"Have they told you yet?" Justin asks quietly.
It's his second night back from running WizTech, having finally come home for summer break, and he and Alex sit on the family couch in the Russo apartment, watching late-night television and infomercials. Alex studies her brother from her slouched position, curled in an old blanket; they haven't spoken for the last half hour, getting too tired for conversation, and she has no idea what he's referring to currently.
"Has who told me what, Justin? Y'know, I could be getting this wrong since I'm not the esteemed Headmaster of WizTech, but I think it's considered normal to explain what in the world you're talking about before expecting people to answer questions."
Justin completely ignores her for five, ten minutes, and normally she'd be irritated, but Alex is sleepy enough that she is practically nodding off before Justin finally responds.
"You're not actually my sister. That's the reason Crumbs let us both keep our powers."
She only hears one or two words because Justin is whispering, and she mumbles a bit grumpily, "Dude, speak up!"
"Alex, you're not my sister."
Justin knows that she's heard him when she sits completely upright and says, "What the heck are you talking about?!"
It takes Theresa and Jerry a long time to explain everything, and Alex barely has the patience for it. She runs upstairs, even though it's after 4 AM and her parents are asleep, demanding that they tell her why Justin's lost his mind and then screaming when they give each other what she recognizes as very guilty looks. It's 5:30, only an hour or two from sunrise, by the time that she is calm enough to listen to her parents or, as Alex begins to realize, not her parents.
"Mi hija, we took you in when you were too little to remember it, really, only two and a half years old. You just fit so quickly into the family that it was… easier to say you were ours. After all, we only moved into the apartment and opened the sub shop after we had you for a whole year. You didn't remember, and we just didn't want to make life unnecessarily difficult for you."
"What your mother is saying, Alex, is that you are our daughter. The fact that you aren't ours by blood doesn't change anything about that."
Alex can see the concern on her parents' faces, the honesty in their statements, but there is one thought that keeps returning to her mind.
"Why did Justin know, and why did he tell me now?" she asks, and both of her parents wince as if on cue.
"Justin, how do you know?" Jerry asks him, looking at his son who has sat so quietly throughout Alex's tirade.
"Dad, I was little when Alex came into the house, but I do remember. She- Alex, for the first few weeks after Mom and Dad brought you home, you cried every night and said you wanted to leave. You mumbled to yourself and would just have these awful fits, so I remember, yeah; I always have. In the old house, before we moved to New York, I would have to crawl in your crib and pat your head until you fell asleep. And, well, I just figured that Mom and Dad would have told you by now, after the oddity of both of us keeping our powers in the competition."
Alex watches Justin and the strained look on his face.
"Is that true?" she asks her parents, and Theresa shakes her head.
"You did cry a lot at first, sweetie; you were scared to be in a real home for the first time in your life."
Alex simply nods and says, "I think I'll go to bed now."
"Alex, just because they're not your birth family doesn't mean they're not your actual family."
"I know that, Harper," Alex says, digging the toes of one foot into her shag rug as they sit on her bed together, discussing the news Alex has just received. "It's just that I don't get why they wouldn't have told me before now."
"Maybe they were afraid you'd love them less or something. And maybe they were afraid that, having only partial custody or whatever you said happens with the foster care situation, you'd decide to leave."
Alex grasps at the thick carpet with her toes, whispering to her friend, "That'd be dumb."
"People do dumb things, Alex. You ought to know."
The next morning, Justin is the one to tell Max about what's going on, and Max hardly concentrates enough to give a reply.
"Okay, that makes sense," the youngest Russo says, "Now where is the ketchup for my omelet taco?"
"Aren't you even a little bit shocked?" Justin asks, watching his brother rove through the refrigerator and grunt in satisfaction when he locates the red tomato substance.
"Nah, man," he replies, "I mean, it's weird, but it's not like it really matters, right?"
"So you don't care that Alex is actually just our foster sister?"
Max hesitates at this, giving his brother a confused look. "Isn't she adopted? Those are two different things, right?"
"Her birth parents never completely gave up their custody," Justin says, "I remember Mom and Dad being pretty angry about it."
"So where are her parents, then?" Max asks, and Justin finds that he doesn't have an answer.
"What do you mean, you're taking leave from WizTech for a while? Don't you have to, you know, run the place?" Alex asks as Justin packs his bags in the middle of another late night, sitting in his cushioned desk chair and watching him try to fit a few dozen shirts into the tiny piece of luggage.
"I've got some things to do. School things," Justin says, and Alex knows he's lying because his voice goes up and he makes a pointed effort to avoid eye contact.
"Justin, seriously, can you just tell me what you're doing?" she hesitates for a moment, wondering if she wants to know the answer to her next question. "Do Mom and Dad know the real reason?"
Justin drops onto the bed and stares at her from across the room, the desk light making the lines on his face stand out as if he's aging before her eyes. "No, Alex, and nobody can know. Not right now."
He leaves without telling her where he's going, and Alex is so furious that she wants to rip down the walls of her bedroom and maybe his, too. To keep his destination secret, he catches a plane ride before anyone else is awake and only leaves a note.
I'll see you all again soon, I hope. You guys can always email me.
Alex finds it first, rummaging for coffee beans, and she crumples it up in her fist before smoothing it out carefully and, reading the email address on the back, heads to her room to find her laptop.
When you get home, I'm going to strangle you, okay? You better stay safe so that I can harm you later. -Alex
She sends the email without reading it over and spends the rest of the day checking her inbox obsessively.
Alex gets an email back that night.
Stay safe just for you to harm me later? Gee, thanks, Alex.
She smirks at the thought of Justin's face as he read her message, that indignant look he gets when he's being harassed. Noticing he's still online, she pulls up a chat window.
What can I say? I'm a sucker for resolving my problems through violence. I'm thinking about maybe using some magic to water board you, too; no biggie. So I assume your plane landed wherever the heck you are safely?
Yeah, I'm safely 'wherever the heck' I am. …How'd everybody else take it?
Alex pauses before writing her response.
Better than me. You've always said I'm the liar, but now you're the one with all the secrets.
Alex, I know you're mad, but can we please talk about something else? I can't tell you, and we both know talking about what you can't know just makes you antsy.
Fine… How's the weather, wherever the heck you are?
Alex spends the rest of the fall either messaging Justin or helping Max and her parents run the sub shop. She feels like the days drag on as Justin still refuses to tell her where he is or what he's doing, but it's nice to talk to him. None of his actual family, as Alex terms them in her head, is too concerned about him. Theresa and Jerry just remind her that he's an adult and, as Jerry says, "He's Justin; he'll be fine!"
She's not quite so sure, but the emails help to calm her down. She laughs when she opens her newest message from Justin.
If a street vendor ever offers to give you a discount meal, believe me, you should not take it.
You realize you sound like Max right now?
Well, Max would just do it to try it. I was running low on my spending money for the day.
Only a geek like you would have a daily budget.
Better than going broke!
You'll just wind up using the money to pay for toilet paper, oh sick and wise one.
Alex grins when she receives his reply.
Alex, that's disgusting!
So are you right now, apparently.
Well, while this has been entertaining, I have to go attend to something else.
You're buying toilet paper, huh?
She can practically feel Justin's embarrassment, and she smiles when she gets one more message.
I hate it when you're right.
"You know, you guys sure do talk an awful lot now," Harper comments as Alex closes her laptop for the night. "It's like you get along better now than you did when you thought he was your brother!"
"Maybe he's just gotten less irritating with time and distance. I'm betting most of my money on the distance," Alex says jokingly.
"Well, technically, you don't actually know how far away he is."
"You know what I mean, Harper."
"So, by what you've said then, he shouldn't come home because that'll just ruin your friendship, right?"
Alex turns to her friend and says, "Are you going to misinterpret me from now on or is this just a one-time deal?"
"Jeez, Alex," Harper tosses a pillow at her and smiles. "Don't take it so personally when I'm only teasing you!"
Alex exhales, trying to let her frustration go.
"You're right, Harper; I'm sorry."
The question of what will happen once Justin comes home, however, leaves her wide awake and anxious for the rest of the night.
Alex gets up before everyone else the next morning since she hasn't been able to sleep anyways, and her first instinct is to check her email. She's used to getting a simple 'good morning' message from Justin, but today she finds a decent-sized paragraph awaiting her.
Hey, so I know you typically hate reading, but I'm going to ask that you just go over this one paragraph for me, okay? I just wanted to let you know that I'm really thankful that you've kept talking to me while I've been gone. I know that you'd probably be right to ignore me for being so secretive about what I'm doing, but it's nice that you don't, even when you try to irk me on at least a daily basis. Talking to anybody would be good, but talking to my best friend is pretty awesome. And, yes, my best friend is you; don't get too big-headed about that. You've always treated me a lot more like your irritating friend rather than your brother, and I guess that's just sort of grown on me. Basically, I want you to know that you being there means a lot to me. It always has. –Justin
Alex reads the message over once, twice, three times before she types a single word.
You're my best friend, too, stupid (besides Harper, but I figure that's obvious).
She sends that message first and then, before she loses her nerve, she adds one more.
I wish you'd just come home already.
A week goes by, and Alex doesn't hear from Justin at all. It scares her a little; she keeps wondering if he's dead somewhere or hurt, maybe even suffering from amnesia or something and unable to get home. At the same time, though, she contemplates whether he's maybe just ignoring her request, and that thought angers her so much that she has to scream into a pillow to avoid terrifying everyone else.
It's a Thursday night when a knock reverberates from the door, causing Alex to yell at whoever is waiting on the other side.
"I'm coming!" she says, untangling from her bowl of Cheetos and stack of magazines. She brushes orange powder off her pants as she rises, looking to be sure that no one else can answer the door; they're all occupied elsewhere, and politeness wins out over laziness as Alex shuffles over to undo the lock.
She yanks the door open, expecting to find the Chinese delivery that Max ordered or maybe a box of fabric for one of Harper's wacky outfits, but instead there's a piece of paper forced so closely to her face that she gets cross-eyed trying to make out what's on it.
"What the heck?" she says, shoving the paper away and halting when she sees what's on the other side.
"Cheetos for dinner?" Justin asks, smirking at the crumbs that must still be on her face. "Couldn't you find anything better to eat?"
Alex wipes quickly at her mouth with the sleeve of her shirt before saying, "Justin, what the heck are you doing here?"
"You asked me to come home, didn't you? Besides, I finished what I left for." He waves the paper in his hand near her face once more and says, "You might want to see this."
"Would you stop that?" she yells, snatching the piece of paper from his hands and reading it quickly. "This just looks like some random address. Is this where you've been?"
"Not exactly," he says, and he glances past her to see the rest of the family and Harper coming into the room, having heard Alex's outburst. "Mom, Dad, do you remember when you weren't able to adopt Alex because of her parents?"
Theresa gives Justin a questioning look before saying, "Yes; they wanted to maintain some part of the custody rather than wholly give her up. That's what kept us from adopting her."
"Well," Justin says, directing his gaze to each person in the room, but especially to Alex, "the paperwork from the foster system had an address for Alex's birth parents on it. Unfortunately, they weren't living at that residence anymore. It took some time and digging into their pasts and different homes, but… Alex, I found them. That piece of paper has their current address on it."
Alex feels tears choke up her throat, and she has to swallow before she can say, "So you've been gone for months finding my parents for me?"
"Yeah, Max made me think of it. I thought that it was only fair for you to meet your parents, if you want to at all. I've been out of touch all week as I've confirmed their address and traveled back."
When Alex stays silent, Justin begins to look uncomfortable and continues. "I didn't want to tell you where I was or what I was doing because I wasn't sure I could find them, and I didn't want to disappoint you if I failed."
When Alex still doesn't speak but simply collapses on the couch, Justin plops next to her and says, "Alex, I… I didn't mean to make you mad."
It's at that moment that she throws her arms around him and starts sobbing. Like that story he told her about how she came into the Russo household, all those years ago, Justin begins to comfort her, patting her head and whispering that it's okay. Everyone else is herded out of the room by Theresa, who mouths to Justin, 'We'll let you guys have a minute, okay?' Justin nods and says, 'Thank you.'
It takes several minutes, but eventually Alex's breathing returns to normal, and her sobs shrink into sniffles. "You know, you didn't have to do all that," she mumbles into Justin's shoulder.
She can feel him smiling as he says, "I know I didn't have to, Alex; I did it because I wanted to. I wanted you to be able to have that connection, if you want to pursue it."
Alex pulls her head away from his chest before replying, "I think I might still water board you, but thanks."
"Do you know if you want to go find your parents?" Justin asks then.
Alex doesn't even have to consider her answer before she says, "Honestly? Not really. They gave me up, and this family took me in. Maybe one day I'll go to see them, but for now I'll just stay with the family that really wants me."
"If you ever change your mind, I can always go with you, if you want."
Alex gives him a hug as she mutters, "Of course you would; that's why I love you, you big moron."
"What?" Justin asks, unable to clearly hear her with her face pushed into the fabric of his shirt.
She sits back up and repeats, a bit timidly, "I really do love you."
Alex watches Justin's face, looking for any sign of a reaction, before she realizes that he is leaning forward. Their lips only touch for a brief moment, but anything is long enough for Alex. Just before they each pull away, she hears someone shuffle into the room, digging in the kitchen cabinets.
Max's voice breaks them apart as he says, "Well, this would have been awkward a year ago."
Both Justin and Alex laugh.