Angels and Kings is where you come when you’ve nowhere else to go. This is where the lost, the damned, the huddled masses are washed up. Angels and Kings is the refuge, the gentle shoreline of Chicago’s unforgiving sea.
There are no angels here and America has given up on kings. There is only the curl of smoke from a pair of lips, the sharp sound of a trumpet, the lingering smell of moonshine.
Angels and Kings is where you come when nowhere else will take you. When you’re different, when you’re out of your mind, when you want the unattainable. This is the place to be among your own kind. This is a place to be.
It is 1926 and the devil is in the drink.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Cora owns this stage. She makes the punters eat out of her beautiful palm and drink out of Pete’s carefully boozed-up bar and they fucking like it. She shimmies and shakes and blinks his best bedroom eyes through the haze of cigarette smoke and the ever present smell of moonshine.
He’s Brendon when he walks into the changing room, when he stumbles out of his civilian clothes and slips into her clothes. He’s Brendon when he puts his make up on, still Brendon when he runs through vocal exercises, pitching his voice so that it hits the higher register. He’s Brendon until the exact moment he steps out onto the stage, the smell of booze and cigarettes and people hitting him hard in the face.
The minute the stage lights hit him, he’s Cora. Brendon is Cora. Brendon ceases to exist and it’s Cora that performs her heart out.
Cora Anaconda, lounge singer for infamous Pete Wentz’s even more notorious Angels and Kings. (Regular appearances on Friday and Wednesday nights, others by appointment.)
Brendon wakes to the soft, comforting sound of Spencer’s snores coming from the other bed. It’s chilly, even under the blankets, and Brendon lies perfectly still for a moment, enjoying the quiet.
Spencer snuffles and rolls over in his sleep, hanging half off his bed on the other side of the room. They share their apartment’s only bedroom, single beds pushed up against opposite walls. Brendon shared his old room with two older brothers. Spencer is a much better roommate.
They’d only been able to afford this apartment after Pete had hired Brendon to sing. Spencer had been pulling double shifts, waiting tables at Eddie’s around the corner and then tending bar at Angels and Kings, and Brendon had stocked shelves at a grocery and every week, every day, they’d slid a little closer to the bread line, to not making rent and skipping meals.
Brendon rolls himself out of bed and cracks his back, sighing. He’s working tonight, although, really, he’s never considered singing a job. He still stacks shelves at the grocery, Mondays through Thursdays, but Friday through Sunday belong to him and Cora and the thrilling pull of the stage.
“Hey, little sister, you almost ready?” Pete shouts through the dressing room door, knocking lightly.
Brendon jumps and quickly pulls his dress down the rest of the way.
“I’m decent!” He shouts. The door opens slowly and Pete sticks his head around the edge.
“Hey, little sister. Five minutes till show time, alright?” Pete smiles, showing all his teeth. Brendon smiles back and tugs on his dress.
“Yeah, almost ready. Help me with the clasps?” Brendon asks, turning around. “My arms aren’t long enough.”
Pete snorts but quickly reaches out for the back of Brendon’s dress.
“This must be new; I haven’t seen you wear it yet.” He says conversationally, starting the clasps at the bottom. Brendon nods.
“Spencer got it for me.” Brendon says quietly. “Tips were good last month.”
“Maybe I should pay Spencer more, if you’re going to get pretty new things every time he gets good tips,” Pete jokes. “There, all done.”
Pete steps away and presses at Brendon’s shoulder until he turns, the dress flaring out slightly at the bottom.
“You look beautiful, Cora.” Pete says. Brendon smiles smally and shakes his head. The time just before a show is always painful, as if Brendon’s skin is stretched too thinly over his bones. He can feel Cora just beneath the surface, waiting to get out. It’s delicate, this time between names.
“Thank you.” Brendon says. “It’s gonna be a good show”.
Pete chuckles and wraps his arms around Brendon’s shoulders.
“Of course it is, Brendon,” He says loudly, straight into Brendon’s ear.
Dallon leans his elbows against the bar, nursing what is ostensibly a neat whiskey. After over four years of bootlegging, it all tastes the same. He doesn’t mind, especially since Pete always lets him have a drink on the house when Dallon brings around his deliveries. Dallon likes to take his time with his drink, watching the show and dancing with the pretty girls who say yes.
The band on the stage plays a light jazz tune while a few couples whirl around the dance floor, kicking their toes and shaking their hips. Dallon watches the flouncing idly and sips his drink, watching the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” echoes Pete’s disembodied voice from the stage, “please welcome to the stage, your entertainment for this evening, the beautiful, the gorgeous, the best voice this side of gay Parie, the Miss Cora Anaconda!”
A bright spotlight flicks on onstage, illuminating the most beautiful girl Dallon’s ever seen. As she reaches for the microphone, her short black hair falls in front of her eyes demurely. She hasn’t even opened her mouth yet and Dallon thinks he might be in love. Her bright red dress hugs each and every one of her curves and when she steps forward, pressing her body against the microphone, the beading swishes.
The entire club’s fallen silent, the collective intake of breath of a hundred people watching Cora take the stage.
Her bright red lips part, Dallon sees a quick glimpse of white teeth and pink tongue and then she starts to sing.
Dallon forgets about his drink. He forgets about everything. It all fades away, becoming meaningless in the face of this angel’s voice. The club is gone. There’s only Cora Anaconda, illuminated by the single spotlight and shining in her red dress.
She’s the most beautiful thing Dallon’s ever seen in his life.
Pete better fucking introduce him.
Dallon stays, dancing and drinking, till the early morning when the show finishes, when the club empties and he’s stuck drying glasses with the bartender because the bartender won’t let him hang around unless he helps close up.
Pete wanders out from backstage, hands shoved deep in his trouser pockets and his shoulders rounded.
“Dallon, hey, what are you still doing here?” Pete says, approaching the bar. “Did something happen with the delivery?”
Dallon shakes his head and finishes drying the glass he’s on.
“Nothing’s wrong with the delivery, Pete.” Dallon says, grabbing another glass and starting to dry. He can be useful. Pete leans against the bar, props his chin on his hands.
“So, you’ve just suddenly gotten a hankering for drying glasses with Spencer?” Pete says, eyebrow raised.
“Actually,” Dallon concedes, trying for smooth. “I was hoping you’d introduce me to your singer.” Pete pauses and narrows his eyes at Dallon.
“Do you mean Cora? Why?” Pete says.
“Pete, you heard that voice right? That wasn’t just me? She’s amazing!” Dallon says, careful to put the glass he’s drying on the bar so that he won’t break it while gesturing.
“Cora doesn’t take backstage visitors.” The bartender says with narrowed eyes. Pete shoots him a look that Dallon can’t quite read, two parts annoyance, one part fondness. Dallon rolls his eyes.
“No backstage, just introduce me. C’mon Pete, as a favour?”
Pete takes Cora’s hand and passes it to Dallon, like they’re from fucking high society.
“Mr. Weekes, may I present to you the lovely Miss Cora Anaconda?” Pete says, aping a north shore accent. He’s got the glint in his eye that makes Dallon want to play along. He accepts Cora’s hand and sweeps into a deep bow.
“My lady,” he says melodramatically. “What a pleasure,”
Cora’s red lips twitch, her eyes glinting with amusement, and Dallon realises she’s in on the joke. She crosses her slim ankles and dips into a shallow curtsy, smirking up at Dallon through long black lashes.
“The pleasure is all mine,” she drawls throatily.
“Can I buy you a drink?” Dallon asks quickly, still holding onto her hand. Cora laughs, deep and heartily, and Dallon catches a glimpse of the colour of her lips where she hasn’t quite covered them in bright red lipstick.
“The bar’s closed,” she says, eyes glinting and then sliding to where Dallon is still holding her hand. He drops it quickly.
“Sorry, sorry,” He says, flustered, wiping his palms on his trousers. Cora’s eyes are full of laughter, but Dallon never feels like she’s laughing at him.
“C’mon,” she says, flicking her fingers in the direction of the bar. “Spencer’ll make us a drink, you don’t mind do you Spence?” She finishes by half-shouting her question out across the empty club. The bartender sighs but pulls two glasses out of the pile he’s drying.
“What ‘cha want, Cora?” The bartender, Spencer, asks. Cora wrinkles her nose and flicks the tips of her fingers dismissively as she saunters over to the bar, Dallon in her wake. Her dress swishes audibly with the sway of her hips; her heels clicking against the dance floor.
“It’s all the same Spence.” She says and leans against the bar.
“Fuck you,” Pete says too loudly, joining them at the bar. “I sell very high end booze.”
Spencer fixes him with a level stare.
“That’s a fucking lie Pete and you know it.” He deadpans.
Pete waves a hand expansively.
“Angels and Kings is the height of illegal debauchery, I’ll have you know.” He says loftily. “Now pour me a damn whiskey.”
Spencer snorts and grabs another glass, pouring four equal glasses of whiskey. Dallon reaches for his just in time to watch Cora and Spencer throw theirs back in single gulps. Cora’s lips leave soft red marks on the edge of her glass.
“Fuck, I needed that,” she says, reaching up to wipe her mouth. She has to stop herself, obviously remembering she’ll muss her makeup.
“See, told you my booze was good,” Pete says, sipping at his drink. Spencer rolls his eyes and begins to wipe his own glass.
“Of course your booze is good,” Dallon says, holding his drink. “I fucking deliver it, don’t I?”
Cora turns at the bar and gazes at him through hooded eyes.
“So you’re who we have to blame?” She jokes. Dallon smiles back at her.
“I don’t make it, I just move it about a bit,” He says, holding his hands up. Cora smirks but lifts her hand to her mouth and feigns shock.
“Oh my, Pete, I do believe you’ve introduced me to a criminal!” She says, laughing with her eyes.
Pete snorts and gestures for another drink from Spencer.
“Cora Anaconda, you’ve sung to more crooks and mobsters in here than there are stars in the sky.” He says, swigging his whiskey. “I feel like you can tolerate a down on his luck rum runner.”
“Hey,” Dallon says. “I object to that. My luck is perfectly fine.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Dallon catches Spencer rolling his eyes but Cora smiles, small and sweetly.
Pete passes his glass across the bar and Dallon knocks back the last of his whiskey, before passing his over as well.
“I’ll clean up, Spence,” Pete says, when Spencer takes both glasses wearily. “Walk Cora home, it’s late.”
“C’mon Spence, let’s go home,” Cora says gently, laying her hands on the bar. “We’re both exhausted.”
“Pete’ll mess up the bar,” Spencer says, obviously seconds away from caving. Pete waves a hand airily.
“Go get your stuff Spence, I promise not to mess up your organisational systems. I know how to tend my own bar. ” Pete says. Spencer makes a noise that sounds suspiciously like “hurrumph”.
“I’ll get your stuff Cora,” he says, turning to leave the bar untended.
“I’ll walk you to the door,” Dallon offers quickly, when Spencer steps out of the club floor.
Dallon hangs his coat over his left arm and offers his right to Cora. She smiles sultrily, and takes it, the tips of her finger just delicately curved around his arm.
“Cora Anaconda, that can’t be your real name,” Dallon says teasingly when they pause at the door to wait for Spencer. Cora starts suddenly, her hand falling away from Dallon as she flinches.
“What makes you say that?” She says quickly, her beautiful face tensed into a frown.
“Anaconda,” Dallon repeats. “That can’t be your real last name, can it?”
“Oh,” Cora says, her eyes cutting across the club to where Spencer is grabbing his coat from behind the bar. “I’m Smith. Cora Smith. Spencer is my brother.”
“That’s good news,” Dallon jokes, grinning. “I was worried about competition.” Cora flushes suddenly, a pink flush high on her cheekbones, and Dallon is so gone, so gone for this girl and the purse of her lips and the sound of her voice and the way she never looks at you straight on, always sideways. He’s so gone.
“No, no competition, not from Spencer,” She stutters out, blushing hard and looking at her feet.
Dallon opens his mouth to ask for her address or her phone number, if she has one, or maybe if he can see her again, but the brother interrupts.
“Cora, let’s go.” Spencer says, stepping between them brusquely to pass Cora her purse. It’s tasteful but a little boxy, like she didn’t spend a lot of money on it, and her coat’s kind of threadbare and there’s holes in the sleeves that her thumbs poke through.
“It was nice to meet you,” Cora says earnestly, over her shoulder when she takes Spencer’s offered arm. They’re almost half-way out the door before Dallon remembers he had something to ask.
“Wait, wait, when can I see you again?” He shouts.
Cora looks over her shoulder, still walking and shouts “I’ll be here tomorrow, at the bar. At midnight!”
Spencer’s angry, Brendon can tell. He’s walking a little too fast for him, especially in Cora’s shoes, and Brendon’s having to take two steps for every one of Spencer’s.
“Spencer, fuck, slow down,” Brendon says breathlessly, when he stumbles for the fourth time. Spencer makes a noise, sort of like an annoyed snort, but he does try to slow down. Brendon’s still trying to catch his breath when Spencer, rather grumpily, says “you promised me you’d be careful, Bren.”
“What, I am being careful. No one but you and Pete know,” Brendon says, stopping in his tracks. “Why, did someone find out? Did someone at the club say something?” Brendon is panicking. No one else can know about Cora. Spencer grabs Brendon’s arm and holds on.
“No, no one said anything,” Spencer says carefully, “but you and that rum runner, Bren.” Spencer trails off.
Brendon pulls his arm away from Spencer quickly, angrily.
“You’re not actually my older brother, Spencer” he snaps. “I can look after myself.”
Spencer flinches and Brendon immediately feels bad. It’s Spencer’s favourite lie; being Cora’s protective and grouchy older brother, rather than Brendon’s protective and grouchy friend.
“Brendon,” Spencer says. “Bren, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean... You can talk to whoever you want.”
“Yeah, I can,” Brendon says, still a little angry. “It was just talking Spencer.” Brendon huffs but puts his arm back in Spencer’s. Brendon doesn’t like walking home alone.
Spencer glowers darkly but confines himself to purely facial expressions of his distress.
Dallon wears his best suit with the pinstripes for dancing the next day. Angels and Kings is packed to the walls, girls and boys dancing with elbows and arms flying. Cora bops around the stage in a swishy blue number, throwing her voice all over the scale as she tries to keep up with the trumpets. Dallon can’t believe anyone has that much energy; she’s moving as fast as the kids on the floor, kicking her heels and waving her hands as she sings.
She thanks the band and everyone on the dance floor before running off sidestage, still waving goodbye sweetly as she ducks behind a curtain. The band picks up on something quick and jazzy, trumpets honking and drums thundering, and the kids on the floor start whooping and hollering and dancing all over again. Dallon downs the last of his whiskey and pulls off his suit jacket, pushing his sleeves up again. He’s starting to sweat and he hasn’t even started dancing.
He’s trying to pretend he’s not waiting for Cora
Brendon is so on tonight. He flings himself around on stage and nearly knocks over Jerry and his double bass but the kids are just throwing themselves into the songs and Brendon hits all the notes in the high part of Sweetie, Like Sweet Rag Time.
His blue dress is his favourite, just boxy enough to be fashionable but shaping enough that he doesn’t look like a guy in a dress. He looks and feels like Cora. And Cora is fucking on tonight.
Brendon comes back on stage for his last song, trying to swipe sweat off his forehead as demurely as possible. The crowd shouts and screams, mainly declarations of love or encouragement. Brendon’s no starlet, he’s not famous or anything, but he’s been singing for Pete for over a year now and most of Pete’s clientele are regulars, people who wouldn’t be welcome anywhere else.
He smiles at them, always keen to play the crowd, and then sees Dallon leaning against the bar. He’s shed his suit jacket and rolled his sleeves up to his elbows and all Brendon can see is the long, lean line of his body and Brendon wants.
“This song,” he says, when he grabs the mic, “well, I’m not going to lie to you folks, this song is about sex.”
Cora comes out from backstage laughing, and her stunning smile just lights up the room. Dallon smiles for no reason at all and drains his second drink because he wants a reason to buy one for Cora.
Everyone is shaking her hand and passing her a cigarette and trying to give her drinks. Cora’s laughing and shaking everyone’s hand and tucking the cigarette behind her ear. A guy slaps her on the back and Cora’s whole body shakes with the blow. She keeps smiling, though she’s pushing her way through more and more people, all of them pressing up against her. Dallon can see the way she’s twisting, flustered, trying to face everyone, but more people keep coming up behind her.
Dallon wades in. He’s tall enough that most people step out of the way and, when they don’t, he’s not afraid to push.
“Hey!” He says loudly, over the music of the trumpet on stage. “Hey, give the lady some space!”
A few of the dancers glare at him but he steps in behind Cora, settling a hand high on her back and helping her through the crowd. The bar’s nearly deserted and once Cora moves outside the dance floor’s press of bodies, Dallon lets his hand fall away from her back.
“I need a drink,” Cora says, gesturing to Spencer behind the bar.
“Let me get it for you,” Dallon offers, moving to stand next to her at the bar. Cora nods and waves a hand before sticking the cigarette from behind her ear into her mouth.
“Do you have a light?” She says, around it, and Dallon goes immediately to his pockets for a book of matches. He strikes one, protecting it with the curve of his hand, and Cora leans in, fingers holding the cigarette in place.
Her cheeks hollow out and she looks up at Dallon through her eyelashes. Her eyes are outlined in thin black pencil and her black hair curls around her ears. She looks beautiful and obscene all at once.
“Thanks,” she says, blowing smoke out of the side of her mouth. “For the light. And for helping me out.” She jerks her head towards the stage door and the last remnants of the crowd.
Spencer pushes a whiskey towards her and then darts off to take an order at the other end of the bar. Cora knocks the whiskey back without wincing, like it’s nothing, and then ashes straight into an ashtray left on the bar. Her cigarette has faint red marks on it where her lipstick stains the wrapper.
“You’re welcome.” Dallon says. Cora smiles at him as she takes another drag.
“It was good of you,” She says quietly. The band is working itself up into something quick and bouncy; Cora taps her foot along.
Dallon lays his coat over the bar and reaches for Cora’s free hand.
“Could I have this dance?” He says, smiling his best winning smile. Cora’s eyes flick away to Spencer and then back to him in a barely-there, split-second hesitance.
“I don’t know,” She drawls slowly. “My dance card’s pretty full tonight.” She’s already reaching to put her cigarette out.
“C’mon,” Dallon says, hand still outreached. “I’m sure you can spare one for your knight in shining armour.”
Cora smiles, her lips quirking up at the edges, and puts her hand in his.
“Well, when you put it like that,” she says and, finally, puts out her cigarette.
Brendon starts coming to Angels and Kings even when he’s not singing. Pete pays him early and Brendon blows it all on dresses from the department store.
Spencer comes with him and they pretend to be a couple. Spencer pays with Brendon’s money and Brendon is so lucky that he’s always had a friend willing to lie for him. He buys dresses in greens and yellows, in a bright white he’s never worn before. He buys stockings and a new corset that’ll hold better as he dances.
Dallon dances with Brendon, with Cora, every night. He rolls his sleeves up and leaves his suit jacket behind the bar. Him and Brendon shimmy and twist and bounce across the dance floor as fast as the music lets them. Brendon starts dozing off at his day job in the grocery, daydreaming about the pressure of Dallon's hand on his elbow as they throw each other around the dance floor.
Brendon loves to dance. He loves the way the whole world blurs as he moves, how nothing else is important. Brendon has so much energy and singing only works so much of that away.
He loves dancing as Cora, beautiful and free and shocking in her freedom. It's a miracle, a glory to God in a heathen church, to dance and sing and love as a free person.
Brendon didn’t know Dallon could play piano. He looks absurdly tall at Brendon’s piano bench on the stage piano, straight back and his knees bent comically to reach the pedals. It’s a soft song, without lyrics, something in a minor key.
Brendon smoothes his hands down the front of his dress and resists the urge to rearrange his corset. This is the first time he’ll meet Dallon in the day, the first time he’ll be Cora in a daydress.
“I didn’t know you could play piano,” Brendon says, from the wings of the stage. The quiet notes stop and Dallon twists at the waist, breaking into a huge smile when he sees Brendon.
“Hey, you came!” Dallon says happily. His smile makes Brendon feel like his corset is too tight. Dallon bends over and kisses Brendon on the cheek and Brendon wants to gasp, to faint like a lady in a novel. He wants Dallon’s hand on his waist and their fingers tangled together and Dallon’s lips on his cheek forever. “You look beautiful,” Dallon says and oh no, Brendon is so gone for this stupid, stupid man.
“You look good too,” Brendon manages, feeling himself blushing. “What did you want to do?”
Dallon blushes and looks away, but doesn’t take his hand from Brendon’s side.
“I was thinking, maybe, you’d like to come have lunch with me? Dallon says, smiling sheepishly. “If, if you want a chaperone, you can call Spencer, but there’s a cafe near the lake that makes the best coffee I’ve ever had and I, I wanted to take you there,”
Brendon ducks his head and feels Dallon’s fingers against his. He wonders what they look like; Brendon in a yellow day dress and Dallon in a pinstriped suit, their hands entwined on Brendon’s waist.
“You, you want to take me out to coffee?” Brendon stutters out, slipping his fingers between Dallon’s. This is unknown territory for him, the empty bar in the middle of the day and someone who wants more than a dance. Dallon nods and squeezes Brendon’s hand.
“Yeah, coffee,” He says, meeting Brendon’s eyes. “Coffee would be nice.”
Dallon’s eyes crinkle around the edges when he laughs, Brendon learns, and he likes to hold hands. He brings his friends to Angels and Kings when Brendon sings and takes Brendon to lunch when he’s not working. Dallon thinks Cora has a job in the city in a typing pool.
They dance together every night, but that’s less an exploration now and more of a ritual. Dallon holds his hand without asking and kisses his cheek when they see each other.
Brendon dedicates his songs to his sweetheart and the crowd groans, wishing he was single so they could have a shot. Dallon basks in the jealousy and buys Brendon presents, jewellery and flowers that he sends to Brendon’s dressing room.
Cora likes chrysanthemums, especially in yellow or pink, and gets flustered when Dallon sends them to her backstage. She likes bright colours and Parliament cigarettes but can’t always afford them. Dallon collects the little pieces of information to him and stores them away for later use. Cora likes to sing about love and means it when she dedicates songs to him.
He catches her singing randomly, when she thinks no one is listening, and she taps her fingers along to any beat. He watches her play double bass, trumpet, drums and attempt the saxophone when he watches rehearsal at Angels and Kings. He’s never been so in love with anyone before.
“Why do you keep seeing him?” Spencer asks, passing Brendon a bootlegged beer. Brendon curls more deeply into their ratty sofa and wraps his hands tightly around the beer. Dinner at home means drinks that Pete lets them take home and some of Spencer’s cooking eaten on their laps.
“What do you have against Dallon? He hasn’t done anything wrong?” He asks defensively, feelings his shoulders creep up.
Spencer sighs and scrubs a hand over his face.
“That’s not what I meant, Bren. Just, you. Why do you keep seeing him?”
Spencer flops down next to him on the sofa and Brendon immediately tucks his head under Spencer’s arm. Back home, everyone had said Brendon and Spencer were too close. When Spencer had come north to find work, Brendon had come along, despite never having finished school or having any marketable skills. Now Brendon makes more singing as Cora Anaconda than Spencer makes tending bar
“He makes me...he makes me happy, Spence.” Brendon tucks his fingers under his thighs and keeps his check against Spencer’s shoulder. “He’s funny and kind and he’s a good person.”
“He sells alcohol to mobsters.” Spencer says. Brendon snorts.
“So do you, Spencer.” Brendon sighs. “He just...he makes me feel happy. And loved. Beautiful too, he makes me feel beautiful.”
Spencer lifts his hand from around Brendon’s shoulders to play with his hair, which is blatantly unfair because Spencer knows that Brendon loves having his hair played with and Spencer should only use his powers for good.
“You’ve always been beautiful Bren.” Spencer says and it’s glorious that Spencer can say that, that he’s never seen a reason why he can’t say that. Brendon thanks his unforgiving God every single day for giving him Spencer.
“I know,” Brendon says and means it. He's so happy and at peace and he would never have dreamed, back home, that he would ever be able to believe that. “No really, I do. I just, I like being with him and he makes me happy. That’s enough right?”
“I guess so Bren, I guess so.”
Dallon has a sleek, new black Chrysler. Brendon loves it. He knows Dallon paid for it with booze money, which Brendon should feel worse about, but Dallon holds his hand sometimes when he drives and last weekend he took them to the lake and they had a picnic. Brendon had bought new shoes and worn a different coat with his second-best day dress. His old corset had dug into his hips and left bruises under his arms but it had been the happiest day of his life.
Brendon’s chosen one of his dancing dresses to join Dallon on a booze run. The beading swishes when he walks on shoes that click against the ground and the skirt is long enough that he doesn’t have to worry about how he sits. Dallon smokes, the cigarette pointed thoughtfully away from Brendon’s face, and leans up against the hood of his car nonchalantly, elbows braced behind him and one foot propped up on the runner. He looks vaguely threatening, in the sort of way that Brendon wouldn’t ask him for directions, but then Dallon turns to him and winks playfully.
“Not long now,” he says, blowing smoke of the side of his mouth. “The Italians are always on time.”
He reaches down and threads his fingers through Brendon’s, their hands brushing against the beading of Brendon’s skirt. The smoke from Dallon’s cigarette curls up into the chilly Chicago sky. The summer is ending; the air is getting cold. Brendon leans against Dallon’s arm and rests his head on his shoulder, watching the road.
A dented Model-T chugs around the corner, its engine making a few disturbing popping noises when it stops in front of them. The door swings open with a creak and Brendon squeezes Dallon’s hand. He can’t believe he’s about to witness a booze drop-off.
A small Italian, tanned and tattooed, hops out of the car and slams the door behind him. Dallon lets go of Brendon’s hand to quickly toss his cigarette to the ground. It falls in a slow arc onto the pavement and by the time it’s hit the ground, Dallon is off the car and clasping hands with the Italian.
“Weekes, my man!” The Italian says, thumping Dallon’s back. He’s about half Dallon’s size, comically small next to him, but his arms are covered in tattoos and his hair is slicked back oily, like mobsters in the pictures.
“Frank,” Dallon says, turning to smile at Brendon. “This is my girl, Cora. Be nice to her.” He’s teasing, Brendon thinks, but he reaches his hand out to Brendon to join him. Brendon likes being able to do this, to tuck himself into Dallon side and shake Frank’s tattooed hand.
“Fuck you, Weekes. Unlike some people, my mama beat some manners into me.” Frank’s accent drawls out of the side of his mouth but he smiles at Brendon and his handshake is pleasant and firm, not the limp-wrist some folks think it’s okay to give a girl. “It’s nice to meet you, Cora.”
“Nice to meet you too,” he says and Dallon puts an arm around his waist.
Brendon hasn’t been spending as much time in his street clothes. Even on days when he won’t see Dallon until their nights at the bar, he gets up early to shave and dress. He has more dresses in his tiny closet than shirts and trousers.
His work uniform from the grocery hangs over the worn chair from a garage sale that sits in the corner of the room he and Spencer share. They’re the only trousers he’s worn in nearly a month.
Brendon’s ready for a change. He loves dressing up, and he’s built his life around it but today he doesn’t want to shave his legs or his five-o-clock shadow. He’s too tired and the make up around his eyes is still smudged from last night. Dallon promised to come back stage after the show tonight but he’s working all day. Brendon’ll be fine. He can relax for the couple of hours it takes to collect his paycheck from Pete.
He throws on a shirt and a pair of pants and splashes water on his face. Spencer’s still asleep, snoring quietly in his bed, and Brendon doesn’t wake him as he rushes out the door.
Brendon can hear Pete talking in the backstage office but it’s not weird for Pete to talk himself through expenses or spend hours on the phone with Ashlee, pretending he doesn’t miss Bronx while he’s working. Brendon knocks twice on Pete’s door without thinking he might be interrupting.
“Hey, Pete, I’m here for my check, Spencer and I have to make rent this month.” Brendon says, as he pushes the door open and then stops dead in his tracks.
Dallon’s sprawled on Pete’s cramped sofa, his head tossed back in a laugh. Pete’s laughing too, his feet propped up on his desk. They’ve obviously been talking, shooting the shit, this whole time and Brendon is frozen in the doorway, his hand still on the door handle. He’s hyper-aware of how his clothes hang off him and the smudged make up still on his face. Is he recognizable? He can’t tell. Oh god, please don’t let him be recognizable.
“Brendon, oh shit,” Pete says, his feet fall off his desk when he sees Brendon. His eyes flick between him and Dallon in a split second of panic and Dallon notices, of course he notices, because Pete telegraphs every damn emotion he has on his face. The laugh that was there only a few seconds ago falls right off his face and he sits straight up, every inch of his height pulling him up.
“Cora? What the fuck?”
Brendon turns and runs. Behind him, he hears “Pete, what the fuck was that?”
Dallon lets his fingers trip up and down the piano keys aimlessly. He knows a piano. A piano is good and solid; it doesn’t go surprising you with sudden costume changes.
“You going to mope here all day or am I going to get my piano back at any point?” Pete asks from behind him. Dallon starts, fingers stumbling on the keys.
“Fuck, Pete,” He says and then lets his head fall foreword against the piano. “Fuck.”
Pete perches next to him on the piano bench but doesn’t speak. Dallon doesn’t like it when Pete is quiet. It means he’s planning something.
“Pete, why didn’t you tell me? Why did you let me fall into that and make a goddamn fool of myself,” Dallon says emphatically to the wood of the piano. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Pete swing but he doesn’t put two and two together until Pete’s fist connects with his arm.
“Ow, fuck, what was that for?” Dallon shouts, sitting up. Pete is glaring at him, honest to god pissed-the-fuck-off glaring.
“Because you fell in love, asshole. You fell in love with Brendon and you can be sorry and regret it but if you’re going to be an asshole about it, I can find someone else to run my booze for me.” Pete pauses and his face softens slightly. “You didn’t make a fool of yourself.”
Dallon rubs a hand over his face and then through his hair.
“I don’t know, Pete,” He says. “She, he, I don’t know, Cora lied to me.”
“Yeah,” Pete says sarcastically. “Because that’s a topic that’s easy to bring up in conversation. Because that’s not something you would be scared to talk about, especially with someone you cared about. Someone you loved.”
Dallon stops running his fingers up and down the piano keys.
“Cora loved me?”
“When she's not on stage, his name is Brendon.” Pete corrects. “And yeah, he loves you.”
Dallon doesn’t know how he feels, trying to reconcile every mental image of Cora he has stored in his brain and the image of the terrified boy in the doorway of Pete’s office, to reconcile Cora, who he loves, and Brendon, who he’s never met.
“Are you going to let someone like that just slip through your fingers?” Pete asks, examining his nails overly casually. Dallon stares at his hands on the piano keys, the keys he played when Cora, when Brendon listened to him.
“I don’t know Brendon.” He says.
“Bullshit,” Pete says. “Now, I’ll ask again, are you going to let someone like that just slip through your fingers?”
“Cora!” Dallon shouts, and bangs on the door again. He doesn’t care if the neighbours call the cops on him, he just wants to talk to Cora. “Cora, please, Cora, c’mon, please talk to me!”
The door to Brendon’s shitty apartment swings open between one knock and the next and Dallon nearly punches Spencer in the face by accident. He’s not impressed.
“How did you get our address?” He says, without any inflection. He’s blocking the doorway and Dallon can’t see into the apartment that he was never invited back to.
“Pete gave it to me, can I talk to Cora please?” Dallon says quickly. He doesn’t have time to deal with Spencer.
“He's not Cora right now. His name is Brendon,” Spencer says angrily. “And no, you can’t talk to him. I think you’ve done enough damage already.”
Dallon takes a step back at that.
“Wait, I’ve done enough damage? I didn’t know. It was a surprise! He surprised me!”
Spencer crosses his arms and doesn’t move away from the doorway.
“Spence,” Dallon hears from inside the apartment. “Spence, it’s okay, he can come in.”
“Cora, Brendon, is that you?” Dallon asks, stepping and trying to peer around Spencer.
“Are you sure, Bren? You don’t have to.” Spencer says, keeping his eyes trained on Dallon suspiciously.
“Yeah,” Brendon says sadly. Dallon still can’t see him. “Yeah, you can let him in.”
There’s a long moment where Dallon thinks Spencer is going to refuse, and Dallon’s going to have to keep shouting in the hall and maybe never see Brendon again.
Dallon doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but, playing over and over again in his mind is the afternoon picnic on the lake when Cora wore her green daydress with the black patent shoes and the way she sounded when she laughed. He doesn’t want to never see her again.
Spencer steps away from the door, forcing Dallon to take a step back. It’s aggressive and threatening and usually Dallon would be trying to pull on his height to force his advantage but he’s much more concerned about getting into the apartment.
“Brendon, Brendon?” Dallon says uncertainly, the name feels odd in his mouth, and then stops.
Brendon’s wearing the yellow dress he wore when they first went out for coffee. It’s undeniably Brendon. He’s not wearing makeup and his eyes are red and crusty from crying. His feet are bare and his hair’s sticking up everywhere. He doesn’t look like Cora, he looks like a guy called Brendon wearing a dress.
Dallon still wants to put his arms around him until he stops sniffling, until his eyes aren’t red and he’s smiling again. Brendon wipes at his face with a handkerchief, lacy around the edges, and Dallon doesn’t know what to do. He can see Cora, the girl he knows he loves, but he can also see Brendon, this stranger he’s just met, and they’re overlaid against each other.
The eyes are the same, and the hands. The way they stand, weight on one leg, and the shape of their lips and curve of their jaw. In the end, there’s more that’s the same than different.
"Why, why did you change? Into the dress?" Dallon asks, still surprised to find both Brendon and Cora in one body.
Brendon fiddles with the beading on his dress.
"It feels good," He says, and then sniffs back tears. "I wanted to feel good."
“Can, can I hug you?” Dallon says.
Brendon’s head shoots up; his whole face creased in a confused frown.
“What?” He snaps.
“I don’t understand,” Dallon says slowly, “and I’m still hurt because you lied to me but you’re crying and I think I did that and I never wanted to make you cry. So, can I hug you please?”
Brendon’s breath hitches in a near-silent sob and Dallon hates the space between then, just wants to take a few long-legged steps and hold Cora and Brendon together.
“Only if you mean it,” Brendon sniffs, wiping at his eyes again.
“What?” Dallon doesn’t understand. Brendon’s breath hitches again and his whole body moves with it, his shoulders shaking.
“I really want you to hug me but I don't think I could take it if it was the last time you touched me. I don't want you to do anything that you don't mean and I'm sorry I lied to you but I love you, I really do, and I don't want this to be the end but I think it is and I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I really am, but don't hug me if you don't love me too. I don't think I could take it if you were just being nice to me,” Brendon, on the edge of tears, lets all the words out in one long breath, obviously letting them tumble from him without censor. He won’t look at Dallon, running his fingers over his handkerchief before he says quietly “I don’t think I could take it, Dallon.”
Dallon doesn’t wait for Brendon to finish his name, just strides across Brendon’s tiny, shitty apartment and wraps his arms around him. He’s big enough that he envelops Brendon, has to bend down to tuck his chin over Brendon’s shoulder, but he always loved this, being bigger and able to hold onto someone he loved.
“I don’t really understand,” Dallon says quietly, holding on. He thinks Brendon may have started to cry again. His body is shaking. “I don’t really understand but I told you I loved you, once, that day on the lake, and that was a promise to love you forever, not just as Cora but as whoever you are. I’m confused and I don’t know what I’m doing but I meant it then, I did. I loved you and I still do.”