HEY GUYS! So I'm really sorry this took over a month to post. And I'm going to apologize in advance for the quality of this chapter. I promised I was going to update today and I know this has a lot of room for improvement in the description department (as well as some others), but a promise is a promise! And some pretty important issues had to be covered, which was basically the point of this chapter. So, here it is.
And I also want to thank you guys for all of your reviews and the crazy amount of favourites and alerts this story has received!
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Alex has never thought that getting out of class would be so damaging to her health. Her boot clad foot taps incessantly on the thinly carpeted floor where she's seated at a single desk that was taken out of the Algebra room specifically for her. All over the wall ridiculous paintings of cowboys tip their hats to her and the spotted cowhide on the brown leather couch near the window is practically begging her to burn it. Her pencils have suffered the wrath of the pencil sharpener again and again as she doodles on the loose leaf paper until the lead is worn down and she has to shred them even more. As hard as it was to drop the habit, she's begun chewing at her nails again.
The dull clock to her right feels like it's measuring days, weeks and months rather than seconds, minutes and hours.
"C'mon, c'mon, c'mon," she hisses impatiently, words muffled by the fingertips in her mouth as she wears at her nails with her teeth.
She thinks this punishment is beyond unreasonable. Being locked up in Mr. Laritate's office for In School Suspension and not being able to steal a single glance out into the hallway between classes to just see her. Make sure something hasn't swept her away. It's a torture that makes her so anxious her fidgeting has practically become an involuntary action no less important than breathing. A stubby pencil gives way under the pressure of her hand and splinters against the desk, now a shipwreck of snapped wood that Alex doesn't bother to acknowledge with more than a groan at the slowly ticking seconds.
She doesn't know why they didn't just suspend her. At least that way Mitchie wouldn't be so painfully close. She hasn't solved a single equation on her math homework, hasn't begun her English essay, nor has she spared a thought for Physics. In School Suspension is the stupidest thing she's ever heard of and Gigi is extremely lucky that all she walked away with was a busted nose.
Alex's threat had been empty at first, just telling Gigi to shut up like she always did. The evolution of words into actions had been unexpected, but embraced as she had reeled her angled arm back for another punch. She wasn't at all bothered by her 'choice,' as Laritate had put it.
After waving Mitchie off, Alex's eyes had made the transition from inviting almond to a muddy landslide that she used to glare the life out of Mr. Laritate with the moment he stepped foot into his office. He noticed, momentarily glared back -- intentionally or not, Alex couldn't tell -- and promptly seated himself at his desk. Hands clasped and glasses positioned too far down the bridge of his nose, he tilted his head to see over the frame of them and Alex ceremoniously folded her arms over her chest.
"Miss Russo, acts of violence in this school are handled quite differently from your usual vandalisms and failure to attend your classes," he began and Alex gaped. She couldn't really believe he was handling this so critically, he always let her off the hook somewhat. They had a sort of twisted camaraderie that she figured would come in handy during situations like this.
"Are you seriously telling me right now that I'm the only one in trouble here?"
"You initiated it," he said, like that answered her question. Like it was a fact.
"Uh, ha, um. No. You are mistaken, my dear friend. See, Gigi started it and I had the courtesy to end it. I wouldn't hit her for no reason."
"I'm aware she may have said some things to upset you, Alex, but verbal assault is not as severe as physical--"
The backs of Alex's knees forced her chair back as she stood up, palms slamming down onto the desk in front of her.
"Well it should be!"
Mr. Laritate calmly slid his glasses up the slope of his nose and Alex's fingers throbbed at his obvious display of ignoring her outburst.
"Bloodshed is a bit different than a few words."
Alex's fingers curled against the wood of his desk, eyes narrowing. As far as she was concerned, Mitchie didn't need to shed any more blood. And really, Gigi's nose job was a little crooked, anyway.
"What is wrong with you!? No, it isn't! For God's sake, do you not see that Mitchie's got enough bruises? Did you look at her face? And those are just the ones you can see, she doesn't need Gigi making her life a worse hell than it already is!"
"I understand that--"
Alex could feel her face heat up, could almost feel the smoke rising from her skin.
"No," she shook her head. "You don't understand. Don't ever say that you do, because I've held that girl and watched her cry herself to sleep. I've seen every bruise on her body and I've seen how scared she is. I've seen so many scars, Mr. Laritate, so do not tell me that you fucking understand," she punctuated firmly, though her ribcage felt ransacked because she was exposing her own vulnerability.
For a moment, Alex actually had a little faith in him as he appeared to ponder what she'd said.
"I'm going to have to ask you to refrain from raising your voice and using profanity, Miss Russo."
She'd never been more disgusted.
"-And violence on top of more violence is most certainly not the answer. If you're that concerned about the well-being of Mitchie Torres, adding more punches to the situation doesn't really make sense, now, does it?
It makes plenty of sense to Alex. As long as she hits the hardest, what's there to worry about?
The chime of the school bell gives her no direction, even though she's been thinking about her freedom all day. She feels rooted to the ground.
And the weight of her backpack on her left shoulder is acting as a setback as she kicks Mr. Laritate's office door shut in a way that isn't any different than if she'd spat on it. She scans the stampede of students, one face on her mind.
Then, almost like they're asking for it, someone's hand catches the fabric of her t-shirt on her shoulder and hauls her backwards. She whirls around, ripping herself out of their grasp and her menacing glare focuses enough for her to comprehend that Justin is standing in front of her. He doesn't look surprised or upset, just indifferent. The corners of his mouth are down turned the slightest bit and she's curious, maybe concerned even, but she'll worry about him later because she's too oversensitive to handle other people's emotions until she finds Mitchie.
"Alex, it's okay, I've got her," she watches his mouth move, then trails her gaze to the length of his arm down to his hand which has Mitchie's fingers between the empty spaces of his.
It's one of those only times she feels as though she doesn't tell Justin that she loves him often enough. One of those rare moments caused by a momentary lapse in judgment and wrongly placed affection.
"Mitchie," she smiles and the stress melts from her shoulders when Mitchie smiles back, top row of teeth sunken into her bottom lip in a way that Alex knows Mitchie is relieved too. "What's going on, is everything okay?"
Now Justin is looking pissed and Alex quirks an eyebrow, blood already beginning to rush faster through her veins.
"Yeah, everything's fine. Some stupid guys in my grade were giving her a hard time in the halls."
At this, Mitchie's eyebrows draw together in question and her brown eyes fill with confusion.
"Who?" Alex blurts.
"It's nothing, Justin walked me from my locker, I'm okay," Mitchie interjects as Justin releases her hand. He stiffly coils his fingers into a fist and his eyes snag Alex's; she thinks he's trying to tell her something that he can't say aloud just yet, but she's struggling to understand.
"I don't like those words being thrown around about a girl," Justin jams a hand into his jeans pocket to occupy it. "I don't like it."
Alex hasn't ever really seen Justin get mad. He's yelled at her a few times, but she's never seen him like this. His eyes are far away and unfocused. Mitchie looks bewildered and it only leaves Alex more confused.
She has the common sense to avoid asking what they said because if Justin is reacting this hotly, she'll probably land herself in detention or suspension. Her mind is the enemy again as she begins to imagine, but she shuns it away as she realizes how useless it is to think about it. She readjusts her backpack on her shoulder and casts Justin a knowing look that he understands as he backs away.
"I'll see you guys at home," neither girl gets a chance to reply before he's faded into the sea of teenagers and become a part of the flow down the school hallways.
Alex watches him go, a crinkle between her eyes. She almost reaches for him before thinking better of it and directing her attention back to the girl she'd been worried sick over for the better portion of the day.
Mitchie doesn't seem too affected as she leans forward, one hand clutching her backpack strap, "How was prison?"
"More like solitary confinement," Alex scoffs. "It was fantastic. I filled every page of homework I had with my own visual distractions. There's so many doodles I don't think I can look at a pencil for a week."
"They don't appreciate your artistic and creative ability. If they did, they'd know you were so unique you didn't even need to complete your assignments with words," Mitchie adds comically, but with a lacking confidence.
Alex laughs, "You are so perfect."
"This one," Alex drags the tip of her index finger along the small expanse of pale, raised and bumpy skin that's scarred onto Mitchie's inner forearm. "Looks like a banana," the whisper touches Mitchie's ear and she smiles, inspecting the fruit shaped blemish because she'd always thought it looked like something else. She thinks it must take an artist's eye to see scars as anything but ugly.
"It kinda does," Mitchie twists her arm to see the scar from a different angle.
"Ooooh, when you turn it like that, it looks like a smiley face," Alex says, genuinely intrigued which sparks a laugh from Mitchie.
"What's a smiley face with no eyes?"
Mitchie turns her head to loll her tongue out at Alex and she feels the arm draped over her shoulders pull her a little closer as Alex mimics the gesture. The television adds white noise to the atmosphere and she can hear Jerry talking to Justin in the kitchen as Theresa bustles between countertops and cabinets while she prepares dinner for the family and their extra member. Sitting on the far right end of the couch, she can feel the other girl strain next to her as Alex reaches for the small table beside them.
"Just making myself right," Alex mumbles, a marker cap clamped between her lips. A moment later Mitchie glances down at her arm as Alex caps the marker and she finds two blue eyes drawn above the crescent scar. "There, now it's a smiley face."
Mitchie runs her thumb over the quickly drying ink as it's absorbed into the tiny cracks of her skin. This is the first time any of her scars have smiled back at her. She doesn't think Alex did it for the purpose it's actually served to Mitchie, but it's a memory, one she can associate with her imperfections and not have to hate it.
"Mitchie, can I… ask you something?" her mouth is still close to Mitchie's ear and the husky quality of her voice has this never failing ability to postpone her thoughts and thicken the air.
Mitchie shrugs and she's thankful that Alex can't see her face because she feels dazed.
"How'd you get this one?" Alex's fingertips ghost over the small scar, building some sort of connection with it through touch that constructs a shiver at the base of Mitchie's spine.
"Well, I… I said no. So he grabbed my arm and his thumb left that, and -"
Alex listens, tilting her head forward carefully to catch what Mitchie's saying. She can easily tell she's having a hard time getting the words out because they come out unevenly, some quick breaths taken between. But it's a breakthrough; Alex is slowly gathering shreds of information to ultimately figure out the bigger picture. She soothingly rubs a hand up and down Mitchie's bicep as she stutters.
"And?" she whispers, resting her chin gently on Mitchie's shoulder.
"Dinner girls!" Theresa chirps from the kitchen and Alex watches dumbly with a lump in her throat as Mitchie stands from the couch.
Friday is Alex's last day of In School Suspension and so Harper appropriately decides that it needs to be celebrated. Her suggestions are expectantly shot down (a jewelry-making party, a tea party, a dance party.) Alex has nothing against dance parties, but she's not into Folk or Opera and either is 100% of the normal teenage population, so she votes no. Plus, parties tend to expand and when it comes to Mitchie, Alex simply doesn't like sharing.
And then Mitchie opens her genius mouth and says "We could go roller-skating?"
Alex throws her arm around Mitchie's shoulders in a sideways hug that she takes as a sign of approval.
"This girl is Picasso."
Harper gives her a look.
"Don't you mean Einstein?"
"No, ew. Einstein made math and science. I hate math and science. Picasso is way better."
"Well, technically he didn't make anything, he discovered --"
"Ugh! Shhhh!" Alex grips the roots of her hair. "You're killing my brain with all of this technical mumbo-jumbo. It's Friday, there will be no talk of 'historical scientific discoveries.'"
"Sorry, Alex, I know how mentally fragile you are when it comes to learning," Harper offers the apology with sarcasm rather than sincerity.
"And I know how fragile a dress made of soup labels is. Gosh, it would just be awful if it started raining on our way to the roller rink…" Alex draws a teardrop down her own cheek with the tip of her pointer finger and pushes out her bottom lip.
Harper gasps and this is definitely one of those times she's wishing magic wasn't real and that maybe her best friend was a little less prone to pranking.
Alex simply shrugs, batting her eyelashes innocently with a smile and Harper corrects herself;
She eyes Alex suspiciously, glancing down to see that she is wearing sneakers. Her wand would never fit inside a tiny pair of sneakers. The chain of thoughts becomes a chain of questions that she'd been absently wondering for a few days now, and this is the perfect opportunity to ask.
"Hey, Alex, can I talk to you for a sec?"
"Well, yeah, but whaddya call what we've been doing the for past -- ow!" Harper offers Mitchie an apologetic smile and grabs Alex by the inside of her elbow, yanking her into the hallway. "Jeez, what?" Alex rubs the juncture between her forearm and bicep, stepping back irritably.
"You were at the old subway station on Tuesday after school."
"…Yeah? You know I go there all the time. And Mitchie likes it, she was helping me with some new ideas."
"Tuesdays are, ya know," Harper holds an imaginary object in her right hand, waving it around before pretending to bop Alex on the nose with the end of it.
"…Do you have new medication?"
"No! Tuesdays are when you have wizard studies!"
Alex's eyes widen and she claps a hand over Harper's mouth, gaze darting left and right.
"Are you crazy!?" she whispers and Harper frantically shakes her head at the obviously rhetorical question. "Keep your voice down!"
Harper pries Alex's hand off her mouth, "You've been skipping?" she scolds.
"No - well, yeah, but I have permission. Dad has my wand."
"…So wait a second, you haven't had your wand all week?"
"Not since last Saturday," she slowly turns around to make sure Mitchie isn't within hearing distance. "It's not like I could carry it around with me, Mitchie would want to know what it was. What am I supposed to do? 'Don't worry, I'll protect you, I'm a wizard.'"
Harper's face slowly transforms from astonished into a spreading smile. She sways with that goofy expression on her face for a moment.
Alex frowns, confused. "What?"
"You're a softy," she pokes Alex playfully between her collarbones.
"Wha - I am not."
Harper grins, eyes crinkling. "Yes, you are. Mitchie's making you mushy. You caa-aaare," she sings and Alex diverts her eyes, crossing her arms.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You really are growing up," Harper presses a dramatic palm to her chest, feigning a sniffle. "It seems like just yesterday you were throwing Justin's underwear out into the streets of New York."
"That was last week --"
Harper babbles on, ignoring her. "Time goes by so fast! I'm so proud of you, Alex. You do have feelings!" she pinches Alex's cheeks.
Alex tears Harper's hands from her face. "Oh, you're hilarious," her eyes narrow. "Look, I just can't afford to freak her out with this. If she doesn't trust me, she doesn't have anyone. Maybe I'll tell her someday but right now is just not an option. I already talked to Max and Justin to make sure they don't slip up in front of her, please tell me you'll do the same?"
Harper skims her thumb and pointer finger over her lips in a zipping motion.
"Secret's safe with me."
"You sure you're feeling up to this?" Alex asks, warily looking out at the rink dotted with people and technicolor lights. A giant disco ball spins overhead, reflecting colors and shapes all over the walls and floors. Music pumps from various speakers and Alex can feel the vibrations like they're shaking her skin free from her bones. She's surprised her voice doesn't waver.
"Yes, stop worrying," Mitchie touches a hand to Alex's arm and it's so domestic that she's barely able to pay any attention to the rest of what comes out of Mitchie's mouth. "I'm not going die or something. It's a roller rink," she says gently.
Alex lifts her eyes from Mitchie's hand to see her face, her black eye changing shades with each spin of the disco ball above them.
"I know, but a girl's got reasons to worry," she gives a pointed look to Mitchie's side, where her gash is beginning to accept healing. It's a weird transition, trying to act responsible. She feels like Justin and that thought is a little revolting.
"Let's just forget about that stuff tonight," Mitchie can see Harper maneuvering semi-gracefully through the ring of people on her roller-skates. "Okay?"
"Hey, you guys! Come on!" Harper swoops in past the guard railing of the rink, grabbing
Alex's hand with her right and Mitchie's hand with her left.
"Careful, Harp--" Alex begins, but Mitchie turns to her with pleading eyes that tell her she's fine. She smiles and lets it go, allowing Harper to pull the both of them into the mass of skating couples, people skating backwards and crisscrossing their legs like there's nothing to it.
Mitchie is a wonder on skates, Alex quickly notices. She's hesitant at first, but soon enough she's weaving her legs and skating lazy circles around Alex and Harper with a smile on her face that makes it easier for Alex to think there really isn't anything to worry about. Alex keeps a mellow pace, content with watching Mitchie because she just looks so free and so happy.
Her hair has this wave to it that frames her jaw line and Alex isn't sure if it's the charged atmosphere, but she wants to pull Mitchie in by the waist and kiss her. The urge is even stronger than it was when she had Mitchie pinned against the wall down at the subway last weekend and she's afraid that if she gets close enough, she'll act on her thoughts.
All of these voices surrounding her, all of these people she doesn't know. The possessive part of her wants them all to know that Mitchie is hers and she wants so badly to advertise it, but the fact is Mitchie's not hers.
Her train of thought is quickly derailed when Harper nudges Alex's shoulder, "Hey, isn't that Justin?"
Alex snaps her head in the direction Harper was gesturing toward and the lights spin because her eyes want to be elsewhere, but eventually they catch up to conclude that is indeed Justin leaning against one of the small tables near the concession stand area.
"What's he doing here?" she mumbles too lowly for Harper to hear. He didn't look like he had any intention to skate which she found odd. Upon following his gaze, she noticed he was watching Mitchie. "He's been acting so weird lately, why's he just staring at her like that?"
"Maybe he's playing the overprotective older brother?" Harper shrugs.
"Pffft, that's a good one. Whatever it is, it's creepy," her palms skim across the guard rail until she slows to a stop. "You stay with Mitchie, I'm gonna go talk to him."
Alex makes her way to Justin and he appears to stare right through her, not even acknowledging her presence until she waves a hand in front of his face.
"Hey, what's your deal?" she plops down into a seat at the table he's leaning on.
"Nothing, just hanging out," he doesn't look at her and she wants to make fun of him for using a phrase like 'just hanging out' because this is Justin.
"At the roller-rink. By yourself. Without skates?"
He sighs and finally turns to make eye contact with her and she hadn't really noticed how tired he's looked lately.
"I'm keeping an eye on you guys."
She can't help but poke fun at him anyways.
"Why? Are you going to scare away pedophiles with your manly algebraic equations? Math Club is not Fight Club, Justin."
"No," he doesn't defend himself, he sounds stoic. "Alex, I know Mitchie Torres. Pretty sure you do, too."
"Well, yeah, she's been staying with us for a week," Justin still isn't paying much attention to her, so she returns the favor and she sees Harper teaching Mitchie a ridiculous move that involves flailing limbs and Harper's tongue sticks out in concentration. Alex leans her cheek against her hand as Mitchie lifts her head and catches Alex in the act of staring. She sends Alex a small wave and a lip-bitten smile that absolutely kills her. Slightly delayed, she wiggles her fingers in return.
"That's not what I mean. Shane Grey is her step-brother."
Alex nearly face plants on the table as her cheek slides away from her hand.
"He was hanging around Waverly the other night. I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I think he's the one who did that to Mitchie. I saw him in the parking lot after school on Monday from the window in the science hall. He graduated last year and the only reason I can think of to explain him being there would be to look for Mitchie."
Gigi had dated Shane once and it had been a popular rumor that she had to get a nose job because of him. He wasn't really a big guy, but he was bigger than Mitchie and he'd have an easy time holding her down. Nothing like the monster Alex had been picturing, though he wasn't a ray of sunshine, either.
"That's why you brought Mitchie to me on Monday."
"Oh, God. So he's been watching us?" suddenly she feels violated and she wonders if this is what Mitchie feels like every day.
"I don't know, but I haven't seen him since last year and now all of a sudden he pops up. He's messed Mitchie up and if he'll do that to his own step-sister, he'll do it to my sister."
Alex stares for a moment and he turns to look at her, burdened in ways she's never seen.
"Justin, hey. I'm a big girl, I can take care of myself," she says softly.
"I know, I'm not trying to freak you out. But...Alex, you're my sister. If anything ever happened to you, I wouldn't be able to forgive myself - especially if I knew who he was. It's not that I think you can't handle it, but some guys just don't know when to stop."
She really should appreciate Justin more.
"I'll be fine, if anything just keep your eye on Mitchie. Shane doesn't have anything to do with me, she's the one you should be worried about."
A heavy silence falls over them and it's so powerful Alex hardly registers the music blaring from wall to wall.
"I'm sorry about last weekend, for barging into your room like that. I didn't mean to scare her," he palms the back of his neck, searching for the right words. "I just didn't know who she was and now that she's been staying with us, I feel like she's my little sister or something. She's just so… sweet, I don't get how she ended up all..."
"I don't get it, either," Alex murmurs quietly, watching Harper give Mitchie an overenthusiastic highfive. The two of them seem like polar opposites with how outrageous Harper is and how soft spoken and timid Mitchie is, but the friendship they seem to be building is endearing.
Justin clears his throat and hooks a thumb into the pocket of his jeans.
"Just watch out, okay? Mom and Dad don't know anything about this and I really don't like keeping secrets, but I don't know what else to do."
"Yeah, I will. Thanks, Justin."
He doesn't say goodbye as he pushes away from the table, but Alex wasn't expecting him to. She doesn't think he's going far, anyway.
She sighs, holding her head in her hands between her knees. All week she'd been driving herself mad trying to imagine what this guy looked like, if only to satisfy her imagination so she could at least crack him in the face in her thoughts. Picturing Shane's hands on Mitchie brings on a whole new surge of emotions that she doesn't know what to do with.
A hesitant hand on her back causes her to look up and Mitchie is hunched over beside her, looking worried.
"Are you okay?"
"Oh," Alex sits up. "Yeah, I'm fine. Where's Harper?"
"She went to get us some soda," Mitchie straightens and glides backwards until she's standing in front of Alex, one hand outstretched, palm upward and a small smile on her lips. "Come with me."
Alex slips her hand into Mitchie's, feels herself being pulled up and they clumsily bump chests before Mitchie steadies Alex with her other hand, holding both between their bodies. Their pools of brown meet.
Mitchie leads Alex around structure beams and discarded sneakers, abandoned tables decorated with empty cardboard containers. They're not headed in the direction of the arena, instead toward the dimly lit hallway where the bathrooms are located.
Suddenly, Mitchie applies the rubber brake on her skates and Alex continues moving forward, her body twisting to see why Mitchie had stopped. Her brake on her left leg snags the wheels of the skates on her right and the hand she still has linked with Mitchie's pulls the other girl down with her as she tumbles to the hardwood floor. The oxygen is forced from her chest when Mitchie lands directly on top of her, her hair lightly tickling Alex's neck and the orange glow of the hallway reflects softly off of their skin.
Mitchie simply stares as Alex opens her mouth then closes it, again and again. She sees a fear in Alex's eyes that she recognizes well.
"Oh, crap, I'm so sorry, are you okay, Mitch?" she babbles quickly, leaning the weight of her own body on one elbow that she tries to prop herself up with.
"I'm fine, I just, I need," Mitchie breathes, fingers tangling in Alex's hair behind her ear. "I need…" she whispers while Alex's heartbeat thunders beneath her and her eyes finally close as she presses her mouth to Alex's and her heavy breathing dies with the birth of the kiss.