Spoilers: Up to 2.22
Disclaimer: RIB and FOX own everything ever.
Beta: rdm_ation on LJ
Enjoy, and by all means review should it strike your fancy, my best beloveds.~
The genie you save may be your own.
– Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone
There was a boy on Mercedes' bed.
This wasn't a huge problem, in and of itself. Her parents weren't too strict about the people she had over, and he was fully dressed. While they wouldn't recognize him, and while she was supposed to be helping clean out her gran's room right now, she could explain those things away.
The problem stemmed from the fact that, a few minutes ago, he hadn't been there at all; and that when Mercedes had opened the (ungodly ugly) green glass vase to clean off the collected grease and dust, there had been a plume of smoke which had turned into a boy. This boy had immediately bowed and said that he owed her a wish.
"You have to give me anything I want?" Mercedes knew a genie when she saw one. Or when one puffed out of a bottle at her.
The boy picked up a bottle of "Fantasy" by Britney Spears, which Mercedes had explained to her mother was tragic even before it hit the sales rack in Wal Mart but had ended up with as a stocking stuffer anyway. "Not anything," he said. "I can do circumstantial, but not motivation."
Mercedes raised her eyebrows. "Is this a detective show now?"
"Sorry." The boy screwed up his oversize mouth. It really was distractingly wide, though she couldn't say it made him any less attractive. And he was very clean for someone who had been living in a dirty bottle. She would have expected him to be unkempt, coming out of that manky thing. That is, if she'd expected anyone to come out of it at all. "I've been sitting on top of TVs for fifty years, and your grandmother watches a lot of procedurals."
"You don't have to tell me," said Mercedes, who had to bribe the TV away from her gran's Law and Order and CSI fests with backrubs when she wanted to have Kurt over for Next Top Model.
He opened the Fantasy and sniffed it. "I mean, take world peace. You could wish for all the weapons in the world to disappear. I could do that. But you couldn't actually wish for eternal world peace. I can't alter human nature, or anyone's mindset." He saw her expression and smiled, sort of, although he didn't look very happy. "It's okay. No one but a pageant princess thinks to wish for world peace in the first place."
Mercedes spared a few seconds of remorse for the better her that might have been, and then dropped it. So she wasn't a pageant princess; last she checked, the world wasn't begging her to do any swimsuit competitions, and she didn't owe it a damn thing. "So to bring things home, I could wish for a night where my mom doesn't know I'm out until midnight, but not for her to suddenly realize that ten o'clock is not a reasonable curfew for a seventeen-year-old in 2012?"
"Totally." The boy capped the "Fantasy" – thank God – and put it back in the basket of "no, thank you" gifts on her bedside table.
"Wow." Mercedes sank down in her embarrassing but comfortable bean bag chair, which was decorated with ponies. "This is a lot to process." It wasn't even that she didn't believe him; she figured some part of this had to be a scam, but he had appeared in a puff of smoke. That was a convincing argument for her at least going along with things until she hit a snag. For someone who was usually clear on what she wanted, this was suddenly way too confusing.
"Take your time." He smiled, and looked happier this time; also a little dorky, almost like a normal teenage boy. "If you want, while you think about it? I have this killer James Earl Jones impression. I've been working on it since the 60s." And then he frowned and started counting something on his fingers. "Did you say it was 2012?"
"Have you not been paying attention to the news? Yeah, it's 2012. You know, I thought that shirt looked pretty 90s for someone who seemed like he was keeping up; floral print is not even skater chic for guys anymore…" The boy was going over his fingers again, looking increasingly consternated. "Hey, what's wrong?"
He looked at her. He looked at his fingers. He looked sick. "I have bad news."
Mercedes, who only had a horse-themed inspirational-saying-of-the-day calendar in her room, snuck downstairs and stole the big wall calendar from the fridge so that the boy could check his figures. He sat on her bed, flipping pages and tapping the little shaded circles that represented the phases of the moon.
Finally he closed the calendar and looked up at her with wide blue eyes. "It's been seven thousand lunar years since I was imprisoned," he said.
"Wow." Mercedes looked at the ugly green vase on her bedside table. It was small and knobby. She couldn't imagine being stuck in it for a day, even as smoke. She couldn't imagine seven thousand years, lunar or not, even in a castle with its own swimming pool and breakfast in bed. That kind of time… "That sucks."
"No," he said, "I'm free. I'm free now."
"Oh." Mercedes picked the vase up and sat back down on her bean chair. "Still kinda sucks for me, but I was sort of having a moral crisis over whether to use my one wish to set you free or to move to New York City, so honestly, it's for the best."
"But I'm not." He looked at his hands and touched his head, like there was a faulty connection he had to check. "I'm not free. I should be free and I'm not, it's been seven thousand years and it's – I can still feel it –"
"Whoa, whoa, hey." He was freaking out. Mercedes wondered how old he was, but quickly dismissed the question when it made her head hurt for not entirely altruistic reasons. She tried not to feel silly as she knelt by the bed and took the hands of a million-year-old white boy and said, "It's gonna be okay."
"How?" He looked her in the eyes and she didn't feel silly at all.
"Well," she said, "we're gonna figure this out together, all right?"
"Yeah?" He looked down at their hands. "You'll help?"
"Yes," she promised.
He managed a watery smile. "I guess James Earl Jones wouldn't fall apart. He'd figure something out."
"He would." She patted his hands and extricated her own, sitting down beside him. "So walk me through this. When were you supposed to be free exactly?"
"A few thousand years before the Common Era," he said. "I feel so stupid. I just never thought to check. The deal was, I was going to be in the bottle for three thousand years. For the first thousand years, anyone who let me out, I had to grant them three wishes."
"I knew it," Mercedes said, disgusted with her luck, and then mimed zipping her lips. "Sorry. Go on."
"Right, so the second thousand years, I had to grant anyone one wish. And then for the last thousand years, I was allowed to kill whoever let me out."
He shrugged. "Don't worry about it. I'm past due anyway. Plus I think they set that rule up for people with a lot more rage than I have. Anyway, after the last thousand years, someone was supposed to show up and set me free. I'd served my time. And instead I've been sitting in there, trapped, for an extra four thousand years for no reason?" He shook his head. "Not cool."
Personally, Mercedes thought this was the understatement of the century (and hey, she could actually check that with him). But she didn't want to get him worked up again, especially if last he'd heard, he was technically supposed to be striking her dead rather than making her queen of a small but prosperous country. "That's very uncool, but let's work on freeing you now. Who's 'they'? Who set this up? We'll just go to them and explain, and they'll have to free you. They owe you some crazy back pay or something. I'd sue."
"Oh." He brightened. "That's a good idea! Yeah, check the bottle. There's spell so I can't read it and get ideas, but you should be able to."
"Uh-huh." Mercedes warily approached the ugly green vase and picked it up with her fingertips. She had to clean this thing, whether the boy had to keep living in it or not. It was seriously disgusting. It was also engraved on the back with lumpy, untidy letters.
CONGRATULATIONS _MERCEDES_ ON YOUR ACQUISITION OF THIS FINE _GENIE_!
_HE_ WILL COMPLY WITH YOUR EVERY WHIM AND GRANT YOU _ONE_ WISH/ES, AND/OR _END YOUR LIFE IN VENGEANCE FOR HIS YEARS OF MISERABLE SERVITUDE_!
IF YOU ARE HAVING TROUBLE WITH YOUR _GENIE_ OR OTHERWISE FIND THAT THIS PRODUCT IS NOT 99.08% SATISFACTORY, PLEASE VISIT THE NEAREST OFFICE OF MAGICAL AFFAIRS, LOCATED AT:
_640 S MAIN ST_
YOUR _GENIE_ IS BEST BEFORE _1902B.C.E_
"South Main…" Mercedes considered this. "Oh, that's over by the pizza place! We'll get this figured out in no time." Not that it mattered how long it took; a genie to free sounded like a pretty good project, considering how far into the summer she was without a word from her friends. "Come on –" she looked at him. "What's your name?"
"You can call me Sam," he said. "It's probably easiest for you to pronounce."
"It's nice to meet you, then, Sam." She smiled. "I'm Mercedes. Now, could you conjure yourself up some shoes? We're going out."
Mercedes did not remember an Office of Magical Affairs anywhere near Bella Notta's. This was because there wasn't one. She parked at the address on the ugly green vase anyway and stared at the Lima Fabric Care Center while Sam played with the dial on the radio.
"Do you think it moved?" she asked.
Sam looked up. "We're there? No, it's probably just hiding." He struggled with his seat belt until she reached over and released it for him. "Wow," he said, and sat there staring at it for a few seconds.
"Okay," she laughed, "show me where this place is hiding so we can get you fixed up."
The Lima Fabric Care Center was not an impressive establishment, but it did have a clerk. Sam walked directly to her, leaving Mercedes to pick her way across the nasty used-to-be-white linoleum and catch up. "We're looking for the Office of Magical Affairs," he said.
The clerk flicked her eyes over him and snapped her gum. She looked about forty years too young for her glasses and sweater, and she was embroidering a sampler. Mercedes had never seen anyone actually embroider a sampler. "You found it," she said, and put down her embroidery long enough to change her name tag from Welcome to Lima Fabric Care Center: We Care About Your Fabric! TIFFANI to Office of Mgical Affairs HI MY NAME IS TIFFANI.
"Great." Mercedes stepped forward. "We need to get Sam here freed. He's a genie and he's owed some serious overtime."
"All righty, well, that's a very simple process," said Tiffani, "but we should get it started right away, as it can take some time. The Office of Magical Affairs deeply regrets any inconvenience caused by your genie's delay in freedom." She smiled and fished some paperwork out from behind the desk. "I take it you are his present master?"
"Sure, I guess," Mercedes said when Sam looked placidly and expectantly at her.
"I'll need to see his prison for verification."
"This is making me really uncomfortable," Mercedes said, but fished out the ugly green vase and handed it over.
"Well we'll have to clear it right up then." Tiffani squinted through her glasses at the label. "You are overdue. I'm sorry you couldn't make it in sooner." She shook her head, as if Sam's four thousand years of unfair imprisonment were a splotch of plant feeder on the tablecloth. "Okay! This all looks in order. The first step is to break the prison." She handed the ugly green vase back over.
Mercedes paused, holding it gingerly. The floor didn't look like it would withstand a good stomping, never mind a sharp blow with this thing, which looked less fragile than congealed. She suspected its age would make it harder to break. "Here?" she asked.
"If you want to," said Tiffani dubiously. "Of course, the genie will have to do it."
"Oh!" Mercedes hastily handed the vase over.
Sam took it carefully. His mouth pulled down at the corners, and he cradled the vase almost gently.
"Whenever," Mercedes encouraged him.
He looked up. "Hey, I'm starving. Can we get something to eat?"
They settled into their booth at Bella Notta's to wait for their order a few minutes later. Sam was cradling the ugly green vase under his arm like a baby or a shifty package; Mercedes was fairly certain that if he kept patting it they might get thrown out for carrying drugs.
"What was that about?" she asked.
"What? I'm hungry."
"All I know is, that nasty green mess says right on it that it means years of 'miserable servitude' for you, so you should be happy for a chance to stomp it. And instead we're sitting here ordering delicious pizza."
"It's just…" Sam set the ugly green vase on the table, carefully, between the salt and pepper. "I've been living there for a really long time."
Sam fiddled with his offensive floral shirt.
"But you're not happy being stuck there, having to do random things people tell you to."
"Of course not! But – where else am I going to live? Sure, I have phenomenal cosmic powers, but I don't even know how to get a job in the twenty-first century, let alone a house. The last time I had a real place, it was a palace, you know? This is a lot to take in."
"Okay. Well, first thing, you're aiming a little high. A guy who looks like he's in his teens, getting his first job? No way you're starting out with a house. You'll have to settle for an apartment."
"See?" He sank into his chair, shaking his head. "I can't drive, either."
"Can you fly?"
"Totally, but everyone drives now. I'd look weird."
"Can you turn invisible?"
He perked up a little. "Well, yeah, that too."
"Great. So here's my plan. This place has a help-wanted sign. We're going to get you an application, which I will help you fill out, and you can deliver pizza for your first job. You'll do it in record time with this whole flying gig. While you do that and build up a bank account, you can stay at my place and I'll teach you how to drive. My parents will go for it; they let my friend Quinn live with us for practically a year one time."
Sam stared at her, eyes swimming. "Really?"
"Whoa, I said I'd help, not that I'd marry you."
"But you mean it? You'll help?"
She raised an eyebrow. "What have I been doing?" To soften the blow, and because he had nice fingers, she reached over and patted his hand. "We'll get you through this, Sam."
He nodded. "Thank you."
Mercedes opened her mouth to answer, but the waitress came over with two small pizzas, one with anchovies and mushrooms, one with everything but cheese. (This was because Sam said he needed to start catching up fast on the flavors available, but also to mind his calorie intake because his body was a temple. Mercedes was unsure how literally she should take that.)
"Don't!" she said when he peeled a slice off instantly. "It's too hot, it'll burn your mouth. You have to let it sit first."
"Oh." He poked it as if expecting it to burn his finger, then blew briefly on both pizzas. "It's perfect now."
"Are you serious?" Mercedes took a tentative bite. It was just the way she liked it, edging toward too cold but not actually there yet. "Oh my God, that's amazing. You're the best."
"No," Sam said, very earnestly. "You're the best."
Mercedes felt the blush start at her chest and flood up her neck into her cheeks. She turned her attention suddenly and entirely to her pizza.
Sam crushed the ugly green vase himself, holding Mercedes' hand while he did it. They scooped up a few shards of nasty green glass as proof and headed back into the Lima Fabric Care Center.
"Oop," said Tiffani when she saw them, and switched her name tag to Office of Mgical Affairs HI MY NAME IS TIFFANI again. "How did that work out for you?"
"He did it," Mercedes said, dumping the shards on the counter. "So is he free now? Because I think we need to discuss back-pay."
"Oh, no," Tiffani said. "It's a three-part process. Let me just… I had the forms out for you…" She ducked behind the counter and resurfaced with some poorly-printed forms, the uneven letters straying off the pages. She handed one to each of them. "You'll both need to sign and initial here and… here." She tapped the appropriate lines. Her fingernails were bright green.
"Fine, what's next?" Mercedes scribbled her name down. "What's the next step for Sam, I mean?"
"He has to refuse to grant you three wishes in a row."
"Are you kidding me?" Mercedes initialed and slid the form back. "That's ridiculous."
"I don't make the rules." Tiffani disappeared again, digging through a filing drawer with their forms back in hand.
"Let's get this over with right now so we can go home and have some lemonade." Mercedes turned to Sam, and didn't notice his wide eyes until too late. "I wish I had platinum blonde hair."
"I'm sorry!" Sam said instantly.
"Honey," said Tiffani. "It's not that easy for them." She offered Mercedes a compact mirror.
"Oh God," said Mercedes, and opened the mirror. She did in fact have platinum blonde hair, and it was not a good look for her. "Hell to the no." She turned back to Sam. "I wish I had black hair, and now is not the time to start working on your free will."
"It's fixed!" Sam heaved a sigh, face slackening with relief. "It's back."
Mercedes patted her hair gingerly. "I guess this is going to be a little harder for you than that?"
"You wanna go home?"
"That'd be nice."
"I have to shower and stare at myself in the mirror for a while anyway."
She checked the rear view mirror every few miles on the way back to her house, just in case.
Her parents, who had never heard her mention anyone named Sam before and were somehow unconvinced that there was absolutely nothing going on between him and their daughter, did not open their doors to Sam as easily as they had to Quinn.
Mercedes, however, had foreseen this possibility and gotten Gran on her side first by having Sam talk to her about her favorite CSI characters. It was an excruciatingly boring four hours of popping back into her gran's room to see if they were done yet only to be dismissed because they still had to address Delko's fear of commitment. By the time she dragged Gran downstairs for the talk with her parents, the woman was already asking how long that nice white boy could stay with them and whether Mercedes thought he'd like Boston Legal.
She and Gran won.
Her brother's room was, at this point, a pretty eclectic space. An eighteen-year-old boy with a passion for paint ball and football had left it for college, and moved back in for the occasional summer vacation with a newfound interest in the civil rights movement of the '60s. Then a pregnant sixteen-year-old white girl had moved in with a lot of quiet, flowery things and left some of them when she left.
There were framed posters of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Omali Yeshitela, and Rodolfo Gonzáles on the walls, surrounded by large stick-on flowers; the black-and-red bulletin board was covered in light green push-pins holding a GO CHEERIOS pennant and a collection of photos – Cheerios, New Directions, an empty playground, a field outside of Lima. There was one of Tina and Quinn kissing Mercedes' cheeks.
Mercedes took that one down. "You'll stay here," she told Sam. "It's got a sweet view of the sunset, at least. Quinn used to take pictures of it."
"That's cool." Sam looked out the blackened window, as if the sunset might start at any second instead of being over for a few hours now.
"Now," Mercedes said, taking a seat on the bed, "talk to me."
"Okay." Sam sat down opposite her. "What should I talk about?"
"Let's start with you and wishes. You granted that last one pretty damn quick."
"Yeah. It's what I'm used to, you know?"
"But we have to get you un-used to it," Mercedes coached. "What if I made a wish… right now?"
Sam set his shoulders, hands clenching on his knees and head lowering. "Okay."
"Sam," Mercedes laughed. "We don't have to this second. I meant… why is it hard for you not to grant a wish?"
"I'm still your genie," Sam said. "If I know you want something, it's – hard not to give it to you."
"Hey. It's a formality. You're your own genie." Mercedes took his hand. "What if I wished for something I don't really want?"
Sam's fingers tightened on hers. "That might be good."
Sam stared at her, then closed his eyes. "Okay."
"It's okay if you can't make it yet. We'll just wish it back."
"I wish… that I were fabulously wealthy."
Sam's grip on her hand hurt for a few long, long seconds. Then his eyes opened and a smile spread across his face, sunshine in seconds. "I didn't," he said. "I didn't grant it!"
"Look at you! You're practically a free man," Mercedes said with a smile of her own, and Sam leaned across the space between them and kissed her.
He felt like sunshine, too.
"Why don't you want to be fabulously wealthy?" Sam asked the next morning. It was five o'clock and the sun was rising. They were on the porch swing out front, wrapped in a blanket. Mercedes had found she could see the sunrise perfectly well with her head on Sam's lap, and he occasionally pushed off the ground with one long leg, setting the bench swinging. "Most people do." He thought about it. "I think I do. You can do a lot more stuff."
"Yeah, and money makes things easier, but… we have enough. My dad's a dentist. And I want to be fabulously wealthy, don't get me wrong, but that kind of comes hand in hand with my career path. I can wait." She giggled when he traced a picture of a star on the back of her hand with his finger. "What about you? You said you used to live in a palace. Were you rich?"
"I guess so. We didn't think about it like that, at the time. We all had magic. It was pretty cool."
"Are you ready to try another wish? If you kick this one, we're more than halfway done with the wishes."
Sam's hand stilled on hers. "Yes," he said.
"I wish I knew what it was like for you, back then – and now," Mercedes said, and she opened upand
"Mercedes," said Sam, who –
could do anything, be anywhere, everything else so small and brief, flickering by like so many falling leaves
– was kneeling in front of her with puppy eyes and sandy blond hair and looked perfectly ordinary; he –
screamed for millennia and no one heard, no one cared and no one had ever needed to before; there was nothing inside him to prepare for this, to defend against it, even to understand it
– pulled her upright, one hand cradling the back of her head. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to – I didn't think you'd mean it."
"I didn't think I did either," she said. "I mean, I thought maybe you'd tell me someday. With words." Her nails bit into her chest, where she could still feel what it was – to have no concept of mercy, and then to be at someone's and to find they had none – "You seem nice," she said.
He brushed her tears away with his thumb. "I am nice," he said.
"How can you be?"
"I've had a long time to think about things." He smiled. It wasn't like sunshine, it was just a smile, and it was sad and small.
"I'm sorry," she said, and hugged him so close that, if it had been possible, he would have soaked up her pain and she would have soaked up his. It wasn't, and they didn't.
"We have to start over," Sam said after breakfast. They were sitting with Mercedes' grandmother, watching Boston Legal. Gran didn't hear conversations when the TV was on. He sounded like he didn't know if Mercedes would want to start over. "It won't be three wishes in a row, unless…"
"No kidding." Mercedes smiled at him. "Don't worry, Sam. We'll get there."
They did get there.
Mercedes didn't make any wishes for the next week. The sudden lack of progress after such a successful few days was jarring, but so was feeling eons old and still seventeen, all at once.
Sam started work at Bella Notta's once Mercedes helped him cheat his way through the application form; he was good at magically producing fake identification and references, but said the letters on the form kept jumping around on him. As soon he figured out how fast he could fly without lowering the temperature of the pizzas or raising suspicions, he became the star delivery boy.
He clambered into the car after a particularly long shift on Saturday, flushed with success and wielding a handful of ones and fives. "They want me to take more hours," he said.
"That's great," Mercedes said with a smile and no mention of how minimum-wage employers worked.
"They're impressed by my work ethic," he said. "I feel good about this." He regarded her solemnly. "I think I'm ready to try another wish."
Mercedes flipped the sun visor up, then back down. Quinn and Tina, kissing her cheeks, smiled down at her from the photo pinned to the back of it. She hadn't seen or heard from either of them since school let out.
"Sure," she said. "Let's try another classic," and she laughed. "I wish… that I were invisible."
Sam dropped his fistful of tips, and –
granted her wish because she'd said it and that was what he did all he was
– opened his eyes wide, blue and round, and said, "I didn't!" He leaned over to see the picture while Mercedes was still checking to be sure she had a reflection. "You didn't want that at all," he noted.
"Well, it's kind of like wishing for more money when I'm already comfortable," she said. "Why be more invisible when Rachel Berry exists? Not that I'm bitter or anything." She shook her head. "I don't know how you do it, Sam. Now that I know how it feels…"
Sam looked at her, brows knitted, eyes dark. "I have you," he said.
Showered and squeaky clean one evening the week after that, Sam knocked on the open door to Mercedes' room.
Kurt and Rachel, sitting on either side of Mercedes on the bed, simultaneously choked on their popcorn.
"This is your houseguest?" Kurt said, eyes busy and eyebrows high.
"You're so lucky," Rachel sighed. "My dads would never let Finn live in our house."
It did not occur to Mercedes to remind them that she and Sam weren't involved. She wasn't sure one kiss counted as "involved," but still, she thought maybe they were. "Guys," she said, kicking them both, "this is Sam. Sam, this is Kurt, and this is Rachel." Once she would have said, "my best friend Kurt." Now, she thought, she might be closer to Rachel – who in turn was certainly closer to Kurt. Invisibility was an overrated power.
"It's really great to meet you," Sam said, and shook both of their hands. He bent over and kissed Rachel's halfway through. Mercedes tried very hard to stifle her chuckles. "So what are you guys doing?" He piled onto the bed beside Kurt, who elbowed Mercedes viciously in the side to make room. Mercedes couldn't blame him. The poor boy's boyfriend was out of town all week and he did live with Finn; he probably needed reassurance that men could smell good.
"We're watching movies about horses," Mercedes said. "I had such a thing for horses when I was little. I won a blue ribbon in horseback riding when I was twelve, but then I had to give it up." She pointed to the ribbon in question, tacked to the corner of her bulletin board.
"I never got into horses," Rachel said wistfully. "I was too busy perfecting my plié by age five and learning to shatter glass with my voice."
"I never wanted to get into horses," Kurt said. "Traveling around on a thousand pounds of nervous, deadly animal? No, thanks. I'm a car man." He pointed to the screen. "I'm only here for Robert Redford."
"Kurt," Mercedes protested, laughing. "Horses are sweet."
"Nothing with hooves that dangerous is sweet."
"No, you just have to get to know them." She sighed. "I miss horses."
"Maybe we could have go riding some time," Rachel offered. "One of those places where they show you how if you don't already know!"
"I'd like that," Mercedes said, sincerely and only a little bit because she thought Rachel on horseback would be funny.
"Count me out," Kurt said, "but I would go with you to take pictures. Someone's going to fall off, and I want it recorded."
"I'll go," Sam offered. "I used to be really good at it. And it's a great workout."
Kurt brightened. "Is that like riding a bicycle, where it just comes back to you, or do you think I might get some embarrassing pictures of you, too?"
"Oh ha ha," Mercedes said, and kicked him again. "Shut up and let me get my Sam Neill on."
By the time Sam Neill and Robert Redford had finished, Rachel was in the bathroom brushing her teeth and washing her face (she had also gone downstairs to get a bowl full of ice, which Mercedes just didn't ask about) and Kurt was asleep on Mercedes' shoulder.
Sam leaned over him. "Do you… really want a horse?" he whispered.
"No," Mercedes sighed. "I mean, it'd be great to ride again, but I don't really have time to take care of one."
"Then – if you don't want one – it is another classic."
Mercedes lowered her voice more. "With them here?"
Sam shrugged and smiled. "I think I can do it."
"Okay. Then I do too." She refrained from mentioning that the classic was actually a pony and said, "Sam, I wish I had a horse."
He jerked back as if stung, then smiled wide. "I didn't."
Mercedes held out a hand for a high five. Kurt snored slightly. "Oh my God," she said, "is he drooling on my favorite red PJs?"
Sam looked up from the picnic blanket he was spreading on the grass. It was checkered red and white; he'd insisted. "Could Rachel really do a plié when she was five? That doesn't seem normal, but after sitting on top of a TV for a few episodes of Toddlers in Tiaras I'm not sure it's impossible."
Mercedes rolled her eyes. "I do not know with that girl. I think she's joking or misremembering about seventy percent of what she says about her childhood, but sometimes I wonder. She's got a lot of focus, I'll tell you that."
"You should come hold the picnic blanket down. I'm afraid it'll blow away while I cook the hamburgers and hotdogs."
"We could have done this on a less windy day," Mercedes pointed out.
"No, this is vital to my Americanization. I have to understand the culture in order to assimilate. Cookouts and picnics are a very important part of the culture." Sam walked up to the grill and tapped it, whereupon the coal burst into flame. "Whoops," he said, tamping them down slightly. "How much heat do I need for these anyway?"
"My dad usually puts them on when the coals are just… red and glowy," Mercedes said, laying back on the blanket and putting on her sunglasses. "You're cheating, anyway. Half the fun is the wait." The sun tickled her face and felt like Sam's kiss.
"Oh, okay," he said. "I'll wait for it to be ready on its own from here. Mercedes, check this out!" He took a running leap into their in-ground pool and did a handstand underwater, which, to be fair, probably was very impressive for someone who'd been in a bottle for seven thousand years.
"That's beautiful, Sam," Mercedes said, clapping and making another attempt to hide her laughter. He was just too cute.
"Swimming is sexy," he said confidently.
"I want you never to tell me what show you learned that on."
He winked and ducked back under to swim laps which, she had to admit, was actually very sexy.
By the time Sam got out of the pool, he apparently judged the grill ready, as he went to work with the hamburgers and hotdogs, his quintessential American meal. Mercedes left him to it and was almost ready for a sunny catnap when he dropped down beside her, hair dripping on her, and handed her a plate. "I cheated again," he confessed. "But they're ready."
"Well, I am not moving. Don't you dare block my light, either."
"Okay." He started picking his hot dog apart with his fingers.
"You're supposed to eat those in a bun, you know."
"Too many carbs," he explained.
"Right, how could I forget?"
"We only have one wish left."
"I know." She sat up enough to lean on her elbow. "Did you want to try it now?"
"Sort of. I think – in order to be real – you should probably try one thing you do want. And I want to know what you want, even if I can't just hand it to you."
Mercedes nodded. "Then… well, you know Rachel? She's really set on being famous. She and Kurt are planning on Julliard together, this one time she sent a girl she saw as competition to a crack house, the whole thing. Once she told me that the reason she gets all the solos and attention at school was because she's willing to do whatever it takes, and it's not pretty but… I believe her. I believe she'll be famous." She laughed, nervous. "Or kill someone trying. But the thing is, I'm not like her, and when I try to be, it just… doesn't work out. Being a singer is all I want, but I'm afraid I'll never get a real chance. So – that's what I want. To be able to do what I want with my life. To be able to do it now, so I can stop worrying about it." She blew out, ruffling her bangs. "I wish… I wish I were famous already."
Sam stared at her, face slack, and dropped his plate.
"Sam?" She grabbed his hand. "Hey, are you okay? It's all right, you can put it back and we can start over –"
"No," he said. "No – I think I did it –"
"You think?" Mercedes whipped out her phone and did a quick search. "The first thing that comes up when I search for my name is fractional ownerships in California, so yeah, I'd say you did it." She dropped the phone. "Sam, you did it! That was the last one!" She flung her arms around him.
"You will, though," he said into her ear. "You don't need me for that."
Mercedes nodded and thought about asking whether, once he was free, maybe – and didn't ask.
Office of Mgical Affairs HI MY NAME IS TIFFANI raised her eyebrows up to her hairline when she saw them. "Back already?"
"He did it," Mercedes said, beaming up at Sam. "He said no to three wishes in a row."
"Wow…" Tiffani stared at them for a moment longer, then dropped down behind her desk. "I'll just… I'll get the paperwork on that, you'll have to sign off on it, of course…"
"Why am I picking up on a not-good vibe?" Mercedes said, leaning over the counter level a bitch glare at Tiffani.
"No, it's nothing," Tiffani said, resurfacing with more sloppily copied papers and a Bic pen with something that looked like a pebble-sized ruby stuck to the end of it. It had no top, and Mercedes had to scribble circles in the corner of the page to get the ink flowing. "It's just that it's been a while since we've had a genie show up and petition for freedom and then… make it this far."
Mercedes remembered the dark, blank, empty feeling of the foregone conclusion in her gut – anything you say, anything at all– and that was what Sam felt every time she made a wish; what every imprisoned genie felt every time they were used for a wish. "I believe that," she muttered.
"Most of them are out of the system now," Tiffani said. She sounded like she meant it to be comforting. "The whole thing was unsustainable. Random people being able to wish for whatever they wanted? The initiative was canceled thousands of years ago. Now and then we still get the ones who fell through the cracks, but once they've been in the system this long…" she nodded to herself.
"I'll bet," Mercedes said, handing the pen to Sam and discretely taking his other hand. He looked sick. "But Sam made it. So now what?"
"There's only one more step," Tiffani said.
"What is it?" Sam set the pen down, fingers tight around Mercedes' hand. "The last step."
Tiffani lowered her voice. "You have to invoke the Dark Lord of Rule." She looked over her shoulder at the wall as if someone might have snuck up behind her and started eavesdropping. "He has to finalize the operation. It's just that he never wanted to have to deal with the failed genie initiative in the first place, and he gets pretty cranky if you summon him at a bad time."
"Okay," Mercedes said. "So what's a good time?"
Tiffani shook her head solemnly. "For the Dark Lord of Rule? There are no good times." She handed Mercedes a glass paperweight with a red pip. "This is good for one summoning." When Mercedes tried to take it, Tiffani held on. "Just… you know. Do me a favor and invoke him somewhere else?"
They sat in the car together and stared at the paperweight on the dashboard.
"We don't have to do it today," Mercedes said.
"Yes, I do," Sam said.
Mercedes stared at the paperweight some more. "Is this gonna be dangerous?"
"No." Sam stared some more too, and then added, "Not for you." Then he added, "Probably."
"Right." She turned to look at him. "Where do you want to do it?"
"Let's do it here, in the parking lot. It has a kind of symmetry to it." He shrugged. "And Tiffani will be fine if she stays inside."
"Here we go, then," Mercedes agreed.
Sam leaned over and kissed her again. He still felt like sunshine, and this time it flooded all down her spine and pooled in her belly. "No matter what," he said.
"Me too," she said, and despite everything, she giggled.
Mercedes was still smiling when Sam clapped his hands together around the paperweight and it started to pour smoke from the red pip.
"Oh my God," she said, waving a hand in front of her face as the green-tinged stuff rolled over them, obscuring everything more than a foot away. "This smells like sweat. Nasty."
"Let's see how you smell after you've been forcing mindless teenage drones to dance until they puke for forty-eight hours straight," said a high, male, and horribly familiar voice. "Not," it added snidely, "that it looks like you've been doing any strenuous dancing within recent memory yourself."
Mercedes coughed when she inhaled too much smoke on her gasp of surprise and extreme displeasure. "Dakota Stanley?" She peered over him, hoping for a more imposing and less annoying figure. The smoke was rapidly dissipating, and no such person made an appearance. "You're the Dark Lord of Rule?"
"Not that it's any of your business," said Dakota Stanley, flinging his spangled scarf over his shoulder, "but yes, in my spare time, I do a little Dark Lording of Rule. What is this about? Quick, now, I have a championship to win in Sweden – and not with some tacky little glee clubbers who thinks they can pay me with their allowance, either."
Sam raised his hand. "I actually summoned you, Mr. Dakota."
"That's Dark Lord Stanley to you, fish face. Now why, why, why did you summon me, step on it." He snapped his fingers with each 'why.'
"I've fulfilled the requirements for being released from my imprisonment," Sam said. "So I guess I need your stamp of approval or something."
"Oh my god." Dakota Stanley massaged his temples. "This is a genie thing? There is literally no end to my work, or to the ignorance of you people. No one reads the damn fine print. You have not fulfilled the requirements. You've taken the first two steps, which are to free your body and mind. You still have to officially free your heart." He looked Sam over, dripping with scorn. "And if I were you, I'd reconsider now. You don't look very bright, and let's be clear: freeing your mind is a symbolic gesture. You'll spend the rest of your life jumping to attention every time anyone makes a wish. This overly-emotional, impractical young lady would probably treat you about as well as can be expected, so at least you wouldn't spend eternity running to Wish-Granter Anonymous meetings." He gave Mercedes a once-over. "What would you even wish for? Ponies, glitter, and faster fast-food delivery?" He shrugged and turned to Sam. "Her, you can handle. The world, not so much."
"Don't talk about her like that," Sam said earnestly.
"I'm sure your bond is special and very deep," Dakota said. "Now, if you're going to press on with this freedom thing…"
"Yes," they said together.
"Then you'll have to kiss. 'True love's first' is a total myth, by the way. Kisses are a pretty standard emergency escape clause."
Sam considered this. "What if we already have kissed?"
"Oh for the sake of all Russia's ballerinas, if you have kissed then you're wasting my time! You've been officially free since you kissed! It overrides the other steps!" He glared thunderously up at them.
Mercedes reminded herself that it was wrong to pick on people smaller than you. "So he's already officially free?" she asked, proud of herself for staying on topic, considering.
"Ugh, yes, no wonder this job is eating at my social life like a poisonous fungus –" Dakota said, and Sam snapped his fingers, and Dakota was gone.
Sam stared at her. She stared back. "I didn't hurt him," he said.
Mercedes snorted. "He's a creep. How are you feeling?"
Sam shook his head. "I don't know."
They went home. Mercedes still thought of it as home for both of them, and didn't know whether Sam did.
"Everything's different, now, huh," she said as they sat in the car and stared at the house.
"Yes," Sam said. He stared at his hands. Then he looked at her. "And no."
"This is still the same," he said, and reached in his pocket. He pulled out a clay figurine of a horse rearing; it was much too big to have fit in his pocket, but then, that was magic. "I went to one of those places where they let you paint them yourself? And then they fire it for you." He handed it over. "I still love you, is what I'm trying to say."
Mercedes kissed him.
He still felt like sunshine.