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It was nearing the end of December, over a month after his run-in with Desavi, when Nytep finally decided to venture back into Albany. Improbable though it might seem, he had been sincere in his intention to stay away. After all, surely no one mortal was worth dealing with a horde of Law & Order gods working together to ruin his fun. They were entirely too good at organizing the chaos he worked so hard to create.

But then. As he went to pursuing other endeavors, as he traveled and worked with other mortals, as he worked his wiles around the world, he still found his mind returning to July—how ironic that someone so cold should have a name so warm—and the fact that he’d never gotten a proper response from her. He still didn’t know why she was able to ignore his influence. He still didn’t know why she recognized him for what he was. Yes, he very much enjoyed his ability to have just about any mortal (and most supernatural types as well) eating out of his hand with only a few words. But it was so easy. And July was nothing if not difficult.

Part of him rebelled against that idea, against the notion that he couldn’t entertain himself as well as ever with his many, many, many other prospects. But the fact of the matter was it had been years, centuries even, since any mortal had made such an impression on him. As such, he couldn’t let the matter go until he either won her over successfully or physically couldn’t pursue her any further. And if Desavi made good on her threats to get rid of him, he would cross that bridge when he came to it. Assuming it doesn’t collapse first. Ha! The risk just made it all the more tempting.

So he very carefully went back to lingering around Albany, less like a predator out for prey and more like a researcher intent on collecting information. True to his word, he didn’t make any pointed effort to seek July out. But if they happened to come across one another by chance, could he be blamed? Desavi likely wouldn’t have accepted this logic, but all the more reason it was best to avoid her. Unfortunately, that meant he would have to resist making any large-scale trouble so that she couldn’t track him down that way. But it was fine. He knew already what he was there for.

As luck would have it, the next time he crossed paths with July was in a much more public setting. New conditions to observe! He was in a mall, the indoor type with several floors, casually looking for tensions to heighten, when he caught sight of an anomaly among the carefree teenagers and their purpose-driven seniors.

The one of these things that was not like the others wore conservative layers of velvet and silk, appropriate to the biting cold outside, and walked with her arms crossed below her chest, accompanied at one side by a woman similar in age but less distinctive in appearance. They were clearly there together, however, which struck him as odd. Somehow, he hadn’t considered that she would have friends among her fellow mortals. Did she find their company stimulating? He would’ve guessed not. Still, there was a way he could use this to his advantage.

An opportunity to speak with July was unlike his usual endeavors in that it took much more consideration. Less trickery and more strategy. But he was flexible. He watched the two move through the shops for a bit, gauging their relationship by the distance between them as they walked, observing the surprising lack of tension in July’s posture. This woman must be a close friend, then, someone she felt comfortable around. Someone whose opinion she would value. Good.

As they were browsing in an upscale shoe store that didn’t at all suit July’s aesthetic, he finally put his plans in motion and approached them. “Isn't this a pleasant surprise.” July stiffened at the sound of his voice. Delightful. Nice to know he’d made such an impression. She turned to glare at him, holding the large shopping bag in her arms closer as he placed himself conveniently next to both of them. “Nice to see you again, June.”

“July,” she said coolly. Something in her eyes was different from their previous encounters, more guarded, and the angle of her brows said…worried? Interesting. “What do you want?” Her inflection seemed to have changed from their previous conversations as well.

“Why do you assume I want something? I saw you from outside and thought to come say hello.” At this point, her friend put back the pair of patent leather pumps she had been looking at and nudged July with her elbow, clearing her throat pointedly. Rather than combat whatever negative connotations she should label him with, he took the initiative and introduced himself with a friendly smile. “I’m sorry; where are my manners? Cassius Black. I’m a recent acquaintance of July’s.” That word, ‘acquaintance,’ was coupled with a brief glance in July’s direction, the gesture just ambiguous enough to be interesting, suggestive enough that her friend might start to get ideas. Easily caught in the pull of his natural charm, she smiled back and gave him a nod.

“I’m Aniyah,” she answered, tilting her head, openly looking him up and down. But what he mistook for personal interest turned out to be something else when she turned a wicked smirk on July and asked, “So how do y’all two know each other?”

“Don’t start,” July said, rolling her eyes. “We ran into each other once and now he won’t quit following me around. That doesn’t mean I know him.”

The words themselves were certainly damning. If he were human, he was sure Aniyah would’ve turned on him in a moment. Fortunately, he wasn’t. “That’s only because you won’t speak to me half the time,” he pointed out, shifting his weight slightly in Aniyah’s direction so they were both facing down July now. “At least give me a chance before you decide I’m hopeless.”

“Girl, you deadass ain’t had a date in years,” Aniyah agreed. “How you gone keep being picky when you got a man looking like this”—she nodded toward Nytep—“tryna get with you?”

It took some effort not to laugh at the look on July’s face, which was somewhere between disbelief and betrayal. Then her sharp eyes flicked back to him in sudden understanding. For her, he had a different smile, one less friendly but more sincere. After a moment’s calculation, she looked back to her friend.

“Can I get back with you in a couple days? Me and Cassius need to talk.”

Oh? That was unexpected.

Aniyah grinned, assuming their encouragement had worn July down. Maybe she didn’t realize just how stubborn her friend could be. “Yeah, you do that. Imma see you at the wedding. Get in early so I can do something with this hair.” She flicked one of July’s braids, then hugged her tightly without much warning. Even as she returned the gesture, July’s discomfort with it was obvious. Winking at Nytep over her shoulder, Aniyah added, “Nice meeting you. Stay patient with her.”

“Will do,” he agreed. July shot him a disgusted look and stalked out of the store. As was becoming his habit, he followed right behind her.

“A wedding,” he mused as they walked, he with his hands folded at his back, she with her arms crossed defensively. “That sounds like fun. Who’s getting married?”

“None of your business.” Her pace was slower than usual, allowing him to keep up easily—possibly due to the bag she was carrying. A dress for the wedding, maybe?

“Oh, don’t be that way. From what I hear, you could use the social interaction. I’m not any more trustworthy with Aniyah’s endorsement?”

“Keep her name out of your mouth,” July snapped. Her fierce argument was such an enjoyable contrast to her friend’s compliance, a figurative fence lined with verbal razor wire to keep her thoroughly walled off and unknowable. Getting past it promised to be his greatest feat in years. “You’re here for me, aren’t you? So keep it that way.”

“Aha, is that a note of jealousy I’m hearing?”

“I’m sure you know it’s not. Unless you’re egotistical enough to justify pretending.” She was right, of course; he’d asked more to see her reaction than anything. “If I have to deal with you to keep you away from her, so be it.”

He recalled the look in her eyes when she’d first seen him there, that hint of nervous fear. She hadn’t been afraid of him before, so the deciding factor must have been her friend’s presence. Meaning it wasn’t herself she was afraid for. She knew that other mortals weren’t as resilient as she was, which meant Nytep was a real danger to them. No matter how much she loathed the idea of being around him, she was more concerned with keeping him from causing trouble for Aniyah. So she wasn’t quite as detached or self-involved as he’d imagined. He couldn’t help but smile as he worked all of this out—genuinely couldn’t help it. How was it she consistently kept surprising him?

“If you’re trying to make me lose interest,” he said, watching her thoughtfully, “you’re going about it all wrong, August.”

With a frustrated sigh, she asked, “Are you getting my name wrong on purpose or is your memory actually that bad?”

“Can you blame me? I had to learn it indirectly, and all I recall is the concept. It could be July or August or June—suppose I just call you Summer and be done with it,” he suggested, stealing another glance at her.

July’s brows furrowed and she turned away, but not quickly enough to hide the involuntary smile that had formed from that bit of wordplay. He’d supposed that line would be a risk, but it seemed to have paid off.

“Absolutely not,” she said, so calm and cool again that he almost second-guessed whether he’d seen her smile at all. Her glasses had slipped down from her sudden evasive maneuver, so she adjusted them as she spoke. “And don’t say it as if we’re going to be talking regularly.”

“No, of course not. Your rejections have deterred me since we first met. It’s pure coincidence that we keep running into each other this way.” She glanced at him with narrowed eyes, a patent look of resting hostility she had no doubt perfected through years of practice. Resolving not to push his luck, Nytep held up both hands in surrender and took a step back. “I’m going, I’m going. I’m sure we won’t see each other again any time soon, Miss Morgan.”

She looked surprised at his willingness to walk away, especially when she’d already conceded to endure his presence, but he had his reasons. In order for this to work, he had to take progress where he could find it and not demand anything further. As far as he was concerned, that smile was certainly progress.

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About the author

Sara N. Gardiner

Bio: I am but a humble nerd trying to make a living writing about magic and love.

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