nature; on this day, every curvaceous inch of her was swathed in pinstriped gray wool. The only skin left visible was her face, a pale counterpoint to July’s cool dark brown.
After another second of silent glaring, July gave up with a sigh and walked away from the door. Valen followed her inside without invitation.
“What do you want?” July asked tersely, taking a seat in a plush wingback armchair.
“Not your life, so you can cut out that defensive shit.”
“You already know I don’t want you here. ‘Defensive shit’ is all that’s on offer.” Her legs were drawn close, hands folded in her lap. The tension in her body kept her posture impeccable.
“Fine. Won’t make me leave any faster, though,” Valen pointed out, setting her ever-present attaché case on the floor and unbuttoning her jacket to occupy the center of the sofa. Her arms draped over the back, and she crossed her legs at the thigh. “It might help you to know I’m not here for myself.”
“I doubt that. I’ve never known you to do things for anyone else.”
Valen scoffed. Her eyes weren’t visible behind the dark-tinted sunglasses she wore, but she probably rolled them. “Right, because humans, historically, are so selfless.”
“Are you not here to ask for something?” That was all immortals ever did, in July’s experience. They would seek her out, propose their deals, then get angry and make threats when she refused to trade them her soul no matter what they offered in return. It was a formula, a cycle, one she was more than a little tired of. And apparently, it applied to even the most supposedly-respectable supernatural beings.
Predictably, the Reaper answered, “In exchange for something I know you want.”
Voice dripping with sarcasm, July replied, “Well, when you put it that way—”
“Look, will you let me finish a fucking thought before you jump in with the snarky one-liners?” Valen snapped. “I’m here because I have another case like you.”
“Like me in what way?” July paused to consider and quickly realized there was only one reason the two of them ever interacted. “You mean another Seer?”
“Mm-hm. And other immortals are starting to notice. Ones who aren’t as friendly as me. She came into it a lot younger than you did, too; she’s still a kid.”
“That’s typically how it goes, isn’t it?” July’s hands clasped tighter still as she dropped her head slightly to hide behind her braids. Her Sight—her ability to recognize supernatural creatures when she saw them—had caused her a great deal of grief over the years. She wouldn’t have wished that on anyone, especially not a young girl. “I’m sorry to hear it, but that doesn’t explain why you’re here.”
“You and I both know what kind of attention Seers attract. It won’t be long until she’s getting offers, so she needs to learn how and why to resist them.” Valen raised her eyebrows. “No one knows that subject better than you do.”
The room was quiet as July stared at her in disbelief. “You want me to teach someone how to avoid immortals? Because I’ve always been so good at that?” she asked, gesturing at the Grim Reaper sitting in her living room.
“I didn’t say ‘avoid.’ I said ‘resist.’ You’re living proof that there’s no way for a Seer to steer clear of us altogether. But you’re also proof that being smart can keep you alive,” Valen reasoned, absently flicking her wrist out to check her watch as she spoke. “She needs to be taught how to know what she’s seeing and which of us are dangerous. You’re the closest thing I have to an expert.”
True as that might be, does it make this girl my responsibility? “What makes you think she would listen to me?” For that matter, she wasn’t sure why Valen would go out of her way to protect one little girl. Probably for the sake of preserving her all-important schedule; that was the only reason she bothered to defend July, after all.
“The situation’s been explained to her. She’ll take whatever help she can get.”
Valen turned away to hide the sneer that curled her red lips. “Yeah, like mine. Some selfish immortal bitch who wants her to live past childhood and maybe have some kind of afterlife. She’s pretty desperate,” she growled. Mollified, July didn’t answer. “I’m not asking you to do it for free. If you agree to look out for her and teach her what she needs to know, I’ll put one of my employees on permanent watch over the two of you until she’s ready to look out for herself. Keep any pushy immortals out of your hair. What do you think?”
July was quiet for several seconds, until finally she said, “I think I’m going to make tea. Do you want tea?”
Valen’s brows furrowed. “No. Thanks.” As July left for the kitchen, she called, “Don’t take too long about it; I have places to be.”
“You said twenty minutes. You still have at least ten more.”
She knew the process of brewing tea so well by this point that she could do it automatically. Good thing, because her mind was otherwise occupied at the moment. Valen wanted her to teach? A child? Granted, she used that word, ‘kid,’ liberally, but July knew most Seers came into their powers around the age of twelve. She had no idea how to relate to a twelve-year-old. And the things that would have to be said? That was bound to be an uncomfortable exchange.
As she poured hot water over peppermint tea leaves, she considered Valen’s offered ‘payment.’ To not be bothered by bloodsucking immortals every time she left her house? To not live in constant fear of their threats and coercion? It had been so long that she could hardly recall what that felt like. But could one of Valen’s reapers really accomplish that? Just one against all the others she dealt with? It seemed like a stretch.
She wanted to help that little girl. So what to do?
When July came back to the living room, she was carrying a tray laden with one of her many immaculate tea sets, the sort most people kept for display only. “I don’t know that I trust your employees,” she said as she set the tray down on the coffee table in the center of the room.
“I do,” Valen answered, as if that disqualified her statement.
“Well, I don’t.” July poured two cups in case her guest should change her mind. With her saucer and cup in hand, she took her seat again, her rigid posture starkly contrasted to Valen’s.
“What’s your point?” the Reaper asked.
“Rework your terms.”
Valen let out an amused snort. “How so?”
“If I’m going to trust someone to protect me, I want to know, first of all, that it’s someone with the ability to do so. Someone who cares enough to make sure it’s done right. Someone who has some stake in keeping me alive.” She glanced at the Reaper over the silver rim of her glasses; they both knew what she was saying.
“You can’t be serious.” All traces of mirth had fled Valen’s voice.
July’s lips curved in a smirk as she answered, “I’m dead serious.”