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Alienation

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To say it was a normal day at Halley High was to say very little.

In the year since Wally Pearson had transferred there, the school had been attacked by autotuned androids, had its student body replaced with manufactured, over-styled pod people, and enchanted so that everyone was forced to sing their feelings aloud. Twice.

So when a voice, alien and melodic, began screaming in his head in a language he did not recognize and then just as suddenly went silent, Mack didn’t think very much of it.

“Did you get the answer to number seventeen yet?” he said, turning to Matilda.

And then Wally, sitting to the right of him, shuddered and fell out of his chair and suddenly Mack couldn’t think about anything else.

He couldn’t think of anything else through chemistry or trig. He spent lunch in silent contemplation of the hollow thud Wally’s body had made against the classroom floor. Soccer practice was a wash; Mack was too consumed with memories of the vulnerable curve of Wally’s neck and the shocking pallor of his skin to focus, and almost tripped over the ball three times before coach told him to hit the showers.

They weren’t even talking to each other, hadn’t been for almost a month, and he was damned if he knew why he cared so much when Wally had made his own feelings about Mack very clear.

That didn’t seem to stop his treacherous feet from leading him past the nurse’s office on the way out to his car.

There was nothing strange about it, he told himself, rapping upon the glass. If Wally was still there then he might need a lift home. It was what a friend would do. He wasn’t secretly glad that, after three weeks of silence and avoidance, he finally had a chance to corner the slippery bastard.

Nurse Trang looked up from her computer - quickly, but not quite quickly enough, tabbing away from petpsychic.com - and shot him a filthy look. “What did you break this time?”

“My heart.” Mack clutched his chest dramatically. Wally was sitting on the lumpy bed, looking sickly but not quite as pale as he had been in class and Mack released a breath he didn’t know he had been holding. “Aren’t you pleased to see me?”

Wally didn’t respond or look up from the exuberant ‘Lice Are Not Nice’ poster that was the object of his vacant gaze. Nurse Trang frowned harder but it was clearly, Mack decided, to compensate for how charmed she was. “I’m here late as it is. Unless you’re currently bleeding to death, get out of my office, go home, and put some ice on it.”

“I could do that, I could. But then you’d still be stuck here getting Pebbles’ paws read- how is Pebbles?” Even before Wally and his weirdness, Mack had played sports with the same reckless disregard for his personal safety with which he did everything else and thus been a frequent enough visitor that he was well familiar with the nurse’s cat.

“Adorable,” said Nurse Trang. “But you’re still in my office, still talking to me, which I find much less appealing.”

“I actually came to rescue you,” Mack said. “From tedium and tarot. You’re waiting for Wally’s parents, right? They asked me to give him a lift home.” Temperament aside, Trang took her job seriously and would have left a message at the house. Temperament aside, Wally’s father did not care for his role at all and certainly wasn’t going to come.

“You?”

“I’m his cousin,” Mack lied, stepping over to the bed. Wally was still ignoring him and Mack couldn’t tell if he was really sick, or just...being Wally.

Nurse Trang glanced between them - Wally, tall, pale and lanky. Mack, short, dark and damn near twice as heavy with muscle. “Cousins. Sure.”

“Tell her.”

“Cousins,” Wally agreed. Or echoed - he still looked very vacant.

Nurse Trang, fortunately, had turned to look longingly out of the window at the waning fall light and did not see whatever that had been. “Alright, Mr. Macintosh. I’m off home. He’s your problem now.”

“Great!” Mack took Wally’s arm, intending to pull him to his feet but recoiled with a barely stifled yelp. For a moment he had heard that awful screaming voice again, as jarring as a static shock to the brain. “ ...What’s wrong with him?” he said, turning back to the Nurse, but she was already gone.

Her computer, still on, displayed the image of a beaming cartoon cat in a turban.

***

Wally turned out to be Mack’s problem in an even more literal sense than usual.

Even at the best of times he was uncoordinated, as though every one of his limbs was a separate entity with a shaky line of communication to the rest of his body. (Except when he danced. He danced like he sang, fluid and stupidly pretty). As it was it might have been easier to transport him if he were unconscious - at least then he wouldn’t have been able to stagger into the school’s trophy cabinet, or elbow Mack in the face as he tried to steady him.

“You could at least say sorry,” Mack groused, tentatively checking his smarting nose wasn’t broken.

“Sorry,” said Wally vaguely, as though he had no idea what he was apologizing for. As though he wasn’t quite sure what the word meant. It just made Mack feel worse.

“What’s wrong with you? Is this a-” Mack quickly looked one way and then the other “-an alien thing?”

Wally looked at him blankly.

“Is this like the time the Adagions hit you with their neural destabilizer?”

Neutrinal destabilizer,” Wally corrected and listed sideways into a bank of lockers.

If he was well enough to be pedantic, he probably wasn’t dying , Mack though, dragging him back upright. The freaky psychic screaming hadn’t happened again either, which was probably a good sign. “Let’s get you home then.”

Wally fell into the lockers again. There was something off about his skin now that Mack looked closer. It had gone all dry and parchment-y and, for the first time ever, Mack found himself reluctant to touch it.

“No.”

“I could take you back to mine but my parents are in town and if anything weird happens they’re going to notice.”

“Leave.”

“Not gonna happen, bud. My place it is.” Papery skin or no, he slung Wally’s arm over his shoulders and set off towards the exit.

No matter how often he stayed late for practice, Mack never got used to being in the school after hours. Matilda had said something once about human psychology and liminal spaces, but he’d tuned out because it didn’t take a genius to figure echoey halls and too many horror movies made for an eerie combination.

It was busier than it usually was at this hour. They didn’t see anyone but he could hear voices in one of the classrooms and the clatter of running feet and the slam of a locker door coming from-

Mack stopped. Coming from where?

He looked around and they were back by the trophy cabinet. It was growing dark but the emergency lights in the hallway illuminated enough that there was no way that they could have gotten turned about.

“Did we take a wrong turn?” he asked, certain that they hadn’t. “Wally, if something’s going on, you need to-”

“Hi,” said Wally.

Not the Wally slumped against his side, who hadn’t moved and wasn’t looking at him. This Wally stood a few feet away, bright eyed and as well put together as though he’d stepped out of the pages of a magazine, like he’d looked when Mack first met him.

Exactly like he’d looked when Mack first met him, down to the out of date blue puffer jacket and too-tight jeans. Mack had been looking at his name engraved on the trophy, humming some made up tune and trying to feel excited or proud or anything about being Player of the Year. And then he’d seen Wally’s reflection in the glass and, god help him, he’d felt something-

“What’s going on?” Mack said, grip tightening on the Wally he was holding.

“What are you humming?” said the new Wally. Or, rather, the old Wally because Mack sure as hell wasn’t humming anything.

But, he realised with a sinking feeling, he had been two years ago, when they first met.

“Who are you?” Mack snapped. “Wally, Wally, get up.”

“I’m Wally Pearson,” said the doppelganger.

Mack remembered this conversation, thought back to it more often than was probably healthy, and that wasn’t an answer for him but the Mack two years ago. He stepped away from the trophy cabinet, his own Wally stumbling behind him.

The memory didn’t move. Its eyes didn’t track him, still staring straight ahead with that too bright, too intense stare, at a Mack that didn’t exist anymore.

Once he was around the corner and he could only hear the echoes of that eerily familiar conversation, he broke into a run.  

Get Silas, get Matilda, work out what the hell was going on, but first, get out . The corridor stretched out before him, cool and empty, and he and Wally sprinted down it, sneakers squeaking on the tiles, lungs burning-

Not burning. His breathing wasn’t laboured, his legs didn’t ache, and he was no further down towards the exit sign glowing at the corridor’s end than he had been when he started.

Mack skidded to a halt and glared balefully back down the hall. “Right then,” he said and set off in the opposite direction.

He’d have climbed out a window but the school board took a dim view of that and had put grills across them all. There was a fire exit behind the curtains in the school auditorium, one no one but theater nerds even knew about, and whatever spooky alien voodoo was keeping him from the main exit might have missed that one.

Wally followed him, quiet and numbly cooperative, and Mack considered making a joke about what a change that was, but he didn’t think Wally would joke back which would just make it worse.

Haley High was famous for its theater program and the auditorium was one of the nicest things about it. Proper acoustics, a serious lighting rig, and seating for a thousand people. Mack had seen it all a hundred times before, had been on that stage himself more often than he could count, and he still stopped to take a breath and simply bask every time he came in here.

Beside him, Wally might have been doing the same. Or was still feigning catatonia. Or being actually catatonic.

“Hey?” Mack said, giving him a nudge to get him started down the stairs. “Earth to Wally. Receiving me yet?”

Apparently, that was a no.

The silence was wearing at him and, honestly, creeping him out. “So did you do your History homework yet?” Mack said, picking his way down the aisle. “I’m doing Giordano Bruno. Only picked him because-” he could not say because of you. “‘Cause I thought it’d be easy. He said all this cool stuff about life on other planets and us not being the center of the universe. Pity he died for it, eh?”

And then Mack shut up because the second Wally was here too, up on the stage, looking down at them. The clothes had changed but nothing else had and it opened its mouth and began to sing.

Even two years and too much alien bullshit since the first time he’d heard it, even knowing it was the stupid theme song to a kitschy sitcom, it was mesmerizing.

The remembered Wally’s eyes were closed and his hair floated like he was underwater. It was less a song than a feeling given form. Longing and regret and hope all tangled up, sweet as candy and painful as a dagger to the heart. It was overwhelming, leaving no space in the mind for anything but the song.

“It’s nothing special,” Wally had told him once. “All Arionians can do it. It’s not the singing at all, that’s just the method of transmission for a telepathic broadcast. Like, oh, I don’t know, the envelope you mail a letter in.”

“So what does your singing voice really sound like?”

Wally had blushed and muttered and refused to let him hear it then.

In the present, Mack shook his head - long familiarity hadn’t made Wally’s singing any less deadly - and started down the stairs again.

He had almost reached the door when the song finished. And then the applause began.

The memory of Wally still stood up on the stage and, in the first row Mack saw himself, his own doppelganger, sitting in the front row, staring up at him. Wally looked down at the other Mack and beamed. Mack had forgotten, this last month, what that smile could do to him. It was like being punched in the gut.

It was even more effective on the him from years ago - had he really looked that brain dead then?

The door handle was cold beneath his hand and, still looking back at the stage, Mack turned it and stepped through.

***

The fire door should have let them out into the parking lot behind the theatre.

It didn’t.

Mack had been using doors all his life and was fairly confident that that wasn’t how they were supposed to work. The two of them definitely weren’t supposed to be in the computer lab, dim and lit by the ghostly glow of LEDs. Looking back through the door they’d entered, it led where it usually did: into the server room. That was Wally’s favourite place in the school. Despite being crap with what he deemed ‘primitive Earth tech’, he said he found the humming of the machines comfortingly like his ship.

It was as good a place to stop as any and Mack sat down with his back propped against one of the servers. Wally let himself be dragged down beside him and, without encouragement for once, let his head fall onto Mack’s shoulder. Mack brushed his hair back from his face and felt a queer jolt of disappointment when it hung limp and unresponsive - it had disturbed him once, the way it reacted to touch and restyled itself according to Wally’s mood, and Mack wasn’t sure when it had become charming rather than creepy.

“So,” he said. “I know a spooky psychic projection when I’m trapped in one - and that’s a sentence I never thought I’d have to say. You’re going to have to tell me what’s going on sooner or later.”

Beneath his fingers, he felt Wally’s hair rise like an animal’s hackles. “I’m sorry you were dragged into this,” he said in that distant, unmusical voice.

Mack elbowed him. “Less apologizing, more explaining.”

“I’m not here.”

“Duh. I’m guessing neither of us are.”

“I’m trying to fix it. But I’m having to split my attention between you and- and other things. I’m not going to be very good company until it’s done.”

When have you ever been, Mack considered saying. It would be cruel but not, he thought, entirely unfair.

He wasn’t sure if Wally saw that, or had gone back to doing whatever weird psychic thing he was doing, but his eyes went distant again and he slumped back against Mack’s side.

“Great. So what am I supposed to do now?” Mack said to no one in particular.

Outside, in the computer lab, something crashed and Mack sat bolt upright.

“Are you serious!” someone shouted, in a voice near unrecognizable with anger. Mack scrambled to his feet, dragging Wally with him, and peered around the door.

“I thought you were the one person this wouldn’t matter to,” another Wally was saying, tears shimmering in his silver eyes.

His alien eyes. Mack had always found them striking but it hadn’t been until that moment that he’d realised just how strange they were.

“What matters is that you lied to me, Wally!” yelled the shadow of himself. “You’ve been ‘teaching’ me to sing for a year, knowing I could never be as good as you. Every time something strange happens, every time I’ve doubted my own sanity, you knew it was all you?”

“It wasn’t safe to tell you! Not with my father’s hunters so close behind me, but now that 18 Delphini b is under the protection of the Autarchs of Xi Aquilae I thought -”

Mack couldn’t watch this. That fight had been painful enough the first time and already his throat was closing up with the memory of betrayal. The worst part was that nothing had changed. Here they were, a year on and Wally was still keeping him in the dark.  Not even checking that his own version of Wally was following him, he stormed out into the lab.

The ghosts paid him no mind, not as he stepped out into the room, not as he stalked up to them, not as he went to shoulder his past self aside. His arm past straight through his own chest and that was an image that would haunt his dreams. Or would have, if he hadn’t spent the past two years living through weirder things. He didn’t even pause, just kept going, out of the room and into the endlessly looping maze of corridors.

***

Mack ran, memories unspooling around him.

There was Silas posing in the corridor, covered in leaves and green paint for his awful art project, Matilda running shrieking from the shop classroom pursued by smoke and the botched battlebot she’d made out of old car parts and cannibalized pieces of Wally’s ship. He sprinted past the trappings of his school life, bake sales gone wrong and alien invasions that came too close to going right. His friends and his enemies and those weird, loner kids he never talked to.

More than anything, though, he ran past Wally and himself. Wally looking embarrassed and annoyed (and weirdly hot) in Mack’s too-small gym shorts and the two of them in tights from Mack’s ill-advised attempt at a musical version of Macbeth. Mack singing to himself in the changing room showers - was he really that loud? - and Wally standing on the table in the canteen, yelling at everyone to stop eating because he’d just realised where sausages came from.

Every moment was gone as quickly as it had come, so fast that if it weren’t his own life being played back he’d not have been able to process any of it. There was one moment though, just one, that kept repeating.

It was the most recent memory he’d seen. Wally and himself, covered in dust and slime, sitting beside the water fountain. Wally’s uncle’s minions repelled and the school saved, and Wally turning to look at him, solemn face transformed by his smile, and Mack couldn’t help himself, he’d lean in and-

And the memory would stop. And play again.

Enough. Mack skidded to a halt, Wally almost plowing into him, and with a snarl, Mack turned, caught him by the shoulders and slammed him into the wall. “I know you love your weird, secretive bullcrap but there are limits. Why is this happening?”

“I let it- I let you- I shouldn’t have, but I wanted…” Wally shook his head. Opened his mouth. Closed it again.

“Wanted what?” Mack said when it became clear Wally wasn’t going to finish. “I can help you, you know I can. I helped you before when the Vespirians came, but you have to tell me-”

Wally flinched and his unfocused gaze suddenly sharpened, starting past Mack to something on the floor behind him.

Reluctantly Mack turned, already half certain what he would see.

He’d known it had looked bad from how pale Matilda got and how Silas hugged him afterwards and wouldn’t let go, but it turned out that being prepared to be confronted with your own corpse didn’t make it any easier.

Mack lay on the floor, pale with dust and ash, his right leg twisted up under him in a way that was really going to hurt when he woke up. His nose was bleeding, and his ears, and there was pinkish foam drooling from the corners of his mouth.

Kneeling over him was Wally, looking as put together as ever.

He wasn’t though, Mack realised. He hadn’t noticed the first time but from this vantage, it was painfully obvious that Wally’s eyes were red and swollen and his hands, smoothing down Mack’s jersey over his unbeating heart, were shaking.

In a small, wavering voice he began to sing. None of his power went into it - as far as Wally knew there was no one to broadcast to - and so what came out of his mouth was rough and scratchy and not entirely in tune. It was one of the songs Mack had written for Mackbeth! and it should have cheesy, but in a voice that raw and hurting it struck harder than a thousand more accomplished performances. Wally stopped halfway through the second verse, voice too choked to go on.

“You really are awful at that,” Mack said because his chest hurt and if he said anything else he was afraid that he’d start crying himself.

“I did warn you,” said his Wally, though he sounded a little hurt.

Mack turned away; he remembered the look of stunned relief on Wally’s face well enough that seeing it again wasn’t really compensation for watching his past self shuddering and vomiting through the awful pain as the Vespirian venom wore off. Some things you only needed to experience once. “There’s one memory that keeps repeating,” Mack said.

Wally didn’t say anything.

Mack was used to that but there was something very deliberate about this particular silence. “No comment?”

The aftermath of his own death vanished and in its place were him and Wally a month ago, again.

Mack watched as their shades smiled and turned and froze like clockwork toys. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

“No,” said Wally - his Wally, head snapping up.

“It is, isn’t it? All of this is because I kissed you.”

No.” The vagueness and vacancy that showed Wally was dividing his attention between multiple projections was gone. All of him was here now. All of him what staring at Mack in horror and, yes, embarrassment. “It’s more complicated than that, there was a catalyst, yes but the crisis had been building-”

Mack laughed aloud. “Did I kiss you so good I broke your brain?”

“It wasn’t- I- ...Look, that’s not the point.” Wally stepped forwards and glared at the still figures until the images wavered and flicked out. “I know how to get us out of this. It’s easy. I’ve been trying but there’s still some stupid part of me that thinks I could- that there’s a chance- that it matters.”

“And it doesn’t?” Mack said, an edge creeping into his voice. “It doesn’t matter that we kissed?”

“It doesn’t have to,” Wally said, eyes bright and desperate. “Whatever part of me is holding on to that is here. We can find it within the projection and destroy it. Then you’ll be free.”

“Destroy it,” Mack echoed. For someone who got a perfect score on every math test (‘music, mathematics, it’s all the same,’ Wally always said, but had never managed to explain how), Wally could be immensely dim. “And what if I don’t want to?”

Wally laughed. It sounded forced. “You can’t want to be trapped here - in an imaginary high school - forever.”

“No,” Mack said. “No, you’re right, we have to get out.”

“Then you’ll help me?”

“Yes,” Mack said and grabbed him by the collar and kissed him for the second time.

He felt Wally go stiff, mouth open beneath his in a half-stifled protest, and then his hands closed about Mack’s forearms in a desperate grip. For a moment Mack thought he meant to throw him off and tried to draw back, but Wally followed him, pressing his body against Mack’s, mouth opening further so that their tongues could brush. Mack reached up to run a hand through Wally’s hair and felt it writhe at his touch, tangling about his fingers. Wally moaned, even that stupidly musical, and Mack felt a jolt of arousal so intense it was like licking a battery. In a good way.

It was Mack that broke the kiss, releasing Wally so that he stumbled backwards a few steps.

“You’re an idiot, I’m in love with you, and I want to wake up now,” Mack panted. “Have I made my point?”

Wally bit his lip, pinked skin going pale and bloodless again. “You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what I am.”

“The boy - the Arionian - I’m taking to senior prom?”

“That’s the problem. We’re not what you think we are. This-” Wally gestured to himself, encompassing the whole of his body “- isn’t what I really look like. It’s just a projection. So that I’d fit in. I never meant for you to- to think.”

“So what do you really look like?” Mack said. He’d seen Star Trek. He could live with pointy ears or a bumpy forehead. Heck, he’d watched an anime or two in his time. If there were tentacles then he thought that he could handle it.

“I can’t.”

“You won’t. For god’s sake Wally, how many chances have I given you? How much have I taken on faith? It’s your turn to trust me for once.”

The world flickered around them, a hundred, a thousand moments shared replaying in an instant. Every mistake and lie and pointless, hurtful argument. Every sacrifice and danger survived and last minute rescue. The duets and shared jokes and quiet moments when they did their homework, sat a hand’s breadth closer than a friendship would account for. The hugs that lasted far too long because neither could bear to break them. The jacket Mack had borrowed and never given back. The first kiss, awkward and over far too fast. The second, longer, and still done much too soon.

“Okay,” Wally said. “Okay. I will. I do.”

And he unfolded.

There were, in fact, pointy ears. Plus an extra, unnecessary two feet of height, far too many teeth, and eyes that burnt like white phosphorous. Wally’s face hadn’t changed enough though that Mack couldn’t interpret that sheepish expression. It was almost exactly the one he’d worn after he got them both thrown off the debate team for interrupting with an extemporaneous ballad about the constitution.

And to think Mack had been preparing for tentacles.

This is your big, brain-breaking secret? Listen, I had my sexual awakening watching Labyrinth. Mostly I just want to see you in black leather.”

Wally stared at him as though he had not understood. Kept staring until Mack tugged his head down and kissed him again. More carefully than last time, not because of the fangs but because his stupid, idiot boyfriend - boyfriend! Mack thought triumphantly - still looked so unsure.

They clung together afterwards, more tightly than they had after they defeated the Symphonoid invasion. More so than after Mack had almost died to the Vespirians, if only because his arms were working properly now.

Wally pulled back just a little - a little was all he could manage with their hair so tangled together - and smiled crookedly. Despite the sharp teeth, or perhaps because of them, it was pretty hot. “I’ll have to see about the leather.”

“For pro-”

“Not for prom.”

“Spoilsport,” Mack said. “Nice as this is, I would like to wake up sometime soon. My parents will wonder where I am.”

“Time passes differently here-”

“Wally, shut up and wake us up.”

“-your problem now,” said Nurse Trang.

“What?” said Mack. They were back in the sick room, him bending over Wally, who was still sitting on the crappy bed.

“I’m actually feeling much better,” said Wally. He winked at Mack.

“Good, because I’m going home,” said Nurse Trang. “You’ve wasted enough of my time.”

“Sorry, Nurse Trang. We’ll let you lock up.”

Wally elbowed him and Mack shook his head to clear it. “Yeah, thanks Nurse.”

He grabbed Wally by the wrist - almost habit now - and drew him to his feet, winding an arm about his waist to steady him.

“I’m fine, Mack,” Wally said. “You don’t need to-”

Kissing him for the third time - the second? Did imaginary kisses count? - was even better than their previous attempts put together and even Nurse Trang swearing at them, stamping her foot and then storming from the office could not spoil it.

“I wasn’t kidding about the prom,” Mack said when they could both breathe again.

“My father won’t like it.”

“I don’t give a damn what your father thinks. Was fighting my way through a psychic projection just to kiss you not proof enough?”

“Yes,” said Wally. “I suppose it was. But if you have other arguments to add-”

Mack did. Not for nothing had he been debate team captain (however briefly), and Wally awarded him full points.

And the black leather.