Two years of playing catch-up fail them, and the wizard competition is over in a heartbeat.
Max triumphs. Justin copes.
The congratulations that followed Max's victory were hollow and all three knew it.
Max attempted to subdue his sheer elation for their sake, but for them there was no pretending. For Justin this was the end of a dream, of his entire life plan. But it was worse for Alex. For Alex, it meant the loss of the love of her life so far.
Justin couldn't bear even to look at her, knew the grief etched on her face would be a thousand times more painful than the mere disappointment he felt now.
Immediately after the battle all three were conducted directly to the power transfer chamber by officials from the Wizard Family Competition Commissioner's Office, which had been running a tighter ship since the whole Stevie fiasco.
The transfer commenced, and Justin shut his eyes and prayed to the Catholic God of his youth that the sudden loss of his powers wouldn't make him feel so utterly desolate the second time around.
In the moments immediately following the transfer, Justin was aware of only two things: an emptiness in his veins as if all his blood had drained out; and the long, solemn look that passed between Max and Alex.
He meant to ask her what that was about, later, maybe, when talking about it wouldn't seem so impossible, but he didn't get the chance.
Three days after the transfer, she was gone.
Justin feels abandoned. More than that: he feels betrayed. Torn. Superfluous.
He feels heartbroken.
He thinks of all the times she talked about family and how much it meant to her. All the times she'd told him she loved him, needed him, would always need him. All the times he'd felt like she was his partner, the yin to his yang, like it was just the two of them against the world.
But she'd left him, intentionally, and he knows this because she left a fucking note.
I'm gone and I'm not coming back. Don't try to find me.
I hope one day you'll understand.
I love you all so much.
Justin hadn't believed it at first. She must have been somehow forced to write that. Or it was a prank. Or she had run away to be with Mason. Or she was emotionally distraught over the loss of him and she'd done something rash. Or she was up to something mischievous and was covering her bases in case it backfired on her. Or...
Justin had a thousand possible explanations. But weeks passed, and one by one each of them began to seem less and less likely, until he had completely run out of "or"s.
He had plans for them, in the event that Max won the powers. They'd move away and start a new life, fresh, somewhere far away from their childhood. Maybe a flat like Aunt Megan's in Paris, where they would live together and he would take classes at the Sorbonne while she worked on her painting. She would love the Parisian art scene, he's sure.
Or somewhere else. Maybe they'd even start that damn band they'd always joked about. It didn't matter. What mattered was that they'd figure it out together. That's what they'd always promised.
Now all his plans, his carefully constructed safety nets, have disappeared, leaving a simple note and an absence that has become a continuous presence in his life these days.
In an effort to escape it, he moves to a tiny apartment of his own. A change of scenery. A fresh perspective. The chance to cast aside titles like "son" and "brother" and define himself: just Justin. But when he starts unpacking, all he finds are dozens and dozens of reminders of her, and he leaves the rest of the boxes untouched on his floor.
They knew there was a chance they could still beat Max. There was an alternative battle, a field on which levels and punishments had no significance: the kind of battle Alex and Justin had fought in Puerto Rico.
They put their heads together and planned. Justin researched it, though, and it turned out that the battle they had fought was meant for emergencies only. The Wizard Council version, with assigned levels and a controlled transfer of powers, was standard operating procedure nowadays. And with the Russo family's infamy, there was no way the Wizard Council would let them get away with circumventing standard procedure.
But the knowledge that it was theoretically possible haunted them all the same.
None of it seemed fair. They had fought evil and won. They had found the Stone of Dreams. They had caught monsters, even stopped a revolution. But now they were hopeless, all but doomed to disempowerment by a set of rules in which they had no say, and a cruel test that pit their loyalty to the wizard world against their identities as inhabitants of the mortal world.
Justin, puzzled as to why he'd never heard of the fake secret government facility test before, did some more research (i.e. hacking into the Wizard Council mainframe) and discovered that the test was applied only to officially designated "problem families," ostensibly to assess their risk of revealing magic to mortals. But the records showed that the test had only ever been given to wizards who grew up in the mortal world, and over the years it had grown more severe and more convoluted.
They raged about it, the two of them, when they were in private. Fury, betrayal, indignation and regret -- over and over until their voices wore out from yelling and their feet from pacing back and forth across the floor of his bedroom.
"How come people keep calling us 'the kids who exposed wizardry?' It wasn't even real, it's so ridiculous--"
"I know, Alex, we all know that, but--"
"But it's not fair, Justin! They don't have the right to just trick people into losing their powers like that!"
"I agree, Alex, but... those are the rules and we have to live by them."
She glared at him, her eyes smoldering. "We don't have to."
He was confused. "What? Yes we do--"
"Ugh, never mind," she interrupted. "I know the lecture by now, Justin. Just-- Look at us. What this is doing to us. It's even isolating us from Max! We always said we'd never let this competition tear us apart, but it is. We don't look at Max the same now, do we? Not since he's become the reason we're probably going to lose our powers."
And Justin had wanted to deny it, but it was far too late for that.
Alex shows up at his door three months after her disappearance, and he slams the door in her face.
She bangs on it, yelling pleas mixed with threats, and he stands silently on the other side, just listening to her voice. It's minutes before he can bring himself to open the door and wordlessly gesture her inside.
"So, um. I'm alive, and all." That's what she opens with. Not an explanation or an apology, but a fucking flip comment. He wishes he had something else to slam in her face. An anvil, maybe.
He's doing that thing where he's so angry he just makes inarticulate noises instead of words, so she helps him out.
"Okay, Justin. I know you're mad at me. You have every right to hate me right now. But I need to explain to you why I left and I don't have much time."
He stares, incredulous, then his words come surging back. "Time? You go missing for three months and you don't have time to tell me what the hell happened to you? I thought you were dead, Alex! I couldn't fucking eat or sleep or, god, think, because I was so goddamn worried about you! I couldn't concentrate on my classes - I got a C, Alex! A C! And now you just waltz in here, all 'la-dee-da, think I'll go let my brother know I'm alive today!'"
To her credit, she looks genuinely distraught. "I'm sorry, Justin! I am, but I couldn't tell you! I didn't know if I'd be putting you in danger, not to mention you would have tried to stop me--"
"What the hell are you talking about, Alex?!"
She says softly, "I... I've joined the resistance against the Wizard Council."
"Okay, it's not really a resistance, more like a loose network of people trying to sort of prod the Council, keep tabs on their activities and dig up dirt on them and pull off the occasional attack--"
"But not dangerous ones! More like... pranks. That do damage. But not serious damage! Just to, you know, resist. Let them know we aren't gonna take their shit lying down."
Justin doesn't even know what to do with that. "So you're, what, a terrorist now?"
She looks thoughtful for a moment - and Christ, if she actually has to think about it then it's even worse than he thought - and finally responds slowly, "Not... as such, no. I'm more like a freedom fighter."
He stares at her, and she stares back unblinkingly.
"You cannot be serious. You cannot."
"Justin," she begins, and oh god, she does look serious. "The Wizard Council took Mason away from me. I can't forget that. I won't. I have to do something." Deadly serious.
"No, Alex! No! You have to go home to Mom and Dad right now and tell them you're alive! Forget this ridiculousness and just go home, Alex!"
"Justin, look what they did to our family! What they do to everyone's families!"
He shakes his head slowly. "No. No, Alex. You left. You messed up our family."
She smiles sadly. "Justin, our family was messed up way before I left that note on our kitchen table, and you know it."
He doesn't know what to say to that.
"I want you to come with me. Fight with me," she continues. "Think of everything we've suffered through because of the Wizard Council's rules. The battle, the loss of our powers, the rules that told us who we could love! And then tell me all that was justified."
The last thing he wants to think about right now is the pain of the past. He doesn't think he can handle it. Right here, right now, it's all too much.
She glances at her watch. "Look, I've gotta go. Don't answer right now. Think about it, Justin. I'll come back in a few days, okay?"
He won't look at her, but after a beat, he nods.
"And hey, Justin?" She waits patiently until he meets her eyes. "Don't tell Mom or Dad or Max or-- or anyone. It could put them in danger. And, for god's sake, don't try to turn me in to the Council, Justin. That... would be bad. Okay, Justin? Please?"
He clears his throat. "I won't tell anyone, Alex. I promise." She turns to go, but he adds, "At least until you come back." There's a clear warning in his voice, which she accepts with a quick nod.
After she leaves, Justin stands rooted to the same spot for what feels like hours. Then he pours himself a stiff drink and prays he made the right choice letting her just walk out like that.
After all, it's just a phase, right? She can't actually be okay with a life in hiding, a life of crime. She'll give up soon enough and move on to some new, equally bad idea. Justin's sure of it.
He knew the possibility of losing Mason had changed her.
She started studying more; she never let on, kept bringing home failing grades, but she knew what she was talking about now more often than not.
She started making coherent arguments instead of bullshitting her way through everything. Making observations about things she previously wouldn't have spared two glances for.
But the thing Justin noticed most was how she didn't seem to change much at all. For all those little tells, her overall behavior remained the same: she kept partying, kept playing hooky and breaking the rules and hatching harebrained schemes, as if nothing was different.
But Justin thought he saw something else in her eyes, something calculating, as if all this were an elaborate ruse, and he worried.
When she shows up at his door the second time, he's calmer, but no less anxious.
He closes his textbooks, sits her down on his couch and demands, "Start from the beginning."
So she tells him the story. How she knew she didn't have a chance in hell of winning the competition and was going to lose Mason for good.
So she began preparing. She found an illegal ancient rite to preserve a small amount of her magic during the transfer - not much, just enough to cast very simple spells - and performed it.
"You still have magic?!" Justin yelps. "You figured out a way to save magic when I couldn't?!" And then, "Wait, you performed an illegal spell?!"
She shrugs. "It didn't seem quite so terrible considering that I was about to become an outlaw anyway."
Justin squeaks. "Right. I almost forgot about that part."
She proceeds to explain how she searched for so long to find a way to still be with Mason. A loophole, something. And when it was clear that she wouldn't find that, she began searching for a way to change the rules.
"The problem is, there's no way to influence the Wizard Council. None. They make all those rules without any outside witnesses or input. It's basically a... whatever the opposite of democracy is."
"In this case, that'd be an oligarchy."
"Right, whatever. Anyway, so once I realized that I started looking for ideas about how to change all that. You know, protest groups or whatever. But it turns out that the Council is about as tolerant of wizard protesters as it is of wizard groups who want to tell the world. As in, trying to change the way the Council works is considered treason. Justin, they throw people in prison."
Justin eyes her suspiciously. "Why should I believe you?"
She rolls her eyes. "Maybe because there's proof out there that you would find for yourself if you bothered to look - probably in less time than it took me to find it. Or maybe because right now we're both thinking how much easier it would be if you could just put a truth spell on me, and how completely wrong it is that you can't."
He sets his mouth in a hard line. "All right, then. What happened next?"
"Well, once I found out what was really going on, I started finding other people who knew about it, and they told me even more. There were already rebels out there fighting, but the Council has been keeping it all hidden. And once I started talking to them, I knew I didn't have a choice. So I made plans to meet up with some of them after the transfer. I used that last little bit of magic I had left to warp to a meetup spot.
The resistance is just a few people working on their own or in little groups, but a couple of them took me in and showed me the ropes. It's taken them three months to trust me enough to let me leave their sight. Believe me, if I could've come to you earlier I would've."
Justin lets out a slow breath. "Who are these people?"
"Need-to-know information, sorry."
"If you live with them, yeah, I do need to know," he growls protectively.
She waves him off. "Oh Justin, don't be such a worrywart! Anyway, I don't live with them anymore. I have my own place now."
"Your own place?" he repeats. "And I suppose I'm not allowed to go there either?"
She smiles apologetically. "Sorry."
"Right," he mutters resignedly. There is a silence, broken after a few moments by her voice, slightly thinner and more anxious than before.
"Justin... there's one more thing I have to tell you about. I did something else before leaving."
He sighs. "And what was that?"
She lowers her eyes. "I... I altered Mason's memories of the last two years. He thinks we broke up after Chancellor Tootietooie told us to and drifted apart after that."
"So that's why he was so confused when we grilled him about your whereabouts! I thought it had something to do with the way you two broke up. If I had known I could've--" He stops himself. He couldn't have restored Mason's memory; by then, he was already mortal.
"But Alex, that's terrible! Why would you do that?" Justin cries.
"I didn't want to put him in danger if they ever find out my identity. And I thought..." She sighs. "I thought it would be less painful for him this way."
"You had no right to make that choice!"
"Didn't I?" She flares up. "If you knew Juliet's memories of you might put her in danger, wouldn't you wipe them?"
"No! Because..." Now it's Justin's turn to avoid her gaze. "Because I don't think I could bear the thought of her forgetting me." He looks down at his hands folded in his lap.
Alex reaches over and touches his hand lightly. He gives her a small, brief smile, and for the first time since she popped back into his life, the tension between them begins to thaw.
"So... you wiped Mason's memory to protect him, but you traipse right into my home and tell me everything?"
He wonders if that means she loves him more or less than she loves Mason, then hates himself for it.
"You're stronger than Mason," she replies confidently. "You can handle any trouble you run into. And anyway," she smiles at him, "you're my brother. I couldn't just never see you again."
He swallows. "Do Mom and Dad and Max know?"
"No, and don't you tell them a thing!"
"Alex, they're worried sick! I have to at least let them know you're alive."
She hesitates for a beat. "Fine. Tell them I got you a message that let you know I'm safe and don't want to be found, but nothing else. You found it slipped under your door, and you don't know how it got there. Nothing else, you promise?"
She considers him. "So. About my proposition last time. What do you think?" she asks.
"About joining you?" She nods. "I think that's not going to happen."
"Why?" She looks genuinely disappointed. "Justin, the Wizard Council is rotten. You have no idea how cruel they can be."
"It's not about that, Alex. I-- I know what the Council does to families, okay? But I can't just join a freaking revolution! I have college classes! I have a life! I want to be able to talk to my family!"
"But Justin, you'd be so great! You could do so many awesome things! And if we stick together, nothing can hurt us, remember?" and she sounds so much like a child, like the Alex he knew who begged him to hold her hand in haunted houses and tell her when it was okay to stop hiding her eyes during a scary movie.
But Justin believes in playing by the rules and working within the system; in aiming high but not so high that you land outside the realms of reason; in making life plans and following them and never going off course.
"Look, Alex. I'm going to protect you, at least as long as you're not doing any serious harm. But I won't condone what you're doing."
She is silent for a long moment. Then, "Can I still come visit you? Just to... talk to you? And stuff?"
He runs his fingers anxiously through his hair. I'm going to regret this, he thinks. But he knows what his answer will be, has known it since the moment she showed up at his door.
"Any time, sis."
Before Mason and Juliet, winning the competition hadn't seemed so important. Alex didn't particularly care to win, and winning didn't even occur to Max.
Even after the Stone of Dreams incident, Alex never acted like she wanted the powers, although he knew she did. Truthfully, there was a time after the Battle that Never Was when he almost wanted them for her.
But falling in love changed everything. Even when they were two happy couples, scratches and bites and transformations far from their minds, the knowledge had been there in the back of his mind: one day, one or both of them would have to choose.
At times, after the pain of remembering Juliet's age-stricken face began to subside, Justin was almost glad that he and Alex had both lost their non-mortal loves. The prospect of fighting his siblings for their birthright was horrific enough as it was; he didn't want to imagine fighting for the right to love as well. He couldn't imagine a sibling relationship that could survive that kind of trauma.
Then Mason came back, and he and Alex were so blissfully happy, and all Justin could see was disaster written all over their skin.
She doesn't visit him again for nearly a month.
He tries not to let it bother him. Tries to tell himself that he doesn't want to see her. He only invited her to visit for the sake of family, nothing more. Reminds himself that he's disgusted by what she's doing, and should be disgusted by her, too.
But the thing is, he's always been diametrically opposed to almost everything Alex does. She's impulsive, moody and inconsiderate. She's done things that can be described kindly as "amoral" - then done them all over again. And she does it knowingly, without wasting a thought on ethics, the consequences for herself or the risk to other people. Alex has never had time for painstaking deliberation or judicious decision-making; with her it's always want yes go now try explore chase take.
She's caused a thousand times more crap in his life than anyone else, and yet he's always forgiven her - and more than that, he always comes when she calls. There's a part of him that has always believed that nothing could be quite as bad as losing her.
So now, despite the utterly bizarre circumstances, he throws the door to his life open wide and lets her back in.
They are both busy, but nevertheless, they manage to develop something of a pattern. She visits him when she can, usually evenings, occasionally on weekends. Sometimes they share dinner and pop in a movie, lying on the couch with her feet in his lap. Sometimes they just talk.
Neither of them mentions her activities; Justin doesn't want to know and she doesn't want to endanger him.
(He sleeps better now than he did when she was gone, and he can taste his food again. But his nightmares, rare though they might be, are always related to her.)
Months pass that way. And the more time passes, the more she lets slip about her day job. At first, it's just accomplishments: She's finding her feet, learning her intellectual and physical limits as her plans get more and more daring as well as more and more successful.
And as she gets better and better at what she does, she learns also how to handle sensitive information - what to disclose and what to hold back. She still fears putting him at risk, and he's too terrified of the answers to ask any questions, but it's too important, too ever-present to avoid the subject indefinitely.
So she starts telling him the secrets she's uncovered about the Wizards Council: the strict rules with absurd loopholes and technicalities that have terrible consequences for wizard families. The complete lack of transparency and accountability. The mortal-phobia among Council members that borders at times on anti-mortal fanaticism advocating a complete separation between the wizard and mortal worlds.
And the most significant piece of information: the Council's paralyzing fear of magic being exposed.
"I think that's what drives them," she muses. "I think that's why they do all these awful things: because they feel like they have to protect magic at all costs. It's like they exist purely on fear."
The more she talks the angrier Justin gets, and for once the anger isn't directed at Alex.
Eventually she begins confiding how she gleans this information - wild, ridiculous stories that range from intricately planned infiltrations to her patented "winging it" to practical seductions, and he often ends up tumbling to the floor in helpless laughter.
She's most apprehensive to tell him about the really important things: her reprisal plots. But she never could keep anything from him for long, and eventually he starts hearing all about her true activities: attacks on databases. Threats. Disruptions. Stealing Council equipment. Hijacking Council equipment. Sabotaging Council equipment. Sabotaging Council magic, such as protective wards and spells required to carry out Council duties. Take pretty much anything that makes it difficult for the Council to do its job, and Alex excels at it.
It takes him five months, and when it finally happens he's as stunned as she is, but one wintry night over pepperoni pizza, he tells her he's proud of her. His reward is a radiant smile and a kiss on the cheek, which he wears for days like a symbol of promise on his skin.
Late one night he talks to Theresa on the phone.
She hasn't sounded the same since Alex left.
He doesn't even ask to speak to Jerry. He usually doesn't, these days. It's too hard to listen to the pain in Jerry's voice every time he's reminded that his favorite child hasn't called him in nearly a year.
This time Theresa asks (with badly disguised, heartwrenching hope in her voice) whether he's heard from Alex, and has to lie to her. To his own mother, about the existence of her only daughter. It makes him ill.
If Theresa hears the tightness in his throat, she probably chalks it up to him missing Alex, too.
He cries afterward, silent tears sliding down his cheeks as he brushes his teeth. He doesn't meet his reflection's gaze in the bathroom mirror.
He celebrates Christmas with the family, but he and Alex have their own private Christmas celebration. She brings him a magical tree whipped up by one of the full wizards in the resistance. The tree has lights that can reach up to ten times brighter than the average Christmas lights, but will never, ever catch fire.
"Ohmigosh, thanks Alex! Wow! This is an awesome gift, 'cause you know fire safety should be a major concern during the holiday season--"
"I know, dorkus," she replies, and for a moment it's like they never grew up.
Her other gift to him is a self-painted landscape of the jungle in Puerto Rico, and there in the foreground is the giant chasm they had to cross. The chasm she figured out how to cross.
"Great, Alex - the epitome of insurmountable obstacles, captured on canvas. Gee, thanks."
She chuckles. "Look harder, Justin. It's not the view from before we crossed; it's the view back behind us, after we'd already made it."
He grins. "You trying to remind me of yet another time when you bested me, sis?"
She matches his grin with one of her own. "No. I'm trying to remind you of another time when we survived because we were together."
Her fingers slip through his, and he squeezes her hand lightly. She lifts herself up on tiptoes to press a kiss to his cheek, and he doesn't know why, but it feels more like home than the elaborate (but hollow) celebration at home.
He supposes "home" for him has always been wherever she is.
Don't start thinking that way, he warns himself sternly. She's always going to leave you in the end.
But the ghost imprint of her lips on his skin feels like a benediction, and more than that: it feels like anticipation.
One day he walks into his apartment to find her already waiting for him on his couch.
"How did you get--" he begins indignantly, but she cuts him off.
"I'm sorry. I just really needed to talk to you. I--" She looks embarrassed. "I went and saw Mason today."
Justin gapes at her. "You tracked him down?"
She smiles ruefully. "I already knew where he was. I've been keeping track of him. I know I shouldn't, I just... I can't let him go completely."
"So, what, you went to see him in broad daylight? Alex, what if there's a surveillance detail on him to make sure the two of you aren't secretly together? They could have captured you-- Alex, you could have been killed on the spot! Or, oh god, what if they followed you here--"
"Justin!" she snaps. "I wasn't spotted. I wasn't followed. And even if I was, the Council doesn't know I'm a member of the resistance. Give me some credit, will you?"
He swallows hard. "You really loved him, didn't you? I thought because you were so young... I didn't think that you were... but you really did love him."
She looks up and for the first time he can see that her eyes are brimming with tears. "I-- I don't know. That's the worst part, Justin! I'll never know. We'll never get the chance to find out what we... what we could have..."
He loses all restraint then; he pulls her into his arms and she goes willingly. He strokes her hair and she sniffles softly into his shoulder.
"Oh, Alex. Why didn't you just ask him to come with you?"
"Mason was always so ready to give up. I was afraid he'd say no. Or that he'd try to protect me and do something crazy." There are layers of guilt in her voice.
"Something crazy, like declare a crusade against the Wizard Council?" he teases lightly, and to his relief she chuckles.
"More like eat the Wizard Council. Or lock me up in his basement forever for my own protection."
"Well, you needn't have worried about that. I'd have saved you."
She is silent for a long time.
"I know," she murmurs eventually.
They never talked about the night they both lost their loves (the first time) by essentially abandoned them to their respective fates. Mason and Juliet fighting for their lives, and all Alex cared about was her stupid insecurities. All Justin cared about was Alex.
When he looked back on that night, what always disturbed him the most was how fucked up it was that he'd been fighting another guy over his sister, and how utterly normal it had seemed at the time.
It's a month and a half later when she stumbles into his apartment at 1 A.M. bleeding from about twenty different places.
The switch to Big Brother Mode is automatic, and before she can even open her mouth he has her sitting on the bathroom floor surrounded by no fewer than three open first aid kits.
She winces as he briskly catalogues her wounds: mostly superficial, lots of cuts and bruises but no apparent breaks or internal injuries; arms, legs, back and head, that last one's what worries him, the bleeding seems to be stopping but he should probably take her to a hospital anyway, secrecy be damned --
And that's when he notices that she's grinning.
"So," she says pertly. "You'll never guess who I ran into."
He splutters. "Wha-- I don't-- a fucking Nazgûl?"
"Really cute, Justin. I'm bleeding and you're making sci-fi references."
"Actually, The Lord of the Rings isn't really considered-- I take your point," he concedes in response to her raised eyebrow.
"For Pete's sake, stop gawking at me like that and fix me!"
"Right! Sorry." He sets to work with cotton gauze to stem the blood flow from the worst of her cuts. "So whom did you run into?"
"The remnants of Stevie's old gang." Her eyes twinkle impishly as he draws in a deep breath.
"They did this to you?"
She shrugs, then winces as bruises on her shoulders protest. "Well, I did kill their beloved leader, you know."
"Okay, one: you didn't actually kill her. Two: So they, what, attempt to avenge her sort-of-death by bashing your head in?"
"Oh, please, Justin. It's not so bad. We just made a little deal. They got to take out their rage on me, and now we're on the same side."
He blinks, trying to follow her logic. "Soooo... if you're on the same side, why didn't they heal you up after they'd had their fun? I assume some of them still manage to retain their ill-gotten powers."
"They're magical injuries, not physical ones. They can't be healed with magic, but they heal on their own in time. Faster than normal injuries, in fact. These bruises'll be gone in a couple of days."
Now he really is gawking. "But how-- That's impossible. I would know if that were possible. And... why?"
"The invention of one of Stevie's followers. Magical wounding to teach someone a lesson without the danger of permanent damage. Those kids have some nasty tricks up their sleeves," she adds admiringly.
With the bleeding nearly stopped, he douses a bit of gauze in rubbing alcohol. There's a short debate in his head over whether to warn her about the sting or just surprise her, but ultimately, he figures, it doesn't matter. She'll complain either way.
"So, what?" he asks, still considering his options. "You joined up with them?"
She snorts. "That collection of misfit toys? Not a chance. They joined up with me." She lifts her chin defiantly. "I'm the leader now."
Justin is so shocked that he lets his hand drop, and the soaked gauze lands on a particularly deep gash on her leg. And it's not his fault, he tries to explain when she howls, but he gets a good knock on the head anyway.
"You started it!"
He scowls and douses another cotton swab. "This is gonna sting," he warns, reaching for the slash on her leg.
"No shit," she mutters.
"So hey, what does that mean? That you're the leader of Stevie's old gang now? Weren't they kind of... violent?"
She's silent for a moment. "Justin... we have to start getting more aggressive against the Council. They're not really being harmed by the things we do to them, they're just getting better at blocking us out. I'm not going to become like Stevie, but... we've got to find better ways of getting through to them. And of getting people on our side, too."
Justin meets her gaze. "I don't like the way that sounds."
She sighs. "I know."
He leans in close to clean a nasty gash over her left eye, and his throat feels dry but he keeps talking.
"I worry about you, Alex," he says softly, and maybe it's because the close proximity has thrown him off, but he continues honestly, "I should be worried about the people you're going to be targeting, but damn it, I'm mostly worried about you."
She smirks. "I'm not one of your precious dolls, you know."
"Action figures," he retorts fondly. "And I know you're not. You're more important."
She must have been holding her breath, because she lets it out slowly. "Yeah?"
He brushes a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. "Yeah."
One year into their desperate catch-up bid, on what turned out to be the anniversary of Stevie's defeat, Justin received his first real clue that Alex was changing.
She was moody that day - not grumpy like usual but absent in a way that he would have described as pensive were he referring to anyone but Alex - and when he offered a penny for her thoughts, both uncertainty and relief played across her face as she answered.
"I was thinking about Stevie," she confided.
Justin raised an eyebrow. "So? What about her?"
"What I did to her... I regret it," she said softly.
"Really?" he asked, incredulous.
She nodded, and the seriousness in her eyes made him check his tone.
"But why? It's not like she's dead, Alex. They put her back together, you know. She's encased in stone but in five hundred years she'll be her old self again!"
Alex peered at him dubiously. "And you really think that's A-okay?"
For a moment he was at a loss. Then, "Sure, it's horrible. But, she deserved it. Right?"
She looked away. "Maybe."
He tried to argue: "Maybe? Alex, she tried to overthrow the Wizard Council!"
Alex opened her mouth as if to reply, but then sighed and shut it. She looked... almost sad.
Justin wanted to pry further, but he let it go.
One night, as he enters his apartment, he feels a sharp jab in his side that knocks him flat on his stomach, and he thinks, This is it! They've found me! I'm dead! I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die, I'm gonna-- Oh god, I'm going to die without getting a college degree!
Then he hears a voice: "All right, boy wizard, I want information and I want it now!"
He recognizes that voice. Oh god, it's even worse than I thought.
"Harper, what the hell?!"
She flips him over and gets in his face, glaring daggers. "You're going to tell me where Alex is, or you're going to die."
"I-- I don't know, she didn't tell-- Oof!" he chokes out as she jabs him in the stomach with her elbow.
"Lies! All lies! I've been staking out your apartment. I saw her come in here and I want to know where she is. Now."
He stares at her incredulously.
"I'm growing impatient!" she shouts, positioning her elbow threateningly above his nose. "You might be the second most adorable boy I know, but don't think I won't destroy that sexy face anyway!"
"No! Okay, I'll talk, just-- just don't hurt me!"
She lets him go. "That's better. Now start talking."
He tells her the basics. She doesn't hesitate.
"I want to join them. You said there are other mortals in the resistance. I want to join. You're going to find a way to get me in."
(When Alex comes by a few days later to pick Harper up, she can barely contain her amusement.
"Really, Justin? Harper? Maybe I overestimated your willpower. I should get your memory wiped."
He blanches. "Please, Alex. You don't know what it was like! She is terrifying!"
He can still hear Alex's laughter echoing down the hall as they leave.)
The resistance grows quickly after that.
Alliances are forged with an existing underground network of people carrying on relationships forbidden by the Wizard Council, including wizards secretly in relationships with mortals, mortal former wizards with other magical beings like vampires and centaurs, and everything in between.
Justin had thought that wizards raised in the mortal world had the deck stacked against them, but he's starting to learn about the myriad ways in which the Council makes life suck for all wizards. Those who are raised in the wizard world and then lose the competition, for instance, are stripped of not only their powers, but their home and the only world they've ever known. And many have to give up their non-mortal loves as well.
He's always thought naïvely that he and Alex were the only ones who suffered so much from their circumstances. He's never imagined there were so many people out there hurting, so many relationships broken, because of the Wizard Council.
Even more disturbing are the things he is learning about the domination of all other magical beings by wizards. The Wizard Council sets the rules for relationships among all the races, not just wizards and mortals, and all magical beings are under its authority. And it's not just relationships, either; Justin remembers how Juliet and her parents were designated "monsters" by the Council and he wants to kick himself for not realizing it sooner, the unfairness of it all.
So many things have never occurred to him when they should have. He feels like he was blind his whole life until Alex pointed out the obvious.
With the ranks swelling so rapidly and the evidence of Council wrongdoing piling up by the day, the time has come to take their cause to the wizard public. They start conducting active raids against Council installations, not stealthily but openly. They make heavy use of nonlethal spells - paralysis, freezing, all the usual culprits, as well as cunning traps to prevent casualties. The goal of these raids is threefold: place increased pressure on the Council; gain publicity for the resistance; and escape without being taken prisoner.
With most of the rebels completely powerless or working with only partial powers, the resistance is no match for the Council wizards magically. (Professor Crumbs proves to be a particularly fearsome opponent, becoming something of a legend among the younger recruits almost overnight.) Thus, outright magical duels are avoided wherever possible.
But what the resistance lacks in magic, they make up for in ingenuity.
When Justin congratulates Alex on being an evil mastermind, she beams like it's the greatest compliment she's ever gotten.
(Justin meant it that way.)
That night by the campfire in the jungle. When they felt like the only two people in a world gone mad and trying to kill them. Erase them. Same thing, in the end.
Didn't seem like much else mattered anymore. Nothing around them, beyond them, ahead of or behind them. Nothing between them. The only two people in the world who knew.
It changed the way they reacted to one another.
Like. When he was skirting the edges of an endless pit and she dangling over the edge, and they both made it back up, like they were proper action heroes or something, and he'd thought, "This is the part where I kiss her now--"
Like how they started communicating by touch instead of words.
Justin learned that night by the campfire that under very extreme circumstances, a relationship can cease to be whatever it is and become everything. All things at once.
He never perceived lines quite as sharply after that.
The first raids are smashing successes, and in honor of the occasion he surprises her with her favorite meal (that he knows how to make, anyway) and a bouquet of roses. (And, well, maybe it's not the most normal of gestures between siblings, but they've never been normal. Nothing about any of this is normal.)
Alex seems flattered, at any rate, and afterwards she is in the kind of frivolous, happy mood that he very rarely sees from her these days. She drags him into the empty space that passes for his living room and switches on the radio (while teasing him for owning a radio). She fiddles with the buttons until she finds something she deems suitably slow and holds out her hand to him.
(There's probably a smooth jazz joke somewhere in there, but he's not about to make it right now.)
He attempts to teach her a few elegant steps he learned from who-knows-where, but she quickly gets bored with that and makes him spin her, over and over like when they were kids intoxicated by the sensation of dizziness.
Then there are fast dances full of unsteadiness and laughter, and slow dances that consist of nothing much beyond holding each other tightly and swaying back and forth. The transition between the two feels surprisingly seamless, arms slipping around and then back again, fingers locking and unlocking, cheeks pressed together or nestled against collarbones.
When they finally kiss it's spontaneous and quick, and it doesn't feel momentous in any way. It feels natural, almost habitual (and he wonders if it's because they've both practiced it so many times in their heads).
But it's even more intimate for all that, the kind of direct, unassuming kiss that couples give each other in public when they're comfortable enough to dispense with the pretense that every kiss has to be a mindblowing event, but still slightly giddy with the knowledge that they're allowed to kiss each other whenever they want.
They pass the rest of the night in a kind of no place, a tandem utopia that exists only in this tiny flat by mutual unspoken agreement. In this simulacrum, they are everything that the real world has always precluded them from being, everything they never had the choice to be: normal. Settled. Boring. Uncomplicated. Secure. Together.
They dance until they crash, exhausted, on the couch, and he falls asleep to the comforting discomfort of her hip bone digging into his abdomen.
(And when he wakes alone in the morning, Justin will attempt to determine just how much of that was a reflection of honest desires on their part, as opposed to a mere one-night test drive.
- their lips drawn to each other like magnets--
But he will give up; there are depths of the subconscious that Justin no longer has the strength to plumb.)
The next time he sees her is only a quick info drop - the location of a secure rendezvous point in case of emergencies - and there is no time to even wonder whether or not they are going to acknowledge what happened between them. Then there is a long stretch of silence, and by the time he sees her again it feels like the time for talking about it has long passed. And he thinks, maybe it was all a dream, anyway.
(But it haunts his real dreams, the languid familiar intimacy of that night, and Justin has never heard of someone having dreams about another dream.)
The next two times they see each other, he orders take-out and they watch movies and do not speak seriously at all, and she is gone by midnight.
It is the sixth time she has appeared at his door since the night they danced (he doesn't mean to count them, but this is how he mentally categorizes her visits now, Before and After). It is the fourth time also they have talked and not said anything of significance to each other, and he hopes this means there is nothing bad to report, instead of things being simply too bad to talk about at all.
Of course, it's the latter. It takes a bit of coaxing, but she comes clean.
"Since about three weeks ago we've been losing more people on raids. We couldn't figure out what we'd been doing wrong." She stops for a moment and he rubs her back, silently encouraging her to take her time.
"Five days ago we figured it out. It wasn't what we started doing wrong; it's what the Council started doing right. Three weeks ago, the Council authorized the use of deadly force against anyone who threatens the Council's authority."
"But that means... This isn't just a movement anymore. Alex, this is a war."
Her face is utterly bleak. "Yes."
"Why didn't you tell me earlier?"
She stares down at her hands. "I didn't want you to worry about me."
"I will always worry about you," he whispers fiercely. He takes her in his arms and she clings to the fabric of his shirt, the skin of his back.
She spends the night enveloped by him, his entire body covering her, protecting her as best it can. He rains kisses on her hair and face until she falls asleep.
When she wakes up gasping, he rocks her until he's no longer sure who's comforting whom.
Two visits later, they sit on the floor of his meager living room amidst various cartons of Chinese food, reminiscing about their childhood. They both dissolve into giggles recalling the time they enchanted her dolls and his "action figures" to come to life, leading to an epic drama of identity crisis and doomed romance between dolls ("And action figures!") who could never be together.
As his laughter subsides, he suddenly feels a slight pressure on his knee. Her hand. His head snaps up and she meets his gaze pleadingly, her eyes soft, and says, "Just give me time, okay?"
Twenty-four days, seventeen hours and thirty-eight minutes later (not that he was counting), she pins him against the wall, her mouth on his, before the door even closes behind her, and he has never been more grateful to be alive.
He knows their relationship has changed for good - this isn't just a phase or a passing whim - when she tells him that it has. Not that she talks to him about it directly, but as always, she gives him clues and he gets there eventually.
For one thing, her standard goodbye to him changes to "See you in hell!"
For another, she lets things slip, the kind of sappy things that she would rather die than admit to in public. Like the fact that her favorite thing in the world is when he tells her how long he's wanted this (forever, it seems).
He traces the progress of the war on the planes of her body. He maps it, cataloguing each scar and bruise and knot. When he finds a new one, she tells him the story of how she got it. Sometimes he laughs hysterically; sometimes he ends up crying and she has to comfort him then, holding his head to her chest and whispering comforting words in his ear, and it only makes him cry harder because she shouldn't have to be the strong one. She shouldn't.
Sometimes they don't make love at all. They only curl up together, his chest flush with the curved column of her back, fingers laced across her stomach.
His brain is full of clichés like "made for each other" and "perfect fit" these days. His hands feel empty without hers.
The raids are starting to have the desired effect. They're the talk of the wizard world, and while the Council tries to spin them as mindless terrorist attacks, Alex and her cohorts take care of that too, devising clever ways to get their message out to the populace.
Whole families leave their lives behind and join the camp: families that have managed to weather the storm and stay together, families willing to do anything not to be ripped apart by the Council. Even some families that were broken up by the competition only to reunite in favor of the cause. And with the influx of family wizards comes even more power, even more potential for the resistance to draw on.
Siblings show up, too, hand-in-hand and ready to fight to ensure that each other gets to keep their powers, rather than fighting to take them away. They make ready-made reconnaissance teams, with their second-nature knowledge of each other's capabilities and personalities, their fierce determination to protect each other, and the ability to communicate through mere looks and references to their shared past, which functions at times as a built-in secret code. And sometimes siblings who haven't spoken in years meet back up in the camp and carefully, haltingly begin to mend their tattered relationships.
However, the most fantastical thing in Justin's opinion is also, in hindsight, the most obvious; as it turns out, his lifelong feeling of subtle anxiety around Harper was somewhat prophetic. She proves to be a crazy badass in battle, claiming victory at any cost and leaving great swathes of destruction in her wake.
"She does stuff no other non-wizard will even attempt," Alex marvels. "She just jumps in and does it. It's a good thing we have a policy against using lethal force, 'cause if we unleashed Harper completely, she'd destroy the world."
Justin laughs, one night when his hand is at the small of her back, guiding her to the bedroom, he laughs and she asks why and he can't answer, can't explain to her that between starting a war and schtupping a sibling, they must have pretty fucking prime real estate preserved for them in hell.
"Just-- try to imagine the movie of our lives," he grins at her. Of your life, he amends silently. Mine will be only a supporting character.
She purses her lips, thinks about it. "Not gonna happen," she resolves. "It would have to be made after magic is revealed to mortals, which is hopefully nowhere in the near future, and I won't allow it to be made into a wiz-motion picture because those suck."
And he groans, because it's just like her to ignore the point entirely-- But she understands, grins back at him with a look that says "I'm not sorry at all."
He thinks about her all the time. She's in danger and he's sitting here fucking... doing nothing, that's what. He's supposed to protect her, to always be there for her - whether she wants him or not - but she's out there, somewhere, he doesn't fucking know where, doing he doesn't fucking know what - something dangerous, most likely - and he goes to class and he comes home and he doesn't sleep, or he does and he wakes up feeling like he remembers every. single. second of it.
He starts watching the news obsessively, hoping that some effects of the war will bleed through into this world and provide a clue as to what's going on, where she is, what she's involved in.
But he turns CNN off for good when he catches himself trying to figure out how every single fucking little incident could somehow be associated with the war.
Instead he sits up at night watching The Daily Show, hoping that his disgust at the profligacy and cruelty of the federal government will distract him from the sick knowledge in the pit of his stomach that his sister could be killed at any moment.
It doesn't work because the whole time he is wishing Alex would walk in, make a comment about how boring and serious this show is, and make him change the channel.
He takes up smoking. Figures it's only fair that he be in some kind of danger, too.
(If my younger self could see me now... But that sentence has too many possible endings.)
She walks in one night to find him smoking on his balcony. The smirk on her face tells him he's in trouble.
She snatches the cigarette from his fingers, takes a long drag. Blows the smoke in his face.
"Stop it," he protests mildly. "My generous plan to develop lung cancer in solidarity with your bravery in the trenches will be ruined if you get cancer too."
She laughs, a genuine, honest laugh, and his heart lightens. A good day, he thinks. Today's been a good day, then.
It's as good a time as ever to make his plea.
"Take me with you."
She starts and peers up at him suspiciously, but doesn't respond.
"I changed my mind. I can't do this, can't let you do this anymore. You said it yourself, I'd be a great asset, I can help with--"
"No." Her voice is low but he hears it, as she knew he would.
"Why?" There's a challenge in his voice.
"I can't, Justin." She bites her lip. "You were right in the beginning. It's too dangerous. I can't let you--" She struggles, stops. Starts again. "I need to know that you're safe. That's the only thing I need from you."
He switches from disappointment to outrage in a flash. "But Alex, you need me! I'm not some limited-edition action figure that you have to keep safe! I can--"
She stops him there, surges forward with a hand on his chest. "You're right, Justin. I do need you. You're what's keeping me going. I never thought it would be this bad. I never thought it would come to war, and I definitely never thought I would end up practically the goddamn leader!
Knowing that this shitty life of running and hiding and escaping, always fucking escaping, isn't all that's left. Knowing that you're out there living a normal life, not in danger, not caught up in a war that shouldn't have to be fought in the first damn place. Knowing that, no matter what happens, or what happens to me, you'll still be safe and healthy and able to move freely. That's what keeps me from just giving up."
By the time she finishes she's trembling. He wipes away the tears trickling down her cheeks with his thumbs.
"But Alex... You're the same for me. If anything happened to you, it wouldn't matter that I was safe and free. Not anymore."
She throws her arms around him and they stand on his balcony holding each other for a long, long time.
As discontent grows, the movement goes more and more mainstream. Council employees leak information that corroborates the resistance's claims, and legions of ordinary wizards go public about instances of rulebending, cruel treatment, emotional suffering, and anti-mortal discrimination. And the more people speak out about their experiences, the more people are arrested and imprisoned as resistance conspirators.
But for every family frightened into silence, two more families put their lairs, their magic, their supplies or their bodies at the resistance's disposal: a veritable underground railroad for the wizard resistance.
They wait for the other shoe to drop.
The call comes in the middle of the night. On the other end of the line is Max.
"Max? Why are you--"
"They're coming for you. You have to run."
"I don't understand!"
"There's no time. The Council is cracking down on mortals who know about wizardry. You've gotta get out of there. Run, Justin."
Justin's first thought is for his parents. "Oh my god, Max, what about Mom and Dad?"
"They're safe," Max assures hurriedly. "I've taken care of them."
"I'll have to-- wait, really?" Justin is skeptical.
"Yep. Now go!"
"Thanks, Max." He starts to hang up.
"Tell Alex..." Justin waits.
"...Never mind. Just run, Justin."
For once, Justin does as his little brother commands.
It isn't until much later that it occurs to him to wonder where exactly Max got the tip.
Justin proceeds obediently to the emergency rendezvous spot, but it's only after dawn when Alex appears out of thin air.
"You're here," she breathes, relief apparent in her eyes, and grabs his arm.
"How did you--" he starts, but she cuts him off.
"10-second temporary warp--," she replies. Suddenly her words are cut off and the world goes topsy-turvy. He feels a familiar lurch in his gut, and when he reopens his eyes he's landing with a soft thud in a very unfamiliar place.
"--had it set up a while ago to that particular spot," she continues without pause.
(And wow, he'd forgotten how weird magical travel feels. He wriggles a little to make all his internal organs snap back into their proper places.)
She grins up at him, eyes sparkling, and says, "Welcome to camp!"
It looks more like a requisitioned mansion than a camp. The floors beneath his feet are hardwood - potentially lovely underneath a myriad of scuffs and stains - and above the chaos of desks, equipment and people, crystal chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling.
She answers his question before it's even posed. "In the beginning of the movement we, erm, acquired this magical tent. It's a ratty old camping tent on the outside, but on the inside it's a freaking huge mansion! Apparently they're crazy expensive. Anyway, we turned the mansion into a portable camp, and ta-da! We pitch the tent in people's lairs, mostly - people we can trust, of course - and it saves a ton of space, not to mention it's way safer than cloaking a traditional camp. And the best part is, all the rooms can be magically expanded, so basically we have all the room we'll ever need!"
Justin shakes his head in amazement. "Wow. This is... pretty awesome, actually."
She beams and takes his hand. "Come on. I'll give you a tour."
"You okay with your troops seeing you holding hands with your brother?" he inquires teasingly.
"Number one, they're not troops, and they're not mine. Number two, yes. I am." He can't help the smile that blossoms on his face.
She leads him through the camp, starting with the foyer and living rooms, which constitute base operations. Beyond that are the offices, training rooms, and dormitories. Through a window he can see an extensive training ground. It's not until they reach the mess hall, however, that Justin remembers a very important detail.
"Alex! Oh my god, Alex, I forgot - Max! He's the one who warned me! That means he's in danger too--"
"Oh, don't worry. I took care of that. Max is fine."
Justin starts to protest. "How? Maybe we should--"
"He's fine, trust me," she interrupts firmly.
"Okay..." he replies skeptically. "But what about Mom and Dad? Oh gosh, they're going to be devastated if all three of us disappear--"
"Justin, stop worrying," she says in a tone he doesn't hear often anymore but still understands to mean Drop it. "I've taken care of everything."
She doesn't give him time to argue, turning on her heel to bark orders at a dawdling passerby.
That night at dinner she pulls him up to stand on top of a table in the cafeteria and introduces him to the crew.
"This is my brother, Justin," she declares, and he waves awkwardly.
"Justin is gonna be working with us from now on," she continues.
"I am?" he asks confusedly, drawing chuckles from their audience.
"Not from here," she clarifies. "But now that they've found me out he's going to have to go into hiding, so we might as well make use of him, eh? He'll be a mobile agent called in when we need him."
In response to his still-dumbfounded expression, she responds, "You wanted to join us. You're welcome!"
She then turns her attention back to her fellow fighters. "One more thing you should know about my brother Justin: he's also my boyfriend."
Justin freezes. Time seems to stop and he can't tear his eyes from Alex's face, can't understand why she is smiling while revealing their deepest secret to hundreds of people, and can't bear to look out at the crowd and see the revulsion in their eyes.
He expects stunned silence followed by yelled obscenities, thrown food, maybe even physical violence - anything but the lighthearted chorus of "Oooooh!" and teasing catcalls he hears. "Kiss!" someone yells, and a few more take up the chant: "Kiss, kiss, kiss!"
Alex giggles and yells back faux-angrily, "Inappropriate, Stevens!" Then, to the audience at large, "That is all. Enjoy your gruel, everybody!"
She steps down and pulls him down with her. Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes are alight, and he-- he can't even think.
She slips her hand in his and starts to lead him toward the door, pausing on the way only to laughingly reprimand a lithe blond boy, maybe sixteen years old, for cracking a joke about her and Justin needing to "attend to some very urgent business."
Five minutes later they're in her bedroom, and he's not even sure how he got there.
She peers up at him through her eyelashes. "So."
It takes four tries to make his mouth work properly. "You-- you just-- and they were-- why--"
She cuts him off mercifully. "Justin. We - our little group here - we're all misfits and rebels of some kind or another. A bunch of those people out there joined to fight for their right to love whomever they choose. Most of the rest joined because they're from families ripped apart by the wizard competition, and they're certainly no strangers to eccentric family relationships. The competition makes wizard sibling relationships really complicated and weird sometimes."
"We're not weird," he protests reflexively.
She chuckles happily. "That's what I'm trying to tell you! Justin, we're not the only ones!" She gently takes his face in her hands and whispers, "There are other siblings like us. Other couples. We're not alone."
He doesn't understand. Can't. After all this time-- after so much anguish-- so much worrying and confusion and guilt and distress and suppressing, always suppressing--
He hasn't had a problem with his feelings for Alex for a while now, but he'd never dared to hope, never dared even contemplate a place where they would be accepted, where he could kiss her and call her "sister" in the same breath.
Alex pulls him closer and kisses him, softly, and that seems to snap him out of it.
"Really?" he whispers when she pulls back, and she nods, the tip of her nose brushing against his. She's still smiling, glowing really, and suddenly all he wants to do is taste that smile. Because he can.
She sighs into the kiss, and her fingertips skate down his body to slip under his shirt as she murmurs against his mouth, "Come on. I want my pillow to smell like you."
He looked at her once and didn't know who she was. Who he was. Anything. Except...
There was one certainty he felt, and in that moment it was more than a feeling, had the hard, round edge of a fact in his mind. Immutable. Solid. And achingly raw.
Afterward, Justin never allowed himself to recall that feeling. He was afraid of what it might do to him. What it might... what he might--
So he becomes a "mobile agent," moving from safe house to safe house on the underground resistance network. He helps out where he can: cracking codes, relaying messages, hacking systems, researching new spells - generally putting his cleverness to good use. The main camp settles in magically hidden zones, behind portals and in the lairs of sympathetic families, and he visits Alex there only when he's needed (or when he can convince someone to give him an excuse to visit Alex).
On one of his many trips to the camp, (the mansion tent pitched in some lovely family's lair, cramped but serviceable), he runs into none other than Felix, his old tutoring student from WizTech.
"A lot of your former tutoring students are here," he says after giving Justin a giant bear hug. "A bunch of us were younger brothers or sisters who didn't figure there was much of a point in working hard if you didn't have a shot at the powers. We were total losers until we ended up here."
And this brings home to him, in a way that nothing quite has before, the significance of the resistance movement. The sheer magnitude of it: people all over the wizard world who have shared the same grievances for so long, now making their voices heard.
"Man, I'm glad you're here. We need all the smart people we can get," Felix says, punching his arm so hard that Justin swears the bruise will be in the shape of his fist.
Justin waits until Felix is out of earshot to squeak, "Owww!" and goes off to find Alex so she can kiss it better.
When Christmastime comes, both sides take a break from trying to kill or seriously maim one another to regroup and celebrate the remaining positive aspect of their lives. It's the only time he finds himself in camp at the same time as Harper, busy as she is maintaining her record number of incapacitations and captures.
The change in her is astounding.
Her hair is pulled back into a tight bun, her clothes more practical, if just as vividly colorful. ("And before you ask: yes, I do go on missions dressed like this.") But the real difference is her eyes: still bright, still cheerful, still determined as ever, but somehow sharper. Less naïve.
When Justin asks curiously (but so awkwardly) whether she knows about his and Alex's relationship, she smirks. "Justin. I'm pretty sure I knew before either of you did."
She ribs him about it, later, when she catches the two of them wrapped up in each other's arms as the entire camp gathers round a bonfire (real, not magical, as a subtle "fuck you" to the mortal-haters). But Harper's more interested in making fun of Justin's fighting ability - or rather, humorously highlighting his perceived lack thereof.
"Hey, I know you don't actually go on, you know, real missions or anything. But just in case, let me give you a little piece of advice. You ever see Crumbs? You do what we do: run. Run your ass off." Her eyes are dancing, but there's seriousness beneath her words.
Despite the bitterness of the circumstances, Justin can't help but laugh.
Three years since Alex came back into his life, and he no longer feels like hiding what they have, but that still doesn't mean they can ever go out on a date. Doesn't mean they can go out in public at all. He wants nothing more than to take her somewhere beautiful and watch the sunshine melt over her skin.
Three years on and he's sick of rooms with closed blinds.
That summer, a seemingly simple rescue mission for a low-priority prisoner turns out to be a trap. Harper, who volunteered for the mission - who always volunteers for the most dangerous missions that she, a non magic user, can get in on - brings up the rear of the retreat, taking the brunt of the fire from those giving chase. When the fleeing team reaches a choke point, she elects to stay behind and hold a defensive position to buy time for the others to escape.
Harper Finkle dies bravely in a war that shouldn't have touched her at all, but which, because it affected the people she loved most, became her war as much as anyone else's.
There's no way to recover her body and Alex can't even cry, and it is the worst day of Justin's life.
When the news comes that Professor Crumbs has been accidentally killed in a raid gone wrong, there's a celebration in the camp and it disgusts Justin to his core.
Because he knew this man. He's talked to this man, joked with him, even fought with him. No matter how wrong his viewpoint and fucked up his policies, Professor Crumbs was an extremely skilled wizard and a man whom Justin respected. And to see the resistance celebrating Crumbs' death - any death - sickens him.
He takes it out on her.
He accuses her of creating a monster, a force that, for all its pretensions at ethics, is no better than the people they're fighting against. Maybe not as willing to kill, but just as willing to wish for a death. And not just the death of a stranger, but of someone many of them have known personally. It's just the kind of callousness that allows someone to rip lovers and families apart in the name of the greater good.
"You're just like them," he yells, and she yells back fiercely, "We are nothing like them," and they're having a shouting match in the middle of a hallway and people have stopped celebrating and are just staring now, but he doesn't care. He doesn't fucking care.
"It was an accident; deaths happen," she insists, and he can't even explain that it's not about that anymore. It's about what they're becoming. They started this fight because they didn't want to be the kind of people who sacrifice relationships and destroy lives, but is it any better to let themselves become battle-hardened incidental killers? He isn't sure anymore.
Justin turns and walks away, leaving her staring after him.
The next day she leaves at the head of a prisoner rescue squad before he can get to her to apologize. He waits for her, doesn't move from the mansion foyer all day.
When the squad returns late that evening, the prisoner is with them, but Alex is not.
"I'm sorry, sir," says the trembling young man. "We did the best we could, but she wouldn't get out of there-- She just had to stay and make sure-- She made us go on without her. She's so stubborn, you know how she is--"
He does know how she is. Better than most. He waves the lieutenant away with a tense hand.
He won't let himself panic. He won't. He just has to focus everything now on saving Alex. She's priority number one. The only priority. Whatever else they might be, he is her big brother first and always, and it's his damn job to save her.
The high-ranking members of the resistance start making plans right away, and he's right there with them. He's mapped the resistance now, learned whom to call on for tactics and whom for magical expertise and whom for logistics. He's only mobile support, but in the absence of their de facto leader, they listen to him, work with him, and for that he's grateful. But there are two problems.
One: Alex is the most ingenious mind the resistance has to offer, and no one is quite sure how to make a game plan without her.
And two: their schematics of the prison building are woefully inadequate.
Justin tugs at his hair in frustration and yells, "Somebody get me Alex's informant, if you can!"
Ten minutes later, someone walks into the command room. He lifts his gaze and is met by--
"What are you doing here?" Justin asks in confusion.
Max waggles his fingers. "You called for me?"
"You're..." Justin trails off, and Max grins shyly.
"Since before the wizard competition. Nobody ever suspects me, and I'm good at making stuff up as I go along while forgetting what needs to be forgotten. Alex knew that." He shrugs. "And I wanted to help her. Since it was my fault that... you know."
Justin furrows his brow. "It wasn't your fault that she lost the powers, Max."
Max lowers his eyes. "Thanks, Justin, but even so..." After a beat he shakes his head and returns his attention to the map. "Even so, Alex is the most important thing right now, don't you agree?"
Justin has to shut his eyes for a moment. "Yeah. I agree."
Their rescue mission fails. There are no casualties, but their plan of entry backfires and they don't even get near the prison cells.
That night he breaks down, finally, alone in her room. He climbs into her bed (the pillow smells like her, not him, no matter what she says) and wraps himself up in the scent of her, tries to recall the sound of her laugh when he tickles her, the flash in her eyes when she's full of righteous indignation. But all he can see behind his eyelids is her huddled, freezing and terrified, in a dark prison cell, wondering why her big brother won't come and save her.
She wouldn't cower before her captors, he knows. Wouldn't submit to them. She would put up a fight, and a hell of a fight it would be. He loves that about her, but right now, in the darkness, he wishes with all his might that she weren't so defiant, that she would give in and do what the Council tells her in order to survive. And he despises himself for it.
Max enters at some point during the night, eyes red and miserable and pleading. Justin enfolds his youngest sibling in his arms and slowly drifts off into tormented sleep.
Justin wakes with a start, Alex's name on his lips, and his first thought is, "Day four. Day four and I haven't fucking gotten her back."
He doesn't remember falling asleep, but he remembers his dreams. His nightmares. He wonders where Max has gone.
There's a knock at the door - must be what woke him up - but he can't even muster the animus to get out of bed. "Come in," he mutters.
Felix bursts through the door. "Come here! Oh man, Justin, you gotta come here! You're not gonna believe this!"
Justin follows him down the hall, stomach churning with dread. He doesn't even let himself imagine that the news might be good. He doesn't even remember what good news sounds like.
Someone's laptop rests open on a table in the cafeteria, and what seems like the entire camp is crowded around it. Max, standing at the front closest to the laptop screen, waves him over, and the crowd parts to let him pass.
On the screen is a streaming WNN report, and it takes Justin a few moments to parse what he's seeing. The ticker reads "WIZARD COUNCIL COUP: CABAL OF COUNCIL MEMBERS UNDER FORMER FAMILY COMPETITION COMMISSION EMPLOYEE M. MCFLY ARRESTS COUNCIL LEADERS, FREEZES COUNCIL POWERS, ALLIES WITH THE WIZARD RESISTANCE. COULD THE WAR BE OVER?"
But more importantly to Justin, Alex is on screen, alive, and she's smiling.
He vaguely registers Max grabbing his arm tightly, and it takes him several moments to realize it's because he's swaying dizzily.
"Come on, big guy," Max says, grinning like a loon. "If Alex hears you fainted she'll never let you forget it."
Somehow, ending a war takes much more work than fighting one. There's more work that needs doing now than when the war was raging; the camp is in chaos, but the euphoria hanging in the air now makes all the difference.
Justin spends all day making arrangements between the main resistance camp and the people currently in control of the Council building. As it turns out, Mr. McFly, the Council auditor who once bent the rules and allowed the Russos to keep their powers in order to preserve their family, is the new High Chancellor, and the rest of the Council is suspended pending investigation into possible criminal activities. In the meantime Mr. McFly's group and Alex's resistance will cooperate to organize a new Council system, one that emphasizes personal freedom, democratic decision-making, and the inclusion of all magical races.
Justin works until early morning on the next day, but eventually he has to stop and let the proper resistance leaders take over; he has something more important to take care of.
When they are finally, finally alone in her bedroom (after he has held her and cried for a time), he asks how she got out of her prison cell, why she wasn't killed before the coup was complete.
"It was Chancellor Tootietooie, actually. It was weird - I think he saw which way the wind was blowing and wanted to butter me up - but whatever his intentions, I'm gonna testify at his trial that he let me go." She shrugs. "Maybe he really had a change of heart. I dunno."
There will be time, Justin knows, to think about that later. But right now...
Right now, Justin takes her home, back to the apartment he was forced to abandon so long ago. There he sequesters her away from the scads of reporters and fans clamoring over her.
He treats her delicately at first, as though she might burst into tears at the slightest touch, but though she's bruised and sore from the rough treatment of her four days in a prison cell, she calls him on his behavior immediately and tells him to knock it off.
"Sorry," he mutters. "I guess I'm just feeling guilty."
She looks genuinely puzzled. "Why?"
"Alex, it was... it was my fault, wasn't it?"
"We fought the night before you went on that mission and... I thought--"
"What, you thought I developed a death wish because you were mad at me?" she asks disbelievingly.
"No! No, but you might have... I don't know, taken risks. Been trying to prove something. I don't..." He sighs, rests his forehead against hers. "I just couldn't stop thinking that the last time I saw you I was screaming at you."
She puts a hand to his cheek, kisses him gently. "That's over now. We won. It's all over."
Once again he feels like she's stolen his role as comforter, but just this once he'll let her have it.
"Just don't-- Jesus, Alex, just don't ever leave me like that again. I was a fucking mess without you."
"Well, duh," she agrees fondly.
There's a lull then, and he knows if he doesn't ask her now, he never will. So he asks, very carefully (because he has to, it wouldn't be fair to either of them to ignore it), whether she wants to return to Mason. "You could restore his memory," he ventures softly. "You could--"
But she stops him with a hand over his mouth. "No," and her eyes are sad but her voice is firm. "No." She links her fingers with his. "I'm right where I want to be."
She's still thin and so bruised and when he goes to bed tonight he will still have night terrors, and there has been so, so much loss, but she is here and she is safe and her hip bone is digging into his abdomen, and he can't stop smiling because if he so much as tried his heart might burst.
She matches his smile. "We're gonna make a great couple," she says mischievously, reaching up to brush a lock of hair from his forehead. "Your grades are shot because you left school to join a revolution, and I have no idea what an honest job is."
He chuckles and cups the back of her head with his hand, pulling her forward to nestle in the crook of his neck, and murmurs in her ear, "We'll be okay. From now on, everything will be okay."
"How do you know?" she mouths the words into his skin.
"Because it's us. How could we not?" and his tone is teasing, but he has never meant the words more than he does now.
He feels the curve of her smile against his neck. He wants to pull back and look at her face, drink it in, but moments like this... you just don't break moments like this.
Anyway, he tells himself, there will be more in their future.
(And he revels in that word - future - and the absolute certainty that he has lacked since the day he found out he would someday have to choose between his magic and his sister's love.)
The night they both lost their powers - the night of the battle - they sought each other out by mutual understanding alone, as when they were children and something had upset them, a scary movie or a fight between their parents. They lay together in his bed, limbs tangled together, her vertebrae falling perfectly in line with his sternum.
There had been no discussion of thoughts or emotions or future plans. There had been no comforting words or gestures. They didn't sleep. They only lay together as the hours slipped past; it was all they could do.
But in the wee hours of the morning, when the sky was just beginning to lighten outside his window, she turned over and caught his gaze. Her face was inches from his, and while such proximity might normally have been a little odd, tonight he wanted her closer, as close as possible. Without the magic thrumming through his veins he felt perpetually chilled, and she was his source of heat. He felt that without her he might never be warm again.
She gave him the same solemn look she'd given Max during the power transfer and said simply, "I love you, Justin. Remember that, okay?"
He nodded, touched by the sincerity in her voice. "Of course." He cradled her cheek. "It's you and me, Alex. Nothing's ever gonna come between us."
She smiled for the first time in weeks, pressed her face into the hollow of his neck, and together, they finally, finally fell asleep.