The Reluctant Prince

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Chapter 2

Jet pulled on his still slightly damp shirt and buttoned it, his light mood ruined. It was time he got back anyway. He buckled his pants and looked around for the shoes he had left on the bath room floor. Doll hadn’t washed those too, had she? No, here they were. Doll handed him his shoes with a pair of fluffy white socks. Jet raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t been wearing any socks.

“My father won’t miss them,” Doll said quietly. After Jet’s upset over her speculation that he might after all be one of them, she had stopped talking altogether and so had he. It was a very quiet twenty minutes while they waited for Jet’s clothes to dry.

Shrugging, Jet pulled on the socks and the shoes after them.

“Will I see you again?”

Jet paused. “What is your skill, Doll? Shadows? Water? Fire?”

Doll’s eyes widened. “Fire,” she whispered.

“Show me.”

It was forbidden. Only the elders were allowed to use their abilities without permission. Doll’s face betrayed her anxiety. Jet almost laughed. She had invited him into her home, knowing that her parents were not home, knowing he had no restrictions on his own abilities, yet she was afraid to show him a little fire. He settled for smiling encouragingly.

Doll coaxed a small flame to life in the palm of her hand. Jet touched it with a fingertip and transferred a piece of it to himself. He was not limited to a single ability like most of the Family he had encountered in his life. Whatever he imagined, he could do. The library had been an invaluable resource for him, and that was thanks to Doll looking the other way. “Look, you can do this with it.” Jet let the tiny flame on his fingertip expand to encase his entire hand, then let it slowly travel up his arm and across his chest until it covered him in a thin layer of living flame from head to toe. His newly-washed clothes dried with a snap but took no further damage from the fire because Jet wouldn’t let it happen. “You try.”

Her mouth open in an ‘o’ of wonder, Doll concentrated until her palmful of fire wrapped around her hands like a pair of gloves. She grinned at Jet. “I did it!”

Pleased, Jet nodded. “See? It’s not so bad.” He touched Doll’s cheek with his fire-coated hand. “Fire is your element. It will never hurt you. You can control it so that it only burns what you want it to burn.” Jet moved away from her and touched the towel that had lately covered his body, incinerating it in a burst of flame. Only a thin film of ash remained on the bed; nothing else burned.

He let the fire around him slowly die out. Doll did the same. They stared at each other for a minute, before Jet said, “I have to go. Thanks—for the bath, and the haircut.” He gave Doll his usual bright grin and studied the window. Even the smallest opening was enough for him. Jet’s body turned to smoke and he was gone.

Doll sat down heavily on the bed scattering the ashes of the towel.

X X X X X X X X X X

“Where you been? Out terrorizing the gentry again?”

Jet swung in through the small door at the back of the sandwich shop and grinned at the lanky man who sat, smoking, on a stack of boxes. “Yeah,” he said with a grin. “Anything left to eat?”

The man on the boxes gestured with his chin and Jet followed his directions to a wrapped package on top of the counter. “Thanks,” Jet mumbled, cramming the sandwich into his mouth.

“Heard lots of sirens,” the lanky man continued. “That about you?”

Jet shrugged and swallowed the last bite of his sandwich. “Maybe. Probably.”

“What did you do this time?”

Jet turned innocent eyes on his friend. “Ben, what do you mean? I didn’t do anything. Well, I went to the library,” he admitted.

“At this hour?”

“I may have stayed a little late.”

“One of these days you’re going to get caught.”

Jet laughed. “No I won’t. How would they hold me?”

Benjamin Reaves knew Jet’s history; he knew Jet did not consider himself one of the Family, which was obvious to anybody except Jet, not that anyone would risk pointing it out to him. “You don’t know what the Family can do,” he settled for saying.

“I know what they can’t do,” Jet countered mildly, rummaging in the small cooler underneath the counter for an apple. He crunched it absently, licking his fingers and throwing away the core when he was done.

“Just be careful,” Ben said. Then he took a closer look at Jet. “You look different.”

“I’m clean,” Jet said, grinning. His short hair had dried and stood out like a halo around his head. Once it got a little longer, it would probably lie flat, but for now it stuck out in all directions, completely changing his outline. He yawned. “If you don’t need me right away, I’m going to lie down for a little while.”

Ben shook his head, and Jet shuffled off to a small office behind the kitchen and closed the door behind him. Ben kept a cot in there for him for when Jet didn’t feel like fighting his way through the subway tunnels to his own place underneath the tracks. Nobody else could enter Jet’s domain, so it remained safe, but it was a lonely place because nobody else could ever go there. Lately, Jet had spent a lot of time on the cot in Ben’s store.

Not all the people who were part of the subway culture were homeless. Ben wasn’t. He owned a small sandwich shop which he opened before dawn each day and often stayed past midnight, sometimes staying on the very cot which Jet now occupied. When Jet was still a young boy, Ben had caught him stealing food from his sandwich shop in the early hours of the morning one day. The little boy had torn his shirt trying to get away, so Ben had let go entirely and offered the child a loaf of bread instead. Jet had been wary but he had not fled. And he came back the next morning. And the next.

Of course, Ben had tried to find out who the little boy belonged to. Like everyone else, he wondered if perhaps this boy was the missing child of the ruling Family, the one who everyone thought was dead. So he had discreetly asked questions, as much as a non-Family member could without implicating himself, but right after that, the boy had disappeared for almost a year. When he showed up again, bruised and shaking and obviously frightened, Ben had taken him in without another word or another attempt to try to find out who he was. He was Jet, and Jet he remained to this day.

Ben flicked on the television above his counter to watch the morning news. Usually, the Family did not publicize incidents regarding their unusual abilities, unless it was in an effort to cow the general populace on some issue or other. That rarely happened. The world turned much more smoothly when people in general were not reminded of the unique powers their leaders possessed. The last time had been when the King’s young son had been kidnapped and murdered.

Ben leaned forward. The announcers were broadcasting from the public library where a contingent of police cars had gathered. A break-in, they were saying. Jet had better be careful; after his stunt at the recent basketball game, and now this, he was becoming too well-known. A new haircut would not disguise him for very long. Ben breathed in sharply. At the edge of the crowd of reporters and police stood three dark-haired gentlemen, Family certainly. Why were they there? It had to be because of Jet.

A jingle at the subway entrance drew Ben’s gaze away from the TV. He busied himself pouring coffee for the first group of commuters to come through the station. Jet would most likely sleep for much of the day, but Ben planned to have a long talk with him before he went out again for the evening. This blatant exhibition of his own unusual powers had to stop. Jet wasn’t the only one at risk here.

At dusk, Jet opened the office door, yawning widely. It was uncanny how he was able to gauge the time of day down here where the sun never penetrated. He scratched his newly short hair and headed for the entrance. Ben didn’t look up from wiping the lunch counter. “Don’t go out there,” he warned in a low voice.

Jet stopped. “Why not?” But he came back inside the shop and helped himself to a pastry from the glass display case.

Ben eyed him up and down. “Have you looked in a mirror lately? I admit you do smell better, but you look a lot more like them, too.” He pointed with his cleaning cloth to the subway concourse visible beyond the shop’s entryway. Several people in gray business suits with unmistakable black hair and pale skin walked slowly up and down the concourse, peering at the passers-by with more than casual interest.

Jet raised a brow. “Family? What do they want?”

“You.” Ben turned on the television. The evening news flickered to life. In among the weather and the day’s happenings were shots of last night at the library. Now they were saying that something valuable had been stolen. “You took something?”

“No! I just read a book. I left it there for them to see when I left . . .” Jet trailed off. He had left a book about elemental magic opened to the last page he had been reading—in the off-limits room—which he had escaped without using the door. He had thought it was a good idea at the time. Now, watching Family patrolling his subway, Jet was having second thoughts. “What do you mean I look like them?” he grumbled, going back into the small office so he could look into the mirror above the sink. His bath at Doll’s had washed layers of grime off his skin. Ben was right. He did look like he was Family. Jet scowled.

It didn’t matter. There were plenty of Family in the city, plenty who regularly used the subway to get to and from their jobs. If that old man at the library had described him, they wouldn’t be looking for one of the Family anyway. He had just about decided it was all right to go out, when Ben called him back. “Look.” At the far end of the station, one of the men in suits held his hands out in front of him and pulled streams of light from the overhead lights, redirecting it towards the shadowy corners of the concourse. Commuters on their way to work startled and walked widely around him. “Jet, I’m going to close up early tonight. Why don’t you stay here, catch up on your sleep, let this blow over.”

This was serious. The Family seldom used their gifts in public. Jet frowned. “Why are they looking for me in the subway?”

“People talk, Jet. You haven’t exactly been careful lately.”

The subway system was Jet’s refuge. He didn’t like it that the Family had traced him here. He didn’t like hiding in Ben’s shop, either, but what choice did he have? “All right, go. I’ll wait until this blows over, like you said.”

“And then we’re going to have a talk.” Ben turned off the main lights and pulled down the metal gate that locked his shop up for the night. “If you’re going to use your own light, do it in the back room where nobody will see you, will you? The Family might be after you, but they probably won’t kill you. They might kill me for harboring you, though.” Ben ran up the steep metal stairs that led to the street outside, the one which he used for deliveries. At the top, he paused. “I mean it, Jet. Be sensible for once. Stay safe.”

Jet waited a good half-hour, more than enough time for Ben to catch a bus or a cab and be on his way home. Then he scrambled up the same metal stairs that Ben had used and oozed through the tiny space next to the hinges, holding on to his shadowy form until he was high above the city. He needed to go back to the library to see just what it was that had set off the Family. If it was that book, maybe he should take another look at it.


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