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Two Hours to Midnight

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The time is ten pm, two hours to midnight. The house is packed from wall to wall, vibrating with music and a hot, heady energy. The dress is short, tight, and green.

The girl is a college student named Laura Nelson. Aximili saw her name on the visitor’s pass stuck to her shirt. She was touring the spaceport with a group of other college students, and they met by chance on the tarmac.

You––you’re one of the Animorphs, aren’t you? she said, breathless with excitement. That was a surprise. In Aximili’s experience, most humans can’t tell one Andalite from another. Wow, this is such an honor. Can I shake your hand?

He didn’t tell her Andalites don’t shake hands. He should have, but he didn’t. Instead, he accepted her outstretched hand, and let his focus sharpen to a point on the spot where their palms touched. He saw the expression on Laura’s face grow distant. He felt her grip lose its strength.

Oh my god, she said with a quick shake of her head, am I literally swooning? She laughed. She had a melodious laugh, and he knew at once that Marco would enjoy it. I can’t believe what a dork I am sometimes.

Now Laura Nelson is walking into what might be the most exclusive party in Santa Barbara, wearing a short green dress. Or at least her DNA is. It’s wrong, Aximili knows that. It was wrong to acquire Laura without her permission. It’s wrong to morph her to spy on his boyfriend. But humans have a saying: all’s fair in love and war. And he did things much worse than this during the war.

He and Marco are fighting again. He’s forgotten what about, but he can’t forget that they’re fighting. Marco would never let that happen. When Aximili tried to arrange a call with him, the reply was a single word: can’t.

He hesitated a moment before texting back. I just want to see you.

That was before he knew he was going to be on Earth tonight. Before he decided there was no reason to tell Marco as much. Marco doesn’t want to see him. Even if he could be convinced, all they would do is argue. Aximili doesn’t want to argue. He just wants to...he wants to...

I just want to see you.

Of course, before he can see Marco, he’ll have to find him. Aximili knows Marco’s house as well as anyplace on Earth, but he’s never been here during one of Marco’s parties. The crowd and the noise make the house seem both bigger and smaller than it actually is. He never knew that it could hold so many people, or feel so cramped.

His Andalite instincts tell him to run away, but his stubbornness won’t allow it. He threads his way through the press of people, none of whom take much notice of a college girl in a green dress. It was a good choice, the dress; most of the women here are wearing something similar to it. Most of them are also wearing high heels, but Aximili knows his limitations. The last thing he needs to do tonight is break Laura Nelson’s face on Marco’s Brazilian wood floor.

On the kitchen island, an array of glass bottles glow softly in the low lighting. A man in a white shirt and a black bow tie is preparing beverages for Marco’s party guests. A tall woman brushes past Aximili and asks the man in the white shirt for a rum and Coke. Aximili likes Coke, so when the tall woman walks away, he orders the same thing. What he gets looks like a Coke, but it’s bitter, not sweet. The taste reminds him of cough syrup, which he sampled once in his early days on Earth.

That’s when he sees Marco. He’s sitting on the couch in the living room, wearing jeans and a black button-down shirt. His hair is up in a sloppy bun. He’s talking to a woman with braids in her hair, gesticulating with both hands, and every flash of his white teeth makes Aximili’s single human heart jump. Human teeth are, objectively, horrifying. Why do they look so pretty between Marco’s lips?

Their eyes meet, and Aximili’s stomach drops. He hides his face in the mouth of his glass, pretending not to notice as Marco gets up and comes over. “You know,” Marco says, “most people have to pay for cable to look at me for that long.”

Aximili blinks. “Excuse me?”

“You were staring.”

“Oh.” Marco is a good actor. Aximili, not so much. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. You probably know what it’s like.” Marco grins, showing off his pretty white teeth. “I bet you turn heads everywhere you go.”

Laura is attractive by human standards, with her symmetrical features and thick honey-blond hair, but she is no great beauty. Marco is flattering her, as humans do when they flirt. “How much?” Aximili asks.

“What?”

“How much do you bet?”

“On you?” Marco’s grin widens. “I’m all in.”

Aximili wants to take him by the hair and kiss that smug look off his face. He wants to hook his arms under his thighs, hoist him onto the kitchen island, and fuck him until he goes to pieces. But Laura Nelson only wants to drink and flirt. “You’re funny,” Aximili says, trying out Laura’s charming laugh.

“Yeah, but keep it between us, okay? If Hollywood realizes I’m handsome and hilarious, they’ll have to blacklist me just to be fair to the other guys.” Marco inclines his head toward the living room. “Come sit with me.”

It’s a bad idea––possibly worse than any of the other ideas Aximili has had tonight––but he’s never been able to say no to Marco. He follows him across the room and sits beside him on the couch, slouching a little so that Marco can comfortably drape an arm over his shoulders. Marco smells like his favorite cologne, a woodsy blend that takes Aximili back to lazy days in his old scoop behind Cassie’s barn. He wonders if it does the same for Marco. He wonders if that’s why he wears it.

The rum and Coke is making Aximili sleepy, or maybe it’s the warmth of Marco’s body so near his. He lets his head loll onto Marco’s shoulder, and Marco doesn’t pull away. All around them, men and women laugh and drink and dance. It occurs to Aximili that he and Marco have never done this before––sat together, touching each other, where people who aren’t their friends or family could see. It occurs to him that they still haven’t done it, not really.

A woman in a magenta dress flits into view and perches on Marco’s other side. “This is a good song,” she says of the omnipresent music. “Dance with me?”

Marco waves her away. “Why don’t you dance with Katrina over there? Give us a show.”

The woman clicks her tongue. “You’ll regret it.”

“I never regret anything. It’s bad for the complexion.”

The woman rolls her eyes and struts off, moving nimbly in shoes of truly shocking height. “She seems nice,” Aximili says.

“Yeah?” Marco snorts. “You want to dance with her?”

Minutes pass, and Marco starts to bounce his leg the way he does when he’s on edge. Without quite thinking about what he’s doing, Aximili puts a hand on his thigh to still it. Marco cocks an eyebrow. “Let’s go outside,” Aximili blurts.

The patio is deserted, and the only light is that which shimmers up from beneath the glasslike surface of the pool. A cool breeze raises goosebumps on Aximili’s arms. He walks to the railing and looks out across the dunes at the black expanse of the ocean. He knows that humans have explored only a small percentage of their ocean. It is an unknown entity, a world unto itself.

He remembers being stuck in the Dome at the bottom of Earth’s ocean, wondering if he was going to die there. It was frightening at the time, but just now, the memory is strangely pleasant. A little piece of paradise inside a plastic bubble, grass underhoof and fish overhead. Stillness. Quiet.

He sees Marco in his peripheral vision, standing beside him at the railing. He feels he should say something, but...what? How are you? No, really, how are you? Why won’t you make up with your boyfriend?

“It’s beautiful,” he says, nodding at the ocean.

Marco runs the backs of his fingers up Aximili’s upper arm. “I like to surround myself with beautiful things.”

Marco smiles, and Aximili feels a stab of sadness. He wanted to see Marco, but he hasn’t, he won’t. He’ll only see the person Marco wants Laura to think he is.

But this person has Marco’s body, Marco’s hands, Marco’s mouth, and for now, that’s enough. When he closes the space between them, when he kisses Laura’s lips, Aximili doesn’t stop him. He should, but he doesn’t. Instead, he kisses back, angling his head so that his nose is pressed to Marco’s cheek. He feels Marco’s teeth raking his lower lip, Marco’s tongue curling into his mouth. Heat sweeps through his body, from his chest into his belly and below.

When they part, Marco is still smiling, and Aximili can’t help but smile too. He bumps their foreheads together and cups Marco’s cheek in one hand. For a moment, it’s like they’re in the Dome on the ocean floor, alone together. For a moment, it’s like they’re the only people on the planet: Marco, Aximili, and Laura Nelson.

Who should not be Andalite kissing Marco as though it’s a perfectly natural thing to do. Aximili winds his arm around Marco’s neck and mashes their mouths together so forcefully that their teeth clack. They kiss as if to devour each other, as if to swallow each other whole. The air between them is as thick as cotton and it’s hard to breathe, but breathing, Aximili thinks, has always been much overrated.

They feel their way into a pool chair, and the green dress rides up Aximili’s thighs as Marco straddles his waist. Aximili tips his head back to let Marco kiss his neck. Above him sprawls the night sky, scattered with stars. Brilliant masses of nuclear energy, burning away their own matter. Aximili knows just how they must feel.

“Oh, shit! Sorry!” What? Marco jerks upright, glaring in the direction of the patio doors. From the same direction comes a slurred male voice. “I was jus’ comin’ out for a smoke.”

The patio doors bang shut, and the sound shocks Aximili back to his senses. He blinks up at Marco, flushed and disheveled, his lips shining wet. Horror washes over Aximili like icy water. What are you doing? asks a voice in his head––a voice that sounds uncomfortably like his own. What is wrong with you?

“What’s wrong?” Not his voice, Marco’s. He squints down at Aximili, half-annoyed, half-worried.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. I just wanted to see you. “I have to go.”

“What?” Marco says as Aximili sits up, wriggling out from underneath him. “Because of Smokestack Stanley? Forget about him.”

Aximili shakes his head. “No, I––it’s almost midnight.”

He doesn’t linger long enough to see the face Marco pulls at that, but he does hear him make a frustrated noise at his back. “Who are you, Cinderella?”

Aximili doesn’t see the other party guests as he pushes past them, doesn’t feel their bodies brushing against his. He hurries down the sidewalk, flat shoes slapping the concrete, until he comes to a house with all its lights off. In the backyard, he ducks behind a tall bush and demorphs. Laura Nelson melts away. Her hair, her skin, her mouth with the taste of Marco still in it. What she did. What she might have done. Gone. Like a dream.

It may as well have been a dream. Marco will forget about Laura. Laura will never know she was here. Only Axmili will know what really happened tonight, and when next he wakes aboard his ship, how will he tell memory from fantasy? Maybe he’s dreaming even now.

Aximili melts, as Laura did, and assumes the shape of his owl. He opens his wings and flaps hard. In seconds, he’s airborne, climbing steadily into the night sky. He circles the neighborhood and sees Marco’s patio, empty now, the pool a blue oval of light at its center. Then he catches a breeze off the ocean and flies away.