Justin is five when he gets to babysit her for the first time.
They're just watching Robin Hood, and Mom is one room away with Max. It's not even anything that hasn't happened before, really. But this time is different, because Mom had said, "You're in charge, okay, little man?" and raised her eyebrows at him before she left. Well, then Alex had curled her little fingers in a goodbye wave, and Mom had to come back and coo over her for a second. But then she left, so Justin figures the order still stands.
He thinks about what he should do now that he's in charge.
Alex watches him climb down off the couch, but when he comes back and puts a juice box in her hands, her eyes are glued to the archery tournament in the movie. He sticks the straw in for her and she starts drinking, eyes wide on the TV screen.
Alex has been around pretty much as long as Justin can remember, and he likes her okay. Mostly she just watches everything happening, because it's all new to her. But lately she's been getting into trouble more--unlocking doors and crawling into that big potted plant on the landing.
Justin watches her intently. Alex fixes her eyes on him as she takes a break from her juice, holding it in both her hands and panting in that cute way she does like she forgot to breathe while she was drinking. She is so little and helpless, and he doesn't have the word for it yet, but Justin feels a rush of responsibility. His mom trusts him to look after Alex, and that's what he's going to do.
He does, for years, and one day when he's supervising her on a bike ride, things change again.
She's had her training wheels off for months now and Justin made sure they're both wearing all their protective gear, but she's still only seven, so he rides behind her just in case. He follows her down Waverly Place, but instead of turning around when she reaches the end of the block, she turns the corner and keeps pedaling. Justin rides around her and she stops in front of an antiques shop.
"What are you doing?"
"Move, I wanna go to the park." She sounds cross.
"You can't," Justin says. "We have to stay on the block."
Alex pushes at the ground with her feet and tries to get around behind Justin, so he backs his bike up. He says her name in warning.
"You are such a goodie two-shoes," she spits, like it's the absolute worst insult. "You're--you just want Mom and Dad to think you're the good one, 'cause you never let me do anything fun, and you're a dumbhead."
"Nice, that doesn't even make sense. Home, Alex."
Alex backs up and turns around, muttering something that sounds like, "Big dumb...dumbhead."
Justin has realized by this age that Alex is a huge brat, and that being bad isn't just a matter of childish curiosity for her anymore, but an actual hobby. She's always trying to get out of going to school, which is ridiculous, because school is fun. But he's never considered her the bad one or himself the good one--those would imply that they were in some kind of competition. Maybe they are, in a way.
"I am the good one," he realizes aloud.
The label makes him feel uneasy, like Alex had pulled him into something he didn't even know about, and pushed him as far away as possible at the same time. It's the first time ever that Justin thinks he might hate her a little. Suddenly he does want to be the good one, just to get back at her.
"Yeah, good at being a dumbhead," Alex responds.
A few months later when he finds out about the Wizard Competition, Justin is ready. He's ready to want to win.
Justin doesn't often use spells for selfish reasons, but one of the times he does is in 10th grade, to get Penelope Linkmeyer to go on a date with him.
Penelope is the prettiest girl in his math class--which, okay, so she's not very pretty, but she is in his math class, and everyone knows a 6 for regular people is a 9 for people who understand trig.
Unfortunately, when he asked her out before, she said, "Is this offer for a study session," and, upon clarification that it was a purely social venture, Penelope only stared blankly at Justin until he awkwardly extricated himself from the situation.
Justin figures he has another shot now, since he and Penelope are next to each other on the new seating chart. He pauses in the hall on his way to class and whispers, "Scentus incensus." It's a pheromone spell, not a love spell. He just wants her to stop being weird long enough to decide if she really likes him.
He has the reversal spell memorized in case things go south, but it actually works like a charm. Well, it is a charm, but still. Penelope keeps leaning her head toward him and giving him appraising stares with her sweet brown eyes. He secures a date with her as they leave the classroom, while she's still under the power of his scent, and she even giggles. It isn't a particularly pleasant noise, but Justin's riding high on his victory, so it sounds pretty good to him.
So much that as he says goodbye, he doesn't even notice he's turning right into Alex.
"Oh," he says. She has her arms crossed.
"Did you just use magic to get that poor girl to go out with you?" she says.
Justin opens his mouth to protest, but he's not a very good liar, and when he does lie he's usually covering for Alex, so she knows all his tells. She's onto him before he's even made a sound.
"Oh my gosh, you did. I was just kidding! Justin, that's--" Her teasing cuts off mid-stream and she sniffs at him, then steps into his space, pressing her face into his chest and breathing deep. "Justin," she says again, but this time it's just a whisper against his shirt. He knows she's being affected by the spell, he can hear it in her voice, but it also has that exasperated whine she can't seem to separate from his name. Justin feels weird.
His whole body stiffens under the continued press of her mouth against his collarbone. The rest of her body crowds against his, inch by inch, like she's trying to sneak inside him. He grabs Alex's shoulders and holds her at arm's length.
She looks dazed for a second, but then she rolls her eyes at him, and he feels a rush of relief. "Whatever, I'm telling Dad," she says, and then she's off down the hall, smiling back at him once before disappearing.
Justin takes a deep breath. He has to swallow hard a few times before he can manage to remove the charm, and then promises himself he won't use it again.
Misusing magic is wrong.
"Good afternoon. Are you here to see Dr. Munster?"
Alex and Justin, out of breath from running in the cold, are silent for a few long moments but for their puffing. Justin moves his monster detector behind his back, way too late to hide it from the receptionist, but she doesn't seem to notice.
"That's right," Alex says, making a show of brushing some snow off her sleeve. "Dr. Munster. Kind of...grey looking guy, real skinny, big hat, right?" she describes Justin's suspected monster--leaving out the part where he sometimes shrinks down to the size of a matchstick and slips through keyholes to steal cheese--and the receptionist nods. "Okay, yeah. I have an appointment with that dude, where'd he go?"
The receptionist looks between the two of them then down at her appointment book. Justin picks up a business card off the desk.
"Vargas?" the receptionist asks Alex. "Are you married?"
Alex pauses, clears her throat, and leans against the desk a little. "Why? W-what did you have in mind?" It's the worst flirting ever. She sounds so uncomfortable, clearly taking one for the team, trying to keep the lie going. The receptionist stares at her, uncomprehending. Alex smiles awkwardly.
Justin grimaces and tries to busy himself by reading the business card. Oh.
"Yes, we are a couple," Justin says, way too loudly.
"Well, we're a couple of people. There's two of us," Alex explains to the receptionist, clearly not getting it. "Anyway--"
"We're here for couples counseling. Together."
Alex looks at him and he can see the pieces falling into place. "That...makes sense too." She smiles at him, that smile she gets when she should be embarrassed but she's not.
The receptionist tells them they're early but that the doctor can see them shortly, and she seems only too happy to direct them away from her desk to the sofa on the other side of the room. She keeps glancing over at them though. Justin's pretty sure she's onto them.
"How do you always get us into stuff like this?" he says to Alex under his breath.
"I'm only helping you as a favor," she replies.
His hands are cold and he starts fidgeting nervously.
"Stop it, you dork," Alex whispers, not quietly enough. It's immature and not very coupley, and the lady behind the desk frowns at them. Justin fidgets some more.
But then Alex puts her hand on top of his, resting the movement. She takes one of his hands and drags it into her lap. "It's gonna be okay, honey," he tells him, loud enough for the receptionist to hear. Then Alex leans in and presses her mouth to his. It's just a peck, like they do sometimes when they greet their mom's side of the family, but it feels like more than that. Alex smiles at him and he doesn't know if this is for show anymore.
Her hand is warm from being inside her mittens, so his fingers instinctively curl into hers. He looks at the floor and maybe he smiles too.
Justin and Alex both jump a little at a sudden buzzing from the reception desk.
"You two can go on in," the receptionist tells them.
A laugh bubbles out of Justin--he doesn't know why--and he covers it with a cough. He follows Alex into the room where the "doctor" is waiting and swings the door shut behind him. Alex pulls out her wand, and their monster seems to disappear in a crackle of magic. After five minutes of searching, chasing, and knocking things over in the small office, they catch him in a Tupperware with a mint leaf in it to suppress his powers so he can't change back. Justin puts it in his jacket pocket. Alex, out of breath, hair a mess, hooks her arm through Justin's.
"There's no one in there," she says as they emerge into the front office. "We're just gonna go." The receptionist starts to protest their leaving, and another couple--the Vargases, probably--enter noisily, but Alex just slides her arm around Justin's waist and says, "We don't need counseling anyway. We're perfect." Justin's probably the only one who hears her.
Alex is always lying her way into stupid situations, and Justin thinks maybe he likes being involved in them. Maybe a little more than he should. Maybe a lot more than he should.
He grins as he leads them out. When they've gone a block or two on the sidewalk, Alex lets go and just walks next to him. He deflates a little at the loss of contact, feeling colder than the cold air, but then she smiles over at him. Yeah. He should definitely keep trying to avoid this kind of stuff in the future.
One evening, an evil wizard transforms a whole mess of pocket elves to be bloodthirsty little monsters and sends them to all wizarding houses on the portal system. It's the worst.
This is how Justin ends up battling dozens and dozens of elves when Alex walks into the lair and sets down her shopping bags.
"Hey, Justin. This looks like fun. What ya' got going on here?" Her words come out all garbled around the rice krispie treat she's eating.
"Whoa, do we get to keep all these?" says Max, wandering in behind her. He looks delighted.
"I think these elves are cursed," Justin explains, zapping an elf to emphasize the severity of the situation.
"Ew." Alex's face scrunches up as she looks at the singed pile of elf. Then she has another bite of her rice krispie treat, but after that, at least, she takes out her wand, so Justin counts it as a win.
"What do we do, Justin?" Max, meanwhile, has his wand at the ready and his serious face on. "Oh, I gotta feed my guinea pigs," he remembers, and leaves the room. Justin can't find it in himself to be surprised.
"Okay, don't let any of them near you," he tells Alex. "If this is the spell I think it is, they're gonna be really poisonous."
Alex zaps an elf. It turns inside out. "Ugh, can we just lock them in here or something 'til we figure out how to fix them? This is so gross."
"Actually, yeah." Justin is almost certain he read about this spell, but he can't remember all of the details. "Most of them should stay in the lair anyway, because it has the highest concentration of magic in the house."
The two of them back out of the room and seal the door. Justin keeps his wand trained on it, just in case. Alex also faces the door and has her wand out, but she's also draped herself across the countertop next to him, lounging, so it doesn't seem like her heart is in it. Justin wonders why she can't take this seriously for two seconds.
"So," she says conversationally, "Elves again. Y'know what Dad's gonna--Ow!" She looks down and kicks an elf hard in the head. It falls unconscious a few feet away. "Stupid--"
Justin looks down. There's a little bite taken out of her calf, and it looks like a deep purple bruise is blossoming as he watches. Alex sways a little.
"Alex, lie down," he says. She does, without even a sarcastic retort, and that worries him. He props her foot up on a box. "Dad!" he yells over his shoulder.
"Hey, Justin? This hurts." She's pointing to the bite, like he wouldn't have known what she was talking about. Most of her lower leg is purple now and the bruising has spread up under the leg of her capris. Around the bite, the skin is turning an ugly brown. She's making an exaggerated pouty face like she's kidding around, but she sounds like she's trying not to cry and her eyes keep focusing on different things.
"I don't remember how to reverse it. I don't know what's happening."
"Owwww," Alex whines weakly. She squeezes her eyes shut and she turns her head to the side. Justin can see the bruising spreading up across her neck. He tries not to panic, tries to concentrate and remember what he read, but it's just not there, he can barely remember what he's supposed to be thinking about when Alex is dying right in front of him.
Dad comes into the kitchen in time, and he knows the right spell, which Justin parrots after him. The poison stops, and Alex is fine by the next day.
But Justin doesn't forgive himself, doesn't know what he would have done if it had all been on him and he had failed, can't think about what it would do to him if he had lost her. He has to work harder. He has to be better.