“It’s been a while.”
The voice came out of the darkness, followed by an intake of air, and a stream of dirty white smoke. Harry heard the flutter of wings and caught the slight bounce of light as Jack came out of the alley, cigarette in one spindly hand, the other dug deep into the pocket of a brown mac. He took another drag on the cigarette, then scratched his forehead with the same hand, brushing lank bits of blue hair to the side.
“Yeah, well, needs must,” Harry said, looking around before stepping deeper into the shadows.
“What needs are those then? Back on the dust Harry? What colour?”
“I’m clean, and I don’t want anything either.”
“I’m not selling,” Jack lied. He dropped the butt of his cigarette to the floor and stubbed it out, the callouses on the soles of his feet stopping any pain the burning embers could’ve caused. Years of smoking did that, ruined a fairies fingers and feet.
There was a crash, a scream, then a cackle of laughter, the loud noises sending Harry into the air, his wings working hard. Jack reached one long arm out to grab a thin leg and pull Harry back down to the ground.
“It’s just some girls outside the Lion. Probably dropped their drinks,” he muttered, “stay and tell me what you have to sell.”
Harry settled on the pavement, breathing hard, even more skittish.
“Socks mostly,” Harry asked, trying to keep his voice above a whisper. “And a scarf.”
“Let’s see then,” Jack urged, gesturing with a hand. Harry took another look around the dark, the shadows the empty market stalls created unnerved him a little, but he needed to do this. Needed the money, it had just been a long time since he’d done anything like this with any dust in his system, without chemical confidence.
“Harry,” the other fairy snapped and Harry jumped into action, unwrapping the frayed rope from around his waist to loosen the pouch resting on his hip. He opened it up and pulled out a sock, twice the size of himself, the material expanding as it left the pouch. He struggled to hold it up, and keep it from touching the floor and keep the red and green sock clean. It was covered in Christmas trees and Jack smirked as he inspected it.
“It’s got a hole in it.”
Harry bent his head to see where Jack was pointing, seeing the hole worn into the heel.
“So, it’ll get picked apart in the end,” Harry said, desperate. “It’s clean. They’re all clean.”
“They all got holes in them?” Jack asked, smirking again when Harry nodded. “You don’t like doing this anymore do you?” Harry frowned and started to stuff the sock back into the pouch, cursing under his breath when there was a little resistance. His magic wasn’t what it used to be.
“I never liked doing this,” Harry hissed in reply, “but there’s not much legitimate work for a fairy who can’t stay in the air for longer than ten fucking minutes!”
The increased volume of his voice made him jump and go deeper into the shadows. Jack laughed.
“Didn’t know you were such a human sympathiser,” he said.
“I’m not, I’m not,” he replied quickly, “just I don’t like stealing. From fairies or humans. Taking socks and things that are ready to get tossed, makes it marginally fucking better for me.”
Jack was still grinning at him. “You used to do worse things,” he pointed out.
“Trying to atone?”
“Trying to survive right now. Atonement can come when I have a fucking job,” he muttered, making Jack laugh again, then cough hard.
“I’ve missed you Harry,” he chocked out.
It was on the tip of Harry’s tongue to tell the other fairy he hadn’t missed him, but he kept the thought to himself. He handed the little brown hip pouch to him instead.
“Four socks, and a scarf, made of that shiny material that’s so fashionable right now.”
“Here at least,” Jack said, checking in the bag, before wrapping the rope around his own waist so it sat on his left hip, hidden under the large mac. He handed Harry some blue bills.
“Forty? Come on, the scarf’s worth twenty alone.”
Jack sighed and dug into his pocket for another note.
“Fifty, and that’s it. You want more, go see someone else.”
“There is no one else,” Harry muttered, taking the last note. He rolled them up and tucked the money into the pocket of his waistcoat. Jack patted him on the back and pulled a packet of cigarettes from in his coat. He reached back and struck a match on his wings, the spark and immediate flame lighting up their corner, both sets of wings illuminated for a moment.
“You sure you don’t want to buy anything?”
“No,” he said. Jack laughed one last time.
“See you again Harry,” he said before nodding and fluttering away, dipping and diving through the air and out of sight.
Harry sighed and walked out of the shadows and into the closed market, his own bare feet broken and calloused, not from smoking but from walking. Dust had ruined his wings, left him with little option but to walk everywhere, they didn’t have the strength to keep him in the air for too long, didn’t have the colour they once had either. Once his wings had bright plum veins standing out against the fragile lilac but now they were a dull, lacklustre grey.
He walked quickly, fluttering for a few moments over some broken glass on the pavement, trying to ignore how hard he was breathing after that. How hard he’d had to concentrate to do just that. He made it home, jumping up the steps to the front door of the converted tree, and pulled the keys and the money from his pocket.
The door opened before he even put his key in the lock.
“Mrs Harding-Meyer!” he said, jumping back into the air, and down a few steps when he saw his landlady standing in the doorway, the bright hall light making her look like nothing but a round shadow, wings fluttering fast.
“Harry,” she said. Her voice was soft, but he’d heard her at her worst. Just this morning. Directed at himself.
“I just went to the bank,” he said, forcing a smile out and going back up the steps to hand her the roll of notes. “This weeks rent, sorry about the mix-up.”
There was a huff of laughter, then a smile, and she pocketed the notes.
“No problem,” she said, before turning around and going back into the house, leaving the door open behind him.
Harry sighed in relief and followed, disappearing into his little bedsit on the ground floor as she flew upstairs. Next week, he’d pay the rent early, even if he was stealing socks all week again.