"Second place? That means I'm the first loser!" -Max Russo
The maze is long, and complicated, and he can't remember any magic that will help him with it. So Max runs, trying to remember which way he turns so when he reaches a dead end he can start again. He turns a corner then another… and finds another dead end. Crap.
Max lets out a groan. Think, he orders himself. He needs to think of a spell to get him out of here. Cambia… no, not that one. Gothru… That's it. Gothru what? Gothru… Gothru…
"Hey, Justin?" His train of thought is interrupted by Alex yelling from somewhere else in the maze. "Did you find the exit?"
"I'm not telling you!" Justin's voice retorts.
"I know, but it was worth a try."
Like that, Max's concentration is broken. Crap! "Will you guys be quiet! I'm in a maze!" he yells towards them in frustration. He turns another corner but finds nothing.
Focus, Max! Mentally he reprimands himself. Do you want to be the family wizard or not? He runs and suddenly finds himself surrounded by mist. The further he walks the thicker it gets, until he can't see what's in front of him.
Wait! Pulling his wand from his back pocket, Max mutters, "Zippozap, Zippozee, Zippozarum". The end of his wand flashes before becoming bright and steady. Perfect. Max holds it out like a flashlight, yet finds another dead end. He's getting really tired of these things.
Mothru. That's it! Stopping the light spell, Max turns the wand so it faces him. "Gothru Mothru!"
A wave of magic sweeps over him. Max takes in a deep breath and takes a step forward, successfully stepping through the wall. Perfect. Up ahead he can hear voices, which makes his gut drop. Voices – they both made it here before him. Still, Max runs. Maybe… just maybe…
A wall of what look to be lasers block his view; he uses a simple spell to get past them. Only then does he see his siblings just ahead, both standing still.
"What's going on?" he asks.
Alex points towards a doorway ahead of them. "The exit's right there."
No words. He feels Justin pushing him aside as all three begin in a sprint towards the door. Max runs harder than he ever has, but it's not enough. Alex and Justin both easily make it through the doorway before him.
Third place. Last. Like always.
It goes so fast. At once their parents and everyone else is running to meet Justin as the announcer calls that the eldest Russo will now be the family wizard. Max steps back, away from the celebration. He can't help it.
For a moment it looks as if Alex is going to join them, but instead she backs away, too. She grabs Max and pulls him into a hug. It takes all of his strength not to recoil, because really, he doesn't want to be there anymore.
"You guys okay?" Justin asks them moments later.
Max gives him the best smile he can. "Good job, man."
"I'm really happy for you." Alex adds, her voice cracking as she does. "No one deserves it more than you. You're gonna make a great wizard."
Max can only nod, hoping Justin believes him. Deep down though, he's not sure he means it.
But that isn't the end of it.
Justin speaks up, just as Professor Crumbs is about to declare him the official winner. Apparently it had been Alex to reach the doorway first. She'd stopped to help Justin; that was the reason for the dead sprint at the end. So even though she had technically come in second, Alex is now the family wizard.
Then Crumbs announces his retirement, and how Justin will be the one taking his place. Fair enough; Justin has always been so smart. But he can't be headmaster without being a full wizard, which Crumbs remedies quickly with a wave of his wand.
So now Alex is a full wizard, as is Justin. Hope suddenly floats into Max's previously-gutted stomach. Maybe… if Justin and Alex get to be wizards at the same time, then maybe he…
He waits, and yet Crumbs leaves. The other full wizards, minus Alex and Justin, follow suit, each giving Max a look as they do. He doesn't like those looks, so full of sympathy and pity. Still he waits, even as the room is left with just his family and their friends. Only then does hope give way to realization. It isn't going to happen. He's no longer a wizard.
They're all celebrating; his siblings and their friends. Things are as they should be. He knows that. Max has always been average. Not brilliant like Justin, who knows a million things about everything. Max is also not a mastermind like Alex, whose magic has always came so naturally.
As much has he's always loathed being compared to them, Max also knows how incredible his siblings are. How they have both always been meant to do great things with their lives. It's always been Justin-and-Alex, then Max. So why should this time be any different?
"Son?" It's his dad speaking. Max swallows before he looks towards his parents. "Since Alex and Justin are keeping their family powers, I'm passing on to you the family business. The sub shop is gonna be yours someday."
He looks at his mom first, then to his dad. They look back at him expectantly. He should say something.
"So they get to be full-fledged wizards, and I get the sub station?" he begins slowly. They can't be serious. He looks at them in turn again. Now they're worried. They're waiting, hoping for something more. Something… happy. Joyful. "That's awesome!"
So fake. Can they tell? Nope. They're smiling back at him, their relief evident. After all, it's a typical Max-type answer.
He turns in his wand before Alex flashes everyone back home, making it official. No more magic.
The first thing Max does is head downstairs to the sub station. He shudders slightly recalling the last time he was in here. Him and Justin being so mean to Alex, angry about her causing them to all lose their powers. Looking at it now, it suddenly doesn't seem like such a bad thing. Why had he been so mean, anyway?
Max walks to the counter and sighs. He knows why; because deep down he'd actually wanted it. He'd wanted to be the family wizard, no matter how much he knew he didn't really deserve it. For once, he had wanted to succeed at something like Alex and Justin did. For once he had wanted to be the winner, not just the "and Max" at the end of their "Justin-and-Alex". He wanted to see a look of pride in his mom and dad's eyes, and know once – just once – he wasn't a failure at something.
Maybe it was just too much to ask.
He looks around the giant room, eyes glancing at everything. He then makes his way to the back and opens the freezer door. Nothing. The lair is gone. Not like Max needs it anymore.
"Max?" He turns to find his mom coming down the stairs. "Honey?"
"Yeah?" he heads back into the dining room.
For a moment neither of them speak. Teresa looks around the darkened room, then back to Max. She takes his hand and gives it a tight squeeze. "Mijo, you okay?"
"Fine." He nods and smiles. "Hey, what's for dinner?"
"I, uh-" she blinks in surprise. "I don't know."
Max shrugs before heading towards the stairs. "Okay. Just wondering."
"Max." She grabs his arm again, turning him to face her. "Maxie… mijo," she repeats, letting out a sigh. Struggling with what to say. It's not like there's a chapter on what to do when your kid loses the family wizard competition in the parenting books.
He wants to tell her it's okay. He understands. That he's okay with it being this way. That he likes the idea of owning the sub station, and will do a good job with it. That everything is fine.
"Mijo," she whispers, stroking his hair. And that's when he loses it; every word he wanted to say, should say, disappears. Because, he realizes as her arms pull him into a hug, there are no words.
So Max collapses, burying his face into his mom's shirt. He feels her arms squeezing him tighter, her whispering to him. She's singing, he realizes. It's the song from a book she used to read to him when he was a kid. The one about the boy who no matter how much he grows, how raucous he becomes, how frustrated she is over him, or how unable she is to understand him, his mother loves.
And suddenly, he gets it.
So he sits there, his mother holding him like when was little, as he sobs.
Author's Note: For anyone curious, the book referred to is Love You Forever by Robert Munsch and Sheila McGraw.