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Brian comes to consciousness slowly, bleary-eyes blinking open every now and then as he dances between falling into nothingness and waking up. Judging by the pale light filtering through a window and the heavy air, he’s in Laura’s room. He lets his eyes drift shut again, trying to piece together the previous night.

He has a brief recollection of being with a client last night, but it’s clouded by the nauseating taste of smoke and syrup cloying his throat. Brian remembers that the weed hadn’t been enough for this session- and then he doesn’t remember much of anything after he slipped a sweet spoonful into his mouth, pressing a promise of relieving apathy to his tongue. 

It isn’t often he is given clients rough enough to require this; Duchess says he’s a top performer and it would be a shame to lose his expressiveness in the sugary haze, to dull all of his responsive little tricks that drove her and the clients crazy. Whoever it was must have been a high bidder this week. 

While clear thought fails him, the muscle memory of feeling limp and vulnerable (as apparently favored by that client) is worn into his body. 

Brian shifts to turn his face away from the increasingly bright daylight. A hazy vision of someone’s strong arms helping wrangle him to Laura’s room resurfaces in his mind.

He slowly starts to stretch and gives up on falling back asleep; Laura must have done so already, what space is left on the settee has grown cold. The stuffy room smells different than the sickly sweet scent in most of the brothel’s quarters. It’s distinguished by overpowering chamomile, the bread that Laura would bake for the other doves, and dust, which layers the piles of fabric and clothing scattered around the room. 

He spots Laura working on the beading of a costume piece in the corner. When she sees he’s awake, she tosses him some of the day’s bread, shaking her head exasperatedly when he tries and fails to catch it in his mouth.

She tries to sound chastising, “tch- you’re gonna get crumbs all over the bed, you fiend”, but it falls flat as she fails to keep the sadness out of her eyes. Laura’s troubled expression is half lit by the stark morning light, half washed over with coffee-dark shadows.

Brian usually tries to avoid being near Laura after full-package client sessions. He doesn’t like to worry her with the aftermath and he can never really hide much from her. Guess last night I was desperate for company , he thought, idly gnawing on the bread. He reaches for a flask of water on the bedside table and gulps it down, listening to the distant giggling and chatter of some doves in the rooms nearby, all starting to get ready for the day’s work. 

Brian goes over to kiss Laura on the crown of her head, inhaling the smell of sweet bread and sleepy tea that clings to her hair. She looks tired.

Brian scrabbles for something to say to fill the quiet in her room, trying to avoid anything that had to do with the state he was in last night. He freezes, remembering Laura had company of younger Doves every now and then, providing them comfort, kinship.

“Was Rowan here last night?” Brian tries to ask casually. 

Laura waves him off, “Don’t worry, she didn’t see you come in. She fell asleep in one of the other’s bunks last night.”

 Brian feels a brief flash of relief and nods, kneading at the sore muscles of his lower back. He forgets that Rowan technically hasn’t earned her own quarters yet- she often treated Laura’s room like her own- but Brian never forgets the fact that Laura has long-ago been given an exception in terms of earning this space. 

Laura adds proudly, “She helped make this morning’s batch of bread!” 

Brian brightens at that, “I’ll be sure to tell her it was delicious!” He stuffs the last hunk of bread into his mouth to free up his hands as he paws around for a random underskirt laying on the floor. “I’m glad you have another sous chef.” He wriggles the skirt over his waist, providing a bit more decency- a funny thing to consider in a place like this- in order to make it back to his own quarters. 

“I’m going to go start getting ready, I’ll talk to you later!” 

Laura gives him a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes as she peers at the mottled bruises along his hips, peeking well above the waistband. Brian hadn’t even noticed them, despite how obvious the large marks were against his skin. No wonder she’d looked upset.

“Okay, but you should tell someone last night’s client needs to pay extra,” she gestures to the furiously purple marks. Her tone, struggling to be nonchalant, hid very little of her anger. Laura fiddles with the beadwork in her lap for a moment before stumbling on for a reason to bring it up, “I don’t want the Duchess to be pissed about being shortchanged a fee.” 

Brian flashes a grin and attempts to lighten up a bit, “Of course, can’t be handling the merchandise like that,” he mimics in a silly-salesman voice, wiggling his hips. Laura does crack a small smile at that, which is enough for Brian. He turns to leave with a little wave, wanting to avoid further discussion.

Brian knows that she hates the fact that this is his job, that he has to fuck and act and tolerate for their survival. He knows she feels some sort of responsibility for their situation, being the eldest since they were separated from Patrick, but in truth neither of them could have changed things. They were only kids, and sometimes things like this happened in the wasteland. 

And there is no way in hell he’d let her do what he’s doing- she’s been uncomfortable enough, silently watching him overwork himself as a whore and a performer over the years. It was almost second-nature for him to perform anyways. He loves it all- the stories, the makeup, the costumes, the choreography, the singing, the attention . It feels like he actually matters when he’s onstage. Offstage too- client sessions were just performances with an audience of one. Sometimes a couple more. 

Despite Laura’s protests, Brian knows he won’t stop as long as it keeps them safe and as long as it means he gets to do what he does best: to please and to look pleasing.

Out of view from Laura’s perceptive gaze, Brian sighs and strides down the narrow hall, hips aching, breathing in the air sweetened with perfume and smoky with incense and weed. It’s not the worst thing that’s been done to him anyways- not even by a long shot. It’s nothing a little makeup and acting can’t help. 

______________

Simone’s been on edge for quite a while- ever since Tara announced her pregnancy and momentary stepping-down, to be precise. Pat’s usually pretty in tune with Simone, which is probably why she appointed him as her right-hand man, but Simone is often loud about her emotions and it’s no secret that this next mish is stressing her the fuck out. 

He watches her from where he’s perched atop the bus, alternating between furiously scribbling at her notepad and scanning the documents Karen had nabbed during her last outing to the city. Pat taps rhythmically on the rusted metal of the roof, turning his gaze back to the horizon, the desert plains baking in the morning sun, to scan for any activity. 

Everyone was thrilled that Tara was finally taking a break. After years of being in charge of the home base and leading caravan missions, she deserved to enjoy the fruits of her labor and have a family. The gang took the change in stride, knowing they would be in capable hands- Simone is the only one who is having doubts about her new standing as a leader. Her usual confidence is shaken by this debut mission, the details of which have been unclear to the rest of the caravan for some time.

They are currently camped on the outskirts of one of the larger cities, a long stretch of junked-up land- the carnage of sheet metal and pulverized cars- separating them from anyone that might be milling about the city borders. Still, always good to stay alert. 

He catches Clayton’s eye, who has abandoned whatever he was tinkering with by the dying fire pit, and Pat tilts his head in a way to ask him to come up and keep watch in his place. Clayton gives a small smile in agreement and makes his way over as Pat hops down, knees protesting the impact from the cracked earth. He ambles over to the woolen blanket stretched out under Simone and settles down next to her. 

“Everything almost ready?”

Simone bites her pencil before responding, “Almost… Sorry I haven’t kept y’all super updated on it, I just wanted to be certain before we do anything drastic.” 

“Well hey, that’s why Jeff and I will be going in. I’m sure you’ll feel better about everything once we get more info.” 

She bobs her head up and down determinedly, “I know, I know. I just really want this to go well”. 

Pat nudges her gently with the toe of his boot, “Y’know, it’s okay if your first mission as leader isn’t perfect. Just trust us. We all trust you.” 

She waves her hand dismissively, “I know all that! I just chose this mission specifically because of the people counting on me. Old friends that would do the same for me if they had the chance.” She runs a hand through a fistful of hair before rambling on, seemingly debating with herself more than Pat. “And I know! I know mixing personal shit with missions can be messy and dangerous, but what’s the whole point of all of this if we can’t reconnect with and help people we care about, right?” 

Pat’s familiar with her hangup about this; out of all the murky outlines of this mission he figured it would be high stakes, especially if it involves previous attachments. 

“It’s not the safest idea…” he agrees, ever the realist, but continues, “but none of this was ever safe.” He shrugs, which has always looked fatalistic on his slouched shoulders and dark features, but Pat’s been leaning more towards optimistic nihilism these days. “We do what we do because caring about people and forming community is the only way to live.” 

And it is true, everything Polygon has done in the past years: building the homebase, temporary as it is, doing missions, forming alliances with other gangs and villages, the endless planning to build a more permanent, safer haven. Everything they’ve accomplished started with dangerous endeavors, but it’s been worth it to strengthen community ties in their harsh wasteland of a world.

Simone seems to be reaffirmed by this. She sets down her notes on the blanket and huffs a small noise in agreement. 

He ventures, “I’m curious about what exactly your history is with all of this,” hoping she’ll finally open up about her connections to this mission. 

Simone is quiet enough for a moment that Pat can hear the hiss of Jeff’s spray paint somewhere nearby. She purses her mouth, her usual bright lipstick forgotten in her frantic planning, before she concedes. 

“You know how rough it is for most women roaming by themselves. The world’s gone to hell and the threat of violence is as present as ever for us, on top of all the other survival bullshit.”
It’s an unfortunate side-effect of the apocalypse.The bad people out in the world have more freedom and opportunity to wreck shit up. In his few years of roaming he saw a lot of all-women communities and vigilante girl gangs patrolling regions. But that’s just one side of it.  Another, perhaps more common, response to their shitty reality is women joining brothels in return for shelter and safety. Simone doesn’t talk about it too much, but when Polygon met her for the first time during a mission, it was hard not to know what kind of work she used to do. 

Pat was touring with the caravan, brand new to the gang by just a few weeks- now he and Simone laugh about how it all went down. His first mission with Polygon had been pretty memorable. It was back when Griffin still went on missions- just a quick elimination of a bad dude, Griffin had reassured Pat. But when they’d burst into the target’s room they were faced with Simone- then a stranger who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was a jarring image, leather-clad from head to toe but the whip in her hand trembling with fear all the same. How could they not bring her back with them?

Simone’s form next to him is tense, revealing how vulnerable she must feel now despite her level voice.

“I joined the brothel to avoid all of that. I’d only been on the road for a year and I was already tired of that  life, always alone and always on edge. Looking back, it was one of the best places I could’ve ended up. Not to say it was perfect, same overlording of debt and typical sex work biz, but it’s a pretty nice establishment considering all things. My specific role kept me pretty much out of harm’s way- inflicting harm was more my job- but a few people I met there became my family. And they weren’t as lucky in their roles.”

She ruffles through the papers and clippings in front of her before producing a sun-bleached photo, its dulled sheen suggesting it had been taken on an instant camera. Simone hands it over to Pat to examine.

In the picture is an owl-eyed girl, maybe just shy of twenty with dirty blonde hair. She’s smiling on a velvet settee- half buried by clothing pieces with Simone at her side, younger than she looks now but her head is thrown back and Pat can basically hear the cackle she must be letting out. A smudge of pinked fingers blur the corner of the photo- a hand fumbling over the lens with laughter. Pat holds the photo carefully in his palm, the faded colors hold something precious. 

“That’s Laura.” Simone points at the mousy girl,  “She was the Doves’ tailor. I saw her a lot for fittings- tight leather suits took a lot of work-” She grimaces, remembering the pull and chafe of her old costumes, “We became pretty close then. I eventually spent most of my time in her quarters. She’d always laugh at my jokes and gift me scraps of nice fabric and… I wouldn’t call it love!” Simone interrupts herself, tone high and defensive, and then seems to flounder over her words, “but- it’s definitely enough history to make me nervous about the ‘attachments’ in this mission”. 

Pat is surprised by her sudden bashfulness, her outburst barely distracts from where nostalgia softened her voice. 

Looking at the photo, their faces beaming in each other’s company, he can already conjure up an idea of Simone running around with this girl. Hands gently taking measurements, round eyes crinkling at Simone’s honking laughter, the two curled up together, swathed in piles of costumes and fabric. 

Pat’s known Simone long enough to know she doesn’t really fall in love with people. She’d vehemently tries to explain being aromantic on nights where booze makes the horizon separating sky and earth blur together. Pat always patiently lets her ramble out loud as he tries to keep up with her fast-paced words, drunkenly nodding along. Crushes are merely quick bursts of infatuation; a hyperfixation on someone you know you can’t really have, whether it’s because the situation or the person themselves. Simone doesn’t fall for people with the intention to be in love. She falls simply for the state of free-fall, the thrill of possibility, the act of knowing another person wholly. 

Whatever she may have felt with Laura may not be the same as how Pat would experience love (or at least how Pat would like to think he’d experience it), but he understands why she’s been worried about relationships complicating things.

Simone doesn’t want her first mish to fail, especially at the risk of seeming selfish for choosing this specific target. On top of that, both the caravan and the people she cares about are counting on her. 

Pat just hums in affirmation, gracious enough to not pry more about the nature of their relationship- although it’s a mercy Simone is usually far less willing to grant Pat. 

Simone clears her throat and hands him a scrap of a worn photo, this one printed on thick paper that had become soft from creasing. “I was also close with her younger brother, Brian,” she explains. The hint of fingertips in the last picture must have been him. 

The tears and folds of the scrap obscure the boy in the photo a bit, but Pat can make out a fresh-faced youth, slightly curled hair framing his bright eyes. Puzzled, he notices the scrap looks like it was purposefully cut out- then he realizes the kid’s shoulders are completely bare, collar-bones barely peeking above the crisp edge of the photo. The only picture Simone managed to get of Brian must have been a pinup meant to sell at the brothel. Pat shudders a bit and hands back the photos, trying not to think of how young the kid looks, doe-eyes fixing the camera with a playful gaze. 

Simone catches his gaze and fixes him with a sympathetic look, “I know. It was awful. He was only sixteen. Laura couldn’t stand him starting so young, but,” and here her voice turns high-and-mighty and full of ridicule, “‘The Duchess’ herself and her husband took a real fancy to him, wanted him working.The lady was a real horndog, especially for Brian.” 

Pat swallows and processes all of this, shoving down the sick rolling in his stomach. He absentmindedly thumbs over his left ring-finger, lost in thought as he looks out at the desert’s expanse. Sixteen... Unfortunately it’s a common age to be exposed to such adult expectations these days. Pat would know.

___________

Brian ducks into his own room, low-ceilinged as the rest of the brothel and crammed to the walls with knickknacks and clutter. He almost trips over a chest of clothing he’d left in the door frame, and braces himself on the dresser surface. 

Some of the Doves who flit through to chat often compare him to a bowerbird, with the way he amasses pretty things to line his nest with. As he gazes over the rosy walls, which brim with collectibles and glow dimly by the light of his dressing mirror’s tiny paper lanterns, he supposes they are pretty spot on. 

He briefly runs his fingers over the paste covered wall next to his bed- a heavily pillowed lounge- feeling every flimsy, butterfly wing-thin cut-out he has collaged on there; clippings of magazines and of misprinted pinup photos the Duchess would leave on his dresser. The scent of her stuffy perfume still clings to the scraps. 

He rummages around to find the outfit Duchess had picked out for today before making a frustrated noise, realizing the outfit was low waisted and would definitely need some work to cover his bruises. 

Slinging the outfit over his shoulder, he greets Zuko, who sleepily pokes his head out from a bread basket before leaping out. The cat daintily steps through the maze of amber and fogged-glass vials cluttering the dressing room table, each holding perfume, makeup and lube. Brian scritches behind his ears before turning to weave among more halls, humming to himself today’s performance song before coming to the Duchess’s salon room. 

The Duchess, draped in only a dressing gown, is lounging in a plush office chair with her feet kicked up onto the desk. The doors behind her are thrown open to her and Duke’s private quarters, where a girl lays naked in the lavishly massive bed, out of breath and combing out the tangles in her wiry hair. 

With Duchess’s own blonde locks corded in thick braids, she looks regal as always, despite her otherwise brazen dishevelment. The brass radio on her desk hums with static while she scribbles down something in her planning schedule. Someone must have squeezed in more tickets for today’s show- unsurprising since it was the grand performance.

“You should try to act a bit more pleasant darling, you looked as if you would bite my fingers off,” Duchess calls out to the girl in a sugar coated yet disinterested voice, engrossed in her work. 

Upon Brian approaching her desk she looks up, expression melting into delighted smile, “You could take a few tips from this one, oh, the noises he makes! Like a little yapping pup, always so eager to please,” she croons as she shifts to lean over the desk and presses rouged lips to his cheek. 

Brian leans into the kiss and just as easily into his most practiced role. He blushes ridiculously and offers her a bashful smile, “You know I just can’t help it with you, Duchess”. 

She hums in response, still leaning over, her neck dripping with dozens of dangling glass vials, each no bigger than his pinky. The gilded tear-catchers clink loudly as they jostle together, among them are Brian’s, hanging by a fine golden chain. 

Every glistening vial around her neck was filled with bonafide virgin tears; Duchess likes to be present when the young ones are broken in, and she certainly likes to collect souvenirs of each dove’s corrupted purity. They were trophies, proof of her conquests- they were reminders that the doves all belonged to her.

A lazy smile still rests on her lips as Duchess pets along his chest and eyes the fabric draped over his shoulder. 

“Is this one of the outfits I told you to wear today?” 

“Yes ma’am, it’s gorgeous. Laura did a lovely job designing it. The only issue is the low rise fit—the client I had last night…”

He tries to look demure- to appeal to her protective side- as he skims his hands down to the bruises heralding his hips. Duchess tuts, eyes squinted in irritation. 

“Stupid clients, never gentle enough with you doves- I even had Jonah warn him you were performing today!” 

She presses a heavy-ringed finger to the shadow of one of the bruises and sighs at the little noise Brian lets out. 

“Don’t you worry, pet. I’ll charge him the extra fee. Go wash up and get started with the makeup to cover them up, you’ll need to let it dry a bit in between layers.” 

Brian smiles charmingly and dips his chin, “Thank you, Duchess.” 

“It’s all practically taken care of, right, James?” One of her attendants lurks in the corner, hungrily eyeing the sex-stunned girl who was still sprawled in the downy sheets. He snaps to attention at his name and nods. 

Duchess follows James’ line of sight and leans back to look at wiry girl behind her- Brian can’t place her name. 

“Haven’t you been here long enough? What are you hanging around for? There’s no way I want seconds until you learn to show some enthusiasm,” she says cooly. “Go on, shoo!” Duchess waves her off. 

The girl, who Brian does recall is more withdrawn than other Doves, strides out of the room, clearly annoyed and buck naked. She brushes past Brian, stalking away indignantly with flushed cheeks. 

Brian falters a bit to let her go by, then ducks his head in goodbye before turning to go, hoping to escape Duchess’ company before--

“Mmph. Look at you though. You’re lucky you have a performance to save your energy for or I’d lock you up in here all morning,” she purrs with a predatory look before turning back to her work.

Brian quickly takes his leave, hoping to catch up and comfort wiry girl or at least give her his skirt. He slows down after no success- in truth he knew very well it wouldn’t be the first or last time a Dove would be ridiculed and forced to do a walk of shame back from Duchess’s room. She’s as fickle and as she is intense in her worship. 

While Brian thanks his lucky stars she favors him too much for that mercurial disdain to present itself, every interaction with her seems both heavily protective and possessive. 

He thumbs off the smear of red left by her lipstick and thinks at least her flavor of possessive is sweeter than her husband’s.

 Zuko greets him with a raspy mew when he returns to his room. Brian glances quickly at the mirror to make sure there’s no remnant of her left on his skin. He inspects himself a few moments more and sets about preening for showtime.

__________

Simone finally calls everyone together to go over the current plans and info. The white ashes of last night’s fire float around their legs, clinging to them as the group stands and listens closely to Simone, her voice steadied by renewed confidence.

Karen runs over the details she picked up in her preparation for this mission: strange shipments going out of the building, trucks picking up stuff late at night, no up-front advertising to clients of whatever required such activity.

Simone suspects it could be more human trafficking- she informs them that trafficking was how a lot of the original prostitutes ended up at the brothel. Hostiles, bone-adorned gangs that Polygon’s clashed with before, would wrangle captives from whatever village they had raided and trade them as currency for the back-door business that the Duke had established since day one. 

Apparently, the Duke dabbled in chemistry, looking to further expand the brothel’s offered vices, and eventually concocted a pretty potent variation of grade-A codeine. Simone further explains that the brothel also had grown rows upon rows of weed to supply to clients and doves and additionally to trade for whatever- or whoever- they needed. 

Simone paces a bit, seeming to have laid her foundational info out for the gang. She stops and turns to them, gaze sweeping across their expression.

 “This is first and foremost a rescue mission. Laura and Brian are like family and I want them to be free too. However, human trafficking is obviously an operation we need to wreck if that’s what this suspicious activity turns out to be, even though it seems small scale. But furthermore, if we plan this right and work with Brian and Laura, we can make off with units upon units of their marijuana too. It’ll be enough for us to trade, use, sell, whatever.”

Jenna pipes up excitedly, “Syd and Justin could use it to propagate a crop of our own back at camp!”

Simone smiles, “Exactly. If this raid goes well, we’ll have an extremely versatile asset plus two new members of the family.”

The group seems to be pleased at what success would entail, and the prospect of more weed to use on the road was something Pat definitely wouldn’t refuse. 

Clayton’s nodding along with the rest of them before inquiring, “You mentioned potent codeine- wouldn’t it be smart to take that too? Seems like that could sell for a lot.”

She shakes her head, dark hair whipping against her shoulders, “We shouldn’t touch the codeine. It’s highly addictive and we shouldn’t use it, especially without a constant supply. I never had to take any when I was there but I’ve seen others go through withdrawals, cut off from their syrup rations as punishment. It’s not pretty. Besides, the Duke’s blend is distinct and it would be easy for him to track it back to us if we sell it.”

Pat’s a bit thrown at the complexity of this mission- it may take a while for the gang to gather enough info to safely conduct the raid. Simone’s right though, given they’re patient, this could turn out really well for Polygon.

“How do we know Laura and Brian are still there?” Pat asks, looking between Simone and Karen. 

Karen’s usual gig was a discreet casing of mission locations off in other factions- long before the caravan even arrived at their rendezvous point. The stealth role suited her; while she’s warmed up to the Polygon crew since she’s joined, she prefers to work alone and avoids getting attached to anyone she gets information from. Some things are ingrained into you by the wasteland. 

Pat understands, and while he feels similar to her gravitation to independence, he also doesn’t mind that he often gets stuck with the job of face-to-face interaction. Back when he’d go on missions with some of the older crew- with Russ always fumbling into enemy traps and the brothers bickering over directions- Pat usually volunteered to stay behind on missions and defend the vehicles. The frontlines are different for sure, but he’s come to enjoy meeting strange individuals.

Karen speaks up from where she’s crouched, her usual black clothing replaced by a loose brown shirt and harem pants in the desert heat. “Believe me, Brian’s still there. And wherever he is, Laura should be too.” 

She doesn’t elaborate on how she knows that, continuing on, “There’s a big performance tonight, it’s a good way to become a new client, drawn in by the hubbub surrounding the event.”

Simone nods in agreement, “We really only need Pat on the scene for the majority of the mission, acting as a client in order to communicate with Laura and Brian. I can’t show my face there for obvious reasons. The rest of you will be on call for whatever comes up but when it comes time it should be a normal raid, and you’ll all play your part on the actual night of. Jeff, you’ll be going with Pat today to make sure his first appearance goes well.” 

With Simone settled fully into leadership mode and the rest of the gang’s curiosity appeased, the meeting disperses into side conversations or people disappearing to do busy work. 

After most of them have cleared out, Pat remains where he is. He sits against the side of the van, lighting a cigarette and mulling over all the new info.
Pat weighs his thoughts against each other; one half of him is certain in his abilities on missions, the other half worries about how things could go wrong, how he could possibly disappoint Simone. 

After a bit of warring with himself, Pat settles with the knowledge that if Simone trusts these people, it should be easy. Besides, he could always fight his way out of a tight spot- the quick draw of a gun, the sharp movement of his body was always kept at the ready after years of wandering.

With a yelp and a faceful of alcohol-scented fabric, he is stirred from his thoughts. He tugs the pile clothing off to find Allegra leaning over him, amused, the curls escaping her loose braid dangled in her face. 

“Can’t a man smoke in peace?”

She ignores his complaint, “What a lucky duck. You get to wear this bomb-ass disguise.” 

He picks up a charcoal blazer- only just noticeably patched up from wear and tear, some matching slacks and a black feathered button down. The clothes, stylish as they were, reeked of stale booze. 

He wrinkles his nose, “If you wanna play the smelly pimp character, be my guest,” and he tosses the blazer back for her to get a whiff. 

She just as easily bats the wad of clothing back at him, instinctively lashing out with her strong forearm. 

“Sorry Pat, I can never do justice to that lonely old man vibe you got going on. And you’re not a pimp- that’s the Duchess’s job. You are but a horny patron,” she teases. 

Pat hands over the remainder of the cigarette for her to finish, the bleached paper of it stark against her tanned fingers. 

 “Oh yeah, gotta radiate incredible bastard energy for this role. It’s my time to shine,” he deadpans back, inspecting the dark clothing.

Pat stands and ducks into the van, shucking his clothes to don the garb of some dickhead.

 “Where’d this shit come from anyways?” he asks, leaning out of the open double-doors. Jenna slides out from under the tail-end of the van, and startles Pat. 

“Jesus Christ!”

“No, I’m Jenna,” she beams, at which Pat groans. 

Jenna sets down some tools and wipes her hands on the front of her ratty jeans, the fabric already streaked black with motor oil, “Karen got it from some hotel she was casing a few weeks back.” 

Pat hums and goes back to adjusting his collar when Jeff joins him in the van, which creaks under their feet. 

Pat’s still a bit nervous, mind running over the mission and what his role will entail. He hopes he doesn’t fuck up- Pat usually knows how to hold his own- but sex was a weird topic for him since he’d left The Church what seems like ages ago. 

First it was all taboo, never to be done. Then he was expected to as a husband; apparently his duty to The Church, to God , was to father more members of the faith. 

Pat couldn’t- not even with her, he’d been married off to the prettiest of the bunch- what was wrong with him, didn’t he love her? What was he, a fucking quee- Well. To summarize, it all got even more complicated. 

Pat knows he’ll be out of his element in a place like this. 

Jeff notices him zoning out and settles a grounding arm around his shoulder. “Lean into the part. You’ve already got the scruffy, badass rebel look down, just work with what you’ve got. Hopefully this Brian fella will take it easy on you.” Jeff means well- seeming to think that was a comfort to Pat, he turns away to take off his paint-stained cloak. Or was it a smock? Pat supposes anything that Jeff wore eventually turned into a smock. 

Another wave of nerves pulses through Pat- he hadn’t thought about the specifics of how he’d have to play along with whatever Brian’s services were.

Allegra strides over and kindly hands Jeff his outfit before tossing black gloves at Pat’s face. He snatches the wadded leather out of the air before grumbling, “Jeez, do ya have to throw everything at me?” 

Jenna laughs, “Maybe stick to throwing punches instead, Legs”. 

Jeff smiles as he pulls on a pair of pants, either enjoying Pat’s suffering or pleased by his new outfit, or perhaps a mixture of both. 

Allegra, her smirk muddled by the stubby cigarette between her lips, seems to be queueing up a retort before their banter is interrupted by a wolf-whistle from Simone, who is sizing up their disguises.

 “Lookin’ good boys, are you almost ready?” 

Jeff must have been smiling at the former option because he moans at the gaudy pleather coat in his hands before reluctantly shrugging the metallic bronze fabric on. 

“I look and feel like what Griff would call ‘a rotisserie shithead’.” 

“Perfect, you’re getting into the character!” chirps Jenna.

_________

 The wooden floor thunks hollowly under the feet of performers, all whirring about backstage. Brian is pushed over by someone for the fourth time as he tries unsuccessfully to put on an elaborate anklet, carefully balanced on one foot. Doves bustle around him to get ready, chatting and fighting over makeup and costumes and mirror-space.

“Did you hear? His regular client hasn’t been back in weeks, I bet you my syrup rations that he knocked her up.”

“Ooooh, Duchess is going to be pissed.

“You have your own mirror in your bunk, get out of the way!”

“Who stole my setting powder? I swear to god Kayla, if it was you again-”

“Artemis, someone took my dress, this one’s way too big!”

Artemis is Laura’s nickname. Names were simultaneously precious and unimportant around here. Most doves don’t know or remember their full names and in the jumble of performances and client scenes, stage names are thrown around carelessly. If it fits the individual well, the monikers often stick in place of their true name, a marker of their personality. 

Fondly exasperated, Laura mumbles something like quit whining, hold on around a mouthful of sewing pins. She is swarmed by crests of white, the doves crowding around her with their costumes while Laura’s hands are already occupied by someone’s torn veil.

It’s almost funny- most of the doves like to picture the goddess Artemis as a badass huntress after watching Brian do silly re-enactments of myths from Duchess’s books. But his own sobriquet is Apollo, dubbed by the Duchess herself for his musical gifts and radiance, and Laura is well known to be nurturing- to take every new, frightened dove under her wing. 

Laura would always ferociously protect the youngest ones from being put on the working roster too early, despite knowing her own precarious role as a non-performer herself. The virgin patron saint, the protector of young maidens.

Brian himself is quite fond of their nicknames- poetically fitting indeed- inseparable siblings, the loyal twins reincarnate.

He perks up when he notices Jonah near the ropes that draw the stage curtain shut, resting idly before he has to inspect and pat down all of the guests that would soon flood in.

Jonah’s worked at the brothel as security for almost as long as Brian’s been here. He’s always been his closest companion, writing songs and making jokes together for years. He was a steady, kind presence for Brian to attach himself to when he felt like he was slipping away, blending into the continual haze of lust and intoxication.

Jonah waves when spots Brian hopping his way over, hands still clutching the gold around his ankle. Jonah’s face took on a sheepish expression. Unfazed, Brian extends his leg, waggling his foot in front of Jonah expectantly. 

The larger man grasps the ankle in front of him to pull it higher for him to inspect, unbothered by the contorting angle since he knows Brian’s flexibility well. 

“Sorry I took you back to Laura’s last night.” Jonah begins, eyes turned downward. He focuses on fastening the anklet, the small clasps clicking together easily in his precise hands.

Oh . That was why he looked guilty, Jonah was the one who helped him back from his client session last night.

Before Brian canrespond, Jonah continues on as he gently eases the other out of the uncomfortable pose, “I know, I know, you keep telling me not to let you around her after sessions like that… but you kept asking over and over-” Jonah finally looks back up and Brian feels pinned under his gaze by the same weight he felt when Laura looked at him this morning. Brian thinks its something like pity- not quite but only just.

 “You were just in a really bad way, I didn’t want you to be by yourself. You shouldn’t have to be after things like that-” Anger breaks through Jonah’s voice, “You shouldn’t even have to experience things like that.”

Brian looks down and shakes his ankle a bit, distracting himself with the way the jewelry jingles loudly against itself. He knows Jonah is pretty pragmatic about what Brian’s lifestyle entails, much more so than Laura. As a security worker, he’s seen and handled situations where things went south- and they very often did. Still, he and Jonah have had this conversation countless times, as if re-circling to it would change the reality of the situation.

Brian skirts around Jonah’s last point, diving straight into reassuring him, keeping his voice airy, “It’s fine Jo, really. I don’t even really remember last night.” He’s still fidgeting with the anklet, the glittering noises piercing through the tension, “Just next time, I’d rather you take me back to your bunk than hers.”

Jonah frowns at Brian breezing over the topic but nods regardless. The certainty in the dip of Jonah’s chin makes Brian think that Jonah would do anything he asked of him. His inclination is supported by how the both of them knew sharing quarters wasn’t a good idea. 

The Duchess dislikes security intermingling with the doves, she worries that if relationships formed, doves would waste their energy when their bodies should be rested for clients. No one could tell if she purposefully ignored the irony in this policy, as her libido often puts a couple doves out of commission for the day. 

Part of Brian is thankful for the policy, however loosely enforced it is. He’s sickened at the thought of how there would eventually be an in-brothel pregnancy-- at the thought of a child being born and raised here.

Either way, Brian would rather be at her and the Duke’s mercy than to worry Laura.

Jonah changes the subject, to Brian’s gratitude, as he gestures to the stage, “So I heard you get to whip out the lyre tonight, huh?”

Brian groans at the reminder, filled to the brim with directorial thoughts. “Ugh, as much as I love the lyre, this song sounds way better with you on guitar. It needs that heavy handed line to balance all the fuckin’ choral elements in the song- and the harmonies are so powerful but like, we get it, this performance is hellenic-inspired, you don’t need to summon Nete, Mese and Hypate themselves. Je- sus , it’s just so on the nose! I wish we could’ve at least kept the guitar in, but I can’t dance properly while playing and no one else is nearly as good as you.”

Brian’s tirade pulls a deep-bellied laugh from Jonah, rumbling low and comfortingly. “Sorry Brian, they need me working tonight, all hands on deck for this crowd. You did get someone to do drums though, right?”

“Of course I did, something needs to further ground the ostinato. I just really want the audience to like this one.” 

Brian bumps a shoulder into Jonah playfully as he adjusts his headdress, rearranging his curls around it. 

“How do I look?”

“Properly divine, Apollo. Very hellenic-inspired.” Jonah teases at the irony of Brian’s complaints about the performance’s theme.

Brian scoffs in mock offense, collapsing exaggeratedly against Jonah, whose arms come up to support his dead weight instinctively. 

“Don’t make fun of me, I’m having an artistic crisis !”

Before Jonah could play along, a snub-nosed dove cuts in, voice tinted with annoyance.

“Jesus- Apollo, can’t you save it for the clients?”

Brian readily switches acts- as if fueled by the jeering, he shifts instantaneously. Still held up by Jonah, Brian snaps out of limpness, “Save what, exactly- this?” And with that he pulls Jonah down to kiss him, dipping himself lower in the process and pointing a leg out for good measure.

A few laughs and whistles ring out at the overdramatics. When Jonah breaks away for air, Brian turns and winks at the ruffled dove without missing a beat. 

“Don’t you worry, there’s plenty to go around.”

The dove in question tsks at the display and turns away haughtily to finish his own makeup.

Jonah uprights Brian, part bewildered and part amused. “C- Could you warn me next time you use me for one of your stunts?”

Brian smirks mischievously, “You didn’t seem to want warning last time we-” 

Jonah stops him with a stern look, “Bri.”

He relents, “Sorry, sorry. It’s all in good fun though, right?” 

It’s a bit loaded, not clarifying whether Brian was asking about small scenes like this or their thing in general.

Brian anxiously searches Jonah’s expression for any discomfort, but it clouds over indecipherably before Jonah sighs and flashes a smile. 

“Of course- of course it is. I just don’t want the higher-ups after my hide.”

A beat of silence settles hesitantly between them, previous tension fizzing slightly at Jonah’s response, stunted by something that leaves Brian unconvinced. 

Jonah shouldn’t have to worry because of me , Brian thinks before starting up with renewed fervor, and of course, downplaying the consequences.

 “Hey, don’t worry about that. If they dislike you gettin’ your hands on me, I’d throw in a bit of begging, dress up- the works, you know? I won’t let anything happen to you. Some alone time with either one of them and it would all blow over. Hah! Blow.”

The other winces at the prospect of Brian spending more time with the Duke and Duchess- beyond what is already unideal in Jonah’s opinion. 

Brian barrels on, not giving opportunity for the other to protest.

“You’re my closest friend Jo, you know that. I’d take care of it happily if they ever bring it up, it’s nothing new anyways.”

Jonah’s expression flickers a bit at being called Brian’s closest friend. Strange . Brian thought that fact was nothing new as well. 

Jonah still looks uneasy at all of Brian’s offers. “You really shouldn’t have to- especially with the Duke-”

“Brian! They’re circling up for vocal exercises!” calls Laura.

“Shit! Okay, it’s almost showtime babey!” Brian crows up into the low-hanging rafters, to Jonah’s amusement.

Brian half-skips off towards the other doves, “Good luck wrangling the clients, Jo!”

As he starts to warm up his voice, Brian glimpses the guard waving back before disappearing through the curtains to the main floor.

___________

It’s dusk when Jenna drops Pat and Jeff off a good ways from the brothel’s entrance to stay discreet. She calls out a cheerful “Have fun! Use protection!” before she swerves the truck around to return to where they’ve set up camp. 

The night air settles in as they walk in companionable silence towards the dim glow coming from the building. The brothel is squat but stretches across a large expanse of land. The whole sprawling building is only one story. Just enough room for the amenities Simone described to him- a saloon with a performing stage, private client rooms, a bathhouse, even a courtyard. That doesn’t even account for the Doves’ bunks and dressing rooms, and the winding hallways that connect it all.

Of course they have to heist the ritziest brothel in this faction.

The two of them stand at the entrance and wait for the lumbering security guards to wave them in. Tonight is free entry, so they don’t have to worry about paying for this visit. Jeff speaks quietly in false annoyance, “I can’t wait to see the inside- Simone’s been talking my ear off about this place. For all the shitty years she spent here, at least it exposed her to greco-roman literature. I mean, check out the aesthetics.”

The front of the building bears a neon sign that weakly blinks “Duchess’s Doves” against the sun-bleached walls. The dusty rose concrete of the building is lined by tacky grecian pillars, their plaster crumbling a bit with age and poor construction.

A large man beckons them to step forward, bearded face remaining indifferent as he gives a perfunctory glance and pats them down for weapons. The guard steps aside and gestures for them to come in, his voice not unkind but still gruff when he bids them a good evening.

They pass through a small parlor with a crowd of other guests, brushing against the plastic petals of the fake flowers that deck the walls. An ornately draped woman, tall and decadent, greets a few regulars with a plummy voice. That must be the Duchess. She’s crowded by chortling clients, but Pat makes a note of her darkly lined eyes and wine-red mouth for the future. Eventually Jeff shoulders his way through the cluster of people, Pat staying close behind him, and they reach the saloon. 

The room is expansive, its wide space covered in a myriad of carpets and hanging tapestries. The lighting is dim right now, washing all of the patrons in warm shades as it reflects off of the decor. The tassels hanging from some of the fabrics that criss-cross the low ceiling brush against Pat as they look for a seat among the quickly filling up selection of plush cushions and squat-legged lounges. 

Jeff finds them a spot with two floor-mats and a low table a little ways from the curtained stage that stretches across one end of the entire room. The air is thick and Pat’s head clouds with incense and fragrant oils as he fidgets with his collar, loosening a couple buttons.

A bejewelled man comes by and sets two glasses of water on the table, dark hands lingering flirtatiously on Jeff’s shoulder as he leaves. He turns and winks at Pat, surprising him with the glint of gems adorning the tips of his false lashes. 

Pat tries to get a sense of the room layout and subtly lets his gaze follow the man as he disappears down a darkened chamber. He peers around and notices a few other identical exits lining each side of the room, other finely dressed servers darting in and out of each. Pat catches Jeff’s gaze and looks pointedly at the hallways, making note of them to him. 

When the ambient lights darken, the crowd’s boisterous chatter swells into rowdy woops before fading away to quiet murmurs. 

A lyre begins plucking a repeating melody out in a lower register than Pat would expect, sounds of rhythmic claps surround the notes. A spotlight beams on the stage as the curtains are drawn aside, revealing a large group of performers- doves, Pat supposes. 

The lithe bodies are scantily costumed by a variety of ivory garments, draped like togas- fanciful bursts of tulle and headdresses leap out of the mass of skin and fabric. Pat tries to make sense of the cluster, which remains statue-like beyond the pulsation that accompanies each heavy beat. But as he tries to tell one dove from the other, the lavish plumage and the eroticism of it all blends their identities and genders indecipherably. Pat can’t tear his gaze away from the thrall of the performance, but he can practically feel excitement radiating off of Jeff in appreciation of the visuals.

The doves are all poised in an array around the center where Pat squints to pick out a lone figure, who stands facing away from the crowd. A voice springs up from the performer, strong and clear, “ I’d be the voice that urged Orpheus when her body was found…

And suddenly the ensemble chants in response to the figure’s prompting line- a powerful, soaring “ Heyaaaa ”. As they cry out, the cluster comes to life, each dove separating slightly from the other as they glide into different seductive poses and then freeze like marble busts. 

“I'd be the choiceless hope in grief that drove him underground…” 

The figure hasn’t moved yet, only facing away as he sings sweetly and looks to be picking at the lyre, the answering cry of his peers howling around him.

I'd be the dreadful need in the devotee that made him turn around…

Yet another wave of choral voices, bodies gracefully dispersing across the stage. The next refrain is almost whispery with how gentle it sounds.

And I'd be the immediate forgiveness in Eurydice-

Pat forgets to breath for a moment when the figure finally turns dramatically, dropping to one knee with an arched back. It’s unmistakably Brian, heralded by dove wings sprouting from each temple, who fixes the audience with an intense gaze as he croons,

“Imagine being loved by me.”

The chorus hits and the other performers slowly dance as they back up Brian’s leading voice, but Pat fails to focus on the lyrics now that he can decipher Brian from the rest, especially in the unruly haze of cheers and catcalls from other patrons.

There’s no doubt that he’s the same boy from the photo, if a bit older and more of a fully formed person- although he looks more nymph than human in his costume. 

His torso is fully exposed with white puffs of sleeves starting at each shoulder. Brian’s pants are low slung on his hips, its artful drapes appearing skirt-like. As Brian weaves through the bacchanal arrangement of strippers, his limbs glint with golden circlets, bare feet prancing lightly across stage.

“...the last witness before the wave hits, marvelling at God.... Before he feels alone one final time and marries the sea- imagine being loved by me…”

Pat finally looks over at Jeff, whose eyes glint back in recognition of Brian. Seeing Brian in person makes the reality of this mission fully settle in, the chaotic beauty and intensity of it all. Pat just nods almost imperceptibly at the other, taking a deep breath.

 “... I won't deny I've got in my mind now all the things I would do...

So I'll try to talk refined for fear that you find out how I'm imaginin' you...