Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Fantasy · #2024930
A lonely young man inherits an old oil lamp with a surprise inside.
|"And this item is worth. . . ."|
Arthur Q. Nebbish smiles toothily into the stage-center camera and waits with baited breath as the host of Antiquities Sideshow, Peter Wells-Sneed, stares with particular intensity at the old oil lamp.
“Absolutely nothing!” Wells-Sneed crows in his impeccable English accent. Arthur’s mouth drops open and he stares into the camera, at the little reflection he can see of Wells-Sneed. It’s smiling as big as Arthur had been just seconds ago.
“N-nothing?” he asks the tiny, perfectly dressed reflection, only to see it stroke its chin thoughtfully.
“Well, I suppose you might melt it down and get a bit for the bronze. . . .” Wells-Sneed says, though so doubtfully that Arthur’s shoulders droop.
No doubt still smiling his famous-person smile, Wells-Sneed shoves the lamp back at Arthur and moves on to the next guest: a heavy-set, older woman with a painting so ghastly it makes Arthur briefly consider vomiting.
It’s probably worth a million bucks.
Sighing, Arthur shuffles quietly off-stage at the director’s prompting, his late Aunt Tovah’s battered, dinged-and-dented oil lamp clutched in his arms like the treasure he’d sure hoped it was.
Later that night, dithering over the remains of his Single Man dinner, Arthur stares at the lamp, trying to figure out what to do with it.
Maybe, he thinks wistfully, I could put flowers in it. . . .
Only he’s allergic to most plants, including several species of potato.
Leaning his chin on his hand, he gazes at the lamp—he can remember being a child and looking at the lamp, always kept in a place of pride, higher than Arthur could reach even as an adult. Aunt Tovah’s house, with its slip-covered everything and daily dustings, had sported just one less than pristine piece of chintzy junk: this baroque old lamp with its dents, dings, patina, and . . . character.
Now, Arthur frowns at all the worthless character he’s got on his hands. He can’t very well throw it away . . . Aunt Tovah would have a heart attack. If she hadn’t already.
Though perhaps he could give it away . . . but who would want an ugly, old oil lamp?
“What’m I gonna do with you?” Arthur asks the lamp, stirring his cooled macaroni and cheese in its congealing puddle of meat-gravy.
Well, darling, you could give me a rub . . . I’d rather like that.
Arthur blinks. Looks around his Spartan kitchen. Then blinks again.
Come on, then. Haven’t got all night, have we?
Arthur knows he hasn’t left the television on. And even if he had, no one on Charles In Charge sounds like the very low, very English voice that seems to be originating not from anywhere in the apartment, but from the lamp on his kitchen table.
“Oh. So this is what going insane feels like,” Arthur notes detachedly, wondering if he should call 911, or just start making tin-foil hats now.
He’s just getting up to find the phone—he’s out of tin-foil—when the lamp trembles and tips over, right into his dinner, splashing gravy and creamed corn everywhere.
“Perfect,” he mumbles. First he hears voices from a cruddy old lamp, and now, said cruddy old lamp is trying to ruin his dinner.
Hooking the lamp out of his tray and feeling like a schmuck, Arthur hustles the dripping lamp to the sink and holds it under the tap till the worst of his dinner sloughs off.
“You’re more trouble than you’re worth,” he tells the lamp, grabbing a paper towel to dry it off. “Not that you’re worth much. Except, apparently, my sanity.”
Oh, you’re not insane, and you know it, the voice from Arthur’s lamp chides, and he snorts, rubbing at a dent where the gravy and creamed corn seem to be really wedged in like gooey, yellow-brown cement.
“Gee, coming from my amazing talking lamp, that inspires buckets of confidence.” Arthur sighs and shakes his head. “And now I’m having a full-blown conversation with my lamp. This day just gets better and better.”
When no response from the lamp is forthcoming, Arthur returns to his scrubbing. But he just can’t get that last bit of gravy-gunk out. Putting down the paper towel, he tries to pick at it with his gnawed-on lack of fingernails. All he succeeds in doing is rubbing the lamp with his fingertip, as if tracing the weird, baroque patterns on it.
Oh, darling, you have no idea how long it’s been since someone rubbed me the right way, the voice purrs in a rather startling comeback, and Arthur drops the lamp in surprise. It bounces off the counter and onto the floor . . . once, twice, then it skids under the kitchen table. Hmm, but you may want to step back a bit more.
Arthur groans and rubs his temples. “There’s no such thing as a talking lamp. There’s no such thing as a talking lamp. There’s—”
You’re absolutely right, darling, there’s no such thing as a talking lamp. A man’d have to be right loony to believe in such nonsense. The lamp chuckles merrily. Now, do as you’re told and step back.
Still gaping, Arthur steps back a little. The lamp trembles delicately, and somehow rights itself.
So Arthur steps back a little more. Then a little more. (Putting some distance between himself and the talking, autonomous lamp actually doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Especially when the lamp starts issuing greenish smoke that smells pungently of burnt herbs and fresh incense.)
“My talking lamp is on fire,” Arthur says numbly, and hears a brief bark of a laugh he’s surprised to recognize as his own.
Green smoke continues to pour out of the lamp in thick, sinuous rills, branching in several directions as it reaches the underside of the table, which shakes, then topples over, spilling Arthur’s dinner and his bowl of fake fruit to the floor.
The smoke rises much more quickly after that, coalescing into a thick column that drifts up almost to Arthur’s ceiling, but thankfully stopping before upsetting that, too.
Small bolts of lightning seem to crackle within the smoky column, and near the top of it, two orange orbs appear deep within the misty mystery. They’re shaped like eyes, and if that’s what they are, they’re focused directly on Arthur. Not too far below them, a mouth appears, widened in something with far too many teeth to be a smile. Except that Arthur has the nagging certainty that’s exactly what it is.
Suddenly the column of smoke beings to differentiate: near the top of it, the smoke branches off into hair-thin tendrils that stop halfway to the floor; not too far below that scarifying smile, two arms of smoke separate from the main column, appearing to form, well, arms; the same thing happens below the arms, forming what can only be legs, in light of the rest of the creature.
There’s another flash of light, with its own mini-thunderclap, and when Arthur’s sight has recovered, standing before him is . . . a man. Or a thing. A man-thing.
Master. I am the Djinn of the lamp, here to grant your every whim, the man-thing says in a voice like quiet thunder, crossing his ridiculously muscled arms like Mr. Clean. He’s about ten feet tall, built like a wall of muscle and his eyes are a bright, glowing orange, with no pupil or iris. A mane of flame-colored hair hangs past his waist.
He’s the color of the lamp, a sort of greenish-patina’d bronze. He’s also naked. Very naked . . . and hung like anyone would expect a guy who’s ten feet tall to be hung.
“Uh,” Arthur says, still beyond coherent thought. The man-thing frowns.
“What?” he asks, looking down at himself and suddenly sounding just like the talking lamp had: like an English phone-sex operator. “Too much?”
He snaps his fingers, and disappears in a thick puff of more green smoke. When said smoke clears, a man is standing there. He’s about Arthur’s height, only broad-shouldered and muscular, and covered in weird, abstract tattoos that look like the weird, abstract filigree on the lamp.
His short, somewhat messy hair is a dark blond, his eyes are a warm sort of hazel-y grey, with flecks of ember-orange in their depths.
But that smile is the same, toothy and open. And . . . and he’s still naked as the day he was born, and still distractingly proportionate.
The . . . man—thing?—man pats his six-pack abs with apparent satisfaction, and looks up at Arthur. “Better?”
“Oh, much,” Arthur says, his eyes rolling up into his head as the room goes gently dark.
The soothing, gentle hand continues petting his hair. “Well, don’t prod at it, Master. You’ll only make it worse.”
Having come to lying on his secondhand sofa, Arthur is cogent enough to realize his head is killing him, and said murder-attempt is coming from the back of his head. He keeps trying to sit up so he can at least gauge the size of the goose-egg he knows has to be there, but the man from the lamp keeps smacking his hand away and pulling him back down into his lap—which thankfully has a cushion in it.
Arthur squints his eyes open, and when the dim lighting of his living room doesn’t skewer his eyeballs, he opens them wider. His head gives a mild throb of warning that tells him sitting up is going to be a bear, and that he needs, before he even begins the task of sorting out his sanity (or lack thereof), an icepack. Rather, since he doesn’t actually own an icepack, some ice cubes in a Ziplock bag.
He tries to sit up again, but the man from the lamp—still naked, still impossibly there—holds him down by the shoulders, looming over him like a stern, but still breathtakingly gorgeous nurse. “And you’re not meant to be up walking around just yet, either, Master. Tell me what you want, and I’ll get it for you.”
“God, I wish I had an icepack,” Arthur moans, and the rather nice stroking of his hair stops.
“Right, then, that’s a freebie, but only because I haven’t yet had a chance to explain how all this works.” Suddenly the back of Arthur’s head is bathed in a delightful numbness as the pillow he’s lying on goes ice-cold.
“Oh,” he breathes in relief. “I dunno how you did that, naked figment of my imagination, but thank you.”
“You’re very welcome, Master-darling.” The handsome, upside-down face above his own smiles, and leans down to kiss the tip of Arthur’s nose. “And now, you must refrain from saying or wishing for anything else until I’ve explained everything to you. . . .
“I’m a Djinn . . . d’you know what that is?” Impossible, hazel-ember eyes search his own, and Arthur tries to collect himself. But it’s hard to think past the cold and those eyes.
“Like a gin and tonic?” Arthur could certainly go for one of those, right now. Something civilized yet strong enough to send him to sleep—hopefully till he stops being crazy.
The lamp-man snorts. “Oh, you’re entirely too precious for words, Master. No, I am not a gin and tonic, I am a Djinn.”
Mind still longingly on Bombay Sapphire in a chilled glass, Arthur sighs. “Um. Okay. In that case, no.”
The figment pouts, and with those lips, it’s enough to make Arthur’s fairly baggy trousers feel much less baggy. “You’re the third one! What are they teaching children, this century? Not to date myself, Master, but the time was when people not only knew what Djinn were, but actively sought them out!”
“Really?” Arthur lets himself sink into the coolness at the back of his head and the warmth of the lamp-man’s voice.
“Really and truly.” The lamp-man nods. He’s got stubble, and normally Arthur doesn’t like that I-don’t-have-time-to-shave look, but it seems to work for the lamp-man. “Anyway, to cut a long, long story to the quick: I’m able to grant you three wishes! Isn’t that grand?”
Looking up into the lamp-man’s eyes, Arthur’s beginning to think anything would be grand. More importantly, he’s beginning to think. “Um . . . you mean like Aladdin?”
The lamp-man huffs. “Don’t get me started on that story.”
Pieces start sliding around in Arthur’s aching head like plate tectonics, coming together in a way that actually makes a strange kind of sense in light of the evening’s events. “Wait—are you a genie?”
The lamp-man grins like the sun coming out. “More or less. And I’ve definitely been called worse.”
“You. . . .” Arthur shakes his head. “You don’t sound anything like Robin Williams. And you’re not blue.”
The lamp-man laughs and laughs, and Arthur notices his white-white teeth are a little crooked. He finds it . . . endearing. “Master-darling, I am nothing like Mork from Ork, or like any cartoon you’ve ever seen. Unless you want me to be . . . though I don’t really have the ear for all those catchy little songs. . . .”
Arthur closes his eyes for a moment and lets plates slide and shift some more. “Okay, so you’re telling me that you’re the genie of—this?” He gestures at the battered lamp sitting on his secondhand coffee table. “And that because I, um, rubbed you, I get three wishes?”
That sunshine-smile again. “You’ve hit the nail on the head, Master!”
“Um . . . it’s Arthur.” Arthur blushes. Not that it hadn’t been nice having a handsome man calling him Master. “And I must’ve hit my head harder than I thought.”
“That’s what m’lord Ala ad-Din said.” The Genie nods ruefully. “The movie got that bit right, at least. Just about the only thing they got right. Like, did you know that ‘Aladdin’ actually came from a wealthy family, and had gambled and adventured away his inheritance by the time he found the lamp?" Another rueful nod. “There’s something Disney won’t tell you.”
Arthur tries to sit up, holding the icepack to his head. This time the Genie lets him.
He’s still naked—unashamedly so—not that he’s got anything to be ashamed of. He’s the most gorgeous thing Arthur’s ever seen. He’s still so wonderfully . . . proportionate.
The Genie looks down at himself, following Arthur’s gaze. “Oh, right,” he mutters, then snaps his fingers. He’s suddenly wearing the most hideous clothes Arthur’s ever seen. A sea-green paisley jacket that looks like it was sofa upholstery in its past life, a Pepto Bismo-pink shirt that’s unbuttoned nearly halfway down to the Genie’s navel, and mustard-yellow, bell-bottom slacks.
“I think I preferred you naked,” Arthur says, and the Genie looks up at him, grinning, and raises his hand, ready to snap his fingers once more, but Arthur quickly reaches out to stop him, catching warm, calloused fingers in his own and holding onto them a good deal longer than necessary.
Arthur blushes, quickly letting go. “Um. So. Three wishes, right? How do I know this isn’t all a figment of my imagination? I hit my head pretty hard.”
The Genie smiles a little. Not the sunshine-smile, but still pretty dazzling, nonetheless. “That’s a distinct possibility. But it’s also possible that this? Is reality, and I’m on the level. In any event, you can’t live your life as if you’re waiting to wake up! You’ll miss out on all the fun stuff, if you do!”
Don’t I know it, Arthur thinks wearily. The whole thirty years of his life have all felt like some tedious dream, and he’s lived them that way, waiting, hoping, praying to wake up to his real life.
And he’s still waiting to this day.
Shaking his head, Arthur picks up the lamp. He doesn’t even have enough imagination to know what to wish for. “So . . . what is it—what do I wish?”
The Genie frowns. “Well, that’s something only you know, Arthur-darling. I could no more tell you what to wish than I could—I dunno—grant you a million wishes.”
“And no, I can’t grant you a million wishes.” The Genie rolls his eyes. “But I can make people fall in love with you, bring people back from the dead, and kill them.”
The tone with which this is said implies that the Genie doesn’t approve of any of those things.
“Okay, so, no million wishes.” Arthur bites his lip. “Well, I can’t think of anyone I want dead, or back from the dead. And there’s no one I want to, um, fall in love with me—“
“I’d imagine you’d need no help from me, anyway,” the Genie says warmly, and Arthur blushes, rubbing his finger over the filigree on the lamp. The Genie shivers. “Oh, darling, when you rub my lamp. . . .”
“Oh, sorry.” Arthur places the lamp on his sofa, halfway between them and the Genie pouts.
“I didn’t say stop.” He tsks picking up the lamp and inspecting it. “Poor thing’s been so beaten up. But she takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. Together till the end of the world, aren’t we, my love?”
The Genie kisses the lamp reverently, and Arthur has an idea.
“I could wish for your freedom,” he says, and the Genie’s eyes open, amused and sad.
“That’s very sweet of you, darling, but I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. Thank you for offering, though.”
Arthur shakes his head, confused. “Why not?”
The Genie sighs and places the lamp between them again. “Because I don’t think you want to take my place as the Genie of this lamp. How d’you think I wound up in here?” The Genie gives Arthur a watery sort of smile. “The previous Djinnia was . . . beautiful and wise, and everything I’d ever wanted. So I wished her free, thinking that we could be together. But I was wrong. The next thing I knew, I was trapped in the lamp.”
Arthur feels a pang that he does his best to ignore at that her. “So she let you wish her free, knowing what would happen when you did.” The Genie shrugs, glancing down at the lamp. “You could’ve let me do the same.”
“I could’ve.” The Genie looks up again, resolute and somber. “But I didn’t. I’d only wish an eternity of servitude on a complete wanker. Unfortunately, complete wankers don’t tend to want to wish me free—only incredibly decent people like you do. You see my problem.”
Arthur nods, and the Genie puts on a big smile, clapping his hands briskly. “Well. Enough of that old bollocks: you have three wishes to make! What’re you gonna wish for first, darling?”
“I . . . I don’t know. . . .”
The Genie deflates. “Well, you’re certainly not gonna make this easy, are you?”
“No, no. I suppose it’s good that you don’t know immediately.” The Genie hmphs. “And usually the ones that think they know what they want right off the bat wish for stupid crap. Like this one poor bloke wished for gills, and the ability to talk to fish!”
The Genie looks gobsmacked. “Bloody hell, he actually kept that stupid name? Unbelievable! Though I suppose it was better than calling himself The Cod Prince. Had to practically tie him down to talk him out of that disaster!”
Arthur presses the icepack to the back of his head a little bit harder. “Okay, so gills are out of the question.”
“I should hope so,” the Genie sniffs.
“So that narrows down what I don’t want by one.” Arthur sighs. “What do other people wish for—besides gills, that is?”
“Oh, I dunno. Beauty, longevity . . . to have gotten in on IBM stock on the ground floor,” the Genie ticks off thoughtfully. “Some people want to live their entire lives over, only better . . . some people wish to have never been born at all.”
The Genie nods.
Arthur sighs again. “Well, that’s not something I want.”
That sunshine-smile again. “Me, neither.”
Arthur returns the smile, though not nearly as wonderfully. “Well, okay, then. That’s two things ex-ed off my wishlist.”
The Genie looks out the window, tapping his lips with one finger. “Hmm. You could try what I like to call the triple-threat.”
“That sounds like a hamburger.”
The Genie smiles fondly. “It can be that, if you want. But what I meant was, you could wish to be successful, talented, and happy.”
Arthur’s eyebrows shoot up. “I could wish for all that in one wish?”
“Technically, no. But I am able to bend the rules a bit if you wish in a certain way.”
“And what way is that?”
The Genie spreads his hands apologetically. “I can’t tell you. But a smart young man like you should be able to figure it out. And when you do, give us a rub, yeah?” He winks, and disappears in a puff of green smoke that’s sucked back into the lamp.
“Uh.” Arthur picks up the lamp. It’s warm—noticeably warmer than room temperature. But when he looks into the spout, he can’t see anything but darkness.
“Hello? Uh, Mr. Genie?”
Arthur’s tempted to rub the lamp again, just to prove to himself that the past hour’s been real, and not a result of the still aching goose-egg. But what if he rubs it, and nothing comes out? No puff of green smoke, no English-sounding Genie, no nothing?
“Um. Does it count if I wished I knew what to wish for?” Arthur whispers down into the spout, feeling vaguely foolish. The only response he gets is a lingering taste of smoke and incense.
Around midnight, it comes to Arthur in a bright flash, what he should wish for.
He’s doing nothing more illuminating than shelving his well-worn copy of Mysterious Skin when it hits him like a freight train. (Knowledge, not the book.)
Mysterious Skin falls to the floor, forgotten, and Arthur grabs the lamp from its place of pride in the middle of his coffee table.
“Hokay. I’m actually gonna do this—I actually believe this,” he mutters, cradling the lamp. With a little huff, he gives it the gentlest rub, down the slight curve of its side, three fingers slowly tracing the filigree patterns.
Green smoke suddenly sighs out of the lamp, slow and sinuous.
“Ohdarling,” comes from the midst of the smoke, low and purring. “Don’t be such a tease. Or . . . do.”
For a moment, Arthur can see orange, pupil-less eyes regarding him from within the smoke. They seem amused, though Arthur’s not sure how he can tell.
Then the smoke dispels with a sudden thunder-clap, and the Genie’s sitting before him, immaculate in his atrocious clothes.
“So.” Still that purring, lazy voice. “Have we decided what our first wish is to be?”
Arthur nods, blushing under that warm, searching gaze. “I, uh . . . oh, Genie of the lamp,” he intones, and the Genie snorts, still amused. “I have decided to wish . . . for peace on Earth, forever.”
The Genie’s eyebrows shoot up. “Darling, these are wishes, not miracles.”
Arthur squares his shoulders. “Is that your way of saying you can’t do it?”
“Oh, I can do it,” the Genie says, tilting his head to regard Arthur far too solemnly. “But I don’t think you’d like price of that peace.”
“A forever-despot that brings peace to the world at the price of feeding off its populace. Oh, it starts out small enough—eighty here, a hundred there. But in the end, the peace that was promised will exist largely because there won’t be enough people left to wage war.” The Genie pauses, crossing his legs and lacing his hands on his knee. There’s something quite genteel about the gesture that strikes Arthur as . . . something.
“And that’s actually the best of the fast-road-to-world-peace scenarios,” the Genie adds, heaving a sigh of his own. His eyes are remarkably sad. “The others end . . . badly.”
“More badly than a people-eating monster? How do you know?”
“You think you’re the first person to wish for world peace, darling?” the Genie shrugs a little. “Trust me on this, Arthur. World peace is a thing best achieved, not wished for.”
Arthur hangs his head. “Damnit. What about an end to world hunger?”
“Two words: Soylent. Green.”
Paling considerably, Arthur stands and paces to his television, then back to the bookcase. He picks up the fallen book and shelves it. “Are you purposely gonna mess up anything I wish for?”
“Purposely? No. But I am a Djinni, petal. These wishes always come at a price. The larger the wish, the greater the price, so . . . you mustn’t be afraid to wish a little smaller, darling.”
“Smaller? What if I can’t wish smaller?” Arthur means it to sound righteous and determined, not lost and pleading. “I mean, I don’t wanna be rich or famous—I don’t wanna be beautiful—“
“Too late on that one, anyway.”
Blushing again, Arthur looks away from the very frank admiration in the Genie’s eyes. “I suppose I . . . the only thing I want is to be happy.”
“See? Now there’s a splendid start!” The Genie applauds quietly, sitting forward a bit. “And tell us—what would make you happy?”
“Well.” Arthur clears his throat. “I, uh . . . I don’t exactly know.”
The Genie looks genuinely startled, his hazel eyes gone saucer-wide again, orange flickering in their depths. “Oh, my,” he says then frowns. “How d’you not know what makes you happy?”
“I don’t know that either, okay?” Arthur exclaims, smacking his bookshelf hard enough for several books to fall out of the creaking thing. He busies himself with picking them up and reshelving them according to alphabetical order. “I mean, it’s not like I haven’t been trying to figure it out for the past thirty years. As far as I know, nothing makes me happy. Not really. I’m content, for the most part, but I’ve never been . . . happy. Maybe if I ever had been, I’d know what to wish for.”
The terrible compassion in the Genie’s voice is too much to bear, and in that moment, Arthur knows what he wants, for the first time in his life. It fills him with the closest thing to a purpose he’s ever known. Seeming to sense this, the Genie stands, orange bleeding through hazel and green through tan.
“I wish, ” Arthur begins.
The Genie tuts. “You do seem to have a penchant for hitting your poor head, Arthur-darling.”
“Only since I met you.”
The Genie tuts again, and continues stroking Arthur’s hair. It’s so nice, Arthur doesn’t even bother trying to sit up, just lays with his head on an icepack, in the Genie’s lap, and tries to remember how the hell he got there, anyway.
After nearly ten minutes of fruitless non-remembering, he sighs, opening his eyes. Above him, the Genie’s blurry face is concerned, but not overly so.
“What happened this time?”
“You made your first wish!”
Arthur wrinkles his nose. “Ah. So I wished for a concussion?”
“No, you wished to know something important. Quite novel of you, too.”
“Oh, well, then—wait, what?”
The Genie smiles gently, and Arthur feels a little disoriented. It must be the concussion. “You wished to know what would make you happy.”
Trying to remember what would cause him to wish such a silly thing, Arthur groans. He remembers knocking over some books, and bending over to pick them up, but after that . . . everything is a blank.
Arthur squints away the blur, till the Genie’s face is as clear as day. He’s still smiling, the crow’s feet bracketing his eyes and the smiles lines bracketing his mouth kind and deep.
“And w-what is it that would make me happy?” Arthur asks. The Genie strokes his hair one last time, and helps him to sit up.
“You didn’t actually tell me before you passed out, petal . . . what, don’t you remember?”
“Not a damned thing.”
“Huh.” The Genie bites his lip and proceeds to examine Arthur’s second lump. So near, he smells like burnt herbs and incense. “My poor dearest. That’s a bitch of a price to be exacted.”
“I don’t suppose there’s a way you could. . . .” Arthur wiggles his fingers in a vague, jazz-hands-y way that’s the universal sign for magic!
“Not without you making another wish, unfortunately.” The Genie sits back a little. “And I wouldn’t recommend wishing to know what makes you happy again. If your reaction’s the same, you’ll have wasted a wish.”
Arthur leans back in the couch and stares at the ceiling. His head still throbs, but he’s used to it, by now. “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”
“Not so, darling, not so.” The Genie shifts a little closer once more, till their knees are brushing ever so lightly. “Look, somewhere, deep down, you know exactly what will make you happy. Once you have that knowledge, you don’t ever forget it—not really.”
Arthur rolls his head on the back of the couch till he’s looking at the Genie.
“So . . . what would happen if I just wished for ‘whatever it is that would make me happy’?”
The Genie’s brow furrows in thought. “I honestly can’t say.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
Looking vaguely hurt, the Genie still manages to meet Arthur’s eyes. “I only know based on my experience of previous Masters, Arthur. You’re the first one in my tenure that’s ever wished to know what would make him happy. There’s simply no precedent for this.”
“No one’s ever wished to know what would make them happy? No one?”
The Genie spreads his hands helplessly. “Everyone always assumes that they know what that is, and they wish for it straight off—money, power, fame, beauty, intelligence.” He sighs again. “Usually they’re dead wrong, and wind up using their other wishes to clean up the mess.”
“And is there a, uh, mess for me to clean up?”
“Not that I’m aware of. The payment exacted for your knowledge was, well, forgetting what you learned. I’ve seen harsher payments exacted for much less.”
“So I could, theoretically, wish for whatever it is that would make me happy, and if there’s a problem, use my last wish to take it back?”
The Genie nods, somewhat unhappily.
“And what do you think I should do?”
Startled, as if no one’s ever asked him that before, the Genie stammers: “Well, that is . . . honestly . . . I think you should wish me away to the deepest cavern on Earth, there to be lost forever.”
If there’s anything to say to that, Arthur doesn’t know what it is.
The Genie takes out his watch fob—a clunky, gold thing—and smiles. It doesn’t reach his eyes. “Anyway. It’s time for all good little Djinn to take their leave for the nonce. Think about what I’ve said, will you? All of it?”
Arthur nods, and the sunshine-smile makes its reappearance, touching the Genie’s hazel-and-orange eyes.
Then he’s gone in a puff of green smoke that zips back into the lamp.
Lying alone in bed later, Arthur can’t sleep.
A boatload of aspirin’s taken the edge off the worst of the pain in his head, but he still can’t close his eyes for more than a few seconds. Every time he does, he can hear the Genie’s words.
I think you should wish me away to the deepest cavern on Earth, there to be lost forever. . . .
Considering the awesome, potentially destructive power of the lamp, that might not actually be a bad idea . . . except for the part where the Genie would be consigned to an eternity of solitude and darkness.
The idea of that happening makes Arthur’s stomach churn. Even after a paltry few hours, it’s all but impossible to imagine his life without the Genie in it. Without ember-hazel eyes warming him, and seeing into him. . . .
Sighing, Arthur rolls onto his side to look at the lamp, which he’s left on his night table between the alarm clock and his glass of water. In the forgiving moonlight, he can barely make out all the dents and imperfections, focusing instead on the beauty of moonlight-touched filigree.
Drawn helplessly to the shining surface, Arthur sits up and brushes his finger across the side, following the curve of the lamp with his index finger. Green smoke puffs out of the lamp, swirling sinuously around Arthur’s arm, his torso, and his other arm. It’s clinging and heavy, smelling strongly of burnt herbs and incense, and warm, clean skin.
“Genie,” Arthur murmurs, shivering under the weight and feather-light tickle of the smoke, which still hasn’t coalesced into the Genie.
Just lie back, love, and let me take care of you.
“But—oh, God, Genie—“ Arthur flops back into the bed as green smoke winds itself around his pelvis, snakes into his boxers. He gasps, spreading his legs and scrabbling at the waistband of his boxers. But the smoke around his arms concentrates itself at his wrists and draws them up, pinning them to the pillows. In a bright orange flash, the boxers are gone, replaced by more smoke that twines itself around Arthur’s legs and draws them up tightly to his chest. He whimpers, straining into the touch but held firmly in place.
The smoke condenses for a few moments, a quick flash of double orange appearing over Arthur’s face. Oh, Arthur . . . you’re so beautiful like this . . . have you any idea. . . ?
“Be visible,” Arthur commands, squirming and fighting against the smoke, thrilled that he can’t break the hold that he’s caught in. “I wanna see you, again. The real you.”
Knowing a no when he’s about to hear it, Arthur phrases it into something the Genie can’t say no to, staring unswervingly into the place he remembers those twin orange glows being. “I wish—I wish I could see you as you really are. . . .”
There’s a weighty silence, a momentous pause, and then: Granted.
The smoke starts to solidify, gaining weight and color. Around each of Arthur’s wrists are two sweeps of long, orange hair, tightly-wrapped and as yielding as steel. Two more hanks of hair are restraining his ankles, pushing his legs up and back.
And, oh . . . but he’s still proportionate for a guy who’s ten feet tall. And though Arthur should at least feel somewhat intimidated—and on his way to a whopping inferiority complex—all he feels is . . . wanted.
“Yes,” he says, nodding as well, just so there’s no mistaking how he feels. He looks into the Genie’s eyes and grins. “I want you. Just like this.”
The Genie shivers, bracing his powerful arms on the bed. Suddenly the hair that’s been restraining Arthur falls away, obediently coiling itself into a braid that falls down the Genie’s back.
Arthur’s legs flop down to the bed, tingling and a little numb. The Genie sprawls next to him, taking up more than half the bed, his legs dangling over the foot of it. He seems ridiculously huge, compared to Arthur’s slighter, wiry frame.
But instead of Arthur’s want diminishing, it only intensifies, and Arthur sits up so he can look into the Genie’s glowing eyes. “I want you.”
“Darling,” the Genie says, his voice caught somewhere between his natural thunder-clap and the low, English tenor he’d adopted. “Darling, if I were to take you in this form, I’d kill you.”
Arthur smiles. “Not if my last wish was to be indestructible.”
This time, the Genie outright shudders. “Don’t even joke about that . . . people have made that wish before and it never, ever ends well. Never.”
“I wasn’t serious, anyway.” Arthur rolls his eyes and sprawls on top of the Genie, who inhales deeply, his chest rising as if half of Arthur’s weight isn’t on it.
“I still want you.”
There’s another orange flash, and Arthur’s laying on a much smaller body, one covered in tattoos, with tan skin and gentle, calloused hands.
“I still want you, too,” the Genie says hesitantly, and Arthur looks up into ember-hazel eyes. “This is the form I had before I was made into a Djinn, if that counts for anything.”
Arthur cups the Genie’s face in his hand, running his thumb along one cheekbone, then across supple, sinful lips.
“What’s your—I mean, I can’t just keep calling you Genie, huh? What’s your real name?”
“I can’t tell you the name I was given at birth, Arthur,” the Genie whispers regretfully. “I can no longer even speak my true name aloud. But I can tell you the name I was—mockingly—called during my travels as a young man. . . .”
Arthur tilts his head in consideration. “And what name is that?” he asks, leaning in close, then closer, still, till his lips brush the Genie’s. “What name am I gonna be calling out during?”
The Genie makes a soft, strangled sound as his lips part hungrily under Arthur’s. It feels like the wake-up call Arthur’s been waiting for his whole life. There are fireworks behind his eyes, and choirs singing, and he’s certain there’s a marching band around, somewhere. Though that could just be the leftover throbbing of his twice-banged head.
“Ala ad-Din,” the Genie breathes against Arthur’s lips, sipping kisses and breaths like they’re wine. “It means nobility of the faith. Quite laughable, really, for I gambled away even my titles, and had faith in nothing but the roll of the dice.”
“You’re Aladdin? Seriously?” Arthur gasps, then groans as the Genie nuzzles the exact spot where jaw meets throat—hello, erogenous zone. He throws one leg over the Genie’s and presses their bodies together. The contact makes them both gasp, this time.
“I am all that remains of a foolish wastrel of a boy who, like many, met his end in the Far East.” The Genie’s—Ala ad-Din’s eyes flicker ember-hazel above Arthur’s, and he kisses Arthur’s forehead, his nose, then his lips. They’re tender, surprisingly sweet kisses—sweeter than any Arthur can ever remember receiving, and when they’re over, Ala ad-Din is on top of him, a warm, solid weight between Arthur’s legs that he could definitely get used to.
“Ala ad-Din, ” he breathes, testing and tasting the name, and the Genie grins. And pounces.
As dawn straggles across the sky, grey and uncertain, Arthur lays in bed, for once not alone, and tries his damnedest to figure out what it all means. If he’ll wake up suddenly by himself in his bed, having had the mother of all wet dreams, and none of it was true, after all. . . .
It’d fit in with the leit motif of his life, at any rate.
Arthur turns in Ala ad-Din’s strong arms and traces with his eyes features that he’s traced with kisses and with fingertips: the longish nose, the pouty lips, the aquiline bone structure.
He’s beautiful . . . and he snores. Loudly. Obnoxiously. A Genie with a deviated septum. And morning wood that’s tenting the sheet that only barely covers them both.
He’s beautiful, and Arthur wants, keenly, to keep him.
“I think I know, now, what could make me happy,” he whispers, brushing dark blond hair off Ala ad-Din’s forehead, which he then kisses lingeringly. The Genie stirs, snorts, but doesn’t wake up. “Thank you, Ala ad-Din.”
Reaching over his sleeping form, Arthur hooks the lamp by the handle with one finger, careful not to rub it in any way, and pulls it to himself. By dawn’s light, it looks like nothing more than what it is. An ancient, badly-cared-for oil lamp.
Slowly, carefully extricating himself from Ala ad-Din’s arms, Arthur sits up and bites his lip. Then, with one deep, shaking breath, he holds the lamp up to his lips and whispers what he wants onto cool filigree.
When nothing happens, Arthur rubs the lamp once, and immediately it starts to glow, spilling green-gold light from once darkened depths. . . .
Surprisingly, the inside of the lamp looks like Arthur’s bedroom, right down to the patterns the late morning sunlight makes on his walls.
“Huh,” he says, and he sounds like himself—just himself. No thunder-clap voice, no nothing. He even tries snapping his fingers to make something appear (though he’s not sure what) and nothing does.
“I must be, like, the worst Genie ever,” he mutters, disappointed. He sits up to see just how much space he’s going to be dealing with for the next eternity, and—wow, but the inside of the lamp really does look like his bedroom. In fact, if Arthur didn’t know better, he’d think it was—
Just then, the “door” to Arthur’s “bedroom” is flung wide open, and in marches a very naked Ala ad-Din, carrying a tray laden with food.
“Good morning, darling.” he says cheerily, practically dancing into the room without spilling so much as a morsel. Arthur hems and haws and splutters.
“You can’t be in here! Get outta my lamp!”
Ala ad-Din stops dead in his tracks, looking at Arthur as if he’s gone quite mad. “Whuh?”
“My lamp! This is my lamp, now! You’re free, so . . . shoo! Go away!” Arthur makes shooing motions with his hands, and Ala ad-Din’s eyebrows shoot up in what looks like amusement, but can’t possibly be.
Not that Arthur expected a thank you, but he at least expected to not be laughed at.
“Darling . . . dearest my love, you do realize we’re not in the lamp, right?” Ala ad-Din nods toward the night table, where sits the lamp in question, an old, tacky bit of junk blocking the LED readout of the alarm clock.
Arthur looks from lamp to genie, there and back again, before smiling hopefully. “We’re . . . not in the lamp?”
“And—but—are you still all—you know, phenomenal cosmic powers—itty-bitty living space?”
Ala ad-Din sits on the bed carefully, placing the tray of food on Arthur’s legs. It’s heavy, and seemingly with all of Arthur’s favorite foods. “But of course not, darling! You wished for my freedom. Did you hit your head again and forget that part?” He reaches out to examine Arthur’s head. But Arthur flaps his hand away.
“No, no, I’m fine, I just . . . expected to be inside the lamp.” Arthur looks around them suspiciously. “But I’m not, right?”
“Right.” Ala ad-Din grins cheekily. “See, as with all things lamp related, there’s a special proviso, regarding genuinely selfless acts of wishery—“
“Wishery?” Arthur repeats doubtfully.
“It is so a word, now shut it.” Ala ad-Din swats Arthur’s foot playfully. “You wished me free despite full knowledge of what would happen to you if you did. Eternity of servitude, etc, etc. Your willing sacrifice nullified the curse of the lamp. We’re both free men, thanks to you.”
Ala ad-Din picks up said lamp and dangles it like some unimportant trinket. And indeed, the lamp looks smaller than it had just this morning. Smaller, grimier, and . . . worthless.
Arthur takes the lamp from Ala ad-Din and looks at it carefully. He can barely make out the faded filigree under the centuries of patina. What was once as clear as day is hardly visible, now.
Ala ad-Din gently takes the lamp and places it back on the night-table. “You did it, darling.” He leans in to peck Arthur’s cheek. “You’ve freed me and cleansed the world of yet another dreadful wishing device—the worst since that ghoulish monkey’s paw.”
Arthur gingerly feels his head for any new lumps. But there’re just the two.
“So . . . you’re, ah, a free Genie now?”
Arthur blushes when Ala ad-Din leans closer. “And I’m still free?”
Another nod, accompanied by that sunshine-smile.
“So, um, what happens, now?”
Ala ad-Din is moving even closer. He claps his hands together once, briskly, and the tray vanishes (as does the sheet that had been covering Arthur) leaving Ala ad-Din to take its place, straddling Arthur’s legs.
They stare into each other’s eyes for a long time.
“So what happens now?” Arthur asks belatedly, though he’s starting to think he has a pretty damned good idea. And that idea makes him grin, even though he’s beet-red, too.
“Anything. Everything. For as long as you want it to. And afterwards—” Ala ad-Din grins wolfishly then snaps his fingers. Suddenly, Arthur’s holding two passports.
“You kinky bastard,” Arthur murmurs, opening them with peaked curiosity. The first passport has a rather unflattering photo of himself in it, and the name Arthur Ackerman below that photo. The other passport has an enviously smashing photo of Ala ad-Din. The name below it is—
“Is this . . . is this your real name?” Arthur asks wonderingly, gazing wide-eyed at Ala ad-Din.
“’Tis, indeed. And I am ever at your service.” Ala ad-Din bows a little at the waist. “And as to what happens after I ravish you, Mr. Ackerman . . . have you ever been to Monaco?”