Actions

Work Header

Five of Your Seconds

Work Text:

My name is Marco, and let me just say, it was not my fault.

I know, I know: that’s the kind of thing you’d expect a guy to say when it is his fault. But if you’d spent any time with Ax in human morph, you’d understand.

Let me back up.

Jake was a Controller. If you’re with me this far, you probably know how it happened: we were sneaking into the hospital to stop the Yeerks from infesting the governor, and Jake fell into a Jacuzzi full of Yeerks and got infested himself. We figured it out, and now we had Jake tied up in a cabin in the woods where we were going to hold him until the Yeerk in his head died of Kandrona starvation. Guard him for three days, keep him from morphing, don’t let him contact any other Yeerks and we’d have our leader back.

Easy, right?

“I do not understand the purpose of these pockets,” Ax said. “Pockets. Pock. Kets. Would it not be better to have them affixed somewhere?”

“That’s called a sock, Ax,” Cassie said. Pat “You put it on your foot.”

“Ah.” He looked down at his feet. “My feet are already encased in the hard protective outerwear.”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you were supposed to put the socks on first.”

“Are they not effective when applied over the hard casings?”

I looked at my watch. “Guys, the bus is coming, and I really don’t want to have to hitchhike with Mr. ‘Pock-kets’ here.”

See, that was the other problem. Jake couldn’t just disappear for a few days. Which meant one of us was going to have to take his place. And as the only resident morpher who didn’t have his own set of parents and teachers to keep happy, Ax had gotten the job.

Too bad he was really, really underqualified.

But we could make it work. The rest of us had known Jake for years—Rachel as Jake’s cousin, and me as the guy who had logged more hours playing video games with him than anyone else on earth. Even Cassie had been close to Jake for a while now. I’m not one to keep quiet when a plan seems dumb, but this one seemed okay. One of us would stick with Ax, and we’d make sure he didn’t do anything too weird, and everything would be fine, right?

Okay, maybe it was a little bit my fault.

<Maybe Ax doesn’t need to wear socks,> Tobias said from the branch above us. He was watching Jake, who was tied up in the cabin, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t keeping an eye on us, too. The boy is good at watching.

“Okay, no socks for Ax. One sockless Andalite, on the move,” I said. “Tobias, you don’t happen to see that bus approaching, do you?”

<Funnily enough, I can’t actually see throughthe trees,> Tobias said.

“Are you sure you guys are going to be okay?” Cassie asked. “Maybe one of us should come with you.”

“Nah, we’ll be okay,” I said. “You have enough to do with that guy.” I jerked my head at Jake—rather, at the Controller who was currently my best friend. “Come on, Ax, we’ve got this, right?”

“It is easier to walk while wearing the hard foot casings,” Ax said. “Walk-kuh. Ooooo-walk.”

Like I said: a little bit my fault.

#

Ax and I caught the bus. Which was a relief, because I really wasn’t looking forward to the walk. Ax in human morph? Not so good at the balance.

Fortunately, the clothes Cassie and Rachel had retrieved from Cassie’s barn included our wallets. I didn’t think it was time for a heartfelt argument with the bus driver about how he should give free rides to me and my good friend with the speech impediment.

We got off near Jake’s development. “This is an area where the human habitations are closer together,” Ax said. “Cuh-cuh-cuh-closer. Do these humans not have the need for as much vegetation?”

“We’re real good at compromising on our vegetation needs,” I said. “Look, Ax, you know you can’t talk like that right now, right? When you’re Jake, I mean.”

He looked at me in surprise. “But I do not need to be Prince Jake with you. To be. Tuh-beeee.”

“No, but you might want to practice.”

“Is this impression not adequate? Qu-qu-qu-quate?”

“Yeah, see, that thing. Where you repeat sounds? Don’t do that.”

He nodded. “I have noticed that humans tend to say things only once. Oooo-once. ‘Wuh’ is a wonderful sound.”

“No one can fault you for not enjoying the English language,” I agreed. “Say, have you ever thought about having laryngitis?”

Note to self: don’t ever try to explain laryngitis to an Andalite. Ax still looked horrified three blocks later. “But a human with a voice cannot communicate,” he said. “Com-yoooon-i-cate-tuh. You would be trapped inside your own mind-duh.”

“Yeah, talk about your scary places,” I said. We were coming up on Jake’s place. Maybe Tom wouldn’t be home. Maybe no one would be home. Maybe the whole family had decided to go on a spontaneous three-day vacation.

“These mouth parts have considerable drawbacks,” Ax mused beside me. “Con-sid. Con-sid-der. A-bull.”

Oh, I was. And we were about to enter the china shop.

#

“If you see a woman, that’s your mother,” I said as we got closer to the driveway. “Call her Mom. And older guy, that’s Dad.”

“These are not their names,” Ax said.

“Nope, not so much. And if you see a young guy, with all his hair, that’s Tom.”

Ax regarded me gravely. “Ah, yes. Tom.”

“Yeah.” I was really, really hoping Tom was doing something important and destructive with the Controllers that afternoon. Maybe cleaning up the mess at the hospital. “Okay. As Rachel would say, let’s do it.”

We didn’t meet anyone when we came into the house. I was aiming for the basement: some nice, quiet TV time, that was what we needed. But we had to go through the kitchen to get there.

I was really, really not crazy about the idea of taking Ax through the kitchen.

“Hey, A-uh, Jake,” I said. “Do you know how to hold your breath?”

“What am I holding it in?”

“Just, you know, breathe in when I tell you to and don’t breathe out again until we get to the stairs. Uh, until we start to go down.” Man, Andalite translation.

He looked at me solemnly. “I can do this.”

Ax held his breath. I took his elbow and towed him through the kitchen. There wasn’t a lot of food out: some fruit in a bowl, and some banana bread on the counter. Still, better to play it safe. I kept Ax on the far side of the kitchen from them.

We were almost to the basement stairs when Jake’s mom came in through the back door. “Marco, hello,” she said.

I dropped Ax’s elbow. “Oh, hi, Mrs. Berenson.”

“What are you boys up to?”

“Just going down to play some video games, you know, hang out,” I said. Just normal guys. Nothing to see here.

She frowned. “Jake, are you holding your breath?”

“Ha ha!” I practically screeched. “Yeah, we were—having a competition. Jake, buddy, you can stop now.”

Ax let out his breath in a rush and then breathed in and out a few times fast. “Holding one’s breath is difficult. Cult-tuh.”

“Jake, are you all right?” his mom said. “I’m not sure you boys should do that. It sounds dangerous.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said, grabbing Ax’s sleeve to pull him after me again. “Just video games for us, then! Ha ha, have a good day!”

There’s a door you can shut at the top of Jake’s basement stairs. I shut it behind us.

Just in time, too, because Ax looked around the landing. “Is this a room?”

“What? No, we’re going down to the basement.” I went down a couple of steps, then looked back.

He was looking at the stairs. “Are we meant to be able to navigate these?”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess you And—uh, I guess you probably don’t have stairs.” I went up and down a couple of steps to show him. “We use them to go up and down.”

“This is a very precarious type of movement. Vvvv-ment.” Ax tried to put his foot onto the next step, lost his balance, and windmilled his arms to catch himself.

Jake is not a small guy. I am, shall we say, less not a small guy than Jake. Having Ax in Jake’s body fall on me from several steps up? Not fun.

We got Ax vertical again. Then I showed him how to keep his balance while he went down the stairs. More accurately, I showed him how to hold the handrail and keep his body at a really steep backward angle so that he wouldn’t fall while going down the stairs.

He was looking impressed by the end. “This is an ingenious invention,” he said. “Vennn-chun. Multiple levels, in one dwelling, while utilizing no more land area.”

“Yeah, it’s the latest in human technology.”

Ax was equally impressed by the couch. “So convenient for repose,” he said. “And your bodies fold so effectively to rest upon it.” He ran a hand over the upholstery. “Do humans with more significant posterior padding not require such accommodating furniture?”

“Hey, look, a TV,” I said.

Ax was not impressed by the television. “Why is the picture only two-dimensional?” he asked after a few minutes.

“That’s pretty much how TV works,” I said.

“Would Prince Jake’s family object to my modifying the signal to add a third dimension?”

They would probably be pretty startled. But also I was pretty sure Ax couldn’t actually do that. “Go for it,” I said.

Ax frowned at the air for a moment. “I do not seem to be able to connect with the thought-speak interface.”

Oh man. “Think you’ll have more luck with this,” I said, handing him the remote.

Ax fiddled with the buttons for a few minutes. “This system is grossly inadequate,” he pronounced.

“Yeah, we complain about it a lot.” I took the remote back. Friends was on.

We watched the episode of Friends. It was the one where Rachel and Ross were having relationship problems.

“Is this meant to be communicating a message of some sort?” Ax asked after a while.

I was distracted. Was someone else home upstairs? “Not unless you’re really concerned with Rachel’s new friend Mark,” I said. “But, no, it’s just for fun.”

“What are these two doing with their mouths?”

I looked back at the screen. Ross and Rachel were kissing.

“I am familiar with several purposes for the mouth parts,” Ax said. “However, they seem to be neither eating nor communicating. Ting.”

“Oh. Well, no, that’s something different.”

“Is it as good as eating?” Ax asked.

“Hey, maybe that’s a question for Jake’s parents to take care of,” I said. “Except, no, definitely don’t ask them that.” There were voices above us now. One of them was a guy—I couldn’t tell if it was Jake’s dad or Tom. “Hey, sh, I think Tom might be home.”

“I will be very quiet,” Ax said, his mouth full.

He was chewing. “Ax! What are you doing?”

“Jake’s family stores nourishment in their floor coverings,” he said, picking up more candy from the carpet. “This one is hard to consume, but quite full of flavor.”

“No eating food off the floor,” I said.

He blinked at me. “Does it reduce the nourishment? Or the flavor?”

“No, it just—sh. I think that was the basement door.”

It was the basement door. Ax and I sat very still and stared at the TV. He was still chewing.

It could have been Jake’s mom coming down the stairs. It could have been Jake’s dad. But was it? Oh, no, we weren’t going to be that lucky.

“Hey midgets,” Tom said, coming up behind the couch and ruffling Jake’s hair. Ax’s hair. “This how you’re spending your Saturday? Lame.”

He sounded like such an older brother. He sounded totally normal. I fought to control my reaction.

Iget a little jealous of Jake sometimes. My mom is a Controller, too. But she’s not here with us anymore. She faked her death two years ago and went to lead the Yeerk invasion of other planets. There have been times when I’ve thought, at least Jake gets to still have Tom in his life. There are days when I would kill for that.

Listening to Tom now, having to pretend I didn’t know about the slug in his head controlling his every move, I wasn’t jealous at all.

But I could play this game. “What, you want us to go outside?” I asked, folding my arms behind my head. “Way too much work.”

“There’s some cool stuff out there,” Tom said. “I was just at this hospital day of service thing with the Sharing. Might sound boring, but it was actually a lot of fun. Lots of cute girls there,” he said with a smirk at me.

Ax was sitting stiffly next to me. I wondered if he was controlling his instinctive Andalite reaction around a known Yeerk. “This show is for fun,” he said.

Tom’s face clouded a little. “Yeah, well, you guys want to sit in here and be losers, fine with me.”

He went back up the stairs. Probably going to raid the kitchen like a normal teenager, not like someone who’d just encouraged his brother and his brother’s friends to hand themselves over to aliens who’d take over their lives.

I wondered what he’d say if he knew Jake was already in the hands of those aliens. Well, not for long, if we had anything to say about it.

#

Ax and I went upstairs halfway through the next episode of Friends so that he could demorph. No bathrooms in the basement.

“Just remember to take the clothes off before you demorph,” I said. Jake’s a big guy, but I was pretty sure his pants wouldn’t fit on an Andalite.

“Yes. I will. Will-luh.”

“Okay. Remember how we talked about whispering volume? That was not it.”

“I apologize,” Ax said, so quietly I could barely hear him. “This volume control is imprecise.”

I stood outside while Ax demorphed and remorphed. Nothing weird about it. Just one guy standing outside the door while another guy used the bathroom. Yup.

<Marco?> Ax said, and I jumped.

Right. Thought-speech. Ax could still do that in human form.

I could not. “Yeah?” I asked in a low voice, in the direction of the bathroom door. Still not weird.

<The small teeth on this garment will not align with each other,> Ax said.

“Just—pull the tab,” I said.

<I have attempted that solution. The tab does not seem to want to move.>

“Oh man.” I considered my options. I could leave Ax in the bathroom. I could have him come out without pants. Or I could go in there with him.

Let it never be said I don’t do my part for the Animorphs.

“Okay, I’m coming in.”

I looked to all sides before I opened the door. Now I was a guy joining another guy inside the bathroom. Still nothing weird. Just a normal friend activity.

Ax was standing in front of the mirror, making faces with Jake’s face. “This face has a high degree of malleability. Mal-lee-uh. Mal-lee.”

His shirt was on. That was pretty impressive, actually. There are a lot of ways to get shirts wrong. The pants, on the other hand… “Well, I see the problem.”

“Prince Jake does not make use of all these expressions,” Ax said.

“He sure doesn’t,” I said. “Take off your pants.”

Like I said: normal guy things.

Ax took off his pants. I turned them right-side out. “Now put them back on—no, not that way, this way.”

Andalites are graceful creatures, normally. You see one, you think, wow, so much power, so much speed, way more impressive than us lowly humans. But you know how they say about famous people that they still put their pants on one leg at a time? Let’s just say that for Andalites, if they could do that, it would be a step up.

Ax got the pants on eventually. Then he still couldn’t figure out the zipper, so I got the honor of zipping him up.

“Well, this has been fun, let’s never do it again,” I said.

“We will have to do it again in two hours,” Ax said.

“Don’t remind me.” I was listening at the door. “I think it’s clear. I’ll go out first, and you wait a minute and then follow.”

“Can we not be seen exiting this room at the same time?” Ax whispered. He was crowded close, his ear pressed against the door too.

“No, it’s just—you know what? It’s a human thing,” I said. “One minute, okay?”

I slipped out of the bathroom when I thought the coast was clear. The coast was not clear. Tom was there, and I ran straight into him. “Hi, Tom!” I said brightly. And loudly. Very loudly.

“Hi.” He gave me a weird look. Probably because I sounded like a manic cheerleader. And because I’d shut the bathroom door behind me. “Where’s Jake?”

Oh, just in a hut in the woods, waiting for one of you to die inside his brain. “I think he’s still downstairs,” I said, moving toward the kitchen. Quickly, in the hope that Tom would follow me.

He did. “That’s good. I actually wanted to talk to you,” he said, coming into the kitchen after me.

“You did?” I asked, in what I hoped was a pleasant and not at all terrified tone.

“Yeah. I know Jake hasn’t been interested in joining the Sharing, but I think you might want to give it a shot,” he said. “It’s really a great group.”

A great group of aliens trying to steal your free will. “I don’t know,” I said, putting as much regret into my voice as possible. “It’s just me and my dad now, so I don’t like to be away from home too much.” Nor did I like handing my body over to serve an alien invasion.

“That’s actually why I thought it might be good for you,” he said. “It’s a really supportive group. We have a lot of people who’ve been through family crises, that kind of thing. You’d get a lot out of it.”

He was giving me this really sincere look. I wanted to punch him in the face.

See, the Yeerks are the reason my dad and I don’t have my mom anymore. They’re the ones who took her. And now they wanted to help support me through it? Support me right into betraying all the other people in my life, more like.

“Jake’s really supportive,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “But if you ever feel like you need something more—well, you know where to find me.”

I did know where to find him. Right down the hall from my best friend Jake, the person he would betray without a second’s hesitation. Sleeping by a window he probably didn’t lock, behind a door with just enough space under it for something to slip in. A snake, maybe. A snake that could sink its fangs into Tom’s hand and make it so that he never woke up in the morning.

It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about it. If I didn’t know what it would do to Jake, I might have done it already.

“Yup, will do,” I said, and got out of there before I did something we would all regret.

I hadn’t heard the bathroom door open. I was hoping Ax had heard me talking to Tom and had stayed put. “A—uh, Jake?” I said, knocking on the door. Quietly.

No answer from inside. I knocked a little more loudly. “Jake, you feeling okay?”

Still no answer. Uh-oh. I eased the door opening, really hoping I wasn’t about to see Jake’s dad on the toilet or something.

Empty.

I spun around. I could see into the living room; no Ax there. I didn’t think Ax would have gone outside. But I also knew he wasn’t in the kitchen, since Tom and I had been there. And I didn’t think Ax was up for climbing stairs on his own.

Outside it was, then. “What did you think you were doing?” I muttered as I went out the front door. “Seriously, Ax, did you think you were—oh, hi, Mr. Berenson.”

Jake’s dad was weeding the flowerbeds by the front door. “Hey, Marco,” he said. “I didn’t know you were over.”

“Uh, yeah, just—looking for Jake,” I said.

“Haven’t seen him. Did you check the pantry?” he said with a grin.

“Ha ha. Ha ha ha. Good call,” I said, and made a beeline for the pantry.

Jake’s family has a nice house. It has one of those big kitchens with an island and lots of cabinet space. But just in case that isn’t enough, it also has a separate walk-in pantry around the corner for all their food storage needs. And Jake’s parents have a Price Club membership, so they have a lot of food storage needs.

I opened the door to the pantry. There was Ax, sitting on the floor, one of those plastic barrels of peanut-butter-filled pretzels in his lap.

“Marco! These are very good,” he said. His mouth was full of pretzels, and some of them sprayed out. “There is a hard white mineral on the outside that feels sharp on my tongue.”

He was covered in crumbs. There were crumbs in his hair. The barrel was almost empty.

I thought about yelling at him. But you know, maybe it was because it had been such a long day already. Maybe it was the thought of the many worse things I could have found him doing. But honestly, it was pretty funny.

“Yeah, that’s called salt,” I said, sitting down on the floor next to him. “You like that, you should try potato chips.”

“Where can I find these potato chips? Chipssss. Chip-suh.”

What the heck—it wasn’t like he was keeping this body. “Here you go,” I said, handing him a bag of potato chips.

In retrospect, I should have opened them before handing them over. Ax hadn’t had Jake’s arms for all that long.

Ax looked at the chips that were now all over the floor. Then he looked at me in distress.

“Ax, my friend,” I said, “let me introduce you to a little thing we call the five-second rule.”

#

Ax liked the five-second rule a lot. We almost didn’t need to sweep up the floor before leaving the pantry.

Jake’s dad was in the kitchen when we came out, putting dinner together. “I thought I heard you boys in there,” he says. “I hope you didn’t ruin your dinner, Jake.”

Ax looked alarmed. “Is dinner a thing that can be ruined?”

I laughed. Jake’s dad laughed, too. We were laughing for very different reasons.

“Is Marco staying for dinner?” Jake’s dad asked.

“Yes,” I said quickly, before Ax could say anything. “Uh, if that’s okay. My dad has a work thing.”

“No, that’s fine,” Jake’s dad said. “I’m sure Jean will be happy to have another person to celebrate with.”

To celebrate with. Uh-oh. What we were celebrating?

“What are those colors you’re applying to that surface?” Ax asked.

He was looking at the counter, where Jake’s dad was in the middle of frosting a cake. “Hm? Oh, blue and green. They’re your mom’s favorite.”

He tilted the cake towards us so we could read the Happy Birthday Mom! written across the top.

#

“Okay, think,” I said once we’d conquered the stairs and were up in Jake’s room. “I’m Jake. I know my mom’s birthday is coming. I’ve bought her a present, because I’m uber responsible like that and probably did it two weeks early, but where did I put it?”

“What is this present?” Ax asked.

“I don’t know, it could be a—oh, you mean what’s it for? It’s a birthday thing,” I said. “Do And—do you guys not have birthdays?”

“We do,” Ax said. “We spend a solitary day in nature so that we may thank the planet for giving us the gift of life.”

“Oh. Huh,” I said. “Yeah, we don’t do that.”

“Perhaps you thank your planet every day and do not need to concentrate your thanks onto a single day,” he said.

“I wouldn’t count on it,” I said. “We humans aren’t that good at thanks. Ah-hah!” I pulled a shopping bag out from the pile of junk next to Jake’s desk. “Here we go. He remembers to buy it, then leaves it in the store bag instead of wrapping it. Classic.”

“Marco,” Ax said urgently. He was sitting on the bed, his back straighter than Jake would have held it. “You must teach me about this birthday celebration. I do not wish to do anything that might dishonor Prince Jake or his mother.”

“Don’t worry about it too much,” I said. Which, what, had I not learned anything in the past three hours of Ax-wrangling? “We’ll have dinner, she’ll open her presents, you’ll eat cake.”

“This cake is a human food? Food. Ood.”

“Yeah, it’s a birthday thing. We put candles on it. Uh, sticks, with fire on top.”

“Fire?” His eyes widened.

“Don’t worry, she’ll blow the fire out.” Something was occurring to me. “Uh, do you know how to sing?”

It took a while to explain to Ax the concept of singing. “You vary the frequency of the sounds you produce in very specific ways, and this is called a song,” he said. “Do the frequencies affect the meaning?”

“No, it just makes it sound good. Or bad, depending on who you ask.”

“I do not understand.”

“My dad. He hates like all my music. Don’t get him started on Green Day. ” Ax was looking even more confused. “No, okay, I’ll teach you how to do it.”

Teaching an Andalite to sing is rough. Do not recommend. Ax looked really discouraged by the end of it. “I fear I am not naturally gifted at this activity.”

“Well, not having a mouth will do that to you.” Someone was calling us from downstairs. Showtime.

#

Dinner was fraught. Not for Ax: he’d eaten at least half a barrel of those Price Club peanut-butter-filled pretzels, but he still managed to put away two entire steaks and three baked potatoes.

The rest of us stared at him. It was really something to see.

“All right, let’s get that cake,” Jake’s dad said when there was literally no food left on the table. Ax had eaten everything left on our plates. “Jake, you want to help me?”

That…was not a good idea. But it wasn’t like I could say anything about it.

I was left at the table with Jake’s mom and Tom and our clean plates. “So, I guess this is why Jake is taller than me,” I said.

Jake’s dad started singing. We all joined in, and I turned to see how bad it was.

The cake was still intact. The candles had been lit, and nobody was actively on fire. Score.

On the other hand, Ax was now carrying a cake with fire on top of it, balancing precariously on his human legs while trying to sing with his unfamiliar mouth parts.

He made it through the first two lines fine. Then we got to the part where he needed to put in Jake’s mom’s name. I saw his lips purse, going for a P, and I knew what was going to happen: he was going to call her Prince Jake’s mom. And then I was going to have to come up with an explanation for why Jake was talking about himself in the third person and calling himself royalty.

Of course, that would still have been better than what actually happened.

Ax stopped himself from saying the wrong words. But he wasn’t very good at controlling his human body yet, and thinking about his mouth and his legs at the same time was way too much. He stopped singing, but that meant he stopped walking, too, and he wasn’t very good stopping. He stumbled. He pitched forward. And the cake tipped out of his human hands and fell frosting-down on the floor.

We all stared at the cake. Ax looked at me, sheepish. “The five of your seconds rule?” he said.

#

“We are never doing this again,” I said. We were back up in Jake’s room, sprawled on his bed, after cleaning up the cake. We still had an hour or so before I was supposed to check in at home and then meet up with Cassie and Rachel. Somehow. It felt like the day had been at least thirty-six hours long already. “Like, not in a million years. Maybe two. Ask me in two million years, maybe I’ll consider it.”

“I do not think we’ll be required to do this again,” Ax said. “It is unlikely that Prince Jake will allow himself to be made a Controller again. In any case, in two million years the question is likely to be much less relevant. Question. Koo-wes-chun.”

I turned my head to look at him. “Do you really not understand what we’re saying when we talk like that? Or are you just yanking our chain?”

I was kind of giving him a hard time. It had been a really tiring day. But I didn’t mean for his face to fall so thoroughly. “It…is not always easy for me to understand,” he said quietly. “You humans have many things in common which I do not share with you. I am not always able to interpret things the way I should.”

Well, now I felt like a jerk. “Hey, it’s not just you. Most people don’t really understand me when I talk.”

Ax still looked sad. “I fear I did not give an accurate impersonation of Prince Jake today.”

“No, you were—well. You could have been way worse.” That felt too harsh, so I said, “And no one called you out, right? So, you’re good.”

“I thank you for your assistance,” Ax said. “Without it I fear I would have failed much more seriously at my task.”

“Hey, any time.”

He looked at me. “Any time after two million years.”

I laughed. Like, for real laughed. Like I said: it had been a long day.

I wasn’t sure if he’d meant to make a joke, but he smiled, too, Jake’s mouth curving up. “Marco,” he said. “I wonder if I might ask your assistance with an additional matter.”

“As long as it doesn’t require standing up,” I said. “Or going downstairs. I am not doing that again.”

“I am curious about other mouth functions,” Ax said.

“Please don’t tell me you want to learn more songs.”

“The activity the images of humans were engaging in on the picture box,” he said. “They were pressing their mouth parts together.”

“Oh. Yeah. Kissing.”

“Kissing,” Ax said. “Kissssing. Kuh-sing. That is quite a pleasing word. I believe I should try this kissing.”

“What? Why?” I asked. At a normal volume. A very normal volume.

“I don’t know if you have noticed,” Ax said, “but mouth functions are all very new to me.”

“Noooo. You’re kidding.”

“I find them very overwhelming,” Ax said. “If I find myself in a situation in which I need to do this kissing, I wish to be prepared for the sensations.”

I squirmed. Subtly. “Uh, I really don’t think you’re going to need to kiss anybody.”

“Why not? Is this an unusual activity?”

“No, it’s just that you only do it when, you know, there’s someone you like. A lot.”

“Does it communicate something to them?”

“Let’s hope not,” I joked. Badly. “Uh, no. It just feels good.”

“Ah, an activity for fun,” he said. “Like viewing the pictures on the television. I would like to try this.”

Oh no. “That’s not a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“Well, for starters, I don’t know where we’re going to find a girl at this hour,” I said. “Plus, you know, ‘I’m an alien and I’ve never kissed anyone before,’ not the best pickup line—”

“But you can engage in this activity with me,” Ax asked. “Can you not?”

“Oh. Um.” Wow. Really should have let Cassie take the first shift. “Well, guys don’t really do that with each other. Not most guys, anyway.”

“Are the mouth parts not shaped the same?”

“No, they are. It’s just.” A joke. That was what I needed: a joke. “It would be a really new step in Jake’s and my relationship, and, uh—”

“I am not Prince Jake,” Ax said, blinking Jake’s eyes at me.

That was true. He looked like it, though, and it was weirding me out.

I’m not into guys or anything. I mean, I like girls. But sometimes when you spend a lot of time around someone it gets confusing. So there might have been like thirty seconds back in sixth grade when I thought I had a crush on Jake.

It’s not a big deal. I’m not still into him, obviously. I mean, he’s with Cassie now—not that I would be into him even if he weren’t. But it was seriously weird to see this person wearing Jake’s face and inviting me to kiss him. Sixth-grade Marco would have been really into that.

“Is this an inappropriate request?” Ax asked. “I apologize if I have transgressed a human custom.”

“No. It’s fine.” I didn’t want to make him feel bad about it. There was nothing wrong with Ax asking to kiss me. It was just kind of weird. But what about this day wasn’t? “Sure, let’s do it. Why not?”

It’s awkward trying to kiss someone else on a bed. Especially when neither of you has done it much before. I know I talk a big game about girls and everything, but I haven’t really dated much. And it’s not like I go around kissing people at school and stuff. So I wasn’t sure what to do with my nose, and Ax wasn’t sure what to do at all, but somehow we met in the middle.

Ax’s lips were soft. I guess chapping and stuff doesn’t transfer in a morph. I overshot on the initial contact and ended up pressing too hard, but then I backed off a little. I could feel his breath tickling my cheek.

I pulled back after a minute or so. “So, uh,” I said. Not breathlessly. Definitely not breathlessly. “So that’s kissing.”

Ax looked at me with Jake’s eyes. “Are we not supposed to open our mouths?”

“Uh.”

“The characters on the TV appeared to be opening their mouths. Unless I misperceived—"

“No, yeah.” I could handle this. “Sure, we can try that.”

This time Ax opened his mouth a little, and I opened my mouth a little, and then we were kissing in a whole different way.

It was kind of surprising that Ax was being this hesitant about it, considering the way he went after food. Not that I was spending a lot of time analyzing it. I was mostly busy trying not to die of a heart attack or something.

Like I said, I don’t have a lot of points of comparison, but for someone who’d never had a mouth before, Ax was reallygood at this.

I finally pulled back after like ten minutes. My heart was thundering like crazy in my ears. My whole body felt weird, like maybe parts of it had gotten swapped around when I wasn’t paying attention. I looked down to make sure I hadn’t morphed by accident or anything.

I was the same as usual. Mostly the same.

Ax licked his lips. Jake’s lips. Whatever. “That is a pleasant mouth activity,” he said. “But I am not sure it can compare with the cinnamon bun.”

I flopped back onto the pillows. “Yeah, well. I don’t have over a thousand franchises or anything.”

We were quiet for a minute or two. My heart rate was going back to normal. “Perhaps I should try this with the others for comparison,” Ax said.

“No!” I jerked up onto my elbows. “No, you should not do that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s just…it’s a human thing,” I said. “We actually don’t usually kiss most people. And when we do, we don’t tell anyone else about it. Ever.”

Ax looked at me gravely. “I see.”

“So, yeah.” I got up and started stripping down to my morphing outfit.

“Are you leaving?”

“Yeah. I need to make an appearance with my dad and go help the others.”

“Should I come?” Ax asked.

“Better not.” We’d planned on not having Ax help us tonight, since he had enough going on with impersonating Jake. “Will you be okay here?”

I felt kind of bad, leaving. I didn’t absolutely have to go that minute. But also, I really, really did.

“I will function adequately,” he said. “I will stay in Prince Jake’s room as we discussed.”

Crap. I felt bad doing this to the guy. “Okay, then, I’ll see you tomorrow. Or, maybe not, I think Rachel and Cassie are handling tomorrow, but—yeah, you know what I mean. I’ll see you.”

It’s hard making a quick exit when you have to turn into a bird. I felt Ax’s eyes on me the whole time. Two minutes later, I was hopping up onto Jake’s window sill, and spreading my wings and soaring into the night.

It felt like I was leaving something behind as I left. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I had a bad feeling that sooner or later I was going to find out.