RATING/CONTENT: T/PG-13 (and only just) for references to consensual, slightly underage sibcest, and mild cursing. Established Jalex, from Max's POV.
DISCLAIMER: Would you believe that I don't own Wizards of Waverly Place or its characters? Shocking, I know. I also don't own Spider-Man, Bizarro World, Sonny With A Chance, or the state of South Dakota. Heck, even the Halloween Sorority Party Disaster series doesn't belong to me, and that isn't even a real thing! Man...!
SPOILERS: Incidental spoilage for Season 3 (up to about Episode 3.12, "Dude Looks Like Shakira") and the movie, but nothing major.
SUMMARY: Tired of always playing third wheel to Justin and Alex, and tasked with spying on them by a paranoid Jerry while their parents are away, Max inadvertantly uncovers a secret that's way, way bigger than he bargained for.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Cross-posted from my LiveJournal, where it originally appeared on December 1, 2010. Written as a companion piece to my last multi-chapter fic, Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger (where it fits in neatly between the last two chapters), but that mostly just matters to me. It's not necessary to have read that story to enjoy this one.
"Ungh!" Jerry grunted, red-faced and out of breath as he struggled to navigate down the spiral staircase into the living room, while carrying the last of his wife's bags.
"Jeez Theresa, what do you need all this stuff for? We're only going to be gone for the weekend!" Stopping halfway, he set the bag down with a grunt, and leaned heavily on the railing, exhausted. "And why the hell do we have so many twisty stairs in this place, anyway?"
Panting heavily, trying to catch his breath, he looked up to see Max sitting on the edge of the couch, bobbing and weaving as he waved a video game controller in the air between him and the television, his shoulders hunched in deep concentration. (Well, in at least what passed for deep concentration where Max was concerned, anyway.)
"Hey Max, buddy?" Jerry called down to him. "You wanna come and give your old man a hand with this?"
"Can you give me a sec, Dad?" Max said over his shoulder. "I'm just trying to remember where I dropped the chainsaw."
"Oh," Jerry panted, wiping the sweat off his brow. He looked past Max at the TV and blinked. "Uh, Max? What's that you're playing?"
"Halloween Sorority Party Disaster 4.5," Max replied. "It's the videogame prequel to Halloween Sorority Party Disaster 5 that fills in all the plot holes between it and the fourth one. It's essential to play if you're going to understand anything that happens in Halloween Sorority Party Disaster 6 when it comes out in theatres this Christmas."
"Ohhh-kay," Jerry said hesitantly, stepping over the bag in front of him and coming the rest of the way down the stairs. "Is it supposed to look like that, though? 'Cause from here it looks like the TV isn't even on..."
"Well, of course the TV's off," Max said matter-of-factly, without taking his eyes off the blank screen. "I don't have the game yet."
Jerry blinked again. "You...don't?"
"Duh, no!" Max scoffed. "It's rated 'M' for mature. You have to be at least 18 to buy it. I'm only 15, remember?"
"Ah," Jerry frowned, not quite sure where Max was going with this. "But then why-?"
"But what you don't have to be 18 to buy is the hint book," Max cut him off, grabbing the book off the couch next to him and holding up for Jerry to see. "Which I am now using to train myself in playing the game, so that when I finally do turn 18 and buy it, I'll be able to beat it in no time at all, and finally learn the horrible secret behind the midget's mask."
"But...that's not for three years, son," Jerry pointed out.
"No worries, it's all about the muscle memory," Max said, glancing at his father over his shoulder. "Aren't you the one who says you can still beat Donkey Kong with your eyes closed twenty years later?"
Jerry stared blankly at his son then heaved a heavy sigh. "Of all the ways you could have taken after me..."
"Oh, shoot! Died again!" Max grunted, throwing down his controller in disgust.
"How can you tell?"
Max cocked an eyebrow at him and gestured at the blank TV screen. "Hello? Midget? Meat cleaver? Blood spatters? It's pretty self-evident, Dad. Good thing I saved at that last checkpoint."
"Well, why don't you...pause it...for now," Jerry said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the staircase, "and give me a hand dragging your mom's luggage down to the Sub Station. The cab will be here to get us any minute."
"Oh, don't worry about it, Max," Alex's voice came from upstairs before he could answer. "I got it."
And then, in a brilliant flash of purplish-yellow light, the bag Jerry had been struggling with magically appeared on the coffee table in front of them.
"ALEX!" Jerry shouted, then closed his eyes and mentally counted to ten. "Alex, get down here!"
"What?" Alex protested, the heels of her boots clanking on the stairs as she made her way down. "I'm just trying to help! That bag looked heavy, and the stairs are all twisty. Have you ever tried maneuvering down those things in three-inch heels? 'Cause lemme tell ya, it ain't easy."
"In case you've forgotten, young lady, you're grounded this weekend," Jerry said. "Which means no dates, no boys, no parties, and most importantly, no magic. In fact, any activity at all which you might consider fun, you can just cross right off the list. The only thing I expect you to concern yourself with this weekend is helping Justin to run the Sub Station while we're away, and catching up on your Wizard studies."
Alex rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. "OK, Dad."
"Don't talk back, Alex," Jerry admonished, jabbing an index finger at her accusingly. "It's high time that you learned that with great power comes great responsibility!"
"Oh God, not the Spider-Man speech again," Max groaned.
"Uh, Dad?" Alex held out her hands in front of her. "Who's got two thumbs and isn't talking back? This girl right here. So, maybe, I don't know, chill a little?"
Jerry blinked at her, then cocked his head to the side and narrowed his eyes as he replayed the last few moments of the conversation in his head. "That's right, you didn't talk back. And that worries me, deeply. Why didn't you talk back, Alex?"
"D-a-a-ad!" Alex whined, stomping her heel in frustration. "Can't you just believe that I've matured enough to accept my punishment like an adult? 'Do the crime, do the time,' all that jazz? I've grown up a lot since Puerto Rico, y'know."
Jerry was silent for a moment as he held his pouting daughter's gaze. Squaring his shoulders and taking a deep breath, he held up one hand as if preparing to say something wise and heartfelt...then leaned forward and slapped his knee as both he and Max suddenly collapsed into helpless peals of laughter. Alex threw up her arms in exasperation, then crossed them below her breasts and shook her head angrily.
"Good one, honey," Jerry chuckled, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. "But seriously, hand over your wand, huh?"
"You really still don't trust me?" Alex said. "After everything we've been through?"
"No offense, sweetheart, but it's because of everything we've been through that I don't trust you. Fool me once, yada yada yada, you know how it goes." He held out his hand and wiggled his fingers at her in the universal gesture of 'gimmie'. "C'mon, give it up."
Alex glared at him a moment, nostrils flaring, then rolled her eyes and hunched over to lift her right knee to her her chest. Muttering under her breath, she fished her wand out of her boot, twirled it once around her finger, and pressed the handle into her father's palm.
"Atta girl," Jerry smiled as he tucked it into his back pocket. "You can have it back on Tuesday after your mother and I get back."
"Wait, you're going to bring it with you all the way to Grandma's?" Alex asked in a panicked voice. "What if you lose it? What if you sit on it? What if she uses it as a stake for one of her tomato plants like she did that one time?"
Max whistled at the memory. "Man, those were some big tomatoes. Mean, too."
"Relax, Alex," Jerry sighed. "Nothing's going to happen to your wand. I'll keep it perfectly safe, I promise."
"The last time you said that, I spent two weeks breaking in a new one, and Justin had nightmares about tomatoes with fangs for six months!" said Alex. "Dad, be reasonable! What if one of the boys gets into trouble while you're gone, and I have to go rescue them, or something?"
"Pfft!" Max scoffed from the couch. "Like that ever happens."
A slow grin spread across Jerry's face. "See, now I know that keeping your wand is the right thing to do. Because you definitely want it for something, and I'll be damned if it's to look out for your brothers."
Alex glared at him, then slumped her shoulders in defeat. "Yeah, that was a little far-fetched, wasn't it?"
"Little bit. Points for trying, though."
"Cab's here!" Justin announced brightly as he entered through the front door. "Dad, Mom says to hurry up and get your tush downstairs with that last suitca—oh good, there it is."
Whipping his wand out of his pocket, Justin twirled it in the air with a flourish and pointed it at the suitcase, which disappeared in a brilliant flash of purplish-yellow light. Justin grinned, nodded to himself in satisfaction, then started as he caught the glare that both his siblings and his father were giving him.
"What?" he protested. "The meter's already running! That bag looked heavy, and the stairs are all twisty! And you know how prone my ankle is to turning..."
"Your mother and I expect you to set a much better example for your sister and your brother while we're gone," Jerry said patiently after another inward ten-count. "I swear, every day it seems like Alex rubs off on you just a little bit more. It'd be nice if it worked the other way for a change."
"Heh," Alex and Justin grinned, almost in unison.
Jerry frowned. "Why is that funny?"
Justin and Alex locked eyes guiltily for a second, before turning them back to their father.
"Uh, it's funny," Justin stammered, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck nonchalantly as he flushed a deep shade of red, "because of the, um...irony...that's inherent...in the notion of—"
"The fastest way to kill a joke is to explain it, egghead," Alex broke in quickly, chuckling as she threw her arms around Jerry and leaning her head against his shoulder. "Have a nice trip, Daddy!"
"Yeah, thanks," Jerry said flatly, extricating himself from her grasp. He pointed at Justin. "You're sure you're OK with this? Labor Day weekend. Sub Station's gonna be busy..."
"Dad, please," Justin said smugly. "I've got this."
"We've got this," Alex amended pointedly, then smiled at Jerry. "You and Mom just have a good time. Say hi to Grandma for us."
"Alright," Jerry said, although he sounded somewhat less than convinced. "Justin, remember: one pickle per sandwich, don't go overboard with the black olives, and don't forget to make the deposit. Alex, you listen to your brother, help out as much as you can, and for God's sake, don't let Harper offer free fashion advice to the customers. I swear, we lose more business that way..."
"Uh, Harper's away at Zeke's family reunion all weekend, Dad," Justin reminded him. "Remember? The Big Beekerman Family Fun Jamboree in the Hamptons?"
"Snkt, jamboree!" Alex snickered, elbowing her brother in the ribs. "I don't know which one of us is being punished more, me or Harper. Because, dude, if the rest of the family's anything like Zeke, I'd almost rather be on house arrest..."
Justin scowled at her, indignant. "For your information, the Beekermans are delightful people, the Jamboree is the highlight of the late-summer social season, and I'm very disappointed to have to miss helping his grandmother defend our title as Three-Legged Race champions, three years running."
"Three years hopping, you mean," Max grinned. "Get it? Because it's a three-legged race, and-"
"Wait, so Harper's not picking up any shifts at the Sub Station?" Jerry cut him off, frowning from Alex to Justin, and back. "It's just gonna be you guys, all weekend? I dunno, I'm beginning to have second thoughts about this. I mean, I know she's a terrible at it and all, but if it's between having her or Max wait tables..."
"Dad, it'll be fine, honest," Alex said, patting Jerry's arm. "You know how responsible Justin is."
"And Alex and I make a pretty good team when we have to," Justin added. (And if Jerry didn't know his kids better, he'd swear that a kind of amused, knowing look passed between them for a split second, like they were sharing some sort of inside joke.) "Seriously. You don't have anything to worry about."
This should have quelled any uneasiness Jerry had about leaving them alone for the weekend—after all, it was all true—but for some reason, it didn't. If anything, it only served to feed the deep sense of foreboding that had been lingering in the back of his mind about it for almost as long as they'd planned it. If only he could put his finger on why...
His train of thought was broken by the sound of a car horn coming from the street below the terrace, followed by Theresa's melodious voice screaming at him to get his ass downstairs, already.
"Hey Alex, it's Cab 804 that's taking them, by the way," Justin said, gesturing to the door. "He's asking for you."
"Bert's here? Oh, sweet!" Alex beamed. "C'mon, Daddy, let's go say hi to him before you go!"
"Mmm-hmm," Jerry murmured. But he didn't follow them as they went bounding down the stairs, one after the other, without so much as a shove or an elbow to the ribs. Looking for all the world like two people who were content, even happy, to be in one another's presence.
And then Jerry snapped his fingers, as the source of his vague sense of foreboding suddenly became clear to him: Alex and Justin were being nice to each other. Way, way too nice. Pleasant, even. Which meant that something was definitely, positively up. Because, seriously.
"What do you want me to do, Dad?"
"Huh?" Jerry asked, startled. He turned halfway round, and was surprised to see Max sitting on the couch, grinning eagerly up at him. To be perfectly honest, he'd completely forgotten his youngest was even there.
"What do you want me to do?" Max repeated. "You gave jobs to Justin and Alex. So what's my job?"
Despite himself, Jerry found himself hesitating. "Uh...y'know...the usual. Work your shifts at the Sub Station, keep on top of your wizard homework...um...and try not to break the lamp? Oh, and keep working on that video game thing! It looked like you were really getting the hang of it!"
"Oh, c'mon Dad!" Max half-sighed, half-pleaded as he pushed himself up off the couch. "You're letting Justin run the Station all weekend, and even Alex you're trusting a little. Even though, y'know...wow."
"Yeah..." Jerry admitted, a little more quickly than he would have liked.
"It's just that it always feels like it's all about them all the time," Max continued, despondent. "They always get to run the show, and I'm just kind of...shoved in around the edges, kinda. Sometimes I wonder why I'm even around!"
"Hey, don't say that," Jerry frowned, laying a hand on Max's shoulder. "You're not just shoved in around the edges. You know you mean as much to me and your mom as Justin and Alex do."
"Then give me something to do!" Max exclaimed. "Give me a job that only I can do, that you wouldn't trust Alex or Justin with."
Jerry took a deep breath and let it out slowly, appraising his youngest son. On the one hand, Max was...well, Max. But on the other, the boy did have a point. The Russo family did tend to orbit around Planet Jalex, more often than not. And there was always that old saw about needing to be trusted in order to prove oneself trustworthy...
"Alright, Max," Jerry nodded, more to himself than to his son. "There is actually something you can do for me. You see, my Spidey Sense is tingling."
"And again with the Spider-Man speech..." Max said flatly as he turned away.
"No wait, listen," Jerry said, grabbing Max's shoulder firmly. "What I mean is that I suspect your brother and your sister may be in cahoots."
Max stared up at him blankly.
"Working together," Jerry said by way of explanation. "As in the two of them are up to something no good. I know how unlikely that sounds, but they've been far too nice to each other lately for there to be any other explanation."
Max nodded and stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I have noticed a drop-off in the usual cycle of wedgies, wet willies and overall snarkiness the past few weeks, but I thought it was just me."
"They also seem to be hugging a lot more, lately," Jerry observed. "For uncomfortably long periods of time, too."
"No, they've always done that," Max said, waving one hand dismissively.
"Oh," Jerry frowned, nonplussed. "Uh...anyway, it's possible that Alex has either a) blackmailed Justin, b) put a charm on him so he'll go along with whatever she's up to, or c) just duplicated him outright and hidden the real Justin away somewhere where he can't interfere."
"Or d)," Max interjected, holding up one finger, "something recently happened between them that gave them a deeper appreciation for one another and made them realize just how important their relationship is."
Jerry considered this for a moment. "Yeah, I'm more inclined to go with my theory."
"Me too, me too," Max nodded. He grinned eagerly. "So you want me to get to the bottom of it?"
"Without arousing their suspicions if you can, yes," Jerry said. "Now remember, you're just a scout. Don't engage the enemy, just observe and report. Whatever you find out, we'll deal it with on Monday night when your mother and I get back. Understand?"
"Yes sir!" Max said, snapping off a jaunty salute.
"Alright, then. One more thing." Jerry reached into his back pocket, then handed Alex's wand to Max. "On the off chance that I'm wrong—or even worse, if I'm right—Alex makes a good point that it could be dangerous to leave her wandless over the weekend. I want you to stash this somewhere she can't find it—"
"Right on," Max said. "I'll hide it in my room."
"—but where you can get to it easily if she needs it in an emergency," Jerry finished.
"Oh," Max grimaced, thinking twice. "So somewhere in the lair, I guess?"
"Wherever you think is best," Jerry smiled, patting Max on the shoulder. Out on the street, Bert the Cab honked his horn again, which was followed closely by a string of Spanish expletives, causing Jerry to wince.
"I gotta get going, son," Jerry said. "Can I trust you with this?"
"You bet, Dad," Max nodded, all smiles. "Whatever it is Justin and Alex are hiding, you'll know it by Monday."