Co-Workers 3 - Career Advancement
Fandoms: Destiny, Destiny 2
Tropes: The TW list just about covers everything
TWs: Child homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder, underage prostitution, implied amputation, implied sexually transmitted disease, child abuse, non-consensual tattooing, non-consensual IUD insertion, implied drug abuse, fucky thoughts about death
All things considered, today is a fairly ordinary day for Miirha. After buying breakfast from the market, she’s used up the last of her Glimmer, and so she decides to risk a day of working by the docks in order to replenish her savings. She’s gotten a bit bigger now that her Ether rations are better, and so she has a higher chance of successfully fending off whoever might try to muscle her out of her territory.
Miirha’s favorite spot at the docks is a busy street corner, where the many Skiff crews will be likely to encounter her as they enter the city. In addition to visibility, this spot also gives her a great view of the ships as they fly into the port for a landing, or disappear back into the starry expanse above her. Many of the docked ships are littered with scorch marks and holes punched into their hulls, and Eliksni crews skitter vertically along their exteriors, armed with metalworking tools to repair the damage. Miirha passes the time by making up stories of the epic battles that had put those holes there.
Despite her best efforts to seem enticing, it’s a few hours before anyone approaches her. The first one is an elderly Eliksni woman—that’s unusual, but so little seems strange to Miirha anymore.
It would be difficult not to spot the woman at a distance. She’s big, probably one of the largest Eliksni that Miirha has ever seen. Whatever she does for a living, it certainly affords her plenty of Ether. She walks with two of her claws on a finely-crafted metal cane, not entirely unusual for her age; and at her side, she’s carrying an embroidered bag that’s probably large enough for Miirha to sleep in.
Miirha opens her mouth to say something enticing, but the old woman speaks first, leaning down to converse with the much younger girl. “Um, pardon me, but I see you loitering around the docks here regularly, and I’ve started to become concerned. Where are your parents? Do you have somewhere to go home to?”
Home. Miirha barely registers the oddity of the question before her mind flashes to her village, and for a moment, she’s inundated with images of blackened fields and charred corpses. Somewhere off in the distance, something smells like it’s burning. Her sudden alarm must show on her face, as the old woman’s expression only grows more worried.
“N-no, no parents. This is where I live.” Miirha gestures to the street around them.
“Oh, that’s horrible!” the old woman turns and starts rooting through the bag at her side. “Here, I brought a blanket and some Ether for you. I suspected you might be homeless; it’s the least I can do.”
She holds out the two items in her primary claws, gesturing for Miirha to take them. The girl takes a step back, cautiously regarding the offering. She’s not above taking payment in goods rather than Glimmer, but it’s rare to receive them up-front.
“What do you want for them?”
“Just take them; they’re yours now. You don’t need to give me anything.”
Miirha’s eyes widen in surprise. “Th-thank you.” she stammers out, unsure of what to make of the strange situation.
Hesitantly, she reaches out to take the bottle and blanket, but the old woman doesn’t let go of them just yet. “Although, I would appreciate it if you’d be my guest for this evening. I’d like to know more about you; we can talk over dinner. It’s been a long while since I’ve entertained a guest myself.”
Dinner? While Miirha highly doubts that anyone would simply give away a meal for free like that, this woman has proven to be surprising. She's already the kindest person that Miirha has ever met outside of her village, which immediately makes her suspicious. Against her better judgement, she follows.
The old woman continues to converse with her as they walk. “What’s your name, dear girl?”
“I see. You may call me Madam Hetyraks.” she says with a grin.
Madam Hetyraks leads her to a moderately sized metal structure, not nearly as tall as the ones near the city center, yet still massive compared to anything that she’s familiar with. The room that they enter into is so noisy and packed with bodies that she can barely keep up with the old woman. All around her, people talk illegibly with one another, shout over the results of games they play around tables, and call for food and drinks from someone behind a counter off to one side. Against the back wall is an elevated platform, on which several performers blare music from their instruments and dance in outfits that leave little to her imagination. The air is laden with a strange-smelling smoke, making her nearly choke for breath.
Miirha isn’t sure how Madam Hetyraks could possibly live in such a place, until the old woman leads her to a flight of stairs in the back, then up three stories to a door at the end of the hall on the top floor. The space inside is relatively small, especially considering the Madam’s lofty stature, but lavishly decorated with traditional Eliksni tapestries and sculptures. Miirha makes herself comfortable in one of the living room’s large plush chairs, while her host prepares something that makes her stomach growl just from the smell of it. Madam Hetyraks soon returns, setting two rare steaks on the table between them, which Miirha wastes no time tearing into with her claws and mandibles.
“So, Miirha, how did you end up living on the streets?”
Even with her mouth stuffed full of the free food, Miirha shrinks a bit. Hesitantly, she recounts her former life on Viinis; how she used to be the daughter of Ether farmers, until the accursed Lightbearers came and burned it all to the ground. The smell of smoke comes back halfway through her description, and she has to pause a few times when she gets choked up.
“Hm, a refugee then. Seems to be a lot of those these days, with the Humans gaining so much territory.” Madam Hetyraks pauses to take another bite of her steak, the red juices momentarily dripping from her teeth before she wipes them away. “And... how did you find your current profession?”
Miirha goes stiff in her seat. “You, um…” She lowers her gaze in shame, shrinking away from the old woman. “You knew about that.”
The former warmth of her tone takes on a colder edge. “That I did. I’ve seen quite a few streetwalkers in my days. I assume that for a homeless refugee such as yourself, it was either this or starvation?”
She can’t meet Madam Hetyraks’ eyes; hot, humiliated tears starting to form at the corners of her own. That familiar burn of shame is creeping its way back into her thoughts again, reminding her how undeserving she is of this woman’s generosity.
“I-I’m trading what I have for what I want.”
Madam Hetyraks extends a primary arm, gently placing a claw atop one of hers. “I don’t mean to judge you for it, dear. I understand that you’re doing what you have to; that you’ve likely decided this is the best out of a series of bad options. I’m not unsympathetic.”
Miirha glances up in surprise, only for her relief to go cold with the old woman’s next statement. “In fact... your profession is precisely what I brought you here to discuss.”
A chill runs down her back. Ah. There it is. Although her spirits plummet even further, she can’t help but feel relief now that the other shoe has finally dropped. When something seems too good to be true, it probably is; of course the dinner had to be paid for somehow.
She has to fight to keep a tremor out of her voice. “What do you want me to do?”
Madam Hetyraks’ eyes widen for a moment, before she laughs and waves a claw dismissively. “Oh, nothing like that! I assure you, it’s not as lascivious as whatever you’re thinking. I’d simply like to make you a, hm… business offer, let’s say.” She withdraws her claw from the girl. “How would you feel about taking your work indoors?”
Miirha tilts her head at the old woman, not yet continuing to eat. “What do you mean?”
“I’d like to have you as an employee here, at my fine establishment. The work will be the same, but you'll be doing it indoors, in a bed that’s yours to sleep in. You’re welcome to live in my building, for as long as you continue working there. I can promise you’ll never have to worry about freezing to death on the streets again… provided you keep the clients coming, that is.”
For a few moments, Miirha is stunned into silence. Her previous fear has vanished, replaced mostly by confusion, yet she feels a faint flicker of hope buried beneath it.
“...Are you offering me a home?”
Madam Hetyraks shrugs, looking amused. “If you want to look at it that way, I suppose. What I’m offering you is employment and housing.”
Miirha wants to hope, wants it so desperately she feels her heart strain, but she knows inside that there’s no possible way. If this dinner was already good to be true, then the promise of a permanent home definitely is.
“Um, I’m not sure about this…”
“I can understand your hesitance; this must all be so new to you. In addition to housing, I can provide you with a number of other benefits over working on the streets, including protection, utilities, and medical care. My building has central heating, running water, electricity, and I have a healer on call. I guarantee you won’t find any better living situation; not with whatever meager income you get from streetwalking.”
Miirha flinches. “And... I just have to keep doing what I do now?”
“Precisely. The way we do business is a bit different, but I’m sure you’ll adjust.”
When the girl still doesn’t answer after a few moments, Madam Hetyraks continues unbidden. “You’re under no obligation to accept, of course. You’re perfectly free to walk out my door right now, and go back to your old life as a homeless, streetwalking gutter bug. Or, you could spend tonight here, sleep on a warm bed in a heated building, and then continue to do so every night from here on out. The choice is yours.”
Miirha can’t remember how long it’s been since she last slept on anything other than concrete. Her head spins with all of Madam Hetyraks’ promises, and she really isn’t sure what her life might look like as her employee, but anywhere that offers her a free bed must be a decent place.
“That’s…” she isn’t sure what to say, so she just says what she’s thinking. “Working for you sounds amazing. Thank you.”
The old woman’s claw goes back to covering her own. “It’s my pleasure, dear.”
Madam Hetyraks stands from the table, then goes to retrieve a datapad from another room. The display is covered in words that Miirha doesn't understand, and the Madam puts a stylus in her claw and tells her to sign an empty box at the bottom. When Miirha demonstrates her inability to write her own name, the old woman grows agitated, taking the girl's claw in her own and spelling it out as well as she can guess from the pronunciation. Once the datapad is signed, her warm smile returns almost immediately.
Miirha spends the night in what Madam Hetyraks calls a “guest bedroom” on the second floor. The bed is probably the softest thing she’s ever touched; whatever the mattress is stuffed with, it’s so much more compressible than the simple grass-filled ones that were standard in her village. The temperature of the room also never seems to fall; even when she awakens from another nightmare, it’s still just as warm as when she fell asleep. She wonders if this has anything to do with the ‘central heating’ that the Madam mentioned.
Miirha could get used to this. She just hopes the price for such generosity is one she’ll be able to afford.
The next day, she’s properly initiated into her new employment. It starts with a real bath; one with actual soap and water that flows from a spigot in a wall. The concept of indoor plumbing is a novel one to her, but she can’t argue with how nice it feels to finally scrub off the grime of the streets. After the bath, Madam Hetyraks disposes of her filthy and torn rags, replacing them with two new sets of clothing: a plain shirt and pair of pants, and then a far fancier, more revealing outfit that she’s to wear while on the job. Miirha’s face heats at the thought of wearing the latter, but she’s grateful for the gifts regardless.
Once she’s dressed in the plain clothes, they travel to a small clinic, where a healer converses amicably with the Madam; probably the one she mentioned as having on-call. The healer first instructs Miirha to urinate in a cup, then examines the stump of her severed arm, then finally has her remove her pants and lay with her legs spread wide. They’re holding a strangely shaped tool, and she doesn’t get any warning before the freezing metal is inside of her. She can’t see what the healer is doing from this angle, but when the discomfort abruptly turns to excruciating pain, she screams. For several agonizing seconds, it feels like she’s being ripped apart from the inside, before the pain fades just as quickly as it started.
“What the fuck was that!?” Miirha shouts at the healer. She’s pretty sure that hurt even worse than getting docked.
The healer stands from between her legs, completely unperturbed. “An intrauterine device. Hetyraks asked me to put one in for you. It’ll stop you from laying eggs.”
“Oh… um, t-thanks, I guess?”
They turn to a sink and begin washing the tool with foul-smelling chemicals. “Looks like we’re all done here. You’re lucky your arm isn’t infected, but you’ll need to stay on an increased Ether diet for it to regrow.”
Easier said than done, Miirha refrains from scoffing.
They pause to extract a small plastic bottle from an overhead cabinet, then push it into Miirha’s claws. As it shakes, she can hear several tiny objects rattling around inside. “Swallow two of these a day until they’re all gone, and your itch down there will go away.”
She can’t even bring herself to be embarrassed about that. She only gives a small affirmative gesture in response, still reeling from the pain and severely sore inside.
Miirha has to limp to their next destination, which is an engraving parlor. Madam Hetyraks seems to know the engraver as well, and instructs him to carve a complex design into Miirha’s shell on her lower back. She tries her best to be brave, but a few whimpering cries still slip out as the engraving pen cuts into her. After the cut is made, the engraver covers the area with ink, then wipes away the excess. He explains that as her shell regrows, the ink will remain in the grooves, making the mark permanent. He lets her see herself in a mirror, and although she can’t read the lettering on the design, the Madam tells her it says ‘Hetyraks’ in Eliksni script.
As they’re leaving, Miirha enquires about the cost of all these things. Madam Hetyraks’ answer is stern, given in the same tone her mother might have used to scold her.
“I’m fronting the cost, but consider this a debt, not a gift. I’m investing a significant amount in you, because you’re going to make even more in the long run. Don’t give me a reason to regret my decision.”
On their return, Miirha gets to meet her new co-workers, who turn out to be a diverse bunch. Not all of them are Eliksni, and to her surprise, not all of them are girls either. She’s pleasantly surprised to find a few other adolescents around her age, who she resolves to make friends with. When she catches glimpses of their lower backs revealed by their scant work clothes, she notices they all share the same inked engraving.
Compared to the streets, working for Madam Hetyraks feels too good to be true. Miirha hasn’t slept so comfortably since the days of her village; no more freezing her shell off under a cheap blanket in some alleyway. She can now take proper baths on a regular basis, rather than just rinsing herself off in whatever water source she can find. It’s safer, too; when a client gets too rough with her, or tries to avoid paying, she can usually count on the other workers to deliver them a solid beating. She’s required to turn away any client with an obvious disease, and the healer visits regularly to examine all of the workers. Despite how painful their first meeting was, Miirha is glad she no longer has to chew up foul teabags anymore.
Of course, Madam Hetyraks demands a majority cut of everything she makes, plus a little extra for the clothes and healer’s fee. But the clientele pay far better here, more than enough to make up for it. With the extra Ether she can afford, her arm is starting to look like a small, withered version of what it used to be; a definite improvement over just a stump. It’d grow back faster with even more Ether, but she doesn’t dare try to keep her earnings for herself, as she’s seen her friends beaten for attempting the same thing.
In between the busy nights of food and music and clients, Miirha makes good on her resolution to make friends. She quickly becomes close with one of the dancers downstairs, an Awoken girl named Fuchsia, who is only slightly above Miirha’s level of maturity for her species. Fuchsia teaches Miirha how to engage with the games that the customers play, gambling for Glimmer and then earning it back by seducing one of them into spending the night. Whenever she takes a client, Fuchsia spends a significant portion of her pay on poisonous beverages, as well as strange plants which she ignites and then inhales the fumes from. At her behest, Miirha tries these things for herself, but fails to see the appeal.
Boredom is something that Miirha has never really dealt with before, but Fuchsia helps her stay occupied. While they’re not working, the two spend their time playing a game using colored cards, or watching media on an old monitor that the workers have set up in the back room. Miirha finds their friendship comfortingly similar to how she used to play with the other children of her village, just enough to tug on a thread of wistfulness within her.
One night at the bar, when business is slow and Fuchsia has drunk so much poison that she reeks of it, Miirha asks her how she originally came to work for Madam Hetyraks.
“My parents were on Ceres when the Queen nuked it in the Reef wars. Gotta make my own living somehow.” the Awoken girl says, staring down into her half-empty cup. “Drinking, smoking, gambling, ‘n fucking are all things I’m gonna do no matter what. Might as well get paid for it, right?”
Miirha tilts her head in curiosity. “But… why would you do those things no matter what?”
Fuchsia seems annoyed at that. “Cuz I need it, and I figure it doesn’t matter much if it’s bad for me. I’ll prob’ly die before I’m forty anyways; either from an OD, or getting strangled by one’a these guys, or something like that. The star that shines twice as bright lives half as long.”
She empties her cup, and Miirha helps her stagger back up the stairs to her room. After that night, Miirha decides not to bring it up again.
Many of the adult workers spend their free time reading books or datapads, which never fail to incite Miirha's curiosity. The written word is a mystery to her; while she knows that the symbols convey information, she’s unable to decipher any of it. One particular worker makes more of a habit of reading than all the others, an adult Eliksni man named Lyriks, who she recognizes as one of the musicians from downstairs. Whenever she watches media or plays cards with Fuchsia in the back room, she almost always sees him lounging off to the side, buried in a magazine. One day, she finally works up the courage to ask him about it.
Gingerly, she taps him on the knee, and Lyriks sets his magazine down on his lap. “Oh, hey Miirha. You need something?”
“Um, I see you reading here every day, and I was wondering… could you, maybe, read to me?”
She briefly fears a rebuke, but is relieved when his face lights up with a strange, warm expression, somewhere between joy and pity. Miirha feels like a three-legged cat that’s just walked up to him and asked to be pet.
“How about this: I’ll do you one better.” he holds up the magazine. “I’ll teach you to read this on your own.”
As it turns out, the magazine he’s reading is a Human one, written in English. While he insists on teaching Miirha the Eliksni script first, he promises that once she can read her own native language, they’ll return to the magazine and start working on English as well. Their meetings become frequent from then on, and with each one, she manages to read a little bit more. From the way he interacts with her, giving glowing praise for her successes and gentle correction for her mistakes, Miirha gets the impression that he’d very much like to have hatchlings of his own someday.
Empowered with her new knowledge of written language, Miirha gets the idea to ask Madam Hetyraks if she can review the contract she first signed upon starting her employment here. The Madam answers only by slashing her claws across Miirha’s face, then swiftly vanishing back into her apartment. When Miirha returns to the back room with dripping blue scratches across her cheek, it’s Lyriks that bandages her up.
In time, Miirha settles into her new life. She continues to take clients, and after a long time and many more slashes from Madam Hetyraks, she mostly ceases to ask questions. She has a warm bed, a full stomach, and a community to which she belongs; all amenities she’d lost with her village, and ones she’ll never take for granted again. The shame still lingers in her mind as she falls asleep, as does the yearning; both are like old friends at this point. Despite the similarities, Madam Hetyraks’ brothel still isn’t the same as her old home in the village, and Miirha knows it never will be. She always assumed she’d live the same life as her parents: as an Ether farmer on a quiet terrestrial barony, not a low-end prostitute out in a Reef city. She’s surviving here, but it remains difficult to feel like she’s truly living.
Although Miirha sleeps comfortably, her nightmares come no less frequently. There are still nights when she startles awake with her eardrums ringing from the pop-pop-pop, her nostrils burning with the stench of smoke and blood. In the dark of her room, when all her clients and co-workers have gone and she’s finally left alone, only then does Miirha allow herself to cry.