Title: The Pineapple Affair
Fandom: Wizards of Waverly Place
Summary: "You think you've got it bad? Look what's been following me around all day." In which Harper stalks, Zeke pines, and Justin and Alex devise a plot. Birthday fic for Kat.
It wasn't so much Zeke's behavior that made Justin realize that something was going on. Honestly, he was always a little…odd. Even to Justin.
It was his clothes. Oh, and his hair.
This was the first Saturday Justin had worked the morning shift, usually opting for the lunch rush tips instead. But he and Zeke had agreed up with the rest of their chess team for a one day only, all day, Dune marathon at a theater in Chelsea that began at noon. At half past eleven, Zeke still hadn't shown up.
And Zeke was never, ever late. If anything, he was habitually too early.
Alex, grumpy about the fact that she had to work the busiest shift on her Saturday, rolled her eyes at her brother checking his watch for the third time in less than two minutes.
"Your date standing you up?"
"I'm waiting on Zeke," he reminded her.
Alex shrugged, walking by with a tray of subs. "Tomato, potato."
"It's-" he started to correct her, but realized there really wasn't any point and just let it go. He wasn't in the mood for a round of insults with his sister anyway.
Zeke chose that moment to walk in the door of the shop. "Finally," Justin muttered, and began to get up but stopped when it dawned on him that Zeke looked a little different.
"Hey, Justin, you ready to go?" Zeke asked, looking around the shop. It looked like he was perhaps trying to appear aloof and cool, maybe a little detached-three things that Zeke just was not.
"Dude," Justin asked once he was at his friend's side, "what's with your hair?"
Turning red all the way to his ears, Zeke ducked his head down and shuffled his feet. "Nothing."
"And your clothes," Justin continued. He plucked at the shoulder of Zeke's black leather jacket. "You look like you're trying to channel James Dean or something."
"Quit it," Zeke hissed. He stepped a few paces away from Justin, shrugged his shoulders and stretched his neck from side to side. He seemed nervous and anxious, like he was waiting for something to happen.
Alex walked by with her now empty tray dangling from one hand and her cell phone in the other, pressed to her ear, chattering away. "Sup, Alex." Leaning on the table behind him, Zeke tilted his chin upward in some weird variation of a nod that Justin had never seen him do before. He'd seen other guys do it; cocky, self-assured guys full of attitude. Zeke was not one of those guys. Proven by the table tipping just enough to cause him to lose his balance. But he managed to right both himself and the table before anyone else noticed.
Justin sidled up to Zeke, and observed silently as he pulled and adjusted at his the studded leather he wore. "So um, are we gonna go?"
"Sure," Zeke replied offhandedly, eyes wandering around. They landed on the front counter, to which he made a beeline. "I'm just going to get a couple of cookies."
"We can get snacks at the theater." Justin was growing frustrated by Zeke's unusual behavior and seeming lack of desire to go the marathon that had been his idea in the first place.
"What goes better with classic seventies science fiction cinema than black and white cookies?" He sat at the counter, seemingly absorbed in the action of the cookies being packed away in their pink pastry box. "Hey, Alex, you want to go?"
"No." She answered so quickly that Justin was honestly surprised Zeke didn't get whiplash. On top of it, she scoffed a little, as if the idea was so ludicrous she would never even deign to consider it.
Taking the money Zeke was holding out, she popped it into the register and wandered away from them.
"Uh, Zeke," Justin told him, "you do know that outside food isn't allowed in the theater, right?"
When Zeke didn't respond, Justin turned to see where his friend's eyes were focused. And the where in question happened to be about twenty feet away, where Alex was taking the orders of three guys in NYU tee shirts and athletic shorts and Jerry was hovering nearby, keeping a careful eye on the situation. Given Alex's hair twirling and giggling (and blushing, big time), it was probably a good idea.
An odd idea began to form in Justin's mind, like a snowball, and as he reevaluated Zeke's outfit and behavior, it started rolling and gathering momentum.
He snapped his fingers under the other guy's nose to get his attention and Zeke snapped out of whatever thoughts were running through his head.
"Zeke," he said slowly, "I just got this really weird idea in my head."
"Yeah?" Zeke responds, still not really invested in the conversation.
Moving so he's standing directly in his friend's line of vision, he scratched his head, an awkward chuckle escaping from him. "Yeah…Feel free to tell me I'm cuckoo." He illustrates his point by rotating his hands on either side of his head, index fingers extended, in the classic pantomime for crazy that his sister used in reference to him on numerous occasions. "But do you uh," he laughs again, "do you like my sister?"
First, Zeke's mouth dropped open. Then he turned a violent shade of red all the way down his neck. But the clencher for Justin to know he'd hit the nail on the head was the way he shot to his feet and gulped out a very squeaky, very effeminate 'no' in a shaky stutter.
Justin inhaled deeply, closed his eyes, and all but pleaded, "Zeke, look me in the eye and tell me you don't like my sister."
"I don't like your sister," he replied-much too fast for Justin's liking.
He narrowed his eyes, regarded his friend, and declared, "You're looking me in the nose."
Zeke's shoulders deflated. "That's cause I like your sister."
Justin threw his hands up. Partly in annoyance, partly because Zeke sounded so dejected.
And he was still in the hopeless-never-going-to-happen-in-a-million-years-crush stage. He should have had at least a week and a half before he was sporting that wounded puppy expression.
This wasn't the first time Justin had been through this with Zeke. It was, however, the first time that he had absolutely no idea what Zeke saw in the girl in question.
He pulled out his cell phone and quickly sent an excuse to the rest of the chess team about why they wouldn't be there. Hopefully, no one would mention pineapples any time soon.
Justin demanded, for lack of a better word, that Zeke tell him exactly how it all started. (But he could leave certain details to himself, please.)
"It started with the play," Zeke said. He and Alex had never actually sat down and had a face to face conversation, just the two of them, before.
Justin shook his head. "Zeke, you weren't having a conversation." He clapped a hand on his shoulder. "You were rehearsing lines."
But he still insisted that there was an undeniable spark there. There was chemistry.
Alex and chemistry went together like cats and alligators. Justin knew that from experience.
That was when Justin decided to simply lay it out for him. (Luckily they were alone in the loft. Best this went unheard.) "Zeke, Alex doesn't really think of you that way."
"You know," Justin had reached the point of grasping at straws. "She sees you more…like a friend. A friend of her brother's…a friend brother."
Zeke's brow furrowed. "A friend brother? What's that?"
"Well, you're a friend of her brother's…and you're on my side of, you know, things, and if I asked you to, you would look out for her the same way I would, right?"
"I guess…" he said slowly, wheels visibly turning in his head.
Justin continued. "And you consider yourself her friend…ergo, friend brother. You get it?"
Silent for a few seconds, Zeke started to nod, but apparently changed his mind and shook his head emphatically instead. "No. I'm your friend. And Alex is your sister. If anyone is the friend brother here, its you."
How Justin refrained from giving in to his urge of pounding his head against the wall he would never know.
With infinitely more calm than he was actually feeling, Justin brought his hands together, and said in a slow, even tone. "Zeke…you are not going to date Alex."
"Why not?" he whined.
"Because-" Justin faltered. He really had no excuse other than the foresight of what his sister would do if she knew that a friend of Justin's was actually interested in her.
"Waiting," Zeke said, in a sing-song voice that made it sound more like 'way-ting.'
"Because…she and I made a deal. She can't date my friends and I can't date hers," he finished lamely.
Again, Justin watched his friend deflate before his eyes. Yes, lying to him was wrong. But it was better for him in the long run. When Zeke took of the ridiculous eighties era biker jacket and tossed it over the back of his chair, Justin was all the more convinced that he had done the right thing. Zeke would thank him some day.
Like when he met a girl that didn't think Kierkegaard was something you ordered from Ikea.
He rose slowly to his feet, and turned back towards Justin. "Sorry to even bring it up, man. Guess I uh, wasn't very subtle, huh?" He gestured to his hair with a sheepish expression.
After he assured him it wasn't a big deal and asked if he wanted to head to the movie. "Just don't mention pineapples."
"But I love pineapples." Zeke scratched his head and succeeded in getting his fingers stuck in the overly lacquered strands.
On the whole, Justin was feeling better about his decision. Zeke was going to get over Alex and move on. Alex was never going to find out and take out her humor for the situation on Zeke. And Justin wasn't going to have to be monkey in the middle.
Really, it was a brilliant plan.
Except for going down through the sub shop instead of the hallway. If they had, Justin had no doubt he would have been triumphant in dissuading his friend from the reckless course of action of pursuing someone as wrong for him as Alex.
Only they did go through the sub shop. And they did see Alex talking to Harper at the front counter.
And Zeke did put the pieces together.
"Wait a minute…" He turned towards Justin, eyes narrow and suspicious. His gaze darted to Harper and Alex, then back to Justin. "You dated Harper!"
Suddenly Justin had an accusing finger in his face, flummoxed nearby customers looking his way, and nary an excuse in sight.
Not that he didn't try. But admitting that "I got stuck with Cupid's arrow that was originally intended for my mother" wasn't going to pass the mustard. So he offered up a feeble "Just for a few days." instead.
That was the moment that a new determination took hold of Zeke Beakerman. An internal transformation so profound that Justin could swear he physically saw the change happening before his eyes. He rose to his full height, chest puffed out, and locked his gaze on the two girls at the counter. "Then I can make my move."
Alex was going to kill him.
"Hey, Justin." Harper grinned up at him when he walked over to the counter where she and Alex were talking.
He was used to that type of oblivious flirting from Harper. It was the most subtle of her regime, so he could deal with it. "Hey." He turned his attention to his sister. "Alex, I need to talk to you."
"Um, busy here," she gestured around to the counter, empty but for Harper. She picked up a sugar packet, shook it, and emptied the contents into her mouth. "See? Busy."
"I thought you were going to that Dune festival on 23rd?" Harper tried her best to look 'objectively engaged.' (He'd overheard her explain the concept to Alex once.)
He eyed her, with her innocent expression and butterflies from head to toe. Not that he was surprised that Harper knew where the movie he was planning to watch was going to be playing. No doubt if he'd gone, she would have been waiting for him outside some close by venue, the Museum of Contemporary Art maybe-purely 'by chance' to try and talk him into doing something together.
"Something kind of uh, came up." Before she could retort (which he knew was coming), he stepped behind the counter and took Alex by the hand so he could drag her into the kitchen.
"One; what are you doing?" she hissed. "And two; why am I working the lunch shift if you're not going to your geek fest?"
Squeezing his eyes shut, Justin tried to remember why he was even bothering to warn Alex about Zeke when he could just sit back and let it all unfold.
Because he didn't want to see his sister tear his best friend to shreds.
"Listen, Alex, Zeke just told me…" He wasn't quite sure how to say it. "Well, I'm sure you noticed that he was dressed like Fonzie-"
"What do Muppets have to do with anything?"
She hopped up on the counter by the sink, shaking another sugar packet she pulled from her pocket. "That blue bear guy on the Muppets."
"That's Fozzie," he said. "Fonzie is-"
She smiled sweetly, entirely fake. "As bored with this conversation as I am."
"Is it in the realm of possibility for you to just be quiet for two minutes and let me speak?"
Alex tilted her head to the side, lips pursed in contemplation. After a few seconds, she straightened up and shook her head. "Nope."
"Look, I'm just going to say it." Justin took a deep breath. "Zeke likes you."
"As opposed to…when he didn't like me?"
Obviously, Justin realized, making Alex understand would prove to be a harder task than it had been with Zeke. "No, he likes…" To illustrate his point, Justin made a heart in the air with his fingers then pointed them in her direction. "…you."
Alex burst out laughing, so hard that she doubled over, clutching her sides. When she righted herself, wiping her eyes from laughing too hard, she took one look at her brother's face and Justin could see the realization dawn on her that he was serious. All the color proceeded to drain from her complexion.
"So he was dressed like Fozzie-"
"-because he likes me."
Justin nodded. "Pretty much."
Nose wrinkled, Alex shook her head. "Well, you're just going to have to make him stop."
Justin snorted. "Yeah, that's gonna happen."
She stamped her foot. "Justin!" she wailed indignantly. "Please?"
He crossed his arms over his chest, momentarily enjoying her obvious distress. "I can't exactly snap my fingers and make Zeke's feelings change."
"Oh gross, don't talk about feelings," she pleaded and turned around with her hands clasped over her ears. "God, can't you just slip him a potion or something?"
"Sure, I could do that," Justin mused. "Give him a potion, or maybe cast a spell on him to make him think that he's not into you-like he wouldn't be if he were thinking clearly-but what happens when it wears off? I can't keep doing it."
"First of all; I'm going to ignore the insult in there," she snapped. "And secondly; I'm going to go upstairs and figure a way out of this."
Justin pointed to her apron. "Um, you're working."
She untied it and tossed it to him. "Nope, you are."
"Of course," he muttered as she walked back to the counter, bypassing Harper on the way.
Later on that evening, Justin walked slowly up the stairs from the shop. He was exhausted from pretty much working a double thanks to his sister. His parents were going to be covering the dinner shift, so he was planning on a nice long nap.
He found Alex and Max on the rug in front of the coffee table, sheets of paper spread out in front of them. "What are you two up to?" he asked suspiciously.
"Up?" Max looked back and forth between his brother and sister wildly, obviously. "We're not up-we're down…on the ground." He waved his arms around as if to illustrate his point. Alex shook her head.
"You know what, I'm too tired to even care. Thanks for that by the way, Alex. Just know that I'm watching you two," Justin declared, pointing his fingers at his eyes and back at them before heading towards the stairs.
"You could help us," Max called after him. Following the statement, Justin heard a dull thud noise before Max cried. "Ow!"
"Okay, now I'm interested."
Alex shot Max a dirty look.
"We were just trying to figure out a way to…persuade Zeke that I'm not the girl for him," Alex said while she straightened all the papers up.
Justin grabbed one out of her hand. It looked like catapult schematics. "Uh-huh. Max, what'd she say to get you in on this?"
"She said she'd give me Gigi's bracelet," he stated simply.
"Why do you have Gigi's bracelet?" Justin asked his sister.
Alex shrugged. "Would you believe me if I said she dropped it and I haven't had a chance to return it yet?"
"No," he replied without missing a beat.
"Then I won't say it," Alex retorted. Her phone began to ring and she fished it out of her pocket. "Hello. Who? Oh, yeah. No, why? Alright, but I can't make any promises." She hung up and stuck it back in her pocket.
"I so do not understand girl speak," Max muttered.
"It wasn't girl speak," Alex said the words as though they were the dumbest thing she'd ever heard. "That new girl, Holly something, she likes Justin and wants me to find out of he's interested."
"Really?" Justin leaned back in his chair, a satisfied smile on his face. Then frowned. "Who is she again?"
"Kind of tall, red hair," Alex said. "Dresses in a lot of earth tones. She's in your physics class."
He nodded. "Obviously my extra credit report on black holes didn't merely impress Ms. Gonzalez."
"Extra credit, seriously?
"You interested?" Max asked him.
Justin thought about it. Sure, his love life was severely lacking at the moment, but he couldn't even remember what this girl looked like.
Still…she had to have put in some effort to get Alex's phone number to call her. He was impressed. "Maybe."
Alex held her hand up. "Hang on," she pulled her phone back out. This time it was a text. "Yep, it's Harper. She heard that Holly once dated a college guy. Apparently she's too 'in with the fast lane crowd' to be trusted with you. Oh, and she also doesn't look like she flosses."
Max shook his head. "Dude, I don't know how girls do that. Or how you put up with it," he directed at his brother.
Justin began to answer, but was interrupted by a knock on the door. When neither of his siblings gave any indication that they were going to answer it (Max was doodling, Alex examining her nails), he rose to his aching feet and opened the heavy door.
Zeke swept in, dressed in a tux complete with top hat and tails, holding a bouquet of daisies in his hand.
"Oh, this ought to be good," Justin muttered. "Alex, you have company."
If ever there were a perfect example of 'deer in the headlights' it would have been Alex right then. Both her mouth and her eyes were wide and 'o' shaped, and she was paler than he could ever remember seeing her.
Zeke cleared his throat. Walking over to the coffee table, he best down on one knee and said; "Fair maiden, I have come here this night, on bended knee, to lay my heart upon your mercy. Be kind." He thrust the flowers towards Alex, his head bowed. She looked up at Justin, a horror stricken look on her face.
"Um, gee, that's…nice." She took the flowers and held them out at arms length as if scared they were going to bite her. "But you see, Zeke, Justin and I don't really date each other's friends. It's a rule we have so…yeah. You understand."
Justin was impressed. They hadn't even rehearsed that.
Too bad for her Zeke had a response.
"Oh he already told me."
"He did, huh?" Alex gave her brother a tight smile. "Well, then you know why I'm gonna have to say no."
"Oh no," Zeke interrupted. He stood up, smiling proudly; the way he did when he solved complicated quadratic equations that even their AP Calculus teacher didn't know, like he already knew he would not be proven wrong. "Justin dated Harper, so its all good." He added some weird hand gesture that he no doubt picked up from MTV, winking at Alex.
It was obvious from her expression that she wanted nothing more than to lay into her brother and place the blame on him somehow, but she couldn't and she knew it. That entire situation had been her causing-and she hadn't even paid much attention to it. She'd had her own crisis to deal with.
As if summoned, Harper chose that moment to burst through the still open front door, panting and out of breath. "Don't do it, Justin!" she cried.
"Uh, do what?" he asked calmly.
Still gasping for air, she clasped one hand to her chest, and latched the other one onto Justin's arm. "That Holly girl is bad news. Nelly Rodriguez just told me she saw her take a pudding in the lunch line yesterday, but the lunch lady didn't charge her for it, and Holly never said anything." Justin didn't react, prompting Harper to tighten her grip on his flesh. "Anything!"
"I get it, I get it," he said and yanked his arm away.
Max looked back and forth between the four teenagers, obviously perplexed. "I'm not sure what's going on here, but it looks entertaining. I'm gonna make popcorn."
"Am I interrupting something?" Harper finally notices the flowers in Alex's hand, Zeke in his tux, and takes in the awkward tension in the air that stems from her distraught looking best friend.
The cover story Alex comes up with is believable. She's grounded she said, for sticking Justin with her shift. Theresa popped up on the stairs just as the words fell from her lips and Alex pleaded with her eyes for her mother to back up her story.
Justin knew that his mother had no idea what was going on in her living room, but she agreed without Alex without missing a beat, even going as far as to ask both Harper and Zeke to go since Alex wasn't supposed to have any visitors.
"Do I want to know?" she asked later on.
All three kids looked at her and shook their heads.
"Works for me."
Alex's phone chimed again. She flipped it open and smiled. "Well it's a good thing you weren't interested in Holly," she said to Justin.
He never trusted his sister looking so smug. "Why?"
"Because Harper just told her you guys are engaged," she stated, and handed him her phone for proof.
He sighed and handed it back. They were going on close to ten years of this kind of thing and it never got any less annoying. "This is getting old."
Alex shrugged. As far as she was concerned, Harper's infatuation with her older brother had nothing to do with her so she paid it little attention. And now it looked like she was preparing to take a similar route with Zeke's newfound adoration of her. It really was something, Justin mused, to be able to go about life thinking that things were unimportant so long as they held no interest or merit to your immediate situation.
"And if you think Harper's bad," he said, "just wait until your officially 'ungrounded.'" He used finger quotes to illustrate his point-mainly because he knew Alex hated them. "Zeke is nothing if not persistent."
Alex scoffed. "I think I can handle Zeke's little crush on me."
"If you say so."
Alex walked into the sub shop, sat down at the counter, and proceeded to drop her forehead onto the counter top, whining pitifully.
"Bad day?" Justin quipped with false sincerity. He'd been witness to a lot of it, and was actually getting pretty amused.
Alex grunted in response.
Their mother wandered over and her eyes grew wide with worry when she looked at her daughter. "Honey, what's wrong?"
Without lifting her head, Alex pointed her hand backwards just as the overhead bell jingled and Zeke walked in, a backpack on either shoulder. "Hey Justin, Mrs. Russo. Alex, you dropped your backpack at the bus stop." He set it down on the floor beside her seat.
He tried hard not to laugh, but Justin had to admit the mental image of his sister fleeing from the bus stop when she noticed Zeke (which she had been doing for over a week now) was pretty funny.
An undistinguishable sound emitted from under Alex's hair. Theresa looked alarmed, so she gave Zeke a bright smile and asked him in a sugary voice, "Zeke, would you do me a huge favor and run down to the market and pick me up some kosher salt? We're all out."
"Not a problem." He stood and saluted her, before he swept low in bow and raced out.
Alex finally lifted her head up. "Thanks, Mom."
"We were out," she replied, winking on her way toward a table of newly arrived customers.
Blowing her hair out of her face, Alex looked up at her brother under her lashes, chin propped in her hands. "This sucks."
"Tell me about it," Justin muttered. Harper chose that moment to walk in the door, wearing a sweater she had knitted herself with his face in the center and matching earrings. He had to turn away. There was something almost morbid about seeing someone wearing your image in more than one place. "At least he isn't wearing Alex jewelry."
"I'm sure Harper would make him some," she replied. "She's already decided we need to go on a double date this weekend."
"Oh good, you're telling Justin about our idea." Harper arranged her flouncy skirt just so on her stool next to Alex. Smiling sweetly at Justin, pulled out a pair of knitting needles and a heap of brown fabric from her large bag. "I can make you and Zeke matching sweaters after I get finished with Justin's."
"Um, Harper, hair for clothes isn't really my style," Alex told her, nose wrinkled involuntarily. Then she looked up and saw Zeke walking back in the front door and she dashed around the counter, making a beeline for the lair.
Theresa stopped her just as she took hold of the doorknob. "Honey, you may not want to go in there. Your dad let Max make stink bombs."
"Perfect," Alex muttered.
Having followed her into the kitchen, Justin sighed, patting her on the back consolingly. He had been enjoying seeing Zeke chase off every guy that tried to talk to Alex at school --and frequently, the shop-and his harebrained schemes to win her over; his personal favorite was bringing her a heart shaped piece of chicken on a piece of lettuce cut like a flower. His sister's dismissal of his resentment to Harper's actions was only one in a long list of grievances between them.
But Harper's decision to 'accidentally' spill an entire jumbo diet cola on Holly (who he had finally gotten to know and wow) on the school steps that day made him a little more sympathetic to Alex's plight.
"Tell me about it," she muttered. "At least Zeke doesn't come back here when Mom and Dad are working."
The two of them peeped around the corner of the window between the kitchen and restaurant. Zeke was sitting beside Harper and looked genuinely interested in the sweater she was showing him. Snippets of conversation about what color he would like for the set she planned to make him and Alex floated through to them. Alex groaned.
"Mom, is it too late to take you and Dad up on that offer of convent school in Mexico?"
Rubbing her daughter's shoulder, Theresa too gazed around the partition to the pair sitting at the counter. "Do you need me to ground you again?"
"I just need to be able to walk out of my room and know that," she pointed at Zeke, "won't be waiting for me."
"You think you've got it bad? Look what's been following me around all day." Justin swept his hand in the same direction, to Harper and her Justin wear. He shook his head. "She dumped soda all over Holly. She just had her hair dyed!"
Alex gave him a perplexed look then turned toward her mother. "There has to be something we can do here, right? Something to get them to give up."
"Hello," Justin interjected. "Some of us have been dealing with this for years. You can't handle a week?"
Their mother stepped between them, taking each of their chins in hand. "How difficult to be so beautiful and liked." She left, smiling back at on her way.
Alex walked over to stand against the sink, a thoughtful look on her face. Crossing her arms, she tilted her head to the side. "Now that I think about it, Harper's never been this bad before."
"Am I the only one who remembers the life size Harper valentine?" Justin asked. "She sent it to my algebra class!"
Moving to stand in front of her brother, Alex tried to reason with him. "But she's never dumped soda on anybody before. Like when you dated Miranda-all she did was pout and call her nasty names behind your back."
Justin coked his head. "She called her names?"
"Not the issue here," Alex backtracked. "What's important is that something happened to make her…step it up. She actually thinks you guys are gonna have your picket fence ending." She looked out at her best friend again. "But why?"
"Zeke!" Justin snapped his fingers.
"Shh!" His sister hissed at him. The last thing they needed was Zeke thinking they wanted him to join them in the kitchen.
Talking in an exaggerated stage whisper, he explained. "Zeke's decided that the two of you are perfect for each other." He ignored Alex's grimace. "So maybe…Harper thinks that if that happens, she and I will happen."
"That makes no sense."
"Think about it," Justin said, "from her perspective. You date my best friend. I date your best friend. What could be more symmetric than that?"
"So now we're a math problem?" she quipped, face mocking. "All even and stuff?"
Justin had never really understood his sister's logic, and had long given up even trying. It just made his head hurt.
"So how do we fix it? I can't live my life like this, Justin. Zeke waited for outside the girl's bathroom today."
Turning the problem over in his head, Justin thought about what Alex had said. Even. Him and his sister's best friend. His sister and his own best friend. It was all nice and even. Symmetrical. Austenian almost.
Math problem…It trickled across his brain in bright neon colors.
"We need a variable!"
"Something to throw into the mix, to change the outcome."
A slow smile curved across Alex's face.
"I think we can handle that."
Justin watches, with both fascination and annoyance, as Alex sidles up to Zeke the next day at school with a bag of pineapple gummy snacks and offers him one. He's putty in her hands before the bag is even in his hand. It's a skill some girls are just born with, and his sister seems to have it in abundance.
Some of the guys form the chess club walk by and make a few comments about pineapples that go right over both Zeke and Alex's heads. Justin only feels a little bad about that.
"So…Zeke," He could hear her perfectly from the bench in the middle of the hallway. Her locker was close enough so he can 'supervise' without everyone knowing he was listening-and she doesn't have to talk too loud. Word of Zeke's crush has already gotten out, and neither she nor Justin are handling the teasing well. "You know that fancy Chinese place that Justin likes?"
He really made it too easy for her.
"Yeah." She popped a piece of candy in her mouth, and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.
Even from the bench, Justin could see that he looked completely enraptured.
"Well…we were thinking about maybe going there on Saturday." She turns a little from side to side, twisting her shoulders in that playful and cute way that she does that always helps her get her way. "Would you maybe want to come with us?"
Justin spotted Harper at the end of the hallway. Squaring his shoulders, he began to walk towards her…
…and lost his nerve about halfway there.
He turned around, ready to bolt only to see Alex standing behind him with her arms crossed. Wordlessly, she pointed down the hallway and Justin turned and trudged back, muttering under his breath the entire way.
"Hey, Harper," he greeted slowly.
"Hey, Justin. I finished your sweater." she fished around in her bag and extracted a large lump of pistachio green wool. She held it up against his chest, a proud smile on her face, and grinned up at him. "Perfect."
At least this one wasn't made of hair.
"Um, thanks, Harper." he folded the sweater quickly before anyone noticed it. He still hadn't entirely lived down the hair sweater yet. "Listen, Alex and Zeke and I are going out for Chinese on Saturday. Would you maybe…" He saw the hopeful glimmer spark to life in her eyes and felt his stomach plummet.
Before he can even finish the question, Harper squeals, hand covering her mouth, and starts jumping up and down in excitement. "Oh my God, of course." She squeals again and runs off, proclaiming that she has to tell Alex.
As for Alex, she had been waiting around the corner just to make sure that Justin actually went through with it. When she saw Harper dash off, she walked up to her brother and tapped him on the shoulder, causing him to jump.
"You do realize that the whole school is going to know about this in about ten minutes," she said.
They began walking down the hallway. Out of the corner of his eye, Justin saw some people looking in their direction and talking in low voices. "Judging from that, I'd say that everyone already knows about you and Zeke."
He sighed. "Alex, I'm not sure I can do this."
"Justin! Don't wimp out on me now." She pulled him off to a corner of the hallway where they could talk without anyone sneaking up and overhearing them without their knowledge. "You're sick of Harper's weird obsession with you and I really don't want to have to hurt Zeke's feelings by flat out telling him that he has no chance with me what so ever, so we have to make sure they get over us. What better way to do that than to make them realize they're perfect for each other."
"I know, I know," he moaned, running a hand over his face. "But that doesn't mean I
want to be all diabolical and junk and trick my best friend."
"That's the beauty of it," Alex grinning wickedly. "I'm going to be all diabolical and junk for you. All you have to do is show up and tell Harper all that boring science stuff that you guys do that you think girls care about."
He regarded his sister and her assurance of this plan that she had concocted. Alex had a history of crazy schemes that went totally counterpoint of where she intended, but this was one time he was just going to have to trust her.
When Saturday night rolled around, Justin and Alex arrived a half hour early and staked out a hiding place at a table behind a planter of mini ferns and waited for Harper and Zeke to show up. It wasn't really something Justin was excited about, but Alex assured him that letting them talk before the two of them 'showed up' was a good way to lay the ground work of setting them up.
"Okay, so what do we do first?" Justin asked, adjusting the sunglasses he was wearing. He sank lower in his seat and lowered his head, the brim of his Mets cap effectively hiding his face.
Alex took a sip of her water. "They show up, sit down, and while they're talking they'll realize they're a much better match and then we text them and say we have a family emergency or something and can't make it."
"You really think that's going to work?"
Fixing a level gaze on her brother, she spoke in a self-assured, confident voice that made him wary. "When are you gonna learn? I'm always right."
Justin snorted. "Uh-huh." He looked up. Zeke was walking towards the table on the other side of the planter from them. He ducked down and motioned for Alex to do the same. In a whisper, he ordered Alex, "So we wait for them to make some sort of connection, send the text, and run. Kapeesh?"
"How long have you been waiting to use 'kapeesh' in normal conversation?"
Justin stuck his tongue out at her.
Harper showed up a few seconds later and Zeke stood up when she reached the table. "What a gentleman."
"I guess Justin and Alex are just running late." Harper's voice was calm, but they could overhear her tapping her fingernails on the table.
"You want to go ahead and order?" Zeke asked, handing her a menu.
Harper shrugged. "Okay. Knowing Alex they could be a while."
Alex opened her mouth to protest, but Justin held up a hand to silence her. The last thing they needed was to be discovered.
Half an hour later, Alex had eaten all the breadsticks on the table, and was now working on a box of Mentos she had somehow managed to swipe out of Justin's pocket. He didn't even want to know how she had managed that without his knowledge. Zeke and Harper were sharing an appetizer, pot stickers, and making idle chit-chat.
"Zeke, can I ask you something?"
He nodded. Alex scooted closer and gently pushed a few fern leaves aside to watch them more closely. Justin tugged on her sleeve in order to get her to pull back before she was noticed. She waved him off.
"You've known Alex all this time, what changed? Why are you interested in her now?"
At that, Justin's ears perked up as well and he scooted closer beside Alex and looked over her shoulder.
With a shrug, Zeke wiped his hands on his napkin before he looked at her. "I'm not sure." He leaned in closer to her. "Have you ever looked at somebody that you see everyday and all of a sudden things are different?"
Harper tilted her head, in thought. After a few seconds she righted her head, shaking it. "Nope."
Justin rolled his eyes. He could have told Zeke himself that Harper's infatuation had begun pretty much the exact moment they met.
Alex leaned closer to the plant, carefully, slowly, trying not to attract any attention.
And then her phone began to ring. Loudly.
Alex and Justin both jumped with a shriek, causing Zeke and Harper to react the same way.
Harper leaned over the planter, hands spreading the leaves apart to see what was going on. "H-hey, guys," Justin said.
Fumbling in her bag, Alex finally managed to extract her phone and flipped it open. "Hello?" She grimaced. "No, Max, I don't know where your snorkel is. No, Justin doesn't know either." her eyes met Harper's and she gave her best friend a shaky grin. "There you guys are! Justin, we were waiting all this time and they're right there."
"You guys have been there this whole time?" Zeke's voice was skeptical. He may not have known Alex as well as Justin or Harper, but he still knew her reputation for scheming.
"Um," Justin looked at his sister helplessly. "We didn't see you guys over there. Join us."
The two of them scooted around to one side of the booth, leaving Zeke and Harper on the other. Harper mentioned the order, wondering if perhaps they should be sitting together with their dates.
"Harper," Alex blurted out when she noticed Zeke start to stand up so he could slide in on the other side of her. "Ladies room?"
They got up, Alex instructing Justin to order for her. She mouthed at him to grill Zeke over his head wanting to know if their plan was working. Justin furrowed his brow, shaking his head incomprehensibly. She rolled her eyes. "Grill him!" she repeated, this time in a slight whisper.
"What?" Harper asked, confused.
"Huh? Nothing," she said quickly. "Let's go."
An awkward silence fell over the table as they all began to eat.
Alex picked at her food, pineapple chicken, and let her eyes roam over the table. The whole point of this dinner was to get Zeke and Harper to 'decide' on each other rather than on her and Justin.
Zeke had ordered the same meal as her, so she figured that was as good a place to start as any. "So, Zeke, I heard this thing the other day about you and pineapples."
Justin shushed her quickly. "Harper, did you know Zeke won the science club's Member of the Year award two years in a row?"
"Really? Wow." She turned to Zeke. "What'd you have to do to win?"
While they talked about that, Alex leaned over and whispered to Justin. "What's up with the pineapples?"
"Not important," he hissed back. "Look."
She did, and saw Zeke and Harper talking, laughing, and then Harper asked for a bite of Zeke's chicken, promising not to touch any of his pineapples.
"Houston, we have a match," he remarked in an excited whisper.
She made a face at him. Whether it was because she didn't understand the reference, or because she thought it was lame and nerdy, he didn't know. And frankly, he didn't really care either. All that mattered was that their plan looked like it was beginning to work.
After dinner, the four of them stood on the sidewalk, saying their goodnights and the like. Justin turned to Alex and made a big deal of saying they had to get home since their mother was insisting they go to mass the next morning.
"Zeke," Justin suggested. "Would you mind making sure Harper gets home okay?"
"Aw, Justin, you're such a gentleman." Harper grinned big and bright at him.
He only felt a little bad.
Alex insisted he buy her ice cream on the way home. They walked quietly along Fourth Street, taking in the sights of the Village, and the visibly excited tourists taking pictures and buying cheap souvenirs. "You think it worked?"
Justin shrugged, hands stuffed in his pocket. "Aren't you the one who said you're always right?"
She gave him a 'duh' look, licking her spoon. "Well, look who we're dealing with."
"Good point." Coming to a stop at the crosswalk, Justin put a hand on Alex's elbow to keep her from walking out into traffic, like he'd been doing her whole life.
"We're still doing that? Really?" she asked, eyes on his hand and dubious expression on her face.
He sighed, letting his head fall back before the light turned over to 'walk' and they began the trek home. "Let's just get home before Zeke or Harper call us."
"Sounds good to me."
Neither Zeke nor Harper called Saturday night. Or Sunday.
Monday morning Alex and Justin waited by the front door only to see their friends walking up the front steps, talking and smiling. And even from a distance they could both tell that Zeke was blushing.
"Oh my God, you think it actually worked?" Alex grabbed Justin's arm, looking pretty much giddy.
"I…think so," he answered as their two friends walked right by them, waving but not speaking. Justin followed after them, Alex catching up quickly.
"You like pineapples? I love pineapples." Zeke exclaimed. He stopped at the front door and held it open for Harper to walk through.
When it almost whacked Justin in the face, he turned a worried look to his sister. "What have we done?"
Both of them came to a stop at Alex's locker. She began pulling things out, handing them off to Justin. "Guaranteed that you've just lost your only friend?"
Offended, he began riffling through her sketch book. "Hey, Zeke and I are tight. Right Zeke?" he called after him as his locker was only a few down the row from Alex's.
Zeke waved idly, disinterested. "Yeah, sure. You like water? I love water," he chattered on happily to Harper.
Alex patted Justin on the shoulder. "Save you a seat at the wedding." Ignoring his dirty look, she waltzed off to…wherever Alex went when she was supposed to be in class.
An auburn head at the other end of the hallway caught Justin's attention. Shrugging, he stuffed Alex's things back in her locker and shut the door. "Hey, Holly, wait up."