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Never Kill A Boy On The First Date

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"Alex."

Alex looked up as their dad said her name, trying to look like she was paying attention. Which, well. She was, sort of.

It wasn't her fault if the lesson was kind of boring. Or if making magical projectiles to flick at Justin was way more fun.

"This is an easy one, so why don't you give us a demonstration?"

Beside her, Justin scoffed, and she turned to glare at him.

"What?" she demanded.

"Nothing," he said, and if their dad hadn't been watching, she would have flicked the last of the invisible spit balls right at his stupid, smug expression. "I'm sure it is easy."

The rest of his meaning wasn't hard to get. The spell might be easy, but that didn't mean she'd be able to do it.

Yeah, well, she'd show him.

"I can do it," she said, standing up, and Justin grinned a little wider. Which meant she was probably playing straight into his hands. Great. "What are you even doing here, anyway? I thought you finished your wizard training."

Not that she was jealous. At all.

"Actually," their dad said, and Alex whirled on him. "I asked Justin to come help out."

"You what?" she asked, and didn't turn back around to look at Justin. There was no way she needed to see his expression right now. "Why?"

"I ..." Their dad didn't look so certain any more, which was just as well. It was bad enough having to compete with Justin when she was actually competing with him; having him here just to rub in her face how far ahead of her he was in the wizard competition was just cruel. "I just thought it might help, is all. With Max."

There was a moment's pause, and then Max looked up, seeming to catch on. "Hey!"

"No offense, Max."

"Oh," Max said, and went back to ... whatever it was that was taking up most of his concentration. Most of the time, Alex found it better not to ask. "Okay, then."

And then Alex braved a look at Justin, and, yeah. He wasn't buying the explanation. And he looked like he didn't expect her to, either.

But even if she didn't, she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of letting him know that.

"Whatever," she said, and took a step forward. "What's the spell, again?"

She didn't need to look at Justin. She could feel him smirking.

"Levitatus equatus," their dad said, and Alex pulled her wand out, aiming it at Justin.

"Levitatus equatus," she repeated, and Justin - almost hovered over the floor, just a little. But then he coughed, and she swore it distracted her or something, because the next thing she knew, he was on the ground again. And not even, like, collapsed on the ground in a heap or anything, which at least would have been funny, but just standing there, his arms folded, looking like he never expected anything different.

Probably nobody expected anything different. Honestly, she didn't even know why she bothered sometimes.

"That's ... good," their dad said, not even trying to make the encouragement sound believable.

But Justin had to laugh, anyway, like it wasn't already obvious.

"What is your problem?" Alex demanded, taking a step forward, and Justin held his ground. It wasn't, like, a remarkable feat of bravery or anything, except for Justin, it almost was.

"That was terrible," he said. So, no sugar coating it, then. "I bet you couldn't lift me any further than you could throw me."

"Well, I bet I could throw you pretty far," she shot back, and he raised an eyebrow, like it was a challenge.

"Oh, yeah?" he asked. "Go ahead."

And they were already standing so close Alex could make out the patch of stubble where he hadn't shaved properly, so she didn't even need to move before placing her hands firmly on his chest and shoving him back, hard.

And the thing was - Alex was pretty strong. For a girl. Who never attended P.E., and who went out of her way to avoid any kind of exercise, and who last saw a vegetable when Max accidentally turned himself into one. Stronger than Justin, anyway, and when she pushed him, she meant it, so she expected him to at least go stumbling back a few steps.

She didn't expect him to go flying into the wall so hard she swore she could hear something crack.

"Justin," she said, and - she wasn't worried about him, okay, but she rushed forward anyway. Like, in case he accidentally put a dent in the wall or something, which she knew she'd totally be blamed for.

"I'm okay," he said, but he sounded a little unsure. Still, his eyes were open, and he could talk, and while Alex would have happily traded one of those, it was probably a good sign.

He sat up, slowly, pressing a hand to the back of his head like he expected it to come away bloody, and Alex stepped back a little. Like, Justin might have a concussion or whatever, but the last thing she needed was to be visibly concerned about him. Their dad and Max helped him up, sitting him down on the bench, and when Alex looked at him, he was staring back at her. His eyes were a little unfocused, so it was difficult to make out his expression, but there was something in it, still, almost like suspicion, and definitely meant for her.

"Alex," their dad said, and Alex looked away. Justin's stare was beginning to creep her out, anyway. "Go get some ice."

"I'm on it," Max said, before Alex could move, and she shrugged. She didn't get why either of them had to go get ice; they were wizards, why couldn't they just conjure some?

"Max," their dad called after him, and a minute later, Max reappeared, looking confused. At Max's expression, he clarified, "The freezer."

Or they could conjure Max a working brain, whatever.

"Are you sure you're all right?" their dad asked, and he was probably talking to Justin, so.

"Yeah," Justin said. "I think so." He was still looking at Alex, and it was hard not to look back at him. She didn't know what he was waiting for, but he seemed to be waiting for something, studying her like he expected her to suddenly grow another head or explain what had caused the superhuman bout of strength or something.

Neither of those, Alex thought, was very likely.

"What?" she asked finally, when she'd gotten sick of trying to pretend that Justin wasn't still staring. Seriously, what was his problem?

"Do you want to tell me what just happened here?" he asked, like she knew what was going on and had just conveniently forgotten to mention it. It was a little unnerving, actually; Alex wasn't used to anyone looking at her like she had all the answers, let alone Justin.

"How should I know?" she asked, and turned so she was facing away from him. If she ignored him for long enough, maybe he'd get the hint and go away.

It would work a lot better, she thought, if she couldn't still feel him staring at her.

And then Max came back, with a bag of ice in one hand and something that Alex didn't try too hard to identify in the other (there was a good chance it was alive, but it was probably best to leave it at that), and while Justin held the ice to his head and their dad ran around after Max's unidentified furry object, Alex slipped out of the lair before she could be asked to, like, help out or whatever.

Or before Justin could ask her any more questions.

-

"Alex," Harper said, and Alex shook her head and glanced over. Harper was looking at her, frowning, with an expectant look on her face that told Alex it probably wasn't the first time Harper had tried to get her attention. "Are you okay?"

"What?" Alex asked, trying to clear her thoughts. It shouldn't have been hard - math was usually good for making her mind completely blank - but she couldn't quite shake the weird images that kept running through her head.

She blamed a lack of sleep. And Mr Hastings' unnatural monotone.

"Yeah," she said, but she didn't sound very convincing, even to herself. "I'm fine."

Harper's frown deepened. "Are you sure? Because I've been trying to -"

"Miss Finkle," Mr Hastings said. He might have been raising his voice, but it was hard to tell. "Do you have something you'd like to share with the class?"

Harper froze, turning to face the front of the classroom, and Alex let her head slip back into her hands. Vaguely, she heard Harper say, "No, sir."

And then it was back to the monotone, which meant Harper's attention was back on Alex, and she tried to sit up straighter, to look as if it were only boredom, not exhaustion or anxiety, making her zone out.

"I'm fine," she said, before Harper could ask again, and doodled something absently on the blank page that was supposed to be filled with notes. She had no idea what it was supposed to be - probably a person, though it didn't quite look human - and she scrunched up the paper before Harper could see it.

"Are you -"

"I'm sure," Alex interrupted her, and maybe she even managed to sound like she meant it this time. At least, Harper stopped staring at her and went back to looking at Mr Hastings, which was something, at least.

And she was fine. Really. Okay, so she'd been having really weird dreams for the past few days, but that was totally normal, right? It was probably just pre-exam stress or whatever. If they had exams coming up, and if Alex actually cared about them. But it was no big deal; everybody had nightmares occasionally. Or, if they were Justin, every night.

Totally nothing to worry about.

-

Except -

The first sleep spell she'd tried hadn't worked, or the second. The potion she'd drunk had tasted like something Max would make, but it still didn't stop her waking up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat and panting like she'd just run a mile. Or, given her track record in P.E., a couple of yards.

Not that it was a big deal, or anything. She could handle a few stupid dreams, even if they were full of running and screaming and her dying, over and over again, wearing rags and leather and stupid frilly dresses, facing down monsters with their faces all wrinkled and deformed. Like, ew, as if she'd ever let anything that ugly get close enough to bite her neck. No matter what happened in the dreams.

So, whatever. She'd probably just mixed the ingredients wrong, or something. She'd just have to try again later.

-

"Going girlfriend hunting?"

Justin glared at her, but in his monster hunting uniform, it was even harder than usual to take him seriously. He finished clipping something onto his belt, like the final accessory in the ensemble from hell, and straightened.

Honestly, his elective was mildly cool and all, but couldn't he have chosen something with a better dress code?

"I'm going monster hunting," he said, like she actually needed the clarification. "Shouldn't you be in wizard lessons like the other remedial students?"

Ugh, whatever.

"If by remedial, you mean Max, then no," she said. "He's still helping dad clean up the lair."

"Right," he said. "The phlegm incident."

Which had been - not fun. But at least it got her out of today's lesson.

"Well, I'd love to stay and chat," Justin said, and grabbed his bag, then stopped. "Wait, actually, no I wouldn't. Bye."

"Wait!" Alex called after him. When he stopped, looking at her expectantly, she flipped her hair over her shoulder. "I'm bored."

"So go help dad and Max," he said.

Yeah, like that was going to happen.

"Gross," she said.

"You could do homework."

Okay, now he was just being ridiculous.

"Maybe I could come with you," she suggested, and as soon as the words were out, she smiled. "Hey, that's a good idea. I can help you."

"I don't need your help," Justin said, and she coughed.

"Really?" she asked. "You mean, like you didn't need my help that time Max let all those monsters loose in the city? Or when you accidentally turned your girlfriend in to the monster hunters? Or when you got trapped by the mummy?"

"That was different," he said.

"That was every time you've been monster hunting," she said. "Come on, do you really want to be out there fighting monsters all by yourself?"

Justin's shoulders stiffened, like he was trying to prove something, but his expression gave him away. There was no way he wanted to get caught out there alone, any more than she wanted to help clean mucus off the walls of the lair.

"Besides," she said, moving towards the stairs, like it had already been decided. "You do it. How hard could it be?"

-

"This is strictly a reconnaissance mission," Justin said, like, yeah. She heard him the first three times he said it, and his big, stupid words didn't make any more sense the fourth time around.

"Whatever you say," she muttered. If pretending he was in charge helped him feel better, that was fine with her. "Can I hold the flashy thing now?"

"The flashy thing," he said, stopping so suddenly that Alex nearly ran into his back, "is a monster detector, and no, you can't hold it."

"Why?"

For a minute, he didn't answer her, and then he mumbled, "Because it's mine."

Fine, if they were going to play that game.

"Let's go this way," she said, starting out to the left just as Justin turned right. He yelled something after her, but Alex ignored him, and eventually he caught up to her.

"This isn't the way the monster detector says to go," he said, and she shrugged. He was the one who wanted to do it the hard way.

"So?" she asked.

"So," he said, "we're going the wrong way."

"Well," she said, "I'd know that if you let me hold the flashy thing."

He stared at her.

"Monster detector, whatever."

With a sigh, Justin handed it over, and Alex resisted the temptation to gloat. Mostly.

"Great," she said. "Let's keep going this way."

"This isn't -"

"Hey," she said, speeding up a little, and veering to the right. "It's beeping."

"That means it's -"

A couple of steps later, and it was flashing and beeping.

"Alex," Justin said, and she slowed down, just enough to let him catch up to her. "I think we should turn around."

"Why?" she asked. "Doesn't that mean we're going the right way?"

"Towards a level two monster," he said, and she looked at him blankly.

He rolled his eyes.

"I've only ever fought level one monsters," he explained.

"So, level two is harder?"

"Yes," he said. "Level two is harder."

Perfect.

"Alex!" Justin called, but she ignored him, moving steadily forward. Seriously, he was the one who was supposed to be a monster hunter, he had to learn to deal with this stuff eventually. Besides, level two didn't sound that hard.

And then she rounded the corner, and, okay. Maybe it wasn't that hard. But it was definitely big.

"Alex," Justin said, breathing heavily. "The monster detector's going through the roof. I think we're -"

And then, she guessed, he saw what was standing right in front of them.

"- Close."

"Great detective work," she said, keeping her voice low. Maybe if the monster didn't notice them, they could surprise it.

"I'm not the one who led us straight to a level two monster," he said, like that had anything to do with anything.

"We're monster hunting," she reminded him, like, duh. Wasn't finding monsters kind of the whole point?

"We're on a reconnaissance mission," Justin said. "We're supposed to find out where the monsters are, and then leave."

Oh, so that's what that meant.

"Well," she said, "we found one."

"So maybe we should leave," he said. It was barely a whisper, close to her ear, but Alex glanced from Justin to the monster, and swallowed.

"Yeah," she said. "I think it might be a little late for that."

A second later, Justin turned to look at the monster, too, and then took a step back, dragging Alex with him. She stumbled a little, shoving him away, but the monster just kept staring at them, like it was waiting for them to approach before it made a move.

"Alex," Justin said, his voice hard, like this was all her fault. Which was so not fair; he was the one who gave her the stupid monster detector in the first place, she was only following it.

"What?" she hissed. Not that she enjoyed his lectures, like, ever, but now was seriously not the time.

"Maybe we should run."

Before he could take more than another couple of steps back, though, the monster lunged forward, and Alex -

Well, she wasn't quite sure what she did, exactly. Reacted on instinct or something, whatever, but suddenly, it was like her vision cleared, like everything kind of slowed down a little, and she stepped forward.

She pushed Justin back, away from the monster, and when it lunged at her, she grabbed at its arm, twisting as hard as she could, and then -

And then the next thing she knew, she was standing over the monster, now lying on the ground, its arm still held firmly in her hands.

"Alex," Justin said. Breathed, really, like this was some important thing that she just, like. Missed, or whatever. "What did you do?"

How the hell should she know?

"She twisted my arm, is what she did," the monster said. Its words were a little slurred, but, well, to be fair, talking with fangs couldn't be that easy. "You want to let go of that, or are you just going to break it?"

After a quick glance at Justin - who was still staring at her, completely useless - Alex released the monster. She was still tense, like she expected it to come after her again, but it stayed on the ground.

"Thank you," it said, in a way that didn't sound very much like thank you at all. "Geez, talk about attacking a guy without any provocation."

"You attacked us," Justin said. It still came out a little squeaky, but at least he was actually doing something now.

"I almost attacked you," the monster corrected him. "Anyway, it's not like you can't hold your own."

And then Justin looked at Alex, in a way that was probably supposed to be meaningful, like, yeah, and when did that happen?

She ignored him.

"We're going to have to take you down to a holding cell," she told the monster instead, helping him up. And making sure her grip was tight enough to restrain him, if she had to.

Justin was staring, again, and she led the monster past him.

"Grand Central Station," Justin said, before she'd taken more than a few steps. "It's the other way."

Right. She knew that.

-

"So, Justin," their dad said. "How did monster hunting go?"

For a minute, Justin didn't answer; he looked over at Alex, instead, and she rolled her eyes, trying to ignore him as she piled a third helping of mashed potatoes onto her plate.

Ever since this afternoon, she'd been starving. Weird.

"Fine," he said, finally, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Not that she'd been expecting him to tell their parents anything, exactly - he'd be as likely to get into trouble for taking her monster hunting as she would be for going - but he was the worst at keeping secrets, and, well. He kept giving her all these looks, like something more than just monster hunting was going on, and if he got himself worked up enough -

But, okay. She was probably worried over nothing.

"Did you catch anything?" their dad pressed.

Which cued another pointed look in Alex's direction, and she found that one even harder to ignore. Seriously, all this staring was almost enough to make her lose her appetite.

"Actually," he said - to their dad, but still looking at Alex - "I caught a level two monster."

Yeah, whatever. Like she cared if he took credit for something she totally did.

"Isn't that dangerous?" their mom asked, but before Justin could answer, their dad jumped in.

"Justin, that's great," he said. "I bet it's exciting, being out there, hunting monsters -"

"Dad," Justin interrupted him. "You still can't come."

Their dad pouted, and Alex couldn't help smirking a little. There weren't a lot of things she was allowed to do that her dad wasn't; this was pretty much number three, behind dancing in public and wearing skinny jeans.

And then Justin went back to staring at her, and seriously, if she never had to look at her stupid brother and his stupid face again -

"Alex," their mom said, and she looked up, turning her head so she couldn't see Justin, even out of the corner of her eye. "Are you okay, sweetie?"

"Yeah," she said. She really hoped Justin was paying attention. "I'm fine."

"Are you still having those nightmares?"

Ugh. Those nightmares. She tried not to shudder; if anything, they'd been getting worse, until it barely felt like she'd slept at all.

But it wasn't like she wanted Justin to know that, so instead, she shook her head. "I ran, like, a quarter of a mile in P.E. today, I'm exhausted."

"Okay," their mom said, and Alex took advantage of the almost-pause in the conversation to leap up from the table, taking her plate with her. It was still piled high with mashed potatoes, but whatever. She wasn't even that hungry any more, anyway. Mostly.

She was still hesitating between putting the leftovers in the fridge and grabbing another fork to finish them off when the back of her neck started to tingle, and she whirled around, holding the plate out in front of her defensively.

And then lowered it again as she saw Justin.

"Geez," she said. "Don't sneak up on people like that."

"Like what?" he asked. "Dad asked me to get the dessert."

Ooh, dessert. Maybe she was still a little hungry, after all.

"Like ..." She waved her arms in an attempt to demonstrate, but only really succeeded in getting mashed potato all over Justin's shirt. Which wasn't exactly what she'd meant to do, but, still. Pretty funny. "You know."

Justin stared back at her like she'd gone crazy, and then raised a hand to wipe the rest of Alex's dinner off his shirt.

"Alex," he said, but before he could lecture her or whatever, Max stepped in between them, stopping when he glanced at Justin's shirt.

"Hey," he said. "Portable leftovers. Why didn't I think of that?"

"Ooh, good idea, Max," Alex said, before Justin could talk him out of it. If it were up to him, she'd probably never have any fun. "Why don't you go ask mom what she thinks?"

Justin glared at her as Max ducked back out of the kitchen, but she just smiled at him in reply and hurried away before he could explain what had actually happened to his shirt.

If he wanted to take credit for everything she'd done today, he was more than welcome to.

-

Alex leaned over the counter to swipe the remaining half of Harper's sandwich, ignoring her friend's muffled sound of protest.

"You know," she said, "this place would be so much better without any customers."

"What's the point of a sandwich shop without customers?" Harper asked, like, she obviously did not get it.

"To eat sandwiches?" Alex suggested, dusting a few stray crumbs off her shirt. "Anyway, just pretend like you have something important to tell me, so it doesn't look like I'm avoiding work."

"Actually," Harper said, "I do have something important to tell you. But first -"

She stood up, and twirled, which - maybe wasn't the best idea while wearing something that looked like a wire-frame tutu. The napkin dispenser from a nearby table went skittering halfway across the floor.

"- how do you like my outfit?"

"It's ..." Alex floundered for a moment. "Unique."

"Aww," Harper said, like it was a compliment, which. If she wanted to see it that way, it probably meant less work for Alex, so, good. "Thank you. But seriously, I have news."

Alex waited. "Well?"

Harper bit her lip. "It's kind of a secret."

Excellent.

"Do you promise you won't tell anyone?"

"Who would I tell?" Alex asked. "Besides you, and you already know."

"Oh," Harper said. "Yeah. Okay, then. You know -"

And then Alex was stumbling backwards, and she glared down at Justin's hand on her wrist as he pulled her past the kitchen and into the lair. He looked around quickly, like he was making sure they were alone, and then he closed the door, not releasing his grip.

"Hey," she said, once she caught her breath. "What was that for?"

"We need to talk," he said, and she rolled her eyes.

"Is this about the mashed potatoes again?" she asked. "Because I'm pretty sure I apologised for that."

"No, you didn't," he said. "And it's not about that."

Alex waited. It was either this or clearing tables, and this required less effort, so.

Finally, Justin let go of her wrist, and took a step back. "Something's been going on lately."

"With?" she asked, but she was pretty sure she already knew what he was going to say.

"With you."

She turned to leave, but he caught her by the wrist again. This time, he didn't let go.

"Alex -"

"Justin," she said. "There's nothing going on."

Nothing she could explain, anyway.

"You threw me into a wall," he said, and she couldn't help glancing over his shoulder, at the spot where he'd hit.

Okay, so, yes, technically she had -

"And there's no way you should have been able to take down a level two monster all on your own."

"Yeah, well, he looked a lot tougher than he was," she said. Which - had to be true, right? Otherwise, how could she have beaten him? "And you're welcome, by the way."

Justin stared at her. "I'm welcome?"

"For saving your life."

"My life," he said, "was not in danger. I was completely on top of things."

"Right," Alex said. "Well, if we're done here -"

She tried to push past Justin, but he was still holding her wrist. And she could have easily pulled free, but -

Well, given the circumstances, maybe proving that she was stronger than him wasn't the best idea. Even if pretty much everyone was stronger than Justin.

"This is important," he said.

"So was my conversation with Harper," she said, trying to duck around him again. Which, okay, wasn't even a little bit true, but at least it was more interesting than this.

"Alex!" Justin took a step back, dropping her hand but still blocking the door. "Just hear me out for a minute, would you?"

Fine. She could probably spare one minute. But this had better be good.

"I did some research," he said, and Alex let out a sigh. Seriously, this was even more boring than she thought it would be.

"Wow," she said flatly. "Research."

"And I found something."

Great, he was actually going to make her ask.

"Which is?" she prompted.

"Okay," he said - smiling, like he actually enjoyed this or something. Freakazoid. "So, I started in the usual places - monster manuals, the last few spell books dad used in your lessons, strength spells and potions, that kind of thing."

"And that led somewhere?" she asked, like, maybe if she participated, they could actually get this thing moving. She had work to not do.

"No," Justin said. "That led absolutely nowhere. Complete dead end."

Wow, this was fascinating.

"But," he continued, "it got me thinking. Like, maybe this wasn't about magic. So I decided to go for the monster angle, you know, because -"

"Justin," she interrupted him, and he stopped, his mouth hanging open. "Is there any way we can speed this up a little?"

"Fine," he said. Totally sulking, like, she'd barely even yelled at him.

And then he moved to the table, and picked up what Alex was pretty sure was the biggest book she'd ever seen.

"Anyway," he said - still holding the book, and maybe he was stronger than she thought, if he could hold that thing all by himself - "I ended up finding all this mythology and stuff. About vampire slayers."

"Vampire slayers," Alex repeated. "Why would I want to slay vampires? They never did anything bad to me."

Justin only stared at her, and, okay, so there was that one time when Juliet's parents tried to bite her and Harper, but whatever, they hadn't actually gone through with it. Besides, they made really good sandwiches, so it was kind of a wash.

"Look," she said. "I don't know what you think you found, but -"

"Teenage girls with superhuman strength and reflexes."

"Okay, that does sound really cool -"

"And nightmares."

Alex paused, but only for a second. "Lots of people have nightmares. I bet you still have nightmares about -"

"Alex," Justin said, and there was something in his voice that - whatever, fine. He was really worked up about this, so maybe she could just humour him or something. "I read about all this stuff, mostly because I knew you weren't going to -"

Well, he was right about one thing, at least.

"- and I think it fits. Seriously, Alex, I think -"

"What, that I'm a vampire slayer?"

"The Slayer, actually," he said. "Into every generation, a Slayer is born. One girl in all the world. She alone will have the strength and skill to -"

"Okay," she said. Seriously, did he have to sound like a walking textbook all the time? "I get it. There's only one."

"There's only you," he said, and she fixed him with a glare.

"Justin, this doesn't make any sense."

"It makes -"

"It's ridiculous," she interrupted him.

"You mean, like ghosts and werewolves and centaurs are ridiculous?" he asked. He was still standing squarely in front of the door, in case she had any thoughts about trying to get out of there. Which she totally did.

"Well, that centaur did look pretty ridiculous when you -"

"Alex!"

"Justin," she said. "I'm not the Slayer."

"So you haven't been having nightmares?"

Alex rolled her eyes. That was so not the point.

And then, almost before she could react, he was stepping forward, raising his arm, and -

She caught it, mid-swing, a few inches from her face.

"What the hell was that for?" she asked, releasing her hold on his fist, but Justin didn't look apologetic. Instead he looked smug, like he'd just proven his point.

"You caught it," he said.

"Yeah," she said. "I caught it because you hit like a girl."

"I do not -"

"Hey, look, something incredibly boring," Alex said. And it wasn't like she expected Justin to be distracted by it or anything, but it got him to stop talking for a couple of seconds, anyway.

Which was just long enough for her to slip past him and out of the lair.

"Sorry about that," she said a minute later, once she was back in the sub shop and leaning over the counter towards Harper. "Justin's such a freak sometimes. So, what's the huge gossip?"

-

It didn't stop there. Of course.

That night, Alex found a book on vampires sitting on her bed, dusty and old and totally clashing with her pink fur wallpaper. She considered, for a moment, going to all the trouble of taking it back to Justin, and then shoved it under the bed.

The next day, he went monster hunting alone, and Alex tried not to pout too much when he got back.

"I'm surprised you made it back," she said, trying not to sound like she meant surprised like glad.

Justin shrugged. "I told you I could do it alone."

"Yeah," she said. "You must have really practised your running away abilities."

"Better than my 'I'm grounded again this weekend because I don't know how to keep my mouth shut' abilities."

Yeah, like that was even a good comeback.

"You know," she said, "if you want me to come protect you, all you have to do is ask."

Okay, so. She missed monster hunting, okay? It wasn't any weirder than the rest of her life.

And then Justin looked her straight in the eye, and said, "Admit it," and she didn't have to ask what he meant.

"Forget about it," she mumbled, and slammed the door on her way out.

Monster hunting wasn't that much fun, anyway.

-

"Harper," Alex said. She wasn't whining, okay, she was just - saying, in kind of a drawn out, high-pitched way. "Why are you trying to ruin my life?"

Harper just sighed and shook her head, looking at her in that way that made Alex feel like Harper was her babysitter instead of her best friend.

"Oh, Alex," she said. "That might work on your mom, but it isn't going to work on me. You signed up for this."

"Under duress," she said. It wasn't like she'd had much choice, with Justin on one side and Franken-girl on the other, and, okay, she'd done it that one time. But the rest of the squad was back from the hospital now, and you could barely even see the scar on Melinda's leg, so Alex really didn't see why she still had to be there.

Or why cheerleading uniforms were so tiny. Seriously, didn't these girls ever get cold?

"You made a commitment," Harper said stubbornly, and Alex rolled her eyes. Yeah, a commitment to cheerleading. They were jumping up and down in front of a few hundred people, not working towards world peace. "Besides, the routine's already designed for twelve. If you drop out, you'll throw everything off balance."

Alex was pretty sure she could live with that, but then Harper gave her that look - the one that said she'd be really, really disappointed if Alex let her down, and hadn't she done that enough already? - and she could already feel herself caving. Damn Harper and her stupid faith in their friendship.

"Fine," she said, finally, and Harper brightened immediately, like she'd never really doubted she'd get her way. Alex remembered that feeling. "But I'm not letting anybody toss me again."

"Deal," Harper said. And then she turned back to the rest of the squad, and Alex went to join them.

One day, Alex swore, she was going to find a way to make people stop forcing her to participate in stuff that required stupid matching outfits.

"Okay," Harper said, smiling way too much, like she actually wanted to be there. "Let's run through the steps."

By the tenth time through, Alex was actually starting to get the hang of the steps. Which wasn't a comforting thought, at all. She rolled her eyes when Harper started the music for the eleventh time, but she moved back into position - and then broke off halfway through the routine, staring at the door to the gym.

Luckily, Harper didn't notice, as intent on staring at Justin as Alex was.

"Justin," Alex hissed, rushing over. Justin looked up when she reached him, shoving something behind his back, but Alex caught the glimpse of flashing lights and metal.

She sighed. Like her day could get any worse.

"Alex," Justin said, and went from looking shocked to looking - okay, still shocked. "What are you doing here?"

"It's the gym," she said.

"I know that," he said. "What are you doing here?"

Seriously, he was actually going to make her spell it out for him?

"I'm cheering," she said, and waved a pom pom at him halfheartedly. "Yay, go Tribeca Prep."

Justin looked unconvinced. By her cheering, she assumed, rather than her explanation.

"You're a cheerleader," he said. Flatly, so that it wasn't quite a question.

She scowled at him. "It's your fault."

And then he smiled at her, and - she wasn't blushing, okay? He just shouldn't be looking at her like that. It wasn't like it was her choice to wear a skirt that barely left anything to the imagination.

She swatted him with her pom pom, and nodded at the monster detector concealed - poorly - behind his back. "Anyway, what are you doing here?"

"What does it look like I'm doing?" he asked, just as the monster detector beeped. Alex glanced over her shoulder, but the music was still playing, even if Harper was only barely paying attention to the routine. So, maybe nobody heard it.

"You're hunting monsters?" she asked, lowering her voice just in case. "Here?"

"No," Justin said, and he took a step forward, looking past her, not bothering to hide the monster detector any more. "I'm hunting monsters over there."

Alex turned around, and a million things seemed to happen at once. The floor shook, and the music started skipping, playing the same three notes over and over. Harper looked over at the CD player, and then her eyes widened as she glanced up at the far corner of the gym. The rest of the cheerleaders, after a valiant, if ridiculous-looking, attempt to keep up with the skipping music, faltered and looked around to see what was going on. The monster detector kept beeping, speeding up until it sounded more like a single high-pitched whine.

And then everyone started screaming.

Alex didn't think before rushing forward, dropping her pom poms and moving to intercept the monster before it could get to the squad. She could hear Justin's footsteps behind her, but she didn't slow down, trying to focus on being confident that she could beat this thing and not on the weird, spiny-looking things on its arm.

Somewhere to her left, Justin muttered a spell she wasn't familiar with, and she hung back, ignoring the instincts that urged her forward. A second later, streaming sparks shot from Justin's wand, wrapping themselves around the monster, but they fell apart as soon as they reached it, and the monster took a step forward, unharmed. And even as Justin started muttering again, trying a different spell, Alex knew it wasn't going to work.

So she lunged forward, grabbing the smooth part of the monster's wrist, and pulled. For a second, neither of them moved, and then the monster flipped over, landing behind her, and she spun around before it could attack again.

Vaguely, she heard Justin yelling, telling her to get out of the way, but she ignored him. It was a little late for that, anyway. When the monster lashed out again, she ducked, and then reached up as its arm was outstretched, wrapping her hand around one of the smooth, pointed spikes, and twisted until she heard something snap.

As soon as the monster hit the floor, heavy but silent, Justin was beside her, reaching for a net that hung on his belt and tossing it over the monster. It worked well enough to keep the monster in place - not that it looked like it was in much danger of going anywhere - but didn't do much to hide it, and Alex stepped in front of it self-consciously, suddenly aware of the eleven other people in the room staring at them.

"Um," Alex said. "New mascot."

Justin was staring at her, too. Honestly, he was no help at all.

"I don't think it's really going to work out."

She kept her body angled so that it hid as much of the monster as she could, and looked at Harper, silently begging for help. Harper cleared her throat, and then, after a minute of painfully awkward silence, she clapped her hands loudly and reset the music.

"Okay, people, there's no time to waste," Harper said. She sounded slightly more panicked than usual, but it was pretty much the same way she'd sounded all through practice, so maybe nobody else would notice anything. "Let's run through the routine once more, and this time, I want it to be perfect."

While the routine started up again - and Justin finally looked away from Alex to watch the cheerleaders, typical guy behaviour - Harper rushed over to Alex, and Alex pulled her away before she could get a good look at the monster. Harper might know about magic, and monsters, in a theoretical kind of way, but Alex was still pretty sure this one would freak her out if she got too close.

After a second, Justin joined them, and Alex shared a look with him just as Harper asked, "Alex, what was that?"

"Um," she said, trying to sound as calm as possible. If Harper ran out of the gym screaming, that might blow her whole 'mascot' cover story. "A monster?"

"A monster?"

"A little monster," she assured Harper, even though, well. It wasn't exactly true. "Completely harmless."

"It had spikes."

Alex glanced down at her hands, and dropped the spike she still held. It clattered on the polished wood of the gym floor, and she kicked it away.

"It's taken care of," she said. "Seriously, we should just -"

"You brought a monster into my gym."

Yeah, Harper definitely sounded a little hysterical. And a lot disappointed, which. Alex was mostly used to it, but it still hurt a little, especially when she'd only been trying to keep Harper safe.

Anyway, it wasn't like she'd invited the monster. And technically, Justin had been the one who was chasing it.

"And I took care of it," she said. "Harper, it's okay. Breathe."

Except - Harper didn't look like she was about to scream, any more. Instead, she looked at Alex a little warily.

"Yeah," Harper said. "How did you do that?"

Alex froze. She knew exactly what Justin was thinking, and she knew she couldn't count on him to -

"Magic," Justin said, before Alex could try to explain, and she looked at him, stunned. He was speaking to Harper, but looking at Alex, and his expression was unreadable. "She used magic."

"Sure," Alex agreed, breaking eye contact with Justin. "It was magic."

Harper looked like maybe she wanted to argue, for a minute, but then she looked over at the squad, and yelled something about pyramids and basket somethings that Alex couldn't understand, barely sparing a glance back at Justin and Alex as she marched over to fix it. Alex waited until she was gone, and then, right on cue, Justin took her arm, pulling her further away where nobody could hear them.

"Alex," he said, but she didn't need to hear it. Yeah, okay, she got it. Super strength, super reflexes, super annoying nightmares about fighting monsters with tiny little bits of wood.

"Yeah," she said, before he could keep trying to convince her. She really didn't need him to. "Okay, fine, you were right."

He just stared at her, and, ugh. Was he seriously waiting for her to say it?

She let out a long breath. "I'm the Slayer."

-

"So," Alex said. Her dad grumbled something, wiping mustard off the bread for the third time, and she decided to pull out the big guns. "Daddy."

He looked up at that, but in a way like he was suspicious, which. Wasn't exactly what she was going for.

She smiled, but not too sweetly. There was no need to tip him off.

"I can go now, right?"

"Go?" he asked, and then narrowed his eyes. "Alex, you know you're grounded this weekend."

Right. So, time for Plan B.

"You're right," she said. "Actually, the guy at table three keeps asking why his sandwich is taking so long, so maybe I should just go out and -"

"Wait," he said, before she got halfway to the counter.

Alex stopped. And waited.

Maybe he just needed a slightly bigger push.

"You know," she said, "I bet if we give him the sandwich for free he won't even complain about it having mustard."

Her dad's expression tightened. Bingo.

"You're going out with Harper," he said. It wasn't a question, but that was good - it meant she didn't have to answer. "And you'll be back early."

"Of course," she said. Probably.

"And you won't get into any trouble."

"Of course not."

At least, not if she could help it.

"Don't tell your mother," he said, and Alex smiled, then spun around and rushed out of the kitchen before he could change his mind.

And ran into Harper as soon as she left.

"Alex," Harper said, and Alex stopped, smiling at Harper and trying not to look like she had somewhere else to be. If Harper got suspicious, there was no way she was getting out of here to meet Justin. "Are you working?"

"Um," Alex said, and glanced back at the kitchen. If her dad overheard her saying yes, if he knew she hadn't made plans with Harper, she'd be stuck there all night. "No. But actually -"

"Alex."

Alex turned to see Justin at the base of the stairs. Luckily, he was dressed a little but more subtly than he usually did when he went monster hunting, but he was staring at her, like, I thought you left already.

At least, that was the plan. Leave separately, meet up outside, and not have to explain anything to their parents.

It was a good plan - or at least, it had been.

She looked back at him, trying to convey, I was supposed to, but I got caught up, help me.

It was a lot to get across in a single look, but Justin seemed to get it, anyway.

"Alex," he said, sounding less surprised, this time. "Weren't you supposed to be, um -"

Yeah, he was hopeless at this.

"At the thing," she finished for him. Fine, so maybe she wasn't great at it either, but - it had been a weird week, okay? And she wasn't used to lying to Harper any more, so she was a little out of practice. "Right. The thing. Sorry, Harper, I -"

"What thing?" Harper asked, and, damn. Not that she expected to get away with that, exactly, but it would have been nice.

"Just a thing," she said, thinking quickly. She and Harper did everything together; it wasn't easy.

Harper leaned closer, pitching her voice barely above a whisper. "A magic thing?"

"Yes," Alex said. Sure, a magic thing. She could work with that. "That. So I really should -"

Harper's mouth tightened into a frown, and Alex shut up. So, okay, maybe Harper was still a little mad about the whole 'monsters in the gym ruining cheerleading practice' thing.

"Oh."

Oh?

"I thought we were going to see Night of the Halloween Sorority Party Disaster 4, but if you're too busy with magic ..."

Oh. Right. She thought Harper's outfit looked a little fancier than usual, though with Harper's clothes, it was usually hard to tell.

"Harper -"

"Justin," someone interrupted her, and Alex looked up to see Zeke. Great, more interruptions. Just what they needed. By the time they actually got out of there, all the good monsters were probably going to be gone. "What's up?"

"Up?" Justin asked, sounding anything but casual. Maybe Alex should give him a few pointers on how to lie to people and not feel guilty about it.

Not that she was doing so well at that herself.

"Nothing's up."

"Great," Zeke said. "Because I heard that Night of the Halloween Sorority Party Disaster 4 is playing -"

"For Creature Feature Confidential?" Harper jumped in, and Zeke grinned at her.

"Yeah, where they project -"

"- A scary movie onto the side of a building. Alex and I are going to that, too."

"Harper," Alex said, but she was pretty sure it was already too late.

"Awesome," Zeke said. And maybe it was just Alex's imagination, but he seemed to be standing closer to Harper than he had been a second ago. "Justin, what do you say? We could all go together."

Harper looked way too excited about that idea, but Alex swallowed, and raised a questioning eyebrow at Justin. There was probably no way she was getting out of going to the movies with Harper, but maybe, at least, if they went together -

"Sure," Justin said, sounding as resigned as she felt. "That sounds great."

"Awesome," Zeke said again, and Alex shared a look with Justin as they left.

Awesome.

-

By the time they got to the location texted to Harper's phone, the place was packed, and Alex looked over at Harper. If they had to sit all the way up the front -

"There's a spot," Zeke said, pointing to their left. It was barely big enough for the four of them, squashed between a croup of college guys and a couple already making out, but he was already heading over there, and, well. It was pretty much their only option, unless they wanted to head back to the loft and try to get a view of the building from the balcony.

As Zeke staked out their seat and Harper volunteered to go find snacks, Alex pulled Justin aside.

"Justin," she hissed, keeping her voice pitched low so Zeke wouldn't overhear. Not that it would matter much; they were at a horror movie, so if he heard them talking about monsters, she could probably just shrug it off. "Let's get out of here."

"Now?" he asked, and she rolled her eyes. No, next week.

"Of course now."

"What about -"

Zeke interrupted them, then, to wave them over, and Alex sighed. Right, the whole 'not ditching their friends at a horror movie' thing. Fine, whatever. She could just hunt monsters tomorrow night.

"This is going to be -"

"Awesome?" she interrupted Zeke, and he nodded as she sat down beside Justin. Sure, it was going to be great. Instead of actually going out and hunting monsters, she could sit here for two hours and watch monsters hunt a bunch of sorority girls too stupid to live.

A month ago, she would have loved it. A month ago, she didn't feel like she had better things to be doing.

"Exactly," Zeke said, smiling at her like they were kindred spirits or something. Ugh. Seriously, Justin needed to get some better friends. "Did you know that the blood they use for these movies is actually -"

"I have popcorn," Harper interrupted him, panting like she'd run all the way to the mondoplex to get it. Which, actually, she might have; Alex didn't remember seeing any concession stands on their way there. "It might be a little stale, sorry."

"I don't care," Alex said, reaching for the popcorn. Anything that got her out of having to listen to the details of horror movie special effects was fine with her.

Or, okay, she could just spit the popcorn out. That worked, too.

"Harper," she said, tugging Justin's water bottle out of his belt to rinse away the taste. "Where did you get this?"

Harper shrugged. "Some guy was selling it. Why, is it not good?"

"It's really, really not good."

"Weird," Harper said.

Not really, Alex thought, but she bit her tongue. If Harper had never learned not to take candy from strangers, it probably wasn't Alex's place to teach her.

"I'll have some," Zeke said, and Harper smiled at him gratefully. "I love stale popcorn."

"It's like cold pizza," Harper said. "It's so much better when it's not fresh."

Yeah, because who wouldn't like disgusting old food?

"Exactly," Zeke said, nodding thoughtfully. And then he reached for more popcorn.

Alex scooted away from him a little bit, just in case he needed to throw up later.

"Did you know that the blood they use for these movies is actually corn syrup?" he asked Harper as the lights dimmed and the credits began to roll. "Real blood actually looks fake on screen."

Alex thought that fake blood looked pretty fake, too, but she didn't say so. Even worse were the ridiculous monster designs - any monster put together like that wouldn't even be able to walk, let alone terrorise a bunch of screaming college girls.

But there was no way she wanted to get drawn into that conversation, so.

"I bet they don't even -" she started, leaning in close to Harper, but she was cut off when Zeke whispered something on Harper's other side, and Harper turned to him, laughing.

Well. So much for her and Harper watching the movie together.

"Why don't they just go for the weak spot on the back of its head?" she whispered to Justin instead.

He laughed. "You mean with another one of those flying kicks -"

"- From a dead stop?" she finished. Seriously, whoever made these movies had obviously never seen a real monster before. Or a real fight. Or possibly a real sorority girl.

"It's completely ridiculous," he said, but he sounded a little less convincing as the monster lunged, and his hand brushed hers.

Alex rolled her eyes. She didn't get how anyone could be scared by this stuff. Half of it wasn't even possible, and the rest -

And then the lights flashed on screen, and Justin grabbed Alex's hand. She glanced over at him, but he wasn't looking at her, or at the movie.

Instead, he was staring at the monster detector, lit up and flashing like it was demon Mardi Gras.

He gestured off to the side, and Alex nodded, her eyes locking on his for a second. And then they both stood up, sneaking past an oblivious Zeke and Harper, and hurrying back towards the road.

Finally, something really scary.

"It's a level three monster," Justin said as they walked, but not in a way like he thought they should turn around. Or in that really annoying way like he was trying to get her to admit something. Because, duh, she'd already done that. More like - he was just letting her know, or whatever. Like he trusted her to handle it.

And yeah, okay, that was kind of nice. Whatever. It was no big deal.

She nodded, to let him know she'd heard him, and pretended not to notice that he was letting her go on ahead of him while he stayed a couple of steps behind.

No big deal. Not everybody could be an awesome superhero, after all.

"On the right," he said, and she turned, took a few more steps forward, and then stopped. Yep. There it was.

"It's not that big," she said, which, okay, it wasn't. Mostly, it was green and kind of slimy, with thorns sticking out all over its body like a cactus. So, it wasn't like a cactus was all that scary, right?

"Maybe I'll let you handle this one," Justin said, and she turned around in time to see him take a step backwards.

"Seriously?" she whispered. Okay, so maybe he wasn't a Slayer, but would it kill him to back her up? "Justin -"

"Alex," he said, and she rolled her eyes, not letting him interrupt her.

"You can't seriously be scared of this thing," she said. "It looks like a plant."

A cactus was a plant, right?

"Alex," he said again, and she was about to keep going when she noticed the way his eyes had gone wide, his gaze darting over her shoulder like he was trying to tell her something. So, okay. Crap.

"It saw us, didn't it?" It was a question, but not one she really needed an answer to.

Justin nodded.

"And it's standing behind me right now."

He nodded again.

"Okay."

Before she could think about it too much, Alex spun around, sweeping at its legs with a kick. Justin hadn't said anything about its thorns being poisonous, but she didn't really want to risk hitting it; if nothing else, they looked sharp, like they could hurt her if she touched them. A lot.

"Don't touch its thorns!" Justin called out behind her, just as Alex pressed down on the monster's arm with the heel of her boot. Really useful, she thought, and she ground down harder, until the monster stopped struggling to reach her and lay flat instead.

"Thanks," she said, as Justin - finally - came up to stand beside her. Well, almost beside her. He was still a couple of feet away from the monster, and Alex couldn't really blame him; up close, it was a lot slimier than she'd thought, and it didn't exactly smell wonderful. If she didn't have to keep it pinned, she'd move away, too. "I never would have figured that out on my own."

"I was just trying to help," he protested.

"Fine," she said. "If you want to help, how about a transportation spell so I don't have to drag this thing all the way to Grand Central Station? I don't want to miss the whole movie. I hear Ruby Donahue actually dies in this one"

Well, that, and she would probably have to actually touch the monster if she had to take it to the holding cells herself.

"Glad to," Justin said, and pulled out his wand, smirking like this made them equal for Alex doing all the work actually defeating the monster. "Attacking my sister, that was wrong, now get behind bars where you belong."

The monster disappeared, and Alex stumbled a little as her foot, which had been resting on the monster's arm, dropped an extra couple of inches to the ground. Justin caught her, sort of, and after a second, when he didn't let go of her wrist, she pulled away from him.

"Thanks," she said, not quite sure if she was thanking him for the transportation spell or for not letting her fall, and he nodded like he understood. And then his eyes went wide again, and Alex's breath caught as she turned around slowly. If there was another monster -

But there wasn't, and it took her a few seconds to get what it was she was supposed to be seeing. And then she noticed it, beside some random graffiti swirls, what was definitely - if barely - legible writing.

"The end is coming," she read aloud, and tried to suppress a shudder. "What did they, run out of bathroom jokes?"

But Justin wasn't smiling, and Alex had her wand out before she'd even consciously decided it, erasing the words with a flick of her wrist.

"Come on," she said, and had to tug at Justin's shirt before he'd start moving. "We're missing the movie."

-

By the time they got back, they'd only missed half the movie, and Alex settled in beside Justin to watch as the red herring was revealed, and Ruby Donahue's very best friend since Night of the Halloween Sorority Party Disaster 3 was killed.

Gruesomely, and totally unrealistically, but Alex didn't care. She'd had enough monster realism for one night.

"Where were you?" Harper asked a few minutes later, during one of the boring parts. "You were gone for ages."

"Um," Alex said. "I had to go to the bathroom?"

Which, okay, was probably the lamest excuse ever, but Harper just gave her kind of a weird look and let it drop.

And then, just as the killer jumped out from inside the closet, somebody touched Alex's hair, and she nearly screamed.

"Sorry," Justin said, like he noticed. Which was totally embarrassing; she'd just fought a monster, she shouldn't have been jumping at scary movies. "You had ..."

He held something out in front of her, and when the screen grew light again, Alex recognised it as one of the thorns from the monster.

Which she'd had. In her hair.

No wonder Harper was giving her weird looks.

"Thanks," she mumbled, and took the thorn, crushing it into the dirt with her heel. She was definitely going to have to shower when they got home.

Stupid monsters.

-

"Alex," their dad said. He sounded annoyed, and if Alex was being totally honest, she couldn't really blame him. Her nightmares had mostly stopped after the incident in the gym, but ever since the movies she'd been having them again - in full colour, as vivid and as brutal as ever. She didn't think she'd slept more than three or four hours in the past three nights combined, and it was making it harder than usual to focus in their wizard lessons. She could barely even stay awake.

"Sorry," she said, glancing over at the chair that now lay in two distinct halves. "I'll try it again."

"No," their dad said, a little more quickly than he really had to. And, okay, she got it. She was a screw-up. Except that this time she had a reason for screwing up - not that it helped, when she couldn't tell her parents what it was. "That's okay, I'll get Justin to fix it. Why don't you work on that essay I set you guys?"

Great, an essay. Like that was going to make it easier for her to not fall asleep.

Well, at least this way she probably couldn't destroy anything.

Twenty minutes later, she'd only written three words - if My Troll Essay counted as words, which they totally did - and Alex was seriously considering going back to wrecking the furniture.

And then, finally, the door opened.

"Justin," their dad said, and she sat up a little straighter. Beside her, Max kept flinging rubber bands at the wall, and their dad turned around when one hit him in the back of the head.

While his back was turned, Justin winked at Alex, and she couldn't help smiling.

"Max!" their dad said, in the way he usually reserved for saying Alex! He looked between Justin and Max for a minute, and then finally settled on Justin. "Justin, can you -"

"Can't," Justin said, before he could finish. And, wow, Alex was nearly impressed. He never said no to their parents. "Actually, I need to borrow Alex."

Their dad glanced at her, and she tried to look as surprised as he did. "Really?"

"Yeah," Justin said, trying to play it off as casual. And totally failing, but Justin almost never lied to their parents, so their dad didn't look like he suspected anything. "For a thing. For school."

"For school," their dad repeated. And, okay, now he looked suspicious.

"It's an art project," Alex said, before Justin could do any more damage. "Justin's getting a 'B', and since that's the one class I'm actually passing -"

"She said she'd help me," Justin finished.

"In exchange for him doing my chores for the next two weeks," she added, and smiled as Justin glowered at her. It wasn't her fault their dad probably wouldn't buy that she was helping him for free.

"That's ... nice," their dad said, like he wasn't quite sure. "Okay, fine. Alex, you can get out working on your essay this one time, but I still expect it to be finished by next week."

"Deal," she said, leaping out of her chair. Hey, maybe she'd get lucky and have to fight a troll between now and then.

"And Alex," he said, and she froze, halfway to the door. "Justin only does your chores for one week."

Alex grinned, and stuck her tongue out at Justin. "Deal."

-

It took Justin nearly ten minutes to speak after they left the lair. Not that Alex was counting, or anything; it was just weird, walking in silence.

"So," he said, and she tensed a little; if he confronted her about having to do her chores, she'd probably give in, but not without putting up a fight first. And, maybe, getting Justin to agree to help her with her troll essay.

But that wasn't what he said.

"You're not going to tell mom and dad about the whole ..." He waved a hand, like she could just magically understand the words he wasn't saying. Which wasn't how it worked, most of the time. "Slayer thing?"

Okay, that wasn't what she'd been expecting at all.

"You think I should tell them," she said. It wasn't a question - more like, what was he, crazy?

He shrugged. "Why don't you?"

Probably for the same reason she didn't tell them that she was getting an 'F' in math, or that all those times she hung out at Harper's last year, sometimes she'd been with Dean instead. What they didn't know couldn't hurt them, right?

"They'd just worry about me," she said instead. Which was kind of the same thing, probably. "You know how mom gets about wizard stuff, especially when it gets dangerous. They wouldn't even let me come monster hunting with you if they didn't know about ..."

Okay, now she was doing the whole arm-waving thing. Except that Justin seemed to get exactly what she was talking about.

"They'd never let me do this on my own."

Justin stopped, then, and looked at her in a way that - made her feel uncomfortable, only not really. Like he was trying to say something he couldn't put into words.

And, okay, maybe that was how it worked, a little.

"You're not alone," he said, quietly enough that the noise from the street next to the park nearly drowned him out, but she heard him perfectly.

Alex swallowed.

"I'm not?" she asked. This time, there were no cars to drown her out, and the words sounded way too loud.

"You're not," Justin said.

And then he pitched forward, crashing into her so hard they both went tumbling to the ground. Alex threw him off quickly, and then cringed as he flew a couple of feet in the air instead of simply rolling aside.

"Oops," she said, dusting herself off as she stood. "I guess sometimes I don't know my own strength."

Justin groaned in response.

Well, okay, they couldn't all be great one-liners.

"So," she said, looking over the monsters standing in a tight knot in front of her, "who wants to be first?"

She really, really hoped that one of them wanted to be first. And, more importantly, that the rest of them wanted to be last. Slayer strength might be really cool and all, but, well - so far, it was useful for fighting off one monster at a time.

Not three of them.

"Shark boy?" she asked, sizing up one of the monsters with a shark head instead of a human one. How did he manage to breathe with that thing, anyway? "You ... um, red guy?"

And then the third monster stepped forward, and she took a deep breath.

"Okay," she said. "Hammer hands. I mean, how do you get those meat stubs through your sleeves?"

Okay, so maybe making the big scary monster angry wasn't her best idea ever. Especially not when it swung at her, leaving her barely enough room to roll aside before one of its huge fists crashed into the ground beside her, leaving a dent in the concrete path. But, well, good ideas had never exactly been her specialty.

"Alex," Justin said. He still hadn't moved from where he landed when Alex threw him, but luckily, none of the monsters seemed very interested in him. "Don't make it mad."

Hammer hands swung again, knocking a cloud of splinters from a nearby tree, and Alex rolled her eyes. Yeah, she'd figured that one out for herself.

"Like I'm scared of this thing," she said. She hoped she sounded more confident than she felt, or this could go badly for her very quickly. "Yeah," she said, fixing hammer hands with a glare, "I'm talking to you."

He charged forward, but luckily for her, he was as slow as he looked. She supposed it couldn't be easy, having to drag those hands with him everywhere he went. Alex jumped aside with plenty of time to spare, sending it lumbering ahead of her, and tried to steady herself as it turned.

She really, really hoped she wasn't just making it mad.

Just then, though, her luck ran out, or maybe shark boy and red guy just decided they were sick of waiting. They both ran at her at the same time, flanking her, and she swallowed hard, trying to keep one eye on hammer hands as she spun and kicked. Shark boy, it turned out, wasn't much good in a fight - it took her one sloppily-placed roundhouse to its chest to send it sprawling - but whatever the red dude was, his reflexes were more than a match for hers. She tried hitting it, her palm flat, but it caught her wrist, twisting until she had to roll with it or risk breaking something, and she couldn't quite get her legs under her in time to avoid falling.

She landed next to hammer hands, standing still like he'd been waiting for his opening, but instead of attacking him, she ducked behind a nearby tree, frantically searching for Justin.

Her strength and reflexes might have been given a boost, but her sense of direction still sucked.

"Justin," she whispered, when she couldn't find him in the dark. For a moment, she wasn't sure if he'd heard her - the monsters weren't far away, and they were making an awful lot of noise - but then she heard Justin's faint reply.

Or, well, it could have just been the leaves being blown together by the wind, but she hoped it was Justin.

"Justin," she called again, a little louder.

After a second, he called back. "Alex, over here."

Yeah, that was really helpful. Staying low, she crouched behind a row of bushes, and found him on the other side, kneeling at an odd angle like he'd been trying to watch the fight without being seen.

"Justin," she hissed, tapping him on the shoulder. Obviously he didn't have super Slayer senses. "How do I beat these guys?"

He boggled at her. "You're asking me?"

"Yes," she said, like, duh. She's just asked, hadn't she? "You ... you know, read books and stuff. What do I do?"

For a minute, he looked as lost as she felt, and then his patented 'I know everything' grin spread across his face. "The guy with the -"

He waved his arms around, in what was really a terrible impression of the monster. She got it, though.

"Hammer hands," she said. "What about him?"

"His hands are his weakness," Justin said. "If you crush them, he won't be able to move."

That was his advice? Really?

"How am I supposed to crush them?" she asked. "Those things are huge."

Justin shrugged. Great. That was really helpful.

"I'm sure you'll think of something," he said.

And Alex scrambled back around the bushes, so quickly she almost didn't register that Justin had just given her a compliment. Sort of.

"Crush them," she muttered to herself, watching the monsters regroup as she scanned the park for anything that might help her. "How can I -"

And then she stopped behind a tree - the same one hammer hands had taken a chunk out of - and it came to her.

Breaking off one of the low-hanging branches was hard, but not impossible, and by the time she had the branch in her hands, the monsters had noticed her and closed half the distance between them. Hammer hands, luckily, was still in the lead, a couple of steps away from the others; it wouldn't give her a lot of time to disable him before shark boy and red guy joined the fight, but it might give her just enough.

"Come get me," she said, standing her ground. Not that it would make much difference, but it gave her a couple of extra seconds to clear her head.

Hammer hands swung.

Alex stepped aside, letting his fist collide with the tree; after this fight, it would probably end up as sawdust. Leaves and bark rained down on her, and she shook them out of her hair, raising the branch before hammer hands could get his fist out of the trunk and come at her again. She could feel the other two monsters closing in on either side of her, but they seemed content to wait it out, and right now, she'd take what she could get.

Breathing steadily, she swung at the point where hammer hands' fist met the tree, and for half a second, all she could do was hope that her aim hadn't been off. And then hammer hands let out a sharp, pained howl, and froze in place like he'd been shackled there.

"Not so tough now, are you?" she asked, and received no response. Which was fine with her. She turned, expecting to see shark boy and red guy right beside her, and her heart skipped a beat when they were nowhere to be found.

Well, that was okay. Maybe they'd just run off. Maybe -

And then she heard a scream, high and girlish, that could only have come from Justin.

By the time she reached him - standing, no longer cowering behind the bushes - he had his wand out, and shark boy was lying a few feet away, obviously stunned. He still had his back to the weird red one, though, and before the monster could sneak up on him, Alex lunged for it, tackling it hard enough to put them both on the ground. The monster got to its feet a second before she did, and she was sure it was going to attack her; she was even ready for it, almost.

Instead, it stood its ground, and its mouth stretched in a way that was almost, but not quite, a smile.

"This isn't over," it said, its voice low and rough, like the sound of rocks sliding together.

"Really?" she asked. If the monster wanted to trade witty banter instead of fighting, it was fine by her. "Because it looks like I kicked your butt pretty good."

Actually, Justin had done at least half the work, but whatever. That so wasn't the point.

"This is not the end."

"Yeah," Alex said. "You said that already."

"This is not the end," it repeated. "But the end is coming. We will come for you."

Okay, that? Was creepy.

"And we will win."

"Alex."

Alex spun around, fists raised, and stopped herself an inch shy of punching Justin in the face. Not that it was a bad thing, necessarily - in fact, she could think of at least a dozen times in the past when she'd wanted to do exactly that - but this probably wasn't the time for it. Besides, she didn't want to be the one who'd have to explain Justin's black eye to their parents.

"Justin," she said, trying to get her heart to stop racing. "Don't sneak up on me like that."

"Sneak up on you?" he asked. "I was right here the whole time."

"And I'm supposed to, what, actually pay attention to that?"

"In a fight? Yes, you should probably be paying attention to where other people are."

Whatever. She knew where the monsters were; that was the important thing. Like the one that was right -

Not right in front of her, any more.

"Justin," she said, turning in a full circle to make sure she hadn't just spun around the wrong way. "Did you see where it went?"

"Where what went?" Justin asked.

"The red guy," she said. "The monster?"

Justin looked around, too, and then shrugged. "Maybe he ran away."

Well, that was just great. Just when she actually wanted it to stick around. Well, kind of.

"That's a good thing," Justin said. "Isn't it?"

"Yeah," she agreed, but without much feeling behind the words. Sure. It was fantastic.

Except for that whole bit about how it was going to kill her or whatever, which. Was maybe not so fantastic.

"Come on," he said. "Lets get these other monsters to the holding cell."

Alex nodded, pulling out her wand. Right. Clean up first.

Transporting the monsters only took a few seconds, and they were almost done when Alex made Justin stop. He looked at like he thought she was crazy, like she was just being Alex and bugging him for no reason, which - not that that wasn't fun, but that so wasn't what this was about.

"That," she said, pointing to Hammer hands. Specifically, to its right shoulder, to the part of its arm that still looked like ... well, a regular arm. Seared into its skin, scarred over so that she'd nearly missed it, was -

"Is that ... a tattoo?"

Justin leaned closer, and after a second, he shook his head. "Not a tattoo. I think it's a brand. Some kind of symbol."

And then Alex bent down to get a better look, and, yeah. Some kind of symbol. The same kind of symbol she'd seen on a wall three days ago, the symbols she'd assumed were just random graffiti.

Apparently, not so random after all.

"Whatever," she said. So this guy liked the same kind of pattern as the other monster. Maybe it was just monster fashion or whatever.

Maybe she really didn't want to find out if it was something different.

"Did the other monsters have brands?" Justin asked, and she shrugged.

"How should I know?" she asked.

He gave her a level look. "Maybe because you were fighting them."

"Exactly," she said. "I was fighting them, not studying their fashion choices. Can we just get this monster out of here and go home?"

"Fine," Justin said. He waved his wand, and the monster disappeared, and -

Where it had been lying, a half-finished mark was scrawled in the dirt. And, okay, yeah, it could have been that stupid symbol. But it could have been anything.

"Come on," she said. "I'm tired, and dirty, and you smell like Max."

Justin didn't laugh, but after a second, he started following her. And she hoped he'd shut up, hoped that would be the end of it, but, well, this was Justin, and since when did he ever do anything she wanted him to?

"Alex," he said. They hadn't gone more than ten steps. "What's going on?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. Monsters?"

He waited, in silence that was somehow louder than if he'd shouted at her.

"The end is coming?"

She couldn't help it, okay? The words made her shudder.

"Alex, what -"

"I don't know," she interrupted him. "Okay? I don't know what it means, but -"

She took a deep breath. He'd already brought it up; she might as well tell him.

Besides, there was a chance - even if she really, really didn't want to think about it - that it could be important. That it could all mean something.

"The monster," she said. "Before it ran away - you remember the graffiti we found? 'The end is near?'"

"Yeah," Justin said quietly.

"Yeah," she said. "It said that. And that - I don't know, that they were coming for me, that they were going to win. Whatever. It's no big deal."

Except, saying it out loud, Alex wasn't so sure of that.

She wasn't even aware that Justin hadn't spoken until he moved forward, closing the short distance between them. His expression looked serious - well, okay, more serious than usual - and he took her hand, like she needed reassuring or something.

Which she so didn't. But she let him hold her hand, anyway.

"It'll be okay," he said. Which she knew, duh, but somehow, hearing Justin say it out loud made her feel a little better. "I'll ... you know. Look stuff up."

Great. Having such a concrete plan really made her feel a lot better.

And then -

"We'll get through it together," Justin said, and that did.

-

"So," Justin said, sliding into the seat across from her. "I looked stuff up."

"That's great," Alex said. She kept her voice dry, like she had no idea what he was talking about. What was also great was how completely stealth her brother was being. In the cafeteria. In front of half the school.

Or, you know, not.

"What stuff?" Harper asked, and Alex shot Justin a look, like, see?

"Um," Justin said. Like he only just now realised they weren't alone. Genius. "Just ... stuff."

Alex rolled her eyes. Had she taught him nothing about lying?

"About our wizard lessons," she filled in for him. "Right, Justin?"

"Right," he agreed. "Wizard lessons."

Harper's mouth set in a thin line, the way it always did when Alex talked about magic. "Oh."

"Yeah," Alex said, and pushed her tray away from her. "Wow, I'm really full. Justin?"

"But you haven't even finished -" Harper started, and Alex stood before she could finish her objection, dragging Justin away by the elbow. Okay, so maybe she was being totally rude, but Harper would get over it. She was pretty sure.

"So?" she asked, once they were around the corner and safely out of earshot. "What did you find out?"

So, fine, maybe she was a little more freaked out about all this than she wanted to let on. But it was probably nothing, right? A few monsters trying to make themselves sound scarier than they really were. It couldn't be that bad.

"It's bad," Justin said.

Well, so much for that theory.

"I cross-referenced the tattoos those monsters had with the sigils they left on the ground," he said, and even through a faint layer of panic, Alex had to try not to laugh.

"Okay," she said, "first of all, can we just take a minute here to appreciate the geekiness of you?" She snorted. "Cross-referencing."

Justin didn't look like he found as amusing as she did. But, seriously. Cross-referencing.

"And second of all," she said, "What the heck are sigils?"

He stared at her for a beat, and then sighed. "Those swirly things?"

"Oh," she said. "Right."

Well, at least now they were on the same page.

"Anyway," he said, glaring at her like she'd just defaced one of his action figures or something, "I cross-referenced -"

Alex snorted again, but Justin didn't pause.

"- the tattoos and the sigils. And it's not good."

"Yeah," she said. "You said that already. So, how not good are we talking?"

For a minute, he just stared at her, like he didn't know what to say. And then -

"It's the apocalypse."

And maybe that was the part where she was supposed to react or whatever; when she didn't say something, Justin's expression got really weird, like there was more but he couldn't go on until she said something.

"In English?" she asked finally.

"It's the end of the world."

Oh. Okay. So, that she understood.

Yeah, that really was bad.

"So," she said. And, okay, she had to get it together. Like, right now.

At least she knew what they were up against. And that meant she could fight back.

"How do we stop it?"

-

"Alex," her dad said, stopping her just as she was considering spitting into table four's drink refill. Customers, ugh. Root beer was a perfectly good drink, and anyway, who ordered vegetable juice with their dinner? Or ever? "Can you take this out to table two?"

Alex bit her tongue to keep from saying that she was busy. If she told him she was still getting drinks for table four, he'd only want to know what was wrong with the first lot, and the drinks order wasn't the first thing she'd screwed up today.

"Sure," she said instead. "No problem."

It was even mostly true, until she got halfway to the table and tripped, sending pastrami on rye flying across the diner.

Well, crap.

"Alex," her dad called again, and Alex winced, dropping to the floor to try to pick up what she'd dropped. Which was totally humiliating - she could hear the two kids at the nearest table whispering about it, so loudly she could have heard them even without super senses - but at least it might save her getting into trouble. As long as she could clean everything up before her dad got out of the kitchen.

So, of course, she was only halfway finished when she heard him breathing heavily beside her.

"Um," she said, straightening. If she wasn't going to get out of having to listen to a lecture, there was really no point in cleaning. "It was an accident?"

"Alex," he said, and she cringed. It was his super understanding voice. The one he usually used before his really long, really uncomfortable speeches. "Are you okay?"

Yeah, this was a conversation she so did not want to have.

"I'm fine," she said. It might have been more convincing if she wasn't covered in mustard, but, well. "School was just really boring today, is all."

"So you thought you'd throw a pastrami sandwich across the sub shop to make yourself feel better?"

"Yes?"

Okay, so maybe that didn't actually make a lot of sense, after all.

"Alex," he said again, and sighed. "Is there anything you want to -"

"Actually," she said, interrupting him before he could launch into the whole concerned parent act. She was starting to run out of good excuses, and she was nowhere near ready to tell him about the whole Slayer thing. "I told Harper I'd meet her at her place this afternoon, and I'm kind of just getting in the way here ..."

Translation: Justin was waiting for her so they could go monster hunting together. But there was no way she could tell her dad that, so.

Her dad opened his mouth, and Alex held her breath.

"Okay," he said. He looked resigned, but at least he wasn't lecturing her. "You can go to Harper's. But be back by ten."

"Deal," she said, and took off before he remembered to ask her to clean up.

-

"You're late," Justin said, and Alex rolled her eyes.

"By two minutes," she said. "I do have a life other than monster hunting, you know."

He frowned. "The schedule -"

Right. The schedule. The stupid thing was probably still in Justin's room, just waiting for one of their parents to find it.

"I still can't believe you made a schedule," she said. "We don't need a whiteboard to tell us when to go monster hunting."

Justin looked like he disagreed, but he didn't say it.

"Besides," she said. "I was way later yesterday, and you didn't yell at me then."

"That's because you were in the middle of fighting that -"

Monster with tusks. She remembered.

"I didn't want to distract you."

"Yeah, well," she said. "What are we fighting today?"

Abruptly, she realised he wasn't beside her any more, and she took a few steps back to where he stood.

"You didn't even look at the schedule, did you?" he asked.

Duh.

Alex waved a hand. "Whatever, can't you just tell me?"

"We aren't hunting monsters," he said. "Today, we're doing research."

"Research?"

"Reconnaissance."

She frowned. "No fighting?"

And then Justin laughed, and she shoved him. Not hard - she didn't want a repeat performance of their wizard training - but enough to make him stumble sideways a little.

"Not everything is about fighting," he said. He pushed her back, a little, but he was smiling. "Besides, we're going somewhere special."

Well, that was different.

"Where?" she asked, looking around. Right now they were headed for -

"The cemetery."

Oh.

"Seriously?" she asked. "That's how you treat a girl to a fun night out?"

Justin glanced at her, his expression unreadable, and Alex could almost feel herself blushing.

Or whatever. It was a warm night.

"It's where the Tomb of Llampaca is," he said, like that meant anything to her. And then, like he knew that, too, "He was the founder of the Cult of Amparnis."

She thought about it for a second. "That's what those squiggly things were?"

"The symbols of the Cult of Amparnis," Justin said.

"Yeah." Whatever. "So, what's with that guy's name?"

"What guy?"

"Alpaca llama."

Justin looked at her. "You mean Llampaca?"

"Yeah, that's what I said."

He sighed, like she was being super frustrating to deal with. Like she was the one going on about some old dead dude with a weird name that nobody normal could pronounce. "It's not his name. It's his title. We don't know what his real name was."

Right, okay. That was ... slightly less weird. "And he's buried in New York? Shouldn't he be, like, in Transylvania or Pennsylvania or something?"

"He isn't actually buried there," Justin said, sounding more annoyed than he probably was. And, hey, it wasn't her fault she hadn't read all the same books he had, and anyway, it wasn't like she got mad at him when he was useless in a fight.

Which, she had to admit, was slightly less often than she expected.

"So," she said. "If he isn't buried there, why are we going to the cemetery?"

Justin shrugged. "That's why we're doing reconnaissance."

Oh. Okay, then.

"But -"

Of course. Since when did Justin not know everything?

"- the books said that the Tomb of Llampaca is where the sacred objects of the Cult of Amparnis are kept," he said. "I think."

She looked over at him. "You think?"

"Well, the books were really old," he said, "so I'm not sure if my translation spell -"

Alex tuned out the rest of what he said; blah blah research boring books blah. So, they were going to the cemetery because there may or may not be something important there, buried in the tomb of some guy who started a cult using a fake name.

Well, at least there was nothing vague about that.

"So," she said, interrupting what was probably going to be a half hour lecture, if she let Justin keep talking. "Where's this Lamepack guy's tomb?"

"Llampaca," he muttered, and she smirked. Maybe she'd stop riling him up if it wasn't so easy. "It should be in the middle of the cemetery."

Right. Where all the huge, creepy looking tombs were. In the very creepiest part of the creepiest place in the city.

Of course.

"So we just have to get there and -"

"Open up his tomb," he said.

"Seriously?" Okay, gross. Why did monster hunting have to be so creepy?

Justin sighed. "How else are we supposed to get the things that are buried there?"

"You mean, the things you think are buried there?"

He glared at her.

"Okay, fine," Alex said. "We get to the cemetery, we open up the tomb, we grab the sacred whatevers. And then what?"

She tried counting to ten, and made it to eight and a half before she rolled her eyes.

"Do you know anything at all?"

"I know I'm smarter than you," he said, which, whatever. If that was the best he could come up with -

"And I know that finding the sacred objects is our only hope of stopping the monsters."

Well, okay, then.

"So." She really didn't want to ask, but - well, one of them had to. "What if we don't find them?"

Justin shrugged, but his expression froze, and he couldn't quite meet her eyes. "Then the world ends, I guess."

"Well," she said, "as long as there's no pressure."

"At least you've got me," he offered, and Alex glanced at him, and then looked away.

"Yeah," she said, with as much sarcasm as she could manage. "That makes me feel a lot better."

Justin didn't say anything, but he smiled at her, like he knew.

He could be really annoying sometimes.

"So, where's the -" she said, and then stopped. There were tombs all around them, but right in front of them, maybe thirty feet away, was one that made the rest look like miniatures. It was made of dark, rough stone, so old it had moss growing over a quarter of it, and there was something engraved on the front, worn down enough that it was almost unreadable.

She didn't need to be able to read it. It just radiated evil lives here.

"So," she said, taking a step forward. A small step, but at least it was progress. "I'm guessing this is it?"

Justin nodded, moving past her, and Alex made herself catch up. No way was Justin braver than her.

Besides, it was just an old, creepy, evil tomb. No big deal.

"This is it," he said, running his hands over the stone. She didn't know how he could even bear to touch it; it was like she could almost feel the wrongness radiating from it, like something was buried inside it that wasn't even supposed to exist.

She really, really hoped that was her Slayer senses working overtime. Otherwise, that was just freaky.

"So." She wished she didn't feel like she needed to whisper; okay, cemetery, but they were alone, so it wasn't like anyone was going to come along and yell at them for not respecting the dead. Besides, it was just a tomb. A really old tomb belonging to some monster cult leader, but still.

She moved a little closer to Justin.

"How do we open it?"

Justin studied the tomb for another minute, and then turned to face her, shrugging. "I guess we just ... try?"

"Wow, it's a good thing I brought you. You're so helpful."

He glowered at her. "Do you have a better idea?"

"Hey," she said, "I'm not the ... research guy."

"Watcher."

She looked around. "Watch what?"

Justin sighed, but he was smiling, so. "Watcher. That's what it's called. The person who ... watches over the Slayer."

She stared at him for a minute. Her stomach felt kind of funny all of a sudden, heavy and churning, and she told herself it was just the cemetery, just the tomb. "What, so that's an actual position?"

Another shrug. "It's supposed to. All the stuff I found about the Watcher's Council ..."

He paused, like he didn't know what to say next, which was a first.

"I'm not sure it exists any more."

The churning feeling got worse, and Alex tried to ignore it. It wasn't like she even cared; some old council full of people she'd never even met, and even if she was the Slayer, it didn't mean anything to her, not really.

And anyway -

"I've still got you," she said, and somehow, standing as close to Justin as she was, it sounded like it meant a bunch of things she hadn't intended.

"Yeah," he said. Quietly, but moving closer, taking her hand. "You do."

And, okay. This was definitely getting weird.

Like, this would be a really great time for monsters to attack. Any time now.

Nothing happened, and she pulled away slowly, letting her hand drop. "So. The tomb."

Justin looked embarrassed, a little, and Alex pretended not to see. Because there was Nothing Going On Here. At all. The end.

"Yeah," he said.

So, okay, maybe she should - like, actually try opening it?

She stepped past Justin, maybe going a little out of her way to avoid touching him, and put her hands on the tomb. It didn't feel particularly evil - a little slimy, maybe, but that was about it - but up close, it smelled wrong, felt wrong in the back of her head.

Or maybe it was just the cemetery getting to her.

She pushed a little, to no avail, and then tried again, harder. Still nothing. Risking a glance at Justin - who was standing at least two feet away, hands in his pockets, staring deliberately past her at the tomb - she took a breath, and ran her hands over the stone, feeling for a hidden catch. There had to be some way of opening it; they didn't come all this way for nothing.

"Try the other side," Justin said, and Alex nearly jumped. She hadn't been expecting him to speak, and he still wasn't looking at her.

"Right," she said. "Okay. The other side."

She circled around the tomb, feeling her way as she went, and stopped when she got around to the back. It was less ornate on this side, as if people were supposed to see the front of it and then run away, and she couldn't say she'd blame them. But it wasn't like she had a choice, either.

"Come on," she murmured. "It has to open somewhere."

And then her hands pressed in on a block of stone that seemed to give way when she pushed, and a hidden catch swung slowly open.

"Wow," she said. "I didn't think that would actually work. Justin!"

As soon as she spoke, he was behind her, looking over her shoulder, standing so close she could feel him breathing on her neck. She stepped aside so he could get a better look, and -

Collided with something. Hard.

Before she could turn around, there was a sense of movement behind her, of hands pushing her away, and she went sprawling to the side. She landed awkwardly, one hand trapped beneath her, and she barely had time to call out a warning before Justin was lying next to her.

When she looked up, there was nothing there.

She heard Justin mutter something beside her, and she sat up, drawing in a sharp breath as pain flared in her shoulder. She could still move it - barely - so she didn't think it was broken, but it was going to put a definite damper on Justin's monster hunting schedule for the week.

"Alex?" Justin asked, and she tried not to laugh. It wasn't funny, really; if she wasn't hunting monsters, probably nobody was.

"Yeah," she said. "I'm okay."

Which was only partly true, but whatever. She was alive.

A second later Justin was standing over her, helping her up, and she squeezed his hand as she stood. And then, obviously trying to be gentle - like, maybe she wasn't hiding her injury as well as she thought - he pulled her closer, wrapping his arms around her, and she breathed out against his chest.

"That thing," she said. Her voice was slightly muffled, but whatever. "It was after the same thing that we were, wasn't it?"

For a moment, Justin didn't answer, and then -

"Yeah."

"That's not good."

"Nope."

Right.

Well, at least they still had Justin's books.

-

Alex really, really hated Justin's books. She slammed the latest one shut; she managed to resist throwing it against the nearest wall, but only barely, and only because she didn't want to put a dent in the wall.

That, and her arm wasn't fully healed yet, even though it seemed to be getting better more quickly than she'd expected.

She didn't even know why she was bothering. The books made pretty much no sense to her - and those were the ones she could read. Her shoulder ached and Justin kept making all these noises that she wasn't sure were good or bad and she didn't want to interrupt him, and, oh yeah, the apocalypse was coming.

So, you know. No big deal. Just the end of the world.

She'd almost talked herself into leaving when Justin looked up, frowning, and she thought better of it. That wasn't a good look.

"Bad news?" she asked.

"Bad news," he said.

Of course it was.

She slid over on the bench, a little closer to him, until her knees was pressed up against his. It wasn't like she was scared, she told herself; they'd get through this. It was just - nice, being close to him.

Or something. Whatever.

"The apocalypse is coming," he said, and she almost laughed.

"Yeah," she said. "We've been over that, remember?"

He glared at her, and she grinned. That was better.

"I mean," he said, "the apocalypse is coming. Now. Tonight."

Oh. Well, that was different, then.

And terrifying.

"Tonight," she said. Okay. She could do this. She was the Slayer, after all, and - that was what Slayers did, right? Saved the world?

Alex Russo. Saving the world.

"What?" Justin asked, when she started laughing, and she shook her head, trying to stop. It wasn't funny, really, it was just - well, okay, it was funny. Whoever was in charge of making new Slayers had a seriously twisted sense of humour.

"Nothing," she said after a minute. Right. Apocalypse. Serious face. "It's after dinner, right? Because mom's making two kinds of pumpkin pie for dessert, and I really don't want to miss that."

Justin narrowed his eyes, but he looked thoughtful, too, and she felt a moment of triumph. Just because the world was ending, it didn't mean she couldn't have priorities.

"It's after dinner," he said. "At midnight."

Of course it was. Seriously, did monsters have to be so predictable all the time? Some people had curfews.

"Where?" she asked, and Justin actually smiled, for the first time since they'd left the cemetery.

"You're not going to believe it."

-

She didn't believe it.

"The apocalypse is at school?" she asked, as Justin led her up to the building. Like she didn't get enough of this place during daylight hours, now it had to invade the rest of her life, too.

Although, now that she thought about it, it did kind of make sense. High school was sort of life hell, right? And it explained why there had been monsters in the gym. Other than the cheerleaders.

"I know," Justin said. He had the same serious, determined look on his face that he'd had since they sneaked out, like - well, like they were about to face the apocalypse. So maybe it wasn't completely out of place. "We'll have to be careful not to ruin anything."

Alex gaped at him. Try not to ruin anything? She'd be willing to burn the place down if it meant winning. Or even just for fun.

"Right," she said. "Sure. I'll be really careful."

Justin glared at her and opened his mouth, but whatever he was about to say was cut off by the monster detector. It beeped a few times until he hit a button, and then it flashed silently, the red light making his face look weird and distorted in the darkness.

Well, weirder and more distorted than usual.

He kept hitting buttons, like he was trying to stop the flashing, too, and Alex rolled her eyes, pushing past him.

"Can we just get this over with? If the world doesn't end, I'm going to have a biology test tomorrow." She paused. "Actually -"

"Alex."

"Fine." She sighed. "I'll save the world anyway."

Justin didn't quite smile, but it was the closest she'd seen him come in the past couple of days.

"Now," he said, reaching for his wand as he stepped up beside her to look at the door, "this requires skill and intense concentration -"

Alex pulled a pin out of her hair, and he raised an eyebrow.

"Really?" he asked flatly. "You really think you can -"

She twisted the pin in the lock, and a few seconds later, the door swung open.

"Well," Justin said. "Beginner's luck."

"Yeah," she said. "Sure, whatever."

"Alex."

She opened the door the rest of the way, and slipped inside.

"Alex, tell me that was beginner's luck."

"Sure," she said. What Justin didn't know couldn't hurt him, right? "What else would it be? Do you really think I sneak around at night, breaking -"

"Please," he interrupted her. "Don't finish that sentence."

Right. Don't ask, don't tell.

Or something.

"Are you coming?" she asked, when he didn't follow her, and moved forward again, pulling out her wand for light. It was nearly impossible to see anything with the lights off, but they probably shouldn't risk turning them on, anyway; at least, not this close to the street.

That, and she didn't know where the light switch was.

A minute later, she heard the door close, and Justin came up beside her. He still had his wand out, too, like they could get attacked at any minute, and Alex was torn between wishing she'd brought some kind of actual weapon - her wand was fine, but not much use in hand to hand fighting - and wanting to tell him that, since somebody had insisted that they get here early, they were probably safe for now.

And it wasn't like she didn't believe it, it was just - it felt weird, to start talking when everything else was so quiet.

"So," she whispered finally. It was just school, she told herself; she shouldn't be afraid here. "Where are we -"

Justin held up a hand, and pulled a folded piece of paper from his belt. Alex leaned over him to look at it, and -

"Ugh, you brought a map?"

He stared at her. "Yes, I brought a map. Do you have a better idea?"

"Of school," she said, ignoring the question. "You brought a map of school."

"It's perfectly -"

"Our school. The one we go to every day?"

"I know what school is," he said. "I'm just surprised you do."

"Very funny."

"I thought so."

"Anyway," she said. As much as she liked fighting with Justin, this probably wasn't the best time. "What's a map going to tell you that you don't already know?"

Justin looked down at the map, and smirked. "How about where the monsters are going to be?"

Alex snatched the map from him. No way it told him that. "I don't see any monsters on here."

Silence.

"And you don't need to look at me like that, either. I know how to read a map."

More silence, and she could practically feel his expression.

"Well," she said, "at least I'm not holding it upside down this time."

"You're not looking at it right, either," Justin said, leaning over her shoulder to point out four spots on the map. One of them was the cafeteria, she knew that much. "These are the energy points of the building."

Alex rewarded him with a blank stare. "What?"

He sighed. What, like it was her fault his books were all gibberish?

"It's where the monsters are going to show up," he said. Which, really. He could have led with that.

"Okay," she said. "So, what? We get there before the monsters do, and ..."

Justin hesitated, which probably wasn't a good sign.

"We can stop this thing, right?" she asked.

"We can stop it," he said, and she nearly started to relax, until - "As long as I got the spell right."

But, okay. This was Justin. Of course he got the spell right.

Right?

"And what if you didn't?"

And it really wasn't like she was expecting that. It just - didn't hurt to be prepared, was all.

Ugh, now she was even starting to think like Justin. This thing really needed to be over soon.

"If we can't stop the energy flow into the school," he said, "then we need to stop the monsters before they finish the ritual."

Alex blew out a sharp breath. "Now there's a ritual?"

"Yes, actually. It's the ritual of -"

"Don't know, don't care," she said. "Stop the monsters. Got it."

Justin didn't look convinced. "And do you have an actual plan?"

She shrugged. "I thought I'd start by hitting them."

For a minute, he didn't say anything, and then -

"Yeah, that should work."

Who needed maps and rituals and energy points, anyway?

"So," she said. "Where the first monster energy thing?"

Justin looked down at the map. And, okay, maybe it was a little useful, after all.

"Mr Laritate's office," he said.

Alex smiled. Perfect.

"Alex," he said, as she started towards the office. "We're only here to fight monsters, not to -"

She walked a little faster.

"Alex," he cautioned her again as they stepped inside, and she rolled her eyes. Yeah, whatever. Defeat major evil, save the world, don't touch Mr Laritate's stuff. She could do most of that.

Before she could ask what they were supposed to do next, Justin was pulling another piece of paper out of his pocket, and he read over it quickly before passing it to Alex.

"This is the spell," he said. "I can probably do it by myself, but it helps if -"

"We'll do it together," she said. Well, they'd come this far.

She read over the spell - twice, just to be sure - and handed it back.

"On the count of three?" he asked.

She nodded.

For a few moments after the spell was finished, nothing happened, and Alex could feel herself tensing as she waited. What if it didn't work? What if they did it wrong? What if Justin's translation was wrong, or they were too late to stop it, or -

Okay, or maybe it worked.

For less than a second, so quickly she almost missed it, a solid beam of white light shone above the floor, lighting up the whole office. And then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it vanished, leaving the room black again - blacker than black, like it had sucked up all the light.

Alex focused on her wand, and it started glowing again. It was only faint, nothing compared to the huge burst of energy they'd just seen, but it was enough to see by, at least.

"So," she said. "That was it?"

"That was it," Justin said. "Come on, we've got three more of these to do."

He started out of the office, and Alex turned as soon as he was gone, heading around the spot where the light had been - just in case - and towards Mr Laritate's desk. Okay, so that wasn't exactly why they were there, but now that she had the chance, shouldn't she take advantage of it?

She'd only just picked up her file - and, wow, it was heavy - when Justin came back.

"Alex," he said. "We don't have time for this. We have to get rid of the other three energy signatures before midnight."

"Yeah," she said, "and it's, like, eleven thirty. Relax, we have plenty of time."

He shook his head, and snatched the file out of her hands. "Now."

Alex sighed. "Fine," she said, following him out. "But you owe me another break-in to Mr Laritate's office."

"Yeah," he said sarcastically. "I'll get right on that after we stop the end of the world"

Yeah, like nothing else mattered any more just because the world might be ending. If they lost, they lost. If they won, she was going to need something to do tomorrow.

"Come on," she said. "I'll take out all the really bad stuff that they were gong to send to mom and dad, and you can ... I don't know, put fake references in yours, or something."

"I don't need fake references," Justin said, but Alex could have sworn that he hesitated, just a little. "Unlike you, have real ones."

Ugh, whatever. That sounded like a lot of work.

"Okay," she said. "But don't blame me if you don't get into college."

Justin definitely hesitated that time, but then he kept moving forward, and Alex shrugged, walking a little faster to catch up. Fine, if he wanted to do everything the hard way. Not that she was really surprised; it was kind of amazing that he'd broken into the school at all, even if it was to save the world.

"The next energy hotspot is around the corner," he said, like the conversation was over. And Alex was almost tempted to keep arguing with him, because it was better than stumbling around silently in the dark, but then she saw where they were headed.

"The cafeteria?" she asked. "Awesome, I'm starving."

"Alex -"

She ignored him. They still had half an hour before the monsters started showing up, it wasn't like she couldn't take two minutes to grab some jello. And maybe some hamburgers, if they had some; they were pretty much the only edible things the cafeteria served, but with enough mustard and ketchup, they were pretty good.

She even made it to the kitchen and halfway to the huge industrial fridge before the light in her wand gave out.

"Hey," she said. That was not supposed to happen. "What gives?"

She tried again, shaking her wand, but nothing happened, and a second later, she heard Justin call out to her.

She took a minute to look around in the kitchen, anyway - at least the open fridge gave off some light - and gave up when Justin cried out again.

"They only have green jello," she said, "but did you want some? I can - hey, why is it so dark?"

Justin's wand wasn't lit, either, and for the first time since they'd entered the school Alex felt a brief flash of panic.

"I don't know," he said. "I can't get it to -"

Somewhere outside the cafeteria, overhead lights flickered on and off, and then Alex's wand lit up again, without her even thinking about it. A second later, so did Justin's, and she cringed at the look on his face.

Something was going seriously wrong.

"Come on," she said, trying to keep her voice normal. She wasn't going to panic. It was okay. Probably just their magic interfering with the electricity or something. That could happen, right? "Let's get this over with."

"Do you remember the spell?" Justin asked.

She nodded. Maybe tomorrow she could forget it, but for now it felt like it was burned into her memory.

"Okay," he said. "On three."

This time, the spell took longer to activate, maybe because they were getting closer to the deadline or whatever. At least, she hoped that was what it was; if their magic just wasn't working properly, they were going to have trouble with the last two energy signatures, and that was the least of their worries.

She wondered what would happen if their magic went sideways and screwed up the spell, and immediately wished she hadn't.

There was the same bright light as before, lighting up the cafeteria, but this time, before it was replaced with darkness, Alex could have sworn she saw something out of the corner of her eye.

"Justin," she hissed. "We need -"

His wand lit up, and Alex spun around, trying to see what had moved. At first, she thought it was nothing - maybe just shadows, or a chair, or last week's lunch trying to escape the dreaded carton of leftovers - but then it moved again, so fast it was nearly a blur, but unmistakable all the same.

"Creature Immobulis!" she shouted, pointing her wand at the last place she'd seen the monster, and one of the tables in the corner flipped over. The monster moved again, with yellow, sagging skin Alex wished she hadn't been able to make out, and she tried again.

This time, she hit a chair, and it went skidding halfway across the cafeteria, still upright.

"Damn," she said, as the monster blurred out the doorway and out of sight. "Why does that do that, anyway?"

Justin was looking around the room, like the monster could still be there, but he turned to look at Alex. "What?"

"I thought the spell was supposed to make stuff stay still. Why does it -" she waved her hands to imitate the flipping table "- you know?"

"It doesn't work on inanimate objects," he said, like she should have known that already. And like she knew what 'inanimate' meant. "It works by -"

"Yeah, don't care," she said. It wasn't like she needed every little detail.

And right now, there was a monster in the school, so they probably didn't have time to stand around talking about spells. She headed for the door, tucking her wand into her boot so she could run if she had to, and stopped when she got there, glancing back at the cafeteria.

"Justin," she said. She'd expected him to follow her, but instead he was in the corner, turning the table she'd flipped back upright. "We so don't have time for that."

He shot an uncertain look at the chair still standing out of place, and then dashed over to her. Finally. And, okay, maybe she'd been fooling around earlier, too, but right now they had more important things to think about.

Like the fact that there were monsters in the school. And why there were monsters in the school.

"What time is it?" she asked. They weren't quite running, but she was walking as fast as she could, half a step behind Justin so he could lead the way. He didn't have his map out, any more, and she just hoped he knew where they were going.

Justin brought the wand up to his watch. The glow from it was definitely dimmer than it had been, but it was still enough to see by. Barely.

"Eleven forty-five," he said. "Why?"

Alex sighed. "Monsters?"

"What - oh." Yeah, now he got it. They weren't supposed to be here; they should have had more time. "Maybe they're early?"

"You think?" But, okay, it wasn't Justin's fault, probably. She moved a little closer to him. "So, where do we go now?"

It wasn't what she wanted to ask, really; what she wanted to ask was if he thought they'd make it, if they could shut down whatever it was in time to save the world, if whatever was happening to their magic was going to keep happening. But she didn't really want to say any of that out loud, either.

And then Justin stopped outside a familiar set of double doors. "The gym."

She didn't need to ask if he was sure; the doors, which should have been closed, were wide open, and Alex could almost feel the energy hotspot this time, like the closer they got to midnight, the closer whatever it was got to the surface. It was like something crawling under her skin, like the magic that was already there, only - well, not like that, not really.

Magic was good. This was just ... evil, and not in a fun way.

She stepped into the gym ahead of Justin, and saw the monster immediately. It was even more disgusting when it wasn't moving, sickly yellow skin hanging off its face like a sharpei covered in mustard.

Ew. And now she was never eating mustard again.

Before she could rush forward, Justin grabbed her by the elbow. He raised a finger to his lips just as she was about to ask him what his problem was, and she waited impatiently, itching to reach for her wand, to run out and fight the monster.

"It's fast, right?" Justin whispered.

Alex nodded. It was more than fast, but, yeah, that basically covered it.

"So we should slow it down first."

Oh. Tactics. Yeah, there was a reason she had super strength, and not super planning powers. Still, she waited by Justin's side as he aimed his wand, holding her breath as he shouted, "Creature Immobulis!"

The spell hit the monster, but only just; it turned around at Justin's shout, and as Alex ran forward, she could see it resisting the spell, struggling to move like it had been caught in quicksand, but still at least as fast as she was. She wasn't sure if it was getting faster as it moved, or if it was just her imagination, but either way, she figured they should probably move quickly.

"I've got the monster," she called to Justin. "Can you -"

The monster reached her before she could finish, and she struck out, cringing as her arm hit flesh that felt every bit as disgusting as it looked. And she really, really hoped that the world wasn't going to end in fifteen minutes, because she was seriously going to need a shower when this was over.

The monster flailed backwards, almost in slow motion, and then ducked to the side before she could hit it again. It was definitely getting faster, but if she could just concentrate, she was sure -

"Alex!" Justin yelled, and she spun around.

Bad idea.

The monster lashed out the second her back was turned, and it hit her back, hard. She winced, falling forward, and tried to move so she could see Justin and the monster at the same time.

"What?" she asked through clenched teeth. Justin was just standing there, over a patch of floor that -

Oh. Right.

"I'm a little busy," she said as she blocked a kick from the monster. She spun out of the way so its next punch hit empty air, and kicked at the back of its knees. "Can you ..."

For a minute, Justin didn't answer. If he couldn't fix the energy signature on his own -

"I'll try," he said finally.

Great. And Alex would try not to get them both killed.

She turned just as the monster rounded on her again, and she took a step back, preparing to block. And then the monster stopped, and looked at Justin.

"Oh no you don't," she muttered, and flung herself forward, putting herself between Justin and the monster. This was her fight, and she wasn't going to let the monster back down.

Besides, if she didn't buy Justin enough time to finish the spell, they were both screwed.

She grabbed the monster's arm, twisting it behind its back, and fought to keep her grip steady as the monster tried to shake her off. Its speed was definitely increasing, now, and it was all her reflexes could do to keep up, to try to anticipate the monster's next move before it could catch her off guard.

And then she felt her hand slip - not a lot, but enough - and she knew that she had to end the fight before her advantage was completely gone.

Please let this work, she thought. If there was ever a good time for one of her plans not to blow up in her face, it would be now.

She shifted her grip until she was holding onto the monster's wrist instead of its forearm, and stopped struggling, letting it pull her along as it twisted towards Justin. Now that she wasn't fighting it, the monster was speeding up more and more, and she waited for the perfect time, when it was just about to sprint forward -

And she let go.

The monster went sprawling forward, almost too fast to see, and to fast, apparently, even to stop itself. It went just wide of Justin, who didn't look up from the spell, and went crashing into the far wall of the gym. Headfirst.

Alex heard a distinct splat, and told herself it was just the monster's skin hitting the wall.

"Justin," she said, and then there was a flash of light, like the first two, that faded to black in less than a second. Justin took care of it first, holding his wand up to provide as much light as he could, and he turned to face Alex.

"Are you -"

"I'm okay," she said. "The spell?"

He smirked. "Perfect, as always."

Right. If she wasn't so relieved, she probably would have had a comeback for that, but, well.

"The monster?" he asked.

"Taken care of."

"Okay," Justin said, and smiled at her. It was faint, but it made her feel better, all the same. "One to go."

"Right." Alex tried to sound confident. They only had one energy signature left to fix, and they still had -

"Wait," she said, even as she followed Justin out of the gym. "What time is it?"

He glanced at his watch. "It's - uh oh."

Yeah, that wasn't good. "What?"

"Four minutes to midnight."

They started to run.

Alex nearly tripped over her feet a couple of times; Slayer senses aside, it wasn't easy to run in the dark, and lockers and corridors seemed to spring up in places they'd never been before. Justin tripped more, even though he had the light, and she tried to stay as close to him as she could without running straight into his back when he stopped.

Which he did, standing outside an unmarked door, and Alex barely managed to stop in time to avoid bumping into him.

"We're here," he said. And for all that they'd run to get here, he just stood there, like he was waiting for something.

After a moment, Alex realised he was probably waiting for her.

"The apocalypse in the library?" she asked.

"It's a science classroom," Justin said. Even in the darkness, she could guess his expression.

"Oh," she said. "I knew that."

Library, science classroom, whatever. They were both pretty high up on her list of places she didn't want to go.

Especially now, but unlike skipping class to drag Harper out somewhere fun, this really wasn't something she could avoid.

So she stepped in front of Justin, and opened the door.

At first, she couldn't see anything; the room was pitch black, even more than the rest of the school. For a second, she just stood there, barely breathing, listening for any sign that they weren't alone. It was still before midnight, but there were monsters in the school already, and if one of them had beaten them here -

"What are you doing?" Justin asked, and Alex sighed, loudly, and flipped the light switch. The room was empty, except for benches and chairs and some lab equipment that hadn't been put away, and she felt a little silly.

"I was making sure there weren't any monsters here," she said.

Justin looked confused. "Why didn't you just turn on the light and look?"

"Because then the monster would see us, duh." She waved a hand. "Can we just do this and go home, please? School is starting to creep me out."

"Starting to?" he asked, but he was moving, anyway, to a spot in the corner of the room where she guessed the energy signature was. Even without the spell, it looked darker there, like the light bulb was giving out and didn't reach all the way to the corner.

It was totally creepy, but, well. Apocalypse. It was probably supposed to be creepy.

She tried shooting Justin a glare, but she couldn't quite pull it off. Whatever, it was the end of the world, so what if she was feeling a little off?

Justin noticed, and took her hand.

"Hey," he said quietly. His head was nearly pressed against hers, and she could feel his breath on her cheek when he spoke. It should have been weird, but instead, it was just comforting. "It's okay. It's going to be okay."

Yeah, the world was ending, and it was up to two high school kids to stop it. What was okay about that?

"Justin -"

He squeezed her hand, just once, and there was a look in his eyes -

She shut her eyes.

And opened them again when she heard something growl.

"Um," she said. Justin was close - closer than he had been a second ago. "Justin? Please tell me that was your stomach."

Another growl, closer this time.

"Definitely not my stomach," Justin said.

They turned around together.

The monster standing in front of them wasn't like any of the others. They'd been easy to deal with, all weird shapes and colours, not like fighting anything living at all. This one looked almost human - except for its face, wrinkled and distorted like their dad's forehead when he got really mad, only about a thousand times worse.

And it growled. None of the other monsters had growled.

"What is that?" Alex asked flatly. Emotions were bad right now. Emotions could lead to her running away, could lead to the monsters winning, could lead to the end of the world.

Or, even worse, they could lead to whatever had just happened - had maybe been about to happen - with Justin.

Justin didn't look at her, but he was still holding her hand. That was good. "That's a vampire."

"Seriously?" Okay, so maybe it wasn't that scary after all, just really ugly. She could deal with a vampire. She'd been friends with a vampire. Justin had dated a vampire. "What kind?"

The vampire took a step forward, and Justin took a step back, until Alex was standing in between them.

"Does it matter?" Justin asked.

"Well, maybe it's the good kind of vampire. Like -"

Okay, mentioning Juliet right then might have been a bad idea.

"- Dracula?"

"Dracula was a bad guy," Justin said. "And does it look like the good kind of vampire?"

Well, it kind of looked like it wanted to suck her blood more than it wanted a jelly doughnut, so -

"No?"

"No," Justin said.

Okay, so, not a good vampire. Bad, world-destroying vampire. Which meant she was going to have to fight it.

Now that she wasn't holding Justin's hand any more, her palms felt sweaty, cold and clammy. It was gross, but not, like, slime monster gross. She wondered if vampires got sweaty.

"My sister's going to kick your butt," Justin said from somewhere behind her. Weirdly, it actually made her feel better, and she took a step towards the vampire.

Now that she was closer, she expected it to attack, or try to bit her, or something. Instead, it laughed.

And Alex saw the beam of energy flare up in the corner of the classroom. Not white, this time, but black, so dark it almost seemed bright again.

"Alex," Justin said. Unnecessarily. She knew; this was bad. "The ritual."

For a moment, she had no idea what she was supposed to do, and then the vampire started chanting. It wasn't in English - or if it was, it was a bunch of words she couldn't understand - but it didn't matter.

What mattered was that now, she remembered the plan.

So she tried hitting it.

The vampire flew backwards; after the monsters, huge and heavy, she hadn't been expecting the vampire to weigh little more than she did. Maybe this was going to be easier than she thought.

And then the vampire stood up, sneering at her like she was barely annoying him, and she revised that.

Before it could move, she ran forward, punching, kicking, trying to force it back. Trying to keep it busy so it couldn't attack Justin, so it couldn't finish the spell. It didn't work as well as she'd hoped; the vampire fought back as much as it had to, ducking between benches and throwing chairs in Alex's way to slow her down, but it kept chanting, and the beam in the corner kept getting brighter. Blacker. Whatever.

Alex took a step forward, and the vampire stared at her, challenging. Smiling, she thought, or maybe just baring its fangs.

Yeah, like she was intimidated.

She closed her eyes - heard the vampire still chanting, felt the beam of energy and nothingness in the corner, formed a picture of the classroom in her mind.

And then she spun, and kicked the vampire square in the chest.

It flew back, arcing high in the air, and landed on one of the benches. Underneath it, glass shattered and cracked, and for a second, that was the only sound in the room. The vampire had stopped chanting.

Well, at least she'd got its attention.

A couple of chairs had splintered when the vampire hit them, and Alex strode forward, picking one of them up and smashing it over the bench beside her. One of the legs came away in her hands, rough and sharp-edged, and she silently thanked Mr Laritate and the school district for the decision to buy cheap wooden chairs. Suddenly, all the time she'd spent squirming and uncomfortable in class almost seemed worth it.

The vampire looked down at the chair leg, and up at her, and sneered. "Slayer."

"Vampire," she said, and charged.

The vampire took up chanting again, faster this time, and the darkness in the corner seemed to cover almost half the room. Alex kicked at the vampire's stomach, pushed it back with a blow to the chest, and then, as the darkness swirled over her, as she swore she could hear the snarls and creams of a thousand monsters, could feel pain and fear and searing heat, she raised her stake and stabbed the vampire in the chest.

A cloud of dust exploded over her. Alex coughed, blinking furiously, and when she opened her eyes again, the vampire was gone.

And so was the beam of light, or darkness, or world-endingness, or whatever it was. The classroom seemed way too bright with it gone, and the corner was empty, with nothing left to show that it had been the place where the apocalypse nearly started.

Justin was staring at her, eyes wide and a look on his face that she couldn't quite read, and she threw the stake aside.

"So," she said. She sounded more confident than she felt, and she blamed adrenaline for the face that she was still shaking. Or - that was adrenaline, right? Maybe she'd ask Justin later. "Did we save the world?"

And then she smiled, and Justin smiled, and she didn't remember either of them moving but suddenly he was holding her, arms wrapped tightly around her shoulders as she breathed into his chest.

"Yeah, he said, pulling back a little. Which was good. It meant that she could actually breathe now. "We saved the world."

And maybe it was that, maybe it was everything, maybe it was the fact that Alex felt like she needed - wanted - to do something hugely, irreversibly stupid, but she stretched up on the tip of her toes and kissed him.

Not for long. Only for a second, and Justin didn't kiss her back.

Much.

"So," she said, and looked around the room. Broken chairs, broken lab equipment, and a layer of dust covering it all. It looked like -

Well. It looked like there had been some kind of apocalypse.

"Never speak of this again?" she asked.

"Never speak of this again," Justin agreed.

Alex had no idea, really, what they were talking about, but it was good enough for her.

-

"And that's why you shouldn't crowd the drinking fountains," Mr Laritate finished. "There's plenty of room at the watering hole for everybody."

"Poor Kelly," Harper whispered, leaning closer to Alex.

Alex shrugged. "At least she'll be out of traction soon."

Harper said something else, then, but it was drowned out by the sound of the PA system; apparently Mr Laritate wasn't done with his announcements, after all.

"And finally, there's the matter of the science classroom I need to address -"

Alex froze. Right, that. Maybe the damage hadn't been as bad as it looked?

"There was extensive damage done to school property," Mr Laritate continued, and Alex sighed. Of course there was.

Well, at least there was no way she could be blamed for what happened, even if she was sure that Mr Laritate had his suspicions.

"I have my suspicions as to who is responsible -"

Yeah, she thought so.

"- and I will continue to investigate until I catch the culprit."

"That's what he said about that time all the locker doors got put on backwards," Harper said, and Alex smirked. That had been some of her best work. "I wonder if -"

Before Alex could hear what Harper wondered, she felt a hand on her elbow, and she whirled around to see Justin. He looked a little worse for wear - there was a fading bruise under one eye, and a few scratches running down his arms - but still better than he had last night, and she guessed he'd used magic to heal the worst of it. She probably would have done that same thing, if she'd needed it.

"Harper," Alex said, glancing back at her friend. Harper stopped short, like Alex had interrupted her, and she felt momentarily guilty for tuning Harper out.

But, okay, if it was important, Harper would probably tell her again, right?

"I'll be right back," she said, and barely waited for Harper to nod before she was pulling Justin away, around the corner into an empty classroom. And then she looked around, and realised why it was empty.

The science classroom. Of course.

Justin seemed to realise it at the same time as she did, and he stiffened - not a lot, but enough that she noticed. She took a step away from him, running a hand over one of the broken chairs, and waited for him to speak first.

"Do you think they know it was us?" he asked finally, which wasn't exactly what she'd been expecting.

She shrugged, but she couldn't help smiling, a little. "Probably."

When she looked up at Justin, he was smiling, too.

"It's not over," he said, and for a second, Alex wasn't sure what he was talking about; the apocalypse, or them, or - "The monsters are still out there."

"Yeah," she said, feeling some of the tension draining away. "I guess a Slayer's work is never done, right?"

"Alex," Justin said. And that was all, just her name, but suddenly she didn't think they were talking about monster hunting any more.

And, okay, was it just her, or was he standing a little closer than he had been a minute ago?

She took a breath, and felt something that might have been Justin's fingers brush her hand, but before she could say anything, or do anything, the door to the classroom opened, and they both jumped back.

"Alex Russo," Mr Laritate said, like he'd been looking for her. "And Justin Russo. Don't tell me you're involved in this, too?"

"Involved in what?" Alex asked, like she had no idea what he was talking about. Which, most of the time, she didn't.

Mr Laritate shook his head. "Oh, Alex. Don't play innocent with me. You think I don't know who to look at when there's vandalism on school property?"

"Kenny Okin?" she asked.

Mr Laritate didn't look amused. Amusing, perhaps - he had a new bolo tie, and the buckle was still super shiny - but not amused.

"Returning to the scene of the crime," he continued, as if she hadn't said anything. "I wouldn't have expected such a rookie mistake. But, see, when the sheriff gets wind of -"

While he lectured her, movement caught Alex's eye, and she turned her head; slowly, so she didn't interrupt him. She didn't want to have to start the whole thing over again. At first, she didn't see anything, but then it happened again - Justin's belt flashed.

Not his belt, she realised after a moment. The monster detector.

Well, at least he had it on silent.

While Mr Laritate rambled on - about school pride and civic responsibility and didn't she ever want to graduate, blah blah blah - she watched Justin slip around him, slowly heading for the door. When he got close enough, he nodded at her, gesturing at his belt like she hadn't seen the monster detector go off, and she nodded back.

"- the cost of repairs alone is -"

She edged closer to the door, so slowly it felt like she was barely moving at all. Mr Laritate didn't notice.

"- what I'm going to tell the parents -"

She angled her body so she was blocking the doorway, getting between Mr Laritate and the exit.

"- even for you, Ms Russo, and that's -"

And then Justin grabbed her hand, squeezed tightly, and they both ran for the hallway. Justin glanced over at her and smiled, and she grinned in response; behind them, she could hear Mr Laritate yelling, promising detention, telling them to stop, but she kept running, and didn't stop until they were out of sight.

They'd probably have to deal with that later, but whatever. It could wait.

Right now, they had monsters to hunt.