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the hardest thing in this world (is to live in it)

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Lardo is sure there are worse times to deal with a vampire attack than when she’s heading home from a kegster, but at the moment she can’t think of any. It probably has something to do with the alcohol.

“Yo, don’t you have literally anything better to do on a Saturday night?” She means it rhetorically, but the vampire in question spins away from her intended victim with a hiss.

The vamp is wearing a dress that might have been classy before it got covered in bloodstains, and her long stringy hair doesn’t hide the trademark folded vampire brow. “Better than feasting on the blood of the Slayer?”

“Okay, gross.”

The problem with this whole one girl in all the world to fight the forces of darkness schtick is that monsters get way too excited about trying to kill her. It’s creepy, and honestly kinda awkward.

Lardo pats herself down trying to figure out what she did with her stake (did she leave it at the party? She has vague memories of it getting in the way of beer pong). Still, she spares a glance at the guy who just missed his one-way ticket to corpseville. He’s clearly less sober than she is. For one thing, it’s fall in Massachusetts and he’s not wearing more than a denim vest and shorts. No wonder the vamp targeted him – he’s a walking buffet.

Something about him looks familiar, but she pulls her attention back to the vampire. It’s a good thing she does – she just barely manages to stagger out of the way when the vamp charges. It’s not her most graceful move. She’s off balance as they exchange blows, so when she knocks into a trashcan she suddenly finds herself on the ground covered in garbage. Thanks a lot, jungle juice. At least she fell fast enough to avoid the vampire.

The vampire, who is smirking smugly and looming over Lardo. “Personally, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.” Lardo scrambles to her feet, shoes slipping in the garbage. “You’re just another dumb, drunk little party girl.”

The vampire reaches for Lardo, and she braces herself as well as she can given the combination of tipsiness and slippery trash. The claws are about to close around her neck and she tries to parry, but her feet skid—

A guttural yell echoes through the alley, and suddenly the drunk (or maybe high, now that she can smell him) guy has latched onto the vampire’s back, arms wrapped around her neck and legs around her waist. The vamp lets go of Lardo and reels back in sheer surprise.

“Check your internalized misogyny you wrinkly-faced fuck,” the high dude yells.

A startled laugh escapes Lardo as she staggers to more solid ground, snagging a broken wooden picture frame from the trash. The vampire is still struggling to get her former victim (currently crowing profanities with gusto) off her back, so Lardo takes her shot. The chunk of picture frame hits home between the vamp’s ribs, and the high dude falls to the pavement with nothing to hold onto but a cloud of ex-vampire dust.

“Hey man, you okay?” she asks, offering him a hand up. He takes it, coughing a little in the dust.

“Am I okay? A tiny avenging angel saves my bacon with the most inspired fucking improvised weaponry I’ve seen my life? My dude, I am motherfucking glorious.”

Most people don’t take the vampire thing this well. Yeah, definitely high.

“Appreciate the assist. Most guys don’t have the guts to tackle a vamp even with actual clothes on.”

He squints at her. “Are you questioning my need to be free from the bonds of clothing?”

“Nah,” she shrugs, “but I gotta be honest, I’m questioning the moustache. It’s got vamp dust in it.”

He squawks indignantly and paws at his face, yowling something that sounds like “not the ‘stache!” Lardo laughs and double checks that she didn’t drop anything in the fray. She got locked out of her dorm once freshman year after a brawl with a gang of demons left her keyless, and that was more than enough for the lesson to stick. Everything’s where it should be though, and on a whim she grabs the remnants of the picture frame on her way past. She’s almost out of the alleyway when he catches up to her.

“Hey, so I totally respect your independence and ability to take care of yourself, but I can’t help noticing that you’re a little wobbly there so I gotta ask, can I walk you home?”

His eyes are big and green and sincere, and Lardo considers it for a moment. It’s been a long time since a guy asked to walk her home out of honest concern: her friends treat her like one of the guys, and other dudes mostly want something from her (which isn’t always bad, except when she thinks she’s getting sex and instead ends up in a ritual sacrifice situation). It’s nice, but—

“No offense dude, but it looks like you might need it more than I do. Get home safe and in the morning this’ll just look like a bad trip.”

She doesn’t turn around, even when he mutters “not fuckin’ likely.” Right now, all she wants to worry about is sleep.

*

Lardo rarely gets hangovers, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with Holster loudly belting showtunes first thing in the morning.

“You will be found in a ditch if I have to hear that song again,” she grumbles when she finally makes it into the kitchen, heading straight for the coffeemaker. Predictably, Jack is already gone and starting the day like the overachiever he is, but her other roomies are mid-breakfast. Or brunch, at this point.

“I’m expressing my identity Lardo, I thought I could trust you. For shame,” Holster says, no less loud, but at least no longer singing.

Lardo turns back toward the table in time to watch him smother his eggs in sriracha, and immediately regrets it. She levels her best unimpressed look at him. “Siren hours start after noon.”

“Bro, you know I love your singing? But I gotta agree with Lards,” Ransom adds from behind his laptop. He’s trying to eat a toaster strudel without getting any on his keyboard, with questionable results.

“Betrayal!” Holster declares, mouth full. He flings his arm out for what Lardo can only assume is dramatic effect, and his fork goes flying and skids under the refrigerator. “Uh. Hey Lards, if I stop singing could you—”

She narrows her eyes at him. “Throw in a toaster strudel, and you’re on.”

He agrees, and Lardo ends up lifting the fridge so Holster can get the fork out from under it, while Ransom protests that Holster being lazy is not worth the cost of a toaster strudel.

The Haus is the only place Lardo can really be open about her identity. When she was in the dorms she could never really relax, but the Haus’s reputation for being haunted meant they got a sweet deal on rent. The fact that actually is haunted isn’t an issue—Ransom made peace with the ghosts almost before they signed the lease.

Still, she’s cautious most of the time – she doesn’t want the Watchers’ Council finding her again, because no way in hell is she going back under their collective thumb, and there are a lot of things that go bump in the night that would love to be the one to kill the Slayer. Ransom and Holster and Jack have her back, she knows, but they’re the exception and not the rule.

So Lardo tries to be careful about people seeing what she can do. Which is why she asks, “Hey, do either of you know a dude with long hair and a giant pornstache?”

Both Ransom and Holster sit to attention. Lardo keeps her attention on the toaster where her breakfast is cooking.

“Did you meet someone at the party?” Ransom asks, a grin creeping its way across his face.

“A drunken tryst with a rando, perhaps?” Holster adds.

“Meaningful glances across a crowded dance floor?”

“A brush of hands over the jungle juice?”

“Nah, just some guy who saw me dust a vamp last night.” And she launches into the whole story, leaving out exactly how drunk she was. As she’s finishing up the Haus door opens and closes, signaling that Jack is back from whatever he was up to. Probably a jog or something equally masochistic. She loves the guy, but he is way too much of a morning person.

“Dude just clings to the vamp’s back like a spider monkey?” Ransom asks.

“What did you say he looks like again?”

But Lardo is distracted, because Jack is talking to someone. It’s easy to tell, because the someone he is talking to is not quiet.

“Brah, this is a five-star resort compared to my shithole studio,” says the someone in a voice that pings Lardo’s memory.

And that’s when Jack enters the kitchen, followed by the exact person they’d just been talking about. “Oh good, you’re all here. Shits, this is Holster, Ransom, and Lardo. Shitty just transferred here this fall.”

“Any bro of Jack’s is a bro of mine, me and this magnificent fucker go way back,” says Shitty, which is not the weirdest name Lardo’s ever heard but comes pretty damn close. In the daylight he looks even more familiar than last night, and that nagging feeling is making her fingers buzz with anxiety.

“We’ve met,” she says, and Shitty grins in response.

“I know I said this last night, but that was some beautiful fucking slaying.”

“You know Lardo’s the Slayer?” Holster asks, leaning back in his chair, face in full skepticism mode. “That’s not exactly common knowledge.”

And realization hits. Lardo subtracts the moustache and several inches of hair, and can’t believe she missed it before. A cold trickle of dread goes down her spine, and the buzzing anxiety in her fingers spreads. Very purposefully she crosses her arms, so no one can see that her hands are shaking.

“Of course he does. He’s Balthazar Knight.” When neither Ransom nor Holster seem to understand, she adds, “My Watcher’s son.”

Without any further ado, Lardo grabs her breakfast and leaves.

*

“I don’t usually recommend sophomores, but I think you’re up for the challenge,” Professor Thompson says with a smile. “We’ll set up another meeting to check in closer to the date of the show, but until then please let me know if you have any questions.”

She hands Lardo an informational packet, which she takes dazedly.

“For sure,” Lardo says. “Thanks for putting my name in.”

“Just prove me right.”

Lardo leaves her advisor’s office fighting back a smile. After a spectacularly crappy weekend she needed some good news, and here it is on the informational sheet in her hands. The art department’s fall showcase is super selective, but she can handle it. She’ll make sure she does.

Her smile fades as she spots Jack across the quad with Shitty in a headlock. She sees the exact moment they notice her, and turns abruptly to head in a different direction. Apparently even Slayer speed isn’t enough for her—half a minute later she hears the pound of footsteps behind her.

Thankfully when she glances over her shoulder, Jack is alone.

“Hey,” he says, and Lardo takes mercy on him and waits for him to catch up. They begin the walk back to the Haus together in silence. They’ve never needed a lot of words to understand each other, which is maybe why she feels so betrayed. Her friends all know she’s worried about the Watchers Council tracking her down; she didn’t think she needed to tell Jack not to bring someone connected to the Council into her home.

She waits for him to speak first. If he wants to smooth this over, it’s all on him. Luckily, after a couple of blocks, he seems to realize it.

“I should’ve given you a heads up about Shitty.”

“Yeah, you should’ve.”

“He never told me his dad was your Watcher.”

“But you knew he was a Watcher.”

“Yeah.” Jack looks at the ground, then back up, his jaw set. “Shitty really is a good guy, though. He doesn’t want anything to do with the Council either, and he’s one of my best friends.”

“Look, I’m not gonna tell you not to be friends with him.” She doesn’t have the right to. The thing is, Jack doesn’t have a lot of friends. He’s serious and awkward, and he doesn’t trust people easily. If Shitty has earned his trust, how is Lardo supposed to second guess that?

She pauses to pull her thoughts together, because this isn’t something she talks about a lot. “I became the Slayer when I was fourteen. Knight spent the next three years brainwashing me into thinking the only thing that mattered was fighting monsters. No friends, no having fun, no being a kid or having a life. Know the only reason I got out?”

Jack shakes his head, because Lardo hasn’t told anyone this story, so how would he?

“I found out when a Slayer turns eighteen her Watcher drugs her so she’s powerless and locks her in a house with a vamp. Some kind of bullshit about proving herself. Made me realize it was kind of fucked to trust these people implicitly, y’know?”

Jack is staring her in horror. “Did he—did you--?”

“Nah, I overheard him talking about it beforehand so I got the fuck out of dodge. But you can see why I’m not psyched about Shitty being here.”

“Lards, I’m sorry I put you in this position. I really don’t think he’s going to rat you out to anyone, but if him being here makes you feel like you’re not safe, I’ll make sure he doesn’t come by the Haus anymore.”

She considers it. Considers what it felt like to see him in her kitchen without warning, and the feeling that the Council is never going to be done watching her. Remembers what it felt like to realize that she wasn’t safe with the people she’d put so much faith in.

“That’d be chill,” she decides. “Like, def don’t stop hanging out with him because of me though?”

“I wasn’t planning on it. Not everything’s about the Slayer, you know,” Jack chirps with a hesitant smile. “Are we good?”

“Yeah dude,” Lardo tells him, holding out her fist for him to bump. “We’re good.”

*

Lardo has been trying to sketch for hours now. When the boys left for a game night with Shitty she thought that would be the perfect opportunity to work out an idea for the fall art show. Her boys are both noisy and nosy, and she doesn’t want to jinx herself by having to explain her project before she knows what she’s doing.

The problem is, her brain won’t work.

The Haus is unnaturally quiet, and it leaves too much room for Lardo’s thoughts to get in the way. No matter how hard she tries to focus on her art, her mind keeps circling back around to Shitty, and the Watchers Council, and exactly how pointless Knight would think her art is. Every idea she comes up with seems stupid or boring or childish.

Dammit, she thought she’d gotten over this last year.

It’s getting late, and she can hear Holster’s voice drifting down the street. She doesn’t feel like dealing with anyone right now, so she goes up to her room and tries to go to bed. She listens to the sounds of the boys arguing about the winner of their last game of Catan, kicking off shoes and thundering their way up to their rooms.

She closes her eyes, but they won’t stay shut. Long after the last signs of movement in the rest of the Haus have faded, she stares at the dark ceiling above her bed. She keeps coming back to whether she did the right thing coming to Samwell in the first place, if it’s worth it to ignore everything else for a degree she doesn’t even know what to do with. If she can’t even come up with an idea for one student art show, how is she supposed to make a career out of this? It’s Knight’s brainwashing talking, she knows it is, but maybe she should have just stuck with Slaying to begin with.

She needs to get out of her head, and the best way to shut up that nagging voice is to go on patrol. The nice thing about living on a college campus is that it’s perfectly normal for people to be up and around in the middle of the night. Still, four thirty in the morning is a bit late (early?) even for most students. She loses herself in the routine for a while, the feeling of her feet on the ground and the awareness of the world around her. It’s been getting chilly at night, and the brisk night air and the quiet streets help.

Which is why the shattering of glass is hard to miss.

Lardo runs toward the sound of chaos—and she’s going to be pissed if Annie’s is closed down because the storefront was broken into, because their pastries are truly amazeballs. Whoever did it is still here too, judging from the yelling and crashing echoing down the street. She draws even with the shopfront just in time to see two vampires hit the back wall of the shop.

The inside of Annie’s is a mess—the tables and chairs are everywhere, with pots and baking sheets and dishware inexplicably scattered among them, along with the glass strewn all over the floor from the busted window. There’s a group of five or six vamps inside, all trying to get at something Lardo can’t see behind the counter, all yelling threats. As she watches, one of the vampires tries to climb over the counter and is pushed back by a barrage of flying kitchen utensils.

Ducking a measuring cup, Lardo wades into the fray. It doesn’t much matter what they’re after—it can’t be good, and it’s pretty much in her job description to stop them. She pulls her stake out of her waistband and dusts a vamp before the rest even realize she’s there.

Then, of course, there’s the inevitable yell of “Slayer!” and she’s facing down an entire—flock? Murder? What’s the appropriate name for a group of vampires? She feels like she really ought to know this.

“You won’t stop us!” declares the one that has to be their leader. Lardo’s lip curls: he’s wearing a lacrosse t-shirt. It figures. The lax bros are all douchenozzles anyway.

“Stop you from what, making a Casper the friendly ghost cosplay?” she asks, nodding toward a vamp that appears to be covered in flour.

“You can’t trick me! Our plan is foolproof, and not even you can get in our way!” snarls the lax bro in a way he probably thinks is menacing. Mostly it just makes him look nauseous.

“Chyeah, not buying that,” says Lardo, and launches herself at him.

Five vamps is a bit of a challenge, but Lardo should be able to handle it. She has in the past, at least. Tonight, though, something very weird happens. The lax bro in charge hold up his hands in an uncomfortable-looking way and Lardo stops moving, hanging suspended in the air. With a flick of the lax vamp’s wrist she crashes into the wall. It stings like a mother, and the laughter of the watching vampires does not help at all.

“Want to see what else I can do, Slayer?” asks the lax vamp, approaching Lardo’s dignified spot on the floor. He holds up his hands like he had before, but before he can do anything else one of the cronies calls out.

“Chad! It’s almost dawn!”

The lax vamp named Chad hisses, and turns to go. As he and his cronies retreat, Lardo hurls a pan at him like Captain America’s shield. Though he stumbles to the ground, the other vamps help him away before she can press her advantage.

Left alone in the now-empty café, Lardo can hear a muffled whimpering coming from behind the counter. She peeks around the edge, and it takes her a minute to find the source: a blond kid curled up in a ball beneath the register.

“Yo, it’s safe now, the vamps are gone,” she tells him. He uncurls slowly, scrubbing tears from his cheeks.

“Oh Lord, is that what they were? You hear stories, but I didn’t realize—are they coming back?” His voice drips with the South.

“Hard to say. Any idea why they were after you?” He shakes his head. “No worries, we’ll figure it out. You’re safe with me anyway. What’s your name?”

“Eric Bittle.”

“Cool. Lardo. Vampire Slayer. Let’s talk to the cops, then get you someplace you can clean up.”

*

They stay long enough to give statements to the police about the gang of frat boys that trashed the place. On their way out, Lardo grabs a piece of broken pottery she thinks would look badass as part of a sculpture, and then they’re back to the Haus where only Jack has started getting up yet. One look at Lardo and Bitty, though, and he’s roused Ransom and Holster in spite of her protests.

That starts a whole new hullabaloo.

“My index isn’t showing any subset of vampires that should be able to do that? But I’ll have to cross-reference some of the grimoires I haven’t gotten the chance to digitize yet, organic chem has been kicking my ass—”

“Or course it was lax bros! I knew they were evil, but this is a new low, even for them—”

“Where did you get training for your magic?”

It’s Jack’s question that silences them, and they turn as one to stare at Bitty, who fidgets under the attention.

“Magic? Well I’ve got a knack in the kitchen, and I don’t mind saying people always tell me my pies taste like magic, but as my Moomaw says a bit of kitchen witchery does not a witch make.”

“She’s right, it doesn’t. Until you train the rest of it, your magic is a danger to everyone, Bittle.”

“Well that’s a bit harsh for someone who just had a near death experience,” says Holster into the heavy silence. Poor Bitty looks like he’s about to crawl under another counter, so Lardo takes the situation in hand.

“It’s a good thing you’re here to teach him then, Jack. Bitty, vamps can’t cross a threshold, and the Haus’s is probably a lot stronger than the dorms. You’re welcome to stay here as long as you need to.”

Jack levels a long look at Lardo. “Fine. Lessons begin first thing tomorrow. I’m going to class.”

They start dispersing for showers and classes and a few more hours of sleep, but Ransom hesistates before he heads out. “Lards, I know you don’t like the dude, but it might be time to talk to Shitty. He might be able to help figure out what’s going on.”

Lardo sighs. “I guess it can’t hurt.”

And then she, too, has to get her shit together for class.

*

When she tracks Shitty down, he’s devouring a burrito from the food truck that stops next to the quad. As he catches sight of her his eyes go comically wide, and he (presumably because his mouth is full) makes a series of incomprehensible gestures with his arms. Lardo decides they mean he wants her not to leave before they can talk, and since that’s what she was going to do anyway, she crosses her arms and raises an eyebrow.

He dodges through the crowd toward her, holding the burrito aloft like the Olympic torch to protect it from careless undergrads on passing period.

“So let me start by saying I am deeply sorry for infringing on your privacy and making you feel that your fucking beautiful ‘fuck you’ to the Watchers Council went unheard,” he blurts as soon as he gets in speaking distance. He has rice stuck in his ridiculous moustache, and it should by all rights be disgusting but it’s almost endearing.

“Last I heard, you wanted to be part of the Council.” No matter how cool Ransom and Holster and Jack think he is, she will not let the Watchers’ Council rule her life again. Even if it comes with earnest green eyes and over-the top gestures that make it really hard not to crack a smile.

“Not gonna lie, I was on the Watcher train for a hot minute, family tradition and all that fuckery,” he admits. “The more I learned, though, the more obvious it was how fucked up it is for a bunch of musty old dickbags in an office to be ordering around the lady with all the power, you know? I followed your beaut of a lead this summer and peaced out. Came here because of Jack, no fucking clue this was where you ended up until you were saving my life.”

He looks like he’s telling the truth, and she wants to believe him, but it’s too much of a coincidence. “Your dad pulled some fucked up shit.”

“Brah, my father is the pinnacle of rich white asswipehood, and that’s before you factor in the motherfucking Council. I had to live with that cockstain half my life, you have my fullest fucking sympathies.” He punctuates that statement with a huge bite from his burrito. Lardo takes a minute to study his face. Other than the nastiness of his chewing, there’s nothing that pings her instincts. She gives in.

“Swear you’re not a Council spy here to keep an eye on me?”

“I do so solemnly swear.”

“Swawesome. If you fuck up, you’re not getting another chance.” She gives him her best intimidating glare, and is gratified to see him pale a shade or two. “Now I’m going to let you buy me one of those bitchin burritos while I tell you about what happened this morning.”

And that’s exactly what happens. Shitty is a surprisingly good listener, and waits until she’s done before asking any questions.

“You said the little dude is a witch?”

“According to Jack. And like, if you’re going to trust anyone about magic…”

“It’s gonna be Jack motherfucking Zimmermann,” Shitty finishes for her, nodding and stroking his chin. “I’ve heard rumors of witches and other folks with strong magic going missing around the Boston locale. I’m talking no fuckin trace. If I had to make a guess, I’d say this gang of vamps you ran into has been siphoning magic from witches to use for themselves.”

“Which is where that weirdass puppeteer routine came from,” Lardo guesses, scrubbing at her mouth with the cuff of her sweatshirt sleeve. The burrito was bomb, but also a mess. Whatever, totally worth it.

“Seems like it would make the most sense.”

“Any idea how it works?”

“Brah, if I figure it out I will call you the same fuckin second.”

“Sweet. Thanks for the burrito, dude, but I’ve gotta bounce. Comparative lit waits for no woman.”

“Anytime you want to pick my brain, be my guest.”

Lardo manages to get ten feet away before she turns around. “You don’t have to stay away from the Haus. You should come hang sometime.”

And it’s infuriating, but the grin that lights his face before she leaves stays in her mind the rest of the day.

*

Both Bitty and Shitty become fixtures at the Haus. It turns out Bitty was a baker at Annie’s before it closed for repairs—which explains both why he was a the café at such an ungodly hour, and why the Haus is suddenly near-constantly full of pastries.

“My family has kitchen witches going back generations,” he explains to Lardo one afternoon. “It sure surprised the bejeezus outta my mama when it turned up in me, usually it’s just the women who get it. But they trained me up just the same, so I don’t know why it’s not good enough for some people that I never saw a need to go beyond the kitchen.”

“Dunno, might be useful to be able to use that flying pan mojo whenever you want,” Lardo suggests, sifting through her pile of clean laundry to find the match to the sock she’s holding.

“Larissa Duan how dare you suggest I’d willingly abuse my kitchen tools that way.”

She shrugs. “Then learn to choose what not to send flying. Just saying, Jack knows what he’s talking about. Give him a chance.”

“Do all you magic-type people know each other up north? I’ve never met a single soul outside my family I could talk to about this.”

“I’ve gotta keep track of who’s around so I can do my job,” Lardo says. She gives up on the unmatched sock and throws it back on the pile. “I actually met Holster because I heard him singing in the shower back at the dorms and thought a full-blooded siren was going after college kids. We were both pretty surprised when I busted in on him.”

Bitty covers his grin with one hand, but his shoulders shake with laughter. “Lord, that must’ve been a sight.”

Lardo grins, remembering the expression on Holster’s face. “One I def could have gone without seeing, but we worked it out. And then his roomie was Ransom, who’s been talking to ghosts since he was a kid, and he’s been on this mad crusade to digitize all those musty-ass arcane tomes that’re impossible to get through, so I kept going to him to figure out weird Slayer crap. And now I’m stuck with ‘em.”

“And Jack?”

“The coven Jack’s dad runs is a pretty big deal, so we recognized each other pretty much right away. We both came here to lay low. Took us a while to realize neither of us was gonna tell anyone we’re here.”

“Why doesn’t he want people to know where he is?”

Lardo inspects a purple t-shirt to make sure all the paint came off in the wash. “Not my story, bro, but he has good reasons.” She remembers how the conversation started and adds, “You should ask him sometime. It’s why he takes magic so seriously.”

Bitty remains skeptical, but he also keeps going to early morning magic clinics with Jack (she can tell because Jack returns to the Haus for breakfast looking frazzled and occasionally singed) so she counts it a win.

Shitty... Lardo made the decision to trust him, but that’s different from relaxing with him. She watches him growing closer with the boys—wrestling with Jack, yelling over Mario Kart with Ransom and Holster, losing progressively more clothing every time she sees him—and realizes he’s not at all what she expected from the son of her Watcher.

One night he finds her smoking a joint out in the reading room, and she tells him as much. He holds his hand out for the joint, and doesn’t say a word until he’s taken a long hit from it.

“Brah,” he tells her finally, “I take great satisfaction in knowing that if he could see us both in this moment, he would flip his fucking shit.”

He spends the rest of the night regaling her with stories of how out of touch with reality the rest of the Watchers-in-training in his class were. In return, she tells him all about her ridiculously superstitious freshman roommate that she couldn’t stand. They wind up laughing so hard she’s briefly afraid one of them will fall off the roof, debating alternate realities and worlds without shrimp. His laugh is infectious, and the answering fizz in her stomach helps keep her from getting too cold.

After that, it’s not quite so weird seeing him around the Haus.

*

Ransom and Holster are peering out the window to the lax house down the street. Again. Lardo is trying her best to ignore them and get ready for class, but their volume alone makes it hard to tune them out.

“I’m just saying, a little siren mojo and we can get in no problem,” Holster points out.

Ransom strokes his chin thoughtfully. “If it really is overrun with vamps, I bet there are plenty of restless spirits there that’d be happy to spill some secrets.”

“Get that good revenge intel,” Holster agrees.

Lardo hefts her bookbag. “I checked the neighborhood for vamps before we signed the lease. We’re good.”

“Sure,” Ransom says, “but it could be a new development. And Chad’s crew has to be hiding out somewhere.”

Guilt curls in her stomach. Sophomore year has been shaping up to be a lot harder than she expected, and the weight of classes and homework and the art show have kept her from doing the kind of slaying she should. A few routine patrols help reassure her she’s not leaving the campus defenseless, but she hasn’t had the time to really dig into the problem of Chad the lax vamp and his crew.

“I’ll do some recon this weekend,” she decides, already on her way out the door.

Working on life-drawing in class takes enough of Lardo’s attention to forget about the vampires for a little while. All of her focus is on turning what she sees into shapes and smooth lines on paper, learning what makes a body instead of just what kills one. It’s hard—realism is not Lardo’s jam—but she can see why it’s important, and it’s satisfying when she gets the curve of an arm or the angle of hips just right.

As she packs up she chats with the girl at the next seat over, who is ridiculously good at this.

“I took an anatomy class last year,” Amy tells her.

“No shit? That helped?”

Amy slides her sketchbook into her bag. “Once you know what’s under the skin it’s easier to see how it all fits together.”

“Swawesome. Maybe I should sign up for it next semester.”

“It’s a great way to get rid of a science credit too, as long as you’re not squeamish.”

Lardo considers of all the monster gore she’s seen over the last five years of her life and snorts. “Blood and guts are not a problem.”

So Lardo is thinking about Amy’s advice and anatomy and art as she leaves the art building, and suddenly she knows exactly what to do for the art show. She takes a seat on the closest bench and immediately begins sketching, because she can’t let this idea slip through her fingers. It takes a couple of different tries to get the concept sketch how she wants it, but finally it’s good enough that she won’t forget what she was thinking when it’s time to make something a little more concrete.

It’s later than she realized by the time she’s done, but she doesn’t have any other classes this afternoon, so it’s no biggie. Mostly she’s just relieved to finally have a concept she can work with, and tentatively excited to get started on it. She feels buoyant as she begins her walk back to the Haus.

On her way back she runs into Jack and Shitty, who greet her warmly but are wrapped up in some kind of hockey rivalry debate that she doesn’t care about. Lardo tells them on no uncertain terms that she has no opinion on the Bruins vs. the Habs and will not get involved.

Jack stops abruptly, pulling Lardo out of her mental inventory of what she’s going to need for her project to work. “There’s something going on at the lax house.”

“Knob-gobbling fuckmints,” Shitty says.

Lardo is inclined to agree. They’re not quite close enough to jump into the fray, but it’s clear there is one. As they watch, someone is thrown through the front window of the lax house, begins smoldering in the sunlight, and runs back into the building with a furious yell. Well, that answers the question of whether the vamps are using the lax house as a hideout.

The door stays open after the hapless vamp gets back in, and somehow Lardo is not surprised to see Ransom and Holster fighting to get out. Holster’s voice rises above the commotion, threaded with magic that’s keeping the vampires from touching either of them, but it’s clear that they’re outnumbered. Whenever he turns his siren voice in one direction, vamps close in from the other side. Ransom is watching Holster’s back as best he can; he’s strong and knows how to fight, but a medium doesn’t have a lot of firepower when compared to a swarm of vampires.

Lardo bursts onto the scene as Ransom falls to his knees. She doesn’t have time to check and see if he’s okay—instead, she busies herself turning back the tide of vamps. As she fends off the brunt of the attack, she can see Jack swooping in to get Ransom and Holster to safety. Someone (Shitty, by process of elimination) is firing crossbow bolts at any vamps that make it past her.

Lardo is good at what she does, but when she’s outnumbered and trying to protect people, her job gets a lot harder. As soon as her boys are out into the safety of afternoon sun, she makes a break for it. It takes a few minutes to disengage, and she manages to dust a few vamps in the process, but then she’s out the door and home free. The vamps are snarling and shouting after her, but there’s nothing they can do unless they want to end up extra-crispy.

Shitty falls into step with her, putting a one-handed crossbow back into his bag. “So has there always been an entire fuckin’ nest of vampires down the street from the Haus, or…?”

“Definitely wasn’t here last year,” Lardo tells him, but past that there’s not much she can say. Again her stomach twists; she should have known that this was here. She should have been paying closer attention to what was happening on her campus. She should have been doing her job.

“What were you thinking? You didn’t just put yourselves in danger, you put all of us in danger!”

Jack is furious, and it takes Lardo a minute to realize that he’s yelling at Ransom and Holster and not her. They’ve gathered in the living room of the Haus, with Bitty wringing his hands in the door to the kitchen. Holster is bandaging the gash on Ransom’s thigh that took him down—it looks painful, but thankfully mostly superficial.

“We were thinking that we need to figure out what’s going on with this gang of vampires, and no one else seemed to be doing anything about it,” snaps Holster.

“You mean I wasn’t doing anything.”

The boys look up at her, startled to find Lardo there.

“You know we don’t blame you,” Ransom begins, but Lardo cuts him off.

“Kinda seems like you do.”

“Lardo, you’re here for school like the rest of us, you’re right to focus on that,” Jack says, though it seems more like it’s directed at Holster than at her. “You’re not responsible for these two acting like idiots.”

That starts out a new wave of protests from Ransom and Holster, and suddenly Lardo just feels tired.

“Whatever. Jack, can you and Bits throw up a few extra defenses around the Haus when you get a chance?” He nods, and she turns to Bitty. “Dude, whatever you’ve been cooking, can I have one? It smells amazing.”

The peanut butter cookies are good, but they don’t do a thing to fix the uneasiness that’s settled in her stomach.

*

“I’m going to be honest with you, it’s a good concept but you should be a lot further in the process by now,” Professor Thompson says. She isn’t unsympathetic, but for as long as she’s been Lardo’s advisor she’s always told shit like it is. “It isn’t anything to be ashamed of if it’s too much on top of your regular classwork—we can always shelve it for next year’s showcase.”

Yeah, on top of regular classwork. More like on top of classwork and trying to figure out what Chad has been up to and keeping Samwell safe from run-of-the mill vamps on top of that. Lardo has barely slept in the last two weeks—at night she patrols, and in the daytime when most creepy-crawlies go to bed she’s focused on getting her homework done.

Maybe it would be better if Lardo did give up on this project. Except it feels like working on her sculpture is the only time she’s felt like she could breathe in all of this mess. Except giving up on this feels like letting Knight win.

“I’ve got a plan,” she says. “I’m staying on campus over Thanksgiving break, so I can really focus on getting it finished on time.”

Prof Thompson nods. “I’ll expect an email check-in the Monday classes resume. I’m looking forward to seeing your work—but remember, it’s okay if you need to drop out.”

Lardo reassures her again that she’s going to get this sculpture done, and leaves Prof Thompson’s office feeling even more tired than when she went in.

Campus is buzzing with the excitement of break as she heads back to the Haus, and the students’ energy only seems to drain hers. She thinks, if she times things right, she can treat herself to a nap for an hour or two before she has to go on patrol again.

Her bed is warm and comfortable, and she falls into it without setting an alarm. So she shouldn’t be surprised when she wakes up disoriented several hours later, the light coming through her blinds dim with evening. She groans and rubs the sleep from her eyes, still groggy despite how long she’s been asleep.

Reluctantly Lardo rolls out of bed, grabs a couple of stakes and a jacket, and heads out.

By now she has her routine down: stop by the cemetery on the edge of campus, do a circuit of the frat houses and alleys behind bars around peak party hours, and finish up with one last check at the cemetery to make sure no graves have been disturbed in an undead-rising sort of way. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but she’ll give this much to her Watcher: he prepared her on how to protect her town the most strategic way possible. Ransom’s injury might only have been minor, but it could easily have been worse. She’s not going to make the same mistake again, thinking Samwell will be safe while she messes around with sketches and sculptures.

There’s already a dark silhouette standing in the graveyard when she gets there. Lardo weaves through the headstones carefully, quietly, stake at the ready—

“Brah, have you seen how ancient some of these graves are? It’s fuckin wild.”

“Holy shit, dude,” says Lardo, pulling back at the last moment, heart pounding wildly. “A little warning next time, I almost staked you.”

Shitty places a hand over his heart and shakes his head mournfully. “What a sad, sad day we have come to when a dude can’t come see his bro in the cemetery at night.”

“Tragic.” She starts walking, and Shitty follows. “Seriously though, what are you doing here?”

“It’s been ages since the last time I saw you—”

“It’s been a week.”

“Right, ages!” repeats Shitty. “And I figured if you were too busy to come hang out, I’d bring the hanging out to you.”

“Sure, if wandering around looking for vamps to dust is your idea of a good time.”

“Lardo, Lards, Slayer of my heart, it’s a beautiful night if a bit nippy, the moon is bright, we don’t have class for a whole week, and I’m with one of my best bros. What more could I want from a Friday evening?”

“Literally anything,” says Lardo. She sure wishes she could be doing anything else. Wishes she could be one of the kids partying it up instead of out here surrounded by dead people with the weight of the entire campus on her shoulders.

Shitty hums, hands in his back pockets and looking up at the sky, where she can just make out he shadows of clouds against the darkness. “The thing is,” he starts slowly, “I may not agree with the patronizing misogynistic fuckwads running the Watchers Council, but like, there was a reason I wanted to be a Watcher, y’know?”

Lardo spins to face him, rage sparking in her chest, but Shitty is already holding up his hands in defense.

“Just hear me out. I thought being a Watcher was supposed to be about being your backup, giving you a team you could count on. Of course we all know how the Council screwed the fucking pooch on that. Telling you how to use your power, dictating your life, all that is complete and utter bullshit. But Lardo, it’s just as much bullshit for you to handle all of this on your own.”

“If you’re saying I can’t handle it—”

“Brah, you and I both know you can handle it blindfolded with one hand tied behind your back, that’s not even a fucking question. I’m just saying, you shouldn’t have to. You have people who care about you who’ve got your back, but you’ve gotta let us. Let me.”

“I’m not looking for another Watcher.”

“I’m not trying to be a Watcher, I’m trying to be your friend.”

The smile he gives her makes her forget for a moment that the night is dipping towards freezing. It’s impossible not to return it. “I guess I could put you to use.”

The smile turns manic as he punches the air and hollers, “Fuck the Council!”

“Fuck the Council!” Lardo echoes, laughing, and feels something in her chest relax.

Of course, their yelling attracts an errant vampire, but it doesn’t take long for Lardo to dispatch it. When her opponent is dust in the wind, Lardo hooks her arm through Shitty’s and tugs him to continue her—their patrol.

“So what do you think William Pratt here died of in 1880?” she asks, motioning to a gravestone.

Shitty strokes his chin. “Freak accident with a railroad spike.”

“Derivative,” Lardo tells him, shaking her head. “He choked on a cranberry while learning to yodel.”

Lardo laughs as they continue on, each trying to come up with the most ridiculous cause of death. They only find one more vamp that evening, but by the time Shitty walks her back to the Haus, she’s ready to admit that it wasn’t the most awful patrol she’s ever been on.

*

None of the boys have gone home for break, for various reasons: Jack and Ransom insist this isn’t real Thanksgiving; Bitty’s too far from home to justify the plane tickets; Shitty doesn’t want to go anywhere near his dad; and Holster seems like he just didn’t want to miss out on a week of hanging out with his friends.

So that’s all well and good, except that they all want to goof around and she…can’t.

“Believe me, I get school being a lot,” Ransom tells her after she turns down yet another invitation—this one to a big-screen showing of The Room. “But you’ve gotta take some time to relax and throw plastic spoons at Tommy Wiseau, too.”

Holster scoffs and brushes past them out the door. “She’s still mad at us for going after that nest without her. C’mon, Rans.”

“Holtzy—” she says, because she was pissed but that isn’t the issue, she just doesn’t have time, but he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down or acknowledging her. Ransom looks between them, shrugs apologetically, and hurries after Holster.

Lardo tries to focus on her showcase project. When she’s actually in the studio she’s excited to work on it, and everything else that’s been stressing her out gets pushed back to the corners of her mind. The day before Thanksgiving she thinks she has the framework done, and she gives herself the rest of the afternoon off.

She’s settled on the couch watching YouTube clips of baby ducklings to relax when Ransom finds her. He flops heavily onto the couch beside her and fiddles with his phone, but it’s pretty clear that he isn’t here just to chill. Lardo waits for him to put down his phone and talk, and it isn’t long before he does.

“Jenny and Mandy told me you haven’t really been home much,” Ransom says. “And usually I try not to listen when the ghosts are invading my friends’ privacy? But they seemed really worried, and honestly I’m worried too.”

“I’m not avoiding you,” Lardo says, looking up at where Holster has come to loom in the doorway. “I mean, I am totally pissed that you guys almost got yourselves killed, but that’s not what this is about.”

Holster crosses his arms, unconvinced. “Then what is it about?”

“I’ve got this art project I have to finish in like, a week, and the deadline is totally kicking my ass.”

“Not to call you out or anything, but it seems like more than just a problem with school,” Ransom says.

“It’s not school. My advisor recommended me for the fall showcase.”

“No shit?” Ransom sits forward, the couch creaking under him. “Isn’t that like super hard to get into unless you’re a senior?”

“That’s the one.”

“Swawesome,” says Holster, finally cracking a smile. “Lards, that’s baller. Why didn’t you say anything?”

Lardo shrugs, tries to act like this hasn’t been bothering her all semester. “Didn’t wanna jinx it. I wasn’t sure I could handle it on top of regular classes and slaying.”

Ransom and Holster exchange one of their looks. For a while when they first met Lardo seriously wondered if they might be telepathic, but by now she’s pretty sure they just know each other that well. Whatever the truth is, one look is clearly all they need.

“Of course you can handle it, you’re a badass,” Holster tells her.

“If you were that worried, we could have helped,” Ransom adds. “We’re always happy to keep vamps from eating people.”

“And no offense, but I think the campus will be fine if you take a few nights a week to actually get some sleep,” finishes Holster.

Lardo raises her eyebrows. “Really? ‘Cause a couple weeks ago it seemed a lot like you thought I wasn’t doing enough.”

It’s gratifying to watch Holster squirm. “It’s possible I wasn’t thinking straight, and I def didn’t mean to get Ransom hurt. Sorry, bro.”

The apology is directed at Lardo—she assumes that the two of them have already given whatever apologies they needed to each other. “It’s chill.”

“Okay, but it’s not chill,” says Ransom. He slings an arm around Lardo’s shoulders. “And we’re going to make sure you don’t have to worry about slaying again until your showcase is over with.”

“What about Chad?” she asks.

Holster muscles his way onto the couch on Lardo’s other side, mirroring Ransom with an arm around her shoulders. “Chad can fucking wait, dude, you’ve got art to do.”

Lardo’s opens her mouth to tell them no. This isn’t their responsibility, she can’t slack off just for the sake of some sculpture—but she hesitates. Isn’t this exactly what Shitty was trying to tell her? Her friends have her back, if she lets them.

“What did you have in mind?”

With that, Holster and Ransom waste no time summoning Jack and Bitty and Shitty. Before Lardo knows it, they’ve worked out a schedule for the five of them to patrol while Lardo takes some time to work on her art and not kill herself via exhaustion.

The rest of break goes by in a blur—but a well-rested blur. Bitty banishes most of them from the kitchen while he makes a spectacular Thanksgiving dinner. Lardo is interested to note that the only person he lets stay and help him is Jack, who previously has shown no sign of skill in the kitchen past blending protein shakes.

She has her reservations about letting Bitty join the patrols, and she’s not reassured the morning Ransom jumps out at him from a pile of leaves where he’d been buried by Holster. The end result not only undoes the work that Holster had done in raking the front lawn, but leaves the yard looking like a hurricane has passed through. She can only hope no one noticed how it all happened.

When Lardo asks Bitty about it, though, he’s quick to promise that he’ll be fine.

“I really have gotten better at control, Jack’s a great teacher,” he swears, conscientiously picking leaves off his clothes. It might be the brisk November air, but his cheeks are redder than usual. “Besides, we made sure he’s partnered up with me, remember? Don’t you worry about a thing, Larissa Duan, everything is under control.”

And somehow, he’s right. Her friends carry off patrolling without a hitch, and Lardo is ready to face classes the following Monday with both enough sleep and a report to Prof Thompson that she’s almost done with her sculpture.

*
Shitty finds her in the art studio the night before the showcase. It’s mostly deserted this time of night, and Lardo is definitely not hyperaware about that or how grungy her working clothes are. Whatever, he’s seen her in literal trash before, it’s not like she needs to impress him.

“Yo, if you’re here you can hold this while the glue sets,” she tells him, letting him take her place and stretching her arms out.

“So I knew you were an art major? But until this moment I didn’t fully realize how wicked awesome that is,” he tells her, peering around her work area. Her project for the showcase is a found-object sculpture, but she has a couple half-finished canvasses too, assignments for class and personal projects. She wonders what they must look like to Shitty, stylized and incomplete.

“Mostly it’s just class assignments, no biggie.” Except for how she suddenly wants to block his view so he can’t see this part of her. She doesn’t, because she is definitely too cool to be nervous about a friend seeing her art. Definitely.

“Bro. I couldn’t do this if it was a motherfucking color-by-number,” he says, and the words are flippant but the way he holds her gaze—

“I guess it’s pretty cool, but it’s not, like, saving the world.”

“Lards, if I can ask, why art? What made you say ‘I’m great at annihilating demons and lifting improbably heavy objects, art is totes my calling?’”

Lardo’s hands find their way into her rear pockets, and she looks around the space to avoid looking at Shitty. “It was like, the opposite of slaying, you know? Like, the Council looked at me and only cared about me destroying things.”

“So you went and found a place where you could create?”

“Yeah, and where my feelings were important and junk.”

“For a rebellion, I gotta say Lardo, this is a fuckin badass one.”

“Maybe. But it’s like, does it even matter if I can do this when I can be out there saving lives instead?”

“Bro, I need you to look at me because I’m pretty sure I’m stuck to this fucking stellar work of art.” Lardo laughs and walks over to help unstick his fingers from the heavy duty glue of the sculpture. “The great thing about people is, we’re more than one thing. You don’t have to be all Slayer all the time! Human nature means you gotta just make shit sometimes, embrace the shit that makes you different from the monsters. I’ve never seen vampire art? But I’m pretty sure it’d just be finger painting with blood.”

“Dude, you literally just glued yourself to a sculpture of an anatomical heart.”

Shitty waves his free hand. “That’s different, yours is fucking meaningful or whatever. What I’m saying is if art is what keeps you fuckin human, then it’s just as important as the world-saving.”

Lardo realizes that although she’s unstuck Shitty’s hand, she’s still holding onto it. She doesn’t let go.

“Chyeah, well, make sure the vamps get the memo not to bother me until after the showcase.”

A crash from somewhere deep in the building has Lardo turning to face the entrance, senses on alert. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

“I’m shocked at you Lards, the laws of irony are like Slaying 101,” Shitty says.

They can hear vamps opening and closing doors all up and down the hallway, then the crashing of furniture and drawers and smaller objects being flung around by people who clearly don’t care about them staying intact. Lardo exchanges a glance with Shitty, and without another word they pad quietly to frame the doorway. She notes that Shitty has pulled a small crossbow from his bag, and wonders if he takes it to class with him. Probably—Watcher school dropout or not, there’s a certain level of paranoia that never goes away once you know vampires exist.

It’s only a matter of minutes before a pair of the vamps comes into the studio. It isn’t much of a fight—the vamps weren’t ready for them, and both Shitty and Lardo know what they’re doing. They make a good team—in only a minute both vamps are dust.

Lardo heads for the door, ready to take on all the rest that are tearing the building apart, but Shitty puts a hand on her wrist and she pauses.

“I’ll totally follow your lead, but seems like they’re looking for something. Might be a good idea to find out what it is.”

It’s a good call, so instead of bursting into the hall guns (or stakes, or crossbows) blazing, they ease the door open a crack and peek through it. Down at the end of the hall Lardo recognizes Chad the lax vamp overseeing things. As they watch, one of his underlings approaches.

“No sign of it on the second floor. Are you sure it’s here?”

Chad snarls like someone who isn’t used to snarling, but clearly thinks he should. It’s pathetic, really. “The locator spell indicated this spot on the map. It’s got to be here somewhere.”

Lardo isn’t convinced, and clearly neither is Chad’s lieutenant. “The thing’s broken, how can we even be sure the spell worked right?”

“It worked right, and if you don’t believe me why don’t you go and find it on your own?”

“We’re not getting anywhere like this, so I might as well!” The dissenter turns to holler down the hallway, “Come on boys, we’re getting out of here!”

“Well that’s sexist as fuck,” Shitty mutters, and Lardo snorts in agreement.

They watch as the gang of vamps gives up their search, heading for the exit grumbling under their breath and hissing insults at Chad, who grows more and more irate as Lardo watches. When the last of them is gone, Chad lets out a howl of fury, kicks the wall next to him, and stalks off into the night.

Lardo looks at the hole in the plaster of the wall, then back at the studio behind them. She knows what she should be doing, and she steels herself to kiss the art show goodbye.

“Nope, nuh-uh, not gonna hear it,” Shitty tells her before she can say anything. “You’ve got some hardcore badass arting to do. I’ll tail the vamps.”

She wonders if the profound relief she feels at that makes her a bad Slayer. She decides that she doesn’t really care. “Call one of the boys to watch your back.”

“Will do, boss.”

“And Shitty?” He pauses in the doorway. After tonight, there are a lot of things she could say to him, but she settles for “Thanks.”

*

The next day, Lardo convenes a meeting of the Haus residents to tell them about what went down in the art building last night. Jack and Shitty report a quiet evening—the vamps they managed to follow seemed to be searching for something without luck, and retreated to the lax house to hole up for the day.

“Dissent in the ranks, huh? Could be good for us,” says Ransom.

“Divide and conquer,” agrees Holster.

“Or it means Chad is going to try something drastic to pull them back in line,” says Jack, folding his arms thoughtfully. “Do we have any idea what they were looking for?”

“Sort of,” Lardo tells them. “Shitty, you said you thought they were draining people’s magic to use. So what if they were using some sort of magical artifact to do it, and it got broken?”

“And now they’re looking for the missing piece?” guesses Bitty.

“That would explain why they were so uncertain about whether the spell went right,” says Jack. “Without it, Chad’s control of the magic isn’t at one hundred percent.”

“So what we’ve gotta do is get to this thing before the vamps figure out where it is,” Shitty says.

Holster looks unimpressed. “Easier said than done when we don’t know what it is or what it looks like.”

“That’s what research parties are for!” exclaims Shitty, slinging an arm each around Holster and Jack.

They all groan (Lardo included) but they all know what has to get done.

Ransom dives into his index, while Holster and Shitty go through stacks of books that haven’t been added to it yet. Jack calls up his dad to see if any of his family’s coven have any ideas, and Bitty contributes snacks to keep their morale up. And Lardo—Lardo tries to help out, because they’re all teaming up to help her and she knows this is important, but she can’t stop thinking about the showcase, and whether her piece is good enough, or if there’s anything she forgot to do for it.

Finally, the boys muscle her up to her room to get ready. She tries to argue, but they won’t hear any of it—they may have to miss the showcase, but after how hard they’ve all worked to get her to this point they won’t let her duck out. The familiar guilt twists in her gut at leaving them behind to keep working, but this time she manages to shove it to the side. She’s allowed to have this.

The showcase, once she arrives, is a little anticlimactic. When she first gets there it’s mostly just students frantically making sure their pieces are displayed just right, and then when the doors open it’s pretty much just more students and art profs. Professor Thompson stops by to congratulate her on her good work. Still, it’s gratifying to spend some time talking to her art friends and seeing their work, and some more time explaining her sculpture to interested profs. She’s proud of what she accomplished here, and everyone seems impressed with her sculpture. It’s fine. She doesn’t know what else she expected, so she should have absolutely no reason to be disappointed.

“I say, how much for this positively resplendent sculpture?”

Lardo turns to find a suited-up Shitty Knight, hair tied back, looking way more respectable than she’s ever seen him. If she had to guess, she’d say he’s doing his very best impression of a snobby art connoisseur. She fights back her grin.

“I dunno man, I’m not sure I can ever part with it to anyone who doesn’t truly get it.”

“Nonsense, no price is too high for such a fucking effulgent masterpiece.”

Neither of them can hold a straight face after the world ‘effulgent,’ and their laughter in an otherwise subdued room draws looks.

“Seriously dude, what are you doing here?”

“It was important to you,” says Shitty. “You think I wouldn’t come support one of my best bros?”

Lardo does not want to know what her face is doing. She deflects. “Be honest Shits, you just wanted to see something on display that you’ve glued yourself to.”

“I beg your pardon, whomst showed me where to put my hand?” he squawks, and then grins. “Seriously though Lards, it turned out fuckin swawesome, tell me about it.”

So, because he’s the only person here she can tell the whole story to, she explains how she’s picked up something from the scene of everything she’s fought as the Slayer this semester, starting with that night she rescued him after a kegster. And he’s so engaged and truly interested, asking questions and listening to the answers, and she thinks maybe this is what was missing from her night—

And her phone rings.

It’s Ransom on the other end. “I’ve got good news and bad news. Bad news is, Chad has Bits.”

“What? How?”

“He was heading out after our research sesh and bro just swoops in from across the street and nabs him. Holtzy saw it happen, but by the time he could grab a stake and get out there they were long gone.” Holster says something miserable in the background that she can’t quite make out. “We’ve got Jack tracking Bitty, so we know he’s fine.”

“Is that supposed to be the good news?”

“No, the good news is we think we know what Chad’s been looking for. Holster is sending a picture to you, but Lards, we really need you to get out here.”

Lardo glances down at the picture that’s just arrived on her phone, then up at the sculpture in front of her. “No need. I know where they’re going.”

*

She has just enough time to fill Shitty in on the situation before the screaming starts. They don’t even hesitate; both of them run to the source of the sound. Chad has Bitty cuffed in front of him, leading the way—likely had him working the location spell this time—but that’s not the cause of all the alarm. No, it seems that having a real witch doing the heavy work is enough to get Chad’s cronies back in line, and they have their game faces on. She glances at Shitty.

“Do you have—”

“It’s like you don’t know me,” he says, pulling his single-handed crossbow from under his suit jacket. In response, she grabs the stake that had been strapped to her thigh like something out of a spy movie. Hey, if she has to combat evil, she might as well have fun with it sometimes.

“You get Bits away from him, I’ll keep this from turning into an all you can eat buffet.”

Keeping a gang of vamps from eating her classmates and teachers takes up all of Lardo’s attention for a while. From the glimpses she can catch through the chaos, Shitty has gotten Bitty away from Chad but is still trying to get the cuffs off his wrists. Chad, on the other hand, has clearly figured out that what he’s looking for is somewhere in this room, and has started tearing apart displays to find it. Lardo scowls and parries a vamp. Not only is Chad going to get to it eventually, but her friends put a lot of work into their showcase pieces. Seriously uncool.

“Attention innocent bystanders!” A loud voice shouts over the din, a thread of magic weaving through it. “Please make your way to the exits!”

Lardo’s shoulders slump in relief: the cavalry has arrived. She stakes the vamp she was fighting almost as an afterthought, watching as Holster’s part-siren voice works its magic. He and Ransom defend the humans’ retreat, working together seamlessly to keep them safe. From behind them, Jack dashes through the crowd to get to where Shitty and Bitty are crouched.

With two fewer things to worry about, Lardo dashes toward her sculpture, trying to head off Chad. She’s not going to get there before he does, so she tackles him. It turns out to be a tactical mistake. She can tell the moment he spots the chunk of talisman she’d mistaken for pottery in the jumble of items making up her sculpture.

“It’s in the heart!” he yells to his cronies. “Get it to me so I can kill the Slayer!”

There’s a mad rush for Lardo’s sculpture. Luckily, her boys heard the shout too. As Lardo wrestles with Chad, trying to get an arm free so she can use her stake, Shitty and Jack and Bitty all rush toward her art. She can see Bitty throw up his shaking hands to create a force field to slow the vamps down; meanwhile, Shitty is making use of his crossbow, and Jack has apparently figured out a wicked spell that lets him throw around beams of sunlight.

Chad isn’t a very good fighter—but Lardo remembers a moment too late that he doesn’t only have fighting on his side. He manages a complex gesture, and Lardo is suddenly afloat.

“What do you think, do your friends want to see you dance?” he asks, and Lardo abruptly feels sick as he starts tossing her through the air in fits and starts, his grip on the magic clearly unstable. “They certainly won’t last much longer against us.”

She can tell that Bitty’s power is wavering as his attention flits between her and the fight; Jack’s jaw is clenched and he’s sweating more than she’s ever seen him do after a five mile run; and Shitty can’t look away from where she floats, mouth open in horror. They’re outnumbered, and she can’t help. But she still has control over her mouth.

“Shits! Smash the talisman—next to where you glued your hand!”

He finds it unerringly, and smashes it with the butt of his crossbow.

Lardo lands on her feet and grins at Chad, who does not look very pleased at this turn of events. “Wanna put your money where your mouth is, Chad?”

He yells in rage and charges her. She’s not really sure what he’s trying to accomplish, but it’s very satisfying to stake him.

The fight doesn’t last long once Chad is dust. Ransom and Holster have returned from herding innocent bystanders, and help to take down the last of the vamps who didn’t go running when their leader bit the dust.

At last, there’s no one left in the exhibition hall but Lardo and her boys.

“Well that was a fucking marvel of teamwork, bring it in bros,” declares Shitty, and none of them can resist the power of the group hug that follows. When they all part, Lardo stays tucked under Shitty’s arm.

“Hey Lardo, you really made this sweetass sculpture?” Ransom asks, inspecting the heart, remarkably still intact save for one key piece.

“Yep.”

“Next time you’re making something like this, you gotta let us know,” Holster tells her. “It seriously wasn’t a problem to help out, and a bro doesn’t let a bro go unappreciated.”

“I didn’t want to make a big deal about it.”

Lardo thought Bitty and Jack were busy having a moment, but Bitty pipes up with “Bless your heart, of course this is a big deal!”

And Jack says, “We got your back.”

Lardo, she discovers, is not too exhausted to smile. As they head back to the Haus, Bitty rambling about flavors for their victory pie, that smile stays firmly in place.

*

It’s probably too cold to be out in the reading room, but Lardo figures there aren’t going to be a lot of sunshiny days for the rest of the winter. When Shitty joins her with a plate of cookies that smell fresh from the oven, she doesn’t say anything at first. She’s content to bask in the sunlight and listen to Shitty ramble about the dream he had about a man with a cheese tray following him on ice skates.

As she finishes the last cookie, she says “I hope these weren’t the ones for Bitty’s presentation.”

“Nah, these are leftovers, I checked.”

Lardo could blame a lot of things: the relaxed feel of the afternoon, the deliciousness of the cookies, the relief of not having to worry about any particular monsters at the moment. Mostly though, if she’s being honest with herself, she just wants to.

She reaches up and kisses Shitty.

It’s nice, but even with her eyes closed his surprise is obvious. When she pulls back he’s gaping at her, speechless for once.

“That cool with you?” she asks, just to be sure.

“That is abso-fucking-lutely one hundred per-fucking-cent cool with me, I just thought you didn’t—that you weren’t—”

Lardo leans back on her elbows. “Been thinking about that thing you said, about embrace what makes you human or whatever. You make it a lot easier to feel human.”

The joy on Shitty’s face is more blinding than the sunlight. “It is my complete privilege to be human with you.”

She really has no choice but to kiss him again.

The moustache is a little weird, but she decides she can get used to it.