science fiction and fantasy writer

Apricot Finds a Treasure

Apricot peered into the basket of the float trap. Dim light filtered down the storm chute, through level upon level from Up High. Leaning over the open trap, he turned the sodden mass inside the basket with a gloved finger to see what might be underneath.

Something metal clunked against the bars. Apricot grunted in satisfaction. He stood back, brushing debris from the object and holding it up for examination. It was a key, round-barreled, with a projecting square tooth and an ornate, flat grip of overlapping wire loops.

“Like a flower,” he said to himself. Or at least, like the endlessly repeated line-drawings of flowers in his sketchpads. Less like the real ones he recalled, open wide to the sun and swaying in the breeze, from his trip to Black Rock. He felt a sharp pang of loss and longing, remembering.

Apricot turned the key over and blew gently along its length. Etched lines on the key’s barrel and tooth lit up red. His eyes widened. Up High tech, still live. A treasure, indeed.

He lifted the flap of his satchel, then paused. A treasure like this would fetch a good price – good enough to be worth the risk of finding a black-market buyer instead. He slipped the key into the inside pocket of his vest, instead.

“Might even have the courage to try,” he told himself.

“Ah well,” he replied, “can show the kids, anyway.” The look on their faces when he lit it up would be price enough.

Humming, he rummaged through the rest of the debris more thoroughly, turning up a few lesser trinkets: a wire comb with all its teeth; a necklace of shells from Out Side, somewhat chipped; coloured plastic coins from the Tweens; and a brass-and-iron one from Up High. A good haul, all up, even without the key.

Apricot dropped the collection into his satchel and upended the remaining organic mess in the basket down the storm chute. He listened, as he usually did, for the elusive splash, but heard only the shush and rumble of the waves swirling around the city pylons far below. A very good haul. With a happy grunt, he slotted the trap back in place and closed the chute hatch.

Darkness was abrupt. He waited a few heartbeats for his eyes to adjust, then continued along the run to the next trap, ducking to avoid low bulkheads and pipes.

#

The scent caught his attention first, faint and not readily identified, out of place in the dank confines of the trap runs. Apricot turned, seeking the source, and felt a brush of cooler, fresher air. He listened, holding his breath, and heard the slow drip-drip from a leaking duct close by, the distant murmur through the floor of the sea below. Something scuttled on tiny feet. A far-off clang was another trap monkey, working his run. No sound out of place, just the scent.

Intrigued, Apricot followed the waft of foreign air. It led him away from the run, along an access tunnel for the ventilation ducts, message chutes and gas, water and sewage pipes that were also his responsibility. His boots clomped hollowly on metal grill.

Something lay ahead, an untidy bundle on the floor, folds of pale fabric bound to a crumpled, flattened frame of some kind. A ceiling panel was twisted beneath it, a dark rectangular hole above. Apricot peered upwards, saw more holes, up through three more levels of gantries to the top of his run. Cool air washed down over him, and with it the tang of better ventilated workspaces in the Downs.

“Must’ve been rusted bolts,” he said. “Been meaning to get to that. And who the hell’s been dumping in my run, anyway?” 

He looked down.

Yah!

He jumped backwards, cracking his head against a pipe. His shoulders hit the wall. He leaned there, one hand over his clattering heart. Not something – someone.

He felt the hard lump of the key in his vest pocket, beneath his palm. Apricot gripped it tightly, then pushed himself off the wall and leaned over the fallen body, rubbing his bumped skull.

It was a woman, lying on her side. The bundled cloth and frame was some sort of folded-down structure she’d been carrying on her back. She had straight black hair, cut level with her jaw, that fell across her face. There was a splash of blood on her temple. Her eyes were closed.

Apricot bent over further, twisting his neck to see her face right way up. He began to reach out, paused to take off his filthy gloves and tuck them into his belt, then softly brushed back the veil of hair. Her face was round, with full lips and a flared, round-tipped nose, eyes wide-set under thick black brows. He could see the edges of a dark bruise, covering the cheek that lay against the floor. Her skin was a different shade to his, somewhat darker, and less pink.

“Skin that sees the sun,” Apricot told himself.

She stirred, shifting position, but didn’t open her eyes. A pulse fluttered in her neck.

Apricot leaned back, biting his lip.

He’d have to move her, should check for anything broken first. He bent again to look at the bundle on her back, thinking to remove it. He pulled gently at the frame, following the straps that bound it, looking for where they were buckled onto her. He frowned. Two ends of the frame disappeared inside the back of her smock, high on her back. He followed one with his fingers, found a hard, fist-sized nub inside her clothing, traced the prominent ribbing that radiated from it.

His eyebrows rose in surprise. “What in the world is a flier doing down here?”

Her eyes had opened. She was watching him.

For what seemed like several minutes, he did nothing but stare back, amazed by the darkness of her irises, nearly as black as her hair. The white of her right eye was blotted red, encroached by the edge of the bruise on her cheek.

She opened her mouth, took in a little gasp of air, as though to speak.

Her teeth looked white and healthy, but her top incisors were sharply crooked. Apricot was surprised. He had always imagined that Up High people had perfect teeth.

Her chin wrinkled.

“Where…” she trailed off, then gathered herself to try again. “Am I in the Downs?”

Apricot wondered if the throatiness of her voice was normal, or a result of shock.

He tried a smile, could feel that it came out crooked. “The Downs are up there,” he said, pointing. “You’re in Bottom. If you’d gone through one more level you’d have been Underside and falling into the sea. Not that you could have,” he continued quickly, as her eyes widened. “One-inch plate under where you landed.”

She stared at him, eyes huge.

Apricot cleared his throat.

“It’s alright,” he said. “I’ll help you.”

#

She had hurt her ankle in the fall, a sprain or worse, and couldn’t put any weight on it. Apricot had to support her with one of her arms over his shoulders, his arm around her waist, while she hopped. She was shorter than him, short enough to walk upright in the tunnels. Apricot needed to hunch right over, knees bent, as they went. He was acutely aware of the heat that radiated from her, of the smallness of her waist where the reinforced ribbing for her wings ended, and the flair of her hips below. His hold around her middle pulled her robe tight across her bust.

Fortunately, they only had to go up one level to reach the little nook of a tearoom where Apricot took most of his breaks and made his meals on workdays. He wasn’t sure where to put his hands to help push her up the ladder. In the end he settled for the backs of her thighs, just above her knees, and let go quickly whenever she rested her weight on her good foot to shift her hands.

At last they reached the tearoom, with its narrow cold-water basin, tiny coal-brick stove, single hard stool and square table just large enough for a plate and cup at once, on a bracket on the wall. Apricot had moved the bracket over, closer to the washbasin and part blocking the door to the head, so that he could shoehorn in the torn and sagging armchair at the other end, behind the stove. Higher on the walls, he had put in shelves for crockery, books and tools.

He manoeuvred the flier into the armchair. She sat awkwardly, on one hip and with her uninjured leg tucked beneath the other, so that her bound wings could hang over the side. Her injured foot she set down gingerly on the floor, wincing. There was blood on both her sleeves, more near the hem of her robe.

One generosity the tiny space did have was in height, the ceiling only just within reach of Apricot’s fingertips. He stretched for a moment, arms by his sides and pulling his chin in and neck up, before dropping back into the habitual stoop that Din used to say made him smaller than he was.

The flier watched him with an intensity he found difficult to bear. The bruise on the right side of her face was a livid purple.

Flustered, he turned his back and bustled about. “I’ve got a medical box, we’ll get your boot off and have a look at your foot,” he said, getting the box down from its shelf. “You could probably use a hot drink, I’ve got miso, I’ll put the kettle on,” he added, lighting the stove and setting the kettle over the flame.

His sketchbook lay open on the table. Apricot felt his face heat, even though she couldn’t possibly see the pages from where she sat. He closed the book and put it up on the shelf with its fellows.

“Let’s get you patched up.”

She watched in silence while he painted her gashed forearms, hands and shin with iodine and bandaged them. He was amazed by the smoothness of her skin, struck by the contrast between her small hands and his own hairy, big-veined paws, with their scarred knuckles and bitten nails.

The kettle started to whistle and he rose to get it.

“You’re very gentle,” she said.

He felt his cheeks heating again, concentrated on stirring miso paste into a cup of hot water. He left the cup on the table.”What’s your name?” she said, as he knelt back in front of her.

He kept his head down, lifted her injured foot to carefully unpick the laces of her boot. “Apricot.”

“Apricot?” He could hear the laugh in her voice.

“It’s a stone fruit,” he said. “It has orange flesh around a hard stone in the middle.” He stopped, feeling foolish. Of course she’d know that, being from Up High. “My mother loved Up High things,” he mumbled. “She always said the dried fruit we get in the Downs wasn’t a patch on the fresh stuff.”

“I’m Alba.”

He heard the sharp suck of breath as he slipped the boot off her foot. “Sorry.”

She turned her ankle slowly, flexed her toes. “I don’t think it’s broken. It just hurts.” She gasped again as he felt around the joint. He’d expected her foot to be elegant. It was small, but flat-arched and wide, with stubby toes.

“Not dislocated, either,” he said. “A sprain. I’ll bind it up. It’ll help a bit.” He unwound the end of a pressure bandage.

She held herself tensely as he worked. The tension found its way into her voice when she said, “Sometimes I get called Peanut.”

Apricot looked up. Her expression was strained, teeth gritted. “Peanut?”

“It’s a…”

“I know what it is,” he said, and regretted the sharpness in his tone. “It grows on a vine, a hard shell with two nuts in it that rattle.”

“Have you ever seen one?”

He nodded. “We grow them down here.”

Bandage fixed, he perched on the stool by the table and handed her the hot cup of soup. She clasped it in both hands. Peanut, he thought. A food cheap enough to be readily available in the Downs. He had trouble reconciling the name with the exotic creature seated in front of him. He wondered if Alba was the name her mother had given her or one she had chosen herself. Alba, albatross. He imagined her soaring like one, with her white wings and white robe.

“What brought you down here, anyway?”

She looked like she was about to cry. “I dropped my key. It went down a drain.”

Apricot’s pulse jumped. He felt his face heat and sat very still, hoping she wouldn’t notice.

“I’d heard that there are catchers in the Downs,” she went on, “before the drains empty into the sea.”

The key burned guiltily against his chest, inside his vest. His voice came out hoarse. “What’s it for?”

Instead of answering, Alba put down her cup. She undid a button of her robe and opened it enough for him to see the brass panel secured to her chest, to the right of her sternum. It had a keyhole in its centre.

“I can’t fly without it,” she said.

He blinked as she re-buttoned the robe.

“Are there?” she asked. “Catchers?”

“Yeah.” Apricot’s thoughts lurched unsteadily about. “It’s part of my job to keep the traps clean.”

“Have you…”

“No,” he said quickly, to the sudden hope that lit her face. He felt awful immediately, as her face fell, but couldn’t take the word back. “I’ll look for it.”

He took out his pocket watch and, having done so, felt embarrassed for her to see it – saw it not as a precious heirloom, but just another piece of Downer junk, that didn’t keep time and with three-and-a-half lifetimes of scratches and dents on its casing. Automatically, he estimated how many minutes it would have lost since he wound and set it at breakfast. He stood.

“Look, I need to go. Kids will be done at school soon and…” He faltered. It wasn’t even his day for them. “They might need me, anyway. There’s paste for miso, dry biscuits, dry kelp,” he said, getting them down from the shelf. “Enough to see you through. I’ll bring more food in the morning. Water from the tap’s safe to drink. Head’s through here.” He rapped that door with his knuckles.

She stared at him, wide-eyed again, while he gathered his things and reached to open the door. “Take me with you.”

His hand started to lift to his vest pocket. He stopped it. He had a vision of Din bringing the kids around and finding Alba there, reporting her presence out of spite…

“It’s dangerous for you out in the Downs,” he said. “Up High kids come down slumming, they get kidnapped and ransomed. Sometimes it’s official.” Which was all truth, just not the whole truth. “You’ll be safe here.”

“How do I know you won’t try and ransom me?” she said.

Apricot paused, his hand on the latch. She looked tiny, curled in his chair, alone and vulnerable.

“I won’t.”

#

The message chute was empty when he got home. Sometimes there was a capsule there, a peremptory note from Din inside, telling him to come and get the kids, she needed to go out. Some days Geara and Willo just turned up at his front door, bags packed for the night.

He dropped his grimy overalls and showered with the pumproom door open, just in case there was a knock outside. He made dinner, cutting up enough for three, but only cooked a serve for one. He ate alone, listening to the soft gurgle of plumbing in the walls, the whoosh of air ducts above, the faint, homely sounds from the apartments all about. The old pendulum clock on the mantle ticked loudly.

Every so often, he glanced over at the message chute, but no paper capsule dropped down from the vacuum pipe.

The key sat on the table in front of him. He picked it up, turning it between his fingers, blew on it and watched it glow. He imagined it lighting up inside Alba’s chest, bringing to life the Up High tech that turned the apparatus on her back into wings. Then he imagined the buttons on the front of her robe, coming all the way undone.

“Maybe it isn’t hers,” he said.

“Of course it is.”

“Why didn’t I give it to her?” he asked himself.

“It’s worth more to me than her. She can always buy another one, Up High.”

“Are you really going to sell it?”

“I don’t want her to fly away,” he blurted.

“Why not?”

The answer was all around him. He shied away from it.

#

Apricot paused to knock on the door of the tearoom before sliding it open.

“Hello?”

The chair was empty. His smile froze on his face. His chest constricted painfully. One of his sketchbooks lay open on the table. The exposed picture was of a woman, seated demurely, but nude, a fantasy. Apricot felt the heat rise up his face. His breath came shallowly. He half-dropped, half-put his bag of food on the floor.

“Hello?” His voice squeaked over the word. Cautiously, tapping on the door first with his fingertips, he checked the head. Empty.

He pressed the heels of his hands to his temples. Where could she have gone? Had someone found her, taken her?

“No,” he said. No, because he couldn’t accept that.

Perhaps she went looking for her key. She couldn’t even walk. How far could she have gone?

“Not far,” he told himself. “Not far.”

He burst back out into the tunnel, dashed in the direction of the trap run. His boots thumped and shook the floor panels. He slid down the side rails of the ladder to the traps level.

Alba was nowhere in sight when he reached the run. Biting his lip, he peered in both directions, eyes adjusting quickly to the deeper dark. Almost crying in frustration, he chose left. He had taken only a few paces when he heard her voice behind him.

“Apricot?”

“Alba!” He turned and dashed in the opposite direction.

She was sitting against the wall, tucked behind a warm bank of ducts, her back propped against the bundle of her wings. Her injured leg stretched sideways across the tunnel.

“I thought you’d been taken,” he said.

She tipped her head back to look blindly up at him, and he could see that she had been crying. “I was looking for my key,” she said. “But I don’t know where the catchers are.” Her voice caught. “I can hardly even see down here. Hell, I don’t even really know where I am.”

Apricot put his back against the opposite wall and slid down. His hand twitched towards his vest pocket, where the key was nestled once more. He stopped himself. “You’re four levels down and a couple of hundred yards from where you fell in from the Downs, that way,” he said, pointing.

She shook her head, with a breath of bitter laughter.

“How did you drop your key down a drain?” he asked.

A shrug, then another short laugh. “I was walking,” she said. “Going between parties. I was looking in my bag, I don’t even remember for what, and the key fell out. And I watched it hit, and bounce once, straight into a storm drain.”

“Why were you carrying your key in a bag?”

“Because you have to take it out for your wings to fold,” she said. “Can’t fly in among the towers. So, here I am, no key, a twisted ankle, sitting in a dark tunnel with a Downer man I don’t know.”

Going between parties. The frivolousness of it was utterly alien. He felt the distance between them gape like the void between the bottom of the city and the sea below.

“You drew those pictures?” she said. “In the books in your room? They’re beautiful.”

Apricot clenched his fists in his lap, digging his nails into his palms.

Alba peered him as he remained silent, her eyes darting about, trying to pick out his expression. She wet her lips. “They’re private,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

With a slow breath, he released the tension in his hands. “It’s okay.”

He let his eyes run over her, lingering, feeling guilty and a coward, when she couldn’t see him doing it.

“I need to get outside,” she said. He raised his eyes back to her face, hearing the catch again in her voice. “Can we?”

“Um…” He blinked. “How far can you walk?”

“I crawled to get here,” she said. “I’ll need help.”

“Okay. Come on.” He stood, offering his hand to pull her up, feeling a tingle up his arm at the skin contact. “This way. It’s not far, but you’ll have to get down a ladder.”

 “I can do that.”

He took her back out of the run, into the better-lit corridors, past the ladder up to the tearoom and along a little way further, then led her down a short side tunnel. Alba leaned against the wall while he unbolted a service hatch in the floor.

“Down here,” he said, sitting on the edge of the open ladder well.

Apricot went down first, the blue tongues of the automatic gas lights flickering on below. He waited at the bottom to help her down the last few rungs, trying not to touch her too obviously more than was necessary. Alba was breathing heavily. Apricot was acutely conscious of her closeness in the small space. She looked up at him gravely. Knowing.

He squeezed past her to wind the door bolts, felt her brush against his back. He pushed open the door with relief. A blast of cold, damp air assaulted them, loaded with rotting kelp, coal smoke and sewage stink.

Alba gagged and covered her mouth and nose with her sleeve.

“You get used to it,” Apricot said. “Come on.”

They stepped out onto a narrow metal gantry.

“Underside,” he announced.

“Oh.”

Above them spread the dark rusted plain of iron plates that was the city’s underbelly. Daylight, out beyond the city’s edge, peeked around the titanic pillars on which it stood.

“Look down,” said Apricot.

Alba peered over the gantry railing. She gasped. Below, the hulls, masts and funnels of coal barges and tankers, container ships, trawlers and tugboats were outlined with chains of coloured lanterns.

Apricot lowered himself to sit, legs dangling over the edge, armpits hooked over the bottom safety rail. After a moment, Alba copied him. She grinned, suddenly, surprising him, her crooked teeth emphasising the childlike delight of the expression. Apricot smiled back, then watched her, caught by the unguarded wonder on her face as she followed the movements of the vessels below.

“You can get right down to the water from here,” he said. “One of my jobs is to check the pylons over every now and then for cracks. I’ve got this one and another two on my run.” He pointed them out.

She didn’t respond immediately, then, “Have you ever thought of getting on one of those ships?”

Apricot peered downwards. “Went out on a trawler, one time, to try my hand at prawning. Spent my whole time head down over the side.”

Alba laughed. She shifted, adjusting her bound wings so that she could sit more comfortably.

“Why have a key at all?” Apricot asked.

“Because that’s how they come,” she said. “It’s the law. You have to have a key so they can take it away.”

He was surprised, then reflected that he had no cause to be. “Why don’t you just buy another?”

She snorted. “Because they cost five hundred marks to replace. I don’t have that kind of money to throw away if there’s a chance I can find my old key.”

Five hundred. Apricot hoped that she couldn’t see the redness of his face in the shadows. He realised he was looking straight at her chest, and glanced hurriedly away. “Really?” he said.

“Just because I come from Up High, doesn’t mean I’m rich,” she said. “Most fliers aren’t, you know.”

“I didn’t,” he said. Five hundred marks was almost a year’s wages for him. Just having that much money, all at once to spend on whatever you liked, seemed too rich to imagine.

You do have that much, he told himself. It’s in your pocket.

“What would it be worth, down here?”

The question made him jump. “What?”

“There’s a market for Up High stuff in the Downs, isn’t there? What would my key be worth?”

He could feel her stare like a physical pressure. He kept his eyes on the boats below. “I don’t know,” he said. He affected a shrug. “Maybe the same as Up High, if you had a buyer in the Tweens.”

She was quiet again, for a time, then said, “What I meant, before, was do you ever think of getting on one of those ships and going where it goes?”

It was all he could do not to sag with relief. “Have you ever?” he asked. “Been out of the city?”

As soon as he said it, he thought it was a foolish question, with wings on her back to take her anywhere in the world.

But she shook her head. “No. Sometimes I imagine flying out and not turning around, just keeping going until I find somewhere else.”

Apricot remembered the elation of doing just that, remembered his chest full to bursting as he looked down at the shadow of the blimp on the waves, far below.

“Somewhere else is not so much different from here,” he said.

Now it was her turn to be surprised. “You have been?”

Apricot shrugged, one-shouldered.

“The people are different,” she said.

“But you still have to take yourself,” he countered.

“No,” Alba shook her head. “You can be someone different, if no-one knows you.” She studied his face. “Where did you go?”

He studied his hands. “To Black Rock a few years ago.”

“Really? What for?”

He smiled lopsidedly. “I won a painting contest. The prize was to study art in Black Rock. Flew there on the blimp.”

Her face was alive with interest. “What was it like?”

He shrugged, with both shoulders this time. “Levels, same as here. Rich on top, poor at the bottom. Same language, same troubles, same food.”

“But Out Side?”

“Rock,” he said. “Black rock, like the name says.” It was the kind of answer he would’ve given Din, shutting the conversation down before it exposed anything vulnerable in him. He puffed his cheeks. “No, that’s not true. They have wetlands, Out Side, that they filter their wastewater through. They’ve turned it into a park, with canals. It has trees, grass – flowers in spring and summer. Birds and butterflies.”

“Sounds beautiful.”

“I spent a lot of time painting and drawing there. My eyes got used to the light. I could take my goggles off by the end.” He showed her a rueful grin. “Paying for it now, though. Got a couple of black spots that’ll never go.”

“Why did you come back?”

Why did I? He put his chin on his hands, kicked his feet in empty air. “It was a fantasy, not real life.”

“Couldn’t it have been real life?”

“Can’t make a living out of painting.”

“Does it matter?”

He frowned. “Well, Din was here…”

“Couldn’t you have gone back? Taken her there?”

He felt himself freeze, the muscles of his face go slack, blanking his expression, the way it always happened when Din was into him. Alba watched him intently.

“She wouldn’t let you go,” she said. “Wouldn’t let go of you.”

He whispered, “No.”

“And you met someone there,” she said. Hearing someone else say it aloud almost made him cry.

He nodded, no longer seeing the city pylons, the ships below.

“Have you ever seen her again?”

“No.” More words queued up. Apricot debated whether to let them out, relented. “I started to paint a picture, to send to her. It was the two of us sitting under a willow tree.”

“I saw the sketch,” Alba said. “But you never sent it?”

“No. Never even finished it.”

“Do you regret having come back?”

“Well, Din and me didn’t work out,” he said. He shook his head, emphatically. “But no. How could I? That’d be regretting my kids.”

“Do you still paint?”

“No.”

“You shouldn’t let that die in you.”

He snorted. “Got no time for it, anymore,” he said, pushing himself back from the rail and getting his feet under him. “Haven’t had for a long time. Come on, I’d better take you back. I’ve got to get on and fix those panels you fell through yesterday.”

#

He deposited Alba back in the tearoom first. He watched her manoeuvre her wings past the table and stove in the tearoom, leaning to avoid the shelves, and curl up once more in the armchair. Her face was pale. The climb back up the ladder had plainly hurt a lot.

“Will you look for my key?” she asked.

“Of course,” he said, and despised himself as he looked away.

#

Geara and Willo barrelled through the apartment door.

“Daddy! Daddy!”

He leaned over their heads to peer down the corridor, his shoulders slumping as the tension went out of them. No sign of Din.

“Hello, you two,” he tousled their hair as they clung like barnacles to his legs. “It’s good to see you.”

“Is it a sleepover?” asked Willo, peering up at him.

“Not tonight,” he said. “I’ll take you back to Mummy’s after dinner.”

“I want a sleepover.”

He tried not to let the stab in his chest show in his expression. “I know.” He tugged on his son’s ear. “Sleepovers are at the end of the week. But I’ll see you again tomorrow.”

Geara detached herself. “I did a speech at school today, Daddy. I got a stamp, see.” The back of her hand was presented for his inspection, adorned with a star in blue ink. “Can I have a drink? Oo-oh, what’s this?”

She was at the table, fingers reaching for the key. Apricot lifted Willo to his hip and carried him over.

“A treasure,” he said. “I found it in the traps.”

Geara’s eyes were almost round. “Can I have it?”

He laughed and pulled out a chair to sit, hitching Willo onto his knee.

“A key,” said Willo.

“That’s right.” Apricot plucked it from Geara’s grip. “Watch,” he said.

Both of them gasped as he blew gently over its surface. Willo extended a finger to touch the glowing red lines.

“Can I have it?”

“No,” Apricot said. “This is very precious. Worth lots of marks.”

“How much marks?” Geara asked.

He sucked in air. A small part of him hated himself for needing to show off. “Maybe five hundred.”

“Five hundred!” she exclaimed. “Wow, Daddy.”

I can’t sell it, he thought. I have to give it back. “Here, you try,” he said. “Breath on it.”

#

He had just finished rinsing his breakfast things when he was startled by a hammering on the apartment door. He felt a sinking dread before he had even finished asking himself who it could be. He should never have should the kids the key.

Gripping the handle, he paused and closed his eyes for a moment, took a breath. He felt the door shake as the hammering started again. He opened it.

Din folded her arms. “What’s this I hear about a five-hundred mark treasure you’ve got to sell?”

He felt himself shutting down, blanking inside and out.

“I’m not selling anything for five hundred marks,” he said.

“Then where did the kids get that story from?” she demanded. “I suppose they made up a tale about you finding a piece of Up High tech? Do you think I’m stupid? Are you stupid? If you didn’t want me to know, then you shouldn’t have shown it off to them, should you? But you want them to feel proud that their old man’s a filthy trap monkey.”

His gaze was fixed somewhere around her knees. “I’m not selling anything for five hundred marks.”

“Don’t lie to me! I’m sick to death of you lying to me!” She glared at him, breathing loudly. “It just makes everything worse. When is that going to penetrate your thick head?”

She took a step towards him, feinted a swing and he flinched. She hit the doorframe instead, one, two, three, half-a-dozen times. There were tears in her eyes. “I see that look on your face, of nothing, of you disappearing inside, and it makes me so angry! I just want to hit it.” Her jaw worked, but she swallowed whatever words she might’ve said next. The fury seemed to drain out of her. “I wasn’t always like this. I know I wasn’t. If you’d just talked to me, years ago, we would never have come to this.”

She watched him, waiting for an answer. Apricot stared at her knees. There were no words inside him.

“Don’t lie to me,” she said, her voice breaking. “Whatever you get for it, I’m entitled to half.”

He listened to the sound of her walking away.

The key was in his pocket. The hard shape of it pressed against his chest with every breath.

#

Alba jumped when he burst into the tearoom.

“What’s happened?” she asked.

Apricot inhaled deeply, standing up straight.

“Din came round.” He had thought his resolution had steeled him, but his voice quavered. “She wanted money. She pretended to take a swing at me. Hit the wall instead.” He mimed the flurry of blows.

Alba watched him from the chair while he leaned against the wall. Almost, the tears came.

After a while, she said, “Have you ever seen an apricot?”

Confused, he shook his head.

“Its flesh is soft and easily bruised, but the stone at the centre, you can’t break.”

He had to laugh. It came out as half a sob. He took the key out of his pocket and offered it to her.

Her eyes widened, she lurched up from the seat. “My key!” She clutched it to her. “You found it!”

“I found it right before I found you,” he said.

He was surprised when she laid her palm against his cheek. He looked into the darkness of her eyes.

“You knew.”

“I wondered.”

How afraid must she have been? He had to look away. “It’s not fair, saying Did wouldn’t let me go,” he said. “She wanted to keep me here. But it was my choice to make.” The thoughts were clear in his head, but they blocked up in his throat when the tried to say them. It took a moment more for him to be able to go on. “I think there wasn’t a right or wrong choice. Just choices.”

She waited, making sure he was done, then said, “And yet you kept me here.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you,” she said.

He made himself meet her eyes. “Come on. I’ll take you Out Side.”

#

He pushed the access hatch ajar. Squinting in the bright sliver of sunlight, he pulled on his tinted day goggles, then shoved the hatch wide and stepped Out Side.

The wind buffeted him. Seagulls launched themselves, squawking, from the rail-less, guano-spattered deck. A trio of pelicans sized him up with eyes as blank as poached eggs, before sullenly following the gulls. Apricot held onto the frame of the navigation beacon, one of the four on the outer edge of his run.

Alba gave a little cry, stepping through the hatch after him. Her hands went up in front of her, feeling the wind. She threw her head back, eyes closed, as it tossed her hair about.

Apricot looked up. The vertiginous iron wall of Out Side filled half his view, dotted with maintenance decks and winch gantries and, from the upper Tweens, caged viewing galleries. Above it, higher than the gulls and the pelicans, other fliers soared, circling and swooping. Far, far beyond Apricot’s reach.

He imagined Alba up there with them, one of them. Imagined her looking down, and seeing him as nothing but a speck, too far down and tiny to notice.

“Help me untie these,” Alba said, scrabbling for the bindings on her wings.

Apricot stooped to undo the lower straps while she reached over her shoulders to unbuckle those at the top. She shook the wings out, knocking his shoulder. Apricot ducked back out of the way as she caught hold of the frames and spread her arms.

The wind caught the fabric of the wings and lifted them wider still. Alba let go of the frames and limped toward the edge of the deck. The wings flapped and shuddered on the breeze, whatever tension and rigidity they should have possessed sadly absent. She stumbled as they knocked her off balance, but kept walking.

Apricot thought for a terrible instant that she intended to fling herself over the edge. But she stopped just short and stood, the great wings flopping uselessly behind her. She looked out, then up.

For a long time she stayed there. When she turned back to him, her face was streaked with tears.

She lifted her hands, undid the third button of her robe. She slotted the key into the lock, turned it, and hinged the petal grip to lie flat over her sternum. She re-buttoned her robe, and Apricot could see the glowing flower shape through the cloth. Her wings steadied, their shape firmed, guiding the wind over their curved surfaces.

Seeming almost to float over the deck, she came back to him. The energy around her wings prickled Apricot’s skin and stood his hair up on his scalp.

“I won’t forget you, Apricot,” she said. Her fingers slipped round to the back of his neck. She pulled his head down and kissed him firmly on the lips.

With a laugh at his stunned expression, she stepped back. She took another step backwards, holding his gaze. One more, and then she turned and hop-ran for the edge, launching herself into the air with a whoop.

She turned, rising, and waved as she soared overhead, skimming the wall. Apricot raised his hand in response, fingers curling uncertainly.

He watched her ride the updraft, higher and higher, until she was just one speck among the rest. Then he lost track of her, couldn’t tell which one she was, and she was gone.

He let his hand fall back to his side, and lowered his gaze.

The sea was blue and glittering. The surface of the water looked like the bright rippling skin of some world-spanning beast. Solid enough to walk on until it decided to suck you down and find out what you were.

He thought of walking straight ahead, leaning out onto the wind, falling, sinking, nothing. He stood with the feeling in him, unmoving.

Eventually, he lifted his goggles and wiped his eyes.

He set them back in place. “As if you ever would,” he said.

He looked up again. A vast silver blimp nosed its way past the city’s edge, propellers spinning lazily. The fliers scattered, then swarmed around it, over and under, crowding alongside its gondola. Apricot remembered standing inside those windows, his hands pressed to the glass, too amazed to wave back at the incredible beings leaning on the wind on the other side.

He watched the blimp sail away, to Black Rock or elsewhere, until it was no more than a silver pinprick in the sky.

#

He took the kids back there, a few days later.

“Wow!”

Apricot grabbed them as they both lunged out through the hatchway. He held them close, back near the wall.

“Stay away from the edge,” he said. “The wind could tip you over.” They stilled, stopped straining under his hands. “Look up.”

Fliers circled overhead.

“Birds!” cried Willo, trying to take off his goggles.

Apricot pulled his hands away. “Leave them.”

“They’re people!” said Geara.

“Are they people, Daddy?”

Apricot crouched between them. “Yes, they are. People with wings. They have a key, like the one I found, that they put in their chest to make the wings work.”

“Like the one you found?” asked Geara. “Was it a flying person’s key?”

His eyes felt hot. “Yes, it was.”

“What did you do with it?”

“I found the flier, and gave it to her,” he said, “and she flew away.”

Geara’s mouth was an ‘O’ of amazement. Her goggles made her look cross-eyed. “Did you meet a flier? What was she like?”

Like an angel, he almost said. But that wasn’t true. She was just a person, like anyone, like him, who made stupid mistakes and had a mistaken view of the world. “She was nice,” he said. “She was brave.”

“Did she fly with her wings?” Willo wanted to know.

Geara wrinkled her nose, squinting up at the wheeling specks against blue above. “I’d like to be a flier. I’d fly wherever I want.”

Apricot stood. He tousled her hair. “That sounds like a grand idea.”

She grinned.

“I got some paints,” he said. “You two want to do some painting with me?

“Can you paint, Daddy?”

“Yes, I can. Do you want to?”

“Yes!”

“Let’s go home, then.”

He herded them ahead of him. Once more, briefly, he looked up, before he pulled the hatch shut behind him.

<END>

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