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Once Upon a Street Rat

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Once upon one of those times that only exist in stories, in a kingdom which happened to look the Middle East of old, there was a very poor boy named Natsume.

It wasn’t his fault that he was poor. He was born to a single mother who hadn’t had much opportunity herself. She died young, leaving him on his own – which meant he had to survive by any means necessary.

Usually, that means was stealing.

He’d gotten very good at it. He’d go to the marketplace, wait until a merchant’s back was turned, create a distraction if necessary . . . and then run over and snatch a piece of fruit or a loaf of bread, then run in the other direction.

Because every good thief needs a partner in crime, he was usually accompanied on these things by his best buddy – a half-human-half-dog demon named Sora. Beings that looked like fusions of animals and humans were quite common in this world, so nobody paid much attention to either of them. And having Sora around had advantages – because of his canine senses, he could literally smell food a mile away.

On this particular day, they had their eyes on a cart of fruit. The two hid behind a building, peeking around the corner at their target.

“Okay,” Natsume said. “Here’s the deal. You run out screaming and waving your arms. While the guy is distracted, I rush over to the cart, grab two apples, we find an alley somewhere to eat them, and that’s our meal. Got it?”

“Same as we’ve done a million times,” Sora replied – as his ears started twitching.

“Do you HAVE to do that?” Natsume said.

“Can’t help it. It always happens when I’m hungry. And right now? I’m real hungry.”

“Well, calm down, we’ll have that apple in a moment. Okay, go!”

Sora rushed out, screaming his head off and waving his arms – and the fruit seller did, indeed, seem distracted, turning away from his cart and yelling, “YOU! What’s wrong? You’d better have a good explanation, or . . .”

Natsume ran out from behind the corner, snatched the apples and started to run – but didn’t see a big stick protruding from the earth. His foot caught on it and he tumbled to the ground, keeping a tight grip on the fruit.

Just when he thought he was going to hit the dirt face-first, a pair of hands caught him. He found himself being gently pulled upward, until he was back on his feet.

“Um, hi?” Natsume said. He blinked – he was looking into the face of a cat-human hybrid, one dressed in a fancy white suit with a top hat – the kind of outfit you saw more in European-based magical kingdoms, not a Middle Eastern-based magical kingdom like this one.

“Are you hurt?” the cat said.

“Well, I don’t think so,” Natsume said. “Give me a few minutes and I may change my mind on that.”

“Be careful, all right?” the cat said. “If I hadn’t been there . . .”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ve gotten out of tougher situations before. Thanks.”

The cat let go of him and wandered off – looking rather lost and confused. That’s weird, Natsume thought. Hasn’t he been in this marketplace before? Then again, he DOES look like a foreigner . . .

He realized that the main thing to do now was find Sora, regroup and get away with the fruit. He looked around – and saw his companion frantically running toward him.

“Go,” Sora shouted. “Now!”

Natsume started to dash away – only to hear the cart owner yell, “THERE THEY ARE! STOP, THIEVES!”

Well, damn – his accident had allowed them to be spotted, and there were several burly men with swords on their tails. “HOLY CRAP!” Natsume shouted, taking off on his fastest run, Sora on his heels . . .

Unfortunately, the men were faster. One of them threw himself at the two in a flying tackle, knocking them to the ground, the apples rolling away.

“HA!” the guard said. “Got you red-handed! You two are going in the dungeons for a long, long . . .”

“UNHAND THEM!” said a voice above them.

Sora and Natsume looked up, slowly. There was the cat-person from before, standing in front of the guards, glowering at them.

“And why should we listen to you, foreigner?” the guard said.

“Let me be more clear,” the cat-person said. “Unhand them IN THE NAME OF THE PRINCE.” He reached up to his head, pulled at his chin . . .

The cat-face pulled away, revealing itself to be clever makeup. Underneath was a very human face – and a very cute one.

“Prince Kosuke!” said the burliest of the guards, as the whole group knelt. “I had no idea!”

“Prince?” Natsume blinked at their rescuer. Now that he looked at him, he looked vaguely familiar, but . . . a prince?

“These young men are part of my royal guard,” Prince Kosuke said, firmly. “This was a training exercise for them to measure their speed. They WERE going to give the apples back, you know.”

The guards frowned skeptically at the two. “Seriously?” he said.

“Seriously.” Natsume handed the apples to the men. “Did we pass, Your Highness?”

“With flying colors,” Sora said. “Now, come with me.”

“Didn’t mean to interrupt, Your Highness,” the guard said. He bowed again.

“See that it doesn’t happen again,” the prince said. He led the two away from the marketplace, down a road that ran away from it, until they were in a fairly empty area.

When the group stopped, Natsume turned to their rescuer. “Um, thank you?” he said.

“Don’t mention it,” Prince Kosuke said. “I saw them chase you. I know you stole the apples. But, well . . . I didn’t want you to get caught. I know people like you don’t steal food unless you have to – and too many of you have to.” He added, wistfully, “My father doesn’t do enough for the poor. I keep telling him about that.”

“Well, you’re right that we needed to,” Natsume said. “We haven’t eaten in . . .”

“Two days, maybe?” Sora added.

Kosuke opened a bag he’d been carrying over his shoulder. “I was carrying a lunch,” he said. “I’d intended to be out all day, but now that I’ve been spotted, that’s not going to happen, is it?” He took out two pieces of bread and two chunks of a pineapple-like fruit and handed them to the men. “Here,” he said.

The two of them scarfed the food eagerly. “Oh, yeah,” Natsume said. “This is GOOD.”

“I think I ate that in two seconds,” Sora said.

“I wish I could bring you more,” Kosuke said. “But I have to get back to the palace before word reaches my father I was out.”

“He doesn’t like you going out?” Natsume said.

“Why do you think I have the disguise?” Kosuke reached into his pocket and pulled out the remains of the cat makeup. “Baron is kind of an alter ego I created when I want to sneak out. My father tells me I’m too valuable to risk going outside and having something happen to me, since I’m his heir.”

“He keeps you in the palace ALL THE TIME?” Natsume said.

“Unless I go out with him and a heavy guard,” Kosuke said. “I never get to go anywhere or see anyone.” He paused, then added, bitterly, “Except for the SUITORS he brings to me.”

“Suitors?” Natsume said.

“He insists the person I choose as my mate be royalty,” Kosuke said. “He said he doesn’t care if it’s male or female – I have an older sister who has children, so one of her kids can inherit the throne after me. But the person I’m with HAS to be a prince or princess. He said nobody else is worthy of me. But they’re all so . . .”

“Let me guess,” said Natsume. “Stuck up?”

“Horribly,” Kosuke said. “I can’t stand to be with any of them more than five minutes, let alone marry one. And I think I’ve met every eligible suitor from all the neighboring kingdoms. I just don’t know what I’m going to do.” He looked at the cat makeup again. “Maybe I’ll run away permanently.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Natsume said. “If you ran away, you’d have a life . . . well, like ours. You’re better off in the palace where there’s food and shelter and . . .”

“Unhappiness?” Kosuke said.

“Well . . . I didn’t mean that I wanted you to be . . .”

“It’s okay,” Kosuke said. “I’m hoping my father drops his attitude – eventually. Or else I WILL run away.” He turned. “I need to get home, quickly. Unfortunately.” He looked back at them. “It was nice meeting you! Um, I didn’t get your names . . .”

“Natsume. He’s Sora.”

Sora waved. “Hi.”

“Nice meeting you, Natsume and Sora. Maybe I’ll see you again sometime.” Kosuke rushed off, in the direction of the palace on the horizon.

Sora took a deep breath. “That was close,” he said.

“Too close,” Natsume said. “But what about our rescuer, huh? He was . . . GORGEOUS.”

“Are you kidding me?” Sora said. “He’s a PRINCE. You heard him. He can only marry a prince or princess. He is WAY out of your league.”

“Doesn’t stop me from dreaming, does it?” Natsume said.

“Well, dream on,” Sora said. “And while you’re at it, dream of a new place to find food. We’re not going to be able to hit up that marketplace for awhile, and we’re not going to have princes handing us stuff every day, either.”

But Natsume just walked beside him, in a pleasant daze. They’d very nearly been caught for the first time, true. That should make this a bad day. But in another way, it was the best day ever.

* * *

Natsume was headed for home – if you could call it that. Home, for him, was a tin shack in an area even most poor people regarded as a bad neighborhood. But given that he’d lived there literally all his life, he didn’t think about that too much.

He thought about the day he’d just had – or, in particular, one aspect of the day he’d just had. That aspect, of course, was Kosuke.

“Damn,” he said. “Who would have thought that a prince would have such a crappy life? He’s too adorable to have to live like that.”

“Who’s too adorable?” said a voice behind him.

Natsume turned – and saw a figure in a black cloak. “Um, who are you?” he said.

“Never mind who I am,” the figure said. “I saw your performance out there – with the apples. It was tremendous. Bigly.”

“You mean, you saw me steal?” Natsume said, narrowing his eyes.

“Stealing? Nobody calls it that but the Crooked King. He doesn’t think about the common man, does he? SAD!”

“Who the hell are you, anyway?” Natsume said. “You’re not one of those guards, are you?”

“I’m someone with a deal,” the cloaked figure said. “Because I’m all about the art of the deal.”

“And what kind of deal?” Natsume said.

“It involves a lamp,” the man said.

“You want me to steal a lamp?” said Natsume.

“Not just any lamp! The most tremendous lamp ever!”

“It’s really big?”

“No! It’s powerful! You get that lamp and you can have anything you want! And if you get it for me . . . I’ll conjure up a huge pile of money and split it with you!”

Natsume tapped his foot. “You’re in league with those guards, aren’t you? You’re trying to lure me into a trap.”

“NO COLLUSION, I tell you! I have nothing to do with them!” He paused. “But I WILL turn you in to them if you don’t cooperate. Now, do we have a deal?”

“I’m holding you to the pile of money, you know,” Natsume said.

“Deal. Now, we’re going to that cave over here. You go in, grab the lamp, bring it out, we get the money, done.”

Natsume shook his head, but followed the man. Why am I doing this? he thought. But he knew the answer. He believed the part about being turned in to the guards if he wasn’t successful. And he couldn’t do that. He had to find a way to see Kosuke again – somehow.

After what felt like walking for days, they arrived at their destination, and the cloaked figure pointed to an opening. “Okay, get in there. Get that lamp, bring it out, we celebrate. Bigly.”

“Well . . . all right.” Natusume slowly eased himself through the opening, then paused. What was that? Did he see flashing lights . . . and hear a voice say something about “a diamond in the rough?”

“What are you waiting for?” the man outside shouted. “Get going!”

“All right, all right . . .” Natsume took a deep breath, then started walking forward.

When the boy had gone, a parrot flew into view and landed on the cloaked man’s shoulder. “How’s it going?” the bird said.

“Tremendous. The cave let the brat in. Said he was a diamond in the rough. That means good, right? He’s gonna grab the lamp, bring it out, and then - we off him. Nobody’s gonna miss a street rat, right? Then we take the lamp, wish for me to be king, and we’re done!”

“What if someone questions why you have the lamp?” the bird said.

“We just tell ‘em it’s fake news!”

“I dunno, Dafuq. Your previous attempts at usurping the king haven’t worked out. I mean, that thing with Russia? Sheesh.”

“This is foolproof! We’re gonna win! You’re gonna be tired of how much winning we do! And the Crooked King is gonna learn not to diss the best Grand Vizier he ever had!”

The bird sighed. “You DID grab the queen by the . . .”

“NEVER MIND THAT!” Dafuq said. “You know that bastard doesn’t even deserve to be king! I know for a FACT he was born in Kenya. And when he’s out of the way, and I take over . . . I WILL MAKE THIS COUNTRY GREAT AGAIN!”

* * *

Natsume moved deeper into the cave, looking around him. At first, it didn’t look all that impressive. Rock, rock, and more rock. No lamp at all in sight. At first, he thought he might have ended up in the wrong place . . .

Until he saw an opening in the wall with a strange, golden glow coming from it. Well, he thought, if any room in here is my bullseye . . . this is probably it. He squeezed through the opening, looked around . . .

And everywhere, there was treasure; piles of gold coins, jewels, boxes overflowing with heaps of shiny stuff.

“Well, damn,” Natsume said. “I think my payday has finally come. I’ll grab some of these, and . . .”

“Touch nothing but the lamp,” said an ominous voice that seemed to come from all around him.

“Huh?”

“Do I have to repeat myself? Touch nothing but the lamp.”

“Fine, fine.” Natsume looked around again . . . and there it was, on top of an outcropping of rock that looked like a pedestal. He approached it slowly, reached out, waited for the voice to say something else . . .

It didn’t. He picked the lamp up and looked at it closely.

“Huh,” he said. “It’s a lot less impressive than everything else in this room. Wonder why that guy wanted it so much? It’s even dirty.” He rubbed at the smudge on the lamp, thinking he could at least get it looking decent . . .

And suddenly, there was a huge rumbling noise. Blue smoke poured from the spout of the lamp, causing Natsume to let out a yelp. “Oh, my God! Did I break something? Did I ruin it? Did I . . .”

The smoke was forming a column in front of him, which mutated into the form of a human being . . . which further mutated into a rather attractive boy his own age, dressed in a sparkly blue outfit.

“Huh?” Natsume said. “What . . . what . . . did you just COME OUT OF THAT LAMP?”

The boy blinked and looked around him. “I’m free?” he said. “I’m out of there?” His eyes fell on Natusme. “You’re the one who did it, aren’t you? You rubbed the lamp!”

“Um, yeah, I did . . . but . . . but . . .”

“Then that means I am at your service, Master,” the boy said, bowing low on the ground.

“MY service? What . . . what did I do?”

“Whoever rubs the lamp gets three wishes from me. I’m the Genie of the Lamp – but you can call me Tacc.”

“WHAT? A genie? A GENIE?” Natsume fell over in surprise – right into a pile of gold. The whole cave started to tremble, and rocks fell down from the ceiling. “WHAT THE . . .”

“I TOLD YOU TO TOUCH NOTHING BUT THE LAMP!” the ominous voice said.

“Wait!” Natsume said. “I didn’t TOUCH it! I just fell into it!”

“IT’S STILL PHYSICAL CONTACT!”

“THAT’S A TECHNICALITY!” Natsume yelled back.

“Stop arguing with the cave! I have to get us out of here before we’re both killed!” Tacc shouted. He folded his arms and blinked . . .

The two of them were instantly teleported outside, to a location not far from Natsume’s home. “Whoa,” Natsume said. “How did we get here?”

Tacc was brushing off his clothes. “I’ll have you know,” he said, “that you’re not getting any more freebies. I had to do that to save our lives – but from now on, I can’t use my magic for you unless you specifically make a wish.”

“Yeah, about that wish thing . . . you said I get three of them? And they can be anything?”

“Well, there’s restrictions. I can’t kill anyone, I can’t force anyone to fall in love with you, I can’t bring anyone back from the dead and I can’t make you travel through time. Anything else is fair game.”

“Anything?”

“Anything.”

At first, Natsume was going to wish for a pile of money, a way out of his life of poverty, a guarantee that he and Sora would never have to steal again . . .

And then, he remembered the boy he’d met that afternoon. The money could wait. He knew what his FIRST wish was going to be. He couldn’t force Kosuke to fall in love with him, but . . .

“Can you make me a prince?” he said.

Tacc looked surprised. “A . . . what?”

“A prince. See, I met this guy . . . and he just happens to be a prince. He’s really, really cute, and I want to ask him to go out. Problem is, his father won’t let him date anyone who’s not royalty. So . . . can you make me a prince?”

Tacc frowned, skeptical. “How did someone like YOU meet a prince?”

“I don’t want to get into the details! Look, can you do it?”

“You must phrase your response in the form of a wish.”

“Huh?”

“Say ‘I wish for’ and what it is, or I can’t do it.”

Natsume sighed. “Fine, fine. I wish to be a prince.”

Tacc folded his arms and blinked – and instantly, Natsume was dressed in fine clothes, a richly embroidered jacket and matching pantaloons with a long, flowing cape attached. On his head was a turban bearing a royal crest.

“You are now Prince Ali of the kingdom of Lezard,” Tacc said.

“Lezard?”

“Just go with it, okay? Tomorrow morning we’ll march up to the palace with a parade of elephants and tigers and whatever else you think would impress the king. You go up to him and ask – nicely – to date your prince. And I’ll even give you this for the actual date for transportation.” He folded his arms and blinked again, and a carpet appeared, hovering in the air.

“What’s this?” Natsume said.

“What’s it look like? It’s a flying carpet!”

“REALLY? A real flying carpet? I thought they were only in myths?”

Tacc sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “You just saw a genie come out of a lamp . . .”

“Okay, okay. If you can exist, so can a flying carpet. Thanks, Tacc.”

“It’s what I’m here for. And remember, you get two more wishes! Only two!”

“I know, I know! I won’t ask for more, I promise!”

“And since it’s late, you need to get some sleep.” Tacc blinked, and a huge tent appeared in front of them, with an inviting looking couch-bed inside.

“Hey!” Natsume said. “I didn’t wish for . . .”

“It’s included in the prince thing, okay? It’s princely accommodations. Look, the wishes come with special features, all right? Now, get some shut-eye. We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

“Aren’t you going to sleep?” Natsume said.

Tacc looked sad. “I can only sleep in the lamp,” he said. “I am bound to it until someone frees me.”

“How would they do that?”

“By using one of their three wishes. And, of course, nobody ever does that. Their wishes are all used for themselves. Wealth, power, influence . . . it’s all anyone wants.”

“That sucks. There’s no other way out?”

“No other way. It’s the life of a genie. Phenomenal cosmic power, itty-bitty living space.”

“Tacc . . . I’ll use my final wish to free you. I promise.”

Tacc looked wistful. “That’s what they all say,” he said. “Now get some sleep.”

Natsume entered the tent, shaking his head. This had been one strange day, all right. But at least he was about to get the best sleep of his life.

* * *

At the palace the next morning, Dafuq was fuming. He’d stood there waiting for that fool kid to emerge with the lamp . . . only to have the cave entrance collapse in front of him. Meaning the idiot wasn’t a “diamond in the rough” after all. He was dead, and the lamp was probably crushed flat.

“Fine,” Dafuq mumbled. “I’ll take over the kingdom another way. Maybe I can try the Russians again.”

“You are NOT going back to the Russians,” the bird on his shoulder said. “That didn’t end well, remember?”

“Fake news,” said Dafuq.

“It’s the truth and you know it,” said the bird.

“It’s alternative facts!”

The king approached Dafuq. “You look down today, Dafuq,” the king said. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, just worried about the fate of the prince,” Dafuq said, casually. “He hasn’t found a mate yet – and if he hasn’t, he can’t inherit the throne, right?”

“That’s true,” the king said. “And the rules are that if he doesn’t marry, then I am no longer obligated to make him my heir. I can pick someone else.”

“Have anyone in mind?” said Dafuq.

“I’ve got a couple of candidates.”

“Well, then, let’s talk a deal. Because I’m all about the art of the deal. You make me your heir, and . . .”

There was a commotion outside. The king and his vizier went to the window – to see a whole parade approaching.

“What the heck is that?” said the king. “Animals, floats, balloons, bands . . .”

“That’s nothing,” Dafuq said. “Wait until you see the magnificent property I’m going to build you once I’m your heir! It’ll be a tower! A TOWER!”

The elephant at the rear of the parade stopped at the entrance of the palace, and two servants brought a ladder for its rider to climb down. He alighted to the ground and bowed in the king’s direction. “Hello,” the man said. “I am Prince Ali of the kingdom of Lezard. I have come to seek the favors of your son.”

“Well, well,” the king said. “This is impressive.”

“Isn’t it, though?” the new arrival said. “So, how about it? Can I date him?”

“We have to ask Kosuke that, don’t we?”

“I’m right here, Father,” said a voice behind the king. “And the answer is no.”

“But . . . Kosuke . . .”

“It’s been prince after princess all the time,” Kosuke said. “And they’re all the same. Throwing around flash and displays of wealth . . .”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Dafuq said.

“But that’s not what I want. I want something . . . real.” He turned to the newcomer, said “I’m sorry, but no” and left the room.

“KOSUKE!” The king started to run after him. “Kosuke, be reasonable! You’re approaching the deadline to marry, and . . .”

But the boy was gone. The king sighed. “I’m sorry, Prince Ali. He’s like this with all his suitors.”

“It’s . . . all right.” The would-be prince looked crestfallen. “Good day.” He turned and left the palace.

The king turned to Dafuq. “Too bad,” he said. “He seemed like a nice guy. Except . . . what the heck was that kingdom? I never heard of Lezard.”

“Does it matter?” Dafuq said.

“Well . . . no.”

Dafuq smiled to himself. Well, his Plan A had failed . . . but at least he had a Plan B now, and it was tremendous! All he’d have to do was make sure the prince wasn’t married by the deadline! He’d make this country great again yet!

* * *

Natsume sat on the curb in front of the palace, sulking. Tacc approached him. “Hey . . . what’s wrong?”

“He rejected me,” he said. “He said the parade was too much. That . . . that I seemed too flashy.”

Tacc sighed. “I kind of thought the giant balloons were overkill.”

“How can I get him to look at me . . . if he won’t even talk to me?”

“Well . . . you COULD try approaching him again. Maybe slightly less . . . splashy this time?”

“You mean, just walk up to him and . . .”

“Not walk . . . fly. Remember, I loaned you the magic carpet. Fly up to his room and offer to take him for a spin. Chances are he’s never seen one of these before.” He paused. “Hey . . . what have you got to lose at this point?”

“You’re right,” Natsume said. “I don’t have anything to lose, do I? I’ll fly up there and take him out, and then . . .” He broke out in a big grin. “I’m going to have the most gorgeous guy in the kingdom at my side! Let them call me street rat then!”

I’ll do it, he thought. I’ll get his attention and win him over . . . one way or the other.

* * *

That evening, Natsume stood under Kosuke’s window, preparing to mount the magic carpet. “Okay, I’m gonna do this,” he said.

“And you’re going to be awesome,” Tacc said. “I’ll be back in the lamp.”

“But . . .”

“Take the lamp with you. If you get in an emergency . . . remember, you have two more wishes.”

“You KNOW I’m going to use that last wish to free you.”

“We won’t talk about that now. Go get your prince!”

Natsume jumped on the carpet. It’s steered by thought, he told himself. I just need to steer it by Kosuke’s window . . .

The carpet rose, and Natsume with it. He could peek into the room. Kosuke had his balcony doors open, and was sitting in a chair, looking at a pile of papers . . .

“Good evening,” Natsume called.

Kosuke jumped, the papers flying in the air. “What . . . what is . . .” He ran to the balcony. “What the HELL?”

“I just thought I’d take the old flying carpet and ask you to give me a second chance,” Natsume said, casually.

“Flying carpet?” Kosuke looked over the balcony – and his mouth dropped. “Oh, my God, it IS one!”

“Would I lie about something like that?”

“But . . . but where did it come from? Those things are myths . . . aren’t they?”

“Can you look straight at a myth?”

“Well . . . no . . .”

“And you’re looking straight at me and the carpet. Climb onboard,” Natsume said. “I’ll take you on a ride.”

Kosuke just stared at him, open-mouthed. “Who are you, really?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, if you show up on something like this, you’re no ordinary prince . . .”

“I’m somebody who would do anything to share some time with you.”

“Well . . . all right. I’ll try riding on this thing.” He paused as Natsume hovered over the balcony, then slowly lowered himself enough so that Kosuke could climb aboard. “Is this safe?”

“Would I be on it if it wasn’t?”

Once Kosuke was seated beside Natsume, the carpet rose into the air and flew off. Kosuke gasped and clung to Natsume instinctively. “Oh, oh, I can’t believe this . . .”

“It’s something else, isn’t it?” Natsume said. “Look down . . . you can see a view of your kingdom you’ve never seen before.”

“It’s like a whole new world,” Kosuke said.

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Natsume replied.

They rose higher into the air, flying from one part of the kingdom to the other . . . across mountains and deserts, over a plain filled with ancient ruins. Kosuke was breathless the whole time.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” he said. “And it’s like I’m seeing my own kingdom with new eyes.”

“You can see anything and everything with new eyes,” said Natsume. “You just have to know how to look at it.”

Kosuke looked at him. “You really aren’t like any other guy I’ve ever met, are you?”

“I’m myself,” Natsume said. “I never pretended to be anything else.”

“You know,” Kosuke said, quietly, “you remind me of someone. Somebody I met while . . .” He looked down. “That’s a silly thought, though.”

“Why?” Natsume said. “No thoughts are silly. If it’s something you’re sincerely curious about, it’s valid, isn’t it?”

Kosuke was quiet for a moment. Then, he said, “I think that I was wrong before.”

“About what?”

“I thought you weren’t the kind of person I’d want to get to know better.” He paused. “But you definitely are. If you were to ask me out on a date, I’d be honored to accept.”

“Well, then, I’ll be honored to ask you out on a date,” said Natsume. “Or, rather, another date. Because . . . this is one, isn’t it?”

Kosuke smiled. “Yes,” he said. “It definitely is.”

Eventually, the carpet returned to Kosuke’s balcony. Natsume lowered the vehicle enough for Kosuke to climb off.

“I had a wonderful time,” he told Natsume. “I really do want to see you again.”

“I want to see you, too,” Natsume said. “I’ll be back tomorrow night?”

“You’ve got it.” He leaned over and kissed Natsume – a brief touch of lips on lips, but it was enough to make a point.

Natsume took off like a shot. “YES!” he shouted to the empty air. “YES! YES! He likes me! He . . .”

So distracted was he that he didn’t see the large bird flying toward him until it was too late. It crashed into him, knocking him off the carpet. Before he knew it, he was plummeting toward earth.

“AAAAHHHH!!!” He flailed, as if swimming in the air could catch his fall. Of course, it didn’t, and the ground was rushing up toward him, faster, faster . . .

He tried to call the carpet to him, but he couldn’t control it if he wasn’t sitting on it. This is it, he thought, I’m going to die . . .

And then, he realized that there was one thing he could do. He still had the lamp hanging from his belt.

“TACC!” he shouted. “I wish for you to break my fall! I wish for you to save my life!”

There was a puff of blue smoke, and the genie emerged from the lamp. “I’m here!” he shouted. He folded his arms and blinked his eyes . . .

And instantly, it was as if someone had put brakes on Natsume. His fall slowed, until he drifted back to earth slowly, landing lightly on his feet.

“Whoa,” he said. “That was close.”

Tacc landed beside him. “That was the second wish, you know.” The genie held his hand up, and the magic carpet drifted back down toward earth, rolling itself up and landing in an upright position in front of him.

“I know,” Natsume said. “But it was use the wish or die, you know?”

“So how was the date?”

“Incredible,” Natsume said. “Amazing. I think he likes me for real. He wants to go out with me again.”

“Congratulations,” Tacc said. “You’re the prince of his dreams. You’re . . .”

“HEY!” said a voice behind them. “Who’s there?”

“And that’s my cue to get scarce,” Tacc said. He quickly dissolved into blue smoke again and went back into the lamp.

“Um, well . . .” Natsume said.

“You’re trespassing on palace grounds!” Dafuq approached him, holding a lantern. “And you know what I do with a trespasser? LOCK HIM UP! LOCK HIM UP!”

“I’ll have you know I’m royalty,” Natsume said. “I’m Prince Ali of Lezard!”

“And you’re not supposed to be at this palace at this time of night whoever you are,” he said. “Get out.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” Natsume said. He turned and left . . . and then, Dafuq caught a glimpse of the lamp hanging from the boy’s belt.

“That lamp,” he said. “Why the hell does he have . . .”

But he knew damn well what that lamp was, where it came from, and why the boy had it.

“Prince?” he said. “FAKE NEWS!” He laughed. The street rat had escaped that cave somehow with the lamp and was using the genie to impersonate a prince.

“Crooked Natsume isn’t going to get away with this!” he said. “I’m gonna get that lamp, and it’s gonna be tremendous! I’m gonna be winning so much, you’re gonna be sick of it! And that street rat is gonna be thrown out like the garbage he is!”

Chuckling to himself, he walked off, making devious plans.

* * *

Natsume arrived back at the tent where he’d spent the first night after finding the genie, happily humming to himself. “Oooh, yeah, life is ridiculously awesome . . .” he sang, unhooking the lamp from his belt and laying it on the floor.

I have to go find Sora, he thought, and let him see how well I’m doing. Maybe there’s a way he can share in all this without my having to use the third wish. If I make it all the way to marrying Kosuke, I might be able to give him a position as a royal . . .

And then, he became aware of a noise behind him. He turned – to see a parrot grabbing the lamp in its talons and flying out of the tent with it.

“HEY!” Natsume yelled, running after the bird. “BRING THAT BACK NOW! It’s important!”

But the bird just kept flying – in the direction of the palace. Wonderful, Natsume thought. I need to get that back, before . . .

He frantically looked around the room for something, anything that would help him, and his eyes fell on the flying carpet. He unrolled it and hopped aboard.

“FOLLOW THAT BIRD!” he shouted, as if the carpet could actually hear him. It took off and flew in the direction of the palace, Natsume frantically trying to get it to go faster . . .

But unfortunately, the bird had too much of a headstart. It reached the palace first, and dropped the lamp right into the waiting hands of . . .

“HA!” Dafuq said. “Tremendous! And I didn’t even have to go to the Russians this time!” He rubbed the lamp, and Tacc appeared before him.

“Natsume,” Tacc said, “I don’t see why you . . .” And then, he saw who’d summoned him. “Oh.”

“I’m your new master!” Dafuq said. “You have to do what I say now!”

“I’m . . .I’m . . .”

But Tacc knew damn well he couldn’t fight it. Not when he was bound to the lamp.

“Yes, Master,” he said, sadly. “I can grant you three wishes. I just have to tell you the . . .”

“Never mind the rules!” Dafuq said. “I wish for you to make me the world’s most powerful sorcerer!”

Tacc sighed, and then folded his arms and blinked – just as Natsume flew onto the scene. He jumped from the carpet and landed on the ground, as the carpet flew off.

“TACC!” he said. “What are you doing?”

“I’m not your genie anymore,” Natsume said. “This guy got the lamp.”

“THIS guy?” Natsume said.

The king and Kosuke ran into the lobby of the palace to behold the commotion. “What’s going on here?” the king said.

“I’ll show you what!” Dafuq said, pointing at Natsume. “He’s FAKE NEWS!”

“What are you talking about?” said the king. “Ali is a prince!”

“Nope! He’s the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE! I’ll show you!” He pointed his staff at Natsume and shouted magic words – and the fine clothing of a prince disappeared.

“See?” he said. “He’s a street rat!”

Kosuke’s eyes widened. “Then . . . that’s how he’s familiar . . . I KNOW I knew him from somewhere!”

The king frowned. “Who is this?”

“Father, this is the man who came looking to date me today. And I want to. He’s the sweetest man I’ve ever . . .”

“No son of mine dates a street rat!” the king said. “Get him out of here!”

“YES!” Dafuq said. “LOCK HIM UP! LOCK HIM UP!”

“Dafuq, I issue orders like that around here,” the king said. “I’m still the ruler.”

“Well, then, genie, for my second wish, I wish to be king,” Dafuq said. “How about THAT?”

Tacc sighed again, blinked and the king’s regalia suddenly appeared on Dafuq. “HA!” he said. “I have one thing to say to you, old king: YOU’RE FIRED!” He waved his arms, and two huge glass jars appeared, trapping the king and Kosuke inside. “I’ll figure out how to deal with the two of you later!”

“You let them go!” Natsume shouted – but two palace guards seized his arms, starting to drag him out. I can’t do this, he thought. I can’t let Dafuq win. I’ve got to get the lamp back, got to free Kosuke and his father, got to save the country from this person who has no business running it . . .

And then, something flew into his view. The carpet! he thought. It’s not bound to whoever Tacc is serving at the moment! It’s actually coming to my rescue . . .

The two guards were shocked enough at the sight of it that they dropped Natsume in surprise. “What the hell is . . .” one of them said.

“CARPET!” Natsume jumped on it. “Get me out of here!”

“Oh, no, you don’t!” Dafuq shouted. “Nobody escapes me!” He waved his hands, and an enormous net appeared in them, which he tossed at Natsume and the carpet. Natsume tried to get away, but the vizier-turned-sorcerer-turned-king was reeling him in like a fish.

“You’re gonna be squashed like a grape!” Dafuq said. “And then I’m gonna do whatever I want with this country! First thing? BUILD A WALL AROUND OUR BORDERS! And who’s gonna pay for it? OUR NEIGHBORS!”

“That’s stupid and racist,” Natsume said.

“I’m not a racist! I’m a nationalist!” Dafuq transformed himself into an enormous snake, and began to coil himself around Natsume. “Now, about that squashed like a grape thing . . .”

“LET HIM GO!” cried Kosuke from within the glass jar.

“Sorry, but I’m not gonna fall for that,” Dafuq said. “He’s gonna be squashed like a . . .”

“You think you’re so great?” Natsume said. “You’re nothing!”

Dafuq hissed. “What did you say?”

“You’re nothing without Tacc! You might be the most powerful sorcerer in the world and a king, but the genie is far, far more powerful than you!”

“That’s FAKE NEWS!” said Dafuq, as he started to squash Natusme tighter.

“Is it, though? Would you have ANY of this if not for the genie? Why, if you were a genie, you’d be TEN times stronger and more powerful! You wouldn’t just rule this country, you’d rule the WORLD!”

“Well, then, I know what I’m doing for my third wish!” he shouted. “Genie, I wish to become . . . a GENIE!”

“Your wish is my command!” Tacc said. He waved his arms, and Dafuq let go of Natsume, shifted back into human form . . .

And then, a lamp suddenly appeared and sucked him in like a vacuum.

“He forgot to tell you that’s part of the whole genie gig,” Tacc said. “Phenomenal cosmic power, itty bitty living space.” He picked up the lamp and used his magic to hurl it far, far away, where it sank to the bottom of the ocean. Where it would wash up was a mystery.

With Dafuq neutralized, the glass jars imprisoning the king and the prince disappeared. Natsume ran over to them. “Are you okay?” he said.

“We’re fine,” the king said. “Thanks to your quick thinking, that is.”

“Well, um . . .”

“Um, nothing,” the king said. He turned to Kosuke. “Look, I know I said I’d only let you date a prince, but this guy? I LIKE this guy. You can date him all you want.”

“You mean it?” Kosuke said.

“I wouldn’t lie,” the king said. “And if you want, Ali . .”

“Natsume. My real name is Natsume.”

“Natsume, then. . . you can move into one of the guest houses on the palace grounds. We have plenty.”

Natsume looked stunned. “You MEAN it?”

“With everything I’ve got. I am eternally grateful to you.”

“Can . . . can I have a friend move in? Because I know someone else who needs a lucky break.”

“Well, I don’t see why not . . .”

“YAY!” Natsume said. “I’m gonna go get Sora and . . .”

He looked over and saw Tacc. “You still get one more wish,” Tacc said. “I’m your genie again. The contract with Dafuq is, well, over.”

“Well, then . . . you’re not anyone’s genie anymore,” Natsume said. “Genie, I wish for your freedom!”

There was a rumble of thunder. The lamp vanished, and the thick gold bracelets disappeared from Tacc’s arms. He stared at them in disbelief.

“I’m free?” he said. “I’m really FREE?”

“Completely and totally. You deserve it.”

“Oh, my GOD!” Tacc looked at his hands again. “I have so much to do! I’m going to travel the world! I’m going to see all the place I’ve always wanted to see! I’m going to . . .”

Kosuke, meanwhile, wrapped his arms around Natsume. “Is that how you came to be a prince? You had the services of that genie?”

“It’s a long story,” Natsume said. “But . . .”

“But?”

“I’ll tell it to you some other time. Right now, we’ve got better things to do.”

He pulled Kosuke to him and kissed him passionately, as Tacc bounced around, saying, “I’m gonna see so many places! I’m gonna go to China and Africa and Tokyo Disney and . . .”

* * *

“. . . . Tokyo Disney,” Tacc’s voice said from seemingly a million miles away. “I TOLD you it was too much for one day. Now Natsume’s passed out.”

Natsume shook his head and opened his eyes. Where was he? The last thing he remembered was he and his band had half a day off, and they decided to go have fun somewhere, and they’d ended up at . . .

“Oh, God,” he murmured, rubbing his head. Tokyo Disney. More specifically, Disney Sea, which featured an Aladdin section. And then after they’d left there, they’d gone to a bar and had some shots – while the bar TV blared news reports from America, all featuring Japanese translations of ridiculous quotes from that idiot who was currently their president. Finally, the whole crew ended up in Tacc’s apartment.

“NOW you’re awake,” Sora said, walking up to the couch where Natsume had passed out. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Natsume mumbled. “Just had a REALLY bizarre dream, that’s all.”

“You’re not going to be sick, are you?” Kosuke sat on the floor beside the couch, looking extremely concerned.

“Nope,” Natsume said. “I just need a couple of glasses of water, that’s all.”

“I’ll get it for you.” Kosuke got up and headed for the bathroom.

Natsume watched him go, heaving a big sigh. That dream . . . the one where he was Aladdin, and Kosuke was his Jasmine . . .

He’d wanted to date his bandmate for eons. But something had held him back from telling him. Perhaps it was fear of what the others would think . . . or what it could do to their careers, or . . .

That he wasn’t good enough for him. That it was like a street rat trying to be worthy of a prince.

Maybe the dream was trying to tell me something, he thought. Maybe . . . the reason I had it was that my mind is trying to tell me that I need to speak up, say something to him, let go of my fears. Because . . . we’re not going to have a Happily Ever After otherwise, right?

He smiled to himself. He had to start believing that he wasn’t a street rat – he was a diamond in the rough. No genie was going to help him, he could only help himself.

Natsume walked into the kitchen, took a deep breath, faced his bandmate and smiled. “Kosuke,” he said, “there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you . . .”