xv.

Alex gets off easy, all things considered, with only a scraped elbow and a small goose egg on the back of her head where it bounces off the side of the dumpster as she slams into it, hard. She coughs twice, choking on the stench of ozone. Smoke rises from the scorch mark in the middle of the black magic-proof vest she wears, where it's absorbed the brunt of the blast. And suddenly, she's not quite so annoyed that Justin makes her put the damn thing on every night they go out like this. Capitol fashion crime though the official Monster Hunter's uniform might be, she can't deny the utility of it. Justin's going to be insufferably smug about it for weeks when he finds out, though. Ugh.

Fuck her life. Why didn't she just choose Magical Basket Weaving for her independent study when she had the chance?

Shaking her head to clear the cobwebs, she looks up suddenly as the will-o'-wisp swoops down towards her from the mouth of the alley. It buzzes like a horde of angry wasps as it pulses blue-white, charging itself for another blast. Gripping her wand tightly, she scrambles to get her feet under her then tucks herself into a clumsy shoulder-roll, ducking just beneath the jagged bolt of energy that the wisp hurls her way. The hairs on the back of her neck stand up as it just misses her, and splashes against the side of the dumpster with a shower of sparks.

Grimacing, Alex brings her wand up, blindly fires a curse off over her shoulder at the furious buzzing behind her, and sprints like mad for the end of the alley. Just a year ago, when she was still faking cramps to get out of gym on a regular basis, she would have been wheezing after just a few dozen steps. The strict exercise and nutrition regime that Justin had put her on as her independent study advisor had quickly made up for the lack, though. And as much as she still misses chili cheeseburgers with curly fries in the bun, and chocolate shakes with whipped cream in the bottom—oh so very, very much—this whole staying-one-step-ahead-of-certain-doom thing makes up for it. Well, almost.

Goddamned if he isn't going to be insufferably smug about that, too, though. Gah. Clearly, she's going to have to avoid him for a day or two, once all this is over. Right after the victory sex, of course, because the only thing hotter than make-up sex is victory sex. Although...ooo, hold the phone...maybe if she picks a fight with him about him being insufferably smug during the afterglow, then she might actually be able engineer both in the same night!

She yelps in surprise as another bolt sizzles past, so close that a static tingle crawls across her cheek. OK, clearly she needs to focus, here.

Her lungs burning, Alex vaults over the snoring wino slumped against the wall at the mouth of the alley—conveniently, the only other living soul out and about at three-thirty in the morning—and out onto the street. She skids to a halt on the heels of her Converse high-tops, then jumps backwards, pressing her shoulder blades against the front of the brownstone building. Covering her mouth and nose with her free hand to muffle her heavy breathing, she holds her wand at the ready with the other, and waits. The wisp was right behind her. Any second now...

As if on cue, the willow wisp comes shooting out of the alley at top speed, overshooting her by several yards, then pauses in midair and bobs uncertainly as it tries to get its bearings.

"Game over, Lite Brite," Alex grins, then levels her wand at it. "Before this douche can fire its beam, wrap it in a containment stream!"

And then she flinches away from her wand, squinting against the sudden brightness as a brilliant red and blue ribbon of energy explodes from the tip, arcing through the air to twine itself around the hovering wisp. It shrieks in anger in surprise, and begins to shake violently back and forth, fighting to batter itself loose. Alex gasps as her wand suddenly jerks to the right, nearly slipping right out of her grasp. Grabbing it with both hands, so tightly that her hands go white at the knuckles, she grits her teeth and struggles to control the stream with all her might.

Then, just as she fears that she's about to lose it, a second confinement stream crashes through the air from the other side of the alley, and loops itself around the wisp in concert with her own, helping to keep it steady. Feeling the tug on her own stream lessening a little, she risks a glance to her left to see Justin glaring at her in exasperation as he grips his own wand in both hands.

"Why in the hell would you chase it into its nest yourself, like that?" he growls over the roar of their twin proton streams. "Especially after I specifically told you not to?"

"Duh! Have we met?" Alex yells, with a roll of her eyes. "When are you gonna learn that the quickest way to get me to do something is to tell me not to? Besides, you're the one who said we needed to draw it out into the open!"

Justin opens his mouth to retort, but anything he says is drowned out by the high-pitched, keening wail that the wisp gives off in its desperation to escape, making them both wince as it threatens to shatter their eardrums.

"Yeah, well maybe now you'll never zap a chick with three thousand completed spells under her belt, you whiny little bitch!" Alex sneers at it. And yeah, so maybe it's been a couple months since that happened, and she's still dining on it. So what? She's allowed.

The wisp actually growls at her angrily, impotently throwing off sparks in response.

"Alex, shorten your stream!" Justin yells. "I don't want my face burned off!"

Whoops. Alex blinks, looks down at her wand and gives it a quarter-turn counter-clockwise, decreasing the arc of her stream. Then she casts a glance over her shoulder at the wino napping behind her at the mouth of the alley.

"Hey, you!" she shouts. "Hey c'mon, get up already!"

The wino doesn't move, continues snoring loudly. Alex's shoulders sag in disbelief before she kicks back to jab him in the ribs with the heel of her shoe.

"Goddammit Max, you were only supposed to pretend to be asleep! Would you wake the fuck up?"

With a grunt, Max's head comes up beneath his tattered, dirty baseball cap. He yawns, and raises one arm to shield his eyes from the brilliant flare cast off by the twin proton beams and the angry wisp, before he blinks at them blearily and seems to come to his senses.

"Oh right, that's what we're doing now," he mutters, ignoring the angry glare Alex shoots him over her shoulder. Throwing aside the grimy newspapers he's covered himself in, he stands up off the black-and-yellow-striped iron chest that he's been sitting on. He pulls his wand out of his back pocket, raps the tip of it against the top of the chest, then flicks it towards the rain-slicked street just beyond the alley. Immediately, the chest goes skidding across the wet pavement of its own volition, until it comes to a halt directly beneath the wisp.

"Alright, I'm opening the trap now!" Max yells, aiming his wand at the chest. "Remember, don't look directly into the trap! Bring your streams off as soon as I close it! Ready? OK, on the count of ten: one, two—"

"JUST OPEN THE DAMN TRAP, ALREADY!" Alex and Justin howl at him in the same breath.

"TEN!" Max shouts, flicking his wand backwards as though throwing a switch. The lid of the chest swivels open, and a bright shaft of impossibly bright light erupts upwards from it, enveloping the wisp, drawing it inexorably downwards. The creature wails and screeches as it struggles against the trap's pull, stretched impossibly lengthwise, as though it's being sucked into a black hole. And then, as Max flicks his wand forward again, and his siblings yank their containment streams away, the wisp gives a final anguished howl of frustration as it collapses back to its original size and disappears into the shimmering white void of the trap, right before the lid slams closed, echoing into the night.

In the silence that follows, Alex and her brothers stare wordlessly at the chest, then exchange glances and approach it cautiously, wands held at the ready until they're surrounding it on three sides. Max raises his foot and pokes it with the toe of his shoe. And though the chest sparks a little in response, otherwise, the trap appears to hold.

"It's in there," Justin says, staring at it, almost in disbelief. Then, grinning up at Alex proudly: "We did it! We finally caught it!"

And before she can react, Justin rushes forward, grabs her by the waist and lifts her into the air, twirling her around in a circle as she squeals in surprise and delight. She wraps her legs around his midsection and braces her forearms on his shoulders, bringing one hand to the back of his neck to draw him into a deep kiss. His tongue wrestles eagerly with hers as he slides his hands from her waist down to her ass, squeezing it gently.

Oh yeah, victory sex is so definitely on the menu for tonight.

"Aw geeeeeeez, you guys!" Max groans, covering his eyes with one hand. "Look, not that I mind, but you're making it awfully hard for me to completely misread the situation, here."

Alex and Justin break their kiss with a moist smack, then sheepishly disentangle themselves from one another, blushing furiously.

"Sorry, Max," they both mutter. Sometimes they forget that he's not officially supposed to know about them, even though he's technically known since before either of them were willing to admit it to each other. Or even to themselves, really. Well, at least part of him has, anyway. Whatever, it's complicated.

"Uh huh," Max says, rolling his eyes at them as he bends over to pick up the trap. He stumbles backwards a little as he heaves it up to his chest. "Crap, this thing is even heavier now with the wisp in it. Why am I always the one who has to look after the trap? Why can't I be on confinement duty?"

"Finish your wizard lessons and graduate to independent study, already, and you can be," Justin says evenly, although judging by the look on his face, he hopes that day never comes. Because the idea of Max wielding a proton stream? Yikes.

"Exactly," Alex nods, agreeing with him for once. "Until then? You're trap boy."

"Ugh, fine," Max grunts. "I'll bring this back to the lair. You two go get a room, or whatever. You want me to whip up a couple duplicates for you, just in case?"

Alex exchanges a furtive glance with Justin. He clears his throat awkwardly. "You, uh, sure you don't mind, buddy?"

"Yeah, sure," Max shrugs. "Just make sure you're back before Mom tries to get either of your doubles up for breakfast. Mine still bark. And remember, we have a deal!"

Alex frowns at this in confusion, but Justin simply nods in resignation. "I know. I haven't forgotten."

Max grins as he tucks the trap under one arm, and raises his wand with the other. "Have fun, you two. I'd say 'don't do anything I wouldn't do', but I think we all know the chances of that happening are slim to none."

And then he winks, waves his wand in a circle, and disappears into thin air as he flashes himself back home.

"Deal?" Alex asks, as she stares at the empty spot where he was, then cocks an eyebrow up at Justin. "What deal? I didn't agree to anything."

Justin sighs as he takes her hand in his, and they begin to head down the street towards Washington Square Park. "The next time we all do this, Max wants us to wear matching masks and capes to go along with our Monster Hunter uniforms. He figures since we're essentially fighting crime by night anyway, we might as well look the part. I told him that if he kept covering for us, we'd think about it."

"Wow," Alex blinks. "Not only are you advocating the irresponsible use of magic for your own ends, but now you're actually manipulating your little brother into doing the dirty work for you? Very devious, egghead. I'm impressed."

"Uh, newsflash: I've been covertly dating my sister for a little over a year, Alex. Things like this have kind of become second nature to me, by now," Justin says flatly.

"C'mon, you know you love it," Alex giggles, elbowing him gently in the side.

"Yeah well, you don't have to sound so insufferably smug about it," he gripes sourly.

Alex gives a start, then finds herself grinning proudly, as it gradually occurs to her that this whole 'rubbing off on one another' thing might be more of a two-way street than she realized. And maybe they'll both wind up better off for it in the long run, even if neither of them is exactly thrilled about the idea most of the time.

"I especially like how you told him you'd just think about it, without committing to actually doing it," Alex says, squeezing his hand. "Gives you just the right amount of wiggle room to say no without technically going back on your word."

"Mmm," Justin says noncommittally, suddenly seeming to find the toes of his boots extremely interesting.

Alex narrows her eyes at him. "Dude, you are planning to say no. Because you realize how ridiculous we're going to look Monster Hunting in cosplay outfits, yeah?"

Justin shrugs his shoulders slightly, without looking up. "There are any number of benefits to be derived from the use of enchanted cloaks and helms: increased strength, stamina, charisma, hit poi—um, I mean, vitality. And let's be completely honest, here: would we really look any more ridiculous than we already do?"

"That depends," Alex scoffs. "Are we getting Harper to—oh please God, no. Tell me you're not getting Harper to make them."

"She...may have overheard the conversation and volunteered?" Justin says, wincing at her slightly.

"Ugh," Alex groans, hanging her head. "Dude, no. Absolutely not. If you and Max want to run around the city like assholes in your Finkle Original tights and booties, knock yourselves out. But there's no way in hell—"

"Alex, Max is closing in on his three-thousandth spell," Justin cuts her off, his voice quiet but strangely urgent. "Yeah, you pulled ahead of him at the end, there, but just barely. The competition is coming up sooner than you might think. We really don't have a whole lot of time left to live out our dreams together like this, before two of us are forced to become mortals."

Alex glances up at him in surprise. By mutual, unspoken agreement, they haven't really talked about the Wizard Competition at all in the year they've been together—their fiercely competitive streak having been channeled into, um, other pursuits—but it's been the elephant in the room ever since she graduated from regular Wizard Lessons. Which she never would have done if he hadn't helped her every step of the way. And where before she would have automatically assumed that by 'two of us forced to become mortals', he really meant her and Max, now she isn't so sure anymore. The way he's pushed her over the past twelve months, forced her to buckle down and finally realize this 'untapped potential' crap that everyone's been going on about for her entire life, makes her think that he's actually trying to give her a fighting chance to keep her powers. Or maybe even that he just straight up wants her to win.

So maybe when he's talking about not having much time to live out their dreams together...maybe he's actually talking about his own.

"Are you sure we're still talking about Max, there, Dork Knight?" she asks softly, with a knowing smirk. "Admit it, egghead: you really just want an excuse to play super hero, don't you?"

Justin doesn't reply, but raises his eyebrows at her imploringly, his blue-grey eyes going soft at the corners. And crap, even though she can recognize that her patented Alex Russo Puppy Dog Stare is being thrown right back at her, she still feels her resolve beginning to crumble. Dammit, why does he always have to be such a quick study?

"Oh, for the love of Christ...fine," she groans, against her better judgment. "One time. And I get to be Catwoman."

Justin breaks out into a wide smile as he pulls his hand out of hers and throws his arm around her, and Alex reluctantly allows herself to be drawn into a sideways hug. But then he blinks as something occurs to him. "Wait, but Alex...Catwoman doesn't wear a cape..."

Alex glares up at him, the fire in her eyes leaving no room for debate. He rears back and holds up his free hand, patting the air between them. "OK, OK! Catwoman it is!"

"Damn straight," she purrs as she leans into him and tucks one hand into his back pocket, enjoying way his ass flexes under her palm as they cross the street. "Hey, where the hell are you taking me, anyway?"

"NYU has some pretty awesome student gym facilities," Justin replies. "Way better than the good ol' home gym. I thought I'd give you a tour."

"What, right now? At this hour? They're still gonna be open?"

"Actually, no. They'll definitely be closed. Completely deserted." He wiggles his eyebrows at her meaningfully, in what he probably thinks is a suave and debonair fashion, and it's so faux-cool that it's adorable. "We'd have the whole place to ourselves."

"Ah ha," she says, a wicked grin slowly spreading across her face at how well he knows her. Because victory sex, with a side of her bizarre little workout kink? Um, yes please. "And, uh, we're supposed to get in how, exactly?"

Justin snorts and looks down at her like this should be the most obvious thing in the world. "Um, Alex? In case you missed the memo? We're wizards...for a little while longer, at least."

Alex's jaw drops in astonishment at what he's suggesting, and for a moment she's tempted to ask who is he is, and what he's done with her big brother. Maybe he does have a little bit of a Batman streak in him, after all.

"Oh wow," she gasps, feeling a thrill run through her at this hot little bad boy side she's cultivated in him without even realizing it. "I'm starting to think that maybe I've created a monster."

"Level ten, baby," he says, in that endearing trying-to-be-cool voice that's never quite worked for him. "What do you think, Apprentice Monster Hunter Russo? Do you have what it takes to bring me down?"

"Pfft. Oh, you know it, dude," Alex scoffs, squeezing his ass in her palm. "As many times as I need to, for you to stay down."

"Heh. You sure, there, honey?" Justin chuckles, with the glint of a challenge in his eye. "Because, y'know, that could take awhile. I'd understand if you're too tired..."

Alex smirks as this prompts a snippet of a song lyric to pop into her head, and flips her hair confidently over her shoulder. "More than ever hour after," she quotes, "our work is never over."

Justin actually stops in his tracks at the base of the Washington Square Arch, and stares at her in shock, eyebrows raised, then turns and gathers her into his arms.

"I need you, right now," he quotes back.

Grinning widely, Alex grabs the sides of his vest, lifts herself up on tiptoe and tilts her chin up towards him, as Justin dips his forehead down towards hers. As they kiss, he draws his wand out from his back pocket, twirls it around his finger, then waves it in the air with a flourish. And the laws of physics and probability look the other way for a moment as they disappear from the street in a flash, holding tightly on to one another. Together, now and always, and each of them forever a finer person for it: harder, better, faster, stronger.

—30—