Battle-hardened nerves, still agile despite recent neglect, cringed like whipped, whimpering dogs at the sight before his eyes. The horror soon smeared to his lips, his entire stance as he recoiled in open disgust.
It was, in a word, revolting.
"Oh God! Get that- that *thing* out of my face!"
He tried to push it away with his hands, only... his hands wanted nothing to do with touching the wizened, tortured limb that he identified as vaguely humanoid by its four fingers and opposite thumb.
His revulsion availed him not, and the vile thing was pushed back into his face, along with a far from plaintive demand of, "You -- buy!"
His mind was sluggish, identifying a the words as a sort pidgin, cobbled from the universal common tongue and a smattering of local dialects. /Damn... which country are we in again?/ It was difficult to remember, considering the whirlwind tour of the globe Treize was treating his lovers to. He'd sought out the most inaccessible, inhospitable locations imaginable, spewing all the while some nonsense about the 'rugged beauty of raw humankind'.
Which *should* have translated to inhumane lodgings and travelling conditions, but Treize being Treize somehow managed to locate passable luxury wherever they went. Even now he and Zechs were back in their air-conditioned hotel room, sleeping in well-used bedding like slugs in a nest, while the more adventurous Wufei enjoyed the brilliant morning sun and quaint atmosphere to be had in the local bazaar.
He'd even thought of bringing the pair back breakfast, but considering what was being shoved in his face his stomach was on the verge of rebellion, and thoughts of food were pushed firmly from his mind. A backwards step was taken, to little effect as his heels contacted the alleyway's dank stone wall -- he knew he should have taken the long way around, but when pride and a passable sense of direction combine to make a shortcut, they will invariably make a fool of any man. So, cornered, he summoned the request in simple common words, and tried again.
"No! I will not 'buy'! Please get that nasty thing away from me." Slowly uttered, and he knew the hopeful salesman had understood because he saw the flicker of renewed determination in the man's small, gleaming rodent-like eyes. Apparently it was a mistake to speak instead of simply shoving rudely past.
"Yes buy! Is charm for wishes." He paused, looking Wufei up and down once critically before pressing, "You need!"
Wufei found that the man's sweaty wrist didn't resist much as he grabbed it and forced it down, clearing a little room between his nose and the paw, a little air to breathe that didn't reek of age-weary flesh. Even if the man had resisted, he guessed that it would not have taken the full effort of his strength to force the issue. He was glad to not have to, as he didn't want to cause an incident, especially considering who his vacationing partners were...
With the monkey's paw not so dizzyingly close that focusing on it was difficult, he finally got a good look at the thing, and decided his initial judgement stood sound. It was revolting, despite the small pains taken to make it presentable. Thin-beaten bronze capped the end, decorated with crudely hammered patterns and a pretty though valueless polished stone. The 'hand', with thick, dark fingernails and the vestiges of cinnamon-colored fur attesting to its non-human origin, was clenched, not into a fist but an agonized claw. He'd heard of such talismans, heard of the gruesome process of their manufacture, and seeing he now believed. Corpses that had met violent, painful deaths had such hands.
"I don't want it! It's horrible, and I don't have any need for wishes. I don't believe in magic, I'm not superstitious, and you'd sooner see me rubbing Laoshi O's bald pate for luck -- provided I could reach that high -- than putting the faith of my desires into that rotted piece of flesh!"
"Is good magic, strong! Cheap too -- bargain!" The hand wasn't raised again, though not for lack of trying on the man's part. He looked Wufei over once more, finally inquiring, "Need for love?"
"I most certainly do not!" With not one but two zealous lovers, his romantic life was by far the best it had ever been, and looked to remain that way for some time.
Wufei wanted to argue logic that if the charm was legitimate, the man might have used it himself, that he wouldn't have to be harassing pennies out of the few tourists the region saw. Or at the very least wish himself back some of the numerous teeth that appeared as missing when he cracked a wide grin, or soap that worked and a steady supply of it.
"No, thank you." He didn't dare admit that he was a fairly wealthy man, and travelling in the company of two very wealthy men. To do so would only strengthen the merchant's determination to make a sale.
"For make big? You shrimp, want grow more?"
"All right -- that is IT!" Finally realizing the situation to be hopeless, Wufei gave up all pretense at being polite, and tossed the man's arm back down to his side, using the little space that cleared him to shove past to freedom.
At the end of the alley he was spilled back onto dusty, sunlit streets, and while the gooseflesh on his arms settled his nerves did not. The rest of the morning could not be properly enjoyed, with the strong food smells of the bazaar upsetting his stomach, and the stands he passed of freshly butchered meat doing worse. A little more wandering, his thoughts fixating uncomfortably the paw, convinced him that it was time to return to the hotel.
Why couldn't it have been a... a rug? A nice little rug he would have purchased, just to buy his freedom. Or a lantern? Why not that, if it had to be a magic charm? A rough piece of silverwork would have been a lovely souvenir from the town. As it was, all Wufei had to take back to the hotel with him that morning was a light nausea and a poor opinion of local business practices -- ugly memories indeed.
At the mouth of the street which was the bustling bazaar Wufei hailed a cab. It was ramshackle affair, that sounded as if it hadn't seen proper maintenance in more years than he'd been alive, nor had cosmetic attention in twice that length of time, outside of the occasional bit of twine holding some trivial part -- like mirrors, and doors -- to another. "The Randy Pilgrim," he told the cabbie the hotel name, having to shout a little to make himself heard above the surrounding din.
Then he sat back in the well-worn vinyl seat, torn between stifling in the cab's heat and chancing the city's pungent aroma. Finally lowering the windows won out, as the cab had its own unique fragrance, and his nose could be offended no further by inviting outside air to mingle others with it.
"Shrimp -- ha!" he grumbled disconsolately, replaying the scene in the alley in his mind, and trying to determine a better, more diplomatic method to have handled it. Zechs was forever dropping snide little remarks about Wufei's way of comporting himself, and it was disheartening to prove the blonde's criticisms founded, even if Zechs hadn't been there to play witness. /He probably would have bought the thing at twice the asked price, earned himself the undying gratitude of that nasty man, and held off on making rude faces until he was well away and could toss the thing discreetly in the trash./
Yes, that was Zechs, always cool and collected. "Okay, so Zechs is a better diplomat than I am," the Chinese man admitted sullenly to himself. "And taller," which was a sore point, "more blonde..." But he was certain that, even as Treize loved him, Zechs did too in his own way. Considering that both had initially seen the other as an interloper for the former Oz General's affections, it was no wonder they bickered at times.
But for that squat market man to have called him a shrimp! That galled, especially considering that the merchant had topped the slender youth by bare inches. /It's one thing for Zechs to call me short, but another entirely for my height to be insulted by an absolute stranger! Why, he's lucky I didn't kick his feet out from under him, give him a view of life from the gutter. We would have seen who was calling who short then!/
Yes -- that would have been fitting, just even. The thought soothed Wufei, and he loosened a little, his upset stomach forgotten as he began to watch the scenery outside of the cab. "Monkey's paw... Ha! How stupid would someone have to be to believe a nasty old thing like that could grant wishes? Why, if I had any wishes coming, I say something sensible, like, 'I wish my hair would never come loose from its ponytail.' That would be useful," he grumbled, tucking one of the recalcitrant wisps behind his ear. "What makes that horrible man think I would wish to be bigger? Maybe I'm happy with my height!"
"Then why are you wearing platform shoes?" the cabbie inquired dryly, thinking that, due to Wufei's raised tone of voice, he was being addressed. And if he wasn't certainly the world at large was, and anyone listening had the right to respond!
"Oh, shut up..." Wufei grumbled, falling into a prickly silence for the remainder of the trip.
"It's about time you returned, Grasshopper. I was beginning to think you'd gone native on us." The golden blonde who greeted him at the door petted Wufei's dark head in mischievous delight. If he did it hard enough, the boy would complain bitterly as he re-fixed his mussed ponytail -- Wufei's natural face-lift, he jokingly called it, considering how viciously tight it always was. Seeing Wufei's already unpleasant expression darken considerably was a surprising jolt of satisfaction, until he saw that the youth had an impatient shadow. "Who's your friend? I thought if we were going to allow any more people into this relationship, it had to be by unanimous consent. There's no way I'm voting *that* in."
Wufei ignored his question, snarling out, "Stop with the 'grasshopper' jokes, Marquise! They're not any more amusing the fiftieth time around than they were the first!"
"Ahem." Behind him, the cabbie cleared his throat indelicately.
"Oh, right, right. Marquise, I... need to borrow some money."
"What for?" Zechs was holding his position at the door, not clearing enough room for Wufei to make a graceful entrance. "Did you blow all your spending money in the bazaar? And after I gave you that lesson on bargaining, too!"
"A-HEM. Meter's running," the cabbie reminded, holding out his hand.
"Just give me the money!" Wufei's hands were clenched into fists at his side, and red was showing through his dusky complexion. That was a recognized warning sign that Zechs had just overstepped his bounds, and to go any farther would require a sincere and humble apology to patch things between them.
"Fine, fine..." He stepped aside, plunging a hand into his pocket and doing a little rummaging. A wad of coins and misfolded bills was placed on Wufei's expectant palm.
And in return he had little stick laid on his. An odd little stick that was covered in a brittle, fur-like substance...
"Here -- go!" Wufei shoved a few bills at the cabbie, overly generous as it was Zechs' money and not his. At the sound of the startled shriek his lips curled into a satisfied smirk. /Yeah, I may be short, but at least I don't scream like a girl./
The door was closed, and Wufei turned innocently into the room. "Whatever is the matter, Marquise?" he inquired, in the primly polite tone that Treize would have used in asking whether Zechs wanted his buttocks smeared with strawberry jam this time, or the usual apricot.
"It's hideous!" Zechs, in an attempt to salvage his dignity, was bending to retrieve the paw from the floor after having given it a few wary jabs with his slippered toe. "Don't tell me you wasted good money on this! If you'd wanted a souvenir, I could have directed you to the section of town where a lot more, um, pleasant purchases can be made..."
Trust Zechs to be able to sniff out the red-light district of any city, town or village they visited... Wufei sniffed, trying for disdain though sounding forlorn instead. "I didn't buy it. I had to work very hard to escape from the nasty man who was selling it, actually. But when I got out of the cab I found my money missing, and that in its place in my pocket." Thank goodness his wallet was tucked away somewhere safe! The money he'd had lifted hadn't been much, but the fact that he'd been victimized galled immensely -- and made him queasy besides when he pictured the culprit!
"Oh, yuck! That vile man had his hands in my pants!" Well, hand certainly, and it was truthfully in his pocket and not his pants, but sometimes it was okay, appropriate even, to give oneself rein to be melodramatic.
Zechs, was gingerly holding the paw again, turning it this way and that, scrutinizing it. It wasn't fair that on top of being blonde and a prince, Zechs should be able to wrinkle his nose in distaste and look elegant doing it. "I've heard of these, but I've never actually seen one before. Supposedly they grant wishes, right? Though there's always a catch..." He frowned suddenly, and exclaimed, "Oh, pooh! You should return it and get your money back. One of the wishes has already been used up."
"Used up? What in the hell are you talking about?" Wufei demanded, pausing as he was about to check his coiffure with a hand. Surely after the mussing Zechs had given his head, he must look like a dandelion puff someone had blown half the seeds off of.
The paw was, for the second time that day, shoved into his face. "Used up means used up. See?"
Wufei made a grab for the paw, closing both hands round it like it was Maxwell's throat and the Shinigami pilot had just pulled the 'underwear in the freezer' prank one time too many. "But... that's not right! I remember clearly, the fingers were curled, like this!" He demonstrated with his own hand the pained claw he remembered.
The paw he held, while frozen in a similar clench, had the index finger tucked tightly against the palm.
"Perhaps it's a different paw," Zechs offered helpfully. "There could be hundreds of them floating around the area."
"No, it isn't. I remember the stone..." He looked once again at the little chip of obsidian mounted on the cap, a peculiar snowflake-patterned flaw in the stone unmistakable. "I don't understand..." He tried to pry the bent finger gently out, wincing when the flesh began to crack and flake.
"Don't -- you'll break it. Who knows if your other wishes will work if you do." Zechs was wearing an odd smile, so that it was difficult to know if he was being serious or not.
"That's ridiculous! I haven't had any wi-" Wufei stopped short, his thoughts beating both his words and his tongue to the next sentence. "Except for in the car..." He'd jokingly made a wish, hadn't he? For hair that would never escape its ponytail...
He suddenly drew himself up to his full, unimpressive though still commanding height, and demanded, "Rub my head."
"Rub my head!" He made to pick up one of Zechs' hands with his, motioning impatiently. "Like you do all the time because you know it drives me insane and you're a sadistic bastard."
"Oh, like this?" Never one to pass on the opportunity to torment his smaller lover, Zechs gave the beloved dark head a thorough mussing.
It must have been Zechs' perplexed expression that slowed Wufei's hand as it reached to assess the damage. Slowly it moved, as if with reverence, and he could feel his heartbeat quicken with anticipation.
Nothing. Not a single hair out of place, not even the shorter locks at his forehead that seemed to escape almost immediately any order he tried to enforce on his head.
/Oh good God.../
"You actually think that thing granted your wish?!"
Wufei reddened visibly again, proof that he was painfully aware of how crazy he sounded. "Now, wait a minute... Hear me out before deciding that I'm insane!"
And he explained, about the cab and the sensible wish, and had to demonstrate twice again the inexplicable phenomenon of neat, perfect hair. All the while Zechs listened raptly, wearing an unreadable expression.
When Wufei was finished he asked -- tentatively, as he didn't want to appear believing just yet -- "What are you going to do?"
"Use it again." He still had three wishes, didn't he? Unmistakable, glee flickered in Wufei's eyes as he stared at the paw, as if staring long enough might impart understanding of the thing's mysteries, or perhaps give him wisdom in his wishing.
"This I've *got* to see," Zechs declared, the challenge rolling smoothly off his tongue. "What are you going to wish for? You know the curse of those things, right? The wish you make is never quite the one you get..."
"I'll be careful. I've already got a wish firmly in mind, and I'll word it simply, so that nothing bad can happen." He was gripping the metal cap tightly still, in both hands. It was warmed from his touch and unpleasant to hold; if metal could be slimy that's how he would have described the feel, though it was probably just that his palms were sweaty. The paw's actual flesh he was loathe to touch.
This would take concentration, and no little amount of courage. Wufei steeled himself with several deep breaths, slowly released, then intoned, "I wish I was as big -- no, bigger! -- than Zechs."
What seemed like an eternity passed, before Wufei dared to unsquint one of his eyes. The second followed, and he was puzzled to find his toes when he looked down no further away than they had been before the wish. "I don't understand..."
Beside him, Zechs burst into wild peals of laughter, an unexpected flood of noise that startled Wufei so badly that he jumped.
Wufei threw the paw in disgust at the laughing blonde man. "It's not funny!" He wasn't entirely positive whether Zechs was laughing at his wish, or because he'd actually thought it might be granted. He opted for the first, as it was marginally less embarrassing than the second. "What's so laughable about wanting to be bigger? I'd like to look down on you for a change, Mr. Hulking Viking Prince! How would you like to be called 'grasshopper' and 'dragonling', and 'little porkchop' all the time? I bet you'd hate it! Oh sure -- laugh now, but one day you'll see! I'll- I'll take hormones, or wear the world's tallest pair of platform shoes, or... or something! But one day I will be bigger than you, and then we'll see how well you can stand me constantly pretending to look for bald-spots on the top of your head! Just wa-" The Chinese youth slammed to a halt mid-rant. "WHAT'S SO FUNNY?!"
"You." Zechs was taking no pains to hide his mirth. Just the opposite -- he was flaunting his amusement with that particular open-mouthed laugh that Wufei hated, not because of the sound he made -- Zechs' laughter was actually deep and rich, and to hear it in the bedroom generally made his toes curl -- but because of the way he tipped his chin back when he did it, reminding Wufei yet again of how short he was by providing the Chinese boy, if he cared to look, a lovely view straight up his aristocratic nostrils.
Recovered from laughter but chuckling still, the blonde shook the monkey's paw at Wufei. "Try this wish on for size. I wish you'd stuff a sock in it already, monkey-butt."
Didn't it always work that way? The instant you've done something, said something that is utterly impossible to retract, the *instant* the final word has left your lips, or your finger has hit the button controlling the massive starship cannon pointed straight at the Earth is the instant you realize that you just *possibly* could have made a mistake... That golden instant, the 'oh, fuck me' instant, was what Zechs experienced as he noticed, to his everlasting horror, that on the paw a second finger had curled down beside the first; a third followed even as he watched, helpless and stunned.
"W-Wufei...?" The paw was held forward in a hand which trembled violently, worse than the hand of a man trying to light his last cigarette as he's standing blindfold-less, facing off against a firing squad -- in his underwear in the middle of wintertime in Alaska.
Of course there was no answer, as a wide-eyed Wufei was too busy making frantic, muffled noises and trying to tug a very firmly lodged white athletic sock out of his mouth to answer.
So Zechs did what any sane man would do in such a situation -- relegate the task of putting things right.
"I vote we leave him this way."
There was the sound of furious scratching, and Zechs had a piece of paper thrust in his face. " 'Who says you get a vote, kisama?' " he read aloud. "Well, why not? I mean, nights would be a hell of a lot more peaceful without you broadcasting your orgasmic pants and moans and screams to the universe at large."
Wufei was tapping a foot impatiently. So far the only amusement *he* had gotten out of the situation had been when Treize, dressed in an inside-out bathrobe and still bleary eyed, had given an exact imitation -- except a half octave higher -- of Zechs' earlier shriek when he'd seen the furry, prehensile tail protruding from the backside of Wufei's pants. Apparently an verindulgence in sex had profoundly negative effects on the human vocal cords, and if his conclusion was correct, it wouldn't be long until *he*started sounding like a chipmunk on helium.
Fate was cruel that way. His wish to be bigger had for no apparent reason failed, while *both* parts of Zechs' misspent wish had come true. He had a sock lodged with seeming permanence in his mouth, and he had a tail. Probably ass-cheeks red like a baboon's, too, though he wasn't nearly brave enough to look!
"You say there's one wish left?" Treize of course would command control of the paw, and was squinting at it intensely, his strange eyebrows shifting up and down as if in time with his brain's furious pondering.
"Yeah." Zechs demonstrated by holding up a hand, all fingers curled except for the pinky. "Were you absent the day they taught finger counting in kindergarten?"
More scribbling, and Treize's turn to read superseded the snap reply he'd been fashioning. " 'Hurry up and do something, idiots.' I am!" he protested. "I'm the strategist. It's my job to think."
" 'And what is Zechs' job? Clotheshorse and all around b-' I refuse to answer that," Zechs grumbled, wadding up the latest paper and tossing it over his shoulder. He should have known that Wufei, even with speech robbed from him by an aggressively stuck sock, could still think of a way to rant excessively. Hopefully his pad would be emptied before too long...
"One wish left..." There was an ominous pause, then Treize said, "I could bring peace to the world."
Zechs made an unsuccessful grab for the paw. "I could wish myself a natural blonde. Woo hoo! -- no more bleaching my pubes!"
Wufei's eyes popped open, and he gave up the pencil and paper entirely in exchange for muffled words, probably vile ones, and body language. He began with some violent head-shaking, then progressed to a finger drawn across his throat and other, worse threats of bodily harm.
"Oh! I love charades! First word... eighteen syllables?" Zechs wisely had already started around the bed before he'd finished saying the words, as Wufei immediately gave chase, a murderous glint in his eyes.
"Boys -- hush! I'm trying to think!" Of what he might spend a wish on -- theoretically, if he had one to spend. Treize stroked at his chin and nodded slowly to himself. "Let's see... I've already got wealth, power, social respectability, the love of my fellow man, the adoration of nature's creatures small and large, distinguished tastes, an *incredible* physique, more virility and sex appeal than Une has personalities..."
" 'Don't forget an ego larger than Relena's lung capacity'," Zechs eked out, reading another note from the floor where he lay on his stomach. A triumphant Wufei sat on his back, pinning an arm and a leg in some sort of painful kung fu wrestling move. " 'Dammit, just put me back already!' Why Wufei -- that's so selfish! Thinking of your own happiness when the last wish could bring everlasting benefit to humankind!"
"But I don't understand..." Treize was apparently having difficulty with the counting thing again. "What were the other wishes used on?"
"There was -- *oof* -- the one in the cab, right Wufei?" Zechs had finally either struggled enough, or Wufei had gotten bored. He escaped to his feet, prissily dusting himself off with his hands. "And just before the... ah... simian wish was one which didn't work."
"Yeah." Against his better judgement, another chuckle escaped Zechs, and he promptly had his instep stomped by very un-amused Wufei. "OUCH! H-he ah... heh... wished to be bigger than me."
Treize pondered for a moment, looking enough like he was doing something useful that the other two watched him closely, hopefully. "Bigger -- you're sure? Not taller?"
"Yup. He said... bigger..." Zechs trailed off.
Across the room, two pairs of blue eyes, sapphire and azure, collided. 'Are you thinking the same thing I'm thinking?' they questioned.
Apparently so, as Zechs turned swiftly and yanked Wufei's pants, underwear and all, down to his ankles.
Treize's jaw came unhinged, and he unconsciously touched it just to make sure it was still attached to his face.
"Wow. I mean..." Zechs blew an upwards puff of breath that rustled his bangs. "WOW."
When Treize discovered his tongue again, he offered, "I'll thumb-wrestle you for the first ride."
"I hate you both."
"You don't mean that any more now than you did the first time you said it -- or the hundredth," Treize drawled, tossing an arm over his grumbling lover. It connected with Zechs' and they two snuggled closer, sandwiching Wufei tightly between them.
"Whatever happened to 'change me back, idiots'?" Zechs questioned, letting his lips linger along the curve of Wufei's ear in the way he knew the Chinese man adored and had no defenses against. A little more of that sucking-up, and whatever grudge Wufei was holding would slip away.
Wufei's words were muffled, hitched a little from the lazy contact Treize's hand was making with the inside of his thigh. "That was before I found out about- about the... You know!"
"Mmn... that *was* lovely while it lasted, wasn't it?" Treize purred, shivering a little at the memory. Aside from the delight of simple *size*, who would have imagined a tail could be put to such imaginative, effective uses in bed?!
"Then why did you use the last wish to undo the rest of them?" Wufei demanded, pressing. The sock... had been truly no fun, and he probably would have gotten tired very quickly of having to take his meals intravenously, but almost, *almost* it would have been worth it, to keep that marvelous, monstrous bit of magic that had hung briefly between his legs.
Zechs was secretly unhappy and glad all at once with the outcome of the fiasco -- and who could blame a man for a bit of jealousy over his lover's sudden over-endowment? "It was the only way to be certain... I mean, that wish was over three-hundred pages long! We had a team of lawyers working day and night for a month to compile it! It took Treize nine hours to read, and you'd think you'd use that newly re-acquired gift of speech to show a little gratitude for our work!"
"Humph!" Zechs was talking as if the whole mess wasn't his fault in the first place! "You could have reversed the last wish only," he grumbled. "Or were you feeling threatened by feelings of inadequacy in bed?"
"I was n-not!" The blonde jumped a little as Treize delivered a warning pinch to his side. He settled back into silence and nuzzling, his own particular sort of penance.
"We already discussed why it was safest to do what we did," Treize soothed his younger lover in a gently chiding tone. "Whatever else it was, that paw was dangerous. I love you, and Zechs loves you too much to risk anything bad happening to you just for the sake of some good sex." Okay, some *really* good sex. Sex so utterly hot that Treize, who had sternly delivered the decision to do away with Wufei's miracle only after an extended private crying session locked in the bathroom, felt his chest tighten reflexively to merely remember.
"He's right, you know," Zechs interjected, trying to score himself some brownie points.
Wufei was stubbornly silent for a moment, finally relenting, "Yeah, I suppose." /Oh, that wasn't convincing at all! Say it again, like you mean it./ "It is really nice to be myself again. I really am happy being me, and I was foolish to want to change in the first place."
Between the two larger men, Wufei's eyes
flicked back and forth in the darkness, his ears straining for
any sounds of disbelief. Had they...? Yes! They had bought it!
Gleefully his thoughts roamed to the little bronze lamp he'd purchased
just that afternoon, hidden safely away in a bit of cloth in the
bottom of his suitcase. /Good. And this time, I'm not saying a
word until all my wishes are used up!/