Pa was passed out with his face on the table when Denny slipped out of bed. There were two bottles on the table, one half full and the other empty and tipped over on its side.
Denny felt a stab of anger at the sight. Pa had gotten his hours cut this past week, but instead of going out looking for more work, he sat here every night complaining about the unfairness of life while he drank himself to sleep. Of course it never occurred to him that life might be easier if he stopped drinking away his paycheck.
Denny tiptoed past the table and opened the cupboard. There wasn’t much inside, just a loaf of bread, a chunk of dry cheese, and Pa’s last bottle. Denny was careful to take less than a third of the food. If Pa didn’t get a proper meal, he’d start swearing and throwing things at whoever was closest, which would be Ma this morning. Denny wrapped the food in his handkerchief and tucked it in his coat pocket. The quicker he got out of the apartment, the better his day would go.
“Sneaking out, are you?” The slurred voice froze Denny on his way to the door.
“Just going out, Pa,” Denny said. He tried not to let his wings quiver nervously.
“Going out to see that girl?” Pa lifted his bleary face away from the table. “I told you to stay away from her. She’s no good, always putting on airs. Thinks she’s better than the rest of us.”
“She does not,” Denny retorted. Normally he wouldn’t try to argue, but he couldn’t ignore Pa insulting Pretty.
“Are you talking back to me?” Pa demanded.
“No, sir.” Denny backed up a step as Pa’s hand closed on the empty bottle and his wings flared angrily behind him. “Just telling the truth. Pretty doesn’t think she’s better than any of us. She thinks all of us are better than the humans say we are.”
That was apparently too complicated for Pa right now. He grimaced, let go of the empty bottle, and picked up the half-full one instead. His wings flopped down over the back of his chair. “Give me some breakfast, boy.” Denny quickly pulled bread and cheese out of the cupboard and offered it to Pa. He grunted sourly. “This all we’ve got?”
“And I’m sure you’ve taken more than your share. Show me that kerchief you were trying to hide from me.”
Anger churned through Denny’s stomach again, but he didn’t argue. It wasn’t worth it. He unfolded his handkerchief and stood quietly as Pa took back half the cheese Denny had claimed. At least he left all the bread.
“Get that look off your face,” Pa growled. “You want more to eat, you’d damn well better start paying for it. You’re twenty years old, boy! It’s past time you pull your own weight around here.”
“I give you everything I earn,” Denny protested.
“You earn pennies!” Pa slammed his bottle down on the table. “A ten-year-old could earn more than you! And don’t start on the excuses. I’ve heard them all before. There aren’t enough jobs, nobody wants fairies, life is so hard,” he whined mockingly. “I don’t know why you’re too proud to join me in the factories—”
“You know exactly why!” Denny’s hands clenched at his sides. “After what happened to Sammy—”
Pa pushed his chair back and lurched to his feet. “You got no call to bring Sammy into this. That’s past and done. Forget about it!” Pa drained his bottle and flung it at Denny. It missed by an arm’s length, but Denny flinched anyway. The bottle shattered against the wall. Denny’s eyes flicked toward the curtain that separated Ma and Pa’s bed from the rest of the room. If Ma wasn’t awake already, the bottle breaking surely would have woken her, but there wasn’t a sound from behind the curtain. Ma always tried to hide as long as possible when Pa was angry.
Pa clutched his head and grimaced at Denny as if the noise of the bottle breaking was his fault. “I can’t afford a whiny, useless little freeloader clinging to my coat-tails. I should have put my foot down years ago. You’re going to fly right over to the nearest factory and get yourself a job!”
Denny swallowed. “I — I can’t go to the factories, Pa. You know I can’t.”
Pa swore and slammed a hand down on the table, then winced at the noise and gripped his head again. “If my head didn’t hurt so much, I’d march you over there myself. As it is—”
“I’ll find something,” Denny cut in. “I promise. Just give me a few more days, and I’ll find a decent job. I will!”
“You’d better.” Pa eyed him sourly, then sighed and sank back down at the table. “I’m too damn soft on you,” he grumbled. “You got until the end of the week. You’d better have a job by Dawn Festival, or I’m done with you. You come back with a job or not at all! You hear me?”
Denny nodded, snatched his handkerchief of food, and bolted out the door before Pa could decide to throw the other bottle at him. He shouldn’t have mentioned his brother. Pa had been trying to drink away his memories of Sammy for years; talking about him was the quickest way to make Pa angrier.
Outside, Denny slowed to a walk. It was still dark out, of course; there would be some light later in the day, but this far north, the sun wouldn’t rise properly until the end of the week. It must be strange for people in the south, where the sun rose and set every day all year round. They’d have sunlight in winter. And night in summer, too!
Denny tried to think about that instead of Pa’s threat. Imagining strange things usually made a good distraction. But today he couldn’t stop his thoughts from jumping back to what Pa had said. And what Denny had promised. Give him a few more days, and he’d find a decent job? What a stupid promise. Denny had spent years looking for a decent job, and he’d never come close. He usually managed to find day labor, but real jobs were another matter. There were just too many fairies in the city, and not enough work to go around.
But maybe this time he’d have some luck. He couldn’t let himself start the day feeling defeated, or he’d get nowhere. Denny adjusted the blue knit cap he wore — it was a little small for him, since it used to belong to Pretty — and made a point of walking in a relaxed, carefree sort of way. He even started humming a cheerful tune. He had found that if he acted like he was happy, most of the time it helped put him in a better mood.
He was feeling at least a little better by the time he reached Pretty’s apartment building down the block, and he felt a lot better as soon as he spotted Pretty waiting for him under a street-lamp. Denny’s chest felt a little too small for his breath, like it always did when he first saw her. Growing up, he’d never looked at her twice, but recently, it seemed like he couldn’t stop looking at her. They’d been sweethearts for a month, and he still couldn’t quite believe he’d ended up with a girl like Pretty. She turned and smiled at him, that wide, brilliant smile that made her blue eyes light up and sent a warm shiver through Denny.
“Morning,” she said brightly.
“Morning.” He smiled back at her. There were dark circles under her eyes. It didn’t make her less pretty, but it brought back a little of Denny’s worry. He hadn’t seen her looking well-rested in weeks. “Look for dawn,” he said.
Pretty slipped her arm through Denny’s. “Look for dawn,” she echoed as they started walking. The greeting was supposed to build anticipation for the first sunrise of the year, but the words felt too hopeful for this dreary neighborhood. There wasn’t much sign of Dawnmonth celebration here in Bugtown; only a few cheap lanterns hung in the dim streets, and there weren’t any pennants or streamers.
“Have you gotten a chance to talk to Miss Searden yet?” Denny asked. Pretty had seemed eager to talk to the reporter.
She shook her head, looking unhappy, and Denny wished he’d asked about something else. He didn’t want to remind her of her worries. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It was a silly idea, anyway.”
“It was not,” Denny protested. “Didn’t Miss Beka even say it was a good idea?” Connie Searden was the only person who had shown any sympathy toward Pretty’s father. Her newspaper articles had explained how he’d been forced into bad company, while everyone else just treated him as a villain. Denny knew how much it hurt Pretty, hearing people talk about her Pa as a horrible person who had deserved to die. A couple weeks ago, Pretty had been on fire to tell Miss Searden the full story and let people know what her Pa was really like. “You shouldn’t give up so easily,” Denny told her. He put his arm around her shoulders. “Don’t you want people to hear the truth about him?”
Pretty shrugged and looked away. “It doesn’t matter,” she said again. “I have more important things to think about.”
Denny tightened his arm around her. Pretty was too busy to talk to Miss Searden; that was the truth of it. She hadn’t stopped caring, but how was she supposed to find time to talk to a reporter when she had to bring in enough money to keep a roof over her family’s head? Her oldest brother was twelve; he could earn his keep. But the four younger children couldn’t.
Denny wished he could do something to help. With both his parents working and no children besides Denny, there should be money to spare. Denny should have been able to help somehow. But he gave every penny he earned to Pa, who always bought drink first, then left Ma to buy groceries and pay rent with whatever was left over.
And if Pa followed through on his threat to kick Denny out, he wouldn’t even have enough money to take care of himself, let alone help anyone else. He was more of a burden than a help. By all rights, he should step away from Pretty and let her find a man who could support her properly.
He swallowed and tried to push those thoughts out of his head. “You could send Miss Searden a message,” he suggested. “If she knows you want to talk, maybe she’ll come to you.”
“Maybe.” Pretty let out a long breath. “What about you? Are you all right? You don’t look very happy this morning.”
Denny managed a lighthearted shrug. “Just had an argument with Pa, that’s all. He’ll kick me out if I don’t have a job by the end of the week.”
Pretty turned to stare at him, gripping his arm to make him stop walking. “That’s all? Denny, that’s awful!”
“He wants me to go back to the factories.” Denny looked down at his feet, trying not to think about what happened to his big brother. “I told him I won’t, but if it’s that or getting thrown out, I — I might not have a choice.” He remembered Sammy screaming as he got caught in the works. The machinery just kept grinding and spinning without even slowing down. He shivered.
“You always have a choice,” Pretty said fiercely. She started walking again, pulling at Denny’s arm until she was practically dragging him down the sidewalk, ignoring the patches of dirty half-melted snow that squelched underfoot. “You can’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do!”
“I’m not giving up,” Denny assured her. “I’m sure I can find something.” He tried to sound more confident than he felt. Three days wasn’t long enough. There must be work out there somewhere, but Denny just wasn’t talented enough at anything to compete with all the other fairies looking for work.
“Have you tried the warehouses?” Pretty asked. She slowed to a more reasonable pace again and even noticed a mud puddle in time to swerve around it. “They’re always looking for people to load and stack and things like that.”
Denny nodded. “I’m not good at making things lighter with magic, and I’m not strong enough to carry much weight without magic. I’ve gotten day work a few times when they’re short-handed, but they won’t hire me permanently.”
“The messenger services always need—”
“Good fliers,” Denny said. “Which I’m not.” His magic was so weak he could barely stay aloft for ten minutes at a time. He shook his head. “I’ve looked everywhere, believe me. But there are so many fairies in Dreth these days, and not so many places that will hire us.”
Pretty narrowed her eyes. “Well, maybe it’s about time that changed.”
“That’s easier said than done.”
“And that means there’s no point trying?” Pretty stopped again and turned to face him with that familiar defiant light coming back into her eyes. “Everyone told me a girl couldn’t become a driver, but here I am. There’s nothing stopping you from doing the same thing. It doesn’t matter what sorts of jobs fairies are supposed to have. There’s plenty of other work in the city. You just have to make them take you seriously.”
“I suppose.” Denny’s insides twisted uncomfortably as he started walking again, with Pretty keeping pace. Part of him was excited at the idea of breaking the rules and making his own place in the world. But it was hard to believe it was possible. Pretty made it look easy, but she was one of those people who just — made things work for her, somehow, no matter how the humans tried to keep her down.
Denny was different. He wasn’t good at much of anything. He’d learned not to feel resentful about that, but he couldn’t avoid the truth of it. He was average at best, and average people didn’t change the world: they just got by as well as they could. He’d be happy if he could simply find a job he was good at and earn enough to keep a roof over his head. And maybe over Pretty’s head, too, eventually. And maybe even a family. It wasn’t greedy of him to want a job that could provide for a wife and a few children, was it?
“Look, there’s a newspaper.” Pretty pointed at a discarded paper caught in the gutter, then let go of Denny’s arm and darted over to pick it up. She shook it out as she fell back into step beside him. “Here, let’s look at the job listings. There’s sure to be something for you. How about this?”
Denny leaned over to look at the advertisement, his lips moving as he sounded out the words. Like Pretty, he’d learned to read at the neighborhood charity school, but he’d started working a lot younger than her, so he’d never gotten past the basics. He could muddle through the newspaper, but it was slow going.
“Fairies would make perfectly good bellhops,” Pretty said. “Even without much magic, you can carry more luggage than a human and run messages around the hotel more quickly. And what about this one? Anybody can check inventory in a warehouse.”
“I’m not sure I read well enough for that,” Denny pointed out.
“Well, it can’t hurt to try.”
He hesitated, then nodded. She was right. He had to try. Hadn’t he just assured her he wouldn’t give up? He couldn’t go to the factories, not unless it was the very last option. Maybe not even then. He pulled the job listings page out of the damp newspaper and folded it into his pocket.
They slowed as they reached Pretty’s workplace, an ordinary-looking brick building with a sign reading “Royal Investigative Service.” She’d managed to find not one but two good jobs, driving for the investigators during the day and packing deliveries for a grocery store in the evenings. If she could do it, surely Denny could too, even if he wasn’t as talented as her.
Pretty gave him a quick smile and a squeeze of his hand. “Everything’s going to work out. You’ll see.”
When she said it, Denny could just about believe it.