A/N: So…do I win for longest WIP that takes forever to update? orz I'm sorry, I'm a terrible human being. This is the longest chapter by far, and there is not one but two pillow fights (lol, I was aiming for something cyclical between last chapter and this one), so maybe that will make the wait worthwhile? Actually, I was waiting for the ending of this chapter forever it seems, so I really hope everyone enjoys it. We're getting close to the end, I promise haha, even if it doesn't seem like it right now. The back-and-forth won't be like this for much longer. The next couple chapters are going to be very interesting!

The good news is, I've already started the next chapter, so I'll be able to update…soon. I've learned my lesson, haha, I'm not jinxing myself this time. But if you think I'm taking too long, please bother me. Sometimes I just need the extra encouragement.

Anyway, before we get started, I have two announcements/questions for my lovely readers that have stuck with me all this time.

1. Does anyone read fics over at AO3? I have a Teen Wolf fic posted there, and I was considering posting Principles there as well if anyone would read it there. I'll likely post future WOWP fics there as well (yes, I still plan on writing more Jalex, I just can't let them go). I just like the AO3 archive system a lot.

2. I'm in a bad way financially, and I was wondering if anyone would be interested in commissioning fics from me? I'd appreciate donations of any sort because then I would just write this fic faster (not to say that I won't update without donations, not at all. I'm just trying to figure out a way to pay my bills over the next couple weeks.) I'll also be offering my fiction editing services if anyone would rather help me out that way. A link for more information is in my profile if anyone can spare a few dollars to help me out. If you enjoy my writing at all, I hope you'll consider it. Thank you in advance.

Please enjoy this chapter and let me know what you think!


Justin lands face down on his bed, exhausted and still kind of fuming about how his directorial debut was pretty much a flop. Thanks to Alex. Okay, maybe that's a little unfair because she was only trying to help him out of a tough situation. But she could have tried harder to not let it all go to hell. At least not so fast, maybe.

But this is his life, so why would anything go the way he planned, least of all with Alex ever involved?

"You know you're gonna get plenty of scholarships without your stupid director stuff – which you were never interested in before anyway."

Justin groans. "Go away, Alex."

"Are you mad at me?"

He laughs and turns his head to the side so he can see her with one eye. "Tonight was a catastrophe. But I guess it doesn't really matter now. I probably wouldn't have won the scholarship anyway."

Alex snorts, leaning against the doorframe. "Yeah, that play was pretty bad."

"Hey, the directing was spot on. But the main actress, man, she was horrible. Wooden. Unemotional."

"Oh, I'll show you unemotional."

Alex reaches down for her wand tucked into her boot. Justin rolls onto his back, his hands raised in surrender. She makes a vaguely threatening gesture with her wand before grinning. Justin rewards her by flinging a pillow at her face. Alex splutters, then leaps for the bed, landing right on top of him. Justin's breath is briefly knocked out of him, but he wheezes out a laugh anyway.

So begins a pillow-smacking wrestling match. It ends with Alex straddling Justin's hips and pinning his hands above his head. They're both breathing heavily, and Alex's cheeks are flushed, which has Justin desperately thinking unsexy thoughts before things get totally out of hand.

"We haven't fought like this for a while." Alex's playful grin tugs at Justin's own mouth.

He wants to say that was before it would have been awkward and inappropriate, like it is now, or like it should be, anyway. He wishes this was all in his head, wishes they were still kids who could still be innocent together. Instead, Justin bucks his hips and rolls until Alex is the one trapped beneath him. But before he can allow himself to enjoy it, he swings his feet off the bed and sits up, appropriately far enough away from his sister. He tries to block out the sound of her breathless panting.

She shifts behind him, pulling up her legs to cross underneath her. He can feel Alex's knee gently pressing into his lower back.

"I am sorry," she says quietly. "If I had thought it was so important to you, I would have tried harder not to mess it up."

"Right. Tried and failed, I bet." But Justin shrugs it off. It doesn't matter anymore, anyway.

"Probably."

"But you should have tried harder just because I asked." He looks over his shoulder at her, trying not to smile. "Because you're my sister, and you love me."

Alex predictably rolls her eyes and scoffs. "Ew, not even."

"Then why couldn't you have let me do well – succeed even – for once?"

"Seriously, Justin? Stop whining. You're constantly winning science fairs and writing contests and everything."

"Maybe. But this year especially, you seem to be focused on intruding on my activities and interfering in my life. I know you don't find me that interesting, so what's the real reason behind tonight, Alex?"

She fiddles with her wand, spinning it in her hands before she sighs and shoves it back into her boot. "I just…I didn't want you to leave me."

Justin blinks, tries to comprehend the meaning of her words. "You – why? Why would you be worried about that? It's only a school play."

Alex avoids his eyes. "I don't know. You were talking about getting a scholarship, and I just realized you're going to be leaving for college."

"Yeah, in like a year. And when I do graduate, I'll probably stay local."

"But you said you didn't want to stay with us."

Justin shifts so he's facing her better. "Alex, look at me."

She hesitates long enough that when she does look up, he gives her the cheesiest grin possible. "I'm never going to leave you, Alex. Even after that great recommendation letter you and Max wrote for me. You can't get rid of me that easily."

Her eyes water, and she wipes at her nose. "You're stupid. Go away."

Justin laughs. Of course she hides her vulnerability. "This is my room."

He lets her save face, lets her shove at him with her foot as she gets off the bed. She briefly glances over her shoulder before she leaves him alone. Justin eventually tries to forget the whole evening, finds it isn't all that hard. He is still warm and happy from spending time with Alex. It's been a while since he has felt so good after she leaves. Usually he finds some way to mess it up. But not tonight. No tearing himself apart tonight.

Thus starts an upward trend in Justin's life. He keeps working out, building his muscles slowly but surely. He keeps practicing guitar, getting a little better every week. He hangs out with Zeke whenever possible. He doesn't avoid Alex, but it at least helps him that she seems to be busier with Harper and with extra school activities. They don't even work the same shifts at the Sub Station for a while.

It's a quiet evening when Jerry gives Justin the go-ahead to close up early in order to help Max with his first official date. She's a sweet girl who laughs at all of Max's jokes, even if Max is actually being mean and rude to Justin. Who happens to be doing this out of the goodness of his heart and really doesn't deserve to be treated like a moron. So maybe he retaliates a little. Plays up his offense and acts like a jerk in response.

In the end, Max ends up looking like a literal clown thanks to his misuse of magic, and the girl leaves the date unimpressed with either of their behavior. Max cleans up the small mess they made in the Sub Station, and in return, Justin changes Max back to his normal-looking self.

"So, you gonna try to make it up to her?" Justin asks as they head back upstairs to the loft. "Maybe she'll give you a second chance."

"Nah, I screwed up. I don't deserve a second chance with her."

"Uh huh. And why exactly did you think being rude was the way to win a girl's heart? I told you to be funny, not mean."

Max lies on the couch, face shoved into a pillow so Justin can't quite make out his mumbled response. Justin leans his hands against the spine of the couch.

"Seriously, dude, why do you think stuff like that is funny?"

Max moves his face enough that Justin can hear, "I don't know. That's just what comes out. Like I can't help it. You guys usually laugh about stuff like that though."

"Ah." Justin suddenly gets it. No wonder Max's date went wrong. "You used our family's sense of humor on someone not in the family."

Slowly rolling onto his back, Max scrunches up his face in confusion. "So…she didn't understand my jokes because she's not a Russo?"

Justin chuckles. "Basically. Our family is terrible to each other, and not everyone understands how we express our love that way. But tonight was way out there, dude. Like Alex levels of rudeness. Which only she can possibly get away with, okay? Mere mortals like you and me need to respect that and never try it out on a normal person. Got it?"

"Yeah. No making fun of people or hurting people to be funny the way Alex does. Not cool."

"Excuse me, what's not cool about me?" Alex slips into the kitchen from seemingly out of nowhere, sticking her head in the fridge.

Justin turns to face her, leaning his hip against the couch. "Oh, Max had a horrible first date because he thought he would take a page out of your book of how to treat people badly."

Alex pops back out of the fridge with a can of soda, snapping it open with one hand. She takes a long drink, throat working while her eyes never leave Justin's. It's entirely disconcerting. And hot in a way that pulls at his lower stomach. His mouth is suddenly very, very dry.

"Huh," she eventually says. "I've spent all day trying to prove that I'm actually a good person, that I actually help people, but either no one believes me or they don't know the difference between happy helping and basic human decency."

Max sits up on the couch. "You hate helping people."

"Sure, on general principle maybe. But I still do it. And I've saved the world a few times already in case everyone forgot."

"With my help," Justin says.

"And mine," Max adds.

"Okay, okay. But you can't blame me for Max's date going wrong. I mean, first of all, you let Justin chaperone you like he wouldn't kill any possible game you had."

Justin doesn't even bother to roll his eyes.

"Actually, she liked Justin way more than me." Max doesn't sound put off by it in the least, like he's already over the whole situation.

Alex actually cackles, though. "Wow, Justin. A thirteen-year-old girlfriend is kind of young, don't you think?"

"Oh ha-ha, Alex. Don't you have some helping you could be doing?"

She grins at him. "Nope. I'd much rather torture you about your junior high girlfriend."

Now Justin does roll his eyes at her, especially when she follows him up the stairs. Fortunately, she only laughs at him some more before detouring to her room. Justin thanks whoever is listening that Alex does sometimes know when to leave things be. Not usually when it means she can torture him, but hey, Justin isn't looking this gift horse in the mouth.

Which is probably a good thing, considering the next week, Justin gets a creepy stalker who can't take a hint. Justin doesn't even know who Daphne is, so he's not sure how she decided to latch onto him, but he literally can't get rid of her. She invites herself along to a baseball game, and it really doesn't help the situation that Justin gives into pressure and quickly kisses her for the Jumbotron. It only makes things worse for him, especially because then he feels like he's leading Daphne on, no matter how many times he continues trying to convince her he's not interested in dating her.

He can only turn to his horrible family for help.

And by god, they actually try to let him down. He shouldn't be surprised by anything they do at this point.

Their Family Game Night is almost going well – but not in the way Justin was counting on. He wanted his arguing, messy, rude family but instead they were all pretending to be decent civil human beings. Like what the hell is that?

So Justin has to rely on the fact that Alex got Harper's brain stuck in her body. It might give him a minor heart attack every time Alex makes love-struck googly eyes at him, but he plays on Harper's crush on him while trying not to think about the implications. At all.

And worse, no one else seems to think there's anything wrong with Alex's flirty, possessive, and all around not-Alex-like behavior. She actually volunteered to go first at Almost Charades. That should have been their parents' first clue, but well, they aren't the most observant of adults. And Daphne doesn't get fed up with the evening until Jerry and Theresa start fighting over who's cheating in the game.

So his plan eventually works, but maybe not exactly the way Justin wanted. He spends the rest of the night alternately rejoicing that Daphne is out of his life and stewing at himself for multiple things. Letting the Daphne situation get this out of control in the first place. Feeling attracted to Alex's body, which kind of disgusts him in an intrinsic gut-level way. And it makes him feel all the worse, like maybe his whole hang up on her is sexual and he – god, he never considered himself to be that kind of guy. Only after a girl for her looks.

But when he thinks about it, really thinks about Alex, Justin's heart aches. Because it's Alex, and he loves everything about her, even when she's annoying him and mocking him and pranking him. So he knows he's not a bad person like that. Then he remembers he's thinking about his sister, and no, he is definitely a horrible person.

Justin considers calling Mona, sending her an email. Something to relieve the ache in his chest even a little. But a big part of him knows relating the events of the day won't necessarily make him feel any better about himself or his reaction to Alex's – Harper's – behavior. How could he even explain what happened so Mona could understand without the knowledge of magic? He can't, plain and simple. He's ready to try anyway when Alex knocks on his door. He withholds his epic groan fairly well.

"Hey," she says.

"Hey, yourself."

"So, I just wanted to thank you for helping me get Harper's brain out of my head."

"Uh huh."

"It was really strange having her in there."

"I bet."

Alex rubs her arm, looking around Justin's room. She takes one of the robot figures on his desk, twirling it in her hands. "It was weird, like I couldn't stop myself from doing what I really wanted."

Justin freezes, then clears his throat. "I guess that happens when there's another brain in control of your body."

Alex doesn't look at him as she put the robot back down.

"Yeah. My head still hurts," she says.

"Did you take something?"

"Yeah. It's just residual magic. I probably won't try doing that again though." Her laugh is stiff, and Justin grunts in agreement.

"Are you saying you learned a lesson today? Maybe about using a recalled spell? Or using magic to take shortcuts in life?"

Alex rolls her eyes. "No need to rub it in. But I thought you'd be more upset that I ruined your date. Even though you made me stay."

"Oh, it wasn't just you. The whole family pitched in. She thinks we're a bunch of freaks." He laughs, and once he starts, he can't stop.

"I can't believe you're taking this so well." Alex isn't laughing, but her eyes might as well be.

Justin wipes at his teary eyes, shoulders still shaking. "I only invited Daphne so she would break up with me. And it worked perfectly in the end. I knew Mom and Dad couldn't handle Family Game Night. And it was only better with Harper's jealous brain there."

His words make him stop. He didn't mean to say that, not that way. He falls silent, thinking and not-thinking about it in equal measure. Alex fills the gap with an indelicate snort, and she sits beside him on the bed. "That probably made it all even creepier."

Justin swallows. "I guess. That's your own fault though."

"Yeah, no way. You're the one who played it up even though I'm your sister. That grossness was all on you."

Justin stills. The warmth of Alex's arm pressed against his is like a brand, searing the accusation into his flesh, into his mind. His stomach clenches at a sudden bout of nausea that makes the room spin. How could he forget how sick he is? How can he act like flirting with Harper's mind in his sister's body is anything other than gross?

"Hey, I was only kidding." Alex leans over to get in Justin's line of sight, which has fallen to his bare feet on the soft beige carpet. Even though he hates himself in that moment, he can't look away from Alex's sparkling brown eyes. That twisted part of him remembers the way Harper lit up in Alex's body, and he wishes he could do that to Alex's body, to Alex herself, by simply smiling at her or touching the soft curve of her waist the way he always wants to lately.

"Justin, it's totally fine. I mean, she must have her own problems to want to date you, right?"

He shrugs away from her, standing up. "You know what, I think I'm going to head to bed early. Seems like your headache is contagious."

Alex stares at him. "It was only a joke. But okay, fine. I'll leave you alone."

Her tone isn't hurt or even snippy, but still Justin feels guilty as soon as his bedroom door closes behind her. He seriously reconsiders talking to Mona about this. He doesn't know what to do anymore. He's tried to find hobbies to keep his attention away from Alex. He's tried to be there for Alex, support her. And yet they keep being thrown together in circumstances that ever test his resolve and make him hate himself a little more each time. But when he sits at his desk and opens a blank email to Mona, Justin stares at the blinking cursor while words fail him. Nothing can do justice to how he feels like he's sinking further into a dark pit that one day he won't be able to pull himself out of and he'll no longer be able to see any light in his life at all. No one will be able to help him then.

With a frustrated growl, Justin closes his laptop and falls back into his bed. He dreams of playing a game with Alex. He doesn't even know what it is, something like Candyland maybe, but it turns into a sexy strip derivative. Instead of Justin losing like he often does in reality, he and Alex are on even footing, both shirtless and daring each other to reveal more and more skin. With a challenging smirk, Alex reaches back to unhook her bra, and Justin jolts awake, panting for air.

Great, now his unconscious mind is ruining childhood games for him. Just what he needs.

It is still early, but Justin knows his parents will already be downstairs, drinking coffee and resting before they open the Sub Station for the breakfast crowd. Theresa tried to tell Jerry they didn't have the energy or the employees to start making breakfast sandwiches, but this simply means the kids work extra shifts when they can. Which is why Justin, Alex, and Max end up waiting tables, cleaning tables, or restocking the kitchen for most of Saturday. Around lunch, Justin is grateful for the crowd. He blames the busyness of the day for his avoidance of Alex.

"Hey, Justin, your girlfriend's here," Max says as he passes by with a tub of dirty dishes. Justin looks up from the register to find Daphne with a group of three other girls. He watches them sit down at a table. In his section. Crap.

Alex walks out of the swinging door, and he pulls her to his side on reflex.

"Switch tables with me."

"No way. You have more people than me."

"More people, more tips."

"That would mean something if Dad let us keep the tips." She points a sandwich basket in his face.

"I'll cover for you and you can have them today. Just take the tables by the window."

Alex surveys the customers in that area. "Meh. Teenagers and old people. Probably won't tip that good anyway." She skips off without another word, leaving Justin to face off against his stalker who now thinks there's something wrong with his family.

Justin drops off the check at one table, delivers drinks to a few others. Then he finally sucks it up and goes to Daphne's table with a tray of waters for them. He doesn't look up as he places the waters in front of them. He takes out his pen and notepad and forces a smile on his face.

"What can I get for you ladies today?"

Two of them giggle, and Daphne leans across the table, her long straight brown hair brushing over her arms. "Justin, how does your family manage to run a business? Our date was such a disaster, I'm honestly surprised you guys can function."

Justin grits his teeth, feels his smile turn into something less pleasant. "Your orders?"

He writes down their sandwiches and sides, and calmly puts his notepad in his pocket and picks up his tray. "Daphne, you wouldn't even know anything about my family if you weren't a creepy, insane stalker who wormed your way into my life because you don't actually know when someone isn't interested in you at all. Which I never was."

He turns away and one of the other girls says rather loudly, "Dee, you're totally right. Such a freak, no wonder he's so weird with his sister. They're probably—"

Her words are cut off by a loud clattering as a metal napkin dispenser crashes to the floor across the room, and Justin nearly stumbles but makes it back to the register.

"Oops," Alex blandly says, staring at the fallen dispenser. From the look on her face, she did it completely on purpose.

Daphne and her friends only keep laughing.

Justin slaps the tray on the counter before he rips off the girls' orders to give to his dad. He wishes he was one to really talk dirty, to tell his friends all about the freak Daphne. But his friends don't run in her circles anyway. No one cares enough about Justin to gossip for too long. Even Daphne will likely have a new target next week and the girls will talk about that unfortunate soul instead. That thought is the only thing that keeps him calmly serving his other tables.

His dad calls Daphne's order, but Alex beats him to it, saying, "I got it," on her way by. Justin rings up another order instead. Alex walks back out of the kitchen holding two paper bags with the Sub Station logo on the outside. She plops the bags on Daphne's table. "Here are your sandwiches. To go. Please enjoy them anywhere but here."

Alex whirls away, wearing a fierce smirk. She comes to stand beside Justin, and the two of them watch the group of girls walk out, all with matching frowns of confusion and annoyance.

"No one talks trash about our family except our family." Alex smiles up at him. His smile in response is instant, and he can't contain his laugh. A weight feels lifted from his shoulders, and the rest of the long workday doesn't seem quite so tedious with Alex by his side.

By closing time, Justin's feet ache and his back is sore from standing all day. He mops the floors while Alex locks the doors and puts chairs up on the tables. Jerry is cleaning the kitchen, and Max disappeared upstairs sometime before the dinner rush.

"Hey," Jerry says as he exits the kitchen, untying his apron. "Will one of you take inventory for me? I want to shower before your mother is done with dinner. Enchiladas!" Jerry rubs his hands together in delight, then heads up the stairs without waiting for a response.

When Justin looks at Alex, she is shaking her head with an amused smile. Her smile drops when she notices him staring.

"Oh, don't even look at me, I'm not doing it,"

Justin rolls his eyes. As if he expected any different, really. He points at her with the handle of the mop. "You know it'll go so much faster if we at least work together."

She groans. "Ugh fine. Let's get it over with."

The work definitely goes faster with the two of them. Justin counts their supplies, and Alex marks down the number and which items need to be ordered. They do this in relative silence until Alex says, "So, you want to talk about Daphne?"

"Nope. That is the last thing I want to talk about or ever think about again. Four pounds of turkey breast."

"Okay."

"Six pounds of roast beef. But thanks for kicking her and her friends out."

Alex snorts. "Somebody needed to be rude to them. We're the Russos. People might talk like we're slipping."

Justin laughs. "True. Was Dad angry? We kicked them out before they paid. Three pounds of cheddar cheese, sliced and shredded."

"He doesn't know. I pulled the difference from the tips."

Justin walks out of the freezer, shutting the door with his hip while he rubs his cold, aching fingers into his apron. "Those were supposed to be for you if you'd only switch tables with me, you know."

Alex shrugs from where she's leaning against the counter. She turns around to replace the clipboard on the wall, tearing off the slip of orders for their mom to call in the morning.

"Well, it was totally worth it to see the looks on their faces."

Justin takes off his apron, hanging it up behind the swinging door. Alex follows him, putting the order slip next to the phone.

"I do have to admit, it was very satisfying."

He turns off the lights of the Sub Station, and they make their way up the stairs to their apartment with only the streetlights shining in the windows to guide them. Their laughter echoes around them. Justin doesn't even trip when Alex's small hand grips the back of his shirt as they climb up the stairs.

The rest of their family apparently didn't wait for Justin or Alex to start eating dinner. Max is washing dishes at the sink while Theresa wraps up the leftovers.

"I already made you two plates," she says with a smile. "Thank you for doing inventory."

Both Justin and Alex give grunts of reply as they head for their enchiladas at the table. Jerry at least is still there, likely eating seconds or thirds.

"So who's working with me tomorrow?" Jerry asks.

Both Justin and Alex answer simultaneously, "Max."

"Hey! I worked today!"

Justin waves his fork between himself and Alex. "Not as long as us. I can work the morning, but then I have to meet Zeke to plan our Alien Language Club field trip."

"And I already have plans with Harper to see a movie," Alex says.

"Do any of you plan on doing homework at some point this weekend?" Theresa asks.

"I already did mine." Justin smirks at Alex.

She rolls her eyes back. "Harper and I will do ours after the movie." Jerry raises a brow at her. "Before the movie," she amends.

Jerry shakes his head as he gets up and clears his dishes. "What about you, Max?"

"Honestly, I can't remember if I have homework."

"Aye mijo," Theresa mutters under her breath. "Go find out. You'll do it in the morning while your brother and sister work, then you'll take the afternoon shift with me."

Max groans but trudges upstairs to his room. Jerry and Theresa relax on the couch, flipping through a large book together. Eventually, Justin and Alex clear their own plates. Jerry and Theresa keep making odd cooing noises and laughing rather enthusiastically. Alex leans over the back of the couch.

"What are you guys looking at?"

"I found one of our photo albums when I was cleaning the basement. We have the cutest kids ever." Theresa points to a picture of Max as a baby, his face smothered in his first birthday cake remnants. Justin and Alex, both toddlers, can barely be seen in the background shoving cake into each other's faces. There's cake absolutely everywhere.

"We did good, momma," Jerry says proudly, rubbing Theresa's leg.

"Gross, no one needs to hear that." Alex shoves away from the couch.

"Or think about it," Justin says with an exaggerated shudder that makes Alex grin at him.

"You'll think differently when you have kids of your own one day." Theresa sets the album aside.

"Definitely. It's too much fun torturing your kids with unwanted stories," Jerry says with entirely too much glee.

"Embarrassing them in public too. That's the best." They're still laughing about their horrible parenting ideas together as they make their way upstairs.

"Man, I hope we're nothing like them when we get older." Alex lazily rolls over the back of the couch to land on the cushions.

"We're going to end up just like them. It's the curse of family."

"I will fight that curse until I'm old and grey." Alex pulls the photo album into her lap. Justin joins her on the couch, picking up her legs so he has room to sit. She puts her feet back on top of his thighs. Justin leans back into the corner so he's not tempted to touch her slim calves and ankles. Alex flips through the pages.

"Do you want kids?" Her question is unexpected. She won't look away from the album.

"Seriously?" Justin tilts his head back, staring at the ceiling. "I don't know. Maybe when I'm older I guess. But there's so much I want to do with engineering and magic before I even consider settling down to raise a family."

His heart thumps strangely at the thought of marrying someone who isn't Alex. Having children with someone who isn't Alex. The thought of Alex marrying someone who isn't him. Having children with some other man. Dean, even. It wasn't something he'd given much thought before now. It's not something he wants to think about much more if the ache in his chest doesn't recede.

"What about you?" he finds himself asking. He has to know.

Alex shrugs. "Maybe when I'm really old, like thirty or something. But I want to spend a lot of time working on my art. Get more experience. Travel maybe."

"That sounds nice." Really nice. A big part of him wouldn't mind traveling with her. He could build robots and teach magic from anywhere in the world. As long as he's close to Alex.

Her feet swivel against his legs. "Besides, I don't think I'd be a very good mom."

"Why not? The chance to inspire a young mind? Teach them all your evil ways?"

Alex laughs. "True. But then there's the raising them, taking care of them thing. And the whole pregnancy situation is just completely gross. I can't really imagine going through that."

"Maybe you'll change your mind once you meet the right person." It almost physically hurts him to say it, but he knows it's the expected response.

"Maybe." There is something about her tone, something soft that Justin doesn't know how to interpret.

So he says, "There's always adoption. Plenty of kids need a caring home. And you can say a lot of things about our family, but we do love each other."

Her answering smile is small but genuine. "I guess you're right."

"Of course I am. I'm the smart one."

Alex jabs her heel into his thigh, but Justin only laughs it off. She keeps flipping through the photo album. "Mom was right, we were pretty cute. But you were always a dork."

"Let me see."

She sits up, pulling her legs beneath her and snuggling into Justin's side so they can share the album. He tries to focus on the pictures instead of her warmth pressed against him. She's giggling at a picture of Justin at probably six or seven years old, dressed up like a very badly designed robot.

"It probably wasn't even Halloween."

"Yeah, well, I'm pretty sure you helped me make that costume by wrapping tin foil all over me."

Alex throws her head back and laughs, loud and bright. "That's right. Mom was angry we used, like, three boxes of foil. But she took pictures anyway."

"Yeah, and you used the last box to wrap Max up for the hell of it."

Alex wipes at a tear from laughing too hard. "Those were some good times. Before the horrors of school started."

"Uh huh, maybe for you." Justin turns the page, freezing when his eyes fall on a series of pictures where Justin and Alex are practically drowning in their parents' clothes, pretending to get married. The next picture has a tiny Max bearing a lollipop ring. The third picture has Alex and Justin innocently kissing each other. Justin swallows, trying to blink away the stinging in his eyes. He can't help but think maybe this is proof that he's always been messed up this way.

"I can't believe you talked me into doing that," Alex says.

"Excuse me?" Justin nearly chokes on his surprise. "I remember that day, and you begged me to marry you."

"I did not!"

"Oh, yes, you absolutely did. You wouldn't take no for an answer. You wore Mom's green skirt because you were in your Little Mermaid phase. You said I had to be Prince Eric because I looked like him."

Alex shoves Justin. "No way, that didn't happen. You're making that up."

"I wish I could purge your Eric crush from my memory the way you clearly have." Justin laughs. "Ask Mom and Dad, they were there. You said if you were going to marry anyone, it was going to be me."

"Oh my god, shut up! I can't believe I was ever such a dork that I would want to marry you!" Alex swings a pillow at him, whacking him straight in the face.

Justin feels the smile tugging at his lips at he reaches for the pillow at his side. "You know I'm a catch. You would be so lucky."

He smacks her upside the head with the pillow, messing up her hair. She squeals, trying to get away, sending the photo album falling to the floor. Justin grabs her by the waist before she can escape, tossing her back onto the couch. Alex presses her knees against his chest to keep him away while they bat at each other with pillows. He manages to wrestle her pillow away, then she unfairly goes for his sides, tickling him. He abandons the pillows to retaliate the tickling, the two of them howling with laughter.

Alex unexpectedly lowers her knees, dropping Justin on top of her. His forehead smacks against the couch arm on his way down, and he nearly swears before burying his face between Alex's neck and shoulder. Her laughing dies down, shaking Justin. He's still breathing hard when he feels her hand at the nape of his neck, fingers curling in his hair.

"Sorry, sorry," she says, breathless.

"I'm okay." He gets a hand under himself to push off her body, all soft curves flush against his hard edges. But as he moves, she moves toward him, and his lips drag over her smooth cheek to rest barely off center of her mouth. It takes more than a breath for Justin to unfreeze, for his brain to work again. Alex shifts beneath him, soft full lips whispering against his, and like a spark, Justin scrambles off her, away from her looking utterly and beautifully disheveled by him.

"Sorry," he blurts out. "I didn't mean to—"

"It's fine."

"No, it's not."

"It was an accident, Justin. It's fine."

He's reached the stairs, and he can't look back at her. He hesitates, but he can't find any words to fix this, so instead he stumbles up the stairs. Once he's behind his closed bedroom door, he gasps into his shaking hand. Then he reaches for his cell phone, dialing Mona's number. He doesn't know whether or not to be grateful it goes to her voicemail. He chokes out a basically incoherent message.

"Mona, oh god, I did something stupid. So stupid. I kissed her – nearly kissed her, I don't know. It was an accident, I didn't meant to – but what am I supposed to do now? I can't do this anymore. I need help. This wasn't supposed to happen. How could I let this happen?"

He cuts off the message when he sees his ashen face in the mirror. His forehead is red with the smallest of lumps. He presses his fingers there, relishing the dull pain.

"It wasn't supposed to be like this," he says to his reflection. He doesn't even know what he means anymore. His recovery from his problem. The kiss. Nothing makes sense, and he can't think straight. Justin throws his phone at his desk, letting it clatter to the floor. He tears at his hair. How can he possibly apologize for this? How can he possibly make up for this?

"Fine? It's not fine. Nothing is fine anymore." Hearing the words out loud is like someone punching him in the stomach, it hurts, but it's the only feeling he'll allow himself. He doesn't deserve anything else. "Nothing will ever be fine again."

No more lying to himself.