Author: NWP-RR Writers PM
The Nuns With Pens RoundRobin Project - A run in with White will take Max and Alec to the most dangerous and exciting adventure of all, as they travel from Parallel Universe to Parallel Universe, searching their way back home. **Check profile 4 info**Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Romance - Max & Alec - Chapters: 5 - Words: 67,609 - Reviews: 37 - Favs: 32 - Follows: 42 - Updated: 08-11-10 - Published: 12-28-08 - id: 4749799
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Rating: PG13… *shrugs*
Disclaimer: Neither Dark Angel nor Sliders belong to me or any of the Nuns (although I know many of us wish we owned Alec… Mmmh, Alec). Although the characters Micah, Luz, Addy (which are only named in the story) actually don't belong to me, but the names do… :D
Chapter 4: The World where everyone is somebody else, aka MIRROR, MIRROR
Max and Alec hit the ground running, the wormhole spiraling to a close in their wake in a cascade of shimmering blue and white. The two X5s staggered, stumbling awkwardly in an effort to stall their forward momentum.
Trying to slow down from a sprint without hitting anything when your head and stomach are both performing somersaults is not as easy as it looks.
Max's shoulder collided with something that felt suspiciously like a brick wall and she rolled against it, her jacket scraping against the coarse surface as she steadied herself. A few feet ahead of her, Alec skidded to a halt and lowered himself into a crouch, taking a moment to get his equilibrium back.
Max dragged in a deep breath and shook herself. That ride had been particularly rough.
"You alive?" she asked tersely.
"No, Max, as it happens I'm deceased," he deadpanned as he straightened up. "I've been zombiefied and condemned to wander each and every universe as your brainless puppet."
Max didn't dignify his comment with a response. She chose instead to concentrate on their surroundings. After all, what right did he have to be sarcastic? She wasn't the one who'd been making out with her sister while the egg-timer counted down to zero.
As stupid as it sounded, that was where she drew the line. Friends – or whatever she and Alec were – were not supposed to stick their tongue down the throats of interdimensional doubles of their friend's siblings. It was a rule.
"Well… no demon-human wars, so I'd say we've traded up," she decided, glancing back over her shoulder to inspect the damage the wall had done to the leather. She sighed as she saw the pucker-marks in the black material.
Great. Just fan-freakin'-tastic.
Max cast a sidelong glance at Alec, a little underwhelmed by his response. The man himself and his non-stop smart-ass commentary was pretty much the only constant she had to cling to in this insanity. She really needed to find a world with an Alec who would just obey her every unspoken whim without question. She could totally live with that.
All the training. None of the trouble-making tendencies. Like Alec-Lite. Diet X5. All the taste and half the calories.
Max wrinkled her nose at that thought. That wasn't quite the direction she'd intended to take with the idea.
Tasting Alec was definitely not on the menu. Ever.
"So how long do we have?" Alec asked, glancing towards her.
Max obligingly checked the PUT device and grimaced.
"Twenty-two hours," she replied. "Come on." With that, she walked off before giving him a chance to reply. She recognized Terminal City but there was no sign of battle, no smoky haze obscuring her vision in the early morning light. No spank-wanking vampires chowing down or half-dressed porn star wannabes wreaking havoc.
I can work with this, Max decided.
"Do you think this might be it?" Max asked hopefully, gazing around for any overt sign that anything was different. So far, so good. No wolf men. No humans in pens, milling around like cattle waiting around for the slaughter.
This world actually looked sane, which was a start.
Alec shrugged, looking around with curious green-gold eyes. He wasn't prepared to get her hopes up in any way, shape or form. Not until he had more information. The last thing they needed was to get into trouble right off the bat like they had last time.
"Let's check out the Needle," Alec suggested, striding ahead before Max could reply. She glared at his back, irritated with him for choosing to morph into sensible-Alec at a moment when she would have taken any excuse to smack him up the side of the head. Irrational, yes, but still true.
It was stress. Clones aside, Max had never anticipated coming face-to-face with herself in such a fashion. Now in the space of three days she'd met Manticore Max, Feminist 452 and Bimbo Barbie. It was enough to make anyone cranky.
With these grim thoughts swirling around in her head, Max finally started walking in his wake, trying really hard to keep her hopes in check until they could verify that they were indeed home. It wouldn't be the first time that the universe had thrown her a curve ball.
Max sighed. The Space Needle was three sectors away and they still didn't have a decent mode of transport. The only thing world-hopping had going for it was that it was damn good exercise.
The hair on the back of her neck prickled and her eyes swiveled to the side as the feeling of being watched rolled over her. After ten years on the run, a girl learned to trust her gut about that kind of thing. Alec must have sensed it too because he slowed his stride so she could catch up to him. Strength in numbers and all that stuff.
"You see anyone?" she murmured.
"Nope," Alec replied quietly as she fell into step with him.
"With our track record…?" Alec slanted a rueful look in her direction.
"Now that's a helluva thing to say on your own turf," a new voice called out. Max and Alec whirled towards the sound, simultaneously dropping into a combat stance as a hulking figure emerged from the shadows and dashed all their hopes at the same time.
Max saw Alec's jaw drop out of the corner of her eye and hers wasn't far behind.
"What are you doing in this neck o' the woods, Princess?" Joshua asked, lowering his shotgun.
Princess? Max could only stare, wide-eyed, as the dog-man puffed on a cigar, his long brown hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. Oh… my… God…
"Joshua?" she finally croaked.
"Ain't often you're speechless," the transhuman chuckled. "Cat got your tongue?"
"Rough night," Alec interjected, shaking himself out of his shock long enough to make a vaguely intelligent response. He decided to take a punt. "You know, burnin' the candle at both ends."
Joshua snorted. "She finally teachin' you to loosen up a bit, huh?" he replied, bringing the shotgun up so that the barrel was laid across his shoulder. "'Bout damn time."
Max gave her follow X5 a quizzical look, as confused by such a statement as Alec was. No-one had ever accused him of being dull to her knowledge.
"Right… so what brings you out this way, big guy?" Alec asked, hoping to settle into a somewhat normal conversation. Yet the dog-man gave Alec a slightly curious glance, leaving the X5 to wonder what he'd said that warranted a reaction, muted as it was.
"Perimeter sweep," Joshua shrugged, taking another draw from his cigar and blowing out a smoke ring. "Had a few ordinaries throwin' trash over the fences earlier."
Max nodded, trying and failing to not stare at Joshua. "Did they give up or did you scare 'em off?"
Joshua grinned, flashing his canine teeth. "I mighta helped 'em along a bit."
"You didn't hurt them, did you?" Max asked tentatively. She'd enough anti-human brutality I Castor's universe to last a lifetime.
Joshua regarded her speculatively. "Since when are you the killjoy in our menagerie? That's usually his job." He gestured towards Alec and chewed on the end of his cigar.
Alec raised an eyebrow but decided to roll with it. "Well, all right, as the resident killjoy, I'll bite: did you send 'em packing in one piece?"
"Yeah, yeah, do no harm and all that crap." Joshua rolled his eyes. "But you'll be singin' a different tune when they figure out we're not some junkie's hallucination and start throwing firebombs over the fence instead."
Max and Alec exchanged a look that spoke volumes. It appeared that some things weren't so different in this reality after all.
"So, uh, Joshua…" Max began, pushing the weirdness to the back of her mind for the moment. "Don't s'pose you've got a phone book around here somewhere?"
"This is officially freakier than Castor and Siren playing hide and seek for runes," Max muttered to Alec as they entered headquarters. "I thought nothing could top vampires and werewolves but this…this is just wrong."
"No argument from me," Alec replied in the same vein.
Several people they knew had passed them on their way in but none of them had reacted as the two X5s would have expected. Those who would normally ignore them cheerfully greeted them while those who could usually be counted on to chat happily had shunned them on sight.
It was like someone had thrown the world into a bag, shaken everything around and when they tipped it out it was all mixed up.
"Hey guys!" Dix enthused, waving from where he was working at a computer terminal. The monocled transhuman quickly went back to his work. Max returned the wave weakly while Alec flashed a grin that died just as quickly, like a shooting star. Both were acutely aware of the way a few people gave them strange looks.
"What the hell, Alec?" Max said from between gritted teeth.
"How am I supposed to know?" he replied quietly.
"You're supposed to be the sociology expert," Max reminded him, folding her arms across her chest.
"I must have missed Interdimensional Relations 101," Alec snarked in return. "It's not like this gig came with an instruction manual."
"So use that big X5 brain of yours and figure it out," Max huffed. "I'm sure it could use the exercise."
"And what exactly are you contributing besides attitude?" Alec retorted, pinning her with a quelling glance.
"I'm the one keeping my eye on the prize and not the booty of every female we run across," Max shot back. "Try keeping the blood flowing in the right direction, okay?"
"Do you think you could stop obsessing about the lower half of my body for a second, Max? If it's not my ass, it's my – Ow!"
"That's for thinking for even half a second that I have any interest in your ass or anything else," Max said primly, ignoring the glare Alec shot her way as he rubbed the back of his head. "The only ass I care about is Logan's."
"Which you made abundantly clear when you dumped it," Alec muttered. "I'm sure he's feelin' the love, Maxie."
"Don't call me Maxie," she hissed.
"Whatever you say, 452," Alec shrugged.
"Mac?" Joshua waved a hand in front of Alec's face to get his attention and jerked his thumb at the computer screen. "You're on."
Alec managed to wipe the blank look of confusion off his face with admirable speed, all things considered. But that didn't stop him from glancing back at Max and mouthing 'Mac?' in complete bewilderment. She just waved him on and followed a few feet behind.
Alec was expecting to see Logan's face on the screen. In their world, he was usually the only one who contacted Terminal City via a video feed. So when he recognized the person waiting to speak to him, he had to do a double-take.
Original Cindy smiled warmly at him, her normally wild hair tamed and pulled back. "How are you?"
"Uh… good… thanks," Alec replied, clearing his throat awkwardly as he tried not to stare. Cindy's face fell slightly and Max craned her neck to get a better look without ending up in the picture herself. "How are you?"
"Warm and dry," Cindy sighed. "Can't complain."
"That's good," Alec said simply, searching for something to say to the rather wistful look in Cindy's eyes as she gazed at him. It was a little unnerving.
"Just thought I'd check in, make sure everything was okay," Cindy offered, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
"Yeah, well, we're fine," Alec assured her blithely, hoping it was near enough to the truth in this reality that it wouldn't raise suspicion. Cindy blinked.
"Okay," she said stiffly and Alec got the distinct impression that he'd just unwittingly kicked a puppy or something. He stifled a sigh; not having a clue about what was going on was getting old real fast.
"Okay, I'll see ya," Alec offered, wanting to keep it short. Long conversations offered too much of an opportunity to trip up. As it was, Alec wasn't terribly comfortable with standing in the middle of Terminal City Headquarters, wondering when his double was going to show up.
Cindy looked stung. "Okay… bye."
Alec stepped down from the computer terminal and found Max shaking her head at him.
"What?" he challenged her.
"Well, that looked awkward," Joshua observed, still chewing on the end of his cigar.
"Thanks for stating the obvious, Josh," Alec replied wryly.
"Hey, you're the one who broke up with her," Joshua said as if he was discussing the weather.
Max grabbed Alec by the arm before he could reply and steered him away from Joshua, then pointed towards another area of the room. "Look at that."
Alec followed her gaze and spotted Mole…
Max led the charge, pulling Alec along with her and gave him a swat on the arm that earned her an annoyed look before he obediently opened his mouth.
"Hey, Mole," Alec tried and watched a grin wreath the lizard-man's face.
"Hey, Little Fella," Mole replied gently. "Talk to Cynthia?"
Alec nodded, his mind moving at a million miles an hour as he added up everything they'd seen since their arrival. "Yeah, she's good," he replied smoothly. Oh, this is just perfect…
"Misses Mac," Mole told him. "Mac misses her too."
That's it. We just hit ten on the Richter scale of weirdness. I broke up with Cindy… uh, Cynthia? And Joshua called me Mac…
"Yeah, you got it," Alec replied automatically, running his eyes over what Mole was working on. "Whatcha got there, Big Fella?"
"It's a flag," Mole informed him, beaming at his masterpiece. "Our flag."
"Yeah, 'cause we're gonna need a flag when our transhuman drill team is marching down Fifth Avenue in the Saint Paddy's Day parade," Dix sniggered.
"Let's not forget half-time at those Seahawks games," Luke chimed in.
"Hey, cut it out," Max snapped, frowning at the pair. Even Alec was giving them a look that plainly read 'shut up'. "You heard enough yet?" Max asked under her breath.
"Oh yeah," Alec agreed quickly and clapped Mole on the shoulder. "I'll, uh, see you round, okay?"
"See Mac later," Mole agreed.
With that, the two X5s made a beeline for the door.
"Hey, where are you two going?" Joshua called after them.
"Work!" Max shouted the first thing that came to mind, closing the door behind them.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Alec asked hastily as soon as they'd cleared the building.
"As frightening as that is, I think I am," Max admitted, her expression a mixture of horror and dismay.
"Mole is Joshua and Joshua is Mole," Alec said aloud, "and they're calling me Mac."
"And you apparently just broke up with Cindy."
"Does that mean she's straight here or did I pull a lesbian?" Alec mused, suddenly looking curious. Max promptly whacked him across the shoulder.
"Concentrate!" she chided him.
"I'm multi-tasking," Alec defended himself.
"So multi-task about something useful."
"I will if you will."
Max squashed down the urge to grind her teeth in frustration. "Three worlds and we're still not home. How long is this going to take?"
"Left my crystal ball at home," Alec quipped. "I guess we'll just have to see how this plays out."
"I'll tell you how this is going to play out: if you don't shut up, I'll kill you."
"You asked the question."
"It was rhetorical!"
"Max, if you don't calm down, you're going to have a stroke or something," Alec cautioned her. "I'm not carrying your ass through however-many universes we get stuck in, so take a breath already."
Max clenched her jaw but didn't reply. She hated it when she wanted to rant and he turned into the voice of reason. He'd only ever snapped at her once for bitching at him and that had been at Joshua's dinner party. He hadn't lost his temper with her since.
"Let's go," Max finally said grimly.
"Go where?" Alec replied.
"Where we meant to go in the first place," Max groused. "The Space Needle. Maybe we can just wait it out up there."
"Twenty-one hours sitting on the Space Needle?"
"Well, how do you propose that we find an answer to how this stupid egg-timer works?" Max exclaimed, waving the object in question in his face. "From what we've seen, Mallory isn't going to be who we need in this dimension. He'll have switched lives with someone and we have no idea who!"
"Point taken," Alec conceded. "But twenty-one hours? Max, there's gotta be something we can do in the meantime."
"Well, if everyone's switched like we thought, maybe OC can lend a hand. I've been thinking and maybe she's Eyes Only here."
"After your little brush-off earlier? I'm sure she'd love to help."
"How was I supposed to know I'd dated her?" Alec squawked.
"Oh, I don't know, Mister Suave, maybe if you'd used your head for a second and paid attention to the way she was looking at you –"
"That's pretty rich coming from Miss I-Refuse-To-Acknowledge-That-My-Brother-Has-A-Crush-On-Me –"
"That was none of your business!"
"My business or not, it was pretty damn obvious."
"It's not the same thing."
Max gritted her teeth. "Fine. We'll go and see Cindy. If you're right, she has a better chance of finding our physicist than we do on our own."
"Agreed… and we can stop by Jam Pony on the way."
"Why?" Max asked, not seeing the point in that at all.
"Aren't you curious?"
Max paused. "About what?"
"Well, so far my life in this dimension looks a helluva lot like yours," Alec reasoned. "Don't you want to know who you are in this world?"
"You want to go looking for me?" Max looked skeptical.
"And me too," he added as an afterthought. "If we can't do anything constructive here, we can at least check out how things work. How many people do you think have had the chance to jump realities like this?"
"I don't think it really matters if they can't get home," she argued.
"Unless their physicists were shot in the chest by snake cult whack-jobs, I think anyone else who did this would be in better shape than we are."
"And that's comforting how?"
"Where there's life, there's hope?" he offered.
"Nice philosophy, grasshopper, but how 'bout a little realism?"
"Yeah, cause this whole situation is what we would have called realistic a week ago," Alec drawled. "Think of it this way. Out of the Maxes we've met so far, you're still the best of the group. Worst case scenario; you can't complain as much about your life sucking."
"And what about you?" Max said, turning the conversation around on him. "What if we run into a version of you that humps women's' legs at parties or something along the way?"
"Then I guess you'll just have to learn to appreciate my charm, Maxie," Alec grinned, as irrepressible as ever. "Let's just swing by on our way through. It's on the way to the Needle and Fogel Towers anyway."
Max rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Let's just get going."
"I knew you'd see it my way."
"No, you just had a point about spending over twenty hours together on the Needle. I might pitch your ass over the side."
The barren streets of Terminal City quickly gave way to the hustle and bustle of people and markets and bike messengers weaving in and out of dilapidated traffic. Max chewed her lower lip as they progressed, ears and eyes peeled for any sign of trouble. Transgenic-hating graffiti sprayed across walls, news reports condemning X-series soldiers for thefts and deaths. It all seemed like their reality.
How could everything be so similar yet so different?
They scaled the fences surrounding the sector checkpoints with laughable ease and finally found themselves standing in the shadow of the building across the street from Jam Pony.
"Do you hear our voices in there?" Alec asked, listening intently
"No. Could be a good chance to check the place out."
"As long as our twins don't show up."
"Only one of us should go in," Max decided, peering around the corner with a slight frown marring her features. "It'll be easier for one of us to hide than both of us."
"All right, you stay here," Alec replied, moving to step out from behind Max but she grabbed hold of his arm and smacked him across the back of the head.
"Ow! What the hell was that for?"
"Don't be an idiot. I'm going in."
"Why do you get to go in first?" Alec protested, rubbing his scalp where she'd hit him. "You want Normal busting your chops?"
"No but I don't want him following you around like a lovesick puppy either," Max replied acerbically.
"Aw, Maxie… you do care," Alec said, laying a dramatic hand over his heart.
Max just rolled her eyes. "We're supposed to be keeping a low profile while we check this out."
"Hey, I can do low profile," Alec defended himself, folding his arms across his chest.
"Riiight…" Max drawled sceptically. "That's why you walked around for months flashing that barcode and decided cage-fighting was the best way to stay off the radar."
"I wanted to have some fun. So sue me," Alec shrugged. "It's not like Normal's gonna lay off if you walk in there instead of me. It just means there'll be more yelling."
"For thirty seconds if he manages to catch me and then he'll back off," Max pointed out. "If you go in, he'll be kissing your ass until the timer hits zero. And that's if he's still the same as he is in our world."
"Wasn't stealth the aim of the game here?" Alec reminded her. "I could hula into that place around noon and still talk my way out of it. No harm, no foul. People love me."
"Unless there's another Alec in there already getting the gladiator-treatment," Max replied, giving him an amused glance as he grimaced at the reminder of Normal's rather exotic muscle-rubbing fantasies. "Two Alec's would be way too much for Normal or whoever the boss here is to handle. We want to avoid him, not kill him."
"But what a way to go," he smirked, then stopped, his face falling slightly. "Okay. That came out wrong."
Max sniggered and stepped out from behind the building. She heard Alec grumble slightly but he wisely refrained from trying to argue any further as she made her way towards the entrance, scanning her surroundings continuously for any sign of her twin.
So far, so good.
Sky rode out of the doorway with a head full of dredlocks and waved at her, flashing a friendly smile in her direction. She nodded in acknowledgment and waved back half-heartedly. Steeling herself, Max stepped over the threshold.
And let out the breath she'd unconsciously been holding.
No sign of anyone Max or Alec-ish.
Buoyed, the brunette kept walking, taking in her new surroundings.
"Okay…" Max muttered under her breath. "So far, so good."
She made her way to the lockers and quickly scanned the tags. Several caught her attention.
Mac. Alex. Reagan. Logan…
"Delivery for Sector Three!"
Max jumped, startled, and found a well-known face holding a package under her nose.
"Sketchy?" she blurted, taking in the gray trousers, horn-rimmed glasses and sweater vest.
"Sketchy?" he echoed, clearly puzzled. "What's that? Some kind of new fad you kids are into, Rock Star?"
Rock Star? Max blinked. I'm getting a migraine…
"Logie, where the fire truck is Mac?" Sketchy demanded to know, shooting a sharp glance over her shoulder.
Mac? Alec's double? Max wondered and then her brow creased as the rest sank in. Logie?
"He's gonna be here any second," a familiar voice replied. Max turned around and nearly swallowed her tongue as her eyes widened, almost bugging out at the sight that greeted her.
Logan Cale was standing in the middle of Jam Pony, his light brown hair flowing down over his shoulders, wearing a mesh shirt that she half-suspected belonged in the shop window of a blue-light specialty store. Her lips twitched and she stifled a cough.
Okay, just stay cool, she told herself, nearly strangling herself as she pursed her lips and tried to choke down a bout of totally inappropriate laughter. She turned her head in another direction but it was no good – the image was burned into her retinas. Definitely not home. Oh my God!
Clearly Logan and Original Cindy had switched places.
She suddenly wished she had a camera. When she got back to her own world, she wanted to show Cindy what she'd seen. Her friend would never believe her otherwise.
"Ah, Calvin?" Max took a guess at his name, figuring it couldn't hurt to exploit her apparent standing in Sketchy's eyes in this universe, "I'm not feeling so hot…"
"Say no more," Sketchy replied and shoved the package at Logan. "Sector Three. Corner of Fairview and Ward. Bip!"
Max winced as Logan gave her an irked glance before accepting the box. How did Alec do that and get away with it? Most other riders would have gotten smacked across the head for pulling a stunt like that.
"Go home and rest up," Sketchy told her. "Can't have my best rider getting sick."
"Uh… right," she agreed lamely. "I will. Thanks."
"Rock Star," Sketchy murmured, patting her on the shoulder before scurrying away to berate yet more employees for offences both real and imagined. Max ducked away from the gesture, a little creeped out by the idea of him touching her.
I don't think I want to know what I'm like here any more, she thought in dismay.
It was the voice, not the name it uttered, that caught Max's attention to begin with. She glanced up, about to rebuke him for following her, when her brain intervened and pointed out that he was dressed differently. In a tidy black turtleneck to be precise... and rather flattering black leather pants.
Max was so accustomed to seeing him in jeans and casual shirt that opened at the collar that the contrast was rather stark. Her Alec was the epitome of cool, calm and charismatic when he wasn't being a pain in her ass.
This Alec radiated tension as he gazed down at her, his arms folded across his chest.
This must be Mac. Wait a second… did he just call me Alex? Oh, hell no…
"Uh… hey," she said lamely, hoping she could wing it long enough to get back outside with the phone book. She'd already met raving nymphomaniac and freaky priestess versions of herself. She really didn't want to run into whatever passed for her in this screwy universe.
Especially if it dressed like Logan.
"Got a job for you if you're interested," the double informed her. "The take's fifteen large each."
Typical, Max thought, relaxing as she stepped into familiar territory. Alec and money had always had a close relationship. All right, so spit out it and let me get the hell outta here already.
"Yeah?" She kept her tone light. She didn't want to invite unnecessary conversation.
"Yeah," Mac replied. "Some guy's got a stash of stolen paintings. Cynthia did some digging for me. She says they're worth a fortune."
Oh hell no, Max thought, shoulders slumping.
"So are you in?" he asked. Max nodded numbly. "Okay, I'll meet you tonight at eleven at the back of the old Hudson building. Bring the usual gear."
"Sure," she agreed, silently hoping her double wouldn't get into too much trouble for not showing up.
"You all right?" he asked, running his eyes over as if he wasn't sure what to make of her.
"I'm fine," she replied automatically and watched his eyebrow quirk suspiciously.
"You seem quiet," he pointed out. "You're never quiet unless something's wrong."
I'm not? Uh oh.
"Your hair's straight. And since when do you dress like that?" he continued, bringing Max up short. She looked down at herself, frowning slightly at the accusation in his voice.
"Like what?" she asked, irrationally miffed. Considering the wild differences in both Logan's and Sketchy's fashion sense, she really shouldn't have been surprised by the question but still...
Oh God… please don't tell me I dress like a two-dollar-hooker, she pleaded inwardly. I've had enough of clones that can't keep their clothes on!
"You're not sick, are you?" he asked, reaching out to touch her forehead. Max ducked out from under his hand, batting it away. "You don't normally feel the cold."
I knew it, Max fumed. I'm walking around in a bikini and heels in this universe, aren't I? Aren't I?
"I just felt like toning it down today," she replied with a little more growl in her voice than she intended.
There was a clear warning in his tone.
"I'm okay," she assured him quickly, holding up her hands in surrender. "I promise."
He gave her a doubtful look but relented nonetheless, apparently mollified for the moment. "All right, I'll see you tonight. Don't be late."
"Eleven behind the Hudson," she repeated with a sigh. "I've got it."
"Good," he replied, making a face. "And take a shower before then, okay?"
Mac turned on his heel and walked away, leaving Max staring after him with her mouth hanging open, insulted and mortified that he'd felt it was necessary to comment on the way she smelled. Sweaty pursuits aside, it wasn't her fault she hadn't had access to a shower or a bath for the better part of three days. She sniffed at herself experimentally and wrinkled her delicate nose.
Okay, so she wasn't exactly exuding a rosy perfume but still…
Max smacked a fist into Mac's locker, imagining that it was his head, and nodded in satisfaction when the red-painted metal bent beneath the force.
Satisfied that she'd seen as much as any girl could reasonably expect to deal with, Max turned to saunter towards the door and recognized yet another familiar voice… though she certainly didn't recognize the clothes she was wearing. Or the hairstyle. Or the wire-rimmed glasses.
Original Cindy – or was that Cynthia McEachin? – was walking into Jam Pony in a gray pencil skirt, a perfectly pressed white blouse and elegant high heels. Her hair, which Max had never seen as any less than a riot of ebony curls, was straight as a poker and pulled back from her face in a French roll.
And the warm, wistful look on her face was directed at Mac.
Well, at least she saved me and Alec the trip, Max thought wryly.
Max's expression became thoughtful as she looked from Cynthia to the X5 male who was staring at the chocolate-skinned woman with a mixture of reluctance and hope.
"Hey you," Mac said with a quiet smile as Cynthia reached him. They didn't reach out to touch each other. His hands stayed firmly anchored in his pockets.
That isn't what I act like with Logan, is it? Max thought.
"You seemed pretty weird on the phone earlier, so I thought I'd drop by," Cynthia explained and Max grimaced. She hadn't thought that Alec's little talk earlier would bite them in the backside quite that fast. Granted, he hadn't had any idea that he was talking to his double's ex-girlfriend. Cindy was a lesbian back in their reality, after all.
"On the phone?" Mac frowned. "I haven't talked to you for three days."
Max decided it was an opportune time to make herself scarce until she could get Cynthia alone but the moment she moved, Cynthia caught sight of her.
"Hello, Alex," Cynthia said stiffly. Max nodded tentatively as Mac shot her a pleading glance but she had no idea what he was pleading with her to do, so it was wasted on her. She settled for staying where she was and playing it cool.
"Hey, Cynthia. How's it going?"
"Fine," Cynthia replied flatly, her dark gaze practically boring a hole in Max's skull. The X5 female tried not to squirm – she'd never been on the receiving end of such a look from Cindy before. It didn't help that she didn't know why she was being looked at like that – as if she were something 'Cynthia' had stepped in.
It took a few moments before Max felt a twinge of recognition and she struggled not to make a face as she finally placed where she'd seen it – Logan got that look on his face whenever he talked about, talked to or encountered Alec.
No, surely not. Logan wasn't like that and this world was not identical to hers.
Max cleared her throat softly. "Uh… Cynthia, once you're done with Mac, I was kinda hopin' I could ask you a favor."
That look flashed across the black woman's face again but she grudgingly nodded.
"What is it?" she asked, folding her arms across her chest. "You might as well tell me now. I'm not staying long."
"Just a name and address," Max told her. "Quinn Mallory."
"I'll work on it."
"Thanks. I'll, uh, swing by your crib later," Max mumbled and retreated, walking out of Jam Pony in a kind of horrified, overwhelmed daze, leaving Mac and Cynthia to hash out their problems on their own.
"Max? Everything okay?" Alec asked, his fingers closing around her arm as she stepped into the alley. She looked up into his face – his blessedly familiar face with its familiar expressions and familiar smart-ass manner temporarily softened by concern – and swallowed.
"We've seen some weird shit since we stepped through that wormhole," Max told him, "but that is so screwed up on so many levels."
"What's wrong? What happened in there?" he asked.
"You're me," she said, still trying to wrap her head around it, "and I'm you," she continued. "And Sketchy's Normal and Logan's Cindy."
Alec's expression was priceless. He was looking at her as if she'd completely flipped her lid.
"Run that by me again," he urged her, "slowly."
"I didn't stutter, idiot," Max replied, a hint of snippiness creeping into her manner. "I met you – Mac – in there and he called me Alex. Get it?"
"So you mean that you're literally in my skin in this reality? And I'm in yours?"
"Mm hm," Max nodded, wrinkling her nose at the prospect. "I think so."
"That's kinda kinky," he joked only to receive a hard slap on the bicep. "Ow! Stop hitting me!"
"Stop making stupid smart-ass remarks," Max replied sharply. He rubbed at his arm, scowling at her in irritation as the sting faded.
"Fine. Stop being a bitch and we'll call it even," Alec shot back. Max glared at him.
"Cynthia showed up. I asked her to find Mallory."
"Yeah, I saw her walk in."
"She was looking at me like she wanted me to disappear."
"Imagine that," Alec deadpanned, avoiding her eyes. Max's brow furrowed slightly.
"Does Logan do that?" she asked. "Look at you like that, I mean."
Alec shrugged. "I've had worse," he replied simply.
Max pursed her lips. She didn't like the sound of that.
"I need a drink."
"It's not even noon."
"I was thinking… from what we've seen in this reality, most people only seem to be a few steps removed from the lives they had back home," Alec mused. "So if Cindy finds Mallory in this world, it shouldn't be too hard to find the astrophysicist who built the PUT in this universe in his circle of friends or something."
He and Max had taken refuge at Crash, which was scarcely populated during the day, and were hashing out some semblance of a plan over a pitcher of beer.
Max already had a plan. Get home, get in the shower. That was it in a nutshell. She'd taken advantage of the lull and wiped herself down as much as she could in the bathroom but it hadn't really done much. She still felt disgusting.
"Makes sense, I guess," Max sighed, "but I don't think anyone's going to put up their hand and confess to building something that sounds crazy."
"Sounds like Manticore but we won't know until we try," Alec pointed out. "Come on, at least it'll kill some time. I thought you'd be more enthusiastic about this. You know, charging in, all pistons firing?"
"Yeah, I am, it's just…"
"Just what?" he prompted her.
"I was just thinking about being at Jam Pony today," she admitted reluctantly. "Seeing everyone there but seeing everyone different… You wouldn't believe what Logan was wearing."
Alec perked up at that tidbit of information. "You said he switched with Cindy, right?"
"This I gotta hear," he smirked and Max almost smiled.
"Think gay Goth," Max told him and Alec chuckled. "Long hair, mesh shirt…" Alec laughed harder as he pictured what she was describing, the sound so rare that she grinned in return with uncharacteristic ease. "Dog collar…" Max continued, finding laughter bubbling up inside her at the memory. "He looked ridiculous."
"Kinda makes me appreciate the old Logan," Alec said ruefully. "At least with him I didn't have to worry about being hit on."
Max snickered and swallowed a mouthful of beer.
"Well, if our theory is right, you two are firmly in the friends zone in this reality."
"Ahhh… but I'm not Mac, am I?" he reminded her, waggling his brows. "Here I'm Alex, so a male me might be a different kettle of fish."
"A male you is a pain in the ass. Relax, Logie is not going to hit on you," Max told him firmly.
"Logie?" Alec let out a bark of laughter. "Ha! I had that in my phone. I knew it!"
"Don't get smug. There's probably a world out there where you have a stupid nickname too."
"Don't even mention that… that…"
"Seductress? Temptress? Flasher of flesh?"
"I'm going to hit you if you keep going."
"I get a warning now? How considerate of you."
"Enjoy it while you can."
"Yes, ma'am," Alec replied smartly, eyes twinkling with humor.
"Besides, it's not like you can talk. Castor wasn't big on clothing either."
"But why hide perfection?" Alec asked mischievously. "Fangs aside, that world wasn't all bad."
"You would say that when Jondy was sucking your face off."
"Hey, rumor has it that Castor wasn't exactly ignoring you."
"Where did you hear that?" Max demanded in a hushed tone, rounding on him with outraged brown eyes.
"No X5's hearing is that good."
"You don't want the truth, Max, believe me," he cautioned her.
"What is it?" Max growled, scowling at him as his grin turned lascivious. "What?"
"I smelled him on you."
Alec ducked as Max swung at him.
"Take that back!"
"You asked me!"
"I didn't ask you to smell me!"
"It's not like it was intentional. We're both kind of on the nose."
"You try not having a bath for three days and see how you smell!"
"Are you forgetting that I've been on this crazy trip with you the whole time? When have I had a chance to shower? And I'm the one who got branded with cow manure, remember?"
"Ass," Max grumbled, flopping back down into her seat.
"I knew you had a thing for that part of my anatomy."
Max made a face and thumped him on the chest.
"So when do you want to drop in on Cindy and see if she came up with anything?" Alec asked, diplomatically changing the subject.
"Give it another hour," she replied grimly.
"Or three, if she and Mac are really like you and Logan. They're probably still looking deeply into each other's eyes, trying to figure out why she thinks she talked to him this morning –"
"What would you know about it?"
"Max, you look at Logan like the sun rises and sets on his stubble."
Max gave him a withering look. "I do not look at Logan like that."
Alec coughed into his fist, uttering something that sounded suspiciously like 'bullshit'.
"That's mature," Max bit out sarcastically.
"But true nonetheless."
"Maybe later… Crap."
"Hide!" Alec barked softly, yanking Max off the stool so quickly she almost spilled her beer.
"What is it?" she hissed, pulling out of his grasp so she could look back. Max grimaced at what she saw. A bunch of Jam Pony messengers had turned up for their allotted lunch hour and sure enough, Mac was among them.
"Nice save," Max said without much thought as they took shelter behind a wall.
"I have my moments," Alec shrugged, peering around the barrier to catch his first glimpse of the man wearing his face in this world. His lip curled slightly. "Is he as uptight as he looks?"
"Gotcha. You in my skin. Of course he's that uptight."
Max elbowed him in the ribs in retaliation. "One more comment like that and I'll –"
"What? Bitch me to death? You'd miss me."
Max gave an inelegant snort, falling back on her trademark sarcasm. "Right. I'd miss the snarkage and stupid jokes and the flirting with anything female –"
"And my ass, Max. Don't forget that."
"You need to shut up."
"You're just saying that 'cause I'm right."
"For the last time, Alec; I don't care about your ass."
"Makes me wonder why you kept on saving it."
"You come in handy from time to time."
"Keep telling yourself that, Max," Alec said, winking at her.
"So are you two okay, boo?" Logan asked, his voice carrying to twin sets of transgenic ears. "Logie thought he sensed a bit of tension 'tween y'all."
"Oh, that's priceless," Alec snickered softly. "Look at what he's wearing –"
"Sshh," was Max's only response.
Mac grimaced. "I don't know. I told her I needed some space but I don't think she heard me."
"Well, you did kinda drop the whole 'break-up' thing on her outta nowhere, sugah," Logan pointed out. "That girl's been holdin' on so hard for so long you gotta know it ain't gonna be easy."
"Yeah, I know," Mac said, his face falling. "I just can't risk it. We've had too many close calls with this virus already. I don't want her to die because of me."
"Cynthia was takin' risks on her own years before you came into the picture," Logan reminded him. "Remember her getting her ass shot up on tee-vee?"
"It's not worth the risk."
"She don't seem to agree," Logan replied.
"Being with me isn't worth her life. That is not a fair trade," Mac argued.
"This is so familiar it's scary," Alec muttered.
"I don't sound like that," Max said defensively.
"Twenty bucks says the next words out of his mouth are something about his life sucking," Alec challenged her.
"This bitch'll work itself out," Logan assured him. "You and Cynthia are gonna be aiight."
"God, could this suck any harder?" Mac groaned.
"Pay up," Alec whispered as Max fumed. "The day you and Logan get your act together is the day I hand myself over to White."
"Oh, that'd be reason enough for me," Max replied with saccharine sweetness a second before her jaw dropped and she scrunched her face up. "Ugh…"
"What?" Alec asked, looking up again. A second later he chuckled.
Alex had arrived in all her glory. Though to be fair, it wasn't nearly as bad as Max had imagined.
Max was greeted with dark blue jeans so low they bordered on indecent, a black button-up top that showed off a considerable amount of midriff and dark hair that kinked and curled around her shoulder-blades. This version of X5-452 was clearly very aware of her appeal and not afraid to show it.
No wonder Mac had thought something was up.
Hips swaying, Alex approached the counter and leaned across it, smiling at the bartender in a manner Max recognized all too well. Never in a thousand years would she have thought she'd see that expression on her face. It was annoying enough on Alec.
On her, it was downright unnerving.
"Taking an extended lunch break, boys?" Alex asked as she seated herself with the other messengers, a slightly husky quality in her voice that Max had never heard before… except when she was in heat. A hand unconsciously came up to rub at her throat. Did Alex talk like that all the time? Or were the bar patrons just lucky?
"Hey, Alex," Normal greeted her, his face lighting up with a knowing look. "Feeling better?"
"Any reason I should be?" Alex asked, looking a little perplexed by the question.
"Yeah, I heard you telling Calvin you weren't feeling so great," Herbal informed her, his diction making Max's eyebrows shoot up in surprise. She was so used to his virtually unintelligible sentences that it was strange to hear him speak like that.
"Have you been into Sky's ganja again?" Alex inquired, giving him a quizzical look.
Alec glanced at Max. "Are you getting me in trouble, Maxie?"
"No more than you got Mac in trouble," Max replied, thinking back to the stilted conversation between him and Cynthia she'd witnessed at Jam Pony after Alec had cut short the video conference in Terminal City earlier.
"At least this one has all her clothes on," Alec said, nudging Max companionably.
"It could be worse, I guess," Max agreed quietly, still wrinkling her nose at the sight.
"So are you done skiving off work for the day?" Mac asked with a healthy degree of sarcasm.
"Mac, you need to relax," Alex told him with a maddening smirk, her voice just as throaty and come-hither as it had been with the boys. "Learn to enjoy life. Have you tried prune juice? I hear it works miracles."
"Can we talk?" Mac asked tautly, clenching his jaw and nodding in the direction of the back room.
"Lead the way, pal," Alex replied, acquiescing gracefully.
Max and Alec scrambled into retreat, endeavoring to remain out of sight as their doubles approached their hiding place.
"Just wanted to make sure we're still good for tonight," Mac informed her and Max cringed, a twinge of guilt washing over her as she realized her twin was about to take the heat for a conversation she hadn't been present for.
"Tonight?" Alex gave him a quizzical look. "Have we got a date I don't know about, Mac?"
"The job, remember?" Mac retorted, staring at her as if she were a sandwich short of a picnic. "Fifteen grand each?"
"Did Manticore shake somethin' loose in that brain of yours?" Alex asked, her hands coming to rest on her hips. "I don't know what you're talking about but I like the sound of fifteen grand. What's the deal?"
"I told you this morning," Mac huffed impatiently. "Did you hit your head or something? I walked up to you at work a few hours ago and asked you if you wanted in on the heist. You agreed to meet me at eleven behind the Hudson."
"And when exactly was this?" Alex asked, folding her arms as she watched him expectantly.
"About ten," Mac replied with a huff. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
But Alex's expression had colored with concern. "Mac, I was doing pick-ups in Sector Three at ten. You can check with Calvin if you don't believe me."
Mac snorted. "You actually did some work? Pull the other one."
"No, Mac, I'm serious," she told him, frowning. "If it wasn't me, who the hell were you talking to?"
Mac finally seemed to be taking her seriously. Or at least he was starting to. His brow furrowed as he turned the issue over in his mind.
"I did think it was weird for you to be dressed like that," he mused. Alex gave him a strange look.
"Dressed like what?" she asked curiously.
"Well, you were all – or she was all – covered up," he replied, glancing pointedly at her rather revealing mode of dress. "And her hair was straight."
"I haven't worn my hair straight since Manticore burned down," Alex reminded him, shaking her head. "You know that."
"They only made one clone of you, right?" Mac asked, his teeth worrying his lower lip. His hazel eyes were shadowed.
"As far as I know," Alex agreed.
"We've gotta say something," Max whispered, glancing back over her shoulder at her companion.
"Are you crazy? No," Alec replied in a hushed tone, shaking his head emphatically. "Don't you think we have enough problems?"
Max and Alec looked back at their doubles and froze.
Both Mac and Alex were staring directly at their hiding place with identical expressions of consternation on their faces. It might have been funny under different circumstances.
Oh shit, Max realized belatedly, mentally kicking herself for being so stupid. Transgenic ears. They heard us.
Mac and Alex exchanged a silent, speaking look and in an instant their entire demeanor shifted into that of a soldier. It was subtle, the change so fluid that only a trained eye could catch it.
"We need their help," Max insisted through gritted teeth, painfully aware that the two X5s were listening to every word they said.
"Are you forgetting what the other versions of us were like?" Alec felt compelled to ask. "Not exactly a stellar track record, Maxie."
She just gave him the stubborn look that he was becomingly all-too-familiar with – the one that meant he wasn't going to win the argument, no matter what he said or did.
"Screw it," Max muttered, glancing back only to find that both Mac and Alex were gone.
"Shit," Alec swore, turning just as a fist connected with his face and darkness descended.
Keep your eye on the prize, Alec, he berated himself, straining against the handcuffs that held him. Never take your attention off your enemy. The first fucking commandment of combat. Sheesh.
Alec had come to and found himself tied to a chair, bound securely at both hand and foot. Max sat a few feet away in an identical set-up, seething as she tried to free herself.
How much time did we lose? he found himself wondering. Crap…
"Cute toy," a throaty, feminine voice said and Alex emerged from the shadows, the PUT device in one hand.
"Give it back," Max snapped, brown eyes blazing.
Alex quirked an eyebrow at Max and glanced over the top of the two of them. Alec and Mac both followed her gaze and found Mac leaning against the back wall, watching the proceedings with narrowed eyes.
"See? I knew they couldn't make two of us with looks and personality," Alex smirked and held up the notebook she'd appropriated from Alec. "Now do you two wanna tell me where you got this?"
"What is that?" Max asked, glancing from the article in question to Alec.
"Just found it lying around," Alec replied in a non-committal tone. After all, it wasn't technically a fib.
"Really? This thing's pretty elaborate… not to mention the content is pretty damn familiar," Alex continued.
"It's gibberish," Alec tried again.
"Oh, we both know that's a big lie," Alex chuckled though her dark eyes remained cold as ice. "Imagine my surprise at finding someone with a face like yours carrying this around."
Alec didn't voice the string of curses running through his mind. He just watched Alex as she flipped through the notebook, trying to ignore the anger he could sense rolling off Max in waves.
Mac circled around them from behind, staring at Max.
"You're not Bel," he stated quietly.
"What?" Max blurted out, unconsciously mimicking Alec's reaction to a similar question the day he'd walked into her cell at Manticore. Alex came to stand beside Mac, watching their female captive with a closed, wary expression.
"You know, whoever sent you two got the barcodes wrong," Alex informed them. "I'm 494. He's 452." She shook her head in disgust. "Amateurs."
"No-one sent us," Alec replied honestly. "We're just passing through."
"Oh," Mac said with false serenity. "You just happened to be passing through Terminal City with a book full of runes and our barcodes on the backs of your necks."
"Not to mention Jam Pony," Alex chimed in.
"And now Crash," Mac continued. "Funny how you keep showing up in places we tend to hang out in. I know Lydecker didn't send you. Snake boy knows our numbers, so who the hell are you working for?"
"We aren't working for anybody," Max told them, echoing Alec's earlier sentiment. "We just got curious. That's all. Just let us go and we'll get out of your way."
"I say we let 'em rot," Alex suggested, glancing at her companion.
"I don't really want to stink up the place," Mac countered. "Haven't you two heard of something called a bath?"
"Gee. No," Max replied, giving Mac a withering look. "I like smelling like a dumpster."
"I'm gonna give Josh the heads up," Alex decided. "You got this?"
"Of course I've got this," Mac replied as if it should have been obvious.
"All right," Alex nodded as she headed towards the stairs. "Cavalry, here I come."
"That's not necessary," Alec told them.
"Oh really?" Alec asked with a hint of humor. "Cause from where I'm standing, I'm looking at two doppelgangers who showed up out of nowhere and I have no idea if there are more out there or how much damage they've already done behind our backs."
"We're not from here," Max interjected, picking up the argument.
"No, really?" Mac scoffed, shaking his head as Alex started moving again.
"Why are you so interested in that book?" Alec called after them and resisted the urge to smile in satisfaction when it had the desired effect. She did yet another about face, her exotic features schooled into neutrality.
"Why are you?" she asked, turning the question back on him. "It's not exactly the standard tourist's brochure, now is it?"
Oh, what the hell? Alec thought, knowing they weren't going to get anywhere if they stayed on their current course. "Runes, right? One of you has them."
"Alec!" Max hissed but he ignored her as Alex narrowed her eyes and glanced at Mac, who wore an identical expression of suspicion.
"Alec?" Mac echoed, his hazel eyes sliding from his twin to Max and back again. "I think you're off by a consonant… not to mention a few other vital body parts."
"Nice to know you're paying attention," Alex purred teasingly and Mac rolled his eyes skyward for a moment.
"Who the hell are you?" Mac demanded, towering over the pair of them. "Where did you come from?"
Alec actually laughed. "You wouldn't believe us if we told you."
"We grew up as part of a secret military experiment in genetic engineering," Mac reminded them. "Try us."
"We're you… from another universe," Max grudgingly admitted, her shoulders slumping in defeat. "An alternate reality."
"You're right; I don't believe you," Alex chimed in.
"You're holding the control," Alec informed her, looking at the device she held in her hand.
"What? This egg-timer of yours?" Alex scoffed.
"It opens a wormhole," Max concurred, suddenly sounding tired. "That thing counts down until the next one opens."
"You couldn't think of something even halfway plausible?" Mac asked in disgust. "Are you sure you're X5?"
"Then how do you explain us?" Alec said, raising the point again since it had seemed to get their attention quite effectively the first time. "You studied physics. Do the math."
Mac's eyes narrowed as he glanced at Alex, whose mouth was twisting up as she made a face.
"They twinned us. They didn't triplet us," Max pointed out.
"Sandeman could have made back-ups," Mac said stiffly.
"With the same barcode but a completely different gender and model type?" Alec challenged him. "The twins were the back-ups. Think about it."
"There is a theory about multiple universes…" Alex reluctantly admitted before glancing back at their prisoners. "All right, how about we try asking you something only me or him would know?" She gestured at Mac.
"Shoot," Alec agreed, meeting Alex's eyes without hesitation.
"What did I say to him the first time we met?" she asked, watching him carefully. Alec just grinned – that was an easy one if things were as similar as he believed.
"You told him he spent ten years in filth and degradation," he replied easily. "'I could catch something.'"
"Lucky guess," Mac grumbled stubbornly.
"Fine. You try," Alex suggested, waving him off. Mac's gaze slid from Max to Alec and back again as he considered his next move.
"What's the High Place?" Mac asked after a moment's thought.
"The Space Needle," Max replied firmly.
"How did I meet Logan?"
It took Max a moment to remember to substitute Logan for Original Cindy in her mind.
"Bar fight on the Pacific Coast Highway," she informed them. "Place called the Monkey House."
Mac blinked, clearly a little unsettled that she'd been right on the money both times. "You're up," he told Alex.
"What did he call the kids that we helped get away from White just after Manticore went down?"
"Zero, Bullet and Bugler," Alec answered.
"You missed one," Mac pointed out.
"No, you didn't name Ralph," Alec corrected him, looking over at Alex. "You did."
"Okay, something harder…" Alex mused as she started to pace, determined to catch them out.
Ten minutes later, the native X5s has delved into more personal territory out of sheer desperation.
"The night I broke her out of prison after they arrested her ass for murdering Tina Ryan, what did I tell her about?" Mac asked, his expression stony.
Tina Ryan? Max's eyes widened for a second before it clicked. Timothy Ryan…
Yet Alec remained silent. He didn't answer. Instead, he just looked at her and she realized he wasn't going to say anything. Unless she was willing to broach the subject, he wouldn't talk about it.
He was keeping her secret – one she'd trusted him with – and in doing so was leaving both their lives in her hands.
"Your sister," she said aloud, her voice softening with compassion. "That's why you said I wasn't Bel before. She was killing people…wasn't she?"
Alex swallowed, uncertainty sweeping across her features. "Mac?"
"You didn't tell anyone?"
Alex open her mouth to reply and promptly snapped it shut, stung. "No," she ground out at last. "Never."
Mac's expression flickered as he gazed at Alex's face but he simply nodded, acknowledging that he believed her. "Well… that's uh… I don't even know any more."
"Renfro can't clone memories, can she?" Alex wondered aloud.
"Think you could let us go now?" Alec drawled, deliberately rattling his chains.
Mac obligingly pulled the keys out of his pocket and circled around to unlock the cuffs that held them at the wrists and ankles.
"So I suppose introductions are in order," Alex surmised as they rubbed at their extremities to restore the circulation, "but you already know who we are, don't you?"
"Mac and Alex," Max replied. "We got the memo. I'm Max. He's Alec."
Alec blinked, her lips curving up into a half-smile.
"Well, isn't that cute?" she replied, shaking her head at the weird ways of the universe… erm, universes.
"Adorable," Mac deadpanned, rolling his eyes.
"Okay, how about we take this somewhere a little more private?" Alex suggested, rubbing her hands together just as Max had seen Alec do on countless occasions.
"Any ideas?" Mac asked dryly.
"My apartment," she replied, ignoring the jibe. "We're a bit conspicuous out here."
"Thanks for stating the obvious," Mac drawled.
"Home, sweet home," Alec murmured as they entered Alex's apartment at gun-point.
"Will you give us the timer back now?" Max asked as the door closed behind them. Alex obligingly pulled the device out of her jacket pocket and handed it over.
"So why here? Isn't his place closer?" Alec asked.
"Here I have scotch," Alex grinned, only to be swatted across the back of the head by Mac. "Hey!"
"Grow up," Mac chastised her.
"God, ease up," Alex groused, frowning at Mac's back as she rubbed at the spot where he'd hit her. "Can't a girl have a little fun?"
"In case you didn't figure it out, this is serious, Alex."
"It's always serious with you, Mac," Alex said with a hint of exasperation. "No-one ever told you that only women are supposed to get PMS, did they?"
"Watch it," Mac warned her.
"Please, I could totally kick your ass," Alex snorted.
"If you fight like him, that's doubtful," Max said dryly, jerking her thumb in Alec's direction, who laughed sarcastically and glared at her in return.
"Some things really don't change," Alex said, tilting her head and shooting Mac a brilliant (if somewhat snarky) smile.
"Sad but true," Mac agreed sagely.
"Could you at least try to imagine the possibilities of this, Mac?" Alex asked. "Come on, you've gotta admit that this whole things sounds pretty whacked."
Max and Alec couldn't argue with that.
"So have any more runes shown up?" Alex asked and Mac reluctantly nodded. "All right, gimme a look." She grabbed hold of one of the kitchen chairs and placed it squarely in front of him.
"How long have you had them?" Max asked hesitantly and Mac grimaced as he sat down.
"They just started showing up out of nowhere a few days ago," he admitted. "Cynthia said they look like some ancient language. Minoan… Linear A, I think it was."
"The same language as you have in that notebook of yours," Alex said helpfully. "Which I'm going to copy, by the way." She tapped Mac on the shoulder and gestured for him to hurry up. Mac sighed and obediently grabbed the hem of his shirt, pulling it up and over his head to reveal a smooth expanse of lightly tanned muscle peppered with near-black markings. He let the shirt fall onto the floor beside his feet as Alex circled him and hunkered down between his knees, inspecting the mysterious tattoos that decorated his torso with tender yet efficient hands.
The marks seemed to appear in blocks – one on each of his pectorals, two more on the underside of his ribs and the final pair teasing the waistline of his jeans.
Max found herself stepping closer to get a better look, craning her neck to peer over Alex's head, her curiosity overwhelming her as Alex's fingers peeled the denim down another inch or so to examine the last line of script.
"Where'd you get that book anyway?" Max asked Alec.
"Swiped it from Siren," he told her. "She was writing down the ones she found on Castor."
"It's kinda freakin' me out," Mac admitted.
"Good old Manticore, huh?" Alex teased as her hand came to rest on his thigh, squeezing lightly and Max was surprised to realize the gentle smile she was giving Mac was genuine, meant to reassure. Mac's expression didn't change at first – not until Alex had turned her attention back to the task at hand. Only then did his eyes soften slightly in gratitude for the gesture. It was so swift Max almost missed it.
Wow, Max thought dismally as she realized just how reluctant Mac was to give Alex any overt indication that she wasn't the most annoying creature to ever hit the face of the planet in his estimation. They really are just like us.
A stray lock of Alex's wild hair fell forward, obscuring her vision, and Mac flicked it out of her face, neither of them so much as batting an eye when he did so. It was such an automatic gesture that he didn't even seem to realize he'd done it. Alex didn't even look up, too intent on studying the markings on his skin.
Well… maybe not exactly like us.
Max shifted slightly, suddenly overwhelmed by the uncomfortable feeling that they were intruding.
Maybe it was because she absolutely refused to contemplate letting Alec inspect her skin in such a fashion. To let someone touch you inferred some kind of intimacy, whether it was simply friendship or something deeper. An old boyfriend had once told her she held everyone at arm's length and she didn't deny it for a moment. Even when she'd been able to touch Logan, she usually hadn't.
Yet here she and Alec were, watching Mac like he was the star of some kind of zoo exhibit.
"So have either of you been getting them like this?" Mac asked, his green-gold gaze roaming over her and Alec.
It was so strange to look into those eyes and see herself looking back.
Max nodded mutely.
"Mind if we take a look? See if yours are different?" he continued. Behind her on the couch, Alec's lips twitched and he guffawed under his breath, muttering something about prudes and scientific purposes.
Max made a face and gave him a half-hearted slap on the arm.
"I can check you over, Max," Alex offered serenely and chuckled when Max shot her a startled, uncertain glance. "Don't worry, you're not my type," she assured her twin with a touch of humour. "We'll do our best to preserve your modesty."
Mac made a disgusted noise. "What the hell would you know about modesty?"
"About as much as you'd know about running down the street naked," she replied blithely, grinning up at him impishly. "Wanna learn?"
Predictably, Mac rolled his eyes. "Are you done?"
"Yeah, I'm done," she replied with a long-suffering sigh. "Jeez, try to do a guy a favor…"
"By feelin' me up?" Mac snorted. "I don't need those kind of favors, thanks."
"Mac, if you don't get laid soon, you're gonna explode – figuratively and literally," Alex informed him, as if it was a simple fact of life. "Even you can't keep it in your pants forever."
"Me and Cynthia are none of your business," Mac told her tautly.
"You should have thought about that before you dragged –"
"Children," Alec called in a sing-song voice, interrupting the squabbling pair with a shake of his head. "Let's keep it peaceable, okay?"
Max's lips flattened and her shoulders sagged. She had a feeling she knew what Alex had been about to say.
You should have thought about that before you dragged me into it.
So it seemed that she wasn't the only one who'd dragged Alec – or in this case Alex – into the middle of the emotional disaster that passed for her love life. Mac had chosen to use him – erm, her – as a buffer as well.
"Get dressed, you big idiot," Alex told him, handing him the shirt. "Who ever heard of a body-shy X5 anyway? You don't seem to have a problem flashing it when you think it'll distract some freaky telekinetic snake-girl."
"At least I had a good reason for flashing it," Mac retorted and Alex smirked mischievously.
"My reasons are more fun," she told him as he pulled his shirt over his head. Only then did she glance at Max. "So do you want me to take a look or not? I promise I don't bite."
"Yeah, come on, Max. For science," Alec agreed sagely. Alex snickered and stifled a smile, gesturing to the chair Mac had just vacated.
Max steeled herself and obediently sat down, exhaling in a rush as she stripped off her jacket. She paused only when she realized Alec hadn't moved even though Mac respectfully had his back turned.
"Well?" Max huffed, glaring at him.
"Well what?" Alec echoed innocently.
Mac just gave Alec a withering look and grabbed his double by the arm, shoving him towards the bedroom and closing the door behind them.
"Ahhh," Alex sighed, clapping her hands together. "Alone at last."
Max's eyes flew up to Alex, who quirked an eyebrow at her.
"Max, seriously, you haven't got anything I'm not already very familiar with," she reminded her twin.
Okay. That is wrong on so many levels, Max thought, wincing inwardly as she reached for the hem of her tank top and hesitated.
She was essentially undressing in front of Alec. True, this was a female Alec – and didn't that boggle the friggin' mind? – but the mannerisms, the smirk, the teasing eyes… Boobs aside, it was still him.
'Bizarre' didn't even begin to cover the situation.
Alex cleared her throat, breaking Max out of her reverie and she finally lifted the shirt over her head so that she was left wearing only her bra. Alex hunkered down again and began scrutinizing Max with the same gentle efficiency she'd demonstrated with Mac.
Gradually Max relaxed, the tension draining out of her muscles when Alex didn't offer any smart ass comments.
"Hey, listen… with this whole sliding-between-realities thing? How long has it been since you had a shower or a change of clothes?" Alex asked curiously as she touched the symbols beneath Max's ribcage.
"Days," Max grudgingly admitted, wrinkling her nose. "Why?"
"Well, I figured you might want to freshen up a bit or at least wear something clean," Alex offered, shrugging a little. "Just a thought."
"You'd do that?" Max asked, feeling a little silly for thinking Alex was a shallow as she appeared. Considering what she knew about Alec, she really should have known better.
Besides, she was dying for a hot shower.
"Sure," Alex replied and smiled as she looked up. "I might even have something in your size."
By the time Max was dressed and Alex called out to let them know the coast was clear, Mac and Alec were standing on opposite sides of the room, arms folded, one leg crossed lazily over the other.
"After you," Mac said flatly, gesturing towards the door. Alec gave him a cheeky salute and obeyed, sauntering out into the living room only for Max to dash past him.
"Help yourself to the closet. Towels are in the bathroom under the basin," Alex told her.
"Thanks," Max said with a grateful smile and practically slammed the door closed in her wake.
"You're playing house now?" Mac asked, looking a trifle exasperated with his fellow X5.
"What? So I like my prisoners hygienically clean," Alex said blithely, waving him off. "Sue me."
"You gonna serve them breakfast in bed next?" Mac snarked.
"Jealous, Mac?" Alex teased, staring at Mac with a playful expression on her face. "Relax. She doesn't strike me as the type to jump out the window naked."
"Sounds about right," Alec agreed.
"Well, since you seem to be having fun playing hostess, I guess I'll do some actual work and check in with Terminal City," Mac decided, pushing away from the kitchen counter. "Don't strain yourself or anything."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Alex grinned and Mac let himself out into the corridor, muttering about idiot X5s.
They heard the shower turn on and Alex flopped down on the couch, absently reaching for the remote as Mac made his exit.
"Any requests?" she asked as she got comfortable. "He'll be a while."
Alec regarded her curiously. "For someone who just found out about other universes, you seem to be pretty cool with this… with us."
"I'm confident in my ability to detect bullshit," Alex informed him, one shoulder moving up and down in a sexy little shrug. "And since your bullshit is effectively my bullshit if what you say is true, then that kinda makes me an expert on reading you, doesn't it?"
"I thought so."
"Mac doesn't seem to share your opinion."
"Are you surprised?"
"Not so much."
"He wouldn't be half so bad if he'd just learn to take it easy."
"Preachin' to the choir here."
Alex chuckled at that and started channel surfing.
"Does your Max complain as much as Mac does? I'm curious."
"Probably. Mostly about the virus and White. It's kind of a tie."
"White's still around in your universe?"
"He's the leader of a snake cult and the reason we're in this multiversal mess, so yeah."
Alex blinked. "O…kay. Interesting."
"You just described Agent Renfro," Alex replied, raking a hand through her hair. "Our White ran Manticore."
The very idea of Ames White on Manticorean territory made Alec shudder. "Ever hear of anyone called Lydecker?"
Alex made a face, screwing up her mouth. "The bastard who started the breeding program? Yuck. He's dead meat and good riddance."
"Fair enough," Alec mused. "Renfro ran that in our world, paired me and Max up."
"So I guessed when you started talking about filth and degradation," Alex told him primly. "Sounds like you two got along as well as Mac and I did to begin with."
"Kicked you across the room?"
"He was never big on following orders. And there was that whole thing with him being hung up on Cynthia. That didn't really help the situation much."
"Then they whipped up the virus and ordered you to help him escape, right?"
"So he could run straight into the loving arms of his one true love," Alex sighed ruefully. "Got it in one. Who's Max's lucky star-crossed lover in your universe? I'm assuming there is one."
"Actually, it's Logan," Alec replied honestly and Alex's eyes were suddenly wide as saucers.
"Logie?" she echoed in sheer disbelief, her gaze shooting towards the bathroom. She jerked a thumb in Max's direction and lowered her voice. "She's got the hots for Logie?"
He nodded and when Alex promptly burst into gales of laughter, Alec found himself staring at the spectacle, feeling rather spectacularly cheated.
He'd never seen Max laugh like that. Sure, he'd seen her snigger and chuckle a bit but this… it was a full-bellied bout of mirth that lit up Alex's face.
It did help that she was laughing at the idea of Max and Logan together. It was a kind of balm.
"Considering what I saw him wearing earlier, I shouldn't be surprised that you find that funny," Alec decided, chuckling softly.
Alex finally settled down and curled up on the couch, the remote forgotten.
"Ever ask yourself why you stuck around in Seattle after she burned Manticore down?" she asked, her gaze taking on a far-away look. "There were safer places we could have high-tailed it to."
"Well, Max was around and there are worse people to know."
"Nicely understated," Alex said wryly, flipping her dark hair away from her face. "He's pulled my ass outta the fire a couple of times. I guess the same goes for you, huh?"
"Maybe once or twice," he shrugged, ignoring the knowing look Alex threw his way.
"It's funny how things turn out, huh?" she said thoughtfully. "World-jumping aside, you two seem to get along okay… for the most part."
"Kinda hard to avoid her when we're stuck in this mess."
"We seem to have a nose for those."
"It's kind of our specialty, don't you think?" she said with bit of dramatic flair. "Cage fighting?"
"Mermaid but same thing, I guess," Alec told her. "Shot in the shoulder?"
"Which time?" Alex snickered and Alec grinned.
"The Volkovich job?"
"Ahhh… Kezmekistan or whatever," Alec mused, his lips curving up into a feline smile. "Lola…"
"Lonny," Alex amended, suddenly looking sad. "Me and Bea had a ball on that mission."
Alec's face fell as he realized who she was talking about – of course Biggs had had an equivalent in this world. His chest constricted at the memory of seeing his friend strung up by an anti-transgenic lynch mob.
"The Berrisford mission?" Alec's voice was perfectly casual. Anyone else would have thought he was discussing the weather but Alex looked up at him sharply.
"Yeah," she said flatly. "The Berrisford mission."
"Her name was Rachel," Alec told her.
"So it was a girl in your reality," Alex mused. "His name was Ryan."
Silence descended and slowly seemed to swallow up the room until Alec's curiosity got the better of him.
"Why are you telling me all of this?" Alec asked inquisitively and Alex grinned up at him.
"Well, I'm kind of talking to myself, aren't I?" she replied ruefully. "Best therapy in two dimensions."
That got a chuckle out of Alec and he smiled back at her.
"What's it like to be a girl?"
She started laughing again.
Damn. He had to get Max to work on that.
Max stood under the spray of steaming water and groaned in sheer ecstasy. A shower had never been so welcome. In three days she felt like she'd accumulated three weeks worth of grime. Soap and shampoo were smiled upon as she lathered her skin and hair and tuned out the rest of the world, content for her existence to spiral down to this one cubicle and its hot and cold taps. She didn't know how long she was in there and she didn't want to know.
Laughter filtered through the walls – Alex's laughter. Hers by extension, she supposed, and it occurred to her that she hardly ever laughed any more.
As tempting as it was, she resisted the urge to eavesdrop on their conversation. Her head was spinning as it was without listening in to some whacked-out tête-à-tête between Alec and his personality double.
She summoned up the image of Logan, holding it in her mind as something to focus on. She had to get back to him. He must be going out of his mind by now. She and Alec had been missing for far too long. Cindy, Sketchy, hell, even Normal would be getting worried. Of course, he would have panicked over Alec's absence on day one but that was neither here nor there.
She hated what was happening. She hated being powerless. They had no control over where they landed next. They'd lucked out this time; their doubles had given them a grudging 'you-might-be-crazy-but-we'll-let-it-slide' kind of benefit of the doubt but the next world could easily be something out of their worst nightmares.
With these gloomy thoughts, Max turned off the water and stepped out of the shower, snatching up the towel. She dried herself swiftly and dressed in the clothes she'd appropriated from Alex – the most modest ones Max had been able to find. It had been a bit of an eye-opener to look through her wardrobe.
It had occurred to her that Alec would probably tease her mercilessly about Alex's decidedly skimpy fashion sense later on down the line but she wasn't about to complain about the tank top and jeans she'd scavenged.
"Shower's free," Max announced, emerging as she towelled her hair dry.
"Hell yeah," Alec enthused as he got up, whistling cheerfully as he entered the bathroom and shut the door.
"At least he and Mac have something in common," Alex said airily. "They're prisses about being clean."
"And you're not?" Max asked, quirking an eyebrow at her Alec-esque double.
"Nope," Alex replied with a cheeky grin. "Dirty girls have more fun."
Hours later, Max was still wide awake, staring out of the windows of Alex's home. Unlike Alex, Mac had remained quiet after he'd gotten back from visiting TC and Cynthia. The hacker hadn't been able to find any listings for a Quinn Mallory and Mac was now gazing out at the rain that was beating against the glass.
Both Alec and his counterpart had crashed out; she in her bed, he on the couch. That left Max and Mac milling around the darkened apartment.
Max was bored out of her mind.
"I need to clear my head," Mac said, abruptly breaking the silence. He pushed away from the kitchen counter he'd been leaning on and shrugged into his jacket.
"I hear that," Max murmured, thinking longingly of her Ninja, abandoned in her home world. Her gaze wandered to Alec, who slumbered on quietly.
Mac paused beside the door, his hand on the knob, and glanced back at Max.
"Did you want to come?" he asked at last and Max's eyes snapped up in surprise. "We'll be back in plenty of time," he promised.
"Sure," she replied quickly, not about to turn down the opportunity even if it was pouring.
"You're going to chafe," Mac cautioned her as they got off the motorcycle at the base of the Space Needle.
"I can live with it if you can," Max told him, heedless of the rain. "I needed that."
They ascended the structure quickly, finally stopping in what had been the restaurant once upon a time. Water ran off both of them in rivulets, leaving wet trails behind them as they approached the windows.
They stood in silence what seemed like an eternity, just staring at the hazy vista spread out before them. Max felt the tension drain out of her, the familiar surroundings soothing her.
At least some things remained the same among all the craziness.
It wasn't much but Max saw Mac incline his head, acknowledging the fact that she'd said it.
"Come here often?"
"I think we both know the answer to that one."
Max watched his profile as he continued stare out at the rain. It was so strange to look at that face and know it wasn't Alec behind it… or Ben. It was her looking out at the world with hazel eyes.
"Do you have any idea what the runes mean?" she finally asked and Mac shook his head.
"I wish," he said, scowling. "All I know is that I'm damn sick of snake people and magic tattoos. Cynthia's working on a translation with the runes Alex has found so far but nothing yet."
"So Cynthia hasn't seen them up close?"
"That would require me and her in the same room and me without some or all of my clothes on," Mac told her. "Considering the fact that my skin is toxic where she's concerned, I'm steering clear."
"Trust Manticore to turn us into a biohazard freak-show," Max grunted.
"Yeah, I guess," Mac agreed darkly. "White was always a sadistic son of a bitch."
Thinking back to Renfro, Max wasn't about to argue with that statement.
"Did he take a bullet for you?" she asked curiously and he nodded.
"Which is typical of my life, seeing as how it looks like he was the only solid lead to Sandeman," he replied sardonically. "We haven't been able to find him yet. Cynthia's still trying but… I just don't understand what he could have put into my DNA that's so important he had to brand me with the information in a language I can't understand."
"Tell me about it," Max grumbled. "The barcode was bad enough. At least that only shows up in the one place and nowhere embarrassing."
Max grimaced. "Is that a warning?"
"I won't say no," he sighed, a hint of discomfiture in his stance.
"Great," Max declared sarcastically. "Runes where the sun don't shine. That's just what I need."
"This is so depressing."
"Don't remind me."
"Feel like changing the subject?"
"Is Logan really straight in your world?" he asked and Max grinned fondly.
"Yep," she nodded. "Where I come from it's Cindy who's same-sex oriented."
"That's pretty whack," he said, almost smiling at the thought.
"No more than Logan with long hair."
Mac really started laughing then. It was quick, a ripple of sound, and faded in what felt like a heartbeat but it was still a laugh. Then his expression changed, vulnerability flitting across his features.
"Did you break up with him in your world?"
Max's breath hitched and she nodded.
"Did you lie to him to do it?"
Max felt her cheeks start to burn as she nodded again.
"I let him think that me and Alec were together."
"Alex was so angry at me when she found out," Mac admitted. "She asked me why I had to drag her into it, make her the bad guy. I guess I hadn't really thought about it until she called me on it."
"Alec doesn't know yet," Max said haltingly. "We got sucked into this before I had a chance."
"Do you think we did the right thing?" Mac wondered. "Pushing them away like that?"
"It's like I told Joshua once," Max replied sadly, pushing her hair away from her face. "When you love someone, you have to do what's best for them –"
"Even if it hurts," Mac finished for her. "I remember. Except I was talking to Mole."
"I can't get used to that."
"There lies the beauty of this being my world. Everything makes sense to me even if it doesn't to you."
"Everything makes sense?" Max shook her head. "I wish. Maybe you can explain to me how our lives suck so hard in the love department then."
"Okay, so I'm still working on that one," he conceded. "Let me guess. Manticore outfitted you with the designer virus, too?"
"Uhuh," Max nodded miserably. "One wrong move and my boyfriend keels over. Not exactly the stuff dreams are made of."
"You ever wonder if it's worth it?" Mac said quietly, staring sightlessly at the floor of the Needle.
"All the time," Max whispered. "Every time I see him. Is that horrible?"
"No," Mac replied softly, meeting her brown eyes with his hazel ones. "It's human."
"Alec said we don't belong with them," Max confided hesitantly.
"Alex said the same thing. I'm starting to think she's right."
"How did that happen?" Max asked with a degree of asperity, as if the force that had caused it had better show up and explain itself now. "How did Alec go from being a pain in my ass to being right some of the time?"
"Don't have an answer for that one, Max," Mac told her. "Wish I did."
"It's not fair. He's supposed to be a screw up."
Mac's lips lifted in a ghost of a smile.
"Listen… don't tell Alex I said this but… she's all right. It's funny when you think about it but she's one of my best friends."
"Do you hit all your friends up the side of the head?" Max asked, only realizing how hypocritical it sounded once the words were out of her mouth. Mac seemed aware of it as well; his expression became pensive.
"Maybe we should both stop."
Neither of them could think of much to say after that.
"Come on," Mac eventually sighed, getting smoothly to his feet. "We'd better get going. It's not long until dawn."
"Morning, sunshine," Alex greeted them with false cheer as they walked in the door. "Did you have fun? Cause Alec and I had a ball wondering where the hell you were with an hour left on the clock."
Max's eyes went wide as she realized she'd left without any explanation and Alec stepped out of the bathroom, his handsome face devoid of its usual charisma. He walked straight over to the kitchenette where Alex shoved a slice of toast into his mouth.
"You didn't think I was going to leave you here, did you?" Max asked, aiming for levity but Alec shot her a look that left her in little doubt that the thought had crossed his mind.
Oops, she thought lamely. Okay, my bad. "Sorry."
"You make it sound like you two were worried," Mac pointed out, snatching the piece of toast that she tossed him out of mid-air.
"No, it's just that if Max was with you when the timer went off, there'd be two of me in this universe," she corrected him, smirking slightly. "Too much of a good thing, you know?"
"You're unbelievable," Mac huffed.
"Aw, you noticed."
Max peeked over at Alec, whose lips twitched as he listened to the bantering pair. His gaze slid over to hers and held it for a long moment, searching for… something… in her expression. She didn't know whether he found it or not but he seemed to shrug it off.
"You about ready to go?" he asked.
"Sure," Max nodded. "Thanks for the clothes, Alex."
"No problem," Alex replied. "Anything for a friend… or a freaky interdimensional personality double of a friend."
"Where do you come up with this stuff?" Mac asked, staring at her as if she was crazy.
"Natural talent," Alex grinned.
Max and Alec wordlessly retreated; she with a mug of coffee, he with his slice of toast.
About an hour later, the quartet was standing on top of Alex's apartment building.
"Moment of truth, huh?" Alex asked. "So when's the big finish?"
"Fifty-six seconds," Max informed her.
"And here's hopin' the grass is greener," Alec said, shaking his head doubtfully all the same.
"And here I was thinkin' we were greener," Alex teased, nudging Mac, who smiled a little.
"Hey, don't get me wrong; you two were a high point," Alec assured them.
"We're just not so hot on running around on worlds where they hunt our asses down for food is all," Max said helpfully.
"Or for other reasons," Alec added wryly, thinking back to the reality where he'd been the only guy in existence.
"I see your point," Mac replied with a hint of humor.
"Well, as fun as this was, I'm gonna be kinda glad when things are back to normal," Alex sighed.
"Normal is relative," Mac said with a shake of his head.
"Amen to that," Alec said with a nod. "Speaking of…"
"You two be careful," Mac cautioned them, meeting Max's eyes. "I hope you get home."
"Thanks," Max said softly, smiling faintly. "Watch your backs, okay?"
"I've got him covered, Max," Alex assured her. "Just keep your heads down and ride it out. I've got a feeling you'll land on your feet."
"Easier said than done but we'll try," Alec said ruefully. "There's something to be said for all that feline DNA, right Maxie?"
Don't call me Maxie!
It was on the tip of her tongue to say it and Max raised her hand to swat him… and stopped short, the image of Mac cuffing Alex in a similar fashion flashing through her mind.
"Let's go," she said instead as the wormhole opened in a swirl of colour. Alec flashed a grin at their doubles and they stepped inside.