A/N: Thanks for your patience once again, everyone! Hope you enjoy this chapter. We're picking up speed, only about eight chapters left. Next one will be up in two weeks.
Disclaimer: I don't own WOWP. Though I do like to play with the characters.
For the first time in the last three months, Justin's insecurities get the better of him, and he wishes he were adopted. It isn't the first time he's wished this in his life, with his parents being who they are. But he wonders how Theresa and Jerry could forget such important information for the birth of their first child, yet they remember the taxi Alex was born in. It only figures, really.
And beneath the hurt, he wonders if he could be adopted, actually wishes it for a moment before he stops himself from going down the path that leads to wanting Alex to return his feelings.
Besides, Justin knows the idea is ridiculous because he resembles portions of his parents' physical features and quirky behavioral patterns. And he does take some satisfaction in debating with Zeke about the qualities and influences of genetics and environmental upbringing.
"You do that weird stuttering thing when you're angry, just like your dad," Zeke says.
"Yeah, but I'm pretty sure the stress of living with Alex brings out that trait in both of us."
"Oh, ha ha," Alex says from the kitchen. "I heard that."
"You were meant to."
"Uh huh, well you're not lucky enough to be adopted, Justin. And it's not like you're getting out of this family without me."
Justin grins at her from over the back of the couch. "Like hell you're tagging along with me. My plans don't include taking care of my annoying brat of a sister."
Alex feigns insult. "Who says you have to take care of me?"
"I don't know how you always manage to forget the times you beg me to get you out of trouble."
"I do not beg."
"Really? Justin, I promise I won't put itching powder in your underwear drawer for a month if you—" He stops mimicking a falsetto as he laughs at her halfhearted glare.
She comes over to lean her folded arms on the couch, her face precariously close to his. "Please, you know you would miss me."
"In your dreams, Alex."
Zeke laughs, reminding Justin of the world outside Alex's glittering brown eyes and mischievous smile. "See, you two are so similar, you have to be related. Or soul mates, right?"
Justin starts, jerking away from Alex to lean further into the arm of the couch. "What?"
"Siblings can totally be soul mates. If you believe in them, I mean, soul mates can be found in all kinds of relationships. And you both fit each other so well, like flipsides of the same coin. I think it's cool."
Oh god. Justin can feel his heartbeat fluttering in the base of his neck, and his face feels hot. He can't look at Alex. But he does. He needs to know what she thinks about Zeke's idea.
Alex gently bites her bottom lip before her eyes slide over to his, and he shivers. There is something deep and indeterminable in her gaze, and he doesn't know what to do with it until she suddenly smirks.
"Yeah, right. Like I'd want to be attached to Justin for eternity." She gracefully lifts herself away and heads up the stairs.
It takes Justin a few seconds before he realizes Zeke is laughing again. Justin lightly tosses a pillow at his face.
"It's not funny, dude."
Zeke then easily slips into a one-sided conversation about an upcoming clogging competition, while Justin fails to push away thoughts of Alex possibly being his soul mate. He really doesn't need any more reasons to reconsider his feelings than he has every time he so much as looks at Alex. But damn if the notion isn't tempting as hell, that there might be an unearthly reason to explain why Justin and Alex have always been different to each other. Really, they're wizards, so why couldn't it happen?
But these kinds of thoughts are dangerous, and Justin finds he apparently has time to spare to them. So one day after school the next week, he stops following Alex walking beside Dean, letting them continue to the Sub Station while Justin stops outside an independent shop perfect for the next hobby on his list of distractions.
He steps inside and inspects the carefully cared for instruments. He hasn't thought much about what he wants to play, he just knows he's worked hard to earn his money at the Sub Station, and he doesn't want to use magic for this. He doesn't want this to be easy.
There are two people behind the register counter, an old man with grey hair and soft lines around his brown eyes and across his forehead, and a young woman with long blond hair falling in smooth waves down her back. The girl smiles and holds up a hand in greeting. Justin nods then turns his attention to a row of gleaming silver flutes. Not really his style, if he has one at all.
"Hey, can I help you find something?"
Justin looks up at the gentle, quiet voice. The girl – Annie, her nametag says – gives him a friendly smile.
"Oh, um, yeah maybe. I don't know what I'm looking for, though. I want a fun hobby."
"I see. Well, learning an instrument isn't a piece of cake."
"That's what I'm hoping for. I like a challenge."
"Do you?" Her blue eyes sparkle with mirth, and Justin finds himself blushing. He hasn't thought about a girl besides Alex in a long time. Too long. Maybe it's time to rectify that.
Annie takes his hands in hers as she inspects his fingers. "Long fingers, good. Do you have control?"
It is suddenly difficult to swallow, but he manages a nervous smile. "I like to think so."
"Well, you look like a cool guy, so why don't we go look at the guitars?"
"You think I'm cool? I'm actually pretty geeky."
"A hipster, then." She giggles, and damn, she is actually flirting with him. He thinks. Justin isn't totally striking out. It feels good.
Annie leads him to the front corner of the store where a few dozen guitars rest along the shelves and walls.
"Where do I start?" he asks, feeling overwhelmed.
"How about acoustic or electric?"
"My mom has an old acoustic, so an electric, I guess."
"Okay. Looking to start a band?"
"Not really. Playing for myself."
"All right. So pick one you like and see how it feels in your hands."
Justin moves to do exactly that when one specific guitar catches his attention. He gently picks up one of a deep, vibrant red color. He runs his fingers over the smooth base and up the neck before he settles it against his hip. He tests his grip on the stem, pressing his fingers against the strings. He strums it with his thumb once, twice.
"Wow," he says. "This feels really nice."
"Seems made for you. A great instrument is like that. Want to check out some of the others? We have plenty of other models."
"No, I think I like this one fine."
"Then good choice. You buying today?"
"Yeah, I'll take it."
Fifteen minutes later, Justin leaves with his brilliant new guitar in a matte black case, along with a roll of extra string, a care guide, and a beginner's guide to playing. Oh, and Annie's phone number. When he opens the case in his room, he finds it written in a looping scrawl on the back of a card advertising personal guitar lessons, clipped to the stem of his guitar.
A silly grin tugs at his lips. He doesn't know if he will ever call her, but he feels like he needed the experience for a step forward, to getting over Alex, getting better.
Justin wastes no time sending another e-mail about the afternoon's productivity. He hasn't received a response from Mona for a couple weeks, but that's okay. He knows she is busy with her own work and responsibilities, and his problems, or lack thereof, aren't her main priority. And instead of starting his homework, Justin sits down with the playing guide and learns a few chords.
He is practicing his finger placement when he hears footsteps coming down the hall. His bedroom door opens, but there is no one in the hall. He absently strums, waiting for the other shoe to drop. As he watches the open doorway, Alex pokes her head around the doorjamb.
"Did I scare you?" she asks with a smile that crinkles her nose.
"Alex, you've been doing that since you were four years old. I think I'm used to it by now."
She moves around to lean her body against the side of the door. "You disappeared after school. I thought you might have gone to see your girlfriend."
Justin doesn't rise to the bait, rolling his eyes. "Did you really want me following you and Dean around?"
"Nope. So, what, you went to go buy a guitar? Do you think that makes you cool or something?"
"Not really. I just wanted something to do. Keep me busy."
"Like you don't have enough stuff with school, homework, geeky things with Zeke, working out for your girlfriend?"
"Alex," he warns despite not being angry. He shifts on the bed, drawing up his leg beneath him to further support the guitar in his lap.
"Well, you do have good taste, I guess."
"Thanks." He gives her a genuine smile before returning his attention to the red beauty in his lap. He continues practicing the chords, his fingers moving more quickly and easily into place with every repetition. It feels good to be good at something other than school and magic.
When he looks back at Alex, her gaze is intently focused on his hands. He strums one more chord, then smoothly slides his hand down the neck until he cradles the base against his stomach. He watches her dark eyes scan up his body until she startles at meeting his eyes.
She slowly averts her gaze as if she hadn't been caught awkwardly staring. She steps toward the bed, running her hand along the matte texture of the guitar case.
"I wonder what it is about musicians," she says almost absently.
"I wonder." He can't seem to take his eyes off her. She tucks a thick section of hair behind her ear, and he finally drags his eyes back to his guitar, ignoring her movements.
"Who is Annie?" she asks.
Justin jumps up and snatches the paper card out of her hands, hissing as he slices open his thumb.
"Ow, god damn it!"
"Sorry, but you didn't need to freak out like that, jeez."
Justin sucks on the pad of his thumb, tonguing the slight wound. When Alex's warm hand finds his shoulder, he shrugs her off.
"I'm fine. Can you just not go snooping in my private business for once?"
She gives him a hard look. "Well excuse me for not knowing a stupid business card was so personal. Give me a break, it's not like I care if you have a girl's phone number. Get over yourself."
She walks out of his room, leaving him wondering what happened once again. He's beginning to think she was born to confuse and frustrate him on so many levels.
For a few minutes, Justin carefully puts away his guitar. Then he stares at Annie's phone number, the paper stained with a spot of his blood. He lets the card fall into the trash bin.
At dinner that evening, Alex blurts out that Justin bought a guitar, and with a devious grin, she watches him squirm as he avoids Theresa's well-intentioned but ill-received, adamant offers of guitar and singing lessons. Damn it, and Justin still wishes he could kiss her arrogant smirk into a submissive, demure smile. Hah, even in his fantasies, the idea seems unlikely.
Despite Alex trying to ruin his fun, Justin keeps up with his busy schedule. His free time consists of working at the Sub Station, doing homework, hanging out with Zeke, exercising, or practicing guitar. Really, he doesn't have much free time at all, which means less disturbing thoughts about his sister.
He shouldn't be surprised that a couple weeks later, things change. Justin always knew he would need a backup plan for a career. The thing is, he never really considered what he would do if he didn't become the family wizard. There are subjects he excels at, like engineering and physics that could give him a fulfilling career. But ultimately, Justin figured he would be able to combine his skills and do great things in both the Wizard and mortal worlds.
Now that he actually has to make some kind of preliminary decision and show his capability to succeed in an alternate career, Justin doesn't know what the hell to do or say. And it certainly doesn't help that Alex keeps looking at him like her answer all depends on his choice. So, really, it also shouldn't be so surprising that Justin and Alex end up forming a band of sorts to play together. Because even their backup plans involve each other.
Alex magics up a drum kit and sets up in the living room. Unexpectedly, she only gives herself the skills to decently play the drums. Enough to keep up with but not outshine Justin's rudimentary guitar playing.
As much as he doesn't think this is a good idea, Justin has to admit that he has fun practicing and writing a song with Alex. They argue over the lyrics, rhythm, and melody. They laugh over all their mistakes.
It isn't remotely what Justin would have considered to be his backup plan, but he has so much fun, his heart feels lighter than it has in months. And now he can't imagine his future without Alex being involved in some way. Even though they'll probably never go into music together, he thinks maybe they can find something that will make them both happy. If they can ever actually agree on anything, of course.
After only a week of practicing, Justin and Alex's performance goes well. They work together in perfect harmony. Professor Crumbs approves of their backup plan. The crowd loves them, even though they turn out to be fakes. Leave it to Max to help Justin and Alex succeed and use it as his own backup plan. Smart.
Over all, the night is fantastic, and Justin feels amazing. He doesn't want the feeling to ever go away. Especially when he sees Alex fairly glowing with happiness.
Once the Sub Station has been cleaned up, Justin goes up to his room to put away his guitar, feeling like it was one of his best investments. He showers and dresses in his pajamas before sitting at his computer to send Mona another update e-mail. He finds himself absently smiling as he talks about the past week and the evening's events.
"What's making you so happy?" Alex's voice startles Justin, and he spins away from his computer after minimizing the e-mail window.
"Nothing much. I had a good time tonight."
Alex smiles brightly, eyes twinkling. "Me, too. We totally rocked it."
"Even with a nerd on the guitar." Her light tone belies her words, and she raises her hand for a high-five.
Justin leaves her hanging for a moment. "At least my skills weren't magicked up."
"Hey, that was all me." She shrugs. "Okay, mostly me."
He smiles and gently returns her high-five.
"Want to go get some celebratory ice cream?" Alex asks.
"I'm in my pajamas."
Justin pretends to think about it for all of a second while Alex puts her hands on her hips. "Okay, okay, just let me get my slippers on."
"Oh god, you old man." Alex snorts, and pushes him away when he tries to pass her. "No, I'm not going with you now. Isn't it your bed time, old man?"
"I'll show you an old man." Justin swings his arm around her neck until she's bent over in a headlock.
"Seriously, I will punch you in your kidney!"
Justin laughs and releases her.
"Dang, you're a lot stronger than when I was twelve." Alex briefly squeezes his bicep before laughing.
"Yet you're still the same bratty kid." Their casual banter and teasing sparks a warmth in his chest, and he can't stop his smile from tugging at his lips.
Alex pouts up at him, but her eyes widen and her gaze falls as her cheeks flush. He doesn't know what caused it, but he clears his throat awkwardly. Things were going so well, he doesn't want to ruin it now.
"So, ice cream?"
"Yeah." Alex nods and leads the way down the hall.
Justin puts on his slippers, then catches up with her. He can't help himself when he reaches out to ruffle her hair. She squeals like a little kid and dashes away. He chases after her the whole way down the stairs and out the front door. They stumble over each other and nearly fall on the curbside closest to the small ice cream stand.
While Alex laughs and catches her breath, Justin asks for two single scoop cones, one chocolate, one mint chocolate chip. Then he pats his pockets and realizes that of course he doesn't have his wallet in his pajama pants. Justin is ready to run back in the loft to get money, when Alex leans toward the young man scooping the ice cream.
"Hey, we forgot our money. If you trade us, I'll give you a free sandwich at the Sub Station." She flashes him a flirty, dazzling smile.
The guy looks dubious, but he says, "A whole meal. Side and a drink included."
"Deal. Come in any time."
"Thank you," Justin adds, and the guy shrugs.
Justin and Alex walk along Waverly Place, mostly in content silence.
"Mmm, my favorite," Alex says offhand. "I'm surprised you remembered."
Justin swallows his bite of chocolate. "Why wouldn't I?"
Alex startles, blinks up at him like she forgot he was there. "Sorry, I…."
"Thought you were someone else for a second."
"Someone else – who?"
Alex's face turns red, and she shoves more ice cream in her mouth. What she mumbles is distorted but clear enough that Justin stops in his tracks. He waits until Alex stops and turns around to face him.
"You thought I was Dean?" The words are hard to choke out through his tight throat.
Alex forcibly swallows so she can quickly say, "Only for a second."
Justin stares at the mint ice cream at the corner of her mouth while words fail him.
"It's not a big deal," Alex says. "It just kind of felt like when I was on a date with Dean."
Justin doesn't even understand why she feels the need to explain, but he has to change the subject before he has a heart attack at seventeen. "So Dean lets you flirt with other guys?"
It's the best he can do while still floundering. Alex looks relieved, anyway, before she picks up her chin and keeps walking. "Hey, I got us out of the situation, didn't I? Besides, he didn't even flirt back with me, so it doesn't count."
Justin matches his longer strides to her shorter ones. "Very true. He wasn't even interested."
"He could have been, you don't know." Alex fakes offense.
"Nope. He was totally in it for the sandwich."
"Men, always thinking with their stomachs." Alex smiles to herself before licking a line of ice cream off her wrist and hand.
Justin looks away, thankful the dark will hide his blush at the sight. He focuses on the last of his ice cream, biting into the crispy cone. They walk around all the shops that are closing for the night until they arrive back home.
Alex shoves most of her cone in her mouth as they walk in the door, so the rest of their family doesn't bug them about getting ice cream without them.
They part ways at their bedrooms where Alex says, "Thanks for tonight. For everything, not only the ice cream. I know you didn't want your backup plan to involve me, but I'm glad you let me, anyway."
Justin blinks, maybe a little in shock. "Well, I probably wouldn't have had as much fun without you."
She grins, bright. "Damn right."
Alex leaves to go take a shower, then, so Justin kicks off his slippers that are slightly scuffed from his run. He sees the notice of a new e-mail on his computer, suddenly nervous about getting a response from Mona. Her e-mail is rather short, though:
Somehow, your backup plan doesn't surprise me. It sounds like you and your sister are doing well, which I'm very glad to hear. I'm proud of you for putting aside your feelings in order to spend time with your sister. I'm sure she appreciates your attention.
I apologize for being busy, but I can't wait to hear more about your progress. I'm actually coming home a month early, so I'll see you in a few weeks. We should meet for lunch again.
One part of Justin is happy Mona is coming back. He misses talking with her in person. A second part of him is worried what she'll see in him when she returns. He doesn't always feel like he's progressed enough for her to be proud of him. Still, a third part of him feels like she's laughing at him for his circumstances, so he responds back that he can't wait to see her, and he hopes to get better every day.
Already, he feels like he and Alex are in a better place. She has a boyfriend, and he has plenty of distractions from her. Although tonight might have had a few rough patches, it was overall successful, he thinks.
Justin closes his e-mail and puts away some of his clothes and homework before he readies for bed. Then he goes downstairs to get a glass of water. He hears quiet voices on the last landing, but doesn't think anything of it until he sees Theresa and Alex sitting together on the couch. They're both drinking hot chocolate with plenty of marshmallows.
"How is everything with Dean?" Theresa asks, gently threading her fingers through Alex's wet hair.
"Good, I think. I haven't talked to him in a couple days."
"Oh? Why not?"
Justin knows he shouldn't be standing there, eavesdropping, but he's too curious. And maybe a little hopeful, even if he can't admit it.
"He's with his aunt and uncle this weekend, and I guess he's busy."
"Yeah." Alex is quiet until she says, "I've been thinking."
"What's it like to be in love?"
"Oh, mi querida, that's a tough question to answer at any age, let alone at fifteen."
"So how did you know Dad was the right one?"
"I think most times you just know. He made me laugh. He made me feel special. And I couldn't imagine my life without him anymore." Her words make Justin's heart warm, and he's sure they do the same to Alex, who settles her cheek against Theresa's shoulder.
"Is this about Dean?" Theresa asks.
Alex shrugs. "Dean and I are actually pretty different."
"Different can be good. Your father and I have our differences, but we have fun and get along in all the ways that count."
Justin really should leave, go back upstairs and pretend he didn't hear this conversation between mother and daughter. But his traitorous heart needs to know how Alex feels about Dean, still imagining that Justin would be better for her. It's sick, he's sick.
"I wish there was an easy way to know when you're in love," Alex says. "Maybe even a spell."
Theresa hums. "I always thought you could tell a lot by how you feel when you kiss a boy. Is there chemistry, passion, love? Most of all, there needs to be appreciation and respect."
"I kissed Dean a couple times," Alex confides quietly, while Justin's heart lurches and his chest tightens.
Theresa looks surprised but asks, "Now you don't know if he's right for you?"
Alex picks a soggy marshmallow from her hot chocolate, chewing it before she responds. "He's nice, though clueless sometimes. He can be funny, but we don't always get each other's sense of humor. And when we kiss it's…okay. And I guess I was expecting the toe-curling passion from movies. I didn't get that."
Theresa raises an eyebrow in a way that makes her resemble Alex. "You're young. You can't expect to find everything you want in your first few boyfriends."
"But that's just it. I don't know if there's really anything for me to find with Dean, or anyone else, when I already have everything with…someone else."
Theresa is quiet for a moment, then she leans forward and sets her half-full cup on the low table in front of the couch. "Can I ask who this mystery boy is?"
Alex shakes her head. "Nobody, really. He's more like a friend than anything. And things are weird with us right now. I don't know what to do."
Justin tries not to think about anything in Theresa's silence. But he can't think of Alex referring to anyone else but him. Which, no, she would never be talking about him. Even though Alex's only friend is Harper, none of this makes sense. And he can't have his mind jumping to conclusions.
"It sounds like you don't want to be with Dean anymore," Theresa says, "You know it's not fair to be with him if your heart is somewhere else."
"I know. I just liked him so much."
"But if he's not what you want or what you need, then you should let him go."
Alex doesn't respond, so Justin quietly walks back up the stairs. He shuts himself in his room and he can finally breathe again. His heart aches at the sudden flare of hope, and he desperately tries to tamp it down, out of existence. Because down that delusional path only lies heartbreak. He's been doing so well, he can't allow himself to slip backward simply because Alex might be dumping Dean. It's not smart, it's not right.
Justin stares at his computer, wondering if he should bother Mona about this. He can't imagine what she would say about his wrong conclusions. He doesn't need her to tell him he should continue to move on, regardless of what Alex may do in the future.
He crawls into bed, listening when Theresa and Alex walk past, into their bedrooms. He resolutely recites elements from the periodic table, until he falls asleep. He dreams about having a conversation with Silver until Argon rudely interrupts to ask about his feelings for Alex. He hitches a ride on Helium to float away, to avoid the answers in his heart.
He wakes, feeling light in body and carefully numb in his thoughts. It's perfect. He can focus on school and his afterschool activities without worrying about Alex. He has school and Alex has Dean, or whoever, for everything she needs. Justin doesn't have Alex, but he has everything he could need. He nearly smiles when he realizes how good he's gotten at lying, if only to himself.